Monday, January 14, 2013

When Story Becomes Greek

Aristotle had it right.

No particular surprise there; Aristotle had many things right.

Even though our present day understanding and articulation of things structural and things potential has evolved in logarithmic proportions during the Common Era, most of Aristotle's (384 BCE-322 BCE) visions of them (and, while you're at it, of the Universe) were apt.

He saw a condition of potential as a condition of actuality, which he called entelechy.  Entelechy is put forth into practicality with the question, How does the acorn know it is supposed to grown into an oak?

You'd not be surprised if James Carvelle were to answer that question with, "Because it's supposed to, stupid."

You might answer the question with the simple, "Programming."  You could also go on to say entelechy is also a matter of genomes and codes, articulating themselves with the authority of confidence.  Ever willing to bring story into the conversation, you raise aloft the tale of The Ugly Duckling as though it were a communion wafer--behold.  The Duckling had no clue.  But not to worry.  The swan entelechy had the matter under control, a Captain James Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard of the spaceship Destiny.

A significant part of the pleasures to be had from reading stories and writing them makes itself known when you, as reader or writer, "discover" the entelechy at large.  This discovery allows you a glimpse beyond what the material could be, offering a hint of what the material wants to be.  When  you know what the material wants to be, you are in danger of becoming a critic, a teacher, a writer, or all three.

We arrive here at a--if not the--major difference between Story and Reality.  Think of reality as a blob of undifferentiated information, intent, and seething momentum, crammed into a space too small for it.  The result is as cranky, impatient, and frustrating as the southbound Santa Monica Freeway near the junction of the 405 at rush hour.  Reality is as fraught as the lower East Side of Manhattan traffic, the same snarling conflation of humanity and machinery Dustin Hoffman, in his portrayal of Ratso Rizzo, strode through, pounding the side of a taxi, "I'm walking here.  I'm walking here."

Think of Story as Reality with a motive well beyond keeping the species alive.  Story wants to do more than maintain stasis.  Story is about discovery ripped from Reality with the same effect as adhesive tape being yanked from the chest of  hairy male.  Story is an attic or basement in which some secret or revelation is stored, waiting for you as you begin sifting through the storage boxes, dusty photo albums, scrap books bulging with items cut from yellowed neighborhood newspapers.  You are an archaeologist, sifting through the potsherds, looking for entelechy, alert to the fact that there might be more than one.

Once, when you sat in a room, listening to Eudora Welty, speaking about her approach to writing, you shook off the shiver of a thrill when she said, "When I begin writing something, I'm always so glad to discover it's a short story and not a novel."

Across the thirty-some-odd years since you heard her say that, you connect the fact of her writing to find the entelechy of the material, its genome, its coded awareness of its own destiny, coming over the reader and writer in slow degrees, like the first awareness of a blush or an itch.

No wonder it feels so good and requires some immediate response once you are aware of it.  No wonder it is so much like trying to follow directions before the GPS was so plentiful.  No wonder there were parts of you who refused to admit you were lost, who was sure the answer was right around here, somewhere.  Your sureness was being tested.  Being lost and refusing to ask for directions was a metaphor for quite other things, things in life relative to where you were with your career plans.

Now you are confident enough of your entelechy to know that being lost and not asking for directions is your entelechy.  What possible worth can it be if you know your directions and way out not long after you know what the opening line is, who is present in the first scene, where the materials with the discoveries are located.

Lost again?

Write your way out.

Fair to ask characters for directions but just to keep you honest, not fair to have characters who work in gas stations because that is always where one she or another suggests you go for some information.

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