David Armand

A Blog About Writing, Publishing, and Random Thoughts

Month: April, 2013

“Elephant”

The first time I was ever paid for my writing was when I was in the third or fourth grade: I had made a comic strip for the Just Say No to Drugs campaign and won first place. The local ice cream shop and burger joint in the little town of Folsom, Louisiana, where I grew up gave me a check for fifty dollars and my comic was displayed at the parish fair.

It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I received money again for my creative work: this time I was given one hundred dollars for the D Vickers Award for creative writing at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I was then an undergraduate. My nominating professor joked during the award ceremony that that would probably be the most money I’d ever get for making poems.

He was right: I later started writing short stories, then moved on to novels (I’m nearing the halfway point of my third novel as I’m typing this). I didn’t make this move for monetary reasons, you see, but because it felt like a natural transition for me as an artist–to move from the shorter, more compact forms of poems and stories to the more open form of novel-writing.

When my first novel won the 2010 George Garrett Fiction Prize, I was awarded two hundred dollars, but more importantly a contract from a university press in Texas promising to subsequently publish my book. The following year when the book was released, I asked for two hundred dollars worth of my own books instead of the cash: I figured that by selling copies of my books at readings, etc. I would eventually make more than the two hundred dollars in prize money. Since I got a generous author’s discount on the books I received, I did make a little, but not much. I still have a box with about fifteen books sitting in my closet behind my workboots (which I haven’t had to wear in a long while, thankfully). Then late last year, I received a royalty check from my publisher for one-hundred and fifty two dollars. It’s not much, but it helped pay for Christmas last year.

Now my second novel is coming out from the same small university press, and although I’m not getting paid for it, per se, I have recently had an excerpt of the book accepted for publication by a quarterly magazine which is going to pay me three hundred and fifty dollars for the piece. A book festival in Nashville is paying me a five hundred dollar honorarium to attend their event this October.

With all of that said, I have made a little over thirteen hundred dollars for my writing so far in my life. I’m thirty-three years old with a wife, two kids, and a mother for whom I am financially responsible. Certainly that is not enough money. It wouldn’t even be enough for me alone. Faulkner called this “the old thrill and despair of a penny more or less.” And he was right. There is something thrilling about trying to figure out how you’re going to put bread and milk on the table: I’ve had to pawn my shot guns many times (a habit I learned from my father) in order to buy groceries. A welfare officer once told me a few years ago (after denying my claim for assistance) that I was one of the most creative earners he’d ever seen, meaning that I found some pretty interesting ways to make money: I was pleased for the compliment, but would have rather gotten the assistance. 

Of course, I have a full time job as a teacher (two teaching jobs, in fact), but that still doesn’t cut it. This summer, it looks as if I won’t be teaching at all, and although I’m happy to be unencumbered by teaching so that I can finish my next book, I worry how far I can stretch my federal tax refund to pay the mortgage and feed my family until I resume teaching in August. My wife’s birthday is coming up, then there’s Mother’s Day, and now my little boy needs a crown on one of his teeth (which will cost about three hundred dollars). It will be a trying time, but we’ll make it. If I have to dig ditches, we’ll make it. I’m figuring on trying to collect unemployment, if I can. Maybe food stamps.

But it’s hard when people think that because you’ve published two books that you must be doing well for yourself, when in fact you’re struggling, and when you see opportunities dwindle as a result of what people think of as your “success,” when you’d think it’d be the other way around. This has been the case for me. But you keep going. You have to. I was talking to someone today who told me to just think really hard about how much money I need to get through the summer–the exact amount, he said–and keep thinking about it, just focus on that amount, really hard: he said that if I did that, the money would come to me in some way. And I believe him, I really do. It’s about having faith and trust in the workings of the universe.

What got me thinking about all of this was that I just finished reading a short story called “Elephant” by Raymond Carver, one I was surprised that I hadn’t read before since I was sure I had read everything he ever wrote, and in it the narrator is talking about his financial burdens and the stress it causes him, but you could feel how that stress moved him as well: like Faulkner said, that old thrill and despair. In the story, the narrator remembers a dream he had in which his father was holding him on his shoulders, but then the father lets go of the boy’s legs, and the boy keeps his balance by putting his arms out and riding on his father’s shoulders like that: there’s a sense that trust and faith are in play here, and that’s why the boy doesn’t fall.

So that’s what I’ll do: put my arms out for balance and just have faith that I won’t fall down. I do have faith that things will turn around, and I feel pretty damned lucky to have made the thirteen hundred and some odd dollars by just making up stories and poems: who would’ve ever thought that could happen?

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Violence in Art

I realize I’m far from the first to be writing on this topic, but on Easter Sunday I was watching The Passion of the Christ and started thinking about the significance of violence in art and storytelling. You see, the first time I ever saw that movie, I didn’t like it because I thought it focused too much on the utter brutality and the unimaginable suffering that Christ endured: I found the most poignant scene in the entire movie to be the one in which Jesus is building a table, and a sort of banter ensues between he and Mary over the table’s height and how people would one day sit at chairs in order to reach a table like the one he had just made. At one point, Jesus is looking underneath the table, apparently trying to judge the straightness of his lines, and it seems almost as if he winks and smiles at Mary (or us, the audience): I found this one scene, less than two minutes long, to be the most emotional and inspiring scene in the entire film. I remember thinking that the movie would have been much more resonant had it focused just on that more human aspect of Jesus’ life.

Then, this Sunday, after my wife and kids went to bed, I came across The Passion of the Christ on television and watched it again. There was a certain visceral feeling about it, especially in the opening scene where Christ is in the Garden of Gethsemane and is preparing himself for what he knows is to come: his suffering. He is tempted by Satan to turn his back on this, but Jesus knows he cannot. I felt a literal pain in my stomach trying to imagine the resolve one must have to willingly walk into this sort of fate. Later, when Jesus is questioned by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, he has another chance to escape his “conscription” to this fate, but he leaves it all in the hands of God, essentially forgiving the troubled governor for his role in this.

The subsequent half of the movie contains some of the most violent and troubling scenes I’ve ever encountered in film save for perhaps a Quentin Tarantino movie, but his sort of violence almost seems unrealistic in its extravagance. This violence, however, was real, extremely visceral. This is what a lot of people didn’t like about the movie, what I at first didn’t like about it.

Then I realized that the movie wasn’t focusing on the violence, per se, but that it was using it to sort of mirror, in the best way possible, the immense love that Christ had for mankind. If he didn’t, he would never have endured such a thing so willingly, going so far as to pray for his tormentors’ forgiveness. It occurred to me that sometimes it is through extreme violence that we see extreme love, extreme forgiveness. It is as if one extreme fosters another. This is the power of the human spirit, the power of Christ’s message.

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Flannery O’Connor once said:  “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners 34). I think this film, and all good art (without being too didactic) does just this. The violence in The Passion of the Christ is “large” and it is often “startling” but it is clear that by juxtaposing that violence with (or using the violence to show) Christ’s love for his friends and for fellow man alike (at the Last Supper scene in the film, he even says: “You are my friends, and the greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them”), one is able to see the importance of such violence in the film and in any serious art with a message of hope: that the violence is essential, not gratuitous or extraneous; and through it we can learn, become cleansed.

 

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Post Script (04.07.13): In all three of my novels, there is what could arguably be called an excessive amount of violence. The characters hurt each other throughout the books, both physically and emotionally (yes, I believe in emotional/psychological violence); and in the vein of Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, the novels end with scenes of a sort of climactic violence: it is a tableau of pain, but much like the tragedies that inspire my work, there is a catharsis that follows this pain, both for the characters in the books and hopefully for the readers/audience as well.

I am reminded again of Quentin Tarantino’s best work: Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs (True Romance is also a great film (directed by Tony Scott but written by Tarantino) that has a sort of Shakespearean “standoff” at the end). I love the blocking of these kinds of scenes, the build-up of tension, the mise en scene, and how this tension is mostly built on the violence, or the coming of violence, the threat of it. I’ve tried to set up similar scenes at the ends of my novels, and hopefully have done so successfully.

But to return to the main point of why I started this little article in the first place, I think that violence can sometimes shake us up to a place of purity: whether it’s the pain itself, the fear of pain, or just the simple fact of being utterly afraid and in the moment with no sense of past or future–only now–that we become primal and alive, stripped bare, closer to what’s real and true: which ultimately is God. And in the final judgment, that should be the purpose of all great art that stands to mean anything, that stands to last: that stands to be a permanent artifact against the neverending pulse of time and its subsequent decay.

For further reading:
King James Bible
Aristotle’s Poetics
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men
Shakespeare’s tragedies
Aeschylus
Sophocles’ Oedipus
Flannery O’Connor’s stories/essays/novels
Aaron Gwyn’s and Benjamin Percy’s essay: “Spilling Blood: The Art of Writing Violence”