Saturday, June 30, 2007

Viewing Screens on Digital Cameras

The viewing screen on the digital camera and the ground-glass screen on the reflex camera have much in common with the first draft of a story. Each allows the viewer an entry way to the reality awaiting just beyond the lens. Each allows for a nearly immediate retake, a compensation, if you will before the most severe editorial process, Photo Shop.

Photographers, even beginners, take for granted something those in the motion picture industry call The Burn Ratio, the number of images taken overall to produce the desired result.

Many writers want the first draft to be it, and if their characters take on such Actor's Studio traits as wanting to re-do a given scene in a variety of ways, simply to get the feel of it, the answer is a curt, business-like, No. Probably even No! To be sure, there writers at the other end of the spectrum, happily engaged in their obsessive compulsions or, perhaps, their compulsive obsessions. 

 These sorts will quickly inform all who will listen that there are so many frauds and miscreants pretending to be members of The Craft, men and women who have no idea for the details inherent in books of the past, men and women who scarcely have more than six synonyms for the verb "said." These sorts will support the dietician's goal to have the literary equivalent of a protein/carbohydrate breakdown on each story, including illegal uses of like for as, and numbers of point-of-view violations.

Some of these observations are the literary equivalent of ghosts, those flash halos whose mere presence often ruin an otherwise promising shot, involving the recently completed writers' conference and the eruption of a civil war involving dialect. 

 The Suni workshop leaders argued for missing terminal g's, other misspellings, and enough diacritical marks to resemble the windshield of a Volkswagen on a summer evening. The Shia workshop leaders argue that dialect is passe; writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers evoked the sound of characters by their choice of words and the cadence with which they are spoken. Bang! Bang! Surge. Stay the course!

My approach to this issue is that the choice is with the writer. Dialogue or straight text can be made to sound as artificial as a campaign promise, calling attention to themselves by their seeming plausibility or, conversely, sounding as halting and awkward as most statements by the current president of the United States.

If photographers can--and do--do it, so can writers. But we are sometimes a lazy lot.

I am no great fan of John Updike, but I know from chums who once worked at The New Yorker that the manuscript does not leave the author's hands until there is no question about what he intends the text to mean. Ditto for Alice Munro, although there I am a fan.

There is some argument that comparing photography and writing is to compare apples with oranges or, to put it in straightforward declarative sentences, there is no comparison, one involves a grasp of the physics of light, possibly color, and surely some consideration of optics.

We will leave the analogies and comparisons for another night and cut with some hint of directness to the nub, which is that both arts are deeply concerned with passing time, point of view, and sufficient light to allow the subject to be illuminated.

My little gem of a Lumix FX-30 has a viewing screen as big as the screen on a Canon 5D; it affords me a good look at what I'm trying to capture, and if I don't like the image I capture, why, I can go after it again. My first draft affords me a good look at what I'm trying to capture, perhaps even including some detail I'll not notice for two or ore subsequent drafts before calling itself to my attention, Hey! What about me?

We rarely see all the possibilities for discovery already in frame until we have spent some considerable time editing out the cluttering details and coming face to face with the essentials. If my bedroom begins to resemble Van Gogh's bedroom at Arles, I need to pay attention to my ear.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Please don't. Please don't call me Ishmael, either.

Because of the writers' conference, I am anything but temperate; I have scant days to get in a set of student evaluations, provided I can stay awake. Sally is taking steps to get her life back, which is to say, what she considers a sensible routine of walks, coffee houses that allow dogs, and writers' workshops that don't go roaring on until three in the morning.

And summer's lease hath all too short a date. On this night of June 29 and a lovely full moon, the days have begun to act like a Wal-Mart t-shirt, they have begun to shrink.

Ishmael may have had time to sign aboard The Pequod because he had some personal problems. More like he was bipolar, but never mind. In all innocence, he, Ishmael, had Ahab to cope with.  

I have (metaphorically, but nevertheless a strong enough metaphor) the forty-third president of the United States and his vice president to cope with, the two of them seeing white whales of one sort or another everywhere. 

 Go ahead, laugh. Thanks to the Secret Service, I can't get within harpooning distance of either of them, but while Ishmael goes about with a cold gray (although I think he used the English spelling) December in his soul, I go about on this summer's day and most others with symptoms of raging frustration and Bush paranoia, which really isn't paranoia if half the people on the planet can't stand us.

There is work to do, a book to finish and another to get started in which the techniques of actors' workshops and writers' workshops are merged, and heaven knows how many editing projects I promised to take on, and the splendid sense that the short story about a Cro-Magnon clan, lost these years back when the hard drive of a computer crashed, has begun to dig its way up through the archaeology of my mind. Good, cheery times, really, if it were not for that idiot and his Frankenstein's monster vice president.

Okay, so compare away, I feel like a summer's day and although bone tired from running the late-night fiction workshop for the past six days and moderating the new book panel and hanging out with writers such as Chris Moore and Leonard Tourney, whom I only get to see once a year, I'm thinking maybe my eternal summer shall not fade, at least for a few years.

Just don't call me Ishmael, okay?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Theme Parks

Writers' conferences are like theme parks, the guest speakers and workshop leaders standing forth as the featured rides.

In past conferences in past places I have represented many differing rides; this time I have been the ride of subtext, of implication, of evocation as opposed to description, of the lovely irony that comes when someone says the opposite of what he feels or wants and yet is understood as having represented a visible revealed truth.

I have spent a few moments on the horse of ambiguity, firm in my sense that specfic endings, where everything is dealt with and resolved are impossible.

It is possible to know what you want--in life, in the classroom, in the artistry of the present moment. It is even possible to strive to attain what you wish. From that point, all things slide into flux of movement and other forms of physical behavior; they change and you with them.

The ride is everything, influencing who you are when you are let out, influencing what you will do next. If you are not pleased with the ride, you need to try another theme park.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mickey Mouse ending

These final days of workshops at the writers' conference can be remarkable in the energy they generate. The writers are getting to know one another, deciding which of us workshop leaders they can trust, and where the responses and discussions abiout individual works are the ost insightful and helpful.

For some time, I've had the growing sense (expressed in earlier entries) that there is an affinity between the actor and the writer. Tonight once again, I was able to demonstrate the belief in concrete terms, thanks to Davida Wills Hurwin and Marla Miller, fellow workshop leaders. Davida, who writes a splendid young adult novel, is as well an acting coach. A disciple of the noted acting teacher Jeff Corey, Davida devised a series of demonstrations in which Marla and a student, Kim, were cast as sisters in a set-up where we were able to assign them roles and chores which they were not allowed to discuss or reveal except through indirection and subtext. Thus these two "sisters" were set to play conflicting roles, which they did with great zeal and effective force, allowing the writers to "see" how a dramatic scene really works. In yet another situation, I was called upon to portray a husband who just discovered his career-minded wife had aborted a fetus whose existence he hadn't even known about. Each of us developed some convincing surprises and the audience of writers was caught up in the momentum we generated.
I think we're going to take this show out on the road; it is a splendid way of helping actor and writer integrate the process that creates drama. I have been looking for a way to end the boredom and uniformity of the simple writing workshop atmosphere and put story back into story .

The mickey mouse ending, which is to say the manufactured, two or threebubbles over onto the personable sounds of goose quil scrating out on paper better watch out. Here we come.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Inmate and the Institution

A day beyond the half-way point of arguably one of the more energetic and purposeful writers' conferences and the pattern begins to emerge: the management tends to behave like the inmates and the inmates, so tentative at first, appear to have taken on managerial qualities.

Earlier this evening, I was able to slip away for a leisurely dinner with a man with whom for twenty years I cohosted a fiction-writing class and produced, directed, and acted in dinner theater mystery productions. He has moved some distance away, to Provo, Utah, making this week-long conference our only chance to visit during the year. We are completely unalike in temperament, making our limited partnership even more valuable for our students and clients. Although we rarely socialized as such, scarcely a week elapsed during those twenty years of his residence here when we did not meet for some activity. He is one of the best good men I have ever met, his intelligence, humor, and honesty making him a joy to associate with and reminding me of the part of life and profession associated with loss by passage of time and agenda. Students come and go, my favorite coffee house is a hub workplace for a number of remarkable young men and women of university age who have passed through, matriculating at the local university, then gone to a promising destiny.

A few moments of nostalgia for the privilege of seeing these remarkable ones, moments of gratitude for friends. Every time I have my auto serviced at the Toyota agency here, I manage to have a meal at the Sizzler, a restaurant where I would frequently lunch with McNally, a huge, enthusiastic bear of a man, my first real friend here in Santa Barbara. The Sizzler chain is largely mediocre, but there was nothing mediocre about McNally, whose friendship I can now enjoy only in memories or dreams.

It--life-- is all about how we celebrate the passage of time, with friends, with writing, with music, with acting and theater. Nostalgia means wishing Leonard wasn 't keen on leaving for Provo on Friday, right after the awards brunch. Nostalgia means being pleased enough to know and having been associated with such a man.

Is it possible to reach a point in life where you can send nostalgia forth the way you send shirts to the laundry. On hangars. No starch, please. Ready Monday after five.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Ten Reasons Why

1. Most beginning writers are fearful of betraying in their writing a secret residing in some familial, romantic, or non-familial relationship.

2. Most advanced, long-term writers are fearful of not betraying in their writing a secret residing in some familial, romantic, or non-familial relationship.

3. Most beginning writers regard approach their work with the belief that everything they write will make strangers curious enough to want to read it.

4. Most veteran writers have long since understood that they have to write as though their words were set down in a locked journal, the better to protect individuals written about.

4a. In 3 and 4 supra, the irony is that both are wrong.

5. An opening in which a character confesses to having done something unspeakably awful is more likely to be read in one sitting than an opening in which a character confesses to having done something wonderful and affirming.

6. Readers prefer a story in which a main character does something because he cannot control a relevant part of his body/mind connection.

7. Readers have no interest in or patience for a character who can control his emotions.

8. The first thing beginning writers say about material they don't like or understand is that it is well written.

9. A story with an interesting character being placed in an intriguing situation does not have to be well written.

10. The most difficult thing a beginning writer faces is keeping himself out of the way of his characters.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Pictures from an Institution

Three days into a writers' conference...patterns have begun to emerge, friendships formed, old friendships revisited, the surprising, strong writers becoming more surprising and strong as their voice and style begins to dominate this abomination of a hotel, a hotel that puts you in mind of a California cemetery...the major saving grace of the hotel is its dog-friendly atmosphere. Was ever a writers' conference so well attended by dogs? There are two Corgi, a Malamute, a golden, Catherine's small, shivering mixed breed, Ella, and of course Sally, who snores when she sleeps, thus appearing to make comments on some of the readings. Sally also scratches at carpeting, trying to tamp down a place for her to fall asleep whereupon she may snore. Many from the Peet's coffee regulars, taking volunteer jobs to help out, thus the ongoing lurch of surprise in Santa Barbara of seeing someone you know from one context in yet another context in this still relatively small town. Ned at the door of the main ballroom, Jim wandering about, looking official and un-painterly as he works the door to the book store. Nicole, postdoc in history, manning the table outside the bookstore, Willard, having retired from advertising, counting ticket sales outside the main auditorium, Mike Takeuchi, the sports writer from the News-Press, working the book store.

Sleep comes at a premium, tempers flare, manuscripts and email addresses are exchanged, Ray Bradbury gives yet another rousing speech, newer attendees on attenuated schedules, trying to fit in all the workshops and all the speakers...Leonard Tourney, gone emeritus at UCSB, moving off to retirement in Utah but instead picking up an adjunct professorship contract for three years and a renewable two, making all his friends uneasy when he professes this great affection for Utah, his new home...individuals you don't much care about, becoming even more so candidates for not liking, signing up to read their mss in your workshop, occasioning a sense of dread when they tamp thick manuscripts down on the tables that separate you from them...the realities of two days of workshopping setting in with good news and not so good news.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Unthinkable Come to Pass

Tellers of stories can take several vital clues from photographers in the matter of how to use time. The fastness or slowness of the shutter speed governs the passage of light onto the film or sensor medium. Story, once required by the so-called Unities to remain in present time, can jump ahead, back, and even into parallel time frames.

Tellers of stories can also take clues from actors who, in fact, take on the persona of the character in a narrative, using timing, body movement, and verbal responses to represent--to become a proxy--for the character.

One of the great acting decisions a character makes is to discover which of three modes is ascendant at a given moment in the story arc: Head--is the character being rational, thoughtful, reasoning events? Heart--is the character feeling sentimental, loyal, driven by nostalgia or perhaps guilt? Genital--is the character driven by sexual fantasies, urges, needs?

Find which of these three centers becomes the pole star for the character and you have the key to the character's motivation at a particular moment in time.

Find out what causes the character to follow this particular pole star and you have established the key to motivation.

It is no wonder I am so drawn to technical orientation regarding how to motivate characters; the writers' conference has begun, I am in a sea of writers, each of whom is making way to a shore which I must discover, often with little preparation, and often with every sense that the shoreline keeps moving.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Random Access Memory

1. There are no fleas, well, almost none in Utah, which is apparently just the proper degrees of being too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter to allow the critters a toe hold on survival. Fleas that manage to get in are known to have originated in Nevada or perhaps Colorado.

2. Most times, when one of those warning lights goes on in the dashboard, the earnest sales rep explained to me, it is not serious, a shaky fuse, perhaps, or a an intermittent short circuit. But for you, the service manager explained, we have made an exception. A thousand-dollar exception.

3. The President of a small liberal arts university introduced me to the director of graduate studies as "the man who told me not to quit my daytime job," then invited me to breakfast. We'll see where that leads.

4. Waiting in the lobby of The Fess Parker Doubletree Inn for the staff meeting of the faculty of a writers' conference to begin, casually sipping from a bad double latte, I heard two women discussing in apparent seriousness the number of times each had gone forth into the world having shaved the same leg twice, thinking she had shaved each leg once. It was a surreal conversation to have unintentionally eavesdropped on. Unfortunately the surreal nature of their observations ended there.

5. For the second time in less than a month, a complete stranger claimed to have seen me on television, then accused me of false modesty when I disavowed having been on television at any time this century.

6. All the workshop leaders of the writers' conference hate the opening ceremony in which we are given the opportunity to describe briefly the thrust of our workshop. All workshop leaders except one, who invariably drones on well beyond the ninety seconds we have been allotted.

The master of ceremonies actually interrupted the one exception after he'd gone on for nearly five minutes, then, when it was his turn to describe his own workshop took seven minutes, told two bad jokes, and fell off his chair.

7. There were five dogs in attendance at the opening ceremony to the writers' conference. One was my Sally.

8. Persons who are otherwise critical to the point of conservatism about their individual traits, particularly their writing ability, are loathe to admit they are poor drivers, have no sense of humor, or are not skillful lovemakers.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Non Campus Mentis

Sally was up early this morning, saving me from dragons, raccoons or possible bobcats, which were seen in the neighborhood. She was very understanding about my wanting her to save me silently. On the other hand, it was she who fell asleep in Dean Kamai's office this afternoon during my meeting with the Dean to discuss my faculty advisory capacity for the Southern California Review. New times, new governments, new deans; meeting with Dean Kamei is different from the time I met with another dean after it was suspected that I announced in class that all the buildings on campus were named after crooks. That dean informed me of a building of recent parentage--buildings at universities are never simply built or dedicated, they are also to be endowed before then can be named--its namesake a respectable medical doctor and researcher. "So that means," I said, taking the bait, "that one building on campus was not named after a crook."

"Perhaps," he remonstrated, "you would do better at universities if you looked for more positive interpretations of available data."

I am beholden to universities; they provide an endless sort of romp and circumstance. Which is to say they make great material because they are run by purposeful men and women who are so focused as to become living history lessons for the rest of us. Whether tenured or not, these administrators have a symbiotic relationship with those of us who write. They can't help but nourish dreams that provide us with material. Nature is reputed to abhor a vacuum, but is willing to make exceptions for academics and administrators. And the readers couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


right front:
three one-dollar bills in a silver money clip
one quarter dollar
one dime
two pennies
one Remington pocket knife with two blades and walnut side panels

left front:
one tortoise-shell Conklin fountain pen
one debit card from Peet's Coffee and Tea
one 4 1/2 x 3 1/2 lined notebook with green mottled cover
one metal credit card case with California driver's license, one American Express Gold Card, one American Express Business Blue Card, one Mastercard Debit Card issued by Santa Barbara Bank and Trust, one Blue Cross Group Insurance Card

left rear:
fifteen 3 x 5 lined index cards, held together by a rubber band
one business card for Digby Wolfe, Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra,
one business card for Willard Thompson, publisher, Rincon Books, Santa Barbara, CA
one card redeemable for a medium-sized espresso drink at Peet's Coffee and Tea
one set operating instructions for a Lexar card reader
one business card remind me of the time--Friday, 7-6 @ 11:45 a.m.--for my next hair cut
one receipt from Samys (sic) Camera at 614 Chapala St. Santa Barbara, CA 93101 for above mentioned Lexar Card reader

right rear:

I am not certain to be appalled or humbled by such an accounting. The pockets of my youth would have contained something edible and/or chewable, at least one marble to look at, a small magnifying glass for starting fires, either a yo-yo or a rubber ball. The only mitigating additions to today's pockets are the fountain pen, the note book, and the pocket knife. These last items could possibly bail me out of a boring situation, but I left less to chance when younger.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What Comes First, the Chicken or the Ego?

Such was the early nature of my vision that I naturally supposed plot came before anything else, giving way to individuals, characters, who would take on traits and abilities even as I was taking on the kinds of traits and abilities my teachers wrote about in less-than-friendly terms on my report cards.

Since all of the things I truly enjoyed, whether it be the rather unruly, Mississippi-like path of Huckleberry Finn, or the sclerotic excesses of Ivanhoe, had plots and I wished to apply for membership in the writers' club, I thought plot was an absolute necessity. I even thought that the men and women who wrote stories had some remarkable gene that allowed them to pluck forth from the cosmos or ether a complete plot before they began writing. Not only young, foolish.

Some years, a great many reams of paper, and a number of typewriters later, I experienced what I thought was an epiphany but which was really only being thrown off the horse one time too many. Following the easier-to-assimilate course of epiphany, I reasoned that I would mosey up to plot via characters about whom I already had some sort of inkling. For the next years--relatively productive years, I might add-- this got me out of the slush pile and into the acceptance pile to the point where I actually had a bank account and assignments that openly admitted my tools were words and ideas. There was a minor setback the one and only night I actually dreamed a full-blown plot that, come the morning, did not seem ridiculous. I think I remember which novel that was, but I can't be sure.

Later still, I moved to the plateau of thinking it was neither plot nor character that provided the opening velocity but voice, which is to say the tone, attitude, and spirit of the contentions that would be played out in such narratives that I produced. Voice has been the big one for me over a long span, but earlier this evening, while pursuing Sally up the modest upthrust of Hale Park, toward a stone fence that reminds me of strolls in Devon, my mind wandered beyond the girding of loins for the fast-approaching writers' conference where I lead the late-night fiction workshop, wandered into the later reaches of this year, November, to be explicit, where for the same writers' conference, I am to lead one of the so-called intensive weekend workshops. My theme is to be point of view: who's telling the story, and why?

Whoops. I may have abandoned voice, which I dearly love, in favor of the more prosaic point of view, the one or ones through whose eyes the story is experienced. This may be genuine--dare I say it? evolution. It may also be that I've just come by a small, wonderful camera, which, given its size, has versatile and effective capabilities. It is a Lumix FX-30 with an ambitious Leica lens, reminding me as I heft it and pour through the instruction book of the focal-plane Leicas I used to be responsible for dusting and cleaning during my tenure after school and on Saturdays at The Brighton Way Camera Shop in Beverly Hills. Point of view is nothing less than who is holding the camera, and what that camera sees because of how and where it is pointed. A midget photographer in a room filled with professional basketball players would likely get lovely shots of knee caps. Similarly a tall photographer in a room of midgets would get some stunning and revelatory shots of male pattern baldness.

I am also mindful of Fathers and Sons, a memoir, and a rather loving one at that, of what it is like to have survived through the Waugh family, arguably one of the more dysfunctional, even more so than, say the Bushes.

Everyone in a family has a point of view, causing family gatherings and holidays to be remarkably cheerful or remarkably acrimonious, and sometimes these two polar opposites exist simultaneously. My late sister was a lifelong joy to me, an observation that could suggest she substituted for the things provided from parents, but no; they, too were great joys to me. My sister and I simply did not see eye to eye on my mother. Although we both adored (not too strong a verb here) my father, we saw Annie differently, my issues with Annie stemming, I think, from routine teen-boy/mother issues and ultimately rounding out quite nicely. My sister often joked that when I was out of the house, my mother was transformed into another person, another mother with another set of agendas. I countered by teasing my sister with having been traumatized by the witches in The Wizard of Oz and Snow White.

I see that this walk with Sally has at the very least given me some notes for November and a way of looking at story that could make it more yet of a crucible in which things are heated to the point of combustion, where they promptly run over the sides and cause merry hell to break loose.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Middle Shelf
Bookcase directly--well, almost--adjacent bed
2-2006 Day books
1-1998 planner
1-copy Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley
1-copy Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
1-copy Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Kuller
1-copy Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser
1-copy The Best American Essays of the [twentieth] Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
1-copy The Next Step in the Dance by Tim Gautreaux
1-copy Concepts of Criticism by Rene Welleck
1-copy Beyond Black by Hillary Mantel
1-copy The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins
1 copy Chaco Canyon by Brian Fagan
1-copy Cool Hand in a Hot Fire by Dave Diamond
1-copy Bonepile by Gaylord Dold
1-copy The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
1-copy Making Things Better by Anita Brookner
1-copy Archaeology: A Brief Introduction by Brian Fagan
1-copy The Soloist by Mark Salzman
1-copy Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
2--pocket notebooks, long forgotten, one containing copious notes from a trip to England, the other filled with grades and notes from various classes
1-copy The Spring 2007 Catalogue, Ben Silver of Charleston
1-copy The Spring 2007 edition, Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction
1-pair, drug store reading glasses, which is to say reading glasses purchased in drug store
1-aerosol dispenserantistatic cleaner
1-Ancora fountain pen with mother-of-pearl inlay
2-self-winding watches that don't wind themselves
1 framed-but fading photo of Edward Bear, a bluetick hound who was a great friend of mine in the early 1970s
1 remarkable bookmark with illustrations of cakes, pies, and tarts, rendered by Wayne Thiebaud
1 two-by-three-inch card illustrating the types and stages of ticks likely to be found on dogs and cats

Sunday, June 17, 2007

No Biggie

The past few times I have seen Gregg Newman, he has been remarkably happy, a man doing no easy thing professionally, but clearly enjoying it and deriving satisfaction from it.

With the exception of the two times I saw him in his office and the two additional times when I saw him by accident at local restaurants or the dry cleaner/laundry we both use, I see him mornings at Peet's Coffee and Tea, where we each brave the lines for our lattes. This pattern probably has no significance for you or, at least, not the significance it has for me. I could have continued to see him in his office, beginning about three years ago. In fact, during those two visits to his office, I'd allowed that if I were going to see anyone who did what Gregg Newman does, I would see him.

It is my pleasure to introduce him as "the man who is not my oncologist but who would be if I were going to have an oncologist."

It is my pleasure not to have need of an oncologist, a greater pleasure to have my decision not to have an oncologist validated over these years with negative results on various tests that he and Alex Koper consider sufficient cause for my having avoided chemotherapy. Don't worry; I won't show you my scar (a splendid example of Alex Koper's art, which has begun to fade to the point where you'd have to be looking for it in order to see it), or recite the litany of why I have a scar in the first place. Everybody has scars. Some are emotional, some not. Trying not to make it a biggie. Rather I will recount how the sight of Gregg Newman being happy doing the oncological work he does has a positive effect on me.

Brace yourself for a reach of a comparison--but writers do with ideas and prose what Evel Knievel did with opportunity. He took chances.

Every year at this time, it falls to my lot to read a number of writings from those who are about to attend the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference. Every year at this time, as the Marine Layer advances from the Pacific to cloak Santa Barbara in a shroud of heaviness, many of the readings I do remind me, probably of myself at earlier times in my writing arc, and as well they remind me of the work I have cut out for me, which is, after all, why I am there.

Seeing Gregg Newman, who couldn't stand the politics of teaching and quit, returned to school, and became a doctor--and now exudes a satisfaction, gives me pause to think. Maybe I can supply some program of therapy for these wannabes that will give some positive hope to their writing life. Maybe by my example, one or two will chose not to give up or in or whatever preposition seems relevant at the time.

Since one of the essentials of fiction is the need to forget about trying to describe and focus on ways to evoke the vital information, I cannot tell any of them about this, about Gregg Newman or Alex Koper and least of all me. Show--don't tell.

Okay, you guys, let's start with who you are and what makes you want to do this thing we call writing, and what you bring to it. Empty all your pockets because we're going to check all the possibilities of finding the details that make you special...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

True Brits

The two Brits collide--metaphorically. In my head. They know of one another, but have never met. I am the link, as so many persons and things are linked in ways as distant and unfathomable as the stars

"Quantas may rankle," Fagan of Lyme Regis says archaeologically, and you can see him having dug the item from a mass of conversation, "and Air New Zealand may have better amenities, but they are in fact serving forth portions of the same kangaroo. They're both owned by the same organization." The way he pronounces it, you can almost hear the English s instead of the American z in organization.

Even as I write this, Wolfe of Felixstowe is aloft, on his way back to Canberra, aloft on Air New Zealand. What began with both of us as a prank has become an example we both teach of the unthinkable come to pass. Some years back, when we both taught at USC, in a mischievous ploy to avoid the heat, boredom, and fustian of graduation, we both listed the University of Canberra as the place of our graduate degree and thus the regalia for the university to provide us for the graduation ceremony. Wolfe is well-known to a particular generation in Australia, having among other things hosted the Australian versions of "What's My Line" and "This Is Your Life." I am unknown to all but a few Antipodians. The university could only locate one small University of Canberra regalia and although I am taller than Wolfe, neither of us could have fit in a ''''small" regalia, thus were we excused from The March of the Academics and for all other purposes the graduation itself.

"You got me into this," he remonstrated, off once again to Canberra for yet another semester there after having left U of New Mexico, where I did talk him into going, but Albuquerque has soured for him and so, after a recent visit to London, so has London. Canberra is a place where he might consider retiring, he considered. It is a lovely train ride from Sydney.

"And not far from Vegemite," I offer, embarking on one of our favorite games of naming places after--well, things, i.e. The Dire Straits, Loose Ends, The Bovrils, and The Digestives.

His nose wrinkled noticeably. Vegemite is perhaps too close to home. Or too salty. Used to the warmer climes of Albuquerque and Los Angeles, he has recently found the small village in French Canada too cold for his liking and too remote for his tastes, having just purchased a home there. Thus off to Canberra, he promised to track down pod and Todd, then lurched away.

"We have become sheep that pass in the night," I called out the window.

"Piss in the night," he responded. "Vive le prostate."

Fagan, also inured to warmer climes, has similarly lurched off, on a lecture tour, his Mac Powerbook brimming with more notes on the rapidly assembling work on our Cro-Magnon forbears, determined to add to his description of their footwear "the forerunner of the Ugg boot."

Thus I lurch forth, temporarily not between a Brit and a hard place, out into the afternoon, where the marine layer slithers in off the Pacific, as heavy as a damp towel, trapping scents of fish and iodine in its moist insistence. Free to take on the remaining papers to be read and commented on from those who will be attending the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference starting next Friday.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ten Ideas for Graphic Stories

1. The Taco Truck--is the equivalent of the Chuck Wagon of the trail drive in the old West; it feeds the vast army of migratory workers, supplying them in taco and burrito form some honest attempt at a cuisine that is not only nourishing but as well a reminder of the gustatory tradition in which most of its customers was raised. These trucks move from job site to job site, restaurants on wheels, bringing affordable food to those who need it most. The taco truck faces threats from entrenched restaurants, bureaucratic health inspectors, and impatient motorists who drive leased BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes, all of whom want in one way or another to drive them off the road. In many ways, the taco truck is the symbol of the Dorthea Lange Nipomo, CA photo of the migrant worker mother, a gritty, nurturing independence on wheels.

2. Cemeteries in California's Central and Coastal Valleys--the iconic records of the Gold Rush, the Land Rush, and every other rush in between. The stories of lives lived, dreams dreamed, and judgments rendered, are there on the fading tombstones and rococo columbaria.

3. Pet cemeteries in California--the often sentimentalized and overdone but invariably emblematic representations of the human species' regard for its animal friends. Where else but in California would the bereaved feel so free to express the strength of their sentiments? South Dakota? Yeah, right.

4. Gift Wrapping--the first casualty of a party or celebration, the cheery accouterments of the way people commemorate their love, duty, obligation, and sentiment.

5. Doctors' Office Waiting Rooms--places where, even when empty, the atmosphere is charged with the heaviness of the expectation of bad news. That tooth has to go. That lump appears to be malignant. That ache cannot be reached by aspirin.

6. Pawn Shops--temples of sacrifice and propitiation, in which fortunes have been reversed and held for ransom, and where the victims are trying desperately to buy a little more time.

7. Old movie theaters converted into other use--or the Cineplex as Norman invasion.

8. Hamburger/Hot Dog Stands/ Restaurants in out-of-the-way or industrial locations

9. Telephone Booths in Remote Locations

10. Used Clothing in Thrift Shops

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Roads Not Taken; Books Not Read

If we start with the notion that a bozo is a--well, a person of whom it may be said he or she has a diminished capacity for intelligent behavior, then we could argue that a bozon is one unit of dumbness.

Wait. This does have pretensions of going somewhere.

If we start everyone off with one hundred points on a scale of being literate and remove one unit, a classico, for major classics not read, we would have an index of literacy. Having lately been tested for just about everything else in the physical sense, I subject myself to the literacy test, mindful of my two bozon handicap. Think of this as playing literature Monopoly.

I lose one classico per title f
or not having read:

The Mill on the Floss,
Silas Marner
The Aeneid
Uncle Tom's Cabin
The Rise of Silas Lapham
My Antonia (although I did read Death Comes to the Archbishop)
I almost didn't read Moby-Dick
almost any novel by Henry James except The Ambassadors
Mrs. Dalloway

If you were to subtract hours spent in pool halls and additional hours reading pulp magazines, even though you weighed against these felonies my having read the entire works of Tobias Smollett and Anthony Trollope (didn't you just love The Way We Live Now?) you would not rank me very high on the index and might well drum me out of blogger dot com.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Subtext, or Were We Having Fun Yet?

Preparing lecture notes for tomorrow's class in genre fiction sent me on a trip back to my years in a gulag.

The lecture will focus on Aristotle (the Greek writer) and his valuable take on what story is--and is not. My take on story is expressed by a series of questions:

Who wants what?
From whom?
What happens if he/she does not get what he/she wants?
Why now?

That seems a pretty straightforward approach; it works as well with Hamlet as it does with the remarkable new work, Divisadero, from Michael Ondaatje.

Subtext is the narrative context of a story or poem that does not appear in the text, either in narrative or dialogue, but which becomes apparent to the reader and is in fact a part of the writer's design.

Hey, isn't that a pretty good definition for irony?

Yes! The behavior of the characters expresses one set of behavior while at the same time the subtext reveals--betrays, if you will--an altogether different, possibly polar intent.

So what about this gulag stuff?

Gulag is an acronym in Russian for a corrective labor camp, a place with the serious subtext of workers being given chores of such boring, humiliating, and forcefully introspective vectors that the inmate reconsiders his/her individualistic, often rebellious nature, accepting the Common Wisdom, be it political, religious, educational, or a combination thereof.

I was an inmate of this gulag from ages twelve to fourteen. It was located at the intersections of McCadden Avenue and Sixth Street, a relatively nice residential area with comfortable, single-dwelling homes, in midtown Los Angeles, named after the naturalist writer John Burroughs, officially recognized, even to this day as John Burroughs Junior High School.

The buildings were functional, a kind of brick-and-mortar sturdiness suggesting order, even discipline, but nothing resembling the smug excesses associated with the novels of Dickens. The Boys' Vice-Principal was a tweedy, affable man with gangling good looks. The Principal and Girls' Vice-Principal were Dickensian in appearance, each having the kind of head and face you'd expect to find on a fifty-dollar bill or a bottle of Lydia Pinkham's Tonic. Most of the faculty had the haunted appearance of guards in a maximum-security prison movie, men and women who seemed honor-bound to inculcate us with responsibility and discipline. One of my classmates, known for his odd reading habits (Kafka and DeMaupassant) argued that when they spoke of responsibility and discipline, it meant they were warning us about the dangers of masturbation. Another, a girl who wrote poetry, argued that with one or two exceptions, the faculty were all lapsed monastics and that if John Burroughs Junior High were hell for us, it was purgatory for them.

At John Burroughs Junior High School, I learned to eat mashed potatoes drenched in a gravy that reminded me of library paste, and believed the girl who wrote poetry when she told me that the cafeteria cooks were ordered to put saltpeter into them in an attempt to keep boys from acting out on urges best saved for high school. I also learned that behavior was equated with intelligence to the point where, if you did not behave well, you were proving your unworthiness of good grades. I also learned how to make rockets from paper matches and the foil from cigarette packages; how to grow radishes and carrots, how to make radios that worked without electricity, and had committed to memory the steps in raising thirteen to the thirteenth power, the favorite punishment of my math teacher. I knew those numbers so well that I was able to sell copies of the exercise for twenty-five cents to other rebellious boys.

One of my great chums and fellow prisoners survived this gulag, then went on to do his undergraduate work and law school at Harvard, suggesting that the Common Wisdom might not have been all that bad. Perhaps. Any number of inmates, male and female, went forth to pursue professional careers, some with distinction. There were actually two teachers I admired and respected, although when grades were given, the A's they assigned to me caused me grief with the teachers whom I neither admired nor respected, each of whom would warn me that they were watching me.

It is true that I was neither a good student nor a model prisoner although I had been a good student in every one of the six grammar schools I attended, and probably began to do better, as they say, in high school, out of sheer relief from being out of junior high school.

And what is the subtext of all this? It is that junior high school threw me well off the course of Received Standard Education to the point where now, when I talk about the places where story abides as a thriving thing, I think of the school, the college, the university, the faculty meeting as the petri dish filled with agar agar, waiting to be fed some strain of mischief.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Old School, L.A.--Style

You might think being an editor for a book publisher, having all those manuscripts to read, and subsequent reports to be written about them, would be sufficient activity for someone who then rushed home to spend time with his own short stories. Think away. It wasn't sufficient, and so, when Art Kunkin came by the office one day to suggest that I do reviews for him, yet another series of connecting lines between the dots was set in motion.

Kunkin, ruffled, bearded, given to outbursts of purple vests and wildly patterned shirts, was editor of The Los Angeles Free Press, an energetic weekly whose primary audience was those of us who lived on the margins. The legendary San Franciscan columnist, Herb Caen, called some of us--not me--beatniks. We were also known as protesters, malcontents, socially disadvantaged, and Democrats, the latter being the most damning designation of all because at the time, it was not easy being a Democrat. Republicans didn't want us to go out with their daughters, and their daughters wanted us to get a real job.

One of the Freep (Free Press) columns I read with some care was called The Wasp, the title a homage to Ambrose Bierce, its prose suitably scathing toward all those who believed they knew enough to get by in this world of such racial, social, and financial imbalance. He who called himself The Wasp was a short, nearly pudgy man who wore thrift store glasses and often wrote clad in a faux-Indian blanket bathrobe. He had some time ago written a book called The Holy Barbarians, an attempt to get down on paper the spirit, meaning,and intent of the Beatnik and the Beat concept.

The Wasp was not without humor and although much of it was ironic in nature, he was not above telling me, after we'd met the first time, to give him a buzz, some time. He also had a son of whom he spoke dismissively as pompous and self-serving, adding that the son probably inherited both qualities from him. He was Lawrence Lipton, his son now the principal force behind the Bravo TV series, At the Actor's Studio.

Lipton--Lawrence, not James--was impressed that I knew the work of John Fante, which meant that my wearing suits and ties and largely being a Democrat were not a sign of terminal illness. He was impressed that I knew he'd collaborated with a former wife on twenty mystery novels, published under the pseudonym of Craig Rice. The fact that I was on the staff of a magazine along with Henry Miller and could actually authorize reviews and essays that paid in cash rather than the Free Press payment plan, which was often a chit for a pizza or a car wash, added to my panache. One of the bigger complements he ever paid me was, "For a guy who wears neckties, you take a hell of a lot of chances."

This was going to be a reflection of how my fondness for John Fante impressed Larry Lipton and Henry Miller, which it did, because they both used the same word about him, seminal. This was going to be about how the L.A. of that time, often overlooked by those who saw the legions of talent roaming the streets of New York, had a stunning group as well, including Charles Bukowski, of course Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, John Sanford, Theodore Sturgeon, and one Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, along with a cadre of men and women who put up with the shennanigans at the motion picture studios.

But it has spoken, morphed, if you will, to being about that nearly pudgy man who often wrote in his bathrobe, and one of those remarkable works of art that has fallen between the cracks.

In time, Lipton trusted me to the point of offering me a look at what he thought to be his magnum opus, The Erotic Revolution, a book about the effects of sexual activity on the human race and the further effects its on-going repression had on society and the art it produced In its pages, he urged the repeal of all laws regulating pre-marital sex. Make marriage optional; repeal all laws making homosexuality illegal; repeal all the so-called unnatural laws regarding the sex act. Make contraceptives legal everywhere and free to low-income groups. Make all abortions legal and free to those unable to pay.

Once, wearing a suit and tie, I sat across the desk from the then Rush Limbaugh of the TV screen, Joe Pyne, who started the program by demanding to know how I could offer a platform to a dirty old man and sexual pervert, by whom he meant Larry Lipton. Different suit, different tie; I did a radio appearance with Bob Grant, who was still in L.A. and more of a friend than was Joe Pyne. Isn't this--publishing Lipton's book--something of a low-water mark for you? he asked on KABC Talk Radio.

Somehow one of us--it might have been the stunningly wonderful publicist Irwin "Promotion-in-Motion" Zucker--secured a reading for Lipton in UCLA's fabled Royce Hall.
Owl-like, blinking against the lights focused on the lectern, Lipton stepped forth to greet the filled hall. Standing along the rear wall were a number of professors I'd studied with as an undergraduate. "It used to be," Lipton intoned, "that a university was not only a place of learning but a place of sanctuary. Men and women, poets, theorists, and writers with unpopular ideas could apply for and be granted sanctuary from oppressive regimes and punitive laws. Will you grant me sanctuary?"

There was a long moment of embarrassed silence. Then came the most un-Zen-like sound in the world: two hands clapping. Timid at first, the clapping grew in tempo and intensity. To my great relief, I discovered they were mine.

When Lipton died, his widow, Nettie, sold his manuscripts and papers to the university where I am now employed. I wrote to the custodian, thrilled by the acquisition, describing my relationship with him, and offering to help identify and classify, for which I received a note thanking me for my interest in the archival process and wondering if I'd like to make a donation to the library.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Spots before My Eyes

At first, you thought it was the yellow sweater, that innocent magnet for every mote of dust in the neighborhood, every vagrant blob of oatmeal, even mustard drippings from the hot dog eaten by someone sitting next to you.

You did think that, but a larger pattern has begun to emerge. The white sweatshirt given to all the staff members of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference last year. White! Innocent. Yeah, right. Within an hour of putting it on--to hide the ink stain on your shirt pocket--a waitress at a Mexican restaurant, carrying what was not even your order, got mole sauce on it.

The current to-go pile of shirts, pants, and ties, bound for cleaning and laundry, can be divided equally into two piles, essentially wrinkled and essentially splattered. Thus does the text emerge. Fifty-fifty probability of an item of clothing being worn and going to laundry without serious soiling. In baseball, grown men are rewarded for having a considerably lower average and are thought to be more industrious, in fact, if their uniforms are soiled.

Take smaller bites, you remember your mother patiently coaching her six-year-old son. Smaller bites mean less food on the fork. (And by implication, less chance of mischief such as spaghetti stains or blackberry jam stains.)

It isn't the size of the bites, your father tells you, it's the rhythm of the chewing. You've got to learn to chew with a better rhythm. In later years, people will admire you for the way you chew your food, seek you out.

You chew funny, one of your friends tells you one afternoon at lunch at the John Hancock Grammar School on Fairfax Avenue, within walking distance to the renowned Farmer's Market.

It is not the yellow sweater. By which I mean life is a minefield in which I am a poster child for dry cleaners and laundry. Splotches of ink are drawn to me, curds of yogurt go out of their way to find anything with my scent on it; blobs of oatmeal and the salsa picante of fish tacos and carnitas seek out my neck ties as though they were heat-seeking missiles. A scummy residue, worse than the mildewed undersides of shower doors, attaches itself to my reading glasses. Don't, please, don't talk about my computer screen. Birds see my car as an opportunity to emulate Jackson Pollock art.

You could try hypnosis, a former friend suggested. Sometimes the subconscious--it just needs a, you know, a little training. People try hypnosis to get help with smoking. You could--

Another former friend suggested accupuncture, and a friend whose status is frankly up in the air at the moment went so far as to suggest a chiropractor.

From ghosties and beasties
And things what go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us.
--An old Scottish invocation.

From Cheerios and pizzas
And things that stain and soil,
Protect us and enfold us in Glad.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Food for Thought

With a full twelve-week summer session underway at the university and the hectic intensity of the week-long Santa Barbara Writers' Conference looming, I had no taste for a quickie six-week summer lit course at the Adult Ed. But they made me an offer I could not refuse: flaky, buttery raisin scones from Marcia, who runs the coffee shop, and the freedom to chose whatever author I chose so long as he or she was out of the standard canon that could be had anywhere else (by which they probably mean the lit course my buddy Steve Cook is teaching at City College).

Yes to the raisin scones, and yes to John Fante, who, along with the late, lamented John Sanford, rank first on the list of America's best under recognized fiction and nonfiction writers.

Both were loveable curmudgeons, but since I knew Sanford and had never met Fante, I'll award Sanford the head curmudgeon prize and get to him in another post.

John Fante was the quintessential Los Angeles writer of the late 1930s and '40s. Reading him was like being a kid and having a doctor plug his stethoscope into your ears, then letting you hear your heart and inner organs. His turf was the area just northwest of downtown called Bunker Hill, a gritty amalgam of Queen Anne houses with wide yards, tiny neighborhood groceries, and news stands where the papers of William Randolph Hearst competed with the LosAngeles Times, then owned by the wannabe royalty Chandler family. The hill had a steep angle, necessitating a small railway, the Angel's Flight, at a nickel a pop to get you up or down on the hill. Bunker Hill began to mold, its dark roots starting to show in the early 1920's when the affluent began to move west toward Brentwood, Bel-Air, and that upstart real estate venture, Beverly Hills.

Fante caught Bunker Hill as she put on weight, her paint peeler, and her high-heels grew wobbly. The Angel's Flight, great fun for a kid, began to have arthritic shudders and lurches. It was the part of town you lived in if you were getting by while waiting for the next miracle. You could shop at the Grand Central Market and actually catch a decent meal at Clifton's Cafeteria on south Broadway at a reasonable price. Fante's characters ate there, walked the hill instead of spending the five cents on the Angel's Flight, and probably got two meals out of a French-dip sandwich from Fillipe's, down by the Union Station. The only contretemps on the Bunker Hill of those days would be if a Helms Bakery truck entered the same street as a Good Humor ice cream truck.

Raymond Chandler put LA on the map, no question about it, but Fante told us what the map was, and so when I spoke of him and my first experience with one of his early short stories, "Helen, Thy Beauty Is to Me," a sad tale about a young Filipino kid who falls big time for a dime-a-dance girl, the expression on the students' faces began to grow soft with the bittersweet of nostalgia, and by the time I got to his novels, Ask the Dust, and Wait until Spring, Bandini, the mood was so thick, you could serve it with the mystery sauce from Clifton's.

A goodly number of LA people--me included--have migrated to Santa Barbara, and like emigrants anywhere, they bring along in the fannypacks of their experience the poignant symbols of the old life.

Much of the old life is gone--one of the reasons we move on. Because of its extraordinary view, Bunker Hill has undergone a real estate renaissance. Were you to see it today, you would see office buildings, Mercedes-Benzes and the shiny dreams of entrepreneurs, glistening in the long rays of California afternoons. The Bunker Hill light, once sharp with the clarity of vision, seems to have been enhanced with the constant fall of glitter; it is the gaudiness of enterprise and property values. You have to look to the shadows and the past to find Fante characters there, but in his books and stories, they fall in love forever on the way home from work, share sandwiches, home-made wine, and the throbbing dreams of the young in a place where there are no obstructions.

I lived some eight or ten miles to the west, but coming downtown was an event and an adventure, a ten-cent ride on the top deck of the Wilshire bus. Often, very often, my destination was 648 South Broadway--Clifton's Cafeteria. You'll have seen books featuring the free-wheeling, anything-goes bravado of Los Angeles architecture, but unless you have seen the interior of Clifton's, smelled its piney-antiseptic ambiance, run your fork through its mashed potatoes, and listened to the on-going organ music, you'll think, yeah, I've been to places like that. Unless you have arrived on your birthday and been greeted by name by the hostess, who has allowed you an early dip into the treasure chest for a wrapped toy that might, on a good day, last the entire afternoon, you would think yeah, every city has such places. But did those places get the carrots just so? Did they make a pot roast that seemed more splendid than a steak? Did those places impart a fluffy insouciance to their macaroni and cheese. Was there a lemonade well where, with the mere wave of your hand, you could make glass after glass of lemonade appear. And was the sound of birds chirping amongst the painted redwoods anything less than glorious or the forest scenery anything less than dreadful in its earnest attempt to transport you out of downtown Los Angeles to the redwood coast?

When you were there, did you have any notion of how earnest Clifton's tried to skirt the very existence of the Great Depression? You saw the announcements that one could pay whatever one wanted--or nothing at all, and once, after pleading for the chance to try it yourself, then doing so, then being absolved of the need to pay for your meal if you signed your name to the check, you cried tears of thanks when the cashier let you change your young child mind and pay.

It is still there. Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria continues.

You have moved a hundred miles north; Fante died in 1983, in nearby Woodland Hills, which fits under the LA umbrella, but barely. And Clifton's continues.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Relatively Speaking

Call me Blogger.

Some years ago--never mind how many--having taken on an editing project I came to have no taste for, I thought I would surf about the web and see the cyber part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and stirring the circulation of interest.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the newspapers and news magazines I read; whenever it is a damp dreary election settling over the country, I account it high time to read political blogs, wherein lay deeper political truths and assessments, equaled only by the periodicals of our cousins in the UK.

Okay, enough of Moby-Dick, which is always good to revisit for its opening and for Father Marple's sermon. Were it not for Liz Kuball, I might still be using blogs to catch up on political news, contributing an occasional piece to the writer's blog Inkbyte, and content with my weekly book review at the MJ. Watching Liz set up her own site, to her own satisfaction, I became curious, then more than a little proud of her industry and talent. The thing that tipped me over was the added focus Liz showed in deciding which photographers she would link to and, indeed, which in turn linked to her. Bingo--a crash course in photography for me, a sort of cheat sheet of interesting sites to check in on from time to time.

By my reckoning, I begin my own blog on March 1 of this year, envious of Liz's resolve to post at least a picture a day. My goal for my own blog was to write myself out, to express all the theory and nostalgia and critical vector whirring around within me, curious to see how long it would take before I approached the daily blog with no preconceived notion of what would come tumbling forth, more or less like the contents of Fibber McGee's closet. This was my goal because of my conviction that this state, what I call the surprise state, is where creativity and originality begin, where one--well, where I take a theme and begin to work on it, improvising, inventing, surprising myself.

So far, so good. During this time I began checking writers' blogs, looking for that community just as Liz Kuball began checking out the photographic community. Ah, some lovely misadventres, not the least of which were individuals wanting to sell me various software to enhance my story-telling abilities, or editorial services to jump-start my narrative technique.
For every twenty writing blogs I read, I found perhaps a paragraph or two worth. I had become, to extend the metaphor I recently thought to forswear, a cyber Ahab, looking for interesting writers' blogs. Meanwhile, checking out Liz Kuball's links, I found any number of photographers who had ways of looking at people, items, and events that seemed to agree with my own.

On one particularly boring afternoon, I indulged myself by enjoying some of the images of the Alaska-based photographer, Ben Huff, who was being gently chided by a fellow from the sunnier clime of Australia. Checking out the work of pod, I was suddenly at another plateau, admiring some of his dramatically moody shots of buildings in varying shades of darkness. I said so in comments and checked back on him with some regularity. From pod, I got a nice referral to the remarkable Lettuce in UK, who seems to have abilities in everything she touches, with an uncommon grace in her ability to write about her life.

John Fox, a recent student in one of my classes, let it be known that he blogs, becoming one of the few consistently interesting writing blogs I have found. A chance encounter with a writing instructor in Oregon also produced some gold and the coincidence of our having done undergraduate at UCLA.

The happy conclusions from all of this activity is the sense of still being interested in Liz's link list, but of having found my own as well. There is the growing sense that looking at the images of some of these splendid photographers has literally had effect on the things I write and the way I put them down on paper. Oh yes, and this: I am eagerly awaiting a small package with an item I heard about third-hand, through a classmate of Liz at a photographic workshop. The item is a Panasonic DMC FX-30K Lumix.

I will know I have arrived at yet another plateau on this amazing journey when I am waved off a scene or challenged by someone who resents my attempting to capture an image on the Lumix instead of trying to remember it and catch it on the page.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Subtext, Context, Pretext, and the Oxford Comma

Although I am a skilled content editor and a better-than-ordinary copyeditor, the two disciplines veer away from one another before my very eyes to the point where it is fair to say that I have natural, enhanced skills as a content editor and must rely on my memory for copyediting.

As Liz Kuball would put it, I content edit without thinking; I need to be alert, on guard for copyediting. Nothing I do while copyediting surprises me. In content editing, I constantly surprise myself and the author.

Content editing is the literary equivalent of removing throat clearing and, as Sally would put it, dumb logic. Content editing wants to emphasize the uniqueness of the author's voice and vision. Copyediting is pure mechanics. 

 When I edit an author for content, I become an actor and accordingly act like the author. As a copy editor, I become a robot and emulate such style guides as The Chicago Manual of Style, The Cambridge-Oxford Conventions for Printers, The Associated Press Style Guide, or The New York Times Style Guide.

I have written and edited enough book text that
The Chicago Manual of Style is nearly embedded as muscle memory, nearly being translated as my recourse to look something up about once a month. My column for the Montecito Journal is another matter; I have to remember to render book titles in quotes rather than italics. That is only the beginning. The Journal generously allows me a convention variously called the serial comma (a,b, and c as opposed to a, b and c)the Oxford comma, and the Montecito comma.

Such things may seem dumb but they are instrumental in the splendid and tricky process called communication. Graphic artists have to worry about light, pigmentation, and objective standards for discussing colors with specificity. Musicians have to be concerned about tempo and pitch. Writers at minimum have to deal with subtext, context, intent, extent.

My reference desk:

A well-thumbed copy of CMOS, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. (To show you how extensive matters of usage are, it is quite possible that I have violated style convention by not representing CMOS in italic, even though it is not the full title but rather an affectionate acronym. After all, titles, even affectionate ones, have their conventions too.

An equally well-thumbed 3rd edition of The American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the American Language.

The New York Times Style Guide.

Microsoft Word 2003 For Dummies.
No, it is not laziness or error on my part, Wylie, the publisher, has registered For Dummies rather than for Dummies as its trademark, making me feel smug and superior for having noticed in a recent edition of Mother Jones the use of the lower case for.

The New York Public Library Guide to Style and Usage.It is probably a good thing that I cannot justify the expense of The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged) or, indeed, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (all twenty-nine volumes) because I would get even less work done than I do now.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Window Ledge Directly above the Bed

Far left to far right as I lay in bed:

1. A former crock to hold olive oil, recycled as a splendid flower vase
2. A small flashlight to illuminate such night sounds as squirrels fighting or falling from trees, rats, voles, and perhaps even raccoons, scurrying for the seeds left out for birds.
3. A bottle of saline solution which invariably misses my eye and hits chin or lower.
4. A half-eaten pear
5. A stack of books originally placed to discourage Scamper, the cat, from nocturnal explorations during the course of which, due to the six-inch available platform, she would invariably fall, landing directly on my head or close enough to it to make her presence felt.
6. Titles of books in stack:
The Remains of the Day--Kazuo Ishiguro
One Good Turn--Kate Atkinson
Frankenstein--Mary Shelley
The Time of Our Singing--Richard Powers
Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance--Richard Powers
Plowing the Dark--Richard Powers
Eating Stone--Ellen Meloy
Operation Wandering Soul--Richard Powers
The Secret of Lost Things--Sheridan Hay
Grotesque--Matsuo Karino
The Economic Naturalist--Robert A. Frank
Yet another copy of Plowing the Dark--Richard Powers
True North--Jim Harrison

I have no idea how Eating Stone found its way into the pile nor indeed what it is. I do know that since the pile of books was instituted, Scamper's late-night perambulations have taken on a new vector.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007


Tonight was the final class of the quarter for the short-story writing class, a group of eight, consisting of six who really wanted to move forth with writing and two who needed the unit credits to graduate. An atmosphere like the June marine layer off the Pacific advances on us as we talk, I in the spirit of giving away the store as it were, giving away gifts of technique that were passed to me or discovered by me in long afternoons and late nights of writing and chasing dreams off into the shadowy corners.

All eight of them had some tangible sense of breakthrough, saying things about their work that were discoveries of what a joy the work can be, a pain in the ass much of the time but a joy in the long, shimmering abstract. If it hurts so much, why do you do it? Who said it hurt at all? Who said the very act of reaching doesn't trump everything.

And so once again, a series of farewells, a wrench away from persons you had come to admire, each for that particular, individual spark of individuality.

Perhaps this is what drew you to the need for a quick fix, a shot of enthusiasm and joy to burn off the emotional equivalent of the marine layer that was sinking over the landscape. And so off to your newfound discovery, the photo blogs. Liz Kuball nails a shelf in the Italian Grocery on De la Guerra Street. Pod has a giraffe that for all its color and whimsicality, reminds me of his iconic band of Easter brothers, the foil-wrapped chocolate Easter bunnies. Lettuce has been busy in Suffolk, nailing landscape as though the shots were old lovers, radiant with the soft beauty of being loved. Shawn Gust blazes out of doors into the heat, eager to get away from the one lonely bottle of beer in the refrigerator, capturing the lived-in magic of place and the people who inhabit the places. Ben Huff, daring Alaska to be natural and forget the camera. And, by chance, a photographer from the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, not all that distant from DeKalb and Flatbush and Junior's cheesecakes, posting a shot of a typographical error in a sign in Starbucks and in the process, being hassled by an employee because Starbucks apparently has a policy of not wanting pictures taken of its premises.

Life, these estimable photographers seem to be saying, goes on in its whimsicality, leaving these flashes of immortality for us to process, reminding us for more times than we can count that it is not so much technique we strive to achieve but process, our way of recording the whimsy of life with our lenses, our pages, our poetry.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

To Do:

1. Wolfe of Felixstowe, now back from a teaching gig at University of Canberra, unaccountably returning to colder portions of Canada, all fired up and wanting to know if I have anything to show on our joint venture, The Dramatic Genome: DNA of Story.

2. Fagan of Lyme Regis, now of Santa Barbara and a yard filled with rescue rabbits, returned from New York and delivery of The Big Warm: a History of Drought in the World, suffused with energy and ready to go, his mustache atwitter, warning me to get out my editorial hat for Cro-Magnon: A Portrait of an Ice-Age People.

3. Eve Darian-Smith of Adelaide, then Santa Barbara, and now Boston, threatening readiness with her manuscript detailing how the law has treated women.

4. Buckley at the Montecito Journal, reminding me book review copy is due.

5. Marcia Meier, new director of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, arriving for coffee at Peet's, delivering a sheaf of manuscripts to be read and commented upon before the conference begins (on the 22nd).

6. Barnaby Conrad, originally of San Francisco where he owned a famous bistro, but now of Carpinteria, where there should be a street named for him, thinking it would be nice for me to check out the opening chapters of number thirty-eight, which seems to want to be a memoir.

7. Sally, of (as nearly as can be deduced) the Santa Barbara animal shelter, and now the world, indicating an interest in a walk.

8. Finish reading The Rabbi's Cat, in re: # 4 supra.

9. Prepare a lecture for Thursday's class in genre fiction. Opening velocity. Sounds good.

10. Finish annotated bibliography, 100 genre novels, for Thursday(which Thursday)'s class.

11. Take Sally for brisk walk in Manning Park, which has the advantage of some ambient light from neighboring houses and the Y as opposed to Hale Park, which has only the light of a waning gibbous moon.

12. Read student stories for Thursday's class.

13. Think about supper.

14. While you're at it, think about Sally's supper. Think about her walk.

15. Read The New York Times Sunday book review section.

16. Read the newly arrived London Review of Books.

17. Read the London Times Literary Supplement.

18. Attend to Sally's walk.

19. Finish The Fiction Writers' Tool Kit, which you have been finishing for the better part of a year.

20. Reschedule the MRI to help satisfy Dr. Koper's belief that you are now able to shift to a once-a-year visit instead of the quarterly check-ups.

21. Stop grousing about not having time to do things.

22. Spend more of the time you do not have, consulting photo blogs, which are reminders that there are miracles of random chance all about you and that persons you admire have a splendid eye for capturing them.

23. Buy a camera, with which you will take a picture a day, which is to say you will devote some of the time you do not have at looking for small, miraculous events you feel worthy preserving.

24. Don't forget Sally.

25. Don't forget that humor begins with attempting to do something, uncoupling a hose, for example, and in the process dousing yourself. If you douse someone else, it is meanspirited and not funny. If you douse yourself deliberately, it is showing off. If you douse yourself angrily or unintentionally, it is funny.

26. Think funny (and have a towel close to hand).

27. Take Sally for a walk.

28. Words with k's and p's in them are funny. An egg salad sandwich is funny; a ham sandwich
is not. Kippers are funny, tuna is not. Vegemite is funny. Bovril is not funny, particularly on your necktie. Catsup is not funny, ketchup is. George W. Bush is funny, particularly when he tries not to be.

Monday, June 4, 2007


1. Not Taken: cub reporter, police beat, sports, Calexico CA Chronicle
Taken: Foley & Burke Traveling Shows, occupation: shill, barker (guess your weight, baseball throw, dart throw)

2. Not Taken: publicity/promotion writer, Forrest Lawn Cemetery, Los Angeles
Taken: writer, "I Search for Adventure," "Tarzan," Sol Lesser Productions

3. Not Taken: auctioneer's assistant
Taken: Robert I Lethe, graphic arts consultant, write short stories for assorted men's magazines, occasional suspense novels

4. Not Taken: auctioneer's assistant
Taken: paperback novelist

5. Not taken: technical writer
Taken: editor, Sherbourne Press (hardcover and trade paper fiction/nonfiction

6. Not taken: crap
Taken: editor in chief, Sherbourne Press

7. Not taken: security
Taken: editorial director, Los Angeles office, Dell Books

8. Not taken: anti-California New York ethnocentrism
Taken: production editor, American Bibliographical Center--Clio Press

9. Not taken: Production manager, Wylie-Hamilton Books
Taken: senior editor, Clio Books

10. Not taken: editor-in-chief, Pinnacle Books
Taken: editor-in-chief, Clio Books

11. Not taken: a run at presidency, American Bibliographical Center--Clio Press
Taken: editor-in-chief, Ross-Erickson Books

12. Not taken: security
Taken: the freelance life

13. Not taken: doglessness
Taken: Sally

Sunday, June 3, 2007


Not long ago, you wrote to a student who was feeling defeated by not getting the time she would like to have in order to complete an assignment: "We’re under constant assault from things clamoring for our attention, all wanting to be heard. Some of them are not even from this time, voices and regrets from the past, yowling at us, or voices from the future, wondering what we are going to do then. Thus our attention is yanked from our enthusiasm by the crying babies of immediacy."

As if to ratify this theory, as you were making a list of things needed to be addressed in some degree, including humorous acknowledgments of taking Sally for a walk, you were shouted at with persistence by the crying baby of nostalgia, yanking you from books that need to be written for yourself, edited for others, and read for review purposes, to say nothing of taking Sally for a walk and reading student papers, back to the newsstand at Pico Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, back to the insistent gravure colors of science fiction novels, noir mysteries, and thrillers, back to the unforgettable sights and smells of penny candy.

Tall shelves, filled with apothecary jars, riotously proclaiming the same forthright colors of the paperback novel colors, seem like carnival stalls in their gaiety. If you were in your preteens, your cash on hand would be limited, each decision an agony. Jaw breakers lasted longer, but there was the lure of the miniature wax bottles, shaped like milk bottles, filled with colored liquid. Orange slabs,shaped like scimitars, with the word BANANA embossed on the top were memorable as marshmallowy chewy treats; jelly beans, five cents a handful, long red and black licorice whips. All temptations, things to be catalogued for times when you had more pennies to spend.

But now you are well into your twenties, mindful of your wish to have your own stories published in the likes of Gold Medal, Ace, and Bantam Books with their equally carnival-like covers. (The first thing you did when you became an editor for Dell paperbacks was to request copies of the older editions of the mysteries with maps of the crime scenes on the back cover.) From time to time, you can actually see a magazine in this stand bearing a story of yours. You are broke as a beginning writer is broke, which means you can take pleasure in the small triumph of buying an entire sack of penny candy, eating it while reading an Avon or Dell or Bantam mystery or one of the Gold Medals your friend Day Keene produced every month.

This was the time when you played center field in the writers' baseball game, and sometimes, when many of the regulars were too hungover to play, kids would be invited to take seemingly less important positions, right field or second base, and they would call you sir--throw it over here, sir; or He's trying to steal, sir, or, I have it, sir, and they chewed big wads of bubble gum, the baseball-playing-kid's equivalent of growing a moustache to look older, and even though their cheeks had that faux bulge of professionalism and authority, you knew, you were certain that they didn't know about penny candy.

Saturday, June 2, 2007


The extreme right nostril of the nose, nicked while shaving. Bled like hell.

Sat on reading glasses to the extreme discomfort of said glasses.

Spilled coffee on a student's manuscript.

Tripped over cord connecting laptop computer to AC power source.

Pressed wrong button on Dyson vacuum cleaner, rebroadcasting earlier cleaning efforts on carpet.

Attempting to avoid stepping on not just any dog but the dog, spilled oatmeal on carpet.

Spent too much time waiting for sentence to arrive in brain, during the course of which rested hands too long on keyboard, triggering a locked keyboard.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Lost and Found


A pocket knife with faux pearl handles, its larger blade nicked; a sixth-birthday present.

The beginnings of a short-story involving a group of Cro-Magnon, set in what is now France.

A tortoise-shell Sailor fountain pen with a deliciously flexible nib.

A blue-and-white Duncan yo-yo.

A Buck Rogers space ship that rides the length of a long piece of string.

Being able to place essays in the Virginia City, NV Territorial-Enterprise.

A blue-denim shirt that never came back from the laundry.

The exact location of Ken's Hula Hut on upper Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, along with the men who played there, Howard McGee, Hampton Hawes, Teddy Edwards, and especially William "Sonny" Criss.

Wimpy's Hamburgers, northeast corner of Cochran and Wilshire, Los Angeles.

An autographed copy of The Green Kingdom by Rachel Maddux.

Edward's collar with the brass identification medallion attached.


A copy of Literary Theory, a title in the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series; a gift left in a faculty mail box.

A missing debit card from Peet's Coffee.

A self-winding Orvis wristwatch.

A lineotype slug bearing the name of a campus humor magazine.

A missing invitation to a farewell party.

A pencil sharpener in the shape of a manual typewriter; a birthday gift from students.

An old copy of Know Thy Shelf, a newsletter about book promotion.

A key to a former post office box.

A small notebook with neat stuff in it.