LISTEN: do you hear the violin? Coursing beneath us, rising and falling as we speak? It carries my meaning like a current, like a cry. This multithreaded river of sound is the force that shapes my words, wears them down slowly, spits them onto the shore, one at a time, pebbles, chips, and large round stones, heavy and smooth. Sometimes it hurts.
I never learned how to sing alone without looking over my shoulder in a panic. Not even in the shower. If you sing with me, though, I will find you. I will layer my voice onto yours, into yours, like wax pooling in the well of a pillar candle, safe only when contained and yet in containment, a rushing river.
I’ve been returning again and again to juxtapositions of incongruities as a means of surprising myself with something true. It’s not that easy. Elizabeth McCracken, author of the The Giant’s House, a novel full of outsized, improbable joy and throbbing loss, is the master of this slippery technique. Have you read her latest collection, Thunderstruck and Other Stories? It’s a masterpiece and I say this unequivocally, defiantly, even, despite having basked only in the first paragraph. How long does it take to recognize the truth? Elizabeth is the kind of writer who makes you, for a minute, until you get hold of yourself, slam the book shut and throw up your hands: Why bother? What more is left? Better to hang it up and make pancakes.
But let’s draw back. That’s what I have do when a writer knocks the breath out of me. I have to tell myself something truer than my fear and grasping after words. Tell myself to try a little harder, and try a little easier. I make some rules. I break them. I experiment, play, fix, do it again. Most of all, I wedge myself closer to the thing itself. I stare directly at it until, if I am at all lucky, I see all the way through it, like a pane of glass. There is no other way.
You could give this method a try right now, in time for the Elephant Rock Flash Prose Contest in honor of #AWP15. Just submit five hundred words or fewer on the theme “the river.” The winner will receive an original broadsheet illustrated by Lilian Fithian-Zurn, and a two-night stay at Stout’s Island Lodge, a veritable haven for writers.
Also, there’s still time to reserve free tickets to Braided Rivers, Elephant Rock’s AWP event. I'm presenting work with Susan Sophocelus, my dear and exceptionally talented friend. We’re aiming to create a sort of dialogue between the words, the music, and the meaning. My piece is partly about my dad, who has no feathers and is not a swan. Also presenting work will be musician Ben Weaver and poet Eirann Lorsung. The event is generously sponsored by Banjo Bros, One on One Bike Studio, and a host of other supporters. There’s an optional pre-event group ride along the river, thanks to the good folks at Nice Ride MN, and the event itself includes free drinks and food along with the above-mentioned literary performances and music plus the exciting awards for the flash prose contest. Tickets are free and registration will be closed when the tickets are gone, so register now.
And as for this dialogue with a violin, this perplexing issue of my dad and the swans ... well, I've dreamed about it for years, but I always wake up before it happens. Now it is real. Still, I have nothing to grasp: no oars, no rudder. So it would mean the world if you were there. My voice could layer into yours. It would be like a pillar of warm wax, a column of light. A meeting of truth at the soft edge of shadow. I’ll look for you.