Finding a story

If you’re telling stories, you have a fund of experience to draw on. Don’t we all? Nearly all of us tell stories, and jokes, in daily life. We regale and assail each other with such stories. We while away the time, which otherwise might bore us out of our minds. We stake an advantage. We perform.

But what to do with these stories if we would tell them in print?

I should say rather than stories, it’s narratives we all have, sequences of events that happen to us and around us and sometimes way out there in the family of man. And we may have sequelae, also: outcomes whether healthy or not that are moral, physical, psychological. They may be punch-lines in a joke or a sad or hilarious coda to a story. But how do we get these narratives to add up and make sense and march on in print?

There’s a very good hint provided in a recent essay by Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books. He talks about the long research journey he undertook to write about how the Holocaust wiped out the Jews in a town once in Poland, now Ukraine, in which his ancestors lived. And how, once he published that book, he was depressed and paralyzed and floundered for another project.

Mendelsohn is a writer of factual accounts and analyses. After a hiatus of several years he was able to reach out past the Holocaust back into ancient Greek history and find a subject in Homer’s Odyssey. He wrote hundreds of pages of narrative in three parts, based on a classroom (in which he had taught the Odyssey), a ship which recreated Odysseus’s route home, and a hospital in which his father, who’d taken Mendelsohn’s course in the Odyssey, lay dying.

He gave the script to an old friend and mentor, and got this reaction:

The first part, the account of the seminar, was interesting, he observed—after a small silence during which I absorbed his criticism—but, in his opinion, the problem was that once you reach the end of that part, once you come to the end of the Odyssey course, you didn’t want to keep reading. You don’t want to get through the whole semester and then have to go on a cruise, he said, at which I weakly protested, But that’s how it happened. I don’t care how it happened, he returned; this isn’t about fact, this is about a story. You need to find a way to plant the cruise and the hospital within the narrative of the seminar. Use flashbacks, use flash-forwards, don’t worry about chronology. Make it up, if you have to! You just have to find a way.

When he said the word way, I couldn’t repress an embarrassed start of recognition. The phrase “find a way” allowed me, first of all, to understand retroactively the nature of the creative and spiritual crisis I had undergone after finishing my previous book. I was suffering from what the Greeks called aporia: a helpless, immobilized confusion, a lack of resources to find one’s way out of a problem. The literal meaning of aporia is “a lack of a path,” or “no-way.” I hadn’t been able to leave my apartment; I couldn’t think of a new project. I was, in the Greek way of thinking, pathless—the adjective, as it happens, that in the Odyssey is used to describe the sea, the terrifying blank nothingness from which Odysseus must extricate himself, literally and figuratively, in order to reclaim his identity and find his way home.

Now you or I may not be writing a book. But whether we’re rendering a narrative orally or writing it out, we have to concern ourselves at some point with the central, essential story: where are we going with all these details? what do we want our audience to feel and understand?

If we don’t know these matters well at some level, we may well mess up a joke — or a written essay, article, or book. You know how that works? You go through the details of a joke, and then realize you’re leaving something out or putting something in that shouldn’t be there — you’re messing it up (again), aren’t you?

Henry James
Henry James, The Master, as painted by John Singer Sargent in 1913, three years before James’s death.

Some people, of course, are inveterate and practiced jokers. They know how to tell a joke or perhaps play a trick, and everyone is convinced. Most of us, however, have to work on our capers and find out, however we can, what is the essential story. There’s a struggle between our conscious and unconscious faculties. We want to control the narrative, but must let the chthonic powers play.

This sort of struggle may have underlain Henry James’s idea of the story “germ.” He writes in his notebooks about how he would overhear a story told at dinner and take its essence, the germ, home with him, only the germ, the central point, as he saw it, and then work it up on his own into his own story.

Once he had his suggestion … he hastened to close his ears to the rest of the story lest clumsy Life should take his seminal idea away. When the artist is too close to the reality he wants to describe, his imagination is no longer stimulated and therefore ceases to work. — “James on Art and the Novel”

James’s MO may or may not work for you, but the gist of this story of the Master is that he let his imagination play, have free rein, roam beyond the confines of the tale he had heard. Of course, James like his brother, the philosopher William James, had a great moral imagination. He was able to create characters and tell their stories with a profound human empathy. Many of the stories, like The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square and The Aspern Papers, have to do with cold-hearted, amoral men who cheat women out of love, or money, or full personal development. After a while, I would think, such a concern, or motif, a central part of his own character, would be part of the germ, naturally, of many of his tales.

So how do you find a story, telling the facts, such as they are, and developing the meaning of the facts — the solid, essential story which experience, the gift horse, has presented you? Surely, you can’t spend too long looking it in the mouth? Giddyup, you gotta ride experience’s suggestions.



First-book musings

First book about to be published. Don’t expect to get rich or famous. But to give back and so get.

On the eve of my 73rd birthday, in early October, I have published 50 poems, about 100 pages’ worth, via Kindle Direct Publishing, Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989. (Available in both paperback and ebook versions from Amazon. You can download a sample of the ebook version free and see a few of the poems. Or just write to me.)

Paperback version of Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989.

The book may not soon be a major motion picture, and may not sell in the hundreds of thousands. Still, launching such a boat even at this late date makes me a bit giddy.

The main point, at this point in my life, is neither financial success nor personal validation per se. It’s not to prove that I’m rich, a great poet, or admired by legions. It’s simply to show what I have done with a bit of my life, now that I’m entering the home stretch. And to leave something behind. (The way the astronauts on the moon, I read in today’s New York Times, left bags of poop? Well, poop and footprints and various other detritus, which some would safeguard as historical heritage like earthbound artifacts.)

When my older brother Gerry died a few years ago, of brain cancer, he regretted especially not publishing a book of his photos and illustrations. He was an excellent and zany sketcher of the mythical and impossible. I have a few of his sketches and his notebooks to establish the point, so may show you examples from time to time. (Or some day launch a postmortem collaboration of some kind.) But Gerseybro, as he called himself, regretted not publishing more on his own.

Gerry Zeck’s sketch “Sinister Accident.”

Gerry wanted to make an account, I think, or to settle accounts, it could be. He’d been given this gift, and needed to give back. To show the world, at any rate, what he could do and, in fact, did.

And isn’t that enough?

Naked come we into the world, but it would be a shame to leave without a stitch on, a garment we have woven, however modest, of the gifts we have been accorded and, in our own sweet time, developed. As Lewis Hyde suggests in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (a book I gave Gerry, and he gave another copy back to me), nothing is so giving, and fulfilling, as giving back.

Poetry: art & nature

I’ve been reading a volume of poetry by a now deceased teacher of mine, Tom Whitbread, may he rest in peace, a very good teacher at the University of Texas at Austin and good friend. When I moved from Texas to Detroit for my first college teaching job, in the 1970s, Tom would drive up during his long summers off, to see me and the family, putzing across the country in his VW Beetle. It must have been the last time he did this that he left us with a volume of his poems and inscribed it, “For Greg, Jen, & Gabriel Zeck — with love & best wishes always! — Tom, Detroit, June ’79.”

Tom Whitbread and Greg Zeck
Tom and Greg in Austin, Texas, 2007

In truth, I haven’t looked at the volume in years. But Tom died in 2016, of complications of prostate cancer (preventable, these days, but that’s another story). And, lately, since I myself am in my seventies, lots of friends have been dropping by the wayside, dropping like flies or flash lightning. Whatever your metaphor, these friends are dead, kaput, irretrievable except now in memory. So I take up cultural relics of the departed — photos, letters, literature — and sift through them and remember.

There’s a short preface to Tom’s book by Richard Wilbur, a famous formalist poet whom Tom knew, in which Wilbur praises the “supple openness” of Tom’s language, “as of an amiable and intelligent man talking.”

Tom was not a formalist like Wilbur, though there is the occasional sonnet or other formal rhyme scheme. His poems do sound like talking, the kind of thoughtful, passionate, inspired talk he employed in the classroom. He would recite the poetry of modernists like Wallace Stevens, pausing to stare at us impressively after certain lines like these (from “The Idea of Order at Key West”):

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.

So art, artifice, artificer. (Compare lux, luxury, and Lucifer.) Poets and fiction writers, among other wordmongers, are artificers. However implanted in or surrounded by nature they may be, they make their own worlds. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s character Stephen Daedalus bids goodby to Ireland, the “Old father, old artificer,” and begins to become in exile an artist in his own right.

My friend Tom was not Wallace Stevens or James Joyce, herculean figures of early 20th century modernism. But he wrote his own life, in his modest and exuberant way, and created in his work a monument to that life, which even now, after his death, we can look upon and remember, re-member, put together again, the “fragments shored against … ruin,” as T. S. Eliot had it.

Here’s one of Fred’s poems, “Why I Eat at Caruso’s,” that sounds completely like him. Who else? It takes up his role as bourgeois gourmand and bon vivant, and his resistance as artist to this role, and makes a wonderfully comic monument of a moment:

Snarling at the fake pale artists’ horses

In the Pearl ad, and beyond it at the fake

Repetitively hobbled locomotive

Of Original Pabst, and further at the fake

Gaslight and bottle of Move up to Schlitz,

On a shelf-top at Caruso’s, above wine,

Not far from a dim pastoral, with sheep

On this side, a castle on that side of the Rhine,

Its rump nestled against a very large

Bottle of Heineken’s, stands a wild boar,

Stuffed, tufted, hideous, real, frightening, and fine.

Lucille, No. 10, Summer 1976, p. 28

Nature, yes, as represented in pop (kitsch) culture. And nature incorporated and transcended in art.

Child art

The other day my wife and I had our neighbors over on our backyard patio for drinks and a swim. As the adults settled in, the neighbor girls, age three and six, played on the swingset for a while. But this was not sufficient outlet for their infant energies, so I fetched a box of big colored chalk for them to use on the concrete floor of the patio.

In short order the girls had produced a marvelous likeness (well, a likeable facsimile) of those gathered:

child art
Neighbor girls create family in colored chalk, while actual family drinks booze in the heat.

The sisters, six and three years old, took to this artful task, or pleasure, as fish to water — maybe the water that a waited them in the pool just beyond the patio. For the girls, Jocelyne and Chloe, I suspect, the pleasure of making art is equal to that of splashing in the pool.

So when does it all go wrong? When does art become a drag, not a pleasure, whether we’re creating it or “appreciating” it? (And if we see nothing pleasurable in it, we can’t appreciate, or enlarge, it, can we?)

I’m not a child psychologist or professional art critic, but I’ve seen enough of children and of art that I have a few guesses.

The burdens of the real world, the reality principle, pile on. Obligations succeed pleasure, and pleasure is tamped down.

Growing up entails leaving the child world and its pleasures. When the child is three or four, he can’t get away with fouling his pants anymore. No one thinks it’s cute anymore. Throwing up is frowned on suddenly — till everybody is 18, anyway, and drunk together and children together once more.

In the realm of education, too, as the child is handed over from parents to teachers, she is told in so many ways to grow up. To abandon pleasure. To forget about doodling and dreaming. to get on with the business of growing up, going vertical, transcending.

He won’t be able to play with Peter Pan forever. He can’t remain in Neverland. It’s a sad, sad day when he’s pulled away from dream and play.

What do you think? Do you still color in chalk, or watercolor, or oil? Do you still scribble? Do you still dream?

Weary giants of flesh and steel

In the current New Yorker, Ed Caesar writes about a bunker-based server business in Germany that hosts many criminal enterprises. The Dutchman who owns the business — self-baptized “Xennt” and called by a friend “horny for bunkers” — and his associates espouse libertarian ideals expressed in a 1996 manifesto by John Perry Barlow, an anarchist writer, which proclaims, “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of the Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Barlow’s sentiments are libertarian and anarchist. We can admire the fervid poetic expression here, but not be swayed.

By now, almost 25 years after Barlow’s manifesto, his words may be both familiar and wearisome. Have they toppled the weary giants of flesh and steel? No. Have they put dents or wounds in ’em? Perhaps.

W. B. Yeats
W. B. Yeats, poet, dandy, rocker.

Thinking of anarchy, I think of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats wrote this in 1919, in the interregnum between WW I and WW II. The lines also foreshadow various and sundry other modern wars and conflagrations, the fruits of “passionate intensity,” the refusal to see another point of view, to compromise, to reason, to get along.

To use Robert Frost’s famous phrase, living without order is like playing tennis without a net. (No, this doesn’t mean all contemporary poetry should be sonnets or terza rima or other formal structures.) “Unless you enchain me,” says John Donne, Yeats’s and Frost’s predecessor by several centuries, “I never can be free.” Donne is talking to the Lord, of course, but whatever authority you prefer — God, Erps. Uncle Sam, giants of flesh and steel — call on him/her/it and charge ahead.

This appeal to authority can be made in the sphere of poetry also. No one can make you write iambic pentameter or rhyme like a rapper or a Hallmark Card drudge. Modernist and postmodern poetry is various and tumultuous in content — addressing government and power, politics, and the passions and intimacies of personal relationships — as well as form — the cadences and vocabulary of everyday speech, the occasional esoteric verbal geode, the surprises of the ordinary day or the ordinary wine (my vin ordinaire of choice is Bota Box’s Nighthawk Black, a jammy red wine blend).

Each writer discovers his or her own sense of order. Becomes hisr own authority. (Sorry, I cannot write “each writer … their,” so propose a neologistic escape from the trap of gender and grammar.) But the author’s authority must be there. The reader, that is, must be able to see in the writing, whether poetry or prose, history or chemistry, whatever, a sense that the writer knows what s/he is doing. Or has learned it, and incorporated it, in the process of writing.

Without order, there’s anarchy, whether in art or business. Do you want to host criminal enterprises?

How do we discover order for ourselves, our own authority as authors? A great question, yes? Stay tuned and let me hear what you have to say, please. For each scribbler, each artist, the answer may be different, but I’ll wager we can find some common ground simply by discussing the issues.