Heart and Spine

What is the heart of a writing class, and what is its spine?

When I think of “heart” as a metaphor, I think of a center, the pivot, a beat. When I think of “spine” as a metaphor, I think of the actor’s through-line.

Wikipedia has a nice, short entry on the idea of “through-line,” which Stanislavski proposed as the spine that links a characters objectives in the many discrete scenes of a play. That through-line pushes the character forward in the narrative. I’m not an actor. I don’t know how concrete the through line has to be. I imagine an actor conceives of the character’s objective in a given scene fairly concretely. It’s hard to act an abstraction, after all.

So, for example, Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, like many of the characters Bogart favored, lives a lonely authority that comes from a code, a code that both maintains his honor and separates him from others. The crooks and con artist dissemble to survive. They delude themselves that the big score is a rumor away. The cops act in dull increments, hemmed in by the roles they play.

Everything Rick does manifests his through line: the need maintain his particular code. For the psychologically minded actor, I’m sure there’s another layer to be intimate with. Memories of a father who abandoned the family? A terrible loss for which Sam feels responsible? Who knows. That’s why I admire actors. They do know.

We don’t need to be actors to know what a through line is. We ask ourselves why we make the same mistake, or push people away, or what have you– pick your poison. Your therapist or friend or partner or some anyone fixing to get you, someone who wants to let you have it, will tell you why all of these little actions, this tiny discrete things (forgetting to call, forgetting the birthday) are sparks thrown off by the through line.

I am much clearer on the heart that beats in a writing classroom. For me, the heart is the set of activities, usually pretty simple ones, that lend themselves to greater complexity as the tasks get more difficult, but are rather limited and simple when you get down to it. A way to read, a way to rewrite, a way to produce text, a habit of attention, a few crafty techniques. The spine, the through line, that extends over the course of the term, that’s another story. I suppose that the “course objectives” and “outcomes” are expressions of a spine. But that might be like saying the score is the game. It is both true and not enough at the same time.

So, your class: what is heart? What is the spine?

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