Friday, October 31, 2008

Love Thy Characters

True enough, one robin doesn't make a spring, but one Louise Erdrich short story often makes a novel--or at least a part of one. Of all the major short story writers producing materials today, her short stories, which stand firmly on their own dramatic feet, are the ones most likely to find their way into a novel.

Tobias Wolff? Not so much; perhaps his last venture being the opening chapter of his novel, The Old School, which first appeared in a different form as a short story in The New Yorker. Alice Munro? Much as her stories have many of the features of a novel, including multiple point of view, and are to this reader satisfying in their unsettling way of revealing symptomatic behavior and attitudes, she continues to let the matter rest with the shorter form. Tom Boyle? Although I think any given short story of his has an amazing mixture of gravitas, wild humor, and a complete willingness to take no prisoners, I don't see him linking the stories together nor do I see his novels appearing to be stitched short form ventures.

All of which gets us back to this week's (November 3, 2008) issue of The New Yorker, which contains Erdrich's short story, "The Fat Man's Race," stunning enough in its stand-alone self but even more promising in its portent of being a part of another of Erdrich's ensemble-cast novels which began with Love Medicine, which is, of course, a series of chapters that have a second life as short stories. In and of itself, "The Fat Man's Race" does in its first two paragraphs what a well-wrought story should do: it introduces characters (note plural here), agendas, personalities, and agendas. The second paragraph, which is only one brief sentence, immediately brings the unthinkable to pass, and from there becomes a wild, careening ride down icy curves with no restraining rails to keep the car from breaking loose and diving off the road.

Even though I've for some years managed to convince myself that I no longer read for pleasure, but rather for the intense focus of discovery (of the author's techniques, of world visions, of assorted mementos and hidden messages I may have missed, of inspiration and understanding), Louise Erdrich is one of two or three authors for whom such lofty ends disappear and the agenda of pleasure lurches forth like a bored teen-ager getting out of school for the afternoon. Another such author is Jim Harrison, whose latest novel, The English Major, made itself known to me as a book that wanted to be brought home. But that is a matter for later.

Erdrich's characters suffer long bouts of yearning or expectation or fear or a combination of things that make them ideal candidates for being in the kinds of brief encounters that somehow will link into a larger story arc. Her short stories remind me of an enormous quilt made by sewing together any number of smaller Bayeux Tapestries, a metaphor rich in irony for the primary reason that the Bayeux Tapestry is of itself quite large. Her characters want such things as love, respect, understanding, an unfolding of some art or artifice or agenda they sense to be blooming within them. They often get what they want but do not recognize it or they do recognize it and immediately become suspicious of it. Many of her characters, while not formal scientists, seek some form of living proof that will confirm or eradicate their beliefs. Nevertheless, superstition, the supernatural, and the magical whisper dissenting votes into their ear, causing great internal disruptions which they try to mitigate by drinking large quantities of alcohol, making large quantities of live, playing subversive jokes, and drawing others along by the force of their reckless energy.

You would be hard put to find any of her characters whom you could say with certainty she did not love, which is, I believe, the clue to her effectiveness as a story teller. By loving them, she is free not to have to defend them; they may do as they wish to whomever they wish, their random acts seeming driven and perhaps even desperate, but never meanspirited. By loving her characters, Erdrich is free to grant them leave to do what they will and later to own up with the consequences. As a result, her middle-aged characters have much more cogent conversations with their children, thinking that somehow they may learn something from their children as well as passing along such information as survival entails. Her middle-aged characters want in the confines of their secret selves to be seen as sources of wisdom for earlier generations, but they have too much heart to want to be venerated and too much wisdom to allow them to accept the veneration were it to be offered.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

In the Beginning

There is a piece of constructive wisdom in television drama that calls for the thrust of the story to be made apparent before the director's credit rolls. Or else. Or else the viewer will click the channel selector to something more promising. In actual time elapsed, the director's credit rolls about ninety seconds in, at most two minutes. This means the intent in television drama is to inform the reader whose story this is, what it's about, and what the risks are.

By virtue of formatting conventions, the short story writer gets about a hundred words of text on the opening page and at most another two fifty on the second page to get the reader to sign on. A novel may proceed at a more leisurely pace, perhaps three or four pages of text.

These three standards are all subject to the laws of contemporary convention; they may change over time as, indeed, they have changed on their way to becoming what they are now. Take a novel of Thomas Hardy, since he is generally acknowledged to have been the rider of the cusp between the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Most of Hardy's novels begin with one or more characters walking down a road somewhere in the westernmost part of England, say Devon. We are treated to a description of the countryside, the narrow roads, the stone walls, the thatched-roof cottages. Then we are presented some sense of what the characters are doing out on such a road, either prefaced or followed by a thorough physical description of the individuals so that even were you to have skipped some of the description, you'd nevertheless be able to recognize the characters should you encounter them in your neighborhood pub or your local school or theater. Only then would you find some clue about what irked, intrigued, or preyed upon one or more of the characters. You do ultimately find out what the story is in Hardy's novels; in The Mayor of Casterbridge, you find out in so memorable way that it has seldom been duplicated. Depending on when if ever you read The Mayor, the opening may still be with you, holding you by the throat in a tighter grip even than Charles Dickens' grip employed in Great Expectations.

In many contemporary novels and short stories, enough care is accorded the characters that the reader begins to suspect something of consequence will happen soon enough to cause the kinds of curiosity associated with suspense, while in others, some intriguing set of circumstances appears to be in play from the very beginning. Tobial Wolff's remarkable short story, Bullet in the Brain, seems to encompass both these approaches with a maximum of economy and dramatic force. It is yet another tribute to Wolff's skills that he has us investing in a character unlikeable at the outset; only toward the very end does he give us clues that Anders, the protagonist, was at an earlier time a nice person

Modern stories and memorable stories from past times begin with a momentum suggesting a decision will be needed, an impasse reached, an alternative given, a consequence to be dealt with. It is not a spoiler to use Marilynne Robinson's remarkable novel, Housekeeping, as a prime example of this opening velocity. Ruth, the young narrator, and her younger sister are withdrawn from their school and small town, thanks to their mother having cast out their father. They are moved to another small town to live with their grandmother, whereupon their grandfather is killed in a spectacular train wreck and their mother becomes a suicide. There is enough velocity there to last for the entire novel, but author Robinson continues to pile it on. Remarkably, Housekeeping is not an operatic melodrama; it is many other things, most of them arguably literary in nature, where melodrama is supplanted by ambiguity.

Opening velocity is a matter of choice, a moment in the orbit of a story where too much background or explanation become the equivalent of albatrosses, weighing the story down instead of helping it take off. Action or volition rather than introspection are the Swiss Army knives and Leatherman tools of the narrative opening, the goal being to get the reader invested in the character by means of being invested in the character's actions. Time enough later on to slow the story down for background material and physical description.

Accomplished writers rarely find the optimal place for beginning in early drafts, choosing other methods for beginning the actual setting down of words, methods such as starting with characters in the middle of an argument, with characters pointedly trying not to argue with one another, with characters misunderstanding one another. Some accomplished writers begin with weather reports or scenic descriptions of the landscape; others still begin with descriptions of the characters or some thematic statement relative to the story; in any case, most begin with the goal of writing long then cutting short, setting down everything they can think of, then purposefully cutting it back, mindful of the weight each word carries.

If there is such a thing as the five-thousand-word short story, as many books on writing technique suggest, a significant approach might be to get down ten thousand words on a particular story, then remove five thousand of those words.

For some years, Barnaby Conrad gave an intriguing exercise in his workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference: Write a five-hundred-word sentence--any five-hundred-word sentence. Not all that many years back, one of the students in Conrad's workshop was a former newspaper reporter, Fanny Flagg, whose approach to the five-hundred-word sentence made her recall an incident from her childhood, which she called prophetically, "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe."

Whatever it takes to get it going. Then come back to look for the place where the events begin gathering a momentum. Find the spot where it is impossible to insert explanations, adjectives, adverbs, and weather reports. That's the place. Right there.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Funny You Should Ask

Irony is the stage manager in most human drama. It is the genome of crossed purposes, misinterpretation, and expressions of things other than what we intended.

It's inherent condition is being opposite our expectations, a condition that is not always recognized at the outset. As it begins to make its presence known, irony strikes us with the lightning of understanding that we are in a rigged game in which we are handed the script of a Road Runner cartoon and told we have been cast as Wile E. Coyote. The awareness of irony then settles in to stay liked unwelcome relatives at a summer rental, increasing by Sisyphean leaps and bounds because we know Wile E. Coyote cannot win. He is as much a slave to his instincts as we are to the instincts of irony.

Had Sir Isaac Newton turned his light of inquiry to the subject of irony, he might have evolved laws of behavior governing it, behavior in which irony is bound to respond, indeed does respond.

It is, he well may have observed, possible to get things right, but there is no guarantee that anyone else will see the truth of things being gotten right.

It may also be possible to get things right but at the wrong time.

It is easier to be misunderstood than to be understood.

Being misunderstood, then attempting to be understood enhances by the square root factor the continuation of being misunderstood.

It is as possible to be misunderstood by saying nothing as it is to be misunderstood by saying something.

Getting things right but not being recognized for having done so is equal in magnitude and direction to someone having gotten things wrong but having nonetheless been recognized for having got them right.

Having ultimately been observed for having got things right after having been considered wrong is equal in intensity to having been considered wrong in the first place.

Things that are wrong tend to stay wrong, things that are manifestly right but considered wrong tend to experience a regressive wrongness, requiring more energy to convince anyone that they are right.

Persons with long histories of being right about things are more suspect than persons with long histories of being wrong. Persons who are habitually wrong are funny to observe. Persons who are habitually right are threatening as indeed are persons who tend to be right about things.

Persons who are wrong about things tend to attract more followers than persons who are right about things.

Even though we like to think of ourselves as being right, we are conscious enough of being wrong that being told we are right emerges as a threat.

If irony were a tangible commodity, a large segment of commodity traders would sell irony futures as growth potentials.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Some Notes on Discovery

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson, replete with the conventional, scientific, and political wisdom of the time, sent two men forth on a journey of discovery. They did not accomplish the intended discovery; instead they produced a trove of information which they recorded in maps, drawings, diagrams, and journals, many of which were published in book form. The Journals of Lewis and Clark are a continuing part of a legacy of discovery and or history. If there were to be an historical equivalent of the Mount Rushmore Memorial, the carvings would represent DeTocqueville's Democracy in America, Crevecoeur's Letters from An American Farmer, and most prominent, The Journals of Lewis and Clark.

These three books are iconic models for writers of fiction and nonfiction. They remind us that however tangible the end of the journey seems at the time of beginning, life and, if you will, nature have other plans: things evolve, change, mutate. The sheer force of discovery affects the final result. Discovery and the fear of the road are the creative fuels rarely mentioned in text books or classes in which the artist is forged, honed, given their edge and vision.

The process of discovery halted the production of my personal favorite of all novels; it became mired down for nearly ten years in a bog of self-doubt, guilt, imagined social pressure, and the actual social pressure of the author's lifestyle. Although the author had experienced several previous successes, his own view of his best work, at the time of his starts-and-fits approach to this troublesome discovery was a book almost no one remembers, The Personal History of Joan of Arc, a work I had to force myself to finish. Were we to go off on the tempting digression of my personal favorite of all novels, Huckleberry Finn, I could argue that some of the voice and attitude of the author's earlier work led him to these moments of discovery, drew him along with taunts from the Sirens, and led him to a platform of being the conscience of his country, a platform he mounted again from time to time, but never in fiction.

One of the things you discover is the narrative voice for a particular work, answering as you go the questions, Who is telling the story? Why that or those person(s)? Another thing you discover is the true intent of the narrator(s); add to that the reliability or naivete of the narrator(s). Yet another thing you discover is your own intent: was this narrative constructed to satirize, revise, praise, topple, explain? And if your choice were the latter, to whom would you be explaining--yourself, perhaps?

Another thing you may discover has to do with standards: have you created such depth and layering, such individuals and conflicts that you are fearful to set forth again, lest you fail to live up to your own standards. You may discover that setting forth at the time of day of your working preference, your beverage of choice close to hand, your animal of choice nearby, the worrisome presence of comfort nagging away, inducing you to check some favored news source or perhaps worse, some Internet game or crossword puzzle, some compulsive or obsessive task you set yourself in avoidance of launching forth on the project.

Add this to your discoveries: the surprise of encountering the ending you never dreamed of, the ending that validates the entire project, the ending that you weren't saving up to use on some special occasion as a demonstration of how bright or clever or fast on your feet you were, rather instead the artistry of discovery forged in the fear and darkness of your own crucible, validating you to the most important reader of all--yourself.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Character: A Mirage Made in Heaven

Plot-driven stories often amaze and astound us into reading on into a series of events we know to be contrived and manipulated, their very complexity and puzzle-like intricacy being the engine that dries us. A successfully intricate plot can actually cause the reader to suspend disbelief at the behavior of the characters, investing interest instead in the construction rather than the peeling of the onion of character.

Character-driven stories amaze and astound us into reading further, thanks to a series of revelations about the individuals portrayed. Often these revelations have to do with some quirk, flaw, or radical social differentiation. My own argument about these revelations of differentiation has it that as readers we are approached with coded language that promises us insight into behavior and traits we suspect to be resident in our selves. Sanguine about my opening of this particular can of worms, I site one Humbert Humbert as an example of such a character, caught up in a character-driven story. My own particular line drawn in that particular sand has not so much to do with morality as the very opposite--self-interest. Some young ladies of Dolores Haze's age are, to be sure, attractive, but so are ladies two and three times her age as well, each group having more opportunity for contacting interests and sensible partnerships with less potential for mischief. To seal the bargain and simultaneously give the sexual side of attraction its weighty due, there are other aspects present such as social, political, artistic (including musical), historical, and of course the literary.

Author-driven stories have the potential for grabbing reader attention and holding on throughout the duration of the tale, but on reflection I often find myself growing uneasy at the author's constant reach for the attention I would more easily relinquish to the characters themselves. W. Somerset Maugham had the ability to insert himself into short and long form fiction with a seamless easy. George Bernard Shaw floundered in his attempts at fiction before he found his voice in drama for this very reason. Henry James floundered in drama with the same condition, finding his way as a deliberate author manipulator.It is probable that my experience as editor and teacher have made me more sensitive to and restive of this narrative approach, just as my long years of trying for traction in the plot-driven story have made me more sensitive to the awareness that this is not the sandbox in which I am most comfortable.

Writers such as Louise Erdrich, Ruth Rendell, Jim Harrison, Richard Powers, Richard Price yank me in by the collar and hold me by the way they reveal secrets about their people, making me feel in each case as though I were going through the process of friendship and discovery by slow, cautious degree, the intimacy forming from a recognition that somewhere within, there is a community of interest, that although we are of different times, places, and backgrounds, I share the most important thing of all with the characters these individuals and others like them create. That thing is fantasy. I recognize in theirs the edges and formations of my own. The result seems at first like pure intuitive magic, but it is no such thing. It is something more wonderful than magic it is empathy.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

At the Beep, You May Leave a Message

So much has been written about dialogue without making the essential argument that it has less to do with conversation than it does with dramatic incident. 

 There are any number of inspirational, witty, and memorable utterances, ripostes, and pithy exchanges from literature and drama, confidently brought forth at times of public celebration, where there is felt to be a need for eclat and the verbal equivalent of a champagne cork popping. Some of these actually work out of context because they or their creators are so well known; the rest of them tend to fall flat or require some introductory type of cheer-leading.

Dialogue taken out of context often doesn't work, not because it is dialogue but rather because it isn't conversational speech. When two characters exchange lines, they are in a better sense fencing, other times clanking broadswords, at still other times trying to seduce or co-opt, but always with some form of dramatic agenda. 

 A practical way of looking at agenda is to see it as a particular character's long- and short-term goals, the possibility being in place that said character has no long-term goals with the present relationship, another possibility still that one of the characters is indeed looking for a long-term relationship with the other while that same other might have no plans in mind other than tonight.

We look at the art of dialogue as a distillation of what individuals in real life would say in such situations, if they had sufficient time and other necessary resources to create a tighter scenario. But in real life we are more conversational, coded, and to complete the alliterative triad, class conscious, which leaves us with lessons to learn from our observation of real life.

Think about informal responses, which are usually one or two words. What's up? or the luxurious, How goes it? Some of us patronize individuals we feel superior to (a wonderful set-up for reverse humor), speak more loudly to individuals whose native language is other than ours (in the belief that the loudness will help them understand English, for heaven's sake), and have code words or gestures of affection for intimates. 

 We're more likely to use contractions and incomplete sentences in everyday talk. We're less likely to use subjunctive or conditional tenses, and we abuse such tropes as like for as. With some friends, we complete their sentences and/or expect them to complete some of ours for us.

True enough, dialogue represents characters talking; it also represents visible progress a character is making toward solving a problem or being swallowed up by a problem or denying a problem exists when we as readers are aware that the contrary obtains. Dialog is a milestone on a path to some form of confrontation, either with reality/inevitability, or with another character who is an opposing force or a transformative force. Not all stories end as Hamlet ends; some end with weddings or escapes or successful ventures in the arts, sciences, or politics.

If dialogue is approached with the same care employed in creating a character, the specifics contribute simultaneously to development and complication of story as well as development of the character uttering the dialogue.  

At this point, the dialogue begins to sound plausible because the characters have become so; we readers and viewers have begun wrapping the traits supplied by the text around the armature provided by the author's depiction of what that individual does while in action and repose.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Authors Errors

The two most frequently considered approaches to story telling are the plot-driven story, where most major events are plotted out in advance and characters, accordingly follow the plot as though it were an itinerary on a tour. An apt enough metaphor; made even more remarkable when the author appears to have distracted the reader from being aware of the plot and its distracting inevitability. The other approach is the character-driven story, in which the author plunks two or more individuals with opposite agendas within a crucible that had a built-in shrink factor. The excellent motion picture, Driving Miss Daisy, comes to mind as an example, given an elderly black man who needs a job and an elderly Jewish woman who needs a chauffeur. The two characters have a built-in potential for story, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it represents an explosion on the way to happening, but not in any predictable way.

The reason for my unconditional preference for the latter is my near inability to plot right out of the gate as so many of my friends can and so many writers I admire but do not know personally are able to do. The inevitable question comes forth: what about the middle ground, the final product being something as neatly constructed as, say, any given Harlan Coben, yet allowing the characters some room to swing? Great if you can do it. Dennis Lehane surely did it in Gone, Baby, Gone, and as well in Mystic River.
There is yet another approach to story telling and lest anyone think I'm setting it on a pedestal reserved for beginners, I'll cite two major American authors as practitioners, William Gaddis (see Carpinter's Gothic) and Cormac McCarthy (see everything).

The third approach is author-driven, a narrative in which the author fills in many of the details including the author's ow choices of adjectives and adverbs to describe characters, events, and settings. Unless you are writing novels such as Gaddis' remarkable JR, which is entirely dialog, or a similar approach by Manuel Puig, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, or most of the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, chances are you will slip in some authorial direction or herd dog activity.

Although I greatly admire McCarthy's work and even more so admire another author-driven writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, their way grows cumbersome in my hands, leaving me by a process of painful experimentation and exclusion to the character-driven story. To get there, you need first of all to let go of the characters, stop hanging the albatrosses of your adjectives and adverbs about their dramatic necks to weight them down. It is enough that you've investigated them thoroughly, more so than, say, John McCain has so recently failed to do, then allow them to demonstrate your intentions by actions, by their words--not yours.

Ways to trust your characters and in the process learn from them:

1. Why Acting Matters by Uta Hagen.
2. An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavsky
3. Sanford Meisner on Acting by Sanford Meisner

All three are beginnings to a closer association and understanding of the component parts of yourself that create characters, allowing you to control them in the best way to achieve a textured, dramatic intensity and allow them the delicious luxury of giving the performances of their life.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Test of Character

What do we most remember from reading a story or hearing a story read or, for that matter, of seeing and hearing a story performed?

Possible answers are:
authorial voice
a particular scene
descriptive qualities
surprise turn/reversal of fortune.

Although I did not always do so, I chose characters as the answer. My choice is not based on my observation that most readers make this selection; my choice is grounded in my own recognition of my own sense/feeling that characters are the things I am most likely to recall over time from stories and novels I have read. 

 Indeed, I cannot always remember the plots of some of the novels and stories I have written, but I can remember the characters, because of their very names--I once had a Germanic film director named Bert Schadenfreude, and I had as a pseudonym Craig Barstow and assumed his persona in order to write Westerns--or because of some tic of personality.

To defend my thesis that readers are more likely to remember characters than they are likely to remember plots, I cite the train of thought that characters embody the message, the theme and goals of the stories. 

 I don't remember many of the details in Vanity Fair, but I do know that Miss Becky Sharp was one opportunistic cookie, a personification of self-aggrandizement, a forerunner of contemporary novelist Candace Bushnell's Trading Up, in which wives are on the look out for a promotion to a better provider. I also argue that the choice of characters informs the theme of the story, confessing in the process that this recognition is my means of bringing some plot into my stories.

Characters, my argument continues, are by necessity bigger than life; no one wants to read about a character who is smaller. In his own wonderful way, Melville's Bartelby, for all his seeming passivity, was passively larger than passive-in-life; he became through his commitment to life a stronger force than his opponent; he was the protagonist; he and his vigorous choosing not to became the driving force of the story.

When we create such individuals, we put premium on what they want and what they are willing to do in order to achieve their goal. In some cases, we even show the effects on them of having got what they wanted then having experienced buyer's remorse.

Such individuals certainly have some point of origin in persons we see about us, as archetypes as well as actual individuals. They become armatures about which we wrap the details of our own imagination, allowing for the things they will say, think, do, and feel. They are prisms in that they refract the results of qualities with which we endow them, casting forth a spectrum of feelings and responses that speak directly to us and in the coded colors of the emotions.

We must treat these individuals with respect regardless of their origins or their place in our sensitivities, certainly in recognition of their places in our stories. We must not kick them when they are down nor heap adulation on them for all their accomplishments. They are, after all, born of our fantasies, which are, in fact, spectra of our own feelings. In a lovely calculus, writing about all our characters with respect, even the most despicable of them, sends the message to our own sense of self that the component parts of ourselves are worthy of respect.

For some time, I have made the additional argument that the writer is best served by respecting and adopting the techniques many of the so-called method actors employ, exercises by which we learn to be a particular individual on a moment-to-moment basis (see the Meisner Technique) as opposed to merely memorizing a script and giving it various attitudinal colors. 

There is a connection between how you would, for instance, portray Ahab, or The Wife of Bath and the way you would pull all your characters out of the shadows of cliche and derivativness and into the spectacular light of your own creation.

In summary: characters are your doorway to the kinds of discovery resident within memorable fiction, the qualities you most remember about your own favorite characters.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Devil Is in the Difference

Seated in a panel discussion among whom were my "boss" at the SB Writers' Conference, Marcia Meier, and the preternaturally observant short story writer and former student, Jean Harfenist, I was reminded of a remark Jean had made some years back as a guest in one of my creative writing classes. "I write literary stories," Jean said. "They don't have plots."

At the time, pre-Moleskine time, I wrote that observation in a notebook that came gratis with one of the few American-brand fountain pens I own. There are some pages of funny- or fanciful-sounding English place names I encountered in a romp across London and through the reaches of Devon, a few pages of grades assigned long ago to students who have long since graduated. Mostly I keep the booklet to remind me of Jean's quote.

Her short stories (many published in hardcover as A Brief History of the Flood) are to be sure not propelled by characters following a plot line as though it were some To Get list for a scavenger hunt. They are about gritty, determined or deluded persons, wanting something but not necessarily wanting what they think they want, waiting for some opportunity that will allow them to dash toward what they think they want, leaving us as readers to think through the possible outcomes after the characters scurry forth like an impatient or impossible Australian Cattle Dog, attempting to be first out the door. They have thematic resonance, which is to say they have a direction, which is to say they proceed like two cars approaching playing chicken at an intersection. They have beginnings which lead to the section I call the muddle instead of merely the middle, and some form of emotional payoff.

Thus have I described a literary short story, the saga of someone pursuing something, if only a dream (which, by the way, does not have to be realistic. In such stories, characters behave as they do because they can't seem to help it: they go out for a ficelle or a quart of milk and instead fall in love. They rush to get kids to school and then get to work on time but instead become side-tracked and buy a perfectly horrible bud vase. They grow suddenly restive and impatient during a PTA meeting and direct a stream of invective at the chairperson. They should know better; most of the time they do know better, but this time, because this has to be a story, they do not know better. And thus the story propels them into the Terra incognita where the usual boundaries have been erased or transduced, leaving them to discover things--things about themselves and the world they may have never even considered much less experienced. They are Sarah Palin forced to buy her clothing in thrift shops.

The plot-driven story has an articulated path from its point of beginning to its ending, establishing an intuitive fear within the reader that this is where things will go because the characters have no other operating instructions. There may be some surprise which, on further consideration, is less a surprise than a contrivance, an ironic variation on a theme.

Even though as writers we are fueled on obsession and compulsion, we nevertheless loathe to accept the world of fiction being thus manipulated. True, we want our fiction to be orderly, but we want the order to be rational, affirming our belief in the interrelatedness of all things including faith, superstition, science, Fate, and luck.

So look at it this way: Literary = a random universe, with opportunities for magic, unrelated surprises, sad wisdom, and the wrong persons winning the wrong contests.

Plot-driven = deterministic results, safety, justice triumphing, happy wisdom achieved, luck, approval of the gods.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Made-up Stuff

The staged event of theater, ballet, modern dance, the symphonic hall, the opera, and the jazz venue are the places we most associate with one or more individuals giving their interpretation or a work already well known to us. I have happily sat through performances of ballets I thought to be dumb or worse, inane, merely to see particular dancers and their interpretations of the music. Well acquainted with Shakespeare's Richard III, I stopped in my tracks one splendid afternoon when passing a New York theater not only offering a matinee that very day but as well one with Al Pacino doing Richard. Even before such terminology was popular, I'd burned Lee J. Cobb's performance of Willy Loman into my emotional hard drive, later approaching Dustin Hoffman's pursuit of the same role with amazement. Cobb owned the role; what glorious chutzpah for Hoffman to attempt it. Similarly, following around the likes of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bobby Timmons, and Sonny Criss, pretty well knowing what they would play but not knowing how they would play it.

My inner English Major latched on early to the fact of quitting, one author answering another, perhaps even across generations, in the manner, say, of Shakespeare quitting Chaucer's Troilus and Cressyde with his Troilus and Cressida, or, say, Wallace Stevens quitting John Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn with Ode to a Brown Jar. In similar fashion, it interests me to see how contemporary writers respond to earlier themes, one significant example being how James Thurber's short story, The Cat-Bird Seat, quits Poe's A Cask of Amontillado.

As with all things, there is a step beyond how performers add their own cadenzas or improvisations to a theme and how writers take a particular story line with the avowed purpose of seeing where it will take them. The step beyond is taken daily, hourly by writers, mercifully often without realizing they are doing so. I say mercifully because were they to think about it, many of those writers would become stricken with self-consciousness. I speak of the fact that there are only so many permutations of story. Some critics have attempted to define their number and in work-avoiding moods, I've attempted variously to list them and to Google or Yahoo or Ask dot com them. The fact continues with the revelation that we more enjoy story for reasons other than plot; we enjoy them because of the language, the details, the characters, what the characters say, and what they don't.

I became aware of this aspect of story telling as a callow youth when, forged ID in pocket, I began hanging around the piano bar at the long since vanished Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard, chasing the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a known habitue of the place. There, hanging out with such piano players as Mort Jacobs (another great idol of mine), Hal Schaefer, Andre Previn, and the cantankerous Ian Bernard (who is still cantankerous), I met some of the men and women who supported their writing writing with screen writing. One particularly friendly sort, Borden Chase, became yet another role model, he having moved from being a sand hog and turning his attention (and then mine) to the pulp magazines. Chase made a stunning revelation for me. He was working on a project based on Mutiny on the Bounty. "The only thing is," he said, "I'm setting my mutiny on the prairie. Always look for possibilities to reset some basic thematic conflict to another venue. Look what they did with that DeMaupassant story--"

"--Bouile de Suife," I said.

"English majors," he said. "Yes; that's the one. They did it as Stagecoach, and Claire Trevor rode that stagecoach to glory."

Some while later, I saw Chase's mutiny-on-the-prairie as Red River. There are two points I'm after here, the first being that where ever it is set, a story has to stand, to have some emotional point and payoff. And the second point is that should you be considering setting Treasure Island in the Nevada desert or, say, Hamlet in the Big Sky wonderment of Montana, the mere fact of it being a resetting is not enough; the new version has to work even if the reader or viewer has never heard of Treasure Island or Hamlet. Which brings me to at least the third point if not points beyond that.

The made-up stuff.

Where do the actions and reactions, the descriptions, details, pacing, and attitude come from?


If the characters and places are real enough, which is to say if they have taken life in your imagination, they go beyond their sources of origin, their actuality. Raymond Chandler, over fifty years ago, put Los Angeles on the map because of his view of it, and did it so well that generations of beginning writers have tried to do it as he did it instead of taking in a draught of that massive complex and spun it into their own sausage. It is fine to set a story in Los Angeles but it has a better chance if it is your Los Angeles, a Los Angeles you must make up, whether you have ever been there or not. We'd have no difficulty imagining, for instance, a private eye of the Chandler sort, working out of Las Vegas, Nevada, because, whether we've been there or not, we all have a sense of that place, an enormous enough one so that we might try to get by on shorthand, which could be a disaster. There are some remarkably non-Las Vegas neighborhoods in Las Vegas, which is to say they are anything but touristy. We might be tempted to have a character or two have to go to Las Vegas ,Nevada, just to thrown in some glitter or description, or to wax disapprovingly on all that 24/7 bling and excess. But what about Las Vegas, New Mexico. That would have to be made up--unless it were written by the likes of Lee K. Abbott, who lives in the area when he is not teaching in Michigan.

Made-up stuff is the material that clothes and comprises our characters, informs our cities, even provides the sense of what it's like to drive a Prius through our smoggy landscape. Some of us take on an extra handicap when concocting characters, fearful of offending, or of betraying confidences, or exaggerating, causing us the added anguish of waiting for persons to die or hoping people don't read our work. Made-up stuff is the writers' equivalent of the Elixir of Life; made-up stuff is our freeing ourselves of the constraints present in creating things that must be created if the entire project is to get off the ground and have a life of its own.

Sometime back, while reading the autobiography of Robert Louis Stevenson, I was caught up in his description of how his tuberculosis rendered him bed bound much of the time, whereupon he took to writing Treasure Island, and reading his day's output before a small group of friends. His doctor became entranced with the rascally character of Long John Silver, in whom he became as entranced as I have become with the character of Omar Little from The Wire. The doctor, Stevenson wrote, was always remarking on what a blackguard and rogue Silver was, prompting Stevenson to ask himself how he could then bear to tell the doctor that Long John Silver was based on him.

The made-up stuff. It is our vision, our version of what happened, how it happened, to whom it happened, what drinks they were throwing in each other's faces (if drinks were thrown), and whether the lattes were non-fat or regular. Unless it is ours, it is from someone else, it is second- or third- or fourth-hand. It is hand-me-downs from the thrift stores of used ideas. Sure, it needs to be truthful, honest, inviting in its way, made-up so as to seem fresh and believable.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What's So Funny?

Humor is the result of something happening to you or someone else who is taking a moral high ground as though it were a military objective in a John Wayne movie. Humor is the product of you or someone consciously or unconsciously attempting a promotion in status or importance. Humor is someone's ox being gored, a literal or figurative slip, a gift from some high-flying bird that immediately reduces status and stature. Humor is the result of two persons thinking they've reached an agreement only to discover later on that they were agreeing to two different things.

Humor is literally and figuratively being thrown from a high horse; it is the deflation of pomposity, the lowering of status, the fall from grace of an individual or organization attempting to maintain dignity by overreach. Splendid targets for humor are moral superiority, exaggerated virtue or wisdom, pretentiousness.

In other words, humor always has a victim. Without a victim there can be no humor, thus the notion that humor, of all the literary and rhetorical devices, is the heat-seeking missile that can bring down pretentiousness and absurdity with the most immediate effect. We enjoy being laughed with, which is to say, we enjoy sharing a joke; we do not, however, enjoy being laughed at, for this is a sign that we are not what we pretended to be.

Humor is dramatic by nature, which is to say it comes as the result of interactions between individuals and organizations; involves persons doing things or not doing other things; it is the result of situation, dramatic reversal, possibly even surprise. If it is a well-placed barb or rejoinder, a clever pun or play on words, sorry; it doesn't make the grade as humor even though it may produce one or both responses associated with humor, the laugh or the groan. Such events are wit and perhaps even witty; as Mark Twain said of the difference between lightning and the lightning bug, there is a world of difference.

Humor is often found sharing the same living quarters with tragedy or some form of pathos. In a memorable Charlie Chaplin film, Chaplin, as the Tramp, becomes helplessly and hopelessly in love with a blind girl at a flower stand, often pausing in his daily routine to stare wistfully at her as she arranges flowers, sets up vases and plants, goes about her work of tending her stall. One day as he watches the girl, he gets too close and she, unaware of his presence, throws out a vase of water--right in his face.

Although you will hear different opinions about its appropriateness, humor may appear anywhere because it is volatile and because it is a constant reminder that the more serious we become, the more likely we are to provoke some element, perhaps several elements of humor.

The three things we are enjoined from injecting humor into are sex, religion, and politics. It is easy to see why this injunction is sometimes broadcast; with the possible exception of death and funerary matters, there are few things funnier than sex, religion, and politics, either our own or someone else's.

Where to look for humor? Everywhere. Start with groups of individuals involved in institutions: families, schools, churches, clubs, professions. Think of it this way, Humor is the street people of society, reminding us in sharp, memorable jabs that our best intentions and best laws and best inventions and compositions are all vulnerable. Humor looms like Magwich in the graveyard scene in Great Expectations, the unthinkable come to pass, the unthinkable come to laugh at us and our serious.

That's not funny, they will tell you, as though that could stop anything.

Monday, October 20, 2008

It's All Greek to Me

A major pillar of our story-telling tradition is set firmly in the cement of the belief that the gods--later to become God--or the Fates--later to become opinion polls--knew better than we mere mortals or, indeed, we mere voters. Those who scoffed at the professed wisdom of the gods, the oracles, later to become God, were guilty of a crime. Depending on our social status, the crime was either the felony of hubris or the misdemeanor of blasphemy. The term tragedy was reserved for those of greater pretension than us; accordingly comedy and farce became the tragedy of the working classes, and welcome to it.

We have come some distance from believing that only those to whom the Muse calls is the artist, poet, painter, dancer, musician, etc. Now we know better. The Muse no longer has to call us, an online university will suffice. Shortly after Ronald Reagan became president and literally broke the back and spirit of the Air Traffic Controller's Union, he went to work on The Fates and the gods, reducing them to their more Right-to-work status of common sense. If there were anything to be learned of tragedy, it would trickle down to us from somewhere on high, deus ex machina, god or goddess lowered onto the stage in a bucket which is in turn controlled by a winch.

Trouble is, tragedy, even though demonized by anti-intellectualism, still works. Lear works. Hamlet works. Not to forget Macbeth. Audiences like to see or read about men and women who are brought down from their perch of conviction or their sense of entitlement or of self-importance, either by tragedy or by humor. Stop for a moment to consider some of the possible permutations of Lear from tragedy to comedy. A man from Omaha who owns a slew of McDonald's franchises decides to divide them among his three daughters. A man from beautiful downtown Eastlos, the East L.A. barrio, decides to retire and split his stable of portable taco stands among his three daughters. Or imagine the humoring down of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to the level of a man who is being aced out of his position on the line at a car wash, and his wife nevertheless saying the memorable line, "Attention must be paid to such a man."

Tragedy used to involve the literary equivalent of people in high places, individuals involved in clashes of ethical conduct or individuals backed into the tight squeeze of a pair of narrow moral shoes, say Antigone and her battle with her uncle over the matter of her brother's burial and what said burial meant and indeed, why the brother was dead in the first place. It's a bit of a stretcher to equate Antigone, the play with All My Sons, but if you look closely, many of the same red-meat elements remain. Today, tragedy can more properly involve individuals who have some how come to the understanding that they can never achieve the Platonic ideal of perfection. They can do well, ultimately better, but not perfect. Some individuals can't even get into a situation where they can try to do their best because they are bombarded by some kind of bureaucracy. Bad as bureaucracies can be, they still trump some of the other possibilities of organization. So the little guy, stuck in some bureaucracy where he can't excel--only do well--goes home to try his hand at something where he could conceivably fail, which becomes his safety valve, his pole star. And then comes the tragedy wherein what he does at home produces a meteoric success which he can never hope to duplicate.

Look carefully at the Greek plays, both the humorous, say Frogs, or the tragic, say Antigone (because we have already said it). Then look at the modern mise en scene, individuals doing things they don't want to do, individuals nourishing some tangible dream that sustains them through the quotidian, individuals who excel at something they don't very much care for while simultaneously striving beyond all reason for Process in something where they are tangibly ill suited. Observe their behavior, then begin writing.

Just as there is more to Hellenism than polytheism, gyros, and shishkebab, there is more to tragedy than Greek drama. The devil is in the details. And the kalamata olives. Your individual process begins with the knowledge that you have for a time been striving for perfection and have come to the realization that such perfection is not within your grasp, and then the realization that reaching is within your grasp.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Coming Clean

Whenever I arrive at a place where the waiting room has stacks of magazines, I see them as life preservers, tossed out to those of us who know without being told that we will have to wait. No matter if we are prompt or even early; we'll have to wait. My first move at this state of discovery is to search through the piles of magazines for Architectural Digest, therein to brows page after page of neat, relatively uncluttered rooms, neat desks, even neat bedrooms. It is not so much the architecture itself or the furniture. In some form or other, I have all those, however improvised they may be as opposed to the opulence of the furniture in the features. Nor is it the arrangement of the furniture, although there have been times when it came to me that all in my study was not as efficient as it should be. Almost without exception, the photos in Architectural Digest show a studied neatness, however casual, however defensive the captions for the photos are about a particular office or study being "a working office" or "a study in the midst of a project." There have even been photos of artists' studios and in one case the studio of a busy potter. My study is "a working study" and my room is a room "in the midst of several projects."

Point is, I look at the photos of rooms as a tip of the hat to alternate-universe fiction; each of these pictured rooms or scenes, however filled with books or objet d'art they are, they represent to me some Platonic ideal of neat rooms.

Returning home from such places where I have been afforded time to browse, I am confronted by the specter of my desk, cheery, familiar, as mischievously disheveled as a young boy's hair. At this moment my desk is a mild clutter, a photo of an earlier dog, Mr. Edward Bear, resting on its side, a check, an ink bottle, two pair of reading glasses, a stapler, a wireless mouse, a mouse pad from the College of Letters, Arts and Science, USC; a stapler, a nail clipper, a small box of matches, a Mountblac fountain pen, a small cache pot filled with letter openers and fountain pens, a paperweight in the form of a book, given me when I moved away from Sherbourne Press and on to Dial, Dell, Delacorte. There is some satisfaction in seeing the pigeon holes at some respectable condition of neatness and organization.

It is good to clean desks and shelves and studies, even at the frequency I employ. I do so not from any inherent call to order but at a greater metaphor that relates to cleaning out the ledges, crannies, and pigeon holes of the part of me that originates ideas and sets them to word. All right, I'll take it a step farther: the ledges, crannies, and pigeon holes of my claim to creativity. It is good to write myself out, by which I mean to use up all the accumulated ideas, jokes, tropes, similes, metaphors, syllogisms, and unresolved curiosities I'm willing to lay out on the table. It is good to feel depleted, talked out, shed of an opinion or two, dissatisfied with a comparison between two or three things that may have come to me in the midst of a shower or perhaps while shaving: to start out empty-but-confident, anticipating the clutter that will come because, in a real sense, it always has.

Not all that long ago, I came upon the discovery that things with my handwriting on them often contained a sentence or two worth looking at and thinking about, matter that did not make me cringe reflectively at what I'd said or thought or surmised at an earlier time. In some cases, these notes are like memos to myself at a later time, something I was not only interested in then but as well something that actually makes sense now and holds my interest.

Yes, writers are supposed to be able to convey fact and invention in a manner freighted by clarity and the quality of being interesting, even compelling. What writer, in fact, can you name who did not set pen to paper with the avowed intent of being interesting? Alas, I think I know a few. Even greater alas, there are those who may think that very thing of me. We do not set out to be inane or boring or uninteresting, but in spite of our best efforts, sometimes we are. When Ishmael was in such a mood, "whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." Nothing so drastic for me. Something physical such as swimming or a long stroll with Sally or the beginnings of the metaphor of cleaning, neatening the room, neatening the desk, cleaning out files on the computer, perhaps even reading, looking for something known to be wonderful or awful, listening to music, attaching the jumper cables of interest and attitude and curiosity and enthusiasm to the inner battery and jump starting the process all over again. Persons in twelve-step programs seem to agree that you need to recognize the impact that comes from hitting rock bottom in order to jump start the recovery wave. For the writer the rock bottom is much less threatening or dire; you simply dump all the momentary jokes and defenses and smartass equations, holding back nothing. Then you get yourself down to some work.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Story, or Sisyphus Rocks

A good deal of attention is properly paid to the movement of a story from its engaging, often rambunctious beginning, through its point of achieving a seemingly unstoppable inertia, often thought of as the middle or act two, concluding with the place where it comes to a rest, however temporary. This coming to rest is the end because the story has landed on someone or something, run out of steam, or dramatically changed its mind. It will not start up again until someone or something gets it moving again. This movement is frequently referred to as arc or throughline. In either case, the intent is for the story to have begun at point A, then moved through a number of points to the designated spot where it stops moving for some time.

Readers, accordingly, get the sense of a story being over when it stops moving for a considerable time, author's intentions to the contrary notwithstanding.

For the sake of illustration, I propose to call the path of a story an orbit; a circular or elliptical path as opposed to arc, which is, when you stop to think of it, a segment of a circle; or indeed a throughline, which suggests movement enough but movement on a straight line, which implies that the story is of singular dimension as opposed to the more textured implications of orbit. An arc or throughline is like a doughnut in comparison to the layer cake of orbit.

A well-constructed story may be begun at any point in it orbit. Stories do not have to be chronological, although they may be if it suits the author's purpose. By way of example, The Iliad, which begins in the famed medias res or middle of things, properly begins with that great twit, Paris, being asked to judge a beauty contest in which the contestants are goddesses. Lovely story. The main contestants try their godly hands at suborning Paris with incentives for choosing her instead of her sisters. Paris is most tempted by the offered bribe of the most beautiful woman in the world, an offer from the goddess of love. He proceeds to chose the goddess of love as the most beautiful among the competing goddesses, then claims his prize. "And so you shall be rewarded," she tells him. "The only problem is, she's married."

In The Iliad, this is backstory, explaining how Paris connected with Helen in the first place, making Helen WMS, weapons of mass seduction, and causing the seven-year Trojan War. It also explains how Paris was the forerunner of G. W. Bush. All the available contemporary renditions of The Iliad begin with Achilles, storming off to his tent in a rage that had nothing to do with the Trojan War. Achilles' rage is so intense that he opts out of fighting, which could mean a complete change in the complexion of the battle. There are other places in the orbit where this epic could have begun, each adding a different kind of texture and tone to the entire story.

Another splendid example of story orbit involves another set of characters from more or less the time of The Iliad. Let's look at the myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus, a mortal, has been sentenced by Zeus, king of the gods, to an eternity of pushing a huge boulder up a steep incline, where it topples over the crest, rumbles down an equally steep slope, rolling of its own inertia until it comes to rest. Having observed this behavior, Sisyphus must push the boulder into position, then repeat the process. No weekends off, no holidays, no time and a half overtime pay. Sisyphus' crime was hitting on one of Zeus lady friends. That story could be set in motion with Sisyphus hard at work, pushing the boulder up the hill. It could be initiated when he reaches the top of the hill. It could even begin with his wife trotting alongside him as he pushes, wanting to know what's with him, why he never calls, could he maybe spare a few shekels to buy some food. The story could begin with Sisyphus blowing his cool, storming into Zeus' office and refusing to push the damned boulder up that damned hill one more damned time, at which point Zeus snaps his fingers and summons over two henchmen, informing them "Okay, Sisyphus is off the rock detail. Soon as I finish the paper work, take him over to the mountain and give him the Prometheus treatment?"

"Prometheus treatment?" Sisyphys asks.

"Yeah. Some dude tried to steal the secret of fire from me so now he gets tied to a mountain side every day around lunch time. Vultures come by, rip out his liver. Prometheus gets to go home, grow a new liver, then back to the mountain side."

"Excuse me," Sisyphys says, "I gotta get back to my boulder."

Depending on where in that orbit you start, it can produce humor, pathos, existential woe, philosophical questioning, psychological humor--you name it.

Ah, I hear your first question: Suppose my story doesn't have an orbit?

Ah, indeed. Now you begin to understand why so many memorable stories do have an orbit.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Feeding the Kitty

Schrodinger’s Cat is an existential conundrum advanced by the German physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, to demonstrate the dual nature of matter. This duality provides an excellent bridge to the nature of story; it is a more literary-related way of looking at the famed Frank R. Stockton short story “The Lady or the Tiger,” which itself becomes an illustration of the role played by choice in fiction. The Stockton story, which could have triggered the notion for Schrodinger, provides the main character a choice that must be made.

The Schrodinger’s Cat scenario imagines that a cat is locked in a box, along with a radioactive atom that is connected to a vial containing cyanide. If the atom decays—and it surely will over time--it will open the vial. The cat, inhaling the cyanide fumes, will be killed.

When the box is closed the observer does not know if the atom has decayed or not. This means that the atom can be in both the decayed state and the non-decayed state at the same time. Therefore, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time - which clearly does not happen in classical physics.

The parallel between the cat and a given story is waiting to be drawn, so let’s draw it. When asked to list vital constituents of a dramatic incident (story), writers will supply such ingredients as character—“How can you have a story without character?”—and such other elements as plot, suspense, and reversal (a change in the protagonist's or antagonist's fortune or commanding position). It is the rare, thoughtful professional who will add one of the key qualities inherent in the fiction of the twenty-first century, which is ambiguity (Will she, won't she? Does he, doesn't he?

If we imagine story and Schrodinger’s cat to reside on opposing sides of the equal sign, we can “see” the power of ambiguity in story. Fiction with the built-in element of duality provides an opening for reader participation, that condition where the reader feels not only close to the characters and events but immersed in the outcome as well.

Since about 1950, endings—conclusions, or payoffs—in fiction, particularly in the short form, have tended to move away from the highly visual, seemingly inescapable conclusion of the pulps and slick magazines, drifting toward uncertainty, opaqueness, and choice. Some of this tendency can be related to the uncertainty of the times. Short stories, since about the time of John O'Hara and John Cheever, have ended on an ironic note of dialog or alluded to an impending event, or left you with the feeling that one or more of the characters was on the cusp of having to make a decision without sufficient information to carry forward. This last set of circumstances is much of a piece with life, one possible explanation for the term "slice of life" tacked on to such narratives. These opaque, New Yorker-type stories that leave us so vexed (and yet somehow aware of the resonant frequency of some emotion) are, in Schrodinger Cat fashion more believable and seemingly more real because of their very ambiguity. In some of the modern short stories, the real payoff, something like the aftertaste of an Altoid mint, comes well after we've finished reading the story, leading me to conclude that this effect is deliberate. A salient feature of the modern story is its life off the page, the outcome being transported forth in the reader's imagination.

A novel has more room to bring things and events and persons together or, conversely, apart; the payoff, still nuanced, is more reflective of change in one or more of the major characters. Modern suspense or mystery novels generally have as part of their ending a killer being brought to justice, but we are often led to wonder what effect this or some other form of justice (No Country for Old Men, anyone?) will have on the characters.

Schrodinger notably used the dramatic device of the cat at risk to illustrate a duality in matter. Opportunists that we are, writers may carry that dramatic device farther along the orbit of dramatic inquiry.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hanging in the Balance

A mantra is a series of words or syllables which combine the names or aspects of the godhead and are intended as an adjunct to meditation. The word has its roots in Sanskrit, which is itself intended as a language by which to convey the meaning and intensity of mystical scripts, formulas, chants, and poems. To make matters even more intriguing, the words used in Sanskrit-based mantras are encapsulations of the personalities of gods and goddesses are additionally special, meaning that even a person who has some Sanskrit is not likely to use these so-called bija or jewel words except when chanting or meditating on mantras that contain them.

This is probably more than you wanted to know about mantras and Sanskrit and bija words, just as Melville probably, now that you think about it, told you more about whales than you want to know. But the fact is that there are mantras for the writing and telling of story; they are not in Sanskrit nor do they have bija words in them. One of the more powerful mantras for story telling is: Never take the reader where the reader wants to go. Meditating on this mantra has caused many aspiring writers to understand how important it is not to tell the reader too much about whales until the reader is sufficiently invested in the story that he has to suffer the stuff on whales to find out what happens to the characters. When the reader is sufficiently caught up in the story, the writer can successfully thrown in a chapter or two about whales and although the reader may ultimately complain, the reader will, as some recent characters in American political activities have put it, stay the course.

Another mantra of significant value to the writer is the single word withhold, a word and concept not to be taken lightly. The reader reads to be made interested in characters who take on a bigger-than-life resonance, continuing to read to see what happens to the characters. At more or less the moment the reader finds out, the story is over. In answer then to the question, when does a story end, the answer becomes When the reader finds out what happens. In exaggerated theory, the ideal place for the discovery or revelation or even the backstory-as-explanation is the penultimate chapter of a novel because, cumbersome as such an arrangement might be, the reader would put up with it to find out what happens. Come to think of it, the reader would even put up with all that stuff about whales to find out what happened to Ishmael.

The product created by withholding is suspense.

Suspense is the glue that holds stories together.

Mantras may lead to insight, even mystical union. Suspense leads to dramatic discovery.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Roberts' Rules of Ardor

1. There is no right moment to begin a story or, if necessary, a novel. This goes beyond such propaganda as waiting or not waiting for inspiration. Beginning a story is the beginning of enthusiasm, even more it is the beginning of a friendship because by the time you've finished with the story or the novel, you will have come to share strengths and weaknesses with it, its and yours. There might be times in the process where neither of you is speaking to the other. Tempers flare. It may not care what you're doing for it; you may well not care what it is doing for you. Stories may be embarked upon at any time. One proof of this is a test that may be made by as simple a move as picking up at a time of only mild enthusiasm a story by an author you like.

2. You will undoubtedly have heard some rule of thumb about the amount of revision necessary to get the story or novel in shape, the particular rule of thumb being stuck in at the behest of an editor who likes numbers or because of your own sense of guilt that the story seemed to tell itself and was accordingly too easy. Revision is a structured process, its goal being to effect the most telling portrayal of the feelings set loose by the work at hand.

3. It is fun to seem contrary and bemoan how difficult writing is. It may have been difficult to learn the tools, and occasionally a story will require more thought, more trial and error. The fact is that you may have been sold a bill of goods by a used story salesperson, the bill of goods being that writing stories is difficult. You will then assume that writing is hard work, odious work, work that is no fun. If you began with the sentiment that writing was fun, you will begin to feel more justified in shifting your attitude when friends and teachers and professionals ask you when you're going to write something serious.

4. Writers who are perpetually miserable are likely to write stories about persons, places, and events where misery is a salient feature. Ask yourself if there is some embarrassment about having fun while you work. Be sure to change your ways if you ever catch yourself singing in the shower.

5. Does it make you some kind of creep if you enjoy writing stories about characters who are feeling miserable?

6. Revision is, as noted previously, a structured investigation to determine if you are telling the story at the correct pace, in the correct point of view, and whether significant emotions are being raised and discoveries being made.

7. Revision is making decisions about which of several alternatives you find most interesting and illustrative of your dramatic goal.

8. Ending a story or novel means not sticking around trying to tack on arguments or footnotes or, for that matter, introducing a digression that will result in anticlimax.

9. Ending a story is analogous to not being the last guest to leave a party. It is better to leave early than stay too late.

10. When readers tell you they want more details about your characters, they are confessing their interest in the characters.

11. When you revise, you carefully check each line and word of dialog to make sure it carries its weight and does not become talky or conversational.

12. One sure way of knowing you've completed your revision is the realization that only you will recognize the new things you're putting in or taking out.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Your Language

There are about six thousand languages available to those of us willing to track them down, if only for the sake of an accurate count. Perhaps another thousand languages, now extinct, are on record as having existed, all of them, existing and extinct, frameworks for articulating the knowable, the doable, the imagined, the hoped for. They are also frameworks for something else, the incipient potential for saying something, articulating some concept or notion or idea that has never been said before. Thus language is not only a platform for expression, it is a challenge to express with such qualities as charm, authority, wisdom, intensity, feeling.

Thanks to Dr. Chomsky we have a solid argument for all the extant languages and all those gone off to the Big Tower of Babel in the sky having absolute parity of complexity. One of my great heroes, Mr. Twain, would have agreed with Chomsky's thesis of equality of complexity, then gone off on a riff suggesting that some languages, say German or Finnish, sound more complex than others, particularly to those who do not speak them. He might have riffed further that hearing or reading such languages, the complex-sounding ones, might well make us English-speaking sorts feel inferior.

This digression is not as far fetched as a good, serious digression ought to be. Hearing Mr. Twain's language--I have had the privilege of "hearing" him via the actor Hal Holbrook numerous times in his Mark Twain Tonight presentations, and as well the late great Paul Newman doing the Book-on-Tape reading of Tom Sawyer--or reading it from his many books, sketches, and essays, are both daunting experiences, making me charitably feel awe but more likely inferior.

Thinking about the enormous global ocean the English language has become is also a daunting, awe-inspiring experience, driving me forth to collect dictionaries, thesauri, and compendia, not so much in hopes of keeping up as with the more realistic hope of not falling too seriously behind the evolution of language. We note and expect words from French and Italian and Spanish to migrate into our language; they are practically neighbors. Faux pas actually makes mistake sound more continental or sophisticated, siesta actually makes an afternoon nap sound rational, and how would you describe a pizza if there were no such word as pizza. One of my more recondite dictionaries, The Hobson-Jobson, renders Hindi and Urdu and some Bengali words into English and shows me the passage of such words as bungalow and khaki into our language. Japanese has done some fancy migration and quick, for extra credit, name at least three words that have made their way in from Yiddish.

Hoping for clarity in English or in any language goes without saying, striving for originality begins to apply pressure, saying something that is at once clear and has never been said before is enough to give us the chills and stop us in our verb forms. Using language in a descriptive way is a necessity;using language in an evocative way is an act of heroism. Each of us who seeks to leave some literary equivalent of tagging on the literary walls of humanity has a personal approach, an attitude, a way of going about the task. My own is a combination of reading everything I can get my hands on, trying to get at the inner mechanisms of my characters through an amalgam of acting techniques, psychology, observation, and a good deal of revision. My approach involves attitudes--my own and those of my characters--politics, and for want of a better word, one of those Germanic relatives we have brought into English and no longer italicize, zeitgeist. This is a lovely word not only because of its having said in one word what it would take spirit of the times to say in English, but because it sounds like what it is and what it means.

It is an energizing task as well as a daunting one to step forth out of the mists of sleep, enhanced with coffee or Irish Breakfast or Earl Grey, try to remain equanamous while reading the morning news, then step into the potential for clarity and originality and some form of beauty whispered into your ear by the voices you have forged within you. It is a recipe for failure as well as a recipe for success as you pick a word or image out of the pile and try to capture its essence. After a time, after you have lived this confrontation long enough, you will have passed the tipping point, will have reached that stage where you take those steps and look about for traces of the clarity and originality as the second nature it has become. Your language.

Monday, October 13, 2008


A part of you, the part that attempts to manage and direct things to give you the best shot at plying and enhancing your craft, has gone to great lengths to keep you busy, jealous of your time away from your work. This managerial aspect of you knows that the busy person has the best chance of getting things done; it also understands that leisure time is an enemy in which your thought processes engage in that dialectic between supreme confidence and equally supreme self-doubt. The effect of such dialectic is often the kidnapping or neglect of writing time, all because of The Trouble.

You know you are in Trouble if:

1. someone else's Moleskine, for whatever reason, looks more interesting than yours.

2. you discover that a casual acquaintance, not even a writer, is not only a fan of "The Wire," but has noticed in it an entire dimension you completely missed.

3. an individual you admire, in a quite casual way, pulls the rug from under a book you'd read and thought to be significant.

4. a beginning writer whose work you think shows some promise is approached by a publication you've been trying to get into for some time and is extended an assignment.

5. a complete stranger approaches you, begins talking about your unique approach to writing, then begins to make references which convince you the stranger has confused you with a writer whose work elicits no sympathy or empathy in you.

6. an accomplished writer recalls a remark you made at a party where you may have had too much or too little wine, then attributes that remark as the inertia for a new venture which you deplore.

7. someone asks you to give advice to a friend or relative who is as embarrassed as you are by the transaction.

8. someone of still-emerging talent is significantly successful in the execution of an idea or concept you'd bailed on for lack of interest.

9. someone in the investment or financial sector wants to help you provide a greater sense of security for you so that you can take even greater risks in your work.

10. a stranger or casual acquaintance tells you he or she has quit a secure career path to follow your example.

These are all scenarios that cause you to wax and wane, to argue in debates where you may have little or no standing, which is to say, these and other similar situations cause you to indulge the kind of thinking where there is no tangible product or plan. You are alternately fluffing a pillow and wondering if there are enough feathers in the pillow to make it worth fluffing in the first place.

There is some satisfaction in the notion of a possible scenario about supposition # 1 supra. Suppose, you posit, you were to arrange a one- or two-week swap of your Moleskine for that of a local friend or a blog friend. What inspirations would you glean from the laundry lists, complaints, and observations of another? What glorious satellites would you induce in orbit about you? What great values of industry and organization would you inherit?

Ah, you have reached the point in life where ideas do not need a seventeen mile linear accelerator to cause them to smash into one another, therein to produce the subatomic particles of story. You have learned not to think until it is time to undertake revision, that lovely conflation of the Twelve-step Program with editorial pragmatism. A fierce moral inventory.

You can almost see the personal ad in The New York Review of Books or The London Times Literary Supplement. Calif. writer ISO interesting, note-taking writer with Moleskine at least half-filled, for long or short term swap.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Installment Plan

Most stories have within their movement from the Point A of beginning to the Point B of ending a buried prize. This prize is in large part the thrust of the story, the thing the main character seeks, attempts to earn. Some stories allow the main character to gain the prize, others, especially in the short form, have a kind of close-but-no cigar Point B, others still arrange for the principal character to reject or miss the prize and in so doing achieve an even greater payoff.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the longer the story the more articulated the prize becomes, primarily because there's more room to describe it but also because we have a greater chance to see what the prize means to all concerned. Churl that I sometimes am, I like The Maltese Falcon-type ending because there is always less of it than meets the eye. The characters have inflated the prize beyond measure, in the bargain making us wonder if it is as good as has been represented. My own philosophy is that nothing is exactly as advertised; it is either much better or much worse. Accordingly I tend to respond well to endings happier than expected or worse than anticipated; better still I like those in which the principal character strives for a goal, fails, strives again, achieves the result, then discovers it is not all that much of a prize and in the bargain gains some insight, some wisdom, some connection that is the more enduring prize.

In modern times, the short story holds forth a prize that is often not tangible, has some overarching destiny that will take place off the page and into the reaches of the reader's imagination. Because the story is in fact short, there is less room or time to dwell on the exactitude and complexity of Point B. This quality of opacity is necessary because of the very nature of the short story--nevertheless the story must deliver an emotion that feels like some kind of pause if not an actual finality. They all lived happily ever after is so eighteenth and nineteenth century. It is not that we readers are cynics, denying characters in short stories happiness, rather it is that we are more aware of the lurching, tidal quality of life, of events, of the enormous interconnectedness of the basic social groups we deal with, the family, the work force, institutions, races, genders, professions. Nor are we readers cynics when we look at a happy ending only to wonder how long it will last before these same individuals are beset with another set of problems, options, and choices.

The modern novel is more like the installment plan, payments made before the debt is retired and the prize is fully owned and thus subject to admiration, buyer's remorse, or buyer's ingenuity. How much interest was paid and how did that effect the view of the prize once it was owned free and clear?

Major themes of the human condition have as their fulcrum the inevitability of loss, which is a tangible offset to gain. Weights ad balances, losses, gains. What is the prize of any story? A temporary shelter in the form of a relationship, a friendship, an accomplishment involving people, a sense of having given, having learned, having withstood some test. Weighing against all this is the ultimate loss and how we approach it, how much of our posture and stature we are able to pass along to those we care about and, as writers, to those we will meet only through the medium of our words and stature.

For every prize we strive for and achieve there is the price of its eventual loss,which pales in comparison to the price of never having striven, never having reached whether by hand or mind toward the hand or mind of another.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Things You Carried

A question we frequently ask of an actor's performance is What does that actor bring to a particular role? Similar questions are asked of dancers and singers; the same question may also be directed to a musician undertaking a particular work. What, for instance, did Audrey Hepburn bring to Eliza Doolittle? What did Margot Fonteyn bring to Swan Lake? What did Kiri Te Kanawa bring to the Countess in the Marriage of Figaro? What did John Coltrane bring to My Favorite Things?

There are tangible answers to all these specific questions, answered in no small part by the things other artists and performers brought to the same role or performance. Similarly, and because the thrust of this inquiry goes to writing and story, we could ask, for instance, what F. Scott Fitzgerald brought to the college novel. We could augment this question with a dependent clause, as in, what did F. Scott Fitzgerald bring to This Side of Paradise that Richard Farina did not bring to Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me?

Each of these writer questions has answers, the substances of which lead directly to the question, Why you? Or, better put, What do you bring to your story? Not, How dare you tell such a story? or what right did Jules Verne have writing about life twenty thousand leagues under the sea? but rather what elements of vision, attitude, philosophy, perspective, and emotional compass do you bring along when you confront pen and note pad or computer and screen with the ingredients for a story?

To begin, you bring a recipe for story, one you have gleaned from Aristotle or Anne Lamott or John Gardner or an amalgam of the reading you have done as you sought to inform yourself with the ingredients of story. Then you bring forth the order in which the elements are introduced. Just as I was taught that cornbread began when you poured buttermilk in the mixing bowl then added the corn meal, I also discerned the need to begin with characters who wanted things to happen or not to happen. You bring forth a history of failures, as indeed my early narratives were events, vignettes rather than fully formed stories. You bring forth successes, things that seemed to have emerged from your typewriter, your fountain pen, your computer screen as though they'd been dictated to you by the ghost of some writer on its way to eternity, things that were so completely of you that you scarcely new how to replicate them in another venture.

You bring forth attitude as in, I'll show the bastards (with a full vision of who the bastards are), or this is payoff with thanks for people who helped me grow, or this is my revision of what happened to me at a time when I was completely humiliated, or this is how I learned something, or this information about the human condition needs to be passed on, or this is my political theory, or this is what God means or does not mean to me. You know, stuff.

You bring forth a world view. Don't trust. Do trust. Beware. Be Open. The worker always gets screwed. The worker is the salt of the earth. People are basically kind and empathetic. People are mean, nasty, duplicitous.

You bring forth philosophy: In story, every character believes he is right. In story, women always have to settle for something. In story, strong men must by necessity be lonely. In story, adults are the enemy and children carry forth the real truth. In story, there is a double standard in every society which can be found if you look closely enough.

You bring forth to story your own toolkit, your individual strengths and proclivities. This toolkit may include an acute vision of the future or of the undercurrent of violence in all social relations or the gestalt of the most delicious plotting, or an eye for character or an ear for dialogue, or a reckless disregard for rule and regulation, or an imagination that is the literary equivalent of a splendidly formed woman in a bikini or an equally splendid man in a scanty Speedo, which is to say it is arresting to the point of producing the lust of envy.

You have a certain chutzpah of the sort Dustin Hoffman had when he took on Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman after Lee J. Cobb had homesteaded that part and owned it. You have the chutzpah of Jane Smiley taking on a frame tale hundreds of years after Boccaccio and Chaucer turned the format into their own Hollywoodland sign. You have the serene confidence of Margaret Yourcenar when she channelled the emperor Hadrian for her novel, Hadrian Remembers. You have the audacity to take on Merlin as Mary Stewart did in The Crystal Cave.

You dare to take on Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried with the simple and bodacious act of seating yourself to write. These are the things you carry, these are the things you are at any given moment, simultaneously fearful they will not last you through the night and confident they will replenish themselves and grow more diverse in the process.

Who are you?


Friday, October 10, 2008

The N Word

Narrative is as slippery a word as a politician's promise at a fund raiser. Often used as a synonym for story, it is more associated with fiction than nonfiction, is sometimes used as a sly dig to suggest that a reporter or scholar is indulging more in story telling than in research or reportage. Speaking of a writer's narrative voice implies fiction--how that writer tells a story--or fiction morphed into myth or legend rather than straightforward accounting of event.

Sometimes when leading up to a revelation that the material under discussion is not yet a fully developed story, I'll use the word narrative, by which I mean a progression of events, before springing the trap door of what elements could morph this narrative into a full-fledged story. Treating the student like an author in such cases produces positive results in the sense of allowing the student to believe he'd known that all along. Treating an author like a student usually brings forth some form of stubbornness, which does no good at all for the story.

Narrative is some selected personality, apprehended in the act of relating dramatic events; it has a perspective, a point of view, an attitude, all of which should be manifest as the reader reads. Narrative may be you as author provided you have taken some steps to articulate what your perspective and agenda may be. In other words, there is no way of avoiding the responsibility of taking some side or stand. Neutrality is at best a Platonic ideal, but in drama it is an albatross the weight of which quickly makes itself felt as the need for explanation and fair presentation standards emerge. And they surely will.

Look at it this way, narrative is the macrocosm, the universe of the story, however brief or expansive, expressed in some pattern selected to produce the senses of tension, risk, and consequence. Suspense is very much the glue holding dramatic events together. When the time comes for greater specificity, switch to dialogue.

Some historical eras produced politically charged concepts of narrative that did for narrative what corsets and bustles did for women at various times or skin-tight pants did for men at other times--they caused constraint, certainly made sitting and standing more a discomfort than before. In one dramatic example, narrative was thought to need more realistic detail, a thought that resulted in entire laundry lists of clothing, medicines, nostrums, and utensil invading the orderly progression of story across the pages. Other times required of characters that their inner consciousness be brought to account, bringing forth paragraph after paragraph of internal monologue. English majors, who should by no know better, have their heads filled with these details and some in their midst are even able to recite the names of the various theories--modern, post-modern, Marxist, neo-Marxist, Feminist, et alia--some even to the point of being accorded merit raises in pay.

Applying the razor of William of Occam to the matter, narrative is a vehicle by which story is advanced to effect a dramatic result. The result is variously called closure, ending, resolution, and prismatic spread. But don't be fooled by definitions that state or imply such conditions as should or ought. Out on the street, narrative is the stuff that carries story without dropping the reader.