Thursday, March 27, 2014

If Life Is a Flowing River, Then Story Is a Lobster in a Pot, with the Heat Turned on

The image came to you quite by accident one Saturday morning at about ten, when you were seated in the back yard of Cafe Luna, where you've been deploying your private workshop these past three years.

As part of the Cafe Luna routine, Monster, one of the line chefs, begins to prepare the day's soup on an outdoor propane range, tossing in assorted vegetables and stock to a large stock pot.  You are close enough to the action that, after twenty or so minutes, the characteristic scents of the stock, onions, and greens begin to coalesce, enough most times to trigger the beginnings of your appetite for lunch.

At some point while discussing the work in progress of one of your writing group, you had the image of Monster filling the stock pot about half way with water, dropping in an unsuspecting--but surely suspicious--lobster, then turning on the propane range.

You thought of the water heating and the increasing awareness from the lobster that its suspicions may have had some merit, increasing with time as the water turned from tepid to warm.

You imagined the sound of the lobster, scuttling, trying to work its way out of the stock pot, even to the point of trying to imagine one of its claws, waving beyond the rim of the stock pot.

The image of the theoretical lobster in the theoretical pot, with increasing theoretical heat, and more tangible sounds of it scuttling to free itself, were causing you actual discomfort.

Then you realized what you'd done:  you'd visualized story.  You'd brought a concept to life.  Life is a flowing river, story is a lobster in a pot.  A trapped lobster.  Forgetting your fondness for lobster presented to you on a platter with an array of tools for extracting its succulent meat, protected by a large bib to protect you from the insult of splattering, your agenda in producing this unsettling scenario is to evoke sympathy for the lobster.  In the process, you are conveying the underlying emotional construct of story.

Later, you were commending to one of your Saturday regulars the need to reread Ibsen's play, A Doll's House, then to tell you in as few words as possible, no more than three or, max, four, what the underlying theme of the play is.  

To emphasize your point, you threw in the metaphor of the lobster in the pot, whereupon you realized you were in effect comparing Nora Helmer, the doll of A Doll's House, to a lobster, if not directly, then in parallel.

Thus the lobster of your mind occasioned a second ah-ha moment.  If we see all front-rank characters as having the equivalent of the trapped lobster, trapped within them--and by front-rank characters, you mean protagonists and their most powerful antagonists--what animal is it that is trapped inside?  What steps will that animal take to free itself, should it become frantic enough?

Now you've done it; you've reached the boundary of the comfort zone, and you've done it by calling to your own mind the equivalent of the image of the lobster, struggling to get out of the pot in order to avoid being turned from the greenness of a live lobster to the redness of a cooked one.  You imagine a trapped animal, caught in a spring trap, left by a hunter.  You recall stories of animals thus trapped, chewing off the trapped part of the limb in order to save its life.

In some way or another, story, if it is to achieve that state of being memorable, must trespass beyond the boundary of the comfort zone, must tread within it, at least to the point of leaving footprints.  You are not doing this from meanness of spirit or even of revenge.  You are doing so in order to demonstrate another requirement of the memorable story:  it must take us somewhere beyond our comfort zone, then attempt to get us back to the closest possible approximation of an insight that will lead to comfort.

You've called this a negotiated settlement, by which you mean a settlement negotiated with the seemingly troglodyte expressions of reality.

Thoughts of trapped animals make you uneasy.  Thoughts of imaginary animals, if thought through as you indeed made a disaster for the imaginary lobster, send you into immediate sympathy for the animal.  Some readers may have little or no affection for the lobster, green and alive, or red and splayed across a serving plate, but the sound of it, clawing at the stock pot, is a sure way to get the reader's attention.

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