Saturday, June 2, 2012

Borders and boundaries

Greetings again, readers and passers-by.  It has once again been some time since I wrote in first person on this blog, so I thought I'd do a little reflection on the state of things around here.  Some people don't like to analyze or talk about their own work; in fact, many great artists who I admire have recoiled at the idea.  The oft-quoted, oft-paraphrased maxim is that art, literature and so on should "speak for itself."  But to a certain extent I can't help myself.  I like to peel the curtain back, and get a better look at the process that led to the results.  This is me thinking out loud.  With text.

The latest news for the blog is of course the addition of a new short story, Snow Globe Slowdown, to the archive.  I imagine that it's fairly typical in style and tone to things I've written before, to the extent that I have a signature style.  The title is not particularly great: there isn't exactly a snow globe in it, although there is a lot of slowness.  The real merit of the title is that I like saying it out loud.  In fact, I often come up with titles on the basis of euphony alone, and allow the mental images they evoke to influence the plot or scenario I'd thought up previously.  That was definitely something that happened here, and it was definitely an improvement over what I originally had in mind.

You see, sometimes I get it in my head to write something funny.  This particular story began its conceptual life as an absurdist, whimsical, and ultimately pointless farce.  I was doing laundry one day and, after all the shuffling from machine to machine was done, I had an extra pair of unidentified socks.  I briefly considered the possibility that the dryer was in fact generating extra socks, and that eventually the world would be overrun by socks.  If you think the idea of people fleeing from an avalanche of socks is funny, you're clearly as hopeless as me, but it did lead to a mental image that I liked: looking down from a modest hilltop at a ridiculous end-of-the-world scenario (a trope I seem to be disturbingly fond of).  And once I latched onto that image, the story stopped being funny (if it ever was) and started being bittersweet.

My artistic tastes can basically be taken as a veneration of the bittersweet, so obviously I had to do something with this.  But at first, I couldn't really think of anything except excuses to get a couple of people onto a hilltop.  After dumping the endless sock apocalypse, I realized the scenario wasn't really unique, and I had to focus on something besides the view: I had to develop the characters.  I had to give them personal reasons for being alone, together, and at a high elevation.  If they had good enough reasons, then the disaster could be something as plain as a flood and it wouldn't matter.

I'm not sure exactly when in the process I decided to make them a gay couple; the initial thought occurred early on, but I treated them as straight or ambiguous throughout a lot of the idea phase.  I think I know why I committed to their relationship, though.  Mostly, I was challenging myself to write characters who were very different from myself.  All of my characters, Caleb and Julian included, are drawn from myself, and none of them thus far have been intentionally depicted as anything but straight (though interesting and entertaining cases could probably be made for a few of them).  Making them gay got me thinking not only about how they were different from myself, but how they might be different from each other.  Defining them in opposition to one another was probably the most satisfying aspect of writing this story.

Part of my "style," which is possibly a weakness, is to imply or take for granted some elements that others would feel the need to state explicitly.  I had hoped that I could carry across the fact of their relationship through a few kisses and casual touches, and let the dialogue and scenario communicate its depth and intricacies.  I do try to be subtle, and I preferred this approach to an introduction like "Julian was working intently on a sketch one afternoon, about himself and his gay lover Caleb."  If a story begins with two people of opposite sexes living together, it's not out of line to assume a romantic connection between them without directly stating it: I wanted to turn that assumption on its head.  However, one loyal reader (my girlfriend) has already suggested to me that I may have obfuscated too much.  If that's the consensus, then maybe this experiment is something of a failure.  But I'm glad I tried.

Anyway, Snow Globe Slowdown is about more than the noble effort to increase diversity in fictional protagonists.  But after a certain point, it probably is better to let the work speak for itself.  I really need to learn how to do that better.

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