Adumbrate

PeggyAbstractLandscapeDixonInProgressArt 118

Adumbrate is to darken or conceal partially, to faintly foreshadow or resemble.
Starting thinking about adumbration while reading Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass. His writing is the closest thing I’ve found to my experiments with abstract writing; way more so than Magical Realism, either Garcia or Llosa.
Schulz gives me some sense of the difficulty in reading such abstractions. It’s not that the storyline is not there at all, not like some abstract paintings that are purely emotion; color and form and structure only. At this point I have doubts that writing could successfully reach the levels of abstraction that visual arts are privileged to. So far my pure abstract writing falls off the cliff of prose into the labyrinth of poetry, and as much as I love poetry that is not what this search is, not what these experiments are about.
To read Sanatorium is demanding, enjoyable work; it’s a challenge to follow Shlulz’s mind. To follow I must give up some control, allow my preconceptions to melt away. Here in a passage from a chapter called The Age Of Genius, the main character Joseph reels me in, insists I see with a child’s unbiased eye:
We stood in the semidarkness of my vast room, elongated in perspective toward the window opening on the square. Waves of air reached us in gentle pulsations, settling down on the silence. Each wave brought a new load of silence, seasoned with the colors of distance, as if the previous load had already been used up and exhausted. That dark room came to life only by the reflections of the houses far beyond the window, showing their colors in its depth as in a camera obscura. Through the window one could see, as through a telescope, the pigeons on the roof of the police station, puffed up and walking along the cornice of the attic. At times they rose up all at once and flew in a semicircle over the square. The room brightened for a moment with their fluttering wings, broadened with the echo of their flight, and then darkened when they settled down again.
The narrative is simple: a boy and his older cousin are looking at the boy’s drawings in his room, a window opens onto a square. At the end of the square are houses and a police station with pigeons on its roof doing what pigeons do. Breezes pulsate through the window.
Yet the passage is about perspective and causation more than how the relationship between the boy and his cousin advance the narrative. Breezes are calmed by silence and bear reflections of the distant houses into the room and give it its color. The fluttering of pigeons wings brightens and darkens. For the boy colors are reflections, wind determines sound, space is broadened by echoes and movement; his room, his necessarily limited world, our necessarily limited world, is a camera obscura. And it’s because of these limitations that it’s a wondrous place, a world of mystery and danger, surrounded by unknowns because anything is possible.
Drilling into a short passage like this is rewarding, fun, insightful, like a poem. The work is not too arduous because it does not take long. But it becomes tiresome at length, when the narrative and action must be subjectively gleaned from dreamy paragraphs of sparse action with unclear causes.
Here’s Ethan in Steinbeck’s The Winter Of Our Discontent expressing similar sentiments when confronted with his son’s interest in the contents of their attic:
I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is. So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.
See the similarities of the above passages with my character Reuel as a naïve teenager:
Reuel loved mysteries and romances, so when for the first time ever his parents left him alone to go to his mother’s special appointment he climbed the narrow staircase from the basement and rummaged through their bedroom. It made him feel the way Merci, his mother, looks when she carefully teases tangled necklaces out of little cubbies in her heart-adorned ashen jewelry box. He arranged two gold necklaces on the glass-topped dressing table, admired in the mirror their delicacy, how they floated in the frame of chubby pink cherubs and grinning green sprites. Marbles of pearl he fenced in the chains of gold, tarnished silver-plated unicorn and satyr and elfin totems frolicked in a canyon turquoise bracelet, sparkling zirconia and ruby-like pebbles lay scattered in a glittering piece of time.
In the drawer of Merci’s nightstand Reuel sifted through silky things that had never been mentioned and discovered a blue-clothed diary secured with a lace strap and precious silver lock. He retrieved a thin skeleton key from inside the sparkling piece of time. The book fell open as if it had been waiting for him. He looked into the mirror, imagined flying out the window, over his neighborhood’s pitched rooftops, watched a perfect teenage girl perform a triple somersault into a backyard pool with scarcely a ripple, a handsome new father pick money like acorns from a stoic old oak, and a smiling gray-haired woman delight her fairytale grandchildren with stories of what she always imagined her life to be.
Here’s Reuel as an adult, an artist who never grew up:
Father Malley perambulated around the strange artist he tried to remember and watched him work. The priest squinted though the sun was at their backs, tried to make figures or images out of dripping blocks of orange and magenta and translucent green that could be rebirth or decay, and thin black and white lines teasing his eye from a lavender background. His gaze was mesmerized, and after some indeterminate moments Father caught a hint of himself in a triangle of gray-black swirling around the meal tent. The fajita grill’s smoke made him blink, charred beef teased his tongue and nose, onions and guacamole on a fresh tortilla formed to the top of his mouth. It was so real Father feared the painting was casting a spell, casting in a way The Shadow of the Cross, the mystery painting he charged tourists to view, seldom achieved.
Orange washed to sun-tinged gold under Reuel’s touch. Father finally recognized his San Francisco De Asis Mission Church amongst the blocks of color, the way the texture of the paint mimicked the texture of the drying plaster. Shadows lengthened and the walls of the church glowed. Uncertainty crept up his spine. He’d been in Taos almost thirty years and knew it would be several minutes before the setting sun made the walls of the church glow like the church on Reuel’s board. How could such a man understand this glow and Father not know him?
And finally Reuel as Steinbeck’s insane mystical child, more interested in what is than in why it is:
Reuel set up his easel high on Taos Mountain, overlooking the Pueblo. His brush flourished in the clear, thin air. Flute melodies filled his head and attracted many creatures. He painted cautious, delicate bodies with spindly legs and furry white butts, parents with their doe; tangled antlers hovered over a harem of sturdy, buckskinned torsos; and two anxious hooked lines the color of yellowed parchment coyotes skulked behind flamboyant strokes of pale green chamisa waving in the hint of a blue breeze. Reuel enjoyed his goose bumps.
Small black and white stripes of chipmunks clacked at Reuel from the safety of twisted gray piñon. At first the chipmunks were unsure of the scene he was creating. But soon they were chattering to the flutish melodies, munching on nut-shaped twists of Reuel’s brush, and flitting in fits and starts across the canvas. On the ridge above the gathering a hairy sling of black bear rummaged through unripe flashes of Indian plum. She stayed uphill and downwind, not wanting to scare her fellow Taosenos away on such a lovely day.
I want to push myself to write an entire novel the way a painter paints an abstract painting. It’s probably not fair to ask a reader to work so hard for so long, to follow a narrative that makes no distinction between characters’ imagination, dreams, and perceptions; a narrative structured only by form, color, shape, and emotion.
Yet I think to write such a novel would be an accomplishment. It would teach me about art, and not only the process, but the instinct, that primordial human spark that left its mark in the caves of Lascaux and El Castillo, the inspiration for jewelry and to knap a more perfect arrowhead.
There’s a common thread of humanity that the impulse to abstraction reaches back towards. It’s mysterious, anxious, frightening, full of doubt. It’s also the impulse that both makes us most human and ties us to other creatures, to whatever it is we share with all forms of life. It’s unregulated Time, Space torn free of measurement, freedom in its purest form allowing one to open Pandora’s box and not blink.
Writing is an art like visual arts because it can never be exact, no words, even in symbolic logic, are defined so rigidly that the beauty of ambiguity is completely absent.
Art is not the antithesis of science, as science itself is an art. This fact is not an indictment of science, but a reminder that its work, like creating art itself, will never be done.
And I want to write an abstract painting. I want to create my own Matisse, one time overcome that doubt that is the essence of abstract art.

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MFA VS NYC

Nough said? The real question is: Are we encouraging technically competent fiction over great writing. I certainly get the feeling that one of my problems getting published (besides running two companies and having to steal hours in the middle of the night to write at all) is that my fiction does not conform to what editors look for. They want to check off the boxes. Below is one suggested structure by Philip Brewer.

  1. a character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve his problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of structure, and certainly any aspiring writer should be able to do it. My wishful thinking has been: As soon as I publish enough stories that fit the model and develop a following, then I can stray from the approved norm. It reminds me of freshman composition: write a beginning, middle, and end. It’s easy to understand, tells a story, and it’s great for freshman comp or a newspaper article.

But my stories don’t always follow this path. At a recent conference I workshopped a book of short stories. Yes, they weren’t all as polished as I would have liked. Yet many of the stories were exceptionally well received. They were uplifting, inspiring, clever, upsetting. The instructor said, “Start sending these out. I love it. You’re taking chances.” Toward the end of the workshop I met with an agent from a top NYC agency who had read two of the stories. She remarked, “Very creative. I really like the endings. You’ve never published, so here’s what you do. Send them out like crazy. It’s a numbers game, a full time job. After you get three or four published I can pitch the book to a publisher with the promise of a novel to come. Here’s my card.”

I was ecstatic. And I’m also building up a nice collection of rejections. The problem, it seems to me, is the stories are missing some of Mr. Brewer’s elements. They are creative yet easily readable (one of my problems in the past was asking too much of the reader.) Sometimes the main character is somewhat passive while the supporting characters react to her/his reactions. The endings are poignant, but often not validating, though always relevant (I must admit here that I find many endings, in all forms of published and even celebrated fiction, disappointing.) In short, I’m not playing the game.

Methinks there are many of me out there. I’m not a young aspiring writer. I’m a middle aged (whatever that means these days) man who has a modestly successful career and is prudent enough to not risk my family’s future over a Twilight dream. I shouldn’t have to get another degree or to move to NYC to be taken seriously.

Yes, I am still learning how to write, but the writing is good. The stories are fun, the reader can identify with the characters and still leave their world for a while. Some are more serious than others, and they all have an original voice. Maybe too original.

The debate is really MFA OR NYC, not VS. I don’t fit into either category. I’ve been in workshops with MFA students who have the same dream as I, are younger, but unfortunately have little chance of developing into good fiction writers. They’re being sold a bill of goods, and this is why many people are led to the cynical view that the MFA system in America is basically a for profit industry. An industry must have standards, and if the nuts and bolts of your product are metric it will be hard to sell. Strict standards are fine for freshman comp, but this is a Masters of Fine Arts. It’s supposed to be creative.

It is a shame that even most good fiction writers must teach to earn a living. That’s a statement about what capitalism values. The internet should provide an outlet for more creative endeavors. It’s done a fairly decent job as an outlet for the visual arts, but visual artists have for a long time been granted more license than fiction and even poetry.

MFA or NYC, Walmart or Target, TGIF or Olive Garden, Hampton Inn or Motel 6, available on any E-reader along the information interstate.

Do we feel validated now?

Fun Facts and Fiction

Fun facts to consider before voting:

Over the last 50 years Republicans have occupied the White house 27 years, Democrats 23. During that time the US economy has created approximately 46 million jobs during the Democrats time, 23 million during the Republican occupation.

From 1948 to 1973, American worker’s productivity increased by 100%. During this period, the average worker’s hourly compensation ( wage plus benefits) increased by 100%. This period witnessed the largest growth in wealth ever in the history of humanity, as well as the largest expansion of the American middle class. With tax rates higher than current rates.

From 1973 to 2006, the year before the recession officially started, American worker’s productivity increased 80.1%. During this period, American worker’s average hourly compensation increased 10%.

The other 70% of weatlh generated during this period increased the wealth of high-income individuals and corporations, while tax rates went lower and lower, and the middle classs shrank.

The average American worker hasn’t seen a real gain in her or his purchasing power in over a decade. The way Americans have gotten by over the last 4 decades is by putting a second bread winner to work and borrowing more.

The last three recoveries from Recession has been ‘jobless.’ The Stock-Market has recovered; corporations have done well, and the jobs that have been created have been low paying jobs.

Americans work more hours, and spend less time with their families, than anyone else in the developed world, except China.

There is not one example in history that I can find where austerity measures alone stimulated an economy and increased tax revenues. In the one case most commonly cited, Ronald Reagan’s presidency, President Reagan cut taxes in 1981, then, when the deficit soared he raised taxes in 1982. It’s that tax increase that spawned the famous ‘Read my lips, no more taxes,’ statement by Bush Sr.

I suppose the other fact demonstrated here is that people don’t vote based on facts.

That’s one of the ‘flaws’ of Democracy, and one that I am willing to live with. The US experiment in Democracy is a leap of faith, a belief in something like Christian Charity, or the Islamic principle that you have a moral obligation to feed and shelter your fellow traveler.

Will we live up to our religious principles?

 

Fingerprints of You

Reading Kristen-Paige Madonia’s Fingerprints of You, and certain passages strike home.

p.38: Inner voice of Lemon, a 17 year old pregnant girl who has never known her father, who resents her mother for moving her around so much as a child;

I remember our shitty little house with the stained carpet and the worn-out couch waiting for us on the other side of town, and I realized I’d spent most of my childhood being angry at her (Mom) for making us live like that, for not having enough money for us to rent a nicer home, and for refusing to pick a place to settle in. (End of Quote)

I have a similar situation in my family now, adult kids struggling with their resentment of moving a lot when they were young, of Mom being married multiple times and having boyfriends, of feeling when they were kids they didn’t have all the fancy stuff their peers had, because Mom bought thrift store Polos, cut the little guy on his horse off and sewed him onto their cheap shirts, because Mom pursued her art instead of a steady job. Mom’s hashed this out with them many times, but somehow it hasn’t been enough, though the kids have their own kids now, beautiful kids, like their parents, who are responsible and capable and articulate and are good people in large part because Mom has always provided for them, still provides for them, is committed to her children and grandchildren as if they were still her vulnerable little tots, which in many ways they are.

Lemon again, on p. 93, talking to her friend Emmy as they ride on a Greyhound bus across the country, to San Francisco to find her father;

“I wanted to believe she made the right choice for us,” I told her, “but I just couldn’t help being pissed off. It’s like sometimes I blame her for not making a family out of us, but then sometimes I know it was probably better that way,” I said. “He never came for me, so I figured he was a loser, the kind of guy who couldn’t handle being a real dad.” (End of Quote)

My wife’s son told me he’d reconciled with his father for not being there, that they’d never be friends, but they’d been able to talk about things in a way he couldn’t get his Mom to talk about things, and they’d come to terms. Yet I’ve been there more than once when the kids ganged up on their Mom, telling her how bad she was to them, how awful it was to live in a funky house full of art and artists, in the wrong part of town, how embarrassed they were that their mother made a living cleaning other people’s houses and traveling to art shows to sell her paintings, how she abandoned them when they were teenagers when she got an apartment close by and let her daughter’s boyfriend’s Aunt move into their house for a short while, and Mom apologizing and defending herself, until all any of us were doing was repeating ourselves. It’s hard for me to imagine what else could be said, what words from her could dig up and dissipate feelings that have been shunted aside since childhood. 

I haven”t finished Fingerprints of You yet, but I last night I read these passages to my wife, and I told her that I’m guessing Lemon comes to terms with her mother by the end of the novel, that she comes to realize that even her mother’s mistakes were the best she could do, and that part of becoming an adult means accepting responsibility for who you are, giving up the impulse to blame others for your emotions.

My parents always felt guilty for breaking up our home, for the protracted nastiness of the custody battle, for using us kids against the other parent. My sister and I dealt with the divorce in different, often unhealthy ways. My not blaming my parents may be the best thing I ever did for myself.

I hope to finish Fingerprints of You this evening, am anxious to see how Lemon grows up.

Taos Summer Writers Conference

Attending Robert Boswell’s Fiction for Serious Writer’s Workshop at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference.

Love Boz’s approach, his insistence that writing be art, not merely craft, that craft underpins art, yes, but when well executed stays in the background of the piece, almost unseen, doing it’s multifarious job, like jesso and scraped layers of paint on canvas.

Increasingly I understand writing as analogous to painting. I look at a recent piece of Peggy’s (my wife, Peggy McGivern,) ‘Indian Pony Dream,’ and the blue-gray shadows defining the pony’s dominant-white body are a turn of phrase with multiple meanings, without too definite a line, and the more powerful for it.

My eyes read over a wavy block of color without noticing the technique, the brushstrokes, showing me withers, ribcage, health and wild beauty standing in high grasses, provoking emotion and imagination, a phrase I can dissect in subsequent readings and analysis, an Alice Munro story offering more pleasure the more I look.

Peggy is experimenting with abstraction, and I, too, am learning how to give myself permission, permission to scrape words from my pages, see what stubbornly persists despite the razor’s edge, despite my habits and previous understanding.

My workshop mates and I are like the ponies flying dreamlike in the sky of the painting, our inner world to make manifest on the canvas and pages of experience, the evolution of memories, a new ingrained habit to use and overcome.

Taos Mountain looms in the background of our pony dreams and inspires us with beauty and novelty. I walk out of a spirited session, my mind galloping somewhere between dreams and realities, and I don’t want to drift down from the sky, even though the high desert beckons, its impossible light on the chamisa, sage, adobe, and my mind nourishing and ecstatically real. How can I maintain this ill-equilibrium, this equine existence reduced to its core?

I will not worry with that. Today I can run with my ponies through the high grass, reaching for the sky.

Failure

When we bought our old Victorian house, it was pretty run down; now, it is a showpiece in the neighborhood. I can buy any car I want, but I prefer to restore older models. My business affords me comforts I never imagined. My wife is not only beautiful, but extremely talented. My children and many grandchildren forgive my selfishness, and I am a failure.

We had a plan. In two years my wife quit working to pursue her art career full-time. In four years we saved enough money to last several years so I could pursue my dream. When I was thirteen I promised myself I would be a writer.

So in the middle of the night these words I scribble vie for space in my life. The familiar colors of spring turn to summer greens, the sunlight plays at my feet after navigating yellow leaves of poplars I planted in that season of promise. Their shade is pleasant now, but I hope for a lasting legacy, to arrest life and resist the vagaries of time.

My old friends ask: does someone misinterpreting your thoughts in a hundred years make up for the sleepless nights, the missed holidays, the loneliness? I am afraid to answer that my greatest moments of joy are shared with the page, that I have never experienced meaning that is not also metaphor.

A reader is a secret relation, like being able to pick your relatives instead of blind fate imposing its will. But what if no one is reading?

I have close friends, six brothers whose mother died.  She wrote a beautiful diary spanning forty years, and I am the only person who ever read it. Now I am her seventh son.

So I write, I think, I learn; and I answer the questions: How’s your book coming? When is it going to be published? I’d love to read it. Until no one knows whether to believe me anymore. Maybe all I am doing is watching old movies