Sunday, February 23, 2014

It's Time You Knew

For as far back as you could remember, the clues were there.  For a similar span of time, you could see them, but you failed to interpret them in any way that could have been helpful.

Authors, whether appearing in a public presentation, a radio or televised interview, all seemed to know their work so well, with such a sense of exactitude.  Listening to them speak, watchful for clues and hints that could be helpful in getting you to that position of published author, being interviewed, you were impressed with their specific, intimate knowledge, to the point where many of them could quite entire passages.

Such immediate and forceful awareness of specifics on the part of these authors caused you severe bouts of anguish.  You could not talk in such detail or with such conviction about the things you wrote.  To make matters worse, because you already were aware of a glaring weakness in your tool kit, the lack of ability to plot, you were well on your way to the despair of having to settle for writing nonfiction.

The trouble followed you.  Nonfiction writers were also political, sensitive, well-read, emphatic.  To make the matter even more grim than you could think to imagine, writers much younger than you were somehow finding their way through the gatekeepers and into not only print but esteem.

You were at a crucial stage; two writers of your generation were so far out in front with their stories, their attitudes, and their techniques that you could not see how you could hope to make up any of the distance between you.  These two were, respectively, Philip Roth and John Updike.  For the longest time, the best you could do was wallow in envy, reaching the point where you began marking up Roth's work with marginal comments relating to his technique and how you might have better expressed some salient notion.

In a stroke of good fortune, Updike began to strike you as smug, bordering on supercilious, to the point where you could not bear to read his novels.  That still left short stories, a medium that has always been closest to your heart.  Updike's production of short stories were salt in your wounds.  The best you can say for yourself under the circumstances is that you learned considerable skills from him, including the ability to draw characters, the ability to manipulate time so that the manipulation seemed plausible, and, although you hated to admit it, the ability to render believable dialogue.

How fortunate for you that some of your reading, studying, and writing were beginning to take hold, forcing you to the humbling conclusions that you had a long way to go, and that the act of any kind of composition was not as easy as you once thought.

Or perhaps that should be, not as easy as you once had not thought.  Your mode of composition was to fret and fume until you heard a few intriguing lines, whereupon you threw yourself into a project much in the manner of a slightly lit-up drunk, trying to enter a serious discussion on any topic, becoming by degrees confused, combative, and impatient.

In a way similar to The Great Vowel Shift spreading over England from about 1350 to 1700, where pronunciation underwent a significant change, you began to see connections.  Everything took longer, required more deliberation.  Actors stressed rehearsal time.  You were becoming more concerned with the behavior of characters in the books you were acquiring and editing.  

You were beginning to write shorter letters, often no more than a single paragraph, which caused Peggy, your favorite secretary, to break some of your paragraphs into two so that the recipients would be less apt to feel slighted.

Stories often required of you a greater attention span; you needed to write many more drafts, often to the point where a decent day's work would be something as simple as finding a name for a character, getting the word order right in a sentence, producing a page that would withstand the onslaught of the next day's editorial examination.

Writers are well acquainted with their work, often for years after the fact, because they'd more or less had to commit stories to memory, not in the way an actor learns lines, but close enough--in the way a writer produces a string of dramatic moments, each of them containing more elements than would seem capable of fitting within them.

The work was no longer easy.

What about this for a formula:  The more difficult the work, the greater the potential for it to become fun.  If you could live with that simple ratio, you could live with the extraordinary performances of Roth and Updike.  Now, all you have to live with is the fact of both of them, finding out so much earlier, what you had to learn at your own pace.

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