Monday, July 7, 2008

Who Was That Masked Man?

Whenever I am asked for the exercises or so-called prompts I use to get myself into a writing mode, whenever I see traces of such exercises in writing text books, and particularly when I see diagrams of dramatic formulas rendered on blackboards, my thoughts are wrenched back to my boyhood days of watching the old Frankenstein movies. In those movies, brass and copper spheres dominated the viewers' attention, static electricity sizzling between them. Rube-Goldberg-like apparatus burbled, crackled, smoked, all to show the creation of what was by all accounts a monster.

With such pellucid vision running its course in my imagination, I am able to say with relative calm, exercises and prompts are well and good for some. For most, there must of course be an inventory of tools, equipment to effect the work at hand. Scene, setting, characters, motives, agendas, dialog. There are of course others. Suspense, tension, reversal, surprise. The writer, as would any craftsperson, lays out in some proximity to the work site such things as research if needed, a time line or chronology; not to forget choices to be made such as point(s) of view and perhaps even verb tense.

So far, so good. But now comes the moment of puttering, of getting to work, of getting into the work, becoming it and having it become you. In other words, attitude. Having something to say. Taking sides. Now you begin to hear the voice speaking the narrative. The voice is of course the narrative, imparting itself to you. An apt metaphor for the beginning moments of working on a project is the seance. Your story guide comes to you from the story, then connects you with it, gives you a vision of it, allows you to hear it, smell it, sense yourself within it, remaining so until the dog wants out or the cat brushes against your legs or the battery of your laptop tells you it wants refurbishment. If you have been given a strong enough connection, you will have less trouble getting back to that trance state wherein the story dances some sort of dance within you and you now become the choreographer, directing the characters and their movements. On point? Plie? Ronde du jamb? Your call. You're into it.

Thus the elements and tools I have not mentioned: passion and risk.

There is no exercise so excellent or effective that it will not be trumped by passion. What this means is that you must care, give a damn, if you will. Incorporate these five words in a narrative of at least five hundred words? Not bloody likely. Suppose I don't care for one or more of the words in the prompt? That being the case, I'm irritated well enough, but irritated at the exercise not some organization or convention or flaw within myself. Such irritation, carried forth, will come forth only as the static and smoke from the Frankenstein movies.

Risk is what you take when you go at something. Imagine yourself a Neanderthal with a limited supply of hunting tools. A few spears but not many; perhaps even a stone hatchet or maybe you were lucky enough to have fund a fractured piece of obsidian, which has a seriously sharp edge which works well for cutting things. You and a few others contrive to jump onto a huge woolly mammoth and begin jabbing at it. Such a kill will provide your group meat for at least a week. Now that is risk, perhaps taken to hyperbole in extreme but in fact, Neanderthals were essentially meat eaters, had lousy hunting tools, and from what we can see of their available remains, many of them had multiple fractures. They took risks.

Unless you are going for the middle range of genre readers, where there are not only conventions, they are so rigidly placed that you can begin to predict when a particular thing (beat) will occur, then you must take risks with the conventions of your medium to overcome the predictable quality and in the bargain give your characters the life Dr. Frankenstein was not able to impart to his monster. Risk is what allows a writer to sail for an unanticipated time on an unanticipated thermal of enthusiasm for to take risk is to leap off the cliff of convention and expectation,

One of the risks is that we end up with our old pal, Wile E. Coyote, having blown it all on a can't miss shot at a Road Runner supper, which you just know would taste better than KFC. And now, at the bottom of the mesa with Wile E. Coyote, we dust our keester and get a hand up from, whozis? from Samuel Beckett, who nods, delivers the punch line. Next time, fail better.

Beep beep.

1 comment:

Wild Iris said...

To be prompted or not when it comes to writing. Your Frankenstien metaphor is quite apt. I do use prompts, however I do not consider the result a serious piece of writing. Sometimes I may be able to impart life to a story or poem prompted by words or an idea, but they are practice runs at breathing life into something more delicate than some of the monstrosities I Frankenstien together. And the dance of writing, oh yes, it's there.