Friday, January 21, 2011


It hardly feels like spring, yet a turn has occurred. The light is lasting longer. The dozens of birds and squirrels I feed every day seemed determined to endure for what they know is coming soon enough--the balm of warmth, which will bring an ability to find food and drink on their own, beyond the odd appearance of the seeds and peanut butter on the blue table whenever supplies run low. (They barely fly away when I appear; just up a few feet into the grey branches of the four Rose of Sharon in front of the chimneys; they believe they have trained me to come when they are hungry, just as the dogs believe they have trained the mailman to walk away from their barking.)

The leisurely pace of this transition from winter to spring is convincing. We creatures who live so utterly in our bodies need time to adjust to major shifts; we go into shock under circumstances of quick change. (Perhaps I am writing this tonight because it is the anniversary of my father's shocking, abrupt death, and I feel the weight in my arms of it, the impulse to push time back to before, to push the announcement back into my mother's mouth, to demand the universe to take it back!) We can't understand abrupt change. We need to get to know a new life before we have to live it. We need to become the new version of ourselves who can make the most of a shift in circumstance. Otherwise we are only our old selves adapting to a new circumstance--the body turning around and around.

Last night in class we looked at the turning points in two stories, the moment that had been led up to over a great number of pages. The situations were well described and interesting, and we knew something was going to happen, both from the experience of how stories develop and from the mounting tension within each piece. A transition was ahead! Yet when it arrived, it came and went so quickly that we were past it before we had a chance to notice or feel it. The transition in both instances occurred in the middle of a sentence, or at most, one paragraph. In both instances, the transition came about as a result of the character doing some thinking about his or her situation. Nothing happened to change his mind. He just changed it. This made the words on the page only writing--good as it was. We didn't feel, or believe, or weep. We only read on.

What was missing? Drama, and the pacing necessary to convince. In drama, transitions occur because external things happen, things of enough relevance and import that a character will stop his habitual way of thinking long enough to pay attention, and maybe, if he can stay in that place outside himself for long enough, he might be able to grasp a new reality. The something that happens needs to be shown in full, so the reader believes it big enough to break through the character's way of self. We know what it takes to get our attention. Not our shock; but our attention, the gathering of our whole selves around a single point.

Personality is intractable. As Dickens knew, as the Bible knew, it takes ghosts and angels to make people change, and even then, they may only end up as themselves with a new belief system--as when Saul the zealous persecutor became Paul zealous proselytizer. He was still zealous. One supernatural visit wasn't enough to undo that bent. Dickens was more thorough with Scrooge; three ghosts, each visit told in detail. The reader has time to imagine and reflect how he or she might have fared under such circumstances. Yes, three ghosts might actually change a person. I hope that would get through to me!

Was Scrooge just thinking? Perhaps. Yet to externalize it, to give his conscience chain rattling form, is to make it dramatic. His change is slowed down enough for us to accept it--to recognize in it our own hope that all cruel and antisocial people will become benevolent and friendly. Can change happen only in the mind, without an exterior dramatic event mirroring it? Yes and no. When change is interior, time becomes the exterior. Time must be taken to trace the passage of the mind through a transition. A train of thought, yes; and even better, a train of interior experience, with sensual markers. A fully lived interior event.

Most of what is called change in fiction is incremental. It is more of an expansion of vision than a Scrooge-like turnaround. A character sees things through a wider lens than before, and therefore knows a bit more, and therefore might make slightly different choices in the future. 

We live in bodies, as bodies. This is dramatic--we are always always in the universe. Think of that.

(I think of my father on the anniversary of his death. Too much happened to him.)

1 comment:

  1. A friend sent me this today--a perfect postscript.

    "The great struggle in most animals' lives is to avoid change. . . The spectacular flying performances of birds--spanning oceans, deserts and whole continents--tend to obscure the more important fact that the ability to fly confers on them a remarkably useful mechanism to preserve their internal stability, or homeostasis."
    Carl Welty, Birds As Flying Machines, Scientific American, 1955