Monday, May 31, 2010

Ordinary Need Not Apply

"Begin with an individual," F. Scott Fitzgerald said in that long ramble of a story, The Rich Boy, "and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created--nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves." 

 You meditated on this information a good, long time as a young man, forging a lifelong fondness for the craft you believed you could learn from him and the actual ache of awareness you eventually did get from him. 

The Rich Boy seduced you into the belief that you could write about the people he wrote about, and while you might have eventually been able to do so, it was another story of his, Babylon, Revisited, that pushed you into awareness of what you thought you'd learned from the quotation about characters. Babylon, Revisited was the essential story of Fitzgerald, a man who was once something he wanted to be, had something he wanted to have, and because of excesses and lack of discipline, had lost the innocence of what had brought him to power in the first place. Now, with rigid self-discipline, he could revisit but only briefly, could catch glimpses of what he once was and once had, more as a visitor than a full-time resident.

You learned that you were more interested in individuals than types; using types was a lazy way of getting to the good parts. As a result, there were considerable gaps between the good parts, wide enough so that a stranger, happening upon them, could discern no secret revealed, no ache eager to be comforted, no discovery of intent or agenda that could lead anyone to care in that particular way readers require before they do care.

Everyone has a story; it is your job to know what that story is, to experience the inner yearnings and compare them with the outer presentation. Splendid food, splendidly presented, you say of some restaurants. Mediocre food, flashily presented, you say of others. Mediocre food, inelegantly presented, you judge of yet others. A hasty meal-from-the-can of cold Franco-American spaghetti or Heinz vegetarian baked beans, each honest and each not aspiring in its way, comes closer to the comfort foods of your palate than a slapdash work of pretension. 

 Thus your standards fall into place from reading and eating, two significant appetites that have grown under your management. Meals want honesty and reference points; characters must be presented so that their reference points somehow radiate or bulge or cry out beyond the protective presentation of cliche.

For some time now your favorite example of the lower-end character has been the pizza delivery person, the he or she whose professional goal is to deliver the desperation meal, the I-can't-bear-to-even-think-of-cooking meal in some degree of original warmth. But that person's goals and dreams outside the delivery cycle still have effect on the presentation, the flourish or tone of voice or response to the odor radiating from the box holding the pizza. It is as vital for you to be able to feel that person's presence as your story is worth. 

 With that in mind, the delivery of the pizza may remain ordinary in context of the story, but it will, because of its influence on your choice of words, your cadence of presentation, the responses of your more significant characters transform ordinary the same way dialogue transforms the predictability of conversation. 

 You once advocated to a rather stunned class the application of Heraclitus to your pizza delivery person in that, as you observed, you cannot deliver the same pizza twice. That was years ago. You still hear from students who remembered that lecture as opposed to not hearing from students who didn't remember the more ordinary lectures.

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