Embers’ Voyage into Memory and Truth

Sándor Márai’s Embers is about memory. The first part of the novel is the General reminiscing on his childhood. We learn that the General cannot survive being alone. Yet for 41 years what keeps him ticking is the memory of one day. 

While the General repeats that he is looking for the truth, we only receive one person’s thoughts and memories- the General’s. The General says he wants answers to two questions, but when he asks the first he doesn’t let Konrad respond. When the General asks the second, Konrad scoffs at him for asking it. The novel is not about finding truth, but how we are incapable of finding truth when we are consumed with our own world view. We don’t hear Konrad’s perspective and we don’t even open Krisztina’s diary. Or perhaps a better way to frame it is how the truth is malleable. The General describes facts as being the events themselves. The General and Konrad went hunting together is a fact. The General sees the truth as being the human side behind the facts, the motivation and feeling behind what happened. The truth would be why did Konrad want to kill the General. 

Other than being self absorbed, why can’t the General see the truth? The General places an emphasis on music and how he hates it because he doesn’t understand it. He sees music as the enemy that takes away the people he loves, like his mother and Konrad. Music is the connection to the ethereal. Music allows for self dispossession and with this disconnect from the self the ability to see the truth. The General is never able to disconnect from himself. His story is framed around himself. He never opens Krisztina’s diary that we would consider to be a primary source, a participant’s own account. The General’s life is ruled not by the truth but by his memories. 

An interesting note about the title, at Stanford’s book club, a woman noted that in Hungarian the title means the end of a burning candle not embers. The burning of a candle makes me think of Macbeth’s “Out, out brief candle!” The original title is referring to the dinner candles and how the General’s and Konrad’s lives keep burning while they go through their memories. And how life is brief like a candle. The original title puts the novel in a reflection about how life burns. The English title links to the embers of an old flame and a rekindling passion, but the novel is not a romance. It isn’t until half way through that the love triangle is brought to light. I think the original title is important to show the novel as a philosophical book rather than a heated romance.

The author is ambitious in writing a novel that spans a day and night with no action. All the General does is talk. The tension is created from the General’s great storytelling skills and the sweeping language. If you’re interested in hearing an old man’s investigation into friendship, truth, and memory, this is an engaging read. Dialogue, action, and physical movement are what make a dynamic narrative. Embers has none of that, but is obsessed with memory, truth, and friendship. 

Pausing Life with Niedecker’s The Granite Pail

Lorine Niedecker’s style struck me as a collection of short snippets. The first section I could see as a long poem comprised of short parts. I found it interesting that Niedecker moved from the first section being entirely short poems to then the second and third sections being both short poems and long poems with the third section being more heavily focused on long poems. I think the poem length went along with the time. Most of her short poems tend to be about nature and the yearned for simple life, and so it makes sense for the poem to be simpler in the sense that it is shorter. While the long poems still talked about nature, I felt a greater conflict of nature versus people and nature versus machine. For example, “Wintergreen Ridge” includes a sign that says, “Flowers/ loveliest/ where they grow/ Love them enjoy them/ and leave them so,” (78) showing how the greatest danger to nature can be people doing something as simple and thoughtless as picking flowers. Another message that came through to me was the idea that we need to look at nature and appreciate nature. Niedecker’s poems acted as a way for me to see nature without picking the flowers. Within the same poem, Niedecker details the process of the fly eating plant, how the fly “stimulates leaf-plasma/ secretes a sticky/ clear liquid/ the better to eat you/ my dear/ digests cartilage” (80). Describing the plant is a way to appreciate nature, but Niedecker also has a fun style of conjuring up the fable of Little Red Riding Hood with “the better to eat you my dear” to show how mythical the process of a plant eating flies sounds.

I felt like this collection of poems was speaking to the past of living with the land and it’s present, which I think could continue to apply today, of commercialism. The first poem that struck me with the idea of commercialism was the first line “I am sick with the Time’s buying sickness” (26). I felt a yearning for a time that was simpler before we were bombarded with products and advertisements.

The beginning of “Traces of Living Things” with the Museum and TV reminded me of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which was also published in 1985. With a “Far reach/ of sand/ A man/ bends to inspect himself/ a shell/ Himself/ part coral/ and mud/ clam,” I saw with time humans contemplate who they are and their place in the world (63). A human is a shell because we put so many social constructs around ourselves to attempt to categorize and define who we are such as through gender, race, and class all of which are outside, surface appraisals. Saying that humans are “part coral/ and mud,” Niedecker invoked the idea that humans and vegetation and animals are all made out of the same fundamental elements and so we are all a part of each other. The end of the Museum section with the word “clam” grabbed my attention because I found describing a human being as a clam is very appropriate. We will hold our shells sealed tight against outside currents and other people in order to protect our soft interior.

The Granite Pail made me want to look more at nature, to take the time to stop and look. I think the act of stopping to read her poems is one way of looking at nature as well as human beings, but I feel Niedecker may have wanted her poems to spur the physical observation and protection of nature in the real world as well, which it did for me.

A Breakdown of Poetry

First: “What is a poem?” We slam down technical answers of stanzas, line breaks, rhymes. We slide in the expectation of length, no more than a couple pages, though we let the epics have their own subcategory. Then: “What is a prose poem?” We throw seizures. Our neat box of technicalities is blown apart by sentences, by blocks of black scratches, by words filing into the next line without break or enjambments. We put our arms akimbo and huff it is only a prose poem instead of short fiction if it has poetic language. Finally: “What is poetic language?” Language is made up of words. Words are compromised of letters. Are some letters more poetic than others? The “o” has more soul because it sounds like a mother lamenting her son lost at sea. Letters represent the sounds we make to form words. Words represent the physical and metaphysical for the purpose of communication. Words are tools and with use acquire smooth planes and deep gouges. Subsequent use can mold a word from a needle to a nail. Like a word, a poem is a tool. A poem communicates meaning, expresses feeling, represents movement. Like the English language, we have many poem dialects. Do not ask me what a poem is and expect me to tell you how it will look on the page or sound in your ear. Expect a poem.

The Language of Diary As Sin

Will Alexander visited my Experimental Fiction class at San Francisco State University. From hearing him speak about his novel, Diary As Sin, I realized I had read the novel wrong. How is that possible? I read Diary As Sin silently, only processing the words’ literal meaning. Diary As Sin should be read out loud, slowly, and with inflection. The novel is not about a plot. The novel toys with language as a tool of echolocation for Rosanna who is blind. Alexander’s focus is language as a means to the supraconscious. He described the supraconsciousness as a state above consciousness, the opposite of the subconscious. Rosanna is open to the universe. Her language feels closed to human contact with sentences that refuse closure and paragraphs that span pages.

Will Alexander: The language is meant to lift not restrain the reader.

I approached Diary As Sin as a story, which I have learned is the last way you want to approach experimental work. I felt restricted by the language because I was looking for a story. While there is something happening in the present moment, Rosanna speaking into the tapes, the drama of the story, Rosanna’s abuse, has happened before we enter the novel.

Will Alexander: We’re in arrested development…trained to go from one fixation to another.

While there are characters, the novel is not concerned with character development. From what we have on the page, Rosanna’s family does not change. If anything, the novel is focused on reader development. How can an author convey the power of language for liberation and the repetitive cycle of trauma? Alexander has done this through Rosanna. Rosanna liberates herself through speaking into the tapes every day. Rosanna embodies humanity with how we relive war, slavery, famine because we are trapped in an “us vs them” mentality instead of going beyond the material world.

Since Diary As Sin functions on the sound of language, I was surprised to find out that Alexander’s writing process does not involve sound. He does not speak or record himself. He writes long hand directly from the thoughts in his mind.

Typing vs Handwriting

Last week I went to a writing group that I found on Meetup. The group is called Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Group and, while some people are writing in the speculative genre, it is open to any writer. The group was welcoming and we talked about our current projects. Most people are participating in National Novel Writing Month. I have great admiration for writers who can give themselves a one month deadline. Even if they get half way there, they’re much farther along trying that not starting at all.

One thing that surprised me was everyone had a laptop. A woman remarked on my spiral notebook, I’ve never see that brand of laptop before. Indeed, it’s a limited edition.

A main reason they type is for the word count. Paper, as of yet, cannot count your words. Though there are digital pens, which transfer what you write onto the computer. Moleskine’s Livescribe Notebook may be the most seamless. 

Another reason they type is because their hands hurt if they write for a while. That’s how unaccustomed some writers are to physically writing. We’re the age of digital writers.

I certainly felt like an antique with my black ink and tree pulp. But a few were quick to assure me that writing by hand was still done. They mentioned a published author who writes the first draft by hand and then gives it to her assistant to type. So is writing a novel by hand a privilege?

For word count, since I write almost everything by hand (I’ll directly type assignments that are about 500 words or fewer), I have a good gauge of how my written pages translate to typed pages. For example, ten written single sided pages (when I say page, I always mean single sided) is about four to five double spaced typed pages, around 2,000 words. Of course this varies depending on your handwriting.

If you use a laptop, your battery rules your life. If your battery is dead, you have to find an outlet and sit next to it. What if there’s not outlet, you write on your phone? While phones keep getting bigger, it still sounds uncomfortable.

I really like the smell of paper and pen. Yes, you can say I’m killing trees. But I plan on publishing a novel, so I’m not worried about a handful of notebooks because then I’ll be killing a lot more trees.

I’m more productive when I’m not on my computer. I’m doing a lot of medicine and biology research for my book, so of course I use the internet for that. I need to set aside time for research because reading articles can open up an abyss of fascinating web pages to read. I also get sidetracked with videos, emails, and oh yeah I need to do my FAFSA.

I already spend a lot of time in front of the computer because of my job, my school, and my entertainment. I welcome time to give my eyes a break. I think an underused tool for typing is dictation, which I love because my hands don’t have to work, and I’m reading my work out loud so I can catch mistakes by ear. As with any tool, there’s a learning curve to using it.

Which do you prefer, typing or handwriting?

The Black Hood of Citizen

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a book of prose poetry in which many read as narrative essays and poetic memoirs. Rankine has a powerful style in which she conveys a heavy message about racism with a quick punch of one to two lines. The images interspersed throughout the book serve to add to Rankine’s content instead of distract.

Simply looking at the front cover image, a black hood, brings forth multiple messages about race and personhood. First, Zora Neale Hurston said, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” and there is word art of this quote in the book. The black hood stands out against a white background symbolizing how a black person feels most black when put against a crowd of white people. The black hood is singular, conveying the isolation felt by people subjected to racism. The black hood is empty showing how a black person is invisible. It is a hood that has the negative connotation of an uneducated, dangerous gangster. All of these topics are encapsulated by the image of the black hood and Rankine explores them in Citizen.

Rankine’s situation videos are among her most breathtaking work because of the layering of images, colors, sound effects, her voice, and her words. In Rankine’s situation video “Stop-and-Frisk,” a couple of young black boys are trying on hoodies in a clothing store. Police sirens pulse in the background, creating a sense of emergency, but the scene playing out is mundane, teenagers shopping for clothes. The police car lights flare and block out the boys’ faces representing how black people are not seen as people. Throughout Rankine repeats the line “And you are not the guy, but still you fit the description. Because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” There is the tension of the questions will these boys shoplift? And implicit in that question is race with the prejudice that some people “look” more likely to steal. The scene ends with the boys paying for their items and walking out of the store and into the possibility of fitting the description.

White Noise’s Warning of Technology

In White Noise by Don DeLillo, a toxic cloud of an insecticide byproduct called Nyodene D. is created when a train transporting the chemical is derailed. Jack Gladney and his family evacuate to Iron City and are inside a building when:

At noon a rumor swept the city. Technicians were being lowered in slings from army helicopters in order to plant microorganisms in the core of the toxic cloud. These organisms were genetic recombinations that had a built-in appetite for the particular toxic agents in Nyodene D. They would literally consume the billowing cloud, eat it up, break it down, decompose it (DeLillo 160).

White Noise warns against the use of technology to create chemicals and microorganisms because it disrupts the natural order and has unknown consequences.

Nyodene D. is a “toxic cloud” and a “billowing cloud,” which makes it seem like a force of nature. Nyodene D. is called a cloud, not only to describe what it looks like, but to disassociate it from being human-made. Nyodene D.’s portrayal as a force of nature provides the scientists with a reason why they cannot contain or neutralize it. This portrayal undercuts the assumption that what is human-made can be controlled by humans. Further, Jack does not know what makes up the toxic cloud as he refers to its components as “the particular toxic agents.” The microorganisms are also described vaguely as “genetic recombinations.” Although Nyodene D. and the microorganisms are human-made, Jack struggles to understand what they are. The passage does not mention who created the microorganisms, and so it seems like they are solely a product of gene technology. Technology takes on a quality of a living being through producing the microorganisms. Nyodene D. is a physical threat to Jack, and others, as well as a psychological threat by being unknowable. The natural order is distorted by humans not being able to control what they make and technology becoming a creator.

The only people mentioned are the technicians, but this word distances them from human flesh and blood into technology. The label “technician” contains “tech” from “technology.” By being called technicians, the people appear to be an extension of technology instead of human. The technicians will “plant microorganisms,” which seems like a natural activity. People plant seeds in order to grow crops to eat. Nyodene D. is a byproduct of insecticide that is produced to protect crops from insects. Instead of humans eating what is planted, the microorganisms planted are eating the Nyodene D. In order to fix this human-made problem, the technicians distort the natural order. Jack is terrified that humankind through new technology is able to make microorganisms to eat Nyodene D. because these organisms are eating death. From the creation of insecticide to the unwanted chemical Nyodene D., these microorganisms that eat the chemical must also have a side effect, but it is unknown.

Nyodene D., the microorganisms, and the technicians demonstrate how technology warps the natural division between the living and nonliving. Nyodene D. and the microorganisms are a threat to human life because they are a disruption of the natural order and were each created in response to the human-made. White Noise is a warning of how the creation of new chemicals and organisms make the nonliving seem alive and puts the living into technological terms to its detriment.

Naked Lunch Review

William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is confusing in how it shifts narrators, places, and topics without warning. There seems to be no overarching structure to the novel other than its lack of structure. There are brief one to seven word titles (I hesitate calling them titles because they are decentralized by being all lower case, right aligned, same font size as the prose, and if they were not italicized they would blend with the rest of the text) that are like a flash of “10 Days Later” on screen. The deemphasis of the titles supports the text’s desire to be seen as a visual form because it is not about the traditional form of a title being a given after a page break, a larger font size, or sectioned off with space underneath it. The deemphasized titles are a quick note that we are moving along like how we see a movie cut scenes and immediately know we are somewhere else. Burroughs uses the word “Fadeout” often that makes the novel feel like a play dimming the lights in order to change costumes and background scenery. In certain respects, this novel would flow better as a play. The heavy attention to visual detail, the spasmodic shifts in scenes, and the many characters with unique characteristics. But the play would have to be rated R for its explicit language as well as the excessive display of sex and violence. Naked Lunch is fascinated with the visual representation of the mental, from hallucinations to government experiments gone wrong.

The sex scenes, particularly with Mary, Johnny, and Mark, reminded me of Crash by J.G. Ballard because both are obsessed with sex and violence. Naked Lunch’s obsession with drugs, sex, and violence shows a side of America that is fueled by the rush, the need to have instant gratification, and does anything to fulfill this need. Crash has a narrative whereas Naked Lunch is more aptly a jumble of short stories and chunks of prose. Naked Lunch’s lack of structure worked well for it because it sets the reader in the mind of the junkie where there is no time only junk time. The removal from linear time pairs well with queer time, time that is deliberately non-linear in order to challenge the standard straight, heterosexual orientation norm. Naked Lunch has a lot of homosexual sex as well as a particular interest in sex and death by hanging. The rapid killing of people shows a disregard for life and highlights the extremity of instant gratification. People will truly do anything for the rush, even kill others and themselves for it.

Naked Lunch has tidbits of social commentary on complacency, the police state, the use of technology and science to control people, the power of the doctor, and political parties. I wondered if these pieces would work better as stand alone short stories because as part of the novel they get lost among the whirlwind of other bizarre anecdotes and snapshots of different characters.

How Nonfiction and Fiction Writing Intersect

A family member gave me a book titled, “How to Write Historical Fiction.” I haven’t written historical fiction and I don’t suppose I will, but that doesn’t mean the book is useless. Historical fiction is the genre that is the most explicit with mixing nonfiction and fiction. Nonfiction and fiction each use each other.

When I tell someone my focus is creative writing, they act like the field of nonfiction is closed to me, as though all I can write is made up stories. I find the two genres to be inseparable. My creative writing is inspired by my nonfiction life.

Even in nonfiction, there is creativity in how it is formatted, what is told, and how much is told. This is why you can have dozens of books on the same person and each book will be different even though that person’s actions and events in his/her life are the same. A nonfiction book is still told through a frame. The frame or the point of view is something that we can never escape from in storytelling, even if the story is true, because the storyteller has to make decisions of how the story is told. The most nonfiction a story can be is real life, but we still run into differences from points of view. Witnesses of a crime scene give different statements because they saw the same event from different observation points and have different interests.

Even in the wildest fiction, there are elements of real life, whether it be inanimate matter, language, or living beings. How the real life elements are changed or what is added is what makes these stories refreshing. Yet the same can be true for nonfiction with how we are surprised and fascinated by the bizarre things that are true of reality.

But for nonfiction you have to do research and fiction can be anything you come up with. Well, good creative writing also requires research in order to make the elements that are nonfiction or to make something unreal believable and place us concretely within the new world.

I Learned Everything for My Job Outside of Class

My official job title is office administrator, but it’s a bit more than answering the phone and processing invoices. I’m also the copy editor, graphic designer, and website manager. I learned all of these skills outside of the classroom.

I learned how to copy edit at The Riding Light Review where I was lucky to have a mentor walk me through the process when I started. This volunteer work is the bulk of my experience with copy editing fiction, besides my own writing. My nonfiction experience has been with friends’ essays and emails. Aside from “Oh, you want to be a teacher” and “What’s your favorite book,” “Can you read this for me” has to be the next most common question I’m asked as an English major. While my friends think they’re getting free help, I know I’m gaining valuable experience and exposure to a wide range of content and voice.

Graphic and web design have always been a personal interest of mine. While I have taken a few summer classes, I have primarily taught myself how to use the Adobe CS programs and HTML and CSS coding. The keyword in my resume that landed me the job was WordPress, which I learned through doing this blog.

While the degree was good to get my foot in the door, as most jobs have a minimum qualification of a Bachelor’s, volunteer work and hobbies are where I learned how to do things. I think the most important thing is to do what you are passionate about. Don’t put yourself in a box just because colleges have neatly defined categories for their majors. Go out and explore the world. If you do what you enjoy, it will most likely benefit you whether its in your personal or professional life.