Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Stations of the Crux

For a brief while, you allowed yourself to believe that the most significant element in story telling was plot.  Never mind that you were not as so many of your contemporaries, able to rattle off plots with the ease and glibness of a salesperson.  In fact, for a time during this brief while in which you believed plot to be so important, you watched carefully your parents, each of whom was a sales force to be dealt with.  Your mother did it by projecting a sincerity and interest you came to realize was absolutely true.  Your father was more in the natural mode, half friend, half comic commentator on the world about him.  Your fondest memory of him in that role was when he was already into his eighties, lured away from a managerial job by your mother's youngest brother, wanting him as the sales person in his men's clothing store.  An enormous customer, having the stature of a professional basketball player, entered the store, looking for something a tad unusual, something that, as the customer put it, went against the grain.

Your father pulled out a suit with a plaid, horse blanket pattern, got the customer to put on both trousers, then jacket, telling him all the while the suit would make him a new man.  Your father assured the customer that his closest friends would not recognize him, then went on to paint a portrait of what it would be like to step out into the world with such a new, vigorous identity.  Go ahead, your father urged, just step outside and note how the natural sunlight enhances this bold and complementary pattern.

The customer did so.  We could see him preening into the front windows of the store, even going to the point of stopping a woman passerby to solicit her opinion of this remarkable suit.  At length, your father busied himself with returning sundry jackets and trousers to their hangars and places where they waited as though dogs in an animal shelter for some customer to take them out into the world of commerce.

Some five minutes later, the customer outside, sporting the window pane suit, strolled back inside, sauntered up toward your father.  "Yes, sir?  Can I help you, sir?  Something in a shirt or tie perhaps?" Then your father smacked the butt of his palm against his forehead.  "I'm so sorry.  With that suit and all, I didn't recognize you."

Within the next few minutes, the customer had his check book out and was writing in it.  Your uncle's eyes met yours and he smiled as if to say, "The natural in action."

You were not and never have been adept at plotting and so you advanced to the point where you believed character was the most important aspect of story telling; from that vantage point, you could look down wind and see the vestiges of plot.  Sure enough, with such impetus, you began slowly to produce stories you were paid for.

But there was still something missing and it was not until the mid 1980s when you began to believe voice was the most important aspect.  Voice gave you a way to see the kind of payoff you wanted and, accordingly, the kinds of characters you'd need in order to effect such payoff.  These being literary stories, they did not pay you as much as the pulps, but they did pay you in a sense of conviction that has had you more or less walking in lock step with it ever since.

What could be the next plateau?  Of late, you've been asking yourself and other writers, particularly those you merely read but do not know in person, about point of view.  Thanks to your editing experience, you are not likely to let a story go with a clangorous point of view violation, often breaking convention only in service of a delicious effect.  The thing you like most about attaching so much weight to the need for point of view integrity is that it keeps you the hell out, unable to meddle in the affairs of these individuals you have created.

One of your great friends says this is all sophistry.  He is a splendid writer and an even more splendid friend.  He is also more literal than you in his writing.  You are at some point in the process inclined to agree with him; you do mystify and conflate and interpret.  But there you are, that is you, the writer in the work room, sending his characters out into the sunlight to examine themselves in reality.  And perhaps your father is in his way winking at you.


Storm Dweller said...

The most important thing in a story is the vehicle that you as the writer are most adept at driving. We each have our own talisman or magic wand that allows us to weave and enchant the reader. I used to believe plot, then character also, I even at one point toyed with setting as the driving force, and a jarring concept of shifting points of view so that each of the characters could give the reader full access to their facet of things, but have settled into voice on the logic that all of the aforementioned are nothing more than an extension of the last. In five years I may change my mind, or I may regress. It doesn't matter as long as the work serves it's purpose, whether that purpose is my own, or projected onto the recipient.

Querulous Squirrel said...

I believe in voice and I think point of view is embodied in voice. But the voice needs to have something to talk about and that is often plot.