Saturday, March 7, 2015

Landmarks and Examples

Going home traffic out of Santa Barbara begins at about three of most afternoons.  Don't even think of a quick southbound passage on Sunday afternoons, when the tide of tourists set off back to Los Angeles.  You've been here long enough to have in your possession a number of shrewd, even scenic shortcuts to rely on when one purpose or another takes you southbound out of Santa Barbara during afternoon and evening rush hour traffic time.

Before moving here, you had similar intimate knowledge of pre-freeway Los Angeles, in particular the seemingly aimless saunter of side streets surrounding the canyons that slash from the Valley section of Los Angeles into the west side.  Shortcuts and landmarks in a real sense define an individual's relationship with the city in which one lives.

Landmarks and reference points define an individual's sense of belonging or not to one's culture.  These landmarks, particularly if they had their origins in cities like Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, have often been painted over or built over, or built on top of, or, of course, bulldozed to the ground, then replaced with something altogether different.  Yet the older landmarks and reference points remain.

A significant Los Angeles shortcut for you was the one you took most mornings to get you from various points of origin in or around the Olympic/La Cienega area to the lower parking lot at UCLA.  Although the traffic then was nothing in comparison to now, the time for direct, main artery commuting was precarious.  Not to worry; you knew the back ways, streets to take where there were few or no traffic signals, side streets that, when taken, imparted a kind of mischievous pleasure to the journey, because you were cutting the better part of a half hour from your drive/shortcut.

When you are in the class room or composing non-fiction, you are illustrating your remarks with cultural and literary landmarks, mentioning authors, novels, characters, and circumstances in the belief they will get the student or the reader where you wish them to be without the necessary traffic signals and snarled traffic of long explanations.

A few years ago, dealing with editorial notes on a reference work you were readying for publication, your editor in the bluntest of terms told you, Enough with Ahab andMoby-Dick, already.  This note came close on the heels of a list of habit words such as "accordingly." "thus," and "writ large" you'd been overusing throughout the manuscript.  You felt relief rather than defensiveness at the list of habit words; you do not enjoy them when you see them abused by other writers.  Why, then, would you object to their discovery in your own work.

The Ahab/Moby-Dick overuse was another matter, one you set out to defend, building the intensity of your logic in direct proportion to the numerous times you'd used these two beings.  Your most compelling argument for their use the fact that you continue, after all these years of being introduced to the whale and the man, to learn new things about it.  But this is not an argument for revisiting literary treasures.  This is an argument relating to your need for a wider menu of examples.  Ditto Huckleberry Finn.  Same for As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.  While you're at it, how about another example for a stunning novella beyond Of Mice and Men?

How many times do you make use of The Iliad and The Odyssey?  How often do you sing the praises of the character behind The Wife of Bath?  Which student in any of your writing classes recognized Appointment in Samara or  They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

From time to time, you'll cross paths with an editor and a student about the same matter.  Who he? or Who she? are copyeditor queries you've seen relative to your use of an author, a character, or a literary allusion.  Your first response is always a step or two above mild irritation.  How could a person not know such a reference?  Why would a reader never have heard of Charles Reade, author of The Cloister and the Hearth?  Why wouldn't anyone with a social conscience be able to link the reference to Charles Kingsley's 1850 masterpiece, Cheap Clothes and Nasty?

If you are irritated at the editorial query, imagine the bewilderment of the student hearing such references.  In particular, process this:  you are not writing to bewilder or bedazzle; you write to light fires under ideas, causing them to boil over.  

Two of your favorite metaphors, which you take out on special occasions, are The Genie in the Bottle and Capturing Lightning in a Bottle.  Good, solid metaphors, one depicting a pissed genie of enormous force and power, having been tricked into a display of ego in which he scurried into a bottle, only to be imprisoned there, the other reaching out to capture in a bottle one of the many natural displays of simultaneous beauty and power.

Words caught in a bottle, trapped for a time, left to brood on what they would do should they achieve freedom, can be words packed with care into a paragraph or a poem or a story, exploding with the spectacular power that goes beyond the mere number of words.  Genie or lightning, words are forces the writer uses all his available wits to contain in some container.

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