Friday, February 8, 2008

Celebrity Encounters

John Dufresne's The Lie That Tells The Truth is a great beginning guide to fiction writing. It contains tons of prompts plus pithy advice. For example, on being afraid to write because your attempts are awful, "You aren't perfect. Neither is your writing. Get over it. Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor." I like that. 

OK, then. One of his prompts is to re-write a celebrity encounter. Everyone has had some brush with the famous, either good or bad. He says you should think about what happened, and then "Imagine that what happened was not all that happened. Imagine that the pair of you were tossed together by fate." It's a scene of what might have happened after the original encounter. But this time, you help the celebrity change a flat tire or find her keys or steal something. This is a story containing a character like you and a character like the celebrity you met.

I tried the opposite. If the celebrity encounter is imminent and unavoidable, I wondered, what would happen if I wrote out possible outcomes beforehand? That's what I did for several hours on the train to New York City. I wrote five of them, all disastrous. Well, at first all disastrous. Somehow disaster satisfies like no other outcome. It soothes and energizes at the same time. (People who smoke tell me that this is what cigarettes do, too.) So, in one I was so nervous that I puked on him. And fainted. And had to be carried out on a stretcher with no dignity and no story. In another I waited too long to interview him. Avoided him until late, too late, because he was drunk. Roaring drunk. And I mean Peter O'Toole drunk.  And while I tried to interview him he ignored me at first. The he stole the microphone, ripping it out of the kit and hiding it.  Then he accidentally clothes-lined me in some sort of broad gesture to someone across the room. In a third version he didn't show up at all. In the fourth, he politely declined to speak to me, saying that other people deserve attention, but I wouldn't take the hint. I continued to insist, and he continued to deflect until we both became rude and upset.  

In the fifth version, I was more moderate. In this version, I did my job of talking to lots of different people. When I approached him, he did his job of answering questions in a polite and perfunctory way. The evening ended without incident. Perhaps this was the saddest version of all. (Sadder still, because this is pretty much how it actually played out.)

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