For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek. William Giraldi
Juliette says the Everything
Book on Yoga has everything in it.
She pages through to show me
what she means, pointing to
a black and white photo here,
a line of text there.
I tell her I have high blood pressure
and she says, “Don’t hold
the downward dog too long.
It’s not good for your head
to be lower than your heart.”
Juliette is 85 and her dark blue eyes
are like marbles with no shine.
She sidled up to me,
without invitation or provocation,
as I stood in the library aisle,
looking for a diet book.
She’s telling me how yoga saved her life.
She tells me how 20 years back the doctors
said her spine was too arthritic –
she would never walk again.
But she just looked at those doctors
with her hard blue eyes and said,
“I won’t accept your diagnosis.
It’s too negative.” And the following day
she enrolled in her first yoga class.
Six months later she was walking again.
“You should be the poster child for yoga,”
I say. “That’s just what my doctor says,”
she replies without missing a beat.
This miracle occurred over 10 years ago.
She’s a master teacher now and so
I trust her when she says
the Everything Book on Yoga
has everything in it, even though
as she walks away, leaving
me with a book
I hadn’t been looking for,
she limps and sways.
Sometimes, when I read a short story in one of the latest literary journals, my mind wanders. I find myself appreciating the storyteller’s craft and control but the story itself leaves me cold. The characters seem enslaved by the story’s design and, as a result, unconvincing. Or the beautiful use of language overwhelms the narrative as a whole and takes away from the movement of the story. It may be that these types of stories just weren’t written for the likes of me. In any case, whenever this happens, I often go over to my bookshelves containing books I can truthfully say I cherish, and I open one at random. Today, I selected Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and read the short story, “A Train is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result.” The story begins:
“Broom, dustpan, sweep, trash can,” Samuel Builds-the-Fire chanted as he showered and shaved, combed his hair into braids. Samuel was a maid at a motel on Third Avenue.”
At least for me, in so few words, so much is said, and yet hidden, and I at once trust this voice. I trust it will reveal in good time what I need to know—what I must know. And by the story’s end, I do know this character and feel for him. Even though I’m no Indian/native american (well, I guess I’m partly, if that means anything), this tale nevertheless makes me experience for deep moments at a time the journey of one Indian – the journey of one human being. So I say, thank you, Sherman Alexie, for restoring my faith in the magic of storytelling.
What is higher consciousness? And what does it have to do with writing? Beyond perfect grammar and mellifluous sentences, beyond careful plotting and well-drawn characters, what is it that makes a writer endure through the ages? In my mind it has something to do with this writer having achieved a level of consciousness and understanding far beyond the scope of most humans. Here is one blog post I ran across recently that brings up some interesting points on the subject:
In her post Jen Grisanti writes movingly about how two individuals, Buckminster Fuller and author DeAnne Hamptom, achieved states of “transcendence,” allowing them to forego the demands of ego and arrive at a “deeper place of being.” This article made me think of the novel Les Miserables. Victor Hugo, it would seem, is one writer who achieved a profound degree of spiritual awareness. In fact, Les Miserables, is in many ways a meditation on the very experience of spiritual awakening. There is one passage in particular that I feel gives a real sense of what such a shift in consciousness must be like. It follows the scene where Jean Valjean, being held by police for having stolen silverware from a bishop, is stunned by the bishop’s response. The bishop not only denies the theft, he freely offers more “loot” to the ex-convict. “”Ah! here you are!” [the bishop exclaims], looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
The following scene begins in this way:
“Jean Valjean left the town as though he were fleeing from it. He set out at a very hasty pace through the fields, taking whatever roads and paths presented themselves to him, without perceiving that he was incessantly retracing his steps. He wandered thus the whole morning, without having eaten anything and without feeling hungry. He was the prey of a throng of novel sensations. He was conscious of a sort of rage; he did not know against whom it was directed. He could not have told whether he was touched or humiliated. There came over him at moments a strange emotion which he resisted and to which he opposed the hardness acquired during the last twenty years of his life. This state of mind fatigued him. He perceived with dismay that the sort of frightful calm which the injustice of his misfortune had conferred upon him was giving way within him. He asked himself what would replace this. At times he would have actually preferred to be in prison with the gendarmes, and that things should not have happened in this way; it would have agitated him less. Although the season was tolerably far advanced, there were still a few late flowers in the hedge-rows here and there, whose odor as he passed through them in his march recalled to him memories of his childhood. These memories were almost intolerable to him, it was so long since they had recurred to him [Chapter XIII: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/135/135-h/135-h.htm#link2HCH0020 ].”
The scene goes on to build upon this small awakening and, piece by piece, emotion by emotion, offers, I believe, one of the most mesmerizing accounts ever written of a man achieving enlightenment. And though this awakening occurs to a fictional character, it could not have been written without the author himself having reached a higher level of consciousness. Moreover, as Jen Grisanti notes in her blog, writers that are able to put into story their own transcending moments inspire us all “to connect to what they write.” It is this connection on the deepest spiritual level, I believe, that enables these writers to live on and on.
I believe the most well-known story by Conrad Aiken is “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” which is a mesmerizing tour de force of storytelling. There is another story of his, however, which I find even more compelling: “Mr. Arcularis.” I discovered it a long time ago in a collection of fantasy tales, and every time I reread the story, it never fails to work its magic over me. There’s something about the story’s strangely light, yet mysterious tone and the sweet, befuddled nature of its main character. If you’ve never read “Mr. Arcularis” and would like to, you can find it in this collection on the Internet Archive:
Here’s an interesting study I ran across regarding the benefits of reading literary fiction as opposed to popular fiction and nonfiction. I personally have nothing against so-called popular fiction, though I tend to enjoy old classics myself (oh, my goodness, how the lives of Anna Karenina, Vronsky and Levin swallowed me whole) and maybe this is the reason why:
From The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner:
“In all the major genres, vivid detail is the life blood of fiction. Verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief through narrative voice, or the wink that calls attention to the yarn-teller’s lie may be the outer strategy of a given work; but in all major genres, the inner strategy is the same: The reader is regularly presented with proofs–in the form of closely observed details–that what is said to be happening is really happening.”
This is not my choice of words, since I’m not one to put a label on different types of fiction, especially genre fiction. There’s something for everyone, is my way of thinking. But this is actually a playful choice of words and the title of an online conference, moderated by the journalist Maryn McKenna. She believes a lot can be learned from the way genre novels create suspense and evoke atmosphere. Read the online discussion here:
This is a quote from Vladimir Nabokov:
“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer… The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” [From Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, c1980.]
When I came across this quote the other day, it struck me as quite profound, quite inspirational. Something to consider when writing…even if I can only hope to create my own sort of radiance one day. It reminded me of a “rule” I have when I write—hey, if you’re bored with what you’re writing, everyone else will be, too (no enchantment there). This quote also reminded me of the reason I have always wanted to write: to make others feel even a fraction of the ineffable magic created by all the enchanters I’ve read over the years. Here’s a short list of my favorite stories in no particular order that come to mind at this moment: Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Hardy), Les Miserables (Hugo), Kindred (Butler), Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury), Metamorphosis (Kafka), “The Little Mermaid” (Andersen), “The Golden Key” (MacDonald), The Passage (Cronin), The Crimson Petal and the White (Faber), “Mr. Arcularis” (Aiken), the poetry of W. B. Yeats, the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (Millhauser), The Orientalist (Reiss), the short stories of Graham Greene, Ali and Nino (Said), and Anna Karenina (Tolstoy).
I’d love to hear what stories have cast a spell over others who come across this post!