Friday, November 20, 2009

outlining a life

How do you make the mundane dramatic? That's a writer's job. A story must have an arc, we demand that of fiction. We want the protagonist to face danger and overcome it, to face internal demons and best them, to grab hold of their lives and transform themselves, we expect them to act in ways we don't. Our daily lives are filled with extremely modest twists and turns. When we sit down to dinner to share what's gone on, much of it is referential. I talked to this friend. I had this frustrating experience. We get to live vicariously when we read about someone whose life moves more quickly.

Yet my son is reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Now there's a writer who was obsessed with minutiae. Incredibly written and maddening for most readers today who want more plot please! Put that book against the shallow characterizations and completely vapid Dan Brown style. I'm impressed that my son is willing to lose himself in a book that is all about texture and detail. He tells me he's interested in memory and how it works.

I am too, I find myself trying to remember the city in 1980, the body of the novel is set then, and I don't think I'm giving away too much to say that Amelia is there. There in 1980, but you'll have to read the book to see how she manages that trick. Meanwhile, I strain to make sure the details are precise, and as I do I discover the city I once loved so much, the one that's disappeared in the interim. I am trying to do justice to that time, to the New York that was funky and filled with kinetic energy. Back then, when I was young and attending Columbia, much like Amelia did years and years before, I was naive enough to believe that my life would have an arc, that there would be some dramatic moment where everything would be revealed. God was I young!

What's wonderful is that I get to give my character's lives the logic mine has lacked. Mine is filled with small moments. Those are what I treasure, sitting on my back steps watching my children play a game of catch, the summer sun warming me, twilight coming on . . .a familiar moment for so many of us, but perhaps Proust was on to something, our lives are really all in the details.

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