Reading for Writers: Dino Campana’s “The Night”

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There were a lot of interesting things happening in Dino Campana’s essay “The Night.” There were some incredible metaphors and exquisite language which made me wonder about the expectations that we usually have for nonfiction in terms of style and language. Another stylistic component of note is that Campana does not use any names to refer to the characters in this essay. Instead, the only names that he uses are those of famous artists and writers. Campana also has a really arresting way of changing the pronouns that he uses for the characters, including himself, in his work. The effect of this is jarring but also captivating.

The first thing I noticed about this essay was the language being used. It is incredibly poetic and lyrical. There are a number of really striking metaphors, for example, “broken hovels like old bruises, dead windows.” Or, even more gripping: “the white Mediterranean night joked with the huge shapes of the women while the flame’s bizarre death-attempts went on and on in the streetlamp’s cave.” Language like this, though interesting and beautiful may be jarring for a reader who is looking for a straightforward account of Campana’s escapades. It made me think about the expectations that readers bring to nonfiction and whether essays have an obligation to live up to these expectation. Is it factually true that the night was joking (Or, put another way, can that be fact checked?)? How does metaphor come into play in essays? Or, more directly, what is the place of metaphor and lyrical, poetic language in nonfiction? If the reader is coming to the piece looking for truth and accuracy, how far can the writer go with metaphors and poetic language? In general, I think that if it is clear that the writer is using metaphor and clear what the writer is intending to express, this kind of language can greatly enhance creative nonfiction pieces. However, in this piece the metaphors were so dense and thick that it may have obscured some of the reader’s understanding of the truths behind the language. It made me question whether that was intentional. Perhaps Campana’s experience was so dreamlike that he wanted to convey that to the reader. Or maybe he did not want his reader to have a clear sense of what was going on. Perhaps he wanted his reader to experience the feel of the situation more than the events surrounding it. Is this authorial prerogative?

The esoteric, dreamlike quality of this narrative is pushed further by Campana’s refusal to use the names of characters populating his essay. It’s interesting that he doesn’t ever refer to anyone in the narrative by their name, only by their physical description. This can make it difficult for the reader to follow at times, but it also is especially interesting given the subject matter. Perhaps Campana did not know the name of anyone with whom he interacted that night. This is made even more peculiar by the constant name-dropping that he does with famous writers and artists. The lack of character names in the essay is even more stark next to the names of Faust, Dante, Leonardo, and Michelangelo and the names of saints. It’s as if he is drawing the distinction between these exalted, nameable people and the people in his narrative.

In addition to not giving his characters names, he also switches the pronoun that he uses to refer to them. In one section of the essay, he refers to the amber-bodied girl as “she” and later he seems to be addressing her as”you.” The most striking instance in which he does this is when he goes from using a first-person perspective of his experience to speaking about himself in the third person briefly. He refers to “the person I had once been” as “he” for two sections. This gives an interesting effect of distancing himself from the events of the night, making it his former self and not him who had these experiences. However, he only can keep this distance for a short time before going back to “I” and owning the experiences again.

All of these things made this essay difficult to decipher, as if the reader were decoding the text instead of reading it. The use of metaphors and lyrical language obscured some of the concreteness of the experiences that he was ruminating on.   The failure to use names of characters often made who he was actually talking about ambiguous. Even his pronouns when talking about these people (including himself!) were not consistent. The combination of these things gave the essay a dreamlike, nearly impenetrable quality. However, for me personally, these things added an interesting depth and dimension to the essay as well as giving a peak into the possible obfuscation that Campana was attempting. It made me ask a lot of questions, mostly unresolved, but also very interesting.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices.

Is Writing Selfish?: What I learned from two years of blogging

Two years ago, I started a blog.  I was scared.  I had spent the better part of my adult life running away from writing.  In an attempt to cover up this fear, I had told myself that writing was just selfish.  Why did I think that what I had to say needed to be heard by other people?  What did I have to share that the world needed to hear?  I’m no expert in anything.  And really, isn’t writing really just narcissistic and self-centered?

But there was always this little voice inside me, this little part of me that felt unfulfilled when I wasn’t writing.  I travelled the world, teaching and volunteering in developing countries, devoted myself to helping people learn and grow.  I had the most amazing adventures and there was still something that was missing.

“If money were no object and you didn’t care about what people thought, what would you do?” my friend Ram asked me.  I didn’t stop to think about it.  “Write.”

But it was still too scary, too intimidating.  Everyone knows that being a writer is a tough job.  There’s no job security.  What if the muse doesn’t come anymore and you can’t buy groceries? What are you going to do about a retirement plan?  Worse than the practical issues were the emotional repercussions.  What if I bared my soul and no one wanted to read it?  What if I sent my writing to thousands of publishers and got thousands of rejections?  Am I strong enough to keep even through all of that?

So I did what seemed least risky at the time.  I started a blog.

I posted my first blog post steeling myself for negative comments or zero views.  Maybe only my mom would read it.  Perhaps that was all I could hope for, but hey, at least I would be writing.

That’s not what happened.

What did happen is that I learned the most important lesson that I’ve ever learned about writing.  I got positive comments, empathy from other WordPress writers and readers. People from all over the world read and followed my blog. I grew a writing community.

Can writing be selfish?  Sure, but it doesn’t have to be.

This is the thing about writing: writing has an enormous possibility for connecting with others.  Sharing your writing means sharing bits of yourself, putting yourself out into the world and trusting that other people will connect with you.  Every “like,” every comment is a connection.  Every description of scenery is a connection to that place.  Every word about an emotion is a connection with that feeling.

To me, connection, however fleeting, is what life is all about.  Each smile, each moment in the present, each shared experience with another person: these are the things that last once we’re gone.  These are the things that people will remember about us, and the things that we will remember on our deathbeds.  Writing is an extension of that.  Writing allows us to have these moments of connection with more people than we would be able to otherwise: people who are far away, people we haven’t met yet, people who were right there with us for the experiences we write about, and the people who couldn’t be.

So, thank you, writing community, for teaching me something that I really needed to learn.  I have no excuses anymore and nothing to be scared of.  Each time I write, I am fulfilling my highest potential – I am connecting, with myself and with  you.

A big thank you to Matti Vinni from flickr for the creative commons photo of  Essi Korva‘s sculpture, Connection.

A Mess o’ News

For those of you keeping track at home, you’ll notice that it’s been nearly two months since I posted.  It’s been a whirlwind around here and my poor little Lightning Droplets blog had been put on the backburner because of it.  Lots of exciting things have happened, though, and I’d like to share!

My last post was in November, when I — bravely? insanely? masochistically? — took on my first NaNoWriMo in the middle of my first semester of an MFA Program and my first semester teaching college composition.  I did not reach the goal of 50,000 words, but I did feel like I accomplished a lot.  I started a novel I’m quite excited about and reached my all time daily peak (6,000 words in one day!) and even my monthly best at 17,165 words on one piece (I did write a few other things in November).  You might know from my Write Fast post that I am not a fast writer, but in November, I averaged over 500 words a day.  This is about the same word count as Tom Robbins, who is a favie fave of mine, so I am feeling pretty good about that.

Also in November, I found out that I won a grant!  The grant pays for my class to publish a collection of essays written by my students.  It also pays for me to go to two writing conferences.  So, anyone going to AWP this year will see me there!  Woohoo for a free week in Seattle!  I’ll also be going to the Pacific Rim Conference on Literature and Rhetoric in Anchorage, so that will be a nice little weekend, too.

By the time the end of the semester rolled around, I had been nominated for Best of the Net, published in Yemassee, Flash Frontier, Exegesis, and Saw Palm (forthcoming), written 15 solid pieces in three different genres, done two panel presentations, a roundtable discussion, two craft papers, a position paper, and two Prezis, contributed to the WriteAlaska website, produced a full-length book with my students, read 18 books,submitted work to sixty literary magazines, and drank many, many pints of Alaskan beer.

You can see why my little blog here has been neglected.  I have lots planned for next semester as well, but Lightning Droplets will hopefully get a little more attention as I settle in more to my new life and my new home in the Arctic.

Racking up More than Rejections: Shards in Exegesis

So, the ripples of goodness from July’s Submission Bonanza! are still rolling in.  (Rejections are still rolling in too, so it is true that I am racking up rejections, but these small victories overshadow the rejections by so much.)  It’s amazing what happens when you just decide to put yourself out there.  I wasn’t expecting much back except for some experience and some notches on my writing bedpost.

But I’m in the latest issue of Exegesis, an academic journal at Royal Holloway, University of London.  They published Shards, a short short of mine, in their third issue: Landscapes:Digital, Real, Imagined.

Woohoo!

More Good News: Nominated for Best of the Net!

There’s been so much commotion and excitement around here lately that I almost forgot:

I owe a big thank you to the folks over at Flash Frontier.

They nominated my story “Cicadas,” which appeared in their November 2012 Issue Eye Contact, for Best of the Net!

Check it out!

Reaping Rewards: Word Flood in Yemassee

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Here’s another non-rejection that I’ve racked up from my original Submission Bonanza! 

Word Flood,” my first published creative nonfiction piece, just came out in Yemassee.

I’ve pasted the original text below for your reading enjoyment!

 

Her words sank.  Not quickly like an anchor, or with a splash like a rock.  Instead as she spoke, her words fluttered in the air, held afloat by the humidity.  They tickled earlobes, in a language half a world away. Pieces of ideas curled with the wind among tendrils of jasmine, leaving a heavy scent wafting through the city.  Nouns and verbs together toyed with bodhi leaves, pulling them along as they flitted to the ground.  They landed gently on the Chao Phraya, quivering on the surface of the river and leaving ripples too small to be noticed.  Amongst water hyacinth and coconuts they floated, gathering silt and absorbing the wetness of the city.  In this way, the words gained weight and began to drown.

Before long, they swam in the wake of snakefish and nestled between the scales of water monitors.  The more weight they gathered, the more they were immersed, the harder it was to see them. The light had trouble reaching them between algae and waste and even apsaras would be hard pressed to find them.  They landed on the river bed, stirring up the bottom and throwing silt into an already murky darkness.  Covered.

And soon all her pen could do was draw the curves of the paths her words had taken, as if trying to retrace their steps.  Searching between the roots of ficus trees and the stamens of hibiscus for where she had misplaced them.  A world made of tendrils and bubbles, floating in a silent and wordless black and white.  Sea horses and leaves and turtles all swirled with a silent current.  Owls became nok hoo, knock, who? and lost their edges and their names.  Questions were gone and statements no longer made sense.  The world churned as if everything were from the point of view of those lost words, staring up at far away surface of a river that always was moving.

And then there was a flood.  The water seeped slowly, climbing up through sewers and along the streets.  The river rose past dams and sandbags bringing pythons into houses and buoys into cars.  It brought everything from its depths, decay, sand, and her words, which huddled against a curb and waited for the waters to recede.  After months, the river left, burrowing back into its banks but leaving its refuse to dry in the sun.  The sediment cracked and caked.  Mosquito larvae dried like tiny raisins.  The decomposing river sludge made banana trees greener and left seedling strangler figs sprouting along sidewalks.  And, as if growing out from cracked pavement, her words dried, too, finally able to breathe and soak up a little bit of the warm winter sun.