David Armand

A Blog About Writing, Publishing, and Random Thoughts

Month: May, 2013

On Inspiration and Posterity

My family, some close friends and I went to Tickfaw State Park today. The park is located in Springfield, Louisiana, and has some of the finest nature trails around, with some great views of the Louisiana wildlife and their habitats. The park also features a Nature Center, which is an indoor exhibit that houses reptiles, interactive learning centers, and stuffed replicas of some of the wildlife that can be found here in Louisiana.

After I walked around for a while, I decided to leave with the rest of the group, but as I was walking toward the exit, I happened to glance over at a display case featuring two woodcarvings of grayish brown ducks.  I walked over to look more closely at them, and I was stunned to see that my late grandfather had made these. The display was called “Pintail Pair.”  I was moved nearly to tears to see my grandfather’s name, Edward Alba, on the gold plaque in front of the two wonderful ducks, which were intricately carved and painted to an almost perfect realism. You could see his careful brushstrokes and etchings and the care and patience put into the decoys’ making: I remember watching my grandfather in his workshop as a young boy and how the wood smelled as he whittled away at it with a knife and a woodburning tool. How he could turn two blocks of wood into something like this is astounding.
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(click to enlarge)

And now here was his artwork, keeping his spirit alive, and it was as if I could literally feel his presence there with me. It was so unexpected, like running into an old friend, or better yet a long lost relative.  I went outside and grabbed my wife and kids to show them, then excitedly went to talk to the folks behind the information desk to see if they knew anything about the display. They said it had been there since 1999, four years before my grandfather had passed away. I never even heard him mention this, such was his humble nature and spirit.

He had been the president of the Louisiana Wildfowl Carvers Association in the late 70s and early 80s, and he was quite highly-regarded for his talents (one of his watercolors is actually on the cover of my first book), but I was still just so thrilled to see his work on display in such a public place. The feeling I had the first time I ever saw one of my own books on the shelf in a local bookstore pales in comparison to seeing this. It was such an honor, for I loved my grandfather so much: he was like a father to me, especially during my early childhood, which was a very difficult time in my life.

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I showed the decoys to my wife’s friend Rachel and her mother, then borrowed their camera to take a couple of pictures. (I later went back to the Nature Center on our way out of the park and used my wife’s camera to take the pictures that are seen here.) I looked down at my son and daughter (who never got to meet my beloved grandfather) and thought about how his work is one of the things that will one day make him alive for them (even though they are a bit too young to appreciate it now). I then started thinking about the work we all do, and what we leave behind, what makes us immortal. And it’s not just our physical work, the things we make, but it’s the love we pass on to others, our memories: that’s our legacy. Some of us do it through the things we make, others through our actions and our relationships: Both are equally important.

I know I’m far from being a perfect person: a perfect man, husband or father, but the little contributions I can make (whether that be stories, inspiration, or love) is what will last long after I’m gone. I hope that one day my children and my children’s grandchildren even will have something of me in their hearts because of what I’ve done while I was here on Earth. At the end of the day, that’s what it is that I really work for. And that’s what we should all work for.

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Process

I’m currently making my third novel: I’m about 100 pages in, close to 30,000 words. I use the word “making” intentionally, as I believe that, like poetry, the novel (and any artifact) is a “made” thing. Any creator, therefore, is a poet. God is a poet.

Writing novels can be like laying bricks, carefully placing one square at a time and adhering those bricks together with mortar. But every novelist’s process is different, however.

I get asked a lot how I put together my books: when people learn that I have two kids, two jobs, and myriad other responsibilities and obligations, they often seem astounded by the fact that I find time to write. I think people who say they don’t have time for something are lying (maybe subconsciously and to themselves), but lying nonetheless. If you really care about something, you’ll find time to do it.

And writing isn’t always about sitting in front of a keyboard and making words, sentences, paragraphs. Writing (for the real writer) happens twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It never takes a break. You, as a writer, are always noticing images, dialogue, stories (I hate using the term “ideas” because writing based on ideas is gimmicky and flat) and recording them in your mind for later use.

Personally, my process goes like this: I read all the time. When I’m reading a book that is particularly well-written (one, say, by Cormac McCarthy), I keep a pen and a piece of paper or an index card and I write down every word that resonates with me. For example, when I read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain for the first time, I had about six or seven note cards with words like spurtle, piggin, and scarp written on them. Those words resonated with me, had a certain feeling attached to them, a feeling I knew I wanted to have in my work-in-progress at the time. Those words become the bricks that started to make the wall of the novel. Too many writers today seem to forget the utter power that a single word (and the right word) contains, and therefore they miss the mark because their focus is too heavy on story or gimmick or idea that they forget why they came to the page in the first place: language and the fearless worship of it.

I also keep notes of names that sound/feel right to me. I make mental notes of images that I come across in everyday life and I use those in my writing.

I don’t write every day. That is, I don’t sit down in front of the keyboard every day and put words together. But I feel as if I am writing every day, as I am always thinking about stories and how to make them. When I do physically sit down to write, I do so very methodically and pragmatically. While I don’t know what I’m going to write beforehand, I do know what I’m working on (a novel, excerpting a portion of a novel-in-progress to make a salable short story, etc.) and I do so without outlines or any notion of where the day’s work is going or is going to lead me. That’s where the excitement/emotion comes in. However, it never comes directly from an emotion that I may be feeling at the time. That, to me, is just self-indulgent: if you do that, you might as well just keep a diary. The feeling in a good work of art comes from the exhilaration of not knowing, stepping out on a limb, taking a risk, being fearless. Anything else is just trite, boring.

I keep close record of my daily word count and track my progress (or lack thereof) very closely. I always know where I stand with word count and page number, and I have a general sense of how much longer it will take to get to the end of what I’m doing. For example, I know when I am working on a shorter work, or one that will require more than 200 pages in order to say it right.

While working, I keep my index cards and notes close by, referring to them for the right word or image as I go. I do this until the book is complete. Then I start to think about structure and how the story is told. I drew maps for my first two novels, then tracked the narrative across those maps to get an idea of the arc of the story. (I also wanted to make sure I had everything geographically right, since all of my work takes place in the same area of Washington Parish in southeast Louisiana.) I printed out hard copies of the novels and marked them up with a red pen, then a black pen, then used a highlighter to mark off the changes I accepted and ultimately made to the manuscript. It’s important to be organized and methodical about how you write. Since writing is so difficult and so messy (I have drawers and drawers full of file folders with various drafts of stories & novels and notes and even newspaper clippings and sketches of items I described, etc.), it is important to have some sense of control, some sense of order, method.

I haven’t gotten to that point on the third novel yet, but I’m already thinking about structure (the novel so far is told in short parabolic sections) and so I’m thinking about physically cutting out those sections after I print off what I have so far, and then taping those sections on the wall in my office: then I’ll move the sections around like those word magnets on a refrigerator door until all the sections are in their right place. (Faulkner famously made this crayon outline of A Fable on his office wall in Rowan Oak):

Faulkner Wall Writing-L

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I want this next book, like the previous two, to be told out of chronological order, as a novel is never really interesting unless it experiments with time and also with language. The true artist must be fearless.

To me, it would be pretty easy to write a straightforward realistic novel, told in plain language. But that would also be boring. Nothing new.

Nostalgia

Last week I was looking through a box of old pictures; I was trying to cull some photos of my childhood so I could pass them on to my mother for Mother’s Day since she missed all of those years of my life due to her illness and her inability to take care of me.  As I looked through the pictures, I was surprised by how much I had forgotten or simply blocked out from memory: pictures of me and my brother hunting and fishing, riding bikes/horses, climbing trees.

You see, I grew up in Folsom, Louisiana, mostly, which is a small bucolic area in southeastern Louisiana, and I was surprised by how much my activities and lifestyle then really made me fit the bill for being what would now be considered a “hick” or just a plain old country boy. Back then, and in my teens and early twenties especially, I would have scoffed at these labels, rejecting them with all of my being. But now I can appreciate these things, and I am grateful for those rich experiences, particularly because they now show up in almost all of my writing: little did I know then that those events would have such an impact on my subconscious that I would eventually write about them all these years later.

In Harlow, for example, there are several hunting scenes pulled straight from my childhood: the characters hunt ducks, wild boar, and quail. (Here is a picture of me when I was about eight or nine years old with a fistful of quail that I had just shot. Interestingly, the boy in Harlow does the same thing, with a .410 shotgun just like the one I had (and still do) as a boy. )

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Seeing all of this and thinking about the boy I was made me long for that time again. Or at least that feeling of innocence and mystery that seems to surround everything we do as children.  This sort of nostalgia was literally considered a “sickness for the past” back in the eighteenth century when the term was first coined, and the implication is that to think of the past and long for it so greatly is damn near pathological. I agree that nostalgia can be crippling, but I think it’s important to be in touch with our past, to let it inform, in part, who we are today, right now. If I had rejected all of this (as I did at certain stages of my adolescence), I don’t think I would’ve been able to make the poems, stories, and novels that I have so far.

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After I was finished going through the box of photos and pulling out the ones I thought my mother would like, I took my wife and son for a four wheeler ride through the woods in Folsom where I grew up.  We rode down steep clay banks and through muddy swales and into the shade of the pine thickets that still surround the patch of land where I was raised, and I could feel my hair blowing back in the wind and my little boy sitting in front of me and my wife’s arms around my waist: we passed horses in great fields where I used to lay as a boy and daydream or read, we passed deer stands in the tall pine trees and we could see the seeded clearings in the woods, we passed brown rabbits who stared at us and the foreign noises the four wheeler made before they bolted off into the copse.  We passed my whole life, it seemed, spooling out before us as the past does, moving and moving toward something, but never quite able to achieve what lies at the vanishing point, the end of the road.

Later that evening, I found my old .410 shotgun (pictured above) and I shot it a couple of times at some plastic decoys that were floating around in a pond. It was good to feel the gun kick against my shoulder, and to hear the clap of it firing off and to see the shot hit the decoy and splash up the water around it. But the gun felt so much lighter than it used to when I was a boy. It felt smaller too.  And it was almost as if I could feel the weight of everything I’ve ever seen or done thrust upon me then. But it felt good.

Now as the father of two children, and the men in my life who raised me now gone, I feel a certain obligation to remember my past: hunting and fishing, watching the Saints games on Sundays with my father drinking Budweiser beers from cans and yelling at the bad plays (and there were quite a few of them back then), going to Grand Isle and camping on the beach, then gigging fish in the shallows under the moonlight, and the next morning cooking pancakes on a tiny gas cookstove and the sand blowing in the pancake batter and how it crunched in your mouth as you ate the pancakes. If I don’t remember these things for my sake, then I remember them for my children’s sake. I hope my kids will carry that with them as they grow up, like I did, and pass it on to their children, and their children’s children, and so on. Because these are the things that stay in our hearts, and if we’re poets, these are the things that we use to make our stories out of.

Writing History

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

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The other day, my wife and I were debating about some of the more detestable characters in my work and some of the detestable things those characters do to one another. She was almost disturbed by the fact that the man she married writes about people who would do such things, and about those things themselves. I assured her that, as an artist, I wasn’t concerned with shock value, nor was I concerned with the sort of nihilistic realism that has no regard for aesthetic or beauty or hope or meaning (the things all artists should strive for).

I am also not necessarily concerned with psychoanalyzing my characters, nor my own motives for writing about these things. I’m simply relating a story, and sometimes bad things happen, sometimes horrible things happen. Flannery O’Connor said that the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. It’s truth, and at the end of the day there’s hope. Whether it’s hope for a better life, unencumbered by our history; or better yet, a life where our history is a part of us, but it doesn’t weigh us down and we can ride on with it: that’s hope. So it was with these ideas that I started thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, which I had just watched for the third time, mainly in an effort to try to figure out how I felt about it.

This film has received a lot of criticism (as well as praise) since its release late last year. Despite the controversies surrounding the film, its script (written by Tarantino) has garnered several major awards, including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2013.

From a writer’s perspective, I greatly admire the originality of Tarantino’s vision, his expert use of dialogue, his close attention to seemingly mundane details (the scene in which Dr. Schultz is pouring two beers for Django and himself is worth paying close attention to: for the sound of it and for the pure joy of the act that Schultz seems to display. Tarantino himself seems to relish in filming such actions as well. Another quick scene that I love is when Schultz shoots one of the Brittle brothers from his horse and the man’s blood splashes across a boll of cotton. ) All of this as well as the almost Shakespearean plots that Tarantino weaves, which almost seem to aim for Greek tragedy status (his use of the WANTED ad that ultimately saves Django’s life (told by Schultz much earlier in the film that his first bounty’s handbill should always be kept for “good luck”) later becomes a sort of deus ex machina used to propel the film’s denouement), is well worth your money and your time, in my opinion.

Any writer who is serious about his craft should pay close attention to Tarantino and his work. Take this snippet of dialog as yet another example of his genius:

[Django and Schultz ride up to the local Sheriff, with the dead bodies of the men they’ve killed being carried on the horses riding behind them]
Sheriff Gus: Doctor, Django, how the hell are ya? Who the hell you got there?
Dr. King Schultz: The Wilson-Lowe Gang.
Sheriff Gus: Who the hell is the Wilson-Lowe Gang?
Dr. King Schultz: Bad Chuck Wilson and meaner Bobby Lowe, and three of their acolytes.
Sheriff Gus: Huh. Well, just leave ’em out here, they ain’t going nowhere. Why don’t you come in out of the snowy snow and get yourselves some coffee. We had a birthday yesterday, got some cake. Pretty good.
[Schultz and Django follow the Sheriff into his cabin]

It’s laconic, terse, but believable and effective. There are so many implications and allusions in that little scene, just under a minute long, that seem to hint at Django’s rise in social status and newly-earned respect, plus it’s just funny.

These are just a few examples of what makes this film so great. There are many more.

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Another point of debate about this film is the veracity of the depiction of “mandingo” fighting, in which slaves were forcefully pitted against one another in battle. Historians have argued that this “sport” would have been unlikely since slaveholders would not have wanted to have their valuable  “property” damaged so viciously.

But I believe this could very well have taken place: if there were wagers placed on these battles, surely some of these vicious slaveholders could have stood to profit from it. Then consider the visceral thrill Colonel Sutpen experiences from this in William Faulkner’s dark Southern novel Absalom, Absalom!:

“Yes, Ellen and those two children alone in that house twelve miles from town, and down there in the stable a hollow square of faces in the lantern light, the white faces on three sides, the black ones on the fourth, and in the center two of his wild negroes fighting, naked, fighting not as white men fight, with rules and weapons, but as negroes fight to hurt one another quick and bad [….] and Ellen seeing not the two black beasts she had expected to see but instead a white one and a black one, both naked to the waist and gouging at one another’s eyes as if they should not only have been the same color, but should have been covered with fur too. […] Yes. That’s what Ellen saw: her husband and the father of her children standing there naked and panting and bloody to the waist and the negro just fallen evidently, lying at his feet and bloody too, save that on the negro it merely looked like grease or sweat….”

Here, not only is there a version of this “mandingo” fighting, but the slaveholder is actually participating with the slaves. This is not to say that since Faulkner wrote about it, then it must be true, but we generally revere Faulkner for his veracious depictions of the antebellum South, so it’s worth at least considering.

And then, of course, there were the Roman slaves who were made to fight in the gladiatorial games, ostensibly for entertainment and with little regard for the “property” that was being destroyed. This obsession with violence seems to be a pretty consistent theme throughout our human history, and so the film doesn’t seem that far off in its depiction of it. Violence is a part of our history, and that doesn’t change because of our inability to stomach it. There are only a few instances of violence in this film that seem gratuitous to me, and I think Tarantino is using them intentionally to create a sort of satire of violence and our response to it.

He’s an incredibly gifted writer, one who makes his own rules and succeeds by them.

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I also like how Tarantino breaks other so-called rules of historical films: the soundtrack is mostly anachronistic, but somehow appropriate to the overall feel of the movie. There’s a great song by Rick Ross, “100 Black Coffins,” that appears in the film and then there’s the folksy tune by Jim Croce, “I Got A Name,” which seems incredibly relevant, as it plays just as Django is saddling his horse with his “D” engraved on the shiny leather of the saddle, himself a free man and about to cut out for the territories. There are also some original scores that serve the film’s overall feel as well, such as “Ancora Qui”  by Ennio Morricone. When one is able to break the rules of their trade and still come out with a successful piece of work, one is doing something right.

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Most critics said the film lacked profundity but, to me, the connection between Django and Schultz is very touching and profound.  The thing that struck me was how civilized and (despite being a bounty hunter) morally upright Dr. King Schultz (I doubt the former part of this character’s name is an accident, though I’m surprised I never heard anyone mention it) seemed to be:  like watching Huck and Jim sailing down the river, we ultimately come to see the humanity of these two men, and through them get a sense of ourselves as well. We also, with our perspective of history, can see the almost eery connection between Schultz’s civilized German background and what would come just eighty years after the film’s frame of historical reference: yet another human atrocity in history (this is especially relevant when considering Tarantino’s precursor to this film, Inglourious Basterds).

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Then there are the beautiful scenes of an almost pristine America during the film’s “winter” montage, where we see cattle grazing, beautiful snow-streaked mountains: an almost perverse beauty that serves as a sort of paradox to what the folks who inhabit that land are doing, especially when viewed as a sort of prologue to the following scenes in Greensville, Mississippi, where the true horrors of slavery are depicted. The mise en scene here is exquisite: you can feel the sweltering humidity as the characters ride to Candie’s plantation and you can literally hear the mosquitoes and the crickets buzzing in the background. This landscape is almost like a darker Eden, which Faulkner (to quote the man again) describes in his famous short story, “A Rose for Emily,” in one sweeping sentence:

“They held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.”

Of course, this virginal “meadow” would be the South (a sort of Eden corrupted by slavery) and the bottleneck of years being the war which ended the Great Sin, but still the old Confederates long for that time again. It’s an America that has a dark, dirty secret, but an America that will never again belong to the Scarlett O’Haras and Rhett Butlers and Colonel Sutpens of that time. It’s interesting, also, that this very image that Faulkner makes here seems to form the picture of an hourglass if one were to literally sketch it out: Faulkner was certainly one obsessed with time (particularly the past), and I think Tarantino owes a debt to the great Mississippi author for this.  Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, so maybe time and the weight of history is just a hangup of Southerners, I don’t know.

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While I was researching for this article, I came across this quote in a review of Django Unchained by Kirsten West-Savali, in which she said: “That’s art. It is not something that one should necessarily like or enjoy; rather it is something that should make one feel.”  So whether a piece of art makes you feel good or bad, it’s successful when it leaves you with something inside of your guts that you can take home with you and think about for a while.  And that’s really what any art that’s worth a nickel should do: nothing more and nothing less.

So to conclude, I have decided that I very much like Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, and I don’t think he’s morally or ethically bankrupt for showing us things that we don’t necessarily care to see: he makes us feel, and I sincerely hope that although I tend to write about things some folks don’t want to see, there is a feeling that I do so out of love for humanity, and not anything more or less than that.