Friday, December 27, 2013

Who's in Control Here?

The mind has many states or, as you prefer to think of them, characteristics,  You prefer your own mind to be in a state of focus because of the many pleasing experiences you've had in that condition, at once exploring, questioning, literal, and figurative.

There are times when you fine-tune your focus, pushing toward the excessive preoccupation you are quite ready to call obsession.  In such states, you are hyper aware of a situation, the wording or implication of a specific sentence, a reach for a vision or understanding.  Sometimes, when your investment in a project takes you beyond workaday patterns of sleep, recreation, and other activities, you are in an altered state, part sleep, partial waking stage, replaying a scene or phrase dozens of times.

You in fact obsess until you arrive at a sense of becoming one with the project.

A compulsion is a powerful urge to behave in a specific way that may often be lacking in a rational base.  You do the thing or are drawn to a thing or behavior in a near mechanical way, often rationalizing your own irrational behavior as you engage in it.

If there were some Richter or Beaufort scale to measure such behaviors, the numerical values would be well beyond the gentle sweep of the middle range of the bell curve.  Obsessive and compulsive behaviors yank the individual away from business-as-usual behavior and into the stratosphere of the aberrant.

Let's visualize those two conditions as two legs of a three-legged stool. Then, let's call the third leg of this extreme furniture controlling behavior.  

We have all experienced exposure to persons who not only seem to enjoy being in charge of whatever circumstance they chose, they seek these situations with aggressive resolve.  Your most recent experience with this type involved a person named Michael, who not only sought to control the kind of wine you were drinking, he wished to control the size and shape of the glass from which you were drinking and, as though that were still not enough, he wished to dictate the way you held the glass (by the stem at midpoint, rather than the bowl).

You often reach a point in dealing with a workshop or classroom with students who fancy themselves as writers when you set these types before them, then accuse them and yourself of being an amalgam of all three, obsessive, compulsive, and controlling.

There is nothing for it but nervous laughter of recognition, which becomes progressive in increased loudness when you suggest the likelihood that they are not yet as obsessive, compulsive, and controlling as they need to be in order to be able to find their way inside the characters as they, in their turn, find their way into story.

You're able to speak of opening scenes for stories in a close approximation of how most beginnings play out, which is to say about eighty-five percent of direct, present time action, and some fifteen percent description and/or backstory.  Such a recipe for balance between obsession, compulsion, and control does not to your awareness exist because they should all, in your perspective, be fighting for equality.

You are at one point or another playing arm wrestle with Reality, trying to bend it if not pin it to the table.  You are messing with the sense of time, either standing still or passing.  You are controlling the comfort level of all who appear in your narrative, the more uncomfortable the better.  You are obsessing on ridding the narrative of distracting elements, covering holes of logic with the right sentence or two, and being compulsive in your attempts to keep the characters as distinct from one another as possible.

For a pointed look at how this process works, let's spend a few moments considering as great a paradigm for demonstrating control as the character Wile E. Coyote demonstrates the extent of existential being necessary to be a successful character.

In Moby-Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, tells us straight off, "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

Coyote explains with action.  He emerges scruffy, dusty, hungry; we catch him in the flagrante of setting a trap for roadrunner.

In both cases, the author has taken control of the character, put him in motion, given him a goal, then begun squeezing.

If that were not enough, consider Michael Henchard in the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy's masterful The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The writer begins by exerting crucial control over the character to the point where the outcome is set in motion.  In consequence, we shall always see the three of them, Coyote, Ishmael, and Henchard as doomed to the lower levels of humiliation.  Ishmael is spared.  To a degree, Henchard is spared.  But all three, thus the Coyote as well, have been marked.  Allowing them much leeway would in effect have deprived us of memorable characters to obsess about as we measure the onus we have placed upon characters of our own creation and, having done some to some degree, trivialized them.

Thus the circle is completed by our compulsion to produce something memorable in yet another sense, the myth-biblical one.  Yes, that one, The Book of Job.  Point of view is important in this remarkable work of narrative.  We must read it first from the POV of the Jews, who consider the character of Satan a metaphor.  Some glosses on Job see him as The Adversary.  As a writer, you can and often do see Satan as a pivotal or Antagonist.  But the Jewish POV does not stop there,  ambiguity entering as it does in all effective drama.  Is God the Protagonist or the Antagonist.

The Christian POV wants us to consider Satan a Fallen Angel, which introduces yet another layer to the ambiguity.

The Jewish version also raises the question that Job must have been fooling around somewhere for God to have become so willing to have at him.

Great stories, lasting stories, provocative stories all speak to us in ways that invite us to see how obsession, compulsion, and control force us as writers to pile more bricks upon our characters, to obsess until we are compelled to take that extra step that will find an individual character who is so inspired that all the other characters will be forced to take notice, then come to memorable life.

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