Wednesday, October 23, 2013


When you were discovered to have somehow missed the state requirement to take ROTC (Reserved Officer Training Corps) classes, issued a uniform and gun, you learned two things that have influenced you in ways you did not expect at the time.

On the advice of a good friend, you were advised never, during target practice, to shoot at your own target.  "Always,"  your friend suggested, "shoot at someone else's target.  Never give them the slightest reason to suspect you can shoot well."

The other thing, which came in the one class you enjoyed, map reading, was triangulation, a process of determining your present-but-unknown location by referencing two other points.

Not being known as a sharpshooter is a likely factor in your not having to serve in the armed forces.  There is no telling how valuable this lesson has become.

Triangulation, much a part of the geometry that so eluded you for so long, has helped with a process you put into place every time you create a character.

In a recent conversation with a dear friend, you were told a man cannot know how it is to be a woman or how being a woman feels.  There is much weight to this friend's argument, even to the more specific point where you cannot in truth know how any other person feels, in a strong sense calling bullshit on whoever says, "I know how you feel" or even, "I know what you mean."

The conversation also took you back to the time, several years ago when the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference was still held at its original venue, the Miramar Hotel.  You led the late night fiction workshop, which met in a large, comfortable basement under the main auditorium.  One reader, an intense woman with an ability to register drama within her facial planes, had just read a segment from a work of fiction built on the famed Selma, Alabama march.

Immediately, a group you'd referred to humorously as the black caucus, stood to protest.  How, they asked, could any white presume to write about such an incident?  How, indeed, could any white presume to write, however sympathetically, about a protagonist who was herself black and herself a victim of discrimination and patronization from whites.

Your response came pouring our of you.  How could Margaret Mitchell dare to have written Gone with the Wind?  How could Herman Melville dared write the characters Tashteego and Quequeg?  How dared James Fenimore Cooper, a white man, written Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans?  How dared Dashiell Hammett, a male, have written Brigid Shaugnessey or, for that matter, Nora Charles, respectively in The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man?

The next year, the same reader was back at the conference with more chapters.  This time, a white person asked her how she could presume to write about a black character.  The black cacus went delightfully wild in support of the writer.  Listen, they said, all of them.  Listen.  We're writers.  Where would story be without our imagination?

Who can know with exactitude what another feels or thinks?  We all of us walk about, protagonists of our own story, drawn by the narrative of another, wishing to hear it, wishing to understand it, wishing to forge something in the way of a connection.

We invent stories of invented persons we call characters, setting them loose in landscapes based on places we have known or imagined.  On your first visit to London, you took the train from Heathrow to the Paddington Station.  The first time the train came out of a tunnel into daylight, you saw rows of houses that were familiar and validating because you'd dreamed them so many times.

You used to rely on formulas and plot designs wherein to force your characters to predetermined behavior that seemed to you consistent with human behavior.  Something was missing until you began to see that if you listened closely, these invented characters were trying to tell you something more important than your prefabricated results.

Now you triangulate, you listen, you try not to judge.  It is enough that you have brought these characters to a point where they wish to forge their own way in the worlds you have created, then let them triangulate their way to some conclusion or solution or temporary fix.

What will come of this is the history you will have created for yourself of these often disparate aspects of yourself trying to find some equivalent of the true north of the human heart.

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