Monday, September 29, 2008

The Dance Card: Safe Choices and Rejection Letters

Whether we're dealing with the no-nonsense demands of genre fiction or the more concept- or theme-oriented strands of literary story, a significant element clamors for attention with more energy than a school kid wanting the teacher's attention because said kid knows the answer. 

 The significant element, the denominator of this particular dramatic fraction is risk. Whether we're dealing with Rebeca of Sunnybrook Farm or The Sorrows of Young Werther, be it Huck Finn or Yossorian, we want and expect our front-line characters to be at risk from the get go so that the risk can enhance as though we were tracking an impending tropical storm.

We hold risk up to the light, heft it, kick the tires, all the while wondering if the story we have in hand (either as readers or as a writer) brings someone we care about into the path of the approaching storm. I need a small favor someone will ask of a character. Oh, and while you're there (wherever there happens to be), will you be so kind as to look in on...? Whenever we see this, we sigh with relief and settle in, comfortable in the knowledge that the request for some slight favor will become the literary equivalent of a huge pit, drawing within its depths someone with whom we have been made to feel some connection.

Some of the very reasons we favor certain of the genres is because it puts into accelerated risk individuals with whom we identify, individuals who, by the way, are stuck in circumstances that may be contrived in the imagination of a talented writer but which impress nevertheless as all to similar to our own current sense of entanglement. 

 We worry about making the risk seem specific instead of generic, about putting our characters through a poignant experience or, if the situation is humor, a properly embarrassing or potentially humiliating one.

But what about the risk to our self when we get caught in the slipstream pull of story telling? The risk remains that we will discover something perhaps a tad beyond our ability to absorb, perhaps a revelation that we are somehow less than the image of self we walk about with all day, flaunting in the face of someone: family, Fates, friends. And then again, perhaps we will come away with the fleeting suspicion that we are something more than we had originally thought.

Until we take those risks, we run the danger of being the sort of writer our friends may admire. Has, for instance, a writer friend envied your vocabulary or perhaps your sense of humor, possibly even your talent with metaphor, and not to forget your ability to describe the commonplace as extraordinary and the remarkable as commonplace? All nice tools to have clinking about in your toolkit, no question about it, but what good are tools if they do not produce a sense of risky participation in a situation?

When someone envies my memory for characters and stories, for authors and their titles, for dazzling pyrotechnics, I am hit in the solar plexus with the suspicion that I need to go back and plumb the lines for emotional depth or response, for a greater empathy with one or more characters. I am aware of having run a three-card monte or a dazzle of a distraction to cut away from facing some encounter that is not only painful to me, it is so without my being aware of the encounter.

Risk is leaving out sparkling dialog or description; risk is shearing away from the glib figure of speech or the smart-ass riposte. Risk is me the dancer as opposed to Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. I am better at stepping on your foot and apologizing than I am at an elaborate dip and swirl. If I were to ask you to dance a second time, you'd return the request by suggesting we sit the next one out and talk. It is not that I would forbear to ask you to dance I'd take that risk, but my better risk is the one I take when trying to coordinate the give-and-take of story or of mere conversation, where there is more at risk than the coordination of fox trot or bossa nova.

We work to bring techniques into the familiarity of muscle memory, all the while ignoring risk as something not worth asking to dance.


Anonymous said...

Well, I quite like dancing and I don't get asked near often enough.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Makes me think of that Evelyn Waugh quote - he said something like 'If a man criticises my work, I think 'what an ass'. If a man compliments my work I think 'what an ass''. Characters, writers - we all need to take risks.

Rowena said...

I think risk is the difference between a craftsperson and an artist.

A craftsperson (whether in writing, art, textiles, food, dance, theater, or whatever) is a person who very carefully learns how to master the technicalities of an art. Perhaps they even discovered something once that was true and risky.... but in not wanting to lose that truth, they become safe with it and no longer take risks.

An artist is constantly on edge, risking their results, risking their sense of accomplishment, risking their secrets or their fear and taking chances with their medium. It is not about finding answers, it is about asking questions. Sometimes we find out the answers to those questions are ugly. That's okay, it's part of the process. You move on with what you learn, ready to ask the next question and take the next risk.

Sara said...

This is one of my favorite posts that you've written. I needed to read it and thank you for writing it.