Friday, January 29, 2016

Is There a Doctor in the Audience?

 Used to be you read for transportation, anything to get you out of and away from the relatively short, young, owlish-looking (thanks to thick horn-rimmed glasses) person you were, aware that your parents, once affluent, comfortable, and generous, were no longer affluent; they were in as much of a struggle to remain comfortable and generous as you were to get into worlds where you had some greater sense of control over your life.

Fast forward a few years and some life altering moves from west central Los Angeles to New York, New England, and Florida before returning to your old haunts. You were too young still to appreciate the nuances and side effects of being away, then returning to a different place as a different you.  You were a stranger in your own home town, however glad you were to be back in it. 

For one thing, you'd gained a year.  You'd gone from being on a par with your peers to being ahead of them, the youngest in your class and, accordingly even more suspicious than you were before. You saw former friends and classmates appraising you, wondering if you still remembered the old shortcuts and events. 

Transportation to other worlds and circumstances was still welcomed in your reading, but you were more likely to be proactive, which is to say eager to give suggestions to the protagonists whose adventures you read.  In some ways, this stage was the beginning of your considerations that writing was something you could visualize yourself doing. 

Now, you wanted nuance. You read fiction and nonfiction with the immediate goal of infusing yourself with sophistication.  Of course you read ahead of your age range, looking for the vocabulary of tangible experience.  You wanted to be able to read the configuration of mountain or lake or ocean the way a geologist would read them.  You wished to emulate the First Americans ability to track a person or animal to the extent of being able to see through their behavior and into their motives.  Of course you wished to be able to read yourself in the same, near mystical, manner.

Well into the times you gave direct thought to writing for an audience of readers, your motive nonetheless was to gain understanding of yourself, cast in the situations and dilemmas of the writers on whose backs you hoped to leapfrog into sophistication.  Small wonder F. Scott Fitzgerald so intrigued you. Small wonder you were so taken by Franz Kafka, wherein on any given day you could be ambushed by the mechanisms of the world about you.  

No wonder you were at such pains to examine the tangled circumstances into which Guy De Maupassant's characters were thrust. No surprise at all that you found the fictional world of Nathaniel Hawthorne so disturbing.  Were the actual individuals of his time as constrained as his characters?  Was there some possible thematic connection between his concerns and yours?

Sophistication and nuance carried you well into your twenties, and your first sense of having run into a brick wall of considerable substance.  "Does learning have to be painful?" you asked your mentor, Rachel.  "It seems that way at first," she said, "but later, when you absorb it, the learning process is willing to accommodate."  You needed time to assimilate and understand that, so, at the moment, you nodded your head as though you understood, still wishing to emit that aura of sophistication you craved.

Who would not wish to appear sophisticated before his mentor?  But this meant you needed more time in the trenches, writing stories to prove your sophistication to yourself rather than writing stories in which you fearlessly took on the unwrapping of the package.  Now, waiting in the wings, eager to come on stage the awareness that you were borrowing the sophistication of Fitzgerald and Lardner and, to an extent, Salinger.  For some time, you'd allowed your characters to believe they could solve problems by using the sophistication and nuance of other writers.

Now, you were on your own. After years of reading to please yourself and writing to effect a risky and unlikely camaraderie with the men and women whose stories turned your emotions to the awe and shiver of understanding, you had to set about offering that most important thing a writer needs to address:  substance.

Voice alone would not accomplish your goal.  Sophistication is like the maraschino cherry the preparer of the sundae applies last, pure ornament. Nuance is the effect some writer achieved before you were born. Your characters must extend beyond individuals you pass on a crowded Manhattan street.  Don't make eye contact; they'll think you're a tourist and swerve to avoid you.

Step forth.  Bump where you have to.  Gawk, even. Be alert to the enormous party you are rushing to celebrate or the heart-wrenching tragedy you are winding your way through. Remember the last time you ached for a lost friend or lover, then offer that gift of connection to someone you meet now, along the way.

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