Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Defensiveness


The human body has a security system as suspicious and particular as a bouncer at a hard rock café, ready to pounce on the merest hint of gatecrashing activity.

In some cases, such as the one you experienced in the early 1990s, the security system mistakes some part of you as a pathogen or, if you will, a gate crasher, sounds the alarm, in effect, then begins kicking ass.  Yours.

Security systems click in on verbal invasions, sending forth the equivalent of a “Says who?” into the equation, or, as another example of defensiveness, “I only meant…”

Writers have an entire lexicon of defensive tropes, all of which would be better for the writer were the defensive retorts to be removed.  A significant authorial defensiveness is the one offered when a particular scene or response is questioned by someone of editorial or literary authority, “But it really happened that way.”

A stunning stroke of irony bursts into the scene when a writer, criticized for lackluster dialogue, defends by suggesting that effective dialogue is actually too confrontational, way too hurtful, forgetting that a) story is advanced by one confrontation or another and b) yes, dialogue is in fact a contest of escalating, accelerating responses or observations.

“Hi, you’re looking good tonight” is only so-so, a 4 or scant 5 on a scale of ten.  “Hi, you’re looking better tonight” raises the bar to maybe a six because of the way it invites the response, “What do you mean, better?”  And if there is a “Better than what?” the door is open.  “You really haven’t been looking all that good, lately.  Had us worried.”  And we’re off to the races.

We can raise the bar to a 7 with, “Glad to see you looking so much better.”

Your own favorite in such cases is “Glad to see you’re so much more relaxed.”

Important to note here how these exchanges are between characters and to note how conversations between writers and their agents or editors are more apt to remain conversational in direct proportion to the writer being professional.

“But I have to have that,” in response to a suggestion that a sentence or attribution or some other trope be removed is pure defense.  Proof of that defensiveness comes from the editor’s “why?” and the writer’s explanation, whereupon the editor will remind the author how the sentence or attribution in question is better demonstrated than described.
“If you come any closer,” she said menacingly, “I will shoot.”

How about you scratch that adverb?  The dialogue is pretty menacing as it stands.

But, but, the author sputters, “I want it to sound super menacing.”

Okay then, how about you have your character with the gun fire a round that hits about a half a foot from the target’s toe?  “Next time, my target’s the sternum.  You may not know where the sternum is, but I do, and you don’t want to find out.”

We tend to defend things we believe to be most vulnerable.  Sometimes these “things” are attitudes, other times facts or events from memory, other times still actions we believe to be unassailable in their rightness and propriety, beliefs that wrap around the notion that you were doing whatever it was for some Platonic good, a fact that gives you extra points for being right.

Where writing and editing are concerned, defensiveness is often so intense that the writer can bear only to relinquish small chunks at a time.

Defensiveness invariably looks to being right before it looks in the direction of story.  If you would rather be right than be dramatic, you are doubtless not the writer you imagined yourself to be, hoped to be, or thought you’d become through the evolution of your process.  Rightness is for debaters, lawyers, politicians.

Rightness is not for writers, rather it is a quality belonging to characters each time they enter a scene; they are enlivened with the sense of brilliance or thoughtfulness or moral superiority rather than a human with questions, doubts, and a list of past mistakes.

Defensiveness is not for writers either, because of the way the traits and emotions of fiction have scant room for such a flattening concept to come aboard.  If a thing has to be in the story, let it be introduced by one or more of the characters, their comments about it providing the mixture of opinions.


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