When I started working on Detroit I had this great metaphor in mind; this great moral; this great allegory. Unfortunately, I now realise that I had it backwards. I was suffering from what I’ve started calling ‘The Problem Of The Great American Novel.’
So I had this great insight. Seriously, I’m not being smarmy, it was a great insight that translated into a great metaphor. But WTF. A lot of people have great insights. My insight was to see the rise and fall of Detroit as the metaphor of America. Forget John Wayne, or Don Draper. This is it, baby!
But ya know why there hasn’t been a ‘Great American Novel’, one with the sweep of Tolstoy’s Russia or Shakespeare’s England, or Dante’s Florence? Because it’s really hard to start with a metaphor and then find a story to build around it. And that delusion seems to me now to be (irony of ironies) quintessentially American… If you build it he will come. If we start with a cool idea, all we need to do is throw enough man-hours at it and POW! To the moon, Alice!
SCENE: A Writer's Studio, The Brill Building, 1964. Day.
Kid, the idea is great. OK, now all we need is for the hero to climb out of the well, save the girl and kill the bad guy. I need 3 pages on my desk by 9 AM
That may work for an episode of Lassie or The Dick Van Dyke Show, but not for anything more profound. No matter how deep the idea, a boffo concept does not generate great dialogue. In fact, I now realise that it’s exactly the other way around. Many great insights don’t translate into snappy patter. Many problems don’t submit to brute force—no matter how many man-years you throw at ’em (Don’t buy it? Then how come there’s no cure for cancer, college boy?) In the end, you just have to have the patience to wait for the characters to speak to you.
I used to think of the above as, how should I put this… ‘nuts’. I would read over and over how various authors just sat down and their characters just started talking. And at some point, the author’s job was mostly to simply take dictation. But then, after months of frustration? It’s started to happen to me. Not often, yet, but occasionally I’ll hear a character sing a line or two. And when I do, it’s always the correct line. In fact, this method seems far more efficient than trying to make these people say words until they’re saying something which sounds like something they would say. (Are those butterfly nets you have there, dear reader?)
Put another way:
Lear isn’t deep because Shakespeare started out with the intention of instilling his audience with some greater truth about power. I don’t think he then puzzled over how to make this point until he ultimately decided that using a nutty old king would provide the perfect vehicle. C’mon. Lear is deep because Shakespeare routinely cranked out verse like:
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!
If you can write like that, the deep underlying thoughts pretty much take care of themselves. And I think Lear rants so memorably to us, because Shakespeare heard him say just those words in just that blank verse. I don’t think that Bill sat there, like some college writing student, counting syllables or wondering, like some sit-com writer, what this speech does to ‘move the story forward’. I think it’s no mere metaphor to say that Lear speaks to us through Shakespeare. The character speaks and the author listens. The author doesn’t tell the character what to say.
In other words, I think the dialogue drives the story. And if it’s interesting enough, that story may or may not then leave one pondering the greater meaning. But I don’t think any the creation of any good art ‘trickles down from ‘the great truth’ to ‘the snappy patter’. Writing the snappy patter is its own reward.
So I’m trying to stop thinking about ‘the meaning of it all’ (yeah, I know…try to stop thinking about something.) I’m just waiting for Donnie, Eddie, Stanley and Kaye to say what they have to say. If it ends up fitting the ‘Powerful Metaphor!’ that’ll be great. But trying to force things like this doesn’t make The Great American Novel. And trying to do so, no matter how well-intentioned, is enough to drive a guy nuts. 😀