Saturday, January 16, 2010

You want me to hold the chicken

When a given stream of narrative begins to come to life for you, it is usually because some plan or pattern has edged its way to the front of a crowd of competing elements, taking over as it were, and supervising the arrangement of the furniture, possibly even surprising you by requiring more than one venue in which the arrangement is to be made.

In anticipation of the arrival of this plan that will set things in motion, you occasionally will get a sentence or paragraph, possibly as much as a page, set forth as though it knows what it wants. As you are forming these tentative arrangements, you're waiting to hear the sound of shifting gears, a sound that means you've achieved take-off speed and are beginning to get momentum.

If there are no such sounds of shifting gears by the end of the second page, and you find yourself in a position similar to Wile E. Coyote, over the boundary of the butte or mesa, with nothing below you except the view of a long way down, the energy stops and you take the downward plummet, kerboom, the next step being to hit the delete key if you happen to be at your computer or to draw a diagonal line through the material on your note pad. The results are the same: back to a relaunch.

At times, the need for this take-off velocity requires five or six such Wile E. Coyote plunges. They are worth the fall, although at the time the interior critic is beginning to remind you of the stereotypical back-seat driver, with such questioning tropes as And you call yourself a writer, or worse, And you walk into the class room and presume to tell others how to get started, or even worse yet as in, Sid doesn't have to go through all this rigamarole because Sid has an outline. (The Sid brought up to you by your inner back-seat driver is S.L. "Sid" Stebel, a faculty mate of yours at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference and as well at the Masters in Professional Writing Program at USC.)

The fact of securing an opening scene in which you hear the gears shifting and feel the rush of story in the works does not mean you are at all home free or that any of the material thus secured will be kept or that it will be kept in the order you first intended. Case in point, what now stands at the opening scene of The Secrets of Casa Jocosa was actually chapter two until, some weeks back, you read through the day's catch and made one of your famous decisions about where the story starts. This also gave you the format and, in a significant way, the voice or attitude in which the material was presented.

When you attend the party where story is being served, the usual rules of politeness, manners, and etiquette don't apply. You can ask for second and third helpings, dawdle over your vegetables, and take an early shot at desert. You can send things back to the kitchen and as well tell your host that you are not all that fond of chicken. You can--mirable dictu--use catsup, an image of particular meaning to you because, oh these many years ago, an author whom you'd admired on your way up through the ranks was now your writer; you'd published two of his novels and were dining at his home to discuss his next work. The evening was made memorable because there was a bottle of catsup on the table and the author's wife split an infinitive and a gut in her Southern belle way. You do not, she insisted, embarrass me before your editor by allowing a bottle of catsup on my table. (You have wanted to use that line of dialogue ever since and now, you have used it.)

The point you distracted yourself away from is that you are in charge of stirring up the energy and the attack; you have to take the risk of extending yourself beyond your reach, and not doing so will put the brakes on your growth as a writer and certainly make the present work, whatever it is, at considerable risk of being set down in any form at all.

In the beginning, you are as Bobby DuPre, stopping in at a roadside restaurant in search of a breakfast that may break all the rules of the house, but which is nevertheless your dream of a breakfast. You want me to hold the chicken.

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