Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Elmore & Eudora

Last night I heard Elmore Leonard read, the last of Butler University’s visiting writers this semester. He’s in his mid-eighties now, but the moment he began reading from his novel, Freaky Deaky, years fell away and he was at the same his own low-life characters carrying on a hilarious dialogue about a gangster who might or might not be about to get blown up by a bomb and the writer delighting in his own words, sometimes half-chuckling at a line.

During the Q&A a guy asked, “What’s the secret to good dialogue?” Leonard looked bemused. “Don’t you hear it?” he asked. “There are people all around us, talking. I listen.”

Someone else asked if he knew what the end of a story would be when he started it. He said, no, he just got a couple of interesting people talking and let them go. If someone gets boring, he shoots him. About three-quarters of the way through the book, he starts thinking about how it could end. A book could end in a lot of different ways, he said.

I loved the matter-of-factness and pleasure with which he talked about writing. Though he didn’t say it exactly this way, I think he’d agree that his message was: Pay attention to the world you’re living in; be curious about people, listen to them talking; if something interests you that you don’t know about or don’t understand, find out about it. Being a writer is seeing the potential for stories in the world around you, taking time to find out about things you don’t already know about or understand. Asking, what if? And when you find the story, leaving out every single thing it doesn’t need—the parts people skim.

Don’t. Be. Boring.

Later, it occurred to me that hearing Elmore Leonard read was a lot like hearing Eudora Welty read in Birmingham, Alabama, years ago, when she was around the same age. Sitting onstage during the introduction, dressed in a flowered church-dress, her turquoise pocketbook set firmly on her lap, she looked like the archetypal little old lady. But when she went to the podium and started reading “The Petrified Man,” years fell from her voice and she became the ladies in the beauty shop, every single one of them.

Another writer who talked about writing plainly, she once observed, “Children, like animals use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover the same way…Or now and then we’ll hear from an artist who’s never lost it.”

Elmore Leonard is one of those artists. So was Eudora Welty.

Their work couldn’t be more different, but both have seen the world through the clear lens of a child, both retained their sense of wonder about the sheer strangeness of it all their lives.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Losing a Friend

Here's an e-mail my friend Dan Pattern sent me and some of his other friends. I"m posting it here because I think it captures the disappointment that so many of us are feeling about President Obama these days.

Dear Friends with a similar political bent.

I feel like I've lost a friend. Two out of the last three nights I've lost a lot of sleep agonizing over what has happened to Barack Obama. Here's this man I saw in 2008 with 75,000 people convinced he was going to usher in a new era. The man who made me weep as I heard his inauguration speech and Aretha singing. I envisioned us moving away from war, away from torture and abuse of power, away from corporate control of medicine, and away from the reckless finances of George W. Bush and the upward redistribution of wealth, and towards determined action on global warming.

I've lost faith slowly. I know Barb, you've been terribly disappointed for a long time.

Here was a man who opposed the war in Iraq from the start, who said as a senator that single payer was the best deal for taxpayers, who vowed as a presidential candidate that he would close Guantanamo Bay prison within a year.

I had been so impressed with his intellect and integrity that I gave him slack for a long time. I thought he was being naive with the Republicans; it seemed pretty clear within a fear weeks of taking office that all they would do was oppose whatever he wanted. Still I admired his determination to think well of people and give kindness a chance.

I was really disappointed he didn't stand up to BP after the oil disaster. And it did hurt how his White House has referred to progressives as the "professional left" and shut us out.

I knew the Democrats would get crushed on election day. That's almost inevitable with unemployment so high. I wasn't that upset the day after the election. Sure, we got crushed. But a lot of good officeholders stuck around, especially out here in the west. And I saw the scale of the carnage as an indicator that it hadn't worked for Obama to shut out his base and run the White House like a blue dog Democrat reelection headquarters. I thought it was time to roll up our sleeves with a nutty bunch taking over the House of Reps.

But days later I found Obama was blaming himself for Repubs intransigence. And when I found out he was negotiating to renew the Bush tax cuts even for the superwealthy, I was livid. Let's make up our minds: is the deficit a problem or isn't it? And not standing up to the GOP preventing extension of jobless benefits? I guess the problem is that the poor aren't poor enough and the rich aren't rich enough. If a Democrat isn't going to stand up for this, he's not really a Democrat.

I spent years fuming over the pliability of Bill Clinton. Moral flexibility on the issues. And a loosening of the markets with Robert Rubin and the GOP Congress that helped bring us the financial bubble. Obama makes Clinton look like a steely jawed Churchill or MacArthur. Remember how he stood up to Newt Gingrich trying to shut down the government?

Of course, I'm reading the newspaper and finding people who think like me. Like Paul Krugman, with the headline that Obama is punting on the first down. "Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like a moral collapse-a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction." And Frank Rich on Sunday on "All the President's Captors".

I need to get away from the media and distract myself with some good literature. Let see, here's Dante's Inferno. Hmm, what circle does Obama fit into? Does he belong in limbo with the indecisive and uncommitted, or does he goes with the traitors who abandoned their folks?

Rats, I don't think that's getting me into a better frame of mind.

I'll pull out my Thich Nhat Hanh Touching Peace. Ok, so we have mind consciousness in the living room of our brains. And store consciousness, which is all of our memories and life experiences in storage. "Upstairs in the living room, we sit in a chair and watch these films as they are brought up from the basement. Certain movies, such as Anger, Fear, or Despair, seem to have the ability to come up from the basement all by themselves. They open the door to the living room and pop themselves into our video cassette recorder whether we choose them or not. When that happens, we feel stuck and we have no choice but to watch them. Fortunately each film has a limited length..But each time it is viewed by us it establishes a better position on the archive shelf." Yes, that's it! I keep watching the Obama movie and it doesn't get any better so far. I need to redirect my mind.

It's weird how personally I'm taking it. Obama really was a hero for me. And that Jeremiah Wright speech was one of the best I've ever heard. Seemed he had so much guts and courage. And now he's a waterboy for the Right. A waterboy who makes better policy suggestions before the Republican minority (at least till January, and then still a minority in the Senate) shuts him down.

You know the sneering White House comments about the professional left? I think someone should start a grassroots organization in Obama's face called the Professional Left.

Peace in every step, brothers and sisters. Let's be sure to transcend the present moment. Confused smile