Thursday, September 28, 2006

Pay Attention

Ever see this card trick, available at a Website near you?

You may have been alerted to it by an e-mail forwarded from your uncle's best friend's sister's dogsitter's third cousin. (It's been floating around for years.) Simply pick one of the cards below:

Concentrate on that card. Really hard! Don't look at anything else for 15 minutes! Then click to a new screen, and viola! Your card has disappeared!

Of course, the card you picked disappeared because all the cards have disappeared. Though they resemble each other, the cards on each screen are different. The trick is predicated on the fact that you can't remember all the cards from the first screen to the second, because you weren't paying attention. Showing all the cards on one screen makes it obvious.

When I lined up the cards next to each other, as above, and, remembering how this trick fooled me, I thought, "I shouldn't have put lead paint chips on my baloney sandwiches growing up, even though the chips gave it that pure crunchy goodness."

While people pay copious sums to Ricky Jay and Penn and Teller to dazzle them, for absent-minded folks like myself, this attention deficit disorder can be a killer in the fiction game.

When we are writing fiction -- really in a groove, riding that caffeinated buzz or just high on life -- our attention is so sharply focused that we could cut a frozen steak with it.

If only I could keep that going. I get up to pace. I get interrupted by a phone call. I need to eat something. And so on.

Perhaps more importantly, we are constantly reminded as writers to read fiction for more than entertainment: examine the structure, characterization, symbolism, and language. Learn from Moby-Dick rather than simply enjoying it, though most people enjoy getting their thumb staple-gunned to a wall than reading Moby-Dick.

Future novelists

Wife is particularly good at this kind of reading, because she has reservoirs of discipline that never welled up in me, much less evaporated over the years. For instance, when we're discussing books we've both read, wife will say something like, "The narrative voice in Ragtime is unlike anything else, and the plotting remarkable, in how the connective tissue of the historical characters all fit perfectly.

"And Doctorow can get away with so much because he has the perfect voice -- the prose just flows off the page. I've learned so much from that book that I can use in my own writing."

"Yes, I agree" I say, thinking, "Well, I know I liked it."

I can blame this propensity on my abject, dissolute inability to concentrate on anything for more than six minutes, which in turn I can blame on being brought up on the television farm. I can hum the theme song from "The Price Is Right," but I can't verbalize what I learned from reading "Invisible Man," one of my favorite books, other than "In order to be a great writer like Ralph Ellison, you have to write really, really great."

(It's unclear to me what would have happened had I been born in the era before television, particularly in the 19th Century. Ignoring the fact that I would have been a peasant in The Pale, I may have been more focused. There was no "Price Is Right." Hell, there was no radio. All you did for fun was push a hoop with a stick, study Torah, and hide in the basement during Monday Night Pogrom.)

I have a sorry history of wanting to quit something if I can't do it right the first time. That's why I don't play guitar, speak French, juggle four balls, or bother to put the cap on the toothpaste.

I don't know art, but I know what I like

I am curious if there are others who write fiction yet do not consciously "study" novels or stories, or who have microscopic attention spans. Do you also burn everything you cook? Miss the plot twists in a movie? Have gotten into three (3) or more automobile accidents when you were driving?

Admittedly, I've been in three accidents when I was behind the wheel, but only two were my fault. Nobody was hurt. And one happened when I was 18, so it doesn't count. Right?