Friday, March 16, 2007

The Genie in the Bottle

One of my favorite phrase/concepts is The Genie in the Bottle.

One of my favorite archetypal stories is about the fisherman who unwittingly hauls in a bottle from which a genie emerges, more or less telling the fisherman to say his prayers or whatever because he is about to get a more furious whacking than the 109th Congress got in the last election.

But why, the fisherman complains. After all, didn't I save your sorry ass from the confines of the bottle?

The genie recites his agenda: After I was imprisoned in that bottle, I vowed that I would grant three wishes to the person who freed me. But after a few hundred years in the bottle, I decided I would only grant my rescuer two wishes. After a time, my generosity shrank and I lowered the offer to one wish. Still no rescue. Accordingly, I vowed to kill the person who turned me loose. I mean, someone has to pay for this.

Thinking fast, the fisherman adopted a plan that began with his shaking his head in disbelief. Come on, he said. You're playing tricks with me. I can't believe a genie of your size and power could fit in such a tiny bottle.

Listen, kid, the genie said, I can pretty much do anything I want.

Again the fisherman shook his head. Tickets for the Springsteen concert, I can see, but not you in that bottle.

Oh, is that so? the genie shouts. Well, watch this! And with a poof, the genie is back in the bottle, whereupon the fisherman slams home the stopper, tosses the bottle overboard, and calls out, So long, schmuck.

By my definition then, the expression genie in the bottle refers to a pent-up force with a resident attitude.

I came to see the genie in the bottle as I looked with some care and interest at two remarkable and wildly diverse Web sites, Ben Huff, a photographer in Fairbanks, AK, and Mrs. Deane, a graphic arts site in the Netherlands.

Why would a writer be consulting such sites? For one thing, each site, Ben Huff and Mrs. Deane, had an identifiable voice. Each had a certain radiant inner power that held me with each successive image. And Ben Huff was able to express in writing some of the essence he was trying to capture. Reading Huff, I returned to Mrs. Deane, and sure enough, gears within me were beginning to mesh. I felt I could begin to articulate what the individuals who are Mrs. Deane were looking for.

The crowning touch was Mrs. Deane offering access to download a symbol, something that looked like an exclamation point that had been hit by lightning, that can be used in text when your intention is to convey irony. I will link to that as soon as I wade through the instructions, which are written in Dutch.

Suddenly I am having a vision of the thing I look for and indeed have looked for in my work: the genie in the bottle. As with so many of the things that relate to creativity, my first glimpse is a feeling--or a series of feelings--which I experience with a gulp, digest quickly, then get to work, trying to capture the image. I work--oh, how I work--trying to get the emotions down on the page, trying to get the explanations and footnotes out. It took me years to be able to articulate the concept to myself that description is for the late nineteenth century and perhaps the first three-quarters of the twentieth, but from there onward, evocation is the goal. Anyone can describe. Well, no; Tom Clancy can't describe. Tom Wolfe thinks he can.

Ben Huff doesn't describe; he evokes. Ditto Mrs. Deane.

What about Shelly? Ah, he looks for the genie in the bottle, that trapped force with an attitude, resident in everything. And then he tries to evoke it.

Don't do the reader's work for him, Shelly rails at his students. Make the reader complicit.

So, were I to have to write an essay, "How I Spent My Spring Break," I would write:

I learned from Ben Huff and Mrs. Deane to look for the genie in the bottle.


ben said...

Shelly, thank you so much for your words here - you made my day.


Anonymous said...

I had no idea, Shelly, you said all these nice things about me. That is, until now when I checked my incoming links box in the wordpress dashboard. I am completely fluttered. Also, I now feel the heavy burden of keeping up with all those expectations about my 'evocative power' your readers will come to expect of me after this posting. That's not to say I don't like a challenge, but it does make me review my writing with a more critical and distanced eye before just throwing the mess I just created online.