One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a fiction writer came from a theater director. “Make interesting choices,” he said.
What’s an interesting choice? One that opens up possibilities. Watch a good improvisational theater troupe at work. Its skits work because each actor instinctively makes choices that trigger interesting responses from the other actors. Ho-hum choices lead to two-dimensional characters playing out flat scenes. Boring choices lead to dead ends.
Writing has plenty in common with improv, especially in the early-draft stage. Often I don’t realize I’ve made a ho-hum choice. I may not realize that I’ve made a choice at all. For instance —
A chartreuse Neo-Bug rolled up the driveway of the mansion where Bluesman Luke, one of my main characters, is the caretaker. The lady of the house had called en route, so he was expecting her. Both the color and the make of the car surprised him, however, and he surmised from the luggage in the backseat that she intended to stay for a while, although her husband wasn’t with her. When she rolled down the window, a mop-headed dog rose from her lap and put its paws on the door.
Not bad for the lady’s first appearance, but when I kept writing the dog took up too much of my attention and the scene drifted into shallow water and got stuck.
Scenes often unstick themselves, but Squatters’ Speakeasy as a whole was stuck. As I blogged earlier this month, I had an opening scene and a good idea but the thing wasn’t going anywhere.
It came to me, probably when Travvy and I were out walking, that I should take a closer look in the backseat of that car. So I reviewed the previous scene in that chapter, in which Bluesman Luke, recovering from a hangover, is trying to coax a tune out of one of his guitars. Once again the lady calls from the far side of the Bourne Bridge to say she’s on her way. Once again the startlingly chartreuse VW rolls up the drive.
This time, however, Luke notices a tripod in the backseat. Oh, the lady explains, she’s been taking photography courses at the Museum School.
Where did the tripod come from? Did the mop-headed dog turn into a tripod? I don’t know, but at that moment the author’s character sketch turned into a character.
A few days later she appears at a late-night blues jam at Luke’s cottage, packing two cameras and the tripod. Pretty soon she’s persuaded Luke to attend an event he desperately wanted to avoid but where I needed him to show up. (More about that later.)
As I watched the lady — whose name is currently Elinor Madsen, though that may change — make things happen with her camera, it dawned on me that some of the other Squatters characters had to be carrying cameras. Several of them are visual artists, after all, and hell, even I — not a visual artist — am reasonably adept with both a point-and-shoot and a camcorder.
Cameras are everywhere. More, their presence expands the possibilities wherever they show up, whether the occasion is private or public, ordinary or extraordinary. Private parties become public when a partygoer posts photos on Facebook or uploads a video to YouTube. Bystanders catch public officials and police officers in acts they would rather keep secret, and it’s no longer “your word against mine” but “your word against my pictures.”
I’ve long been fascinated by what we see, what we don’t see, the myriad ways we see what we want to see and don’t see what we don’t want to see or might not be able to handle. Martha’s Vineyard, like any tourist destination, is a theme park where some people make their living creating illusions for other people to see, and the other people believe (some to greater, some to lesser degrees) that what they’re seeing is true.
As I blogged the other day in “Reality,” tourism is reality TV’s first cousin. Maybe we’re all tourists in each other’s lives?
I, however, didn’t have a clue what this had to do with Squatters’ Speakeasy until that tripod appeared in the backseat of Elinor Madsen’s chartreuse VW. What better tools to explore the themes I’ve long been obsessed with than cameras, camcorders, and YouTube videos?
Thank you, subconscious. I owe you another one.