Scenes From A Writing Class (Actually, All The Participants May Be Me)
And suddenly I’m thrashing, doomed and desperate, in its mouth.
Too many trees!
A tale shifts with its telling. It becomes the teller.
In this photograph, a cormorant, fleeing, has caught a fish, which a second cormorant, looming, threatens to seize. It’s not a tale yet, but it’s the cusp of one. “Look, characters! Look, they’re having a dramatic moment!” So we look. We reach in, we begin imagining. But to write what we imagine, to craft a tale, we must push beyond the threshold, and advance into the dark of it. With intent, and with a methodology.
With our first steps, we shape a stance. Where do we place ourselves? Whose skin do we wear? Whose voice suits the telling?
The strongest choices tend to be the simplest ones. “Look, characters!” Who are they?
(1) The fisher cormorant…
(2) The thief cormorant… And thirdly?
(3) The fish.
Yes. There’s a certain reluctance to empathize with the fish, which is what a point of view character demands of us. We would rather not be this fish.
Good. Any other possibilities?
(4) The lake? Well, if you must. A bit contrived, perhaps? Too gimmicky a narrator for most tastes, as with any inanimate tale-teller. But give it a try, if you must. Animate it!
(5) The artist? Which artist? The photographer? Yes, very good: someone has chosen to observe, and capture, and display this image. Who, and why?
(6) The teacher, who has chosen to share it? Yes. What fun! Why not me? Go for it!
(7) The viewer. Of the photograph? Yes, we’ve spoken about this: all art, even casual or private art, aspires to affect an audience. Beginning with its own creator! And after that, whoever else sees it. We can write from that audience’s perspective.
(8) The writer him or herself! Splendid! Or yourself—or I!A photograph suggests, but what it shows is static. It says, “Peek in my window!” Whereas a tale is progressive—it travels—it says, “Ride with me!” It acquires a landscape—with glimpsed distances—even as it insists, “No, look over here!” Our tale reveals what we order and disorder it to reveal.
What can be scary is that it reveals us too—and not just to our readers! An honest writer will reflect from its every shard. It can be a useful trick to acknowledge this fact—that we stand, furtively stripping, in a hall of mirrors—and to speak from that pose.
(9) The reader. Yes. There are Venn overlaps here, of course, but yes.
(10) God? God as imagined by the characters? Or by who? Or some kind of authentic, above us all God? Yes, I accept that a range of options is possible, but which did you intend? Ah. Again, please, for the whiteboard? “The God who created a world in which cormorants have to kill to survive…and fish have to die…and thieves prosper while others go hungry.” Well, your third contention is debatable, and there are other conceivable and inconceivable Gods who might have some part to play in this drama—but for our #10, let there be God! And we’ll call it a list.
Now. Pick one of these ten. Open your soul to them; find their voice; be them. Write!
The beak unclenches—flips—clasps harder.
Gut-speared—then clamped, and flapped—I flounder
and lunge—a low, slapped froth of water
flails me—I flail—am plunged back under.
Keelhauled up out, hoist at the sky,
I twist one rivuletting eye
to where the lake churns below, and die—
leaving, on its quicksilvering skin,
my shape, in glints of scale and fin,
to spall through trawled mirrors of trees.
Do fish feel pain? Science suggests that they do. This is an inconvenient finding, so it tends to be labeled (see Wikipedia) as “contentious”. We can’t really know what another human feels, let alone some other species! And anyway, fish surely can’t feel emotional pain, as we do.
I write my fish as articulate, self-aware, and even desperate, and yet I distance myself. My language is pretty and my tone measured. There’s death here, sure, but it’s a little jaunty.
Be them? Well, there are degrees of empathy. One can aspire.
Ultimately, there is just one honest teller of a tale, and that’s the writer. Our characters, 1-7 and 9-10—but most especially 1-4, who are wholly Other, and 10, who is Inconceivable—are an illusion; their voices are inflections of our own.
Imagine that for some reason I am broken. The long pandemic. The hard winter, with its ice storms and its power outages. The political climate. Personal troubles. The usual brokenness: Thoreau’s quiet desperation; Baudelaire’s ennui. Its particulars I’ll exclude, of course, from my story, but can I, and should I, exclude my brokenness? The fisher cormorant, if I place it at the tale’s center, will battle its own brokenness. Or the thief cormorant will master, but not quite, its brokenness, which, say, drives it to greater ruthlessness. Or the fish, dying (but what do fish have of memory, and know of loss?) will struggle to rescue some bright, less broken fragment from the tear of beak and gullet. Or rage in a squirm of silver against death.
And so on. The lake may rail at or revel in its jungle laws; the observer, whether the photographer, the teacher, or God herself, will bare her poor lost soul.
Imagine, too, that for months now, I’ve been unable to write. I’m grumpy because my pharynx is bad. In January, to confront the malady, I start a prose essay about self-talk: the exclamations—jubilant, or startled, or broken—which escape the confines of one’s inner colloquy, and erupt into the air. I tell of my college roommate’s favorite snarls, which were “Puke!” “Spew!” and “Fester!” To which I would mockingly retort, “Chair leg!”—as if my own mutterings—”Look, you can work till you’re grey!” “Dead soldiers in the rain!”—were any less weird. I rouse my rumpled thoughts into language. They sag back into toss and mumble. I roll over and let the thing lie.
More recently, I’ve begun to exclaim, “Too many trees!” I conversed, once, with a Japanese visitor to Richmond, who didn’t have much English, but who kept this phrase at the ready. When one of us asked him what he thought of our city, he cried out, with a kind of indignant, astonished, excoriating glee, “Too many trees!” Richmond, and we hadn’t known it, was infested with trees? Was such a thing even possible? How different must a perspective be from my own to arrive at such a judgment! Yet now I come out with this phrase at the oddest moments! Rarely in incomprehension at the world; sometimes in incomprehension at myself; occasionally to fix myself with its mantra; but mostly for the strange tickle of its noise. It is, I believe, a sort of mildly terrible sneeze. A sneeze (God bless, God break me) of absurdist, self-ridiculing woe.
Today, I confess, exasperated with my tale of two cormorants and a fish, I’ve been inviting each narrator in turn to chorus the phrase with me. A dumb whim, but a stubborn one. As I flee with my catch, or pursue with my wings outspread, or look down, as the God who God knows why has made the world this way, I blurt, Too many trees! Too many trees!
Until over me the dapple of a sunlit surface dims—as a great swift shadow hardens in the water weeds—and violently I am yanked into a beak—and up—out into sky, and a wheel of trees—gasping and thrashing in its maw.
I’ve always preferred to write when I feel whole rather than when I feel broken. It’s not that I flinch from betraying some secret shame, it’s that, in a funk, I write worse. What shame can there be in one’s ordinary nakedness? What beauty might I find, rather, in vulnerability, in our need for touch? And yet I struggle to. I think that I find such states, in me, at least, a bit pitiful, a bit excessive. I’ve known too much good fortune, and am certainly not, not yet, this fish! My world is sweet, even if lately it has seemed more dangerous, and far too savagely divided. (Can we know any other perspective than our own? Can we wish to, at least, try? Even if only for the duration of a writing exercise?) The life of anything that feels—that relishes and takes for granted, that suffers and that dies—may be both terrible beyond all understanding, and wild and lovely beyond all understanding. It may hurt to feel we are preyed on, or to be so small in the world’s immensity—to be just another fish. Yet when we have, or make, the time to look, and to wonder, what an astonishment it remains: this great untamable forest that we swim in, with its terrible birds, its too many trees.
A guest blog by Derek Kannemeyer
With characteristic self-deprecation, Derek even said that I shouldn’t include this piece–as if I could exclude it after flying, stealing, suffering, and dying with it! Anyway, I admire a fish’s perspective enough even to speak up for fishhood on occasion. See: https://frameshifts.com/2012/10/28/a-microslice-of-sustainability/