Sunday, April 29, 2012

Voice-over Narration

From time to time a word lodges in your vocabulary in much the same way you’ve felt sesame seeds or strawberry seeds lodge in between your teeth.  The seeds not only taste pleasant, they can be flossed out with ease. The words are not so easy to remove; they linger, waiting to pounce on sentences and paragraphs to the point where you find yourself sifting through your narrative the way those perfervid, earnest scavengers comb the beaches early of Monday mornings with their metal detectors, seeking materials not visible to the naked eye.

Such preoccupations with words, their use, and your determination not to use some of them, such as very, or suddenly, or possibly, and others still that are not adverbs, words such as it, in particular combination with variations on the verb “to be,” which lead you in a downward spiral toward the passive voice.

Your attitude about such words and their placement is only one side effect of your conviction that voice is the top of your preference pyramid for the dramatic elements you believe necessary to construct story and nonfiction narrative expressive of your own preferences.

Story in some ways reminds you of your mother’s baking, in particular your favorites among the remarkable output of cakes seeming to surge from her ovens.  Her product was always characterized by a fluffy moistness, a springy, almost playful cake, reminiscent of a freshly bathed baby or puppy.  This says nothing about the individual textures or flavors, your own favorite being a banana cake that brought ingredients together as though they’d met in a linear accelerator, the particles colliding to form new, unique element of taste.  A piece of one of her cakes, dangling from a fork, caught the light as though it were posing for an advertisement, luxuriant, inviting fluffs of wispy ingredient, begging your attention, inviting you to taste, then savor.

You took story for granted for some long years, aware your favorites had special qualities you could never hope to duplicate through anything so direct as an outline or formula.  Rather, you were driven by the need to be prolific so that one in every five or six would cohere in such a way that you could reassure yourself you were at least achieving what Mark Twain would call the hang of a thing.

Of all the elements you were surest so far as story is concerned, voice was the one you were closest to being able to employ without conscious thought, the luck, you believed, of the drama.

Your vision made sense.  Voice determines the characters you select, their strengths, which may prove not to be strengths in the long run, their fears, their areas of persistence.
All the while you were wrapping strands of attitude and personality about the armature of story, you were writing and selling a variety of stories at about thirty-five hundred words to pulp magazines, taking you well away from your tendency to the episodic and marching you in lockstep to a more functional procession of scenes that led toward a combustion if not a denouement.

One evening you found yourself at a sit-down dinner party hosted by your friends Dennis and Gayle Lynds, placed next to a spare, affable man with inquisitive blue eyes and a wry, enthusiastic smile.  As you were holding the meat platter for him to transport some lamb to his plate, he asked you what you did.  In as many words, you told him you wrote what you thought to be short stories.  This was a nuance he appreciated, telling you he believed writers should not write anything they did not consider to be a valid form until they’d found a way to put their own thumbprint on it.  Then, in short order, he asked you to send him such a short story.

By the time the fruit and cheese platter had begun its rounds toward your end of the table and the coffees and cognacs were being poured, you’d reached a defining moment without realizing it.  At that time, your approach with a short story was to start with a premise that stood well beyond the boundary of the ordinary story, then attempt to manipulate it back toward a more or less ordinary ending so that you could find a home for it in a magazine where you might be paid so much as a hundred dollars for the story.

The story you were working on before you’d received the invitation from your dinner companion involved a man who became obsessed with the dog of a close friend to the point of conniving to steal the dog, disguise it, then raise it as his own.

You knew the story was going to your dinner companion, who lived and worked in a remote university town in South Dakota, where he taught and edited the prestigious literary journal, South Dakota Review.  Your knowledge also included the fact that you could not think to manipulate the story back to a state where it appeared to have anything resembling a conventional ending.  You knew this because of the quiet authority you sensed in the man, whose name was John Milton.

Voice took over, leading you through familiar neighborhoods of formula and predictable complication to an unmarked landscape that had no basis in reality for you.  Although you’d moved many of your settings away from Los Angeles and in some cases begun to use Santa Barbara street and place names, this neighborhood was neither.  True enough, it was more Santa Barbara than Los Angeles, but it was also more your reality than it was Santa Barbara.
Somewhere in your files, you have John Milton’s note taking the resulting story on, and the next, and, with the next, his observation that you and your landscape had become one of his regulars.

That observation is in many ways still true; you with regularity now set your stories in a place where it is not in a place but of a place.  This place, its street names and institutions, bear a resemblance to Santa Barbara, but the strange, occasionally drunken grids of this city are not the grids of authenticity.  The survey team consists of voice and attitude; you hear them as you compose.  If you do not hear them, you retrace your dramatic steps until you do.

Your decision to render these essays in the second person point of view are of the small suburb of Montecito, to the immediate south of Santa Barbara, in a real sense discovered in a stone carriage house on Park Lane when John Sanford was still alive and lived there, and you went to visit.  These essays are of but not in the physical confines, the surveyed confines, they are of the voice you heard from long, vigorous arguments with John Sanford and from having read all his books, and from having sensed the idiosyncratic note of your own voice wishing to speak to you as it does, in this way that makes so much sense to you these days.


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