Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Story Outsourced to India

For as long as you have known it, used it, plumbed its depths and considerable resources, you have been fond of the [Edward L.]Doheny Library on the University of Southern California Campus. It was because of this library that you were first summoned to the office of a long forgotten dean. "Did you tell your students that every building on this campus was named after a crook?"

"What I said, sir, was that the Doheny Library was brought to us by those same wonderful folks who gave us The Tea Pot Dome Oil Scandal?"

And so as I sat in a large conference room on the second floor of said library, the musty smell of old texts by no means unpleasant, the sun gently filtered through authentic wooden blinds, the campus ablaze with Summer Session students and incoming freshmen on orientation tours, I felt comfortable and at home among many of my faculty peers as we greeted our new department chair, a splendid and energetic choice selected after a rigorous search process. A well-produced playwright and well-published poet, her credentials include teaching stints at Brown, Yale, and Harvard, her passion for teaching manifest in her frank, assertive smile and the force behind her questions.

I would guess there were upward of thirty faculty members present, quickly doing what faculty members ought to be doing, which is to say disagreeing with one another. It began, innocently enough, with one faculty member discussing the difference between two Hemingway stories, The Killers and A Clean Well-lighted Place, each successfully illustrating different levels of the three basic segments of narrative. "Wait a minute," one faculty member said, "Why only three?" And we were off and running in a pleasing diversion for me because I realized we were all looking for ways to articulate the very things faculty members ought to be articulating, which is to say differences.

So that, by the time the new department chair asked the rhetorical question, What is the first thing we want a student of writing in our program to know? I was able to throw some lighter fluid into the fire. "We want them to know who they are?"

As you can suppose, there were exceptions taken to my assertion, some insisting we wanted them to know Aristotelian Poetics, others still venturing forth with such things as scenes, dialogue, narrative, point of view.

The difference between writers' takes on what is or is not important is warming to me because of my firm belief that there is no single way, no answer, not even a compromise, just as, later, it became apparent that there was no answer to the question of whether being isolated and alone is better for the emerging writer than collegiality and interconnectedness.

In a few days, I will sit in a similar faculty meeting as the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference moves from the Green Room of the pre-conference gathering to the starting whistle blowing on Saturday morning and the workshops changing their inertial state from being at rest to surging into motion.

It is a satisfying thing to sit in a room of writer teacher, quite liking some and their writing, equally quite disliking others as teachers and writers. I will not name names, not from modesty or fear of reprisal I am too far along in what I do to be modest or fearful. The simpler matter is that you may just as easily have contrary views of whom to admire and whom to detest, and we would both be right.

The issue is wrapped around the armature of story, of who tells the story or narrative or poem and how he or she tells it. Grown men and women making emphatic gestures on the desks in front of them, digressing wildly to slip in information that will make them seem even more important than their opinions, become a glorious circus. I close my eyes and see sword swallowers, fire eaters, animal tamers, clowns, jugglers, jongleurs, poets. I smell the crisp, resinous tang of sawdust, the arcid invitation of onions sizzline on the cookhouse grill, the sugary confabulation of cotton candy, the sweat of the animals, the excitement of the circus goers. We all have our act and it is to believe strongly enough in our illusion to insist that there is some truth in it, some effect and affect.

Many of the Hindu faith believe there is only one reality, the godhead, Everything else is maya or illusion. To be real, they say, you have no qualities, particularly you do not change. The minute you attempt to describe the godhead, you are consigning it to the real of illusion because you are giving it attributes. Such thinking gets Hindus into a good deal of trouble, or perhaps I should say argument. For instance, Ganesha, the devoted follower of Shiva, is seen as godhead with attributes, and what are you going to make of that?

On the other hand, let us posit that there is no reality but story, which comes from the psyche, which comes from somewhere, let's not argue about exactly where, let's save that for later, for another night when there are no adverbs or adjectives to get in the way.

No comments: