Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Workshop Hell & How to Get Out of It: The Second Circle

Have gotten some good feedback already from my first post on this subject, how to write yourself out of a bad romance. If you missed that post, you can read it here. Meantime, I proceed below with another popular theme: the divorce or death of parents.

The Divorce or Death of Parents Story

It’s no surprise that along with love, the other popular beginner’s subject is death. After all, it seems to carry its own drama, and anything ready-made is particularly appealing to the beginner, who doesn’t quite know how to create her own drama. Of all the deaths one can write about, the death of a parent or other similar figure (a grandparent, mentor, etc.) seems to be a favorite, and not necessarily because the writer has experienced such a loss, although that is sometimes the sad case, adding even more pressure to the workshop.

This kind of story is very similar to the divorce story, another drama-from-the-shelf. What they both have in common is that they are usually told from the point of view of the child or very young person, who is always surprised, then devastated (of course). Both stories usually begin with something like “My life changed forever the day that . . . .”

At the root of the appeal of both these stories is the same theme: the loss of childhood security. It’s a coming-of-age theme like the break-up story, but more frightening, because the ability to adjust to the dramatic event is not usually as easily visible to the writer as in the break-up story, leaving us with stories that seem to have little to no purpose but to vent some vague anxieties the writer has had. At the end of the break-up story, there is usually some kind of epiphany, however cliché. The protagonist learns the reality of love or whatever, and adjusts accordingly: becomes bitter, or savvier, or a homicidal-suicidal maniac. At the end of the divorce or death story, however, the protagonist is left adrift; the story ends at the divorce or death, usually with the same thought with which it begins: “And that was the day my life changed forever.” It’s a story in which nothing has happened.

So, why write such stories? Well, the key is the first and last sentence: “the day my life changed forever.” Though unable to successfully execute it, the writer of such a story understands that life trajectories are interesting, and that a change in a person’s circumstances, especially an important change like the loss of a parent (whether through divorce or death), can be a proving ground for character and a means of exploring the human condition. This is good! The writer should hold on to that theme, and pretty much discard everything else.

For one, children make horrible narrators/protagonists. It’s a really cheap way of making otherwise predictable material seem surprising, mysterious, or momentous. Listen: everyone divorces, everyone dies. Get that through your head. They are neither special nor interesting events. Furthermore, the smaller the child, the stupider. A very small child is equally upset by the loss of an ice-cream cone as by a divorce. It’s only your adult perspective looking back on the events of your childhood that imbues meaning in them. If it seems incredible that the day you heard about your parents’ divorce when you were four you went about your day anyway (napping, watching cartoons, whatnot) and survived it, it’s because it didn’t register on you as a life-altering event at the time. Notice that amazing stories told from the point of view of children or young adultslike “Araby” and “A&P”are told by the adult looking back, with all the vocabulary, storytelling, and moral/ethical/philosophical abilities of an adult. The beginning writer too often confuses a story about a child with a story that seems to be written by one, and even goes so far as to try to write in some kind of childspeak, like “Mama and Daddy were screaming and I didn’t know why.” Well, we know why, and would like some more insight, please. If children could write stories, they would.

Second, the events leading up to the divorce or death are usually predictable and uninteresting. The proving ground is after, that shady place no beginning writer dares to go. The event changed your life, you say. Prove it! Show the life after.

Three dead parents.
One great story.
I’ve got two more 80’s flicks for you to study (see my apologies in earlier post). The first is The Boy Who Could Fly. It is an excellent case study: the protagonists are Milly, a girl who has lost her terminally ill father to suicide, and Eric, a boy who has lost both parents in a plane crash! My goodness. What’s so great about this film? It starts after both of these events. Milly is a wonderful protagonist. At fifteen, she is young enough to be vulnerable, but old enough to be able to cope with her life on her own. Her mother freaks out as she attempts to work to keep the family afloat, and Milly helps by keeping house and taking care of her little brother. There is a wonderful dinner scene where Milly blows up at her mother and rants about all the things she does for the family. It showsmore than any hospital or funeral scene ever couldexactly what happens when a child is forced to take on adult responsibilities.
Two deadbeat parents.
One great dress.
Another great 80’s flick on this theme is Pretty in Pink. Forget the abysmal star-crossed lovers plot. Focus on the main character, Andie, and her relationship to her father, Jack. Four years before we meet these characters, Andie’s mom has left her family. Jack is devastated, still. He spends his days in his pajamas, and lies to Andie about his efforts at looking for work. That explains Andie’s compelling character, her job at Trax, her quirky fashion sense that makes the best of the cheap things she can afford, her relationship to her boss, even, yes, her desire to become Cinderella and date her way into the fabulous lifestyle of the richies. For years she has been trying to live not just without a mother, but without a father who acts like an adult, or the money to compensate for either. It has made her into the person she is when the film begins, and her testhere represented by our old friend, the love storyis whether to compromise her independent self in a relationship that would provide an instant class upgrade, or to continue being the person that abandonment set her up to be. When she chooses to go to her stupid prom by herself, in her dress made essentially of discards, it’s a choice that has nothing to do with the idiotic rich boyfriend; it’s a delayed reaction to her mother’s abandonment. Her mother left her behind like an old dress, and by golly she’s going to make the best of it and not just survive, but look good doing it.

What would this story have been like if we had seen Andie at five, or at fourteen? It’s clear the mother left because she wanted something better than the ramshackle house unfortunately literally on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s also clear the event was pretty traumatizing for both Andie and her father. There’s no mystery there that deserves our attention. On the other hand, this moment four years after is full of question marks. How long can Andie hang on to this competent little persona she has created to deal with that traumatizing event? Can she hang onto it in the face of economic hardship? Of disdain? Ofgulp!—graduation? That’s the story, baby!

Go write it.

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