Thursday, July 18, 2013

Improve through Improv

You are in the midst of the discovery that comes from revisiting a number of short stories you'd thought were finished.  The stories led you to believe they were finished in a way you at first did not understand, then came to appreciate.

Almost all the stories you'd thought were finished arrived separately, in unfinished stages, waiting upon you to apply the final touches.  No problem with that; you play and dance and think, trying your best to listen to the characters, even talking to them, telling them they're on their own now.  

Some of them believe you and tell you how they wish things to go, and you say,"aha, so that's how it is with you," and you set down their choices.  Now the stories say, "We're through, we're out of here."  You send these stories to various publications you've come to appreciate.

They send you notes saying they find your stories congenial and will offer them a home, and you are pleased for the entire process.

Other stories are not so cooperative.  This is so not because of any inherent problem with them, rather the matter focuses on you.  You work furiously at finishing them off, trying one crazy stunt after another.  You do everything you can think of with the possible exception of listening to the characters, a complicated matter that in fact has led to this essay.

The stories were, after all, quite finished.  You did not believe the stories themselves, much less the characters, not until you'd done the equivalent of trying to tack numerous last acts to these stories you'd come to think of as problem stories.  They did not think of themselves as problem stories; you were the narrative fly in the dramatic ointment.

After some time, you came to understand that the stories you worked so hard to finish were already done.  No wonder you couldn't get additional scenes to fit onto them.  They already had a caboose.

Which meant you had to spend considerable time, thought, and effort asking yourself and, in subsequent adventures, your characters if you could please come to some agreement about where the story ended.

You reached the point where you almost understood.  To put the matter in a yet better way, you reached the point where you understood as much as you wished to understand, which was the state where you had to reach some understanding with story, with characters, and with endings.  The risk, you felt, was going too far in articulating the way things should be, opening the door for a formulaic feeling where instead you wished to achieve another feeling, one of a well-articulated presence of believable certainty, which, according to you, is a blend of certainty, absolutism, chaos, and uncertainty.

These past days, you've been looking at the notes your publisher has sent on a group of your short stories from which he hopes to select twelve or fourteen, all of which in one way or another caused you some forms of exercise, conversation, frustration, and, ultimately, satisfaction.  All the stories have gone through your process, have been sent off, have been well received, discussed in some memo or other, sent through a final review, then published.

Here they are again, much like children coming home to live with the parents again because each one has notes from the latest publisher.

This is not a complaint because in looking at them again you're thinking there are some stray cat or dog hairs, a flake of dandruff, or in more direct terms, an unnecessary -ly adverb, an observation from you that would have had better effect coming from a character, a tad too much about the waist here, and traces of poor nourishment there.

Although you're quite pleased about this forthcoming publication and your publisher's obvious enthusiasm, you were for a time not sure how to proceed.  You spent a good deal of time puttering with the order of these stories and the building momentum you hoped to achieve.  Both processes were, you realized, stalling devices.  You were edgy about looking into the actual text, particularly since the Publisher said there'd be notes.

How could you think to get into the story, recapture the feeling in order to cope with the notes and your own impressions?

Then the answer.  Improv.  You have your characters improvising a scene.  Starting to feel good.  So you try another take.  Soon, the chemistry is back, and that's the dynamic to make everything work.

Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more...

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