Friday, January 25, 2013

Bears, Itchy Sweaters, and Barnaby Conrad

The opening sentence to a novel, a short story, or an essay should be the literary equivalent of an itchy sweater.

 Someone, somewhere, in a situation the writer has devised, is attempting to find a way first to scratch the itch, then contrive a way to be free of the sweater.  If the wearer of the sweater is before an audience, delivering a presentation, or in some other, public arena, say a restaurant, church, synagogue, or mosque, trying to carry on in spite of the itch, then the author has created an immediate bond between the character and the reader.

The message is clear to all who have experienced itches.  We have all experienced an itch of some sort or another in a place where the itch was located beyond a convenient scratch, or of such a nature where it is best attended in private.  Bonuses for the writer are the tightness of the sweater and the embarrassing presence of others.  Itches in private are only itches in private; itches in public are stories in motion.

You learned to bring these concepts together in useful dramatic form from a man who lay before you in a hospital bed, furnished with cheerful, colorful linens he might have designed himself, covered with thick blankets unlike any hospital blanket you might imagine.  They were more suggestive of some warm, cuddly puppy than a serviceable covering.

"I think,"Barnaby Conrad said, watching to be sure you'd been served coffee, "we have started with the bears."

Some years back, perhaps as many as fifteen, when the yearly late June madness of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference was in full sway and Conrad was engaged in his customary morning workshop, you'd slipped in the back door to wait for the session to end.  The day was a Thursday.  From long habit, you'd meet him for lunch on Mondays and Thursdays.

A grandmotherly sort, perhaps in mid to late sixties, stood before the group, reading in precise, clipped tones that resonated throughout the room, but which seemed to you to be causing numerous consultations of wrist watches, shuffling of feet on the carpeted floor, shifting in chairs.  The reader's voice had the precise cadence and diction of Nob Hill, San Francisco, or of Beacon Hill in Boston.

Conrad, too, appeared a degree or two beyond his normal projection of patient interest.  Intrigued, you focused on the reading, admiring her diction, trying to follow the narrative of a group of four friends camping in the Yellowstone National Forrest.

A few individuals in the audience could no longer remain seated.  They rose, making their way to the exit.  The reader continued and you began to see the problem:  her narrative was a series of episodes, held together with the connective duct tape of "and then they..."

By your computation, you'd heard the woman read about three pages, which, had they been double spaced, would have been about seven hundred fifty words.  Because of her voice and inflection, you liked the woman, but at the same time your own sense of impatience--never one to take a back seat for long--began to grip you, reminding you of one of Conrad's cats at home, pestering to be let out.

After a few more "and then they" proclamations from the reader, Conrad, in diplomatic politeness, interrupted her.  "This is all wonderful lead-up,"  he told the reader.  "But something has to happen.  Something of dramatic and consequential significance."

The woman nodded her understanding.  Yes, she assured him, she did see the need for dramatic event, but first, she had wanted the reader to get to know the four characters and understand the pristine remoteness of the area.  Then she was prepared to bring in the drama, which was quite extraordinary, she assured Conrad.

"Something happens then?"  Conrad said.

Nodding her head for emphasis, the woman explained, "In the next chapter, not very far off now, these individuals are attacked by a group of bears."

It seemed to you Conrad was searching for the right way to present his findings without even the slightest affront to the reader's dignity.

At length, he said, "I think we'd better start with the bears."

The room filled with a communal gasp of understanding as those present rose to their feet, struck by the lightning of insight and the need for lunch.  For years after the event, the mantra was invoked.  Start with the bears.

Before your friendship with Conrad began, you were in classes or groups where the presiding figure was either a writer or an academic, possibly even both.  You'd heard such tropes as "Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph," and "The shotgun mounted on the wall in Act One must go off by Act Three."  You also heard some academics use the term "destabilizing event" when speaking of an opening line or paragraph, and you promised yourself that should you ever be published or become a teacher, you would never use such a term.

You do agree with Barnaby Conrad that writers are not born, they are made.  They are, in fact, made from their own work.

It took Barnaby Conrad to lead you to starting with the bears and wearing itchy sweaters, where you have been these many years, trying to make yourself from your work.

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