Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lies, Damned Lies, and Stories

What a great sea of mischief in which you have marooned yourself as you seek answers and directions for what you have set out to navigate.  Like all mariners, you have two lives, the life at sea, which is the life of writing, reading, and teaching; and the life on  land, where you are governed by commonplace traditions and cultures.

Navigating the life on land, you have committed yourself to doing your best to represent things as you see them, indexing such things against the voices and received wisdom of your culture.  To the extent it is possible for you to do so, you seek to be a reliable narrator, holding yourself to accounts in which you index your responses and behavior against those of men and women you have met in person or through things they have written and from distillations of things written about them.

You never, for example, met Rachel Carson, although after reading her work, Silent Sprint, you recognized her as someone you considered a reliable and conscientious narrator, one you could  (and do) hope to emulate in accuracy and methodology.  

You never met Anita Hill except to see her performing under the most extraordinary and emotion-laden attacks possible, which she endured as long as it was possible for her to do so in her hopes of serving the kind of elective mindset and agenda you felt some sympathy toward.  She, too, represented to you not only reliability of life-on-land reliability, she also spoke to you of dignity and forbearance.

You never met Joan Didion in person, but because you've read so much of her published work, you feel an indelible respect and esteem.  She appears to you to do things with sentences and paragraphs that transcend reliability; she breathes close personal observation with a yearning to understand phenomena both on land and at sea.

You've never met Mark Twain in person, but you have trod some of the streets where he walked, sat at some of the places where he sat, observing, drinking with the boys, and worked for the same paper for whom he was a contributor.  You've read much if not all his voluminous output, argued with yourself and him about much of it, and come to conclude that as you set forth to find your own narrative voice, you were going to keep his in mind because he had the kind of effect you wished, neither reliable nor unreliable, neither identifiably outraged nor suitably humble.  

Every minute of the day, the Mississippi River comes crashing down past New Orleans, transporting silt,sand, and unarticulated flotsam, changing the shoreline by measurable degree.  Over the years, you've thought long and hard about the similarity of the effects the Mississippi has on the shoreline to the effects of Twain's voice on the shorelines of our language, our culture, and our behavior.

When you navigate the life on this sea of mischief and storytelling, your approach differs from your land-lubber life.  You invent, distort, argue ad hominem, and do your best to assign plausible roles to the large ensemble cast of persona lurking about within your psyche.  

You espouse causes you do not believe in on shore, look askance at persons of your actual politics, cause individuals who espouse similar causes as you to do unreliable, irrational things in service of their goals and their psychological impairments.  You bend and distort facts, waterboard characters, and say hateful things to individuals you might on land address to their exact opposite numbers.

On land, you more often than not describe.  When you are on sea, you lie your way into a tangible, believable reality of your own invention.  When you are on land, you render judgments about some persons, places, and things.  When you are a sea, you cause individuals you've created to believe in the opposite vectors of your landlubber visions.

There are times when your emotional sensors warn you of depression moving in, much like the marine layers that sometimes land on the brightness and sharp, flattering light that defines much of the life in this amazing Central Coast city where you live.  At length, you realize the cause of this depression--you are spending too much time with characters who are not at all like you but who are, nevertheless, characters for whom you must supply dignity, empathy, and self-esteem.

When you are faced with the chore you have set yourself--bringing dimension and esteem to characters whose presence may at times offend you--the fog of depression becomes a temporary luxury you cannot afford.  There have been and undoubtedly still are aspects of you who are not by any means your favorites.  

But in a bigger sense, every writing day is the equivalent of Thanksgiving.  These persona are invited to the table.  They pass the cranberry sauce and the yams and the turkey.  You send along the gravy boat and the greens and whatever other dishes they may request.  Live with it.

Then write about it.

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