Monday, January 27, 2014

The Electronic Dog Fence Approach to Storytelling

With all the attention you've paid to learning to describe to yourself the intricacies of story in order to write them yourself, you appear to have avoided an important confrontation.

Story is, in any end-game analysis, a matter of confrontation.  Character goes up against a system, a culture, another individual representing systems or cultures, meets apparent opposition, tries again, is slammed to the ground in an even more fierce reversal, leading us to the sense of despair and gloom attendant on the feeling that all is lost.

Depending on the story, the "all" that is lost can extend all the way down to self-identity.  "Things," "conditions," and "circumstances" are so dire now that there is no more self left to contrive an escape route.  The self is on the verge of giving up its identity.  

But wait.  What's this?

"This" is the self seeing the opportunity for a plan.  If the plan is successful, the self will not have to call Good Will to come pick up all the things it has acquired over the years as a running scorecard of who and what it is.

These are building blocks, small details already well known to you to the point where you sometimes dream about them or find yourself editing them in your dreams.  What you sometimes lose track of is the ongoing need to take these small building parts apart to examine their inner workings.

Of course story contains conflict, characters confronting one another over their differences of opinion or, in even greater varieties of irony, characters who argue about the same thing, each in dead serious contest about the intensity of his understanding of the thing.

If story were not story, there would be a different sense of pace.  Needs arising from story would shift.  You believe you've defined boredom here, with this observation.  Boredom is the human response to things going well, in harmony.  One way to change all that:  have a character come along with an agenda for making things more harmonious than they already are.  But Fred, we're happy as we are.  Leave us alone.

Ah, don't you see, Fred says.  Things could be better if you worked at it with more √©lan vital.

What's elan vital?

Elan vital is a deep, abiding joy in doing things.  If you'd allow yourself to feel happier, you'd see what I mean.

Perhaps you could show us, Fred.  How can we be any happier?

For one thing, you could spend more time--and here, we come to the end of a page or chapter, meaning the gears of story are meshed.  Individuals are heating up to what appears to us readers as an epic battle in the making.  We can see things the characters cannot, because they are (take your choice here) cursed or blessed (notice the use of pairs of opposites here) or afflicted or cured (yet another approach to the same problem, right?).

On a clear day, so the saying went when you were an undergraduate at UCLA, you could, from the top of the Janss Steps, see Catalina.  Then came story and song, whereby, on a clear day, you could see forever.  Although you can scarcely claim to see forever, you can see some future things with a comfortable degree of accuracy.  To some extent, you have this ability because of your experience with other humans and your interactions with some of them.  

But even back when you could not see so much future--you even once wrote an editorial, "After graduation, what?--and you could see some of the inaccuracies of your peers, you could not see all of your own by any means.  This is not to say you didn't see any of your own needs for self-editing.  There were in fact so many, you could scarcely keep up with them.

Some would call this process extreme self-editing, deleting and rewriting aspects of yourself neither you nor those about you liked.  Others might call this process the nonliterary one of maturation, or even growing up.

Now that you hunk about it, you've probably been told to grow up as many times as you've been told you need editing.

The point you are after is this:  However much there is to be learned from reading, writing, and understanding story, there is as much to be learned about you in the process.

By looking at stories you've read or written in the past, you are able to see what if any progress you've made.  You're able to see if you're happier, sadder, more resigned, more curious, more combative against the forces of boredom, and in what directions you might best extend your efforts.

Much of these observations have been fluttering about you like a swarm of hungry mosquitoes on a summer's evening.  Because you've not less than an hour ago finished the edits to the last of twelve stories that will appear in a forthcoming collection, you have had the opportunity to see what you thought was splendid at a time in the past and what was needed to raise the quality of that past splendid to a more contemporary one.

In so many ways, your topic is the existential one of your growth and progress from the Labor Day holiday you were brought forth into the world, given a pat of encouragement (of some sort), and had a drop or two of silver nitrate dribbled into your eyes, then to lunch, for it had been a long, hard, bumpy journey, all nine pounds, seven ounces of you.  In other ways, your topic is literary because it is about story and your reaction to it.

Are you alone in shaking your head at the often repeated trope about how lonely writing is?  You are in constant contact with strange, edgy, suspicious-looking characters when you compose.  You think to impart motives to them, but why should they trust you to give them motives they wished for in the first place.

Your characters and impulses are like the dogs for whom those electronic fences are installed at such expense, meant keep them contained.

The characters who allow themselves to be thus confined by the artificial limits of your imagination are of no use to you.  In the twelve stories you've been dealing with, you found yourself focused most on those who were willing to risk the jolt of electricity when hitting the boundary of the electronic fence.

Look. Look. Look.  See. See. See.  See Dick.  See Jane.  See Spot.

You are not joking. those are quotes from your early readers.  No wonder you are who you are.  You were already laughing when you saw those words.  You'd read yourself beyond those limitations already.  You could not see that far into the future yet, but through story, you learned to create characters saying the literary equivalent of Fuck this, whenever they came to the electronic fences of culture.

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