Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Wandering Knife

This is a true story. I've been staying at my friend's place in London this summer and in his kitchen, like most people, he has several kitchen knives, one of which is particularly sharp and useful. It went missing from the dishwasher on Thursday or Friday and we both assumed one of us had accidentally put in the trash when disposing of food scraps (I've actually done this before, so it's totally plausible). We did a cursory scout of the trash, but gave up after a minute or two. Even a sharp knife wasn't worth that unpleasantness. We also checked high and low in the cupboards, drawers, the very bottom of the dishwasher, and even the fridge and found no sign of it.

Life went on.

Then last night, Monday, after I'd come home and my friend had been back from work and then out again, I discovered the knife in the dishwasher, clean, right next to some dirty utensils I'd placed in there that afternoon. Oh good, I thought, I wonder where he found it!

When my friend came home I asked him about and received a very odd look.

"I didn't find it," he said.

I showed him the knife in the dishwasher.

"I didn't find it either," I said.

We were mutually creeped out. Sure, one of us could blame the other and call it a practical joke, but I know my friend well enough to know that wasn't the case in this instance. There was only one rational explanation and that was that the neighbor or the landlord, who both have keys, came by and borrowed it for the weekend. That explanation doesn't rest easy because it's out of character for either, especially with no notification of having done it.

But knives do not wander of their own accord.

I went to bed and was unable to sleep properly. I kept thinking about that knife. If it were a sock it wouldn't be the same, but a knife is symbolic of harm, butchery, anger, and pain (and julienned carrots). I thought about telekinesis, teleportation, membrane jumping (M-Theory) and parallel worlds, and sneaky blade-happy poltergeists (my friend's flat is in an old gothic building--so this wasn't a far leap of the imagination), and every weird way that knife could disappear and reappear. As someone who identifies as rational and pro-science (and who wanted to sleep) these thoughts were not welcome. Granted, I do have a rather florid imagination, but I keep it reined in under my own control most of the time.

This all generated an interesting epiphany. If even I'm so quick to invoke the bogeyman, than we are all closer to the irrational than we like to think. This has interesting implications for storytelling as well as culture. A simple disquieting incident is enough to flip that fear switch and let loose the superstitions and worrying speculation. It's always fun as a writer when a reader reports back that something resonated with them long after they read it, and I think this is one of the good methods for prompting that reaction. In culture though, I think it's a different matter, because it makes us easily manipulated--I probably don't have to point out recent examples. And that in itself might be a good prompt for a story.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Finding Form

So I'm at the local public library (and gosh do I detest working on a Windows machine--note to self, drag the laptop along everywhere) and have realized that I come to the library for one main reason and usually fail at achieving it. In writing hundreds of stories I've learned that I have no problem with ideas and 'creativity' as it is usually defined, nor is writer's block much of a problem, but the thing that I've struggled with the most of the past year and a bit is coming up with a suitable form to tell each story. I come to library for inspiration in this, and I can spend lots of time skimming through fiction books and various others to get ideas, but there doesn't seem to be any central resource for form.

I'm not talking about structure or even style (which are covered in many 'wannabe writer' books), though these are components, because I guess I'm talking about something more whole than that--the success interplay of style, structure, voice, language, and idea over time. I keep looking for a book that has compiled and analyzed the most successful story forms and authors, but such a book does not seem to exist (there probably is one). There are the 'wannabe writer' books, author biographies, mildly annotated anthologies, and very occasionally, books about movements in literature. Not what I'm looking for.

To give an example of what I would like to see, I recently set about analyzing why Twilight works as well as it does. I loathe the book for many reasons, but I can't say that it isn't immensely readable--it's extremely easy to zip through, even if parts of it make you cringe. I wanted to know why, and I came to the conclusion that it is a straightforward story with one viewpoint (for the most part if you are counting the whole series). The language is simple and everything sort of happens in a straight line and it's easy to keep track of what's going on. There's also enough (reasonably plausible) weird stuff thrown in to keep it interesting. I'm not saying this is a good model to follow to create a good story, but it is a good model of a story that reads swiftly (and a lot of ponderous 'literary' writers could learn a thing or two from it). I want to see a curated list of the best (or at least notable) and most unique examples. What works? Why does it work? I also think it shouldn't be limited to just 'literature'. The pulpier stuff has its merits as well (I could go on about Stephen King and why his output is like gourmet hamburgers--great stuff in a common form, but can get a bit repetitive if you consume it all the time).

The other thing I keep missing, is the connections between literary movements. What form or style informed another? I'm not so concerned with specific authors and works in this case, but more generalities. What makes a novel post-modern for instance, and what are the variations? How are characters different in a post-modern novel than they are in a gothic novel? You know, just for examples. I guess if I invested in a serious English Lit education I could get that stuff, but I have neither the time or the money.

So I was thinking, as I'm ferreting this stuff out anyway, why don't I actively share it? Sure I've got a ton of projects I'm working on, but I need to do this to expand my skill set anyway. Anyone else interested in reading about this topic? Also, if anyone knows of such books being written already, please let me know! I love to save time when I can.