Because my father lost his hands, my mother made a gift of hers. Cuticles ragged, knuckles scraped, fingernails smashed—farm work showed her no mercy.
Her hands were made for more delicate things, but she gladly sacrificed them because, really, what else was she to do? My father needed her, and she loved him, so she put her hands to work on our farm. She should have had the soft and beautiful hands more suited to her soft and beautiful heart, but life had other plans for her.
This post comes early because I’m off to Vermont bright and early tomorrow morning to teach for a week at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. If you can tolerate it, I’d like to say one word more about persona, this time in connection with poetry.
I’ve chosen this old lyric poem by William Allingham:
Four Ducks on a Pond
Four ducks on a pond,
A grass-bank beyond,
A blue sky of spring.
White clouds on the wing;
What a little thing
To remember for years—
To remember with tears.
Personae and Tone in Fiction
I’m still thinking about this issue of persona and how it contributes to the life of our prose. Part of the pleasure of reading a memoir comes from the resonance of different layers (or personae, if you will) of the narrator vibrating against one another. Does the same hold true for fiction? If we look at a third-person narrative, will we find shifts in persona of the effaced narrator and modulations of tone used to good effect?
To start. . .ahem. . .with a sentence I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined writing: Miley Cyrus has something to teach us about writing. Intrigued? Read on. Shaking your head in disbelief? Wondering about my sanity? Stick with me. This post is all about the outlandish. It’s about encouraging outrageous personae as a way of opening up aspects of our material that otherwise might remain closed. It’s about using exaggeration to give some jazz to lifeless prose. It’s about the art of the twerk.
Since we’re in the midst of writers’ conference season, I decided to rerun a post this morning:
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the old thermometers, the ones that you had to keep under your tongue for four minutes, the ones you had to shake down with an expert snap of the wrist, the ones that made you squint in order to make out the level of the mercury that told you your temperature. Believe it or not, I’m now the owner of a thermometer very much like this, only this one contains Galinstan, “a non-toxic, Earth friendly substitute for mercury.” You still have to hold it under your tongue for four minutes.
I lost a pocket comb yesterday. It exists somewhere without me now. It was a black pocket comb, purchased in Anchorage, Alaska, to replace another comb that I lost there. I usually don’t lose combs, but now I’ve lost two in two months.
For whatever reason, I’m thinking this morning about the openings of short stories and what we expect of them. Rust Hills, in his excellent book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, says the end of a good story is always present in its beginning. The final move of a story is only possible because of everything set in motion in the opening.
A few days ago, I was telling my cousin that I used to have problems managing my anger. She asked me what I’d done to help me let that anger go. Without thinking, I said I wrote a book called From Our House. It’s true. Writing that memoir about my father’s farming accident, the angry man he became, the violence he brought into our home, our difficult relationship, and our eventual journey toward reconciliation allowed me to gain a measure of control over the temper that living with my father’s rage instilled in me.
Because my father was a farmer, we didn’t travel much when I was a kid. The crops and the livestock needed constant attention. A farmer can’t afford to wander. It was only after my father sold our stock that we started to take a few trips. We went to the Illinois State Fair in Springfield one summer, and my father surprised us by suggesting that we go on to Hannibal, Missouri, and once we were there, he said we might as well drive on over to St. Joseph to see my mother’s brother. Outside of a train trip to Washington, D.C., it turned out to be the longest trip we ever took as a family. I came home with a genuine Stetson hat purchased in St. Joe and the newfound knowledge that not every place was as flat as the farmland of southeastern Illinois. For the first time, I’d seen the Mississippi River and its bluffs. I’d gone through Mark Twain Cave. I’d eaten Pie a la Mode at 2 a.m. in a diner in Chillicothe, Missouri. I was eleven years old, and suddenly the world was full of wonders.
A wild turkey crossed the road in front of me this morning, and as I slowed, it started to run through the grass—running, running, running in a most unseemly fashion before spreading wings, lifting into the air, and taking flight.
Starting a piece of writing is sometimes that way for me. I feel like I’m running and running but nothing is lifting up from the page. I often have plenty of forward momentum in a first draft, but I also have the sense that things haven’t really started and I’m waiting for that feeling of liftoff. It’s a matter of sensing that I don’t really know what the piece is about. I don’t know what it is that I’ve come to the page to explore. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that it’s okay to know very little when I begin. I’ve learned to trust that the writing itself will show me what’s important.