Friday, January 23, 2015

Notes from the Undercurrent

For as long as you can remember, you have enjoyed collecting things,  Your earliest interests were marbles whose swirls of color and patterns impressed you to the point where you had a separate cigar box for those you would not risk playing, lest you should lose them in the give-and-take of marble-shooting games.  

Another early collection piece were the small pictures of airplanes that came as premiums in Wings, a now-defunct brand of cigarettes. Most of these airplanes were civilian, single-engine, seating two or three persons, evoking for you life styles and adventures you were sure awaited you in your future.

There is scarcely a time in your life when you did not collect something, including an enormous hoard of cereal boxes and an extensive collection of the old so-called pulp magazines popular during the '20s, 30's, and 40s, giving way in the 50's to magazines called "slicks,"with a smoother, coated paper.  

For at least the past thirty years, you've amassed a collection of fountain pens, the older models having an interior rubber sac to hold the ink, the more modern ones having a plastic filling and ink holding device.  No cartridges for you.

Yet another thing you collected brings you back to grammar school, and one of the bright spots of junior high school, which was being sent to the boy's vice principal to cure some deportment issue.  Your target in this context was words.  With not much thought to naming the process, you were starting to build a vocabulary.  As well, you were developing an idiosyncratic like for some words and an out-of-hand dislike for others.  

You can still recall a note from a grammar/composition teacher, "I have asked you not to use this word."  The word in question was not of the sort you learned in locker room or lunch-under-the-bleachers contests.  It was a word you liked the sound of, its meaning relating to a pleasing, perhaps even happy and jaunty attitude.  You argued that the word--tantivy--had for you an onomatopoeia, which is another word you liked.  "Nobody,"  the teacher said, "uses tantivy.  It is archaic (another word you like).  You should try to use words people will know."  Your answer to that, with another word you like, got you sent to Mr. Engberg, the boy's vice principal.  "Why?"

Mr. Engberg wore tweed suits which you admired, assuring yourself you would some day have one or two of your own.  He often set you to work by giving you a letter of the alphabet, then challenging you to recall from memory fifty words beginning with that letter.  You would often drag out the assignment to coincide with the bell, ending the class from which you'd been sent.  Those hours in Mr. Engberg's outer office were among your favorites of those years.

Now, it appears you've begun yet another ad hoc notebook, this one for single words. These are special words, reflective of your interest in story.  Some words arrest your attention now by they way they seem to bursting with the potential of story.  When you see or hear such words, they bring to your mind summer berries, plump with juicy intent.

Incident is such a word; it is already in the notebook, suggesting itself to you as an armature about which such incident synonyms as event, episode, adventure, experience, confrontation, contingency, and that pure, unvarnished story-word, scene.

You don't even have to close your eyes to see two or more characters, perhaps entire families or institutions, meeting in an incident where, because of the mere extent of their numbers, something dramatic, precipitous, and antagonistic is bound to take place.  What is a story, after all, without incident?  And what are incidents without characters.

Of course, if you are going to have a notebook with such provocative words as incident and episode, and confrontation, you should probably have another ad hoc notebook for the characters to embody these attributes and qualities.  You will begin this notebook with a name that has been rumbling about your head for some time now, Gordon Smirke, a name filled with agenda and mischief that may not be intentional.  At the moment, he seems to be an Englishman who is pretending to be an Australian.

Incident.  Gordon Smirke. Hooray.


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