Tuesday, May 29, 2012


As though having once again bumped your hear on the low-hanging limb of the peach tree adjacent the entry gate to the yard where your apartment is placed, you have come to a sudden, arresting contact with a word you’ve managed to dribble away like the loose change that slides out of your pocket when you read in your lounge chair.

The word is expectation, which you have in COSTCO quantities, which does not always have the Ikea-like need for self-assembly, which, as you think about it, underlies story in a remarkable calculus involving everyone.

Readers expect to like a story they have begun until, like inertia, the force driving the story bogs down.  This may be a direct result of the characters in the story not having expectations in sufficient quantity to support a story.  There is also the possibility that the writer will have had expectations that something other than dramatic force, say your ability at description, or vocabulary will be sufficient vehicles to move the reader forward to the point where beginning writers always assure us something momentous awaits.

There are practical aspects to expectations as well as the more ethereal ones emerging from ego.  With some considerable experience to back you up, you expect a given story will require ten or twelve revisions.  If you begin to experience a sense of maybe having nailed the story earlier, as it were, your sense of maybe soon devolves into a sense of cynicism.  Why, you will begin to wonder, is this story coming to fruition so easily when others have not or, worse yet, when you still smart from the memory of having one you truly liked get away from you too soon?

The answer is clear; you have expectations once you begin that you are in for a long ride, including those “work sessions” you admire while you’re experiencing them but come to regret later.  In these, you are suddenly out of the dream state where you’re beyond memory of the dream and into—literally into—the current project, working it a word at a time to the point where one of the characters says or does something that becomes a give-away, a gift of understanding coming from somewhere deep within your reservoir of understanding some of the behavior patterns of what you have come to think of as The Species.

Garrison Keillor reports dutifully on the news from Lake Woebegon.  You get the occasional news release from The Species.  Two Cro-Magnons finish a quick barbecue of woolly mammoth.  Now they need a place to make out.  One says to the other, your cave or mine?

Story is all about expectations, of characters expecting to be disappointed and thus unable to see how good fortune has been visited upon them, of characters expecting to be recognized for their accomplishments only to discover that those who were to give them this honor had mistaken someone else for them.

You expect to be entertained and are in fact driven into boredom.  You expect a particular event to be dumbness revisited only to discover it a feast of intellectual and artistic depth.  You expect to get a story done, only to see that it is opening vistas you had not imagined, that it is in fact not the short form you’d thought but getting on toward a family saga, which daunts you at first then energizes you with enthusiasm because of the dramatic and artistic implications.  Yet once you reach a certain point, you recognize your first impression was correct.  The work is only a short story.  The work is a satisfying story and you are pleased to have been involved with it, but you wish to hell it would have let you know earlier how prescient your expectations were.

Whatever your expectations with yourself and your civilian life or your work and the writing life, they are never met quid pro quo, a fifty-fifty balancing act.  Whatever your expectations, the outcome is better or worse, sometimes better by degrees, sometimes worse by cascades of degree.

Characters, even though they are at their basis artificial concoctions prepared by the bartender of your writing psyche, cannot be allowed to merely wander on stage with no agenda.  Each must have some agenda, some expectation.  The kid who delivers the pizza expects a tip.  His expectation leads to his behavior.  Those strange individuals who comb beaches with those electronic metal detectors after weekend holidays expect to find valuable jewelry find instead cheap imitations from China.

None of this prevents you or anyone else from having expectations nor from the hopes that these expectations will be met.

If you’re not happy with the way your expectations are working off, you can always return to reading, where you will discover contrived, managed outcomes, complete with their own surprises.

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