October 8, 2008
The Mouse Story
I Don’t know why I doodled the cat and mouse on the end page of the short Julian Barnes essay “Literary Executions,” why that duo instead of, say, a dog and sheep, or a dog and elephant—after all, no cats are mentioned in the essay. I can’t say why, but I’m willing to speculate.
The essay, collected in The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, is about the burdens of being the literary executor for a friend of Julian Barnes, author Dodie Smith (Dear Octopus, Capture the Castle, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, etc.). One of his executor responsibilities involved deciding whether or not it was proper to sell reprint rights to Japan, given that in life Ms. Smith had objected to such a deal because she believed the Japanese had a fondness for dogs fried, baked and par-boiled. (According to the essay that report was untrue, it was actually the Chinese who savored canine meals.) Meanwhile, the only direct connection between my doodle and the essay was that the essay mentioned, in passing, that mice had chewed the corners off some of Ms. Smith’s manuscript pages. Might my doodle mouse be explaining to the cat why he did that? But why a cat? Why not have the mouse explain its misdeed to a dog, one of the potential victims mentioned in the essay?
My guess is that the cat has been sent to execute the mouse for chewing the manuscripts, and the clever mouse is telling Scheherazade-like stories while trying to figure out how to escape. (No, wait—that’s an idea I had years ago for a children’s book—one with which, as usual, I never got around to doing anything. So many “brilliant” ideas, so little time.)
“The Mouse Story” is the third in a series of occasional posts under the title Marginalia. In these posts I’ll display and comment upon a page scan from one of my personal library books, on which I’ve doodled and/or underlined—or, as some would claim, otherwise defaced, a scared text (to the true bibliophile all text is scared). These folks, shocked by the desecration, predict (and seem to wish), that I will suffer some vile punishment for my transgressions. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Leave a Comment » | cartooning, doodles, fiction, non-fiction, writing | Tagged: animals, canine, cats, children's book, Chinese, Dodie Smith, dogs, essay, Japan, Julian Barnes, literary executor, Litereary Executions, manuscript, marginalia, mice, mouse, mouse story, Scheherazade, stories, story, The Writing Life, victims, writer, writing | Permalink
Posted by Jim
September 4, 2008
The Tale of the Hare
If I were playing the part of a movie pulp fiction detective (think Bogart’s “Sam Spade”), and a leggy blond perched on the end of my desk asked me to take the “Too Happy for Words” case, a mystery in the form of an essay, the first question I would have is: Why in the world did someone (me, in real life) doodle a guy chasing a hare (or is it a rabbit?) on the last page of an otherwise straightforward essay about marriage, motherhood and fiction writing? I’m sure of one thing, the real me didn’t unconsciously doodle the image as an audition to illustrate the text. If by some chance I were to get such a gig, a rabbit would be the last thing to occur to me. I just re-read the McDermott essay (excellent, by the way), and there are no rabbits or hares in it; and discounting human babies, no small animals of any description. So far, then, my investigation has dead-ended.
The “Too Happy for Words” essay by novelist Alice McDermott (“A Bigamist’s Daughter, “That Night,” “Charming Billy”), is collected in the book The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, a paperback published in 2003. From the rereading I’ve concluded that the essay is concerned mainly with the different attitudes to marriage and motherhood held by some wary young feminists and their older “sisters,” many of whom have married and are, on the surface at least, happily raising kids. It seems the question the younger women are asking (and some of the older women are asking themselves), is to what extent, if at all, does familial devotion stunt their ambition and creativity. Here’s how Ms. McDermott puts it: “I wonder if it’s superstition: if we feel that to admit to such contentment in life would compromise our status as artists—perhaps recalling the poor actress in The Portrait of Dorion Gray who fell in love and lost her talent.” And Ms. McDermott goes on, “As a writer I recognize that much of this can be accounted for by the demands of plot—no doubt all happy mothers are like happy families: alike. And as Tolstoy warned us, sustained joy doesn’t make much of a story.”
This final McDermott quote I marked provides the clue I need to solve the case. On the last page, just above my doodle, she writes: “Fiction requires the attendant threat, the dramatic reversal, not only because these are the things that make for plot and tension and a sense of story, but because without them any depiction of our joy might appear overstated. We hesitate to include in our fiction what so often strikes us in life as something too good to be true.”
Put another way, Ms. McDermott is talking about conflict, the device that drives all story telling. And with that I think I’ve found my little insight, the knowledge which logically leads to a solution of the original query. Rabbits are famous for having lots of babies, right? In fact, they are the very symbol of fecundity—motherhood squared, so to speak? And is there anything cuter than little bunnies hop, hop, hopping in a field of flowers or down the road? But what happens when you add a man pursuing the bunny with something else in mind, perhaps something sinister like dinner? With those questions in mind I think I can say that the mystery of the connection between and among marriage, motherhood, fiction writing, and my doodle, is solved. My unconscious illustrator seems to have come up with an idea my conscious mind would have surly missed, or rejected: The “attendant threat” of a man on the hunt, and the joy he finds in that, contrasted by the sheer terror felt by his prey. Case closed.
“The Tale of the Hare” is the second in a series of occasional posts under the title Marginalia. In these posts I will display and comment upon a full-page scan from one of my personal library books on which I’ve doodled and/or underlined—or, as some would claim, otherwise defaced a scared text (to the true bibliophile all text is scared). These folks, shocked by the desecration, predict (and seem to wish), that I will suffer some vile punishment for my transgressions. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
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Posted by Jim
August 27, 2008
This Doodling Life
If you’re at all like me you love to write in the margins of books, or doodle there, or both. (And what’s the difference?) And if you are really, really like me, the marginal writing and/or doodling may or may not have anything to do with the text printed on that particular page, or in the book generally. Our mad jottings may be provoked by what the author has written, but in many cases—especially when it comes to the visual doodles—the connection, if any, will be all but undetectable. While reading the fascinating essays in The Writing Life, pictured here (click for a larger view), in addition to the usual underlinings and asterisk-starring, I found myself in some sort of creative zone and doing an instant doodle on five different pages. These quick images, thematically connected, will lead off the series in which I’ll present full pages of text on which I’ve sketched and/or written something, plus I’ll add speculative comments about what I think the image may or may not mean. I’ll also include comments on, and quotes from, the essay I was reading; a sort of short essay about the essay. And of course, as always, you’ll be encouraged to comment and make of it all what you will. The first Marginalia begins below.
The Dance Story
The ecstatic cartoon guy above may visually represent the feeling a man has while he’s in the “dance zone” at a wedding reception, fully in that happy moment and in sync with his partner and the music—or it may simply show him home alone and transported by rock and roll on the radio. If either situation is true, though, you may ask what it has to do with Jonathan Raban’s essay “Notes From The Road,” on the final page of which we find the image? Why did the essay reader (me) choose to doodle that particular figure in that particular spot? Or was it a conscious choice at all?
The Raban essay, collected in The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think and Work, has not one word to say about dance, dancers or dancing. The essay is, for the most part, simply about making notes. Specifically, it’s about the obsessive note-taking done by many “serious” writers. For example, here is Raban on the writer as he dines alone: “So it’s scribble, scribble, scribble all through dinner. Into the notebook go long descriptions of landscape and character; some fuzzy intellection; scraps of conversation; diagrammatic drawings; paras from the local paper; weather notes; shopping lists; inventories of interiors (the sad cafe gets grimly itemized); skeletal anecdotes; names of birds, trees and plants, culled from the wonderfully useful Peterson guides; phone numbers of people whom I’ll never call; the daily target-practice of a dozen or so experimental similes.”
That last bit is so good it deserves repeating: ” . . . the daily target-practice of a dozen or so experimental similes.” Any of us who write know how true that is, how we struggle to find just the right word or phrase, and how it just comes to us sometimes from we know not where. So of course the essay is also very much about the act of writing, which often feeds off, if not directly from, those random notes. Later in his text Raban ties the note-taking habit in with writing a particular book, but comes at that issue from an interesting angle. He says: ” . . . the act of writing itself unlocks the memory-bank, and discovers things that are neither in the notebooks nor to be found in the writer’s conscious memory.” Then he goes on, quoting the painter Jean Francois Millet: “‘One man may paint a picture from a careful drawing made on the spot, and another may paint the same scene from memory, from a brief but strong impression; and the last may succeed better in giving the character, the physiognomy of the place, though all the details may be inexact.'”
In his essay Jonathan Raban appears to be saying that the best writing, or at least the best parts of a writer’s output—especially its most creative aspect—is free-form, intuitive and impressionistic. If that is what he means, I agree. And with my small impressionistic doodle above, I claim that it’s exactly the same for a guy (or gal) on a dance floor.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
6 Comments | cartooning, doodles, illustration, non-fiction, writing | Tagged: art, author, books, cartoon, cartooning, creative, creativity, dance, dancer, dancing, doodles, doodling, doodling life, drawing, essay, memory, music, non-fiction, notebooks, notes, rock and roll, scene, text, The Writing Life, writing | Permalink
Posted by Jim