THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL – Part 3

Fall

USING OPPOSITES 

             Before we do the fleshing out of these scenes, there’s something worth remembering.  Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to loose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line.  Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this.  Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them further out… make them more of what they are.  It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before.  We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do so much more.

            As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more.  Who says, “I want to feel it just as you did, don’t rush through the details.  What was the temperature?  How did the light shine in through the window?  When she made that remark, did her expression change ever so subtly?  What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships?”  The scene, the characters are a means to express your and my fullest feelings, deeply and importantly.  Explore the richness of each possibility.”

            Michael Shurtleff (Audition) notes that in everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond everyday life.  It’s not enough to capture reality on the page.   We want heightened reality.  The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for, to fully play out the opposites that exist within each character.  You have many creative choices in the selection of what you include and what you exclude.  Make choices that intensify real life drama.  Find romance; it’s everybody’s secret dream.  Whenever you have two conflicting personality traits that cancel each other out, do both.  Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience.  It’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: We don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, we’re always being surprised by their doing something we didn’t expect.  Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it.  That’s why actors like the early Marlon Brando and De Niro and Pachino interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next.  They make us want to know.  They make us keep watching them.  They surprise us with their unpredictability.”

            As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life.  What’s there is obvious.  It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.                                     

FROM GOOD MOTHERS, BAD DAUGHTERS

by Charlotte Nokola (Rosebud #11) 

            My mother had an old friend.  This in itself surprised me, since my mother seemed to me to have little history aside from taking me to parks and frying up bacon.  Her friend’s name was Hope West, which I knew from seeing it on the binding of one of the books in our house.  She was an anthropologist, and she and my mother had been in college together at Washington University.  In August of 1959, when I was seven, my family took a short trip to Chicago, to visit the Field Museum, to have lunch in the Marshall Field’s tearoom and to visit Hope West.  In the museum I was thrilled by displays of Kodiak bears, hunks of alabaster and chrysolite and dinosaur bones.  My other main concern on this trip was eating fried chicken as often as possible.

            It seemed a little dreary to visit one of my mother’s fiends in the middle of all of this, and the August heat was thick.  All of the old college friends I had met so far seemed to fall into one not very interesting category.  They had given up their jobs, married and had children.  They had “luncheon,” not lunch, with card parties once or twice a year, on card tables in their living rooms, were all very pleasant, and all seemed to be named Mary Helen or Helen Louise.  But this old friend had no children, I was told, was not married and worked as a writer.  Never had I met a woman like this.

            Further, she lived by herself in an apartment.  In my limited experience as a girl growing up outside St. Louis in a suburban house with a scrubby field behind it, an apartment in the city seemed to be a shrine to one’s own mind.  Especially this woman’s apartment, since she was the author of books.  As far as I knew, she and my mother hadn’t seen each other since college, and now it was more than twenty-five years later.

            So I knew, when we walked into her apartment at the end of a humid August afternoon, that some kind of moment had arrived for my mother.  Our family–my sister, my brother, my mother and father and myself–were much too large for Hope West’s apartment.  We were a bulky group that disturbed the streamlined serenity of this “modern” 1950s brick skyscraper.  My parents tried to make us look spotless and presentable, dabbing at our collars or the corners of our mouths, catching stray strands of hair.  But here was a seven-year-old with legs long like a young horse’s, with scabby knees from falling in blackberry patches.  A fourteen-year-old boy in wilted khaki pants, whose voice was changing and who was obsessed with meteorology.  And a sixteen-year-old girl with three or four crinoline petticoats and upswept blond hair so that she could look like Kim Novak in Picnic.

            My father stood slightly aside in shirt sleeves because of the heat and smoked a Pall Mall.  His social bearing was a bit confused because this woman was a scholar and a writer.  He didn’t seem to know whether to adopt the polite, deferential mode reserved for elderly maiden aunts or the bossy, commandeering mode used with business friends.  And there was my mother, a mother with white gloves, responsible for all of these children who were now either bumping into coffee tables, in danger of breaking the African artifacts or rudely staring out the window at Lake Michigan.  But I remember thinking, despite our gangliness that Hope West was certainly the one to be pitied.  She was “a woman without children”–a fate always presented in our family as a lifetime tragedy, a sadness to be avoided at any cost.

            Yet, Hope West did not look sad.  She did not look like any of the other women I had ever met, the mothers with comfortable tummies, generous upper arms, curly hair with a little breeze in it, wearing a print dress that puffed out at the waist.  Mothers who actually spent time crisscrossing the prongs of a fork on top of cookies for decoration.  Hope West was tall and wore a tubular green suit.  Her whole face gathered toward her hair, which was pulled up in a French twist, and seemed to collect what she was seeing and thinking.

            There were no cookies waiting for us on the coffee table.  One side of the living room held a wall of books, more than I had ever seen in anyone’s house.  Most important, most amazing to me, was that all of these books were hers.  On another side of the room was a huge picture window that overlooked Lake Michigan and the tops of buildings.  Not flowers and a swing set.  No one but Hope West enjoyed this view of Lake Michigan’s endless blue tabletop–hard to imagine, when the five of us crowded around the kitchen window at our house to look at rabbits or possums traveling through the backyard.  Her own view, and her own books–and some of them were undoubtedly hers, of her own writing.  How would it feel, I wondered, to have your own book on your own bookshelf: Her bookshelves, her room, her Lake Michigan.  I had never met a woman who didn’t share everything with everyone.  Who didn’t have to give up the best pork chop for the father or the children, who had more than a few private things in a bureau drawer that her children always raided.  Hope West seemed strange and monumental, standing straight and gray-eyed in her French twist, in front of her books and a long vista outside.

            Suddenly, the seemingly inevitable and unfortunate outlines of women’s destinies fell into relief for me.  You could be Hope West, alone, with your books, with no children.  Or you could be my mother with children, and no books of your own.  I felt that each of the old friends looked at the other and saw what she did not have.  It seemed that I had to choose sides, then and there.  Of course I thought, maybe in loyalty, that I would be like my mother, the one with children.  But I had always wanted to write a book, to hold a book of my own in my hand.  Did I have to choose?

            We took Hope West out to dinner with us.  I ate fried chicken again, and wondered what Hope West did for dinner, alone, on all those other nights, when we weren’t there to take her out.  My mother never did become Hope West, the writer of books, the mother of no children.  But she did bring her impressionable children across four hundred flat miles of Missouri and Illinois to visit her on an impossibly hot summer day in 1959.

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