Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Willa and Dutch

 Among your favorite types of characters, those who have enough stature and experience to be consulted for advice or relevant conversation rank high.  Yet even higher are those characters to whom others come for advice on a regular basis.  The advice is given, often proves to be spot on.  The story-related trouble begins when such characters cannot or will not follow their own advice.

This type of anomaly defines a large swath of individuals you've known in Reality or read about in story.  You cannot say the anomaly defines the human condition because you have no basis in fact for making the statement.  You understand that your vision may well be a bias or speculation, both of which are craps shoots of logic. You may well be dead wrong in your bias or speculation.  

You may also be saying more about yourself and your own inner mechanisms than about the human condition.  Once again, you are caught out in terms of logic, believing as you do that the individual's vision of a general behavior is more likely an unguarded window into the interior workings of the individual.

And once again, you have neither fact nor argument to support your take on the species of which you comprise one tiny atom.  Such is the nature of story, as illuminated by your bright spots, adumbrated by the shadowy areas of your self-awareness.

You envy those writers who seem to you to have been able to get a more comprehensive vision of humanity, seeing well beyond the shoreline of his or her field of vision.  They seem to you to have been able to take in quirks of gender, social class, and culture of origin, in effect striking you as anomalous to the gender, caste, and culture into which they were born.

The ease with which, say, Willa Cather is able to toss around well-connected. upper-tier New Yorkers with emigre farming sorts from the Midwest is daunting in its apparent ease.  However anomalous it may be to compare Cather with Elmore Leonard, you see in him a similar ability to portray individuals from various tiers of working and professional classes, without in any way betraying his own personal or political leanings.

You were sixteen the year Cather died, had read at least one of her short stories and one of her novels with enough focus to know you wished to be as accomplished as her in the ability to cause characters to stand out in their authenticity to species, gender, class, and philosophy.

Through fortunate coincidences, you were able to meet and hang out with Leonard.  When you were employed by his massmarket paperback publisher, you met him at the time the paperback edition of his break-out thriller, Fifty-two Pick-up, was waiting in the wings for publication.  

You'd read a number of his Westerns and were able to talk genre with him, listening to him expand on what makes a particular incident suspenseful.  "You have to believe the event has a chance of working, but could be spoiled by some force that is unforeseen but oh, so plausible."

And because he was a friend of your pal, Barnaby Conrad, you got frequent chances to listen to him when he came to the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference.  "You get your people right,"  he told this eager-to-learn writer, who'd confessed total ineptitude with plotting, "and your plot takes care of itself.  You want to watch all of them with great care because you can never tell which one will turn out to be the one who carries the water of story into the scene."

If you had to describe Leonard in one word, and had to assign one word for Cather, you'd use the same word, which takes you right back to anomalous comparison.  The word would be "observant."  Each was observant of surrounding, inhabitant, and dramatic forces.  Neither patronized nor glorified characters of lesser sophistication or aspiration, neither appeared to you to have based behavioral traits of their characters on their own cultural or political views, rather on a strict sense of individual inner integrity.

Thinking about these two whom you consider worthies, you pause to hope your envy of these abilities has in some way leaked into the voices of characters you hear, rather than the nagging voice of the cynical editor within when you sit to compose.

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