Daily Archives: May 5, 2008

* The Marigold Loop

The Marigold Loop

Kenneth Burchfiel

The train sighed into the concourse, one eye open and the other light off. Teal sparks danced around the third rail in front of it, but the cars didn’t seem in the mood. The doors opened to reveal a pale interior that camouflaged the pale-faced occupants.

Briefcases and laptops scraped against his hips; tailored suits bumped into his flannel-fitted shoulders. A crowd of twenty, maybe thirty executives shoved their way into the car, save for the last few who came too late. Another groan, and the car limped out of the station.

He was the only one on the platform.

Armut walked back to his bench, the very furthest from the station’s center. It gave him an odd feeling to be standing there, surrounded by the same type whom he had worked with, dined with for the better half of his life. Or the worst half. He wouldn’t know just yet.

Another designer suit stepped off the escalator. Blue body, gold trim around the buttons. Her heels clacked against the platform floor until they stopped right before him.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a nervous smile. “I’m trying to get down to Uri, Uri Station. What line do I take?”

Did he tell her his revelation now? Or let her travel the loop until she realized it never took her anywhere?

“You want to take the Argon line down Crosstra, then take the Aluminum line to Uri.” He pointed to the approaching train, and the suit faded away.

Back to the bench. This set of cars was quite lively for seven in the morning; the train picked up a discarded Globe and tore it into a frenzy of newsprint. Armut watched the paper settle, then rise again as the cars departed.

When there was a lull in the traffic, or when he couldn’t quite bring himself to pull out the souvenir cup from under his shoe, Armut liked to gaze upward and watch the station doves. There were seventeen of them at his last count, each so distinct that he needed not reach for his glasses to tell them apart.

They congregated at the overhang, right where the two sides of the ceiling curved into a graceful row of columns. Armut smiled knowingly at the birds, then pulled out his orange cup and gave it a practice shake.

Four months ago, when Armut was a denizen of the loop, he and the doves met for the first time. He was one foot off the Argon line when a rapturous flapping sounded from above. The doves, yellow-tinted from the train lights, shot one by one into the tunnel. Within seconds, they had disappeared into the abyss.

He figured that they were headed for the next station, a circus of traveling birds that scoured the Albeit subway for food. But one look down the tunnel revealed a clump of white that seemed to be moving around.

Looking both ways and finding nobody to return his glance, he walked to the platform’s end. With each step, the speck evolved into an oval, then a patch, then an ever-shifting mass of white and grey. The birds had scraped out a nest between the transformer and the gas lines.

The only word the animals bought to his mind was peace. Peace, a strange term to find forty feet below the ground, yet far scarcer forty feet above.

Armut made a second, then a third pilgrimage to the dove’s next in the next two days. They were fascinating creatures to watch, from the way they pulled on every individual feather to the vocabulary of their calls. He wasn’t satisfied after fifteen minutes of observation, or a half-hour, or an entire hour. His boss asked Armut about the bags under his eyes the next day, and he wove together an explanation about a series of car alarms at his apartment complex. Must have been the college kids.

A strange thought came to him the next night, the next viewing. Armut was sitting on the bench near the birds when he wondered if he didn’t fit in better with them than with the world above. His coworkers were a strange flock: they drank as much coffee as their luxury SUVs drank gasoline. Abstracts and dissertations could drive them to tears, yet they didn’t blink an eye at some of the headlines in the Globe. The word “seniority” was like a mother’s lullaby to them. Perhaps, Armut thought, the birds down here knew something that the briefcase crowd, the people of the loop, did not.

Perhaps he could learn it, too.

It only took seven more days. He had marched into the subway with his skin popping and his eyes poised to spout. A co-worker had edited the wrong draft of Firm Proposal 30C, then promptly deleted his final version after finishing. The mistake lost him the firm’s most valuable client. Seeing the station empty once again, Armut opened his mouth to curse when he remembered the doves.

The mass of white was huddled together, each dove preening the neck of another. The older ones nudged their heads together, trading sweet chirps that the slightest noise in the station drowned out. Three chicks were exploring the underside of the third rail.

There was not anything special about the doves. Their actions, as far as he saw, were meaningless. They pecked for nothing, flapped for nothing, preened for nothing. But the more Armut stared, the more he realized that he was typing and negotiating for nothing. Twenty years in an executive office had given him nothing but a reason to fall out of bed in the morning.

The next week, Armut carried a bulky package and an orange cup with him on the way to Marigold station. The box obscured his long-sleeved shirt, a relic from law school that he hadn’t worn in decades. His blazer was on the frame of his bed, along with his loafers, his briefcase and the latest draft of Firm Proposal 30C. Even at fifteen pounds, the box lifted his spirits—if only for what it didn’t contain.

As the train moved silently to a stop, Armut noticed a gray-tinted dove perched on the station clock. He exited with the package and turned to the end of the platform.

Before stepping over the fence that separated the doves from the doctorates, he examined the loop one more time. The workers rode east in the morning, then west in the evening, east in the morning, then west in the evening, better paid each time but never going further than the tracks allowed. Some would ride the circle to their death. He wove to nobody in particular, then hopped the barrier.

Armut checked his watch, the only piece of electronics equipment that the box had contained. 121 days, 31 minutes and 13 seconds since he crossed the fence. He examined the orange cup for cracks, then walked up the escalator and stepped off the top into Albeit proper. The sun’s rays were powerful enough that he struggled to walk against them.

Armut settled down at his favorite bench and rattled the cup. The morning commuters were no philanthropists, but he hadn’t come here for the money. Armut shook the cup again and received a grimy dime for his efforts.

Every night, he went to sleep amidst the roar of subway trains and the gossip of doves. Before breaking away from the loop, he used to settle into a king-sized bed with 400 thread-count sheets, mood music and a school of sleeping pills. Ironic, perhaps, that the trains and dove put him at rest when the pills and blankets only kept him up. Ironic that he would find true freedom underground.

The bench faced the Marigold Station entrance, whose corners the sun sharpened into lines of white and gray. A pair of doves flew out of the tunnel, banking eastward towards the sun.

Armut smiled, leaned back on the bench and shook the cup again.

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MallBall–A sport for the nation’s capital

In the market for a new sport to try out? Check out MallBall, my linear take on the American pastime. (Click on the image to view the full guide.) 3/16

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Thematism: a new look at the writing process

The Fundamentals of Thematism:

Why themes are the natural foundations of literature

Kenneth Burchfiel

Ever since the early days of literature, the relationship between plot and theme has been a subject of debate. There are those who believe that a detailed, outlined plot is necessary for a book to succeed; others, perhaps the moderates in the debate, feel that both plot and theme are important components of writing. Almost everyone involved in such argument, however, admits to the importance and endurance of plot structure in modern literature.

With that in mind, I supposed the following could be coined the words of a radical. There is no way for me to duck this label; rather, I hope that those who will describe me as such might, at the very least, give my thoughts some consideration.

Thematism, to put it succinctly, is the idea that themes are the best bases for stories due to their natural existence as the pith of and inspiration for a written text; plots are merely the byproduct of the means to establish and convey a story’s message. Authors who employ Thematist strategies pay little attention to outlining, let alone think about what should occur in a given chapter or section. Rather, by basing themes at the center of what they write, they keep constant the overall message and meaning of a piece while leaving its narrative side open to revision.

In exploring this idea deeper, I would like to delve into two main points that served as the nebula for the Thematism idea. First, I will explain why plots are not good objects around which to build a story; second, I will explain why themes are the best candidate to take their place.

From a shallow perspective, pre-determined plots seem to be a great tool for fiction writing. Many of the literary epochs of the modern world have operated off a set outline, replete with narrative goals for every chapter. Consider this to be a disclaimer: plot has proven to be a successful structuring tool for some.

Under the shining surface of plot, however, lies a number of glaring insufficiencies, a host of setbacks that even the best plot-centered writers must deal with. Perhaps the foremost is the Inconvenient Truth that the best ideas one has for a plot develop during the process of writing, not beforehand. In the Thematist’s eye, all the benefits of outlining are outweighed by this very simple fact, and much of Thematism is inspired by it. One must recognize that, at the time of outlining, they know next to nothing about the potential of their piece. We structure and plan in the dark; only when we actually type out our work do we begin to see what path a book can, and should take. (A quick qualifies: I have nothing against the idea of plot; my criticism falls squarely on the tradition of building a story off a prefabricated plot.)

Secondly, we must ask ourselves if it makes sense to base a story off its plot in the first place. A central point of Thematists is that plots, by nature, are passive; they do not create nor determine, but are created and determined. In life, things do not merely happen; there is reason and motive, both of which determine just what event will occur. To write a story based on a chain of events is to construct an artificial reality in which things merely occur on the whim of the writer. Doing so may make a story more exciting or fun, per se, but it turns the writing experience into a chore, and the reading experience into a mere overview of a sequence. Enticing as it is to create that “perfect plot,” such an effort occurs at the wrong time—the beginning of the writing process—and out of a misconstrued perception of cause and effect.

There is one more bone to pick with the concept of a central, unifying plot structure. What happens when a writer has a new idea about a story’s course in the process of composing a book? Should they stick with their original plans, this newfound (and often superior) idea will go to waste. Plot-centered writing restricts creativity in the sense that its usage dulls the writing process into a mere elaboration on a pre-determined narrative structure. The creative mind has little, if any domain over a story governed by an outline. With this drawback in mind, writers often implement a less rigid form of plot structure; they may decide only to plan out the first few chapters, then let the book go where it may, or outline just a few sections in advance. Both of these methods improve upon a complete outline, but they only address the creative restriction involved in outlining. The other two problems with using plots as foundations—the lack of foresight outliners have and plot’s natural existence as an effect, not a cause—remain to be solved with either strategy.

And so, the source for a foundation continues. We are looking for a guiding, yet non-obtrusive element of literature from which a story can grow; a writers’ compass that tells the author in what direction to head, not where to go. We want something at the center of our story, but nothing that overshadows or controls it. As a Thematist, I believe that such a search ends with the concept of theme. No doubt this will take some explaining to do.

By theme, I mean a non-specific, fundamental facet of life—be it the need for companionship, the transitory nature of life or the joy of rebirth—that a story expresses and feeds off. Perhaps the best comparison can be drawn with colors. The sun, a banana and a canary are vastly different entities, yet they are all yellow. In the same sense, a theme can unite vastly different stories that use it as a foundation. Only when plots are generalized to the most basic structures can they accomplish the same.

Theme does not make for a superior foundation simply because it lets writers max out their creativity, or because it is more of a cause than an effect, or because it benefits a writer to know the theme beforehand. More than anything else, theme is the best thing on which to base a book because it exemplifies the very purpose of literature: the need to express a message, idea or truth through the means of a narrative. If one builds a story off a plot, they all but overlook the reason for writing the plot in the first place. If one starts with the theme and continues on, however, their book—and their very efforts to craft it—will have a purpose and message that even the best outline cannot deliver. The well-crafted plot reminds the author of what they are writing; the pre-determined theme reminds the author of what they are writing for, provides each and every sentence with a reason for existing that transcends their sum, gives the story a foundation that grounds and elevates it simultaneously.

Thematism does not demand that every piece of literature be a sappy, cliché-laced story about being oneself and doing the right thing. Thematism merely acknowledges that all literature, from the grotesque to the quaint, from the utilitarian to the ultra-progressive-new wave-post-postmodernist, exists to translate themes into written form. The theme of this article, for example, is the superiority of the theme over the plot in terms of a literary foundation. (Message would be a good synonym for the word, except far too many equate the term with children’s books or public service announcements.)

Theme makes for an excellent foundation for other reasons, of course. As long as the thematic side of a book remains constant, its narrative side (regarding plot, character development and structure) is free to change at the writers’ whim. The creative mind is allowed to roam, but also benefits from a sense of direction and purpose. Themes also allow the reader to identify with any piece of work, be it a documentary on Alaskan king crab fishing or a period piece in 17th century Japan.

Best of all, perhaps, their use as a foundation gives a story a sense of timelessness. Few of the “classics” survive because of their excellent plot or sheer entertainment as reading material; yesterday’s riveting thriller is tomorrow’s kindling because of the advances in form, style and presentation that occur today. Themes, however, have a perpetual element. Readers in the 21st century can enjoy and connect with a Mesopotamian tale about first love—not because of its cutting-edge storyline, but because of its timeless message. It takes only a classic theme to write a classic novel.

Thematism is not a revolution, nor an ultra-progressive idea that turns literature inside out. It’s a simple idea, grounded on a simple acknowledgment that writers throughout history have made: the message of a story is its foundation, and the story itself a means for translating that message into literary details. Hopefully, this essay has stretched for no greater conclusion.

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