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A Writer's Challenge
Malo’s challenge was to create a great literary work. He felt he understood fiction as a sculpture or painting, not static, not limited to the physical medium in which it was crafted, but dreamy and limitless in its interpretation, or as he was fond of saying, only limited to the extent of the imagination.
Malo learned from Cervantes that love ballads did not describe actual women, but were elaborate paintings of mythical gods that moved the hearts of men as Poseidon moved the oceans. Malo received from Flaubert that one could write of the humanity of a woman and stir men’s hearts to love her - prose closer to the ground. Malo discovered in Will Shakespeare the familiarity of it all … that one may write using contemporary themes and of one’s own dreams and be writing of one and all’s.
A history of Malo’s literary origins begins at age eighteen when he realized he had yet to read a book from cover to cover. Before that, Malo had accepted what the television age had embraced en mass, that quick-edit collages had the potential to bring transcendent contributions to society. However, Malo at eighteen thought it a poor fill of fallow time; he sought more to marvel at than Lucy.
Having already chosen to work in construction rather than attend a stiff university, he set out on his own to recreate what he imagined would be a degree’s demands. Malo was voracious in his exploration of the non-fiction world, the only world he believed could satisfy a serious reader such as he, believing fiction but a toy or confection unworthy of his rush for knowledge. His repertoire quickly included history, sociology, physics, mathematics, and law.
Malo became a carnivorous collector of books of all kinds. Any book with a great title and especially one he believed to be a classic, non-fiction or not, he reigned in from library clearances, used bookstores, and yard sales.
Malo soon encountered enough references to Madam Bovary as being the first modern novel that he found out a copy, performed his usual cursory inspection, and took it to task. He became absorbed. As if looking through an Edison kinetoscope, he could see the town, the people, the upstairs, the yard - he could even sense the flowers and perfumes.
As Malo approached the end of the book, he longed to reach out to the lady and comfort her, and wished the cover did not have to close. When he read at last the last line twice, he came upon a brilliant flash: he would continue writing it himself! Still and all, it was a flash, for the right words never came, and at end he felt he could never justify hitching his dabble to the masterpiece. And so, he read the book whole again to be closer to the lady and try to get closer to the author.
Malo then found A. J. Cronin and slipped among the virulent waters of “Rye”. He found Frost and Whitman, and danced and fancied himself an observer of leaf and lamb. With Kipling and Steinbeck he got down in the dust and dirty trials of men, hoping to learn what men must do sometimes to live. He had discovered fiction and he was not leaving it.
Malo began to recognize characterizations in subtle nuances of every day behavior. Like a housewife rushing to resume normalcy after being embarrassed from dropping her purse in a grocery store; such a mini-crisis in an instant sharpening the larger stress points in her life, punctuating who she was and who she believed she should be.
Malo began to realize the enormous potential impact each person had on another, good or bad, in youth and in age. When someone spoke of an angry neighbor, he wanted to seek out that neighbor, examine their surroundings, speak on metal work or fishing until the neighbor’s passions were found out. However, in the real world of so many people, what could he possibly do? Perhaps he could write about them and thereby reach more neighbors.
Malo now did not just read books, he consumed them. He read the copyright pages, the title pages, and enjoyed the other titles by the same author. He carefully perused prefaces and introductions, even read the notes, glossaries, bibliographies, and indexes, and observed a book’s bindery construction and choices of font and art.
When Malo traveled he rode the greyhound bus which enabled him more time to read and write. He frequently carried several books. On such a trip he composed the following letter to an imaginary friend, of which he had many.
"Please provide your thoughts on the following. If each person’s life were a road, gradually coming into being and running forward to a dead stop, with many roads around it going here and there, some curving, some flashing by, some crossing, some adjoining, some colliding, some sputtering up a hill and ceasing, some narrow, some wide, some straight, beautiful and long, some bright, bold and short, some well-copied, many unique, then perhaps it would be easier to see us all as merely versions of the same thing … in this example, a road.
“Some designs would be admired and copied for their beauty, some for their utility. Some roads would exhibit potential for great influence, an ability to alter the direction of other roads. Therefore, I submit to you that some road builders have the ability to alter time itself, for time consists of a direction and pace, influenced by a path and pilot. If a road is like a life, I believe we can turn it around, retrace our steps, and the only reason we do not go back in time is that it disturbs us fundamentally to see our elementary selves, our powerlessness, and so we remain facing west and heading towards the future, where we can walk a day’s journey and not entirely know its end.”
As the bus rolled to an adjudicated stop, Malo closed his notebook, disembarked, and on the front porch of his great-aunt’s old house, after a warm hug and fresh glass of tea, he re-opened it.
“A rainy day seems better suited for daydreaming than one of a stark, blazing sun. A rainy day is unfinished; in flux. A sun-filled day is one on hold until something happens. Just before a downpour one imagines its anticipation by our leafed brethren.
Malo needed a hero for his book. A soldier, a simpleton, or homeless genius waiting for Godot. Perhaps, he thought, he was not cut out to write. Perhaps he was a reader, that is all, as a lover of music need not play an instrument to enjoy music. However, is it the same? If a listener to Mozart has no notion of his life, genius, or influence on music, can he or she enjoy the song as much as the scholar-musician can? Malo scrawled, “One need not know where air comes from to enjoy a breath of honeysuckle scented.”
That evening after dinner Malo rested on the hard mattress and wrote an opening line to his novel: “I promised never to tell this tale.” But, what was it? Just a line. He took out his Bellow and reread the marked paragraphs, pages, and chapter starts. Malo made a note: “A fluffy writing style is as honorable as a simpler style. They both should share truths received by the author,” and he added, “as opposed to conceived by the author.
Bello described the lifetime of a man over a four-day jaunt; his wife, parents, life journeys, and his thoughts of it all. That is what Malo wanted to do, copy Herzog. He could put a sheet of onion skin paper over each page and create new characters, new places - where a loaf of bread would become a cake, a heart-like Oriole’s nest in an otherwise dead tree would become a red bird perched on a decrepit old mailbox that even the postman had abandoned. Malo laughed to himself at this thought. Why write if not original? Why steal an Olympic gold medal? One does not need the medal - only to win. “Join a bridge club!"
To keep his mind from wandering had always been Malo’s challenge, and failing to meet that challenge, his curse. Moment after moment, lying on his great-aunt’s stale sheets, subjects and recollections flittered as sparks off a grinding wheel.
Prose, he thought, should be poetic, steadfastly organizing a broad to simple thought with lyrical phrase. A stop, a glide … a new chapter here and not one there, a climax somewhere past the middle, nearer the end, with the ending perhaps serving as an epilogue, or even a prelude to whatever is still to come.
If there is no promise of success, of great literary achievement at the end of his travails, why begin? Dropping his notepad and picking up some heavy, early civilization, he began reading where his eyes landed. It was a quote from Euclid which helped to answer his question regarding why he should write. He did not know if it was coincidental that answers sometimes appeared closely behind their questions, or if someone omnipresent were placing the answers near the questions, or if we were simply more finely attuned to recognizing an answer immediately after posing its question. Why not all three.
The paragraph Malo had come across described an incident which had occurred while Euclid was conducting a geometry class. An impatient student piped up, “How is this going to make me any money?” To this, Euclid tossed him a coin and said, “There, you have been paid, now let us proceed with the lesson.” Malo made a note of this. Getting paid was not a reward by itself.
If writers did not write, then information would not be shared, and civilization would cease, and barbarism would spread like ugly thistles in a once love-tended rose garden.
Malo recalled that Shelby Foote prepared note cards, each complete with facts and bibliography, and posted them in methodical arrangements on a wall which enabled him to create, over a twenty-five year span, the three volume “History of the Civil War”. These very cared for details, Malo thought, were what made the work read like great fiction: anecdotal, breathing, and real enough to hear the trampling boots and gunfire of a dozen union soldiers backing up out of some woods in front of Robert E. Lee, only to press forward back into the woods without turning and noticing the rebel leader or the opportunity to end the war with just one shot from the hip.
With this thought and scribble safely in his notebook, Malo turned out the floor lamp and listened to the sounds of an unfamiliar house in an unfamiliar neighborhood and thought just how familiar it all was.
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