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Tuesday
Feb212012

Line By Line

I will tell you how the line got me from there to here: I didn't know it was Malamud who wrote The Natural

I don't know how I'd gotten away with not knowing that, but I didn't until I looked it up. It was Saturday, I had gone to Joseph-Beth to buy a chapter book for a friend's daughter. I purchased two books for her and headed for the exit. Then something made me turn back. I was standing in the middle of a bookstore, suddenly compelled to buy a book about baseball, typing "the natural book" into a search engine, where it spat out Malamud's name, and I smacked my palm to my forehead. Of course, Malamud. After I bought the book (its cover was a baseball with its stitching unraveling, and the stitching becomes the type that forms the title of the book) and tucked it into my bag, I rounded a corner past the low flourescent-spined shelves of science fiction, and there noticed a display of Andre Dubus III's Townie, a book I read and loved last year, announcing that he'd be reading and signing his book at two o'clock. 

That is how I got from there to here, where I now sat in the front row on a wooden seat, reading about Roy Hobbs and his bassoon case on a train cutting a line through the great western expanse towards Chicago, Hobbs throwing pitches and me eating a lemon poppy seed muffin from a white paper bag. Waiting for a different author to appear.

The line continued from Mr. Malamud to Mr. Dubus the Third, as he arrived late from the airport and began to tell an audience at the edge of our wooden seats that he hadn't intended to write a memoir: he was trying to write an essay on baseball. 

Dubus III said too many good things to transcribe: he paraphrased Doctorow, who once said that writing fiction is like driving at night, you can only see as far as the headlights in front of you but you know you'll reach your destination in the end. He said that writing was one line at a time for him, that he had to write to find out what his characters would do next, even if it was just going to the bathroom. He had to know. He said that the opposite of remember is dismember, and that remembering means you're piecing your memories back together. He talked about how one night, he was headed out to the gym to punch some guy's face with boxing gloves, to exorcise the spirits of anger that afflict so many young abandoned men, then something made him turn back. He walked to a table, pulled out a piece of paper, and wrote a scene. The lines that diverge on the page: when we think we know where the story is headed, and it turns around on us altogether.

So it was with Tom the priest.

In the middle of a wonderfully intelligent and engaging conversation with audience members, a priest in the front row quietly raised his hand. "I wondered if you might talk about your father's spirituality, or lack thereof."

Dubus III asked the gentleman his name. "My name is Tom. And it was thirty years ago this May that I read your father's Adultery and Other Choices, quit my job, and entered the seminary."

How can we even begin to imagine how the story will lead us from there to here? Or where the story we write will end up leading someone else?

Later that night: a hockey game, defiant and phallic sticks rising in confrontation on the ice, Notre Dame's Fighting Irish baring their teeth for our local team. (If the Catholic theme wasn't already obvious enough, each time a player was put in the box, a woman behind the glass held up a piece of flourescent yellow poster board, with the words "The Confessional" written in black marker.) I shouted at players, watching them cut lines across the ice with their skates, and thought of the priest. Of the lines cut through our lives, towards an unknown goal. Of how the priest's line turned quickly with the dig of a toe pick. How it can turn like this for any of us at any moment because of something we read, because of something we hear, or, more importantly, because of something we write.

I hadn't expected to be sitting in a bookstore listening to Dubus III that day, but he said some things that were important for me to hear about writing, about the process of constructing a text, both fiction and non-fiction. More than that: about the bigger picture of remembering, of reconstructing our life on the page, of turning the fluid wavelengths of experience into distinct, clear lines of story. I'm still following these lines, writing each word to see where it will take me. What these fictions and non-fictions I construct will cause me to do next. 

Even if it's just going to the bathroom.

I highly recommend you go see Andre Dubus III if he's ever speaking near you. And read Townie while you're at it. James Salter's wonderful NYRB review gives a better explanation of why you should read it. Or as the woman at Joseph-Beth said: "He can WRITE, can't he?" I would certainly say so. Finally, considering the last line, I wanted to title this post "House of Zan and Bog" but I respect the guy too much to do that...

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

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