Friday, June 17, 2011

Plot versus Wilderness: An Unwieldy Argument (with a little brain science)

Tonight, for the first time in my life, I thought of plot as a plot of land. I've thought about plot for ages, obviously. But Dave said it tonight and there it was. A plot of land. Plot.

"But a plot of land is passive unless one is thinking of doing something with it," I said.

"Well, yes," Dave says, "if a plot of land isn't a plot of land then it's the wilderness. So simply by calling it a plot, you've separated it for some use from the wilderness."

In other words, plotting is taming or finding use of the wilderness -- of our existence.

Okay, so stick with me here.

There's a structure in my brain that loves this notion. But not only in and of itself but because it's a kind of realization that my brain is attracted to.

For a long time, I've tried to explain that we should organize our kinds of thoughts. Someone tells a joke and the specific kind of irony is, say, a 42B. And we could all know and accept it as 42B and, in this nonexistent scenario, we know the history of 42Bs that came before it -- a famous battle strategy, a dance choreographed by Martha Graham, and certain kind of arch.

(Don't get me wrong: I don't actually want to categorize thoughts -- not even for shorthand purposes across disciplines -- because I think our minds should be fixed on the wilderness itself. I will get back to the wilderness, in a moment.)

What I mean is that when I see a dance performance, I sometimes see the structure of the dance as if it could rise up from the stage and be a plot -- something taken from the wilderness.

Some particular move is made, then it appears again, and then before the third time, I anticipate it. I'm rewarded with the satisfaction of that repetition or it's undermined -- which also feels right -- like the Richard Russo story, "The Whore's Child," how the narrator hints, circles and then reveals his current life.

There are shapes that our brains are drawn to -- in every field. If I had the ability to know other fields with real depth, I would be able to find the structure of the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in certain molecular arrangements as well as musical compositions as well as sculptures ...

Do these structures reflect the brain or our culture? The Modernists broke because the world did -- well, more or less -- except that there were people doing things that were quintessentially Modernist (and Post-Modern) long before the terms existed. And so those structures (or lacking structures or broken structures) existed in the human mind before the world fractured as a result of war, science, innovation ... Right? They had to.

So let's go to this recent piece on NPR about the brain and reading: "...Dehaene advances what he calls the 'neuronal recycling hypothesis,' according to which cultural invention can reorganize the brain, but only, in effect, by recycling already existing structures; it can invade and take hold of neural systems that initially have quite different functions. Specifically, Dehaene's idea is that there is a 'fringe of variability' tolerated by the otherwise genetically predetermined visual object recognition system; this gives the degrees of freedom needed for culture to grab hold and turn the visual cortex into, as he puts it, 'a text comprehension system.' As a result, far from culture being the agent that sculpts our brains, the brain is a prior constraint on what culture can hope to achieve."

See, there it is. I read this and my brain was pleased. Not only did it seem to express what I've felt for so long -- I've given up trying to explain my 42B notion to people -- but also because it has an elegance, the recycled coupled with the fringe of variability. Doesn't that alone make you think of an interior design that is elegant and pleasing color wise -- except that it does one thing that feels perfectly off, new, almost unacceptable but not.

I was in a meeting in LA recently and a producer asked me what I thought made an idea beautiful (he's a Harvard guy who's also published a lot of books and made a lot of movies), I talked about some notions. But now my answer would be more succinct. "One that draws on neuronal recycling while allowing for a rich fringe of variability."

I walked into a recent MFA thesis defense with one of my big sheets of paper -- folded up. I said, "Since this is a novel with a complex architecture, I thought we'd all want to draw it." I drew the shape that I'd seen in my head while reading. Once drawn, I could show where the narrative gaped and got baggy. (No one else felt a need to draw the structure as they saw it in their brains. And I don't know if the novelist himself saw it. But some of you must work this way. I know you do.) It's possible that these kinds of in-air structures come more readily to the novelist (or musician) because their work exists in air more than say a ship-builder or a painter who works in actual physical structures -- I don't know. I never see what I visualize. (In this moment, that strikes me as an inherent sadness in my line of work -- I can't see my work, as it might exist outside of my own head.)

A few nights ago, I drew a picture of my relationship with Dave since we moved here seven years ago. He looked at the picture while I explained it. He said, "Wait, am I this fallopian tube or are you?" Funny. Right. Back to the drawing. I had a point to make. Even a relationship has a shape, a design -- though it's probably more wilderness than plot.

I read a new novel last week and it was perfectly structured. After I was through, I felt like I'd watched a young Asian gymnast. I need that fringe of variability and, although the novel had some startling images and was, well, masterful in many ways, its structure was too perfect, too known.

There's a picture book called THE MAGIC OF SPIDERWOMAN -- as in the Native American culture, not superheroes. Spiderwoman is a weaver. She weaves too perfectly and weaves her soul into her work. If you weave too perfectly, your soul can be trapped in your work forever. And so you'll see a lot of work from this specific tribe with a flaw woven purposefully into the work -- but the flaw allows for some fringe of variability -- the way nature allows for variability (and maybe with that you might now where I'm headed with all of this).

This past week, I finished a draft of FUSE -- book II in THE PURE TRILOGY. It exists as a shape in my mind and I know what I must shim and shore up -- now that it's all there. I can also see the shape that I want it to take. I can feel it in my head. That shape it aspires to become is elegant -- in the way scientists use the term elegance. I will move toward it without even know I'm moving toward it. How could I work on that level when I'm working in the minuscule architecture of the scene, the sentence. The larger thing will simply take place because it begs to -- probably because it exists in nature, in the wilderness itself.

And so I plot to reflect the wilderness -- at varying levels. And the plot becomes the wilderness and the wilderness becomes the plot and the brain is simply a corridor of translation.