Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Domestic in the Epic: Advice on Structure

The Domestic in the Epic: Advice on Structure

Naomi J. Williams’ historical novel Landfalls, which recounts the travails of a French scientific voyage begun in 1785, offers many treats to love, among them this sentence: “Who among us does not have the odd friend whose virtues we admire, but whom we do not wish to impose on others?” But the craft lessons this book has to offer go far beyond the strategic use of dry wit. Williams’ story is grand in scope: it’s a voyage into the unknown that covers danger, fear, loss, and violence–both violence suffered and violence enacted. Its characters bond through struggle, and struggle with each other. If it were a movie, the poster would probably feature one of the commanders staring bravely out to sea, wearing a weathered and courageous expression. You know: it’s an epic.

But where does Williams’ story begin? Not with any dudes staring bravely out to sea. Not with anyone toting a sword, or hauling on an oar. Not with any Master-and-Commander-style leaping about in the riggings in dress uniform. Not even with the carnage European expeditions created in the New World.

Landfalls begins with the ships’ stoves. The two vessels–the Astrolabe and the Boussole–attempted to install imported English stoves before their voyage, with mixed success. Much bashing with tools. Much cursing when the stoves wouldn’t fit, followed by much MacGyver-ing to make them fit. Much swearing when the sailors barked their shins on the knobs that protruded into what should have been their walkways through cramped galleys. Much smoke, followed by jokes about the imminent possibility of explosion.

Williams’ strategic decision to begin her epic in the domestic offers a lesson for other writers. Think about it: if you are preparing for an epic voyage, what is among your first concerns? Food. You aren’t posing with your chin’s best angle prominent over the railing. No way. You are accompanying your carpenter down into the hold to make sure your new stove gets installed.

The lesson here, I think, is to consider the large in terms of the small. To tell even a story of global scope in terms of individual daily concerns. I’ve been carrying this thought around for the past week, pondering how to apply it to my own projects. Maybe you will, too?

Quotation of the Moment

Quotation of the Moment

Poet James Wright, in a letter to poet James Dickey, discussing and quoting poet Stanley Kunitz on August 12, 1958:

“Do you happen to know Stanley Kunitz’s poems? He hasn’t had a wide reputation, but I like him tremendously. I’m going to review his newly published Selected Poems for Sewanee. I really think you would like his poems, and I think I’ll type a couple of them for you on a separate sheet of paper, so that you can see what he’s like. For a long time, virtually unnoticed and yet enduring, he’s been writing poems of real agony and love in a kind of lost and transient underground of the American jungle of academies and businesses. I think that the appearance of his Selected Poems is inspiring. It shows that defeat, though imminent for all of us, is not inevitable. He wrote to me recently, since I know him slightly–and you might like his concluding words: “it would be sweet, I’ll grant, after all these years to pop up from underground. America, it’s true, either spoils you with success of withers you with neglect. What other morality has the artist but to endure? The only ones who survive, I think, beyond the equally destructive temptations of self-praise and self-pity, are those whose ultimate discontent is with themselves. The fiercest hearts are in love with a wild perfection.” Those words mean much to me. Please write. –Yours, Jim

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