Friday, March 26, 2010

Every Gesture Has Meaning

That title phrase popped into my mind as I went to bed. It rattled around all night and was still there when I opened my eyes. For a time in academia, people wrangled about intentionality. Could we trust a writer to mean what she said or to say what she meant, or is language hopelessly out of our control, like a nest of snakes with their own writhing intention and no regard for the hand that makes the mark? I don't know from onions if that argument still pertains, but I did a lot of thinking about meaning and intention this morning, and I don't think I'm done thinking. Here's one big question: does chance trump intention? Digging around in daily life, I think the original idea that snuck into mind has weight. My coffee is in the blue paisley mug. No, I didn't give much thought to which mug I took from the cupboard, but some  tiny spark of a plan led my hand to that item, not the yellow one next to it. It means something about my mood, my wish for a certain aesthetic, something!

On the other hand, a little bit of chance can tip the balance in writing. I intend to write about a cook, but see that I've typed the word crook. Aha! A crook in the kitchen is much more interesting than a cook. But here it comes, my intention to write about the more unusual becomes a factor. I cannot deny or avoid my own choices. Selection of detail is, perhaps, sparked by chance variation, but almost immediately the czar of language says, go this way, say that word, make it work. Who the heck is in charge here? Sadly, it's me. I have to take responsibility for the choices I make. I have to consider the arc/ark of communication, which is the goal of art. Even an avant garde throwing paint at the wall sends a message, "Look how I disregard the figurative. I'm being independent." I don't think we can deny intention and meaning anymore than we can willfully stop breathing.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Must Reads

Let me tell you, I just fell in love with two books, one about a Grandmother in Siberia and one about kayaking in the ocean off the coast of that cold and poverty stricken land. Jon Turk, trained originally as a PHD chemist, tossed all the academic temptations of an easy life and struck out for high places, wet places, cold places. He's been adventuring and writing about such places since he ditched CU.

First, I heard him speak in Denver, a speech which he opened by balancing on an exercise ball, holding a sign in each hand; one said Logic, the other Magic. When he finished, I was willing to believe in both. He showed us slides of Moolynaut, the Grandmother Shaman of Siberia, a 100-year-old reindeer herder, until the reindeer herds dwindled and all but disappeared, leaving the Koryak people at the mercy of perestroika--no dependable food supply, erratic power, virtually no communication with the outside world, too much vodka, too little respect for a life that had sustained them for thousands of years.Then I read his books.

In The Raven's Gift, Turk recounts his healing under Moolynaut's guidance from serious, chronic pain following a smashed pelvis suffered in an avalanche years earlier. As Turk said, he was not taught to believe in shamanism, but under the circumstances of reinjuring himself in Siberia, he had little choice but to try. And the healing invoked there has lasted. He again indulges in extreme skiing, open water kayaking, and mountain biking. Turk met Moolynaut during a layover to wait out a storm when he and a partner were paddling from the northern tip of Japan, up the coast of Siberia, and slightly southeast again to Alaska. Why? Because he could, and because he thought he might travel In the Wake of the Jomon, the title of the other book. Turk figured he loved adventure and might share such an attitude with the ancient ancestors of the Ainu people of Japan, who left an apparently adequate setting to challenge the perilous Atlantic in canoes.

What grabbed me was the immediacy of Turk's writing, his willingness to be on the page, admitting his own fears and feelings, whether waking up in a tent pitched on a grizzly bear path or facing another horrific avalanche. I found scenes lurking in my head while I was doing other things than reading. I don't want to kayak in frigid water, eat fatty, ethnic foods that I suspect would not pass our supposedly stringent food inspections. I don't want to ski anything, let alone the highest, most dangerous mountains a human being can access. But I'm very glad that Turk does these things and reports back.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sister Blog

Sometimes I am such a slow learner! As I have just explained on my new alternate blog, (look to your left) I wanted to write a book about being a good citizen, about practicing democracy at the local level. So, this morning I'm in my writing chair, mulling over that idea again, and at least two brain cells fired and I said, Hey, how about a blog dedicated to such things? A couple more neurons piped up and said, Yeah, good idea. Just go do it, now, before you chicken out. So I did. You can visit that blog: Begin At Home: The ABC's of Living Local, also on Blogspot. Now, since I spent a lot of time on it, I expect you to spend a little time on it. Let me hear from you. I know you lurk around and get shy, but geez, it doesn't cost a thing and you can use a pen name if you can think of one that isn't obscene or boring.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reading as a Writer

As you know, I read a lot. And I read a lot of different kinds of stuff. Supine with the sniffles this week, I read, in one day, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Smiling Bears, and part of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. Why only part? Because I did not like his characters. That's not to say I did not like his writing. The style was dense, detailed, well paced. The main character, a wealthy, self-centered, elite New York bond trader, bored me with his needy, whining, his ME-ME-ME attitude toward his job, his child, his wife, his mistress. I skipped to the end of the 659 pages and got the story encapsulated in an epilogue, without suffering through the intervening 600 pages. It is interesting that this particular copy, which I found on a thrift-store shelf, may well be a first edition and worth more than the pocket change I paid for it, so the time was not all wasted. Nor was I totally denied insight into the human mind, my own, to be specific.

See, I loved the Guernsey book, co-authored by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It began like so many of the English cosies I have long loved and fled to for solace, like a comfy sofa, no hard lumps or numbing postures. However, the tea and toast atmosphere very gradually darkened to reveal a necessary lesson in how the islanders survived the Nazi occupation, and how some of them did not. The love interest between the protagonist and a quiet island man provided a parallel arc, one I could predict but savored anyway. And watching my own reaction to these two books highlighted my concentration on character as the motivation to write fiction or to read it. I liked the islanders who displayed, if not social polish, courage, community, and a sense of humility. They did not act, always, out of selfishness, did not want, like Wolfe's bond trader, to be "Masters of the Universe" by manipulating others, lying to their loved ones, spending time admiring their own reflections in society, tormenting a pet dog--the Master of the Universe in question forces his reluctant dog to walk in the rain in order to provide said master with an excuse to visit his mistress.

As for the Smiling Bears, well, no fiction, but beautiful language and grand characters, albeit ursine for the most part. Else Poulson knows and evokes each bear by name and by personality. Like human beings, each of them has an agenda, but none of them trades bonds on Wall Street.