The Formula

Elizabeth tells her father that Darcy was resp...
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Should I or shouldn’t I?

Tell, that is.

Experts advise against it. When you tell people you’re writing a novel, they reply.

“You still haven’t finished that thing?”

“Why is it taking so long?”

“How much longer are you going to have to work on it?”

“You need to just get busy and write it.”

The questions above fall into the category called Irritating. But the questioners don’t know any better. They’re not familiar with the writing process, they don’t know the difficulties of getting an agent, they don’t know how competitive the market is, especially as we transition into the digital age.

There’s another category of questions that, while unsettling, might be classified as Helpful.

For example, when a writer friend told an acquaintance she was working on a mystery, the acquaintance said, “Well, there’s a formula for that, isn’t there?”

Yes, there is a formula. No, you don’t just make up some new characters and fill in the blanks. No, it doesn’t make the writing any easier.

No–and here’s the answer to the real question–a formula doesn’t make the writing any less worthy of respect.

On the topic of the formula, please take note of the following:

Shakespeare wrote his tragedies according to a formula: five acts, technical climax at the midpoint of Act III, dramatic climax at end of Act V, protagonist with tragic flaw that causes his undoing, etc., etc., etc. He used similar formulas for comedies and histories. His sonnets comprised fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, rime scheme (ababcdcdefef), tied up with a couplet (gg) at the end.

Jane Austen used a formula: Darcy’s first proposal (and subsequent withdrawal of proposal) comes at the exact midpoint of Pride and Prejudice. Open the book to the proposal, and you get half the pages on the left and the other half on the right. It marks the point at which Elizabeth both realizes her folly and loses control of the action.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote according to formula and also wrote an essay explaining the formula.

Aristotle mentioned something about a formula. Writers check out his rules to make certain they have all their bases covered.

From the uninitiated, a formula may elicit sneers.

But Writers, even the Great Unpublished, are proud of the formula, and proud of the company we keep.

Bambi’s Mom

Screenshot of Bambi and Faline from the traile...
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My niece posted on Facebook that for family night, they watched Bambi. She said she cried.

She didn’t say what the children did. The son is twelve and the daughter is only two, so I imagine Mom shed most of the tears.

How Dad fared, I don’t know. I remember that, as a nine-year-old, he wept into a dishtowel at the end of a non-Disney Sleeping Beauty. But that was back when I was in college. He might react differently now.

The mention of Bambi reminded me of the first time I saw it. That was 1988, a year before it was released on video. I was staying in Austin while my mother was in the hospital there. She was scheduled for radiology all afternoon, so I headed out for the movie.

This hospitalization had been unexpected, and it came at the end of two difficult years. Fifteen years before, she had made a remarkable recovery from a near-fatal heart attack, but lately her condition had deteriorated. She was unable to walk unassisted, and she had no energy for even conversation. Over the past months, she had become less and less communicative.

When at a regular appointment I told her cardiologist she had no short-term memory, he called for a phlebotomist, got a blood sugar reading of over 500, and told me to drive her to the hospital. Before we left, he explained that, because of his own failing health, he had dropped his hospital practice. One of his colleagues, Dr. M., would be in charge of her case.

Dr. M. made rounds that evening, handled the immediate problem, drug-induced diabetes, then proceeded to take Mother off all her usual meds and start anew.

I liked the doctor. Mother, however, in her foggy mental state, decided he had done away with her cardiologist. I couldn’t convince her otherwise. She spent the next two weeks being rude to Dr. M. As her mental condition improved, so did her talent for being snippy.

I spent the next two weeks apologizing for her and trying to make him understand that the person lying in that bed being snippy was not my mother.

Under other conditions, I would have thought it was funny. With diagnosis and prognosis uncertain, and Mother oblivious to everything except a doctor she suspected of kidnapping, I was miserable.

So I headed off to a matinee.

It was late August, and hot. The audience comprised a few dozen grandmothers with tots in tow, and me.

I sat near the back. The movie was beautiful, as the old Disney animations always are.

Then we got to the part about the fire. Bambi couldn’t find his mother. He called for her.

And out of the darkness came a little voice: “Where’s his mother?”

Then, from the other side of the room: “He can’t find her.”

One after another, the voices continued.

“Where is she?”

“Where did she go?”

“He wants his mother.”

That’s when I lost it.

I wanted my mother, too.

My story had a happier ending. Under the new regime, Mother improved. She returned home. A month later, she announced she would take over the kitchen again.

Six months later, I finally got her to understand that Dr. M. wasn’t a kidnapper. I also told her she’d been a stinker. We had a good laugh about it.

About Bambi, I don’t laugh. I remember the fawn looking for his mother, and the voices of children, who understood better than anyone else what the movie is about.

Screenshot from Bambi, by Walt Disney (Original Trailer (1942)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons