Thursday, January 3, 2013

There is no real in "It really happened that way."

Your experience with bringing dialogue to life in fiction has been a significant factor in helping you as a writer, teacher, and editor to cope with the essential differences between real life and drama.

Your experience as a teacher, dealing with those painful confrontations between you and the writer, where the writer says, "But it really happened that way," have brought you even closer to an understanding that life may trigger story or story inform life.  Nevertheless, there is as much danger in assuming they--story and life-- are interchangeable as there is folly in assuming Republicans and Democrats can forge a collegial vision, that Conservatives and Liberals can agree on deficit spending parameters, that romantics and hardboiled writers can agree on which elements are necessary to turn concept into story.

Actual conversation may hold some of the necessary energy to provoke dialogue.  Some events, such as family gatherings, reunions, readings of wills, and presentations of budgets are fraught with potential, but the seasoned writer needs to take the time necessary to turn off the recording device, then prod and poke for such vital signs as motive, subtext, attitude, and chemistry.

In the realest of senses, story is travel writing,brought to a higher realm of intensity than the travel writing we see in newspapers or such adjuncts as publications from automobile clubs, where location is the key factor rather than the emotional states and goals of the individuals who appear in fiction.  Even a story in an exotic setting builds on the attitudes and pressures of the travelers and their reactions to the indigenous to a greater degree than on mere physical description of place.  Bobbie Ann Mason's estimable short story, "Shiloh," becomes a perfect case in point as it moves a family being conflicted by inner turmoil to the ironic pass of a picnic at a park where one of the most bloody battles of a civil war had been waged.

We travel in our imagination, whether the travel is to an invented place, a real and remembered place,or a first-time visit to a place previously not experienced.  Other writers, writing the same themes, perhaps even reporting the same events, are nevertheless reporting back on different terrains for the simple reason that we see things differently even when we believe we are discussing the same place and event.

"It really happened that way," when first heard, sounds forlorn, coming from the despair of needing to transfer the exact meaning that was felt in real time.  You needed to learn, then to be able to teach the difference between the "really" of the event and the drama of the event being brought into story.

All of the superfluous dialogue and, for that matter, all the surplus details need to be filtered out in story.  A good portion of anticlimax is embedded in the concept of the distraction, the introduction of a detail that has some tangible relationship to story rather than to the "really" of the beginning writer's memory.

The "really" is never enough so far as story is concerned; the "really" requires emphasis, impending meaning, insistent, gnawing consequence. Story is reality on steroids, dialogue is conversation gone into manic focus.  Even a simplistic reply such as "Yes, I see," has a context where the reader understands what the seer is seeing and how devastating that vision is.  Details that get in the way of that devastating context have places in life, otherwise we would have little to regret.  Here, again, regret in story is ever so much more, it is an albatross hung around the neck of reality.  "I'm sorry" in real life can be covered over with a quick reassurance.  "I'm sorry" in a story rips open the wound of life-changing regret.

You cannot consider it enough to have walked the same streets you use in a story, you have to have in effect the sense of having walked over those streets in shoes a bit tight in the toe box or with a tiny pebble that has found its way under the metatarsal, reminding you  of each step taken so that your characters do not merely walk across the street.

You've come to believe in the simple dynamic of the difference between comedy and tragedy, which is that comedy is tragedy sped up.  By a similar extrapolation of pacing and focus on event, story is life intensified, undiluted with distracting detail.  Persons in real life--you included--begin sentences with "Well, I don't know," or "Now, let's see."  They have no such luxury in story; they are in too much of a hurry to find a place to sit, then to remove the shoe causing the problem, shaking out the pebble, then getting on their way again.

It really happened that way, did it?  Sorry, and apologies to Gertrude Stein for borrowing her trope on there being no there in Oakland.  Sorry, but there is too much real in "It really happened that way."

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