The Wide World Of Composition

One of the fond memories from my youth is the voice of Jim McKay introducing this week’s Wide World Of Sports on ABC. “Scanning the Globe to bring you the constant variety Of Sports. The Thrill of Victory, and The Agony Of Defeat. The Human Drama Of Athletic Competition.”

I looked forward to it every Saturday afternoon. My favorites were anything with Muhammad Ali or the Harlem Globetrotters. I also enjoyed each week watching the ski jumper fall down.

Jim McKay’s opening call is an indelible part of Americana. Not only the words, but the timbre of his voice gave a special uniqueness to the brand if such a wonderful show. His opening anthem is beautiful and so deep, it has applications that seem unreal until you reach them. Believe it or not, it works on Creative Writing.

Scanning The Globe

Of all the writers that I call great, most of them write about a very limited setting. Faulkner wrote about northern Mississippi and Fitzgerald wrote about the Jazz Age flappers in New England. Hemingway had a bit of variety, but it was still only places he had been.

We live in a big world and we have many places to set our stories. They don’t all have to be in our backyards. I’ve written three novels and I am now editing a novella, and all of them are set all over the place. My first novel is set in turn of the century Sicily, my second in 1850s Weatherford, Texas, and my third in 21st century Los Angeles. My novella’s main story take place in current Abilene, Texas, but has back story that goes from the 1920s to our time through New York, Dublin, Barcelona, Nairobi, and the Ural steppes.

Living in the age of the internet makes it easier to research these places and times. In fact, this dedication to research is necessary if you write in a place you haven’t lived. Paris in the 1920s was not a Wi-Fi hotspot. Maybe this is why the Lost Generation writers whom I admire so were so limited about their settings. Yet by the internet I was able to read accounts from Harpers’ Bazaar recording the accounts of Garibaldi’s 1870 liberation of Palermo.

The Constant Variety Of Sports

There is only one story, and that is the story of what it means to live as a human being. But there are myriad cases of what this really means. Your writings will have consistent tones and themes, but don’t be a broken record. All of my heroes so far have had to struggle between what he wants to do and what he ought to do. But I have different types of conflicts in mind for other stories.

People are different. Some are heroic like Hamlet and others not so much like Prufrock. You can write of people who succeed because they do the right thing, but you can also write of people who fail because they did the wrong thing. They may be well intentioned but ignorant like Parzival or just weak in doing what they know to be right like Viktor Komarovsky.

The Thrill Of Victory

I have been accused of writing stories with sad endings, even though in my three complete and my one work in progress the heroes have all ended up doing what is right. I see that as a success more than what the consequences may be. my fist hero saved the life of his brother-in-law who has sworn to kill him. My second put his newborn son in a shoebox and rode him across the Red River and handed him to a cousin of his wife whom he lost in childbirth. My third said a tearful good-bye to the love of his life so that he can save a small dairy in a small town even though his life is threatened for so doing. Are these not successes, and thrilling ones at that? I sure hope they are, but I’ll let the reader decide for himself.

Success is not always winning, but enduring. That I why stories like The Sound And The Fury have happy endings to me. Miss Quinten gets away from the Compson family and her uncle Jason particularly, and with the money he stole from her. That is a happy ending. Success doesn’t always have to be getting what you want, but learning to cope with failure. Holden Caulfield, who only wants to stop the clock, is satisfied with his sister riding a carousel, which is the closest he will ever get to arresting time.

The Agony Of Defeat

Sometimes a failure destroys a main character. He cannot cope with loss or failure. Sometimes this failure leads to his own death or the death of others, as with Jay Gatsby. For those who survive, their lives may spiral down into the deepest of dispairs, as with Dick Diver. Maybe the worst of all failures is when the protagonist realizes that life goes on for them and everyone else as if their loss didn’t matter at all, as in the Benjamin Britten opera Peter Grimes. And other times the calamity is that others have to live with the mess made by the main character, like all those stained by Thomas Supten.

The Human Drama Of Athletic Competition

All sports are based upon competition. Where it’s Muhammad Ali boxing Joe Frazier or the Harlem Globetrotters running up the score on the Washington Generals, two parties want something and both of them cannot get it. This competition in literature is called conflict, and it is the sizzle to the steak of a good story.

Why does any novel exist? Because someone wants something and someone or something wants the same thing or something else, but both parties cannot be satisfied. We all have studied the man versus nature, man versus man, man versus self stuff, but what I mean involves that but goes far beyond.

Captain Ahab wants the White Whale. The Whale does not want him to succeed, his crew does not want him to succeed, the forces of nature do not want him to succeed, and worst of all, it seems God doesn’t want him to succeed. And still the Captain goes on. This is how conflict makes a great story.

What makes sports so wonderful and entertaining is what makes great literature so enduring. Both give us a glimpse into the notion of what it means to live as a human being. The best stories have characters that are individual, but also identifiable. We see their struggles as our own, or at least in the same ballpark.


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