Gayle Hayes, Author

Monday, March 4, 2013

MY UNCANNY ENCOUNTER

    What happened to me today seemed as eerie and powerful as the experience in my college dorm room when a few of us gathered one night around someone's Ouija board and asked who'd be the first to lose her virginity.  Yes, it was college, and some of us were still virgins, but that's a topic for a different blog post.  Possibly, my subconscious led me to the site of classic literature just as it controlled the planchette on the Ouija board years ago.   I had not read The Verdict before, but the subject matter seemed to have been written just for me.
    An event seems eerie and powerful, in part, because it is entirely unexpected.  One opens the door at the end of an old, dark hallway with expectations of an inviting room, a comfortable bed, and fresh linens and finds, instead, that someone has hanged himself with the bed sheet.  I have been wandering in the dark lately and questioning my future as a writer.  I keep hoping for some sign that I should stay the course.  One minute, I am encouraged by a sunny review, only to be discouraged shortly after by my own dark inner voice. Today I was browsing through an internet site of classical literature that is so old it is in the public domain.   I scrolled down the page to the novels listed under "Z" and then started groping in the dark as I scrolled up again, aimlessly.  Then I opened the door in modern terms by clicking on The Verdict by Edith Wharton.  Although no one was hanging by a bed sheet, her short story had a similar effect on me.
     At first, I was put off by her narrator.  He seemed stuffy and dated.  Then I read this: "Be dissatisfied with your work!"  I didn't know it yet, but Ms. Wharton's narrator had pulled me into the story, placed me at the side of the deceased artist, Stroud, and put me in the same position as the failed artist, Jack Gisburn.  His confession made me stay.
    "I turned back to my work, and went on groping and muddling; then I looked at the donkey again. I saw that, when Stroud laid in the first stroke, he knew just what the end would be. He had possessed his subject, absorbed it, recreated it. When had I done that with any of my things? They hadn't been born of me -- I had just adopted them. . ."
    Edith Wharton appears to be discussing the sad state of painting in the Post-Impressionist world, but she spoke to me, too.  I realized whether it's painting with a brush or with words, the artist has to stop "groping and muddling" and possess, absorb, and recreate his subject.  A writer should not snatch characters from thin air.  A writer must form characters on a foundation of bone, flesh them out, and then breathe a soul into them.  A writer cannot adopt someone else's vision of flesh and bone and expect to wield godlike powers over that character.  After finishing The Verdict, I resolved again to follow the laws of good writing by creating character-driven stories instead of inserting plastic people behind the wheel of a vehicle and allowing them to careen to an unknown destination.
    If the first statement got my attention, the next one grabbed me by the throat.
    "Don't you know how, in talking a foreign language, even fluently, one says half the time not what one wants to but what one can?"
    So often when I'm writing, I feel that I am writing well, or fluently, without saying what I really want to say.  If I had truly birthed my characters instead of adopting them, I might find the words more easily.  One cannot describe what one doesn't see.  On the other hand, it would seem that if someone is fluent in a language, he could say what he wants instead of only what he can.  Fluency implies knowledge of the right words.  Sometimes using the right words does not convey what a writer wants to say.
    Consider this example of being fluent while not saying what I want to say:  A bird flew to the tree.  The simple sentence shows I am fluent in English.  I used the correct words in the correct order.  I have said what I can, but I have not said what I really want to say.
    So, I write another draft: A swallow flew to the apple tree.  Still not satisfying.
    A third draft:  Its white belly shimmering with reflected light, the iridescent blue swallow sailed above me, dipping and soaring, until it alighted on the rusted fence wire near the nest box.  In the last sentence, I have recreated a swallow I have seen with my own eyes.  I have never seen a swallow on the branch of a tree, so I change the tree to a fence with rusting wire.  Instead of assuming everyone knows the swallow is blue with a white belly, I add that description.  If you've seen swallows, you know they don't merely fly.  They sail like small aerial acrobats.  Having seen swallows in flight, I'm still not satisfied.  I've described them well, but I have not conveyed how they make me feel.
    I write a fourth draft:  Once again, I'm filled with childlike wonder and pause to watch the swallow's shimmering white belly and iridescent blue body and wings sail above me as it dips and then soars before alighting on rusted fence wire near a nest box.  I've come a long way from "A bird flew to the tree."  Still, I'm not satisfied that I've said what I really wanted to say.  The truth is that it's not the colors of the swallows that make the impression when they fly overhead.
    So I try again:  I'm filled with childlike wonder and pause to watch the swallow that appears to be a tiny flying arrow against the backdrop of unending sky as it dips and then soars before alighting on rusted fence wire near a nest box.  Without actually describing the bird as it would appear close up, I can convey a better image of it in motion by describing it as an arrow in flight.  In fact, Ms. Wharton refers to the "showy splash of colour" artists without real talent resort to in painting a subject, because they are unable to describe the actual foundation of the character.  However, the description is too wordy to convey what I really want to say.
    I'll try one last time: With childlike wonder, I pause to watch the swallow, a tiny flying arrow against unending sky, as it dips, soars, and alights on rusted fence wire near a nest box.  At this point I have to admit that only God could have created a swallow in flight, and this is my best attempt to recreate it.  Not only have I said what I really want to say, but I was willing to write six drafts of the thought instead of settling for a "showy splash of colour."  This leads me to the last statement in Ms. Wharton's short story.
    At the end of The Verdict, the character of the failed artist says, "If I could have painted that face, with that question on it, I should have done a great thing.  The next greatest thing was to see that I couldn't--and that grace was given me."
    I read the entire story feeling as if it had been written for my benefit, so the heartfelt confession of the artist caused me to wonder if I'd know when I was unable to paint the question on the face of a character.  Had I stumbled on this short story to guide me to my own "next greatest thing"?  Was I being given the grace to see that I lacked the necessary talent?  I hope not.  I'm not ready to say that I cannot do "a great thing" and paint my characters with the requisite questions.  For me, it comes back to the need for giving birth to characters cell by cell so they are real enough that I can see their breath as they walk outside on a cold morning and create the scene in enough detail that it becomes three dimensional for readers.  If I were not meant to write, would I spend time writing an essay about The Verdict when I could have done anything else with my free time?
    While it may be true that everyone doesn't possess the gifts necessary to write, it may also be true that writing so that one has "painted that face, with that question on it" comes down to the amount of time one is willing to spend on the writing.  It has been said that Edith Wharton's novels suffered as she spent more of her time writing for magazines.  If that's true, it just means that someone who has won the Pulitzer Prize still needs to give her writing the time it deserves to be the best it can be.  Perhaps the artist in Ms. Wharton's story could have painted the question on his subject's face if he'd been less anxious to finish the task and more anxious to embrace the challenge.  For me, the quest to write a story in which I "painted that face, with that question on it" continues.   Instead of feeling inferior because I am less prolific and take more time than someone else, I will accept the challenge, proceed with confidence, and give my writing the time required.  Even with godlike power over my characters, I will undoubtedly need more than six days to create them.
    I don't know how Ms. Wharton chose the title for her short story.  It had nothing to do with a legal proceeding that would result in a verdict.  However, she presented her case against the art and artists of her time in the same way one might present a logical argument to a jury.  A verdict is more powerful than an opinion and can dramatically alter the life of anyone who is judged guilty or innocent.  That is exactly the outcome of The Verdict.  Ms. Wharton made a wise choice for the title.
    Although I have confronted the difficult questions in Edith Wharton's short story, I  have not said I believe my encounter with her borders on the supernatural.  I will say that I think a Ouija board is like life, because it is only as good or bad as we want it to be.  I believe our subconscious minds are power tools that assist us in creating and destroying good and evil.  So, I'm not surprised that mine led me to The Verdict.  My conscious mind associated the title with a legal theme.  All of my stories have legal themes. Meanwhile, my subconscious mind was looking for a reliable opinion, judgment, or verdict about my writing skill and was attracted to The Verdict for that reason.  Finding the short story was a coincidence, albeit a serendipitous one.
    If you haven't read The Verdict, I hope you will, especially if you are an artist, writer, or musician.  Edith Wharton might come off like that spinster aunt who took over your bedroom for a few days every year while you slept on the floor of the family room, but don't be fooled by the dated writing.  My own persistence was rewarded when Ms. Wharton assumed the character of Stroud and spoke to me just as clearly as he had spoken to Jack Gisburn.  If you read the short story, you will appreciate how the subconscious manifests itself in the character of Stroud.  Although it was published over 100 years ago, the admonition in The Verdict still rings true:  "Be dissatisfied with your work!"