Sunday, May 31, 2015

No Man Is an Island, but Every Writer Is

In recent weeks, you've had extensive cause to think, lecture, and write about memorable scenes, in printed, stage, and film narratives.  Two of your favorites come from films.  Each of these is remarkable because it makes little contribution to the film, yet has a near perfect arc of the way a scene should begin, which is at a place of relative mildness, before becoming a force that becomes almost impossible to contain.


Both scenes do in fact end with a kind of combustion that produces, each in its own way, a catharsis in the resulting explosion.  No longer possible to keep count of the number of times you've watched the ocean liner state room scene from the Marx Brothers romp, A Night at the Opera, or the truck stop restaurant scene from the more recent motion picture, Five Easy Pieces. There are times when you commend them in their YouTube availability, that you wonder if your reference to them is more for students/clients or you.  

In theory, the stateroom scene is a comedic, exaggerated reminder of the number of elements the writer must shove into every scene of a story.  The truck stop restaurant scene demonstrates the kinds of frustrations and reversals characters need to be subjected to from the moment they first appear on scene to the point where the lead character has caused enough change in the status quo for the narrative to be brought to some point of resolution.

Each of these scenes has an antic quality to it that reminds you of moments in Reality when persons appear to be in the same cross-hairs as characters find themselves in story.  Writing a scene in which this antic collision of drama and reality appear causes you to feel a lasting and deeply felt sense of accomplishment.  

This feeling is the one you find yourself seeking when you meet head on the sense you are becoming too serious or too literal.  At last Thursday's reading from your short story collection, you chose such a scene.  The moment you began reading it, you felt yourself lit up from within,  You understood how, much as you like taut, evocative narrative, your overall goal is not at all what you'd thought--not a mediated settlement or wisdom of Solomon ending arrangement, rather the kind of combustion where the narrative kettle boils over.

You were first drawn to Simone De Beauvoir's elegant novel, The Mandarins, when it first appeared in this country during the mid 1950s.  Thinking to assign it as reading for a class, you launched into a skimmed reading to see if a more protracted one would suit you.  Reading on, you remembered a scene that had remained with you for all these long years, barely with enough structure to qualify as an independent scene, yet longer than a mere incident.  Call it a scene within a scene, but give acknowledgment to the fact you remembered it.  And finally, you found it.

In the midst of a serious discussion between the two principal characters--remember, discussion, although heated, rather than argument or lover's quarrel--a knock at the door of their apartment,  One of the principals opens the door to allow on stage a man clutching a nervous cat in his arms.  The male principal asks of the man with the cat what he can do for him.  "I was told," the man with the cat says, "there was to be a spay and neuter clinic here this afternoon."

This is news to the occupants of the apartment, but the interruption has had its effect on the weight of their discussion and the passions with which each was engaging.  The man with the cat is given a polite dismissal.  But you remained at that threshold for the better part of fifty years, the memory of the interruption reaching over the memory of the discussion.

A good deal of your reading, writing, and teaching speaks to the aspects of plot-driven story where an effective metaphor for story in motion is a line of dominoes, placed on end, close enough to one another to cause the entire line to tumble down after the first domino is toppled.  Story has that internal momentum, event, triggering event.  Of course story is all about event.  Except when it isn't.

Your own favorite type story is the bursting-at-the-seams bildungsroman, the coming-of-age story such as Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, or those titles that for you have become romps, Tom Jones, Humphrey Clinker, Peregrine Pickle, Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, True Grit, and Lonesome Dove.  All these abound with event, but, as in the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera, they teem with character.

There is comfort to be had in consulting works that remain in your memory, and from remembering your roots.  Much as you admire many plot-driven stories such as The Maltese Falcon, you carried on a frustrated affair with the plot-driven story, convinced that you could not write in that manner.  

The best you could do was look for ways to accommodate the character-driven story with the kinds of noir and edgy narratives originating when two or more characters, all of them convinced of the utter rightness of their vision, enter the scene, believing he or she is right.  Then, all you have to do is sit back and take notes.

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