Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ritual

At about the mid point in your career at The University of Southern California, you were frequently assigned to teach special seminars, where the focus was on at most two elements related to dramatic narrative, say plot and character, or structure and pacing.  Sometimes, depending on the whim of the Chairperson, the seminar was Aristotelian Structure, or The scene as dramatic unit.  Such seminars met for two-and-a-half hours, once a week.  The registration was limited:  never more than eight, sometimes as few as five.  In the semester you have in mind, the enrollment was three, which was enhanced by the fact that all three had been in at least one other of your classes.

Classroom hours were from 7:00 p.m. until 9:40.  Considering that all three students had some form of daytime employment, traces of train wreck often began at about 8:00, by which point such hamburger, hot dog, or similar fast food began the digestive process, combining with the effects of a day’s work.  All three showed early traces of nodding.  At one point, as you neared the strategic point in your discussion of suspense, all three were in danger of whip-lash to the point where you suggested we call it quits for the night, with no harm done.  To a person they held forth their ardent belief in sleep-learning.  And so you continued until nine.

Some years later, you were at a book signing where there was one person in the audience who, it developed, thought you were another author entirely, staying only because he was embarrassed.

At yet another lecture/book signing, the audience was not what you would call extensive, but when Q and A came about, three of that group discovered to their chagrin that they’d come to the wrong room and, thus, had listened to the wrong presentation.

Such memories came fluttering to you like lost pigeons this evening when you sat in a landscape with room for a hundred twenty-five seated and another fifty standing along the aisles or rear.  By your account, this evening there were four individuals beside yourself, all of you present to experience a ritual being performed.  No matter really that the ritual was of a religious or spiritual nature or, indeed, that you are not what you consider a pious individual.  As you watched the ritual—evensong—being performed, it came to you once again that the number of persons experiencing the ritual is of little or no significance except perhaps to those who set regular store by vesper services or for that matter by any ritual at all.  It had a collective effect on the individual performing the major portion of the ritual, being of a piece with the repetitions that go into making anything muscle memory.

Ritual, whether it is spiritual or artistic, is an offering of a self at a particular time.  If repeated, it will cause associations, voyages of the mind and of the muscular-skeletal system; it is one way to approach building technique, exercising talent, ingesting a belief, or reaffirming membership in a particular discipline.

Ritual requires repetition by someone.  It does not require an audience although the presence of an audience while the ritual is being performed has what a former President of the United States once referred to as a trickle-down effect.  He did not intend his observation in the context you are using, but it does obtain.

The act of writing has become a ritual for you.  Although you often have some associative response to the ritual of attending this particular vespers service or its duplication in various other locales, you get more stimulation from writing.  You do write with the notion, goal, intent of being published, thus read and discussed.  It is a fond notion; the positive responses to your work far outweigh the negative.  There is some satisfaction in this calculus, but it is also clear to you how there is no sense of rankle or bitterness at the thought of not being read.  Better to put it this way; you would not stop performing the ritual now if there were no audience because it has become a part of a larger calculus that, non-religious and non-pietistic sort that you are, bears similarities to religion and piety.  Religion requests and often is given belief.  Writing asks of you that you believe enough in what you are doing to insure the literary equivalent of an afterlife, which is to say an eternal new project, something appearing somewhere after the last one has been finished, published or not.  Writing asks piety in the sense of requiring you to respect what you are doing and always work actively at trying to be even better than you are; it also nudges you to articulate—if only for yourself—what you mean by the boilerplate “trying to be even better than you are.”  Thin line between the individual seeking spiritual advancement and a more powerful, immediate way to convey the human condition in dramatic terms.

There are some professional writers, their considerable bodies of work to the contrary notwithstanding, whom you consider to be on the same plateau as a pietistic meringue pie of a religious professional.  There are remarkable individuals in the writing and religion professions with whom you get on in ways that seem apt and comfortable.  Two such individuals, both nuns, embraced you this evening, the one for whom you compiled the index for her last book going so far as to threaten to kill you if you did not show up for a particular ritual in early December.  There was not a word spoken of Christmas.  This too, this front steps encounter, was the kind of ritual that is more likely to bring a tingle to your skin, a lilt to your heart, perhaps a twinkle to your prose.


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