On Convenient Characters: A Critical Quickie

This morning, much to the surprise of America, I encountered antisocial behavior on the Internet.  A friend had posted a story on her Facebook page, and an avalanche of censure (some lighthearted, some grim-fisted) followed.  I fear I do not possess the superpowers necessary to correct or even address unkindness on the web, so I’ll zero in on the source of the offense instead.  It presents an interesting issue in its own right, one that comes a little close to my belletristic bailiwick.

Perhaps you’ve seen variations on the story before, but it goes (in brief) a little something like this.  Tyrannical philosophy professor denies the existence of God vehemently all semester long, double-dog daring his students to repudiate the claim.  The students are all suitably and conveniently cowed until the last day of the term, when one bold individual, unconvinced by the proofs the professor has offered, acknowledges that his faith in God persists despite the philosopher’s efforts to erode it.  The indignant professor accordingly issues a challenge to omnipotence:  if there were a God, he should possess power enough to prevent a piece of chalk–the piece he is about to drop–from shattering when it hits the ground.  When he drops the chalk, however, it slips from his hand and, after a series of tumbles, winds up on the floor unbroken.  Broken himself by the experience, the professor runs from the room, leaving the student to expand on the lessons thereby learned.

I won’t dwell on the story itself much, since it was the poster’s own conviction–that the story must be true–that invited censure. (Snopes implies that it’s an older bit of weblore, and it certainly reads like a parable.)  Sans snopesing, and without any real reference to issues of faith, however, the respondents all mocked the story on narrative grounds.  The earliest respondents, some of whom agreed with the original poster concerning the story’s truth, were grateful that they had never encountered a professor like that–his tyranny, to their thinking, was simply unreal.  Subsequent respondents riffed on that theme, noting how convenient (and unlikely) it was from a storytelling standpoint that the professor would yield the field to his foe rather than remarking on probability, physics, and the like.  Still later respondents refused to accept what struck them as the least likely element of the tale: that an entire class would give another student its rapt attention instead of bolting for the malt shop the moment the professor left.  The narrative, in their collective estimation, did not pass muster.

A quick scan of my own media feed this morning suggests that such mistrust is common, that many well-intentioned articles are rejected out of hand because they are founded on anecdotes that do not ring true.  They depend on a mode of just-so storytelling, in which the auxiliary characters act in precisely the fashion necessary to drive a message home.  The bad customer is publicly shamed and goes away mortified (and the shamer is, for her part, applauded); the inept parent is chastened and amended by a timely admonition in the grocery store or omni-mart; a host of surly rush-hour commuters heads home a little wiser after witnessing the kindness of a child–but not before making a point of pulling the proud parent aside and promising they will pay that kindness forward.  As a matter of policy I tend to avoid the anonymous comments appended to such stories, since wallowing in sewage is not a thing I normally like to do on weekends with even-numbered Sundays, but in such cases I seldom need to read more than two or three responses to see that the readers aren’t buying what the teller is selling.  The incidents themselves might well be authentic, but the ways in which they have been packaged–ways that yield the pleasures of unequivocal clarity and closure–lack the complexity and contrariness of lived experience.

The life lesson here, I think, is a call to caution when it comes to characterization.  One can get away with quite a bit of facile functionalism in the shortest of stories, but the longer a critter lives on the page, the more likely she is to behave in unexpected ways.  There is certainly a virtue in driving a moral home, in delivering a sentiment cleanly to readers, but readers conventionally reject messages if they doubt the integrity of the messengers. These days it seems to me better to run the risk of losing what I meant to send than to have my emissaries turned away at the door.

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The Wandlessinian Mysteries

(Today’s title may allude to the Eleusinian mysteries, the Dionysian mysteries, both, or neither.  Please consult your local Wandlessian exegete for clarification.)

Like many humanoids (and other underachieving species), I sometimes struggle to do what I should be doing.  I can handle all the requisite business of living, of course, and I fulfill my obligations to others to the best of my ability, but the other stuff–the stuff that properly belongs to The Way of the Wandlessi–occasionally gets back-burnered, tabled, or bekitchened in related ways.  Last week, for example, following the conclusion of my ultra-regimented Bald Man Action Plan (a three-month sprint to reach a fitness goal ere winter sets in here in Michigan), I lapsed into lassitude.  I ate a great deal of pizza and Halloween candy, played round after round of mindless mah jongg, and–while I managed to square away a book review due in December–made precious little progress on my many pending projects.  It was a very fine week in the doing, but of the kind one rues in retrospect.  It was a simpler time; it was a lawless time.

It did serve to remind me, however, of a Wandlessian necessity:  diminished contingency.  To get stuff done, I need to cordon off the possible.

For proffolks, the classic formulation of this phenomenon is The Grading Way, though you can see the same dynamic emerge when most folks are confronted with Something That Must Be Done but an open framework in which to complete The Doing.  An instructor will start in on a pile of ungraded essays, but suddenly she remembers she forgot to water her houseplants; suddenly the need for paprika (or cumin, or allspice) is urgent; suddenly he must winterize his waffle maker.  Of a sudden, all the little things we have put off become appealing, if not pressing, and we tackle those tasks rather than attend to the stuff that’s topmost on our dockets.  Few can escape the siren song of laundry when the alternative is tucking in to some daunting, significant project.

In my case, the only way to confront the will to dither is to delimit the very possibility of dithering.  Last week, for example, I found much of my scaffolding lost.  My Action Plan shaped and structured my days, obliging me to sleep, rise, and head to campus at (more or less) fixed intervals.  With those parameters in place, I found that the hours of every day distributed themselves in self-evident ways–I had optimal times to eat, to plan for class, to attend meetings, to research, and to write.  When my self-imposed program ended, I found myself waking later, eating more, and working on my own projects less often.  There was mah jongg to be played, after all.  I needed a new framework of daily expectations, one that would leave me with fewer opportunities for dawdlesome deferrals.

Alas, we all have to live with contingency, and the inventive can always find diversions to turn them away from the stuff they ought to do.  Too much structure, of course, can also be oppressive, but in many cases just a few fixed boundaries will prevent the diversions from distracting us from those Somethings That Must Be Done.  This winter I’m trying out a few preemptive measures to keep me from plunging into the Abyss of Underachievement.  Last year I concluded an Action Plan right around Halloween, but I thought I could continue going to the gym in a less regimented way and perhaps relax my dietary strictures a bit as well.  And lo! winter happened, and by the time spring arrived I had undone much of the prior year’s progress.  This year I revised my idea of structure to include that carnivalesque week of candy and catnaps, but I also scripted a fitness plan to follow its heels, a plan that (unlike last year’s frigid gym-going) is not subject to the vagaries of Michigan weather.  I’m convinced that structuring the days to come well in advance will safeguard me from lapses that might otherwise sidetrack me from biggish ambitions.  And if I’m wrong, at the very least Bill Wandless of the Future will have one less idiocyncrasy to rethink.

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Concatenations

On Hallowe’en I concluded a three-month long fitness plan, and for the past few days I’ve allowed myself to drift contentedly on the seas of self-indulgence.  Today there will be pie; oh yes, there will be pie.  Yesterday, however, I began to do a little transitional planning in good earnest.  While I could assuredly eat my bodyweight in Häagen-Dazs between now and Thanksgiving, I’d really rather not put that sort of stress on my carcass.

In anticipation of a little more winter walking, I started out by looking into skull-flattering tuques.  As you might imagine, this is why I’m about to purchase a rowing machine.

Wait.  I might have missed a step.

This is, alas, how my mind tends to work, and I do not think I am especially special in that regard.  Unless I am totally absorbed in a task, in some bit of work at hand, my thought process involves madcap concatenations of intuitions, ideas, and imagery.  Yesterday as I proctored a peer review session in class, for example, I started out reading an interview with George Saunders in The Writer’s Chronicle.  At some point, however, I realized that I had been staring at the same word in the same paragraph for nearly ten minutes, my eyes out of focus and my mind elsewhere, my thoughts veering from eighteenth-century conduct books to Cyrenaic hedonism to vespers to tattoos.  The whole sequence yielded a line of a poem I’ve been working on intermittently, because why wouldn’t it?  My brain has stuff to do, and it can read that interview any old time.

The trick, at least for me, is trying to translate this mode of thinking into writing.  When I’m working on verse, an associative, telegraphic thought process can be just the thing.  I’ll come across surprising modifiers, striking images, zesty metaphors, and trippy transitions that give the lines some unexpected energy.  When I’m writing prose, however, or when it comes time to revise, those glimpses and impressions prove more problematic.  In the case of a poem, the intuitive leap that makes perfect sense to me, given the thought process that gave rise to it, may be be too idiosyncratic for a reader to follow.  I need to strike a balance between trusting the reader and trusting my own sense of progress and logic, which can be tough to reconcile.  In terms of prose, particularly short fiction, non-linear thinking tends to be a blessing and a curse.  Linking odd elements together helps me to generate some genuinely surprising ideas, but the composition of the story itself tends to suffer if I let concatenation reign.  Were I writing cream-of-consciousness fiction, of course, following associations would be fair game, but plotting genre fiction obliges me to produce clear and inevitable connections (Why is Eleanor going into the basement, what with the howling and the curse and the six-year-old marmalade?) and to whittle away those eccentric gestures that do not contribute to the story in some purposeful, meaningful way.  It can be terribly slow going.

I am, in general, an advocate of abiding by habits of mind, the processing and patterning each of our brains is prone to do.  On some Friday mornings, however, it can be awfully disorienting to stand at my destination and find myself unable to puzzle out how I arrived.

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For Your Consideration

If you’ve got the hankering for some All Hallow’s Day scares, hop on over to the Supernatural Tales blog and consider picking up #28–or better yet, consider subscribing! –when November rolls around.  You’ll find a piece from me in there, as well as fiction from E. Michael Lewis, Michael Chislett, Sam Dawson, Gillian Bennett, Tim Foley, Jacob Felsen, and William I.I. Read.  Delicious fiction to pair with your haul of fun-sized Twixes and Kit Kats–what could be better?

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The Funeral Rule

In my ongoing effort to become a walking mound of quirks and eccentricities, a few years ago I decided that I would no longer attend weddings or funerals, not even my own.  The former, given said quirks and eccentricities, never struck me as likely; marriageable people for some reason insist on abiding by “standards” and practicing “good judgment,” which of course rules me out of all consideration.  As for the latter, I plan to leave behind a grisly tableau that will leave forensic androids scratching their cerebral servos for centuries to come, so what remains of me is apt to be a mealy puree in the bottom of a mop bucket.  I suppose they can bury whatever drips from the squeegee if they’d like, but my theory of the mind prevents me from reckoning that as funeral attendance per se.

The difficulty, alas, is that I find weddings tragic and funerals absurd.  I’ll focus on the latter today, since it bears on the moral of our story.  You see, here is my quandary:  I have an excellent memory, and I am capable of forming independent judgments of character.  This, as you might imagine, is a source of great personal sadness, and it bears heavily on my approach to funeral-going.

What often happens, at least in my experience, is that we suffer the lives of many others secondhand, filtered through some narrating intermediary.  So, for example, we might learn about a boss we’ve never met from a disgruntled employee, or we might learn about some tyrannical parent from a put-upon teen.  People vent, and when they vent they tend to blow toward those ears they suspect will be sympathetic to their plight.  Such sympathy often leads to an intimacy of one kind or another, and the like-minded listener may well commiserate with the disgruntled and the put-upon, feeling deeply for their suffering and forming strong opinions about the abominable boss or parent in question.

Do you catch my drift, Dear Reader?  Were one of my generally sympathetic disposition, one might well hear of the behavior of such others only when they were at their worst:  those times when they gave great offense to our narrating intimates, those times when they were most thoughtless, ignorant, selfish, or cruel.  Given such consistent accounts, I might well develop an informed opinion of the character in question–an opinion that is not necessarily subject to complication or leavening by all the other material my intimate opted not to share.  So at day’s end, when it comes time to don the black suit, I might only know of the decedent as a monstrous mother, a frightful father, a deplorable daughter, or an insufferable son.  That’s the frame of mind I would be obliged to hide at the funeral home, and I would spend much of my time suspecting others of harboring the same sense of the dead, even as we expressed sorrow for his or her loss.

This, in a manner analogous to my prior post, is the sum and substance of our experience of stories.  We get only what we see, the words, thoughts, and behaviors offered up for our appraisal, and we fill in the imaginative blanks therefrom, often in consistent colors.  The color scheme we opt for, however, need not be the one the author would like us to choose, nor can she be certain of her power to paint over the scheme we have chosen.  Following a recent screening of Beowulf in Grendel, for example, the class quite reasonably concluded that the director wanted us to feel sympathy and/or pity for Grendel, a troll-boy bereft of his troll-father and thus hellbent on troll-vengeance.  Because Grendel was also guilty of rape, however, many members of the class opted out of that forgiving assessment.  Those viewers, also behaving quite reasonably, selected the incident that mattered most to them, formed their opinions, and dismissed the rest as irrelevant.  If the director intended to overwrite or override that valuation, he would have to devise some means of eclipsing that incident in the viewer’s memory, and I think it an impossible stain to efface.  Like the good book says, sometimes dead is better.

In life this effect can be appalling to witness from a distance.  We might watch a breaking story on some terrible crime and later see follow-up reports from family members and neighbors, all of them intent on representing the character they knew–a fully-realized individual incapable of such an act.  And at funerals, particularly those we attend as the friends of mourners, we lack a rounded understanding of the person they knew, even if the complex business of knowing (which for them included the good, the bad, and a great deal in between) is momentarily inflected by their sense of loss.  If we as companion comforters are only privy to the bad, those horror stories passed on to us at times of stress and strife, then the work of sympathy becomes incredibly difficult.  Strong stories are hard to rewrite, even when time is on our side.

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The Marzipan Man

Let me tell you about Harry.  Harry was, in the parlance of the Wandlessian realm, a GNU, or Genuinely Nice ‘Umanoid.  In my lifetime, I have known exactly four GNUs; perhaps you know one, too.  A GNU is, as the acronym might imply, genuinely nice, and when I say “genuinely” in this context I mean consistently, concertedly, and constitutionally nice.  He was nice to everyone, warm, kind, and generous with his time; he was always ready to lend a sympathetic ear to anyone who needed it, and he always offered those needy folk sound, heartening advice; he was well-loved by people of all stripes, who responded warmly and almost intuitively to his self-evident GNUminosity.

What I’m saying, in essence, is that I did not know Harry very well at all.

It may seem dismissive of me to thumb through the annals of my personal history and find precisely four GNUs therein, and you would not be wrong to think me a terrible person for doing so.  (I am one of those beings who wanders the earth with a finite supply of niceness, though I hope I am sympathetic and at least polite most of the time.)  I freely concede, in fact, that I actually know many nice people.  I would argue, however, that those folks may not properly be assigned to the GNU category because I am somewhat more familiar with them.  And that familiarity would oblige me to footnote and asterisk their niceness, noting various conditions and restrictions that might apply to its evocation and expression.

This is, I think, not at all uncommon.  Even the most benevolent of people, if we know them long and well enough, will betray an occasional aversion.  I know a very nice man who simply cannot brook door-to-door solicitors; I know a very nice woman who, in her capacity as a customer service critter, has come to detest a handful of customers.  I know people who struggle to be nice at certain times or at certain places.   We’re only human, or mostly so, which is what makes GNUs so special.

I am thinking about GNUs today because a writer friend of mine insists that a character in her newest novel is, essentially, Person X.  The character is not derived from, based upon, or inspired by Person X–to her thinking it is Person X, an exact likeness, drawn to the life.  She feels she did not create Person X so much as she transcribed him.

Because I am a terrible person (and that’s something of a persistent subtext you’ll find in these pages), I think she’s flat-out wrong.  (I won’t tell her that, of course, because I am sometimes nice.)  What she’s done, I know, is taken the observable behaviors of Person X, perhaps augmented them with what she believes are candid and revealing expressions of his essence (his words, the opinions of others, and the like), and then assembled them in a way that conveys to her the result with clarity and precision.   My none-too-adventurous surmise, however, is that her vision is a fiction, that Person X is far more a production of her imagination than an apprehension of his essence.  That’s no condemnation of what my writer friend has achieved; it’s a basic fact of authorial existence.

Even though my memories of Harry are fond ones, I have no doubt that there were facets of his character I simply never saw.  Were I to try to characterize Harry, I would be utterly at a loss–I simply don’t know how a GNU might work.  I could perhaps reproduce some instance of his genuine niceness faithfully, but anything beneath that surface would be an educated guess of my own manufacture.  I could amalgamate, approximate, and simulate, combining and devising ideas of niceness to serve up a glimmering of motive, method, or meaning, but that would be no more Harry than this figurine (he said, gesturing to the figurine on the shelf above him) is Harry.  The same holds true when I try to depict a woman, a Asian-American, a senior citizen, or a millionaire:  I can fashion the fictional equivalent of a marzipan shell of the being in question based on things I’ve seen, but I would have to fill it with noggin-nougat, the stuff of invention (which is, in this metaphor, delicious).

This, I hesitate to tell my writing friend, is a peril of the profession.  Every character we commit to print or pixels is a vestige of the self–a reflection, projection, or comparable emanation.  They do not reveal others so much as they reveal what we believe, hope, or suspect about others.

If I believed she were genuinely nice, I might make the attempt.

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Why I Am So Angry (Part 1 of a 418-part series)

Most folks that encounter me probably think of me as a placid, even-keeled personality.  I don’t get discernibly angry in any public context, though my default expression is a frown (though the Youth of America have a somewhat more colorful term for it).  Some think me dispassionate by extension, however, which is not at all the case.  In the comfort of my ancestral manse, the vast and melancholy Wrackwell Abbey, I rage and froth and crow like Nicolas Cage with an underwritten role.  In other spheres I try to behave in a more seemly manner.

What riles me up?   I’m terribly glad you asked, or this might have been a hard paragraph (and series) to start.  What riles me up most, at least at this particular moment on this particular Thursday morning, is a casual attitude about time–more specifically, a casual attitude about the time of others.  For the most part, I accept that most human beings are scarcely civilized narcissists:  we think of ourselves and consult our own self-interest before we concern ourselves with the needs of others.  I think that practice, generally speaking, is quite right and proper.  Who is better qualified to see to our welfare than the man in the mirror (Michael Jackson and The Candyman notwithstanding)?  As it turns out, alas, our daily rounds generally oblige us to act with other human beings, and during those interactions most folks take pains not to act like savage sociopaths.  It is a nicety upon which our civilization depends.

My self-absorption is worse than most, a fact that I freely concede, but I know that it falls to me to address it.  I keep to myself when I can; I go to the gym at 6:00am, when crowds are thinnest; I attend to my grocery shopping on weekends before most people are awake, and normally at places where I can check out my purchases myself.  Those are concessions I make to my own social awkwardness.  When faced with public instances of existential obliviousness–the customer, for example, who hobnobs with a cashier, who fishes in his pockets for change, and who then opts to write a check, indifferent to the length of the line behind him–I do my best to imagine the sort of hidden motives that might compel such behavior.  Perhaps such a customer is terribly lonely, is doing his best to defer a return to a horrible home, or simply has a few minutes to kill before some other obligation.  It might be nice if he were as eager to leave the scene (and in doing so to accommodate others) as I generally am, but those occasions give me a chance to practice empathy.  I hope that such imaginative exercise informs my writing to some degree.

In a vacuum, however–and those who choose (or are chosen by) the writing life tend to inhabit vacuums, at least in a professional sense–those self-involved expenditures of time feel much more intrusive.  Most committee meetings, for example, only begin when the last of the latecomers arrive, and I (who made it a point to arrive ten minutes early) am left to make awkward small talk; likewise, I might agree to write a letter of reference as soon as I receive some needful materials and then wait for weeks for those materials to arrive, a delay that typically finds me rejiggering leisure hours to meet a formerly faraway deadline that is suddenly pressing.  On such occasions, when self-involvement bursts the egoistic bubbles of others, resentment and rancor begin to incubate.  It becomes hard to commit time to folks when one cannot be certain one’s own time is held in equally high regard.

Paradoxically–and I am nothing if not paradoxical–these daily deferrals and trials of patience have made me much more comfortable with the long stretches of silence that normally attend the submission of my work for publication.  I paid a visit to a writers’ message board this morning, and many, many threads were devoted to the censure of sundry editors and presses who are guilty of unconscionable sloth (unconscionable, at least, in the eyes of these writers).  Sublime egoist though I may be, however, I know that when I submit work to a journal that I am the one imposing, that I am the one asking a stranger to invest time in me, to defer her plans and pleasures for my sake.  It’s awfully hard to be angry at someone who has no obligation to me whatsoever yet who is taking the time to peruse my prose.  As social exchanges go, it’s astonishingly lopsided.

I’ll try to keep that in mind today as I mix and mingle with the world at large.  I’ll try to keep my local footprint to a minimum, knowing full well that my gigantical clownfeet are assuredly tromping all over someone else’s days and ways.

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