My friend Chris used to do a thing where about this time every year he'd divine a single word that summed up the theme of the year to come. This is a rather fun exercise; not because I think it necessarily says anything about what's really going to happen, but it can be a way of identifying what's going on at a subconscious level that one needs to pay attention to.
My word for 2013 was Structure. This has manifested in two important and related ways.
Since Jesse died several of us who were his students at the time of his death get together a couple of times a week to work out. The space is a former speakeasy in a basement under a tea shop in Seattle's Chinatown, which is of course inexpressibly cool (and the owner is letting us rent it for ridiculously cheap), but there's been some talk of moving elsewhere because the building has a pretty bad rat problem--as in, I had to scare one of the little fuckers away from me the other night. (I snarled at it. I have a very good snarl. It's possible it thought I was a cat.)
One of his friends, who teaches over in Port Orchard, comes over sometimes to work out with us. This guy has a very different teaching style than Jesse did. Jesse didn't break things down for you too much ahead of time. He'd show you something, and then watch you do it until he found something specific to correct. Over time, those corrections accumulated until you were doing whatever it was properly. This could take years, and it's not a teaching style that worked for everyone. (Particularly, I theorize, it's not a style that works very well in America. It's not too unlike, I guess, what you see Pat Morita doing in the original Karate Kid
movie, except that we weren't doing chores or fixing up the place--although it could have used it. Personally I thought it was great, because by the time you got a "That's good" out of him you knew you'd earned it. Who needs belts when you know you can throw a punch hard enough to knock a guy bigger than you on his ass?)
His friend teaches differently. He'll instruct specifically and then tell you "no" until you get it right. Which can also be pretty frustrating, but I like learning from him because he can explain structure. Jesse knew structure, but it wasn't how he taught.
What I mean by structure is what I guess a lot of martial arts styles call stances. It's how you stand, how you set your posture, how you position your arms. Small changes can make a significant difference here. I didn't appreciate this properly until this year. Part of me wishes I'd understood it sooner, but Jesse's friend reminds me that even if I'd learned it earlier, it takes a lot of experience to make it work for you. Experience I have.
The other arena in which structure has manifested is in writing.
Unsurprisingly I have a lot of issues with how creative writing is taught. That might seem funny since I've taken a lot of classes and am in an MFA program (a very pragmatic one, which surprises nobody who knows me I'm sure) but what I see little emphasis on in a lot of these kinds of programs is technique: the equivalent to drills in martial arts, or scales and technical exercises in music (I've played one instrument or another for most of my life, usually without sufficient practice to be particularly good at it). More to the point, though, there are structural elements to fiction, and a lot of the art involves hiding them so the reader isn't sitting there checking off all the points identified in Save the Cat!
So, I've spent a lot of time lately working on plot: what leads to what, what happens when, how each event influences the next. I think there's a tendency to avoid this sort of thing because it sounds like following a formula, and that can indeed be what happens; Hollywood scripts following Save the Cat!
religiously whether or not the resulting story makes any sense is a case in point. But structure in fiction is no more necessarily formulaic than symphonic structure is to an orchestral work, or sonnet structure is to a poem. Structure can give you freedom of movement, the same way that skeletal structure does for vertebrates.
This is really pretty 101 stuff, and it annoys me that it's taken me this long to figure out that a) my writing tends to have major structural issues and b) there's a relatively simple solution to the problem.
But, maybe it's like Jesse's friend said: in order to properly appreciate something, sometimes you have to muddle around without it for awhile. Then, when you do find it, you recognize what you've been missing all this time.This entry was originally posted at http://rimrunner.dreamwidth.org/1364164.html. Please comment there using OpenID.