Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stowaways of the Imagination

Audiences come to a performance with expectations.  If adult students signed into a class called Explorations in Literature can be seen as an audience with expectations, and the particular class to which you refer a performance, you are on the most sound of grounds.  Even if the linkage here fails some test of logic, nevertheless the them will still prevail.

In your memory of this two-hour class or performance, your plan was to provide a fifteen-minute introduction to the author whose work was under examination.  This would include how she came to write the book the class would spend the next hour and a half discussing, followed by your own three or four-minute summary.

You had not gone too far beyond launching into your biographical background of the author when one of the students raised her hand to ask a question, something you encourage.  You nodded recognition of her raised hand.  "Yes?" you said.

The student, well into her sixties, said,rather than asked, "Kill your darlings."

You nodded.  In many circumstances relative to discussions of writing fiction, revising fiction, or the general discussion of story, there is significant sense to what the woman said, even if it had no relevance whatsoever to anything you'd said yet.  "Anything more?"  you said.  She shook her head.

Your presentation followed the menu you'd established, causing you to be met with considerable eye contact from the adults in the room.  No one seemed bored; all seemed engaged.  "Okay,"  you said.  "Questions?"

A few requests for the names of similar and opposite sorts of authors relative to the one under discussion, then again the hand of the first questioner, who again said, "Kill your darlings."

This time, you spoke a few sentences about the wisdom of such behavior, after asking the rest of the class if they all understood the context of the question..  At this point, the woman was right back with her hand raised, the near universal signal for recognition, one you remember yourself employing as a youngster, eager to demonstrate your own awareness of the material at hand but as well to suggest your mastery of it.

"Kill your darlings,"  the woman said.  By now, any doubts you had about the clarity and focus of her intellectual process was confirmed.  She had little other than that to say during the entire two hour length of the class, whereupon she was gone, not to return for the remaining five classes of the series.

Kill your darlings is one of the two or three most frequent admonitions writers of narrative fiction hear.  The others, arranged in your estimated order of frequency are:  "Show, don't tell," and "Write only about things you know from direct experience."  By your estimation, one not involved in the practice of writing fiction could crash a writers' conversation, utter only these three admonitions, then come away leaving no doubt of one being a writer.

You have told rather than shown, you have not only let your darlings live, you have concocted more of them, and you have with some frequency writing about things beyond your immediate experience, perhaps in the spirit of sincere experimentation, perhaps also because you are a smartass, but also to see if you could get away with doing so to the point where neither editor nor reader would call you out.

These three memes emerge as the Holy Trinity of storytelling.  Taken one by one to the dissection table, flayed and filleted, they offer enormous sense.  Story is action incarnate.  When you tell "He ran," or "She sped," you risk thrusting the narrative back from its kinetic state to its descriptive one.  There are enough risks even when you execute well that you've come to understand the need for some form of live preserver to throw at the drowning sentence.  Thus, "He ran as though his life depended on it, and the more he ran, the more he saw his life did depend on it."  Thus also, "She sped until the muscles in her legs began to threaten cramping and the thin coating of sweat on her forehead began to crest over her brows."

You may have spent so much time concocting an explosive metaphor or simile which you then detonate in the midst of some unsuspecting sentence or action, completely upstaging the main action going on at the time.  When you go back to revise, you may see the total effect your darling had on the remainder of the text, but then you'll have had the opportunity to hear a statement not uncommon to parents with two or more children, "You love her/him more than you love me."
As a side note, the one and only time either of your parents laid so much as a hand on you in response to one of your torts was the time your mother slapped you for accusing her of loving your sister more than you, a fact, by the way, even you knew was untrue.

As to writing only about things you've had direct experience with, you well know not to go there.  When was the last time Jules Verne managed to get twenty thousand leagues under the sea much less span the world in eighty days?  When had Edgar Rice Burroughs or Ray Bradbury flown first class to Mars?  They had to do it tourist class, which is to say writers' class.

In one way or another, we are all of us stowaways who travel not only from port to port, historical era to futures of our own devising; we are able to inhabit the four-wheel drive housing of individuals with much greater intelligence than our own or perhaps more of a nihilist streak or even a murderous intent.  We often have to improvise, leaving us scant time to pack our bags or make proper reservations, put up with outrageous conditions at the other end.  But do not for a moment think we take all this lying down.  We extract our revenge for the slights, bedbugs, and being ignored by writing about our travels and the way we were received.

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