Sunday, November 14, 2010

Beating the system

Aristotle (384-22 BCE) was among the first we're aware of to pin the butterfly of story to the dissection board, where it might be dissected, speculated upon, improvements for its survival offered.  Subsequent names such as Milton, Pope, and Dryden were offered to those of us who pursued the liberal arts paths through its gnarly bifurcations, causing some of us to arrive out of the academy only to return to it as a teacher.  Others among us went forth to become editors; yet others chose that most precipitous path of the writer, while you with no real deliberation and quite a bit of serendipity became that ultimate hyphenate, the writer-editor-teacher-critic.

As the beginning, defensive writer is wont to say, this--the previous paragraph--all has a point, which you didn't begin with, neither from stubbornness or ignorance of the in medias res approach which was known at least as far back as that classic of in medias res, The Iliad.  You began where you did because the theme is system and who better than Aristotle to have started us  thinking about systems, right?

Over the years in which storytelling has extended its metaphoric arms to embrace us, critics and writers have attempted to deconstruct the concept to the point where they could explain how they themselves do it and, ever ready to push the envelope, demonstrate how you, too, can do it.  Following some systems, you actually produced stories that were paid for and published.  One editor whom you greatly admired even went so far as to call you one of his regulars, which was nice while it lasted because he had raised the stature of his journal to a fine level.  It did not go far enough to suit you; in fact no sooner had he told you that you were one of his regulars when he promptly died.

Nevertheless, you had a system that produced stories for you and apparently for other editors as well, one of whom took your work on with dizzying regularity.  You to this day are on the fence about why he decided to fold up his literary tent.  Nevertheless, system worked in the sense that it worked for you.  You have seen your way through any number of students, most of whom you have impressed with the need to forget about the other systems out there, instead developing one of your own.  It will surely have any number of the qualities Aristotle noted, back there before the Common Era began.

Individuals appear on the scene, eager to learn the conventions and systems that will make them better storytellers.  They want to beat the system of the moment by mastering it to the point where it appears to anyone who reads their work that they know all the correct applications of technique.  Ever spend any time at a Hyatt Regency or Hilton Motel? you ask from time to time.  Both chains display works alleging themselves to be art.  The perspective is right on, the colors are--well, they are presented with some pretense at nuance.  The themes are in many ways less offensive than some vacation photos you've seen.  But they don't fucking work.  They don't take you anywhere.  They don't remind you of anything except that there is a soft drink dispenser and ice machine down the hallway.

There are stories of that sort, as well.

They don't take you anywhere, except to the book store or library, where you can find stories that do take you somewhere, written by men and women who are still explaining to themselves what it means to them.  You are thinking of using Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves as a writing text book. It might make some sense to use the book about writing you have written as a textbook as well because you say in so many words that the whole idea of story is not a system; it is evolved through all the disappointments and dead-end writing, all the near misses, all the acceptance letters, all the times when your ink cartridges ran dry or your computer swallowed something or your dog got sick on a manuscript or you threw something across the room because it was so wonderful that you couldn't stand being so close to it and because you were insanely jealous that someone other than you had written it.

If it exists somewhere else, it is not you.

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