Within such disciplines as dance, musicianship, drawing, fine art painting, watercolor,photography,and acting, the outstanding exception to the rule is the lack of practice.
My observant experience as writer, editor, and teacher is that the line is frequently drawn between these worthies and writers so far as practice is concerned. My take is that fully fifty percent of writers don't consider practice as all; they write when inspired, approach revision or response to editorial comment with the beginnings of a chip on their shoulder if not defensiveness on their mind.
The other fifty percent are at their computer or notepad or legal pad or some other form of capturing words on a regular basis because this affliction is so real to them that they daydream about perfecting its implications.
One of the most direct and profitable ways of practice is through the blog. Sentences need not be complete, paragraphs need not adhere to rules (To this day I recall a teacher from junior high school announcing that paragraphs should not begin with And or but.), nor do paragraphs necessarily require a topic sentence, nor do blog posts require a nod to social praxis.
Thinking about the other fifty percent, the writers of my observation who do not wish to practice or revise or send forth their own work or take steps to improve their craft would be analogous to a dancer who would not rehearse, a musician who would not practice, an actor who shuns rehearsal and seeks only to perform right out of the box, an artist who does not make sketches.
The blog is a gift to the writer, an opportunity not only to practice but to keep a record of it for future reference, which is to say for added development, addition, enhancement.
A typical blog post qua practice could easily begin, I wonder how this would work: (and then a noun and a verb and off we go).
It is easy for me to say these things, I am thankful to report; my pile of journals and notebooks fills several drawers, some of which are so painful to look at that I am glad in the long run I have saved them because they serve as an evidence of my growth. In many ways I am the eighteen and nineteen-year-old who began keeping records of his practice, my biggest regret that I did not see fit to keep the entire record. Somewhere out in the water tower is a box of older writings I have not looked at since having been ensconced here on Hot Springs Road some ten years ago. Soon Summer will be upon me and I will seek out these boxes and at the very least smooth the pages out and arrange some sort of inside-the-house resting place. Meanwhile, even as the press of time surges upon me, I will nevertheless find some time during the day to practice if only to serve notice to that future day when I regard these exercises that I have truly moved along a path rather than resorted to diary-like notations.
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Within such disciplines as dance, musicianship, drawing, fine art painting, watercolor,photography,and acting, the outstanding exception to the rule is the lack of practice.
Friday, May 30, 2008
In my capacity as faculty adviser of The Southern California Review, a twice-yearly publication of poetry, essays, short stories, reviews, plays, excerpts from novels and longer works of nonfiction, I was asked for my opinion on the blog post of the managing editor (you can see John Fox's blog post if you wish by consulting the link to the right of this post, under the rubric of Friendly Venues. John is a former student in one of my classes, an elegant and observant writer, a comprehensive blogger).
The thrust of John's blog post had to do with the implications actual and potential of accepting or rejecting submissions from individuals incarcerated in jails, prisons, and other shall-we-say correctional facilities (my observation there being that very little gets corrected in such places but many things become exacerbated.)
Asked for my comments on John's blog post by the editor in chief, a thoughtful, talented, and energetic young woman I quite admire, I responded thusly (omitting some of the prologue) which I have come to think well enough to reproduce here:
...there are a great many whackos and disturbed people out there, both in and out of controlled environments. Most of those in controlled environments believe they are unfairly there or that there are mitigating circumstances. I've experienced being on the editorial end of submissions from incarcerated wannabe authors, some simply wanting to tell their story as a kind of habeas corpus writ, which by its very nature is a plea of last resort and accordingly can be accepted if written in pencil. Others simply wanted to make creative use of their time. I've also received countless manuscripts and manuscript proposals from individuals whose transgressions were less legal in nature and more of a failure to see or understand the boundaries and effects of what most of us think of as reality. To complete the picture, I've received manuscripts and proposals from individuals in law enforcement and the psychiatric/psychological professions. In every case there were some remarkably good projects and some that were remarkably awful. Indeed, as a result of one book I acquired as an editor, I was hounded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and listed as a radical. Everything has its risks. If you are in publishing, you either have an open policy, which is to say you look at everything that is submitted until it becomes apparent that the submission is deficient, or you have a closed policy, which means essentially that you read submissions that you have invited or that have been sent you by a recognized literary agent. If you are a blogger, you have the option of accepting and posting reader comments, giving yourself the opportunity to accept or reject comments, or entirely obviate the possibility of comment. One of the more spectacularly engaging blogs from a respected photographer finally gave up because of the mean-spirited nature of some of the comments.
Written material often provokes irrational behavior and response. Written material, even from well educated individuals, often becomes shipwrecked on the seas of stodginess, self-service, and ignorance. The editor's job is to look at likely material, regardless of origin, and shepherd it through the editorial and publication process, becoming in fact a partner with the author. Some of the notable authors of all time, poets, essayists, short story writers, were in addition to their excellence of craft, manic depressive, drug addicts, bigamists, abusive parents, schizophrenic, paranoid. Norman Mailer went after a wife with intent to stab her. Samuel Taylor Coleridge did not connect his frequent use of opium with his chronic constipation. Robert Lowell was mentally and physically abusive. Irish Murdoch--well, the list goes on, but despite these consequences, we have their work. We also have our work.
Part of our work is to produce a journal of exquisite range and quality, choosing materials from individuals we often have had no previous contact with, hoping among other things to discover the ones whose work reflects a vision and insight previously unknown to us, visions and insights that will light our way through the murky corridors and dark places in the experience we call life, knowing that even as the material warms us with its inherent light and energy, it will enrage and inflame others. In voting for the things we like, we are taking chances and reinforcing our individuality. To get to the things we like, we have to put up with and go through the minefields set in place by individuals we consider lunatics.
We are involved with writing, editing, and publishing. Concerns about safety should be strangers to these worlds. Never write safe things. Never publish safe things. Never read safe things.
Thus endeth my response, but lest you think I'm lazing out by simply copying a response, I add the fact that I broached to a client of mine, a Circuit Court Judge, an idea for a book I thought he might enjoy doing and which I offer here as what I consider a first-rate idea for a book: Approach a list of ten or twelve judges at appellate level, asking them to recall two or three of the more memorable habeas corpus they received in the arc of their judicial career. A habeas corpus writ is in essence Help, help, I'm being held prisoner (against my will), and want my freedom.
With those of us not incarcerated, Help, help, I'm being held prisoner takes on a more metaphoric meaning, as in I'm being held prisoner by a poem or a story or an essay or a thought that won't let me alone until I get it down on paper, at which point, writeer that I am, I am free until the next one wants out.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
In his story, The Grandfather's Ram, Mark Twain set into motion a vision of dramatic technique worth tracking. The subtext is Twain as a reporter on The Territorial-Enterprise, that irreverent and thriving newspaper in the equally thriving and irreverent Virginia City, Nevada. Twain's pay depended on the number of stories he contributed, thus he is brought into the dramatic calculus with a quota. His critical eye for the unusual is known to a number of friends, associates, and those who may have served as the goat for his earlier humors, a fact that brings vulnerability into the picture. Twain, the trickster, is vulnerable to being taken in.
The set-up for the story is simple: there is a man, Jim Blaine, Twain is advised, who has a remarkable story about his grandfather's old ram that Twain must hear from the teller's mouth because he imparts the proper tone to the telling. The trouble is, the warning continues, the old man never tells the story until he has achieved the ideal state of drunkenness whereby his tongue and memory are both loosened up. Thus the bait is set; Twain is immediately intrigued, his interest piqued over a period of time until he is summoned one afternoon with the news that the old man, having achieved the proper degree of drunkenness, is about to set forth on his discourse.
Twain hunkers down to listen as the Jim Blaine begins " his situation was such that even the most fastidious could find
no fault with it--he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk--not a hiccup to mar his voice, not a cloud upon his brain thick enough to obscure his memory. As I entered, he was sitting upon an empty powder-keg, with a clay pipe in one hand and the other raised to command silence. His face was round, red, and very serious..."
Blaine begins to speak "'I don't reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more
bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois--got him of a man by the name of Yates--Bill Yates--maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon--Baptist--and he was a rustler,too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west."
Now the hook is firmly set nearly everyone but Twain realizes what is about to happen. Garrulous old sort that he is, Blaine rambles about from point to point, person to person, his imagery taking him irrevocably away from any additional mention of the ram, ending with the mounting imagery of a man in a rug-weaving family falling into a loom, his mortal remains being woven into a width of four-ply broadloom that caused the poor wretch to have been buried in an eight-foot roll of carpeting. And on that note, Blaine nods off for the night, passed out in the middle of his ramble, leaving Twain to realize that he had been had.
The instructive thing Twain leaves us with the telling of this story is the notion of counterpoint. Within the texture of story, at least one other seemingly unrelated theme is introduced just as a sub-theme is introduced in music. More than likely, Twain had heard some old miner digress wildly on the theme of a grandfather's ram, saw the humor in it, and decided it was a story rather than a tale, a dimensional piece of narrative in which the counterpoint element was his own naivete as a narrator.
Twain has been in the grave nearly a hundred years. Nevertheless, a large portion of his material holds up well, delights and amuses because he mostly knew how to tell a story. There were times when he fell off the dramatist's platform, but mostly he told story and because it had counterpoint, the results hold us in its web.
Simplicity is a misunderstood element in storytelling, often being mistaken for what is linear, thin, not evocative in its subtext. When dealing with characters--people--motive, agenda, vulnerability, pomposity, accountability are all rushing around like atoms in a linear accelerator, not only waiting to collide but wanting to. Counterpoint is the writer's equivalent of the linear accelerator it is one of the unspoken keys to story at all levels.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
The men and women who develop the skills and techniques with which to become that particular instrument known as an actor are the very men and women we must cultivate, watch, digest as though they were thick, complex novels. Being an actor implies the ability to set the self on hold, take in an entirely new responsive agency, and impart authenticity and motive to that agency.
With all due respect to actors, whom writers must watch sedulously for clues and new ways of saying old things, writers must be everyone in the story, moving from one to the other and seeing each from a multifarious perspective.
It is no wonder that writers are often abstracted or cranky or apparently lost because they are all of these things and more all at once. At least they are honest about the affliction.
It is no easy thing being so many things, less easier yet when being all of them at once.
The actor and the writer are tools, forged for the sake of evoking characters from themselves and setting them forth, each is like the Golem of Prague, creating a being from the mud of creation. It is hard enough being a convincing actor; becoming a convincing writer requires a type of ductility that bids farewell to comfortable behavior. For the actor and the writer there is always the fear that the word or gesture or combination punch of word and gesture have gone too far or not far enough.
Writers would do well to check in on political blogs both from the left and the right, paying particular attention to the comments of readers. This is one step beyond the letter to the editor, a step in which anger, frustration, and yes, even bigotry trump reason, reveal sides of the human condition that elect presidents, senators, representatives.
We meet the actor in the green room to complain about the boorishness of audiences and end up describing our own shortfall.
There is much work for us to do, much to get down, articulated, plangent, set free to do its work. There is much for us to do; winning over the audience to the point where, at least for a time, it listens and responds before it goes off to attach raspy comments on the commentary of others.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Whether they come to us from the hoary past of before the common era, at the early years of the common era, the literature we call The Classics has in common a steady record of human behavior being business as usual. Whatever the culture or time, the range of human behavior allows us with little shifting in our seats to identify with the plight of some remarkable figure, be that figure Beowulf, the bandit from the Rashomon stories, or that man on many turns, Odysseus, making his way home from the Trojan War.
Even though it may seem dumb in relationship to, say World War I or II, we can relate to the fact of the Trojan War having been fought over Helen. In fact, the current war in Iraq has in its way helped us to see in better context some of the ancient battles, better context referring to the political spin put on these causus belli. Even zanier and more madcap than the American venture in Vietnam, the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq and the propagandizing elements of its continuation stand as evidence that those most directly responsible for it may have read the works of some neocon pundits but they have not read The Classics.
Thus is is possible to see a particular American couple, unaware of the works of Shakespeare, trying to one-up each other to see who gets the starring role in Macbeth. Hillary appears to be ahead on points, having devised more imaginative ways to refer to the Clinton equivalent of King Malcolm, but don't count Bill out, not yet. Even when it finally falls to his lot after June 3 to praise King Malcolm, he will find a way to do the damning with such resourceful faint praise that the faithful will immediately begin waving Hillary '12 signs. This will seem too far in the future for Hillary, who knows her way around an impeachment and will want to give that plan a try, hopeful of wading in during the confusion and trying on the crown. Truth to tell, they are both rather cavalier when it comes to math, neither one being able to count beyond mine.
No, I do not think reading The Classics will make us any the less likely to indulge such shenanigans, but doing so will gives us the calmness of perspective, and what we need right now is a good dose of perspective.
Monday, May 26, 2008
There are any number of stages allied with the writing process, including the one with the writer seated at desk, feet propped, hands cradling head, a look of glazed disaffection from reality permeating the writer's face. There is the actual white-heat fury of first draft writing, the whiter heat of disgust that comes with the conviction that what is being written is awful and not fit even for Tom Clancy, followed by the reentry kid of writing that ralizes the first draft wasn;t all that terrible. There is also the revision aspect in which certain questions and standards are applied to the idea at hand.
This is about none of those it is about the phase associated with editing which is to say the phase that comes when the work has been lived with, despaired over, sent to the nether regions of the hard drive, retrieved, revised, touched up, and finally shown to someone who has experience as an editor.
The goal of the writer is to trap the writer's voice on the screen, the hard drive, the page. The goal of the editor is to discern the writer's voice and isolate from it anything that interferes with it, be it an inappropriate word, an anomalous idea, or a defensive paragraph. The editor sees of the writer what the writer is too preoccupied to see. If the work at hand is fiction, the editor is becoming each of the characters not as the editor sees them but as the writer sees them. If the work at hand is nonfiction, the editor makes sure the table of contents reflects a logical and interesting progression of material, then assists the writer in findig the voice and attitude to present the matter. Writers trust editors, they countenance or put up with experts in grammar and syntax.
It is possible for a writer to write something the writer does not understand or like. Ultimately, the writer will reach the point of ability where it is no longer necessary to write something that is not liked. Thus removed from the cocoon of the beginner, the writer will essentially enjoy what comes forth, a transformative process by which the writer makes untenable things enjoyable and thus effective.
It is possible for an editor to edit something the editor does not like and do so with a free conscience because the editor is trained to listen to the author's voice and remove any traces of indecision from it, point out enormous gaps in logic or dramatic protective tissue. It is even possible for an editor to be helpful enough to the writer that the finished product is something the editor will indeed like. In this case the writer will not be satisfied because the work seems to have taken on a newer and heavier coating of authenticity.
There are persons who consider themselves editors on the basis of loving words, knowing grammar, being able to spot predicate nominatives and pluperfect subjunctives. They can distinguish cases from tenses. They often have tin ears for a given writer's voice however, and are not to be trusted on that score. The best they can hope for is to maintain what they call respect for the rules. If pushed, they will equate The Rules to the rules of grammar.
There are persons who consider themselves writers. They may even have written any number of things, say for community newspapers or perhaps for on-line newsletters. They have surrounded themselves with as close-fitting a protective coating as a mammalian heart is surrounded by a pericardia. Their immediate concern is protecting themselves from editors.
Professional writers and professional editors are allies. Beginning writers and wannabe editors are the literary equivalent of Sunni and Shia.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
The Bayeux Tapestry is a visual rendition of the Norman conquest of England, the defeat of the English King Harold at Hastings in 1066 by William the Conqueror, who succeeded Harold. Indeed, Harold died in the battle, a fact confirmed by contemporary records as well as The Tapestry.
There were not many readers or writers at the time, and although heraldry--the use of family coats of arms on shields and other armament--the forerunner of the Old School tie, was in limited use, crests and insignia did not appear to any great extent on The Tapestry.
With the exception of some brief annotations in Latin, The Tapestry did its work in pictures.
To some extent, story is formed as a tapestry, the occasional annotation added here or there, the detail of a character's heraldry or habits or background added there, a dot of color to be filled in or connected to another dot, an entire texture emerging in rows of stitches.
One of the major issues in the Bayeux Tapestry appears to be which of two figures represents King Harold, the one with the arrow in his eye or the one adjacent to it, with a spear in his torso. A closer examination of this tapestry reveals some holes where needlework may have been edited out or redone in another color.
In my earlier musings about how the writer sees story, the historian sees history, the human witness to life sees life, by putting myself into all these situations as me, I recognize a pattern of color and light sensitivity, detail sensitivity, and relevant blindness to facts, to ability t discern, to poor memory, to ego, to agenda.
I do not believe any character sees a complete picture and indeed, when it comes time to create a character, I don't want the complexity of the full person, only the necessary details that will allow first me as writer and then the reader to see relevant things.
What, you may ask, is relevant? Is there some standard for relevancy, some equivalent of the eye chart at the DMV or the oculist's office, you know the one E FP TOZ LPED EDFCZP.
No, of course not, because we are not to be so easily defined, nor do we so easily define others or their events.
There were feelings before there was language to describe them it is not an easy exploration we undertake when we set forth to explore new terrain with new people or, for that matter, familiar terrain with familiar people. We must keep alert for the potsherds and artifacts that will help us identify the individuals who made, used, and possibly even broke them.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
For some time during recent weeks, I've been playfully occupied by the notion of a time when the world was less populous than it is now, a time when such remarkable characters from the traces of available classical literature didn't opt for a particular career so much as they were called to it by a direct summons from a god or goddess, a calling forth that probably led to the cration of the Muses, who no only presided over various of the arts but recruited as well. One of my favorites, as recently noted in these vagrant postings, was Hesiod, called forth not only to serve the gods but to write about them, catalog them, become in a sense their historian.
By the time such things got around to me, the muses were pretty busy and had a broader selection from which to chose than back in the days of eld. More than likely, instad of responding to a specific call from a specific muse, I was made aware of a cattle call at which I could audition, hopeful of beig chosen for something.
I've already spoken at some length about having been called by those estimable works of he who called himself Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi. It would not be accurate or fair to list Roughing It or The Innocents Abroad, because I'd already been called by the time I came to those and accordingly looked to them. It would be accurate and fair to add to the list of calls one Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding and accordingly the vehicle in which he appeared, the motion picture Animal Crackers. By the time the character of Captain Spaulding had emerged from the psyche of his creator, one Julius Henry Marx, he had acquired greasepaint eyebrows and mustache, and had affected the forward bend of the upper torso, over the euator of the waist line, the right hand balled into a fist and placed at the base of the spine while the left hand swung freely.
Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding became my muse, calling me to a task away from the serious notions of literature I'd begun to see in work I admired, singing a Siren song I thought was calling me forth to the pursuit of rigorous intellectual pursuit, scholarship, and, dare I say it, research.
Captain Spaulding is a difficult pole star to follow he is subversive of the goals I was pledged to follow. For some years I fought to disassociate myself from my inner Captain Spaulding with the growing tendency toward pomposity, which is one of the many things the "real" Captain Spaulding seeks to subvert, with quip, irony, outrageous puns, and a kind of 27/7 reduction to absurdity of all about him.
I think it may be safely ventured that where matters of pomposity are concerned, the pompous one is always last to make the discovery.
This is not to suggest a middle of the road course between the better works of Mr Twain and Captain Spaulding, because middle roads quickly betray themselves for being what they are--a pathway where the view is only moderate, safe, and populated with fast-food restaurants.
It takes study, patience, experiment, and a bit of the samurai's discipline to heed the call of your inner Captain Spaulding, to arrive with your own version of the chicken walk, the grease painted mustache and eyebrows, the samurai's vision of himself within his chosen terrain.
So far, it would appear that I have borrowed the eyebrows they sprout like weeds in a Summer garden, advertising my approach, warning that I am not to be taken for middle of the road. The years have brought other attributes, tools to clink about in my tool kit. I know this much: It is too late to turn back. I will have to make it on the bushy eyebrows and a few outrageous puns until the carpenters arrive to supply the finishing touches.
Friday, May 23, 2008
The hills may be alive with the sound of music, but what about that ambient noise inside the writer's head? Is it the sound of one hand clapping? Perhaps the sound of some idealized version of the writer's voice, dictating the material at hand? Perhaps even a dialog, a free-wheeling exchange of the individual voices of characters, auditioning for their parts in the short story or novel currently under way.
What, the question becomes, do you hear when you are at work on some project that matters in a lasting way to you (as opposed, say, to complaints to companies responsible for unconscionable pricing or service)? Add to that calculus the sound you hear when writing a letter of recommendation for a student , which is to say admission to another graduate program or a position somewhere in the work force such as, gulp, teaching).
You, who think of yourself as being alert to such things, have already decided upon the dichotomy of writers who see the events of which they write and merely produce a description of that vision, and writers who hear the work in progress being dictated to them from some internal source. You have always fancied yourself a hearer, thus responding as a stenographer to dictation. You did not ever and do not now make a distinction between which has the better deal, the seer or the hearer the dichotomy simply is, a wired-in trait. Seers may, in time and with practice, reach the point of being able to hear a bit of the detail, but they remain primarily seers in the same balance that hearers may of occasion get a vision of some relevance, but remain in the camp of hearers. All of this is to say there is no middle ground.
Some of this came from Rachel, your primary mentor, who confessed to you early on that she heard voices but was not accordingly to be taken as seriously psychotic. She encouraged you to listen for your own voices. Perhaps because they were already there or perhaps in some measure to please her, you began to listen for then to hear voices of your own. This concept was borne further upon you in conversations with musicians who thought it interesting, even quaint, that writers heard things, volunteering the exciting to you information that what they heard as not always the instrument they played but some other instrument entirely.
You now live in harmony with your acceptance of the inner voice, your concerns now depending on tings you have to do to get access to the voice. In this process, you surely have rewired or reinforced existing circuitry in the thought process to the point where you recognize the presence of a Narrative Voice that is "on" much of the time, vacating the stage when your Critical Self, elbows thrusting and jutting, bullies its way center stage. Your Critical Self is not a particularly nice person, a bit of a schoolyard bully, directing his spleen equally against you, your Narrative Voice, and anyone or anything it thinks it can get away with bullying. Nor is it free of sudden irrational surges of resentment, schadenfreude, jealousy. You own him and the one major benefit of your recognition of his presence is that it allows you greater access to your Narrative Voice. In fact, sometimes, when Narrative Voice seems off on a Club Med vacation somewhere, inaccessible for the chores at hand, you are able to reach it by cell phone or IM simply by turning in the Critical Self, who dislikes everything, including parts of you. The closest iconic figure to Critical Self you know of is Donald Duck, whose tizzies and fussiness serve as a constant reminder of what awaits you should you allow him to guide you down the paths of passionate engagement.
The next closest iconic figure to appear, sometimes even at dress rehearsals, is Your Idealized Narrative Voice, whose basic trait is a tendentiousness or, if you will, serious pomposity. Sometimes he actually wins the part, gets to go on for page after page, lecture after lecture, alas. He is a defense against your true semblance, your true frere, Captain Spaulding. Amidst this ensemble cast, your true Narrative Voice awaits, no mere compromise candidate who contains elements of the others but rather that truer self who has learned how to filter out the excesses in early drafts, who knows when to shift channels until the correct one steps forth, nods, then begins the soliloquy that contains the work at hand.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Much of what is known about the events of the early days of the Greeks and Persians came to us because of the energy and methodology of Herodotus, widely acknowledged as one of the first if not the first historian. A significant amount of what we know of the world before man, the divine world, comes to us through the work of Hesiod, whose earlier career was as a shepherd in Boeotia.
Both men are believed to have been called to their careers rather than having prepared for it in an academy or formal institute of learning. In a splendid example of how low residence instruction works, both men were called upon by the Muses to sing forth, the former about events on the human scale, the latter about the origin of the universe and the rise of the gods, from the early beginnings to the triumph of Zeus.
Herodotus presumably heard the call of Clio, muse of history; Hesiod was likely to have been contacted by Polyhymnia, muse of sacred song and oratory.
Herodotus lived approximately 485 BCE to 425 Hesiod's dates are less certain, but he is thought to have been a contemporary of Homer, whom Herodotus said predated him by four hundred years.
It is never a good time to be a writer, but whatever the time may be in the cosmic sense, it is an important time for there to be writers. This observation is a nod to gnomic verse, a form of painful, sometimes ironic truth that needs to be observable. Gnomic verse was a particular implement in Hesiod's toolkit. The times of Homer (if indeed Homer was one single person and not a number of writer/poets) and the later times of Hesiod and Herodotus were good times to be writers not only because of all the event's of significance to write about but because the Muses were just beginning to get the notion that humans could be called to serve as writers.
It is a different story today; magazines such as The Writer (which I own a piece on dialog) Writers' Digest, and Poets & Writers are suggesting ways many of us mortals can become writers without having been tapped by a particular Muse. Not to mention the dozens of colleges and universities calling individuals forth to pursue careers in writing.
No doubt we have all read somewhere that being called upon by a Muse is a metaphor for being inspired. But that was back at a time when there weren't so many writing programs and publications and books being published. Undoubtedly there are those being called forth by one or more Muses, leading to a wealth of fantastic materials to guide us on our celestial ways.
Hi, Mr. Hesiod, let me introduce myself I am Polyhymnia, daughter of Zeus, Let's not go into the details of how I was begot, rather let's look at the reality of you wasting your time in a dead-end job of shepherd. I'm thinking you have the talent to leave sheep behind and take up the stylus, You know, write stuff.
After a youth of reading the remarkable works of writers such as Hesiod or Herodotus or Homer, or in more modern times, Louise Erdrich or Jim Harrison or Richard Russo or Richard Price, we hear a voice we think at first blush to be a Muse or one of her sisters, but alas, we were hearing from the bird-women, The Sirens, calling us away from our daytime jobs into the reality that we are going to have to make our own way, inspiration-wise going to have to get our own vision, our own sound, our own powers.
The Muses have become bureaucratized because there are now so many wannabes waiting for inspiration.
You could, I suppose, offer a nice plump organic chicken along with an invocation to a particular muse, hoping she'll take interest in you. You could also get a fantastic first page that would so engage her that she's stick around to see how well you did on page two, tomorrow. Or you could just plod on and make page three so good that you yourself were caught up in it and had to see where things were going.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
The concept of story emerged in direct proportion to the development of the human brain and the ability of humanity to observe and wish to preserve survival-related information.
Accordingly, squirrels probably convey some form of story and, had they a more sophisticated range of language, would use it to produce many a cautionary tale. Make no mistake, squirrels are beset by predation and, based on my observation of their behavior outside my bedroom and living room windows, they are beset with social issues. Squirrels in my neighborhood probably tell sudden fictions in the nature of, Watch out for the hawks. In a social kind of story, they're remind me of my one time friend of the piano bar and carouse, Huntz Hall, one of the original Dead End Kids of 30s films. Huntz's on screen persona was epitomized by, Who you shovin'? Squirrels do tend to get territorial around peanuts.
Although the squirrel trope may be a bit of a stretch, at least it falls into a kind of logic that follows the common denominator that we all have a narrative we act on. Another splendid example is the soldier ant, busily pursuing its wired-i purpose in spite of sprays, poisons, or temporary barriers. Nature has provided the worker ant an imperative which the ant is bound to follow. In other words, the ant's story is motive the means justify the ends.
It could be argued that the human story began with the myth of Sisyphus, which, if taken in the full sway of its metaphor, means Don't mess with the Boss. Sisyphus was discovered by Zeus to have been messing with one of Zeus's girlfriends, for which he had to pay the horrendous price of a life of eternal boredom and frustration. Prometheus got into severe liver problems for having messed with the gods, and thus another cautionary tale in which the interloper is caught and punished. Such cautions may cause some human interlopers to lead a more conservative, reverential-of-higher-authority lives, but on the other hand, such cautions may impress on the reader or hearer of a tale to exercise greater caution and ingenuity, which is to say, Avoid being caught.
To bring any individual, from the merest amoeba to the most significant homo spaien sapien to life, we need only set that individual in motion, enhance the landscape, say the primordial ooze, and impart an agenda, say getting out of the primordial ooze, or rat race or rut or relationship.
There you have it, story begins with someone wanting something, then venturing pursuit of that something. Such is our nature as readers that we will attribute wired-in responses to the elements of a story, allowing us to make of it as we will.
Yesterday, The New York Times reported the invasion of the state of Texas by a particular species of ant that sought refuge--and presumably sustenance--in computers. Some of us were discussing the ramifications this morning at our coffee venue of Peet's, when an earnest-looking man at the next table wondered aloud, How can you people be concerned about ants when the Federal Government is eating our savings and holdings before our very eyes? You might think this wold be a conversation stopper, and it was for a brief moment, before I recovered. Excuse me, sir, but you're a Republican, right? The man was every bit as stopped in his way as we had been in ours. Why, yes. How could you tell?
At one historical plateau in the evolutionary process of story, there was the Gothic brutishness of Beowulf, which moved to the armed-conflict epic, the self-interest of knights errant (perhaps hopeful of a deferment from their father/),the intriguing sweep of romanticism, the orderliness of the turn of the century, the need for optimism and redemption of the Depression, and now the fragmented cynicism of the modern era.
Story is built into us, to see it as it is, was, or might have been. There is no correct choice except that of the teller, when the teller tells and when the tables are turned and the teller becomes the reader.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
1. Force is a vector quantity, expression magnitude and direction.
2. The magnitude of a story and its direction are informed by the desires, agendas, and complications of characters.
3. Characters are individuals afflicted with agendas, desires, fantasies, and tidal natures.
4. Tidal natures are wired-in behaviors, sometimes transmitted genetically, other times farmed out to the literary equivalents of Third World countries.
5. In physics, a vector is an arrow drawn to scale, representing the direction in which the force is applied. In dramatic writing, the concept of a throughline or story arc may be compared to a vector.
6. A story begins when force is applied to one or more characters. The force may be the need for a decision, coping with a calamity, which is to say love or grief or choice--anything, in fact, that propels one or more characters to change their resident behavior.
7. A story resolves when the beginning force dissipates or is diverted. Accordingly, stories do not end because the characters are alert and alive, aren't they? And they will move on until they become subjected to other forces, a concept we as writers share with them, don't we?
8.. Stories in motion tend to stay in motion, responding to the force applied to the characters.
9. Applying Newtonian observations, objects in motion tend to stay in motion until they are overcome by a greater force. Story tends to stay in motion until they confront a greater force. Mixing the apples and oranges of metaphor, stories may remain in motion until they are met with a greater force of uncertainty, understanding, or irony.
10. In story, a protagonist is a person or persons who cause things to happen, behaving as initiators or responders.
11. An antagonist is a person or set of persons who have some interest in preventing the protagonists from achieving their goals.
12. Pop Quiz: Was Bartelby a protagonist or an antagonist?
13. The conflicting force in inertia is friction or gravity or the loss of propelling force.
14. The enemy in story is stasis. When nothing happens, when things remain the same, without a hint of impending calamity when agreement is reached, the story stops.
15. And so does the reader.
Monday, May 19, 2008
1. Denial. There must be some mistake. This is my finest story to date. Anyone who appreciates literature can recognize the inherent depth and grace of this work.
2. Anger. How could they not accept this while at the same time taking on so many lesser, derivative works?
3. Bargaining. If they'd only read the note accompanying the manuscript or any one of the seventeen emails I sent, they'd recognize how perfect this story is for them.
4. Depression. I don't know why I waste all the time, energy, and considerable costs of postage. Emily Dickinson was right
5. Payback Acceptance. They simply don't get it,otherwise they'd have emailed or phoned just to make sure it was still available. Wouldn't want to appear in so insensitive a venue anyway, where all my friends would see and immediately wonder, Why are you allowing THEM to use your story? Pure exploiters, they are, I'll send the story to a more suitable place. Really.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
In any assemblage of novels that have shaped, described, or attacked our manifest destiny as a species, names such as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and, to move away from the Russians, Thomas Mann, George Elliott, Herman Hesse, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Nadine Gordimer, Willa Cather cry out for attention. The cries are so strong, so articulated, so insistent that they sound like the famed Sirens, drowning out the writers, admittedly mostly male, who chronicled the mythology and shifting sands of consciousness of The American West.
It could be argued, even with a certain panache, that the subtext of the American Western novel is the manifest destiny of Imperialism. People taking what was someone else's property, product, perhaps even livestock, oh, and yes, let us not forget women and slavery.
Pretty much the mould force of the American Western was Owen Wister's The Virginian which, considering Wister's own background, was a kind of Stover of Yale on horseback. an observation that has more weight to it than the mere looking for the humor of exaggeration.
The West was as feudal and wild as Central Europe, the horse being a tremendous social and work force. The concept of chivalry, which draws from the French word for horse, thus people on horseback practice a different social code, versus people who walk or who use mules or oxen.
Ah, the Comanche, those splendid horsepersons, able to ride horses to the extent of being able to steal better from their neighbors, thus giving a subset of the Western novel, cowboys and Indians, and another inevitable subset, Indians and the U.S. cavalry.
Okay for now, gotta go, but before I do, think of A.B. Guthrie's The Way West. Forget Shane, Jack Schaefer's stunning Monte Walsh was getting at the fulcrum of the west. Think of Wallace Stegner. Think of Oakley Hall's Warlock, which is what got this thinking going.
Think also of how much fun it wold be to look at some of the pulp Western fiction the Zane Gray stuff, for instance, and see how neatly it fits into a pattern developed some years later by Karl Marx.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Always on the alert for plausible, uncommon interpretations to common behavior or events, I have ventured on yet another reason so many individuals prefer the company of cats to dogs.
The reason is humans do not tend to resemble their feline friends.
That's it? That's a reason for liking cats? Because they don't look--Oh, please!
Well, let's turn the tables, asking instead How many individuals do you know who resemble their dogs?
Ah, now, were getting closer to the discomfort zone.
An admirable Westie named Annie shared lodgings for the longest time with Esther McCoy,architectural critic, sometimes fiction writer, and stunningly proficient compiler of quiche.
When I first came to Santa Barbara in the early 1970s, there existed at the corner of Milpas and Cota Streets a typographer of such stunning quality and with so many hard-to-come-by type faces, and, indeed, so many Lineotypes that he became my default typesetter when I served as production manager to the scholarly press I was later to direct. Said typographer had a devoted wife who had a devoted dachshund whose eye colors, size, and facial expressions were virtually identical, making it necessary for me to take such measures as gritting my teeth, pinching myself, or voiding eye contact when in her presence, lest I laugh aloud at the similarity.
Earlier this evening, I saw a woman walking a Pyrenees Mountain Dog along East Valley Road, the back of the dog's head bearing the same shade of hair, flouncing in the same configuration as they walked.
A former librarian had an English Bull Dog with a remarkably similar set of facial configurations.
The list of recalled similarities goes on. Some might say the list goes on and in the process grows anecdotal as well and so, before I can be accused of an anecdotal approach, I will admit to it myself, saying it seems to me many humans bear visual resemblance to their dogs, others still bear a similarity of temperament to their dog associates, including one police officer I knew in Santa Monica who was assigned to the K-9 service. There was a beagle named Cholmondley in Virginia City whose manner and voice was very much like his human companion, and I suspect that the longer I concentrate on such associations, more similarities will visit me.
Truth to tell, I probably bore some resemblance to my Blue Tick Hound, Mr Edward Bear, making me part of the parade. Although his ears were notably longer and droopier than mine, his occasions dark moods quickly laughed me out of my own.
It is no small thing to bear resemblance to a dog and I am happy for the many chances I have had to do so. At least three spectacular cats have ventured into my life, respectively Sam, Maud, and Armand, none of whom I resembled. Nor can I recall a single case of a cat fancier who resembled a feline associate.
You search for a pattern of connection long enough and some insightful response pops out, validating your own sense of the increased time you spend living outside the mould.
Friday, May 16, 2008
History is one of the oldest of social sciences. At its best, it is a record of events and their outcome, reflecting the sense of the parties involved and how they fared. History may also be applied to specific individuals and as such becomes a record of that person's affiliations, sensibilities, and memories.
History may not be accurate but it is invariably attitudinal.
As the flame is raised under the crucible of political debate by candidates of both major American parties and the media, avid of some news bite press issues, not only is the truth spun beyond recognition, entire hunks of history either vanish or become completely misrepresented.
In the past week it has become apparent that some politicians and commentators do not know the definition of the word appeasement, variously using it to suggest that a particular politician who does know the definition has openly advocated a foreign policy wherein America appeases perceived enemies. Yet another politician, who should know, but apparently doesn't remember, has a past history of advocating the very behavior he today refers to as appeasement.
Yet other politicians and commentators refer to their opponent's as extravagant taxers, spenders, and attachers of designated pay vouchers to legislation while they in fact, tax, spend, and attach exponentially more.
And there are politicians and commentators who refer to certain judges improperly as judicial activists when these justices are merely interpreting legislation already on the books.
All of which leads me to the observation of a phenomenon that goes well beyond politicians and political matters, focusing on nearly all human activity. I even have a name for it which I feel does a lovely job of describing the symptom. Historical pointillism.
Historical pointillism is a situation in which the observer looks as personal or historical events without seeing the entire picture, unmindful of the spaces in between. It is the subjective filling in the blanks with inferences, events, colors, sensations, and attitudes that may be completely missing.
I, who am afflicted with this historical pointillism syndrome, attribute my symptoms to impatience, a tendency to rush to judgment, a laziness that allows false inferences and assumptions to creep into the calculus of perception and understanding.
These may seem to be quirks wired in to much human behavior but I will not take the easy way out by allowing this assumption to trump my sense that historical pointillism is right up there with high crimes for any individual who wishes to get things down on paper in a way that will cause the things captured to resonate, vibrate, radiate--convey.
I have borrowed the term from a group of artists who believed that the human eye could, among other things, assimilate dots of primary colors and blend them to the extent of rendering secondary and intermediary colors. The term pointillism was first used disparagingly of the technique but then, as the technique became popular, widely used, validated, if you will, the disparagement vanished.
When history is added to the calculus, mischievous elements may be omitted which can and often do lead to improper conclusions. And we all know what an improper conclusion is, a history that differs from our impression of an event.
Humans and history have the ability to surprise but they should both be able to do so with the goal of producing a dramatic narrative with honesty and sincerity rather than going for the cheaply made effect
Thursday, May 15, 2008
After suffering a series of ruinous disasters, I forswore ball-point pens in favor of the lesser disasters and greater elegance of the fountain pen. The ruinous disasters were, as you might suspect, ink stains on shirts. (Why do ball-point pens never seem to leak on less favored shirts?) There were two cases of ball-point pens leaking in pockets of jackets, one of which was visible only on the inner panels of the jacket, the other of which was ultimately dispatched by the dry cleaning process.
This is not to say that fountain pens are leak-free nor, indeed that the use of a fountain pen dies not expose the user to the risk of ink-stained fingers. This is to say that the choice being made--fountain pen versus ball-point--has wedged me into yet another way of recognizing a fundamental schism in the human condition. Other schisms involve tea versus coffee, dogs versus cats, Red Sox versus Yankees, Borders versus Barnes and Noble, small cars versus larger models, and of course the true American notion of suspecting the rest of the world is invested in Democrats versus Republicans.
Having received yet another catalog from yet another purveyor of fountain pens, more or less congruent with the pocket clip of a ball-point pen breaking off a ball-point pen given me by the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences of the university where I teach, I took a few moments to formulate a further vision of humanity which I record here, in the true, research-oriented spirit of essaying where the vision will take me. The vision is that all of humanity, even the brush-wielding calligraphers of Asia, is divided into two types, the ball-point pen type and the fountain pen type.
Most ball-point pens, models of technical Darwinism, work pretty well; their cartridges are accessible for replacement, and those that do not have replaceable cartridges are easily duplicated from the same advertising source that produced the first one. They are, in effect, planned obsolescence. If I were going to commit the pathetic fallacy in which I humanize an animate object, I would say that these give-away ball-point pens know they are going to be lost or forgotten or borrowed and not returned to the owner. Or I could liken them to hookers, available for multiple use. In any case, a sensible person could go for some considerable time without having to buy a ball=point pen, knowing they are available gratis at banks, pharmaceutical purveyors,barber shops, beauty salons, automotive dealers, insurance agencies, even gasoline stations. They are perfectly good for signing checks, receipts, autographs, death certificates, prescriptions, and a laundry list of other applications. They have sophisticated designs and mercifully plain, functional ones, informing their being with a kind of technological mysticism. (Would a devout Hindu consider a ball-point pen as maya?) They are all about us, waiting to leak on shirts, jackets, vests, and other items of clothing. They are the stationery equivalent of relatives who have overstayed their visit.
The fountain pen type loves gadgets, is somewhat on the pompous side, is more interested in expressing individual traits as demonstrated in the ability to secure fountain pens with all manner of nib width, beginning with the extra fine of the splendid Namiki and Sailor founten pens through the mere fine nib, the medium nib, the broad nib, the flexible calligraphic nib, the music-writing nib. Although it is possible to secure ball-point pens in blue, green, red, and black ink, the fountain pen offers an entire and sophisticated panoply, my own favorite being a mocha or variation on the theme of brown.
Ball-point pen persons in our life may come our way by accident, gift, advertising, referral. They may prove to be valuable tools and conveniences, and they may never leak on our shirt or other garment. They may be of the right heft and balance so that we respond well to them, care for them, put them to tasks, commend them to others. But there is always the resident sense of warning Somehow, their function and availability notwithstanding, they will fail us, not really through any egregious fault of their own but rather because they have run out of something. As is the ball-point pen, these individuals are a product of The Industrial Revolution, where the cynicism if not the actual fact of planned obsolescence is a factor.
With all its inherent difficulties, the fountain pen reaches to our roots of consciousness, requesting us to have a care for their welfare. They must occasionally be cleaned, fed. But with them as with individuals such as they, we maintain the sense of our own personality, our own handwriting, our own difference.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
The scene is the basic unit of drama. If we wish to make our work dramatic, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, stage/film work or narrative, it must be presented with awareness of the basic building blocks, which include but are not limited to character, pace, setting, beats, blocking, confrontation or a hint of conflict. You could slip rhythm in there, perhaps next to pace, because the tempo of events must have a sense of rise and fall, of tidal movement, as deftly orchestrated as, say Ravel's Noble and Sentimental Waltzes. You could also successfully argue surprise into the genome.
I was looking forward to tonight's lecture because of late I've taken to presenting two scenes to demonstrate my points as they fell forth. Almost universal in scenes having been seen are the choices from two wildly diverse motion pictures, the first being the famed You want me to hold the chicken scene from Five Easy Pieces. The other iconic scene is the I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody scene from On the Waterfront, in which Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger exchange a classic dramatic fugue in which the viewer sees the truth and, after a time, so does Terry Molloy--too late for the truth to do him any good.
Primed with the text of these scenes and the anticipation of the effect they will have on audiences, I launch into the discussion of scene, clicking off elements, anticipating my arrival at the examples which I'll get to read. You want me to hold the chicken. I want you to hold the chicken between your knees.
But before reaching that joyous and explosive part of the lecture, I found myself aware of an important missing link in the genome of the scene, important enough to have me on hold for several long moments as I scribbled down notes, words really that were so hastily scrawled that I still cant make them all out. Not to worry, I remember the intent.
The hidden element or the element I have conveniently forgotten; take your choice.
It is zeitgeist, the spirit of the time, the essence of the culture in which the scene takes place. There are some scenes, many stories, in which the zeitgeist forces the issue, is there presenting itself with the insistance of the porter at the gate in Macbeth. Usually war stories have their zeitgeist built in, whether it is Henry V, wanting an excuse to annex France, or Lyndon B. Johnson wanting to free Viet Nam.
Scenes without zeitgeist can or should be called floaters because the cellular organism that is the scene does just that, floats around until details, events, and attitudes give us the dramatic information we need as readers/viewers to make sense of the passions behind the action portrayed. Why was it so important for Antigone to bury her brother. Why did her uncle want the brother, his nephew, left buried. What zeitgeist resided in that series of events?
Scholars are still furiously debating the merits and definitions of text, textuality, and narrative, their respective arguments pushing story and character to the rear of the metaphorical bus. Hopeful of gaining some greater insight into the psychology of text and narrator and reader participation, I find myself swarmed with details sufficient to occlude the story. Bad move. The scholarly focus, if there is to be any, should be on the zeitgeist, the time of the story, the attitude of the then characters--as in the concept of a slave and his master changing roles in The Frogs--and the attitude of the audience. What effect, for instance, did zeitgeist have on the early audiences of Romeo and Julietts when Mercutio proclaims, "A plague on both their houses!?
And here's me going out on a limb with this observation, What effect does zeitgeist have on the behavior of Blache Dubois in Streetcar? My limb is that Streetcar doesn't play as well as it once did, is not as likely to last as, say, The Glass Menagerie.
No matter; all in good time.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
It takes some time to recognize the startling fact that education--even education in so-called dramatic writing--begins with mere rote before transferring to the express line, where connecting dots, any dots, is the crux and the fast ride to understanding.
For the longest while, I successively blamed the culture in which I lived, the University of California, and, later, the Republican Party, on the paucity of and lack of dimension in my personal education. While all these were indeed contributing factors, the most obvious one was my ow sense of inadequacy at having factoids at my fingertips but no way to connect them, no cosmic equivalent of cat's cradle, no sense of myself being as a star in a galaxy. The drop of water did not yet recognize the ocean from which he lurched.
There are now two factors that define the state of personal education to me, the ageing process and the need to connect dots, any dots. We each of us, according to age and number of dots of experience, go about with inchoate information, data points waiting to be connected. In our blood streams and genomes run the bundles of data we not only are but have collected from observation, memory, and intuition. Timidly at first, we connect obvious dots, power point most of our forbears and contemporaries have already connected, a fact that gives us a status called Common Sense or Conventional Wisdom. We begin to shine, give off our own light, just as stars do, when we begin to connect daring, improbable things, making sense and art of them; what we turn ourselves into then is a spinning combination of art and sense, each tidal, perhaps even conflicting. The more seemingly disparate things about us we connect within ourselves, the more we distance ourselves from Common Sense or Conventional Wisdom. The farther we get from these two faux pole stars, the more attractive our radiant light becomes, drawing to us the duality inherent in everything. In this case the duality is attractiveness and voice with which to communicate, the obverse of the coin is an increased distance from our common roots. Accordingly we must never forget to shine, take chances and grow, nor must we forget the absolute need to do what most writers learn at great cost--to avoid patronizing Common Sense and Common Wisdom. It is just as much an error to make fun of these conditions as it is not to have them.
One of the earliest inscriptions in a contemporary language to be found on this continent--North America--is a Spanish inscription on an enormous rock along a well-traveled east-west wagon trail Paso por aqui. The inscribers came this way, letting perhaps friends or relatives who followed that they were on the right track, but taking on the subtext for us of these years that there were others who connected dots before we were even in the picture. Words to remember and live by.
Writers want to produce words they, their characters, and imagined readers can live by; they want to show those who come later that someone was here, telling them the way was safe, the wisdom of the road. We want our wisdom to last and to instruct others while at the same time wanting them to see the things we missed or did not connect.
We want our words to last and to instruct and disturb and entertain and remove the pompous and tyrannical from their pompous and tyrannical pedestals. I am no different in this regard and my desire for such immortality brought me to connect dots I had not previously considered when I was charged with the task of putting together the combination of words to be incised on the granite slab marking my mother's grave site. I, who wanted some shot at my fifty years of lasting beyond my own life, was trumped my my desire for this remarkable woman to be known. And to whom? More than likely, only to those who came to pay respects to the embalmed husks of family or friends. I had five or six words to go under her name and dates, five or six words to carry her essence, her individual Paso por aqui.
In engaging the task, I learned as much about writing as I may be likely to learn: put the individual ahead of the writer. Thus I wrote and caused to be incised, Ann Lowenkopf 1905--1997/ All were welcomed at her table
The reward of having such a mother is being able to speak of her beyond me, allowing her to have passed through here on her way to that place we may think of as Destiny.
We are shaped by what we learn and what we connect that takes us beyond the Common Sense and Conventional Wisdom of our time and into the destiny of words that shape as running streams shape rocks.
We are rocks awaiting the forces that will give us our true shape.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Casting a weather eye about my desk and bookshelves lately, I came to recognize a connection I have with archaeologists
For the dedicated archaeologist, artifacts may be difficult to come by, particularly if they are made of something less durable than stone or fired ceramic. Wood, unless petrified, has a finite and risky shelf life; basketry and blankets often reach the stage where they must be kept in nitrogen- or oxygen-filled enclosures.
What I was noticing on my desk and shelves, with an edgy mixture of enjoyment and apprehension, were artifacts of the archaeology of my youth. These artifacts include Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books, Whitman Big-Little Books, (including a pretty fair copy of a Terry and the Pirates) first-generation massmarket paperbacks (including some of the old Dell mysteries with maps of the crime area on the back cover), a copy or two of what have been variously referred to as sleaze fiction, pulp fiction, and exploitation fiction, the old Kozy Books (from which, under a variety of pseudonyms, I paid many a rent tab), some cigarette package trading cards (including litographs of rugs, airplanes, and fish) a few cereal box toys, a tin container that will still hold--if I allowed it--fifty cigarettes (emblazoned with the pre-War Lucky Strike green logo, as in "Lucky Strike green nas gone to war!" There are a few die-cast metal miniature cars , a Pogo doll, several bottle caps, an authentic glass Coca-Cola bottle,and a squirt gun.
The paper in all these artifacts is on its way to the dustier climes, and in recent times I have begun protecting the more fragile with cellophane wrap. The wooden artifacts are still holding up, and the die-cast metal or glass objects are showing few traces of their real age.
Every age has a special fondness for its own artifacts. Moving about as my family did when I was between the ages of five and thirteen, I was limited to things that could be kept in cigar boxes, not the classy cedar ones in which I keep my fountain pens but the sturdy cardboard ones which not only reflected my father's taste in cigars--Creamo, Roi-Tan, Garcia Vega, Phillies, Marsh Wheeler--but my own fondness for the florid art on the inner cover. These became storehouses for marbles, bottle caps, bubblegum cards, playing cards, toy soldiers, and mini-model airplanes. In my generation, if you were a male, you were beneath contempt if you did not have a shelf of Big-Little Books, a Little Orphan Annie Shake-up Mug, a Captain Midnight Decoder Ring, and a Jack Armstrong Magic Answer Box. You were also well down on the social ladder if you did not have a Ralston/Tom Mix Morse Code sender, a Gene Autry cap gun, stacks of Batman Comics, a Buck Roger Space Rocket, and a Lone Ranger Code Matrix. Never mind that the code messages given forth by the Lone Ranger were such vital communiques as Clean your fingernails, or Volunteer to do the dishes once a week, they were in code, which is more than you got from your mother.
Moving frequently meant saying good-bye with aching frequency to collections of Wheaties cereal boxes, the exotic labels of tin cans purchased in ethnic groceries, empty tins of coffee (Chock Full 'o Nuts),aircraft propelled by rubberband power, and gliders.
The smaller the artifact, the more possible to carry it in one's pocket, where it mixed with other artifacts and gave one a sense of having a tool kit that could support survival in adult-dominated situations.
While these are the Lares and Penates of childhood, there is yet a comfort in them; it is the comfort of the retro art, the orotund borders, lithograph-level colors. A return to childhood would be an excruciatingly frustrating return, retro-fitting the hard-won independence or illusions of same we exacted against what seemed an unforgiving reality.
Equally true, these are artifacts only in the most egregious stretch; a real artifact is a burin or a Clovis point or a fluted spear blade or a shard of a Toltec doll. A real artifact is a place outside Sikyatki, on the eastern side of First Mesa, where a Hopi elder who had befriended me once warned me not to walk down a particular road until it dead-ended, thereupon to look for foot holes with which to scramble up eight or ten feet, and having not arrived there, I was to be careful not to pick up any of the pottery shards I might see there because people who did so were interfering with the return to earth of elements that had come from earth in the first place and I didn't want to be thought an interferer did I?
In yet another sense, however, collecting the artifacts of my generation preserves a sense of connection with the tribal elders who have variously taught me, inspired me, lied to me, deceived me, loaned me lunch money, books, and the lore of the history from which I arose in order to be here, attempting to find artifacts of another sort in the sediment of the Internet.
Archaeologists are historical junk dealers, Brian Fagan has opined. It takes a man who has worked with Leaky to know. Not having worked with Leaky but, in fact, having scouted for the Lone Ranger and Red Ryder, and Prince Valliant, I am on the alert for a prime dig site.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
In many ways, a new book represents a danger.
The danger is of the sort that comes with the almost daily emails describing acts of violence or near violence enacted around the campus in Los Angeles where I have been teaching for lo these many years. Thanks to the emails and attendant warnings, I more or less adjust my behavior patterns so that the likelihood of actual physical danger to me is minimal , leaving me with the general sense of being mugged or robbed rather than the cold, frightening details of an actual event and my actual response.
The new book is like the safety precautions I'd take when leaving campus on foot or wandering about the borders of campus alone late at night. Be wary as opposed to being innocent. Be suspicious instead of being naive or trusting or, better yet, being oblivious to the cold, frightening details of an actual event and my actual response.
Being mugged is a trauma. Reading some books can be a trauma because these books may overwhelm previous notions or senses of defense; they have the power to frighten me, bore me, disturb me, entertain me, anger me. They have the power to cause me to, as the warning emails describe the mugging situations, demand property.
I don't know what I'd do when confronted combatively, threateningly with gun or knife or no weapon at all except the stealth and strength of my assailant. I have no advance sense of the weapon or guile or stealth of the author of a book I am about to read, the images he or she will inflict on my psyche.
A number of bookstores and publishing ventures send me catalogs, newsletters, news releases. Publishers Weekly sends me news of new titles to come. And the to of magazines and journals, with their review sections, and my frequent visits to the web pages of Washington Post Book World and the home delivery of The New York Times give me ongoing hints of the mugging and hold-up and outrage awaiting as I go about naive, unsuspicious in spite of the suspicion I have when hefting new books at a book store.
I believe I have worked my way past the point where I think it possible that a single book will transform me to the point where it causes me to be a better writer, editor, teacher, thinker. Alas, I have to learn to do all those things by myself. There is nothing for it but to risk the dangers that await from the challenge.
I can see the incident in a University Incident Report: Victim was approached by book that demanded he turn over attitudes and other properties. When victim refused, book dropped on his toe, inflicting pain.
It is never a good time to be mugged nor to play it safe with books. For that matter, it is never a good time to play it safe with writing, editing, or teaching, much less thinking. The risk of not being vulnerable is that your defenses will keep out any thought that has a chance of helping transform you from what you are now to what you wish to be then, in the future, which is to say that time after you have read and coped with something that was by all accounts a threat to you.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
There is a line of boundary beyond which a character will not go; it is up to us as writers to discover this line, then use our wits and whiles to push the character over that line, at which point we may safely begin to think we have set story in motion. We all have boundaries and it is up to the writer to recognize how this fact applies to writers as well. But to be truly effective, the writer, at least on the page, must give up boundaries. Neither writers or actors can avoid characters who seem unpleasant.
There is a pattern of familiarity within which a character lives, fantasying an unfamiliar or taboo variation of pattern. It is up to us to understand the character to the point where we understand what that variation is and, if possible, what it means to the character. Once we understand this aspect, our character is up and running. If we follow closely, we may even see how that fantasy becomes a pole star, a stella maris which informs that character's navigation. At all costs, we must respect that fantasy, neither patronize the character for having it nor look down upon that character, mindful of "You! hypocrite lecteur! --mon semblance, --mon frere!"
Boundaries and surprises become key elements to constructing a narrative that goes beyond fable or teaching device, entering the realm of true cultural examination--the story. The surprise should seem plausible and yet come like the snap of a wet towel in a locker room, playful but with a teasing sting.
And of course the writer needs to be surprised before the reader can be. In fact, if the writer isn't surprised, how can the reader be? This is no formulaic contrivance.
Stay off the main, well-traveled highways. Ask unlikely persons for directions.
Friday, May 9, 2008
Fresh from a constructive argument with archaeologist-writer Brian Fagan over a nuance of wording in his new work in progress about our brothers and sisters, the Cro-Magnons, I am directed to make my way along the unmarked highway called Change, a highway rife with switchbacks, cut-offs, dips, knobs, and harrowing escarpments. There are few if any markers or warnings about the distance to the next services, nor are there any Burma-Shave signs to lighten the burden of travel.
The point I was arguing with Fagan was that his new text should not refer to Hunters and Gatherers; rather these stalwarts should be called Foragers because in essence that's what they did. The foraging life, while by no means an easy one, is largely what most of us do now. There are, to be sure, some coupon clippers in our midst, some politicians with campaign war chests, some so-called developers who convert unusable land or farm land into housing tracts and malls. Mostly we still forage.
One of the more challenging choices to face the early Foragers was the decision to stay put, tend to the plants and seeds, keep an eye on the herds, cut back on ambitious travel plans. Once the Foragers gave over to Agriculture, they were screwed.
Another similar fork in the road came when someone figured out you could do more with, say, horses than eat them, use them for drayage or plowing: you could ride them. Riding a horse led to being able to herd more animals than you could on foot with a dog or two. Riding a horse led to a class distinction between those who had horses and those who walked. Chivalry was a code of behavior derived from those who owed and rode horses. Indeed, cavalier spoke of a more affluent and trouble free life of the propertied as opposed to--shades of Marxism--those who worked.
Writers are essentially Foragers, tracking through the traits of humanity for subject matter, finding history a fascinating enough preoccupation, pouncing on the stray tidbit of sex, religion, and politics for a feast, romping through the suction and pull of class distinction and behavior. The leisure of the theoried class, as it were. There are those of us who have settled into the literary equivalent of agriculture, which is to say the commerce of television and the made-to-order celebrity biography. I can recall a time when, working as a California-based editor, it was my job to canvass those "agriculturalists" in search of any stray literary project they may be essaying. On a number of occasions, I'd found a project worth pursuing and, following protocol, was given the go-ahead to initiate a contract, only to be told that the paltry $50,000 advance I could offer was not enough to maintain rent or lease payments on house and car, much less tuition for private schools. Come back with a realistic offer, man. Alas, that was about as reasonable as I could get. These agriculturalists, eager to return to the foraging ways of the book writer, were tied to their rented earth and could not escape.
In a sense the writer does resort to a non-subsidized form of agriculture, the crop being change, a record of what happens as a culture collides with change, who the victims are and who emerge as victors. It is invariably an unexpected collision, the bug against the windshield. We watch it as it affects our life, our goals, our attitudes; we watch it as it seals off previously accessible escape routes, reverses fortunes, backhands us with a swipe of our own attitude. In the process of collision, writers and agriculturalists have forged a strange kind of relationship that nearly defies understanding, each of us set in ways that seem unvaried since pen was first set to parchment or harrow blade to earth. Each of us is romanticized beyond belief, patronized, condescended to. Each of us is occasionally given a subsidy, perhaps even listened to, but the pressures for change in both areas is overwhelming. Our best hope is to do the work and hope to which ever fetish, god, or relevant force to which we attach some degree of fealty, hope for an abundant crop.
Thursday, May 8, 2008
For most of my early years, I grew up thinking redemption referred to a transaction in which you were given money at markets when you returned bottles. Some of my early forays into the economics of acquiring beyond the parameters of my allowance the essentials--books and licorice cigarettes--of life involved collecting neighborhood bottles which I then delivered with entrepreneurial eclat to Weiner's Market at Sixth and Fairfax, there to receive the five- ad ten-cent pieces necessary to fulfill my longings. It also fell to my lot to discover another form of redemption: Earl, of Earl's Cleaners (Let Us Do Your Laundry) was good for one cent for every two unbent wire coat hangers I could provide.
In the culture into which I was born, there was no question of my being the agent of redemption; an older brother who died in infancy took care of that, obviating the need for pidyon HaBen, a ritual in which I'd theoretically have to be redeemed from an agent of the temple, a Kohen or Cohen, to allow me a life not in service of The Temple. No question because we were at least a generation away from orthodoxy.
I don't know how many generations I am away from redemption; I do know that the subject or concept did not again occur to me until I was seventeen, pursuing a study of journalism at Los Angeles City College, beginning to think myself unsuited for that craft because of its dogged insistence on established fact as opposed to my established imagination. The pull of literature and the English Department at UCLA had already begun to exert a pull when, in anticipation of that pull, I met another watershed influence, the son of variously a glove maker and wine merchant, fellow name Geoffrey Chaucer. In The Prioress' Tale was reference to a prayer, O Alma Redemptoris Mater, popular in the England of the time and relevant to the meaning and outcome of the Chaucerian trope. From it and Chaucer, I carried away a notion of the wry narrative voice and a phrase that delights me every time I hear it, Stella Mare, Portal of the Sky, Star of the Sea. Redemption meant asking for and being granted a refund on actions of which one was not entirely pleased or which upon reflection were revealed to have been counterproductive in a moral sense.
A number of containers pass through the house now, all bearing some reminder of how much I might acquire if I were to redeem them at specific redemption spots, itself an interesting concept. In my walkabouts at the university campus, I see the interesting aspects of entrepreneurship at work with the homeless or near homeless moving efficiently from trash receptacle to trash receptacle, removing containers which will be redeemed somewhere for something.
Thus I am culturally and environmentally programmed to think of redemption as something you get for something you have done or prepaid for. I look for redemption in my relationships with people, with pages of paper on which I have written, on hard drives on which I have caused words to be stored, on books I have read, on views I have taken, on views I will take.
I spoke earlier today in a note to a friend of ghosts. Probably the most famous ghost in Western culture is the one of Hamlet's father, who had come forth bidding his son to exact revenge for having been murdered. I can understand and relate to the elder Hamlet's being pissed off; I love this cranky, notional sense of self called life and would be mightily wroth if someone were to remove me from it. The ghost of which I wrote earlier was the one I've been chasing for some time, Mr. Mark Twain, whom I have had occasion to think I saw hanging around the entrance to Piper's Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada. But perhaps it was not his ghost at all, perhaps it was mine, and I was seeking to catch up with it, pockets filled now with hard cash, trying to redeem it with today's currency.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
The arrival in the mail of three indulgences, ancient paperback mystery novels from Dell, each containing a stylized map on the back cover, brought me the unanticipated answer to a personal enigma.
A helpful clue turned out to b the fact that all three of the ancient paperbacks were by Dashiell Hammett, a writer I have outgrown but never distanced myself from entirely. I'd ordered the books from a dealer in Staten Island out of affection and nostalgia for the Dell map mystery series, a series I unsuccessfully tried to revive when I was in their employ. "We want out books to reflect the future," I was told archly "not the past."
Browsing through the Continental Op stories, I was transported back to the past in which I came across an article by Hammett appearing in a writers' guide book. The article was a series of numbered sentences, perhaps twelve or fourteen of them, in which Hammett told of his experiences as an operative or op for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. "I was once sent," he wrote, "to track down a man who had stolen a Ferris wheel." The other sentences, approximately as short and enigmatic, were not held together by the glue of any logic or story arc, appearing merely as autobiographical facts. As much as anything I had read to that point in my life, that article spoke to me, promised me insights and understandings to the psyche of writing; it offered me a codex, a key, an instant understanding of what would guide me to the discovery of my own voice, my own enigmas, my own process as a writer. Had I been informed enough at the time, I would have also factored in my belief that by means of this very piece, Hammett had foreseen postmodernism.
Somehow the magazine with the piece got away from me. For years I have looked patiently in used book stores, in collections of the works of Hammett, in Google citations, Yahoo, and ask dot com, ever more convinced that were I to find it and take it in properly, my career as a writer would flourish in ways I had never dreamed.
Segue to approximately February of this year when Liz Kuball asked me when I was going to stop numbering the paragraphs of my blog entries. Segue to last night when, at a university function in Town and Gown, a number of colleagues variously inquired if I were using a formatting feature, attaching some numerological meaning to my blog essays, speaking in some kabbalistic code, or what.
The answer is to be found in the missing Hammett piece, which all these years later has helped me in ways I didn't realize. So taken with the piece was I and so energized was I that it became a way to improvise on themes, reaffirming not only the sound of my internal voice but finding a favored medium, somewhere between a poem, a short story, and. a dramatic monologue.
In a sense, though I have yet to find the Hammett piece, I have found a form I appreciate that allows spatial and attitudinal leaps, interlardings of a wild and spontaneous whim, and a sense of adventure. It is my narrative sonnet which I will call the Hammett Sonnet in his honor. I shall run the risk of boring Liz Kuball when I resort to the format, but Ishall not stop searching for the original Hammett piece, and I shall, I suspect, continue tweaking this thing of form I have created until it surrenders and gives up the essence of a sentient and boisterous epression of writerly joy, a narrative equivalent of a fugue.