Monday, May 26, 2014

Pole Stars

In the same manner  as a chef blends the chemistry of ingredients to produce a memorable dish, the writer blends ingredients about a braid of themes and conflicts, introduces characters and setting, then turns them loose.

In the same manner as an actor prepares for a role, developing a mosaic of gestures, attitudes, pauses, responses, the writer enters each character, observes them, and is drawn into them to the point where actor and writer have done the same thing; they have merged with the creation at hand.

You've eaten a number of memorable meals, prepared by chefs who have studied their craft, worked at it in the traditional ways of apprenticing to a senior chef, watching, experimenting, being willing to make mistakes.  Such meals were in fact memorable because your senses of awareness were enhanced for those moments at the table, your palate filtering the textures, tastes, exciting meetings of flavors you'd not expected.

You've also grown up at the table of a mother who came into her marriage scarcely knowing how to prepare the simplest meal, diving into the chemistry and physics of cuisine to the point where her simplest, most basic dish was a sublime experience.  

There are things to be learned from all these venues in which craft is addressed, visualized, absorbed.  You fit into the picture by having observed these crafts, your own experience as a person enhanced and textured by the myths you built up about them.

You were well into your twenties and your first serious attempt to see your major writing influence, Samuel L. Clemens, in the cold, bright light of examination rather than mere adulation.  You could copy him to the point where you could almost convince yourself you sounded like him.  The questions arose, did you in fact sound like him, and if so, what was the value in that?  Anyone who wished could go to the real thing, the arguably funnier, more piercing and insightful real thing, leaving you a mere shadow.

By this time, you'd begun to notice some of his weaknesses.  Although fewer by far than his considerable range of strength, they were nevertheless important to you because even these weaknesses were more sturdy, substantial, engaging than you at your strength.  Lesson learned:  You'd taken on a massive body of work from one of the most significant stylists, storytellers, and examples of a strong, moral stance  in the entire English-speaking world, spilling over into translations.

By this time, you'd come to mistrust and dislike textbooks as such.  In stead, you made his work your text book.  Your learning process had begun.  A great deal of time has passed since those early discoveries about him, his work, and you and your own work.  He and his work are still your pole star constellation.  You have chosen well; you have chosen someone you could never stop learning from.

You have come to see the inherent craft in the work of noted chefs, in the splendid men and women who give acting a memorable resonance, and the writers beyond Clemens who have brought the resonant hum of story to life for you.  And you have recognized the debt to your mother through the craft of devotion and reach extending into many parts of your life.

Your retrospective take on her is in many ways the reverse of the gifts you got from Clemens.  From your early teens through your mid-thirties, you were more focused on her weaknesses than her strengths.  How fortunate for you that you had time to observe, to see her in retrospect, to learn in yet another way the writer's tool of point-of-view, which is an incredible addition to the toolkit.

Among your joys now are those of watching writers you admire as they exercise their craft, giving you a tingle more intense than mere reading for pleasure.  You see the effects of their risk-taking, done almost to the point where it becomes muscle memory.

You see actors you admire, using gestures, expressions, timing, voice, showing you ways in which characters are not so much brought to life as they are brought forth as life.

You watch and you note and you understand from the tiny foothold you have achieved how fortunate you are to see such polestars in the sky each time you look up.

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