Alarm, Foredoom and a Ripped-open Bag of Metaphors

Alarm, Foredoom and a Ripped-open Bag of Metaphors:

Vanessa Cavendish

“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described. I photograph to see what something will look like photographed.” — Garry Winogrand

In her post, “Wholistic Writing, Part 2,” Breanne posed a slew of questions to get us thinking about our own writing. I personally think each of those questions deserves a post unto itself. So if she’s game, I’d like to start with the first one and see how it goes.

Question #1: Does suspense play a part in how you reveal information to your readers, or do you lay it all out on the table in the beginning?

I’ll go first. Feel free to interrupt me if you can or talk over me otherwise.

You should know two thing about me before I get going: First, I got a mind like a pack of neighborhood dogs. Seems like anything I toss into this lidless bin of a brain will end up strewn across the yard like a ripped open bag of writing metaphors. Second, I got a poster rolled up and stashed in a closet somewhere of a portrait by the photographer Garry Winogrand. In the space below an indescribably plain-faced and therefore highly mysterious woman, is that quote I led off with. To my mind, writers and photographers are the same degree of dog. We tell our stories primarily through a combination of imagery, manipulation and disregard for your landscaping. For some of us, like Winogrand and (I wish I could say with less reservation) myself, life is so full of suspense already that we see little harm in showing the cards we deal. The black-and-white school of photography that Winogrand associated with apparently felt that even color film allowed too many opportunities for cheating. They had a profound, zen-like appreciation for the world as it was handed to them through the aperture of a camera. They held sway in the late sixties and seventies. Photoshop I don’t think was even a noun yet, never mind a verb.

There’s something classic about a just-the-facts-ma’am approach to any art form. An old-school journalist will tell you to lay down your who, what, where, when and how in the first sentence of a story, if you can do it, and to get the why nailed down before you call it a paragraph. Say the word “classic” and my mind makes a beeline for Greek tragedy. Oedipus Rex in particular. If you lived in Athens back in the day, or if you got your Sophocles from a college textbook like I did, you already knew the whole story before the actors took the stage. Oedipus killed his father, answered the Sphinx’s riddle, became king and married his own mother.

Got that? Okay. Now we can get to the good stuff.

See what I mean? The introduction to the play reads like a headline from the point-of-purchase rack at the grocery store.

What follows—and what mystifies me more than anything in human literature is that the play itself—is a freaking detective story! The murder mystery to end all murder mysteries—an entire genre killed off some two millennia before it was born. I don’t know of a single thing written before or since that’s more of a nail-biter. Not Psycho, not Jaws,  not nothing. Reason being? Sophocles hid not one thing from his audience. He only withheld information from his protagonist. What we know that Oedipus doesn’t keeps us on the edges of our seats.

My life’s ambition is to tell a story that good. Which means, I have to learn to write like a journalist. Which goes against my nature.

It’s hot where I live. I can’t wait for summer to get over and be Halloween again. I like to hide in the shadows around the corner of the house when kids come to ring my doorbell. Leave the lights on inside and the curtains drawn just a little, the TV playing, everything looking copacetic. Make the little bastards think it’s all cool as shit, like they themselves are the scariest thing ever to set foot on my porch.

I’ll show them.

Why do I, a grown-ass woman, take such delight in scaring the bejesus out of defenseless children? Is it because one or the other of their mothers has probably slept with every decent-looking man in town, and I haven’t yet?

(I don’t have to answer that.)

Is it because those same uptight prisses have the gall to smile and say they missed me in church last Sunday—every Sunday of the year, in fact?

(I will answer that one: Yes, maybe.)

Is it because those kids shriek and run off, but you and I both know they’ll come back for more and bring their friends, since a terrified fit of the gibbering giggles trumps a bite-size Butterfinger every damn time?

Absolutely. But the real reason is simpler than revenge, simpler even than rotten good fun.

It is my nature to be powerful.

How do I know this? Because I pay my “authentic movement” coach good money to tell me so. And to make me repeat it out loud and promise to repeat it again to the mirror when I get home. And every morning when I crawl out of bed, looking way too much like a fact clearly described.

Repeat after me, Vanessa: It is my nature to be powerful.

It is my nature to wear big, ropy gorgon hair and to spread a look of alarm and foredoom across my brow, to carry a big stick and to scream bloody murder and, like the pop-up monster in the Tunnel ‘o Terror, to fold myself back into the darkness once you pass by, and to wait in suspense for the next opportunity. To hide. To bide my time. To keep secrets. I make it my modus operandi to obscure the facts of life from small children, the better to make them shriek and run away and turn to the Lord for deliverance from the likes of me.

It is my nature to be powerful, because I am very, very afraid of what I’ve got coming. It is my nature to be mighty, because I am brief and everything I care about is temporary. It is my nature to say, “Would you look at that bloodshot moon?” and to distract you for as long as possible from the fact clearly inscribed on the headstone of one more friend this year than last.

It is my nature to pull my punches. Not because I don’t want to hurt you or because anybody is paying me to throw a fight, you silly ass, but to soften you up and to blind you to the sledge hammer sneaking up from behind us both. Don’t look now!

Okay, too late.

My nature and my ambition have gone to war with one another. I mean to write like a Garry Winogrand photograph. To tell a story because I want to see how the world looks through the lens of a deliberate fiction. When instead, because I’m not feeling my powerful nature, I attempt to cheat the mystery out of a situation by gaming the distribution of information, it is (in my case, I am quick to italicize) either unnecessary or an outright error in judgment, like wearing a disguise in the dark room, camoflage to a debutante ball, my best poker face to a tarot reading.

I would like to step with greater authenticity into the shadows at the corner of my front porch, not in order to hide, not for the sake of a special effect or a good scare, but because I know what’s coming. Because I am and you are and those adrenaline-and-sugar-stoked children are going to die one day. I want to describe that god-awful gorgeous fact clearly while I still can, through image and the gods’ honest manipulation of light and angle and timing, because I want to see what the everyday mystery and foreknowledge of inescapable doom looks like in a fiction plainly told.

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3 responses

  1. Wow, I don’t think I can even begin to answer that question with as much life-force as you just did. I think I’m the opposite, though. I like to withold information.

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