How to tell if you merely have the elements of a story or have become transported to the interior of these said elements, in effect Jonah being swallowed by the whale:
If you merely have the elements or concept for a story, you are not overly concerned with the personality and thrust of the characters; you are merely smug with having another idea, one of several hundred or perhaps even several thousand such ideas since the early days when the mere word story held a kind of luminescence you could scarcely begin to define, and thus your stories came forth as though the plots were the characters and the characters were drawn not so much from the people you saw or imagined as much as from the characters haunting the plots of other writers.
You feel a kind of smugness because, after all, having the elements of a story is no small thing nor even a mid-ranged thing, it is what you do and what you should, after all, be doing. If you are out with some friends and one of them says that he or she is putting a transaction together, a real estate deal, say, or a law case, or even some kind of imaginative marketing plan, you would have no qualms saying you had a story in the works. You might even be aware or think you were aware of them, the non-writers, expressing some form of regret, even though they were going to be realizing more money, perhaps even some sort of promotion as a result of their transaction, while you are more likely to be looking at a rejection slip or two.
You might even have a page or two of notes you scribbled down to preserve the concept for the story, along with some vital dramatic question you would need to answer before you could actually begin writing text.
All well and good, but you are not yet inside, the literary equivalent of the story being the elephant in the living room of your mind.
You are not in until it begins appearing when you least expect it, getting under your feet, your skin, and your patience, getting, for that matter, into everything around you to the point where the characters are slipping you notes telling you the names they have chosen for themselves, possibly leaving hints about individualistic details such as nick names, shoe sizes, relationships, food dislikes, job, agenda. When you begin making excuses for not doing the things you have more or less accepted responsibility for, when you begin laughing aloud at the mischievousness of the inherent humor of a situation, when you begin exacting revenge on real-life situations by your portrayal of fanciful ones, then you are in, deeply and with no escape hatch.
If you are truly in, it might allow you some time off for things such as coffee, meals, peeing, walking with the dog, but it has a serum such as the female mosquito has when she bites you and in the process thins your blood to make it draw easier. It owns you, which is all right because you want to be owned in this way, spend a bunch of your time flirting about with ideas so that you will be picked up for a spell and owned.
It owns you the way a hooker owns a john; it knows all the right things to say to you; it lives in the truth of the lame excuses you give when you get caught. Modern audiences think Pinkerton somewhat of a user and a wretch because of what he has in mind for Butterfly and because of the way he treats her. We know what Pinkerton tells Butterfly and why he tells her. He was away from home. He was lonely. In certain parts of the world we would even say he was horny and you have to understand that. But that is all bullshit. Being in the story means you are on the high of feeling brilliant, mesmerizing, your intellect, artistic reach, and emotional spectrum unparalleled. You are about to be entering an artistic mating with an animal that devours its creator, will even tell said creator how brilliant he or she is while the process is going on, but then comes dump city. Some women delivering children experience postpartum depression; you experience being dumped after the story is finished, led to believe you have given all you had and, just when you could use perhaps a pat on the head, you are cut loose, done, over with.
Until the next time.
Ah, next time.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
How to tell if you merely have the elements of a story or have become transported to the interior of these said elements, in effect Jonah being swallowed by the whale:
Friday, October 30, 2009
The answer to the important question in story, What comes next? is more often than not associated with something one of the major characters wants. The true decision is whether that something comes now, in the immediate moment or triggered something in the past. You begin by setting up a scene in which one or more of your principals meet, preferably in some venue that poses maximal discomfort if not threat to each (thus even if it has nothing to do with the story, you'd consider setting a scene in a butcher shop or deli if one of the characters were a vegan).
Remember that each character is coming into the scene having just been somewhere else, the somewhere causing a dandruff of some sort or other to have spread over the shoulders of said character. Individuals do not merely appear in places, they appear with emotional baggage of having just experienced something that will effect the resident mood. Characters come into scenes also bearing expectations. I've got this meeting to attend and I expect to be bored. My supervisor wants a brief word with me. I am already under the gun of a deadline and I know that the brief word of my superior never lasts less than an hour. I have just come from that brief-word meeting to my encounter with you. How do you expect me to behave?
One of the major purposes of a scene is to advance the story.
All right, you say, advance it toward what, closure? Perhaps complication. Perhaps merely a demonstration that the characters cannot be expected under the best of circumstances to get along well.
They have just come from doing X, where they have experienced Y. They expect this meeting to produce Z. Now start writing. With all these things in mind, do you follow a prearranged script--or do you let them go at it?
Your own take is that working from a script pulls you away from the spontaneous potential for discovery and detail, for the equivalent of Dustin Hoffman pounding on the hood of the car while crossing the street in Midnight Cowboy. Following the script while composing forces you to think, as in making sure you've got everything in you'd hoped.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Is she wearing red shoes or black shoes?
Could be some readers will think red shoes mean to be sexually provocative.
So, let them. Black shoes could be seen as stodgy.
What about black shoes with three-inch heels?
Trying too hard not to look stodgy. Sends the wrong message,
So you're saying all women who wear black shoes with three-inch heels are seen as trying not to look stodgy?
Not my fault. You want her, whoever she is, not to come across as defensive, you should give some help right away by saying pumps or sandals, either of which sound more--
That's a judgment, see. Words carry emotional weight. Like you think words with k in them are funny.
To you, maybe.
Okra. Pickle. Ketchup.
Not funny. You want funny, tuna sandwich is funny.
All of which demonstrates some of the many problems attendant on thinking while writing. Thinking is good when revising, although there are those who will tell you that even then, the way to revise is to read the whole thing, form conclusions and structure adjustments, then stop thinking, just get on the work through muscle memory.
When you are thinking, you have put a strangle hold on association, the process that causes details, sometimes even metaphors, certainly comparisons or connections to come to you. Admit it, you once had the embarrassing experience of having, in the heat of composition, come forth with a simile something along the lines of, he had a facial pallor and texture like a peanut butter sandwich. You were not, however, embarrassed until later, when you read through the story, relieved none of your friends knew the depths to which you were able to sink. You wisely caught it in revision, even using another culinary metaphor in its stead, but one that didn't distract from the tone of the story nor intrude to show how smart you thought you were (which, in those particular days, you did. Things are different now, so you can relax. You don't no Fred, or Tom, or Bill. You particularly don't know Jack, although, with a nifty comma in there, that could give you the title and a pathway to an interesting story. You don't know, Jack. )
The point you are after here is that there is nothing like thought to snip off one of those long series of serve, lob, return, return, return volleys that give stories their pulse and their sense of life. It's one thing to pause for a moment, waiting for the right word, rejecting all others. It is all right provided you don't think about it, rather you let it happen, click, click until the right word comes and you set it down and have lost no time. But if you think, if you ask yourself one question such as those gratuitous ones up at the tip about red shoes or black, you have brought the process to a crashing halt and must find a way to get back in the game.
Just yesterday it was, you were doing a brief transition in which your guy was leaving his breakfast and morning c/word puzzle half finished in order to walk across the grounds of a retirement community to meet another character and tell her, hell yes, I'll take you on as a client, when it came to you that he was about to be blindsided by a golf cart driven by a man perhaps one reader in a hundred could discern at this point as being his older brother. My Guy recognizes him after a casually called out apology, refers to him by a name he has been at some pains to hide, at which point the older brother says "Must you goddam always do that?" The goddamn would never have come if you'd had thought it through. What does a younger brother call an older brother with a subtext of anger and tease? Well, given you know the first and middle names your parents gave their firstborn son who did not progress past six or eight months, thanks to SIDS, and whose death might very well have been a major cause in you being here to write these vagrant lines, you have stowed away the thought that had he lived, Bernard Marvin might have been a--well, an older brother, and to level the playing field, you might have called him BM, letting him know of course that BM was an acronym for bowel movement and that you were simply helping him prepare for the taunts of his friends and classmates. Thus the origin of the goddamn in the sentence when the older brother recognizes the younger.
Big deal, you say, that the incident seems to hinge on that exchange. Big is right, because it paves the way for a great deal of backstory, of thematic material, and a scene to come that is already percolating.
Best not to think about it too much more lest it make you self-conscious. It's one thing to play the scene in you head, insisting on emotional readings each time. That, of course, is not thinking.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
We gravitate to the work of certain composers of music and writers of stories because, regardless of their genre, regardless even of their style, they speak to us in a particularly resonant voice. You believe there is more of a sense of appreciation among composers of music than you find among writers, nevertheless it is clear to you that the protagonist of your current work in progress reads the work of John Shannon because your protagonist admires John Shannon's protagonist, Jack Liffey. The two men have little in common and it was your intent to keep it that way. Having decided who your protagonist's client was to be, your next clear goal was to have your protagonist's client hire him to do anything but track down and retrieve runaway children because that is what Jack Liffey does. Given the circumstances in which your protagonist lives, you thought it would be fun--and it is--to have your protagonist be hired by a housemaid, a decision that got the story in gear--until you had to decide what the maid wanted to hire your protagonist to do. You fussed and fumed for an agonizing day or two before you remembered a conversation with Karen Dellabarca, whom you met by accident while at Peet's. Knowing why the maid wanted to hire your protagonist is something like the earlier ads for the Porsche and other so-called sports cars, zero-to-sixty in a matter of seconds. The novel is at sixty and, although watchful for speed bumps, is purring along.
The thrust of this investigation resides in the first sentence (supra), relating to the why of gravitation. Your own guess is voice. It is not so much that you have been in an argument with Monte Schulz about voice; actually you've engaged him in his discussion--well, no, one does not really discuss with Monte, one waits for him to take a breath--of style, which is a different thing than voice.
Style is equivalent to dressing for an occasion, it is the clothing the story wears. Like voice, it leans some times on word choice, placement, a sense of rhythm and/or design; sometimes it may even impart the quality you find in voice that makes style so agreeable when it works. The quality of which you speak is heart, or perhaps connection, or resonance, or reverberation. Perhaps it is attitude, state of mind, the unspoken presence in subtext. Perhaps it is even all these things simultaneously;it is what represents the transcendental quality of spirit as opposed to mere text. This is the voice that calls, say Mozart or Cannonball Adderly, and particularly Maurice Ravel from the crowd, the force that makes Twain resonate while you could say of John Irving that he has always been two characters shy of a novel.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
It comes upon you from all angles, the most recent during the middle of the night, where you are presented with a disembodied voice, telling you "He has a brother." Heart just short of pounding, certainly at an elevated rate, you arise from the restorative comforts of sleep with an immediate understanding of what this means: The protagonist of WIP (work in progress) has a brother. Okay for that, but while your heartbeat is returning to its normal wont, the dynamic of the brothers has manifested itself, a ghostly counterpoint to the way the seeming antagonist has been haunted since the pivotal event driving the novel. The protagonist's brother and his wife live in rather comfortable state at Casa Jocosa, a fact that was instrumental in drawing the protagonist to live there. There was a rift between the two. Henry, the older brother to Lew, was Herschel at birth, but changed it to Henry to accommodate his wife and, so Lew charged in an earlier bout of anger, to de-emphasize his Jewish birth, as in Henry? Gimme a break, Hersch. All of which now addresses my concern that Lew, the protagonist, was of the story but not sufficiently in the story. Well. Henry and his wife, Lois, invite him to tea, which has added implications because the maid who is present, helping prepare the tea and serve it, has not that long ago hired Lew to pursue the significant mission of the story, and Henry, noticing the maid's obvious attention to Lew, is outraged because, with you she makes eye contact and offers you seconds and we can't even get her to offer us firsts, meaning the brothers are at it...again, just as your late father and his big brother went at it from wonderful time to time.
What this means is that, like it or not, you are officially in. It has been a long time since you have had a novel so absolutely wound about the armature of theme with strands of event; a long time since the dialogue crackled like the lightning of a summer storm. You cannot fucking hide from this in a welter of notes to be returned to later; you are on the horse, which has a mind of where it wants to go.
What this realization means is that you have already begun to see it published, published in a world of publishing gone particularly mad. Not only that, you have come face to face with one of the dualities you've been scribbling notes about lately, this duality being the one between doing it for publication and doing it simply because it is. You would like to do it because it is and because of the chemistry of what it is doing to you now, including the joyous awareness that any given moment, a particular scene or relationship or both are presented to you, spreading out like a leaky ballpoint pen on the pocket of a white shirt. True dat, you do not own one single white shirt, but the message is clear, and the answer is that you have made yourself what you are and it has come back to remind you of it again.
There are, you realize, thousands of persons out there, wanting to write novels, more in fact than persons who buy or read novels. You quite understand why they would want to do such a thing, even though their approaches may vary by 180 degrees from your own, thinking of it as work or difficult or some form of apprenticeship wherein the apprentice is beaten or teased or humiliated. Even as you broadcast pleasure and joy like a dog who has begun to shake off the water from a bath, you are aware of yet another stunning duality. Will you ever again in your life be presented with a thematic core so particularly perfect as this opportunity?
Monday, October 26, 2009
The useful purpose of a blog or journal entry is to provide the writer with a record of concern or enthusiasm, some passionate shorthand that leads upon revisit to an actual scene in an actual story or an actual idea in an actual essay or review. Anything else--recriminations for having gone to the U2 Concert instead of writing or the mere listing of some docket of activities (Had a 9 o'clock class, missed breakfast, checked emails)--is keeping a diary or record, things foreign to you but not, it should be noted, foreign to possible characters. Nor should it have to be defended that there is absolutely nothing wrong with attending a U2 Concert (and much to be gained), except that having written before hand would have made it an even better experience. Ditto having a 9 o'clock class. Missing breakfast usually results in dietary madness come lunch time, but that is a matter between you and Barry Sears and Drs. P and W.
The point here being that the lurking subtext of notes such as this is the energy of concern. It is too easy to write things for which you have no concern and so you have attempted to find ways to keep you from doing so. It is too easy to read things for which you have no concern and unfortunately for you are things you are paid to read. Accordingly, you read such things with an eye for the missing concern, literary equivalents of runaway children.
True enough, one purpose of journal keeping and bloggery is to work yourself up into the necessary concern that forces you to continue writing or reading or, perhaps, to install some subtext you know will yank you back in when you revisit, looking for things that will be useful.
Fair enough, back in the days when your titanium hip did not get in the way of running, you became aware at some point that your body had begun to sweat, a delicious sign that you were "in," approaching not maximum speed nor extraordinary distance but rather congruent with your running process; you were in what the Navajo would call the beauty of your process, you were one with it. Now, you swim to be in the beauty of that physical process, and when you are least aware of it, you enter the beauty of the writing process, not for speed or words per session or quirky metaphor but for the excitement of discovery. Individuals you have created, often on the backs of 3 X 5 index cards, or ideas you have floated of the shores of essay inquiry take hold and offer up insights and connections the non-writing you did not realize were there. Fueled by this discovery, you are propelled to plateaus of performance that can be seen only in retrospect because while they are being experienced there is no room or time for thoughts of assessment or evaluation. A good argument for not thinking while you work, for breaking into that sweat of concern and energy that precludes thought, centering on muscle memory performance.
In some ways, it is like the moments when you are in a dream state and some noise or sensation or the mere rhythm of being asleep intrudes on the moment of your dream and you want to rush the dream forward to keep it in place or at least see how it turns out before you lose it to the rhythms and static of the waking state.
It was great to have been there, you realize, allowing thought processes back into your body, struggling to burn the memory of the dream into your senses. It was a great dream or a scary dream or a dream in which you did not realize you were so attracted to a particular person, or a dream where you were joined with a dead companion such as Edward Bear or Ms. Molly, both of whom ran great sweeping distances with you in the real world.
Do you get the same sense of connection and caring when revisiting your journals or these vagrant pages of your blog? Do they remind you of the thing they should remind you of, which is to say the process of which you were a part when you created the words? If they do not, what have you learned in the interim about making yourself care? And how do you pass it on to the you who will be back here, the archaeologist looking for potsherds and ideas and traces of lifestyle and attitude? You may be certain that you will be back here, looking for materials on which to build story.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
In your own reading of the fiction of other writers, you are willing to put up with matters of plot--too much or too little--as well as matters of description, setting, even theme. You consider it a strength that some of the stories you have enjoyed the most were set in places or eras for which you had no apparent interest. You were somewhat taken aback, for instance, when Richard Powers' novel, The Echo Maker, began in, ugh, Nebraska, but the outcome of that is, as they say, history.
Having more or less defined yourself as laissez faire in your approach to reading, let us move to the place of intransigence, the place where your cholers rise with every infraction to the point of boil, to the point where you become, as it were, at one with Dorothy Parker's observation about a book she was reviewing: "This is not a book to be set aside lightly. It should be thrown across the room with great force."
The issue is dialogue. No other thing, not even Lee Child's stick-figure representation of his character, Jack Reacher, comes upon you with the force of a dragon waking up with a hangover as does dialogue rendered as conversation. You find yourself the perpetrator of enough inane conversation without having to endure more in print or on the computer screen or the screen of your iPod Touch. "Oh, yeah, the novel's comin' along. No, don't have anything but a thematic ending in sight yet. Yeah, yeah, a little something, page or two, every day." You find yourself on the receiving end of it, too. Conversation is, after all, a major component of the human condition, and you want that; you relate to how, Intelligent Design factotems to the contrary notwithstanding, the need to transfer sophisticated and complex information has led the size of our brain to enhance, giving us some greater opportunity to survive a tad longer.
You are particularly offended by such tropes as, "Oh." Or even "Oh, I see," rendered as separate paragraphs, absent any bodily movement or interior monologue to provide subtext or even context, but the blood doth begin to boil when the Hi, Honey, how was work today? Oh, not bad kind of conversation begins and the writer, struggling to break away from such bons mots, becomes even more conversational.
Bad dialogue is the albatross an otherwise decent story must carry in living tribute to The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner." Bad dialogue is the But she really said that of drama, the burden one must bear until the message comes through and the writer--yourself included, realizes that a bad story is made palatable, even good with effective dialogue. Bad dialogue is the pin prick in the tip of the condom of story; it is a reminder that we are reading or participating somehow in the literary equivalent of vacation photos.
"If you come any closer, I--I'll shoot," he said menacingly.
"If you don't stop at once, I'll scream," she said threateningly.
I'm outta here; just thinking about it is getting to me. See you later.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
The final sequence of Ken Kesey's memorable One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is particularly painful for you because, just as Chief Bromden's realization of what has been done to McMurphy is devastating to him, so too does the full impact of what has been done to McMurphy come through to you. From the very beginning, in more ways than you were comfortable with, you identified with McMurphy. The novel resounds thunderously because of its symbolic portent: Don't mess with the system or the system will lobotomize you.
By its intrinsic nature, the system will set forth to lobotomize the individual, particularly the rebel, or the anarchist or, worse yet, the artist and the prescient thinker. In the natural availability of dualities, of chocolate vs vanilla, of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic vs Dr. Brown's Creme Soda, or pastrami vs corned beef, there is the choice to be of the asylum or of its administration; our entire mode of behavior is enhanced from the point where we make the choice. Continue to rebel or continue to suppress.
The lobotomy is an ugly, extreme solution, a step that came to haunt and horrify the Kennedy family when it was done to young Rosemary. Even their money and access to scientific and technological resources could not put them in a position to undo what had been done, and they are in a metaphoric sense weather vanes of the fact that lobotomizing is still being performed in other, less obvious, more insidious ways, perhaps even to the great numbers of us, perhaps even to you.
One of the great sources of lobotomy is the media of pop culture; you could even say the line-up of TV programming on any given day. To be sure, there are mind, body, and spirit enhancements offered throughout any twenty-four hour cycle, but accompanying it is the combined vitriol, ignorance, and the negative tweaking of racial and social positions, to say nearly nothing yet about artistic and cultural standards. The goal of the contemporary version of lobotomy is to induce anger, fear, intransigence, directing these potent forces to define an us and a them as opposed to the artistic and cultural standards that cause us to examine ourselves as a means of expanding the arc and comfort of our survival as a species.
Talk radio has become the Nurse Ratched of the twenty-first century; to mix the metaphor, it is the Roman Circus in which the score and sympathy is always with the lions; it is Inquisition and witch-burning rolled into one, it is the McCarthy and House Un-American Affairs Committee on steroids.
Lobotomy is also manifest in the kinds of authoritarianism and moral certainty that turn such human qualities as faith and conscience and tolerance into the plastic peanuts used in packing and shipping fragile items. Although it borders on the smarmy, how nice to see the religious leader and the scientist meeting in the common landscape of doubt, thus the religious leader who doubts his or her faith and the scientist who doubts the established standards of proof.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Your first stop in the various branches of the library you frequented were the fiction shelves, therein to see if there were new titles in the various types of fiction you read. Finding some or any, you would scoop them up before heading to the next step, which was the reference section, that comforting zone of shelves with sturdily bound volume after volume, often broken down by letters, A-B, or some similar recognition device.
There was stored wisdom, information you could consult to find if not complete answers then at least enough information to provide a picture of a concept. They were reference works of various disciplines, but they had in common the fact of some governing board, some collective assessment of rigorous standard. Nothing, you believed, got into the Encyclopedia Britannica until The Committee examined it and passed on its accuracy. Even reference works related to myth or folk lore gave some kind of attribution that spoke to the possible limits of the application of the information herein. It was in such a circumstance that you learned that Homer may in fact not have been Homer or, more likely, that Homer was a generic name for a number of regional storytellers, not all of whom spoke the same language. It was here you learned of regionalisms and transcriptions, of scribes and their penmanship and their local accents as opposed to Xerox machines and scanners and, of course, flatbed and rotary presses.
Now there is Google and, happily, other search engines that list sources which exist not in shelves but in servers, large electronic storage units that feed into The Internet.
You are of an age and, more appropriately, The Age in which information is as available as a pandemic. With the right receptor tools, an iPhone, for instance, or a small laptop with a specific receptor card, you could from the depths of the Sahara or the remoteness of the Marquesas, access these sources of information, could, if you chose, become an electronic version of the autodidact, the man or woman who gained education from the library as opposed to the university. You might even have the cynic's attitude that all the university did was teach you how to use the library and drink beer.
The point of this brief apercu of electronic and search-engine history is the reminder that you do not have to include in your fiction or your nonfiction the things easily found in search engines. You do not have to educate your reader in that sense of mind stretching. You have to educate the reader in terms of things the reader could not readily find on The Internet. Your job is to make the reader curious then concerned, then briefly satisfied or disturbed to the point where the reader, having finished with you, will go onto investigate on his or her own, using inner resources and experiences as opposed to Internet or Google or library experiences.
Don't tell the reader what the reader already knows or can readily find out from Google. Lead the reader instead to the discovery of how the human condition works, how to survive, how to appreciate and enjoy, how to accommodate to the droughts and floods and famine of the external world with the droughts and floods and famine of the internal world.
You have often observed how difficult it is to successfully portray and depict sarcasm, which you still consider to be a prime observation. You are now growing prepared to take on the task of trying to demonstrate how compelling a study is the study of grief, the major experience confronted on some regular basis by the entire human condition. The individual who has not lost through carelessness, stupidity, random chance, or the mere fact of having survived yet another day is not yet a person who has undergone the major rite of passage of the human race. We lose loved ones, skin cells, teeth, friends, acuteness of hearing, acuteness of vision; we lose that most precious facility--memory. We lose body mass or at least muscle tone. We lose mementos and resolve and sleep and purpose. We lose our way, we may even lose ourself. How is it ever possible to endure under such weighty losses? It is up to the writer, the artist, the musician, the dancer, the sculptor, the actor to show us how.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
As difficult to recover as a lost file that was not backed up, the memory of when you became pointedly and forcefully reminded of the living, throbbing, ticking presence of duality, both internal and external, is not easy to pinpoint. You recall one particular moment when, full-length mirror in hand, you walked southward on Crescent Heights Blvd. in more or less mid-town Los Angeles, heading across Pico Blvd, your intended goal a small east-west street named Chariton Pl., the home of a then girlfriend. Even now, you are not sure about the etiology of the mirror or your intent, which was probably to give the mirror to the then girlfriend, but who knows? and perhaps the investigation would provide some interesting fiction. You remember that you carried in addition to the mirror the reflecting surfaces of being broke, being hormonal, being frustrated in your attempts to achieve some plateau or other with your career, but truth to tell, you had other, greater dualities than that. Truth also to tell, you recall that having crossed Pico Blvd at least three times, only to say something along the lines of The hell with it and with her, you reversed course, proceeded northward, once more crossing Pico Blvd. toward where you think you were staying at the time. At this point, someone stopped you to ask if you were lost. Although you knew the coordinates pretty well, you were indeed lost, just as you'd been lost to greater and lesser degrees in times before that, even with greater certainty, you were lost but not as lost as you would be at certain moments, large and small, yet unknown to you, not remotely imagined, that would befall you as the then became the now and the future.
Such are the ways of duality.
That's one damn fine story, you'd think, sliding the envelope with the manuscript into the mail slot, only to think, moments later, but is it fine enough? Yet another example of how duality plays its soap opera script within you, a splendid metaphor because it is so much a part of your nature to listen to both sides (more, if there are more sides)of an argument. When you were taking the ROTC courses obligatory at the time for male University of California students, you snapped to awareness and closed your hideaway book of the poetry of e.e.cummings when the instructor, speaking about map reading, discussed the aspects of triangulation, which posited in apercu that you could always determine where you were if you had two reliable points of reference against which to determine your present position. If you were southbound on Crescent Heights Blvd. and had crossed Pico Blvd., Fairfax Avenue was X yards to your east and Robertson Blvd. was about an equal X to your west. Etc. You jumped on triangulation at the time and since then because you are with such frequency on some grid or chart or map of decision. You see yourself as laid-back, tense, eager, bored, angry, perverse, curious, amused, their outer garments hung recklessly in the cloak room of your psyche, the only governing process that of duality. Will you, you wonder from time to time, cling to a position to the point where tenacity becomes stubbornness, and stubbornness, not content with being merely intransigence, becomes stupidity? Will your ignorance of a thing lead you down the garden path to stupidity or can you rely on your curiosity and enthusiasm to lead you to that first tentative Googling of the thing then to the library, then to the effort of imprinting opinion and impressions upon your own hard drive?
Whenever you see some variation on the trope that things are not written, they are rewritten, is your irritation a resentment of the hectoring tone the trope has assumed within the hallways of your psyche, in which you are now approached by a hall monitor asking for your hall pass, or is it an awareness that you are called to not merely do but to be-while doing, to participate?
Small wonder we homo saps have a well-evolved duality within us, urging us at every moment to be present at the miracle of our survival.
Thus evolved, you agree to move forward to Chapter Two of The Secrets of Casa Jocosa and all the mirror carrying it may involve that you have yet to see.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
For the longest time, your own familiarity with tools was focused on jumper cables, those long pairs of wires that end with color-coded claws which allow you to connect the positive and negative aspects of your car battery to similarly polar claws on someone else's battery. You became aware of this only last week when a forlorn young woman in the Loreto Square parking lot asked if you happened to have a pair. You did, but they were miles away, in your garage, there because your year-and-a-half-old car has been mercifully free of need. The jumper cables were a gift from someone who similarly felt the relative age and maintenance history of her car precluded the need for such primitive tools. You have been of a mind to carry the jumper cables about with you, but there is a kind of snobbery that comes with the faith of newness and coherence related to a young car.
Somewhere close-to-hand is a twenty-five-cent piece which works wonders at opening the access to the battery on your MacBook, the battery tube on your wireless keyboard, and the soft underbelly of your wireless mouse. A Phillips head screw driver, which came with a pack of AA batteries for said keyboard and mouse, also waits service, and although you don't really think of it as a tool, a small, two-blade penknife with wooden side panels accompanies you When some mechanical matter demands its attention with the insistence of a cat wanting to come in or perhaps go out or perhaps both at the same time, most of us have some immediate sense of which tool or combination of tools will help set things right--back to working condition.
The most important tools for the writer are often ignored, not thought of as tools because of the notion that tools are mechanical, a notion that means all persons who use tools are thus doing mechanical things.
Fact is, writers have tools, entire kits filled with them. Unlike plumbers who love to brandish wrenches or electricians who are mindful about wearing protective gloves, ours are such things as pace or suspense or even that one tools that seems so foreign to beginners, dialogue. But most important of all, the ones we keep closest to hand of all, emotions.
With these tools we are able to portray individuals in the various states the reader will have been in at one time or another or in situations the reader fears as imminently forthcoming, things such as death or lack of bravery or purpose under fire or of being alone or of misunderstanding or of causing others to misunderstand. These tools are hard come by, well beyond the tools we can purchase at Sears, well beyond the ones usually displayed on shelves at Home Improvement or, worse, Wal-Mart. As many of the masters of the various crafts have had to do, we have served an apprenticeship in which we have taught ourselves how to use these particular tools. We have watched patiently as students and dedicated beginners have learned how to use these tools, so that their characters no longer recoil in horror or say "Oh, God," every other paragraph, no longer feel the sweat of fear erupt on their forehead or drip down shirt and blouse, who no longer shiver involuntarily nor gasp, but rather act as men, women, and children do when they are in emotion-laden circumstances.
Like any craftsperson with a decent set of tools, we keep them honed and oiled and ready to evoke for the reader what forces may be tugging at a character, not with the notion of describing to the reader how he or she should feel but more importantly how so many mammalian feelings are shared, and thus of the common humanity of which we are all a part.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
As is the case with so many of your sisters and brothers of the rejection slip, you from time to time indulge the fantasy of being able to earn enough from your various writing ventures to support yourself in some manner a tad above subsistence on peanut butter sandwiches, tuna casseroles, and pasta sauces made from target-of-opportunity left-overs. Such thoughts come with particular thrust when, as yesterday afternoon, you were slightly off coordinates in attempting a flip turn in swimming, got unanticipated water up your nasal passages, and were suddenly presented with a stunning scenario that caused the mysteries of an at-arms'-length novel to penetrate with such sharp clarity that, nose still useless and slightly burning,you rushed home to get the vision on the screen and, as if not yet trusting computers, printed out the pages. It is an on-going joy to have such moments, nose to the contrary notwithstanding, giving you not only enjoyment from what you do but a pride in it. The pride and joy may even last for another day or until you reach the budgeted time to get back to the novel for N number of hours.
Ah, to have the time to bully your way through such minor obstacles as Chapter Two or Chapter Three. You after all have the final chapter, or at least the resolution in mind and you know the primary causes, and you now have reached the point of knowing so much about the background and intent of your antagonist that you truly like her and are sympathetic toward the person she has become. Surely, with all the knowledge of the story, you could have done with it in no time at all, had you the time to spare.
But you really don't think so. Perhaps this is a cultural thing, your working class heritage, although it must be pointed out that there were times in your life when your entire income stream was derived from your writing. It is not so much that such times are lost to you but rather they are remote, a you who holds up well enough to the current you but not in any way exemplary. The fact is, you were always better in terms of learning and working and doing and relating to others and to the world about you when you were broke.
Teaching has done wonders for your income stream, at times, and it occasionally allows you the sophistry that you are in some manner paying back the toss of genetic dice that gave you what you have, but the fact is, teaching teaches you. It taught you for instance to greatly admire over ninety percent of your students, even that kid from Chicago who kept insisting he didn't have to do the assignments because he is an artist, or the lady who felt you were picking on her because of her spelling and punctuation.
Editing has done well by you and thus it is your fiction that all writers should know how to edit, but it has given you regular cause to look at some of the very lapses you on occasion indulge, including sentences that meander about like the Mississippi River on a rampage.
The fact is, these elements, these not quite writing elements are the very things that keep you clothed in a world of nakedness, keep the semblance of life close to hand while you yearn for lazy summer days and work in the yard under the shade of a sycamore, sipping from a pitcher of lemonade and catchings sounds from your iPod Touch as you work out the technical problems of a novel that, for all you regard it, will be lucky to "sell" one thousand copies.
The further fact is that you do this because you have to, because it has taken you beyond the state of merely wanting to; that was gone a longtime ago. Like it or not, there is a delicious, delightful sense of danger that Life might close in on you while you are printing out and copyediting the nonfiction project to send forth; Life may have some detours where this present novel is concerned, and it surely will think of ways to distract you when it comes to writing those two short stories you think of only as Bank Robbery and Mother's Day. And the final fact to be reckoned with is, good as the six hundred sixty-page nonfiction manuscript is, dramatic and plausible as The Secrets of Casa Jocosa is, mischievous and daring as the short stories are, they can never be as good as your first visions of them, when you fell in love with them and literally and figuratively took them to bed and bonded with them, but perhaps, just maybe, not having enough time to work on them as a full-time writer will make you continue in your solicitude toward them, make you listen to them so that even in the Y pool, trying to execute that flashy looking flip turn, you will get messages from them and you will be forced to hie off to get the messages down in some readable form.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Over the years of your endeavors, the subject of conflict has lingered resolutely, seeping up from your own inner reaches, from a not inconsiderable population of students who express revulsion that stories should have to contain conflict in the first place, and from a number of bouts with you, wearing an editorial cap, wanted from an otherwise splendid writer a deeper sense of conflict than the mere, obligatory presence of opposition.
Your recent preoccupation with duality, as expressed not only in mammal but particle behavior thus leads you toward conclusions about conflict:
1) Conflict is internal within a character as well as external. She may wish to achieve a particular goal and indeed has the opportunity to do so, but is wracked by the fear that her goal orientation has made her selfish, distanced from the needs of others. Externally, she is faced with the debt of obligation to succeed placed upon her by family, school, law firm, gender, etc.
2) There is a default duality between action and inaction (Just ask Arjuna in The Bhagavad-Gita) which is good for starters but is not sufficient unto itself to satisfy the reader.
3) Try to tie the tin cans of motive and intent to the bumper. What motives and intents have produced the seeming impasse that leads to lines drawn in the sand and, gulp, actions and their consequences.
4) Ask yourself why conflict must lead to emotion-driven action or lack of action. (Just ask King Creon, uncle to Antigone.)
5) Negotiated settlements are ultimately kosher but not until hot blood has been shed and the combatants have seen some unanticipated form of consequence.
6) All conflict begins with duality of some nature.
7) Ask self how to get writers who are made uncomfortable by conflict to face up to it so that they may proceed.
8) Conflict may come from differing ideology or even differing points of view but for it to have any impact on the reader, it must have a visceral impact upon you. Er, gut level response.
9) The best opportunity to learn from the work and produce a measure of freshness is to bring characters to a clash over a conflict you personally are uncomfortable with.
10) It may be all right to know the outcome up front but it is better to seem to stumble on the means by which the outcome is achieved.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
In recent days you have been toying with historical times in which it might have been better for you to flourish as a writer, the only boundary being that whatever the time you chose, it must have been at least a year before you were born, and could extend as far back in time as you wished.
Although a fun game in terms of causing an immediate and painful awareness of the gaps in your historical perspective, the exercises also demonstrated a kind of ethical lapse in that you could then be guilty of changing the rules of the game while the game was in progress or, to use a metaphor you've come to dislike, tilting the playing field to afford you some advantage.
Given the opportunities you've had to hang out with a wide spectrum of writers, you'd probably have fallen in with a similar sampling, men and women who know the difference between a Shirley Temple and a double whatever, one cube only, please; as well with men and women who knew how to take a swipe at things they detested and in perhaps the same breath extend a helping hand.
It comes down to: There is never a bad time to be a writer, never was. It has always been a precarious form of living, filled with other jobs (Samuel Richardson, for example, was a printer, Geoffrey Chaucer was a kind of Rahm Emanuel for John of Gaunt) or responsibilities, sometimes coming as an accident. Sarah Orne Jewett, on the other hand, was at it in her teens, although it didn't hurt that her father was a doctor and that she, as one of the sayings goes, came from good people.
It can get you tortured, killed, disappeared, divorced, reviled, laughed at. In some ways it is like that most painful aspect of herpes known as herpes zoster or shingles, resident within you and dormant until it has a mind to come forth in full fury, inflicting itself upon you. Some individuals drink to bring it on, others to shut off the sense it gives of someone having rented out your entire being to another tenant while you were at work somewhere, innocently making a fortune and a life for yourself.
You remember John Sanford, limping down the stairs to the Von's Pharmacy in Montecito in quest of Advil to ease the pain in his hip. When you suggested hip replacement surgery, which you knew from first hand experience was an outstanding success, he complained that he was too old for such frippery, but not long after taunted you with the fact that he, at age ninety-three, had just signed a three-book contract and wondered when you had ever had a three-book contract, this old buddy of Nathaniel West who was so pleased with himself at having become a lawyer and passing the New York Bar Exam first shot through before he ran into West, who told him he was working on a novel. Imagine having to get all the way through law school before discovering that you were not a lawyer but rather a writer instead.
Imagine Henry Roth, sixty years between novels, Call It Sleep, then sixty years of futzing around, teaching Latin, raising ducks before Mercy of a Rude Stream came forth. Imagine him living in a delapidated apartment building on Fourth Street in Albuquerque before your old pal, Digby Wolfe, who taught drama at the University there,found him and arranged for an award. When Digby tried to help him up on the stage, he said, What, you don't think I can walk?
Never a bad time to be one, but the price is that you can't imitate or copy or merely reproduce what you see, you've got to put some music and some imp of the perverse and, to completely muck up the metaphor, let the genie out of the bottle and spill over the pages, otherwise you might as well teach Latin or deliver newspapers if there are any left to deliver, or raise ducks. Ishiguro has gotten you thinking about this last aspect of it in his short story, "Cellists," where someone is waiting for the right circumstances to manifest, already a bit nervous because age 42 is up and in place and this particular cellist has not played all that many notes because of not wanting to give the inner cellist bad habits.
It is all around you, this time, this place. The hills may be alive with the sound of music but they are also alive with the sound of publishers cutting back, of agents letting clients go, of magazines dropping off the radar, and always of someone either in your family or writing group or some dumb writing magazine reminding you of Samuel Johnson's apothegem that only a fool writes for no money. Little late, but go tell G.M. Hopkins that.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
When looking at behavior through the lens of quantum physics, it is helpful to keep in mind that the major thrust of examination is matter, which is expressed as particle for the purpose of investigating properties such as form,intensity, and location.
There is an expressed duality in matter, which can present itself as wave or particle, a fact that more or less made the day for a physicist named Werner Heisenberg, of uncertainty fame. Through the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, we are able to say, quantum physics style, that a watched pot does boil faster. Heisenberg demonstrated that position and momentum, two properties of matter, cannot be known simultaneously to arbitrary precision. In fact, the more one property is known, the less certain can we be of the other.
When looking at story through the lens of a vital dramatic quality such as, say,ambiguity, we have the duality of character and plot, which is to say the two elements cannot be known simultaneously to a certainty that the character produces or determines plot or the plot determines the behavior of the character.
Since we are on the subjects of ambiguity and duality, each of which I introduced as essential to the quantum physics of story, I posit that these conditions are to one another as character is to plot and, indeed, as wave is to particle.
I wish to present a scenario in which a character says and or does something that will lead most readers to conclude the character is, arbitrarily, happy or, just as arbitrarily, unhappy. The more the behavior of the character is tracked in terms of action, the greater the potential for a not insignificant portion of the audience to interpret the emotional outcome differently than my intention. (We will not dwell for any time on the But-it-really-happened-that-way defense because the writer who does so is presenting evidence that the narrative is not drama but rather biography or journalism.)
Story has to present a duality, not so much for the democracy/bureaucracy of free choice as for the ambiguity resident in event, which is after all the staple of story. Enough event and you have the basic unit of story, which is the scene.
Quantum mechanics presents a particle as being able to be represented in a mathematical formula that will indicate more or less where it can be found or in what state, an ambiguity that has to be reckoned with in a measurable way.
Story also has propositions or proposals, but these thrive on the duality of possible interpretation and the ambiguity of intent triggered in the beholder. I am, the protagonist says in story. You are what? the duality asks. I am vulnerable. How is that to be measured and why should we care?
That is to be measured by the degree to which you realize you are vulnerable, the degree to which this makes us aware of our own vulnerability, and the plan(s) you have devised or need to devise to extricate yourself, as well as what overall effect this will have on you.
The agony of moral choice which the protagonist in a character-driven drama is driven to make is one way of charting, quantum mechanics style. How instructive would it be to graph out Henry Tudor (aka VIII), Thomas Moore, and Cromwell as each pursued the quantum mechanics of his agenda.
Friday, October 16, 2009
It is a fun exercise to imagine one's self thrust into the life of another person for a brief time, to see how it felt to be variously so talented, educated, curious, privileged etc then to return to your own self, thinking hey, the room is messier and the cooking isn't as good, but I'm where I want to be, a writer, after all, who can, if he choses, be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, long enough for a story.
It is accordingly possible to have the nose of a blue tick hound, a nose literally crammed with sensitive tissues that transmit scent to your brain with such intensity that the responses override any task at hand and dictate pursuing the scent. Then you return from your blue tick-ness to realize you have dropped considerable time into following the scent of your own imagination.
It is also good sport to think of a particular time before your own lifetime, where you wished to be transported for a brief vacation, aware that you'd have to leave such implements as your laptop, your favored Ancora fountain pen, and certainly your iPod Touch behind, making due with such substitutes as were available. Then you return from your vacation to find the implements you have treasured and become familiar with (although you still do not have the complete hang of that dreadful HP Photosmart 4580 printer, which behaves as though it had a goddamned mind of its own, performing (or not) like the stereotypical servant who resents its employer. Thus also, this forthcoming December 5, the 208th anniversary of Mozart's death, you could still hear one of your favorite of his compositions, the String Quartet #18 in A Major directly from a digital disc through the CD player in your car or from your iPod Touch, also playable through your car, or through the earphones on said iPod while you sipped an expertly-made latte at Peet's on upper State Street.
There is, to be sure, a potential for a count-your-blessings philosophy resident in these vagrant lines, an awareness simultaneously reminding you you don't have things all that bad and nudging you to agree that Mozart was smarter, more prolific, and more inventive than you, as though you needed such a nudge. Better, however, for you to have raised such matters than to have them presented to you as though you were in denial. Equally better to understand that the now of your time, the present-moment-ness of this present moment, is your trampoline on which to play, allowing you to jump and thus raise however briefly your horizon. Had he lived another 200 years, beyond his 1750 date of death, J.S. Bach would likely have already invented one type of music you so much enjoy, giving you an alternate universe of considerable pleasure in which you are able to project the chord changes, tempos, and harmonics of the good J.S. onto, say, Charlie Parker (1920-55), a thing J.S., for all his chops, could not do.
Thus this is in greater thrust an admonition to continue playing outside the sandbox when the sandbox is the metaphor for the conventional, then to play in it when it is discovered in some previously unimagined place.
"I know you, don't I?" said the butcher at the Fordis Meat Market on Fairfax Avenue, gravely wrapping the short ribs I had selected and whose trimming I had supervised.
"You do. We both attended--" hitching shoulder southward toward Third Street--"--Hancock Park. You were the playground monitor whose instruction I was always trying to secure, relative to excavations and constructions I made in the sand box."
"What did I tell you?" he was genuinely curious now.
"Always the same. 'No foundation.' "
He smiled. "I was nine or ten, then. You were seven?"
"Seven is probably right."
"You see what I have become. The son in a father-and-son Kosher butcher shop. What have you become?"
"A writer who is trying to learn how his mother made mushroom barley soup."
His smile broadened. "I see you now have foundation."
Thursday, October 15, 2009
You knew of the late Charles Werth Rock that he had lied about his age to enlist in the army as World War II raged about us, used some of his G.I. Bill money to enroll at Princeton, where he majored in geology. Later, he worked for oil companies in the Arabian Gulf, then in a lovely irony became Professor Rock, teaching geology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His dour Presbyterian upbringing to the contrary notwithstanding, he left the university to enroll, as it were, in another institution.
You knew him first not as Charles Rock but rather as Turiya Chaitanya, a novice monk in the Ramakrishna Order of Vedanta, then as Swami Ganeshananda, later still, on the intimacy of friends basis as Ganesh, among other things a swimming buddy at the Montecito Y.
Ganesh is the filter to this progression of thoughts and awareness.
The filtration began one afternoon as we sat in the locker room of the Y in that pleasant glow of having exercised, caught a bit of steam in the sauna, then showered. "You know," he said, "those old guys had it right." We both knew he was not talking about the old guys in the hot tub, all of whom were perfervid in their small government, free market, no regulation, anti-tax philosophy. He was talking about the progression of Buddhist and Hindu yoga/philosophers, who had more or less worked out the causes and effects of quantum physics well before quantum physics knew what quantum physics was.
"You, who were once wave," I observed, "are now particle." Meaning he had purposefully changed his destiny and the outcome of probability he had set in motion before turning to his new vocation.
From that, we were off and running. Even now, with Ganeshananda/Charles Werth Rock having progressed to a state beyond my ability to swim or hang out with him except in the replay of memory, powered only by high school physics and an undisciplined curiosity, the writer's curiosity, I pause from time to time to think of the nature of particles and their abilities to have weight or mass or charge and their potential for joining waves or disassociating from waves.
I think of attempts to define mathematically how the universe was formed, what happened to it after it was formed, and how it evolved. I think of theories which I grasp with about as much understanding as I grasped first kiss or first love or lost love or sexual jealousy or the thunk of acceptance when someone I consider to be a silly writer is published to great acclaim.
In a way, this is about particles in the analogy that ideas are particles, floating about. If they are passed through a Higgs boson field, they acquire weight, and oh, I wish I had Charlie with whom to speculate that the way to give the particulate that is ideas weight is to write them down in some context, breaking as it were the spontaneous symmetry of convention.
Music is often as helpful as quantum physics. You do not, for instance, need to be able to read key signatures or understand the physics of tonality to recognize the elephant in Camile St. Saens' The Carnival of the Animals. Nor do you need to be told that you have been taken underwater to swim with the fish. You feel the elephant and are transported through the field of cultural detail (some might call it Collective Unconscious) to understand that you are now hearing a goddamned fish.
Acting is often helpful because, particularly as Sanford Meisner helped articulate it, acting helps the actor see the truthfulness and agenda of the character. Somewhere inside there are these particles, already being given weight by the fact that you have made ideas of them, where they linger in a Mexican Hat Potential. It is up to you to give the brim on that Mexican Hat model a tug of some sort, make it look a bit more jaunty that symmetry ever dreamed of.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Watching the Science Channel sometime back, you were presented with the plausible theory that a large meteor, colliding with Earth, way back in the day, triggered climatic events that resulted in the extinction of most species of dinosaur.
Even those scientists who are not certain about the meteor theory are in substantial agreement that literally and figuratively, the climate was no longer hospitable for dinosaurs. In similar fashion, you have either been hit by a meteorite of awareness or experienced a climate change of a story related to your belief that because you live in a city such as Santa Barbara, you live in a cozy, privileged bubble.
By no meansis it the same as living in Los Angeles or New York, or Mexico City or even Miami or Boston, where there is enough room for, among other things, ghettos and significant differences in school facilities and hospitals and gated communities.
Ah, see; you have already begun to address the subject. There are indeed gated communities here and there are differences in schools and there are differences in tax rates and, although you joke about it particularly on Twitter, even differences in YMCAs. In fact, where ever there are people, there are bubbles.
Even in such sprawls of bubbles, say the ghettos in Tijuana or Rio or Lima or Johannesburg, where it is entirely likely that many inhabitants will not escape from during their entire life, there are sub-bubbles, significantly better or worse than the norm. Many of us have some form of passport that allows us to move from one bubble to another, even assuring us a bubble for home, a bubble for work, and a bubble for considering what thing or things we wish to work at.
We even have some philosophy or operating system in which we arbitrarily admit or deny others access to our own bubble as well as what we like to think of as standards of democratic behavior by which we judge individuals from other bubbles.
Imagine when and if you will the waves of judgment you put forth moving from one bubble to the next, then try your very best to see how your presence causes another to respond, then try to discern how that person deals with you. Then try to imagine how that person regards you after you have moved beyond the bubble he or she occupies.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The genie in the bottle is a splendid and appropriate metaphor for many of the stages and conditions in human life. Younger persons, excited by the lure of energy, hormones, and possibilities, itch to be out of the bottle, convinced of their destiny or, at the least, impatient to discover what it is. Mixing the metaphor now, you could compare the state of the genie in the bottle of a piece with the concept of entelechy, which roughly, right out of Aristotle's Metaphysics, is How does the acorn know it is supposed to become an oak? The DNA of Destiny, right?
Imagine for starters the acorn, somewhat aware of its destiny (via Jungian analysis?), now becomes impatient to fulfill it, impatient of the need to, well, grow up, to grow into it.
One of your applications of being thus constrained, your do-it-yourself genie kit, was the fact of you almost invariably being the youngest in whatever group you were a part of. You did not do particularly well with that, emerging as a sort of personality portrayed by Tom Hulse in Amadeus, significantly lacking, of course, the considerable abilities of the character Hulse was portraying. You had, in effect, to learn how to fail with enough vigor and force to be able to walk away from the disaster, then search for the acorn that was you and, this time, not take yourself so seriously. Trouble with that approach came from friends and family, wondering when you were going to settle down and do something serious. Which you did; you settled down and did things of enough seriousness that you bored everyone within three feet of yourself and, most notably, you.
It is bad enough being a genie in a bottle at any stage of life but it is considerably worse if you are confined in a bottle and are boring because your chances for companionship, much less sexual encounters, are severely limited.
The bottle you are in now is a lovely reversal of the early days; now you tend to be the elder statesman, your campaign ribbons, or at least your curriculum vitae attesting your service as a number of things in a number of places. Your CV does not show that you were once a box boy at McDaniels Shop 'n Save Market in Beverly Hills, where there was a strict rule against accepting tips from customers, causing you to be fired for accepting twenty-five cents from Lauren Bacall. Nor does it say that your written ad lib for the host of the TV program I Search for Adventure, "And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, good night" was the direct cause of the show being re-upped for another twenty-six weeks. Like all CVs, yours is tilted to give the impression that you know what you are doing and have visions worth following. When you are an elder statesman, Young Lions tend to be suspicious of you, thinking your information and experience worked back in the day but is largely obsolete or naive or, worse, dumb.
The fact of the matter is, we are all of us genies in bottles, contained by DNA, but also by culture, by zeitgeist, and the very nature of the particular acorn that grows within us. Those of us who have the writer acorn lust for the opportunity to get out of the bottle and be able to support ourselves entirely from writing. Your take on this trope is that it is misguided. Some of your friends, Christopher Moore, for instance, or Jerry Freedman ($500,000 advance on his first book), or Brian Fagan manage to do this and lead relatively sane writer lives, but I will argue that while the income stream is quite pleasant, that is not the thing that propels them; the driving force is enthusiasm and the driving force beyond that is curiosity to see what next the acorn will become.
Monday, October 12, 2009
You are hardly what you would think of as a minimalist. In many ways, minimalism represents to you the short stories of Raymond Carver as edited down to the bone by that editor, Gordon Lish, whose own collection of stories you once spoke of in a review as the emperor having no clothes. Minimalism also represents to you the short stories of Ernest Miller Hemingway. So far, you've mentioned three names, all of whom you hold in some form or another of grudging acknowledgment. You are more positive about Deborah Eisenberg and Annie Proulx and Michael Chabon, cheerful about Louise Erdrich, proof that negativism or grudging acknowledgment are not your default positions.
Minimalism has a good deal to say for itself, a statement that is at once an irony of contradiction, and the further acknowledgment that any work begins with more to it than what survives; a work should leave something for the beholder to do, even if the work is done in the first place with no expectation that anyone but the creator will see it. Thus we get down to the bone of what a story is: a dramatic effect in which elements are strategically arranged to provoke a concentrated response in the beholder.
You have not thought of a story that way before, an indication that has fork-in-the-road connotations. Perhaps there was a good reason why you had not thought so and today's insight should be rendered in quotation marks, suggesting it is not completely formed. On the other hand, you could ask, what took you so long? You have been reading short stories for a long, long time, at first merely content to let them happen to you, not thinking to nor allowing yourself to see beyond them, not arriving, for instance, at the notion that Montressor's confessional of how he sought, then gained revenge on Fortunato was a peak experience for him, one that has given him something to dine out on for years after the actual fact, making some who had heard the story more than once to wonder if it had taken place at all or was just a fantasy in the teller's mind, just as Peyton Farquhar imagined his escape from his impending hanging in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."
While it is possible to read things into such stories as the Poe or the Bierce, they are largely set straightforward, almost as literary equivalents of cafeteria food. True to his vision in the review he wrote of Hawthorne's "Twice-Told Tales," Poe does in Amontillado everything he insists a story should do, but it took you to add the subtext, which might be a reason behind your less-than-enthusiastic regard of Poe. You in effect want to be led to render judgments, to experience the ghost of aftertaste, to be made to wonder about possible outcomes and relationships not explicit in the text. You tend to savor those writers whose stories are a swirl of time and event and space and consequence and the absence of finality. There is, for instance, a grim finality in the most popular version of Jack London's story, "To Build a Fire," but it comes upon you now that London had his eye on the evolution of story because the one survivor of the story, a dog, takes us off stage and allows the vision of the story to move on with him. Check the dates on this, but it is possible that a London story you greatly admire, "A Loss of Face," contains an even more sophisticated development of this theme because it allows us to see how the protagonist not only got his revenge at the end of the story, it inflicted a furtherance of the revenge against his antagonist.
Modern stories, significantly stories of the twenty-first century, tend to end with an impending event that will take place off stage, leaving us as readers to glean the emotional sense of closure from the awareness or lack of awareness of the main characters rather than the event itself.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Every time we make a choice, we are in effect painting ourself into a corner of narrowed future choices, and of our old friend, consequences. As we stride purposefully through the pelting rain of stimuli, pausing to avoid the occasional puddle, we see how inextricably linked we are to consequences. You don't believe it? Hah; there are just as many consequences of not doing anything as there are consequences of taking a purposeful step into the ever widening gyre.
Next time you are in line at a place where a rapid number of choices are visited upon you, say the ordering line at a Subway Sandwich, you'll begin to see said fast food outlet as more than it is, a gigantic metaphor for choice and for consequence. If you had been hungry for brunch or a snack in the first place, you might well have chosen Subway Sandwiches over the likes of Cajun Kitchen or, Heaven forfend, IHOP, or Denny's where the menus go on for pages and you have to make and announce decisions relative to your opt-in or opt-out senior citizens' status. You might even have to suffer the consequences of being reverse carded, which is to say being forced to produce ID that attests your seniority. Is it, you wonder, as much of a crime to claim to be sixty-five or over as it is to be twenty-one or over?
At the Subway Sandwich, you are met with a large menu, after which, you are further distracted to fliers and displays revealing amounts of such concepts as calorie count, sodium content, fat, carbohydrate count, and not to forget protein, rendered in grams. You learn things about your tuna sub or Italian meatball sandwich you may not wish to know. There is the implicit vibe in Subway that everything there is good for you, but some things are better and, in consequence, maybe the thing you wanted is not so hot, maybe just okay on a scale of one to ten.
How long do you want your sandwich? you are asked, and you notice that you have gone from the metric system of grams back to inches. Six-inches seems like a good compromise; you could eat the first three inches, then save the remainder for when you have the munchies later, secure in the knowledge that although the sandwich you ordered may not be optimally the healthiest for you, it is likely to be healthier than most stuff you encounter at random. You did, after all, chose Subway over Denny's and IHOP (where, it had not been lost on you, most of the help seems to be overweight). Already your choices have led you into a rabbit hole not unlike Alice's (P.S., Did she chose that particular rabbit hole?) because you now have to tote around a Subway Sandwich wrapper with the uneaten three inches of the sandwich you, of your own volition, chose.
You have a right to remain silent. The mayonnaise in your tuna sub has cholesterol. You may order your tuna sub without mayonnaise. If you do not order mayonnaise, you will not be charged for it.
You may also decline to state when asked what kind of roll you want your sandwich on, thus relying on the server's shrug of shoulders and choosing for you or you may try to pull a Bartelby and choose instead of a sandwich a salad or a salad and soup combination. If you happen to be at a Subway in New York or L.A., there is the possibility that your server will stare you down with the question, Something's maybe wrong with the sandwiches, you don't order one?
You could, of course, pack your own lunch and be done with the matter, but there are still consequences, some of which you will discover before the first bite has been chewed down.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
One of your favorite tropes in any story is when the unthinkable comes to pass, where the event or attitude or behavior that seems so extreme as to be unlikely actually takes place. The unthinkable comes to pass in reality as well, all too often. In a positive sense, the years of work, research, and meticulous detail that produced a long epic from Monte Schulz came to pass in the most positive way. What at one time seemed so daunting to literary agents and publishers as to make it unthinkable is now quite thinkable, having been taken on as a part of a four-book deal. An inscribed copy of segment one, This Side of Jordan, sits on your table, looking with its elegant cover much like an old friend because of the number of episodes in it Monte read aloud over the years at the SB Writers' Conference. Fantagraphics Publishers will do three more and, adding to the unthinkable cachet, take on a nonfiction title Monte just happened to have available.
This Side of Jordan reminds you somewhat of Richard Powers' novel, Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance, its cover enhanced by the very photo that inspired Powers to write the novel. This Side of Jordan begins in the Spring of 1929, when a nineteen-year old consumptive, Alvin Pendergast, attends a dance marathon, where he meets a slick con man and gangster, Chester Burke, his fate literally and figuratively.
Another aspect of the unthinkable come to pass is word you got this very day from John Shannon, author of the fine Palos Verdes Blue, a review copy of which reached you through mysterious sources you can no longer recall orchestrating. You wrote an admiring review and in the process became buddies with Shannon. You've already knocked back an earlier of his books, The Dark Streets and even now, bedside reading is his penultimate, The Devils of Bakersfield. "I'm in a bit of a funk," Shannon writes, because the publisher, Pegasus dropped him. ' I have two more Liffey's [Jack Liffey, his investigator/protagonist] written. Looking for a new publisher but this will probably have to be a small publisher. Obviously there's something I do that the bulk of mystery readers don't fancy. For all the fine review, sales never took off. Of course, it didn't help not having paperbacks out in the stores. Who knows?"
It was in some measure Shannon's approach and his character that got you flying in the face of the Fates and of editorial clients, amping and revving you up to begin work on The Secrets of Casa Jocasa, a mystery set in an upmarket retirement complex located here in Santa Barbara.
On a recent trip through Santa Barbara, your old acting and teaching partner, Leonard Tourney, spoke of the miracle of any book being published. Even with all the books being published and such options as self-publishing, co-op publishing, and digital arrangements, a published book of any sort is a miracle, As unthinkable as it is to posit making a living from writing books, it is just as unthinkable to not write them anyway.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Conrad (Barnaby, not Joseph) is most likely your closest friend, a connection bridged across many improbabilities not the least of them being the fact that you read him intensely and carefully before you met him and certainly before your days in San Francisco, when you'd wander over to his saloon with a group of chums from The Old Spaghetti Factory Cafe on Green Street. There was a time in your twenties when your interest in bullfighting reached a peak and, after reading the encyclopedic and self-important Death in the Afternoon by EMH, you first checked in on Conrad, only to be put off by what your own ignorance of the Spanish language caused you to think Conrad was just like EMH, going to the extreme of dedicating a book to himself. (Va por ti, Barnabito is taken literally, It goes for you, little Barnaby, as in his first-born son, whom you would meet years later.)
Somehow, you were called in to serve on the faculty of Conrad's Santa Barbara Writers' Conference in 1980, and when the Conference ended while June morphed into July, you were invited to lunch again and again, from which point your friendship grew.
Yesterday, at yet another lunch (Mondays and Thursdays have become your lunch days with BC), he extended a book toward you and asked you to read a marked passage. The book was Sammy, an autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr, with help from a collaborator. Two weeks earlier, (at the same restaurant) Conrad had shown you yet another book, Golden Dreams, which was a history of California in the 1950s, written by Kevin Starr, professor emeritus at USC, and also librarian emeritus of California. There was not only a photo of Conrad but several mentions of him throughout the text. "It is amazing that he remembered these specific events," Conrad said, speaking to their accuracy.
The Sammy Davis, Jr. book had a three- or four-paragraph description of how Conrad, solicitous of Davis' interest in bullfighting, met with him frequently to show him how to manipulate the cape and muleta, then took him on several occasions to Tijuana, during the off-season, working out with him in the bull ring, showing him how to work with young calves and cows.
"None of this is true," Conrad said. "We had some long discussions about bulls, but we were both quite drunk, and the closest his narrative came to accuracy was the time he visited my saloon and I used a table cloth to demonstrate the Veronica and media-Veronica. The rest is entirely invented."
"But to him, it was all real," I countered.
"Spoken like a fiction writer," Conrad observed. "Fiction writers love to see magic in the ordinary."
You nodded. This observation is one of Conrad's bedrock beliefs. He expressed it to you in his dedication of his last novel, which at the time caused you to argue that there was nothing ordinary about the novel. "True enough," he said at the time, "but it might have been."
"What is the more real?" I asked. "Sammy Davis's vision or Kevin Starr's?"
"I should have ordered your fish taco," he reflected, "and you should have ordered my enchilada. Perhaps next time."
Which is about as much of an explanation as can be made: We are in constant effort to take in as much as we can of an incident before filing it away for later use, at which time it emerges with a life of its own, whereupon we bring it forth as elements in an illustrated illusion. Thus we are all magicians, rearranging reality for effect.
"I will tell you," Conrad said, "that one year not too long ago at the Bohemian Groves Summer Camp Gathering, "I shared a tent with Starr and a few others and I can tell you that he is a melodious snorer."
When I was at the luncheon where Starr spoke about his book, and I had the opportunity to introduce myself to him as a friend of Conrad, I saw his frankly stodgy face crinkle into a much more agreeable smile of recognition. "How IS Barney?" Starr asked. Of course, knowing Starr was a melodious snorer had already worked its magic on me.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
You are driving about the city--no, not that city, not the L.A. you fled to get to this city--on a round of chores. Pick up cleaning. Leave off cleaning. Get new color cartridge for damned, finicky printer. Have Yaris washed. You are momentarily out of range for a static-free reception of the station that plays jazz from 9 a.m. until noon, thus you rely on the powerful classical station that extends outward from the greater L.A. area like a metastasizing growth. You have come in close to the opening of Mozart's String Quartet in A Major, # 18, which fills the car and you with a bouquet of nuanced pleasure. Whatever you were before, now you are happy beyond the words expressing the awareness. Words, in fact, are not necessary.
Many of your male friends trace the memory of this feeling to the time of their first completed sexual encounter (as opposed to messing around in the back seat kind of encounter), and while it is true that your own memories of such events have their transformative effects on you, the first time you can recall such a sense of pure happiness was when you managed to sneak into the Shrine Auditorium where an early edition of Jazz at the Philharmonic, those early, cusp-of-be-bop concerts, were held. Nat Cole, whom you regarded well as a musician, took an extended solo on Body and Soul that produced a stunning effect that became a benchmark for pianists ever since. It's haunting series of ascending chord changes performed open-heart surgery on the listener. If you are careful, you can hear that solo as counterpoint to the crackle and hum of the audience. The finale of Stravinsky's The Firebird has the same effect, ditto Coltrane's soprano sax musings on My Favorite Things and of course his harmonic bravura on Giant Steps, done via the Selmer B-6 tenor saxophone.
Nearly all of Dvorak and Ravel have the same effect. Not to forget Bill Evans' combined improvisation on My Favorite Things transitioned to Baubles, Bangles, and Beads, or nearly anyone doing The Well-Tempered Clavichord. These are enough of the musical peak experiences to illustrate the point that they produce a landscape of soaring, transcendental happiness of an intensity that surprises me.
Books were next. Of course the Twain did meet. Huck Finn, Life on the Mississippi, Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, which you sought to find in other writers to the point of causing you despair that there weren't any. Of course there were, but the search for them became a long, harrowing venture into despair, with only occasional moments of reward. Then you met Rachel, who would become your mentor, and she more or less clarified things for you, not only with much of her own material but with the most frightening prognosis of all, which was that if you truly want to be made happy by something you have read, you have to be the one to have written it. There are a few things of yours you can look at that still produce such a result, but the bar seems set tremendously high and as a consequence you have taken diversions from your quest in hopes of discovering the things you need to get embedded in your writing. Did becoming an editor help? Did becoming a teacher help? Does having reviewed over 500 books add anything to the calculus?
The last book that did it for you was Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves. Before that, it was Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, and to a lesser extent his The Gold Bug Variations. Before and during, it was nearly everything of Jim Harrison, and Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.
Try writing books and stories that lift you as these books do, and remember crusty, bombastic Beethoven, working on even into his deafness, trying to get something he admired as much as Mozart's String Quartet in A Major.
Try setting all that aside and stepping off the cliff that is the cliff of going to a day's work. Go ahead.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Just as we do in real-time life, characters must arrive at work every day with expectations. They may brown bag it to save money, they may dress casually on Friday, but they must have some goal driving them forth, some agenda beeping away like the monitors on hospital TV dramas that intensify to suggest crisis. The agenda is many ways defines the character. How could we not feel a measure of sympathy and identification for the parent who wanted children to advance according to their talents? How could we fail to experience a squeeze of identification for the hard-working immigrant who wants to bring the rest of his family along? Doesn't our heart go out to the young artist who seeks beyond fame and recognition the achievement of special, intense skills and the empathy with which to give those skills an entire perspective?
The roommate of expectation is reversal, an intimacy college dorm mates experience well into their post graduation years. Expectation and reversal are borrowed like shirts, sweaters and dresses. The relationship is intimate because one follows the other, in real-time life and in story. It is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Burns had it right with "The best laid schemes of mice and men..." They play off one another like the old vaudevillian teams, building plot twists via response at every turn. Felix leaves a Post-it note on the refrigerator,signing it merely with his initials. FU. Felix Unger. Oscar, big blustery sort that he is, sees the FU and explodes.
Persons who manage to achieve or seem to achieve everything they want are bigger than life and more boring than life. It is not so much schadenfreude that makes us want some pigeon to come home to poop if not roost; we have all experienced loss and disappointment that wrenched from us something we thought we had or could have. It is what we do in consequence of the reversal that sets us apart. Similarly, it defines our characters.
If we had truly wanted what was denied us or taken from us, we would be making plans to get it back or replace it or go after something even more intense, leaving the door open for act two finale of regaining what was lost, then paving the way for act three, discovering that the goal wasn't worth the price paid for it. Sound familiar?