On my mother’s side of the family there was an uncle whom I rarely saw, because he and my aunt, my mom’s sister, lived far away in another state. Hence I never got to know him all that well. The uncle is long dead now, but unfortunately the most salient impression I have of him comes from my early teens, when he suddenly took to shaking my hand with a grasp that I can only interpret as having been a challenge. I can still remember the stare he’d fix on me when he did, and his leering grin that conveyed the unmistakable message: “Just so you know, I’m still stronger than you.”
Our lives are full of potential characters and scenarios from which to draw—whether we write in fiction, poetry, personal essay, or some other form of creative expression. Some of these find places in our work straight away. Still others require time in our heads to develop before they resurface, often decades later. This brief snapshot of my chip-on-the-shoulder uncle and his death-grip greeting has never appeared in words; that is, until now. The closest I’ve come prior to this, I suppose, is a scene from my novel manuscript featuring a man and his son, Corky—the latter of whom has just returned from basic training, newly fit and self-assured. The father, obviously sensing the transformation and its looming threat to his dominance, hails Corky at the Greyhound bus depot with an acerbic “Welcome home, soldier boy,” and squeezes the kid’s hand for a long moment as each stares the other down.
While I cannot draw a distinct causal line between the real-life experience with my uncle and the fictional scene at the depot, I now wonder whether one might have played a part, however minor, in the development of the other. To be sure, both occurrences fall within the archetypal category of generational transference: the inevitable ascendance of youth over age, and the tension that flares between elder and younger at the point where it is mutually recognized. Aside from this, however, the scenarios are not at all similar. The fictional scene involves a father and his adult son, while the real-life situation played out during my childhood, and the antagonist was a non-blood-relative whom I barely even knew. Still, at some level of my understanding, might I have unconsciously flashed upon the uncle’s handshake and its essential meaning while writing, and out of this synaptic event the fictional confrontation between Corky and his father evolved?
About this I can never be dead certain, but I have encountered incidental clues in my writing life that lead me to suspect that this sort of thing is at least possible. Significantly, I don’t usually happen upon such clues in the course of penning my own stuff, at least not right away; and perhaps this is because, for me, the creative process is such a subjective, word-by-word endeavor that I’m not especially alert to their presence. Instead, I tend to discover them in my reading of the work of others, when some element of a scene or character, or even the setting of a piece, strikes a chord deep within me that has more to do with my personal history than it does the human situation portrayed on the page.
Having introduced this idea, however, I want to clarify here that I am not referring to the concept of verisimilitude—the degree of plausibility or “lifelike-ness” that a story or some aspect of it represents to its readers. Rather, what I have experienced on these precious occasions—and perhaps you have too—is a sophisticated degree of communion between a scenario on the printed page and some aspect of my actual life that is based more fundamentally on essence than it is on content. In other words, I believe that we are sometimes able to participate with certain pieces of writing on a more profound level, simply because we have encountered situations in our lives that were essentially similar. The details may have been quite different—perhaps entirely so—but we nevertheless make this intimate connection because we are wholly in tune with the situational energy.
Obviously, this is not an intellectual process, nor is it something felt across-the-board by readers of a particular work. This is a case-by-case, gut-level—one could even say metaphysical—sense of understanding, which of course makes it all the more difficult for me to explain. So I’ll take the coward’s way out at this point, and resort to personal example in an effort to cast light on what I’m getting at—and perhaps also to better understand the concept myself.
There is a reason why I return again and again to Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, and it isn’t so much the writing—though I certainly respect the author’s skill. Nor is it really the storyline or the characters, even though I enjoy both of these elements as well. Rather, I have plucked that book from my shelf dozens of times now because of my consistent, personal communion with a specific portion of the book: namely, the seventy-two-page section depicting the annual fiesta of San Fermin, in Pamplona, Spain—a religious festival on the surface, but also a raucous seven-day bacchanal that includes what is arguably the world’s most famous series of bullfights. The festival provides a perfect tableau for all manner of human interaction and drama; and it is against this magnificent backdrop that Hemingway’s protagonist, Jake Barnes, and his four hard-drinking companions variously carouse, quarrel, dance, fight among themselves and with others, and fall in and out of love.
“The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta,” Jake Barnes narrates at a point early in the section, setting the scene and also providing dramatic foreshadowing to a time when everything would become “quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences.” But Hemingway, through the voice of his narrator, is doing more here than simply preparing readers for what will unfold in terms of plot and action. He is also establishing the situational energy of the scene by transcending the concrete in order to illuminate the essential.
Whether or not this was a conscious craft decision on the author’s part is left to conjecture. Nevertheless, the flow of words performs the task on its own. Note, in the passage, how the exposition moves from the very specific statement that events to come “could only have happened during a fiesta” to the comparatively tentative—though far more inclusive—observation about the seeming unreality of it all, not to mention the ultimate achievement of a mixed-blessing state where “nothing could have any consequences.”
It is the second portion of this quote that captures the essence of the festival sub-plot, and makes it palpably accessible to readers who have encountered this type of situational energy in the course of their own lives. And I don’t believe it an exaggeration to say that this would include most of us; for who hasn’t experienced some remarkable episode—whether joyful or horrific—during which life as we know it becomes suddenly “quite unreal,” and the rules for normal behavior stretch to the point where it seems our very actions will yield no consequences? Chances are that our personal episodes, like Hemingway’s fictional one, played out amid a congregation of people too, because the distortions of “reality” and breakdown of behavioral norms described here are consistent with the transformative psychology of crowds.
I commune personally with many aspects of the festival sub-plot, but there is one brief scene in particular that resonates most strongly with me. During a pause in the opening procession through Pamplona, which includes the colorful and lively riau-riau dancers, a group of revelers breaks off to encircle the beautiful but flawed Lady Brett Ashley—the only woman in Jake Barnes’ party of friends—and commences to dance. The strangers all wear “big wreaths of white garlics around their necks,” and they pull Jake and his male companions in to join them as they sing and chant. Lady Brett, standing in the center of the circle, wants to dance alongside the men, but, as Barnes indicates, the revelers do not allow it. Instead, they want her as “an image to dance around.”
Notice the action—the vivid commotion—and imagery of this scene: the sudden encirclement of Brett, the chanting and rough-and-tumble camaraderie between strangers, men dancing with swinging strings of fragrant garlic, and the mock-formality of keeping Brett in the center of it all as an ornament. It is in this fleeting, otherworldly moment that we find essence.
Long before I read The Sun Also Rises, or anything else by Ernest Hemingway, I visited New Orleans with my first wife and attended the 1985 Mardi Gras celebration. Like many of the thousands of people thronging the French Quarter on that Fat Tuesday, we had imbibed in more than a few “Hurricanes”—the rum-heavy local punch—and were beginning to warm to the surroundings and our fellow partiers. At one point in our wanderings, as we neared Jackson Square and the Saint Louis Cathedral, a group of people approached. One of them was an inebriated middle-aged woman, probably a vagrant, whom the others were conveying in a wheeled shopping cart. She seemed perfectly comfortable sitting in the cart, acquiescing to the stunt with a countenance that I later portrayed as vacillating “between oblivion and majesty.” In one of her hands she held a tattered umbrella—unopened—which in my own enhanced state at the time brought to mind the image of a royal scepter. My wife and I joined in with this bit of impromptu street theatre, parading around with the woman in the cart and making a big fuss over her. Sometime later, I penned a poem about the incident in which I described how the magic moment ultimately concluded, when “twenty of us dropped to our knees and proclaimed her queen.”
When eventually I did read Hemingway’s fictional scene of the fiesta revelers dancing around Brett Ashley, probably some ten years later, my immediate essential reference was to the real-life episode near Jackson Square—the drunken woman in the shopping cart. And the connection between the two events continues for me to this day. Again, none of the details—of geography, character, or storyline—that comprise each separate incident come even close to matching the other. Yet at the level of essence, there exists great similarity.
After posting a recent essay, my fellow blog contributor, David Dominé, offered a most generous comment, which I deeply appreciated. “I wasn’t even there,” he wrote, “but it brought back so many memories.” This is precisely the effect I hope to achieve more often than not in my writing, and the way to attain this goal is to better train myself to be conscious of the essential elements of my tale—the formless energy that human interaction invariably generates. That is where the pulse of a piece beats, is it not? We don’t craft memorable stories about rocks, after all. We write about people: parents and their children, objects of our desire, wonderfully flawed individuals, and vibrant gatherings.
And sometimes, after a decade or four, we might broach the topic of chip-on-the-shoulder uncles too.