She Was Trapped in and by Her Job

Henry James

I’ve read too much to comment on in any kind of articulate way. I’m entering my second year (yay!) of a PhD program at DU in Literary Studies. I thought I’d consumed books before, but now, I know the difference. Out of my first year’s grouping, let me isolate at least one sentence. A challenging task –and if you befriend me on Goodreads, you can peruse the list– though I must choose Henry James. I thankfully was tasked to read his novella In The Cage: a tale about a telegrapher woman who fantasizes about her high-society customers. She doesn’t want to break the fantasy by joining them, though. That wouldn’t do.

This novella is stream-of-consciousness only because James is fond of the comma. One can read along but it takes fortitude and the kind of alertness one stores in the marrow for poetry.

Coming from retail myself, there are points at which I am plunged back into the service industry, regardless of time or station. The smells of retail are visceral and come with any category of work. They are always assailing and strong and give one a delayed repugnance long after the job is left behind.

Case in point:

“Her function was to sit there with two young men—the other telegraphist and the counter-clerk; to mind the ‘sounder,’ which was always going, to dole out stamps and postal-orders, weigh letters, answer stupid questions, give difficult change and, more than anything else, count words as numberless as the sands of the sea, the words of the telegrams thrust, from morning to night, through the gap left in the high lattice, across the encumbered shelf that her forearm ached with rubbing. This transparent screen fenced out or fenced in, according to the side of the narrow counter on which the human lot was cast, the duskiest corner of a shop pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin, and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names” (James 118).

Immediately, I’m reminded of patio duty at The Westin Resort’s restaurant. 6 am, when the nose is not used to any smell, being attacked by egg and onion and Pine-Sol. Or 6 am at Crabtree and Evelyn, the store would ooze into the mall a woody-rose combination. Once in, the powdery scent of Nantucket Briar took over. Chucking lunch and sometimes dinner into the tiny, souring fridge…

What is Henry James’ lesson here? Part POV, part illegal use of prepositional phrases all piled up…commas, semicolons, smells and sounds all contribute to character and this character is the plot.

She Fell Asleep on the Stagecoach


I’ve been absent for a while. I apologize for that! I’ve been reading about the inception of the novel. Ian Watt believes Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders was among the first…while others have contested or included him in their critical reports.

I’m still reading Dickens, all along, but right now, among all critical reading, I’m in the near 3rd of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Goethe, which will be my next entry.

Let me go back to The Old Curiosity Shop, the last novel I read outside of my PhD. There’s a reason Francine Prose and E.M Forster refer to Dickens when discussing the “how” of writing. In one of my fave “break the rules as you learn them” texts: Tom Romano’s Writing with Passion, he reveals all of Grammar B – the rules we break but know.

Here’s the labyrinthine sentence from The Old Curiosity Shop (Dickens 325). First, let me set the scene: Little Nell and her Grandfather have been on foot for months and this is Little Nell’s first ride in a Stagecoach (in her life).

“What a soothing, luxurious, drowsy way of travelling, to lie inside that slowly-moving mountain, listening to the tinkling of the horses’ bells, the occasional smacking of the carter’s whip, the smooth rolling of the great broad wheels, the rattle of the harness, the cheery good-nights of passing travellers jogging past on little short-stepped horses–all made pleasantly indistinct by the thick awning, which seemed made for lazy listening under, till one fell asleep! The very going to sleep, still with an indistinct idea, as the head jogged to and fro upon the pillow, of moving onward with no trouble or fatigue, and hearing all these sounds like dreamy music, lulling to the senses–and the slow waking up, and finding ones’s-self staring out through the breezy curtain half-opened in the front, far up into the cold bright sky with its countless stars, and downward at the driver’s lantern dancing on like its namesake Jack of the swamps and marshes, and sideways at the dark grim trees, and forward at the long bare road rising up, up, up, until it stopped abruptly at the sharp high ridge as if there were no more road, and all beyond was sky–and the stopping at the inn to bait, and being helped out, and going into a room with fire and candles, and winking very much, and being agreeably reminded that the night was cold, and anxious for very comfort’s sake to think it colder than it was! What a delicious journey was that journey in the waggon.”

So maybe there is a comma splice in there, but the plentiful “ands” mimic for the reader the ride. We are swept up, pushed along lazily and wake with Little Nell in the cold night, safe and illuminated in her luxurious moment. Constance Hale referred to this as parataxis. She says, “…parataxis links phrases or clauses with short pauses, creating a percussive effect, or perhaps a steady drum of ideas.” Try this. Repetition also aids the patterned sentences. It’s not what English teachers usually support, but don’t you feel lolled by the ride? Aren’t you suddenly waking to see the glowing room? It’s all worth breaking the rules. Use parataxis wisely, though!


The Prairie Depressed Me

my antonia

This is not a book review, nor are any of my posts. They are word reviews. I didn’t mean to sit down and read My Antonia. Ever. I lived in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota all at once in Sioux City for 8 months. It was gorgeous at times and other times I felt like the wind had taken my soul with it, up into the colder atmosphere where all the souls go that get swept up by arctic gales. But then I saw an old 80s version of the movie My Antonia and had to dig into the novel’s language. I’m so glad I did.

This duality of beauty mixed with nature as killer of humans and their spirits is perfectly distributed throughout My Antonia. Cather explores collectivistic culture against grassy and snowy fields that are sometimes hard to differentiate from the sky.

Here’s one passage where the narrator recounts the prairie.  Throughout the novel he grows but in this particular instance he’s still around 11 or 12 and hasn’t experienced winter in the plains yet. He muses in chapter 6:

“Winter comes down savagely over a little town on the prairie. The wind that sweeps in from the open country strips away all the leafy screens that hide one yard from another in summer, and the houses seem to draw closer together. The roofs, that looked so far away across the green tree-tops, now stare you in the face, and they are so much uglier than when their angles were softened by vines and shrubs.

In the morning, when I was fighting my way to school against the wind, I couldn’t see anything but the road in front of me; but in the late afternoon…the town looked bleak…The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify — it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs, and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: ‘This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.’ It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer.”

I know this is a lot to swallow, but I had to capture the whole passage. Cather uses a few adverbs and that elusive “seems,” but look at how she converts the song of the plains into punishment. Fighting, blue drifts, frivolities, mask of green. Also, that echoing of “loving” with “loveliness” as the last line you read reverberates back to the “ugly” truth, which is the opposite of that summer green that sheathed it for a season. The truth wins every winter.

It Was Raining When the Taxi Arrived (Elizabeth Bowen)

house in paris

(Please remember: My titles are always the ironic, boring version of what the author actually wrote!)

In my endeavors to enter graduate school, I’ve been researching (going down several rabbit holes) to further tease apart that elusive “author-self” relationship in the narrative, specifically that apex of choosing: memoir or true fiction? Synonymously, I’ve been delving deeper into Elizabeth Bowens’ writing by reading (or dare I say swimming in?) The House in Paris. Her main characters: Henrietta and Leopold both possess the sophistication beyond what we today call “tweens.” Writers usually have focused on the Bildungsroman – that coming of age so compelling because of the nature of that “age” where they finally reach some sort of place past epiphany. But what of Bowen’s adult children stuck in time, or to use Passage to India’s extended metaphor: butterflies in a net? The net is woven by uncaring parents, or parents who don’t have the wherewithal, emotional substance/inventory, or funds to provide for their children and these children remain in stasis.

So goes the tale for Henrietta and Leopold in The House in Paris. This novel is not for the reader who enjoys turning pages. If you enjoyed Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or constantly quote Stephen Dedalus’s “shout in the street,” than this book is for you. A.S. Byatt’s foreword in my Anchor Book paperback version reveals Bowen’s “cool judgment” she enlisted to show how both children and adults can be stuck in the same ineffective life-loops.

I’m always drawn to Bowen’s language, first. Plot second. All external events reflect an internal world. Near the end, we intimately know how dejected the main characters are and step back out into the day, released for the moment into physical real time (the whole novel is in the span of one day, a la Woolf).

“The taxi stuck in blocks, jarred, swerved clear, darted between lit buses solid with heads. On kerbs [sic] people watched it come and drew back suspiciously. I have not met the French, Henrietta thought. It was funny to stare into their unseeing eyes. The taxi pumped itself through wet-evening Paris in jerks” (262).

I won’t get into Hypotaxis but suffice to say, we are subjected and awash in Henrietta’s one small thought amidst the taxi: jarred, swerved, darted. I teach this stuff and yet to write it, I think there’s a deep editing that’s almost a mystical experience in which these masters engage.

Notice the adverb stand out? That is what you call a well placed and intentional adverb. I’m sure Stephen King (eschewer of adverbs) would approve. The unseeing eyes of the French are also the unseeing eyes of Henrietta’s reality. She can hide. This paradox lies in that passive nature of being unseen: this notion is both convenient for when a child wants to hide in anonymity but also tragic for when that terrible humanity rises, and the child needs love.

Some Pearls…

turning life into fiction hemley

Yes- I am reading some novels right now but I’m heavily submerged in craft, since I’m teaching it. My biggest gem lately emerged: Robin Hemley’s Turning Life into Fiction. Why is this text such a big deal? It doesn’t only apply to fiction. In fact, I applied its exercises to Memoir.

The “M” word. It’s fiction backwards. It’s reconstruction of a story given only half of the painter’s palette.  So why do we continue to write memoir? I believe for the same reason we write fiction: to send a message to the souls who need it.

Hemley is practical in his direction. He describes the focus in your writing as the “handle.” In fact, “Anything can be a handle. What we’re ultimately after is focus. Your handle is simply your focusing element.” But besides the handle,  Sue Silverman (of Fearless Confessions – More of this in a later post) calls this authenticity  “writing along the bone.” The story of our lives emerges from our bones. Both Hemley and Silverman refer to that focus but also that it might not emerge “organically” until after you have written the entire memoir.

I always direct students to go to the emotion and exploit it until drained. Go to the bone. Or it doesn’t have to be dark. Go to what you remember. Hemley champions mining the childhood “places” of our past. He writes, “Lift your grandmother’s teapot off the mantle – you know, the teapot that played ‘Tea for Two’ when you lifted it. Notice the aromas. What’s your grandmother cooking? Take a peek outside. It’s a fair day, take a walk. Go through the neighborhood. Wave to your friends and acquaintances. It’s been a long time.”

This might seem like memoir 101, but go and do it. You’ll be surprised at what you get by remembering one room in particular.

Robin Hemley is at LitFest Lighthouse this week. If you can get a chance to see him, please do.


Image(David Copperfield and Micawber)

“Go upstairs, give my complements to Mr. Dick, and say I wish to speak to him,” declares Betsey Trotwood (Dickens 159) who opens the scene where Charles Dickens first introduces the character of Mr. Dick. Dickens’s most revealing early self-portrait, David Copperfield, lies on a couch, exhausted from his journey, in his Aunt Betsey Trotwood’s front parlor while Janet heads upstairs to gather Dickens’s later self-portrait, Mr. Dick: the memorialist, the mirrored self as traumatized outcast. This scene compounds two sides of Dickens’s personality: the wronged orphan (Forster 126), lost to his parents, and the eccentric “self-mastered” perfectionist author (Shore 27) endeavoring to save himself.

This is the beginning of my final essay “Two Selves of Mr. Dick: A ‘Self-Revealing, Self-Concealing’ Portrait” I just submitted for my Virginia Woolf and the Victorians Class at the University of Denver. We had the pleasure of reading with a critical eye at least eight novels from Victorian England’s authors and made connections not only to their time in society but to how this current moment connects to the turn of the century.

I delved a little too deeply into Dickens. As I researched him, our lives were too parallel.  No, I never was turned loose from my family to glue labels on jars, nor did I live in a debtor’s prison with my father.  But I did suffer through insufferable jobs, was often scoffed at for being my original, whacky self, and am too sensitive for my own damn good. Also, the whole parents flying by their financial pants thing…well, suffice to say, I get it.

I feel like I should defend the man from all of his attacks of being overly sentimental or a caricaturist.

Here’s one of my favorite passages of all time. I recently posted it on facebook because I dared anyone to write such a caricature.

From Great Expectations:

My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbors because she had brought me up “by hand.” Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.

Charles Dickens. Great Expectations (Kindle Locations 130-133).

Isn’t the mark of a great novelist gesture? How about vernacular? We have her saying presented to us, and we also can see her saying being spread around the neighborhood. The hand becomes heavy and denotes cruelty, and we haven’t seen her face yet!

My favorite character from David Copperfield was Mr. Dick because I jolted up in the middle of the night after finishing the novel and realized, “That’s Dickens – that’s how he sees himself!”

Mr. Dick rescues and is dumb; he is wise yet silent; he gardens with relish and flies his kites to connect with a greater knowledge that’s beyond the realm of society. Ideas are better, he seems to say, than words.

“Mr. Dick and I soon became the best of friends, and very often, when his day’s work was done, went out together to fly the great kite [failed attempts of his Memorial fashioned into a kite]. Every day of his life he had a long sitting at the Memorial, which never made the least progress, however hard he labored, for King Charles the First always strayed into it, sooner or later, and then it was thrown aside and another begun. The patience and hope with which he bore these perpetual disappointments, the mild perception he had that there was something wrong about King Charles the First the feeble efforts he made to keep him out, and the certainty with which he came in, and tumbled the Memorial out of all shape, made a deep impression on me. What Mr. Dick supposed would come of the Memorial, if it were completed; where he thought it was to go, or what he thought it was to do he knew no more than anybody else, I believe. Nor was it at all necessary that he should trouble himself with such questions, for if anything were certain under the sun, it was certain that the Memorial never would be finished” (179).

This passage is telling. There are three Dickens’s. All three contribute to the whole. Dickens was writing an “autobiographical fragment” before he began David Copperfield and used Mr. Dick’s character to portray the author within the author, beheading his own efforts and ultimately spending his whole life in pursuit of a dream.

Robert Douglas Fairhurst wrote Becoming Dickens, which I highly recommend and couldn’t put down once I started it. He also felt that Dickens wrote himself as “Dick” into many roles. Some Dickensians professed King Charles the First as a beheaded version of the author himself.

Hands down, Mr. Dick and Betsey Trottwood are the most fun loving characters that seem on the outskirts of the action, but when the real life-changing events go down, they rush in.

I do not believe that Dickens was a caricaturist, “grossly distorting” people from his life. Quite the opposite. He revealed their demeanor in the concrete. If anything, he was a gesturist.

To Be Continued…

I’d like to take some time with my next entry: Dickens. So please stand by for that heart-breaking and world-shaking entry. Coming soon!