06 February 2004

Parable of the Reader

Alienated and decidedly idiosyncratic, Writer sat at her battered, steam-powered typewriter, pounding grey letters onto yellowed paper, certain that her inner genius had begun to ooze and tremble onto the page. She had stared at this page for many years, fearful of writing a word lest it be somehow wrong, ill considered, a clang where there should be a melodious tweet.

But a person cannot stare forever at a piece of paper, watching it turn yellow in the sun and dusty in the dark, and Writer, being a person, felt her legs ache and her bowels scream and her stomach rumble as all the necessities of physical life clawed for her attention. Once she got more words down, she told herself, she would be free.

The words proceeded. The story, if that's what it was, got told.

Later, after the last letter of the last word of the last page had plunged into inky reality, Writer got up, stretched her legs, paid a visit to the toilet, and then ordered a pizza from the crazy Irishman down the street who insisted he was Italian.

Soon, there was a knock on the door. The crazy Irishman was, Writer thought, remarkably fast tonight. She opened the door to discover, not the crazy Irishman bearing a pizza, but her old friend Reader, bearing a book.

"I thought you'd like to borrow this," Reader said, handing Writer a rumpled paperback with space ships on the cover. "It's a fast read," Reader said, "and lots of fun. Plenty of action."

Though there were many times when Writer found Reader (at best) annoying -- indeed, she had once plotted his death -- she was grateful for his attention and pleased that he would think of her. He frequently passed books on to her, usually ones with spaceships on the cover and plenty of action. She liked reading them after having spent time working on her writing, because it was a nice way to relax, one step up from staring at color bars on her television set.

"I just finished a new story," Writer said.

"Wonderful! Can I read it?"

"It's just a first draft," Writer said. "But I like it. So sure. Come on in."

She handed Reader the yellowed sheets of paper.

"Did it take you long?" Reader asked.

"Not at all. It's just an experiment. Nothing serious. But I'm curious if you find it interesting, or cliched, or anything."

Reader smiled and sank down in the understuffed arm chair, dust and stuffing rising around him.

Just as Reader read the last word of the last sentence on the last page, there was a knock on the door. Writer opened the door, took the cardboard box of pizza from the crazy Irishman, paid him a hefty tip, and offered Reader a slice.

"No, thanks," he said. "I stopped for a burger on my way here."

Writer put two slices of pizza onto a plate for herself and sat on the floor in front of Reader. "Well," she said between bites, "what do you think? Is it awful?"

Reader scowled. "We've been friends for a while, right?"

"Sure," Writer said.

"So I can be honest."

"Please do."

"Well, it's not a story," Reader said. "It's ... it's a vignette, I think..." (He pronounced the g in vignette, as, being a strict Anglican in linguistic matters, he did with all words.)

"Oh. Okay. Well, is it interesting?"

"No," Reader said. "It's just a lot of telling. The last issue of Writer's Digest had a whole article on showing versus telling. I think you should read it."

"But the story is--"

"--Vignette."

"Right -- it's set up as a kind of lecture. The ape is lecturing to the people who have come to hear him and find out how an ape can become civilized."

"That's a problem, though," Reader said. "Don't you see? You've got a great situation with him in the cage on the ship -- he could break out, he could throw people overboard -- it would be wonderful. But you just have him tell everyone that he was in a cage and then he offers his thoughts on it. That's not a story."

Writer sighed. "He couldn't break out of the cage on the ship. He has to experience life with humans first, and realize all the cages around him. He's looking for a way out, even when he's not in a cage."

"And that's what's wrong with the st-- the vignette. He tells us everything we're supposed to know and think. He says he's looking for a way out. And then at the end he says he's found it, and he says all he does is report and leave it to the people listening to him to interpret and judge. That's really dull. He just tells, tells, tells. No showing. And how does he know English so well, anyway? His sentences are really long and complicated. It doesn't make any sense."

Reader handed the yellowed pieces of paper, which had grown even yellower and more brittle in his hands, to Writer, who had left her second slice of pizza untouched.

"Are you going to eat that?" Reader asked, pointing to the pizza.

"No," Writer said. "I'm not hungry anymore. You can have it."

Reader took the slice of pizza and swallowed it in one gulp. "Well, I've got to go -- thanks for the pizza," he said, and walked out the door.

Writer walked to the small window of her apartment, a window grimy with smoke and dust and age. She unlocked it and tried to open it, but the window's frame had warped and the window would not open. She had wanted to toss the pages out, to let them scatter down to the streets of the city, to let them be stepped on and swept up and burned and ignored. But the window would not open.

"Well," she said to the pieces of paper, "I guess we're stuck with each other." She set them on the table beside her typewriter, then went to her bed and quickly fell into a dreamless sleep.

In the morning, a small pile of dust lay beside the typewriter, but no papers were anywhere to be seen. Writer touched a finger to the pile of dust, then leaned down, and with one swift breath, blew the dust into the air and watched it dance in a single bolt of sunlight before it joined all the other dust on the floor.

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