Friday, December 19, 2014

The Volunteer Dandelion in the Sidewalk

Exaggeration often sneaks up on you when you are most serious and guarded of the need to present a clear, objective landscape, without irony or special effects.

Never mind that such clear, objective, irony-free landscapes are the ones most likely to bore you and remind you of the bane of your early school years, the text book.

Indeed, never mind that the writers and poets who lured you, the way the Sirens lured Odysseus' sailors, were men and women who got your loyalty with their gifts of exaggeration.  These worthies were teaching you a series of lessons worthy of a lifetime of study.  They taught you how a landscape became alive, populated, vibrant, suggestive when it was captured, distilled, and sent forth with as much vigor and resonance as daydreams and fantasies come to pass.

In order for any noun to come to life, however small and insignificant, it must be set into a dramatic motion that embodies life and yet is bigger than life.  The volunteer daisy or dandelion is an abstraction until it appears as a volunteer in the interstices of a cement sidewalk.  The person who strives toward a goal, however noble, remains an abstraction until presented in the concrete of a near-to-impossible landscape.

There are many unwise temptations to be coped with in the act of composition.  Notable among these temptations are the urges to describe, explain, and, perhaps worst of all, the temptation to prove you are a writer by orotund examples of logic and/or vocabulary.

Many of these fall by the wayside when you consider another great temptation, which is to demonstrate in the manner of a bull or bronco rider at a rodeo, your ability to stay on the literary horse through your use of simile and metaphor.  

If you can distinguish the rodeo writer from his lumbering gait, over-large belt buckles, and ornate boots which no working cowboy would give a second thought to, you can distinguish the showy writer by his or her need to describe every sunrise and sunset as though it were a back drop for a Wagnerian opera, then, in the manner of a calf roper, wrestle sentence after sentence to the ground, tie it with a swirl of gerunds and adverbs, before raising an italic or two and at least one exclamation mark in an arm wave of victory.

In your eagerness to establish your own peer relationship with the likes of Louise Erdrich, Willa Cather, Elmore Leonard, and Philip Roth, you have gone out of your way to learn such mischief, thinking writing to be a rodeo rather than a story or an essay, pumping up your language the way a body builder pumps iron, casting about for the literary equivalents of steroids with which you could flex your sentences, bulge your paragraphs, and, of course, lose track of the story or subject on which you'd embarked.

You might even reach for the pathetic fallacy, where planets, oceans, mountains, and trees take on human characteristics, perhaps in demonstration of your pantheistic vision but more likely to demonstrate your overeagerness to demonstrate how all the elements, known and unknown, are there in support of your story or argument.

With time, your excesses came back to haunt you.  In order to pay the rent, you became an editor, at first to avoid other jobs which seemed to share the common denominator of tediousness, but then because editing began to make sense in much the same way writing made sense, which is to say because editing a good writer was as much fun as reading a good book or writing a story.

You could by then argue with yourself that such excesses are necessary to get the essence of your intent down.  Writing in terms of them would influence your characters, their scenes, and the settings of these scenes.  Of course, you'd edit them all out in subsequent drafts.

This approach is in some ways the equivalent of telling a group of noisy youngsters to keep it down, to stop showing off, to behave more like an adult.  You might even go so far as to tell them to stop trying to do the thing they do best, which is noisily interact, trusting dreams and fantasies, ruled by as unexaggerated world as possible.

Most productive writers exaggerate.  They even go so far as to exaggerate ordinariness.  Consider, for example, what Melville did with Bartleby.

Comedy is exaggerated tragedy.  Humor is exaggerated awareness of the human condition.  How, oh, how can we be aware without seeing the universe about us as anything but an enormous cosmic exaggeration?

The Trickster, Captain Spaulding, The Coyote, certain poets, and certain writers, circulate among us with their stories, their versions, their stage make-up eyebrows.  You have a good start with the eyebrows.

No comments: