Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Authorial Acts of Betrayal

In one important sense, the author is the arbiter of everything related to a story and how that information is conveyed to the reader or audience.  To demonstrate that particular sense, you begin a laundry list beginning with characters, who they are at the moment the story begins, and, quite often, who they were in relevant events leading up to the beginning.

The one important sense continues with the author's choice of characters who will come forth to dramatize the story.  These individuals may, in some stories, be complete strangers, thus interacting on a significant basis of chemistry, likes, dislikes,, motives, antipathies, and the like.  

Two characters who might otherwise be on the same side are nevertheless at odds because one is homophobic and the other is gay.  Or, still on the same side, one is a male supremacist while the other is quite female.  And such at-odds chemistry becomes even more intense when characters face their opponents.

The author also owns the choice of settings as well as the need to articulate them, and their possible effects on the characters.  The author also governs the range and degree of conflicts necessary to produce the story.  By the time this point of acknowledgment is reached, even the most distant outsider to the inner process of story can see the power triangle, with the author perched at its top.

Some writers believe the story comes from some external origin, as divine as a gift from the godhead or as highly personal as the writer's imagination.  Others believe the characters come first, appearing to the writer as supplicants, whereupon the author in effect tells the characters what they want.  Thus immersed in the baptismal font, the characters begin to engage in their mutual and individual quests for personal goals, creating conflicts which the author referees.

This brings us to another important sense, the author as referee or reporter.  One mystery-type novel in which you had a considerable editorial hand. A Duty to Betray, had as its principal character a psychologist, who is mandated to report any patient he believes has the intention of harming himself or other persons.  

A student who has been a teacher for over thirty years has let slip the term "mandated reporter," to describe her duty to report to superiors a child who might be being abused or who might be on the verge of displaying traces of impaired growth, behavior, or a combination of both.

You see the author caught up in this need to observe or in effect do a close reading on her own characters because mere observation is not enough, nor is speculation.  The author needs to see characters in action.  Almost-but-not-quite by definition, action in story is stressful, related to the character working at her stated goals, being caught between social and moral rocks and hard places.  For some time now, the author cannot intervene to effect therapy.  The most an author can do is work at making the problems worse.

In a true sense, the conventional approach for contemporary fiction, in which the author delegates the action and decision to the characters, leaves the author anything but a neutral observer.  Welcome to the twenty-first century, with dramatic conventions nudging the author off stage, into the wings. The author must watch his or her own characters trying to figure out on their own how to get out of a maize constructed by the author, which the author is now trying to rearrange while the story is still running.  By the creative act of setting characters loose within a setting that is at the least uncomfortable, at the most complete in its hostility, the author further conspires against his own characters.

Small wonder so many authors drink toward excess; they have become as stressed as their characters.  These polarities have their origin within the heart and mind of the author, these two poles themselves a conceit of metaphor, used to suggest that uncharted land of creativity.

For each new venture, the author is doing something in yet another metaphor.  The author is deputizing the heart and mind to go forth as Thomas Jefferson urged Lewis and Clark to venture into the wilderness to explore and map the Northwest Passage.  We all know how that turned out.

There was no Northwest Passage, but Lewis and Clark brought back the Great American Drama.  By signing on as a writer, we are making that inward trek in search of a goal that does not exist because it cannot exist.  We live on the record of our exploration.

When you were quite a bit younger, a Christmas gift you were not at all pleased with came your way.  The emotional politics attached lay in your awareness that the gift was intended for a distant cousin who claimed to have been upset by it.  The gift was an ant village.  Welcome to the world of ants, the enclosed instructions told you.

Unlike your cousin, you were not upset by ants, disappointed, yes, but not upset.  At the time, model airplanes were your focus.  But there you were, with the ants, and Murray, for whom the ants were intended, got instead a splendid model airplane assembly kit.

Alone with your ant village, you decided what the hell, opened the entry way to the village, removed the tube of ants, and imagined they were going off on an exciting journey.  You used your scant French to wish them Bon Voyage.  You watched them for a few days, imagining them on a safari.

In later years, you happened to be at a university with a psych department in the thrall of behavioral psychology, in particular the constructs of B. F. Skinner.  You had no real interest in the lab time and the mice put in mazes to see how they adapted to learning tasks.  You did not do well in psychology, but your mice were sent on adventures which, your instructor and B.F. Skinner to the contrary notwithstanding, you and they regarded with a proper sense of mischief.

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