Five Years

About two months ago, in mid-May, WordPress sent me an automated note to congratulate me on becoming a blogger five years ago.

I found my first blog post and read the date it was published – 20 May 2012.

It was my first solitary winter in Wellington.

I wrote few more posts since.

Some, arguably, better than the others, but all written to pierce small holes in silence left behind after my daughter left home. Which in our case simply meant living in the same house.

Where I can come into her room in the morning and inhale scent of my sleeping child.

In five years, I have not learned how not to long for it.

I fear I never will.

As I haven’t learned in more than forty how not to long for a shabby little house with an old-fashion wood burner in the kitchen corner and frost flowers on the window panes in winters.

I am a slow learner.

It took me a long time to learn how to string a few words together. By which to remember.

And by remembering hope to understand.

What happened to me.

All of which makes me somewhat of a writer but none of a blogger.

It is for that reason that light of the lantern is dimming.

On some nights, when winds are merciless, I stroke its old-fashioned, fragile glass gently and lower the feeble flame close to oblivion.  

In the everlasting darkness, we are both at peace.

Still mornings arrive;

Some are bouncy with urgency of getting to work, and

Some are those of Sundays,

A friend comes for a coffee bringing biscuits and pineapple in case I am sick, or

We go for a long drives along deserted winter beaches where even seagulls are too freighted to loiter while we eat greasy fish and chips in the overheated car balancing scalding parcels on our laps.

Few days later, in a small café above the central city’s only library where I am usually joined by the fine assortment of homeless, pensioners, students, refugees and parents with bored children, I would order a black coffee and try to recall those scenes to write them down.

But then I would get distracted …

By the two men sitting next to me who speak French and might be lovers, (story prompt – one of them is hiding a terrible secret from the other and is looking for a way out …)

A young woman with purple coloured hair and clownish looking stockings as she opens her book up-side-down and pretends to read, (story prompt – she escaped from an institution where she has been held against her will which dictates that she follows her calling as a street performer …)

While I (‘somewhat of a writer’) pretend to write.

 

And so, it goes.

Five years has passed in this fashion.

No ‘grand’ novel. Or even a ‘tiny’ one.

Only a story here and there.

Handful of poems.

Mostly about love and pain and loss,

In the time-honoured female tradition.

 

While winter storm is raging outside and

I imagine a lonely cabin standing in a deep southern snow.

 

Signs under the lantern.

 

Beautiful Fools

Lovely title isn’t it?

I borrowed it from R. Clifton Spargo who so titled his novel about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald … so apt. Loved every line of it. Zelda would no doubt scoff at my remark as a cliché and one lacking imaginative grace at that.  I fancy the three of us would snuggle into each other’s insanities rather cosily. No longer trying to be useful anywhere in the world. Perhaps. Either that or my brain remains saturated in the lingering residue of the book I just finished. It always inhabits me for a while afterwards.

Beautiful-Fools

It is Saturday morning. Late winter, cold still hanging on but only just. I have seen daffodils and pink and white hyacinths swaying their delicate blooms somewhat drunkenly over the little patch of dirt by my door. Morning air still sharp and cough threatens to burst my lungs open once again. Is there anything more romantic than a slow decline from such a noble ailment as weak lungs, while writing one’s last (or first) lines confessing it all in a delicate prose … secluded in some forsaken sanatorium (or asylum), shrouded in cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes!  Only dashing Scott or Earnest (perhaps less refined but more manly) is missing from that picture of the pure indulgence … oh The Life of a Fantasist! For a second I even contemplate it as a fit title for the story I am thinking of writing … as always one day. It would have to be the same day on which fantasies about life became inapt to insulate from the life itself. Or the world at large.

For the moment, however, the world at large continues to spin on axis of slaughters and sorrows everywhere, only our focus changes according to whatever is heralded most loudly. And even than for a few moments only as there is always more to be seen or heard elsewhere. And as always there is never any shortage of choices; from atrocities in Gaza to Ebola in West Africa to horrific scenes of human remains rotting across the sun drenched fields of eastern Ukraine while Putin shrugs his shoulders knowing full well that neither Obama nor Europe can (or will) do much (if anything) to stop his revival of Russian’s legendary exceptionalism and power.

Still amongst all that carnage what truly stopped me cold was the news of Robin Williams’ death. I did not need to hear the details; I knew instinctively that he ended his own life. And sea of sadness washed over me. For the man who laughed and cried with his whole being … unguarded, exposed, human, real.  Open to life in all its glory and all its grime. It takes a true grit to do it. And true grit demands the highest price. It was a privilege to be in audience.  Thank you Captain.

LE CERCLE DES POETES DISPARUS

Meanwhile here, in good-old NZ investigative writer Nicky Hager wrote a book he titled; ‘Dirty politics’ and released it with razor-sharp instinct for successful marketing only weeks before the general election. Before any reader that might stumble upon this post from elsewhere gets too excited, let me clarify – elections here are rather subdued affairs. There are two major parties which swap places every few years or so. General populous is by far more pragmatic than excitable, and for the most part politicians are dull rather than colourful, larger-than-life characters.

There is a little wonder then that the book promising to reveal an ugly and destructive style of politics became breaking news within minutes of its appearance and sold virtually overnight! Large white-board placed by the door of my local book-shop announces almost the hour of the day when more copies are scheduled to arrive and a handsome young man reading a copy next to me on the bus smiled when he caught me glancing at it. He offered the book to me to have a look before his stop. He is studying law at the local University and pronounced the book to be ‘a bombshell, eh’!

I skimmed through it … leaked emails and other assorted on-line communications revealing cosy relationship between an attack-style right-wing political blogger and those in position to feed him privileged information as ammunition against their political opponents, abuse of powers, smear campaigns … in a word – a smorgasbord of well-known political tricks!

DP

So why is everyone so shocked or at least wishes to appear so?

Because, just like in Spargo’s novel when Scott is unable to witness death of the mortally injured gamecock because for him, just like for the rest of his countrymen – ‘it does not fit with their image of themselves’ – an image of NZ as an easy-going, relaxed, friendly place where there is neither appetite nor need for any of those negative, dirty campaigning that goes on elsewhere or for underhanded attack politics that is poisoning so many other political environments has been shattered. A familiar collective fantasy carefully nurtured to insulate from the world at large suddenly exposed for what it was – purpose designed collective blindfold. And as everyone knows when long worn blindfold is suddenly ripped off – too much light causes shock!

Oh no wonder I do so love you New Zealand … such beautiful fools.

 Nicky Hager Dirty Politics

Brevity

In ‘Conversations with James Joyce’, Joyce tells Arthur Power; ‘The object of any work of art is the transference of emotion; talent is the gift of conveying that emotion.’

James Joyce, Credit: Wikipedia
James Joyce, Credit: Wikipedia

For Joyce transference of the emotion was only possible with great many words. As his fellow countryman, a writer and a close friend Samuel Beckett observed; ‘James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyser, trying to leave out as much as I can.’

The distinction is an important one as it highlights the difference between writers who lay the rich feast of words before their readers, versus those whose offerings are scarce. While the offerings remain of different quantity each respective audience seems to receive adequate sustenance.

Samuel Backett, Credit: Wikipedia
Samuel Backett, Credit: Wikipedia

However, if we agree with Joyce that ‘the object is the transference of emotion’ than the question that immediately present itself is whether or not that transference is equally achieved with few as well as many words?

No doubt those, like the writer of those lines, for whom the transference of emotion depends almost entirely on their ability to employ the richest, most luscious words, would readily subscribe to the ‘synthesizer’s camp’, while those who favour filling the spaces between scantily placed words themselves in order to receive the transference, would opt for the ‘analyser camp.’  Whatever our choice might be, it would inevitably depend on number of factors, including our views on the role of art and literature.

Another great writer whose frugal use of words became legendary is of course Ernest Hemingway. It is said that he once wrote a story in just six words and called it his best work; ‘For sale, baby shoes, never worn.’  The story does not have any of the building blocks stories are traditionally made of, such as the beginning, the plot, or the end. Moreover we do not know what happened to the baby, or why shoes have never been worn, or why they are for sale?

Ernest Hemingway, Credit: Wikipedia
Ernest Hemingway, Credit: Wikipedia

And those ‘missing pieces’ are precisely where the secret beauty of writing known as micro fiction or flash fiction lays.

Recently there has been much talk about micro fiction’s upsurge in popularity, which is apparently directly linked to our ever shorter attention spans courtesy of over-saturation with written words in all their forms. In other words; offerings far exceed not only appetites for novels, stories, poetry, etc, but also any human ability to digest them. As a result the challenge becomes how to transfer the emotion with as fewer words as possible. Enter the micro fiction.

While debates on whether or not the onset of internet has for ever changed written word are likely to continue, the fact remains that there were always writers who employed fewer words to achieve the desired effect. And while micro fiction might be quick to read, it most certainly is not quick to write. It requires something special; a writer’s ability and willingness to allow the reader to become the writer.

The writer’s task changes from holding all the secrets, to living some to the reader, so that the reader’s imagination and emotions are aroused just enough to entice him or her to finish the story in his own mind, using own experience, own believes. That is the unique beauty of micro fiction.

Every reader of Hemingway’s six-word story would answer the questions about the baby and baby’s shoes in their own unique way. Has the baby died before was able to wore the shoes? Was it a boy or a girl? Or was it a simply a matter of one pair of shoes too many?

There is no end to those questions. As there is no end to human imagination; the mastery required to evoke this imagination remains however within the writer’s tool kit.

Not very long ago, my written efforts were routinely received with remarks such as ‘too many words’ and alike. With that in mind, I took up a challenge to write a story with 150 words only including the title. While it was not an easy task, it intrigued me sufficiently to try and write couple of more stories with even less words. Here they are, and as always free and frank critique is most welcome!

If you have written, or are writing flash fiction, it would be great if you can share your work, and/or your experience on writing it. Many thanks.

My recent attempts at the tiniest micro fiction:

Notice: Single white female, body unclaimed.

Epitaph: Here lies Arthur Smith. He took his own life. It was all he had.

For hire: Wedding dress, size large, works if pregnant.

Adult entertainment: New to industry, apprentice rates.

Pub notice: No credit. Don’t ask. Even if sober.

God to Earth: Speak louder. Can’t hear you.

Dancing in Odessa

Ilya Kaminsky is one of those poets whose heart sings in his poems. And that is of course a wondrous irony, as Ilya lost most of his hearing at the age of four due to misdiagnosis.

ilyakaminsky
Ilya Kaminsky, Credit: Wikipedia

He was born in 1977 and grew up in Odessa; ‘A city famous for its drunk tailors, huge gravestones of rabbis, horse owners and horse thieves, and most of all, for its stuffed and baked fish.’

In 1993 his family was granted political asylum by the United States and settled in Rochester. At the time he spoke no English and continued to write in Russian while learning English. ‘Traveling Musicians’ (2007) is a selection of his poems originally written in Russian.

Following his father’s death in 1994, Ilya began to write poems in English. In an interview he explained; ‘I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it – no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.’

As someone who had to choose English, since no one around me spoke Croatian, those lines resonate strongly with me. Journey into another language, especially one very different in sound, syntax and structure to the one with which we first made ourselves heard, is a journey into one’s secret realm of being, the very core of existence. Whether we cherish words as admirers of literature and poetry, or simply use them in our day to day exchanges never giving them any other considerations; as humans we depend on them to confirm our presence. It is for that reason that all of those who toil on that journey found themselves profoundly changed by it.

In 2002 Ilya Kaminsky’s first poetry collection ‘Musica Humana’ was published. Only two years later, in 2004, second poetry collection; ‘Dancing in Odessa’ followed, winning number of significant awards. Ilya’s new manuscript; ‘Deaf Republic’ won the Pushcart Prize, and his poems have been translated into numerous languages. He is currently teaching at San Diego State University.

While it is quite true that I love almost all of Ilya’s poems, the one below I is very special to me.

Dancing in Odessa

In a city ruled jointly by doves and crows, doves covered the main

district, and crows the market. A deaf boy counted how many birds there

were in his neighbour’s backyard, producing a four-digit number. He dialled

the number and confessed his love to the voice on the line.

My secret; at the age of four I become deaf. When I lost my hearing,

I began to see voices. On a crowded trolley, a one-armed man said that my

life wold be mysteriously linked to the history of my country. Yet my

country cannot be found, its citizens meet in a dream to conduct elections.

he did not describe their faces, only a few names: Roland, Aladdin, Sinbad.

Reading Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien’s ‘Country Girl’, a memoir, was published in London last year as a ‘major literary event.’

I came across it while browsing shelves of Wellington’s Central Library. It had a red ‘Bestsellers; Charges Apply’ banner affixed to it, just above Edna’s eyes, photograph of her younger self gracing the front cover. Edna

I cannot really tell why I took it with me, ‘charges apply’ and all. Was it because of the photograph showing her dragging on a cigarette, or this passage from the book’s Prologue; ‘ I thought of life’s many bounties – to have known the extremities of joy and sorrow, love, crossed love and unrequited love, success and failure, fame and slaughter, to have read in the newspapers that as a writer I was pas my sell-by date, and moreover a ‘bargain basement Molly Bloom’, yet, regardless, to go on writing and reading, to be lucky enough to be able to immerse myself in those two intensities that have buttressed my whole life.’

Whatever it was, glued me to the book for days. Conveniently, after my recent trip to South Island to visit my daughter, full-blown flue descended upon me commanding me to stay quarantined at home.

You could not wish for an environment more conducive to reading and writing, while temperatures are nearing zero, snow is falling in record quantities and winds of up to 200 km/hour are pounding my city … yes this is the winter in NZ! At the time of writing many power lines are down and numerous households are without power. Hopefully to be restored in a few days.

Snowing in Central Otago, photo credit: TVNZ
Snowing in Central Otago, photo credit: TVNZ

So here I am wrapped in my favorite blanket, cup of tea in hand, to tell you a story about a writer and a woman – Edna O’Brien – the way I experienced it.

Edna O’Brien was born in Ireland in 1930, has published over twenty works of fiction since her  first brilliant novel ‘The Country Girls’ and has received numerous awards. Colum McCann wrote that ‘Edna O’Brien has, for a half-century, been the advanced scout for the Irish imagination. She has consistently been at the necessary edge of who we are.

Reading her memoir is to come face to face with life so rich and so full that makes one dizzy. Vertigoes feelings arouse primarily for two reasons; the mastery of language, (it has been some time since I was compelled to copy whole passages into my notebook longhand), and braveness of heart.

Edna O’Brien is a first and foremost a brave woman. Everything else, her writing, her life, sprouts from that fact.

In her memoir, which she once swore never to write, but nevertheless sat down to write it at the age of seventy-eight, she recasts her life from Drewsboro, the house in which she was born and raised in the west of Ireland, to the glitz and glamour of swinging sixties and countless celebrities she met and sometimes befriended along the way, with equal depth and honesty.

While reading about endless parties and luncheons with the likes of Jackie Onassis, Hilary Clinton, Princess Margaret, Samuel Backett, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, (how I envy her for meeting those guys!), and many, many others, is certainly enchanting since it is described with the utmost care and in brilliantly poetic language, it is the voice of Edna O’Brien who fought to escape convent education first, and disastrous marriage second, that speaks to me the most. Voice of a young woman very much alone as a wife, as a mother, and especially as a writer.

Her early novels were often burned and banned in her native Ireland for their portrayal of young women who longed to escape confines of small towns and early marriages. They craved freedom, including sexual freedom. Some of the early critics of her work wrote that ‘her talent resided in her knickers.’

Raised in a religious family, she was sent to a convent school at a young age from her village which she later described as; ‘enclosed, fervid, and bigoted.’

During her convent school years, O’Brien made every effort to finish it as early as possible and escape to Dublin where she worked in a drugstore while studying at the Pharmaceutical College at night. During that time she started to read widely and asked herself; ‘Why could life not be lived at that same pitch? Why was it only in books that I could find the utter outlet for my emotions?’ I asked myself similar questions while dragging myself through the Law School.

In an attempt to escape both drudgery of an ordinary life and strictness of her family, she married much older man, a writer Ernest Gebler, with whom she will have two sons. However, when she showed him her first, novel, written during ‘stolen moments’, he read it and then said to her; ‘You can write and I will never forgive you.’ While they soon divorced, O’Brien will have to fight a bitter battle for the custody of her two boys, which she eventually won.

While she never re-married, she was involved in several long relationships to which she refers only briefly in her memoir. However, she is honest about the ‘high trapeze at the commencement of love,’ and the ‘surprise meetings, cancelled meetings, devouring jealousies, the rapture and the ruptures of an affair.’ Things got messy. I lack the cunning and the dissimulation’, she says, ‘necessary for a normal affair.’ That, I understand with a painful clarity!

As she wrote at the very beginning of her memoir: ‘All the others have died. I am there to answer for my crimes. It makes no difference that my interrogators are all dead.’ It sent shivers of recognition through the full length of my spine.

At the ripe age of 82 Edna O’Brien remains as brave, and as inspirational as ever.

If not writing then what?

There always comes the time, when question is asked; what would you be doing if not writing?

You pose for a moment to think about it.

And you realize; you have never thought about it before.

So you try hard to imagine all those things you could be doing;

dancing till dawn in sultry bars wearing nothing but feathered boa, hue of the deepest midnight blue, and purple sued shoes with a ribbon of black taffeta tied in a bow that make your calves look long and slim,bar

drinking red and amber cocktails from exquisitely crafted glasses, so delicate that the tiniest sounds escape from them every time the waiter, rather aloof and sporting long side-burns, passed them to you,

making love to men whose names you cannot recall but know them only by the smell of their cologne and the way they try to pronounce your name, or the name of the place you told them you are from, which changes as mood takes you,

gambling large sums of foreign currency in the company of some aging gentlemen who pass themselves off as members of once distinguished, but now almost impoverished aristocratic family,

reading poetry on the street corners to passers-by and downtrodden members of working-class, who are staging protests against capitalism yet again,

travelling on barges across the old continent searching for the last remaining palaces with princesses still living in them, translucent with innocence,

running across summer fields full of sun-flowers and small insects in a yellow muslin dress with small forget-me-nots dotted over it, gliding inside the folds of fabric, delirious with joy.

Oh all the things you could have been doing!

Then you look around and you see the same old room, somewhat shabby and lonesome and silence falling over with dusk, only rain knocking on window panes.

And you know for certain those are the things you must write down and quickly while they are still safely inside you.

Because those are not the things you would be doing if not writing, those are the things you are writing.

joy

Heinlein’s Rules on Writing

Recently, Robert A. Heinlein’s Memorial Lecture he delivered to the Brigade of Midshipmen at his alma mater in April 1973 came to my attention, thanks to a thoughtful friend who sent it my way.

As I have never been greater admirer of science-fiction, Heinlein’s work did not spark my interest. That may have been a mistake, although one easily rectifiable by a visit to a local library.

But what most certainly did ignite my interest were his thoughts on writing. Not only  has he spoken frankly about it, but, in a matter of fact way, he dismantled some of the long-established and carefully cultivated myths about writing. Most of which I subscribed to enthusiastically for the best part of my life. The result is rather obvious!

Such as absolute necessity, if not holy duty, of rewriting;

‘A beginner finds hard to believe that no-rewriting rule. A myth has grown up that a manuscript to be suitable for publication must be re-written at least once. Utterly false! Would you refry an egg? Tear down a freshly built wall? Destroy a new chair? Ridiculous! This silly practice of rewriting is based on the hidden assumption that you are smarter today then you were yesterday. But you are not. The efficient way to write, as with any other work, is to do it right the first time! I don’t mean that a manuscript should not be corrected and cut. Few writers are perfect in typing, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Most of us have to go back and correct such things, and above all – strike out surplusage and fancy talk. The manuscript then needs to be retyped for neatness; retyping is not rewriting. Rewriting means a new approach, a basic change in form. Don’t do it!’

Or the one that has grown exponentially in the recent years – classes in ‘creative writing’;

‘That one word is: Don’t! Creativity cannot be taught. One may teach grammar and composition; it is not possible to teach creative writing and any person who claims to do so is a fake. Creative artists are never taught; they invariably teach themselves. You can teach a young artist the tools of his trade; you cannot teach him to create. Nobody taught Shakespeare, or Mark Twain, or Edgar Allan Poe, or Erle Stanley Gardner or Rex Stout – and no one can teach you.’

And lastly the one I held especially dear; that writing is not an ordinary job, or a

Midshipman Heinlein, from the 1929 U.S. Naval ...
Midshipman Heinlein, from the 1929 U.S. Naval Academy yearbook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

job at all for that matter, but a calling of a highest order, almost sacred duty known only to those called upon. Then I read this;

‘I did not become a writer to see my name in print; I didn’t give a hoot about that and had no literary ambitions. I was a naval officer by choice; I become a writer by economic necessity. I needed to pay off a mortgage and started writing to earn the money. I was in a poor health and could not handle a steady job – nor were there any jobs.’

He then proceeds to list those who were forced into writing careers by either; their ill health, or utter un-employability, or both, and become successful writers; H.G.Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Cyrano de Bergerac, and many others.

While the whole piece is truly brilliant as, apart from writing, Heinlein also speaks about science fiction as ‘realistic fiction’ and about those things in life he considered to be most important (‘spelled out in simple Anglo-Saxon words “patriotism” reads “Women and children first!”), he leaves us with seemingly simple Five Rules for Success in Writing:

  1. You must write,
  2. You must finish what you write, 
  3. You must refrain from re-writing except to editorial order, 
  4. You must place it on the market, 
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold. 

AND:

‘That’s all. That’s a sure-fire formula for getting anything – anything at all! – published. But so seldom does anyone follow all five rules that the profession of writing is a soft touch for those who do – even though most professional writers are not too bright, not too wise, not too creative. For these rules work in series, not in parallel. If you bilge any one of them, you bilge completely and your writing will not be published.’