Sunday, November 30, 2014

Squirm, Baby, Squirm

At about the time you were in the midst of composing your short story, "The Man Within," in which a man of middle age has become fascinated with an exciting woman, you knew you were well along the way of understanding what the short story format meant to you and in tangible effect, what you were bringing to the form.  

The title of the story was meant to be a tribute to Graham Greene,  a short story writer you much admire.  After you allowed yourself to understand you'd call the story "The Man Within," another story by another writer thrust itself upon you.  This story was Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," which had in it a character with a wooden leg and another character, a bible salesman, who became possessed with the idea that he would steal that wooden leg.

These wildly disparate reminders set your own determination.  You knew, with the same certainty Romeo knew when he decided to crash the Capulet party, that your protagonist was going to be hiding in the closet of the exciting woman.  You also thought you knew what the last line of the story would be and, in the first printed version of the story, was--until later, when you had a last line you liked even more.

Among your most favored types of stories, the ones you return to most in memory are the adventures in which one or more characters steal their way into a place where they most ought not to be.  While they are in this forbidden place, they are in constant peril of discovery, with harmful, perhaps even fatal consequences.

You begin to relax for a time, after they've sneaked past the first outpost of sentries or guards, because they have reached the key plateau.  They are beyond the point of no return.  They may be discovered at any point, their purposes discernible to those they are in fact invading.  

Your interest in Romeo was minimal until he decided to crash the Capulet's party.  When he was spotted and recognized by one of the Capulets, your heart raced ahead of you; this was a good omen.  

All you needed to do now was continue to read for the things that excited you, write what you considered effective short stories, make the mistakes you were making until you learned your way out of them, then make newer, fresher mistakes.  Do this for as long as it took for things to catch up with you, but not, in the process, learn to be impatient.

So, years later, here you were.  After Romeo's presence was known, the Capulet reported him to an elder, who said in effect, "Leave him alone.  He's a good kid."  At this point, you knew you were in business.  Nothing good could come of this.  And yes, you knew the play was a love story, but you also knew it was a love story set against a feud, and you'd already had an introduction to things that could happen to persons caught between the vises of such antagonism.  Hadn't you seen Huck Finn caught up between the Grangefords and Shepherdsons?  Didn't that turn bloody in a hurry?  Now, here Romeo was, inside the Capulet's and recognized.  How could he not be in trouble?

Cowboys and Indians.  Cops and Robbers.  American soldiers and German or Japanese.  Didn't matter.  You'd even settle for one character having invaded someone's office, now being surprised in the act and forced to lie low.  The thing that mattered was one or more persons you were rooting for, however grudging your loyalty, being caught in a place where no explanation or excuse would suffice.

When your characters invaded foreign or hostile territory, you were right there with them, beyond the comfort zone, at risk of being discovered.  What a splendid fate to contrive for your characters.  

Long as you're at it, why not include yourself?  Only yesterday, watching an episode of an Australian series that is a step or two above a soap opera, you found yourself wanting to make an excuse for not watching a discovery scene you knew was coming up.

Glad you watched it then instead of working up to it.  You need to face these things, even if you see them coming.  No fair turning away because you know either the good person is going to get caught or the bad person is going to get away with an invasion.  How else will you see through the soap opera types?  How else will you see the ways to get your individuals stuck in closets and other compromising places to the degree that will cause you to squirm?

You can't let yourself get away without at least stepping on a cat, bumping into something you didn't realize was there, misjudging someone who had pretty clean motives, or making the wrong turn.  The world is already littered with too many self-published books as it is.

No comments: