Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What's in It for Me?

The A-level headline of this essay could refer more to financial prognosis than it really does. It is nice to be paid for one's work, although if one has previously made the distinction between things being done for pleasure or discovery or information and the other side of the dialectic being work, there is no need for further definition. When events work to the end of being paid for one's fun, I guess you could call that extra or special, or perhaps even professional athletics.

We are then looking at the side-view mirror at money, receding in the distance. Things done for money are farther away than they seem.

What then are we looking at in the folder of self interest. It is nice to know of a particular character what that person wants and what that person will do in pursuit of the goal. One of my favorite examples is Ms. Dorothy Gale, who wants to get home to Kansas and is willing to go after The Wicked Witch of the East to secure what seems to her frequent flier miles from the Wizard of Oz.

My own goal is frequently information. I write to get emotional information about some moral conundrum, or I pursue stories to see what forces motivate a person to behave as that character behaves. I also go after a story or a narrative for the adventurous thrill of discovering connecting links between two or more things I once considered disparate.

If there is nothing in it for me, I tend to grow restless and impatient while I'm doing it, which is an important reference point to mark off on the landscape of any chore I would rather not be doing, indeed find myself inventing diversions to keep me from doing. Some friends and associates have what I consider the admirable philosophy of trying to impart the sense of doing well everything they do, thus managing to extract satisfaction. I have tried to extract satisfaction from a myriad of things, say ironing shirts or neatening my work area, doing dishes. It is no small thing to wear a neatly ironed shirt, an improved sense of efficiency if my work area is neat, the comfort of being able to eat from a clean plate or, better still, not have to eat from a paper plate, provided I have done dishes. There are other chores such as doing the laundry, emptying trash, deleting unused files from the hard drive of y computer, deleting from my closet clothing I have not worn for over a year. But to say such things cause squirts of happiness into my blood stream or charges of crackling energy down my neural paths is to indulge hyperbole.

How noble it is of me to hypothesize that my wiring is designed with such nobility that I am then driven to discovery or surprise, making me sound like a pure scientist, or that I work to assuage an omnivorous curiosity. Trouble is, I don't do noble to any degree of excellence. So what is the correct label to pin on the exhibit, as though I were some butterfly or bug, impaled on a biologist's needle? Contrary comes to mind. I can be comfortable with contrary in a way I could never achieve comfort with nobility of purpose.

Is there some Big Bang in my psyche that caused this spray of attitude and voice? Was there some defining moment, or were there a series of defining moments that somehow knit together into this garment of contrariness? My best memory of such awareness came at age nineteen when, bored with most of the curriculum accorded me at Los Angeles City College, where I had gone to study typography with Richard Hoffman (and loved it) and stumbled on a survey course in which I careened into the wondrous mysteries of Geoffrey Chaucer, I filled out transfer papers and hied myself across town to the University of California at Los Angeles, which was something altogether else in that I not only had to read things and write intelligently about them, I wanted to, and did, until my first bout of final examinations. What was in studying for those examinations was the path to graduate school, expanded horizons of literature, dots to connect of history, culture, language, critical thinking. I chose instead to spend much of the time furiously writing short stories, inventing one character as an alter ego who has remained with me for lo these many years, pairing him with another character who has occasionally slipped between the cracks of neglect, but who significantly reappeared in time to appear in one particular short story that bought me away from the pulps and commercial magazines and into the so-called literary or quality journals. The thrust of the story was the epitome of contrariness, in which my alter ego undertook to suborn the affections of his best friend's dog, thinking to disguise the dog and raise her as his own.

No, it certainly isn't money that has been in it so far as the stories were concerned, not after that point, wherein "payment" meant two free copies of the journal in which the story appeared or in another case, a leaky fountain pen, or in another, a t-shirt. What then was in the writing of these stories for you?

A discovery of a terrain in which things happen outside the range of the things you see about you, and yet of the things you see, an exaggerated sense of reach that becomes more and more plausible the deeper into it you proceed, sans map, sans comfortable walking shoes, sans directions.

Some time after you made this discovery of terrain, you fell on some reversals financially. It was not so much that you were living beyond your means as it was that you had no means to live within. Dennis Lynds got you a job writing for hire in a suspense/adventure series that liked to think of itself as a blue-collar James Bond. To make the project interesting, you crafted the antagonist in the image of the then chairman of your department, and because it was interesting, it was fun, and because it was fun, things happened that were not in the outline the editor had approved. "What the hell is going on here?" the editor asked. "Beats me," you said. "This stuff is--is--well, it's writing," the editor said. "It's convincing. You should, you know, be a writer," he said.

What I think he meant was that I should be a writer somewhere else, but I did not say that, I kept on having fun until my reversals were reversed, but that is another story. What this story is about is getting characters to visit your terrain, where they will become something contrary and you will discover something in it for you.


Lori Witzel said...

Two items in particular made me grin big:
* Paper plates -- yes, I keep 'em handy for just that reason (although life with Murry has made me somewhat less feral).
* "What I think he meant was that I should be a writer somewhere else..."

*snork* x 2

(And ain't typography a fun thing to study? Give me an eloquent counter within a lower-case "e" any day and I'm a happy gal.)

The thread about "No knocker"?

Cool thought, the notion of the book as a painting, a portrait of sorts about a character, the character in this case being named Texas. (And it raises another interesting thought -- that of an aggregation of photos ultimately being a painting, a self-portrait of the photographer.)

Anonymous said...

I get no happiness from the chores either, but I love Dorothy Gale. Maybe the terrain always has a yellow brick road.