Wednesday, March 10, 2010

There is a thin line between writing for yourself and writing for others. If you are sincere about writing for yourself, there is a sense of urgency straining to get the concept down in enough detail so that the material lives as a vibrant set of notes for you to reconsider at a later time. If you are writing for others there is more likely to be some rhetorical device such as irony or question, beckoning you and a potential reader into the labyrinth created by the collision of ideas. Worst of all, if you are writing to show off, there will be name dropping and stunning flights of vocabulary, each a testament to acquaintances. Thus this warning to yourself: You do not have to convince anyone how many persons or words you know, merely an eagerness to listen, to engage in conversation or argument. Or more briefly, ideas--not fustian.


There is by now a built-in detector of such things that catches you on the second or third pass, surely the fourth. One by one, names of friends are set aside unless their inclusion is a part of some joke, naming, for instance, a grammar school in a short story the James D. Wolfe Elementary school, which sounds sincere and real enough; after all, you attended the john Hancock grammar school in Los Angeles and the John Howland grammar school in Providence, RI; your junior high schools were named after an educator, Ida M. Fisher, in Miami Beach, and a naturalist, John Burroughs, in Los Angeles. Why wouldn't James D. Wolfe hold up, even if he is in real life the creator and head writer of Laugh-In? But naming a grammar school after a friend brings the school to life, just as naming a seller of Chinese replica wrist watches Conrad Burnaby amuses you no end because in real life Barnaby Conrad knowingly wears a Rolex replica he bought for five dollars on a trip to China.

It is difficult to tell for sure how some of your friends get into your stories; perhaps the guiding principal is mischief and fun. The momentum does not stop with this definition. Mischief and fun quickly translate into attitude and voice, which are essential ingredients so far as you are concerned. You are fairly certain to use USC as the venue for a novel you are toying with after the current one has had its way with you, and the only invention will be the name of the department in which the main action takes place, a name that will be influenced by your attitudes and experiences. It seems appropriate to you somehow to have the department quartered in the Doheney Library, which is real enough, and which was funded in some measure from profits realized from The 1922-23 Teapot Dome oil scandal. This fact and your awareness of it prompted you to be invited to meet with a dean at the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences to defend you thesis that all the buildings at USC are named for crooks. The Dean quite properly named at least two that are not, but you were able to counter with two more that are.

Names, attitude, and voice impart nuances the writer wishes to convey. Plots matter, story matters, but the voice behind the intent matters even more. Even were you to research a topic so thoroughly that you could be said to know it, another writer could use the same incidents from real life to convey an entirely opposite attitude and yet another writer could use them to provide a yet more apposite vision.

If location is everything, voice and attitude are trump cards.

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