Sunday, September 13, 2009

Composed: a Secret History

The difference between writing and--well, composing:


Writing, which is not to be sneezed at or in any way scorned because it is, after all what you do, be it your own invention, editing someone else's invention, discussing in published commentary the writings of others, or attempting dialogue with students, is distinct from composing in the sense that writing it the act of getting things assorted, set down on the page or screen, setting the stage for composition.

You write as a kind of finger and mind exercise, working away until the mere writing begins to fade and the composing side of the persona takes over and you are no longer writing but composing. You were close to being able to articulate this some considerable time back, when your book reviews were usually limited to a 500- or 750-word limit. You would nevertheless write furiously to get all your impressions down, arriving at about 1500 words, perhaps even more, then doing what Gordon Lish did to Raymond Carver, cutting, rearranging, focusing. You had already, thanks to your weekly checks from publishers, evolved the one-idea-to-a-letter plan, in which you tried to keep your letters to authors and suppliers and such contained within one page in the belief that no one wanted to read a letter longer than that unless it was all about how wonderful the recipient was (even if the recipient were not all that wonderful). You wrote and cut and rewrote until you became aware of a voice, not your attitudinal writing voice but the one Joanne Woodard helped you articulate last night as you ate dinner in front of the Turner Classics presentation of The Three Faces of Eve, a dreadfully written (sorry to the ghost of Nunnaly Johnson, screenwriter) script about a woman with multiple personality.

You write until the composing side of you begins speaking up, perhaps a suggestion or a flash of connection here and there, perhaps with an apercu of what the entire writing is about. You listen to it, do what it says, and then you are nearly home, rereading it for its greater sense of inevitability and mounting dramatic force.

Looking back on it, you recall times in your early teens, when you ventured to tell jokes to adults even though you knew that on some level the stories you told were more tolerated than appreciated. You were eager to have these jokes appreciated by the generational gap, those adults who through no fault of their own were older than you and more experienced.

This began magically on your first away from home vacation with your peers. A friend had been left a cabin at Lake Arrowhead by his grandparents. A number of us were to spend a long weekend there, hanging out, being teen-aged boys, telling stories about girls, not realizing they were more than mere lies but rather fanciful visions of wished-for experiences we could not articulate then by using mere truth. By then your ventures into stretching the truth included having a forged identity which allowed you to be carded at the saloon in Big Bear and emerge at the other side, with your very own bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, then another, then the beery walk back to the cabin and the older ones in our group beginning the teen-aged boy ritual of telling jokes with sexual content. A man walks into a pharmacy, asks if condoms are sold there, buys a packet, asks if aspirin is available, then remarks, Fucking headache. That sort of thing.

You wanted to tell the not-necessarily sexual joke to an audience beyond your peers. You wanted to see their laughter at what you thought was funny in the first place as opposed to their polite nods, yes, yes, very nice indeed. You had not yet conflated joke with story although that conflation was on its way. But at the moment, you knew there was or was not an instance in the telling where you added an unanticipated detail or made a gesture or gave a pause because some inner voice or director told you to do so, and from that moment of awareness, you knew also that it did not matter any longer whether you got the more transitory reward of laughter. What mattered was the sense of being invested in the story, having some new detail or gesture, some vision of the events that meant it was your entire responsibility.

Writing gets you started, and you write until the composing comes forth, and you listen to it because if you ever hope to get the material feeling and sounding as you wish, you must trust that composing aspect, the one that comes only after words and words and pages and pages have flown through you and you are in your associative mood or, if you will, associative mode. Thus you write to write beyond writing, where you are indeed the dish antenna picking up signals from your past, your present, your future, from places you have been, from places you hope to visit, from places that do not exist except in the tide pools of your imagination and which you now see fit to set forth as a place as real as Omaha, Nebraska, or Hollywood, California, or Miami Beach, Florida, assuming with all due modesty (as opposed to solipsism) that these places actually exist. You have never been to Omaha, Nebraska, and if you were ever to set a scene within it, you would have to do things to convince yourself that it exists in order to write about it in a manner that suggests you do. You do not for a moment believe in the sort of underworld of which Homer wrote and in which Odysseus visited, but you have a sense of that place because Homer (if there were a Homer and not, as is possible, a group of bards who have been conflated into one Homer) did.

You are currently in the process of preparing two venues for two different works of fiction, one venue is a university where you have taught for over thirty years, the other a retirement village which is actually within walking distance of where you live. You will give your fictional university a different name, in fact, The University. From it, you will be able to see an iconic Chevrolet agency with the iconic logo of Felix, the Cat. You will also be able to see the Shrine Auditorium, where on numerous occasions, you sat in various audiences. The retirement village will require a new name from you as a part of making this imaginary place seem more real to you than the real retirement village. Thus you are waiting for the composition aspect of your craft to speak up and be heard. In order to get there, you first have to write.

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