Monday, March 17, 2008

Can You Please Direct Me to Writing?

As the burgeoning writer begins to gather momentum toward defining a sense of what it is, internally and externally, to put words on the page or screen, he comes to the quagmire of advice from those who may also nourish a similar urge but who are, shall we say, more cautious. Timid has also been suggested.

One of the words of wisdom has to do with experience, as in Write from your direct experience and if you don't have any, take some unsettling job and get some.

Another bit of advice is offered as seriously as the directive of Plastics is offered to Raymond in The Graduate. Instead of plastics, the advice is Show--don't tell.

My earliest contact with well-intended advice came when I was still arm wrestling with puberty, yet to become a conscript in the skirmishes of what I think of as the Dating Wars. In a weak moment, I'd told my beloved older sister of my ambitions--not the ones dealing with girls because she already knew about that; these were my ambitions to join the ranks of working writers.

"The first thing you'll need," she said, "is a style."

This was nearly enough to make me wish I'd remained mute about my ambitions. "Yeah, of course," I said, having no idea what a style was much less how one came by it. Nor did I have any idea for the next few years until I reached the point where teachers began to talk openly of writers' styles, once again daunting me because they seemed to have the entire matter of style down pat and I could no more discern style than I could an anapest or a trochee. Hemingway's clipped, rhythmic style...Steinbeck's mellifluous and sentimental cadences...Fitzgerald's mature-sounding tropes...Heaven protect me, what is a trope? James M. Cain's unsentimental, epigrammatic prose...John O'Hara's beating-about-the-bush put-downs and social stratification...

There were times when I knew I was in over my head, and took to journalism with the relief of a convert going from a religion that seemed too based in miracles that were beyond me to the more practical aspects of turning other cheeks or doing to others as I would have them do unto--I guess me.

But journalism didn't provide the answers I sought, not through any fault of journalism but rather through my own inability to dig deeply enough into anything but stories.

Let us skip some of the other chapters in the compendium of advice given and advice taken, through the outer reaches of journalism, the byzantine alleyways of television, and the bucking bronco experiences related to the feature film. Let us say for the sake of brevity that I'd become burned any number of times by the advice of others, resolving instead to be burned by my own advice. Or not.

The advice has transmogrified to more or less the subtitle of this blog site, A writer's notes to himselves, this in full recognition on my own of the multifarious nature of the human psyche and the writer's agendas. Thus instead of giving advice to these selves, this band of brothers, what is given is a series of questions.

The questions these recent days have to do with purpose and intent. Why do people do as they do? Or to be more straightforward, What's the real reason?

Shortly after completing my undergraduate studies at UCLA, which is to say after having prolonged them as long as I could, it finally came to me to say enough. The real reason was because I didn't think I'd be able to learn anything more there at that time. Maybe later. For now, I had the promise of a job in a thriving weekly newspaper at one of the mysterious border tows between California and Mexico. I might be able to learn something there. Or not.

I was never to find out. An ancient Cadillac arrived shortly before my scheduled departure, driven by a friend of a rather close friend, offering me frequent-flier miles to adventure. So long journalism, hello carnival life, county fair life, edging my way through the small agricultural towns off the fabled California Route 99, spanning the enormous Central Valley. In short time I was able to be a shill, the operator of a Guess Your Weight Booth, operator of a baseball throw booth, a darts booth, and one of the sweetest scams known to making wherein customers tried to lob baseballs into biscuit pans with numbers painted in each hole. Add 'em up. Under nine or over nineteen wins a teddy bear.

What's the real reason?

If there is anything to keep a writer going, through journalism and carnivals and television and screenplays, if there is anything at all to keep that forward inertia, it is in the constant asking of that question and the speculation of the multitude of possibilities.

Standing on a crowded midway in the sultry press of Summer in Fresno or Modesto or Bakersfield or Reno or Sacramento, calling out the pitch to the passers by on the dusty midway, your voice raw and gravelly from the oft-shouted invitations to Try the ballgame, you see a decorated soldier in starched dress khakis, strolling with his lady friend and suddenly an idea is born in your mind. "Hey, soldier," you call forth, "you won a teddy bear for the lady you were with last night. How about winning a prize for this lady?"

The young woman looks questioningly at the soldier, who has suddenly let her hand drop. "You said you were on duty!" Face reddening, the soldier advances on me. "I was on duty last night," he storms, drawing abreast of me, intending me no good.

"Hey, Rube!" a barker in a nearby booth yells, and quickly, more quickly than the soldier can cope with, he is surrounded by barkers, roustabouts, and carneys, being escorted off the midway.

A number of the "security force" are concerned that I am all right after my near miss adventure.

I am more than all right, I am excited drunk with the power of what a few words can effect.

What's the real reason?

1 comment:

R.L. Bourges said...

ah yes. Mischief. From the Old French "meschever" meaning "to end badly". Sounds like a lot of fun.
(Instructive cv, by the way.)