Sunday, October 23, 2011


You look for many things in the books you read, the things you write, and the things you are recruited to read as teacher or editor.  Of course you look for the traces and development of story.  You also look for idiosyncratic reasons to care about what you are reading, and if you go for long periods without finding such things in what you write, you begin to contemplate the delete key if you are on board your computer or your pen if you are at the handwriting-on-note-pad state.

Discovery is of primary concern.  You read and write in hope and quest of discovery.  You need to find out something about yourself, about your species, about some of the many other species, about the universe wherein you abide on some sort of temporary basis before joining it for good in an altered form.

Whatever entertainment is, you hope to discover it as well; perhaps connections with things you had not thought were related.  The unspoken thing is surprise.  Often a discovery is a surprise in addition to the weight of awareness it addresses.

You go to a place you have visited many times before, perhaps even made discoveries there, but familiarity has asked if it might share the table and so you invite it to sit.  You are not expecting a discovery at this table.  Yet you look to one side and you encounter the gaze of someone else who has come to the place for the first time, an expression of elegant curiosity sending signals outward.  You had not expected this discovery or surprise.

There are lessons everywhere just as there are stories.  Sometimes discovery, story, and surprise conflate, trigger things you didn't realize you were looking for or even trying to understand.  Story, discovery, and surprise all toss information and awareness at you as though all of existence were some child’s game.  And of course what children do with their games is learn about themselves and the worlds they inhabit.  It is a strange, almost reckless calculus to equate story with play, but it is that very thing, you and all your brother and sister writers at play with the universe.

For some considerable time, it has been your belief that there were only two basic story templates, the hero’s journey or coming-of-age, and the new kid in town, the arrival of someone into our ecosystem who brings suspicion and the aura of newness.  You are now close to adding a third, making of the metaphor a three-legged platform.

On occasion, the legs may need to be evened a bit, but if you add mystery to the group you include the propellant of curiosity, the search for a solution to a puzzle, and when has life not been a puzzle?

Perhaps you have learned that a slight twist to the familiar produces surprise, something you were not expecting.  Perhaps it will help to consider how story lurks behind the familiar, waiting to expose the surprise.

Every year, when you go to Brian Fagan’s for Christmas Eve supper, there is a lovely metaphor, set beside each plate.  It is long, cylindrical, a long string dangling from one end.  You pull the string and there is a large pop,  Now you plumb the depths of the cylinder to remove a party hat and a surprise toy.  Over the years, you’ve kept the toys in the dashboard tray of your car, reminders that you should never get too far from toys, even though last year’s toy was pointedly useful; it is a bottle opener, just the thing for the occasional bottle of Sierra Pacific ale when you and Sally are off on a picnic.

You were not expecting the surprise you got when you met the gaze of elegant curiosity.

Discovery changes you, surprise changes you; they rearrange your molecules, cause you to examine yourself as if for the first time.  And in fact, you are doing just that.

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