Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Anecdote: Part II: Stranger than Fiction and Juxtaposition

During the last discussion of the the anecdote, we wrote a story belonging to someone else and made it our own. That exercise is great for capturing voice, and in some cases, capturing vernacular. Plus, it's fun to create a character around a person you know and to tell a story you've heard so many times you feel like you were practically there. But the idea of the anecdote goes a little further than a simple reproduction of a story once heard. In the last anecdote we looked at voice and characterization and used the third party story as an example. For this anecdote exercise we're going to superimpose the strange right on top of a personal story.

Stranger than fiction? Heard it a thousand times. Stranger than fiction is very easy to explain. Life is odd, people are odd, actions are odd. It's life, and that is strange. We all know that. But do you know this: Lord Byron was the one to coin the phrase. And much of his life was stranger than fiction. For instance: to think that Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Lord Byron and John Polidori spent the rainy summer of 1816 on the shores of lake Geneva. Not so strange. But when you think about all of these characters in one place, it becomes a little more strange. So, as the story goes, a volcano erupted which caused a cold, wet summer. Now, had it been a warm sunny summer, perhaps things would have been different for the course of English literature. And this rainy weather kept them all inside reading aloud Fantasmagoriana ou Recueil d'histoires d'apparitions de spectres, revenants, fantomes, etc. (1812), a French translation of a German book of ghost stories. To further the point one more step, it wasn't long before this group of writers took action: they decided to write some horror stories themselves. Among them, we know about Frankenstein. John Polodori wrote a peculiar little story called The Vampyr, the first in the English cannon. There are more books and classes and stuffy professors on the subject than we can count, so we need not belabor the point here. It's stranger than fiction. The collection of writers, lake Geneva, the horror stories, the volcano, the sexual tension, and the results.

Juxtaposition? Easy enough. Right? All we have to do is put two things side by side for the sake of a comparison or a contrast. Within the definition of this anecdote exercise, we must find something that can support this. We have a story, and we have something to contrast (or compare) it to. In essence, we will take a true personal story (the anecdote) and overlay it on an element to get our reader to think (the juxtaposed). This is our way of making fiction from life, or from autobiography. So, stranger than fiction? We'll see.

Example: The Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek gives us a delightful little story called “The Elephant.” It seems that the anecdote here is about a lower level bureaucrat during the days of Polish communism who aspires to be promoted. Since he is a zoo keeper, he has to take every opportunity he can get. The juxtaposition here? Well, when the zoo is allotted an elephant, the zoo keeper refuses it and decides to manufacture one out of rubber. Now, we do not know Mr Mrozek personally, and we don't know how much of the story begins with an anecdote of a sullen-wants-to-be-promoted bureaucrat, and we certainly know the probability of the rubber elephant is low. But the piece does have the two elements.

Example: Isaac Babel's “Crossing into Poland” is very much autobiography. It is an account of the Russian invasion of Poland. It's awful, it's creepy, it's war. There is no denying it. However, the descriptions of landscape are surreal, serene and often times beautiful. In a way, the descriptions make the scene somehow softer and more horrific at the same time. The anecdote/juxtaposition is easier to identify.

Example: Last week I read in the news about a guy who was running from the police. Once his car was enabled, he took to foot. Soon, he jumped a tall fence to get away from the police. Once he landed on the other side, he found himself in the yard at the county correctional facility. Sounds like a bad joke and the punchline is something like: stranger than fiction. Now, In Jamaica Kincaid's “Girl” we meet a girl who is repeating everything she has been taught. My suggestion: use a voice like Kincaid's and juxtapose any interesting news article.

I came to this exercise during Sue Eberling's “Creative Cross Train Workshop.” Sue is more of personal essayist, than a fiction writer. I felt very engaged and challenged in her workshop. Admittedly, I don't remember the exact assignment, but it had to do with a personal experience and life altering conclusions. As many of you, I'm a fiction fella, and that's all I ever wanted to do. But the challenge of this workshop got me to think. I think in terms of fiction. So, how can we take life, real life, the strange life, our life and mold it into fiction?

I tried to sell a house several times over several years. I used three realtors. What a process. The last one eventually sold the place on Craig's list. This was during the weeks that the Boston Medical student was finding murder victims using the same internet service. The second realtor, a good friend, simply had the weight of the financial world to contend with. And the first realtor, as close as I can tell, was lazy. Instead of working hard and doing whatever it took, this realtor invested in a supernatural assessment of the house. Anecdote? Yes. Juxtaposition? Read it for yourself on the story of the week page: “A Monument to Failed Endeavor.”

The challenge:
1)Come up with at least three of your personal stories: things that happened to you.
2)Think of the “stranger than fiction” things that you can contrast (or compare) them to. This is your juxtaposition.
3)Use this as a springboard into your imagination.
4)Your prowess as a writer should ring through.

A Monument to Failed Endeavor
2831 Monroe Street is haunted, and everybody knows it. Well, everybody but Chris and me. By the time we found out about it, well, it was worth a good laugh. It never occurred to us, not in all the years we lived, and didn't live there that the place was, or is, or could become haunted. I'm pretty sure it never occurred to me that a place could be haunted part-time or even temporarily. At the time of this haunting, however; Chris is in Syria and I am struggling for sanity in the Sonora desert. This story is not so much about us in these long miserable months of 2005; it's a story about 2831 Monroe Street and its ghosts.
The specters stay in bed late. These are sleepy ghosts, the stay out late and wait for the morning kind of ghosts. In fact, these ghosts, come morning are so hungover that a neighborhood dog with one bark is enough to set a chain of events that is neither favorable for the dog, the ghosts or the neighborhood. These poor bastards, the hungover ones, are not to be disturbed, this is common knowledge and everybody knows it.
Those who don't know it, especially those pushy intruders who wander through this empty house in the AM, this hungover house, will learn the errors of their ways.
The house, 2831 Monroe Street, is for sale. The place is cute at least superficially speaking. It's cute even despite the curtain-less shower and the bathtub full of dead spiders. They have no problems, these spiders, getting into the tub, but for some reason they can't get out. These spiders, these garden variety 2831 Monroe Street spiders, are much more impressive while still living. After they die their legs curl under, their sheen fades, and they're brittle like dust. The carnage of spider skeletons is just what it appears to be. They may have souls, these spiders, but they do not haunt the place, they are not ghosts. This is probably a good thing especially if you have stepped on as many as I have. To the potential buyer, the dead spiders are not menacing as much as they are, well, unsavory.
These potential buyers are a problem. They come into 2831 Monroe Street on any given day, and as long as it's daylight, they come at any given hour. This is clearly the problem.
It moves on toward sunset. It's summertime. The windows should be open so the thin cooling air like a purple Colorado sunset can come in. Cool air from the north side of the house, the master bedroom, or the office, say, can breeze through to the south side windows of the dinning room and kitchen. The aid of box fans strategically placed in windows helps this cooling process. Also, turning on the sprinklers in the backyard helps cool down the house. For maximum coolness, hitting the back patio with the hose really does help. It raises the next question: why don't these peepers, these interlopers, these potential buyers come at this time of day? This is a great time of day, and it's an especially wonderful time of day at 2831 Monroe Street: the sprinklers are on out back watering thistles and weeds, the air is heavy with moisture diminishing the day's heat and Herb Alpert plays on an old phonograph. It leaks out the windows—The little Spanish Flea, Tijuana Taxi, Lonely Bull. All of this indicates a time for gin. There is a procedure here too. Ice is important, and it aids in the cooling process. Gin and tonic. Although gin is not necessarily in short supply, a new bottle must be purchased at Todessa's place at the end of the alley before it gets too dark. See? Again, any of the strangers looking at ol' 2831 Monroe Street who might be afraid of ghosts just have to come by during gin and tonic time. There's enough tonic to last until the end of the war.
So the hostile time is in the morning, the time when the place really feels haunted is one of two not so ideal times to close the deal at 2831 Monroe Street, and everybody knows it. The other less desirable time is much later on. The gin is drunk, and drunk are the ghosts. It's insidious, it happens slowly: one drink, two drinks, three drinks, four. Well, I shouldn't have to explain that process to you. It's late and that's a problem. Well past midnight and the carryings-on are ridiculous. Tap dancing in the mud room is event one. A fire in the backyard ensues. Birdhouse building in the garage, then there are trumpets, guitars, sea shanties, barroom songs and scratching records. It's the cacophony that happens nightly from midnight 'til dawn or from the ½ full (these ghosts are optimists, but they'd never admit to it) to the dregs of the bottle of gin. This is not the best time to see the house and no realtor ever attempts to show a house at this hour anyway. Hell, not only is this a bad time at 2831 Monroe Street, it's a bad time to show the neighborhood, but don't tell a buyer that. With the hour and the level of drunkenness, it is not a good idea to come around. A stranger might see the ghosts winding down the night on the front porch smoking cigarettes as the eastern horizon lights to lilac. Orion rises and fades into the dawn of the new day. The ghosts of 2831 Monroe Street retire for the night.

“I think it's possible, or it might be the colors,” the Realtor says into the phone. Alone in her car, she doesn't want to have this conversation and it creeps into her voice.
“Do you really think it's necessary?” I ask. I would rather not be having this conversation either. We have this conversation over and over again. I don't have a high opinion of realtors, this one especially.
“Well, the house isn't selling,” she says. There's a pause and I hear static. It could be her phone or her street in Denver, Colorado, or it could be me in my dirty apartment in Tucson, Arizona. Either way, this is not a clear connection.
“No, it's not selling,” I say. I say it because everybody knows it. “And your psychic realtor didn't help,” I say.
“No,” she says. “Listen, I have another appointment.”
“Yeah, me too,” I say. I hang up. I'm hungover. And I think the realtor is full of, well, shit, but I'm too far away to do anything about it. I'm baffled by the very notion of a psychic realtor, and how can I take her findings seriously?
“There were two individuals found in the house. Both male. Both hostile. Showcase the metal roof to potential buyers, and tell the sellers to let go. They have to let it go emotionally.”
I send the findings to Chris—Chris in Syria. I send the findings because the place is haunted, this is why it isn't selling, and everybody knows it. In the email note I attach the psychic's findings, I have to ask Chris: “Can you believe this shit?”
I guess it's one thing to have a haunted house when dead people are involved. It's something else to be haunted by people who are still living. And worse still by two dumb mugs the likes of Chris and me. We look at 2831 Monroe Street as a monument to failed endeavor. We must evict the ghosts, this will take years. Time will probably prove this.

Next time: The Jumpstart parts 2-6

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