Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Frankenstein's Monster in Your Prose

 During a typical week, at least three publications come your way in print format, bringing news and commentary related to books, at least three others appear in your email folder, and one magazine, The New Yorker, has at least one page devoted to books,  the "Books Briefly Noted" feature, if not a longer review essay on a work of fiction, biography, or investigative reporting.  


Then there are the monthly magazines, The Atlantic, and Harpers, often containing five or six pages of book review.  On a quarterly basis, you have visits from The Threepenny Review, Tin House, The Sewanee Review, The Paris Review, all of which present story, essay, poetry, and extracts from works in progress but reviews of all manner of titles, commercial, recondite, and somewhere in between.

This surfeit of reading material and commentary about recent publications satisfies your interest in the life you've chosen to lead, the work you find yourself doing or engaging in some procrastination against doing, and that ongoing segment of personal enrichment you think of as the education you are providing yourself now that you are no longer in the role of a student.

Dealing with all this reading, processing of what you read, then trying to come to terms with it has caused you a number of subjective responses, many of which are determined by your progress or lack thereof on a project, your periodic bouts of self-assessment, and your satisfaction or lack thereof with your life in its current momentum.

The number of things you think to read can be staggering, particularly if a given week, month, or season is filled with provocative, daunting flashes of vision and idea from young writers, contemporaries, or those long dead whom you are discovering for the first time or revisiting with some purpose in mind.  One of the results of reading and processing leads you to think of a book you first read as an undergraduate, although you'd seen screen versions of it for as far back as you can remember.

The screen versions frightened you, which they were supposed to do.  Even though you didn't have the emotional or intellectual vocabulary to see the process as you now see it, you understood on some basic level that being fearful of Dr. Frankenstein's monster meant the story was a success.  Later, when you read the book for the first time, there was envy because the author was more or less your age when she wrote it, that it had something to say beyond its basic story line.

You did not until recent years identify with Dr. Victor Frankenstein as you do now, seeing a grim-if-amusing comparison between what Frankenstein was seeking to create--life--and what you were and are trying to create, the illusion of life.  You've had ample opportunity to see some of your attempts, lumbering about as Frankenstein's monster, ably portrayed by the actor, Boris Karloff, lumbered about in search of experiences, understanding, and the means to contain the forces of life set loose within him.

One of the messages pounded at in the film admonished Frankenstein for trying to create something only God had the power to create.  Although you took that in as a theme, you never took it seriously.  Even then, you understood the need to find, if you could, your own themes.

On the other hand, you did, and still at times do, consider attempts to bring characters to life an act of hubris in the wake of so many gifted writers being able to do what you seek to do.  This is, of course, an aspect of the interior editor, whom you in large measure try to ignore until you reckon the time has come to let him out.

In sending the interior editor off to the side until you are ready for him, how easy it is to forget that, like you, he, too, has read, made notes, formed judgments, actually whispers commentary to you as you read the likes of Louise Erdrich, Deborah Eisenberg, Cynthia Ozick, Daniel Woodrell, Richard Price, Elmore Leonard.He, too, has learned on his own, away from the common wisdom you were both at pains to absorb.

Sometimes, when you reread something you'd composed, especially if it were something you'd become enthused about as you wrote, you are reminded of Boris Karloff, lurching about as the Frankenstein's monster.  Only after the effect of the comparison settles do you realize there was a dignified, intelligent man in that costume, his gestures and manner informed by years of study.

This is the individual you attempt to find in the characters you create, the lines of emotional needs and attempts at overcoming vulnerability. And you must be sure you see beyond the hubris in Dr. Frankenstein, into the great thirst of curiosity that caused him to pursue such a goal.  Without this awareness, your day's work can become little more than the monsters that frightened you when you were younger.

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