Friday, August 14, 2015

Listen Here, Listen, Here, and Listen. Here.

 You should be able to tell if there is chemistry between you and a short story within the first page,, often within the first paragraph.  How, for instance, are you not going to relish the first story in the new Ann Beattie collection, The State We're In?  

How are you not going to experience chemistry with a story that which begins:  "The summer school assignment, the fucking fucking summer school third paper of ten, and if you didn't get at least a C on the first none, you had to write eleven papers, the fucking teacher wadding up her big fat lips so they looked like a carnation, her lips that she'd used to pout at your inadequacy...this paper, to hold their interest, was supposed to be about Magical Realism, and although you didn't have to read all of the Marquez book, the teacher soooooo loved, she had distributed several paragraphs from the book in which weird things happened, and your paper was supposed to go on forever, like the writer, then have the clouds howl, or something like."

By the time you've finished the story, you may have a different picture of the narrator and a different opinion about her psychological makeup than you get after this opening sentence, but finish you will.  

Why?  Because you know yourself by now, and you know when you've been taken to a state where you are no longer indulgent, you are beyond such category of accommodation, you are in, in being the mindset of the narrator, without any sense of the author being present to guide you in the manner, say, of those wand-waving deck hands on aircraft carriers, guiding the pilots in for a landing.

The should-be-able-to-tell zone for a novel is a bit longer, up to three, maybe even four pages, at which time, if you have no gravy spots on your necktie or shirt front because you haven't worn a tie for a long time, you put the book down.  If you happen to be a student and the novel has been assigned, and there is no equivalent of a gravy or pasta stain, you are, as the narrator of the Ann Beattie story would suggest, fucked.

This existential state of being fucked is so because there is a grade hanging out there somewhere and your need to see this novel for which you have no chemistry in some kind of perspective that will help you see the kinds of things you see in Reality after reading a novel for which there was immediate chemistry.

How are you not going to recognize the enormous, shrewd set-up Herman Melville throws at us with the opening to Moby-Dick, however thick and, in places, imponderable?  The moment you realize Ishmael may well be bi-polar, signing on the get away from the existential grunge of the nineteenth century Reality, you'll already have enough experiences with individuals pressing stories at you--some of them in fact quite true--to allow you to anticipate what's coming next.  

This is going to be the boat trip to Hell, because the hellishness of the shore is the reason Ishmael signed up in the first place, and this is clearly no Disney tale, this is the tale of a man who walks about with hells of his own, has been drawn into a significant one.  

In some ways, both abilities at understanding the need for early chemistry in the novel and short form provide an index to the reader's psyche.  If the reader suspects something is going to go wrong, the reader may come through the ordeal with a strong sense of what coming through the battle with the whale meant to Ishmael and whatever he can make of the events that come tumbling forth.

For a while, after you left the university, you felt the freedom of not having to read assigned novels and short stories,  You could concentrate on reading the writers you cared about, forming your own vision of the universe in which you now found yourself, unconnected in the sense of having no graduate school to go to, no job in the field you'd like to have a job, only the growing sense you were getting a handle on the dramatic forms.  These bits of knowledge would lead you, or so you thought, to a near Platonic ideal of intense reading, intense writing, and an intense impatience to merge your tastes with a tangible persona, your own literary self.

Dream on, you told yourself, momentary breakthrough lingering for a moment or two within your grasp.  Dream on and, while you're at it, fuck Platonic idealism.  On the chance that the books and stories you'd successfully avoided had not been recognized as classics, you might have remained, on the lookout for the things you could read past page four.  But here was reality, pulling you out of the bubble you'd placed yourself in through your decision to read only things of immediate appeal to you.

How were you ever to learn with an attitude like that?  Staring you in the face was the great irony that you were attempting to write things for which you had no particular chemistry, trying to learn more about writing things you were less than thrilled with, all the while not reading things you didn't think you'd like.

You've in fact learned three valuable things:

1.  If you see you're not going to like a story after the first page or a novel after the first three, write as specific a memo to yourself about why this is so.

2.  After you've done that, at least one sentence about what that particular book or short story would need for you to find some chemistry with it.

3.  When you've written the first page of a story and it falls flat, or you begin a novel and it loses its fizz, ask yourself for an answer to the question, What does this need to make you like it?

4.  I lied.  Four things.  Number four:  Shut up and listen to the material.  It may take time, but you're not going anywhere at all until you listen.

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