Sunday, September 4, 2011

In the Event

Event is as essential to story as characters and their motives are; it serves as a constant reminder to writer,character, and, of course, to reader:  Without event, story has gone off on a holiday or, if the setting is in France, story has gone on strike and is even now manning the picket lines.

A group of characters sitting about at, say, a dinner, as Julian Barnes has done with such clever effect, is often sufficient to be an event, tumbling forward into story at the merest provocation.  Hence, event is provocation, a slight edge bursting to the head of the line in dialogue, a misinterpreted gesture, an apparent weakness revealed that one character attempts to capitalize upon while, at the same time, another character attempts damage control.

Event becomes your personal seasoning of a stew you are asked to taste test; it comes to you in essence bland because all its ingredients, however organic, cancel one another, creating a negativity of democratic correctness.  Your job is to give it an undemocratic, authoritative presence, which may well be felt in the form of a surprise as a pungent, spicy invasion that prickles the tongue and causes the eyes to fill with tears.

You know you are in an event when the tide, the potential outcome, the original intent all seem to be drifting if not outright racing away from you and your compulsive desire to control.  You have, after all, put in some time toward developing technique (but, alas,not yet enough time--never enough time--taking risks), and so you think to surf the waves of technique.  Hear this:  Technique alone does not get it.  You need to dive into the event that is story, descending beyond your normal level of safety.  You need to feel the same kind of fear you feel when you were out on the town and had a few drinks with some friends.  Now you are driving home, startled by the red light behind you.  Yes, of course you are relieved when it turned out the black-and-white behind you merely wanted to get around you, but yes, of course, your heart is still thumping because although you feel in control, you wonder what the outcome might have been had you been stopped.  You want that feeling in your writing.

Even though you are only fooling around, doing the literary equivalent of sitting at a piano and playing "Chopsticks" at a party, there is somewhere within you the solemn, almost robotic presence of Sviataslav Richter, approaching the piano and playing the same, silly "Chopsticks" in such elegant grace that it brings tears to the eyes of the audience.

There are not that many templates for story, so your templates have to have events that will have taken you somewhere you had not anticipated visiting, and you will have gone to that place and returned with a gift for yourself and the reader.  Think what it did to you the first time you heard someone with chops play Ravel's "Jeux d'eau."  Think what it did to you the first time you heard Coltrane doing "Giant Steps."  Remember how you felt that night you sat at a side table in The Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, and heard Coltrane play "My Favorite Things," which you'd listened to dozens of times on LP, then think of the hundreds of times he'd played it before he played it that night.

It is too easy to use technique as a means of coasting.  Go where technique cannot save you, cannot bail you out, cannot call you home for dinner.  Go where you have potentials for failure you have not yet experienced.  Then get up and rewrite the event.

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