Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nothing in Isolation

"Nothing exists in isolation in the forest."

I was famously sitting in my family's cabin by the Allegheny River for the coldest six-month stretch of my life. Late fall, I watched the ice gather on the river in small patches and form fields, which themselves impinged on the shore like hour-long car wrecks, until the water was frozen solid. I was a college dropout and a college grad. For an entire month, the high temperature did not rise above freezing. I was a steel-mill worker and a hoddie. I was also an ex-all those things and, though I couldn't know it at the time, a soon-to-be grad student. Mostly, I spent that winter reading and writing. I had visits from friends and family on the weekend, but spent four or five days each week, not hearing a human voice or seeing a human face (unless you count the folks on the other side of the river or the characters on the VCR tapes).

One of my favorite programs to watch at the time was a Nature Channel or Discovery Channel or National Geographic Channel series about the world. I forget which channel, clearly, but I do know that the series explored the tundra, the polar caps, and South American rain forests, specifically, as well as a few other sweeping geographical generalizations. I learned a lot about the planet. My favorite detail came when a flock of toucans, who had apparently eaten some sour berries, ate mud from a cliff. The mud had no nutritional value, but provided a base to counter the negative effects of the acidic berries. Ha! Not a pharmacist or an M.D. among them. Parrot, I thought, heal thyself! I knew they weren't parrots, though, so it was a moot point.

Later in the same episode, the announcer in a conversation about one of the most complex ecosystems in the known universe says, "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest." I paused and rewound and played that line at least a dozen time. "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest." "Nothing," the announcer says, "exists in isolation in the forest."

I had payed money for these tapes. That line was scripted. It's not as though the announcer were commentating a live broadcast of the forest. He had been payed to say, very specifically, "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest."

I felt duped.

*     *     *

On the other hand, I love Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. She insists that we all slow down and read and recall what it's like to savor what we read and to learn from what we read such that when we read again or when we read something else or when we write, we can enjoy again what we have read in other great works. More than insist, she gives us permission to read thus.

She begins her book by insisting on close reading in her chapter 1 titled "Close Reading." She goes on to focus on how a story might hinge or develop or change entirely as the result of a single word in her chapter 2 titled "Words." Chapters 3, 4, and 5 -- "Sentences," "Paragraphs," and "Narration," respectively -- grow larger in scope, but focus on language with the same kind of intensity as her previous discussion of close reading and words. "Character," "Dialogue," "Details," and "Gesture" -- chapters 6-9 -- encourage us to consider carefully the myriad ways in which an author develops a piece of fiction through such such devices.

My students are to come to class today, ready to discuss "Character." In the chapter, Prose discusses The Marquise of O— by Heinrich Von Kleist, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. Yet another beautiful conversation by Prose in which she block quotes huge swaths of the texts and discusses how they variously develop character through dialogue, thought, dress, narration, perception, and other methods.

Something that struck me about twenty pages into her chapter, the impetus for this post, in fact, is that, for a moment, I forgot the title of the chapter. During her discussion, I lost sight of whether this was a chapter on narration or gesture, details or dialogue. I've read the book before, enough to recall lessons from each of the various chapters. In reading the long passages she had quoted from the text, I found myself applying Prose's lessons on several of the writerly things* her text addresses. What a pleasure, I thought, to apply so much of what I've learned to just this one passage! Then, of course, the terror set in that I would not be able to talk to my students this afternoon intelligently about character, and would end up, again, tangentially describing the glories of free indirect discourse in narration. The horror, it was as if something buried deep in my literary subconscious had uttered, the horror.

*     *     *
The summer after my longest, coldest Pennsylvania winter became the hottest, driest of my life. I started working for a temp agency in April and ended up cleaning the scrap pits at a machine shop for three weeks in June. There was a stretch of thirteen days where the high temperature each day was above a hundred. On my lunch breaks, I sat on a bucket chewing tobacco and watched The Wasatch Mountains burn. I didn't have much invested in saving the world, so I thought, Burn, baby, burn, at times, and at others, thought, Shouldn't someone put that out?
At one point, in the machine shop, my boss got frantic and put me in charge of making rabble arms -- pieces for a ten-story industrial** furnace used to heat and slowly cool giant hunks of metal used in the construction of submarines. The furnace was in Brazil. I was in Salt Lake City. The submarines would end up in the ocean. The rabble arms were made of some strange sort of concrete I'd never seen before or sense, the powder a finer consistency than even sifted flour. I mixed the mortar and poured buckets full of a million tiny metal needles into the mixture. I have no idea why. For all I know, I might have been making those car-wide curbs that keep cars from wondering off in parking lots. I was famous in the machine shop for chewing tobacco and not knowing shit, so I continued to not ask questions.

Still that announcer haunted me, even then, even 1957 miles away from where I'd first heard his narration, even months later and a hundred degrees hotter. "Nothing exists in isolation in the forest." The awfulness. The sweeping generalization. The vagueness. The obviousness. The statement made more sense to me at that moment -- in the desert building a product of steel and stone that will build a product that will build a product that will swim through the deepest oceans -- it made more sense and sounded more astute than any other statement I had ever heard.

And, today, here I am in Southeastern Ohio, reading Prose, thinking of a machine shop in Northern Utah, wondering about a text: is it character? is it narration? is it dialogue? And this, traditionally, has been the hardest part of teaching writing -- creative, composition, literary -- for me: you can't separate out the parts. You have to learn and grow and write very intensely, applying all of what you've learned and grown into and written, into every document as it comes out before you. Nothing exists in isolation in literature. Good dialogue is good character development. Good setting is good plot. Good generalization is good detail. Nothing exists in isolation in literature. We separate it out to talk about its pieces. We look at the toucans and we look at the sloths. We live in the desert or we live in the hills. But nothing exists in isolation in literature.

*Prose doesn't define or describe how she separates the chapters, so I don't know what she'd want to call these things -- they're not themes or devices or techniques, necessarily, nor are they not not those things either.

** For the record, I realize that if the furnace is ten stories tall, I probably don't have to mention that it's industrial. I'm in too much of a hurry to bother with redundancies.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! C'est bien de voir une jeune personne intéressée dans ce genre de chose.
    Sincèrement, Ana.