Monday, August 31, 2009

Asimov's Robot Rules for Characters

Speaking as you were about characters in terms of helpful ways to see their relative importance within a narrative, it becomes incumbent on you as well to ponder their significance as individuals on the reader.

Your sad awareness here becomes the weighty knowledge of knowing more about your characters than you know about readers.  In time, you may discover things about readers, including their hostility to your story, their complete lack of interest in your story and its characters or, worse yet, their conviction that you have not put forth plausible beings.

Although you do write to be read, your intent to produce in the smithy of your process a story that transports, investigates, reflects, you do find the reader aspect a potential for the temptation to bully your way forth with a combination of bravado and gesturing, sometimes even resorting to theatrics such as irony, farce, slapstick, and stonewalling.  

There is, however, a way to regain some measure of control; it comes from making eye contact with the characters, respecting them all, particularly the ones who are carrying forth the behavior and philosophy you find antithetical to your own behavior and philosophy during the times you are not immersed in your writing. (These may also be times when you are reading, which includes the works of clients, students, and writers you read in order to be transported somewhere.)  

In other words, you must make eye contact, offer respect, and listen.  You are not merely inflicting opposing forces on your characters to see what they will do and how they will do it, you are sharing them with persons you may never see, never know.
Accordingly, you must pledge to offer only authentic characters, not cheap knock-off characters assembled in sweatshop venues with poor labor laws.  

Your characters must go forth in the world knowing as much as you know and perhaps even more than you know; they must be wrong not as you are wrong because you have too short a temper fuse and are more likely to say fuck it than they are.  While it is true that you admire some of your characters, even get crushes on yet others to the point of sexual jealousy when they seem interested in someone you have your doubts about, you do tend to say fuck it and I'll show you to some of your characters when you should be taking more care to find out why they did as they did or did not do as they didn't do.

Thus this laundry list of behavior toward your characters:

1. They don't get in without a background check in which you find at least one thing about them you can admire.

2. If their blindness or insensitivity mirrors yours, you need to own up to it and give them some sensitivity you do not yet have.

3. They may want to tell you something and you may not want to listen because you have modeled them after someone in real life whom you detest, overshadowing your need to listen.

4.  No patronizing them will be tolerated.

5.  If they want to take over, you have to let them, at least for one draft.

6.  Dustin Hoffman is said by a number of your film friends to be difficult to work with because he is so determined to find the center for his role.  Would you in your impatience refuse to work with a character of such compulsive energy?

7.  Everyone gets a chance to be heard.

8.  Suppose a character comes along, wanting to introduce a schtick of some sort, a gesture, a dance, an accent, even, heaven help you, a joke into the story.  Like, say, Jerry Lewis.  Or is preternaturally meanspirited such as Jonathan Winters.  Are you going to be an asshole or a writer where such individuals are concerned?

9.  It is their story.  Are you down with that?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Three C's: Consternation, Conflict, and Compassion

The moment you give a name to a character, the closer you have come to imparting life to the character and in the process imparting concern for the character's welfare to you.  

Nevertheless, things have a way to go before you are safe; there is the reader to think about as well as the added matter of how your other characters will react to an interloper in their midst or a mere convenience character, brought in like some kick-ass consultant to set things right in the story.

We'll get you back to the reader in a while because readers are important in the long run and because they might well bring things to the table you hadn't even anticipated.  For now, we need to keep you on track--with characters and you.
Some characters are deliberately brought on stage to cause consternation to one or more of the ensemble already in place.  

This consternation might be the source of inconvenience as in an ex lover appearing on the scene or a nearly grown child, returning home on a spring break from school. wanting nothing more than a couch on which to be a potato.  Such characters are in effect armatures around which are wrapped the wires of their ability to produce discomfort and tension in every scene, as well as the aforementioned consternation.  

They might also be brought forth to enhance a conflict already in place or to push beyond the tipping point a tension into conflict.
Although these characters have a specific job description and are accordingly easy to track, we need to remember two vital qualities other than there mere name--they must be presented with some degree of compassion from you, lest their true purpose and, thus, your own motives become transparent.

Begin by imagining the climate and condition in place between the parents of this character in the process by which they selected this character's name.  Yes, I am positing that this new character has parents.

Wait a minute, are you suggesting--?

As a matter of fact, yes; I am.  This exercise has already imparted a sense of social and psychological environments, lathes shaping this character's growth and behavior, quite possibly eliciting a deeper understanding from you, if not outright compassion, relating to who this character is, what this character wants, and what this character is willing to do in order to achieve the goals you have set as a precondition to appearance in this particular story.

To add spice to the stew, you might even consider whether either or both parents wanted this character child, or if this character were an accident at first, then a growing irritant or, perhaps this accident character had come to be much appreciated to the point of becoming what we think of when we think of a spoiled child.

This exercise will provide clues for the next step in the equation--how your new, wanted or unwanted, named character gets along with the rest of the ensemble cast.  Is he or she the kind of emerging nuisance the poet Dylan Thomas became as he moved from university to university and unsuspecting home to unsuspecting home on his now legendary reading tour of America.  Does he or she throw up in the rose garden, borrow large or even minor sums of money without the slightest intention of repaying?  Does he or she come on to husbands, wives, baby sitters, professors' wives/husbands?

What kinds of nerves and wires will your new character cause to fray?  And how, oh, how will you portray this character so that the reader senses you are just as powerless to impede as your front-rank characters and their associates?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Country for Old and Young Writers

Whichever direction we turn, we seem to be presented with an ongoing scenario of dissent, making us spectators at a Balkanized, fractured landscape ruled by old passions and questionable logic.  

It is not a landscape we have entered with zeal or adventureous spirit.  Rather, it is a place where we have turned in search of refuge if not solace from the consternation about us.  It is more a place for a cynic, a politician, or a career diplomat that one who would offer the soaring freedom of the creative imagination.

Cormac McCarthy called it no country for old men; he was quoting Yeats, who was old when he wrote the lines:
That is no country for old men. The young
  In one another's arms, birds in the trees
  - Those dying generations - at their song,
  The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
  Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
  Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
  Caught in that sensual music all neglect
  Monuments of unaging intellect.

McCarthy's sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, was inspired by those lines and he,in the best artistic sense, became our man in this fractured landscape.  It is the job of the story teller to take us into such dismal and disspiriting places, asking questions, forging the moral boundaries over which we must not retreat lest we limp backward to the cynical state of the politician or career diplomat or other well-paid pragmatist.  

The landscape of the reader is a country for old men and women as well as young, teeming voices, eager to find their own aimbre and pitch. 

Friday, August 28, 2009

Revising Reality

Reality, through no fault of its own, is being revised to a fault.  Much of the revision comes from those who need and/or want to be told what reality represents.  A lesser quantity of the revision comes from artists, who define themselves by the act of defining reality.

The more the artist has defined an individual reality, the closer that artist comes to being a true individual.  From the moment the artist has begun this definition, vision begins to bud and ultimately blossom, and faith is pushed away from center stage.  Vision is informed by characters and their inherent ideas, bringing on stage (or easel or page) contrary visions, the better to confront, challenge, and inspire revision.

We all of us exist in some stage of revision, be it an upward or downward path.  The former induces growth to the point where ideas and visions emerge freshly into the reality, colliding in much the same manner as particles in a nuclear accelerator, producing in the wake of the collision new elements--fresh connections--that invite pursuit.  The latter induces entropy and/or surrender to orthodoxy of some faith, -ism, or conventional vision.

Convention, if not the overt enemy of the artistic inquiry, is the ballast, helping to keep inquiry from raising too high. Convention is the manner by which we attempt to bring reality under control.  The moment we presume to control reality, the more we give up our individuality.  Convention is to be abandoned with a what if? purpose in mind.  If this convention is abandoned, then this product or result will be the product.  If convention is overly maintained, protected, seen as an end, it will repeat itself into parody which means a good many unsuspecting victims will be harmed by the seemingly insurmountable forces of stasis and status quo.

Tempting as it may be, repetition leads to the self-parody of us making fun of ourselves by determining, as some of the Romans who aspired to godhood did, that more of the same is not only acceptable, it is desirable.  Because we can guarantee the outcome of heating water to 212 Fahrenheit degrees as sea level, it is not a license to be content with other guaranteed outcomes.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A State of Story

Things, whether they be large or small, appear to be where they are with great effect. In a world where there is logic and orderly procession of events, thoughts, and adequate places for things to be stored, there is a humming sense of harmony and a visual sense of accord.

Story, which is to say intrusion, begins with the introduction of one thing out of place, be that "thing" a disoriented person or, say, a magazine out of the magazine rack, a book out of its Dewy Decimal System or Library of Congress order. Story is a lost dog, a frightened cat at the top of a tall tree, a man coming home late at night and wandering into the wrong tract house. Story is about things being out of order. Being away from Ithaca for these past seven years is a form of being out of order for Odysseus, lighting out for the territory ahead is a natural response for Huck Finn, who, after all, is fleeing the orderly process we like to think of as civilization.

All this is prologue to you, living in a state of story, which is to say inharmonious, disorganized surroundings: unfiled bank statements, a scatter of index cards with your own mysterious hieroglyphics shouting forth from them, iPods wanting to be charged, a set of compact discs awaiting your decision to find a place to store them, various tall glasses, flecked with the sticky film that once was foamed milk and espresso. Sometimes, at barber appointment or doctor appointment, you thumb through Architectural Digest, wondering your way through work and sleep and eating areas of those with a more positive approach to surrounding than you, wondering what it would be like to work without the intrusion of clutter, what it would be like to sleep in a bed that had no books or book reviews or literary journals half-hidden under the duvet; what it would be like to eat at a table so sumptuously arranged and with such strategy, located to afford a view of something--a vista, a neighboring building, a small park.

Is it possible, you wonder, for you ever to be orderly and harmonious, living as it were out of story and instead into the neatness of a discipline commanded by Tidiness, then to go about your days neat, tidy, comfortable in the assurance that your things, your accouterments, however modest, are in a place of order?

When you come to these notes again, will you reckon you were particularly burdened at the time of writing by a sense of things--pens, pocket knives, nail clippers, index cards, ink bottles--gathering around like Birnham Wood, about to advance on you? Will you consider its mood prompted by something lost, a check from a client, a particular book title, a fountain pen?

Thus the immersion on story, the Odyssey of a long immersion in disorder, attempting to put things in some sort of place or explainable order, as in why should the check book be here of all places? It is a random universe. Story begins by portraying the attempt to put things back to order and the relative impossibility of doing so and, nevertheless, the effort to get some of it back somewhere.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thoughts, Not Necessarily Logical, about Ted Kennedy

Tired to the point of crankiness with those who wrote of where they were and what they were doing on, say, 9/11, or when the U.S. invaded Iraq, or similar events, you were prompted by Joe Biden's eulogy of Ted Kennedy to consider your own abject sense of grief, recalling first the news of his diagnosis, and now the news of his death.

The sad loss reminds you to stipulate how much a part of the human condition it is to note where you were and what you were doing when X happened, sometimes even an X such as the recent death of Michael Jackson, that has such a creepy and negative connotation for you.

We do tend to memorialize our grief as well as our exultations.

There is a telephone pole at the southwest corner of East Valley Road (California State rte 192) and Ortega Ridge Road, to which are tacked various identity medallions, but also a small cross which would seem to be in violation of church and state separation but which is a spontaneous memorial, emblematic of my theme.  Some ten years ago, a young woman, driving a vehicle, along with her infant daughter, were killed in a collision at that site.  It is not a well-traveled site, being a two-lane road in each case.  I read of the accident and began to notice the kind of roadside shrine so popular these days:  heaps of cut flowers, the occasional condolence card, sometimes teddy bears or other stuffed animals, even the tall, multi-colored glass containers for votive candles so frequently associated with Latin devotees of the Christian faith.  I even saw within the week directly following the accident a woman with whom I had been romantically involved, adding a flower to the impromptu shrine.  When I next saw her and asked, she told me she had not known the victim but had been somehow touched by her loss.  Although not a Catholic, she nevertheless caused some measure of curious consternation by leaving red flowers at the statue of the Blessed Virgin in the courtyard of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, at the corner of Hot Springs and East Valley Roads.  The red flower in the Hindu culture is associated with the Shakti or Mother of the Universe concept in some sects of Hinduism, thus to me at least, the offering of a red flower to a mother figure is no mystery at all.

Sometimes, when the climate of my sentiments is properly alligned, I get a tall latte to go and visit a memorial site further north north west on Mountain Drive, an unmarket site, known only to me; it is the resting place of Mr. Edward Bear, a blue-tick hound much beloved by me.  Sitting there, drinking coffee, I am reminded of a particular night when he came to USC with me to teach, then apparently took off with a group of other dogs.  It was a cold, foggy night.  After a desultory dinner, I drove back to campus for one last shot at finding him, did not, and moodily drove along Vermont Avenue toward Olympic, at which point it was my plan to turn west toward my parents' home and a brief nap before returning to campus once again for another look.  Driving slowly along Vermont, I began to believe I was aurally hallucinating the thunderous and magnificent bawl of a blue-tick hound, but the bawl persisted beyond my skepticism.  Looking out the driver-side window, I saw Edward, keeping pace with me, acknowledging his wish to be let in the car.  Edward was my companion before Molly, before Nell, before Sally.  Each of these dogs is a special memory and presence; it is no wonder I think of Edward and what he has brought into my life.  Drinking my take-out latte, I think of another time when, having moved to Santa Barbara, I nevertheless had occasion to drive south to the Mulholland turnoffi of the 101 southbound, where he waited for me, impatient for his breakfast.

The closest I have ever come to meeting Edward Kennedy in person takes me back to a time when he had been campaigning for his brother John in the North Beach section of San Francisco, which was festooned with signs welcoming Teddy Kennedy to SF, and which, a day after Ted Kennedy's appearance, had not been removed.  I felt his presence even though he'd long since departed.  Until last night, when ENK called to tell me of his death, whenever I thought of him, I thought of that place and those signs.  The term lion is often used to describe him, just as often by his political foes as by his friends and allies.

In the past few months, it seems to me I have been bombarded by requests from Democratic senators asking for money, the notable exception being Senator Kerry, who merely wanted me to sign a petition or call my attention to some impending legislation.  While Ted Kennedy lived, I ranked him as # 1 of all the U.S. Senators, aforesaid Senator Kerry #2, and Senator Boxer # 3.  Not too long ago, when Senator Boxer wrote to ask me to supply financial support for her pal, Mary Landreau, who is apparently facing a tough reelection fight in Louisiana, I told Senator Boxer she had to be kidding if she thought I'd support Senator Landreau who, it seemed to me, voted for many of the things Senator Boxer was against.  The answer came back, informing me that I did not grasp the concept of collegiality in politics.  Indeed, I was told, Senator Hatch and Senator Kennedy were bosom buddies, and I was shown a film clip of Senator McCain referring to Ted Kennedy as the last of the great lions.

For some considerable time, Ted Kennedy lived in the shadown world of being a kid brother to first Joe, then Jack, then Bobby, but for this outsider, this non-constituent, he emerged through his caring, his sometimes orotund-but-never-inconsequential oratory as a man who cared with an unfettered passion.  To those who did not and do not care for him, it was an easy thing to bring forth the elephant in the living room of Chappaquiddick and Mary Jo Kopeckne, thus to minimize the incredible effect of the man.  It will not be minimized, and those who seek to trivialize him are merely adding to the trivial nature of their own presence.

Ted Kennedy was my Senator and shall remain my standard for judging the words, works, and stature of those who set foot on the Senate floor and request permission to speak.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Short of It

You first came to the short story because, given your youthful energy level and relative lack of a managed approach to tasks, a story was something you could do in one sitting--starting with an opening concept, such as standing in a ticket line to purchase tickets for a musical or a ballet, ending twenty-five or so pages later when the main character reached the ticket seller.  

The ending was a moment you learned about some many years later in a conversation with Bobbie Ann Mason, a writer you came to admire greatly, where endings meant a place where the energy runs out.  Thus your concept for a story was one or more persons gathered to do something, perhaps only to engage in hanging out or some other pursuit of pleasant result, taken to a natural point where they had nothing more to say or,thematically, to do.

About you were collected short stories by Jack London and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.  Through a fortunate accident, you also had the short stories of the Irish writer, Frank O'Connor.  Through an unfortunate sort of accident, most of the writers you knew were screenwriters, who gave you scripts to read and who spoke to you of construction in ways that convinced you how lacking your education.  This drove you to used book stores and anthologies of stories that were constructed in ways that were mysterious to you.  Because the writers you knew seemed always to have enough money not to have to nurse drinks at places where music was played, even enough money to bring with then dangerous-looking women who ate minute steaks, drank red wine, and tapped their heels nervously.  One such writer was Steve Fisher, whose editor you would some day be.  But not yet.  From Fisher you gained a lifelong love of the pulp mystery story, which had a construction you could understand if not duplicate, at least nohting ways the editors of pulp magazines would appreciate.  

You were too young yet to even dream that some day, as regional president of Mystery Writers of America, you would reach a point where you had enough money to bring dangerous-looking women who ate minute steaks, drank not only red wine but red French wine, and tapped their heels nervously, nor was there the slightest hint that Ray Bradbury would call you a son of a bitch or that Irwin Zucker would teach you how to say "No more steaks" to the French waitresses at The Cafe de Paris on Sunset and Highland or at the Belgian restaurant, Frascatti, on Sunset at Crescent Heights.

All that had to come through hundreds of permutations on your basic short story recipe to the point where you were able to throw recipe away and be content to watch men and women engage situations that were more organic, more reflective of them being caught up in individual scenario and more or less looking for ways in or out of events, institutions, consequences.

While you were learning such things, you were still not making enough money that anyone would want to sue you, a fact that became an issue when the noted trial lawyer, Melvin Belli, in the heat of an editorial squabble, told you, "If you had any money, I'd sue you," to which you reflexively replied, "If I had any, I'd let you."  Although you amicably resolved your differences over a round of drinks and the book you were trying to get out of him was finished and published, the damage was done and you knew that you needed to learn more and move on.

In many ways, Fitzgerald still remains a great favorite of yours among short story writers.  So does Alice Munro because she takes the rules of construction into her own fine, Canadian hands and says, often with a little push, "This is where you get out," as though you had mistaken her frankness and honesty for an invitation to greater intimacy, a much more effective way of stopping a story than having your principal character order two orchestra seats to Lost in the Stars.

Lorrie Moore.  Tim O'Brien.  Junot Diaz.  Edna O'Brien.  John Cheever.  Louise Erdrich.  Men and women as pestered as you are, writers who have lost their own vehicles in the metaphorical large parking lot in the shopping mall--all of whom have kept the light on for you.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Novella

It is neither particularly long nor is it notably short, its size intruding into your awareness after you have finished it.  By then, the impact of it has extracted envy from you with the deft skill of a pickpocket filching your wallet.  You are scarcely aware it is there, until it no longer is there but rather a ghostly presence, a reminder of times you slept alone in a bed you had recently shared with another.

They seem to come from a different place than their longer or shorter brothers and sisters, their inspiration more solidly steeped in whim or the mystical integrity of pure length than of matrix.  Were you to have written one and spoken of it by generic name rather than title, the expressions on the faces of those to whom you confessed your deed would instantly convince you of your sin in calling it thus.  "Why would you call it that?" as though you'd used some harsh racial epithet.  It is, in its similar way, not spoken of in the same hushed tones as a novel, which term slips liquidly through the lips like a drop of single-malt liquor.  And were you to say short story, you could easily be greeted with the stern judgement of reserve, the understood nod of sympathy sometimes afforded those who adopt children because they cannot have their own.  You wrote a short story because you could not write a nov-el.

Why would you want to write a novella?  (Why, you wonder, did John Steinbeck want to write Of Mice and Men, or Philip Roth Good-bye Columbus?)  Isn't a novella the literary equivalent of a premature baby?  Or the embarrassment set loose when a dark-skinned child appears within a sparkling white family?

You imagine two copyeditors at coffee break, wondering if Bartelby, the Scrivener is rendered in quotes or italic.  And of course that mischievous Truman Capote knew all along the fuss he'd set loose with Breakfast at Tiffany's, but wasn't he a bit--hostile?  Did James M. Cain intend The Postman Always Rings Twice to be a real book, then run out of gas?  Didn't he forego the obligatory sex scene between Frank and Cora so that he could simply have Frank, as narrator, say, "I parked the car by a clump of trees and we did plenty."?

Well, Faulkner was different, the critics would say; The Bear wasn't a novella; it was a short story that he lengthened so as not to call attention to it.  And what of The Old Man and the Sea?  Or that other American Nobel laureate, Bellow something-or-other? Seize the Day, wasn't it?  An afternoon's work.

Learning experiences, perhaps.  Yes?  Guided Tours of Hell was Francine Prose, working her way into the real thing, and Nathaniel West got himself tied up with Hollywood worse even than Fitzgerald.  No wonder Miss Lonelyhearts was so short.

But then there is Jim Harrison, who writes novellas as though they were messages from Heaven, and these are only American writers of the novella, there is Asia and there is Europe, and there is that mysterious continent of Incas and llamas and a river named January, and a country named after silver...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Book

Somewhere, in some well stocked library I have yet to visit, or in some humid used book store where the owner secretly cooks dishes composed of cabbage and garlic, or perhaps on some hastily constructed shelf in a thrift shop, or arranged on a dried-out lawn hosting a yard sale, or perhaps even in the dusty shelves of an alcove in a funky hotel, there is a book you have been searching for all your adolescent and midlife years.

The book may be poetry from an as-yet unknown Yeats; it could also be a work of fiction such as the book of knots Annie Proulx used to such epigramatic and thematic effect in The Shipping News.

It could be a novel or a particular collection of short stories--anything is possible where this special, life enhancing book is concerned.

When you find this book, it will change your vision, your senses, the way you think, the way you respond, the way you make love. This book will do for you what the grateful genie did when freed from its bottle prison, all of which is good enough, but even better is the fact that you will never forget this particular book, however long you might live; the transformative qualities of each page will remain as your companion.

If you had so much as a title or author for this book, an ISBN or hint of the publishing date, your search would be simple, even direct. There would be no further need to gaze out at the wide Sargasso Sea of shelves and catalogs.

There have been numerous books in your life that have become friends in one way or another, adding the depth of experience, information, and understanding to your tool kit, in the process convincing you of the actuality, the presence somewhere of the book you seek, energizing you in as tangible a way as the metaphoric one with which knights errant of old ventured forth after the Holy Grail, seeking, watching, observing closely the miracles of life and evolution about you.

Having searched for so long already, you have searched beyond the madness of seriousness, the implacable focus of the perfervid spiritual quest to the point where life no longer seems absurd to you nor do human institutions, even universities, seem absurd. Rather, it is funny--it is all funny. From time to time your impatience causes you to lose temper and you find yourself railing at those individuals and institutions who impress you as absurd. You do this until you realize that there is a scale of absurdity, just as there are scales of, say, hardness, or intensity of wind, or scales of the waxing or waning of the moon. From this comes the comfort that the book you seek might be a Sears catalog, the Tiffany catalog, or even the booklets sent you with each voting cycle, purporting to explain the issues on the ballot. The book might teach you the basic truth of which kind of twine you'd use when trussing a chicken, prior to roasting it. It might be an Archie and Friends comic book, although you'd have thought you'd remember those.

You remember that the book itself and the place you find it might be rooted in funny, thus you are reminded once again to step back from your serious while you look for the funny, while you in effect join the funny about you until you become funny yourself, funny in appearance, funny in meaning, funny in your hungers.

At what appears to be the right place for the book to be found, a sales person who may or not be Merlin, who may or may not be Meryl Streep or Glenn Close or Peter Falk, shakes a shaggy head at you. "Had that book around here for some time. Know exactly the one you mean."

Your senses tingle with apprehension and possibility. "What was it called?" you venture, thinking now, ah, now you can order it from Amazon.

"Funny you should ask," the salesperson tells you. "Doesn't work that way, however. Not with this book. With this book, you want it--you gotta write it."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Genie out of the Bottle

If revenge is a dish best served cold, which is to say dispassionately, then irony is a dish best served with a secreted body part of a bug or small rodent, which is to say with a hidden agenda. Revenge is a dramatic way of getting one's own returned, a score settled, a slate wiped clean as in Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado" and Thurber's artful follow-up, "The Catbird Seat." Irony is the reader being allowed to eavesdrop on the difference between what is said and what is actually meant, as in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.

As an actor learns the essentials of the acting craft, it becomes increasingly clear that persons in real life and, consequently characters in drama, do not always say what they mean, covering intent with distracting gestures, contrivances, and disguises. As a writer learns the essentials of dialogue, it becomes increasingly clear that what passes for conversation must be driven by the inflections and attitudes of constrain, perhaps even caution, lest a misstep will let the genie out of the bottle.

Living with irony as a fact of the human condition allows the writer to impart complexity and dimension to a story, a complexity and dimension that extend beyond the alleyways and culs de sac of plot. To arrive at the point of living with irony, the writer profits from beginning each new scene with an investigation of the intent each character comes on stage carrying. Sometimes the intent is to keep status quo, to refrain from giving in to the smoldering resentment or impatience felt toward another character. If she says THAT one more time, I will scream. Of course she, whoever she might be, comes cheerfully into the scene, proclaiming THAT at the top of her voice. Thus are moments of tension formed, and even more thusly, another step is taken toward the goal of combustion. Now we are in a position where we do not actually have to see the "I" scream--we can end the scene shortly before the actual scream which, however skilled and excellent our descriptive powers may be, we could not do justice to the scream within the reader's mind.

No question about where to begin the next scene. Another character is remonstrating with "I." "I think it was terrible the way you shouted at her." Of course, you could have the remonstration take these lines, "I was really surprised that you were able to show such restraint."

We could also have a completely different set of circumstances:

"What's wrong? I thought this was something you really wanted to do."

"I do," she said, "but--"


"I've never made love with a sixty-year-old man before."

"If it makes you feel more comfortable," he said, "neither have I."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Coming to Terms

An email note yesterday from former student and then faculty chum Chris Meeks set you to thinking because Meeks used the magical word "disappeared." This was the second time in about a week when the word issued forth, the last time coming from Erich Van Lowe, yet another former student who'd found his way through the morass of Hollywood and some category fiction ventures in New York to the faculty. Got you to thinking about the larger concept of The University, particularly a large one, composed as so many large universities are, of colleges within. Although you have at various times worked in such diverse landscapes as newspapers, auction houses, luggage repair, and publishing, the one landscape that truly impressed you is the landscape of the institute of learning. You have variously taught at Antioch, Westmount, UCSB, SBCC (adult ed), and of course, USC, suitably impressed by the bureaucracies of each to the point of forming attitudes about The University in much the same way as you have formed attitudes about other politically endowed institutions, which is to say with the curious admixture of respect for the good that can be wrought and enormous contempt for the displays of hypocrisy, as colorful and popmpous as those occasions when faculty parade about in their regalia, struggling to keep in step while at the same time trying to avoid tripping on the hem of the robe.

It is difficult for you to say which of the institutions where you have and/or still teach have offended your sensitivities most: Westmont, with its professed evangelism and smugness, fits nicely with your outrage against much connected with religion; UCSB, with its fragmented political sensitivities, speaks with eloquence to the political outrage; SBCC, with it's troglodyte bureaucracy, represents in splendid measure the sense one gets of being in rural France rather then in a learning experience. USC is best represented by a campus map with at least one notable error on it and the assessment of a parking kiosk guard that the maps will be used until there are no more of them because "It's no easy thing for a university to change a thing that doesn't work."

No wonder, with so much attitude radiating from you like UV rays looking for a vagrant skin to sunburn, that ENK has observed your passion for writing about the university. No wonder, indeed, that of your story, "The Deconstruction of Professor Erskine," in which said professor found challenging taunts left in his campus mail box, the late John Milton said, "I wish you'd have gone even farther."


With what is beginning to take shape, you are seeing a combination of colleges transposed to approximately 35th and Figueroa, Los Angeles, CA. It will be called The University, and it will be in serious rivalry with the University toward the west, which you have indeed attended and have an attitude to as well thanks to the small-mindedness on your part of resentment at never having been solicited to teach there. It will be called UCLA.

Back to The University, locus of your teaching activities for these thirty-odd and indeed thirty odd years. Your old self, your character come to life to the point of having been a writer with not merely a fictional list of titles but a character with an actual list of titles, is Lew Lessing. He first appeared in a short story, on his way to becoming your alter ego. Now he, as in fact a number of your students have done, is an adjunct at The University. You are thinking the story to begin with Lew's discovery of a missing grad student. As you were enlisted to do when Cubby Selby was in his death throes, Lew will be called upon to take over classes for Rex Rothenberg (Kenneth Rexroth), who has gone missing.

Thus do you leave Sisyphus's boulder, shoved to the top of the hill while Sisyphus takes a moment to wipe his brow from the exertion.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

rites of passage

One of your earliest rites of passage, unless you count being born as one, came well before you'd managed to put thought processes together or in any way consider story telling as an avocation.  Because of the culture you were born into, this rite of passage was managed for you,deemed a necessity, even spoken of in the Old Testament as something necessary for your membership.  Other rites of passage were presented to you at times when you were thought to have cognitive abilities, emphasized in such a way that you knew saying no to them was taking yet another step toward the edges, toward the margin, toward the place where inner fantasy and outer reality were separated only by the faintest blur.

School was definitely a graduated series of rites, during the course of which it became yet another rite to chose your place.  As the character in Hawthorne's short story, "The Intelligence Office," so plaintively called forth, "I want my place! my own place! my true place in the world! my proper sphere! my thing to do, which Nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry, and which I have vainly sought all my lifetime! "  You at least came forth with that answer supplied to you and with such other rites as first publication, first booklength manuscript written, first seemingly cosmic sign that you were on the right path.

There were other rites of passage as well, involving the sense of otherness the self can experience when falling in love and out of love, both in sexually oriented and non-sexual ways.  There were rites of passage involving rejection slips and of placing second in races or competitions, rites of first publication for short stories written pseudonymously and then booklength stories written with pseudonym.  There were rites of passage in which you experienced the sense of not being able to give away things you had written for no fee and rites of passage involving your work, if it can be called that, in television.

You used to be a fair-to-middlin centerfielder, thus the rite of passage in one pick-up game of being bidden by a younger team mate to "Throw it over here, sir."  That is a rite of passage proving to be a harbinger of many such instances where you are accorded the honorific of sir, followed by that of professor, which first came about as a vote in 1974.  These things do not make you wiser or more equipped to pursue those rites of passage that await you.  In some cases, throwing out or disavowing specific rites of passage offer the opportunity to move nimbly along the path.  Friends are great comforts, lovers are sturdy reminders of safe havens and inspiration, dogs are perhaps more remarkable even than books, music is the language of the heart when it is trying to find out what you want from life, thus you never wish to be without these and yet there are places where these things properly cannot reach you, places where you must leave all your belongings except your memories if you are to keep moving, to enter those places where you and story are one, each of you in effect trying to tell the other, to relate the true meaning each of the other.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Can writing be learned?

  If you ask any group of writers, even unpublished writers, if they think writing can be taught, you're likely to get as many answers as the number of writers you query.  They will begin unequivocably with a Yes! (see Thomas Carlyle's "The Everlasting Yea!") or a resounding No! (see Herman Melville's "No! in Thunder").  Having warmed to their yesses or no, they begin, as writers, even unpublished ones, will do to spin, to fabricate, equivocate, temporize, and particularize.  Writing cannot be taught, they argue, but it can be learned.  More bifurcations at this point, more rounds of cognac or beer or wine, for it is the rare writer who does not have some taste for a liquid, be it coffee or even chai tea.

Also, more questions, notable among these, From which sources? and Should writers become lit majors? and Should writers get MFAs?

Your own stand on all these issues has become compromised over the years because you became an editor in order to have an income while you were discovering things about writing you weren't able to find in school or out of it and by elimination, surely working in Publishing would help you discover what it was to be a writer you could live with.  In the process, you felt the bite of irony as you saw individuals find their way into print through your efforts, edited into shape to the point of bringing in good reviews from respectable review sources.  True enough, you'd found your way into print to the point where, one evening while you'd stepped outside a posh saloon in San Francisco to clear your head of the alcohol fumes, you were directd to a newsstand with six of your titles on display.  Your friend knew about your pseudonyms; it was he who identified all six of you.  "How," he asked, "did you do it?"  To which you responded in semi-sober sincerity, "I did it by trying to find myself."  My friend took the name of a personality frequently associated with the godhead.  After the exclamation, he said, "I'd be happy to find just one of myself."

Writing the kinds of books that caused you to have so many pseudonyms led you directly to the first major job in publishing, which in turn led you to New York, which seemed at the time more than it really was, but having been there and done that, you were led into teaching, again to support such things as Olivetti typewriters and Chemex coffee makers and Martell cognac and, yes, more trips to San Francisco and Virginia City, where you had big plans for finding yourself.

To you, editing meant showing others how to do what they already wanted to do, only with greater clarity or conviction, and in optimal format and dramatic order.  You were able to select material that had already been written or, in some cases, assist writers to set forth a previously unarticulated vision.  When you faced students who had not written anything at all or who had written something you would not have supported into the publishing pipeline, you had a crisis of identity.  Teaching meant you had to teach people how to write, particularly if the individuals you taught were already certified bachelors of something or other.  How did you propose to teach them if you did not yet know what really worked for you?  Much less could you guide them to a point where they could begin.

"Simple,"  you said.  "Just sit down and start telling a story."

That was some years ago. 

The answer began where all answers of this nature begin.  Interior.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Truth in lending

You are fortunate to have had two mentors, each of whom was wildly different from the other, thus imparting an expanded sense of subtext to you while allowing you to see where their goals were, in the long run, quite similar. 

One was a writer, the other an actor. Although she did not address the matter directly, Rachel, the writer, bade you to listen carefully to people when they spoke so that you could interpret what they really meant when they were speaking. Virginia, the actor, wanted you to watch with gimlet eye for the props, mannerisms, and affectations an actor assumed to convey more than mere intent but rather intent-in-spite-of-something.

Once, when Virginia's acting teacher discovered her childhood sense of inferiority to certain types of sales persons, particularly sales persons in high-end stores such as Bergdorf or the then Saks, he sent her and her chum, Lee Remick, into Bonwit, Saks, and Bergdorf, under the guise of trying things on but in reality picking arguments with the sales persons. 

The lesson to be learned was that Virginia was still shy, after all her successes and performances, after being on stage with Brando. But as the person she had to be in order to stand up to sales persons, she was able to be effective, reminding me that Lee Remick had never suffered the sense of being cowed by sales persons and was thus able to laugh at them when they were in their own role-playing persona, trying to be arch or imperious.

Rachel spoke of trying to see the inner core of a person, the better to be able to "get" that person on paper. Virginia called it the truth of a particular character, the actor's vision of what and who Willy Loman really was, demonstrated so dramatically when Lee J. Cobb, who seemed to you to own the role, performed, then you were able to compare it with Dustin Hoffman.

Which brings us by a circuitous route to the existential question of the truth of you. How would two different actors "get" you as a character? How would they see your truth? Which leads you farther down into the interior of the self. 

 Peter O'Toole could, you believe, capture a flicker of you, projecting your classroom bombast and your conversations with editorial clients. Kevin Spacey, a superb mimic, could have convinced your late mother that he were you. Not to question his acting ability, which you think is considerable, but would he get the truth of you or would he instead mime a refraction of you. Back to the question: You are an actor or a writer and your chore is to portray you on page or stage, right? And so what do you look for? Where do you begin?

Dylan Thomas wrote,

I in my intricate image, stride on two levels,
Forged in man's minerals, the brassy orator
Laying my ghost in metal,
The scales of this twin world tread on the double,
My half ghost in armour hold hard in death's corridor,
To my man-iron sidle.

Beginning with doom in the bulb, the spring unravels,
Bright as her spinning-wheels, the colic season
Worked on a world of petals;
She threads off the sap and needles, blood and bubble
Casts to the pine roots, raising man like a mountain
Out of the naked entrail.

Beginning with doom in the ghost, and the springing marvels,
Image of images, my metal phantom
Forcing forth through the harebell,
My man of leaves and the bronze root, mortal, unmortal,
I, in my fusion of rose and male motion,
Create this twin miracle...

There is comfort in the knowledge that he was looking for answers in himself and finding precious little but a place to toss up his lunch in some unsuspecting garden.

Have you become so focused on others--the real ones about you and the ones who visit you in your dreams and fantasies--that you know only mimicry things about yourself? You know what kind of coffee and ale and wine; which authors, which musicians, which actors, but are these traits or trail markers on a twisty path.

Sometimes, when you are rummaging through a notebook or a pile of papers, you come across something of such interest that you are drawn into reading further, the growing certainty overtaking you that it was you who wrote these things, felt these walls, blinked your eyes at the candles guttering in the sconces, you and not a student or a client.

Who was the person who wrote them and what was his truth in writing what was written? And if you can't answer that question, maybe you can get some help by asking, What was his intent?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Picnic as Metaphor

There are for you two working modes, the exploratory and the revisionary, the former arrived at in a deliberate attempt to find the focal point of enthusiasm and, yes, a hint of mischief; the latter a systematic approach to check off the growing number of items on a list. 

 The former, in a metaphorical sense, begins with the decision to have a picnic--never mind where just yet, the important trigger is the excitement and anticipation of a picnic. The latter is the laundry list that will insure all the necessary ingredients having been packed.

Picnics are great occasions of joy and anticipation, evocative of my mother wrapping sandwiches in wax paper (dates me, right?)and preparing tubs of potato salad and Cole slaw, not to forget hard boiled eggs, you can't have too many of these on a picnic, nor can you have too many pieces of fried chicken, each suitably wrapped to withstand possible invasion from ants, sand, and all the unnamed terrors against which mothers steel themselves during any preparation for anything.

The laundry list is a handy guide to defining the direction the picnic will ultimately take. Will it, for instance, be a wine picnic or an ale picnic, a milk picnic or a lemonade picnic? Thus does intent reach forth to claim ingredients from the depths of the shelves and the unexplored recesses of the fridge. 

Was that packet of liverwurst, picked up at seeming whim from the deli counter a harbinger of this picnic? Did this liverwurst suggest pickles, mustard, dare I add relish? And was this to have been an appetizer or more of a main course, the answer having direct consequences on whether the cold chicken should be included or left for a meal at home? Would this wurst profit from a chilled white or perhaps a tangy zinfandel? Maybe not; maybe instead cold, seriously cold Sierra Nevada pale ale.

Enough with the metaphor of picnic, the point has been made and is in danger of becoming a metaphor of its own, the tail of the picnic wagging the dog of description. The urge to launch into story has a multifarious origin that is best not investigated until well into the launch, with items selected at a seeming random hand, with little regard for how or where they will fit. Thought process, in the deliberative and questioning sense, has no place in the process at this point. We're going instead for the explosive kaboom of association, the merging of things that seemed discreet before, emerging with the hybrid vigor of being linked. 

This is energizing on a primal level, suggesting--here we go with metaphor again--an awareness of a pole star or landmark. This is feeling-level assurance that we are not completely at flounder in an impenetrable forest. The more connections we make, the more likely there is some way out.

It is not fun to feel lost and yet losing one's self in the morass of detail and memory and speculative vision is the writer's daily lot. There is a familiar terror while inside, enhanced by the fear that today might be the day of the beginning, the onset of the time when there is no explosive association, lighting the way out. As if that weren't enough, there is also the unuttered fear that you hadn't gone deeply enough into the morass, making for a mere tempest in a teapot.

Revision is the time to think, which is done by asking questions such as, Whose story is it? What is the goal? What is the prize? Why should we care?

The accidents that come in the first place, where ideas are set in motion in the linear accelerator called Process, then begin to collide, are the accidents that get us off the trail and into unanticipated terrain within the morass.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Distant Stars

Waking up this morning in good spirits made me suspicious at first, perhaps a throwback to the times when waking up without a hangover was sufficient reason to rejoice. Those earlier times were times when Friday nights and Saturday nights frequently drew me to places where, primarily, music was played, either by friends or by individuals whose musical expertise I'd come to value. When you're doing something as focused and necessary as listening to music being played and where your admission is built on the consumption of alcohol, you sometimes blurred the thought of what consumption of alcohol would do to you, or perhaps for you. In effect, you didn't drink to forget anything, you drank because you forgot to remember.

These more recent times, waking up in good spirits has, as so many things do in life, a polarity: You wake in good spirits because of something you did, or because of something you did not do, all the while the universe unfolding itself around you as though on a huge loom tended to by an obsessive/compulsive Navajo weaver, her fingers fairly flying over the guide strings. I wake in good spirits if I have the previous day put in some effective work on a project dear to me, the effective meaning I have become immersed in the project in a way that transcends thought, connects two or more dots whirling about my own universe.

After several minutes of feeling good and thinking how much better still I would feel with the smell of espresso forte or Garuda blend wafting through the kitchen, I rose and stumbled forth to cope with my good spirits, aware now of their source of origin. Getting the coffee from the freezer and setting the espresso maker into working condition, I realized I was riding the high of having defined to my satisfaction "over three hundred-fifty words, phrases, and concepts," that quoted part being a portion of the subtitle for my latest work. Now you can see my cause for suspicion. Having defined three-hundred fifty words, phrases, and concepts is likely to give a man a false sense of security, a sense that he knows something.

Standing in a relatively non-urban spot, say the Summerland, CA Greenwell Preserve on a clear Summery night, one can see a myriad of stars, including some he knows from having been shown them or having discovered them by using some helpful template. They are remote stars, so remote that the light emanating from them and traveling to him, even at a speed in excess of Fed-Ex next-day-delivery, has left the star before one had appeared on this planet.

The man seeing light from distant stars is in awed fascination about the immensity about him; the man reading a book or writing a book or teaching others how to interpret the words in that book is equally in the face of immensity. Words have intent as well as meaning. "May I help you?" can be read by an actor in so many ways, depending on the awareness of one's own intent and the relative closeness or distance occupied by another person.

I am a hunter and gatherer, a forager, following the migration paths of roaming words and stories as they make their way through the landscape. Sometimes the going has been difficult, leading me into uncharted terrain. Sometimes I have been forced by circumstances to indulge in agriculture, at which I am not notably skilled, trying to nurture seeds and nuts into some productive form.

Some mornings, I wake in good spirits, until I remind myself of the feel of standing in unalloyed wonder under the myriad of stars, so remote, sending messages of light.

John Keats. Read him and reap:

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Saturday, August 15, 2009

When a detail is more than a car wash

Of all the actors performing in a story, Detail earns the least applause and gets the lease acknowledgment--until it is overused. Then it is booed off the stage, called by a host of unflattering adjectives, and is viewed with suspicion the moment it tries to earn its way back.

True enough, the skilled actor can impart authenticity and resonance to the most banal story, but equally true, Detail is one of the first tools an actor reaches for when defining a role. Detail is not merely some battery-powered doer of all things, it is a special tool, a relic from the actor's own life, connected with a family member or the memory of some long vanished workshop, stored with all the actor's other interior treasures.

Give a character a name and you have already given the character a lurching step toward recognition. Give a character one added detail--a limp, a jones for marshmallows, a facial tic when pressure mounts--and you have brought that character (who is now named) out of the shadowy world of the background and into the world of definition.

The same is true of an apartment. Two identical floor plans in the same building, same furniture, same view. One has a leaky faucet.

Or a meal in a restaurant.

"Waiter, there's a fly in my omelet."
"Actually, sir, it's probably the beginning stages of a butterfly.'

Or a relationship.

He: "Why are you so hesitant? I thought you wanted to."
She: "I do. I very much do. But--"
He "But what?"
She: "I've never made love with a sixty-five-year-old man."
He: "Neither have I."

The details give us the sense that the fictional is real because the details chosen are the details that validate the reality of the characters, the situations, and the places; they convince us that these persons, places, and things have a resonance because the details affirm our own understanding of the vast opportunities of our dreams and the brick walls of our waking moments.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Paradigms Lost

The setting is a street corner in which Peter Sellers-as-Inspector Clouseau appears, seems interested in some item in a store window. A hybrid dog appears, standing next to him. And now, into the picture, a passerby stops, notices the dog, then looks to Sellers-as-Clouseau. "Does you dog bite?" the man asks.

Sellers shakes his head, no.

The man stoops to pet the dog, who thereupon bites him.

The man withdraws his hand quickly, turns to Sellers. "I thought you said you dog doesn't bite," he says with recrimination edging his voice.

"That's not my dog."

This narrative, although not mine, and probably improvised by Sellers, represents to me the archetype of the story I seem at this point in my life to tell. There are others, of course, but it always comes down to something like a variation on this theme. I did not know it at the time, but it seemed to have started with a story I wrote some years back, late 80s or early 90s, called "Molly." I'd met John Milton, editor of the South Dakota Review, at a sit down dinner at Dennis and Gail Lynds home. John asked me what I wrote and I told him with such force and clarity about stories as yet unwritten that I appear to have convinced us both. There was nothing for it but to go home and write "Molly" until I got it to the point where I had never been with a story before. Most of my published work and a bit of the unpublished related somehow to my sense of rules and of learned things rather than observed things and felt things.

Each of us has a kind of paradigm story to tell; the paradigm may change with the changes in the writers' life, but the urge to tell a story remains and so it is that we sense the paradigm in yet another way, then hasten to filter it through different characters, learning beyond rules and learned things, which if we are fortunate carries us on to the next paradigm, waiting for us to recognize it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I hear voices

You might have known there would have been a few stragglers, reminiscent of days long past when kids are out playing some game that seemed remarkable to them at the time--Capture-the-flag, Stickball, Hopscotch, baseball--being extra alert against the call that would come at any moment, the call for dinner. At such moments, feats of athletic prowess were born, etched in the memory. The awareness, then, of a trope, a small addition after a book is officially finished:

narrative voice--the interior source from which an individual story is told; the sense of a story dictating itself to the writer; the genuine tone and intent driving a story forward.

The narrative voice is the writer's voice, which in turn is the writer being story, telling it first to himself or herself as completely as possible and in as unguarded as possible, the better to rule out attempts by the voice to sound like someone else. During the course of a day, the writer sees, hears, feels, and remembers things--things read, things imagined, things related by others. All of these seem attractive. Many of them actually are attractive. The writer should be free to take them in and note their attractiveness, but the writer should not try to imitate this attractiveness. What the writer sees, hears, feels, remembers informs the authentic narrative voice and is to be cultivated. Hemingway has a lovely way of linking sentences with and. Good for him. Louise Erdrich exudes a sense of vocabulary, mere words, fluttering within like a flock of birds taking off on an adventure. Way to go, Louise. James Lee Burke has an inner cadence that could make the drawings of Hieronymus Bosch and scenes of great violence seem like the lace doilies on your grandparents' easy chairs. But these things, however you value them, are not yours and do not inform your narrative voice. It is for you to find that voice in each of your stories. You find that way by listening to the story, listening to the way the senses inform you. It is as an actor of some stature, a Meryl Streep, a Mary Steinburgen, a Dustin Hoffman, a Derek Jacoby, searching for the authenticity of a character about to be portrayed. It is of them, seeking his or her entry into the landscape. It is of you, and of listening until the story tells you what it is and what it wants from you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

V is for Voice; Y is for you

What have you learned from connecting all the 356 dots that comprise The Fiction Writers' Tool Kit?

Among other things, you have come to see an even closer connection between writing, acting, and music than you suspected; you have come a step closer to the belief that you have no idea what you are doing but have instead, in mitigation of not knowing, a sense of who you are, shall we say writing wise. You own all the time you tried to imitate and fell short, thus making you believe you lacked the necessary insights to be the writer of story. You tried that uneasy polarity of wanting to be a counterfeiter and yet you were unable to imitate to the point where your work passed for the original.

You have learned where you are happiest.

As the years advance on you, you see more connections between things you originally thought disparate, in fact, disparate things you wanted to change.

Linking these 356 dots, these 356 words, terms, concepts, you have made it 356 times easier to enter the worlds you sought to enter through the back door.

Not a bad result from so much fun.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Five Stages of Writing

You had progressed through all five of the Kubler-Ross stages, enjoying anger and denial so much that you revisited them for second helpings. Then, on November 25, 2008, more from enthusiasm than either resignation or acceptance, you launched forth to recreate what had been so utterly and completely lost.

The first entry was act, which you had defined in a format you would follow all the way through until yesterday, August 10 of 2009. Then came examples and opinions, the voice supplying itself, coming forth in a way that surprised you given the amount of time you'd spent looking for it and, you thought, finding it, and beginning a project you knew for some time as The Fiction Writers' Tool Kit. The project was begun back B.C., which in this case meant before cancer, back when there were a sheaf of unfinished short stories wagging fingers of reproof at you, reminding you in metaphor of Sally wanting to get out the back door to pee or chase a rabbit or coyote, and getting no response from you. You had perhaps a hundred or more entries, definitions sketched out, some of them revised.

In spite of having a back-up drive and any number of CDs with the text burned on them, the whole project somehow disappeared, was not where you thought it would be or, indeed, where it ought to be. You pawed through the old Toshiba and the more recent Acer, thinking surely to find the files there. But no. Gone. Vanished. Aloha, Dr. Kubler-Ross.

You reminded yourself of the stories you'd heard of the lost manuscripts of writers who, like you, lived on the edge of disarray and disorder, remembered past times of pushing deadlines up to the eleventh hour and later. Deadly Dolly, for instance, agreed to over a dinner in which the publisher poured too much wine and in mitigation wrote checks with too few zeros, was done and revised in one week, the last check financing a riotous fling in San Francisco in which a cocktail waitress at a bistro called The Hotsy Totsy played a considerable part, supported by close chums including a concert-level pianist who flew combat missions in Korea, the owner of a Green Street saloon, and a famed lawyer who loved to steal silverware from New York hotels.

This project was not to be done in all-night sessions of youthful exuberance; this project was to be done with daily immersion in the depth of the project, its voice and its connective tissue, bringing together things that were not previously thought to be brought together. Beat came next, beat as in a dramatic movement. Then block, as in determine where everyone was in every scene. By this point the conflation of the dramatic, the stage, and the page was established and acknowledged. The voice and dramatic overview were set in motion and were, in fact, talking to you. All you had to do was listen. You did.

The subtitle can now read: Over 350 words, terms, and concepts to help you write better stories.

The words, terms, and concepts are cross-referenced. All but six of the terms have been revised, the preface is written, and the individual you want to introduce the work is well known to you and will likely agree to do it.

You already know the publisher you want for the project, and you'd thought to have a proposal ready to send them for their next reading period, which begins 1 September, except not this year; this year, they are moving and will not be reading until January, so the next logical thing to do is send it forth to Angela, tell her your preference, then let her do her work while you put together a proposal that will help her do her work. At which point, you are thinking the two short stories that have tapped you on the shoulder, then on to the next book project, which would seem to be an enormous statement of hubris on your part were the project not motivated by enthusiasm and admiration in enough measure to trump hubris and allow it to stand merely for the enthusiasm it embodies.

Monday, August 10, 2009


journey, the novel of--a longform narrative in which one or more characters embark on a trip involving a quest; an extended story involving running away from or returning to a locale, or visiting a previously unknown terrain; a longed-for visit to a particular site; may also be a picaresque wander year.

In formulaic terms, the novel of journey represents a long travel that produces some form of resolution and, if not resolution, some discovery or awareness, thus you can see thematic and symbolic interpretations being drawn to the form like ornaments to a Christmas tree. One of the most venerable tales of journey focus on Odysseus, returning to his homeland of Ithaca after having fought in the Trojan War, a journey in which the protagonist encounters and deals with a full ensemble cast of gods, goddesses, monsters, mere mortals, and mortal temptations. Geoffrey Chaucer's reputation as a storyteller rests heavily on his framework tale of a group of pilgrims on their way to the Canterbury Cathedral, telling stories to pass the time. Jack Kerouac set out on a journey, a road journey, ostensibly to capture the warp and weft of the American experience, in the process finding the four-lane paved highway of his voice and crystallized sensitivity. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, over their heads in debt, their Oklahoma land awash in the dregs of the Dust Bowl storms and drought, set off on a journey to the land of milk and honey, or at least opportunity. Gus McRae and Woodrow Call, bored in their retirement as Texas Rangers, undertake a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, but first they have to steal the cattle in order to have the cattle drive, thus a brief venture south into Mexico to literally rustle up a herd, then Lonesome Dove can begin in earnest. John Haskell's 2005 novel, American Purgatorio, begins with a man whose wife inexplicably disappears while they have stopped at a gas station, then leads to a journey in which the husband tries to find the missing Annie.

Perhaps this quote will resonate with some recognition: "I am looking for the man who shot and killed my father, Frank Ross, in front of the Monarch boardinghouse. The man's name is Tom Chaney. They say he is over in the Indian Territory and I
need somebody to go after him." The speaker is fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, the principal in Charles Portis's journey-within-a-novel, True Grit.

The journey novel is by its very nature a metaphor, the object of which is more or less in the hands of the writer. In 1494, Sebastian Brant published such a metaphor, called The Ship of Fools. Some five hundred years later, (1962)Katherine Anne Porter published her own version of The Ship of Fools, arguably less metaphoric in the overt sense, but nevertheless giving pause for reflection. Porter's Ship had an ensemble cast moving from Germany to Mexico at the outset of World War II. Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist is yet another of the potential ways for the novel of the journey to provide a means of transportation to a destination that by its very nature is electric with surprise and provocative aftertaste.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

I did not!

disclaimer--a dramatic action, statement, or combination of the two intended to distance a character from real or imagined consequences; an agreement such as a pre-nuptual, in which rights, obligations, and promises to perform are enumerated.

The basic dramatic disclaimer is "I did not." Followed by a response of "You did so," we have the beginning of a story in two scant lines. Close on the heels of the former is the even shorter introduction to story, "I already did" or the equally provocative, "I already was." Not to forget "I thought you knew."

Disclaimers get characters into trouble they seek to avoid by disclaiming in the first place, opening the dramatic stage for guest appearances from the likes of denial, stubbornness, misrepresentation, and outright lies, moving the narrative into a downward spiral of considerable complexity.

One of the more common disclaimers, offered as a defense, is "I only meant it as humor," which is to say in real terms, "I did or said it in the first place as an attempt to embarrass, humiliate, or ridicule. A close ally: "It was only a joke" has the intended meaning I didn't really mean it.

Disclaimers appear as warnings of potential side-effects on many medications, presenting in their wake the question of whether the cure or relief, with its inherent possibilities of mischief, are worth the risk of the side-effects. This is a good warning for writers who use disclaimers such as, Any coincidence between persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Vital Lie

vital lie--a cultural convention or moral absolute one or more front-rank characters in a story believes to be true, then comes to realize is bogus; an ethical principal or position taken by an antagonist in opposition to a protagonist; the moral license for politically motivated behavior.

The vital lie in fiction is the attitudinal and entitled platform of characters who represent a mindset and way of life that appears to withhold acceptance to the protagonist and his or her associates. The lie may begin with characters from the privileged classes referring to working-class individuals as "good country people," signifying a surface respect that barely masks a patronizing sneer. It may just as well have its origins in the envy-riddled contempt with which the working classes regard the affluent.

To dramatize the vital lie, the writer needs to determine the pole star of a representative character, then construct a plausible path for the character to have followed in order to arrive there.

The vital lie is the elephant in the living room, the thing that is seen but not acknowledge; it is variously gender prejudice, racial prejudice, class prejudice. It is story in the making.

Every culture has at least one. Like humor, the vital lie always has a target

Friday, August 7, 2009

Any spare change?

growth--the dramatic motion toward change inherent in a character, an institution, a place, or a thing; the need for a front-rank character in a novel to advance or retreat in relation to behavior and understanding.

Growth is accretion or erosion, the consequences of a character's participation in a longform story, the evolution or devolution of an organization or institution; it is tangible movement in a direction the reader will recognize, a movement to which some emotional weight is attached by the character who experiences it. In the longer dramatic narrative, characters have the time and the need to grow; this is, after all what is meant by development.

Characters change, come to realize, or at the very least are held hostage by their circumstances. Institutions change, arguably for the better or worst, depending on the characters involved in the institutions. The mythical town of Pluto, ND, so vivid with promise in the early pages of Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves, devolves toward the end of the novel as a virtual ghost town, while in the same narrative the principal characters age, grow away from or grow into other mind- and heart-sets, while the once thriving Pluto Historical Society, down to two members, disbands.

It is not so much that growth in a longer work must be particularized in detail as it must be recognized with some hint of what is to happen, allowing the reader to imagine (and argue) about the likely results. Shorter works do not have the convention or luxury of recording change; they instead play out on the characters being led to a brink and bade farewell, their intentions not readily known.

As the twenty-first century novel and short story gather traction and personality, it is almost unthinkable that their characters will, as many earlier novels and stories decreed, all live happily ever after but will instead be buffeted with the whims, uncertainties, and multifarious inducements of life as we have come to know it. Modern life has evolved to the unthinkable come to pass. Future life grows into the yet more unthinkable. If we are realistic, there will always be an elephant waiting for us somewhere, be it the living room, the Greyhound Bus station, the supermarket, or the already crowded landscape we like to think of as the soul.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tick off

Lionel Essrog--the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn; a private investigator, a character with a fatal flaw--Tourette's Syndrome.

What a brilliant flash of imagination it was for Jonathan Lethem to have anointed his lead character with Tourette's Syndrome, an affliction that could be triggered at any moment, sending his cerebral circuitry off into a Karaoke of the mind, his tics and associations gathering momentum like the boulder of Sisyphus on its downhill course, gathering momentum until he was forced to give over to it. Lethem could have chosen other afflictions for Essrog, not the least of which could have been petite or grand mal seizures; he could have chosen autism or perhaps even bipolar shifts from the manic high to the depressive low. Lionel Essrog, in the moment of his creator's big bang of creation, became an icon. It is not that there were no afflicted characters before him; Willie Ashenden walked with a limp as, indeed, Somerset Maugham, his creator, did; Quasimodo was a hunchback, the eponymous phantom of the opera had a badly scarred face, Johnny Tremaine had his thumb fused to the palm of his hand when a pot of molten silver spilled. Pre-Essrogian literature is filled with men, women, and children who bore their fatal flaw and were transformed by it to the point where they made of it a valuable commodity.

In his way, Lionel Essrog took the fatal flaw to a new height; Tourette's Syndrom begins interiorally, then extends outward. Lionel Essrog opened the door for Mark Haddon's Christopher John Francis Boone of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time, allowing Boone, an autistic, to do a detective job of his own, recording his adventures in a book that at first blush seemed to have had a mechanical defect of missing pages until we realize that his adventure is chaptered in prime numbers.

Jonathan Lethem did for affliction what Hammett and Chandler did for the mystery. Since the appearance of Lionel Essrog, it is no longer merely democratizing to bring the afflicted and unusual out of the closet and into the full light of inquiry, it is a dramatic enhancement by which the character displays his or her transactions with the flaw into a transformative story.

In the early days of pulp magazine mystery and suspense, Frank Gruber's Oliver Quade used his preternatural memory for fact to solve crimes. Quade was known as The Human Encyclopedia, his erudition the cause of the solution. Lionel Essrog succeeds not because of his Tourette's but in spite of it. Read of Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn and take notes.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Fatal Flaw

fatal flaw--a physical or psychological trait given a character; a handicap that informs the behavior of a character in a novel or short story; the Ugly Duckling writ large, the more-intelligent-than-others writ small; an often-imagined deficiency experienced by a front-rank character that is in fact not noticed by others.

If he'd been fashioned with a nose of ordinary length and configuration, Cyrano might well have had to enlist Christian to act on his love for Roxanne, but the forces that shaped him (and his nose) also had undeniable effect on his way with words as well as his way with a sword. And to look at the flaw of the inner person, let's suppose Macbeth had been content to accept the promotion from King Malcolm and let it go with being Thane of Cawdor, or that Miss Rebecca Sharp had not been so, shall we say upwardly mobile. What then of Macbeth or Vanity Fair? We could also look at Antigone and her determination to bury her brother, but just as well we can look at her uncle, who is determined that Antigone's brother not be buried. Without the willfulness of uncle and niece, Antigone would not have been put to death, seriously undercutting the impact of the story.

As Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain democratized crime, brought it away from the estate and gated community, into the city, John Steinbeck notably applied the fatal flaw to Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, and even more notably to the characters of Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men. Lennie is big, powerful, and simple-minded; George is small, quick-witted, a bit of a martyr. He has become Lennie's protector and in so doing has mortgaged his own ambition of becoming a rancher.

The flaw, whether the inner of psychological origin or the outer of injury or growth or general appearance, literally effects the direction and outcome of the story and as an adjunct, the reader's reaction to the afflicted character. From the beginning of Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, we are presented with a self-serving protagonist, Randle P. McMurphy, whom we see using his feigned mental state to avoid incarceration in a prison. We watch him warily to see where his game will take him, in the process buying in to the process of growth. We know from experience in reading that characters in a novel cannot stand still--they either grow forward or spiral downward. McMurphy's fatal flaw becomes his compassion, his empathy, which trumps his own self-serving pleasures and extends to his fellow inmates.

Joe Buck and Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo come steamrolling out of James Leo Herlihy's The Midnight Cowboy with fatal flaws, Buck's being a romantic naivete similar to Emma Bovary's, Rizzo's a one-two punch of a leg crippled by polio and an incipient consumptive cough. As in the explosive ending of Cuckoo, the payoff of Cowboy provides a plausible-but-unexpected flash of warmth and light for the survivor and, however uncomfortably, for the reader.

The novel is about characters orbiting to resolution, which is defined by growth. The fatal flaws are inertial forces, propelling the characters to their release-through-understanding or their descent into a relinquishing of the power to rescue themselves. Writers inflict fatal flaws upon some characters in order to inject the explosive emotions of epiphany and awareness into the story