Thursday, December 31, 2009

Formula for disaster

He was your first creative writing teacher, who had not only admitted you to his class when you were a mere tenth grader, he habitually wore double-breasted suits. He took you across the street to the drug store lunch counter, expansively ordered a round of cherry Coke, and proclaimed with an emphasis that vibrates to this very day, "Formula. If you learn the formulas, you will have no trouble." He gave you his tattered copy of Stanley Vestal's Professional Writing, which, he assured you, would help you learn the formulas. For starters, he initiated you with the mantra, Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph.

Sometime later, you'd heard of a remarkable writing teacher at Los Angeles City College. With the first of a series of forged documents that would thrust you through your late teens, you sneaked enrollment at City College, therein to forge your craft. If there is a gun mounted on the wall in Act One, the gun should go off at some time during the play, you were told. You were also told that Ibsen and Chekhov knew story.

A few years later, when you were at City College under your own steam, the same instructor wanted to know if he'd met you somewhere before. He was particularly insistent that you understand rising action and denouement. At the time, you were not the best speller. Learning denouement meant learning how to spell it.

At about the same time, with equally forged documents, you frequented the lounge of The Garden of Allah, a Sunset Strip version of a residential hotel, famous for F. Scott Fitzgerald shenanigans and an abundance of screen writers. With the typical assumed sang froid of a teen-ager attempting to pass, you ordered such potables as vodka collins, Pimm's Cup # 3, and at one point, B & B over ice, that is, until a man named Frank Fowler braced you with the incontrovertible fact that ordering such drinks was a fatal tell that you were under age. 

 From that point and for some time to come, you developed a taste for Jameson's and for either Old Rarity or Chivas Regal. "Never," he warned, "let me catch you drinking Seagram's Seven or Johnny Walker." Frank Fowler was operating on the forged documents of a pseudonym, having decided to call himself Borden (after the milk of Elsie fame) Chase (after the bank of bailout fame). He actually took the time to read a few of your things, giving you such helpful advice as reframing classic stories as he had reframed his most durable work, Red River. "Where the fuck," he asked, "do you think I got the idea for this story?" You waited a beat too long, hopeful for an impressive answer, which meant in those days a show-off answer. "It's fucking Mutiny on the Bounty," he said with triumph, "set on horseback." You will not do well in Hollywood, he said, until you learn how to copy and disguise the traces. In later years, you came to realize, having read much of his work, that he did considerably more than copy and disguise, but then, as you'd taken to vodka collinses and Pimm's Cups, you were sure that the future was paved with formula. Even though you could recite many of them, such as the formula for confessions (sin, suffer, and repent), of the formula for general fiction (a likable character struggles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal), you had the same problems with them that you had with geometry, back in high school. It was only when you had a tangible, practical use for geometry, such as designing books, that it made sense, an extrapolation you eventually took to heart in the way you came at story.

Formula for story is a kind of shorthand in which the observations of Aristotle's Poetics, which are copied and disguised. They are recipes, leading one in the right direction, toward a desired result, but after a life invaded by Chuck E. Cheese, McDonald's, Agatha Christie, and Motel6, you want to add your own ingredients.

"Not know the Confucian Odes?" Ezra Pound once suggested. "Then you cannot know poetry." When you showed this to a musician, he knew what you meant immediately. If you knew blues, you were launched into jazz.

From time to time, in a gathering, you meet up with Formula, and you wave but do not offer to shake hands.

To this day, the best formula for you is the one that goes, In a story, every character believes he is right.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quirks, Quarks, Quacks

A quirk is an individual, notional variation of behavior from an anticipated norm. We classify a person, place, or thing, indeed even a story as quirky if it scoots along the boundaries of convention for a last-minute lunge at whim. It is perhaps more useful and convenient to measure quirkiness in terms of what it does not have, such as gravitas. You would never consider a quirky person to have gravitas; integrity, yes; gravitas, no. Just as the white Russian drinks in The Big Lebowski are divided into floaters and mixers, there are two kinds of stories, the quirky and the mixers, the former leading us along in picaresque misadventure, the latter taking a trait or two with which the protagonist is afflicted, then mixing them with conventional denouement.

Quick quirk quiz: Pick five quirky titles from the current bestseller list.

Ah, you thought so; can't be done, and yet who, for example, would have thought at the time that Lonesome Dove would have reached such memorable heights with such quirky lead characters as McRae and Call. And yet. Year after year, we watch McMurtry, trying his dangdest to get back into that saddle, going after quirk the way the class nerd goes after the high school homecoming queen.

A quark is a basic constituent of matter, so basic in fact that it can't seem to get by on its own, needs one or more others with whom to hook up in order to get by in this roiling universe of quarks, quirky writers, and--well, we'll get to that in a bit. The great resident irony that comes from comparing quirks and quarks in the same essay or paragraph is that the more we become absorbed by our craft to the point of recognizing the importance of individuality, the more we are likely to establish some soft of attraction/repulsion relationship (on the order of the polarity of magnetism) with others of quirky nature or, having considered ourselves burned in previous relations, with persons of a more conventional nature. There is, of course, no simple answer, relationships being what they are, but it relates to quirks as it does to quarks that either connection, two quirks or a quirk and a conventional, will provoke story where story is least expected.

Were you to look beyond the simplistic definition of a quark being a basic element of matter, out on a quantum search for a hook-up, you would quickly discover that there are six known types of quarks with such glorious names as up, down, top, bottom, strange, and colors, each with a particular quality and affinity, making you aware that misadventures of attraction are not only possible in the world of quantum physics, they are likely.

You look about you then, aware that the conventional is only a rendition of some statistical average or mean. If you wait patiently, look with discernment, you will find the quirky story to write, the conventional story to render as quirky, the cosmic equivalent of Shakespeare having written The Big Lebowski. Similarly, if you watch with a discerning eye, you will find yourself, as you have noted for some time, drawn to the person most likely to lead you toward unconventional behavior in the throes of which you will produce behavioral quarks and enhance as muscle memory such quirks as you have gathered along your way.

Quacks also have a duality. The most common association with the word is the individual who is an impostor, a phony, an egregious conflation of self-ascribed gravitas, authenticity, and posturing. You know relatively few of these, one in particular you have come to admire in a grudging sort of way, his relentless quackery serving as a role model for the benefits of persistence. There are times when you are in his presence that you want to do what one of your favored characters in Thorne Smith's Rain in the Doorway did, which is to quack loudly as though in imitation of a duck, a lovely, near-romantic distraction for you because of friendships you cherished in your late teens and early twenties where you and your chums co-opted the very service organization Smith had created, The Kiarians, using the trope of a duck loose in the room as a glorious way to distract yourselves from convention and boredom. At one point, you and your compatriots would seat yourselves in different locales in a movie theater. When the performance reached a dull or overly predictable stasis, one of you would call out, "Is there a duck in the room?" To which from the other side of the theater would come the discovery, "I heard a duck over here." From that point, teen-aged humor hit high gear, a gear you are still ambivalent about having outgrown--a constituent perhaps of your own quirkiness.

When you first discovered Holden Caulfield and his own response to phoniness, you had some faint hope that there would be more, that he would show an understanding or approach that would keep him memorable as a guardian against the tsunami of duality that emerges with the progression of experience. But he was headed toward the kind of breakdown you hoped to avoid. In a sense, quacks have taught you to be wary, first of the quack within you, then the quackery about you.

It may seem to you when you look this essay over for potsherds and artifacts that you considered yourself at this point to have achieved some sort of detachment and/or understanding of The Way Things Work, but this paragraph is intended to remind you that your understanding is still waiting for an explanation. In your took kit, along with the awareness of Quirks, Quarks, and Quacks are the tools of wariness and mischief, which may not quite yet have gotten you into as much trouble as a writer can experience.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Comfort Foods, Comfort Reading

Although there are many foods you turn to for the added bite of emotional encouragement they may provide--corn bread comes to mind as does chili, the fried egg sandwich, cold spaghetti eaten from the fridge, and that great ethnic dish from your father's side of the family, egg noodles with diced cabbage sauteed in butter--there is one comfort food that towers over the other contenders:  creamed tuna on toast.  In its ideal iteration, it is a chemistry of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, a small can of Brandywine sliced mushrooms, a can of Chicken of the Sea tuna, and a can of petit pois peas, served over two toasted slices of, ugh, Wonder bread or, better still, the tangy rye bread available from the closest delicatessen.

As your sensitivities and awareness grew over the years and you did not have your mother to prepare such a dish, you experimented variously with the sauce, even dallying as far away from cream of mushroom soup to Hollandaise made from scratch, fresh mushrooms, either fresh or frozen peas, and tuna of Japanese origin.  At the very least, the bread would be sour dough, perhaps even a ficelle split lengthwise.  No question that the taste and nutrients were vastly improved, but the old comfort, the pre-puberty comfort, was off on vacation.

It came to you in later years that the dish was born in the Great Depression, its purpose to fill you, supply you with protein, and accomplish its goals with a minimum of expense in similar measure with Kraft Dinner, an ungodly mixture of macaroni and cheese, the mention of, to this day, causes within your lower regions a stir of protest.

At one point, long after you had moved out of the parental lodging and, indeed, out of Los Angeles, you habitually stopped for a visit after class.  On one such visit, you were offered your choice of delectable entrees for a late supper and when you chose creamed tuna on toast, your mother said, almost reproachfully, "I don't know why anyone would eat that."  It was then that you realized how it had been a product designed to render you safe and secure and so, no wonder it has become the quintessential comfort food.

There is comfort reading as well, to the point where you have at least three of them downloaded on iPod and on your new Droid phone.  You guessed it, Life on the Mississippi, Roughing It, and Huckleberry Finn.  They also nourish you in times of woe or weal.

In recent years, you have added Louise Erdrich, based entirely on Love Medicine, then ratified over the years by a dizzying display, most recently The Plague of Doves, but by no means to forget The Painted Drum.  And now you have cause to add yet another, whose work seems to you to combine both the food and the reading.  This is, of course, Jim Harrison, whose most recent, The Farmer's Daughter, has sent you over the top.  In the past, you have essayed some of Harrison's food suggestions, starting with the one you thought to be the most difficult of all to accommodate, the Spam and onion sandwich.  Although a bit salty to your taste, the first bite produced an awareness that there was a chemistry at work here, one that could ease considerably any thoughts of vulnerability you might have for yourself and the orb on which you live.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Dream, when you're feeling blue...or pink...or maybe even green

Just past two-thirty this morning, you were tugged gently from a dreaming sleep by the sound of a muffled bark, which by your reckoning had its source at about the ten o'clock position, meaning Sally had shifted from her seven o'clock position on your left.  Added to your computations was the absolute certainty that the muffled bark was occasioned by a dream Sally was experiencing.  Simply put, she does not muffle barks in a waking state. Her waking-state barks are Wagnerian in their ceremonial outrage. You lay there for a time, wondering about the possibilities of her dreams.  She soon muffled yet another bark, then sighed heavily, a sign that she, too, was now awake.  Another heavy sigh, then the light clink of her medallions clinking, then a series of scratches, paw against cloth, as she moved from the new bed at ten o'clock to the old bed at seven o'clock, sighed once more, then slid back into sleep.

Are dog's dreams sight oriented or do they dream in smell?  The easy way out is to say the answer is a combination of both.  Although you have had some dreams in which smell played a role, it is more likely that you will feature sight and sound.  In fact, some time later, you "heard" Sviataslov Richter "playing" Ravel's Jewels in the Water.  Perhaps Sally "hears" me, for instance, calling her or merely talking to her.  Perhaps.

The mystery of another being's dreams is an intrigue for you, a narrow cusp that may quickly give way under your weight, bringing too many recitations of dreams and even more interpretations of what these dreams mean.  Nor are you overly interested in such meanings or symbols that may inhere in your own dream life unless, of course, they directly relate to that dreamy state in which you, to some degree asleep, are still working on the story or essay of your waking hours, applying the trial and error of rehearsal or running options, hopeful of finding and remembering one for use in the light of day (or the bulb-lit light of night).  

Dreams seem to be surreal, things seeming funny or sad or frightening that do not translate to their waking humorousness or sadness or fear, as though some resident emotion were providing the mixed-metaphor of a musical sound track.

Your favorite literary dream is the opening line of Kafka's Metamorphosis, set forth only as "After a night of uneasy dreams..."  We can more readily relate to a night of uneasy dreams than we can to the entire scenario of them, thus the great clue emerges from Kafka's use of the word "uneasy."  The very lack of specificity allows you a closer grip on what Gregor Samsa must have been undergoing as he transformed from a sensate human to something quite other.  

Sometimes, in the midst of a particular dream, you have the authorial knowledge that the event taking place in your senses is the most glorious of wish-fulfillment, at once tinctured with pleasure and the naughty knowledge of possible taboo--yet you allow the dream to scroll forth, wanting to carry the flaunting of the taboo to its conclusion.

Dreams in that context are the secret taboo-breakers we carry about with us, fanny packs for our daily hours that contain ever so much more than cell phones or bottled water or Balance Bars.  With these secrets in attendance, we can stand tall against the gravity of the day's events.  Daydreams are a close second, bolstering us against the wolves and coyotes of loss, disappointment, and grief that track us with those splendid noses and ears of theirs.  Daydreams allow us to stand tall; the moment we break and run, we send these wolves and coyotes a signal that we are vulnerable.  In simple truth, they are faster than us; we are taller than they.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Places you'd not think to go except in reading

Two of your favored living writers consistently produce stories set in places you have not set high priority on visiting. Yet in each case, as you read, you are not only transported to these landscapes to the point where you can feel and understand them, you also find yourself shifting priorities, visualize yourself traveling to the reality of these places in order to experience that very real landscape from which the writers drew.

One of these writers is Jim Harrison who, like the mythic creatures is only half man. His other half could very well be peppermint schnaps or music or fishing or scenery or some form of animal or even literature both ancient and modern because Harrison surely is all these things, knows about them and their effects and the driving forces that motivate them.

The other writer is Louise Erdrich who, in many ways, reminds me of a Navaho weaver, compulsively yet comfortably seated before her loom, turning out pattern after pattern, replicating in yarn the fixed form of sand paintings, all of which have the mystical power to heal, cure, provide understanding of the things we see about us in this world.

Unlike other writers from whom you have drawn influence, these two do not cause you envy by their technique, although the technique of each is simply stunning; they cause you to envy their vision of the universe and the individuals who haunt it. In a real and remarkable way, the characters of Harrison and Erdrich are haunted by their dreams, their awareness of other individuals, and by the landscape about them. They are affected by animals and mountains and trees, by times of day and the heat of desert, the persistent cold and slush of snow. Their words appear as though spun from looms, immersing you in patterns that seem familiar until they draw you into their uniqueness. If it were possible to experience religion as you experience their stories, then you would be a religious person because then being religious would seem to you a tangible, reciprocal system instead of a mosquito swarm in which you were valued only for your blood.

At this moment, you are a third of the way through Harrison's latest effort, a collection of three novellas. The first is set largely in Montana, with a side trip to Arizona. You have spent considerable time in Arizona but most of what you have of Montana comes from Conrad's descriptions of it, and from his son, BC3, and his book, Ghost Hunting in Montana. Now you have Harrison's Montana. You met in this first novella an ensemble of characters you more or less expected and, with a little extrapolation from Annie Proulx's stories of neighboring Wyoming, you would be willing to spend time there in reality, already knowing the heartbreak of not finding the Harrison and Proulx characters but rather the persons and landscape you would encounter by chance. And there it is in a nutshell: Such writers as Harrison and Erdrich and Proulx break your heart page after page because of the way they have drawn characters forth from their real-life counterparts and presented them to you as relatives you did not know and will now enter into love-hate relationships with.

If there is such a thing as a true antagonist in the first of the three Harrison novellas, it is probably Karl, a youngish, smart-ass cowboy. Although you find no redeeming social values in him, nevertheless even he represents a social presence you recognize and, when he and they get what Booth Tarkington referred to as comeuppance, a portion of your psyche wants to cheer. This cheering is not for revenge so much as it is for a celebration of the basic Social Contract..

Your novel in the works owes its present format to Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves. There is a character coming up in the second Harrison novella that could very well bear some influence on the protagonist of your novel in progress. Other elements and influences are gifts happily received. The only certainty of which you are now aware is that both these writers provide ample gifts for the close reader.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thanks for the Memory

You, it appears, have a quirky memory. In yesterday's New York Times op-ed section, the economist Paul Krugman got off a nice rejoinder about lunatic Republicans, using the trope There's no sanity clause. This took you back immediately to a moment at least sixty years in the past, from an old Marx Brothers movie, A Night at the Opera, in which Chico and Groucho were in the midst of a riff on contracts. During the course of the riff, Chico uttered the line, "Everybody knows there's no sanity clause." Krugman's deft, Christmas-day use of the pun was effective; many of the news and opinion bloggers you follow caught it, remarking on its originality. You even Twittered one of them with the citation.

Twice during a prolonged afternoon lunch conversation with Barnaby Conrad and Sandy Vanocer, you were transported back to events you'd witnessed or had read about in order to supply a slight correction to the record, an unintentional role you played as historian. True to form, Conrad commented on this trick memory of yours. Even though Sandy's reminiscences of his past as a newsman were interesting and vivid, you were drawn into the on-going debate within you about the nature of memory, particularly the awareness that your memory of an event is tinged with the colors you impart and may well differ from the memory of another who experienced the same event. Sometimes the difference of the memory resides within the nuance of a particular word. You, for instance, always thought of David Brinkley's voice as wry and amused. Sandy, who knew Brinkley personally and worked with him considered his voice dry and bordering on incredulous. Other times, although the memory comes to you wrapped in more than one sense, say visual and aural, or visual and smell, you wonder if the memory took place or that you are remembering your invention of it, life, as it were, lived as though you had wished rather than as it actually happened. And then there is the not inconsiderable use of that word "actually." Actually means really, or existing as a matter of fact. Compare actual with fictional. Did it happen or did you invent it? Much of your writing life has been focused on invention, in some measure because you felt that not enough of note was happening to you in real life, thus your need to invent it. Possibly because you were not satisfied with the outcome of things in your real life, you sought to rearrange the furniture of events to better suit your sense of self. Possibly.

Can you trust your memory? With some exceptions, the answer is yes, particularly if the memory is of a formula, a mantra, a fact that can be easily checked against two or more sources. Can memory in general be trusted? Well, that depends, and thus does a boundary line emerge between fact and fiction, between participation in an event and self-interest. That wasn't your idea, someone tells you, that was my idea, in a grand sense taking possession of the memory. You experience a squeeze of irritation, knowing it was in fact your idea, in effect wrenching the memory back from an individual who has been suddenly transported from the ranks of family, friend, lover to opponent in the Monopoly game of memory. Then an interior voice speaks to you, Screw it. Let him/her have the memory. You know the truth. Thus in one mighty concession, you have become bigger, more humane in your own eyes, a tower of empathy. You know with rigid certainty that you would never give a woman a gardenia. More likely you would have given roses or camellias but never gardenias. Of all the flowers you know and admire, the gardenia is so far down on the list that you would not even think of it much less give it. If she wants to remember gardenias, be my guest. Thus you are delivered to the nobility of allowing her memory of an event to vibrate reality for her. But you know better; you know the truth and of course, storyteller that you are, you live in the memory of truth.

So then, all the stories you tell of yourself are true? Well, you have a point there. Although he had no say in the mentorship, you have taken the memories of being mentored by Mark Twain, and he has indirectly whispered in your ear that making yourself the butt of a story can work wonders with an audience, even more so than making yourself the hero. In fact, making yourself even slightly heroic tends to heat up the room with the boredom factor. The eyes begin to roll upward, the yawns, at first stifled, tend to break through, and there, you've done it again, you've committed the act of boring an audience.

What emerges in any discussion of memory is the literary equivalent and mixed metaphor of the political football, moved up and down the grid at will and whim, one major truth being that we cling to memories as the dear and defining gifts that they are, incredulous that anyone would think to take them away from us or supplant them with their own.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Share, share the fame

 On those days where you have early classes or meetings with clients, or some household transaction of necessity, you may easily find yourself arriving at ten-thirty or eleven o'clock as though on automatic pilot.  True enough, you are likely to be coping with your own moods and the moods of others, making eye contact, ingesting information (and coffee), processing relevant information; you are in your behavior anything but an automaton.  And yet, there is a part of you missing.

The missing element makes itself known in a manner similar to a cat wanting to come in, then go out, or a cat wanting to go out, then come in.  The missing element is the more gradual awakening to such gradual steps as Sally requiring a shot at the back yard, putting on water and milk for coffee, discovering where it was you last had contact with your trousers, considering your list of priorities for the day ahead, even toying with vagrant ideas that may be related to work you have undertaken or are in fact contemplating.

You read somewhere--Natural History, perhaps,or The New York Times, or Scientific America, or even The London Times Literary Supplement--that the individual is coping with hundreds of millions of sensations and bits of information per hour, minute observations related to the senses and to memory and anticipation, the aggregate of which has a strong influence on the mood and behavior of the individual at any given moment, even such seemingly automatic moments where the individual is preparing emotionally and physically for a morning class, meeting with a client, or need to greet the technician from the cable TV/Internet service provider.

It is your own sense of things that the individual is quite literally sorting out the universe, coping with it, explaining it to himself, much as the quantum physicist is, on a grander scale, trying to explain and articulate for him- or herself the structure and origin of the universe.  It is also your sense that you have ventured upon writing as your own personal means for understanding and explaining the behavior of the universe to yourself, setting up trial balances and problems that will help you.  One such enigma that presented itself this morning was wondering if post traumatic stress disorder translated with equal, superior, or inferior intensity to those individuals the United States once considered enemy combatants.  We will not investigate here the trail of thought that led you to wondering thusly; it is amusing in its own way and may perhaps provide a platform for another essay.  You did extend the wonderment to the point of empathy, bringing to your imagination a sous chef in the Viet Nam restaurant on State and Victoria Streets here in Santa Barbara, formerly a Viet Cong, now living and working in apparent comfort in his adopted country but haunted by the wartime memories of things he did to American soldiers in combat and to innocent Viet Nam citizens.

Although you appeared to be turning over elements of a story in the lathe of your mind, you were primarily trying to explain aspects of human behavior to yourself.  A number of prompts throughout the years have reminded you of this intent, but the intent seems at times to suffer the same fate as the loose change and pen knives you carry in your pockets, slipping into the cushions of the chair or sofa where you often perch to read or sift through a meal, investigating it as though it had some other hidden information it could reveal to you.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with reading for pleasure or eating for pleasure or listening to music for companionship rather than the potential spectrum of emotion and understanding it may offer.  You do, on occasion, read, eat, listen for pleasure, nevertheless gaining more than mere physical nourishment.  But you have also trained yourself, for good or ill, to read, eat, listen for understanding.

Writing, particularly in fiction, is a way of dramatizing the conditions for understanding in the kind of dialectic that brings sense to you, a quality of having considered varied, often opposing, forces to the table.  The times you most regret are the times when you struck off into the unknown with only one map or guide, meaning in effect that you had no other awareness available to you.  When you made choices, even blundering choices, you were more likely to have stored comfortable memories in your toolkit, memories that were not mere clutter but, indeed, tools to help you in future transactions.

For some time, you shied away from processing materials such as this in the defensive position of not wanting to appear to yourself as being selfish in your desire to publish your discoveries.  You were haunted in some ways by individuals you admired, whose strengths you aspired to, but in whose lives you saw flaws or missteps you were hesitant to duplicate.  As matters now stand with you, publication is neither issue nor problem; you particularly wish to publish the nonfiction work that is now ready to go out into the world, this as a gesture of sharing.  There is enormous ego in it, just as there is enormous ego in you, but the enormity is leavened by the awareness that the information, the candied fruits and nuts in that confection, may well be ignored or yawned at.  You have the satisfaction before hand of having written and revised in ways that allowed you to enjoy each morsel.

Here you are, then, explaining the universe to yourself, doing so by writing it in one form--nonfiction--or another--fiction--then moving on to the next explanation.  In many ways, through a great series of accidents, you have become the teacher you wished to have had for yourself.  In this role, you incorporate the positive characteristics of your dreams but you also embody the things in other teachers that enraged, outraged, and bored you.  You are all of these as well as all the positive.  You do try to edit out the negative, but you are by the very nature of things embarked on a course that leads to disappointment.

From which you arise, dust yourself literally and figuratively, then set forth with a new work, paraphrasing Sam Beckett's "Fail again, only next time fail better," with "Explain again, only this time, explain better."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mad about You

Over the years, you have had frequent opportunity to socialize with writers, either in one-on-one editing sessions, impromptu lunches with a group of friends, speaking engagements at writers' organizations, the unflaggingly raucous dinner meetings at the Cafe de Paris, when you were regional president of the Mystery Writers of America, and back in the day when the LA Times was a newspaper, at the yearly celebration for their Books-of-the-Year Awards.  In more recent times, here in that exotic bubble known as Santa Barbara, you have the options of the Tuesday afternoon Wet Words gathering, the Wednesday Round Table, the First Thursday Lunch, and of course the Writers' Conference, interspersed with your regular Monday and Thursday lunches with Barnaby Conrad, and the Friday Morning Coffee at Peet's.  At earlier times in Santa Barbara, you were invited to Ross Macdonald's (Ken Millar's) Wednesday lunch group, as well as its splinter group that broke the gender barrier by inviting women. In many of these gatherings, fermented beverages were/are available if not an outright staple.  There were also invitations from the Santa Barbara Screen Writers' Association, where for a time, and on the basis of having once financed a Volkswagen Bug through the Writers' Guild Credit Union, you were an object of envy.

 With such sterling credentials, you believe you understand the permutations inherent in the writer persona, even to the point of seeing aspects of it in your own comportment.  It is a particular kind of madness, a landscape inhabited by literary agents, publishers, Quixotic dreams, stunning disappointments and depressions,confrontations, accusations, celebrations, and moments of stunning revelation and insight.  Even such unseemly behavior as you are likely to note in a writer whom you hold a particular disregard will cause you in final analysis to conclude, But he (or she) is our writer.

This has long since caused you to suspect that each discipline, say music or acting or dance or photography or fine art, has its own landscape of madness, inhabited by and familiar to its denizens, and in that sense we are as patients in a mental institution, each in his particular ward, sometimes escaping into another ward, say the film studies ward, therein to try the cafeteria and perhaps mis en scene of that landscape as a vacation from our own.

From time to time we are nudged back into the ward of the normal, the un-mad, those men and women who have had to take jobs of some other sort to meet their living expenses or to cope with growing children or aging parents.

By dint of furious work and focus, we have bent the rays of perception and reality to the point where we see a different reality although not by necessity a better one.  It is difficult to imagine, for instance, that Franz Kafka could have enjoyed his landscape.  Although he may have appreciated it, recognized it, accepted it, yet it becomes difficult to envision him thinking this landscape of conspiracy and uncertainty was any sort of cosmic promotion.  Yet still he accepted his landscape and wrote about it, leaving us a legacy we may have, each in our own way, passed through, recognized, and took steps to keep on riding away from it until it was little more than a glow in the rear view mirror.

From time to time, events and persons in the real world will try to talk us out of our landscape of madness, asking questions, needing our help, wanting the comfort of our presence as friends rather than as writers.  We accept these calls, secretly aware of their potential for use in our work, but no less ready to be a friend.

Many of us are not recognizably kidnapped by our madness, yet as we spend time with one another or even on a first-time meeting, it is possible to tell.  One former student of yours, a remarkably empathetic and generous woman, recognized at some point in her life that her sexual orientation wasn't what she had led herself to believe and thus, like a politician changing party affiliations, publicly switched orientations.  She spoke to you of a gaydar, a resident awareness one gay person had for distinguishing not only men from boys and women from girls but gays from straights and bi-sexuals.  Writers, you believe, have a similar detector by which one can assess the degree a professed writer has progressed into his or her necessary madness.  She's off-the-deep-end-nuts you think of a particular writer, by which you mean she has progressed well along the path she has chosen and is recognizably haunted by her visions, this assessment in opposition to one that indicates she still has some serious hiking to do in order to catch up with her madness.

Fortunately for you, both your mentors were flat-out mad, each shrewdly able to appear in public with the patina of normality, which, you recognize fondly, was not normal at all but rather an uncommonly deep kindness and empathy.  Rachel and Virginia have pulled you along into madness in their slipstreams.

In recent weeks, you've been writing letters and filling out forms from various universities for students wanting to enter yet another form of madness, the madness of graduate schools, the on-going madness of the great asylum we know of as the university.  In each case, you have found yourself tempted to use a shorthand you know exists and thus in your recommendation numerically relate him or her to the density of nuts in a fruitcake;  he or she is in the upper two percentile of nut case students I have known over my career.  You forebear to do so; you resort to the quotidian vocabulary, reminding yourself as you do of a mere mortal who has perhaps had a mystical experience, trying to explain it to an audience that desperately wants to have a mystical experience.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

If wishes were horses, would beggars get rejection slips?

 For many of those who write with the notion of telling a story or discovering the essential story in the hurly burly of real life, the operant mantra is composed of those two provocative words, What if.

The writer who is as concerned with self-discovery as the telling of a tale is well aware of the glorious possibilities ready to escape, genies from their bottles, when the What if proposition is posed, but is as well aware of the yet more primal formula of I want.

Either of the two existential pronouncements carries with it a weight similar to the quantum physicist's quest for the formula that defines the creation of the universe, and while you wish each player good fortune in this game where quest is the feature race, you have the admittedly cynical belief that answers are never as satisfying as the asking of the questions that provoke them.

What if produces a nice springboard for invention, development, and some sort of resolution.  We have only to look at some of the J.S. Bach two- and three-part inventions to see how successful and enduring so many inventions are, removing us as they do from the random collisions of event and intent about us, offering the fictional possibility of a tidy or near tidy result.  In a real sense, a tidy result is a final paper from a student, marked with queries and encouraging developmental notes by you and returned to the student without having been thrown up on or urinated upon by a cat, a dog, or both, to say nothing of having the work returned without a trace of coffee spill or the embarrassing hallmark of peanut butter.  A tidy manuscript goes directly from the printer into an envelope or box, transported by hands of relative cleanliness, absent of ink, peanut butter, coffee, and not to forget catsup, thence to its destination of literary agent or editor of choice.

I want is a speculation of a prescient perfection, it is desire for a Porsche, the attainment of said Porsche, and not only the ability to pay for the servicing of said Porsche but beyond that the ability not to experience back pains from getting in and out of said Porsche.  It is a desire for a particular person plus the unspoken desire that said person will not be a pain in the ass, being instead appreciative of having been wanted  in the first place.  It is the desire to be published at a particular venue without the need for a full-on conflict with the copyeditor of said venue, replete with such queries as Who he? every time you mention Mahatma Ghandi.

Each--What if, and I want--is in its own way a condition made more wonderful by its seeming impossibility to achieve, because failure to deliver to one's satisfaction and getting what one wants actually keep one writing because of the delicious possibility of the twofer, the realization of the two simultaneously, as in, What if I get what I want?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What have you done for me lately?

It is no exaggeration or hyperbole to say that you have listened to music for thousands of hours; this statement is true in consideration of a work-week being forty hours, a day being twenty-four, a year being eight thousand seven hundred sixty hours.  So exaggeration is off the table.

The hours spent listening to such genera as classical, ballet, jazz, chamber, folk, blues, and film scores renders you only slightly educated.  You can often separate Mozart from Haydn or Beethoven; you can surely tell such distinctive tenor saxophone voices as Coltrane, Webster, Hawkins,and Rollins or Getz from one another, and you would have no trouble with various other virtuosi.  To a satisfying-but-not-extensive degree, you can even distinguish the particular sounds of seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth-century music.

If your abilities with music amount to a six on a scale of ten, you could extrapolate your awareness of writing and story at a high seven or eight, looking enviously and with determination toward nine, which is what leads you to the connection between the musician and writer you wish to consider today.  Musicians and writers do not, to overstate the obvious, grow up in a vacuum.  The memorable composers in either art have grown up hearing a particular sound or set of sounds, recognizing themes, cadences, use of detail and form.  These memorable ones have each contributed one or more things to the evolution of a particular zeitgeist, have broken one or more traditional boundaries to arrive at a new, recognizable plateau so that, for instance, hearing the third movement of any of the nine Beethoven symphonies, you could identify him as the composer of that particular symphony, or if you already knew the symphony to have been written after Beethoven's time, you would be aware that this particular segment was influenced by Beethoven.

You grew up in a zeitgeist dominated by Hemingway, although you gravitated toward Fitzgerald and Cheever and Shaw, becoming increasingly aware of Hawthorne and Twain, lurching bumpily over a road crowded with the two O'Hara's John and Frank before you began to discover the nuance and freedom of women writers, major among them Louise Erdrich and Annie Proulx, but not to forget Alice Munro and Bobbie Ann Mason, who in person gave you a shove into what ending a story meant that you had not got from anyone else.

So the question for you to ask yourself and, when the occasion warrants, your students and even into your clients, is this:  What thing or things do you do to help your zeitgeist evolve?  You could follow up with questions about form and vision.  You could even play a sort of devil's advocate role with yourself and with such critics who come along from time to time with pronouncements that the novel is dead, that short stories are too structured or not structured enough, that flash fiction is the future because no one has the patience to read any more than a few hundred words without needing to do something else.

Ah, Mozart, you were thinking yesterday morning while driving to a meeting and listening to Classical KUSC, undoubtedly a piano sonata, if your memory held, likely it was the piano sonata in C, and if your ear was on, the performance was by that wonderful Mitsuko Uchida.  Well, you were wrong about her; although the announcer said that most performers except her and the current player tended to render it in the same manner.

Sometimes a story seems to want to fit itself snugly into the zeitgeist you have immediate access to, the one in which you learned to read, the one in which seemingly wherever you turned, there were stories fitting a particular pattern so that you could almost anticipate the outcome before you were halfway there.  And so you tell yourself, why not see what you can do to your stories to help them out of the increasingly crowded shopping mall and into a landscape of its own.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Help, Help, I'm Being Held Prisoner in an Uninteresting Story

 Of all the many cautionary taboos brought to the table as warnings to the beginning writer of fiction, the one most offensive to you is the adjuration against writing what one does not know.  You have railed against this injunction in classroom, workshop, coffee house, beer parlor, and the hoary redoubts of your own mind.  The sheer folly of such a dogma would have deprived the Common Era of its most notable works of imagination, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Tarzan on Mars, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey exemplifying the possibilities, and by a simple extension such works as Romeo and Juliet and Huckleberry Finn.  These latter two make the list because in each case the author, a male, does not know from first-hand experience what it is to be a woman, and can only guess, extrapolate, or invent, hopeful of not offending too many women readers who know a thing or two by which to criticize any attempt at a portrait of their gender that has the temerity to come from the male writer.

The better taboo is the one against writing anything for which you have little or no interest, a taboo that in its more general reach can be made to include characters as well as subject matters and locales.  This particular taboo is actually useful because it precludes setting forth on journeys where the writer has no stake, no emotional baggage bouncing along, no real concern for outcome or effect.  Your own support of this measure is based on the belief that the more interest the writer has in a person, place, or thing--any noun for that matter--the greater the likelihood that some vital and transforming association will want to tag along for the ride.  You believe such associations provide greater emphasis and plausibility to the nouns in the story, making them in turn more interesting to the reader.  Such an example is in the story, "The Talent" you published some years back in which the protagonist, applying for a job at a university, was sent to have her photo taken as a step in the process.  The photographer was reading The Heart of Darkness, a detail you argued with through several drafts of the story, first putting it in, then removing it.  What possible effect on the outcome of the story could there be in the title of a book being read by a photographer? The exact number of insertions and deletions of that one detail are lost in your memory's darkest corners, but with the final decision to leave that detail in the story came the answer and thus the conclusion to the story.  The title of that book the photographer was reading became the metaphor for the entire story; you were saying then and continue to believe even now that someone entering a university is in effect entering a heart of darkness.

How then, progresses the rhetorical question, does one inject a character, a story, a setting, an unspecified noun, with that quality known as interest?  Why, of course, by investing the noun with one or more details of interest to you, or by asking the direct question, What would it take at this moment to interest me in this noun?  Then you shut up and listen to the answer that comes, seemingly from the bottom of a well into which your interest has fallen, shouting Help, get me out of here.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ars longa, vita brevis

With abundant thanks to the world of the blog and Internet search engines as well as friends who are writers and former students who check in, you have a wide swath of sources--a considerable demographic, in fact-- from which to chose when you want to see how things are progressing for other writers.  The demographic is so vast that at times you begin to construct a list of priorities to be discovered in their musings.  Some of the favored topics are in no particular order save the order of whim: coffee, agents, editors, persistence, revision, brick walls, self-reliance, self-doubt, coffee, agents, rejection slips, shadenfreude, conformity, copyediting, debts, day jobs, understanding mates, not understanding mates, being published, not being published, fear of being misunderstood, fear of revealing family secrets.

You have had lead roles in productions staring most of these concerns, having worked your way through most of them to the point where you began this form of note-taking, the blog, as a reference point by which you can return to see what you've worked out and which things are still clamoring for your attention, the common denominator being the old truism of ars longa, vita brevis.  Your notebooks and blog entries are in a real sense a measure of your evolution, a metaphoric wall or door jamb on which are penciled the heights of your growth along with approximate dates.

It is your view that those writers whose major goal it is to achieve publication are in a bubble just as writers who have been severally published inhabit yet another.  Just as you were helped in making the transfer from one to the other, you've had a hand in assisting others, a nice, almost deus ex machina tidiness, but nevertheless a way of paying back favors, a way, to quote from one of your students, of paying it forward.

At focus here is the notion that writing, reading, and talking are functions most of us perform every day, many of us with no thought of improving our abilities either of performance or understanding.  For some years, your shibboleth was wanting to be the best writer you could be, then going beyond that, which is about as unspecific as one can get while still preserving the sense of righteous conviction.  A drunk in a parking lot brawl has as much if not more conviction.  Thus your journals and notes to define what it is you seek and how you intend taking one of the things most civilized persons can do--write, read, and talk--and making a career of it.

One of the things you admire most about your Internet acquaintances is their persistence; not only do their writings radiate the desire to write, their output and the subsequent despair when there is no output serve as tangible evidence of their intent.  One writer you know, a former student, has persisted her way into publication, her persistence overcoming what you consider a notable lack of native ability.  Another writer you know, slippery and elusive with talent, has avoided publication by a persistent lack of persistence in sending her works forth.  

Back to the bubbles:  It is your view that those who have not yet articulated such things as what they want to write, what their purpose in writing is, and what distinguishes their results from the results of other writers is doomed to the--watch for badly mixed metaphor here--bubble equivalent of the kiddies' sandbox.

Most of the experienced writers you know, regardless of their age, are remarkable in their idiosyncratic ability to put forth their ideas in speech and writing and to glean from the works of others they read an inspirational level of understanding.  Case in point is the English writer Jonathan Raban, who moved to Seattle some years ago and is for all practical purposes bi-citizen, American and Brit.  You first came upon him years back, pitched a review of an early book of his paired with the first work of William Least-Heat Moon.  Just recently, in the London Times Literary Supplement, you came upon a retrospective view of his take on an early work by one of his university teachers, the noted teacher and critic, William Empson.  Within ten minutes of reading that essay by Rabin, you were over at Amazon, ordering The Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson's major work.  You ordered it because the concept of ambiguity has been on your mind for some time, but more to the point, you ordered it because you admire the writing of Jonathan Raban.  The book arrived and you fell on it.  So far, it is a major disappointment, which means you still have the potential of adventure and discovery in your attempts to read it.

Ambiguity is a fact of life.  So are reading, writing, and speaking.  So, too, is persistence.  To do whatever it is we hope to do, with any hope at all of that great intangible, happiness, we must persist in coming to terms with ambiguity, sitting across the table with it, dining with it, eating with it, reading with it, understanding what writing means.  For you, the writing you are most focused on is writing that involves story.  This appropriately adds the need to seat story at the table even if the subject at hand to be written about is a book review.  There is some story inherent in the review or, as you judge such things, what you have produced is an outline, a summary, a precis, an apercu.  The subtext to all of this is to get as much of yourself into what is produced as possible, to the point where it reflects you and, even though it may be ambiguous to some, does not equivocate.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Arse Poetica

You've gone on at some length and tangent where the joys of discovery are experienced directly through the act of composition.

Do not, you admonish yourself these days, consider the merest blog post, personal essay, or book review complete without you having discovered some fact or behavior previously unknown to you. It goes without saying that you would persist in such focus if the work in progress is a short story or novel. Thus have you covered the bases.

What you had not considered is the increasing equation in which association has a direct relationship with discovery. From about the time of your late thirties, you'd written enough to be aware of a causal relationship between the two but it took you this added time from then until now to put it in so many words as a cause-and-effect recipe. As matters stand now, when associations begin to appear for you, there is no longer any question that you are "in" the material you are composing, immersed sufficiently to push aside awareness of the present moment, focusing instead on the separate life of what is being written, experienced, anticipated.

When you first became aware of this association connection, you assumed it was the product of maturity, bringing you the gift of association, leaving it on your doorstep to fend for itself, like an abandoned puppy. In its way, it made sense to equate age with experience and, thus, more medium in which associations could spawn. On considered thought, age isn't the focal point at all; muscle memory is the driving force. No matter the age. When you begin using the association connection, it begins developing muscles which in a literal as well as figurative sense lift story from one-dimensional to the sort of simulacrum of your choice.

Associations that trigger unexpected connections are those you prize most, the warmth and energy conveying to you a personalized landscape instead of the random ones where you sometimes find yourself, eager for some point however remote on which to orient yourself.

Aha moment: you write to find your way out of the random, the unknown, and the unfriendly neighborhoods in which you find yourself. These neighborhoods may be internal or external; the feelings in each are amazingly similar. By entering a random, mysterious, or openly hostile turf, you are reminding yourself of the great duality between the you who is a runner and the you who is a problem solver.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Hall Pass

Not all that long ago,you were thinking about a landscape in which everything was at rest, or to put it another, more dramatic way, in a waiting state of stasis, that is, in a state where things are happening that may not yet be evident. A huge boulder, say, is in the process of becoming a driveway path of small pebbles. The boulder does not know this yet. For one thing, boulders don't even know about the pathetic fallacy; they remain what and where they are, benign, inanimate, awaiting such fates as the elements will provide.

Bring a person into that landscape, with a boulder or two awaiting their fate, perhaps a few trees expressing volition to become newspapers, even a stream, on its way to overflowing its banks, working up a little erosion damage. The character who wanders into such a setting may want nothing more complex than a good rest or a night's sleep, perhaps even a drink of water. The moment a character enters a scene, we have a pretty good sense in general of what's going to happen. Something will actually go wrong or appear wrong enough to cause the character concern. That is, of course, if we're talking story.

A character goes to a landscape to meditate or walk the dog or go fishing or watch the aurora borealis. Not a story. Event. Even intent. But no story. Story doesn't arrive in the scene until at least one other event occurs. Someone is already there. A huge bear appears, looking for food. An unanticipated event that produces an emotional response such as suspicion, disappointment, fear, frustration. Sure, the responses may be more positive in nature, but sooner or later, something has to go wrong in the sense that the things seeming so positive now have huge red tags of consequence tied to their big toe.

So you look at the landscape, wondering what it is about it that will give you the slight hitch necessary to move you from the real world, which has its own set of troubles, to the place of story, which has more sophisticated troubles that date back to the times when we barely had a language, traveled in small groups, and hoped to hell we were following herds of animals who knew a thing or two about how to locate food. The writer likes to think of himself/herself as a tour guide under such circumstances, but it often works out that the writer is the last to know, reinforcing your own belief that you have to listen to the characters and how they read the instructions emitted by the landscape.

Least of all does the writer know, which is the advantage of being a writer in the first place. If you knew, you'd not be all that much of a storyteller. Or to put it another way, whatever you are now as a storyteller, you'd be less than that if you went into a new story knowing what the answers were and what the best route to follow is. You want to be misled, to make wrong turns, to have your preconceived notions stood up on end.

In the long run, it is even better for you if your characters don't all think you have such great people skills, instead telling you egregious lies or saying things to one another behind your back. Your characters remind you of yourself when you were a kid, eager to move away from parental oversight so that you could go forth to screw up big time, then come back to write about it.

Watch yourself, kid; it's a story out there.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Shall I compare me to a summer's day? Go ahead, compare me

In a remarkably vibrant film, Venus, in which Peter O'Toole portrays Maurice, an aging disaster of an actor, there is a scene that touched you even more so than the others. It is s cold, rainy afternoon in contemporary London, surely late fall, possibly even into the winter months. Maurice is out prowling the streets, at the tail end of an impossible romantic tangle in which he has allowed a young girl with whom he is hopelessly infatuated to use his apartment wherein to have sex with her boyfriend. On his walk, O'Toole (Maurice) ambles into a deserted outdoor theater where, we are led to imply, he has performed in earlier days of his career. Today, Maurice, on the mend from prostate cancer surgery, steps out onto the stage of the empty theater, its seats covered with fallen leaves and crumpled papers, all of which have been tumbled about by the caprices of weather.

After a moment, Maurice begins to recite Shakespeare's Sonnet Number 18:

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

For a moment, he is thinking of and addressing this impossibly unattainable object of his desires, but then, you can see his axe, his instrument, his talent clicking into place and the remaining lines are spoken to them. This is who he truly is. This is him now, showing us in the reading of a mere fourteen lines what qualities of voice, timing, love, understanding, and craft mean and, literally give life to him.

On any number of occasions since you saw the film, you have paused in places alone or with an audience composed only of Sally, who is busy sniffing and scouting. You have at times indulged the conceit of attempting to imitate O'Toole, but even at those times he shines through and reminds you that there is nothing in it for you to imitate him, rather think what there is to simply utter those lines as coming from you, which is in essence what you have in your toolkit. This is a direct riposte to the concept of rejection at any level. You quite naturally are open for an audience but the sine qua non is that you have a toolkit, a you as opposed to an imitation.

There are many who would not otherwise give a whit for Shakespeare, let alone his Sonnet Number 18. You might for a moment or two change that. Or not. Your vision is of O'Toole being this elderly shell of the man Maurice has become, reciting fourteen lines during the course of which his entire being is alert, supple, in tune, which is what you hope for each time you set out, find the stage, step forth, expel that first word. We're talking eternal summer here, the eternal summer of story.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Key Signatures

Thinking as you do from time to time about the places where music, acting, and writing overlap, your latest awareness came in response to the approach the musical composer takes to choosing the key in which a work is cast.  The actor uses a similar type of approach in selecting a vision of the character to be portrayed.  The writer gets to chose point of view.

Your own favorite for the short work is third person, the he or she, although you are not adverse to first person.  You can't sort the reasons for this preference (which would accordingly make for a focused investigation) although you do know that from time to time, you do find yourself using first person without having questioned the decision (you are quite fond of any decision seemingly reached without conscious thought).

When it comes to a longer form, a novella, novelette, or novel, you gravitate toward the multiple point of view, a medium you have favored since the approximate time when you were moving away from the influence of other writers and settling into the practice of heeding your own inner voices.  From time to time, as you read something rendered in multiple point of view, you find yourself nodding in agreement with the author's choice.  It was likely your reading of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone that set you off on this track.  The current work in progress, is in multiple; you did not for a moment even pause to consider other choices even though the throughline is a character you've known for lo these many years.

This seems a natural progression from your earlier use of an authorial omniscient, which allowed you to comment, as it were, on any character who interested you.  Now, of course, they all interest you and you find you would be trying to upstage them if you did not back off and let them have the opportunity to develop on their own.  Following this path, you use revision to--among other things--remove as much of your own commentary from the story at hand.

Two writers you admire, each for a particularly different facet, seem to intrude more into the story than you.  William Trevor seems to own the omniscient point of view, his deftness and control admirable to the point where you find yourself occasionally rereading a passage or a scene to make sure you didn't miss any relevant nuance.  A.S. Byatt is all over the place with authorial observation and control, doing things--such as describing works of art or music--you admire but would not think to do (perhaps because you can't?), leaving you to run the risk of letting your characters do the description for you (and thus running the risk of reader feeder, imparting information you want the reader to have).

Multiple POV seems also to sit nicely astride your vision of the ambiguity and complexity of event and the interpretation of event.  Multiple also allows you a range of naivete to be shared among your characters with sometimes the most blustering, self-assured, desk-pounding sort being the most naive of all.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea; the memory of all that....

 Story begins with the implicit and explicit assumption that something has happened or will happen to impinge upon stasis.  The life in a story was static before the altering event, thus does the altering event step forth with some innate theme, just as an actor steps forward into a new scene aware of goal and agenda to achieve the goal.

You might say then, In the beginning was stasis.  Everything in the landscape of the story was going on about its business as usual, evolving slowly, moving toward some final destination, a boulder, say, on its journey to becoming smashed into particulate we think of as gravel.  Even then you could, if you wished, make use of the gravel as a pathway or a playground, each to be trod upon by generations to come.  The important thing to consider is the passage of time, ticking away, beats from a metronome, measuring the passing flow of event as ordinary.  A human arrives with no agenda, is caught up in the natural passing of time.  No story yet.  You see?  Stasis.  But a character appears looking for someone, and the stage setting undergoes a slight tilt toward story.  Why is this character looking for someone?  Romance? Revenge?  Returning a past loan or favor?

There is history in all setting and all character.  Bobbie Ann Mason set her break-out short story, "Shiloh," in a park that was named for a battle in what many Americans think of as The Civil War, others still think of as The War between the States, and others yet think of to this very day as The War of Northern Aggression.  (Already a nice arrangement from which a story can come:  an event seen in three differing ways.  Mason's story is set on a landscape that was once the scene of one of the most bloody and costly battles of a contentious war.  It is only natural--or is it?--that she bring forth a family to set foot on this landscape.  A family.  A union.  Now imagine the family having what families sometimes have, which is a squabble.  Stasis doesn't stand a chance in such a setting.

Each time you select a setting, you are in a sense choosing a place where things have happened, ticking away in their evolutionary time or sped up or slowed down because of something else that took place in this particular setting.  A massacre? A murder?  Love making?

Is story a setting?  Can it be that some past event in a place characterizes the setting?  Heraclitus said we could not bathe in the same river twice; once embarked in story, can our characters feel stasis in the same place twice?

Lots of questions.  Some may be relevant.  If, as you have long supposed, all stories are mysteries and now, as you have come to suspect in recent months, all stories are also alternating universe fantasies, can it also be that all stories are also ghost stories?

For certain, stories are landscapes where stasis has a difficult time making its presence felt.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I felt like it, you felt like it, he, she, it, or they felt like it

Doing something or, conversely, not doing something because we felt like it is a valid excuse in that it has an emotional base, but it is not enough, not for a story, not for any kind of dramatic narrative.  "Feeling like it" is a convenience for not digging a bit deeper to find out why you felt like it.  In other words, you can be lazy in real moments, but if you are lazy within a story, your laziness will come back to haunt you.

Even though story in general has moved incrementally toward the slice-of-life or vignette or mere episode construction, story is still precedent-based, the dramatic equivalent of stare decisis in American jurisprudence.  It is deterministic.  This doesn't mean that the history must be shown as though coming from authorial POV or from the POV of one or more characters, but nevertheless, the history must be known.

The catalyst for this arrived mid-morning this past Saturday as you sat in your workshop, listening to S., reading a segment from an excellently convincing work in progress.  Her protagonist, a young woman who was adopted nearly at birth by a WASPish family from Central Coast California.  The protagonist is a Native Alaskan who has gone from the sunny clime of Santa Ynez Valley to the Arctic realities of Fairbanks, in search of her biological heritage.  After a series of failures of research, the protagonist has given up in her search, believing her biological family must be dead.  Hearing this resignation over a phone conversation, protag's grandmother catches the next flight for Alaska to say, Don't you dare give up.  A lovely move, but not quite enough.  Welling up within you was the very thing that anchored Granny into the story as a vibrant presence:  She, too, was adopted, and she gave up looking for her real parents until it was too late.  Now there is a tangible bond between the protagonist and her adopted grandmother, and the grandmother has a more convincing reason for coming to visit her granddaughter in Fairbanks.

This sense of interconnectedness nicely dovetails with your ever growing awareness of story as being a meeting point, even a clash between individuals driven by some agenda, even the simplistic-sounding one of hormones.  In this sense, story is everywhere, waiting to be triggered, by which you mean given that more basic emotion that will cause it to react to things everywhere.  Story is a landscape that has been beset with land mines, through which characters must tread, aware to some degree of the dangers, but not quite able to articulate all of them, at once suspicious, naive, cautious, casting safety to the winds.

When you find yourself doing something or not simply because you felt like doing it or not doing it, take that extra moment to ask why you felt that way--why you really felt that way.  Doing so is not likely to make you a better person.  Besides, it has become too easy to look about at the better persons and wonder aloud why they are so bent on bettering themselves.  And there it is again, come around to confront you full-on.  Taking that extra moment to examine feelings will add to the necessary tool kit of being a better storyteller.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

It seemed like a good idea at the time

There are times when writing a story is on the same level with falling in love.  There is a rush of extended awareness of the entire world about you.  Details, mere details such as the color of flowers or the presence of buds on the arms of plants or the territorial calls of birds transmogrify into "things," not just things but "things," and you are somehow as sensitive and aware of the phenomenology about you as you were back in your days of popping LSD tabs as though they were penny candy.  

As is often the case, it is difficult to define the qualities that caused the falling in love, making it easier to think of the process as some subliminal chemistry by which you are drawn into awareness.  You should also own up to the risk factor involved, because the person with whom you may feel this chemistry may in her turn feel no such thing.  Alas for unrequited love.
Nearly as much as possible, you see the word discovery in place of chemistry when the rush of awareness comes over you in relationship to writing.  

You were drawn into the writing by some enigma you wished to solve.  You may be well on your way to solving the enigma when, suddenly, shimmering before you, there is a phrase or a clause or a sentence, sometimes even as much as a paragraph in which an awareness is granted you that you had not previously recognized. 

Here, too, you own up to the risk factor.  The discovery you believe yourself to have discovered may not reciprocate, whereupon your revisits to it will not produce anything more than a tinge of regret on your part for what might have been.

For some time now, perhaps twenty years, you've been aware of what you call the unwritten law of revision, the one that urges you to keep revising, rewriting, continue to look from a different perspective or even a different point of view until the moment arises when you discover something you had not previously known or had not had the wit nor grace to articulate.  Even a book review.  Even those confounded, maddening shorts, where you have limited word length and can barely accommodate a skeleton outline of the plot.  Discovery in such cases still emerges, coming in Morse code or haiku or some smaller format.

Because of the enormous evolution taking place inside and outside of publishing, there are extensive opportunities to access stories and essays, places previously unthought of.  With all the material available for readers every bit as eager for transformation as you, it becomes unthinkable not to write as though a discovery were waiting for you in some unanticipated corridor.  The equation for you continues:  it is unthinkable not to write as though you might fall in love, your own calculus equating discovery with love.

You are no stranger to times when you have awakened in a strange bed, aware of another presence, whereupon you understand the literary equivalent of buyer's remorse in all its painful ramifications.  This person actually inspired you to visualize chemistry.  This individual caused you to think in terms of discovery of one sort when in fact you were discovering awareness within you of quite other sorts.  All of which leads you to then become aware from a metallic taste and a pounding head that yes, you may have been drinking, and so, quite possibly, was she, and that she saw in you some chemistry. 

 Moments of embarrassed politeness over burned toast, barely warm coffee,and Welch's goddamned grape jelly.  Not quite the same effect as returning to a story you thought you'd learned from, but close enough.  Your only escape hatch is the realization that in either case, you were with a person or a story, drawn by a need for connection that reminds you again that you are of a species that is often a predator but which has the capacity for compassion and understanding.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Story as The La Brea Tar Pits

Story has become a set of circumstances from which all concerned, characters, reader, and writer are trying to extricate themselves.  Once each is free of these circumstances, the story has been launched with a life of its own.

Characters take first place in the hierarchy of individuals trying to free themselves, somewhat like the larger fish trying to free themselves from the giant nets cast to trap smaller fish.  Their progress in all areas of their involvement with the story are of primary interest to the readers and the writer.  They are living demonstrations of the difference between life, which, in charitable terms, is multifarious, not always structured and, if structured, not according to human terms.

Readers are trapped in story to the extent at least of their identification with the circumstances in which the characters are cast, wanting some of the characters to succeed at the expense of others, recognizing that life may often have entirely other plans.  Readers want to see life as story because doing so offers them chances to get things they wish to have, avoid things they wish to avoid, and rest assured that justice is real and potent as opposed to benign and abstract.

Writers are trapped in story because of the need that drives them in the first place, nudging them to push these manifestations of themselves into tight existential and moral corners.

You may well begin working on a story of longer work with a character whom you conflate with one or more individuals for whom, in real life, you have little or no use.  You may also begin with a type for whom you have no immediate emotional association.  The former type is no problem; it is natural, certainly permissible, to dislike a character at one point in the story.  Readers do so all the time.  The latter is another matter.  You must quickly find details, mannerisms, goals for that character which, by their very nature, will tip the balance within you, causing you to dislike, show disdain, or disagree with that character to the point where you will have to change your attitude.  True enough, as some persons in real life cannot be expected to change, some characters within stories cannot be looked upon to change.  But you can and should be able to change, arriving at the very least in a state of acceptance toward that character you once disliked or thought to be irreparable.

The key to storytelling is your understanding of the story before you and your characters' understanding of the implications of the story in which they swim and flail in their attempts to get free.  So long as your attitude to a character remains constant, you are trapped in the one-dimensional world of cliche and/or outline, of characters behaving as types rather than individuals.

This entire calculus of awareness is, to mangle the metaphor, like multiplication tables which must be memorized to the point of being internalized so that you do not think of them so much as have the correct relationship stored in muscle memory.  The more you commit to memory the awareness of story being a pattern masquerading as a trap, the less often you will need, while in the midst of getting down a solid draft of a story, to do the dramatic equivalent of counting on your fingers.

Repeat after me:  When a story doesn't work, it is because a character you have invented has become an individual you don't know, trapping you inside the inability to get that character more firmly enmeshed in a pattern you know all too well but are not yet willing to claim.

Friday, December 11, 2009

To Build a Fire

One of the earliest short stories you encountered, perhaps reaching as far back as not yet on the cusp of your teen years, was Jack London's "To Build a Fire," in which the narrator's goal was to build a fire the warmth of which would literally save his life against the Alaskan cold.  Over the years, you learned that this story and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations were written with alternate endings, endings in which the outcome was more wish fulfillment or reassuring outcome as opposed to the more noir and plausible freezing to death and having Mr. Pip's sense of future romantic fulfillment yanked from under him with a cruel sweep of event.

Both stories have become personal amulets for you, the short story symbolizing for you the fire of enthusiasm against the Arctic cold of isolation/recognition in the area of your choice, the novel coming to represent to you the personal equivalent of your procession through the process of growth, education, maturation, acquisition of some measure of skil, and the extent to which you could combine these stages in a way that brought you a livelihood.

By nature and temperament, you are at some distance from being a depressive sort.  You may depress others, but that is another matter.  Building a fire simply means having a procession of concepts that arrive on the doorsteps of your receptors, waiting to be transmogrified into a completed essay, short story, novel, book-length work of nonfiction; perhaps a drama.  So long as these arrive and you engage them, take them in, live with them, there is a chance for the enthusiasm of happiness, even the possibility of great expectations, where you see a succession of successful transformations of concept into finished work.  You live with the belief that each may be the last to arrive, whereupon you will be vulnerable to such undesirable neighbors as boredom, depression, bitterness, crankiness.  You sometimes recall times spent wandering bookstores, unable to find anything to read, your threshold of frustration exacerbated by the sure conviction that there is out there a transformative book that will once and for all make clear to you how to proceed with the career you have in mind, where the goal will not so much be stated as wanting to support yourself by your writing as it is supporting yourself with your writing.  In other words, you could endure reverting to your earlier job as box boy in a supermarket so long as you had interesting things to write about.  There have been times as well when you were browsing animal shelters, the keen grief of a recent loss still vibrating as you search for a new companion with whom to set forth afresh.  With a few idiosyncratic exceptions, any dog is a potential candidate but you want that particular spark of recognition, that particular chemistry between man and dog that lets you know this friendship will morph into an abiding partnership.  A short story is a fire against the cold, is a great expectation.  A dog is a fire against the cold, is a great expectation.  A friend is a fire against the cold, a great expectation.  A romance is a fire against the cold, is a great expectation.  All these partnerships evolve with the anticipation that a series of events will lead to an understanding and resolve, a trip toward a discovery, all powered by the fire of enthusiasm and the grandness of expectation.

It is a simple, even simplistic algebra for you:  if there were no more stories to come, the arctic cold would get to the human condition and it would die of boredom, bitterness, crankiness, and depression.  In one of the Jack London versions of the story, a dog survives after the human has died.  With humans and story gone, you wonder sometimes what new life form would evolve to do here what humans have done, and how long it would be before that species began working on a written language with which to archive the journey.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Protective Covering

In recent years security measures have become an accepted price to pay for living in a multifarious society.  We have become inured to the point of thinking nothing about having to peel stubborn plastic covers or wrapping from books, bottles of aspirin, electronic appliances, even flea-control ampules for our pets.  If we stop to think about the reasons why some of these are necessary, our collective memory will take us back to such antisocial pathology as individuals embedding razor blade shards into apples given as treats for Halloween or of poison being injected into foodstuffs and over-the-counter medicines.  There are also statistics published by retail outlets reminding us that a constant percentage of humanity is given to shop lifting, which is in itself a euphemism for stealing.

Meeting such security measures head-on causes in each of us a particular response which could range from rage to a cynical nod of recognition and awareness to the prayer that the transgressor will mend his or her ways, not to forget the re-enforced resolve to be more careful of our own properties and actions that might make us vulnerable, actions such as trusting our brother and sister human beings.

Two disparate things today cause you to equate these idiosyncratic responses with the microthin vinyl covering that protects the faces of new products, faces such as dials of clocks and watches, computer screens, viewing screens of digital cameras, and the like.  These peel-off membranes are meant to protect a product that will ordinarily be scratched or dented, the theory behind such protection being that you would not accept such a scratched or dented product before you bought it.  When you do buy it and remove the covering, it becomes yours, a projection of you.  Each metaphoric ding or scratch becomes an assault on you.

One such assault comes when an individual of roughly peer equality disagrees with your taste in a matter that is of serious and considerable moment to you.  This is not a question of a friend or lover ordering a dish at a restaurant that contrasts markedly from what you have ordered because you after all want to chose friend and or lover for their individuality, not their complete, unflagging regard for your taste as THE standard for ALL taste.  This is a matter of someone having a differing view of a basic construct of story, of literature, of the men and women who write it, and of the men and women who edit it, and of the men and women who speak critically about it.  For example, in most areas, the views of your coffee chum, Ernest Sturm, who professes French literature, prizes the critical theory of Rene Welleck over that of Leslie Fiedler whereas you feel passionately that Fiedler is leaps and bounds ahead of Welleck in his visions of American literature.  Thus whenever THAT subject comes bubbling up, so too comes your attitude, which has infinitely less to do with defensiveness than it does a sense with a sense of trespass, which you allow under the wraps of civility to flare then pass without acting on the energy.  You give Ernest his opinion and respect him for having it, but you also give you the approval for your outrage before settling into the civility of dialogue and difference.

Another example:  a student gives you to read, evaluate, and make suggestions, a story, which becomes an occasion of outrage for you which you cover under that equivalent of a vinyl screen protector, focusing instead on trying to find ways to show that student keys to get deeper into the story, whereby it may be taken to a dimension of depth and originality and significance, all portions of your role as a teacher.

Today, in the upper village neighborhood of the quirky neighborhood in which you find yourself living, you encountered a display featuring two photographs of the President of the United States, the 44th president to be precise, each featuring a Photo-Shopped Hitler mustache.  You were not able to contain as much of your outrage as you wished.  "I suppose,"  you told the displayers of the photos, "this is your revenge for what so many of us said about the last President of the United States."  That did not set well at all, because their response, although you were alone, referred to you as "You people," rendered to suggest that "we people" need to learn what it is to be American.  Thus do arguments and differences of opinion escalate, fracture, Balkanize; thus do differing groups, points of view, and factions ramp up the rhetoric and the emotion of encounter, of turf, of outrage at the trespass of one's own view with the jackboot of moral certainty on the part of the trespasser.  Works both ways if you happen to be on the trespassing side.  One man's trespass is another man's side trip.

Although you are indeed political, convinced for instance that Democracy as experienced in present day America needs a shot of Darwinism, needs a tick or two of evolution.  Your own belief is that the evolution is toward socialism as opposed to what is being branded, packaged today as conservatism.  One of your arguments in that direction is that the conservatives inherited a remarkably large surplus from the administration of the 42nd President of the US, which they promptly gorged upon; now they caution us about fiscal responsibility.  But this belief and this observation are not the closing arguments here; the closing arguments relate to the need of the writer person to walk these mean streets without contributing to the meanness, to remove the protective covering from the viewing screen and walk about making notes, taking it all in, recognizing the flare-ups of the sense of being trespassed upon, then getting back to the job at hand which is not writing as rant but writing as discovery.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Proof of the Padding

Somewhere in one of the volumes of his autobiography, Graham Greene expressed regret that he'd done one of his novels using six points of view, retrospectively thinking five was about the maximum a writer could use without muddying the story and perhaps even causing distraction.  With the obvious exception of Twain, Greene remains an author you have read closely and often.

In the WIP, Secrets of Casa Jocosa, you are at Chapter Seven and are already there are six points of view.  Your instinct is to go forth, adding points of view as they come to you because the story has become a synecdoche, a situation where by design there are numerous residents, all of whom have one or more secrets, thus does Casa Jocosa become the part of something is used to refer to a larger thing; an institution becomes representative for the entire human condition.  The secrets of the various characters assume a near-equal status to the characters.  True enough, you could have a few characters wandering about, outing some of the other characters, but it seems to you more dramatic and certainly more fun to see if you can't have the secrets emerge as the result of interactions among the characters.

There is such mischievous pleasure involved in tweaking real persons into characters for this particular story, then turning them loose as though they were wind-up toys, now crashing into walls, then crashing into one another.  One such individual combines two characters who represent differing period in your Hollywood days, another synecdoche in which Hollywood days represents your own whimsical immersion in the TV-film industry, of which you were once able to write on some resume or other, your most significant experience in the TV-film industry was using the Writers' Guild Credit Union to purchase a VW Beetle.  Budd Capelouto is your character's name, of whom another character is heard saying, "I knew him when he spelled his name with only one B."

As you noted a few days earlier, you may have stumbled on something primal with the notion of defining characters in terms of their secrets.  That observation may need to be filed under an earlier still observation that for each new story, regardless of length, you need to learn how to write all over again.

For the moment,pages are coming.  When they do, you look on and applaud.  When they don't, you need to scurry about looking for ways to make it happen.