Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The True Beauty Is in the Story

The learning process is a true balance between the teacher and the pupil, where you often find it difficult to assess which, the learner or the learnee, has come away with the most benefit.  You have no qualms about going into a situation as a pupil, particularly if you've sought out the class, the teacher, and the subject, then enrolled.

Qualms do not enter the picture when you are a teacher and your after-the-fact assessment is of the class having been a successful one, exciting and fun to teach.  This is your recognition that you've made discoveries that energize, excite, and inspire you, often to the point where some new project will emerge or some ongoing problem, hanging in limbo, has now been resolved.

You at the moment all too aware of the times in your career when eighty or ninety percent of your working day as an editor had to do with material bound for publication.  Your own perception of it had been augmented by hearing individuals whose focus related to sales and promotion, possibly even from artists designing the cover.  

This awareness was out to trial this past weekend when, knowing in advance what you were getting into, you participated in a writers' conference, where you hosted a three-hour course in writing the modern short story, then interviewed a highly polished and professional mystery writer, then moderated a panel of literary agents, three of whom you knew from your own days as an editor. 

On day two of the conference, you were paired with a former senior editor, now a literary agent, for a five-hour intensive course which had the advertised goal of raising the participants writing skills to at least the next highest plateau on the mountain of professionalism.  In all your interactions, you knew the conversation would be stopped at least once when the topic ran toward revision and the editorial process.  

You accepted the invitation to attend and participate in the conference knowing at least one person would dig his or her heels in the editorial stand with a pronouncement.  "I don't care.  I love the language.  I write for the beauty and music and cadence of the language.  I write for the beauty of the metaphor and simile, and the overall beauty of effect the sweep and flow of language can have."

The awaited or, perhaps you should say dreaded moment came when your presentation arrived at what specifics could be removed from specific manuscripts without harming and instead enhancing the story at hand.  The classroom was carpeted.  You could not, therefore, hear the student's heels digging in, but you could see the look on her face as she, in an increase of passionate focus, spoke the words quoted directly above.

You heard her out, hoping your nodding response conveyed sympathy and understanding.  In your heart, you knew you were being typecast.  Enemy.  Philistine. Even worse, commercial.  After all, hadn't you once worked for a massmarket publisher?  Hadn't you, at one sales meeting, presented a title with your reckoned sales potential for one hundred fifty thousand copies, only to be reminded by your immediate superior, "You know, don't you, that when we say massmarket, we're thinking at least a half million copies, preferably a million?"

"Can anyone in this room,"  you said, turning to make eye contact with as many in the audience as possible, "name me a writer who sets out with deliberation to write clunky, awkward prose that grates on the readers' sensibility?"

Your adversary would have none of your implication.  "If a story doesn't have beauty, it really isn't a story."

You were right there with a comeback.  "If a narrative has too much beauty, it really isn't a story."
This led to what in your experience in such matters you've come to ascribe to the last-ditch plateau of desperation.  "Then I'd hate to see what you consider beautiful storytelling."

Ha, ha.  Gotcha.  Whether fair or not, you have stored in memory the first stanza of a poem by John Keats, whom you admire, and which represents to you not only vivid beauty and presence but simultaneous story.  

 ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
  The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
  The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
  And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
  Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told         
  His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
  Like pious incense from a censer old,
  Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

Pretty good for a philistine.

Sometimes we tend to forget the beauty in the simple, direct evocation of circumstance and the writer's passion for the story at hand.


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