Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stick to the script

Although Reality is filled with dramatic events, it comes packaged as though it were Hostess Twinkies.  And we know what those are—uniform, artificial, the consistency of artificial whipped cream.  No surprises there.  In fact, Reality often comes designed as the rooms in a Holliday Inn, all layouts and furniture the same, making it safe to get up in the dark for a trip to the loo in any Holiday Inn in America without fear of barking your shins.  Neither unpleasant surprises nor any pleasant ones.

 So we turn to a scripted version of Reality, one we call story.  Here, we can rearrange events, remove the impersonal elements from events, causing them to collide with characters who are more like us than we realize, even though they may be of other cultures, other times, remote—even imaginary—places.

You might chose to argue that Reality has no need of enhancement, that there are enough tyrants, oppressors, bureaucrats, and self-righteous politicians to give as good as any character in any story.  You could go so far as to argue that there are no surprises when events in Reality take a downward turn because, after all, aren’t we warned by whatever culture of which we are a dues paying member to expect reversals and to prepare for them in advance?

True enough; we are filled with the cultural equivalent of Christmas carols, all year, twenty-four/seven.  These messages, standards, values, if you will, are broadcast as the conventional wisdom.

For a portion of your life, you had little quarrel with conventional wisdom, but somewhere—probably 7850 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, California, which was and still is the locus of Fairfax High School—you began to question it and the apparent wisdom it was purported to have.  In a broader sense, you are still trying to figure that out, which is one reason story has been such an intellectual trampoline for you.

Much conventional wisdom you see funneled into the culture reminds you of the geese who become the hosts for the foie gras made from their liver; it is often nothing short of obvious propaganda, orchestrated and broadcast to protect the status quo, which is to say it intends the hearer to shut up with the questions.

Your interest in the so-called hardboiled school of detective fiction was an adjunct to this line of thinking even though you did not make the connection until Andre Gide did it for you with his comments about the mystery fiction of Dashiell Hammett.

From about that time, you began to see fiction as a metaphor, the specifics coming into place more and more, but not fast enough for your satisfaction.  Erich Maria Remarque, the German novelist, whose works enthralled you, helped scoot your attentions to the right direction.  “Writing of the deaths of so many millions of Jews became impossible, so I concentrated on writing about single deaths.”

And somewhere along the way, you came across the expression “The miracle of the ordinary,” which had you focus on the small details that caught your attention, requiring years until you refined it to suit your own process.  Now, when you speak of relevant detail, to authors, to students, and to yourself as a writer, you know what you mean—any detail that causes some alarm system tingle within you or some twitch of curiosity or some tickle of sexual awareness or some musical feeling of a resolved chord.  The other details are winnowed in the editing, nice details, and in some cases, you hate to see them go, but if they do not resonate now, how will they resonate when you come back to look at them later.

Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no effect on society.  Thus spoke your ultimate go-to writer, Mr. Clemens, who himself knew a good detail when he saw it, in spite of the considerable internal and external battles he fought.

Naked people are at their most vulnerable, particularly if they are not comfortable with themselves, even when clothed.  It would be child’s play to make fun of them for their vulnerability, but although you admire children’s literature and read it, you have neither wish nor reason to write it, nor would you be likely to unless you encountered something as special and intriguing as The Phantom Tollbooth.

The details of what a person wears, the details of a room, the personality of a piece of music, the effect of light on a landscape, a dog or cat hair on a sofa, these are fingerprints on the soul of a story.  They are not to be flourished, merely to be used as acupuncture points on the body of the story.

The script lays it all out in an order and lighting display Reality cannot match.  When you are surprised by a story, you are sent as from a linear accelerator down the long hallway of your imagination to collide with other dramatic elements, all traveling at the speed of light, the collision forming another element of the colliding particles.  Reality says, Okay, you’ve done pretty well, or perhaps, Okay, you really screwed up this time, but what did you expect?  You weren’t following the conventional wisdom.

Story tells you, You have just added another tool to your emotional tool kit.  Story reminds you not to listen too closely to anyone or anything that tells you to Take it easy, kiddo.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Story says it fucking was.

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