Saturday, September 6, 2008

Why Should We Care?

Sooner or later, the question must be asked--as indeed we ask it each time we turn to page two of a story or novel, each time we come to the dingbat at the end, symbolically signifying the narrative has run its course.

On some occasions we are driven by a sense of obligation or pure discipline to completing a story we have begun even though we may no longer care about the outcome. In such cases we stay on to remind ourselves we are writers, storytellers hefting the weights of our craft to keep our muscles and senses intact. Our concern then is the selfish one exerted for the writing self rather than the overall effect of the writing self wanting to extend a condition in which characters come to life, exhibit foibles and complexity, strike out a Lewis and Clark did to explore uncharted territory.

There is a simple answer to the question: Why should the reader care? The answer is because the writer cares. The hitch or loophole in this logic is that not all readers, even the most patient, dedicated ones, will respond to all stories in which the writer clearly cares. Accordingly, risk is a resident factor, throbbing like a sun heading west in a summer afternoon. Beyond the mere risk of a reader not relating to our work is the more sophisticated risk that the reader will appreciate the manner and presentation of the story, which is to say its style and dress, but not the personality of one or more of the characters, much less the situation or problem the character faces. Because we have spent some time learning the scales, those pesky-but-necessary manipulations of conflict, tension, confrontation, need for choice, perhaps even a fuse burning or a clock ticking to emphasize the added demands of Time, we know not to be too long in descriptions of weather, background, or personal traits until we have made the reader curious to know what the weather was like, where the landscape is, does the character have a defect or particular talent. We also have mastered the basic philosophy behind all story: Don't take the reader where the reader wants to go. If it is a mystery novel, you need to withhold the identity of the murderer for about two hundred fifty manuscript pages. If it is a romance, same number of pages before your main lead gets to consummate with the significant other of choice. You could have an earlier moment of passion that was on the point of consummation but last minute complications intervened. Because. Because when they go where we want them to, the story is over...or it changes to another story.

Every genre has its promise which, in one way or another, you observe, giving the reader first a set of expectations, then the payoff. Your basic strategy under the heading of not taking the reader where the reader wants to go is to withhold. You actually make the reader care by the very art with which you suggest promise but withhold result.

Through the implicit and explicit use of risk, you can cause the reader to care in a number of ways, some quite physical in th sense of wondering what the characters look like or how they will behave in a particular situation. No fair holding back, either; you've got to get your characters in risky situations beyond your own sense of how to extricate them. Only then will your concern, your worry shine through. A character, placed at accelerated risk is the key element. Risk of what? That's your call. How is the risk accelerated? By showing the character in response or in a notable lack of response. You want to write your character into such problems that when you say, And then what? you are experiencing the attendant anxieties.

Of course you can play the commercial route, the formula route, the so-called plot-driven story route, the gimmicky plot of the excellent likes of Harlan Coben, but the other way, the so-called literary story and the goals of literary story carry with them the same problems artists in other fields have. You need to love the work more than anything else. The work is the job. Joe Wambaugh is poetic in his love for the job as it relates to being a cop you can catch the sadness in his voice that he is not a cop, but then he truly becomes rhapsodic when he talks about being on the cusp of writing and being a cop and how the writing won. He is a sweet, kind man, and his energy comes from being torn between wanting these two things.

Yes, it is possible to be two things or three things or even that lovely word, a polymath. I have known at least four polymaths in my life. Bill Saroyan wanted to be a playwright then an artist, then a shortstory writer. He was not a nice man. Henry Miller was a nice man although he tended to get aggressive at the thought that the wine might run out before he did. He wanted to paint more than he wanted to write, but it took him a long time to come to terms with which road to take. Barnaby Conrad is a painter, a carver, and then a writer who was also a piano player and a bull fighter. Digby Wolfe couldn't contain himself as an actor so he became a comedian as well, and then a writer and then a teacher, but when he talks about drawing and painting, you can hear the catch in his throat. Shaw, whom I most certainly didn't know, wanted to be a novelist. Henry James wanted to be a dramatist. Where this goes is that the thing or things you want to be takes its/their share of the things in your life you might also want to do. You might also get a shot at the more conventional things, do quite nicely at them, but there is resident risk always waiting with an idea, a vision, a sound, a curiosity.

Need I say than that the key to making them--the readers--care is by the intensity of your own caring for the people and situations you create, then bring forth.

Why should we care? We should care because you make us care, each in his or her own way about your imaginary playmates, rendered with such empathy and love as to make them emerge as real and cause us to want to protect them as they move forth into the landscape of your creation. A young girl such as Lyra Belacqua, living in an imaginary, fantasy world, even though it is called Oxford, is more real to me than Holden Caulfield, who is in another kind of imaginary fantasy world called New York. The characters in Joe Orton's stunning play, Entertaining Mr. Sloan, are types I've not encountered in real life, but the effect and payoff of that play break my heart with its honesty and awful sense of what love can do to and for a person.

We care because we are wrenched by some part of the chemistry and neural paths and heart that is our constitution. When we experience a pang of love that is out of our conventional wisdom of love, we are frightened at what this attraction means to us and what it might do to the conventional side of our life. We care because we write about convention to expose the chemistry of the para-conventional. We care because we are transported by the very audacity of what some characters want and how they comport themselves. There are many admirable examples of character in the TV series-as-novel, The Wire, but if Id have to select one who takes me well beyond myself and into landscapes of pure wonder, it is the character Omar, who makes his living by robbing drug dealers. One character, an attorney, calls him completely amoral. Omar is not the slightest bit defensive or apologetic. "I carry a shot gun, you carry a briefcase. We each be robbers." This be Omar.

We care because we have merged in that special way we have for merging with our friends, our lovers, our students, and indeed, with writers who have lived well before our times. It is a place of empathy. It is a hole or passageway or portal from one universe to another, a place much like the bench where Lyra Belacqua sits in her Oxford to hold hands with Will Parry, two individuals from different dimensions meeting under a cloud of caring.


Anonymous said...

I love Lyra and Will--and all the others with them with a special weakness for balloon pilots.

I also love any tv character written by Russell T Davies. He breaks my heart again and again.

My stories are not plotted. I mean, I just have a character and I write to discover what happened to them. This keeps me surprised if sometimes confused--but editing afterwards helps that.

It is strange to me that people who don't know me in my offline life are willing to read my work. My real life friends almost never do. They often greet my writing with silence.

Lori Witzel said...

Well, I was about to talk about Omar -- gawd does his character kick a** -- and then I got to the end of mapelba's comment and got a lump in my throat. I do have that experience with some people I care about. But I have a passel of smart friends who all say "pick me, pick me!" when it comes to reading/viewing what I create.

Please tell mapelba's I'll share my friends with her. They would love to read her writing.

Oh, and for those out of The Wire loop:

Anonymous said...

I think my friends mean well, they're just busy. And perhaps my style doesn't really suit them. Thanks though Lori.

Wild Iris said...

I am rendered speechless, simply because, I could not even attempt to say it better myself.