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“We feel an unforeseen relief at the end of the tragedy.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
There’s a compelling scene in Silver Linings Playbook where the bi-polar protagonist (Patrick) feels anything but “relief” while reading the final pages of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Patrick hurls the book through a (closed) window. At four o’clock in the morning
Then, he charges into this parents’ bedroom to debrief the tragedy:
“The whole time you’re rooting for this Hemingway guy to survive the war and to be with Catherine, the woman he loves… and he does! He survives… after getting blown up… and he escapes to Switzerland with Catherine… but now Catherine’s pregnant. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Patrick, just released from a psych ward, wants to fix his broken marriage but he’s obviously deluded. Positive thinking, he thinks, is going to win back his wife.
“And they escape up into the mountains and they’re gonna be happy, and they’re gonna be drinking wine and they dance… [but] you think he ends it there? No! He writes another ending. She dies.”
Hemingway’s tragedy has poisoned Patrick’s mind.
“Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is. Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”
Patrick’s rant predicts the climax—it could stand as the subtext of our hero’s actions as he resolves key personal issues in the closing minutes.
The tone of the film is mildly comic, so we know from the get-go that it’s going to end well enough. But if Silver Linings has one weakness, it’s exactly that—the Hollywood ending.
And it comes as the expense of A Farewell to Arms lying in tatters outside in the dark amongst shards of glass. I dislike the notion that only gushing happy endings nourish readers.
I challenge Patrick to retrieve his Hemingway and revisit that ending. Look again at the protagonist in that Swiss hospital room where his wife has just died. He’s just died, too, so to speak. He stands at the window, looking out.
That’s how it ends. It’s terribly sad, and at the same time, according to Nikos Kazantzakis, the story isn’t over.
“We know that though the hero may die, may be reduced to bloodstained mire beneath some invisible heel, there is something within him that will not die.”
Look again at the Hemingway character at the window. What’s he looking at? Keep watching as Kazantzakis explains how we might appreciate this tragic scene:
“Apparently there is a power outside and inside man which has one aim and only one—to rise. Where? Up towards what? No one knows.”
Is this the silver lining of failure?
The “unforeseen relief at the end of the tragedy”—is this the nourishment imbedded in a good tragedy?
The writer would seem to be asking us to conjure up the “relief” in our own hearts.
Kazantzakis suggests that we instinctively understand this mystical aspect of tragedy. We might even yearn to be a Macbeth or an Othello, but the demands of everyday life steer us well clear of any such possibility.
As a result, says Kazantzakis, it’s our fate to be left behind “in the tepid mud to limp through life, limp through love, limp through desire.”
And limp off to the movies. Yikes!
Let’s end this gloomy post with the final lines of Patrick’s rant. Visualize his parents cowering under their covers:
MOM: Pat, you owe us an apology.
PATRICK: Mom, for what? I’m not going to apologize for this. You know what I will do? I will apologize on behalf of Ernest Hemingway, because that’s who’s to blame here.
[Silver Linings is written by David O. Russell.]
“By believing passionately in something which still does not exist, we create it.”
You know, I just can’t quite get my head around that kind of mumbo-jumbo.
“The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
Who am I to refute such optimism? Neither am I able to promote it.
That said, just last week I began a talk by telling a personal story that seemed to prove the truth of that aphorism. I was speaking to an audience of writers and readers at our local library:
“Years ago, while I was living in an alternative community in Oregon, my girlfriend dumped me. Heartbroken, I begged off work, parked my sorry ass at a café and picked up a periodical that featured a commentary on a Buddhist sutra about “Loving Yourself”.
“‘Love Yourself: this can become the foundation of a radical transformation…’
“Under the circumstances, I was willing to consider the thesis. Love yourself. Hmm… I read on:
“‘Don’t be afraid of loving yourself. Love totally and you will be surprised: the day you can get rid of all self-condemnation, self-disrespect…will be a day of great blessing.’
“The more I read, the more I liked it. It seemed so do-able. Just, ‘love yourself’. I read it again and again. The day went by quickly with this dictum reverberating in my cranium like a mantra. ‘Love yourself, love yourself, love…’ My spirits lifted.
“By evening this sutra is circulating in my blood stream. Love yourself, of course! When I love myself to overflowing, there’s some for others. I am finally able to love others.
“Who can love others, who hates himself?
“Love yourself, love yourself, love yourself, love…
“I’m walking home in the dark feeling fine, as you can imagine. On any other night I would have detoured into the disco for an hour, but on this night I just looked in the window, careful not to disturb these insights about ‘loving yourself’. A woman appeared at my side and took my hand. I didn’t know her from Eve.
“‘What’s your name?’ she asked. I told her. ‘What’s yours?’ I said. She replied with one of those Sanskrit names everybody seemed to have back then.
“‘What’s it mean?” I asked.
“She said, ‘It means Love Yourself.’”
End of story.
I won’t speculate upon how I conjured Ms. LoveYourself out of thin air. Perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis is right when he says it’s a function of desire. Here’s the rest of what the author of Zorba the Greek had to say about manifesting what you want:
“The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired—whatever we have not irrigated with our blood to such a degree that it becomes strong enough to stride across the somber threshold of nonexistence.”
Desire “irrigated with our blood”, I hadn’t thought of that. Desire figures strongly in my story theory. Only the strongest desire takes the protagonist all the way. All the way to her own undoing. Which is her awakening.
By building a protagonist with such a fatal desire, that’s how a writer loves his hero. That’s the writer’s obligation.
That’s what I wanted to talk to the audience about.
I almost forgot.
(The Buddhist commentary was by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.)
I was deep in a digital funk yesterday.
I’d created a Word document, which, after closing, I couldn’t reopen. The file extension was beyond the ability of my Word program to open. How the heck does that happen?
Two hour’s work down the e-drain.
With a debilitating feeling of being hard-done-by, I donned my trenchcoat and went for a walk in the fog.
A speech about “The Advantages of Adversity”, that’s what I’d lost. How ironic! All my first thoughts, my raw material, memories, facts, connections, a web of meaning—all vanished in the e-ether.
Fresh air usually revives me, but on this especially funky day, every step marched me deeper into despair. I’m going on a retreat, I thought. Deep country, unplugged, that’s what I need. Since I’m a digital idiot, this kind of funk overtakes me not infrequently. Uphill I trudged under a canopy of spruce into the foothills of Mordor, trudge, trudge, trudge…
I enjoy climbing. Peaked cap pulled down so that I can’t see the slope, I perceive the road as level. It’s a little mental trick that never fails to thrill me.
Unable to reference the incline, there is no hill, no hill working against me. My organizm is working harder to walk, yes, but there is no hill trying to defeat me, no antagonism, no psychology of struggle, just the indisputable facts of physics. It never fails, I feel quite unlike myself, as if I were on Jupiter under the influence of a more powerful gravity field.
Moving about on strange planets takes me out of myself.
Suddenly, a thought out of nowhere: “The rewrite will be better.”
Rewrites are always better.
What just happened? I knew immediately what had happened because I’ve been exploring it on this blog for years—our belief systems. Good things happen when our “B.S.” outlives its usefulness. My belief system (victim mentality) had been left behind at the bottom of the hill.
I didn’t need it on Jupiter.
Wow—self-pity was weighing on me like an evil spell, which is what belief systems are. They are strategies, structures, rules, biases, attitudes, fears, all the necessary limits by which we negotiate this gloriously superficial life on planet Earth. When I shed the B.S., I became available to the truth:
My rewrite will be better.
Fictional protagonists, same thing.
The best fictional characters are cursed with belief systems that are not so easily jettisoned. The degree to which they hold fast determines the intensity of the drama. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Listen to him: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
That’s the screenwriter telling us what every reader needs to know at the outset of a story—what’s the hero’s belief system?
With that pitiful attitude, Bogey’s trajectory is set. Events will conspire to undo his belief system. Bogey will eat his words or we’ll demand our money back.
Sure enough, the love of his life (Ingrid Bergman) shows up and ushers Bogey to the depths of self-loathing. Remember the scene where she pulls a gun on him to get the letters of transit to America. He says, “Go ahead, shoot. You’ll be doing me a favour.”
He doesn’t care if he lives or dies. Now he can jettison his belief system. What good is a belief system if you’re on death’s doormat? Ilsa notices him waking up, lightening up. Now she’s in his arms. Look at Bogey, he looks a little lost, but now it’s all flooding back, the noble guy he was at the start of the war. You can see it in his eyes. He’s catching a glimpse of the truth, who he really is.
He’s rewriting his script.
The rewrite will be better!
As we know, Bogey sticks his neck out as far as a neck can go. He shoots Major Strasser, sacrifices his one true love, orders her to escape Casablanca with her husband so together they might bolster the Resistance against Hitler.
And, look… there goes Bogart in his trenchcoat, walking into the fog, a living martyr.
Time for me now to man-up and rewrite this speech.
(Btw… what the heck is a “docx” file? Is it, like, some kind of curse?)
If you’ve read my eBook, Story Structure to Die for, you’ll remember how my near-miss in Hollywood launched me on a quest to discover…
How fiction REALLY works.
I was privileged to hear from Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint (yes, this was a few years ago) that a screenplay of mine they had applauded nevertheless, unfortunately, devolved into melodrama.
[Melodrama: n. a drama characterized by extravagant action and emotion.]
It took me a while to understand that my “big finish” had distracted me. My protagonist lost track of his own story. Instead, he ran around trying to save everyone else. I thought it was a great Hollywood ending, extravagant, excessive, tearful, and indeed it bamboozled many judges on its way to emerging as one of eight finalists in a competition with over 4000 entries from 14 different countries.
But it didn’t fool judges Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint.
Why? I failed to keep the focus on the protagonist when it was needed most. I rushed into Act III without nailing my hero to the cross. Sure, he was on his knees, but I let him get back on his feet because I was anxious to shove him headlong into a melodramatic conclusion.
I didn’t hold my protagonist back; I didn’t ride him all the way down to the kind of self-doubt where a change of worldview becomes the hero’s only option.
Where good becomes great.
Think of George Clooney in Up in the Air. Or better yet, Paul Giamatti in Sideways. The writer took that wine connoisseur to such depths of self-loathing that he chugalugs the contents of a winery’s wine-tasting spit-bucket.
There’s a man on the verge of freedom.
As for my protagonist, I released him into Act III too soon. He wasn’t yet a free man. He hadn’t yet turned his back on “who he was”. Act III is all about the new man.
Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint must have been unconvinced that my protagonist had struggled sufficiently with the heroics of transformation.
As a result, they could agree that my story was “good”, but in the final analysis, it was a few essential beats short of “great”.
We’ve all watched films which, while “good”, were not memorable. When I’m deeply moved by a story, I’m often not immediately aware of how the writer did it. It takes some reflection. Almost always, I find the answer in the degree to which the hero takes care of business.
The business of his own salvation.
“You never know to whom you’re speaking, PJ.”
Occasionally I’ll receive a comment from an unexpected sector of the blogosphere, which reminds me that I have no control over who reads me or what the reader’s state of mind might be, nor, consequently, how they might misinterpret all this thinking-out-loud that passes for a blog post.
This past week, I attended The Artist’s Road blog as host Patrick Ross reported from his ten-day MFA writing residency in Vermont. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Patrick’s daily dispatches from his two previous residencies have been blogging at its best. This latest experience, watching Patrick crash and burn, was even better. His work-in-progress, a memoir, the final student presentation, was, shall we say, not well received.
Patrick reported his crucifixion in a post called, “Lessons From My Failed Residency Workshop”.
Readers, in awe of Patrick’s ability to type while bleeding profusely, chimed in with their support.
One commenter proposed an ethos for workshop participants, a philosophy meant to encourage a civilized critique process. She said:
“What you say is worth a dime. How you say it is worth a dollar. Why you say it, is worth a fortune.”
I took this comment and ran with it in my own direction. I was on the eve of giving a talk, and, not feeling entirely confident, I applied the maxim to my speechifying—WHY am I taking up people’s time with my subject? And if I have no answer, find one quick! I did. During my talk, it became the ground beneath my feet.
This morning, I’m applying her thesis to writing in general.
WHAT you say – the idea, as in, “Ideas are a dime a dozen”. Too true.
HOW you say it – the grammar, syntax, plot development, perhaps even the all-important “voice”—it’s still not going to make us Nobel Laureates in Literature. All these MFA programs are growing bumper crops of excellent writers. But the best attend to more than what or how.
WHY you say it – now this intrigues me because the why may not even be visible on the page. The why speaks to the magic and mystery of writing. The why is to blame for lives lost to literature, souls set soaring. In the why we find the meaning. This is why the why is worth a fortune.
Here’s part of my enthusiastic response to that creative commenter:
“The WHY is… the “secret centre” that Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk speaks of. You could say it’s “what the story is really about”. Which is often hidden. Which perhaps marks the “literature” genre for what it is.
And which, for all lovers of literature, makes it worth that fortune.
This post, then, is a salute to all bloggers and commenters who contribute constructively to the blogosphere. And who, fortunately for everyone involved, never know to whom they are speaking.
Keep up the good work!
Writers don’t always relish public speaking.
But we sure love to put words in other people’s mouths.
Author, Nikos Kazantzakis, for instance.
In Zorba the Greek, Zorba and the anal Englishman, Basil, are strolling past the widow’s house. Zorba notices her in the window, then, excited for Basil…
ZORBA: Boss! Listen—you knock—you say, ‘I have come for my umbrella. She would say, ‘Please, please, come in…’
ZORBA: Boss, boss, don’t make me mad.
BASIL: I don’t want any trouble.
ZORBA: Boss, life is trouble, only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble!
(Watch the scene on YouTube.)
I’m preparing a talk titled: “Life is Trouble”. If Zorba is right and life is trouble, then, “Trouble is LIFE,” which begs the question: What is meant by LIFE? And why the capital letters? To answer that I’ll take my audience on a journey:
When I was a young man on the verge of life, I had a girlfriend who was also on the verge. On the verge of getting married. Life is trouble, is right!
Zorba also said: “A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.”
So I escaped. To Africa. For two years. What was I thinking?
London – Rome – Entebbe – Nairobi – and then 2500 km into the heart of the continent, into the bundu on single-track trails into the back of beyond, off the map, to the ends of the earth.
Free, at last.
Six weeks later, I received a letter. From her. She was engaged to someone else. Thunder rumbled overhead (I’m not kidding). I felt sick. Tears. Dark night. Existential void. Who am I? I don’t know, anymore. I’m falling apart. There is nothing left.
I begin to paint. I take flying lessons. What’s happening? I acquire a 16mm camera, some Russian film, and start to shoot movies. I have never felt more alive.
You can understand the mechanics of this burst of life—old dreams falling away, new ones filling the void. Loss left me available to hidden yearnings.
Trouble is LIFE because trouble opened me to more of me.
But a worse kind of trouble was stalking me.
As I said, I was making movies. I shot everything that moved, including, one day, a cheetah. I set out a joint of meat and waited in the tall grass. She took the bait. Great shots! When I got up to leave, that cat bolted toward me and took my hand in its mouth.
I could feel her, the grumbling in her belly. My guide, an older woman, said, “Don’t move.”
That grumbling became a rumbling that I felt in my own belly. I was inside that beast. This is the worst kind of trouble, but how is this LIFE?
The woman knelt beside the cat and whispered in its ear. Massaged its neck! I couldn’t move, couldn’t even panic. Couldn’t think! This was the end. What good was thinking? What good was anything I believed in?
(Do you see where I’m going with this?)
I was leaving myself behind. It was an odd kind of freedom—a sea-change into something rich and strange.
I felt compassion for the cheetah.
Trouble is LIFE because, for me, trouble was and has been many times since, a portal to transcendence.
Transcendence: adj. a state of being beyond the ordinary range of perception.
I’m 22 years old and the doors of perception have swung open. I have just been delivered to that “beyond”. Before my African sojourn was over, those doors would swing open again and again.
Transcendence—that’s what trouble can lead to. That’s where LIFE earns its capital letters.
I’ll end my talk by quoting Kazantzakis again:
“Every man has his folly… but the greatest folly of all is not to have one.”
Writers are like Zorba. We demand that our protagonists “look for trouble!” It’s for their own good because “to be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble!”
We force the Basils of our stories to bait the cheetah. Only in the jaws of the beast does that special madness arise.
Look! The rope is cut. I am free.
(Public speaking—it can’t hurt any more than the teeth of the cheetah.)
“Get this book for your daughter.”
That’s not me saying that—that’s a ROXY reviewer. Me? I would never be so pushy. I’m Canadian. But these latest ROXY reviews have me in an altered state.
Before I’m finished writing this blog post, I’m afraid I may say it myself.
“Only read this novel if you are interested in adventurous stories set in exotic locations about intelligent young women forced to make life-changing decisions.”
That’s not me, either. It’s a review by a creative writing instructor.
One reviewer was suspicious that ROXY might be a “girly book” for pre-teens. She read it anyway, then began to imagine young women becoming “trapped” by the story and being “unable to escape”…
“until they emerge a little more mature, experienced and human than they ever imagined.”
Head spinning again! Another reader called ROXY…
“Food for thought on what really matters in life.”
“A delightfully complex, engrossing story of love and growth, pain and heartache, and the joy of growing up.”
And these next comments convinced me that writing ROXY was worth all the effort:
“I can’t wait to give it to my daughter. I’m always looking for books that will not only interest her, but model a message about life issues that are positive and inspiring. It was refreshing to read a book that is so acknowledging of the importance of family in a way that honors elders without in any way, shape or form preachy about it.”
I was only trying to write a good story, I swear. And to be entirely honest, I had originally pictured the protagonist as a guy. But my muse had different ideas. She must have wanted to see a review like this one:
“If you are looking for something to pass to your teenage daughter, what could be better than this book?”
Daughter, niece, sister, wife, lover…
“But don’t miss out, read it yourself, first.”
That’s not me, either. It’s from a review on ROXY’s page on Amazon.com where you can…
GET THIS eBOOK FOR YOUR DAUGHTER!
Don’t have an eReader? No problem. Click here for “Kindle for PC”. It’s a FREE download.
So, I’ve got this Y.A. novel that’s been around the block. By which I mean that ROXY went out and got herself published, saw the inside of a few bookstores and then, alas, returned home to roost. You know the story.
Maybe you, too, have a work-in-hibernation.
Well, recently, it occurred to my wee imagination that perhaps I should give her a second life. A re-launch, complete with a new cover.
ROXY made it into print all right, but where’s the e-version? My publishers aren’t ready to e-organize their business, so they gave me their blessing to e-manage it myself.
And so, announcing:
ROXY, the eBook.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? An e-launch. You be the judge.
MY TOP 5 REASONS FOR SENDING ROXY BACK INTO THE BOOKWORLD
1. NEW AUDIENCE
Think about it. Every year, millions of brand new teenagers are born. Born hungry. Hungry for good stories. So, how good is ROXY?
2. THE REVIEWS
“The setting for this book is electric, full of colour, sweet smells, heat and dizzying heights,” and: “Reece has crafted a coming of age tale which should be sad and painful but instead is spirited.”
Kudos like that convinced me that ROXY was worth another shot.
“Roxy is a delightful character, self-deprecating, full of common sense and determination.”
Likeable but edgy, Roxy shows us the kind of determination it takes to make a dent in this world, and thereby straighten it out.
“Highly recommended for your teenagers, but don’t miss out, read it yourself first.”
Which got me thinking. If ROXY appeals equally to adults, then Y.A. may be missing the mark. Was Stand by Me a “young adult” story? What is “Y.A”, anyway? It’s not a genre, it’s an age-group.
3. MY HEROINE IS NO KID
Roxy is a 17-year-old woman whose search for the truth shows her that her life has been a fraud. When that happens—in fact no less than in fiction—we find ourselves suddenly and unexpectedly on the verge of life. Is that a new genre—“verge of life”?
Forget, “young adult”. ROXY is a “coming-of-age/adventure story”.
As one library media specialist wrote: “Many readers will continue to consider Roxy long after the last page is turned.”
4. THE INTERNET
Three years ago, I had no author platform from which to meet writers and readers. And while this blog isn’t exactly The Huffington Post, a few hundred people will read this. God willing, a few may spread the word.
At ROXY’s original launch…wait a minute!—she never had a launch party.
5. ROXY the eBOOK COSTS LESS.
Don’t have an e-device on which to read ROXY? You don’t need one. Here’s a free download link to install Kindle on your PC.
Although she launches officially next Thursday the 13th, ROXY already shows up in the Kindle Store. Do you know anyone for whom the “verge of life” strikes a fearful chord? Maybe ROXY is for them…I mean you.
Maybe your own forgotten novel is ready for another trip around the block.
“A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.” ~ Joy Williams
This is the way writers should talk. Even our chitchat should challenge our friends.
Imagine yourself deploying this quote at a party, turning heads with this delicious twist about “fumbling in the light”. People speak of fumbling around in the dark, but you’ve just asserted that you “love the dark”.
Mission accomplished—you’ve attracted attention.
But do you know what Joy Williams mean by “loving the dark”? You’d better think it through.
You’re implying that your writing comes from a place of not knowing. Do you have any idea how sexy that is?
You don’t even need to explain yourself. But why not? The night is young. And I’m right here over your shoulder to back you up with some deep thoughts:
Deep thoughts on the dark heart of fiction.
- “The dark” is the secret centre of your novel.
The ineffable heart of your story—this is what you love, this is why you write. A story’s meaning is vast beyond your ability to explain it. You were dictated to by this dark heart. You are its servant.
- You are unapologetic about all this not knowing business.
Yes, critics and skeptics may challenge all this secret baloney. They may demand you tell them “what it’s about,” but you reply:
- “No, you tell me what it’s about.”
Be careful now. Free range egos are at stake. You’re at a Christmas party and nobody deserves to be embarrassed. Ever so softly, you might explain:
- “Sometimes stories beat around the bush. In fact, the best stories do just that. The actions of the story—all that fumbling around in the light—it circles the heart of the matter. It gives rise to a secret centre. That’s precisely what the best literature does. The underlying meaning of the action may lie hidden in the dark.”
Silence. It may be time now to retreat back into the vulgar vernacular. You can do that and still remain on topic. You say:
- “Skyfall! Did you see it? Great, huh? That bike chase across the rooftops in Istanbul. I loved it! But the story had no secret centre. What you see is what you get.”
Genre fiction doesn’t leave us with the urge to explore “what it’s about”. And that’s okay because you’re at a party, for goodness sake. Back off now and talk about anything…have you seen Breaking Dawn, Part 2?
Don’t worry—go ahead and be sociable. You’ve already scored big, Mr./Ms. Writerperson. Look how many attractive people are hovering around you. Have a good time.
Later on, after midnight, you may well be back to fumbling around in the dark.
Whose idea was this, anyway? The idea is this:
Post my responses to a set of questions about a work-in-progress. Then pass the challenge on to other bloggers. I won’t waste time thinking about reasons not to play along; I’ll just do it. Which is what we writers do, isn’t it?
Actual photo of PJ newly inspired after succumbing to blog-chain questionaire
What is the working title of your book?
I SWALLOWED A SAINT. I hope that makes you hungry to read the first page, at least.
Where did the idea come from for this book?
From a dumpy grizzled sneering failed sculptor who used to frequent the sauna at our local gym. Wow, what an asshole, always querying me, “So, how’s the writing business going, PJ?” I guess he knew I was making a decent living writing for television. Out of revenge, I turned him into a fictional character. Unfortunately, the cretin became the protagonist, the novel became a work of humour, and he winds up not only being loveable but also a martyr, of sorts. And they ask me why I love to write.
What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction. (Are you impressed?)
How long did it take to write the first draft?
“First draft” means what, exactly? My first draft is the first one I would dare show to other writers. So, to answer the question…years.
What actors would you use for a movie rendition of your book?
Easy—Paul Giamatti. Or, Alastair Sim (aka, Scrooge), if was he still alive.
What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A comedian tries to kill himself.
Will it be self-published or represented by an agency? It IS represented by an agent. He returned from New York so depressed about the current publishing scene that he decided to retire. So I reckon, okay, a few publishers read it and rejected it, so maybe it needs another rewrite. Show me the novel that doesn’t need another rewrite.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Didn’t I answer that already? But let me add this: the novel wasn’t supposed to be funny. A friend read some tentative opening paragraphs and couldn’t stop laughing. I said, “What’s so funny?” He said, “It’s hilarious.” I grabbed my manuscript and rushed home and continued to write the thing with a brand new energy, as a work of humour. Oh, and that friend, he became a character in the story, too.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Oh, anything by Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Dave Barry, you know…
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The notion of a guy who spends his entire life walking around believing he has his girlfriend’s silver saint charm lodged in his intestines—St. Christina the Astonishing, the patron saint of lunatics. He meant it as a joke, you know, “Hey, watch this…!” (gulp, swallow) It’ll pass through in three days. Not.
Okay, that wasn’t too painful.
Useful, in fact. I reckon if I tack Paul Giamatti’s photo to my wall, it might inspire me to finally nail this story.
I’m passing the blog-chain baton on to author, C. Michaels down in Mazatlan, Mexico. She’s becoming quite the epub-mistress, having published two thrillers in the last year. I’ll be interested to hear about her next one.
I nominate Ebenezer Scrooge for an award of some kind:
“Best Guide Through Story Hell”
The supporting film clip shows Scrooge as he comes face to face with his own grave.
“No, Spirit! O no, no! Spirit! hear me..!”
His life, it’s been an utter failure, he sees that now. He’s dead and no one gives a damn.
“O Spirit, I am not the man I was…”
People take bullets to the heart and feel less pain than the hero suffering the death of who he always imagined himself to be.
The drama turns on this moment.
The old order is passing away, but a new organizing principle hasn’t yet established itself. Protagonists are rendered speechless…well…most protagonists.
Not Scrooge! Dickens can’t shut him up. He gives us a rare glimpse into the hero’s transformation through this profound personal failure:
“No, Spirit! O no, no! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been…”
The person he “must have been”—wow—Scrooge has already distanced himself from that old miser. But what’s the point? His grave has already been dug and filled. No past and no future, this is either a very dark hole…
Or a vast space.
Is this why we’re attracted to fiction? Protagonists hounded to the brink of their annihilation—this is what we pay for. This is where we’re all headed.
No one goes willingly. But instinctively we know that this is our one big chance. Our chance to grow up and big and good.
We are all Scrooge.
Most films depict this character growth without comment. Blink and you might miss it. But Dickens gets in there with the Jaws of Life® and ratchets the moment wide open.
“I am not the man I must have been…”
A Christmas Carol would seem to be entirely about the mystical transformation that happens in the heart of the story.
“Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life.”
Those are the words of a man feeling the updraft of his higher nature. This turn-around is no decision on Scrooge’s part, it’s a discovery.
Listen to Scrooge in despair—then as he begins to feel that radically new gravity field acting on him:
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know anything. I am light as a feather… happy as an angel…”
Moral of the story: we writers need to force our protagonists to within sight of their own graves so that the same miracle might happen. Isn’t writing fun!
It’s fun because we are all misers. We are all redeemable.
We are all Scrooge.
I remember chasing my teenage son around the house with a book.
To hit him, yes. Clobber him! With the power of a good story.
He escaped to his bedroom, buried his head beneath the pillow and bellowed gibberish.
I waited him out.
Years later, I wonder why Shike: Time of the Dragons had so impressed me. Warrior monks, zinjas, rites of passage, codes of conduct—this stuff was going to infect his soul. Or so I hoped.
My nephew was likewise clobbered by a book.
Hatchet depicts a kid struggling to survive in the northern forest after a plane crash. Eventually, he abandons hope for a rescue and wants to die. Stripped of all expectations, the young man sees himself for who he is. He has awakened, he has grown up. He has earned a glimpse into the nature of things.
Shike and Hatchet turned these two young men into book believers.
My own youthful clobbering came at the hands of a book called Damien by Herman Hesse. Here’s a young protagonist who struggles to accept his differences. Conventional society is suspicious of people who think for themselves, so he struggles to fit in. The effort fails, of course.
Ground gives way beneath his feet, but what’s falling away is only what’s bogus. What’s left behind is his free spirit, his character and courage. Himself.
For many of us in my generation, Damien served as a guide to our in-most selves.
My wife speaks of Black Beauty, one of the best-selling books of all time. Its young readers acquired a feel for what it was like to be an animal, and how they ought to be treated.
A Goodreads reviewer confesses to reading Black Beauty over and over as a young woman, “but I didn’t realize I was memorizing whole chunks of it and grafting it into my moral code.”
That’s it (thank you, Melody), that’s why I wanted to shove Shike down my son’s throat, because…
Good stories can graft their meaning onto our innermost core.
Warrior monks train rigorously to discover the secret centre of their life. I had a feeling that the zinja code might get under my son’s skin and work its way to his innermost core. But there he was face down on his bed, screaming defiance.
I started to read:
They stripped Jebu naked. They threw his yellow aspirant’s tunic into the fire bowl on the right side of the altar. “You will not need that again. Tomorrow morning you will put on the gray robe of an initiate. Or you will be dead, and we will burn your body.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The history of a kid who grew up loving to read, so he might know how to live.
Your turn—what literary clobberings do you remember from your blessedly tortuous youth?
So I finished my third novel and discovered to my delight that it actually was “about” something.
And then, to my horror, I realized that I’d replicated the theme of the previous two novels.
I’m not talking about the plot or the setting or the thrust of the protagonist, but at a deeper level all three stories were (arguably) about a hero whose fate was influenced by “a person in another realm”.
What’s more surprising is that I did not write one word of these novels with that in mind. In each case, this recurring theme took me by surprise. Awe is a more like it.
Writing—it blows my mind!
Recently, my mind was reconstituted by reading a new book about “the novel” by the Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk. He speaks of an ineffable purpose or meaning that lies at the core of the best stories. He calls it…
The secret centre.
In these works of true literature, enjoyment derives not from guessing who dunnit, “but about working out just what the true subject of the novel is.”
Pamuk imagines the reader to be a tracker watching for signs. Spoor, broken twigs, the bent of a blade of grass, the details of the landscape are noted and remembered. It’s a puzzle we’re constantly trying to understand in order to grasp the prize.
According to Pamuk:
“the modern secular individual…cannot help reflecting on the meaning of life as he tries to locate the center of the novel he is reading—for in seeking this centre, he is seeking the center of his own life and that of the world.”
I second that emotion.
I remember, as a young man, reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The memory is palpable—the insights into my life! I saw the kind of relationships I wanted, and which I was sure would give my life meaning.
The most serious films were novelistic or “literate” in the same way. Ingmar Bergman, for example, and his “Hour of the Wolf”—nothing happens! But I remember watching, watching, watching for clues to what the hell life is all about.
“Our journey in this world, the life we spend in cities, streets, houses, rooms, and nature consists of nothing but a search for a secret meaning which may or may not exist.”
Which may or may not exist. Let me repeat that—which may not exist.
The centres of my novels are so secret that I don’t even know they exist until the final drafts. It follows that readers might not easily locate the secret centre, and according to Pamuk, that’s not a bad thing:
“…if the center is too obvious and the light too strong, the meaning of the novel is immediately revealed and the act of reading repetitive.”
If all this sounds hifalutin, I am talking about “literary fiction” as opposed to “genre” fiction. I foresee a future blog post on that contentious issue. I could start it with another quote from Orhan Pamuk:
“Genre novels do not inspire us with any urge to seek the center at all.”
In the meantime, I highly recommend Orhan Pamuk’s book, whose title I’m not even going to mention because it’s so befuddling. Click on the hyperlink, see for yourself, and read the book anyway.
If you have any thoughts on this most ambiguous of story elements, I invite you to post them in the Comments section.
Three years and 150 blog posts later, I find myself no less excited about exploring:
How Fiction Works and
Why We Read and
Why We Write.
As you know, I find answers to these questions buried in what I call the “mystical heart” of a story.
By mystical I mean “not immediately available to our senses”. It’s a story’s job to hone the protagonist’s senses so that she sees what her belief system has so far prevented her from seeing.
Is all this too deep?
Well, from the looks of my subscription list, this blog isn’t for everyone. Which makes you—whoever you are—all the more precious to me.
So, on this, my 3rd blog-birthday, I ask: Who Are You?
Here’s my guess:
- You’re not here to learn the “how-to” of writing fiction, so much as to understand “how fiction really works”.
- You’re attracted to a plot’s dark alleys and dead ends. You appreciate failure, disillusionment and despair for its potential to wake a hero up.
- You’ve read Story Structure to Die for and you think I may be on to something. Your protagonist must (somehow) “die”. That’s the dramatic bottom line.
- You see parallels between your own life journey and the ruthless facts of fiction.
- Stories are inside your life—they’re not restricted to the outside.
- You yearn to write stories that contain a “secret centre”.
- Writing gives your life meaning.
How accurate is that? Or not? Le me know.
What would you add to this list? Who are you as a reader or writer? What questions do you have about “story” or “drama” or “how fiction works”?
The Comments section is open. I’ll take the data and run with it into the future of this blog.
And, finally…thank you for showing up here. Without your radical interest in books, movies, and what makes stories work—this blog would not exist.
I was surprised to find myself in tears at a local sidewalk café. It was embarrassing because we were supposed to be having an intellectual discussion. From whence those tears? Well, I’ll tell you.
We were discussing story structure, this first-time novelist and I: “Your protagonist IS your story,” that sort of thing. “Your character doesn’t wander around the plot, no, he or she IS the plot.”
I was using Good Will Hunting as an example. The story develops to where young Will struggles against the urge to deploy what’s left of the belief system he’s been living by (self-destructively so). A belief system which, by this point in the story, is in shreds.
Will (Matt Damon) is meeting with his psychiatrist (Robin Williams), remember? The shrink would appear to be the only friend Will has left. If Will stomps out on him, Will misses the only chance he’ll ever get to heal himself.
Sean sees an opportunity to get Will to accept that his childhood of abuse was no fault of his own. Problem is, Will has his black-belt in humiliating anyone who shows affection for him. Will has begun to see how counter-productive his defense mechanisms are, but you can’t just willy-nilly drop who you are.
But you have to.
The rational mind considers it impossible, but Will is starting to hate that mind of his.
The story has arrived where every good story must—at the moment that swallows up everything that has come before it.
“There’s a hole in my story, and everything’s flowing into it!” (I love saying that.)
Here at the “Act II crisis”, every scene proves to have been in service of this moment.
This is the essence of story structure—scenes serving meaning.
And there I was, caught in the heart of the story, living Will’s anguish at not knowing who he is in that moment. If he hangs on for a few more heartbeats, he will be cured.
It’s not sadness, no, not at all. Will’s tears (my tears, damn!) have become a release of all his pain and sadness. (As my wife said later at dinner, it’s the life force kicking in.) It’s an explosion of the life force that’s too much to bear.
My writer friend was looking at me as if these red eyes were no embarrassment but instead something to behold.
“The readers of our stories demand this much,” I said. “They expect our protagonist to have his little ‘death’. By this are our readers nourished.”
Our stories exists to serve that moment, that nourishment.
That’s story structure.
UCLA screenwriting prof, Richard Walter, tells the story of an encounter with Pablo Casals in Puerto Rico.
Walter wasn’t a student of the famous cello master. He was a teenager attending student recitals. At the conclusion of each piece, Casals would…
“sit there patiently, simply nodding. Now, his eyes would roll back into his head. After a pause long enough to undergo a root canal, he would explain, “Beautiful!”
Pablo listening hard.
Casals’ praise prepared the student for the critique that would surely follow.
I hope Prof. Walter doesn’t mind if I put a finer point on this “beautiful” business.
In the aftermath of “Beautiful!” who would not feel affirmed, even blessed? Our defenses dissolve. The ego melts. What a wonderful feeling. It’s the lightness of being unburdened. Unburdened of what? Of dubious strategies and interfering belief systems. In other words, of who we think we are.
The master is a kind of death.
Pablo Casals, the master, is cultivating this process of “dying”. Now, the student is “no longer there”. No longer in her own way. The way is cleared for a more profound understanding of the art to take root.
Welcome to the Zen of learning.
HOW OFTEN DO WE RISK LEARNING IN THIS WAY?
When I was training to be a writer (I was no spring chicken), I signed up for every non-credit course available. I was particularly excited when a writing guru came to town. Richard Walter was one such.
I thrilled to his iconoclastic notions of the screen trade. “Entertainment”, “commercialism”, “voyeurism”—these were not dirty words, he insisted. No, these words were just misunderstood. At every turn Dr. Walter dashed conventional wisdom.
When I asked him if he would critique my latest screenplay, he promised he would, and he did.
“Beautiful (or something equally encouraging)!” was what he wrote on Page One.
And then with his red pen… the teaching began.
What’s my point? Do I even need a point? Perhaps the point is just to point you in the direction of Richard Walter’s latest newsletter so you can read his Pablo Casals story for yourself:
Okay, here’s another point:
Find a master/mentor if at all possible.
“Dying” is virtually impossible without trusting a teacher utterly. I’m afraid your husband or wife’s blessing doesn’t quite cut it.
We need a Pablo Casals. We need a Richard Walter. We need to hear the verdict from a master of our chosen art.
The Internet is a “how-to” mother lode.
What’s worse, much of it is free. How do we know what’s worth downloading?
My own Story Structure eBook is part of the e-noise out there. It pleases me to know that a few of its thousands of readers discovered it via a friend’s recommendation. Word-of-mouth always has been the most foolproof screening mechanism.
And so, today, I’m whispering these words in your ear:
Let’s Write a Short Story! by Joe Bunting.
Having so far failed to find a publisher for I Swallowed a Saint, this “funny-scary-wonderful bit of writing” (my agent’s review) languishes in obscurity. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve become creatively constipated!
NOTE TO MY MUSE: if you’re waiting to see rewards for your previous efforts before releasing your grip on my creative sphincter—have mercy!
But relief may have arrived in the form of one of those “how-to” eBooks I was talking about:
Let’s Write a Short Story!
Joe Bunting hosts The Write Practice website. In his new book he pitches the short story as a stepping stone to a writing career.
Short stories are do-able, Joe says. They’re easier to finish and easier to publish. Literary journals not only eat them up, but they’re read by agents looking for new talent.
What’s more, writing short stories is good practice.
What’s even more, a short piece may one day want to become all grown up as a novel.
To support Joe’s book launch, I happily wrote this blurb:
“Bunting’s book is… a source of inspiration. Looking for reasons why you should become a writer? Check out “Let’s Write a Short Story!” Joe calls us to action: Be the hero of your own writing life, or go home! Joe is sincere in his desire to help aspiring writers break through.”
And my #1 reason to write a short story is because…
I am a writer.
Let’s Write a Short Story! reveals, almost ruthlessly, what being a writer is all about. I’ve all but forgotten why I love writing—it’s the writing followed by the shipping.
Write it and ship it.
To that end, Joe challenges us—not just to write a short story, but—to submit it to a literary journal.
Okay, Joe, you’re on.
I’ve got got got to get my head out of my a** and quit wasting my time sweet-talking Ms. Muse. I’ve got got got to start moving some fiction again.
I Swallowed a Saint is written and shipped. I hope someday you’ll all get a chance to digest it. In the meantime…
Let’s write a short story!
(Whispering photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/francisco_osorio/5943990307/”>francisco_osorio</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>
I invite you to click on over to Write to Done…
where you’ll find my guest post about “How to Write Funny”.
Of course, it’s an impossible question because no one knows how! Which makes it funny already. And therein lies a lesson:
Funny is about charming the implausible into sounding somehow possible.
I’m taking that lesson to heart as I craft a humorous speech for an upcoming contest. My subject? Shooting my mother. Seriously. She asked me. “Shoot me, son, shoot me.” Maybe she was joking, but I don’t think so. She’s 98! Can’t stand up without her walker. She can hardly hear. She can barely see the Golf Channel.
Shoot me, son, she said.
At the same time, she acts like she’s going to be the oldest living person on earth. I don’t get it.
This summer she bought a fan and paid extra for the extended warranty. I’d say she was senile…if it wasn’t for the fact that she’s got all her marbles. That’s why she knows how miserable she is.
Big mistake admitting her to that 5-star retirement residence. They breed centenarians. Hundred-year-olds who eat like horses and laugh with their mouths full. It’s disturbing. No 99-year-old should have a role model.
But, more to the point, how can I shoot her? I’ve never owned a gun; never touched a gun. I don’t even know if I need a licence. Do they even have licences for killing old people?
Well, you can see the comic potential in something as impossible as killing your own sweet mother.
Longevity in general is a subject wide open for pot shots.
Did you know there’s a scientist out there working on the longevity pill. When people wake up to the downside of living to a hundred, they’re going to hunt that guy down and make sure he doesn’t live another day.
Medical science already ensures we live so long that we’re sure to suffer chronic diseases that would have (mercifully) killed our ancestors. Arthritis, angina, constipation… no fun! Take my mother—no more smoking, no more whisky, and no more casino—she can’t afford it anymore.
Sure, you can live to 100…but only if you give up all the things that make you want to live to 100.
Shoot me, son, shoot me.
Anyway, I see they’ve discovered that people who sleep with a mate live longer. I wonder who my mother is sleeping with.
Maybe I should just shoot him.
Life should fulfill me. I never ask what life expects from me. Do you?
Here I am stopped in my tracks by our town’s “Before I die…” public art installation. I am impressed, as you can tell. Seriously. Young people would appear to have dug deep to chalk up their hopes and dreams.
Walk the Camino
Travel the world
Conquer all my fears
Take care of someone who doesn’t have a home
Ignore “BBQ a cat” and “Have a light-sabre duel”, for the most part this anonymous wish list reveals the yearning for meaning.
“Before I die…” originated in New Orleans. It has since spread around the world, but the aspirations are similar:
Be completely myself
Understand why I’m here
Live for today
Some of these dreams could be bumper stickers, but so what? I see no reason to believe that the responses are insincere. In fact, I feel as if I’m peering into the open heart of a generation.
Sigmund Freud would have us believe that we are victims of our instincts, trapped in orbits of sex, power, and survival. But look again—most of these confessions aren’t subject to that gravity field at all.
Expand my mind
Find my purpose
Viktor Frankl (another Vienna psychiatrist) became convinced that the most human among us are concerned with something or someone beyond our conventional desires. He should know. He survived Auschwitz. Says Frankl:
Writers and movie buffs, listen up—you gotta see The Way.
If you’ve seen The Way, you’ll know that this is not the way to write a movie.
The Way shows us the way to write a story that just barely works. The Way is so close to being a colossal flop that it’s worth looking at it again.
What saved its sorry ass?
Hint—the final shot. It’s stuck on like the afterthought it might very well have been.
Premise: American ophthalmologist (Martin Sheen) learns that his son has died in Spain while hiking the 800 km pilgrimage known as “El Camino de Santiago”. Dad flies across the Atlantic to pick up the remains, where he decides to complete the trek in his son’s name.
Our protagonist had warned Daniel (Emilio Estevez) that seeing the world is a waste of time. Stay home! Finish your PhD! Career, responsibility, family, security, yada yada yada.
And, so, this sour misanthrope heads out on “The Way”… left, right, left, right, left…
It’s a road story. It’s a religious pilgrimage. Our hero has an iron-clad belief system–perfect! Left, right, left, right… Our hero is going to have a religious experience while walking the “Camino”, correct?
Wrong. This is a road story without an accident. A quest without a Holy Grail. What were they thinking?
I can just see Martin Sheen on the set of the movie. He’s flipping through the script. He takes Emilio aside (Emilio, the film’s writer-director, Martin’s real-life son) and he whispers in Emilio’s ear:
“Where’s the story, son?”
“Listen, son, I unde
In which we watch the sun rise in a story’s dark heart.
Beyond Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, farther up the Congo near the river’s source in the central plateau, that’s where I lived and worked for two years dodging hippos on the rivers of Zambia as I calculated cross sections and measured water currents to determine water flow in cubic feet per second.
That’s where I met the cheetah.
I’m telling you this because that cat taught me something about a little-discussed element of “story”— the nature of a protagonist’s “change of heart” at the Act II crisis.
I know, I know, postmodern writers disavow this whole business of “character arc”. They have no interest in portraying the human organism as a self-transcendent being. And so they overlook the reason readers read and why we writers write.
We are self-transcendent beings.
We have the ability—given the right conditions—to rise above ourselves. To see ourselves more objectively. To self-detach. To look down on ourselves as part of a bigger picture.
I’ve discovered that stories work to the extent that they portray this most-human potential. Without it, fictional characters would perish in their existential cul-de-sacs. Check it out for yourself—protagonists resolving their dilemmas by leaving their brittle old belief systems behind—it happens in every good book and movie.
This self-transcendence is elemental to “story”—and yet no one’s talking about it.
No one is talking about it!
I can’t believe I’m the only one who ever met a cheetah.
Photo by Vince Hemingson
I was lying in the elephant grass shooting her with my spring-wound 16mm Bolex. The cheetah was devouring the shoulder of goat I’d set out as bait. Having run out of film, I get up to leave
Actual photo of PJ Reece having a mystical experience while researching this blog post.
What if we knew WHY READERS READ.
Imagine how confidently we could hammer out manuscripts. Armed with the motive for consuming fiction, we could easily make our stories come true.
Why readers read—writers would kill for the answer.
I know, they say that reading is an escape, that it’s a relief from our hum-drum lives. That’s what they say. Who the heck is they, anyway? Conventional wisdom, that’s who.
Yes, I’m pretty riled up. Any student of fiction should soon discover that stories are no mere palliative. We’re hooked on reading. We’re addicts. And yet no one—authors, critics, publishers, writing gurus—no one is digging for a deeper explanation.
And then, to my surprise, I see in the spring issue of The Kenyon Review where poet and novelist Amit Majmudar is talking about the “mystical nature of the literary experience”.
The MYSTICAL NATURE of the literary experience!
Majmudar speaks of a “mystical union” between reader and protagonist. He says that by “dwelling outside ourselves a while” the reader experiences a “dissolution of the self.”
UNSELVING he calls it.
(My wife says, “Take that word out and shoot it.” If anyone can coin a better word, please let me have it.)
What’s much more important is that Majmudar believes that this literary empathy is…are you ready for this:
“The highest expression of the novelist’s or dramatist’s art.”
Amit Majmudar is my new best friend. Here he is again:
“To forget one’s selfhood by e
“Monstrous and free”…
The phrase arrested me as I reread Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Marlow, the English river boat captain, is describing the jungle that surrounds him:
“…there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly…”
I get the chills.
Landscape as literary device—Conrad uses it to characterize Kurtz, the rogue ivory trader, whom Marlow has come upriver to find. Everything up there in the Congo River basin is “monstrous and free”.
Conrad’s novel is a cautionary tale of “uncivilized” freedom. Kurtz has attained god-like status by leaving conventional belief systems far behind. He’s free…and feral. It’s meant to freak us out.
And here I go, now, crawling out on a limb to propose that most satisfying stories direct the protagonist through a story heart that can be described as “monstrous and free”.
For the protagonist, the major crisis presents an existential dilemma that is both frightening and freeing. I’m suggesting this as a way to view every story heart:
The heart of a story is a country both frightening and freeing.
I have no proof that Conrad was trying to tell us the same thing. But here`s a personal story that places “monstrous and free” at the heart of my own story.
It happened in India.
We were seekers experimenting druglessly with altered states. We put our personal identities to the test by asking ourselves:
“WHO AM I?”
Pairing up, sitting nose to nose, taking turns, Who are you? “Well, my name is Reece; I have a B.A. in geography, I’m Canadian, I…my favourite book is, ahh… Heart of Darkness… I… ah…”
Sounds simple enough at first, but it quickly devolves into speculation. Who am I? Easier said than done! Try it. After five minutes, switch. Now, I’m listening non-judgmentally to my partner’s stream of consciousness. Rivers of baloney! Every 40 minutes, find a different partner. Eighteen hours a day for three days.
Day 2 and we are sick to death of our rationalizations, explanations, memories, hopes, dreams and delusions about who we are. Our belief systems are a cover-up for…for what? Something is trying to surface…something overwhelming. We are terrified. People are crying. It’s a madhouse! How can this be happening?
I find myself allowing all that baloney to fall away…
Miraculously, I have no more thoughts about who I’m supposed to be…
I become a lion on the Serengeti Plain.
Did someone say, “MONSTROUS AND FREE”? I have never felt such power. I can see through people.
Nearby herds of zebra and impala are in serious danger, although for the moment they are quite safe. You see, I’m not hungry. Not yet. My sexual appetite (now that I’m a lion, hmmm…) is another issue. I recall being mildly troubled by that. And in the next moment not troubled at all!
(Don’t worry—attendants kept watch over us.)
Power without a conscience, it’s not a safe state—that’s what I’m trying to say.
Freedom can serve the monster…or it may serve a higher cause.
I had the support of my fellow adventurers within an arena of trust to guide me through this jungle. But all the Marlows of the fiction world travel solo into the story heart. Alone, they face the consequences of a monstrous freedom.
Little wonder that readers are so compelled by the fictional protagonist steaming upriver toward the story heart.
I’ve been replaying my favourite novels and movies to see if “monstrous and free” applies to their story hearts. I’ll analyse Casablanca in an upcoming post. In the meantime, here’s a question to ponder:
Do all Marlows dread the story heart?
And if so, why do they dock their boat and step ashore and risk becoming “monstrous and free”?
THE PASSIONATE MUSE: Exploring Emotions in Stories, by Keith Oatley.
Look at the mess I made exploring my brand new copy…
Most of those flags—37 of them!—are quotable quotes.
Here’s a few that stick with me:
“Although the emotions of fiction seem to happen to characters in a story, really, all the important emotions happen to us as we read or watch.
By page 17 we already have a whole new way of looking at fiction.
The author is a Psychology prof, so it behooves him to back up his pronouncements with experiments. Oatley also hauls in some literary giants to support his ideas. Marcel Proust, for example:
“When he reads, each person is actually the reader of his own self. The work of the writer is nothing more than a kind of optical instrument that the writer offers. It allows the reader to discern that which, without the book, he might not have been able to see in himself.” (from “Remembrance of Things Past”, Vol. 6)
Oatley seems to appreciate literature all the more for the rewards that accrue to us unconsciously.
“Because we experience reality only through our five senses, there is much that is hidden… It is the human condition. We need assistance. Part of this assistance…is literature.”
Oatley calls these insights “literary knowing”.
And “literary emotions” are those we feel as we identify with fictional characters. Censors worry that these emotions rub off on us. Rage, hate, violence, eroticism, dishonesty, addiction—six good reasons to ban books.
Oatley cites research suggesting that fiction can also leave us feeling generous and altruistic. He calls the effect “elevation”.
“We cry in the closing scenes of Casablanca… because we feel ourselves in the presence of something larger than ourselves, something that takes us out of our egoistic concerns, something that prompts reflectiveness, something that makes room for insight.”
You remember the final scenes of Casablanca—at the airport—Rick has acquired two letters of transit to fly Ilsa and himself to America. But he surrenders them to her husband, so that he might continue his valuable work with the Resistance against the Nazis.
Rick loses Ilsa (again), but his altruism elevates us all.
“It’s a strange feeling of warmth and inspiration that occurs when one sees someone doing something altruistic, like helping a stranger, or behaving in a decent way when self-interest would urge them otherwise. Elevation is a moral emotion.”
Moral acts may not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world—or do they? I beg to differ with Bogie. These literary emotions are “happening to us”. And when they work on us in a way that summons our higher nature, the world takes a step toward becoming a better place.
Fiction supports the evolution of the species—that’s me getting grandiose. That’s me pushing the author beyond the scope of his book.
But perhaps I can encourage Oatley to conduct some research into this special brand of literary knowing. By vicariously experiencing altruism—does it actually expand our awareness?
For more insights into Casablanca, check out Keith Oatley’s recent blog post.
And coming up on this very blog—my own take on Bogie’s transformation at the heart of the story.
Finally, what film or novel has moved you the most? I’m always looking for a good recommendation.
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CRISIS vs. CLIMAX—what’s the difference?
The two are often confused—resulting in a weak story structure .
They’re not the same thing.
Oh, sure, you can write a story in which the protagonist battles her way single-mindedly to the finish line. Protagonist achieves exactly what she set out after. (Yawn.)
The CRISIS (occurring earlier) readjusts the protagonist’s sights. It educates her. It remakes her into a more mature version of herself.
A story is more about the CRISIS than it is about the CLIMAX.
Casablanca’s climax occurs at the airport, right? Rick surprises us all by surrendering the letters of transit to Ilsa and her freedom-fighter husband, Laslow. As the plane takes off, Rick shoots the interfering Major Strasser, then wanders into the night with Louie, the French captain, and the “beginning of their beautiful friendship”. End of story.
That CLIMAX is fantastic… because it serves to prove Rick’s metamorphosis… which occurred earlier… at the CRISIS.
On one side of the CRISIS we have the “old Rick” who “sticks his neck out for nobody”. On the other side, we see the “new Rick” sacrificing the love of his life for a higher cause.
Casablanca is about a man rising above his small self.
This profound and impossible feat occurs—not at the CLIMAX but—during the CRISIS. Did you notice it?
Directors have a cinematic technique for helping us spot it. They call for a close shot on the protagonist. It’s a static shot. Time stands still because the thrust of the story is swinging around this moment. We’re seeing the birth of a new protagonist.
In Casablanca it occurs the night Ilsa shows up at Rick’s office with a gun to steal the letters of transit. He calls her bluff. It works. She confesses she’s still in love with him, and hasn’t the strength to leave him again. She falls into his arms.
Rick now has what he’s always wanted. The story could end there. But a good writer knows that…
The best fiction doesn’t leave a hero self-satisfied.
Good protagonists make a quantum leap to another order of being. This is the moment when the hero adopts a second goal, a higher cause.
“You’ll have to think for both of us,” Ilsa says.
Look at Rick. It’s the classic “CRISIS” close up. With Ilsa in his arms, his gnarly old belief system has collapsed. He is once again the person he was in Paris at the start of the war, patriotic, principled, generous, vibrant and alive.
We don’t know what he’s going to do, yet. But look in those eyes. No more self-pity. That look is the look of a person who has transcended the crippling effects of his narcissism.
Regardless of what happens from here on in, as audience, we’re satisfied at a deep level. More superficially we demand a happy ending. Bring on the CLIMAX.
Casablanca’s CLIMAX is memorable for all sorts of reasons, but in terms of how fiction works, it serves to prove that Rick’s metamorphosis at the CRISIS was the real thing.
CRISIS and CLIMAX… voila la difference!