March 11, 2020

Didion: Grammar is a Piano I Play by Ear

Joan Didion in her essay "Why I Write" explains that all of her books began with a picture in her mind, and this picture guided all decisions that she made.
Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.* It tells you. You don’t tell it. 
* “Note well.”

Joan Didion "Why I Write"

Joan Didion "On Self Respect" (Vogue Magazine, 1961)

Joan Didion, novel excerpt, Play It As it Lays

March 4, 2020

A Subject Rather Than a Delusion

In Things I Don't Want to Know, Deborah Levy has created a lyric essay on George Orwell's "Why I Write," a memoir of growing up as a white girl in apartheid South Africa, and an essay about grief, the language of politics, and artistic work:
When a female writer walks a female character in to the centre of her literary enquiry (or a a forest) and this character starts to project shadow and light all over the place, she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part to do with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the societal system in the first place. She will have to be canny how she sets about doing this because she will have many delusions of her own. In fact it would be best if she was uncanny when she sets about doing this. It's exhausting to learn how to become a subject, it's hard enough learning how to become a writer. 
In our culture, women are often objectified. It's correct to identify this objectification as a delusion. In a book, an essay, a poem, the writer must break through this delusion. This involves seeing clearly the context and clearly seeing what is at stake for the character. Making a woman a subject requires the writer to allow the character personal agency, to act and to change. The book asks the question: what do we do with knowledge we can't bear to live with?  She concludes with a reference to "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf.  Levy says, "A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly." 

The form of Levy's essay borrows Orwell's thoughts on the motives for writing prose. Levy has used these as chapter headings.
1. sheer egoism: Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered...
2. aesthetic enthusiasm: "Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story"
3. historical impulse: "Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity"
4. political purpose. "Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people's idea of the kid of society that they should strive after." 
The book is slim, and I read and reread it because of its depth. It helped me, as a writer and in my writing. Levy's work has a fine rhythm and her language is pitch perfect. Why does one write? The answer to this question takes one deeply into one's past and political awareness. It's a question that yields good material.

March 1, 2020

My Geology

 from Night Train Red Dust, Wildwood River Press

Poem and voice - Sheila Packa
Digital film and sound - Kathy McTavish