Friday, April 16, 2021
4:20 a.m. Years ago, back before I went off to school, in the year after high school when I worked in factories, I was a member of the Book of the Month Club. One of the books I bought, that I have still, was an anthology of short stories put together by Thomas Costain called Read With Me. That is where I first met C. E. Scoggins (“The Proud Old Name”) and other authors I came to like, though Scoggins was my favorite. One of the other stories was “The Sun-dodgers” by John O’Hara, and for some reason it has come to stick in my mind, these past hours, until I see I am going to have to climb two stories down and up stairs to retrieve it from its place on the bookcase in the basement, so I can re-read it.
But why? I like re-reading, it’s like visiting old friends, but why that particular story now?
Perhaps you’d better re-read it first, and we can talk.
I guess. “A great newsman. A nasty drunk when he made his load, but a great newsman.” Something like that. Well, I guess I’ll go see. “Teeth,” I said. “Oh,” he said, “you knew that.” And of course the twist at the end and him saying how – well, let’s go climb down and up some stairs.
— Okay, so I have re-read it, and as usual I see that many of my memories that seem so specific are actually paraphrases. I rarely get the sense of a thing wrong, but I often, maybe even usually, find that I have misremembered the exact words.
I also see, from the TOC, that here was where, at 18 or 19, I first met writers like Benet, G.K. Chesterton, Mackinley Kantor, Kipling, Elie Weisel, P.G. Wodehouse, and a guy named Ernest Hemingway (“In Another Country,” that I read and re-read many times, always with emotion). Also there was “The Lilies of the Field” by William Barrett, that became a great favorite.
But enough “Down Memory Lane.” Is there a particular reason I woke up thinking about The Sun–dodgers?
Suppose we said no.
I’d laugh and say you’re a bunch of damned liars.
Then, suppose we say that isn’t necessarily the best way to ask that question if you want a helpful answer. Remember what you got yesterday.
Yes, Kristiina Selo and I were talking via Zoom and at one point I got that the reason “the better the question, the better the answer” is because the sharper the focus that we bring to our query, the easier for you to answer it by magnetizing to it (providing resonance, in other words).
That isn’t how we would put it, but fine. You see the application here?
I guess, in a way, the phrasing of a question almost defines the possible range of the answer.
Yes, so a very precise question – or a very open-ended one – is indicated. A precise question will get a precise answer. Not necessarily a concise answer – it may have to ramble in order to fill in context – but it will center on your central point. A very open-ended question may be diffuse but may extend in unexpected ways; may even move into unrelated territory, certainly seemingly unrelated.
So if you ask, “What is the reason for X,” you may unintentionally shunt the answer away from more interesting aspects of the subject at hand, while if you had said, “Talk to me about X,” you would have received a different answer, no less and no more true.
Okay. And I suppose that some things are best approached open-ended and some in a highly focused fashion.
This isn’t anything you don’t know. Who invented the technique of asking, “What would I ask if I had enough sense to know what to ask?” But it is in a slightly different context. So now do the work of carefully refocusing your initial question.
Hmm. Well, maybe I don’t know the best way to reframe it.
Then forget about trying to find “the best,” and see what you get.
I guess I’m wondering about the process, for one thing. Like dreams, we have things going on sort of within us, sort of outside of us, and we aren’t necessarily aware of them. So I do wonder how that works. That’s one question, a sort of tour-of-horizon question. But more specifically I wonder, what is the significance to me of that story at this time.
Now – to ignore the larger question for the moment – can you see the difference between asking, “Is there a particular reason I woke up thinking about The Sun-dodgers,” and “what is the significance to me of that story at this time”?
I do, now you point it out to me. I would have said they were more or less the same question, looking at them from the starting-point of what had gotten my interest. But I see, they really do ask different things, don’t they?
And if you had noticed this when you were teaching your mini-course in communicating, you would have been able to give your attendees a tool that some of them might have found useful.
Yes, I can see that. So what is the answer to the revised question? How is that story significant to me at this moment?
It is less the story than re-reading the story with different eyes. It reads differently at 74 than it did at 19, does it not?
I’ll tell you what struck me most strongly, halfway through it. The author may have intentionally made his narrator speak in so rambling a fashion, but Hemingway would have told the same story in half the words, with far greater impact, if he could have been bothered to write it at all.
Your tastes have matured, you see. Your palate has been educated to tell the difference between a fine wine and a cheap one.
John O’Hara might not appreciate the comparison, but yes.
What is the story about?
I see where you’re going with this. It is narrated by an old man looking back at what he had experienced as a young one. We – or at least I – can’t decide whether Jack Pyne’s memories were entirely more correct than the narrator’s, but he certainly skewed the context.
You mean, you can’t decide if Pyne was entirely honest in his memories.
A la Papa., I see as you say that.
See? It isn’t complicated, but the right question will lead you on, and a clumsy or diffuse one may (or may not, but may) shut things down.
For the first time, I’m thinking, I could write short stories like that one.
Well, you have absorbed the doing of it from a master, and from the inside.
I won’t ask, “Is that what you have in mind?” Probably the wrong question anyway. But I can see that composing such stories could bring clarity to pieces of my life long forgotten.
And perhaps to some pieces that would read differently to you now than they did then. And of course all this was not for you alone, or, in this case, even for you primarily. We would like people to realize the greater control they have over how much they can receive from guidance: Above all, phrase your questions (hence, focus your intent) carefully.
And to my surprise I see that we have covered eight pages in 75 minutes that included my retrieving the book and re-reading the story. Very efficient of us. (Of course, the reckoning doesn’t count the time I will now spend on re-reading so many favorite stories put together in one tempting volume.) Thanks as always.