Wednesday, December 12, 2007


by Stefano Donati

A friend recently told me he never reads a book twice. As an English teacher, he quickly amended his statement by saying “Except for the books I use in my courses.” Still, the comment surprised me. I’ve completed several novels three to five times apiece, and I’m a much slower reader than he is. He appreciates fine writing and a good plot. He laments infelicities of language and two-dimensional characters. Yet once he finishes the last page, he doesn’t return to the first. Not a year later, not ten years. I certainly don’t fault him, any more than he would fault me for breaking apart story after story and putting each one together again. We’re good friends. But he reads as a reader, and I read as a writer.

My approach has its drawbacks. There are countless fine books in the world, and the hours I spend on rereading can never be used to discover a new book that might have become a treasured favorite. Amid a great novel, I can respond in two ways: by planning to seek out another book by the writer, or by keeping mental notes in the margins, tracking the tossing away and retrieval of plot threads, charting why a full page of description somehow heightens my interest. If I seek out the other book, my esteem for the writer might soar: possibly he or she has produced two great works, or three or four, using disparate themes or settings. And by exploring them, I could --as a human, if not as a writer-- learn far more than by dissecting the first book over and over.

Another virtue of reading as a reader, and not as a writer? The chance to slip fully into the created world. Certainly I miss the excitement I felt when first discovering fiction. Deep into my teens I could still get swept up in a plot without deconstructing it, marvel at a wonderful turn of phrase but not envy it.

And yet...this week I reread one of the most splendid of a certain novelist’s many splendid works (yes, I do manage to read multiple works by multiple writers. Like anyone else in this field, I read all that I can; it just doesn’t come as easily). In the book, Sweet Women Lie by Loren Estleman, a detective must inform a young woman of her boyfriend’s murder. The detective is pretty sure the woman played no part in the crime, but as a pro, he must balance his condolences with a twinge of suspicion. Standard fare on the surface, yet Estleman expertly conveys the hero’s mix of black humor, bluntness, compassion, and self-loathing. You can sense this character keeping his emotions at bay; you can also sense those emotions overwhelming him. I must have dissected that scene twenty times, as I have done with other scenes in other novels. Other writers do the same – even when caught up in the story. We feel our readerly emotions overwhelm us, yet we also keep them at bay. Because we have to. Like it or not, we must read from a distance.

At least, that’s my take.

©2007 Stefano Donati
All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Seanachaí

by Marie White Small

Once upon a time there was girl. An apt beginning for a fable, possibly of Faëries, trickery and magic, or maybe a parable; for none turns from unmerciful truth. But yes, a girl - a small child walks through a field on a pure late-summer morning. She is five years old and dressed in her mother’s worn acetate slip, the silky garment belted at her waist. Still the hem drags behind small red tie-up shoes, her favorite red shoes. She carries a well-loved doll tucked in the crook of her chubby arm. It came by post in a narrow box, paid for in coupons clipped from baby food jars and one crisp dollar bill, a gentle price for this treasured Gerber baby-doll.

The avenue of childhood is long, and peppered with a million innocent moments that appear to hold little consequence. As she walks under the brilliant sky, our small, once-upon-a-time girl is now enchanted, donned in her expected future. She cuts through the field, walks along the road to play with neighborhood children, all the while beguiled by the smell of her mother, the feel of her, the sheer fabric, the sensuous lace.

Who would know of this transformation, you ask, surely not this child? She has no script, no words, no hand at runes. She is marked in symbols, and it is the Seanachaí (pronounced "shan-a-hee"), the storyteller, who translates tales of wee ones who peer into their mothers’ wardrobes, tiptoe into bedchambers where they know there is mystery. They touch all of it and are imprinted here: the lace edges, the perfumed powder and scarlet lipstick that mark their mothers in ways they feel but do not understand. Not yet.

There are games in the field; the doll, the shift, each is tossed aside for red-rover, breaking open silky milk-weed pods, and a trek to some kid’s mother known for slices of buttered white bread sprinkled with sugar, forbidden in her own mother’s kitchen of shiny, red apples and tall glasses of milk.

By mid-afternoon nap-time, the plaything, the acetate slip are both gone, missing forever. The five-year-old is truly heart-broken. She has lost far more than her mother understands. In this mother’s work-a-day world of dishes and diapers, there are bigger fish to fry. At bedtime prayers or the story-hour, it is her father who sooths this cailín and takes her under his wing. The split has occurred, imperceptibly.

The Seanachaí knows this and sees through the wider world: a young father and his daughter gone for a day of fishing. She learns to thread a worm on a hook and knows to hold her breath as she squeezes a trigger on the rifle range. The currency of competence and courage is exchanged for tasks well-regarded, though she is seldom without fear, without terror. The prize is great: lavish affection and approval from an awkward father unversed in the enigmatic, his gentleness and wonderment ground out of him years before.

There are larger issues for the chronicler of this narrative: the loss of innocence, distant and distracted caretakers and death: worms, fish caught on hooks, deer gutted and hung in the back yard to be butchered. All of it coded as pragmatic survival, a harder nurturance the child learns to accept as a distant second best.

Weeks or months later a package arrives addressed to our once-upon-a-time girl, a brand-new Gerber doll, wrapped tightly like a newborn in a satin-edged blanket. The girl, now proud of her tom-boy title, bears skinned knees from jumping off tree limbs. Nevertheless, she turns again; for a time she is re-enchanted by pop-beads and high-heels.

Why, you ask, why tell this tale? The narrative of this child becomes the turning back and forth: fidelity, loyalty, side-taking. At first, the struggle is a wrenching one. This girl feels, quite erroneously, she must choose: which parent, which way of life? It is the Seanachaí who well knows this journey, and can tell its real truth, in layers like a well executed water-color; fluid but put to paper in water and pigment nonetheless.

Still, you may wonder, why do people do what they do? Why is such a harmless moment so striking? A head-scratcher, for sure. Nothing is small or white, simple or plain. The depth of a character, of a life in leaves, is built, word-by-word in subtly as much as active voice. You question, it is necessary to tell the details of this story? Perhaps not, but before a fully blood-letting human creation can lift off the page and become embedded in the mind and the heart of a reader, a past, a childhood and conflict are required. The storyteller should know the secrets of this past, thus weave them into the warp and woof seamlessly.

This child may grow into a woman addled by indecision, or maybe she abandons her own family. There is a satchel of possibilities. Fun to guess and for some, a pastime to ponder. The classic bard’s remedy was to speak; ours is to pen tales rendered from the truth of these curious souls. We hope to spin words and worlds, we invite you to leave yourself behind, and enter here. We offer a glimpse.

Again you ask why? Ah- that. Tis a universal lament invoked in darker hours by nearly every human being at some crossroad. I say, ask the Seanachaí, though it can never be fully answered.

© 2007, Marie White Small
All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Trouble Old Possum Must Have Gone To....

by Shawn MacKENZIE

“Never pick yourself a name you can’t scrub the floor in.”
...Terry Pratchett, wit and sage

There is an old story which goes something like this:
Long ago, when the Universe was young, a mighty Creator took aside the first human and said, “I have filled the world with life; that was the easy part. But none of the species have names. That task I give to you. Let’s see what you’re made of – see if you’re truly inspired.” And the Creator brought before this first human every living creature that walked upon the earth, swam in the great oceans, or flew across the skies. One by one, he named them all.

I marvel at that, really I do. Imagine the responsibility! In what sort of Looking-Glass world might we be living had that protohuman gotten it wrong? Had he dubbed the dragon a hairy-nosed wombat, the very fabric of our universe would be rewoven beyond recognition.

Such is the power of names.

This is one of those things which I delight in pursuing along the meandering paths of abstract rumination. But, beyond the fun of that, there is also a profoundly practical aspect to this train of thought. People need names. For pets, for children, sometimes for ourselves. Writers need names and the ritual of naming even more. For characters, for places , for whole worlds! (Playing God has its perks!) We birth our characters with each new story and must, as good parents do, give them names they can live with or, at least, grow into. Shorthand for writer and reader, alike, names can reveal volumes of information, not only about the characters themselves but about their family, their people, their history, their faith, their social status, even, at times, their age or occupation. Certain magical circles believe that people actually have three names, each linked intrinsically to the tri-partite soul: air/mind, earth/body, and secret/power/soul. Nothing is ever simple when it comes to magic.

Names also mask – a plain name for an exotic character, a hot-house appellation for a wall flower.

We humans have certainly evolved considerably since that breath-infused dust-bunny gave us appropriately elephantine elephants and mitey mites, so one would think we’d have this naming business down to a painless science. But, with so much riding on the perfect appellation, where do we start?

In the names we choose for our characters/children/pets, do we dare invest them with our greatest dreams and aspirations – that they might miraculously live up to some noble moniker with which we saddled them? Do we use family names, and, if so, is it out of respect or loathing? Do we opt for whimsy or irony, a big name for a small character, perhaps; or a slight name for a weighty one. Even our villains must be named with care. Mordred, for example, now there is a nefarious name of the first order – one would hardly mistake him for a white hat, no matter how many kittens he saved.

So many possibilities....

Perhaps it is the crossword-puzzle editor in me, but I usually start with dictionaries and lists. Long lists of meaningful words and names – both fore- and sur- – from cultures which might, just possibly, wind up playing a part in my tale. Of course, there is also the longer list of words and names I just like the sound of – there can never be too many of those.

Matching name to character, that is when things get even more complicated. Does a name I give a character affect the personality, itself, or does the core personality affect the name chosen? This gives rise to more profound ethical questions: how far does our authorial authority go? Can we mold a being with the power of naming? Do we have the right to do so? (Playing God has its drawbacks, too.)

Which brings me to another story.

A couple of weeks ago, upon returning home from a convivial evening of good company and finely-honed prose, I was seduced into adding to my fur ‘n’ feather familia a stray golden tabby. Abandoned at the nascent age of barely 6 weeks to wander the fierce wilds of North Bennington, this little being chanced upon my porch, and, with a plaintive mew, wheedled her way into my house and affections.

That was the easy part. Turning to the difficult: she needed a name.

As I watched her sleep the deep sleep of the foundling, I began ticking over possible names in my mind. Something literary, perhaps, to thematically tie-in to the long-line of companion creatures who’ve been in residence over the years: Inigo Jones, Lennon, Chaucer, Chekhov, Eliot, to cite a few.... Or something whimsical, in keeping with my hamster, Bannister “Crash-Bandicoot” Featherwhistle, or Fearless the Mouse or Spike. Two days later, the literary won out and she was being called Salinger. Still is, though pressures are being brought to bear to change it; of course, exactly what her name will be changed to remains the great unknown.

But that is all good. I’ve known the intricate ritual of naming – especially with cats – to take days, weeks, even years to be resolved to mutual feline/human satisfaction. Names come and go, stay for a while like in-laws at Thanksgiving, and are shed when ill-fitting as easily as a jacket in Indian Summer. At least with our companion creatures, we have the luxury of appellation evolution. This little cat will grow into a name, much as she grows into herself. If I listen very hard, she will tell me who she is. The same is true of characters. If we listen to them, they will share their names. Of course, if they happen to tell you their secret name, you both might have to agree to use Tinker-paws or Fluffy in public.