Monday, July 19, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XV

Secret, the noun, plays a major role in our everyday drama, enhanced by the delicious subtext of secret, the adjective.  We all carry secrets about with us, some of them so small and inconsequential as to make the rest of us wonder why you'd want to hide such a thing, other secrets so whopping large as to become secrets we don't allow ourselves to recognize.  Thus our mutual awe of and regard for the polarity we carry like some up-market backpack:  the things we keep secret from others, the things we cannot acknowledge in ourselves.

A common, satisfying approach to secret in either avatar, adverb or noun, is the trade.  I tell you one about me, you respond with one of your own, thus each of us has something on the other, an assurance, if you will, that this exchange had been a bonding experience wherein each gets to know the other.  Tell me your secrets and I will tell you who you are.  That sort of thing writers fall to arguing about when the splashes of Campari bitters have become too generous or too numerous or both.

If and as our relationship continues, the exchange rate will increase, each wanting to share secrets as an analog of handshakes to prove neither is carrying a concealed weapon, but also a kind of classification or scoping out process in which each seeks to out-secret the other, each party going for the brass ring of being the most complex or sophisticated or, dare I suggest, the most interesting.

Of a more injurious nature:  You know some secret about me that assures you the power of controlling my loyalty or at least a compliance to your agenda,  (And don't for a minute forget the adjectival secret being attached to the noun of agenda.  Secret fucking agenda.) lest you make my secret public.  Doesn't much matter what the secret is so long as you know I try to keep it as private as possible.  Okay, that's the lawyer's equivalent of billable hours to charge clients, which is to say it is blackmail, which is surely billable. but it is also illustrative of how secrets and secrecy work for and against us as power points.

This opens what I will call the Ex Door, where we have shared secrets almost as we have shared bodily fluids with ex-mates, ex-lovers, ex-friends, and not to forget ex-employers.  How many stories have you read where an amiable-sounding narrator is confronted by an Ex from the past, asking for help, pleading almost piteously that no one else but you could possibly believe the scrape he or she has gotten into?  And how many more are you likely to read in the future?

The delicate fulcrum on which your character's entire connection to the character from the past is based is on the secrets and intimacy of an historic relationship.  The reader will watch carefully to see how you respond.  If you are male and she a female and you refuse help in the present time, there is danger the reader will think you are, pardon the archaic words, a cad and a bounder.  And interestingly enough, if you are a male and you do agree to help, the reader will not only be rooting for you, the reader will be suspicious of your ex from the past.

This example was only one permutation.  The protagonist could well be a career woman whose ex happened to be a likable guy who never quite made it and thus the separation--until now.  You could just as well ring in the potential of same sex.  If you don't, I probably will because I think it might be interesting to see if the bond of a same sex relationship in that kind of secret set-up has more, less, or merely the same degree of connectivity.

My parting advice to you is to write from your own personal fear that your deepest held secrets might be laid bare, which will kick into high gear your own devious, manipulative nature, influence the characters you chose for the portrayal, and help you define the secrets in the lives of your characters.

I could also caution you to be careful of individuals who tell you how you can trust them to keep your secret, but that's something I'll leave just between us.

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