Monday, June 25, 2012

Where the Quotation Marks Go

You have to be desperate in order to break away from the comfort zone of conventional success, whatever that term, “success” might mean to you at a given time.

Desperate may also earn quotation marks, indicating any number of ironies, not the least of which is an inner drive to break from the income from the relative ease of writing to formula in favor of a venture out into the unknown, where you are in the sudden position of no immediate income stream plus a blank computer screen, which is to say no immediate project which will become the vehicle from your departure from the comfort zone.

Here’s what’s wrong with that picture:  The projects that were bringing in the income stream were neither inspirations, visits from the Muse, or social/moral issues about which you felt a burning passion.  They were instead results of a long time learning some of the many elements that comprise story.  You made the mistake of thinking you would work on these until an inspiration came along. 

You have since learned that inspirations are things persons who do not write—or paint or act or photograph or compose—visualize as arriving, in neat packages; say packages such as the distinctive blue Tiffany box.

Any of the pulp things you sent off, month after month, had the potential for what you believed you longed to write but were too frightened to attempt.  So instead, you made a few desultory starts on “literature,” a term that deserves the quotation marks here because you’d made it inaccessible, not real story, and in the bargain, you’d invested it with a kind of scary surface that, once touched, would spoil.  Almost without variation, you cannibalized these intermittent bouts of literature, injected them with story, sent them off, and began the next without realizing what you were doing, which was making yourself desperate in a way that frightened you so severely that you were afraid to touch fiction for a few years and had to go back into editing to seek another word rendered in quotes, “refuge.” 

By relying on something you could do well, you didn’t have to think about fiction until it caught up with you, made you desperate without the quotation marks, which more or less proves your point here:  You have to be desperate to tell stories as opposed to being in despair that you are not able to write stories and, perforce, must “settle” for nonfiction.

You need to be so desperate that you read and write beyond the notion of commercial success, which is a term that should also go into quotation marks because of recent experiences you’ve had as an editor and a reader, discovering works in which you had no hand or interest, works that have been huge commercial successes.
Much as you would still like to have an occasional commercial success, you would rather have a personal success first, meaning you’d like to have produced something you did not think you could bring off at first and are now quite pleased you persisted with it.

Your reading and your writing have the desperate need to focus on dramatic rather than commercial success.  You wonder how a scene has been made to pay off.  Did you learn something from reading that scene that you can carry over into the writing of your own?

Without variation, the answer comes to you:  push the dialogue, push the characters, enhance the circumstances to the point where you are no longer using your tools with an assured sense of result.  Push your concepts by giving them steroidal urgency and need.  As you read, question yourself:  Did the inner forces—inner doubts and arguments—trump the outer ones, or was the situation the exact reverse?  In that calculus, of which elements were you the most aware—inner or outer?  Do you see a pattern you can exploit with your own people, your own circumstances, your own conflicting moral choices?

When persons you know tell you they read for enjoyment, do you think they put quotation marks around the word enjoyment?  Do you think they enjoy seeing characters sweat out problems they doubt they can handle?  Is there an unspoken layer of sadism in you when you read for enjoyment with enjoyment in quotation marks?

All this has to be thought out with care in the hours when you are away from your work stations, the one at home in front of your large screen, the one at Peet’s where you use a lined note pad and swill away at Espresso Forte lattes.  Is your sudden spending even more time at Café Luna because of the new barista or because it is overall a more conducive work area?

The hours when you are not working on reading or writing are important in the sense of being a significant entryway into your inner life.  In some ways, your attitude toward your inner life is similar to your attitude about a story in early draft; you are not comfortable with sharing, even though, at the proper time, sharing, conversation, close arguments with persons you admire, find their way into the attitudes and conflicts in your stories and the nonfiction book you’re working at.

When Bettina asks you what you’re working on, it is one thing to say, an essay, a review, a story.  She would think you quite daft were you to say you were working on your inner life.  Of course, you are working on daftness as well as your inner life, your hypothesis being that it is quite better to be daft than a curmudgeon.  In fact, now that you think about it,
You resort to daftness and lunacy and humor as anodynes to the prickly darkness of the curmudgeon.

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