Monday, July 2, 2012

'...man chained...': An Explanation

Over the past four days I posted parts of one of my favourite short stories from my personal collection, titled ...man chained.... This was the first full story that I wrote after Big Empty, but this time it wasn't for a class assignment or writing exercise, I wrote it just because I had a story to tell. The inspiration for the story, which I'll reveal later on, was a major revelation for me as a writer. Stories really can come from anywhere at all, you just need to have the motivation to tell it.

Writing Big Empty marked the end of my 'teenage writer' era and was the first story where I felt like I had my own unique voice as a writer. I finished ...man chained... a couple of years later, when my personal beliefs and tastes had grown and matured. In that gap, I became a 'young adult', and I feel like the tone of ...man chained... reflects that growth. I went from writing about an angry teenager trying to escape his life and to become a better person (and failing), to writing about two young adults having philosophical discussions on a park bench. Looking at my entire short story catalogue, ...man chained... is definitely my most thoughtful piece, and while it still contains some violence, the tone isn't nearly as morbid as many of my other stories. I wanted to write a story that was about more than the feelings of one person, I wanted to write a full-on social commentary. And I also wanted to write my version of a boy-meets-girl story that wasn't as dysfunctional as The Narrator and Meridian in Big Empty. But, as you can tell, I very rarely write sugar-sweet happy endings.

Between Big Empty and ...man chained..., I filled my notebook with half-stories, introduction paragraphs, character monologues, scene ideas, and dialogue samples. Since then, many have those have grown into short stories, but some of that writing is still waiting in my notebook, either to be deleted, added to something, or grown into a story all it's own. Why is it so difficult to write a story from beginning to end? There are several reasons, depending on the writer. Judging from my own experience, and from discussions that I've had with other aspiring writers, finishing a story is the toughest part of writing. For some, it's difficult to find a transition to an ending, or to think of an ending at all. For others, it's a confidence issue. Once you call a story 'finished', then all you can do is show it to people and hope you get the effect that you aimed for. Other aspiring writers, including one that I'm very close to, say that it's hard to say goodbye to the characters that you've created. You've had these voices in your head, these stories have grown inside you, and as soon as you type 'The End', they become static, frozen in time, complete as a work of fiction. Unless you're writing a series of books about the same group of characters, this is a big step to take. Which brings me to the next reason young writers have difficulty calling a story finished: the editing process. Even the most genius writers will always be able to find something to improve, fix, or revise in a story. So when do you consider it finished? There's always a period that can be changed into a comma, a line of dialogue that doesn't sound quite right, a scene that is too long or not developed enough. It takes a lot of experience and self-trust to be able to accept that you've told the story and it's time to share it.

Once I had the inspiration for ...man chained..., I decided on a couple of goals that I wanted to achieve with the story. My main goal was to tell two different stories all wrapped up in one setting, with two principal characters, using the man chained to a tree as a reason for them meeting, but not the main plot of the story itself. The first story I wanted to tell was the obvious one: anonymous male meets quirky female and, over the course of four days, their relationships grows and eventually burns out. The second story isn't so obvious, it involves all the body language, all the subtext and implications. Beyond the things that we learn about the two main characters through their conversations, there is another world of characterization happening between them. The Narrator says he isn't interested in Rodnee, that he's there for the man, but he sure seems to notice a lot of details about her. If you're interested, and if you didn't pick up on this the first time, go back and have another read, and pay attention to the subtle intricacies of their interactions. It goes deeper than friendly conversation, there's a lot going on between these two. It's not my place to give you all the answers, I'm just here to guide you in the right direction. The best example of body language/subtext is in the paragraph where they share a joint. It's always interesting to hear people's interpretations of how these two really feel about each other.

The attempt at creating interpretive levels and subtext was a new experiment for me. However, ...man chained... contains three themes that you'll find in mostly all of my writing. As much as I try to find unique characters and diverse plotlines, I seem to gravitate toward these three conventions:

1. My stories are always told in first-person narrative. Sometimes there can more than one narrator, but the narrative is always told as a story/monologue by a character. I've attempted to write in other styles of narrative before, but these just don't mix well with how my creative flow works. I conceive a character, build a story, and then I let that character tell the story. And the narrator is almost always male. I am comfortable with writing as a female, but for the most part, I find my stories are told by males of various ages and backgrounds. My sarcastic-jaded-young adult narrator seems to be a popular one for me, and as much as I try to highlight each character's personality, my writing has a tone that I can't seem to avoid. I even had readers speculate that the narrator in ...man chained... was an all grown-up narrator from Big Empty, since they are both nameless within the text. I'll tell you now that this is not the case. As I grow and gain more experience as a writer, I'm sure I'll be able to create different tones and styles for each narrator, but for now I seem to be stuck with the writer's voice I have.

2. As a reader, I do not like the feeling that the writer is trying to babysit me and trying to guide my reading experience, making sure I pick up on every little detail. As an English Major, I have a very trained eye when it comes to foreshadowing, characterization, and subtle nuances in the writing. So, as a writer, I refuse to babysit my readers. This means that I don't always answer all the questions that my story presents. Often, I may not even know the answer, the speculation and guess-work is part of the fun. We have a whole internet full of fans on message boards with entirely different opinions about the exact same piece of art. Also, being stuck inside the head of the narrator, I can only know what he or she knows. If our Narrator doesn't know why the man is chained to the tree, then neither do I. I'm always open to hearing interpretations, though.

3. Although I would never consider my writing to be science fiction or fantasy, I do like to include a bit of magic realism every once in a while. Beyond that, I like for all of my stories to feel surreal, like they could be happening in the world we know, but things also feel a little weird, a little removed from our reality. Why was the man able to drop the police officer with a two-finger touch? Was there something supernatural going on, or does he know some form of martial arts that we aren't familiar with? Basically, I like to tell real-world stories in a satiricial, possibly supernatural, setting that doesn't have rigid rules for what is possible and what isn't.

Before I share my inspiration and motivation for writing ...man chained..., I'd like to discuss Rodnee's character. I'll admit that she wasn't created for the purposes of this story, she's actually a character that I had in my head for quite a while before writing chained. Rodnee is my attempt to write a female character that resembles Music, which is why I included the Narrator's line about her being borne from musical chords rather than two people having sex. My goal was to have Rodnee be rock-music-personified, in the form in a spunky, quirky female. As for her name, I honestly have no idea where Rodnee came from. I may have had a reason for it originally, but I no longer remember what it is. I do know that she will very likely show up in future stories. Rodnee is also a form of what's known as a Magic-Pixie-Dream-Girl, a term that I learned about long after conceiving her character. Basically, the MPDG is a beautiful, free-spirited, quirky female character whose reason for being in a story is to brighten up the life of a bored, lame, un-motivated male. Think Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, Zooey Deschanel in...anything that she's ever in. Girls like this just don't exist in real life, only a man could've written a female character like that. In this case, however, Rodnee fails to turn the Narrator's life around, instead she becomes a victim of the man's rage while the Narrator remains safe and unharmed. My point here is that just because a beautiful female meets a lonely male within the context of a story, it doesn't always end in sex and marriage. Sometimes it just...ends.

My overall motivation for ...man chained... is the idea that we have so many tragedies, injustices, and villains in our real world that it's overwhelming for any one person to even comprehend, let alone try to make a difference. The argument could be made that it's easier to live in ignorance than to try and a choose one or two causes to fight for. For some people, the choice is easy. If you or a loved one has been afflicted by a disease, a natural tragedy, or a war, then finding motivation to rally against it is easy. My feeling, however, is that while I'm fighting for one cause, I'm ignoring a million others. Who am I to say that homelessness is more important than Cancer? In the story, we'll never know why the man chained himself to a tree, and even as the Narrator is chaining himself at the end, he's trying to think of a cause important enough to sacrifice himself for. The problem isn't thinking of a cause, the problem is choosing only one. Even someone who is involved in several charities and non-profit organizations, working day and night to make change, even they are still leaving out dozens of other categories of people who are suffering. So is it better to try and help everyone, to only help those you can relate to, or just to help yourself? I don't set out to offer a solution to this problem, only to discuss and ask the question.

That's the motivation for the story, but here's the inspiration: One day, I was walking out of a movie rental store (back when those still existed), and I passed a park. In the corner of my vision, I thought I saw a man leaning against a tree. When I turned to look, I realized it was only a shadow and that my mind was playing tricks on me. Having the over-active imagination that I possess, I started the brainstorming process and began asking questions. If there is a man leaning against a tree, why is he there? Maybe he can't leave. Maybe he's chained to the tree. Why would he be chained to a tree? Did he chain himself, or is he a prisoner? Now, what if there's a regular guy sitting a bench, watching this man? Maybe he's trying to figure out the man's cause. Maybe a girl could show up, creating a dialogue about the man. Maybe that girl could be my Rodnee character...and so on. And that's how a story is born.

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