Saturday, February 25, 2012

Trip to the Store

When you were of a certain age and the world about you had not completed its transition from the corner grocery, where the customer was served by the clerk, into the supermarket where the customer moved the shopping cart through the aisles, you’d be sent on occasion to the grocery on Fairfax Avenue, midway between Wilshire Boulevard and Sixth Street.

Your payment for this errand was a few extra cents, which had been added to the funds you were given to make the assigned purchase.   Depending on the time of day of the errand, your fee meant you could afford one or two chocolate-covered graham crackers or an enormous dill pickle in that emerging state between cucumber and its final destiny you so preferred.

By that time in your young life, you were already on wheels, an imaginative construct of a two-by-four, a wooden fruit box with a length of broom handle nailed across its width dimension, all mounted on a discarded roller skate that has been unscrewed to allow for its emergence as two sets of two wheels.

Being sent to the store was an adventure of serious consequence, not to be undertaken in a lighthearted manner.  Given your mother’s high standards, which were well known to you, catsup meant Heinz with great specificity, mayonnaise meant Best Foods, mustard meant French’s.  Even flavored soda meant a specific brand:  root beer meant Par-t-pak; cream soda meant Dr. Brown’s.  You’d transgressed a few times to your immediate regret, which is to say her disappointment.  Unless she had the requested Swan’s Down Baking Flour, how could she produce such splendid cakes as those you cherished above all others?

It is not all that much of a jump for you to the place where you are sent on another journey.

These journeys are assigned to you as often by you as they are by another person.

Your book reviews are about a thousand words.  A short story is about five thousand words, a novel about seventy-five or eighty thousand.  Your most recent nonfiction book was a bit over a hundred fifty thousand.  Word lengths are mere parameters; there is no telling how many times you are sent out for a replacement when you have used the wrong word or sentence or paragraph or entire page or perhaps even an entire chapter.

You continue venturing with, at, and on a project until you think you’ve come to see it, at last, as it ought to be—as it appears to you in that delicious abstraction called vision.  Then you reach the point where persons connected with the publishing process see it and decide it has some worth, which makes you aware that you are reaching a critical point of wondering if you’ve left anything important out or repeated something too many times or said something you ought not to have said in quite the way you said it.

Sometimes you are sent back again to revisit something you thought you’d nailed—until someone connected with the publishing process questions a word or a phrase or asks you in the margin what a particular sentence means and you say, of course it has a meaning and the meaning is the perfect rendition of clarity except that now it no longer seems clear to you.

You do continue to say (and believe) you write to find your way through the maze, whereupon it becomes your added task to portray a particular maze and to bring opposing forces together either as strange bedfellows or outright opponents, contesting some rite of passage or ownership or participation or morality, and so, with a bit of prodding, you realize you have missed or overstated.

So many writers seem to grouse about the process, and in your own way, you’ve had experience with the immediate recognition that what you saw was not what you expressed.  You needed another trip to the store, not the one at Sixth and Fairfax but the one inside, which is quite a bit larger, on the order of a COSTCO or some other big box, with wide aisles and enormous shelves, and displays of considerable height and thickness.  It is to these inner aisles you repair when you are seeking the correct word, the unused phrase, the clearest path to the vision that comes to you from the events going into the story and attempting to work out of it.

Once again, you’re sent on an adventure.  Nothing will do but for you to return with the right item this time.

You do not feel imposed upon or misunderstood on such ventures.  They are every bit the adventures you had when you raced the streets on those ball bearing roller skate wheels, nailed fiercely to a two-by-four, clicking over the lines in the pavement, letting you know you were on a mission.

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