A GLORIOUS FEAST
In workshops, after participants write a scene from their storyboards, I collect the papers and read them. I apply a reality check. You can do it for yourself with your own scenes. Does the writing “show”–create experience you, as a reader, feel as if it is happening to you; or does the writing “tell” about what happened–you feel you are hearing it second hand. It’s the difference between going to a movie or sports event, yourself, and listening to someone tell about one he or she attended. Imagine a diagram on this page. At the bottom left of the diagram are a bunch of dots that represent experiences a person has in life. The way our mind and language work is to generalize from these particular experiences. Instead of carrying around the details our senses have felt, we now have converted these to conclusions based on those experiences; “Men are insensitive.” “Life is hard.” “It’s good to exercise.” Not only do we want to reduce what happens to us to these generalities, but we also find this a convenient way to communicate these ideas to others. So Person A communicates his or her conclusions to Person B. Person B can either (1) accept what is said as true, (2) reject it as false, or (3) alter its meaning to something with which he or she can agree. An example of (3) is someone saying, “Life is hard.” That conclusion may be based on the fact that part of the world population doesn’t have enough food to get through the day. Person B may agree, “Life is hard,” but by that understand, “I have to go out in the snow to get my morning newspaper.”
Whether or not Person B accepts, rejects, or alters what Person A communicates depends on how well these generalities fit Person B‘s own set of life experiences. If they match, Person B accepts them, if not Person B rejects or alters the meaning of these conclusions. The trouble is, what do we tend to write about? We search our experiences for things we feel are unique or on which we have some new perspective. If they are unique, there won’t be corresponding experiences for our audiences, and they’ll be rejected or misunderstood…unless we can communicate those experiences themselves trusting our audience to draw the same kind of conclusions we have. Besides increasing our chance of acceptance, this way of writing gives the reader an active role, which is flattering. The writer and the reader are partners, collaborating.
There’s a wonderful bonus. Experience can be transmitted, not only to a reader we know, but also to people in other parts of the world, to grandchildren who have not yet been born, and to us by others who lived before we were born. We can share experience with someone from thousands of years ago. Whose play is Oedipus Rex, anyway? Sophocles, the playwright could say, “That’s my play, I wrote it.” The actors (especially before the days of the printing press) could claim, “No, it’s our play–we are the ones who put it on before an audience.” The audiences could say, “This is our legend, you’ve just written it out or spoken the lines.” And Freud twenty centuries later realizes, “This is an archetype of human relationships that belongs to all people no matter in what period of time they lived.”
We all use many languages. There is the language of science that describes what we know, and the language of poetry that deals with things we can’t entirely know–at least directly. By its nature language gives pattern and order to chaos. It’s graspable…and communicable; we share in it together with others, living and dead. The great thing about literature is that our participation in it does not diminish another’s participation. If I own a house, it means you don’t own that house. But the same isn’t true of a story, play, or poem. We can all take whatever we need from it. In fact it may mean more to me as a reader in particular circumstances than it did to the person who just happened to write it.
The Roman, Seneca, wrote, “Whatever has been well said by anyone is mine.” The line between writing and actively reading a piece is thin. We happened to learn to speak before we learned to read, to read before we learned to write, and consequently we feel more comfortable speaking than reading, more comfortable reading than writing. But, that’s only a matter of practice. Literature is a glorious feast, whose participants transcend the limits of place and time. Whether we prepare the banquet, enjoy some or all of its dishes, or do both, how can we turn our back on an invitation to be a part of it?
But, look back at what I’ve just said. Just because you are presenting experiences rather than conclusions doesn’t mean you can’t influence those conclusions your readers make by what you include, what you exclude, and the order in which you present them (as we have seen with Newspaper Wars). This is Principle #4.
Principle #4: FRAME. A work’s opening and conclusion directly affect meaning. Theme is determined by parameters a writer sets on the chain of reactions; it stems from the specific needs that compel us to write. Exploit these needs. Confront your fears.