Monday, June 28, 2010

Burdens, Summer Sale

In thoroughbred and quarter horse racing, a handicap is an added weight assigned to a horse in a particular race as a means of evening the competitive edge among the contestants.  The handicap, in pounds, assigned to the horse is listed in The Racing Form as one of the factors available to the betting public.

In the dramatic sense, which is the only sensible thing we speak of here, a burden is a noticeable load of back story a character in a narrative is assigned by the writer to carry.  The character may prevail in spite of the handicap, may become deterred by it to the point of losing, and/or come to terms with it in some unique manner.

Although dramatic burdens do not necessarily make a character appear more attractive to the reader, Blanche DuBois nevertheless worms her way into our concern because she is so visibly burdened with vulnerability.  Through the alchemy of story, what happens to Blanche happens as well to us, including her moments of disconnect, where we are not convinced her grip on reality is all that intense.  Looking at another Williams character, Laura Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie, we meet the only person in the cast who has never done a hurtful thing to anyone.  Physically and emotionally burdened, Laura is another Williams character for whom it is easy to devote large shares of empathy.

We must be careful not to arbitrarily maim and wound our characters in hopes of their afflictions providing us with more--which is to say more intense--story.  Rather we need to consider the relative ease with which a seemingly ordinary event will leave its scuff marks on the polished brogans of your psyche, an event that may not be noteworthy to ninety-nine persons out of an arbitrarily selected hundred, but which you have remembered over the years in spite of your attempts to talk yourself away from its more pernicious effects.

Characters without burdens are like attractive young persons in their early twenties, only partially formed, not yet really beautiful or really handsome, those qualities more apparent with the aging process and the grace with which the individuals bear their burdens.  They may perform to an extent in your narratives, but are they up for the hopes you have for them?  Can they truly recognize anguish of moral choice, or have they as yet failed to pause with a tremble over the nuances that will cause them sleeplessness later on. Nor is this to suggest young persons cannot be afflicted with burdens.  Look at the real-life example of the English writer, David Mitchell, whose splendid earlier novel, Black Swan Green depicted a thirteen-year-old boy in a small town, undergoing a year of his life, given to a hopeless stammer, trying to hide the fact that he is the anonymous poet whose work is appearing in the local paper, trying to cope with his parents' failing marriage.

There is also the matter that your burden may not be mine, my shyness may not be yours.  Younger characters also carry with them the burdens of their ideals and their love; is there anything so helpless and wretched as early love.  Imagine yourself falling in love for the first time, then imagine yourself at the point where you are now arrived, suddenly finding the early flutter of love within your breast, wondering if, at your age, it may be indigestion or perhaps, oh, no, not heart and all that arterial nonsense, then deciding, oh no, what will this do to my work?

Burdens are forces to be contended with at any age, any stage of life; they are handicaps, leveling out the playing field, but what playing field, what humanity, what purpose, what end?  And what about the burden of realizing in a hubristic haze how you are not at the moment at love and thus able to go about your days with full focus on the things you have opted to specialize on, which is to say self-education, reading, and, of course, writing.  Then, at the high crest of egotism you are riding, someone from Facebook contacts you, wants to friend you, and you know this person, but there is a particular buzz as you begin tentative correspondence.

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