Thursday, December 31, 2009

Formula for disaster

He was your first creative writing teacher, who had not only admitted you to his class when you were a mere tenth grader, he habitually wore double-breasted suits. He took you across the street to the drug store lunch counter, expansively ordered a round of cherry Coke, and proclaimed with an emphasis that vibrates to this very day, "Formula. If you learn the formulas, you will have no trouble." He gave you his tattered copy of Stanley Vestal's Professional Writing, which, he assured you, would help you learn the formulas. For starters, he initiated you with the mantra, Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph.


Sometime later, you'd heard of a remarkable writing teacher at Los Angeles City College. With the first of a series of forged documents that would thrust you through your late teens, you sneaked enrollment at City College, therein to forge your craft. If there is a gun mounted on the wall in Act One, the gun should go off at some time during the play, you were told. You were also told that Ibsen and Chekhov knew story.

A few years later, when you were at City College under your own steam, the same instructor wanted to know if he'd met you somewhere before. He was particularly insistent that you understand rising action and denouement. At the time, you were not the best speller. Learning denouement meant learning how to spell it.

At about the same time, with equally forged documents, you frequented the lounge of The Garden of Allah, a Sunset Strip version of a residential hotel, famous for F. Scott Fitzgerald shenanigans and an abundance of screen writers. With the typical assumed sang froid of a teen-ager attempting to pass, you ordered such potables as vodka collins, Pimm's Cup # 3, and at one point, B & B over ice, that is, until a man named Frank Fowler braced you with the incontrovertible fact that ordering such drinks was a fatal tell that you were under age. 

 From that point and for some time to come, you developed a taste for Jameson's and for either Old Rarity or Chivas Regal. "Never," he warned, "let me catch you drinking Seagram's Seven or Johnny Walker." Frank Fowler was operating on the forged documents of a pseudonym, having decided to call himself Borden (after the milk of Elsie fame) Chase (after the bank of bailout fame). He actually took the time to read a few of your things, giving you such helpful advice as reframing classic stories as he had reframed his most durable work, Red River. "Where the fuck," he asked, "do you think I got the idea for this story?" You waited a beat too long, hopeful for an impressive answer, which meant in those days a show-off answer. "It's fucking Mutiny on the Bounty," he said with triumph, "set on horseback." You will not do well in Hollywood, he said, until you learn how to copy and disguise the traces. In later years, you came to realize, having read much of his work, that he did considerably more than copy and disguise, but then, as you'd taken to vodka collinses and Pimm's Cups, you were sure that the future was paved with formula. Even though you could recite many of them, such as the formula for confessions (sin, suffer, and repent), of the formula for general fiction (a likable character struggles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal), you had the same problems with them that you had with geometry, back in high school. It was only when you had a tangible, practical use for geometry, such as designing books, that it made sense, an extrapolation you eventually took to heart in the way you came at story.

Formula for story is a kind of shorthand in which the observations of Aristotle's Poetics, which are copied and disguised. They are recipes, leading one in the right direction, toward a desired result, but after a life invaded by Chuck E. Cheese, McDonald's, Agatha Christie, and Motel6, you want to add your own ingredients.

"Not know the Confucian Odes?" Ezra Pound once suggested. "Then you cannot know poetry." When you showed this to a musician, he knew what you meant immediately. If you knew blues, you were launched into jazz.

From time to time, in a gathering, you meet up with Formula, and you wave but do not offer to shake hands.

To this day, the best formula for you is the one that goes, In a story, every character believes he is right.

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