Sunday, June 24, 2012


In most of the more popular theories of modern behavior, if a person does a creative thing often enough, say writing stories or poems or novels, the individual will acquire a significant voice and vision of such strength and originality that the individual will find an audience for her or his work, thus earn a way to publication.

Such theories are well grounded in optimism and the not uncommon belief that hard work pays off with positive results.

This is not to argue that hard work is unnecessary, or that it can produce positive results such as audience, publication, and wide acceptance.  Instead, this argument allows hard work to have its virtues without the necessity of producing significance, voice, vision, originality, or publication.

The formula under discussion here is the formula by which virtue, if persisted in, will be rewarded; virtue will produce successful results.

At last, you are entering the arena of personal, questioning formula, questioning the wisdom of having an opening intent as anything more than a hypothesis, by which you mean a supposition that the problem you are attempting to dramatize will produce a solution somewhere in the vicinity of the hypothesis.  You’re also throwing this into the soup:  the safer the problem, the greater the potential for the ending to be a dud.  The more unthinkable and squishy the problem, the less ease you will have in attracting any effective ending into the orbit.

The true antagonist is easy or relaxation or confidence.  You’re beginning to see that the kinds of story most attractive to you and your approach to coping with it involve making fun of the things that most frighten and otherwise concern you.

These are generalities, but they are instructive in the sense that they explain why you’ve needed so long to come to grips with story in a way where you’re beginning to feel you can get along with it, rather than try to memorize formulas relevant to it or, indeed, to use these formulas with the confidence that they’ll work.

Some basic elements, such as opposing forces, are not formulae; they are necessary conditions.  Although you’ve known the difference between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions for some time, you can see where you were willing to allow your characters stop at the sufficient condition level, rather than digging into them to find necessary conditions.  Go ahead, say it; you did not see how to get past the sufficient condition boundary.

Dialogue has been a significant non-formula necessity, well beyond Socratic dialogue and into the intentional pressure chamber story—at least the stories you’ve read, digested, studied, and remember—is supposed to be.  Authors as far apart in theme and range as, say, James Thurber (1894-1961) and Flannery O’Connor (1925-64), more or less contemporaries, use dialogue as a cattle prod, instructing you, through your envy of the technique of each, to push your characters (and yourself) beyond the comfort zone and into explosive, spontaneous levels of revelation and discovery.

Among the critical discussions applied to modern fiction, say fiction written after World War II, are those relating to authorial intent, some in fact arguing that being able to see or discern the intent is the way to understand the story at levels beyond mere recognition of necessary conditions being brought into heated discussion.

Your intent has not always been clear to you, a shadow you were willing to hide behind under the guise of wanting to do nothing more than entertain or amuse.  But over the last quarter century, you’ve also noticed a number of individuals being caught in some cultural gaffe as racism or sexism or a combination of the two, trying to defend their way out by falling back on their intent:  I was only trying to have some fun.

So are you, but not with that being a get-out-of-jail-free for being racist, sexist, or a bigot.  You are trying to have considerable fun while not being a racist, bigot, sexist.

You are trying not to hide behind anything, in particular your own woeful lack of knowledge.  Thus you go riding off into the world you admire like the protagonist of Annie Proulx’s splendid short story, “The Mud Below,” in which the protagonist has found, quite by accident, his life’s work, which is to be a rider of bulls at rodeos.

You have no brief for the rodeo in general, much less the rodeo life, which you consider to a few notches above the polo life.  You have at the writing life as the protagonist of “The Mud Below” sees bull riding.  It is not an easy life, but it is his choice.  The entire story is about many of the shortcomings of the rodeo life, the intent of the protagonist to remain in it, the intent of his mother to keep him out of it.

Your body bears the physical and psychical scars of a devoted life, your limps and aches not by any means all related to writing, but such stature as you do have has come from it, by no means from any sense of fame in it but rather from the things you have learned, taught yourself, and learned from others.  Because of the writing life, you’ve also learned to read at a different level, looking for and seeing such things as intent.
To all intents and purposes, you are a cross between a naïve and an unreliable narrator, which makes sense because you are naïve in your own real life visions and as well you are unreliable to the point where enough of your students recognize this about you that they are able to take it in as a way of teaching themselves how to ride the hulking leviathan that is story.

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