Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Prometheus Treatment

From the various accounts of Sisyphus before he was set to his eternal punishment by Zeus, you are able to piece together a prototype character whose likeness forms the basis of many outstanding scoundrels throughout oral and written literature.

Some accounts of his deeds show him having on travelers to his country, working great mischief to provide income streams for his preferred lifestyle, and taking on epic figures from the panoply of gods and goddesses.  The more versions of his misdeeds you hear, the greater your sense of the justice that was done when he was sentenced, then set out to perform an eternity at hard labor.

These are the stuff of which myth and story are made.  You have even added two variations of your own to the well-known sentence of Sisyphus being sentenced to rolling a rock up a hill, watching it roll down, waiting for the rock to come to a standstill, then pushing the rock back to the crest of the hill.  Your first variation has Sisyphus growing fed up with the repetitious and meaningless nature of his sentence, demanding to be brought before his judge, jury, and execution squad, Zeus, to voice his complaints.

Zeus listens, nods, snaps his fingers, to call two of his factotums to his side.  "All right,"  he tells them, "Sisyphus is off the rock.  Take him to the the mountains and sign him into the Prometheus treatment."

Remember, Sisyphus has been portrayed as a Trickster, a scoundrel, a fast talker, a true nave.  "Wait a minute,"  he insists.  "What is the Prometheus treatment?"

One of the factotums explains. "Every day, Prometheus is tied to the side of a mountain, whereupon an eagle would devour his liver.  Because Prometheus was not a mortal, his liver could grow back in time for the eagle's next meal."

"Excuse me,"  Sisyphus exclaims.  "I have to get back to my rock."

Your second proposal for the Sisyphus story is to have him set upon by his wife, who is walking alongside him while he pushes the rock up the hill.  "You don't call, you don't write.  We never see you.  The kids are asking for their father.  Am I to tell them their father is a workaholic?"

You have gone beyond these two variations on local themes.  In recognition of the archetypal position Sisyphus has taken relative to narrative, story, and drama, you have dedicated a metric to his memory.  You call it The Sisyphus Cycle.  The great use of this cycle is to measure story beginnings after the orbit of the story has been discovered.

The explanation of the Sisyphus Cycle has its origins in the fact of the chronological order of earlier stories.  Before The Sisyphus Cycle, story was linear.  To punish Sisyphus for his frequent devious acts, Zeus sentenced Sisyphus to an eternity of pushing a rock up a hill, watching it roll down, waiting for it to come to rest, then repeating the process again.  And again.  Throughout eternity.

This has a nice cause-and-effect sound to it, but it is linear, which is not a good idea for any story.  Sisyphus's story has an orbital feel to it; It can begin at any point in that orbit.  Furthermore, the point of beginning will influence the effect of the story.

With The Sisyphus Cycle in mind, we may approach any story, see where its most memorable opening takes place, then wonder if the story could have been told to a greater or different effect than it has, were it to have begun elsewhere in its own orbit.

We are used to a number of our long cherished stories having in medias res beginnings, The Iliad and Moby-Dick to name but two.  The more you look at modern story, you see it starting later and later.  As an agonizing example, Emma Donogue's Room, which begins on the fifth birthday of the narrator, which means his mother had already been imprisoned in that tiny room for over five years.

It is going on forty years since you had a dramatic presentation of how important a well-placed beginning mattered.  You sat in a restaurant on the Sunset Strip, having called in a chip with an agent you knew.  You were meeting a man whose works have sold not mere millions of copies, think hundreds of millions of copies.  You'd been reminded in a patronizing way, a few months earlier, that the publisher you worked for was a massmarket publisher.

The author with whom you lunched, Louis L'Amour, was a gracious, dedicated writer and a bit of a historian.  Had you been successful in your goal of switching from his present publisher to the one for whom you were editor, there is no telling what directions your publishing career might have taken.

"Most writers begin their stories too soon,"  L'Amour began the conversation.  This was your moment to carry the conversation forth.

"And,"  you said, "they stay too long."

You did not have to say any more.  You had said enough.  The genie came out of the bottle and for the next two and a half hours, he went through much of the canon of literature from the West, then led you to writers of the American West, where, as well he helped you define one of your strengths as an editor--knowing where to begin.

The way such things work, you needed longer to fit the information with comfort to your own work.  The way other things work, you never saw L'Amour in person again.  But you didn't have to, did you?

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