Friday, April 11, 2014

"Another Of My Occasional Glimpses Behind The Curtain"

Motivated by a book-on-tape I am reading – okay, listening to – entitled 1775, I found myself (innerly) directed to write a story about the American Revolution, my consideration of that undertaking capsulized by the question, steeped in skepticism and doubt:

“You want us to fight England?”

Taking on and defeating the might and military power of the British Empire – to me at least, though apparently not to the people considering it – seemed like the generic definition of a “longshot.”  Had there been Vegas at the time, I cannot imagine anyone betting heavily on the “Colonials.”  In fact, such utter foolhardiness might well have suggested a gambling problem, requiring immediate entry into a “Twelve-Step Program.”  (Which in that pre-inflationary era was only a “Four-Step Program.”)

An idea of what you want to write about is not enough.  What you then have to determine is a structure.  An idea without a structure is like pouring water into an invisible pitcher – the water goes all over the place. 

Even more important that a structure is a sincerely believed-in “Point of View.”  A idea without a point of view is little pouring water into another invisible pitcher.  You begin your work lacking a predetermined structure and a “Point of View” and you will do considerably less writing than mopping up. 

In short – minus the “water in the invisible pitcher” metaphor – all writing is accompanied by the ongoing consideration of “What should I put in, and what should I leave out?”, your selections informed necessarily by your structure and  your “Point of View.” 

Lacking this inevitable guideline, your writing will either be all over the place – and therefore not compelling – or the writer, overwhelmed by the inclarity of their direction, will throw their hands frustratingly in the air, giving up before they begin.

I am directed to write about the Americans’ seemingly foolhardy decision to fight the British.  As you may detect from my repeated use of the word “foolhardy”, the seeds of my “Point of View” are already apparent. 

You can tell I think it’s a terrible idea. 

But who cares what I think?  Especially since I was historically proven to be so egregiously incorrect?

The other determination I make – on the structural level – is to compose my story in the form of a dialogue, one, because I enjoy and am experienced writing dialogue, and two, having recently written three posts about “The Truth”, I felt the need to loosen and lighten things up, before my readership gave up all hope of a reliable diet of philosophy-free blogification.

Okay, so the assignment is:  A dialogue depicting a debate between a revolutionary recruiter and colonial citizen decidedly disinterested in signing up.

The question is, where am I going to go with this that would be worthy of the reader’s time and attention, and achieve the writer’s goal of illumination and surprise?

The first option I considered was the most challenging:  To imagine a dialogue featuring two diametrically opposite points of view, where, via argument and persuasion, a person in favor of going to war against England convinces a person insistently opposed to that idea to change his mind.

I abandoned that approach almost immediately.  Why?  Because it is too hard for me.  And why was it too hard for me?  And herein lies my literary point, not – with apologizes – made here for the first time. 

You cannot…okay, I cannot…write something that is temperamentally alien to my fundamental nature.  Other writers can.  I can’t.  Casting myself in the position of a man asked to agree to risk life and limb in the service of an “unwinnable” war – I could not imagine an argument that would be persuasive enough to win me over to that position.

And unable to imagine it, I was unable write it.  (I did not even consider the persuasion going successfully in the other direction.)

On the other hand, writing an open-ended dialogue in which both characters end up exactly where they started – agreeing to disagree – it did not seem to me worth the journey. 

“I think you should join the Revolution.”

“I don’t want to.”


How “delightful” is that?

What I needed was an unexpected “turn.”  My first thought in that direction is that after “The Stranger” leaves, “The Proprietor’s” wife comes out from the back and says,

“I thought you were in favor of the Revolution.”

To which “The Proprietor” replies,

“I’m going.  I’m just not telling him.”

This took me to the idea that “The Proprietor” sniffed out that “The Stranger” had been an English spy.  Why did I need that?  To legitimize why a Colonial citizen – who was not me – would be vehemently against the American Revolution.  The explanation creating a “Surprise Ending”: 

He was faking.

The immediate next question becomes:  How did “The Proprietor” determine that “The Stranger” was a spy?

I decided to explain this by “The Stranger’s” inadvertently “outing” himself by correcting “The Proprietor’s” grammar – reminding him it’s “whom” rather than “who” – leading to “The Proprietor’s” final line in the piece:

“Nobody in America says ‘whom.’”

It occurred to me that that option felt minimally convincing and overly contrived.  And I immediately realized why that was:

I am congenitally terrible at “Surprise Endings.”  (Especially those that involve deception.)

What then is left?

Being innately consistent with my “Writerly Self.”

In the end, in my published version, “The Stranger” is unable to win “The Proprietor” over, and he leaves.  At that point, I inserted myself into the narrative, saying,

“And so, lacking popular support, a war is averted, and the American colonies did not attain their independence.  No, wait!  They did!

To me, that was the “funny part”, and the surprise.  My assertion went one way.  But the actual conclusion – as the history books all tell us – was the opposite.

Hearkening back to an earlier post, I belatedly discovered my “Point of View.”   

Though it chaffs my behind to admit it, factual “evidence” does have it limits.  Sometimes, if it’s held powerfully enough, one’s “belief” can eventuate a contra-indicated result.

I could only write the story one way.

So that’s exactly how I did it.


Carlton said...

Tho I'm of the fraternity that says when you dissect the frog, the humor is lost. However, it's good to see how the process worked for you.

Went to a college baseball game this afternoon (and Sat., too) and one of the players on 'my' team is named Andreychuk. Not surprisingly, he's from BC. Which reminded me to ask you (yes another question you can avoid!)...when you developed Major Dad, did you choose the character name Eugene Holowachuk as a tribute to Canada or perhaps to one of your associates? Please expound rather than just yes or no.

Johnny Walker said...

Ha! It sounds like your internal dialogue is very much like mine. I can't put pen to paper unless I believe in it, and in a situation where a character (who's essentially me) has to be convinced of something I don't believe in, I don't think I could write it either.

But isn't that your "voice"? Surely any writer who was able to flip-flop their opinions around is really just not honestly investing themselves in their characters? (Or is someone without a voice to begin with.)

Also, what fun would it be to write a character that you didn't like? I think it's desperately important that the author, above all else, love their characters. Don't you?