Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Made-up Stuff

The staged event of theater, ballet, modern dance, the symphonic hall, the opera, and the jazz venue are the places we most associate with one or more individuals giving their interpretation or a work already well known to us. I have happily sat through performances of ballets I thought to be dumb or worse, inane, merely to see particular dancers and their interpretations of the music. Well acquainted with Shakespeare's Richard III, I stopped in my tracks one splendid afternoon when passing a New York theater not only offering a matinee that very day but as well one with Al Pacino doing Richard. Even before such terminology was popular, I'd burned Lee J. Cobb's performance of Willy Loman into my emotional hard drive, later approaching Dustin Hoffman's pursuit of the same role with amazement. Cobb owned the role; what glorious chutzpah for Hoffman to attempt it. Similarly, following around the likes of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bobby Timmons, and Sonny Criss, pretty well knowing what they would play but not knowing how they would play it.

My inner English Major latched on early to the fact of quitting, one author answering another, perhaps even across generations, in the manner, say, of Shakespeare quitting Chaucer's Troilus and Cressyde with his Troilus and Cressida, or, say, Wallace Stevens quitting John Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn with Ode to a Brown Jar. In similar fashion, it interests me to see how contemporary writers respond to earlier themes, one significant example being how James Thurber's short story, The Cat-Bird Seat, quits Poe's A Cask of Amontillado.

As with all things, there is a step beyond how performers add their own cadenzas or improvisations to a theme and how writers take a particular story line with the avowed purpose of seeing where it will take them. The step beyond is taken daily, hourly by writers, mercifully often without realizing they are doing so. I say mercifully because were they to think about it, many of those writers would become stricken with self-consciousness. I speak of the fact that there are only so many permutations of story. Some critics have attempted to define their number and in work-avoiding moods, I've attempted variously to list them and to Google or Yahoo or Ask dot com them. The fact continues with the revelation that we more enjoy story for reasons other than plot; we enjoy them because of the language, the details, the characters, what the characters say, and what they don't.

I became aware of this aspect of story telling as a callow youth when, forged ID in pocket, I began hanging around the piano bar at the long since vanished Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard, chasing the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a known habitue of the place. There, hanging out with such piano players as Mort Jacobs (another great idol of mine), Hal Schaefer, Andre Previn, and the cantankerous Ian Bernard (who is still cantankerous), I met some of the men and women who supported their writing writing with screen writing. One particularly friendly sort, Borden Chase, became yet another role model, he having moved from being a sand hog and turning his attention (and then mine) to the pulp magazines. Chase made a stunning revelation for me. He was working on a project based on Mutiny on the Bounty. "The only thing is," he said, "I'm setting my mutiny on the prairie. Always look for possibilities to reset some basic thematic conflict to another venue. Look what they did with that DeMaupassant story--"

"--Bouile de Suife," I said.

"English majors," he said. "Yes; that's the one. They did it as Stagecoach, and Claire Trevor rode that stagecoach to glory."

Some while later, I saw Chase's mutiny-on-the-prairie as Red River. There are two points I'm after here, the first being that where ever it is set, a story has to stand, to have some emotional point and payoff. And the second point is that should you be considering setting Treasure Island in the Nevada desert or, say, Hamlet in the Big Sky wonderment of Montana, the mere fact of it being a resetting is not enough; the new version has to work even if the reader or viewer has never heard of Treasure Island or Hamlet. Which brings me to at least the third point if not points beyond that.

The made-up stuff.

Where do the actions and reactions, the descriptions, details, pacing, and attitude come from?

You.

If the characters and places are real enough, which is to say if they have taken life in your imagination, they go beyond their sources of origin, their actuality. Raymond Chandler, over fifty years ago, put Los Angeles on the map because of his view of it, and did it so well that generations of beginning writers have tried to do it as he did it instead of taking in a draught of that massive complex and spun it into their own sausage. It is fine to set a story in Los Angeles but it has a better chance if it is your Los Angeles, a Los Angeles you must make up, whether you have ever been there or not. We'd have no difficulty imagining, for instance, a private eye of the Chandler sort, working out of Las Vegas, Nevada, because, whether we've been there or not, we all have a sense of that place, an enormous enough one so that we might try to get by on shorthand, which could be a disaster. There are some remarkably non-Las Vegas neighborhoods in Las Vegas, which is to say they are anything but touristy. We might be tempted to have a character or two have to go to Las Vegas ,Nevada, just to thrown in some glitter or description, or to wax disapprovingly on all that 24/7 bling and excess. But what about Las Vegas, New Mexico. That would have to be made up--unless it were written by the likes of Lee K. Abbott, who lives in the area when he is not teaching in Michigan.

Made-up stuff is the material that clothes and comprises our characters, informs our cities, even provides the sense of what it's like to drive a Prius through our smoggy landscape. Some of us take on an extra handicap when concocting characters, fearful of offending, or of betraying confidences, or exaggerating, causing us the added anguish of waiting for persons to die or hoping people don't read our work. Made-up stuff is the writers' equivalent of the Elixir of Life; made-up stuff is our freeing ourselves of the constraints present in creating things that must be created if the entire project is to get off the ground and have a life of its own.

Sometime back, while reading the autobiography of Robert Louis Stevenson, I was caught up in his description of how his tuberculosis rendered him bed bound much of the time, whereupon he took to writing Treasure Island, and reading his day's output before a small group of friends. His doctor became entranced with the rascally character of Long John Silver, in whom he became as entranced as I have become with the character of Omar Little from The Wire. The doctor, Stevenson wrote, was always remarking on what a blackguard and rogue Silver was, prompting Stevenson to ask himself how he could then bear to tell the doctor that Long John Silver was based on him.

The made-up stuff. It is our vision, our version of what happened, how it happened, to whom it happened, what drinks they were throwing in each other's faces (if drinks were thrown), and whether the lattes were non-fat or regular. Unless it is ours, it is from someone else, it is second- or third- or fourth-hand. It is hand-me-downs from the thrift stores of used ideas. Sure, it needs to be truthful, honest, inviting in its way, made-up so as to seem fresh and believable.

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