Monday, April 2, 2012

The Invisible Writer


Wherever we are, whomever we are, whatever we seek, magic comes bursting at us, reaching for our coattails, scurrying to grab a purchase.  Magic is, after all, full-bore committed to manipulating reality and as many of the laws governing physical properties as possible. Magic is an extended middle finger, thrust at science, daring science to step forth with an effect or an illusion of an effect anywhere close to what it can offer.

Rabbit in a hat?  Piece of cake.  Coins, popping from ear lobes or nasal passages?  Voila!  Like so.  None of your control groups, hypotheses, lab notes, and careful vetting for us, thank you.

Magic is illusion, eloping with excitement; it is transformative energy, causing even the more skeptical among us to set aside the awareness of smoke and mirrors for a moment or two in enjoyment of the effect.

Magic reaches as well into literature, to story that might otherwise be grim or proper or both, insinuating its way through a paragraph or two in a description, a vagrant feeling from one or more of the characters.

Some forms of story venture to call themselves magical realism, reminders of how some things, when set against the starkness of reality, seem too effulgent, too remarkable, too magnificent to remain mere brick, mortar, flower, plant, pollinating bee.

Reality, then, is the target.  It has many detractors.  Perhaps, after all, you should say it has many inventors, or dreamers, or writers.

The no-contest winner of the kind of literature offering homes, trailer parks, squatting rights, and even soup kitchens to magic is fantasy, wherein spells, charms, curses, spirits show up for casting calls, indefatigable performers within the genre.  Sometimes referred to by editors and publishers with the affectionate nickname of “woo-woo” for supernatural, fantasy allows us to bring forth fantasy of our own, fantasy in direct conflict with the observable boundaries and recipes we call science.  Fantasy allows us, for example, to wonder openly what it would be like to render ourselves invisible, thus to move about, unseen, more or less on the order of Mr. Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow.  Remember, he had “the mysterious ability to cloud men’s minds.”

Storytellers in general, fantasy writers among them, long ago discovered that such a quality had to come from a source, say a garment or compound or formula.  The ability to remain invisible could not be infinite because that would rob the user of the dramatic thrill of being discovered where she or he did not belong.

You were in a situation this morning, while having breakfast at Cafe Luna, where you wished for invisibility because two carpetbagger Hollywood types were having a conversation you were straining to hear and to take down, as verbatim as possible.  They were middle-aged man and middle-aged woman, each trying to one-up the other, her telling him how, to this very day, Warren checks in with her to get her take on things.  The man counters this by remarking how easy it is for him to get in to see someone at Disney would has freedom to write checks right on the spot.

She has countered with the information that she is paid ten thousand dollars a month to keep from going public with her idea for a game show, which would destroy the status quo.

He has an application in for a grant that would help him select a Buddhist monk and a Buddhist nun, each from a separate, repressive society, braiding together their separate stories.  Twenty percent of the gross income would “go to Tibet.”

Not to be out done, she saw a dolphin on her morning walk, a fact that reminded her that dolphins have adopted her as a creative partner.  When she is between projects, “a dolphin comes to me in my dreams, bringing a new creative project.”  Last week, or at some recent time, a number of dolphins unaccountably beached themselves somewhere.  Things did not look well for them.  When this character heard about their plight, she “immediately sent over some money to hire someone to help them.  I felt it was my duty.”

In the midst of their banter, they were trying to draw into their conversations or declamations, or whatever a friend whose job is recording personal histories, archiving them, and attempting to produce relevant printed versions.  She continually, and unintentionally, tried to break your invisibility by suggesting that you were an editor, pointing to a stack of your books across the room, and perhaps you could help them.  Did you, she asked on several occasions, have a business card?

The writer as witness is invisible to his characters and should be invisible to his surroundings.  At least, that is the way you see it.  But at that moment, one of the acting Baldwin family, disheveled and wanting a shave, but apparently wanting coffee more, entered.  You don’t think he was Alec, perhaps the only one of the family you might recognize.  From a large wad of bills, he extracted a ten and plunked it down in front of you.  “I want to thank you for, you know, buying a raffle ticket from my daughter,” he said.  “I’m so sorry I didn’t have any change the other night.”

 You explained to him that you did not buy a raffle ticket from his daughter.
“That’s okay,” he said.  “I know you believe in the cause.  Please take your change.”

After another exchange of dialogue, in which you were only of metaphoric invisibility, you discovered that “the cause” was for The Montecito Union Elementary School, one of the more privileged public schools anywhere and which, by your lights, although they had every right to sell raffle tickets to raise funds, ought not to.

You managed to disabuse him of his belief that you’d purchased a raffle ticket from his daughter, but he became determined that you keep the ten dollars “for your troubles,” such as they might have seemed to him.

You suppose having your invisibility worn off was, in effect, trouble.  The times when you forget your witness role bring you trouble enough.  Not to get you wrong; you on balance love what you’re doing and have doubtless closed too many doors to secure some other form of work.

In some ways, you see yourself as gruff-looking and scarecrow-like as the Baldwin brother whose name you doubtless don’t know.  You see yourself in an endless struggle with regard to your place in the story, your witness-rather-than-participant role, you wanting to tell the reader what she should think or feel.

It would be convenient to believe you have some magical shield or amulet that grants you a half hour of invisibility while working on a story.  There are times when such a half hour would be a king’s ransom.  Such a reward would be far greater than the grand prize at the Montecito Union Elementary School raffle, or the ten dollars for your trouble.

The waitress got herself a special tip this morning.  Already you find yourself wondering if she’d have preferred a half-hour of invisibility.


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