Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Tablecloth,Illusion, and Story

In much the same manner as one of the attractive young baristas at your favorite coffee venue reminding you of an early, impossible love, the beginning paragraphs of certain short stories and novels remind you with a pang of other, equally profound, lost loves.

By the time you became aware of these loves, they were not always easy to come by. meaning you'd have to develop a special awareness of the parts of the city where they were most likely to appear. In some cases, you'd have to resort to second-hand, knowing they'd been through one or more hands, but not caring.

"This will have to do for us," your high school flame told you on the night before her departure from Los Angeles to Chicago, where family circumstances were wrenching her. The "this" was a vision of the remarkable complexities of desire, entanglement, and Self, bursting from its cocoon of idealism and imagination, into the awkward sense of being a moth, drawn to a flame.

"Here is a check for your story," the editor wrote in a note to you," but I have to wonder why you continue sending us things when we buy so few of them. There are other markets."

The stories and novels of which you are reminded, often with the same tug of uncertainty you felt from the goodbye kiss after the "this," as you walked home through the early morning streets of west central Los Angeles, in the trance of having a new language and, now, no one with whom to speak it.

At the time the stories and novels of which you speak were not printed on today's acid-free paper, guaranteed to last for at least a hundred years before crumpling or decay. Most paper comes from some form of wood or fiber; the pages on which these stories and novels appeared was a buff-colored sheet with the feel and appearance of sawdust.

However much a generality it is to observe how stories appearing in magazines and rough paper formats were by nature plot-driven, you were drawn to them as the moth, cited above, was attracted to the flame of excitement and the promise of some form of satisfaction you could take with you on your increasing times spent on the streets of late night and early morning Los Angeles.

Your yearning to write stories for these publications was even more primal than your yearning for she who had departed for Chicago, thus your affairs with the genera, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, suspense, sports, Westerns.

The editor who'd been kind enough to write to you gave you cause to understand why so few of your stories were finding homes in the pulps. The cause was your barely-on-speaking terms relationships with plot, and your ultimate solution of the problem.

Again risking an over-simplified answer, the solution begins somewhere in the opening line, whether the line begins a short story, a novel, or a chapter within a novel. In later years, you've come to understand how the opening line is important in every scene.

The opening line is in a real sense your pitch to the reader, the equivalent of approaches you've seen too many times in bars, saloons, and taverns across America, where the writer or sales person or neighborhood Lothario addresses the audience.

Your opening lines are the cons and sales pitches or a con artist and door-to-door sales person, from which you are trying most of all to convince yourself that the second and all subsequent sentences will not leave you at some point, like one of your great storytelling heroes, Wile E. Coyote, feet pedaling for traction, aware he has run over the edge of the mesa, and is now aware of certain laws of gravity he'd forgotten with that first sentence.

Every story you've read and admired has the ability to take you to that place where you've left reality and such issues as gravity far behind. In your own work, you try to conjure that sense within the heart and mind of your characters, where time, space, and causation have become suspended and you are aloft with story.

At one time in your life, in your attempts to learn such things as plotting and, indeed, story, you listened to someone trying to convince you of the similarity between the storyteller and the magician. You came across a number of books, printed on pulp paper, demonstrating how to master the art of slight of hand.

One of the tricks was to be able to remove a tablecloth from a table without disrupting place settings and table ornaments. Following the instructions, you set a table, stepped forward, gripped an edge of the table cloth in the overhand grip advised by your text book.  One last moment of preparation; you remembered this was to be a sweeping gesture, not a tug, certainly not a pull.  Sweep! You told yourself.  And you did.

In what seemed a miracle of the same significance you'd achieved with your high school sweetheart, you found yourself breathless, the table cloth in both hands, the arranged table setting on the table as you'd placed it.

Moments later, your sister appeared, saw you, saw the table, and undoubtedly aware of what you'd just done.  "Nice job," she said, "except for one thing. You forgot the table cloth."

Two writers you know happen to be adept at performing magic tricks, each stressing to you the need to practice one's illusions if one is to gain the necessary muscle memory a trick or illusion requires.

You've never attempted the tablecloth illusion again as such, but you think of it every time you set the table for a story.  Neither a tug nor a pull, but a sweep, firm, authoritative and decisive.


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