Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hiding Your Inner Story

It has been given various names, which are conveniences to make sure we are aware of it, buzzing about us like a mosquito in search of her evening meal, assessing our suitability. An ocean biologist I know refers to it as The Tipping Point, by which she means the point where change becomes inevitable. At times I have thought of it as the moment when Sisyphus gets his boulder to the top of the hill, pausing to mop his brow before pushing it from its resting place, over the tip of the hill, whereupon it will begin to roll downward, gathering momentum as it goes. I am fond of the Sisyphus matrix because it so nicely represents what story does that it becomes possible to use it to illustrate how the entire personality of story is informed by where it is begun.

There are times also when I call it a defining moment, as in the moment when Romeo first approached, then spoke to Juliet, a moment indeed defining because those two kids were screwed from that point on, caught up in a vector of inevitability from which there was nothing to do but ride the momentum. True enough, stories can have more than one defining moment, but such events have in common the effect of gravity on an object extended out a window, then released to its fate. You could also equate that to a bug flying along, minding its own business, unaware of a vehicle with a windshield minding its own business on a highway, partners in an unintended destiny.

In earlier years, when one afternoon I experienced some now forgotten crisis of identity or purpose or both, I watched on TV a motion picture whose cast included a number of actors who, beyond the fact of their morbidly right-wing politics, shared a singular inability to get at and portray plausible emotions. The motion picture, The High and the Mighty, was in itself a defining moment in that it heralded the so-called Disaster Film (a story about some physical disaster as opposed to a story that was a financial and artistic failure). A commercial, non-pressurized airline flight from Honolulu to San Francisco. Nothing problematic about that. Now add the backstories of the principals to show the tension among them. Now add the revelation that there is one unanticipated passenger, adding weight and baggage issues. Add the fact of the pilot, reliable when sober, whose nerves are getting a bit rusty. Add a co-pilot still suffering from a disastrous landing in which his wife and son were killed. Add a heart attack to the pilot. Add a storm. Add an engine catching fire and the possibility of having to ditch in the stormy Pacific. Add the wonderful actor Robert Newton, cast as someone with a fear of flying in the first place. Add to that the navigator's stern announcement, We've just passed the point of no return. My crisis of identity or purpose or both was immediately caught out without a hall pass and was sent to the Boys' Vice Principal's office. (You'd think from all the times I was indeed sent to Mr. Engberg's office I'd have some sense of what was done to boys who were sent to the Boys' Vice Principal's Office. No waterboarding. No lectures. No emotional scars.) Point of no return sank into my psyche as the same kind of meme Dawkins spoke of when in 1976, he invented the concept.

The beginning of the story is a rush toward the point of no return; the ending of the story is the writer's literary equivalent of working quickly with watercolors, trying for a plausible and resonant image of a solution to What They Did to get out of the way of the descending, gravity-driven rock of Sisyphus, bearing down on them.

Simply put, we need these places to give us as creators the squirt of adrenaline necessary to look with concern at all the characters involved, having to face that moment of absolute helplessness before we begin to see a plan, some kind of a plan, which some reader will eventually remind us was not plausible. That encounter is another matter, which often comes after the story is accepted and published and for which we have somehow in some way grown beyond. It seemed like a good idea at the time, we can say to our critic, who is not at all satisfied, not as we are, because that critic, that memorable he or she is still caught up in a problem we have created but are no longer disturbed by. It is as though we have been yanked back into the past by our memory of an almost universal childhood moment involving a secret animal. Mine were small turtles, mice, ladybugs--nearly anything that could be kept comfortably in a small matchbox or Altoid tin. In some cases the secret animal is a dog or kitten or rat, or toad, or frog,fed with secreted table scraps and the ingenuity of the young. It might well be rabbits. No matter; the matter is that IT escaped its equivalent of This Lime Tree Bower Prison. It escaped and its presence was noted and you caught authority figure hell for it.

That was then; this is now. Our secret animals are our stories, kept hidden, serruptitiously fed and cosseted with loving concern. They are simultaneous comforts and dream spinners, visions of our inner selves reaching out to broadcast visions of love and adventure and comfort to others. But even now, as then, they will escape. They will get where ever they go, and eventually they will be noticed, which is, after all, the very wonder of them.


Anonymous said...

It's good to find that point of no return in a story, because I certainly can't see it in real life. Unless it comes in rabbit form that is.

Kate Lord Brown said...

'Our secret animals are our stories ...' I do like that Shelly! (I have a whole ark of them down in the basement waiting for the dove to arrive).

Querulous Squirrel said...

Sometimes I read your posts and think everyone understands them but me. There are so many complex twists and turns here it is hard for me to follow, yet I sense that in spite of my inability to grasp logic here, I am grasping something else on an unconscious levels, things out of the air, like fireflies, the tipping point and Sisyphus's rock at the top of the hill, the bug minding its own business smashing into the windshield, the beginning of the story rushing to the defining moment of no return, the writer's literary equivalent of water colors, and those secret hidden animals, our stories, for me, the fireflies themselves.

lowenkopf said...

Seems to me you pretty well got it.

Rowena said...

I love how you say the secret animals are our stories. I didn't have actual secret animals, just a whole lot of unsecret cats that I used to dress up and play circus with. But then, that was kind of the secret. The secret game, the secret story, the play and the narrative.

My stories have always been my secret animal, even the ones I read in bed, way past bedtime, pretending that I had fallen asleep reading when my mother came to wake me up for school. I never fell asleep reading. I just kept going til dawn and played sick so I could stay home and sleep (and read) the next day.

And now, it's my secret animal stories that I obsess over and hide in my computers and files and feed little scraps of goldfish crackers and uneaten chicken nuggets.

Thanks for this metaphor. Me likey.