Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Things You Carried

A question we frequently ask of an actor's performance is What does that actor bring to a particular role? Similar questions are asked of dancers and singers; the same question may also be directed to a musician undertaking a particular work. What, for instance, did Audrey Hepburn bring to Eliza Doolittle? What did Margot Fonteyn bring to Swan Lake? What did Kiri Te Kanawa bring to the Countess in the Marriage of Figaro? What did John Coltrane bring to My Favorite Things?

There are tangible answers to all these specific questions, answered in no small part by the things other artists and performers brought to the same role or performance. Similarly, and because the thrust of this inquiry goes to writing and story, we could ask, for instance, what F. Scott Fitzgerald brought to the college novel. We could augment this question with a dependent clause, as in, what did F. Scott Fitzgerald bring to This Side of Paradise that Richard Farina did not bring to Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me?

Each of these writer questions has answers, the substances of which lead directly to the question, Why you? Or, better put, What do you bring to your story? Not, How dare you tell such a story? or what right did Jules Verne have writing about life twenty thousand leagues under the sea? but rather what elements of vision, attitude, philosophy, perspective, and emotional compass do you bring along when you confront pen and note pad or computer and screen with the ingredients for a story?

To begin, you bring a recipe for story, one you have gleaned from Aristotle or Anne Lamott or John Gardner or an amalgam of the reading you have done as you sought to inform yourself with the ingredients of story. Then you bring forth the order in which the elements are introduced. Just as I was taught that cornbread began when you poured buttermilk in the mixing bowl then added the corn meal, I also discerned the need to begin with characters who wanted things to happen or not to happen. You bring forth a history of failures, as indeed my early narratives were events, vignettes rather than fully formed stories. You bring forth successes, things that seemed to have emerged from your typewriter, your fountain pen, your computer screen as though they'd been dictated to you by the ghost of some writer on its way to eternity, things that were so completely of you that you scarcely new how to replicate them in another venture.

You bring forth attitude as in, I'll show the bastards (with a full vision of who the bastards are), or this is payoff with thanks for people who helped me grow, or this is my revision of what happened to me at a time when I was completely humiliated, or this is how I learned something, or this information about the human condition needs to be passed on, or this is my political theory, or this is what God means or does not mean to me. You know, stuff.

You bring forth a world view. Don't trust. Do trust. Beware. Be Open. The worker always gets screwed. The worker is the salt of the earth. People are basically kind and empathetic. People are mean, nasty, duplicitous.

You bring forth philosophy: In story, every character believes he is right. In story, women always have to settle for something. In story, strong men must by necessity be lonely. In story, adults are the enemy and children carry forth the real truth. In story, there is a double standard in every society which can be found if you look closely enough.

You bring forth to story your own toolkit, your individual strengths and proclivities. This toolkit may include an acute vision of the future or of the undercurrent of violence in all social relations or the gestalt of the most delicious plotting, or an eye for character or an ear for dialogue, or a reckless disregard for rule and regulation, or an imagination that is the literary equivalent of a splendidly formed woman in a bikini or an equally splendid man in a scanty Speedo, which is to say it is arresting to the point of producing the lust of envy.

You have a certain chutzpah of the sort Dustin Hoffman had when he took on Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman after Lee J. Cobb had homesteaded that part and owned it. You have the chutzpah of Jane Smiley taking on a frame tale hundreds of years after Boccaccio and Chaucer turned the format into their own Hollywoodland sign. You have the serene confidence of Margaret Yourcenar when she channelled the emperor Hadrian for her novel, Hadrian Remembers. You have the audacity to take on Merlin as Mary Stewart did in The Crystal Cave.

You dare to take on Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried with the simple and bodacious act of seating yourself to write. These are the things you carry, these are the things you are at any given moment, simultaneously fearful they will not last you through the night and confident they will replenish themselves and grow more diverse in the process.

Who are you?

Yes.

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