Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's three o'clock in the goddamned morning

It is easy enough to make the generalization that storytelling is a matter of arranging the emotional furniture of our fantasies and wish lists without compounding the trope with the notion that these fantasies and wishes have their origin in our earliest years, when sexuality and gender matters and, if we have siblings, birth order are forming but still inchoate.  With such notions of drama anchored in place, we set forth with the false sense of security resident in the belief that a story must give us someone to root for, must have opposition, tension, potential for reversal, confrontation, and resolution.

How convenient.

Perhaps a scant million words in, we may have already reached the idea that something is missing.  But we aren't quite sure what.  Perhaps another million or so words will help smooth out the wrinkles, providing us with the literary equivalent of a freshly ironed shirt every time we set forth.  But the million marker looms, then lands either in the waste basket of typewriter or fountain pen fame or the trash of computer composition fame.

All these words, now we can even say of them millions of words, and still the gnaw of incomplete imagery persists.  We are driven to reread our favorite published writers, sensing they have in large measure the thing we sense to be missing in our own work.  What is it, and why can't we articulate what it is so that next time, when the triggering circumstances for a new story present themselves to us, we are on top of it and can manipulate it?

You have dared yourself to look at the work of others, stubbornly arguing that your own work reaches as deep as the work you admire in others; so then why can't you put your finger on the acupuncture spot?  Perhaps another million words in, you begin to doubt you will understand the problem.  Fair enough; you're getting closer.  The problem is you and the understanding of you.

You remember the times your mentor was on your case to get the words and feelings down while you were young.  What she wanted you to evolve was your own vocabulary for the things you were feeling in those late teen, early twenties years so that you could draw on them for the rest of your working life and, if you were fortunate enough, to insure that the rest of your life would be the rest of your working life.  What it meant is that all those words were helping you understand the feelings and wishes and fantasies from that time so that you could access them and use them in the same way you understood the more simplistic tools of story telling such as plot, character, reversal, narrative, and defining moments.

It is every bit as helpful for a writer to know such things as it is for a musician, say, to "know" the emotional tone of a particular key or for a painter to know if a particular advances or retreats.  It is also important for a writer to know the him of himself and the her of himself, otherwise he would be limited to writing only about one gender or even worse, thinking to write about both genders and not doing a good job with either.

If you were going to, say, "write" The Iliad, you would have to be able to do a hell of a lot more than describe battle scenes, you would need to know from the get go why Achilles was so pissed in the first line and you would have to know how much of a wrench it was for Hector to know that he probably would be killed in battle and what then would happen to his wife and child but you'd also have to know how how his inner life would have gone had he acceded to his wife's wishes and gotten the hell out of there with her and the kid while he had a chance.  You have to know your feelings and fantasies, whatever they are, and your wishes, however secretive you've been with them, and your sense of the climate of the times in which you live so that they can be played out, one against the other, so your narrative is not merely an episode but rather a texture of emotion, event, and details that sing drunkenly into the night to the point where some neighbor complains about not being able to sleep because of the singing so early and so off-key in the damned morning.

To understand even a hint of this makes the millions of words in the trash worth the pain.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Thanks for articulating this Shelly- for reminding me why it's worth the pain now, and at 3 a.m. This writing life is a lonely business.