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"The": Insight into writing from a single, "simple" word in a story

Tuesday 9/5/23

These are some lines from "You Can Have That," a story which is going to be in The Solution to the World's Problems: Surprising Tales of Relentless Joy.

“What would I have done without you?” he asked. “Oh my goodness. Where would I have been?”

“You would have been fine,” she told him, which wasn’t patently false, given the pliability inherent in the concept of “fine,” but nor did it ring with the notes of truth either.

Working on this story again today, it was hard for me to believe I came up with it and began it last Tuesday, because it feels like I've been working on it for years. I had to check this record to see when I had started. The story was written in its 3000 word entirety on that day (though it's 3200 words now), but I've worked on it many times since. (And, of course, I've written a lot of other things over that eight day period.)

Today, as I was working on the above lines, it occurred to me that I might make a useful entry regarding writing in these pages.

There has to be a reason for everything in a story. Everything needs to be a choice that is done for a purpose.

As an example, consider the use of the "the" before "notes of truth." Someone could think, "It's just a 'the,' what's the big deal if it's there or not? We get the meaning."

But a person wouldn't get the actual meaning that the story ultimately has, because using the "the" and not using the "the" produce very different outcomes.

If that "the" is not there, we get something fractional; a portion of the truth, and not all of the truth, because there would presumably be other notes that are not included. In other words, not the full force of the truth.

That's a big deal, right? In your own experience, what's the difference between some of the truth and all of the truth? Anyone would have to say that it's a considerable difference. It can change your entire life. The course of your life. You might have made a different decision in your life had you known more of the truth. A relationship changes depending on how much truth is conveyed. Or it's definitely possible, anyway.

Then we'd also have the idea that the truth is not an absolute. An absolute is a totality. All of the notes are present for an absolute. None of them are off on the side sitting matters out. So now we're talking a whole philosophical enterprise.

Let's consider what it means to have the "the" in place. There's command now. A great, sweeping, elegiac command that comes when all of the available knowledge is on watch, doing duty; the totality is encompassed. Its power is present. The united front of truth.

In this context, it's like a benediction that doesn't happen, because this is a hypothetical; we know that he is with her and she is with him. We know it from the tenses and the subjunctive. But an entity larger than either of them is also on the scene and it's as if truth provides that benediction that doesn't actually transpire, because all is laid open, and everything scans. Nothing has to be hidden away.

You know how sometimes you think, "Um, I'll just leave this bit out, because that could work against me with this thing I want someone to believe." And you might not be trying to deceive--it could be that whatever that thing is could prove confusing, would muddy the waters as we say. So you withhold.

What's happening in this portion of this story, though, is full disclosure and accounting. Nothing is withheld. And while nothing is withheld courtesy of the narrative voice, that voice touches upon these characters--it's not at odds with them and with the reality of their relationship.

There's a sort of third character present, too, which has to do with the narrative voice. It's not forced because it's casual--there's a dropped-in quality--but though the manner is not brusque or deliberate, we experience a power in the part about pliability. We're not being browbeaten with a truth of the world; it's worked in. It's not the show. What it also does is set up the utilization of that "the." It rolls out the carpet for the absolute. It's a show of good faith. That it doesn't need to be ostentatious, doesn't need to do a "Look at me!" and can be itself--as we should all strive to be ourselves--is itself an everything.

We don't have to spell out the absolute. In a way, truth is always offstage as a character, even when truth is central in a situation and in reality, because truth inhabits no single visual form, shape, scene. Truth is seen, but in the hosted sense. Truth is direct--it's total, an absolute, uncut--but it comes to us via an indirection. It doesn't have its own face, its own clothes, its own appendages. Truth can feel like it's always waiting the wings, but the truth is actually always everywhere--the challenge is to see it. We watch the players on the stage. We think they are the only characters. But you know what? They can be the most fully drawn characters ever conceived of and brought off, and they might not even be the main characters.

We also have a mix of something fairy tale-ish that isn't a fairy tale, and what some would call social realism, which isn't social realism, though it's truth that is central. In the pliability part, we also denote a certain thrust of honesty. It's very easy not to be honest. I don't mean not to deliberately lie--but when we talk and we're trying to be as honest as possible, we'll note in our mind how much we leave out otherwise. We do a form of dogged due diligence.

That's what's happening here in the third person narrative voice, but that narrative voice is a humble voice, because it's ceded over the floor, so to speak, to something larger than itself. The pliability clause covers for the woman and her honesty. We get what might have been her thought process without being told we are or that it's even her thought process. There's a rub-off.

We're also in the liminal part of human existence, where things are both true and not true at once, but that's insofar as the lens of the absolute tells us.

That's a very strict lens. And the lens works as it does because it's possible to make these kinds of distinctions; more than that, they must be made for this is how the absolute, overarching nature of truth works.

So this is anything but a mere "the." And if the "the" isn't there, it's a very different sequence.

Further, it's a different story.

We're getting these distinctions--there's an ordered clarity at work here, and a voice that both exists as the voice that it is and which earns itself, you might say, through the story's progression, and the voice's own development. Writers often make this mistake that voice is static. It's so hard for them to fashion a voice, that when they do--or hope that they did, because they probably didn't fashion anything distinctive at all--it doesn't grow and progress. They milk it. They think it's enough for that voice to exist.

It's never enough for a voice to exist. It's never enough for a human to just exist--why would a voice be any different? A voice has its own consciousness. That consciousness is influenced by the story, and the story is likewise influenced by the voice in terms of how it's told.

As I said, everything in a story has to have a need to be there. It has to have identity and purpose. That's within itself. But, simultaneously, everything in a story needs to function with identity and purpose in a service to something greater than itself. That's the story itself. The story does the same thing in a bigger way yet--it has to function in service to truth, people, the individual, the readers, a reader, the world, if it's any good as the only kind of story--and this art--that I care about. I don't care about the nonsense and shit work frauds without ability and commitment do so that they can call themselves a writer. I'm talking about the real deal stuff.

This is the paragraph that follows:

They were eating their breakfast in the kitchen. How many breakfasts could they have left together? 2038? That seemed like such a big number as a number, but it was nothing to the passage of time, a figure different than time herself, being the intractable sister on account of her cold shoulders and her hot hands. A blip of a fragment, a fragment of a blip. It’s wild—more wild than nature—when each moment matters so much because it matters so much.

See what I mean about the build? The accruing progression? And the role of that "the" from the paragraph before, how it's a factor here, too.

Note the math. Say you had a breakfast every day with someone for five years--that's 1825 days. What is a number people are likely to think in terms of? A year. A day. A week. Ten years. If you're near the end of your life, five years could very well be the number of years you're thinking in terms of. Looking to have. Want and would be grateful for.

But life isn't about round numbers. And when it is--or when it features what seems to be symmetry--we're dubious. Like when you look someone up on Wikipedia and you learn they died on the same day they were born. You do a double take. There's as good a chance you'll die on that day than any other--well, close to as good a chance. You're actually more likely to die at Christmas and New Year's, given the stress of the holidays, travel, food and drink intake, and being sedentary. But one follows my meaning.

This truth isn't overt or shouty. You're not told--hey, that's like five years, give or take! The author isn't there to tell you. They're there to help you see. They put you in the best chair possible with the best view. Views. Their job is one of positioning.

Math is grounded. Or we usually look at it that way. Numbers are seen as black and white. How often do we say, "It's like adding two plus two and getting five" when we want to suggest someone's lack of logic?

Life, though, is a liminal state comprised of absolutes. Life is a paradox that way. When we have math and numbers, we have what one might readily associate with a form of realism. But this next paragraph also involves the hypothetical construct of the dream. Of wondering. We live, in part, within the subjunctive. "What will happen if I do this?" We make decisions from the subjunctive. Even when we think we know something totally--because that thing has not happened yet--we still live in that subjunctive. You can say, "If I snap my fingers, they'll make a noise," but you don't know if your fingers might be blown off at that precise moment they've been snapped before the noise is created. Technically that's true, regardless if what you think is going to happen is what happens every time.

Baldly, 2038 looks like a big number. That's the assumption. You meet someone, you start dating, and if the god of reality descended early on and said, "You're going to copulate 2038 times before this is all done," you'd think, "That's a lot."

But what does it really mean when we're apprising life in the terms I've been using in this entry, which piggyback on the terms of the story?

As we've said, 2038 days is more than five years. Is that a long time? Say you met the love of your life, in your view, and the god of reality once again showed up and announced that you'd have 2038 days together.

Gutting, no? Depends. You could be eighty-four-years-old.

Which moves us to another distinction in following--the passage of time, who is described as a sister of time herself. Again we have realism crossed with something else. Something imaginative and speculative. Larger. But put in human-ready terms. Humanized. All of this is earned via the progression of voice and story. Through great care. Intention.

We've all thought in terms of someone putting a cold shoulder to us, and that's what the passage of time does. She won't humor your entreaties. When are our hands said to be hot? When we want to get them on something. The next thing. A blip has fragments, and it's only fair that a fragment would have to have blips. It depends on how one perceives--chooses, I should say, to perceive. What options one uses and makes the most of.

We're talking about seeing. Knowing something for what it is. Knowing an opportunity as such. For very rarely do we recognize the opportunities we have. You have forms of opportunities every single day. But how often does anyone do anything differently than they did the day before?

This is the nature of life. Life itself contains nature, as in the natural world. What is natural order in the natural world? Wildness. Nature is not tamed. The fish in the tank at the aquarium is not an example of natural order; the fish in the ocean is, because the fish is wild and free.

We're dealing in penetrating exactness. There's no fudging. The story is taking care. A reader trusts a story that takes care. That care takes myriad forms. Care may be evinced in a story that isn't taking the same kinds of care this story is taking. But we're not talking about those stories right now. We're talking about this one. Each story--if it's any good--is different and is different in how it works.

The construct of "blip of a fragment" and "fragment of a blip," sets up a kind of swing. A sing-song swing. As we read, we nod internally. The reader is a part of this. They're inside of it. Where the story goes--and the voice--the reader goes, too. We are traveling together.

We have these distinctions, and combined they create a syllogism. That's the progression. It's a progression of both distinctions and absolutes, because absolutes are totalities, and a totality has parts. They just belong to the one thing.

Now we have this qualification of more wild than nature. If being wild is the defining quality of nature, and nature is a part of life--a piece of the totality, that is--it follows that life is more wild still. This may also be a positive wild--wild as in miraculous in the human way. Where we sit back and think, "Yes, aha, beautiful, that's so right." Transcendence, as an example, isn't common, but it is natural.

We come to the concluding absolute, the totality itself, what the whole is as the whole, not in a breakdown of parts. The concluding "when each moment matters because it matters so much," is not some "well, no duh," statement now. It's essence. A statement of considerable depth. More than what it'd perhaps appear to be without the context. It gives real pause for thought. We know the weight here. We apply what that weight is to our own lives. This is how empathy works in a story.

The narrative voice isn't that of a douchebag just saying whatever to you. Nor is it necessarily the voice of a person. (And it's not the voice of me.) But we know this entity, and we know to regard it with care and gravity. It's not an entity out on a lark, having some story-time Sunday drive. So when it has something to say, we listen. We don't wave it away. If it says what it does to conclude this particular paragraph, we know that we need to think about those words, that they're being said this way for a purpose, and that they're not selected without extreme consideration and focused purpose. There's a lot to them--and it's a big deal that what's on one side of the equals sign is also on the other, because we are still aware of a distinction--a crucial "Oh, I get it," epiphany-style distinction--even as the absolute is an absolute. We feel the realization. We might not be able to articulate what that is to someone else. But when people say something is indescribable, this is why they're always wrong. Everything is describable. Here is an example of how a truth of life was described. These were the means and methods.

Reading this concluding portion, we think about when things have mattered most to us. Things we may have, things we may have lost. (And again, the story is called, "You Can Have That.") We may think, "I wish I'd been more focused in that relationship," or "I didn't have my priorities in order." We might have let something get away because we were looking elsewhere when there was no good reason, it turned out, to have done so. Or we may think about what we do have, and why it works as wonderfully as it does. Or we may think that it could work better yet, if we would be more present. Perspective. Or we may think about the next time, how we'll do better when we get the chance--the opportunity. We may think about opportunities we have right now that we don't cite as such in our thoughts, but maybe that's what they are after all.

These aren't tiny things. And this is just one part of a story rather close to the end of it. We could go through this with other parts of these parts--any one of them. There's also the process, effects, and impacts of accretion. Development. How it all adds up and what is adding up in us as we read.

But that's how it works: everything matters and has to have true purpose. Otherwise, you shouldn't have it in there.

And you need to be thinking this way such that it is your nature as a writer, as someone alive, as a human, never mind an artist.


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