Sunday, January 13, 2013

Got to Get Your Hands Dirty to Tell a Story

You were born in a part of the world where mountains, foothills, beaches, deserts, and coastlines  seemed always in some states of flux and uncertainty, and when as a young student, you encountered the concept of the pathetic fallacy, attributing human characteristics to inanimate objects, you said, "That's California, all right."

For as long as you can remember, parts of the palisades along the Santa Monica Beach front were tumbling down onto the Pacific Coast Highway, hilltop homes were sliding and slipping, and homes on flatter, less precipitous elevations, would occasionally edge into sinkholes, like a bather slipping into a hot tub.

The coastal range south of the Big Sur was--and is--in danger of toppling, huge chunks of hillside have given way along one of your regular haunts, the Summerland Preserve, and not far to the south, the hills in back of La Conchita have delivered hundreds of thousands of square feet of unwanted mud down upon single-family residences.

There are also occasional fires and earthquakes, each adding a studied note of uncertainty to the terrain and those of us who chose to live off the grid of the city street.  With some regularity, as you drive about the general Santa Barbara area or head south to the outskirts of Los Angeles, you see the concrete and reinforced steel equivalents of girdles, holding in, or perhaps back, entire hillsides from their gravitational urges to spill forth, covering highways, buildings, railroad tracks, dams, and yes, homes.

Some of these retaining walls and girdle impress you with their design and intent.  For the longest time, when you see them and the conditions they are set in place to avert, you realize you are looking at metaphor for story--unstable forces, only too willing to cause mischief.

Each time you pick up Mark Twain's mind-elevating Life on the Mississippi,  you realize how, had you been born in New Orleans or any of the place the Mississippi passes through, you'd have seen the equivalent in physical potential to the beginnings of story.

Often when you teach, you place a notebook of some sort on the desk or lectern, then begin nudging it toward the extreme edge, at which point the notebook catches the eye of the students.  This is your aim.  Now you begin banging on the table with dramatic emphasis, and now most eyes are upon the notebook.  "This,"  you proclaim, "is an opening.  This is a beginning.  Because--"  One more emphatic confrontation between the butt of your palm and the desktop, at which point the notebook falls to the floor.  "--because a beginning is a weighted vehicle beginning its dramatic descent."

Students seem to tolerate you in spite of such theatrics.  You suspect that such demonstrations stay with them because they so clearly appeal to you.

Story begins when stasis is threatened, when consequence becomes apparent, when there is no sense of how far or how deep the tumbling adobe and mud will fall or what it will sweep along in its path.  There is no time for explanation.  Not yet.  There is only time to observe and then react to the tingle of fear these dramatic actions and their consequences will provoke.

Fond as you are of the work "evoke," there is plenty of room in your heart (and toolkit) for the word "provoke," which is to say incite, arouse, inflame, piss off someone or something.  Even at its mildest nuance, provoke can lead to providing enhanced sympathy for or concern about, and if you want a Eureka moment, an aha vision for the beginning of a story, there it is in provocation.  From the get go, a successful story is provocative.

A number of noted teachers of acting techniques have a favored exercise to be shared between two students, based on one of the partners making a simple, non-threatening observation.  "I like your coat."  The other merely repeats.  "You like my coat," followed by "I like your coat," ad infinitum with the repetition until the spirit of place and emotion takes over and one of the two throws in a word, a gesture, a combination of word and gesture, or some other next step that will carry the exchange at least one step higher.  The subtext has come forth out of the confrontation.

Subtext, emerging like a landslide from a rain soaked, troubled mountain, drags story along, revealing the pure raw power of story to bury us with its emotional lava flow.

The words to opening sentences bristle with menace, but appear to be contained by the girdles or buttresses of other restraints set in place for our safety.  Somehow, the reader knows to be suspicious.  Why show those restraints, unless they are to be breached?

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