Sunday, July 4, 2010

Letters, iv

I'm writing this letter to you from the advantage point of having had more time to pursue the craft than you.  If this sounds as though more time on the job gives me some moral high ground, it intends no such thing.  On the contrary, it gives me a chance to warn you about advice from geezers in addition to talking about the subject I'd wanted to address in the first place, good guys in your stories and their adversaries.

It should be apparent to you if you've read my earlier letters--always the danger you haven't, because I do tend to go on--that the warning is more to me than to you, in the sense that I am likely to make assumptions based on my time on the job which, although indeed extensive, can be illogical, particularly when compared to the potential of you coming onto the job with more chops already than me.  This is not so much a matter of humility on my part as the awesome awareness of lost time, of my having frittered time and pool balls away in darkened parlors, of more than a casual interest in women as distractions as well as their considerable other presence, and of allowing times of indecision to have had too strong an influence on my writing practice sessions.  However wrong you may be, you always do better when writing decisively.  Indecision only creates one kind of learning situation, the could have or should have tropes.  Wrong is at least straightforward, honest, lacking in the props of adverb.

So far as the good guys and their opponents are concerned, let me put it to you this way:  Give the good lines to your antagonists.  Let the protagonists fend for themselves.  Part of being a young writer us the understandable desire to show off your talents, your energy, your bravado, your ability to make sentences and entire paragraphs sail about with the dazzle and grace of a ballerina/  I was going to use the analogy of a gun fighter in a Western film, but as I explained a bit earlier, I do become distracted by the images and actual presence of women.

Let showing off have its time on stage via the narrative in which your people observe things about life, about one another, about themselves. Protagonists who speak as though Cyrano de Bergerac were on hire as a dialogue writer tend to come off the page as pomposity writ large, as humbugs, as set-up for a takedown which, in point of argument, is the fulcrum on which humor rests until the pomposity takes that one, irresistible step forward, from what may be pathos into what is definitely bathos.  Do what Beethoven did, which was in fact writing and playing to the point where they had to build a different kind of keyboard instrument in order to keep up with him.  He literally and figuratively forced what we now think of as the piano into existence.  How many writers do you know who have pushed the craft so relentlessly where writing is concerned?

The adversaries and antagonists are the people your guys have to engage and live to tell the tale, so it cannot be just any tale.  Melville had to let Ishmael live merely to tell us what happened.  We think about him because he did manage to get through it all, but it is only later, after we have considered all the implications that we even remember, oh, yeah, that Ishmael guy who wanted us to call him, he survived.  We remember him for all those wonderful reasons of his own, down-at-the-ego personality, but imagine him trying to cadge drinks at a bar with such a fanciful story.  Then we'd see him as something entirely else, someone like Montressor, the narrator of Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado," who has been dining out on telling this story of revenge, probably the one real moment in his life.  Melville saves the good lines for the dead guys, and for Father Marple.  We don't remember Ishmael as we remember those two hulking mammals, Ahab and the Great White Whale; Melville gave them the good lines.

Remember, it is not about you, it is about your characters.  Remember that and you will be remembered.  At least, your work will.  I'll bet you never thought when you were screwing around in high school, frittering, your thoughts jumping between moments of clearing the table in a game of rotation or edging over to the body parts of girls you're programmed to notice, that you'd be given some distraction such as that short story by Hawthorne called "The Minister's Black Veil," thinking as you finished it, some day I'll be a writer and I'll do better than this.  I suppose it makes me a nut case to admit that I did in fact read that story, at the time wanting more than anything to impress the hell out of a girl named Pauline.  Mind you, there were some good reasons to want to impress her, but that took me about fifteen years and by then the balances of power and chemistry had shifted.  Now, however, I am thinking what fun it might be to take that same story and bring it up to the present, featuring one of the guys who comes to Peet's Coffee Shop on State Street, a minister in some evangelical local church who frequently meets his parishioners there to discuss such subjects as goals, service, and, yesterday, getting right with God.

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