Sunday, December 21, 2008

Story tellers

Hello everyone. Merry and Joli left yesterday to drive to New Orleans where I will join them on Tuesday for Christmas in the Big Easy. For some time we have both wanted to get a look at New Orleans post-Katrina. We plan to explore the city and participate in at least one Revellon dinner, a unique New Orleans holiday tradition. I plan to write about that when we return.

Without fully realizing what I was doing I read two books during the past few weeks that struck me with such force I decided to break with my normal weekly travelogue and spend a little time describing their effect on me. Feel free to skip the convoluted book reviews that follow. You have been warned.

When we moved we decided as a general principle not to bring our library with us. There were some exceptions to this rule. I wanted to bring a few books to inspire me to write. After reflection I decided to bring all the books I own by Italo Calvino (13 thin volumes) as well as by Humberto Costantini (2) and Michael Ondaatje (2). I selected these books because I admire the skill displayed in the story telling by these three otherwise very different authors.

Costantini, a Buenos Aries veterinarian (1924 – 1987), deserves to be better known. I think only two of his novels have been translated into English and both seem to be out of print. If you can find it, I highly recommend his poetic and highly imaginative The Gods, the Little Guys and the Police.

The Sri Lankan - Canadian poet Michael Ondaatje is well known and in my humble opinion is perhaps the most talented living writer. His descriptive power is unmatched. I sometimes wake from a deep sleep thinking about the desert passages from The English Patient or the incredible “painting the Buddha's eyes” scene from Anil's Ghost.

Most of the books I brought for inspiration, however, are by Italo Calvino. Calvino (1923 – 1985) was born in Cuba but lived most of his life in San Remo, Italy.

At the very end of his life Calvino was preparing to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures on literature at Harvard. He planned six lectures but only finished five – published in English as Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Each lecture focuses on one element of Calvino's writing process. The first lecture on “Lightness” is the key to what makes his writing so unique. He tells us “my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight.” He wants his writing to escape the heaviness with which descriptions of things is freighted. To achieve this he uses only the most distilled language. The other four lectures “Quickness,” “Exactitude,”Visibility,” and “Multiplicity” contain further details and helpful examples of the struggle to escape language gravity. To my way of thinking Calvino truly achieves his goal in the stories that make up Invisible Cities in which Marco Polo describes unseen the wonders of the world to Kublai Khan, but it's there in all the books. As a consequence of this focus on lightness Calvino's story telling most resembles highly intellectual fantastic fairy tales.

As I was reading the Six Memos, Merry took a trip to the bookstore and brought me Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. I took it to work to read on my lunch hour. Fortunately it's a quick read. Bradbury is for the most part a terrible, clumsy writer when compared to Calvino. He is full of himself, unquestioning in his praise for his own work and very impressed with the arc of his own life. In short, he's an American. Bradbury was born in 1920 in Waukegan, Il and still lives in LA.

Why did I read his self congratulatory book about how he became the best writer of his generation? Because of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. These were the best books I had ever read when I was 16. Even now I think of them as some of the most evocative stories I have ever read. I tried to re-read Fahrenheit 451 recently. In literary terms, the writing is pretty clunky, but the story is terrific. How did he do it?

He did it by writing every day for years and years. Pounding a typewriter and churning out what he admits was largely junk at the clip of 1000 to 2000 words a day. He sums up the “Zen” of his work in three words: WORK, RELAXATION and DON'T THINK (yes, he uses capital letters a lot). His point is that skill in story telling is achieved by finding a way to let your subconscious move the writing. To do this you have to be relaxed and not allow your intellect to get in the way of telling the tale. He says the only way to do this is to write and write every day until you can write while totally relaxed and without thinking. Surprisingly, this actually seems to capture one of the key insights of Zen practice.

So...lightness and Zen. What I take from these two books on writing stories is simple. The stories are already there in my subconscious. My job is to relax enough to find them, polish them and help them escape the gravity of everyday things. We'll see.

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