Friday, May 9, 2014

Expecting the Unexpected

Because story as oral tradition extends back before written language, there is an extensive history of things well-meaning persons and, yes, bat-shit crazy persons have said about it, in ways that never cease to irritate you, whenever you hear them.

Among these irritants is your absolute favorite, the observation to emerging writers (and presumably to established ones) to write only about things you know from first-hand experience. What a splendid invitation to grind the teeth, emit a loud groan, and shake the head in the belief that any and all of your misguided stupidities and errors of the past, the present, and those you are yet to commit, are trumped by this meme? 

Had Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) observed this dictum, there would never have been Tarzan because Burroughs never set foot in Africa, nor would there have been some eleven novels set on Mars, because--well, because.

For that matter, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) was never known to have set foot on the red planet, yet he produced among other titles The Martian Chronicles, and brought those distant, often fiery orbs of stars and moons and planetoids within such easy reach that we are still able to gaze skyward toward configurations and phenomena we know by name.  The silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun were splendid enough figures of speech in Yeats's poem, "The Ballad of Wandering Aengus," but for many of us, they are real, tangible gifts from Bradbury.

Must not forget Jules Verne (1828-1905), who took us on a Journey to the Center of the Earth, was not content with that and subsequently took us Around the World in Eighty Days, from which ventures he considered it same to send us along with Captain Nemo Twenty-thousand Leagues under the Sea.  Try explaining to him that one should write only from direct experience.

Try, for that matter, explaining the concept to Herodotus (485-424 BCE), a historian, perhaps the very first, unless you count Thucydides (460 BCE--395 BCE).  The former reported in great detail on the Persian War, without ever having been there, while the latter took on in great detail the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta.

And what about that gifted young man, Stephen Crane (1871-1900)?  Born some five years after the Civil War, yet somehow managed to produce an amazing fictional account of it in The Red Badge of Courage.  Oh, well.

But while we're on the subject, yet not to in any way conflate your own efforts with these worthies, were you to have observed such a dictum, how then could you have presumed to write, for example, the short story, "The Ability," which first appeared in the prestigious South Dakota Review, then found its way into your recent collection of stories?  The protagonist is a woman.  There are, in fact, three women characters of such significance within that story, and in yet another story within the new collection, "Mr. Right," your have two principals who are women, the narrative being conveyed throughout the point of view of one.

To toss the hot potato back to those two gents who more or less gave us the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, what about such iconic characters as The Wife of Bath, Lady Macbeth, Queen Gertrude, and the luckless Ophelia?  What, indeed?

In life and in writing, you do not take comfort in the known.  You push your characters beyond limits you can conceive, watching them for clues to see how you might find some solution when the inevitable turns of Reality capture you in some existential web.

Story is the recognition that Reality has tangible and intangible surprises for you, some of which you even attempt to set aside some small budget of experience to use as a coping mechanism.  Story is encouragement to look to those who came--and wrote--well before your time for this spare change of wisdom left in the cushions of experience.  Story invites you to seek role models and, should the need arise, to step forth to become one, for yourself, for immediate loved ones, and for those whom you see on some sort of a day-to-day, we're all citizens of the same city basis.

Story is the recognition that some of your teachers were not so wrong as you once suspected nor so right as you were so willing to believe.  Story is your awareness of the bravery you recognized in your parents, long after they were no longer here to serve as reminders.  

You were a handful to them, as, in fact, you have been to yourself from time to time, but they and story served as places you could retire to talk thing over.  They meant the warmth of a meal, even if you did not agree with the conversation at the time.  The warmth of the meal took you on to the next plateau, whatever that might have been.

Fortunately for you, there were mentors, both of whom not only delighted in story, they became story and through their transcendence, showed you the way to light offertory candles in hopes of achieving some light shed on some crisis, demanding solution.

Story takes you to places where you have neither invitation nor right to be; through story you are a gate crasher, sneaking into a circus or carnival, aware of wonders, deceptions, illusions, and disillusions before you.  Story pleasures you in taking on these elements and forces, writing about them as forces humankind can deal with, tolerate, come to terms with.

One of your stories, "Coming to Terms," is about a bewildered man whose bewilderment reflects your own flashes of insight and awareness as you attempt to find balance and purpose among your own studies and discoveries.  One his way to a date that will change his life yet again, he is mugged by an individual who turns out to be a member of his own therapy group, a person himself of strengths, weaknesses and a sense of what is right.  Recognizing his mistake, he makes the gestures of concern and participation that cause this story to be so exciting to you and so filled with the promise that the unexpected need not be bad.

How can you not write about the unexpected?  And, indeed, if it is unexpected, how can you write about it from any posture of knowledge?

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