Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is it the real turtle soup/Or only the mock?/ Is it Granada I see/Or Asbury Park?

In the beginning was not so much the word as the role model, of which, to paraphrase Mark Twain, produces irritation by its mere presence.  The role model is the older sibling whose example in the proper way to hold a fork is cited.  The role model is how "they" do it as opposed to how you are doing it now.  And as one lurches one's way through the minefields of puberty, the role model was always the previous lover of the individual with whom you are attempting and perhaps achieving intimacy with.

Later, when such basics as how to hold the fork and, indeed, which fork to use for what, is muscle memory and intimacy appears to have evolved to a point where you are awarded gold stars, living and past writers become role models, individuals you are either told to admire or have, on your own, come to regard as men and women who can show you the way out of an unlit paragraph.  In fact, were you to look back at your juvenilia, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, John Cheever, Jack London, and S. J. Pearlman would leap out at you, your attempts at imitation scolding you from every sentence.  How easy it has become to imitate.  How difficult it is to originate.  How easy it is to hear "them" whispering in your ear even though you go to such seemingly great lengths to avoid the sounds of "them:"  You write with your iPod earphones plopped in place or with streaming KUSC or WBGO or other classical and jazz surrogates.  Especially when you are in places such as Peet's or The Coffee Bean on Coast Village Road and the sight of you either with laptop or with lined note pad or even pocket-sized Moleskine notebook into which you are attempting to "get" a story advanced from concept into at least a larval stage, you seem to draw persons to inquire of you how you would handle a particular part of narrative.  You in effect have dialogue directed to you that you would not dream of using in your own material.  "Excuse me, sir, but I see you in here from time to time and I wonder if you can tell me if it's all right to switch points of view in a short story."

What is it about you that would invite such a question, you who would not at all think twice of being asked if it were all right to take the unused chair in front of him or if he were through with the honey, or is your dog friendly enough for my child to pet?

"Excuse me, but do you think it's acceptable to use a two-line space break between scenes as opposed to a trio of asterisks?"

Being put in a position to have to respond to such a question is even more disquieting.  Can you imagine having to say, "Oh, right.  I always end my scenes with two-line space breaks."  Such events would cause the Muse to stand in line for another latte; surely it would cause her to abandon you for a time.  Thus the ear plugs.  But do they act as a pocket gated community kiosk or an inducement to ask questions?

This is all relevant because of the notion that there is a right way to hold a fork and a right way to compose.  How easy it is to imitate, to use their technique, to take their themes, to hope to attach your literary star to someone else's comet.  There is another way, a more difficult way to be sure, a way that takes more time, results in more wasted paper, endless drafts, moments of living in abstractions, missed opportunities, missed screening times for movies, burned dinners.  It is the way of stepping into your story as though it were a Zip-Loc bag, then sealing it behind you, having it close to hand at all times, even times you are pointedly sharing with others.  It is a life of notes scribbled everywhere, of chaos entering your filing system, of sudden stabbing fears that you have deleted the wrong draft or thrown away the wrong note.  "I am not the same person when I forget my meds,"  someone said within earshot at Peet's the other day, and you wrote it down on the same page you were using to compose a scene from a chapter from a novel that may or may not be a mystery.  "I get angry with things and people,"  the individual continued, and you got that down too, and later, when it appeared in the scene you were writing, you thought how odd it was that one of your characters was taking meds without telling you.  Had not you bonded sufficiently with that character to get such secrets?  And isn't the very word secrets in the title of the novel?

Well, you are for the moment back to a med-less dramatis personae, but who knows how and when the intriguing sentences will find their way back into something but the point is, when they do, you will neither be imitating life nor art but rather yourself.  The added point is that you want to be careful there, too, because imitating yourself carries the burden of being repetitious, thinking just because you got it once, it is always safe to use two-line space breaks to indicate scene breaks.

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