Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Author as Control Freak

How much control do you need over a story?

Ask that question at a group of writers and you'll get a neat arc of responses all the way from complete control, as in a step outline, to the other rat tail of the bell curve to freedom bordering on anarchy.  Which ever their method, the writer you most admire is she or he whose final work appears the most natural and spontaneous, a highly subjective answer, you know, nevertheless so, measured by a sense of plausibility in the performance of the characters and the added sense that while the characters' actions seemed real, they also contained an element of surprise.

One of the reasons you are so fond of Louise Erdrich's works is the emerging sense that anything could have happened, but these events did happen.  You have no close-to-hand idea of her work habits, so you can only speculate, and you do speculate that she knows a great deal about her characters, possibly in the form of biography, perhaps even in elaborately sketched time lines.  Knowing what she knows about them, she has more options, and although Leonard Tourney,your longtime friend and co-host of the Saturday Writing Workshop, the Lion's Den, disagrees with your take, you believe the characters clamor to be heard, do such surprising things as James Cagney did way back when, at the time he pushed half a grapefruit into the face of Mae Murray, or the story about Marlon Brando, told you by your mentor.  She and an unknown Brando were in an off-Broadway play, one of his first New York stage appearances.  Brando had been lackluster in rehearsals, causing ripples of worry among the cast.  He was cast as a menacing criminal.  Five minutes before his cue, Brando had disappeared, driving the stage manager wild with anxiety, only to be told, "That crazy fuck is outside, chinning himself on a fire escape."  Brando came in on cue, without missing a beat of the play's pace and action, but considerably out of breath from his exertion.  He delivered his lines breathlessly.  The effect on the cast and the audience was stunning.  In a sense, Brando was taking liberties, but he knew how he wanted that character to sound, delivering those lines the author had written.

You want the absolute control of knowing your characters well enough to know what they might do, given the chance.  This produces mischief, to be sure, but it also produces the energy of surprise that grips you when a character brings something from the depths of himself or herself to the page, stunning and triggering the other characters, sending the story scooting off on a life of its plausible own, leaving you as amazed and energized as everyone else.  You wish to give them the chance, which is why, for you, outline is tentative, provisional, subject to the explosive whim of a character being pushed to the edge, then nudged over into emotional free fall.

This may or may not be related:  For most of your life, you have been a strong admirer of the compositions of Beethoven, whose sterling quality for you is the drama produced by the cumulative outcome of each note seeming to be the only note that could possibly follow the previous.  In more recent years, and with all due admiration still obtaining, you find yourself drawn to two of Beethoven's teachers, Haydn and Mozart, each of whom seem to anticipate risk in composition, then pounce on the opportunity.  The significant difference between the teachers and the pupils is a resident humor in their work, invading even the most plaintive of adagios.  You by no means dismiss the humor in Beethoven, examples being readily available in the third movement (scherzo) of the Third and Fourth Symphonies, but the humor and good spirits dally everywhere within the music of the teachers, while the pupil appears to you to be more deliberate.  Insert joke here, as in the Third Symphony, where the entire orchestra engages a conversation with a single bassoon.

Yes, it probably is related.  Composition is, after all, composition, and the results in both written word and composed music point in the same direction, evocation of sublime emotional expression.

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