Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Philosophy of StoryNoir

I have been a writer for a long time. It has been a great and happy occupation. It gives me solace and diversion in troubled times and in good times recreation and delight. I have written much, mostly from personal experience; I am a puzzler over experience. I get inspiration from the Internet and my computer too. My computer has eased the terrific burden of constant retyping, which has allowed me to edit a piece till I am vaguely content. Also, I have finally been able to make artistic decisions and stick to them. My characters appear, they explain themselves. I have learnt over the years some general understandings. Perhaps you will find them interesting.

Autobiographic writing is not my favorite. I dream of writing imaginative stories. I have tried for a long time to learn how to use the imagination. I didn’t want to let the imagination get extreme. Usually that’s what happens. As we all know, wildly imaginative writing can be popular. But even if you have art burning inside you, you shouldn’t need to suspend disbelief to the point that you wonder whether you must be cracking up! Why should I feel like a lunatic for reading a book and actually believing in it? Even worse, suppose I am writing the book? Truth interests me, and it is in my nature to be skeptical. But I don’t think anymore that truth, in the sense of experience, has much to do with the real world. Truth has more to do with the unreal world. When you are driving in traffic and an extra long stop light irritates you, the stoplight is engaging you in a truth of experience. But truths of experience (data) like stoplights come and go. Untruths flicker and vanish, they may be suitable to the occasion, but truths of experience may act similarly. The kind of experience that concerns me is stubborn and persistent. This experience has a quality of truth that finds a niche in the world and it persists, and damned if you are not stubbing your toe on it your whole life! That's what I mean by realism: not what comes and goes but rather the patterns that are incessantly THERE; and it seems like at times they're gonna drive you crazy, so you try to forget about them, ignoring them. So I try to stick to these truths of experience. The fact that although important, they are ignored or forgotten is, I think, worth puzzling over. I try to be realistic. I haven’t gone off into fantasy. The upshot is that if you go by this notion of stubborn facts the writing must be believable. You don't have to drive yourself crazy wondering why you have to suspend belief to such an extreme. But you still have to use your imagination to get there. Stubborn facts don't just present themselves; everybody has to search for them.

Now, I’m thinking of the word fair. It disturbs me that a fair-minded person in this world tends to sound like a radical, or like a person who has let his imagination get the better of him. You take a fair-minded person trying to explain why it is better to compromise with another person than kill him. Such people clear the air, but how has it come to be that they sound so weird? I used to be a nihilist and an anarchist. I still love the theory that least is best. If you want to improve something make it simpler. My youthful nihilism, which simplified everything it couldn’t end, eventually made it a little easier to believe because in reducing the number of blockhead pre-conceptions, it made my perception of the real world a little truer. (I hope!) So I try to convey that perception because it has been a struggle to learn to believe in it myself. The result is that I want to be fair to my characters and not kill them off when they slip up or don't seem useful anymore. They must persist if I am ever to reach truths that persist. I hope I am fair and balanced in how I judge them.

I don't mean to suggest that everything I write about actually happened. Something similar to it did happen to me personally, else I wouldn't be writing about it. But I’m only a soldier, a lover of the written word, not one of the brass. I'm not interested in the doings of the brass, what I’m interested in is the greater world, which exposes the darkness that surrounds the self. The fact that we can actually turn back darkness into light is what makes us human, and a little less than angels. What I have tried to write about are the mysteries that surround every one of us, to turn back that darkness a little. Well, a man can always dream. In my life I have been a terrible dreamer, and not much of a success. Any kind of light can be a long time dawning.

Another word, balance, has bothered me for a long time. Everybody thinks about Ulysses’ avoidance of extremes. Now suppose. You want to write a best seller. But you want to be loyal to your upbringing and your mother’s admonition about not lying, and true to the experience of the world you have gathered over a lifetime. So invoke balance. Stand there, let them take their shots. Maybe they’ll even take you seriously. In other words: show up! The guys who are out of balance will disappear. But you'll show up.

When I was a young fellow, I used to search all over, town and city, for stores that sold used paperback books for a nickel. There was always some crazy guy in there who’d give you a cardboard box, and pretty soon you were walking out with fifty or a hundred books, a big pile of them anyway, for ten bucks. My dream was that one day I’d find a book that had everything you could imagine in it. Not The Holy Bible, which, of course, is okay for starters—I spent days loitering over it—, but a for real scuzzy paperback that had everything in it, and no bullshit. Then I’d screw around with it and keep it in my back pocket. Leaves of Grass, plenty of good reading there, I used to tell myself, better get started, time is wasting; and other books passed the time. Now I'm dreaming that one day I'll write that big book with everything in it and no bullshit. It will explain everything I know about noir and storynoir.

But that's energy and enthusiasm. There is nothing I'd rather do than sit in front of my computer and write. For me the undocumented life is not worth living. The simple object is to write a best seller, but the complicated object is to get read. How do you do that? Sex, violence (guns and war always help), and love and family. If you can convincingly write about kids, that’s a good thing. A few writers have been lucky that they can write about kids. Something for the head, something for the heart. If anybody can explain to me how you get read, I'll listen to everybody.

Some other items (not in order of importance) I am pretty sure about:

— I’m usually not interested in anything that doesn’t have some sort of climax somewhere close to the end.

— Almost everything I try to read is about a third too long, even Holy Ye Christmas! books. The popular taste is inured to it; it’s another opportunity to speed read and accomplish something. Think again.

— If I don’t know the story by personal experience, I’m not interested in writing it. But I hate journalism and my stories are anything but memoirs.

— I don’t know what imagination is. I think it’s something you’re born with. If you are a person born with it, maybe you could explain it to me.

— I like to dump my subject matter into the road and drive over it about a thousand times with a ¾-ton pick up. To leave it fluffed up is a sin. Once it's flattened then you load it. You don’t want to drive away with less than a full load. It is something that has always bothered me. Too long, too much stuff. Either you understand this or you don’t. I don’t have any words for what I am trying to get at from my love of brevity. Not minimalism. That is a professor’s word, and I don’t even know what it means. The deep wisdom silence spins off. There are people who think I am not brief at all.

— I like the illusion of spontaneity. Who invented the words “flash fiction”? Is that supposed to leave the impression of an insult like teenybopper used to? But I like it and crave to obtain an effect that is immediate, that “flashes” at you. And best of all: the work is all figured out when you finally write it down as if on an impulse. Then you don't have to spend the best part of a lifetime worrying it to death (and ruining it).

— This all goes hand in hand with the classical drill that inculcates clarity. Clarity sure helps. It is hard work, though, and good luck to the player. You have good days and bad days. On a bad day you can't get the mud out of the writing because you don't even know it's there.

— One thing I’m pretty sure of, I have noticed that a time comes for everything. I owned a paperback copy of Isaac Babel’s stories for almost twenty years before the cobwebs cleared and I could finally see in them a philosophy of storytelling that I could build on. Take John Milton! What a struggle I had with him! How could I ever read that? I must be dumb. No sense going to school any more. Eventually the time came. I like to read, and I’d read a lot more than I do if I didn’t love to write so much.

— The big objective: avoid journalism. A man does not avoid a rat carrying the plague like I avoid journalism. In my younger days we used to sit around wondering why we didn’t want to write journalism. Some of us eventually did. And there was a scholar among us, too. But to this day I’ve never sinned that way. Journalists are all dickweeds, though some of the ladies are cute.

— I don’t set myself up as anybody’s conscience. I am not a doctor, so I can’t tell you what happens in the ER. I can’t write a glossy detective story either. Criticize another writer? Don't be ridiculous. But write a potboiler? Maybe. I have ideas. I don’t intend to mirror my age, wouldn’t know how to even if I wanted to. I’m a guy who loves to write. I’ve been doing it all my life on the back of cereal boxes, on file cards, little notebooks, big notebooks and now on my computers. In college I cut an amusing figure. People shook their heads in bewilderment and smiled: I didn't look smart enough to put one foot in front of the other! Still it can’t be that of all the millions of words I have written nothing of it can be any good, can it? Given the even possibility of happy accident.

— Face it, the object is to finish the work, and like it enough to believe somebody ought to read it.

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