Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ants, an Abandoned Breakfast Burrito, Story, and Ongoing Speculation

Small books, say those well under three hundred pages, often compress more valuable information than much larger ones.  Thus you were rereading for the third or fourth time Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting, taking your morning coffee and almond croissant in the patio of the new branch of The Daily Grind.  Difficult to say what called your attention away from the text to the movement, but there it was before you--movement.

Who are they?

What did they want?

What were they willing to do to accomplish their goals?

You first asked these questions with premeditation at least twenty years ago; not to quibble, but perhaps longer.  Those questions were proposed to your graduate students as a part of a lecture on Characters in Your Story.  

The questions were proposed long enough ago for you to feel the certainty that your students would be stunned by the implications, ask you to repeat the questions so they could write them down, whereupon they would scatter to the winds of their separate ways after class, thinking in so many words, "Did you fucking hear what Shelly asked in class today?  Did you fucking get the implications?"

As such things often go, the students, in all probability, knew this litany of questions as they related to characters, and in greater probability yet, knew it with more certainty than you.  They may well have been putting these questions about characters into effect, even as they were composing things you'd already seen from them or were about to see.  

Most of the blinding lights of Ah-ha Moments of revelation in classrooms for writers are more for the sake of the teacher than the student.  You believe the effect of such classroom moments on the students is the sense the students carry away of the instructor's passionate belief.  "Shelly fucking believed whatever it was he was saying, so I fucking well better take note of it and figure out a way to believe it, myself."

So it comes to this:  You've been asking those three questions ever since, of the characters you create, of the characters you see in the works of others, then comment on as a reviewer, a teacher, or an editor.

You ask these questions with at least the same intent of belief you once asked them, back in that other life on a campus you'd had continuous and strange relationships with, the University of Southern California.

Today's "they" of the first question, Who are they? can be answered with one word:  ants.

Your take on the second question, What do they want?, is, of course, subjective, limited to your line of vision, and the curiosity you bring to the equation, because whatever else may be true of these ants, they are motivated and energetic, which is in your view quite the requisite a character must have in order to be admitted to a story.  In your assessment, the ants want as much of an abandoned breakfast burrito as they can make off with, perhaps even as much as, say, an army of banking ants, hopeful of making off with as much as they can of an unguarded economy.

The answer to the third question, What are these ants willing to do? reminds you of presuppositions you make when you read about the characters in other stories, and of the biographical materials you now think necessary to assemble for characters in your own stories.  The simple answer to the third question is:  The ants wish to transport such portions of the abandoned breakfast burrito as they can from the concrete patio railing to a nearby nest, there to do such storing and/or feasting as ants do when a windfall comes their way.  

You herewith admit to anthropomorphizing ants with a vision of some ceremony, perhaps even a feast, for the scout ants who brought back news of this abandoned breakfast burrito.  Such is your nature, to see things this way.  Your awareness of this important aspect of yourself predates the awareness of the three questions about characters.  You have little doubt that this aspect appeared within the crevices and dents of your persona in much the same way a clump of weed or flower or even succulent appear from time to time in the various pavements you traverse.Burrito, 

Without story and your wish to spend your life with it, there would be fewer Ah-ha moments in your life relating to the necessary worlds of nests, scouting, and responses to the abandoned breakfast burritos of the world.  At some point in your conventional education, you read about how pyramids were built, how the Great Wall of China was built, even how the intercontinental railroad was built to span North America.  You were even brought to close hand with the discovery of Clovis points and the ways certain elements behaved so that they could be understood by men wishing projectile points or of women, wishing for cutting and scraping edges with which to deal with some large equivalent of an abandoned breakfast burrito, say a woolly mammoth or aurox.

Instead, here you are, taking breakfast at a building that used to house a Taco Bell, now pretending to be The Daily Grind.  Your intent was to read about acting, as seen by a remarkable actor, whom your own actor/mentor knew.  You had not intention of being distracted by a parade of ants, but such is your nature that you were, and as a consequence--another important aspect of story--you have written this.

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