Monday, March 19, 2007

The Passenger in the Next Seat

Much has been written about the potential dangers of fellow passengers on a trip, dangers of a more personal and insidious nature. Cell phones, for instance. Or loud chewing. Loud talking. A rude curiosity as in, Hey, what are you watching? Or even more intrusive, So, you working on a novel there--or is it a memoir?

So fearful of such potential intrusions is Brian Fagan that directly he finds his seat, he fires up his Mac, plugs in his Bose earphones and is out to everyone but the steward serving dinner.

We all have a morbid fear of the fellow passenger, a sense of repugnance W. Somerset Maugham exploited so deftly in his memorable short story, "Mr. Know-It-All." Neil Simon plays on the psychology of our apparent willingness to confide the most intimate details to strangers we meet while at travel, using this impressive sense of confidence to hook the viewer/reader. The estimable Mr. Simon maintains that having a character say to another, "I've never told anyone this before, but--" is the quintessential narrative grabber.

Writers, and by extension musicians, artists, should not only apply this approach but deliver it. The reader, the viewer, the listener, the audience--whether they snap their chewing gum, burp loudly, ask impertinent or irrelevant questions--is best served when it believes it is receiving information not told before.

There are times, of course, when we want the comfort of hearing the same old thing, told in the same old way, and what better way to get that effect than by listening to a politician?

As we turn to our role models in the arts and crafts of words, images, and performance, we are looking for the confidence not uttered before, the confession of some previous misdeed, some inactivity when activity would have been more appropriate, some control when abandon ran amok in the streets, some inner conscience that bade us stop before we'd stepped over a line.

Often when we travel, when we steal a few moments away to write or study, we sit with a sense of purpose so strong that it borders on entitlement. Thus do we become protective of not only our privacy but our purpose. We are here to write, damnit, or to photograph, or to entertain, and to protect that sense of privilege, we insulate ourselves from our travel mate and, by a simple extension, from our reader.

True enough, some of the things I have been told, either in confidence or the intimacy of someone's guard having been lubricated, are not things that will matter to me. Moby-Dick really does tell me more about whales than I want to know, but hearing or seeing the secrets of another is my first shot at a vision of the persons of my time and place on earth, and if I miss that, I am letting self-importance make me forget about audience, who those people are, and how I am able to reach out to them with an observation.

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