Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What happens?

Thinking through what will happen has always been my weak point in thinking about stories. Perhaps I read too many novels when I was young in which nothing much happened and the point of it all was "character development" or just writing for writing's sake. It's really incomprehensible though, because I also read a lot of detective novels and watch police shows where the main point is (a) something bad happens, (b) which is mysterious at some level, and (c) we get to figure out how it happened.

Let's take for instance a story in today's NY Times from the (Iraq) Samarra Journal written by Tim Arango in the July 20, 2010 online edition. The title of the story is "Iraq’s Conflict, Reflected in a Family Tragedy" but that's for the purpose of the Times. The unwritten subtitle could be: "How Mr. Haleem's life turned to shit and he did a very bad thing." There is a wonderful picture (from the article) of Abdul Haleem (from the point of view of a reader, not probably of Mr. Haleem) in which he looks completely downtrodden.

I'm sure somewhere there are other more flattering photos of Mr. Haleem, and perhaps the story basically describes how he got from point a to point b. Here's what happened: there was an Iraqi guy named Hamid Ahmad who had been in the air force and then in prison, under Saddam Hussein. He was happy to see the Americans came, spoke English, and worked for them. Even an 18-month stint in a detention center on false suspicion of spying did not curb his enthusiasm for the Americans. He dreamed of moving to American and about a better life for his family, who lived cramped together in a concrete house on the edge of Samarra, a city of great historical and religious significance. His sons, particularly Mr. Hameed, who the rest of the family describe now as mentally ill, came under the influence of Sunni Al-Queda groups, who targeted Mr. Ahmad for his American sympathies. Finally, the order came down for his execution, and his son Mr Haleem was chosen for the job, with the aid of his more-connected cousin. Mr. Haleem was to be paid for killing his father, which he described as the act of a hero. Reportedly, his cousin took the money. He is in jail in Samarra now: you can see the bruises on his face caused by the pain of his confession to this murder.

It's a compelling story, no matter whether you take the present as the beginning or the end. This is what my stories don't have yet. But perhaps to think of an end that could be a beginning is a good way to begin, for practical and aesthetic reasons. I'll work on that.

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