Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Extreme Makeover

The writer sitting to compose faces a barrage of binary options, the one most commonly heard being "Show, don't tell."  This means in effect to demonstrate through action or response or a combination of the two.  Instead of "Mary was impatient," we see Mary, first looking at her watch, then tapping her fingernails on some surface where we can hear her.

In some cases, particularly where well-meaning teachers are polled for their views on the matter, the writer is admonished to "Write about things you know" which implies the writer ought only to write about things of direct experience, which means, among other things, that Barbara Tuchman ought not to have written A Distant Mirror, because that noble effort was about the fourteenth century.  

Had Tuchman observed this warning, she'd only have written about the twentieth century, not its thematic relationship to the fourteenth century.  For your own part, you'd never dare consider a project with the provisional subtitle Notable Eccentrics of the Nineteenth Century, which, because you were indeed born in the twentieth century, you lack the qualifications to embark.

Writing only about things we know is an injunction fraught with trouble up ahead, not the least of which would be the impossibility of getting back in time for a look at history based on the discovery of newly discovered information.  Bookstores and libraries would be forced to vacate their shelves filled with fantasy fiction, which by definition deals with other worlds, realities of imagination rather than of the immediate presence.  

How very dull life would be if these two injunctions were observed as literal truth. The same injunction would apply to speculative fiction, which you are eager to reckon includes science fiction.  You could write about individuals who speculate, using any of several intended meanings for that verb.  Large numbers of individuals speculate on the outcome of sporting events and the most speculative sport of all, racing, in which on a given day, a particular horse may find the going a bit easier than his or her track mates.

You toss off the show-don't tell injunction with a casual toss of the wrist. Why would a story teller want to tell events when, by dramatizing them, she could take us as readers directly into the essential nature of their being, creating a sense of reality more memorable and detailed than the journalistic account of an actual event? 

Just as young persons take on adult traits and qualities through observation, experience, inner contemplation, and peer group or parental pressure, characters take on the layered finish of actual persons through their experiences with adversity, success, self-doubt, and the sandpaper effect of being in contact with family, friends, authority figures.

The second binary, write what you know, or write from your experience, brings more opportunity for discussion to the table.  Most writers write from experience whether consciously or through the chemistry of the creative process.  Many writers, yourself included, set forth with deliberation to experience what they do not know, then to learn from it. Writers join civilians in the awareness that there are no free lunches, the future is a mystery, mysteries are tantalizing puzzles which encourage us to solve them.

Writers also join civilians in some form of knowledge that those persons who do not see life as a challenge, a puzzle, and/or an opportunity are doomed to an existence dependent on artificial stimuli. In consequence, most writers want readers whose minds are alert, honed by the constant solving of one form of puzzle or another. Such readers are not going to be satisfied with the artificial aspects of solution or resolution, any more than musicians would be satisfied with safe, simplistic harmony.

Of the many binary options we are presented as persons, one of the most significant is the option to be ordinary and thus subject to ordinary solutions to our ordinary problems, or extreme persons, subject to extreme challenges to our perceptions and thus at risk of becoming paranoid, unsettled, or hyper-curious in our world view.

Your experience with ordinary convinces you that the times of your greatest ennui and internal fogginess were not worth the accommodation. Ordinary may have a hold on you, but like the resourceful puppy, you seem always to know how to wriggle free, where you can pursue the greater goal of being extreme.

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