Showing posts with label evocation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label evocation. Show all posts

Thursday, August 26, 2010

You felt what?

Time and convention are often the rugs of storytelling, caught in midair by some novel or short story, as they are being yanked from under the concepts and guidelines of the dramatic past.

Because they are so basic, some truths tend to fall between the cracks as you scurry about in your investigations of the provenance and credentials of less obvious, more arcane verities.  It is as though you are drawn away from simple truths wearing sensible shoes by enticing minor ones clad in four-inch pumps.

No surprise that each time you need to remind yourself of one of the most basic truths of all, you come away with a sense of having at last recognized in some permanent way its import, then resolved to control it.  You even have specific approaches to support the control.

The basic truth in question is the recognition that storytelling is an evocative rather than descriptive enterprise.  In apercu, you don't describe how a character feels about a particular situation, you put the character into some form of dramatic action--action verbs rather than thought verbs--which conveys to the reader how the character felt at a particular time or indeed feels right now.  We should know from our own observation as opposed to being told a thing is so by the author, which is to say by you.

A serious culprit in boring dramatic prose is the piled-on depth of description of things, events, responses imputed to characters by a garrulous writer.  The reader who enjoys fiction is the reader who enjoys the work of experiencing the results of the thing the writer enjoys creating.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What have you done for me lately?

It is no exaggeration or hyperbole to say that you have listened to music for thousands of hours; this statement is true in consideration of a work-week being forty hours, a day being twenty-four, a year being eight thousand seven hundred sixty hours.  So exaggeration is off the table.

The hours spent listening to such genera as classical, ballet, jazz, chamber, folk, blues, and film scores renders you only slightly educated.  You can often separate Mozart from Haydn or Beethoven; you can surely tell such distinctive tenor saxophone voices as Coltrane, Webster, Hawkins,and Rollins or Getz from one another, and you would have no trouble with various other virtuosi.  To a satisfying-but-not-extensive degree, you can even distinguish the particular sounds of seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth-century music.

If your abilities with music amount to a six on a scale of ten, you could extrapolate your awareness of writing and story at a high seven or eight, looking enviously and with determination toward nine, which is what leads you to the connection between the musician and writer you wish to consider today.  Musicians and writers do not, to overstate the obvious, grow up in a vacuum.  The memorable composers in either art have grown up hearing a particular sound or set of sounds, recognizing themes, cadences, use of detail and form.  These memorable ones have each contributed one or more things to the evolution of a particular zeitgeist, have broken one or more traditional boundaries to arrive at a new, recognizable plateau so that, for instance, hearing the third movement of any of the nine Beethoven symphonies, you could identify him as the composer of that particular symphony, or if you already knew the symphony to have been written after Beethoven's time, you would be aware that this particular segment was influenced by Beethoven.

You grew up in a zeitgeist dominated by Hemingway, although you gravitated toward Fitzgerald and Cheever and Shaw, becoming increasingly aware of Hawthorne and Twain, lurching bumpily over a road crowded with the two O'Hara's John and Frank before you began to discover the nuance and freedom of women writers, major among them Louise Erdrich and Annie Proulx, but not to forget Alice Munro and Bobbie Ann Mason, who in person gave you a shove into what ending a story meant that you had not got from anyone else.

So the question for you to ask yourself and, when the occasion warrants, your students and even into your clients, is this:  What thing or things do you do to help your zeitgeist evolve?  You could follow up with questions about form and vision.  You could even play a sort of devil's advocate role with yourself and with such critics who come along from time to time with pronouncements that the novel is dead, that short stories are too structured or not structured enough, that flash fiction is the future because no one has the patience to read any more than a few hundred words without needing to do something else.

Ah, Mozart, you were thinking yesterday morning while driving to a meeting and listening to Classical KUSC, undoubtedly a piano sonata, if your memory held, likely it was the piano sonata in C, and if your ear was on, the performance was by that wonderful Mitsuko Uchida.  Well, you were wrong about her; although the announcer said that most performers except her and the current player tended to render it in the same manner.

Sometimes a story seems to want to fit itself snugly into the zeitgeist you have immediate access to, the one in which you learned to read, the one in which seemingly wherever you turned, there were stories fitting a particular pattern so that you could almost anticipate the outcome before you were halfway there.  And so you tell yourself, why not see what you can do to your stories to help them out of the increasingly crowded shopping mall and into a landscape of its own.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Writer: Flasher or Flash-drive

For the longest time, your own familiarity with tools was focused on jumper cables, those long pairs of wires that end with color-coded claws which allow you to connect the positive and negative aspects of your car battery to similarly polar claws on someone else's battery.  You became aware of this only last week when a forlorn young woman in the Loreto Square parking lot asked if you happened to have a pair.  You did, but they were miles away, in your garage, there because your year-and-a-half-old car has been mercifully free of need.  The jumper cables were a gift from someone who similarly felt the relative age and maintenance history of her car precluded the need for such primitive tools. You have been of a mind to carry the jumper cables about with you, but there is a kind of snobbery that comes with the faith of newness and coherence related to a young car.

Somewhere close-to-hand is a twenty-five-cent piece which works wonders at opening the access to the battery on your MacBook, the battery tube on your wireless keyboard, and the soft underbelly of your wireless mouse.  A Phillips head screw driver, which came with a pack of AA batteries for said keyboard and mouse, also waits service, and although you don't really think of it as a tool, a small, two-blade penknife with wooden side panels accompanies you When some mechanical matter demands its attention with the insistence of a cat wanting to come in or perhaps go out or perhaps both at the same time, most of us have some immediate sense of which tool or combination of tools will help set things right--back to working condition.  

The most important tools for the writer are often ignored, not thought of as tools because of the notion that tools are mechanical, a notion that means all persons who use tools are thus doing mechanical things.

Fact is, writers have tools, entire kits filled with them.  Unlike plumbers who love to brandish wrenches or electricians who are mindful about wearing protective gloves, ours are such things as pace or suspense or even that one tools that seems so foreign to beginners, dialogue.  But most important of all, the ones we keep closest to hand of all, emotions.

With these tools we are able to portray individuals in the various states the reader will have been in at one time or another or in situations the reader fears as imminently forthcoming, things such as death or lack of bravery or purpose under fire or of being alone or of misunderstanding or of causing others to misunderstand.  These tools are hard come by, well beyond the tools we can purchase at Sears, well beyond the ones usually displayed on shelves at Home Improvement or, worse, Wal-Mart.  As many of the masters of the various crafts have had to do, we have served an apprenticeship in which we have taught ourselves how to use these particular tools.  We have watched patiently as students and dedicated beginners have learned how to use these tools, so that their characters no longer recoil in horror or say "Oh, God," every other paragraph, no longer feel the sweat of fear erupt on their forehead or drip down shirt and blouse, who no longer shiver involuntarily nor gasp, but rather act as men, women, and children do when they are in emotion-laden circumstances.

Like any craftsperson with a decent set of tools, we keep them honed and oiled and ready to evoke for the reader what forces may be tugging at a character, not with the notion of describing to the reader how he or she should feel but more importantly how so many mammalian feelings are shared, and thus of the common humanity of which we are all a part.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The "Other" Parts

inference--an assumption or conclusion reached by a character in a story or by a reader reading the story; a reaction or decision which is possibly correct, made without direct, unassailable evidence; a conclusion formed by a character or a reader based on past experience; the use of circumstantial evidence; arriving at a conclusion or decision based entirely upon a character's experience and subsequently based on the reader's experience.

As the twenty-first century shifts into gear (See pathetic fallacy), one highly visible fork in the narrative road is the inferential one, in which the reader is left with more leeway to assume such matters as agenda, intent, and volition of characters as well as what actually happened in a narrative. Did they or didn't they? Were they, or not? Such words as ambiguity and elliptical come forth, particularly in the short story.

A highly prolific and versatile writer, Elmore Leonard, speaking at publishing conventions (ABA, Book Expo, etc) and writers' conferences (notably Santa Barbara, CA) has often been quoted expressing his working approach to story, which in essence is to write only the parts that interest him, while leaving out the "other" parts, it being understood that "other" means descriptions and scenes that don't directly involve him. By extension, Leonard could be interpreted to advocate as a part of the revision process the removal of anything he considered unnecessary explanation, whether in narrative (which includes description) or dialogue.

Contemporary writers as diverse as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Tobias Wolff, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Haruki Murikami may be argued to write with the inferential less-is-more approach, yet none of these is arguably a minimalist. There is among them a common thread of trust. The interesting questions to consider is the applications of the trust: Do they trust the reader? Themselves? The reader and themselves?

A storyteller in the twenty-first century is well advised to read these writers as well as writers of past eras and, indeed, new writers on their own path of self-discovery, keeping in mind choices to be made about how much the reader truly needs to know.

Hint: Some writers of nonfiction are often seduced by the need to use all their research in a particular project, resulting in their project telling the potential reader more about the subject than the reader wants to know. In similar fashion, some writers of fiction may be tempted to explain to the reader more about their characters and the motives of those characters than the reader wants to know.

Added hint: Because of its subjective base, the result of fiction is greater than the sum of its parts; the goal of storytelling is the evocation of that greater effect. Evoke rather than describe. Encourage the reader to infer. The reader would rather discover his misapprehension in the face of surprise behavior from the characters than be told he was wrong by the author.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What's That on Your Nose?

aftertaste--a feeling or vision evoked after reading a short story or novel in which the reader takes up the characters and dramatic situations, giving the characters and their circumstances life off the page; a resonant impression triggered in the reader by the events, circumstances, and personalities in a dramatic narrative.

Some novels and stories are so evocative that they seem to continue in their readers' mind long after the ending has been resolved. For instance, how many of us have considered what would happen next to Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley after Barnes has delivered his famed closing line in The Sun Also Rises, “Yes, isn't it pretty to think so?” 

 Or, still with Ernest Hemingway, this time A Farewell to Arms. Catherine Barkley has just delivered a stillborn baby, then died of a hemorrhage. Frederic Henry stays with Catherine until she dies, attempts to find ways to say farewell, realizes he cannot, then walks back to his hotel in the rain. The endings of both novels, as written, leave no doubt that the story is over, but the characters were drawn so well that they do not fade from the imagination. The result is aftertaste.

Aftertaste is the emotive awareness in the reader of the entire narrative, the literary equivalent of the aftertaste of a particular wine or ale, the lingering effect of the very process by which evocation works, the affect and effect a skilled actor produces when portraying a character.

How to achieve aftertaste? Consider the goals of each character and the actions the character takes to achieve that goal. Consider how each character responds to frustration and reversal. Consider the endings of stories as dramatic moments of theme rather than explanations of their significance. 

 Consider the way Anton Chekhov ended his stories. Consider ways by which hints are introduced to pique the reader's curiosity, for instance what further conversations or actions Fortinbras and Horatio might have had at the conclusion of Hamlet.

A story that lingers in the reader's sensitivities has a life of its own, a life that will draw the reader back to hear more from the writer.


on the nose--a theatrical term indicating an action, behavior, or description is too literal; a reminder of the need for greater evocation of a desired result in all dramatic storytelling.

In a larger sense, being told a particular interpretation or scene is too "on the nose" is being alerted to the absolute moral white or black of meaning, of the operatic nature of one's drama. Human behavior tends more to gray than white or black; it is rich with shading and shadow. The judgment of "too on the nose" is a cry for greater complexity and depth of character and, accordingly, of the motive of character.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Description: Rhetorical Strategy or Cock-and-Bull Story

description--the salient qualities of a character, place, or thing; the briefest gloss without distracting from story on how an organization or tradition works; relevant details in a story; a series of adjectives, adverbs and evocations that convey personality, sense of place or sense of atmosphere.

When you choose words to describe a character, a locale, an institution, even a room at a Motel 6, they should come from a menu of emotion-friendly words, words that help transport the feeling of being in Character A's presence, the patience needed to overcome the ambient awfulness of Locale B, the fussy bureaucratic wrangling within Institution C, the no-holds-barred torture to the back and neck experienced while sleeping or otherwise on a Motel 6 bed.

And yet.

Words of description are not like the words of political conventions, intent on mobilizing crowds to cut back on thought and open up the spending of rabid emotion. Words of description are like the evocations of champagne, rascally pinot noirs, single malt whiskey, the hoppy promise of a pale ale, the piquancy of a homemade pesto; they lead us to the experience then turn us loose to experience it rather than lock us in the closet with it. If it is important enough to the story to include the breakfast menu at a particular meeting, we should be able to have our impression of each character enhanced by what he or she orders, and how it is eaten.

The best descriptions of a character come from the way he or she does things; a locale has a particular personality that is conveyed by the way things within it appear and behave; organizations reflect the personality of a leader or of individuals trying to imitate said leader; rooms in any given Motel 6 smell like mass-produced disinfectant, cheap furniture, and indifferent pizzas delivered by indifferent drivers who despair of reasonable tips. To inhale the atmosphere of a Motel 6 is to breathe in the pathology of the American dream and perhaps be numbed by the experience.

We should be using description to convey personality; at all costs we should not use description to display our ability as a writer.


cock-and-bull story, a--any narrative or story which on its face becomes of doubtful provenance; a narrative suspected of being contrived, embellished, or a deliberate fabrication; thus a deliberate attempt at deception.

Talking animals have held a significant place in the literature of the ages, seemingly well suited to illustrate fables, satires, and tales. Grendel comes quickly to mind, she of Beowulf and the eponymous novel by John Gardener. Aesop put words into the mouths of animals; so did George Orwell, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Dragons, wolves, unicorns all have had their say, some prescient and others hysterical (see Henny-Penny).

A cock-and-bull story is built in the first place to deceive, divert, or delay. A cock-and-bull story is the dog ate my homework writ large. If the deception has as its purpose an amusing payoff and/or a moral purpose, such as those told by Mark Twain, we are often the better for it, refreshed, our critical senses laundered and hung out to dry in the sunshine of reason and self-examination. If the deception is to tighten the grip of fear and control, the believer becomes in time as much at fault as the perpetrator.

For those of us who are book oriented, it becomes pleasing to think of an anthology, perhaps even a lofty Oxford Companion to the Cock and Bull Story. Imagine the fun and clamor. The anthology is to be divided into two parts; no not Cock and Bull, but rather For Fun and For Real.

The aforementioned Mr. Twain would be a welcomed addition to the fun side, as well as one of his modern embodiments, Kurt Vonnegut.

Imagine the mischief and consternation and competition for inclusion in the For Real side, those men and women who promulgate C & B as though they had come down from the mountain top, bearing an engraved slab of granite:

Phyllis Schlaffly
The Rev. Falwell
The Rev. Robertson
Number Forty-three and his Vice-president
Charles Krauthammer
Ann Coulter
William Krystol
Jean Schmidt (the GOP wingnut rep from Ohio)

and, as the late, lamented Mr. Vonnegut would have said, so it goes.


The cock-and-bull story can be a lovely learning experience, or a one-way ticket to the worst kind of convention of all. My personal belief of it is that it is the forerunner of the tall tale in the grand tradition of the American West. One place to look for its origins is in that remarkable novel about origins and reality, Tristram Shandy,
in which a character says, "It is a story about a Cock and a Bull--and the best of its kind that I have ever heard."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

You Can't Exect Me to Believe That

speed bumps--events, descriptions, and reflections that impede the flow of story; a sense of stylistic devices waving their hands for attention during the otherwise orderly progression of a dramatic narrative; the jerky disconnect experienced by readers when writers are not careful about adding backstory, description, and the existential wondering of characters.

The thing to remember at some point in the telling of a story is that the narrative art is evocative, not descriptive; description has its place, usually in small doses, an occasional adjective or adverb, even a clause or entire sentence. There are specific times when the make and caliber of a gun, for example, or the year, model, and color of a car bring clarification to the narrative. A character's height or lack thereof, even some descriptive facial tic become not only necessities but tools in the greater process of evoking that individual's presence. Arrogant? Shy? Assured? Lazy? The overarching intent is to suggest. Ironically enough, some writers who should know better, fail to see the mischievous potential in verbs, relying instead on the adjective and the adverb.

One last pass in revision to "cure" adverbial abuse is a sure way to remove speed bumps.


revelation--a dramatic discovery, experience, or realization that has the power to change the vector of a story.

In a metaphorical way, a story is like a string of fire-crackers, each explosion adding to the collective effect, the individual pop of explosion being a surprise, the final one, the loud, enduring one being the revelation. Often expressed indirectly, through the medium of a front-rank character doing something that becomes a symbolic response, the revelation shows the reader the equivalent of a film or TV close-up reaction shot. In the novels of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, revelations were frequently spelled out in what writer Barnaby Conrad has titled "came-to-realize" moments, "and in that moment, she came to realize that he had been deceiving her all along." From about the 1980s onward, came-to-realize moments were replaced with a more outward display of a character having been struck by the lightning bolt of revelation, imparting less a sense of certainty and resolve, more of a sense of ambiguity tempered with probability. We readers would be certain that Character A knew Character B was wildly attracted to her and had been for some time, at the very least giving her a dramatic power over Character B, but we would not be sure by story's end if Character A were going to do anything about the revelation.

The payoff to Dashiell Hammett's much anthologized short story, "Two Sharp Knives," is an excellent example of how revelation can be used by one character to exploit another and how that exploitation can be used for dramatic effect on the reader.

In the motion picture, The Third Man, directed by Sir Carol Reed, the illusive and amoral Harry Lime has a surprise encounter with his chum, Holly Martens. They meet in the Riessenrad, the large Ferris wheel in the Vienna amusement park, the Prater. Looking down upon people beneath his high vantage point, Lime compares them to dots, then makes the wry, cynical observation that defines him and causes in Martens a revelation that has the effect of a line drawn in the sand between him and Lime, a line of morality over which Martens will not cross. "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

One of the many revelations to be had from reading the stories of Anton Chekhov is his own understanding and portrayal of how revelation affects characters, and how their movements rather than their interior monologue suggest the outcome.


plausibility--the dramatic sense of a character, deed, or event being believable to the reader; a depiction of a character's agenda, motivation, or desire being an appropriate, life-like expression; a quality of realism and trust in a narrative and its denizens that helps the reader maintain a sense of belief.

Just because an event portrayed in a narrative actually happened in reality, that does not automatically grant it a license for plausibility; the writer must naturally believe the event and the characters, he must write about them in a way that renders them as dramatic forces, considering what they want and what they are willing to do to get what they want. A good portion of plausibility is found in vulnerability; when a reader sees a defect or longing in a character, it becomes easier to forget that the character is only a smudge of someone else's imagination.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Compare and Contrast

evoke--to cause a reader to feel a presence, emotion, longing, or association. Distinct from description, which is the writer's equivalent of drawings on the Lascaux Cave walls, evocation is the indirect approach a story teller uses when conveying information that causes the reader to apprehend the information on his own terms.

Writer A may say of Character B, "She moved about with an air of perpetual sadness," which is a fairly direct description. Writer A may also evoke Character B's perpetual sadness by forcing upon her situations and responses that lead the reader to conclude that Character B is perpetually sad, the latter making the reader a partner in the equation rather than a passive viewer.

Evocation has become "Show-don't-tell" write large. A significant goal for the contemporary writer is to evoke rather than describe. Accordingly, the writer must chose with care which attribute and actions to set forth, shrewdly nudging but not pushing the reader toward a desired result. A notable example of evocative writing may be found in the novels and shorter works of Stephen King, whose fans read him primarily to experience at close hand the frightening associations and circumstances he evokes.

After rereading scenes and passages that have remained in their memory for years, many are surprised to note how little actual description these descriptive narratives contained, and how important the context mattered in which they were placed. Responses often approximate the famed five stages observed by Dr. Kubler-Ross. The first response, akin to denial,becomes, "This must not be the scene I'm thinking of." Then comes feeling cheated by the intensity of the memory. This quickly shifts into the reader's sense of having grown, perhaps having become wiser or more empathetic. But skilled writers know better: Of course we grow, profit from experience, more fully appreciate nuance. The secret for writers inheres in the use of significant specifics, items that employ one or more sensory triggers. These triggers evoke memories of sight, smell, taste, and sound, allowing the reader to experience a desired scene through his own sensual memory.

To evoke rather than to describe has the effect of drawing the reader further into the dramatic situation by letting the reader fill in the significant details. By this very process, the writer is thrown back on his own. How to evoke rather than describe? Start with the feeling to be evoked, then set forth the minute details that suggest the feeling. Let the reader connect the dots.

Trained actors understand and use these techniques in preparing for the roles in which they are cast. They first read the script to determine the author's intent, then begin rummaging through their own toolkit to find sensory triggers that will inform their movements, pacing, and speech cadences to project a sense of their character. The writer, whether consciously or not, uses the same process.



objective correlative--an object, situation, or event that evokes an emotion beyond the object's, situation's, or event's common association. A fountain pen, however attractive, may evoke in a character negative memories of a parent who was on his case because of sloppy handwriting. It may also evoke fond memories of the parent, well beyond awareness of the beauty of the pen itself. An office party to which one is invited by a romantic partner may evoke a sense of foreboding if one's own experiences at office parties was dismal. A family gathering may evoke fond memories or combative ones, depending on one's own family history.

Given a resurgence of popularity among academics and critics by an essay in which T.S. Eliot took on the lack of cohesive motivation in Hamlet, the objective correlative is a valuable reminder to storytellers, suggesting they think of objects, situations, and events as having the power to radiate emotion, first to the characters who experience these feeling, and then, by transfer, to the reader. Understated objective correlative can help the writer deliver on the premise that story must deliver an emotional impact.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Between a rock and a

There is a time and place for description. Maybe on birthday cakes or thank-you notes. But not so much in books or short stories. Not anymore.

One reason being most of the effective descriptions have already been described by essayists, letter writers, diarists, novelists, penny-a-word pulp writers. (I at one time had a stuttering detective.) Another reason being the more layered meanings and signals sent forth by the world about us and its inhabitants.

Besides.

We're supposed to be story tellers, not fabulists or preachers or, heaven forfend, propagandists. We're supposed to evoke--not describe. We're not supposed to tell the reader how to feel, we're in it to allow them to get their own sense of how a character might feel. So yeah, it's okay to describe something the reader might not otherwise have experienced, or something seemingly ordinary--say a lawyer's office or hospital or school room--that is different from the conventional expectation.

Habitual readers, readers beyond the Look! Look! Look! See Dick! See Jane! See Fido! See Dick and Jane and Fido run and jump! level are drawn to writing that tells direct truths and such truths are demonstrated by irony, the presentation of information that means the opposite of what the speaker intends, or by the subtext of a character feeling one thing and saying another. 

 Evocation is producing a desired emotion by talking away from it or, as Tim O'Bried did in The Things They Carried, by using objective correlative in which we can see how sometimes a cigar might be merely a cigar but other times is represents something quite else.

Sometimes it is no accident that we relate more closely to acquaintances on the Internet than to friends because of the disparity in role playing and the willingness to put material from our lives and feelings into our work. Moments of evocation stand out because they are widows into the feelings of real persons and real characters.

We all read with some expectations, among them the expectation of a particular genre promise, but often unspoken is the expectation that characters will reveal themselves with all their flaws and strengths. We read for this sense of intimacy that may be missing in our own lives or not present in enough substance to satisfy us. 

 We are hunters and gathers, foragers, looking for things beyond food and shelter, looking for traces and firm evidence that there are others who share our feelings and with whom we can talk. It may not be politically correct or conventional or even practical to make imaginary playmates out of other writers' characters, but nevertheless, we do so.

There is something at first disturbing about evoking feelings from one's characters but then the process becomes a jones, we are intrigued by it, then we crave it. Most of our favorite characters have experienced degrees of embarrassment, humiliation, pride, pleasure, satisfaction, grief. Of these, grief of loss and humiliation are difficult to portray head on, but by approaching it sideways, through subtext, through evocation, we are tapping the source that gives us the emotional language we seek. Try saying aloud when there's no one around, lest you feel embarrassed. Try saying, I speak empathy. I write empathy. Sometimes you can as your characters can also do, accomplish more by saying nothing and merely being there for someone, an open presence.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Genie in the Bottle

One of my favorite phrase/concepts is The Genie in the Bottle.

One of my favorite archetypal stories is about the fisherman who unwittingly hauls in a bottle from which a genie emerges, more or less telling the fisherman to say his prayers or whatever because he is about to get a more furious whacking than the 109th Congress got in the last election.

But why, the fisherman complains. After all, didn't I save your sorry ass from the confines of the bottle?

The genie recites his agenda: After I was imprisoned in that bottle, I vowed that I would grant three wishes to the person who freed me. But after a few hundred years in the bottle, I decided I would only grant my rescuer two wishes. After a time, my generosity shrank and I lowered the offer to one wish. Still no rescue. Accordingly, I vowed to kill the person who turned me loose. I mean, someone has to pay for this.

Thinking fast, the fisherman adopted a plan that began with his shaking his head in disbelief. Come on, he said. You're playing tricks with me. I can't believe a genie of your size and power could fit in such a tiny bottle.

Listen, kid, the genie said, I can pretty much do anything I want.

Again the fisherman shook his head. Tickets for the Springsteen concert, I can see, but not you in that bottle.

Oh, is that so? the genie shouts. Well, watch this! And with a poof, the genie is back in the bottle, whereupon the fisherman slams home the stopper, tosses the bottle overboard, and calls out, So long, schmuck.

By my definition then, the expression genie in the bottle refers to a pent-up force with a resident attitude.

I came to see the genie in the bottle as I looked with some care and interest at two remarkable and wildly diverse Web sites, Ben Huff, a photographer in Fairbanks, AK, and Mrs. Deane, a graphic arts site in the Netherlands.

Why would a writer be consulting such sites? For one thing, each site, Ben Huff and Mrs. Deane, had an identifiable voice. Each had a certain radiant inner power that held me with each successive image. And Ben Huff was able to express in writing some of the essence he was trying to capture. Reading Huff, I returned to Mrs. Deane, and sure enough, gears within me were beginning to mesh. I felt I could begin to articulate what the individuals who are Mrs. Deane were looking for.

The crowning touch was Mrs. Deane offering access to download a symbol, something that looked like an exclamation point that had been hit by lightning, that can be used in text when your intention is to convey irony. I will link to that as soon as I wade through the instructions, which are written in Dutch.

Suddenly I am having a vision of the thing I look for and indeed have looked for in my work: the genie in the bottle. As with so many of the things that relate to creativity, my first glimpse is a feeling--or a series of feelings--which I experience with a gulp, digest quickly, then get to work, trying to capture the image. I work--oh, how I work--trying to get the emotions down on the page, trying to get the explanations and footnotes out. It took me years to be able to articulate the concept to myself that description is for the late nineteenth century and perhaps the first three-quarters of the twentieth, but from there onward, evocation is the goal. Anyone can describe. Well, no; Tom Clancy can't describe. Tom Wolfe thinks he can.

Ben Huff doesn't describe; he evokes. Ditto Mrs. Deane.

What about Shelly? Ah, he looks for the genie in the bottle, that trapped force with an attitude, resident in everything. And then he tries to evoke it.

Don't do the reader's work for him, Shelly rails at his students. Make the reader complicit.

So, were I to have to write an essay, "How I Spent My Spring Break," I would write:

I learned from Ben Huff and Mrs. Deane to look for the genie in the bottle.