Friday, March 4, 2016

Reaching Desperation Is Arriving Halfway Home

No telling how long the idea had been gathering take-off velocity in your mind, probably at least since the mid seventies, when you caught up in a mid point of your own. 


Caught becomes the right verb under the circumstances, most days focused on scholarly publishing, your antenna switched to the thesis mode except for the days you'd head down to the university in Los Angeles, whereupon to teach fiction, which is by all accounts the evocative mode, that vibrant territory where small, personal details compete with large, urgent dreams of persons who wish to free themselves of being caught.

So glad to have found you, the letter from Sylvia Burack, Publisher and Editor of The Writer Magazine said. You'd seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. Only from the face of trade publishing. Now, two days and late nights or early mornings each week, you were keeping the story side of you alive, eager for your two days a week at the university, teaching dramatic riding. 

In your spare time, you read any fiction you could get your hands on, including the literary novels assigned to your small staff of helpers in the book division of a scholarly publisher, like you, running off to a university where you wouldn't begin teaching for another thirty years.

Write things for us, Sylvia said, completing a circuitry you''d begun years earlier, reading books on the craft written by her and her late husband, and filling your mind with the advice of writers whose novels you were gobbling up, now sharing their techniques in The Writer. What better way to begin than "PONR," Point of No Return, where the lead character is pushed or back into a situation from which there is no mulligan or retake or revision, and which in addition leaves the character changed or tangibly on the way to irrevocable change. 

You were thrilled to have been able to recognize this mid-point plateau in a story, its implications filling you with the desire to bring a narrative of your own to this point. This meant you were beginning to see the shape of story, to have this point to light your way from the intriguing beginning in which some individual meets a destabilizing event that sets the story in motion.

This also meant you were not losing touch with scenes, reversals, and the tiny, personalized details of drama as you read proposals for books in the fields of political science, history, sociology, and anthropology and became immersed in acquisitions of titles that could be placed as supplementary texts for the junior college and university market and for annotated bibliography to be offered as library reference tools.

When you saw Sylvia Burack's edits on your piece, and her note suggesting a redraft as the old, trade publishing you rather than the new, scholarly monograph you, an inner voice spoke with enough emphasis for you to capture your attention. Listen to me, it said, and so began an interior monologue from which your narrative voice as a writer and teacher was set along its evolutionary path.

Your years in scholarly publishing were valuable experiences in discussing with an author the thrust of the book the author wished to write, which often varied from the manuscript originally written. You learned as well to cope with your own tendencies toward formality and, it must be admitted, pomposity, which was one of your defenses against seeming amused by or suspicious of humor and enthusiasm. 

While the inner voice became more confident and informal, you also began to develop an individualized approach to revision you could pass on to your students, most of whom were writers of fiction. You could, and did, strike a balance with students whose projects were nonfiction, aware of ways in which your own narrative voice could take on nonfiction without betraying the fact of you now being editorial director of the book division of a scholarly publisher.

Regardless of its audience, your material comes out in early draft almost as though you'd spoken it into a voice recognition program, which is to say it sounds conversational, which is your intent.This leads you, either as a lecturer, a nonfiction writer, or a storyteller, to get the material down as though spoken. Next step is to look for all details that are of the scholar rather than the dramatic voice. The former voice is focused on displaying facts and clarity of explanation. The latter voice hopes to use details selected for their specificity and ability to convey a place or mood or notable quirk.

You want your characters to feel the momentary tingle of being without resource and then able to make some product of action from the available circumstances. Characters who do this have a high potential for being able to grow. One of the many pleasures of storytelling and teaching is to appear before an audience that might not wish to have been there in the first place, now curious about what is to come next.

Next, you find yourself saying, we need to look at or consider--  Almost without exception, there is something that appears, as though you'd been aware of it all along, your friendly instructor, sharing dramatic secrets the civilians--the nonreaders--are not likely to get. But you'll have had to move to that spot where you are vulnerable, have no clear exit strategy other than the ongoing knowledge that is set in motion when you set forth an intriguing opening line, and then, at the halfway mark, move past the point where you've left yourself a safety port.

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