Mercedes Lawry’s “Neurologically Speaking” and Jumping Off From a Quotation
“Neurologically Speaking,” by Mercedes Lawry (first appeared in Issue 6 of elsewhere)
This (very) short prose work begins with a quotation from Louis Pasteur. Ms. Lawry uses Pasteur’s words as a jumping-off point for what appears to me to be a look at how Ms. Lawry believes her mind works and the kinds of thinking that result in inspiration. (The author may, of course, have a different idea about her piece and that’s okay, too.)
One of the things I like most about this piece is the implied suggestion that Ms. Lawry is making to the rest of us. If you’re like me, you like to play around and experiment with writing. Why not borrow Ms. Lawry’s idea and find some wise words from the past and create something new out of what you think they mean?
I’m not exactly the most “quote”-infatuated person. They just don’t inspire me on their own in the way they do for many people. That’s not to say that I don’t derive some kind of enlightenment and pleasure from reading inspirational extracts; I guess I just prefer understanding “quotes” in context. (I’m a storyteller and a plot person; I suppose this makes sense.) My proclivity certainly doesn’t prevent me from participating in the experiment I’m proposing. For example, one of my favorite sentences (and final sentences) is from Animal Farm:
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
There are so many jumping-off points! I could write prose poem similar to Ms. Lawry’s about the thoughts that Orwell’s work evokes in me:
- The inability that many people have to recognize the real “bad guy” in situations.
- My feelings of being an outsider as I look upon others who have undeserved success. (I’m thinking Kardashians.)
- I really like pork chops and I wish I knew more about food science. The Maillard Reaction is the magic that creates the complicated flavor in browned meat. I also grew up without using salt, which somehow adds some magic to my current (and intermittent) culinary adventures.
See? Look how thinking about a “quote” can get some thoughts rolling around your head! What happens if you do the same?
I also like the way Ms. Lawry contradicts and gets in the way of Pasteur’s thought. By beginning with “I have no prepared mind,” Ms. Lawry is doing something that reminds me of my improv comedy roots. In a way, she’s “blocking” Pasteur. A “block” is when a performer says NO to something a scenemate has said. Blocks are (usually) killers because they stop the scene.
Bob: Hey, look at this beautiful dog I found!
Sally: That’s not a dog. It’s an elephant.
See how Sally messed up the scene? Now the audience thinks Bob has been walking around with an elephant in his arms. Everything has screeched to a halt. Sad. When you’re working with other people, particularly in an endeavor such as improv, you just can’t block in this manner. See how beautiful and creative people can be when they say “yes, and” instead of “no?”
But guess what…writing is a solitary pursuit and you can do whatever you like! Further, your characters will say or do anything you want, so blocks can be useful in creating a number of dramatic effects. Why not employ blocks to create drama and to establish character?
Have you seen Breaking Bad? If not, what are you waiting for? Go watch it NOW.
Okay, you’re back. Here are some examples from Breaking Bad that illustrate how blocking results in high-wire tension.
Remember when Skyler told Walt to go to the police and confess that he’s a drug king? Walt says no. Skyler tells Walt he’s in danger. Walt uncorks a crackerjack monologue:
That’s right…Walt is the one who knocks.
The whole point of Breaking Bad is to chronicle the moral evolution and tragic downfall of Walter White. Gus Fring asks Walt to serve as his meth chef in a Superlab. Walt will have all of the cool scientific equipment he needs to make the purest meth possible. (You have to admire Walt’s dedication to chemistry…) How does Walt respond to the request? He says no.
Arguments and discussions need some conflict and that sometimes requires characters to contradict each other. In this case, Gus is forced to persuade Walt to join him:
Think about a scene you’re building or a poem you’re working on. What if one character says “no?” What if there’s some unexpected internal or external opposition to the idea you’re expressing? Experiment with blocking to see if you can add unexpected power to your work.