Thursday, November 25, 2010
Post hoc planning
My English teachers in high school were all clear on the importance of preparation. A good outline was the sine qua non of good writing. It provided the armature on which one could construct a solid, coherent, and well-organized essay. To drive home the point, most of the time they insisted that we students hand in our outlines together with our finished compositions. I could follow their reasoning, but I did not find it compelling enough for compliance.
As the wild and rebellious youth I was [pause for amusement of the LOL variety], I naturally preferred to dash off my papers at one go and then sketch out an outline, executing my instructions backward. My outlines were thus more like abstracts, and they certainly weren't planning tools. Since my assignments routinely came back with A's on them (and little notes of approbation and encouragement in the margins), I saw no reason to change my perverse practice.
A colleague inadvertently reminded me of this as we had lunch together at an Italian (or, rather, Italian-themed) restaurant near our college. She was an English professor who had been lured into management, but the composition instructor still lingered within her, lurking just below the surface. It emerged as we forked up our pasta and she asked a question about my novel.
“You know, Zee,” she said conversationally, “every work of composition is seeking to answer a question. What was the question you were trying to answer with your novel?”
Fortunately my mouth was full and it was impolite to answer immediately. I continued to chew in a genteel and ruminative fashion, taking the opportunity to compose a response. Since I obviously didn't have time to write an outline, I had to dash off something extemporaneously. It had, of course, never occurred to me before that I might have been asking a question. Nevertheless, my colleague was doing me the honor of treating me like a serious writer instead of as a madcap, slapdash chronicler of family lore, legend, rumor, and scandal. She deserved a considered answer.
Rather to my surprise, I realized that I had a good answer, and it was her question that had crystallized it in my mind. Since I talk nearly as much with my hands and with my voice, I put my fork down and spoke.
“Once she was gone, however, all of the centrifugal forces came into play. My uncle felt free to set aside his wife and move in with his girlfriend. And my godfather tried to take advantage of the vacuum to seize control of part of the estate. The family shattered into contending factions, playing balance-of-power games with temporary alliances of convenience and a series of countervailing lawsuits. Those experiences provided the raw material for my novel, which is a fact-based work of fiction. I tried to sort out the motivations and make sense of the collapse and reconstruction of the extended family.”
I'm not sure that what I said actually came out as smoothly as I've rendered it here, although I've had teachers tell me that I talk the way I write (which is perhaps just a little scary—but I swear that I don't do air quotes or air parentheses). At the very least, however, what I said had the advantage of being true. Like an organism that had grown too large to survive in its ecological niche, my family fissioned into chunks that reorganized themselves into smaller and more stable versions of the original model. That's not a surprise when you think about it, is it?
The chunks have experienced a wide variety of fates. My godfather's proved unstable, breaking apart further and scattering across a great geographical expanse. My uncle's group—well, it was never even really his group. His divorce alienated both his spouse and their children. My father's chunk has been the most cohesive, perhaps because it was one of his sons, my kid brother, who pieced the family dairy farm back together and restored our reputation in the Central Valley agricultural community. That almost gives the story a happy ending, except that life and death go on. One doesn't write “The End” on the last page of a family story and expect it to mean very much.
My colleague nodded her head in satisfaction at my answer. I felt as if I had passed a test. At that moment, I realized that the questions were inherent in my writing project, even if I had not been consciously aware of them at the time. She had nudged me out of my own story and reminded me that I was my manuscript's omniscient observer. For an instant, it felt that I had figured out all of the answers to life's little questions as they were posed in the drama of my family—and rendered into a fictional story that I could tell to others. It was a pleasant illusion, but I will never really know what motivated some of the actions of the real people in my life, even if I think I succeeded in winding up the springs of their fictional counterparts and “explaining” their actions.
It's only a story.
like yours truly). Too bad. It has led to our present estrangement and my absence from today's Thanksgiving dinner. (I find it difficult to break bread with someone who calls me a liar. I'm sort of sensitive that way.) Mom is naturally suffering from the collateral damage, so I've promised her I'll show up for Christmas. I'll pretend there's a flag of truce fluttering over the family farm.
I can do that much, at least. And perhaps I'll learn the answers to more questions that I don't know I have.