Monday, February 1, 2010

Inventing the World

The anthropological take on making a story resonates for me. As well as creating our own stories we do it in groups and families and tribes. We superimpose a grid of common knowledge and understanding on a landscape. In the far past we did this to enable our survival. It’s how, anthropologists tell us, early humans travelled the world – by making it part of their story as they traveled over it.

Now we do it because it’s in our genes. How often have you been told the way to somewhere like this? “Cross the street where Aunty Viva broke her leg. Watch out because cars don’t like stopping there.” In the past this kind of knowledge was told and retold. It became myths and legends. It became the instructions to get to the next waterhole.


Back at the story in the making - still no title - Evan swallows down his breakfast convulsively. It wanted to come up when he saw the eye of a string again, even more lurid than the previous day.  After all, as garbage-boy in his first job, he had to deal with far worse than a putrescent eye hanging from a dried blood-black tentacle …

This is where for the writer, the thing becomes more like an adventure game than a story. Decisions have to be made. Does Evan pull out a mobile and call the police?

No. He imagines how he’ll hardly get to say his socially conscientious piece into the TV News mike before the presenter strolls to where that photogenic ambo picks the offending object off the street. The para-med folds the wrist of his plastic glove over the eye cradled on his fingers. “Not enough of it for me to do anything but hand it over to pathology,” he says into the mike, staring intently at the presenter at the same time. He’s handsome in a rugged unshaven sort of way. The presenter half turns and smiles at him over her shoulder. “What are you doing after work?” The age-old come-on sign.

Evan’s Mr Average demeanour matches his Mr Average height weight and haircut. Plus, while he can imagine that kind of opportunity as well as anybody, he just doesn’t see them in real life. And plus he knows the presenter is totally out of his class. He doesn’t make enough money to say boo to a cat in case it follows him home and expects to be fed.

My second problem is how many times can I have Evan have the same experience before he moves the plot along before you guys reject him? Evan needs repetition, he isn’t that fast off the starting block. In Western Culture three repetitions is standard. Think The Three Blind Mice. Tom Thumb. Cinderella. Better stick with what Evan is familiar with.

He hunkered down for a close look. He wasn’t that old that his joints cracked on the way down. Anyway he practices hunkering. Is aiming for a fluid move to be able to join the sous-chefs hunkering down out the back of the kitchens for their breaks.

I know, I know. Extraneous detail. I probably don’t need to tell you about the sous-chefs. But, hey, it’s the first draft. Let the detail alone for the present. I’m still in doubt as to where I’m going with it.

This is not to say I’m writing this about-story after the fact. Only that I know my process well enough that I arrange for there to be a little stuff to cut second time round.

The eye did it all again. Evan could’ve stopped it but typically didn’t want it in his bare hand. He sensed someone stopping at his shoulder and put his left arm out to stop whoever it was from stomping on the eye. By the time the eye plopped down the tool hole, the person was gone. Evan suspected him to have been one of the local gang.

Meanwhile I’m agonising over the ending. I wrote down the idea and its unfolding beauty forgetting for a minute that stories need their crises and pay-offs to work towards.

Trouble is I still haven’t made up my mind as to who is pulling the string. And is the eye human or alien? There’s a choice of a mute and/or distressed and/or crazy human trying to get attention to himself to be rescued. Or a goblin, hungry again. Which one will give me the most mileage? … Guess I’ll go with ‘the eye is human’ angle.

Evan took home a roasting fork from work. He had a plan. He’d noticed that this morning he wasn’t quite as revolted as the previous day. A case of desensitisation, maybe. The movies he watched till bedtime were to help with that process.

Next morning, Evan elastic-banded the roasting fork to his right forearm, under his jacket sleeve. He clasped the two tines loosely in his hand as he didn’t want them to catch on anything until the time. He practiced his intended move a couple of times then worked a plastic kitchen glove over his left hand.

Evan stepped out the door into the river of humanity streaming towards the city. He did not notice the Jackal gang, though he knew them well, jostling through the crowd on point duty. Jack, their leader trotted at Evan’s heels like a well-mannered minion.

Evan concentrated his mind on his coming actions, playing them over and over. He intended this time not to muff his moves.

Why did I bring in the gang?

Because Evan was always going to be a wimp. He brought a roasting fork, for heaven’s sake! The boy at his shoulder was the risk taker. He’d noticed Evan’s antics the first day. Was there behind him the second and brought a crow bar for the third.

Evan almost ran to his doom. He walked marathon walker style. Wanting to get there quicker but not wanting to be seen to be running. People would notice and then he’d have a crowd to deal with as well. A crowd would only, well, crowd him. He hated having his elbows constrained.

When as a kid he’d played the wallet-on-a-string trick the second punter along put his foot on the string and had taken the wallet. Which was Evan’s mother’s best leather wallet, thankfully with nothing in it. Plus Evan didn’t fancy feeling the eye’s tentacles slippery under his foot. Therefore the roasting fork.

Evan practiced living in the moment. Which did wonders for his stress levels. He was the living proof because as dishwasher and pot scrubber he was at the bottom of the pecking order, and look at him, he was cool about a weird thing such as an eye on a string! It meant, unfortunately, that he wasn’t one for thinking too far ahead.

All he wanted was a close look. See if it was real. Then he’d decide what to do.

Jack, shadowing Evan, made sure his shadow was behind him as he followed Evan. He prided himself that when he peered over Evan’s shoulder yesterday down into the grating’s shadows, he hadn’t shown his shock. …

Whatever it was. I haven’t got that far yet. When I’ve worked out the action scene I’ll have a better idea what or who the boys will be up against…

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