Sunday, 31 July 2011

Start your engines.

The Buddhists say suffering is caused by four basic anxieties:





It's been said that if you look at any successful, well functioning story through this lens you will see one of these anxieties working as a kind of 'engine' pushing it all forward.

Assuming you buy this idea, let's say we each have one anxiety that resonates most strongly within us. My core anxiety, my engine as a writer is Meaningless. How do I know? Because I'm drawn to absurdist, fatalistic narratives. Idealistic characters up against a cruel and random world. I want to know what God is thinking (or not), I crave the lessons right now that will only come at the moment of death (I don't know about your death but I'll confidently say it of mine). I'm driven to ask why of everything, everyone. I see a base bewilderment about fate, justice, karma, suffering and consequences in everything I write.

It's why I like noir stories and why I take umbrage at 'noir' tales that are really just violent images with bummer endings. The hero doesn't have to be a good person but I crave the downfall, the flow of choice and consequences.

It's my question, my quest.

My dear screenwriter friend sees Death at the core of everything she writes and most of what she enjoys to read or watch, and I see it there too, clear as can be. Her films are full of ghosts and crossings and grief.

Many of the young men with whom I went to film school--a rarefied hothouse, so maybe not the best test of true values and intentions--seemed to cluster pretty tightly around Guilt in their writing and filmmaking. To show you what I mean, here's Ian Irvine's neat little short script Splintered (film directed by Peter Templeman, produced by Stuart Parkyn.)

I enjoy these stories but the core anxiety, Guilt, doesn't shake me up. To me feeling guilty is kind of a pointless pursuit (like Farmville or the Tour de France or collecting porcelain dolls). You did it, you didn't do it, just deal with it is my pragmatic response. Regret interests me more--what you didn't do, missed opportunities, lost lives and loves a la Grey Gardens--but Guilt is like the stockmarket, somebody else's business. I couldn't get a good script or story or novel out of it if I tried. It'd be kind of like writing in a genre you don't read, and the good guys warn against that.

Having said this, I loved reading Cornell Woolrich's Fright this week and will run up another post on it soon. Paranoia and fear and lies, all the tragic results of covering up a crime (or an accident functioning as a crime), now that I can get behind.

Goes for Detour, too, in spades.

(Neither of these two stories are driven by Guilt, by the way, not deep down. For Prescott Marshall it's Doubt: is he busted or isn't he? For hitchhiker Al Roberts it's getting caught, ie. Death.)

There are noticeable class differences between us, even in a first world country like Australia. Maybe our individual anxieties are influenced not just by our temperaments and our karmic missions but by where we're situated within the hierarchy of needs at birth (are we born scrabbling for food and shelter or do we grow up reaching for 'self-actualisation' through psychotherapy and violin lessons?)

Maybe Guilt is more of a middle-class concern, is what I'm gettin' at.

When I think of Guilt and social status I'm remembering a Cherrie Moraga essay* in which she said: "guilt isn't a feeling, guilt is an intellectual mask to a feeling. The real feeling is fear: fear of losing power over another, losing one's position of privilege..."

It's undeniable that some writers, regardless of class or upbringing, are kicked into motion by the Guilt engine and they write powerful, original stories when they let it lead them. (Look at working class Bostonian Dennis Lehane's stunning standalone novel, Mystic River. You know those boys who didn't get into the police car? Guilt. You know Dave, who did? Death.)

As for Doubt, I really don't get it. Again, I enjoy the stories--many mystery stories and almost all legal dramas are fuelled by the Doubt engine--but it doesn't keep me awake at night. In this lifetime I fall on the side of Faith and blind belief and I'm okay there. Doubt definitely seems to be a driving concern for people I've known and loved who grew up in wealthy, atheist and particularly academic families. All that Descartes and the constant demands for proof, I couldn't bear it but it really puts a fire under them.

To each their own anxiety, huh?

* Badly paraphrased via This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color.

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