Thursday, January 1, 2009

Roy Rogers' Horse, Elephant in Living Room, Drunk in Parking Lot

trigger--a sensory recovering device by which sounds, smells, tastes, feelings and visions prompt the recall of previous incidents in the writer's life and then, by extension, may be transferred into the menu of response for characters; a process of recall and substitution allowing the writer to convincingly portray experiences and emotions the writer may not have actually experienced.

Many writers stumble onto this technique which is well known and used by actors, thanks to their fondness for music. The music may be used to drown out other ambient sounds--neighbors talking, telephones ringing, babies crying, dogs barking--or to provide an emotional background for the work at hand. The music triggers memories of actual events or memories of previous emotions, which influence the cadence, vocabulary, and tone of the work being written.

As the association with triggers increases (or the familiarity with acting techniques becomes more sophisticated), the writer associates memories of the feel of particular places or moods, or the smells,tastes, and sounds associated with past events to create a landscape for the work in progress. These sensual implants trigger associations within the reader, who is drawn farther into the emotions of a narrative.

Writers familiar with the technique keep lists of music they associate with particular moods or events, play that music while writing appropriate scenes. A notable example of a writer who appears to bring his lists into his published text is George Pelecanos, (The Night Gardener, The Turnaround) whose characters not only appreciate blues, popular, and rock music but argue about performers and specific solos. The genera of music and their composers are idiosyncratic and endless. Some suggestions: Howard Hansen, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederic Delius, Theolonious Monk, John Coltrane, Judy Collins, George Gershwin, Antonin Dvorak, Joanie Mitchell, James Taylor, Scott Joplin.

As the process of identifying triggers progresses, the writer will begin to see the value of keeping lists of meals and their varying tastes; beverages and their adjectival and sensual associations; and such potentials as the emotions evoked within the writer by a particular species of flower. This list of emotional associations could be extended to feelings about animals and insects. (Is a particular character a cat or dog person? Perhaps neither--perhaps a bird or a goldfish. Perhaps allergic. Perhaps fearful or disturbed by spiders or roaches. Or rats. Perhaps, as Count Fosco, Wilkie Collins' great villain in The Woman in White, did--keeping a pet mouse in his vest pocket.)

Not all persons, much less writers, will have the same emotional response to a particular stimulus. Not all listeners of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue will have the cultural background to associate the slightly sour opening swirl of clarinet with klezmer music, nor is that association necessary for them to be drawn into the composition, but such a trigger will immediately have impact on those familiar with klezmer. One land mine is a potential explosion, but it is not an entire war; one trigger is a potential emotional connection, but it is not the entire story.

elephant in the living room, the--the thing or condition noticed by characters but not talked about directly by them; a significant result of subtext (which see); a triggering force for the reader; the deliberate thematic presence intended by the author, an armature about which the relevant details of story are wrapped. Although often sexual in nature, the elephant in the living room may just as easily be political, religious, ethical, or a combination of the two such as science vs. religion.

drunk in the parking lot, the--a performance-impaired individual in a story; an individual in a dramatic narrative who is emotionally or physically challenged to a noticeable degree by the reader. The key to this trope may be found in actors whose role calls for them to appear drunk or under some related influence: they are seen as exaggerating their attempts to appear sober or normal or unfazed. The drunk in the parking lot may be seen trying to remember where he parked his car, then striding purposefully to it, perhaps too purposefully. The panicked individual is trying to hold onto a shred of control before abandoning it. The key is control, which the character in question has lost or given away and is now trying to regain.

matchmaker, the--a role played by the reader; a reader's natural tendency to pair up individual characters in a story. This is one of the places where the writer-as-consummate-control-freak must suck up the frustration and move on. As youngsters in playground situations are wont to observe, "This is a free country." A reader can and will do anything possible to a novel or short story, including misunderstanding it or putting it down unfinished. Readers will consider romantic possibilities between characters that the author never intended. Let them; it is a small price to pay. Being aware of the reader's tendency, add enough ambiguity to encourage the reader. (No, this is not pandering.)


Anonymous said...

When readers leave comments, I'm often surprised at what they took note of and what they ignored. Sometimes it makes me wish I had made another point clearer, but other times it makes me see what I wrote differently--in a good way.

Matt said...

I usually can't write at home, owing more to the size of our apartment and the fact that its sights and sounds are too familiar. My preference is to find a neighbourhood bar and plunk myself down; the foreignness of it is inspirational, as well as the fact that the music played is usually not anything I own. It is this last part which I find important...the worst thing for writing is to have a catchy song that I know playing - I end up tapping my feet and mouthing lyrics while my characters stare up at me from the Moleskine, as if I were insane.

Your last point is very pertinent. One of the "secret readers" of my current novel casually described it as a love story. I wanted to laugh (with tears for added effect), because that's exactly what someone said about the *last* novel I wrote. All this time, I didn't know I was writing love stories...and yet, hearing this is very useful. It gives me a perspective from the reader which will certainly help during revisions.

Anonymous said...

Shelly- nice bit of synchronicity- I just wrote on my blog about music being a trigger for me as I embark on my new novel. I find I can't listen to the music I associate with this particular story while I actually write, but I listen to it the rest of the time- in the car, cooking dinner, just being. Thanks for the more detailed explanation of how/why it's a valuable creative tool.

Matt said...

Re: handwriting, I am told that for a right-handed writer I write like a lefty (as in, the look of my hand whilst writing and the look of the handwriting).

Thank you for the note on my "love story" rep. Good point - I'd rather achieve that unintentionally than pursue it 'mens rea'.