Friday, May 11, 2012


Writers know that there is a special challenge in capturing with words the richness of a fleeting moment. To do it well and truthfully is damned hard. Sometimes it’s tempting to just avoid the detail and breeze by with a high-level summary. Of course, too much avoidance and the work will seem dead, a lie. Because what’s missing is the very thing that life is made up of: moments strung together like beads on a necklace.

Some moments are full to the brim with drama; they are complex, multi-faceted; they could take pages and pages to parse. Others (most) seem comparatively barren. But even the empty moment is far more pregnant than it appears, once we begin to look closely.

The enlightened masters tell us that any moment, the Now, can open up like a blossom to transcend time and space. I don’t doubt that, but I also know that such an experience is beyond the capacity of language. As writers, we toil on the plane of the mundane, but that shouldn’t prevent us from exploring as deeply as possible, treading the very boundaries of the inexpressible.

The old saw, “show, don’t tell,” which I don’t take as gospel at all, is probably good advice here, but what about the multitude of unshowable inner realities any human is experiencing at any given time? Poetry may be the best tool for this job: the sudden epiphany called out of nowhere by the perfect unexpected collision of words. But I’m a prose writer. I’m interested in how moments are captured in sentences, in the flow of a narrative.

I’m also a visual artist, and I’m interested in the foggy borderline between our preconceived notions of what is important or beautiful and that other place: the neglected, the bland, the everyday.

So “Moments” is also the name I’m giving to a rather casual, free-flowing art project: short spontaneous videos shot with my little Bloggie camera, with no editing except for trimming head and tail. As in writing, a video can put a selected moment on a pedestal by giving it a beginning and an end, slicing it out of the never-ending flow that we experience as actual life. That very act of differentiation illustrates the omnipresent Now by showing us its opposite: a fragment. In this project, I'm looking for a balance of random banality and ephemeral beauty, something that might fit the Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi.  

Wabi-sabi puts forth the wisdom that greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details, and that beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Based on observation of nature, it teaches us these three truths: all things are impermanent, all things are imperfect, and all things are incomplete. Leonard Koren says, "Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of conscious­ness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace."

Here are my first three video moments (about 1 minute each). I don’t expect these to be “extraordinary,” but for me, they do point toward that “altered state of consciousness” that can turn a stone to a jewel, a thoughtless routine to an act of mindful aliveness. Perception is reality.

Moments: Eric Dolphy and Me, Crossing the Rhinecliff Bridge

Moments: Sunrise on the Cell Block

Moments: Playing in the Park

Doing something similar with language is an entirely different proposition. In storytelling, it is not usually the banal moments that we choose to elevate by exploration. Or is it? Here is a moment within a moment, narrated by a sax-playing alcoholic in recovery, in my story “Blues for Jane.”
I get dressed; Jane doesn’t move.  I feel something, maybe good, tough anyway, leaving her flat.  This is not the first time.  She stands there naked, not sure what to do with her hands so she hugs herself, a tall girl with big sad eyes, looking at the wall, at vacation romance fading, a film’s end, black.  I button my shirt, slow fingers moving up like I’m playing a ballad on worn brass keys.
I remember there was a little of her look, the lonely part of her look, in those wide eyes the night I first saw her in the little club on Second Street in Jersey City, watching me solo.  Those eyes were lighthouse beacons piercing the smoke, headlights in the fog bearing down on me, a truck, a train of trucks, roaring like wind through misty midnight straight at me, me and my rambling solo, and suddenly I was caught, pinned in the glare, so self-conscious, every fingering suddenly suspect, my stance pretentious, my breathing so obviously faulty, and I closed my eyes and prayed, closed my eyes and fell away from that wide pure stare into the rhythm, and breathed, and finished okay.  As Joey began his piano riff, I opened my eyes to meet hers, wide again but with a little smile, a shy smile, no more trucks in the fog, just a girl, and she clapped her hands, and I made a small bow, and then I watched her move through pools of light and smoke, moving like a young racehorse, all legs, long legs rolling from the hip joint, the young awkwardness of big feet, big hands, big shy head, eyes down as she moved through the dimness in long steps, all odd grace, all awkward pieces joined into smooth flow, big eyes glancing at me once more from the bar, and I knew I’d see her after that set, and after that night.
Now, here, my hand is on the door.  She’s looking away.

“Blues for Jane,” besides being in my collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, will be appearing this summer in an anthology called Tribute to Orpheus II, from Kearney Street Books.

If you’re a writer (or even if you’re not), I’m interested to hear your thoughts about the challenge of capturing moments -- especially those that would seem to have no inherent importance, but which, through the subtle power of suggestion and ambiance, enrich a story, define a character, or elucidate a theme.


(For more video moments as they arrive, see