Sunday, January 2, 2011
1. made according to a formula; composed of formulas: a formulaic plot.
2. being or constituting a formula: formulaic instructions.
A curly-haired colleague of mine was enrolled in a writing class at a local college. Early on in the semester, the instructor began to subtly patronize an oft-vilified, though proven-to-be commercially-successful genre. You know— the kind of stuff a fair contingent will always read no matter what the shape of the economy or what the latest hand-over-fist-inducing trend? Yes, friends, we’re talking about romance— or as I prefer to think of it, strong romantic elements in a more broadly-textured narrative. And as my esteemed colleague went on to describe the instructor’s disdain for allegedly tired plot lines, I shifted in my overstuffed, trendy coffeehouse seat.
At first, I couldn’t tell if I was shifting from indignation or from the heat of the fires I often feel stoked within when formulating a reply. The more she spoke, though, the more quickly I was able to deduce that it was a lovely combination of both. So the result, dear reader, has taken shape beneath my flying fingers and emerged as this Lincoln-Douglasesque rebuttal.
Curly-haired colleague confided that her instructor huffed in response regards a student’s attempt at penning yet another iteration of the favorite roast of intellectuals with a taste for highbrow writing— or, wait. People are calling it ‘literary,’ these days. Right? Or is the term, ‘upmarket?’ Difficult to keep track. Especially when you’re at your first conference and the panel of agents and editors seated before you— approximately six in number— as you float in a veritable sea of hopefuls who, like you, have worn down the whorls on their fingertips tapping out the (d)reams they will pitch later that day and you start to hear these exotic terms being bandied about.
I don’t handle category romance.
My clients are more in what you’d call the upmarket women’s fiction range.
I tend to favor more literary texts.
O—kay. So does this mean if my book has a fight scene and then a make-up scene involving heavy petting that you won’t take a look? Even if my characters use big words?
In any event, back to highbrow instructor. Curly-haired colleague goes on to tell me that her prof posed the following insufferable question to our fellow aspiring writer.
**Disclaimer: Subsequent snippets of dialogue are the product of my imagination reconstructing a scene at which I was not present. Any dissimilarity to actual events, people and places is deliberately embellished for the sake of dramatic effect though the kernel of historical— and relevant— information remains respectfully intact.**
‘Let me guess,’ highbrow instructor holds up a hand. ‘Your story starts off with a girl who can’t stand a guy but they get thrown into a situation where they’re forced to collaborate and, eventually— despite her best efforts to the contrary— she falls in love with him?’
Aspiring writer flicks at her scarf. ‘Er— yeah. Kinda.’
Highbrow instructor, eyes sharp with the gleam of an ex-romance writer who went on to pen a novel from the point of view of a perspicacious dog later hailed as a modestly-coruscating gem and a literary triumph (over whom? I’m always tempted to ask,) tosses out an expertly-timed scoff— though delivered tastefully and with a pitying, if arguably affected, grace.
So. Here was my thought after hearing the pre-emptive dismissal of aspiring writer’s kissy-kissy yarn: It sounds interesting.
Sue me! Her book sounds interesting. Never mind that my sympathies are— heavily— in aspiring writer’s camp. My point is, what is so terrible about writing a story that’s already been written? Yes, hi— there’s a reason these narratives are penned over and over, again. And yes, it’s true, there are some writers who are in it strictly for commercial gain since, ya know, everyone likes to eat and wear clothes and/or pay the mortgage or the rent. Hence, carefully measuring out a certain dosage of story elements, mixing them together in prescribed parts and watching them erupt in a reliable— if predictable— explosion is the way they roll. Then, if executed with a respect for the basic rules of style and grammar, they proceed to sell their thinly-veiled, fizzing concoctions and start all over again. And to those members of my tribe I say, ‘Power to ya’ and ‘Vaya con Dios.’
What’s hurtful, I believe, is when these formulaic plots arise not from the commercial writer’s handbook but from the deep spaces of your subconscious and, later, you’re called on it. When you write your stories without regard for What’s Been Done (or worse, What’s Not Done) and it turns out you have nothing original to say. All you have is your original voice with which to say it.
Well, friend, herein lies the rub.
The thing about originality versus templates proven to succeed— and therefore looked down upon by the refined members of the Pulitzer-collecting crowd— is that, amidst the roar of feedback and constructive criticism and trying to come out ahead with authenticity in what is, essentially, a marketplace, the highest calling is so lofty— so all-encompassing— that it almost seems the only way to nail it is to do so by mistake. It’s serendipity and timing and long hours in a vacuum invisibly honing your craft without the certainty that your words will ever see the light of the shelf under the mega-bookstore fluorescents— or the light of a portable screen— yes, but it’s also something far more primitive.
People want to read about a girl who meets a guy she can’t stand but is then thrown into a situation in which they have to get along and she falls in love with him for a very fundamental reason— and it ain’t formula.
It’s why Episode 4 endured for thirty years spawning an empire of product tie-ins that built Skywalker Ranch from nothing— and I’m still wearing the Millenium Falcon t-shirt to prove it— and why Episode 1 just sorta sucked. It isn’t formula that arises from your earnest, naked heart in the dark hours when the rest of the house is asleep and your characters are so painfully real it’s like all you’re doing is taking dictation.
It’s the hero getting her call to adventure and being timid about responding at first but then, against all personal odds, grasping for the grail. It’s suffering in the process and meeting friends along the way, some of whom turn out to be enemies; and squaring away with villains on the high-stakes path toward the inmost cave, some of whom turn out to be allies or— better, yet, that most deliciously unsettling of archetypes— shapeshifters. It’s the drama of your protagonist discovering— in precisely the moment readers yearn for the master stroke of redemption— near-reptilian energies eye-for-an-eyeing-it within.
And that’s why people will read twice-told tales when the chips are down and when the chips are soaring, alike. Because, as writers, we have the honor of tapping into the guts of the human experience and reproducing some version of it in portable form— be it by gobbling up pulp resources or light-emitting diode ones. The makes and models may change but the journey stays the same. (And if you knew how much it cost my little, analog heart to type that assertion, you’d pat me on my little, analog head.)
Bottom line, don’t ever let anyone make you feel like the fact that you’ve got nothing new to say means you’ve got nothing to say, at all. You never know when the product of myths which have endured— and inspired— for millennia and your toddling imagination will mix it up with just the right amount of ala kazam and touch off the Next Big Thing.
Until next time, dear reader.
Credit where credit is due: http://www.flickr.com/photos/horiavarlan/4273968248/