Saturday, March 11, 2017

Listen up, Everybody

A writer needs to listen for and hear the politics in the voices of all he/she reads and do give voice to the politics within his/her own vision.

Two of your dearest friends were writers. Each, in his own way, made a good deal of money from writing. For quite some time, you were the editor of the one you'd known the longest. For another length of time, some of it overlapping your editing the first writer, you were collaborating with the other writer.

Each writer had a sharp, well defined narrative command, having the effect of a sophisticated older brother or perhaps a rogue uncle, telling a story as though he were only telling it to one person. One was prolific in books and magazine pieces. The other wrote dramatic material, much of it for television. He also wrote poetry that dribbled politics the way a thick sandwich sometimes dribbles its ingredients.

One of your early mentors wrote in a way that reminded you of certain knitters whose scarves and sweaters seemed to have been cast by machine rather than hand. If this mentor who reminded you of a knitter did not like a line or paragraph, she would rip out the offending line, much as you'd seen a number of knitters do, mutter softly to herself, "Well, that needs recasting," then do just that.

Another mentor, who specialized in mystery and suspense fiction, turned your reading and writing worlds upside down when she offered notes on an opening chapter of a mystery novel you'd undertaken. "Why, this has a perfectly sensible story," she said, "and one can see what's at stake, what's about to be lost, and where things will go wrong, making it a nice sort of puzzle. But if you're to continue writing mysteries, you must understand that a narrative without politics is not a story."

Wishing with all sincerity to continue writing, indeed to finish the novel of which she was speaking, and to write yet other mystery novels, you said, "If it isn't a story, what is it?"

Without hesitation, she said, "A puzzle."

"But," you struggled to understand, "not a story?"

"A puzzle," she said.

"A puzzle," you said. Unlike the fabled individual at death's door, seeing his (or her) life flash past, you saw instead all her novels, including much of the politics within them.

"I don't think," she said, "you are a puzzle fan."

"Only crossword puzzles. Only the Sunday LA Times and The New York Times Sunday." You said.

"Well, that can't hurt much," she said. "Can it?"

The writer whose work was mostly of a theatrical and humorous nature quite understood, and so did you of his work, often with envy of his ability to be political and funny at the same time.

Once you see such a thing as politics being a necessary aspect of story, layers of previously unseen implications appear to drop from between the lines of story, in the manner of the earlier mentioned thick sandwich, losing some of its ingredients once it is bitten into. You see and often need to restrain yourself from the cliche of the butt of your palm being brought (by you) in direct contact with the center of your forehead. "How is it," you ask yourself, "that a man of your years can still exhibit so much naivete?"

There are no satisfactory answers to such questions. They seem to offer reproof of your past reading and your past interpretations of events that took place before you in real time (as opposed to time within fiction).

One answer seems to offer some hope. Instead of looking for the politics within a story to appear much like the least likely suspects in the Agatha Christie mysteries and similar iterations, you begin your casting about in your imagination for some political uproar or outrage, some aspect of usurpation or oligarchic control, then begin constructing your cast, deploying each new character to enter as an individual who is a player within an unjust system of constraint and restraint.

You remind yourself that Charlotte Bronte, all of four feet, ten inches in height, took on the six-foot-two-inch William Makepeace Thackeray for having the temerity to refer to her as Miss Jane Eyre rather than Miss Charlotte Bronte.  At the time of original publication, Bronte, like a number of women writers, used the pseudonym Currier Bell. You remind yourself of the politics in that, and if that isn't enough to get your imagination awakened, there are sufficient other political circumstances, some as old as your time on this planet, others yet older, and others still, apparently new in the specifics but recognizable for its long-standing tenure in the politics of our culture.

"We'll have to see about that little detail, won't we?" You write as a female protagonist is lectured by a supercilious maitre d'hotel. Thus politics and story are underway.


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