It was a very long Monday this week. I’d been out of town for four days and had come home to a mess of work and household chores. By the time I had supper in the oven and the kids practicing their instruments, I was ready to either a) go to bed, b) get drunk, c) collapse where I was or, d) get drunk. Then I remembered I had some texts I needed to send. Sigh. The idea of coordinating my stubby thumbs with my “smart”phone was exhausting (no, my name is not Chaos Rink Jones). But then I remembered the handy voice dictation feature. Just push the microphone icon and start talking.
I prattled on, composing my thoughts while trying to remember to say “comma” and “period.” After a while I paused to see how my techretary had done. The results were spectacular. If spectacular means not even remotely close. Evidently, my hand had been over the microphone.
I was quickly getting annoyed but as I continued to read the phone’s version of what I’d said, I began laughing. This was fantastic. It was like a whole new language had been invented! Some some sentences were so comprehensively mangled I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to say. “You drunk the help of my long gone stone they have a min interval on a police vehicle thinking of us.”
Another sentence read “Lead skating listen to him so then be on a date for the bold bold for the outlets what is going to be for that is good please put it in a can.”
I most certainly will put it in a can.
I might even put it on a t-shirt.
My daughter plays in the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra and during her rehearsals I usually pass the time at a cafe, downing cappuccinos and writing. I was there last Saturday, sipping my coffee drink and munching on my gluten-free, low-carb snack bar (holy crap I sound like a Yuppie) thinking about how to add more pain and conflict to a character’s life.
No, I’m not a sadist, I just saw that the short story I was working on wasn’t as compelling as it could be. The general rule in fiction is that every story must have at least one character and that character must be in conflict. Or to put it another way, storytelling describes what someone wants and how they get it (or don’t). The more obstacles and conflicts, the more squeaky bum angst, the more compelling the reading.
But as I sat there in my very distressed Windsor bow back chair, I wondered why all fiction demands conflict. Why couldn’t fiction just be a bunch of things that happen? Are real human lives full of conflict and drama? Well, yes. And no. It occurred to me that what stories need is not conflict per se, but rather a sense of progression, of overcoming some obstacle to reach a new goal. It’s that sense of progress that makes us turn the page, and gives the story a point.
John Gardner liked to use the term “profluence”. It’s a writing-geek word that refers a story’s flow. When a story has profluence, readers feel that the narrative is leading somewhere, and so they keep turning the pages. The feeling of achieving something is deeply satisfying.
Conversely, when a story doesn’t have profluence, when one scene doesn’t seem to connect to the next, when events feel random and the character just a bystander, readers are likely to close the book and say something nasty on Twitter.
All fine and well. So my story needed more profluence. But as I sat on that hard wooden chair, now succumbing to gluteal myalgia, I began to ponder whether profluence, so critical in fiction, isn’t also critical in life? I mean, we all have desires – it’s part of the human condition – but aren’t we happiest when we’re clear about our desires and are taking action to realize them? In fiction, a reader must understand what a character wants, either in the moment or in life. But how often do I really know what I want from life?
On January 3rd, just as I had mostly recovered from the holidays, a friend posted an article to Facebook. I admit to ignoring most things that people post (partly because FB is an excuse to procrastinate, and partly because there are soccer scores to check) but this particular story caught my eye: “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” I guess a title like that pretty much defies you not to click on it, and click I did.
The article opens by challenging you to name five impressive things about yourself. “Write them down or just shout them out loud to the room. But here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to list anything you are (i.e., I’m a nice guy, I’m honest), but instead can only list things that you do (i.e., I just won a national chess tournament, I make the best chili in Massachusetts).” From there the article goes on to argue that our value as human beings is defined not just by what we do but, specifically, by what we can do for others. Any inherent qualities we might have (I love my children) are meaningless and irrelevant. The author drives his point home by linking to a harrowing, expletive spangled scene from the film Glengarry Glenn Ross, in which Alec Baldwin tells his staff of realtors that they as people, their personalities and their personal lives, don’t count for shit. The only thing that makes them valuable is their ability to close a deal.
On first reading, I thought, yeah, this has a lot of truth in it. Of course others will value us by what we can do for them. No man is an island, and who would want to be? But the more I thought about the piece, especially the Alec Baldwin bit, the more something about it bothered me. No man is an island, and yet if I were to follow the logic of the article, I would focus on doing for others but only in as far as it directly serves me. My happiness and value are defined by what I produce, which in the case of Glengarry Glenn Ross is an ability to buy an $80,000 car and a $20,000 watch.