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Reading Deliverance

December 19, 2010

Let me first say that I have never seen the movie starring Burt Reynolds. So, when my friend tweeted “Cue Dueling Banjos” in response to my Twitter post from Goodreads that I was reading Deliverance, I got the cultural reference, but I had no visceral reaction.

I have been rafting, however, on a youth group trip to Tennessee. We put in the Ocoee River just a few miles away from where my mom was born. Most of her side of the family still lives there, including a 79-year-old uncle who’s missing half a finger and just so happens to play the banjo.

But that’s not why I decided to read Deliverance. I decided to read it because ten years ago I worked with James Dickey’s ex-wife. One time, when I hit a deer and totaled my 1987 Subaru wagon, she let me borrow her AstroVan – for a month. It was red and hailed from that brief era in the early 1990s when cars resembled spaceships in uncomfortable ways. I drove that thing around  – hopefully the only time I’ll ever drive a minivan – until I bought a truck. Since the book is about Georgia, and I’m from Georgia, I figured somehow that by selecting it as my first read on my new Kindle, I might be paying her some kind of odd and long-delayed debt of gratiude.

I had few expectations beyond the banjos, which turned out to include a guitar, and the fear that I’d be mortified by a certain scene that set the story in motion. On both acounts I was not dissappointed. The description of the mountain music called to mind mornings on the screened-in porch at my aunt and uncle’s house and one half-dim night my parents, sister and I stumbled upon a Friday night sing somewhere in the North Georgia mountains, I suppose in the proximity of where Deliverence takes place.

As I paged through it on the train between Connecticut and Grand Central, I was surprised to learn that the protagonist is an agency guy. The impetus for his whole journey down the river, the thing I came to believe he was seeking to be delivered from, however, was a sense of stuckness I’m pleased to have never felt.

It is a great book that I enjoyed on two levels.  First, I enjoyed the kind of deliverance I felt reading it.  My commute was transformed into the fight for survival and rediscovery of primal instincts that drove the novel forward.  On another level, I was reading it with the eye of a student.  It reminded me of the clean story structure of a Shakespeare play, and it reinforced the importance of conflict and character.

Cause
I was reminded that in the books I love as a reader, one thing leads to another.  Actions lead to choices, which chain together to form story.  I think I remember an author writing about the process of his writing and saying, “I just write my way from one event to the next.”  Things happen, and readers balance with the characters the weight of the choices ahead.

Character
Deliverance got me thinking about character, in both senses of the word.  The characters of the people in the story determine their choices and allow them to be logical or even unexpected, to both themselves and readers.  While personalities change, character runs deeper; it is the fulcrum of the change.  Also, there must be people with distinct selves in a story, people who interact with each other and rub against each other – changing circumstance, influencing choice, determining story.  Things turn out the way the do because of the people involved.

Ideas
With every great book, there is a nugget of an idea, a question that begins the whole thing.  The entire story aims to answer that question.  For some writers, every book is another attempt to answer the same question.  In Deliverance, the questions seem to be:

“What happens to us in modern life? Does it rob us of something essentially human, or is it what makes us human? If we strip it away, do we know who we are? Are we able to survive?”

The last thought, about ideas, is the one that helped me the most.  I ended up spending the rest of the trip – and at least a half dozen pages – writing down the questions that interest me most.  The result that afternoon was some productive writing that wove together a lot of ideas I’ve been rolling around and writing about here.

This past semester, several of my students came to my office asking me how they could become better writers.  “Read,” I told them. “Find something you like and read every day.  Then write.”  The two go hand in hand.

 

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