Sunday, November 25, 2007

Through the Looking Glass

When I was in college, I had some peculiar ideas. OK, to be honest I was a little nuts...too much time rattling around inside my own head. The summer between sophomore and junior year I spent working in England, and reading some wonderful but pretty intense books: Diana Wynne Jones’ The Homeward Bounders and Keri Hulmes’s The Bone People are the two that come to mind. The former is about Real Places and how they become and stay Real, the latter about center and periphery, home and away, saved self and lost self. I recommend them both (I should re-read Hulme; I don’t think I have in the intervening 20+ years).

At the end of the trip, I spent a memorable week out on Scarp, an island off the northwest end of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. It’s a truly magical landscape, and I was particularly open to that magic. I wasn’t doing any formal meditation or anything, but there I was in a tent with the sheep and a few folks who had holiday houses out there. I mulled over questions of how I could find and be part of a Real Place; one of Jones’s points is that Real Places are made so through people being truly in them and loving them and caring for them; a viewpoint not dissimilar from The Velveteen Rabbit with all the treacly bits excised. An answer came to me there on Scarp: “I am real, I am here, I am myself.” Pretty basic stuff, but it was a good little mantra. Still is sometimes.

I wrote what was almost certainly a mad-sounding letter to Jones about all this, and received (after my return to the States) a kindly “calm down, it is just a novel” reply from her. And that exchange is really the point of this posting.

To approach it another way, I remember a session at the unfortunately now-defunct Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, a gathering of readers and writers in the fantasy genre. This would be in the early 1990’s. There was a session about “fantasy and religion,” and it became clear over the course of the session that there was a major divide in the group. People were being careful enough and polite enough that it never really became a full argument, but came close when one of the audience rose to ask about the relationship between the explicit cosmological content of the authors work, and the author’s personal religious beliefs. Diane Duane gave what I recall as a very well put response, noting that she was a pretty serious practicing Catholic. She does not believe in wizards or magic as practiced by the characters in her books. To paraphrase William Shatner in his famous Saturday Night Live skit, “It’s a show, guys. Get over it!”

To me this was kind of a revelation, because as a reader who did not interact with writers, I was working in a vacuum. Especially in literary genres where characters are looking at magic, hidden meanings, lost knowledge, etc., the line between fiction and non-fiction may be deliberately blurred for effect (see The Da Vinci Code, et al for similar effects in another genre). I was half-expecting that the writers of this stuff were themselves secretly, I don’t know, witches or something.

They aren’t. At least not as directly as I hoped or expected.

Writers and other creators of narrative forms have this problem all the time. Call it the Don Quixote effect: the writer urges readers through the narrative to open up their hearts to some transcendent quality: romance, wonder, courage, grace, etc. Readers do open themselves up, and are inspired. Readers then ascribe this opening to the work, and therefore to the authors, who must therefore be very wise indeed. But of course they are well-versed craftspeople, not warlocks/sages/prophets.

What the readers don’t realize is how everyday the process of creating the work feels to the creator. It’s a lot of fun and satisfying, sure, but the transcendent experience of reading the book is seldom reflected by a transcendent experience making it. Writers and other creators do talk about “characters writing themselves,” or about how “I am just a conduit for this stuff.” The religious ones praise their deity for the grace to turn this stuff out, the non-religious ones shrug and smile. But the creators also talk about the Butt-In-the-Chair principle, a corollary to Edison’s prescription that genius is 99% perspiration.

Which brings us back to the idea of frames. The construction of frames, whether literally in the visual arts or metaphorically in narrative arts, is a Butt-in-the-Chair craft and technique sort of process. Some of it is what fantasy writers call “world building,” and historical writers call “research,” learning/developing enough sense of the world within which the story will develop, that the writer feels comfortable having the characters hop around in it. This is important to remember; sometimes it feels to readers like the point of world-building/research is to create that world for their entertainment, but the point is usually to make a workspace for the writer to be able to comfortably work within.

This is why sitcoms are usually framed in such a limited number of spaces: the writers and actors can behave with much less inhibition-from-lack-of-knowledge when they know exactly where Archie Bunker keeps his keys and what time Meathead gets off work. And with this strong sense of “home,” they can feel free to introduce new characters and settings one at a time.
Next up: inspiration.

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