Your bell and candle: The conventionality trap and writers


This evening watched a swell old flick, Bell, Book & Candle, in which a witch played by the beguiling Kim Novack (and/or her cat — one can’t be totally sure) manages to seduce and beguile poor innocent little Jimmy Stewart and make him fall in love with her.  Well, things go as they do and so after a delightful romp, in the end poor Novack has discovered that she can’t really be “in love” unless she basically loses her witchly powers and becomes, gasp, a traditional 1950s housewife who cries and wears pastels.   Later on, found this nice post where the same observation was made.

It’s easy to recognize this abrupt retreat into tedious conventionality in the film as you watch it now, probably easier than it may have been for viewers in 1958, when possibly a smaller percentage of the country was “hep” to the various subtexts in the film and when people were still treading cautiously lest they be suspected of “un-American activities” by friends or neighbors.  But it’s also easy  to forget that George Carlin wasn’t famous yet, the sixties had not happened, and Elvis was still shocking people.  So we may feel tempted to blow off such a conventional ending, if we even notice it as a kind of letdown, except that things probably aren’t all that different today in many respects.

For many writers, there is still a strong external, and so internalized pressure  toward conventionality in what you write about, and how you write it.  It may not seem so much politically- as it does commercially driven.  (If there is really much difference between the two.)  The editorial calendar of a major writers’ magazine recently came out, and their year is planned mostly around articles on “how to make it,” how to make your blogs sell, how to market stuff.  Very little on what to write, on the inner life, the craft, the guts of writing as traditionally understood.  Writers, apparently, have been replaced by marketers who word process.

This is not evil people, it’s economics, of a sort.  (The devil is always a matter of economics, though.)  Because the attitude of the publishing world is generally driven by the need for the sure thing.  If it hasn’t already been sold by the millions, if your book or article is too-new an idea, you may hear that those things “never sell.”  You do “competitive analyses” in book proposals not to show that your new book will be remarkably different, but to reassure editors that it will be pretty much the same as some kind of Mendelian (or Hollywood) “cross” between current bestseller X and current bestseller Y.  What they want are clones, but clones that are of course totally fresh and different and new knockoffs of the stuff “that sells.”  Which means that if you write for a living (or want to), your critical choices (in things like what projects and directions to go in, what agents to seek, etc.) may be based in part on how you resolve this tension for yourself.

But on a different level, this isn’t just about being “commercial” versus being “an honest writer.”  Because the real dynamic tension for writers is that between expressing your individual ideas or vision or quirky thinking, and the legitimate psychological needs of most of your audience for some kind of predictability.  This needs to be understood, I think, because it can be easy to confuse the needs flowing from the psychology of asthetic joy on the part of your reader, from the political and economic needs of  your friendly global corporate publishing company and perhaps too-timid agent.

On the one hand, you (as a writer, artist, scientist, or citizen) can be so quirky, or so subversive, that you could shake the foundations of your entire society.  This may be just peachy — foundations often need shaking.  Jefferson, Madison, Franklin were shakers of foundations as much as Carlin or the Beatles were; religious visionaries are often the most dramatic shakers of all (before their followers try to pave it all over and stop the flow of change forever.)  As a writer, your “job” sometimes may feel like it’s questioning everything, being a troublemaker, a genuine pain in the ass of your culture, your corporation, your high school principal, or the school board.

On the other hand, you have to contend with the tendencies of the human nervous system to organize things into familiar patterns.  And to react strongly — even homicidally —  if the patterns seem too unfamiliar, out of place, or “wrong.”

By God, the audience WILL hear it as rhythm, whether you put it in there or not! Or if they can’t find one, they will literally filter the whole work out of their memories, and you’re sunk.    They WILL see a movie in 1958 as not quite “right” if Jimmy Stewart doesn’t “get” Kim Novack (and if, in 1958, she’s not the one who gets “got”), and it will not tolerate a movie ending with her still wearing black velvet outfits and being overtly seductive, instead of tearful and soft and helpless.  It’s not voluntary, it’s the nervous system.  Runs on its own, you see.  It’s a big machine for pattern recognition.

“Nothing we can do about it.”  Or so the marketers believe, anyway. (As did the “experts” who just knew that once inside the voting booths, most people would just flinch and not vote a black man into the, um, white house.)

Since cautious believers in the usual rhythms write the checks for writers (if and only if you produce  safe bits of art for them to bet on), they can tend to undermine subversion or change, not necessarily because it’s some political conspiracy (not that there aren’t those), but because, well, “who’s gonna buy a story like that?”  (And so the fewer weird, quirky little publishers there are around, say…  you already know the math.)

The tension this creates is carried by every writer who hasn’t already turned their writing into a variation of a corporate cubicle job — a “feed them exactly what they want and nothing more” series of assignments (usually, those that involve ad copy or selling lists of “top five” health tips for getting gerbils out of your shoes or something.  Remember, if you’re still thinking of selling out, numbered lists are hard to beat.)

But if you haven’t stopped trying to be yourself, if you haven’t given  up hope of changing the world, you will write because you see something that bugs you.  You may even want to scream about it, or murder someone.  (The wonderful old writer and Freudian analyst Theodore Reik used to say “a thought murder a day keeps the doctor away.” Try it, though some prefer slow torture.  Or better still, write about it, and infect others with your awareness.  Change the vibrations of more folks than just yourself.)

Yet, going totally off to your own drummer while still getting a decent piece of marketable fiction or essay or whatnot, is the trick, isn’t it?  You want someone to read it, you want someone to want to read it, you want them to want it on their Kindle.

So the magic trick, the trick to witchy spells, is to find resolutions that change the paradigms, that rewire brains, but in ways that still make sense, feel right, taste yummy to timid palates.  You want to find a way, in short, for Kim Novack to remain the sexy witch who weaves spells over Jimmy Stewart, and maybe for Jimmy to learn to loosen up and enjoy the process and her power over him a bit more… and maybe for the world to be a bit different, a bit more magical, than it was before all the shenanigans and spells started to disrupt the axes a bit.  How to write that way?


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Filed under Film, Writing, Writing and society, Writing profession

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