Sunday, 15 April 2007

THEME: Narrowing the Field

Someone read this blog, then sent me this, some old course handout of mine from a Kingfisher Barn course

Think of a water slide. Every ride appears different, exciting, yet think of the science that shapes the passage of the person or boat. There is randomness within control; there is variation within parameters. What looks wild is in fact directed. In the case of the slide it has to be for safety’s sake.

If you know the intent of your story, you know the start and end points of your water ride. Your intent, (the meaning you wish to transmit, the theme of your story, what it “says”) is like the sides of the slide. The more you move away from the central direction, the greater is the force pushing you back on track.

One of the reasons so many Boot Campers struggle with this concept is that they don’t manage to ; articulate; a theme. They head off into the darkness with vague statements like, “I wanted to write about proper treatment of animals” (not a theme) or “I wanted to examine sexual coercion in marriage” (also not a theme).

If the author had wanted to say “Treating animals badly makes a man a beast and leads to degradation” then the author has a theme (and, incidentally a plot. If the second author had wanted to say, “Sexual coercion in marriage leads to emptiness, bitterness and death” again, there is a clear point to the story, a definite “residue’ and we know many things about the plot.

I am constantly amazed at how vague people are when approaching a story.

We should think of a story as anecdotal support for a belief. We SHOW that racial prejudice is bad, by writing a story involving it. We highlight the evils of child-abuse by writing a story about it.

Now would we enter a debate on race without an opinion? Would we discuss child abuse without an opinion, discuss rape without an opinion? Why then enter the dangerous territory of characters doing their own thing if we don’t have a definite opinion, a real intent?

I remember Lexie’s story Dominion because it jumps around, almost grabbing a theme then running from it. Had the author chosen one core theme and driven the story with it, then she would have a powerful story.

Meredith Twp Evans and His Butty Ernie the Egg.

Note the title places Twp Evans first despite the fact that Ernie is the central character. I had some plot, a vague “life-history” but a life-history is not a STORY. What I also needed was what this particular history said about the human condition. I write a fair amount about ballistic fate and about destiny, about people sent to guide us. The family-history rumour (untrue, I suspect) gave me the idea of Twp and it was the idea of Twp’s pervasive presence, his influence that gave me the key to the story and its shape.

Ernie was relatively passive. He is taken on by, taught, shaped, protected then saved by Twp. But even that is not enough. The two final nails come when after the disaster Twp asks Ernie is he going back underground. Only when he hears Ernie say, “No.” can Twp walk off, effectively into the sunset.
The story effectively finishes there. I used the wartime stuff, the shooting, the recovery to bring the story back to the opening, to remind us again about fate and to allow Ernie to mention Twp again. (Remember that Twp means stupid).

That’s how I became Ernie the Egg and wealthy, but I have been under the ground and I have been shot for my country. I limp of course, money can’t cure that, but I have a daughter and now a grandson, Meredith. I like to walk and I like the sweetness of the air on top of the mountain. I do not like the dark but most times it cannot rain hard enough to disturb me. When it does, I wait in the lee of a mountain and rest, thinking myself twp for being out without a coat. And I wonder about Meredith Evans, collier, but he is gone.

In Ballistics I was dealing with an incident (throwing the keys into a child’s eye) but that is an EVENT. Think how 99.9 of beginners would approach this story. They would have a couple fighting, and this lovely-wuvvly, itsy-bitsy, such-a-pretty-likkle-girl hovering, just WAITING to be zapped. The olds would fight, and right at the death he would throw the keys, and, “Oh, No!” they are going to hit the child. The beginner imagines an ACTION is important, so withholds it for dramatic effect and kills the story.

Instead I asked myself about that half-second when the keys were in the air. I thought about how the total precision of the trajectory, the air temperature, wind, weight of the keys, air resistance, how I threw them, the split-second I threw them, how my wife reached up (and then withdrew her hand), how all these things had to combine in utter perfection to blind the child.

I am personally unable to see that as chance. It was ‘meant’ to happen and it is that, the ballistic nature of the actions, the dramas that brought all the people to this point, then heritage and so on.

Much of the story is reportage, and it is mostly various truths, combinations and recombinations, but it’s still very much a fictional construction. The daughter’s future is discussed (as the keys fly) and the story closes with them (father-daughter) coming to an understanding, not forgiveness or love, these are not the issues, but understanding, as the daughter, now a woman herself realises that the world is not as simple as it’s painted and the power of onrushing love is overwhelming. So she asks him, did he love her? (referring to the father's affair, that begat the rows, that begat the throwing of the keys…)

Now for the next quarter second of your life you can see perfectly, but you aren’t yet old enough to see what happens around you, only what happens to you and because of you. You will be six before you hear the word Ruth, eight before you understand who she was, and not until you are fifteen will you have the courage to ask your father was it her, did she cause all the anger, was she the hand that guided his?

His eyes will fill up. He will try to hold you but will feel awkward because you look and act like a woman now. “No,” he will say, “It was me, and me alone. Ruth was before you were born; your mother couldn’t let it go.”

When you ask your father “Did you love her. Dad?” and he says, “Do you mean Ruth?” all you will do is nod and at first he will nod. Then he will take a breath and tell you he loved her completely, absolutely, hopelessly. He will stand, go over to the window and look out. You will not be sure if he is crying but you will be old enough to wait for him to turn round. You glance at your reflection in a tiny mirror you carry and adjust your eye.

What matters here is of course I had material but what “made’ the story was finding the shape, the construction, the voice and attitude to make it truly meaningful . It is this universality, this example of human frailty that takes the story away from being crude drama and into something resonant and lasting. But as always it’s created by asking the question, “Why am I writing this? What is it that aches? What is it calls out to me? Why should anyone care about this? What is it that I’m trying to say?”

And this weekend and another twenty weekends, what you will search for is the core of you, what you are and what it is you are trying to say, then, specific to each story, and here?

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