What I learned from Joss Whedon (I actually learned from Shakespeare)

I watched Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing in between days of a writing conference. I noticed all these contrasts: bickering Benedick and Beatrice vs. sweet Claudius and Hero, Benedick’s proclaimed disdain for love vs. his need for Beatrice’s attention, the bumbling constables vs. their actual apprehension of the conspirators, Whedon’s house vs. my own. (It was hard not to notice, even in black and white.) The next morning, contrast reappeared at the conference as humor vs. gore in someone’s opening line about tripping over a hurdle and finding a dead body. Our brains, it seems, like to compare, and comparison, it seems, creates narrative tension: we compare our hopes against realities, our one wish against another, one character’s rise against another’s fall. What is tension, after all, but a pull in one direction against an opposing force?

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Comparison also seems to explain my current obsession with Dunlap Pearce Penhallow (a sainted name for a writer, if ever there was one), or more specifically, his Military Surgery (Oxford UP, 1916.) In this handy, handsome tome of high gloss pages, you’ll find almost all the horror of World War I: “extreme trauma due to avulsion of the teeth” (269), which were blasted loose by a bullet and sent through one man’s cheek, “presence of a metallic foreign body” (317) for the bullet in the bladder of another man that otherwise caused no harm except when it rolled into position to plug his urethra, or the increased chance of infected wounds due to the muck and manure—“high degree of fertilisation”—in which the men fought—“a natural habitat for spore-bearing organisms” (27). A diagnostician’s cool discourse vs. crippled bodies, a reader’s horror in imagining these injuries vs. his safety in his comfy chair. If we first chide Penhallow for being so detached, we next chide ourselves for complaining when it was Penhallow who drained the pus, smelled the gas gangrene, removed the projectiles, and stitched together passable lives.

That is the trick of the author: to make us feel one thing, and then to feel another for having felt that–contrast–for at least in imagination if not in life, “there is nothing / either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet II, ii.)

Mark Meier’s most recent book, Wisecrack, is available now.Meier - Wisecrack cover small



Plans, Plunges, or Presence

There’s something Biblical, brimming with confidence and vigor, to divide things: light from dark, water from land, rams from ewes. Writings about writing tend to do something similar: divide the plan-before-you writers from the plunge-into writers. But to strain metaphors more than Chobani strains yogurt, I say we have a situation less of rams and ewes and more lambs and ewes. (Besides, I haven’t photographed any rams lately, only this cute pair.)

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Lambs can become ewes, and ewes can become lambs.

I don’t mean writers change how they do things, though I suspect most writers both plan and plunge as well as change over time. (I keep picturing in my head Faulkner’s novel A Fable outlined on the walls of his study.) The key is being present in the story to recognize and take advantage of the opportunities it offers, however they arose. When characters collide, for instance, whether by plan or by chance, you must pause to recognize the emergent options or discard the original ones to embrace something better. The process is sort of like hiking with a crude map. You pick a route and a day to maximize beautiful vistas, even if you have no idea if such vistas will actually materialize, or it’s like myself and a camera, stalking this barnyard with some sense that an image would eventually emerge. If vistas do materialize, you don’t rush by. You linger and enjoy everything about them and use them to pick the next direction most likely to keep expanding your vision into something far purer and felicitous than you would have assumed possible–in this case, a scared lamb looking for its ewe.