Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Beyond Belief

At least twenty years have elapsed since you first presented a graduate class with the exercise of naming as many constituents of story as possible.  You went along with the exercise as a cheerleader, throwing less popular terms into the stew.  Surprise.  foreshadowing.  Plausibility.

In your recollection of the event, the students grew into the exercise, contributing suggestions of their own, at no time contradicting any of your suggestions.  After about a half hour of conversation and ad lib responses, you dropped the second part of the assignment on them. 

 "Okay.  By next week, I want you to arrange these elements and any others you can think of in a hierarchy. Your vote for the most important aspect of story at the top, as Number One.  There is no wrong answer except one you give without conviction."  You waited out a dramatic pause.  "My own personal choice is Character.  The choice of characters has a down-stream effect on all the other elements."

That choice not only sounded good and convincing to you, it remained so for almost ten years, until you settled into what has become your default position ever since.  There have been times when you wavered for a moment or two, but without exception came back to the quality of story that brings it to life and keeps it lively for you.  The choice you make each time is Voice.  Many of the other aspects, say suspense, reversal, betrayal, hidden agenda, the scene, et alia change positions, but Voice remains the pole star of story for you.

No surprise at all then for your favorite writers to relate in analogy to story as a strong, ripe cheese, say Limburger, relates to cheese.  Someone can and has read a line at random from one of your favorites, and you're right there with the identifying name:  Annie Proulx.  Saul Bellow.  Tell me that is not Scott Fitzgerald, or Joan Didion, or--

Voice helps you see the work in dimension.  With that in mind, the events of today have sent you home from classes in a sense of having a rug or two pulled from under you, of hardwood flooring being revealed, and of that hardwood flooring taking on in metaphor a yet more rewarding perspective on story.  

An individual who once attended your fiction workshop has begun attending your memoir class, saying she wished to get exposure to reading memoir events to a group of like minded adults.  She read one or two short pieces which seemed effective, honest, and moving, thus, when she read to day, after announcing this would be her first longer piece, you sat back to expect some informed experimentation.

What you got instead was the kind of surprise you like to get in story.  The material had structure, drama, sincerity, and an effective move beyond mere descriptive narrative, well into evocative and poignant scenes and events.  You  were impressed with her focus and many of the class were outspoken with admiration. 

The opening pages of the story reminded you of a well-crafted story, "Flotsam," by one of your favorite living writers, Deborah Eisenberg. The student took this all in, then confessed.  She'd invented the entire narrative, having taken the details from stories she'd heard from friends and associates in her various AA groups.

Later this evening, a student in your fiction class announced her intention of reading something from a memoir, which was quite well crafted, required a few editorial notes, but found an appreciative audience.  This prompted you to remind her how these events, in order to be memoir, had to remain based on actual events.  Then you heard your second "confession" of the day.  The material may have been altered.

Both of these rug yanking events had at least one important thing in common.  You should also say, these narratives had in common one event beyond convincing characters, plausible dialogue, convincing use of reactions from the characters filtering the events, and a most emphatic and plausible sense of presence.

The quality you're calling out here is the focus of each writer, the ability of each to make her narrative seem absolutely truthful.  Each writer is intelligent, curious, inventive, seeming to come hard wired with a quality you note in many of the writers you care most about.  They are utterly convincing because each seems to believe her narrative with such focus that neither of them had at any time to resort of extraneous descriptive detail.

From time to time, you come across statements and commentary from Ernest Hemingway relating to the importance of writing one true sentence.  You found one related quote saying it was a respectable day's work for a writer to write one true sentence.  Another quote, or perhaps it was the same one, went on to say that one true sentence begets another, which in turn leads to a possible slew of them and thus a good story.

You have certain issues with Hemingway you will not go into here, but you will say that you spent a good deal of time studying and copying him and that he had seen some of your work as a consequence of you and one of his sons being classmates.  

You acknowledge a long while when it was your goal to be a good writer, good being one of those empty words that sound better than the meaning or lack thereof they convey.  You also acknowledge that a true sentence, even though you hate the sound of that term, has more substance than the term a good writer has substance.

You don't think of a true sentence in an abstract or Platonic way, rather as a sentence that resonates a sincere and devoted writer's efforts to express the truths her/his characters may be experiencing.

When all is said and done, the vague words swept away, and only the most clear of meanings and outcomes, however macabre, poignant, or hilarious those might be, remain, the best chance you see for yourself reaching that sweet spot, is to have as absolute a belief in the characters and their affairs you can get from observing them and living amongst them.

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