Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Toothpaste Tube as Metaphor


Over the years of your writing activities, you have compiled a list of words you have promised yourself not to use at the beginning of a sentence.  A prime candidate for non-use is the word “one.”  

Sometimes, when you begin an essay or a review or a blog investigation, the word “one” comes to you and you find yourself thrust into thinking such tropes as “One of the major features of…” or perhaps “One quality every memorable story contains…” or, this:  “One day, you were thinking…”

Another word on your do-not-use list is “it.”  Imagine all the times you have done so, begun a sentence with ‘it.”  No; it is too painful.  You have in your time, without serious thought, begun innumerable sentences with the Dickensian “It was…” or your own variation, “It is…” as in, It is a matter of some concern, or It is a truth universally recognized…

The one-two combination of your literary agent and the editor, Renni Browne (of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers fame) has put yet another word on your do-not-use list as a sentence opener—“as.”  Your agent, who was editorial director at one time of two rather big houses, is, no surprise, a shrewd editor.  You listen to her.  She has certainly opened publication and editing doors for you.  Renni Browne has provided you a generous blurb for your most recent book.  You listen to her; you do not begin sentences with “as.”

You work to avoid beginning sentences, in particular first sentences in stories, chapters, or paragraphs, with gerunds, such as “Having awakened later than planned that morning, Fred rushed through his shower and shave, ate no breakfast, and shorted his dog’s usual walk.”

Of course there are other “starters,” such as “because,” which has nearly the same effect as “as,” not to forget “until.”  You come hard wired with dislike of the word “that” in any sentence, sometimes taking unwarranted excursions in syntax to avoid it, and when you factor in your agent’s distaste for adverbs with your own, the thought of beginning a sentence with an adverb of the “-ly” class causes you to quiver.

In recent months, you have also considered adding “with” to your list:  “With no pervious warning…” or “With no prior thought…”

Small wonder you sometimes have difficulty getting a workflow started.  All these restrictions wrest you from your more interior “vision” of a narrative line, the place where idea, emotion, and, often, metaphor collide, producing a narrator who is inside the material, dealing with it from within rather than observing it with wry or amused detachment from without.

The conflict here is with your notion that early drafts, in particular the first draft, should be got down with as little thought as possible.  Early thought is the equivalent of a traffic guard when school is not in session, an unnecessary focus on words and usage rather than ideas, feelings, implications, and those wonderful associations that come seemingly without thought, as though they’d been there all the time, waiting to come out, your own squeeze at the metaphorical toothpaste tube of dramatic vision.

These words are prologue to the fact of your participation this morning in a three-hour presentation on the short story at the Ojai (CA) Word Fest, wherein you had twenty-five individuals in a class room, attempting to convey to them things you believed they needed to know in order to write short fiction that stands any chance of being published in today’s turbulent publishing climate.

For starters, you guess the median age of the group to be close to sixty.  You have some delightful experience with this age group.  You also have experience with other demographics, including undergraduate level, graduate level, and so-called reentry individuals, men and women in the workforce, wishing to enhance their education.  Each group radiates with a different personality force.

While you were interacting, discussing, demonstrating, and suggesting with today’s group, you were impressed with the number of want-to-be writers who were so happy to hear your own confessions of being baffled by certain techniques, concerned by their lack of reading background, struggling to maintain the voice that was authentically theirs.

Fearful of the potential for creating a plodding hundred eighty minutes of the session, you set forth an ambitious tour through the minefields of short story and the things you see as of absolute significance to the art of producing it.  

By that act, you learned something you probably knew all through your years in the teaching trenches, nevertheless, you say it here to have gone through the process of writing it.  

Lecture and information are like story in that the best way to approach is with too much information, which you attempt to fit into a small cup.  None of the media, lecture, information, or story, is in the final analysis, about fact or mere data; they are about feelings and emotional impressions. Anything other causes them to fall into categories of propaganda, sermon, screed/rant.

Most important of all, allow the audience to see how bafflement and bewilderment are a part of the process; they contribute to the final effect every bit as much as the preparation, the pruning, and honing down.

Perfection is not for the writer, nor is it for the individual who attempts to make sense of life, the process which produces the tools and mechanics of story.  We strive not for perfection but rather a higher, more nuanced level of bewilderment.  

We often need to begin with lists of words we dismiss out of hand because they are too opaque and cumbersome to provide the dazzling clarity of the chaos, bewilderment, and uncertainty in which we were created and in which we live, striving for answers.


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