Sunday, May 15, 2011

Two Ways of Looking at That

 You have just come away from the final session of a weekend writing seminar, given in tandem with the literary agent, Toni Lopopolo, starting Friday afternoon, nine in the morning until eight thirty yesterday, and nine this morning until five.  Appropriate breaks for coffee and meals.


Eager--perhaps even impatient--for some sense of change, some tangible way to engage students to the point of provoking a deeper understanding of the writing craft, you came up with a exercise in which each participant was to rewrite the opening chapter of a work in progress from the point of view of another character.  This is one of your "secrets," although you cannot claim credit for originating it.  You have used it yourself when a particular scene felt soft, inconclusive, non-electric.


The results were uniform in their electrifying results, causing one participant to switch the point of view focus and another to switch focus from the individual he supposed was the protagonist.


Naturally we compared both versions.  Part of the discovery from the participants was valuable information they hadn't exploited about characters other than their main narrator.


Fiction is growing more dramatic; scarcely a genre emerges as a seemingly flat presentation of narrative information.  Of course fiction from earlier times was dramatic, even intimate, but there was a notable distance between reader and writer, even in such experts as George Eliot and Henry James, each of whom, it seems to you, more or less argued and described their entry into the skins of their characters, then presented the characters to the reader via devices that were more rhetorical than psychological.


It is one thing for you to attempt such things yourself, quite another to toss off the invitation to another writer to try another draft.  But all were willing and all quickly became energized by the results to the point where yesterday they wished to quit earlier than planned because the discovery had been so emotionally draining.  "So," one of them said, "this is what you're talking about when you say writing is hard work."


It is so, and you do take care to express it that way, using the work hard rather than difficult, the distinction for you being that it is fun at the same time it is hard.  Difficult connotes to you the ongoing sense you had when you as a young student were presented with the mechanics of long division.  There was indeed a time when writing was hard because you had so many inner editors and lack of confidence when it came to such basics as spelling and verb tenses.  Then it switched before your eyes from difficult to hard, and you knew you had found a calling.  At least, you knew you had found a way that called to you, with no promises, no guarantees.  In fact, at first, after determining through strategic questions that some writers could indeed make a living from writing, you despaired of ever being able to make enough to be considered a living.  And at first your standard of living was such that a big night on the town was having enough money for a cup of urn coffee at a neighborhood coffee shop while your more sensible friends indulged such extravagances as hamburgers, egg salad sandwiches, and that oddity that swept through your group of friends, the lettuce and tomato sandwich on wheat toast.  At some point, your sensible friends tired of their jobs, went to law school, or set sail into Ph.D. programs whence they could teach and research.


Had you been more sensitive to such things, you might have picked up on the practicality of trying on various points of view earlier in your career.  Even as lawyers and doctors (medical and scholarly), they grew dissatisfied and returned to writing, sending into effect that glorious irony of you thinking your practical friends had taken a more sensible approach to real career and your sensible friends, inflating the effects of some of your early  publications beyond any sensible measure, looked upon your path as the one they wished they'd taken.

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