"These little town blues: a hopeful legato confirmation that you could do anything. I often imagined this song to be the soundtrack to when I first walked into our new home in Bangkok - a house so large and empty I could cartwheel from one end to the other fifteen times without my feet ever grazing any of the walls. My father said the lyrics reminded him of when he and my mother, newlyweds, made a brand new start of it, in Hong Kong. “There was never enough space,” my mother told me about our old home. When they argued, she’d hide her tears and turn her back to him, cornered, but within seconds, he’d wrap his arms around her from behind and say, I’m sorry.”
Work in Progress, 2014
I’ve faced some opposition in workshop for using conditionals (mainly ‘if + past tense’) in this piece or as pointed out by my then-workshop leader, passive verbs. The argument for “use active verbs” because they are more “immediate” and makes the action “pop” out doesn’t satisfy me. I’d argue that in this particular story I’m trying to write, the actual characters introduced in the beginning are not really important but the process of principle being described is of ultimate importance, and therefore, characterizes their relationship to one another. I’m also trying to understand what I’m trying to do with time here, turning to theories in fiction to see what I can glean in order to achieve my goal.
In Time in Narrative by Gerard Genette, he uses Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu to illustrate the problems of time in narrative discourse.
He breaks down three Categories of time:
- Temporal relationships between the narrative (story) and the “actual” events that are being told (history)
- Mode (relationships determined by the distance and perspective of the narrative with respect to the history)
- Voice (relationships between the narrative and the narrating agency itself: narrative situation, level of narration, status of the narrator and of the recipient.)
Time category can be divided into three sections:
1. Temporal order of the events that are being told and the psedo- temporal order of the narrative.
2. Relationships between the duration of the events and the duration of the narrative.
3. Relationships of frequency of repetition between the events and the narrative, between history and story.
A folk tale generally keeps a one-to-one correspondence between the “real” order of events that are being told and the order of the narrative, whereas literary narrative, from its earliest beginnings in Western literature, prefers to use the beginning in medias res, generally followed by an explanatory flashback. I believe as writers, we want the freedom to reorder the temporality of events, and we deserve that freedom to try.
Genette looks at Proust’s work, focusing on the sections where the narrative synthesizes certain moments by reducing several distinct occurrences to their common elements: “the women were like this… the men acted like that…; some did this, others did that.” Genette calls this internal iterations, in which a descriptive-iterative parenthesis begins in the middle of a singulative scene to convey additional information needed for the reader’s understanding, which Genette calls external iterations.
Of course, this isn’t Proust’s invention. And the confusions of this sort of narrative would start off in the historical past, continue in the imperfect, and return to the historical past, without any possibility for the reader to determine whether he/she was reading a singular or an iterative scene.
In an example where Proust uses two devices (internal delimitation and internal specification) in the same passage, deals in a general way with returns from walks (since it recurs every year) but it distinguishes between the beginning and the end of the season.
"We used always to return from out walks in good time to pay aunt Leonie a visit before dinner. In the first weeks of our Combray holidays, when the days ended early, we would still be able to see, as we turned into the Rue Saint Espirit, a reflection of the western sky… But in summer, when we came back to the house… But on some days, thought very rarely, the chest-of drawers…”
This stretches the reader’s benevolence to the limit. It represents an extreme case leading out of the actually iterative mode: in the midst of an iterative section the narrator mentions a particular, singular occurence, either as illustration, or example, or, on the contrary, as an exception to the law of repetition that has just been established. What I tried to do was to establish a routine - my characters did this, and did that, only when there was a slip, did something go wrong, which went unexplained back in time, but understood now in the present. Perhaps the problem with my story was that I needed to find the exceptional nature in my one event, and explicitly introduce this as an exception to the habitual pattern.
What is the effect I’m trying to replicate from Proust? As readers of Proust’s piece, Genette claims he creates the illusion of a double temporal progression, as if the hero were a naive little boy in the morning and a sophisticated adolescent at night, aging several years in the course of a single day or a single walk. My narrator is a little girl telling the story, and an adult in the course of walking from one room to the other.
The payoff? Proust exploits the contrasts and relations of this mode with a singulative discourse, combined to free his narrative forever from the constraints and limitations of traditional narration. The synthesis is no longer achieved by acceleration, but by analogy and abstraction. The rhythm of Proust’s narrative is no longer founded, as in the classical recit, on the alternating movement of dramatic and summarizing sections, but on the alternating movement of iterative and singular scenes. This creates a story with controlled, imprisoned, and bewitched time, a space where dreams control the living. This is the kind of story I’m attempting to write.
Summer’s come and gone and I now have a longer reading list to complete by December:
1. Blow-Up and other stories, Julio Cortazar
2. Absalom, Absalom, William Faulkner
3. All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Edward P. Jones
4. Bobcat and other stories, Rebecca Lee
5. Edisto, Padgett Powell
6. Love in a Fallen City, Eileen Chang
(I’ll admit, I’ve seen the movie starring Chow Yun Fat, not knowing it was a book!)
What are you reading?
I’ve been applying to residencies and conferences over the past couple of months and excited to say that I will be joining/meeting/workshopping you all at:
- Yale Writer’s Conference
- Community of Writers at Squaw Valley
- New York Summer Writer’s Institute
- Napa Valley Writer’s Conference
It’ll be my first time in New Haven, Squaw Valley and Saratoga Springs, and my first summer, traveling alone.
Why so many? Some of you may ask. Here’s a piece of advice from one of my dear advisors: Get as much writing done as you can, get as many teaching credentials as you can, and do as many professional engagements (residencies, conferences) as you can before you’re out in the “real world” again.
I’m saying yes to all my opportunities because I’ve got nothing to lose.
Advice for those applying next year:
- Apply early, preferably on the day their applications are open. Most of these places have rolling admissions and they’d love to take you but if you apply on the last day, they just can’t because the workshop is full.
- Have a couple of stories to send out and decide which homes these stories will best belong in. For example, Napa Valley Writer’s conference is very craft focused, and there won’t be any agents present. I’m sending them something a little less polished with some questions about how to approach structure in my piece because I will have a group to help me with that.
- Buy loads of printing paper and printer ink. You never know when you print out reams of 25 page stories only to spot a typo on the first page.
- Don’t take the first rejection or waitlist personally. You can always apply next year because it’s still there.
Now I’ve got to pack! Cheers.