The Tiny Bit

comments: 36

Acorn Mmm, home alone. Just me, coffee, cats, and a corgi. I like it. It felt so good to get out of the house last night and go to Melissa’s, I could hardly wait. I was all dressed up at least an hour before I needed to leave, waiting with only my pie, my present, and the beer for Andy to get home. He was late, so I had another half-hour where I was just waiting in the quiet house, thinking. Add that to the half-hour I spent in the dentist’s chair after my teeth had been cleaned, waiting for the dentist to come in and tell me about my cracked filling. Sitting in the dentist’s chair for a half-hour with no magazine, nothing to look at but scary plaque posters, dental machinery (equally scary), dentist’s lamp (eeeew, creepy), or out the window, which from that chair-tilted angle revealed not a single tree branch, rooftop, or chimney, but just an expanse of wispy-clouded sky, you just relax. When she finally came in, she practically had to wake me up, I was so drowsy and vegged out. So all-told I had about two hours, two whole hours, of quiet solitude in which to ponder. Even though I said I wouldn’t think anymore. (I am stopping after this, seriously.)

I went to the library on Wednesday to get the essay I mentioned, Gary Saul Morson’s "Prosaics: An Approach to the Humanities" from volume 57 (1988) of American Scholar. This is an essay that’s available on-line as long as your local library subscribes to a periodical data-base and makes it available to you as a library card holder — Multnomah County library does, which is pretty cool; you enter your library card number on their web site and then have access to the stuff. (Don’t write and ask me how to do it, though — just be brave and give it a try, and if you can’t figure it out call them and ask, because they get paid to answer.) But otherwise you can walk right up to your local librarian who is just waiting for you to say, "Hi, I'm a taxpayer and I need to read this, please." And then in about two seconds she will print it out for you. And you will say, "My God, why do I never come here??? This place is awesome!!!"

Anyway, that is how you can read the article, which is well worth doing because I find its implications for novel-readers totally fascinating, and its insights for us crafty bloggers weirdly prescient. This will, of course, be a shallow interpretation of an exponentially much-better-thinker-than-I-am’s idea. As I mentioned, this essay is just one of two I’ve carried around with me from town to town over the past fifteen years (the other is Jonathan Franzen’s manifesto "Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels" from Harper’s, April 1996 — you could get that one while you’re at the library, too). I was sort of right, when I was remembering it here, though I barely scratched the surface and am about to barely scratch it again (go read it, seriously). But anyway, Prosaics, says Morson, is "a way of thinking about human events that focuses on the ordinary, messy, quotidian facts of daily life — in short, on the prosaic."

But the idea is that it’s not just about having mess, it’s not that having things messy makes you a better person or something, as I hope I didn’t imply. It’s that the natural state of the world is mess (both literal and theoretical, I think) and what is interesting about it — what is, in fact, profound about it — are the efforts we make to tidy it, continuously, in a million little ways resulting in a million "tiny alterations of consciousness." It’s the fabric — the background — created by the result of those efforts that, although not necessarily dramatic, is important, and maybe even the whole point.

I wrote a while ago that I hadn’t "seen" things this way before my accident, but clearly I had at least read of them being so, in this essay, years before. I guess what I meant was that I hadn't "known" them this way, before. Though the moment of the accident was a major event, it was a random disaster, tinged with the regret of negligence, but with its own vaguely inevitable bearing. The cleanup, however, was comprised of a hundred million intentional gestures, from scalpel-wielding to tear-drying to "get-well-Alicia"-letter-writing, made in effort to close the wound. I saw the janitor’s efforts and the surgeon’s, then. It all seemed the same, and equally neccessary, to me. My desperation required every form of effort — janitorial, social, medical — in order for it to be salved. I remember once after I had returned home but was still in bed, I had a visiting nurse coming to change the dressings twice a day, and one morning when she was there a bird flew into the kitchen. Panicked, it flapped through the apartment. I became hysterical, from my bed, and bawled, "Oh no! Oh no!" She left my foot to catch the bird and throw it back out the window as I cried. I don’t even know why I was crying; she came back in (after having washed her hands of course), shaken, then continued to dab away at my poor, shredded foot. One thing at a time. It could be no other way. The bird was free. My foot looked good that day. Dab dab dab, smile. Those moments are the things I remember and, at the end of the day, the things that changed me more than the truck itself. Morson says:

"Most historians and philosophers tend to focus on the big events — on wars, revolutions, dramatic incidents, critical choices, and decisive encounters. Individual people, too, tend to tell themselves the story of their lives in terms of exceptional events and big decisions. But what if the important events are not the great ones, but the infinitely numerous and apparently inconsequential ordinary ones, which, taken together, are far more effective and significant? . . ."

And this:

"It is often the small items in the background of old photographs that most powerfully evoke elusive memories of the past. The things barely noticed at the time and included only by chance may best preserve the feeling of life as it was lived. The furniture long ago discarded, a spot on the wall, a picture we had long ignored but that now suggests the habitual life we lived beneath it — these small items remind us of how it felt to live in a room. The intended subject of a photograph can seem much less important in comparison with its background; and perhaps that is one reason why professional photos without a background so often seem to miss the very point of photography."

The characters of Leo Tolstoy (who Morson considers to be perhaps the greatest prosaic thinker) "achieve wisdom when they learn not to seek the great and poetic but to appreciate the small and prosaic," when they learn that the truths they seek are "hidden in plain view" like a picture on a wall we fail to notice though we "see" it every day. They learn that meaning is not "deep and distant, but here and everywhere." Selfhood is not something to be discovered but made, "an aggregate of habits, contingent facts, and clusters of order that continually interact with one another and with the hundred million diverse facts of daily life. . . . Our choices are shaped by the whole climate of our minds, which themselves result from countless small decisions at ordinary moments."

In participating in each "ordinary moment" we develop the habit of evaluating and correcting our thoughts in small, undramatic ways. Nevertheless, the moment — and the cumulative effect of these moments — matters. Chekhov, he says, always attributes ruined lives to daily pettiness and "petty squabbles." A reason, perhaps, to always let in someone trying to merge, to smile at the person who rings up your Big Gulp, to treat telemarketers with cheer instead of contempt? Countless small decisions at ordinary moments. You can change who you are with every one.

Morson says that of all literary forms, novels are best able to capture the messiness of the world, and in the great ones, "the texture of daily life is described with a richness, depth, and attention to contingent particulars that no other form of thought or literary genre offers. In novels we see moral decisions made moment to moment by inexhaustible complex characters in unrepeatable social situations at particular historical times; and we see that the value of these decisions cannot be abstracted from these specifics." Novels provide the details of peoples’ thought processes and experiences "thickly," and as we read them, we practice our reactions to particular kinds of people and situations. "Practice," says Morson, "produces habits that may precede, preclude, or preform conscious moral judgments in daily life." Novels for me, at least, have always been my religion.

It’s always been a curious phenomenon to me why certain books speak so strongly to certain people, and not at all to others. Apparently, there are a million infinitesimal reasons, specific and particular to each of us. (It also helps explain why it’s so impossible to tell someone else "what the book’s about," or why you liked it — only the process of reading it can really serve to say "why," and therein lies the paradox, no? Book reviewers and dust-jacket-copy writers would be unemployed.) Someone in the comments mentioned recently that they always watch movies to see what’s going on in the background. I do this too, and it’s why I almost never, ever remember the "plot" of anything, and I can almost never tell you "whodunit," though I can probably tell you what her wallpaper looked like, and if I liked her clothes, and whether the tone of her voice pleased me or put me off, or whether I thought she should’ve apologized, or been kinder there, whether she tried and failed — and all of those things are different than the things that you’d notice (and they are always different than the things Andy notices, and yet we are perfect for each other, etc., and how strange! and yet how not!) — but we each, we all, have our own things. (You see here, Jane, that I really do still love you even if you hated Prep!)

I don’t know exactly how blogs are like novels in all of this — I wouldn’t presume to know and I’m getting tired now and I bet you are too, but it’s somehow. I just know I’m happy to write mine, and happy to read others’, eager to see what’s in the corners of your homes, willing to show you mine, and I expect that the reasons why have everything to do with Prosaics, and my sincere attempts to be someone, however flawed and spastic, who seeks to improve, who starts with and believes in the small — and I bet you are, too, though our "smalls" are similar yet as varied as snowflakes. Morson says:

"Of course it is easier to remember the conclusion, summary, or interpretation of a work than the whole process of reading it. But if prosaics is right, then the process itself affects us as least as much, for good or ill. When Tolstoy wrote that the only way he could tell what Anna Karenina was about would be to rewrite it, he was, I think, stressing not the intricacy of his text as purely formal artifact, but rather the complexity of reading as a series of small decisions and moment-to-moment judgments. This process is not just indispensable to the point of the book; it is the point of the book. Like true life, art begins where the tiny bit begins."

Now, let's all go outside!

36 comments

I've often tried to describe just these ideas, and have been unable to do so! Thanks for articulating it.

My husband and I often tell each other that if a book, movie, song or piece of art can be accurately described in a review by a critic, there would be no reason to *make* the thing. We make things because we can't verbally describe the ideas behind them. All those little pieces are often part of what cannot be described ...

I've been enjoyably lurking for a while so I thought I'd say hello because of two things in this post. The first, about the bird is so strange because I had a similar experience after I lost my mum. I managed to cope with that, and a car crash I was in shortly afterwards. Then I had a mouse infestation at home and absolutely bonkers freaked out. Just that one small thing. And I don't even mind mice if my cat brings one in! The other was that I saw there's a new book about 'how to blog' called "No one cares what you had for lunch" which is a great title but actually I'm pretty interested in what people had for lunch, even the smallest moments of people's day! (It probably has a chapter on not leaving long rambly comments too - sorry!)

oo, these essays sound very interesting. i will be checking them out at the library. i was JUST writing a post about going to the library myself (posting it in a minute). thanks for sharing (the essays and your thoughts).

i also recently read your post (with the striped sock picture) about your recovery. it was moving and beautiful.

i know i've mentioned before that i want your blog as a book to carry around. i think that i want your blog as a book not only because you write well and show wonderful photos, but also because your blog is similar to a novel in the way you are describing here. (we as blog readers just don't have control of when we turn the page.)

oooo ... i'm afraid i'm late to the party as i was on a seaside holiday last week, but wanted to put my two cents in going back to your photo shoot, which was very interesting.

although, i realize rooms for these things must be "re-organized" to create a great shot, i've definitely become one who has developed a tendency to try to keep my home as neat as a magazine or design show final product. always fussing, fussing - ugh!

but, after reading about your experience, trying to do so is obviously not realistic (which makes my husband really HAPPY to hear). sharing your experience is probably going to allow me to let those "background" bits in to spread out a bit.

isn't it funny how a few paragraphs can change (i hope) a behavior?

cheers ... cindy

Oof. Reading your post makes me want to curl up in bed under a pile of blankets with my laptop and take another stab at my novel. Instead of reading somebody else's. xo.

Lovely well written food for thought.

I love this post Alicia.

What an insightful post. You have pointed out things that I feel like I have known, but could never have articulated. You make me want to get out some old Russian literature. You have such a beautiful writing style, and your blog is truly...cozy. Keep it up!

I too am one of those people that look at the backgroud of photos and movies.
I also love reading people's blogs to get a better "view" about who they are. Seeing pictures of the crafts they make and inside their homes can tell you so much about a person.
I believe that the best times in life are just "moments". Times that make you laugh, that inspire you, make you think...moments that you take and carry with you through life. Just how a certain smell or song can bring you back to a time in your life. How something so little can bring back a feeling, a moment. I love that!!
I hope I'm making sense. I am not the writer I'd like to be but the thoughts in my head are much more intelligent.
I agree with a pp that your blog should so be a book so that I could carry it with me also.
You should know that you are an inspiration to many.

yes. yes. yes.

I just went back and read your post about your accident. My god, Alicia, I so relate, in so many ways. Four years ago I had a heart attack. I was only 41. This spring, I had a second one; I was in the ICU at Providence here in PDX for nearly 3 weeks, and at one point died. I'm still actively in recovery, learning to live with a box in my chest that will save my life if my heart ever stops again.

The nurses kept me going, in all the little ways as well as the big ones, and while the big ones saved my life, the little ones saved my soul. I especially think about the Ethiopian CNA who tracked down one of those bag shampoos that you can wash your hair with when you can't shower. I hadn't had my hair washed in two weeks; she got it clean and then braided it for me. ah, bliss.

I look forward to reading that essay. And yes, use the library more! It's fantastic! We couldn't homeschool without it.

Thank you for your beautiful post. The theory of prosaics has captivated me as of late. I read parts of several articles (I was blocked b/c I was not at the library. One article mentioned Mikhail Bakhtin's "Discourse in the Novel," which I should read again. I am going to try to get my hands on a copy of Morson's essay soon.

I am really writing to thank you for sharing those intimate prosaic details and for attempting to persuade us to pay them more mind.

Alicia-
I just read about your accident tonight.
Wow,you are really an "overcomer",
and your marriage must be very strong.................
On a side note, I too was in a bad accident 3 weeks after I got married, an older man,age 96, crossed the median at 55 miles per hour in a truck, and hit our little honda head on. Broken teeth, clavical,many cuts, broken neck c2-c3 fracture (same as Christopher Reeves).........
Having said all that, I am here walking around with a busy life, it did however change who I am today.............
cheers,
carrie

That was worth the thinking, Alicia. And the reading.

I really can't articulate how much that post has hit me.I have always believed that life is in the detail.Tiny acts of kindness of spirit cost little yet are ultimately so valuable.
Thank you for you and your 'little foot'.

Delurking to let you know I just loved this post. I've recently started a blog of my own, and have been wondering a lot if anyone could possibly relate to (or care about) the tiny things I notice in people and surroundings.
And I have to agree with Claire- I LOVE seeing what someone had for lunch! How people treat/react to the mundane parts of life can be so revealing.
Anyway, thanks. You really got me thinking.

Once again Alicia, you put my mind to whirling. I will try to express what I'm thinking, but like you said, it's hard because everyone percieves things differently. Those "little" things that we don't really think about until the "big" thing happens, (or we have a lot of quite time on our hands)is what makes us human. Why is that? Human nature! For me, it could just mean I'm "NOSY"!!! I want to know what everyone is thinking, doing, eating, drinking. It makes me think, and in a weird kind of way, even try new things! Strange, yes! But, it's me!!!

Oh thank you so much for this entry! So many things to comment but... I'm just going to say "Thank You~". Not even going to try to dissect the Thank You.

Plus, I have to come back and re-read.

So happy to have found you.

Oh!Oh!Oh! how I love this post! And how timely to stumble upon it after what I've just posted myself. (And it doesn't matter if no one else would see a connection...it only matters in this moment that I feel one.) I can't wait to find this essay. And good god yes, isn't Multnomah Co. Public Library the best? I spent many an hour in its branches when I lived there. These are the lines that lit up in neon when I read them: "Countless small decisions at ordinary moments. You can change who you are with every one." And how curious, yet appropriate, that I'd click on your feed out of the dozens and dozens backed up in my Bloglines...only to find this post. And then I realized that that's why I come here--to read about your constant joyful appreciation of the prosaic. You're a living example of what Morson was writing about. Thanks, Alicia--fabulous post.

Lovely. This is what I have intuitively felt about life, and my own writing, for a very long time, but of course without ever articulating so well or clearly. The part about the backgrounds of pictures reminds me of why I also love to go to Charles Phoenix's site (sorry no link) for his weekly posts of slides -- pure Americana from 40-60 years ago, and it's all about the backgrounds.
Thanks, Alicia.

What a beautiful post, Alicia, full of insight and spirit. The story of your accident really affirms what you say, that it's what we make of the things in front of us that shape us and the world we live in. You have made me ponder today and pay better attention to the little things that cross my path. They are what make art. Thank you!

I revel in the small.

One of the first things I like to to do after meeting someone for the first time is explore their home. That may sound snoopish and nosey but, for me, it really isn't. This is how I internalize them, a way I get to know them. say, at a party while everyone is mingling...I'm usually off by myself looking at the photos on the wall, the needlepoints, family heirlooms, and their books, (don't worry I don't go through closets or other rooms :o) that'd be creepy). I love the small ways, things, etc. that make up a person. (One of the reasons I like blogs so much...)

Gonna read that article.

pondering... thank you.

Hey, first comment. I'm the lesser half of Jenny Holiday, one of your biggest fans. Most times she reads me the Posie blog while I'm laid back, gazing at the ceiling. I rarely get to browse the web for pleasure. If I'm on the PC I'm writing product descriptions for urban sportswear. Very Stimulating (being very sarcastic). But this post of yours, Jenny sat me in front of because it had to do with what she calls "book stuff". I'm the bibliophile of the house. My bedside piles of literature totally rival even those of Posie's, in fact I'm closer to R.Crumb's older brother. So anyhow, great great great post on Prosaics. It is never ever the big picture. In the novel said to be our greatest ever (not my opinion)-Ulysses, a guy takes a walk around a city. In Beckett's perfect play, Waiting for Godot, two acts, nothing happens. In any Nabokov, it's always about the wallpaper more than the actors standing in front of it. And wow, as I type this, Jenny and I are watching Cassavette's Woman Under the Influence. This film is only about the tiny bits. tiny CRAZY bits.
To make a long comment a bit less long-- your blog is Excellent! As the face of literature is changed forever by technology and available information and communication we'll start to see new chapters in literary theory text books touting blogs as the new "living novel". I'm sure Posie Gets Cozy will be referenced.

What a great, great post. Thoughtful and wonderfully insightful. I have always been interested in the seemingly small things of novels - the furniture, the repetitive tasks of housework, the "humdrum" things that make up a life. I have never read the articles that you wrote about; I will be sure to get them out of the library.
One of my very favourite critical theorists is Ann Romines, who wrote "The Home Plot: Women, Writing and Domestic Ritual," in which she argues that housework forms a uniquely female, subversive writing back to patriarchal mores. It is an excellent read and she focuses on some of my favourite American authors - Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, Sarah Orne Jewett. While I don't agree with her on everything, it is a wonderful read that helped to articulate my own thinking on women's literature.
Thank you again for giving me something tangible to mull over on my Sunday morning. It was wonderful.

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About Alicia Paulson

About

My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com

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Since August of 2011 I've been using a Canon EOS 60D with an EF 18-200mm kit lens and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.