How do you react when your reading of a novel is questioned? Perfectly logical, ordinary question: "What did you think about Jonathan Lethem's novel, Motherless Brooklyn?" "What did you think of the new Murakami?"
You have, in fact, been asked both those questions, more than once, with the sorts of results you'd have expected, including rankings, say of Motherless with other of Lethem's works, the impenetrability or, conversely, the mysterious accessibility of Murikami's recent works, seeming almost stereotypical in their implications of Asian inscrutability and simultaneous attraction.
In some cases, your discussions of Murakami have led you to the kind of yoking with which you are fond and others may find inappropriate or not apt. Murakami is, for instance, the Japanese Faulkner. Herman Wouk is the Jewish Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cynthia Ozick is the twentieth and twenty-first century Henry James.
These conversations might shear off from straight logic, take idiosyncratic turns, but never veer off into rancor. In this context, the question What did you think of--is offered in the curiosity of seeing if the person with whom you are conversing has latched onto things you agree with or that you perhaps failed to consider because you didn't see them. Still no rancor.
There is more than one interpretation to an individual's reading of a novel or, for that matter, any work of art or philosophy. At one point, after you'd reviewed a novel for a newspaper, the Letters to the Editor feature received a note that went beyond mere disagreement with you to the extreme of venturing how the writer would from this point regard any work reviewed by you as the exact opposite of what you said about it.
You've put some time in as editor on a scholarly basis. In a real sense, you've chosen one critical approach, say post-modernism or formalism over modernism or colonialism. You make no attempt to publish in scholarly venues nor, when you are giving your take or articulating your response to a work, do you follow the language or party line of a particular school of thought.
One of the most heated debates you'd ever engaged was with an avowed Marxist, the conversation turning to debate then to highly subjective argumentation as you began to insist you were of a similar mind with your opponent and he, with some vigor, held the position that you hadn't the slightest notion of what was at the heart of the Marxist position.
In a sense, the two of you may as well have launched into a discussion of the fast food hamburger as a meal of convenience. For your part, you'd have had the most positive and enthusiastic things to say about the In-'n-Out franchise, only to have your discussion mate inform you that he always buys his hamburgers at the In-n'-Out franchise and that your comments are worthless because of the clarity so apparent that you may think you understand franchise hamburgers, but your entire perspective is flawed, invalid, and inaccurate.
The more you're given reason to consider dramatic, logical, and ethical aspects of point of view, the greater your tendency becomes to believe the reliable narrator is an abstraction, an individual who does not exist in reality.
You may have examples to support your theory of the universal unreliability of the narrator (not the process of narration), but you are apt to find an individual of some degree of opposition to the point where you might as well be discussing politics for all the change you will have on your opponent or he or she upon you.
Your observations of humanity and of a wide variety of narrative voices lead you to a comfortable acceptance with your vision. The more you think of this broad shroud of unreliability, the more you see it as a part of the human condition rather than a universal quirk among the men and women who have carried the dramatic weight of narration over the years.
Narration and unreliability begin at home. You are unreliable, attempting these past several years to extend the times in which you are reliable to the point where you can recognize that quality in yourself for two or three hours at a time before lapsing into some idiosyncratic vector.
There is more than irony involved in your awareness of the need to surprise yourself with the anarchy of the unreliable rather than the constraints of conventional literature.
Monday, August 31, 2015
How do you react when your reading of a novel is questioned? Perfectly logical, ordinary question: "What did you think about Jonathan Lethem's novel, Motherless Brooklyn?" "What did you think of the new Murakami?"
Sunday, August 30, 2015
All you can do with nostalgia, beyond appreciating it, is relive an event. You can taste, smell, laugh, cry, yearn, sponge up as much of the experience as you can. But you can't change the outcome, nor can you initiate new activity.
The best you can do is take what is sometimes called French leave, by which is meant you leave the party without saying farewell to your host. From experience, you'll know when it's time to leave the party of a specific nostalgia.
The emotion of nostalgia is in its way as complex and resonant as grief. Through it, you are transported back to a time when there was a sense of something so intense that you entered into agreements with yourself to recall the specific time, again and again.
Like grief, nostalgia can yank you back to the past without warning, leaving you dazed, a reverberating sense of deja vu as your welcoming committee.
The problem starts when you realize directly on return that you are not the you of now, you are the you of then, the you who'd had little experience with consulting himself, seeing himself in anything but the immediate moment.
Thus you were back there, much of your perspective left behind, something like the NASA Explorer vehicles sent to distant and remote terrains not of this earth, sending back information. Unless you stumble on some overlooked insight, some clue, some hidden sign you missed at the time, your trip will become bittersweet.
Worse yet, you may have learned from subsequent experiences and the mere fact of living that you may have misinterpreted entirely your trip back into the reaches of your past. Nice as it would have been to have been the you of now, instead of the person you've even come to think of as callow or naive, the best you can do is focus on the smells, senses, and tingle of excitement you felt back them as, quite without any conscious deliberation, you packed the moment away for later use.
In your own compositions, you have the chance of sending the you of now back to an ago you've concocted, enhanced, rearranged much of the furniture, both real and emotional. This is one of the many advantages your characters have over you. They will not see this as being advantaged; indeed, if you've been diligent in arranging things for them, they will have the feeling of walking along the edge of a great abyss, each step they take one they must watch with care.
Were you dealing with persons under your care, say children or relatives or students, you'd take a different approach, arguing that they have the right to make their own decisions. But since they are characters, much as you care for them, you do so only to push them to the limits of their intellectual, emotional, and social ability, gearing them up for the big push they must make that will either be successful or not.
When dealing with yourself, you must be mindful of edges running alongside abysses, hewing to the cusp, trying not to adhere to grudge or stubbornness, nor giving too much of your trust to guard rails or unreliable maps of the terrain.
The solution is to treat yourself with as much care and purpose as you treat your characters, but of course that means you will have to begin by treating your characters with respect and restraint.
Saturday, August 29, 2015
In what was to be your introduction to teaching graduate-level students how to add the necessary elements to their narratives while at the same time removing the unnecessary ones, the individual who hired you set you off and running with a brief discussion of the university bookstore and library as resources. "Surely," he said, "you'll want The Aspect of the Novel for a text, so why don't I order that for you now?"
You, naive narrator that you were then, as well as now, replied, "Of course. Thank you." Whereupon you headed to the library in those pre-Google, pre-Internet days, a visit to the pre-Lapsarian equivalent of the Internet, the Card Catalogue, in whose oaken drawers you learned that Aspects of the Novel was located at 808.3 of the Dewey Decimal System and PN 33353 FT.6 in the Library of Congress System.
All well to heft the book, thumb through it, check it out, and on your way to your car, say to the book, "So, we are to become friends, are we?" At the time, you had reason to doubt only that you'd got through your years as an English major without having heard of the book. This did not leave you feeling intelligent. It also set you up for another surprise a few years later. You were joined first by a student then as a fellow faculty member a man who would become one of your greatest friends. "Surely," he said, "you use Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (also at 808.3)."
This was at about the heyday of one of the longest serving department chairpersons in the history of the program in which you taught. "Surely," he said, " you will use Aristotle's The Poetics as a teaching tool. This was also at about the time another wide swath of reading had caught up with you, spilled into the nooks and crannies of your cortical tissues, and begun to make what you liked to think of as independent connections.
Soon, you were in the chairperson's office with the most dire greeting a subordinate can hear from a superior, "Come in and shut the door."
After some time, he began to tap his index finger on his desk, a gesture that, if heeded straight on, can be taken to mean the equivalent of "Listen up." If the tapping continues, the superior is trying to frame a position statement that will in all likelihood not cause you pleasure. "What's this I hear about you telling your students they didn't need Aristotle, they could instead use a newspaperman who hadn't even a college education?"
"He was," you offered, "an autodidact. He had undoubtedly read Aristotle."
"Help me to see why that would matter when there is access here to Aristotle. You were suggesting they read, I believe it was--"
"Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby."
"Help me see."
"If you were to read the Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, you'd see the principals are exactly the same and--"
The tapping of the finger began again. "--and?"
""--and the language is more modern. A bit over the top. Some potential racist implications because of the dialect, but--"
"It shows characters in action."
The results would have been the same even if you'd have managed to have written and published your handbook. Readers, whether they be student and instructor, instructor and department chair, or writer and editor, are not bound by any convention to reach the same conclusion after they've read a piece.
Nor is it to a writer's discredit if there is this great aura of ambiguity about the final meaning. There can never be, in so many words, a single, simple, direct meaning, even though responses to poetry, drama, and narrative may agree on certain basic inherent elements.
You had few thoughts ten of such matters as post-modern theory as it related to what you do. to be sure, there was a growing handful of men and women writers you gravitated to on your journey from the far reaches of recorded language to the present times, You knew you were growing more impatient with formula, theory, and a rigidity of regard and format to content.
Why are you in this in the first place, you asked yourself? What were you reading for? And why was the increasing number of things you read causing you to feel less reverent about anything?
Friday, August 28, 2015
Within the recent few days, you returned to a vibrant memory, a book you'd read in the past by an author you'd never got on well with and had no expectation of developing any permanent relationship with, much less any expectations you'd expect to learn for your own work from aspects of his technique.
The man had a mild speech impediment, came from a family of enormous ability, range, and intelligence; by the devotion he showed to his craft, he had a major influence on writers of the nineteenth century. He is still widely taught in literature courses throughout the world; he has exerted through his work a noted influence on two writers still producing memorable works of their own into this century.
The writer is Henry James. The book you'd short-listed for your conglomeration of the hundred novels of most influence on you is the probing and disturbing story of a young girl named Maisie Farange. In this novel, named after Maisie, in fact What Maisie Knew, you least of all expected any novel by James to grab you so quickly with his narrative. "The litigation had been interminable," James wrote, "and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal, the judgment of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child."
The two contemporary writers of whom you speak are the American writer, Cynthia Ozick, whose novel Foreign Bodies is an affectionate rewriting of The Ambassadors; the other is the Irish writer, living and teaching half-time in America, Colm Toibin. Each has spoken with enough affection about James to allow readers of their books to recognize the debt of influence.
Good thing you did; you came away with a better awareness of how narrative voice went. James was always there to explain things to you, which he explained with a deftness and subtlety that began to capture you. In time, you found The Ambassadors quite absorbing, and have to this day pleasant recollections of the moral battle and consequences he set forth in The Wings of the Dove.
While you'd begun to respect James's eye for subtlety and nuance, you also realized that you, as he did, overwrote, but in his case the overwriting tended to go a good deal deeper into his characters and their motivation, while you took entirely too much time away from the story to make observations. It is a charity to say of your observations that they were too long; you were writing in the twentieth century, for one thing, and narrative was moving away from the author, for another.
Your revisit with Maisie offered, as so many of these rereadings do, an awareness that you'd grown. For a while, it was all you could do to remind yourself that it was you who'd grown in awareness; James's ability had always been there.
Among the many things your current project of The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own has brought to your consideration is the never ending gap between the vision of an idea and the words and subsequent planning necessary to capture the vision in some form.
You could describe such an activity as attempting to get lightning in a bottle, which is a metaphor you've thrown around from time to time. You could also say the attempts to articulate and define an idea are much of a piece with trying to get toothpaste back into its tube.
James seems to have found a way of getting his ideas dramatized that included a great and varied correspondence, an enthusiastic approach to keeping a notebook, and the writing-as-thinking that sometimes goes with introductory essays to his work.
Of his many characters, Maisie, who in the most vivid and interesting of dramatic senses, goes from having two contentious parents to now having four, none of whom seem to care as much about the child as they do inflicting some sort of insult or hurt on the other. Even though she has a governess and lives in a state a considerable distance above those unfortunate Dickens characters, Maisie could well have fallen between the cracks.
But James, in one of his few dealings with young characters, seems to have taken to Maisie; he sees her thriving where many others would have failed, and for reasons neither he nor you could have seen until--and this is the part you admire the most--Maisie saw the possibility of becoming the person she wished to become.
Henry James has let her do so. As you reread Maisie, you see her in the midst of the roiling seas of adult duplicity, irony, and misadventure, following her own remarkable pole star.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
You hear the expression "All hat and no cattle," a day or so ago--probably in reference to former Texas governor whose thoughts of a presidential nomination are all but exhausted--you are reminded of a similar trope you used in connection with yourself, "A load of notebooks, but nothing to put into them."
For a time, you tried to fill notebooks with such observations as the number of out-of-state automobile license plates you saw parked on the four hundred block of Cochran Street, where you lived just off the famed Los Angeles artery, Wilshire Boulevard and the Miracle Mile.
At the time, your mother had her hair done at a salon on the north side of Wilshire, a block to two west of La Brea--probably Detroit Street or Cloverdale. You enjoyed visiting her there because the salon supplied its hairdressers with magnets with which to keep a supply of hairpins at hand. So long as your mother was there, you could manage to be able to play with one of these magnets, an activity that afforded you the opportunity to note in your various notebooks things that shared attraction with magnets and those metals that did not.
This memory gave you a direct link to the inordinate number of pocket-sized notebooks you have lying about your studio, with no one gathering spot for either the empties, the filled, or works in progress. Picking up a used or still viable notebook today, you're met with a wide swath of observation, showing to great effect how far you've come from cataloging which metals have magnetic attraction and which don't, and which out-of-state cars are parked perhaps a hundred twenty miles north of the four hundred block of Cochran Avenue, the four hundred block of East Sola Street
Of the two subjects, magnetism still holds attraction for you, not to the same, simplistic degree the magnet and hairpins at Staber's Beauty Salon, but nevertheless with a focus on the chemistry you observe between things as disparate as ideas, concepts, and parallelisms. At one time, you might have been led by the possible connections into thinking the universe was governed by mystical properties of causality.
These thoughts led you through superstitions--the pitcher in a baseball game clutches a resin bag, not to dry the moisture from his fingers but rather for good luck--to openly questioning friends who had rabbit's feet key chains about whether they;d noticed any upswing in their good fortune, and a deliberate watchfulness on your part relative to walking under ladders.
Your adventures with throwing a pinch of salt over your shoulder came to an abrupt stop and with it your notions about superstition when your father, watching you with the salt throwing, asked you, "What are you, some kind of a wise guy?" But now, you had yet another aspect of phenomenology to investigate to see if there indeed was an equivalent of magnetism or chemistry. You had yet to come by the word "phenomenology" at that time, but that did not stop you; you became what you thought was religious.
Again, that question from your father, who taught you a good many useful things such as how to shave and how to get the object ball in rotation pool to come back to you after you struck it with the cue. After asking you if you were some kind of wise guy, he explained that he meant no ridicule, only sincerity, with his observation that all things have consequences. Other persons may not see the same consequences you intended when you did something, he explained, or when you were conspicuous for not doing anything when something may have been expected of you.
To that, he added, "Whatever you chose to be, be a good one. There is great satisfaction in knowing you attempted to do well at your choice. But make sure the choice is yours." This led you to ask if that meant it was okay for you not to be a lawyer if you didn't want to be a lawyer. Your father said it was perfectly all right, but it would probably not be a good idea to discuss your choices with your Uncle Leo, who indeed was a lawyer.
From this background, you fought your way and are in many ways still fighting your way through the quicksands of naivete and a general willingness to accept things at the face values assigned to them by individuals you'd been taught to respect . In this educational battle, you find a binary system built on trust. You either trust everything to be what it seems or you question everything you encounter as though it were a suspect in a sophisticated mystery, where a given suspect may not be guilty of murder but is still a potential perpetrator of a lesser crime.
Whom and what things do you trust? Whom do you more or less distrust on sight? Not to let yourself off without examination, how trustworthy are you?
For the moment, let's leave it at this: You've had to fill many a notebook with observations of chemistry and magnetic affinity to reach this point. Best if you keep taking notes.
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
For a great many of your formative years, you developed the worst kind of antipathy toward the works of a writer who appears even now, just short of a hundred years after his death, to be the influential favorite of many writers you admire. The antipathy was even more intense than the one you felt toward William Faulkner. In both cases, the antipathy was because of your inability to understand them.
During those months and years of antipathy, you needed an excuse you could live with. One did not go about disliking the works of Henry James and William Faulkner--translate that as not being able to decipher them--without some compelling reason.
Luck had it that you were able to offer an excuse that took away a good twenty-five percent of the possibility that you might appear unlettered, lacking the wherewithal to understand these giants and, almost by default, lacking in the necessary qualities to pursue your dream of being a writer.
For a time, it seemed impossible for you to have any kind of craft-related conversation with your peers, even those whose abilities you were not impressed by, without the subject of James or Faulkner arising. Not only were they cited, specific works of theirs were discussed before you, adding to your antipathy but, to cite only one example, your curiosity.
An author you openly suspected of not reading much beyond the current best-seller lists embarked on a long, hilarious discussion of the famed Faulkner episode, "Spotted Horses." Your friend was irritating in his Faulkner literacy, causing you to resolve, once again, to try Faulkner, beginning with this very novella, which, you already knew from previous conversations, had moved from its original publication in a magazine into a short novel, The Hamlet.
You already knew marginal things about Henry James short stories, in particular "The Jolly Corner," and "Beast in the Jungle." A dear and competitive friend often teased you for not having read James' famed ghost story, "The Turn of the Screw."
Your primary excuse--you did not like either James' or Faulkner's narrative voices--seemed to you to grow thinner and thinner. As such matters often develop with you, the time to face the demon and acknowledge it was at hand. You flat out admitted you could not read James or Faulkner because, having ted, you were unable to make sense of where the story went, much less could you tell whose story it was or, even worse, what was at stake.
With those admissions came the understanding that your chances of writing anything of substance had suffered a major reversal. Even worse, it was too late to turn back, to find some other thing that could hold you in the same thrall and reverence writing did.
You accepted the fate of being reduced to writing plot-driven stories for pulp magazines, well aware your abilities with plotting left much to be desired. As relevant background matter, you'd yet to meet the mystery writer, William Campbell Gault, who in time would tell you something you'd never forget. "I'd rather," Gault told you, "be the world's worst writer than a good anything else."
One day during one of your habitual browses of a used book store, you came across a relatively clean copy of Henry James' The Ambassadors. When the bookstore owner saw this in your pile, he nodded approval. "Good to see you moving up in the world."
Indeed, you were. In short order, you seemed to pull the design of the novel out of James' languorous sentences. There was an overarching presence of design emerging from those paragraphs. You even began to anticipate outcomes and to see the matters of importance to each character in his or her turn. You might, you allowed, even like this.
You are by no means a James scholar, but when the time came to chose the hundred novels of significant influence on you, The Ambassadors came to mind. You'd not only taught the novel, you'd arranged classes in which it was the lead-off, followed by two novels written by contemporary writers, both of whom to this day express their debts to James. As you began to write The Ambassadors on your list, you heard a voice, a youngish, conflicted girl's voice. "Pick me," she said. "Pick me."
The voice belonged to young Maisie Farange, the central character of What Maisie Knew. You listened. Surprisingly enough, James caught the essential nature of this young girl's voice. He did not capture her with the grace and humor David Mitchell used in depicting thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor in the novel Black Swan Green, but that is yet another matter and, indeed, one of the hundred novels that had principal effect on you.
Faulkner, did you say? Aren't you forgetting Faulkner? Turns out the man at the used book store, after listening to you rave about Mark Twain's excerpt"The Mexican Plug Horse," from his memoir Roughing It, forced a copy of The Hamlet on you. "Can't read it, bring it back for full credit."
Thus you read "Spotted Horses." The man at the used book store sold you a copy of The Reivers next. And you were on your way to having to choose between The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying for the hundred novels book.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
We are never told how much depends on the wheelbarrow the poet, William Carlos Williams, wrote into fame.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Depending on who we are and our background, a good deal depends on it. The dynamic is set in motion with four words. In similar fashion, depending on the length of the medium, say short story or novel, a certain amount depends on notes you sometimes see from an editor on a manuscript of yours or, conversely, the initials n.s. you sometimes put in the margin of a manuscript or a proof when you are the editor, addressing the author.
N.S. Narrative summary. Telling the backstory. If our story happens to be one of the more popular short stories, Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado, we see all too soon what's at stake and how much depends on the narrator's response to those things.
We get a description of the circumstances that caused the narrator to first vow, then plot revenge. We still have only the merest idea of the "thousand injuries" the narrator had borne, and you would think the author would wish to give us a greater clue regarding the nature of the insult.
"THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. AT LENGTH I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled -- but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong."
The backstory or narrative summary is there in the opening clause, settled into place by the end of the first sentence. We know the narrator is bent on some form of revenge, for a more or less generalized bill of complaint. The fucker insulted me. Now, he was going to pay for it.
This is now more than a toe in the literary waters of the twenty-first century. This is time to recognize how story has evolved. True enough, there are those who still find it convenient to begin their narratives with a summary of things leading up to it. "Those" are authors who truly fit the description implied in the term "Grandfather clause;" they are holdovers from another time.
Story begins now with movement, action, or a planning session in which the furniture may be literally tossed about or figuratively shunted into a different place. Story begins with dramatic action to the point where the reader is caught up in someone's web of circumstances.
Later, after we've become intrigued by what's happening in the present, we can pause for a moment to catch up, to be brought to realize how all "this" came to pass. Now, the planned action either makes sense or is undercut by someone who wonders what we were thinking, which is, Why would anyone proceed with such a plan?
With such questions flaring up before us, we might be willing to look at some narrative summary, but not a moment before. Suffice it then to say of n.s., "it is the dramatic foundation for the present-time action of the story and it is the reason why the characters behave as they do."
If story takes place more in the past than in the present, something is wrong; the narrative should begin farther along the orbital path. In some ways, you remind yourself of an archaeologist, digging into past events, trying to ferret out some kind of life cycle for the artifact at hand.
We may need to know how clay is not native to the present area, has to be bartered for, either in its raw form and, thus, shaped and fired here, or bartered for in its present state and in consequence worth a good deal more. What did Grandma give up in trade goods to get this pot?
All these are relevant, but the last thing we need to know are the physical properties of clay, where the clay for this pot was dug, and how it was fired.
Our goal is to embrace in story, not embalm in detail.
Monday, August 24, 2015
Not long ago, you arrived at a vision where Story could be divided into two basic types. The first of these embodies the coming-of-age of a young person, as demonstrated by examples from the eighteenth century on into the present.
Your personal favorite of all stories in this classification is Huckleberry Finn, which has earned a place in your work in progress, The Hundred Novels You Should Read before You Writer Your Own.
You also include Dickens' Great Expectations, Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, Henry James''s What Maisie Knew, and David Mitchell's impressive Black Swan Green. To be sure, there are yet others, say Jack Schaefer's Monte Walsh, that fit the rubric.
These examples ratify the visions you've brought into focus during your journey from a boy, reading for adventure, to a young man, reading for information. Then, there is the you, reading to teach himself how he might best compose stories of his own,evolving toward the self you now occupy, which has become a storyteller, editor, and teacher.
There is no traditional name for the second type of story. You've taken to calling it Stranger in Town, even hearing in your mind's ear the late great singer, Mel Torme, interpreting a song with that title. The stranger can be an actual stranger, an unknown person such as the lead character, Shane, in another novel by Jack Schaefer,. The stranger may be a native, returning home after having been away and, thus, no longer "one of us."
The third story archetype is a combination of the two, well represented in your Hundred Novels project by Willa Cather's My Antonia. You often find a distinct, additional binary in all three types, the aspect where one of the lead characters is told, "Time to make a choice. You're either with us [or In]. or against us [or Out]." The lead character is also often told, "There is no going back," or, "We don't take kindly to your new-fangled ways."
In your process of arriving at your own hundred novels and reviewing the also-rans, you notice the importance of choice within a given story, how the lead character is brought to some kind of reckoning or bargain table, and how the nature of the choice sends clues to the reader. Old vs New, Tradition vs Modernism, Norman vs Anglo-Saxon, American vs European, Improvise vs Follow the Script.
Lead characters must have more in mind than a goal they wish to achieve. They must want something beyond the form and shape of the culture from which they come. Would Romeo and Juliet have any of its power if Juliet had come from Romeo's own Montague clan? Would the precautions and strategies in that play have meaning if the two lovers were not from mortal enemies? Would Antigone's wish to bury her slain brother have the same effect if her dead brother had not opposed Creon, the newly crowned King?
To the same degree that Nature abhors a vacuum, Story wants no truck with goals and desires that do not stand as metaphors for something lost, withheld, denied, or misunderstood. Many successful writers are able to produce a significant body of work in which these requirements are present, seeming to arrive at them in ways described by critics as "natural" or "instinctive.
But isn't that approach a bit limiting? Some delving into the basic mysteries of self, reached through whimsical combinations of study, meditation, logic, and the investigation of myth, symbol, and culture, are more likely to provide the earnest student with causes, alternatives, and the potential for new basic causes with which to grapple.
The way you read Story now, it seems to you an earnest attempt to supply some kind of torch or other blaze of light to help us find our way through the labyrinths and mazes of the process we've come to regard as life.
Sunday, August 23, 2015
This is another phrase you've heard from time to time, about as often as "Show, don't tell." You take it to mean Don't spend extra time trying to put in some description or metaphor that will prove to all who read your story that you are, indeed, a writer, and by golly, if they hadn't realized it by now, this would surely convince them.
Whenever you hear the admonition, you feel a tiny trickle of irritation working its way into your response mechanisms because you believe you have to like what you write in order to leave it in. But you do one of those anger management exercises, take a breath, and keep your fuck you responses to yourself.
You have had experiences where individuals have insisted on some trope or other, leaving you bewildered about why.
At least one friendship that began in a high school creative writing class went into the Slough of Despond when a friend used the metaphor "as ink darkens the chalk-white tissue of day," and you, in all seriousness, asked "What the fuck does that mean?" and he replied, "What do you mean, what does it mean?"
In some ways, we're talking about space here. The writer creates a space with her words, adds dimension to the space with characters, sprinkles in nuance with the things characters say to one another, then provides an opportunity to eavesdrop with narrative and independent discourse or interior monologue. Now, someone comes along and says in effect, you need a permit to build here, or perhaps add a metaphor here, or even suggest a theme here.
Like most authors, you've had enough materials returned with ample reason to become suspicious of all agent and editor response, more often because you don't know why your work was deemed unacceptable than because you do know. In fact, no one has ever told you, "Look, I'm not taking your story because of that paragraph on page three." The only time you hear about paragraph on page three is if the piece is taken, and then the editor says, "Of course you'll be wanting to remove that paragraph on page three."
This is the place where you can say, "But I worked so hard to get that paragraph." And the editor can say, "But it does nothing for the story," at which comment you understand something about editors you may have not considered before because you weren't really interacting with them, you were trying to lure them into the middle of your story with such decorations as that paragraph on page three.
A professional of some consequence is apparently "after" you, at least to the point of writing outrageous reviews of your books on Amazon. This is in all probability because you refused to take him on as an editorial client. Your reason was your belief that he would probably not take most of your notes and that, indeed, there would be a lot of them, each of which he would argue with. "How can you know that about me?" he asked in an email. "Because," you replied, "of the things you said when describing your project."
"Can you be more clear?" he wrote.
You spoke of your experience in dealing with authors when you were a salaried editor at a number of publishing houses, when you were an instructor at a prestigious graduate writing program, when you were a workshop leader at a prestigious writers' conference, and even now, as a freelance editorial consultant. This has led you to a sense of which writers will be the easiest and most difficult to work with.
This led to the absolute determination on your part not to work with this individual, because, among other revealing signs you've had from writers, this kind of argumentative persistence is paramount. In consequence of which he called you a particular name you'd not heard in nearly ten years, when an acquaintance from your university days telephoned you, challenging you to guess who he was.
Your reply spoke of your complete lack of patience for such games, which led him to use one of the two words you are at great pains to avoid while in the process of argument. The word you had in mind was "always," as in, "you always were--" (The other word you attempt to avoid is never, as in, "you never--")
If memory serves, it had been yet another ten years since someone from those days , in fact, the student body president, said of you that "you always were--" Three robins do not make a spring, nor do they make you an arrogant bastard, but in many ways, such attitudes converge on the matter of a writer being told to remove something because it was not clear, because it was labored, or because it makes little or no sense.
The point of convergence is where attitudes about appropriateness differ, where one party is attempting to use Oriental furniture to decorate a room with a High Baroque theme, or where someone has moved an orotund chiffonier into a room otherwise notable for its Zen-like composure and simplicity.
At one time in your learning curve, your entire darling was being ignored if not killed. Now, only some of the darling is being killed instead of being ignored.
Saturday, August 22, 2015
If there were somewhere to your knowledge a pledge, you would sign it, but absent that, you vow to the following:
1. You will never again use the device of a character, standing before a mirror, examining him- or herself in order to convey to the reader a sense of what the character looks like. No more "She regarded her face, first in profile, then full on, thinking its oval asymmetry was not by any means unpleasing to look at." No more.
One possible exception: "She consulted the mirror to see how much she could rely on the effect of those contact lenses that shifted the hazel color of her eyes to a deep, ultramarine blue."
2. Although you wear a wristwatch, which you consult at least twenty times during the course of the day, and know for certain there is a built-in clock on your kitchen gas range and another on your toaster/oven, in addition to the time readily available on your iPhone and, in your work area, your iMac computer, you will never again have a character look at his/her watch to determine the time. You have grown tired of reading in manuscript and printed text the unimaginative ways in which characters learn what time it is.
You don't know where you read or heard this approach, but you can picture the two friends, well into an evening's carouse, wondering if they have time for a final round at the neighborhood pub. Neither has a watch, which causes one of the toppers to observe, "We're screwed."
His drinking mate says, "Not so fast. Watch this." Whereupon he bursts into a loud, off-key rendition of an old standard. Before long, the two carousers hear the sound of a window, being raised in wrath, followed by a voice, calling out. "What the hell's wrong with you, singing that loud at two o'clock in the morning?"
You either have time or you don't. You're worried about being late or early, or you aren't. But you don't have to let readers know what time it is in specificity in the first place, and even if you do, you don't have to freight this information by having your character look at wrist, wall clock, or built-in, glow-in-the-dark kitchen range.
Story, you keep reminding yourself, students, and those who have retained you to edit their manuscript, is not descriptive; story is evocative. By this, you mean story emerges as a cloud, replete with dimensions and implications. You expect a story to be presented as a dimensional form rather than a line, something the reader will, if you are successful, infer rather than envision because you have described it.
3. This may be a longer way of saying show, don't tell, but you don't mind, because show, don't tell bores the pants off of you and you have objections to moving about with no pants. Besides, there are places where telling is a good deal more dramatic than showing. Drops of rain began to splatter about him and off his head. Should have listened, and taken the raincoat.
Confused by the litany of repetitions of this mantra, the beginning and intermediate writer will in consequence have the character count the number of steps from the entryway to the living room of a suspect's house.
The writer will have done so in the firm belief that she is conveying the placement and dimensions of the house rather than describing it. (As if we needed that information to enter the story.) How much better to begin with the notion that the reader infers rather than discerns, thus it becomes the writer's job to evoke rather than describe.
Think of telling instead as the author, stepping forward as though the story were a Woody Allen film, stopping the action, then calling our attention to some aspect of the story. He, for example, was desperate. Or, She had no idea what to do next. Even, He was hungry. Those are the sorts of tells you look for in everything you read, not the least of which is within your own drafts.
When curiosity or interest or even nostalgia take you back to a favored writer, say Wilkie Collins, and, amidst the flow of things that cause him to remain one of your favorites, you see a tell, the answer is clear. You reread the tell, recast it as though you were making editorial suggestions, then, most valuable of all, resolve to be alert for such tells in your own work
Some of the best dialogue imaginable--which is to say that it becomes memorable--has its precise effect because of what is not said, and yet the reader not only hears but supplies to the text. No more of this "He felt a bead of sweat form at his shoulder blades, then pick up momentum as it ran down his spine, while he searched for the words that would get him out of this painful situation."
You can see why such tropes would cause the reader to set, if not throw, the book down. Your job as the writer-director of this situation is to provide information from which the reader is able to draw inferences rather than to narrow the reader's choice to the absolute acceptance of the one way you visualize.
By its overwhelming nature, Reality is ambiguous, chaotic, uncaring. If there is in fact such a thing as good or bad karma, those qualities begin and end outside the boundaries of Reality, which is to say they are not based on behavior ascribed to Reality. If you are kind to everyone, pay your debts in an orderly manner, help old ladies across the street and avoid the temptation to pull cats' tails, you will likely be happy most of the time, but such behavior will not prevent a minor part from an overhead airplane from falling on you, causing you incalculable harm.
Nor will the incalculable harm prevent you from questioning what you did to deserve this woeful result. We do not abstain from pulling cat's tails for the goal of transcendence, rather we don't do it because we feel better not doing so. We do what we do to make ourself experience comfort and ease in a Reality revolving about chaos, change, loss, and sorrow.
4. Observation and avoidance of these elements will not make you a better writer. That comes from your ability to represent the more nuanced inner workings and composition of your characters, goals you hope to approach. Observation and avoidance of these elements, the watch, the mirror, and the tell, will remove obstacles you place between yourself and your readers.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Over the course of your experiences as an editor and a teacher of publishing-related topics (the short story, the novel, memoir, essay) you've had the opportunity to edit a considerable range of material.
The writers you've dealt with in consequence have expressed as broad a range of responses as you imagine there to be within the human condition. These responses have ranged from such positive-based attitudes as gratitude, agreement, and your favored of all, the sense of cooperation that comes when both the editor and the writer understand the satisfaction of the author's intent being made clear and resonant.
To be sure, there have been opposite responses, ranging from defensiveness to combativeness, ending with accusations that you have set out with deliberation to somehow subvert and repudiate the very material you as editor sought to acquire for publication or that you, as teacher, have suggested in connection with an assignment designed to help the writer understand his or her feelings and thoughts about the subject at hand.
You've seen the results of your own work after it has been reviewed and commented upon by an editor, on occasion leaving you with notes and questions which cause you, against your attempts to think this way, to question the overall intelligence of the editor. An exaggerated example of this last aspect might be a note in the margin of a manuscript in which you'd made reference to Mahatma Gandhi. The note will say, "Who he?"
There have been occasions when editors have asked if you could dumb something down, eschew your use of the semicolon, add more background, write shorter sentences, avoid using the word "and" to connect independent clauses, explain what you meant, remove explanation, become more conversational in your narrative voice, stop making puns, stop making jokes, and stop using Moby-Dick or Bleak House as examples of narrative conflict.
In fairness, you've made similar requests or suggestions when you were the editor of someone else's work. This sense you have of a necessity to fairness compels you to recognize the times when all is going well between a writer and an editor; as well you recognize the feelings of exasperation felt by each at the hands of the other.
Writing and editing are two different things. The writer is engaging a pretense of being one or more characters, claiming to understand the attitudes and visions of each character. The writer may also be a filter for a line of thought or a procession of information, presented as an argument that may betray attitude but not lapses in logical progression.
The editor wants to remove distractions and equivocation. This reminds you of an argument you saw yourself close to being swallowed up by when, as an editor of an English writer who taught at a university in Scotland persisted in the use of a figure of speech known as litote, whereby a character may, for instance not be kind, nor would she be unkind, thus the character may be said to have been not unkind.
She smiled at me in a not unkind way. American. literal, and impatient you wanted to get on with it. The character was either kind or unkind. We do not, you wrote, go about, talking about things that are absent. You would not say "There was no honey in the larder" Not unless a character had made a specific search for honey. Then, you could either say "There was no honey to be found, after all the searching," or "There was no honey in the larder."
You could not say a person was not unkind, you said. With the certainty of a person who had used such memes all his life, the author replied to you, "One most certainly can." He insisted that the individual of whom he spoke was neither kind nor unkind, rather a third degree on the scale, not unkind.
Sooner or later, you reminded yourself that you were this individual's editor, not his teacher, not his judge, not his critic. You were publishing him because he had something to say about a subject your publishing house wished to publish, something that had survived two peer reviews, neither of which said the work was not invaluable or not unpromising, rather that it was valuable and promising.
Even though the peer reviewers were Brits, who might well have said the work was not without promise, they chose a more direct, American, by your view, means of description. He's the author. You're the editor. Your job is to support him, not to rail about an aspect of speech you would not think to use, even though he uses the aspect of speech you rail about when the opportunity presents itself.
Sometimes, when you look at the suggestions an editor has made to you about something you've written, you have to ask yourself if following the editor's suggestion will make you sound more like yourself or more like the aspects of your communication that have come from your early days of wanting to affect the urbanity or wit or irony of an admired author. If you don't have the urbanity or wit or irony, you've learned in the process that you need to get it. You have you, which was your ticket into this situation in the first place.
Thursday, August 20, 2015
For someone who spent a good chunk of his early years trying to learn how to write when he was not trying to learn the applied physics of knocking round balls into round holes, you could not see the irony of how you were trying to fit characters into the mannered, formulated places where they did not belong.
Among the many aspects of conventional wisdom you bought into was the one whereby stories had designs that were as patterned as the designs on the carpets of cheap hotels, neat, predictable, with a touch of flowers at the ends.
You were even in the hands of a literary agent whose younger brother wrote regular notes of encouragement. He assured you that all you needed was a bit more spunk and determination to hit the then lucrative slick magazine markets. Checks of a thousand dollars a story were common there. In addition, it was well known that book editors browsed in their spare time, looking for writers who had a strong sense of--yet another word the brother of the agent liked to throw around--structure.
"Stick with the slicks,Shelly," the brother, whose name was Sidney, wrote. "You have a real knack for the unorthodox."
An editor at Playboy, whom you eventually published, said of one of your unorthodox knack stories that he found it pretty difficult to "see what you're trying to accomplish here." Later, when the tables were, in effect, turned, and you were his editor, he disclaimed any memory of your story and said it was probably one of his assistants, who liked to write existential rejection letters.
You were pretty good on spunk. To show how much determination you had, you began cutting back on practice sessions at Spider's Pool Hall on Santa Monica Boulevard, and the hot beef and cheese sandwiches that seemed so addictive. Thus two out of three. Structure was another matter.
Even now, as you are at work, examining your early influences, you understood how you did better at the beef and cheese sandwiches at Spider's than you did on his pool or snooker or billiards tables and, not uncoincidentally, your strength was characters, most of whom were not comfortable with plots.
A plot is a design of events that take place in and around the story. You could also say--and have--that a plot is the precise arrangement of all the beats within a story, the beat being the most basic movement of a story.
There are conventional patterns for the arrangements of certain elements in each of the several genre. Were you teaching a course in critical theory, you could argue that a genre is more than a mere type such as mystery or romance or historical, it is also a series of beats arranged in a way to tell a particular kind of story for a particular kind of reader.
For the longest time, while in the process of trying to write toward those thousand-dollar checks and the sense of satisfaction that came from having stories printed in magazines whose paper was slick (which you later learned meant that talcum powder was pressed into the paper in its raw, pulp stage), you began to think you'd been born in the wrong time. Your predilection was for the picaresque, the character-dominated plot, where your front rank people could do pretty much what they felt like doing.
The important thing to learn from all of this is that writing is difficult enough under any circumstances without adding to the burden by forcing you to do something that does not at some point seem like fun. In the same way you can say of plot that it is design, you can say of fun that it is mischief put into play. Mischief becomes the engine for ridicule, the target being some convention, institution, or practice.
All three of these targets, you are quick to note, are form incarnate. So you have come, as one of your writing mentors liked to say, the long way around the barn to get at what energizes you the most, intriguing, off-center characters, a fragile mash-up of the types seen in the late, lamented actors Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, blended with a measure of Groucho Marx and a dash of John Goodman.
You need to balance the matter with women characters who are off-center. Try the blend of Lily Tomlin, Vivien Leigh, Veronica Lake, and Gillian Anderson.
These combinations impress you as not only not requiring a plot to provide stage presence, they in effect transcend plot. You are in their hands. They have no inertia whatsoever that will allow them to lay at rest; they are movement, they are ambitious, incarnate drama, wanting to be off and doing. Where ever they go, wherever they are, there will be story.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
You head south on the PCH, comfortably ahead of the start-and-stop go-home traffic. The day is a comfortable overcast, but that means little to the surfers, who will be out in any weather. Your destination is quite close to one of the iconic surfer landmarks, Rincon Point, a gentle sweep of a south-facing inlet.
You make good time through the lower depths of Santa Barbara, into the first outlier, the village of Summerland, then past the leisurely curve of the Padaro Road offramp, moving steadily toward Santa Claus, wondering in passing, why anyone ever goes there, wondering with greater specificity why you go there when you find yourself there.
After another mile, the beginnings of the Carpinteria offramp until, at length, you're past those and moving over to the right lane, taking the downward tilt of road toward the Bates Road turnoff. A quick right at the first road, and you're soon at the gate to Rincon Point homes. You punch in the code, oh-five-oh, wait while it dials, then a familiar voice answers.
In a brief moment, the motorized gate reminds you of a tall person at a patisserie, standing to brush croissant crumbs from his chest and lap. The gate seems to lurch, then begins to roll open.
You drive through, onto a street with the engaging Spanish name of Puesta del Sol. A few hundred yards down the road and you pull into a parking area, parking directly in back of a sign that reads THOU SHALT NOT PARK HERE.
You flip the gate latch, then become set on by two dogs, a cast-eyed Aussie Shepherd, and an imperious Pomeranian, who take on about you as though you were a door-to-door salesman or someone up to no good. This continues for less than a minute before they realize they know you. This is the home of one of your oldest and dearest friends.
The last time you saw him, it was here, in the living room, where the Hospice nurses had set a hospital bed. He was sipping through a straw a weakened version of one of his favorite drinks, rum and Diet Coke. Some eight or ten hours after you'd last seen him here, his wife called you to tell you not to bother to come because he'd ventured on, most likely in his sleep.
Over the years, you'd spent a good deal of time here, were familiar with the arrangements of books in the shelves, the seemingly formless manner in which all kinds of framed drawings, watercolors, oils, and shrewdly executed trompes l'oeil hung. Nearly every available space was covered with a bevy of items your friend had carved in what he'd begun to call his whittling period, sometimes given whimsical paint jobs, other times more a camouflage, still other times as though they, too, were trompes l'oeil.
Much of your friend's life could be said to be a trompe l'ceil; he was the very incarnation of a trick of the eye himself, a man owned by his work. Ah, his work. Dozens of books. Novels, memoirs, and any number of titles whose content meant to show readers how they could, if they listened with care, write things as charming, insightful, and humorous. Dozens of stunning charcoal sketches. Countless oil portraits, and, when the mood struck him, the practiced hand of a watercolorist who knew the important issue relating to watercolor: get it down fast, get it down right the first time.
You have not been here since February 11, 2013. Neither has he, but in the sense you experienced today, you'd been here many times, and of a certainty, he was here today, his presence manifest in his drawings, carvings, paintings, and the mischievous sense of humor resident in all the objects of art created by him, sprinkled about the house.
He had yet another talent, one you hear referred to as people skills from time to time. In his living room or den or even in his work room, you managed to meet many of the writers and performers you grew up reading and admiring, the width of this smorgasbord scale exemplified by writers Julia Child and William Styron, by Bob Kane, the creator of Batman and Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts.
Because of him, you were on first-name basis with persons you might never have met, only read or watched in their performances. Budd Schulberg. John Hersey. Eudora Welty. Gore Vidal, and the opportunity to spend time with Elmore Leonard, whom you'd met while working for his paperback reprint publisher, Dell.
Most important of all, the spoken and unspoken during moments where lunch at least twice a week and more if you were editing one of his many books. The conversations, wild and wide as they ranged, were counterpoint to the silences two friends share. Often, in those silences, you saw something of his at work you could aspire to bring into your own life. A favorite joke-by-exaggeration of his was to ask, when watching some complex form of behavior, "But how does [it or that] know what do do?"
It is a simplicity to say that if he wished to know how a thing were accomplished, he'd take it apart, examine the components, they try to restore it. His name, because you have not mentioned it here, was Barnaby Conrad. Two and a half years without him in your life have caused the perspective to come into play you need to have in your toolkit when dealing with grief.
The business of you being impressed by his curiosity must have sunk in; on the occasions when he appears in your dreams, he seems to be asking, "How do they do that?"
Considering the forty years of your friendship, two and a half years without sucks, but in addition to the memories, you have the gift of curiosity, the wonderment of how a story or behavior or condition reached the stage it was in when you first encountered it.
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
When you were quite a bit younger, small objects, more often found than purchased, seemed more precious and magical than small objects, more often purchased than found.
You not only had your share of such things--stubs of #2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, marbles, certain bottle caps from soft drinks, playing cards with unusual decorative designs, fish hooks, pieces of string, and the one set of things you'd actually bought, a Duncan yo-yo and an envelope containing two spare yo-yo strings, pieces of colored chalk, and a plastic magnifying glass which came as a prize in a box of Cracker-Jacks--you had a satisfying way of keeping these treasures in some order.
The satisfaction resided in the fact of your father, a serious cigar smoker, was a constant source of storage opportunities; he was good for enough boxes to keep you and your sister supplied. His own eclectic tastes pushed you along the way to a serious consideration of becoming a collector of cigar boxes.
You are your father's son in the sense of being able to locate three cigar boxes, all made of cedar, in which you store an eclectic assortment of fountain peens, ranging from ancient Esterbrooks to your absolute favorite, an Ancora with mother-of-pearl sides.
Other things you collect tend to vary from your old tastes. These, being more the sort of things you can write in notebooks, no longer require cigar boxes. Uppermost among these later collections are characters. There is at least one notebook somewhere about the studio in which you have begun to collect individuals based on their name or some interesting trait or some way these creations have of earning their living that impresses you.
Even the most cursory skim reading of these blog-related reflections will show a growing preoccupation with Sisyphus, who, at your last notes on him, had been doing so well with the task assigned him by Zeus that he'd been hard pressed to get his work done because scores of individuals had become interested in watching him work.
Your comments on that splendid cartoon character, Wile E. Coyote occupy several of these three thousand odd blog essays, and, highly focused and motivated as he is, he has found his way into a recent book of yours. The context for your admiration and use of him will become apparent with your reminder that he deserves consideration as the patron saint of characters.
If memory serves, your latest addition to your panoply of characters who are not of your own creation--those present an entirely different challenge--was the daughter of King Oedipus and niece of King Creon, a man who went well out of his way to become her oppressor.
This character of high principal and even higher purposeful focus is Antigone. Not presented as an especially religious individual, certainly no prototype for that young girl from Orleans, Joan, Antigone became painted into the ethical corner of preferring death to allowing the body of her recently dead brother. In the culture Antigone was raised in, one had to be buried, or no Underworld.
Spending time with Antigone as she learns of the causes of and for her brother's death and the implications of his not being allowed a proper burial, we of the twenty-first century can still find it within ourselves to sympathize with her stubborn refusal to back off and play by the cultural rules of the time.
Your urgent candidate for another individual to be stored away in the growing list of memorable characters is Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Before her real problems started, her biggest handicap was her beauty and intelligence. These came to the attention of Apollo, who, among other things, was the go-to individual where matters of prophecy were concerned.
Apollo wanted Cassandra for his boo, which in principal did not seem to trouble her. Nevertheless, she thought it might be a good idea to have from Apollo the gift of prophecy. Thinking things over, he agreed, at which point you have to wonder how, with the gift of prophecy a fait accompli, Cassandra could not see the consequences when she spurned Apollo's advances.
Even now, you can hear Apollo saying, "What do you mean, no? You forgetting who I am?"
"Maybe we could keep it as friends?"
And Apollo, from what you hear, not exactly bubbling with empathy, saying, "Friends? Are you fucking kidding me? I was thinking of us as a, you know, couple. A little pasta, some Mediterranean salad, a little nookie now and then, some Chianti--"
"I've changed my mind."
The gift of prophecy, once given, cannot be retracted. But Apollo was not to be trifled with, not in so abrupt a manner. He promptly arranged for Cassandra's prophecies to be quite accurate, but not believed by anyone who heard them.
In ways of remarkable dramatic potential, Cassandra's circumstances join those of the other characters you mention. She transcends potential. Cassandra no longer suggests story, she becomes story.
Monday, August 17, 2015
With the possible exceptions of James Fenimore Cooper's laconic character, Natty Bumpo, Owen Wister's taciturn Virginian, and Harper Lee's taciturn Atticus Finch, most of the enduring characters in the literature of this country and abroad have what may be with some justification called an attitude.
Matters little if the character were male or female. Who, for instance, is willing to stand up with the nomination of Scarlet O'Hara for a Woman of the Year Award? We know Holden Caulfield is wound up tighter than a knock-off Rolex watch, and even the seemingly shy Clyde Griffiths, from the pages of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy had it within him to let his pregnant girlfriend "fall" over the side of a boat when it suited his prospects to have her out of the picture.
In order to carry the dramatic burden of a major or lead character in a novel, the individual must have some kind of attitude that will cause him/her to some form of combustion in the present work.
If not that, then the memory of having done something in the past that is of a disturbing enough nature to cause that character guild, regret, or the hubris of thinking a significant past action, however violent and/or vindictive, was justified.
Such reckoning might suggest the need to pile a burdensome backstory on the standout characters. Loyal, loving, considerate as Hamlet's pal, Horatio, is, when the time comes to discuss the effects each character had in the play and what he or she contributed, Horatio is given short shrift in any critical conversation.
The two women, Queen Gertrude, and Ophelia are left to wriggle on the hook of self-doubt, grief, and guilt. Even though both roles were originally performed by boy actors, Shakespeare gave each woman character sufficient cause to feel the bewilderment and desolation set loose as Hamlet begins planning out his revenge
The new King, Claudius, his factotum, Polonious, and the finely paired Rosenkrantz and Guildernstern all have attitudes, which lead them to believe in the rightness of their behavior. This an attitude that, having been present in each to a lesser degree than it was, might not have left the last act of the play so littered with corpses.
Ophelia's brother, Laertes, has an easy go of things at first. If we notice him, we scarcely summon the fear that his sister's suicide after having been dumped by Hamlet, will cause his transformation.
If being ordinary does not give a character significant traction within a story, being mild, bereft of all but the most surface politeness will undercut them almost as much as they can possibly endure. Attitude in significant enough presence to cause the audience to be on the alert for some explosion, some melt-down or false step, becomes the trigger.
The audience sees in actuality or metaphor the tightening of the character's fingers on the trigger. Now, all we need is the bang before we understand we are in a circumstance where the outcome is present, extensive, but somehow deserved.
The bang translates as the precipitous event, the clash, the confrontation, whether a duel, a pitched battle, a competition such as a rodeo or horse race, the recognition that this battle, either taking place or about to erupt full tilt is the throw-down we've been waiting for ever since we met the principal characters.
Time after time, we realize yet another way Story differs from Reality. In the former, we want voluble, serious argument, where one or more of the arguers is likely to lose composure in a fine roman candle spray of an eruption. In the latter, we feel better served if the payoff comes from mature, considerate and considered discourse.
We may wish for the combative, but we are secretly pleased when all sides sign off on a bloodless accord in time for the next performance of a story wherein strong-minded sorts are all too willing to limp their way to closure.
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Here you are, ten or so percent of your way into a project about the hundred novels that most had effects on your emergence as a writer. The you who has been a reviewer, editor, and also a teacher of critical theory, will (and has) immediately come forth with a glaring anomaly.
All well and good for you to represent these hundred novels as the ones having most nudged and cajoled you on your way to produce fiction. But suppose there are novels you've read and not included in your list because you were/are not consciously aware of their influence on you.
Even greater supposition, there is a character or two within one of these "forgotten" novels that has had material effect on you to the point where you are trying to imitate them. Touching this point, you've heard yourself argue, sometimes in the presence of bottles of wine and writer friends, other times in classrooms that readers are more apt to remember characters from novels than the plots driving the characters' behavior
This business of forgotten novels is not so cerebral as it may sound, Early in your learning attempts, you in fact copied writers you admired, which is to say you laboriously copied pages of their prose, looking for a sense of how they saw their stories emerging, their characters stepping forth to utter their lines and perform their activities.
Characters can do no more or no less; they are of a piece with the ensemble of actors in daily or weekly soap operas. At best one reading, one rehearsal, then performance.Characters cannot improvise. They are bound to follow the script.
Your efforts in copying Robert Louis Stevenson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John O'Hara helped you to the degree of you being able to hear their narrative voice. Your efforts also seemed to have lodged in certain contemporary and personal uses that were outside your own. No question that your own usage was a Petri dish of unanticipated growth.
The question remains unanswerable, at best moot. The best you can say now is that you've attacked with some deliberation the notion of patterning yourself after a particular writer. Your intent in reading now is to recognize the deftness and apparent ease with your favored writers speak to the page.
Next step becomes wondering how you might do in presenting such a scene, your most recent self-editing preoccupation watching with care your tendency to play train with your sentences, coupling an independent clause here, widening the scope of a clause there, in effect producing the equivalent of a one-sentence paragraph.
You're well aware of your habit words as well as your tendency to link independent clauses with an and, as well as the occasional moments of liking to begin sentences with And and But. You catch these in revision. You also catch long, Faulknerian sentences, breaking them up into two or three smaller ones except when, after much examination, you conclude that the long sentence is better because in its way it helps to indicate the passage of time.
Back to these "might haves," the novels that might have wormed their way into your writing presence, then burrowed in, without your awareness. You could with ease list another hundred novels you enjoyed.
A shrewd lawyer or, for that matter, literature instructor, could trip you up. "I see that you've listed The Adventures of Augie Marsh as one of your hundred significant influences. You're sure, are you, that Humboldt's Gift, by the same author, had less effect? And before you answer that, didn't you in fact give a character in one of your favorite of your own stories a name closely based on one of the main characters in Humboldt's Gift?"
The answer to that is likely to cause you some embarrassment. How nice it would be to experience certainty, in particular because there are wide gaps in your understanding of why and how you writer. You're filling them with some regularity, but it is the same thing as arguing against communal awareness for you to say you understand all the aspects of what, how, and why you write.
The best you can do in summary is to emphasize how you've grown into the pursuit of understanding a character in terms of what he or she wants, and what he or she will do--or not--in order to achieve the goal (over which you have no control except the degree to which you identify with or against).
Saturday, August 15, 2015
The audience makes a basic assumption when purchasing seats at a theater or when settling in to watch some form of filmed drama. Some combination of speech and dramatic action are on the way. Even now, they are in the wings, waiting for their cue to enter, to, as theatrical persons say, "take stage."
Taking stage is a euphemism for becoming a notable presence, some projection of personality, setting, contemporaneousness, even so minor a presence as time of day. Lest you think time of day is of no matter, this example. Hamlet. Within seven brief lines of dialogue between two guards on the ramparts at Elsinore Castle, we have the time set. 'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
True enough, most of us know the details establishing the backstory. The ghost of Prince Hamlet's father appears, his goal to enlist Hamlet into his plot to avenge his recent murder by his own brother. But think about it. "Tis now struck twelve--"
Would that be noon? Of course not. What ghost is going to come out at noon? A ghost needs darkness to be effective. Conditions are bad enough for the ghost in the first place, without asking the wretched spirit to appear at, say, four of an afternoon, or a bit later, at dinner time. Midnight has a longtime reputation for being the witching hour. The old Scottish prayer alerts us:
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
With these assumptions in mind, and with great, often mischievous design, the writer has approached the craft of storytelling well aware how speech and action owe they effectiveness of the presence in each of the most magisterial trait, silence.
How easy to forget about silence when you consider the onslaught of ideas, sensual images, and details, all clamoring for inclusion in any kind of narrative with any notion at all of being dramatic. Easier still to forget the silence that sometimes goes along with out attempts to wrest dramatic effect from the tight fists of reality.
Silence on stage is not mere deliberation in the delivery of lines or the pause before a gesture or movement. Think instead of a long, sepulchral moment in which the audience becomes caught up in the pause, wondering if the character is afraid, bashful, overcome, perhaps even wondering if the actor has forgotten lines. Some writers and many actors are quite active in their use of silence as a manipulative tool.
Unless we are in some Quaker or Buddhist meditative ritual, silence is often not the norm. Silence causes us unease. If we happen to be Lionel Esrog, the Tourette's afflicted narrator of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, such a place, a Buddhist meditation, becomes a drawn out torture because Esrog well understands his inability to remain silent in such an atmosphere. This awareness is a precursor of consequence, much to Esrog's detriment.
Silence is the agent provocateur of story. The audience lingers on each syllable as it ventures forth, impatience building. The longer the speech takes, the more hesitation that precedes an action, the longer the audience/reader is prevented from finding out the things an audience or a reader need to know before the story concludes.
Safe to say, the moment the audience or reader learn what they are manipulated to want to hear, the story is all but over.