For some recent years, various branches of the scientific discipline have been not only making history but investigating it at first hand by means of the core sample. With a device similar to a drill, scientists are able to dig deeply into some point on the earth--including ocean floors--there to extract a segment of information to which accurate measurements may be applied. Core samplings show layers of sedimentary deposit, layers of lava, even such tidbits as pollen and seed samples. Thus they are able to tell who lived when, what they ate, which continents were at one time connected, what the weather may have been like, and what areas were once under water. Such indexes as tree-ring dating, enamel on teeth, even mummified human remains, and conditions of camp sites and butchering sites emerge as crude in comparison to the technologies for dating, measuring, and analysis.
This technology applies to the tangible and the sense that is to be made of it. I propose here a different type of core sampling, a cultural core, a generational core. Accordingly, here and no doubt in entries to follow, a core sampling of my generation, replete with icons of the blessed and the damned, the things worth saving and the things we could have done with out even though in actual practice, they too contributed to our evolution and contributed to us, all of us, being what we are on the last day of the third month of 2008 of The Common Era.
Here, in no particular order, are the layers of a generational core sampling:
Take the A Train, by Edward Kennedy Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Frenisi by Artie Shaw.
June Allison, in the bio-pic Words and Music, singing Thou Swell by Rogers and Hart.
C stickers on windshields of civilian automobiles during World War II, denoting gas rationing.
Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin and DuBoise Heyward.
Any lyric by Lorenz Hart, notably My Funny Valentine, and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, but not to forget Ten Cents a Dance, and the gritty, evocative Zip, a song sung by a stripper as she divests herself of her clothing.
Concerto in F by George Gershwin.
Over the Rainbow by E. Y. "Yip" Harburg.
Jess Stacy's piano solo on Sing, Sing, Sing, at the 1937 Carnegie Hall concert featuring the Benny Goodman band.
Nat Cole's 1949 piano solo on Body and Soul at the 1949 Shrine Auditorium Jazz at the Philharmonic concert.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
How to Write a Short Story by Rheingold "Ring" Lardner.
The John O'Hara short stories in The New Yorker.
The John Cheever short stories in The New Yorker.
White Castle hamburgers.
The Andrews Sisters, Maxine, Patti, and LaVerne.
John Coltrane's soprano sax solo on My Favorite Things.
Charlie Parker' changes on Back Home Again in Indiana, rendering it as Donna Lee.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Doris Day, before she became a virgin, singing Sentimentl Journey with the Les Brown band.
Miles Dewey Davis.
Thurgood Marshall, associate justice, United States Supreme Court when that body stood for something.
The Douglas DC-3.
The Saturday Evening Post.
The Saturday Review of Literature.
Lux Radio Theater.
The Green Hornet.
The Lone Ranger.
Isaac Sidney "Sid" Cesar, and Your Show of Shows.
Fibber McGee and Molly.
George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Train leaving on track five for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuckamonga.
I'm thinking...I'm thinking. (Jack Benny)
Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa.
William Randolph Hearst.
Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
The Holland Tunnel.
Hire's Root Beer.
Coca-cola original bottles.
The Mills Brothers.
Amos and Andy.
The Super Chief.
F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Bob's Big Boy.
Monday, March 31, 2008
For some recent years, various branches of the scientific discipline have been not only making history but investigating it at first hand by means of the core sample. With a device similar to a drill, scientists are able to dig deeply into some point on the earth--including ocean floors--there to extract a segment of information to which accurate measurements may be applied. Core samplings show layers of sedimentary deposit, layers of lava, even such tidbits as pollen and seed samples. Thus they are able to tell who lived when, what they ate, which continents were at one time connected, what the weather may have been like, and what areas were once under water. Such indexes as tree-ring dating, enamel on teeth, even mummified human remains, and conditions of camp sites and butchering sites emerge as crude in comparison to the technologies for dating, measuring, and analysis.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Who is your enemy?
Who nips your practice, your attempts at originality, your enthusiasm in the bud?
Who whispers Can't be done, making it seem a prophecy?
Who reminds you of the great poets, novelists, essayists, short story writers of your own discovery? How would she do it? How would he have handled that scene? Would she have even left it in, allowed it to stand in the first place?
Is it your enemy who has made you practical? Is, indeed, practicality the worst of enemies?
Who has betrayed you the most--you or others?
Whom have you betrayed the most--yourself or others?
Q: Is there some philosophy, science, religion, formula, advice, approach that is so comprehensive, it works every time?
A: Yes, but no one knows what it is.
It is just after midnight and you are, like Bernardo in Hamlet, patrolling the upper reaches of the castle. A ghostly apparition appears, gestures to you to follow it. What does it want from you?
Is this the way a story comes to you? I am thy story's ghost.
What do your enemies want from you?
Which is the more difficult, beginning a story or ending it?
Saturday, March 29, 2008
In his comments about another writer's work in progress, read today in my Saturday workshop, one of my long-term regulars, a garrulous, balding ex-Marine owner of an insurance agency advised the author from whom we'd just heard to compile a list of generalized things always to keep in mind when setting forth to write fiction. By all accounts a caring man, the Marine Corps tattoos on his biceps notwithstanding, he has a heart of pure marshmallow; his concerns are rarely if ever bordering on meanspiritedness or self-importance. Some of the Things to Keep in Mind he uttered were similar to a Ten-Step Plan that I discovered earlier this morning on a newsletter from my department at the University.
Define your audience.
Create a persona/narrator
Cull the Facts
Stay on the Spine of the Story...
...and six other things that were well-intended, each containing a modicum of common sense.
So that by the time I heard my ex-Marine, long-term regular advising another to keep a list handy at each writing session, I bristled inwardly but was more impressed by the fact that I held my tongue.
One of the last things I want when I have time to devote to writing is a modicum of common sense or, in fact, even the merest hint of common sense. I do not want all my ducks in a row nor do I wish to mind my p's and q's. I am, on the other hand, quite willing to count my chickens before they are hatched; I frequently judge books by their covers, I judge other persons without having walked a mile in their shoes, I leap before I look, and I put all my eggs in one basket.
The point here is that I like being lead off on wild goose chases, snipe hunts, excursions down the garden path; I often read with the expressed hope of being drawn into a false conclusion and/or having one of my multifarious prejudices revealed to me by my willingness to believe something patently untrue, poorly reasoned, or rooted like a perennial in some bigotry-like soil.
I itched this morning to say that the time for staying on the spine of the story or culling excessive details or defining my audience is not in the instant draft but rather later on down the line, when I am involved in the process of revision. Things being what they are, I might even consider in revision running my longer sentences through the shredder, producing instead of the one, as many as three or four stories.
I want to be as unfettered by common sense as possible, as open to strange and wonderful connections and associations as I can achieve, the better to make something textured and tangible. I want to be dazzled, hit by falling stars, struck by lightning, awed by sunrises and sunsets, reduced to wordlessness by a smile, done in by a birthday cake, transported to other realms by a gaze, set into being a kaleidoscope of emotion by a few bars of music. None of this comes to me as a result of keeping a list or agenda.
The way to manage creativity is to leap off the side of an idea, flap your arms as though they might be wings, then note the results as you go spiraling downward in the manner of Wile E. Coyote. Mr. Coyote is irony in the flesh. His creators have conspired against him and let us in on the secret. We know he cannot succeed in his goal, which is making Roadrunner the breakfast of champions, but we are drawn into his orbit because we know his common sense will not prevail and because ours has prevailed perhaps a bit too long already
Friday, March 28, 2008
Pairs of opposites:
1. The plot-driven story, perhaps well exemplified by almost anything you pick up to read by Harlen Coben. Thanks to Barnaby Conrad, you have CD versions of at least six Coben novels, most of which hold up quite well until the point where they stay on beyond the ending, like a sloshed guest at a party, wanting to finish his drink...and have another...and another. Characters in plot-driven stories quite often behave in a plausible manner, but they are equally given to strange behavior you don't immediately grasp until you realize that they do what they do or do not do what they should because they are following the pole star of the plot.
2. The character-driven story, well exemplified by E. Annie Proulx or Richard Powers, or William Trevor, or Alice Munro, and yes, your great favorite through the years, Muriel Spark. Character-driven fiction turns your head, wrests you away from work and into the roughhouse of the splendid play of things happening because the characters have no control over their deeper wishes and ambitions. Ah, the years you spent trying to learn how to plot, admiring such pals as Day Keene and Bob Turner, Steve Fisher, and Frank Gruber, not to forget Dorothy B. Hughes and Tom Dewey. You even had Day Keene's agent, Donald MacCampbell for a time, and it was nice to spend that time thinking you could live in comfort if not opulence with a novel every month or six weeks. And how that scenario played out when as an editor you "acquired" MacCampbell's memoir, Don't Step on It--It Might Be a Writer, and later still, Gruber's The Pulp Jungle. In some ways, your trying to write plot-driven material and not being able to with any notable skill pushed you toward learning what only you could learn for yourself, how to write like yourself, how to leave it in the hands of who the characters were, what they wanted, and what they were willing to do to get what they wanted.
Another great schism:
1. The outline: a detailed map of design, a kind of Navajo rug of literary pretension, setting forth such time-worn terms as goal, reversal, rising action, falling action, denouement, closure. From about age fifteen onward until your thirties, you devoured exegeses of such terms and concepts, one of your favorites being by a man named Stanley Vestal, who in a real sense herded you toward early pulp successes.
2. The flashlight-in-the-dark approach, which some one of your early writing heroes set forth, meaning you wrote in the dark, your curiosity a flashlight getting you through the unfamiliar terrain of a darkened room with only a small flashlight to guide you.
Suddenly, well along in the game, it comes to you that this is indeed your approach, sometimes being satisfied with a line or two of keepable text a day instead of the twenty pages of outlined diktat.
And yet another:
1. Outer conflict: an interesting or appealing character needs to battle the equivalent of schoolyard bullies to get through the day.
2. Inner conflict: an interesting he or she who needs to battle his or her internal schoolyard bullies to get at his or her talent. The monsters are inside, keeping the character on a tight leash.
And this just in, as they say on TV:
1. Proactive, which is to say going at story as a means of advocacy.
2. Reactive, which is a response to some injustice or as a rebuttal.
In a real sense, it--the process--is all the above, which is to say writing after having at one time or another doing all of the above, leavening it now with that greatest process of all, muscle memory. Doing it without thinking. Which in its literary way, is taking on literature, any kind of literature, as though still a teen-ager, without fear of failure much less death.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
In an admiring and comprehensive obituary of actor Richard Widmark, dead at age 93, in today's New York Times, the author quoted a remark Widmark once made about the craft of acting. The older one gets, Widmark said, the less one knows about acting and the more one is able to recognize the truly great actors.
Indeed, one of the living greats, Paul Schofield, left us not two weeks back, and today's Times carries notices of yet another, Patrick Stewart, maintaining that his current rendition of Macbeth is an opportunity of a life time.
All this as prologue to my conflating Widmark's observation about actors to writers. There are times just before I enter a class room or workshop venue when I am struck by my audacity in presuming to present information to students about writing. Saving grace and salvation appear almost immediately with the reminder that I am not entering with notes written on stone tablets nor am I speaking entirely of my own beliefs but rather am using examples and visions of women and men whose works cry out for recognition because of their ability to transport, transpose, dignify, explain, and evoke.
You can tell the great ones by the stature with which their words appear on the page, neither overdone nor timid, rather confident of the vision they impart to the story they wish to share.
Some days back, I was slathering at the prospect of the new collection of stories by Tobias Wolff, which arrived yesterday and into which I fell with reckless tantivy. He has become, I argue, the American version of William Trevor, a storyteller so sure of himself that he is able to move us, no, more than move, to transport us to places we thought were beyond our frame of business. Such is Wolff's approach to storytelling, however, that he is able to make it our business by including us and them--his characters--in the rubric of shared humanity.
The new stories are featured in a section at the rear. Many of the earlier stories, taken from earlier collections, appear first, prefaced by a brief note from the author in which he confesses to having tweaked some of them in the service of making them more accessible. What a lovely word, accessible. I have a suspicion of writers who opt for the murkiness of obfuscation rather than the target of at least transparency on the way to pellucidity.
Sure enough, he tweaked the opening of one of my favorites, In the Garden of American Martyrs, which made me resolve to revisit that in its entirety. But for the moment, the lure of the new was strong and so I began with the first, something that seemed so bland on the surface as to give me pause, induce me back to the beginning again for a closer look. All I will say of it is that the strategy was worth the effort. I was made to think, yanked from one place where, in many ways, I'd been myself, to a new kind of awareness that is the kind of awareness not arrived at with ease, at least not by me. I was made, in a sense, to grow up. In actual chronology, I'm probably more grown up than Wolff, but remember, he is a gifted writer who has worked at his gifts and by no means squandered them.
Thinking back on it, I realize I became caught up on reading to be transported to times and places where things were happening that made what was happening in my young, routine-filled life seem bland. Now, what I read and write makes me anxious to return to those days, filled with the techniques of masterly men and women who taught me over the years to look for and find the miracles buried in the terrain of the ordinary.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Irony is a staunch friend of the writer of nonfiction and fiction; it is among other things expressing one idea or sentiment with the absolute certainty that your audience understands you to mean the exact opposite.
In which case--the not case--the non-understander is de facto naive to a fault or just plain dense.
Irony, often in life and almost invariably in fiction, becomes a conspiracy against one or more characters. Unless it is directed against us and we are the victim, we the audience, are an active party in the conspiracy. The author has conspired to let us know that one person--let's call that individual The Targer Person--is to be the one who misunderstands. If The Target Person is to be brought before the bar of humor (see yesterday's post on humor) we understand that this individual's humiliation will in some way become a cosmic payoff for past abuse. James Thurber's remarkable short story, The Man in the Cat-Bird Seat, plays off this sense of irony as retribution for past sins.
As an audience, we are interested in irony and its effects because often, perhaps even too often because of some personal foible, we have been The Target Person, humiliated because we so willingly read out own agenda into an outcome, because the joke was on us, because we were found out to be not as inside or hip or knowledgeable as we thought or, worse, as knowledgeable as we pretended to be.
The greater joke or, if you will, irony is that there are times when each of us is out on the ledge of the structure of irony, not quite sure how we got there, certain we have issed something important. The humor or irony compounds when we consider our potential for communication: Homo sapiens are, after all, allegedly the most reasonable species extant, right?
Sarcasm is irony run wild, a state of mind difficult enough to bring off in real life, dangerously inadvisable in fiction or essay because of the possibility that the sarcasm will be misinterpreted for something entirely else.
Therein lies the mischievous joy or irony, the concept of something entirely else. Stage plays, novels, and short stories abound where two or more individuals appear on the surface to be in complete agreement only to discover that each has brought an entirely different notion to the table. Or the bed (which is where things commence to be interesting beyond dramatic. Or perhaps dramatic beyond interesting.
"I thought you understood. Surely I gave you every possible signal."
"I thought you knew I was only joking."
What, indeed, is the cure, the pill to swallow, the statin to ingest, the exercise to pursue to keep irony at bay, almost as though it were a mosquito responding to citronella?
And thus we come to the greatest irony of all. There is no cure, no way, no elixir or tonic or steroid. We are all of us vulnerable to it and we never know where it will appear, under which guise it will present itself, and even worse, when some writer will conspire with some audience to yank the rug or the tablecloth out from under us.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Humor is often conflated with comedy, which is largely physical in nature, involving such elements as slipping on a banana peel--do persons in real life ever trip on banana peels?--or the more realistic slipping on ice. From the French we get yet another useful word, farce, which is forced or enhanced, thus comedy is tragedy sped up.
In fact, humor is associated with pain--yours or someone else's; it comes to us somewhere in late adolescence and remains like a visiting relative until we become so focused on trying to remember what we last said and to whom that it has become our legacy, passed on to those who survive us as a reminder that we are funny because we are so preoccupied with trying not to be noticed.
Humor is the denominator for what is called edge or attitude. Individuals who are spoken of as having a good sense of humor or any sense of humor at all are those persons who see themselves trying to cope and, like some of the higher-priced, non-steroid-using baseballers, hitting around one for three. He has a sense of humor translates to he does not take himself too seriously. She has a sense of humor translates to In addition to tracking her own foibles, she has to cope with a him who takes himself a might too seriously.
Humor is more than slipping on a banana peel, it is yanking the rug from under a he or she who has built without a permit or geological survey on the moral high ground, he or she who knows a thing or two about seriousness and attempts to show us by example how it is best maintained. Humor is descent, captured in time-lapse photography; it is pain of awareness made palatable.
Humor is Robbie Burns's electric "O! wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see ourselves as Ithers see us/ 'Twould from many a blunder free us/ and foolish notion.
Thus is humor blunder on its way to a collision, foolish notion in the driver's seat.
Dignity is the momentary abeyance of humor, it is a much sought-after plateau where the Self dwells as a kind of suzerain, surveying the campus grounds. Fair enough, provided one does not attempt to use that image of self to win arguments with others: I am more dignified than you.
Not. Am too. Not.
Any person caught up in a situation of stress becomes a petri dish for humor.
The message is one of awareness. The awareness is a simple one: At any given moment, we are vulnerable. The good news is that this is our E-ticket to the rides of life; it gets us on everything, no waiting, no hidden fees. The bad news is that we may attempt to protect ourselves from the inevitable by doing the equivalent of walking down the streets of the Green Zone in Baghdad with a McCain armored vest and reporting back to the rest of the world that the surge is working.
The first cousin of humor is irony, which is an E-ticket to misreading persons and events, but it is already growing late and I have still not done lecture notes for today's grand return from Spring Break, so maybe tomorrow for irony.
Monday, March 24, 2008
It is not enough to merely invent characters, contrive situations for them in which they can reach out for the things they want or, if for practical and/or realistic reasons the things they want are not available to them.
It is necessary to be them, be all of them, see all of their vectors and through lines, become in a way besotted with the obstacle course of a world that they have created for themselves and which by some bit of time warp you are able to visualize.
Trying on worlds and landscapes is something like trying on hats or sunglasses, something like having your eyes measured to provide a means by which you can see close up, medium distance, and off into the greater distance.
Trying on characters, becoming them, knowing what they want, what they do not dare to let themselves know what they want, watching them in action where surprising things come springing forth is most difficult of all.
If we spend too much time thinking of plot, the results will seem like tour guides attempting to move waves of tourists in and out of buses, out and about dramatic sites, ultimately in and out of souvenir shops where they will search for mementos already fated for garage sales of the future.
So we are left with discovering what they want, what they will do to secure that desired goal, how they will respond having got the goal.
You sometimes think dreams have nothing to do with your own brain playing out its overload of images but rather the scraps and ghosts of stories begun, finished, perhaps pruned but an equal perhaps is that they have been abandoned and are returning to claim their inheritance from you.
Individuals who experience stress and some measure of stiffness in their joints repair to yoga centers to bend, stretch, clear the mind of clutter, relax the stress-filled muscles. Individuals who write ultimately entertain the discipline that is the opposite, they take in huge gulps of frustration and tension, feel the insides constrict, the muscles tighten because these are the things that accrue to the writer, trying to be a person, trying to fit into him or her as though he or she were a suit one size too small or one size too large.
How do your people respond to tight shoes, overly stylized clothing, colors right out of the Lands End Catalog? Ah, you were listening, watching. perhaps you will get them yet. Just be careful not to let them get caught up in prompts and artificiality. They have troubles enough of their own and should not have to worry about such things.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Short story collections forthcoming:
1. Tobias Wolff Our Story Begins
2. Jhumpa Lahiri Unaccustomed Earth,
in anticipation of which, whoopee! There is something qualitatively enhancing about each author and the ability each has to compress so much detail and energy into such a relatively small container.
The short story does not allow for summary or settling of accounts; it lurches to a stop just before those controlling words THE END, leaving us with a sense of awareness just barely manifest. The ending of a short story is the RENT DUE NOW note slipped under the author's door by an impatient landlord; it is the index card or note pad found on the table at a coffee shop: THINGS I'VE BEEN MEANING TO TELL ARTHUR, and you wonder if it is a real note and there is a real Arthur who may at this very moment be getting told things that will change his life or maybe the previous occupant at the table was a writer, thinking things through for a story and if I got a double latte and stayed up all night, maybe I could get a draft on the story done before this author.
I adore novels, run off with them for illicit weekends, thinking at times that I have in my hands a work so splendid that its dialog will work with real persons in real life, all to my advantage. I learn from novels, spend endless hours thinking of new ones, almost happy to have nothing of interest to read so that I can write a novel that will interest me because that's what novels are for, aren't they, to keep writers interested.
But short stories are like love affairs, like being witness to moments that crackle in the night air, that deserve to be pressed between the pages of favored books, that remind you of old dreams, new dreams, and impossible plans that you somehow put to good effect. They are events shamans whisper over tangy cedar logs, drawings etched on cave walls, hearts inscribed on deserted beaches with forbidden initials inside. Short stories are mantras to be repeated, photos taken when the world was young and no one was ever suspicious, elaborate wide-angle shots of gatherings of dozens of people, so special that if you look closely, you can tell who is in a relationship with whom. Short stories are French kisses, huge scoops of gelato, ficelles fresh from the oven, news from the cosmos that today you matter, maps to the homes of the happy, gift cards to as yet uninvented rides at unimaginable theme parks.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
One of my favorite faculty mates at the University is Aram Saroyan, a fondness that has foundation in my regard for his writing, some of the politics that inform his writing, and traces I have seen and heard of relating to his passion for teaching as well as writing. Some of my fondness comes from the fondness I had for his father's work, the fun and learning I derived from the time when I tried to write in the same basic style as the elder Saroyan and, of course, the disastrous time when I appeared at a writers' conference as the second banana to the elder Saroyan (to say nothing about the times when I have been invited to the William Saroyan Writers' Conference in the Saroyan home town of Fresno.
A great fan of the elder Saroyan's short stories, I thought I'd pretty well kept pace with all his work, I mean all of it. But Barnaby Conrad loaned me a work I'd never heard of, a work in which William Saroyan wrote obituaries for individuals, many of whom he did not know but had come to wish he had known. It was an odd, quirky work as indeed William Saroyan was an odd, quirky writer. I very much fancied the collection and discovered quite by accident that it is Aram's favorite work of his late father.
One more example of how point of view influences narratives, even funerary narratives. I am also aware of this intriguing potential from my reading of Alessandro Baricco's An Iliad, a retelling of The Iliad from the point of view of twenty-one characters who appear in the version produced by the putative Homer.
This is pleasurable if disjointed noodling about the wondrous mischief inherent in telling a traditional myth/story/narrative from the point of view of an interested bystander. Lear comes to mind as a possibility, causing me to wonder how the elder Saroyan would have gone at it. I am also made aware of some of the followers of Agamemnon in The Iliad, reminding me without too much reach of General Petraeus and indeed John McCain, (R Ariz).
Which brings us to the question of the teller's intent. Many individuals relate stories to cast themselves in a redemptive role, others to recast history to the point of exacting revenge. I am fascinated by John McCain (R Ariz) and his inability to distinguish Shia from Suni, Iran from Iraq, and his sense of having to get back home to the U.S. to bone up on some economics if he is to be the fiscal conservative of his claims, but more to the point of various narrators who are more or less stuck with being apologists for him, spinning his error-ridden concepts as mere gaffes that are of no consequence. Right. John is answering Hilary's telephone at 3 a.m. and can't find his glasses with which to read his briefing.
Let's leave it for the moment at this, a kind of lit crit in which we look at some established narrative--Moby-Dick? The Scarlet Letter? Babbit?--through the most unlikely eyes, therein to draw absurdist, Becketian conclusions.
But the dreams and plots whirl along.
Like suppose, for instance, instead of the three old harpies, Macbeth comes home to find three bag ladies sharing a brown bag of California red, proclaiming All hail, Thane of Cawdor, only it will no longer be Macbeth, it will be Bill Clinton, and the only way out will be for him to go after not Malcolm but Barrack.
Well, let the mind boggle a bit.
Friday, March 21, 2008
Framing is a device whereby writers may take a work from the past, build upon it characters and circumstances of current relevance, then proceed to forge a conclusion. The notion of framing has been with you much of this year because of a persistent combination of students in classes asking questions about the practice, thoughts of your own about a short-story cycle, plus the reappearance in various book reviews you've written. Most recently there was the association between Richard Price of Lush Life, and Honore de Balzac of Pere Goriot fame and of course Balzac's use of Lear as a frame for Goriot.
Was it thus coincidence that you were drawn to An Iliad by Alessandro Barrico? Did it have anything to do with a discussion you had with Liz Kuball about her project to interview ten photographers on her blog site, and the highly personal and craft-related questions she contrived for each of her interviewees? Was it influenced by your buddy Ernest Sturm from the Department of French and Italian at UCSB, who had just gone from a work (in French) Du Critique, to a play that reminded both of us of Beckett and collaterally evoked a longish discussion about individual process? And what about your table-thumping encomium about W.B. Yeats and his process, causing Ernest to bring up the editorial oversight on Eliot's poetry not only by Pound but by Vivienne Eliot?
Yes to all the above, to the point where you are aware that the specifics of craft cannot be taught to another, they can be hinted at, approached obliquely, yes, even absorbed by constant work. So here you are, thinking about a story cycle framed on The Odyssey, featuring a character based on Odysseus but not nearly so eloquent, an actor returning home after appearing in a Broadway production of Troilus and Cressida. The thing that got you onto the idea in the first place came after one of the stories appeared in a small journal and someone noted that the protagonist's last name, Bender, was a neat analog for the translation of Odysseus' name, a man of many turns.
Fun by all accounts. Some of the stories are done to your satisfaction and, you notice, one of them, written before the connection to The Odyssey appeared to you, uses the first line of Kafka's Metamorphosis as a framing device: After a night of uneasy dreams, Matthew Bender awoke to discover he had turned into Cindy's boyfriend.
That will have to go. Cindy may turn out to be Circe. Maybe not.
But while we're on the subject, and simply to get it down on record, what other frames come to your mind as a trampoline for a contemporary landscape?
And of course your first answer is The Canterbury Tales, with its richness of characters, its unrelenting display of voice and satire, its presentation of an index of the human condition that has changed little in six hundred odd years. You can see John McCain as the Knight, and what splendid mischief to frame The Pardoner's Tale and your everlasting favorite, The Wife of Bath. Of course you yourself would be cast in the role of Melibee, he whom Harry Baily cuts off early in his tale because, "Thy drasty rhyme is not worth a toord."
The unwritten law in framing is not to have the effect or outcome rely on the framing; just as the original stood erect on its own for you, your use of it must stand frim on its own legs, its own voice, its own portraits of individuals.
All right. There you have it. Perhaps more will reveal itself to you as you essay the review of Barrico's An Iliad.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Blanche DuBois, the white lady of the woods and also Streetcar, was wont to be thankful for the kindness of strangers, a kindness on which she appeared to get by. I hold a brief for most strangers, thinking of them abstractly as potential friends. These past days, I have been getting by on the kindness of friends and their computers--no strangers have yet stepped forth yet.
When you takes a beloved animal friend to the vet or loved one or self to any specialist above the rank of local shaman, you're naturally apprehensive when said specialist above the rank of local shaman says, Looks like we'd better run some tests. The apprehension increases until beloved animal friend is back chasing cars or cats or, in the case of my animal friend, dragons. Where persons are involved, we want to see them back at the top of their form. Nothing less will do.
When your computer is kept over night for tests, your entire sense of self may feel the invasion. You are brought to hard realities of how significantly you are connected to persons, places, and things, all thanks to the Internet. You submit and receive manuscripts, you Google various nouns, you look up things using Wikipedia and other reference sources, you check blogs, news, music sources, and of course email. Even though you still prise out a first draft with a fountain pen, enjoying the connection with hand, instrument, and paper, you recognize how significant your relationship is with your MacBook. While it is off at Mac Mechanic, you are vaguely out of sorts, forced back on the whims and mercies of PCs, figuring ways to get your email through your university account of something run by your ISP. None of it seems quite real because it is not your instrument, adjusted to your touch and preferences.
Looks like the hard drive is shot, Mach Mechanic says and even though it is covered by warranty, even though the people at Mac Mechanic say they've already ordered a new one, you recognize the thin line between this sophisticated hunk of electronics and something that chases cars or cats or dragons.
You have not sworn at a computer since acquiring your Mac, although there were a few moments when you swore at the Fates while getting used to the Mac and thinking some valued chunk of material might have gone poof into the cyber beyond.
This was supposed to be an essay into the democratization of the dramatic narrative by the removal of gods and goddesses, a process that led in the breach to the introduction of supernatural beings and powers back into dramatic narrative in the genre of fantasy. But that has been placed on temporary hold until I am not depending on the kindness of PCs and strange computers. This entire concatenation of events has opened the door to the perception that any essay of dramatic relevance is bathed in risk. I am still trying to decipher paragraphs of a short story written in ink on a legal pad that accidentally met a puddle of water from a spilled bottle of Avian.
The Mac has a separate external hard drive which mercifully was employed scant hours before the misadventure with the hard drive. The legal pad had no such thing. Heraclitus argued against us being able to bathe in the same river twice, an argument I have upgraded to include showers. I also extrapolate that no writer can write the same story twice when that effect is desired. Perhaps the ultimate irony is when the writer writes the same story twice unintentionally.
It is in fact a jungle out there.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Today is a special day.
Numerous individuals will be adding their voices and opinions, joining or attempting to join a conversation about directions taken during the past five years by individuals who purport to be our leaders, individuals who are surrounded by cadres of support groups, each with an agenda.
One of the propaganda spins set in motion during presidential elections has to do with the present moment, the now, containing the most vital issues ever. Even though originated in spin and agenda, the propaganda transcends language and becomes true. With each successive day, current issues become more crucial.
We are concerned now about the cost in lives and focus occasioned by the American misadventure in Iraq, concerned also about those Americans who see the cost in lives, turmoil, degradation of human standards, and positive effects of the war to have somehow been worth the price. Many of these same individuals, because of their political stances and visions of the human condition, would have been appalled to see the money, lives, and political efforts expended in service of this war shunted to more humanitarian purposes.
Many of the rest of us approach this day with the same kind of apprehension we felt when we became aware of the outpouring of sentiment and response to the news of 9/11, the apprehension coming from our fear that we will be listening to the same voices, heard by the same listeners, or to put it in a less secular manner, preaching to the choir.
The current American venture into war is the dumbest war yet, although given some of the responses to it, we can proceed in the ironic hope of achieving a yet dumber war in our very lifetime.
Throughout history, all wars are dumb. I am currently reading about the results of a war that was so dumb it became a cultural icon of the Western world. Who has not heard or read of The Iliad? Will this war or some account of it become the new Iliad? It boggles the mind that there are still those, including persons with aspirations of leading this country, who actually see it as a positive thing, worth the cost in life, time, reputation, and money.
Writers are about boggling the mind, and so we try to understand those who disagree with us, just as we try to understand those who in all ways differ from us, looking instead of at disagreement and difference rather at common linkage, hopeful of finding more in common than a morbid propensity to dumb wars.
There is some satisfaction that ten months hence, we shall have cause for a celebration commemorating the end of a disastrous regime and the beginning of another shot at getting things right.
More about writing tomorrow, particularly how the novel began its journey into being by dispensing with gods, focusing instead on mere mortals. The mere fact of there being a time in which there were no gods in fiction may have given birth to the genre we think of as fantasy.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Writers have words and cultures have sensitivities. The words of writers often find cultural sensitivities the equivalent of a brick wall. This too shall not pass.
Cultures prefer individuals to pass away or cross over; writers are more likely to call a death a death. Cultures are big on conflicts, crusades, even engagements or disputes; try getting Ernie Pyle to use such words in his wartime dispatches from the front. Have I let the genie out of the bottle? Does the idea emerge?
Cultures love to cover up human foibles; writers love to expose them. Enhanced interrogation techniques? Those were what we got when our homeroom teachers in junior high suspected us of the mischief of cutting class or smoking in the boy's room. Torture. Now that's serious enhanced interrogation. Of course we don't torture, we enhance, the most remarkable example of torture being the stress we put on the English language as we suspect it of covering up for some unspoken mischief.
Ethnic cleansing is another lovely euphemism, and so, it seems is rebel forces, even if those forces are in fact rebelling against some repressive regime. And of course we were never rebel forces, we were patriots.
Not too many years back, you could be certain that the expression "ethnic" rebels meant individuals of the Muslim faith, but that didn't seem satisfactory enough , so of course we began drawing equal signs in the sand, as in ethnic forces equals terrorist. We have somehow managed big-time expansion of euphemism when we discuss the "them" of immigration, just as we have made Zionists of all Jews, and in that very context, it you want some euphemisms worthy of the Guiness Book of Records, ask a random sampling of Orthodox rabbis to define what a Jew properly is.
Compassionate Conservative is another occasion for saying Suck it up and get a job. Taking away the compassion and leaving Conservative to take its lumps, we discover that a true Conservative is someone who doesn't want your road resurface because, after all, you're used to driving on a road afflicted with pot holes. A Fiscal Conservative is someone who resents any portion of his taxes going to provide free schooling to someone else's kids.
It is true: many of the words in our grand language have Latin roots, many of which were preferred over the coarseness of Anglo-Saxon as cover-up for some earthy, human function.
The mere act of thinking about the euphemism is getting me riled up to the point of wanting to step forth and shout Go be fruitful and multiply yourself.
Monday, March 17, 2008
As the burgeoning writer begins to gather momentum toward defining a sense of what it is, internally and externally, to put words on the page or screen, he comes to the quagmire of advice from those who may also nourish a similar urge but who are, shall we say, more cautious. Timid has also been suggested.
One of the words of wisdom has to do with experience, as in Write from your direct experience and if you don't have any, take some unsettling job and get some.
Another bit of advice is offered as seriously as the directive of Plastics is offered to Raymond in The Graduate. Instead of plastics, the advice is Show--don't tell.
My earliest contact with well-intended advice came when I was still arm wrestling with puberty, yet to become a conscript in the skirmishes of what I think of as the Dating Wars. In a weak moment, I'd told my beloved older sister of my ambitions--not the ones dealing with girls because she already knew about that; these were my ambitions to join the ranks of working writers.
"The first thing you'll need," she said, "is a style."
This was nearly enough to make me wish I'd remained mute about my ambitions. "Yeah, of course," I said, having no idea what a style was much less how one came by it. Nor did I have any idea for the next few years until I reached the point where teachers began to talk openly of writers' styles, once again daunting me because they seemed to have the entire matter of style down pat and I could no more discern style than I could an anapest or a trochee. Hemingway's clipped, rhythmic style...Steinbeck's mellifluous and sentimental cadences...Fitzgerald's mature-sounding tropes...Heaven protect me, what is a trope? James M. Cain's unsentimental, epigrammatic prose...John O'Hara's beating-about-the-bush put-downs and social stratification...
There were times when I knew I was in over my head, and took to journalism with the relief of a convert going from a religion that seemed too based in miracles that were beyond me to the more practical aspects of turning other cheeks or doing to others as I would have them do unto--I guess me.
But journalism didn't provide the answers I sought, not through any fault of journalism but rather through my own inability to dig deeply enough into anything but stories.
Let us skip some of the other chapters in the compendium of advice given and advice taken, through the outer reaches of journalism, the byzantine alleyways of television, and the bucking bronco experiences related to the feature film. Let us say for the sake of brevity that I'd become burned any number of times by the advice of others, resolving instead to be burned by my own advice. Or not.
The advice has transmogrified to more or less the subtitle of this blog site, A writer's notes to himselves, this in full recognition on my own of the multifarious nature of the human psyche and the writer's agendas. Thus instead of giving advice to these selves, this band of brothers, what is given is a series of questions.
The questions these recent days have to do with purpose and intent. Why do people do as they do? Or to be more straightforward, What's the real reason?
Shortly after completing my undergraduate studies at UCLA, which is to say after having prolonged them as long as I could, it finally came to me to say enough. The real reason was because I didn't think I'd be able to learn anything more there at that time. Maybe later. For now, I had the promise of a job in a thriving weekly newspaper at one of the mysterious border tows between California and Mexico. I might be able to learn something there. Or not.
I was never to find out. An ancient Cadillac arrived shortly before my scheduled departure, driven by a friend of a rather close friend, offering me frequent-flier miles to adventure. So long journalism, hello carnival life, county fair life, edging my way through the small agricultural towns off the fabled California Route 99, spanning the enormous Central Valley. In short time I was able to be a shill, the operator of a Guess Your Weight Booth, operator of a baseball throw booth, a darts booth, and one of the sweetest scams known to making wherein customers tried to lob baseballs into biscuit pans with numbers painted in each hole. Add 'em up. Under nine or over nineteen wins a teddy bear.
What's the real reason?
If there is anything to keep a writer going, through journalism and carnivals and television and screenplays, if there is anything at all to keep that forward inertia, it is in the constant asking of that question and the speculation of the multitude of possibilities.
Standing on a crowded midway in the sultry press of Summer in Fresno or Modesto or Bakersfield or Reno or Sacramento, calling out the pitch to the passers by on the dusty midway, your voice raw and gravelly from the oft-shouted invitations to Try the ballgame, you see a decorated soldier in starched dress khakis, strolling with his lady friend and suddenly an idea is born in your mind. "Hey, soldier," you call forth, "you won a teddy bear for the lady you were with last night. How about winning a prize for this lady?"
The young woman looks questioningly at the soldier, who has suddenly let her hand drop. "You said you were on duty!" Face reddening, the soldier advances on me. "I was on duty last night," he storms, drawing abreast of me, intending me no good.
"Hey, Rube!" a barker in a nearby booth yells, and quickly, more quickly than the soldier can cope with, he is surrounded by barkers, roustabouts, and carneys, being escorted off the midway.
A number of the "security force" are concerned that I am all right after my near miss adventure.
I am more than all right, I am excited drunk with the power of what a few words can effect.
What's the real reason?
Sunday, March 16, 2008
The distance from where I live to my favorite coffee shop is 8.2 miles, a distance the remains constant whether I get on the freeway just beyond Olive Mill road, scoot up Old Coast Village Road to Alameda Padre Serra and either stay until forced to make a tricky left turn against traffic, then proceed on Garden to Constance, past the Presbyterian Church to State, then along State to La Cumbre, or--or shear off Alameda Padre Serra at Arrellaga, thence to the Garden-Constance-State route.
Eight point two miles nevertheless. My own favorite route is far and away the latter, largely because I have an aversion to the difficult left turn and because I enjoy the slalom course down Arrellaga to Garden, where I get a hoot out of the statue of some long deceased dog, erected by its owner on the lawn of an estate. Two individuals I on occasion drive with to my favored coffee venue have different takes. opting variously for the freeway and the left turn. Eight point two miles.
Truth to tell, there are times when I'd prefer to go alone, not because I don't want the contradictory information or indeed the company, rather because that is yet another way of bridging those eight point two miles--alone or with a splendid dog in hand.
I often wonder how many times such differences of opinion about a route of the same distance and, traffic density being removed from issue, the same driving time can led to acrimony, possible violence, possible cultural conflict.
This sort of issue is the democratizing type, the kind that topples the hero from the plinth of heroism and leaves the world, in a metaphoric sense, just as it was when the statues of Saddam Hussein were toppled in Baghdad. This is the sort of democratization that turns us away from the hero and toward the anti-hero, which for the sake of this argument I shall call us, because there is in us what there is not in the heroic--there is the other way, the other opinion, the conflicting morality and the conflicting opinion.
The anti-hero often does things because she has to: raises a family as a single mother, takes entry-level jobs, saves discount coupons, sticks through a boring night school lecture to get her degree. She does that and progresses, survives if you will, because she can see no other way. She is too intent on surviving in order to pursue her dreams than to take the time to mope or brood.
What Faulkner called the anguish of moral choice rings up on the calculator every day. The hero is selected from the Darwinian ranks, anointed with nobility. The anti-hero has no time for nobility; the anti-hero is too busy with survival.
As writers, we come along, see and perhaps even admire the hero and the heroic deed but know such persons don't really exist in their unwavering heroism. The hero is bound by a cultural duty. Hector is involved in a dumb war, orchestrated by his dumb brother over a dumb issue. Lest you think I'm kidding, the story is right there: Paris was awarded Helen because he made the right choice in a beauty contest. He was promised by the winner of the beauty contest the most beautiful woman in the world. He didn't have the smarts to ask if that woman were already married. When Hector goes back to war, his wife begs him to run away with her and their boy because surely he will be killed, right? And Hector says yeah, right, but I still have to go; it is my duty to get killed in battle at which point they will kill our kid and sell you off into slavery. Sorry, kid, but duty calls. Anyway, we'll always have Chuck E Cheese.
Nah, I want the anti-hero who says pack your bags, we're outta here to live and laugh another day and if the boys in the regiment think poorly of me because of the dumb war my dumb brother got us into, well tough triscuts, we're gone from here.
The way this all ties in is that writers cant rely on plot, they have to rely on their understanding that there are ways to travel the eight point two miles that will still get the characters to the coffee shop. Writers have to understand that the anti-heroes are in it for survival, that there are indeed other ways to survive, but this is how the anti-hero has chosen to survive. The writer is not a paid lobbyist for a cause, the writer is an historian of humanity, not a busy-body member of a school board that wants to interdict inflammatory texts.
Persons are afflicted with warring armies, doing battles within them every day. The story is in the internal battles and their external effects. As we all know, war times are times for atrocities. The anti-hero lives with the consequences of these atrocities, trying to find somewhere a trace or two of beauty, however brief, as a reminder that the atrocities are put away for the night.
The writer is more tired and cynical at the end of the day that you might imagine. Many of the better actors tell us they find it easier to assume roles, to become persons who differ widely from them; the real problem is portraying someone closer to their own type because it becomes easier to slip into the cliche of self. The writer has to transcend the temptation of resting on the cliche of self, plumbing and portraying the humanity of every being who sets foot on his or her pages. Without such transcendence there car be no story, only homily or greeting card sentimentality, or TV Guide outline. A brooding Danish prince undertakes to avenge the murder of his father at the behest of his father's ghost.
The writer sees the irony of the hero assuming the moral high ground as though it were an entitlement, sees the pathos of the anti-hero working two, maybe three jobs while trying to slip in a little art or literature or love, sees the landlord raising the rent. The anti-hero is the green Jell-o of literature, the writer does not look down his nose at that.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
The first draft is actually a series of resumes for a group of individuals applying for a job. The job is a position in a story or series of stories; it may even turn out to be a novel. In these resumes, individuals with attitudes are applying for positions of protagonists and antagonists. The protagonists are individuals who want something tangible and are willing to exchange certain labors and focus to secure those tangibles. Antagonists are individuals who think it is unreasonable or impractical for the protagonists to achieve their stated goals and are accordingly willing to do things to gum up the works, as it were. The reader may actually like the antagonists more than the protagonists, even to the point of rooting for the and against the protagonists. (When this happens, the result is called a moral quandary, which readers favor because it allows them to worry that the wrong set of characters might win. (News for you, the wrong set of characters often appears to be on the cusp or winning. This state of affairs is called suspense.)
Even though unemployment figures are not encouraging. out-of-work characters are banking on their past experiences, goals, reliability, and simple willingness to work their way up the dramatic ladder. Interestingly enough, some applicants, if they sense that they are being allowed short shrift in an interview, will become inventive, claiming experiences they in fact do not have, claiming abilities they don't have.
These applicants are not ordinary individuals; if they seem ordinary, they need to be encouraged to show some flaws or weaknesses they readily admit, hopeful of using the opportunity afforded them in your story to overcome aforementioned flaws and weaknesses.
In the world of reality, applicants for jobs are measured by entirely different sets of standards than those applied to applicants who wish to serve as characters. This might also obtain for the world of politicians. The facts remain that the best candidates for jobs in stories are those men and women who have known weaknesses they may be attempting to overcome or, on another level, they may have no intention of overcoming.
Individuals who place a high priority on their achievement goals are splendid candidates for positions within stories, as are men and women who set great store by their morality and/or reliability. A reliable character in real life has a nice career path; a reliable character in a story broadcasts the potential of being seduced, suborned, manipulated.
As subsequent details of the lives of the protagonists and antagonists emerge in successive drafts, the richness of the human condition begins to assert itself, with the ascendancy of mischief fluttering in the dramatic breeze. Life without mischief is boring routine and often successful business; life with mischief is--well, it's story.
Friday, March 14, 2008
1. Who's telling the story? From what source or sources does the account come? Was it a witness to the events or the actual participant?
2. Why is the story being told? To entertain? To assign some measure of accountability? (Mea culpa? Youa culpa?) To demonstrate a philosophy? To set the record straight? (What record?) To justify? (Defend?)
3. Who was your favorite historian?
4. Yeah, I know Francis Parkman was cool, but Herodotus, man. He like invented history.
5. So you're saying Thyucidides was like Tom Clancy? Like was he not scientific and fact-oriented enough for you?
6. Well there you have it, two visions of events, each wanting to get the details, each mad for accurate information.
7. Herodotus is by minor degree more to my liking because he was looking for the kinds of thing I look for in a story, a moral.
8. What was Balzac looking for?
9. Fabric, man, the fabric of humanity--all of it. Eugenie Grandet. Le Pere Goriot. Balzac was writing his way out of some pseudonymous on-the-job training, working his way to IT, his vision of a particular history of a particular place at a particular time, which just happened to transcend the place and the time so that you could see that someone had lifted a larg rock in the backyard and all the insects began scurrying.
10. Writer as historian, huh? What about these dudes--ladies, too--who invent history?
11. You mean, of course, those who are reporting events that never happened as though they did happen, then call them history instead of fiction?
12. Those. They are misguided, looking for a free ride, which is like the free lunch. Readers don't want to be cheated, they want to be engaged to the point of trusting the source.
13. What about Italo Calvino in If on a winter's night a traveler...
14. He clearly does not want to mislead; he wants to make the reader think to the point of questioning the very basis of reality.
15. Let me see if I get this. Disturb is okay, betrayal is out.
16. Disturb rocks. Absent disturbance, entertain is okay.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
1. Dialog is a language of its own; it is neither English nor American nor, indeed, American-English.
2. Dialog exists to advance story, reflect the wound-up drive of the character, and to provide a window into how the character feels about life in general and the story in particular.
3. Dialog is not a record of conversation, nor is it a deposition or transcript.
4. A tourist in Boston asks a taxi driver, "Do you know anyplace where I can get scrod?" And the cabbie replies, ""Geez, I've never heard anyone ask for it in the pluperfect subjunctive before."
5. One of the reasons English is such a tempting language for dialog is its willingness to take in immigrants, an irony given the current political attitude about the physical presence of immigrants. Every day some word or phrase checks in over the border, finds a place in the language. Bungalow. Khaki. Calaboose.
6. Words once italicized because they were foreign are now rendered in roman.
7. Writers such as Junot Diaz don't bother to use parentheses to explain the Spanish; they figure you're smart enough to follow the story, you should be able to follow the language. Cormack McCarthy is focused on telling you a story, not teaching you Spanish grammar.
8. Each character is auditioned and rehearsed to be a bundle of agenda, not a court reporter or stenographer. Characters say, think, act in terms of what they want, what they do to effect what they want,how they handle the frustrations of not getting what they want, how to express themselves if getting what they wanted turns out not to live up to expectations.
9. Delia. The Gift of the Maggi. "You sold your father's watch to get me these freaking combs which are no longer any freaking use to me because I sacrificed my long, luxurious plait of hair to get enough money to buy you a watch chain?"
10. Characters speak to their agenda, you know, the agenda that causes the story in the first place.
11. A group of passengers on a cruise ship are stranded on a desert island after the ship hits a reef. One of the ship's officers is in the group. He assigns roles to the survivors. The radioman is supposed to start trying to make contact. A passenger known to be an architect is assigned to scout a suitable location for a camp site. An outdoorsy type is assigned to gather wood to build a fire for signaling and cooking. One of the survivors, a Japanese tourist, is assigned to supplies. A motherly sort is assigned to cooking, a few younger survivors are sent to scout for possible food and water sources. Everyone is given an assignment. Some hours later, at the camp site, a fire blazing, the smell of cooked fish and some tropical fruit wafting on the night breeze, all the survivors are accounted for except the Japanese tourist. Looking at his watch, the ship's officer decides he will organize a search party if the Japanese tourist has not been accounted for by the time dinner is over. The survivors eat nervously, speculating on their fate, wondering what might have befallen the Japanese. Then, with no warning, there is a furious noise and a rustle of leaves in a nearby glade. Abruptly the Japanese tourist appears, waving his arms, yelling. As he comes nearer, they all hear what he is yelling. "Supplies. Supplies. Supplies."
12. Dialog is a frequent victim of adverbial abuse. "If you come any closer, I'll shoot," she said menacingly.
13. In one of the volumes of his autobiography, Graham Greene castigated himself for using an adverb to modify a line of dialog. "I'm sorry," she said sadly.
14. A good litmus test is to question adverbial attribution, looking for a better way of expressing the thought or emotion without the adverb.
15. Even four hundred years ago on the Elizabethan stage, writers knew to keep their soliloquies down to a minimum, and even then there was often something going on in the background. Yeah, long speeches suck.
16. Because they are chosen in the first place for their difference from one another, characters should not sound alike when they talk.
17. Anne Proulx. Margaret Atwood. Alice Munro. Elmore Leonard. Richard Price. Tobias Wolff. Ed McBain. Dialoguers all.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
1. This tale begins with an orange tabby named Dodger, which in addition to its orangeness and tabbiness is coated with charged particles of authenticity.
2. I learned about Dodger by accident; Dodger is by no means my cat. I have never seen Dodger, but I feel Dodger's presence, and just as you will have to take Dodger's creator at her word that she has never had an orange cat named Dodger, you will have to take my word that for me Dodger lives, does things cats do, and perhaps even some things cats don't do.
3. It is something in the way that Dodger's creator wrote about Dodger that made me immediately see the cat, leaping after a fly at the window, a sleepy ball of fluff in the sun, an insistent pawing for affection and recognition.
4. The cat belongs to Square 1, the charged particles of authenticity that reside about Dodger's orange coat come also from Square 1. The dynamic is the same with the details we set loose in our fictional and nonfictional terrains--if we are doing our job properly.
5. The right detail makes me believe a story because that detail validates the reality I am trying to create, allows me to imagine other details as though they were real.
6. 'When I believe the details, the story has a life of its own, a world I no longer have to describe or defend but rather to investigate.
7. Sometimes the details come from flashes of memory that are given to me; sometimes these flashes of memory explain mysteries I didn't even know existed, but now appreciate as not merely a flash of detail but a snippet of a history under construction.
8. These snippets come about as a product of muscle memory. Some subjective choice is being made each time I isolate and use a detail; each time I make the choice, the muscle memory is strengthened.
9. Each time the muscle memory is strengthened, my sense of belief in the story enhances itself.
10. Details make the venue come to life.
11. Details make the characters and their goals come to life.
12. With luck and the constant use of muscle memory, I will be able to see the gap between what the characters say and what they feel.
13. As a boy I often had either a yo-yo (Duncan, of course) or a string-wound spinning top or one of those gyroscopes advertised on the back of comic books, stored in my pocket. There was often a small magnifying glass to examine things and start fires. Licorice cigarettes.
14. Some things don't change. As an adult my pockets remain bulky. The pocket knife is still there. So is a Leica Delux 3 camera.
15. Neither of the above pocket contents is better than the other; each is to help take the measure of details, to store them away in the kind of memory that is the writer's tool kit.
16. A conventional proverb of convenience attributes the devil to being in the details, meaning among other things that complexities may be vexing but necessary. Flaubert had his own take, that God was in the details. All well and good, and take your choice if looking for a proverb. But consider this as well: Story is in the details.
17. Blessings on thee, particule-charged orange tabby.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
1. First drafts are like first impressions. They are, in a metaphoric sense, an exposure of a venue made with a medium- or large-format camera, stunning in detail. Ah, perhaps too stunning in detail.
2. Each successive draft removes details or, to extend the metaphor, Photoshops the details, adding or blurring clarity, enhancing contrast, cropping.
3. The results of revision are the gifts we receive from our human condition. These gifts come in the form of awareness, sometimes awareness of things we've neglected to mention, other times in the awareness of things we didn't think we knew.
4. No matter what they tell you, metaphor and connected dots are important in the things you write. The more you see this, the more confident you are about not having to use italics or footnotes to see similarities or connecting links.
5. One way of looking at revision is as a way of bringing the reader into your landscape to make his own metaphors and connections.
6. Another way of looking at revision is to consider it a way of removing digressions and throat clearings and ruminative pauses from your voice.
7. Yet another way of considering revision comes from taking the word revision at face value, re-seeing the work to the point of wondering it it can begin in a better place than where you have begun it, end in a more charged manner than the one you saw first in an earlier draft.
8. Revision is saying good-bye to unnecessary explanations and, heaven help us, long speeches.
9. Revision is seeing your work fresh, which means tossing out things that are not fresh, things that have begun to grow a mold or dust bunny, or taking such things that are moldy and dusty and recasting them so that they are fresh.
10. Revision is, ultimately, knowing what you have here.
11. Revision is removing the scaffolding, folding up the drop cloths, vacuuming the sawdust.
12. How do you know when you have completed the process of revision? You know when it comes to you in an insightful flash that no one but you will be affected by the changes you have made.
13. Suppose--just suppose it is all right on the occasion of the first draft? If it is all right on the first draft, you have probably copied it from someone else's revision.
14. What are you going to do about the latte you made yourself earlier this morning? I am going to revise it because I need to see it again.
Monday, March 10, 2008
1. Some persons I know have the hard-wired need to finish reading everything they begin.
2. A person of at best moderate patience, I have no such compulsion to finish what may have been started with high expectations and which has devolved to outright antipathy. Such venues as the garage, under the bed, the back seat of the Camry, and one particular closet into which much of low interest is stored become the final resting places of books, magazines, and journals that did not make the final cut.
3. A person of even less patience where television is concerned, my relationship with the control deice is as fervid and intimate as the president of the United States relationship to waterboarding.
4. All of which brings forth the awareness of the genuine sense of loss, grief, and anger at separation of individuals--characters--in whom I invested while reading or watching their exploits, even though my sense of dramatic closure had been satisfied.
5. This brings forth the literary aspect of afterlife regarding characters and the rhetorical question: Which do we recall most about a narrative--the plot or the characters? I can recall individuals from stories I have not read since childhood, but I cannot always remember the plot or the issues. Forget me remembering the plot twists of Ivanhoe, for instance. Sir Wilfred could have had a nice Jewish girl, but instead chose Rowena. Prince Valiant actually had no choice; one look at Althea and he was cooked, but who remembers the plot twists. Nancy Drew solved mysteries I can no longer recount, but I can recall my barely pubescent thought that some day I would like to have a girlfriend like Nancy, the joys and complexities of sexuality an inchoate but intriguing mystery of its own.
6. How dare Martin Sheen no longer be a former President of the United States nor Jimmy Smits the current one! How dare John Spencer aka Leo McGarrity have died on the job, foreclosing his potential as vice president! How dare Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch move from Homicide: Life on the Streets to some more secure series! Add a touch of schadenfreude: Speaking of Homicide, Andre Braugher as Detective Frank Pembelton has not to date approximated anything on film or television to compete with that role. You wonder about one of your favorite characters in The Wire, Felicia Pearson, who for reasons unknown to you, was allowed to have the same name as her character, but was also given the nickname Snoop. She came up from the mean streets of Baltimore, you learn, and has made such an impression that she has been given other roles. Can she ever eclipse Snoop? How long will you remember her? Thus comes forth the complexities of a story, a series, a novel, a play coming to an end, all with characters I have watched grow from concept to hyperreality in the hands of gifted writers and actors.
7. The occasion for this abrupt sense of loss--even though I was intellectually well prepared for it--was closure for The Wire, arguably one of the finer moments of television drama, made even more interesting by the fact that nearly every character had some seriously flawed morality or agenda, that the good guys not only didn't win, they barely came out even. Yes, yes, I know; buy the DVD sets, which you will likely watch once or twice, gaining more detail because the story line and character arcs are complex. But this is like discovering an unfinished, day-old latte from Peets, abandoned on a shelf or, worse, back in my smoking days, being reduced to going through the waste basket for a useful butt.
8. John Donne felt diminished by the death of any man because he was involved in mankind and, you know, Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, and all that three in the morning Hillary stuff. (ENK would have hyphenated the three-in-the-morning because it is a compound adjective modifying stuff)I'm talking The end of any character diminishes me because I am involved in story and have a Jones for characters.
9. Bad enough The Wire is toast, I am nearly finished with Lush Life (which incidentally was written by Richard Price, one of the contributors to The Wire. What lovely writerly irony--you read on because you are pulled by the vector of the characters and their behavior, all the while aware that the number of pages is growing smaller, thinner.
10. Which gets you to the real bottom line, the denominator: You must feel for and write about your characters with the kind of intensity that will produce in you the same kind of grief when they are gone about their lives after their story is ended. It is a matter of principal with you that stories attempt to have some afterlife, some life off the page, not by any means Edenic or Paradisical but rather idedic, a vision of them as still alive. The closest thing you can come to this is your real sense of reward from teaching, the fact that you will never see a good many of them again after they have gone forth into the world. But on occasion you see something of theirs in a book or a magazine and you are aware once again of them and aware that they have moved on along their own arc.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
1. It comes upon you when you least expect it, often at a time when you have gone somewhere out of your orbit, expressly to be alone, perhaps to read, perhaps to look at student papers, perhaps to restructure something you have written, sometime when you are wanting the necessary focus to prepare a lecture or presentation.
2. Sometimes is is at a sit-down dinner, where you find yourself next to someone unknown to you and, accordingly, someone to whom you wish to make yourself known.
3. Perhaps at a gathering, when an arm snakes out, takes yours, and says, I have to talk to you.
4. The it is an insight or possibly a story; in either case it wants your attention while it delivers to you by intent or by the merest of cosmic accidents a strand of information that erupts within your consciousness to the point where you want to get your hands on it as though it were moist clay or a plangent note, something you can shape, something that can turn into a form you had no idea existed before.
5. The universe is filled with such events, such collisions of subatomic particles and ideas the buzz about like bees on steroids. You have been met with enough of them and seen others encounter them to understand that there is no rational guide to placing yourself in their path. They have orbits, trajectories, and velocities of their own.
6. Even though you know enough to identify them, you cannot plot their course or yours the way, say, a sailor can navigate a course. You ca be doing what seems to be the right thing, trolling, ready, receptive, and yet nada.
7. You know the sound of the arrival, like a bug meeting your windshield with furious velocity, a thunk of a sound, calling you out.
8. The voice that does the calling is your voice your true voice, hey look!
9. There are temptations to make a congratulatory fuss about the arrival, but you know from past experience that this is no time for such congratulation.
10. You excuse yourself from the now as quickly as possible, knowing you are about to become the recipient of a secret.
11. This time, you promise not to stop probing until you have the secret.
12. No matter where the insight or story takes you, the secret is not about it, the secret is about you and what you have dreamed or fantasied or wished or hoped or possibly ignored or, or, or. Because it is a secret, you will not remember it immediately; it will come struggling forth like a new child down the tube, peeled and patted into breath and then separated from its source of energy while it was taking form.
13. How can it be a story if it has no secret?
14. How can it be your story without some part of you needing to give it voice.
15. Some nights you watch the Milky Way, that vast galaxy of gas and story, blinking and arching across time.
16. A story is light from a distant star, possibly even a dead star, sending its secret to collide with you.
17. You read someone else's story and you are felled by the immensity of the way it has collided with you, slammed into your receptors, your awareness.
18. Now, it is your turn...
Saturday, March 8, 2008
If writers were somehow enjoined or, to use the legal term, estoped from writing only what they knew from first-hand experience:
1. Memoirs would be terminally dull
2. Capt. Nemo would at best have gone six or seven feet under the sea but never twenty thousand leagues
3. Hillary would have not had nearly so much experience
4. I could write stories only involving male characters
5. Tarzan would ever have made it to Mars
6. Mark Twain would have had to pass on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
7. Herodotus would have lost about one third of his history because at least that much was told in an as-reported or as-told-to manner
8. Isadore Hochberg, who later became Edgar "Yip"Harburg, a major American lyricist/song writer, could not have managed to get himself over the rainbow, much less could he have described April in Paris
9. Hillary would have had to write It Takes a Village without a ghost writer
10. Shakespeare would have had to spike Julius Ceasar and Romeo and Juliet, and---
11. Tennyson would have been put in the Tower for Idylls of the King
12. Ayn Rand would not have been able to find out who John Gault was nor, in fact, would Barry Goldwater have been able to expound his conservative conscience because he was pretty much big-time capitalist
13. Star Trek would have been a no-no
14. Jean Auels could ot have written The Clan of the Cave Bear
15. George Orwell could not have done Animal farm or 1984
16. Jonathan Swift could not have rendered Gulliver
and the beat goes on, lah de dah de dah because this list of worthies (except for Hillary, but we'll get to that in a moment)had in abundant measure the ingredient of imagination at hand as a tool with which to create. Now it's Hillary's turn: she has not so much as imagination as desperation, an ingredient that sometimes triggers a form of imagination but which also runs the greater risk of ignoring consequences. When we want something so much, whether it be publication, fame, or power, we run the risk of losing the very part of ourself that contains the imagination needed to do the job well. When we risk ourself and our imagination for the sake of power, we introduce onto the pallet the tincture of defensiveness which undercuts all the other colors, rendering them dull and marginal.
Whoever it was who first came up with that misguided dictum of writing only from direct experience was neither a writer nor a friend to writers but rather a slave to the albatross of convention.
Friday, March 7, 2008
1. The book sat there for some time, seemingly too much book to read in a week and, thus, impossible for this week's review--maybe next week and Spring break.
2. The lure of the book, its title, and a reminder that a great loss was forthcoming, set connection receptors to twitching.
3. The book is Lush Life, which in the right context could be a nod to Billy Strayhorn, the incredibly gifted collaborator of Edward Kennedy Ellington, The Duke.
4. The author is Richard Price of Clockers fame. More to the point, Price is a sometimes writer on The Wire.
5. The Wire, as of tomorrow, is toast.
6. So okay, I'll have a look, then pick up a sensible, shorter book which can be read and commented on and filed by tomorrow night, which has become the default due time for the weekly review.
7. So I'm screwed because Lush Life is nothing less than magnetic, its title indeed an ironic riff on Billy Strayhorn's stunning lyric. You know:
I used to visit all the very gay places,
Those come-what-may places,
Where one relaxes
On the axis
Of the Wheel of Life,
To get the feel of life,
And jazz and cocktail.
The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces,
With distingue traces,
That used to be there,
You could see where
They'd been washed away
By too many through the day
The you came along
With your siren's song
To tempt me to madness.
I thought for a while
That your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness
Of a great love for me.
I guess I was wrong.
Again I was wrong....
Yeah, that one. I think Strayhorn was seventeen or eighteen when he wrote it.
8. Just before we turn on the dry cycle, throw in this enhancement: In addition to Richard Price, many episodes of The Wire were written by Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos.
9. Here's the spin cycle. Just as The Wire and indeed Lush Life are bursting at the seams with an ensemble cast of characters and are related in an intricate patchwork quilt of a format, so are the works of Lehane and Pelecanos, so indeed are the novels of Denise Mina, so are many other of the novels appearing after 2000. What we are seeing is a shift in the DNA of the novel from the single point of view to the ensemble point of view, with shorter scenes, a finger-popping tempo, an edge, and a growing method of authorial observation in which it is clear that although the author may have favorites, he or she does not produce political stereotypes with whom to take opposition. All the characters believe in their individual rightness. Take a look at The History of Live by Nicole Kraus if you don't agree with this vision I present here of the novel's trip ticket Take a look at Richard Powers; The Echo Maker.
10. Individuals will continue to read and to write the "old" novel, the more linear story arc, but for those of us who cannot plot or who will not plot, this ensemble melange is a lovely switch in the depth, texture, and reach of story.
11. Many such modern novels, such as The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Urrea or The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, not only fit this ensemble description, they are wedging in another important event, which is language. Each of these two is inserting Spanish without defensiveness or self-consciousness. Some countries try to keep illegal immigrants from sneaking in across the border; America is doing its best to keep Spanish from sneaking in, but forget it, Spanish is here. Get over it. Read it
Thursday, March 6, 2008
1.It has begun asking you questions even before you knew it was there. causing you to think at first that it was some parental trick, some way they had of keeping track of you.
2. Then you began to take it for granted as something apart from them, apart from everyone.
3. And then it had a shape that grew more familiar with time until you knew it was somehow hooked up to you.
4. There were long periods when you did not listen to it at all, thinking it somehow lacked the smoothness and authority of the sounds you heard when you read.
5. But after a time of reading, you began listening again, being drawn to those who had things you wanted to pursue in yourself.
6. After a long period of trying to imitate the voices you liked, it became increasingly clear: You did not have to imitate. All you had to do was listen.
7. You come into the world seemingly without it until it gradually forms within you and at some stage, it gives you to understand that it is the only thing you will carry with you out of the world.
8. With it, you will be narrating yourself out of this world, with some luck leaving it behind you to tell the stories you began and got a handle on.
9. If this happens, people will wonder about you, what you were like, possibly even how you lived, what you were like to hang out with.
10. It is the way you sound, the way you feel, the way you think, speaking to you in the intimacy of language you have forged oer the long years, the years of trying and frustration, the years in which you did not yet know who you were and thus were trying to sound like a combination of people you admired.
11. Don't forget that you were also trying not to sound like people you didn't like. You still, for instance, think Tom Wolfe sounds constipated and you got in a big argument just last year with an editor who sent you a journal with critical reviews of Wolfe's work.
12. Keep talking, but listen to the things about your talk you don't like.
13. Don't be afraid to dislike someone everyone else likes.
14. Don't be afraid to like Emily Dickinson, even though some gasbag wrote an essay saying she must have been a Buddhist and she must have achieved Satori.
15. If you don't like the way you sound, find ways to fix it until you do like the result because this is you the voice is talking about.
16.Talk the way you write; write the way you talk.
17. You have to know how these aspects of you sound before you can be other individuals.
18. It is not schizophrenia when you do this any more than it is schizophrenia when a flutist switches from say B flat to G sharp.
19. The narrative voice is your instrument.
20. The narrative voice is you.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Seated this morning at Peet's, musing over your double latte and apricot panetone, your sleep interdicted by your loyal 24/7 security system raising the alarm over impending dragons at 2 a.m., 4:30 a.m., and 5:20 a.m., fearful of scanning the front page of The New York Times because, just this once, it might indeed print all the news that's fit, you become aware of a parade of friends ans acquaintances who come from differing disciplines than you. These worthies, all skilled and curious, ply their professions, sciences, trades, arts, and disciplines with what appears to be good graces. You are watching the civility of individuals Jonesing on caffeine, hopeful that the baristas working tandem at the huge, complex maccineta, and who are by all accounts underpaid because they are young and working their ways into their own sciences, trades, arts, disciplines, and professions, are also nimble of coordination. You are mindful of the horror story you heard of a beginning barista at Starbucks, the other night causing a longish line of individuals with similar Joneses intense agony.
The subject of your musings is one of those unpleasant-but-necessary ones that splash over you like the occasional waxing tide you may have been too distracted to avoid.
Because you are who and what you are, well advanced on both paths of who and what you are, you need also to be all of those previously cited professions, sciences, trades, arts, and disciplines. If you are to have any chance at being the most effective you and effective writer you can become, you must also be:
1. A photographer, because you need to be able to catch and keep images which will illumine your insights and the persons you portray in the venues you portray, rendered with some awareness of light and acoustics.
2. A planner if not an economist because you must husband your own resources as well as those of the individuals you would create or depict, having a sense of how they manage and indeed a sense of how you do or do not manage in comparison.
3. A groundskeeper because you must know where to shovel the mulch and how not to step in the nitrogen-rich offerings of various animals.
4. A dancer because you must learn to move with dispatch, grace, and muscle tone through the varying dramatic challenges life will present you.
5. An orator because you must be able to talk your way into and out of places with the result that you might eve be welcomed back.
6. A biologist so that you may be versed in the art of taking core samplings from the various terrains you will visit, then be able to make some sense of their origins and their entire chemistry.
7. A psychologist because you must understand how you work and how those about you work.
8. A philosopher because you must have a sense of logic and ethic and must be able to see those qualities in yourself before you ca hope to recognize them in others.
9. A cook. Not a chef. A person who can provide essentials that nourish and satisfy.
10. A teacher, because you must be able to recognize the times you were taught well, then distinguish those times from the ones where you were not taught well; you must teach yourself before you can presume to teach others.
11. A lover, because until you understand the dynamics of loving, how can you hope to have feelings about yourself that will allow you to have and represent feelings for others?
12. An auto mechanic, because it is not acceptable to be in a world with so many automobiles without understanding the immense potential of the four-cycle engine, the difference between a engine and a motor, and what time Click and Clack are broadcast in your area.
13. A musician, because you cannot hope to experience the sounds of the world and the soft growl in a dog's throat or the imperious miaow of a cat who is confronted with a stuck cat door without first hearing the music of the spheres not to mention the music of Bach and Ravel and Coltrane and the music of Annie Proulx, which comes alive and clear to you when you read it aloud. This is to say noting of the music of Chaucer, for what he said some eight hundred years ago still speak.
14. A poet because your work as a human ad a writer must have an inner and outer rhythm, a cry for language, a hunger for the awl-like thrust of the right image served up so as to bring tears to your eyes because of its stunning beauty, which you might not otherwise experience.
15. A milk thief, which is to say the guy who drives an 07 BMW and who steals pints of milk at Peets, justifying it on the basis of being a regular customer and a big tipper, because you have to have someone to forgive on a regular basis if for no other reason than recognition f the fact that some days you writer painfully bad sentences an/or that someone needs to forgive you on a regular basis.
16. A department chairman because seeing Randy reminds you that sometimes department chairpersons have senses of humor and manage to get work done outside the class room and the committee room.
17. A juggler because outside fiction life progresses in a multifarious pattern as if from a large and rickety loom, an early relic of the Industrial Revolution, spinning forth patterns and colors and challenges which require of you more eyes, ears, and arms than you have.
18. An actor because it is not enough to envision individuals, you have to know them and understand the thing about them that makes them work.
19. An editor, because you have to know where to take things out and where you have not put in enough things, where there needs to be some greater sense of continuity and logic that you have previously demonstrated.
20. A Buddhist monk because you need to be able to endure provocations you cannot otherwise endure in your civilian status.
You have to be all these things at one and yet still be yourself, whoever and whatever that may be, sitting here, hoping for the best from your morning coffee while in the company of other writers, knowing that you have to do more than hope for the best, you have to lend it a hand, perhaps slip it a five or a ten, and urge it to get a decent mean and a remarkable book, at which point you realize it will take at least a twenty to get both.