Saturday, April 27, 2013


… nothing to say about this …

“Those three dots mark a precipice, a gulf so deeply cut between us that for three years or more I have been sitting on my side of it wondering whether it is any use to try to speak across it.” Virginia Woolf

Three dots. One for the offense. One dot for her feelings. One dot for mine. Three boulders between us. I put the first one in place, then we—I and she—shoved two more alongside it.
An ellipse is something you draw by sticking two pins in your paper and going around them with a pencil and a piece of string. You tie the string to form a loop and then pull it taut around the pins with your pencil. Then you guide the pencil around in what would be a circle—

“In her novels, thought radiates outward, as a medieval town radiates outward—from a beautifully neglected center.” James Wood on Virginia Woolf

The “beautifully neglected center” has two pins in it.
Ellipses are a two-body problem.

Two bodies orbit in ellipses around a shared center. I travel ’round her pin; she travels ’round mine. Theythe bodies—come close together then range far away, never touching. The neglected center is their common ground, common space.

But that hedged-around, elided area is not what connects them. They are bound, like it or not, by their own gravity.
Either a deliberate omission of words or being at a loss for words.

Your ellipses are poetry deleted.

I don’t use ellipses. When at a loss,
I make up metaphors,

Filling the void with things my mind can manage: pins and planets and boulders.

Like those math manipulatives from second grade—bow-tie pasta, bread-bag closures—that help kids understand abstract problems that don’t make sense on their own.
It goes without saying that I cannot climb across the heap of detritus to reach you (or so the formal language goes).

Literary omissions are not entirely opaque.

Those dots are pointed.
Yet perhaps some softness, the corners of the mouth giving way, is also elided?

Ellipses are meaningless and full of meaning, a rainbow within white light. 

“White screen marked by three black dots”: Why not title it “hope”?

… you know why not …

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cautionary Tale

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher decided that we would dissect bones, donated by the grocery store. Each student had a dissection kit containing a scalpel, a magnifying glass, a ruler, and I-don’t-know-what else. A few plastic utensils supplemented the kit. The rule of the dissection exercise was that any time any one of the 20 (?) students got hurt by one of the tools, out it went. The whole class would cease to use it. By the end of the exercise, we were down to the ruler and the plastic spoon. I don’t remember learning anything about bones or about biology that day.

I think the exercise taught me the perils not of scalpels but of generalized caution. If people categorically abandon tools that can be dangerous, they’ll have little to work with.
Dissecting the world in writing is also dangerous. Sometimes it hurts the writer. Sometimes it hurts the reader. Sometimes it hurts the person being written about. But to not write for fear of getting hurt or to confine oneself to subjects that feel safe is like deciding to dissect a bone with a ruler and a plastic spoon. Just because writing can be dangerous does not mean it will always be that way. The bitter failure of one particular essay is not a reason to abandon the genre.

Looking back on that biology lab, I asked myself why we had dissected bones, of all things. I think our teacher had decided to avoid the risks—squeamish children, animal-rights protestations—that came with dissecting frogs. We instead examined something safer and less interesting. Our dissection was limited even before we started throwing out tools.

Writing about a subject that may be controversial, in the writer’s culture or even just in the writer’s mind, is like dissecting a frog. I’m not saying that a writer has to kill one’s subject, even figuratively, during the act of writing about it, though it sometimes it feels that way. I’m saying that a writer may have to take a risk—of being wrong, of being a hypocrite, of offending someone, of hurting someone, even* —in order to examine something interesting.
There is likely something wrong with my short fable.

* I have decided that hurting someone you care about is not a risk worth taking if you really thinks it’s more likely than not that the person will get hurt. But even in the case of loved ones, a slight risk, some possibility of harm may be inevitable if what the writer cares about are not bones, not frogs, but people.