Sunday, July 11, 2010

Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer IX

Your enthusiasm for a project in the works rather than plot or outline is the hybrid vehicle you will ride through to the final destination.  The main source of power for this hybrid vehicle is your enthusiasm, but when that switches off or its warning lights begin to flicker, your next remarkable fuel is curiosity.  Thus my advice to you:  Beware of Sisyphean sentences in the course of which you push stolid predicates to the top of a rhetorical hill, give them a shove, then hope they achieve in their downward descent some--you guessed it--momentum.  Remember Sisyphus as a metaphor representing meaningless, mind-numbing work; keep him in mind as an exemplar of the kind of sentence you do not wish to write, not under any circumstances.

Sisyphus was sentenced to an eternity of meaningless work for defying the god Zeus--well, actually, for hitting on a mortal woman Zeus had planned an adventure or two with.  If your sentences bear the aura of fearful duty--"I've got to explain my characters' motivation"--or the taint of relying on the need to satisfy everyone in your writing group, including that one person who is so particularly critical of everything you write, these burdens will weigh your sentences and, indeed, your story, bringing it to a standstill, leaving you with the uncomfortable awareness of being alone, stranded as it were on a desert island much as the young chaps in Lord of the Flies were stranded.  And you know what happened to them.

How, I hear you asking, do I achieve this mind-freeing enthusiasm of which I speak?  I can give you the mechanism.  The specifics work for me; perhaps they'll show you how to draw upon them to develop your own, as indeed I drew from my role model, a musician name of Franz Josef Haydn, not only an articulate composer but a prolific one.  He began his working day by sorting through his library of musical scores, finding a piano work written by Karl Philip Emanuel Bach, then spending half an hour playing the score on his own piano, whereupon he turned to his own composing.  Although a fan of Haydn, particularly his piano sonatas, I am not so much a fan of KPE Bach, whose music doesn't send me off the way Haydn's does, but to be sure, Haydn's approach gets me looking.  Look for ten things you can read, recite, listen to, taste, or merely look at.  These are to be selected with the notion that they will provide energy and momentum to you because they have in the past.  I can pretty much get going on nearly anything by Maurice Ravel.  Yo-Yo Ma's renditions of the six unaccompanied cello suites by KPE's father, Johann Sebastian Bach, get me moving.  I find it difficult not to be energized by the playing of nearly anything by Bill Evans going it alone, or accompanied by the wise, verbal bass playing of Eddie Gomez.  Reading Louise Erdrich gets me moving; reading almost anything by Jim Harrison can get the ideas hopping.

It rarely takes me more than three or four things to get me going.  Sometimes I am drawn back again to the wonder and whimsy of the Krazy Kat comic strips that so enchanted me as a young person and made me wonder if I would ever be able to project such a magisterial vision as George Herriman's on the walls of my mind.

So okay, you pick among these ten things of yours and have at them.  If they don't help you to tuck into your day's writing session, I'm sorry to say you're fucked, which is a different kind of destination than the one I have in mind for both of us.  I have in mind a destination that is informed by The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian folk tale which has come to us through a number of languages, leaving us with an uncanny sort of dramatic road map and the word serendipity.

You can, dear writer friends, follow the well-worn paths of tradition, plotting everything in advance, then arriving at your destination in mechanical fashion that promptly bites its thumbnail at any sense of realism.  You can, of course, follow the path of the three princes, arriving at your destination by happy chance, your destination coming as a complete and pleasing surprise for you, or perhaps not--perhaps not so pleasing as to seem mechanical, but pleasing enough to seem lifelike.  Besides, you've arrived at anticipated destinations before in your earlier works, you've been through the juggling, rearranging of plausibility as though it were cheap motel furniture.  That didn't make you feel as pleased at it might had you agreed to let the unthinkable come striding forward, inviting it in to accompany you on your way.

I leave it to you, dear friends:  We can cause our conclusions to have the heavy hands of event managers or we can follow those remarkable three princes who were actually from Sri Lanka and somehow, through the serendipity of translation and writers looking for destinations that will leave us with something of substance, found us.

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