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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
On the Making of Orchards
Several years ago, I was reading Dante’s Inferno with some friends, and there was one line in particular that struck me. It was the Pinsky translation, Cantos XI, and the line is “God / Has as it were a grandchild in your art.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but in the notes in the back, Pinsky says the structure goes more or less like this: there was God; God had a child and that child was Nature; then Nature had a child and that child was Art, making Art God’s grandchild.
I think that is an extremely beautiful statement; it is so precise and interesting and shapely. The quote links art and nature in this very, well, natural way. If you happen to believe in God, then there’s some supreme head of it all (or if you run it backward it’s a gorgeous definition of God—Art coming from Nature coming from a grand shapely unknown), but if you don’t find that useful, you can move down the line anyway and see that nature operates under certain rules of DNA and biology and that art operates under similar rules but in its human-made metaphorical way. That when making art, what we’re trying to do is create something with this natural, unimposed structure.
In a class I taught last year at Tin House, we talked about diversity in nature a lot—about how if you take a category, any category, the range is amazing. Trees, dogs, clouds. Every morning, students would go up to the chalkboard and draw on a different theme, for example, bugs, and we’d look at all the bugs in a row–grasshopper, butterfly, ant, spider–because they are all such different shapes. Or we would draw deep-sea fish, because deep-sea fish are also wildly surprising different shapes. The writer Jay Gummerman once reassured me about plot by reminding me that “there’s structure in nature.” And there is also such variety. There are boundless options, options with integrity. All trees do not look like the tree that a kid draws of the stick-with-puffy-cotton-ball. Evergreens, palm trees, oaks, Japanese maples–what different forms! We can have that expectation for fiction, too. All stories do not need to have the same arc, the same progression of character, the same twenty-page Times-New-Roman beginning-middle-end movement. We can allow our writing to form its own shape. David Shields has said that you don’t want to pour your writing into some kind of mold; it should be the form that it is. But I love the idea that the reason a piece of writing should take its natural form is because art is nature’s kid. For me, that reinvents a word we use often in workshops, the word organic.
And, these thoughts led me to fruit. If we look at the process of how fruit is made on a tree, we can see that it mirrors the process that happens in fiction, inside a sentence, inside a paragraph, or inside a whole story. We’re hoping the writing will bear fruit. But fruit does not happen in some quick way; it happens through a gradual process. It’s not as if a seed pushes out a stick that then bears an apple. Right? The seed grows into a tree, which grows a branch that grows a blossom that bears fruit. The definition of fruit is “any product of plant growth useful to humans or animals”–“useful” being an interesting word—“the edible part of a plant developed from a flower,” and “anything produced or accruing; the product, result, or effect; the fruits of one’s labors, something coming to fruition.” This is all just another way of talking about process, about development.
What interests me about this process in terms of teaching, and my own writing, is that I often see two things happen—first, a writer (myself included, of course) rushes to the fruit, to the dramatic moment, to the meaningful epiphany. In those cases, the result feels like plastic fruit. That’s what is meant when readers say, “It’s not earned.” The ending is too tidy, or fast. It has not gone through a genuine movement; it has skipped somewhere in the process from seed to branch to blossom. And the opposite happens all the time as well, which is that something is developing, the writer’s building his story, he’s going seed to branch, he’s going branch to leaf, and then he stops. And you feel like something needs to be pushed more; there needs to be a hint more development at that stage, but the writer is holding back, is not letting the seedlings of what he’s developed blossom. This is not to say the writer should spell everything out! She can still leave it open, can let the reader come in and do that work, but sometimes the process stops long before a reader can even get his hands dirty with the pleasurable job of finding the fruit. Sometimes the writer just hasn’t stayed in the piece long enough to make adequate space for a reader to enter. And if fruit is something “useful,” something that we can take away, something that is our nourishment, that we live off, when a story doesn’t get to that stage, we don’t have a satisfying response to it—we have something, but not quite enough, of the story, of the character, to take with us, to keep with us. We don’t have enough there to haunt us.
Now, what fruit is, per story, is obviously going to be very, very different, because, as we know, there are lots of different kinds of fruit. There’s the cantaloupe, there’s the blackberry. Aesthetics will vary.
On a related note—I’m not trying to encourage you to overstate. You can certainly go too far and overstate what you think is going on with your character or story. That is not what I mean by fruit, and this essay is not about that. This is about staying with the moment on the page, staying with what you’ve built. A good friend of mine is an actor and she told me that one of the most useful comments she ever got in an acting class was the teacher said the lucky thing about being an actor is that you happen to be a person. You’re a person and that’s helpful, because you are playing one, too. You have something very basic in common with your character. And I think there’s something similar in this idea that whatever you’re building in the scene is full of what you’ve already put into play; seedlings are already in place and you can start to look at them, to turn them around in your hands. What’s helpful about writing is you happen to be writing.
Gertrude Stein wrote a book called How to Write, which is a bit difficult to read, of course, but also pretty wonderful. In it, she says, “A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is.” She says this over and over, being that she’s Gertrude Stein: “A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is.” “A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is.” In a lecture of hers about narration, she elaborates on this. She talks, in her roundabout and yet somehow very precise way, about succession (and in her windings isn’t she kind of the queen of succession? of subtle changes that make a progression?), about how one sentence follows another, and how sentences have to obey certain rules of structure, whereas in a paragraph you begin to build something in a different way. At the end of this talk, she says:
A sentence is inside itself by its internal balancing, think how a sentence is made by its parts of speech and you will see that it is not dependent upon a beginning a middle and an ending but by each part needing its own place to make its own balancing, and because of this in a sentence there is no emotion, a sentence does not give off emotion. But one sentence coming after another sentence makes a succession and the succession if it has a beginning, a middle and an ending as a paragraph has does form create and limit an emotion.
In other words, the larger context forms the shape. If a sentence has an emotional impact, which of course it does all the time, it does so in large part because of its placement against other sentences, and because of how, almost musically, the emotion will land on a paragraph or scene or moment or white space or word. I think Stein is talking about fruit here, in her own way.
Here are a few examples to try to make this all a little clearer.
This is by Basho, one of the great haiku masters. It is, I think, the smallest version of something very, very complete that moves swiftly through the fruiting process:
Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.
“Even in Kyoto” plants the seed, places the reader; “hearing the cuckoo’s cry” is the seedling, creating the atmosphere; and then, the blossom: “I long for.” We’re moving toward the fruit–what is it he longs for? “Kyoto.” He longs for where he already is. Or he longs for a memory that is unfindable in real life. It’s not a punch line—it’s a natural build that takes us somewhere unexpected; he has captured something both elusive and exact.
If we move into a slightly larger space, we see how fruit can be borne within a paragraph or short passage. In Lolita, Nabokov builds his incredible, articulate paragraphs with shockingly interesting sentences that burst forth; things are happening and fruit is blossoming at every moment. At the start of a paragraph fairly early in the book, the narrator, Humbert Humbert, talks about a photo taken by his aunt of him, his young love, Annabel, and others sitting around at a café. He spends a few phrases just describing the photo—“her thin bare shoulders,” his “moody, beetle-browed” face. Then, he gives the context: “That photograph was taken on the last day of our fatal summer and just a few minutes before we made our second and final attempt to thwart fate.” He’s changed the game on us—we thought we were just enjoying a photo, but it turns out to be a very important photo, a marker of sorts. He then goes into describing what happens after he and Annabel run off, in sentences of the most gorgeous language and such surprising succession: “There, in the violet shadow of some red rocks forming a kind of cave, had a brief session of avid caresses, with somebody’s lost pair of sunglasses for only witness. I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.”
We could probably study this for hours, it’s such an incredible stretch of prose, but for the purpose of this essay, I’ll say that one of the things I love most about it is the momentum. We start with the snapshot, with time frozen. We see Annabel; we see Humbert. How easy it might’ve been to end shortly after that, or after the line about the fatal summer. But instead Nabokov fills in the moment, swiftly, deeply, with the lost sunglasses both anchoring the scene and adding a hint of despair, because no one but Humbert will ever have this memory, all of this undercut by the surprising, funny entrance of the two bearded bathers, and his wonderful brief step into describing them as mythic creatures, larger than life. So we’re with him, with his disappointment at the thwarted attempt, and then we’re led directly–within the same long sentence!–to her death. A frustrating and classic adolescent moment leading to total loss and death. That ending phrase slams it down, shakes the reader, and suddenly the whole paragraph breaks open; we can see the loss, and why he’s talking about all this in the first place, and the gloriousness of his youth and life and adoration of Annabel, and then the quick, brutal ending. “A sentence is not emotional. A paragraph is”? Nabokov demonstrates this idea hugely here. Another crucial part of the fruit and musicality of this passage is the subsequent chapter break, the white space at the end. There’s a gap in which we have a moment to try to digest what we’ve read, but it is also somewhat indigestible. Nabokov has moved through time so fluidly, it’s all happening before our eyes and faster than we can even keep up with, and the white space gives us a moment to feel, briefly, this punch in the gut, which then we also may continue to feel in faint reverberations throughout the book. Fiction does this kind of time skipping so well, more, I think, than any other art form.
Aimee Bender is the author of four books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own, Willful Creatures, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which recently won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, among others.