Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Concentrate. You Are Not Who or What You Started to Be.


One of your most favored cartoons of your youth was a captionless drawing by an artist you believe to have been William Steig.  The cartoon, with three or four panels,  was torn from a magazine, most probably The New Yorker, from which you made effort to read the fiction.  

The cartoon in question showed a man in the first panel, looking skyward, pointing.  In the second panel, a group of passing pedestrians had begun to gather about the man, looking upward in attempts to see what he saw.  By the last panel, the man had accumulated quite a crowd, all of them looking in the direction of the man's gaze and point.

You could not have articulated then why the cartoon had such appeal for you.  The best you could do was describe to yourself the dynamic of how all it takes to accrue a group of followers is a vision.  The thing the man in the cartoon looked at did not have to exist in reality so long as it had a firm grip in the imaginative mind of that solitary viewer.  

You tried to replicate the cartoon in a number of places, the most successful one being about half way across the long mall between the undergraduate library at UCLA and, directly to the south of it, Royce Hall, which contains many of the class rooms where your courses as English major were presented.

One morning, just after eleven o'clock, when the mall was well filled with travelers moving in both directions, south to north and north to south, you achieved a four- or five-minute result, students stopping to see what it was you were looking at so intently.

Many years later, you learned that such a ploy was a basic exercise known to many student actors.  The outcome of the exercise was the same as the intent of the Steig cartoon and your attempt at immunization.  Yet more years were to pass before you drew the connection between an actor's ability to concentrate and the outcome on audiences and other actors of that ability to concentrate.

Late last year, while reading a book by a teacher of acting techniques, you found an understanding of how important it is for an actor to be able to concentrate to the point where said actor actually projects the presence of the concentration.  Example:  most cases of stage and film phone conversations are in reality one actor, imagining a person at the other end of the line and, through concentration on the script story points, being able to make the person at the other end of the line quite real and responsive, often not at all to the liking of the actor we see engaging in this bogus telephone conversation.

Such burdens fall with regularity on the writer, who must be able to concentrate as a surrogate for every character in the story.  Yes, you heard that correctly; a writer must be able to concentrate to the point of believing the moment under construction, followed by the next and the next.  One of the major things a writer revises for is the circumstance where the writer's concentration has been allowed to wander.  Or when the writer, hopeful of producing some admirable effects, begins to describe the desired circumstances rather than arranging the conditions that cause the rise in dramatic action.

Description is the technical writer's tool, the journalist's, the critic's means of producing his or her vision to an audience literate enough and interested enough in the subject at hand to receive the description, then translate it.  A major presence missing here is ambiguity because it is the writer's intent to present rational information, even if the information is wrong.

To the extent that you have had experience at various levels of journalism, ranging from the low of high school to the high of your employment by the Associated Press, you were encouraged to think, then allowed to think so once you arrived at such a threshold to believe that a reporter's by-line, "By John Jones," was in effect saying this story was assembled by John Jones and contains a degree of his opinion.  

Was this a reason why you did not pursue journalism, given you avid yearning for a by-line?  At one point, you were quite pleased at the prospect of turning in a long story, seven or eight paragraphs, and not being told you'd have a by-line.  You were not pleased enough beyond your ability to show that you could do it this kind of writing on a regular basis.  You wished to invent, expand, exaggerate rather than describe.

At various times, you've had the ability to concentrate well enough under control to produce stories.  Your notebooks are littered with places, moments, instances where there is life because at the moments during which you wrote them, there was more belief and concentration than thought or question.

This is the quality you strive to maintain.  Everything comes from such moments.  Belief, story, vision, and that most fragile quality of all, voice.

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