Thursday, August 20, 2015

Can You Please Watch My Story for Me While I Go Inside to Order Some Coffee?

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.

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