I just finished teaching one of my quick-and-dirty LitReactorclasses, and I'm always energized after an intense 10 days with the community of writers over there.
The class was on dialogue, but we took a little spin on a related path during the session to discuss the energy behind what comes out of characters' mouths. What that energy is all in service to. Voice, tone, blocking - how much action a section of dialogue should or shouldn't have. Tags, quotation marks, talking heads versus embedded action - all of these considerations are in service to one thing, in my not-so-humble opinion, and that one thing is authority. Confidence on the page. That intangible element that draws the reader in and keeps the pages turning.
One of the students asked me to unpack authority a bit more and that led me to the hallowed mindfuck of Gordon Lish - that difficult, charismatic writer-slash-Knopf-editor that so many hate to love or love to hate.
The weekend workshop I took with Lish back in (gulp) the mid-nineties, still festers in my psyche. Like many teachers and mentors that have staying power, he was a bit brutal with his students, brilliant, but brutal. And on the subject of authority, he was unwavering. The phrase he bandied about more than any other that weekend was "line of flight." The line of flight for a given work was the kernel, the essence, of the piece, distilled to a sentence. And from this sentence, the whole piece would take off.
Now, a sentence is in no way a whole piece, so how the story took flight - what elements of the sentence were worthy of opening up and soaring - were where the genius of authority lived. Elements, to Lish, were almost always concrete things. Objects. Here's a quote from Lish that's bandied about the interweb:
Examine your objects for the tension inherent in them, the polarity, the natural conflict, the innate conflict, what is already there, and in the unpacking of this tension, you will reveal…the whole of your story, and how each unpacked object relates in [the] story to every other object.
So, for instance, let's say you have a character drinking from a mug of coffee. The mug is one of those photo mugs. There's a date on the mug, a picture of the main character and her husband celebrating an anniversary. The mug is stained and well-used. But, for the sake of conflict, let's make the main character divorced from the husband. She doesn't want to throw out the mug because it's one of those perfectly shaped mugs (everyone has their idiosyncrasies regarding the receptacle in which they sip their morning drug, yes?). Okay, more conflict. Let's say the main character is now dating someone new. Let's say the mug shows up again, the first time the new boyfriend spends the night. He reaches into the cabinet and blindly pulls out the anniversary mug. Our heroine sees that he doesn't yet see what's on the mug and her job in the scene is wrestle the mug away from the new bf before the awkward moment. So - there's conflict, tension, the possible organic weaving in of backstory. All because of a mug.
So what does this have to do with authority? With line of flight?
I think it has to do with psychic cohesion. The way our minds will unconsciously hold onto a concrete image, and make it available for context. There’s this magical, intimate moment between the story and its reader when this dance happens. It’s like a tap on the shoulder followed by the sweetest whisper in the ear. The reader then brings his own specific set of experiences and heartbreak or irony to the page, and becomes invested – moving beyond the language into the heart of the story.
When was the last time you read something that absolutely ripped you open?