Saturday, July 16, 2005

mundane art

"Art can only be Art by presenting an adequate outward symbol of some fact of the interior life." – Margaret Fuller

Yes. On the one hand, that seems perfectly obvious. In writing (the art we’re discussing here), the works I would call art are simply works that communicate something significant about being human. And when one examines these works – yes, they are surely more than the surface recounting of events.

But as I reread the quote and notice that "Art" is important-looking, as if personified– capitalized as it is – I question, is this little proverb saying that real and genuine Art is something special, rare and hard to attain? (And what is meant by adequate, outward, symbol?) Maybe I’m way off base here, but my formula for making a work of art is really rather simple.

1. You pay attention.

This is trickier than it looks. Because it is so easy to live life as one reads a book – focusing forward, anxious to get to the next scene, forgetting to highlight and flag and scribble in the margins. But to be tuned into your own particular brand of art, it’s necessary to listen and respond to that tiny voice inside your head which says, "This is important. Pay attention here. Mark this spot – or you’ll have a hard time finding it again later."

Someone who is a master at doing this is the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro. When you examine the characters in her stories, they are simple, ordinary people to whom you as a reader may even feel superior. And her plots are frequently mere ripples: a father who is a salesman, takes his kids along on one of his routes, making a detour to visit an old flame ("Walker Brothers Cowboy"), a spinster piano teacher’s annual music recital takes a unexpected turn when a mentally handicapped boy gets up to play ("Dance of the Happy Shades"), a toddler falls into a swimming pool on a summer vacation trip ("Miles City, Montana").

This shows that the things that snag your attention don’t have to be big. It’s the fact that you notice them and ponder their significance which gives them the possibility of becoming art.

2. You deliver the goods.

You make every effort to communicate your truth with honesty, skill and passion (I suppose this is where the adequate comes in, in the quote above). By make every effort I mean the doing of all the stuff the lectures and how-to books tell you, like considering genre, length, point-of-view, voice etc. etc. And then you write, edit and rewrite -- squared.

By your truth I mean colored in the way you personally see, understand and make sense of life. This, of course, is where your world view (Christian or non-) will dye the story.


Here’s how Alice Munro tells the story of the toddler falling into the pool.

She begins with the first-person storyteller relating a spooky childhood memory:"My father came across the field carrying the body of the boy who had drowned." Then she goes on to tell us about this boy, his funeral and how even as a young child, she felt the adults in his life were in some way implicated in his death.

White space here, and then we step into the main story:

"Twenty years or so later, in 1961, my husband Andrew and I got a brand-new car..." With that the narrator starts, in a rambling way, the description of the family’s trip in this car, from Vancouver to Ontario. She, her husband (Andrew) and their two girls Cynthia, 6, and Meg 3½, decide to take the most northerly west-east highway through the states. Here is a scene from their trip:


I had made peanut-butter-and-marmalade sandwiches for the children and salmon-and-mayonnaise for us. But I had not put any lettuce in, and Andrew was disappointed.

"I didn’t have any," I said.

"Couldn’t you have got some?"

"I’d have had to buy a whole head of lettuce just to get enough for sandwiches, and I decided it wasn’t worth it."

This was a lie. I had forgotten.

"They’re a lot better with lettuce."

"I didn’t think it made that much difference." After a silence, I said, "Don’t be mad."

"I’m not mad. I like lettuce on sandwiches."

"I just didn’t think it mattered that much."

"How would it be if I didn’t bother to fill up the gas tank?"

"That’s not the same thing."

"Sing a song," said Cynthia. She started to sing...

This ordinariness makes you comfortable, lulls you so that you forget about the dark story at the beginning and simply enjoy the familiar family journey.

They spend the night in Wanatchee Washington, then a second night in Missoula Montana. Finally, on the third day, as a sop to the little girls, who are getting restless and cranky in the cramped hot car, the family stops midday in Miles City, Montana. There’s a pool there with a lifeguard who is hanging out with her boyfriend, isn't on duty but who reluctantly agrees to watch just the two little girls as they swim. Meanwhile...


Andrew and I sat in the car with the windows open. I could hear a radio playing, and thought it must belong to the girl or her boyfriend. I was thirsty, and got out of the car to look for a concession stand, or perhaps a soft-drink machine, somewhere in the park....Dazed with the heat, with the sun on the blistered houses, the pavement, the burnt grass, I walked slowly. I paid attention to a squashed leaf, found a Popsicle stick under the heel of my sandal, squinted at a trash can strapped to a tree. This is the way you look at the poorest details of the world resurfaced, after you’ve been driving for a long time – you feel their singleness and precise location and the forlorn coincidence of your being there to see them.

Where are the children?

I turned around and moved quickly, not quite running, to a part of the fence beyond which the cement wall was not completed. I could see some of the pool....

"Cynthia!" I had to call twice before she knew where my voice was coming from. "Cynthia! Where’s Meg?"

It always seems to me, when I recall this scene, that Cynthia turns very gracefully toward me, then turns all around in the water – making me think of a ballerina on a pointe – and spreads her arms in a gesture of the stage. "Dis-ap-peared!"

A mother’s worst nightmare. Of course Munro has, with her structure and style, her dwelling on the sunny day and the benign details, sucked me in. But isn’t this exactly how these things happen – out of no where, like the bang of cars colliding ends a pleasant drive (life)? Now I flash back to the anecdote at the beginnin,g and recall the discussion of death in the car a few pages back, sparked by questions from one of the girls after seeing a dead deer. I realize I shouldn't have been surprised. For hasn't the dark ribbon of death been twisting through the whole story? Munro has played me well. (The end of the quote above, however, is not the end of the story.)

All that to say, a mom, tuned to the events and instincts of her mother role, can create, out of the mundane and ordinary details of her life, an adequate (especially if she is Alice Munro!) outward symbol (story) which is Art as fine as any.

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