Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Teller of the Tale

Among the many things a writer needs to do in order to keep you interested in the story, position ahead of the advancing curve of convention calls out for attention.  This becomes a problem if the author in question happens to be dead.

You come to many dead authors for the first time and, thus, from the position of your reading as a reader in the year 2013, even though the author may well have been gone since--because a particular author has come to your mind--1949.  You are thinking of Booth Tarkington.


Thus your point.  He was a splendid storyteller.  He was still alive after the splendid storyteller, F. Scott Fitzgerald. (1940)  For that matter, there was Thornton Wilder, who was with us until 1975.


Yes, you are in constant danger of discovering writers you'd not had the time or inclination to read when you were of a certain age.  Yes, you are redressing some of the should-have assessments of your earlier years or revisiting writers you'd liked at earlier readings, then gone on to forget until something recalled them to mind, a firm persuasion that you were missing something on your first or second time through.

Yes, they are of their time and will sound of their time.  How could two contemporaries such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway have such differing values for the use of the adverb?  There are a number of answers; you had to find them for yourself, then become convinced of the validity of your decisions.  You had to justify to yourself the reasons why you prefer Fitzgerald to Hemingway while at the same time spending so much time in imitation of Hemingway's use of language rather than Fitzgerald's.  

The answer to that is obvious to you now, but not at the time.  You wanted to sound like Fitzgerald, who was born earlier than you, was of a different social class, and studied at a different university.

All these were of about the same generation; they extend well into the present time even though a writer sounding like any of them would find the publication process quite difficult.  Writers today such as Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Erdrich, Dennis Lehane, Cormac McCarthy,and Daniel Woodrell have all earned the right to be the stylist each has become.  You could not be so likely to get away with not using quotation marks to signify dialogue as McCarthy.

You must be content to leave these dead writers to their works as written, even though you may find it useful if not instructive to pick up a modernized version of Chaucer. But the matter cannot rest there.  You must spend some time translating these writers into a more modern stylistic voice.  You must do this to bring such writers into the present and to make sure you know what not to do to send your work staggering back into the parking lot, looking for lost keys.

You must of course find your own way into sounding the way you are when you compose, all the while understanding how your voice will cause difficulties, misapprehensions, and distractions if you are not careful.

For the strangest of reasons, you were taught the Spanish you first learned and practiced in California as though it were Spanish coming from Spaniards.  As time progressed, you knew things you must not do, but you did not learn enough of such things.  Even though you have a vocabulary, there is no mistaking that your Spanish comes from your gringo thorax.  

It was sufficiently Spanish-sounding to get you to a place in Mexico City where pulque is sold--a pulqueria--rather than a place where hair is cut, a peluqueria.  It was also sufficient to get you sworn at and knocked down, then given profuse apologies later, when it was discovered that you were not a Spaniard, only a mere gringo, wanting his hair cut.

You went to considerable lengths not to sound Spanish.  And yet, years after the fact, your dearest friend, who not only spoke as a Spaniard, he'd actually lived there for some time.  He had the gravitas, wit, and stature to inspire respect.    He understood how he sounded, embracing in fact the Gypsy twang of the other side of the river in Seville.

In addition to the works of writers no longer with us, you must find and listen to the young women and men publishing their first and second stories, experience how they convey feeling an emotion, be captivated by the gestures they use to escape words or to press the words home.

To do so, you must be alert and above all sympathetic to the characters who come before you, trying to escape their creators, trying to tell you stories.

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