Monday, June 10, 2013

Free Your Inner Lobster, or, A Lobster Is a Story, Waiting

All narrative, fiction and non- alike, is a process of discovery.  From the get-go, the reader is being manipulated; important dramatic or factual information is being withheld for presentation at critical thematic moments.  The reader knows this on some level, which is part of the excitement of being a reader.

The writer is not on such agreeable ground.  Writers who have been at their craft for a while understand they are indeed writing to manipulate, buit they also know they are writing to discover any significant number of things about the work at hand, about their own self-understanding, and about the potential for unexpected trysts on an existential basis with cosmic truths.

You join your brother and sister writers in the "don't think" approach to writing early drafts, wherein we write to discover how much we know about the individuals wrapped up in the narrative, who they are, and what they want.  Sometimes we learn so much that the entire vector of the story undergoes surprising changes before our eyes, with things emerging on the computer screen or notebook page that dazzle and often stun us intgo wondering if we have the chops to bring this effort off.  In some ways, early draft is like booking a short weekend tour, only to discover we have been Shanghaied into a multi-continent tour.

A significant plateau we reach during these early drafts is the exact spot where the finished work will begin, at which point we also discover whose story or narrative the work is.  Another plateau, not reached with as much ease as might seem probable, is the tone of the work, which is to say the relevant character's attitude to life in general and the narrative in specificity.  Is this a noir or otherwise dark venture?  Does the narrator harbor resentments or desires for revenge?  Is this in fact a narrative about redemption?  Does it follow the nineteenth- and twentieth-century conventions leading to the comedic ending, where the "they" who are the characters "live happily ever after"?

You sometimes in early drafts discover a near reversal of dramatic attitude, starting with visions of revenge or punishment before morphing into growing understanding that leads to forgiveness or dedicated accommodation.  The reverse is also possible, wherein after an easy-going, laissez faire attitude, your characters inform you that the world about them and you has undergone some social upheaval and evolution.

In its way, these introductory paragraphs exemplify the process where the writer dips a tentative toe into waters that may be on the surface a placid pond or lake, only to become fraught with undertow and crosscurrent as the characters wade into the seemingly negligible depths.  Discovery also reveals the level of emotional intensity on which the narrative takes place.  In other, more specific words, discovery shows us we have not turned on the heat under the crucible that is story.  We have not made matters more fraught, more necessary, more urgent, more conflicted, more tentative.

The shrewd actor, gaining familiarity with a role, asks what the character wants and why the character wants it now.  Right now.

By peeling away the outer drafts of the onion in early drafts, the writer discovers the gnaw and drive behind the character's facade.  Fear?  Perhaps.  Envy?  Nice motive.  Control freak?  Lovely character attribute.  When characters first appear on stage in a story, they are still exerting some kind of facade management, perhaps even to the point of not allowing themselves to see the cat scratching at the door to gain exit.  To put it another way, a lobster in a tall bain marie, half filled with water, has no urgent motive to escape.  The lobster in the pot does not yet recognize its predicament, but as readers, we've been in enough existential pots to recognize the need for concern.  Know it or not, we've begun rooting for the lobster.

So far as discovery is concerned, there was no thought of a lobster when this essay was begun.  The cat, scratching atg the door provided enough impetus for the lobster to begin waving its claws about, attempting to attract some attention.  In effect, you were drawn to examine the movement, then you came upon the lobster,  You were immediately taken by the trapped nature of the lobster as, indeed, you are by any number of individuals in tight spaces during early paragraphs.

A lobster in a pot of cold water works for about a paragraph, but then someone must come along to turn the heat on, adjusting it to a high burn.  If not, our concerns begin to wane.

Such wisdom as there may be in these vagrant paragraphs tells us to start with the water beginning to warm up to the point where the lobster is scuttling to get free of its sepulcher.  We have all of us felt direct empathy with the lobster.

Although this will appear to be a reach, what we need now is a character, a youngish individual who is neither brat nor Shirley Temple, who appears on stage, wondering aloud, "What happened to my pet lobster?"  Now we are concerned for the youngster and the lobster.  After all, a youngster and a pet speak to our deeper sympathies yet.

In our heart, we know the lobster is doomed.  We know the youngster is about to understand the vulnerability of an attachment to anything--even a lobster.  But we are on yet another vital cusp here:  Will this one experience, this one loss of an unusual pet, cause this young person to Teflon over his or her feelings to the point of foreclosing any further attachments?

We are saying in this absurdist example that all attachment bears risk, that there are even more painful experiences ahead if we do not give our heart on a regular basis, the painful experience of having a calloused and cut-off awareness.

We learn from early drafts.  When you began these paragraphs, lobster was furthest from your mind.  You had no idea a lobster was loitering about in your awareness.  Turning up the heat on him or her caused it to skitter up the sides of the pot.

No pasta with lobster sauce for you this evening.  You've learned this, as well.

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