Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Point of No Return

Beginnings are neither easy nor natural, sometimes remaining unrecognized until they are well under way. Even then, beginnings are often recounted in retrospect, often sad retrospect, as in, If I had only known, or Little did I recognize then. Beginnings confound us nearly as much as endings. We often aren't sure where or when a thing begins until we decide where it ends, allowing us to scroll back to the literary equivalent of a Big Bang. Yogi Berra may well have observed that it isn't over until it's over, but had he been more observant, he'd have also recognized that we need a sign from on high that the ending really is over, allowing us to scramble back through the parking lot, looking for the lost keys of the beginning.

Being born is one beginning, promising in the sense of now being on stage, collecting coordination and memories. My own earliest memories come from a time when my family was driven by economic need from the Santa Monica, California of my birth to a distant suburb, Burbank, and a Mediterranean-style home on Providencia Street, which must have placed me in or about age three, where I remember being locked (probably by my own hand) in a bathroom with a corrugated glass pane in the door. Some time later I recall being taken by my older sister next door to see some baby alligators in the wash basin of our neighbors, the Browns. The Browns also had a dog named Silver with whom I had a relationship of sorts in that once Silver bit me and I in turn bit him.

Beginnings are not always where you expect them; in dramatic fiction, they are determined by the nature of the story and are every bit as important to get fine tuned as it is important to establish who or whom among the dramatis personae is/are relaying the story to the reader. Endings are not always where you expect them, either, meaning you either go on too long and thus risk the distraction of anticlimax or the quite different risk of stopping too soon, risking the reception of the narrative as a shaggy dog story.

Thus observed, with perils from both ends as it were, story in general is a risky business, particularly for those of us who follow the character-driven story as opposed to the compulsively orchestrated plot-driven story. And so we approach a given story with the sense that there is some safety in the middle part of the narrative arc, which in many ways is like the spare room or garage in which things are piled helter-skelter, waiting for use or, worse, waiting for guests to arrive, which occasions a need to clear our a sleeping space, which very need occasions some calamitous discovery such as the bed or sofa having an exposed spring or stain the size and shape of the former Soviet Socialist Union.

Okay, there is no place in story to go for safety, no soft spot, no lee cove or haven. Add to this menacing landscape of beginning, middle, and ending, there is the pulsing sense that a story need not be scrolled forth in chronology. If anything, a story told in strict chronology needs some added touch of suspense or characterization or moral quandary to leaven the unremarkable time frame.

I am mindful of these lurking menaces by a tart email from Digby Wolfe, reminding me it is time--another sort of time--to get on with the book we have been threatening for some time now, The DNA of Story. "I believe the middle is the minefield," he writes. "That's where the real danger lies--the matter of choice, where one may or may not safely tread, when in fact safety is the detonating word for the real menace:predictability..."

Our assignments are made. He will begin with middles and I with a dissection of the basic dramatic unit, the scene, which has beginning and middle and ending.

In the process, I am reminded of a time some years back, when The Writer was still quartered in Boston, and its remarkable editor, Sylvia Burack, approached me to do a piece on middles, which I could possibly still be grappling with to this very day had I not had the good bad fortune to watch that iconic film, The High and the Mighty, on television. The story is quintessential disaster film, wrapped in an ensemble cast, all of whom are caught on a flight between Los Angeles and Honolulu, where things go wrong. Seriously wrong. Engines catch fire. Storms approach. One of the flight crew--the pilot--has a heart attack. As one disaster after another is announced, we are delivered the dramatic equivalent of a one-two punch. The flight engineer announces that the fuel supply is in trouble, the radio man chimes in with the storm being up-graded, which will require greater fuel use. And now, the navigator with his announcement. We've reached the point of no return.

I was up immediately, reaching for my note pad, my reliable Moleskine. PONR, I printed. The middle is the point of no return; the story cannot end, the characters are committed to a course of action that will produce consequences. We cannot guess what those will be yet and indeed may change our minds as we proceed, but given the archetype, the plane cannot return to safety of the LAX airport; it must forge ahead. Not to worry, John Wayne was the copilot and he'll overcome his own issues to bring us safely under the storm and into Honolulu.

The reader needs to see the PONR to be invested fully in it. Check out Antigone, for instance, if you find this trope of mine is too modern. Check out Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, check out Middlemarch and even the short stories in this year's New Yorker.

It is instructive to see the more successful--by which I mean the more enduring--stories arriving somewhere at that Point, which throws facts and circumstances and surprise together, effecting and affecting the beginning and the middle. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, the PONR comes almost exactly in the middle, a stirring circumstance in which two of the principals, Dick Diver, the young psychiatrist, and Nichole Warren, his patient, are caught in a rain downpour while strolling in downtown Vienna, and in a matter of moments, to quote from Dick Diver's point of view, "he knew that from now on, her troubles were his." Were they ever!

There is a splendid PONR in Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, and an equally moving one in Huck Finn.

I shall direct Digby to these vagrant lines, curious to see if indeed we now have two chapters. On with the dialectic.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this one, Shelly....

z said...

This is really helpful to me in thinking about my gestating memoir. I don't want to start with "I was born." I want to begin somewhere in the middle but I haven't figured out where that is, because I have a couple of stories going at once. Lots to think about. I need to get a new notebook just for this project. Definitely a handwritten project on paper.