The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, January 08, 2007

‘X’ Marks This Post

By Andrew Tibbetts

The third of Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots is “The Quest”. All you need for a quest story is something worth looking for and someone who does the looking. The story could follow a knight searching for the Holy Grail or, just as easily, two homeless men’s efforts to get a refund on a stolen space heater (Terrence Odette’s “Heater”, a Canadian film the Village Voice’s Amy Taubin calls “a Beckett-like tour de force”- rent it tonight!)

Quests seem to crop up in Canadian comedy movies a lot. Whether it’s Red Green looking for the ultimate duct tape sculpture, the trailer park boys looking for the Big Dirty, or Bob and Doug looking for free beer, if you’ve got some characters and you don’t know what to do with them, give ‘em a quest. It’s the ultimate tack-on narrative.

In contrast, serious Canadian literary short fiction seems questless. In fact that might be a defining feature, and what makes it so dreary. Combing through Canlit periodicals, you’ll come across story after story of people who don’t know what they want. Our recent heroes and heroines are all suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. We are drowning in aftermath stories. All the events are over; the drama is done. And things haven’t turned out so well. A couple have lost a baby; we join them as they watch TV in silence. A man survives a brutal rape; we sit with him as he stares out the window. A brother and sister reunite after their parents die in a freak accident; they have nothing to say to each other.

Some years ago, I noticed this aftermath-mania crawling into my own fiction. I wanted to write about some kids who died in a forest fire in my town when I was an impressionable teen. I set it at the funeral- not mid-blaze. I wanted to write about how much you can love a pet (as much as anything, I say!) I wrote a story about a boy who lies on his dog’s grave at night. I wanted to write about a dramatic incident from my grandmother’s youth. I began with her lying in a nursing home near death. It seemed to be what all the other short story kids were doing.

Don’t get me wrong, this literature of grieving, this mapping of shock, this lull-lust is not wrong. It’s a thoughtful, fully felt reaction to our Canadian experience. Lots of bad shit has gone down, man, think about it!

But: are we scared to tackle the living moment that is driven? Can we write about couples trying like hell to save their marriages, families working hard to love and care for each other, or those who rise from the disaster site seeking revenge? Instead of crafting my sad stories of recollection, could I write about trying to escape the fire, rushing home to be with the dog, or that day my grandmother tried to bring my grandfather his lunch at the mine. I’m not sure.

Is it the endings of quest tales that bother us? Accomplished quests seem too corny; failed ones, too bleak? And if we end a story mid-quest, does that seem gimmicky, like those 60’s mysteries that don’t get solved? Is it an Antonioni movie where the characters just stop looking for the missing heiress?

I think it IS the endings- we distrust them so much we skip right over them. We understand obsession, greed, lust. We’ve lost our faith in their results, though. We need to begin at the end, to prove we can take the fallout, that we aren’t Pollyanna, that we aren’t bumpkins, simpletons, children, that we know full well how badly it turns out. If we write about somebody who’s eagerly pursuing something, we might be mistaken for the naïve. We have to prove that we are too smart to fall for that business again- that caring-about-stuff stuff.

Well: I want you to know something. When I loved that dog, I didn’t know it was going to die. I didn’t know I was going to become middle-aged. There was a time when I was eternal, when taking off into the back forty acres was a shining, shining thing to do that could lead anywhere. The huff of a dog’s nose hoovering scents, the feel of squishy things, the flinging of rocks and sticks into the air and limbs along a path never before taken…

I dare you, and me, to write about characters still trying, unaware of how it will end. Quest on!


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

"When I loved that dog, I didn't know it was going to die."

That's a killer line, Andrew! Great post. There's the before, the during, and the after. Three ways to attack a story -- three options to choose from. We should choose the most surprizing, always.

Mon Jan 08, 11:06:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Welcome back, Andrew. You're in great form. It is interesting that we often choose to write about the aftermath of something difficult. Perhaps the actual event is too painful to imagine or we're afraid of getting sentimental. And, to write about happiness is the most difficult of all.

Mon Jan 08, 01:11:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger MelBell said...

This post is great, Andrew. And inspiring.
Thank you for this!

Mon Jan 08, 04:42:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Andrew, you analyze these plots and relate them to Canadian literature so well, thank you for another lesson. Now I get it! Your thoughts on why the ending are intimidating are especially interesting.

Tue Jan 09, 10:34:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Patricia said...

This is sooo moving Andrew, I am in tears, really, this is beautiful, our quest, god, there are endless quests, so many of them, all shining with possiblity, all holding the possibilty of heartbreak, so great Andrew, quest on my friend..xoxox

Wed Jan 10, 02:30:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger tamara said...

What a great post. I love your 'discovery' in the middle! Now I'm going to take you up on your Tibbetts Challenge.

Wed Jan 10, 11:45:00 pm GMT-5  

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