Thursday, April 16, 2009

Things I learn on the interwebs

I visited Erica Orloff's blog this morning. She was discussing plot in terms of a protein spiral. Various people joined the discussion, and the analogy veered from molecular biology to math. It all worked. It reminded me of my children's grandmother, who is a great storyteller. She (along with her whole family, it seems) has a knack for telling stories that start out looking straightforward, then veer off into territory that seems to be completely unrelated (rinse, repeat) until eventually, she says the magic words - "Well, anyway..." whereupon she comes back to where she started and wraps the story up, neat as a pin. All those side trips she took along the way suddenly take their rightful place in the narrative. It's amazing. Her stories are family sagas, not fiction, but somehow the spiral analogy still works.

Furthermore, the spiral narrative works better than a linear plot does. The seemingly tangential quality of the narrative lends a tension that simply doesn't exist in a storyline that looks like a Saskatchewan highway. By the way, in case you've never been to Saskatchewan, I should tell you that I discovered it was the only place in the world where I could read a book while sitting in the passenger seat of a car doing 100 kilometers an hour down the highway. That's because the road was so straight, I could look right down it to the horizon. There wasn't even a bump here and there to cause my inner ear any distress. That's great, if I want to catch up on my reading - but it's boring. Dead boring. Even when I told myself that I really should be looking out the window, because this was new territory and if I wanted to read, I could sit at home and read, I kept drifting back to my book, because looking out the window made me either sleepy or snarly - It was boring outside.

Okay, I should apologize to any prairie folk that may happen upon this post. I know you love your scenery. I know a lady from Saskatchewan who was looking for a house to buy, here on Vancouver Island. People kept showing her houses with views of the ocean. "What would I want with a view of the ocean?" she asked. "Fields of grass, yes. Water? What's the point of that?" Jaws dropped. She shrugged. Also, I know that Saskatchewan does have some scenic areas. I've seen pictures of them. I just haven't seen them in person. My entire Saskatchewan experience consisted of that dead straight highway - oh, and locusts. I won't even go there. Really.

If I'm going to enjoy a road, it will be a road like the ones we have here on the island, or better still, the English "B" roads. Have you ever driven (or, preferably, been driven) on those squeezy tiny squiggly country roads that meander through the English countryside? They're good for getting your heart rate up, because often they are too narrow for two vehicles to pass, but they are also very beautiful. I recall being on a road somewhere in Dorset, coming over the top of a hill, and having to stop to let 18 or 20 piglets cross the road. While I waited, I gazed into the sunlit field,where little quonset huts were scattered about. It turned out that each sow had her own hut, in which she reared her young. I was looking at a pigburb. I was not even tempted to read.

Sometimes, the road moves along below the level of the ground on either side, and there are hedgerows planted to break the wind and to provide a habitat for foxes and rabbits and hedgehogs and any number of small creatures. In that case, you can't see past the hedgerows, so the countryside beyond is a mystery until you come to the top of a hill and you see what looks like the whole county spread out in front of you.

This is what G.K. Chesterton thought of the "B" roads:

The Rolling English Road

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

-- G.K. Chesterton

Has anyone ever written a poem about a dead straight highway? Would we want to read it?

Good fiction, like life, doesn't travel in a straight line from birth to death, from beginning to end; it takes some truly fascinating side trips along the way. I hope that when my novel writing starts in earnest, I will remember this lesson from Erica Orloff and not be afraid to follow my characters on some of the side trips that make them interesting - and real.


John Hayes said...

That's a fun Chesterton poem-- interesting observation about "road" poems-- yea, even if they're somehow "set" on a freeway, they have to move around in space & time.

Sandra Leigh said...

There's an historical walk in the city of Winchester, and the Chesterton poem is engraved in stone somewhere along that walk. I think that's where I first saw it. It's my husband's favourite poem. At least once on each trip to England, he recites it as we're driving the B roads. ;>)

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