Monday, July 21, 2014

Arna Bontemps Hemenway's Walk into the Otherworld

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Arna Bontemps Hemenway, author of Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books), discusses the mental process of transportation that accompanies his physical trip to work.

A few years ago, in a New York Times Book Review article, the writer Douglas Coupland sought to describe a new genre of writing. These stories, he said, “cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place.” It is a literature that “collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader's mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present."

I bring this up because it’s actually a pretty good description of my walk to my office, or rather, more specifically, the mental transportation I try to get my mind to go through while I walk to my office in order to be able to write when I get there.

On weekdays (which for me are writing days), I rise very early in the morning. This is key. I get in my car and drive through the dawn or pre-dawn (depending on the time of year). The early morning is a time when the whole world is possible, or made of possibility. Reality is more liquid and fungible for me at that hour, still half-asleep; it’s easier to will another world into existence when this one has less of a purchase on you.

Then I park my car, and I start to walk. I purposefully park a fair distance from wherever I’m going to write that day. It changes. Sometimes my office is my office, a room on the top floor of Baylor University’s English Department. But more often, my office for the day is out in the world, alone, preferably unnoticed, hidden in a corner of the library stacks, for instance. A window helps, especially if it’s raining.

Parallax view: A different perspective
The most important part, however, is the walk. Somewhat paradoxically, I find it easiest to slip into the fever dream of my own work when my brain is nominally distracted by the work of others; the music of composer Max Richter has been good for this, but audiobooks too, especially something that feels like its heart is somewhere near where I’m aiming. Anything that can keep me transported—crossing history, collapsing time and space, inserting my own empathy and sensibility and curiosity into a reality that is not Waco, Texas, and Arna Hemenway but that is an equally real present moment—long enough to launch me back into the unsteady sea of whatever fiction I’m working on that day.

This is, undeniably I think, pretty artsy-fartsy, weird, and unoriginal, at least on the surface. What news—in order to write fiction you have to be able to completely transport yourself into an entirely different time and place! But I think its simplicity as an act is part of what makes it so difficult to truly understand and practice. Because it’s not always pretty. Yes, in order to write what I write about I have to be able to leave behind the stress and fear of the quest for tenure, my dying father, my social anxiety, at times my depression, my struggles with faith, my inexplicably loneliness. But I also have to step out of the life of the person who, when he returns home from work, will get hug-tackled by my curly-haired almost three year old daughter, the person who gets to watch his beautiful wife laugh unexpectedly, the person who gets to hold his two month old baby and feel his son’s breath on his collarbone. For the morning anyway, you’re giving all that up, the good with the bad, and also taking on the world—the weight, the joy, the tragedy—of the people you’re writing about. Obvious, I guess, but elusive, and difficult. That all happens for me, if I’m lucky, on the walk.

One thing I like about that Coupland description is that it hints at the unchanging authorial presence behind these transportations. Because, of course, in leaving all that stuff behind, you leave nothing behind. Travel far enough, you meet yourself—this is somehow both David Mitchell and Nietzsche. Marilynne Robinson once told me to become intimately familiar with the landscape of my obsessions, presumably in order to write well. I don’t really know what that means, but I do know that on weeks when I manage to make that walk into the otherworld every working day, I feel more alive to my own real life than on weeks when I don’t. And that’s important because I think you ultimately want your (fictional) writing to be alive to the real world in the same way. Struggle and spectacular failure are a part of it, just as they are an important part in us making sense of the narrative we daily find ourselves an organizing intelligence of. Meaningful experience, in life as in fiction, is characterized by parallax. You’re not going to ever understand more than a sliver of what you’re doing.

So, most of the time, I try not to think about any of this too much. My writing habit is to walk to wherever I am going to write, to try to make something happen along the way, and hope, in the end, that it will work.