Writing Right with Dmitri: How to Get That Tune Out of Your Head
Elektra just did a mean thing to me. But she doesn't know she did it.
To test this week's Post Quiz, I read it aloud to her. During the commission of this quiz, I put a snarky caption on the bottom photo. The photo showed some 1950s classic cars parked in front of the Wigwam Motel. The caption reads, 'My fin's bigger than yours.'
Whereupon Elektra chuckled. When she turned back to her computer, she was singing to herself, 'My dog's better than your dog…' I went back to work. Several minutes later, I wondered why I couldn't get that annoying jingle out of my head.
The answer, of course, is to stop what you're doing and – quick – think of another piece of music. One that's just as sticky, but less personally irritating. Like this little ditty. (I know, some of you will not thank me, because you are now hearing this in your head. Cheer up: it's still better than that dog food commercial.)
What does this have to do with writing? It's obvious, isn't it? Before we can say what we want to say, we have to get those tunes out of our heads. The ones put there by other writers.
Extraordinary How Potent Cheap Music Fiction Is
Take sci-fi. (Some days I feel like adding, 'Please'.) HG Wells, Jules Verne, and Cyrano de Bergerac had it easy. They were breaking new ground, and besides, nobody knew anything about time paradoxes, submarines, or even the atmosphere on the moon yet. They could make up what they liked. Nowadays, the grooves are dug so deep that before you know it, you're singing the same old song.
One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind. – Neil Armstrong, 20 July, 1969.
To boldly go where no man, woman, robot or child has gone before. – Captain Kirk (both of them), Captain Picard, Zephrem Cochrane, and everybody else in Starfleetland.
'Good-day,' said Karl and bowed low.
'Did you say good-day? You mean of course good-night. Because you must know that the Man-in-the-Moon is up only at night.'
'What sort of a person are you, anyway? Where do you come from?'
'I'm Karl from the earth, and I came here in a soap bubble, 'said Karl. – Maja Lindberg, Karl's Journey to the Moon, 192-.
A fresh look is needed. I recommend reading that book before you launch another square-jawed hero into space/time.
Why not play with the parameters a little? At least come up with a fresh approach. It's not only history that ties us up, it's the fiction that has gone before us. Cleanse your palate once in a while.
Must We Go Down That Road?
Have you ever noticed that in old Hollywood films, there's really only one story? I'm not making this up. Hollywood writers of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s seem to have had only ONE story in mind. It involved a man, a woman, and a kiss. The story went like this: Man meets woman. Woman despises man, calls him names. (We call this the 'you worm moment' at my house.) Man and woman have adventures together. Now woman likes man. They kiss. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Hollywood applied this scenario to every single movie they wrote.
- The invention of the telephone? See, Alexander Graham Bell's in love with this girl, and she… This works for the light bulb, as well, and any other invention you care to mention, and accounts for the lack of films about Nicola Tesla.
- Any musician, from Glenn Miller to Richard Wagner. The composer is looking for the 'perfect sound', see, and he meets this chick… Cosima Wagner would have brained them.
- 'Samson and Delilah'…you can see where this is going. Okay, he doesn't get the chick, see, because she's a real Jezebel. Better make it Bible noir.
- World War II? There's this soldier/POW/tank commander/pilot, see, and he's in love with this partisan chick, a real spitfire…
- Any crime story worth its booze.
At this point, my head hurts. Please, please, please, always ask yourself the question: Is this plot device really necessary?
Is it absolutely required that your story fall into the pattern of boy-meets-girl, or jolly-chums-have-an-adventure, or plucky-young-feminist-achieves-goals, or, or, or?
Why not let the story tell itself? Although…there's another way.
It Seems I've Heard That Song Before
You can, of course, make the groove work for you. That's what Thomas Keneally did when he wrote Schindler's Ark, the novel behind the film Schindler's List.
You may know the story behind Keneally's work. The author happened to be in Los Angeles when the strap broke on his briefcase. He just happened to go into a leather goods shop run by a man who just happened to be Poldek Pfefferberg, a survivor of the Plaszow labour camp. Pfefferberg just happened to have as his life's ambition to find the perfect writer to tell the story of his friend Oscar Schindler, who had saved his life…
Keneally is Australian. He is Catholic. He wrote Passenger, in which the narrator is an unborn child. He wrote The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, about the Aboriginal experience. He wrote Three Cheers for the Paraclete, about the Holy Spirit. He is, however, a novelist. Useless to explain this to Pfefferberg, who did not let up until Keneally told the story – and tell it he did, magnificently. If you have only seen that film, you do not know this story. Read the book.
Since the Second World War, about 10,000 books on the Holocaust have been written per year. I don't know if that figure is accurate anymore, but it was the usual one in the 1960s and 1970s. Maybe now there are more. You might be forgiven for thinking there were no new ways of telling a story about this horrific period in recent history. You would be wrong.
'What's to say?' you ask. 'This happened. There was suffering. There was courage. Some people lived, some died. This man was brave, this one was a fool, yet another was, perhaps, a saint…'
AHA! Told you. A saint. Thomas Keneally, Jesuit-trained. Saint…he'd heard that song before….
But it will not be possible to see the whole story under such easy character headings. For this is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms. When you work from the other end of the beast –
when you chronicle the predictable and measurable success evil generally achieves – it is easy to be wise, wry, piercing, to avoid bathos. It is easy to show the inevitability by which evil acquires all of what you could call the real estate of the story, even though good might finish up with a few imponderables like dignity and self-knowledge. Fatal human malice is the staple of narrators, original sin the mother-fluid of historians. But it is a risky enterprise to have to write of virtue. – Thomas Keneally, Schindler's Ark.
Keneally took a different tack when writing about Schindler. He reached back to the idea of the advocatus diaboli, the devil's advocate, whose job it was to demonstrate why this man was not a saint: to wit, he was a liar, a drunkard, an adulterer, and a scofflaw. It was a bold technique, and boy, did it pay off. Schindler springs off the page, larger than life.
When we write, we hear all the old songs in our heads. We can't turn them off. But we can switch channels.
We might even come up with a variation on the old tune.