Friday, December 5, 2014

Questions, Always with the Questions

 In recent years, you've grown fond of asking students, clients, and, of course yourself, a list of questions about a story in progress.  Among these questions, Whose story is it?  The answer is sometimes surprising.  You put yourself on that last train, the one everyone rushes to catch, wherein there is only standing room.  You, too, start out thinking the story is about Fred, but it turns out to be Jake, instead, or even Millie.

If you were to let it do so, the effect could humble you, but you've had you fill, dealing with humble writers as well as arrogant ones, once again including yourself.  Best for a writer to be sad or angry or eager or pessimistic, but not humble or arrogant.  Your take on this matter is that a reader, experiencing a story from an arrogant writer or a humble one will sense the elephant hidden under the first chapter, which is to say the pretense and cover-up for the writer letting the world know the writer is on the job, a true artist.  

The next question you like to ask is one that removes much of the potential for wiggle-room and show-off behavior:  What is the story about?  Once again, you join the hoard of passengers, rushing to catch the last train out.  How often do you gloss over your answer?  Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas in The Wizard of Oz..  

The entire front-line dramatis personae of The Maltese Falcon want to find the fabled bird, encrusted with rare jewels and minerals.  Close enough to get you by many an examination, but not insightful enough to satisfy the longing to get at the roots of the craft you've been trying to master nearly as long as you've been driving an automobile.

Of course, Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas.  She's all alone, except for her dog.  She's living with her aunt and uncle; we don't know what happened to her parents.  This cyclone that has transported her to the alternate universe of Oz is probably not a real cyclone so much as it is a dream, a powerful, focused wish-fulfillment vision of a real home, a real place, governed by the forces of magic, which control the physical elements, take sides, and represent the darker inner forces of the human species.

Ditto on the of course aspects of the likes of Caspar Gutman, Joel Cairo, and Bridig Shaugnessey as they pursue to goal of riches beyond measure.  The setting of The Maltese Falcon falls close upon the big burst of the Roaring Twenties, as explosive as the German dirigible, The Hindinburgh, ready to shatter into The Great Depression.  

The falcon of the novel is illusion, a romanticized version of a winning lottery ticket, a transformative encounter that will provide wealth beyond dreams of avarice. Note the "beyond;" averse is too close to the actuality of persons pursuing a winning system, a notable discovery, an invention beyond the capacity to be invented.  Magic.  Again with the magic. 

The question, What is the story about? has a direct tie to another question, Who are you? by which is meant, What do you bring to the story?  In a forceful way, you cannot know what the story is about until you have some awareness of what you are bringing to it.  Do you bring the wish fulfillment of magic, or do you bring a hardscrabble attempt to wrest story and sustenance from the gritty, cold conglomerate of the politics of humanity?

Yes.  Many stories of magic and fantasy are about real individuals, wresting existential solutions from magical forces such as enchantments, lineages of entitlement and privilege, and a self-interest that would put the Plantagenet's to shame.  But many are the simple, straightforward attempts of mortals to pull an identity from the spells and curses of social class, politics, and evangelism.

You are pleased with yourself for being yet able to lose yourself in the story of magical landscape, where, if you are successful, you can find the same types of conflict and adventure you sought as a boy and have ever since been able to root out in the worlds of politics, economics, and anthropology you see teeming about you.

For you, the story is still about the return to the goals of those childhood, growing-up quests, which you now spell out as, among other things, the ability to make your living from words, your ability to translate the intent of words the way a botanist reads tree rings, a geologist reads mountain ranges and beachscapes that have not seen oceans for millennia, the way an astronomer reads the heavens, seeing in such things as black holes the sorts of things you might discover in a paragraph.

You are younger than it is safe for a man of your age to be, older than you ever imagined you would be when you were first confronting note books with stubs of number two Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, trying to isolate adventures and discoveries for what seemed to be endless miles of white pages, awaiting marks from you.

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