Monday, February 24, 2014

Boats against the Current

When and if you set out to write something that will teach the readers, you are in fact rowing a clunky dinghy into an incoming set of breaking waves.  These waves represent potential readers, while, at the same time, you represent your determination to present something you consider to be important.

Talk about Fitzgerald's ending to The Great Gatsby,  " So we beat on, boats against the current--"  You'd be rowing against a waxing tide, even more determined than you; it is the tide of eternal and unrelenting boredom.


When and if you set out to write something with the intent of learning your own involvement and the potential for unintended self-parody or related forms of mischief, you are no longer the propagandist.  From the moment your literal and figurative crafts are launched, you are in effect committing yourself to rowing beyond the point where you can see the shoreline. You are embarked on discovery, with all its potential for causing you such degrees of fear as panic, despair, and disillusionment.  You are at a point where you could easier fail than succeed.  And yet.

You still launch forth.

The goal is discovery.  Writers write to discover meanings and connections heretofore hidden from them, thus their work is a journey with an unknown or at least uncertain destination.  Many times, you've joined brother and sister writers in the literary equivalent of travel writing, setting out for a journey to some specific place.  A thousand well-chosen words on, say, The Greek Isles.  Indeed, on many occasions, you in fact ended at those enchanting islands, but what you found were a few paths, already well worn, leaving you and the reader to a tavern or hotel, where one could sip thick, bitter coffee while reflecting on the nature of existence while watching a particular segment of the world move by you.

Yet other times, you set forth, only to be distracted, led on a dodgy route of intrigue, where you emerged a tad wiser in respect to some behavior you'd resolved to take up or give up.  These were the better times, accidental times, true enough, but times where you reinforced your own determination to move away from landmarks.

Staying away from the shoreline in life and in writing at the exploratory state brings the exhilarating sense of adventure, sends messages to the inner muscles that this feels so good, you wish to be at it as long as you are capable of being at things.

In the bargain, you are impressed with the importance of implication; you've seen too many words come forth from yourself and others, sodden with self-pity or bloated with self-congratulation, and a sense of writing in which the process becomes little more than a succession of verbal selfies.  The goal you have in mind presents yet another challenge, placing yourself on a cusp between the participant and the observer.  This is true in most forms, but in fiction, the need increases to the point where the self is subsumed by story.  

There are times when, in application for one position or another, you were asked to devote a paragraph or so to the shortcomings you saw in yourself.  Whether by coincidence or perhaps because of your openness of disclosure, you were not offered the sought after position. Works well with others.  Can be cooperative when called to do so.  Brings exotic donuts to the employee's lounge.  There has to be greater revelation of depth and complexity than those, but this is not the time to seek out things for revision so much as it is a time to see the potential outline of some elephant in some living room.  Of course you are the elephant.  Of course the living room is just beyond the entryway to your psyche.

The entire concept of didacticism centers about the armature of teaching, going so far, then, as to suggest the potential for recruitment to a cause or vision.  At the mention of these words and their consequences, your memory begins presenting you with specific, instance-related works by writers of such works, say Charles Dickens on the subjects of child labor and debtor's prison, or Louisa May Alcott on slavery, not to forget Upton Sinclair on the subject of the meat packing industry, or Ayn Rand on the concept of individual responsibility.

Each of these has done a remarkable job of dramatizing a cause.  Perhaps the works remain with you because of the passions and intensities of the dramatizations, meaning you are left to the subjective judgments of your own visions about how far a writer need go as a part of a ratio against which must be balanced how far a writer ought to go.

George Orwell comes to mind as one whose balance was exquisite; you could see his arguments but did not feel your ribs being bruised by his nudges.  You were nearly there with much of D. H. Lawrence, particularly with his Studies in Classic American Literature, but you have an agenda there, which is to write your own version, Volume Two, using different American authors, describing a different American literary psyche.  Over all, you believe Lawrence came closer in his short stories and poetry than his poems and essays.

Willa Cather seems to you to get the balance you are after.  Joan Didion.  Louise Erdrich.  Toni Morrison.  Daniel Woodrell.  To a large extent, Denis Johnson, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos.  William Trevor. They appear at first blush to have few common traits, yet each has a pronounced voice, an empathy for all the characters they create, and a practiced hand at keeping out of the way of these individuals.

There:  Perhaps you've said it.  Create characters who take on the embodiment of their roles.  Turn them loose.  Stay out of their way.  Resist the urge to propagandize or become the nagging, desperate level the comic Jerry Lewis brought to those embarrassing telethons of his, where the purpose was high-minded enough, and the gradual descent into hectoring the absolute nadir.

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