Unsettling a Scene

Setting is a static word. I’m revising scenes right now that don’t need to be set but unsettled, so the characters can move on the page. My draft has scenes in it that currently run mostly to dialogue, with not enough blocking–that thing you do when you place people in relation to their surroundings. The problem is that you can’t do this by writing “about” setting, because that brings the movement to a crashing halt. Instead you need to stir it up, bring character into sync with setting, or place them at odds with it, or filter the scene through the viewpoint character’s perceptions, or jar it up against those perceptions, or any number of other little writerly ploys that create the illusion you’re after.

The other problem is that if I think of all this stuff too directly, it all seems to fly away from me. I can’t write anything because instead of Birnam Wood, I’m seeing matchsticks!


By Michael Apel (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I deal with this inevitable stage of revision by flipping the pages of a few books on my shelf that have the capacity to breathe words into me, words that sing or soothe or awaken. Some are craft books, some are meditations, others are a bit of both. They include books like Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, and Dag Hammarsjöld’s Markings. This time, Markings gave me the connection I needed. He writes the disturbing account of a news item, the finding of a young woman’s body in the “clay-brown water” of a river during the spring melt, with this sentence:

It was probably a little too early for the snake’s-head fritillaries. 

I haven’t ever seen a snake’s-head fritillary but the name was unsettling enough that I looked it up, a far easier thing to do now than when the book was written in 1964. How about this for unsettling a scene?

One look at this flower with its freckled petals and you know that what comes next is not about to be ordinary.

Dag Hammarskjöld, Forgiveness, and The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

Marion Dane Bauer’s post with a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld reminded me that I once had a copy of Markings but lost it somewhere along my life’s meanderings. Here is that collection of journal entries in a newer edition whose title, Waymarks, is a literal translation of the original Swedish title, Vägmärken.

Hammarskjöld died in 1961, in a plane crash in Ndola in present-day Zambia (then northern Rhodesia). Recently, the United Nations called for a renewed investigation into the crash. Zambian charcoal burners worked in the forest near the airport that night. Some of them have long maintained that they saw another plane and that it fired at Hammarskjöld’s aircraft, causing it to plunge to the ground. The UN panel appointed for the inquiry has been denied access, on grounds of security, to classified materials held by the UK and USA. On that plane trip, Hammarskjöld was translating the philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou into English.

Several of the waymarks touch on the notion of forgiveness. Here’s one:

“To forgive oneself ” –? No, that isn’t possible: we must be forgiven. But we can believe in forgiveness only if we ourselves forgive.

And here is another:

Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality through the fact that the one who “forgives” — in love — takes upon himself the responsibility for the consequences of what you did. It therefore always involves sacrifice.

Powerful, searching words, words from a man who thought deeply about “I” and “Thou” in manifestations from the personal to the universal. Who died too young, too soon. A final waymark on what forgiveness might mean to children, something I have been thinking about as I delve into a novel that has been in the works for far too long, a story that is teaching me hard lessons about how much the passage of time has changed me and how little I still know. Here you go. Hammarsjöld on forgiveness as felt by children.

Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of the miracle through which that which is torn is once again whole and that which is soiled is still clean.

lionandbirdIt is the unmaking of conflict, of illwill, of terrible mistakes. But that’s just a childhood fantasy, isn’t it? A dream that we must give up as we get older and realize just how far short we are of the wisdom that years are supposed to confer.

As always I turn to picture books for answers. Here is one from Enchanted Lion Press that holds a small key to my heart on this subject. This nearly-wordless book raises many questions about friendship and trust and loneliness, but at its most dramatic turning point it seems to ask: What’s the point? Must we heal each other only to reinforce our ultimate loneliness in the world? Turn the pages with that aching question and suddenly forgiveness becomes implicit in a single moment of redemption. It makes whole again that which was once torn. The new whole is not unscarred, necessarily, because it’s informed by experience. But whole it is.

It’s a remarkable understanding, at once intellectually vast and emotionally child-sized.