Monday, January 26, 2009

Papier-Mache People

Paper. Sort of a thin subject, but one that is important, especially as more and more people try to become paper.

Paper has little relief. It is so nondescript that even the addition of inked lines makes the paper just a bit thicker than without. When something printed on paper is read, most people want relief--relief from the day, or a subject that is "out-of-the-ordinary." As the British say, something "Extra ordinary." But how many stories, master's theses, dissertations and government documents have no relief? The common threat for a novelist is, "I liked the story, but it took me several chapters to get into it."

In some cases, the stories may not have that necessary element called contrast. A story like that may start, "She sat at her desk and looked blankly." Other stories may have contrast, but the writer never brings it out.

As a writer, I have found the most frustrating element of writing a story is that many people don't really want contrast in the stories that are being written. Or, perhaps they don't know how important it is to the story. They may even have personal motives for keeping the story flat.
Several years ago, a man commissioned me to write a story about some wildlife that had lived on his ranch. I jumped at the story. I started interviewing people, looking for government publications and photos concerning the topic and finding those small nuggets for a great story. In the second talk about what my benefactor wanted, he said he didn't want the story to be about people. He wanted a story about the animals--in this case, wolves.

I was unable to persuade him that without people there would be no story. Without people, especially European-Americans, wolves in general would still be living in Montana with no cares or worries. Additionally, since the wolves had all been killed by government specialists, it seems that without people the wolves would still be here. I believe that his reason for not including humans was to keep his name from the story and show how "good" he was, without saying that "he" had given the wolves a chance. Without people and their efforts and failures, there was a simple master's thesis on the life cycle of some random group of wolves. I lost interest in the story. It was eventually written, but it's not much of a story. No contrast. A better writer could have pulled it off.

While researching that story, I interviewed many government experts and read reams (literally) of publications on wolf reintroduction. No surprise, the publications are written by people who have master's degrees and so they know how to write scholarly, academic tomes. Lots of headings, subheadings and footnotes. The information is there, but it is like reading applesauce--it can be tasty, but after a few buckets, not really that interesting.

Anyway, while interviewing one of the experts, I asked if he had any interesting, exciting or different stories concerning this particular pack of wolves. He came to life. No longer a scholarly, academic bureaucrat, but a living breathing being. He actually showed signs of blood in his face.

He said, "Yeah. One day we were trying to dart and capture one of the young wolves. We darted him four times, but he wouldn't go down." I asked if he wanted to tell the story and he related a great story that included helicopters and pilots, government trappers and shooters, and finally one of the team leaping from the chopper, wrestling the wolf to the ground, and hogtying him with his boot laces.

When I asked him to explain a few finer points in the story, his face lost all animation, and his reasoning mind went to work. He "hymmed and hawed," and eventually said, "I'm not sure that that really happened." I said that it must have--you know with him getting so animated. He said that it wouldn't make a good story to be told to the public and so he would deny that it ever took place.

I never used the story. I can appreciate the heat that a government official may face if dedicated wolf "lovers" heard the story. On the other hand, the story isn't a classified government secret. The story is actually worse than knowing that one wolf from that pack had been darted multiple times and was finally wrestled to the ground by some government "he-man." The entire pack was killed or removed. The ten that were removed to Yellowstone park all died within two years of release. The same lifeless story only about wolves was further flattened because a government official wished to avoid political (read: media) backlash. Since the story was never published, that government official continued to have a relief-less life.

The whole issue of people wanting to be featureless again reared it head while I was researching another wildlife story. One of the government officials had said that she practiced Tai Chi and ballroom dancing in her spare time. She continued and said, "People who I work with can't imagine me doing Tai Chi or wearing stilettos on the dance floor, and the people who know me from Tai Chi or dancing find it odd that I work with wild animals." What contrast! A great nugget for a story. When I started to put the story together I called her and asked about specifics about the type of dance, Tai Chi, etc. She replied that she was in a very sensitive position and wanted to keep everything about her in the media as professional as possible. She found the contrast a highlight in her life, yet she wished to flatten it to fit the scholarly, academic view of a scientist she, and others, wished to present. No Tai Chi! No ballroom dancing!

Three stories on two subjects. Three people--one a private rancher and two government experts. With varying reason, the people and the stories have been made flat as the paper they were written on.

Do we all wish to be paper?

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