Sunday, January 31, 2010

Open Season

Two authors of the twenty-first century are deservedly well known for the compelling intricacy of their plots. Harlen Coben and Lee Child are synonymous for their ability to get a lead character into an enormous, complicated jam at the outset. Their recommendations alone are a guarantee of sales for the books of other authors, their by-lines on a title as good as a Triple-A bond rating. Nevertheless, the opening for each of them to beat, arguably the most charged and amazing opening chapter in the English language, came from the nineteenth century, 1886 to be precise. Although the author's intent was commercial, it was invariably literary and social as well. More than ten years earlier still, he'd produced a scene that gave us another technique commercial and literary writers have cherished ever since, the cliffhanger.

Opening velocity is a term used to describe the speed and intensity with which a novel or short story begins, using situations, moral and emotional pressures, and discoveries to connect the reader with the characters and to induce the reader to sign on for the entire trip. Readers of different sorts of fiction find themselves alerted in one way or another to the speed and intensity of opening velocity, sometimes with recommendations from other authors, occasionally with a double entendre or enigmatic title, and still other times with a skillfully executed blurb suggesting such enticements as sex, corpses, grinding suspense, amazing revelations, and perhaps a hash of all of them. Browsing through the titles at big box book chains, you begin to wonder why publishers don't establish a numerical index similar to the number of megapixels on a digital camera. This novel rated 9 opening velocity by the Indie Booksellers of America. Or indeed, why some reviewers, such as those who sell their blurbs for newly released movies, don't have a numerical system in their written commentary. Moby-Dick. A stunning 9!

Books did not always begin with such velocity, meandering rather than rushing along the narrative path, taking in the scenery narrative, describing the clothing and manners of the characters, forming a relationship with the reader, moving edgily toward the plot as though it were an attempt to collect a debt from a friend. Such a writer, indeed the writer of the two novels from the first paragraph, was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), whose more famous novels, Tess of the Durbervilles and Jude, the Obscure, were also written and published before the twentieth century began, and were thought necessary elements of our high school education before we were allowed to move onward.

The cliffhanger novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, from 1873, has the momentous scene in which Knight, a young architect and surveyor is out on the steep cliffs with a young lady he is most interested in. A gust of wind makes off with the young lady's hat, capriciously depositing it just a few feet down an escarpment. Ever the gentleman, Knight seeks to retrieve it, falls, and lands on a narrow ledge, holding a clump of deep-rooted sedge, where "he could see the vertical [cliff] face curving round on each side of him. He looked down the facade and realized more thoroughly how it threatened him." Unnerved, the young girl finally runs to get help, and later, we get someone else's view of Knight through a powerful telescope, hanging tenaciously, but for how long?

The novel with the memorable opening chapter is The Mayor of Casterbridge, which begins with a well-built young man of twenty-one, Michael Henchard, walking along a country road with his wife and young daughter in Wessex, a fictionalized rural England. Henchard sees a county fair in the distance and figures he can go there, pick up a job cutting and trussing hay. "But mind, Michael," Susan says, "don't be drinking."

"What do you take me for?" Michael says.

Susan is not the brightest kid on the block, but she knows Michael well enough. By the end of the chapter, Michael is loaded and has auctioned Susan and the daughter to Newsome, a sailor from whom we will hear more, for five guineas.

Nearly everyone in The Mayor of Casterbridge has a secret of one sort or another, a strong influence on my revisit; my work in progress even has the word secrets in its title.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hearing voices

Young men of your age carried in their bindle the memory of fable and legend where the protagonist was out on a road somewhere, proclaiming to some older person who'd asked him what he was up to the received answer of the time, "I go forth, sir, to seek my fortune."

By the time you'd chosen which fortune it was you were to seek, a number of legendary and fabulous voices had whispered in your ear and a significant number of others had caught your eye in a clamor of books and essays. Among the more persistent of these were the voices of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. These had your attention not so much because of their thematic heft or stylistic way of setting forth their bombast, which were considerable, but because of your own sense that if you were to be noticed at all, you had to elbow your way past them merely to get the bartender to recognize you.

This caused you to swagger at a time when mere pace would have been enough, sneering recognized as less valuable and study infinitely more valuable. Nevertheless, you were a boy, reacting to the voices of your zeitgeist as you might have responded to playground bullies who, even worse than picking on you, ignored you in search literally and figuratively of bigger game.

After the juvenile swagger subsided, you were more likely to be attracted to voices as guidance frequencies, finding comfort in the awareness of the voices of Huck Finn and later, in another sense, Holden Caulfield, the former a clear beacon to self-hood, the latter as spokesperson for an age in time. Huck Finn lit out to find himself and prosper amidst the metaphor of the discovery, space, and freedom his creator had known first-hand, then forsaken for the civilized comforts of the East. Holden was spiraling downward into the landscape of distrust, pain, and withdrawal. John Steinback had similar characters roiling within him. George was tied to by a promise to the gentle brute, Lenny, at the cost of his own freedom of choice. Tom Joad finally got to light out for some territory somewhere, but it was the territory of the life of a fugitive, to which he'd been driven by his own reckless compassion. Like Twain, Steinbeck moved East and more or less hated it. Barnaby Conrad reports being back on Cannery Row in Monterrey with him and Steinbeck morose, looking down, finally having to leave the restaurant where they'd gathered for drinks, disappointed at what had been made of what once was.

Ever on the alert for such voices to heed as Samantha, the young protagonist from Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, sent forth so vulnerably to solve a large problem created in the first place by adults, you watch carefully for the situations where individuals find themselves mired in emotional bogs, spinning wheels, digging themselves more inevitably into the soggy terrain. Then you watch as they try to extricate themselves. What you identify in these young voices is your young self, trying to get some form of traction, any traction, with which to grip the ground and move forth. Of course you factor in your more mature self because you understand the reach of physical behavior by which you may be out of some but by no means all. Nor is there any guarantee about the integrity of the road ahead.

We accept honest voices, those telling us how some changes might be inevitable, how indeed these chances may be bad for us but pretty good for others. We are less sure of voices that try too hard to cheer us up with glib tropes and reassurances. One of the pleasures that inhere in our line of work is the arrival of the voice that says things are hopelessly screwed up, our external acknowledgment of this being so, then the coda, the tail arriving in the form of an idea by which we might possibly get something down in readable form that will, for a moment or two, make us feel better.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Narrative Voice: A You with a View

In the beginning, you did not have an interior narrative voice. You had a strangely antiseptic amalgam of authoritarian voices, your parents, possibly your sister, definitely your teachers and their administrators. You had the conglomerate of them, talking to you, imparting rules because where and when you grew up, you were neither in a Dickensian mash-up of an institution nor a landscape where you feared for the consequences of every move you made. You sounded, in other words, like Them, like the Elders, the Wise; you tried to sound as though you conflated action with consequence but in reality, you were still digesting the way it was presented to you.

You became aware of Other in unguarded moments in which you heard yet another voice that troubled you at first because it didn't sound much like any of Them. It was you, emerging from the shadows with glosses on what They were telling you in school, what the They of the textbooks were telling you.

Junior high school. English. Maybe not. Maybe Social Studies. Miss Hummel announcing to class, I, you, he-she-it, they, we. We may speak in all these points of view but when we write, we do not use You, we use one. One wonders, one thinks, one hopes. Although you were old enough by then to use fuck as an adjective as well as a verb, this is fucking ridiculous or fuck this, you recall your response being the well-reasoned inner response that this information was bullshit. Bullshit, you thought, and for that night's homework in which the assignment was a personal essay, you deliberately set it to agree with you. In fact, you began the essay with you, so that there would be no doubt. A day after turning in the essay, Miss Hummel held you forth as an example of how, when, where, and why rules should be broken. To this day, you owe her because she, in her way, opened the door and let the dog out into the yard.

From about that time onward, you talked to yourself, addressed yourself as you, began to recognize it as a dissent to all the ones and Is and He and She and It that came forth from Their mouths and text books.

The inner life, the formation of your inner narrative voice, got a real injection of steroids when you met John Sanford, who was born Julius Garfinckle and who had just set forth thinking to pursue a career as a lawyer when he ran into an old chum from grammar school, Nate Weiss, who was already becoming Nathaniel West. I just passed the bar exam, John reported having told West. I just finished a novel, West reported to John. And John knew he was screwed. He had turned down the wrong pathway. John began to write You instead of I; he wrote volumes of autobiography which gulped down, thrilled when John asked you to write reviews of them. You were present for the coffee and Sara Lee refrigerator cake celebrations as his volumes came forth and there was an enormous sense within you that John's energy and story stood forth as a kind of beacon for not only clarity but integrity of voice. John was the reason you ultimately began to believe that of all the tools, all the ghosts of energy within the house of storytelling, voice was the single most important thing.

It is, you argue often to yourself, the sense you must have before you can find and impart the voices of your characters and so it came to you not all that long ago, when you saw Peter O'Toole as Maurice, the actor-protagonist of the film Venus, that sense of affinity you feel from time to time with the men and women who act and write and otherwise portray. Maurice, standing in an outdoor theater, blown over with the leaves and gunk of winter, stepping forth to deliver that magnificent sonnet, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day...

Somewhere along the way of delivery, you'd laugh. Maurice did not. You would laugh at the thought of ever being able to deliver that sublime poem as well as O'Toole did, with as much knowledge of the character, the emotional self. And of course this laugh would inform your own narrative voice, this sense of recognizing the art when you see it, striving for it, and laughing at the sheer hopelessness and wonder of all of life, a life that has and will include loss, disappointment, missed cues, wrong timing, and misunderstanding. You will be thankful for and ultimately nod your head in respect to the laugh because it, this ability to laugh at the wrong time, resides in the DNA of your narrative.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


What do you get from writing?

Assuming you do get something or, indeed, some things, what do you get that you couldn't get from reading or, for that matter, an idiosyncratic combination of reading and listening to music?

These two activities supply a major source of pleasure, excitement, information, challenge, and companionship, delivered as it were, right at your doorstep. There are any number of splendid men and women who tell stories or ply theses to your satisfaction, allowing you at once an overwhelming sense of knowing you could never catch up with all the reading you want to do, while at the same time being aware of the riches of discovery that await you. There are also untapped resources among the musical composers you already know, triggering the feelings and memories within you to seek time listening or, indeed, recreating them in your mind from memory.

This leaves you with at least one answer to the first question, which is that you get satisfaction from your desire to perform. Although by your account you have written some simply dreadful things, they were not sufficiently dreadful enough nor was there ever a response to you work suggesting they were so dreadful that you found it too painful to even consider much less wish to perform again. Performance is at its best high adventure, lifting you in unanticipated ways, holding you to account in yet other ways. While you are in the act, there is a constant reminder of the time when you had several blue tick hounds and opening a door meant they all scrambled to get out. There are emotions and memories of a piece with the hounds, wanting to get out, to follow their instincts, which is to say their large scent receptors.

Writing then gives you a sense of the scramble within you and, alas, sometimes of the lack of scramble, but this has its cure, which is putting into the equation that excitement, that stimulus that will draw you out of the shell of regular self and into the clamor of the writing self.

Your answers to that opening question become nuanced, multifarious; you get answers to questions you did not know you had, connecting tissue between two or more events you had previously thought to be discreet. You even get memories yanked from your past that were as coins slipped from your pocket into the recesses of a sofa.

Reading and listening to music, pleasing as they are, informative and reflexive as they are, become passive in comparison to writing. You are then performing, doing what you read of others doing or hearing or seeing. You are doing so in the risk of not being up to the standards of the things you listen to and read, you are doing so at the risk of sporting a monumental hubris, thinking, for instance, that you could walk down the country lane with the likes of Beethoven or Ravel or Dvorak and whistle with them. But ah, they are splendid friends; they do not need you and thus they challenge you to keep up with them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Accordion 1, Ukulele 1, Shelly 0

One of the many reasons musicians practice every day, dancers exercise and dance every day, writers write every day, painters paint every day, etc is to install then instill muscle memory, that repetitive process by which we do the things that mean so much to us to the point where we are able to do them without thinking, the point where, even if we feel somewhat sore and stiff at the outset, once we have begun, we are transported into an encompassing sense of correctness.

Practice may not make us better musicians or dancers or writers or painters; we may in fact reach a point of optimal performance beyond which we will never advance. Muscle memory may or may not improve our ability to rise above the mediocre. Nevertheless. We practice so that the next time we do whatever it is we do, there will not be the pain and uncertainty, perhaps even the thoughts that come when we have spent time away from what it is we do.

At one moment in your younger years that you are just getting around to achieving closure with, you had a chum who lived across the street. Somehow, his instrument of choice was the accordion. He could not come forth to play until he practiced an hour a day, which meant you spent some time sitting outside his window, waiting for the hour to be up so that you could sally forth to play baseball or football or whatever outside activity you had planned. After about a year into your friendship, you, who played no instrument and who could not read music, observed to your friend's mother, "You know, don't you, that he's never going to get any better?" It was an incredibly insensitive and rude thing for you to have said. The mother regarded you for a moment, nodded, then said, "By the time he finds that out," she said, "it will be too late for him to quit." Those were junior high school years, and with the exception of a few things you'd learned from your parents and sister, you had rarely heard such wisdom and understanding; the incident made you consciously aware of wanting to discover more such insights.

Thinking is for after, not during. Practice help you avoid the need to think. This is especially true for you as it relates to writing. Thinking may even be helpful before, but not during. But mostly, as the thinking disappears and you become a part of the process, regardless if the process is a short story, a review, or something much longer, the material begins to speak to you and as you lean in to listen to it, on of the few things you can rely upon becomes emboldened and at the same time confident enough to alight on your shoulder for a time.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Yearning Curve

When you are in the beginning stages of learning a particular discipline, there comes an idealized peek into the future, when you visualize yourself in the act of performing that particular activity, flawlessly, effortlessly, as though you had been intended from birth to arrive at that state. This peek into the future is in the way of a gift to yourself, an incentive for learning so well that you have invited the discipline into permanent remedy within your being. Some of the disciplines, such as the grammar and syntax of the English language, are basic. Others, such as sexual performance, are primal. Yet others, such as operating a vehicle, required that you be licensed.

Some things, such as sex and voting, can be engaged without much advance preparation, although in each case, advanced preparation is ultimately to your advantage.

Some stages of learning involve the awareness of tools and the understanding of their use. Before you were forced by circumstances to trade in your hip joints for those of a titanium design, you were much concerned with the nature of running shoes and a study of stride and lift and, of course, the mechanics of hydration. The night before a half- or full-marathon was a splendid opportunity to show your awareness of nutritional and metabolic processes as well as your own pleasure in preparing a meal of pasta and lobster for their carbs and glycogen. You now consider instead of running shoes the mechanics of swim fins and such stylistic devices as Total-Immersion swimming.

As the need and opportunities to become a book editor approached you, there were tools mentioned in revered tones, beginning with CMOS, The Chicago Manual of Style, which you have owned since your first purchase when it had a green color, not quite that of lime Jell-o. There was also the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Biographical Dictionary, the Atlantic Monthly Short Lives, a Merriam-Webster Geographical Dictionary, a world atlas. You used some of these items more than others. When you had the seniority to do so, you implemented changes such as substituting The American Heritage unabridged for the MW, at which point one individual you knew and respected congratulated you on coming of age to the point of choosing the standards for your publishing venture. (Emboldened by this vote of confidence, you promptly instructed the copyeditors in your employ NOT to hyphenate Moby-Dick.)

Many of the books-as-tools you grew forward with have tumbled off the desk and into obsolescence as entire technologies have changed. Does it date you beyond measure to speak of a favored guide, Words into Type, which still has a pretty effective section on the author's responsibility to a manuscript and a project? You don't have to answer that, but you do have to know what being a professional entails.

At one time you thought to assemble a style guide for fiction writers, still not a bad idea because, splendid as it is, CMOS is more for the nonfiction writer. In your way, the work you now have out in submission, The Fiction Writer's Tool Kit, is, as the title suggests, a tool, a reference guide for the fiction writer. You are inordinately fond of the publisher who is now looking at it, but even were they after deliberation to decline, the work helped you and was at the point of this essay, your tool kit for story-telling and for the construction of non-formulaic fictions.

These thoughts have come tumbling down on you precisely because you set out this morning to restore some order to the shelves closest to your working area. Which tools can you live without? Which are you likely to use again and again? And one of the most intriguing mysteries of all: There is no question about the place Mark Twain occupies in your esteem and your dreams. You've carefully set out an entire bookcase devoted to him and such books about him as you care to keep. The mystery that arises has its origins in the second tier of the bookshelf closest at hand to you, where CMOS resides with Words into Type, The Copyeditor's Handbook, A Dictionary of American-English Usage, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, and other such compilations, right next to a pile of Big Little Books used as a sort of decorative bookend, is Chaucer A to Z, The Viking Portable Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, John Gardner's The Life and Times of Chaucer, and yet another volume of The Canterbury Tales before drifting off to a new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? You would hardly call yourself a mediaevalist or even a Middle Ages man. Could it be that you see in Chaucer the human condition writ large as a writer's tool kit? It could be.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Let's hear it for proctology!

When you look back on your behavior in high school and the first year or so of what you have come to think of as the college experience, you realize how tolerant you have grown. The awareness can't help reminding you of Mark Twain's observations about how the older he grew, the more he'd come to realize how wise and judicious his father had become.

Random memories of yourself interacting with peers, faculty, and parents bring you the same reaction you get when you return to a book or a particular author for which you felt a strong connection at the time. The reaction is a kind of bewilderment that you could not have seen through the artifice. Should you chance upon such a work or such an author with the realization that you not only found the book and author admirable but as well worthy of emulation, you are left hitchhiking at a crossroads. Do you merely shake your head in amused tolerance, or do you try to package that memory and go with all deliberate speed to some local recycling center where you hope to leave it off without being seen?

The discovery of something you'd written back in those distant days leaves you no choice but to opt for tolerance up on a plateau with Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and perhaps even Mother Teresa.

In both your behavior and your writing, you'd become an amalgam of Norman Mailer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, with a dash of Becket, Maugham, and Dorothy Parker thrown in, openly scornful of those who were more moderate in their behavior and less likely to be pugnacious or rude or both. You can toss off much of this with an insouciant shrug these days, comfortable in your embrace of writing and behavior styles. You have even reached the point where, in a work now in progress, two characters are built around individuals you disdain in real life, yet in both cases, you have begun to nudge the characters along the path of redemption and empathy.

This glorious schism resident within your own personal history is given a dusting off and pleasant surprise when, from time to time, you hear from one of your old associates and the talk gets around to incidents that kept you each alive and admirable in the eyes of the other. You got me reading Schopenhauer, a recent contactee told you. Not only that, I remember that time we got lost biking around Griffith Park until you were able to find that Frank Lloyd Wright house you wanted me to see. You said, I did? Oh, man, he said, you sure did. Another voice from the past reminded you of your guiding him to the early (78 rpm) records of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano. The discovery of a box of things you'd written, published and forgotten, along with a batch of letters written when you were staying variously near Seattle and in the downtown portion of Districto Federal, the DF in Mexico, D.F., all a treasure from your past kept for you by your sister, have a pretty good average of things for which you can demonstrate some pride of understanding.

The system works both ways, in that you still recall the arrival in the mail of A Hundred Years of Solitude with a note from a college chum saying in so many words, This book might help you become less of an asshole. Whatever you were at the time, you fell on the novel with the conviction that it contained one or more marvelous secrets which, as you think about it, is your goal in your reading, looking for the helpful secrets. Machado de Asisi's momentous Epitaph of a Small Winner was seminal in that direction, leading you to the sense that with each book you read and each friendship you engage you may discover secrets that will make you less of an asshole. By no means are you lacking ego supplement to the point where, on wakening each morning, you greet yourself, Hi, asshole, what are we going to accomplish today? You do try to set an agenda which, beginning the night before, you look forward to with brio and anticipation, checking in from time to time to see if there are any traces of asshole in your behavior, but that is another matter.

Similarly, you do try to provide substance for your friends and students and all those who stop in to read such things as you publish as a part of your venture in life.

An envelope appears in your mailbox addressed to Sr. Don Shelly Lowenkopf, the writer quite fluent in Spanish and also addressing respect and devotion with a mild humor, reminding you that with your temper, impatience, and rampant enthusiasms, it is just as possible to fall back into habits that may not be so old as you suppose. You could, without hope, curiosity, enthusiasm to guide you become an analog of T.H. White's The Once and Future King and become addressed as The Once and Future Asshole.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Friends: Human and Literary

Reading allows the luxury of friendship with persons you may never otherwise meet, not least of all because they lived out their lifespan before you were born. You approach these literary friends with the same degree of reserve, suspicion, and cynicism you express when going to a gathering, a library, or a bookstore, thinking yourself fortunate to come away from a gathering, a library, or a bookstore with the prospects for a new friendship.

Friendships--human and literary--represent landscapes fraught with complexity, challenge, and accommodation. Your human friends are often faced with the need to be tolerant of what one of them called your tendency toward execrable puns; you often need to be tolerant of a prolific literary friend such as McMurtry or the late, lamented Robert B. Parker for their occasional duds. To enter into either kind of friendship requires you to ante up trust and a willingness to be honest beyond the boundaries of vulnerability.

A friend is someone who will not tell you the truth for your own good, that role best served by parents or adversaries, thus giving you the opportunity not to listen. A friend is someone who may become a temporary adversary who is, nevertheless, willing to trust that you will eventually consider his or her entire resume as your friend. Nor is a friend someone who will lie to you with the intent of keeping you from harm's way. Human and literary friends may lie to you and you to them; this is a given because you are all humans, alive or with your work completed.

There are any number of reasons for having friends, the most basic among them is the comfort of companionship with like minds that leads to growth toward rather than growth away. As you grow from association with human friends, you wish them to have association with you from which they may grow.

Friends in both categories, literary and human, define you to yourself, to your friends, and to adversaries whom you may, in time, befriend.

Sometimes, in your work area, in your bedroom, and in the garage, other times in libraries or book stores, you see and feel the nostalgia of ongoing friendships and those that simply ran out of steam. In terms of your own life, the oldest book you have is one given to you on your thirteenth birthday; it is a large, thick volume that contains all of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and that remarkable first-person venture that immediately upon reading made you feel good because you had indeed read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and indeed already knew the personage of Huckleberry Finn. This particular friend also contains portions of Life on the Mississippi, Puddin'head Wilson, A Connecticut Yankee, and several segments from Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad. This one book reminds you of John Dryden, speaking of Geoffrey Chaucer. "Here," Dryden said of Chaucer, "is God's plenty." Much as you thought at various times to tread the path of religiosity, you are not so and only invoke one of God's names to give vent to some sort of anger or damnation, but as a metaphor, you rather like Dryden's view because, although not a great fan of his, you are fond of Chaucer, fond enough to usurp what Dryden said of him and apply it to this thick, crumbly wellspring of friendship.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The State of the Art

Given your recent observations about moving out of old neighborhoods, your trip to the Bay Area for your bi-monthly writing workshop reminds you how habitual it is for you to feel an affection and affinity for the spaces between Santa Barbara and Palo Alto. Because you have been making this trip for over twenty years, that strip of California seems in its way as well known as parts of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and San Francisco. This is a terrain filled with Spanish names and with landscapes that remind you variously of border towns between California, Arizona, Texas, and Mexico and as well, south into Mexico. It is more than mere names; in some of the smaller towns such as Soledad and Gonzalez and Chualar, the demographic and the Spanish-language signs project the Latino aura and so many of the smaller buildings have the shape and colors you associate with the feeling you get from Mexico.

You are back home now, having left Woodside later than your usual wont and feeling now road tired, still a bit too tired to sleep, feeling as though you'd just returned from a long and satisfying hike. Many of those who attend these workshops are individuals you've known since the late 1980s, reminding you of their projects over the years, yet another reason why you feel the chemistry of hanging out with writers, their projects being in so many ways every much your friends as the writers are.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Received Truth: Sign Here

If one's heritage may be likened to the metaphor of a cultural neighborhood, you grew forth into what you have now become by listening to, obeying many times, and consciously disobeying certain rules from on high. The first boundary you recall was Fairfax Avenue, which you were enjoined from crossing unless in the company of an adult. You have not been on or near Fairfax Avenue for some time, but when you are, a portion of you is yanked back to those times when you lived with your parents and sister on Orange Street, a shady east-west side street of no particular consequence to anyone who didn't live there. Back in the time to which you are yanked, your principle mode of travel was walking or the remarkable conveyance you made from a two-by-four, a broken roller skate, a wooden fruit box, and a portion of a broom handle, which served as your handlebar.

Other boundaries came and went as you moved from Orange street a tad east into what is called The Miracle Mile, then farther east still, with a brief interlude near the university where, unexpectedly, you began to teach for all these years. The neighborhoods changed and so did parts of the heritage, although you have had and continue to have many a long-winded discussion with yourself about what your heritage truly is. In a real sense, your every act was an obedience or disobedience to rules or customs from on high, whether the source was your parents, teachers, elders in general, or that growing sense of what segments of society you reported to. Not that you ever wanted anything to do with The Boy Scouts of America, but you remember one tearful, existentially lonely night in which you cried to your parents that Cub Scouts all over the world were going to bed aware of their membership in the Cub Scouts and what did you have? Your splendid father, a sort of George Burns, told you you had your dreams and how many Cub Scouts had those?

In a real sense, every book you have read, every book you have written, every book you have edited and/or designed has been a tacit hall pass, an excuse to disobey rules of your heritage and culture. Every agreement or disagreement with teachers, with any kind of bureaucracy, with any kind of more or ethos has nudged you toward the heritage of a word you have come to distrust because of contemporary American politics, independent. In that context, Independent means to you refusing to take sides or to learn the issues of the sides. A loner? Too dramatic, tinged with a touch of self-pity. Existential comes close. At any rate, much of the time, say eighty percent of it, you are in this neighborhood, metaphoric light years away from Orange Street and its immediate boundaries. Eighty percent and comfortable in your dealings with others who have strayed from their own neighborhoods, potentially hopeful of a friendship with someone such as you. It is the twenty percent that concerns you and which invites considerable speculation. What are your attitudes when you are suddenly back in the old places and in the mindset of the you who has neither done nor read of exploration? No wonder books of adventure and travel are so much a draw for you, but as well, no wonder that you require from time to time the now overburdened metaphor equivalent of comfort food, the return to the old neighborhood of heritage and conventional wisdom and common sense and received truth. What do you do when you get there, and how does being there make you feel?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On Language

Sometimes--until you begin writing dialogue--you take language for granted, accepting it for the almost incredible medium by which members of the same and differing species communicate, not even questioning your ability to use it to inform the communication between you and the characters you create. In some lofty moments of spontaneity, you watch the screen in a state of being greatly impressed with yourself for having caught so much meaning in so few words.

You, who used to despair that you would ever achieve a metaphor or simile of any worth, who were openly envious of Raymond Chandler for the way these figures of speech seemed to appear as though from the reflex of need, now watch your own metaphor much as a tenement housewife would watch the clothing she put out on the clothesline, fearful of the neighbor's reactions to the very items of laundry and to any real or imagined defects in the way she did her laundry.

Language allows us to discover, to inform, to leave messages, to make choices, to warn. It reveals as much about us as we hope to convey to others, at once betraying our status in a relationship, our pretensions, our defensiveness, our social ranking, our attitudes, our agendas.

The more you think about language, the more it takes on a shape and purpose of its own, as though it were a leviathan whose size and function is incomprehensible to us. Language makes you realize how difficult it is at times to set your feelings down with a satisfying degree of accuracy. Language is the space in between "I had a good time" and "The world suddenly seemed to open with a dazzle of opportunity and learning." Language is a dazzle of opportunities, the trail of crumbs set in the forrest by the witch for Hansel and Gretel.

As you do on occasion by replaying in your mind some favored music, some theme from Ravel, some Gershwin invention that speaks out to you as though you'd been lifelong friends, you replay a line of dialogue, a phrase or sentence leading a story deeper into the forrest or incrementally out of it, you stop in mid stream, stunned by the implication of using language. You are near breathless because of the enormity of choice to be made, because of the hush that surrounds you as language waits for you to make up your mind, to choose a word.

Two of the geniuses of music you have discovered, Mozart and Beethoven, worked in wildly differing ways, Beethoven's notes seeming to come more slowly and deliberately, Mozart's with the ease of turning on a spigot which would allow melody and idea to flow forth. Each made uncounted choices, each has left a legacy of work that seems to proceed from one note to the only possible next note.

When language is working well for you, you don't have to go back and remove things, qualifiers, hesitations, defenses. When it is significantly working well for you, you are able to come back to it and read it with a kind of shiver of wonderment, the wonderment being Who wrote this? I am impressed.

From time to time you find yourself becoming evangelical when you tell your students (and yourself) the best practice is to write the way you think and think the way you write. And do each without hesitation.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chance, Choice, Consequence

Chance has a limited role in fiction; too much of it suggests a heavy authorial hand, manipulating outcomes that seem increasingly unlikely. If closure is achieved through too many coincidences, the role of the protagonist has been undercut. After all, a protagonist is the protagonist in the first place because the burden rests or falls on his or her shoulders, and he or she is supposed to be the architect and engine of the outcome. An amicus curiae brief comes from fantasy and fantastic adventures in which magic plays such a large part. Even in these, the protagonist is supposed to figure how to use the magic to outwit the antagonistic forces. The best you can say for chance as a tool is that it can cause some remarkable complications, those pesky, mischievous events and missed connections that get the protagonist in deeper troubles, somewhat of a piece with afflicting Sisyphus with athlete's foot by way of making his eternal task not only boring but itchy.

In real life, chance has a greater opportunity to upstage events because while there may be a temporary throughline such as a drought or a famine or a misguided election in, say, Massachusetts, there are also cycles, changes, and the monotonous locked step of mere presence in which things happen each as an independent contractor. Thus trees and flowers volunteer because seeds were blown or caught in a dog's fur, or perhaps momentarily trapped in some unsuspecting trouser cuff. Equally, in real life, a slab of a hillside may dissolve in a rain storm to reveal artifacts enough to make an archaeologist's career.

Oliver La Farge, the anthropologist, once wrote a short story about a rather scuzzy academic who was always seeming to stumble upon magnificent finds from the distant past. But we knew better; this academic was guided to these finds by supernatural agencies. Thus was fun made of scientific method and by implication the lifting to respect of the ways and beliefs of our elders.

Choice is another matter. This is so because of the recognition of the number of choices we make every waking moment and, often enough, during the dreaming parts of sleep. Choice ultimately yields consequence, a circumstance well known to us because of the number of consequences we face every waking moment and, yes, during the dreaming parts of sleep. We chose to do something or opt out or dither. Each produces a litany of consequences, some of which may be totally unanticipated and indeed not justified. This leads us to confront another Cosmic Truth: Consequences do not have to be justified. They simply are. Much in the manner of Chance, in which a given segment of time is merely a window through which we can see the passing parade of events.

And here, the two come together; chance meets choice. We gaze out the window and see a procession of events, or perhaps no event at all, merely a tree, some shrubs, even a flower or two. Now a bird lands on a branch of the tree and begins looking about. We become curious and in a way invest in the bird. Now comes into the picture a cat, whereupon we, who have nothing against cats, nevertheless have some understanding of the nature of cats. Some among us may already visualize a mere pile of feathers instead of the bird. And of course the more we learn of the bird, its mockingbird-edness or its blue jay essence, the more vivid that pile of feathers becomes. As we switch our attention to the cat, depending on our individual preferences, its very coloration, say tiger-stripe or marmalade, add to its potential for bringing about that pile of feathers. We are caught up in choice and consequence. Do we rap sharply on the window, thus to frighten the bird away? Do we dither? After having frightened the bird off, do we, from a consequential guilt, invite the cat in for a snack?

Story is in some part the experience the viewer brings to the artifice of the writer; it always has some consequence associated with it, somewhat like the tin cans we used to tie to the fenders of automobiles when we were mischievous kids. As we grew older, we eschewed the tin can for a handful of gravel or perhaps two or three loose bolts or nuts, just enough to fit inside the hub cap we'd have carefully pried off with the bottle-opener blade of our pocket knife. The unsuspecting driver, after moving a scant few feet, would hear this inner serenade, stop, get out, look, shake head, return to car, ad infinitum, a monument to the practical joke nature young boys have to evolve through in order to have even a shot at the consequences of being grown up.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chemistry at Work...or Not

You are smugly ensconced at Peet's, which is crowded. A barista nods at you over those in line, waiting to place orders. Medium nonfat latte, she mouths. You nod and moments later, your order is set on the counter with a wink. You find a tiny space, begin to set out your things, take a tentative sip of coffee, lift up your pen and begin making some notes on a work in progress.

Some time of engrossment and coffee sipping follows before you look up to see two persons standing at the lower counter, where coffee is ground and bagged for home use and where bulk tea is bagged to go. The woman is medium height with long hair the color of a sun-burned lawn, pulled into a bun, thus emphasizing the bony planes of her face. Her posture and her poise impress you to the point where you rate her as attractive.

Standing next to her is a man, perhaps an inch taller, heavy about the middle, his hair running to gray at the temples. You wonder if their placement is the accident of many customers in the same area or if they are together, some form of couple--friends, mates, lovers. He appears to be leaning into her space and she seems aware of the closeness, making no attempt to distance herself. Simultaneously you accept their couple-ness and begin defining their dynamic, the narrative that describes their behavior each to the other, and the need for a third party--you--as the witness and ultimate narrator, for unless one or each is a dramatist, they will not write of their relationship.

Layers of dramatic potential leap forth from them, a complex aura which you read, tempered by your own attitudes, preferences, and needs. They are buying a half pound of coffee beans, ground for espresso. Because you saw her as that most damning adjective, attractive, and him as the even more damned ordinary, you have constructed a near drama. Two characters and an audience, thus of at least three participants, one of whom you hope you know and are indeed at great pains to know.

You have made choices, passed judgments, imagined scenes in which all three appear, not the least of which is the man approaching you the next time you are at Peet's, drinking coffee and writing, telling you to stop writing about his woman, and you explaining either defensively or perhaps patronizingly that she deserves to have someone write about her. But now, ah, at this moment, you look up once again from your notes about them to the reality of them and they are gone, their half pound of coffee freshly ground and ready for such adventures as may befall them in your imagination at a random breakfast or perhaps some mid-afternoon pause for coffee and conversation that leads to drama.

The degree of accuracy or congruence between this couple and the characters you construct from them is unknowable and in this context of no importance. What is important is the chemistry you experienced when you saw them during those brief moments before they went tromping off to other stories and destinies. In the years you have been going to Peet's, you have rarely had this particular chemistry with real persons to the point of taking that next step, of pushing them through the portal of your imagination and into a dynamic that may be completely unrelated to them.

The connective tissue here continues because of the chemistry you experience when you see or think of events, invest them with feelings, write about them as though they were quite real and tangible. Is the chemistry still there in subsequent days when you reread what you have set down. You have taken as many, perhaps even more, liberties as you have with the middle-aged man and woman, standing before the coffee/tea purchase counter at Peet's. You have become a witness to realities not clearly known to you or understood by you.

And you set forth once again.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Cue, Not to Be Confused with Billiards

There is a moment of excited limbo when you, as an actor, are standing somewhere in the wings, waiting to go on, the delicious process of drainage at work, removing from you all the motives and responses of the you of birth and growth, allowing you to become filled with the you of character, aware of an agenda and expectations, When you are writing fiction, this particular sense is best seen as a cup of coffee with an exponent sign hovering above it because it is often impossible to gauge just how intense and exciting this feeling of being about-to-go-on is. There are occasional moments in real life when you feel such a moment, say in that brief second before you open the door to a classroom, or when you are about to join friends, or indeed when you are about to enter a shard of time that will be all yours, without interruption, to do what you will as the whim takes you. Perhaps Sally will be there, sleeping or watching some focus of stimulation, but perhaps you will be entirely alone, ready to walk-on into an adventure.

Your most vivid memory of such about-to moments goes well back into the 60s when, for a time, you were an extra, working at CBS TV Studios on Fairfax Avenue near Beverly, not yet at the stage of being given lines to deliver, more often than not being a part of a background. You forget the actual drama of the incident because the incident was its own drama. You were an extra in a Playhouse 90 production, a ninety-minute drama in which you had a number of appearances, all of which required you to move quickly from one set to another, often through narrow, poorly lit aisle-ways. The incident began when you made a wrong turn, from which everything about you was a disconnect. You were hopelessly lost. In the rehearsals, you'd judged the amount of time you needed to get from one set to another, thereupon to become a passenger in an elevator or a group of individuals leaving a courtroom, or an individual seated at a bar, staring longingly at the splendid actress, Kim Hunter. But you were lost and the inner clock was ticking. You made what you hoped was a turn that would get you out of terra incognita and into some familiarity, but instead, you came face to face with an icon. Standing there, moodily watching the progress of the story on a monitor was the great stone face of all time, the silent film icon, Buster Keaton. "Don't worry, kid," he told you. "We all get lost once in a while." You hesitated, wanting to convey your respect and admiration. "No time for that, kid," he said. "Keep looking for your way. The cue is everything."

You have been lost more than once, sometimes in search of the cue, wondering if you would ever learn it.

Standing in the limbo before entering your scene is daunting; if you think about what you are doing, it could easily be an invitation to stage fright and that awful sense of being out there before an audience with neither cue nor clue. Watching the recent film Up in the Air, you did not at first relate to the growing feeling of discomfort when George Clooney, in character, stood before a seminar and began inviting his audience to see a backpack. The feeling of discomfort reached its acme when he paused before another-but-similar audience, his own disconnect between cues tugging at him. The way his and your careers have gone, it is unlikely that you will ever meet him as and in the context of your meeting with Buster Keaton, but seeing the film was a lovely redux of what has become a way of life and of looking at events.

Keep looking for your way.

Smile when you find it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Writing about loss opens the floodgates of nuance and discovery.

You not only discover the extent to which the grief of the particular loss persists, you learn to process it through writing about it, sparing yourself, your friends and readers the equivalent of a trip to Chuck E. Cheese for a pity party.

Loss is as much a part of life as daily meals, the desire for exercise, and the equally pleasurable shower after the exercise. It comes visiting early on, most often in the form of death--a relative to whom you felt particularly close or one to whom your feelings at the time felt confusing. Sometimes the deathly visitor has come to claim a beloved pet, which could in its particular way, evoke your first argumentative dialectic with God. Sometimes the loss is quite literal, the separation of yourself from some treasured object, a loss that makes you consider the possibilities that you'd taken the object for granted or, contrary wise, had relied too heavily on it. Alas, sometimes the loss is of a friendship, either through a change of residence in one or both parties, a transfer to another school, or worse yet, some argument or betrayal.

As the years progress, loss becomes like visiting friends or relatives who just happen to be in the neighborhood, metaphorically looking to you for entertainment. Loss causes you to consider potential defensive options such as asceticism or the painful awareness that you are bush league in the world of ascetics, friend as you are to things, to books, fountain pens, gadgets you might put to profitable use were you to live in the Alaskan tundra but not in Santa Barbara.

With further progressions of loss in your life you learn the process of accommodation, recognizing there are contributions you may make with significant cheer. Self-pity, self-importance, adverbs, some adjectives, pomposity. Our truck will be in your neighborhood.

In some families, the need arises to take in a parent or aunt or uncle, much as at one time they may have had to take you in until you were back on your feet (whatever that might have meant at the time). In your case, the decision was not to take in a relative, although in one wild moment, you stood forth and offered to bring your mother to live with you and she. to her everlasting credit, even nodded and said, yes, she could see the possibility of that actually working. Now, the room you have to offer is for your old pal, Loss. If you do not make such provisions, you will always be looking out the window, sneaking in or out of the house, at pains to avoid rather than acknowledge. If you allow this process to make you cynical, you will have in a real sense begun tossing the time you have left and with it the time with the individuals, processes, and things you so value.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

You want me to hold the chicken

When a given stream of narrative begins to come to life for you, it is usually because some plan or pattern has edged its way to the front of a crowd of competing elements, taking over as it were, and supervising the arrangement of the furniture, possibly even surprising you by requiring more than one venue in which the arrangement is to be made.

In anticipation of the arrival of this plan that will set things in motion, you occasionally will get a sentence or paragraph, possibly as much as a page, set forth as though it knows what it wants. As you are forming these tentative arrangements, you're waiting to hear the sound of shifting gears, a sound that means you've achieved take-off speed and are beginning to get momentum.

If there are no such sounds of shifting gears by the end of the second page, and you find yourself in a position similar to Wile E. Coyote, over the boundary of the butte or mesa, with nothing below you except the view of a long way down, the energy stops and you take the downward plummet, kerboom, the next step being to hit the delete key if you happen to be at your computer or to draw a diagonal line through the material on your note pad. The results are the same: back to a relaunch.

At times, the need for this take-off velocity requires five or six such Wile E. Coyote plunges. They are worth the fall, although at the time the interior critic is beginning to remind you of the stereotypical back-seat driver, with such questioning tropes as And you call yourself a writer, or worse, And you walk into the class room and presume to tell others how to get started, or even worse yet as in, Sid doesn't have to go through all this rigamarole because Sid has an outline. (The Sid brought up to you by your inner back-seat driver is S.L. "Sid" Stebel, a faculty mate of yours at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference and as well at the Masters in Professional Writing Program at USC.)

The fact of securing an opening scene in which you hear the gears shifting and feel the rush of story in the works does not mean you are at all home free or that any of the material thus secured will be kept or that it will be kept in the order you first intended. Case in point, what now stands at the opening scene of The Secrets of Casa Jocosa was actually chapter two until, some weeks back, you read through the day's catch and made one of your famous decisions about where the story starts. This also gave you the format and, in a significant way, the voice or attitude in which the material was presented.

When you attend the party where story is being served, the usual rules of politeness, manners, and etiquette don't apply. You can ask for second and third helpings, dawdle over your vegetables, and take an early shot at desert. You can send things back to the kitchen and as well tell your host that you are not all that fond of chicken. You can--mirable dictu--use catsup, an image of particular meaning to you because, oh these many years ago, an author whom you'd admired on your way up through the ranks was now your writer; you'd published two of his novels and were dining at his home to discuss his next work. The evening was made memorable because there was a bottle of catsup on the table and the author's wife split an infinitive and a gut in her Southern belle way. You do not, she insisted, embarrass me before your editor by allowing a bottle of catsup on my table. (You have wanted to use that line of dialogue ever since and now, you have used it.)

The point you distracted yourself away from is that you are in charge of stirring up the energy and the attack; you have to take the risk of extending yourself beyond your reach, and not doing so will put the brakes on your growth as a writer and certainly make the present work, whatever it is, at considerable risk of being set down in any form at all.

In the beginning, you are as Bobby DuPre, stopping in at a roadside restaurant in search of a breakfast that may break all the rules of the house, but which is nevertheless your dream of a breakfast. You want me to hold the chicken.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Our Truck Will Be in Your Neighborhood...

Politics have been the essential nature of the larger groups or organizations you have been associated with. You first became aware of this as you considered the politics of your family, both on your mother's and father's side and, indeed, in their reactions to one another. Much of the politics radiated outward from one individual, its effects coming back to haunt you much later in life. Your next significant awareness came when, as an undergraduate, your attention was directed to the generalization in a political science class, from which meetings you strode into the politics of the campus humor magazine of which you were the editor and then, when politics and your writing got the humor magazine on the wrong side of the administration, you tumbled into the politics surrounding the daily student newspaper. From that point onward, you might put the matter into a neat apothegm by appreciating the politics of every relationship.

Politics left the campus with you when your two o'clock class ended and you rode crosstown to the Los Angeles Times building at First and Spring Streets, wherein you took the stairs or elevator depending on your whim to the editorial floor, whereupon you repaired to the night office of The Associated Press. Indeed there were politics.

Even when you opted out of a job with a newspaper in, of all places, Calexico, in order to spend the next several summers working for the Foley and Burke Shows, a carnival that rode the county fair circuit throughout California and Nevada, there were politics and, to a near equal degree, sociology. You, as an agent or manager of a concession booth (baseball throw, dart throw, Guess-Your-Weight, etc) were of a higher status than the ride monkeys, men who assembled and disassembled the rides and admittance shows, not quite as lofty as a concession owner who was your employer, nor as schedule-bound as the food preparation workers.

Politics followed you into unemployment and attempts to make your living as a writer, even when you were living in near hermetic seclusion and your big night out on the town was going to the post office to mail manuscripts or the monthly party at your agent's. A different kind of politics rode the Greyhound Bus with you to Mexico City where, because you had a letter of introduction to someone who knew someone, you were able to earn approximately 100 pesos for short, vaudeville-like skits.

It was political when you went to work for a publisher, more political yet when you moved to being the so-called West Coast editor for a New York publisher, and ever so much more political when you invented your way into a job with a scholarly publisher that resulted in your moving to Santa Barbara, and it was politics that made you decide against the offer that would have returned you to New York to run a publishing venture that was much more to your taste and ability than the scholarly publisher.

You appear to have forgotten the politics that leap-frogged you from mere membership in the Mystery Writers of America to a series of elected offices, a circumstance where your awareness of politics among writers reached an intensity you thought was the absolute acme--until you discovered the politics of the university and the faculty, leading you to the belief you still hold that the politics of a faculty who are unabashed writers--novelists, poets, short-story writers, dramatists--is the most corrosive of all.

Some of these recollections came tumbling forth this morning at the usual Friday coffee gathering, where the more or less regular group contains at least two of your fellow workshop leaders at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference and upwards of four who have attended the conference for at least five years. Your response to an observation that there was no politics among the workshop leaders began as a mild rumble, growing in intensity to a six or seven on the Richter Scale.

It is the nature of the writer to grow in stature to a point of competence at which publication, thought not guaranteed, is a likely prospect. This state of mind causes an amalgam of emotions including defensiveness and the basic law of drama which states that every character believes he is right. The state may include arrogance or humility or indifference or curiosity; no matter, they are all scooped from the carpet of effort by the vacuum cleaner of compulsive and obsessive behavior. Your own favored ad hominem labels for writers you know and do not care for start with laziness and emphatically include derivative.

Whenever you find in yourself the qualities you see as reprehensible in other writers, you pause to take inventory. Your plan is to set these qualities in perspective and neatly package them so that the next time the telephone rings and someone from Goodwill or The Salvation Army or the Alpha Thrift Store calls to tell you of its truck that will be in your neighborhood, you can invite them to stop by. Some perfectly good hubris here on Hot Springs Road. Hey, I'll leave the derivative material, all those stories with the equivalents of polo players on them, right out front.

You are thinking there is the beginnings of something rumbling around in these remembrances and recollections of yourself engaged in the politics of self, thinking they are about your dealings with writers when, in fact they are the outriders of your awareness of the reasons writers hone themselves into lonely travelers, thinking to protect their growing individuality and vision while wanting at the same time to pay some recognition to the social nature that lurks inside.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

On Being Introduced to Characters in a Story

What is it that first gets you to caring about a character when you meet for the first time? It has little to do with the description of the character, although that might be off-putting if it is too static. Nor does it have much to do with gender or age or even occupation of the character, particularly since in the past weeks you have read about and in your own work written about a veritable cornucopia of individuals, most of whom you've stayed with long enough to get to know.

Thus it appears to come down to that intangible element you call authorial aura, a reflection of what the author thinks and feels about the character, as well as how that character behaves, literally, which is to say in action, and how that character begins responding to the circumstances into which he or she is thrust by the author.

On a number of occasions you have found yourself attending a gathering or party at which, with the exception of a host or hostess, none of the other attendees are familiar to you. This sense of strangeness is mitigated by the sense that you wouldn't have been invited had someone you like thought you would fit in for some reason or another. Even though it may not seem so to others, you are introverted, causing you to step forth cautiously, looking for a way to merge with the group, communicate, exchange information, contribute to the event. Similarly, you approach characters in a story, even characters from authors such as Louise Erdrich or Jim Harrison, whom past experiences have led you to believe will win your heart.

You are now looking, both in gathering and story, for some kind of chemistry, some measure of attraction that will cause you to hope for schadenfreude events to befall the character, a spilled drink, a dropped canape, a loud growl from within the tummy, a dumb remark. Or you might hope the character will accomplish something particularly brilliant or daring or interesting. Over all, you want people to win, but in order to have that view, there are others you'll want to somehow shoot themselves in the foot. It is likely that you are watching carefully, looking for traces of a character who is independent, takes risks, has opinions. Similarly, you don't want born victims, men and women who think they deserve unrelentingly grim results; no more than you want born optimists who always expect to win or to avoid loss.

He or she can be anyone at any age, stepping up to an event, any event, then letting the devil take the hindmost, but doing so, even forgetting lines, with panache. Ah, this is someone to follow, someone who knows where there is a bottle of ale in the host's refrigerator, or a stash of pinot noir in the other room, or a plate of hors d'oeurves that really resonate. This is the insiders information you seek at a party, the person who can lead you somewhere, possibly even into a story.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to Make Your Characters Responsible

It always seems better to learn of a character that he or she has had a background in which there was a problem or an issue or even something significant that needs to be overcome in order to put the character on some sort of equal footing with the rest of us. We will accept characters that start off in ways that remind us of ourself, but the clock is ticking as we wait for the lathe of fate to do some serious shaping.

However composed and competent they might seem on the surface, the more memorable characters step forth being bedeviled, which does not by any means mean a religious or spiritual crisis so much as it means they have experienced loss and disappointment to the point where they find it difficult to be as confident as they once were. They have dreams and plans, but they go on the energy of the dreams and plans to keep them afloat.

Characters are also made memorable by being astounded by something, the enormity of their dream, the impossibility of it, the overwhelming consequences of having managed to survive as long as they have.

Completing this trinity of afflictions is the lovely word fraught; memorable characters are fraught and they have blundered, wandered, or slipped into circumstances that are fraught, which is to say filled with afflictions and dangers, loaded with uncertainty, pressures, tensions.

Often we as individuals find enough palliative and comfort in our work that we will define our life as relaxed, satisfying, challenging, even rewarding, but all these adjectival conditions are cover-up to the fact of our being bewildered, astounded, and fraught. It is no wonder we are drawn to individuals in real life and to characters in books who resound at these frequencies; they are us.

It is difficult at the moment to draw significant connection between yourself and the character of Michael Henchard. True enough, from about age sixteen until about age thirty, you were going steady with fermented spirits. To say nothing of mind-altering drugs, you put away a small-but-eclectic ocean of booze, whatever ceiling of whatever bedroom loomed over your eyes, it was a whirling, spinning ceiling from which you were fortunate to escape ultimately by either falling asleep or losing consciousness. Henchard stands as an example of what you might have become because you had the temper Henchard possessed in Chapter One, when he did what he did. You are about to look closely at him again, a reread of The Mayor of Casterbridge, to see if it has more for you than in past readings, the same amount, or less, this to be your next Golden Oldie for review.

These Golden Oldie reviews are part of a plan you have for a book project that combines some of your favored themes of guilt literature, titles jostled away from public notice by pretentious newbies, and the characteristics of memorable characters. You are vocal--perhaps to the point of being a bit of a bore--on the subject of opening velocity for fiction, and you have for some time now been imagining a chapter entitled Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge: Opening Velocity Writ Large, in which this work, recommended to you by James Michener, stands as the quintessential opening chapter. Michael Henchard certainly is bedeviled, astounded, and fraught. Whatever you say of him, he remains.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Bucking Bronco of Character

It takes one or more characters, interacting within a scene, to provide the energy and movement of the story.

Easily enough to say; to bring it off, you need to have an attitude toward a character before you can set the individual participants into the landscape of scene with any hope that they will take the bait and accordingly move from mere conversation or observation into the swampy terrain of story. Even more difficult to contemplate is the need for these individual characters to be associated with some subtext. Under those circumstances, what appears to be mere conversation or observation is spoken or observed in relation to some other circumstantial reality.

Attitude toward characters is essential if this subtext is to take effect. Harold Pinter is a writer who often uses this approach to his scenes. Two characters appear to be going through their usual routines, talking about nothing of particular note, yet there is a hovering tension that alerts us to a dynamic between the characters, a resident relationship that combines the need most individuals have to categorize social station and group relations.

The attitude the writer brings to characters may be as seemingly neutral as curiosity or as biased as antipathy. In either case, the writer becomes a participant rather than a mere commentator who, like attendees at political rallies, carry placards announcing their feelings. The writer must ride the horse of attitude but be willing to be bucked off in the process. We must not allow our attitudes to become the equivalent of an expert rider, using riding skills to hold on. To put it more bluntly, we must not allow our original regard for the character, whether it is admiration or distaste, to become the rider struggling to remain on the horse. If we are not careful, we will remain on the horse and the character will not have an opportunity to change: The good guy will continue to do admirable things and attract attention because of his goodness, the bad guy will ride the bronco of despicable behavior right back into the corral, as bad at the end as he was in the beginning.

It is difficult bordering on impossible to be convincing in the short span of a short story when it comes to demonstrating change within a character, but we can approximate the human condition we hope to unleash within characters by allowing the good guys to screw up and the bad guys to do something remarkably empathetic. Novels afford us a bit more latitude: We can allow a few characters the luxury of change in a longer work. These observations are not engraved on any stone plates as laws or commandments, rather they reflect technical considerations. The thing we need to encourage is the capacity inherent in a character to be pulled off course in a deed, observation, or tug of curiosity. If they can break free from the preconceived notion of them, however briefly--just to the point of alarming the writer--they will be observing the potential to do the very thing that makes everyone a winner, and that very thing is to cause surprise.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Detect and Discover

Although you had been fond of reading novels of detection and, indeed, many of your friends were writing and publishing them, you had no thought to actually write them. It was enough to think about them in a kind of hazy and noncritical admiration, aware that you did not see your own way clear to plotting such narratives in ways that could lead to a satisfactory conclusion. At one point, you'd even gone so far as to plan an elaborately complex novel, something even more prolix than Hammett's The Dain Curse, that ended with the protagonist saying in so many words,"I've fit all the pieces together and now have supporting evidence to bear out my conclusion: Phil did it." THE END.

Even when circumstances drew you closer into the net of acquiring and editing mystery novels and, in time, a mystery magazine, you still considered yourself more an adjunct. Being affectionately railroaded by Dorothy B. Hughes into serving as an officer in The Mystery Writers of America only brought you into contact with more mystery writers, more respect for their abilities at plotting which you did not believe you had, and, of necessity, more mystery writers.

Somehow the lines grew more blurred. Mystery writers were serious drinkers, and two of the more prolific at the time braced you, each in his own way, with the trope that only women mystery writers with husbands who had significant daytime jobs had the luxury of being able to plot and outline. When you recall the ways they braced you, you also recall that the process involved some quantities of bourbon. Your first mystery was done while you were still in high school and although it was bulky and filled with false clues and moments of suspense, most of it remained in pen and ink rather than finding its way into typescript. The first one you were paid for was a more intimidating experience since much of the advance was in a sense enough to pay an outstanding bill at a French restaurant on Highland Avenue, where you were known to have an affinity toward cabernets sauvignon and Gewurtztraminer. Nor did you shy away from the trockenberen auschlese and madiera desert wines nor Martel's VSOP cognac. Ah, no wonder you found yourself with a deadline and a brick wall beyond which you could not penetrate. Smaller wonder yet that you repaired to the very same French restaurant with mystery writer friends who insisted that sole with a tangy Veronique sauce would be just the thing to show you the way beyond your brick wall. Home at midnight with the strong hint of a buzz and no concrete way out of your problem, you had until nine the following morning to present the final pages.

The memory of all that. No wonder you migrated away from French restaurants and novels of detection. Is it fair to say that you have moved to Italian restaurants and novels of discovery? Yes; it is fair. You are able to salute the novel of detection from a distance, take some notion of security in your ignorance of any local French restaurants, and look at such novels of discovery as Richard Price's Lush Life and Clockers, Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves and The Painted Drum, and Richard Powers' The Echo Maker and, most recently, Generosity as role models, things to look at when the world of literary cynicism is too much with you. Instead of Martel's Very Special Old Plain Cognac, there is the occasional bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and all the hidden bottles of peppermint schnapps hidden here and there in the novels and novellas of Jim Harrison.

You could also toss in Richard Russo.

Could and did.

Good night, John Boy.

Good night, everybody.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


If you were going to embed in a character a sign or symbol that conveyed to the reader that this individual is not to be trusted, what would that sign or symbol be? Why, of course, it would be the lapel pin American flag.

Too bad you won't be around to see the actual results. Guess that means you'll have to do a story about it to fulfill that serving of curiosity about what is likely to be made when archaeologists of the future discover all those lapel pin American flags.

All you can tell of a politician's agenda when seeing such a pin on his or her lapel is a desire to be reelected. Not wearing such a pin implies one's anti-Americanism or lack of patriotism. Wearing one means a kind of perfervid orthodoxy or a sensitivity to wanting to defuse such criticisms as those that go without conspicuous advertising. If we extend the metaphor a touch, it is of a piece with those who wish to proclaim their religiosity by wearing the cross, the Star of David, the om, the Crescent and the Star, or whatever other sign they chose as proclamation that they have in a sense taken refuge behind the inherent power of a symbol. You do not distrust such persons to the degree that you distrust those who wear the American flag, although now that you think of it, you might be ready to change your mind, or at least look more closely at the image of the wearer that comes through to you.

And isn't that the way the matter devolves for you: Each thing needs to be seen for what it is in and out of context. You are most comfortable, it seems, wearing all your causes and beliefs as though they were pins or symbols or campaign ribbons, but not in such public display. It is helpful for members of the military or of law enforcement to wear designations of their rank, a sort of convenience when it comes to establishing who's in charge. As you know very well, you are not always aware of which mindset or emotional response resident within you is in charge; sometimes a hint is helpful.

Yesterday, on Andrew Sullivan's blog, you saw yet another kind of demarkation in a quote attributed to Bill Clinton on the occasion of his appeal to the late, lamented Edward M. Kennedy for Kennedy's endorsement of Hillary Clinton as POTUS. "A few years ago," Bill Clinton is quoted as having told Ted Kennedy, "a guy like that [Barack Obama] would be getting our coffee." You hope the reference related to Obama's relative newness to big-time politics, but since it could be interpreted as racist, the allegation is one more stroke of tar on Bill Clinton's reputation and an urgent reminder to you of the possibilities for interpretation, misinterpretation, and imputation, through words, deeds, signs.

There is no doubt of the human condition being class oriented and of the signs, symbols, and behavior that serve as markers. You don't need an American flag on your lapel to remind you of your citizenship or the obligations inherent in that citizenship. Nor do you need a medallion or device to remind you of possible religious preferences you might from time to time express. What you need most and seek most are the words and stories that convey dramas where the conundrums and outcomes of interest to you are played out and your own sense of devotion to articles of faith and catechisms and stations of crosses that are illustrations of your own quest for understanding, friendship, and devotion.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Alternate Universe: Stay Two Nights, the Third Night Is Free

Some years back, while still in the throes of undergraduate angst, you heard your instructor ask a rhetorical question that has haunted you ever since.

"How," he asked with a clap of his pudgy hands, "did the little girl get into the rabbit hole?"

Over the years, you have sought answers to that question that were either highly rational in origin or inclusive of mystical wisdom. The author did not waste much time getting the little girl, whom we have come to know as Alice, absorbed in her destination. Nor did Lyman Frank Baum provide extensive flight information for Dorothy Gale's journey to Oz. The journey was not the story; the destination and the consequences of the destination were the reasons for the narrative. In fact, we can say with some assurance that the more rational and explicit the details of the journey, the more the reader will expect a destination and eventual circumstances that agree most with the universe most of us see in our waking and social hours.

It quickly follows that the less specificity about the journey and its destination, the greater the likelihood we are involved in a fantastic journey to a destination where the ordinary laws governing behavior of the landscape and its inhabitants have been altered. Thus Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and your old favorite, the buttes and mesas where at any moment, beep beep, we might encounter The Road Runner evading Wile E. Coyote.

The fantastic journey quickly if not immediately takes us to an alternate universe, where we are made curious to learn the rules governing that other place, the better to appreciate the trials and tribulations of the individuals who reside there. Experiences with reality in the actual world have filibustered our imagination often enough to make us cynical. In alternate universe fiction, we sign on with the certainty of being transported to such a place, either Utopian or dystopian, curious to compare notes. In its way then, every story owes some parentage to the alternate universe as well as the mystery, because we have all of us who read imagined better places to which we aspire and worse places from which we wish to escape, and we have all experienced the mystery of wondering how we are to discover answers to the questions we anticipate being asked as we try to cross over the borders.

Friday, January 8, 2010


For reasons of pride, snobbery, and misunderstanding, readers and writers of the mystery novel were for some long while relegated to the literary equivalent of the back of the bus. The analogy uses racism as its fulcrum, and has been losing its literary overtones more quickly than the actual conflicts of racism in the real world. More readers and, indeed, more writers are coming to see that even such wildly drawn-out examples as Samuel Richardson's memorable Pamela bear some relationship to the internal thrust of the mystery. At the very least, the readers of Pamela wondered openly whether the eponymous Pamela would or would not, which is to say would or would not deliver her virginity to her most persistent suitor without the regalia of marriage. There was also the suspense of wondering who Pamela was in real life.

The mystery was the pre-television equivalent of television in the sense that back in the day, readers who turned their noses at mysteries were likely to have been reading them in the closet just as it later became fashionable to acknowledge the presence and draw of television but to opt one's self from the viewing public, establishing one's self as separate and with better things to do.

When no less a writer than Eudora Welty wrote a review of Ross Macdonald's estimable The Underground Man, which appeared on the front page of The New York Times Book Review and proclaimed The Underground Man as literature, the genie was at last out of the bottle. It was no longer infra dig to read or write mystery novels and the expectation was that, as so many novels do without having to be urged, the mystery novel would not only solve moral issues, it would address ethical conundrums in more detail yet.

At its simplest level, the mystery novel acknowledged self-interest and corruption to be epidemic, resulting in crimes against individuals, classes, organizations, and entire countries. Somewhere there was an individual, a Philip Marlowe or a V. I. Warshawsky, who would momentarily remove the occasion of corruption, even according some form of justice however rough to serve as an example that "they," whoever "they" were, could not get away with what they were doing forever. In some cases the heroes and heroines of the mystery were later-day Knights Templar, their drinking and screwing achieved off stage while on stage they pursued and brought to justice the modern equivalents of the Saracen.

For those of us who have read extensively in the mystery field, there is a significant pattern, Darwinian in its progression, of development, including the highly rational approach of Sherlock Holmes and the more treacly religiosity of Father Brown, that clerical product of Gilbert K. Chesterton. Mike Hammer worked among the private investigators as did Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. These names, not intended as a laundry list, reflect some of the many approaches to the mystery, a format that seems to reach out to us, to each in the way and voice of the individual's politics and code of ethics.

Early in the game, mysteries tended to be set among the affluent, where there were such things as butlers, chamber maids, drawing rooms, and dressing for dinner. There were still crimes of violence in the urban areas but those were not abuses meted or suffered with the panache and decorum of estate angst. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were among a small group of mystery writers who more or less democratized crime, brought it into the corner saloon, the garage, the den, gave it back to the people. In earlier novels, the police were a bit on the thick side intellectually, ample proof that the more educated one was, the better one could detect or default. When mysteries came to America, police were not only thick, they were often corrupt. and it took a Phil Marlowe or Sam Spade to effect a better justice.

What better way to look at a given culture than through an investigation of its mysteries and secrets, and to assess the consequences of those very conditions? What man, woman, or child is not afflicted with mysteries and secrets?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Mechanic

On this day, remarkably, you have "solved" two critical mechanical problems related to your computer. The "solutions" came as a result of protracted persistence, a quality you are barely on speaking terms with. The quotation marks appended to the solved/solution words are there because you are not entirely sure how you effected them. In any case, you have achieved a forty-eight-hour bonding with an Internet connection without having to reboot your cable modem or the mysterious white rectangle called Airport Extreme that receives the signal from your cable modem then broadcasts it wirelessly to your computer, printer, music system, and external hard drive back-up.

You have also somehow resolved the dire warnings received each day from your computer's back-up system, advising you that it has been twenty-two days since your files were backed up. At least, you think it is your computer, sending you these warnings as opposed to the external hard drive. You have come to regard the entire process as a robotic rebellion, somewhat of a piece with the Peasant's Rebellion of the Middle Ages, wherein disparate parts go out on strike, wanting your attention.

Not long before you began typing these vagrant lines, you had another such warning about backing up files, almost reflexively responded with the same approaches you used earlier in failure, only to be informed that, ah, your computer was busily backing up files (that you neglectfully allow to go at risk) and further that you could continue what you were doing without interrupting the process.

Your earlier mechanical problem resulted in what you considered rather snippy notes alleging either that your HP Photosmart C4580 wireless printer was not communicating with your computer or that your printer was already in use (moonlighting?) somewhere else. This had caused you some concern and some asking for favors since this is the precise time you need to be printing out a book-length to submit to a publisher. As you keyboard more of these lines, the HP Photosmart C4580 is busily churning out pages with the reassuring sounds of a machine that has been your friend and is, indeed, the very model of a modern writer's friend.

Although you have accomplished these things, you are not entirely sure how you brought about these conditions, much less could you instruct anyone else to have effected them. In a way that is of itself a linking device, you are similarly unsure how you brought about the final results of the book-length manuscript now transiting through said HP Photosmart C4580 except to say that you had a vision of a reference-guide-type of work, its format suggested to you years ago when a $1.50 paperback book, A Dictionary of American-English Usage (based on Fowler's Modern English Usage) came into your possession. Over the years, particularly once you began teaching, you nourished the idea of doing the same sort of thing for what you considered the language of story telling.

You do not consider yourself the host for the tapeworm of mechanical ability or understanding; unless you were dealing with the bright red Olivetti manual portable typewriter of your late twenties and into your thirties, your persistence or its lack determined your success in dealing with gadgets, tools, implements. It was also your persistence that kept you following the spoor of the story, tracking it until you reached a point where you sensed a familiarity with its behavior and its personality.

At the moment, all is going well. The major mechanical things in your life are functioning as they were designed to do; your book-length manuscript is churning merrily forth, another work is not only in mind, you have hit several seeming dead-ends in its plotting, only to have ridden the vehicle of persistence to some solution that appeared or occurred to you or appeared and occurred at the same time. You are launched into chapter seven of the novel you call The Secrets of Casa Jocosa. True, you are also propelled by enthusiasm, but in its way the process is as uncertain as your connection with mechanical things.

At any moment, the Internet connection could become quirky, the Airport Extreme router demand time off, the HP Photosmart printer begin a maddening series of paper jams; the scene in the works at Casa Jocosa could leave you at a dead-end or cul-de-sac or in the midst of some suburban sprawl from whence you cannot emerge.

Thus this recognition that persistence is best maintained on a steed of enthusiasm.