Tuesday, December 8, 2009


It may well be that you have written your way into a  awareness if not outright discovery for the thing you had been searching, much as Lewis and Clark had searched for a Northwest Passage.  Ambiguity and irony have occupied your thoughts for some while; so too has the notion of constructing a biography of each character before beginning a story (particularly a longer one).  

You began one particular story, "Dog Star," with the notion that there was a character of some financial success as an actor, who had bought his way into a second home, a get-away home, in Santa Barbara, and subsequently fallen in with a group of breakfast regulars at a bakery/coffee shop where you were a breakfast regular with a group of regulars.  You did not want the character to be you; instead, you chose an actor of your acquaintance who more or less filled the basic qualifications for what you have come to think of as armature status, the bare condition about which you would wrap traits, qualities, and past history to form your own dramatic Golem, who would then go forth to deal with story.  All you needed was the extra edge to give your character enough dimension for you to be able to turn him loose, whereupon he would behave and all you'd need to do was write about the things he did, thought, and, importantly, felt.  In this case, the character, John Millain, had a dog whose very presence made the story.  Millain's breakfast regulars tolerated him because of his dog, whom they all greatly admired.  They did not dislike Millain, nor did they fail to recognize what he was in professional life, but on matter of taste, his dog was his ticket to the morning breakfast table and subsequent conversation.

You, as writer, knew something the protagonist did not know. You knew a secret.

At one time, the considerable shadow of Ernest Hemingway fell over you to the extent of you being completely caught in the need to hear the music of his prose, the better to refract that music into your own.  As a result, your own prose may have sounded interesting, but its content lacked the bite and vision you sought.  How, you wondered, could any man who so clearly saw the value of Twain, be of no value to you.  And so you went after him instead of Twain.  Water under the proverb now; the one thing from H. that remains, the one construct that allows you to venture forth to be you rather than a stylistic copyist, is his notion that you start by putting everything in, then gradually reduce it, removing more than you think safe, so that characters are talking and thinking about things in such a way that the reader is able to see them.  With this in mind, you have evolved your own approach, and think about H. only when Conrad discusses him in relationship to his abysmal knowledge of bullfighting and of those who found the bull ring the easel for their art.  Sometimes, you think of H. when you have occasion to remember his son, Gregory, your classmate for a time, and for Gregory's sharing word from him in re things you had written in parody and or admiration of him, or when Gregory showed you letters from him revealing what an egotistical, cold-hearted individual he was.

At the moment, you are in the process of inventing secrets for the characters who inhabit a novel with the word secrets in its title, wondering if by some fortunate misfortune, you began with the formula reversed.  All characters (and indeed all people) have secrets.  When we talk about making reductions in cooking, we consider reducing a sauce or gravy or juice or marinade or some combination of these to a basic liquid essence.  In writing, the reduction is the secret, what she or he holds tight to the bosom, fearful of discovery, fearful of the consequences of discovery, fearful the cover-up will be penetrated.  Secrets.  Fear.  Vulnerability.

The secret may have to do with a slight or more deliberate forging of one's resume, thus one was employed or inducted or invited or romantically involved.  The secret may also involve a hidden dream, an aspiration, an attraction for another person, an aching wish to become a particular sort of person.

We all of us live with our secrets; they are our companions with whom we conspire in the belief that the conspiracy is unnoticed by others.  Our behavior is affected by our secrets; we sometimes use them as bartering chips with loved ones, the equivalent in its way of having the name of a loved one tattooed on a portion of one's body.  What great misadventures erupt when the relationship dissolves, when the shared secret that was once a bartering chip becomes a ransom note.

The discovery/awareness has directly to do with secrets.  Even now, you are compiling a curriculum vitae for a character who is nominally an academic and is now apparently retired.  You have even compiled a list of his publications.  One of his secrets is that all his publications except one are self-published.  Aha, what does that tell you about him?  Another of his secrets is that he wishes more than anything for recognition as a poet (but has a tin ear for dialogue and music).  Yet another is that although he makes reference to his income from royalties and his university pension, the bulk of his income is from a chain of pizza restaurants throughout the Tri-Counties area.  Now you know him.  Or think you do.  What about his second wife, some twenty-five years his junior, and her secret, and her ambition to be a fine art painter?

When you think about it, you suppose your focus on the bedrock concept of secrets could be reduced to yet another concoction:  Nothing is what it seems.  For the moment, the happy, happy moment, you believe you can live with that.  And write about it.

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