Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Invention Lunch

I am trimming up a new course I have worked on this year, Apprenticeship Writing Workshop, and I came across this passage on invention I wrote and would like to share. I hope it will pique your interest and you'll enroll for the summer or the next school year!

If you have ever been faced with the horror of a blank page and an invitation to “write about anything at all,” you should appreciate the suggestions in this section. Consider an analogy from non-writing life:

You are a houseguest, perhaps staying overnight with friends-of-friends in a town where you are visiting a prospective college. The woman of the house welcomes you warmly and apologizes for needing to leave for a while, inviting you to “help yourself to lunch.” You’re really hungry, and it will be a long time until dinner. But you don’t know this lady, or where she keeps everything, or what she had in mind for you to make for lunch.

What you really need are materials—for her to set out the things you might make lunch from, so that you know the limits and the extent of what she intends. At the very least she could make a broad sweeping gesture toward the kitchen.

So let’s say she has put out cooked chicken, eggs, cheese, tomato, lettuce, onion, tortillas, bread, and a skillet, and she’s opened the herb cabinet, pots/pans cabinet, dishes cabinet, and utensils drawer to show you where those things are. That’s better.

But you also need some guidance on form—does she intend for you to COOK something or to assemble a sandwich? With the things available, you can make all kinds of things—sandwich, salad, quesadilla, omelet, wrap.

So in writing we need to create for ourselves or have provided to us in an assignment an occasion, materials, and form. This is invention—the beginnings part of it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Much from Little

I cannot remember how I found the recommendation for this novel, but On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin has been on my "wish" list at Paperback Swap for a while. I have found some gems of prose in it, but this little bit illustrates how much characterization may be made from just a few words. It is about 1900 and Sam is a Welsh-border father-in-law who has taken foolishly to doting on his son's new bride:

Sam had the face of a sad old clown.

Fifty years of fisticuffs had flattened his nose. A lonely incisor lingered in his lower jaw. Nets of red string covered his eyeballs and his eyelids seemed to rustle as he blinked. The presence of an attractive woman drove him to acts of reckless flirtation. (p. 38)

And now, because I cannot help it, I offer a moving paragraph from the framing introduction of the book, which describes the lives of that bride's twin sons, now 80yo bachelors about to pass their farm on to a grand nephew:

So now, when they looked at that faded wedding picture; when they saw their father's face framed in fiery red sideburns (even in a sepia photo you could tell he had bright red hair); when they saw the leg-o'-mutton sleeves of their mother's dress, the roses in her hat, and the ox-eye daisies in her bouquet; and when they compared her sweet smile with Kevin's, they knew that their lives had not been wasted and that time, in its healing circle, had wiped away the pain and the anger, the shame and the sterility, and had broken into the future with the promise of new things. (p. 14)

On the Black Hill
, by Bruce Chatwin. New York: Penguin Books, 1984

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

An Elusive Life

As a self-employed homeschooling Mom, I have the luxury of "reinventing myself" from time to time, as I have interests leading me one way and another in my work, my hobbies, and my studies. I've been learning astronomy from excellent lectures by Alex Filippenko for The Teaching Company, I recently finished my first needlepoint project in a few decades, and I'm doing more consulting and curriculum development for schools. But I have nothing on Lev (Leo) Nussimbaum.

As his life is discovered through his aliases--Essad Bey and Kurban Said--the mysterious man trapped between revolutions emerges in Tom Reiss's The Orientalist. Born into a far-east European Jewish family that had dealings with Alfred Nobel and Joseph Stalin both, the millionaire boy grew up considering himself different from others and eventually became a cosmopolitan Muslim. As the Soviets took over his home town of Baku, Lev and his father Abraham fled with their fortunes sewn into their clothes and eventually settled in Germany, where Lev established himself as a talented biographer of many important people and himself married a millionaire girl and got into the gossip columns in America. As the Nazi regime came to power he had to flee Germany and, abandoned by his wife, finally went into hiding in coastal Italy, where he died in his mid-30s of a painful disease.

All along the way Nussimbaum played with his identity, dressing up like a sheik and calling himself by different names and giving different accounts of his background. Because he could not be published in Germany during World War II an eccentric baroness friend took on his alias Kurban Said so that what has become his most famous book could be published: Ali and Nino, a love story.

That book is my next to pick up.