Eugene Should Read More Fiction

Laurel Fisher offered a deceptively simple remedy for all that ails Eugene. The former South Eugene High School English teacher died last week, leaving others to make her arguments for her. She believed we should all read more fiction. More about that in a moment.

I never knew Laurel when she was teaching, but I have no doubt she was demanding and energetic, a raucous resource for a generation of Eugeneans. I knew her only after she had slowed down a tad — but not much more than that — in her retirement years. She was the first I knew to buy Volkswagen’s New Beetle. It was bright yellow.

We sat across from each other for years on the program committee for the City Club of Eugene. Whenever I invited anyone to join that group, I usually warned them not to think of it as a committee meeting. If they came in thinking of it as a sporting event, then the rapid responses and determined jousting made a lot more sense.

Even when Laurel and I agreed on an issue, we’d still poke and jab at each other’s points, devoted together to sharpening whatever debate we hoped the topic would invite. It was all in good fun, but it was also good work. Many interesting programs — and friendships — came from that committee’s work.

Laurel championed the arts wherever her voice was needed. She had a way of scolding those who wouldn’t follow her devotion, insisting that you — only you! — could make the difference in this particular case. I doubt even a few ever mustered any resentment over her determination, because she always practiced whatever it was she was preaching.

In a 2006 interview with arts reporter Bob Keefer, she made the difficult but important argument that arts education was losing ground because we were trying to convince one another it was all somehow useful. She disagreed, arguing that art’s value is intrinsic.

“We have to stop trying to make the arts have extrinsic value,” she told Keefer. “Stop trying to sell the idea that if you take a music course you can grow up and be a trombonist in the orchestra. Or if you take an oil painting class you can make Christmas gifts for your family. Or you can teach oil painting as a career.”

And then came her money shot: “What’s important is the transformation inside you that art can offer.”

Laurel believed in the power of truth, but she also understood how easily it hides in the detritus of everyday life. Paintings often give viewers more clarity than photographs can, because of what the painter can leave out. Likewise with fiction. A non-fiction writer has to be true only to the writing itself.

You may never be so driven as Ahab was to defeat the whale, but after you’ve read “Moby Dick,” you understand obsession and what it can do to people — better than life itself will usually teach you. Ahab’s story tells the truth, even it never really happened.

Life, on the other hand, is a mottled mess of grays. Lines are seldom straight, most beginnings are never completed, whatever sense we make of things is often drowned out by the nonsense surrounding it. And us.

If we read more fiction, we might notice the nonsense that clutters our discourse. After we cherish an idealized painting of south Willamette Street, we might see again how the telephone poles crowd the curbs and power lines criss-cross the sky. We filter those messy details out of our minds, but the clutter itself somehow remains.

Laurel embraced that cluttered reality. She was always the type to peer into shop windows to see what might be opening soon or happening inside. She modeled and taught engagement — believing it necessary, but not sufficient.

The life of a city, especially one as engaged as ours, requires a life of the mind. And the life of the mind, at certain junctures, requires more clarity than our lives being lived usually affords.

So it’s good and healthy sometimes to curl up with stories that are less busy — but not less true — than our own.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com