Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Praise of Things Not Said

I don't usually write about writing.  This is because most people who choose to do so are offering advice, and I don't have any advice to share.  Anything I've learned about this art applies, as far as I can tell, only to me.  I continue to believe that there are as many different ways to write, and to think about writing, as there are writers - maybe even as many different ways as there are different writing projects. 

But one particular aspect of writing has been on my mind lately, so I want to discuss it here.  I can't tell anyone what not to write, any more than I can tell them what to write or how to write it.  But I will say that I am becoming more and more enamored of what is not written. 

As a reader, I love the pleasure of finding something lurking just below the actual written lines of a story.  It alarms me that so much of what is published now seems to spell everything out, leaving no emotion unexplored, no description unelaborated, no stone unturned.  Such writing serves the passive or lazy or hurried reader well, but disappoints those of us who would rather be actively involved.

What exactly am I talking about, you may well ask.  Let me give you just a few examples:

Ernest Hemingway

In Hemingway's short story, Hills Like White Elephants (1927), a conversation is taking place between a man and a woman.  The reader gets little in the way of description, but can learn a great deal from the dialogue.  They are discussing a situation, never explicitly stated:  the woman is facing an operation.  That operation is never defined.  And yet, the whole mood/force/impact of the story depends upon that operation. 

Would Hemingway's story be better, or stronger, or clearer if he had explicitly stated that the couple was talking about terminating a pregnancy?  I don't think so.  Follow the link and read the story, and see what you think. 

Gudrun Osvifsdottir (Andreas Bloch, 1860-1917)

I particularly love the Icelandic sagas when I crave story writing that does much with little.  As Jane Smiley said in an article written for The Guardian, the sagas, which she calls "cryptic," "...specialised in the economically rendered but telling detail, and the reader has to be alert to pick up the undercurrents of the story.... There is also a customary use of understatement..."

For instance, here's a snippet from the Saga of the People of Laxardal, translated by Seamus Heaney:

Gudrun then walked away from the stream and came up towards Halldor and his party, and asked for news of their encounter with Bolli.  They told her what had happened.  Gudrun was wearing a long tunic, a close-fitting woven bodice and a mantle on her head.  She had bound a shawl about her that was decorated in black stitching with fringes at the ends.  Helgi Hardbeinsson walked over to Gudrun and used the end of her shawl to dry the blood off the spear with which he had pierced Bolli.  Gudrun looked at him and merely smiled.  

I suspect that if this paragraph had been written today, in a book destined for publication by a major publishing house, we would have been told every possible detail of rapid heartbeats, sinking feelings in the stomach, dry mouth, meaningful exchanges of glances, mingled emotions of satisfaction and dismay, and exactly what sorts of persons Gudrun and Helgi were and what sorts of power struggle were going on here.  Oh, and for added "immediacy" it would probably be written in the present tense.

None of that is there.  And yet, all of it is.  

The power of what isn't said.  It doesn't let the reader kick back and wait to be told everything; it draws him in, makes him work. 

Next example:  the inimitable Dorothy Dunnett, at a pivotal moment in Book  Five of her Lymond Chronicles series, The Ringed Castle, gives us these words:

Too late, too late, too late.  It had happened.

Does she tell us what has happened?  No.  Is there anyone who has read this far in the series who doesn't immediately know?  Also no.  Would it be better, tidier, more thorough, more true if she had spelled it out?  Emphatically no.  All of the tension and the weight of that moment would have dissipated like a balloon leaking air.  (If you haven't read these books, I heartily recommend them.  They are like nothing else you've ever encountered, and Dunnett is a master of working with what is not said.)

Ugolino and his Sons (Giuseppe Diotti, 1820)

And finally, let me end with something from Dante.  In the Inferno, Cantos 32 and 33, in the depths of Hell (9th circle), we encounter the shade of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca.  He is one of two "frozen in one hole so that one head was a hat to the other; and as bread is eaten by the starving, so the one above put his teeth to the other, there where the brain joins the nape" [translation by Robert M. Durling].  The one above is Count Ugolino, and he is eternally gnawing on his great enemy, the Archbishop Ruggieri. 

These two men were powerful political adversaries in Pisa in the late 13th century.  Ugolino explains to Dante and Virgil that the archbishop had imprisoned Ugolino and his sons and grandsons in a tower and nailed up the door, depriving them of food and drink, whereupon they starved to death over a period of days, suffering greatly. 

The power of the unsaid is evoked in this passage [translation by Durling]:

"After we had reached the fourth day, Gaddo
threw himself stretched out at my feet, saying: 'My
father, why do you not help me?'
There he died, and as you see me, I saw the three
fall one by one between the fifth day and the sixth;
and I,
already blind, took to groping over each of them,
and for two days I called them, after they were dead.
Then fasting had more power than grief."

The question was raised among Dante scholars:  Did this last line mean that Ugolino indulged in cannibalism, eating the bodies of his sons and grandsons as he now gnawed on his enemy?  Or does it simply mean that he starved to death?  Dante wrote the Inferno more than 700 years ago, and people are still arguing this point.  The story of Ugolino is one of the two or three best-known passages in the entire Divine Comedy

Would it have been any better if Dante had left it unambiguous?  You know by now what I'm going to say to that. 

Images in this post are in the public domain.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Time to Pulp It?

Readers, this image, created through the ingeniously-designed and very amusing site called Pulp-O-Mizer, is my way of telling you that I need to make a few changes around here, at least temporarily. 

Some of you may have noted that my densely-packed historical posts and my explorations of the research process(es) have been pretty scarce lately (though my guest blogger Judith Starkston kept us afloat for quite a while with her series of posts about women among the Hittites and the Mycenaean Greeks).  I'm still doing research - feverishly, as it happens.  But I'm pouring it into my work-in-progress, and that's where my energies need to go right now.  So I'm taking a hiatus, at least from the work-intensive posts.  Frankly, I'd rather write the book.

This doesn't mean I'm abandoning this blog altogether; it only means that for the foreseeable future, if/when I post, it is likely to be shorter, lighter, more personal and less historical.  I hope you'll still check in and see what I'm up to, and there are plenty of older posts that may still be of interest if they are new to you.  But I need to do this.  I'm getting rid of expendable pressures and obligations every chance I get these days, because it's Time to Write.  I even dropped my Italian class, and I love my Italian class. 

Sometimes I love this blog, too.  Sometimes I don't.  That's the way it goes.

But back to the Pulp-O-Mizer, because I did want to share these covers with you.  Here's the one I cooked up for my novel A Thing Done (available at Amazon and through bookstores and all the usual stuff, see my website, yadda yadda yadda).  It's a tale about a jester in 13th century Florence, among other things.

The book I'm concentrating on right now is about La Compiuta Donzella, a remarkable woman poet in Florence in the mid-thirteenth century.  Was she even real?  No one knows.  I'm saying yes.  Here's her pulp cover:

Still to come is a novel about Gemma Donati, Dante's wife.  The fate of this one may depend on what happens to the public consciousness once Dan Brown's book about Dante's Inferno comes out, because once it does, millions of people are going to think they know all about Dante.  And since very few of them will actually read Dante, the new reality - for book-marketing purposes, at least - will be whatever Dan Brown says.  Whether it makes any sense or not. 

And since all of these stories take place against a backdrop of squabbling Guelfs and Ghibellines, I wanted to pay homage to those ancient brawlers, as well.  Quite a bit worse than the Hatfields and the McCoys, they kept things lively in the 13th century (and beyond).  In Max Beerbohm's 1919 story "'Savonarola' Brown" is part of a parodic play, supposedly written by the title character, whose cast includes Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, St. Francis, Lucrezia Borgia, Michelangelo, and Savonarola.  Stage directions include things like "Enter Guelfs and Ghibellines, fighting." and "Guelfs and Ghibellines continue fighting as the curtain falls."  That's how it was, in the 13th century.

Farinata degli Uberti, by the way, probably wouldn't have expressed that particular sentiment.  For more about him, see this post.  He was a child in A Thing Done; you'll see him in all his pride and in his prime in the Compiuta Donzella book; and if Dan Brown's symbologists don't make the Gemma Donati book impossible, you'll see him undergoing an unpleasant posthumous experience in that one. 

I have no idea what's coming next for this blog, but probably something.  Check back once in a while and see what you find.

And thanks.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Tristan and Isolde

Herbert James Draper

Some years ago, a friend wrote a lovely song about Guinevere.  It was beautiful, haunting, and sad, and it made me cry.   It moved me so much that I wanted to write a poem of equal beauty, only about Tristan and Isolde.

I failed.   Some whimsical part of me hijacked the project, and instead of deep poetry, what I got was silly doggerel.  As you'll see from the last verse (if you get that far), I'm still more journalist than poet.  But since it's National Poetry Month (and since I don't have another blog post written), here it is anyway.  Don't expect profundity, but enjoy.

N.C. Wyeth


In a world made of legend, where honor is priceless,
And heroes and lovers can live unafraid, 
Imbibing a potion while crossing an ocean 
Will surely screw up all the plans that you've made.

Isolde was thirsty and offered to Tristan
A sip of the magical brew she had brought.
The poor silly kid didn't know what she did -
Now the best of intentions would all be for naught.

John William Waterhouse

Not knowing the drink had been brewed for her wedding,
She poured him a cup, then she drank up the dregs.
The effect was exotic and highly erotic,
He opened his heart, and she opened her legs.

He was only her escort.  The king was her bridegroom,
Her love potion charged with a sorcerer's spell.
Though betrothed to a king, she was having a fling,
And there really was no way the thing could end well.

When the voyage was over, she met with her bridegroom.
Though most unenthused, to this match she'd agree -
But her wedding night loomed, and Isolde felt doomed,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
For her maidenhead wasn't what it used to be.

"Now what shall I do to protect my best interests,
And to make sure that nothing upsets good King Mark?
Perhaps I'll make a trade with my trusty handmaid,
For they say that all cats will look gray in the dark."

 The wedding was over and nighttime approaching,
And Mark looking forward to wedded delight,
But Isolde, to be sure, was a trifle impure,
So her faithful maidservant was queen for the night.

And so life continued, with meetings clandestine.
For sneaking around, Tristan had quite a knack,
And Isolde, who was clever in every endeavor,
Could think on her feet (although not on her back).

Hughes Merle

But Tristan was worried 'bout knightly comportment,
He was brave but uncertain - confused, although bold.
She was dearer than life, but another man's wife,
So he snuck off and married the other Isolde.

The marriage was troubled, and rather platonic -
He lay wide awake while his lady wife slept.
Was this latest Isolde perhaps overly cold?
Or was Tristan too faithful, or merely inept?

Edmund Leighton

He knew that he loved only one of his ladies,
Of misguided passion he'd never be free,
But suspicion was lurking. It just wasn't working,
So he sent for Isolde to come over the sea.

Tristan said to his henchman, "Now, here is the signal:
If she is aboard, let the sails be of white.
If she will not sail, if my pleadings should fail,
Let the sails be as black as the Stygian night."

Evelyn Paul

The henchman was loyal, and faithfully promised,
By all of his gods and the stars up above.
The boat sailed away on the very next day,
But Tristan was ailing, and dying of love.

As our hero lay dying, he turned to his lady,
And he begged her to tell, with his voice full of dole,
"The sails on yon bark, be they light or pitch-dark?"
Said his lady, "They're black as the Irish queen's soul."

Louis Rhead
Now, heroes are bold and they're brave and they're noble,
But "bright" isn't always a prominent trait.
Though his lady wife lied, Tristan still up and died -
When his love stepped ashore, he was lying in state.

So ended the saga of Isolde and Tristan,
The truest of lovers, who paid a high price.
Their potion was magic, their story was tragic,
And could have been different with this good advice:

When seeking an update on current conditions,
Like the color of sails coming out of the west,
There are things you can do to avoid pain and rue,
And checking your sources is one of the best.

Wilhelm Peters

 Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of age.  All are taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Metaphors for the creative process: What's yours?

Vesuvius erupting, June 1774, by Joseph Wright of Derby

Okay, readers, it's time for you to get involved.  I'd like to think a bit about how we create - how we write, make music, create art, or whatever our particular area of creativity is.  I'll start with my process, and then I'd love to hear from all of you about yours.  Use the comments section, or get in touch with me through other avenues and I'll add your words to this post when I receive them.  (No, that doesn't mean there will be a quiz.  It's all just for fun.)  Try to think in terms of natural phenomena, just to narrow things down a bit and keep us all more or less on the same page.

Here's mine:

I was recently asked in an interview about my creative process.  The question got me thinking about how I might describe it, and the image that came to me was of a volcano.

First, things rumble around deep underneath the surface for a very long time.  Then, as the pressure builds, we see occasional belches of smoke - something's happening, but it isn't yet obvious what it is, exactly.

Stromboli from a helicopter, copyright Tommasso Checchi, 2007
(sketchy scenes, an outline, a snippet of dialogue)

And finally it erupts, all over the pages (cyber or otherwise)...

Mt. Etna, ca. 1766, by Alessandro D'Anna
(Oh, look!  A rough draft!)

... resulting in a huge mess which requires a vast amount of cleanup.

Lava flow on a street in Heimaey, Iceland (from a U.S. Geological Survey publication, 1973)
(Time to start revising.)

I'm currently at the smoke-belching stage of my WIP.

That was me.  Now - how about you?

What's your equivalent?  Inquiring minds want to know.  I'm eagerly awaiting input!  Don't leave me stranded here, all by myself. 


The comments are starting to come in, and so far, they're fascinating.  I'm going to add a few images here, based on those comments, to tempt you to read what people are saying.






Uphill hike


Dense fog

On Facebook, Barbara Gaskell Denvil adds this:  "Volcanoes and tidal waves have long been how I see my creative energies.  Shame about the soggy boring grey rain showers in between!"  Yes, indeed it is!  And here's a tidal wave, for Barbara:

Tidal wave

Also on Facebook, Adelaida Lucena-Lower says:  "It has always been quiet, like gardening.  I till (read/research), seed (an idea/scene/character grabs me), I plant it (mull over for a long time).  It germinates (start writing maniacally).  It generally needs manure (more detailed research) and light (distance from the piece).  Eventually, it will require pruning."  As somebody who writes a blog which (most of the time) is about research, I love the idea of more detailed research equalling manure!  Here's a garden, for Adelaida:


And the comments continue on Facebook (though I'm afraid I don't have time to keep finding images to accompany them - still, they are plenty vivid as they are).

Melanie Spiller:  "I'm more like a whirlwind with a whole lot of cleanup afterwards.  Not quite a tornado (I stop and suddenly change directions)."  I can certainly relate to all the cleanup...

Sue Millard:  "I see no-one has shared one like mine:  I think of it as water, seeping from an upland bog, then a stream trickling downhill and gathering speed as it goes until finally it is a grand river carrying the story to the open sea.  Then I spend a LOT of time as formless water vapour before the whole process starts again.  I'm at the water vapour stage right now BTW."  May you seep again soon, Sue.  (That sounds odd, doesn't it?)

Images in this post are in the public domain, except for the photo of Stromboli by Tommasso Checchi, which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons, and Dense Fog, which is copyright Florian K at the German language Wikipedia, under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.