Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Knowledge And... Wait, What's The Opposite Of That Again?"

I recently completed a Book-on-CD entitled Hag-Seed, written by the highly acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

Hag-Seed was a rewardingly enjoyable “read-in-the-ear”, concerning a deposed theater – make that theatre because it’s Canadian – festival director, who exacts revenge against his nefarious adversaries via a production of The Tempest the exiled director mounts, working with actors incarcerated in a nearby prison.

Interesting – to me, and hopefully eventually to you – is that what has remained with me after finishing Hag-Seed was a brief, extraneous-to-the-storyline description, included as the discredited impresario was one day driving to work.

As the director passes the fields, the author takes a moment to delineate the seasonally appropriate crop modulations, describing,

“… the light green of the winter wheat, the darker green of soybeans.”

An innocuous fragment of a sentence.  And yet it caused me to rewind the CD, or whatever, so I could listen to it again.

“… the light green of the winter wheat, the darker green of soybeans.”

Hardly memorable poetry, or well-turned phrase, or Wildean aphorism.  What then was it that affected me?

What affected me was the author’s personal knowledge of the color of winter wheat as distinguished from the darker color of winter soybeans.  (I know.  It’s “colour.” but I was going someplace.)

I love it when writers know stuff.  A friend of mine wrote a movie in which he infused into one of the films characters his own personal knowledge of astronomy.  The way it was written, the included factual information did felt not artificially appended, like a glued-on mustache; it felt like my friend generically knew what he was talking about.

Similarly, the still-memorable “plot point” in Beverly Hill Cop in which the Eddie Murphy character explains that coffee grounds can throw “drug sniffing dogs” erroneously off the scent.  The inclusion of “coffee grounds” felt like exciting
“bonus information.”  I mean, who knew about that?

DRUG SNIFFING DOGS:  “We did.  And we hate it.”

I mean, besides the dogs.

Of course – typically for me – accompanying my appreciation of impressively informed writers is a rebuking critique of myself for knowing comparatively nothing.  Among other real or imagined impediments, this glaring deficit in direct knowledge made me reluctant to write movies, believing that, over a two-or-so-hour period, my inability to provide any enriching informational tidbits might lead the audience’s enthusiasm to wear thin.

How do I compensate for my lack of integral knowledge about anything?

What else?  I exploit my substantial ignorance instead.

You can do that in comedies.  In serious dramas, the “Bar of Knowledge” is demonstrably higher.

“We attack the American capital tomorrow!”

“New York City?”


Possibly a chuckle in a comedy.  In a serious drama, that’s “Check, please.”

“Tell us, Earlo, what piece of comedy can you point to exemplifying your most egregious informational stupidity”?

Thanks for the setup, “Blue Italics-Writing Person.”  It really moves things along.

Consider “The Wheat Sketch”, co-written with my older brother, who, like myself, is also not a Saskatchewan sodbuster.

The sketch’s original premise grew out of a report that, in order to stabilize marketplace prices, Canadian farmers would be receiving government-paid subsidies not to grow wheat.

Okay.  So there’s these two middle-aged farmers, rocking contentedly on their front porch after a subsidized season of not at all growing wheat.

Suddenly, one of them sits bolt upright, realizing that there might be a serious problem. 

What is it?

“I think I didn’t grow oats by mistake.”

A potential criminal offense, since the government was only paying them not to grow wheat.  If they mistakenly didn’t grow oats instead, they were receiving government subsidies under false pretenses. 

The farmers’ reflexive proposal to this dilemma is to go out and immediately dig up what they did not grow by definitively determining what they had not planted.  Shooting that possibility down (because “We didn’t plant anything!“) their alternative recourse was to wait, knowing that

“If she don’t come up in the spring she’s wheat; and if she don’t come up in the fall she’s oats!

Well, you can discern the difficulties with that piece of material, starting with farmers being unable to distinguish between wheat and oats and ending with the clueless assertion that one of them comes up in the spring while the other of them comes up in the fall.  Not to mention whether farmers call the crops they annually cultivate “she.

But… “That’s comedy.”  Unless you’re an actual farmer, in which case, that’s “ridiculous hogwash.”

The message here, recalled to mind by that educated descriptive in Hag-Seed, is that your writing is inevitably informed by your experience.

Whether it’s knowing about soybeans.

Or not knowing about wheat.

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