Saturday, June 27, 2015

In a Minute, or In the Minute?

For as long as you've been able to say without hesitation that your favorite kind of story was a mystery , your approaches to reading have undergone change.  You found mystery in stories you'd never have thought to consider as mystery.  

To cite such extremes of example, short fiction by the likes of Ann Beattie, John Cheever, and one of your most favored of all short story writers, D. H. Lawrence, tell and told stories in which no detective or investigator appeared, and yet, mystery did. These worthies wrote stories resonant with the mystery of what the characters might do, once they discovered-- Discovered what, you ask.

The mystery and its solution orbited about characters who'd encountered moral and existential problems they were attempting to solve.  Even in the seemingly urban abyss stories of Cheever and Beattie, plausible individuals were looking for clues to lead them to the puzzle they live on a day-to-day basis.  

The same standards apply to these hapless individuals as the suspects and victims in mysteries.  Means, motive, and opportunity.  Thus, an intriguing puzzle that someone had to solve.  To the extent they were able to initiate a discovery process, you rooted for these individuals.

What have you in common with, say, Ned Merrill, the protagonist of John Cheever's story, "The Swimmer"?  You are of a different social class, with different life styles, different career and family goals.  And yet, Ned Merrill seems to be searching for something that goes beyond the mere conceit of a man on a summer day, deciding to make a game of swimming his way home, from pool to pool in suburban Connecticut.

You like the story because, as it progresses, you are able to draw more inferences from Ned's experiences than Ned does.  What seemed like an amusing idea from him has at its roots a tragic conclusion, so clear in its implications that you've often wondered if the author were writing from his own, deeply felt and deeply disastrous personal experiences.

Of the many things you admire about Cheever's work is the ease with which you are able to enter his worlds and their respective quandaries.  This ease of entry transcends your close association with the milieu in which the story is set.  You believe in a kind of transcendental bonding.  The story speaks, Cheever and, yes, Ann Beattie, and certainly D. H. Lawrence stop what they're doing and listen.  At some point, how many drafts in?, the story and the teller merge.

This is a quality you bring to the things you do, write, edit, and teach.  When the circumstances are right, you merge with the task, an energizing, somewhat unsettling, but exciting state of being in which the task is talking to you.  All the while of this conversation, you understand that matters of correctness or error, rightness or wrong, go out the window.  You understand you can be wrong, but your own wrong, and thus your truthful wrong.  You are willing to live by your visions and versions, content in the awareness that someone else may have a more cogent conversation with the same set of ideas.

You do not write, edit, or teach to be right.  You do so to be in conversation with the project.  At the moment, whatever else you may be doing socially or professionally, you are in conversation with The Hundred Novels You Need to Read before You Write Your own.  It comes and goes in your dreams, often in humorous "takes" where you wake up laughing at the outrageous pun your dreams have created from the content.

In the process of aging, you've become more detail oriented and methodical, two concepts that, even in these waking moments cause you a snort of amusement.  Such things were not the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old you.  Not until your late forties did you begin to notice the desire to go back over a word, a phrase, a sentence.  When you were in collaborative tandem with your late great pal, Digby Wolfe, you noticed he'd appear to be stuck on something.  When you said "What?" he'd direct you back, perhaps two or three pages, to something that didn't seem right.

How the fuck were you ever going to get a project finished working that way, a word at a time?       But the way things have turned out,how the fuck were you ever going to get closure on a project if you did not get every beat in place.  

When you had a full head of hair, you were afflicted with any number of cowlicks, each eager to demonstrate its own approach to grain and wave configuration.  You had the choices of wearing your hair short, as you do now, wearing it at length where it could be curled, or slathering handsful of pomade or cream to suppress the cowlick rebellion.  At some point you made the connection:  story is like your cowlicks head, springing out at its own whim and volition.

When you compose, you strive for what you like to think of as a conversational order, not necessarily the calculated paragraph logic of the newspaper story, which can be cut from bottom to top until, in frequent circumstances, the only thing left is the lede, the first paragraph.  Nevertheless, that paragraph tells the story.  DOVER, England.  Nobody attempted to win the English Channel today.  Maybe tomorrow.

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