Sunday, April 22, 2007

Amicus Curiae

Writers, whether they intend it or not, are judges; they judge history, they judge the present, they judge the individuals in these places and the places of their imagination, and yes, they judge each other. Writers are simultaneously juries, prosecutors, attorneys for the defense; they are the defendant and the accused, all rolled up into one and expected by their craft to render a considered verdict on every matter that comes before them.

In the legal profession, an amicus brief is a considered opinion, a gloss, on a matter before the court. Writers do have friends. Some of these friends are:

1. books

2. other writers

3. actors

4. musicians

5. painters

6. photographers

7. chefs

8. dogs

9. cats

10. editors

Writers have a reference shelf and a to-read shelf, things to be consulted, search engines, as it were. At the very minimum, the ten friends listed above should be considered a part of the writers' reference shelf.

Among my favorite books are The Canterbury Tales, because its characters and language still stand after six hundred years; the collected poetry of William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Marianne Moore, all of whom I have increasing hopes of understanding, if everything continues on schedule; Macbeth because of the way it introduced me to politics and point of view; The Trial by Franz Kafka, for showing the way to get past the reader's defenses and into the heart of his complaint; Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi, which were the only text books on writing I return to at every stage of my life; Tales of the Jazz Age by Fitzgerald because they awakened me to the immensity of the short story; ditto The Long Valley by John Steinbeck, The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury, and the Knopf Collected Stories by John Cheever. The opening paragraphs of All the Kings' Men by Robert Penn Warren, and the stunning humor of "Spotted Horses" by William Faulkner, and The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler turn my heart to instant oatmeal.

Numbers 2 through 6 on the list serve as a constant reminder that we are all preoccupied with time and how it affects the work we do, whether it is capturing an image or pacing a performance or judging an event. By looking at and listening to these worthies, we understand how to transmit, say, the photographic equivalent of shutter speed to a short story or a novel, how to PhotoShop point of view. We listen to the monologues of George Burns and Jack Benny and we learn all the better how to withhold information until the right moment, strengthening the tie of these two performers to Mark Twain. We learn how an exaggerated pair of eyebrows, a shambling gait, and an eye for the absurd transforms Julius Marx into an integral archetype struggling to break free within every male.

Number 7 is vital; we must be on good terms with at least one first rate food preparer. Not to disparage peanut butter and jam sandwiches, eaten for fuel when the creative flame has us at our work; not to raise an eyebrow at a can of Franco-American spaghetti, eaten cold out of a can under similar work-intensive or financially burdensome times; rather to remind us that a splendid meal and a glass or six of a fruity pinot noir reminds us that the inner man is sensual, too.

Dogs and cats are quintessential extensions of ourselves. When I was living in a one-bedroom apartment within hearing distance of the Hollywood Freeway, writing a pulp novel a month for a ridiculously small advance, a cat came into my life, a cat the likes of which I have only approximated, a cat who opened for me the doors to growth, understanding, and a sense of what true companionship was all about. Sam, the cat, opened my eyes to Blue, the Blue-tick hound, and from that point on, I knew that fountain pens, typewriters, and, now, laptops are only one part of the tool kit--the other essential ingredient is a proper writers' dog.

Every now and then an editor will ask me a question about something I have written, my answer to which makes me realize that if I have a blind spot for accuracy, the editor does not. I am frequently reminded of an interview I listened to on radio in which Somerset Maugham told of making it a point to send an enormous bouquet of flowers to his copyeditor and to arrange a lavish dinner for his content editor, each of whom, he argued, had contributed considerably to saving him from an embarrassment.

If we as writers are to be friends of the court in which we practice the laws of humanity, observing fully the rigors of our craft, we need all the friends we can get.

Readers? Listeners? Viewers? They are not friends, they are clients. To them we owe at least as much if not more than we can ever hope to know.

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