Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bookstores, Libraries, and the Skies of Dark, Unclouded Nights

On a clear, starry night not long ago, you were in one of your favorite places, a darkened swath of land just southeast of Summerland, a census-designated place below Santa Barbara.  The darkness and lack of marine layer from the ocean made it possible for you to see a spill of lights from the multitude of stars spread across the night sky.

Such opportunities invariably arrest you, causing you, if you are in company, to be drawn away from your attention to people, sometimes with a one- or two-word exclamation of wonderment and childlike pleasure.  

With this ongoing attitude to starry skies, you'd think to have any number of points of reference beyond the more common ones of The Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Polaris, and Venus.  You'd also think to have a greater familiarity with the Star Atlas ap on your iPhone.  

Instead, you're content to stand among these pinpoints of light, racing toward your vision of them and the gifts they bring you from across the vast distances.  Without fail, you recall the impressive fact that some of the light you see may have had its point of origin at a celestial body no longer among the living.  Even traveling at the enormous speed it does, the light may well have started its journey years, decades before you were born. 

These are often the moments when you begin to equate the entire nightscape with story, in particular because there are so many separate bodies out there.  They remind you of the incredible number of vibrant presences in story, each with a purpose and personality.

You may not know all the celestial names, although you do know enough to start out your starry-night ventures on a friendly basis as opposed to someone coming to a party and not knowing any of the guests except the hosts.  You may in fact not even know the names of all the elements in story, even having written a book where you spent considerable time listing, describing, and in some cases relating well over three hundred of them.

The way such things work, you already have a file box with a set of index dividers, beginning to fill up with words, terms, and concepts not in your book; so yes, you could be taking steps toward a volume two of The Fiction Writer's Handbook.   You could also be indulging your collecting trait, assembling these things to play with as toys in moments of boredom or when on the verge of sleep of awakening.  

You encountered such a word not long ago, finding it by accident, a relic from days when you took a course called electric shop.  Armature. A coil or framework, something about which things are wrapped.  If that isn't the beginning of the description of a character, you don't know what is.  The thought excites you to the point of inventing characters, men and women about whom you wrap traits, tendencies, desires, and quirks.

Why didn't that go into volume one?  That is the point of looking at the night sky for inspiration; it reminds you of the constelations and orbits of words, concepts, and phrases.  So let's say you come up with another two or three hundred words and concepts not in volume one.  Now, we're talking six, seven hundred words or phrases, all things that are part of story.

Does a story have to have all these?  Do more of these elements make for a better story?  Answers:  no and no.  But also no and yes, yes and no.  Some stars, planets, asteroids, and comets are essential for a map of the skies, but the skilled artist can invent new ones, intensify or diminish their intensity, play with their orbits.  

You can know even more things about story and yet write remote, flat, unconvincing narratives that are what they are in name only.  But if you feel the elements and see their relationships, you don't need to know their names nor the periodicity of their orbits nor indeed the intensity of the light they radiate.

About those stars who sent out their dying light years ago and which you are only just seeing, they remind you of the men and women who wrote and wrestled with their work ages before your time.  You get the same sorts of feelings in libraries and bookstores as those you experience in special, dark places where you can see the stars.

You live in worlds of sensation, thoughts, relationships, and constellations, all in sensuous and sensual orbit.

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