Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A conclusion is simply the place you got tired of thinking

No matter how a story starts or middles, there are only a few possible conclusions: Wilting confusion, hasty wrap-up, or a one-two punch.

Kundera always delivered, and EB White (read Stuart Little. I’m serious). Richard Ford. So too Harriet Doerr.

Never heard of her, you say? How can that be. But I know it can be, because several uber-well-read friends and acquaintances admit no familiarity with the name or her three books – one which won some big prize all the way back in the 1990s.


I found I'm quite happy working on a sentence for an hour or more, searching for the right phrase, the right word. I compare it to the work of a stonecutter -- chipping away at the raw material until it's just right, or as right as you can get it.


Harriet Doerr wrote three books. That’s it. But then, she didn’t start writing until she was 72 years old.

I think of what it is like to write stories. It is a completion. It is discovering something you didn’t know you’d lost. It is finding an answer to a question you never asked.

She was the granddaughter of Henry Huntington, railroad millionaire, of Huntington Library and Gardens fame (and boulevard, and hotel, and city and…). For a time, Harriet lived in the Pasadena El Molino, Europe, then Mexico. Then back to Pasadena. Some authors are difficult to quote. Doerr’s one. Her one-two punch needs the whole story, and the story isn’t just a set-up for the punch.

The rest of our dates that summer were unexceptional, consisting of movies and long, aimless drives at night. We headed north, east, south, or west, making here a right turn, there a left, circling one, or two, or three blocks at a time, passing dark houses and closed stores, and sometimes coming back to start again.

This was territory we knew and, at the same time, could scarcely recognize. It hung in space between heaven and earth.

She died in the 1990’s, in her 90s. But really, unless you’re a relative, only the work matters. I suggest starting with her collection “Tiger in the Grass.”

Two weeks after Great-aunt Alice died, Theo found a note in her bed table drawer. It must have been written on various occasions, months ago. The separate lines, penned and penciled, slanted independently across the page. For a moment, he thought it was a verse, unpunctuated.

Theo, it was headed.

Your father’s Mesopotamian journal might
Perhaps the piano tuner should
The Helen Trabel roses need
I had hoped


Maybe you’ll read these lines and shrug and think, well, that wasn’t so great. That's only because you're at my conclusion and we're tired of thinking. With Harriet Doerr, you really have to take it from the top.

Note: Dates are approximate. My fact-checker is on eternal vacation.

24 comments:

  1. 'I found I'm quite happy working on a sentence for an hour or more, searching for the right phrase, the right word. I compare it to the work of a stonecutter -- chipping away at the raw material until it's just right, or as right as you can get it.'

    Sometimes I just have to walk away, maybe force myself to think of something else. Better yet sometimes, to not think at all...hope that the perfect word or phrase might come along and show itself, like a light flipping on or a flashbulb going off,
    capturing just the right meaning, or explanation, really, to what one really feels, or just sees, despite hardly ever knowing in this jumbled existence what's really going on half the time.
    More often than not, though, there's a pressure to finish, to produce, a lack of time due to things more important, and finally you give up and write with a constant uncertainty, just hoping for the best.
    Its funny. The things i'm never satisfied with are the things the readers like most.
    Why is that?

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  2. Joyce delivered. And Shakespeare. And Harper Lee. And give me a minute, I have another ten. Wonder if they knew it at the time?

    GG

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  3. NOT possible! Your uber whatever friends must of heard & read her! SHE IS WONDERFUL! WONDERFUL!!!
    I started with Stones for Ibarra (1985 - read on the lawn in Walteria) and reread several times, and then Consider this, Senora. I did not know about the collection - something to look forward to.
    C.P. Snow delivered - start with Homecomings (oh, how presumptuous of me to think you have not read it). (I ditto Harper Lee - I love Scout in the book, so much more to her then in the movie).
    (By the way, I applied at Macy's and they said they were sorry that they no longer had a bargain basement which is the only spot they'd hire me for. ;)

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  4. I am so glad you wrote about Harriet Doerr.

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  5. I always felt like an unread failure when I would stare at a sentence and try to fix it. Like I was not grammarily educated enough to form a sentence. (Or make up new words).

    More ebooks for my wish list, thanks!

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  6. I'm inspired to add her to my summer reading list. Great quotations that capture the struggles of invention.

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  7. Ah, that's right. We'll keep chipping and carving that stone. The gift is there. I know it is for you all -- I've read your work.

    (Tash, it's amazing the number of author-idols we have in common. Starting with MFK Fisher.)

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  8. I love Doerr and have read Stones for Ibarra and Consider This, Senora. Now I have to go check out Tiger in the Grass.

    It's so amazing that she was 72 when she started writing her first book.

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  9. Oh, you've shamed me! I remember everyone telling me to read Stones for Ibarra and I never got around to it. I had no idea the author got her start in her 70s. Amazon, here I come now...

    THanks, Karin, for yet another great suggestion.

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  10. Me too. I'm someone who's had Stones for Ibarra recommended and just didn't read it. I loved your piece about her and was moved by the passages you quote, so time to find Tiger in the Grass, and start there.

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  11. I've never heard of Richard Ford either but I looked him up. I'm not well read nor semi-red. I did go surfing/searching once you mentioned the Huntington connection; (I'll link whether you lead me or not). Great article put out by the Stanford review. I can see you in a few decades looking like her in a Nehru jacket and white slacks. Me? I'll be wearing caftans and big jewelry.
    She puts the kibosh on the idea of artistic suffering. I wonder if she knew Julia Childs in the Pasadena circles she spent time in.

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  12. All right! New readers for Doerr. PA, yeah, I'll have to see how I'll dress in a few decades. Bound to be better than I dress now. She returned to Stanford to get her degree at age (approximate) 68.

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  13. You haven't steered me wrong on cookbooks, Karin, so I've reserved Tiger in the Grass at the library. Thanks!

    For me, the skillful [but not precious] use of language is what draws me to a writer more than anything else. Raymond Chandler had it. I don't think Dashiell Hammett did. Your excerpt of Doerr's work beginning "The rest of our dates that summer were unexceptional..." shows that she most definitely had it.

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  14. I don't even know why I'm commenting on this one KB. I'm not a writer. Never have been, never will be at this point in my life is my guess.
    May I say that I am in awe of those of you that have the gift of words. It's a joy to read.

    V

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  15. No no no ... channelling t'other way, m'dear. Y'know in cartoons when the realisation hits a character that they are about to be hit by the falling rock: the "ch-kung" moment? I had one of those moments reading about Harriet Doerr, of whom I had not heard prior.

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  16. Terry, even if you and Marion never invite me to the penthouse for a fabulous dinner party, I'm flattered.

    Virg, I'm so enjoying your excellent adventure. Paris never looked so good.

    And Julie, I gotcha! Finally gotcha! (Well, actually Harriet did, but why quibble?)

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  17. I just reread your title. kinda brilliant. It just made it's way onto a post it note that I'm going to pin to my wall

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  18. Karin, as soon as we score the penthouse, you're definitely on the guest list.

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  19. "He was, as he found before the summer ended, one of a varying dozen who circulated about her. Each of them had at one time been favored above all others--about half of them still basked in the solace of occasional sentimental revivals. Whenever one showed signs of dropping out through long neglect, she granted him a brief honeyed hour, which encouraged him to tag along for a year or so longer. Judy made these forays upon the helpless and defeated without malice, indeed half unconscious that there was anything mischievous in what she did."

    "The rest of our dates that summer were unexceptional, consisting of movies and long, aimless drives at night. We headed north, east, south, or west, making here a right turn, there a left, circling one, or two, or three blocks at a time, passing dark houses and closed stores, and sometimes coming back to start again."

    Is it just me who feels that these two passages, by Fitzgerald and Doerr have a very similar rhythm and feel?

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  20. Dang, I'm way out of my league. Though I enjoy reading and had a desire to take up journalism, I never had the patience for it. Nor the drive. Typically, I simply go with whatever pops into my heard. whether it is right or wrong, deep in my cranium, it made sense at the time. Sorry, I never heard of Doerr before, I shall muddle on.

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  21. earl, I agree! And I'll just bet some of my favorite paragraphs by many authors have that cadence. It's elegaic, melodic, and subtle. In fact, next time I run across one I'll share it with you -- do the same.

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  22. OK. I will. I think there was one during the Laker game last night, but I'm not sure!

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  23. Although way out of my cultural milieu, even I chuckled ...

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