Some years back, when I was doing weekly features for the weekly freebie, The Independent, it fell to my pleasant lot to interview a number of local mystery writers, most of whom I already knew socially. Perhaps the least well known of them all turned out to be my favorite interview experience, not only because he served such exquisite coffee while we spoke, not indeed because he was such an exquisite prose stylist, but because of one thing he said, almost as a throw-away line. It was a comment I had to ask him to repeat. He did and I will not forget the words or the intensity with which they were spoken. "I'd rather be the world's worst writer," William Campbell Gault said, "than a good anything else." Gault was far enough away from the worst to have been able to inject his sentiment with passion.
This opened the door in my mind for one of those lovely what-if situations that get writers going. What if a person were to prove to be preternaturally gifted at something that person hated doing?
The other memorable interview for my Independent piece was with Margaret Millar, whose late husband, Ken, also known as Ross Macdonald, had been in graduate school together at U of Michigan with my associate from USC, Dick Lid. "As close friends can often do," Maggie said magisterially, "Dick can tell you things about us that will make us seem more like demons and less like Canadians."
Our interview took place at the posh Coral Casino, a sort of meat market for the bored and wealthy of Santa Barbara, more known for its Olympic-sized swimming pool than its cuisine. Indeed, Maggie's major interest was that swimming pool to buoy her spirits as she faced widowhood and the decline of her eye sight to macular degeneration. Maggie decided we could venture a salad at the Casino, but she brought our onion soup in a large Mason jar which she handed to the maitre d' with an edge that bordered on contempt. As we spooned our way through the soup, a distinguished man approached, greeted Maggie, and exchanged an affable shake of hands with me after Maggie introduced us.
After the man departed, Maggie alluded to his parentage in a hoarse stage whisper. "The son of a bitch!" she explained. "He knew how much swimming meant to me and he didn't tell me. He did nothing to prepare me for this."
Once again, she had me. "Okay," I said, " prepare you for what?"
"They had to take a lung. Cancer, you know. I can accept that. But the son of a bitch didn't tell me. When they take your lung, your buoyancy is skewered. You don't float the way you used to. I find it difficult to swim now, but I am not going to quit over a son of a bitch like him."
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Some years back, when I was doing weekly features for the weekly freebie, The Independent, it fell to my pleasant lot to interview a number of local mystery writers, most of whom I already knew socially. Perhaps the least well known of them all turned out to be my favorite interview experience, not only because he served such exquisite coffee while we spoke, not indeed because he was such an exquisite prose stylist, but because of one thing he said, almost as a throw-away line. It was a comment I had to ask him to repeat. He did and I will not forget the words or the intensity with which they were spoken. "I'd rather be the world's worst writer," William Campbell Gault said, "than a good anything else." Gault was far enough away from the worst to have been able to inject his sentiment with passion.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Back to back tonight, the unexpected details saved the story and, as such things will happen, the entire arc of the class--lecture and discussion--was shunted onto an express track.
Story number one, set at a country club wedding reception, came to life when a few of the guests, bored, roiled by a variety of emotional tensions, and feeling the effects of too much champagne and too little shade, began throwing eggs at one another. Not merely eggs or even hardboiled eggs but deviled eggs. In a few sentences the event came to life, all because of that one word, deviled. When I asked the author why she included the word, she grew nervous, apprehensive. Should I take it out?
On, no! I explained, directing her to reread the scene without that word. Sure enough, the scene fell flat. Somehow, one listener said, the deviled part made it real for me.
The next story, a bit of a push in the direction of other-worldly implication, had a middle-aged woman receiving a package in the mail from her parents. Not at all unusual under most circumstances, but fact is, her parents had been dead for nearly twenty years, killed in an accident. The package had probably languished in an unused postal bin for lo these many years, but given the context of the story, the arrival of the package made the narrative seem plausible; opened the door to the possibility that the package was proof of the woman's parents attempting to contact her from "the other side."
Was that package a part of your original plan?
Oh, no, the author said; the idea just came to me from--
--out of the blue? I finished for her.
That's how it seemed.
Seemed is right. That idea was there all along but you could easily have missed it for any number of cogent reasons. The deeper we get into who our characters are, where they really come from, what they want, and how they see themselves in the scheme of cosmic things, the more we are likely to discover details about them that form immediate revelations of character, human understanding, and the things people will do--or not do--to one another.
To get these details we must give up our own desire to control and allow the characters to be guided by their own pole star instead of ours. As their creators, emboldened by the corrupting power of creation, we are often corrupted by the notion that our methods are for the benefit of all.
Our methods are thus altruistic in a sea of malfeasance. Ever the benevolent dictators, we believe we know the details better than they, forgetting that when the details come from them, it is true discovery, when it comes from us it is, well, it is propaganda.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
One of my favorite bumper stickers and crypto-patriotic car decorations is in the shape of the yellow ribbon used to advertise sympathy for our troops in Iraq. This decoration I so favor advertises support for "the guy in China who makes these stickers," a lovely irony suggesting that any time one pays for political slogans, even those espousing one's own favorite causes, one is not supporting the cause at all but rather some identity thief, some capitalist entrepreneur who is simply taking advantage of a momentum.
Old wives' tale-ish as it may sound, many are concerned that a photograph taken of them will somehow kidnap their spiritual essence.
Scarcely a day passes when those of us who use computers, bank, use credit cards, and similar electronic transactions are not warned about the dangers of disaster when some capitalist entrepreneur gleans our password, our drivers' license, our Social Security Number, or some other key to doing business in this increasingly automated society. Today alone, I received authentic-looking emails, complete with art and corporate logo from Bank of America and Downey Savings, informing me that my account has undergone a few necessary changes and would I please send the requested information in order to keep my account current. Trouble is I don't and never have had an account with either institution.
Thinking about it, I see how easy it would be to be drawn away from my intended confession and investigation, shunted into a screed over the way we are presented with so many options that appear plausible and on second or third blush, are no such thing. George W. Bush comes to mind, but that vagrant thought is far from original or relevant.
Almost without exception, I regularly steal identities, turning them into characters whom I proceed to abuse in one way or another, possibly educating them, possibly redeeming them, occasionally getting them laid, which seems only fair after all the mischief I put them through.
When I contributed to the now defunct Nick Carter series, I invariably stole the identity of my then department chairman at the University, rendering him variously as a spy, a crook, or someone who had as an agenda the goal of returning the world to iambic pentameter in some kind of formal rhyming pattern. I frequently use the names of friends in novels and short stories, and indeed my own identity has been phished by a former student who has led me up the bureaucracy of the Bronx Police Department, where I achieved the rank of sergeant before taking early retirement to go into the private sector for trendier investigations.
This is by no means to minimize the effects of identity theft on the men and women who fall victim to the schemes or accidental vicissitudes of financial chicanery, but it is an acknowledgment of how many of us give away our identity on the spot to some seemingly obvious con. Ah, there I am, back to George W. Bush again, and I apologize for that, but wait, haven't many of us done the same thing with regard to the late Rev. Falwell? And of course we give certain portions of our identity to the likes of the hysteria-mongers on Fox News, and there are cadres of politicians, societal reformers, religionists, and the aforementioned capitalist entrepreneurs, waiting to sell us bumper stickers in one form or another.
I am at the particular stage in a twelve-week summer session where I am attempting to lead a group of students toward buying a particular bumper sticker, one I get no financial reward for, only satisfaction. This is the scary part, because the satisfaction is of an evangelical nature: I hope to motivate them to finding their own identity and--yes, yes; I know, this makes me not only evangelical but a conservative--holding onto it because in many ways, it is all there is for them.
When I began this essay, I thought of myself as pretty optimistic; a bit edgy, perhaps, but certainly not evangelical, conservative, or suspicious.
My resolution, my answer, my salvation has grown with me from the times when I set into motion characters I did not like. I have since learned that all characters think they are right, an observation that has saved me from being a lousy plotter. My salvation is that there are ways of being right. My salvation is that although I have come to favor quirky, possibly even devious characters, I like them all, and along with their identities that I have stolen for my own use, I have stolen a remarkable concern for their welfare.
Monday, May 28, 2007
The recent publication of the presidential journals of Ronald Reagan has once again brought voice to the notion of doing something more for his memory than naming a cheesy airport after him. Even John Wayne has an airport named after him, the argument goes, and with the exception of that notable gaffe in which an airport was named for JFK, the naming of airports should be left for Republicans. The Baghdad Airport, for instance, is ready made to be renamed for the forty-third President of the united States, a somehow fitting tribute
Those who truly regard Ronald Reagan as though his journals were a hagiography want nothing less than the empty space on Mt. Rushmore as a fitting memorial.
I had not meant to wax so political, but I did not particularly care for Ronald Reagan even when he was a Democrat. Besides, the Mt. Rushmore real estate at issue should, in my opinion, be accorded to a beagle named Snoopy, who is a greater icon, a more representative relic of America than Ronald "Where's the rest of me?" Reagan.
Because of my long acquaintance with Snoopy's creator, Charles Schulz, I was invited to contribute to a book, Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life, which is in its way a lovely tribute to Snoopy and the man who chronicled the beagle's adventures. Thirty-two of us were invited to take a favorite Snoopy comic strip and write our reflections on the message embedded in the strip. I think all of us did pretty well. My own favorites were the late, lamented Ed McBain, and Jerry Freedman, and Fanny Flagg.
What could have been one of my favorites--and wasn't, because it didn't appear in the book--was from John Updike, who wrote a longish letter explaining why, although a fan of Snoopy (wasn't everybody?), he was busy and didn't have the time. He didn't have the time for three or four pages of letter, which I suggested should go in the book because making a long, elaborate excuse that could just as easily have been the piece itself is such a writerly thing to do. Or not.
I would in fact be mortified if Ronald Wilson Reagan's bust made its way onto the slopes of Mt. Rushmore. Come on! But Snoopy is a lovely alternate.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
If you take a few moments to think about it, issues of identity in
Of course people in California are hunters and gatherers--even those of agricultural bent. There is much to be hunted and gathered here, particularly for those who pursue the arts, but in another way for those who pursue commerce. The trick of it all is to take note of these things before they fade in the sunnier parts of the state or somehow erode in the colder, windier parts of the state. Having taken note of some treasured vision is the first step to finding those two things I've been speaking of, lecturing about for some time: attitude and voice.
Story is often thought to be highly effective when it has a sturdy-but-flexible spine, which is to say a design or plot; nor does it hurt if the story has edgy, remarkable persons who somehow warn us of what we might or already have become. But attitude and voice trump these with great regularity. We want a man or woman or child to follow who is already launched in attitude and voice because we know that ever once in a while, like the hunters and gatherers of eld, they will have secreted themselves in the precise place where something momentous will come galumphing by.
Because there are so many possibilities, issues of identity are always good building blocks for the short story. Perhaps one or two realizations per story. You leave with a dangling modifier, which is not a noun waiting to be claimed by some pronoun , but rather a character with a voice and attitude who may or may not accept some collected wisdom that is within his reach.
Targets of opportunity range from woolly mammoths to ideas for rock paintings to dances of celebration to narratives of pure speculative invention. We await them with stealth, ingenuity, and opportunism. And thanks.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
One of the more contentious topics for discussion came up this morning at the Saturday Writers' Workshop, contentious because of its roots in frustration. When we hear a particular work that strikes a resonant cord among the assembled host, our first thought is where to send it.
We are none of dilettantes by nature, nor is any of us with the possible exception of me lazy. Anne Cravens, for instance, reading her essay accompanying a grant proposal, was agonizing about the times when, mother of two boys, wife to a rock musician, and a full-time worker at one of the local scientific industries, the decision was between taking a shower and reading a few pages from a magazine or book. Christine is running her late husband's business, pursuing a career as an actress, and writing two wildly differing projects.
The subject came forth when Gail announced she'd been accepted by a service that edits, formats, and submits manuscripts. A wild-eyed populist, liberal, optimist in so many things, I nearly resorted to the conservative approach of rendering that word service in quotes, thus expressing an attitude of cynicism toward it. Simply put, Gail is paying two hundred ninety dollars a month for this service, at the news of which Liz offered to do it for two hundred fifty.
It's my money, Gail countered, and I can do what I want. True enough, particularly since what she wants is to get her work out in circulation. Marci reports paying her daughter to submit her short stories, a task at which the daughter excelled, resulting in five acceptances for Marci--before she was bitten big time by a novel she's working on.
The issue is only tangentially whether writers--artists in general--should take the responsibility of submitting their own work. The real issue is time.
The pile of magazines and journals on and about the floor of my room, the rear of my car, and such random places where there are no books serve as a constant reminder to me of the amount of reading needed to--what is the euphemism?--keep current, is staggering.
Add blog reading to the magazines; that's a given because blogs are often more up-to-date than newspapers in their coverage. I do a few for politics, notably Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, John Amato's Crooks and Liars, The Huffington Post, and to get a sane view from a conservative, Andrew Sullivan. Then there are the photo blogs, which offer visual images as well as conceptual argument. These have become increasingly more important in helping me focus on subject matter and point of view. I find Liz Kuball, Ben Huff, and pod (THE BAD PHOTOGRAPHER) invaluable.
My former student, John Fox, has a comprehensive take on matters related to writing, and I estimate checking him out three or four times a week, but here's where the beef comes in, with all its attendant fat and cholesterol: the writers' blogs I'm seeing--and I am looking--are almost entirely divided into two camps, those selling editing and motivational services (how could you want motivation after looking at the images of Liz, Ben, and pod?) and those apologizing for not having blogged for the past week or two or three.
The ideal blog has a theme, a development of the theme, and some sort of conclusion which involves some element of risk-taking. The more commonplace blog has an elaborate defense mechanism set up to justify not having anything to say, then going on at great length to wring its metaphorical hands and gnash its metaphorical teeth.
What ever happened to writing from enthusiasm or outrage or in the spirit of recommending something splendid or dumb?
As Alice put it, it gets curiouser and curiouser that there are so few who have curiosity for their pole star.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Sooner--see The Danse Macabre by Steven King--or later--see Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose--a productive writer will want to produce a book that instructs readers how to write the way a writer does. This is something like the elegant irony of the motion picture Shakespeare in Love, which a fictional version of Shakespeare falls in love with a young woman who masquerades as a boy in order to become an actor. It was a fact that in Shakespeare's time, the roles of women and girls were played by boys. This historical reality becomes the dramatic device that causes Shakespeare to conceptualize Twelfth Night, in which the character Viola pretends to be a young man. Thus in the reality of the time, you'd have a boy actor portraying a girl portraying a boy portraying a girl. A nice ride of identity and ego, an entertaining story. So, too, is the growing genre of the writer writing about writing, a temptation from which I am scarcely immune, considering the progress of my own venture into the field. I think the motive goes well beyond mere ego and into the emotional terrains of nostalgia and a desire to provide some sort of monument for what at times seems to have become muscle memory but which at other times seems to have been a long, laborious process. At first blush, this seems an altruistic gesture, but thinking it through, I'm approaching the belief that it is anything but altruistic, not merely bordering on but invading the terrain of egotism. Yes, it is true, I wish I'd had a teacher like me when I was starting out. Instead, my first creative writing teacher was Herman Quick, a man who wore double-breasted suits and imparted a message that actually proved out for me: one learned the craft by doing the work. Vernon King, my first college-level instructor, had a wry sense of humor (college writing instructors, I came to realize, either had a wry sense of humor or none at all, and those who had none at all tended to throw things), published small editions of poetry about Western topics, and got me firmly anchored with F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories. J. E. Johnston took wryness to new levels, causing in me a sincere desire to project wryness as a badge of writerly disdain for the commonplace, to emerge as sarcastic and insufferable. John Jenkins Espey not only looked writerly in his academic regalia from Oxford, he published memoir with Alfred Knopf, and had a significant number of short pieces in The New Yorker. He had a definite wryness that ultimately helped me seem more overwhelmed than sarcastic; the depth of his learning and connections to writers I admired was then and remains today humbling. His book explaining and demythifying Ezra Pound's poetry almost changed my mind about graduate school and pursuit of the scholarly life.
Mr. Espey was the last of my formal teachers, leaving me to discover informal teachers in such remarkable places as The Garden of Allah, a Belgian Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, the West Valley Democratic Club, The Cock & Bull Pub (also on Sunset Boulevard), a Chinese Restaurant run by an actor named Benson Fong, and Sunday afternoon writers' baseball games played in various venues throughout west Los Angeles and Sherman Oaks. Only one individual from this multifarious group of informal teachers, Wells Root, wrote a book about writing, and its publisher, The University of California Press, impressed me almost as the content. The truths I'm trying to get at are stunning in their simplicity:
1. No matter what the writer tells you, the book can only take you, Moses-like, up to the Promised Land, but not into it. You have to get there on your own devices, your own wit, your own persistence. Friends help, it is true, but they can help only so much.
2. Until you know who you are, you are likely to be rejected or ignored because you sound like too many other people who are not rejected or ignored--although maybe they should be.
3. Even when you know who you are, you may well be ignored or rejected because who you are is too sarcastic or worse.
4. Your best chance is knowing who you are, thus writing the way you talk and talking the way you write. At least you will be authentic, even though this leaves more questions unanswered than it provides solutions. Books on writing by writers who are probably between projects than have nothing to do with the process of writing can be valuable in helping you discover who you are. It is a freeing thing to say I am not Steven King or Francine Prose or Jane Smiley or Annie Lamott. I wish Annie Proulx and Daniel Woodrell would write books on writing so that I could have the freedom of not being them. Admiring each as much as I do, there is an incpient danger that I would be caught up in their slip-stream.
At my age, that is not a good thing. In fact, at no age is that a good thing.
When writing books and magazines tell you it is hard work, you may be tempted to think they mean the act of creating stories is difficult but that is not the case because you have already learned from another writer who is too busy writing novels to write books on writing that you should only write things you enjoy. The hard part of the work is being yourself instead of Elmore Leonard or Joan Didion. The hard part of the work is keeping yourself from the realization that you are having too much fun and that you ought to get serious.
It sounds as convoluted as what I can now call the Twelfth Night Syndrome, with you having so much palpable fun and not writing anything serious that your friends and associated begin to wonder.
So we close with these observations:
1. Don't write anything that isn't fun. Seen from the proper perspective, even a suicide note, written in the proper spirit, could provoke important second thoughts.
2. If you see it beginning to get serious, stop and ask yourself what it will take to get you back on the right path.
3. Reread Twelfth Night at least every eighteen months.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
We've been through this before, but it helps to realize, as Heraclitus did, that you can't reenter the same this. You may indeed be reentering but in doing so you are not the same person much less the same writer. In between reentering thens, you've received rejection notices from places you didn't expect, were given acceptances by places you didn't expect, and had a number of ideas you simply were not capable of having before.
Class went well enough tonight; some eyebrows were raised when I passed out the Ten Rules governing behavior between Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, but these guys are paying big bucks for tuition and are dead serious to be shown ways to get the work to come and, subsequently, ways that will help them stand out of the way in order to let the work get along with itself instead of defending, explaining, or justifying. Good narrative needs no defense, explanation, or justification.
It was last night when the Big Notion came tumbling forth. You guys are on a quarter system, which means I have ten weeks, ten three-hour sessions in which to demonstrate to you how you might pull breathable, memorable short stories forth.
Can't be done. Doesn't work that way, particularly not for undergraduates. You can learn some of the process that goes into writing a short story, but even with the best time management, you're fighting an uphill battle.
The best you can do is learn how to work yourself into a fearful lather, which you then live with until the work is finished, whereupon you work yourself into a different kind of fearful lather in which you wonder if you're leaving too much in or not allowing them--your characters--to tell the story instead of you.
Leonard Tourney says it is nothing less than a sophistry to think that the characters are real and have any control. You did workshops with Leonard for nearly twenty years before he moved off into beautiful Republican Utah, in essential disagreement about this point, as you remain today, but if ever there were a wonderful voice of reason and authority to quote, it would be his.
Nevertheless, if you believe the story belongs to the characters and that they have some say in the manners in which they get out of their problems--the mere act of being a character implies having problems--you will provide some background that demonstrates the predilections of the characters and the conventional approaches open to them for solving said problems.
They--the characters--have their story and you have yours. Theirs is more interesting, one of the many reasons you're on your way to writerhood, writerdom, and timing.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
For some time now, I have been obsessed with the effect Wile E. Coyote has had on fiction. Tomorrow, I'm going to turn that scraggly, scruffy, obsessive fellow loose on my class in genre fiction, where I will invoke Wile E. as the epitome of front rank character, by which I mean someone at the upper level of hierarchy, someone whose story it is because, scruffy, obsessive or merely a nebbish, the sympathies of the reader are ultimately with him.
It is a leap from The Roadrunner Cartoons and the Coyote to The Iliad and Hector, but the root-for quality holds in both places: We want the Coyote to win, which my possibly mean we hope he gets The Road Runner, but more to the point, we want Wile E. Coyote not to be humiliated, because we know in advance that he will indeed be humiliated; once again he will be had. We wish Hector didn't have to die in battle because he is not only the sanest of all characters in the throes of that dumb war, incited by his dumb brother Paris, he is the most human and the most humane; he is one of the more evolved, self-realizing characters in the entire epic.
Wile E. Coyote is driven, no, obsessed, making him goal oriented to a faretheewell. He has no choice but to scheme, connive, and conspire against--beep beep--the Roadrunner. Hector pretty well suspects he will be killed in battle, his young son Andromache killed, his wife put into slavery, and yet we understand the social and ethical constraints that force him into battle so that he can die a brave death and be remembered all these years after the fact as a man who had and rejected a sane choice because the society of which he was a prominent part was in so many ways insane.
We know that there are more practical if less dramatic ways of making a living than being a pool hustler, but in The Hustler, Fast Eddie Felson wants to be the best pool hustler in America and because of what he goes through to be the best, once again we are pulled along in the slipstream of his career obsession.
Even though we may not like the person, we like the notion of someone wanting something to the exclusion of other, more rational things. There are a number of reasons why we like this notion, only one of which may be tied to our own sense of having no such goal of which to obsess ourselves.
Wile E. Coyote is not a splendid fellow. Look him up. Doing so, you will see the extent to which his creators went to set forth the rules which he and his opposing force, The Road Runner, must observe, making The Looney Tunes Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote as ritualized and mannered as a Noh play. These rules are as mannered and formal as, say, the martial art of Akido, and they produce the genius of the cartoon series by having etched in our memory the frequent sight of Wile E. Coyote so perfervid in his chase of The Road Runner that he overruns the boundary of a mesa or escarpment and finds himself launched in the air, paws flailing at the absolute airless nothingness underneath him. This is the very emotional place for a character to be, boundaries overrun, no safety net in sight, helplessly vulnerable because of his obsession.
Wile E. Coyote, the Patron Saint of characters.
Wile E. Coyote. My man.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Much of my life is as tied up with the short story and the novel as the profligate spender is with credit cards. As a consequence, a good deal of energy goes into deciding where to put the short stories and novels I have read, where to store the ones I have not yet read, which convenient place to store the ones loaned to me, and how to record the ones I have out on loan and to whom they are thus loaned.
Equally time consuming is the fork in the road about my absolute favorite medium, the novel or the short story, which of the two I most enjoy writing, and which of the two I enjoy teaching. On any given day, I can be of either mind since both are glorious mediums, intimate splashes of life tossed at a freshly painted wall or a not-so-fresh surface.
The contest didn't used to be so close; as much as I loved short stories, I did not think I could write them because of my belief that in order to do so, one had to know how to plot. From time to time my interests left the equivalent of early autumn zucchini on my doorstep, which is to say what I considered short stories then--mostly concept- or gimmick-driven narratives--landed in my psyche like paramilitary parachutists dropped behind enemy lines. Novels were more my medium because in the novel format I could hide the fact that plot lines were a mystery to me.
Somewhere within the tortured and hallucinatory landscape of my immune system having played a year-long practical joke on me, leaving me more or less allergic to myself, I forged a sense of what the short story was and how I related to it. Well on the road to recovery, I was invited to dinner by Dennis and Gail Lynds and seated propitiously next to John Milton, the editor of The South Dakota Review. John and I liked the same kind of wine, had second helpings of the roast, and seemed to forge a sense of literary respect over the cheese-and-fruit platter. "Send me something," John said.
Three relatively sleepless weeks later, I did, naming the story after my then splendid dog companion, Molly, using the philosophy I'd forged in my illness, and crafting a narrative in which one of my favorite characters contrives to steal his best friend's dog, disguise her, and raise her as his own. A week later I received one of those small envelopes from The South Dakota Review I had come to associate with acceptance notes. In short order, using the same philosophy--as opposed to formula--I had crafted a story about an academic--a Hawthorne scholar-- who receives anonymous threats from an enemy in his faculty mail box. Another small envelope from John Milton. And yet another story, about a man in a senior citizen's writing group who is wildly attracted to a middle-aged woman in his class, doing his best to impress her.
This time, the note in the small envelope from John Milton said, "I guess you're one of my regulars now." To me that meant I could count on placing a story a year in SDR, one of the bright lights in the world of the literary journal world.
My short story output flourished and I was convinced this was the most delicious medium of all, a landscape I'd never thought it possible to inhabit. Life was officially splendid. Until.
John Milton died suddenly, unexpectedly, and with the exception of one seemingly outrageous story about a discovery I'd made about the university where I teach--in a tribute-to-John issue--I've not managed to crack the SDR again, and had to seek my fortunes elsewhere.
Those years have brought me to long-term reading and submission relationships with dozens of literary journals as well as the editorship of one. From time to time I discover a poet or essayist whose work moves me, but the driving force behind my reading is the short story. When the latest issue of The Georgia Review arrived, I fell on it because the cover promised a feature, written by a poet I much admire, that takes me back to the paperback original science fiction adventure stories.
What I realized only last night, just at bed time, was the presence among the short stories of "A Great Piece of Elephant" by Lee K. Abbott, a remarkable stylist who writes as though using a hot-wired computer, his insights, characters, and locales charged with mystical inevitability and glandular honesty. Abbott's characters careen about with the guilt of The Scarlet Letter, the driven inquisitiveness of Saul Bellow, and the humanity of Walker Percy, all these qualities leavened by the humor or--well, of Lee K. Abbott. In addition to it being gorgeously funny and ironic, of a piece with Jim Harrison's "Republican Wives,""A Great Piece of Elephant" is told from three differing points of view, a no-no in short story for anyone but Lee K. Abbott.
The Georgia Review also contains "Next Stop Abbottland: The Stories of Lee K. Abbott," which pays some loving regard to All Things, All at Once, his most recent collection. Herewith, my review of ATAaO.
Abbott teaches writing at the Ohio State University then reverts to the wilder, woolier parts of New Mexico, where everything seems to require the kinds of development--social and economical--that try men's souls and womens' patience. Like all fine humorists, he is a great moralist; like all fine stylists, he hears a cadence of language, of the human heart struggling to find a place, any place, with a wi-fi connection.
Monday, May 21, 2007
Discovery comes peeking over your shoulder whenever you empty your pockets on your desk, open a book you've previously read, or look through your car for something you think you may have left there. Discovery can also stand on a ladder or chair, straining for a better look whenever you enter the garage you so laboriously turned into a study (but rarely use now because you've switched to laptop computers and because the cable modem seemed to have developed the habit of turning off whenever you were in the midst of something truly interesting
There are things in your pocket and in books and sometimes in the car that truly amaze you, things that in essence remind you of the protagonist of Richard Powers's latest novel, The Echo Maker. Like this afflicted young man, you have the sense of someone or somebody's going to a great deal of trouble to imitate your handwriting, then use it to scrawl and scratch notes that were meant to remind you of things, or directions to places of whose reality you have no doubt but of whose relevance to you there is considerable doubt.
I am one of the few who know of J. R. R. Tolkein without being a fan of either The Hobbit or, later, The Lord of the Rings cycle. My interest in him has to do with the fact that he professed Anglo-Saxon at my old buddy Brian Fagan's alma mater, Pembroke College, and that while doing so, he found a scrap of paper on which he wrote--and promptly lost under a pile of other papers--the first sentence of what was to become The Hobbit.
I try to keep some sense of order about such scribblings of my own; at times I even try to keep a drawer or pile or even a PendaFlex file for the notes and concepts I suspect may have been produced by complete strangers.
There is no discipline to curiosity nor is there any to discovery; they both descend upon you like out-of-town friends or relatives, unanticipated, possibly even unwanted.
If I put in sufficient time trying to decode or give context to these mysterious and mystifying notes, I am often able to remember their origin, a spark or two of enthusiasm, a flash of energy, the lightning-in-a-bottle of an incandescent idea that has for a moment illuminated the darkness of my cranial cavity.
Late last week, having begun a list of 100 genre novels for use in my class this summer, it came to me--well, first it came to Barnaby Conrad--that I could get a twofer, some titles for my list and five or six novels I'd read in the past for my Book Talk column for The Montecito Journal, where I alternate a newly published work with something done well into the past.
One of the books I found in the library (remember the garage?) was The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler, with seven or eight place marks inserted here and there throughout the text. Thinking these place marks had been set to alert me to some quotable material, I began to read them.
I mostly do not do things in the library (garage) anymore, because of the ongoing odor of mildew that began with a severe rainstorm some years back, and because it simply isn't fun.
The Chandler trumped the mildew and the relative lack of fun. I have no idea why those particular places were marked but I do know that I had read enough of the novel to complete the rereading, rush to my newest laptop, and begin work on a retrospective look at The Little Sister.
Chandler has not been with us since 1959, not in person, but this, one of his least known, holds up and catches me immediately by having a woman from Manhattan, Kansas, hire Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, to find her gone missing brother, last known whereabouts a rooming house on Idaho Street in Bay City.
Bay City is to Santa Monica what Ross Macdonald's and Sue Grafton's Santa Teresa is to Santa Barbara. I was born and raised in Santa Monica, and just as he had with the rest of what we like to think of as the Los Angeles Basin, he "got" Santa Monica as it was back then when southern California was finding its way back from World War II.
There are a number of scraps from the garage, a few from my pocket, and one from my car that could either be from me or a student who writes like me.
These scraps of paper become like land mines; I wake from memory of their content, or a connection materializes when I am in the midst of something quite other.
It is as though these notes are like small pieces of myself, time capsules of me at an earlier age or with an attitude that makes me wonder about myself in ways that I have not.
The archaeologist at work.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
In some ways, it began here, at a used book store across Mission Street from the McConnell's Ice Cream Shop where Liz Kuball and I had taken ourselves to sit for a few moments on a suddenly hot day, Liz working over a triple-dip cone, me going for the double duty of an affogato, ice cream doused in espresso coffee.
In other ways yet, it began with a blog-cum-memoir I'd posted not too long ago about used book stores. Yet other ways, ways of a life long attraction to pulp magazines and the garish cover art (and contents) of massmarket paperbacks, were part of the cosmic yank I felt, drawing me into the nostalgia that took me all the way back to Thrifty Drug Store, Wilshire Boulevard at Cochran, midtown Los Angeles, where, as a thirteen-year-old, I dropped a quarter into the slot of a machine, punched a button, and had delivered into my hands the iconic The Pocket Book of Science Fiction.
Finished with our ice cream, Liz and I made our way over to the corner of De la Vina Street, where she took the photo linked above and I scanned the shelves for any traces of the old Dell mysteries with the maps printed on the back cover, or the no-nonsense realism of the Ace Double Novels, or the steamy, noirish sexuality of the Gold Medal suspense/thrillers of the sort my old poker-playing pal, Day Keene, wrote.
Nada. Zip. Zilch.
Plenty of hardcovers, plenty of paperbacks, plenty of the mystery, suspense titles that used to support such memorable art. But of course none of the old pulp magazines, none of the art of the fifties and sixties I sought to browse as a kind of literary comfort food. I sighed, resigned to my slight-but-wonderful collection of Big-Little Books.
The early pulps and the massmarket mysteries and suspense novels were a significant part of the forces that pulled me into the notion of writing, the mixture of sacred and profane that every wannabe artist in every field experiences to some degree, vowing to attack the sacred but conflicted by the intense lure of the profane.
Of course I loved Twain and Cather and Steinbeck; of course I relished and envied Fitzgerald and Ralph Ellison and Sinclair Lewis, and Jack London. Saroyan. Ah,the dots to connect with him. But there were these others: Hammett and Chandler, Bradbury and Brackett and Heinlein, for example, and Borden Chase who, as a former sand hog construction worker turned pulp writer then screen writer, turned me toward the pulps.
Twenty years old and editor of the campus humor magazine at UCLA--the main reason I found myself on a panel with the then equivalent of Arianna Huffington, a flamboyant journalist named Adela Rogers St. Johns, now a professor at the Graduate Journalism Department. Knowing the audience had come to hear her, I quickly got off stage with a deferential nod to her and what I considered the best advice for any who wished to write, "Read everything you can get your hands on! Read cereal boxes, classics, classic comics and Classic Comics! She began her lecture with a nod to my enthusiasm, then went on to warn the audience not to waste their time with anything but the classics, the best in literature.
After all this time, I still don't know where to draw the line between the best in literature and, say, Ray Bradbury or Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler; I still don't know if Madeline L'Engel goes under literature or speculative fiction; I still don't see the difference between Saul Bellow and Mordecai Richler, except that Richler died before getting the Nobel.
I do know that The Georgia Review arrived yesterday, featuring an illustrated history of the science fiction titles from Ace Books, written by Albert Goldbarth, no slouch of a poet.
I came along just a tad too late to write for the pulps, my few ventures including Amazing Stories, and Gamma, and Chase; there was also a period of a few years where I shared shelf space with Kozy Books, on-the-job training as it were, with a novel a month under a clutch of pseudonyms. On the other hand, I had a pretty good collection of Black Mask and Ranch Romances, and Dime Detective, and I did manage to edit Frank Gruber (and get a splendid autobiographical work--The Pulp Jungle--out of him, Bill S. Ballinger, and Bob Turner, and the major paperback agent of his day, Donald McCampbell; there were a clutch of science fiction writers as well, William F. Nolan, Chad Oliver, and Theodore Sturgeon.
The dream of pulp and massmarket originals persists along with my passion for the reviews that spring forth from universities and strange alliances between people of bookish persuasions. I had absolutely no thought of becoming Editor in chief of The Santa Barbara Review. But that is another dot, and another series of connections.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
A little after nine, this morning. I pull into the parking lot in the mall next to the Montecito Library, a gray, single-story frame building where, most Saturday mornings, I host a writer's workshop.
The character I see, pacing with eager nervousness, looks familiar to me, but I have worked late the night before and am now wishing I'd had a second coffee this morning. Getting out of the car, I see the pacer advancing on me, a rolled up magazine in one hand, a paper cup of coffee bearing the distinctive Peet's logo in the other.
Okay, things are beginning to fall into place. The "character" is no character, he is a writer. Jerry Freedman. The magazine is the current Harper's. The intent of his visit and the energy behind it are clear to me.
Is that urn coffee? I ask, pointing at the paper cup.
"What do you take me for?" he responds.
I take him for a man who, having had at least six novels on The New York Times bestseller list, had damned well better be drinking a latte or a cappuccino. I take the cup and sip from it. All is well.
"So you know about it?"
I nod. The story is by Nicole Kraus. It is--well, it is wonderful. It is the kind of story that is sad and tragic and affirming all at once, a reminder that our current president and his vice-president are not anomalies; there were and have been persons we'd trusted in the past, persons we'd hoped would lead us to, as Lincoln put it, the better angels of our nature.
Is this what a short story should do?
Damned right. It should and does offer moments in an arc of time in which the two grotesques, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, appear just long enough to help us connect a few dots and see a history, a tendency.
We both found her novel A History of Love as something to rejoice over, then, as such things go, Richard Powers came along with The Echo Maker and Nicole Kraus was set aside with the hope that there would be something from her soon.
Now, there is, and from the looks of it, it could be a part of a novel.
Very quickly, we each discover that each has just finished Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, each thinking to loan it to the other.
We are now into serious bidding. No One Belongs Here More Than You, I venture. Short stories by Miranda July?
Okay, Jerry says, you win. When will you be finished?
Maybe next week.
A sudden smile comes into his face. Nathan Englander. The Ministry of Special Cases.
I was going to get that.
No need, he says. We'll trade.
Nothing else to say. The energy and excitement are out there buzzing around.
Jerry heads for his car. I cock my head toward Sally, who has been sniffing the grass just beyond the No Dogs Allowed sign. She starts after me toward the library.
Somewhere, there is a new seventeen-mile-long nuclear accelerator, just the thing to get particles up and running on a collision course, looking for answers about how things are made, how they behave, and how they produce unexpected results. The same kind of thing some writers do in short stories and books.
Friday, May 18, 2007
Most markets have a section of shelves reserved in the Dairy Products Department for yogurt, where it is possible to find a range of brands, flavors running from the bland to the exotic, and a fat content running from non-fat to what is euphemistically called regular.
Many book stores, particularly such large chains as Borders and Barnes & Noble, have sections of shelves in the Fiction Department for such categories as mystery, romance, science fiction, chick lit, adventure, and juvenile.
It will come as no surprise to learn that the individual cartons of yogurt are stamped with sell-by dates and use-by dates, both reflecting the temporal nature of the content within. It will come as somewhat of a surprise to learn that many books in a book store have a sell-by date. If a given title does not sell, it is often returned to the publisher for credit, thus freeing the shelf space for a new book both the publisher and the bookstore hope will sell.
Although none of the books in the category section have use-by or sell-by dates stamped on them, the clock is nevertheless ticking to the point where it is both fair and accurate to say that some paperback novels have a shorter shelf life than a carton of yogurt.
The turnover is great--and wasteful. I have no idea what happens to yogurt that outlives its shelf life, what if any form in which it is reincarnated. On the other hand, I do know what happens to paperback books: The covers are ripped off and mailed back to the publisher for credit, and the text is sent through the shredder, making it possible for the novel you didn't buy last month to come back as something more alluring.
This recycling is as much a process in contemporary publishing and retailing as the process of a caterpillar evolving its way into a butterfly. This means that the paperbound books you see in thrift shops and used book shops have all been read at least once and are now being offered for sale outside the conventional market, usually at some ridiculously low price. A lovely way to build a functional library, but for one thing: the author is screwed out of the potential for royalty on these thrift shop and used bookstore sales.
Not to worry, you say; some of these writers do very nicely. Look at Candace Bushnell, for instance. After one of her novels was transmogrified into the TV series, Sex and the Single Girl,
could she possibly have to buy her Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik shoes from a thrift shop? And do those reliables of the paperback reprint trade, Harlen Coben and Lee Child, have to save up to go out for a steak at Smith & Wollensky's Steak House? Not hardly.
As in any field of endeavor, there is a pyramidal progression of real success as opposed to the very condition of being published. The average writer of these paperback category novels could, if he or she did not have a daytime job, qualify for food stamps.
And yet, every month, there is a new tide of these novels, arriving in trucks from the distributors or in crates sent along by DHL, FedEx, or UPS. Men and women spend their waking hours dreaming up new ways to retell stories that have enthralled the generations before us.
Some foodstuffs have preservatives added to them to add to their shelf life, to extend their use-by date. Some books have preservatives added to their contents with the same motive in mind. One type of preservative is called sensationalism, another timeliness. But the best preservative of all in these category novels, these genre stories, is the one authors give that extra push to insert. It is called talent.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Used book stores are another kind of matter and a decidedly different energy, the same kind you pay court to at an animal shelter where you see dogs that have found their way into these Motel 6s of impending misfortune. A book in a book store is almost invariably some kind of hard luck story, just as a dog in an animal shelter speaks of a less kind aspect of life.
But we're talking here about places where books wait for the right owner to come fetch them from this surrounding and take them someplace special.
So too, then,do writers' classes exude energy, particular first meetings of writers classes where students size up the instructor, waiting to see if the chemistry is there, if in fact the chemistry trumps the theory. And the instructors, they wait like mothers outside Manhattan schools, carefully comparing their progeny with the peers of their progeny, looking for clues, hints about intelligence, intimations of greatness. Instructors watch their first-meeting students for the very same quality, that nascent presence of voice and drive and imagination that will, one day soon, produce something so stunning that to read it is to be moved to tears, then gales of laughter, then insights that lift off the ground like an aircraft laden with wealthy tourists.
Of course it is all a sophistry; the energy comes from our selves and we read, teach, and write to capture it in some form or another.
I was at a lecture once where a major writer, Thornton Wilder, was the guest speaker, now subjecting himself to a thorough grilling by the audience. Where do you get your ideas. How much revision do you do? Are you a moralist or a dramatist or perhaps an Episcopalian. You appear to have aged very nicely and to have written your way into a distinguished middle age. Given your successes and perspective, what changes would you make in The Bridge of San Luis Rey were you to rewrite it now? Actually, it's a good thing I wrote it then, I wouldn't have to write it now.
Writing--the prospecting for an energetic commitment. Maturity--the management of energy to the point where, having written what one had to write, one is free to abandon the things one is no longer forced to write.
What forces us to write things? Money? The desire for fame? Revenge.
Tonight I landed a poet who, when she realized she'd signed on to a fiction course, began putting some notes down on paper, then discovered that, hey, fiction can be fun.
I noted her name and her energy.
Off to a good start.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
I begin with a confession. Not many minutes ago, I urged the Toshiba Satellite laptop I am currently using to go be fruitful and multiply itself.
I was that angry with it.
I am using this four-plus-year-old laptop because my less than one-year-old Acer is off in that limbo known as Repair, a place to which CompUSA sends all still-under-warranty computers. In this limbo, my Acer will have a portion of itself re-soldered, thus enabling it to be connected to its AC power cord and then on to the greater glory of having its battery recharged. This is the second time my Acer has visited Repair for this very purpose. In all fairness to Acer, the problem has more to do with me, tripping over said wire than any significant design flaw.
It is true, however, that Brian Fagan, a devoted Mac user, pointed out that the new Macs connect the AC power supply to the body of the laptop with a magnet rather than the male/female prong-and-sleeve coupling found on most PCs.
"Finals time," the CompUSA repairman said, investigating my Acer. "Students get spacey studying for exams and trip over their power cords. Biggest single injury this time of year."
"Look about you," Brian Fagan invited me with a twitch of his mustache. "You will never see a person in the repair line with a Mac computer."
This is the same Brian Fagan who has announced to me on several occasions that the Cro-Magnon got short shrift, which probably means he is brewing up a new book--a book on the Cro-Magnon. But that is another matter; what is of matter is that Brian is given to making assertive statements.
Steve Cook, also a devoted Mac user, and used to Brian's assertions, smiled before nothing, "Shelly has his computers repaired at CompUSA, where people with Macs don't go."
Subsequently, I got an email--with attachments--from Liz Kuball, a forward from Mac, advertising Adobe's recent release of a new version of Photoshop that would allow her to install it on one of the Mac computers listed in the attachment. An emerging photographer, Liz has slathered for the time when Adobe produced a version of its program better suited for the new Intel Macs. In an exchange of emails, we both wish-fulfilled over the possible configurations for a new Mac, each resolutely pledging to get the maximum use of our respective Dell and Acer, not even considering a switch to Mac until "sometime in 2008."
Actually, the Toshiba is not to be faulted for what it allows, the biggest problem being I cannot introduce MS Word into its innards because of some defect in the CD/DVD drive. The great irony is that I have, lurking somewhere under the bed, a Mac G-4 Powerbook, given me by Brian Fagan after he switched up to a more recent model. The G-4 worked very nicely, thank you, the last time the Acer was off being done to, but it appears to be hors de combat, which gets me at long last to the point here, best expressed a week or so back by Sam Kuper, during a visit from his chores at the Darwin Project at Cambridge University. PCs have some qualities Macs don't; Macs are better designed than PCs in some areas but not in all areas.
A vocal and enthusiastic fan of fountain pens--my Ancora is great for writing first drafts, ditto my Conklin, Mont Blanc, and Sailor--but as all things tend to do, fountain pens sometimes leak. Everything of a mechanical nature finds a way to go non-mechanical, and so there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
Amusingly enough, as I was typing this, the service department of CompUSA called to tell me my Acer is ready, which sounded important because classes start tomorrow and it will be nice to be able to get my lecture notes down in MS Word.
Rushing to pick up the Acer, and stopping at Peet's for a latte to go, I stood behind a man who made me wish Fagan and Cook were there to see his plight. "This damned thing--" he said, waving a Mac Powerbook around. "I'm going back to PCs."
My Acer was nicely scrubbed up and pronounced fit of wind and limb, ready to go, the tech said. I was even given a new battery. When I got home, I fired up my old friend, thinking I had some time to go before considering the jump to Mac. Then I discovered that in the repair process, my hard drive had been wiped clean.
Go be fruitful and multiply yourself, I thought, thinking about the logistics of contacting Carnobite.com, who holds in their server a copy of the data on my hard drive. All was not lost,that is, not if you don't add time to the equation.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
In the process of preparing materials for my summer school class, Writing Genre Fiction, I began two lists, the first a laundry list of genre expectations, which is to say what readers expect when they pick up a particular category. The second list is titled One Hundred Genre Novels, which intends to be an annotated list in no particular order or chronology. It is not only a list of genre novels I think will profit the students, it is a kind of unspoken warning that one cannot merely pick a genre, then write in it, write one's way to some kind of financial solvency if not fame and fortune.
The subtitle of my One Hundred Genre Novels list is How These Novels Gave Readers What They Wanted, a bit long for a subtitle, I know, but nevertheless a direct, descriptive one.
I could begin my list with a note, a reminder that in addition to such specifics as murder, puzzle, clues, suspects, motives, and the like readers of mystery novels expect, they also want story.
Readers want story in so-called literary novels, but they are more likely to settle for simple stories in the face of philosophy or moral conundrums, or political renditions. Some readers and some critics are even willing to lump--I used that verb with a sense of irony--literary novels with genre novels, saying in effect, What the hell, the literary novel is a type of novel, and readers come to them wanting to be transported to a place, a time, a situation that will then be cut up like a frog in a high school biology lab.
It takes some writers, myself included, several shots at novel-length narratives to get a sense of what story is and what it means, and how, if you are not careful, you will do the literary equivalent of brushing your teeth with someone else' 's toothbrush--you'll use their concept for story, their sense of pacing, all without understanding what you bring to the equation. Worse yet, you run the risk of being so taken with the notion of writing entirely for yourself that you will not factor in what the reader expects when the reader takes up your work.
Do not get me wrong: Writing to please one's self is a vital step to understanding not only what story is but what you bring to it, and perhaps even why you do so.
It is a complex problem, like trying, for instance to find an apartment in Manhattan at any price. Unless you're on the extreme ends of affluence, a roommate is not merely a necessity, it is a given. More likely, several roommates, using the bed and facilities on time shares.
You have these stories you want to tell; your potential reader doesn't know about you yet and has to be sensitized to your existence. In addition, your potential reader has expectations related to anything he reads. Thus your sense of what pleases you, what you can stick with through the revision and development, has to have factored into it your having read an infinitude of narratives that are good and bad, stories you love and stories that cause you to cringe away from as a vampire cringes away from a crucifix, thrust in his face.
Reading one hundred novels, although a bit time consuming, isn't much of a deal for a wannabe writer. In fact, a writer should read at least one hundred novels of the sort he or she wants to write before even starting out, not only to pick up technique and convention but to make sure one does not needlessly reinvent the wheel.
All this necessary reading is like having your writing self inhabited with roommates beyond number. You have to negotiate around them and through them in addition to coping with the characters, landscape, and tone of your own vision.
In the real life, roommates may leave dirty dishes in the sink or forget to take leaky things out of their pockets when they use the washer and drier, they may snore, use up your peanut butter, and as one old roommate of mine did, use a particularly splendid bottle of wine I'd been saving for something better than use in a stew. But these are nothing in comparison to the roommates you have to cope with to find out who and what you are, then get it down someplace where you can do something constructive about it.
Monday, May 14, 2007
One of the great moments in television erupted from, of all things, silence, when Jack Benny (1894--1974), amply established as penurious, a tight man with a dollar, and otherwise given to financial conservatism, is accosted by a robber (the icon from gangster movies, Sheldon Leonard), who with considerable menace, demands, "Your money, or your life."
There follows one of the most pregnant pauses in all of modern comedic entertainment. You might call it a Benny pause.
Finally, Leonard, impatient, growls out a "Well..?"
And Jack Benny's reply: "I'm thinking...I'm thinking."
Such was Jack Benny's deft timing that you could actually hear him thinking over his options, over the laughter of the audience. Set up. (Benny's frugal nature) Conflict. (Being robbed/threatened) Payoff.
Even now, over thirty years after Benny's death, you will hear the likes of Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, major writers of dramatic humor, reminisce on the importance of that moment, which influenced their work as they were emerging from the shadows and into prominence.
Significant to the point I'm leading up to is the fact that Jack Benny was close to being a dead-pan in his responses, his most famous other retort being a drawn-out "Wellll!" The only person who could break through the splendid Benny facade was his close friend, the cigar chomping George Burns(1896-1996), another master of timing.
What, precisely, is timing?
Timing is knowing when what comes next can safely arrive.
Timing is knowing how long to withhold information, be it spoken, written, or a gesture.
Timing is knowing how long you can continue getting away with what you've been getting away with.
Timing is also knowing when to quit.
The best way to demonstrate how acute was Jack Benny's sense of timing is with this anecdote, gleaned from those who wrote for him and appeared with him. A generous man in his personal and professional life, he affected a stinginess and also a rivalry based on jealousy with his good friend, Fred Allen.
Benny always instructed his writers to give guests good, funny lines, and inventive agendas. The only rule to be observed was that the guest was not to deliver his/her lines until, on stage before the camera, Benny made eye contact with the guest. Then the guest was free to indulge timing, gesture, and improvised device. If the guest violated that simple rule, the guest was not invited back.
Benny in effect directed his own shows, relying on his innate sense of how long he could delay a moment of dramatic impact, producing the long-lasting guffaw.
Timing, thanks to Jack Benny and George Burns, led subsequent generations of writers and actors to see how conflict needn't be melodramatic or even burlesque--a simple disagreement or misunderstanding would do. And of course conflict was writ large when Benny was challenged with, "Your money--or your life."
Conflict is the placing in motion of differing agendas, competition set loose, disagreement spilling out like an upturned glass of red wine on a white linen table cloth. Put them together, as with, say, Jack Benny, or George Burns, or Neil Simon, and you have a raucous and engaging dynamic set loose as a force that cannot be controlled.
Will the face of humor change? Will Benny and Burns and Caesar and Simon lose their bite? Of course it will, but for now, we see the dramatic origins of it in the work of those who, whether they knew it or not, were influenced by these giants; it takes place in that crowded, ill-furnished guest room between seriousness and literary intent. It is that splendid patch of dramatic landscape wherein James Thurber, curious to know for certain if light shined in a dog's eyes will reflect, is caught by a policeman, on his hands and knees in the dark, trying to shine a flashlight into a dog's eyes--then having to explain this to the policeman.
All of these worthies of timing and conflict have in common a degree of the absurd, which, like a gifted magician, they distract us from. With timing. The absurd becomes real enough for the audience to buy the situation without question.
We have been invited into this dreary guest room between conflict and timing, where somehow our suspicions have been raised and we are along for a ride that lasts us long after the performance has ended.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
At first, I thought it a mere aberration, a case of localized paranoia come off its hinges.
In the process of gleaning images of local independent Mon-and-Dad groceries, Liz Kuball, her Canon 5D mounted firmly on a tripod, lined up a shot. But before she could make an exposure, an employee came out of the market, arms waving, demanding to know what Liz had in mind, why she was taking a photo of this particular market, and what Liz intended to do with the photo once it was executed. While Liz was trying to answer the questions, the employee whipped out cell phone and began giving her thumbs a workout on the keyboard, actually calling the owner of the market.
Liz did not get the hoped for shot.
Not long ago, several hundred miles to the north east, camera paranoia struck again in suburban Fairbanks, Alaska, photographer Ben Huff's sense of purpose and decorum shivering through the account he wrote of being accosted by a housewife.
In the notes to his book, Niagra, photographer Alec Soth wrote of coming under suspicion more than once while asking people to pose for him.
After the Ben Huff posting, I was driving through a funky section of Santa Barbara on Montecito Street that borders the tourist-commercial motel area along the waterfront and connects to the railroad station and a portion of Santa Barbara referred to by locals and Map-Quest as The Mesa. On the very block where Elizabeth Short once lived before taking off for Los Angeles, where she found a morbid kind of fame and fortune as star of The Black Dahlia murder case, is a series of cottages set off from the street. There is a Bauhaus feel to the cottages , which I had been passing for years without noticing. I made a mental note to call the scene to Liz Kuball's attention in connection with her long-term interest in funky, well-weathered buildings.
A week or so later, I drove Liz past the buildings and, without fanfare, asked her what she thought.
Stop the car, she thought.
Moments later, her 5D was bracketing shots. Sooner than either of us realized, a car that had been pulling out of the driveway of said cluster of cottages backed its way into the drive, whereupon the driver emerged, asking Liz if she could help her, which turned out to be stage one of warning Liz off the shoot.
I can better understand the paranoia when Liz entered a laundromat on the outskirts of Carpinteria, wanting to get shots for a series tentatively called Waiting: people and animals waiting for things, other people, other animals, destiny. Almost any laundromat in the Santa Barbara area has some percentage of a Latino clientele, a clientele that has some knowledge of or direct involvement with issues related to Immigration. I can understand why some customers were nervous, even suspicious of a Gringa with a camera.
I have neither enough case histories or details from which to build a hypothesis, even though I recall one sympathetic posting to Ben Huff's account, mentioning his own misadventures, but by now the anthropology/political science sides of my university specialization have had their curiosity piqued.
My experience has been that writers get the opposite response; if people get the motion that you're a writer, their first itch is to enlist you in a partnership where they tell you this marvelous story they've invented and after you "write it up," you're ready to split the profits fifty-fifty. The second itch is for them to simply tell you one story after another, hopeful, I've come to suspect, that you, writer that you are, will tell them, "Why, you should get those stories published." If they don't want you as a partner or for peer recognition and encouragement, they want to convince you that they are, depending on their gender, the intellectual superior to Natalie Angier or Christopher Hitchens. If they think they are funny, they will want you to recognize that they are the peer to Chris Buckley.
If you are a writer, they will follow you around and bare as much of themselves to you as the traffic will allow. If you are a photographer, they pose so outrageously as to render themselves useless to your intent, or they conversely become guarded, hostile, suspicious. If you are a writer, they want you to recommend them to your literary agent; if you are a photographer--well; you get the picture.
No. I guess you don't.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Although it does not hold up as well as some of his films, Orson Welles's Force of Evil nevertheless ranks as a film classic. Featuring Welles as a kind of inflated parody of himself, pitted against Charleton Heston, dreadfully made up to give the effect of his being of Mexican descent, this film was made on the cheap in the back alleys of Venice, California, alleging itself to be in a fictional town bordering California and Mexico.
The much-beloved television series, Northern Exposure, purports to be set in Cicily, Alaska, a place that does not exist at all. The series was filmed in Washington State.
William Faulkner's famed Yoknapatawpha County exists not in the State of Mississippi, as Faulkner suggests, but in Faulkner's mind.
A number of Anthony Trollope's novels are also set in a mythical shire in England; the very late, much lamented Dennis Lynds wrote a series of mysteries set in Buena Costa County, California, which does not exist, and Ross Macdonald, whom many of us continue to lament, set many of his Lew Archer private eye novels in Santa Teresa which, much as it may resemble Santa Barbara, exists only in its creator's mind.
You will correctly surmise from these examples that I am leading up to something. When any of us sets pen to paper, we turn our characters loose in a landscape which we try to make as real as possible, attempting to grease the skids of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Willing Suspension of Disbelief concept. Whether the story is set in Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco, we are chosing a portion of the real landscape and mingling it with out own landscape.
The fact that I was born in the Los Angeles area is no guarantee that my L.A. will be any more convincing than the L.A. written about by you, who have never even set foot in the place. I may hoot and holler that some of my great triumphs, defeats, disasters, and wasted hours on the Santa Monica Freeway, eastbound, were all in L.A., but this does not give me exclusive rights either to expect that I can convey my intended landscape or that you can't do it better.
I put in a good number of hours at Spider's Pool Hall on Santa Monica Boulevard, ate too many of his sclerotic hamburgers, sank too few of his eight-balls in the called-out pocket. No matter if I have to argue with you about it; no matter if you don't believe I was there.
Arguments work in courtrooms and debating societies, belief comes from a sense of trust in character and place that transcends the rational or irrational argument and resides in observations about the conditions and traits inherent in character and place.
Because motion pictures have frequently suggested to us that we are in a particular place at a particular time, we tend not to see past the false fronts of their sets, suspending our disbelief that such a place can and does exist, even though a part of us may know that we are being ushered down the garden path from, say Ojai (which is about forty-five minutes south of where I am) into the fabled kingdom of Shangri-La, or from Vasquez Rocks (not too far from L.A. ) to Fort Zeiderneuf, which figures big time in the film, Beau Geste.
The real landscape and its certificate of authenticity resides within our imagination. We can be persuaded to believe but we cannot be argued into it. The journey to creating plausible characters and places, ones that will stand the test of cynicism for the years to come, begins with our own charting of the emotional landscapes within ourselves, journeys of discovery we must make in the same way some of the renowned cartographers of the past drew their accounts of discoveries on what were then undiscovered shores.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Sitting at the outside patio of the Xanadu Bakery & Coffee shop yesterday afternoon with two long-term pals, Brian Fagan, and Steve Cook, I experienced one of those introspective flashes of wonderment in which I simultaneously celebrated our friendship and experienced the great curiosity at how we became friends.
The Xanadu has long been a venue for coffee even though the coffee there is worse even than Starbucks. I would walk with my then dog Molly from our condo on Danielson Road, along Coast Village Road to the shopping mall we locals came to think of as the mall of Von's of the Stars, in honor of the glitzy market, Von's, where so many carpetbagger residents from down below--Los Angeles--came to shop.
My morning group then consisted of Louie Dula and Phil Preston, actors; Ben Frank, a sculptor; and Jack, the butcher from Von's. Long before we were properly introduced and before I knew him to profess English Lit at the nearby Westmont College, I'd see Cook, often with a group of young people, holding forth on some aspect of literature. Once, on my way inside for a coffee refill, I heard Cook making an observation about Nathaniel West, an observation I could not let go unchallenged.
Cook challenged my challenge. "How do you know that?" he asked.
"Because John Sanford told me so and John was sharing a cabin with West that summer and was there while it was happening."
"You know Sanford?"
"Drives an old model Jaguar, loves Sara Lee coffee cake, hates Republicans."
"Listen," Cook said, "maybe we could talk later."
We have been talking ever since.
Until he recently went emeritus at UCSB, Brian Fagan professed archaeology. Now he merely gives private lectures, revises his text books, and turns out what I will call scientific mysteries and curiosities at the rate of one book every eighteen months. My memory of how we met is less clear than my memory of the beginnings with Cook. Suffice it to say that some years past while editing The Santa Barbara Review, I acquired a splendid Fagan rumination on camel saddles, and have edited at least five of his books, including the most recently published, Fish on Friday, and the most recently finished, The Elephant in the Living Room: A Global History of Drought.
Cook, Fagan, and I have stood one another glasses of the local ale in the downtown section of Fagan's birthplace, Lyme Regis, most recently famous for being the site where the film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman was filmed, and not too far from a spot where Fagan gently took my arm to deter my progress: "Mind! You're stepping on Jane Austen."
At a party simultaneously celebrating Cook's fiftieth birthday and his having been granted tenure at Westmont (an evangelical Christian liberal arts and science college), when it came my turn to say a few commemorative words, I gave the blessing for wine in Hebrew, then offered a l'chayim--good health.
Cook's wife, Terri, once observed to me that there seemed to be no power point in the tri-partite friendship, we seemed somehow to admire, respect, be amused by, and not be overly impressed by each other.
Before meeting these two worthies, I'd lunched at Joe's with Barnaby Conrad, which may in fact have caused the speculation I indulged with Fagan and Cook. Conrad began his academic career at Chapel Hill, then moved to New Haven to get his B.A. from Yale before going on to various art institutes in Mexico and Spain. I'd read all his earlier works on bullfighting as a younger man. When I arrived in Santa Barbara to step onto the tenure track at a scholarly publisher, I was recruited for a career day program on writing-publishing at Cate, the local prep school where Conrad taught art. This was an opportunity to thank the man for the joys I'd had from reading his books.
Some months later, I saw Conrad at a party of the sort where, because of the boredom factor, it was easy--too easy--to take advantage of the plentiful display of red wine. And yet again, at a boring party, our paths crossed to the point where Conrad invited me to try my hand at a workshop at his writers' conference, the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference.
We are not at all alike, which is perhaps the draw. In addition to his close friendship with Herb Caen, the journalist who put San Francisco on the map and even after his death has kept it there, Conrad knows a seemingly endless stream of men and women I grew up on, either in admiration or in a kind of at-a-distance opposition. William F. Buckley, Jr. comes to mind in that context, although his son, Chris, with whom I shared a splendid turkey salad at Conrad's, fits the "other" side.
Conrad and I meet at least twice a week for lunch, which is an on-going exchange of books, things torn from newspapers and magazines, gossip, speculation. In the process, Conrad is fond of saying that he writes the books I suggest but which I am too lazy to write. Santa Barbara, being the small, smarmy place it has become, enlivens the possibility of contact with familiar faces, and although I have my share of recognized acquaintances, my share is dwarfed, overwhelmed, by those who approach him with a greeting. Thus my great joy for the one time I was able to trump him: We were seated at our usual table at the Montecito Pharmacy Coffee Shop when a pleasant-looking woman, actually a neighbor of his, greeted him by name. Ever the gentleman, Conrad sought to introduce me, but I waved his attempt off. "No need," I said. "I've probably known Sylvia longer than you. Providence, Rhode Island. John Howland Elementary School, right, Sylvia?"
"Right, Shelly," She said.
"Well, I'll be--" Conrad said. Because among his other qualities, Conrad is never damned, and darned simply doesn't suit him.
Why me? I sometimes find myself thinking. There is no answer, really, and so I go on, setting things aside to bring for our lunches, things I believe will interest him because they somehow catch a vision of the world, not through a lens, but through a prism.
Well, that leaves him who is in Canberra at the moment and who, for reasons I shall probably never learn to my satisfaction. We have exchanged confidences and ambitions over many a plate of pasta, Digby Wolfe and I have ; we have shared classes and advised each the other on unshared classes.
Why me? I think from time to time, enjoying the seemingly unexplainable riches of confidences, confidence, and comfort that has come upon me . Somewhere within this maze of friendly pole stars is a map of the heavens--my heavens--that will help me navigate through this succession of events we call days.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
One of the things I most enjoy about so-called writing classes is the sense of rebellion that overcomes most students during the course of a semester.
Last night was my night for Creative Writing (a distinction I think is nothing less than a hoot) at Antioch University, Santa Barbara. Antioch is a special place, where students seem to be valued and encouraged to experiment, a place where grades are not assigned but rather the students are given a two- or three-paragraph evaluation. This last is a bit of a bother, but not much because, after all, how are you going to give a grade in a Creative Writing course in the first place?
Mid afternoon and an email arrives from one of the eight students, attaching her assignment for the class, then informing me that she's going to a band concert in L.A. An hour or so down the line, the one male enrollee emails his intention of not being present because he had to finish a paper for another class, a serious class by implication, a class where fact and logic trump imagination and emotion. (Okay, you've got me: by definition then, Creative Writing classes are either funny or not serious, or both.)
I am now down to six students, including two who'd decided to take off the previous week. This is quantitatively good because these two will each have two papers to read for the rest of us to comment on, the missed week and the present assignment. This is qualitatively good because having only six persons present seems to open the flood gates of questions, the answers to which have a more dynamic and lasting effect than were I to address the same materials in lecture format.
These six students run the age gamut from about fifty at the higher end to thirty at the lower end. Of these six, two are in the course because, hey, it's three units toward a B.A., and they had an opening for a class on Wednesday nights. All of them are in some career or other, now pursuing--with one exception--a psychology/counseling track. The one exception makes no bones about wanting to do what I do, which is to teach writing and write writing, as opposed to working in the medical field for an orthopedist.
They have all reached a point in the stories they are working on, to fulfill class requirements, where they are all of them stuck at the same dramatic point, which is in effect, wondering how they are going to cope with the problem they have dramatized.
I smile at them and welcome them to the club: Congratulations, you've reached the point reached by brother and sister writers since the beginning of our profession, the point where you don't know what to do to get out of the problem you've gotten into, thus demonstrating something most readers and many nonreaders experience every day.
It's scary, one of them ventures.
I smile again. I've got her. You don't get good stories without writing yourself into the corner, twisting the arm of convention and morality. You've reached the Abu Ghraib of Creative Writing, where the characters have to feel they're stepping off the edge of a cliff where, unlike in King Lear, there is no one miraculously waiting to catch them.
They smile back, a kind of recognition that they understand.
The pay at Antioch is not all that great. The person who hired me was apologetic when she told me how much I'd get for this ten-week quarter. I knew then that if I could bring even one of the students to the point I've just described, the pay wouldn't matter.
After all the FAQs were asked and answered, all six of them smiled that giddy smile of understanding the risks that go beyond the surface gloss of Creative Writing being the title of the class. They saw the place, each within the boundaries of her own story and her own awareness of where the cliff ended and the dark void of uncertainty began. One by one, they leaped.
Sure, they're all at their jobs now, many of them connected to student loans, men, kids, ambitions--life. I'll have four more shots at them before the semester ends, by which time I'll be thoroughly enmeshed with fifteen others about a hundred miles south of here, at another university, and in, ta da! graduate school.
Since receiving an email from Digby Wolfe, now doing a gig at the University of Canberra, wondering if I'd relish the thought of joining him there next summer, I am led down the paths of whimsy where he signs up to do his old gig of being MC on What's My Line (the Australian version). What I tell them when they ask what my daytime job is: I lead people to the edge of a cliff and get them to cheerfully jump.
My Book Talk commentary this week is on the forgotten Golden Oldie, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, by Angus Wilson