Monday, September 27, 2010

From Life to Fiction: Part II Geography

Let's ask this this question: what is geography? Well, I would think we all know what it means. But if we didn't know, and had to deduce its meaning, we might be inclined to break it down into smaller parts. First, with our knowledge of words and the English language, we recognize this word as being two things: a compound word, geo- and -graphy and we know it to be of Greek origin. Right? Second, taking it as two words we come to geo- first meaning earth or of the earth. -Graphy: the act of recording, writing, describing a process, an action, or a study of such as biography, oceanography or in our case geography. The study of Earth? What does that have to do with writing? Good question.

I can map out every step between the Commissary at Camp Dietler and Silver Cliff, also known as staff camp. I lived at Camp Dietler in 1997 and 1998 for ten weeks each summer. The place made enough of an impression on me and I lived there at a time in my life that I can still recollect the entire walk. Geography? Sure. But I'm not making a scientific break through. This walk is the best possible example. I left Camp Deitler in August of 1998. I went back sometime in March of 2008. I parked my car at the commissary and made the walk. The walk had changed. There had been some trail erosion work done in the interim, the old trail covered up with slash and a new trail built. So what, right? Things change. In the geography of my memory the walk from the commissary to Silver Cliff will never change. The walk seemed somewhat shorter in 2008 than it had been during my tenure at Deitler. It was quieter in March of 2008 since I was alone and all the people I loved, those I spent my time with in the past were all elsewhere. The trees seemed aged. The light was different. Yet, the feeling was the same. I was still so grateful to be there, and in a way the gratitude was all a recollection not of the trail's topography, the geography of Camp Dietler, but of my memory.

So where does this leave us as writers? Often times we get so mired in description we may lose track of what we need to convey. A general description is simply not enough. Even the utmost description of every object in every nuance and every shadow is not enough. If nothing else, that may prove boring to a reader. How do you feel about a description of place as a painting of feelings and sensations? It seems like geography class in high school may have been tremendously more interesting if feeling and sensation were the learning objectives rather than borders and rivers and capital cities and government structures. How about if in a description of the trail at Camp Dietler felt like an end to a long summer day of swimming, throwing spears, singing songs and telling jokes. How about this: Percy Walker captures loneliness superimposed on New Orleans in The Movie Goer. I love the geography in the opening pages of Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy where the geographic descriptions are a comparison and contrast of Montmartre in Paris and Broadway in New York City. These descriptions are snap shots of a certain place at a certain time seen by a certain person, in this case the aforementioned writers. I've been to New York and New Orleans and Paris. The descriptions these writers give are of a very different geography than anyone else can give us. So, should I set about the task of the staff camp to the commissary trail of Camp Deitler, I too will give a very different account than anyone will see, even those familiar with the place.

At this point, I invite you to think about geography for a moment. First, take a place you know well, and take a place you haven't seen in a long while. This way you have a perspective on it that has enough distance so that you'll be inclined to write about something deeper than what one may simply see. Write through the place, the room, the house, the neighborhood, the high mountain trail, how do you feel, and how do you want a reader to feel?

This is a great exercise to get going. This is life, your account of it, or your account of a place and then your translation of it into fiction.

Some places are fiction even to begin with and the writer becomes so accustomed to the place that it is real enough, both to the writer and the reader. Didn't William Faulkner do this masterfully? Garrison Keillor did the same thing. The geographic notations of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Keillor's Lake Wobegon most certainly have basis in real places. I'm certain there will be critics and fans and aficionados of one of these writers or the other who are appalled I'd put them in the same paragraph. Please understand that these geographic places are real enough in the fiction of either author.

Occasionally, we lapse into poetry. As fiction writers we can learn so much from poetry. Hell, as human beings, we can learn so much from poetry. The two poems I'll mention today have contours of geography in them. Elizabeth Bishop's “Questions of Travel” has some beautiful images of geography. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti's “In Golden Gate Park That Day...” takes us to a more specific place and puts us there. Ferlinghetti takes us to a specific place, Golden Gate Park, and that doesn't seem to different from the first exercise we did today. Elizabeth Bishop takes us away to any number of places. She does take us to a gas station, but that as a geographical landmark isn't much. She is more broad.

Next, let's try all this again. Let's think about geography as something we must first manufacture. Any place we manufacture as writers exists somewhere before, or perhaps everyplace we've ever been before. The geographic contours of this next exercise must have more feeling, more sense, more thought than the last place. This place is a description of feelings of your narrator or character more than the a report of the place and the location of things within it.

The last examples are geography of the manufactured and the narrator/character response. “FUBAR” in Kurt Vonnegut's 2009 Look at the Birdie, we learn about Fuzz and his place of work “the General Company Response Section, Public Relations Department.” We know that this place is the last building on the lot. Everything in this company and everything on this lot is far more important. It doesn't sound like a great place to work, nor does it seem like a hospitable place to be. But as we read on and get to know Fuzz, things are looking up. The sheer contrast of this place with the last word Fuzz mutters is almost unbelievable. “Eden.”

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz is all geography. It is the mythologized world of the narrator, the young Mr. Schulz. In the chapter titled: “The Cinnamon Shops,” we see the entire town in the starlight imagination of the narrator. We can almost recount the steps from the theater to the narrator's home by way of the old town and the shops that sell strange wares just by his description. It's potent. It pulls us as readers right into the story. I would think the act of writing geographic contours whether it's from memory or imagination is just as riveting to the writer.

Since the title of this series is “From Life to Fiction” please think of geography as a beginning of setting, location or time. Think about the mundane and make it heaven. Make memory the map of your characters' world. Write ten vignettes set in ten different geographic locations. And I'll leave you this, a definition I pinched from the dictionary:

“The arrangement of features of complex entity: the geography of the mind.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

From Life to Fiction: Part I Generations

He was a big man. Tall. Strong. He was a quiet man too. When I was a young boy, he kind of intimated me. I never doubted that he loved me. Although there was no blood relation, we were family. We were family, of course, because we are human, we live in times of strange family structures. We are the modern era. He was my step-father's father. What that makes me, I don't know. Semantics. Suffice to say, I respected him and admired him the way a grandchild should. For his part, he loved me as a grandfather loves a child.

He was a big man, have I said that? Even into his 80s he was a tall man. As his height dwindled he would often say: “Tony, you're getting taller every time I see you.” This was not the case, after all, I was in my thirties at this point. However, even losing the battle with gravity, he was always a big man to me.

In his youth, he fought war. How many of us can say that? All the men in my family, me included. But this is about grandpa. He flew the B-19. He bombed the shit out of Germany. Forty-five years later, when the Army took me to Germany, he had nothing but positive things to say about the place. His bombing missions ended when his plane took flack. On the way to the ground he watched the people, farm people namely, come at him from all sides. Once he landed in their arms, it was all over. They were lynching him. I can't say I blame them, he was the enemy. Incidentally, it was a patrol of Nazi soldiers who saved him. They saved him because it was more humane. Also, it was protocol to let the man rot as a POW in the final months of the war.

But all that was 1944 and 1945. We're here. Now. 2010. As I said, he was a big man. Grandpa worked. He raised a family. He had tons of friends. He grew kick-ass tomatoes. In short, the obituary and the memories rolled up in anecdotes and the photographs can only paint a basic thumbnail of a life. As I've said, he was a tall man.

Grandpa was a tough guy. The real kind of tough guy. The tough guy who understood the strength in being gentle. He understood the need to take care of things: his family, his business; his garden, even his cars. He was a shutterbug. The astounding number of family photographs is impressive in itself, and he makes his appearance in so few of them.

After some months of failing health, Grandpa McGregor died this month. He was 87 years old. As my parents said, I knew it was true: “It's the end of an era.” It is the end indeed. I miss the man, and perhaps I will miss him as much as I always have since we were not very active in each other's lives for several years. But the annual visits will probably be lacking something.

Needless to say, Robert (Bob) Alpine McGregor, is a hero. And his passing is indeed the end of an era. It's the end of an era in my family. He really should be the definition of his generation. A generation of people brought up in the old times: the great depression, World War II; the atomic bomb, they reared the nuclear family. They preserved what they had, they were shaped by their world. What a world it was indeed.

I talk often about fiction, as we all do I suspect. Yet, there are too many events in life in which we need to make sense of it all. In previous discussions we've talked about the anecdote and how that can be crafted into fiction. Let's suppose it does. If I think about my grandpa, there are so many events of his life that can be the backdrop or the springboard into fiction. Just his personal history is fantastic. Hell, all the events of the world in which he lived are so far beyond my imagination. I know from conversations I had with the man that he didn't think much about many of the world events. He had seen them, whereas I learned about them in school or from old timers like him. It's a funny contrast of perspectives. Needless to say, the man had stories. Additionally, I am a writer and I like stories.

I say the springboard into fiction, only because there are many things about fiction that are more accurate and truth telling than non-fiction or memoir. I say this because in fiction we have the freedom to tell a story and illustrate a point. For instance, we all know how I feel about Grandpa McGregor. We also know a think or two about my family structure. Everyone is entitled to two grandfathers. I had three. I had my mother's father, Frank Aiello. I had my father's father, Tony ILacqua. And I had my step-dad's father, Bob McGregor. They were all wonderful men, and if anything more, I have been blessed with three of the best men as role models. Should I want to paint a story with a grandfather character, I can use any or all of these men. Pulling qualities from each, stories from each and my personal experience from each, I can have characters for days. Not to mention, it's hard to mourn the loss of a great man when I can draw on him when I write.

Today, a very simple assignment. There is a generation between you and your grandparents. Tell me a story. Make it interesting. Make it fiction. Make it fun.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An old essay and a favorite instructor

I thought the world of Paul Farkas.  I enjoyed studying under him.  He had a gentle way of guiding me through my thoughts.  He loved old literature.  My last class with him at Metro State would have been fall of 1997.  I don't remember when I wrote the following essay.  I do remember how excited he was about it.
Batman and Sampson

"Comic books are born out of the marriage of newspaper comic strips and pulp fiction magazines." (Daniels p 13) Pulp magazines were the craze in the late eighteen century and offered the reader some seedy reading. It is difficult to see how Superman or Batman evolved out of lurid characters like Doctor Strange and Sherlock Holmes, since the evolution came not so much as the actual subject matter as the magazine format. Obviously, the pulp fiction mania when wed to current newspaper comics did lend itself to the beginnings of the comic book heroes who hit the press in 1938. This generation of hero would have to be different, appealing: "They wore colorful tights, with or without mask or cape and this intriguing garb was a kind of trade-mark, like Hercules' lion skin." (Reitberger & Fuchs 100) Superheroes made an instant appeal, filling a popular role previously held by not only pulp fiction characters but mythological heroes alike. Mythological heroes, perhaps seemingly less appealing than superheroes, lacked the fancy costume and fancy toys or super-powers, but both groups are nothing but glory and adventure. "Superheroes do not seek adventure in the same way as the old legendary heroes of mythology and legend did. They do not search for evil to combat: evil positively leaps at them and never lets them rest." (Daniels 100)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Uncle Frank's Manifesto

I spent the customary moments cleaning the lenses of my reading glasses. They usually wear a level of grease from my fingertips. I don't know why I've never kicked the habit of touching the lenses when I put the darn things on and take them off.
The little lens cloth, a leopard print thing makes me happy for a reason I'll never be able to understand.
The book, an older edition, hardbound and yellow rests on the small table. The book is closed. Front cover down, the thing waits for me.
I'll have to adjust everything in the entire room before I sit down. It may be a nervousness, but I've got the time for such frivolous activities.
Sunlight rolls through the window in waves insisting on an existence outside through the shadows of the springtime leaves of springtime trees. I suddenly want the sunlight.
The questions remain, do I want a view out the window for a sight to see when I look up from the text? And do I mix a martini before I get started? It's springtime and a drink so early in the day would be a sure indication of leisure time. It would be a sure indication of checking out entirely, just me and my text. Perhaps a second pot of coffee would be a better issue for a springtime day filled with fiction and sunlight. It seems like the ideal way to pass the afternoon: coffee and a novel, sunlight and springtime.
Reading glasses, cleaned.
Coffee, planned and percolated.
A record scratches off on the turntable. I turn the thing off rather than flipping the record. The lazy jazz was how I passed the morning, and the afternoon I reserve for fiction.
The room is perfect. With the windows open, I breath deeply the oncoming spring: crocuses, budding flowers, bees coming out of hibernation. When the air stirs into the room, small eddies of dust dance across the wood floor of two centuries old wood. I'm ready. It's an event. Of all the things to pass an afternoon: time clock punches, rounds of golf, bus tours through combat zones, daytime talk shows, I'm choosing to drink a pot of coffee and cracking a novel. When I consider the book: In the Cut by Susanna Moore, perhaps the martini might have been a better companion than the coffee.
To write, to construct good fiction, one must consider spending years as a reader first. When we settle into the pages of the novels we read, we are embarking on our life's work as writers. Perhaps that is my manifesto for the day. A manifesto which won't be written because I'm otherwise engaged in a reading endeavor. Here it goes: Uncle Frank's manifesto, “Stop all that nonsense, fetch your reading glasses and invest your time reading.” If you want it, you can always mix a martini.