Sunday, February 25, 2018

There's strength in the root: pruning and editing and the sharpness of choices

Pruning is fascinating. Would you believe that—and that editing is fascinating too? This time last year I wrote a post called “Pruning and editing”--in haste, because the editing I was doing was heavy and under deadline. This year I'm digging deeper. It's sinking into me. I know this may sound strange, but as I learn better and better how to prune—I find it helps very much to love the tree or vine. But love doesn't look quite like what you'd expect.

Have you ever seen a tree that's been pruned very hard? Or a grapevine? Commercial orchards and vineyards are unsparing in their pruning, eye on the bottom line and the highest possible fruit production—those trees and vines seem cut down to nubs. Our instinct when we see that is that the tree's been killed—like the instincts of a farm intern I had once, who became very worried when I picked all but the smallest leaves off the kale. Our instinct is that most of the plant is gone, so how can it survive? We forget how much, and how vital a part, we can't see.

The life in a plant is in its root. If we ever did to the roots what we do to the tops, the plant would expire in a hurry. But if the root is sound, you can cut the whole tree down at the base of the trunk and it'll send up a dozen shoots the next spring around the stump—so never worry about those nubs, come spring they will branch out in every direction in leaf and flower. There's strength in the root. I sing that to myself sometimes, while I prune or garden, to the tune of the hymn There's power in the blood: “There's strength in the root, there's strength in the root...”

I recently learned to prune grapevines properly. (I know apples and cherries now, and blueberries too, but grapevines were still an “OK, hope I'm doing this right” mystery last year.) First you have to know what good fruitwood looks like on a grapevine, then you make a goal to keep a certain number of fruiting buds per vine and take off, well, everything else. It's that per vine part that tripped me up—no one had taught me to look at each vine before. Our vineyard looked to me like a tangled mass of leafy streamers twining along the cables, sending down a root here and there. No wonder it was a mystery to me! I was starting at the wrong end.

Writers do this too, until we learn.

We start at the wrong end, at the surface, at the leaves. We start at the words. We don't see the words' source; that is underground. Beneath the surface of the page, beneath the dark sweet earth drawing life into our words, is the Story.

When I start at the source, at the root, I prune differently. I don't go branch by branch, bit by bit, asking “Should I cut this?” I look at the plant entire, I draw into my mind a vision of what it can and must be. The good fruitwood stands out to me, and I choose it. In choosing the good, it becomes easier to cut off what I don't need. The question is not “What should I cut?” but “what should I keep?” Ruthlessness is—strange as it may seem—a positive course, a joyous one. It's driven by the lovely vision of the thing as it should be.

Of course I'm talking about editing—though it's true about pruning too.

The rough draft is like the first wild growth of the vine. Sprouting in every direction, opening leaves to the sunlight, photosynthesizing, gathering strength into the new young root. You do need that part. You need to write till your story has substance, till your characters become real in your mind, even if many of the words you write at that point serve no other purpose. (I remember the moment Elisa became real. She was climbing the steps to the Fourvière basilica that towers over Lyon, looking apprehensively at the massive gold statue of Mary over it. None of that's in the novel. Cut. It was the right choice—writing it and cutting it both.) You write and write, till the root gains strength and shape—you write till under the words you see the Story. That is what you are making.

You keep going then, till the Story is made, till the end. Even if you see where you branched out wrongly, you don't start pruning yet. Pruning out of season is a dire mistake—the sap drips out of the cut (I've seen it drip and drip), microbes and insects get in, whole limbs can sicken. Editing out of season drains the energy from your story, leaves you open to attacks of discouragement and loathing. You prune in February, when the sap is not flowing, when the vine has already been dormant a long time. It's hard to wait—it used to make my brain itch, going on and leaving passages I knew weren't right. One chapter I left behind was mostly scene fragments with half-a-dozen empty lines between them. But I could see the shape of the story going forward, so I followed it. I knew it was the important part.

There's strength in the root
Then the break. I was beyond exhausted after I wrote the last word. The book and I rested. The sap ceased to flow. I came back to it after awhile, and that, that's the moment when you do it. The choosing. You look at the story entire, you carry a vision into your mind of what it can and must be. The good writing stands out to you, the passages that shine because they're not only good prose but are filled with reality, because they are moments where someone makes a choice she knows she can't turn back from, feeling both the weight and the freedom of choosing—they are Story. And then you cut around them, cut and shape and rearrange. In choosing the good, it becomes easier to cut what you don't need.

I keep talking about Story with a capital S—I know, it sounds a little funny. But that's what I've learned these past two years, is that it's a real thing, like the root, invisible and really there—and it's the source. What is Story? Short version, it's made of two things: forces and choices. Forces that oppose each other, the desires and aims of the characters, the forces of nature and of need, things that press together to a point and a dilemma: will this character choose the gun, and can he survive if he doesn't? And choices: once and for all, he either takes up the gun or throws it away. All the words of the scene, maybe all the words of the story, come to a point just at that moment—they serve that moment, they have no other purpose. They may be individually beautiful, they may make a beautiful pattern together, but if you cut them off from human dilemma and choice and action they will wither into sad, lightweight things, maybe keeping a melancholy beauty—but dead.

If you understand your characters' dilemmas, the forces they're up against, their choices, the consequences of those choices, you understand your Story. And the role of pruning is to bring it to light.

That's the last thing I learned about pruning grapevines this year—you want your fruitwood as high as possible. You want the fruit to grow on the top, in the light. This keeps the grapes dry and safe from bacteria and mold—and it helps the picker to see them. When your story is finished, those moments of choice will be the fruit—those moments when a character stands at a crossroads for a long moment, then turns and plunges down the path they've chosen, and we see where that path leads.

So I guess, if we're going to make the analogy precise: the forces, the dilemmas, are the root. The turning points, the moments of choice, are the fruit. The rest is a path between the two. If one of your scenes doesn't lead from the root to the fruit—you know what to do. Or if your moment of choice is buried in your scene, de-emphasized, you rearrange it, bring it up to the light.

To bring the strength from the root to the fruit; to bring the fruit to the eater. To sink the root deep into the soil of human experience, and draw up vitality. Those are the great things. And that's what happens when you love the vine—or the book—you see its true nature. You see where its true strength and glory lie, and you want to bring it out. I've become far more ruthless in pruning than I ever expected to be, and I'm glad, because I can see the thing as it can and must be. I don't mourn things I cut anymore—whether branches or pages.

I know what trees know now. You can always make more leaves.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

How democracies die (they are not actually killed by Trump)

The other day I read an article on, a review and analysis of a new book called How Democracies Die (by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.) It flabbergasted me. Partly because of the things it said--and how much they explained--and partly because I got to a certain section and thought "But I've thought this for years." I've thought it for years and never quite dared to say it.

I guess I've never dared to say it (besides the fact that it was only an unsubstantiated notion of mine) because if you start at the wrong end of the explanation, it sounds racist... and if you start at the other end it sounds like you are calling every American racist. And nobody likes that.

Still, I guess it would be best to go with option B.

Here is the thing: I know, or have known, a lot of people from countries that have universal healthcare. Life is easier for them. They would never (the ones I know anyway) trade what they have for a life where health decisions have to take into account the specter of complete financial ruin. They've asked me What's wrong with Americans? Why don't they want this? And I've thought, and haven't said, They don't want to pay for black people's healthcare.

I'm not saying every American who opposes Obamacare has this exact motive in mind. I'm really not. But I'm saying, first, that some do, and second, that--though it's all tangled up with other things too--this feeling quietly, subtly underlies the narrative, the whole narrative about social services in this country--this feeling creates the consensus that makes it seem more normal not to want healthcare security for every American than to want it.

That's just been my sense. See, I grew up in Europe, so I know what the other way is like. I know what it's like to live in a country that (for all its problems!) considers itself a community, considers it normal that we are together and we take care of each other, that within the community "every man for himself" would be inappropriate. And I know that that doesn't come from some sort of innate goodness or humanitarian ideal. French people don't consider themselves community with the entire world. They consider themselves community with other French people.

We have a little problem in this country. Our ancestors forcibly brought in millions of people whom they had no intention of being community with.

So when I read this in the article:

"Our democracy was built atop racism and has been repeatedly shaken in eras of racial progress."

It resonates.

The article's fascinating. I really recommend reading it, because I'm not going to do it justice, but it first makes the case that:

- Nowadays when democracies die, they die quietly, crumbling from within.
- They are killed by people within the system who value their own political goals over the continuation of democracy, and who erode it in small, continual, technically legal ways for the sake of their own agendas.
- This is happening in the U.S.
- It's not about Trump. He's just a symptom.

And then it gets into the race stuff.

"The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion."

It traces a story of stability at odds with equality--of a consensus that America was a community, yes, but only when it was a community that excluded African-Americans. (That sense that the world was safe and kind in the 50s? It was safe and kind--mostly--for the people within the community, which was white people. The memory isn't false--it just has a huge blind spot.) It traces a story in which the U.S. was stable when African-Americans were excluded, and unstable when--during the Civil Right movements, for instance--they increasingly weren't. Because the community of white people was willing to work together only when that one norm wasn't threatened.

And it uses the phrase "original sin."

This explains so much. I've had this sense of such strangeness in the past year--on the one hand Trump, and on the other hand the pulling down of idols--both statues and flesh-and-blood abusers! Two groundswells coming seemingly from nowhere, neither of which I would ever have expected, and completely opposed. But this makes sense of it. Because this is a time when the compromise has collapsed, the people trying for equality have felt themselves free to act. What there was to lose had already been lost, squandered, thrown away.

But it's so depressing. Is equality the enemy of stability always and everywhere? It may be; it's a fallen world. But these guys make an awfully good case that it's so here and now. And instability is awful, as the Iraqis could tell us. And injustice and inequality are awful, as generations of African-Americans can and do tell us. And who am I, really, a little semi-hermit of a fiction writer with no patriotism to speak of--sorry, I just don't have the instinct, it's the truth--to try to put my finger on the truth of this country? Maybe that's why I never spoke my thought aloud. It's not nice to say The foundation is cracked. It's not a smart thing when all you have to back it up is some notions and impressions you've gleaned.

But the authors of How Democracies Die, they can back it up. I mean I haven't read their book. But it sure sounds like they can.

And then they say this:

"The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved."

The implication, of course, is that we're all still tribalists at heart. (And my inner atheist whispers "Monkeys!") That we cling to our community, which must look like us. That even without the horrible history between white and black in this country we couldn't really accept paying for each other's healthcare with grace.

I'm not going with my inner atheist (no offense to atheists everywhere, but see, my inner atheist is an insufferable cynic and a truly scary depressive), and I do believe something more is possible for the human race. I believe it's our duty as Christians to live it. But for America, I don't know what to do. I have only the depressing lessons of someone who has watched a community die.

Here is what I know: it's better to be ready. It really is. And to be ready you have to accept the transience of human things. It helps because it helps you remember that the end of something is not the end of everything. It's better to spend your energy on facing into an unknown future, however scary, than on figuring out whose fault it was. And it's better, if you can, to try and find a way to be kind. To everyone.