In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote,
I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
On the first of each month, a guest writer shares how he or she spends the day.
March 1, 2014: Robert Boswell
One of the things I love about Robert Boswell’s new novel Tumbledown, a big, thick book of four hundred forty-eight pages, is how structure echoes content. There is no white space between the narratives of the different point of view characters. For example, the therapist James Candler’s story glides seamlessly into that of Elizabeth Ray, a former patient. This lack of white space threw me until I realized what the book was about. There is no difference between us. It’s not therapists over here and patients over there. We are all in this together. Genius, really.
People encounter life in vastly dissimilar ways. Some insist their days are orderly and unchanging, vessels on a slow-moving assembly belt, each identically filled by invisible hands. For others, the days are relentlessly complicated and unpredictable, as different, one from the other, as patients waiting to see a therapist. But for everyone there comes a day when the filling no longer fits the vessel, when the therapist finds himself pouring out his heart to the patient, when air is indistinguishable from water and out is the rough equivalent of in… Such days are worthy of our attention.
Pam Houston described the book this way: “it’s like a net, a net that catches all of us.”
Tumbledown‘s dedication may be my favorite ever.
This book is dedicated to all the clients who survived my tenure as a counselor and to the one who didn’t.
As you can tell from the first quote, this novel has a strong narrator. It also has tender characters who create lots of story. It’s funny and honest. And I have to admit, I fell in love with its sentences. Obviously, some of the quotes below place in more than one category.
All the girl needed was a new life. Wasn’t that what everyone needed?
In those days, the morning had several stages and each stage could hold a dozen surprises and the distance between waking and sleeping was too great to be measured by anything so flimsy as hours.
…to wonder about the alternate paths, the echo trajectories, the shadow lives that trail after all of us at every turn, and lend to the single life we lead the definition that gives it meaning.
“I heard it on the movie,” Karly said, “and rewinded the DVD nineteen times to get it on paper.”
He was a moderate fatso and had too much action in his face, like a reasonably cool piano piece played way too quickly.
He would fill his glass from the pitcher, that bubbling, sweating pitcher with an indefinable smell, which, years later, Jimmy—by then James—would identify as tonic, a pitcher of gin and tonic, and the adult James could be carried back by that slight smell to his youth, the rambling house in the high Sonora, and the expansive sense of possibility, as wide as the desert sky.
Their damp pants left ovals on the plank floor, like mouths, like the wet places lips were always making, like the coloring on a topo map that indicated forests or high elevation or great swamps.
He remembers the story that Karly told him about Mr. James Candler racing his car and wrecking, or maybe it was another car that wrecked. Karly is not great at telling and his receiving is mediocre at best, and it only matters that Mr. James Candler was racing—Mick takes his foot off the accelerator—and how everybody it seems, has to live in this tumbledown world, not just him. He isn’t alone, and following that thought comes another, sweeping in to join it. He understands that it is his former life that never existed, that is unreal, deluded, that is only a child’s imagining. Believing in those days of seamless reality is the real madness. There is no going back, if he’s lucky, there’s slowing down.
Robert Boswell had a life before Tumbledown–six novels, two collections, a craft book, and a book of nonfiction—and I wanted to specifically mention his novel, Mystery Ride, which was published in 1992, which doesn’t seem all that long ago until I think about what I was doing then. The title of this novel took its name from the lyrics to “Walk Like a Man” by Bruce Springsteen:
Would they ever look so happy again
The handsome groom and his bride
As they stepped into that long black limousine
For their mystery ride.
When I pulled this book off the shelf to write this essay, I found myself reading it all over again. I’ll just give you one paragraph. Notice all that it doesn’t tell us, and in so doing, all that it does:
As he turned from the phone, a specific, familiar pain began in his chest, just above his heart, a sharp ache, as if a ragged chunk of glass had lodged in an important artery. Whether this signaled fear or grief or loneliness, he didn’t know. He knew only that this was his pain—it came to let him know his body was smarter than he was, his body had a better understanding of his life, a longer memory. It came either as warning or as retribution, as a moment of sorrow or a reminder of guilt. He could never know as well as his body.
That quote is a perfect lead into Robert Boswell’s wonderful craft book, The Half-Known World, which I also recommend. All readers (not just writers) will enjoy it, I think, for its discussions of stories and books we’ve all read or want to read. I’ll leave you with two short excerpts. The first is a piece of advice for writers that we don’t often hear, but that the more you think about it, the more right it seems.
Write the character so that his actions and dialogue suggest that the reader can only ever half-know him.
The second excerpt is on the subject of details. I read it as a nod to the half-known world of the subconscious and a vote for leaving all those seemingly random details in the first draft and only getting rid of what doesn’t turn out to be important in revision.
I believe details originally offered to create a sense of place or to convince one of a story’s authenticity may accrue power over the course of a narrative and return late in a story in a new, more important role.
Come back on MARCH 1st to read how ROBERT BOSWELL spends his days.