Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Story: Are you in or out?

You first heard the expression "in character" from an actor, a curt reminder that she was not herself but rather an individual in a drama, waiting to go on. Being "out of character" yourself, meaning you were singularly you, you were at that moment a distraction, an anomaly, someone out of the range of the "character's" experience.


Since that time, you've heard the expression on numerous occasions, including your own use of the expression when you were acting in various dinner theater performances or when encountering in ambiguous situations an acquaintance you knew and having to ask, "Are you in character?" by which was understood to mean "Are you approachable as you?" This entire approach to behavior would have saved you a good deal of ambiguity and confusion when you were in your dating years, but that is another matter.

Only yesterday, during lunch with Conrad, he used a variation on that theme, related to writing, when he recalled a moment when, serving as secretary to Sinclair Lewis, he'd encountered his boss in the kitchen of Lewis' home, raiding the ice box, only to be warned off with a brisk "Don't talk to me, I'm in book."

In book. In story. Two excellent concepts to writing rarely encountered in classrooms or writing books, much less in magazines or blog posts. You spend so much time learning such bare-bones concepts as story and conflict and plot, but rarely do you hear of the need to be in story or in book, living it, somehow "there" in the midst of it.

More often than not, you edge into the ocean although you do jump or plop, sometimes even dive into the swimming pool. You need to find ways to enter the story at hand, to be it and have it be you, subject and object becoming one. You were--both fortunately and unfortunately--in story this afternoon at Peet's, trying to expand some notes. You did not hear the agreeable young woman at the next table warning you that some peripatetic infant from a few tables over was about to dip your Android phone into your medium nonfat latte nor that said peripatetic infant had already made off with your bear claw. It is truly good to attempt to get reading and/or writing done in public places as a kind of psychological coach of concentration, blocking out ambient noise, music if it is any good, conversations. Such concentration gets you "in" and the story revolves about and through you.

It is worth practicing. One approach is to be in character, assuming whichever character personality attaches itself to you, then talking without thinking about it to another character, pressing the thrust of your agenda, perhaps even picking an argument. Then you are in the respondent, then you are all of them; you are gloriously in story, responding in that emotional landscape that stitches the parts together. This condition is yet another reason for the writer to take to heart the serious study and rehearsal of the actor. There is a timelessness and focus about being in, reminding you of the times as a youngster when you went about, using a magnifying lens prize from a box of Cracker-Jacks to focus the rays of the sun to burn holes in newspapers, leaves, and yes, it even worked on banana peels and chunks of wood. You have the equivalent of that magnifying glass prize whenever you reach into the Cracker-Jacks box of story. It is a prize that focuses your energy and vision into true, fiery dramatic presence.

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