1. You have been invited by someone you value to a gathering; it could be a party or a celebration or a wedding or a funeral or a christening, or a launching of some sort. It could even be a Tupperware party. With the exception of the person who invited you, you are confronted by a sea of earnest, friendly faces but not familiar faces. The person who invited you is the only person in the gathering you know. That person sees you, greets you, launches you forth into the assembled host, perhaps with a plate of nibbles, assuredly with some form of beverage. From that moment, you are on your own.
(This situation is something like picking up a new story or novel by an author whose work you favor.)
2. However opulent or restrained your lifestyle, you are surrounded by things, implements, appliances, conveniences, indulgences,tools, necessities. I'll leave it to you to affix the proper description to the individual thing. Suffice it to say, when you awaken, whenever and wherever you are, there, in your immediate sight, are items to fill these descriptions.
3. However opulent or restrained your lifestyle, you are considerably ahead of your historic and prehistoric forbears in terms of "things" within your grasp and sight, so much so that you tend to take some, perhaps even many of them for granted--at face value or less while your ancient forbear accorded surroundings, tools, implements with a broader degree of respect and even admiration. There may be a more diverse menu today of things and conditions to be coped with but life for our ancestors was no less filled with stress.
These issues are backstory to the construct that our senses of being and of place are often occluded by fast forwards to future contingency or replay of past performance, each a distraction from the present moment and the opportunity to accord enthusiasm to the persons, animals, places, things, and artistry in our midst.
Our solution to this problem is to have become writers or artists, a landscape that allows us to experience the intimacy of enthusiasm for persons, animals, places, things, artistry, and ideas in our midst. We are yanked out of our landscape by the quotidian, the seemingly ordinary, the barely countenanced or dreaded meeting or distraction, with the result that we write or create art about such things from a perspective of impatience or dread or resentment, three perspectives that have historically undercut storytellers, artists, and writers throughout history.
It has become a reflex to begrudge the things that yank us from our process landscape into our everyday landscape, to experience squirts of self-pity which become mustard or catsup stains on the shirtfront of our being. When self-pity, resentment, dread, and impatience become, as Wordsworth put it, "too much with us, late and soon," we are witness to the rug being pulled from under our process. You know the process I mean. The process of creativity.
When we are, to use the much beleaguered word, creative, we are entering an intimacy with the others who are our characters, their relationships, their ideas. We are entering an intimacy with a place to which we retire not to escape but to get some work done, to use and develop our process so that it, inanimate and nebulous as it is, will talk to us and share its gathered culture with us.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Monday, September 29, 2008
Whether we're dealing with the no-nonsense demands of genre fiction or the more concept- or theme-oriented strands of literary story, a significant element clamors for attention with more energy than a school kid wanting the teacher's attention because said kid knows the answer.
The significant element, the denominator of this particular dramatic fraction is risk. Whether we're dealing with Rebeca of Sunnybrook Farm or The Sorrows of Young Werther, be it Huck Finn or Yossorian, we want and expect our front-line characters to be at risk from the get go so that the risk can enhance as though we were tracking an impending tropical storm.
We hold risk up to the light, heft it, kick the tires, all the while wondering if the story we have in hand (either as readers or as a writer) brings someone we care about into the path of the approaching storm. I need a small favor someone will ask of a character. Oh, and while you're there (wherever there happens to be), will you be so kind as to look in on...? Whenever we see this, we sigh with relief and settle in, comfortable in the knowledge that the request for some slight favor will become the literary equivalent of a huge pit, drawing within its depths someone with whom we have been made to feel some connection.
Some of the very reasons we favor certain of the genres is because it puts into accelerated risk individuals with whom we identify, individuals who, by the way, are stuck in circumstances that may be contrived in the imagination of a talented writer but which impress nevertheless as all to similar to our own current sense of entanglement.
We worry about making the risk seem specific instead of generic, about putting our characters through a poignant experience or, if the situation is humor, a properly embarrassing or potentially humiliating one.
But what about the risk to our self when we get caught in the slipstream pull of story telling? The risk remains that we will discover something perhaps a tad beyond our ability to absorb, perhaps a revelation that we are somehow less than the image of self we walk about with all day, flaunting in the face of someone: family, Fates, friends. And then again, perhaps we will come away with the fleeting suspicion that we are something more than we had originally thought.
Until we take those risks, we run the danger of being the sort of writer our friends may admire. Has, for instance, a writer friend envied your vocabulary or perhaps your sense of humor, possibly even your talent with metaphor, and not to forget your ability to describe the commonplace as extraordinary and the remarkable as commonplace? All nice tools to have clinking about in your toolkit, no question about it, but what good are tools if they do not produce a sense of risky participation in a situation?
When someone envies my memory for characters and stories, for authors and their titles, for dazzling pyrotechnics, I am hit in the solar plexus with the suspicion that I need to go back and plumb the lines for emotional depth or response, for a greater empathy with one or more characters. I am aware of having run a three-card monte or a dazzle of a distraction to cut away from facing some encounter that is not only painful to me, it is so without my being aware of the encounter.
Risk is leaving out sparkling dialog or description; risk is shearing away from the glib figure of speech or the smart-ass riposte. Risk is me the dancer as opposed to Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. I am better at stepping on your foot and apologizing than I am at an elaborate dip and swirl. If I were to ask you to dance a second time, you'd return the request by suggesting we sit the next one out and talk. It is not that I would forbear to ask you to dance I'd take that risk, but my better risk is the one I take when trying to coordinate the give-and-take of story or of mere conversation, where there is more at risk than the coordination of fox trot or bossa nova.
We work to bring techniques into the familiarity of muscle memory, all the while ignoring risk as something not worth asking to dance.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Geoffrey Chaucer's memorable and excellent tale and its descriptive prologue of Allison is one of the most popular of all The Canterbury Tales, remarkable for the detailed description of women in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Chaucer couldn't have know it on any conscious level but the time frame was later to be called The Late Middle Ages, thus has time added another dimension to the construct because Allison was herself in the later part of her middle age. You could not have wanted (nor found) a more layered description of a woman who had in ample degrees a heart, a mind, a curiosity, and ample wit; she would brook no nonsense, had an admirable set of rules, was willing to take risks, particularly those involving a stand of principal against convention.
To use a currently popular figure of speech, The Wife of Bath set the bar high for authors to follow when the time came to introduce on stage or page as admirable-yet-earthy female character. Johnson and Marlowe tried, Shakespeare came closer, particularly when he borrowed from yet another Chaucer woman, Cressyde, in his creation of Cressida. Tennyson failed, I think, in his version of Guenevere, making us wait some years until Virginia Stephen Wolff got it so admirably with Mrs. Dalloway, and Joyce so spectacularly with Gretta in The Dead and, of course, Milly Bloom in Ulysses.
John McCain, senior United States Senator from Arizona, currently running for two offices, POW of all time and President of the United States, attempted to upstage these noble attempts by placing a character of his own creation (or should I take the cheap shot and say creationism?) by introducing into our midst Mrs. Gov.
The sudden appearance in our midst of the commonplace is one way to regard Sarah Palin. Another way to regard her is as a distraction; still another way to regard her is as someone who believed(s) man and dinosaur inhabited the planet simultaneously.
I am reminded of an experience I once had when, in the company of Digby Wolfe, I visited an iconic L.A. nightspot, Slate Brothers, a place for watching performers perform, for eating over-priced mediocre food and drinking fashionably overpriced drinks. I was drawn along unwillingly our target was a man I dislike intensely, a man Wolfe assured me was quite different from his stage persona.
We were watching Don Rickles as a potential for a project we were essaying. As Rickles came on to do his act, a somewhat over liquored individual at a ringside table began doing his act in earnest, stepping on some of Rickles' lines, injecting a note of competition and tension into the atmosphere. Rickles' irritation became manifest as he began to fly swat at the drunk, directing the audience's attention to him, reminding the audience how one individual was impacting on what they'd paid money to hear and witness.
The attention seemed to fuel the drunk more than the alcoholic content of his beverage. Rickles now turned full force on him, and here's where the lession was learned. "Rickles has gone too far," Wolfe whispered to me. "The audience is beginning to side with the drunk."
Sure enough, Rickles had gone too far with his insults and the audience began to boo him--not the drunk, him.
"He's completely lost it," Wolfe whispered.
To his credit, Rickles seemed to recognize this shift as well. At length, he recognized Wolfe in the audience, shrugged, then turned his insults to the audience before storming off stage and into the inner bowels of his dressing room.
The moral is this: the audience can and will turn. Palin's once wildly enthusiastic audience is beginning to turn, not so much on her but on the man who put her in a position where she daily faced humiliation.
Give us someone to root for, Barnaby Conrad pleads, meaning a character however flawed who seems to want to reach a place of being effective in dealing with the unanticipated flux of life. We rooted for the screen version of Fast Eddie Felson, true enough because he was portrayed by Paul Newman, because he wanted to be the best at something.
A handy and telling criticism of a particular dramatic situation has the circumstances devolving from pathos to bathos, from poignancy to overly ridiculed excess. No matter who the characters or what their motives, we must not do them, however expedient our intentions, what the senior Senator from Arizona has done to the Governor of Alaska.
In fact, Love them all as if they were your own because in fact, they are.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
The probable genesis of the association came from editorial focus placed on Brian Fagan's emerging work on the emergence and scope of the ancient people, the Cro-Magnon, some of whose remains were found in an excavation for a railroad station on southern France. While walking Sally in the upper reaches of Hale Park, you come upon the sight of a group of ladies taking their ease, sitting atop the rock fence, refreshing themselves with bottles of Avian water. Your thoughts go back thirty thousand odd years to a group of Cro-Magnon women, drinking water from a sewn animal skin, having worked harvesting nuts or berries in the perpetual search for food, perhaps a giggle or two, a gossip or two, but also some valid information about where to find more nuts or which mushrooms to avoid, in other words something of life enhancing information. Later, they'll go home to their family group and hear tales from the men about migrating herds to follow and possible sources of rocks that can be chipped into scraping tools or flaked off for spear and arrow points.
With no written language, interconnectedness was a major way of passing along the culture of survival. Hearing elders talk of creation myth and stories of hunting and travel also passed along the basics of human and animal behavior. Make no mistake about it, our ancestors, even without a written language, had an enormous amount of information to carry round with them, share with others, and assess. We did not get to where we are on the backs of uninformed people. It may at times seem to us that we did, but this is a cynical illusion; we got where we are because we followed the ones who knew and felt and told stories.
It seems almost like no thing at all for you to be thinking that the women you saw in Hale Park could return home or some wi-fi hot spot to Google for information or check show time for a film, or catch a streaming video of the most recent debate. They could also get recipes, order take-out food, or book a reservation at some restaurants while their husbands or boyfriends could check for football or soccer scores, check the market (such as it is now), or catch streaming reports of CNN. They could engage in checking out blogs, the major point so far being the relative ease to connect with and exchange cultural, scientific, or spiritual information with individuals they know only by sign-in names, individuals they may have never seen but in some ways know as well as some of their real-time friends and acquaintances.
We have come some distance from merely passing information about places to camp, tide charts, herd migration, fishing information, and bird migration. We have gone from which animals are easiest to domesticate to bragging now about how many miles per gallon our hybrid or smaller zoomer get.
We have moved from information to cautionary tale--old Fred, he ate one of those and was toast in fifteen minutes--to admonishment--mind, you need to let your yak have some water once in a while, or, be careful when hunting the woolly mammoth because they can kill you with those horns--to accounts of exploits, technical advances, and how to connect spiritually with the world about you.
From all this information, there were men and women who found ways to weave the information in narratives that not only informed, they engrossed, entertained, made the hearer feel something special, indeed, made the hearer feel special. From the past came the then equivalent of Horatio Alger success stories in the form of ways one of the ladies took some splinters from an elk bone and fashioned from them needles which she used to stitch hides together for clothing or for shelter. From the past came the forbears of those among us who are taggers, brash teenage artists who left signs of their clans or family totems painted or etched on rocks for all who passed by to see.
We story tellers got to be who we are through a bumpy, precipitous road in which we may have been ridiculed or ignored until our predictions, our depictions of the events about us came to be seen as possessing truth, even for trying to define that most abstract of traits, truth. We are exaggerators, transgressors, transducers, betrayers, prophets. We even brought in stories from other groups, other tribes, other languages. Herodotus is often credited with being one of the first if not the first historian. Forget Epictetus then, if you believe that. Forget also the men and women lost to us who told the stories that passed from camp fire to camp fire across the ages and continents before there was thought of writing down or incising or inscribing words and symbols on what passed for paper.
This is not meant to be a story or a definition, rather a call to accounting among the us of the tribe, the storytellers. What do we bring to the story that helps it live. What do we bring to emotional information that makes it as stunningly beautiful and respectful as the drawings of animals found on rocks and walls and incised on remnants of bone and, later, on shards of pottery? How can we possibly match those sweeping, evocative lines of red ocher and possibly even animal blood that join with the charcoal and soot compounds making up the artist's view in the drawings and carvings that remain from those days. Whose hands and words from the past do we touch when we take up a story from the past and make of it something other, something of us?
Heresy is the introduction of change or challenge to an established order of belief. In order to be successful and memorable, writers, story tellers need to present their vision with the awareness that persons they might not even know or ever see will suffer what we think of as hurt feelings or disappointment or possibly even outrage from said vision, simultaneous with other persons they might not even know or will ever see find inspiration and energy from exposure to said change or challenge.
To name only two within our midst, Margaret Atwood and Eric Blair aka George Orwell, she with The Handmaid's Tale, he with 1984, hurt feelings, caused outrage. Each author set forth in story form a cautionary tale of what we could become if we have not already become so. There are those in our midst who have given us Babar, the Elephant, as well as Lyra Belacqua, each a delight to many but similarly a threat to others.
Some days back, you wrote of the domino theory and the notion of story being a series of triggered events, consequential movement to or away from something or someone. Similarly, with this you intend to cautionary tale that advises the author what to do if the story does not progress, seems to stop of its own accord.
Move the heresies closer together.
You are a storyteller, not an appeaser.
What question will you pose today? What rug will you grip by its edges and tug today? What established system will you describe today?
Friday, September 26, 2008
The function of point of view is to establish which character
or characters the author has chosen to relay the dramatic information
contained in a story and to suggest or imply attitudes of one or more
characters to these events. It is a narrative lens through which a story is
seen; the agendas and sensitivities of one or more narrators thorough
which the story appears to emerge.
The reader is more comfortable knowing whose version of events is being
presented. The reader wants to know who the teller is (or are), followed by
whose story it is.
Point of view also helps us feel more closely immersed in the
dramatic action, contributing to the suspension of disbelief necessary for
the reader to become fully invested in the narrative. Thus, relevant point of view questions for writers and readers:
Who is telling the story?
Why did the author choose that person or persons?
What effect does this particular point of view serve?
Point of focus is the time frame in which the narrative is set. A
retrospective focus is one in which a character is relating events that took
place at an earlier time, which allows that character the perspective of
learning from the consequences, learning from what was done and what
was not done. Barnaby, for example, is relating an event that happened to
him in his early twenties, describing it as though he were seeing the event
from the distance and experience of fifty-odd years. A present-time focus
renders the dramatic action at the moment it actually took place. The
intent of this focus is to give the reader the sense of the action as it is
taking place right now.
Point of time is the moment when any given moment of the story is taking
place. It is represented by verb tenses. The preterit or immediate past
tense is conventionally represented as now. “John woke up early this
morning” is used to convey to the reader, Here is John, waking up now. If
we want to suggest that John has already been up for a while, we’d
introduce the auxiliary verb had and say, “John had been up earlier than
usual this morning.” Using the “had” form indicates action completed in
the past. The so-called present-tense form of narrative renders action
through the lens of the “now” of all characters, thus “John gets up early
this morning,” used to convey, Here is John, waking up now. Using the
present-tense approach, you’d indicate past action with the direct past
tense. “John got up early, remembering he has to be at work before the
Boss, but even so, he has to rush to get ready.”
All point of view filters (persons) may be rendered in the present tense
now or the conventional past tense now.
Whatever verb tense you choose, the contemporary narrative
convention requires more than fifty percent to take place in the now;
upwards of forty percent (backstory, past influences, memories) may take
place in the past.
First person point of view is a narrative condition in which one individual
in a cast of characters tells the story, using the pronoun I to distinguish
him/or herself from the author or any other character. From the very
opening line of Moby-Dick, the first person narrator establishes himself as
such an individual. “Call me Ishmael,” he says, then goes on to tell us why
he signed aboard the Pequod as a seaman. The strength of this narrative
tactic is demonstrated when readers buy into this method of accounting for
the dramatic action and motivation as a means of suspending their
disbelief that the fact of the dramatic events actually took place.
One disadvantage of this point of view: The reader may find reason to
consider the I-narrator naïve or untrustworthy, accordingly doubting the
accuracy of the events reported. This could cause the reader to patronize
the naïveté, dislike the narrator, or abandon any interest in what happens
to the narrator.
Another disadvantage of first person point of view: the narrator must be
present in every scene or have a plausible reason for knowing what took
place during his absence.
Second person point of view is a narrative condition in which the author
addresses the audience directly, using the pronoun you, as though
suggesting that the reader has merged personality with a major character
in the narrative. The result of this merger makes the narrative seem as
though the energy of the story is being directed at a character instead of
the conventional forms, which make the dramatic energy seem to be
coming from a specific character.
This is a less formal condition than the impersonal-sounding “one,” as in
“one works to the best of one’s abilities” as opposed to “You work to the
best of your abilities.” Although it works equally well with the
conventional past tense=immediate present arrangement and the
sometimes useful present tense=immediate moment narrative format, the
second person point of view is more difficult to control than any other
point of view. One reason for this is because of the way it appears to violate
a dramatic taboo of speaking directly to the audience/reader; another
reason for the difficulty is because writers are often discouraged from
experimenting with the format and readers are not used to encountering
Third person point of view is a narrative condition in which the pronoun
he or she becomes the principal focus; one character is seen experiencing
the dramatic events as they occur, then relating them. This same
individual brings into each scene memories, biases, and side effects that
are relevant to the developing story. This individual must appear in each
scene in the narrative or have plausible access to the events that occurred
in his absence.
Multiple point of view is a narrative condition arising when the author
selects two or more characters from the cast and allows each of these to be
the filter of dramatic events. Although it is common for a particular
character to have the point of view for at least a chapter before
relinquishing the stage to another, it is also feasible to switch point of view
from one scene to another.
The longer the narrative, the more useful the multiple approach becomes,
allowing the reader to see how two or more characters respond to the same
Short stories are not conventionally related in the multiple point of view,
the omniscient seeming a better choice if such an approach is wanted.
Omniscient point of view is a narrative condition where the author shifts
the filtering and experiential focus from one character to another (and
possibly back again) within the same scene or chapter. Although effective,
it is difficult to control and may cause the reader some confusion in
identifying which characters in a narrative are the primary characters.
The omniscient point of view is the literary equivalent of a mixed-doubles
tennis match. In whose territory will the ball land? How effective will the
return be? Was there a particular reason why the ball was directed at this
The epistolary or letter-writing point of view is a narrative condition
where much or all of a story is related through an exchange of letters,
email, telephone answering machine messages and similar electronic
format. This form dates back to the eighteenth century but can still find
contemporary energy, allowing the author to use as many points of view as
necessary to present the desired dramatic picture.
Examples of Point of View
First Person Point of View (I as narrator):
Example # 1: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
"You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made
by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which
he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen
anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the
widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary,
and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true
book, with some stretchers, as I said before.
"Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money
that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand
dollars apiece -- all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled
up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched
us a dollar a day apiece all the year round -- more than a body could tell
what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed
she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time,
considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways;
and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and
my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he
hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might
join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.
The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she
called me a lot of other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it. She
put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn't do nothing but sweat and
sweat, and feel all cramped up. Well, then, the old thing commenced again.
The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you
got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the
widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though
there warn't really anything the matter with them, -- that is, nothing only
everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different;
things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go
"After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the
Bullrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by
she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I
didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people."
Example # 2: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my
infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit
than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
I give Pirrip as my father's family name, on the authority of his
tombstone and my sister - Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith.
As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness
of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs),
my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived
from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an
odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From
the character and turn of the inscription, `Also Georgiana Wife of the
Above,' I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and
sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which
were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the
memory of five little brothers of mine - who gave up trying to get a living,
exceedingly early in that universal struggle - I am indebted for a belief I
religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with
their hands in their trousers- pockets, and had never taken them out in
this state of existence.
"Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river
wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression
of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable
raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that
this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that
Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were
dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and
Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that
the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes
and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the
marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the
distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that
the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry,
“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from
among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little
devil, or I'll cut your throat!”
Example # 3 (present tense): Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.
"Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If
you can bend space, you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and
could move faster than light you could move backward in time and exist in
two places at once.
"It was my brother Stephen who told me that, when he wore his
raveling maroon sweater to study in and spent a lot of time standing on is
head so that the blood would rush down into his brain and nourish it. I
didn’t understand what he meant, but maybe he didn’t explain it very well.
He was already moving away from the imprecision of words.
But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you
could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid of top of another.
You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes
this comes to surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes
Example # 4: (major action seen by ancillary character) The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some
advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just
remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages
that you've had."
He didn't say any more but we've always been unusually
communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great
deal more than that. In consequence I'm inclined to reserve all judgments,
a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also
made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind
is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it
appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I
was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the
secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were
unsought--frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile
levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate
revelation was quivering on the horizon--for the intimate revelations
of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are
usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving
judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of
missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested,
and I snobbishly repeat a sense of the fundamental decencies is
parceled out unequally at birth.
And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission
that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet
marshes but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on.
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the
world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I
wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the
human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was
exempt from my reaction--Gatsby who represented everything for which I
have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of
successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some
heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related
to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten
thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that
flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the
"creative temperament"--it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic
readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it
is not likely I shall ever find again. No--Gatsby turned out all right
at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the
wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the
abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middlewestern
city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan
and we have a tradition that we're descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch,
but the fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War and started the
wholesale hardware business that my father carries on today.
I never saw this great-uncle but I'm supposed to look like him--with
special reference to the rather hard-boiled painting that hangs in
Father's office. I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a
century after my father, and a little later I participated in that
delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the
counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless. Instead of being
the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the
ragged edge of the universe--so I decided to go east and learn the bond
business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business so I supposed it
could support one more single man. All my aunts and uncles talked it
over as if they were choosing a prep-school for me and finally said,
"Why--ye-es" with very grave, hesitant faces. Father agreed to finance
me for a year and after various delays I came east, permanently, I
thought, in the spring of twenty-two.
Second Person Point of View (You as narrator)
Example # 5 Bright Lights, Big City by Jay Macinerney
"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."
Example # 6 If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler by Italo Calvino
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…
Example # 7 Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne
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?”
“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.
Example # 8 Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins
The day the stock market falls out of bed and breaks its back is the
worst day of your life. Or so you think. It isn’t the worst day of your life,
but you think it is. And when you give voice to that thought, it is with
conviction and a minimum of rhetorical embellishment.
“This is the worst day of my life,” you say as you drop a salted
peanut into your double martini—on better days you drink white wine—and
watch it sink. It spirals downward more slowly, more gracefully than your
plunging fortunes, the pretty little gin bubbles that gather around the
peanut a marked contrast to the lumps and burrs and stinging things that
are attaching themselves to your heart.
It has been approximately three hours since the market has slid off
the roof and the shocked, and at times, hysteric roar that had filled the
Bull & Bear earlier in the afternoon is starting to give way to a slightly
dimmer din of survival strategies and cynical jokes. You share neither in
the desperate ploys nor the false mirth. You hold your prematurely
graying head in your hands and repeat, “This is the worst day of my life.”
“Come on kid,” says Phil Craddock. “The market’ll be back.”
“Maybe the market will be back. But I won’t. I’ve left my clients so
far under water, they’re going to need gills to breathe.” You gulp a fireball
of martini. “Posner knows it, too. He passed me in the hall right after the
bell and asked me if I didn’t think nursing was a noble vocation.”
Third Person Point of View (He or She as narrator)
Example # 8 Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Ree Dolly stood at the break of day on her cold front steps and
smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the
creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs
of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling
rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos
dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to weather for two nights
and tree days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor,
sweeten that meat to the bone.
Snow clouds had replaced the horizon, capped the valley darkly, and
chafing wind blew so the hung meat twirled from jigging branches. Ree,
brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood barearmed
in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks
reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat
boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, body
made for loping after needs. She smelled the frosty wet in the looming
clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked at the
scant woodpile, shuddered. The coming weather meant wash hung outside
would freeze into planks, so she’d have to stretch clothesline across the
kitchen and above the woodstove, and the puny stack of wood split for the
potbelly would not last long enough to dry much except Mom’s underthings
and maybe a few T-shirts for the boys. Ree knew there was no gas for the
chain saw, so she’d be swinging the ax out back while winter blew into the
valley and fell around her.
Example # 9: Stoner by John Williams
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in
the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height
of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted
an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death
in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few
students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his
courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a
medieval manuscript to the University library. Tis manuscript may still be
fund in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to
the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner,
Department of English. By his colleagues.”
An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly
who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a
casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem
when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a
reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is
merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with
which they can identify themselves or their careers.
He was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri near the
village of Booneville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the
University. Though his parents were young at the time of is birth—his
father twenty-five, his mother barely twenty—Stoner thought of them,
even when he was a boy, as old. At thirty, his father looked fifty; stooped
by labor, he gazed without hope at the arid patch of land that sustained the
family from one year to the next. His mother regarded her life patiently,
as if it were a long moment she had to endure. Her eyes were pale ad
blurred, and the tiny wrinkles around them were enhanced by thin graying
hair worn straight over her head and caught in a bun at the back.
Example # 10: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and
pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar of the Old Home
Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri,
and requested the bartender to join him in "The Good Old Summer
Time," the waltz of the day.
Blowing on a glass, polishing it and glancing at Elmer through its
flashing rotundity, the bartender remarked that he wasn't much of a
hand at this here singing business. But he smiled. No bartender
could have done other than smile on Elmer, so inspired and full of
gallantry and hell-raising was he, and so dominating was his beefy
"All right, old socks," agreed Elmer. "Me and my room-mate'll show
you some singing as is singing! Meet roommate. Jim Lefferts.
Bes' roommate in world. Wouldn't live with him if wasn't! Bes'
quarterback in Milwest. Meet roommate."
The bartender again met Mr. Lefferts, with protestations of
Elmer and Jim Lefferts retired to a table to nourish the long,
rich, chocolate strains suitable to drunken melody. Actually, they
sang very well. Jim had a resolute tenor, and as to Elmer Gantry,
even more than his bulk, his thick black hair, his venturesome
black eyes, you remembered that arousing barytone. He was born to
be a senator. He never said anything important, and he always said
it sonorously. He could make "Good morning" seem profound as Kant,
welcoming as a brass band, and uplifting as a cathedral organ.
Multiple Point of View (multiple I, multiple he or she, combinations of
I and he or she, possibly even omniscient anonymous)
Examples of multiple point of view novels:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
A Return to Earth by Jim Harrison
Love Invents Us by Nicole Kraus
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Omniscient Point of View (the “Fly-on-the-Wall”)
Example # 11: “Boys,” a short story by Rick Moody
BOYS ENTER THE HOUSE, boys enter the house. Boys, and with them the
ideas of boys (ideas leaden, reductive, inflexible), enter the house. Boys,
two of them, wound into hospital packaging, boys with infant-pattern
baldness, slung in the arms of parents, boys dreaming of breasts, enter the
house. Twin boys, kettles on the boil, boys in hideous vinyl knapsacks that
young couples from Edison, NJ., wear on their shirt fronts, knapsacks
coated with baby saliva and staphylococcus and milk vomit, enter the
house. Two boys, one striking the other with a rubberized hot dog, enter
the house. Two boys, one of them striking the other with a willow
switch about the head and shoulders, the other crying, enter the house.
Boys enter the house speaking nonsense. Boys enter the house calling for
mother. On a Sunday, in May, a day one might nearly describe as perfect,
an ice cream truck comes slowly down the lane, chimes inducing
salivation, and children run after it, not long after which boys dig a hole in
the back yard and bury their younger sister's dolls two feet down, so that
she will never find these dolls and these dolls will rot in hell, after which
boys enter the house. Boys, trailing after their father like he is the Second
Goddamned Coming of Christ Goddamned Almighty, enter the house,
repair to the basement to watch baseball. Boys enter the house, site of
devastation, and repair immediately to the kitchen, where they mix lighter
fluid, vanilla pudding, drain-opening lye, balsamic vinegar, blue food
coloring, calamine lotion, cottage cheese, ants, a plastic lizard one of them
received in his Christmas stocking, tacks, leftover mashed potatoes,
Spam, frozen lima beans, and chocolate syrup in a medium-sized saucepan
and heat over a low flame until thick, afterward transferring the contents
of this saucepan into a Pyrex lasagna dish, baking the Pyrex lasagna dish
in the oven for nineteen minutes before attempting to persuade their sister
that she should eat the mixture; later they smash three family heirlooms
(the last, a glass egg, intentionally) in a two-and-a-half-hour stretch,
whereupon they are sent to their bedroom until freed, in each case thirteen
minutes after. Boys enter the house, starchy in pressed shirts and flannel
pants that itch so bad, fresh from Sunday school instruction, blond and
brown locks (respectively) plastered down but even so with a number of
cowlicks protruding at odd angles, disconsolate and humbled, uncertain if
boyish things — such as shooting at the neighbor's dog with a pump-action
BB gun and gagging the fat boy up the street with a bandanna and showing
their shriveled boy-penises to their younger sister — are exempted from
the commandment to Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all
thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself. Boys enter the
house in baseball gear (only one of the boys can hit): in their spikes, in
mismatched tube socks that smell like Stilton cheese. Boys enter the house
in soccer gear. Boys enter the house carrying skates.
Boys enter the house with lacrosse sticks, and soon after, tossing a
lacrosse ball lightly in the living room, they destroy a lamp. One boy enters
the house sporting basketball clothes, the other wearing jeans and a
sweatshirt. One boy enters the house bleeding profusely and is
taken out to get stitches, the other watches. Boys enter the house at the
end of term carrying report cards, sneak around the house like spies of
foreign nationality, looking for a place to hide the report cards for the time
being (under a toaster? in a medicine cabinet?). One boy with a black eye
enters the house, one boy without. Boys with acne enter the house and
squeeze and prod large skin blemishes in front of their sister. Boys with
acne-treatment products hidden about their persons enter the house. Boys,
standing just up the street, sneak cigarettes behind a willow in the Elys'
yard, wave smoke away from their natural fibers, hack terribly,
experience nausea, then enter the house. Boys call each other Retard,
Homo, Geek, and, later, Neckless Thug, Theater Fag, and enter the house
exchanging further epithets. Boys enter house with nose-hair clippers,
chase sister around house threatening to depilate her eyebrows. She cries.
Boys attempt to induce girls to whom they would not have spoken only
six or eight months prior to enter the house with them. Boys enter the
house with girls efflorescent and homely and attempt to induce girls to
sneak into their bedroom, as they still share a single bedroom; girls refuse.
Boys enter the house, go to separate bedrooms. Boys, with their father (an
arm around each of them), enter the house, but of the monologue
preceding and succeeding this entrance, not a syllable is preserved. Boys
enter the house having masturbated in a variety of locales. Boys enter the
house having masturbated in train-station bathrooms, in forests, in beach
houses, in football bleachers at night under the stars, in cars (under a
blanket), in the shower, backstage, on a plane, the boys masturbate
constantly, identically, three times a day in some cases, desire like a
madness upon them, at the mere sound of certain words, words that sound
like other words, interrogative reminding them of intercourse, beast
reminding them of breast, sects reminding them of sex, and so forth, the
boys are not very smart yet, and as they enter the house they feel, as
always, immense shame at the scale of this self-abusive cogitation, seeing a
classmate, seeing a billboard, seeing a fire hydrant, seeing things that
should not induce thoughts of masturbation (their sister, e.g.) and
then thinking of masturbation anyway. Boys enter the house, go to their
rooms, remove sexually explicit magazines from hidden stashes, put on
loud music, feel despair. Boys enter the house worried; they argue. The
boys are ugly, they are failures, they will never be loved, they enter the
house. Boys enter the house and kiss their mother, who feels differently
now they have outgrown her. Boys enter the house, kiss their mother, she
explains the seriousness of their sister's difficulty, her diagnosis. Boys
enter the house, having attempted to locate the spot in their yard where
the dolls were buried, eight or nine years prior, without success; they
go to their sister's room, sit by her bed. Boys enter the house and tell their
completely bald sister jokes about baldness. Boys hold either hand of their
sister, laying aside differences, having trudged grimly into the house. Boys
skip school, enter house, hold vigil. Boys enter the house after their
parents have both gone off to work, sit with their sister and with their
sister's nurse. Boys enter the house carrying cases of beer. Boys enter the
house, very worried now, didn't know more worry was possible. Boys enter
the house carrying controlled substances, neither having told the other
that he is carrying a controlled substance, though an intoxicated posture
seems appropriate under the circumstances. Boys enter the house weeping
and hear weeping around them. Boys enter the house embarrassed, silent,
anguished, keening, afflicted, angry, woeful, grief-stricken. Boys enter the
house on vacation, each clasps the hand of the other with genuine warmth,
the one wearing dark colors and having shaved a portion of his head, the
other having grown his hair out longish and wearing, uncharacteristically,
a de-dyed shirt. Boys enter the house on vacation and argue bitterly about
politics (other subjects are no longer discussed), one boy supporting the
Maoist insurgency in a certain Southeast Asian country, one believing that
to change the system you need to work inside it; one boy threatens to beat
the living shit out of the other, refuses creme brulee, though it is created by
his mother in order to keep the peace. One boy writes home and
thereby enters the house only through a mail slot: he argues that the other
boy is crypto-fascist, believing that the market can seek its own level on
questions of ethics and morals; boys enter the house on vacation and
announce future professions; boys enter the house on
vacation and change their minds about professions; boys enter the house
on vacation, and one boy brings home a sweetheart but throws a tantrum
when it is suggested that the sweetheart will have to retire on the folding
bed in the basement; the other boy, having no sweetheart, is distant and
withdrawn, preferring to talk late into the night about family members
gone from this world. Boys enter the house several weeks apart. Boys
enter the house on days of heavy rain. Boys enter the house, in different
calendar years, and upon entering, the boys seem to do nothing but
compose manifestos, for the benefit of parents; they follow their mother
around the place, having fashioned these manifestos in celebration of
brand-new independence: Mom, I like to lie in bed late into the morning
watching game shows, or, I'm never going to date anyone but artists from
now on, mad girls, dreamers, practicers of black magic, or, A
man should eat bologna, sliced meats are important, or, An American
should bowl at least once a year, but these manifestos apply only for brief
spells, after which they are reversed or discarded. Boys don't enter the
house at all, except as ghostly afterimages of younger selves,
fleeting images of sneakers dashing up a staircase; soggy towels on the
floor of the bathroom; blue jeans coiled like asps in the basin of the washing
machine; boys as an absence of boys; blissful at first, you put a thing down
on a spot, put this book down, come back later, it's still there; you buy a box
of cookies, eat three, later three are missing. Nevertheless, when boys
next enter the house, which they ultimately must do, it's a relief, even if it's
only in preparation for weddings of acquaintances from boyhood, one boy
has a beard, neatly trimmed, the other has rakish sideburns, one boy
wears a hat, the other boy thinks hats are ridiculous, one boy wears khakis
pleated at the waist, the other wears denim, but each changes into his suit
(one suit fits well, one is a little tight), as though suits are the liminary
marker of adulthood. Boys enter the house after the wedding and they are
slapping each other on the back and yelling at anyone who will listen. It's a
party! One boy enters the house, carried by friends, having been arrested
(after the wedding) for driving while intoxicated, complexion ashen; the
other boy tries to keep his mouth shut: the car is on its side in a ditch,
the car has the top half of a tree broken over its bonnet, the car has struck
another car, which has in turn struck a third, Everyone will have seen. One
boy misses his brother horribly, misses the past, misses a time worth being
nostalgic over, a time that never existed, back when they set their sister's
playhouse on fire; the other boy avoids all mention of that time;
each of them is once the boy who enters the house alone, missing the other,
each is devoted and each callous, and each plays his part on the telephone,
over the course of months. Boys enter the house with fishing gear,
according to prearranged date and time, arguing about whether to use
lures or live bait, in order to meet their father for the fishing adventure,
after which boys enter the house again, almost immediately, with live bait,
having settled the question; boys boast of having caught fish in the past,
though no fish has ever been caught: Remember when the blues were
biting? Boys enter the house carrying their father, slumped. Happens so
fast. Boys rush into the house leading EMTs to the couch in the living room
where the body lies, boys enter the house, boys enter the house, boys enter
the house. Boys hold open the threshold, awesome threshold that has
welcomed them when they haven't even been able to welcome themselves,
that threshold which welcomed them when they had to be taken in, here is
its tarnished knocker, here is its euphonious bell, here's where die boys
had to sand die door down because it never would hang right in the frame,
here are the scuff marks from when boys were on the wrong side of the
door demanding, here's where there were once milk bottles for the
milkman, here's where the newspaper always landed, here's the mail slot,
here's the light on the front step, illuminated, here's where the boys are
standing, as that beloved man is carried out. Boys, no longer boys, exit.
Example # 12: Short Story, “The Room,” by William Trevor
“Do you know why you are doing this?” he asked, and Katharine
hesitated, then shook her head, although she did know.
Nine years had almost healed a soreness, each day made a little
easier, until the balm of work was taken from her and in her scratchy
idleness the healing ceased. She was here because of that, there was no
other reason she could think of, but she didn’t say it.
“And you?” she asked instead.
He was forthcoming, or sounded so; he’d been attracted by her at a
time when he’d brought loneliness upon himself by quarrelling once too
often with the wife who had borne his children and had cared for him.
“I’m sorry about the room,” he said.
His belongings were piled up, books an cardboard boxes, suitcases
open, not yet unpacked. A word processor had not been plugged in, its
flexes trailing on the floor. Clothes on hangers cluttered the back of the
door, an anatomical study of an elephant decorated one of the walls, with
arrows indicating where certain organs were beneath the leathery skin.
This gray picture wasn’t his, he’d said when Katharine asked; it came with
the room, which was all he had been able to find in a hurry. A sink was in
the same corner as a washbasin, an electric kettle and a gas ring on a shelf,
a green plastic curtain not drawn across.
“It’s all a bit more special now that you’re here,” he said.
When she got up to put on her clothes, Katharine could tell he didn’t
want her to go. Yet he, not she, was the one who had to; she could have
stayed all afternoon. Buttoning a sleeve of her dress, she remarked that at
least she knew now what it felt like to deceive.
Example # 13: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried
They carried P-38 can openers and heat tabs, watches and dog tags,
insect repellent, gum, cigarettes, Zippo lighters, salt tablets, compress
bandages, ponchos, Kool-Aid, two or three canteens of water, iodine
tablets, sterno, LRRP-rations, and C-rations stuffed in socks. They carried
standard fatigues, jungle fatigues, jungle boots, bush hats, flak jackets and
They carried the M-16, trip flares and Claymore mines,
M-60 machine guns, the M-79 grenade launcher, M-14's, CAR-15's,
Stoners, Swedish K's, 66mm LAWS, shotguns, .45 caliber pistols, silencers,
the sound of bullets, rockets, and choppers, and sometimes the sound of
They carried C-4 plastic explosives,
an assortment of hand grenades, PRC-25 radios with 25 foot whip
antennas and their heavy batteries, knives and machetes.
Some carried napalm, CBU's and large bombs; some risked their lives to
rescue others. Some escaped the fear, but dealt with the death and
damage. Some made very hard decisions, and some just tried to survive.
They carried malaria, dysentery, ringworms and leeches. They
carried the land itself as it hardened on their boots.
They carried stationery, pencils, and pictures of their loved ones -
real and imagined.
They carried love for people in the real world
and love for one another.
And sometimes they disguised that love:
"Don't mean nothin'!" They carried memories for the most part,
they carried themselves with poise and a kind of dignity. Now and then,
there were times when panic set in, and people squealed or wanted to, but
couldn't; when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their
heads and said "Dear God" and hugged the earth and fired their weapons
blindly and cringed and begged for the noise to stop
and went wild and made promises to themselves and God and their
parents, hoping not to die.
They carried the traditions of the United States military,
and memories and images of those who served before them.
They carried grief, terror, longing and their reputations.
They carried the soldier's greatest fear: the embarrassment of
They crawled into tunnels, walked point, and advanced under fire,
so as not to die of embarrassment.
They were afraid of dying, but too afraid to show it.
They carried the emotional baggage of men and women who might
die at any moment.
They carried the weight of the world, and the weight of every free
citizen of America.
And they carried each other.
Additional Point of View focus for further study:
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. First and last chapters are presented in
an unidentified first person, sandwiching in a third person point of view.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Differing points of view, one to a chapter.
Aunt Julia and the Script Writer by Mario Vargas Llosa. An adroit mixture
of multiple point of view and unreliable narrator.
Betrayed by Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig. An epic explosion of
conventional point of view, combining actual third person narrative with
segments of diaries, scrapbooks, and newspaper items, all of which
combine to produce a point of view.
Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. An omnibus assortment of points of
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Happiness is like sleep; we expect a certain amount of each in our daily life, we become cranky, even depressed if either is withheld for too long. Being in either state contains no guarantee that the condition will endure: a dog barking, a cat jumping up on one's chest, a sudden unanticipated noise will cause a sleeping person to awaken; a refusal of any sort, a disconnected day of writing, a warning note from one's bank will cause a happy person to shift gears.
Often associated with achieving one's ambitions relating to security, romantic, and artistic adventure, happiness becomes more complex with age, often extending its protective umbrella to members of one's clan, one's friends, perhaps even one's students if students are part of the equation. Happiness ultimately becomes a potential warning for the equivalent of what has happened in recent years to New Orleans and Galveston. From so much happiness, an old, cynical warning advises, can only come tragedy. Tolstoy thought so little of happiness as a dramatic state that he lumped persons enjoying it as being all alike. You want story, he seemed to be saying, you look at the permutations within the ranks of the losers, those who were but no longer are happy. Camus, on the other hand, posited that Sisyphus, the doomed eternal rock star, was a happy man.
Happiness has many landing strips. Individuals wandering about the streets, their iPods delivering music or podcasts to their ears, seem to be on the verge of if not completely resident in a form of happiness. Runners splashing through rain-pelted streets appear happy just as bird watchers, spying an egret or heron seem happy enough. Diners in a range of restaurants often have the look of happiness through satiety of well-prepared victuals, sippers in coffee houses have the unglazed look of being at one with the universe, and Buddhist monks, caught up in prayerful chant, have the transcendent look of having moved beyond time, space, and causation. A fine artist or ceramicist has the unique pulse of happiness at the completion of a work. Before the tidal lapse into post-coital tristesse, lovers experience the pleasure of having unwrapped a glorious present. A chef, placing the garnish of parsley on a dish, has the ratification of inner warmth. Happiness arrives like an unexpected guest, with advance waves of timidity. Happiness sneaks in like a crafty burglar. Happiness comes with fanfare and hoopla. It leaves sometimes without leaving a thank-you note; it departs over the wrong tone in which one word was uttered. It nudges you in the ribs with an over-the-top reminder that you have never been this happy before nor are you likely to be again.
In some sects of Buddhism, it is seen with as much suspicion as the concept of God. Sometimes you are so happy as to realize the disparity between this moment and the entirety of your life to date. Happiness in some of its avatars is like the realization that your mate of choice is bi-polar or bi-sexual or both. You write to experience and define happiness, during the course of which you may or may not point to the happy ending as your pole star. Happiness informs what you read, whom you read, and when. If you believe you have experienced much happiness in your life to date, you may not have a sense of humor, confusing your cheerful nature with your optimism, which can and does produce laughter.
Like happiness, sleep is not always easily come by. You may ingest substances to lure it forth, may indulge yoga breathing, replay happy moments the way you reread favored poems or stories. Like happiness, sleep may come when you least expect it or do not wish it. Like happiness, sleep is an healthy alternative to boredom; each replenishes you, expands you. Coming forth from sessions of either is a steroidal entry into the day of choices, decisions, actions, behavior toward others. Telling someone you love, Sweet dreams, is urging them to experience happiness and sleep at the same time, a splendid twofer. Telling someone with whom you have issues, Sweet dreams, is attaching the rapier thrust of irony, sarcasm; the same words with one of the more malevolent intents in the tool kit.
One of the joys of sleep is the opportunity to send responsibility on a vacation. Things visualized in sleep that you allow yourself to remember become wish lists of intent. These intentions may be sought after without modification or they may serve as an index of behavior to be governed by your awareness of convention. Another joy of sleep is to use it as a vehicle to pursue stories, scenarios of your creation, journeys to be taken without the frustrating delays at airports, where baggage and happiness are rifled, often misdirected.
Like sleep, happiness has some kind of ending. Happiness with other humans and with animals has endings. Sleep allows us the opportunity to revisit some of our endings, to recall the nuances of those endings, to prise out of those nuances an index of how, at this remove, we still care.
As writers, we take a daily vote on how happy our endings will be and what efforts will be necessary to make them plausible.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Discovery in the legal sense means the sharing by both sides in a proceeding of potentially incriminating or exculpatory evidence.
In the literary sense it means an awareness that someone, some place, some organization, or some thing is more or less than it seems.
Discovery in real life is another, more complex matter. It is a truth universally recognized that discoveries made by others are more substantive and revelatory in nature than one's own discoveries. In fact, one's own discoveries are quantitatively of lesser magnitude that the discoveries made by others. Others, we believe, know how to get out of problematic situations while we are limited to knowing only how to get into problematic situations. This of course speaks poorly of one's own ego supplement, hence the rationalization that it sometimes seems that way, even to the detriment of one's actual accomplishments. In some landscapes, our accomplishments are as difficult to live with as our lack of them. People about us seem to be discovering, inventing, using things in ways we could not have anticipated, their discoveries clearly enhancing the lives and humors of others. So far as our own discoveries, they are the equivalent of elephants in the living room. Why would you want to do that? What is the purpose of your discovery? Will it cure anything? Can a profit be made from it? Had you not better spend your time finding discoveries that have some potential for profit? In other words, discovery becomes a leveling instrument attacking a culture.
In yet another rationalization, we comfort ourselves by reflecting that nearly everyone has this sense of awareness that others are discovering the same thing.
Fortunately for us, there is the discovery that as writers, our output is based on the wrappings of fact, myth, and urgency about armature of discovery. In nonfiction, the essay, for instance, the discovery is the realization of some tangible conclusion brought to light by comparison, contrast, and sometimes plain old bombast or stylistic mayhem. In fiction there is always the comes-to-realize moment where one or more front rank characters weigh in on evidence, then act on it, or have no control over their actions because of some compulsion or flaw. There is also the discovery a character makes as a result of research, or the accidental encounter with information that pulls the rug from under a long held assumption or belief.
Story is based on what persons find out, even to the point where no character within the story discovers anything, but the reader does. This is called irony; it is you getting even, leveling the playing field, entering a conspiracy with readers who may be complete strangers, in which you collude against your characters by withholding the discovery from them. Thus have you played out through your characters the sometimes present feeling that everyone in the real world is one or two discoveries up on you.
By setting two or more characters on a dramatic collision course to the point where we cannot see the solution, we are of course engaging in the kinds of introspection that will have become second nature to us. The more severe we make the consequences, the more risk we attach to the moral choices we force upon our characters, the more we build the toolkit of discovery within ourselves and the more compelling the process, the creating process, becomes.
At first this seems risky business that must be approached with caution and thought, but as we progress, we see caution and thought brought out of the closet for the traitors they are. By reading the work of others, those writers who have grasped the process of the craft, the more we are willing to set sail with no final destination in mind, only for the discovery. Closure is related to discovery in the sense that some discovery is made but possibly it is not completely understood, something like the translation of instructions that come with the gadgets that were assembled in non-English-speaking countries.
Discovery is not absolute, although setting forth on the voyage is wired-in behavior.
Sometimes the best we can plausibly achieve is a negotiated settlement, where the plausible discovery becomes the fact that we do not always get what we want, even if we get some of it, we don't get it when we want it, there may be large parts of it that baffle us and everyone else who sees it.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
When, toward the end of what can easily be considered to be the travails of Jane Eyre, the eponymous narrator says of Mr. Rochester, "Reader, I married him." and Rudyard Kipling says in his Just-So Stories, "Dearly beloved," each was breaking a rule set in place with some firmness from about the Nineteenth Century onward. For different reasons, each was addressing the reader, breaking the so-called wall between author and reader in which the author did not recognize the presence of the reader.
In each of the cited cases, the lapse served to enhance my already intense pleasure in the material, my place within it as eavesdropper. Even now, as I write this, there is a distinct pleasure rampant within me at the thought of eavesdropping because it--that process--is so vital to the sense of how I read and write fiction. A conversation between two characters may well advance the story and reveal things about the participants, but it also provides me with the delicious sense of having overheard something that passed between two individuals who have life and agenda and secrets and fantasies and ambitions and--what else? I am in on some one's secret or some one's life; I may, if I persist, get more--
In real life, there is more of a gray no-person's land between eavesdropping and mere overhearing. Standing in line at the supermarket check-out stand , I hear bits of conversation which I may take in or block out as suits my whim. Waiting in line at a theater affords similar opportunities, cruising the aisles of a gallery provide even more. People talk, and who is to say when or where the best and most intriguing snippets of conversation emerge. My note pads and Moleskines are filled with actual conversations that went somewhere before they ebbed back into going nowhere, which is where conversations in real life ultimately go, the refuse heap of undramatic intent. Fact still remains, I ran the best 10-K of my career eavesdropping on two young ladies who were discussing various adventures on various dates. Fact also remains that Nancy Simon, Neil's remarkable daughter, once brought such a story into Saturday workshop, based on something she'd overheard at the Russian Tea Room, wherein a girl at a nearby table was telling her date, "So, this is the place where guys bring girls to break up with them," and the guy responded, "By the way, I think we should consider the possibility of, you know, seeing other people." Nancy's date had heard the same conversation and responded to her, "Yeah, I guess it's a tradition, taking them somewhere nice so maybe they'll think twice about crying." A conversation that quickly moved toward, "You know, you're the kind that would cry in a situation like that." I thought The Threpenny Review, which turned out to be just right.
There are numerous ways for and reasons to break that wall between reader and characters. I was more than fascinated by a production of Jack Gelber's play, The Connection, in San Francisco, when during the break between acts, the actors mingled among the audience, trying to hustle money from them, giving credence to the belief that these characters were actual users with big time Joneses. Some years later, as the co-producer and writer and actor of mystery dinner plays, I'd do in character to audiences what I'd hesitate to do in real life, including lifting shrimp from their hors d'oeurves plate and getting away with it, and in another instance trying to borrow a twenty from someone in the audience because the producer was a cheapskate.
Rules and conventions.
At the time of the Globe Theater, women characters were played by boys. Twelfth Night is a splendid example of a boy portraying a girl, Viola, who portrays a boy,Cesario. That convention was a given in the day. Look how Larry Gelbart used that very convention to the same kind of advantage with Dustin Hoffman portraying Tootsie.
Some rules and conventions to be looked upon with rousing suspicion:
Show, don't tell.
Only write from your own experience.
If there is a shotgun on the wall, it must go off during the arc of the story.
Don't use flashbacks.
If a character is left-handed, we should be shown some reason for it.
Plant your clues early so that they may be dug up at the right time.
Every story must have a theme.
Short stories should only have one point of view.
Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph.
Don't have a story in which characters have the same or similar-sounding names.
Don't tell jokes in novels or short stories.
There are more to be sure and each one can and should be taken down from its perch on the roost of Convention, defeathered, and eaten for a snack. Every one of these rules has been broken with panache and professional eclat by Joe Wambaugh among others they will be broken again.
Read Mark Twain's informative How to Tell a Story, not only for his wit and instruction but for the answer to whom among the others will break the rules next.
Rule of Writer's Thumb: If it sounds logical, don't do it.
Monday, September 22, 2008
You woke from a night of troubled sleep and, like Gregor Samsa, began to check your appendages to see if you'd arrived with the same equipment as when you started, last night. No problems there. A relief because you are now visited by the appearance in your mind of an agenda, things, things to be done, things to be planned.
Up now, legs swung over the edge of the bed, tentatively touching the floor as you shift your weight to accommodate the standing position. What will you serve? Where will you begin?
Not in here, not in this bedroom, this clutter of newspapers, books, bottles enlisted as flower pots because of some quirk in their shape that intrigued you. Your desk is enough of a giveaway, a living advertisement of your active endorsement of the chaos theory. Old glasses of latte, scratched reading glasses, empty ink bottles, fountain pens lined up as autos in a gas crunch, awaiting refill, a long forgotten check register, a pocket watch given you by a student, a Ludlow slug bearing the name of a magazine you once edited. You shake your head at this greeting from your desk, nourishing now the scent and flavor of coffee to gather your working focus. You can't possibly begin in the bedroom which, by your own definition, is worse than your desk, nor could you contrive to begin at your desk, skating on the theory that it would impart the subtext of the maverick, the purposefully unconventional who devotes all focus to the idea, the vision at hand.
One of the cats has turned the living room into an abattoir, making that an unlikely venue, unless you so some serious scrubbing and cleaning. For a wonder, the kitchen is clean things are where they would be when they are out of use, and so that becomes a option. You could begin there. Come into my kitchen! The bathroom and laundry room are relatively new, Tom and his crew stripping away flooring to remove mildew and ages old plumbing lines, replacing rickety and troubled platforms as neatly as Dr. Gainor stripped and replaced your hip. You have three options then, the kitchen, the bathroom, or the laundry room. Come into the kitchen, Maude/ For the black bat night has flown. Oh, don't you love Tennyson at such times? Proper comfort, he is.
What will you serve? Are there enough asters to make a bouquet? Pity the Gerbera are gone. The weather, ah not too sunny or hot, time perhaps for a pot of chili with cornbread informed by buttermilk. A pitcher of iced tea, bottles of Blue Heron or Newcastle, and you think there is some pinot grigio if you can find it to put on chill.
Will they like that? You just found out about a book signing at the nearby Tecolote Book Store, half a mile from you as the crow or California Towhee flies. Served miniature lamb chops, stuffed mushroom, chicken impaled on skewers, bowls of that splendid mixture of yogurt and dill. And you? Chili? Cornbread? Are you mad?
Well that is the issue, isn't it? Are you mad? It is a well-known fact that you deviate from conventional wisdom, but does your deviation edge over the boundary--nice word, that--into insanity? Are you not, in fact, like one of the targets of the C.S. Lewis short story, The Shoddy Lands, in which your mind, your internal landscape is rendered as unrelentingly dull, lackluster? Perhaps you are not mad but rather shoddy. Charles Kingsley: Cheap Clothes and Nasty. You.
All of the above to the contrary notwithstanding, you, coffee in hand, opt to go forth. You opt to engage, to follow through, let them think what they will. You sip coffee, a congratulation to that part of yourself; it cares, it is willing to take the risk.
Ah, the risk.
Someone is to read your material. You have unknown guests arriving, debating a stay in a venue you have created. Perhaps, you reason, just perhaps they will if nothing else find a few loose coins between the cushions of the sofa, or the tortoise-shell Sailor fountain pen you fear you may have lost. Perhaps they will find something, a something the cats or Sally have buried. Or something you have secreted, cached as a favored treasure you are nevertheless willing to share.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
One of the basic laws of physical behavior, at least on this particular planet, avers that for every action, there is a reaction of equal force and opposite direction. This law, which I was enjoined to memorize back in tenth grade physics, was introduced by Sir Isaac Newton and is recognized accordingly as Newton's Third Law of motion. Moving into the spheres of Hinduism and its adjunct, Buddhism, the same principals may be expressed as karma or, if you will, karmic law.
From the former, we get an introduction to other Newtonian laws governing the behavior of motion as well as a chance to meet up close the concept of inertia, a tricky governing property that effects the velocity and direction of a particular body of matter. From the latter we get an introduction to payback or merit badges. From the two combined, we get a glimpse into the part of story DNA called consequence.
Even though some modern short stories are little more than what was once called vignette, having less visible connective tissue than a more substantial and nuanced narrative, the most gossamer of them is nevertheless more consequential than what we call everyday life. For those who have played and played with dominoes, the concept of domino theory comes to bear. Dominoes, when arranged on their vertical and arranged in close order, produce the effective spectacle whereby the first domino to fall topples or triggers the next. A fun thing to watch because the pattern of deployment can be so varied. When story comes to a seeming stop, we may look to the arrangement of dominoes or events, adjusting their closeness, perhaps rearranging the pattern. This is better than one size fits all, this is the domino theory: the first domino to fall triggers the rest.
In drama, we have an apt analogy for the domino; the beat becomes an activity that triggers something, a response, an emotion, a suspicion. Drama is measured in beats. Of course time comes into play. Hold that for a beat longer, the director will say, probably because the director wants to sustain the effect the beat produces.
The complex relationship between beats and falling dominoes can be used to keep the reader's inertia intact, reading along, looking for something, something special, something intimate, a whisper, a hint, a bar or two of a song, a scent of something long forgotten but cherished nonetheless. These things call forth evocations of past times with persons seemingly forgotten until they appear now, shimmering in the intensity of remembrance.
In story, it is not one thing and then another, which is episodic. Nor is it one thing after another, which is formulaic and, after a while, predictable. It is one thing because of another. One thing as a consequence of something else.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Sometimes they are elaborate wooden fences or textured walls, topped with spirals or razor wire. Other times they are lines drawn in the dirt, etched on some rock or porcelain. Still other times they are lines on maps, represented with a broken pattern. In yet other situations, they are verbal, spun out in a hiss of a whisper or a shrill, raised voice. They may on occasion appear in athletic competitions, designating the acceptable from the unacceptable. They represent a demarcation between where you may and may not go.
You are no stranger to them, having blundered past some of them without noticing their presence or deliberately ignoring them in search for something or, in a more positive sense, having reached for something that would expand you and your vision. No telling how long you've been aware of them nor how long their very presence has been a challenge to you. Somewhere, somehow you heard a voice explaining the nature of individuals engaging in the martial art of akido, being referred to not as combatants but rather as partners. Since you are not one for martial arts, you quickly began to make the association with boundaries instead of combat as such. You and boundaries are partners, engaging in a complex dance of morality and art and choice and of self, real self, Self self.
Sometimes in dreams an fantasies you overstep boundaries, the selfish Self of you wanting beyond consequence. Back in your more observant self, you experience the complex cocktail of nervous apprehension and pleasure, apprehensive at the consequences of this particular trespass, pleased in some cases for having the audacity to consider it. These boundaries, you are pleased to note, go beyond material possession and sexual fantasy to enlightened understanding of how more things in the Universe work and how this knowledge contributes to your day-to-day activities. This is not to say you don't have fantasies involving material possessions nor your casting yourself in the role of an intimate, a confidante with another individual, rather it is to say that your dreams allow you to present yourself with the exuberance of a youngster, of a puppy with a long tail constantly a-wag, sending things skittering from table tops as you encounter in the jungles of story your version of how individuals of your choosing make their way clear of the snags and travails.
It has become a constant for some time that your vision of story includes the lunar pull of the hunt on one or more of your characters, driving him or her to the edge of a boundary they think themselves certain of not violating, to a close look but not over the boundary. Then you push them over, observing all the while what they do and what they will not do.
What do you think of yourself after you've crossed a boundary? If it was a boundary of limitation, you have license to feel good, but do you? If it was a boundary of morality, you would do well to ask yourself if you enjoy feeling this way, or perhaps you already know you do not enjoy feeling this way and thus resolve instead to keep stepping over the boundary but at the same time avoid considering how you feel having done so.
In your workshop, boundary and sin do not conflate, simply because you are not a big fan of sin. You are a willing forgiver provided there is not a toxic habit of forgiveness extended in a particular direction.
You are, on the other hand, a careful observer of the Social Contract, with its boundaries that speak not only to the integrity of an individual but the obligations of that individual within a society.
With all that in mind, you salute your state as a writer, a commentator, a critic, treating your inventions, your characters, your selves with due respect as you discover from them their boundaries, then force them to the point of combustion, wherein they either do or do not step over the boundaries. Then you ask the how they feel about what they have done in order to understand where the story goes next...and which boundaries you have overstepped in its pursuit.