Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Defenseiveness Rests

More pairs of opposites:

The writer who writes from the I-am-wonderful perspective vs. the writer who writes from the I-am-unworthy point of view.

The reflective, confessional self vs. the go-for-the-throat, I'll-show-them approach.

We need to get through and considerably beyond these mindsets if we wish our stories and our nonfiction to reflect variously any or all of the above, demonstrating instead the purer, non-defensive intent of the work by removing unnecessary flourish and authorial gloss either within the text or as footnotes.

Some of these thoughts were triggered by a recent rereading of Hemingway, which you would not have done if Conrad had not been working on another of his writing books and asked you to venture your opinion on the short story, "Up in Michigan."  As you would recognize the style of Haydn and/or Mozart, you recognized the music of the Hemingway prose, a sound you once strove so hard to acquire.  The music of the Hemingway story was fine but not, alas, the content.  What emerged instead was the macho, bullying image you had already come to know and take offense from when you saw the letters he wrote to his son, Greg, your classmate for a time at UCLA.  The momentum you absorbed from rereading some of Hemingway's stories was a wish to have the author's personal issues left outside the work.  

Giving one's self over to the intent of the story is no small matter, nor is the actor any less daunted when trying to find the essentials of character as opposed to imitating some intellectualized vision of the character's philosophy.  The intent has to be dug out of the story as though trying to get a walnut meat prised from its shell or the long, delicious sliver of crab meat from the leg segment.  Rather than emerge with the politics of an author after having read one of his or her stories, you prefer to be aware of the author's energy or compassion, the energy part also including the enthusiasm for sharing the emotional and moral information, the compassion part relating directly to the author's sense of understanding and acceptance of the multifarious presence that is the human being.  You frequently get such awareness when you read Louise Erdrich, Michael Chabon, and with increasing regularity, your new buddy, John Shannon.

As a teacher/editor, you have the most difficulty with writers who step forth with a subtext that translates to you as, See how wonderful I am.  Of all the writers you know, the late John Updike seems to be saying this as an overtone to his meticulously wrought investigations.  Not far behind this difficulty comes the I am unworthy trope, but at least this allows you to tell the student or client that as you continue with your efforts, you will soon discover that you have made yourself worthy, and can then get on to the business at hand, which is the most glorious pairs of opposites of all, the pure science of investigation and the artistic pleasure of discovery.


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