Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Found Lessons

There's no bad place to (re)learn a lesson about writing. The best thing I've learned today about writing came to me from a book about the early days of the oil industry. Petrolia, published by Brian Black in 2000, is a ruminative, often poetic, examination of 19th Northwest Pennsylvania. I thought I was reading the book to research historical events which are the basis for my own historical novel: Pithole: The Wickedest City. Turns out, today, I'm reading the book for a lesson on setting in fiction.

Two weeks ago, my introduction to fiction writing class discussed Janet Burroway's chapter on setting in her book Writing Fiction: "Far, Far Away." Great chapter. As always Burroway brings together the voices of many writers' fictions and many writers' notions about fiction writing. The element that my class struck on, perhaps the most important notion in the chapter (or even the whole book), is the simple statement: "Like dialogue, setting must do more than one thing at once" (173). A statement no less poignant for its simplicity. I would take it a step further even to say, "Every element of fiction must do more than one thing at once," but we'll take that up another time.

Today, I found this passage:

A landscape is constructed of geology, hydrology, and biology; yet it also includes the creations of the humans or other beings that inhabit and change the environment. Where nature and culture meet, they construct a landscape. This construction is most obvious in its physical manifestations, yet humans also determine its spiritual, social, and cultural meanings. Therefore, such a meeting between nature and culture may not always result in a physical creation. A vision of a place can also form within the mind, as humans reshape attitudes and values—thereby adding a mythic component to the meaning of an envisioned locale. In this fashion, a definition of place can be constructed externally by a larger culture. Occupants may still form their own ideas of a place, but an external construct based in ideals of the larger culture also encroaches on a place’s meaning. (Black 61)
Two weeks too late for the conversation about fictional place, proper, there is no bad time to learn a lesson about writing. 

Setting or place or landscape, I've found as a teacher of inexperienced writers, is often confused with background, and background in writing (as opposed to visual arts) is often confused with the blank white piece of paper on which one puts words describing a plot. This is problematic, of course, as Jerome Stern points out, because a story that seems to take place nowhere doesn't really take place [paraphrase]. I have, in fact, heard many experienced writers speak of setting in sad and general terms, almost as though creating any sort of place is a burden that a writer must deal with in order to get to the sexier things like characters and turmoil.

I was lucky enough to work with Ann Pancake as an undergrad. She taught me to see setting, not as something to be slogged through but as an integral experience that carries a weight equal to the greatest characters, the most poignant themes, the most descriptive detail. How did she teach me that? I would like to say, "She told me, and I listened, and I learned." But I'm not so easily convinced. Rather, she told me, and I shrugged and scrunched my face a bit, and said something like, "I don't think so." Such were my undergraduate retorts. So she told me again, and I shrugged and smoked cigarettes and stared off into the middle distance humming Lag Wagon lyrics -- I was a force!  And then she let me read her short story "Jolo" which begins:
Moving through air as sticky as the blood that moves inside her, same heat as the blood, the spit inside her, that moves inside, so that here in the dark she forgets where she ends, forgets where her skin stops, her skin does not stop, she is continuous. Moving through the weed smells, all the different green smells, single, then symphonic, single, then symphonic, the river low and mucky, a fertile rotty smell, low low dog days August smell. Not a bad smell, even though it is a just short of shit smell, but the river is not unloved for it, no, actually loved by Connie more tender for it, for its spoiledness, its helplessness, for how people have done it. Moving through the frog and bug burr, the chung, chung, chung, the tiny creature roar, layers of ankles and throats and wings, a sobbing mesh, the sound, too, an extension of her, the sex noise that shirrs the rind of her head, the kernel of her chest, again, Connie not knowing where her body ends, her not knowing again, and say it. Jolo. The name carries a kind of wet heat, a back of the mouth under the tongue, a you-know-what-I'm-saying-heat. You do. Carried in the syllables themselves. No, she wants to say to the cop, it's not like that, she tries to say. Fires are a dry heat, she says, and Jolo's wet, just say his name. Jolo.
More than one thing? How about a West Virginia dialect so thick the passage is hard to read out loud without a drawl? The language rises out of the landscape, pushes up through the mud and the muck; Connie's consciousness is the world around her -- this is not background; this is not burden; this is how we know we're human. How about a character who sees herself in terms of her environment:"the rind of her head, the kernel of her chest"? She sees herself (rind, kernel) as the product of her environment. Connie doesn't know where she ends and where the world begins . . . but none of us do. We are the union of the world we create and the world that is created for us. We are socially constructed as we socially construct each other. We rise out of the landscape and fall back into it, and, in the meantime, we are the rhythms of the world around us; for Connie, read it out loud, "Moving through the frog and bug burr, the chung, chung, chung, the tiny creature roar." Read the whole passage out loud if you have a moment, and you might just feel the river creeping between your toes.

Setting is not background. It is not generic. 

I'm no musician. A dear friend asked me to stop whistling one day because I was so far out of tune the noise was making her sad. Far far from a musician. And, yet, I try to imagine a world of music in which composers, song writers, or singers simply thought of the noise from the instruments as a generic blank backdrop, something that must be borne in order to rejoice in the lyrics. Now, I love lyrics, but without the noise from the instruments, mighten we just as well be talking? Of course, there are those six or seven singers throughout history whose voices are instrument enough (in similar fashion one could easily find oneself in the middle of a Donald Barthleme story with no desire to understand where it takes place), but most of us prefer accompaniment.

Well, shit, my hour's almost up, and I haven't even mentioned the passage I set out to discuss. Which is probably for the best. The passage struck me, it strikes me now, as something terribly important to the world, to my first-year composition classes, to my own writing, but I've had no time to compost it yet. I've had no time to let it live and breathe in me, such that I can practically apply it. Still, speaking of a pleasure to read out loud: "A landscape is constructed of geology, hydrology, and biology" -- a joy, in part, because of the internal rhyme, but also, let's face it, because most of us have never said the word "hydrology" out loud, and few of us (scientists aside) think hydrology when we think landscape. That is, the line is lovely, in part, because learning is fun.

Final writerly lesson from a book about early oildom? "A landscape is constructed" -- the invisible hand of god at play in the field of language. What we know about landscapes, this union of culture and nature, we know because we have consciousness, because we are thinking creatures. As writers, our words are our landscape. Writing, of course, is an artifice. Language is a construction, but it is a construction that rises organically out of the characters, the consciousnesses, the landscapes, even as it creates them.

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