Tuesday, April 6, 2010


A lovely link to our old English past resides in the word dross, one of your favorites from that venerable source.

Dross is an elegant step beyond chaff, from which the wheat is separated. Chaff, too, finds its way into Old and Middle English, thence to us and although You like the notion of keeping it and wheat in separate parts of the room, more or less like boys and girls at junior high school dances, dross has been particularly in your tool kit since you read Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos so many years ago:

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of Hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage.

True enough, you argue, chaff involves separating unworthy, unneeded things from something of nutritional value and in the bargain has an onomatopoetic presence (as so many of the "old" words do, but dross has for you an even greater authority, reminding you of what you try to do when you set a paragraph into being or wind up a character to set her or him loose on the stage. You want something of substance to remain so than when you revisit or metaphorically add more structure, what remains supports and encourages rather than merely tolerates.

This awareness means you need to watch details with care so that they should seem to originate within the character or the setting; they should not reflect your exuberant judgement but rather be guided by your sympathy for their individuality, personality if you will. You may not like at all the individual who disagrees strenuously with you or otherwise offends you and there is no reason why you should like the individual but even such persons need to be seen as sources of their own behavior. They don't need help from you. Being in a position where you do not like someone and are either in proximity or, worse, forced by social circumstances to work or cooperate with that person does not yet make story--it does approach story. When someone you like and care about shows a preference for the disliked person, story comes clamoring in through the open window, ready to steal the silverware or the flat-screen TV.

None of this means you are bound to affect objectivity in your tone or in the tone of your characters. You and the characters, if they are effectively drawn, have had all the dross smelted or revised out of them.

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