The Sounds Of The Village ~ A View From the Keyboard

Recently I had the opportunity to work with Jo Anne Wilson at the Interlochen Writers’ Retreat, and am overjoyed that she has agreed to be part of View From the Keyboard. A woman with many remarkable stories, Jo Anne is lucky to have writing (and arting) spaces in a couple of beautiful spots in the world. Here she tells us about her work spaces in Provence. That’s France, you know?


Jo Anne: During the first few years in Provence, my writing space was this old desk, located in a building that was once a small shed on a lavender farm.  The shed is now a comfortable vacation house.  From the window I could look out over the lavender fields.   Often I had the company of one of the resident cats.  During the months I spent here, I was inspired by the beauty of the fields and the sight of Mt. Ventoux beyond them.  The quiet, country setting was really an inspiration to me. I often wrote in the morning, and then would head out for a walk among the lavender fields.  Even in winter, the rows of plants have a purple green hue that speaks of the promise of blossoms to come.


More recently, I spend my provençal months in the heart of a small village.  The owner’s of the house restored an old ruin, and created a modern home.  From the corner of the living area, I have a nice desk, my computer and printer, and all the conveniences of wifi.  If I look out the window, I see red tiled rooftops all around me.  This location is much less isolated than the lavender farm and, if I need a break or inspiration, I just walk up through the village to the local coffee shop/bakery and indulge in café au lait and a croissant.    

I had thought I was compiling a book of essays, working title:  Letters From Provence.  That may yet be the case, but in the course of summer workshops, I have found that I might be writing a memoir.  I’ve spent most of the past eight years living in Provence.  What I had thought would be somewhat factual, but interesting stories about markets, and people, and the weather, the food, and the wine…..is turning out to be more about me and how I’ve lived with all of these, and the ways in which they truly changed me as a person and how I live my life.  

I do have a website:  www.meetmeinprovence.com   I enjoy organizing trips to this region for individuals, families and small groups.  I originally called them Creative Retreats and they started (as you will see on my website) primarily for artists and photographers.  I have recently decided that the area is not only beautiful to see and paint and photograph, but is also inspiration for the writer’s spirit!

The following piece was written from the village house writing corner.

The Sounds of the Village

I live in the heart of a village in Provence.  The village is perched, literally, on a rocky hillside, and water flows freely from the rocks. The minute I open a window or step outside, I hear water running.

There’s a fountain in the tiny square outside the house: typical of several throughout the village.  There’s the big fountain in the main square with its tall cement center column.  At the top of the column are several spigots from which water falls into large clay flowerpots….no flowers, just water, tumbling and splashing. 

An old lavoire, a large tub like basin, sits opposite this fountain.  The village women used to do their laundry here. Its wide cement edges are slightly slanted inward … convenient washboard for scrubbing  clothes.  The basin is fed from the rocky sources, and water splashes and gurgles continuously through it.

Some village sounds change with the seasons.  Summer tourists bring a hum of voices, in many languages.  In the fall, children’s giggles drift upward as they head to the local school.   In hunting season, hounds bay and bark in the distance, while their tell tale bells clank and clink as they roam the nearby fields and vineyards.   

Other village sounds continue no matter what the season. Doves chortle and coo on the red tiled rooftops.  The Mistral whistles and wines its windy way around the corners of the houses.  Church bells chime the hour, and the little fountain outside my door burbles on. 

Thanks so much for letting us visit your spaces, Jo Anne. Writers, please consider contributing to View From the Keyboard. Guidelines here. – PMc←

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Mount Carroll’s Market Street Commons ~ A Temporary View From the Keyboard

What was once known as the Kraft Building, a lovely old commercial edifice constructed more than 100 years ago, is now home to Mount Carroll’s Market Street Commons. After a devastating lightening strike to the old building and its resident businesses a few years ago, the place was taken over by Mount Carroll’s Community Development Corporation. Today the restored historic property is home to a number of small businesses and vendors, as well as a Welcome Center. Conveniently, the best coffee in town can be purchased here, and there is WiFi access as well. (We make good coffee at our house in Mt. Carroll, but we don’t have internet access. Or a phone. Or television.)

Dig the great tin ceiling, the original floors, and of course, the fancy new coffee making equipment. And that’s Philip up there in the first picture, in case you were wondering. Dig him, too. I do.

Oh, Interlochen, I Miss You So ~ A Brief Summary of a Writers’ Retreat

How could it possibly have gone by so fast? Interlochen College of Creative Arts Writers’ Retreat of 2011 was four days full of writers reading, talking, writing, eating, imbibing, walking, sharing, sleeping (just a little,) listening, and yes, drawing.

We are back at our house in Mt. Carroll, IL, and are happy for our own bed, our two crazy cats, our full-size refrigerator, our own cooker (as the British, Philip’s people, call it.) What I am missing, though, is so much. Of course, the trees. The beautiful smells of Northern Michigan, the lakes that are small and great. The creative aura that is Interlochen Center for the Arts.

I find myself thinking back to moments and people;

  • Ava and Philip with their heads down over their work on the reduction linocut print for the dedication of the Mallory-Towsley Building.
  • Dinner with Matt and Angela, their delightful children making us laugh and marvel.
  • Walking along Diamond Park Road and into the collection of houses near the lake, amidst the wetlands–a path I ran daily during my residency at Interlochen in 2001. A place that appears in my stories.
  • Meeting, talking with, and hearing the fine, fine work of my fellow faculty: Fleda Brown, Tony Ardizzone, Katey Schultz, and of course, Anne-Marie Oomen. (Oh yeah, and Philip, too.)
  • Annie finding her way in the poetry workshop.
  • Linda showing her chops as a real writer.
  • Jo Anne’s kind face and beautiful drawings, her collections of memories about travels and places important to her.
  • Joan lighting up like one of her own students as she made new discoveries.
  • Lindsey doing what she always does, writing her way toward understanding, and doing it so well.
  • Lynn celebrating her birthday with ballet turns, new drawings, a new section of work-in-progress, and plastic rings and cupcakes. (Oh, and two dead mice!)
  • Viki surprising me deeply and delightfully, despite my having known her for–could it be?–nearly two decades now.
  • Ferdy taking the risk and reading his work off his phone.
  • Theresa, Lindsay, John, Terry, leaving me lost in their worlds after their readings.
  • Lucricia and Sam, such a dear couple, each following their dreams and holding hands on the way.
  • Opera on the lakefront in the dark.
  • And Gail, dear Gail, on the other side of the wall, putting up with Philip’s high jinx and giving comfort and camaraderie just by being there. (And her writing!)
  • John and Meredith making the trek to hear us read and to hang for a while after.
  • Selling and signing books. Felt a little like Sally Field: “You like me! You really like me!”
  • Talking blogs with Kristen, whose own is both beautiful and mouthwatering.
  • Rachel making me feel as though my stories can move even the toughest of customers, and hearing her own affecting novel-in-progress.
  • Sharkie.
  • A hug from Delp, whom I adore.
  • An escape the weekend before the retreat (pre-retreat retreat) with Philip to Empire, watching the great lake roll toward the shore, eating marvelous food and watching junk tv and…well, you get the picture.
  • Dinner with a crowd of excited new friends at the conclusion of the week.
  • And perhaps most of all, dinner before it all started with Anne-Marie and David, two of the world’s best people (no hyperbole here) who are such a joy to be with. Anne-Marie has shown me so much about how to live a writing life of meaning, and David is evidence of how to live the rest of your life, too, with warmth and compassion, with generosity and good deeds. What a couple!
Yes, I’m gushing. And there is likely more to gush about. But for now, that’s what you get. If you don’t believe me, then you should see for yourself. It’s an annual thing.
Sharkita holding court at the dinner table. Everyone likes a big fish story.

“In Conclusion…” ~ Gerard Woodward on Endings

Why the Short Story? ~ A Conversation Among Writers” is near its end, and as we face the final curtain (apologies, Frank) Gerard Woodward answers his own questions about endings:

Gerard: Perhaps it would be appropriate for an entry about endings to begin with one. In conclusion I would say this—there should be no hard and fast rules for how we end stories; as I hope I have demonstrated in this article, closed endings can work just as effectively as open endings, even in what we call literary fiction. What is important is a sense of completeness within the flow of things—the sense that a story is fully resolved and concluded while at the same time existing in a universe where things go on happening.

There is a story I love that has a closed ending—though love is not quite the right word for a story on such a horrible theme—by the British novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Taylor. It is called “The Fly Paper,” and I’m going to summarise it now, (I’m afraid an unavoidable problem in writing about endings is giving them away). The story concerns an 11-year-old girl called Sylvia, who is on her way to a music lesson when she gets pestered by a creepy guy. She is rescued by a kindly older lady who sees off the creepy guy, and then invites the girl to her cottage for tea, to let her recover from her ordeal. After a reassuring chat over tea and biscuits, the girl is horrified when a visitor arrives, and it is the creepy guy, who greets the elderly lady as a friend. The whole thing was a set up and the two older people have lured the girl into a trap, and there the story ends. This story is uncharacteristic of Taylor, and was written as a deliberate shocker. It is horribly prescient, written just a few years before the Moors Murderers put child abduction (and the role of a motherly figure as a lure) into the public consciousness. The whole story is beset by a bleakness of vision and a torpid provincial entropy—everything from the scruffy peripheral landscape that is seen from the bus, to the fact that Sylvia herself is recently orphaned, and has discovered herself to have an unappealing personality—“She did not go into many houses, for she was seldom invited anywhere. She was a dull girl, whom nobody liked very much, and she knew it.” The cleverness of this portrayal of Sylvia is very characteristic of Taylor—she makes her protagonist a little unendearing, so that her terrible fate is slightly more bearable, and even darkly comic. Had Sylvia been sweet, innocent, pretty and happy the story would have taken on a tediously moralistic good-versus-evil dimension, and would have been both too painful and too boring to read. Instead we have a marginal world where good and evil seep into each other, where misery and joy are different shades of the same colour, and the world is too tired to even notice that a child is entering hell.

In some ways this story might seem open ended, for we do not actually know what will happen to Sylvia. It is not described. The final sentence has the three of them sitting down to tea, “she noticed for the first time that there were three cups and saucers laid there.” But of course, the lengths of subterfuge and careful planning that have gone into the abduction of Sylvia can only indicate that her fate is to be a terrible one. Part of the horror of the story is that the reader is forced to imagine what that might be—without that brief bit of imagining on the part of the reader, the story has no power at all. So in fact the openness of the ending is very limited. It is only the nature of the suffering that is left open, the fact of her suffering is absolutely certain.

The closure of the story is dependant on an inversion, what is sometimes called a ‘twist’, so characteristic of suspense genres like the classic detective stories of, say G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown, or the novels of Agatha Christie. Like those stories, the twist in “The Fly Paper” is like one of those etchings by M.C.Escher, when a lattice of sailing ships suddenly becomes a lattice of fish—the background becomes the foreground and vice versa. In “The Fly Paper” the moral certainties of the world are completely inverted—little old ladies transform from safe moral guardians into their antithesis, tea becomes poison. This moral inversion is compressed into a single phrase in the story—after witnessing the entrance of the man into the cottage “Sylvia spun round questioningly to the woman…” In fact it is just that verb that does it, precisely chosen, as always with Taylor, it conveys powerful, urgent movement in space as well as the sense of a moral universe turning itself on its head. The story is very tightly, firmly closed at this point, but with just the right amount of pressure to keep the narrative flowing beyond the time of the story.

But it is perhaps indicative of the power of the open ending that the closed ending is so rare in literary fiction—unless the intent is to turn the world of the story upside down. This is very different from the ‘reveal’ of detective fiction, where the closed ending is akin to a set of answers to a puzzle that you have been trying to solve as you progressed through the story. The ending of “The Fly Paper” isn’t a reveal, because there were no puzzles in the earlier part of the story, no mysteries that needed solutions. At the same time there is a sense of satisfaction when a story ends like this that should have its equivalent in any story, and not just ones that set out to shock and horrify.

The danger of the open-ended story is that the reader experiences a sense of disappointment. In reading a narrative, the desire for a sense of completeness is very strong, and if this desire is unfulfilled the story has failed in a very significant way. You could go so far as to say the reader has been cheated, or even betrayed. This holds true for novels just as much as short stories, and in fact for any narrative form. However, leaving an ending open is very different from leaving it incomplete. Raymond Carver is a master of the open ended but satisfactorily complete short story. The endings are so open that, bizarrely, they can be hard to spot. When I use these stories in teaching, some students have difficulty in ‘getting’ their endings. Take the story “Boxes” for example. This is a deceptively simple story about a man and his partner helping his elderly mother move house. The story reveals many layers of complexity in the triangular relationship between man, partner and mother, but nothing extraordinary happens. A domestic chore is completed, the mother’s move is successful, as confirmed when the mother calls the narrator a couple of days after the move. And that is the end of the story, except for one thing. When the narrator puts the phone down, he is distracted for a moment by a little scene that is taking place across the street. A porch light has gone on and shown a couple in a ‘welcome home’ embrace. And the story ends like this –  “What’s there to tell? The people over there embrace for a minute and then they go inside the house together. They leave the light burning. Then they remember, and it goes out.”

Some of my students miss this ending, they misjudge its weight and don’t feel its impact. Of course, for it to work properly you have to experience it as the closing paragraph to what has gone before. It is cleverly downplayed (What’s there to tell?), and draws little attention to itself. But if the story is read with enough engagement the scene comes to life in those few words as a tableau of human frailty and love which binds together all the images of fractured and difficult relationships that have gone before (like the memorable image in the middle of the story, of a workman hanging precariously from the top of a telephone pole). And what could be more final than a light going off? And it is quite characteristic of Carver that the moments of significance are found outside the narrative itself, in the incidental epiphanies that are glimpsed far away from the action. Another good example is “Intimacy,” which ends with a vision of dead leaves. In this and so many other stories of Carver’s, you might wonder at first why it ends the way it does, before realising that it couldn’t possibly end any other way. And whether endings are open or closed or a bit of both, that is the effect one should strive for in writing them. Which is more or less where I came in.

This has been fun. Thanks to my fellow contributors—Dennis, Gina, Vanessa and of course Patty for putting it all together.

 

Thanks to you, Gerard, for your insight and questions. Chicago just ain’t the same without you here, by the way. Coming soon, Vanessa Gebbie shares her thoughts on the ever elusive art of endings. Thanks for reading. -PMc←

 

A Whole Lot of Writing Going On

Day two of the Writers’ Retreat at Interlochen and participants are bent over their work with a seriousness of purpose and play. So far we’ve had workshops and readings and craft talks; considered questions of truth and fact and first, second, and third person points of view; drawn and wrote and read back and commented and all been part of a writers’ (writing) community. Today the hike and write in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had to be canceled due to the promise of inclement weather, but after some first grumblings of disappointment, I think we all welcome the time to go back to our rooms or cabins or the nooks and crannies of The Writing House to write, rest, read, and respond to all that has come our way.

Tonight, June 21, 2011 readings by poet and memoir writer Fleda Brown and fiction writer Tony Ardizzone. Starts at 7:30 in The Writing House at Interlochen. Elvis Costello will be here, too. (Okay, not really here as in the Writing House, but in concert in Kresge Auditorium at Interlochen Center for the Arts.) Come on by.

Another Note From Interlochen

The Sound of the Trees

By Robert Frost

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Interlochen College of Creative Arts Writers’ Retreat, June 20 -24, 2011. -PMc←

View From a Michigander’s Keyboard ~ Theodore Roethke

In honor of upcoming Fathers’ Day and in celebration of a Michigan writing life, allow me to present the following:

 

My Papa’s Waltz

by Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963)

 

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

 

We romped until the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf;

My mother’s countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

 

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

 

You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt.

Theodore Roethke’s image above was found on HistoryLink.org. Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1908. Today the house he grew up in is a National Literary Landmark, and serves as a museum and venue for a number of literary events such as readings and community workshops. For more information go to RoethkeHouse.org. -PMc←