Friday, March 13, 2009

Badly Begun

Lately, I have been struggling with short stories. Mine, that is. I have an entire folder that consists of nothing but beginnings; when I try to choose one, I find that the folder only thickens without any choices being made. My stories still cry, in a separate folder, like neglected, hungry children.

It could be because I teach the genre and have been inhabiting students’ stories for the past few weeks, an exercise that will culminate into a finished product of sorts next week. Maybe this has heightened my sensitivity and intolerance of badly begun tales.
It could be the short novels I’ve been reading lately, that feel so unified and perfect that they must have been birthed full-grown, like Athena, from a singular painful headache, all in one sitting. Between last weekend and today, I read Morrison’s A Mercy, revisited Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, and just a few hours ago, finished Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. I found myself marveling at wonderful beginnings, like Trumbo’s introduction: “World War I began like a summer festival.” How perfect is that?

I do not aspire towards such perfection, of course. I’d be grateful for a much used, hackneyed, will-do-for-now band aid of a beginning.

After clacking away dejectedly, I usually close everything and watch a Hindi movie; maybe not thinking about my characters and their foolishness or wisdom would sweep off the cobwebs in my head. But I find myself noticing the ways of these movies.

So here I am, thinking of beginnings, this time, Bollywood style. I ask myself why these movies fascinate me. Why do I find myself glued to the tale even when I know it many times over?
It is the beginning, I know, that keeps me hooked, that promises the familiar resolutions I am so comfortable with. I wonder in my quest for a good beginning, I should venture into the clichés proposed by these movies and have paraphrased the five I found most repeated:

1. Some relationships cannot be named.
2. This is the story of _____ Mansion.
3. This story is about three brothers.
4. This is ____ city.
5. The story is ancient.

All of the above are abrupt announcements of purpose, a bad thing, we are told as students and practitioners of the craft. They only work because they are spoken, not written.

Maybe my problem is that I am trying to write tales that are best told.

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