Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

Christmas Memory

I’ve been reading the collected works of Elizabeth von Arnim, mainly because I was able to buy 11 of her novels for $1.99 via Kindle. I came across her when reading about British author Barbara Pym, who was heavily influenced by von Arnim. Pym is one of my favorites for low-key humor, so I collected the 11 works and set to reading.

First, about the author: She was a mess. Elizabeth was born (under about three different names, none of which matter for our purposes) in Australia, grew up in England, married a Prussian aristocrat and lived in Germany, married the elder brother of Bertrand Russell, split with him, carried on with H. G. Wells for about three years, had a lengthy relationship with a British publisher who was 30 years (thirty years!) younger, and died in Charleston, SC in 1941 at age 74. I expect she was exhausted.

But I enjoy her writing immensely. I started with Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and then read The Pastor’s Wife and Enchanted April. Elizabeth is, besides being a mess, a hoot. There is one passage in German Garden (which is autobiographical) in which her small daughters attempt to tell her the story of Moses in the bulrushes, using a mix of German and English:

“He wasn’t a cat,” [the April baby said.]

“A cat?”

“Yes, he wasn’t a cat, that Moses—a boy was he.”

“But of course he wasn’t a cat,” I said with some severity, “no one ever supposed he was.”

“Yes, but mummy,” she explained eagerly, with much appropriate hand-action, “the cook’s Moses is a cat.”

“Oh, I see. Well?”

“And he was put in a basket in the water, and that did swim.” [There follows a bit of back-and-forth about how the Konigstochter and her ladies discovered the basket.]

“And then they went near, and one must take off her shoes and stockings and go in the water and fetch that tiny basket, and then they made it open, and that Kind did cry and cry and strampel so”—here both babies gave such a vivid illustration of the strampeln that the verandah shook—“and see! It is a tiny baby. And they fetched somebody to give it to eat, and the Konigstochter can keep that boy, and further it doesn’t go.”

That is the most entertaining retelling of the Moses story that I have read, though I have seen a modern e-mail circulate that featured children’s views of various Bible stories. My favorite was: “Jesus also had twelve opossums. The worst one was Judas Asparagus.”

Another von Arnim book, In the Mountains, contains no children or Bible stories. In it, the main character returns to her family’s summer home after five years away and finds that the books have shifted about on the shelves during her absence:

There is the oddest lot of books in this house, pitchforked together by circumstances, and sometimes their accidental rearrangement by Antoine after cleaning their shelves each spring… would make their writers, if they could know, curdle between their own covers. Some are standing on their heads—Antoine has no prejudices about the right side up of an author—most of those in sets have their volumes wrong, and yesterday I found a Henry James, lost from the rest of him, lost even, it looked like, to propriety, held tight between two ladies. The ladies were Ouida and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. They would hardly let him go, they had got him so tight. I pulled him out, a little damaged, and restored him, ruffled in spite of my careful smoothing, to his proper place. It was the Son and Brother, and there he had been for months, perhaps years, being hugged. Dreadful.

But it is impossible, I find, to tidy books without ending up by sitting on the floor in the middle of a great untidiness and reading. The coffee grows cold and the egg repulsive, but still I read. … Perhaps I had better not get arranging books before breakfast.

(Later in the book, she has this to say about breakfast: “There is a great virtue in a hard boiled egg. It holds one down, yet not too heavily. It satisfies without inflaming.”)

The description of books being jammed together inappropriately on the shelves reminded me of the book-spine poems I had so much fun writing. But they are not as easy as you may think, and I tore up several rooms looking for a good combination. I’m not as happy with it as with my earlier efforts, which were satisfyingly sing-songy, but it is appropriate for the season:

A Christmas Memory
Refiner’s Fire
Celestial Navigation
A Lovely Light

Now I sit in the middle of a great untidiness, with books scattered all over and stacked in threes and fours across two rooms. I’ll pick them up tomorrow, before a satisfying (but not inflaming) breakfast.

And further it doesn’t go.




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Trees at dusk

A story from Chuang Tzu.

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits. The prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain or success.
After five days, I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“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 also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

When educator Parker Palmer shares this story in his book A Hidden WholenessThe Journey Toward an Undivided Life, he points out the “sheer chutzpah of the woodcarver’s words to the Prince,” adding:

It is as if your boss asked how you managed to do so well with the assignment she gave you, and you replied, ‘Well, frankly, I had to forget that you and this organization even exist!”

Which is, of course, true. When we are attuned to the expectation of the boss or the corporate culture rather than to the soul’s imperatives, we cannot cocreate anything of truth and beauty.

Palmer goes even further and says that, when Khing declares that there would be no bell stand without the particular tree that he had found, he is pointing out that the idea that we can simply take raw materials and force them into something of value is false.

Like every good gardener, potter, teacher, and parent, [Khing] understands that the ‘other’ with which we work is never mere raw material to be formed into any shape we choose. Every ‘other’ we work with has its own nature, its own limits and potentials, with which we must learn to cocreate if we hope to get real results. Good work is relational, and its outcomes depend on what we are able to evoke from each other.

We should probably begin to reconsider much of the work that is considered perfectly normal in today’s world. Too much of our work relies on the twisting of wood, water, minerals, and even human beings into unnatural shapes for questionable ends.

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It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when [Mole] slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him…. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.

from “The Wild Wood,” The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Now that I’m back home in North Carolina, my daily commute is for the most part a solitary drive through the country, past open fields and subrural clusters of homes, across small old bridges over gentle creeks. I count four country churches; an abandoned store with a tree growing inside, visible through the uncracked front window; a goat farm; a llama farm. All of this—road, meadow, churchyard, farm—is stitched together by patches and borders of tall gray-boned trees, whose upper branches catch the last clear light in the late afternoon sky. I love those trees. Seeing them makes me feel like Mole as he prepares to enter the Wild Wood.

I feel a lot like Mole, in general.

At the very beginning of The Wind in the Willows, Mole leaves his home because he’s anxious to see the sunshine, to breathe fresh air, and–let’s be honest–to ditch the spring-cleaning. But one cold winter night he feels the pull of home again:

It was one of those mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal…. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had captured it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way!

— from “Dulce Domum,” The Wind in the Willows

When I lived in Florida, I would visit North Carolina, but at some point I always had to leave and return to my house in Jacksonville Beach. It was about a 9-hour drive, mostly on interstate 95. From the moment I passed South of the Border, I began to feel heartsick. (Of course, if you’re familiar with South of the Border, you will understand that there were sound reasons for feeling ill.) The closer I got to Florida, the heavier my heart became. I knew I wasn’t really going home. Almost every time I made that trip back, I had the feeling that I might as well take any exit, at any point of the trip. I would just go ahead and exit, I thought, and drive into a neighborhood and walk into the first house with an unlocked front door. It would be not so very different, after all, from continuing on to the unlighted coquina house in Jax Beach, and it would have the advantage of making my trip shorter. (And wouldn’t the residents of that unlocked house be surprised? And pleased!)

Once I got to the coquina house, I soon got over my homesickness and settled back into my routine, and was comfortable and, after a day or two, happy. But it wasn’t a place I yearned to be, nor did I ever feel pulled toward it.

So it’s very nice to be back in North Carolina.

Now, as I drive home from work, I cross the bridges and pass the goats and avoid hitting deer and smell the woodsmoke from someone’s chimney and I feel warmed by that fire, cheered by the lights in the windows that I pass as I get closer to Redbud Lane. It’s not just that I feel pulled back to the little brick house where Ernesto is waiting and the lights are on.

It’s because, even before I get to the house, I know that I am already home.


Where is home, for you?

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Cutting Christmas Trees in the Forest

Hans Andersen Brendekilde (Danish, 1857 -1942): Cutting Christmas Trees in the Forest

The writing process is often a matter of piecing together the interesting flotsam and jetsam that twinkles past in the normal flow of life. What with painting and moving the household to Redbud Lane and preparing for Christmas and trying to find the belt that goes with my brown dress I have had no time for the piecing process, so this is a collection of various items that have floated past in recent weeks, unretouched. It’s not really a piece of writing, it’s more like a glimpse inside my mental cabinet of curiosities.

Designer Castoffs

NPR had a story this week about how clothing donated to Goodwill in America may end up in a bale of clothing shipped to Africa. Having just dumped a load at Goodwill myself, I can certainly understand how that would be necessary; there is no possible way that, with all the good will in the world, any organization could actually process and resell all the crap that gets dumped on their doorstep. Most times I’m ashamed to accept a receipt for what I donate.

Once these bales of truly terrible clothing arrive in Africa, a whole new economy springs up around them. Some of the clothing is sold as-is, but many more pieces are salvaged to create new garments. Plus-size t-shirts are generally too large for most African people, so the shirt will be recut to a smaller size. But the restyle doesn’t end there—the t-shirt may also get colorful new sleeves from a different shirt, or a contrasting collar for visual interest. The result is an original handcrafted design. I think that’s wonderful. You can read about it yourself here.

Reading Trees

I read about a xylothèque in a book called Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama. I’ve only gotten as far as page 175 (401 pages to go, not counting notes) but the book is a marvel. Schama captures the magic of forests and their importance to all of us who live, if we are fortunate, among their leaves. The xylothèque was, if I have understood correctly, invented during the German enlightenment. It is literally a library of wood, a way of chronicling the trees of the forest. Each book about a particular tree is made from the tree itself. Similar to those faux leather-bound boxes for hiding valuables, when you open one of these books you find a hollow cavity for stashing things. A volume in the xylothèque about an oak, for example, would have a cover fashioned from slabs of oak bark, and the hollow inside would hold oak leaves, acorns, and information about the oak tree and the stages of its long life. I love this idea.

I wish that the trees at Redbud Lane came with doors on their trunks that I could open to find similar information. Then I would know if the redbuds need to be trimmed and, if they do, should it be done in spring or fall? We have hickory trees, too, and I am certain that there must be secrets about how to harvest the nuts and when to gather them and how to thwart the squirrels. Those would be wonderful secrets to have.

Speaking of trees, isn’t the painting at the top of this post, Cutting Christmas Trees in the Forest, wonderful? I am grateful to Tail Feather for that one, by way of Parabola. Here are some of our own trees, mostly not suitable for Christmas (although that plump little fir tree on the left has possibilities). Isn’t the light in the woods wonderful (or can’t you tell from where you are)?

Trees at Redbud Farm

Trees at Redbud Lane (October)

Things Truman Capote Said

Truman Capote said a lot, and I enjoy almost all of it. Here are two particularly nice quotes that I stumbled across recently.

The wind is us—it gathers and remembers all our voices, then sends them talking and telling through the leaves and the fields.

Capote also said this at some point, though I’m not sure where or when: “Well, I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy.”

I wish I’d said that.

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I have lost several things recently, beginning with my keys. Next, just as I planned to write a short post about my beloved backscratcher, I lost that, too.

Lost:  Pink wooden backscratcher, approximately 42 years old. Sentimental value.

I bought that backscratcher when I was about 10 years old, from the Shoppe of John Simmons at Thru-Way Plaza in Winston-Salem. Carved wood painted hot pink, it was probably made in India. I never scratched my back when I was 10, but I think I bought it because it was affordable on a 10-year-old’s allowance, and it represented the exotic atmosphere, the bright colors, and the spicy smells of the Shoppe.

I owned that backscratcher for decades. It went with me to Kentucky, to Florida, to Missouri, and came back with me to North Carolina in January. I had it on the shelf of the closet I used at my parents’ house. Then I decided to write about it, so on Labor Day evening after a cookout I fetched it, scratched my back, and then carried it and a pile of other stuff to the car. Ernesto was also carrying things—dishes, and tomatoes, and apples. I believe that my load included the backscratcher, my purse, a bag with leftover chocolate cake inside, an envelope filled with old family slides, and maybe a container of fishing worms, although I’m not clear on that. Anyway, we drove the one-half mile to our house and unloaded our things. The backscratcher was not among them. I searched the car, checked the bag with the cake, walked around in a circle, and called my mom. “Send a posse out to check the yard for my pink backscratcher,” I said. I think it sounded every bit as bossy as it looks in print.

Sadly, the backscratcher was never found. Maybe I left it on the back of the car, when I set my purse down to dig out my keys. If so, perhaps it was flung from the car when we turned onto the road from the driveway. Which means that the Johnson dogs across the way are probably scratching each other’s nasty backs with it right now, or using it as a toothpick deep inside their loathesome den.

Over the years that backscratcher had become a sort of curiosity, or a relic. Certainly it was the oldest thing I had ever purchased and still owned. It had also become more useful as a tool, since I can no longer twist and flex comfortably to scratch my own back. Every time I used it, I thought fondly about the Shoppe of John Simmons. So a year or two ago I decided to concentrate the powers of the Internet on the question of whether the Shoppe still existed. It did not. But I discovered something much, much better.

Found:  John Simmons, author of Dark Angels: How Writing Releases Creativity at Work.

John Simmons’ book has been far more useful than my backscratcher ever was. And  since my backscratcher pointed the way to him with its stiff, curled fingerbones, and thus to The Writer blog and his other books, I should be philosophical about losing the backscratcher itself. I use John Simmons every single day in my work—especially his advice to imagine the lives of your readers (whoever they may be) and show them compassion. I do try. It may not be obvious, but I do.

Two days after losing the backscratcher by motor vehicle, we pulled the exact same trick. Ernesto put his tape measure and utility knife on the back of the car, and later we drove off, apparently flinging them out into the universe, never to be found. Worse, I seem to be unable to find an envelope of important photos. I thought that they would be easily located, because they were IMPORTANT, but so far I haven’t found them. That’s one of the perils of moving. I know they’ll probably turn up eventually, but it is very aggravating in the meantime, and the only thing that keeps me from despair is that for every item lost, there seems to be something found. Like the red feather that Ernesto found over the weekend and presented to me. Or the young pine cones, glossy green as enamel with tiny stars of shining sap found beneath the clothesline. Small treasures that help to fill the gaps of loss.

What have you found?

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key in jar2 (2)

A key, safely preserved in a jar.

I have been thinking lately of Eliza Fay, who has been dead since 1816. Neither beautiful nor rich, she left behind a fascinating memoir in the form of letters. Original Letters from India is an account of the many trials—and they were at times harrowing—that she endured when she left the safety of England in 1779 to venture into strange lands with her useless husband, an Irish attorney. E. M. Forster wrote the introductory notes, which are in themselves a good reason for picking up a copy.

Forster is, in fact, responsible for the fact that we can pick up a copy; he stumbled upon an early edition of the book while researching A Passage to India and convinced Virginia Woolf and her husband to publish a reprint. It would be sad not to have Eliza’s book available for reading—it would be even sadder not to have Forster’s introductory notes.

I read the book three years ago, and I was thinking of Eliza Fay again this week because she had amazingly foul luck for nearly all of her life, and I have had a week of mildly foul luck myself. Eliza is a fine model of how to meet misfortune, so I picked up the book and reviewed parts of her story. In one example, Eliza and her husband are held as political prisoners (temporarily) in Calcutta. As if this weren’t bad enough, they lose the only money they have with which to buy their freedom.  Eliza’s recounting of this incident is entertaining but lengthy, so I’ll go to Forster’s notes for the recap:

When the verandah in which they had hidden their savings was twitched off by a monsoon, [Mr. Fay] abandoned himself to lamentations while she calculated the direction of the wind and finally discovered the money in a far away tuft of grass.

Forster adds with obvious admiration:

[Eliza’s] floods of tears and fainting fits are always postponed until a convenient moment: they never intrude while she is looking after her luggage or outwitting her foes.

Unlike Eliza, I am feeling somewhat daunted by my troubles, piddling though they are. Mine began, not with a journey to India, but with a shopping trip to Burlington. (We did have a delicious lunch at an Indian restaurant before running our errands, however.) After lunch, we knocked out our three errands: Aldi, to pick up a few things; Great Clips, so that Ernesto could get a trim; and a stop at Walmart, which seems to be the sole source for the window fly-catchers we like because you can actually see all of the tiny, horrid gnats that collect on the sticky strips, and it gives me great satisfaction to see them stuck. If that sounds cruel, well, all I can say is that you have neither inhaled nor ingested them in the numbers that we have.

At Aldi, we packed all of our items into a box and Ernesto wheeled it in the shopping cart toward the car. The box was heavy, so I hurried ahead of him and used my key to pop the trunk open. Then I trundled the shopping cart all the way back to the store because there was not one single soul in the parking lot to give it to. That was the last time I remember seeing my keys.

I read a magazine at Great Clips while Ernesto got his hair cut. At Walmart, Ernesto caught sight of the Dr. Scholl’s foot machine and decided that he wished to have his feet mapped. He doesn’t have any problems with his feet, but he couldn’t resist a free ride on the foot-mapping machine. So he stood first on one foot, then the other, and cycled through the process and was told in the end that he had handsome arches and healthy feet but that (of course) he would benefit greatly from Dr. Scholl’s insert C320. He didn’t buy any inserts, but I believe that he found the experience of having his feet mapped refreshing in itself. Because it was free.

Anyway, we picked up fly-catchers and soap and olive oil and goat’s milk and were on our way back to the car when I realized my keys were not in my purse. They are a good-sized set of keys, too, reinforced by two ornamental fobs and about four mini-cards for various grocery stores and pharmacies. The entire bunch is gone. I went back into Walmart to see if perhaps they’d already been found and turned in, and at the customer service counter the clerk reached into a cubby and brought out a basket filled with about 70 sets of keys, festooned with mini-cards. If you have lost a set of keys in the last ten years, I suggest that you stop by your local Walmart. I’m sure they have them. Mine, however, were not there.

We went home, went through every shopping bag we had brought back, and I removed everything from my purse except the lining. Then I combed through the car, every inch of it. Nothing. I called Great Clips, and they said the keys weren’t there. I couldn’t find a phone number anywhere for Aldi, so I drove back to town, scoured the parking lot, and left my name at the office so they could call if the keys turned up. I forgot to ask them why they don’t have a listed phone number.

On my way to check the parking lot at Great Clips, the skies opened up and the rain poured. It was raining so hard that the Great Clips stylists, whose customers had fled, were all looking out at the deluge and watched me as I ran under the building’s overhang. One of them opened the door. “Keys,” I said, and the stylist at the door nodded. “We didn’t see them,” she said brightly, and we both looked toward the corner where I had been seated while reading about the year’s hottest colors in More magazine. There was no possible place for keys to hide there. “Maybe they’ll turn up when we sweep!” she said encouragingly, but I could not be cheered. “They’re not here,” I said, and plunged back into the storm.

I even checked the storm drain in the parking lot at Walmart, thinking that the number of my keys (or the sheer bulk of all those mini-cards) would surely prevent them from falling through the grate. Nothing. When I got back home, I removed the spare tire in the trunk and checked the cavity, then ripped out the lining of my purse.

Now, having exhausted all my resources, I no longer believe that I will discover the keys in a far-away tuft of grass, or anywhere else. They are gone. So this seems like a convenient time for a flood of tears. Perhaps I’ll cry in the manner of Eliza Fay, writing her first letter to her family from Calais, still within sight of her homeland:  “My very heart seems to melt as I write, and tears flow so fast as to compel me to shut one eye while I proceed.”

I’m ashamed not to be as courageous and indomitable as Mrs. Eliza Fay, but even Forster admitted that she had her own shortcomings. “Geography could never have been her strong point,” he says, “for she thought that the Alps were only one mountain thick…. Writing she adored—never happier than when the pen is in the hand—but her grammar was most personally her own.”

Imperfect she may be, but Mrs. Eliza deserves the last word. This passage is from her preface to the letters. She is speaking of herself in the third person as the heroine of her journey, but I am adopting the message as my own:

Shadows, clouds, and darkness still rest on the remainder of her pilgrimage, which calls for the pilotage of kindness and the Day-star of friendship. She has, however, by the blessing of Providence been constantly enabled to rise superior to misfortune, and will not now in the evening of her days, derogate from the unostentatious energy of her character, or seek to solicit the pity of her readers by wearisome retrospect or painful complaint.

You’re welcome.

Update 8/23/13:  My keys have returned safely home!  I went back to Aldi this week, and inquired again at the office there. This time, they were there. One ornamental fob had been badly damaged and had to be tossed; probably it was run over. Doesn’t matter. I rise superior to misfortune!

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We were walking up Hillsboro Street in Pittsboro last weekend when I saw Circle City Books and Music for the first time. The shop sits on a corner, and it has a row of giant books painted on the side of the building, visible from a block away. As we got closer, I saw that they were titles written by Southern writers, mainly North Carolinians. I had to stop and examine them all.

Two of the writers represented on the building were my favorite creative writing instructors from long time back:  Lee Smith and Fred Chappell. I had a class with Lee Smith during my freshman year in college, and although I also loved two of my other instructors at Chapel Hill, James Reston, Jr. and Daphne Athas, Lee Smith was my first class with a real writer, and she made a deep impression. She was one of the most charming people I had ever met, all beautiful curly hair and electric enthusiasm. She was kind, and encouraging, and funny. Listening to her talk was a lesson in how to weave personal experiences into stories.

In 1988, Lee Smith published the novel Fair and Tender Ladies. I had been reading her fiction for years by that time, but this book was special. I disliked it as soon as I opened the first chapter and saw the words, “My dear Hanneke….”  I had always hated books that were written in the form of letters. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I thought that the author needed to direct her attention to me, the reader, and that the insertion of some unknown addressee between myself and the narrator got in the way. But I stuck it out, and by the time I got to the end of that book, it had become a part of me in a way that few books have. It was like a garment that I had worn for a time, and then when it came time to step out of it and change into something fresh, I couldn’t. It had soaked into my skin and rested there, just beneath the surface. I used to think I would be a writer, the narrator, Ivy, wrote toward the end of the book. Oh, the end of that book.

My sister read Fair and Tender Ladies about the same time that I did. “How close are you to the end?” I asked her.

“Pretty close.”

“Well, you better watch out where you are when you get to it,” I warned her, “because you don’t want to be out in public.”

But that’s exactly what happened. “I came to the end while I was sitting at Jiffy Lube getting the oil changed,” she told me afterwards.

Oh, no. “Did you cry?”

“Did I cry? I wept like nobody’s business for ten solid minutes.”

“Was the waiting room full?”


Here’s the thing:  It’s not really the words or the images that the words conjure that leave you a blubbering mess at the end of the book, it’s the punctuation. That’s all I’m saying, and if you want to know more you have to read the whole thing. (Skipping to the end to read the last page is evil and you won’t understand it, anyway, so don’t try that.) So one of the lessons I learned from Lee Smith, six or seven years after leaving her class, is that punctuation has real magic in it, at least in the hands of a master.

Fred Chappell was a master storyteller, too. He was my thesis advisor in graduate school, which you might think would make him too exalted a personage to  play a mean, dirty trick on his students. Such was not the case.

Writing workshops were, unless I am remembering it wrong, three-hour sessions in the evening. These sessions took place in a sort of dimly lit, smoky lounge in the building that housed the English department. Fred’s method was to read our work anonymously in his dirt-road voice, a voice that probably made the stories sound more complex and interesting than they really were. After the reading, we would discuss what was wrong with the piece. Theoretically no one knew who the writer was—although sometimes we suspected, as we did the night that a classmate’s girlfriend suddenly dropped by the workshop and then led the discussion afterward, finding much to praise. But the general anonymity left us free to be as critical as we wanted—all in the spirit of being helpful, of course.

One night, Fred pulled out a story and said, “This is not one of yours. It came to me by mail from a high school student, 18 years old.” He began to read it. The tale was of a father and his young son, and the teenaged orphan who came to live on their farm as hired help. Every word of that story clicked into place and fit perfectly with the next one, the characters were lively and likeable, the situation the characters contrived was funny and skillfully handled. We were enchanted.

When it was over, we literally had nothing to say. Finally, somebody cleared his throat and asked, “You said that was from a high school student?” Fred nodded. Little more was said, but a pall fell over the room, thick as the cloud of cigarette smoke, as we each contemplated our own unworthiness.

That was a low-down, shameful trick because the high school student did not exist. The story he had read was in fact the first chapter of Fred’s beautiful book, I Am One of You Forever. I realized this only when I bought a copy of the book when it came out two years later. Like Fair and Tender Ladies, it is always with me; certain passages are as clear and unforgettable to me as my name and much clearer than my mailing address, which has changed twice in recent months. It is a book with two endings:  One comes at the end of the narrative, and the second one comes at the end of an epilogue. They are both perfect. The narrative ends with a scene in which the narrator (the boy, Jess) is listening to his grandmother and her sister sing together in the parlor:

The piano was in disastrous condition since no one in our house played any more. The keys were chipped and broken, the strings green and rusty, and the notes that were not out of tune were mostly ciphers.

Nevertheless the bargain had been sealed, and my grandmother sat on the wobbly stool while Aunt Sam stood beside her with her fiddle and struck up “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies.” It sounded very strange, and not entirely beautiful.

Then Jess is pressed into singing a song, and though he fights against the idea like a wild dog, he finally submits. And that is how the story ends, with Jess singing for his family. He concludes:

My face burned like a comet; I mumbled and choked. I couldn’t sing then and I can’t sing now. If I could sing—sing, I mean, so that another human being could bear to hear me—I wouldn’t sit scribbling this story of long ago time.

That sums it up about right. In spite of the help I got along the way from Lee Smith and Fred Chappell, from James Reston, Jr. and Daphne Athas and Robert Watson and others, it’s hard not to read my own scribblings and notice that they are often very strange and not entirely beautiful.

But you sure don’t want to hear me sing.

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