It’s my last day of being a church musician. I’m thinking about writing this morning. I wonder if my next thing will be writing. I have always loved words. I don’t really tell stories very well. But like everyone I have a lot of material in my life that lends itself to being put into prose.
So there’s memory.
If I start writing about a memory should I change the names in it right away? My inclination is that I should because I think the rhythm of the sentences is important to me.
For some reason i have faith in myself that if i turn myself to writing fiction that will go well. Or at least i will be likely to be almost satisfied with what I can come up with. The reason for this is I believe in my ability to listen to characters and let them unfold on their own. I’m not sure why I have this confidence but I do.
I think I have had an interesting life. Born into the heartland in Anderson, Indiana, the birthplace also of a weird Christian church that calls itself The Church Of God. Or as I grew up saying it “churchagod.” My young parents were attending the church’s small college that still sits in this midwestern town. Before long, my Mom quit school pregnant with me and Dad finished and became a minister in the church. They moved to the South.
It was years later before I understood about the color lines in our country. Sure I have a vague memory of being appropriately indignant for a little boy about the colored only drinking fountain.
I seem to recall horror in my Dad’s face as he pulled away me from it.
I’m pretty sure if I just rambled to myself on the page eventually after some ruthless editing and cutting down I might come up with some good stuff.
But for now the next thing in my life is to rest up a bit and consider what I want to spend my time doing besides practicing, reading, and studying.
In the meantime I have listening to Zadie Smith’s collection of essays, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. They impress me so much that I bought a hard copy of the book to read carefully.
In one of the essay, “That Crafty Feeling,” Smith points out that a writer only really knows what craft works for her. Or that’s what I get out of her comments like “what I have to say about craft extends no further than my own experience.”
She also parses one of my other favorites, David Foster Wallace, in the essay, “Brief Interviews with hideous Men: the Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace.”
I listen to stuff like this at night. The point is to drift off to sleep. So I don’t hear everything. That’s why I bought the book. I find Smith saying things that interest me and I want the whole concept to ponder and learn from.
I finished reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God last night. This book is the subject of the first essay in Smith’s collection, “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What does Soulful mean?”
As a fourteen year old, Smith rejected books like this. She says she flattered herself that “ranged widely” in her fourteen year old reading and never chose books for “genetic or sociocultural reasons.” Her idea of good writing at that age did “did not include aphoristic or overtly ‘lyrical’ language, mythic imagery, accurately rendered ‘folk speech’ or the love tribulations of women.”
This last list describes Hurston well. Finally giving in to her mother’s recommendation to read it, Smith goes on to be totally converted to Hurston by reading the novel.
At seventy, I had less misgivings than she. But I admit I had to look past Hurston’s rendering of dialog. Reading it aloud helped. Also the fact that when she introduces white people into the story, they speak in “folk speech” so it’s not just some sort of dialect that she is rendering.
But all this stuff falls away when I read Hurston. She is in control. But she also is going somewhere that no one else was going at all in 1937 when the book was published.
Zora Neale Hurston 1861-1960
I get a bit of magic realism vibe when she flips her prose from mind boggling beauty to the mundane and interesting life of Janie Crawford, the main character.
I plan to read more of Thurston’s work. In the meantime, I highly recommend this book. Here are few phrases that struck me as one’s I wanted to remember.’
All quotes below are from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora neale Hurston.
Janie Crawford’s Grandma is talking:
“So de white man is de ruler of everything as far as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. Hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”
While reading and listening to Hurston’s prose in my head (or even out loud) I was reminded of a multi-lingual prof at Notre Dame named Niels Rassmussen. His first language was not English. Once he was listening closely to me as we were chatting. Mimicking my own pronunciation of “to,” he echoed, “tuh” which was actually how I was saying it. He was trying speak the language like a native.
In the audio book of Smith’s essays, the reader affects an exaggerated movie accent (think of the black actors in Gone With the Wind) when reading the dialect in the excerpts from Hurston. It annoys me so much I often skip past it.
“there’s a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.”
“She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up.”
“So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then.”
“All night now the jooks clanged and clamored. Pianos living their lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love. The rick black earth clinging to bodies and biting skin like ants.”
Well, if you read all that, it gives you a taste. Best to read the whole dam book.
My church gave me a gift certificate for Readers World last week. I’m working on an email to ask Readers World to sell me the David Foster Wallace, the 2 Modern Library volumes by Hurston, plus her posthumous publication that came out last year, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”.
I started this post early this morning. I quit in the middle and did my last church service. Then Eileen and I went out to eat. I came home and finished it.
The service went fine. There were a few less people than last week. I don’t really feel the relief right now. It will take me sometime to get used to not having to work up the psychic energy to do the church thing. In the meantime, I am pondering the next thing.