Flash fiction: Window shopping

Photo by K. Burnley from the New York Windows series. kburnley.com

Photo by K. Burnley from the New York Windows series. kburnley.com

She’s on the corner gazing into the wig shop, first the window on Haywood Street and then the one on Battery Park. No doubt all the wig mannequins are jealous, under their stony stares, of her own smooth black bob. It’s a work of Louise Brooks perfection. She’s less vampy, less bowed of lip and smoldering of eye than the silent film star, but still able to convey an entire screen play in a few movements.

Her walk is quick but fluid, pulling the bulk of her ankle-length coat closer to her frame, blocking the glinting cold of the morning. A ragged tail of skirt drags behind as she progresses up the sidewalk. Handle of a half-round frame purse in one chilly grasp, cigarette holder gracefully balanced between two fingers of the other hand. She exhales fog skyward and peers around, wondering how she got here. It’s apparent she took a wrong turn somewhere and wound up a block over and a world away from her intended destination.

But this will do. Surely there is coffee somewhere on this street — and a splash of whiskey, if there’s any kindness in the universe — so she hurries on. Wigs already forgotten. Trail of smoke like a fast-fading apparition.

Word problems: Peter Turchi’s book A Muse & a Maze explores the puzzles of writing

Originally published by Mountain Xpress.

amuseamaze-cover-finalIt’s been a number of years since Peter Turchi lived in Asheville — he’s now based in Houston — but Western North Carolina still finds its way into his writing. “I tend to write more about places that I’ve left,” says the former director of Warren Wilson College’s MFA program. “The stories that I’m writing now, while they don’t reference Asheville in particular, in my mind they’re all set in or around Asheville. Asheville looms large on my personal map.”

Puzzles are another recent Turchi topic. They’re featured prominently in his new book, A Muse & a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, which juxtaposes the author’s essays with a selection of artworks, quotes and inspirations. “The goal is to help people think about writing and reading in different ways,” says the author. “I collect images and ideas and, if it seems to me to make sense, I convey that to the reader.” Some of the puzzles included were composed specially for the book. Turchi will discuss A Muse & a Maze at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Nov. 22. Appropriately, the event involves sudoku cupcakes.

“All of the material in the book began as lectures I gave at Warren Wilson,” says Turchi, who remains on the MFA program faculty. A few of the talks confused his students, who provided helpful feedback through the college’s evaluation system. “Then I got to really dig in, and usually I discovered a lot more by doing that,” Turchi says. “Trying to teach writing has certainly taught me a lot, because people naturally ask questions.” He also credits the faculty’s practice of attending one another’s lectures, because “you’re always talking to your peers.”

Author photo by Dana Kroos

Author photo by Dana Kroos

But inspiration comes from those outside the writer’s wheelhouse, too. A Muse & a Maze quotes the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Bruce Springsteen; it also explores the photography of Charles Ritchie, with whom Turchi has collaborated. “Other narrative forms, like film and plays, offer pretty direct inspiration,” the writer says. “Sometimes it can be an artist whose work doesn’t have any obvious relation to mine. … Just the very notion behind them sometimes can be helpful in making me think of some aspect of fiction in a different way.” For example, the visual art concept of creating a self-portrait using objects rather than a human figure led Turchi to think differently about presentation of character.

He adds, “It was fun to get artists to talk to me and hear how they thought about objects, and then to think about how writers can or should give that kind of attention to the world around them.”

Not every writer thrills at the chance to put their craft under a microscope, though. To write about writing is like pondering the mechanics of sleep — there’s no surer way to stay awake. According to Turchi, short story writer Deborah Eisenberg “prefers not to think too much about how she does what she does. It’s not that she doesn’t think about the work intently, but she doesn’t think about how she creates it,” he says.

Turchi does see a correlation between magic and writing, however. “A magician isn’t simply awed by magic: It’s a very mechanical kind of thinking,” he says. “I can read a novel and my readerly response is, ‘That’s beautiful.’ Pretty quickly after that, as a writer, I think, ‘How did that lead me there?’” Curiosity about how literary effects are created is part of what drives the author to write about the tricks and processes of prose.

But as much as A Muse & a Maze seeks to explore the inner workings of the craft of writing, the book isn’t interested in pulling aside the curtain on the art form’s intrinsic wondrousness. If anything, Turchi’s collection of citations, motivations, riddles and games yields as many questions as it answers. As a teacher, he believes that while parts of the craft (such as greatness or sensitivity) can’t be taught, there are plenty of tools that can be shared. That’s where the book comes in: “Here are things you can think about and work on. But then there is something that is much harder to identify,” says Turchi. “I really did want to try to honor and respect the aspect of writing that is mysterious.”

Thoughts on “The Goldfinch”

It took me about three moths to read The Goldfinch, the Pulitzer-winning novel by Donna Tartt. It’s almost 800 pages, and it’s heavy — not just weighty but emotional. It’s a beautiful book but a bleak one, and bleak is not my favorite mood. So I took breaks, read other books, considered abandoning it.

imageThe book is a long and ambling story about life and art and how the two intersect and don’t. There’s an accidental art theft that leads to decades of dangerous twists and turns. There’s a certain amount of belief that must be suspended, but Tartt does a wonderful job of making believable the world her characters inhabit. She also provides so many pages of detail that the reader has little choice but to give in and go along with the story. And, in fact, all that’s light and hopeful and safe remains close by. The dark is never total, the bleakness never all-encompassing.

And yet, when Tartt finally does get around — in the final chapters — to offering up her view on the world, it feels like more of a succumbing than a revelation. “Life is a catastrophe,” she writes in the voice of main character Theo. of course I know this is fiction and the philosophy could, too, be made up for the sake of the story. But as a writer I believe that fiction is created to tell a story built on the beliefs of a writer. Which is not to say that a writer has to be pro-manslaughter to write a murder mystery. But it’s unlikely that a writer would spend 775 pages on the juxtaposition of beautiful objects and the meaning of life if there wasn’t some personal investment in the overarching theme.

But what I felt, even in the heady moments of closing in on the last pages, was that I didn’t agree. Not with the thesis. With many of the arguments: Yes. “And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them,” Theo says. I get this. I, too, love beautiful things, and old things. Like Theo, I would often rather own an antique than something new, because old things are storied and new things are blank. I want to feel meaning in the things with which I surround myself. I care about style more than fashion, and personal connection more than monetary value.

But I don’t think that beautiful things are simply a reprieve from the big-picture ugliness of existence. And I don’t think Tartt’s book, however epic and fraught, manages to defend the thesis that life is a catastrophe. In fact, not even Theo’s life is a catastrophe, no matter the number of unfortunate events that befall him. Theo is loved and valued despite his poor choices. The book insists on treating him as a good person. Good and evil are nebulous, and the good are often wrong, but they also ultimately triumph over the bad, even if at the cost of being wounded in the process.

To Theo, life is a catastrophe — and this is not a spoiler — because he tragically loses his mother. He comes to love beautiful things because they represent her. Her love of art, her refinement, her ability to maintain in the face of difficulty and her delight in beauty even in the face of poverty provide the basis for Theo’s approach to life. He cares for the poor, the underdog, the weak-but-refined and the under appreciated. He loves objects because they can’t hurt or disappoint him as people have. He loves the painting because it’s the last thing he and his other shared. He doesn’t so much steal and protect the painting, as he claims, as keep close his relationship to his mother. And, even as his struggle to keep the painting is his undoing, it’s also the thing that keeps him connected to a true beacon of humanity.

Beauty is a moral compass and a talisman. That’s what The Goldfinch ultimately said to me.

Virtual city walk

Virtual city walk

I’ve been working on an article this week about Peter Turchi‘s new book, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic. In it, he collages his own essays with a selection of artworks, quotes and inspirations — and lots of puzzles, including some specially composed for the book. “The goal is to help people think about writing and reading in different ways,” Turchi says.

What’s so interesting to me about A Muse and a Maze is how writing can be informed by other artistic disciplines. “Other narrative forms like film and plays offer pretty direct inspiration,” Turchi says. “Sometimes it can be an artist whose work doesn’t have any obvious relation to mine. … Just the very notion behind them sometimes can be helpful in making me think of some aspect of fiction in a different way.”

With that in mind, I came across this album, Citywalk from the Isolation Studies series by Night’s Bright Colors — the project of my supertalented friend Jason Smith. It’s study of inspiration — music borne of street scenes and sounds. Each track could be a photograph, or a haiku, or a watercolor. And all of those possibilities are somehow compacted into perfect microcosms of moments that expand and contract with the breath and the day, with how light unfurls and moves across the room, with the openness of imagination and the closing of the eyes.

These are songs I could live in and write in. They ask for stories to be written of their distinct worlds — though I’m sure each contains its own nucleus of a story already intact and waiting to be discovered.