Place in Writing

Abbreviated intro to the reading I did tonight at the Greensboro Writers’ Forum, which leads, more importantly perhaps, to Lorca.

The most important thing I can say about place and writing is that we are place. Landscape is not merely green fields dotted with cows. My thinking around place has been significantly influenced by Lorca’s essay on duende: on what he calls this “mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained which is… the spirit of the earth.” The power of literature arises from our soulful connection to the earth–with all the light and also all the darkness that encompasses.  My book, set on a rural Vermont farm, unwinds as the characters evolve from a youthful idealism to the day-to-day reality of struggling to earn a livelihood from agriculture. All farms confront failure in one way or another; whether in small doses or wholesale catastrophe–much as we do in our own lives. In the end, perhaps, that’s the rub in this world–that mixed, gray place between intense joy and utter sorrow–where our own human stories unfold, and that’s where literature thrives.

So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.

–– Lorca

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Photo by Molly S.

Peony and Walden Pond

I began this blog with the concept that writing matters, and matters so much it’s bone marrow deep.  In these initial few weeks, I’ve written about living in Vermont and what I’m reading.  Have I amused anyone but myself?

These nights, I’m rereading Walden, a book whose spell I first fell under as a high school sophomore.  This reading around, in my forties, Walden‘s lyrical craft re-amazes me, while pushing the limits of radical anti-capitalism.  Any anarchist worth that word should be pencilling up these pages.  Further, I also see how deeply this book  — through my own novice reading — shaped the physical construct of my life.  Perhaps I was naturally inclined to living in rural Vermont; certainly, Thoreau strengthened that inclination.  I am certain the experiences of many others would concur.

This photo below I saw on my daughter’s laptop and asked for a copy.  She said, No, that’s not so good.  What do you like about that?

What I like is this:  this is a photo of extremes — rocky and fragile, crazed paint on an old house behind just-opened petals, and a great deal in between.  Isn’t that a portrait of Thoreau? Aiming for the core of living — bitter or not — seeking the sublime, and, between all that, eating a woodchuck.

Be it life or death, we crave only reality.  If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in our extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Photo by Molly S.

Photo by Molly S.

Coyote Song

My book is headed to galley printing on Wednesday; hence, the last minute flurry of rereading and tweaking — is this quite right?  Can I hone this better?  This chapter, here in its entirety, is Fern one Christmas morning, about as far from this day as possible.  Tonight, so near the solstice, the windows are wide open, a breeze tossing in the maple leaves, the chittering robins presumably sleeping.  There’s an awful lot of snow in this novel.  I mean, an awful lot.  A Vermont book.  Tomorrow, back to my garden.

Chapter 6

Late in the night, I woke.

Tansy cried.

I lifted my sobbing child from her crib and pressed her against my shoulder, humming a tuneless wordless ditty. Her body shook fiercely with distress. Hal’s feet clumped down the stairs. A light glowed from the living room below, and, caressing my daughter’s silky head, I thought of the heat from the woodstove whooshing up the staircase, fleeing into the frozen night through the ceiling of this plank-built uninsulated second floor. Through the window, stars hung in the nightsky, forever distant.

The little girl calmed, wrapped in a blanket and my arms. Her shuttering, gasping breath gradually quieted into sleep. Then I heard a sound I thought at first was an orchestra broadcast from outdoor speakers, as if a DJ had arrived: a trumpeting I mistook on this Christmas morning for Handel’s religious music. Then I thought perhaps it was the ancient sea, dolphins or whales, their voices raised in holy harmony. None of this was so: coyotes howled down the hill, somewhere near the sugarhouse. In the great ocean of night, I couldn’t see them, but I sensed their muzzles were raised to the cold sky, howling in long chimes, one into another and another, and another. With only the little bit of light trickling up the stairs and the stars icy bits, my slumbering child growing heavy in my tired arms, I leaned our weight back on my heels, entranced by the loveliness of this Christmas morning wild serenade.  And like that, the coyotes ceased, and the farmhouse was mute again.

Photo by Molly S.

Photo by Molly S.

Vermont Stony Soil

Excerpt from Hidden View:

Abruptly, the clouds rent apart, sprinkling the house with fresh-washed sunlight, and I stood there, marveling at the sudden unveiling of beauty. In a shaft of sunlight, the old farmhouse with all its crumbling paint and spreading rot appeared burnished bright, flawless, amazingly just built. The cornfield so glossy green held twinkling jewels of water in the myriad golden manes of tassels. Overhead, the ample sky spread its colors of roseate and sapphire and pearl. I had thought building the house and farm on this knoll a foolhardy vision, but I wondered keenly now what hands and eyes, what laughing voices and rampart lovemaking, had begun this farm.

Through the truck’s rain-smeared window, I saw my little daughter sleeping, the tip of her tongue kittycat-ish between her garnet lips. The cold and wet had rubbed a rosy sheen over her round cheeks. If I left, got back in that truck and high-tailed my way down the road, I feared I would never cease fleeing. Tumbled behind me, irredeemably attached to my heels, perpetually dogging me, would gnaw my own festering failures, a shackle I would never be able to cleave apart. Somehow, I had fomented a conviction this iridescent beauty demanded a stony soil, rank offal, the misery of illness: that to pretend otherwise was a foolhardy and misguided notion. I could not flee toward a world of rainbows and sparkly unicorns. I believed, crude-formed as I knew my thinking was, that we had sown the seeds of our daughter Tansy and Hidden View Farm, and now, in the midst of cultivation’s hard haul, I had to grit my teeth and suffer through the trials of evolving growth. Howling in my young body, over the rolling flux of seasons, of dying autumn and bleak winter and joyous summer, rang the experience that this farm was earned with far more than a requisite pound of flesh. I believed Hal and I would come back to each other, this rift between us a rainy season that would, eventually, disperse and clear. I believed we would grow old together, that we would come to know the sharp lines around our eyes, the aged quiver of our hands, the thinness of spotted skin over knuckles as our hands gradually slowed. I believed to get to there, I had to endure through here. All things in due course. Hands to the shovel. Lean into your work. Persevere.

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Photo by Molly S.