The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Reality is the raw material

Rachael Conlin Levy

Often I wonder where I’m going with the fragments of story and dialog, of moment and feeling that find their way into my blog. I follow them to their end and hope that along the way I will figure out what they mean. I enjoy the discovery and occasionally dip my toe into fiction but find these waters cold. I’d like to take the plunge, only doubt whether I could swim so I stand on the shoreline, feeling safe on solid ground but a bit cowardly.

Perhaps this is why I am thinking, thinking, thinking about a short article in the journal Brevity about how to create stories when facts are slim, how to draw out what is meaningful, truthful, interesting amongst the jumble of stuff. Newspaper clippings, letters, diaries, pictures are the scaffolding from which the author Greg Bottoms hangs his theories and opinions, and though he teeters on the edge of fiction he does not fall. It is all accomplished with grace, sincerity and a minimum amount of words. Here are some examples of how he moves from the known into the unknown. The pieces come from his article about a marginalized artist from Florida.

Here is a story, like many of the stories about Alfonso, which may or may not be true: When he was five, maybe six, his mother became too sick to work for a time. The bills kept coming. The family needed money, needed food. Geraldo took his charisma and his talent and an old oil drum, his bold rooster self, and went out into the streets to play for the locals and the tourists, who were so impressed they paid him, the little Cuban boy, el Santero. Mama was so proud she got well again. He saved her spirit, which fixed her body. He saved the family, Sophia’s special boy.


I have a copy of a photograph of Alfonso toward the end of his life in front of one of the shrines he made for his mother. … I’m looking at it because I’m trying to fathom the final, dark turn his psychology took toward the end, when even the art stopped giving him purpose.

“The mind of another is a writer’s conjecture, and biographical writing is always flirting with fiction, a speculative stab at truth propelled by the available, sometimes-scant facts,” Bottoms writes. “Reality is the raw material, but real writers reshape reality so that the deepest possible meanings, at least according to them, are clarified.”

What was an ah-ha! moment for me probably was a no-duh! for others, but there it was: Extrapolation is the vehicle to move from fact to fiction; fortitude is the fuel. And that leads me to Martha Graham, the American modern dancer and choreographer.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

All pieces are worth reading.

3 responses to “Reality is the raw material”

  1. Oh, Rachel… Yes yes. I used to have that Martha Graham quote hanging on the wall in my studio. It seems you are keeping it yours. I like watching it unfold.

  2. Your name…no…so sorry, RachAel. I’ll remember that, one day.

  3. anno says:

    Rich and wonderful … will take some time for these ideas, though, to work themselves into the bone. Your links are always fun to follow; brevity & arts & letters have provided many hours of interesting distraction. To reciprocate (pay back?), here’s mine: Hope you enjoy.

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