Sunday, November 21, 2010

Poetry Almanac

This is a good site for poems, specially selected each day, with other poetry-related information -- and audio, since this site is connected to Garrison Keillor's "Poetry Almanac" on NPR.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Walter Mosley, "Pet Fly": Invention-Patterns

After reading the story by Walter Mosley called “Pet Fly,” think about some of the following observations:

We can read a text in a “readerly” way, focusing on what it means; or we can focus our attentions in a “writerly” way, thinking about how it works. Further, as I have tried to emphasize in all our text-based exercises, and in some posts, we can consider specific devices that writers seem to have borrowed from each other, and practice writing as a kind of imitation process. All writers, all artists, all creative people generally, learn in part by “stealing” from others: they see something work in one story, or movie, or building, or system, and they identify the device or element or gesture that is transferable to a work they are engaged in (or, the insight that a device is transferable, that other practitioners can use it, inspires a new work).

This imitation method is the basis for my course; it is the most important way to learn how to write – paradoxically, it is the best way to learn how to be original: to borrow from others, then experiment a bit, update certain aspects of the new work, turn things upside down, invert them, truncate them, extend them, question them, mix and match…the, see what happens.

So, in this story, what can be transferred? If I were to create an exercise or two from this story (and I will), what ideas would be most fruitful?

Let’s start with setting. Mosley’s story is set in a classic environment – the workplace, an office – on Wall Street. Mosley isn’t the first person to use that setting; in fact, I suspect he was himself influenced (since imitation is an unending series of exchanges from one writer to the next) by, among other writers, Herman Melville – famous mainly for the whaling novel Moby Dick, and also for the “workplace” (and Wall Street) story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” in which we have secondary characters presented as “peas in a pod,” let’s say (if there’s a formal name for this device, I don’t know it) – that is, in “Bartleby,” as a tripling of characterization, and in “Pet Fly,” as a doubling. (Hamlet does the same thing with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern; Lewis Carroll, with Alice in Wonderland (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum).

In Mosley, the two Lindas are doubled – in a joking way, because Mosley doesn’t even bother to give them different names. Why? What effect does this device have? First, it is one of many ways to think about secondary characters. They might represent certain challenges or experiences of the major characters; they might be devices meant mainly to deepen atmosphere, to pace the plot of the story, to provide shadow or contrast to the main focus of the story; they might be comic relief, among other possibilities.

Doubling such characters, at least in Mosley, Hamlet, and Melville, also makes us see the characters as incomplete in themselves; it takes two or three of them to create the effect. This has the thematic value, in all three of these texts, of highlighting the ways in which bureaucracy, systems, institutions, power structures, etc. can devalue human individuals. People in offices, sometimes (at least as far as some “free spirits” are concerned) lose their individuality or efficacy.

So, the two Lindas help create atmosphere, and they “shadow” the main character, Rufus; that is, they reflect something of his on inefficacy, though with variation on the theme: we don’t see their interiority (what they feel or think), and they seem to be unresisting of the System.

To steer back to writerly concerns: how does a writer invent character? Partly, a writer invents character by deploying secondary characters in various ways to reflect, contrast, shadow, support, frame, or otherwise influence the main character or characters, and how we see them.  We could create types or functions for other secondary characters in this story: they represent, mainly, the dynamics of the office that Rufus is employed at.

Notice, as well, that we have other obvious doublings – in particular, the twins, Mona/Lana. There are a few very subtly surreal elements in this story (which is one reason I enjoy it), and this suspicious pair of twins is one such element: are there really two? Page 228 seems to establish them as real, but why do we need twins in the story? It might be Mosley’s send-up of that old racist notion, “they all look alike” – a reversal of it, in what is clearly a story about racism, and sexism, but through a perspective that denies us clear answers.

Look at the scene in the bottom half of page 226, in which Rufus has an encounter with “Big Linda.” It seems ordinary, or naturalistic: pretty much the way it might unfold in a real-life encounter at an office between two people in menial positions. But as you read the dialogic scene, consider two things: first, how what Linda says to Rufus teaches us about his character; and second, how his responses and interior reflections also reveal something about who he is. Often, when a secondary character serves as a refracting device: he or she provides  a screen, in a sense, upon which the main character’s reactions can be projected so as to show us more about him or her.

We see in this scene that Rufus is a large man, but not assertive; we learn a little about how he perceives women, and that he avoids rudeness and conflict. This small scene, in addition to pacing the story (providing a segue between the expository scene with Ernie and the first encounter with Mona/Lana), allows us to see how Rufus sees, and how he is seen by others. Notice as well how the first Mona/Lana encounter is followed (after the rather strange encounter with the fly) by another scene with Big Linda. Patterning like this helps us enter the illusion of familiarity with fictional character, I think; it “baffles” the invented time and place of the story, suggesting depth and movement.

This story has very little “action:”; the only moment of real conflict is the sexual-harassment complaint, which, since it seems to lead, ironically to something good for Rufus, is a kind of non-conflict in the story. Instead of action, we have situation; we have what amounts to a deep and insightful character portrait, really – a story that allows us to feel and perceive small and nuanced details of experience through Rufus’ “everyman” life. he is not remarkable, but in small but pointed ways, he is remarkable; he has a sensitivity to things that he refuses to surrender.

I want to focus on one more doubling element, which is of course the “pet fly” – the fly at home, that is, whom Rufus adopts, briefly, and focuses his attentions on – as if deflecting his mind away from his own miniscule existence within the office, where he might be “squashed” (what one usually does with flies) if he doesn’t stay in his place.

This is the third doubling of the story: we have two Lindas, Mona/Lana, and the at-work and at-home flies. Again, the flies are there mainly to refract something of Rufus’ interiority: he talks to them, relates to them, and such “relationship” intensifies our sense of his essential loneliness.

Do we “need” the flies in this story? How would it read if we edited them out? Or the two Lindas, or for that matter the twins, when one would do for the sexual-harassment plot line?

First, they are elements of invention as much as they are elements of structure and content; that is, I suspect they have something to do with the way the story was created by the author, and not only with the final “product” and its meaning or effect, or its “contents.” It is not easy (short of asking the author, who will not always have clear answers himself about such things)  to separate the product from the process – but in this course, that is what we are seeking, really: we read, in part, to find how we might write.

So, how do they aid in invention?

Many of my exercises are aimed not so much at achieving theme or meaning in what you write; most writers accept that if they focus consciously on what they “mean,” their poems and stories will be flat and unmemorable. So, pattern is the thing: artists are interested in rhythms, pulses, patterns, tensions, contrasts, amplifications, etc. – and by focusing their energies on that abstract level, they are more likely to discover meaning, I believe. Meaning, once it is pinned down, dissolves; it has to keep moving away from us to exist. Works of art are more about their effects. The fly, in a way, is pure effect: it is itself a symbol of meaninglessness, and yet it is also the condensed point of meaning in the story. It is smallness of scale, and in looking at it (through Rufus’ eyes) we see ourselves seeing; the world at normal human scale is intensified, turned off-kilter just a bit, and the ordinary is made less than ordinary. If there is a meaning in such a story, it is simply that we need to look at things in new ways, and that doing so will save us – from what, I don’t know; perhaps only from the deadening effects of the ordinary.

So, what exercises might come from this? One: toss a fly (or something arbitrary, out of scale, slightly odd) into a story, and see what happens. Two, think not only about plot and character, but also architecture in your stories: patterns, doublings, oppositions, framing and pacing, risings and fallings – such as the one at the end of this interesting story. Rufus takes home the bonsai tree he’d bought for Mona/Lana; it is metonymic of her, as is the fly, in a weird way (when he sees the office fly, he thinks of her); and she is indicative of the lack of direction in Rufus’ life, as his mother points to it in the last line. The plant goes home with him, but not the girl; this man lacks those things that make us whole: companionship, and, as his mother says, “a real bed.” I love the way the closure in this story avoids any real thematic resolution. We end with the emblematic nature of the bonsai (a small world itself – one in which a fly might be human-sized), with the ordinary comments of the mother, and a sense that life, even a life slightly of off track, keeps moving forward.

Read, if you have time, the story by Anton Chekov called “Lady with the Pet Dog” (or “lady with the Lap Dog” in some translations); the dog is another good use of what we might call a red herring, or a device that refracts or suspends meaning more than it holds or creates it.