Beth Deitchman

Reader, Writer, Knitter, Slayer

Month: January 2012

That Certain Slant of Light

The rain started late last week.  Finally.  The rain is late this year and despite the pleasure of the past few weeks’ unusually beautiful weather, the lack of rain was starting to get worrisome.  So I’m glad that it finally started raining.  Sort of.  Because the rain brought the grey, which is, for me, even more than the short days or the cold, the real mark of winter.

I’ve always thought that up until about Christmas the early dark feels sort of cozy.  I like being tucked into my house at the end of the day while the dark starts creeping in earlier and earlier.  For the first few weeks or so it seems novel (even though it happens every year).  This year was no different.  The days started getting shorter and I enjoyed the safe, cocoon-like feeling in my well-lit house.  We even had a bonus this year, for while the darkness fell earlier every day, because the rain was so late the fall colors stayed on the trees until about a week ago.  And the late afternoon light had that lovely golden warmth of autumn.  But with the rain, the light–or lack thereof–that once made me feel cozy now leaves me cold. We have reached that point in winter when even the light from the sun is pale and dissipated.  This afternoon I look out of my window and see a grey world with all the color drained away, lit by a watery sunlight.

I am, from time to time, haunted by the first line of one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems: “There’s a certain slant of light.”  I first read this poem, like so many other poems, in an English class at UCONN.  I remember this poem especially clearly because the entire class misunderstood it so profoundly.  It was part of an assignment in which we had to present a poem to the class, and the poor girl in charge of this one bore the brunt of the misinterpretation.  She (and the rest of us) saw in that “certain slant of light”  an invitingly warm golden ray that a cat might lounge in.  How we could have been so completely off the mark, I don’t know.  Maybe we all failed to do our homework.  And our professor–I cringe when I think about it–was appalled.  He was either faced with our collective laziness or he was butting up against our youthful inability to understand the reality of death.  Or, as my husband loves to say, maybe it was a little from column a and a little from column b.  For despite our Generation X pretense to world-weariness, we were so young and naive that we could see in this poem such a comforting image.  Re-reading it now I cannot imagine how we ever thought that an inviting slant of light:

There’s a certain slant of light,

Winter afternoons—

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes—


Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the meanings are—


None may teach it—Any—

‘Tis the Seal of Despair—

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air—


When it comes, the Landscape listens—

Shadows—hold their breath—

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death—

It’s embarrassing, really, that a group of English majors missed such blatant cues as “oppresses,” “heft,” “hurt,” “scar,” “despair,” “affliction,” and “Death.”  It’s even more embarrassing that we read that poem in the dead of a Connecticut winter, probably with an example of that very slant of light right outside the classroom.  I don’t pretend to understand the poem completely now, but I get glimpses of possible meanings each time I read it.  And it leaves me with a deep melancholy, just like a rainy winter afternoon.

Maybe there is some kind of cosmic irony (to indulge in a little drama) in the fact that I was born during the winter, and while I love my birthday, I really hate winter.  I used to hate it because of the cold and the dirty snow or the never-ending rain.  Now I think I hate winter because it is a stark reminder of my mortality.  At 18 or 19 (or even 35) my mortality would never have occurred to me as a framework for understanding this poem.  Mortality was still only an abstraction for me then, lacking any weight–or heft–that would connect it to my understanding of the world.  But I’ve just celebrated my 44th birthday, which means that I’m hitting the age where I might have more birthdays behind me than ahead of me.  That thought is profoundly sobering.  In fact, this is the first birthday during which that thought has occurred to me even though I still feel about 12 years old.  I think that contradiction might be something like the scar Dickinson writes about in her second stanza, that “internal difference– / Where the meanings are.”

Thoughts like these will continue to rattle around my mind for the next few weeks as the rain pours down on us.  But, luckily for me, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which means that spring will be here before the rain stops.  In just a few weeks daffodils will begin blooming in my neighbor’s yard and the apricot tree in our backyard will be covered in blossoms.  The sunlight breaking through the rain clouds will still have that watery quality for several more weeks, but it will be getting stronger and lasting longer every day.  The air will smell sweet and color will start to re-enter the world.  And my winter melancholy will dissipate, leaving almost no trace.

All Writing is Re-writing

Every written project I have ever completed started with a leap of faith that I would be able to do it because I had done it before.  But that faith often (maybe always) wavered after I  jumped into the project–sometimes as soon as my metaphorical feet left the metaphorical ground.  When this happened I turned to free-writing to discover that I had something to say after all and I could stop panicking.  Nevertheless, as a graduate student I often experienced frustration and disappointment with my writing even after it began to take a vague shape.  Being a non-Stoic, I tended to share this frustration and disappointment with my colleagues and my advisors.  One of those advisors, Richard Schoch of Queen Mary College, used to remind me from time to time that all writing is re-writing.  I liked to quote Richard when reassuring my frustrated and disappointed writing students, elaborating on his advice by adding my version: good writing does not spring fully-formed from our minds like Athena did from Zeus’s.

Early drafts of my academic writing almost never came out easily.  I felt that I was coaxing, dragging, or pulling each draft of each paper or chapter out of my brain and into my computer.  But once I managed to get the first drafts written and I actually knew what I was writing about, I knew what I needed to write next.  And, more exciting to me, I could see where I could begin doing the shaping; I saw where I needed to develop the thoughts in each paragraph with more thoroughly explained evidence and how I could untangle confusing syntax and make my argument stronger with well-developed and clearly crafted sentences.  I also saw where sections could be or had to be cut.  Then, as I got closer to finishing the project, I began the refining work.  Once I got to the final stages of writing my dissertation, for example, I could spend an entire day working on one sentence.  And I LOVED it.

While I was often overwhelmed by the difficulty of writing as a student, I am astounded and delighted by the sheer volume of work that I have produced recently just by letting my pen fly across the page.  I have three long(ish) stories in draft form, written purely as free-writing exercises.  As I have written about before, these stories seemed to be waiting in my mind for an invitation to be told.  But, just like my work for graduate school, these stories did not spring fully-formed from my brain.  Now I’m getting to the re-writing and re-working process where I know I will find holes in the narratives and characters that need more depth and dimension.  I am sure I will find many awkward sentences to smooth into, I hope, elegant phrases.   In other words, now the fun begins.

I’m not completely sure why I find restructuring sentences so thrilling and picking just the right word so deeply satisfying.  I think it has something to do with my desire for clarity, for understanding the world better.  Or maybe it is just about beauty or my subjective idea of the beautiful.  Then again, in an earlier draft of this essay, I gave Richard’s advice another interpretation: I don’t have to worry about the shape of my early writing because, if all writing is re-writing, then I have plenty of time to fix it.  I think that comes closer to explaining why I love the re-writing part of writing–the craft of writing–so much.  I don’t have to get it right the first time.  I need to be reminded, frequently, of that fact.  I also need to be reminded that it is okay to spend an entire day sculpting one sentence.  My drive to produce so often hurries me along, but the craft of writing slows me down, inviting me to linger lovingly, even greedily, over my words and phrases, those imperfect but gorgeous children of my mind.


Writing Sex

Last year I played Mary Bennett and Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice adapted by Jon Jory (I liked playing Charlotte but I LOVED playing Mary).  Jory’s adaptation really moves the story along, which means characters like Mary and Charlotte get short shrift.  His cursory treatment, however, gave me lots of room to create a wonderfully nerdy Mary with a slight adenoid problem who, if she were around today, would be playing Dungeons and Dragons, collecting Magic the Gathering cards, and writing fan fiction about Star Trek.

Anyway, that’s not the point of this post.  A few days ago I decided to write a story about Mary Bennett that takes place after the book / play ends (like P.D. James except there is no mystery).  Since I am currently indulging my love for fantasy fiction in my writing, I gave Mary’s story a recognizably fantasy slant.  Mary, unbeknownst to her family, has become an accomplished witch, secretly reading spell books in her room (when she isn’t reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.)  When I started writing the story I thought maybe she would discover a way into a magical, Narnia-esque world and have adventures of the kind that brainy plain girls don’t usually get to have in Jane Austen books.  Instead, the story took a decidedly erotic twist when Mary recognized the new Vicar, who was visiting for tea, as a master magician whose books she cherished.  He, as any good magician-pretending-to-be-the-local-clergy will do, also recognized her as a fellow spell caster.  That plot twist led me to write a steamy , bodice-ripping sex scene that left me a little spent and kind of embarrassed.  Not with the whole story–I’m actually pretty pleased with the story, and I think that with a little more work it could be good.  But I’m embarrassed to post it to my blog because of this bodice-ripping sex scene.

Before Mary and the Vicar, I didn’t think I could even bring myself to write a sex scene, as I told Emily about a week ago (Emily, I hope you don’t mind being a recurring figure in my blog posts).  It’s not that I’m a prude or afraid of sex.  And I have no trouble performing sex scenes or being nude on stage (to be honest as long as there is no mirror, I can be nude pretty much anywhere).  I’m not sure exactly what it is about writing a sex scene that is so embarrassing to me.  While I worry what people will think of me and wonder how I could have such things on my mind, I don’t think that is the explanation.   I think it is me at my most vulnerable, writing something incredibly intimate and opening a window into a part of myself that I ordinarily keep very private–except, you might point out, for when I share it onstage.  But there is an important difference between acting and writing a sex scene: on stage I am performing someone else’s sex scene.  It does not originate in my imagination, so it feels a lot less intimate and I feel a lot less vulnerable.

If it is a matter of vulnerability, then I have a great chance to push my boundaries with my decidedly un-Jane Austen story about Mary Bennett.   I pride myself on being fearless as an actor, so why not as a writer?  And I guess that is my answer.  Why not?  So I will revisit the draft of Mary’s sexy story, work on it, and publish it to my blog.  I imagine my heart will be pounding as I go to hit that publish button, like Mary’s heart when the Vicar, well, you know.

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