Scene and narration

I’m thinking that close attention to scene and detail may be one of the things that pulled me out of rumination, in my last Creative Writing class. Ironically enough, I’m very good at it, when I allow myself to focus on it — I’ve been concerned about becoming too florid. Getting a good sense of place, sometimes requires immersion in that place…which can be hard to really grasp, unless you’ve had the assignment of sitting in a public place and observing everything going on around you.

I had the opportunity to do this over 20 years ago in the Bay Area Young Writer’s Project, hosted at UC Berkeley (known locally as “Cal”). Cal has a beautiful campus, and for those who grow up around here — at least, those who have a chance of getting in, surviving the curricula, and being able to pay off any student loans — being there can also be associated with the rewards of academic achievement and a bright future.

I have memories of sunlight shining though the California Live Oaks onto the courtyard; the dappled light falling on the squirrels as they begged for food, the bubbling of Strawberry Creek (which is probably roaring, or flooding, right about now), and some of the quirky buildings (such as Dwinelle Hall, which — if I’m remembering correctly — has one more floor on one side of the building, than the other. Apparently, there were two different architects who couldn’t work together).

Being somewhere around 17 years old at the time, I (and two of my old friends from eighth grade, one of whom was the first girl I ever crushed on [at the time, it was tragic]) were high schoolers that summer. Our teacher, for at least part of the time, was an older guy who taught at Lowell High School. If you don’t know, Lowell is a top-of-the-line high school in San Francisco (which I have just looked up and seen is actually public!), and this person’s teaching was what one would expect, from that.

As an exercise in observation, he said he was going to go outside the room, and when he came back in, something about him would have changed: we would have to guess, what. I was the only person who mentioned that he had cuffed his sleeves; his metallic watch, with highlights of gold, was showing.

I really did like that program, even though it did require observing on the UC Berkeley campus. To elaborate, Berkeley in general is not the safest area. I’ve been on foot out there (twice, both times with a blissfully unaware friend) with nowhere to escape to, while policemen with assault rifles searched the streets for someone on the run. There were other areas that I knew not to enter at night, due to poor lighting and high rates of assault and rape.

Berkeley’s high crime rate — and the availability of a specific Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University (from which Anne Rice graduated) — is why I chose SFSU over Cal. Of course, that was when one could take the BART and a connecting shuttle in to SFSU, and not have to worry about much of anything more than catching the flu or getting robbed, on the trains.

That also meant that SFSU was a commuter school, which — along with my not being able to drive — made it particularly difficult for me to get into the literary night life at places like City Lights bookstore, or build connections with other writers outside of classes.

I didn’t realize the difference in quality between the California State University and University of California systems, prior to having participated in each one. I spent a little under two years living on-campus at a different UC, before I decided to attend SFSU. I didn’t understand in what ways the UC system was priming us for the future after graduation (or attempting to), and how the CSU systems had some…less practical degrees. Degrees one may want to major in anyway. Creative Writing was one of these.

My fifth grade teacher held a goodbye session at the end of the year, during which she named one thing about each of us that she would remember. For me, she recalled that my descriptions in writing were relatively ornate — though, of course, she didn’t mention the word, “ornate.” I just had a tendency to zero in on details. In high school, I was able to get through AP English relatively easily (despite the fact that I still have dreams about not having read my requisite 7 novels over the Summer).

It was in reading The Vampire Lestat that I realized becoming a published author was possible. Anne Rice isn’t really high literature; many of her works blend supernatural horror and erotica; she noticeably repeats a lot of the same adverbs (“softly”), and the premises of her stories can seem a bit far-fetched (why does no one investigate all the corpses drained of blood?)…but Rice’s works are accessible. She can show a 16-year-old reader that fiction writing is possible, even if the content might be a bit mature for a 16-year-old!

For some reason, it’s precisely the details in a piece of writing, or in a drawing, that I end up…sometimes, not wanting to deal with. There are a lot of minutiae to keep track of — part of the “real world” of the story — and these minutiae may shift continually during the process of writing.

These details often enough constitute a great deal of what needs to be communicated. They aren’t the conclusions; they’re the evidence. Without these, you end up with a philosophical treatise, or an essay, or a work composed entirely of narration. With them, you’re dealing with scene and location; things that can be shown in, “images.” I put, “images,” in quotes because I’m not just talking about vision, but also things like atmosphere, scent, temperature, texture, taste, sound (excluding voiceover narration, for the sake of argument). The stuff of life, that is: not, commentary on it.

Giving the details leaves judgment up to the reader, at the same time as the evidence presented is chosen by the narrator (or author, depending on the reliability and influence of the narrator…which in turn might be related to the degree of the narrator’s characterization away from God’s Eye [what I call Third-Person Omniscient narrative perspective]).

It takes some effort on my part to pull myself out of recording my discursive mind’s deliberations, on paper (or screen); into describing what is around me (literally or imaginatively) at any one time. It’s interior versus exterior; enabling rumination, versus enabling grounding. There seems to be a necessary tension between the two poles, but somehow it seems this is not the total story. One can have story entirely told in image…but story told entirely in interior thought, seems more difficult to pull off.

I’ll want to hold onto this insight. I didn’t expect to get here, today.

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