Friday, January 17, 2014

Faculty Meetings, Cole Slaw, and the Narrative Urge to Capture Reality

There are times at faculty meetings when you are reminded of the inner conflict of being an English major.  As such, your intent was never to teach the things you learned as an English major; your intent was to sign on for the academic equivalent of a cruise through however much of world literature you could absorb from the men and women who studied them.

At one point in your junior year, a fraternity brother suggested the two of you start meeting to begin your studies for the Master of Arts qualifying exam.  This thought was so abhorrent that you began avoiding him and quit the fraternity.

You did not want a master's degree in English; you wanted to become a writer.  You did not want to teach English literature, you wanted to read it, peel it as though it were an orange or an onion.  

Yes, you got much more from being an English major than you suspected you would, even though it has taken you years to fit things together into the picture you now have.  Which brings you back to faculty meetings.

You did not wish to teach at all until you were well beyond being an English major.  You'd in fact become a book editor who'd just left one position to try his hand in the world of massmarket publishing.  You'd also become in actuality a term you harbored suspicions about, the autodidact, the self-taught, which, in all candor, also means whim rather than focus or discipline.  You were haunted by story in much the way characters in ghost stories are set upon by the spirits of the dead and unsatisfied.

Your goal was to capture enough reality in your own stories to make them seem convincing, vital, compelling.  You were no stranger to the weird and eerie, the supernatural and otherworldly, but even among these, the writers you favored were the men and women who made a point of making everything as real as possible with the exception of the one supernatural thing, the element you would in time come to refer to as the woo-woo.

You had no wish to teach or understand theory, which brings you back yet again to faculty meetings, wherein theory and academicism are brought forth.  You wanted to teach things you learned and saw as an editor.  You wanted to have the experience of your department chair chewing you out for presenting to your students one of the Joel Chandler Harris Brer' Rabbit stories as a paradigm example of the points raised in the Aristotle Poetics as they related to story telling.

Discussions centered on the term "creative writing" cause you discomfort bordering on nervousness.  You've taught any number of such courses, but not as an English major.

The solidarity you feel with students, with editorial clients, and the characters you bring to life for casting in roles you've contrived for them has to do with the manner in which reality is portrayed, the way it is presented with a shrewd adjustment of verb tense, a flow of dramatic information called narrative, and the internal thought processes of characters, a process known as internal monologue.

There is one more element in this delicate braiding, the process known as point of view.

Because of the conventional ways in which spoken and written story have developed, most readers and many beginning writers are aware of the conventions, even if they cannot specify them.

The reader, upon picking up a book or magazine, or, now, reading tablet, has expectations of the story coming alive--now.  The past tense means completed action.  Fred got up.  Mary closed the door.  Ishmael told people to call him.  Evolved convention has informed us to read those sentences like this:  Here is Fred, getting up.  Here is Mary, closing the door.  Here is Ishmael, inviting us to call him by his first name, so sure we will, he never bothers to tell us his last name.  No Mr. Shapiro or Goldfarb.  You.  Call me Ishmael, yo.

The imperfect tense tells us about completed action that happened more than once.  Fred used to live in Pismo Beach.  Mary used to close the door, but in more recent times, began to leave it open.  

Somewhere in the bargain, one of those verb tenses is mixed with narrative to produce the result that we readers are getting our information from Fred, not from the author.  When Fred lived in Pismo Beach, waking up in the early morning hours seemed more adventurous and inviting than coming awake here in Bakersfield.

Thus an example in which we are in effect eavesdropping on Fred, who is waking up in Bakersfield and not as happy about being up as he might be, were he back in Pismo Beach.  And who is to blame him?

Try this one, from Flannery Connor's memorable short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."  The Grandmother did not want to go to Florida.  

She is presenting us with a character who appears to have issues with going to Florida, which makes us aware of tension, which makes us offer our focus for at least another sentence, wherein O'Connor tells us the grandmother wished instead to go to east Tennessee, to visit acquaintances.  

You can relate to that.  In Johnson City, which is eastern Tennessee, there is The Peerless Steakhouse, at 2531 North Roan Street, which has some of the most remarkable cole slaw you have ever eaten.  You had experiences in Florida which amounted to nightmares because they scared you into fearing you would never get back to California.

Okay, you dwell too much on the point of explanation.  Two sentences into O'Connor's story, if you read with attention, you have enough information to begin growing fearful for things about to come to bass for "The grandmother," a person you only met moments ago.

Thus the use of verb tenses, narrative, point of view, and interior monologue to trick you into accepting the reality of O'Connor's story.  Since she did story so well, you think to read more of her to help you for your own reading and writing as well as the reading and writing of students and editorial clients develop the muscle memory of which you introduced these vagrant paragraphs.

You read to capture reality.  You write to capture it.

Grateful respect to English Departments.  Please do not misunderstand.  You have nothing against them.

Except perhaps their language.

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