Tag Archives: americana

478. Poetic Writing

           People, I think, read too much to themselves; they should read aloud from time to time to hear the language, to feel the sounds.
          Homer told his stories accompanied by the lyre, and it was the best way, I think, to tell such stories. Men needed stories to lead them to create, to build, to conquer, even to survive, and without them the human race would have vanished long ago.
                               Louis L’amour  The Lonesome Gods  pp. 115-116

I am writing this on February 12th, to publish on April 9th. All the slots until then are filled with posts about teaching and space exploration, all tied, more or less, to my teaching novel that is winding down over in Serial.

I have also been reading The Lonesome Gods, for the umpteenth time, where I ran across the quote above. It was timely, since I just stayed up late last night finishing a poem that has been rattling around my computer for about five years, and placed it into a post. It will come out next week, keyed to the anniversary of the event that inspired it.

Old fashioned rhyming poetry can be wonderful, but it often suffers when the poet has to fight to fit content to rhyme. Modern poetry doesn’t seem like poetry at all to me. I often like it for what it has to say, but if you can retype it into your computer minus the return-key strikes, and turn it into a good opening paragraph for a story that never got written, how is that poetry?

Everyone in the world disagrees with me on this, but that’s okay. I’m used to that.

My favorite type of poetry is rhythmic, without slavishly following a pattern. Think Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, or Rabindranath Tagore. I follow their lead, without aspiring to their quality. I am a novelist by moral necessity. Poems just come to me, and not too often.

My favorite type of prose is poetic in its rhythms. L’amour often reaches that peak, but not consistently. The quotation above, about poetic language, doesn’t rise to poetry. The opening paragraphs of Bendigo Shafter do:

          Where the wagons stopped we built our homes, making the cabins tight against the winter’s coming. Here in this place we would build our town, here we would create something new.
          We would space our buildings, lay out our streets and dig wells to provide water for our people. The idea of it filled me with a heartwarming excitement such as I had not known before.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the content is the American Dream. Also from The Lonesome Gods, this passage strikes me as poetic:

And now I was back to the desert, back to the soaring mountains behind my house, back to the loneliness that was never lonely, back to the stillness that held silent voices that spoke only to me.     p. 202

When I was a new writer, I rested my fevered brain between writing sessions with Louis L’amour, because his westerns were completely different from the fantasy and science fiction I was writing. I learned a lot about poetry from him, along with a lot of cautionary tales about clunkers. I’ll spare you examples of those.

What he says in the top quotation is good advice for writers. Always read your own work aloud.

My writing goes roughly this way. First comes a draft that probably needs a lot of help. The second time through, I translate it into English — that is, I turn beagn into began, and Thmoas into Thomas. Feel free to skip that step if you don’t have dyslexic fingers. Then I run the spell checker. Finally I read it slowly, softly, and always out loud. By this time, my eyes have seen the page several times, but my ears are hearing it for the first time.

The ears will catch what the eyes miss.

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475. Speak English!

Over in Serial today, a fairly long bit of exposition appears in Symphony in a Minor Key. It amounts to an essay (or maybe sermon) on English and Spanish in American schools. It has nothing to do with DACA or contemporary issues of immigration, since it was written in the late eighties. It also doesn’t come down for or against bilingualism. It is a look at the underlying problems faced by both Anglo and Hispanic students. Even if you aren’t following Symphony, this post is still worth a look.

I came to these conclusions by a three step process, beginning with growing up as a smart kid in a tiny, rural Oklahoma school. We were all white, all English speakers, and we all sounded more or less the same. The teachers spoke grammatical English, mostly, but the kids and their parents did not. I wanted to, and I needed to, since I planned to go to college. I read books, and the words on the page did not closely resemble the words I heard from farmers down at the grain elevator.

Eventually, I realized that the language of the books I was reading was not the same dialect that I was hearing from those around me. My English teachers consciously and painfully spoke grammatical English, the other teacher also did, but with many noticeable lapses, and no one else even tried. If I was going to go to college, I needed more, so I memorized Strunk and White.

Now I could write essays that were as good, and as grammatical, as anyone’s, no matter where that person was educated. It got me into college. Michigan State University gave me a scholarship and I was on my way.

Except — when I got off the train in East Lansing, no one could understand a word I said. My words were all correct, and grammatically strung together, but they were all pronounced “wrong”. I had “learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news”, but he had an Okie accent too, and I never knew it.

My roommates learned to understand me, and translated during the first few weeks until I had gotten used to Michigander pronunciations and learned to mimic them. My accent slowly faded, but came back with a vengeance every time I went home. I never did learn the supposed difference between “i” and “e”. Pen and pin are still pronounced exactly the same inside my head. I can fake the difference, but it hurts my mouth.

Personal experience showed me how our American language works, but I did not know why until PBS produced a mini-series called The Story of English in 1986. I recommend it if you can find a copy and a VCR to play it on. I wish PBS would make it available in some modern format.

It turns out that American English is so diverse because British English was a melange of dialects when it arrived in the New World. They found their way to various regions of America and thrived there. Now I came to understand that, when JFK said Cuber instead of Cuba, and all those fine craftsmen on This Old House leave out their “r”s, they aren’t really as goofy as they sound. They are reflecting an Old English dialect that happened to land in their region. I also realize now that “there ain’t no such word as ain’t”, simply because the South lost the Civil War.

When I started teaching in the mid-eighties, I had a clear understanding of the many Englishes, and I quickly came to recognize what that meant for Spanish speaking English learners, which led to today’s post in Serial. I won’t repeat those conclusions here, since you can just go read them there.

One final anecdote, regarding the last sentence in today’s Serial post — One our better English learners graduated from eighth grade and left us. She came back a few years later to visit her middle school teachers. Her parents had moved back to Mexico and had enrolled her in a quality Mexican high school. When we asked her how she liked it, she said, “I thought I was good until I got there, but I found out all those kids speak Spanish and I speak Mexican!”

467. Steel Drivin’ Man

So we come to the end of another Black History Month. I have said some new things, and repeated some posts that could not be said better. This is one of those repeats; it originally appeared as 88. John Henry, January 28, 2016.

The battle goes on, not just for “blacks” (who aren’t fully black) and “whites” (who aren’t fully white), gays, Latinos . . . the list goes on. If life permits, I’ll be back next year, beating the same drum. I won’t be here forever, but when I’m gone, you will still be here. It will be up to you then.

I have always wondered why John Henry is a folk hero.

Maybe it’s just a folk song. Maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense. I never worry about the fact that Stewball “never drank water, he only drank wine”; I do have a tendency to overthink things.

But let’s look at the facts. John Henry is big, strong, uneducated and very black. Symbolically black, even. As a ”little bitty baby” he picks up a hammer and accepts his fate. He works himself to death for white folks, while they stand around and bet against him. Then his wife takes over when he’s dead, and the story goes on unchanged.

Sounds pretty damned Jim Crow to me.

A technical point here, so it all makes sense. As a “steel drivin’ man”, John Henry is not spiking down rails to ties. He is digging tunnels. He is swinging a doublejack, a two handed medium weight sledge hammer. He is hitting a star drill, which is a steel rod about a yard long ending in a hardened cross bit. Every time John Henry hits the drill, another inch of rock is pulverized in the bottom of a hole. Between each stroke, his assistant turns the drill an eighth of a turn.

Men with John Henry’s job spent their days drilling holes in the face of a tunnel. Those holes were then filled with black powder or dynamite, depending on the era, and blasted. Then the drill men moved back in to do it all over again.

Imagine working in near darkness, covered with sweat and stone dust, breathing in the fumes from the last blast, damp and cold in winter, damp and hot in summer. Tough for John Henry; terrifying for his assistant, holding the drill steady, turning it only in that moment when the hammer is drawn back, and knowing that if John Henry ever misses, he’s dog meat.

It gets worse.

It is useful to those in power to have a large population of the powerless and hungry. Slaves fit that bill very well; so do new immigrants. Today we have the working poor, who are kept humble by the myth that if you can’t make it in America, it’s your own fault. You aren’t working hard enough (see post 5.Labor Day).

Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.

What does this have to do with John Henry? In searching for the man behind the legend, writer Scott Reynolds Nelson’s* discoveries suggest that John Henry was one of these convict-slaves.

John Henry was a man who could not break his chains, but was still a man for all that. His status as a black hero makes sense.

Still . . ., if I were borrowing all this to make a story, I would rewrite it so that John Henry used his hammer to brain the overseer. But, of course, the real John Henry could never do that, and today’s black community would not accept such a cheap answer, or such an easy road to freedom. It would not match up with their own experiences.

History is usually uglier than anything we novelists can invent.

——————–

*Scott Reynolds Nelson. Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.

455. Voices in the Walls

Annotated Links to
Voices in the Walls

Voices in the Walls is a fragment of a novel. It is still available in archives, but it would be impossible to navigate because it is entwined with A Writing Life posts and you would have to read long columns from bottom to top. Instead, I am going to provide a set of annotated links to make life easier.

Voices in the Walls was presented in Serial, parallel to the posts in A Writing Life that explored my position on race. You might want to read yesterday’s post for a quick summary of the novel’s genesis.

I wrote Voices in the Walls in the eighties, as a fictional way of presenting a young man who has to rethink his entire life when faced with with the fact that all his previous understanding of race is wrong. I used the opening days of Lincoln’s presidency, as the nation slid into war, as a vehicle for the story.

I never finished the novel, for reasons I explained yesterday, but it still means a lot to me. I also decided that, as an example of a writer’s struggle with a hard-headed idea, it might form a sort of how-to for writers. Enjoy.

Voices in the Walls 1  Setting the stage for the story.

Voices in the Walls 2  Setting the stage for the story.

Voices in the Walls 3  Prolog, and a discussion of bracketing.

Voices in the Walls 4  Why this novel and why 1861?

Voices in the Walls 5  Chap. 1 begins

Voices in the Walls 6  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 7  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 8  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 9  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 10  Chap. 1 continued

Voices in the Walls 11  Discussion inserted between chapters

Voices in the Walls 12  Chap.2 begins

Voices in the Walls 13  Chap. 2 continued

Voices in the Walls 14  Chap. 2 continued

Voices in the Walls 15  Chap. 2 continued

Voices in the Walls 16  Chap. 2 continued

Voices in the Walls 17  Chap. 3 begins

Voices in the Walls 18  Chap. 3 continued

Voices in the Walls 19  Chap. 3 continued

Voices in the Walls 20  Chap. 3 continued

Voices in the Walls 21  Chap. 4 begins

Voices in the Walls 22  Chap. 4 continued

Voices in the Walls 23    Chap. 4 continued

Voices in the Walls 24  Chap. 4 continued

Voices in the Walls 25  Chap. 5 begins

Voices in the Walls 26  Chap. 5 continued

Voices in the Walls 27  Chap. 5 continued

Voices in the Walls 28  Chap. 5 continued

Voices in the Walls 29  Chap. 5 ends, outline of the rest begins

Voices in the Walls 30  2 of 6, outline

Voices in the Walls 31  3 of 6, outline

Voices in the Walls 32  4 of 6, outline

Voices in the Walls 33  5 of 6, outline

Voices in the Walls 34  6 of 6, outline

454. Another Man’s Shoes

Another Martin Luther King day has rolled around. They always pose a problem for me.

What? You don’t care about my problems? Well, there is really no reason you should, except that this one is about trying to write honestly, which makes it a problem many of us share.

I grew up white in a conservative Oklahoma where blacks were not favored. That puts it gently. I watched the civil rights marches of the fifties and sixties on TV and decided I was on the wrong side of history. And humanity.

Then I became a writer, and that all needed to be explored. I did so in posts. Look at any post in A Writing Life from mid-January through the end of February of 2016 if you are curious.

I also tried to explore that story in a novel called Voices in the Walls. I began it in the eighties and made it through about seventy pages before I ran up against the essential issue — there was no way I could write about slavery from the inside, yet I had to in order to make the book work.

Matt Williams is a young southerner who is torn both ways at the outset of the Civil War. I put him through a series of events which sends him south to rescue a free black woman who has been recently captured. I pulled that part off without straining credulity, but once he is there I need for him to interact with escaping slaves and to see slavery from their perspective.

I had no problem with Matt’s perspective, and the overall novel is from a white viewpoint. However, he has to come to see the south from a slave’s viewpoint and when I reached that point in the book, a voice in the back of my head began screaming, “What right do you have to write that?”

Intellectually, the voice is bogus. It is the job of a fiction writer to crawl inside other people’s heads and speak through their mouths. I’ve done it innumerable times.

Emotionally, this particular voice is too loud to ignore.

Matt and his slave counterpart (I never got far enough to name him) each has to experience the other’s understanding of the world. That is what the novel is about. If a black writer can’t take the white position, and a white writer can’t take the black position, the story can never be told. I don’t accept that, and since I am a sympathetic white, I should be able to proceed.

I can’t. The voice in my head won’t shut up. It has been yammering at me for decades. It may just be one of those things that I am too locked into my own generation to ever get straight.

No problem. One of you will write it, sooner or later. Maybe one of you already has.

#                 #                 #

Voices in the Walls is still available in archives, but it would be impossible to navigate. Someday I will present it in another form, but for now, I am going to give you a set of annotated links in Wednesday’s post.

453. More Weight: Arthur Miller’s Crucible

About a month ago in a post I mentioned Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Sometimes a passing reference like that can bring old thoughts and feelings to the surface, and send me back for a closer look.

I encountered The Crucible in the winter of 1966. Yes, they had printed books that far back. I was in my first quarter at college, writing what was probably my first college paper, “The Evil of Innocence.” My take was that evil came from the girls’ testimonies despite their essential innocence. I offer no apologies for lack of sophistication; everybody has to start somewhere.

For Arthur Miller, The Crucible was about the McCarthy hearings before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. I remember those days only vaguely, since I was less than ten years old. What I actually remember is going to a public meeting with my parents at my grade school where our principal read from J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It, and gave a talk on how communism was a danger, even in our little town of 121 people.

The adults in my life were author to many nightmares.

I met Arthur Miller’s The Crucible about a decade later than I met J. Edgar, and I didn’t react to the McCarthyism allegory. I didn’t respond strongly to the characters either, except for Giles Corey calling for “More weight!” as they crushed him under stones. John Proctor left me unmoved and the various girls were merely victims. I cut them a lot of slack, for reasons you’ll understand in a moment.

In short, I didn’t react to the words on the page, but to the implications that exploded in my mind as I read them. That happens sometimes.

I had turned atheist just before my sixteenth birthday, and had told no one. I was enmeshed in a Baptist family in a Baptist town in the Baptist State of Oklahoma in the middle of the Bible Belt. I kept my head down and my mouth shut and told no one until I reached college two and a half years later.

So, when I read The Crucible I was a recent escapee from my own personal Salem. For me the main protagonist was not a man, woman, or girl, but Salem itself, seen as a massive, encircling, inescapable miasma of religious intolerance, hovering ready to strike down any who disagreed with its particular version of Christianity.

That isn’t good history. It isn’t even a full reading of The Crucible, but it was the story as I read it. No surprise, really.

Today, being a reasonably honest scholar, I went to Goodreads to see how others had reacted to The Crucible and got an earful. About half reacted to the McCarthyism allegory and gave high marks. About half gave three stars for skillful writing, then trashed The Crucible for its sexism. To be more precise, they trashed Arthur Miller for making his males into characters and his females into cyphers.

It kind of makes you wonder: did Miller write a sexist Crucible to reflect the era of the actual witchcraft trials, or because he was a grown man in the fifties and it seemed normal?

Perhaps there is one thing we can learn about great literature, which The Crucible is no matter how unpalatable it may seem to some of today’s readers. It has many messages, for many people, in many ages, and not all of them were necessarily clear in the mind of the writer. Miller saw McCarthyism. I saw the danger of being different in a small community. Goodreads is full of reviews from readers who can’t get past its sexism.

Maybe we can all agree that Giles Corey was a hero and John Proctor was a weasel?

446. Until Proven Innocent

When I started this post, my queue was full into the second week of January. News in the world outside my writing space has moved so quickly, however, that I am squeezing it in today. I’ll leave the four parts date-stamped and unchanged from what I originally wrote.

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I am writing this on December sixth, 2017. Right now President Trump is announcing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but that isn’t the only news story of the day. It just increases the chance that we will all be dead before I get around to posting this.

The other news story of the day is the Time magazine person (people, actually) of the year, The Silence Breakers. I have been bothered by this movement since it began, but until now it seemed too early to say so.

I don’t disagree with the women coming out with accusations. I applaud them. But there is a problem with bandwagons, and every news story I’ve seen so far falls into the same trap. They all say, “The women must be believed.”

No. This is false. Completely and utterly false.

The truth is, “The women must be listened to. Their accusations must be considered valid, and subjected to the same scrutiny as any other accusations.”

In shorter terms, “The women must not be automatically disbelieved.” That is a very different statement from, “The women must be believed.”

There are two problems here. The first is conflation. A pat on the butt isn’t the same as rape. The accusations against Weinstein are not of the same level as the accusations against Franken.  There is a mass of absolutely disgusting behavior coming to light, but it is not all of the same weight. Some of it, if proven, deserves life in prison. Some deserves a powerful slap across the face, by the victim, at the time, and nothing more. Most of it falls between those two extremes.

The second problem is guilt and innocence. Even if every accusation so far is valid (and that wouldn’t surprise me), I guarantee that by the time you read this, some innocent guy is going to be on trial in the court of public opinion for something he didn’t do. Women also lie.

“Not likely,” you say? Perhaps not so far, but give it time.

Let’s take a little trip, mentally, one hundred years back and to certain parts of America. I didn’t say the South, because it wasn’t just the South. At that time and in those places, if a white man said something, it was taken for the truth. If a black man said something contrary, he was lying.

It’s rather like the reaction a woman would have received if she had made an accusation ten years ago. I don’t want to go back to that situation, not even with the roles reversed.

I am in favor of this shift in public sentiment. I applaud and support the Silence Breakers. But while we are all reading today’s Time magazine, let’s also pull out that dog-eared copy of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and give it another glance.

It’s very simple, and damned unsatisfying, that not every accusation is false (even if we like the guy) and not every accusation is true (even if we hate the guy).

Bandwagons are fun to ride on, but you wouldn’t want to get run over by one.

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Time flies when you are making predictions. This morning (December 14) Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reported to the FBI that forged sexual harassment claim was sent to news media. The supposed author of the documents denies having written it.

So it begins.

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And now it is Saturday, December 17. Next Monday morning, Tavis Smiley will present on GMA his statement of innocence about charges leveled in the last few days. Is he actually innocent? Is he guilty?

I don’t know. And that is the point.

At any rate, if I don’t shoehorn this into the post queue now, it will be too late to bother.

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And now, December 18, I have heard Smiley’s response. I need to say more, since I wrote an entire novel based around false accusations (Symphony in a Minor Key, over in Serial) but my posting schedule and my life schedule will push that into January. No problem; I don’t think this issue is going away any time soon. more later