Saturday, October 4, 2014

How Many Blind Perasons Does It Take to Define a Story?

The old parable, about the blind men who were sent to describe an elephant, returns to visit you in unexpected moments from time to time.  In the manner of respectful and valued guests, the parable brings some small gift or token each time, to the point where, in your mind's eye, you have a small shrine, decorated with representations of these gifts.

Whether you are in a classroom or somewhere in the act of your own composition when the parable pays a visit, you're drawn back to the first time you made the connection, which was the most lavish gift of all.  

Although there are variations on the theme of the parable, including the number of blind men sent to describe the elephant, the payoff is always the same:  Each of the blind men is telling the truth as he experiences his investigation, the tactile impression gained of the elephant is accurate so far as his investigation of the elephant extends.

One one of the visits, you learned at first hand a dramatic representation of the meanings and implications in that most remarkable of words, synecdoche.  The whole is equal to the sum of its parts.  "The long arm of the law" is synecdoche at work, anthropomorphizing the concept of Law while at the same time suggesting the concept of the law has other dimensions and at least one other arm.  The more data each of the blind men sends in, the greater the accuracy of the picture of the elephant they project.

At some moment in your late twenties or early thirties, upon consideration of the parable, you substituted the word "story" for the word "elephant."  Behold, Eureka, and other such hosannas; your readings by those times had included hundreds of stories you'd read, a few dozen you'd written, and several dozens of books and articles about dramatic construction, read, digested to some extent, and argued to other extents. 

At last.  You were on your own.  You were in effect one of the blind men, investigating story from the inside of trying to write it, from the outside of reading it at every chance, and attempting to define it in order to be able to duplicate it whenever you chose.  There were--and are--any number of types of stories, including some where there is a direct correlation between length and complexity.

In the ensuing years, you've tried to establish contact with as many of the other blind men as possible, sharing your experiences with them and theirs with yours, allowing an overall greater understanding of the generic Story on the way to gaining the most reward from the specific Story.  

At the same time, you've tried to find as many enterprising writers as you could, men and women whose narrative voices spoke to you with the same subjective chemistry you experience in the company of friends or individuals who, if not your friends, are nevertheless individuals you respect.

Look at the potentials here for enhancements in reading, conversation, and your own writing while you try to educate yourself about the qualities you find attractive and irritating in actual persons and in the written words of other actual persons, as well as the presence and argumentativeness of the invented individuals who appear among us as characters..

Somewhere along the way, you began introducing into your classrooms the deliberate and provocative questions:  What is story to you?  How do you define it?  How different do you consider your stories from those you most admire in other writers?

You ask the same questions of yourself, sometimes providing gaps between what you say and what you do.  This is the particular kind of gap that provides you with so much curiosity and concern.  You believe story is, among other parts of the elephant, the gap between what characters say and what they do.

Nice to think you are more aware of and, thus, more insightful in providing clues to the gaps within your own stories and, for that matter, within your own awareness of events going on around you.  That is, nice for a few moments, then onward, into the process.  You already know, in effect, too much.  

You know that each of the blind men believes he is right, which is a sure trampoline for story to bounce upon.  Many of the characters you write about, who are certain of the integrity and forthrightness of their presence, stand forth as exemplars of the certainty you demonstrate when standing forth in Reality.  The question to ask yourself at the end of each session of composition and after a session of reading is the same:  Which vision is the least distorted?

Even though you've created these characters and, to a significant degree, the you who stands forth to pay all bills and receive all summonses, they cannot all be right.  You must not only understand this, you must know how to cope with it.

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