Friday, March 28, 2008

Writing the Muscle Memory Way

Pairs of opposites:
1. The plot-driven story, perhaps well exemplified by almost anything you pick up to read by Harlen Coben. Thanks to Barnaby Conrad, you have CD versions of at least six Coben novels, most of which hold up quite well until the point where they stay on beyond the ending, like a sloshed guest at a party, wanting to finish his drink...and have another...and another. Characters in plot-driven stories quite often behave in a plausible manner, but they are equally given to strange behavior you don't immediately grasp until you realize that they do what they do or do not do what they should because they are following the pole star of the plot.

2. The character-driven story, well exemplified by E. Annie Proulx or Richard Powers, or William Trevor, or Alice Munro, and yes, your great favorite through the years, Muriel Spark. Character-driven fiction turns your head, wrests you away from work and into the roughhouse of the splendid play of things happening because the characters have no control over their deeper wishes and ambitions. Ah, the years you spent trying to learn how to plot, admiring such pals as Day Keene and Bob Turner, Steve Fisher, and Frank Gruber, not to forget Dorothy B. Hughes and Tom Dewey. You even had Day Keene's agent, Donald MacCampbell for a time, and it was nice to spend that time thinking you could live in comfort if not opulence with a novel every month or six weeks. And how that scenario played out when as an editor you "acquired" MacCampbell's memoir, Don't Step on It--It Might Be a Writer, and later still, Gruber's The Pulp Jungle. In some ways, your trying to write plot-driven material and not being able to with any notable skill pushed you toward learning what only you could learn for yourself, how to write like yourself, how to leave it in the hands of who the characters were, what they wanted, and what they were willing to do to get what they wanted.

Another great schism:

1. The outline: a detailed map of design, a kind of Navajo rug of literary pretension, setting forth such time-worn terms as goal, reversal, rising action, falling action, denouement, closure. From about age fifteen onward until your thirties, you devoured exegeses of such terms and concepts, one of your favorites being by a man named Stanley Vestal, who in a real sense herded you toward early pulp successes.

2. The flashlight-in-the-dark approach, which some one of your early writing heroes set forth, meaning you wrote in the dark, your curiosity a flashlight getting you through the unfamiliar terrain of a darkened room with only a small flashlight to guide you.
Suddenly, well along in the game, it comes to you that this is indeed your approach, sometimes being satisfied with a line or two of keepable text a day instead of the twenty pages of outlined diktat.

And yet another:

1. Outer conflict: an interesting or appealing character needs to battle the equivalent of schoolyard bullies to get through the day.

2. Inner conflict: an interesting he or she who needs to battle his or her internal schoolyard bullies to get at his or her talent. The monsters are inside, keeping the character on a tight leash.

And this just in, as they say on TV:

1. Proactive, which is to say going at story as a means of advocacy.

2. Reactive, which is a response to some injustice or as a rebuttal.

In a real sense, it--the process--is all the above, which is to say writing after having at one time or another doing all of the above, leavening it now with that greatest process of all, muscle memory. Doing it without thinking. Which in its literary way, is taking on literature, any kind of literature, as though still a teen-ager, without fear of failure much less death.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I so much like this post, as I've only just arrived at this point of understanding. We post-post-moderns thumb our noses at plot but to my mind that doesn't respect the readers (nor acknowledge the readers in ourselves). Plot: a necessary yet not sufficient component of Story (story being the Queen/King). It wasn't until I bowed to plot that I was able to dethrone it, I think.

Plot without Character = skeleton
Character without Plot = jellyfish

Of course, you've not only helped me to think about this but you helped me to get here.