Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Conflict vs. Connection

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Conflict vs. Connection

Until feminism, Aristotle had been held up as the go-to man for understanding story. And for good reason. Drama and story are all about conflict: Person vs. Society, Person vs. Person, Person vs. Self, Person vs. Nature. Blanche wants her animal nature to run free within the rules but when the bull Stanley rapes her she loses her mind (Person vs. Self, Person vs. Nature, Person vs. Person); swinging his saber in ignorance, Luke Skywalker must defeat his father, Darth Vader (Man vs. Man). What Aristotle wrote almost 2,400 years ago holds up. He’s got a lot of good stuff to keep in mind. I worked with Sharon Stone’s acting teacher in L.A. Decent actor; way fun to watch. But, when I do watch her, I can see the competition which I know is at the root of how she understands story. For her, and her teacher Ivana, story is all about winning. Watch a Sharon Stone performance and then you'll see. She's very smart and she will win. She didn’t show her stuff in Basic Instinct in order to lose. No, she, the actor, played to win against the other actors in that room. She wasn't acting like she was playing to win. She was playing to win, period. It was adversarial. And she won.

There’s a lot of other elements to story, of course. Action, character, plot and so on. In his Poetics, Aristotle says that story is the combination of actions. He’s right. Characters, he argues, need to be virtuous or not but, either way, they need to be at a moment of decision. The story must involve recognition and suffering too. But when I started applying African epistemology (how we know what we know) to my stories, a whole world opened up. African epistemology has informed black feminism, and now the rest of feminist and queer thought. This way of knowing taught me that like communities, drama and story can emerge from connection — not just competition. I’m an actor and I’ve written some screenplays, competition is fun. No question. Patrick Swayze and I once beat the bejesus out of each other in a movie. We both left it basically okay, but bleeding. But, as a fiction writer, I don’t find competition and conflict quite as fruitful. They shut me down. They turn the light off of insight or learning. Everyone, every character, is playing to win. But there has to be something else, some subtler struggle, going on too.

That something else could be connection. Connection is another way to understand what happens in a story. I can write a story about you punching me. Your fist conflicts/competes with my face in order to beat me. But without seeing the punch as an attempt to connect, a failure to connect or the connection itself, the punch falls into melodrama.

Understanding the inter-connectedness of family and community, we can apply the same principles to story. Drama and story arise because we humans must connect to each other. We don't know how not to. And, when we can't — o', that's good stuff. Connection is life or death. It is how we, god willing, survive.

Yes, story is a ‘combination of actions.’ No question. But what are those actions in the service of? When I work with writers and actors, and in my own work, I challenge us to expand our understanding of story and character as connection. Suddenly, blocked scenes open up. You’re punching my face because you love me and I don’t see it. You’re punching my face because you want to connect me to the idea that you’re not a wimp. You’re punching my face (and failing to really connect with me) because nothing else is working. Connection cracks the door to nuance and subtlety. It’s also a different poetics for a time when we all need each other, desperately. When peace-making, rather than winning, is called for. Since we’re the people who put the stories out there, we could think about that.

And, if Blanche wasn't trying to connect, then what the hell was she doing?

1 comment

Nice post. Recalls the words of the great Edward Morgan Forster: "only connect".

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Thom Vernon

Thom Vernon has worked in film, television and theatre since 1989. He has been the Actors’ Gang Youth Education Program director and has worked as an arts educator at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The Drifts (Coach House Books) is his first novel.

Go to Thom Vernon’s Author Page