Sunday, August 31, 2008

Way to go

Genre or category fiction is looked upon by its fans and to a degree by air travelers as a necessity, by many teachers as a necessary evil, and by literary writers as "that other stuff." Never mind that some established literary writers pseudonym their way into genre fiction, writing as it were from the closet, while others still jump right in with full frontal nudity. Joyce Carol Oates comes particularly to mind in this context, but A(ntonia). S. Byatt has also broken forth; so too have Cynthia Ozick, John Updyke, John Gregory Dune, Wilfrid Sheed, John Steinbeck, to name a few.

The overwhelming choice in category is the mystery, in some small part because of the long held belief that life is a mystery, but also because the format of the mystery, whether police procedural or private investigator or the more Hitchcockian innocent man/woman whom no one will believe, caught up in the eye of a crime storm, having to prove innocence without help. Well enough; the better mystery (say Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, or Ross Macdonald's The Underground Man) are in construction a splendid template for a longform narrative, any longform narrative.

Look at the elements. A crime has been committed. Some individual or team of individuals is set forth to discover who the perpetrator(s) is (are), attempt to bring them to justice, encounter reversal, then through persistence and ingenuity solve the puzzle of the crime, effect some satisfactory resolution. In a lovely bit of irony, Aristotle, in his Poetics, described the mystery novel even before it was invented (and brought to such a timeless finish by the likes of Wilkie Collins in The Moonstone and The Woman in White, just as in hos own way, Nathaniel Hawthorne could be argued to have not only "invented" the short story but solidified its form for some time to come when his Twice Told Tales inspired Poe to write his famous review of it which in turn described what a short story should do.

A mystery novel, broken into its component parts, is a series of interviews conducted by the protagonist force. All who may have seen or had involvement in the crime are questioned, their stories matched. Via subtext, the interviewee may reveal hidden agendas or other relevant clues.

The concatenation of events in a literary novel may be reduced to the equation, Something happens and somebody changes, a clear link between it and the mystery format. Of course each narrative, literary and mystery, has interstitial materials, narrative equivalents of the musical soloist's arpeggio or riff. Were you to deconstruct any given literary novel, say Henry James's The Ambassadors, simply because it happened to pop into my mind, and compare that deconstruction with a mystery novel, say Raymond Chandler's creditable The Little Sister, you'd find a theme of a protagonist set out on a quest. In the James, a character is enlisted in a mission to travel to Europe, seek the son of the "client," and urge him to return to America to join and ultimately run the family business. In the Chandler, a private investigator is retained by a client to find a missing relative.

There are delicious layers of irony, reversal, temptation, false leads, discoveries, and moral choices in each story. In each one, the principal player becomes compromised to a larger sense of human accountability.

In addition to the mysteries mentioned, the following have helpful information for writers: Frobisher's Savage by Leonard Tourney, (a mystery set in Elizabethan England), The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes, any Inspector Wexford mystery by Ruth Rendell, Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina.

Not to forget, however, the so-called Alternate Universe novel, a splendid sub-genre of fantasy. Perhaps the most notable of all AU stories is Alice in Wonderland, wherein a young girl is "transported" to another universe through the portal of a rabbit hole. Dorothy Gale is literally transported from Kansas to Oz via the portal or funnel of a cyclone. The AU novel reminds those of us who persist in telling stories that our own vision is seen differently by others, by readers, for instance. There are parallel as well as alternating universes, occupying portions of the present reality, but having slight differences in outcome and the stakes of the game.

I will not soon forget a young woman I've watched grow up in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, series of AU novels, beginning with The Golden Compass, which has its start at a university (Oxford) and is almost like the current Oxford except for the presence of Jordan College, which does not exist in my Oxford (or yours either) but does that stop me from being caught up in the world of Lyra Belacqua? Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is yet another AU novel in which characters are sent through a portal to another world to assist in tasks where there are risks, stakes, and satisfying results. If Wrinkle is your wrinkle, you'll be pleased to know that there are satisfying sequels.

If I were to set a novel in some agreeable (in the provocative, literary sense) city, it would be an alternate universe to your city, your Los Angeles or San Francisco or Austin or Portland, allowing you to experience and re-experience your city through my vision. What fun to write a novel about Los Angeles in which none of the characters had anything to do with the entertainment industry, or of San Francisco without a mention of the corkscrew of Lombard or Coit Tower. In Austin, I might very well invent a street crossing Ed Bluestein Blvd, just above or below the intersect with MLK, a street named after, well, Lowenkopf Rd. And right next to Jake's in Portland, or perhaps next to Powell's Books, a small taco stand. And wait till you see what I'd do with Salmon Street in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood.

The mystery and the alternate universe, both better role models or paradigms to have downloaded on the hard drive of our writer memory than any formula or outline, both signposts to guide us as we look for things, clues, suspects, solutions, in the landscape of our imaginative self. Or is that selves?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Writing as muscle memory

Here's how to identify and track your own dramatic genome.

Start by compiling a list of all the elements you can think of at swim in the sea of story. Some such elements are character,scene, suspense, reversal, conflict, beginning, middle, end, dialog, narrative, tension, plot, subtext, backstory, pacing, denouement, protagonist, antagonist, rising action, point of view, humor, voice, goal,motive, detail, setting, point of narrative, beats, blocking. You, writer that you are, will surely find others or may find fault with this list, thinking some are mere repetitions of others. No matter; this is you: Will the real genome stand up. Having compiled your list and considered each element, the next step is to thoughtfully assign a numerical order to them with 1 being your first choice, your candidate. Never mind your friend's choice. Never mind your sense of importance from the author of the last book on writing you liked. This is your genome (which actually sounds like a title for a TV interview show). Number all your selections in order of your preference.

As an example of how this numbering system works, the writer of these vagrant words unhesitatingly selects voice as his candidate for the long haul, accordingly # 1. If his list of elements were limited to those in the previous paragraph, his candidate for #30 would be plot. For this writer, # 2 would be character; # 29 would be middle. He can rationalize these choices, but since he was merely listing them as example instead of arguing for their primacy and occupancy of the rat tail of the curve, he feels such rationale unnecessary.

What's your list?

After you sort it out, date it, then file it away. A year hence, take the test again. And a year after that. It is neither right nor wrong for you to change your order of things; it is right for you to evaluate and consider. If you do not change your preferences, you are not being presented with a sign that your writing vision is on a stagnation curve, nor does it imply positive change if you shift your regard for one or more traits.

This is a picture of you, with your best side turned to the camera; this is you aware of your strengths and your weaknesses. It is a hint of what to pay attention to, what to look for in your work and the work of others. This is the door opening wide on your discovery of what kind of writer you are and want to be, why certain writers appeal to you and why others do not arouse your interest.

Question: If Herman Melville had taken this survey, would he have listed "interest in whales" as one of the elements of story? Would Stephen King have added "frightening people"? Would Poe have listed ravens or Lenore?

Knowing where you stand with your tools and techniques is your way of twisting the kaleidoscope to effect the design that most interests you, one that gives you a hand in setting forth the details and elements of your story in ways that stamp it to all who read it as yours.

You began by recognizing the presence of the genome within you. Now, having taken this test and committing yourself to stop by for a yearly check-up, you have begun the process of knowing what to feed it. Make no mistake, it is hungry and wants to be fed, the better to supply you with more stories, more stories, more.

This is the equivalent of turning your awareness to muscle memory--the place where it needs to be.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Not Another Writing Book

There are over a hundred books on writing available in bookstores or through online booksellers. Some of these are written by wildly popular writers such as Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Anne Lamott, and Stephen King.

Others still have been written by noted critics and editors, ranging back to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, and Robie Macauley and George Lanning’s Technique in Fiction. In more recent years, Betsy Lerner’s writing guide, The Forest for the Trees, Michael Seidman’s Fiction: The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published and publisher/editor/novelist Sol Stein--Stein on Writing( wherein I am referenced)and Creating Memorable Characters by Linda Seger(where I am also quoted)--are but a few examples. Of these mentioned and those not mentioned, sales figures attest the overwhelming popularity of the Anne Lamott Bird by Bird.

The number of want-to-be writers increases yearly as, in fact, do the number of schools and classes to teach them how. Guides and reference books for writers have become a book trade staple. Many of these are valuable in a historical sense, in much the same spirit as Aristotle's Poetics is valuable for writers in a historical sense. But note well, while these and some of the unnamed ones are of some value (and some of some considerable value) they are all out of date.

As the wheel of time ratchets into century twenty-one, evolution is visible on any number of species, including those of story and writing. The first chapter of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) is still one of the most compelling opening chapters of all, repeat all Western literature, holding up after a century and a quarter, and Great Expectations (1860-61) still remains the quintessential first person novel (narrow eclipsing my own favorite, Huckleberry Finn,published in 1884).

Back in the day, when Charlie Block ran the Bantam Books office in Los Angeles and I ran the Dell Publishing office in Los Angeles, we often met on neutral ground, somewhat like the cops in The Wire, to gossip, exchange notes, wonder if paperback books would supplant hardcover books. Charlie had to go to a sales meeting in New York, wondering if I'd do him the favor of taking two of his classes at USC. What did I know about teaching? What do I know? Charlie said. You don't talk about teaching, you talk about editing. You talk about writing. And so I said okay, and so Irwin Blacker called me at home after the second class was done and said, cleaning up his language somewhat, They are fucking threatening to boycott the rest of the semester unless you agree to come back and finish up. What about Charlie? I asked. I'll set Charlie up with a seminar on theory. You keep telling them what you told them.

I already did, I explained. Well, you probably have more--you just haven't accessed it yet. Of course you can always assign Aspects of the Novel for your text, I suppose. Sure, I said. Of course.

You have read it, haven't you?


Well then, you'd better. I'll send you my copy, order a batch at the student store.

And thus my third encounter with books on writing, the first being Writing Magazine Fiction by Stanley Vestal, which was foisted off on me by a well meaning eleventh grade English teacher name of Herman Quick, my second being The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, which title I rejected as offered as a reprint because, having read it, "it didn't feel right," which was all my publisher needed to hear. (It was not what a subsequent department chairman needed to hear. Sometimes, when he was exasperated with me, he'd introduce me as The man who rejected Lajos Egri.)

Are writing books good for you?

Since I am in active collaboration with Digby Wolfe (head writer/originator Laugh-In, John Denver, Frank Sinatra, Jonathan Winters, etc specials, emeritus department head Dept. of Drama, Univ of New Mexico, Visiting Prof Univ of Canberra, etc and then some) I have to say yes. At least, they're good for us because we think a) some of it can be taught b) we think we know how to do it, c) we have overlapping theories on how to do it d) we've taught and worked together before, and e) we like the idea of carving our initials on this particular desk.

So what are we saying that's different?

We're saying that it comes from you, that there is a place in you whence it comes and you have to find and trust that place, allow it to speak to you and influence you, and okay, take notes when someone in your writing group or MFA seminar has notes or comments, but remember also that this is not the standard format of thesis defense before a committee, this is you, your voice, your take.

And you think you two are worth listening to?

Sure, because look where it got us, which is to say nervous, suspicious, notional, but not overly defensive. Somewhere between food stamps and resentment toward the IRS, mercifully free of jobs selling hot dogs in the COSTCO booth, our major resentments toward network and university bureaucracies, but able to carry on meaningful conversations with deans and some of our academic colleagues. Compulsive maybe, obsessive maybe, but not overly defensive.

Defensiveness being the key to it all, we are able to say in apercu, let it be. Bring it up, let it out, let it be. That's not grammar we're talking about or syntax or style, it is discovery, the thing you dig up in every character you create, the thing you dig up in yourself.

In the Appendix of our book, we're going to have a list of some of the men and women writers we admire, with descriptions of how each can be said to be in some way screwed up.

"I want my place--my own place--my true place in the world, my proper sphere, my thing to do, which Nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry--" Nathaniel Hawthorne

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Dramatic Genome

The Dramatic Genome is story hereditary information stored within the writer. It is a long, slippery moibus strip which eludes beginning writers and mature writers with characteristic movements native to each group.

The Dramatic Genome eludes beginning writers because they seek someone else's--anyone else's than their own--genome it eludes the mature writer because he/she has rejected major portions of the coded information or tried to splice hubris into the genetic sequence.

Story hereditary information differs from writer to writer, just as fingerprints do, comprising a map of experiences and attitudes, biases, intellectual allergies, and emotional scar tissue. It helps determine the kind of story the individual writes, the kinds of characters set in motion, the closeness or distance maintained with each, and a sense of what comprises beginnings, middles, and endings.

Writers who know themselves tend to have a sense of what information resides in their Dramatic Genome, but an unfortunate few who do know themselves tend to think what they have encoded is somehow not enough or lacking or not interesting, causing them to look around for the dramatic equivalent of teeth whitener. Truth is, you can't own anyone else's Dramatic Genome, you can only try to copy it, leaving readers with the choice of paying twenty-six bucks for the real thing or their imitation.

There is some strength, almost psychical in origin, that comes from deciding what your story is, then populating it with your characters and your format. Make no mistake, people will want to alter it, enhance it one way or another, leave certain things in it or remove other things from it. All this proves is that you have somehow arrested their interest, snagged their shirt or blouse on the thorn of your vision. They want to redefine your Dramatic Genome to make it less threatening to their own or to their Reader Receptors.

In their Reader Receptors, no one may comfortably make love in any way that is a threat to them nor eat meals comprised of meals that do not fit their dietary regime nor see the human condition in any way other than the condition that allows them to feel comfort.

You do not write for comfort. You may write for power or order or to set the record straight or to undo old injustices or to blow the whistle. You may write for something entirely else, which may be a threat or a yawn or of no consequence but you cannot help that, it is entirely beyond your grasp.

Have I said that your writing may be an act of anarchy? Has anyone accused you of this? A favored weapon of the anarchist was the so-called Molotov cocktail, which burned brightly, caused considerable chaos, and even more considerable concern. Your stories have the potential to be Molotov cocktails to some, but to others they will be torches lighting the way in the darkness between days and events, where human affairs are so complex and lay semi submerged in human behavior.

Some of the early homo sapiensanarchy dipped into caves, using charcoal and inks made of berries and blood and tints made from ground stones and scaly pigment. There are several theories about what these drawings mean and what they meant to those who drew them. Stories are our form of cave drawing. There are theories, theses, and studies arguing for the interpretations of these drawings and these stories, allowing their writers various forms of status, including tenure, but the men and women who have written the stories have provided the same sustenance for the writers of theses and studies as the cave artists have provided for the scientists. The fact is that the artists and writers have provided a vision of humanity and the animal kingdom that allows each of us to find the way in the dark caves and spaces of existence.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Edge is the line where two surfaces intersect, the cutting surface of a blade, a boundary. In a character, it is a penetrating, incisive quality. Characters, particularly lead characters, need an edge. Dorothy Gayle's edge was her desire to get back to Kansas. Samuel Spade, formerly of Archer and Spade, Investigations, had an edge as sharp as cynicism. Sir Galahad in the Arthurian legend had an edge of virtuous innocence. Lyra Belacqua has a number of edges, not the least of which is impudence

Whether the story is chicklit, YA, fantasy, or mystery, whether it is literature or genre, the story is driven by persons with edge, and so there should be about them a quality of edginess bordering on grittiness. In order to seem to be alive, characters of front rank, which is to say the protagonist or antagonist level, should be bigger than life, defined by a few select traits or qualities that add to the edge and which may be misinterpreted by other characters.

Primary characters, those who stand at the protagonist rank, are individuals who drive story by riding the vehicle of their desire or need. A protagonist is a character acting on a want of something or someone, then the causality of achieving the goal or working for it, exacerbated by the edge used in the acquisition and response.

Antagonists, who should appear at least as likable as the protagonists, possibly even more, should be edgy in their opposition to the goals and agendas of the protagonist. One of the many reasons why The Wire is such an important dramatic venture is because of the complexity of each character, protagonist and antagonist, the blur between them in terms of moral judgements we viewers make.

Remember when you used to fill paper sacks with huffs of breath to the point where they were fully extended. Then you twist the top, sealing in the breath. Then you sneak up behind someone, smash the bag between your hands to create a pop. Thus a comparison between the bag filled with your air, being a segment of story that has a loud sound that is a sudden surprise. This is what story should do. Each character is filled with breath that creates surprising pops.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Tale of Two Sidneys

For those who write, there are two sandboxes in which to play, and a third, alternate site reserved for those who take themselves too seriously to enjoy the play of writing. I address here the sandboxes of playfulness, which are the places in which craft of story and self gain entrance into muscle memory.

There are two basic formats for story, long and short.

The long story is a series of wrappings of event about the armature of an individual who ultimately undergoes some form of change. Something happens, somebody changes. My esteemed dramatist colleague from USC, Lee Wochner, reminds me that the three-act play has now changed to two-act. Digby Wolf, inventor of and head writer for Laugh-In, now emeritus from the theater department at UNM, bound now for a gig at the University of Canberra, says nevertheless, Nevertheless, the three-act format is a good template for the longform story. Long story is a stage play, the combined sixty episodes of The Wire, or a novel, say George Pelecanos' remarkable The Turnaround. Long story is also Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which is to say a series of novels in which a character, Lyra Belacqua, has a number of things happening to her, during the course of which she changes considerably.

The short story is a series of events, usually related in scenes, in which a character is drawn farther into a self-fulfilling encounter, one in which the reader is left to actually see or guess at the outcome. The character may or may not be able to see the outcome. The principal in Tobias Wolff's remarkable Bullet in the Brain, for instance, may not be able to see what we see. It is instructive to note how far the short story has progressed from Ambrose Bierce's Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge to the Tobias Wolff.

The literary landscape is like the Earth during the azimuth of evolution of the dinosaur when Earth was struck by a huge meteorite which obliterated for most practical purposes the evolution if not the very existence of the dinosaur. Who knows what the dinosaur might have become had that collision not got in the way? Story has an azimuth, discerned by looking at its structure from the time it began creeping into the petty pace of day-to-day events, altering them, imparting a sense of connectedness and causality which has led many of us to believe in such things as Fate or the will of the gods, or the will of God (as in His Perfect Plan, and don't blame me for that gender stuff; so far as gods go, I'm pretty happy with Kali). We seem now in 2008 to be nipping at the heels of causality much in the manner of an Australia Cattle Dog, rendering it more a vignette or in some cases a string of events, episodes if you will.

The rousing question is What do you bring to it? What have you done for story lately? To paraphrase William Wordsworth, Story is too much with us, late and soon. Which is to say the evolution of story can progress only if those of us working on it can fold into its ingredients a quality I will call inevitability. This quality is present in all evolution. biological or literary. It represents the individual writer's sense of what is most needed to give the process we call story a nudge forward regardless if I as reader or critic or teacher or writer like it or not. I'm pretty impressed by the presence and beauty of the giraffe, and it makes some sense to me that the giraffe evolved to score the leaves off the topmost branches the dinosaurs couldn't reach and that its neck acts like a siphon for water, but I have no stake in the giraffe. Were it to go extinct as a species, I would, having grown up with a sense of wonderment and admiration for the creature, feel a profound regret, but not the ache of grief at the loss of more personalized things. Truth to tell, my fondness for the short story comes from years of painful practice at the so-called pulp and slick and commercial story enhanced by the realization that what I considered a story outside those confines was something a respected editor agreed with and subsequently took on. I have a visual image of hat I want a short story to be. Every time I open a closet door, that image occurs to me.

True enough, if I deconstruct that series of events many persons agree upon as being story, and do so in terms of my vision, I will find a number of elements that go back to Aristotle's Poetics. I also have come to hold similar views on what a person, a single individual among the many billions who have walked and are still abroad on the Earth, represents as an individual. I also believe that the two are the Scylla and Charybdis of storytelling, my goal being to put events between those two poles

Monday, August 25, 2008

Funny You Say That: Irony in America

Irony is the stage manager in most human drama. It is the genome of crossed purposes, misinterpretation, and expressions of feelings other than those actually felt. It is someone saying, I'm doing all right but conveying that the individual is doing anything but all right.

In its way irony in literature and drama means a conspiracy between the reader and the writer, directed against one or more characters.

Yossarian, the main dramatic focus in Joe Heller's remarkable Catch-22, discovers early on the irony of the system against him, by which men in the armed forces are kept in combat because, having served the requisite combat time, they want to go home, which is a sign of sanity, which means they are fit for more combat.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen begins with the ironic, "It is a truth universally recognized that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in search of a wife." Righe, except it is no such thing; a wealthy young man is looking--well. let's say he's looking, but not necessarily for a wife.

It is considered irony when two persons believe they understand each other but in fact do not, leading to the drama of discovery. It is definitely irony when a person says something which will be interpreted by its opposite degree, thus I couldn't agree with you more becomes, You've got to be kidding!

One of the many great exercises actors use as a part of their training is to express emotion about something without mentioning the something by name, thus a character in a shaky romantic relationship might go on at some length about how poorly constructed new cars are, how they don't hold together the way they used to, how tenuous everything is.

If controlled, used carefully without too much piling on of effect, irony is a perfect tool for social commentary. I hate to tell you this, properly used becomes I couldn't wait to be the first to give you this lousy news, You could have fooled me becomes I knew it all the time. Of course I knew it all the time could easily become You could have fooled me.

When irony is not used with restraint, when it is overdone, it becomes sarcasm, which by all accounts is the most difficult emotional tone to convey, which should serve as a warning not to overdo irony.

Funny you should say that.

Irony is often spoken of as a capstone of American writing, but this can be an understatement (which in itself is a form of irony) and thus irony is a major essential of dramatic writing, reaching out to hold hands with ambiguity, which is simply not telling or explaining too much (so that irony, like quantum physics, can get to work on your story).

Funny you should say that, too.

So then, is irony funny?

Depends on who's point of view you're taking.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

What's Your Story?

Back in the day, when the concept of story lurched from the primordial ooze of conversation and pulpit-driven homilies, inching its way toward entertainment and provocation of thought and in the bargain developing the ability to conceptualize, the medium of transfer was the spoken word, delivered in a chant or intonation, a mellifluous recitation, or the multi-voiced presentation of an ensemble of speakers.

By the time story had reached such sophistication as serial publication, magazines, books, iPod and computer screens, books on tape and, more recently, CDs, it had undergone its own Darwinian progression from tale of caution, such as, say, Pamela or Robinson Crusoe, each with a built-in message to an eager audience, to the Pre-Obama message of Yes, We Can as evidenced by the Horatio Alger novels, and, as such things go, back to the present. Now, at present, we are looking at stories more than a little cautionary in nature, taking us on journeys through some noir landscape, where it is not always possible to lead the life of moral compass we wish, thanks to the distractions about us of fear, social pressures, needs, and demagoguery.

Through it all, story has remained a series of elements, DNA if you will, that are arranged according to the time and place of telling. Memorable stories--the kind all of us as writers wish to tell--have in common a protagonist with whom we establish some sort of bond, whether that protagonist is Rebecca Rowena Randall, sent to Maine to live with her two stern aunts, or perhaps with the more contemporary fifty-years from Rebecca Rowena inner conflicts of Holden Caulfield, who tells us of his ouster from Pencey Prep School and his downward spiral to fragmentation as he attempts to emerge unscathed from adolescence.

Two vital elements, a principal character and a quest. Establish these in all sincerity (which is to say in a manner you, hypocrite lecteur, mom semblance, mom frere, believe), and you are on your way, discovering as you write the true destination or what the story is about.

Digby Wolfe speaks of the destination in Hamlet:

"Imagine a TV Guide synopsis of “Hamlet”: “Gloomy Dane pursues his father’s assassin.” It sounds stupid but it’s important that you basically know the shape of the story you’re going to tell, or at least have a rough idea of its beginning, middle and end. Hold these points loosely but firmly in your mind—allowing room for surprise, for yourself as well as the audience. You may alter your original devices many times along the way, and inspire ideas that were hitherto no more than shadows on your unconscious mind--but a sense of direction that isn’t completely prefigured can be very useful. It may keep you from getting lost. It also forces you to look at the story as a deliberate sequence of dramatic events--not just an uneventful state of being. Not one damn thing after another, but one damn thing because of another. Remember, this is drama, not just a group of people sitting around chatting about the price of corn futures. Something happens, and it has to happen dramatically in order to change the characters’ lives and keep the audience in a state of excited anticipation."

One damn thing because of another! Enter the stealthy pickpocket of causality. Things happen in stories not merely because they are supposed to but because they have been provoked. Bobby DuPre, the iconic Jack Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces, sweeps the dishes and condiments from the diner table because he has been provoked to the point of combustion, not so much by the waitress as by what the waitress represents. The eponymous protagonist of Hamlet seeks revenge because he has been bidden to do so by his father's ghost, a powerful enough incentive to rouse him into action of such intensity that he is pushed beyond the point of no return.

Wolfe has done a nice deconstruction on Hamlet; if you're sufficiently interested, I'll get his permission to post it. In substantial agreement with him on this rush of causality, I call your attention to an earlier drama, perhaps a bit more otherworldly, but nonetheless relevant, particularly in light of a joint venture in progress with Wolfe. I speak of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. No matter which version you choose, the Mallory, or the excellent modern translation/renditions, the stakes are the same. Gawain is goaded into accepting a challenge from a mysterious knight clad in green. The challenge: They will exchange blows. Gawain goes first. The Green Knight is to be given his chance a year and a day later. On his first shot, Gawain lops off the Green Knight's head. Not bad, the Green Knight says, scooping up his head, tucking it under his arm (You should hear Wolfe sing "With his 'ead tucked underneath 'is arm")reminds Gawain of their meeting a year and a day hence, then goes off to his horse, er, 'orse, mounts up, and rides off. Which brings up the next question. After causality, we ask What's at stake?

Gawain has a year and a day to understand what's at stake. With him, we understand that he is almost certain to meet death at the hands of the Green Knight. But first. Ah, talk about the Labors of Hercules. First, Gawain must endure the considerable offerings of the wife of his host at a wayside inn. Dare I call it Knight's Rest?

Where you begin your story, where and how you end it are your call to the point that where you start, where and how you end will contribute mightily to the next piece in this puzzle: How to make it your own.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Imitation is the sincerest form of fluttery

You read that correctly; to imitate is to flutter or, worse, hover, fearful of straying too far from the object being imitated, whether it is a design, a sculpting, an acting performance, or the text and style of an author.

In the beginning, many of us imitate because we are led into our vision by the performance of an actor, the vision of a painter, the posture of a dancer, the imagery of a poet, the style and voice of a writer. As we do so, our work is gradually suffused by another presence, hears another voice, sees a different vision, one perhaps even directly at odds with what was originally imitated.

That presence, that vision, that emerging sound is the you within, awakening, stretching, shaking off the fleas, stepping out for love. Indeed, love of some sort becomes the motivating force in the well articulated painter or dancer or sculptor or potter or yes, even writer. Keep at it for any length of time and invariably someone following along in your wake will begin to imitate you.

Impossible, you say. Who would want to imitate me? No one, so long as you are imitating someone else. As the cost of hardcover books scoots over twenty-five dollars and the massmarket paperback over eight dollars, a simple matter of economics seeps into the mix; why would someone pay twenty-six dollars for a copy of you imitating a Stephen King or a Margaret Atwood or a Michael Chabon or Alice Munro when for the same money they can get the real thing. Why would you want to sound like someone who was always recognized as sounding like someone else or even, for that matter, being derivative of someone else?

How, you ask, do I sound like myself?

You begin by keeping some form of list or blog archive or journal of things you care about. You are not embarrassed by what you care about, nervous that it is not high minded enough or cogent or, dare I say it, important enough?

Go ahead, you can say it.

Okay, you asked. It's about you deciding what's important to you, whether such importance is social justice, moral choice, or zits on your chin. It is about what you love, hate, want beyond reason, fear, dread, resent, can't get enough of, can't wait to be rid of. It is about the someone else you want to be and the someone else you are glad not to be.

It is about such as John Cleese telling fellow Brit Digby Wolfe how psychotherapy has helped him come to terms with his anger, then apologizing because this means he isn't funny any more.

It is about you being lost, then asking yourself for directions.

One of the questions you will as a writer have to answer for literary agents and editors before a book project of yours has any chance of being encouraged is: Why are you the one to write this book? By which question it is meant, what do you bring to the project? This question presupposes another question, the answer to which you had better come to terms with: Who are you? This is not meant in a condescending sense but rather in quest of a sense of the voice the reader can expect, the salient attitude and narrative presence.

The only wrong answers are the fluttery, ambiguous ones. The right answers, the ones coming directly from your visceral centers, are the ones for you to heed.

In the Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound gives us a clue to the matter:

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee

Henceforth, when someone asks you, Who are you to say such things? Your answer could easily be, I am a lover, a hater, a collector, a conflator; I see things differently, connect things in different ways. I am funny, angry, dismissive, emphatic, contentious. I put ketchup on eggs.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Writers of the Purple Prose

Back in the day, when there was no Slate or Salon or Vanity Fair or New Yorker, there were their traveling equivalents, the troubadours. With a guitar or lute or mandolin, they strode about the countryside, the combined equivalent of Saturday Night Live, Bill Mahr, Steven Colbert, and Jay Leno, with perhaps a touch of Tony Bennett thrown in, and in some noticeable cases, more than a little Billy Collins.

Through the words and tropes of the troubadours, fifth- and sixth-century English audience got word of the exploits of that kid, you know which kid, Arthur the one who withdrew the sword from the stone. Story goes that Arthur was merely extracting the sword for his brother, who was too busy learning things to do on and from a horse. Story continues that the brother couldn't have extracted the sword from the stone because--well, because he wasn't entitled to. Only Arthur could do it because Arthur was the proper king, the true king of England.

Closer to our time, the written and printed words were on their way to replace the troubadour as the major means of educational information, propaganda, and entertainment. Arthur already had a number of written accounts set in motion among them by Mallory and later by Tennyson.

Nearer still to our time was the appearance of the quintessential novel of the American West, The Virginian, followed in quick succession by the second quintessential novel of the American West, Riders of the Purple Sage. Often referred to in satire as Riders of the Purple Prose, this second Western had a variation on the theme of the first, an epic encounter between two clashing cultures. In The Virginian, the clash was between the rancher and the farmer; in the latter novel it was between the Mormon and the non-Mormon, the Gentile. The stakes in each were humanized and obvious. In the same year as Riders appeared, another archetypal figure appeared, undergoing the same ritual of passage in his territory that the eponymous protagonist ot The Virginian experienced, the same type ordeal as Lassiter in The Riders of the Purple Sage experienced, and the same status-affirming battle over his territory that Tarzan experienced.

How can these diverse figures be logically poured into the same mould? Arthur, The Virginian, Lassiter, and Tarzan are all symbols of the seemingly taciturn man of the land, the individual who is not only able to but is willing to mete out the law, the moral law of the land he occupies. It is this certainty of the moral high ground that imparts dignity and stature to all of them, that makes them the archetypal leader of a particular sort. Each is in his own way a Libertarian writ large. There are other elements to add to this equation, properly supplied by surrounding legends. Amusing as it may be to think of Robin Hood in Marxist terms, or for that matter Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, each is enhanced by a larger heart for the working class, for his fellow man in general. He may be of noble birth but his heart is big enough to empathize with the common man. All he needs now is the love and companionship of A Good Woman. We get some lovely possibilities for revisionist history and archetypes when we consider the amusing potential of Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, drawn to the Mediterranean sensuality and good looks of Rebbecca, deciding to fulfill his life with her as a companion instead of his choice, the Lady Rowena. Imagine a scene in which the rabbi refuses to marry Sir Wilfrid and Rebbecca because he is a Gentile. That is not, of course, how the story went; it went that although Rebbecca ad Ivanhoe were attracted to one another, such things were not accepted much less done at that time.

We have come some distance from the mythic Arthur through the creation of The Virginian by Owen Wister, not long out of Harvard University, where he had previously written of another archetype, the college boy/man in a work called Philosophy 4. Nor are we far from the creation of a Los Angeles dentist, Zane Gray who, tired of looking at cavities, brought us the wandering gunman, Lassiter. And so it goes through the panoply of the evolving West until it became the iconic Wild West, and we see the evolution of John Wayne evolving from his role as Billy the Kid in the film Stagecoach (which was ripped off from a short story by Guy De Maupassant) to his more relentless Libertarian self, Ethan in The Searchers, setting off to find and retrieve his niece who had been carted off by, ugh, Indians.

Much has been made of the iconographic art on the walls of caves, extolling the virtues of animals and perhaps recording hunting deeds. Our caves are the pages of popular literature and film, from which our archetypes emerge into the bustle of a civilization that doesn't always know how to behave.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

ISO a Believable Character, Must Like Beach Walks

What is the first thing you notice about a person you are seeing for the first time?

What one thing about a character's first appearance in a novel or short story stays with you the longest?

What is the thing you most remember about a person you have just met?

Which thing about a character do you remember most vividly after being away from the story or novel for some time?

The answers to these four questions are of course varied from person to person, from reader to reader; indeed, the answers to these questions will vary from gender to gender, from age group to age group, but I believe we should all of us who presume to tell stories take these questions into consideration on some kind of personalized classification scale for use in our storytelling work so that we don't have to stop the story for a long paragraph or two or perhaps even three of description and background. In his somewhat overblown novel, The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy has introduced one of his more prominent characters (of this novel and nearly all of his others) with a seven-page (count 'em) of Eustacia Vye, excessive by any account, but particularly in comparison with the introductory material accompanying the work of his contemporaries or near contemporaries. (Just for the sake of placement, Hardy is an excellent bridge in both theme and narrative between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Theodore Dreiser,1871--1945, who was alive and working during much of Hardy's life, 1840-1928, is in some remarkable ways an American version of Dreiser's fictional output. Both men were lavish with descriptive character flourish, both had what has come to be regarded as a rather plodding sense of narrative. Or if you prefer, William Dean Howells--1837--1920--who of the three was more stylistically agreeable.)

Back in the day, you could better get away with descriptive introduction of a person, although there were those--Flaubert, his disciple De Maupassant, Chekhov, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, to name a few--who were on the cutting edge of setting a new person into a narrative as though that person were a spring-driven toy, wound tightly and set off with some form of definitive action, which is to say what F. Scott Fitzgerald said in The Last Tycoon, "Action is character," by he meant that what a person does defines the person better than a mere physical description.

Today it is more likely that a character will be introduced in answer to one or more of the questions above, performing some defining action beyond mere thinking, employing such verbs as running, waiting, hiding, feeling lust or some other form of desire, responding directly to the call of some agenda in manner that will reappear later in the narrative in even more forceful demonstration.

Unless some other trait or quality trumps, I first notice the gender of a new arrival on the scene, followed by his or her place in the complex hierarchy of sexual viability, even to the point of having the introduction include "an atmosphere of sexuality surprisingly dominant in a [man/woman] of that age." It is not that I would not want to present younger readers with this information, indeed, if I thought it would interest them, I'd let it stand, which is to say that I'd think about it, underline it for reconsideration in subsequent revision, and whether I used it in the text or not, would allow it consciously to influence my sense of how that character will behave while on stage.

Actors trained in the Stanislavsky or Stanislavsky-related disciplines make these sorts of evaluations all the time in their attempts to portray a character; accordingly, they play a particular scene from the genital area, from the visceral area, or from the thoughtful/intellectual area. I've seen actors in workshop exercises literally shift the persona they project from either of these three areas, often without a word, merely with a look, a gesture, an expression, or a combination.

Remember also, an individual who is running from law enforcement agencies is looking at every stranger who appears in the doorway as a potential cop, characters with gay sexual orientation are looking at every stranger with "gaydar" to determine their orientation. Some individuals are looking to discern clues of social class.

They are all looking for something.

So, of course, are we.

Clues. Give-away gestures. The panache of presence or stature or...

Back to you and America's best political reporting team, Wolf.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


There are times when trying to get words out is like trying to shake ketchup out of the bottle in a truck stop restaurant. Words and ketchup have each congealed, requiring the firm hand of discipline, applied according to Newton's First Law of Motion, in a place where it will do the most good.

There are times when words and ketchup, having been set in motion, spill forth with an audible glop, sending more of each in a cascade toward the intended target.

There are times when the right amount of each commodity come forth in seemingly smooth flow, but these times are rare, at least with me, lingering not so much as goals or even memories but rather as abstracts, ideals to be sought after as the Holy Grail was sought after, as the Maltese falcon was sought after, as the philosopher's stone was dreamed of.

Much of the time there are no words or insufficient words, words ringing with insincerity or the metallic tang of ignorance, just as there are places where ketchup is not looked upon with favor, where the very mention of it is enough to produce wrinkles of facial disapproval or, worse, wrinkles of brows, suggesting ketchup is declasse.

Not to forget the times where there are too many words, carrying their meaning and even their intent on a metaphoric journey demonstrated in fact by the appearance of too much ketchup on a steak or side of fries. Any amount of ketchup on eggs is an entirely more serious transgression in the eyes of many.

Some of us go through the warp and woof of our days, trying to keep the orderly movement of words and ketchup in some balance, some enough-but-not-too-much formula. The serious study of words is a help, keeping a tendency toward too many or too few in a healthy presence. Thanks to fast-food and convenience-food restaurants, small amounts of ketchup are stored in foil or plastic packets.

How many words are enough? How much ketchup on, say, an order of French fries is enough? How many words are required to cause the eyes of the listener to glaze over, a sure sign of surfeit? How much ketchup is enough to dress French fries or serve as an adjunct to a steak?

Words in proper combination and with proper delivery can selectively attract, repel, anger, embarrass, explain, entertain, inspire. Ketchup can season, splatter, stain, make gurgling noises.; even worse, ketchup can disgust. A washed-out ketchup bottle can serve as an emergency bud vase. Washed-out words don't help much with anything.

We can come to terms with words, eventually, but there are those who will never come to terms with ketchup.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Third Deadline

There are two kinds of deadlines, those you set for yourself, and those set for you.

The ones you set for yourself often have some specific time and goal set about in the literary equivalent of a linear accelerator, whirling them into a spin that will end in collision.

There are numerous age-related deadlines as in an income of X dollars by age Y; being published in any form by A age, in book form by B age. That sort of thing. I had one age related deadline I'd set for myself: Being paid to return to New York for something related to publishing. Missed by just under a year, which was acceptable.

The goals set for you involve your need to have something ready for delivery on or before a specified date. An inveterate procrastinator on such deadlines, I have vivid and varied memories of such deadlines. The one I have for tomorrow was amazingly met less than half an hour ago, leaving me with a mixture of uncertainty and a slight tinge of regret. Meeting deadlines as a result of super-adrenal, coffee-driven intensity seems so a part of the process that I am still evaluating the sense of calm. Perhaps it isn't such a bad way after all, being ahead of the deadline.

Of course there is a third kind of deadline. Were I not to mention it, one of you would There is the time-bomb (bombs) deadline life has set for you, the ultimate being the one in which Life has the last word because it is for you The deadline, the delivery date for your Life. In October of 2003, Alex Koper, M.D. delivered a deadline, the result of which was an appearance by you on December 8 of that year. This deadline required nothing written from you, simply an acknowledgment that a portion of your body was forfeit for a greater good. Seemed like a good bargain at the time. As time progressed, the bargain continued to increase in value to the point where you rarely think about the consequences of not having met the deadline, rarely dwell on the point of collision between you and the cancer cells or, indeed, the so-called floater cells that might have been circulating their own deadlines within your landscape.

There are any number of these third deadlines burbling along in your slipstream, deadlines brought on by the aging process, deadlines brought along by your sense of the way the world and the universe are unfolding about you. It is definitely your plan now to regard these third-type deadlines as you have so frequently regarded first- and second- stage deadlines, with a last minute tantivy, a stay-up-all-night, blaze-it-through approach bordering on but not lapsing into arrogance, because where deadlines are concerned and most other things, you are not arrogant but instead impudent.

Impudence is your equivalent of a tartan plaid, it and enthusiasm take you to these meetings with Fate that you set or others set for you. From all the available tools in all the available catalogs of useful, those seem best to fit such basic Swiss Army devices as curiosity and love.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Tyrrany of Lists

There are lists of Things to Do, which are perhaps the biggest tyrants of all because they separate us from Things We Want to Do, reminding us of obligations, resource management, convenience. Such lists of chores or errands is a constant reminder of the R-word, responsibility. Looking about us, we see chums and acquaintances whom we know to be more responsible because they seem so orderly, accomplished, disciplined. They are constant reproofs to our own lack of organized Things; it is their good nature that makes their accomplishments seem so worthwhile. Having such chums may one day lead us into Lists of Things to Do that will actually be implemented.

There are lists of Books to Be Read, requested by Deans and Department Chairs, suggesting a kind of high-water mark of literacy an incoming graduate student should have. I have seen such reading lists computerized or otherwise ranked (usually by some enterprising graduate student) into a consensus list of books the entire faculty thinks incoming students should have read. I was met with stony silence at one faculty meeting when I suggested a list of books incoming students thought the faculty should have read. I am like that I often get my best ideas from students, even ones I have invented.

As such things go, my favorite lists are of favored things, whether books, meals, types of wine or relative hop content of ale. Lists of friends, favorite people, favorite music these all have some extraordinary broadening effect instead of an exclusionary, limiting effect. It would be terrible to have to evolve a list so exclusionary that I could not have, say, Bill Evans, Wanda Landowska, Barry Harris, Bud Powell, Marian McPartland, Sviataslov Richter as favored pianists.

As of last night, my favorite point of view was second person, but my real favorite is balanced on a fulcrum with multiple on one side and whoever I'm reading and enjoying at the moment is using.

I am thinking about this business of lists in some measure because an editor wants me to start thinking about my top ten nonfiction and fiction books for 2008. This is not, I told him, something I would ordinarily do. His rejoinder: Nor would I ordinarily budget a check for you, but this seemed like a time to do something out of the ordinary.

With some regularity, I ask students in one particular class to make a list of as many elements as they can that they think comprise DNA traits of narrative writing. Character. Suspense. Surprise. Reversal. Dialog. Stuff like that. Then I ask them to assign a hierarchical order to the list, ranking their choice for most important as number one. To get them started, I cop out to considering plot at the foot of the list. Such a list has some demonstrable good; it calls to the individual's attention what his or her strengths and quirks are.

A list should have some good as its goal, even if it is to remind you to do something you were putting off or avoiding all together.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Second Person

Early, significantly early in your quest for skill and competence in the writing craft, you were struck by a comment made by a middle school teacher to the effect that use of the second person--the you point of view--was almost instinctive in verbal American English usage but was unwieldy and frowned upon in written format. Of all the middle school teachers you did not like, you did like this particular teacher. Your reaction and response to her statement was not accordingly a gesture of defiance or protest or a combination of the two but rather an experiment to see if there was merit in her observation. 

 The teacher's remarks were prologue to the terms and conditions of a writing assignment due the next day, an assignment of a five-hundred-word essay written in either first or third person. Your submission was in the second person. To demonstrate to this one of your middle school teachers that you did like, you also turned in a five-hundred word essay written in first person, a demonstration on your part that you could follow orders, could even do so in a non-contentious manner. 

 Well of course she loved the second person essay, was only mildly approving of the first person venture, and made a point of talking about taking risks. As a result, the second person point of view stayed with you, much like the two Chesterfield cigarettes you carried about in an empty Sucrets tin, taboo items kept close at hand for the right moment, as tools in a tool kit.

From time to time, you used the second person in what were otherwise third person narratives, pulp novels for the old Nick Carter series, or some of the other commercial ventures in which third person and multiple point of view approaches led the narrative way. It was not until you'd moved to Santa Barbara and drew a book by John Sanford for review that you became so happily caught up with second person as having potential for sustained narrative. 

 When you were ceremoniously invited to the stone carriage house on upper Buena Vista Road for strong muddy coffee and slabs of Sara Lee yellow cake served by JS, you were allowed to see his own pleasure in the second person. Indeed, the very book you'd reviewed was autobiographical, a fact that allowed you to see how second person might, if allowed to run unchecked, speak to the notion of the writer being too involved with self to take anything else into consideration. "It [second person] is not a distancing technique," he said. "Using it allows you to step into the world about you and capture meaningful parts of it to share with the reader. Listen," he said, "do you keep a journal?"

"Sure," you said.

"Then try this. Try one entry in second person. Then we'll talk some more."

You did.

Over the next round of coffee, considerably less murky because it had been brewed by Maggie Roberts, his screen writer wife, you confessed to admiring the second person but being led by it to write your journal entries in third person.

"Not bad, kiddo," JS said. "That serves the same purpose--writing about you as though someone else were doing the writing. I could see that working." Some of his previous and subsequent works were lapidary amalgams of second and third person, making you feel closer to them as you read them, in a comparative way, the way you felt when seeing your first play performed circular staged after a history of watching conventionally staged plays.

One of the more remarkable, sustained works of fiction rendered in second person is Jay Macinerney's Bright Lights, Big City, which opens thusly:

"You are not the type of guy who would be at a place like this at this
time in the morning. But here you are and you cannot say that the terrain
is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a
nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either
Heartbreak or Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip
into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then
again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack
of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already
turned on the imperceptible pivot where two a.m. changes to six a.m. You
know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to
concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous
damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there,
you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet
trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush."

Italo Calvino's remarkable If on a Winter's Night a Traveler uses the second person to introduce a convention-shattering sense of relationship between the author and reader, indeed between the reader and the reader's self:

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a
winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.
Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the tv is always on in
the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!”
Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise. “I’m reading. I don’t
want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket;
speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if
you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up
or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy
chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the
hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the
bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position.
With the book upside down, naturally.

"Of course the ideal position for reading is something you can never
find. In the old days, they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People
were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested
like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of
reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the
book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear
with a special harness, seems attractive…"

Nor should we forget the mind-boggling icon from our own past (note how easy it was to slip into the we point of view):

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump on
the back of his head behind Christopher Robin. It is as far as he knows the
only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is
another way if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.
And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the
bottom and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie the Pooh.
When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, “But
I thought he was a boy?”
“So did I,” said Christopher Robin.
“Then you can’t call him Winnie?”
“I don’t.”
“But you said—“
“He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ther means?”
“Ah, yes; now I do,” I said quickly, and I hope you do, too, because it
is all the explanation you’re going to get.

You already know about Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins and so you don't have to quote from that, tempting as it might be.

J.S. Bach wrote a treatise (in third person, by the way) discussing the emotional impact transmitted to a particular musical composition as a result of the key in which it was written. Inspired by that, you have thought long and seriously, briefly and humorously about the person in which a story or novel or essay or biography or even a recipe is written. 

 Although you have never met the man James Wood, it is as though you had, having read through his recent How Fiction Works. Said book would better be titled How Fiction Works for Me. It is as though Norman Mailer had approached fiction instead of himself (see Advertisements for Myself). You are particularly tuned to Woods as you write this because among other things, Woods believes the I or first person narrator is the most reliable of all which has prompted you to believe that Ishmael would have been just as trustworthy and believable in the third person. You of course never knew Melville, but you feel safe in assuming he was sold entirely on the first person because of the first sentence. When you get a gift such as that, you take it and run.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Will the Real Self Please Stand Up

A quote from an essay by E.B. White found its way into my memory, where it describes some eccentric orbit, recurring from time to time, leaving me to wonder what it means this time around, and in what ways it has taken on meaning to me this time. "Whoever sets pen to paper," White wrote, "writes of himself, whether knowingly or not."

When I first came upon the quote, I seized upon it because it meant to me that there was no such thing as objectivity. At this time in my life I was pondering a career in journalism, thinking how shaping news stories, looking for more than one source, and questioning authority were all splendid goals, not at all incompatible with my goals for fiction writing. At the time, I favored a path of some minimalism. The quotation from White led me to wonder what it was of myself I was writing when I wrote for and cashed my paychecks from the Associated Press. Soon after, I found a fork in the road that led away from journalism, where the question began to emerge, Who or What was the Self who was writing? Good-bye journalism for sure. But, alas, hello to television, which held for me infinitely more pitfalls than journalism. The self who was writing about itself was by degrees cynical and more cynical, which brought the Self to another crossroads which I will call the Kafka crossroads because that becomes the place where the self sees all about it as conspiracy theory writ large.

You move away from the formula/expectations of most dramatic television and you have to open yourself to the vulnerability of you before you can consider the vulnerability of others. Once that opens for you, it is difficult if impossible to go backwards because you've reached the point where if you cant see it, feel it, trust it, what you set to paper emerges with all the integrity of a replica watch and what you are doing is no longer art, it is artifice.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Long Way Home

With the possible exception of the three bookshelves in your work area, the closest thing to neatness in your visible environment is the two stacks of books almost directly in back of your desk chair. One stack is for currently published or about-to-be published books. The other stack is the golden oldies, books published some time ago or at least long enough ago to be out of the current loop. These stacks are your review piles. Depending on whether this is a new or old week, you normally select a book from the appropriate pile, then have at it. Depending. On your whim, which is to say you may come across something not in either pile, as in the case of the New York Review of Books Classics series, which they send you from time to time.

Yesterday, being Thursday, was the day of the week you call The Red Line Day, by which you mean it's time to pick a title from the appropriate stack, then start reading. Since reading is a great pleasure, getting the chance to write about something you've read, then be paid for it seems so joyous as to border on the unhealthy. There are even fantasy moments where you consider the possibilities of finding several review sources.

So it is Red Line Day and you have looked at the appropriate stack, but nothing spoke to you, meaning you'll have to read with a greater and longer sense of purpose once you have made a selection. But like a kid who hates all his toys, you allow the nothing-looks-good attitude to spill over to today, where it is now eleven minutes after nine in the p.m., and as if to go in solidarity with you, Sally has returned from a significant evening walk in one of her favorite venues, sneaked out of the back yard, and is even now sulking in your car.

O! what can ail thee, knight at arms, as Keats would say, alone and palely loitering?

And the answer, clear enough, a reference to the questions, the dramatic existential questions advanced yesterday. You know them well. Whose story is it? Etc.

You were thinking because of your admiration for Philip Pullman's trilogy to set a slightly older protagonist than Lyra into a concatenation of mischief and accelerated vulnerability, a graduate student at a university in a parallel universe to the one wherein you hold forth.

But you have been fretting and stewing about there being no risk for you to find in that, and so the answer becomes clear: scrub the graduate student and put you in there, you will surely find some risky business to which you can affix yourself.

That said, Steer Toward Rock by Fae Myenne Ng is beginning to look good.

"The woman I loved wasn't in love with me," her protagonist writes, "the woman I married wasn't a wife to me. Ilin Cheung was my wife on paper. In deed, she beloged to Yi-Tung Szeto. In debt, I also belonged to him. He was my father, paper, too."

Yeah. You're off and reading (already beginning to feel the sweet tummy ache from the subtext of risky business).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

List of Ingredients

A new idea has swept you along in its wake, past the speculative state and into the stand-and-deliver state of getting some things down on paper. In the abstract, it is a lovely idea, drawing handsfull of subsidiary characters along in its wake, filled with the usual array of details that make it seem all the more real. A protagonist suggests herself, as does a subsidiary character who is present solely to represent evil incarnate,

But there is also the wall to be hit:

Who is the central character?
What is the story about?
What is the prize to be won?
What is the price to be paid?
Why should we care?
What is the Major Dramatic Question?

Without answers to these questions, there is no story, and all the flashy equipment spread about is mere distraction from story.

These questions may be evaded, avoided, worked around, but if the huge gob of doubt in the pit of the stomach is to be dealt with, they must be seen, dealt with, fit in place.

Thus there is no safety, even when the Big Six Questions are answered, well in the writer's mind, because then the challenge is to get it down in something resembling grace.

Ah, yes.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Guilt Literature

Guilt Literature is a term useful in describing books you did not read, even in the face of conventional opinion that these books were cultural landmarks. You were perhaps too busy, too rebellious, or otherwise distracted.

Guilt Literature is also a term useful in describing the books you did read, perhaps in rebellion at conventional opinion but perhaps because of a significant and addictive interest in something.

Whichever the case, the term Guilt Literature is the line of demarcation between the numerator of obligation to cultural standards and the denominator of individual pursuit of informed pleasure.

Some titles which find their way onto Cultural Landmarks Lists and which, accordingly, ought to be read, and by which reading you may be measured:

The Iliad A Tale of Two Cities Our Town
The Odyssey Moby-Dick Anna Christie
The Aeneid The Scarlet Letter The Grapes of Wrath
The Divine Comedy Huckleberry Finn Pere Goriot
The Decameron The Rise of Silas Lapham The (Kafka)Metamorphosis
The Canterbury Tales Pamela Treasure Island
The Idylls of the King Robinson Crusoe The Last of the Mohicans
The Return of the Native Main Street On Walden Pond
David Copperfield Middlemarch Clarissa
Rise and Fall of the
Roman Empire A Spoon River Anthology Uncle Tom's Cabin

Some titles which are in some degree of rancor omitted from the Cultural Landmarks List and by which reading accordingly, your status may be measured:

Classic Comics The Maltese Falcon Fahrenheit 451
Prince Valiant The Glass Key More Than Human
Smokey Stover The Jungle Book A Stranger in a Strange Land
Krazy Kat Terry and the Pirates The Little Sister
Tom Sawyer Tarzan 1984
Ivanhoe Any Sherlock Holmes Love Medicine
Martin Eden The Green Hornet Ride the Pink Horse
My Antonia Tobacco Road The 87th Precinct Mysteries
The Virginian Lad, a Dog Cat's Eye
Death in the Afternoon A Wrinkle in Time Love and Death in the American Novel

Neither of these lists is complete, which emphasises the point behind the appellation of Guilt Literature. There are over sixty titles referenced in these lists, bringing the total number of titles to over a hundred. I have read all these titles at one point or another in my vagrant life, have had a tidal relationship with many of them (particularly Middlemarch) and can safely say that the only book I can think of at the moment that I truly, irrevocably hate is The Mill on the Floss. I can also argue my belief that the books on the lower list provide as much information of cultural and imaginative (and thus survival-oriented) worth as the A-List.

Reading for pleasure is, alas, not taught in schools; only a rare group of readers chance upon that happy association. The rest are doomed to think that reading is equated with text books and that all eighteenth and nineteenth century novels have overly long descriptions of whale hunting.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

ISO a Character w/hang-ups, Prefer Willing Work Nights

Since it has long been established that plotting is not one of your strengths, it has become necessary for yo to resort to other methods to come at characters, getting a sense of the thing it is they need in order to make them not only in a story but of a story. There is a list of questions you can ask them, hopeful of insightful information from them, questions such as What is it you want? This is often asked as though you could expect a reliable answer from the individual, as though you could have any kind of luck asking a person in real life what that person wants. As though they would consider you some Studs Terkel surrogate, confessing their innermost secrets to you.

No way around it, you goal is to get something on that character, something you can and will use, opening you to the charge of exploitation. Shelly is exploiting his characters. Too true, he is. and he will exploit more if he gets the opportunity. So why then should they give him the opportunity?

This is a salient reason for his enjoyment of the crime novel and the police procedural. He identifies with the private eye particularly, because the PI has to detect, to find things about his clients and their opponents, things that can be used to construct cases.

Early in his career, when writing crossed tracks with editing and he had already experienced the benefits of having a mentor, another came his way, a mystery and crime writer he'd greatly admired, an now she was talking to him about ways to make mystery pay off even though he could not plot. You look, she told him, for the missing part of every character, she told him. For some time, he went about looking for missing parts and sure enough that caused him to realize characters were not going to give up their secrets without a struggle. Dorothy took him one step beyond, to the inner meetings of The Mystery Writers of America, where he quickly discovered that one way to get characters to tell him what they wanted was by having snitches.

At about this time, one of his oldest friends, a chum from undergraduate days, had grown tired of near misses with his writing fiction, had talked his way into work as a technical writer, spent just enough time at that to grow terminally bored, then fling himself into law school, where upon Shelly ultimately found three additional friends who'd made the discovery many lawyers make My clients lie to me.

This is all about the fiction he has to indulge in order to get his characters to let him in on what will drive the story forward. He is at this very moment interviewing a character who has presented herself to him in the most pleasant and interesting way. Atmosphere, attitude, and splendid relevant details are checking in in at the boarding gate. There are notes beginning to collect in Moleskines and on napkins and index cards. He knows she is a graduate student, he knows she has a daemon or familiar named Ed who is bi-polar ad needs his meds. He knows that the chairman of the department his graduate student is a teaching assistant for has a daemon named Captain Spaulding, who frequently affects greasepaint eyebrows. He even knows that this graduate student, he thinks her name is Nicole, has discovered that another person with her name has already published a thesis, the problem being she is living in an alternate universe. He already knows that his protagonist is way too nice, but he knows even more that there is no serious risk yet and thus no tangible plot, so here he is in a sense, doing what he has done many times in the past as a holdover from his days with The Mystery Writers of America, when he took trips to the line-up at The Parker Center in Los Angeles, even appeared in a few line-ups himself for other persons to muddle over.

He is looking for snitches, people who may reveal things about Nicole that he does not yet know. This leads to another problem. Snitches are not always reliable. Given the number of schools and institutions with writing programs, snitches would be the first to minimize the background or grittiness of a character, wanting to keep that character for their own private use.

This is what he has to go through whenever the details and intrigues of a story start to make themselves apparent to him, and what he has to do next in order to get the momentum established.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Speaking in Tongues

Thanks to our English-speaking cousins the Brits and the BBC, their version of our public radio, there is a descriptor for the English usage to be heard on BBC it is called Received Standard English. To be sure, there are variations of RSE spoken throughout the UK and into the outreaches such as Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Speakers of RSE may not understand some of the regional argot or pronunciations, but most of these outliers can understand every word spoken by users of RSE.

Although the US is considerably larger in volume, and there are numerous regional accents, Received Standard American, as spoken by NPR is not as necessary to America as Received Standard English is to the UK, although--and this is where the amusement comes in--American English conventions are reminiscent of American attitudes toward immigration. Written American has taken a number of hits from texting language, CUL8tr sorts of things. It has also been pinned to the mat where distinctions between like and as have been allowed to blur. (I am old enough to recall when Winston began to taste good like a cigarette should. In recent years, I've given up trying to get students to exercise the former distinction between the like and the as.)

English has been somewhat flexible in allowing some words--bungalow, khaki, seersucker come quickly to mind--past the border without too much of a struggle. Shortly after the Japanese occupation began, ichi ban (number one)got at least as far as California, scosch for a bit or a tad made it into Levis ads as a scosch more room in the thighs. But as millions are spent on huge walls and barriers to keep them, which is to say those of Mexican, Guatemalan, Puerto Rican, and Salvadorian descent from anything resembling a green card, the focus has been more on the side of making English the legal language of the US as opposed to a serious attempt to help immigrants and visitors to learn American English.

I am in yet another way a minority in California although I must say that every Anglo kid of my generation knew how to say Go be fruitful and multiply yourself in Spanish by the time he was ten and more to the point, my choices of Latin or Spanish were available to me as far back as the eighth grade. And oh, the joys of sophistication and urbanity: I know how to call someone a pubic hair in Spanish and I know how to inquire after an individual's grandmother in Spanish but know the consequences of merely using the words Your grandmother, as an epithet.

Everything around us is evolving; so too must language, and I am all for it. I do not wish to see barriers of maliciousness or suspicion or racism erected around it any more than I want to see the persistent rancor that accompanies immigration applied to American, whatever it may become. Some of my favorite moments involve being in the midst of a group of individuals who become so engaged in the topic of their conversation that their language shifts from English to Spanish to French with an occasional di jobu or emphatic All right! emerging in Japanese, all barriers down, communication moving back and forth like a leisurely rally before a volleyball match. Im da velt arihne, out in the world for all to see.

Some American writers whose politics shade considerably to the right of center seem to have become the usage mavens, speaking to us about nuance and shading, which is good, but also about rules and restrictions, which begins to grow shaky.
Chomsky, and before him Whorf, and before him Sapir extend the agreement that all languages are of equal complexity, an amazingly simple and direct path that could lead us to the community of understanding that the languages and societies may be complex, but empathy and understanding don't have to be.