Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Shrewd Lawyer Could Trip You--or Your Characters--Up

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).

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