Archive for October, 2012

Landscape–the Map of the Story

I had a strange recovered-memory incident last week. It was morning; I was getting dressed. I put on shorts, and an old camp shirt.

For those not familiar with the style, this is a short-sleeved, not-tucked-in, collared, button-up shirt that is rather square in its shape. I liked this style a few years ago, not so much now, but it was hot, the shirt was weather-and-task-appropriate, and I was in the mood for it. I put it on and walked out into the day’s hot, dry weather, where I was assaulted by memories of a summer camp I went to as a child.

Stanley Ranch Camp was located north of L.A. in rolling hills near Saugus. The terrain was desert chaparral, and daily temperatures in the middle of summer hit three digits every day. The camp offered swimming, horseback riding, lanyard making, fire building (yes, in 100 degree weather, in Southern California, by 10 and 11 year olds), hiking, campfire singing, and quiet time after lunch, when it was too hot to do anything else.

I remember getting heat rash, skinning my shin badly, disastrous lanyards, steep hills to climb, being dehydrated, and failing to get my fire started. We slept outside each night, on cots, under oak trees; no one worried, apparently, about mountain lions, rattlesnakes, coyotes, or ax murderers. The bathrooms were outhouses. We didn’t shower; that’s what the daily swimming was for. Half the stuff we did then wouldn’t be allowed today. It felt a bit like Moonlight Kingdom, except none of us had any wilderness skills whatsoever.

As I ran through all the memories of people, activities, and locations, up came a complete mental image of the entire landscape. First the images were individual, like a slide show. Then I strung the pieces together, and suddenly I was remembering the entirety of the camp–a time-traveling Google Map, courtesy of my brain. I was surprised to find how strong my emotional connection was to the setting of that camp, how much fun it was to revisit. I guess I really did like the place, even if most of the memories seemed to involve injury or extreme discomfort.

The Internet told me that Stanley Ranch Camp has, in fact, endured all this past half-century, and I found it returned to its “original location” last summer, a site now operated by VT Ranch, Camp & Conference Center. I Googled that, and their site had a map. And, yes!!! My memory of the landscape was correct in all its particulars, not counting some new paving, new buildings, and other buildings torn down or repurposed. The pool, the sports field, the mess hall, and the amphitheater are all in the same positions I remember.

Landscapes are powerful in our memories, and settings are powerful in fiction. I think of the Congo in Heart of Darkness, or 1940s Los Angeles in any Raymond Chandler novel. For future or fantastic landscapes, I might think of Ian McDonald’s mid-century Istanbul in The Dervish House, or Westeros and Essos in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. And Moonlight Kingdom was all about setting, wasn’t it? Have you ever seen so many maps in a movie? Setting is essential to story; it is a character in and of itself, bound by time as well as space, and interacting with the characters and the reader’s imagination. Ideally, we become immersed in it, irrespective of whether it comes mostly from our real world, or that of our imagination. We go on vacation (or to summer camp) to escape our mundane lives. We read fiction for the same reason, and there is no shame in that.

The Stanley Ranch Camp of my memory did exist, but once it crossed over from mere historical reality to become entwined with my childhood memory banks, it became more important as a idea than as the humble place it actually was. It became a character in my memory. Because it was all activities, all the time, because every hour of every day was planned for us, my time there had something of the quality of a script, a teleplay. Difficulties at home, uncertainties at school, and nascent adolescent social anxieties did not figure in this script. I had a role, the role of camper, and I knew how to play it. Heat rash and dehydration were part of the plot. It was like going to the movie theater on Saturday afternoon…and getting to be in the movie.

Wrinkled, and in the great outdoors. What landscape to explore next?


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Finding “Moi”

Gustave Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” When I searched the phrase, I came up with a number of results, many of which were student or professor pages asking what he meant by the statement. Some of the answers looked for biographical points of similarity; others looked for similarities in personality traits or temperament, and they found a few. None of the results matched my take on the statement.

When Flaubert says that he and Bovary are the same person, he is merely stating a fact every writer should embrace. Our memorable characters are us, and if they are not, they are not memorable.

Any real person is, of course, too complex, and too multifaceted to fit into a fictional character. No fictional character, however complex, has the dimensions of a real person. Nonetheless, we need to recognize our characters, and we need to know them well. We need to be able to pick the pieces of them out of our mirror.

We need not always be conscious of this process when creating our characters, but we can be.

John Glore, Associate Artistic Director at South Coast Repertory Theater, taught a playwriting seminar back in the ’90’s. He had an exercise that went like this: List a dozen of your own personal characteristics, i.e. fun-loving, stubborn, and so forth. Next, split the characteristics into groups of three, four items each, in any way that seems to make sense to you. Then, use the three trait-clusters to create three separate characters. Finally, a comet is going to hit and destroy the Earth in ten minutes. Write a ten-minute play with the three characters reacting to this event.

A fun exercise that makes a good point: Just because they’re all c’est moi doesn’t mean they’re all alike. Au contraire, we’ve got all sorts of folks living inside us. The trick is discovering who they are, and where they live.

As writers, most of us do this very well, and quite unconsciously. The first appearance of a character in our brain may be inspired by someone we know, a mother-in-law, an ex-boss, an acquaintance, or even someone famous. For that inspiration to flesh out and begin breathing on its own, so to speak, we need at some level to be moved by that character’s situation, to learn where they’re coming from, and to empathize with them, to feel something about where they’re going. We need to invest ourselves in them. This is true of villains as well as heroes, monsters as well as saints.

Every successful character has at least one over-arching priority, one desire, belief, or goal. More often, they have conflicts clusters of needs, desires, and goals, two or more of which conflict with one another. The good characters are a little bad, and the bad ones, a little good. The key to moiness is to empathize with your verbally abusive, chemically dependent, good-for-nothing, s.o.b., and to be quite judgmental toward your law-abiding nice guy or gal.

Most of the time, the author doesn’t want to be too recognizable in his/her characters. There are exceptions of course, but the thing that prevents us from creating characters that are too recognizably nous is that we cannot truly see ourselves as others do. We have the perfect view from the inside, but only others see the outside. When we look in the mirror, we might as well be wearing goggles with Vaseline smeared on them. We’re flipped: left is right, and right is left. We focus on the blemishes. Our image is distorted, like that map of the U.S., as drawn by a New Yorker. We are so used to ourselves, we don’t see anything remarkable there. The last thing I think of when I look in the mirror (especially first thing in the morning) is “Oh, look, what a fascinating character!”

But I guess I am. And I know you are, too.

The Crowded Mirror


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Why I Finish The Books I Start. Usually.

I posted on Blueprints of the Afterlife last time, and the post was kind of sort of a review of a book I was but halfway through. I felt a bit guilty about that, because a book is meant to be read in its entirety, from beginning to end. I thought perhaps I might want to adjust or amend my comments based on developments in the second half of the book.

Turns out, none of that is necessary. I have changed my mind about nothing. The more into it I went, the more I lost interest. For me, the entire enterprise oozed futility. Maybe I don’t get it, maybe I’m missing the point. Or, maybe I do get it, and I simply don’t like it.

To buy a book and embark upon its pages is to take a risk. I am risking boredom, annoyance, and time. I am risking an irretrievable Loss of Potential Entertainment–you know, when I set time aside to be entertained, and I am in fact not. When I sense a book is going very badly, I sometimes decide to cut my losses, but if I can stand to keep reading, I do.

It’s not that I expect the book to get any better, or that I’m reading to find out “what happens,” because I’m already too disengaged with for that. I continue reading to notice my every gut-level reaction, and to notice why I feel that way. Which of my own personal fiction rules has this book violated? I continue to read for lessons I can learn as a writer, for what I don’t want to see in my own work. In the case of Blueprints of the Afterlife, I could feel the author’s anger at ecological ruin, the prospect that we have pushed the planet beyond its breaking point already, so much so that we can no longer live in it as we have. Instead, we must live in a kind of “afterlife,” or shared dream, or virtual reality, and not all that pleasant a one at that. The book is angry, fatalistic, and sometimes funny. The intent is black comedy, but it doesn’t always work, and in the end, it fails me, for reasons given in the previous post.

For contrast, I tried to think of a more successful example of angry, fatalistic, science fictional satire. I came up with:

This is angry, dark, and funny.

If I look to books that fail me for examples of what not to do, then I must also look to books I love for what to do. Confession: I did at one time try to write like Kurt Vonnegut. I was charmed by his short little chapters. (How short? My edition of Cat’s Cradle is 287 pages long. It contains 127 chapters.) Nothing is explained. We are dropped into Bokononism and the development of the atomic bomb. The prose is economical, and somewhat terse. The book is angry, fatalistic, and very, very funny. Oh, and then there are the marvelous additions to our vocabulary: karass, foma, granfalloon, and others. This is what I remember of it.

My halting attempts to write like Kurt Vonnegut utterly failed. This is okay. We need to try these doomed attempts when we are young, for these are the sorts of failures we can learn an enormous amount from.

We also learn from what we read. I can’t write like Kurt Vonnegut, but I can reread Cat’s Cradle, and it is time for me to do that–for the entertainment and for the learning.

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