Friday, February 29, 2008

Fatal Attractions

1. Ahab and the whale.

2. Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.

3. Hillary and Bill.

4. Are we seeing a pattern?

5. Are we talking co-dependence?

5A. Enabling?

5B. Forgetting to take meds?

6. Does Yin require Yang in order to operate?

7. Can Kali be the Creator without being the Destroyer?

8. What fun is there in having the tide always advancing or the moon always waxing?

9. As the Normans were invading England, the Anasai were defaulting on their mortgage payments in Chaco Canyon?

10. Does the whale in Moby-Dick have an attitudinal or metaphoric connection to Anton Chirguh in No Country for Old Men? Is each evil for the sake of evil or must we question beyond that plateau by assuming that evil, as personified by Evil, has a polarity?

11. How would you feel if persons in small boats were attempting to harpoon you?

11A. Does the fact of enormous size presuppose the equivalent of persons in small boats coming after you?

12. If you answered yes to the previous question, can you empathize with the junior United States Senator from Massachussets?

13. Remember it is Ahab's perfervid interest in the whale that brings him to humiliation.

14. In most ways, Wile E. Coyote is a pretty cool individual, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson, until he is drawn toward the Road Runner, at which point the solenoid of Fate clicks into place.

15. Are the whale and Road Runner embodiments of fate with a capital F?

16. Is George W. Bush more or less delusional than Don Quixote?

16A. Why is it easier to empathize with Don Quixote?

17. If it is possible to fall asleep while reading a bad book, why can't we fall asleep during a bad presidency?

18. What did the three hags in Macbeth really want?F

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Notional Review

This multifarious strand of recollections is evoked by the news of the death at his writing desk of William F. Buckley, Jr.

1. Although I had had earlier, indirect contacts with William F. Buckley, Jr, such as having read God and Man at Yale, and watching several segments of his televised program, Firing Line, my first direct connection came when I was editor in cief at Sherbourne Press, a small, geleral trade book publisher operating out of Los Angeles. I had already acquired one book from a bright, articulate, and personable writer, Frank Riley. That book introduced Anton Dymeck, a young priest who had been "given" to the Church as an infant, a tradition in many Polish Catholic families. The first venture was successful and we planned a second Father Dymeck novel in which one of the characters was to be William F. Buckley, Jr., whom we quickly determined, we could quote at some length without securing his permission, first because he was a public figure, and secondly because his televised show, Firing Line, was in public domain by virtue of being aired on public television. All we had to do was "take" his dialog from the various scripts. After the book was printed, we sent Buckley a copy, to which he replied in a personable, generous way, thanking us for the way he'd been presented, and hinting that the book gave him an idea for a series of suspense thrillers of his own.

2. Some years--but not too many--later, I met him thanks to the fact of his having been a classmate and chum of BC,one of my oldest and dearest friends. Once again, some years but not too many later, said oldest and dearest of friends, who happened to have begun one of the more successful writers' conferences in the US, invited Buckley to appear as a guest speaker. Buckley accepted with the proviso that he not speak about politics but rather focus on his writings about sailing, which he claimed to love with the same passion my friend experiences for fly fishing.

3. Between that last personal contact, I was in a kind of eavesdropping contact with WFB, seeing his handwritten notes to my friend, and getting further dimensions of WFB from my friend's stories of having been an interviewee on Firing Line.

Turns out that my friend's oldest son, BC3, was a classmate at Yale with WFB's son Chris, through which channels I got to hang out with Chris as well, and get added nuance of WFB, Jr.

5. Chris was delighted to get the background on the Father Dyeck novel, which, he said, helped him understand his father's sudden appreciation of the suspense thriller medium.

6. Not too long ago, my friend BC, sought permission to quote a longish portion of a Chris Buckley work in an anthology he was assembling. Chris Buckley's "price" for the permission was that BC should do a repeat version of a charcoal sketch of WFB, Jr., done years earlier and sent to WFB, Jr. as a gift.

7. More rcently, BC was wondering where to send an essay he'd written and since I knew Chris to be an editor at Barron's, I was quick to suggest the price of a few stamps. Only last week, BC reported that yes, Chris had accepted the piece. In about two hours, I'll join BC for lunch as is our Thursday wont (Mondays, too), no doubt to hear more of the wonders that were WFB, Jr.

8. Both WFB, Jr., and, for that matter, BC, fit the definition of polymath, each extending vectors of talent like some multi-armed Hindu god or goddess, taking on life as though it were a smorgasboard, taking on accomplishments with gusto.

9. As is so frequent the case, I do not share politics with either WFB, Jr. or BC, and it seems to me at times the height of irony when each has observed to me the F.S. Fitzgerald dictum that the rich are different from you and me.

10. WFB, Jr. was a splendid debater, a prolific and diverse writer, a man of great musical insights, wit, and humor. BC is no slouch around a piano and in fact early in his career supported himself by playing an out-of-tune piano at a cocktail lounge in Lima, Peru. He has also owned an iconic bistro, El Matador, mere footsteps away from another iconic bistro, The Hungry i. As a serious practitioner of tauromachy, he had as his mentor the great Juan Belmonte, and like most ex-bullfighters, walks with a slight limp from a goring. When Zsa Zsa Gabor told Noel Coward that BC had been gored in Madrid, Coward sent him a telegram at the hospital expressing relief that he had been gored. Evoking Zsa Zsa Gabor's thick accent, Coward said, "At first I thought she said you were bored." BC's paintings usually bring in fees starting at the mid four figures, and his books--well, they continue to come forth.

11. Sometimes in life, as you stumble and shamble through the landscape, you'll notice a shooting star or passing comet and you'll reach out to grab hold of it for the thrill of the wild ride. WFB,Jr. and BC are such comets and the ride has been stunning.

12. Sometimes when you return to you life, the feel of the wind still lingering on your face, your perceptions of reality amped up to a brightness you cannot describe, your awareness for detail still exquisite and shouting in your ears, you are profoundly aware of the happenstance that caused you to look up at the precise moment when the shooting stars and comets orbited overhead.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Arc of the Covenant

1. No, not that ark nor, indeed, that covenant.

2. This covenant is the one between the storyteller and the receiver of the story. You know--writer and reader.

3. The basic thrust of this covenant is that the teller is going somehow to entertain the reader and perhaps in the bargain give the reader the opportunity to learn something.

4. A secondary thrust of this covenant is the one word inscribed on the metaphoric stone tablets of this covenant: SURPRISE. The teller shall somehow surprise the reader in the act of surprising him.

5. This is a digression, but not by much. It is alright for the writer to be surprised within the process.

6. Until recent years, for the sake of convenience, say the beginning of this century, story traveled in an orbit many teachers and critics and, indeed, reviewers referred to as plot. They did so because the orbit was more or less a regular path. Just as solar and lunar eclipses could be predicted, the surprise in narrative orbit could also be predicted as coming a beat or two after the denouement. Oribt relates to the game we play with dominoes in which the tiles are stacked vertically so that when one is tipped, its forward motion causes it to topple its neighbor, which in turn causes that domino to topple the next. Thus could an editor or teacher explain to a writer that a particular story did not cohere because of the space between the dominos or dramatic beats.

7. Now the orbit is broken into a smaller segment, referred to by a generation of teachers, critics, and reviewers as arc. No, not the river in France, rather a segment of a curve, or to put it another way, the path taken by the modern story from the moment it is first observed by the reader to the point where the text stops.

8. There are few more iconic and illustrations than Tobias Wolff's short story, Bullet in the Brain, to illustrate the point of how the short story has evolved from orbital to ellipse or arc. In it, Anders, the focal point--not necessarily a protagonist but rather a point of focus--enters a bank at precisely the wrong time. Said bank is about to be--no, is now being robbed.

"Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers, anyway, Anders--a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed."

Not likable, that Anders.

9. What happens next is a model of removing the passage of time from the narrative; it informs the rest of the narrative and the sense of the narrative removing itself from the conventional orbit yet delivering the elliptical punch in the gut we have culturally come to require.

10."Keep your big mouth shut!" the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. "One of you tellers hits the alarm, you're all dead meat. Got it?"

The tellers nodded.

"Oh, bravo," Anders said. "Dead meat."

Even less to like in Anders, which is the hinge of the story, the turning point as we go from thinking Anders a consumate ass and wishing him ill to the point of seeing him as something altogether different.

11. In 1902, Joyce published Dubliners, a collection which forever changed the arc taken by the short story. Paving the way for EMH, to be sure.

12. That was then. Now there is Wolff.

13. And a way of looking beyond plot to such words as design or pattern. Even pointillism. Doppler effect. (I like the potential of that for dealing with where and how the short story is going.

14. Imagine a story beginning with a person such as Anders, complaining bitterly about how dark it is in here and someone wondering if the darkness is a result of the bill not being paid or a power outage.

15. Dylan Thomas. "Do not go gentle into that good-night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light..."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Sandbox in the South Playground

1. Journeyman carpenters have a measure-twice-cut-once approach to their craft.

2. Scientists like the idea of building a steady foundation on which to erect an edifice; they search endlessly for answers that will explain how and why things are.

3. Religionists search endlessly for answers to the how and why of existence.

4. Often the scientists and the religionists tangle, like the Bloods and Crips in South Central, wanting dominance over the turf.

5. The carpenters look on, shake their heads, continue measuring twice before cutting once.

6. From a vantage point, the writer takes notes, measures, supposes, speculates, wanting to make order of the chaos, mindful of the turf war between chaos and order, often sympathizing with the sense of satisfaction inherent in the cocept of order.

7. A clean room. A clean work area. A clean sheet of paper. A blank computer screen. Foundations waiting to be built upon. Destinies awaiting fulfillment.

8. When you were in the second grade at Hancock Park Elementary School, your destiny was to spend your recesses playing in the South Playground, limited to a collection of packing crates and a large sand box. Your destiny was to progress to the North Playground when you achieved third grade status, there to daily challenge Georgia to a game of tether ball, there to be relentlessly beaten because among other things Georgia was taller, wiser, more coordinated than you, a fifth grader who had, you recognize now, the ability to plan ahead. 

 In the South Playground your idol was Norman, a sixth grader who was the playground monitor, a sixth grader of unimaginable destiny and skill whom you constantly attempted to impress with your sandbox constructions. "No foudation," Norman said, implanting within you a response you sometimes used when considering the destiny of some of your ideas, later a response that came to mind when, as an editor, you were declining, rejecting manuscripts from writers.

9. Once when you were an editor, declining, rejecting manuscripts, in fulfillment of a errand presented you by your mother, you ventured into the Fordis Meats, a kosher butcher on Fairfax Avenue, in quest of a pound of ground round. 

 When the butcher asked if he could serve you, you recognized him to be Norman of the South Playground. The location of Fordis Meats is a tad more than a mile from Hancock Park Elementary School and the South Playground. This, you thought, is where your destiny has brought you. What you said was, Are you happy now?

10. Throughout the history of our species there have been remarkable men and women of inquiring mind, some scientists, others historians, writers, poets, dramatists, religionists, all attempting to find according to discipline and temperament a Unified Field that would explain or demonstrate the order within the percieved chaos. Some might argue that Heraclitus came the closest by arguing, as the poet Ezra Pound put it in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, "All things are a flowing/Sage Heraclitus says/and a tawdry cheapness/Shall outlast our days."

11. It is no small thing to attempt some kind of satisfying order from the rush of chaos about us; it requires a lifetime of observation and questioning. Do we, you might ask, think in order and act in chaos? Or, conversely--

12. Are you happy now, you who are perhaps one hundred miles from the South Playground?

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Horse of Another Choler or The Elephant in the Living Room

1. Many individuals who like to think of themselves as writers have the singular goal of publication.

2. Many individuals who enjoy thinking of themselves as writers allow the goal of publication to stand in their way of becoming even better writers than they momentarily are.

3. Thus the goal of publication appears, trumping the goal of enhancing craft.

4. Not all piano players want to perform, say Mozart piano sonatas, in Carnegie Hall.

5. Victoria Ponce, one of the lead characters in Antonio Skarmeta's remarkable new novel, The Dancer and the Thief, is driven to perform at major concert halls throughout the world because she has a specific message she wants to convey to as many devotees of the dance as possible.

6. An author for whom I have edited his last twelve books insists he is not a writer but variously a mechanic and a wordsmith.

7. Some writers so wish to become published that they ultimately despair of ever accomplishing their goal.

8. Nevertheless they keep writing.

9. If there is such a thing as a "natural" writer or a "born" writer, it is a person I know who has now published seven novels, one of which was made into a motion picture, another placed in motion picture development. In addition she has published over forty short stories. Her best work has dogs in them.

10. Skarmata's previous novel was about a humble postman who enists the help of Pablo Neruda in his desire to permanently win the affections of a woman.

11. Some writers attempt to enlist the help of exercises and formulae to inspire them and enhance their craft as writers.

12. Exercises and formulae are neither good nor bad, they simply exist just as craft exists and writers exist.

13. Many writers who at one time despaired of ever publishing anything and who are now published authors admit that the story or essay or poem or novel that lost them their publishing virginity had no qualities that were significantly more profound or less awful tha things they had written previously.

14. Try to imagine the response if someone had asked Amy Lowell during her lifetime if she had published anything.

15. There is no record of Norman Mailer having attempted to stab his wife or any girlfriend prior to his having placed a short story in Story Magazine, which led to his publication of The Naked and Dead.

There is ample record that Norman Mailer stabbed his wife after becoming a published author.

17. Henry Green went sixty years between books.

18. There were significant gaps in Grace Paley's publishing chronology.

19. Every writer has at least one story that refuses to be sold.

20. You have one such story that not only refused to be sold, it put at least two magazines out of business.

21. If you stop whatever you're doing when you get an idea for a story and set about writing it until it is finished, there is a high probability that you will in the richness of time get another idea for yet another story.

22. If you stop whatever you're doing long enough to write a detailed set of notes when you get a idea for a story, you will probably not get so many ideas for short stories but you will have literate notebooks.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Call for Submissions


You are pardoning us contacting you this informal way.
Nigerian Book Publisher earnestly seeks stories of wealthy diplomats in stress medical or political conditions. Why mess with subsidy publishers and blog posts? 

 See your work in print now. You will please to be sending heartrending stories of persons with millions of dollars which are needing to sneak from country to your country, enlisting American empathy and wish to help overcome bureaucratic nonsense please. For every convincing story of persons with incurable disease or maybe crash in Mercedes-Benz (no hybrids, please only wealth cars) and millions in frozen assets, we will transfer to any bank you name some big check with your name on.

Some writers who are presenting us stories of wealth and intrigue are getting big bucks transferred to their accounts no kidding. One writer say she be next president already get big dollar amount for her campaign.

You will please to send stories to with number of your bank to get big bucks back in your account.

Write inspired,
Hon. Wm. Crooke, D.C.
Lagos, Nigeria

Thank you. Tell writer friends.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Dear Mr. Lowenkopf,

We at Blogger dot com have been watching your blog for some time now, increasingly mindful that of all the blogs posted on our platform, yours has consistently and resolutely demonstrated the remarkable record of not attracting readers.

Our panel of Peer Review Bloggers has made frequent visits to your site, hopeful of pinpointing some trend either in your use of graphics or language or a combination of both that would allow them to offer you specific, positive suggestions for increasing your traffic.

One of our panel of Peer Review Bloggers, upon returning from your site, left his work area and we have not heard from her since. Two others fell asleep as a consequence of visiting your site, and yet another simply refused to talk about the experience: he simply said "I don't want to talk about it." Of those remaining Peer Reviewers, one is now being treated for amnesia and another is in the Blogger dot com anger management program.

The only clue we found that might address the source of your problem seemed embedded in the subtitle of your blog site, which purports to be in some way about the process of writing.

Our demographic studies lead us to conclude that readers do not have any interest in problems or discussions related to writing. They would rather have information on something more specific such as which fish bite at which bait, where to get the best prices on sushi, and which persons in a specific neighborhood may have been married more than three times, which in many states is simply too much.

On the other hand, you're more likely to have what we like to think of as traffic on your blog site if :

you add pictures of dogs or cats in cute poses,

take up a hobby,

invent challenging games,

offer quizzes,

try organizing a raffle,

offer daily reasons why Hillary is not in trouble,

provide lists of interesting things to do with tofu,

take advantage of our instant translation to exotic languages (adds a note of intrigue to any blog posting).

We try our best to help bloggers, but not all of us have the temperament or indeed the talent for blogging. If you visit us at the Blogger dot com site and click on the menu choice Help, you will be directed to our Recovery Group Online Sessions, which can help you move beyond not having the make-up for blogging and introduce you to the challenging world of online games.

Yours Truly
Blogger dot com
The platform that cares

Friday, February 22, 2008

Program Notes

1. Program notes first appeared in the nineteenth century where they were used to make Richard Wagner's operas seem better than they sounded.

2. Program notes were also used by conservative critics in the early twentieth century to make Stravinsky's narrative pieces and ballets sound worse than they were.

3. Uppermost in the program notes for the Wagnerian operas were discussions of how so-called leitmotivs were used to help the audiences identify certain of his characters, one of who was a dwarf.

4. Under most circumstances, audiences should not require help identifying dwarfs.

5. Program notes also helped listeners identify valkurie.

6. Listeners who have had any experiences with waitresses in kosher-style delicatessens should need no leitmotiv to help identify a valkurie.

7. Program notes are progenitors of Cliffs Notes; they help people identify things.

8. Sometimes writers include program notes in stories and novels.

9. Sometimes Hillary includes program notes in debates*. (Astrisks are often used in text to denote a foot note at the bottom--or foot--of the page.)

10. Sometimes program notes are so literal that they defeat the purpose of a story.

11. Writers of stories who are also control freaks do not agree with the premise of the previous observation.

12. Sometimes writers of stories who are control freaks are the last ones to leave a party.

13. If you expect to be in bed by a reasonable hour, say 2:30 in the morning, do not invite a writer who is a control freak to your party.

14. A book filled with various program notes would give you an abundance of information about music you probably were pretty familiar with in the first place.

15. A book filled with various program notes is something you probably would not read in one sitting.

15. Most characters in most books, plays, and ballets move about with a certain demonstrable persistence.

16. This is because action is the best way of representing a character; by observing what he or she does, you are able to build a picture of that individual's intent, the better to intuit that person's place in the story.

17. Or debate.**

18. Program notes are not as necessary in the twenty-first century because readers are able to interpret what they want and who they are from the things they do and the way in which those things are done.

19. This does not stop some writers from including program notes in their work.

20. Which brings us back to Richard Wagner and his opera.

21. A crux is one in a series of crises.

22. Program notes are for persons who think they are lost.

* This footnote is for Square 1, who suggests I have perhaps run the Run, Hillary meme into the abbatoir.
**This footnote is for everyone else.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ransom Notes

1. A ransom note is a bill issued by a kidnapper, demanding a specific payment for the return of the person or thing held by the kidnapper.

2. Some ransom notes would include an article of clothing or jewelry worn by or associated with the kidnapped, attesting to the authenticity of the kidnappers' claims. Other ransom notes would include an appendage, say a little finger or toe, of the kidnapped, while others still would include threats of dismemberment if the demands for payment were not met. In a remarkable novel by Joseph Wambaugh, dealing with the inner workings and politics of dog shows, the ear of a kidnapped poodle was sent to its owner.

3. One of the more notable historical ransom notes was that sent by the kidnappers of Richard II to the people of England.

4. A more contemporary ransom note is the one sent by Hillary Clinton to the registered Democrats in the state of Texas, demanding their votes in the forthcoming primary election on pain of even more aggressive behavior and ads for television that are worse than Caddyshack.

5. Some ransom notes are sent to writers. Instead of cash payments, these notes demand that the writer loosen up, not take things with such mordant seriousness, possibly even demanding the writer get a life. These ransom notes have the same effect on the writer that reason has on Hillary; each makes the target become more serious, well past the point of self-parody.

6. More often than not, writers have pigeon holes in their desks, filled with the essence of writerly currency, the SASE, the self-addressed stamped envelope. Writers are known to send themselves ransom notes.

7. Even bloggers send ransom notes. These usually begin: "I was too overwhelmed to blog today."

8. Kidnappers have a common bond with writers: Each is in it for the reward.

9. More often than not, the kidnapper is in it for the reward of money.

10. Who ever heard of a kidnapper kidnapping because he had to or because he'd been dreaming of becoming a kidnapper ever since the age of six, when a well-meaning grandparent read aloud to him Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped?

11. Not many writers of ransom notes would worry about whether or not to italicize the question mark in the previous sentence. That is because writrs of ransom notes don't bother to consult the Chicago Manual of Style, which dealse with such things.

12. Number 11 was a digression, which writers often make and which kidnappers, who are task oriented in a different way, do not take.

13. No know books on writing techniques, not even John Gardner's, suggest exercises in writing ransom notes.

14. Writers of ransom notes and short stories have in common high expectations and nervousness when they begin.

15. Hillary had high expectations when she began.

16. Now she has nervousness and Mark Penn and Terry McAuliffe.

17. Writers of short stories have different types of expectations and nervousness.

18. Writers of poetry have keys to a myriad of locked doors.

19. Writers of ransom notes are rarely if ever sued for plagiarism. One size fits all.

20. Writers of novels and short stories and poetry often have things and persons of consequence held in ransom, but they persist in their craft.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cliff's Notes

1. Cliff's Notes is a series of study guides to specific subjects (algebra,physics, chemistry, literature) aimed at a student audience but often helpful in attracting adults into their informative sphere.

2. Cliff's Notes not only has a title devoted entirely to the meaning and significance of Beowulf, it even addresses such arcana as the symbolic meaning of Grendel's cave in Beowulf.
3. To this day, February 2o, 2008, although I have been exposed to Beowulf and have within recent years read Merwin's excellent translation of it, I have no clue about the meaning of Grendel's cave nor, in fact, do I have any curiosity to store that bit of information in the already cramped spaces of my brain pan.

4. Cliff's Notes is perfectly willing to talk to me about writing, sharing opinions on such things as ending sentences with prepositions, preparing resumes, and addressing areas in my GED writing skills in which I may be in woeful arrears.

5. Cliff's Notes stands ready to be my friend in times of woe and weal, always on the alert to explain what something means, even though I might at first blush not want to know what that something means.

6. Cliff's Notes has friends of all ages, walks of life, and political persuasion, which has, as you might suspect, rendered it an highly profitable entrprise, so much so that it was purchased by John Wylie, which is arguably the oldest publishing house in the U.S., and which also is proprietor of another series, the For Dummies Series.

7. This latest revelation brings forth an association, a connecting of dots , that nearly but not completely embarrasses me: Should the generic name of the For Dummies series be rendered in italic? If the answer is yes, and I suspect it is, I would then have to go back to the first six entries in this essay, rendering Cliff's Notes in italic.

8. These are things writers and editors think of when you are hoping they will notice you and how intelligent and inventive and original you are, how your prose evokes and transforms and transports.

9. I in fact have at least five copies of Cliff's Notes (see, italic! Might as well start somewhere.) in various shelves, probably migrated from working area shelves to garage shelves.

10. The fact of them being moved away from arm's reach is in itself a valuable metaphor; it is what we do to persons with perfectly good , useful information that does not seem perfectly good or useful to us. We move them to the garage.

11. I cannot imagine engaging anyone I know, not Barnaby Conrad nor Brian Fagan, certainly not Steve Cook, emphatically not Lizzie or, for that matter, Jim Alexander, with a discussion relevant to Grendel's cave, nor could I imagine inflicting it on blog friends such as Lori or Square 1 or TIV. David Rochester is a possibility, but I rather suspect he would be polite in his nuanced response.

12. The meat of this is that much of what is gleanable from Cliff's Notes (italic again, right?) is the ability to discuss some recondite point of departure in a test, which is to suggest that we spend a good deal of time preparing ourselves to answer test questions with information that fills our brain pans with the equivalent of clothing packed for a vacation, clothing we do not wear.

13. Answer me this, as ENK is wont on occasion to say (ask): What does Cliff's Notes become the objective correlative for?

14. Let's see if we can find the answer in Cliff's Notes.

15. And while we're at it, what does Hillary's campaign now become the objective correlative for?

16. Are there instances where a Cliff's Notes exegesis would be superior to the thing under study? John McCain is a splendid example, presenting us with a Cliff's Notes version of himself and reality. Revised, of course. (See chapter on significance of McCain's Cave.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lecture Notes

1. A folded sheet of 81/2 x 11 paper on which, hastily scrawled, is a list of ten or twelve talking points, depending on the amount of time need to be covered.

2. A series of 3 x 5 index cards in which the ten or twelve talking points are listed along with sub-entries for each point, perhaps examples of books or authors or situations; some greater approximation of a detailed list.

3. One or more books into which credit card receipts, Post-it Notes, paper clips have been appended along with one or more pages having been dog-eared at their upper right corner (this last being based on the risky assumption that the intended lines will then quickly identify themselves once they have been called forth).

4. A formalized, computer-generated 8 1/2 x 11 sheet containing a detailed outline with at least two levels of subsets, possibly even containing entire paragraphs or scenes from a referenced source.

5. Depending on the time available to prepare them in advance of the lecture, these are the standard formats you deal with.

6. A possible variation on 1-4 supra occurs when one or more in the audience ask what you have come to think of Magical Questions, magical in the sense that they are transformative, transformative in the sense that they obviate the materials and formats referenced in 1-4 supra and shift the topic or topics away from the intent of the talking points listed on 1-4 supra, opening the door for the ad lib, the unexpected, the undiscovered, the rambunctious leap of association that produces communal energy and inspiration.

7. Number 6 is your favorite because it is one of the most direct ways of making the "lecture" interactive but also, selfishly, because it leaves you with the most intense high.

8. Lecture notes form a script for the shared experience of learning; the hearer of these notes hears something already known but not processed to completion. You hear this information in a way that is different from past ways you have seen or considered the material.

9. No one is bored.

10. Boredom is the enemy of lecture notes.

11. Boredom is the enemy of the reader, the writer, the listener, the speaker.

12. The mind is a fire fly.

13. A bored mind is a fire fly captured in a bottle.

14. See Hillary run. Run, Hillary, run.

15. Good lecture notes uncork the bottle.

16. Everybody's bottle.

17. It is boring to give the same lecture twice.

18. Thus 1-4 supra must be redone before each lecture.

19. Even if the persons hearing the lecture have not heard it before, it must still be different from the last time or the cork will remain in the bottle.

20. Run, Hillary, run.

21. The person giving the lecture must not be bored or uncertain or cynical or anything but open to connection.

22. The person hearing the lecture must be motivated away from thinking about repaying student loans.

23. It is a bad business for the lecturer if the persons being lectured to are having any thoughts about student loans.

24. Today's lecture is about the scene.

25. Accordingly, a number of scenes are playing in your mind, uppermost among them right now is Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, trying to order a plain omelet with wheat toast.

26. You want me to hold the chicken.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Thank-You Notes

1. A thank-you note is an acknowledgment sent to the source of a compliment, gift, or other recognition of your own identity; it may be the letter we were admonished to write as children to grandparents or relatives or friends of your parents who remembered you on your birthday or graduation or recovery from some childhood adventure with illness.

2. Thank-you notes should but are not always composed from the visceral part of your being rather than the social and mannered part, which is to say you should write them not because it is a sign of good manners to do so but because you feel some fizz of pleasure and gratitude at having been recognized.

3. Your early memories of the politics of thank-you notes came one Christmas when an uncle you never felt close to gave you a hair brush you thought was quite splendid. What delicious torture. Who was he to give you such a splendid gift that you now had to acknowledge in a way that expressed a depth of feeling you didn't have? After some thought, you decided he must have thought a good deal of you to have chosen such a gift. Suddenly you didn't feel so distant from him and actually began to peel the onion of his personality such as you were able to do at that age.

4. There are, of course, thank-you notes you have no difficulty with. Well, that isn't quite true; your difficulty is in going on at some enthusiasm in your thanks, reminding you of Mark Twain's regret at not having written one of his correspondents a shorter letter because he didn't have the time to write short.

5. Into this calculus of thanks and authenticity and anti-platitude attitude is the fact that the older you become the longer it takes to write things. You could not, you believe, write a new novel every month as you did in your thirties. It is not so much a matter of energy as it is a sense that words have more meaning; each choice becomes more critical.

6. Thank-you letters are, you realize, as important as the writing you do for yourself; you not only delve until you find the right words for the right feelings to sent forth, you spend time evoking the presence of the recipient of the thank-you letter, doing what a writer should, what a person should: becming an empty cup now filled with the essence of the person to whom you extend thanks.

7. This is some fun when you consider the implications of blogging and internet and exchanges with persons you contact at one kind of remove but connect with in a sort of electronic intimacy. No emoticons or LOLs for you under any circumstances, certainly not in your thank-you notes to these cyber friends.

8. Since we're at it, there is also the thank-you note not only for persons you deal with in the real world and cyber world, but for beings and things, for Sally, whom you note with pleasure you attempt to thank on a daily basis,; for the squirrels who live outside your bedroom window and bring such mischief into your life (What is the sound of one squirrel bitching?)for glints of sun on the ocean, looking like the spilled treasures of a young boy's pockets or the stored secrets of a young girl's diary. For Hopkins' Glory be to God for dappled things...for Cummings's All in green my love went riding...for When that Aprille with her shoueres sweete, for Coltrane's Giant Steps, for chiliburgers, egg creams, and all-night sessions to meet a writing deadline, for Dvorak and Ravel, for Gershwin and for pastrami sandwiches at Art's Deli on Ventura Boulevard.

9. In the ritual of the homa fire, a Vedic ritual in which Agni, Vedic god of fire is evoked in order to be offered things (Agni has a taste for yogurt and bananas, by the way), there is a recetativ in which the individual performing the ritual recites an invocation to which those in attendance reply as a kind of affirmative pledge, We offer up ourselves and our words and thoughts and deeds to the fires of Brahmin. "Let all of this be an offering..."

10. Thank-you notes to the cosmos for gifts and joys and recognitions received.

11. What, you don't have a cosmos? What kind of writer are you, anyway, not to have a cosmos. Get your ass over to your desk right now and design one.

12. And be sure to send a thank-you note.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Grace Notes

1. Grace notes are, among other things, musical ornaments, on-ramps to flourish if not outright improvisation.

2. Grace notes often come when the listener least expects them.

3. Grace notes are opportunities for the composer and/or the player to stretch out, have fun, perhaps even encounter an unanticipated discovery about the work in progress, the laws of convention that govern it, and explanations of the laws of harmonics heretofore unexploited.

4. In some ways, details are the grace notes of essays, short stories, and novels; they are the sine qua non of poetry.

5. Let's give them a name; let's call them grace details.

6. They are observations, facts, conclusions that at first blush appear to have no relationship to the topic/theme/story at hand but which, on further reflection, or with some deft carpentry, turn out to be relevant, which is to say enhancing.

7. Grace details may obtain with characters, their motivations and secret yearnings.

8. Grace details may say something about setting that warns the reader if not the characters to watch out for surprises to come.

9. Grace details may take the form of memory, association, objective correlative, they could be the design on the side of a cup.

10. You find yourself sometimes vexed to irritable indecision by the dialectic over whether to allow the grace detail to stay or to press the delete key. Although a distraction at first, this pair of opposites becomes a Post-it note from the viscera, reminding you of a discovery, knocking at the door, the porter at the gate in Macbeth.

11. Grace details are the unrecognized rewards of writing, far more meaningful than publication, which is indeed a kind of connection, a connection with others.

12. Grace details are connections with yourself.

13. How good is that?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Field Notes

1. Field Notes are observations made by behavioral, clinical, and social scientists about on-site activities of the subjects they study, later to be used as supplements to larger studies in progress.

2. Field Notes are observations made by poets and writers who find themselves in the midst of provocative and intriguing behavior, later to be incorporated in poems, essays, memoirs, short stories, novels, and plays.

3. Writers' field notes are often written on napkins which, in turn, are often damp, having resided for a time underneath a glass containing some quantity of spiritus fermenti.

4. Some writers also take notes on three-by-five index cards or Moleskine notebooks.

5. Yet other writers make field notes on the backs of credit card receipts, ATM receipts, and such miscellaneous scraps of paper as find their way into the pockets of said writers, and which are often enigmatic in nature, causing the writer on reencountering them to wonder what they are about and, consequently, what the writer's relative sobriety was at te time of notation.

6. Behavioral, clinical, and social scientist's notes are more likely to be straightforward, objective observations. Dominant male approaches ovulating female, exposes and extends plumage.

7. Writers are more likely to be rhetorical and/or expansive, even going so far as being speculative.

8. From behavioral, clinical, and social scientist's observations, we have learned among other things that animals thought of by us as vegetarians were in fact quite open to meat, that some animals practice cannibalism, that more animals than previously suspected use tools, and that sexual behavior withi some species fits the homo sapien definition of bi- or homosexuality.

9. From poets, writers, and dramatists we have learned among other things that homo sapiens are subject to jealousy, envy, bipolarity, bisexuality, Libertarianism and Republicanism.

10. From both camps we learn that homo sapiens young frequently undergo some ritual expressions of protest and disillusionment toward the culture in which they were raised.

11. We are still waiting for either camp, the scientist or writer, to recognize that young homo sapiens may through their overall behavior and attempts to modify their external appearance, be parodying or satirizing individuals--particularly parents--beyond their own immediate age group.

12. Modes of dress, grooming, bodily decorations, vocabulary, and behavior may be focused on making fun of what is seen as a norm or a series of norms with which young homo sapiens disagree.

13. On one hand, this is not rational behavior.

14. On the other hand, it is.

15. Many poets, writers, and dramatists have observed along with behavioral, clinical, and social scientists that in every culture of mature homo sapiens, there is a percentage that overtly dislikes young homo sapiens; they do not, however, take significant steps to change their appearance; they simply respond with grouchyness.

16. Two segments of society responding to one another, one with satire, the other by being a grouch; take your pick.

17. When I was your age, the oldster begins.

18. Aw, geez, the youngster thinks, do I have to listen to that again?

19. Hillary wants more debates. See Hillary run. Run, Hillary, run.

20. P & S. Parody and satire.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Foot Notes

1. A foot note is the literary equivalent of a distant relative arriving unannounced for a visit.

2. The immediate question becomes Where do we put it?

3. No, all those places are spoken for; we'll put him at the bottom of the page.

4. Have fun imagining Messers. Gutenburg and Caxton coming to grips with the foot note.

5. Have more fun imagining you were the first writer to use a foot note.

6. You probably got the idea from the likes of the Talmud or some scholia wherein commentary was thought a part of the package, maybe even a blurb. Rabbi C. thinks this is a cool argument, as abundant in logic and wisdom as a generous apple strudel.

7. Foot notes are tings authors can't resist saying but won't take the heat for placing within the text.

8. Footnotes are things editors called the writer on with a note in the margin--relevance?--with which the author in large measure agreed but had decided to take a stand upon.

9. Authors can be stubborn.

10. Editors, too.

11. Foot notes at the ends of chapters are the equivalent of mother-in-law apartments.

12. Foot and chapter notes in the back matter are the equivalent of turning out all the lights, not answering the phone, and hoping they'll think we're not in.

13. Foot notes are the equivalent of soup stains on a neck tie.

14. Foot notes are the equivalent of illegal immigrants to persons living in border states.

15. Get a life; foot notes are here to stay. You don't believe it, just read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

16. This has some relationship to earlier philippics on detail ad style; if shrewdly used, foot notes make a text sit up and bark with authority.

17. It is a truth universally acknowledged that precious few novels these days sit up and bark.

18. What's that bandage on your hand?

19. I was bitten by a book.

20. Go figure.

21. For the past week, spell check on Blogger dot com has not worked, which means Blogger dot com is getting into the act and saying screw it to conventions of spelling.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Today's guest interview is Writers' Muscle Memory.

How did you acquire Writers' Muscle Memory?

By writing.

What is the secret of your success?

Writing and not thinking. You write until you get what you want down on paper, then you revise it using thoughtful revision techniques which also become muscle memory if you use them enough.

Where did you learn this secret?

From writing and from observing the way published writers work.

Does this have anything to do with finding your voice?


Have you ever tried performance-enhancing substances?


Can you name a few?

I'm actually Jonesing on enthusiasm. Also tried anger, revenge, and ridicule. All powerful performance enhancers, but nothing does it quite as well as enthusiasm.

What about reading?

It can also be a performance-enhancing substance. Good material makes you raise your own standards, bad writing makes you realize you are a product of the primordial ooze, no matter what Governon Huckabee says, and that you have made some progress.

What's your take on blogging?

That's like asking a ballet dancer about his or her relationship with the barre or a musician's relationship with practice.

What happens to you if you don't blog?

Same thing that happens if I don't write. I get weaker. I just read somewhere, a dancer saying you can take a few days off, but if you take say three months off, you're a year behind.

What happens if you don't read?

I don't know because I haven't stopped reading. I suppose the same thing would happen in that situation as would happen if I took some time off from writing. I'd get even farther behind than I am.

You talk of getting behind and in a sense working to keep in shape--what would you be getting behind?

Me. There is always the image of the writer I want to be, talking to me, beckoning me, cheering me. Something like the Jessica Lang character in the film, All That Jazz, reminding Joe Gideon/Bob Fosse what's at stake.

Who or what is the writer you want to be?

Keeps changing on me. I lost considerable time when the writer I wanted to be stopped changing before my eyes. Being satisfied produces the literary equivalent of arthritis. You'll have to excuse me now; gotta get at my stretching exercises.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Wizard's Curtain

1. Nothing is what it seems.

2. Appearances are questionable, illusory.

3. Narrators, whether fictional, essay, or blog, are open to question until they prove themselves reliable, at whih point they become boring.

4. Boredom makes the reader rebellious. (Look what it did to Emma Bovary.)

5. Boredom makes the writer rebellious. (Look what it does for Tom Wolfe.)

6. Some writers are so bored that they fall asleep before becoming rebellious, as in John Updyke.

7. We approach boredom tentatively, hopeful of magical transformations and alchemy.

8. Magic, transformations, and alchemy are illusions, variations on a theme of boredom.

9. Toto arrives bored, turns his attention to the Wizard's curtain.

10. We see the Wizard's apparatus.

11. However ingenious it may be, it's intent infuriates us.

12. Angry readers throw things such as books, magazines, fits.

13. Angry readers are good at remembering grieances and writer's names.

14. It is always better to disturb a reader than anger a reader.

15. It is always better to disturb ourselves than to anger ourselves.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Detail Oriented

1. There is a haunting moment early on in Denisa Mina's new novel, Slip of the Knife, where the protgonist has been wrenched from some inconsequential, mindless entertainment by the appearance at her door of a uniformed policeman and a woman in civilian dress. Said protagonist, Patricia "Paddy" Meehan, knows all too well what and who they are, herself having been a police and crime reporter for some time.

2. They are the inform team, informing the unwary of a sudden, unexpected death.

3. On her way to the morgue to make an identification, Paddy cannot help think of her sister, a novice nun, and the what-if that the body she was being sent to identify is her. This is an altogether plausible scenario because of where the young sister works, in a soup kitchen among the homeless and desperate.

4. In a brief exchange with a youngish woman who identifies herself as the new pathologist on the job, Paddy learns that the corpse she is to identify is her first lover and in many ways her role model as a journalist. There is some suspicion that the deceased was murdered by the IRA and in the brief exchange, Paddy realizes that she has identified herself as a Catholic and the pathologist, whom she was prepared to like, has identified herself as a Protestant.

5. It was that detail that made the impact and entire landscape of the novel sink in for me. The difference between the phrase "North Ireland" and "north of Ireland" is a detail that conveys the difference between Catholic and Protestant.

6. Coming from a John Dewey- and Horace Mann-type education in Los Angeles to the grim realities of a small town in New Jersey, I was made immediately aware of such differences as those Paddy experienced. Week One, accosted by a group of boys about my age, all carrying baseball bats, asking if I wanted to join them, using a term I took to be slang and misunderstood to mean hitting some fly balls. I soon discovered that their intended target was not baseball but a racial group to which I share some blood.

7. Perhaps eighteen months later: Central Beach Elementary School, Miami Beach, Florida, where, in class, I am called upon and begin to discuss what I believed to be The Civil War, only to discover that it was The War of Northern Aggression, which is a double whammy because, in Providence, Rhode Island, whence I had recently come, it was The War between the States.

8, This is not to get drawn into politics; it is another for of nod to the detail, the detail that reveals about us, perhaps even betrays something about us, an ignorance, an attitude.

9. Mexico City, D.F. I am in a pulqueria, a neighborhood drinking place for the lower echelons of the working classes. To show how low, pulque is the liquid that energes from the cactus before being given its first distillation into mescal, which is later distilled into tequila. Pulque is not bad to drink, but in such places, Speaking Spanish with a Spanish accent is. In a memorable moment, a massive force in my chest compels me to fall backward, off my stool, and onto the floor. The force is a working-class hand, made into a fist. You live and you learn from details. I take no special pride in my accent, I am undeniably a Gringo, but my Spanish has more Mexican to it than Spanish,

10. Details. You look for them and you see boundaries kept and boundaries broken. Eric H. Boehm, owner publisher of the scholarly publishing house for whom I was editor in chief, asked me, "How do you rationalize wearing a striped tie with a houndstooth jacket?" The question itself is a revealing detail about Eric H. Boehm, who in many ways, never forgot his days with military intelligence. Before you have time to think about it, your answer is out: "Chutzpah!" Hence all your staff, who have heard the exchange, refer to EHB as Rationale and you as Chutzpah. Neither appellation is entirely off target.

11. Details. Just as you were literally knocked off your feet for your choice of Spanish pronunciation, you were also exposed to some hysical ridicule for knowing which fork went with which course at a formal dinner.

12. What do details reveal? About whom?

13. In a splendid book called Coming into the Country, John McPhee described an individual as "the kind of man who puts catsup on his fried eggs." What more do you have to know about the man than that?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Details, Details

!. At one point in your life, thanks to the unlikely combination of life guards and detectives, the term floaters evoked in your mind visions of victims of drowning, reacing the point in their existential journey when they rose to the surface of whatever body of water they were once immersed, and now await discovery.

2. About two years ago, the term floater had you thinking about cancer cells, circulating in the bloodstream--your blood stream--hopeful of finding a lymph node or organ or convenient feasting groud on which to attach.

3. Thankfully the passage of time has brought you to the point where floater connotes for you ideas that circulate about, looking for a convenient place to attach themselves the better to form a cohesive pattern, a story arc, a thematic arc.

4. Thus on an early Monday afternoon these floaters looking for a connection, floaters of observation about detail, you know, detail, that thing the devil is supposed to reside in.

5. To your credit or to your debit, details matter to you in relation to fiction and nonfiction because they ratify the truth and reality of the situation about which you happen to be writing at the moment. If you were practicing journalism, you would want to get your facts assembled, but also the discovery of a detail would help you see and understand more clearly the narrative at hand. An individual you were interviewing and who asked not to be identified in this story would have some validity for you by the mere fact that the person's request for and reaso for anonymity wold have a ratifying effect, one that would help you see and believe the individual. Put that in concert with the individual wearing a red shirt or a cheap wrist watch or some other detail you could express would ratify that truth even further.

6. This reliace on detail allows you to create in your mind places you have never attended with a sese of authenticity, reminding you of the story told you by the wonderful lyricist, E. Y. Harburg, when accosted by a reporter wanting to know how he could have written such a remarkable song as April in Paris without ever being in Paris. Harburg replied to the reporter, "Listen, kid, I've never been over the rainbow, either."

7. Cayetna "Tani" Conrad paints large canvases, works particularly hard at getting the details of faces on her subjects, a lesson learned from her portraitist father and developed in her own style to the point where she observes that the execution of facial details is not so important as their placement. You get a set of eyes just a tad too close or too far apart and however well executed they are, they cause the image of the subject to not resemble the actual subject. The ears a bit too big or small, same problem, down through all the anatomy. Placement of detail trumps photographic reproduction of detail.

8. In a story a small, seemingly inconsequential detail becomes the fulcrum for the narrative; it helps the writer believe firmly enough to render the story authentic.

9. You have known and actually edited some unspeakably awkward writers, throwing life preservers as it were in hopes of saving the story. What you learned from them is that they were excellent story tellers; they simply were not gifted stylists. Nor did it matter because, as the details hold things together, the story holds even the more plodding text together.

10. This is why you are wary of being congratulated that a particular story or narrative was so exquisitely rendered until you have heard what you consider to be the real life preservers, that the story or the thesis held up under scrutiny. "Oh, what a way with words you have!" Please. That is post coital.

11. After years of having to write rejection letters, I knew not to make the entire process one of confrontation by offering the gambit that your well-written story and the acute perception it showed of the human condition failed to buoy up an unconvincing narrative.

12. After years of enduring rejection letters along with the acceptance letters, I still flare up like a match after the electricity has gone out, reacting to the notion that the details worked but the story didn't. Huh?

13. So the question hinges of selecting details about your persons and places that make them resonate for you, observations that cause you to see and feel them to the point where you worry you may be revealing secrets about them.

14. You are, of course. Revealing secret details about tem.

15. When the new pathologist's eyelid twitched in the novel I am currently reading in order to review, that response convinced me she was alive and important, and from that moment, I believed and liked her.

16. It rendering landscapes, the same thing obtains: Help me to see why your New York is different from mine. Help me see why your Hillary Clinton differs from mine.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Proper and Improper Nouns

1. After a comforting exchange with Square 1 (see The Fanciful Muse at Blogger dot com), I was reminded of yet another kind of venue, one with visceral strings attached--all of them good. Ghost towns.

Virginia City, Nevada: for being able to trace the footsteps of Mr. Twain, and for having the privilege of contributing to the same paper he did.

Goldfield, California: more like a set from a Hitchcock film, a haunted place where you could hear the whispers of all the miners, looking for the glory lode. In later years, my father, somewhat less a devotee of thoroughbred horses and their relative speeds, was assigned by Nevada Stat Senator Martin Duffy to auction off one of the last mines. You can be sure I was a frequent visitor while Jake set the merchandise in order.

Bodie, California: more or less on the way to Virginia City from L.A., up off 395; the shacks and shanties rich with the patina of weathered wood and broken hopes.

Panamint City, California: just on the western slopes before Death Valley. Turn north at the alluvial fan, then wind up the hillside. Sometimes, Don Pettit, Jerry Williams, and I, still in our twenties, not completely taken up with the way our lives were going, would debate another pitcher of beer at The Rack on Pico, or a run to Panamint. Often Panamint won.

Jerome, Arizona: everything you'd like a ghost town to be, including a cadre of resident artists, stunning sunsets, a sense of being somewhere where things might happen in the desert night.

Bisbee, Arizona: stuck on the side of steep hills like a gob of last-minute icing on a birthday cake, the feel of the mines , the reek of the stale hopes, and the roar of racous past history making for a sense that this, too, would be a place to settle in and start a weekly nespaper.

At least once a year I dream of being in Virginia City, jostling my way through Twain's dreams of the 1860s and my own a undred years or so down the line.

=====================This line separates apples and oranges======================================

Terrorist Organizations in the Unitd States:

1. The Central Intelligence Agency
2. The Ku Klux Klan
3. The National Rifle Association
4. Blackwater
5. Wal-Mart

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Home: Where the Heart Often Isn't, but the Mind Is

1. Seen through the proper lens, a landscape or venue has a personality that influences the individuals who live therein.

2. Thus landscape becomes the unseen character in a story.

3. Thus setting is as important in a story as the characters who participate in it.

4. Sometimes, in stories, landscape is the winner.

5. The relationship we have with our place of origin is in many ways like the relationship we have/had with our parents. The relationship with our place of origin may shape our personality ore than we suspect. Thus we should begin suspecting.

6. There is an imaginary line drawn across our childhood in which many of us find momentary comfort in wishing for a set of parents different from one's own. This line is usually drawn when one's own parents have put some rule or practice into effect that seems entirely one-sided; their side.

7. At one time, it was possible to get scrumptuous food on the pier at Santa Monica.

8. At one time it was possible to shout imprecations at fishermen who'd returned from a full day trip, having the effect of causing them to throw the less attractive of their catch at you.

9. At one time, because of my father's perfervid interest in the relative speeds of thoroughbred horses, it was thought by many Santa Monicans that I too cared about times over a distance of, say six furlongs.

10. At one time, because of some long forgotten rule or practice put into effect by my parents, I began to consider the possibilitie of the parents of a cross-the-street friend as potential surrogates. This was largely based on the fact of the wife being a member of The Book of the Month Club and the husband being a dentist.

11. At one time, because I was there and because I had access to my sister's street car pass, I tried to imagine that Providence, RI was my place of birth. It also had to do with the fact that a particular department store on Weybosset Street sold thick slabs of milk chocolate that I found irresistable. For some time, in pursuit of this change in venue, I attempted to speak as I thought natives of Providence spoke, which resulted in my mother being convinced I had a sore throat, which meant the idignity of a meicine I found intolerable.

12. A number of things put me off the dentist and his wife, beginning with their son, whom I came to consider a buffoon, and ending with my being invited to dinner, which was so seriously at odds with my mother's abilities that I forswore all fantasy of venue change.

13. Having lived approximately sixty percent of my life in Santa Barbara and only vaguely wondering what I would be like if I had been born here, I am free of the love/hate I have for Santa Monica/Los Angeles and have come to a gradually evolving understanding of Santa Barbara that allows me to write about it with a greater sense of attitude than emotive diction.

14. Having spent a good deal of time devising ways to understand characters to the point of being able to write about them and not me--thank you, Virginia, my revered actor mentor--I frequently find myself picking out places where I speculate on living, wondering what such places would bring to the person I would thus be. Portions of Los Angeles hit me with some regularity. For a long time, I fancied living on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco having seen the advantages first hand because a dear friend lived on Telegraph Hill, right on the Filbert Steps. When I leared some years back that Barnaby Conrad once had a studio just off the Filbert Steps, I knew we should become friends.

15. I look lovingly at loft-like possibilities in Soledad (just north of King City) and a tad south of Salinas. Of Mice and Men begins in Soledad. There are six or eight places in Santa Barbara, one or two in Portland, and not to forget Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, as well as Eureka, and Gold Beach, a place where the Rogue River empties into the Pacific Ocean.

16. I am no doubt in a rebellious mood, avid of being off by my self when I fantasy Tuba City, Arizona and Farmington, New Mexico, or Bodfish, California. It is difficult to expand my fantasy to include decent coffee in either place, meaning some accommodation with mail orders of Chock Full o' Nuts or Bustello's, to be brewed in a Chemex.

17. Because of an enormous leap of logic, I could fantasy living in Davenport, Iowa.

18. All of these places have effect and affect on the individuals I would concoct as characters, the situations I believe I would get them into, and what I would do when I was not working.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Scene of the Crime

1. The mystery writer Gaylord Dold, listed in the right-hand column, is largely unknown to all your friends and students. So far as you know, Jerry Freedman, Daniel Woodrell, and you know of him, have read him, enthuse at his work. He lives and sets his mysteries in Wichita, KS, a place you would not think can support a private detective.

2. Every time you pass through Flagstaff, AZ, you make a point of going to a small stand adjacent the railway station, there to eat bowls full of green chili. This is step one. Step two is looking at a nearby door, a rough wooden slab, with a sign mounted on it, offering the services of a private detective. Step three is wondering as you eat more of the green chili than you should who or what? Who in Flagstaff would hire a private detective and for what purpose? Do these questions come from your naivete? Are you in fact overlooking the fact that private detectives can and do function wherever people congregate? Are you in fact patronizing Flagstaff, AZ, thinking of it as an Edenic oasis, detached from larger cities you know?

3. Even though you were a fan of the pulp detective magazines, Black Mask, Dime Detective, and the like, and accepted the notion that many of their stories were set in fictional locales, San Francisco was the first city you recognized as being appropriate for a private detective. This was because you were fond of San Francisco; you could pick out places in that magical city that were brought to life by Dashiell Hammett.

4. Then came L.A., which jumped forth in prominence for you because of Raymond Chandler. Although he did not write suspense stories, John Fante also made L.A. vibrant in your imagery; every time you found yourself near the Bunker Hill section, just northwest of the downtown sprawl, you thought of Fante and his protagonists, clumping up the hills, pounding out stories on a manual typewriter, finding ways to avoid the landlord, falling in love with the wrong woman. (Men who fall in love with the right woman effect a different kind of story than a mystery.)

5. Then came L.A. all over again, thanks to Joe Hansen's excellent series featuring David Brandstetter, an insurance investigtor whose gayness provided yet another dimension to the genre and the city you were bonding with.

6. Then came the L.A. of Walter Mosley, which brought you back to your own experiences in black L.A., where you went because of the music so readily available there when you were coming of age.

7. Once when there was a panel discussion held at the long vanished Earthling book store here in Santa Barbara, you challenged three of the panelists, all of whom you were on a first-name basis with. "You guys write about Santa Barbara, but you don't call it by its real name." Sue Grafton offered that she called her Santa Barbara Santa Teresa as a nod to the guy on her right, Ken Millar, aka Ross Macdonald. She defended the relatie anonymity by claiming her sources would dry up if she was getting too close to home. Ken said he had no trouble with having his detective go to real places but liked to think of Santa Barbara as a mythic place. The other panelist, Dennis Lynds, who wrote as Michael Collins, felt he could be more political and less accusatory.
It took Jerry Freedman some years later to call Santa Barbara by name, inspiring Rich Barre to do the same.

8. There are some high-powered mystery suspense writers giving depth and expression to American cities. Dennis Lehane comes to mind with a number of effective outings in and about Boston. Speaking of which, my local friend, John Wilder, for years writer on the Spencer for Hire TV show and, later, Hawk, would have my head on a platter if I forgot to mention Robert Parker, nor would Barnaby Conrad forgive me for failing to mention Dutch, Elmore Leonard, who put Detroit firmly in place as a venue for mystery. And Loren D. Estelman is no slouch at putting Detroit in perspective.

9. But they all better watch out. You look in the rear view mirror an Glasgow is gaining. Yes, I know all about Ian Rankin and Edinburgh and the John Rebus mysteries. I'm talking Denise Mina and her Paddy Meehan mysteries. Having read all her earlier works, I pounced on the latest in which Paddy, somewhat up the rung in her career as a newspaper reporter, has just been left the house and personal effects of an ex boyfriend, presumably killed by the IRA (although they deny it. "Not us. Try elsewhere." Ms. Mina makes Glasgow come to a gritty life that is difficult to ignore. A Slip of the Knife.

In saner moments, if I were to visit Scotland, I'd want to set priority for Edinburgh, but Ms. Mina has me slathering for the bad food, dreary streets, and simmering agendas of Glasgow, which is not far off from the sea port where one can catch the ferry boat to Ireland, the very area where the body of her ex is dumped at the end of chapter one.

11. Pages calling, Glasgow beckoning. Paddy Meehan crooking her finger at me.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Objective Correlative

1. Show don't tell. Right?
2. Those story tellers, they want to make us feel something, they've got to portray it out on stage so we can see it.
3. In Aspects of the Novel (which still holds up pretty well) E.M. Forester came at the concept in terms of causality. Something happens and someone responds to it, thus demonstrating to the reader the emotion experienced. The king died. The the queen died. No biggie; kigs and queens in their death throes every time you pick up a tabloid. But. The king died and then the queen died of grief. Ah, there's causality and a tad of showing.
4. T.S. Eliot. Hamlet and His Problems. Arguing that Hamlet didn't have enough emotional backing to be convincing in the role he played. The kid needed to find ways of demonstrating his feelings to the audience in ways that were convincing yet short of emoting.
5. So the trick is to have situations or objects that convey the desired emotion, an x-ray of the character's emotional condition at a given moment.
6. Simple enough when you consider things or places that remind you of people or times or feelings.
7. This doesn't bring us to quits with Show-don't tell. You've got to pick your spots. War and Peace is so damnably long because Leo went around showing so much that he began to lose track. Demonstrate what's important. Tell the minor stuff.
8. Sounds good.
9. Reminds you of the time Robley Wilson scribbled across the top of your story The Committee, "That's carrying the objective correlative too far."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My Old Fave

1. Habit words are like, um, you know words and phrases we use in our speech and writing, you know.

2. We are not always, you know, aware of our repetition of such words or phrases, many of which, you know what I'm saying, qualify as a twoofer in that they are ot only, you know, repetition-bound, they are like, um, cliche.

3. I am splendid in locating the habit words of other writers, not always so able to detect my own.

4. My best guess right now is that "and" is my favorite, using it not so much to link a laundry list of nouns as to link independent clauses (that could just as easily stand as entire sentences.

5. I am also given to "accordingly," an adverb that seems to have become my substitute for ergo as in the tail end of a syllogism. One or two propositions are put forth and in comes Shelly for the summary, "Accordingly," he begins his payoff sentence.

6. In setting forth the previous observation, it is borne in on me that I am no stranger either to the "as in" trope, my apparent way of showing that a example of some illstrative sort is about to follow.

7. Another habit word of mine, an adjective this time, is lovely. Arrgh!

8. Speaknig of adjectives, I am also inordinately fond, it seems ,of wonderful.

9. There is a country-Western song admonishing mothers "Don't let your son grow up to be a cowboy." I co-opt that to admonish writers not to allow themselves to inflate their sentences with habit words.

10. This would be a propitious (almost said splendid) time to have said, "Accordingly" as I admonished myself to turn my attentions back to Georg Orwell, for his essays, and for E. B. White for everything he wrote except the Strunk and White Style Guide which, I think loses some of the very things White's other work contains that lift it over the heads of the parade-watching crowd.

11. In support of all this, it would do you considerable good to make a copy of the convention sheet you use when copyediting a booklength manuscript, then use it to develop your own particular style guide. Many of your habits come from some considerable experience with The Chicago Manual of Style, but this does not mean you should rely on it to give you your own voice.

12. Why is all this necessary?

13. To keep you from sounding like an unreliable narrator. If you think that is the equivalent of hustling the dissenting vice out of a debate, go back to reading such writers as George Orwell. You get a better shot at the intent and theme if the word order and use of languag point in the right direction. After all, a text is a map, you know what I'm saying?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Writer's Block: An Academic Misadventure

1. Writer's block, if there is such a thing, has become a source of income for MSWs, Ph.Ds, and MDs, also so-called inspirational coaches and possibly even chiropractors and accupuncturists.

2. Writer's block means the writer at the moment has nothing to say, or not enough to say at the moment to overcome the inertia of musing.

3. Musing is the literary equivalent of teen-age swagger on Friday night, cruising in search of an idea that will generate enthusiasm.

4. The derivation of the verb is from the noun muse, of which there were, as I recall from Classics studies, two at the start, then three, then, count 'em, nine.

5. My Classics Prof, a serious take-no-prisoners type, was not amused--pun intended--by conceit of a Woman's softball team called The Nine Muses. (For reasons lost to me now, it seemed proper to have Thalia in center field. Perhaps because of her associations with pastoral matters?)

6. Anthropocentrics that we are, we expect that enough early courtship--musing--will get us a date with the appropriate muse, who will present us with an idea that works right out of the box, something like removing the MacBook from its carton, firing it up, and receiving spam within five minutes.

7. Muses have work of their own to do besides inspiring us. This may have something to do with budget cuts. The old man, Zeus, has racked up a number of sexual harassment suits and needs the cash. No help that he wated t permanent tax cut for some of the lesser gods.

8. You sit around waiting for inspiration, the grass under your buns is going to grow, weeds are going to volunteer, and there is the danger of irritation from pesticides.

9. Many writers are simply too busy to have writer's block.

10. Go ahead, tell me you are a complete nihilist, a condition in which nothing enthuses or enrages or entertains you.

11. Muses have kids to tend, the old man occasionally wants dinner, you know, the romantic kind, with candles; Zeus to worry about, and a tray-full of work-related activities. (I was once editor in chief of a publisher named after the muse of history and I'll vouch for the long days, low pay, and boring meetings.)

12. Muses need inspiration, too.

13. Sometimes we spend so much effort waiting for inspiration that we fail to notice it when it appears. And so instead, we vote for Hillary.

14. Not this kid.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Making a Scene

1. The scene is the basic unit of drama.
2. Most short stories and novels are compilations of scenes strategically arranged for the most effective dramatic result (which is an emotional impact of some sort).
3. Scenes in novels and short stories are often--but not necessarily--connected by narrative, which is in effect stage directions writ large, including but not limited to a particular point of view, an indication of intent, a benchmark of story development, and/or a summary adduced or deduced from things characters have said, done, or not done in earlier scenes.
4. Scenes contain but are not limited to:
A. Landscape/setting
B. Characters
C. Dialogue
E. Tempo
F. Conflict
G. Suspense
H. Tension
I. Beats (events)
J. An awareness of power being exerted or exchanged
K. Reversals
L. Surprises
M. Point of view
5. Characters enter scenes with expectations of some outcome, a hot slot machine in a casino, an argument, approval, being ranked on, being ignored
6. Characters enter scenes believing they are right and/or entitled or...
7. Characters enter scenes wanting to restore some status or balance
8. Successful scenes may lack two or three of 1-7 supra, but fall into the category of endangered species if they lack four or more
9. Epistolary stories do not necessarily have scenes
10. Postmodern stories may have formats (emails, IMs, recorded messages) that do not contain scenes but which nevertheless suggest the presence of past, present, and future scenes
11. Thus scenes have an awareness of time past, time present, and time future
12. Scenes have some relevance however tenuous or thematic to the story at hand
13. A story without scenes is of a piece with a body lacking in cells
14. The arrangement of scenes in a story does not demand a strict chronology or, indeed, any kind of chronology
15. If feng shui works for rooms, there is no reason why it cannot be a useful concept for placement of the scenes in a story.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Let's Hear It for the Irregular Verb

Irregular verbs are the illegal immigrants of grammar, sneaking across borders, cultures, and languages, working every bit as hard as the regular verbs, adding a sense of the notional and idiosyncratic to the sound of language. They are willing to listen to rules of grammar but seek to work out each in its own way a memorable set of conjugations. They are the hybrid, lyrical vigor of English. Italian has a built-in quality that makes it so apt for opera and song, but it better watch out; Brazillian Portuguese is mellifluous and as open to suggestion and borrowing from other languages as American English

Irregular verbs are often a reminder of the Saxon heritage of our language; in other languages they literally speak to the fact that a conjugation may scan logically but still may sound forced or awkward.

An irregular verb is doesn't take the -ed ending for the Past Simple and Past Participle forms. To add to the irregularity, some irregular verbs do not change; put put put, and to add a sense of hilarity to the calculus, yet other irregular verbss change completely; buy bought bought.

In modern American English and English English, irregular verbs are considered strong verbs, which means they don't have to mess with standardization rules. They literally speak for themselves.

It is good to have these guys around.

P.S. Write is an irregular verb.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Lost in Translation

From time to time during my recent reading of Bernhart Schlink's new novel, Homecoming, I would set the book down to dwell on implications set before me in the text, which is to say I would compare my responses to those of the narrator and the individuals he interacted with, his relationships with and feelings toward them, his goals, his passions. As I read along, it was clear to me that the principal narrative voice was European, had European experiences, and European attitudes. None of these things kept me from feeling a bond with if not an empathy for the principal narrative voice. Because of the insightfulness and clarity of the narrative voice, I could relate to him and his needs in much the same way I, a childless male, could relate to yet another European, fellow name of Lear.

In equal easure, from time to time, it was not lost on me that Schlink's native language is German, that he wrote in German, indeed that his German text had been translated. By more counts than I find relevant to list here, the translation performed an admirable rendering of the issues and ambiguities involved. The translator, by my estimation, walked that lovely cusp between Ezra Pound's instructions for translation and Mark Twain's admonition for "the right word" and his pejorative intent against "it's second cousin."

I am not a complete stranger to translation, more a matter of qualification than a need for specifics here. Nor am I unaware of the Italian trope traditore traitore, he/she who translates me betrays my intent. All the more reason, as someone who sets foot on university grounds to encourage, lecture, and otherwise direct students, to consider a major intent of deconstructionism as a literary tool--to divorce the author from the text, to let the text speak for itself. (Although I have some emotional and theoretical grievances with deconstruction theory, I must admit that at an earlier age, still an age where I sought the notion of writing as the key to my professional life, I was unknowingly a deconstructionist. Digressio to continue: Then I became by degrees a Marxist, a modernist, a post-modernist--all without consciously being aware of such things until I was assigned classes in literary criticism.)

Back to present time again, and whatever I have evolved to: The translator is the 2008 equivalent of Odysseus returning home, of the hero/heroine on a journey or quest, of Don Quixote, seeing George W. Bush behind every windmill. In his or her hands is a responsibility of doing the equivalent for readers of what Robert Kennedy did in the less affluent sections of Indianapolis after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. That particular word, assassinated, is a good case in point; I use it with the intent of dignifying MLK and his legacy. I could just as well have said he was murdered and some unknown-to-me cyber translator would render it in, say, Spanish, as murder just as well as assassination. Dead is dead, dignifying it does not make it any less irrevocable. So how is my theoretical translator supposed to know my intent? In some ways, it is a no-win situation. If I say Dr. King was assassinated, am I not trying to use euphemism to cover up racial insensitivity and madness by a pussyfoot word? If I say Dr. King was murdered, do I undercut the very cause I appreciate?

As a writer, editor, and teacher of writing and editing, I am bathed in the American version of the English language. I read and admire English writers, but have had occasion to consult Brit friends for nuances, thus even a translation from American to English is risky and indeed, if you were to ask for a torta in a Mexican restaurant you would expect to be served a sandwich; the same order in Spain would bring you an omelette or scarmbled eggs. American or Brit, you could look at some length for useful and resonant instructions on writing than George Orwell even though, as an American, you might find those instructions available from, in rverse chronology, Kurt Vonnegut, E. B. White, and Mark Twain.

Decisions, decisions, decisions; the holy trinity for the translator, his or her version of the mantra location, location, location. A translator has decisions to make, is in many ways the quintessential John Le Carre spy-narrator, George Smiley. Indeed, Le Carre's real name is not Le Carre.

Nothing is as it seems, thus What's a writer to do? Where does the writer start? How does the translator support that vision?

A translator is the politician write large, he or she entertains enormous risks, wields enormous power, and the lovely irony is that as much as we who love to write and to read continue our love of writing and reading, we are aware of the irony that few care. What matter if a translator is lost along the way, whether by IED, the Writers' Guild strike, or a troglodyte school board? And thus the translator emerges as the marginal man or woman of our time because, as Ezra Pound put it "...all things are flowing/Sage Heraclitus says/and a tawdry cheapness shall outlast all our days..."

So how will you bring a translator to story in light of all this?

Remember, the contract on the Cro-Magnon project is signed and in process; mayhap it will trigger a look to the distant past to bring the metaphor of the translator to a point where there is some moral risk, some reason for caring.

Maybe the translator becomes yet another kind of Sam Spade or Philip Marlow or V I Warshawsky.

Quien sabe?

Quel giorno piu, non vi leggiamo avanti.

Friday, February 1, 2008

There's a Story in Here if I Can Only Find it.

I was up rather late last night, reading for this week's review column and being pulled into the lateral thoughts of the comparison between the subject of this novel, the American Civil War, and the one raging in Iraq, making the calculus between the number of those contemporary individuals who still favor us being in Iraq in the first place and those wishing us out of there post haste. Thus another American Civil War of sorts, seething, boiling, giving lie to the notion that a watched pot does not in fact boil.

The first reassuring sips of latte at Peet's got my attention but were still not sufficient to get me all the way awake and so I am not a particularly animated contributor to the conversations going on at the table.

Of a sudden, a book appears before me, artfully dropped from above by Jerry Freedman as he moves on to the order line. "You haven't heard of this guy?" he calls from the line.

The book is a paperback reprint of Off Minor by John Harvey.

Never heard of him, I mouth toward Jerry, who, stunned, nearly retreats from the order line, a serious risk now because the place is beginning to fill up big time with those who want to start off their Friday uncranky and if you are not Jonesing for coffee or tea, you have already started your Friday uncranky and cannot possibly relate to those who do, that is unless yo happen to live with one.

"I can't believe," Jerry says, "you don't know him."

This has possibilities. I take another sip of latte, then open the book, whereupon I see added possibilities which set the stage for the dramatic tension and enthusiasm and clash of creative electrons in the linear acelerator that this rag-tag group of writers, teachers, editors, house painters, and retired dentists who have become writers generate.

Soon the subject has shifted to Jerry having spent something like three years in an actor's workshop, a notion that has been a shibboleth of mine for some time. Writers of fiction can profit from actor's workshops, not only in the technique of dialogue, which is its own language, neither English nor street or dialect nor Gullah, nor American; it is the language of story, which is the language of clash, confrontation, development, being caught up in a sense of inevitability. It is the clock ticking in the background, informing the players that action and decisions are necessary. It is the visual presentatio by evocation of the gap between what a character thinks and what the character says.

We all of us agree that Hillary looked pretty good last night. Then, after a beat or two, "But managed."

"There's no there there."

"There is, but it doesn't make you feel it."

"The unreliable narrator."

A chorus of agreement.

He, on the other hand, was not directed. He was on his beliefs and it showed.

"A reliable narrator."

Thus we had shifted to being casting directors.

This was not a surprise, we had all of us cast him some weeks back, and we were thinking character and how character plays out. We were thinking no wonder story is so important because life is merely colliding energy, quarks and atoms and ghosts that creak in the day and night while story has structure, some structure apparent in a fabric of events where there are vectors and agendas sprouting like unwanted hair on middle-aged men.