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the written magic
The Writing Life: Et in Arcadia Ego
As I try to understand the need I have to write about what I see and what I think I believe, I find that I continue to narrow the themes that especially occupy me. I’ve got the main ones down to under a dozen I believe–from love and commitment, to friendship and loyalty, to success and disappointment, to fragility and death, with more than a couple of stops in between. Although I’m not convinced it’s an “age thing,” the theme of death seems to be creeping in more and more. It’s creeping in to the point, as a matter of fact, that my sweet wife is quick to tell me to loosen up and write some light porno just for laughs if nothing else. So, anxious as I am to please the Love of My Life, I would like to tell you about the joy of exploring a multitude of ideas not remotely connected to why the end of life is such a bummer. I may still get back to death, but I’ll try to make it humorous.
Over the weekend I fell upon two literary sources that piqued my interest in learning to write more effectively and to use a catchy opening to keep the interest of my reader. One came from none other than Louis L’Amour, the pulp fiction writer from another era who introduced many of us boys to the excitement of the wild west and its lawless gunslingers. In one of his many novels, he says:
“I just pointed my rifle at him … and let him have the big one right through the third button on his shirt. If he ever figured to sew that particular button on again he was going to have to scrape it off his backbone.”
Then last night I heard Inspector Morse use the Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” during a rerun of one of his great detective stories. In this episode, people who had it all–money, respect, property, education–still managed to find the serpent of death in the garden. Uh, oh…there’s that death thing again.
I’m certainly no Latin scholar, but I do love to mess around with classical aphorisms and to seek out the derivations of word meanings. When Morse was over, I started my search for the exact translation. Clues given by the old detective led me to the seventeenth-century classical French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin who produced two paintings of shepherds examining a tomb inscribed with this title which translates into “Even in Arcadia I exist.”
Admittedly, both my examples deal with death, one perhaps more graphically while the other in a detached way. But of all the spell-binding themes we deal with, there’s really nothing like death to focus the mind. Of course, there’s a couple of dozen other hefty topics that continue to preoccupy us poor mortals, be we from Kansas or the Crimea. For me, it usually comes down to how do we make love last when there are so many distractions in-between, from the time we take that first slap on the butt which gets us crying to the curtain fall when we answer the knock on the door from the guy in the hoodie who has come to fetch us across the river. For me, I think our kick-about in the dust is little more than just a dress rehearsal for how to greet the guy in the lobby who’s just announced that all our afternoon appointments have been cancelled. No direct mention of death here, just implication.
By ignoring end of life issues, though, we get to dabble at some conflicting projects like love and lust and friendship and betrayal. In writing, there’s nothing better than to mine such adventures from our pasts when we were so enthusiastic we sometimes forgot to sleep. Other moments might be more difficult to transform into enjoyable fiction, such as falling into such a sloth that we ended up getting fired from a pie tasting gig. Capturing characters is also a big challenge that can make or break a good story. I have known people I’ve admired and others I’ve envied to the point of jealousy where I’ve made up villainy just to get them out of my life and my head.
All the same, most of life’s experiences–not just death–can be good material, for sure. I’ve labored and dripped honest sweat. I’ve also been in the big easy and looked for the euchre of the game. I have bonded in friendship and betrayed others for fool’s gold. I have stood up and spoken truthfully and also lied outrageously and flipped the bird behind another’s back. I have played the mentor and also undermined the competition. To endorse or to toss under the bus…that is the question.
So much material, so little time. Now all you have to do is to put it down on paper in a non-lugubrious style so that your reader won’t nod off.
I’m sure that in our long and eventful lives there’ll be lots more adventures to stir our conscience into writing atonements or gallows humor as seen in hindsight. Traveling the range of all we have before us usually brings us home again, however, to the wonderment of how to cull out the good stuff from the mundane and terminal. Topics other than death are always there. The question is simply whether we leave certain stories alone and vote with our feet and get the hell out of town when we still have time. Or do we chew into the familiar troubling toughness with a new set of teeth and do our best to disguise the guilty so they don’t come hunting us down? How does our imagination get turned upside down enough to prevent us from repeating our old ways that end up with a thump? How are we to maintain the written magic that will allow us to keep in harmony with some of the great mercies granted in human life?
When I pick up a book or a magazine, I am looking for conflict, what can overwhelm me, what can take my legs out from beneath me the way my dogs did one day this winter when they blindsided me in their roughhousing. I felt the gravel gorge into my knee when I was slammed into the ground. I want to feel that same bite when I open the pages of something new. I crave to be in the bishop’s cassock when he kicks in the stained glass window at the sight of the blonde in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. I want to hear the windshield break when the guy on the motorcycle chases down the litterbug who has tossed a bottle out the window. The glass artillery shell had taken an improbable trajectory that bounced once before kneecapping the cyclist with the force of a baseball bat.
I want to read about a confession box that rocks when the priest smells the evil on the other side of the window, when he knows there’s no forgiveness for those who plunge the dagger in, tighten the wire, or just look away when another goes down for the third time. What words will it take? What turns of phrase will be required to make you feel the fear?
When I read, I demand that the story have an authentic voice. I don’t want to be distracted wondering if it’s real or if she’s just faking it? I want to know the shyness of the little boy again who hesitates a bit too long and doesn’t get to carry her books home from school. What pain does he feel these decades later suspecting she probably doesn’t even remember him? What has happened to the girl who secretly loved him all along and has crossed her heart and hoped that someday she’ll just happen to be in the right place at the right time?
Before we read our last book or write our final sentence, the question lingers about how do we trudge our way through the every day bafflement that wants to distract us? My old boots are getting pretty thin in the cracks and worn out leather. Why continue getting my feet wet after a walk with the pups? Perhaps I just enjoy the feel of pulling them on and hearing the snap when I loop the laces round the end hooks. Instead of giving them the old chuck, perhaps I am working out other problems as well.
The writing is sometimes akin to the old boots. How do we keep tinkering away with the same old stuff day in and day out, keep getting pleasure out of it, and wouldn’t dare discard it since it’s so much a part of us? How we give our life new meaning each day is really the question. After all, we really don’t have that much time and it’s important to keep up with the chase.
For me, perhaps I enjoy looking forward to seeing what’s hunkered down in the brush pile. When the dogs stop abruptly and wrap me up in circles sniffing madly at something in the duff I cannot sense, I know there is more to this life than what I can see. I want to unearth that stuff while it’s still fresh, to feel it crumble between my fingers, to inhale the fire rather than the smoke.
In the end, though, it still comes down to the last hurrah. On a positive note, I sometimes think it would be fun to be hovering about somewhere in the far future when the shepherds stumble across my rabbit hole and wonder about the inscription outside that has given me final definition. Maybe some clever phrase from Dorothy Parker such as “He raised me from a couplet” or Mark Twain’s “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
Like a good story, all I want is to have some complexity to my plot, not a sad ending. I didn’t have much say in how it all started, but I continue to enjoy tasting some of the sweet as well as the sour as I make my merry way. In most of the how-to books on writing, you’re supposed to strive for a spell-binding middle section as well as a crackerjack beginning. And, of course, we all want to enjoy the boom at the end when the detonator goes down in one noisy and dramatic plunge. After all, any writer worth his rosemary and thyme has a responsibility to be obliging.
One thing for certain, I’m still looking for a continuation of the good ride I’ve had so far. But there is an end, nonetheless, even if we pretend otherwise. If I have a choice, I think I would prefer a final fling like the one Slim Pickens had in Doctor Strangelove as he rode the bomb down. Does it get any better than that trajectory with Dame Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When” in the background.
But enough of this conjecture. Time to get busy now with the next chapter.
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