Sunday, April 26, 2009

Material Witnesses

material--raw dramatic data; outtakes from previous writing projects; unused research data; scraps of overheard conversation; notes and observations made in alternate states of consciousness; suggestions from friends, family, and well-meaning readers; newspaper stories (particularly tabloids) focusing on intra-family disputes and feuds; ideas generated as a result of responses of admiration or disapproval while reading the work of another writer; moral, ethical, and social problems apparent to a writer but not yet emotionally sorted through; handwritten comments over one sentence in length, written on rejection slips.

In the best-but-broadest sense, everything is material, like an untidy desk, eagerly awaiting the writer's attention for the sorting-out process to begin. More than a placebo but slightly less potent than a steroid, material is the writer's holy grail, the radiant aura surrounding a creative impulse, the assurance that this is the material--more than any other material, particularly previous material--that will transform the writer's life, craft, and career. It is the arcane book on knots, found by Annie Proulx at a yard sale, that inspired and prompted her breakout novel, The Shipping News. It is the inspiration for the poem, "Kubla Khan," that visited Samuel Taylor Coleridge's psyche and upon which he was embarked before a pair of door-to-door missionary workers knocked at Coleridge's entryway, frightening away the inspiration.

On the feeding scale, material ranks close to the bottom. It is less by far than a concept or a glimmer or a hint of story; it is deceptive and radioactive in its shimmery promise. It is all book tour and New Yorker appearance, but no story.

And yet.

It is no small thing to have material or, indeed, to have Moleskine notebooks, flash sticks, external hard drives, or three-by-five index cards on which to store such material. It is no small thing to embark on the intent of a night's sleep, mentally sorting through such material, scanning for the right trope, the right word, the key that will set the WM, The Writer Mind, off on a dizzying spiral of connecting thematic and dramatic dots. It is no small thing to note and record material, even with the foreknowledge that doing so makes one of a piece with those odd-looking men and women with the electronic scanning devices who roam the beaches and park sites just before dark, hopeful of finding something of value, often finding nothing more substantial than a beer opener or empty foil packet of peanuts.

Material is the entry ticket into the big tent of writing. The instincts to collect it, evaluate it, store it help provide the muscle memory for the technique of being a storyteller. It is inconceivable to think of a serious writer who has not amassed a trove of material, even more so inconceivable to think of a writer who has not been confronted by a well-meaning friend or family member who wonders openly what the value of such material is, how many actual stories it has produced, what revelations and new insights into the human condition it contains.

In truth, the material a writer collects is of a piece with the core samplings the earth scientist or archaeologist or polar cap specialist takes. Material is a core sampling of ideas, conversations, measurements, and observations of the world of reality and alternate universes of the imagination. Material is best interpreted by a writer.

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