Tuesday, April 15, 2008

By Design

For some years you sat hunched over your Remington upright and, later, your Olivetti Portable, producing things that had drive but no visible lot line. Your stories had the anachronistic feature of a flat line on a cathode ray tube. Zilch. Nada. Always some individual setting forth as, indeed, individuals in more viable stories set forth, some grail or other in mind. The shelves of your book cases were filled with titles promising you entry into the world of the published authors who were too busy working on the new story to even consider having fun any other way.

Even the weekly writers' poker games produced a sense of despair as you watched Day Keene, working his way through tall cans of Olympia Beer, musing about the novel he would--and did--begin next week and what a sonofabitch that Donald MacCampbell was of an agent. Bob Turner, eager to get started on another novel, would raise someone, anyone, an extra two dollars, but we all knew he was merely flaunting his riches from television. Len Pruyn, nervous that his last two stories were near misses at Playboy, and mindful of how previous appearances in that publication could make one's world for a time, would casually float out a story idea to see if it had any promise. Jack Matcha, brooding over not being able to come up with a repeat performance at Gold Medal, would try to outfloat Len with the notion of getting serious and writing a play. "Hell with it," Day Keene was always the first to say. "Let's go to Slim's, where they serve real beer instead of this milk of self-pity." And you would reply, "Damn straight," because you knew they all of them knew how to plot and you hadn't figured out yet what do do as a substitute.

Slim's was the iconic Bank Cafe on Gaffey Street in the armpit of San Pedro, a block away from Shanghai Red's and in an equilateral triangle with one of the worst Chinese Restaurants in the history of mankind. As we plied the back roads, usually from Day's or Len's in Palos Verdes to San Pedro, we sought relief from the outreach of our work, all of it personified in one man, Donald MacCampbell, the literary agent. In time, you were his client, too, but in that strange turn of events so common in the publishing industry, you also became his editor and as well Bob Turner. Don't Step on it--It Might Be a Writer, MacCampbell's title, had a bug on the cover. If you look closely at the bug, you will see a picture of me. Turner's memoir, Some of My Best Friends Are Writers, But I Wouldn't Want My Daughter to Marry One, also had a picture of me,buried within the graphics. "For good luck," Turner said.

How to discover a viable substitute for their familiarity with plot? I laughed when it came to me, just as I laughed at an email note from Lee's River, a companion of the blog life. Lee has mentioned two individuals to whom she could not make a specific observation. I laughed at the memory this brought to me across an ocean of years. My substitute for plot was imagining things characters could not share, things they felt constrained from verbalizing. They could be thought of but not acted upon. As Dryden once said of Chaucer, here was God's plenty. Son, very soon after this transformation, by no means in the desert and most likely on the road back from Slim's in San Pedro to my hovel in the Hollywood Hills, the acceptance notes began to keep some sort of pace with the Absolutely No Cigars notes.

Plot is a design, a dizzying Oriental rug, a sublime Navajo. It is also what one person dares not tell another for fear of consequences, and may be triggered by things one person dares not tell himself.

1 comment:

R.L. Bourges said...

"the worst Chinese restaurant in the history of mankind": that is a big claim, mister. Care to compare notes? I can think of at least two other likely contenders for that title - one in Panama City Florida and one in a small Québécois town by the name of Contrecoeur.
Delightful post. I can almost see the writerly bunch looking like those cigar chomping dogs in whats-his-name's painting of a poker game.
As for the bug on MacCampbell's book, Must. Find. A. Copy.