Saturday, July 14, 2012

Revisionist History

When a musician sits to practice, there are several options of “things” to play, not the lease being some new composition idea or scales.  An actor can rehearse lines or gestures.  The graphic artist can sketch.  With the advent of digital photography, the photographer can take a walk around the block, shooting random targets of opportunity.

Things are not so simple for you.  If you have a project in the works, you can “practice” with a blank document, then start writing on the project from memory.  You find so-called prompts less than useless, in essence because you believe writing, even practice, should come from some venue where enthusiasm dwells.

Often your practice sessions suggest themselves, holdovers from conversations or arguments, perhaps even responses to something you have read or heard or seen (such as a play, film, or TV drama).

Your equivalent of a walk around the block with a digital camera is to pick some event that had a conclusion or resolution in which you were a participant and were not at all pleased with the outcome.  You are in effect rewriting history by a shift in the way the event played out and its possible downstream effect on you.  Such revisionist history invariably takes you beyond the more constructive resolution of your present day invention to the place where you are seeing connective tissue you’d missed out on at the time.

In some ways, this is the platform on which you begin, the shaky platform of the past events where you screwed up by overacting or underacting or not acting at all.  Unlike revisionist history, the purpose you work toward is extending the times between incidents where you screw up with another person, a number of persons, or yourself.  You’re trying to engage more reality with less crumpled pages of early draft.

Whenever the question of why you do what you do as a vocation arises and what your goals are, the first thing sliding into your mind is the goal of entertaining readers, but subsequent thought—questions, really—prompt you to realize how revelatory this answer is about you and, to some extent the work you do.

There is nothing of essential wrongness in writing to entertain any more than there is nothing wrong with wanting to please other persons or, for that matter, wanting to please yourself, but such goals don’t belong at the very tip of the triangle. You in effect need a goal or theme that extends beyond mere pleasing or entertaining.  In some ways, the late   Christopher Hitchens had it right; he wrote to praise and to criticize, to argue and defend as opposed to reporting or preaching.

You are at the moment not pleased to realize how long it took you to realize how long you were in coming to the awareness that crafting your work with the hope of pleasing was of a piece with not making waves, looking for ways to avoid significant conflicts, looking for ways to make all and sundry feel good through the artful use of praise, amusement, and whimsical behavior that could not be seen as confrontational.

You have not rebranded yourself as a rebarbative curmudgeon, but your humor does have more of a bite to it than a snicker.  Humor and confrontation are effective tools for taking this revisionist history of which you speak, dramatizing it with characters of your own invention, then knocking on the walls to get the sense of places where you may have cut some corners as in the stereotypes for mass-produced buildings.

Thus neither this nor any of several hundred previous “exercises” fall into the category of self-flagellation.  Rather they speak to the larger issue of looking back at times and places where nice was not good enough, was probably too neutral or generic.  Conversely, there were times in the past when your screwing up came as a result of you having had to work yourself up to a boil, at which point you bored ahead, having completely foreclosed within yourself any potential for listening.

Rewriting your own personal history becomes a valuable exercise in helping you create individuals who were too busy trying to get by on self-image to take proper risks, make proper mistakes, and learn something valuable about the process, in the process off doing so.

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