Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Post Hoc Ergo Proper Hack

Will, who posted on my Sunday 2 December entry, raises an interesting and potentially frustrating point which I will take up with him and the rest of the assembled host this afternoon when I collect final papers of the semester and deliver a valedictory lecture. Having been with me through two courses this year, Will is about to move beyond my assigned range of classes on is vector to a MPW (master of professional writing) degree. I have no doubt our paths will cross again because he stops by here and I visit his blog site. Also, I suspect it will not be long before I begin the process of receiving books Will has written. Indeed, there was one such book in my faculty mail box a couple of weeks back.

The point Will made in his comment is that after dealing with me over the arc of two classes, he found a few sentences in my Sunday entry that trumped everything he'd heard from me. At the time of writing those sentences, I thought they were pretty interesting myself and after the spell-check reread before hitting the post button, I was impressed by the vision I had evoked, impressed to the point of resolving to remember it.

That is one of my purposes in blogging: self-discovery. In this context, the difference between blogging and journaling is the willingness to engage in dialog and conversation in the former as opposed to the somewhat less transparent expression of the latter.Having journals and, now, blog entries to reread provides me with a pole star of locating myself on the emotional and existential sea, it also provides me with a source of material to fictionalize according to my whim. Some of these entries surprise me with their clarity of vision. When I am not berating myself by wondering when in my life I will ever be visited by an original thought, when I do not experience the severe buyer's remorse of having slept with a cliche, I sometimes see a yard or two of truthful insight in the hefty bolt of reality that has passed through me.

Early in the game, I'd hit on the notion of writing everything as though it were a letter to someone I knew and cared about. My ideal way of beginning a story was with the complementary opening, the Dear____, or My Dear_____. I even tried Precious____ once, but abandoned it quickly, myself finding it too precious.

Sue Grafton told me of her journaling approach, which I liked so much I promptly stole. Coming up alongside Joyce Carol Oates in her prolific output, Sue journals each day at the end of her writing time, discussing with her composite selves her concerns about the day's work, wondering if she went too far or perhaps not far enough, agonizing about the manner in which she layered in a clue, wondering if she sufficiently saw a particular character. She rereads this entry before beginning the next day's work stint. I very much like that. In effect, it meant writing the letter to me instead of whom I happened to be in love with at the moment.

Another big help was my friendship with John Sanford, who wrote almost entirely in the second person, making even his autobiography seem more personal and intense. From John I developed the notion of writing my journals in the third person to the effect that the I became a he and thus what I wrote about me became the they of me writing about the he of me. This focus made me acutely aware of how effective point of view can be and sent me beyond my tangible time here on earth to a time before I was here, wherein I slavishly reread Flaubert, particularly Madam Bovary, in which point of view clatters about like the tin cans tied to the rear bumper of a newlywed's roadster.

And of course there was--and still is--Rachel, she who was my mentor and who stressed the need for getting the truth down before the lies had a chance to form. Although I do not write to Rachel, I write as though she'd be able to see it and nod i approval as Will did, or shake that wonderfully shaggy mane and smile that piercing writer smile before she asked me, Shelly, are you sure this was the way it was?

There is no telling what anyone will like and so I must rely on their after-the-fact-of-reading responses, taking pleasure as I did from Will's response. It is impossible to know how readers will react. You can guess, but already this is setting sail on a dangerous sea, fraught with the temptation to add things for them, hopeful of securing approval. It is like the times you are at a gathering and someone tells a funny story, which ends on a tsunami of laughter. The teller of the story is so intoxicated that he or she repeats the punch line. The tsunami immediately dies, replaced with a sopping splash. We must learn to savor the tsunami and avoid the temptation to risk the sopping splash.

George Orwell's Why I Write is a pretty solid introduction to the process of defining the truth of self to self, but after we have read it and digested it, we must devise our own statement and not rely on his. It is one thing to have him looking over your shoulder; it is yet another thing to pander for his acceptance.


lettuce said...

getting the truth down before the lies have a chance to form - i like that very much.

x said...

Pandering for acceptance. I've been known, on occasion, to do that. It kills my writing. Repeating the punch line is a great example. I remember a Seinfeld episode where George decided he had to leave whenever he got the laugh he was looking for, so he wouldn't then say something unfunny. As a result, people mistakenly thought he would always be funny and sought him out when he most definitely was not. What was my point? Oh, yeah, I wish I lived in California.

Smiler said...

Whatever Tiv said. Especially about the California part.

But seriously, if our innate need is to communicate, the there's also a need to be understood and (somewhat) approved of. Otherwise why bother letting anybody read it?

R.L. Bourges said...

HA! diary writing in the third person. such a good idea. Reminds me of how Smiler's favorite bed-time stories when she was three were the ones where I retold the day's events in the third person. she would choose the names of the mommy and the little girls and then I'd tell the story. I asked her once "doesn't that sound like something you did today?" She thought about it and said "no, my name isn't Sophie."