Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why Do They Do That?

I went to a poetry reading last night at the 3300 Club. It's one of those bars that are hard to find outside of San Francisco. It's a working class poets' bar in the middle of the Mission district. Everyone's welcome there -- from Mexican jornaleros to dot-commers to lesbian nature poets to retired teamsters. It just works. It's been working for fifty years.

Last night's reading featured "The Marin Traveling Poets". A haughty bunch. They all teach seminars on Rilke and lead weekend poetry retreats and so on. The men all dressed like they herded sheep in a scotch ad. The women had clearly been forced to dress themselves from Maya Angelou's hand-me-downs. The first poet intoned away with a dense web of someone else's imagery in someone else's voice. Everything about him said, "I am bringing the Word to you." And we'd heard it all before.

The host, who had noticed that the less sophisticated audience members such as myself had turned their attentions to the Giants game, offered us a summary of the imagery and what it meant. Then the next poet got up. In that very same practiced, serious, poetic tone, she read a series of affirming quotes about writing that made me want to take a steal brush to the bumper stickers that must surely grace her Subaru. Then she read some poetry. Then she told us what it meant. And then the host told us what it meant. There was nothing new all night.

Why do they do that?

I went down to meet the dean and administration from Cogswell for the first time last week. I haven't had a real boss in years. I left academia in a hurry twelve years ago. I literally remembered an hour beforehand that I can't just wear my regular T-shirt and jeans. I spent the day projecting calm professionalism to hide the screaming kid inside me. And I listened as all the correct phrases seemed to exit my mouth without my control. I knew how to hit the right notes. I just had to stay out of my own way.

How did I do that?

I am a big people watcher. And sometimes it's the most 'boring' people who are the most engaging people to watch. Why? Learned behaviors. Why does a poet wear tweed and read like Dylan Thomas? Because he's been rewarded for it for years. How do I suddenly remember behavior I forgot I knew? That behavior kept me safe and employed for years. Your head doesn't just lose survival techniques.

When you see two young urban professionals on a date, there's a script there. When a teenager talks to his mom, there's a script there. When a boss talks to his new faculty, there's a script there.

Those scripts are only boring if you don't bother to interpret them. There's a reason people become poets, and it's usually full of drama. It's rarely the same reason. Some relish the power relationship of reader and audience. Some are dressing themselves up to distinguish themselves. Some have been rewarded for this. And yes, many have discovered the power of words.

Two yuppie kids on a date talk about Cancun and wine country and their jobs. What are they talking about? It depends entirely on other circumstances. But one thing is certain -- if there's risk involved, if there are stakes -- the safe way to play the situation is to stick to the script. Stick to the learned behavior. We all do it.

What does this tell a screenwriter? Most of our dialogue in the course of the day is learned behavior. And our audience knows exactly how to interpret it. They won't suddenly lose this capacity as they walk into a theater. Use it. When you're writing dialogue, or just struggling with a scene, think of the learned behavior that would structure that scene in real life. The audience will know exactly what you're doing.

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