2. point of view
3. characters' agendas
15. opening velocity
Those three points describe a story arc but they also describe the arc of those of us who wish to present story arcs of our very own.
The beginning writer, made aware of the pulsing magic of story and some of its basic ingredients, rushes into the stream, eager to please and delight, eager for readers, eager to demonstrate mastery of the techniques. Good plot? Hey, watch this! Splendid dialog? Nothing to it. Lapidary narrative? Check this out.
The middle writer, mindful of the 98/02 reality, which is to say the two percent of what is ultimately published as compared to the totality being written, begins to grow testy. (Not testy enough.) Begins to resent writing on spec. If they want me, let them assign me something. Surely they can see from the things I've published that, Hey, I'm here.
Edward Said, the historian/critic, has some nice thoughts on Late Style, artists (mostly musical composers) who have arrived at maturity, who have even accepted the inevitability that they are past the mid-point of their life. To hitch a caboose onto his perhaps overly embellished prose and thoughts, the end game writer walks the cusp between being pissed and not caring about them but rather about it. The Ender has a life-long habit of writing and will do it, published or not, just as some creatures will shed skins or shells, molt, hibernate, or whatever it is built into their entelechy to do. Thus does the ender have a voice, a No, in Thunder quality of which Herman Melville wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne. "There was a grand truth about him. [Hawthorne]. He says 'No ! in thunder;' but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes."
The Ender wishes to please him/herself; the Ender has allowed passion to trump form, has exposed those passions for all who would care to see them and make of them. The Ender writes pretty much as Joan Didion has written since her early middle period, to define herself to herself. The Ender writes to define his individual belief system, to clarify it, to light a path through the darkness of the forest, to unmix the metaphors, to see the rules so that they may be successfully avoided.
Thus evolved, the Ender sees with stoic good humor the things that have been believed all along, the things cast aside, the new things purchased in some foreign port of call. The Ender sees the connection within between seriousness of purpose and the good sense to take noting too seriously. Water boils at 212 Fahrenheit degrees at sea level, does it? Yes, I suppose I do believe that, even rely on it, but not to the extent of making a god of it. For that I will chose something--a mere concept--I know does not exist except in the abstract. Kali, the Creator and Destroyer, the great and powerful shakti, as the first illusory presence of Brahmin, the formless one. Kali, created only to give some attributes, splendid and horrific, to the One whom, the moment you give an attribute of any sort, becomes no longer what the Hindus refer to as The One without a Second. I can get behind those abstract presences as well as the Shekinah, She being the Jewish Kali. They help make sense of the Universe. But so does the constant sense of writing to define these and other concepts for myself.
I once got a vivid sense of the Bhagavad Gita by writing a story that occurred to me in large measure while taking a taxi from JFK to midtown Manhattan. The cab driver was Krishna and the passenger was Arjuna, flow in from corporate headquarters to attend a stockholders' meeting and to fire some relatives from the corporation. Of course they had different names the passenger having no notion of his being Arjuna. The cabbie? Well, it is nice to think he knew he was Lord Krishna, but there we go, spiraling into Hindu theology and away from story.
What it all amounts to is this, I am beyond mid-game, cheerful in my own late style, a cranky, curmudgeonly, sceptic, laughing at the joke of being me, at the joke life sometimes becomes, at the wonder of it and the value of it, thankful to have any share at all in the ability my species has of thinking and feeling in the abstract, thankful for marshmallows and Maurice Ravel and Antonin Dvorak and Kiri Te Kanawa who belts Gershwin like you would not believe, thankful for Yeats and Hopkins and that crazy Dylan Thomas. Thankful I can hear the vibrations of the abstract in the compositions of Dame Hildegarde of Bingen, mindful in my gut of how laid back Miles Davis was as a kid. Fortunate to have two mentors, Rachel for text, Virginia for acting and stage, fortunate to have two mantras, one for mind, the other for heart.
In a real sense, my first off-road vehicle was a short story called Molly, which I wrote without any sense of rules or form or beginning or middle or ending, only a sense of someone who had been with me for some time and who wanted to get out again into the blaze of light and circumstance called life.
Beginnings are neither easy nor natural, sometimes remaining unrecognized until they are well under way. Even then, beginnings are often recounted in retrospect, often sad retrospect, as in, If I had only known, or Little did I recognize then. Beginnings confound us nearly as much as endings. We often aren't sure where or when a thing begins until we decide where it ends, allowing us to scroll back to the literary equivalent of a Big Bang. Yogi Berra may well have observed that it isn't over until it's over, but had he been more observant, he'd have also recognized that we need a sign from on high that the ending really is over, allowing us to scramble back through the parking lot, looking for the lost keys of the beginning.
Being born is one beginning, promising in the sense of now being on stage, collecting coordination and memories. My own earliest memories come from a time when my family was driven by economic need from the Santa Monica, California of my birth to a distant suburb, Burbank, and a Mediterranean-style home on Providencia Street, which must have placed me in or about age three, where I remember being locked (probably by my own hand) in a bathroom with a corrugated glass pane in the door. Some time later I recall being taken by my older sister next door to see some baby alligators in the wash basin of our neighbors, the Browns. The Browns also had a dog named Silver with whom I had a relationship of sorts in that once Silver bit me and I in turn bit him.
Beginnings are not always where you expect them; in dramatic fiction, they are determined by the nature of the story and are every bit as important to get fine tuned as it is important to establish who or whom among the dramatis personae is/are relaying the story to the reader. Endings are not always where you expect them, either, meaning you either go on too long and thus risk the distraction of anticlimax or the quite different risk of stopping too soon, risking the reception of the narrative as a shaggy dog story.
Thus observed, with perils from both ends as it were, story in general is a risky business, particularly for those of us who follow the character-driven story as opposed to the compulsively orchestrated plot-driven story. And so we approach a given story with the sense that there is some safety in the middle part of the narrative arc, which in many ways is like the spare room or garage in which things are piled helter-skelter, waiting for use or, worse, waiting for guests to arrive, which occasions a need to clear our a sleeping space, which very need occasions some calamitous discovery such as the bed or sofa having an exposed spring or stain the size and shape of the former Soviet Socialist Union.
Okay, there is no place in story to go for safety, no soft spot, no lee cove or haven. Add to this menacing landscape of beginning, middle, and ending, there is the pulsing sense that a story need not be scrolled forth in chronology. If anything, a story told in strict chronology needs some added touch of suspense or characterization or moral quandary to leaven the unremarkable time frame.
I am mindful of these lurking menaces by a tart email from Digby Wolfe, reminding me it is time--another sort of time--to get on with the book we have been threatening for some time now, The DNA of Story. "I believe the middle is the minefield," he writes. "That's where the real danger lies--the matter of choice, where one may or may not safely tread, when in fact safety is the detonating word for the real menace:predictability..."
Our assignments are made. He will begin with middles and I with a dissection of the basic dramatic unit, the scene, which has beginning and middle and ending.
In the process, I am reminded of a time some years back, when The Writer was still quartered in Boston, and its remarkable editor, Sylvia Burack, approached me to do a piece on middles, which I could possibly still be grappling with to this very day had I not had the good bad fortune to watch that iconic film, The High and the Mighty, on television. The story is quintessential disaster film, wrapped in an ensemble cast, all of whom are caught on a flight between Los Angeles and Honolulu, where things go wrong. Seriously wrong. Engines catch fire. Storms approach. One of the flight crew--the pilot--has a heart attack. As one disaster after another is announced, we are delivered the dramatic equivalent of a one-two punch. The flight engineer announces that the fuel supply is in trouble, the radio man chimes in with the storm being up-graded, which will require greater fuel use. And now, the navigator with his announcement. We've reached the point of no return.
I was up immediately, reaching for my note pad, my reliable Moleskine. PONR, I printed. The middle is the point of no return; the story cannot end, the characters are committed to a course of action that will produce consequences. We cannot guess what those will be yet and indeed may change our minds as we proceed, but given the archetype, the plane cannot return to safety of the LAX airport; it must forge ahead. Not to worry, John Wayne was the copilot and he'll overcome his own issues to bring us safely under the storm and into Honolulu.
The reader needs to see the PONR to be invested fully in it. Check out Antigone, for instance, if you find this trope of mine is too modern. Check out Shakespeare and Ben Johnson, check out Middlemarch and even the short stories in this year's New Yorker.
It is instructive to see the more successful--by which I mean the more enduring--stories arriving somewhere at that Point, which throws facts and circumstances and surprise together, effecting and affecting the beginning and the middle. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, the PONR comes almost exactly in the middle, a stirring circumstance in which two of the principals, Dick Diver, the young psychiatrist, and Nichole Warren, his patient, are caught in a rain downpour while strolling in downtown Vienna, and in a matter of moments, to quote from Dick Diver's point of view, "he knew that from now on, her troubles were his." Were they ever!
There is a splendid PONR in Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, and an equally moving one in Huck Finn.
I shall direct Digby to these vagrant lines, curious to see if indeed we now have two chapters. On with the dialectic.
If you are to spend any time at all with authors, engaging in conversations that aspire to seriousness of purpose, such as, Another round? or Shall we agree to keep this between ourselves? or When are you going to finish that thing? will bring you to some new variation on the theme of a beginning writer wanting to know how one acquires the services of a literary agent. Your story is funnier, no doubt because it is so markedly more absurd than the example given you by the author you are conversing with.
A beginning writer makes his way into the men's lounge of a crowded hotel, notices all the stalls and urinals are occupied, smiles to himself because he has a large audience, then asks, "Excuse me. Anyone in here know how to get a literary agent?"
Of a piece with that ghostly apparition of writerly humor is the trope of exercises and contests for writers. I don't mean legitimate short story or poetry contests in which a completed work is submitted, I mean--well, one of the more ridiculous was the one in which the writer is forbidden to use words with the letter e in them. There are lesser evils such as each person in a group picking one word and the exercise transmogrifying into the need to use each of these words at least once in a story. There are themes, such as Man's inhumanity, or radix valorem est cupidetas or even evil to him who evil thinks.
A mere hours into recovery from a week-long and energetic writers' conference, I still bristle at the remarkably dumb contests such as The Worst Opening Sentence, or a poem, essay, or story employing the theme "sideways." You start thinking about all the costs of enrollment, travel, lodging, and the price gouging at the Fess Parker Doubletree Inn at Santa Barbara, and you're willing to spend your time trying to write a humorously bad opening sentence. I have the Midas touch; everything I put my hands on turns into a muffler.
Or you spend your time in the workshops of two first-rate screenwriters, attempting to arrive at a one-scene parody of a forty-year-old movie.
Gimme, as they say, a break.
My critics admonish me to loosen up, relax, have fun, go with the games and exercises because, after all, we've got to have some fun or we'll go stark raving mad.
Forget the fact that writers already are stark raving mad, by degrees obsessive, compulsive, and control freaks. If it were not already on some level fun, what would prompt us to do it? This argument is of a piece with telling Van Gogh to have fun, and hey there, Herr Rembrandt, have fun, and Ole, El Greco, divert thyself.
What about this for a contest? Write a first draft of a poem or short story or character sketch or essay. Write it as fast as you can without thinking. Now you have an outline. Develop this into a second draft, experimenting with order, point of view, cadence, dramatic beats. Produce a third draft, emphasizing voice. Perhaps a fourth draft for relevance and repetition. Then maybe a fifth to check out the proper beginning and ending, and yet another for the middle. Now you just might have something that produces an intensity equivalent to two cats, getting it on out on the back porch. How's that for a exercise.
Santa Barbara County is the fulcrum of the so-called Tri-Counties Area, beginning with its southernmost Ventura County and ending with the northernmost, San Luis Obispo County. As a convenient consequence, there are two NPR stations that converge on Santa Barbara, KCBX, originating in San Luis Obispo, and KCLU, broadcasting out of Thousand Oaks in Ventura County. Driving between Point A and Point B today, you have your car radio turned to the "other" NPR station in the county, the KCBX version which at this time in the afternoon features classical music.
Listening to Tchaikowski's Piano Concerto Number 1 in B flat minor, not entirely a stranger to you even though it has now been some years between your hearing it last and hearing it today. It is filled with bombast, much like an argument between orchestra and piano, particularly pitting the piano against an emphatic and argumentative orchestral ensemble in the final movement. The piano's major argument is a rapid octave movement which, as though coming up with a final, irresistible summary, seems at the very least to hold its own with the orchestra.
The culture into which I was born and somehow raised has that Talmudic sense of argument to the point where intellectual and emotional cards become trump at a moment's notice, where winning does become important, where even the most innocent of observations is as likely as not to be countered by some unfair implication of one's argument partner being wished a heart attack or plague or some shower of misfortune. Thus I am not overly concerned about flailing hands or emphatic gestures.
One afternoon I saw my own barber engaged in a rapid flutter of hands being wrung, pony tail sent flying, her native French being flung about like a hot dog in a ball park, being passed down the rows to its ultimate recipient. When I questioned her about the exchange, she shook her head. Oh, that. We were just deciding where to go for lunch.
I am used to vivid exchanges of opinion and/or interpretations of the law. What law? Any law. The Mosaic Law, the Talmudic Law, Newton's Law, the California Traffic Code.
The Tchaikowski is so familiar ad accessible that I quickly identify with the piano's part, thus I am arguing with what I perceive to be the mainstream, trying to knock it even farther down than I see it. And thus I am being blindsided by the analogy that story is very much a piece of music in that it is an argument. The argument may proceed, as karaoke or John Charles Thomas, or an essay or story, presenting its points in counterpart or deference to other themes, the outcome not at all readily apparent.
When we are in story, we are in an orchestrated dialog with all the elements, with character, landscape, and attitude. Story is not so much plot as it is argument, discussion, forging of statements, attitudes, and voices.
Once we begin to locate our terrain and the kinds of arguments we engage, the format is there for us to run roughshod over, improvising new ways to break free of restraint.
So go ahead, give it to me straight; give me your best argument, whether from logic or emotion or a splendid combination of both. Anything goes understatement, sarcasm (but be careful, this is difficult to control) irony, disbelief, phony statistics invented on the spot to enhance an advantage in the argument of story. As life clicks along unfairly, so too does story.
How many ways is it possible to see story? As many ways as it takes. You are driving along engaged for a few moments in Tchaikowski's Piano concerto, a part of it, arguing its themes out with the orchestra and for those few moments, a musical composition becomes existential, thrusting you into the midst of process to do what it is you would do, and from there you see the magical entry way into the medium by which you do what you would do.
To capture story is to capture lightning in a bottle, a shattering energy force compressed into a bottle, then corked to remain for such time as such tings remain bottled. But no loss if the lightning remains imprisoned; soon you will be able to look about you and see the stories lurking everywhere, waiting to come forth.
For you it almost always involves parallel lines, which advertise their willingness to converge against all logic and certainly against all definition. In geometry, parallel lines meet only in infinity; in fiction, they meet in the last chapter. In argument, the lines of logic may never meet or they may unexpectedly cross, the intensity of passions and goals informing their source of energy.
This is the last night of workshops for the 2008 conference. Having started on Saturday night, before the morning and afternoon workshops began, I am in the unfamiliar place of being one of the first to be through instead of the last. Tomorrow, I can even sleep late and begin catching up with the onset of Summer routine. All that is needed is a rousing souvenir of a mini lecture with which to leave them before hearing out the last round of manuscript reading and commentary. Thus I propose:
1. Revision is a systematic and purposeful process of taking in the opening drafts of a work, digesting it elements, then determining what it is...
2. ...then determining where it really begins, which is to say finding the place where it begins to pulse and exert energy. This place may be anywhere within the manuscript, including where you may at one time have thought it to end...
3. then determining if it is told from the optimal point of view, which is to say that, for example, at least one segment of Mr. Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury had to be told from the point of view of Benjy Compson...
4...then determining if all the participants in the narrative have earned their way into it and deserve to remain, checking to see if two or perhaps even three or four characters have been assigned the same role and need to be either combined or otherwise surgically separated...
5...then determining if they speak dialogue as opposed to conversation...
6...then determining if each scene earns its keep, which is to say it advances the story, enhances our understanding of the characters, and defines however minimally the emotional landscape...
7...then checking to see that some significant discovery occurs to the writer from having so intimately dealt with such exquisitely formed and dramatically displayed characters, the idea being that the author has reached deeply enough within him--or herself to have learned some answer, gained some new insight, or forsworn some prejudicial road block that will more readily allow the traffic of reason and learning...
8...then discovering some surprise, some delightful or momentous awareness that as not there but which advanced the characters joint originality and the author's understanding of the human condition...
9...then determining where the narrative truly ends, a safeguard against anticlimax, which is, by all accounts the introduction of distractions to the main story arc and embellishments...
10...then checking to remove the one or two things set into the narrative as a hedge against disinterest because where risks are taken, safety is the primary concern and a thing that is safe is fine in commercial vehicles and investments but not in writing, never, never in writing.
Preparation for tonight's workshop:
The landscape or setting for a scene--it is the arena, the crucible into which individuals are lured or drawn or allowed to wander in, bringing with them some expectation, even if the expectation is the merest of see-what-happens expectations. We all know about the other end of the spectrum, the Great Hope or Significant Expectation or Hidden Agenda. We know because we all have them.
No country for old men, Yeats said, and MCarthy picked up on that trope, rode it forth with eloquent murky majesty.
By the way, having or being on a horse--high horse, chivalry a sense of entitlement or recognition of privilege. Chivalry, the way persons on horseback treat one another as opposed to the way they treat those on foot.
The characters enter the arena, each thinking he is right.
The clash of expectations.
The difference between what is said and what is thought.
The push of beginning story--the change of inertia.
The flare-up of identity--a match struck in the darkness. Who a character is, what the character wants.
Shelly Lowenkopf stopped for a moment to tidy his shirt and tie before entering the room. When he achieved as much neatness and composure as he thought possible, he knocked smartly on the door, opened it, and strode forth. The individuals seated around the conference table turned to greet him. "Good evening, Mr. Jones," they said in ear unison.
"Good to be here," Shelly Lowenkopf said. "Shall we get started?"
"The difference between a cop and writers is on the table before us," Joe Wambaugh says with a salute to the drink before him. "I'm eighty proof and the rest of you are beer and aperitifs."
Another thing on the table before us is the fact that Wambaugh still empathizes with and considers himself one of them; he likes us well enough to consider himself one of us as well, but in his heart he is a cop. He nods at me. "I am an English major, and at those reunions--" he says, emphasizing the those by which we are given to understand university reunions instead of cop reunions, "--at those reunions, I sit with the lit majors. But I was a cop before I was an M.A. in English."
He was also a cop before he was a writer although the more you listen to him, you see his tropes and recollections coming forth in story format--spirited, warm-hearted reflections about people, even people he was responsible for, as he put it, arranging scholarships to institutions where cutting class was not an option any more than line-up and lock-down were options.
It is easy to find common ground with him, subjects that interest him, things he has read, things he wants to read, things he has written or wants to write. When we talk about his work, he tries out of modesty to shift the subject along to something else, where we could talk or agree or disagree, but there is a reporter from NPR along, working on a Wambaugh feature and she encourages the drift back to his work. All right, he seems to sigh with resignation, my work then. "I seem to recall," he tells me, "you favoring The Mysteries of Harry Bright." I nod immediate affirmative. "Mine, too," he confesses.
Jerry Roberts, another excellent reporter, chimes in. "Mine, too. Almost mystic in its implications."
In the same manner of prudence you employ by checking the batteries in a fire alarm, you attempt equipoise or equanimity with your temper and are thus able to be positive about most non-social meetings you need to attend. In the same manner of prudence you employ by avoiding places that depress you such as The Farmer Boy's Restaurant at the corner of State and Ontare in upper Santa Barbara, you try to avoid any venue where your suspicion of landscape or population will bring you gloom leading to depression.
Accordingly you were on what you judged to be good behavior during the first sixty or seventy percent of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, but the buffet barbecue dinner put you in the seat next to a faculty member whose views should by now have caused you to stop immediately what you are doing and set forth with the sun screen equivalent of prudence. You did not. As he proceeded with one of his pronouncements you threw over all reason and restraint, summoned your most stentorian, projected voice and denounced him as being so far out of date that he could apply for World War II gas ration stamps.
Not a good way to begin.
But shortly thereafter, when your workshop began, two individuals read short stories of such magnitude that you were able to endure for the rest of the evening with an enormous calm and grateful heart.
We are born into a time from which we may try to escape by writing beyond or ahead of our time, which is to say historical writing or science fiction speculative writing. Few readers, fewer critics looks at this as worth any serious notice. Indeed, as we find ourselves writing history or casting into future speculations or fantastic alternate universes, we begin to reflect the politics of our birth time and our present time, perhaps through an unintentional-but-revelatory observation, sometimes in what strikes us as service of the story.
We are born into a locale which we chose to exploit or write ourselves out of by deliberately changing the setting of where our writing takes place. How any of us remain regionalists, how many of us move on toward being cosmopolitan or global? Ho many of us solve the problem by inventing our own otherness, our own place in which to set a narrative? And how many of us are inventive enough to solve the problem through research of making it seem we know with some intimacy a place where we have never in fact actually been?
We are born into a social class from which we attempt escape, as surely as D.H. Lawrence was humiliated by his working class roots. We are born into a social class we attempt to exploit, writing about traditions and schools and values and families. My argument is that this accident of birth is the one that has the most effect on us. We can research the others, interview prime examples, even visit the locale, using our mind's eye to transport us back in time in that place. Coping with the effects of the class into which we were born is another matter. Dickens sensed this in Great Expectations and in many ways provided one of his most splendid examples of a single character who lived on two levels, was influenced by each, and how those consequences actually shaped his destiny.
Jack London was another case in point, Herman Melville another, each experiencing and writing beyond limitations of birth landscape, often with lasting effect, each enhancing his own understanding of class structure and making it possible for readers to experience what it is like to be other than what and how and where one has been born.
F.S. Fitzgerald, born well into the middle class, frequently described him as looking in as if through windows at the rich, and James Agee, having grown up rural and lower middle class in Knoxville, Tennessee, quickly wrote his way out of his origins and place into another, more opulent world.
None of these choices is in my view any better than any other, Harry Crews grabs me by the collar and yanks me into his story as forcefully as Louis Auchincloss, to cite but one extreme example. I feel comfortable with a range of social classes, an observation that could well be considered as self-serving on some levels, but I leaven the observation with the awareness that I can and do visit a wide range of characters, say Flem Snopes and Jeeter Lester, with the likes of Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, and Richard III.
Characters are having more and more to make accommodations in these matters of time, place, and class. The young, the adult, the middle-aged, and the elderly must perforce mix if only in response to the undeniable reality that there are more of each of us than ever before. We ignore each other at our peril and at the peril of a good story.
When the world is too much with us, as Wordsworth viewed it, late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers...
and so we turn, much as he did when looking out at a particular field, for a vision of comfort. And so, past comments about comfort food and comfort reading still in my mind, I turn to another of the enduring comforts available to us, comfort poetry, where often the Wordsworth sonnet bubbles up to the top and begins to set things aright.
Begins. You are too absorbed in material things, he seems to be saying, and missing out on the intensity of nature.
What helps the inertia of moving forward is some time spent with Houseman. Terrence, this is stupid stuff. Houseman has long been a cherished comfort, a companion of the road.
Yeats, for the sheer madness of invention and antic, lyric exuberance, breaking over the horizon like a schizoid skyrocket. I went out to the fabled wood because a fire was in my head.
And what comfort in e.e. cummings Damn everything but the circus!
Can your need for comfort fail to be moved by Hopkins?
Glory be to God for dappled things
For skies of couple-color as a brindled cow
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim
And of course more Hopkins yet:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God,
It will flame out like shining from shook foil...
The Eve of St Agnes fpr cpmfort and Cavafy and Anne Sexton and mad, maddening Pound:
Winter is icummen in
Lhude sing goddamn
Winter is icummen in,
What an augue hath my ham.
And sloppeth us,
Sing damn goddamn.
And the argumentative Pound in:
Hang it all, Robert Browning,
There can be but one Sordello...
And the first eighteen of you know what by you know who:
Whan that Aprille with her shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtu engendred is the flour...
Comfort, all of it, all of them, and the world is again fecund with the possibility of you...
As we are drawn to particular preferences in the things we eat, don't eat, drink, don't drink, and on down the line of pairs of opposites that claim our approval or disapproval, we are draw to a spectrum of story that sates what I like to think of as the mystical appetite of reading taste. This is the literary equivalent of comfort food in the sense that it has the potential of calming, exciting, infusing with nostalgia, transporting us to another era or place or age. As such things go, it is not a rational taste. The more I think about it, investigate its implications, compare it with the things I enjoy writing and actually do write, the more it comes to me that literary taste is quite contrary, bordering on impish and perverse.
We write to fulfill emotional hungers, just as we read to enter the domain of an individual writer and sign on for the chef's taste special.
One such writer awaits in person in a few days. I had been reading Joe Wambaugh from the first of his remarkable publication record. When he last appeared at our writers' conference, it fell to my happy lot to introduce him in is role as featured speaker of the evening. "Joe Wambaugh," I said, "writes the books we wish we'd written." He liked that and went on to say that he wrote books he was glad to have written. Although I had one long-term and warm relationship with a homicide cop, he was a different breed from Wambaugh, his reading tastes running to The Sporting News, Field and Stream, and the L.A. Times his writing tastes ran to field reports and summaries. I mention St. John, for that was his name, as a reference point for my being so fond of Joe Wambaugh's work. I admired St. John, ate and drank with him, But neither that crossing of paths with the man who worde badge Number one from the LAPD nor the opportunity to hang out with Joe Wambaugh explain to my satisfaction my interest in crime-related novels. To my tastes, Wambaugh has a quality greater than is inside knowledge of police work; he has an antic humor that explodes with wit and good humor of the ironic sort I often prefer. Things are not what they seem for any of his cops or civilians. I like Joe Wambaugh novels because his tone and word choice and sense of how relations play out pull me in as though, as though they were comfort food.
Of all his works, fiction and nonfiction, The Mysteries of Harry Bright became the equivalent for me of peanut butter and jam on a thick slab of bread.
Thinking about some of the legendary crime writers I knew, went on the carouse with and/or edited, writers such as Bill S. Ballinger, Day Keene, Bob Turner, Steve Fisher, Frank Gruber, Dorothy B. Hughes, Ken Millar, Bill Gault,Tom Dewey,John Wilder, all of whom I greatly admire, there is that special place for Joe Wambaugh because of that particular flavor he imparts, that edgy humor that pushes the boundaries but does not bleed over into cruelty or gratuitous violence.
The closest to have approached Wambaugh is Michael Chabon in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and it is my suspicion that Chabon is a fan of Wambaugh.
I have come some distance then in saying Wambaugh writes the books we wish we'd written. Although I think this is still true, I also believe he writes the books we wish we'd read sooner.
For as long as you have known it, used it, plumbed its depths and considerable resources, you have been fond of the [Edward L.]Doheny Library on the University of Southern California Campus. It was because of this library that you were first summoned to the office of a long forgotten dean. "Did you tell your students that every building on this campus was named after a crook?"
"What I said, sir, was that the Doheny Library was brought to us by those same wonderful folks who gave us The Tea Pot Dome Oil Scandal?"
And so as I sat in a large conference room on the second floor of said library, the musty smell of old texts by no means unpleasant, the sun gently filtered through authentic wooden blinds, the campus ablaze with Summer Session students and incoming freshmen on orientation tours, I felt comfortable and at home among many of my faculty peers as we greeted our new department chair, a splendid and energetic choice selected after a rigorous search process. A well-produced playwright and well-published poet, her credentials include teaching stints at Brown, Yale, and Harvard, her passion for teaching manifest in her frank, assertive smile and the force behind her questions.
I would guess there were upward of thirty faculty members present, quickly doing what faculty members ought to be doing, which is to say disagreeing with one another. It began, innocently enough, with one faculty member discussing the difference between two Hemingway stories, The Killers and A Clean Well-lighted Place, each successfully illustrating different levels of the three basic segments of narrative. "Wait a minute," one faculty member said, "Why only three?" And we were off and running in a pleasing diversion for me because I realized we were all looking for ways to articulate the very things faculty members ought to be articulating, which is to say differences.
So that, by the time the new department chair asked the rhetorical question, What is the first thing we want a student of writing in our program to know? I was able to throw some lighter fluid into the fire. "We want them to know who they are?"
As you can suppose, there were exceptions taken to my assertion, some insisting we wanted them to know Aristotelian Poetics, others still venturing forth with such things as scenes, dialogue, narrative, point of view.
The difference between writers' takes on what is or is not important is warming to me because of my firm belief that there is no single way, no answer, not even a compromise, just as, later, it became apparent that there was no answer to the question of whether being isolated and alone is better for the emerging writer than collegiality and interconnectedness.
In a few days, I will sit in a similar faculty meeting as the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference moves from the Green Room of the pre-conference gathering to the starting whistle blowing on Saturday morning and the workshops changing their inertial state from being at rest to surging into motion.
It is a satisfying thing to sit in a room of writer teacher, quite liking some and their writing, equally quite disliking others as teachers and writers. I will not name names, not from modesty or fear of reprisal I am too far along in what I do to be modest or fearful. The simpler matter is that you may just as easily have contrary views of whom to admire and whom to detest, and we would both be right.
The issue is wrapped around the armature of story, of who tells the story or narrative or poem and how he or she tells it. Grown men and women making emphatic gestures on the desks in front of them, digressing wildly to slip in information that will make them seem even more important than their opinions, become a glorious circus. I close my eyes and see sword swallowers, fire eaters, animal tamers, clowns, jugglers, jongleurs, poets. I smell the crisp, resinous tang of sawdust, the arcid invitation of onions sizzline on the cookhouse grill, the sugary confabulation of cotton candy, the sweat of the animals, the excitement of the circus goers. We all have our act and it is to believe strongly enough in our illusion to insist that there is some truth in it, some effect and affect.
Many of the Hindu faith believe there is only one reality, the godhead, Everything else is maya or illusion. To be real, they say, you have no qualities, particularly you do not change. The minute you attempt to describe the godhead, you are consigning it to the real of illusion because you are giving it attributes. Such thinking gets Hindus into a good deal of trouble, or perhaps I should say argument. For instance, Ganesha, the devoted follower of Shiva, is seen as godhead with attributes, and what are you going to make of that?
On the other hand, let us posit that there is no reality but story, which comes from the psyche, which comes from somewhere, let's not argue about exactly where, let's save that for later, for another night when there are no adverbs or adjectives to get in the way.
The A-level headline of this essay could refer more to financial prognosis than it really does. It is nice to be paid for one's work, although if one has previously made the distinction between things being done for pleasure or discovery or information and the other side of the dialectic being work, there is no need for further definition. When events work to the end of being paid for one's fun, I guess you could call that extra or special, or perhaps even professional athletics.
We are then looking at the side-view mirror at money, receding in the distance. Things done for money are farther away than they seem.
What then are we looking at in the folder of self interest. It is nice to know of a particular character what that person wants and what that person will do in pursuit of the goal. One of my favorite examples is Ms. Dorothy Gale, who wants to get home to Kansas and is willing to go after The Wicked Witch of the East to secure what seems to her frequent flier miles from the Wizard of Oz.
My own goal is frequently information. I write to get emotional information about some moral conundrum, or I pursue stories to see what forces motivate a person to behave as that character behaves. I also go after a story or a narrative for the adventurous thrill of discovering connecting links between two or more things I once considered disparate.
If there is nothing in it for me, I tend to grow restless and impatient while I'm doing it, which is an important reference point to mark off on the landscape of any chore I would rather not be doing, indeed find myself inventing diversions to keep me from doing. Some friends and associates have what I consider the admirable philosophy of trying to impart the sense of doing well everything they do, thus managing to extract satisfaction. I have tried to extract satisfaction from a myriad of things, say ironing shirts or neatening my work area, doing dishes. It is no small thing to wear a neatly ironed shirt, an improved sense of efficiency if my work area is neat, the comfort of being able to eat from a clean plate or, better still, not have to eat from a paper plate, provided I have done dishes. There are other chores such as doing the laundry, emptying trash, deleting unused files from the hard drive of y computer, deleting from my closet clothing I have not worn for over a year. But to say such things cause squirts of happiness into my blood stream or charges of crackling energy down my neural paths is to indulge hyperbole.
How noble it is of me to hypothesize that my wiring is designed with such nobility that I am then driven to discovery or surprise, making me sound like a pure scientist, or that I work to assuage an omnivorous curiosity. Trouble is, I don't do noble to any degree of excellence. So what is the correct label to pin on the exhibit, as though I were some butterfly or bug, impaled on a biologist's needle? Contrary comes to mind. I can be comfortable with contrary in a way I could never achieve comfort with nobility of purpose.
Is there some Big Bang in my psyche that caused this spray of attitude and voice? Was there some defining moment, or were there a series of defining moments that somehow knit together into this garment of contrariness? My best memory of such awareness came at age nineteen when, bored with most of the curriculum accorded me at Los Angeles City College, where I had gone to study typography with Richard Hoffman (and loved it) and stumbled on a survey course in which I careened into the wondrous mysteries of Geoffrey Chaucer, I filled out transfer papers and hied myself across town to the University of California at Los Angeles, which was something altogether else in that I not only had to read things and write intelligently about them, I wanted to, and did, until my first bout of final examinations. What was in studying for those examinations was the path to graduate school, expanded horizons of literature, dots to connect of history, culture, language, critical thinking. I chose instead to spend much of the time furiously writing short stories, inventing one character as an alter ego who has remained with me for lo these many years, pairing him with another character who has occasionally slipped between the cracks of neglect, but who significantly reappeared in time to appear in one particular short story that bought me away from the pulps and commercial magazines and into the so-called literary or quality journals. The thrust of the story was the epitome of contrariness, in which my alter ego undertook to suborn the affections of his best friend's dog, thinking to disguise the dog and raise her as his own.
No, it certainly isn't money that has been in it so far as the stories were concerned, not after that point, wherein "payment" meant two free copies of the journal in which the story appeared or in another case, a leaky fountain pen, or in another, a t-shirt. What then was in the writing of these stories for you?
A discovery of a terrain in which things happen outside the range of the things you see about you, and yet of the things you see, an exaggerated sense of reach that becomes more and more plausible the deeper into it you proceed, sans map, sans comfortable walking shoes, sans directions.
Some time after you made this discovery of terrain, you fell on some reversals financially. It was not so much that you were living beyond your means as it was that you had no means to live within. Dennis Lynds got you a job writing for hire in a suspense/adventure series that liked to think of itself as a blue-collar James Bond. To make the project interesting, you crafted the antagonist in the image of the then chairman of your department, and because it was interesting, it was fun, and because it was fun, things happened that were not in the outline the editor had approved. "What the hell is going on here?" the editor asked. "Beats me," you said. "This stuff is--is--well, it's writing," the editor said. "It's convincing. You should, you know, be a writer," he said.
What I think he meant was that I should be a writer somewhere else, but I did not say that, I kept on having fun until my reversals were reversed, but that is another story. What this story is about is getting characters to visit your terrain, where they will become something contrary and you will discover something in it for you.
Somewhere between putting a sock on the left foot and a matching one on the right foot, you discover lost youth, sliding into an alternate universe in much the same manner Alice did when she tumbled down the rabbit hole. Who knows how long you might have remained in that state if you had not needed to heed the knocking at the door of two perfectly agreeable sorts who'd come to measure the bathroom, a place they plan to reduce to a pile of rubble tomorrow, installing what one of the two men called a younger, more flexible environment.
It is all too easy to become an inflexible environment, radiating intransigence and suspicion. One of the products of the aging process is a set routine, wherein everything must be done according to a ritual, left leg in the pants first, then right leg left shoe on first, then right. Things to be done on the left side of the desk, things done moved to the right for later filing or discard. Another waste product of age is assumption, as in assuming you know a thing without having given the particular thing a chance to become a part of your curiosity.
If. A major concept for the inquirer in us.
Suppose. A major hypothesis, set before us, ready to be tested.
Imagining a Big Bang is the ante into the game of modern life. Imagining the forces that caused the things that produced the destiny that became us, this is the first peek at the hand dealt us in this cosmic game of draw poker, which is a nice if. But not a completely satisfying one. There is so much to If and Suppose about, knowing that we can never hope to find out enough to satisfy us for long periods of time.
It is wired-in behavior that causes us to pause while putting on socks or falling off a page on the computer screen or the page of a book or a line of a poem. The cultural tradition I was born into has a concept of The Divine Nothingness, across which we are enjoined to throw ourselves every day, hopeful of landing on the other side. In his own remarkable way, Soren Kierkegaard saw the need for what he called a leap of faith. Since I;m what I am by culture rather than belief, I prefer to think of that Divine Nothingness as a place to explore, demons, dragons, and monsters to be considered no more an obstacle nor less than anything in the actual world.
I'm for the rabbit hole.
Maybe see you there.
Anger is a prime motivating force in life and dramatic writing. Two angry countries may produce a war, two people an argument, and two characters a story.
Anger begins with mild awareness, heats up a bit to irritation, boils over into outburst; it may continue to seethe with its friend and adjunct, resentment for days, years, generations. A splendid example of the etiology of anger is found in a joke old enough to anger most story tellers over the fact that they hadn't been the first to tell it:
During the course of a morning's work with a hoe, Henry snaps the handle of his implement, curses the loss, then sets off to his neighbor in hopes of borrowing his hoe. Henry has not gone far when he begins to wonder if Sam will actually loan his hoe, particularly given that Henry's use of his own hoe has resulted in disaster. He'd better, Henry muses, or he's no true neighbor. I really need that hoe. Shrugging off the doubt, Henry continues his trek to Sam's home. After all, what are neighbors for? Neighbors are supposed to help one another, right? But now Henry is visited by the memory of Sam refusing to loan the hoe, based on some obscure principal that, Henry observes, is just like Sam. Well, he'd just better not refuse me, Henry ventures as he nears Sam's farm, and quickens his pace, impressed with his urgent need for the hoe. Then, from the shade of a large oak, Sam appears, waves a greeting to Henry. "Hi there, Neighbor. What brings you around at this time of day?
By now, Henry is thoroughly worked up. "Listen you; you can keep your damned hoe."
As you will have observed from your own dissection of anger, this powerful emotional surge often has fear connected with it. The person who cuts us off precipitously on the freeway has caused a squirt of adrenaline to course into the ecosystem, a warning to be on guard against being creamed or sideswiped or worse. That idiot could have killed me. And thus the fear has worked its way through the hybrid engine system of the psyche to anger.
What do you mean, you drank the last beer in the fridge? (You took something I wanted.)
What do you mean, no Christmas bonuses this year! (You took something I deserved. Well--thought I deserved. Well--hoped for.)
What do you mean, you want a divorce! (I worked while you went to law school.)
What do you mean, you've met someone else? (She's still a kid!)
There are any number of sub-species of anger, frustration among them, which results in the anger of frustration of not having our own way, not getting what we wanted, not being agreed with (particularly after having just made a compelling and balanced logical argument).
There is the anger of the young at not being taken seriously, the anger of the old for creaking when we walk or being considered behind the times, the anger of being considered still "on a learning curve" and the anger at being considered passe, the anger of being in a line when the person in front of us pulls out a coin purse and begins to count pennies, the anger of forgetting a fact or a name well known to us only minutes before, the anger of having allowed one's self to be talked out of a position that later proves to have been correct (say touted off a winning horse), the anger of being told that the person in front of us got the last of whatever it is we were in line for, the anger of discovering that you need four new tires instead of two...
There is the anger of defensiveness: Of course I'm all right, how do you think I look!
There is the anger of being wrong. So I made a little mistake. So sue me. (What do you mean, you'll sue me!)
The elderly grow cranky they are not yoga-flexible any longer, the younger wax impatient to be elderly and solvent; they meet sometimes in the middle, throwing things, insults, epithets, challenges at one another, driving story as though it were a new model iPhone, waiting to be released.
To understand anger, a writer must sympathize with it, experience it, see where its frequent flier miles will take it; a writer must forswear it, turn the other adverb, recognize the degree to which it is soldered into our neural pathways, recognize it as a part of us with which, John McCain to the contrary notwithstanding, we must be willing to sit down at the negotiating table with no preconditions.
As we are story, it is us.
What do you mean, I've gone on too long?
A diary or journal is a record of what you did and perhaps even with whom you did the listed things. A blog entry is a litany of the things you did not do and wished you had, did not understand or realize and wish you had; it trumpets the things you felt good about doing or thinking, a record as it were to haunt you the way YouTube streams hurt John McCain. In your blog entries, there is the ever-so-slight tinge of hubris, caught up in an arm wrestle with your sense of how tomorrow you may have more of a handle on your neural transmitters and the traffic therein.
There are traces of progress from time to time, adding to your sense of hubris, slight tracking of your having understood a process, of being able to give a more dimensional and exciting definition than those found on the likes of Wikipedia. You take heart at the blog sites you continue to visit, remembering those you no longer consult. Each site arouses some question within you the answer to which seems a worthwhile pursuit. You see a friend posting a photo that so stunningly is a photo rather than a snapshot that you are stunned by the implications and beauty of the process. Another friend ventures an opinion with which you take some mischievous issue and in the ensuing dialogue, an idea for a play presents itself to you, a gift from the Muse of Blog. You consult your judgment about the blog sites you no longer visit, The Huffington Post, for example, reminding you of the tabloid headlines you see while standing in the checkout line at Von's. Bill Clinton Hits on Space Alien. Hillary Asks Joe Lieberman to Be Her Running Mate on Third-Party Ticket. Ah, you think. So long, Arianna.
Even more important is the sense that the Universe is in the process of doing something completely remarkable and that for all your interest, you cannot possibly keep up with it, a thought that leads you to the soft landing of awareness that it is all you can do to understand your own universe. Why does my dog so tangibly love me, come ninety percent of the time when I call her, even though her instincts and senses are so sensually engaged? What was there before The Big Bang? Why do so many people hate San Francisco and Los Angeles yet yearn to live in either place? Would New Yorkers still be so combative if they had more room and cheaper rent? Are all Porsche owners assholes? Why do Republicans resent progress?
It sounds like the beginning to a poem by John Donne.
Go and catch a rented Porsche,
Immunize a crooked pol,
Tell me how to pass the torch
Of existential folderol...
What is your own Universe, what are its boundaries, what are your feelings to it, if you order for two do you get egg roll? Who are its heroes? Who makes the best peach cobbler? Where would you go to get sincere hot links?
It is often said of kids, unfairly I think, that they ask too many questions for the specific purpose of irritating grown-ups. I don't think kids have to ask questions to irritate grown-ups. I also think writers do not realize for quite some time that they need to ask questions, persistently going after answers to such things as what now, what next, and why not. It is my observation that most writers have been importuned at some time or another to latch onto something that they can fall back on in times of weal and woe. I am of an age where hitching rides was standard fare. I can recall numerous times when hitching rides home from the intersection of Fairfax and Melrose, directly across the street from Fairfax High School, to give serious thought to technical writing. Any number of individual with cars who offered me rides said there was no disgrace in technical writing. At another time in my life, a number of close-level friends were actually employed as technical writers, which seemed mysterious to me because none of them had what I would call a technical or scientific frame of mind. Indeed, one managed to sell short stories to Playboy back in the days when Playboy did not seem so Republican. But in time they began to have nervous breakdowns, drink too much, go to law school, or become teachers. Not being a technical writer, I had no funds to finance such adjunct ventures, but continued to write short stories, use razor blades more than was prudent, and distance myself further from any potential of being technical. To this day I cannot read instruction manuals, which I suppose gives me some platform for imagining instructions for things and doing to them what James Frey did to memoir.
The real answer to at least one question a technical writer could probably do better at on an employer's test is that there is nothing to fall back on, no safety net, no prudent decision that will provide a person a soft landing on any planet in the known solar system.
The only technical writing then is the analog of a Mars probe, landing on your own landscape, reporting what and who you see, and where to get a decent side of hot links.
Repetition of the craft, whether by practice, blogging, sketching, drawing, acting workshops, photographing, is the key to building the necessary muscle memory whereby artistry may be achieved.
Thousands of hours running scales, writing stories or journal entries, sketching, drawing, etc are not sufficient conditions for artistry to evolve but they are necessary conditions, without which the artist remains in place, does not grow, risks the atrophy of the muscles developed to date.
By means of this thoughtful repetition, this practice or invention or keeping notebooks or journals, the artist sheds the shells and skins of influences, takes on a new form, forges a personality that is the essence of function detrmining structure. In this manner the artist sheds the connective tissue with others he or she needs to have empathy and, for enough time to forge a sense of self, does so, becoming self with a capital S, a Self, still potentially a great friend, lover, mate, parent, colleague, but tangiby a Self that will try to change you if you don't watch out, try to argue you into his or her vision if you don't watch out.
It is damned lonely in there, having forged a landscape through which you move about, looking sifting through the detritus and middens and garbage, looking for artifacts from which you can concoct a poem or a story or a narrative or some interlinked concoction you give a name to. The loneliness comes at those very times when your own sense of your vision is weakest, needs reinventing or validation/ You take it down to the corner pub, toss back a few pale ales or petitte syrrah or simple plonk, emboldening yourself to reveal this vision of yours to the world. You are fortunate if, after a time, you wonder how you got to the floor and are now looking up toward the ceiling as if for instructions about how to get up. You are fortunate because you may never know if you were rendered into that supine position as a result of impact with someone's fist or from your ow wobbly center of gravity.
Over the years, ways of telling stories have evolved from sketches and drawings on cave walls to frescoes to poems written and performed to novels and short stories or lectures.
It is probably impossible to learn what happened before the Big Bang or, if it is possible, not in our life time. It is impossible to know answers to many of the existential questions that come our way, and it is even harder to know which of the Temptations or Sirens that surround us, want us to enlist in their causes will actually take us away from the answers we seek, answers we my have been on the cusp of knowing. I believe in science even though I don't have to science or at least a scientific approach to hypothesis and experimentation and peer review may lead to answers about a number of things governing the behavior of physical matter. Religion asks too little of me and provides too little; it is like the Christmas Cubs banks used to tout wherein one set aside a certain sum every week until the fortnight before Christmas, when you were rewarded with a set sum, It was not enough, however to believe you'd deposit the money every week, your belief had to be supported by actual performance.
A story is another matter. It nags at you until you listen and then it has you, dictates to you, presets the literary equivalent of steak knives and Styrofoam cooling containers. That doesn't mean you will finish it or that it will reveal anything to you if you do finish it, so you begin to wrestle with it until it tells you something, maybe not what there was before The Big Bang, but something--something you hadn't known, didn't even know you needed much less that you didn't even know you didn't have it.
Writing a story is like ordering one of those deluxe steak packages from Omaha, where the offer includes inducements, only these are not inducements you can eat--these are inducements that somehow the process will throw in a cutting board and a set of steak knives, or their equivalent, which is understanding.
No wonder you are lonely: you are standing around aware of something you had to work out for yourself, and now you know what it is, maybe. A little bit. And sure enough, you're going to head down to the corner pub and drink up enough courage to share it with the world, and end up on your ass, looking up at the ceiling as if waiting for instructions.
Since approximately 1980, I have been involved with at least one writers' conference. My longest continuous tenure has been with one of the top three or four in the U.S., the week-long Santa Barbara Writers' Conference which, until about 2005, was owned, operated, and propelled by one of my most long-term and dearest of friends. When said friend decided it was time to cut back and find an appropriate buyer, I counselled another friend who in fact became the new owner.
I write not to impart a history of the SBWC or to recount incidents of sometimes raucous detail but rather to chronicle the gray humors that descend upon me like an invasive marine layer coming in off the ocean each year at this time. Like Ishmael then, I wander about, an oppressive gloomy June in my soul when in fact I should be free of teaching responsibilities and opportunities and free to pursue the writing sides of my personality. Since about 1985 I have found myself on the receiving list of manuscripts to read and comment upon from those attending the conference. True enough, I have forged many warm friendships from suc reading and commentary, but more often than not I have found myself wondering if writers conferences can help wannabe writers. It is a question I also ask from time to time in the years I have taught at various undergraduate and graduate venues. The answer is always yes, but the crux of the matter is the number of individuals one must deal with (including one's self) or to put it another way, to rely on the baseball analogy of the batting average, and to realize that there are two basic types of individuals who come to writers' conferences and to writing programs, those who wish to learn technique and those who want a sounding board, a more-or-less laissez faire kind of encouragement and acknowledgment with occasional suggestions occasional bits of psychology, and continuous challenges that will result in produced material.
Some beginning writers will certainly improve merely from developing the habit of continuous writing. Some already accomplished and technically dazzling writers can be jiu jitsued into using their own voice to the point where it becomes muscle memory. Having achieved that plateau, they will surely publish. Whether they will make much money from it is a matter of whim and luck and sometimes even irony, but nevertheless, they will have splendid technique with which to freight splendid, often challenging stories.
In the mean time, I am reading three-thousand-word samples, submitted for this year's SBWC and indeed along with the marine layer that is drawn in from the ocean, the wannabe layer of grayness is drawn over me by the manuscripts I read. The remarkable thing about these submissions, some from locals, some from about the US, is the yearly consistency of thematic similarity. Last year the stories were all about terrorists, this year the emphasis is on improbable plot, done in excruciating detail. Having been raised on genre fiction, written at it and edited in it, I am of the opinion that most genre plots are borderline dumb or, failing that, attempting to be remarkably shrewd, as though the very complexity was a eon sign flashing the words Super Bright Author. Good writing can make any plot seem plausible. The better writers in our midst can even shove a pretentious plot kicking and screaming its way into literature.
There it is, in apercu. The better angels of our nature and the better writers in our midst. We must try to become both. I am encouraged on my own behalf because I am so splendidly awful at plotting that I have long since given up approaching story from that approach, instead focusing on someone who wants something to the point of despair, then undertakes to achieve it or cause it to happen or put himself or herself in the way of meeting it head on. Then I quickly bring forth one or more characters who are at the very least resistant to the goals of the protagonist. Then I cause them to collide in one manner or another, comfortable with the tension and outright suspense brewed in this crucible. From such pressure comes discovery and from discovery comes much of the stories I produce and/or admire.
There are not too many more of the manuscripts left for me to read and comment on, and so there is some strong chance for a break in the Ishmael layer of heaviness that has descended. I will soon be at the point where I am beyond threatening that this will be my last year at SBWC or any other conference. Manuscripts from early stage authors can be oppressive, a testament to the power of writing in general, which in specific makes the gyre turn in the first place, appropriate recognition to the emotional effect and power of the story at any stage of quality.
The avowed love of words has seduced many putative poets, short story writers, and novelists into floridness and hyperbole, conditions that have become disasters for the work they produce Words are tools and as the craftsperson learns to care for tools, the writer must learn to care for words, but the writer must also learn to care for feelings. True enough, feelings are meaningless unless they can be demonstrated and put into words, but equally true, mere words, how ever exquisite, are not enough. Too much of either is too much to take, not enough of either is the best course only because it somehow evokes wanting in us, makes us strive for the right balance, the right chemistry.
I grow impatient and restive when there are too many words, when the effect appears to be too labored. This is so not because I am so terribly sensitive but because these exaggerations are my own symptoms. There are times, precious few, when the feel of the work seeps through the thought, the sense of control, the awareness of rules or conventions. When I come back to revise, such moments stand out and I can visualize where they ended and thought took over, controlling the choice of words, the reach for effect or metaphor or simile.
Tonight, the final night of a class in short story writing, a number of the students hung around while I packed up their final papers and a welter of books I'd presented as examples of the final lecture. Eighty percent of them confessed to enjoying writing but hating so-called English courses. I was about to join that general strike against English classes until it came to me that I could ot in complete honesty do so. Thinking back on it, I enjoyed having to diagram sentences. Whether at the blackboard during class hours or on those ratty sheets of lined note book paper for homework, I enjoyed the sense of constructing a map around a sentence. Subject. Verb. Modifier. Object. No, not for the sake of grammar or syntax, rather for the sake of word order, of enhanced meaning. This is so because I don't know the grammar by the same Bible spouting rote of the evangelical or the heavy-handed and -bearded rabbinical vectors. It has become largely a matter of language as muscle memory. Better than grammar any time, better than thought.
After compiling a list of ten political novels for the Department of Public Information at the University, I could not help but let the process carry me to the beginnings of another list, one that took me by the hand, directing me to the realization that lists, even laundry lists and grocery lists, afford me a satisfaction that reverberates through my being. The former, the one that came as a result of listing ten political novels, provides more satisfaction than the grocery or laundry kind, but those too give me some lingering sense of control over the chaos of every-day life.
Ten or twelve short stories from the Nineteenth Century, moving along into the first half of the Twentieth. Thus would one be able to include The Girls in Their Summer Dresses or The Eighty-Yard Run by Irwin Shaw, certainly Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck, To Build a Fire or The Come-uppance by Jack London, A Cask of Amontillado by Poe, Hills Like White Elephants or A Clean, Well-Lighted place by Ernest Miller Whatzisname, Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor or The Swimmer by John Cheever, nd not to forget the one that really brought the project into focus, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. To be sure, a Checkhov might apply as well, and one of the Saki, say Tobermaury or The Window by H. H. Munro. Maybe, just to be mischievous, Gregor Samsa's travails in The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. And for even more mischief, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce.
Many of these are icons, things we not only read from the joys of growing up and discovering what we wanted to write and what we would never consider writing, but things that were pushed at us (along with The Minister's Black Veil) by junior high school and high school English teachers who wanted to help us distinguish adjectives from adverbs and how to recognize synecdoche when we saw it.
The purpose of the new list is to construct a series of stories in which the ending of the original became the beginning of the new. Such a work would demonstrate vividly the shift in the short story, how its payoff is left a good deal less resolved and how, accordingly, the short story has become the banner of our times, undergoing changes in subject matter, attitude, narrative focus, and a closer adherence to the emotional complexities that inhere in those of us who ride the moral trampoline of the twenty-first century.
Each of these new stories would end with an emotional jab to some part of the reader, because this is what short stories ought to do, but the jab would relate more to a certainty of justice being done, love finding a way, the right decision being made, the difficult faith being reinforced; the ending would not be nearly so sure for the insults would be more complex, the love more sophisticated, the justice more an uncertainty or even injustice.
The laundry lists and grocery lists will remain pragmatic, which is their own way of reminding us about the nature of lifestyle we are indulging at a given moment.
It takes less than a paragraph for Rivka Galchen to convince us that the protagonist of her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, is less than reliable, piquing our curiosity to the zenith by allowing us to know that he is an M.D. with a practice in psychiatry. What does Leo Leibenstein have in mind, we wonder as we are pulled into the vortex of his mind.
And what a mind it is. In the next few paragraphs, we become convinced that Leo is a lunatic, and so we are drawn yet farther as we see that, lunatic or not, Leo still thinks like a scientist. All of which means we see the science of thesis, hypothesis, experiment, peer review, statement as providing some hope that there will be yet adder understanding about who we are and how we work.
I began my review of Atmospheric Disturbances with a trope from another individual who rides that cusp between lunacy and genius, William Blake, the poet, artist, print maker of eighteenth century England. The Tiger, Tiger William Blake.
Kermit the Frog finds it less than easy being green, Blake certainly did not have to worry about being put up for Parliament, and well before him, Giambatista Vico had the loneliness of creating his philosophy ad science more or less alone, as an unreliable narrator. The more reliable we find narrators, male or female, the less we become concerned with their emotional stats and trough an odd process of elimination, we become aware that we are accordingly less likely to learn anything about our own emotional states. At all stags of our evolution from child to adolescent, we are admonished if not urged to act our age as though mere chronology imparts some hyperawareness to us that will render us the better able to cope with--the problems of our given age. Nay, not merely problems but vicissitudes, the changes, the ever widening gyre. Acting our chronological age, it is argued, will see us through the vicissitudes as though those can be charted on the equivalent of a tide chart or an ephemerides.
I believe in and work at keeping my word, which I take to mean I can be trusted to do as I say I will do--unless I change my mind or unless I can view the sea of reality about me as a new experience in which my word is still to be given. I believe in keeping a bit of lunacy as a traveling companion.
Perhaps there is a state of grace in which one can achieve a trustworthy lunacy. I wish to distinguish this lunatic quality from the delusional state so admirably achieved by so many about me, men and women who have given up their individual lunacy and bought instead into the more companionable and conventional comforts of group delusion, where their politics become trying to demonstrate a greater delusion to the point even of speaking in delusional tongues, which pretty well defines Republicanism.
The Lesser Evil.
The Grand Conundrum
All places off the map of convention, places where we may howl forth at the moon with glorious impunity.
I have had my opportunity at Normality and respond to it as some do to Summer camp it is not the place for me. If Heaven exists, it has been developed by the entrepreneurs of Normality, it has golf courses and Starbucks, and I can do without normality and golf and Starbucks.
1. You have been asked to supply a list of ten political novels to which you supply annotations. Given the intense political atmosphere of the moment, this is the most desired list of ten. Others, on other subjects, will be requested. You have chosen:
Political novels are like thermometers; they reflect the temperature of the political symptoms of a given era. Here are ten novels that reveal the fevered brows of their times:
1. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007). Set against a backdrop of the reign of the Dominican Republic dictator, Rafael Trujillo, this narrative moves between the Dominican Republic and contemporary New Jersey to tell the story of a family, their friends, and a Diaspora. Remarkably formatted with footnotes reflecting history and authorial commentary, this novel parallels growing up under a dictatorship with growing up in a minority in America.
2. The Plot Against America: A Novel by Philip Roth (2004). In a dystopic alternate universe, FDR loses the 1940 Presidential election to Charles Lindberg. America becomes by degrees more isolationist in foreign policy and anti-Semitic in social behavior.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985). Another example of the dystopia, or utopia-gone-wrong, The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes the subjugation of women within a near-totalitarian, theology-based society. Author Atwood demonstrates how extremism, fundamentalism, and sexist rhetoric undermine an informed and healthy society.
4. Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959). In this conspiracy theory thriller set during the Korean War, an American platoon is captured and brainwashed to believe one of their number heroically saved them during combat. The “hero” has been further brainwashed to serve as a sleeper agent for the Communists.
5. Advise and Consent by Alan Drury (1959). A novel designed to show the intricate workings of the United States Senate, this narrative posits the nomination to the position of Secretary of State an individual with a background as a former Communist, currently with liberal politics. The United States Senate, with a duty to advise the President of the United States and consent to his programs, is seen in action, vetting the individual and the implications of his service as Secretary of State.
6. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958). A genial-but-passive British expatriate living in pre-Castro Havana as a vacuum cleaner salesman becomes an agent for British Intelligence as a way of making more money to pay for his daughter’s convent education. This elaborately constructed satire effectively ridicules the often unseen consequences of a mismanaged intelligence program run by any country.
7. The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer (1958). The United States, in its attempts to topple a fictional Southeast Asian country with a Communist regime, inflicts severe physical damage on the country as well as causing moral damage to American policy. This novel is a wrenching example of well-intended help without being asked for it, and of the hubris of dealing with another country without understanding its culture.
8. All the King' s Men by Robert Penn Warren
9. 1984 by Georg Orwell
10. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriette Beecher Stowe
Annotations on 8,9, and 10 to come, as they say.
2. Wednesday night is the final night for the short story class. You will begin by saying,
The short story is an interior fantasy made plausibly real to the point where the reader shares the fantasy and either joins or watches nervously the agenda of one or more of the characters. The more successfully the author has presented the characters and their agendas in motion, the more likely the reader is to think it was his idea, too.
The Writer Magazine wanted an apercu of your disquisition on dialog and you replied with
Dialogue is spoken dramatic information exchanged between characters in a story. It reflects who these people are, what they want, and what they are willing to do to achieve their goals. It may even suggest what these characters will do if they don’t get their way—or if they do and things were not as they expected. In all cases, it is a thermometer, reflecting emotional temperature.
Even when dialogue appears to be conversational, there is the space between what the character is saying at the moment and what the character is actually thinking or feeling—or both.
Readers should be well able to distinguish which character is speaking, not merely from he-said, she-said attributions, but because of the way the dialogue betrays their agendas.
If we want actual speech, we can consult trial transcripts and depositions. If we want dialogue, we go to characters, listening to the words and the spaces between them.
Whether it is spoken aggressively, taken the wrong way, or meant in jest, the goal of dialogue is to produce an emotional response in the reader.
Is that some apercu?
Among the rewards of completing a crossword puzzle, say The New York Times Sunday puzzle
The sense of having restored a workable order to a small slab of Universe,
The sense of having competed with a designing intelligence,
The sense of having for a change made use of some arcane squib of knowledge,
The sense of having filled vacant spaces
Among the rewards of completing a short story:
The sense of understanding a tad more about your relationship to the Universe,
The sense of understanding what some of your feelings mean,
The sense of having been able to dramatize the way you feel,
The sense of having solved a puzzle,
The sense of having, for a moment or two understood time,
The sense of having been able to experience a feeling you didn't think you knew
Among the rewards of being surprised
The knowledge that you are neither so blase nor cynical as you had supposed,
The knowledge that there are things out there you hadn't anticipated,
The idea that you are a thing out there that has potential to surprise others
The awareness that surprises may be covered in surprising wrapping
Among the rewards of listening to music:
The sense of being suspended in time,
The sense of being suspended in feelings,
The sense of everything in the universe having a voice
The sense of you having a voice
Among the rewards of hanging out with cats or dogs:
The sense of having a self,
The sense of having a friend
The appreciation of instincts
The awareness of communication with another being
The value of another being
Among the rewards of a glass of cold ale
Among the many technical and emotional joys to be found reading and rereading Richard Price's earlier novel, Clockers, and his most recent, Lush Life, there is the tacit agreement that the good guys don't always win, the bad guys don't always lose. The surprise comes not so much from seeing justice triumphing as an abstract condition but rather to see how much justice will be done at a particular time and how much is held over for later.
Short stories used to be more perfervid in their allocation of justice. Lately they have become more advocates for a force almost as forceful as justice. I speak of ambiguity.
We have moved, I observe, from living dangerously to living ambiguously. Living ambiguously may be more dangerous than living dangerously because of the uncertainty, the tension of wondering when things will become more dangerous--all this rather than the creeping boredom of ceaseless danger.
I believe there are reasons why short stories end on more ambiguous notes than, say, A Cask of Amontillado or An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, or even To Build a Fire. We have grown as a result of those stories, grown more cynical and sophisticated. As they did with so any other things of style and technique, the short stories of Ernest Hemingway added to the ambiguity syndrome, particularly some of the Nick Adams stories, say Big Two-Hearted River, or Hills Like White Elephants. In more recent years, in this century, the ambiguity is more deliberate than ambiguity merely for the sake of not being specific it is put in place to draw the reader artfully into visualizing a conclusion. Often this conclusion is a bundle of emotion, as well-orhestrated and sensual as a bouquet of flowers.
Do not, therefore, do the reader's work for him. Show the reader the direction you have in mind, then end with a good shove. To my mind and senses, the best ending seems at first blush a bit abrupt. You mean, That's it? Then, like an Altoid aftertaste, the other shoe drops and the ambiguity coalesces--off the page.
They all lived happily ever after is more ambiguous than it sounds because it raises questions that at the present time make you
question such things as what happiness is, and because of certain liberties taken with logic and semantics by a former president of the United States, oh, you know, that one, William Jefferson Clinton, it is fair to ask how long you mean when you say ever after.
I remember still the instant wisdom I got some years back when Barry Spacks called to invite me to one of his classes at UCSB to hear a presentation by an author he knew I admired greatly. I asked Bobbie Ann Mason to talk about why she'd seen fit to end her remarkable and memorable story, Shiloh, at what seemed to be an up-in-the-air moment. It was her answer that helped me forge my vision about ambiguity. "I ended it there," she said, "because that's where all the energy ran out."
I found it impossible to let that remark fade down the hallways of my memory, and I have thought long and hard since about where to end a story, and learned from countless attempts at trying to tack endings onto stories I did not realize were already done, the defensive sound staying on too long brings to the story.
Mark Twain actually said, "Put all your eggs in one basket--and watch that basket." I'm taking liberties by suggesting Bobbie Ann Mason's contribution as being, "Put all the available energy into a story situation--and watch that energy."