Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Playing it Forward

For the past couple of weeks, I've been complained about being stuck in my novel. Not writers block, rather an inability to see how to move the story along. I've now found an answer,  and I want to try to share my experience because I like the synchronicity it kicked up. It's a bit complicated, but I'll do my best to keep it simple. The problem started when I couldn't see how to keep moving toward the resolution of my plot—which after some difficulty, I decided involved getting a couple of my characters together on the page.

I'm dealing with two women who come from very different social classes. Louise (upper left) is married and respectable and sheltered. Among other things, she's hiding her acquaintance with Juliette (right), who is an actress and a courtesan, and lives a much more Bohemian life than Louise. They originally met by accident and liked one another. Now, six years later, Louise needs Juliette's assistance.

Lousie Farrenc is a composer, and the first thing I explored was a conversation about a piece of music she was composing, Ma Tendre Musette. A musette is a bagpipe. I'd written a conversation in which, Aristide, Louise's husband, commented that he heard the pipes as a boy living in the south of France.

I've been talking in my classes about how, as writers, we leave breadcrumbs for ourselves, Hansel-&-Gretel style, as we write. And this reference to hearing bagpipes in the south of France was just such a breadcrumb. When I looked at it a second time, I remembered that Louise and Aristide had traveled together in the south of France right after they married. I decided they heard the pipes together during that journey and looked for a specific village where it could have happened.

Researching on the Internet, I found a village that advertises its old windmills as a tourist attraction. Since windmills were already mentioned in the book, I decided to use that village. So I moved from a vague idea about describing a musette for the reader, to a specific memory that belonged to Louise as she composed.

The next day I attended a piano concert at the music festival. (This is where the synchronicity kicks in.) It featured music by Franz Liszt, another character in my novel. The pianist quoted Rousseau, a philosopher who greatly influenced the times I'm writing about. "Music," Rousseau said, "gives the ear eyes" and can portray anything—even the physical world. Liszt, the pianist explained, had composed the music he was about to play to reflect the stillness of Lake Waldstein. I blogged about my experience in some detail a few days ago.

I came home and thought about Louise's musette. I knew she had borrowed the melody from an old folk tune and then created variations of it. Because the windmills were part of her memory, I decided she wanted to capture them somehow, in the same way Liszt tried to capture the lake. I also realized she could get word to Juliette by going through her brother, who was studying art in Rome at the French Institute there. The director of the Institute, Horace Vernet, was a painter who had been intricately involved when Louise and Juliette first met. Louise wrote her brother and asked him to have Vernet contact Juliette who was still modeling in Paris for Vernet's cohorts, including Delacroix.

It was a round about way of getting to Juliette, but Louise was being careful. She didn't want her husband to realize what she was doing, and she didn't know anyone else she could ask. One problem solved.

I still couldn't figure out how they were going to have this clandestine meeting, even when Juliette knew about it. That's when the windmill popped back up... Louise realized she could tell Aristide she wanted to go to the new café, Le Moulin de la Gallete, to be in the presence of the windmill there. Le Moulin de la Gallete is in Montemartre, which is in the northern part of Paris and part of the novel. The fortuneteller, my storyteller, had, only a couple of chapters back, told the reader about Le Moulin de la Gallete. Like Louise and Juliette, Madame Lenormand is an historical figure. She lived in Paris during the times I'm writing about and was quite famous; she'd read cards for Napoleon.

So now, not only can my characters meet; they're meeting at a locale where they might run into Madame Lenormand who may have something to tell them both that will allow the larger plot issue (the reason they're meeting) to move toward resolution. I'm not sure what's going to happen because I haven't written the scene in the moulin yet, but Madame Lenormand is the one who originally told Louise to seek Juliette's aid.

I hope I'm communicating the significance of what I'm trying to explain. Really, when I was first stuck, I had written that Madame Lenormand told Louise her maid could help her. That was the real dead end. The first change I made was to Juliette, mostly because someone in my writing group asked me what had happened to Juliette. Juliette Drouet, Victor Hugo's mistress, had been kind of a local color character—not that involved with the plot. Now, suddenly, she's relevant.

A couple of things: first of all, what I learned was the answers were in what I'd already written, and that I'd made a mistake that I had to catch and change. It's kind of like painting perspective wrong. The most important moment of undoing my problem came when I turned action over to a different character... when I realized the maid had very little to offer. Even though she had connections to the larger problem, she didn't have the connections that Juliette, as an actress, did. Secondly, I had to see how to involve this new character, in this case, get word to her. I didn't want my reader doubting the validity of how it all happened, which is where the windmills came in—they give Louise the excuse she needs to go off on a risque adventure.

The changes came from conversations, from the concert I attended, and from bits I'd already laid into the text. Executing it meant writing forward and back too—something I've begun to do more and more. All of this is based on the notion that it's better not to have all the answered figured out (outlined) up front in a novel... because it gives your unconscious more opportunity to be involved in the unfolding. Novelist Peg Kingman, who I heard speak this spring, pointed out that if she figures it all out ahead of time, generally speaking her readers see it coming and can anticipate everything before they get there. If, however, she allows the story to unfold, when her characters get stuck, the reader can't see how its going to work out. They're kept off-balance about where the story is going—a much more interesting story to read.

I call it story stalking.
crossposted at Ariadne's OWL: StoryStalking

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Listening to Liszt

The Mendocino Music Festival just started this weekend and I went today to hear a piano concert that included four pieces by Franz Liszt—a lecture and performance by an Englishman named Paul Roberts. He was not only a wonderful pianist, he was also an excellent teacher and storyteller. I learned a lot about Liszt's way of approaching music. Some of it was information I had heard before but presented in a different way. Some of it was just plain new to me.

It was so nice of the universe to bring Liszt to my doorstep. Roberts introduced the concert with a quote from Rousseau about music which I had never heard. "Music portrays everything," Rousseau wrote, "even those objects that are purely visible. By means of almost inconceivable powers, it seems to give the ear eyes." Roberts went on to explain the whole concept of program music and symphonic poems.

He described the first two pieces as Liszt's attempt to capture the music of water. The first was Au Lac du Wallenstadt, a piece that Liszt wrote quoting Lord Byron's Childe Harold.

Clear, placid Leman! thy contrasted lake,
With the wild world I dwelt in, is a thing
Which warns me, with its stillness, to forsake
Earth's troubled waters for a purer spring.

Liszt's wanted to create the same image and emotion with music Byron had created with words—the stillness of the lake in contrast to the call of the world. "Thy contrasted lake, with the wild world I dwelt in, is a thing which warns me with its stillness." Byron explains that nature tells him to beware of the world we humans create. So Liszt tried to create an acoustic environment that spoke of a stillness so powerful that it could lead Byron to speculate about abandoning his ways, or as the poet himself put it, the lake called him to "forsake Earth's troubled waters for a purer spring."

Liszt's music is melodic and lovely. Here's a performance I found on YouTube. I did not know this quote or this piece. It all brought tears to my eyes. One of those wonderful relevant gifts The second piece Roberts played was also one in which Liszt tried to describe water. This time, the way a spring bubbles up from its source. Knowing all this changed the way I listened, of course, and gave me a much deeper appreciation of the pieces. Next Roberts played a musical score that Liszt created for one of Petrarch's sonnets. Petrarch was an Italian poet from the 14th century, and his poems of unrequited love attracted the Romantic artists of the 19th century. The final piece captured the sound of echoing bells.

So I learned a lot and got ideas for deepening my portrayal of Liszt. I've thought (and read) more of him as a performer. This was about Liszt the composer. It was good timing, as these things oft are. I've just started to write about Liszt again. He's just turning up in the book. And the quote by Rousseau too: "Music portrays everything, even those objects that are purely visible. By means of almost inconceivable powers, it seems to give the ear eyes."

Roberts made a distinction between "music and the mind's eye," as opposed to "music in the mind's eye." He prefers the first, he said, because it implies that what one hears, and how one experiences it, are separate and therefore unique to each listener. The mind creates a response to the sounds it hears, paints an inner picture to accompany music. We learn to do so in the same way we learn to imagine pictures from the words of stories. Though it's a learned skill, he was adamant about our ability to turn sound into inner images. The imagination at work.

Roberts spoke about 19th century Parisians and their attitude toward instrumentalization, something I've been trying to understand, really, since I began this project. He put it quite simply, which really helped. He said that for the most part, the French valued words, language, philosophy... and therefore songs. They didn't believe that music could say much on its own. Liszt, Berlioz, Chopin, the Romantics in general, even Louise Farrenc disagreed in range of ways.

Louise Farrenc was less interested in creating symphonic poems, story music, but she was completely invested in the fact of instrumental music and what it could communicate without words. I'm quite sure she would have agreed with Rousseau that music can "give the ear eyes," in fact, that's what I've been trying to say, without knowing it, as I've written about her approach to composing.

The rest of the concert was Debussy and one piece by Ravel, and although they come later and reflect the evolution that Liszt championed, they too helped me better understand what I'm trying to write about. All in all, a remarkable afternoon.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Launching Ariadne's OWL

I'm launching an OWL, an online writing laboratory. Really it's a blog, but it's purpose is to create an online writing community. We'll see how it goes. I've had it in mind for years, but the technology was always out of my reach, now it really isn't.

When I say, it's always been on my mind, I have to go back to my Masters Degree, which I pursued in the 1980s at Sonoma State University. I remember sitting down in front of a computer terminal for the first time—in a lab directed toward math and science students. I was talking a self-directed course in Basic programming. Word processors and personal computers didn't exist, let alone laptops. There was no Internet, no web, no social networking, not even email—just math and science types learning to program.

The Basic interface was a bit like a word processor. To program required entering words, symbols, numbers and letters into the processor. Language. Basic is a language. It didn't take me long to realize that the computer was disinterested, that it didn't care whether I spoke Basic to it or English. It did things when I spoke Basic, returned error messages when I spoke English. But, the little space I'm typing in right now, to post this blog entry, is really not all that different than the little space I was using to type Basic into the processor, just more sophisticated.

As I remember, I was only a couple of lessons into it when I sat down one day and started a novel in which the main character communicated with extraterrestrial intelligence using the computer. I claimed it was some kind of electromagnetic device that was sophisticated enough for them to use to translate their normal means of communication into human symbols and words.... English, and that my main character (me) stumbled onto it by accident.

After that I logged dozens of hours in my self-directed course—my access to the techno-future that was exploding around me. About a year later, I had convinced Sonoma State to accept my proposal for an individual Masters in which I would study the impact of computers on the writing process. For my Master's Thesis I tried to design a nonlinear world of words, images, instructions and story. I tried to do it using Basic. I also tried to learn Cobalt, but even though I could spend the entire night in the lab, trying to make one little thing happen—without getting bored—I was never cut out to be a programmer. At some point I gave up. My vision was over my head.

A few years later some blessed soul developed Hypercard, a program that ran on Apple computers and was a simple form of what we take for granted about the web... a system by which you could highlight words and images and turn them into links. I had dropped out of my Masters program and was working as a small time graphic designer in a small time nonprofit in San Francisco. I remember someone there telling me about it at work. I opened the program and took a look around... a week later I had quit my job and gone back to my Masters program.

I finished my degree in about six months. I wrote my thesis using HyperCard to demonstrate what I was talking about, creating a nonlinear piece of fiction that was sort of like a library, footnoted with links. I had discovered a nonlinear process of digression, really, that allowed for all sorts of links and asides, suites of influence, worlds.

About seven years later, I ended up designing an English class for the Distant Ed department of a small community college that was trying to go online. The Internet was such that the World Wide Web was just one part of it... it hadn't taken over yet, hadn't "become" the Internet. I went back to programming and learned HTML, much easier to work with than Basic, and a whole lot clearer to me what I wanted to do with it... build a website. Simple. But still, I'm a writer not a programmer. I fell short again, couldn't make the language do what I was hoping, came up with something that sort of fit the image. I'd already found the poem about How to Build an Owl, was using it in my teaching, so it was an easy step to calling the thing an OWL.

I really don't think Purdue had come up with that yet, but it's so obvious that someone besides me was bound to stumble onto it. So, I think it was 1996 when I built the prototype. Then it all got lost. I went back to school and moved in a different direction and only came back around to the Internet when I published my novel and decided to build my own website. Tools had changed. It was a whole lot easier.

So there you have it.

The OWL is actually built not of HTML pages, but of blogs. Entirely simple—a suite of blogs a friend called it. At least to begin with. It does go back and forth between some HTML pages the blogs. It's likely to grow too. Who knows—maybe before I'm done, I'll find myself in contact with extraterrestrials. That's the novel I've been trying to write since the 1970s, by the way.

For now, I'm just inviting you to visit my OWL. It's just getting started, so it's a little like inviting you to a house that hasn't been lived in yet. I'm moving in the furniture, painting walls, that kind of thing. And I'm also thinking about how to grow the thing. It does feel like a little creature of sorts, like its a little bit alive. And, well, it also feels like my future.

Cross-posted at  Ariadne's Owl

Sunday, July 4, 2010

About El Khyam

I've been meaning to write about my horse  for a long time. One of the curious side effects of my novel. When I was a girl, I had a horse. I lived, first on a large cattle ranch in Eastern Washington, and later on a small 7 acre farm. That's where I lived when El Khyam came into my life. He was about six months old when he arrived, a pure bred Arabian who had a bit of white above his front knees, something that prevented him from being kept as a stud. He was a wild fellow and I loved him.
I only had him a couple of years before my family moved. I gave him up just as I started my Sophomore year in high school. I was fifteen. Horses came up as I was researching The Appassionata. The emphasis comes from Géricault. Théodore Géricault has been a powerful force in shaping what my book is about. He painted horses and was an avid and passionate rider. Falling from a horse killed him, although there were complications. Some historians believe TB settled in his spine.

While in Paris I wrote about a desire that overcame me in the Loire Valley to go riding in France. It was a totally emotional response to the countryside that hardly makes any rational sense. My novel tracks Georges Sands riding through the area as a young woman, really as a girl about the age I was when I had to give up El Khyam.

I also wrote about visiting Versailles and touring the stables, watching a horse show there. That was a marvelous adventure; in part, because it was unexpected and off the beaten path, not part of an ordinary tour of Versailles. The horses were beautiful, the stables, pure Louise XIV.

In any event, when I came home from Paris, I wrote a horse into my novel—one from Géricault's paintings. His named is Giaour, after the anti-hero in Lord Byron's Turkish tale of the same name. The more I wrote about Giaour, the more I found myself wondering what happened to the Arab colt who had been so central to my adolescence.

One day, on impulse, I googled "El Khyam, horse" and much to my surprise, there was such an animal. At first I couldn't believe it was the same horse, but then, one-by-one the pieces fell into place. I had discovered my horse! The dates were correct, the geographical location in Washington, and remarkably, the bit of white over his knee was easy to identify. In the end I recognized his eyes and the bones around them. He looked the same, just much bigger than the green broke, 2 year old, my family sold.

El Khyam became a jumper, which is always what I imagined and dreamed for him. I wanted to jump him. I remember having to chase down a country road late one afternoon after he jumped the fence. He loved to rear and dance around on his hind legs whenever he had the slightest excuse. I don't remember what caused him to jump the fence, but I do remember seeing him do it. He was a beautiful animal, especially in motion. He loved to perform.

He was a National Champion in 1978 in the Hunter/Jumper division when he suffered an injury. He broke what's called his coffin bone, a tiny bone in the foot. And then he had a stroke. I had no idea a horse could have a stroke. The first picture I found of him, up at the top, was after his misfortunes. He came back from all that to again become a champion. This second picture is from before his injury. The whole story makes me cry. I'm so glad he had a full life.

I made an effort to find the people who once owned him; it went no where. Now, I'm trying again. And I'm still hoping that somewhere down the road, I'll go riding in France. It's one of those things that has slipped onto that "I hope I get to do this before I die," list. Who knows why. Synchronicity, perhaps.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Writing: Catching Time in a Frame

I've always been of the mind that Hemingway is correct, the most terrifying thing in the world really is a blank piece of paper. He also said that "all good books are truer than if they really happened." I'm thinking about that one. It has to do with what I've been saying lately about framing, that making a scene work, even if it's a memory of something that actually happened, is a matter of finding a way to frame it. Our words are like a camera pointing at a subject.

When I was in Paris, one of the things I did was go to a hotel that advertised its 19th century lounge, The Hôtel Royal Fromentin—formerly Le Don Juan Cabaret. I wanted to try absinthe using the whole sugar cube ritual and they advertised their historical presentation. I wrote about it in a previous entry,  La Nouvelle Athènes. The reason I mention it is because of one of the photos that came out of the experience. I managed to capture a drop of water falling from the chalice to the sugar cubes below. I took a lot of pictures that day. It never crossed my mind that one of them would catch a water drop in action.

The picture went black and white. For some reason, as it stop-actioned that drop, it caught the light waves in a way that stripped the color from the moment. It has always looked kind of surreal to me because it's not exactly realistic. The room and the experience looked more like the other pictures I took, none of which capture the "feel" of the experience as well. I'm convinced this is an example of what Hemingway is talking about: the framing makes the image "truer" than what actually happened. And the "truth" of it is internal or essential. That's what evokes emotion and memory, what makes it seem so real.

There's a lot to be learned from that for me because the picture I like so much was also mostly an accident of persistence. I don't remember how many pictures I actually took, probably ten or fifteen. I remember the waiter giving me a look like I was strange. I told him I was doing research, and I was. I wanted to taste the absinthe, although I'm not sure it tastes like it did in the 19th century because it's no longer made with wormwood. But more than taste it, I wanted to see how it turned all foggy and green and how the whole sugar cube thing worked so I could write about it. I learned all that, but in retrospect, the real lesson emerges from the photograph. I looked at it at the time and thought, "wow." I look at it now and think, "yeah, it was like that somehow."

The "that" is what the photo "feels" like. Because the color is stripped and the scene is not quite natural, but something slightly "super" natural, it looks to my eye like it happened in a different time. It looks old, just like I wanted it to "be" when I went there. That was the point, everywhere I went in Paris. I was always hunting for scenes and settings for my book, looking to frame them in the context of how it must have been in the 1800s. Paris in another time. Paris out of time. Eternal.

I seem to be glorifying Hemingway this morning, so for those of you who hate him, my apologies. I've always admired his ability to write. And one of the other things he said was, "I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can." My photograph is also reflective, I think, of that. It's "better" than I could actually do, and yet there it is. I have no idea how it happened. I didn't change the settings, I don't think, and I wasn't trying or expecting something as unusual as I got. I was after documentation, that's all, archival shots, not art. I've always thought what I got was art. And, of course, what I want when I write, is just that: art.

Cross-posted on Ariadne's OWL