Month: September 2011

A Slow Reading Project

Until five minutes ago, I had no topic for this week’s post and considered skipping it altogether. Then I heard a program on CBC Radio One about the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. Last Friday, on the way home from a shopping spree, I stopped into the Anglican cathedral near downtown Victoria to listen to a tiny part of a week-long reading of that Bible version, organized to celebrate the anniversary.

I confess to nearly complete ignorance of the Bible. I went to a Catholic school from age six to twelve, where for some reason we did not read the Bible, in any version. We studied the Catechism instead. Having a retentive memory, I was very good at memorizing sections of the Catechism, but most of my exposure to the Bible over the years has been in the form of snippets and extracts in books and musical compositions.

So I thought (ten minutes ago now) — why not? Why not read the good old KJV on its 400th anniversary? I could do it bit by bit at odd moments, like most of my reading these days. And there is actually a copy in the household book assemblage (not a collection or library, if you recall), so I really have no excuse not to. At worst, I will see familiar phrases in their original context, and I may even learn something. It will definitely be Slow Reading.

Fall is a good time to undertake ambitious reading projects, or, for that matter, writing projects. The garden is at least semi-dormant, and once the Great Leaf-Raking Dance is done, it needs little attention. Darkness comes early and weekends are frequently rainy. I suppose that’s why NaNoWriMo happens when it does. I began writing seriously in November of 2000 and have had a fondness for that month ever since. Have I actually joined NaNoWriMo? No, because, rightly or wrongly, I am allergic to organized efforts, and don’t want to feel pushed to write just because it’s November. Besides, right now I am not haunted by anything that wants to be written. Instead, I will continue editing Islands of the Gulf (the second novel in my Herbert West trilogy) and in odd moments, I will read the Bible.

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The Reminiscing Voice

In a previous post I said how partial I am to first person narrator for writing fiction. Without realizing it, I have at times been seduced by a style within that category, the reminiscing voice.

It took me a while to figure this out. I am right now in the process of editing the second novel of my Herbert West series in preparation for publication later this year. A fellow writer who has read most of the manuscript recently commented that certain sections were too slow, with too many details not relevant to the story. Years ago, a letter from a publisher rejecting this work annoyed me by using the term “plodding prose.” When I discussed this at the time with another fellow writer, we concluded that the removed, reflective quality of the narrative voice may have been what led to this opinion.

Thinking about this some more, I have identified this style of narrative as the reminiscing voice. The narrator is remembering events long after they have occurred, from a perspective of stillness and calm. Whatever the narrator’s problems, conflicts and sufferings may have been, they are over, but they were important events in the life of this character, and he or she is about to relate them to the reader.

Today I took a quick look among my books to find examples of the reminiscing voice.  As an aside, I will mention that many of the books I own — never to be dignified with the terms “collection” or “library” — were purchased in the 1970s and ’80s at used bookstores with no pretensions to the antiquarian. One of these, Ted Fraser’s Book Bin in Vancouver, B.C., actually had “bargain barrels” — big wooden barrels full of books selling at ten cents apiece. Lord only knows what was at the bottom of those barrels. The fact that many of my best-loved reads came from sources such as this should tell you something.

Back to the reminiscing voice. Here is the beginning of The Crystal Cave, the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series:

I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. The years since then seem to me now more dim and faded than the earlier years, as if my life were a growing tree which burst to flower and leaf with him, and now has nothing more to do than yellow to the grave.

This is followed by four substantial paragraphs about memory and remembering, before the story begins. And even then, we are still in the Prologue.

Another example, this one the first paragraph of The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams (a book that has huge flaws, but which I re-read every few years because… Well, I don’t actually know why):

All day it has been windy — strange weather for late July — the wind swirling through the hedges like an invisible flood-tide among seaweed; tugging, compelling them in its own direction, dragging them one way until the patches of elder and privet sagged outward from the tougher stretches of blackthorn on either side. It ripped the purple clematis from its trellis and whirled away twigs and green leaves from the oaks at the bottom of the shrubbery.

And on and on like this for another two long paragraphs which are word-pictures of a garden and landscape, really quite vivid, but definitely not germane to the story of how the narrator met and lost his wife, the mysterious Karin. Adams breaks another Rule of Writing here, which is never to begin with a description of weather.

For some reason, I find beginnings of this sort compelling, both to read and to write. To me, they are like slow crescendos, starting out quietly and building to a climax in which the narrator is no longer merely remembering, but reliving. But it appears that others disagree. Slow and not sufficiently relevant, they say, and it is difficult to argue with these assessments. “Yes, but I like it, ” isn’t really an argument.

I think it’s OK to use the reminiscing voice if it suits the narrator and his or her situation, but as with so many other things, moderation is the key. Use the reflective style to set the scene and indicate something about the narrator’s personality, but move fairly soon into reliving mode. This is related to the advice about “back story,” that it’s best presented in small, cunningly concealed doses, rather than as a lengthy, identifiable section — sort of like coating a cat pill in butter to make it slip down more easily.

That is if you are following the rules because you must please those who make them, be they instructors, editors or publishers. If you are writing to please only yourself or whatever spirit has inspired you to write, and the reminiscing voice is the voice that speaks, go for it. When I was only a reader and not a writer, I would begin to read a novel and continue to read it to the end, if its voice pleased, allured or fascinated me, never mind why. Much of this writing, I suspect, broke some sort of rule. It’s nearly impossible to identify the precise qualities of prose that attract or repel a particular reader, which is why it is also nearly impossible to come up with a set of definitive rules for writing.

I consider the reminiscing voice at the beginning of a novel to be a signal to the reader that the narrator has something important to say, but isn’t going to launch into the story until the reader is ready to listen. It’s sort of like the opening credits in a movie, that let you settle into your seat, position your popcorn and get set to watch. Or like fancy gift wrapping on a special present, that gives you an opportunity to whet your anticipation. Or like foreplay.

Magnificent Mulleins

Pound for pound, you get more out of mulleins (Verbascum species) than almost any other flowering garden plant.  They were favourites of Henry Mitchell, who appreciated big plants.  He wrote in praise of V. bombyciferum, which he called the “bomb-carrying mullein,” a type with leaves so fuzzy they are almost white.

The mullein I know best is V. olympicum, the Olympic mullein. It is well-named, being of Olympian proportions. I have had plants ten feet tall, although eight is more common. It grows splendidly in my sandy soil with little supplemental water, and is not troubled by the shade and maple tree roots that have rendered my back garden inhospitable to fussier plants.

The Olympic mullein, like many of its clan, is a biennial. In its first year it grows an impressive rosette of grey-green leaves up to 2 feet long and a formidable taproot. In its second year, it sends up a bloom stalk that develops through the spring and early summer, topping out between six and twelve feet.

In July, the plant begins to bloom, looking positively torch-like and attracting hordes of bees. There are zillions of buds, so the overall flowering effect lasts for weeks, but sometime in August things start to look a little sparse and spotty. At that point the thing to do is to take shears in hand and decapitate the plant, cutting just below the flowering side-stems.

A few weeks later, new flowering stems start to grow in the spots where the leaves join the main stalk, and soon there is a new flush of bloom that lasts well into the fall. That’s the stage my plants are in now, and given the generally dilapidated state of the garden, this fresh and vigorous mass of bloom is very welcome.  The bees think so too, and are back in such numbers that when you stand near a mullein,it sounds like the whole thing is buzzing.

I grew my first mulleins nearly 20 years ago, from purchased seeds. I let the first couple of plants I grew go to seed, ensuring that I would have them always, even though individual plants generally die the winter after they bloom. I recommend allowing a certain amount of seeding, but not letting plants have their way, in which case they truly are bomb-like, producing explosions of seedlings. A mullein forest would be rather surreal. It’s best to cut the plants down in late fall, once the second flush of bloom becomes sparse. And by “cut” I mean “saw,” because the stalks are 2 or 3 inches in diameter at the base and quite woody. They leave stumps which are best dug up the following year, when the roots have decayed somewhat.

Mulleins can be transplanted when they are young, up to about 8 inches tall and wide, before their taproots become too established. I select a few every fall or spring and position them where they will be assets rather than obstacles. Then I rigorously remove the rest of the volunteers, although I hate to dispose of such healthy and vigorous plants. But I don’t have room for a mullein forest.

Bees love mulleins

Endless Summer

Summer was late in arriving this year, but now that it has, it appears to be here to stay for a while. Record high temperatures are forecast for the end of next week as the dreaded thermal trough develops off the Washington coast. This phenomenon has not manifested so far this summer, so I shouldn’t really complain, even though I’m not a heat lover. Besides, with sunset occurring before 8 p.m., things cool off pretty fast in the evenings, so I don’t expect the hot nights that would happen in a July heat wave.

And the garden? Well, it looks tired and past its best, the way it should at the end of summer. Once September starts, though, I begin to look for that subtle season I call the “fall spring,” when, after a few rains, plants revive and some even flower a second time. The tired look vanishes, and even though the late-season state of things prevails, a modest beauty creeps in. But the last time we had measurable rain was on August 22, and before that on July 21.

On the other hand, it has turned out to be a promising year for tomatoes, after a rather bleak start. In mid-July I would not have believed that there would be trusses of big tomatoes on the plants that at that time had only flowers and pea-sized fruits. And without rain, there is less chance of late blight disease, which causes brown spots and eventual rot, rather than ripening.

Still very green!

A few things are in bloom — not reluctant, end-of-season bloom, but new and fresh — notably a dark blue delphinium that I dug up from one of my tree-root-infested perennial beds and transferred to a pot. Like its paler blue and pink fellows also living in pots, it has prospered and is blooming, late in the season when most other things are in decline.

The thing is to appreciate what is there and stop fretting about everything else. In gardening as in life.

Delphinium