Monday, September 10, 2012

Literary Darwinism

This past August, at the monthly meeting of The Dead Fish Taco Society, your youngest niece, with more than a few writing credits to her name, appeared with a large shopping bag filled with paperback novels, all written by you.

Among the assembled host, a book designer, a publisher, a literary agent, and one of those remarkable types called a hyphenate because he is a writer, director, television producer.

The meeting place is a biker anomaly just short of the Ventura County line in an area called Malibu West.  Neptune’s Net, as the name implies, features seafood.

Your niece’s gift was touching in the sense that the books had been autographed by you, in your various pseudonym guises, to her late mother, your beloved big sister.  She’d kept the books over the years, amassing a collection of things you’d forgotten you’d published, much less that you’d even written them.

A week or two ago, as sometimes happens, a note appears in your email in box as a comment on a blog post you’d written some time between your start date of March 1, 2007 and the date of the email. 

Both occasions became occasions for you—occasions in which you looked at past work, made aware of what you have come to think of as Literary Darwinism.

A distinct joy arising from following a writer you admire—Zadie Smith comes quickly to mind because you’ve just finished her most recent, NW—and observing how she has grown in her understanding of story, how deft the evolution in rendering scenes.  You tend to hope your own work has evolved, taking some comfort in knowing your concept for what a story is and what you’d like it to do has grown.  When you’ve thought those thoughts, you sometimes worry you’ve slipped under some editorial radar somewhere rather than gained admittance through the front door.

Writing is evolution.  You’re attracted to writers who in some way reach out to you, first and foremost with their narrative voice, but as well seeming to understand your personal requirements for a story, then somehow assuring you these requirements will be met.

Often while you are in effect surfing your own mind for ideas and guidance for an essay or story or director’s notes for a scene you wish to write, you’ll have taken yourself to one of a few coffee shop venues.  You have perfectly comfortable atmosphere in your studio/home, which is in fact orchestrated around your workspace.  Why would you think of leaving?  Quick answer:  A combination of loneliness and the need to be in an atmosphere where there is constant noise and chatter, which you then have to filter out.

At such times, there is invariably one voice that rises above all the others, a strident male or female voice of such a grating, irritating nature that your first thought is to gather your things and go elsewhere, say home.  This grating, irritating voice is somewhat of a gift; it reminds you of how you do not wish to sound, which in turn reminds you of how you wish to sound.  Thus reminded of voice, you are in a sense the concertmaster, who comes out with the pitch, the A 440 to which the rest of the orchestra tunes.  You now have the voice in mind.  You are writing to it, purposeful in obliterating the grating voice.

At today’s meeting of The Dead Fish Taco Society, you were discussing with the hyphenate, who at one time was a student of yours and who has now published by your count six novels, how story has evolved for you from the straight line, event-driven narrative to an equivalent of a many-tiered construction, advancing with every exchange of dialogue, filled with significant nuances and drizzled as pure maple syrup over a stack of hotcakes with your favorite word, implications.

As you speak, you find yourself swelling and the hyphenate pausing, a scallop poised halfway to his mouth.  He is both seeing your point and then feeling your enthusiasm, or totally baffled by what you’re saying and unable to make any sense of it.  He may also be thinking you’ve gone daft.  You are at that delicious moment of being aware of all these possibilities at once, ratifying the belief you’ve come to hold about what story has become for you.

You could, in a diplomatic way, resort to “See what I mean?”  But even if he nodded with vigor, would that mean he saw it or was being polite, all the more convinced you’d lost your way?

This is precisely how story seems to you now.  You’d not have had the merest thought of it being this way when you wrote those books in your niece’s shopping bag.  You’d not have thought to risk people thinking you’d gone daft or incoherent.  Since he was once your student, you might even have wanted to maintain that wall of authority you yourself hated in the classroom.

As you spoke, story was evolving for you.

At the moment, you’re working on two things, one nonfiction, the other a novel.  Both are at that same stage as of a bottle of warm soda being opened, then fizzing over.  You know now to risk the editor-teacher part of you being convinced the writer part of you has gone daft when they see early drafts.  This is risk at its best.  This is literary Darwinism, going about its process.

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