Monday, October 10, 2016

Loose Change under the Cushions of Story

Regardless of the format of the work in progress, whether handwritten with emendations on a legal pad, printed out from captured text on your computer, or read directly from the MS Word file on the screen of your computer or phone, you face a moment reflecting the potential for an abject failure, with all the acid reflex of disappointment. 

This moment is the literary equivalent of having flown with this particular project with less time aloft than the Wright Brothers, on that epic day when they achieved any flight at all. This is the time when stinging defeat lurks, waiting to shake its head in wonder that you could even consider such a thing as successful storytelling.

In consequence, you're always pleased to see some sign of lift, some potential of story- or narrative worthiness. The next step becomes critical. You may indeed have been hard on yourself as you check in on the reality you've created, but have you been hard enough on your characters. Have you placed them in circumstances where the most attractive way out is the one path guaranteed to bring story screeching to a halt?

The halting place, of course, is inaction, the place where the principal character is too beset to do anything.  Well and good to have the principal character miss a performance or choke up early on, but as we pass the territory marked by the point of no return, the suspense builds: Will the lead character have cracked, be unable to do the thing he or she needs to do to bring off some kind of closure?

If you were to turn the probabilities over to the Las Vegas odds-makers, the probabilities would favor the lead being able to step up, hit the actual or metaphorical home run to win the game. Yet we must consider how story has evolved. 

There are significant options beyond the last-minute save. Your elders and your juniors have found such ways; you have only to browse the bookstore or library to find them.

They are both bright with youthful brio and radiant of face-lined gravitas in their junior- and seniorness, men and women who have faced that moment of confrontation with an appearance of grace in the face of knowing something--anything--other than inaction was necessary.

Sometimes, as in Tobias Wolf's memorable short story, "In the Garden of American Martyrs," there is a way out that shakes its own figurative head at the oddsmakers and probabilities, then opts with a bold leap toward William Faulkner's "Mankind will prevail" speech, delivered as he accepted his Nobel Prize for literature. 

Having done "it," at least that one time, Wolf comes back to show us how to be hard on his characters, which is to say reach deeply into the cushions in search of the lost change of story, in "Bullet in the Brain."

Going for the formulaic, the odds-friendly resolution is not flight nor risk nor writing. You will know you are close to it when you feel desolate, alone, and wondering how you ever got to this point. One of your characters will say something you intend to ignore because it comes not from the  uncertainty and risk of story but rather from that place where you must go to get the answer.




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