I was going to argue that I was born into the absurdist tradition by virtue of being born into the culture I was born into, but that is the patently absurd position of assuming that a mere accident of birth gave me a front row center seat at the theater of the absurd. The fact is that there are few if any cultures I could have been born into and, accordingly that anyone could have been born into that would need a ticket purchased from a scalper to get into the big rock concert-sized Absurdity Show.
I just happened by chance to have been born into a culture that allowed a kind of generational squabble to be waged in the margins of the laws, ethics, history, and customs of its people, The Talmud. It is also a culture in which the argument goes well beyond the lawyerly, rabbinic position taking of the clergy and into arguments as personal as, You're going to marry him? or, Writing's nice, but what are you going to do for a living? or the more direct, what's the difference between a freelance writer and a large pizza? The answer, of course, is that a pizza can feed a family of four.
Just as absurd, I reckon, is the fact pointed out to me in all seriousness that I more likely know more about Hinduism than Judiasm and have a larger vocabulary in Sanskrit than Hebrew.
The one word most of my white, Asian, and Latino friends are culturally enjoined from using is the famed n-word.
My own word of choice, which I resort to all number of circumlocutions to avoid using, is the a-word, not asshole, which you may have been supposing, but artist. I hesitate because the word so represents to me the self-anointed designation of preciousness and moral certainty and elitism. I still remember twenty years ago when a student complained about my comments on his work and maintained, That doesn't apply to me; I'm an artist. Reptillian-brained that I am, I replied, I wish I'd known.
You should have told me sooner. I'd never have dared to mention a comma splice to you had I but known.
I mention this because of my belief that one sets out to acquire a-word visions and technique, to forge a language and culture that allows the follower to move from culture to culture without being bogged by the mire and thickness of it, appreciating and understanding along the way.
To arrive at the craftsperson's point of view, one must see through the absurdities of life to the point of embracing them and thus gaining some understanding of the human condition. Attempts to provide exclusionary rationale invariably produce the foundations of absurdity upon which we seem willing to erect platforms. From these platforms, more absurdity is broadcast, some falling on deaf ears but much of it finding ready audience.
For a thesis to be developed, a trend to be followed, a subject to be investigated, there is little to stand with absurdity.
Stephen King has already pulled fear and terror out of our grasp. Ursula K. Le Guinn has taken anthropology off the table. Dian Fossey is gone but Stephen Sopolsky does wonders with primatology, not to forget Frans De Waal for his work on our near relatives and his current work on the evolution of empathy. Sarah Palin has retired irrelevance. Dan Brown has been awarded a patent on medocrity. Absurdity waits in the wings as one person after another steps forward to take the crown.
There is a Zen-like comfort and tranquility to absurdity, drawing you further down its absurd corridors and into absurd chambers where other aspirants seek explanations and paths to follow. Always room for one more at the table.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I was going to argue that I was born into the absurdist tradition by virtue of being born into the culture I was born into, but that is the patently absurd position of assuming that a mere accident of birth gave me a front row center seat at the theater of the absurd. The fact is that there are few if any cultures I could have been born into and, accordingly that anyone could have been born into that would need a ticket purchased from a scalper to get into the big rock concert-sized Absurdity Show.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I don't know how many book signings I've attended. Well over a hundred, more likely upwards of two hundred, the one I attended last night striking me as no better and certainly no worse than any other.
The signing was for an author who had published his second novel and who has the certain knowledge that his next four, already written, will appear during the next two years. This second novel is considerably more accomplished than the previous one, which itself was substantial.
I have been at book signings where the work at hand should not have in my opinion been contracted in the first place, and the subsequent sales figures bore out my judgment, thus good fortune for the writer to have had any acquisition editor than me. The depressing part of last night's signing was the line of the author's friends and acquaintances, stepping forth to get their copies autographed, wanting in some way to take the magic of being published home with them, the author's personal note in the flyleaf an E ticket to the Disneyland of publishing.
The satisfying thing about last night was the author's easy-going acknowledgment that this book, five years in composition, was literature, that it not only told a splendid story, it did so in ways that represented the use of language at its highest.
The author and I share a number of similar feelings about writing, about story, about language and, yes, about literature. I attend the book signing out of recognition of the author's fierce dedication to his craft and to a promise I made to his father some years back, when his father was alive, to look in on the kid from time to time, argue with him, talk to him.
Because of my admiration for the father and his own creation, I was easily able to give and keep my word. The father, dead some five years, is better known than I believe his son will be, having crafted a world in which a beagle and a group of kids demonstrated an abundant understanding of the human condition.
My favorite signing of all was where I appeared out of friendship to Dennis Lynds, with whom I sat for nearly two hours, the two of us the only non-employees in the book store. We repaired to a place where beer was available and I listened as Dennis outlined his next book.
It is certainly nice to be paid, to see royalty checks, to be read. But the real party is in the day-to-day living with the story that becomes the vision that becomes expanded in such unexpectedly wonderful ways.
Monday, September 28, 2009
You know all about the other shoe dropping, not so much from living in apartment complexes as having been resident in a hotel or motel from time to time. The person in the room directly above you removes one shoe and lets it fall to the floor with a thunk, waking you and keeping you awake as you anticipate the resolution, the thunk of the other shoe dropping.
On occasion in a classroom, you've even milked the analogy by extending the individual in the room above you to be a centipede, thus the dropping of more than two shoes.
In real life, as opposed to metaphorical life, story life, composition life, it can take time for the other shoe--whatever it might be--to drop, adding to the sense of suspense, anticipation, and general chaos in real-time life, where either so much is going on or nothing is going on, thus another distraction among the many. (Story sorts out the chaos, much in the manner of a conspiracy theorist selectively discarding facts that might mitigate the conspiracy theory.)
In real-time life, you frequently scan books on acting technique and philosophy, in search of yet another form of circumstance by which you may bring some measure of authenticity and theme to your growing vision of How Things Work. Even if your vision is of a genteel absurdity, nevertheless there has to be ways of demonstrating this absurdity without the need to lecture the characters or, even worse, the readers, while still maintaining a balance of plausibility. This aspect of events seems the most consistent in the things you've written since you were about eighteen, at which point you'd decided that the formula-based story was beyond your means (you later refined that to being beyond your interest). Although you are not as devoted a fan of Raymond Carver as many of your writer friends and, increasingly, your students are, the thing you admire most about him is his ability to convey that sense of plausible absurdity, of things having stretched as tightly as a pair of wrong-sized shoes bought in desperation at a thrift store. You loved the shoes but size was an issue.
So you come across an acting book exercise in which the student is conveying a sense of being cold. How, you wonder, would Philip Seymour Hoffman demonstrate cold? And the very act of visualizing an actor you admire performing such a task brings images to you. The images are so intense that you need to stop because of the distraction of images; you don't want to lose the insight here, which is that although the dramatic situation has to convey an emotion, the place where the situation occurs has to convey at least a sense--sight, sound, touch, temperature--if not an emotion. Thus do you have a character in a situation, which is to say a focused, confrontational encounter with opposition, simultaneously responding to the setting. Bingo! Counterpoint. I don't have time to be hungry now; I've got to cope with this! Screw being too hot in here, I've got to make a decision. It is literally a double bind, which has to create tension. Hamlet, driven by his need to extract revenge from his uncle, sees his uncle in a vulnerable position and now becomes aware that he might exact the ultimate revenge by killing his uncle, thus settling the score. But the uncle is saying his prayers, and if Hamlet were to kill his uncle while he is at prayer, the uncle will take an all-expenses-paid trip to Heaven, which is the farthest thing from Hamlet's intent.
True enough, were you to turn this musing in for an essay on the SAT, it would be returned to you with a stern note about topic sentences. But what do they know about story?
Sunday, September 27, 2009
It is a truth universally recognized that a writer, launched into a project to the point of distraction, perhaps even sleeplessness, certainly irritation, will be bombarded with ideas for new projects. It is not enough to be in the process of inventing a situation so delicious and wonderful that it draws you away from responsibilities attached to the real world. Nor is it enough that such long engagements seem in retrospect even more exciting and fun than they were during the execution.
You do not notice such connections until you have reached a temporary calm, where there are no sudden storms of ideas. There is a sense that feels as though it were calm, but it is in fact a kind of withdrawal from the ongoing process about you. Short bursts of it are welcomed, then merely acceptable, then decidedly not so--decidedly boring. Ah, worse than boring, frightening because in such moments come the insects of doubt to lay their eggs. Will you ever have another idea again? At such times, you are likely to venture into things, relationships, projects, tasks you would not ordinarily enter, grabbing onto something as though it represented some last bus on the schedule, some last flight out of somewhere, some last train. It is not uncommon at such times for you to wonder if you have ever in your life held an original thought, had a worthwhile idea of project. The eggs have hatched and you are infested. There are neither books in the library nor the bookstore that will wrench you away from such infestations. At such times, the only books or stories that have any kind of chance are those you must write or think you must write.
Which is at once a good omen, an omen of the need for you to be back in the rush, being pelted with ideas and associations as though you were caught in some cloudburst without a raincoat or your trusty Barbour and are doomed to a soaking.
Life is in its way like those particles which are at times waves, life is cyclic and wave property, the conundrums before you again like Erwin Schrodinger's cat, neatly packed in a box to be delivered to you by some cosmic agency. Will the story be alive?
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Although you had not thought to do so in today's weekly writing workshop, you spoke with more conviction than you thought you had about the need of a place to have a resident personality. It began when one person, her story set in Los Angeles, wondered aloud about ways to infuse a sense of how people behaved in Los Angeles. If, you observed, Beckett were still alive and writing, he'd set stories in Los Angeles, which led this writer to imagine what it would be like directing Waiting for Godot in the specific locale of Los Angeles as opposed to, say, Boston or Indianapolis. Persons in differing cities want different things. Having a lovely relationship of duality with Los Angeles, it was easy to observe that even though it has many amenities not found anywhere else, the thing that makes it what it is has to do with the fact that nearly everyone who is a resident of Los Angeles knows that the most bent commodity of all is reality. Angelenos know they are there for the bent reality, not for the motion picture and television industries, not for the politics or weather but for the kinship of altered expectation and reality.
Residents of Santa Barbara are here for a different reason, the atmosphere of secrecy so inherent. There are stunning views and weather. But these are not the draw, although we will tell you that they are, hopeful of diverting you from the fact that we exist on a sense of having arrived here with a secret agenda, with a history of having done something or having come from an unusual family or perhaps the sense that such places as New York and Boston and Los Angeles and yes, even Seattle make for splendid visitation but somehow we could not survive in such places on an extended basis.
True enough, there are individuals who live in places such as Albuquerque or Portland or Santa Fe, or Dallas who do not wish to be there; they wish to be nearly anywhere else. They fantasize about Toronto or Vancouver, trying to make do with what they have but not sure how.
There is a hidden sense of defining characteristic inherent in individuals who live where they do in some uneasy awareness that goes beyond the mere trope of anywhere but here, settling in on the notion that they are here as a way of taking their medicine or, to make it more chemical, taking their meds.
What is the unspoken connection between a real person or a character and the place where they go about the warp and weft of their routine, watching story unfold about them and coping with their own sense of story.
There should be a dotted line or dash or two-line space break here, a walkway into the questions you have been asking about your protagonist, the one who has taken up residence in a managed community, one you sense as being undershot with two seemingly antithetical qualities, affluence and secrets. The secrets of Casa Jocasta, you want to write, are spread through the prime acreage of the facility like the blue, marbled mold in a wheel of aged Stilton cheese.
Some individuals have voluntarily moved to such places, individuals of differing demographic than those in your fictional place. Some have nevertheless gone voluntarily while others still have been more or less left off for storage there.
And, regardless of age, social status, and background, they have secrets.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Where, you ask, does story begin?
Story begins at the precise moment stasis ends. Story begins when a hand, be it the hand of God, the Author, or a character tips the fine-but-chaotic balance of seemingly ordinary clutter, tilting it toward something somebody or some system wants.
How would you account for a something (as opposed to a someone) wanting something?
In espionage-type novels, say those of Eric Ambler or John Le Carre, human characters may want something, information or money or a sense of political satisfaction, perhaps even sexual favors that might not otherwise be attainable. Nevertheless, the system governing espionage has wants that trump what humans want. The system wants human borders to become secondary; the system wants an apparent result that covers the real goal which is balance or stasis; the system wants always to remain one step ahead of the players. In any kind of novel involving institutions, whether they are States, universities, retirement home facilities, or those synecdoche-type abstractions such as The Law, or Justice, or even Poetic Justice, the institution wants to demonstrate that it understands its work force--humanity--better than humanity understands itself.
How about, then, someone wanting to beat The System (whatever System it may be)?
Same thing applies; one or more characters believe they have found a way to cheat, defeat, or otherwise bring down the system. That's the tipping point, the beginning of, say, Dog Day Afternoon. That's the point at which things begin happening that may be interpreted to mean there are external agencies such as Kismet/Fate.
But you don't think Kismet/Karma/Fate apply, do you?
No, I don't, but that won't stop some persons from believing with the same intensity as I disbelieve that they are up and in operation. Remember, when story is in progress, the Cosmos may appear to be taking sides. Events are triggered that may be read just as tea leaves may be read or the entrails of fowl, or the toss of yarrow sticks. The attribution of events in The Iliad, for example, can be seen as intervention of The Gods, or The Fates. Those were "invented" before political science and sociology or psychology.
You are not, then, cynical or by any stretch a nihilist?
Absolutely not. If you need to label me, perhaps absurdist is a good place to start. At any given moment, absurd things are happening, triggered by absurd people. Other equally absurd individuals see these events and believe they are cataclysmic or thematic or prophetic or perhaps even representational. At the moment, there are, for instance, members of the U.S. Congress representing Midwestern states, drawing absurd conclusions to events. In a year or two, these individuals will largely be forgotten, but they will have had some effect on the universal tolerance for the absurd. Yet another absurd person, once the House majority leader, is attempting to reinvent himself as an Elvis Presley-type dancer on national television, and yet another former congress person, himself a House majority leader who resigned in disgrace, trying to rebrand himself with absurdist pronouncements. No matter that all of these happen to be Republicans; many Democrats are equally lunatic.
If you were to take an individual who had become a professional writer, then remove only the physical acts of their writing and the arrival of their work in books or journals, their behavior would seem to fit behavior commonly described by experts as lunatic or absurd or even psychotic. There is risk, a necessary element in every story, in becoming a writer, increasing exponentially with each passing year the wannabe writer stays at the craft. The risk involves training one's self into the psychotic landscape where voices are heard, time is warped, reality refracted, and absurdness or absurdity becoming the ruling force.
And yet you admit to being a writer?
Not sure if that question came from you or one of the voices I hear.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
From time to time, you find yourself marveling at the photos in such publications as Architectural Digest, your marveling having morphed into wondering how it would be to live in such order when your own universe is in its own managed way such splendid chaos.
As you observe the life that goes on about you, attempting to take notes on your observations, write stories about them, and in recent years even attempt to take pictures of this teem and bustle of life, you are immediately breaking away from any sense of order by the fact of index cards, manuscripts, napkins with notes on their backs, and a host of equipment related to your Leica digital camera.
You are insulated from Architectural Digest in the sense of seeing it only at visits to doctors or hair stylist, but you are not insulated from the Levenger Catalog, which sneaks in like an unwanted relative, reminding you of things that will make your note taking life easier, more nuanced and manageable.
Is there, then, a place in your life where uncluttered space can exist for its own aesthetic sake?
Apparently not; your left hand knocks a gadget from the stand on which your large monitor rests, a venerable stand which is one of the few mementos of the days when you managed the L.A. office for Dell Publishing and were reporting to two individuals known for their place-for-everything, everything-in-its-place ethos.
One of the things that experience got you, beyond the stand, a humorous paperweight given you by some employees, and a few business cards was the awareness ultimately that you knew more about the nature and symptoms of projects you rejected than those you passed along for publication.
Your right hand frequently sends your wireless mouse flying off into a waste container you bought at Ross to assist you in maintaining the bifurcation between the used and the unused. It is fair to note you would not need a wireless mouse or, for that matter, a wireless keyboard, or the stand if you were content to use your MacBook as a laptop.
Distractions seem to leap out at you, away from their own orbit and into yours. Zen, which has some attraction for you, speaks to simplification, which could translate down to your beloved fountain pens or the ballpoint pens given you by a barista you suspect either has a crush on you or pities you.
You could go even more Zen or into the renunciation so dear to the hearts of upper caste Hindus by ridding yourself of pens, relying instead on a box of Dixon Ticonderoga # 2 pencils you seem to have had from times beyond memory. You could go more directly to the heritage into which you were born and minimally raised to the point of being aware of being different in yet another way, a heritage which likes the Talmudic argument cum dialogue in which you so frequently imagine Gregor Samsa, freed of his daily distractions in favor of the distractions of an insect.
(You have always assumed Gregor Samsa was Jewish, even to the point of arguing that point in a high school where, for at least a brief part of your life, you were not in an ethnic minority.)
Life is a vast distraction, one you are scarcely able to keep up with. You are born into this distraction and will be lured into your death by it, somewhere along the way having discovered--through distraction, of course--that writing things and the consequences of doing so are your travel mates, the metaphoric equivalents of the passengers on jumbo jets with aisle seats, window seats, and middle seats.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Wouldn't it be lovely, the subtext of your cable TV/Internet Service Provider seems to be asking, if you could have your own commercial free station where you have 24/7 access to all your favorite songs. They seemed to mean music in general, which is to say long tracks of jazz or chamber music or ballets or blues or symphonic music, and you responded to their questions as though that were the case. Of course "they" wanted to know which you'd like more, a free station the costs of which were amortized by your monthly TV/ISP tab, or if you'd consent to shelling out a small added fee to be tacked on to your monthly bill.
You could, of course, download all your CDs , then transfer them to your iPod, giving you the option of music on your computer, played through two Bose speakers that came your way a birthday or so ago, or listening in your car or through your iPod.
In all cases, the matter at hand is one much of a piece with your on-going research about writers: Based on information from your friends who are writers and nothing else, writers who do other things to supplement their writing income (such as paint pictures or teach), and writers who would like to add income from writing to their income stream and who now secure at least ninety percent of their income from other things (such as painting houses, running a cloth remnants shop, serve as a stringer for various newspaper services), and from blogs of writers you follow, it seems to you that the overwhelming number of writers who are devoted to their calling--devoted to the point of writing at least six times a week--are in substantial agreement that they would like to earn their entire income stream from writing. You have conducted this survey over a long enough period of time and have branched out to include individuals you know only through Internet contact to believe the universal desire to write full-time has a significant priority on the personal goals of most writers.
Even in today's sclerotic market, writing full-time and producing enough for living expenses is possible, but you wonder how some of those who want to do nothing but write would respond given an early success in long form that would then allow the luxury of working from proposals which, when accepted, would produce a modest advance, broken into increments, each successive increment contingent--lovely word, that--on a steady and regular production of pages.
Of all your clients who come to you through literary agents or recommendations from other writers, only two deliver pages when they promise. All others, even after having secured your commitment to work with them on a project, are invariably late getting material to you (and in direct proportion to their lateness pressure you for response and approval).
It is a jungle out there, but not because of the moods and humors of the jungle, rather because of the human condition.
Yes, you would enjoy and prefer a decided shift in your income stream to the point where your teaching and editing would be done for free or on an at-cost basis, allowing you the added luxury of taking on only those you wished to take on, but even that is mixing apples and oranges. Everyone you know who is able to live from his or her writing does not write to make a living but writes because he or she has no choice in the matter.
For your part, taking a vacation means writing something other than what you've been working on for a time. A vacation of, say, swimming or hiking, or attending one of the music festivals at Santa Fe, or handing out at the awful restaurant at Keams Canyon on the Second Mesa all need to have the can tied to the tail of being able to take a clutch of legal pads or a laptop along.
It isn't doing it to make a living, it is doing it because "it" is the source of the living, which has a mind and heart of its own and unfolds like the sheets being shaken over the balcony by the mother with her hands full of events and her mind full of dreams.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Let us venture back in time to those seemingly palmy days when grown men of a certain social status were able to spend considerable time considering what I will call "the nature of things," my target one Heraclitus of Ephesus, whose life span is thought to be from about 535 before the common era to about 435. He is particularly relevant to my meanderings today not only because of his most remembered observation "You cannot step into the same river twice," but not to forget his belief in the unity of opposites, or to put it another way, the resident duality of everything about us, the proverbial half-empty or half-full glass.
Monday, September 21, 2009
You found out what he wants. He wants to do something he enjoys without having it make money. The last thing he enjoyed and which he thought would not make money was running a used book store. He thought to be quite snobbish and exclusive about the titles he would take into the used book store, thinking then to have the opportunity to be surrounded with titles, authors, and subject areas that he could spend time reading. Unfortunately, this, too, made a profit, modest to be sure, but nevertheless, the monthly sales always amounted to enough to pay the rent and utilities. He is, of course, the filter through whom your increasingly wants-to-be-written novel is seen.
One of his favored writers was the suspense novelist, John Shannon, who has as his protagonist Jack Liffey, a man who specializes in tracking down lost children. (After you reviewed Palos Verdes Blue, Shannon emailed you and you became chums.) Your man enjoys discovering solutions to puzzles and resolving conflicts because life continues to puzzle him and although he has friends whom he admires and who admire him, the results of his relationships often leave him bewildered. He is your longtime character, Lew, with perhaps a touch of Jim Fadiman thrown in as a leavening.
To this calculus, you have him living in Casa Jocasta, which he can well afford because of his past history of Midas Touch, a touch that has brought with its finances a consequence of guilt at having it come with such apparent ease. He enjoyed very much, thank you, cleaning up what could have been a real mess at Casa Jocasta, with two of its residents having sneaked a third friend, now in her 80s, out of a private institution where she had been stashed by her children, hiding her for nearly a year on the CJ grounds. Now CJ wants to reward Lew by upgrading his living arrangement from the Alcove Casita of his purchase to a Ranchito, which he does not want. But he is interested in the conundrum presented him by Rita (Margarita), a CJ cleaning woman whom he suspects is in the U.S. illegally and whom he knows holds Ph.D. in North American Literature from Universidad Veracruziana.
You are closer to launch forth date than you were yesterday. At the moment, you are using him as a carrot to lead you through a few editing projects you took on, unlike Lew, with a serious eye cast toward an income stream. Much of you is Lew, but not that financial part, not at all.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
You sent forth the casting call some days ago, wanting a character to come forth to play the lead in one, possibly two novels. When He responded, neatly barbed and wearing khakis with sharp creases, an open-at-the-collar shirt with narrow stripes, brown suede loafers (but no socks) and a light jacket that came floating out of some crofter's cottage, you waved him off. He is persistent, however and he pulled a kind of Dustin Hoffman trick on you, showing up in a kind of rumpled dishabille, cranky and demanding you watch him, first as a juggler, then as a soft shoe dancer. If you'd have let him, he'd have gone on somewhat like Jerry Lewis. You finally saw through this latest iteration and said in no uncertain terms, "We'll call you."
Then he returned in suit and tie, a potential model for the Ben Silver catalogue, fooling you at first by twirling tortoise-shell reading glasses as a prop before starting to read lines. You were at first impressed with his gravitas, his bearing, his seeming honesty, particularly in that he made no attempt to cover or in any way disguise the advance of male pattern thinness across the top of his scalp. The giveaway was a sprinkle of croissant crumbs clinging to his short.
Back to the others, some trying a bit too hard, some reminding you more of types than individuals, cheesing it up or projecting entitlement with too-broad strokes of gesture and tone.
The project, possibly even projects in mind, are novels, a form you are eager to revisit, particularly since in recent weeks you believe you have evolved a technique that will get you sufficiently inside the story that the ticks and discoveries will matter more than the story points, giving you a dangerous-but-attractive high bar of a merge between Richard Powers and Richard Price, yet allow the elephant in the living room of your fiction, the irrepressible and mischievous, to meander forth.
So he keeps coming back to the auditions, in one disguise or another, which is okay, he wants the gig, but the problem is, the big problem is, he is you, which is a tricky enough business as it is, but even given that, you are not yet sure what he wants. You know who he is and what he is willing to do to get what he wants, but you do not yet know what he hopes to gain from this. It is one thing for him to be the protagonist of Coming to Terms, the novel set at The University, where you have some street cred. But you have no idea how to get him into Casa Jocasta as a resident.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Sometimes, when the telephone rings and you answer it, instead of waiting for some kind of gated-community security assurance from the answering machine, you are greeted by a complete stranger who introduces with some vague job description. "With the Sheriff's Department," or "From a Research and Marketing Division," or even the more prosaic, "This call may be monitored by quality control to see that you are being given courteous service." This introduction is invariably followed by an inquiry, ambiguous enough to allow interpretation of How is your health today? or How is your attitude today? The question is the casual-sounding How are you, today? To which you, with increasing frequency, reply, "When someone I don't know calls to ask how I am, I suspect they are reading from a script and either want money or want to sell me something?
What are the qualities and characteristics of a narrative voice that arouse such varying responses as suspicion, reliability, boredom,hostility?
Setting aside the obvious answer that differing stimuli transmit these responses variously, we repeat the question, looking for the lowest possible common denominator of "tells," signs by which we judge the intent and integrity of a narrative source.
In our mind, we compose lists of selling voices, starting with the now iconic used car sales person, the telephone solicitor, the telephone sales person, the religious enthusiast wanting to "sell" or promote a particular path to either salvation, redemption, or outright merging with the godhead; the politician, he who warns of dire consequences, or the recruiter in some cause. All these have apparent motives which will be revealed if we hear the narrator out, which makes us cynical in a way we have rarely been cynical: their entire pitch is predicated on our agreeing to something because we are bored and want to get rid of them.
There are more subtle voices, although it is often debatable how subtle their intent, that carry hidden political agendas secretly reeking of elitism, protectionism, racism, and perhaps verging upon delusion.
Would we buy a used car from our own narrator? Indeed, why did we chose this particular narrator or narrative form? At first blush, the multiple point of view appears to be the most democratic and reliable since it allows us to take sides in our emotional assessment of the story, but this is not always a possible point of view, particularly in a short story. Yeah, yeah; William Trevor manages it in a short story, but A) he is William Trevor and B) he has a track record of being empathetic to all his characters, even the ones with malign intent.
Look at the results of the narrator in Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, who starts things off with a rousing assertion, "This is the saddest story I ever heard," then, as the novel unfolds, appears not to have seen what was happening under his very nose. In short, is anyone reliable or, for that matter, trustworthy?
Much as these questions may be interpreted to cut off narration entirely, it is floated forth as a greater indication that the narrator must have a personality, a motive for telling the story, an intent, and even an agenda. Your own agenda in asking these questions is to help you arrive at the intent of the narration of a story you are living with quite a bit these days and which is reaching the point of wanting to be set down on paper--but through what filter?
Friday, September 18, 2009
A portion of the brain of many writers is spent thinking about the possibilities of some form of paying job until the current work in progress pays off or as an income stream when the things currently paying off arrive in free copies or effusive thank-you letters from someone on the editorial staff of a not-for-profit publication. Easy thoughts are such jobs as copywriting or proposal writing or technical writing because many impoverished writers have friends who do one or more of these while ironically wishing they had the freedom to write things for publications that pay off only in free copies and/or letters from persons on the staff of a not-for-profit publication.
Stage manager comes to mind as a good job, although it seems to be such a remarkably appropriate job for a writer that chances of securing such a position seem to cancel themselves out. A traffic control person at an airport is another ideally suited job because a writer has to keep track of characters, know where they are at every turn of the drama.
These last two jobs are, in fact, what a writer does or, existentially, are what a writer had better become at some point in the career arc. Characters are very much to be managed; we need to know what they've just come from, what their intentions are, and what their expectations are. Those of us who create them in the first place need some sense of awareness to these items because it is a truth universally recognized that characters left to mill about without a task or specific set of expectations are prime candidates for the cutting room floor--they do not make things happen nor do things happen to them.
One reason why there are few soliloquies is because a character on alone can have nothing done to him or her, nor can she or he expect to do anything but plotting which, by its very nature, is cerebral, which by its very nature is not very exciting. We are set up to expect that Hamlet will set some mischief in motion when he tells us, The play's the thing in which I'll catch the conscience of the king." And, okay, some anticipation, but when the play is being performed and the play is being enacted and one of the players pours poison into the ear of another, and we see more or less what Claudius did to his brother, we are not only not surprised when Claudius stops the performance with a bellow, "Give me some light," we are inside Hamlet's plans, privy to his intentions and his game.
We cannot merely describe a plan, we must make it fester then disgorge before our eyes. This is more than mere "Show, um, don't tell," this is giving full orchestration to the drama. Accordingly, let us take this some steps forward, building as we go. We already have the title in mind,The Secrets of Casa Jocasta, said house of mirth being a posh retirement facility with an equally posh demographic. We know the character we want to be our Virgil through this Purgatorio of the Elderly, said character being a longtime friend. We know the need to introduce opening velocity of such a nature that the characters will be engaged and in motion, buzzing with individual agenda. Therefore you need to show your protagonist being pressured in a way that reflects who he is and what he is. Suppose he is being pressured to accept an upgrade in his Casa Jocasta dwelling unit, free of charge, of course, as a token of the management's grateful recognition of the service he rendered in his last "case" or adventure (which means you have to know what that was) and suppose he does not want the upgrade and refuses, triggering the cleaning woman (who has overheard all of this) to resolve to hire him, triggering the vector of this novel and seriously paving way for the thematic ending, whatever it may be, that the protagonist has moved from being appreciated by Casa Jocasta to being told his presence there can no longer be tolerated. We're on our way to some specific thinking which, while we're at it, should include a first tier secret inherent in the cleaning woman. How about a doctorate in Romantic Literature?
Okay, plenty to set in motion.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
In the examination spirit of a few of your favorite essayists--Hazlitt, for example, or Emerson, and of course Montaigne--you pose yourself the rhetorical questions: What is certainty? and What troubles has believing yourself certain about a person, place or thing caused you?
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Just as thought is the enemy of the beginning of a work, so, too, is the Nuremberg Trial metaphor, where the miscreants, all those whose agendas are antithetical to the protagonist's, are marched forth and brought to trial. The metaphor persists, particularly when the antagonists can mount the defense, We were only following orders, which is as it should be, a direct reflection on you.
Earlier this week, when an about-to-be new client set forth the arc of her novel, you wondered aloud whose story it is, and she went directly to a major player in the drama. Then you have to become her when you're writing, you ventured. Pointedly, you bore on, you butt out. It's none of your business. The about-to-be took this well, to the point where you understood and appreciated the pleasure it would be to work with her.
Seance. Even Seance on a West Afternoon, if you'd like. The apparently occult un-occulted, brought into the light of inquiry, the bells, whistles, table rapping and ectoplasm explained through the simple trope of the writer as the medium through which the story travels. Waxing romantic and, indeed, occult again: The story exists out there on the astral plane and it is your job to bring it into the interview room, offer the characters some coffee or diet soda, then extract the details from them, looking for their motives, their potential gains or losses, their stake in the entire venture. Then you send them off, go through your interviews, then try to reconstruct what might have taken place--not necessarily what you wanted to have happened, but what might have.
Part of the fun of this kind of work resides in the way you can take sides or at least identify, feeling the satisfaction of, say, a six-year-old girl as she kicks the shins of an authority figure the six-year-old girl in real life would already have been acculturated against kicking in the shins. Or you can feel the satisfaction of a young person, having been endoctrinated by the Baltimore Catechism, resolutely not buying the information and doctrine being set forth. This kind of fun is always a temptation because you already have come to the understanding that there is a deeper level of satisfaction, the one in which you reach well beyond the pocket lint of your awareness and into those places where you have not yet set out your own take on things for the world to see, much less for you to see. Your psychology friends would call this the id-based response; you merely call it taking the risks and the consequences that go with them. The consequences often speak directly to the things and conditions you want--no mere generalizations, rather accute visions of yourself reaching across and through the conventions you largely live by. You listen to the characters as they tell you what they want. Through your use of your technical abilities, you are complicit in allowing these shadowy feelings rush forth. You rejoice in having removed the restraints of convention on a character and seeing the character, that figment of your own imagination--take chances, make choices, respond in ways that are satisfying to you because they so often tend to altruism. Your characters are "being good" even when being self-serving. Or their self-service nevertheless demonstrates empathy and consideration.
There is no way characters are divorced from you, even if you do not judge them, particularly if you do not agree with them. Any competent actor has engaged this same process, taking the outer shell of a person and imparting his or her own take, allowing us to see any number of interpretations and comparisons. Lee J. Cobb's Willy Loman and Dustin Hoffman's rendition help us provide our own, thanks to observing the actor's gestures and readings of lines in comparison with our own. The mere luck of your having been out for a walk in the theater district of New York at the very moment it was possible to buy a ticket for a matinee performance of Al Pacino doing Richard III was transformative, luck turned into revelation. The performance had not yet begun when you began to hear Pacino saying "Oh, yeah/My kingdom for a fucking horse." Only now, years, ah, years later do you realize that's what YOU would have said as Richard. Accordingly, there might be some hope for you.
If, indeed, your characters can take the Nuremberg defense of saying they were only following orders, let those orders come not from the conventional limits of behavior you have set up for yourself and as standards by which you form friendships and associations; let those orders come from the deeper recesses of your urgent desire to experience and understand the secrets and mysteries of homo sapiens behavior.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
The ticking clock, presaging the arrival of the deadline, is a splendid inducement, the agar agar or other nourishing medium on which story begins to munch, then outright feed. If you procrastinate much longer, try to think things through for just a few moments more, surely the idea will come, a gift from the indulgent uncle who has been so tolerant of you all these years. Procrastination is your individual way of hastening the process, creating the atmosphere for the work to come forth, identify itself, then begin the process of revelation.
No matter that the indulgent uncle's gifts are never quite the things you'd wished for, they are nevertheless tangible manifestations of a process in place. You notice, sometimes in your procrastinating clean-up and desk tidying, other times as you stumble about your rooms in search of a particular thing that has no relationship to your writing life, a clutter, a graveyard of gifts that seemed pleasing enough at the time but now cause you to wonder about your sense of taste.
Add another element to the recipe; add the atmosphere of surrender, of recognition that this time, it has finally caught up with you; you can't do it. You have exhausted all your ideas and strategies, your jokes instead of stories, your technique masquerading as story.
Ticking clock and admission of surrender usually do the trick, a one-two punch that admittedly has to be sincerely felt before it can work. But it does work, just as the process of giving up on trying to recall a name, a lyric from a song, some splash of memory hastily filed in your already crowded mind produces the answer you sought. Many products forged in this particular fire of ticking clock and surrender are things you are more likely to want to save: they are gifts from the process, not from the indulgent uncle.
Thus you arrive at an awareness: if you are driven to begin setting it down somewhere, your notebook, a legal pad, the backs of the interminable index cards about your desk and work areas, there is no need for the ticking clock, no need for the surrender notion that you have written yourself cold, out of enthusiasm. The awareness has to do directly with thought. Thought in the beginning is a distraction. Stories should not be thought about until they are in a completed draft form.
The awareness continues: many of your things are begun in the forge of despair, arriving in some kind of focus only after you have despaired of ever having another impulse to begin. An equal number, however, are begun with enthusiasm or a sense of mischief, or a desire for revenge or a wish to rewrite your own history. All those stimuli are, of course, feelings. Beginnings come from the crucible of feelings as opposed to the textbooks of thought.
Story comes rushing forth like a tube of toothpaste too tightly squeezed at the outset. Trying to think a story out is like trying to get a cat to come when you call it.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Writing of your younger--very much younger--self, as you did in the past few days, reminded you of the nearly invisible line you stepped over when you entered the landscape of connectivity. Unlike the landscape of puberty, into which you entered on a predictable time line and with predictable events, your ventures into the landscape of connectivity were tentative; there was no inevitability you could track--only occasional trespasses over boundaries of which you were scarcely aware.
The landscape of connectivity is that terrain where most adults live, each having a differing impression of the landscape, each having a distinct set of impressions, history, fears, pleasures, desires. Living within the landscape, one remembers first encounters with individuals, with the surroundings in which those encounters took place, of impressions received and, most important of all, of associations with other encounters and experiences. To those who had not thought the process through, Psych 1 gave us the trope, "free association," or, What do you associate with X?
This is not a recognition much less a confession of having had no associations in preteen years but rather an awareness that the associations were more often manufactured ones, associations imparted by others (parents, siblings, friends, teachers, adults qualifying as authority figures as, say, Mr. Pope, the janitor at Hancock Park Elementary School, or Ruth, who managed the stand across the street from Hancock Park Elementary School, where you ate lunch three to four days a week. From Mr. Pope, across the chasm of years, you learned the association of not using too many paper towels to dry your hands. From Ruth, you learned not to drink your lemonade too quickly). Some associations came to you from reading materials. (It is a rare time indeed when you think of or listen to the music of Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller, and you are not transported to that mid-December morning when you visited the spot where the newspapers you delivered each day bore the news of his death.)
Now the associations come from events in which you were present. Although your iPod Touch connects you to the Internet and other web-related programs when you are in range of a wireless hub (Peet's Coffee for instance, or Antioch or the library) and you are able only to access your music files otherwise, you are, at this stage of life and health, always within range of the associative cloud, linking you directly to your own individualized landscape of reality. Thus you are the product of your experiences, encounters, and the associations they bring, influencing at every turn the way you respond to a stimulus, whether that stimulus be a thought, idea, person, place, or thing. Thus also are you encountering other individuals similarly accoutered. You are the alien in everyone else's landscape as they are in yours; the harmony you effect with them is another measure of who you are and, quite specifically, who you are not.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
The difference between writing and--well, composing:
Saturday, September 12, 2009
The things you carry: a Parker fountain pen with a medium italic nib, an illuminated pocket magnifier, an almost-filled Moleskine notebook, two crumpled cards entitling me to small espresso drinks at Peet's, a Coach leather pocket wallet containing driver's license, two Amex cards and a bank debit card, a few business cards which are actually too grungy to be of any use, an 8 GB iPod Touch, fifty-four dollars and eighty-five cents.
The only link between what you carry now and what you used to carry as a pre-teen is the magnifier which, at the time, was better in your estimation than a book of matches you normally carried because you could use the magnifier much of the day to start a fire or more importantly to magnify the sun's rays to the point of burning a hole in something. It is not so much that you wanted to start a fire or burn a hole in something as it was the comfort and assurance you felt knowing you could, if you wished, start a fire at any given moment or, should something offend you, burn a hole in something. These were tools of approaching adulthood, things that demonstrated your readiness. At the time, there were small paper notebooks available, lined, provocatively blank, allowing you the added luxury of being able to write anything that struck your fancy. You generally had a pencil stub which, thanks to the pocket knife you carried, could have as sharp a point as you wished in case there were a need to take notes, to write some observation, some truth or information or advice to be remembered. You can recall sitting in any number of out-of-the-way blinds, certain of your relative invisibility even though you were too young to grasp the notion that a boy hidden in a tangle of shrubs was not so much likely to be invisible as he was to be ignored. Sitting thus, sometimes for what seemed hours, pencil poised, you longed for things to write in your notebook, things worth writing down and looking at later, remembered with a sense of importance. For a time, when you were eight or so, you were so eager to write things in your notebook that out of desperation you began keeping count of the cars that traversed your street, thinking how exciting this was becoming when you were able to include a record of cars with non-California license plates. There was also a time when you decided to see how many numbers you could manage to fit on the page of a notebook, beginning with one, then two, then...leaving you when you had filled the page with numbers a sense of having something unspeakably wonderful, a record of numbers. You were filled for days with the excitement of knowing how many numbers could be made to fit on a notebook page, a miracle your father made even more miraculous for you by suggesting you could get more numbers on a page if you used numerals. If there were no things such as ideas or facts to write in notebooks, there were numbers to fall back on. The excitement of the numbers did not last long because there was yet another way to fill notebook pages. The list of cars passing your street gave no hint of who was driving the car, Day by day, the lists grew. Man driving car. Lady driving car. Man and lady in car. Lady with two kids. Lady with two fighting kids. Lady in car with dog.
You did not see the potential for stories in numbers although one of your school mates said you would quickly see a story in numbers if you understood the distance between stars or the distance between earth and moon and sun. Exciting, yes, but in a sense too late for stories in numbers, too late until you began to see the stories in the numbers in your checkbook.
Thus were you launched into considering the who and how many and, later, even the why of persons in cars and how they looked, and, of course, where they might be going.
Friday, September 11, 2009
The Molly story is definitely the arrival of you back on the plateau or the mesa, having overrun it like Wile E. Coyote some years back and spiraling downward to the ground below. Thus you were beginning to form an affinity for said Mr. Coyote, seeing in him many of your own qualities and traits. The Molly story is, appropriately enough, about a character who has become your alter ego, your fictional self. The story is also an absurdist vision. Who among us would think to begin a story with the character goal of stealing the dog of a close friend, then proceeding to raise the dog as his own? You could say the conceit was a satire on those unhinged ladies who risked stealing someone else's child in order to raise it and, thus, have one of her own. You are far enough along the path of self-knowledge to recognize that this interpretation never once ocurred to you.
Most of your stories since "Molly" have involved animals, particularly dogs, but in some cases cats, perhaps reaching full-out thematic force with the story of an actor who discovers he is being tolerated among a group of friends not because of who he is but because of his dog. True enough, there is the story of someone who, more or less, you fear you might, if not careful, become, a man who is turned away at the animal shelter, after having picked a cat to adopt, that he is not a cat person. Bureaucratic and societal themes play out for you as absurdities; individuals who recognize in themselves the disposition of a loner, then wish to take some step forth to close the gap of being a loner, are often your principals, and now you are toying with yet another notion that intrigues you, the same alter ego you from "Molly" finding himself in a managed living circumstance, perhaps the nearby Casa Dorinda, being engaged as an investigator by clients who are also residents there. Because the grounds of Casa Dorinda are so sumptuous and the costs and maintenance fees so extraordinary, the irony of such titles as The Secrets of Casa Dorinda resides within you and would need some building and dimension to have meaning to anyone else, but nevertheless, there it is, in effect wagging its metaphorical tail at you: What secrets could the very wealthy have that would be of any interest?
The answer is all too clear: Where ever they reside, secrets are sources of intrigue and curiosity. The secrets of the wealthy are every bit as human in quality and implication as the secrets of the very poor, and thus how about a humble, perhaps even illegal alien, worker, a maid or gardener, approaching your protagonist investigator with a Case, which he or she is willing to pay for, of course, not wanting something for nothing, then digging into a wallet or pocket to extract five rumpled hundred-dollar bills as a retainer. Secrets. Investigate the landscape in which my secrets are buried.
The mystery or suspense novel has long been simultaneously my magnet and gravamen. Like someone out in the cold too long, I huddle over the suspense novel, palms extended to catch the warmth.
Keep thinking absurdity, absurdity. Then feel it all about you.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Excuses for not working:
1. Just finished something, casting about for a new project.
2. Didn't feel like it, which really means Wasn't enthused about anything.
3. No good ideas today, which really means Didn't feel like thinking anything through.
4. Can't concentrate.
5. Computer troubles, which really means Didn't feel like using pen and ink, ballpoint, or pencil.
6. The dog ate my computer.
7. Too much extraneous stuff to do, which really means I was so not into writing that I took on more than I could hope to get done.
8. I hate all my ideas.
9. One day won't make any difference, which really means, Or so you hope.
10. I don't care for the direction publishing is taking, which really relates back to #3.
11. I'm bummed because someone stole my idea, which means someone got something published that you would have come close to writing had you actually thought of it in the first place.
12. Dramatic things don't happen to me.
And just for extra measure:
13. I became badly frightened yesterday when I took a chance on something and it got beyond my control.
I don't know of any area of endeavor, painting, sculpting, acting, photography, music (playing and or composing) where the principal, the one who engages in such endeavor, expects such immediate results as the writer expects. By immediate results I mean publication, review, and transportation to the purpose driven life of being able to write every day with the notion that the work will lead directly to a completed, worthwhile project by which the writer is able to make a comfortable living. Comfort is a definite factor with such things as the right sized shoes, the mattress with the proper degree of support, a living area neither too cold not too hot. Comfort is not so definite with ideas that pop forth like frozen meals, leaving us little opportunity to reach or scratch or experience fear or boredom.
The ideal writer is one who has to sneak time in on meaningful projects while possibly snatching forth a living by writing organizational newsletters or serving as a crossing guard or possibly even having to do the kind of journalism that merely reports results, The Los Angeles County egg market closed higher today, The County Board of Supervisors met today to approve a budget. That sort of thing, which leaves you waiting for events to conclude rather than setting forth events of your own devising, orchestrated to fly in the face of all the excuses listed above, which in their own way carry a truth about them you understand even if you cannot fully articulate what you mean by truth. You could try plausibility or a convincing replication of reality in which you are fooling yourself and others. That might work. That might border on story--interesting enough story to draw writer and reader along on the quirky tides of the imagination.
To put it another way, the writer who wishes more time to write, the artist to paint or draw, the sculptor to sculpt, the musician to play or compose does need time but also needs some other awareness or connection to life and event to act as a ballast, a subtext if you will. None of it can exist in a vacuum
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
One of the things a student is most eager to secure from you is that mysterious-to-you word, feedback. Another thing is approval. Yet another is even more perplexing--they want to know how to do a particular thing, to execute some technical bravura without being caught doing it; they want to know as though they assumed you could not only do it but instruct them how to do it, when the absolute truth is that if you can do it, you do it through muscle memory. (When, for instance, you do anything, say punctuation, through anything but muscle memory, it emerges as tedious and academic and learned, three qualities which speak to you as tedious and boring, qualities you hope always to avoid.)
Sure: feedback=response, but there is something of despair in the way they ask if you have any of it, as though there is something transformative about it, something that will lead them to the plateau of publication and acceptance. There is so much anguish in the way they ask you if you have any of it for them. The most acute degree is when they say, "Professor Lowenkopf, do you have any feedback for me?" Next in line is the more tentative, "I was hoping for some feedback," followed by "So, what did you think?" What I think is that feedback somehow conflates with acid reflux or a meal such as a Whopper from the Burger King on campus, eaten too hastily, images I have to set aside when the queries are put to me.
Approval often surprises me. When I begin speaking or writing, I am generally neutral. There are exceptions, particularly when I see a project continuing in the literary equivalent of AMA (against medical advice, as in a patient wanting to discharge himself/herself from a hospital contrary to doctor's recommendations) or when I have had advance reason to expect with tingling anticipation the work in hand. Sometimes it sneaks up, overcoming, perhaps even overwhelming me the way a work does when it begins buzzing at first, like a cell phone set on vibrate only, then morphing into full-out resonance.
It is always surprising when they ask me how to do a particular thing, not because I don't try things myself but because of the way I've morphed into letting the story or the narrative tell me what to do, giving it the freedom and responsibility to tell itself, my only responsibility the one of revising until the entire thing feels right. Once again, if they use my title as a preface, Professor Lowenkopf, is it all right if I..? then I fall back on my standard trope, "Don't get caught."
All of which makes me wonder about my own motives for teaching, as in, am I doing this as payback for those who knowingly or not taught me, merely for the income stream (which opens an interesting question about me and income streams in the first place) or the more likely and selfish one that I teach in order to teach myself. The latter makes the most sense, particularly because the same thing has happened with teaching that happens with story: I do it in order to get it to feel right and in the process come to love the process, whether the process is story or students. The same thing is true with editing in that I've had to edit things I was not in love with and have come to respect at the outcome. (A notable type of exception was my recent experience having for some years tried to impress Brian Fagan with the notion of a book on the Cro-Magnon, which has evolved into the best book he has ever written and the best I have edited.)
The message or, if you will, the outcome, is the awareness that what begins as self-interest has down stream consequences of concern for others, particularly others I may not even know.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
When Tim O'Brien set forth on his writer's journey to provide us with The Things They Carried, he was prescient in ways we could only experience at the time of first reading as a tingle of mammalian anticipation. He was defining us and our complex amalgam of thought, intent, and feeling, representing us as we were from the Ice Age and earlier, through the recent past of the misbegotten Vietnam War, and tipping us into what we have evolved into.
The characters in The Things They Carried tote about government issue ordinance as well as things transported from home or sent them from home, things that define who they are, their approximate military and social ranking and their states of emotional development. To that last, you might even include the stage of their emotional and intellectual development. By focusing on the individual tool kit, O'Brien broke ground in demonstrating how the tool kit reflected its user, the thing or things defined the person as surely and deftly as the fingerprint identifies the carrier.
We no longer question the uniqueness of the fingerprint; it imprints our identity on whatever we touch, a lingering pattern of our presence in a place, our use of a thing, perhaps even our admiration of a thing. We have been presented with growing evidence that our DNA is in a larger sense than mere fingerprint a record of our presence in the world as a sensate being, a metaphoric ATM receipt of our having lived. Soon the matter will become even more expansive: some forensic anthropologist or archaeologist will be able to pick an iPod or iPhone from a group of similar devices and, after a few moments of checking such things as phone numbers, text messages, photos, music, and even the choice of aps (applications) will be able to provide a profile of the uniqueness of us, leaving us to conclude that the iPhone or iPod is indeed the fingerprint writ large because of the fact that the device will have that element, too, the fingerprint, as if to nail down the deal by assuring our identity.
It is no great leap of imagination to posit a time when all of us will have built into our iPhone or iPod an ap that contains our medical history, making it possible for us to connect in yet another way with yet other useful sources. It requires a bit more of a leap to posit a personal or emotional record which we could share, say, with a prospective mate, effectively precluding the lengthy surveys required by on line dating and mating services. Wanna compare emotes? Emote being emotional profiles. Before we date, our iPods date.
Truth--what a funny and difficult word to describe--to tell, we all of carry with us our tool kit of self, using portions of it to get us from precipitous ledge of existence to the next existential precipitous ledge, and although iPhones and iPods are great fun (the pod more so because it does not require a monthly fee) we have in our original tool kits all the aps we need, just as our Cro-Magnon forbears did. This is not at all Luddite; I have no wish to return to the simpler ways, not when I can simultaneously carry about the complete piano works of Maurice Ravel or hear the lush landscapes of Frederick Delius nor the sublime late quartets of Beethoven or the soaring solos of John Coltrane or the stunning inventiveness of Art Tatum; not when I can quickly find my place in Twelfth Night or a mind candy thriller. It always comes down to the lowest common denominator, the use we make of our tools in the search for who we are and how to navigate who we are across the forests of existential night.
It would be splendid to be able to access the Ap Store whereby to download the greatest tool of all, empathy, then set forth to discover if empathy has fingerprints that can be left as traces of having handled it.
Monday, September 7, 2009
There is no magic, only apparent magic, which is to say illusion.
There is no work except for chores and activities that are not play, an equation that forces you to conclude that you must find illusions to make the work seem more like play and the play at your craft seem more like work.
There have been times when you have done both, work and play; times when you only worked, and times when you only played. When the play began to seem like work, you knew it was time to move on to something else and, indeed, tried such stratagems as work, study, practice, even imitation. In an irony, work only brought you into conditions where you thought, spoke, and acted on the very play you had ridden into a dead end; you were now teaching about writing and you were editing writing of others. Although both of these were still work, you became curious enough about each to decide you would like to become proficient enough in each to make them as well become play for you. The clock began ticking. You could only teach up to the point where you had begun to discover that writing was no longer play. Worse yet, you could only edit up to the point of being effective up to the point where--you guessed it--writing was no longer play. If you did not improve all three, you would soon catch up to yourself, reaching the point where not only writing was work but teaching and editing as well.
Back to the one thing that was not work. Reading. Once again you read, working only when you needed money to support your habits. Read, thought, was able to begin practicing again.
Through this process you become increasingly less mainstream and in another irony less likely and simultaneously more likely to move from having to work to being able to play as you wish, becoming, if you will, more removed from your statistical relationship via age and other demographic to the society in which you live. The very qualities you practice make you less a fit, more out of step, more likely to attract attention as a person on the margin. There are times, playful times to be sure, when you see yourself as one of the wretches in a Dostoyevski novel, slightly mad about the edges, going forth, looking, reading not merely books but landscapes, either those to inhabit or those to avoid.
You have evolved slowly to a happy, optimistic individual who experiences bouts of cynical despair then sets about finding some transformative writing project that will readjust the landscape for a time.
Hindus often use the term maya to reference illusion. The more devout the Hindu the more he or she works (or plays) on the theory that only God is real, all else is illusory. Thus you hear from them, It's all maya. All illusion, except...
There is just enough wisdom in Hinduism to stop short of defining the reality that is God because, they continue, once you do you have limited God by giving it form and purpose and quality and who are you to do these things? If you wish to lead the religious life, pick some particular form or aspect of God and attempt to see it. But be aware that there are all these other aspects which you have not recognized. Best approach is to treat everything as though it were God.
You, as you look for play, take some heart from your Hindu friends and from that crazy Hindu poet, Ramprasad, but as well from that equally crazy Yeats and Hopkins, and not to forget e.e. Cummings or, for that matter, Albert Goldbarth, and treat everything as though it were the playful illusion of writing.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Time now to turn the light of inquiry squarely on yourself, reminding you as you do so of the many film noir scenes you've watched at various stages of your life in which one or more detectives was attempting to lead a suspect along the perilous border running between the landscape of guilt and the loftier one of exculpation. The inquisitor may or may not have had a hunch or gut feeling about the relative guilt or innocence of the accused. He may also have had the cynicism that allowed the belief that all of us are guilty of something. Or, as some of my lawyer friends have said as the level in the bottle declined, My clients all lie to me in some degree or another. The inquisitor may simply be doing a job that runs on the duality of guilt and innocent--suspects are one or the other. Questioning them will bring you and them to one conclusion or the other. No middle ground.
Thus the question: How reliable a narrator are you? This followed with: Can your account of an event be trusted? Add to this the follow-up: Have you a motive or agenda that will color your narration?
The answer to the latter is an emphatic yes. My motive is to amuse, to inform, to cause suspenseful apprehension, to surprise. Much as I admire Stephen King, I do not seek to emulate his intent of frightening the reader, although I do not think frightening the reader to be an unworthy aim.
I write in the spirit of observation, energized by the growing involvement in that observation, finding in it meaning and satisfaction from the truths, untruths, layers of meaning and intent that become apparent as I go. Of course I present questions to these invented characters and situations, thinking they too should squirm in situations as I have squirmed, sometimes in later recognition of how wrong or foolish I was, other times in amazement at what I have learned from a simple transaction.
Guilt and innocence are neither my pole stars nor my cynical quotas, nor do right and wrong call out to me for representation or dramatization; all these are merely settings within a larger landscape of experience and behavior. Guilt, innocence, right, and wrong are merely costumes the characters wear while performing their parts in the larger drama of trying to get things done and of their attitudes and composure when confronting the true guiding forces of story--consequence. Take away their routine, their status, and their dignity, then see how they respond, then start writing because then the story has begun.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
I first came to Mark Twain through the usual entryways of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, intent only on the kinds of adventure attractive to boys of my age, and with no immediate thought of following Twain through the doors of the literary life, although the memory does persist of my asking a fifth grade teacher if one might actually make a living in such a manner. Mrs. DeAngelo replied with her characteristic understatement wrapped in a boxing glove, "Twain seemed to have done well enough for himself, but you have nothing in common with him and you have that funny California accent."
That encounter seemed to have planted at least one seed. I resolved to get myself somehow back to California, where I would not appear to have an accent, and I resolved to follow Twain, which in some ways at least I did.There were a few other ventures into Twain fiction, notably Tom Sawyer Detective, and Puddin'head Wilson, but I was not pushed entirely through the door of my life's calling until shortly after my thirteenth birthday, when I was gifted with a book still in my possession, a large, inexpensive compendium of Twain's work, including Tom and Huck and Connecticut Yankee as well as several of the sketches, the text of some speeches, and large portions of one of the most magesterial and remarkable works I had ever read (and to this day dip into with soaring admiration and enjoyment).
By this time, I had read enough Twain and comments about him to be sure I had found a sturdy companion as well as text book in this volume, enthusing from time to time on the spot on drama and cultural accuracy of:
"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service -- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll -- "
She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.
"I never did see the beat of that boy!"
This was revelation, pure and simple, launching me into the landscape into which I desired launching, each time I picked up a book. If I could learn the reasons why this opening was so precise, so transformative and transportational, I might, indeed, get the hang, as Twain did, of making a living from story telling.
The revelation grew with my own emerging education as I learned the more subtle nuances resident in Huck Finn.
"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.
"Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece -- all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round -- more than a body could tell what to do with..."
This was Tom Sawyer with a voice, which meant the narrator's voice, which meant you could pick your narrator because of his or her voice, and you were no longer stuck onto the age but could fly forth from it, as it were, splattering itself all over the white shirt of credulity worn by the reader. You could make the reader feel that someone finally understood you, got you, knew the forces that shaped who you were and why you did what you did.
In an epiphany of understanding, as you grasped the importance of this magesterial work, the enormity of what lay ahead of you was shown to you in a vision that has never completely left you.
"The Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world -- four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope -- a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.
"It is a remarkable river in this: that instead of widening toward its mouth, it grows narrower; grows narrower and deeper. From the junction of the Ohio to a point half way down to the sea, the width averages a mile in high water: thence to the sea the width steadily diminishes, until, at the 'Passes,' above the mouth, it is but little over half a mile. At the junction of the Ohio the Mississippi's depth is eighty-seven feet; the depth increases gradually, reaching one hundred and twenty-nine just above the mouth.
The difference in rise and fall is also remarkable -- not in the upper, but in the lower river. The rise is tolerably uniform down to Natchez (three hundred and sixty miles above the mouth) -- about fifty feet. But at Bayou La Fourche the river rises only twenty-four feet; at New Orleans only fifteen, and just above the mouth only two and one half.
An article in the New Orleans Times-Democrat, based upon reports of able engineers, states that the river annually empties four hundred and six million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico -- which brings to mind Captain Marryat's rude name for the Mississippi -- 'the Great Sewer.' This mud, solidified, would make a mass a mile square and two hundred and forty-one feet high.
"The mud deposit gradually extends the land -- but only gradually; it has extended it not quite a third of a mile in the two hundred years which have elapsed since the river took its place in history. The belief of the scientific people is, that the mouth used to be at Baton Rouge, where the hills cease, and that the two hundred miles of land between there and the Gulf was built by the river. This gives us the age of that piece of country, without any trouble at all -- one hundred and twenty thousand years. Yet it is much the youthfullest batch of country that lies around there anywhere..."
You will or won't recognize this as the opening paragraphs to Life on the Mississippi. These paragraphis are presented with a voice as avuncular and respectful as, say, the voice of the late Walter Cronkheit, embodying the actual personality of the river, giving to the page a sense of the River's life, its reach, its enormous appetites, its personality, its graceful stature, its seemingly inherent sense of being the most elegant monster, a Leviathan with courtly style and manners.
It has been a long time since you first beheld those words and those that came after it, realizing in slow degree that the book is only about the Mississippi River in subtext; this is a plangent, remarkable memoir of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, emerging in many ways as Huck Finn, appearing for all the world to see a good deal other than what was intended--the heart, soul, and creative swagger of the man who wrote it and who found his voice and swagger right there on the river.
These early paragraphs remind you of an emblazoned moment from your fourth year, when your father took you to a posh jewelry store on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, whereupon he advanced you to a concave window, directed your attention to a wrist watch on display, then told you to reach in to claim it. You were only too happy to comply and accordingly only too frustrated when your hand struck the obstacle of glass instead of the object of your pursuit. Over your mother's complaints that this was a terrible thing your father was doing, your father bade you to always consider things that appeared to be in your grasp, things too easily taken without effort.
For years you did not conflate your father's words with Mark Twain's words about how statistics, particularly dry statistics, could be used to convince individuals of realities that were not in fact realities but rather fantasies or deliberate distortions. Even now you are amused at how long it has taken you to question some of Twain's statistics and figures, particularly because you knew that he had once been a pilot on steamboats plying that Mississippi River so elegantly brought to life in Life on the Mississippi. You are amused by the past times you have been taken in by Twain, and reckon you have once again been taken by this outpouring of statistics and comparisons.
Make no mistake about it, Twain knew that river as few others did,its turns, tides, and shoals, its reefs, its depths and banks. Steering steamships up and down its miles of meander and whim, he developed an intimacy with it of staggering compass, causing him to walk with the lover's swagger and dress with the captain's cap, cutaway coat, and tie. Few men were as equipped to speak of it as he, allowing for the reach of analogy that Mark Twain knew of the Mississippi as Honore St. John Crevecoeur or Alexis de Toqueville knew of the emergant America. Few men were so mischievous as Twain, and thus, recalling across the distant years your father's words, you look at the concave windows separating you from jewelry shop and text, bidding you to look at things that appear within your grasp and look at them closely, lest you be taken in and brought to the frustration of the illusion.