by Keith Scribner, July 15, 2011 2:57 PM
My new novel, The Oregon Experiment, began for me 12 years ago, when the WTO meetings in Seattle were rocked by demonstrators protesting unfair trade and labor policies, inadequate environmental protections, and globalization in general. I lived in the Bay Area at the time — my first novel The GoodLife was just published, I'd been married less than a year and a half, and our first child was three months old. As I watched news coverage of the protests on TV, I imagined a character who was at once sympathetic with the goals of the nonviolent protestors, but also wanted a stable and secure world for his new baby.
All art begins with conflict, and this conflict — this pull within a character — was the beginning of Scanlon Pratt. Scanlon became a political science professor specializing in radical action and mass movements, so that conflict in him pulled more fiercely: to provide security for his child he needed radical action and mass movements; his career depended on them.
My son is now almost 12, and, as I've been touring around with The Oregon Experiment since its release last month, I've been thinking about how Scanlon's conflict exists in me. A few weeks ago my son and I drove up into the Cascades to climb Cone Peak and Iron Mountain. It's been an unusual spring in Oregon — high meadows that were supposed to be covered with wildflowers in June were still partly buried in snow. We lost the trail a dozen times through patches of snow and after several hours of hiking, with Iron Mountain's peak in sight, we were stranded on top of 10 or 15 feet of snow without any indication at all of where the trail led.
If my son hadn't been with me, I surely would have pushed ahead, knowing it was reckless but tasting the satisfaction of reaching the top. It's the same part of me that would take to the streets, facing pepper spray and the threat of batons for a goal I believed in.
We turned around. My son would have been game if I'd insisted we go for it — he would have trusted my judgment, trusted me — but the responsibility that comes with that trust led me to the safe route.
More fundamentally, writers and artists are constantly balancing this pull within themselves. Again, all art begins with conflict (a rhythm and a variable to use Pound's terminology). As a writer, I need to summon up conflict every day as I sit down at my desk. Yet I've also tried to create a life of inner peace and harmony.
For me, the peace that comes with a connection to nature, meditation, exercise, and a life that allows space for spiritual reflection and growth, can be at odds with the writer who is constantly getting his characters into trouble. I need to feel in balance to write well — this is about discipline, routine, clarity of mind, and a fluid connection between conscious and unconscious — but I still need to be able to stir up conflict. It's well known that artists can be stifled by antidepressants — they're too blissed out to want to make trouble.
I'm not talking about the clichéd rock star, who needs to live destructively in order to create, but there can be a contradiction between the inner peace required to write well (and regularly) and the conflict that we need to open up like a wound every day.
It's said that all stories begin with an interruption of routine, and when I feel my writing going flat, I mix up my own routine — I switch to writing in the evenings or in a café, with pen and paper rather than a computer, or I switch to another project — thereby jarring the smooth ride of my life enough to get a good loud screech from the tires on the
by Keith Scribner, July 14, 2011 11:38 AM
As I was talking through yesterday's blog post "On Anniversaries, Art, and Love"
with my wife, the poet Jennifer Richter
, we kept coming back to the influence of our two kids on our work and the connections between parenting and writing. To provide a little back story, today's post addresses some of those earliest connections for me. A version of this piece appeared in the Baltimore Sun
Committing to 10 Years
One afternoon 25 years ago, I hiked from the Himalayan village of Old Manali, India, higher up into the mountains. I sat on an outcropped rock looking over the expansive valley spotted with villages and rippling with terraced fields. Never in my life had I talked to myself for hours as I did that day, and though I was self-conscious of the moment's staginess, I had to talk through the decision that I'd climbed the mountain to make. By the end of the afternoon, when long lines of women, children, and goats walked the footpaths from the fields to the village, I'd decided to commit at least the next 10 years of my life to writing fiction. I rushed down the path to the guesthouse, took out a notebook and pencil, and plunged in.
Grace Paley advises that writers surround themselves with people who believe in their work, and that they keep overhead low, so I lived in cheap apartments and drove a rusted-out Datsun to share dinner with friends who took my writing seriously. As I tried to stay above water — working as a carpenter and teacher and buying myself time off — their faith buoyed me. I avoided the friends who could be counted on for the same jokes about my haphazard employment, about sitting around the apartment all day. ("Can you catch me up on the soaps?")
Before I'd see my first novel in a bookstore, I met the woman I'd marry. I blurted my proposal one night, months before I'd planned to. Together, we took the next plunge. Jen is a poet, and through the years, we've composed and revised a dozen times the rhythm, layers, and story of our relationship, balancing our commitments to writing and each other. We are each other's lover, friend, audience, critic, and muse. We believe in each other's work. We've kept overhead low.
Nearly 12 years ago, we introduced a new current into our story: our son Luke. He was a prince among babies, born with a full head of blazing red hair, a ravenous appetite, a mesmeric addiction to Aretha Franklin and hot baths. For years, I'd worked at the relationship between husband and writer, and now I had a new relationship to craft: the one between writing and fatherhood.
Taking the Plunge
A few nights before Luke's birth, Jen asked me what I thought she should pack to wear home from the hospital. We decided on her green and white airy linen dress. That night I had a dream in which Jen and I were walking from a lakeshore out onto a pier. I flipped some food into the lake for the hungry fish, and as we leaned over the edge to watch them eat, the pier suddenly collapsed. We plunged into the water, holding tight to each other. She was wearing the green and white dress.
Three nights later, we plunged in with Luke for real. In much the same way, 25 years ago, I started writing. This is how you do it — hold on tight to what you love, and hope you don't drown.
Both novel writing and fatherhood can keep me in a bathrobe all day, inside, unshowered. They are both exhausting. Until my children were born, writing was the most complicated and difficult thing I knew.
As a teacher of fiction writing, I tell my students to raise the stakes for their characters. If there's not a marriage on the rocks, a promotion on the line, a sick child to sit by in the hospital, a reader is less likely to care. When Luke entered our narrative, the stakes shot up wildly.
I refer my students to Flannery O'Connor, who tells us: "The fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal through the senses with abstractions." Early mornings, barely light, Luke was a fresh reminder to me of the power of smell, the immediacy of hunger, the discomfort of cold feet. Writers ask themselves, "What do my characters want?" So I asked, "What does Luke want?" He wanted the taste of his mother's milk on his tongue, the sated bloat in his stomach. He wanted a familiar-smelling body to lie on, his back patted before drifting off to sleep in his battery-operated buzzing chair, staring at his mobile of bumble bees wearing capes and goggles, listening to it ding out "Feelin' Groovy." This boy did not deal in abstractions.
When Luke was a few weeks old, Jen and I tried to stage "First bath with daddy." Jen lit candles in the bathroom, set up the camera, and filled the tub. Everything was set for the pastel scene we'd imagined for months. I got in and Jen passed Luke into my arms. But we had committed countless screamable offenses, and five minutes later, dizzy from his cries echoing off the tile, we bailed out as any writer knows you often must. Years of imagining and note taking, hundreds of pages written and revised, and the result is a helpless fuming baby that won't play along.
Balancing Life, Writing
The writing life is an examined life. Writing well, and, I began to see, fathering well, too, produced the same self-scrutiny. Being a writer and a father both challenged my assumptions and the values by which I lived, made me feel uneasy about my own limitations. And in these ways, they fed each other. I couldn't imagine life without writing. I could no longer imagine writing without Luke. The part of me that writes as well as I can is bigger, really, a better person than the part of me who goes to dinner parties and argues politics. The writer in me is more generous and forgiving than the me into whom I've poured a couple martinis at a cocktail party. The writer in me sees the good in those I resent, understands the faults and limitations in those I love.
And what about the me who I took to the side of my son's crib at three in the morning? At those times, I had to be bigger still. If it took generosity of spirit to create good fiction, what did it take to create a boy? I learned to write by studying the lyricism of Stuart Dybek, the surprising characters of Alice Munro and Tobias Wolff, the crackling dialogue of Don DeLillo. But those things are craft, the elements that can be learned. The essential part comes from th
by Keith Scribner, July 13, 2011 11:11 AM
Today's my wedding anniversary, and I'm driving from L.A. back to Oregon with my two kids in the backseat and my wife, the poet Jennifer Richter, sitting beside me with the laptop, typing out today's blog.
We just passed the exit to the town where we were married 13 years ago. It was a sunny July day, just like today, when we faced each other in a public garden and vowed to chronicle our lives through our work, to turn our family into art.
Some people are skeptical about a marriage between two writers, assuming that it would be problematic or competitive. But for Jen and me, it's been just the opposite. Whether it's fiction or poetry, we're often writing in one way or another about our marriage, about our life as parents, and about our children, so that finally the writing enriches and deepens our relationship. Early in my new novel The Oregon Experiment, my character Scanlon is reflecting on his marriage and his wife: "Naomi had taught him to experience the world more fully — which was as good a definition of love as he knew." When I write a line like that, I'm summoning up my own feelings for Jen and the memory of falling in love with her. Moreover, my beliefs about art and literary fiction evolved through falling in love with Jen: She has led me to experience the world more fully. Before I met her, I hadn't set the bar quite as high for what I expect from art, so not only are our marriage and writing lives complementary, they define each other. For me, writing that rises to the level of art makes us bigger and deeper; if I hadn't encountered the art, I'd be less. In this way, it's like our most important and meaningful life experiences — falling in love, the death of a parent, the birth of a child.
Years ago, Keith and I were on another road trip — spending Thanksgiving in a rustic cabin in Yosemite — when we figured out that I was pregnant with our first child. (Keith has actually borrowed from that trip for a scene in The Oregon Experiment, when Naomi discovers she's pregnant while she and Scanlon are celebrating Thanksgiving in a cottage on Cape Cod). On the way home, we stopped at a supermarket to buy a baby name book, and by the time we finally pulled in our driveway, we'd agreed on a short list of girl names and one name for a boy: Luke. Nine months later, our son Luke was born, with — a surprise to both of us — a full head of red hair, enough to part and comb that first night in the hospital when we stayed up for hours, staring at him. The name Luke means "luminous," or "light," and with his fair skin and gleaming head, our son's name fit him from the start. As a way of welcoming them into the world, and of announcing and blessing their arrivals, the first poem I wrote for each of our kids when they were born were poems explaining the meanings of their names. Those are the poems they're most proud of in my book Threshold; those are the poems they ask me to read when I visit their classrooms each year as a guest poet. Their classmates love this annual reminder of our kids' histories, and when I read the poems, our kids sit up straight and grin, like minor celebrities in school. Now that I've read the poem to Luke's class a number of times, his friends remember it — when I walk in the door, they ask for the "luminous Luke poem" and kindly tussle his hair that glows as brightly as that first day. In his classmates' minds, and in ours, the boy has become the art: Luke has become that light.
We're passing Mt. Shasta now, nearing the Oregon border, heading back to the life we've made together in the Northwest. Luke and Chloe, who've been listening to us as we've written this post, are offering suggestions from the backseat. Already, this trip has become part of the art of our lives. And before long, surely it'll turn up in a poem about eucalyptus groves or Disneyland fireworks, or in a novel passage about dear friends and sisters, boogie boards and beaches.
by Keith Scribner, July 12, 2011 10:46 AM
The nose has practically become a vestigial organ in humans. Unlike other animals, who orient themselves to the world with their sense of smell, we rely primarily on our eyes, and then our ears. At least for Americans, there's a strange intimacy about personal smells. We wouldn't hesitate to say to an acquaintance, You have a beautiful smile
. Or, You have sparkling blue eyes
. We'd say, You have a soothing voice
, or a great laugh.
But would we say, You have a wonderful smell to someone we've just met? The oils in your scalp smell sweet and remind me of my father. Or, It's so warm in this conference room that I can smell your body really well. Sights and sounds are public. Smells are private.
This privacy is exactly why smells are so essential in fiction — their evocation in a scene provides immediate intimacy with a character.
Smells are also the most direct path to summoning up memories. There's a particular scent used in Japanese shampoos that I come across very occasionally in this country; when I do, I'm transported back to the two years I lived in Japan in the 1980s. A whiff of auto-body putty will take me back to a specific time of my childhood — age four — when we'd visit my grandfather in Vermont; his business sat next to a body shop, and although the putty smells sharp and toxic, it's pure comfort for me: the Green Mountains, a pond full of frogs, soft-serve ice cream, A&W root beer, Christmas and summer vacation, and steering the Pontiac from my grandfather's lap.
While writing my new novel, The Oregon Experiment, the power of smells to summon the past became especially clear to me. In the novel, all of the characters are either defined by their pasts, haunted by their pasts, trying to escape their pasts or reinvent them. Naomi has a genius nose, and when she's afflicted with anosmia — the loss of her sense of smell — she feels desperately cut off from her past (and also from everything around her since, unlike most people, she relies on her nose to orient herself to the world).
I don't have any sort of genius nose myself, but I'm interested in smells and pretty sensitive to them, so the research for this aspect of the novel was a joy. I read everything I could find on the sense of smell; Gabrielle Glaser's book The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty, and Survival was especially helpful to me.
Since Naomi is a fragrance designer, I felt really lucky for the opportunity to spend a day with a San Francisco perfume designer, Yosh Han. Most big commercial perfumiers employ synthetic essences and chemists, but Yosh makes perfumes the traditional way — with 300–500 natural essences, and her nose.
On a sunny spring day in San Francisco I sat with Yosh in her studio and told her a little bit about my novel: Through a scientist at the university in Douglas, Oregon, who studies the inexplicable leaping power of the (fictional) Pacific leaping frog, Naomi gets a vial of a hormone secreted from a gland between the frog's legs that might be the source of its power. Perfume base notes are often unpleasant by themselves — musk, civet cat, ambergris (whale vomit that's been floating on the ocean surface for 10 years or so), and patchouli (which I, maybe in a minority, find pleasant on its own).
I told Yosh that I wanted the frog juice to evoke the duff in the Oregon Coast Range and auto body putty (yes, my own history weaves into the novel here), and she brought out her harshest smelling northwest essences — roots, mosses, mushrooms, barks. I picked the essences closest to what I had in mind, then we found the ones that worked well together. Yosh mixed them in ratios that experience told her would produce a good base note, and before long I had a small labeled vial: frog juice.
Next she brought out a few dozen more essences — middle notes and top notes. Cedar, fir, Willamette Valley mints, northwest grasses, daphne, lavender, and sage. In no time I was loopy, but she had me line up the vials that I liked, and sniff from base note to top, then back down again. We sorted, selected, edited, until finally I had something that evoked driving from the heat of Corvallis in the summer, up into the moist cool air of the coast range, and getting hit with that first whiff of Pacific sea salt. It's the fragrance that Naomi is trying to create in the novel — full of references to her past and the intoxicating experience of her present.
I wear the fragrance often, and since my own olfactory history is woven so tightly into Naomi's, and since the fragrance triggers the pleasure of my day with Yosh and the intense experience of writing the novel, I'm soothed, comforted, and stimulated by it, and I'm reminded of a full
by Keith Scribner, July 11, 2011 12:12 PM
As I've been giving readings and interviews from my new novel, The Oregon Experiment
, many of the questions I get are about the politics of the novel. Yes, one of the main characters is a political science professor specializing in radical action and mass movements, one character is an anarchist, and another heads up a fledgling secessionist movement; there are scenes of secessionist meetings and anarchist demonstrations.
But, surely, more page space is given over to a marriage struggling from the strains of moving from New York City to a college town in Oregon, of having a newborn baby, of illness, and job pressures. All the characters are trying to escape the pasts that haunt them. Sequoia fears her young daughter has inexplicably inherited her personal trauma. Naomi has a genius sense of smell, which she loses and regains.
The fact that so many questions have centered on the book's politics has gotten me thinking about the essential connection between the human/personal stories of the novel and its political/social framework. We humans are finally animals, and an organizing instinct governs our interactions, whether personal or social. It's a lot easier to see in dogs than people — when two dogs meet, you can smell the politics, aggression, threats; the encounter is ruled by hierarchy, territory, loyalty, power, and submission.
Of all the characters in The Oregon Experiment, Naomi, who engages with the world through her genius nose, is most aware of these primal impulses guiding people, but the structural connection between the personal and political allows the novel as a whole to explore these aspects of human nature. Scanlon and Sequoia, two of the novel's secessionists, both resist and resent the patriarchy — from their own fathers to the big patriarchy in Washington, D.C. Clay's anarchism has roots in very personal resentment toward the government; government failure and corruption have affected him deeply.
If we're to write fictions that speak to our time, I think we can't ignore this connection I'm discussing; that is, we must set our fictions in their political and social contexts, and we must explore the interaction, whether dramatically or implicitly. We're governed by the primal instincts I mentioned above and also by cultural myths. These cultural myths — for example, American exceptionalism and the promises of the American dream — fundamentally define who we think we are, thereby shaping our longings, fears, desires, insecurities, obsessions; in short, those qualities that define our fictional characters.
Tobias Wolff's tremendous novel Old School is, on one level, about what it means to be a writer, what it means to aspire to becoming a writer, and the importance of literature in our lives. It's one boy's very personal story about identity and ambition.
But it's also a novel about social class, religion, and politics in America. It's about bigotry, prejudice, and cultural shame. The protagonist's struggles are deeply personal and resonate profoundly through American political, cultural, and social history. Wolff even marches Ayn Rand and her entourage through the novel, allowing him to explicitly explore the significance of her strand of American political history and thought to his protagonist and to all of us.
I don't want to leave the impression that only overtly political fictions are interesting to me; I don't mean anything of the sort, and I hope that the example of Old School makes that clear. I do think that fictional characters who exist in a world completely devoid of political, social, and cultural context can be pretty flimsy; when the narrative does not set them acting in a meaningful world — a world we all exist in — they end up being smaller than