Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Close Readings and Conversions in the Desert

For some weeks, you've been immersed in dealing with the short fiction you'd begun writing after the time of your equivalent of a conversion in the desert.

The desert was simple enough, a barren expanse of concepts and formulas that seemed endless and without distinctive features.  The conversion was you decision to gather your previous struggles with such aspects of story as plot, pacing, and genre formula with your own visions of what problems characters faced, how they dealt with them, and how much effect they could have on their external surroundings.

Things began when you were seated at a large dinner next to a man who would soon become your editor.  The platters of desert cheese and fruit were being circulated.  The cheese platter arrived before you, and the fruit platter appeared before him.  "I'm damned if I can figure these things out,"  he said.  "I know that blue, veiny stuff is supposed to be good, but I've had a terrible experience with the grout in the tile of my bathroom."

You took matters into your own hands, slid a generous slice of Mascarpone onto his plate and yours, found pears for each, speared two chunks of warm, chewy sourdough loaf,and a friendship was formed.

"What are you working on?"  he said.

Before you had to think, which was the clue here, you said, "It's a story about a man who is plotting to steal a dog from a friend, disguise the dog, and raise it as his own."

"How about,"  the man said, "not a mere friend but a close friend?"

You were busy spreading cheese on your bread.  "Makes more sense, doesn't it?"  you said.

"I want to be the first to see it,"  he said.

The dinner was at a home in the part of Santa Barbara called The Mesa, an area you always associated with being lost when you were in it.  Driving home, you did in fact make several wrong turns as opposed to the one or two that would have led you to the main artery of Carrillo Street, and what was for you civilization.

As you drove, seeking your way, the opening line of the story presented itself to you with clarity and assurance.  Even though you had invented the concept for the story within moments of being asked what you were working on, you understood that things between you and the short story were changed.

"Late one spring night, during a particularly satisfying buffet and agreeable conversation at one of Reeva and Jerry Zachary’s gatherings, Lessing knew with an ardent certainty that he intended to steal their dog, Molly, and somehow contrive to rear her as his own."

After some weeks, you were satisfied with the story, sent it to the man, John Milton, at The South Dakota Review, and understood you had found something you'd been seeking for some time.

"Molly," named for your dog at the time, was not your first published short story, nor was it your last; instead, it was a you for which you'd been sorting, sifting, and probing, much in the manner of checking the cushions of sofas for loose change.

"Molly" will appear in the collection.  That adverb "particularly"will not appear.

Thanks to editorial notes and your own combination of fussiness and sensitivities since the publication of "Molly," you are in a real sense removing unnecessary things from some of the stories, inserting necessary things you've seen since having sent the story off to the various publications that gave the stories their first homes.

The process of giving so much of your work a renewed close reading has the effect of giving yourself and intentions a closer scrutiny.  From it, you see yourself better able to articulate inner convictions you began to amass in your late teens and early twenties, things more of theme and belief than understanding of what story meant to you.

What you've always wished was a way to explain to yourself what your attitudes and responses meant.  They pretty much line up and report for duty in the tent of humor, where you have made a jump in understanding.  The jump lets you know how serious you were when early readers urged you to stop fooling around and "get serious."  Writing about an exaggerated person, institution, place, or thing as though it were dead-pan or dead-on serious is your platform.  So, too, is writing about a dead-serious thing as though it were foolish.

There is, as you write this, a book on your desk for you to review.  Krazy and Ignatz,The Krazy Kat Sunday comic strips from 1941-42, in which a surreal and wonderful world is set in Coconino County, Arizona, the second largest county in the United States.  

Your recent drive and reflections through the real Coconino County and the remarkable terrain within it helped you with this personal conflation and understanding.  Many of your stories take place in or around universities, all of which strike you as blending the serious with the surreal.

Humor is a vital presence; it is informed by loss, aching desire, struggles to achieve, animosity, crossed purposes, noble agendas, love, misunderstanding, and the great seriousness with which individuals attempt to convince others of their visions.  Humor also leaves gifts of observation for those who watch the human condition and the parades of characters who have emerged from the forges of men and women who tell stories.

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