Monday, December 22, 2014

No Man Is an Ordinary Island

In the earlier stages of your preoccupation with story, characters seemed to appear like uninvited guests at a wild party.  

This is no hyperbole; your early wannabe novels were wild parties, unstructured gatherings, where host and hostess may well have decided the event had got out of hand, then took matters into their own hands by disappearing.

For every character you had a need for, two or three others appeared, often with some characteristic tag--a grumpy man wearing a stained sweat shirt--or an immediate solution to a pressing problem--"I'm an off-duty plumber, but I think I can help."--or someone who had no wish to be where he or she happened to be at the moment.  You'd been reading the short essays in the opening pages of The New Yorker, fascinated by the way these interviewees came to life with a well-honed phrase of introduction.  

You'd already become convinced that the best way to deal with ordinary people was to cover them up with some hidden source of energy or desire.  Whether invited to your stories or mere party crashers, you wanted them to demonstrate your pet theory:  No one chooses to be ordinary. 

 If a man or woman is behaving in an ordinary manner or, worse yet, in a cliched manner, that person is hiding a trait that will, whenever exposed, create a stir, perhaps an outright accusation of outrage.

One of your favorite words at the time was outrage, which you cast as both noun and verb.  This and your tendency to overpopulate were your answers to believing you were lacking in the one quality of absolute necessity for the types of stories you hoped to publish.  The missing quality was plot.  With all this background swirling about you, no wonder your work took on a tinge of the anarchist.

Even though these early approaches had no practical applications, except perhaps those of teaching you to experiment and to expect nothing less than a full measure of enjoyment when you wrote a draft, you approached your work station, where ever it was, with an unflagging zeal, an expectation of a story beginning with a conventional enough quest or probe or deadline, whence it would gather the momentum of a spinning windstorm, prompting characters to begin stripping themselves of any pretense at the ordinary.  

"Oh, is that so?"  a character would respond to a statement of relative mildness.  "Why would you think it wasn't so?" came the riposte, another word you adored because it meant more than an unweighted response.  A riposte was something loaded with attitude, had a chip on its shoulder.  

This word was an early intimation that dialogue is far removed from conversation.  If an exchange requires a riposte, why then, it is dialogue.  If it seems only to want a "Yup" of agreement or acknowledgment that the respondent is still awake, then the exchange is conversational.  Sometimes, when you are composing dialogue or considering the explosive possibilities any group of characters can exchange, you imagine Cyrano de Bergerac, mid-fencing match, watching for an opening.  A riposte is a sally, a barb, at the very least a rejoinder, a fucking retort.

Without any intention of irony, you can drop a list of some of your current favorites among words of attitude and intent.  Some of these words are menace, threat, peril, warning, and intimation, all of which recognize your earlier beliefs about ordinariness and the secrecy of hiding traits the character has reason to believe will cause him or her discomfort.

In vital addition, you have come to understand that the guests and party crashers have had attitudes and experiences which, however you see your story at the outset, has created the atmosphere for the story to have begun where you begin it.  And you understand that where ever you begin, it is more likely to have been too late.

You can see now how you were being held back a bit by your own personal history of eagerness for adventures with enough pull to wrench you away from the ordinary and routine aspects of your own life.

Last week, after a rather routine meeting with a client, you made the choice to stop at a fast food restaurant of the sort you almost never visit, ordering there that fast food paradigm, a hamburger, which you could have got at a much higher quality less than two miles away.  But you were in a hurry to get home, where the sort of energy that drove you in your earlier days seemed to be pleading with you to get the hamburger to go, then get yourself home.

While waiting for your hamburger, you were accosted by an individual who used the kinds of set-up descriptions of you that you used in the past.  "You're that writer fellow, aren't you?"  To which, okay, you merely responded, "What writer fellow?"

"Take no prisoners.  Don't suffer fools, which I would have become if I didn't remember your name."

When life gives you the kinds of dialogue you'd write, you go all mushy.  This individual, a middle-aged man with a mop of curly hair that reminded you of a swirl of Foster Freeze ice cream, and a team jacket for some baseball team in Ventura County, knew you by name.  "I'm not going to tell you how I recognized you,"  he said.  Then he was out the door, into the parking lot, leaving you, intrigued, all mushy, and eager to go.

Driving home, you reckoned you could have written that scene.  But you didn't; you wrote this.

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