Wednesday, November 26, 2014

You Do Not Say "We Had a Good Time." You Simply Don't

In ways you'd not expected, you've come to enjoy the medium of memoir, the individuals who write it on some level of professional strength, and those individuals in your memoir classes, driven by real and imagined pressures to leave a record of themselves by their family.

You've had good experiences with the students, first of all because of the immediate sympathy for them, some of them starting in their sixties and seventies to learn the things you began wrestling with back in your teens.  Even more to the point of sympathy, you sense the hidden pressure many are experiencing as they confront their own constraints each time they set down their account of an incident or their encounter with a significant individual in their life.

Back in the late 1980s, you had a student who became momentarily bored or frustrated or a combination of the two from his life working as a writer and director in the film industry.  He had a good grasp on story, thus the ability to create a range of characters, many of whom were well out of his own social class and personal experiences.  As he began working on his first novel, you saw increased potential for it, then as an actuality. 

After he finished the novel, there was no doubt in your mind that it would be taken.  You guessed at what you thought would be a generous-but-realistic advance for those times.  He phoned you from JFK, just before boarding his flight home, with the news that his publisher, a quite respectable one, had given him an advance ten times the estimate you'd made.

You mention him because you quickly became friends, remained so for thirty-some-odd years.  You mention him because he once said in one of those half-serious half-humorous statements in which the humor was meant to cover or at least minimize the serious, that he'd always avoided any form of psychotherapy or related types of counseling for fear that it would level out his ability to write.

You mention him because he understood ways in which to engage story, to create men, women, and young persons who wanted things enough to cause them to stand out as distinct from ordinary persons.  You mention him because you can see some of the individuals in your memoir class, struggling to get to places where trained writers, actors, musicians, and artists can reach, risking vulnerability, frustration, humiliation, and failure.

You have written your way through a number of closed doors.  There are so many more to open, move into with the caution of police on crime shows, holding guns in front of them, shouting "clear!" as each room is cleared of hidden menace.  In a real sense, each time you compose, you become aware of doors, sometimes doors of constraint, doors of thought, doors of self-doubt.  As the pages pile up, you sometimes think to shout "Clear!"

Today, as in many previous days, you present an opening lecture to the memoir class, aware to some extent where the lecture is going, what your intentions are, and the things you hope to impart.  But there is more, something you also hope to achieve each time you lecture and each time you compose.  

You cannot hope to pass anything of substance along to students or pages of manuscripts without opening a door you did not realize was there in the first place or at the absolute least, a door you'd recognized before as a closed door.

Were you telling them, the memoir students, or yourself this morning that characters in memoirs, including the authors, have to be the dramatic equivalent of a laser?  Ordinary and multifarious is not enough.  Focus, intent, awareness of consequence, and fear are all essential presences.

An actor cannot be a mere reading of a script any more than an artist can substitute a pencil sketch for a finished oil painting or than a writer can substitute an outline for a story or a brief physical description for a character.

A memoir is a passionate interpretation of an event, seen from the perspective of a character who performed in the drama.  You don't come away from the scene without knowing if there were ants at the picnic, rats in the woodwork, or fleas on the dog.  You don't come away from a scene without joy for having been there, regret for having gone, recrimination for not saying what you wished to say at a moment when you knew you had to make the statement.

A memoir is a life.  You do not say, "We had a good time," or "We were disappointed."  You show us the life, so we can see for ourselves.

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