Love Scenes

In a perfectly wrought short story, the elements are integrated to create artistic unity: the writer has chosen nothing randomly. Place can say as much about character as how she looks, what he says.

There is a scene in the Merchant-Ivory film "Mr and Mrs Bridge," in which the title characters, played by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, express their love for one another in the vault of a bank. Mr. B, as played by beautiful blue-eyed Paul, is so conservative it seemed to me a brilliant choice on the part of author Evan S. Connell, from whose novel the script was adapted, and Ruth Prawar Jabala, who won an Oscar for best screenplay, to soften this uptight man in a safe place piled with money.

In fact, that sequence inspired a love scene in my novel Flashing Yellow, where a middle-aged couple come together in the storeroom of the hardware store where the woman works. Above them is a shelf of goods waiting to be returned to the manufacturer. The only soft place to lie down is a plastic-wrapped bolt of insulation material.

This time it's a temple, both real and imagined, and the couple is younger, perhaps thirty. Actually the temple is on the third floor and the kitchen on the main floor Across from the lotus pond, there is a porch where she sat with her laptop open, checking email. Maybe contemplating a single line message from a friend, So how's it going? Innocent as that. She doesn't know what to say. The Master she and her partner follow is away in Asia, and instead of following they are more or less leading, holding the place together until he comes back to the remote rocky land from which the building rises high enough to offer a view of the sea. Seldom many people here, the majority from the Master's own Asian country, but a few anglos, like these two, both tall, both dressed in black, him with loose pants that flare, her in a flowing skirt and draping shawl. Clothes that play with the air around them when they move, brushing it, whipping it, collecting the scents of herbs that grow wild among the yellowing grass, gathering burrs. He sounds the wooden clackers that begin the meditation session, she remains in the kitchen to cook the traditional post-meditation lunch, to which the handful of meditators descend when she rings the large bell. She dismisses the compliments on the meal she has prepared from whatever food has been donated, but his apparently humorous comment about her cooking skills sets her off. While the diminutive guests from across the great water chopstick into their mouths food she cooked and keep their eyes on their metal bowls on the long table in the dining room, the young couple meets in the kitchen, which is dark.

Lightning flashes in her big eyes when he reaches for her; he shrinks more deeply into his black clothes.  Furious whispering precedes her skirt swinging exit. Chopsticks murmur against the bottom of the metal bowls.

The insistence of their young bodies, the stress of wanting to detach if they are to live the Zen ideal. Yet denial produces frustration which, in her, leads to anger, which is why she came here in the first place, to deal with that cloud that bursts from her instinctively, though she doesn't wish it to. Desire on top of desire, can she ever really free herself from it?  He has shaved his head; he has become the Master's acolyte and learned the rituals. Something has to give. Is this the end, the beginning of a new phase?

Everyone awaits the Master's return.

The more things change.... (Surviving as a Writer, 1991)

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they are the same.)

Here is a guest editorial I wrote for Event magazine in 1991.

Surviving as a Writer

When Dale (David Zieroth) invited me to write a guest editorial and suggested as a topic, Surviving as a Writer, and I had to think rather than just grouse about it, one of my first thoughts was of a student who complained about being assigned to describe the plight of a fictional character: "How can I know how she feels?" he asked. "You use your imagination," I said, tempted to add, do you know what I mean? Because the expression on his face suggested he didn't: that he was not in the habit of drawing each day from his human capacity for invention.

I bean writing short fiction not because my imagination was unexplored territory, but because I needed to make what I imagined real. I wanted to be a writer and I started with short stories because I thought it would be easier to write something short.  I confessed as much to another writer once, as a way of describing ow naive I had been, and she remarked that we must all have been a little naïve to get into it. The person I'm referring to is more experienced than I am, she has more books on her shelf; she's further down the road. Myself I'm only far enough along to be able to glance back and see that a distance exists between then and now.

Imagination is one essential survival tool. The ability to stay on the road is another.
 As for putting food on the table for myself and first one daughter, now another, and making sure we have somewhere to put the table, I quit my last full time job about fifteen years ago. I recall the urgency I felt to get on with what I really wanted to do, to be a writer. At the time I was editor of a small newspaper, and though I wrote many thousands of words each week - columns, editorials, news features, reports on oil pipeline inquiries, Indian land claim negotiations - I did not consider myself a real writer, just as we who worked there did not consider our newspaper a real newspaper, not in the sense the New York Times was a newspaper.

My plan was to support myself by working as a free-lance writer while learning to write fiction in my spare time. Though I wasn't sure what free-lance writers actually did, I forged ahead with characteristic impulsiveness and, of course, found out over time that as a free-lance writer you do whatever you can do. One thing you must do is learn to live with a deficit. Since it is bound to be microscopic compared to what Ottawa and Washington run up, you may even feel virtuous since you're doing it FOR LITERATURE.

My mother never understood. As each new move - geographical, personal, career - seemed to entrench me in rather than eliminate my precarious position in life, she worried she might end up having to take care of me and mine. Despite my promise to outlast her, if only for this reason, the fact that I was not covered for my own funeral expenses bothered her a lot.

Imagination. The determination to stay on the road. A thorough disregard for regular pay cheques, insurance benefits, pension plans.

In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes the writer's job as follows: "Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spins the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair." Faith. That's something else that is crucial to surviving as a writer, for as Dillard also writes, in the same book: "This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing right next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else."

Which leads directly to my "host of readers" fantasy. While walking with a long time friend whose first book had just been published, we talked about the expectations we'd had when we wanted to be writers. As a kid who read while she was supposed to be doing most everything else, and who grew up to be the kind of person who opens newspapers and magazines to the book pages first, I had assumed, I told her, that a host of readers existed out there, people who were interested in, even eager for each season's new books. The profound indifference of the general population to books, to fiction in particular, was as hard to swallow as the lesson that short doesn't mean easier when it comes to writing stories. Still...

I'm working on a novel now and that's hard too. In the process of making the fiction real to myself I feel like an archaeologist gluing together the pieces of an object whose final shape she has only heard about. An act of utter faith, and, in my case, and act in slow motion.

A friend who travels the world from one meditation retreat to another called me the last time he passed through town. "How's it going?" he asked.

"Well, I'm doing it," I said. "But it's hard to see that it's getting done."

"Don't worry. My meditation teachers  say we must never check on our progress. And if we can't help ourselves, to limit the checking to once every ten years."

That too seemed a useful thing to remember about surviving as a writer.