Monday, December 21, 2009

Help, Help, I'm Being Held Prisoner in an Uninteresting Story

 Of all the many cautionary taboos brought to the table as warnings to the beginning writer of fiction, the one most offensive to you is the adjuration against writing what one does not know.  You have railed against this injunction in classroom, workshop, coffee house, beer parlor, and the hoary redoubts of your own mind.  The sheer folly of such a dogma would have deprived the Common Era of its most notable works of imagination, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Tarzan on Mars, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey exemplifying the possibilities, and by a simple extension such works as Romeo and Juliet and Huckleberry Finn.  These latter two make the list because in each case the author, a male, does not know from first-hand experience what it is to be a woman, and can only guess, extrapolate, or invent, hopeful of not offending too many women readers who know a thing or two by which to criticize any attempt at a portrait of their gender that has the temerity to come from the male writer.

The better taboo is the one against writing anything for which you have little or no interest, a taboo that in its more general reach can be made to include characters as well as subject matters and locales.  This particular taboo is actually useful because it precludes setting forth on journeys where the writer has no stake, no emotional baggage bouncing along, no real concern for outcome or effect.  Your own support of this measure is based on the belief that the more interest the writer has in a person, place, or thing--any noun for that matter--the greater the likelihood that some vital and transforming association will want to tag along for the ride.  You believe such associations provide greater emphasis and plausibility to the nouns in the story, making them in turn more interesting to the reader.  Such an example is in the story, "The Talent" you published some years back in which the protagonist, applying for a job at a university, was sent to have her photo taken as a step in the process.  The photographer was reading The Heart of Darkness, a detail you argued with through several drafts of the story, first putting it in, then removing it.  What possible effect on the outcome of the story could there be in the title of a book being read by a photographer? The exact number of insertions and deletions of that one detail are lost in your memory's darkest corners, but with the final decision to leave that detail in the story came the answer and thus the conclusion to the story.  The title of that book the photographer was reading became the metaphor for the entire story; you were saying then and continue to believe even now that someone entering a university is in effect entering a heart of darkness.

How then, progresses the rhetorical question, does one inject a character, a story, a setting, an unspecified noun, with that quality known as interest?  Why, of course, by investing the noun with one or more details of interest to you, or by asking the direct question, What would it take at this moment to interest me in this noun?  Then you shut up and listen to the answer that comes, seemingly from the bottom of a well into which your interest has fallen, shouting Help, get me out of here.


Anonymous said...

"... someone entering a university is in effect entering a heart of darkness." - what a provocative line for me - thanks, Shelly!
Karen D.

lowenkopf said...

For me, it has only proven to be more so.