Thursday, July 5, 2012


The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

            To a Mouse, by Robert Burns

There is story, in many ways set before you, not so much as a formula but rather as a mantra, a quiet plea not to feel safe to the point of invulnerability.  You are right to plan.  Couldn’t hurt.  Nor can it be a protective amulet; not a complete one.  Make plans.  Most characters we admire and root for have plans.  Dorothy has plans to get back to Kansas.  Frank and Cora have plans to get Nick out of the picture so they can be together.  Yossarian has plans not to fly any more combat missions.  Fast Eddie has plans to become the best pool hustler in America.

Start a story with a scheme.  Take Kurtz; he was going to Africa to do something in mitigation of the awfulness of the colonialists, right?  He started out as one of the good guys, right?

Now let’s look at agley.  Let us bring that forward from Burns’s agricultural Scotland to twenty-first century America, seeing it as awry.  In spite of a remarkable set of preparations, things go awry, become fucked up, F.U.B.A.R, as the saying goes, fucked up beyond all recognition.  What happens when you turn story over to the experts?  You know—humans. 

Things go wrong in reality but in story they go agley as in F.U.B.A.R. or it wouldn’t be something to draw you away from reality long enough to become involved.  George wouldn’t have Lenny to look after, and Lenny wouldn’t have problems forgetting how strong he is or how easy it is for him to become distracted by something he thinks is attractive.

The plan is going to turn things around—if it works.  The plan is going to be transformative, and because it seems to be the solution to otherwise impossible or difficult problems, we become invested in it because, like the Horatio Alger characters, say Ragged Dick, we know that hard work and plans produce positive results.  If we work hard enough and believe hard enough and plan with enough care, “it” has to work.  Plan your work then work your plan.  Failure to plan is planning to fail.  The early bird gets the worm.  The persistent writer gets published and the sales figures are so good she gets published again and again, and now she can pay off the mortgage and get her kids glasses.  Now people will stop asking her when she’s going to get a real job.

You’d be copping to cynicism if you didn’t think that formula were true, wouldn’t you?  And yet you have reached an age and had enough sufficient experiences in related fields to assure you that there is more truth to the essential truth of The Bhagavad-Gita than the Horatio Alger novels.  To the work you are entitled but not the fruits thereof. 

To some Westerners, this trope from The Gita sounds cold and structured.  Surely there is more validity in Ragged Dick.  Hard work brings you to the goal.  Guaranteed.  Do this and you will succeed.

The Gita says the same thing, if you look at it for a moment.  Doing the thing you care about is the essential element.  Doing the thing is succeeding at it.  Ragged Dick has us looking for the wrong preposition, succeeding in it.

Every day you write something.  You write it with the best intentions, which is to say you write it because you are glad to be doing it.  You write it because you know that the next day or the day after, when you look at it, you will have cause to wonder how you could have F.U.B.A.R.’d with such complete abandon.  You also know you have opportunities of fixing it, of painting the parts no one will see, of taking yourself and potential readers farther inside than you’d imagined possible.  Every next day you look at what you have done and know it has missed what you thought to capture, but has caught some element of hope and insight that you can have another go at tomorrow.

Soon, you are deliberate in the way you build in agley, using it as a part of your process instead of having it turning on you.  After more work, you become more expert at building in an agley that had been unthinkable to you when you were in your more formative years.  It is not so much that you’ve passed your formative years as it is that you now understand this is how it is:  The unthinkable come to pass, the best laid scheme gone aft agley, is a fruit to which you are entitled because it is not a reward, it is a tool.  By using it, understanding it, enjoying it, you have learned that even the happiest of stories leave you with grief and pain, but the pleasure of the work trumps those griefs and pains and yes, they, too, become tools.

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