Friday, December 20, 2013

A Matter of Degree

Nothing behaves the way you'd like or expect.  A thing is always better or worse; it is all a matter of degree.  In fact, degrees of potential interpretation hover over a thing like hungry seagulls over an unexpected meal.

A thing--any thing--is a hive of degrees, waiting to express themselves in order to claim occupancy. When a thing loses substance, say an ice cream cone or soft serve melting or being eaten, its presence disappears in degrees from observable experience, leaving a void.  A void--nothing at all, really--is dark, darker, impenetrable.  A glass of liquid is pellucid, crystal clear (how clear really is crystal?) murky, or if the liquid in the glass happens to be a frothy Guinness stout, inviting.

Degrees of earthquakes and of temperatures nudge one another for supremacy on Richter, Celsius, and Fahrenheit scales, the last two opening the distinct possibility for negative degrees, expressed in fact as minus thirty degrees or thirty degrees below zero (pick a scale).

So long as we're on the subject, there's also the Beaufort Scale that relates wind speed to observable conditions at sea or on land, by which, if mere visuals are not enough, we can rank the degree of a storm.

At the risk of allowing this observation to become a laundry list, there are academic degrees, degrees of road hill angle on a road, and the use of degree to designate an epitome or so extreme a degree of something as to outrank mere numbers, replacing them with the no-nonsense nth degree.

Wherever there are things, even concepts or, for that matter, concepts relating to things,there are bound to be degrees because someone, perhaps even you, is going to want to know what it is that's with all these measurements, and how many degrees of difference are there between the various tick marks one could us in comparing and differentiating things.

A baseball fielder's glove is a good example, because the informed baseball eye can distinguish between a first-baseman's glove and those of the other infielders, excepting the catcher, whose glove is every bit as filled with degrees of identity as a first-baseman's glove.

Matters do not stop there; is the glove left- or right-handed?  Is it deep-welled for outfielder purposes?

As you compose a story or essay, if you follow your own avowed purpose of thinking as little as possible during the first draft--see, there's that matter of degree again--you will not question your degree of attitude or purpose in composing the piece; you will in the best sense of the word, allow the work to supply the words and images, leaving you the times of revision for thinking about such matters as attitude, range of emotions, moral concerns, and, of course, moral choices.

Words and concepts such as "somewhat", "a little bit,"  "a lot," "a whole lot," "very" and "more-or-less" need to be watched for in early draft, and treated with the kind of disdain a conservative politician shows to immigrants who are in this country as so-called illegals.

It is not so much precision for which you strive as clarity of feeling and description.  The ongoing battle you have when it comes to composition then the subsequent editing of the composition reminds you sometimes of you in the kitchen, preparing a soup or stew or spaghetti sauce.

One evening at the yearly Christmas gathering of your late pal, Barnaby Conrad, you were engaged in an animated discussion about sauces with Cousin Julia, aka Julia Child, who spoke of great enthusiasm for a number of sauces, thought over what you'd just said, then set you a task.  Make a spaghetti sauce using no more than five ingredients.

"I should think,"  she said, "you'd want garlic for certain.  That leaves you four more."

A story, you believe, should have as many degrees as are necessary provided the degrees earn their keep and are not distractions.

You want and try to find the equivalent of garlic every time you set out.  Sometimes you spend the entire work session on the opening line, contrary to you belief that you should not be so bloody thoughtful.

Sometimes, the first line comes to you, a faint whisper.  The story is saying to you in direct effect, "You are okay to talk about anything, right?"

You tell it, "About anything.  Yes."

What happens next no longer surprises you:  Process takes hold.  This is the process that braids what you used to think were the three things for which you had any ability, writing, editing, and teaching.  But your process is not a braid so much as one simple process or a spaghetti sauce using only five elements.

Writing, editing, and teaching are your garlic.  You have characters, and without too much trouble at all, they become story.  You have attitude.  Many of your stories are set in universities, which you believe from your experience in and with them to be on a par with lunatic asylums.

Rolling about in your mind, like the genius bee bee introduced in a spray can of paint, is the notion of going to the present-day campus of California State College, Channel Islands, which was at one time The Camarillo State Hospital, specializing in patients with degrees of insanity and afflictions such as aphasia and Alzheimer's which might lead the uninitiated to think insanity.  You would go there to absorb another story set in a campus, formerly an "Institution."  

It is all a matter of degree, isn't it?


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