Thursday, September 3, 2015

Questions Asked

Until you realized that the I of first person narrative had to be anyone other than you, there was a marked desperation in your writing and in your personal life.  The sixteen-year-old you, however much he'd read at the time, was in a constant argument with the sophisticate and ironist he wished to become and the naif who took too much at face value, no questions asked.


 Your early connections with the concept of the naive narrator came at the time you were investigating the various approaches to narrative techniques.  One of your high school teachers, possibly even your creative writing instructor, dropped the term in connection with a novel you'd been reading.  

Your awareness became immediate.  The instructor's designation helped you to see the naivete of the character in the book, but it also helped you see the naivete in yourself.

Thanks to a generous introduction to the works of the English writer, Somerset Maugham, from your mother,you were excited by his short stories even more so than his novels.  These, which seemed, as you put it, "controlled and told and told," meaning you found his presence in his novels a distraction. His approach to the short story was another matter.  

Here was a witty, urbane sort, so convinced of the ironies and foibles of life that he simply had to tell you story after story to make sure you did;t get taken in by the pretentiousness and cultural propaganda about you.

The timing was perfect for you, which is to say you were young and eager for sophistication, even if it was sophistication from England.  Maugham surely had it; so did John O'Hara, an author closer to home, who seemed to have the American version of sophistication.  Your attempts at story telling were all in the first person, with you attempting to be the person who told rather than appeared in his narratives.

You even remember a serious discussion with a writer friend, fueled by several beers at dinner in a back booth at your favorite West Hollywood restaurant and bar, the famed Barney's Beanery.  "The only other solution," you said with three-beer bravado, "is to wait until I have much more experience before writing in first person."  This from the worldly wisdom of a young person with a forged identity card by which he could purchase the beer.

The recent release of a motion picture, Quartette, featured four Maugham short stories, each one introduced by him, wearing a white dinner jacket, tapping his cigarette on the edge of his cigarette case, and lighting up with a small Ronson lighter.  You had everything but the dinner jacket and the sophistication.  Because you knew you were lacking savoir faire,  you took Maugham on as a role model, which made the balance of your time in high school even more fraught with conflict than it might have been.

The lesson to be learned over the next several years was the essence of simplicity, so simple, in fact, that you tripped over it with some frequency.  Most--if not all--narrators are naive.  All narrators, whether aware of it or not, are in some degree naive.  The trick is to find out how naive and how much of a more worldly vision, which leads to the trick of what to do next.

Step number one:  find out who you are, and where you are hiding within the fantasy of who you wish to be.  You might never get beyond your imitation of who you wish to be.

Step number two:  there already is the fantasy of who you wish to be.  There is, as yet, no you that anyone can identify.

Step number three:  to make it as a writer, you have to be able to identify who you are, then spend some time giving that you some substance.

Step number four:  You need a character who is quite a bit like the person you feared you were becoming.  That character has to fail at first, then find a way to succeed in spite of the things that caused the failure.

Step number five:  Put the person you feared you were becoming in a story with the person you wished to be.  The person you feared you were becoming goes on to a narrow victory.

Step number six:  Now you are ready to take on differing points of view.


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