THE EYE UNDER OATH: Why Stories Are Alive
A shorter, earlier version of this article was delivered as a talk at the ALAN conference in Nashville, Tennessee, November 24, 1998
The car was out of control.
The tires screamed over the curb. The car flattened our mailbox, and crushed the empty aluminum garbage can beside Monrovia Avenue. The driver fought to wrestle the steering wheel as the flattened can, trapped between the tires and the fender, clattered and threw off sparks, the early evening dark tainted with the stink of burned rubber and shocked metal.
And then it was all over, my mother running down the front steps to gather my little sister Laura Lee in her arms, the driver getting out of the gray car, a shaken, matronly woman, all of us aghast at what had almost happened.
But everything was all right.
My sister had been playing there, right beside the garbage can, just moments before. Even now, decades later, I have to reassure myself with that phrase: all right. My little sister was not killed, the car, the driver, all of us, went on our separate ways, on with our lives. But the event stays with me, vivid in my own imaginative life, and the life of my family--the loss that so nearly over-took us. The slow motion lunge of the Chrysler up and over the sidewalk, the driver's posture, struggling with a wheel as though it had come alive--it's all here, as though I saw it all over again. As though it happened today.
I suppose we are made up of what we remember--little more than that, awakening each day to the familiar landscape which is, at the same time, a country we have never visited before.
Samuel Johnson commented that certain lines of poetry are thorns that cling to the mind. Thorns are not always simple protective armor, like a brambles on a rose. Sometimes they are seeds--like the cockleburs that collect in our socks, the foxtails that lance our pant legs. These little barbs are alive, and they are the method plants use to propagate themselves, next summer's field grass hitching a ride in our sweater. Certain lines of literature are like this, too. They are green, ready to be treasured--and very much alive.
Some moments do not illuminate. Some smiling strangers, some beautiful twilit fields, are forgotten, while others remain. There is something about the authority of certain events that makes them demand to be a part of us. Potential danger, dramatic, lurid events, quite naturally force themselves into our personal mental household. But other sources of vitality are not so obvious. These are more subtle, but perhaps even more important for their ability to cling to us, and claim us.
I was reading the early, Middle English poems about Robin Hood long before I knew I would be writing a novel about the famous elusive robber and the Sheriff of Nottingham. One morning as I sat in my living room I ran across an intriguing passage. Robin has disguised himself as a potter, and talked himself into the great hall of the Sheriff of Nottingham. In a scene that I wove into my recent book In A Dark Wood, the Robin Hood-Potter has agreed to an archery contest after dinner, and the Sheriff has a servant bring out the necessary equipment. "The best bow that the yeman brought" Robin flexes, testing its strength. He stretches the string, and fits the string into its notch--it is no great effort for him. And then, pausing to look the bow over he says, with no doubt a mischievous glint in his eye: "So God me helpe... This is but right weak gear."
As I read this passage I sat up straight in my chair. I could hear Robin's voice-- canny, impudent, and yet not absolutely unfriendly. Furthermore, this was Middle English I could understand if it was spoken today. Weak gear. The phrase is English, and the Sheriff is as mocked today as he was seven hundred years ago.
The words came alive for me, and made Robin Hood and the entire era of castles and the High Road spring to full vitality in my imagination. What touched me was not an image, not a picture, but the words--as though I heard the sound of an actual, speaking voice from another age. From that moment, perhaps, the writing of In A Dark Wood simply had to take place--I was lost in an exciting project that would take me years to complete.
Some wise person has said that when we read certain lines of literature we are "alive twice." We are alive in our own, daily existence, watching the clock, getting ready for lunch. And when we read a passage that brings someone else's story awake for us, a keen metaphor, an event that changed the real or fictional life of a person we will never meet, we are present with them, seeing through their eyes, feeling through their skin. It's like being two people at once.
Through language we can tell the truth, and hear the truth spoken, just as we can be deceived. Sometimes it's a painful realization: we can be lied to. As I write I think of myself as putting my eye under oath, so that what I write is the truth about my characters. When my main character in Heat climbs the tower, the highest diving platform, hoping to resume competitive diving after an injury, I am there with her, sensing the cold grit under her instep. The details are what matter--they are the experience.
One of the oldest excitingly memorable passages in literature is from Homer's Iliad. Troy is under siege, the Greeks are hiding in fig trees, surrounding the city, generally having their way with the Trojan countryside. Andromache takes her infant son up to the battlements, hoping to catch sight of Hector, her husband and the child's father. Hector comes home unexpectedly, and has to search to find his wife on the city walls. He reaches her at last, and greets her with love.
When he had kissed his son and dandled him he prayed to Zeus and the other Immortals ...
This scene is animate in so many ways. We see Hector through the eyes of his infant child and we realize--it thrills us again as we rediscover this--that Trojan warriors actually did wear those horse hair plumes we see on ancient pottery, and their armor gleamed. We see it through Homer's eyes, and we realize that three thousand years ago parental love and the love of husbands and wives for each other dwarfed even war.
Children and young people are keen witnesses to our lives. When I wrote from the point of view of a boy moving with his family from one town to another in The Lost and Found House, I was able to re-experience that anxious wonder I felt with my family when we packed up and moved to a new neighborhood. So much is involved--a new school, new friends, and our recurrent fear of the new--a fear which is so often flavored with hope.
When my mother-in-law was sick a few years ago, an old family friend, a lawyer and an apparently benevolent, caring man handled her finances. As time went by we discovered that this friend was embezzling a good deal of money. This lawyer was charged for his crimes, and my wife Sherina testified at the preliminary hearing, but I wanted to do something more.
I wanted to write a novel of revenge.
It occurred to me that if I wrote a novel from the point of view of this embezzler's daughter I would be able to portray him in all his deviousness. But as I wrote the book, the story took on a different color. As I wrote I began to experience the events through the daughter's eyes, and I ended up feeling an approximate compassion for this felon -- I couldn't help it. When you take on a character's point of view, you take on their feelings, and you no longer create a story using only your own judgment.
I think we must have an instinctive hatred of lying. Something terrible happens when we are lied to. Language becomes corrupt. When I write from the point of view of a child or a young person I am trying to tell the truth as an adult voice sometimes cannot. We are so often wrapped in the garment of trying to reassure ourselves that we are not afraid.
But in my past work as a crisis counselor and my awareness of the human beings around me I have learned something about all of us: we are all afraid. Not all the time, of course, and not of everything. But we know what fear is, and it visits us much more frequently than we usually admit, even to ourselves.
When I was a boy I knew a man who worked as a detective for the San Bernardino police force. I was always very impressed with this man, known to us as Uncle Don. He carried a .38 in his hip holster everywhere he went, and one afternoon he let me hold the gun, after he had emptied all the gleaming bullets into his palm. I easily recall the heft of this weapon, its weight too heavy for my boyish grip.
Uncle Don was easily the toughest man I knew, and one night he was almost killed breaking up a bar brawl. He was hit in the side of the head with an ax handle, and although he survived, one side of his smile never lifted, some of the facial nerves no longer responsive. Uncle Don had a cop's coolness, and that unmistakable able way of standing, hands in his pockets or on his hips, looking out at the world through a cool, skeptical squint. He seemed to know no fear.
But Uncle Don was a chain smoker who died in his early fifties, overweight, tough to the end, I'm sure, forced to be braver than any human being could really be. When I wrote the boar hunt scene that begins In A Dark Wood I understood the Sheriff of Nottingham's fear as the wild boar rushed through the forest, driven by the beaters, directly at the Sheriff who was armed with no weapon but an all-too slender spear. I knew how hard it would be to have to perform brave acts with a normal person's sense of danger, and the understandable desire to be back home, safe before the hearth.
For years I was a substitute teacher in Oakland, California's inner city. I saw teachers performing every-day acts of another sort of courage, using imagination and a special vintage of patience to bring wonder to the classroom. One of my favorite teachers was a man who taught severely emotionally handicapped students from his seat in front of a piano. He would pound out chords and ask, in an improvised song, how each student was doing today, one by one, as the children sat in a circle. Each student responded by joining in the song. The classroom was caught up in the matter-of-fact magic this gifted teacher was able to conjure. The music made it possible, but also the teacher's zest for both his piano and his students' well-being.
I take a real interest in the possibilities of teaching--including the practice of bringing creative writing, and serious reading, into the classroom. I am persuaded that since language is alive, much of the challenge has already been met by the poets and novelists we read. We can take part in the life of the language, shape it, and rediscover -- or discover for the first time -- the vitality of the printed page.
This involves no great arcane scholarship, and I'm sure every teacher can improve on my suggestions. But my approach is one of attitude--believe in the vivacity of the written word. Try taking a page by an author you admire, and cover up the second half of the page. Write your own continuation of the passage--it might be as exciting as the original. Or something equally interesting--it might take the prose in a direction both you and the original author never would have conceived.
Experiment by taking a line from a novel as the title for a story or poem. Heat begins with the words "Someone was saying my name." I find myself feeling that this would make a good title for a short story, something I would definitely find myself reading with interest. Zero At the Bone begins with the words "I smelled fire." This is one of those titles that look matter of fact at first, but begin to take hold, like a burr, on the mind. You begin to wonder: what's burning? Are we in danger? Such sentences have a life of their own, removed from the original word-scape they used to inhabit.
Sometimes I find myself wondering what would happen to my characters after the novel is over. Does Peter, the young man who killed his friend by accident in Calling Home, go on to have new friends, and does he develop his interest in art, avoiding the shadow of alcohol as he matures? One writing experiment I find particularly exciting is to ask students to write a chapter taking place four or five years after a novel ends. What does my main character in Edge do with his life, after he made his decision whether or not to use the Smith & Wesson Police Special to avenge his father. Will he forever regret not committing an act of personal--and criminal--justice?
I ask myself these questions, and see these novels as plants that could grow further tendrils, new life entirely. Teacher friends of mine have shown me some of these sequel sketches, and I have been struck by the willingness and the ability of young writers to adapt their own voices to these imaginary but insistent characters.
Try this memory experiment: write down your first memory in rich detail. Really push yourself to recall sounds and smells, even stretching out mentally to hear things on the very edge of the neighborhood. Ask yourself what you were wearing, what kind of shoes, what time of day it is--everything you can think of. Put this piece of writing into an envelope and seal it, and put it aside for three months. When the day comes to read it--are you surprised by anything you have written? Maybe you have forgotten some of the details you wrote about when you made this far-reaching effort to go back into your memory. Over a period of time, some of us find that our "first" memory changes, unless we keep reinforcing a given memory as number one.
The importance of memory cannot be overstated. There is a great effort going on these days to teach students the art of writing the memoir. This is an idea electric with possibility--we can discover who we are by recapturing the events of our own lives. There is a possibility, though, that we will limit ourselves, and create a personal legend without escaping our own psyches to discover the lives of companions out there, sharing the world with us--including some souls who are no longer living. It comes as a slight shock each time we learn this: we are not alone.
Endings are often unhappy. Events sometimes march down to a stony shore, and we can only follow them. Hector loses his fife, and Achilles drags his naked body past the walls of Troy. But for us, because of Homer's imaginative eye, and stirring voice, Hector is, at the same time, the shining, loving father. His death weighs much less to us as a result, and in an important sense, Hector is still alive.
I have such faith in stories, because in a sense that's what each one of is--a tapestry of events we have managed, for the moment, to possess. No one has ever done this before-- no one has walked into this dark wood of our lives. Never before has anyone ever embarked on this journey -- the one we each are taking.
We are all a little lost, most of all those of us who insist that they are not. The greenwood is a place where we all can lose our lives, and in which we certainly eventually will.
But the story never ends. And as long as we have had a share in telling, or reading, or discovering the vitality of this story of our lives, we have found a rapport with the infinite, life endowing dark.
In preparing this passage, I relied on two separate translations by H. D. F. Kitto and Robert Fitzgerald.
Editor's note: Michael Cadnum is a prolific writer of books for young adults. He was a featured speaker at the November, 1998, ALAN Workshop in Nashville, Tennessee. Among his books are these:
Calling Home (1991)
Edge: A Novel (1997)
In a Dark Wood (1998)
The Lost and Found Horse (1997)
Taking It: A Novel (1995)
Zero at the Bone (1996)
Reference Citation: Cadnum, Michael. (1999). " The Eye Under Oath: Why Stories Are Alive." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 2, pp. 5-8.