Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How Your Story Got to the La Brea Tar Pits

Much ridicule has been directed toward a particular actor's workshop exercise in which the actor attempts to "be" a non-human, possibly even inanimate object, say a tree or a rock.

Go ahead.  Laugh, if you will, but doing so will in effect deaden one of the qualities you seek to bring into your writing--the sense of authenticity as it relates to a specific place or time.

After you've stopped laughing, here's something for you to imagine yourself being.  No fair cheating or even worrying about what others might think of your silliness.

You are to become a Mars Probe.  Your exercise, then, is to roam about this distant, seemingly inhospitable planet, gathering data, then reporting your findings back to Earth.

 How absurd and lacking in usefulness, you say, and yet you do more or less the same thing each time you compose any narrative, be it something quite simple such as any large city of your knowledge, any small, almost forgotten town of your acquaintance,or a living dorm in a university.  The fact of you using them transforms them into an alien world, much in need of such a probe or report.  The consequences of your use of such a place, whether it is an actual city or one of your extreme imagination, are that you have co-opted that place, made it yours.  Now it has a personality you've given it, its features your version of those features.  If these things were not so, you'd be copying that place or taking it for granted.  Why would anyone want to read your copied version of such a place when they could have Google Maps or some search engine description?

Which brings us then to the final accounting, in which your La Brea Tar Pits has to be different from the real La Brea Tar Pits, but not so different that it turns the reader of your story into a nit-picker, nipping away at the authenticity of your La Brea Tar Pits.

To carry the matter ahead,because as a younger person, you lived mere blocks from the La Brea Tar Pits, you often played there or hung out there, thinking the things prepuberty boys thought, playing many of the games they played, and convincing yourself that you could, if you listened with enough focus, hear the anguished cries of the animals trapped in the tar bogs.

Since you have the choices of characters, more or less hold auditions for them before casting them in your stories, you have them and their personality and attendant agendas as filters for the perceptions and impressions of a specific place in your story.  Frank tended to avoid the La Brea Tar Pits because whenever he was there, he experienced the sharp pull of an undifferentiated fear that something might happen to him.  One day, something did happen, differentiating itself in the fact of a glob of tar gumming up the drive chain on his bicycle.  "See," he scowls at himself, "I told you so.  That place is a jinx for me."

Billy, on the other hand, is fond of the place, spends all his spare time there, even to the point of packing himself peanut butter and jam sandwiches to take when he bikes his way over to its grounds.  no surprise that on one of Billy's outings there, he finds some small item of incredible archaeological interest.  Through the different lenses of these two characters, we get pictures of some of the Tar Pits interior and exterior qualities.

If you were to use that quasi-device known as the wide omniscient, you argue, you could "tell" the story and it would sound authentic.  You might argue that but you'd have a difficult tie convincing most of your readers who had any experience with reading fiction in this century.  And you do wish to be convincing. Go ahead, say it.  There is no harm in such an admission.  You wish to sound authentic and convincing as opposed to using strongly stated logic to argue your stories and characters into place.

Following such constructs and dramatic conventions, of a sudden the signposts begin to point in the direction of drama, of motive and the motions through which it moves on its course, who its most vulnerable targets are, and how they are likely to respond.

You might, in delegating necessary authority to your characters, arrive at an uncomfortable feeling akin to being asked for the keys of the family car.  At such moments, you have no wish to hear the argument that being in such a position is of great value to you, that you will look back on such incidents with the fondness of knowing they were inspirations for serious learning.  You have no wish to hear such discussions, yet you are well convinced of their validity.

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