Tag Archives: writing

Warned by their music.

By the end of the second novel in Rebecca West’s Aubrey Trilogy, This Real Night, the children are grown up, and our narrator Rose is often discussing with herself the meaning of world events and human behavior. The narrator’s inner dialogue is just one of the ways that I think the author expresses her own wonderings and certainties; the reader also learns from discussions between the characters, often in emphatic statements that one or another makes out loud or privately in silence, on any number of topics, from fashion to politics and philosophy, from the motives of others to the failings of herself.

The constant revelation of what goes on in her highly analytical mind, her wanting to understand the meaning of things, and her sureness that there is something numinous behind the visible world, all draw me to the stories. (She makes me love just being with the characters — I never want to leave them — which is probably a greater reason, but it deserves its own post.)

I don’t know how to describe the elements of her prose style that makes every other sentence seem worth reading a second or third time — so I keep posting samples. I can say that each page is rich in metaphors that somehow are more than metaphorical: they convey an understanding that there is something more than meets the eye; much of the truth of things is underneath, and beyond.

She is quoted as having said, “Writing has nothing to do with communication between person and person, only with communication between different parts of a person’s mind.” She didn’t complete This Real Night until almost 30 years after The Fountain Overflows, and it was published in 1984, the year after her death. Here are a couple of passages from the last chapters:

“We were not surprised when the war came, for we had heard our father prophesying it all through our childhood… We had also been warned by our music. Great music is in a sense serene; it is certain of the values it asserts. But it is also in terror, because those values are threatened, and it is not certain whether they will triumph in this world, and of course music is a missionary effort to colonise earth for imperialistic heaven. So we were not so sorely stricken by August, 1914, as many other people. Indeed we had our consolations. It was proved to us that music was not making a fuss about nothing, and that the faces of our parents had been distorted out of common placidity not by madness but by the genuine spirit of prophecy.”

Soon, however, their only brother Richard Quin enlists, and after a few months of training in England, during which his family sees him often, he ships off to the Continent, and they accompany him to Victoria Station in London.

“The space around the station had become one of those areas which, like cemeteries and the corridors of hospitals, are swinging on a turntable between the worlds… myriads of men in uniform, deformed by the weight of the kitbags on their backs, of women and children scurrying by their sides, those also deformed, by the weight of grief and stoicism… Above, a great dimly lit illuminated clock said that this was the hour. The occasion was the annulment of life, for what is life but being able to move according to the will?

“But the people who got out of the taxis and cars, all the men bent under their kitbags, were doing what their will would never want them to do, which it could never let them do, were it not in the custody of something outside them not certified to be wise or loyal. The clock said that there was not time to start that argument….”

Kinds of Poetry – Tolkien vs. Jackson

Jackson apparently thinks the characters Tolkien gives us are too simply good to be fully believable to modern audiences, and so he feels obligated to “complicate” them, to give them internal conflicts other than the ones they actually have, in the hopes that we will better be able to relate to them.

I’m quoting from this article in the Nov/Dec 2013 Touchstone Magazine, in which Donald T. Williams explains how literature, while delighting us with its art, is more powerful than history or philosophy to nurture our moral vision, or to corrupt us with false images.

With the help of quotes from Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote Apology for Poetry in the sixteenth century, he shows how “Tolkien was very consciously and deliberately following the literary tradition that flows down to us from Sidney through Dr. Johnson and C. S. Lewis.”

Peter Jackson the filmmaker seems to be flowing in a different stream. But he is an artist, and of course will impart his own soul to his work. I wouldn’t expect him to give us The Rings, because that has already been done, and he is not J.R.R. Tolkien. But it is unfortunate that he has changed things to the degree and in the directions he has. Williams points out specific ways in which the characters who inspired us in the books disappoint us in the movies, and makes these general remarks:

By this process of negative moral transformation, in other words, we reach the place where beloved characters are unrecognizable to Tolkien’s fans, and those fans feel betrayed. And they are right to feel so, though mostly they do not understand why. It is because the difference between the books and the movies is not just one of necessary adaptation to a different medium. It is that the author consciously followed the Sidneyan tradition while the adaptor is either ignorant of it or doesn’t understand it or has rejected it.

Read the whole article here.

Mountain Air – smoke and writing

GJ in the Tuolumne River

I returned this week from a solitary trip to the mountains, where I stayed in a cabin off the grid for four nights. I could easily write a book about my five days of journeying and lodging, probably a philosophical novel. Or would it be a how-to treatise with packing lists and suggested activities and prayers?

I’m always saying, “I could write a book about ____.” And it just occurred to me that I am always writing, as I endlessly analyze events as to their significance, and organize my thoughts, composing and reworking the lines in my mind. If I have a pencil or keyboard handy and hands free I might scribble down some of it, often in a notebook or in the margin of the book I’m reading. But the process has begun long before that.

It wouldn’t be a lie exactly, when people ask me what I do, to say, “I write.” Because I’m a process-oriented type, I can’t see a book ever resulting from my work, but no pressure — no one is clamoring for a discussion of the things in my pocket or the interrelatedness of the last ten books I read.

I thought I might do some sort of scribbling during my getaway, but I didn’t make much visible progress on my “books.” Many things that are fascinating to my self-centered self consumed my hours and my thoughts, and I do want to reflect on some of that here, hopefully without rambling on and on.

Evening with brown haze in north

Today I just want to mention one sad thing about my experience: Smoke. The brown cinders from that horrid Rim Fire, the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada, had drifted south and made the air murky around Our Lake. One day was so bad that my eyes and throat and head hurt from the pollution. But I didn’t have to come home early, because it cleared up a little by the next morning.

Another bad air day

I can’t imagine what the landscape will look like, the next time we visit our beloved Yosemite and drive through the scorched forests. One thing I know: On August 25th the fire destroyed the Berkeley City Camp Tuolumne where my sisters and I as children vacationed with our grandparents.

It has been many decades since I did water ballet in that swimming hole in the Tuolumne River, or even visited the camp, and it won’t change my life that it is wiped out. But what a heartache for the people who spent dozens of formative summers in the context of that special place, and those for whom the rustic cabin life in an idyllic setting was a very recent tradition and expectation. I’m very thankful it was only smoke that invaded our family’s lake and village.

Camp Tuolumne in the old days

I consider my difficulties.


My current difficulties stem from these realities:

1) The world is so full of a number of things
    I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

This rhyme has played in my head a million times since I learned it as a little girl. Maybe even then I suspected in my childish way the layers of truth in the sing-song, the irony of too-muchness.

2) I have been traveling a lot, and that brings me into contact with even more numbers of “things,” like real people, people in books, ideas in books, and new places I’ve visited. This summer, for example, I sat on airplanes for more than ten hours, and many of those hours were spent in the company of Alain de Botton as I read his book The Art of Travel. As I drifted off to sleep at night in a house not my own, I was soaking up the coastal delights of George Howe Colt’s childhood summer place, The Big House.

In the spaces between these literary adventures my more physical self was learning to reach right instead of left for a stirring spoon, and to relax in the hot tub of the Eastern summer atmosphere.

3) I need — o.k., I feel the need! — to write about at least some of the experiences in order to process the information and be restored from the overload/exhaustion of so much excitement. As Alain and I were musing together over the meaning of our travels, I scribbled notes in the margins and made a list in the back of the book of all the blog post ideas that were generated from our “discussion.” Every night for a week or two I have spent at least fifteen minutes writing and rewriting in my mind, in the dark, my review of the Colt book.

Even Archimandrite Sophrony is reported to have said, “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” I don’t know what the context of this quote was, but the urge is a basic, human, compelling one, and applies to just about everything I know.

The Milky Way

4) When I am on the trip, just returned from a trip, or packing my bags and boxes to set off again, there is less time than ever for this kind of writing, and also less mental energy. When I hear Thomas Mann say, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” I feel that I am certainly one of those. I could coin my own saying: “A homemaker-writer with a large family is somebody for whom writing is even more more more difficult than it is for other people.”

I hope I am not complaining, by using the word difficulties. I could say challenges, or pieces. Or thoughts, as in “Bring every thought captive to Christ.” In my mind I have more challenging pieces of thoughts and prayers and connections to be made than there are dust bunnies floating up and down the stairs.

This morning it all seemed too much, as I add another item to the list of things that make us happy as kings: We are going to the cabin! There will be stimulating conversation on the way, as our numbers will be doubled by the presence of our dear Art and Herm. (That will add pieces, to be sure.)

Stars will shine crisply in the black sky at night, and in the mornings chipmunks will scurry in the brush below the house. Humans will eat cookies and bacon and drink coffee on the deck while we watch the hummingbirds squabble, and we’ll paddle our canoe quietly over the lake.

(Past posts about our Sierra cabin: 2009  2010  and  2011 )

Though I have picked up only a few pieces here to tie in my bundle, it’s been quite comforting. Now I can face my lists of more practical things like dinner menus, shopping needs, and what to put in my book bag. That won’t be too difficult.