Arnie Levin in The New Yorker
A few weeks ago, I got notice that a wonderful woman, with whom I had been in an amateur theatre company decades ago, had passed away at the age of 95.
I had not seen her in over thirty years, but I had many fond memories of her comedic and dramatic talents. I had directed her in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank, and she played her part of the spoiled Mrs Van Daan to perfection.
I wrote her daughter a condolence note with some of my memories of her mother. Last week the daughter sent back the following lovely document written by her mother, which was found bundled with her mother’s cemetery deed. I thought you might like to read it.
To Fellow Thespians!
If all the world’s a stage then this a part to die for—
No auditions necessary
Starring role guaranteed
Car service to and from
Only a friendly audience
You’re not criticized for lying down on the job
I hear the cast party is out of this world!!
Secret is the name of magician Derren Brown’s new live one-man show, and I’m happier than a pig in manure because for the first time ever, Derren is bringing his new show to the United States. Better yet, it’s opening in my city, New York City, this May, under the auspices of the Atlantic Theater Company. If you order now, you just might be able to get tickets.
In my opinion, he’s not just good, but so much better than any other contemporary mentalist, that it’s almost not fair to compare him with anyone else.
Click on the video above to see a very entertaining piece from his 2008 live show, An Evening of Wonders.
I have not written a real letter for over thirty years. A real letter—not a condolence card, a thank-you note, or an email.
I don’t think I’m alone in that. There are those of generations after mine who have never written a letter or received one. More, not been part of the whole process of letter writing. A letter is not just the object itself and its container— the envelopes, enclosures and clippings, circled pieces of newspapers, glitter, stickers, ink smudges, stationery—“-er-” like “pap-er,”—little 2×3 photos, scrawled identification on the back—but also the whole rhythm and trust of back and forth, the framing of communication in bursts of captured time, even as time passes.
And pass it does. Or did. Now, there is no time, for we can access anyone, anytime, instantly. We see the whole of the universe like a map before us, able to point our finger to any star. But then, time existed, meant something in human terms. Waiting, for example. We knew that even as we were writing that it wouldn’t be received for days, maybe weeks, and who knows when we could get the reply to our comments, our bits of news, our declarations, our entreaties, our losses? What to do, in the meantime, while waiting, was a real issue. How different our lives were. Now our communication is nearly all in almost-real time: over Skype, over text, over email. There is no anticipation anymore, what we see is what we get, albeit screen-mediated: if not now, then never.
The letter reminded us of this essential fact: there are gaps in our perception of the lives of the other. The hard thing in human relationship is to assimilate the fact of mutual change, how both of us are always changing, have changed.The continuity of modern communication lulls us into a false familiarity. But when waiting two weeks for a letter’s reply and two weeks for the reply to the reply, one can rightly wonder whether the person on the other end is still the same and knowable.
I was set thinking about this by a Denise Levertov poem, “Writing to Aaron,” which I read recently with a group of friends. In the poem, the narrator struggles to find a way to respond to a letter that she has taken too long to answer. The narrator understands that with each passing day, the gap between who we were and who we are is growing greater and greater. In those letter-writing days that awareness fostered in us a kind of responsibility, an obligation to answer in a timely manner. If you didn’t, then there was the double problem of not knowing how to explain your tardiness, and the fear that the person to whom you were responding may have changed beyond all recognition. And for the more literary of us there was still another fear: it was too easy for us to fall in love with our own writing, so at times we wrote to and for ourselves, rather than to and for the person whose name we put on the envelope.
Faced with this, the letter-writer must develop methods of how to talk about the gap, how to talk about all that has occurred in the time that has passed, and equally how to talk about what will happen until the next communication occurs.
Levertov’s narrator suggests several strategies. Her narrator considers just putting the dry facts of change up front, then rejects that plan as inadequate, the external facts don’t account for the internal ones:
“…Which beginning to begin with? ‘Since I saw you last,
the doctor has prescribed artificial tears, a renewable order…’ But that leaves out
the real ones.”
She also considers a chronological narrative, but too much time has passed, and that too would be inadequate, too much to tell in too little space:
“Or chronological narrative? ‘In the spring
of ’73,’…’That summer,’
‘By then it was fall…’
All or nothing—
and that would be nothing,”
So this too is inadequate. She finally thinks that perhaps she can only bridge the gap by calling upon a shared memory, hoping the recipient can fill in the rest.
“Maybe I’ll leave the whole story
for you to imagine,
telling you only, ‘A year ago
I said farewell to that poplar you will remember,
that gave us its open secret…”
After reading this poem, I started to imagine myself writing a letter. This act of imagination sent me to a place, a consciousness, in which I hadn’t been in a long time. I felt myself in an intimacy before I had even written down a word. I rebelled, I wanted to write an email. It requires so much less of one. A letter is an act of intimacy and truth, and I haven’t the emotion anymore for that. To see my own scrawl of a handwriting in ink, on paper? Too naked, too unseemly, at this age. I don’t even write down a shopping list anymore.
But what I can’t get away from is how excited my poetry friends, Connie, Evelyn, Teresa, and I got talking about letters, the thrill of pages double-sided leafed through again and again, folded and re-folded, stuck in pockets and books to take out on a windy bus-waiting day, or found years later, at the bottom of the untouched stuck drawer, the ink a witness to the truth of that moment, because I’m looking at your handwriting and I’m deciphering the distance and time that separates us but joins us, as if some part of your presence were truly here in this paper in this time, with these words, in this letter.
This is what we talked about Sunday, and I don’t know that I can bear to write one more letter.
(You can view Denise Levertov’s poem by clicking here: https://www.questia.com/read/93938346/life-in-the-forest and doing a bit of navigating.)
Monday, Phil looking back at us, singing a song inspired by Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie.
“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”–The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
“Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.”—Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie
Thanks to YouTuber HiddenFormula
The same, only different. That’s what the people want, so they say. But how same and how different? That no one can tell you.
I’m working on the manuscript of Novel #2. Presently, there is much good in it, and much that is not so good in it. The way the book is presently constructed, it has a frame story that takes place in the present, and a mystery of sorts leads one of the characters back in time to previous events. So a substantial amount of the book takes place in the past. And as I was going through the manuscript this time through, it became very clear to me: the parts that were not so good were mostly in the frame-story portion, the portion of the novel set in the present.
I tried to understand why this was so. It seemed to me that the characters in the frame story had less dimension, spoke more stiltedly, and seemed overall less real to me. When I first had the impetus to write this book, the incidents in the past are what propelled me to start writing. I grafted on the frame story, because I thought I could make a clever plot connection between the events in the present and the events in the past. And that is where I made my mistake. Because clever is very different from true. And what I’m learning now, for my taste at least, is that truth beats clever every time.
Not that there is no place for cleverness in a novel. But it can’t be the sole reason for its existence, unless it’s a genre-specific item, like a sci-fi story or a mystery. As an extreme example of this, I recently read a mystery called The Tokyo Murder Mysteries, recommended on one of the magic forums. It’s an extraordinarily clever locked-room style multiple murder mystery whose answer is literally the same as the method to a very clever close-up magic trick involving dollar bills. Now I enjoy this kind of book, it has a great power to amuse and entertain me, but on the other hand it has little power to move me. And if a piece of literary fiction doesn’t move the reader in one way or another, then for me, it hasn’t done its job.
So what then should literary fiction do, at a minimum? The formulation I came up for myself was that the kind of book I’m interested in reading and writing must speak a recognizable unspoken truth about the human condition. However, that stipulation is necessary, but not sufficient. It can’t keep saying the same thing in the same way as other books. So I amend it to, “To speak a recognizable unspoken truth—in a novel way.”
In a novel way. Oh my goodness, I never—stupid me—never made the connection between the two meanings of the word. A novel is something that talks about life in a novel way. There must be surprise and unpredictability. The same, only different. How much same and how much different? In a genre novel, very likely much of it is the same as others in its genre; if any of the rigid conventions of the genre are broken, it’s quite possible that the reader will feel badly disappointed. On the other hand, the need for surprise somewhere in the book is even greater, because of the necessity of distinguishing itself from the rest of its similar genre-soaked companions. So a genre book depends heavily on one twist, usually at the end, that does all the heavy lifting. If that twist doesn’t work, then the book has little value. To take the murder mystery example above, if the reader doesn’t appreciate the ingenuity of the solution to the multiple murder mystery, then as far as the reader is concerned, the time spent reading has been wasted.
But in literary fiction, the balance is different, there’s much more unpredictability. As a writer I am most happy when I surprise myself as I go along, because I know that if I am happily surprised as I am writing, then perhaps the reader will be pleasantly surprised as well. A tale full of sound and fury that’s been told before in the same way? Well, that signifies nothing.
The balance of those two imperatives—truth and novelty—is something that I must continually weigh as I continue to revise my manuscript. I can’t allow myself to be seduced by one side to the exclusion of the other. There must be both throughout the manuscript.
A novel should speak the recognizable unspoken truth in a novel way.
Bob and Ray were generally gentle in their humorous swipes at American culture and media, but probably never was their satire more cutting and Swiftian than in this routine, The Great Lakes Paperclip Company.
Thanks to YouTuber A Blast from the Past, and thanks to Marilyn Vogt-Downey for the suggestion.