The themes this month seem to be that in life and in writing, paying attention and details matter. Everything I’m reading is sending those messages.
In a Harper’s editorial by Rachel Kushner: “(filmmaker) James Benning’s simple definition of an artist is “someone who pays attention and reports back.”
And paraphrased from Draft No. 4, John McPhee’s latest (which I devoured over 3 days): A thousand details add up to one impression; few details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential.
McPhee also wrestles with the puzzle of the tempting but inevitably outdated references that can either make a piece of writing come alive and be a vivid guide to contemporary times or consign it to a graveyard of arcane names of celebrities and trademarks.
On that very subject (that has recently by coincidence bedeviled me): Anne Beattie has always been a master of the telling niche detail, but in Onlookers, her linked collection of stories about the 2017 riot in Charlottesville, she drenches her reader with so many specific brand names and cinematic or literary references that I had to question her intentions. I was hooked by her overall narrative and foolishly pleased by how many of her references I “got”—but as a writer I wondered how posterity would deal with her wild and reckless parade of names and brands. (If her book was a film, I’d be sure she was being paid for product placement.)
Think I’m exaggerating? A sample of references from the first story:
Orvis, The Strand, Chanel No. 5, BoA, Le Creuset, Tinker Bell, Christopher Walken, Norman Rockwell, Mr. Darcy, NorthFace, Princess Leia, Saab, Amazon, YouTube, emoji’s, Alfred Hitchcock, Microsoft, Spanish flu, Pilates, Pascal’s Wager, Nat Sherman, Millet, Blanche DuBois, Jack Nicholson, Swatch, Dionne Warwick, Neutrogena, Muzak, Burt Bacharach, Rainbow Room, Jeffrey Epstein, UVA, MFA, pre-Covid, CPA, Zoom, Aspen, LOL, Joker and Batman, Musée d’Orsay, Meals on Wheels, Singin’ in the Rain, Louis C.K., Anderson Cooper, Mark Zuckerberg, Barbour, Fred and Ginger, Flaubert, Francis Steegmuller, Running with Scissors,The New School, Tina Fey, Sewanee Review, James Baldwin, Tom Cruise, Instagram, Shouts and Murmurs, Sam Shepard, Bikram Yoga, Arthur Ashe, VQR, London Fog, Robert Lowell, Poirot….
Do you see my point? What is my point? I thoroughly enjoyed the little flashes of recognition that these names and places evoked, but I’m an ex-New Yorker of Beattie’s generation, so I’m not a random sample. I am curious about how her stories—absolutely on target in their moral seriousness and skillful character delineation— might land on the ears of an educated twenty-something from the Midwest. Would it not matter, like me reading Middlemarch?
I have definitely become a bit less timid about throwing in specific references to illuminate a character, etc— but when is enough enough? When is specific too specific? When do these kinds of details become annoying indulgences rather than perfect arrows finding their targets?
I recently read a quote that referred to Katherine Mansfield’s description of the sea near Cannes as “quilted silk.” Perfect, right? It didn’t need to be “quilted silk from a sale at Harrod’s.”
My local farmers’ market ended on September 16, so I was able have a busman’s holiday and attend the huge statewide Maine Organic Farmers’ and Gardeners Fair, called Common Ground Country Market on the 23rd. If Woodstock could be reincarnated as a farmers’ market, this would be it— minus the mud. Hundreds of people of all ages in tie-dyed regalia and hats with feathers, strolling around stands of luscious fruits and vegetables and cheeses, displays of handmade leather and woolen items, candles, baskets, soaps and jewelry, and best of all— the working livestock demonstrations. My fatal weakness is always the sheep dog (border collie) trials, and this day was exceptional. After a lengthy run-through of commands and their meanings, the black and white bundles of fur-coated muscles joyfully spinning, crouching and running, the trainer explained that at the end of the day, you always say, “That’ll do” and the dogs know they are off the clock and can just play and be normal. He said it and his dogs immediately began frolicking, chasing frisbees and generally looking pleased with themselves but no longer shivering with tension, on high alert.
Lesson learned. Going forward, I’m going to attempt to use that on myself at the end of my working day. I do highly recommend watching videos of border collies at work if you want some beautiful examples of animal/human teamwork and trust. As one trainer says, “To understand another species takes time, effort and observation.” Again, the motif of paying attention.
Tom Lake. I succumbed to the hype and began reading Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel, set during the Covid pandemic on a farm in Michigan, grumbling and stalling, until I was finally hooked. A constant theme in the book is the lesson the cherry farmer protagonist takes away from youthful experience playing Emily in her cherished play, Our Town: life is only a series of moments and we must pay attention if we are to feel we have lived at all.
As for understanding my own species better than border collies, the unspeakable events of the past week in Gaza and Israel have left me in despair. Blameless civilians on both sides— old people, women, children, babies, young parents—are innocent victims. Years from now, when a solution has been reached that ensures human rights for all residents of the region, we will look back in shame and horror and disbelief.
What solace, if any, is there in literature? One turns to W.H.Auden:
Musée Des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance, how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
May the coming month bring desperately needed sanity and compassion and the unassailable realization that human rights mean human rights for everyone.
To quote James Baldwin, “Not all problems we face can be solved, but no problem can be solved until it’s faced.”
Photos provided by the author.