Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Way Beyond Words (some thoughts on writing)

"If the mind were constructed on optional lines and if a book could be read the same way as a painting is taken in by the eye, that is without the bother of working from left to right and without the absurdity of beginnings and ends, this would be the ideal way of appreciating a novel, for thus the author saw it at the beginning of its conception."

I bookmarked this passage when I first came across it in Nabokov’s LECTURES ON LITERATURE, because it resonated so fiercely with my own experience as a writer. I come back to it now, because I have somehow found myself in the position of making final edits on a soon-to-be-published book and also at the very start of a new book’s fresh and raw first draft.
Each of my novels has begun as a sort of yearning energy summoned from, it seems, the act of moving through certain places and feeling a sense of something powerful going on there in a simultaneous past and present.  This “yearning towards” may go on for a while—weeks or months--but then there seems always to come a time when things focus and the book suddenly appears to me whole and finished—I can feel the weight of it, see the words and spaces on the pages, understand absolutely in a way beyond words what the book has to say and transmit.

Ah, but then I have to write it.  That becomes the daily work, sometimes flowing and effortless, other times close to impossible. Each draft does seem to bring the book closer to that initial vision. And eventually, first readers’ and editor’s comments and suggestions will be taken and addressed in the light of that first apparition. Details may shift and change, but the book will, for better or worse, arrive at being itself: Paradoxically, words will accrue to transfer the wordless energies that inspired in the first place

All of this was clarified to me further yesterday, when I came across another passage in my reading, this time the story of the bell-stand carver in THE WAY OF CHUANG TZU ( Thomas Merton’s translation is the version I was reading.)

  Khing, a woodcarver, is asked the secret behind the beauty of the bell-stand he had carved. He explains that there is no secret, but that the wood itself—and his own focus on the “single thought of the bell-stand”--tuning out all distractions--was necessary to the outcome.  
 What Khing says next makes deep sense to me:

   “Then I went to the forest
    To see the trees in their own natural state.
     When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
     The bell stand appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
      All I had to do was to put forth my hand
      And begin.”

   I’ll be keeping these words in heart and mind as I explore the surprises of a first draft, as I ferret away at the fussy details of a final proof.  And I’ll do my best to keep my focus and desire on the original vision as it first appeared: clearly, beyond doubt.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Winter's Edge-- One Last Painting

Toward Lost Ranger Peak, Winter Dawn
Painting by Kevin Macneil Brown, watercolor and graphite on paper, 2014.

              Only a few more days until spring, or so I hear. It has been a cold winter here in Vermont. I am almost out of the paint that has made up my winter palette, so that's pretty good timing, I think. Here's what will likely be my last finished painting for this winter. This is a view toward the Continental Divide, from Clark, Colorado, made from sketches done last December.
And now, with spring on the horizon, I'll be switching focus for a while, getting my newest book ready for publication in late April. I will be reporting further before long.-KMB

Saturday, March 01, 2014

A Writer's Window

     I am far from the first to share the feeling that writing fiction can feel like a lonely pursuit at times. I am fortunate to have a few creative venues in my life, and I have learned that surrendering to the sustained alternate reality of writing a novel day after day can be fulfilling in a way that is opposite to the fulfillment that comes with, for example, performing music for an immediate audience. That said, when an appreciative letter or email from a reader comes along, it can really make my day. Such letters have let me know that I am on the right track, that what I feel resonating might indeed be transferred to resonate with another person as they read.  I can’t help but think of what John Cheever said so elegantly:  “The room where I work has a window looking into a wood, and I like to think that these earnest, loveable, and mysterious readers are in there.”
 A few years ago I experienced a moment when that window opened in another way. I had finished my first two novels, and though neither had been published yet, I had made some headway selling articles about running and outdoor exploration to magazines and newspapers. I was working as a record store manager in downtown Montpelier, Vermont at the time, and had just had a very personal essay about running, history, and memory in Gloucester, Massachusetts published in the magazine NEW ENGLAND RUNNER.   I was at work in the store one busy Saturday when a young woman and man walked in. The young man roamed the CD racks. But the young woman was obviously not interested in shopping for music. Instead, she stood in a quiet corner, reading a copy of NEW ENGLAND RUNNER—bought most likely at the sport store across the street. It was clear from her body language that she was utterly lost in what she was reading:  there was no page-flipping; her eyes stayed on the page; a focused intensity was visible on her face. Somehow, I knew exactly which article she was reading.

  I helped some customers. A few minutes later I walked past the young woman, who was still reading quietly. Of course--and I will admit that it felt invasive to do so-- I could not stop myself from taking a very quick glance at the page open in her hands. Yes, she was reading the Gloucester article. I felt a little chill as I went on to greet another customer.
  It might be that famous authors get used to seeing their words read by strangers in public places.  But for me it felt like I had received something sacred--experiencing through outward signs that my words could be read deeply.  Though part of me still needs to make peace with my actions in sneaking that glance, the larger part remains grateful for what I received that day.

  Now, with plans to delve into a new first draft on the horizon, along with final edits on a novel that will be out in the spring, it is almost time to sit down again with the screen and  page before me.  Also before me will be windows that look into the woods, toward those mysterious, welcoming readers in there, out there, and beyond.