Friday, November 30, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 34 - The New Sentimentality

I was with my girlfriend. At least I thought she was my girlfriend. The right girlfriend, it was beginning to seem. Not only talented but convinced I was talented too. And so pretty and funny. Also brilliant. Life and relationship the way life and relationship should be. We had so much in common – our art work, and for a time the bond of unearned money.

But I had just started the workshops and she had already told me I was doing it all wrong. I was allowing, if not instigating, stories that had no resolution and went into dark territory. She said I should revert to timed exercises, one of which should be to ask workshop participants to describe a bird in flight. Not, she said, that she thought hard stories should be censored. Darkness is real. And I knew enough about her late alcoholic and invasive minor celebrity mother to know she had plenty of raw material for very dark work.

She wasn’t always criticizing the workshops. Although her own writing tended towards very careful poetry, she talked a lot about her really horrible childhood. But she talked sometimes not so much about specific matters in her own stories but about how her stories were the foundation for something important.

Sometimes tears would come as she talked – not when she was stepping into her life stories but rather when she was using the stories to back up conclusions. She began to cry as she said that what we were doing, finding out what really happened in the dark or misty past, was so very important because it would help assure that no child again would have to suffer what we had suffered. She was crying and she was so attractive. A talented, tortured, artistic woman who could not find happiness, could not stay within a community, was always moving on. And sometimes was more comfortable when saying “we” than in saying “I.”

And so tears did not come when she stepped into stories of her tortured childhood the way they flowed when she talked in generalities on other people’s behalf. And this did not seem strange to me. When I was first going after my stories verbally, though not in writing, I had said much the same thing before a group of people looking into the past, and I could not finish what I had to say, I was so overwhelmed with emotion. Emotion that did not last so long as a certain smugness that now I really had the story right. And the smugness did not last long either, for it is impossible to tame a story that is real.

This short-lived smugness that resulted from having everything in place. To my maybe girlfriend the best way to handle this was to often look not at real people but at archetypes. She frequently traveled far to conferences that delved into archetypes.

But what was happening – what tends to happen when a person speaks in generalities – is that actual live people tend to vanish from the story. The people in the stories, including the tellers of the stories, come across as case histories, something tucked away to be brought out to back up points that are being made.

When tears came as I was speaking in generalizations, it was not unlike what my brilliant and sensitive old boarding school English teacher, Joe Abbey, told of his experience when he read aloud really awful sentimental poetry and found tears coming to his eyes in spite of himself. I can also be moved for a very brief time by a lightweight movie where everything works out and the villains are all reformed, and the hero has overcome odds against him to the point where he has a lover now who looks exactly like a movie star.

Tears in the movie theater where everything is simpler than life can ever be, tears when there are archetypes but no people - so different from tears in life. The listener might be moved when hearing the generalizations, but it is not the same thing as being moved when presented with an evocation of something concrete and real.

What can happen when real things are buried in theoretical things is not so unlike a politician standing beside a legless veteran and talking about the need to sacrifice to make the world safe for freedom, democracy and corporate growth.

For there are far more insidious things than shallow crying that result from false shallow stories. False stories take the life out of real stories Without real people in the stories it is easy to manipulate the stories – as so many sociopathic political figures have learned. And then everyone can sing the equivalent of that fake-sentiment Irving Berlin song “God Bless America” while everyone is working towards, or silently colluding in, the most awful atrocities.

I sympathize with those who try to get into the spirit of this false and dangerous nonsense – as I tried so hard once to make things right with that beautiful, tortured artistic woman who wanted to get her stories under control.

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