“. . . I looked over the field, at all those [robins’] cocked heads and black eyes. I’m staying here. You all go on. I’m staying here.” (Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.)
Sometimes that’s how it seems, as if we stand rooted in place while everything circles around us, like we’re the center of the universe. We stay and the robins continue with their ancient migrations. Except for the peripatetic, the adventurer, wanderer, vagabond who views the world as a geography in motion, because of their own movement, because of the continuity of time—which in the early twentieth century M M Bakhtin dubbed ‘chronotope’ or ‘time-space’ (“. . . the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature. . .” [Note 1]).
I am interested in how a writer creates place out of experience and how as readers we find ourselves engulfed in the writer’s world. Bakhtin avoided this particular can-of-worms [Note 2], but last night, in Bend, Oregon at a fundraiser for the Nature of Words featuring folksinger Emma Hill and author Pam Houston, we got a dialogic blending of their works, of Emma’s songs and chapters Pam read from her book Contents May Have Shifted. This concept-performance followed a winding path of connections—where the next piece was determined by what the preceding piece suggested to each woman.
Pam introduced her novel as being largely biographical and it was easy to think that the author, standing at the podium and reading, was the narrator who was also named Pam, and we heard stories of Pam’s adventures around the globe from Newfoundland to Alaska, California to Tibet. She said there was also a section for Bend, Oregon.
The first thing I did this morning was page through my copy of Contents May Have Shifted until I found the section 72. Bend, Oregon because, not having lived here for very long, I’m still accumulating knowledge, impressions, and ideas of this place of pine forests on the edge of the juniper and sage steppe. (I also frequently read books from back-to-front, or in a random order.) What I found in Houston’s 72. Bend, Oregon was a messy waypoint—between relationships, dreams, places, frustrations, the chapter sandwiched between 71. Milwaukee, Wisconsin and XE #118 (a flight). I reread 72. Bend, Oregon again and the glimmer of Bend I find is “Driving up the mountain in Nora’s Prius, I borrowed her cell phone to check my messages, but she had forgotten she was hooked up to Bluetooth, and when I hit the 7 key . . .” (159) Of course, it’s fiction but I still search for the familiar and Bend is a place of Priuses (or Subarus) and mountains (or buttes).
The most intriguing stories must have a dose of the writer’s own intimacy, the place that turns up inside the author’s head that, once written and shaped, becomes an “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” [Bakhtin], and another outward-facing layer in the chrono (but not always logical) map of a place.
[Reference: Pam Houston. Contents May Have Shifted. W. W. Norton & Company. 2012.]
Note 1: from the essay, Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel written by the Russian author M M Bakhtin after World War I (in the 1920s?) and eventually published in Russian (Voprosy literatury i estetiki, Moscow) in 1975 then in English as one of four essays in The Dialogic Imagination in 1981 (University of Texas Pres, Austin, reprinted 1994 [p 84]).
Note 2: ibid. “In the present work we will not consider the complex problem of the listener-reader, his chronotopic situation and his role in renewing the work or art . . .; we will point out merely that every literary work faces outward away from itself, toward the listener-reader, and to a certain extent thus anticipates possible reactions to itself” (p 257).