Sunday, March 4, 2012

Getting a Lock on Narrative


Over the years in which you have been keeping track of things on paper, you have used a standard array of formats, including at one point a diary with a locking hasp, rendering it private, wherein you could, if you wished, say whatever you felt about whatever and whomever you wished.  As you recall it now, this diary came into your possession long enough after you’d begun having crushes on teachers—Ah, Mrs. Josephine Davis, and Mrs. Barth—as well as classmates, and so you’d more or less become used to the ratio of sexual attraction to other life events by the time you’d filled up the diary-with-lock.

Even at that feverish pitch of your hormonal tides, you’d reached the point where you were not thinking to express things in writing that you wished to keep secret.  On one or two occasions, you’d come into temporary possession of what you will charitably call secret diaries.  Once, the discovery of a diary left on a bus.  The other a compilation of observations someone had left in the Santa Monica Public Library.  Both were bitter disappointments although each in its way contributed to your view that writing, however personal, owed its creator the debt of being interesting.

Perhaps this is why you are so attracted to fiction.  Uninteresting things may be rendered interesting by heating up the contents to the point where they boil over.  Uninteresting things become interesting when they reach, then surpass the unthinkable.  Readers, when confronted with ordinary, tend not to remain readers for long.  You have had your share of reading uninteresting submissions to the various publishing ventures of your employment.

As well, you’ve had the time in the saddle of reading some thirty-five years worth of student papers and had the experience of amazing some of these students years after the fact by mentioning specifics of their stories.  The point here is that interesting writing is memorable, a fact that is not lost on you.  Nor is it lost on you that rereading some of your own writing, whether fictional, opinionated in the extreme, or scrupulous in its attempts at fair coverage, has bored you.

You have, in fact, had the locked diary in mind when, on a number of occasions, you counseled your students to write as though they were writing in a locked journal.  Give yourself some reason, you’ve exhorted, to wish your material was so inflammatory or slanderous or revelatory or frank or a lovely combination of all these to have the effect of making you feel vulnerable.

Once, when you and Henry Miller were staff members of a strange, quirky magazine, you got into a friendly argument about a particular piece Henry had urged us to publish.  Your argument against accepting the piece had nothing to do with the explicit sexual content.  In fact, that was the one thing about the piece you liked.  We know what he [the protagonist] wants to do to her [one of the other characters], you told Henry.  That’s pretty clear.  What we don’t know, and what we ought to know is why.  At which point, Henry replied that there were frequent times he did such things without knowing why.  And you, almost daunted by that, found yourself suggesting, But surely you had some suspicions?  Game, he said.  Game, set, and match.  Because, he said, we all have suspicions about things we don’t have the fortitude to face.

You have moved from lined, bound ledgers to artist’s sketch books, and blank bound books given you by various paper suppliers and book printers, used as dummies for the purpose of estimating pagination, spine width, and a sense of how the bound, printed book of that number of pages at that basis weight and page-per-inch measurement will appear.  Since about 2007, you appear to have abandoned handwritten commentary for the convenience of blog entries, saving the handwritten attack for early drafts of stories, essays, and reviews.

You have also evolved from the use of the pronoun I to the pronoun he, on the theory that writing about yourself as he would allow you an added dimension, perhaps the dimension of irony, but just as well the dimension of naiveté.  If not naiveté, then outright ignorance could be the result.  Since your wish was an inclusive, warts-and-all vision of yourself, you gave up the I in favor of the he, which you grew to quite like until your friend, John Sanford, suggested you move along from he to that splendid narrative fulcrum, the second person pronoun of you.  Thus you, who were once an I, who was not entirely comfortable with his narrative, became a he or a him.  What was happening to him?  He asked of his personal cosmos when he felt himself bewildered and perplexed, eager for some sign or revelation.

Does writing about your personal universe seem more comfortable?  Put the matter this way, it seems more natural.  There is less need to invent small details; they seem to appear without thought, which is actually what you like.  And don’t forget this, in the process, your personal universe seems more—well—more personal.  You don’t mind that one bit, do you?


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