Monday, March 7, 2011

Accidental Alchemy

[This post also appears on the Locoblog.]

Sometimes stories don’t go where we tell them to.

We can set up a neat outline, with beginning, middle and end firmly in place. We could have solid story and character arcs set up. But when we lay the words out on the page, they just don’t work. The characters wouldn’t do that, or the conflict is sludgy. There’s no way this story is going to end up the way we intended. Naturally, plotters are more likely to run into this than pantsers, but anyone can end up dead on the page at any point.

When I find myself staring dumbly at an obstinate story, I like to think of the Zildjian Cymbal Company.

14/366 Zildjian
Photo by Hillarie

If you’ve seen a drum set with cymbals, you’ve likely seen the Zildjian name in flowing script atop a high hat. But Zildjian cymbals were never meant to be.

The company’s story goes back to the seventeenth century,* when an Armenian alchemist set about experimenting with his craft. The proto-science of alchemy sought dual goals: 1) transmuting base metals into gold; and 2) the acquisition of the ‘elixir of longevity’, which would grant the alchemist life far beyond the natural span.

Our alchemist accomplished neither of these. He combined a mess of tin and other metals into thin discs which were, frustratingly, not gold. However, the discs did produce an unparalleled clarity of sound. So unparalleled that Sultan Osman II named the man Zildjian (literally 'cymbal maker') and hired him to create cymbals for his Janissary bands. The bands used the cymbals as noisemakers to frighten enemies in battle.

Zildjian's heirs continued the company business, eventually shifting to producing musical instruments. This led to an international company of cymbal makers, all bearing the Zildjian name.

When our secret-seeking hero set out to combine those metals, he failed in his original goal: no transmuted gold, no life-extending potion. However, he gained massive amounts of gold working for the sultan, and even today, the man’s name and story are known worldwide. His metal craft has served millions of musicians. I would argue that he achieved alchemy’s goals through unexpected means.

'Unexpected means' are a key to story development. I have never written a story from beginning to end where I knew every move it would take along the way. Connections always happen in the process, new approaches that make the tale fresh and interesting. I can't know what shape those connections will take beforehand; I have to work through the unknown, tolerate the less-than-expected or -stellar, and let the work create its own shape.

So when faced with a story that’s failed to produce intended gold, don’t despair. Keep writing. Trust your craft. You may end up with a tinny mess; or maybe, you’ll find transmuted glory in a twisting path of words you could never have planned.

*The history of the Zildjian company is fascinating; you can view a time line of it here.

1 comment:

ianmykel said...

I have Zildian cymbals and never knew their history. This is a great analogy and I will think about it every time I play music or write. Thanks for sharing.