Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Opening Gambit

We like to think others will care for and about what we write. Um, no; this is a dangerous presupposition to which some of us add further momentum with the fiction that any manuscript or notebook left unguarded or not copyrighted will have the shelf life of an unlocked bicycle in the parking lot of a shopping mall.


Dream on, you say, because in large measure we do in fact dream on, artful in our construction of conspiracy theory. The true national anthem of the American writer is not "O, say can you see..." but rather "O, what will they steal from me?"

A sad truth: Much of the written material produced in any given day fails to grab interest from anyone other than the person who wrote it and even then, reader involvement is questionable, tricky. An intimate diary, left at such potentially fecund venues as a coffee shop, airport waiting area, or a college class room would probably go unread without some intervention advertising the lascivious contents to be found inside.

The entry way to making the reader care is nestled between the narrative voice and something or someone the narrator passionately wants (or wants to do), underscored by the narrator's disclosure or unwitting revelation that the thing wanted (or wanted done) is essentially taboo. It is not merely enough for a character to want something; the character must be able to see the consequences of achieving the desired object will cause some notable consequences. Or the possibility that the narrator could be hurt. Or betrayed.

We should be made to care because the well-known person of interest has been morphed into the narrator or narrator/protagonist of the work in progress, a person who is at some risk, to catch the drift of it, and of accelerated risk if we are any judge of risk ourselves.

All well and good, you say. Risk is the key. But how am I to portray a person of interest as being engaged in a risky business without some kind of introductory background, some assessment from me, as it were, that hey, this guy or this lady is about to step off the curb and into a serious mess? The answer of course is to have said character about to step off the curb and into a serious mess when, of a sudden, another player in the story, perhaps a cab driver or someone already seriously late for home on account of having stopped for a few drinks with the boys, yells out a warning to our character. Hey, you wanna get kilt? Our character shakes his or her head, no, but thanks for the warning, then steps off the curb anyway. You realize of course that the curb in this paragraph is metaphorical as indeed is the cab driver of someone seriously late for home on account of having stopped.

Look how quickly Gregor Samsa got messed up. Just one night. Scarcely a paragraph. The man who went to sleep a man, had some uneasy dreams, then woke up shall we say transformed, as though some sacrilegious editorial sort were holding him up over his head and saying, Behold, the body of story. And to be sure, some readers could easily consider that trope as being disrespectful, but since when were you concerned about the sensitivities of a precious few? Isn't this a democracy? Second Amendment and all, right?

So you begin by taking a risk with a character taking a risk as opposed to your eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ways of starting out a story with a long philosophical ramble through a neighborhood, such as the Dorset landscape Thomas Hardy used in his nineteenth- and early, early twentieth-century novels. You might even start with a wife telling her husband to be careful, trying to manipulate an auto with the driver's seat in the wrong, English side, through the turn of a narrow country road about which are set many cottages with thatched roofs, and the husband, a man who figures even though he is from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, he still knows a few things about driving in Dorset, says yeah, yeah just before the car breaks loose and goes off the road. See? the wife says. Yeah, the husband says. I see, all right.

Oh, goody, we have front row seats to a domestic squabble. But you're shrewd and you're not going to give them the leisure of having their argument right now, the see, I told you kind of approach to which shut up is the only possible retort. Oh, now; we're going to have instead an irate farmer advancing on the two forlorn Americans, wanting, no, demanding to know what they're going to do about his ox who'd been spooked by their bloody car going off the bloody road, which is more or less what you'd expect from an American driver. Of course your American driver is going to want to get the farmer off to the side, maybe slip him a five-Euro note and say Can't we bloody forget the whole thing? But the driver's wife is still pissed because her husband didn't listen to her in the first place and seems not to be handling any kind of critical theory too well, so she figures a plan of her and calls out to her husband, who is leading the farmer off out of earshot, Hey, she calls, thinking I'll fix you to her husband. Don't forget to offer money. This morning you offered that guy twenty Euros and he dropped the whole thing. Of course there was no This morning, no twenty Euros, no previous incident, but try convincing the farmer of that.

So you know all this, understand it on a subliminal way, don't have to be reminded; so you begin messing with your narrator right away and each time you see a particular story of your begin to start running toward the kinds of dramatic-yet-seemingly ordinary openings, like the stories in The New Yorker, you get an inner wave of satisfaction , maybe even thinking I wonder if I should send this one to them. I wonder if this isn't going along like a pigeon leading a flock, all the other guys maintaining a respectful distance behind, unquestionably certain he's going in the right direction.


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