Friday, May 25, 2012

Fewer Wrinkles Than You

When you returned home from a round of mid-afternoon chores, you found an old friend waiting for you.    Nothing for it but to invite the friend in, put on the larger of your Bialetti stovetop espresso makers, and set about getting caught up.

You’d not seen this friend for what seems like an age.  Although you were quite close at one time, you are not aware of having thought of this friend for several years.

Seated at the kitchen table, waiting for the splendid chemistry of water, heat, ground coffee, and the no-nonsense simplicity of the Bialetti espresso machine to complete its process, you took a long, nostalgic glance at your friend.  At the basis of your friendship was story.  “Tell me about yourself,” you said.

Like you, your friend had aged—well, you thought.  Sturdy in appearance, not bent over.  Fewer wrinkles than you.  “I’d have recognized you anywhere,” you said.

The coffee steamed its way into life, made its presence known, was served.  “You first,” you insisted.

Your old friend was the book, Writing Magazine Fiction, the author living the kind of double life you could barely wrap your imagination around.  He had a name, Walter S. Campbell, for his academic life, for he taught courses in professional writing at a university; he had a name, Stanley Vestal, for the books he wrote, both fiction and non-fiction.

No question about it, Writing Magazine Fiction was your first writing book, the first book you could talk to about this thing you wished to do, to understand, to form some kind of lasting bond with.  Until you met this book, recommended to you by your high school creative writing teacher, Herman Quick, you had no idea such things existed or that those who wrote the stories you so admired has such a remarkable thing as an approach to their work.

You believed… Well, that is another entire matter.

Because of this book, you were motivated to buy a box of Crayolas.  “You will,” your friend told you, way back then, “require a box of sixteen different colors.  Also purchase three copies of the current issue of your favorite fiction magazine.”

At the time, the world was swathed in fiction magazines, many of whose pages you thought to infiltrate by means of your own stories.  Armed with your box of Crayolas in sixteen colors, you sat before a stack of nine or perhaps twelve magazines, ready to get to work, but something about the Campbell/Vestal narrative voice so intrigued you that you lay your crayons aside to browse the sections of short stories, which you more or less supposed was to be your trampoline, nay, your catapult to recognition, whereby you might venture your way to page 129, the novelette, then to page 135, the “complete novel,” whatever that was (even then, your mind was of a contrarian turn—you were already thinking about “the incomplete novel”)—and then to page 158, for the serial which, you’d begun to understand, was the means by which Mr. Dickens wrote his way to independence.

At one point in your association with Writing Magazine Fiction, your mother worried that you might lose some of the crayons if they were not kept in their box.  She kept her own counsel on the twelve magazines strewn about your desk and, as was typical of her, wondered if this flurry of activity was related to homework for your classes.

As you recall such things now, homework was more or less one pile, the crayons and magazines yet another, and the stories you were working on the only neat thing in your entire room because they did not have the reckless opportunity for being scattered.

Hanging out with your old friend has already shown you one thing you got from it; most of your own writings about writing have an emphasis on plausibility.  You have already found numerous places where plausibility was emphasized, so that much rubbed off.  So did such things as structure and motivation.  In less direct ways, so did style and voice.

Most important is your awareness that your old friend was a valuable jumping off point.  You never fucking used those crayons for their intended purpose of sifting through published work, underlining such things as tags, motivation, psychological shadings, and social pressures, all of them quite valuable, but not in that manner.

Since you parted company with Writing Magazine Fiction, you have written one skinny-but-useful book, Secrets of Successful Fiction Writing, and gone through some frustrating publishing ventures with two publishers relative to your recent The Fiction Lover’s Companion, soon to be released in revised format by yet another publisher as The Fiction Writer’s Handbook.  You have contracts for yet two others.  As you look through the list of credits for the author of Writing Magazine Fiction, you are aware with the present-day certainty you could not have had then that it is an honest, plausible if you will, representation of what worked so well for Walter S. Campbell, aka Stanley Vestal, just as yours serve the similar function for you of being the retrospective gift to yourself of being the book you wish you’d have had then, when you were starting.
There is no way for you to recount how many times you read or reread Writing Magazine Fiction.  Even though you did not use the crayons, you jumped into the swirling, tide-hatched sea of storytelling, flailing, paddling, sometimes taking in great gulps of air when you’d not intended to do so.  Somehow, you stayed afloat until you caused yourself a measure of buoyancy.  Now, you are alert to the need to take risks if you have any hope at all of keeping this as your life’s work.

The basis of all you have learned and taught yourself is in this book, which is in many ways dated, a relic, not relevant, nor were you ever able to have with it the conversations you had with E. M. Forester’s Aspects of the Novel.  Nevertheless, welcome home, old friend.

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