Saturday, August 31, 2013

Trapped Words

Ideas, notions, and concepts come at all times.  They arrive in many forms, some half-articulated, others more like the imaginary maps you drew with a hoarded stub of a Dixon Ticonderoga # 2 pencil, kept in your pocket with small note books, pictures of airplanes, and a red-and-black Duncan yo-yo.

They arrive to be sorted out, understood, perhaps even decoded.  Now that you are beyond carrying pencils and have moved along from Esterbrook fountain pens to some of your favored Italian ones, your small notebooks are filled with hints or clues that attempt to decode the messages you get.

Because you have spent more time in schools than you ever supposed you'd spend, you have picked up words and terms of the school, the academy, the class room.  They make a certain sense to you that is on a level of the earlier ideas and concepts that came to you, back in the pencil days.

One such word is story.  When you first heard it in class rooms, you were uneasy about your ability to understand it, in much the same way you were not sure you could translate things of algebra or make sense of things related to geometry.

When the world turned about on an axis of accident and irony, you were the one using the word story, and you felt as uneasy as you did when you were a student and professors in philosophy classes were talking about a term called truth, which you'd heard a good deal about, particularly in admonitions that you always tell it.

In time, you learned that you had to break such things as long division, algebra, truth, and story into definitions you could explain to yourself and feel comfortable with.

All the while, experience was putting new things for investigation and study before you to the point where it seemed you'd never catch up.  Take the word subtext, for instance.  Some of your students were coming to you, confused at the way other of their instructors expected them to know what it meant.

You were disturbed with the discovery that you were saying words in the school language without really having those words as muscle memory, things you could do, understand, play with the way you used to play with another kind of toy, the kaleidoscope, where you were in actuality moving a few bits of glass trapped inside some mirrors and prisms.  The effect often overpowered the mechanism.

People said things.  You said things.  People meant something else than what they said when they said those things.  You found yourself occasionally tripping over the gap between what was said and what was meant.  You began to understand that subtext was the thing felt but not said when the thing said was being spoken in hopes of having it sound agreeable or acceptable.

For about a year, you were saying subtext all over the campus, buttonholing students to tell them subtext.

What is said, as played against what is not said but meant.

I'm glad you liked it.  (You'd better have liked it)  (Your like or dislike of "it," whatever it may be, is of no concern to me.)

Maybe next time.  (Ain't gonna be no next time.)

Destabilizing event is another word that you'd have felt bewildered by if your major had not included numerous courses in American and English literature.  A story begins with a destabilizing event.  Some event brings chaos to play, demanding a response from a major character.  If Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, had merely had heartburn or, perhaps an attack of kidney stones, there'd have been no play.  King Hamlet had to have been murdered by his brother, Claudius, properly working up King Hamlet's ghost to demand of his son that he seek revenge.  Now, we've got a story.

When you were discovering it from your reading (some of which you still marked up with those stubs of Dixon Ticonderoga # 2 pencils) you thought you were learning first- and third-person narrative.  I said.  He said.  She said.  

Free indirect speech is third-person narration.  It uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech, set forth to make it seem to the reader that the story is coming from a character as opposed to being an authorial intervention.

There is no telling the number of short stories and novels you published before you found out about free direct and indirect discourse, making you think a great mistake had been made and you'd sneaked past the border guards undetected.  Worse, for a time you believed you would write better short stories and novels now that you knew about free direct and indirect speech.

Big mistake.  Bit a few years off your writing arc. Fact is, if you understand point of view and are able to accept the fact that your characters provide the narrative and dialogue rather than you, this information will allow you to nod sagely when you hear academics speaking, because you know what they mean.  You can also ask them what, in addition to their scholarly work, they may have published in the way of fiction.

Not long ago, a friend asked you if you had any trapped words.  This made a great deal of sense because the image of words being trapped is so visual that you can feel them, rattling the cage, trying to free themselves.  Trapped words send subtext back to school, its tail tucked between its legs.  Looking for your own trapped words helps you look for them in the characters you create. helps you see what myths and realities they're holding onto, all the while debating who to share them with, who to trust.

You keep returning to a conversation you were fortunate to be invited to between your late pal, Barnaby Conrad, and that wonderful playwright, Neil Simon.

In his spectacular way, Simon knew a thing or two about trapped words.  "A great way for beginning a story,"  he said, was having a character tell another, 'I'm going to tell you something I've never told another person.'"

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