Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Michael Blowhard from compares screenwriting with novels: “Even from the point of view of the creators: At least a life in showbiz can have some amazing payoffs in terms of ego, money, blowjobs. What with fame, beauty, stardom, drugs, and the possibility of immense amount of dough, it makes some kind of sense for a certain kind of person to pitch-in heart and mind. Novel-writing, though ... Given that writing a novel is an unrewarding slog (few blowjobs, lots of loneliness, the publishing industry itself a pain in the ass), why would anyone volunteer to write one?”

As so many say in other places, for some it is NOT an unrewarding slog, not a slog at all but a venturing after an irresistible call, and very much rewarding in terms of visions, ideas, insights, and the opportunity to shape words into satisfying sentences. For me, retired, it’s almost a continuation of dreaming except for the pile of paper.

People who do yoga speak humorously but rather scornfully of “monkeyhead,” which means a brain full of ideas, pouring out, jostling each other for priority, insisting on expression, destroying order. And there’s another impulse reaching out for more ideas, new images, things never thought of before but possibly life-changing. Novels come out of those two. Not the pretentious kind of Manhattan-approved styling and moueing, but a long swath of world knitted out of life.

It takes me a long time, not because it’s laborious, but because it forms slowly in my subconscious, like exposing photo paper in the pan of solution in the darkroom. Then the work is to shape it by considering whether it compromises anyone, whether it is accessible to a reader who knows nothing about it, whether there are too many long complex sentences -- all of this is pleasant work, especially done at home with cats sprawled alongside and sun streaming in the window.

Following is part of “Both Sides Now,” which is what one might call filtered autobiography since it uses me (a 70 year old woman) but as a painter rather than writer, an Indian man (a composite of a dozen Blackfeet I know, often former students who are still friends), and a sort of archetypal anthro/professor who has more to do with my Unitarian world than rez life. This is an argument about the huge shift in academia that left not only individuals but whole disciplines high and dry -- a sea change entirely invisible to people on reservations and yet affecting them deeply in terms of how they think of themselves and what resources they might find. The painter is an observer, a conduit. “Clive” is an example of a type. These are all things I think about all the time. I do NOT think of publishers. They are indeed a pain in the ass.


The first time they had gone to a Thunder Pipe Bundle Opening, she had had no idea at all what to expect, what to wear, what to take along. Clive didn’t seem to have a very clear notion either, though he’d read a great deal about it. The accounts were all historical. No one in the Sixties seemed to be aware the ceremony still lived -- it was below the perception of even the anthropologists. She had taken a dance shawl, the kind with a long silk fringe on it, thinking that it might be like church where one was supposed to cover up, maybe even cover one’s head. But it turned out to be so very warm and humid -- late spring, which is a rainy season, and many people packed into a small house -- and they sat so long on the floor that she ended up folding it into a cushion. At least she was against the wall where she could lean her back and there was an open window with air coming in, but the drawback was that restless small children climbed in and out over the top of her, sometimes spilling their pop on her. Once a little girl reached through the window, patted her bright springy hair, then shrieked and ran off. Women sat on one side, men on the other.

They were the only white people there. Clive had been given a folding chair, since he was older, and he was clearly having a wonderful time. What she called his “James Willard Schultz side” was showing, though he usually tried to suppress it as too romantic for a professional anthropologist. Still, it explained his overwhelming love for this particular group of people and his deep desire to understand everything, no matter discomfort or resistance. She herself was not interested in being an active participant in such ceremonies, preferring to devote all her attention to absorbing the sensory richness of faces, light, smudge, drums and voices. She wanted to be what Emerson called “a transparent eyeball” -- seeing but unseen. But Clive would be taking mental notes and long into the night would be putting them onto paper. It was, of course, forbidden to write or draw during the ceremony.

The old people, in their eighties, were more inclined to be like her, just present and absorbing, than like Clive’s effort to be both “in” the ceremony and reflecting upon it. He would have loved to have “become” a faux Indian and could probably do a convincing job of it with his beak of a nose and tendency to tan easily, but he was also watching himself and everyone else, trying to be a camera/recorder. He wanted to be part of the “in-group” he was observing while still preserving his status as a professional, his refuge in an ivory tower.

After that first time, they knew to bring old sofa cushions to sit on, bowls for the berry soup, and lots and lots of dollar bills to hand out. Clive was careful to explain to her that these ceremonies were meant to distribute wealth from those who had it to those who needed it. This was not a matter of greed, but there were also elements of compliment -- one gave money to a particularly evocative dancer -- and competition -- the Canadians showed off by giving away more money than the Americans. Little rivalries developed where one man gave another a bit of money, only to have the second man give it back with interest the next time one of his relatives danced. The money exchange was accompanied by eloquent speeches, but they were in Blackfeet. Clive had not mastered Blackfeet so he get an informant to explain in the coming days. There was no way to find out how accurate the interpretation would be.

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