Conversations, June 17, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

6 AM. I certainly missed doing this, yesterday. And more or less wasted the day. I haven’t yet got used to that “do something else” part of the routine.

Stirred up a bit of discussion yesterday. The distinction between discernment and condemnation isn’t all that clear to some people. But I don’t want to keep on about the subject unless that’s on the Upstairs agenda. What do we talk about today, Papa?

You notice your broken sleep, your uncomfortable feeling of fullness, your lack of physical zest this morning. Too much eating isn’t all that different from too much drinking or too much of anything.

I do know that. Thoreau once observed that he could put his body out of tune even by drinking too much water.

And you’ve become aware that too much reading, too — especially too much reading of a certain kind, what you call chewing-gum reading, does the same thing.

Yes, I know. I like John Sandford, have been reading his novels for half a dozen years with great absorption because I like his good characters even though I don’t like the portrayal of violence.

Sandford, Dick Francis, John D. MacDonald — though he isn’t quite in the same league, being more serious than them even though a writer of what is usually hackwork — Robert Parker. You get these addictions. Why, do you suppose?

I suppose it’s my equivalent of television.

True enough, but not the whole story. They serve another purpose as well, that you are somewhat aware of but not enough. They provide a variety of the same experience you get when you’re writing fiction, but they give it to you on the cheap.

People watching television are like people doing anything. It all depends on their mental state while they’re doing it. You can watch TV actively, or passively. Books, too.

Now, it is true that books by their nature tend to require more activity than television. You read a story, it unfolds before you, but it only unfolds because you allow it to stimulate visualizations in your mind. Television actually produces the visualizations, and all you have to do is follow in its train. It’s the difference between sight-reading music and hearing the music played. In one case, you are providing the connection between concept and internal realization of the concept; in the other, the concept has already been turned into sensory data, which then provide the internal realization. Real-ization: making it real.

And your influence on our fiction was to bring fiction to — well, you say it. I sort of get it already, but I can feel that I don’t have it just exactly.

What you call chewing-gum fiction is fiction where the actual experience of reading the story is absorbing enough, but at the end you aren’t left with anything. You haven’t been moved at any deep level, you haven’t learned anything about yourself or the way things are. There is lore which may be interesting, and, indeed, often that’s the bait, but it is only intellectually, not also emotionally, connective. You have been interested while you read, and you don’t regret the time spent when you are finished, but mainly what you have done is spent a few hours with your conscious attention absorbed and your deeper consciousness elsewhere. Just like playing Free Cell! The time may not have been wasted internally, but there is certainly nothing to show for it mentally or externally. The main thing you get is several hours suspended in a state partly in ordinary consciousness — for of course you are still dimly aware of your surroundings — and partly in the state to which your imagination can bring you, when writing fiction or reading.

But if you write, you have something on your desk at the end of the time. If you read, you don’t.

Now, maybe you don’t want to be a writer, or maybe you would like to be, but you can’t: You don’t have the talent, you can’t find what it is you have to say, your life doesn’t support it somehow — for whatever reason. There isn’t any reason everybody should be a writer, any more than that everybody should be a painter, or a carpenter. But a lot more people than want to be a writer want to experience that state.

Are we off the point here? It feels like we’re wandering. And — somebody in the past few days pointed out that it’s my job to hold us to it. I think I was thinking you were going to talk about what you did for our fiction.

I was, and if you leave off those last two paragraphs, I’ll continue. I don’t mean cross them out, I just mean pick up from earlier.

I was fighting on a couple of fronts at once, and maybe each issue obscured the others.

I wanted to restore the written language, so that we could write as we speak. It had become so genteel, so euphemism-constricted, that it was being falsified. If you couldn’t say shit when and where you would say it out loud — where it would be said in the circumstances — it soon led to certain kinds of circumstances not being described at all. My father never did understand why I had to describe what he regarded as situations unfit to be described in literature. He was proud of me, deeply loved me, I see that now, but the world he had grown up in and believed in as best he could didn’t use these words in polite company and certainly didn’t expect to read them.

And that was the second thing I was fighting to do — to restore honesty to our writing by writing about the way things really were, not the sanitized way they were pretended to be in the Saturday Evening Post, which was my day’s equivalent of television, as you will remember from your own fifties’ childhood, where it served the same purpose still.

So honesty in words, honesty in situations, and the third thing I was doing was a little harder to see, and I didn’t actually see it this way until now, a long time later! What I thought I was doing, and was doing, was creating a more nervous, intense way of telling stories by leaving out as much as I could and telling only what I had to tell for you to get the story. That got rid of the flowery crap and the leisurely meandering around that were the weeds in the garden, as far as I was concerned. Just as Jim Joyce was playing with language to bring the mind to process it differently, though, so was I. I just never thought of it that way. I knew what I was doing was different, of course, and I knew, what everybody knows, that my inspiration from it was cablese, the compressed allusive language invented for the transatlantic cable, to save cost. It’s too bad you don’t have samples of cablese; you’d find it interesting. Of course you wouldn’t find it to be a revolution, as I did, because I spent my working life putting the revolution through!

But what I was also accomplishing, I see now, besides creating added intensity through compression, was requiring the reader to work in a different way if he was going to make sense of my stories — and my stories, realize, were much more of my life usually than the novels. When I was in the middle of writing a novel, obviously that’s all I was thinking of, and it would go on for weeks — in the case of For Whom The Bell Tolls, for more than a year. But take my career month in and month out for more than 30 years, short stories were the constant. And what were they doing? They were teaching a generation of people to read between the lines, and therefore forcing them to create along with me, or misunderstand my stories. Not all of them, and the ones where you don’t have to do it are the ones that make the anthologies, and that get taught. “Macomber,” and “Kilimanjaro,” and “In Another Country.” It’s the ones that don’t really tell you that get so often misunderstood or only partly understood, like Indian Camp.

Now — you tell me — what is the difference in mental process between reading a story where you have to read every line carefully and hold it in your head because it may have bearing on everything else in the story, and writing it? There’s a hell of a lot less difference between reading that story and writing it a than reading Sanford, say, and watching television.

I think that didn’t come out right. Maybe I garbled it. I think you’re saying Indian Camp, for one, requires the reader to go through the same mental process that the author had to go through, and Sanford on the other hand is more like TV because he lays it all out for you.

Yes, except it isn’t exactly what I would call a mental process. It’s more a connecting process. If you have energy enough, we can finish this.

A moment to recalibrate, then.

All right.

I don’t say I knew it while I was doing it, or even while I was living. But I see now that my third revolution wasn’t merely style, or let’s say was the result of the style. If what I’m writing, the way I’m writing, makes you live mentally in a place closer to the writer’s world than any other form of writing, that’s a revolution and it’s invisible — even to me! — because it doesn’t show any outward effect. I didn’t even realize it!

You take C.S. Forester. I loved his stuff. But now do you see the difference between where he leaves you and where I could leave you, or anyway take you?

His descriptions are so accurate, so vivid, his dialogue and actions so sure-footed, that he helps you to create a vivid picture in your mind. If you were to read him fast enough — like the time you speed-read one of his novels — it would form the pictures in your head as if you’d seen a movie.

What he doesn’t do, because he never tried to do it, is make you fill in the missing pieces. He doesn’t deliberately leave out facts about whatever Hornblower is doing, to make you figure it out. He sure-footed-ly gives you everything you need to form the pictures and carry the story.

I, in leaving out everything I could, force you to work in the way the author worked. You have to live in the scene and realize what wasn’t said. Now, you might not exactly know what was left out, but if you read it right you’ll feel what was left out — its unspoken presence will have affected everything that was said. But that means you have to read it actively in a way you don’t have to read something written as chewing-gum, or something written as vivid description of a true rather than contrived problem; in other words, something that is “serious” writing, like Forester, rather than read-it-forget-it like thrillers. And that active reading, though it leaves no traces, is still a different thing from any other kind of reading.

From my point of view, it’s more like reading some kinds of non-fiction, putting together pieces.

Yes except, in your terms, a story involves both the mental body and the emotional body, which is why it can change you. Typically non-fiction won’t involve the emotional body. Except — I can hear it just as you can hear me — history.

Sure. History is as vivid to me as fiction, and why shouldn’t it be? And, come to think of it, you have to do a lot of dot-connecting to make sense of it. I’ve done 50 years’ worth of it, on a very limited scale, and there wouldn’t be an end to it no matter how limited your fielding of inquiry. Interesting.

So now you’ve done about an hour and a half, and probably you should call it quits for a while.

Yes. Thanks, Papa, very interesting. And you know — but I’ll say for the record — the more we do this, the clearer it is to me how much more important you were than is suspected. Maybe that’s why I find myself so firmly in your corner, sincerely grieved when I read about some of the things you did and said, but always in your corner.

Well, more will emerge. Till next time.

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