I was recently at a reading. I won't tell you where it was, or the day, or who read with me, or who sponsored this event. I was the evening's main reader so I read last. This gave me a chance to focus on the younger artists who preceded me. One was a spoken-word poet who, with neither notes or a manuscript, talked remarkably fast, nearly hyperventilating, and at the highest volume her voice could achieve as she blasted every kind of person she disliked (homophobes, rich people), and became so worked up, there on stage, that she nearly broke down in tears. (Really. She was spilling her guts, giving us theater and all her fears, all her angers, and so at one point she had to pause to calm herself down.) Another reader detailed her sorrow at being still poor in her forties, and how a great writer in similar circumstances gave her inspiration to keep on keeping on. As I sat listening before it was my turn to read, I realized that the works I was listening to were all about the egos of these performers. These presentations were nothing if not confessional. These young writers had feelings in great abundance to share, but no story to tell (or certainly not one that created suspense and made a listener wonder "What happens next?"). Their subject matter was derived from some aspect of the biography, likes and dislikes of the performer herself or himself. Each performance, therefore, became simply a small stage or theater for the display of I, me, myself.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
WHAT DOES THE E STAND FOR?
In fiction there must be a theoretical basis to the most minute details. Even a single glove must have its theory. Prosper Mérimée
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How does one remove ego from the creation of art?"
Over four decades, I've been to countless readings like this one. They help me understand, for example, why so many of my former students write to me for help with getting their often rejected works published---works that are about their struggles with bad marriages, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and other personal problems. With these young (and some old) writers, and with performances like the one I just described in the preceding paragraph, literary art is understood, rightly or wrongly, to be about the artist himself or herself. A listener cannot separate the performance from the writer's ego needs. They are understood to be one and the same. And sometimes an over-the-top spectacle of emotionalism---chewing the curtains, as I think they say in theater---is seen as "art." (But we know, of course, from Aristotle's Poetics that while "spectacle" momentarily hits every audience hard because of its shock value, spectacle is not art.) There can be no question, at least in my mind, that this naked display of ego takes a certain amount of courage---or perhaps a degree of exhibitionism (which, once again, is yet another name for ego.). I'll let you decide which is the appropriate designation.
But there is another, more satisfying way to envision the job of the artist, especially the professional storyteller, who is able to write about any subject he is called upon to dramatize. In his excellent book, The Golden Theme: How To Make Your Writing Appeal To The Highest Common Denominator, film-maker Brian McDonald says this:
"As a storyteller, you are a servant of your story, not the master. You must do what it requires, not what you want to do. You remove your ego from it. Art is not to show people who you are; it is to show people who they are."
I think that is the best answer to today's question. The story I read on the evening I've described was one I worked on for a month, day and night. I spent that amount of time on it because every imaginative story presents numerous problems of techne to solve and decisions that have to be made. Who are these characters (who, by the way, are not me)? What names will I give them that are appropriate for their class, and the culture and era in which they live? How do I incarnate or give flesh to the theme or idea we all were asked to write about nine months ago? What is the setting? The conflict or ground situation from which the dramatic action will arise? Do I open with scene or narration? (And, if narration, should this story be told in first-person, second-person, or third-person?) Do I open before the protagonist is thrown into a state of dis-equilibrium (in other words, before his conflict aries?) or in media res when he is already in the thick of things? Two places for emphasis in a story (as well as in a sentence) are at the beginning and end. So what intriguing line (narration or dialogue) would be best to open the story? What would be the most appropriate balance of dramatic scene and narration for this story? All questions related to Who, What, Where, When, Why and How had to answered.
For months prior to writing the story, I assembled a fat folder of articles related to the theme we were given to write about. As my deadline for the story approached, after I had a first draft I could massage and rewrite and tinker with, I devoted a full week and a half to revisions, i.e., looking at each sentence, each image, each line of dialogue hundreds of times. With dialogue, each speech had to be in language appropriate to the character's level of education, his or her individual background, etc. I started with one working title, then abandoned it for a different, better one that appeared on the page mid-way through the story, which I could not have thought of when I began writing weeks earlier. In fact, the slow work of developing a first draft for three weeks was all about discovery, keeping my mind open to possibilities. Where did my protagonist live? With his mother? All right, then, what is she like? As I began to carefully sculpt details for his mother a shift in the story appeared. That is, once I began to know her better, I knew the protagonist better, and that enabled me to see more clearly how he would possibly behave in part three of the story when he must finally resolve the conflict that arises for him in part one.
Week after week, this is how things went. Asking questions about the performers. Patiently waiting for the developments in the story to surprise me. And for lines I revised over and over again to reach that point whey they delivered through layering a revelation or linguistic surprise that I didn't know was coming. During the last week and a half, I scoured 40 years of my writer's notebooks, looking for any idea, scrap of description, or thought I'd jotted down 10 or 20 or 35 years ago, any individual words that would be right for this in-progress story. I drilled down on details. Each and every object, prop, and article of clothing had to be moved from a generic description (if possible) to a concrete, individuated one with poetic inscape---it wasn't good enough to just say there were anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs in a character's bathroom cabinet; we needed these objects to be Zoloft, Paxil, and Risperdal. It wasn't enough to say a character entered a kitchen; it needed to be a Viking kitchen where moonlight streamed through the windows. On and on, this is how I revised, working to achieve maximum specificity for as many details as possible to create a convincing, imaginative world, trying to see in my mind's eye the story and its scenes at every moment. Did the characters drive south from north Seattle to Sea-Tac airport? Then what route did they take? I typed in their starting point and destination in MapQuest to determine the best directions. Did one character live in the affluent Seattle neighborhood called Interlaken? I did a little quick research on that (Google)---what homes there sold for, what they looked like, inside and out, the history of homes built there in the 1920s. I also drilled down on sentences. What would be the rhythm between short and long sentences? Between ones that were periodic and loose (the periodic sentence is always good for creating suspense)?
Then, in the final two or three days before I had to read the story, I cut mercilessly---ruthlessly---removing anything that slowed the pacing, anything I personally loved in earlier drafts that didn't actually serve the story and its characters, anything that was more about my own subjective quirks and eccentricities than the needs of the story at a particular moment. I let my wife read the story and give me feedback. She felt one small detail needed rethinking. I made that change, and even down to the eleventh hour I was polishing and re-polishing the final sentence, the one that would bring closure to the story. After a month of labor like this I was sick of the story and a bit exhausted. A pile of drafts had grown steadily, day after day, in one corner of my study. But by that time I couldn't remove a single sentence without disrupting the meaning and music of the sentences that came before and after it. That is when I knew the story was as done as I could possibly make it after 30-plus days of work and concentration. All questions raised by the story had been answered. Every word and sentence had been subjected to scrutiny hundreds---if not thousands---of times.
Then the night before the reading, I test-read the story out loud to determine how to perform it. How to be "in character" when I read the speeches by different characters. (And especially for the first-person narrator, a bright, 22-year-old black taxi driver whose education only went as far as one year at a community college.) Where to speed up the reading, where to slow it down. Where the silences or pauses should occur. Naturally, a few hours before the reading I sat in formal meditation to bring myself a degree of tranquility in mind, body and spirit. To "let go" the work of the previous month, to offer it in the spirit of sacrifice, and with the hope that it would be of service to others.
During that month of work, of focusing on hundreds of details in the story, there was simply no place for my ego. No room for it to arise. The fictional world, the object incubating in my consciousness day and night, forced out all thoughts or concerns of ego. Of me, myself, or I. Doing this work was no more about my ego than would be the building of a chair or a table for which I would lovingly dwell on each and every detail until I made what struck me as being the right and inevitable choices. All this is captured, I think, in an epigraph I used for an earlier post, one from Concentration and Meditation by Christmas Humphreys:
"As a student wrote: If one is trying to do something really well, one becomes, first of all, interested in it, and later absorbed in it, which means that one forgets oneself in concentrating on what one is doing. But when one forgets oneself, oneself ceases to exist, since oneself is the only thing which causes oneself to exist."
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 10:15 PM