The Narrator’s Place

Recent notes from my editor. He begins by quoting from the first chapter,

No-one talks. Joe C puts no more thought into maneuvering between the moored craft than he would crossing from his table to his sink in his own kitchen. Sammy and Josey recline on the front of the massive heap of netting, smoking. Sammy notes some chaffed gear on the bowsprit of a moored schooner that looms overhead, smiling to himself over a remembered joke. Josey’s gaze follows his cousin’s. He smiles too, with no thought to wonder why.

Railroad Wharf

And he finished his remarks with this analysis,

…an excellent example of this section’s tone and style, fully polished. (It only now occurs to me that you’re writing a period piece in period style, namely naturalism.) All that said, I see many improvements and — because no good deed goes unpunished — many opportunities for more. I find it’s like that, in how the more things one fixes, the more problems one discovers. The issue of where — exactly — the narrator’s space exists is increasingly significant because of this very strange and intriguing thing that you’re doing by using the means of naturalism to explore an issue much larger than naturalism ever did… or perhaps, explore what naturalism was blindly groping towards, namely an understanding that the pervasive human tragedy can only be made sense of if you include the tragedy of the relationship between humanity and the natural world. To rephrase, it’s a vintage style addressing an excruciatingly current issue, and the narrator is all you’ve got to make or break that bridge, which is a narrow one, though clearly viable.

Christian Ford

Christian has, once again, found what’s there, staring back at us if only we could see it!

I’ve gathered myself together over the last six months and made a push to get this manuscript into shape, harvesting the fruits of his earlier direction. What is now on this site is a workable draft, taking what may have been promising; but hopelessly clogged and confusing fragments and welded them together. I’m writing this post in an effort to pin down this moment of decision while it is still fresh. As a way to live with Christian’s latest message. To stay with what he says and what that implies. Let my response marinate in whatever resonances come to light.

My first reaction on reading Christian’s note – besides the amusing, slightly embarrassing, aside when I mistook my own text being quoted back to me, “No one talks…” to be a complaint about the manuscript. The kind of complaint, “Nothing happens! No one talks!” that can be so dispiriting even as it evaporates one’s trust in the critic’s competence! This mini-farce, an example of how defensiveness will bury a solid compliment when we are conditioned to expect nothing but put-downs and to be perennially misunderstood!

Once past that, what struck me was a profound recognition, Yes, this has always been a period piece in period style, namely naturalism.” And, using the means of naturalism to explore an issue much larger than naturalism ever did… or perhaps, explore what naturalism was blindly groping towards, namely an understanding that the pervasive human tragedy can only be made sense of if you include the tragedy of the relationship between humanity and the natural world.”

To have one’s purpose – and one’s means – laid bare in this way! I cannot think of a better outcome. To have something so profound yet; in the act of living so buried in the details of what transpires; shown in all its simple clarity; strikes me as a two-fold gift. The gift of insight. And, the sweet gift of having been understood….

What’s long been true, although equally hidden in quotidian details, has been that writing and sharing this work has not followed – nor will it likely ever follow – the traditional pattern of private writing, private editing, and public, well, publication. This model was a romantic ideal for me. The closest I came to it was a charmed, meeting with a lion of publishing at his mid-town Manhattan office as he told me how interested he was in my early manuscript. Meeting with a well respected literary agent at a centuries-old club for lunch, “Yes, I think you’re likely to find a ready audience in Great Britain, or on the continent….” These events happening in a single summer, a long time ago, while traditional publishing was melting down and right at the point when these people; people I’d hoped against hope to have turn their attention on my writing were at the point of retiring. The tide was going out and the wind had died. A fog looming, ready to descend. The moment passed. And with it any hopes of that kind of a writing career.

What I felt all this had only made more clear – always looking for the way stark contingency does bring us to moments of clarity – was that what had not changed was the need for a writer to find and cultivate a relationship with the right editor. The rest of that fantasy of mid-twentieth century authorship was dead; but this was, and still is, essential.

It’s said that “time brings us the distance to edit.” It’s true that a great length of time can bring a fresh perspective and a new viewpoint from which to see what we have actually done beyond the veil of hot intention. But time alone, no amount of self-editing, will ever bring us the results we can achieve within the dialog that takes place between a writer and editor who believe in each other. While the old system seemed to promise a path to finding that kind of relationship – it was always most likely a matter of luck or grace even then – the only way that could happen for me was if in the fullness of time and by great luck and grace I could find such an editor. That’s when Christian entered the picture.

* * *

In Shoal Hope there is “…a vintage style addressing an excruciatingly current issue, and the narrator is all you’ve got to make or break that bridge, which is a narrow one, though clearly viable.This is what’s on the table. What’s at stake. In play.

I’ve had hints of this too as I completed this last re-edit – the first real edit, after half a dozen false starts, merely reacting to random snatches of overheard complaints. Not responding to anything substantive and incisive. – There is a space between the characters thoughts and the narrator’s voice. Sometimes that space is fuzzy, ambiguous – arbitrary? At other times it seems to carry real weight.

The whole thing plays with the limits of verisimilitude. Every child knows she’s being told a story. The teller is there in every word. But how? And in what way does this relationship develop and persist? These factors create a place for this bridge Christian calls for.

None of this can be “pinned down.” The mistake behind a system of art is a belief that any system can capture and hold what is in essence a mystery. As in the way in which our face-to-face relationships depend so often on what is not said, what is inferred, misunderstood, miss-heard, miss interpreted, or simply gathered together out of no more than a persistent hunch. These ephemeral elements of our interactions are what often matter to us most. The same is true here.

Christian has often talked to me about the need for a director to give, “a playable direction.” That in the circumstance of attempting to bring out the best performance from a fellow artist – one role of a director or editor – it is important to provide a direction, a clue, suggestion, simply a space, in which the artist feels free to play what’s been made implicit by the director’s gaze. We’re talking about working with the fact that the act of observation perturbs the observed, using this as a catalyst to help a performer perform. We’re dealing with the boundaries between perception, action, and the way an action is then perceived; as the basis for what then happens over time. This is how life plays out.

Let’s set aside for now that there are times when the best “playable direction” might be an impossible request or setting up a box or trap with no visible exit. In life Hitchcock might have been a psychopathic killer. In the movies he was a gifted director. Often because he did just this to/for his actors.

Christian’s previous playable direction was for me to put a character’s thoughts into italics and remove anything that smacked of explanation, “It’s just scaffolding. You needed it to build the structure, but no one can live there until you take all that out!”

This direction rattled around in my head for over a year before I found the kind of step-by-step, feet-on-the-ground, sense of something in it that I could actually work with. Once the concept gelled it took on a life of its own. And that’s what’s gotten us this far.

In a painting I liken definitive actions to turning on the light. The painting doesn’t get underway until a series of these moments have happened. When more and more of its surface is illuminated by this play of light. These moments illuminate the work; but it’s not until the entire canvas has been touched by this light that the whole is complete. There’s a similar process at work here. I feel the invigorating – that is life-giving – effect of individual moments of illumination on the work. What’s still left to do, what Christian is pointing to, is that ultimate illumination of the whole.

To the vanishingly small audience here attempting to follow this process; or, more likely stumbling upon this work-in-progress; I address these remarks as part of what’s on offer. The accidents of history that have presented this certain set of circumstances to me as a writer, to you as a reader, have made it possible for us to interact with this work in this peculiar way. It’s easy to take these conditions as obstacles and frustrations of some accustomed order: Writers write, editors edit, and then, and only then! Readers read!

What we have here is a different kettle of fish! Why not savor it? Let’s see what comes of all this together?

I know what you mean when you say (in so many words) that inviting the “public” along as you edit the thing might diminish its impact when it’s finally done. But in some ways we also get invested in the work more deeply. And Nabokov has an interesting passage in the good readers essay which talks about the need to read something at least 3 times. I think inviting people along in the long run makes the reading richer. We never really perceive a thing’s deepest quality on a first reading, or sometimes even on a second or third.

Jeffrey Shampnois

* * *

This work is laid out here for free.

On the one hand, What choice do I have?

Another way to look at it is to take this as an invitation. An invitation for involvement in a work of art as something other than simply its consumer.

There are a variety of ways to interact with this project.

Some might be obvious, especially in the light of Kickstarter and Unbound….

Others might be more obscure. Beyond offering material backing or aide to the struggling author; you might consider proof-reading or just sharing your word-of-mouth with others you think might be interested.

Another line to pursue follows the train of thought that sees this production as a performance in its own right. What about offering, nominating, facilitating opportunities for me to read excerpts in front of a live audience?

This is a work of written words; but it is also, implicitly, a store of stories to be told the old fashioned way, in front of others within the living fabric of a shared experience. Told stories have always been open-ended stories. Not held to the same restrictions as fixed, published, authorial editions. These experiences may bring into play a different kind of connection and vitality. The spoken story is a shared story in a way the written word can never really be; no matter how widely read. The intimacy and direct connection of the event itself is an added dimension that more than makes up for the fragmentary nature of a reading since it cannot hold an entire long-work within the bounds of an evening; but what it does bring may more than make up for that.

Let these ruminations be a spark to begin your own imaginings of what might be possible. Feel free to use these germs to propagate other seeds elsewhere as well!

This openness is inherent in the shared gift of an art practiced instead of an art consumed.

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