Saturday, May 6, 2017

Add Title Later

     I’ve been at this blogging stuff for more than twenty years now, and there are days I ask myself why I keep doing it. My op-ed readership is very modest – I have a lot more fiction readers, if you can believe that – and my influence over others’ opinions is negligible. The effort involved in keeping up with developments and composing serious commentary about them is most definitely not negligible. I certainly have enough alternative uses for the time required. So why not kick back, pour out fiction that actually brings in some revenue, and let younger, more energetic types such as Bookworm, Dystopic, and Sarah Hoyt do the heavy lifting?

     The articles linked above provide three excellent illustrations. Each of them bears part of the credit / odium for my presence at the keyboard at this moment. Writers and thinkers inspire one another. Indeed, we need one another, even when we disagree. The lone, “Plato’s cave” type gets very little done; he’s too busy contemplating the pattern made by the lint in his navel.

     If you have the time and the inclination, ponder Aristotle’s conception of encomium as a species of epideictic rhetoric in light of the above. If you lack either of those things, feel free to do something more productive.

     I have readers who refuse to believe that I have no idea what I’m going to write about when I first set my fingers to the keys. They look at something like this essay, or this brief story, and say “No way! He had to have planned that out beforehand. He probably outlined it two or three different ways!” Actually, those pieces, and the great majority of the other helpings of drivel I’ve posted here, were spontaneous. I can’t write any other way. Yes, that includes fiction.

     Just yesterday I encountered an interesting exception. You’ve seen the teasers about Innocents, the novel I’m currently writing. For a few days I was as stuck about how to continue it as I’ve ever been over a piece of fiction. I was trying very hard not to think about it, in the hope that some time away from the story would grant me new insight into how the Marquee characters would proceed from a climactic event – an event I promise you, Gentle Reader, will shock you to the core. It wasn’t working: the time away from the tale had merely made me more reluctant to keep hacking at it.

     Then I had a brain flash: the spontaneous recollection of a writers’ maxim I’d encountered at some point in the distant past. I remembered chuckling over it at the time. It struck me as typical of the sort of “formula writing” I tend to decry as cliched – a fictioneer’s variety of cheating, akin to the deus ex machina ending.

     Then I used it. And it freed me. It provided a convulsive, even explosive relief from my writerly constipation. I was able to proceed with the meat of the tale confidently, even joyously – and how much more can anyone ask of a fictional technique?

     No, I’m not going to tell you what “cliched technique” I employed just yet. I’m still chuckling to myself about having used it to such liberating effect. Maybe I’ll let on at the end of this ramble. Be patient.

     Any number of writers have discoursed about the “happiness problem:” specifically, why we humans, who seek happiness as “an end in itself and for no other reason,” have such a hard time getting to it and then hanging on to it when we finally do. Surely an organism that has such an innate need should have the insights and powers required to satisfy that need. Otherwise, it would constitute a failure – an evolutionary dead end. It would shortly be superseded by organisms with a better chance of success, however that elusive concept might be defined.

     Maybe it’s because we’re so easily lured.

     There are innumerable persons, forces, and institutions dedicated to persuading us to equate happiness with things: i.e., that this, that, or the other thing, once acquired, will make us happy. Some of them are pretty good at it. However, the root of the thing lies in our persuadability: our tendency to be enthralled by “visions of sugarplums:” seductive images and their associated implications. That those implications can all be traced back to a false premise eludes most Americans – and as P. J. O’Rourke has observed, “America is the Happy Kingdom.” No other nation has ever been founded upon the notion that We the People have an inalienable right to pursue happiness. Never mind that the actual capture isn’t guaranteed.

     (An aside: It’s been reported by several opinion surveyors that according to their surveys, happy people have more sex. But which way does the causal arrow point? Are you sure?)

     Add to this that there are persons who have sustained a peculiar sort of damage. I’m unsure what categorization would apply; it consists of an inability to take command of their own lives and circumstances, and for the responsibility for what flows from the choices they make. In a sense, they reject cause and effect, at least as it applies to their own decisions and actions. Many such persons blame something or someone else for their misery. In this connection, have a little C. S. Lewis:

     “Studdock,” said Dimble, “this is not a time for foolery, or compliments. It may be that both of us are within a few minutes of death. You have probably been shadowed into the college. And I, at any rate, don't propose to die with polite insincerities in my mouth. I don't trust you. Why should I? You are (at least in some degree) the accomplice of the worst men in the world. Your very coming to me this afternoon may be a trap.”
     “Don't you know me better than that?” said Mark.
     “Stop talking nonsense!” said Dimble. “Stop posturing and acting, if only for a minute. They have corrupted better men than you or me before now. Straik was a good man once. Filostrato was at least a genius. Even Alcasan—yes, yes, I know who your Head is—was a plain murderer: something better than they have now made of him. Who are you to be exempt?”
     Mark gaped.
     “Nevertheless,” continued Dimble, “knowing this—knowing that you may be only bait in the trap—I will take a risk. I will risk things compared with which both our lives are a triviality. If you seriously wish to leave the N.I.C.E., I will help you.”
     One moment it was like the gates of Paradise opening——then, at once, caution and the incurable wish to temporise rushed back. The chink had closed.      “I—I'd need to think that over,” he mumbled. “It's a question affecting my whole future career.”
     “Your career!” said Dimble. “It's a question of damnation or—a last chance. But you must come at once.”
     “I don't think I understand,” said Mark. “You keep on suggesting some kind of danger. What is it? And what powers have you to protect me—or Jane—if I do bolt?”
     “I can offer you no security. There is no security for anyone now. I'm offering you a place on the right side. I don't know which will win.”
     “As a matter of fact,” said Mark, “I had been thinking of leaving. But I must think it over. Supposing I look you up again tomorrow?”
     “Do you know that you'll be able?”
     “Or in an hour? Come, that's only sensible. Will you be here in an hour's time?”
     “What can an hour do for you? You are only waiting in the hope that your mind will be less clear.”
     “But will you be here?”
     “If you insist. But no good can come of it.”
     “I want to think. I want to think,” said Mark, and left the room without waiting for a reply.
     Mark had said he wanted to think: in reality he wanted alcohol and tobacco. And he wanted Jane, and he wanted to punish Jane for being a friend of Dimble, and he wanted never to see Wither again, and he wanted to creep back and patch things up with Wither somehow. He wanted to be admired for manly honesty among the Dimbles and also for realism and knowingness at Belbury. Damn the whole thing! Why had he such a rotten heredity? Why had his education been so ineffective? Why was the system of society so irrational? Why was his luck so bad?
     It was raining as he reached the College lodge. Some sort of van seemed to be standing in the street outside, and there were three or four uniformed men in capes.
     “Excuse me, sir,” said one of the men. “I must ask for your name.”
     “Studdock,” said Mark.
     “Mark Gainsby Studdock,” said the man, “it is my duty to arrest you for the murder of William Hingest.”

     I have several reasons for regarding That Hideous Strength as one of the most important works of fiction ever written. The above passage is only one of them.

     That’s about it for this damp, rather dreary Saturday morning on eastern Long Island. I might be back a bit later with something more...conventional, but I plan to put the bulk of the day to fiction and a few household necessities. As for the rest of you, I recommend:

     Have a nice day.

     PS: The mysterious fictional technique I used to break my logjam is one I encountered in one of Lawrence Block’s books on writing: When the action starts to flag, bring on a man with a gun. It worked rather nicely. Try it!


daniel_day said...

Oh. Well, ok. I figured it was sex.

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) Sex won't always do the job, Daniel. I'd say something snarky such as "ask my wife," but...oh, never mind.

pdwalker said...

Well, I think you have a real gift.

And that technique? You made me laugh. I'll never look at a scene with a man with a gun the same way ever again.

scttmtclf said...

I have Liberty's Torch and Dystopic bookmarked in my daily reading; I never miss the opportunity to be enlightened. I have yet to find someone who can put pen to paper, so to speak, and write what I am thinking better than you. I greatly enjoy your work, and I thank you for putting in the daily effort for our edification.