News and Musings

Upcoming class at the Grotto—come geek out with me!

Do you love words and sentences? Does finding the right word or phrase make your heart skip a beat? Then this class is for you.

TUESDAYS, JUNE 21—JULY 19, 2016, SAN FRANCISCO
THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT: Sentence-Level Style and Editing

Good writing functions on many levels simultaneously. Tone, suspense, character, imagery, and subtext combine to make a story compelling, whether it’s flash fiction or War and Peace. We tend to think of these elements within the context of a whole—a story, essay, or novel—but to deliver that package, the pieces—the words, phrases, and sentences—need to work hard for us. When should our sentences be lean and mean, and when would a languid, lyrical flow be best? When can a single word say it all, and when might a paragraph-length sentence lead the reader deeper into a place or time or character? When is repetition annoying, and when does it add power? Why should you care about musicality in writing? And how can you learn to see your own work more objectively so that you can make all these decisions?

In this class we’ll explore sentence-level style and self-editing techniques through analysis, discussion, in-class exercises, and optional homework. Bring a piece or pieces of writing (fiction or nonfiction; no poetry) you’d like to work on and share, and be prepared to play. Revision is fun!

For more information and to enroll:

Classes

Truth will out—or not

I’m writing this on the eve of a conference I’m going to, The Latest in Longform: The Berkeley Narrative Journalism Conference. I didn’t have to think twice when I signed up for it a few months ago—what’s not to like about a day of discussing the state of literary nonfiction with a bunch of heavy-hitters in the field? I’m as excited about it as I ever was, but I’m going there tomorrow with a specific concern lurking in the back of my mind. What is truth in nonfiction, and how do we know we’ve found it?

I’m wondering this in the context of two recent events, one large-scale and one personal. The large-scale one is the death knell being sounded for National Geographic by its new owner, Rubert Murdoch. Among the many exalted, dedicated journalists who have been handed pink slips, some are fact-checkers—those unappreciated, hardworking ferret-outers of the truth, gifted in the areas of persistence and patience. This would be bad news in any circumstance, but in a world in which anonymous persons can spout ignorant, inaccurate, biased opinions—and worse, present them as facts—without providing a shred of evidence that there’s any validity to them, losing even a single fact-checker means less likelihood that, as Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, truth will out.

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Photo of Launcelot Gobbo in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE from http://havlicek.weebly.com/the-merchant-of-venice.html

The personal event was my fact-checking of a story written by a good journalist. Thinking I simply needed to clarify a few things, I called the person who’d been interviewed; in the course of our conversation I found that there were more inaccuracies than I’d thought. Had the piece been written by a novice, or a sloppy writer, I might have chalked the inaccuracies up to writer error. And I wish I could. What’s more worrisome than a sloppy writer who will be “saved” by a good editor and fact-checker is the suspicion that the writer and I heard different things from the source—not necessarily because the source said different things, though that’s possible. And certainly we know that memories can be faulty and fleeting. What’s worrisome is how much of what the source said might be interpreted differently by writer and fact-checker—and why should it stop there? If the Writer heard A, and Fact-Checker #1 heard B, then might not Fact-Checker #2 hear C? Does that mean Fact-Checker #3 should be deployed, and what if that person validates some of what Fact-Checker #1 found and some of what Fact-Checker #2 found. How many fact-checkers (and time and money) does it take to get at the truths contained in a single story? Now magnify that by the uncountable pieces of information that screech by our eyes and ears every day. How can we possibly keep up?

The state of the planet depends on the decisions we humans make, and these decisions are tough enough even when we have a fine array of facts to consider. It’s crazy-making to think that these decisions are being made in the absence—or near absence—of truth.

What does this mean? I have no answers for you. Maybe I’ll find some tomorrow.

Cycle

I heard some sad news recently: a brilliant man has closed his acupuncture practice due to illness. The loss of his genius as a healing artist is profound, and I grieve for that, and for the fact that he likely is suffering. It’s possible that death isn’t far off. This man—I’ll call him Dr. A—has the kind of genius that to me sets him apart from the merely super-intelligent; his mind seems to function on a different plane. His quirky sense of humor, his intuition, his nonchalant utterings of “Oh, I can fix that”—all things I remember vividly, though my main interaction with him took place 25 years ago.

What I’m realizing, though, in thinking about this man, is how he opened my eyes to a way of thinking I’d had no exposure to as a child and young woman. I grew up in a household where conventional thinking reigned. Illness sent you to doctors who practiced Western medicine; there were no other options. It seems odd to me now, since my family’s lineage can be traced to uneducated people in tiny villages in Italy who laid bricks and mended nets and worked wood or the land, that these people who probably were superstitious and very close to the natural world did not pass on what I imagine would have been a more fluid sense of existence. Perhaps they did, and my branch of the family somehow missed out on it. But it wasn’t until my first acupuncture treatment that I learned that Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers and that there are other ways of perceiving and thinking about the world than the ones I grew up with. I don’t mean different opinions, political bents, religious beliefs—I mean different ideas about the nature and potential of the human mind and body.

Dr. A is very much on my mind, but I take heart in the words my new doctor said to me yesterday. Listening to my pulses, he asked, “Do you practice any kind of art?”

“I write,” I said.

“It would be good if you could make more room in your life for art.”

I looked at him, startled. It’s the kind of thing Dr. A would have said.

Birth, existence, nothingness

Photo from sfperformances.org
Photo from sfperformances.org

Five years was far too long to wait to see the Japanese butoh troupe Sankai Juku again, but the wait ended this weekend with their performances of Umusuna: Memories Before History. Here are some takeaways.

  1. Watching butoh, for me, is unlike watching any other form of dance. Normally my mind is active, interpreting and questioning and analyzing; but with butoh I simply let the dance wash over me. The performance puts me into a kind of semi-trance state; the processing comes later, for days after the show.
  2. I have to keep correcting my posture during the performance, finding that I mimic the dancers somewhat, lowering my head when they sink to the floor, angling a shoulder to match the twist of their bodies. Apologies to the person sitting behind me. (Also, see above.)
  3. Age is meaningless. The 40-year-old troupe’s founder, Ushio Amagatsu, who is 66, still performs; another dancer, Semimaru, has also been with the company since the beginning.
  4. Age is meaningful. Though the dancers are fit, age reveals itself in the softening of the jaw and waistline. Far from being undesirable, this mingling of elders, middle age, and youth creates a community; it also adds depth to the subtle variations in the movement. Though much of the movement is unison, none of it is identical. Each dancer is an individual, and age makes that more apparent, and somehow more potent.
  5. The variations in structure of the human skull are fascinating. Shaved heads, white-powdered skin, and stage lights reveal these differences and make skull shape a primary identifying feature of the dancers.
  6. Less is more. A gap between two slightly raised platforms becomes a stream when blue light is added.
  7. Slow down and breathe. Much of butoh is done at a creeping pace, with bursts of scurrying or flowing action intervening. Watching butoh is like a reminder to meditate.
  8. A flow of sand from the flies to the floor marked the passage of time—an hourglass of sorts, but one that cannot be reversed. Birth, existence, nothingness.