Thursday, December 26, 2019

Story as the Writer's Unmapped Territory

Your first real-life--as opposed to reading-related--mentor died in 1983. Your second real-life mentor took her own life in 1986. The former brought you to enhanced awareness of the short form, the novel, and the stage play. The latter shared her experiences on the stage and in film, a gift that continues to pay off in each scene you draft of each short story and novel.

Your thoughts of the former often lead you to consideration of the latter; the reverse is equally so. The former had a voice that sounded like sandpaper being drawn over unfinished wood. When she and her husband left the Los Angeles area for what seemed to you the unfathomable leap to a new life in north central Tennessee, your contact with her was limited to long conversations about writing by telephone.

The voice of the latter had was crisp, precise even when tired or exasperated. When you once told her she had a voice well-suited for reading aloud, she was crisp and precise when she told you a trained actor should be able to convince a listener she was whoever she set out to be at the moment. At one point, she played for you a film clip of a role in which she portrayed a flirty Southern belle, a performance you'd seen years earlier, on the cusp of puberty and hyperalert to overt and subtextual sexuality.

Your thoughts of each of them today, thirty-odd years after their death, brought you aware of something so obvious to you now that you needed moments to wonder, aloud and to your inner self, how you could have needed so long to recognize.

The early years of your writing life, before you had any notion of the difficulty needed to get the ability you wished to hone, passed in the blur of you constantly writing, typing away on any of the many typewriters your father rescued for you from the bankrupt ventures he auctioned off for the referees in bankruptcy.  During those years, your goal was to get as many words down as possible, setting as your competitor rather than mentor the English poet, John Keats (1795--1821), whose work you admired to the point of envy. Most of all, he spoke to you through his poem:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books in charactery...

Long enough ago for you to have sired children, which you have not, and watched them sire children of their own. Of course imagined children exist in fantasy or fiction; they produce offspring only in speculations such as short stories and novels.  Long enough as well for you to have forged those unmapped routes from which your mentors bade you detour to find routes of your own ways. Long enough to come to terms with much of yourself as an outlier. Thus John Keats is no longer a rival; he remains one of your favored of the male poets.

Long enough for you to have read only yesterday a poignant essay by another favored writer, a novelist whose works took you deeper beyond admiration of her technique and into questions of your own visions of this hulking, lurching vehicle of Reality.  Long enough for you to have sprawled in a picnic field with Christopher Isherwood to demolish a splendid lunch made for you by the nuns at the Vedanta Convent in Santa Barbara, to be shared as you drove him to his home in the Santa Monica Canyon.  The basis of your discussion that day, Isherwood's long and heartfelt wrestling of a line from the Bhagavad Gita, "To the work you are entitled/But not the fruits thereof."  You took this to mean you'd better enjoy the work.  A neat, tidy man, Isherwood brushed hamburger crumbs from his linen jacket, then agreed. "One of the worst things is being paid for work you did not truly appreciate. We learn so many things by contemplating their absence."

The thing you learned today, all this time into the process, relates to your notion of how your work comes from being the story, from being inside it, which is true enough for you, as far as that road goes. But consider this as well: A story is an unmapped territory you have to discover on your own. The writer part of you knows the route, but the mind and consciousness are conspiracies of distraction, offering you alternate and often anomaly routes. You want and strive for focus. In a way, you know this when you take your laptop or notebook to a coffee shop, therein to force yourself to focus beyond the ambient noises and distractions.

The sharper the focus, the clearer and more distinct your narrative voice. No need to worry about story; you are the story. The missing element is the voice of your focus.

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