Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Electric Eel in Your Opening Paragraphs

The subjects were front-rank characters and the shift from the incisive third-person narrative of Jane Austen to a more mischievous and purposeful multiple point-of-view in Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Script Writer.  The students were taking notes, which was fine, up to the point where you wanted them to be talking about their own experiences and interpretations.  

After a few probing questions, you observed that you were encountering a rare, challenging point of view, the UCSB multiple silent point-of view.

Scattered, nervous laughter.  One of your brightest fidgeted with an earring.  Another, shrewd, you realized, beyond her years, observed how much she really wanted to have read the assigned chapters in the Jane Smiley Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, I mean, really wanted to, because Smiley was discussing something she was trying to reach in her own novel in the works.  Boyfriend was apparently sent home, disappointed.  Midnight oil was burned.  Things happen or they don't.

Who to blame for the lack of time to read things of reputable value?  Is MTV a culprit in its insidious attacks on the attention span of a nation?  Was, in fact, your great old pal, Digby Wolfe, a culprit because of his invention of Laugh-In?  You are pleased to recall the times you were able to chide him on this account?

Yes, you were already chasing a faintly glimpsed metaphor, catching a more acute vision of it as you bore in.  "When was the last time any of you in this room was able to read a novel straight through, without the need to interrupt your reading for any other reading, including assignments for this class?"

More silence, but a different, more thoughtful kind.  You joined in, factoring in a regular book review that means having read the entire book in about a week.  Perhaps a retired person has the luxury of time to read a novel from start to finish without interruption for the need to consult periodicals, journals, or other books.  You know of no such person, although there is the probability that you know a large number of dedicated readers.

But the students had stepped into a trap you had not realized at first you were setting.  "What would it take," you asked, "to get you to blow off this week's reading assignments for a novel you wished to read?  What would you think to include in the narrative you are now writing to induce readers to blow off other obligations, stay up reading, or send significant others off to a distance?"

This got their attention, and the conversation began.

Pacing.  An accelerating sense of a major character becoming caught up in an untenable or intolerable situation.  Possibly both.  Something beyond stage directions, something beyond Mary was afraid her last effort had not been sincere or clever or intelligent enough. 
Something that shows Mary discovering a document including things she could and should have said but did not, or someone with knowledge of the circumstances taking Mary on for not engaging sufficiently in the gathering of evidentiary materials.

Action.  Mary doing something to demonstrate her awareness of having partied instead of researched.


We all of us filed out of the class room, appropriately located in a building called The Old Theater, aware of the need to grapple with attention.  Too much is intolerable; we feel trapped, resentful.  Too little attention to detail produces the scorn of indifference.  The balance is somewhere between understated, imaginative, and clear.

We struggle to find out.

Openings are like electric eels.  You have to pick one up to understand that you cannot let go, even though you are aware of the current pulsing through your hands and arms.

You need an opening that will induce your classmates to blow off Lowenkopf's reading assignment in favor of this literary electric eel.

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