Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Middle Game

You once heard a writers' conference workshop leader you considered to be a brilliant, effective teacher and an only so-so writer, define the novel in five words.  Something happens, and somebody changes.  To this day, you use that definition.  Simplistic?  Yes.  But on your map, accurate.

Change is an ingredient, a consequence, and a result of storytelling.  The change begins with the seventeen- and eighteen-year-old you, reading the books and authors seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds of your generation were well advised to read before you grew too old for them to have any effect on you.  These authors were the usual suspects, Thomas Wolff, Ayn Rand (in particular The Fountainhead), early F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, and, more because he was dead before he reached age thirty than any other reason you can recall, Stephen Crane.

True enough, you read others, for other reasons,  But you read these on a chronological time line because of your elders' beliefs that not doing so would blunt some remarkable effects on your sensitivities.  

Should you chose to wait, for example, until your twenties to read Of Time and the River, The Web and The Rock, and You Can't Go Home Again, you would start off thinking Thomas Wolff was silly and not to be taken seriously.

In those days, those seventeen and eighteen days, you wanted to take everything seriously because you wanted to be taken seriously; you really intended this business of believing a book could change the way the world thought and felt.  

You indeed wanted to change things, by which, through a strange logic and calculus meant you wanted to be better than men and women you saw as points of competition rather than trampolines of understanding.  You wanted to change the way people thought, felt, and behaved as a result of things you wrote and thought, then put into dramatic action.

Although some time was necessary to change from such pretentiousness, you managed to effect change, but not a moment too soon.  This meant a long, wearying period of thinking of such authors as Norman Mailer, Sinclair Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, Budd Schulberg, Jerome David Salinger, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Willa Cather as persons you had to outdo, outshine, outthink, and for a certainty, outwrite.  At best, you produced a mound of staggering swathes of effect rather than well-managed narratives.

Only when you came face to face with the truth--that the worst thing any of them wrote was light years beyond the best of anything you write--could you begin to consider you'd best get your house in order if you intended to spend your life in this craft.  Without realizing it, you'd reached mid-point.  Your options for change were multifarious; you could throw off the critical shield that had previously kept you from learning and growing, or you could become even more self-absorbed, critical, and, inevitably, bitter.

You could probably do a good impersonation of a bitter writer, but you would prefer doing an impersonation of a happy writer, which is to say an individual who has taught himself how to concentrate on the craft achievements most important to him.  The concept of a happy writer is of itself an anomaly; writers are not happy between tasks, nor are they happy immersed in tasks.  

The former, those between tasks, are frantic in their search for something to be curious and disturbed about, resenting any sense of the blase about themselves.  The latter are tortured by the sense of too little research material available to them.

All about you, change is making its presence known.  A generation just behind you is beginning to publish poems, short stories, essays, and, now, novels of heart-wrenching intensity and emotional impact.  It was bad enough in such personal terms, for a writer of close contemporaneity to you, Philip Roth, to have emerged with such a strong start.  
Every time you think of Dorothy Parker's remark about a book that should not be set aside lightly, rather it should be thrown across the room with great force, you recall the urge to do that with Goodbye, Columbus.  He had that great focus, that necessary ability to concentrate.  At least you saw that.  After you'd thrown the book across the room in envious pique.

That was change of a positive sort, recognized with the anguished sense you have preserved for so long as you shall live and, it is your hope, demonstrated, dramatized more than once in a story or novel.  You were in too far to quit.  It is a stretch, but you were as "in" as Macbeth was in, having already killed King Malcolm and then, at mid-point, having killed his old pal, Banquo.

The stretch becomes visible when you realize your ambitions are no longer the seventeen- and eighteen-year-old visions of effecting change.  In effect, you've long since changed from that.  You don't wish to be King of Scotland nor any literary equivalent.  You wish only to evoke tangible presences, to do as Sir Philip Sidney wrote in The Defense of Poesy,  "With a tale forsooth he [the storyteller] cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner."

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