Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A One-Trick Pony, Loose in the Corral of Your Story

You forget how old you were when you first heard the expression "As nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs," but the memory of it still brings a smile to your face across a span of at least sixty years, Figures of speech that have found their way into the language to the point of popular use and the eventual status of cliche owe their momentum to the image or condition they illustrate.

At about the time you first heard about the figurative long-tailed cat, you were in fact successful in teaching a dog or relative age several new tricks, and had a curious relationship with yet another trope, thanks to a schoolmate who seemed to understand he was not popular and, thus, would promise the appearance of a pony at the otherwise dull parties given on his behalf. 

In extending the invitation, he'd mention Neapolitan, an ice cream that was a particular favorite of yours. His parties were also known to feature favors such as yo-yo's, wind-up toys, and substantial whistles. He was also the son of a friend of your mother,

Big as you were on Neapolitan ice cream and the home-baked cakes, you'd have been willing to forgo such treats, had you not felt your refusal would have somehow disappointed your mother. At one point, you'd even played the pony card, which is to say you complained that there was always this phantom pony, promised but never--using a favored word of the time--materialize.

Your father overheard your objection and, in perfect character for your father, introduced a figure of speech you've used on numerous occasions since. "Probably a one-trick pony," your father said. "The one trick he knows is not appearing." While this was not quite so funny as the Will Rogers observation about the long-tailed cat, it was funny enough. Now that you think about it, your father's ad lib had a formative effect on your framing of humor.

You liked the notion of the one-trick pony right off the bat, your significant experience with ponies limited to a dirt oval on the west side of Fairfax Avenue, somewhere between Third Street (near your grammar school) and Beverly Avenue. For five cents, you got four laps around what was probably a quarter-mile track. 

You were respectful enough of ponies to assume that it would be the rare pony that knew only one trick, thus one-trick pony meant a person who was only good at one thing. For a time at this point in your life, you believed you were only good at reading, but you were invariably chosen first for schoolyard games  such as cowboys and Indians, Civil War, and pirates and navy, thanks to your ability to die in battle. No matter what the milieu of the game, you were invariably the loyal lieutenant who dies, saving the wounded general.

Thus it was no stretch for you to assign the designation of one-trick pony to persons, in some cases your schoolmates, and certainly your schoolmate who swore there would be a pony at his next party, just you see if there isn't, and anyone brave enough to try will get a shot at riding him.

A articular one-trick pony schoolmate could swear in Yiddish, another could make chocolate milk come out of his nose at lunch time, and a girl was so good at math that she could add columns of numbers faster than any of us. So far as any of us could see, these individuals were not gifted at anything else.

One or two of your parents' friends seemed to you that they might be one-trick ponies, and you had a suspicion about one of the members of the family who ran the grocery store you were frequently sent to in order to pick up some element your mother had forgotten. 

Your father agreed with you that Sid, the unfortunate family member, likely was a one-trick pony, but he also cautioned you to be careful about sharing this belief because of its potential for hurting his feelings. "You have to assume that some one-trick ponies are aware of their limitations and are none too happy about it." 

With the passage of time and your opportunities to add substance, nuance, and implication to your judgments relative to one-trick ponies, you've had enough experience with recognizing them in stories, beginning with the narratives of others, but in a humbling way, discovering them in your own narratives. 

A one-trick-pony narrative may take in a multitude of sins. Limiting this observation to your sins of one-trick pony seems less likely to cause you to be accused of rodomontade, in fact plunking you in the midst of those humbled by enough self-discovery to bring you a constant state of vigil.

Does it have depth in character and their goals? Is there some plausible theme with which one or more characters appear to be wrestling? Are there sufficient dimensions? Are there clues to suggest these dimensions to the reader? Does the story turn on a convenience of plot or the need for a difficult choice? Is the narrative truly a story rather than a fable or some propaganda? Have you, in the writing of it, been forced to reach beyond your comfort zone for answers?

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