ENG 162 Fall 2013

ENG 162 at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor ME, taught by John A. (Don't ever, ever ask!) Goldfine johngoldfine@gmail.com

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Week 6 Theme: Place

Week Six Theme-- place:

Instructions: On your own blog, write a piece which uses the ideas in this lecture.

Ancient folk thought places had their own 'genius'--a spirit watching over and protecting a pasture, a woods glade, a cliff, a swamp. Some of those spirits were benign, some a little more troublesome.

You've worked with stories, people, dialogue. This week you're going to focus on creating a scene, a physical place.

To avoid: a million adjectives. To consider: populate the scene with your own thoughts. Goal: a sense of place.

My books are alphabetized by author. I pull down the first one: "In The Belly of the Beast' by Jack Henry Abbott. I open the book at random--and here's a description of a prison strip-cell:

"It is a big square concrete box. The cell has nothing on the walls except for a single solid-steel door at the entrance. The ceiling is vaulted about fifteen feet above the floor and there is a bare lightbulb that stays lit, day and night.

In fact, there is no way to discern the days and nights in the cell except by counting the times you are served your food through a slot in the door. How do you connect this with what you have done to be placed there?

The floor inclines from the walls inward to the center of the cell. It inclines gradually, like the bottom of a sink. A toilet bowl is more accurate. Then, in the center of the floor is a hole about two incles in diameter. It is flush with the concrete floor, as flush as a hole on a golf course. At first, its purpose mystifies you.Stains of urine and fecal matter radiate outward from the hole to within a foot or so from the walls. The stench is ever-present.There is no bed-rack or bunk.

There is nothing but the smell of shit and piss, and the glare of the light--out of reach--which is never extinguished.The light is present even when you close your eyes. It penetrates the eyelids and enters your visual sensations in a grayish-white glow, so that you cannot rest your eyes. It throbs always in your mind.

Usually you are given nothing to wear but a pair of undershorts, and if you are lucky, you will receive a sleeping mat and a bedsheet.At first you move gingerly about the cell because of the body wastes of prisoners who preceded you. You spend much of your time in the first long days squatting with your back defensively against a wall--squatting on the outskirts of the filth on the floor which radiates from the hole. Staring into it. If it were desolation you were facing as you stare off in your cell, it would probably inspire you in some small way. Poets have sung songs about scenes of desolation.But what faces you...."

And on Jack Henry Abbott goes. Focusing an immense amount of attention on a scene which is stripped of all the things that people usually focus on when they describe scenes. How does he do it? What's the trick?

Very plain writing. Very precise. Very detailed. Removal of himself from the scene while, paradoxically, creating a powerful authorial mind. And, desire, desire to render a scene not from the outside in, but from the inside out....

If Jack Henry is a little too much to take as a model, try this:

There's no story, no dialogue, no action, not even direct description of the people involved--and yet, sort of by ricochet and indirection, it all comes out. Notice also that for the description of the orchard to fully work, for us to understand his woe, he does more than describe--we get an Aquafina bottle, a cash register tape, and so on.

I'm just saying a description of place can cover a lot more territory than you might imagine.

Try this for a last example:

"After a bout of disabling cramps on the bathroom floor I carefully hobble down the stairs and collapse onto the couch into a fetal postion. When the cat is ungraciously booted out of the way, Bill's voice cuts through the mind numbing discomfort, "you don't look so good, should I take you to the hospital?"

"Not unless you want to carry me."

"That seals it, get up... if you can."

Once there it becomes evident that Bill is only here for comedic amusement. He sits through the check-in process with wide-eyed wonderment, chit chatting with the nurses, unfamiliarly exploring the process from one nurse to another, waiting room to triage to waiting room and down the winding overwhelmingly white neon lit hallway to the examination room. Bill, being that aggravating type of guy who swaggers out of a life threatening flu epidemic with a case of the sniffles, feels the need to point out all of the things I don't notice anymore; the nurses' purple scrubs and booties that look like shower caps over their shoes, supply carts stocked with blood sample vials, baby sized stretchers on the walls, wheelchairs and cots followed by rolling IV stands. Bill's disposition toward hospitals is that of childlike fascination without the fear. To me this place inspires an unsettling sense of relinquishing all autonomy over one's most valuable and inarguablely true possession, my body, in the most humiliating of manners. One's ass hanging out of her johnny doesn't command an exorbitant amount of confidence. If the examination room had possessed windows, my dignity would have flown out of one at machIII at the words, "please remove everything from the waist down... " to which I silently attach an "and wait here for an hour or so in this chilly room with a thin bedsheet for a blanket while I fetch the lubricating jelly for your examination."

The room is white washed from the drop tile ceiling to the excessively waxed tile floor. Everything is shrink-wrapped and in its rightful place. It's impeccably clean, which used to comfort me as a sign that I'm in a place run by people who know what the hell they're doing, but now means only that the janitors should be running the show. Indulging on the filtered Ben-Gay air, my lungs don't seem to mind that I haven't had a cigarette in a while. The walls exude anticipation and readiness. It's wasted on me. For the next four hours at least these walls will not be visited by exhausted EMTs or doctors barking orders at fumbling nurses. Mine is a walk-in visit, the slowest increment of time imaginable. Time enough, in fact, to think of 12 different ways to describe my symptoms in an intelligent manner without using the words "rectal bleeding" or "loose stools". Despite my preparation, the doctor's overeducated ego shrinks me down to a white trash pion. Bill's loosening grip on tactfulness only further attacks my pride. Just in time to prevent me from telling him to get a grip, the percocets swallow me up into euphoric relief. The room becomes less ominous but no less alien. Until I am half willingly swept out into the dark chilly parking garage by Bill's impatient sense of injustice, I am under the microscope. Once outside the building I find myself curiously gravitated toward its doors and the answers we passed up for our pretentiousness."

Copyright(c) 2006 by Elissa Colbry


Blogger Biddix said...

Scratch that last comment. I have now officially read something written in second person.

Saturday, February 25, 2012 8:21:00 PM  
Blogger johngoldfine said...

Something good?

Saturday, February 25, 2012 10:45:00 PM  
Blogger Biddix said...

The post that you put as an example. It was good enough, I suppose.

Saturday, March 03, 2012 5:29:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan Larrabee said...

I really liked this weeks theme. I spent a lot of time on the theme itself and the prompts. Although I struggled with detail because I was afraid I might give too much.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012 6:23:00 PM  

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