Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Working up: From Resume to Curriculum Vitae

In the search for compelling, vibrant characters, we tend to focus on the effect of their goals upon them rather than the cause that brought about the goal. Your own holy trinity, who are they?  What do they want, and what are they willing to do to achieve their goal?  This is enhanced by a number of modern acting approaches, which recognize your trinity then add to it a fourth, valuable question:  Why do they want it now?

Goal is of major importance, but something subtle and of impending importance may be lost if we are too literal in our focus or if, having discovered the motivating, driving force behind the goal, we fail to look at an important fact, staring at us like an outsider.

The characters with the strongest resources to portray leading, front-rank persons are those who tend to be loners.  Their remoteness is not of necessity from a lack of social skills as much as from their preoccupation with something to which they attach a higher priority.  

We may not write about it directly, finding it convenient to rely on inference, nevertheless it is helpful to know why John is so interested in astronomy or poetry or becoming a chef or musician, what it is about Phil that causes him to sneak off to watch old Fred Astaire movies on YouTube and Netflix, why Mary is so determined to live an outdoor life, why Joanne is willing to spend so many hours a week after her forty-hour job, practicing her technique on an instrument as off the radar as a lute or banjo.

These individuals are all hypotheticals, invented to serve as example, and done so in your belief that a character is best described by action, which includes agendas and activities, also by what that character is willing to sacrifice in order to pursue a goal.

The character who is pulled away from social practice and engagement is often anything but antisocial, perhaps even aware of the cost, but also too caught up in the distraction to be able to moderate the activity or focus.  Such individuals can emerge as odd or marginal, thus the need to make them even more engaged in their remoteness.  Now they are mysterious, their appearance of being driven not so much a psychological anomaly--although it is-- as a reminder to us how important focus is.

Malcolm Gladwell's study, Outliers,  supplies us with a basic approach:  Spend ten thousand hours focused on a thing, say writing or dancing or drawing.  That's the equivalent of nearly fourteen consecutive months, with no time off for sleeping.  Ten thousand hours of concentrated effort of the sort an actor makes, learning her craft or a writer, writing a book.  These efforts remind us, sometimes in the negative, guilt-producing way, of the lack of focus we exert to pursuing our dreams.  Enter another subtle digression here:  these dreams of ours may be expressed or secretly held.

Example: You wish to expand your abilities as a writer.  Many of your friends are going to grad school, starting careers, entering committed romantic relations, some starting families.  You maintain contact with some, but inevitable bridges are burned.  Some of the jobs you take prove not to be socially acceptable to some of your friends or as aspects of you having adopted Peter Pan as a role model.  Your resume begins to present a picture of you as an anomaly, suspect in the conventional job market.  

When questions are asked about such entries as "Managed concession facilities in cities throughout the San Joaquin Valley," there is little tolerance.  No one who discovers this description means you worked baseball throw and guess-your-weight booths at carnivals will take you seriously.  

You, on the other hand, take yourself seriously, acknowledging your risk, experiencing the life as an outlier, your toolkit brimming with bright, mischievous, unusable worlds, a memory humming with the energy of hundreds of books read, hundreds of manuscripts written, hundreds more of both waiting to be read and written.

Thus your growing awareness that you must see characters as persons who gave up opportunities to be conventional in order to become individuals.

Thus one day you sit in the offices of a man named Lou, who says he can't get over how the mail order copy you wrote for him resulted in his being able to sell the six hundred fifty two-volume sets of the short stories of Henry James another man named Bentley sold him under the false pretenses that the James books were filled with the nineteenth century equivalent of pornography.  Thus he shows you a list of book titles Bentley's mail order consultation firm swears will sell at a huge profit.  Thus he asks you how many of these titles you can write and how soon.  Thus, six months later, he asks if you can work any faster, and when you say you're already working pretty fast, he wonders if you have any friends who are writers, and when you say a few, he asks you how you'd like to become an editor.

After a time, you have that to put on your resume, in addition to the management of concession facilities throughout the San Joaquin Valley of Central California.

Some years later, you are sitting in the dining area of the St. Regis Hotel in New York, across an elaborate tea service presided over by a stiff, cranky woman you were advised always to call Mrs. Meyer, no matter what she told you.  "What,"  she asks you, while handing you a tea cup filled with a smokey gray infusion, "is so special about you, and why should I hire you?"

You tell her she should hire you because you have good taste and can spot good publishing prospects.

She asks you if these good prospects will--her term--"earn out," by which she means recover their investment costs.  You tell her you can guarantee the good taste but not the earning out, to which she reminds you she will be hiring you for both.

You stand, thank her for the meeting, nod to her associates, and tell her it was a pleasure meeting her.

"Call me Helen,"  she says.

"Does that mean I'm hired, Helen?"

"What did they--"  she hitches her head to her associates.  "--tell you about addressing me?"

She was, of course, testing you.  But the thing she didn't tell you was that you were reporting to them.

By the time you ran your course with them, your resume was beginning to acquire a panache worthy of a curriculum vitae.  

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