Thursday, May 8, 2008

You're OK

Oh, no, not another quote from the title song of "Oklahoma!" Don't worry. The title of today's blog is a take on a book title from somewhere back in the era of helpful advice....I'm OK, You're OK.

I'm thinking about how the path to greatness begins with OK. It almost never begins with GREAT. With luck, it might begin with GOOD, but if greatness is the prize at the end of all the work, good is not usually something you achieve at the beginning.

It turns out that I am an expert on being no good at the beginning. When I was 18 or so, (OK, I'll fess up; when I was 20 or so), I thought that poetry was something that sounded like the verses we were trained to revere in high school, and I thought it was necessary to write sonnets, so when I noticed that all of what passed as "folk music" in the mid-sixties was pseudo-folk pop music, I composed a disgruntled sonnet that began:

Someone has fashioned an arid, barren plain
Where hordes of rhymesmiths forge false yesterday

I was right proud of the assonance in the first line, the aa sounds of arid and barren, and the way they struck the ear like small anvils in a forge. My pride increased when I noticed that I'd placed internal rhymes in the second line (hordes -- forge), and I nearly knighted myself over the repeated effs of forge and false.

Luckily for you, I can't remember offhand how that embarrassing beginning continued, and it is SO not worth the time to see if it is in my stash of saved garbage. I sent it to my high school English teacher, Reese J. Frescoln, Jr. He was tactful and kind in his note of reply, as I recall, stressing his happiness to have heard from me and saying very little about the sonnet.

About that time, perhaps a year later, I began to waste my free time writing pseudo-folk songs in the style of the day, which is to say, absurd on so many levels, yet so indicative of what might pass for "promise" on a bleak, dry day, where creative juices never flowed, but just formed dust bunnies.

I'd had it with singing covers of Bob Dylan tunes and Pete Seeger tunes and I decided to be a song writer at the lone coffeehouse in town, The Jawbone, an outreach program of the Lutheran Campus Ministry. So I wrote up a repertoire of love songs and topical songs and inflicted them on my peers.

Love songs had to include the phrase, "my love," I imagined, and there had to be some overt sensuality in the lyrics because Eric Andersen had changed the rules of the game with his "Come to my Bedside, My Darlin'."

I was sort of smart enough to realize that Andersen's line, "lay your body soft and close beside me/And drop your petticoat upon the floor" was horrible writing, as if "your body" were something disconnected from "you" and subject to being set down like a coverlet or shoe, but Andersen was BIG at the time, having written an even worse line in "take off your thirsty boots and stay for a while."

He was the one to beat, though, so I worked out a little musical hook that lay easily under my fingers and "wrote" a lyric that began like this...

Relax your mind and close your eyes and linger for a while,
And I will spin a thread of sound and it will be your smile,
And if you want to hear another song on my guitar,
Well, relax your mind, my love, I won't be far...
I'll save a song for you.

The highways of light are fading now to a gentle hue,
So let your spirit sail with me and I'll play you a dazzling view,
And you will feel your senses rise and float across the glen
To settle on the mornin' dew and then float back again.

It went on for a few more verses, and I can testify that this song did not turn out to be a "chick magnet." Nosir! It had most of the requisite veiled references to love, "morning dew" being a favorite of mine, but on any scale from OK to Great, this was "not OK." I fell into the same trap with "relax your mind," as if "your mind" were disembodied from "you." The remainder was earnest silliness.

This next perilous dive into the deeps of Metaphor was much admired by my friend Lynn, though not for the lyric. She smiled at the fetching little guitar hook I'd provided for it.

My love, my love, my lo-o-o-ove,
She greets me every morning with the dawn.
My love, my love, my lo-o-o-ove,
Her breath has made the sky no longer wan.

My love's a steady breeze of true devotion,
Blowing kisses in the sun from off her palm,
And I'm a lofty ship on the briney ocean,
Without her I'd be lost in a boundless calm.

I should have been jailed then and there for literary abuses, and I was still Not OK as a song writer.

In my senior year, inspired by a new knowledge of classical art songs and by a poem that began "Oh, death will find me long before I tire of watching you," I composed a one-verse song and recorded it at The Jawbone for an album that showcased all the student song writers.

Death will tire me.
Death will tire me long before I see your face again.
But everywhere will your swift shadow be:
Here your perfume in someone else's hair,
And here are lips like those in darkest night
That warned me not to share.

A little closer to OK, I think, but still struggling with overripe linguistic effects.

One rainy day two years later, in a state of angst, I wrote a song I called "Slowly Failing:"

Dark all day on the lonely side of town,
The light behind the clouds is slowly failing.
I will set my mind at peace before the night comes trickling down,
I'll provision all my thoughts and set them sailing.

The song never got beyond two verses, a rather tiny fleet to set sailing, and the persistent awkwardness in my style shines through unmistakably, though I like the feminine endings and the final metaphor. Not on the Map of OK yet and my sophomore year is at this point four years behind me.

Five years later I tried another, for my little girl:

One more night with the window wide open,
One more phrase of a song to recall,
All the sounds I could sing but a token
Of your bright spirit's rise and fall.

Ride a weathervane,
Ride a weathervane,
The wind, it will blow it,
I'll come if you call.

In my opinion, this one is on the map of OK.

Eighteen years later, with the sound of baby talk still in my mind, I wrote a song called "All The People," my daughter's way of requesting a repetition of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme. I worked out a tune that went round and round, postponing musical resolution, as if in suspended animation, and I put words together with an ear for elision, all syllables flowing together easily. My daughter was leaving to continue her education in Texas, prompting the line about "when they are leaving" near the end of the song. The year was 1991, and it's the end of my songwriting story. I'm very attached to this one, both music and verses, so whatever you think of it, this one and "Ride a Weathervane" are the peak of my abilities in a genre I was not meant to master, but where I made a little journey from Not OK into OK.

Someone's playing on a guitar,
Songs of long ago...
Swaying dancers seen from afar,
Round and round they go...
Gentle music over the lawn,
Rainbow, sunset, and sky.
I remember days that are gone,
Seen with a toddler's eye.

Sing me a ballad, sing me an air,
Sing me a girl with yellow hair,
Radiant hair, delightful to see,
Sing me the woman who married me.
Radiant hair, radiant eyes,
Sing me a ballad for all our lives.

Someone's playing on a guitar
All my bygone days...
Ocean water...rides in a car...
Rows of new-mown hay....
Conversation, people at ease,
Tying ribbons and bows...
Bedtime stories, all that we please,
Only Daddy knows.

Sing me a ballad, sing me an air,
Sing my family then and there.
All the people here tonight,
When they are sleepy, bid them good night.
All the people ever I'll know,
When they are leaving, let them go.

Sing me a ballad, sing me an air,
Sing me a daughter ever fair,
Sing me a boy who looks like me,
Sing me a woman happy with me,
All the people in my song,
May they be dancing all night long.

Update, August 4, 2008: I found a recording I made of this song in 1991, shortly after I wrote it. I had adapted it for a friend's 50th birthday, so "yellow hair" became "auburn hair" in the first verse. This is an mp3 recording.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

An Halucinatory Oratory

"An" is a pesky word. People are afraid of sounding natural or appearing uncouth, so they stick "An" in front of a word with a voiced H, such as "historian." The strict grammarians who taught me some of what I know stressed the importance of smooth elision. They said that "an" only belongs in front of an unvoiced H, such as one might hear in a Cockney accent....'istorian. Used in a sentence, 'e's come up i' the world, 'e's an 'istorian.

Actually, that's far-fetched, it's an honor to say.

I shouldn't, but I shudder when someone writes "an historian," but I don't pass a remark on the subject.

In honor of dear, misplaced Anne, I wish to report "an" halucinatory incident this morning while taking Lola the Poodle on her morning constitutional. I saw an white egret looking for breakfast at the well-stocked pond at Lewis Park, and, just beyond th' egret, I saw a fish bicycling fast in the opposite direction, but getting nowhere.

How this story turns out, I cannot say. Th' egret was 'appy to 'ave me snap a picture or two, as long as Lola and I kept our distance. So 'ere is the evidence, that I am not crazy.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Storyteller and the Editor

Recently I finished reading a story that held my interest week after week, reading a half hour here, and hour or so there, until I got to the end. The book is Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs. I don't intend to summarize the story here or to review the book. I like to read them for myself and make up my own mind, and I suspect you do, too.

This blog is about a sentence I found after I finished the book. "Nat Sobel has made every one of my books better, but he absolutely saved this one." Until I read that, I'd been wondering about the role of the editor in this book, and here it is...he improves what the author creates.

A year ago I performed an editorial service for a friend who had written an essay that no one would touch. I wanted to publish it because it was an interesting account of culture shock and compulsive reading as a therapy. What interested me in it wasn't coming through clearly, though, so I wrote back with some suggestions for reshaping the piece. My friend wrote back that I was the only person who had actually engaged his text, and he said he would work on it.

We went through this process of back-and-forth revision and critique a couple of times and he lost interest in further shaping of the piece. I think he didn't see the reader interest I saw in it, and so it wasn't worth the time to him that it was worth to me. Maybe he'll pick it up again some day and see what I saw in it.

Back to Bridge of Sighs now. What I absolutely loved about this book is the distinctive and consistent "voice" of the characters, particularly the central character, Lou C. Lynch, who has taken to writing a summary of his life as he approaches retirement. This is a relaxed, thoughtful voice, and the life is that of a person who lives in a small town that has been cursed by the toxins of the industries that kept it alive for generations.

Structually, the story Russo unfolds is complicated by shifts of focus and shifts of narrative voice. Lou C. Lynch tells his own story, first-person. At the end of Chapter 1, Lynch speaks of his boyhood friend, Bobby, who has been much on his mind of late.

The narrative voice of Lynch is replaced by an omnicient narrator in Chapter 3, when the scene shifts to Venice and the focus shifts to a man named Noonan, who we later surmise is Lynch's old friend, Bobby Marconi. We are in the dark, though, about the name Noonan.

I was drawn into this story as Lou C. Lynch unfolded the details of his childhood, of his father's and mother's natures, and of their relationship with the gritty secrets of the Marconi family. Late in the book, though, I began to notice passages, turns of phrase, that I thought belonged in a discarded draft. What I have to say about those passages is pure guesswork. I haven't contacted the miracle-worker, Nat Sobel, or the masterful yarn-spinner, Richard Russo, to confirm. This is what I think happened:

Russo delivered a mountain of typescript pages to his publisher, and Sobel spent many days in a very careful reading, making copious notes, just as I did last year with my friend's essay. Sobel prodded Russo to preserve and protect the integrity of that distinctive voice and tone of Lou C. Lynch, and to sharpen characters or scenes, and to cut passages that didn't really advance the story. Russo got back to work and sent revisions. Sobel sent more suggestions.

Meanwhile, time was running out at Alfred A. Knopf, publishers. Knopf wanted to release this blockbuster just after the start of school in 2007, when people are looking for something to read again or to buy for the Holidays. As the deadline approached, did Nat Sobel tire of the constant process of tuning the book? Did Richard Russo grow weary of the work? Or did they just run out of time?

What I noticed is that there was more than one "omniscient narrator" in the book, and that is a flaw. There are passages where the narrative voice resembles that of a guy making wisecracks with you in a tavern. There are other passages where the narrative voice is psychoanalyzing the book's characters. I thought I was reading the equivalent of notes Russo wrote to himself about what was going on in the mind of his characters. Given the quality of the first half of the book, this sense of "mission creep" for the impersonal narrative voice was unwelcome. I would gladly have put up with many more pages of the real thing rather than the fewer pages of this new voice.

Then there are small turns of phrase that hit the ear like lead. When seventeen-year-old Bobby Marconi moves into a vacant room above the drug store, it is a sorry, run-down place with a toilet and sink over on one wall, unenclosed, and when the toilet is flushed, the whole setup shakes and rattles "like an epileptic." In a book in which Lou Lynch has mounted a map of town and placed a black pin on the location of every death from an exotic form of cancer, the epilepsy metaphor is both unique and utterly out of place. It's the kind of writing one expects to see in college fiction-writing classes. It's amateur, just as Russo was an amateur at one time, and Nat Sobel no doubt would have red-lined it if time or energy had not run out on them. Nat would have also raised an eyebrow, I imagine, at the alarming similarity of the scene in which Noonan sees Sarah Lynch through the window of a departing train just as a wierd physical event wracks his body. It's too much like the movie death of Dr. Zhivago, so we're reminiscing instantly on the film careers of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and the miraculous cleanliness of their clothing in that winter they spent in the abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, probably with no running water. Richard, what were you thinking???? But the clock ran out on Bridge of Sighs and it had to go to press, ready or not, and it was not...quite...ready. There is a finer book in there than got into print, and I highly recommend it, even so.

I mentioned this "editorial fatigue" to a writer the other day. He said it's common in the publishing world. Once a writer scores with a hit, the publishers are afraid to do serious editing any more for fear of deleting the magic. He named several best-selling writers who complain about lax editing and bloated books.

As I say, I have no idea if I've guessed right about Bridge of Sighs. There was one opportunity for a huge misstep that Russo either avoided or Sobel averted, and I won't tell you what it is because I think it would spoil some of the mystery and magic of this wonderful story.