The Seduction of Hard Truths: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Rick Nelson
The plays and the stories began with his eyes closed, the image of a proscenium stage flooded with fog, and from deep within this swirling, white gust ("airborne divinity fudge") came a female form, lost, looking, and almost always a line of dialogue emerged. Almost always it was a request for direction, for placement--this was a woman lost, displaced, turned around, unsure. And the work began.
However, before the closed eyes and the stage and the fog and the lost lady, there was, he admitted, a sound, a rhythm, that made it possible for him to concentrate, to focus, to get the theatre open for operations.
"I need a particular rhythm," he told me. "I'm drawn to prayers for this reason. Prayers are written and recited to reinforce not only faith but the inner rhythms that we find comforting. As children we are rocked; we rock ourselves to calmness. Prayers tend to have a rhythm that rocks us--inwardly--toward some sense of peace. Maggie [in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof] speaks, in her opening scene, in the rhythms-- and with similar sentence lengths-- of prayers from The Book of Common Prayer, which has been stained into my DNA, which rests in my mind almost always ready to be re-played and re-used."
Tenn sometimes needed the sensation, through words, of a train clicking and straining toward its destination (home, God, freedom) to get his mind ready for the entrance of a woman. To help him get this rhythm, he would recall, sketchily, the opening paragraph from an essay by Edmund Wilson.
As I go north for the first time in years, in the slow, the constantly stopping, milk train--which carries passengers only in the back part of the hind car and has an old stove to heat it in the winter--I look out through the dirt-yellowed double pane and remember how once, as a child, I used to feel thwarted in summer till I had got the windows open and there was nothing between me and the widening pastures, the great boulders, the black and white cattle, the rivers, stony and thin, the lone elms like feather-dusters, the high air which sharpens all outlines, makes all colors so breathtakingly vivid, in the clear light of late afternoon. (The Old Stone House, 1933.)
"I feel that he is hearing the old train," Tenn said, "and he's trying to replicate the sound of the machinery of the train, pulsing and pushing, and it is incantatory."
Incantatory was a word Tenn used often. Actresses were incantatory. So were Cat Stevens and Gordon Lightfoot and Ella Fitzgerald and Margaret Whiting. These four disparate singers were incantatory in that they evoked a sound that brought forth for Tenn memories of his mother's hand on his fevered forehead, soothing sounds issuing from her mouth, so close to his face, hot soups left on the bedside table, the radio his constant friend, comic books fetched from the drugstore for his amusement. "The music of dreaming," he called it. "Lost in thought and reflection, safe on sturdy wings of dreaming." He found this also in Janis Ian and Judy Collins and Jo Stafford, although Stafford also pierced his heart, and took him to a more languid place of reflection. "Depression incoming!" he joked, and he liked it, but it brought forth a different fog and a different woman.
The song that helped him--at least in the time I was with him--with the sounds of a train heading toward home or God or freedom or understanding was Rick Nelson's "Garden Party," which possessed what Tenn called "propulsive licks and bumps" that felt like a train that appeared slick and seductive but which was actually fueled by anger and was headed for a deliberate crash--one meant to wake up its passengers and anyone watching its journey.
"Close your eyes," he told me, once we had found a bar on Rampart that actually held the Nelson song in its jukebox. "You're on a journey; you're headed home; you can find a rhythm that will lead you to find a character and some words. Listen to the anger beneath the smoothness. This man is seducing you into hearing the hard truth."
It was a song that Tenn believed strongly influenced another song he admired and used--Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy" from the Robert Altman film Nashville.
The seduction of hard truths. Another term Tenn loved and frequently used. A writer rubbing your back lovingly before ramming the knife between your shoulder blades. Tenn heard that in the Nelson song. He also heard it in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up, which he read when he began to feel that he might have the rhythm of a train that could easily become derailed.
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work--the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside--the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within--that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick--the second kine happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.
"Now, there's a train," Tenn said. "First-class, upholstered, smooth-moving, terribly seductive. Fine living at a high speed. And headed straight for a stone wall, which is the truth. You can find it in Fitzgerald or Nelson or Carradine. You can find it any number of places. Always look. Keep looking. Find the rhythm. Then the words. Then write."
©2013 by James Grissom