Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Tale of Two Sidneys

For those who write, there are two sandboxes in which to play, and a third, alternate site reserved for those who take themselves too seriously to enjoy the play of writing. I address here the sandboxes of playfulness, which are the places in which craft of story and self gain entrance into muscle memory.

There are two basic formats for story, long and short.

The long story is a series of wrappings of event about the armature of an individual who ultimately undergoes some form of change. Something happens, somebody changes. My esteemed dramatist colleague from USC, Lee Wochner, reminds me that the three-act play has now changed to two-act. Digby Wolf, inventor of and head writer for Laugh-In, now emeritus from the theater department at UNM, bound now for a gig at the University of Canberra, says nevertheless, Nevertheless, the three-act format is a good template for the longform story. Long story is a stage play, the combined sixty episodes of The Wire, or a novel, say George Pelecanos' remarkable The Turnaround. Long story is also Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which is to say a series of novels in which a character, Lyra Belacqua, has a number of things happening to her, during the course of which she changes considerably.

The short story is a series of events, usually related in scenes, in which a character is drawn farther into a self-fulfilling encounter, one in which the reader is left to actually see or guess at the outcome. The character may or may not be able to see the outcome. The principal in Tobias Wolff's remarkable Bullet in the Brain, for instance, may not be able to see what we see. It is instructive to note how far the short story has progressed from Ambrose Bierce's Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge to the Tobias Wolff.

The literary landscape is like the Earth during the azimuth of evolution of the dinosaur when Earth was struck by a huge meteorite which obliterated for most practical purposes the evolution if not the very existence of the dinosaur. Who knows what the dinosaur might have become had that collision not got in the way? Story has an azimuth, discerned by looking at its structure from the time it began creeping into the petty pace of day-to-day events, altering them, imparting a sense of connectedness and causality which has led many of us to believe in such things as Fate or the will of the gods, or the will of God (as in His Perfect Plan, and don't blame me for that gender stuff; so far as gods go, I'm pretty happy with Kali). We seem now in 2008 to be nipping at the heels of causality much in the manner of an Australia Cattle Dog, rendering it more a vignette or in some cases a string of events, episodes if you will.

The rousing question is What do you bring to it? What have you done for story lately? To paraphrase William Wordsworth, Story is too much with us, late and soon. Which is to say the evolution of story can progress only if those of us working on it can fold into its ingredients a quality I will call inevitability. This quality is present in all evolution. biological or literary. It represents the individual writer's sense of what is most needed to give the process we call story a nudge forward regardless if I as reader or critic or teacher or writer like it or not. I'm pretty impressed by the presence and beauty of the giraffe, and it makes some sense to me that the giraffe evolved to score the leaves off the topmost branches the dinosaurs couldn't reach and that its neck acts like a siphon for water, but I have no stake in the giraffe. Were it to go extinct as a species, I would, having grown up with a sense of wonderment and admiration for the creature, feel a profound regret, but not the ache of grief at the loss of more personalized things. Truth to tell, my fondness for the short story comes from years of painful practice at the so-called pulp and slick and commercial story enhanced by the realization that what I considered a story outside those confines was something a respected editor agreed with and subsequently took on. I have a visual image of hat I want a short story to be. Every time I open a closet door, that image occurs to me.

True enough, if I deconstruct that series of events many persons agree upon as being story, and do so in terms of my vision, I will find a number of elements that go back to Aristotle's Poetics. I also have come to hold similar views on what a person, a single individual among the many billions who have walked and are still abroad on the Earth, represents as an individual. I also believe that the two are the Scylla and Charybdis of storytelling, my goal being to put events between those two poles


Wild Iris said...

There is a catch 22 in story telling. On one side there is an idea of what is expected out of a story, a template if you will about what is accepted as "good" (good equalling "publishable") in the literary world. But the attitude of "This is what is acceptable, because this is what has always been acceptable," dissuades and discourages the trailblazers of literature, cutting off potentially useful adaptations in the skill of story telling. And I can't help but think that all of those radicals in the past, that we now hail as hallmarks in literary evolution, would be shaking their heads in shame at those misunderstood and ignored trailblazers of our own time. When we dispense with what is expected and what is acceptable, the literary world is able to further evolve, and those who simply lack skill all together either learn to adapt in a way that makes their voice worth being heard, their story worth being told, or they fall through the cracks. Cemented mindsets in the publishing industries, and even in readership are the equivalent of that meteorite halting evolution and even destroying progress that has already been made. Which leads me to wonder, where are our literary radicals currently hiding out? New formats can be new mindsets, sometimes we have only to make a few clicks to find the elusive radicals. I know I've encountered a couple in my own adventures, even conversed with a few... in a manner of speaking.

lowenkopf said...

You nailed it with "When we dispense with what is expected and what is acceptable..."

Anonymous said...

What do you bring to it? you ask.

I'm trying to figure that out. Then have confidence in the answer.