12 September 2012

Reaching Across the Fictional Terrain

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:01 pm

As the time got into the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, everywhere, altogether new relationships between chords and paths were being fulfilled now, the analytic character of my note choices, as good notes for such chords, coming under consistently thoroughgoing reformulation as a handful choosing, the song as a progression of demarcated and harmonically conceived placements becoming a rather different formatting structure.

For now I would do jazz sayings that increasingly brought my full ‘vocabular’ resources, my full range of wayful reachings, into the service of that jazz on the records, into the hands’ ways of pace-ably traversing not from route to route, but doing singings. And the language of paths and path switchings, born of my instructed introduction to jazz music and deeply intrinsic to the nature of my selectional negotiations for so long, thoroughly situated in the image-guided traverse ways of my past, must be abandoned…

For there is no melody, there is melodying. And melodying practices are handful practices as soundfully aimed articulational reaching. There is no end to ways for characterizing the ‘structure of a melody,’ given the possibilities of terminological revision, theoretic reclassification and structural analysis. But the action essentially escapes descriptive attention. If it can be said that I ‘do repetitions,’ it must then be asked: how do jazz hands behave so as to produce ‘appearances’ for a material examination by all who talk about them.

I learned this language through five years of overhearing it spoken. I had come to learn, overhearing and overseeing this jazz as my instructable hands’ ways — in a terrain nexus of hands and keyboard whose respective surfaces had become known as the respective surfaces of my tongue and teeth and palate are known to each other — that this jazz music is ways of moving from place to place as singings with my fingers. To define jazz (as to define any phenomenon of human action) is to describe the body’s ways.

David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand: The Origanization of Improvised Conduct, 1978

In my doctoral thesis I explored the ways in which expert scientists differed from novices in scanning scientific journals. Second-year grad students were as good at extracting and evaluating the information about any given research study as were the tenured professors. Where the experts excelled was in linking a seemingly wide variety of studies’ theoretical constructs and findings to their own research programs.

I don’t have much sense of gradually achieving greater technical proficiency in the writing of fiction. As far as I’m concerned, the sentences and paragraphs I wrote last week aren’t any better than the ones I wrote shortly after I began writing fiction eleven years ago. Like Sudnow perhaps, I have become better at sustaining longer coherent riffs, at “storying” across broader swathes of terrain. For me it’s not a matter of writing several good paragraphs or pages in a single burst, like a jazz improvisation. It’s more the ability to see coherent patterns across varied surfaces, to grab “wayful reachings” spanning whole chapters, sections, books.

It’s like the difference between conducting one scientific study at a time versus pursuing a coherent research program across many studies. Each study still has to be done, from beginning to end, and done well. Together the studies circle around an assemblage of linked thematic and material concerns rather than pursuing headlong the Grand Theory with monomaniacal linearity. Sometimes the circle expands; sometimes it contracts into a pinpoint focus. Individually, few of the studies approach brilliance, and some are downright pedestrian. But they all contribute to the larger program. Together they are the program.


  1. Have you noticed the deepening of your reading? Anyone who practices a craft (or sullen art) comes to know what is good and what is merely meretricious. De gustibus non est disputandum is surely false, the level of agreement about what is good is high amongst practitioners. I was listening to Richard Ford (uneven I think but great when good) reading a John Cheever story ‘The Reunion’ and ‘Baader Meinhof’ by DeLillo read by someone called Chang I think. Excellent readings of great stories.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 16 September 2012 @ 3:05 pm

  2. You mention Chang reading DeLillo’s Baader-Meinhof. As you know I’ve become more attuned to DeLillo in the last year; almost surely I recognize his mastery more than I did when I read White Noise before I ever started writing, so yes, I agree that I’m more attuned to craft. But here’s the sort of thing I notice that fits with my little self-reflection in the post. The host of the radio program asks Chang if the story is more like the earlier “zany” DeLillo or the later “stately” DeLillo. I understand the distinction observed across a broad swath of writing and I wonder whether DeLillo regards himself as having progressed as a writer or as wanting to describe different things now. Chang says that the story reminds him of the The Body Artist, a novel from ten years ago that occupies a middle ground in the transition. That’s a fairly easy assertion since Baader-Meinhof was published about the same time as The Body Artist. But when I read Baader-Meinhof it was clear that he had taken that ten-year-old story, reworked it, and woven it into Point Omega, his most recent “stately” novel which I had just finished. And I understood how that maneuver worked for DeLillo, since I now have enough of a back catalog of my own that I’m able to re-appropriate old fragments into what I’m doing now. So while I recognize DeLillo’s changes in craft and the excellence of both approaches, I’m more struck by what he’s thinking about and noticing across long periods of time.

    I’m certainly also more attuned to the relationships between other writers’ subject matter and my own. So The Body Artist: I had just been thinking about this book yesterday or the day before, when I read a news story about some woman’s former boyfriend living secretly in her attic. Oddly, that’s almost the premise of The Body Artist. Perhaps as oddly, I know someone who for six months had an intruder living in their house while they were off at work during the day. I incorporated this strangeness into a fiction I wrote about 8 years ago, long before I read The Body Artist but maybe two years after that novel was written. So now I think about the theme of a stranger living in your house unbeknownst, and I think about why that theme should capture both me and DeLillo as a worthy topic for fiction, with neither of us turning it into a haunted house horror story or a PK Dick alternate reality but rather a more subdued tale of alienation.

    And then there’s the idea of writers reading stories aloud on the radio, and it brings to mind a night of horror at a writers’ group in which I read aloud the first chapter of the novel I had then just started writing, the indifference with which the reading was met, the contention of one of the others in the group that my text was “a bit confusing,” and the contention of the evening’s host that I ought to listen to Fresh Air on National Public Radio for tips about how to read aloud more convincingly. You really have to listen to Fresh Air, he reminded me as I left for home at 3 am. No I don’t, I replied as I walked out the door. That evening has stuck with me; almost surely I’ll include it in a fiction some day.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 September 2012 @ 5:20 pm

  3. This is great. I’m thinking about how each of my thoughts has a theme-and-variation kind of structure that makes it a Carl-thought, and each is a contexted assemblage of stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. I notice how thin that process is for my students, how little they have to work with, and how the project for them is both to become analytically effective and to accumulate enough stuff to make synthesis productive.


    Comment by CarlD — 23 September 2012 @ 9:30 pm

  4. Right — gradually building up an intricate framework gives you a place to hang new stuff as well as a lot of opportunities to link seemingly disparate elements across widely separated branches. Students have to rely on the framing context imposed on the material by the teacher or author.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 September 2012 @ 11:53 am

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