Monday, November 30, 2009

Ghosts in the Book Shelves

There is a kind of bi-polarity connected with writing, playing out to provide you with a stream of new ideas and receptors while you have already chosen a project and moved along its orbit.  These new ideas and receptors that bring you distracting sensations are energizing; you fill notebooks, index cards, the backs of credit card receipts, even, to the amusement of one clerk at the 1-hour Martinizing Dry cleaners, the back of receipts for shirts and pants sent forth to be laundered and such.  

The down side seems to come when you have poured your last bit of enthusiasm into a project, brought it to a close, set it in cold storage for a time before revision and copyediting.  You had better, you think, retrieving the project from cold storage and removed the wrappings, edit with care, fine-tune the copyediting because--here it comes--this is the last thing you will ever write.  All those other scribblings while you were finishing this?  Ah well, they were mere flashes in the night sky, lights from distant stars.  This piece you hold before you is surely the last.  You can feel it's valedictory call, ave atque vale.  You may now take up building models or taking photographs or reading.

While you were finishing a project a month or so back, you came upon an overlooked volume in your shelves, something you had not looked at for some years.  This was the approaching week for you to review what you call a Golden Oldie.  Thus you picked up, as though for the first time, D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, which you fell upon with a whoop and a holler because this reminded you of the part of Lawrence you'd forgotten.  Having spent so much time reading and thinking about his short stories, you forgot what freshness he brought to the cannon of American voices.  Simply put, you were moved by Studies to presume to write volume 2, in which you would pick a dozen or so voices which "came after" the Lawrence panoply.

Digging into your Moleskine, you find at least two tentative lists of authors who illustrate the American Literature you are talking about.  Of Course there is Twain, Erdrich, Harrison, Le Guinn, Didion, Urrea.  You are back and forth about Roth.  Ah, but here is a name you interestingly enough  picked from the same shelf on which you previously kept the Lawrence.  Leslie A. Fiedler.  You'd been up until nearly twelve, finishing your review on the new Ha Jin collection and thought not to get much beyond a page or two, but it came to you in one of the manic bolts:  Fiedler begins where Lawrence leaves off.  Not only does Fiedler work through Twain, he knocks American criticism on its end.  In the bargain, he may very well allow you to leave Roth out of the calculus.

Your reading materials for the nonce will be Love and Death in the American Novel, Fiedler's magnum opus, although there are quite a few others of his that must be digested as well.  Amazon has already shipped Empson's Seven Kinds of Ambiguity, which can help you refine your reading approach.  Amazon has also shipped another work you'd thought to read for fun since you have a long history with it, but oh, my, the manic sparks are flying and there may another line drawn through a writer you admire but perhaps not enough for volume two of Studies.  In her (Patricia Highsmith) stead, you are beginning to think about an audacious ad, Smith.  The Smith being Thorne Smith, the book underway from Amazon being Rain in the Doorway.

Interesting way to begin a week, thinking on the manic side of the coin.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanks for the Memory

Another of life's great conundrums is the one related to your own past experiences, of which you feel comfortably familiar, even to the point of prefacing some observations to friends with the meme, "I've probably told you this before..." The subtext is always memory.

You frequently feel so comfortable with your past that you have become deferential to those about you when discussing it, almost to the point of, "Yeah, I did that." or "I liked it there, too."  Comfort also means you think twice or perhaps even three times about inflicting your past on anyone else until there is a clear, valid opening.

With that set-up in place, your quotients of comfort and deference become challenged when you are reminded of things you did or said in the past that you do not remember.  This is particularly telling since you are reputed to have an extraordinary memory, which is in your own opinion more quirky than extraordinary, evidenced by the fact that you can remember stories of students from your past, or some arcane fact that, while accurate, has no real bearing on anything useful to you.

In a realistic way, when it comes to memory, you are indeed your parents' son.

"Say," your father would muse aloud, "what ever happened to--" at which point your mother would interrupt with an exasperated, "Oh, Jack, he's been dead for ten years," and your father would, with equal exasperation, respond, "Not him, I mean the man who was married to--"  Another sigh.  "He wasn't her first husband, you know."  "Right.  He used to be married to what's-her-name, whose father owned the furniture stores."  "They were lighting fixture stores."  "Not him!  I mean that place where you got the sofa that had mice in it."   They could--and did--go on like that for several minutes, all to your wishing you could get the rhythms, pauses, growing sense of increased impatience, which even then you recognized had nothing to do with each other but rather each with a personal irritation about the way the past has or morphing into something that leaves you wondering which version of it is correct.

Story is such a convenient, human trait.  We are drawn to individuals who tell them well, whether the telling is simply their way of verbalizing an event in which we were present (and now see differently through the telling), making us wish we were there, causing us to fictionalize to the point where we now believe we were there.  We are drawn to individuals whose life appears to us to be a story in progress, with little time for narrative leaps.  Sometimes, in reflective moments, we seek to inject story into portions of our life that seem in retrospect to have been uneventful.  We stand as Yeats stood in his poem,"Among School Children:"

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Home: What Dorothy Thought She Wanted and What She Got

 It is said that you cannot go home again, which is a fair enough warning and a dramatic enough duality for the writer to be aware of, but in mitigation, it is a good idea to consider from time to time why one would want to go home again and an altogether other reason to consider what happens to you when you move from there to where ever it is you have moved.  It becomes even more intriguing to consider individuals who because of their careers or romantic allegiance move from place to place.

Welcome to the world of the carpetbagger, the summer resident, the other, the alien.  It is a world that begins somewhere within the human genome, its recognition spreading when one of our own goes off to school and comes back with a strange accent or no accent or a strange mannerism, or merely expectations.

You first became aware if it when you were plunked into the midst of the New York/New Jersey accent, which among other things had people, even teachers dropping terminal g's on gerunds, significantly not being able to pronounce words of Spanish derivation, and favoring Gulden's mustard over French's, Hellman's mayonnaise over Best Foods.  It was you being thought of as the person who had the accent, as in, you talk funny.  It was your own father, introducing you to something you would never forget when he turned on the radio one afternoon and told you to listen closely.  There are few things to compare with a baseball game being called by Walter Lanier "Red" Barber.  In later years, you would admire Mel Allen for his timbre and Phil Rizzutto for his twang, but these were Yankee announcers and you listened to them for something other than the context of baseball.  And true enough, Vin Scully is mellifluous and wise, but when baseball mattered to you, it was because of Red Barber.  You were able to go "home" again on that score when Bob Edwards of NPR would have a weekly hang out with Red Barber because hearing both men speak gave you the sense of being in the midst of an earnest conversation, where language was a game more splendid than baseball; those going home moments were for you what opera is for so many, revelations of feelings and incidents, interpretations of events that mattered because they were part of some essential calculus of being alive.

You became aware of not being able to go home again when you were in fact able to go home, to California, having been away to foreign lands of Massachussets and Rhode Island and New York and Florida.

Well enough, this is not meant as autobiography but as discovery.  The California you returned to was changed by an influx of people who had left their homes to come here, thus the change evoked in Los Angeles.  Soon enough, classmates left home to go to Harvard and Stanford and Berkeley, while you wanted, longed for UCLA and, just as you became aware of a shift in home base when some of your class mates wanted, actually longed for Los Angeles High School instead of the high school you attended, some of your acquaintances actually wanted to go to USC.

Movement and flux are as much a part of modern life as they were definitions of the foraging/hunting-gathering life.  You now see Los Angeles as something that has been done to the Los Angeles that was your home.  Indeed, at least one place you lived in Los Angeles is now something else, a row of condos with a swimming pool.  The nearby May Company Department store, where you were cautioned about playing in the foundations as it was being built is no longer May Company, it is LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,featuring on its web site a picture of the May Company as an historical feature.

When you are in Los Angeles now, it is not home, it is the place home has become; when you are there it is to teach in the very university you had no desire to attend.  Irony is heavy.  If you had been born in the city where you now live, you would have wanted to leave home to make your career in Los Angeles or New York, but shortly after you moved to where you now live, you were offered a job leading a publishing venture in Los Angeles, with the information that the company was moving to New York within two years and please do not take the job if you were not willing to move to New York.  You chose to remain where you are.  Two years later, you were in New York, entering  building on Third Avenue, where you met the man who'd offered you the job that would have moved you to New York.  "You should have come then,"  the man, whose name was Victor told you.

In his recent, elegant novel, Brooklyn, Colm Toibin portrays a young Irish girl whose home is in a small, tightly structured town in Ireland.  Her older sister maneuvers events so that the young girl must come to Brooklyn, where life changes her irrevocably, as she discovers when a major story point sends her back home to Ireland for an event.  She is seen differently, carrying the otherness and allure of America with her, making a man she could never have hoped to interest before decide he wanted to pursue her.

All a round-about way of saying that even though you do get home, home isn't home anymore, home is what you left, home is where you bring back what you have become, and what you have become has moved you along on a Darwinian escalator of change.  Since you are listening to cliches, home has become where the heart is.  Home is the place you yearn to be but may not in fact inhabit unless you learn the trick of time travel.  Home is the circumstances that you left to avoid; it may also be the place to which you return, tail tucked in glorious failure between your legs.  Home is the place to which you return after having seen New York and Los Angeles and now are glad to be back to whom and whatever it is you are back for.

Home is the place every character has cached away within the heart.  Wherever the character is located in a particular story or chapter, that character is delineated by a home he or she has left, remained in, or returned to face certain consequences.

6145 1/2 Orange Street, Los Angeles, California no longer exists.  You can park on the street, near the tree where you so often played, looking at what is there and experiencing the sense of reality having shifted on you; home has changed.  For a time you can fly model airplanes from the balcony, you can recall the back yard where you were invited into your first serious, remarkable kiss with the flame-haired Elise Bernstein, who made you swear you would always remember, because now that you had kissed, you could share the same Popsicle, which was always better than not having someone with whom to share a Popsicle.

Home is where the heart is; it is where you observe how the world around you works, and how people expect things from it, a place where you learn secret languages so that you can speak directly to your heard and find out what the hell it wants from you.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Good Old Days before We Knew

While it took an unusual and selfish set of circumstances to snag your interest in humankind's earliest incarnations, your interest has held, even persisted, particularly to the point where you are able to be "there" with them to some degree, sense at least some of their day-to-day concerns, sympathize with the constant need to be on the move, respect their intelligence, and admire their humanity.

The unusual and selfish circumstances come from a short story in the works, lost when that great organ of a computer's interior, the hard drive, crashed.  That was some twenty years ago.  No artifacts or copies of the story have emerged except for names of characters, even some of the actual circumstances which begin in an intriguing enough manner when a hunting party not of the hunting clan--freelancers or wildcatters, as it were--claimed to have brought down a huge woolly mammoth.  The provenance of the animal and its ultimate cause of death were called into dispute by the women set to butcher the animal.  It was alleged by the women to be road kill, by no means fresh.

Because you have sought to retrieve the energy of the story and bring it to a satisfying conclusions, perhaps you will. More to the immediate point is the notion shared in various ways by members of the society of the story, Cro-Magnons all, that the world was going to hell in a hand basket.

They had not yet found cause to invent what we of today would think of a hand basket, but they most certainly had a sense that the world, while filled with some wonders to behold, was not offering anyone a free ride nor was to entirely be trusted.

And so it goes throughout our time line as a species; the world about us, probably because of us, provides us with a level of consternation and bafflement, different from the Cro-Magnon, but proportionally as robust.

The men and women who tried through history to cope with these levels of consternation and bafflement have variously been canonized, insulted, burned at the stake, elected to public office, sentenced to prison, and given platform on television.

The men and women who throughout history have accepted uncomfortable circumstances as their lot have largely proceeded with suspicion and cynicism as they essayed the murky politics of living.

We are a large, boisterous, unruly race, given to behavior that makes our neighbors count their young in alarm and their savings in suspicion; it is seemingly impossible for us to get along with one another just as it is impossible for us to prosper without one another.  It seems that insurmountable issues arise like mushrooms in the sod, causing us to rail at one another over such topics as guns, abortion, racial prejudice,tribalism, religion, fluoridated drinking water, global warming, and evolution.

As writers, many of us see the larger picture, that each character believes he is right.  This is comforting to the extent that it allows some potential for point of view, but as persons, some of us believe in original sin to the point where we accept not only the fact our our own sin but the absolute certainty of yours.  There are as well those who want quits of the notion of sin, and of course those who wish us to tremble in fear of its consequences.  It is all somewhat of a piece with the discovery that the foodstuffs that taste best are those with the most fat, salt, or sugar, an awareness that makes us year for the good old days when sin of that sort was beyond our understanding.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Some Thanksgiving Thoughts on Illegal Immigration

At the moment of writing, there is what you might call an infestation of squatters, noisily partaking of their Thanksgiving feast on and in various parts of your body.  They were not invited but that is of no matter.  They are probably viral in nature and although you are several removes from the likes of St. Francis or Dr. Schweitzer, you bear them no malice because of their viral nature; more to the point they are uninvited.  They were not asked to participate and thus with every chomp from them, for every call for seconds or to send the stuffing down to this end of the table, you are increasingly more appalled by their audacious presence.

They have been here before, sometimes in other, even more viral forms and you have sent them packing.  True enough, the last time you required some help from a splendid and talented surgeon/urologist, but that was then and these squatters are rowdies in comparison, but nevertheless pesky.

This may make it sound as though you take a hard line on undocumented virus, but far from it.  There are any number of squatters doing nicely on your landscape and you wish you had the time to get to know them in some closer way than you do.  Even in your cranky and smoldering cholers of the moment, you understand that there are some organisms that have migrated to you, even had families, that are, as you are, in for the long haul and have common goals.

This is the time of year much favored by writers because it is the beginning of a season where families and friends gather to celebrate the significant joys of being alive, about, and together.  Writers know that these gatherings may also involve another aspect of the human condition, which is to say politics.  Uncle Fred tends to drink a bit and complain about a football game, Aunt Mildred steadfastly refuses to try anything new in the way of stuffing ingredients, and growing numbers of nieces and nephews dramatize their issues with animal-related foodstuffs, tucking righteously into a gelid cube of tofu or reminding said Uncle Fred or Aunt Mildred that Jell-o does indeed contain animal parts, which makes it a no-no.  These may be times of great trauma, of devoutly wished never-again resolutions for family gatherings, but these moments are also a part of love, companionship, and, dare you suggest it, grace.  What would Thanksgiving be without Aunt Mildred's intransigence or Uncle Fred's tipply remembering the days when the Chicago Bears were a football team to be reckoned with.

As far as your own squatters are concerned, you have downed such pharmacopeia as you could manage, all in some way geared to get them out on the streets where they must fend for themselves. At the risk of seeming smug about it, you wish the rest of you a happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Can any Writer Who Likes Publishing Be All Bad?

As you observed with what you considered cogent appropriateness in your review of John Grisham's latest publication, Ford County, those same stories, submitted by any other writer, or even under a pseudonym, would have not made their way through the editorial process into contract, scheduling, and publication.  Grisham is some distance away from being among your favorites; you mostly get his work when Barnaby Conrad passes them along to you in a set of CDs or in virtual publication (thus was it appropriate for you to give him your copy of Ford County).  He is, on the other hand, a favorite if not the favorite of many hundreds of thousands of readers.  Also, he is a writer of some narrative skills, knowing among other things how to delineate a character (although not always with great success) and having more than a speaking acquaintance with such dramatic tropes as conflict, reversal, and surprise.  You suspect--but do not know this for a fact--that he has learned how to listen to editorial suggestions.

You had a brief association with another such writer, Louis L'Amour, when you were sent to attempt him to leave his then publisher, Bantam, to join the publisher you represented, Dell.  L'Amour's writing style was, to be charitable, clunky, but he knew how to tell a story and his passion for research and history was stunning.  You learned an important technical construct from him which,in subsequent years (and at the risk of vainglory) you have incorporated into your own toolkit as one of its significant strengths--how, when, and where to begin a story.

Both Grisham and L'Amour have enjoyed sales in the millions, meaning readers seek their works, not just once but again and again.

This fact alone makes it possible for you to posit that they were ultimately published and continue now, over twenty years since L'Amour's death (1988), on the basis of their names.  Building on that foundation, an author should be published because of who he or she is, which is to say he or she has found a particular voice (Grace Paley, anyone?)with which to deal with and depict the dramatic life going on about him or her.

A literary agent phoned you just the other day to tell you that the publishing industry was going through some major revisions and overhauls, which let you know immediately he had no interest in trying to sell a particular project of yours, and indeed, you caused him no little discomfort when, after he told you of the problems within publishing, that you were sorry he didn't think he could place your project.  

You learned some years back when as an editor, someone wanted you to look at her manuscript, which Publisher A really liked and would have published if there hadn't been such a major paper shortage in effect at the time.  Since this happened in your office, you called Perkins & Squire, your primary paper supplier and asked how long it would be for them to deliver a carload of sixty-pound basis weight matte finish long-grain white bulking at 360 pages per inch (a by no means uncommon order) to your principal manufacturer, Kingsport Press.  Have that out for you in about a week, came the reply.

You do not believe you were being cruel to the writer because, in fact, you wanted the project and offered to take it on provided she accepted the bulk of your development memo.  But you have in subsequent years met writers who were led to believe that their work might have been published except for some act of God, some hitch in the publishing industry, which has always been vulnerable to change and disaster by virtue of what it was, is, and will continue to be in the future.

It is essential to learn dramatic construction just as it is important for an artist to learn human and animal anatomy, but it is also important to learn to write as yourself so that you are not mistaken for another or, for that matter, so that you are not considered so bland and formulaic that your writing becomes the literary equivalent of the art on the walls of Motel 6 suites.

You will never be published if they can find you in someone else.  Someone, I don't know why or why, is offering for sale on the Internet ( WALLS-GENEALOGY) an essay you wrote for a historical magazine (not by any means a journal, rather a pulp Western Historical magazine.  Heaven knows how he has packaged it, but he is selling if for $29.99, which is almost what you were paid for writing it in the first place.  Has he offered to split any of that $29.99 with you?  We won't go there; your point is that you published the work under your by-line.  Had the seller thought better of himself, he could have rewritten the material and perhaps sold even more copies on his own.

There will always be something wrong with publishing, but that is no reason to let it interfere with your enthusiasms and needs.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Another Day, Another Brick Wall

Yesterday at about two in the afternoon, you had a collision.  It was more inconvenient than annoying or painful.  You had at least a half cup of latte left in your porcelain cup and in the bargain, those about you at your favorite coffee shop were reading or just, as one sometimes does in a coffee shop, focusing on some inner place within the psyche, wondering how to accommodate itching it.

You have had these collisions before, with varying degrees of subsequent result.  This one came early in Chapter Six, where, having reached a critical point on which some sort of logic depended, you wisely decided to move away from the critical point to the point of view of another character.  She, alas, was alone, a situation you inveigh against at some length because having characters, even Hamlet's and Macbeth's and Henry Vs and such,means they must be given something to do to justify their presence.  You don't want to leave them alone for long because they tend to go interior on you, wondering things such as How IT all began or How She got into such a supreme pickle as this.

Your character had seen something which she was trying not to think had Cosmic import, thus she reminded herself of how important it was to remain rational:  the pulsing lights she saw every night at eleven were not cosmic, they were merely pulsing lights.  True enough, they in effect ARE merely pulsing lights that will be explained down the line as a group of squatters having found a way to bootleg power and TV connection, watching Charlie Rose, weeknights.  But no one knows this yet and the woman who sees the lights is trying to convince herself that they are merely lights.  You read through this, adding a word or two here, removing a few there, in effect revising as best you were able under the circumstances.

Although you are not what you would describe as a religious person, there is a concept within the culture into which you were born called The Ain Soph, the Divine Nothingness, across which the True Believer has no trouble casting him- or herself on a daily basis in the quest for understanding and connection.  There is one within the writer's credo as well in which the writer deliberately exacerbates,makes things worse beyond belief much less safety.  That sometimes involves such things as falling in love, wanting to accomplish something, pursuing a vision.

Over the years, you have collided with this Berlin Wall of logic and structure, rushing toward it at full speed, seeing the imminent contact but unwilling to take the foot off the accelerator because THAT is not the way this type of hitting the wall works.  Sometime, perhaps soon, perhaps not, an answer will appear, much like the pulsing lights this character in the early part of Chapter Six sees; you will remind yourself that it is the rational part of the Process, the writer's credo, that sometimes gives solutions, sometimes withholds them for some considerable time.

It matters that you like the project and the people caught up in it; you like them to the point where it seems you have stumbled on a book in a used book store with your name on it, written in a language you do not recognize.  This book is your only shot at the project and thus you must learn to translate this work from a language you do not recognize. There is a blurb on the back of the book, in English, assuring the reader that this is your break-through work, and so you would be foolish to set in back on the shelves,where someone else might want to pick it up.

One strategy to speed the message:  reread the first five chapters as though you were coming to them for the first time.

Another strategy:  wait.

Yet another:  remember, if it is to have the reach and bite you hope for, it is not likely to come easy.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Table for Two

The driving force in narrative is curiosity.
Reader and characters proceed to peer beyond what will happen, into the territory of what information will be revealed in the unfolding of an event.

Two individuals are having a conversation somewhere--or so the reader thinks at first blush.  Each of the two characters has come into the scene bearing the baggage of explosive previous encounters.  They have come to THIS place because it is neutral, with no associations for either of them.  They have brought with them the gifts of a resolve to be patient with one another, each purposeful in the intent to let the other finish thoughts, sentences, ideas.

We don't know the names, gender, ages, social rank of either and yet look at how much we already know about them.  The "Go-ahead" card is down on the table; each is determined to let the other go ahead and/or finish what is to be said.

We can begin to wrap other relevant data about the armatures of these two, data that will find its way with a snow-shoes-through-a-mine-field purpose and caution, learning more about each of the characters and feeling the tangible emotional climate as they proceed.

So long as we have been triggered toward suspicion, we can suspect they will once again escalate toward combustion because they have done so in the past.  WE may also feel the mounting tension because timing and pace have become important factors in the meeting.  

Though neither has an abundance of time, each is constrained by the be patient rule. Whatever the subject of conversation, we sense the control and deliberation being exercised to the point where it becomes a tangible tension.  

The subject may never be directly articulated, as with the conversation between the couple in the Hemingway story, "Hills Like White Elephants."  The subject at hand may also be--writer's choice--carefully spelled out to the point where the reader will wonder, What is it with these two? because there is a subtext shimmering there over the conversation like the ghost of a former lover.  

We may, of course, set off with a conclusion already in mind.  They are heading to combustion, perhaps to the point of not speaking again for some weeks or months to come--perhaps not ever again.  Having opted for this approach, we can set the conversation in motion with an agenda or agreed-upon result:  Did you bring the papers for me to sign?  

What a lovely, evocative line.  "Of course I brought the papers for you to sign.  That was the entire purpose of this meeting, wasn't it?"  What a lovely lagniappe to tack onto this simple sentence:  "What do you take me for?"  And now, the attitude-tinged response.  "Well."  Or, if you are the sort who prizes greater clarity:  "Well, I thought..."

The thing has evolved; we want to know.  Reader and writer, we want to know.  Let's start with the first thing we want to know:
"What's that supposed to mean?"

There is absolutely nothing unusual in this conversation, yet it carries agenda and implication crackling between the two characters much in the manner of the electricity between Richard and Anne in Richard III, Act One, Scene Two.

What will they do?  When and how will they do it?

We still know precious little about them.  Does it say anywhere that they are analogs of two trains, speeding toward one another on the same track?  So long as the conversation is on the table, a tension begins to grow until none of us, reader, writer, or characters can endure it.  And this is the point where we begin looking closely for the optimal point in the text to end the scene, a deed that may mean leaving out a line or an exchange that has become memorable with the texture of wit, but this is not about wit; it is about two unnamed individuals of indeterminate age, gender, and moral clarity, meeting to exchange dialogue.  

We barely know enough about either to determine who they are or what they want and what they might do to us.  They could be man and woman, woman and woman, man and man.  They could be former lovers, present-time lovers, parent and child.  The choice is entirely ours.  

We have set them loose to work their way across the whiteness of page, of computer screen, of the stage of the mind.  They are nameless but they are armed with two weapons that may pierce us to the quick, drama and dialogue.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Egg and I

You have written any number of things--essays, for instance, or news stories, or features, or short stories, novels, poems, critiques, and all those hundreds of reader's reports editors have to write in reference to submitted manuscripts--over a considerable span of time, enough so that you understand intellectually as well as through the viscera that some form of stimulus is necessary to come up with the words, then propel them forth in an attempt at coherence.  True enough, deadlines and job descriptions are somewhat to the rear of the line.  At the moment, your own favorite is enthusiasm, closely followed by curiosity.

There are times in the past (and now for that matter) when such cholers as revenge, anger, impatience, and setting the record straight rush to the head of the line, bullying their way in front of enthusiasm.  Another momentary favorite is deadline because the only deadline you have is for a weekly column for a newspaper with a circulation of about fifty thousand, and that deadline, although certainly an obligation, is quickly addressed by calling up the impressions of the book recently read, which brings forth a resident emotion (including enthusiasm) to propel the words and thoughts.

It is, in fact, the reading of such a book for review, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, by Aldous Huxley, that you are made aware of this concept of emotion or idea or both as catalytic agents for writing.  A man of unquestionable intelligence, wit, and enormous range of interests, he seems to you unable to write more than a paragraph without giving the impression that he cannot help himself from making connections, comparisons, explanations.  Even while telling a story, Huxley is explaining, educating, conjuring up associations that are like running footnotes to a scholarly text.  Somewhere in the last day or so, you recalled a contemporary, Christopher Isherwood, telling you how he, Isherwood, loved his characters while "Aldous loved the ideas his characters represent."

Barbara Kingsolver is of this sort, not only producing story but explaining to you some of the less obvious elements of them.  So, too, is Jane Smiley, and to a large extent, Francine Prose, although when writing fiction, Prose is more content to rely on the energetic effects of her own dramatic force. And not to forget Antonia S. Byatt, who practically kidnaps her readers, removes them to some remote encampment until she completes her narrative, then allows them to find their own way home.  At times in your long association with writing, you have in a real sense wanted to be as these writers were:  they are funny, insightful, stunningly able to connect seemingly disparate things and people.  What writer could ask for more?  Well, you, for instance could and do ask to entertain but not overwhelm, to transport but not to abandon on the outskirts of some remote concept.

It was never easy, being a writer.  Family, friends, associates seem always to be wondering when you are going to get a job or get serious or come to your senses.  Nor did it appear to satisfy them when the jobs you got, editor and teacher, focused on helping others become writers.  One individual likened you to the victim of a shipwreck, sitting on a small raft, helping other ship-wrecked individuals onto the same small raft, even pointing out that at the time you were swimming two miles a day.

Your response, which is different than a defense, is that it was never easy being a person.  There are those whose response to that existential conundrum is that they didn't ask to be born in the first place and were thus absolved from any of the responsibilities, obligations, and moral imperatives of being a person in a social setting.  You so much wanted to be a person that you swam faster than all those other cells, your metaphoric eye on that egg.  You in fact tried from time to time to become something else than a writer, let us say a responsible person who kept a budget, lived within his means, thought constructively, had long-range plans as well as short-range goals.  But these things largely seemed to baffle you when you stopped to think about their implications.

You still have the metaphoric eye on an egg that is also metaphoric, it is the meeting place of the idea, the feeling, the insight, and the connection, a convention center where delegates arrive in hope of sustenance, comfort, and continued enthusiasm for being that most difficult thing to be, a person--it is the egg of story.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Four Horses of the Writers' Apocalypse

Here's a write-in vote for ambiguity, which in a neat sort of dramatic justice, allows equal opportunity for the finger of justice to be wagged pointedly at any one of us.  Fond as I am of satire and toppling ignorance and pretentiousness from the table, my fondness is enhanced by the vulnerability of knowing I may very well be hoist by my own petard, trampled by my own righteous indignation, exposed naked in ignorance.  Innocence is only a half blush; ignorance is the full Cleveland.

There are numerous ways to take on a subject with the intent of bringing it down, preferably in flames?  Ridicule is, after all, a valuable tool, the major instrument, in fact, in the surgical procedure called humor.  Ridicule is achieved by demonstrating an individual, an institution, a concept, or a system in progress, then applying the blow torch of exaggeration.  At what point does the exaggeration move the ridicule from satire to parody or, even more severe, farce?  At what point does satire retire into the darkness, allowing parody to take over?

Exaggeration has such a delicate balance.  You have, for a specific instance, a thesis that the one work considered Evelyn Waugh's greatest triumph, Brideshead Revisited, is a satire.  Certainly his other work shows an authorial sense of moral high ground as it attacks character types and attitudes.  Moral purpose is a major factor in satire, and so pompous and attitude-oriented was Waugh in his lifetime that he appeared to be satirizing himself as much as he took on social mores and standards of ethical behavior, to say nothing about his perfervid religious beliefs.  You have concluded that the movement of Charles Ryder's agnosticism, drifting inexorably toward Catholicism, paralleled with Lord Marchmain's ambiguous last-minute "conversion" demonstrate Waugh's own vision of how a set of characters as individuals and en famile can be led to an exaggerated quest for salvation.  Thus was Waugh using plausibility to suggest his ultimate disdain and dramatize the exaggeration to the point where the characters may feel they have behaved well but some readers may conclude differently.

Satire requires this delicate balance.  Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" had just the proper amount of exaggeration to trigger the fear and revulsion aspect in enough readers to cause them to experience outrage:  How dare Swift suggest such a contemptible thing?  The splendid satirist Stephen Colbert works the same way, actually enlisting the support of the very targets of his barb.

As cohorts in this wicked conspiracy, satire and ambiguity lead us off the commonly trod pathway into the thicket of our own pretensions and prejudices, where we may trip over the snaggle of ego.  Neither satire nor ambiguity intend to leave the reader/victim in the dark but rather to allow the reader/victim to unsuspectingly slip head within noose, led by the cohorts of plausibility and outraged belief.

It is said that we few, we precious few, we band of others have little practical use in the world beyond the academy.  In fact, we are even suspected of having limited use within the academy.  How, we are asked, are we able to use such tools as ambiguity, satire, plausibility, and the ability to transmit outrage in service of earning our keep?  

The answer is clear enough:  We make our living from the loose change found under the metaphoric cushions of the metaphoric sofas and chairs in which they sit, waiting to lecture us on practicality.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What's in a mnemonic?

There are times when you will go around the block sentence- or paragraph-wise to avoid using the word "that."  Having found your way back to the stream of narrative, you will again interrupt yourself when, horror of horrors, you not only use "that," you have done so twice within a paragraph.  In the bargain, you have used "and" as a connective, a habit you picked up back in the day when you were doing your best to imitate the rhythm and style of Ernest Hemingway, even though you had already had face-to-face contact with the man, consequently determining your wish to move as far away from his influences upon you as possible.  For some reason not readily available to your memory, you go to great lengths to avoid beginning a paragraph with the word "one," as in "One of the easiest ways to begin a paragraph..."  

You still wince when you find yourself using the word "accordingly" as a lever to move into some form of logical or emotional conclusion, and are only slightly less discomfited by the discovery that you have used "thus" instead of "accordingly."

Sometimes, when reviewing a page or two of narrative, it seems to you that the "that's" and "ands" and "accordingly's" and "thus's" stick out like the quills of a pissed-off porcupine, your habit words coming back to haunt you as they are not likely to haunt anyone else.  You have other plans for your prose, plans that involve it assuming the personality and intent of a particular character, plans that involve a sense of rhythm, timbre, and not to forget logic.  Your plans also include a sense of emotional layering, the wrapping of a coil about an armature, the gradual build-up of the intensity of a feeling.

True enough, you look to your favorite writers to see how they accomplish such things, but the most grating pain of all is the discovery that you have imitated rather than pushed forth on your own to try to set the desired effect(s) in motion.  Making too much of a thing about originality is in a real sense flinging the doors open to invite the voices of criticism and reproach to speak up while you're trying to compose; if you obsess about originality, you are not writing, you are thinking, you are wearing the colors of self-consciousness, flaunting them at a black-tie dinner, the effect being See how different I am as opposed to See how it is.

These are some of the reasons for keeping thought away from your intent of composition for the most part, investing your characters with a strong measure of intent, then turning them loose on the page or, if the work is nonfiction, defining a purposeful direction where your inquiry and logic are to tread before allowing your uninhibited narrative self off the leash to romp forth.  It may rankle when a reader finds a comparison between you and some other observer of the human condition, but the comparison will have a compliment rather than an instance of spotting imitation.  You can find a way to live with compliment but it is much more difficult to live with imitation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Follow the Character

Even though you are well informed about the life, career, and work of F.Scott Fitzgerald to the point where there is little possibility of you being surprised, you were nevertheless fascinated by the recent piece in New Yorker in which his career as a screenwriter is discussed.

Having met with actual pals of FSF, whence you learned of his disillusionment at the reception his Hollywood work got, you were surprised to learn from the New Yorker account that he wanted to be a great screenwriter as well as a great novelist.

Thinking about FSF's apparent difficulties to transfer written information to the visual, you began to review your own approach to story in general, concluding (with some wisdom, you thought) that there is indeed a difference in text for the page, for the stage, and for motion picture and TV versions of story, and no great need to revisit those differences nor to remind yourself of the logic gap inherent in mixing proverbial apples with proverbial oranges.  

The one thing the media have in common, however, is character.  The key to success in any of the media is to begin with the premise that all are dramatic, all involve characters who are goal oriented.  A striking example is Macbeth, who on the surface is a good soldier, much admired by his leader.  What follows this glowing resume from King Malcolm is the actual appearance of Macbeth and the slow revelation of his burning upward mobility.  Hector is no less a good soldier than was Macbeth, but it is not ambition that drives Hector, it is the all-too-vivid awareness of reputation, for which you may read "what other people think."  

Shakespeare has given Macbeth a wife who is supportive to an eerie degree of his ambition, the Homers provided Hector with Andromache, who pleads with Hector to forget the stupid battle and run away with her and their son.  In a moment of prescience, she understands that Hector will be killed in battle--true dat--and that she will be taken off as a slave or concubine and their son, Astynax, will be summarily killed.
These stories are of such wrenching moral choice that they can, could, and will be presented as staged drama, filmed drama, and written narrative, illustrating the point that the appearance, agenda, and behavior of the characters drive the story, suggesting to the composer in the various media moments of thought, introspection, behavior, dialogue, deviousness, subtext, and more.
The original text of DuBose Heyward's novel, Porgy, did not contain the recitative or arias of the eventual opera Porgy and Bess; indeed, although the setting was Charleston, S.C., the novel called it Cabbage Row, later changed in the operatic version to Cat Fish Row.  In all other ways, the motivational behavior of the characters was consistent, but it was displayed differently in accordance with the medium.

In the novel, as Friday evening descends on Cabbage Row, it would be an enhancement if we were told that the sounds of Jasbo playing barrelhouse piano could be heard coming from the juke joint, but it would entirely break the integrity of the novel if young Clara were described as "going into her baby's bedroom and singing 'Summertime' to her."  

We wouldn't be surprised if she sang a crying baby to sleep in a novel, but we would be surprised to move in on her and hear her lovely soprano run over the lyrics, and by the time we got to the set up of the crap game and heard Clara's husband, Jake, baritone out the Ira Gershwin lyrics to "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing," we'd probably want to know who had edited this book.
One of the great tropes in mystery fiction is "follow the money," which will offer the protagonist/detective and the readers sufficient clues to effect some form of solution.  Your own trope is "follow the character," which translates into learning how an actor becomes a character.  

A character has gestures, dialogue, motive, backstory; a character has come from doing something before being involved in a story, a character does not merely appear in a scene, he or she has come from another scene (which may or may not be included in the actual text).  We need to see characters as having particular relationships with all the other characters in a story, otherwise they will sound posturing and wooden, artificial platforms on which the author attempts to stand.

I want, some characters appear to be saying.

I won't, others appear to be demonstrating through their words and deeds.

You can't, yet others appear to be telling the characters who want.

Can, too, your characters insist, and with no further help from you, they're on their way.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What is so rare as a prime rib roast?

No doubt about it:  the matter is purely subjective.

Most of the writers who inhabit the panoply of your favorites (room for at least a footnote if not a separate essay) are writers whom you consider accessible on an emotional level.  Rereading Aldous Huxley at the moment for the purpose of your next Golden Oldie column, you are aware of the gap between his people and, say, Christopher Isherwood's characters.  (Well you see,"  Isherwood told you, "I love all my characters and Aldous loves the ideas for which his characters stand.")  You are thus more easily transported into the world, however strange and remote, of the characters rather than being impressed by the ideas the characters express.  Thus you can measure yourself from having read and been impressed by Huxley's Antic Hay and, to a lesser degree, Time Must Have a Stop, and now finding those somewhat lacking in comparison to Louise Erdrich and Jim Harrison and Annie Proulx.  True enough, you read all the Huxley you could get your hands on because his way of reaching into the story seemed to delightfully conversational and urbane, things you saw at the time as worthy of investigation.  Who would not like to have his work thought of as witty and urbane.  But then you read Isherwood all the way through, particularly reached by A Meeting by the River, and the movement from exterior gloss to inner reflection had been given an encouraging push forward. Reading the former is still fun, but the latter provide a kind of inspiration that leads to combustion and discovery.  Huxley is an excellent parodist and satirist, both aspects of your current work under way, The Secrets of Casa Jocosa, but it was Erdrich's The Plague of Doves that gave you the message that led you to haul the description of the precipitating event from your files, flesh it a bit more, and call it Chapter One.

While editing Conrad's latest anthology-type venture, you came across a segment from Lady Chatterly's Lover that also helped emphasize the point:  you prefer stories in which you can feel what the characters are feeling rather than merely appreciate what they are feeling.  Let's call it the difference between empathy and understanding.  Nor does it hurt that you are currently reading Frans De Waal's The Age of Empathy, in which a world-class primatologist discusses his observations about such issues as the sense of fair play in chimps, the ability of a chimp to feel embarrassment, and the ranges of jealousy that extend from our primate cousins to us.

Scenario:  Fred and Mary are seated next to one another at a dinner party.  Neither knows the other.  Fred is highly attracted to Mary.  In the course of conversation, they learn things about one another, primarily that each is available in the sense of not being in a committed relationship to another.  As the interchange continues, Fred finds himself not only attracted but interested.  What Fred does not know, and what he has not been able to piece together from his observation of Mary is that she is a vegan.  He is not.  When time for the main course arrives and the host calls from the end of the table, "Who's for rare on the roast?" Fred heartily affirms and thus is passed to him a slab of rare prime rib.  After a few moments, he notices that Mary is not being served the roast.  "'Samatter?" he asks.  "Not hungry?"  We can add some added details to, shall I say beef up the circumstances, but we would not be surprised to discover, down the line, Mary having to excuse herself and retire to the loo or at least stand for a few moments in an unobserved corner, deep breathing until her sense of revulsion at the presence of the blood rare slab of roast.  We are also not surprised when what Fred thought of as a growing chemistry between him and Mary appears to be vitiated.

There are any number of ways in which the scenario can progress.  Different writers would direct it differently, using differing techniques to freight the information and the responses to the information, not the least of which is internal monologue through either point of view, but that would not only be telling, it would be avoiding the nuanced play of feelings that exist between all characters when they appear on stage together.

There are different ways in which a scene may progress, depending on the mindset of the writer and the eye of the writer and the heart of the writer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On--not between--a rock and a hard place

Why do you read?  Why does anyone read?

To glean information, of course; to discover who won a race, a game, an election, a literary prize; to discover how differing persons felt when they were doing things you had always dreamed of doing but were somehow too timid to undertake or born in the wrong century or place or both; to see how individuals other than yourself coped with human conditions you coped with; to daydream, to wonder what it would be like, if only...

You read because it is habitual to the extent that if you did not read, you would suffer varying incarnations of withdrawal. You read your own journals and stories because they are metaphors for penciled height marks on some wall or door frame, whereby you measure who you once were against who you think yourself to be now, at this very moment.  You read to educate yourself in ways that will cause you to experience a greater understanding of what it means to be alive, and to come to terms with Reality the same way you come to terms with a difficult relative or difficult acquaintance, which is to say you consider options of disowning Reality or the difficult relative or acquaintance.  

You consider the options of that word that could never have come forth from the shadows had there been no Internet: unfriend.  You can say, Once upon a time, I was a great friend of Reality, but Reality has refused to share its toys and has never offered me so much as a bite of its peanut butter and jelly sandwich, therefore I abjure Reality and instead opt for Fantasy as my new BFF.  

You read because reading once provided you with the delightful notion that it was possible to earn one's living from writing things other persons might read, thus an early form of shamanism on your part because you had no idea what one had to go through in order to produce material others might wish to read; the entire process meant you sat somewhere, wrote, sent it somewhere, and the money--note the construction there:  the money, not royalties or advances or first N.A. rights, merely the money--came from somewhere else.

You read to remind you of differing views of the same experience, and of the men and women whose materials strike you as elegant, funny, plangent, clever, resourceful, an awareness that causes you to realize that more often than not the writers you most admire are those who cause you to be in a place you might not otherwise be, concerned for the fate of a man, woman, or child you were surprised to have had any care for.  

At one time in your reading, you might have described your favorite reading material as adventure, meaning to the then you that you expected to have some journey to a particular place, whereupon you would have an encounter from which you would emerge with some prize you would bring back to share with those about you, hello Joseph Campbell; you read to become a hero in metaphor if not in fact.  Now, as a result of having read and continuing to do so, you are able to look upon the reading you do as a ratifying of the writing you chose to embark upon, once again recognizing Joseph Campbell but not with the sense of wanting to regard yourself as heroic but rather as a way of getting you off to places and situations you might not otherwise visit, places where there is some scary potential for outcome or, scariest of all, lack of outcome.

Somewhere in the American Southwest, amid a number of truly ancient petroglyphs, is a huge boulder with the words Paso por aqui incised on its side, a thing to be read by the many others who have passed by here.  The incisions of the petroglyphs were more likely to be representations of animals, rodents, reptiles, birds, perhaps the occasional bolt of lightning; they were likely to have been put there by individuals who were stoned on some cactus or seed, recording their visions of said animals, rodents, reptiles, and birds who represented messages of some sort or another.  It is not much of a stretch to imagine some contemporary seeing said petroglyph and thinking, Ah, Fred must have had a conversation with a snake right about here, and was told to save water for the coming drought.  It is still possible to see the incision on the rock, but thanks to deconstruction, the text may have lost a bit in translation.

As writers, we are willing to have conversations with animals, rodents, reptiles, and birds.  As for lightning bolts, even Vladimir Nabokov was willing to essay a conversation, witness his two-word disposal of Lolita's mother's death, (picnic,Lightning).  We are willing to have conversations with individuals who are entirely bogus but whom we wrap event and sensation and experience as though we were wrapping the armature for an electric motor.  We are setting warnings and tagging and the written equivalent of arm waving to a teacher when we were kids and knew we had the right answer to a question.

In our itch and urge to demonstrate that we got some message from our journey, we want to write it down and be read, curiously unmindful of the great irony of duality, no one wants to hear advice from an elder; we want to create our own advice.  Thus we learn through reading techniques by which we are able to set forth our own prize of advice in ways others will indeed want to read; thus we learn that it is about them, our characters, and them, our putative readers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The messy desk as metaphor

If you start with the metaphor of your desk and work area as an analog for the universe, you begin to get an understanding of the process by which material is created, possibly edited, possibly even made to fit other such materials, then sent forth for yet another process, the one called publication.

One of your guilty pleasures is cyber eavesdropping on brother and sister users of Internet and blog platforms, noting how, to a person, they complain of the chaos about their own work area, then present a picture of it for all the cyber world to see, a kind of confession of vulnerability, something a scant step or two away from the confession of owning collections of erotica.  Your own version of this First Law of Cyber Truth:  No matter who they are or what they say, your work area is not only less neat, it is sloppier.

True enough, you awaken from time to time with the distinct plan for neatening and cleaning your work area, a plan that includes shelving books nearby, using the spray cleaner and special cloth sold to you at a Mac Store to remove traces of liquids and other ephemera from your screens (How they got there in the first place is akin to the mysteries of quantum physicists trying to formulate the Big Bang), replacing pens to their proper containers, tidying up written notes.

The goal is order.  This being a Monday, it is an appropriate time to consider such strategies, and you are heartened at the focus.
It is a metaphoric Monday when you sit before your computer, address your note pad at a coffee shop, or start playing with your index cards at some indeterminate venue, thinking to engage the delightful process of playing at writing.  

You are in a sense coping with the chaotic universe of your thoughts, feelings, attitudes, trying to neaten and arrange some form of order.  A non-writer would be daunted at such an undertaking, but you, the quintessential slob, see the humor and ultimate fun in trying to create some small patch of order in this daunting universe of reality in which particles of idea, event, and sudden emotions fly about in dizzying orbit, sometimes colliding to form the glorious surprise of The Other, the thing about which you strive to writer, neaten, understand, get some sort of momentary control over.

The best you or anyone can do in this calculus is prepare a manuscript for submission somewhere.  If properly executed, the manuscript will be the final step in neatening, removing clutter, leaving little or no doubt about the intentions of the words.  

True enough, this is essentially saying that the condition of the manuscript may be of equal importance to the text.  Words are, after all, things that want to break free, possibly collide with other words; words are particles that affect different persons in differing ways, and thus a neat desk and a tidy manuscript have some say in the arguments that wage within the very thin skin of the writer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sascha, Mischa, Gus: The Yiddish Aurora Borealis

You have heard of but never seen the aurora borealis, and know vaguely that it is visible at night in extreme northern and southern latitudes, is caused by among other things, colliding particles.  Thus you have given away the fact that you have not in your lifetime been farther north than Friday Harbor on San Juan Island up north in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, or possibly north of that in northern England,nor much farther south than Mexico City.

But you have seen your own version of the aurora borealis, a splendid flashing aura that comes when drifting story particles collide.  You were awakened by a collision of story connections and Sally wanting to use the back yard for some purpose or other at about three this morning, thinking as you stumbled back to bet that you might not have remembered the collision of story particles had Sally not socked your arm to get you to open the back door.

The collision this morning was no big story point, no sudden revelation that character A is really related somehow to the protagonist or principal antagonist, nor even that the principal antagonist is becoming more likable than the protagonist (always a good thing dramatically speaking), it was merely that Arabella, the somewhat ditsy, grandmotherly type who lives in a deluxe one bedroom plus den townhouse in your fictional upscale gated community retirement villa, is connected with the protagonist's last case in which he discovered that Arabella, Helene, and Brooke had smuggled their lifelong friend, Kate, from the RestSecure Senior's Haven, where her kids had had her committed so that they could, you know, rifle her bank account.  Said Arabella sees a glow every weeknight at eleven o'clock, seeming to float up like an aura over the ninth hole of the golf course.  She likes the convenience of attributing such things to mystical forces and, bless her, that's perfectly fine for the purposes of the story under way.  

All right, call her foolish, she remarks early on in her appearance, but those lights are not, not you understand, random.  They have a purpose.  What Arabella is not likely to find out is that the source of the lights are the result of some squatters, living rent free at your upmarket gated community while they pursue their engineering degrees at UCSB.  The source of the lights is their one luxury use of bootlegged electricity, they are stopping their studies to watch Charlie Rose.

You, being you, do not set forth to include or depict such things.  Perhaps another person might, but they come to you, often at night, but sometimes in the shower or at Peet's where you have gone to trade distractions; they shimmer with the spectacular energy of their collisions, causing you to behave as though you'd grabbed hold of an electric eel or slid too precipitously across the nylon seat cover of your car.  The price you believe you need to pay for such aurora borealis-like event is putting some measure of time on the project every day, even if it is as brief as a paragraph before moving to confront the pile of student work or clients that loom before you.

Thanks to MRI and other imaging technology, it is possible to see aspects of the brain at work, routing traffic,issuing sig-alerts, cleaning up road spills, allowing you the conceit of knowing the brain is a control freak, wanting to connect as many things as possible in the perceptions of its host.  The brain wants the writer who has taken the risk of putting the words down on paper to see the orderly side of Being, of helping the host translate order out of the Chaos.  You were raised in a culture where the colloquial mantra is "Tsouris beliden," which more or less translates as trouble aboundeth.  The brain wants you to see that a large measure of this tsouris is connected, not in any formal sense of, say, The Periodic Table of the Elements, but as a result of on site collisions which, unlike freeway counterparts, produce the delicious pulse of energy, and what are writers for except to grow disc antennae from which they receive signals of that energy.

Carrying the metaphor to the extreme, how lovely it would be to have a narrative in which the protagonists are grown-up versions of Power Rangers, perhaps even contemporary samurai, named Sascha, Mischa, and Gus.  Their three names, repeated quickly, would send an instant message of cosmic recognition to anyone with basic understanding of Yiddis, for it is cosmic :  Such a mishugas; What craziness, what absolute freaking madness!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Juggling Full Plates

One afternoon at lunch, Fannie Flagg told you a story that stuck with you like a limpet on the piling of a pier.  After Fannie had published her first book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe, and it had begun to sell, subsequently attracting audiences at book stores where she spoke, Fannie was in a small Southern bookstore, telling how things had begun for her.  While she spoke, she noticed a woman standing toward the rear of the seated listeners, seemingly clutching a glass that either had iced tea in it or not, which is to say bourbon if not iced tea.

After Fannie had finished her presentation, the woman in the rear stepped forward to greet her in a way greatly suggesting the contents of the glass were indeed bourbon.  She extended her hand.  "Harper Lee,"  she said, "I just want to tell you I enjoyed your book and hope it doesn't sell a million copies during its first year."

Harper Lee's first novel sold quite well the first year out and for forth-nine subsequent years.  Her heartfelt wish to Fannie was that, unlike her own career, Fannie's continued to multiply with new projects every year or so,

For reasons you connect with your own imp of the perverse, the chilling story came to you again this morning in such a way that you knew it was the core incident of the novel you'll want to write after you finish the current one, the one underway and now a scene or two into the sixth chapter.

Your protagonist will have been involved with a woman wound around the armature of Harper Lee, one to whom he suggests and encourages dreadful book projects to this character, which she publishes under a pseudonym but which keep her too busy and interested to succumb to her former serious drinking problem.

Having this insight when the current novel is not yet even close to completion is part of a lifelong process of yours, a process that at its worst has you spread as thin as the peanut butter in a cafeteria sandwich, and at best proves your own observation that there is nothing so fertile as work to produce the impetus for more work.

There is nothing quite so wonderful as to approach work with the fullness of having much of it before you, material you like and wish to pursue.  Nothing is as awful as having nothing before you but a yawning void.  Nearly as awful is thinking on a particular day, when the immediate work refuses to budge, that all you have to do is pursue one of those projects in a holding pattern, but alas, you've forgotten that when you are in such a mood, everything before you appears vanilla, bland, lacking traction.  If you are truly fortunate, some fresh thing will emerge, like a model striding down the runway, presenting itself to you, and you will throw yourself at it, once again saved from doldrums by the charismatic aura of work not yet performed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Is this seat taken?

Your mug of foaming latte on the table before you, you are comfortably "in" the scene you're working on and have been in similar situations at Peet's often enough to know that when someone, seeking your attention, addresses you with the equivalent of "Excuse me," all you have to do is say the equivalent of yes, which may come out as "Go ahead."  The interrupter is politely asking if he or she may take the one or more unoccupied chairs at the table before you.  You do not need to make eye contact for this transaction; it is an expression of minimal (but, importantly, non-hostile) civility, politeness, if you will.  It is the lingua franca of working at a coffee house.  

On the other hand, when you are comfortably "in" the scene and are a court reporter, taking down what the characters say and do, and someone addresses you by your name, without the "Excuse me," or "Pardon me,"  either direct use of name or a prefatory Hi or Hey, then you know eye contact is required.  You also know a different level or degree of communication is under way, a more socially nuanced exchange in which age, gender, status, and degrees of intimacy are factored and responded to.

Consistent with your sometimes mercurial range of responses, you will be pleased, irritated, bored, vastly amused, energized when one of these eye-contact moments arrives, wrenching you from being "in" a scene as you have on occasion been wrenched from the comforts of a splendid dream by the sudden appearance on your chest of one of the two cats who make their way through the warp and weft of your abode.

Further baseline consideration:  there are times when you are not comfortably "in" a scene and welcome eye-contact interruptions.

It comes down to this, writing at coffee shops provides a range of human contact that obviates the need for crossword puzzles, checking email, or inventing comments for Twitter.  The rationale for going to Peet's for an hour or two of "work" is constructed around the matrix of splendid coffee which is offset by a selection of pastries that, regardless of what they are called, taste the same, a dreary fact mitigated by the availability of some packaged noshes of minimal quality.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, which is to say equidistant to the south as Peet's is to the north is La Luna at Colville and Evans in Summerland, where the coffee is so-so but the pastries are from Reynaud's Patisserie, which speaks of flaky crusts or spongy and light layers or fruity preserves that are not drowned in sugar not cooked to the point where their spirit has fled.  There is a forty percent less probability you will be addressed by anyone at LaLuna in which eye contact is required.

Not to forget Xanadu, in the nearby mall featuring a supermarket, pharmacy, dry cleaners, health food store, and barber shop.  It is possible to hide away relatively unseen, but the coffee is undrinkable and the pastries all resemble bicycle seats.

Of course there is always home.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Yet another way of coming out--being a writer everywhere

One of your favorite authors to work with as an editor (and to read as a reader) is William F. Nolan, who in the course of your relationship wrote two biographies for you (John Huston and Dashiell Hammett), a private eye series, and a number of science fiction anthologies.  After carefully folding his advance check into his wallet and departing, you always knew where he would go (a cheap motel and a coffee shop such as a Denny's or Norm's or Carrow's) whence he would begin fleshing out the proposal he'd successfully pitched, invariably delivering (on time) a finished product that called for the merest of editorial notes from you.  He hit some big time with Logan's Run, bought a Porsche and, you believe, the proverbial home in the northern segment of the San Fernando Valley, whereupon he continued to produce but seemed to have hit a fork in the road that led away from cheap motels and coffee shops.

In recent months, you have come to think of WFN thanks in some measure to the amount of work you get done on three by five index cards and ruled note pads, sitting among the other coffee shop gypsies at Peet's, just a quarter of a block northwest of La Cumbre Road on State Street in that part of Santa Barbara the locals refer to as Northside.  Materials for the recent work of nonfiction came spilling forth in useful first draft, whereupon you took them home to enter them on various hard drives and backup systems.  There, among such wildly diverse groups as a Bible Study Class, students from City College and UCSB, teen-age girls trolling for dates, and grandparent types out for an afternoon tea, you set forth the basic events leading up to what you supposed would be a mystery novel, watching it grow from index cards to long pages of character biography to what you thought would be chapter one until you therein composed by hand chapter two, which you wisely decided to recast as chapter one, leaving the earlier chapter one to default as chapter two.  Indeed, it was at Peet's where you realized the simple switch in order allowed you the splendid luxury of multiple point of view, which you have put to advantage and which, only this morning in those early hours of Sally barking at some marauding menace, were you to envision once again as a solution to getting certain vital information on stage.

You are on occasion irritated at Peet's by the scratchy sound of a particular voice or by an encounter with someone you know, wanting conversation when you clearly (to you) want instead the joys of concentration.

At home, you have so few distractions that you are forced to invent them (Twitter, crossword puzzles, checking email, ordering compact discs or books from Amazon, downloading iTunes).  You have scattered about you your lares and penates, a photo of a much beloved blue-tick hound, a photo of your father feeding ducks, a photo of your parents at about mid-life, a pencil sharpener in the form of a Royal upright typewriter given you as a birthday present by a group of students some twenty-five years in the past, an onyx paperweight inscribed by friends who congratulated you on your hire as director of the Los Angeles office of Dell Books, a generous coffee mug from Usinger's Sausage in Milwaukee, a replica of the artwork for a box of Mark Twain brand cigars, given you by Liz Kuball, and an effulgent composition of castles rising in the air, undershot with text cut from Marta Pelrine-Bacon's own novel and which, to be seen at its best advantage, must be mounted on a window sill so that the sunlight shows through in a back-lit fashion, fountain pens everywhere, bottles of ink from everywhere, and at least thirty distinctively shaped ballpoint pens bearing the imprint of Renaud's Patisserie in Loreto Plaza (where you have yet to write a word)and above you, on a shelf to your right, a parade of kachina dolls, powering out animate forces you must only guess at because they are not native to your culture. Why would you want to abandon this for the idiosyncratic clatter of Peet's?

You think you have the answer, which is to take your process out into the world with you, to use it everywhere you go, to make it, books on writing to the contrary notwithstanding, something you can do where ever you might be and under any circumstances, not limited to this one spot, where you are protected and joined by your household gods and goddesses, working always working so that at length it is not possible to separate the dancer from the dance.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writes of Passage: the Novel as Statistic

Why would a grown man spend hundreds of hours living and writing a novel that statistically stands no better a chance than being read by five or six hundred readers?  Well.  You already know several answers to that question, one of which is the potential for it being read by ever so many more or even a mid-list quantity more than five or six hundred readers.  

Another answer has to do with said grown man not being  able to help himself, of having experienced consequences previously when he saw fit not to spend the hundreds of hours of living and writing required to write a particular novel, consequences that to say the lease made him feel less comfortable about himself than he normally felt.  You could also ask said grown man if he thought the novel, regardless of how many persons read it or did not read it, would change human behavior.  He would answer yes, but not intending the change to be noticeable in humanity in general but rather within him; the change in human behavior would be resident within him because, after all, he'd come into the novel in the first place making accommodations, listening to the very characters he disliked the most, trying to find some glowing coal of humanity within them he could fan up to a flame that gave off some heat.  He would also be celebrating contrariness in his characters, thus glorifying the difference between them and those who strive only to be invisible through their adherence to tenets, concepts, and beliefs that do not rattle the cages of any cultural zoo or jail.

Such a grown man might well remind you that this was his work beyond the work of keeping himself clothed, fed, and sheltered.  He might remind you that he would have done it anyway, pleased to have the stimuli present that cause him to do this rather than, say, construct models of the Eiffel Tower from toothpicks or fit together pieces of jigsaw puzzles. neither of which, by the way, are all that distinct from writing novels.

There is in the real time interstice between the outer edge of Santa Barbara (Montecito) and Summerland a vast expanse of land at the top of Ortega Ridge that in recent years has been occupied by an organization called Qad (see map above).  You have obliterated the reality of Qad, which specializes in digital and electronic imagery and computer-based systems, instituting instead an upmarket retirement campus called Casa Jocosa, the name a Spanish translation from Edith Wharton's ironic The House of Mirth.  Every time you drive past Qad, you do not see Qad, you see Casa Jocosa, which is the venue for the novel in the works.  You are there, inventing even in off waking moments such conceits as a footpath system named after the Santa Monica Freeway some ninety-five miles to the south in Los Angeles.  You see Thursday night poker games and, only this morning, you saw and are quickly implementing a segment that houses a group of homeless illegal aliens who have tapped into the watering system of the golf course to provide morning showers and shaving water for those illegals as they begin their day, looking for and finding work in nearby Summerland and Carpinteria.  Thus have you with this very conceit altered your own sense of what it is to have a novel in progress, peopled with individuals who represent the demographics of a privileged community and the concept of trickle-down made so famous by a former governor of the state and President of the United States.

This is your world, a world you recognize as no better and no worse than the real world about you; it is a core sampling, a metaphor, a reason for being.  You like to think that more than five or six hundred persons will enjoy reading it, but you never know about such things.  There is an old Buddhist saying:  A sandcastle built far enough away from the shoreline to avoid being toppled by the incoming tide is in danger of being toppled by incoming dogs.

Actually,there is no such Buddhist saying, which you probably suspected.  I made it up, which you probably suspected.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

He who pays the piper has a musician brother-in-law

What exactly is outline?  

You first became aware of the word in grade school, when a teacher announced that you were going to be spending considerable time, learning how to do it, because it would be required of you from here in, a serious mistake made by numerous teachers in your life and perpetuated to some extent by you, at least in the sense of you telling students they would be needing and using various things well into their lifespan.  Your only way out of that quagmire of guilt is the fact that you never told students they would be required to use outlines.  Let them find out for themselves, soon enough.

Outlines are based on the construct that paragraphs have topic sentences.  There was a time when you attended Central Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach, Florida, where you were positive you couldn't, as requested, find a topic sentence.  You took to guessing when called upon, invariably picking the second sentence in a paragraph, and not getting into too much trouble with authority for proceeding in that approach, realizing sometime later in life that one of the reasons text books were so awful was due to the fact of their having a topic sentence in the first place and that, indeed, most of them were second sentences in paragraphs.

Early into your working years, no employer ever mentioned topic sentences to you much less asked you to find loose or missing ones as though they were some sort of rambunctious dog who'd dug out of his yard.  Soon you were in journalism, where the topic sentence was replaced with the lede, that repository of the four w's and an h, although that became a bit too restrictive (or you lacked essential imagination) and you went into television via the carnival life.  There was no need for a topic sentence in either landscape, and thus you moved along into such pursuits as writing short stories, writing novels, writing screenplays and, for some considerable time, essays about the American West for a man named Charlie who published those wonderfully pulpy magazines whose pages contained acid and were thus guaranteed not to last for centuries as acid-free paper is guaranteed.  From what you remember, your paragraphs then had no topic sentences.  Discovering some of these articles and essays in recent years, you read with the relief of a man who was true to the code of paragraphs sans topic sentences.

On the other hand, they have drama, your paragraphs.  A paragraph without drama will soon reveal itself to you as a wimp paragraph, unwilling to carry story, subtext, or any sort of dramatic load.  Even when you'd become a published novelist and then an editor who had contract-signing authority, you were removed from grammatical niceties, even though there was an earlier time when you knew your way around parts of speech and diagramming sentences to the point where you actually contrived to be sent to the blackboard to diagram sentences.  Lurking in the back of your mind was the notion that being known for diagramming sentences would get you a girlfriend.  It did not, nevertheless you persisted in diagramming sentences (and for that matter, trying to get a girlfriend).  Surely if you knew about objective and nominative and objective cases, girls would see you as a wise choice.  There is a distance between wise choice and smart ass, which is what you were largely seen as, and by the time you had a girlfriend, she was interested in dancing, particularly the fox trot, bossa nova, and Lindyhop, interested in doing as opposed to your interest in listening to the music by which these steps were to be danced.

Always out of step.

Now, you are able to relate paragraphs and topic sentences and objective cases to stories and essays in the sense that you believe any paragraph, any story, any novel without drama is what you were when you were nineteen, with a fake ID--trying to pass.  You were trying to pass for legal age.  The paragraphs without drama are outline.  So in the long run, this is about writing and how, although you have an idea what a predicate nominative is or a relative pronoun referring to an indefinite antecedent, you'd probably have to guess at a set of examples.  You could, on the other hand, find the drama just as, after some hours of work on a scene set around a poker game in your current novel underway, you knew that although it contained the elements you wanted it to contain, it was still an outline because there was no drama in it.  How did it become dramatic instead of an outline of plot points to be included?  Simplicity, itself: you had the most objectionable character in the whole novel show up for the poker game as though he'd been invited. And indeed he had, we discover a bit later--he'd been invited by a character who wanted very much to provoke the host.  You did not need a topic sentence for that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Stations of the Crass

How appropriate that Milan Kundera's novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was published in 1984.  This was the date George Orwell chose as a kind of benchmark date by which we moderns would have stopped the questioning-thinking process by which we continue our education and in its place come to acceptance as belief (or belief as acceptance).  By 1984, we collectively would have come to a simultaneous juncture of a political state where what the state told us became fact, and an intellectual state where we were no longer able to separate fact from actuality.

Kundera drew upon Neitzsche's posit of eternal recurrence, meaning in apercu that events will recur endlessly, that reality is tidal or, if you will orbital, ebbing and flowing or passing a fixed point with some regularity, suggesting the heaviness of being in the sense that there is little we can do to effect the fabric and structure and meaning of life experience. Neitzsche was in good company, having drawn on Giambatista Vico and his construct of the cyclic nature of reality way back at a time when even expressing such a notion in contrast to the more prevalent one of God's will could get one variously banished, tortured, drawn and quartered.

How quick we are to listen to rant, misinformation, and conspiracy theory, process it, take it in, then believe it.  All bad enough, but the badness does not stop there.  Part of the calculus is that, merely because we believe it, we accept our belief that it is true, from which point we become evangelical in wanting to not hear opposing views. 

Your own take on the effect of Kundera's novel is that he is positing a closed system, this is the time, this is not likely to be repeated, even venturing onto the carpe diem approach, although pointedly not abandoning some ethical template.  Close to, but not congruent with, existentialism, at least in the sense of the individual needing to take responsibility for his or her activities and a willingness to bear the consequences as well as the benefits of action.

This whole wave of thought was brought about by Paul Krugman's column in the NYT today, wherein he levels scorn on those two blatherers, Limbaugh and Beck.  Your own take on this growing phenomena is that it is not so much Limbaugh and Beck as rabble rousers as it is us as believers.  From there you move forth with tantivy to religious and secular evangelists who are so smug in their certainty of being right as to make the religion of the twenty-first century certainty.  We are so certain of our certainty that any disagreement from you is unthinkable because, poor wretch that you are, your disagreement cannot be right; it is an abomination that must be prayed for.

Thus do you begin the week with the energy of a rant at their certainty and a pang for all you do not know and can only hope to engage in the years to come.  The notion of writing as discovery is a healing balm to your cynicism; through writing, you stand some chance of education.