Monday, November 24, 2008

Fiction Excerpt from A Stranger on Earth

Writer's Note: Sometimes I think all writing is the same--language, thought, feeling; and other times I think that there is no form of writing more complete than the novel. I have found when trying to write fiction that one is both a creator and a supplicant--open to imagination, inspiration, energy, possibility, tradition, and more. This is an excerpt from the chapter "What She Thought" in the fiction project, the novel A Stranger on Earth, a work-in-progress.

(c) DG

“He had terrible parents,” said one girl, laughing.

“I don’t know. Each did what he or she thought was best for the family,” said a young man, quietly.

“Well, Susan, Mark, you both might be right,” said Dr. Whitaker, walking in front of the class of twenty students.

“I liked John at first, he seemed smart and professional, but as the book went on, he became less likable. He seemed wounded, cold,” said a sensitive boy, through plump pink lips, his small dark eyes uncertain behind his glasses, though is words were sure.

“It was like a detective story,” said the laughing girl, adding, “only solving the mystery would explain to the detective why he was the way he was.”

Dr. Whitaker looked at the girl with appreciation, and said, “It is interesting that the history everyone in the book knows is not the full story, or the true story. There is another history, a secret history, and that history is about questionable motives, personal transgressions, and power where we do not expect to find it.”

Dr. Whitaker quickly glanced at Sarah, who sat at the back of the class. She had dressed carefully, cleanly, wanting to be a respectable but not distracting presence for anyone, but with the glances of the professor and the other students she knew that her presence was considered special. No one knew what she was thinking: she was the mystery in the classroom.

“What is learned in the book tells us something about the creation of a particular individual, a particular community, a particular world,” said Dr. Whitaker. “John Washington uses knowledge as armor. He wants to be prepared, protected. Yet, he is accumulating armor after the wound has been delivered. He thinks he needs knowledge but what he needs is wisdom.”

“What’s the difference?” asked the sensitive young man, a worried look on his face.

“Paul, I think the difference is that wisdom gives you insight that you can use,” said Dr. Whitaker, “and it’s not merely functional, it is healing.”

“Aren’t historians just concerned with facts, not, not—spiritual stuff,” asked Mark.

“Historians are devoted to what happens and why, but the spirit of a man, or a time, can shape what happens,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“Like prejudice,” said Mark.

“Yes,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“Historians aren’t usually heroes,” said Susan, “but John seems heroic. We begin to know some of what he’s afraid of, and yet he persists in his quest. He is afraid of not knowing and the more finds out, the less sense some of it makes, the less he seems to know, until near the end.”

“I liked that he was smart, tough,” said Mark.

“He was a bastard,” said Susan.

“Actually, his parents were married,” said Paul, smiling.

“You know what I mean,” said Susan. “He was bitter and he took it out on people, his girlfriend, his mother.”

“What is bitterness?” asked Dr. Whitaker.

“Resentment,” said Susan.

“Thinking angrily about the best more than you think hopefully about the future,” said Mark.
“Self-pity,” added Susan.

“Constantly remembering something that hurts and angers you,” said Mark.

Dr. Whitaker smiled and asked, “Have you thought about this a lot Mark?”

“It’s hard not to. So many people are bitter,” said Mark.

Dr. Whitaker moved from one side of the room to another, in thought, and then he stopped, and looked at the class, and said, “Novels create an intimate space in which our minds can roam.

Novels give us scenes that touch our imaginations, our feelings. In The Chaneysville Incident we find a very smart man who is bitter and difficult. We think of bitterness as an attitude or emotion, but what if it is a form of atrophied thought, a kind of stupidity?”

The class listened to him, looking around.

He’s right, thought Sarah. He’s right. It is stupid, and even someone otherwise intelligent, someone visionary, can have blind spots, can be stupid.

Leaving the class, Sarah looked at the students; and, glad that she had come, she felt pleasure and pride in their presence, and a little envy and pain too. She was surprised that as she walked slowly down the hall, thinking about her own school days and her life since that time, to find that Dr. Whitaker had followed her, and was trying to talk to her. He seemed different—more intimate, warmer, as if they were friends. She tried to say how much she enjoyed the class, and though he seemed glad to hear it, it seemed also as if there was more he wanted her to say. She did not know what that might be, and it ceased to matter once someone he knew walked up to him and said, “Did you hear the news? The governor is involved in some kind of sex scandal with a prostitute. They’ve got him on tape, and he apologized on camera, with his wife standing next to him.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“Believe it. It’s all over the television, all over the internet. You’ll see it,” the young man told him. They might have been talking about a bargain at the food market, but were talking about the destruction of a significant public reputation. Sarah felt a moment of disappointment, as she had thought the governor would be more and do more than his predecessors, those do-nothings.

“The emperor has no clothes—and he’s got a stiffy,” said the young man, laughing.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” said Dr. Whitaker. “It seems like a stupid mistake.”

“He was a smart guy but as arrogant as anybody,” the young man said.

“Derrick, arrogance is not a crime,” said Dr. Whitaker, adding, “but prostitution is.”

“He should have known better,” said Derrick.

“Do you think he wanted to be caught?” asked Sarah.

Both men looked at her.

“Why else would someone—a lawyer, a governor—do what he did? It wasn’t done in ignorance of the law. It wasn’t done because he couldn’t find some woman somewhere to have sex with him for free. Doesn’t it seem willfully destructive?” remarked Sarah.

“It does seem bizarre,” said Dr. Whitaker.

The three stood in silence, in thought, until Derrick said, “Well, I’ll let you go.”

Alone with Sarah, as students and teachers passed them by, Dr. Whitaker said, “That seems to put everything in perspective. Here we are, thinking about philosophies and fictions and the world is being turned by money, sex, and power.”

Sarah smiled, sadly, for a moment. It was something she thought of often, how principles were necessary, how dreams and ideals made life more inspiring, but how the force of the world could smash everything.