Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Alaskan Connection

Every so often, in search of some specific document or record, you uncover a stash of handwritten notes and printed out pages of manuscript that at first seem to be lecture notes for a particular class interspersed with portions of manuscripts from that class.

At first.

Then it is born home on you that you greatly resist giving the same class twice. In fact you could argue with yourself that the dearer the subject is to you, the more likely the notes for the class will have been constructed in a way that sends you off on a different vector than the last time, much like a jazz musician who, even in practice or rehearsal, is not interested in following the same path twice.

And it hits again that the manuscript pages are rarely from students because those will all have been commented on and returned, leaving the hangers on to be from you, written at times gone from your memory, a part of a larger edifice--the place or state you inhabit when working on your own worlds and time frames.

Having just completed "White Sky, Black Ice" by your sudden new interest, Stan Jones, you are aware of one of the significant differences between his work and yours. His novels are set in Alaska, a landscape where weather is of greater consequence than where your work is largely set. To be sure, it rains here, the earth quakes, burns, dries up and there are portions of it where the heat scalds or crackles with inherent lightning. You are not edged by the nature of your stories to make weather so active a participant; there are times in fact when Jones' descriptions of weather make you want your heaviest jacket as well as your sunglasses. You are drawn to Jones' work because of the use he makes of the racial diversity in his landscape, his Native Alaskans easily outnumbering what you would call the Anglos, indeed using a Native as his protagonist.
Jones has caused you to entertain the romantic notion that you could spend some time in a place such as Anchorage, possibly even Nome, simply for the effects of living among a group of individuals who radiate a patina of individuality that is undershot by the humor of the disconnected. It is madness, of course, to think you could live there for any time, thanks to the cold and the relative lack of need for a writer of the sorts of things you write, a teacher for the sorts of things you teach, or an editor for the sorts of material you are retained to edit. It is equally appropriate and wonderful to enjoy so much a writer whose work causes you to suspend disbelief at the thought of a place there, upper.

As you pour through pages from your latest discovery, you notice that you rarely do write about climate conditions, largely because they are so close to 24/7 compatible that they remain shadowy, unimportant in the overall schemata. Your major concerns seem to be individuals whom you could easily define now as Alaskans brought south to the lower States and not particularly happy about it. Your characters seem to have in addition to the agendas they need to succeed on page a kind of cranky response to social conditions closing in on them that cause them to snap and bark at many stimuli without necessarily being querulous or even mean-spirited. It is more a matter of advancing arthritis, too many faculty meetings or their equivalents, too many dog catchers insisting they curb their dog or neuter their cat, too many neighborhood petitions, too many stores such as K-Mart, trying to dictate price, packaging, and shape. Some of them have gone through too many relationships, others not enough; in either case necessary discoveries about the human condition have been given low priority to such thing as individual discovery, making a place in the world, asking the right questions.

Each time you discover such a trove, you take some moments to reacquaint yourself with it before trying to gather it with earlier such finds, if not neat and tidy, at least less scattered about your living and working areas. Some of them have already found their way into print, which makes it seem as though you are not as devoted a creator as you might be, since you can scarcely remember the date or place of publication (and filing some of these in a large notebook produced even more shattering experiences at the discovery of more forgotten publications yet).

The thing is so wide-spread. At your bedside, the new John Banville novel and three new studies of Chaucer, who also reminds you of the Alaskan landscape in the diversity of social and ethical types that you find yourself thinking about that past time, too, yes; I could spend time there. You were thinking of a mischievous way to bring The Miller's Tale into 2010, aware of how well it stands on its own as a story but also how perfect it is in companionship with The Knight's Tale, a perfect follow-up.

You see no way out of it; you will have to live a longtime to get at all this, risking the cranky prospects of arthritis, ill-timed stiffness, suspicions, and the most common trope of all, "I may have told you this before..."

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Taste in the sense of discernment is not easily come by although few among us will stand up to proclaim not having any. It is the unspoken element in the literary equation, the thing we retreat to when some work achieves a success that is to us bewildering, undefinable. Taste inheres in all the places democracies and republics find it difficult to address, which is to say class, ethnicity, gender, and to some extent, even nationality. This last was made manifest a year or two back when there was briefly a move to include American authors in the competition for the prestigious Booker Prize from the UK. How, some of the Brits protested, are we to compete with them?

In a sense, the trope "I don't know what art is but I know what I like" comes from a defensiveness expressed toward one's depth of taste in such matters as reading or writing. Back in the day, when individuals associated with the judiciary, the prosecutorial arm of the law, or church-based organizations attempting to propagate their views of what is and what is not pornographic, taste was a code word for having little or no sexual content.

Chiming in from the academy, the critic gives us his or her vision of taste, depending in large part on his or her specialty.

Chiming in from the rest of us is the notion that the things we like represent good taste, the things we either could not read or could read but not understand were of a more doubtful provenance, suspect, uncertain.

The editor is often considered a paradigm of taste, particularly when the editor has moved through enough corporate shuffle to arrive with his or her own line of books, ala Nan Talese. In some cases, the next destination for editors who have been fired is to become a literary agent, thus those maddening but spot on notes we sometimes see from them in which we are told that a particular project doesn't seem or feel right, imparting a kind of special needs child, by all means something that so far as this agent is concerned does not represent high water marks for taste.

Good taste is of course what you write, but so too is good taste the aggregate of your bookshelves, the things you have turned to over the years at those moments when your own good taste seemed as whispy as a curl of smoke. It is the product of the dialogue you have had over the years with the men and women who set the bar so high for you in the first place.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Spare Change from the Universe

The difference between getting hit with bad news while you're alone--say a letter or an email, or a rejection slip on something you thought to be a shoo-in--and being hit with the news while in company is profound. In the former, you're plunged immediately into the self-pity of "What am I going to do now?" which, although it sounds a hundred years or so away from and more modern than "Oh, woe is me!" is still about the same thing. In the latter, you're more likely to careen right past that operatic response and be thinking about recovery strategy, as in, "Now what?" as in "Now what will I do?" And if you've been hit with unsettling news before, chances are, even while you're absorbing the implications, you're answering your own question, forming a plan.

Interestingly enough, if the person or persons with whom you are interacting when the news comes your way are at all in on or aware of the blow that has taken you captive, your very response, your recovery plan, emerges as an unintended inspiration to them. Thus you have not only absorbed and reeled with disappointment from the news, you have in your Plan B provided a gift to someone.

There have been ever so many near misses in your life that you begin now to wonder openly about contriving some story about near-misses, almost-made connections where the payoff, the conclusion of the story evokes the awareness that such enterprises--for they are products in some way of your enterprising behavior, even if that behavior is the mere printing out of story, the addressing of a few envelopes, and the application of a few stamps. Disappointment translates to mean the Universe does not particularly buy into your plans; it is a rejection slip from the Cosmos, a magazine you'd been interested in having your story appear. Disappointment is being politely uninvited from a casting call or a search of some sort. The eternal optimist regards disappointment as merely having all your options open whereas you don;t want all your options open. You do not wish, for instance, for your options to have a newspaper delivery route kept open, nor do you wish for a job, your aggregate people skills to the contrary notwithstanding, in sales, thus for you options relate mostly to story of some sort or showing individuals how to cope with story of some sort.

Near misses and, for that matter, abject failures are signs that you have reached across the cosmic chasm. You may not be able to live off of such ventures but you are able to live on them because they are all steps out of the primordial sea of non-action and un-growth; you cannot position yourself to be able to live off things you enjoy doing without having in place the muscle memory of past reaching out.

Nor is it that you are looking for likely locales to position yourself whence you may ask the universe if it can spare any change. You are not interested in spare change. At the moment you are interested in finishing a novel, getting at a bunch of short stories, and trying to familiarize yourself with all twenty-seven of Mozart's piano concerti. You are also interested in about six books by or about Chaucer on the rear of the front display at Chaucer's Book Store in the Loreto Plaza in mid-town Santa Barbara. This is scarcely spare change.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sales figures for the writers in our midst

The writer's major goal is to bring story and dramatic thrust to narrative, but close upon the heels of that goal is the need to bring power, where ever it exists, face to face with truth. You can start messing with that equation by doing to the definition of truth what we have so successfully done over the years to the tax code, leaving the appearance of confrontation without actually raising the hackles of concern and discomfort. Power should not be allowed unrestrained or unmonitored. For those who care and hold relevant beliefs, even God should be confronted with truth on a regular basis.

Notable among writers who have brought truth to bear (and in no particular chronology or other order) are Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, Miguel Cervantes, Edith Wharton, and John Steinbeck.

Of that group, Chaucer (1343) came about two hundred years before Cervantes, who in his turn was just about two hundred years before Jane Austen. Don Quixote, joined a few of Chaucer's iconic pilgrims, notably The Pardoner and The Knight, in confronting power, by which is meant social dominance. The results were opportunities for many of us, years after the fact, to laugh at what we were, what we have become, and what we still are as a race.

Throughout written and spoken literature, there are men and women who bring new meaning to such concepts as social awareness, individuality, and integrity. The lone character moves through the various zeitgeists separating eras, exemplary but lonely, happy but not as closely connected with a clan or family or organization as many of us. The reward or, if you will, satisfaction achieved by these characters is quite often not financial although in fairness to facts, Chaucer did pretty well in terms of an income, and later down the line, both Wharton and Steinbeck seem to have been undercut if not overtly betrayed by their wealth.

At a time when more books are published in one year than had been published in aggregate since Mr.Caxton invented the forerunner of the modern printing press, the median sale of a trade book is a scant five hundred copies. Back in the day, when you were running a small scholarly publishing company, you actually were able to base pricing decisions around projected sales of five hundred copies, but even then you knew you had some better-selling titles in the wings, waiting to pick up the profit picture. The point devolves to the things writers need to write about, the things they need to do to support their living costs, and their continued willingness to confront power with truth. The result of the clash might not necessarily be art, but it will serve to keep the civilization edging over toward full honesty, disclosure, and transparency.

In many ways, the writer is being shouted down by individuals with what are spoken of as good communications skills, trying to persuade us to tithe, contribute to fringe and rump causes, and shut down such targets as are presented to us under the guise of their being The Establishment. It is not the writer who is at fault, it is the self-aggrandizer who has a few yards of communications skills in his or her tool kit. The writer goes on, turning out those five-hundred-seller editions while the rest of the public sees the fringers picking up the big sales and royalties and thinking, I could do that, too, by which they mean I could drink the Kool-aid of the fringe and write my own Kool-aid, thinking lofty thoughts about how at last I was earning my due as a writer. It is necessary to confront that power with as many five-hundred-sale editions as possible.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Doors. er, Portals

Makes perfect sense. Your process--whatever it may be--is your portal to enter an arena, a landscape, or some skein of associations.

In the arena, you may encounter enemies, predators, or even the adversarial portions of yourself, looking for at the very least a nosh. The ambiance for an arena may be a simple family meal, a classroom, or the simple-but-treacherous Plaza de Toros in Mexico, D.F.; the risks are manifest, waiting for you to find the rhythm by which you engage your adversaries at your best. The landscape may be less threatening although it can have its own potential for mischief and misstep.

The skein of associations is yet another place where you are distracted from the endless flow of quotidian event; it is the equivalent of a nuclear accelerator wherein ideas are sped up and sent into an orbit where they will eventually collide with another idea, combining at high speed to produce electronic and creative mayhem.

You have had some experience with all these portals, having passed through them to the other side, wherein you lose track of Pacific Standard or Daylight time and become adrift in your own time zone. It is so pleasant to be in any or all these places. The real world is no comparison; it is only the launching pad. You cannot be in these other places, away from reality, without being a part of the planet on which you were born, subject to and aware of many of the laws governing the behavior of matter. Thus you do not, as you once thought to do, despise reality. In it, you have met remarkable persons, read many moving things, collided with ideas you had not thought to have ever existed. But if you are to do anything in this world, you need a process to help you find ways to get temporarily out of it for those special moments when your process is your tour vehicle.

Now you look at doors with a kind of wonderment; where does the door really lead? How will you enhance your process so that you can recognize which doors are authentic doors while others are mere scenery and set decoration?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Story: Are you in or out?

You first heard the expression "in character" from an actor, a curt reminder that she was not herself but rather an individual in a drama, waiting to go on. Being "out of character" yourself, meaning you were singularly you, you were at that moment a distraction, an anomaly, someone out of the range of the "character's" experience.

Since that time, you've heard the expression on numerous occasions, including your own use of the expression when you were acting in various dinner theater performances or when encountering in ambiguous situations an acquaintance you knew and having to ask, "Are you in character?" by which was understood to mean "Are you approachable as you?" This entire approach to behavior would have saved you a good deal of ambiguity and confusion when you were in your dating years, but that is another matter.

Only yesterday, during lunch with Conrad, he used a variation on that theme, related to writing, when he recalled a moment when, serving as secretary to Sinclair Lewis, he'd encountered his boss in the kitchen of Lewis' home, raiding the ice box, only to be warned off with a brisk "Don't talk to me, I'm in book."

In book. In story. Two excellent concepts to writing rarely encountered in classrooms or writing books, much less in magazines or blog posts. You spend so much time learning such bare-bones concepts as story and conflict and plot, but rarely do you hear of the need to be in story or in book, living it, somehow "there" in the midst of it.

More often than not, you edge into the ocean although you do jump or plop, sometimes even dive into the swimming pool. You need to find ways to enter the story at hand, to be it and have it be you, subject and object becoming one. You were--both fortunately and unfortunately--in story this afternoon at Peet's, trying to expand some notes. You did not hear the agreeable young woman at the next table warning you that some peripatetic infant from a few tables over was about to dip your Android phone into your medium nonfat latte nor that said peripatetic infant had already made off with your bear claw. It is truly good to attempt to get reading and/or writing done in public places as a kind of psychological coach of concentration, blocking out ambient noise, music if it is any good, conversations. Such concentration gets you "in" and the story revolves about and through you.

It is worth practicing. One approach is to be in character, assuming whichever character personality attaches itself to you, then talking without thinking about it to another character, pressing the thrust of your agenda, perhaps even picking an argument. Then you are in the respondent, then you are all of them; you are gloriously in story, responding in that emotional landscape that stitches the parts together. This condition is yet another reason for the writer to take to heart the serious study and rehearsal of the actor. There is a timelessness and focus about being in, reminding you of the times as a youngster when you went about, using a magnifying lens prize from a box of Cracker-Jacks to focus the rays of the sun to burn holes in newspapers, leaves, and yes, it even worked on banana peels and chunks of wood. You have the equivalent of that magnifying glass prize whenever you reach into the Cracker-Jacks box of story. It is a prize that focuses your energy and vision into true, fiery dramatic presence.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Within Reach: The Next, The New, The Promised

Your observation of the best source of inspiration persists. Work, or the involvement in a process, produces work for a composer. You first became aware of this process in operation watching Ray Bradbury feed quarters into a slot in a room at the UCLA library where one could rent a typewriter for twenty-five cents for a half-hour. On those rare occasions when Bradbury hit a snag, mindful of the clicking of the timer on the typewriter clock, he'd start working on another story. Writers' block and thinking things over were not affordable options. Later, when his finances made things slightly more affordable, Bradbury began buying used stand-up typewriters, positioning them about a table, each typewriter containing a story in the works. You're working on typewriter A and reach a point where nothing is coming forth for thirty minutes, why you simply slide the chair along to the next typewriter, then begin to work on that story. During those Christmas vacations when you had work as a temporary mailman, you saw the results of his process: every day, his mail was filled with the envelopes obviously containing galley proofs for correction. Thus you were impressed with his methodology almost at the same time you were impressed by the stories.

Except that you had not found ways to train yourself to be so disciplined. Nor had you made the simple equation that a writer at work is "in process" a magnet as it were, attracting ideas and notions. True enough, your desk and shelves and pockets and any other flat surface were strewn about with notes, opening pages, and beginnings. At one point, relatively early on in your life, you noted in one of your journals that you now had at your disposal enough stories and novels to last you for much of your life to come, giddily projecting that by the time you'd exhausted these, more would have appeared and you'd have only to return to the well, for it truly was a well, from which you could haul up a bucket load of beginnings, finish them, and send them off in time to have enough checks to bank that would pay for the past month's bills, particularly those at Phil Diamond's ARCO station at the corner of La Cienega and Olympic, one of your early tabs.

Yesterday's experience of being hit by a gift from the Muses as it were reminded you of the way things work for you, seemingly a lifelong habit you may have finally come to terms with. A rhetorical question posed by Marta in her blog, triggers a set of responses in which The Muse says in effect, Can you hold this idea for me? You are tempted to say, thanks, but I've learned my lesson; I'm working on a novel and I can't take the time to hold this for you now. But instead, I recall something I saw just last week, two 3 x 5 index cards paper clipped together, the reading of which transported me back to the last time I had occasion to be at Fess Parker's Doubletree Inn on the beachfront at Cabrillo Boulevard. I had an immediate memory of a well-dressed-but-sullen group of five or six individuals, mostly men, but one woman who reminded me of Danica Patrick, sitting in a conference room, following a Power Point presentation being given by a man wearing a double-breasted suit. Although the index cards did not say so, I knew the man's name was Denis. I knew that because I had given it to him. I had the impression from my memory of the woman that she felt her presence there was resented, thus my thinking she resembled Danica Patrick, further thus my reason for the index cards in the first place. Perhaps, I now recall thinking, the woman is the get-away driver. They are all bank robbers. Denis is the leader of course, and he uses Power Point presentations to outline all his capers. Another of the characters, I learn from the note, is Winston, and the notation next to his name, pastrami sandwich, makes perfect sense because Winston has at some point complained about the snacks provided by Denis, even to the point of remarking that Arthur, when he lays out a caper for his crew, provides pastrami sandwiches driven up from Langer's in L.A., and Denis, making the angry retort, You want meat sandwiches, you do capers with Arthur. You work with me, you eat healthy.

In other words, you have at least once kept sufficient notes to get you back to an idea that impressed you to the point where it was beginning to grow, while still remaining true to a priority list.

As if to prove this, thinking to safeguard the index cards in which a group of bank robbers were working out a caper in a conference room of a resort hotel, you put them in a drawer you thought would be an appropriate safekeeping place for them, whereupon you found a detailed sheet-and-a-half of lined legal tablet that took you promptly to the presence of your old pal, Marla Miller, she of Marketing the Muse cachet, who had expressed to you some concerns about how her three daughters would react to the fact of her having recently dyed her hair to a champagne blond. In real life, you know something about the daughters, one of whom was an aggressive soccer player for UC Berkeley Women's' Soccer Team, Go Bears. Thus you had the atmosphere down on paper about the whys and wherefores of a bright, energetic, attractive woman in middle age, changing her hair from its Mediterranean black to an Orange County blond.

In other words, taking the time to get sufficient triggers for the new idea down in some readable form does not mean that the work will have to disappear into the void; it can be retrieved when there is sufficient time to truly bring it back, open it up, get into it, live within it, and write it. Yesterday's entry in this vagrant succession of blog postings is the cyber equivalent of notes written on some kind of paper surface. What this means is that you do not have to leave The Secrets of Casa Jocasa stranded in limbo nor do you have to treat the more recent ideas as failed relationships that might have had a chance if only you'd paid more attention to them at the outset.

New ideas are Siren calls to Odessyeus and his crew, sent forth by Circe to tempt and. This approach you have recognized, far from perfect, nevertheless reflects your own nature and the possibilities that your future will be characterized by reaching into rather than reaching for.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Unthinkable Come to Pass Again

Ever since you first read then saw a performance of Terrence Rattigan's play, That Winslow Boy, you have been haunted by the major defining moment and narrative hook set so firmly in place.

Ronnie Winslow, thirteen, is accused of the theft of a five-shilling postal note from one of his cadet classmates at The Royal Naval College. Because of the exquisite and threatening implications to his personal and professional life, Arthur Winslow, the father, retains the noted barrister, Sir Robert Morton to defend Ronnie against the charges. After Sir Robert mercilessly questions Ronnie as he might be cross-examined in an actual trial, Ronnie, who has protested his innocence all along, breaks down and confesses to the crime.

Mightily embarrassed, Arthur Winslow apologizes to Sir Robert for wasting his time, then offers to pay for Sir Robert's time so far. "Nonsense," Sir Robert responds, "We've just begun. I'll take the case. The boy is clearly innocent."

You wished to arrive at such a defining moment in a story of your own, happy were it to arrive A short story, thrilled at the prospect of it having enough substance to merit a novel.

Because you had occasion to think about, then write a few lines about a some-time character of yours, you quickly cast that character into a situation where he'd been dating a single mother with a sixteen-year-old son, whom he has begun the habit of spending an afternoon a week with the boy as a bonding gesture to both the mother and the boy.

The character is an actor, getting on toward fifty. His fortunes have been up--off Broadway plays in New York, a few film roles--and down, as in your story, "The Man in the Chicken Suit," wherein his job is wearing a chicken costume at an opening of a fast-food restaurant. You had not thought about Matthew Bender since early last summer, when you'd added a few paragraphs in a story in which Bender is confronted by the husband of a long-ago girlfriend. No telling when you'd have thought of him again if you hadn't been nudged into awareness of him thanks to a rhetorical question on a friend's blog.

Now Bender is back, struggling with the weight of a defining moment that has landed on his shoulders. Sylvie, his lady friend, has a sixteen-year-old sin, Rex, who actually thinks he might want to become an actor. At the COSTCO Mall in Goleta, where Bender has taken Rex to get some denims, they run into a group of actor friends of Bender's, who have communally rented a house for the summer, while they rehearse then live while performing in a play. They are buying goodies for a housewarming party which is more or less already in progress. Bender and Rex are drawn into the festivities, thanks to a pleading look from Rex to Bender, asking to be included.

This is most of the backstory, except to introduce Janet, one of the actors. Janet is a stunning-but-fragile beauty of thirty-two, with good, solid acting moves, a rave-reviewed Blanche Dubois in Streetcar, and an ability to project emotion Here it comes, in case you hadn't already sensed it. Janet is just out of a relationship, still hurting and lonely. She falls hard for Rex.

Bender had no idea what was going on in the sidelines until it was over and he was taking Rex home to Sylvie, Janet having shown Rex much more than her room.

We begin with Sylvie on the phone to Bender, having just found out her son got laid. "How,"Sylvie asks Bender, "could you have let such a thing happen?"

Have we got a story?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How much does it take?

Today you are in the process of talking about a character who appears desperately to want something, starting with Dorothy Gale, who desperately wants to get out of Oz and back to Kansas, then moving along to, of all individuals, Brer Fox, who in his search for supper has focused on Brer Rabbit. This is story-telling stuff right out of the Aristotle Poetics, a character desperate for achievement of a goal driving the story forth. In a blinding flash of recognition, you are so convinced that the Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit story comes right out of Aristotle that you forget the connection between Brer Fox and Wile E. Coyote, forgetting even to mention him as your selection for the patron saint of characters. There is such a splendid balance between the character who wants a particular prize, no matter what it is, the antagonist or individual standing in the way of the character achieving goal, and the humiliation available to fall on the goal seeker lest he fail in his task. Look at the stature Brer Rabbit gains merely by surviving. Look at the seeming invincibility Road Runner has. Look at the effect failure has on Wile E. Coyote and Brer Fox; each becomes more determined, more focused and thus more likely to appear undignified. How do your non-animal characters react in such triangles? Do they become more determined and, in the process, do they lose by degree any semblance of dignity?

There is a thin line between humiliation and mere undignified performance. Too much of the latter produces a measure of the former. How then to remove in slow plausible degree from an author his or her dignity? Start by having that character reassess the nature of focus and purpose. I will get up a half hour earlier and write before I do anything else. I will get up forty-five minutes earlier, I will get up an hour earlier. Seemingly, these are small enough increments, but in aggregate, they begin to undercut any trace of dignity the character may posses. When the character begins gambling with appearances, the risk is dignity, the result inevitably humiliation.

It is useful to keep these shifting boundaries in mind as you pursue the routine of a character bent on pursuing an agenda to the point where the pursuit begins to trump the results.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Oh, that Troy!

The most favored cliché of the journalist of the past, particularly he or she who worked for a tabloid or a Hearst paper, was the novel in progress, hidden in the bottom drawer of the desk. The novel would not only transport the writer out of the day-to-day operatic posturing so common to such newspapers, it would transport the reader to new levels of human understanding.

A favored vision of today’s novelist is the mystery novel in progress, hidden somewhere on the hard drive of a computer given over to romance or historical adventure. This covert mystery would ply the fecund motives of the publishing world or the academic institution, landscapes where ambitions are as flagrant as a fleet of Hummers on a used car lot.

Although the mystery is for the writer the literary equivalent of the Jungian archetype, the greater likelihood still of the established writer’s hidden agenda is to rewrite a classic.

Of the many authors who have done this very thing, Valerie Martin comes quickly to mind with her memorable take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Named for her invented character, Mary Reilly, her novel pretends the eponymous narrator is an Irish maid who thinks she works only for Dr. Jekyll.

Joyce Carol Oates has taken on a number of classic genres to the point where she may be pursuing them without even thinking about them.

The Australian writer, David Malouf, has edged magisterially toward his venture into the classics, arriving via a previous output of short stories, novels, and poetry. In his latest work, Ransom, from Pantheon, he does a number of remarkable things all at once, and does them all with a seemingly effortless panache. 

First of all, he takes us back to those same wonderful folks who gave us The Trojan wars of The Iliad. Secondly, he provides us with such delicious information about the likes of Achilles, Hector, King Priam, Queen Hecuba, and of course the attendant gods and goddesses that, certain now that we missed a good deal of the subtext in earlier readings, we return to The Iliad for another go round. Thirdly, but by no means the end of his accomplishments, Malouf renders the language in such an exquisite rendition that we lose track of the sense of having read a 2010 text. Rather, we are thrust back into the simple dialogue elegance of such iconic films as A Man for All Seasons and The Lion in Winter.

You may have thought you experienced Troy in your readings of The Iliad, but here is Malouf’s presentation of it:
“Laid out on uneven ground along a rocky bluff, Troy is a city of four-square towers topped by untidy stork’s nests, each as tall as a man; of dovecotes, cisterns, yards where black goats are penned, and in a maze of cobbled squares and alleys, houses of whitewashed mud-brick and stone, cube-shaped and with open stairways that at this hour mount to dreams. On the flat roofs under awnings of woven rush, potted shrubs spread their heavy night odors, and cats, of the small-skulled breed that are native to the region, prowl the parapets and yowl like tormented souls in their mating.” One thing impresses us from this: we know Malouf has been to Troy. Not, by the way, Troy, N.Y.

As the original begins with the consequences of Achilles’ anger, so too does Ransom, but already Malouf’s reinvention is busily at work, showing us the mounting impatience among those involved in the siege of Troy. Achilles is in “an endless interim of keeping your weapons in good trim and your keener self taut as a bowstring through long stretches of idleness, of restless, patient waiting, and shameful quarrels and unmanly bragging and talk, “Such a life is death to the warrior spirit…War should be practiced swiftly, decisively. Thirty days at most, in the weeks between new spring growth and harvest, when the corn is tinder-dry and ripe for the invader’s brand, then back to the cattle pace of the farmer’s life.”

You probably already know why Achilles was angry from having read The Iliad, but David Malouf also spells it out to the point where Achilles takes a step that precipitates the greatest rage and bluster he has ever known. The consequences lead directly to the death of Hector, but what you probably missed in The Iliad were Hector’s last, whispered words to Achilles.

Were Hector’s words a taunt or merely a reminder that even though Achilles has a goddess for a mother, he is still a mortal? And was it merely these words or a growing dissatisfaction with all Achilles had held previously dear that led him to the rage-driven slaughter and desecration of Hector’s body?

Along comes Hector’s father, King Priam, seeking a way to ransom his son’s body, give it a proper burial so that it may start its journey to the underworld, and set in motion the deeply disturbing and memorable meeting between two men who wear such jagged battle scars from their encounters with grief.

Ransom begins appropriately enough with Achilles. “The sea has many voices. The voice this man [Achilles] is listening for is the voice of his mother.” His mother is a goddess of the sea, she occasionally comes to him. “Do you hear me, Achilles? It is me, I am still with you. For a time I can be with you when you call.”

Ransom continues as King Priam watched the body of his dead son being dragged about. His mind clouded by the grief of his doomed kingdom and its people, his son, Hector, and yet other sons who have died in battle, Priam sits disconsolate. “Seated close by him on the couch is the goddess Iris.” She smiles, indulgently. The soft light has a calming effect as he bends to listen to her, telling him about “the way things are. Not the way they must be but the way they have turned out. In a world that is also subject to chance.”

In the communication from Iris, Priam devises a scheme to get Achilles to release his son’s body from further abuse. Before he leaves on his mission, Priam reveals to his wife, Hecuba, a secret he has never told another, one that links him to this world Goddess Iris has described, a world governed by chance, where there is always a chance of redemption.

Scene after magnificent scene rolls forth from this magical book. Magical? How? Magical in the sense of it only being 220 pages and yet containing so much poetry, emerging as if from only the desolate personages of two men, mortal enemies, for a time brought together for rituals of healing and understanding.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shouting? Of course I'm shouting.

Anger is such a lovely emotion for introduction into a dramatic narrative. As persons in real life have discovered, anger may be expressed in any number of ways. These ways not only help define the character who is behaving in anger, the ways also help determine the nature and outcome of a story.

A bright star in the constellation of Western literature, The Iliad literally begins with someone being pissed off. "The wrath of Achilles..." and we are off and running because of the politics behind why Achilles was angered, what he did in response, and the consequences, ending with the fall of Troy and enough clanking of swords, fiery oaths, visitations from the gods to have emblazoned an unforgettable image into our mind. But some years later, along comes another writer, David Malouf, of whom we are arguably more certain than we are of the supposed author of The Iliad. Mr. Malouf has taken us more or less behind the scenes, caused Achilles' anger to stand before us once again in a way that helps us experience it more deeply yet. In a real sense, Malouf has tied the consequences of Achilles' grief and anger to the axle of a chariot, much as he so purposefully tied the body of the recently killed Hector. Then he has shown us the effects on Hector's parents, King Priam and Queen Hecuba, leading to the moment when Priam tells Hecuba of his plan for allowing their son to be given a proper burial. No really new plot twists here at all, so why the fuss? The fuss is because in Malouf's latest novel, Ransom, he has demonstrated not only Achilles' anger, as well his grief and the downstream grief of Hector's parents, his wife and son; he has shown the gods and goddesses in play to the point where we can understand on a visceral level what it was like in and about Troy during those days of the siege and fall. We even come away with an enhanced understanding of what chance is, what it means to characters, and what it means to the gods and goddesses.

A little anger goes a long way, thus it needn't be piled on needlessly, even when its intent is to build a grudge of epic proportions. One of the mischievous joys of anger allowed to run rampant in Huckleberry Finn is made manifest when Huck bumbles by chance into the Shepherdson-Grangeford feud, the precise crux of which no one can remember.

In real life as in Huck Finn, sometimes the parties involved in a display of anger cannot recall the precipitating factor, the very inability possibly arousing yet another wave of anger. It is good to have at the ready a personal anger index which we can from time to time consult, putting such infractions as the person who cuts in front of us on the freeway a one, someone who betrays us an eight or nine, someone who betrays us and taunts about it a ten.

Once not too long ago, during an acting workshop, your response to a situation was to demonstrate a good deal of anger, which you did by sending a chair into a long parabolic arc. Later, in discussing the scene, someone asked if you had perhaps overdone, overreacted. Oh, no, you reassured. That character had a great deal of pent-up anger.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's 11 o'clock. Do your characters know where you are?

Once you begin asking questions of your characters, probing their identity, goals, and artfully concealed agendas, they will meet your gaze of enquiry head on, eye contact assured, then proceed to lie their way out of your scrutiny, wanting to go forth undetected. It is not only you they are retreating from; they rarely appreciate the greater knowledge of what they are about.

You, for your own part in the equation of creator-character, understand their plight, perhaps sympathize and, ultimately, empathize. Too much awareness of a sudden is a burden for them as well as for you. In some demonstration of transcendentalism, they seem to know they are entitled to at least disability parking passes in your stories. And you? You are also aware that you download your own concerns, fears, fantasies on their shoulders as a means of keeping you from exposing too much of yourself all at once.

Scientists working in labs have the stress mouse, an otherwise healthy, functional rodent who has been injected with some extraordinary ingredient, say cancer, or surgically altered from the norm to provide a particular behavior. You have characters whom you alter or inject before observing within the landscape of a controlled experiment. Here is Fred; you have made him a kleptomaniac to see how he behaves. Your goal, you reassure yourself, is to compile a record of your time, which extends roughly from the moment you approached Mrs. DeAngelo, your fourth grade teacher, after she had in desperation read to the class on a rainy, recess-abridged afternoon, the first chapter of Huckleberry Finn, asking her if a person could actually make a living by writing such stories, to the moment at hand wherein you write this. Of course the parameters also include any additional time you manage to eke out of the System.

Questions for you and your characters:

You, first: Is your true purpose really to compile a record of your time on this planet?

Now, for them: Are you really where you want to be? Is there some other specific or as yet unarticulated other place you'd rather be than where you are at the moment?

If the locale is specific and you would rather be elsewhere, what chemistry about it draws you there, makes you feel you'd be happy there, perhaps even happier than you are now? Doesn't this trope open wide a door you barely allow to open more than a mere crack lest you expose yourself?

Suppose the place your characters would rather be is situational rather than geographic, such as married as opposed to not married or in a relationship with someone as opposed to merely wishing to be in a relationship with that person, or being a journalist rather than being a teacher and yes, being a teacher rather than being a journalist?

It is a great mountain goat leap, but what about merely wanting some quiet pied a terre wherein you could write without interruption as opposed to having to write amidst family clamor or the cross-currents of conversation at Peet's? True enough, there is focus when you are "in" a story or idea or even when you are reading the work of another. But you have to ask yourself if there isn't some unarticulated help in having the "other" choice seem such a lure that it transports you from what and whom and where you are to the "place" where you are creator without explanation.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Help, help, I'm being held prisoner in a writer's first draft

Front-rank characters come equipped with a built-in booby trap, a trait that guarantees narrative explosions and surprise. The trait, of course, is that each character is utterly convinced he is right. In the extreme example of that loving couple down the street, the Helmers, you have the husband, Torvald, thinking himself a good provider, an excellent family man, a devoted and appreciative husband, a doting father; and you have Nora, the wife, thinking she's doing everything possible to keep the household running smoothly, the children tended to, and appetizing meals set forth for Torvald. That's the surface. Once, when Torvald was quite ill, Nora borrowed a good deal of money that helped pay for treatment that saved his life. In addition to her wifely duties, she has taken jobs to earn back the money to repay the loan, but to protect his pride, she has not allowed him to know this, instead letting him think of her as a child-like creature, forever innocent and naive. This play, which demonstrated the primacy of Nora and the fact that Torvald's love was both conditional and selfish, was a time bomb, arguably an early skirmish in the women's movement, with Nora leaving Torvald and her children with a slam of the door that was heard around the world.

Characters are built on people, carry the inner compass of people, use the same pole stars used by people. When a character believes she is right, she behaves in a particular way; if that way is inauthentic, a travesty on her real beliefs, she'll have to come to terms with her behavior by changing, paying the price for her stubbornness, or in some way reaping the consequences. Her behavior, her sense of rightness, informs the story she tells or, indeed, the stories. Look at Blanche DuBois and her story, and see where it got her.

Look at Budd Schulberg's Terry Molloy, telling his story to his brother, Charlie. I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender.

How many persons do you know who tell their stories with a conditional verb tense or a past tense as opposed to a simple present tense? How many individuals do you know who are living in the retrospect of what they once were and may not be any longer. How much of your own stories are set in future and future conditional tenses?

How many individuals do you know who have rather remarkable stories but who lack the means to tell them in ways that would make people want to listen? How many authors have you been personally put off by when you approached their work?

The way out of much of this, of characters and individuals and authors and your own part in the equation is by listening when you have the opportunity. Individuals you admire and think of as raconteurs have traits that invite listening; by attending to their stories you can perhaps learn to identify these traits and make use of them in your own narratives, but of course you must absorb these traits, then make them yours.

A favored pass time of yours is watching actors as they deliver lines, Meryl Streep, for instance, in The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Jeremy Irons in that very film as well as in Brideshead Revisited. The older, shaggier ones as well; Albert Finney in The Dresser and Tom Courtenay in the same play, Ben Kingsley as Feste, the jester in Twelfth Night, Kate Hepburn and Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter, Maria Ouspenskaya in Doddsworth: "So, you vant to marry my son?" At first you imitate these worthies, a way of making sure you listened closely enough, but then the game truly begins because even in this you must go beyond mere listening and mere imitation. You must hear clear into the secret places of the characters and the secret places within you where your own characters lurk, sending you writs of habeas corpus: Help, help, I'm being held prisoner and I want to get out.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Exit pursued by a cliche

The effective translation of emotion into written language often loads more demands than mere description can bear. Writers have memorably conscripted adjectives, adverbs, and metaphor into service with uneven results. In the irony of unintentional pathos, writers have also attempted to Shanghai poetry as a means of conveying in more exquisite detail the heights and depths the human awareness can reach. Same results: some poetry soars, other gets on the Daedalus list for trying to fly, and yet other poetry sinks like a hastily defrosted chicken pot pie in a hungry tummy.

Exit description pursued by a cliche.

Enter story and its adjuncts, the daydream (from which many stories emerge) and the sleeping dream in which symbols, fears, and uncensored ambitions play dress-up adult behavior while the adults are out. Each of us has at least one dream or recurrent fear or fantasy, a genie as it were in a bottle, waiting to escape. The beginning writer has already come to expect more than one story, nurse more than one dream, learn to live with more than one fear. You could begin to argue that the measure of progress and success in an intermediate writer is not only the acceptance of the resource but an ongoing welcoming party on its behalf.

The intermediate and veteran writers are as tolerant of the presence of stories and dreams as a dog is to fleas: they come, bring itches, crawl about for a time, then they move on. Intermediates and veterans even have strategies for dealing with their arrivals, their itches, and their departures, strategies which are multifarious and pestering enough to deserve their own specific interview.

At focus here is the story itself. Simplistic to say, story is a shared human trait. The more advanced and devoted to technique the individual, the greater likelihood of a greater and more nuanced number of them in the toolkit and the greater the dramatic technique available for conveying them to others in ways that will, indeed, interest others.

If you were to chance upon the individual who was Ernest Miller Hemingway, you would probably want to place as much distance between him and you as possible. If you were to encounter even one of his more overtly male-bonding-type short stories, you'd be likely hauled in by your collar due to his use of language, nuance, ability at inference, his way of evoking feelings you may in fact disagree with but who you would nevertheless endorse as accurate, authentic renditions of emotion.

Ernest Miller Hemingway can get most of us to listen to his stories, in some cases even as we simultaneously reject the intent and posture of the story. He found a way to get us to listen by doing things with the language and with story that had not been done before. The way of his technique is yet another potential for a substantive digression of its own, "How Hemingway Got Us to Listen."

On the other side of that coin is a mythical storyteller, let's call him Ishmael. No; let's not. Mr. Melville's Ishmael is not only mythical, he is iconic. Even though he may have told us more in the long run about whales than we wanted to know. Let's instead call this fictional person Fred, imparting to him advanced middle age, perhaps even a noticeable paunch, male pattern hair loss, a retirement income adequate if not extravagant to his survival needs, a few children who have long since flown the coop and now live in other states at enough of a distance that Fred does not have the close connection he might have had if his grandchildren lived nearby. Fred is a widower; he has few friends. Much of his day is spent tidying up his condo apartment, then strolling forth variously to a coffee chop, a park, or a seniors' recreation center where his goal, although he could not convey it in so many words to you, is to get others to listen to his story.

What result does Fred want from telling you this story? Ah, he wants the magic of transforming things back to the magic of his dreams when the events were taking place for him in reality. He wants to dazzle you and work magic with his story.

Fred's story is one note in a bottle, tossed into the swirling ocean tide or perhaps the downstream rush of a massive river. He wants you to find it and read it and think, oh, fuck, what a story, what a remarkable, wonderful, memorable story. He must have been something, that Fred, that fucking remarkable Fred.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Do you get along with your characters?

If we were to spend any time with our characters in social activities, we'd make an interesting discovery. We are linked to each of them by a personal chemistry, just as we engage without thinking about it in chemistry relationships with our real-time friends and associates.

One individual I know and would hesitate to call a friend has the same effect on people as the famed individual from the Li'l Abner comic strip who was accompanied wherever he went by a black cloud. This person from real life has the ability to transform the most casual greeting into a litany of illnesses, aches, pains, and past tragedies, including deaths, divorce, rejected manuscripts. There are others whose company I am not swift to invite, because each in his or her own way produces a tingle of reaction I prefer to spend my time distanced from.

Friends and associates are more likely to be individuals who produce a single or combined sense involving such ingredients as trust, curiosity, intimacy, the comfort of shared experiences, support, humor, overlap of interest. While scarcely thinking about the process, I realize I more or less interview friends and associates just as they have in their own way interviewed me. Getting acquainted with students provides and provokes validation or surprise, I am frequently told, "I thought I knew all the quirks and variations among writers, but you stand all that on its end and bring out plain crazy."

It is worth the effort to make a few lists, starting with family members, then with individuals we see as associates or in professional circumstances, then as individuals whose company we seek for the mere chemistry involved. Each of these individuals is assessed in terms of our own perception of the degree and sophistication of the chemistry.

But now, you have a kind of lexicon or template for assigning feelings to the new characters who are after us for the literary equivalent of a green card by means of which they are able to remove themselves from the shadow land of imagination, then into a story, perhaps even a novel, citizenship in an entirely different landscape with entirely different possibilities for a decent life.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

And cue the writer. "You're on, writer."

You are standing in the wings, awaiting your cue to enter.

The stage manager, a substantial, bulky presence, stands before you, clipboard in hand. He makes eye contact, nods. "You're on," he whispers.

You nod, step around him and are now on stage with other characters who appear to have been doing things. It is a bit odd to see other characters on stage, but this is a new director; rehearsals have been scanty, and in many ways, you are still not completely comfortable.

"O for a muse of fire," you begin, "that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment."

One of the actors is looking at you with mounting alarm. "What are you doing?" she whispers. "This is not fucking Henry V, and you are not the fucking chorus. And how are you going to get us out of this mess?"

More often than not, your time waiting in the wings to go on is spent near the screen of your computer or at a corner table in Peet's hunched over a lined note pad, a brimming cup of latte close to hand. You have a sense of where you--no matter which of your characters you are at the moment--are coming from, where you are going, and what your overall agenda is. Purpose is all about you, and instead of the shifting in their seats or the occasional cough from the audience, you are aware of another kind of live presence, the crackle and static of tension radiating from the story points and the vast minefields of misunderstanding between the characters. Sometimes you deliver lines that surprise you by their directness and confrontational swagger, themselves an awareness that you have somehow caught hold of the tiger's tail that is each character's individual handle.

On good days, you get pages down, the time seemingly subtracted from your day like an agent's commission removed from your royalty check, effortlessly, quickly, inevitably.

But today is not so good a day. You are out there because that is what you do. You wait in the wings of your drama for a cue, then you enter, but most of the time you enter not merely in character but in recognizable character, every word and gesture cloaked in nuance appropriate to the moment.

The more you have time to reflect on the actor's nightmare of not knowing which story or which characters today's appearance involves, the more you realize that the writer's nightmare is even more acute; the writer must not merely learn lines and interpret them to the point where they bring life to the story, the writer must learn to see and speak and write all over again with each new project because the writer's nightmare is to believe in all sincerity that it is all right to bring forth the same performance, the same device, the same thing that worked well in the last story as a part of confronting this present story. The writer knows this sort of hubris can lead to being derivative; the writer recognizes any number of derivative individuals whose works are readily accessible, even looks at the numbers with some jealousy, until the time comes to step into the wings and wait for the cue. At that moment, an enormous vulnerability opens. The writer can cringe, then attempt to charm his or her audience, then feel the sinking platform under him at the sense that no one is buying the charm, least of all his characters.

It has through practice and habit become easy to costume up and step into that limbo before being on and being exposed to the audience, completely red-handed in having nothing to deliver at the moment. But if you stop to think about it later, you will realize that the greatest humiliation of all is also part of your muscle memory; you have heard the equivalent of "What do you think you're doing out there?" from friends, writing groups, instructors, literary agents, editors, and yes, reviewer/critics, and come back this one more time, making eye contact with the stage manager, and strode forth onto the stage. "O for a muse of fire," you begin. "Or maybe not." And before you realize it, the other characters are looking at you with amazement, put off by your audacity, then beginning ever so slowly to see the possibilities and react to them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Consequences Always Ring Twice

If I had only known, I didn't realize, and How could I not have seen? These three cases of self recrimination have become an integral part of the human psyche. We as writers cheerfully pass them along to that great demographic of ambitions, our characters.

There are times when we and our characters want things well beyond our comprehension of the consequences. We and they are so caught up in the focus on the achievement that the entire play of consequence ceases to matter--until it is time for them to matter. Our personal eye and our authorial eye are transported into a state of goal orientation where the resulting story is unplanned, an often devastating surprise. Bad enough when such ventures occur in our real life; when they happen within the landscape of a story, we drag down the innocents who are our characters.

In that very humbling sense, we and our characters are in this condition of vulnerability together, we focused on making some sense of the dramatic material that comes to us, then progressively wanting it to become finite, which is to say finished. Then we want a home for it, a journal and/or a publisher. Then we want an audience for it. Then we want an even larger audience for it, which is to say we want recognition for having created such a remarkable story that a segment of humanity will pay to read it, another segment will be outraged by it, and another segment still will completely misinterpret our own intentions of what the story meant in the first place. Added consequences are tacked on like offers of interest from on-line banks. The consequences of this one being published may lead directly to the consequences of the next one not being published, or misinterpreted even more than the last.

We may have some occasion to regret things we have done to our characters, things such as killing them off, marrying them off, un-marrying them, changing their professions, making a mistake, etc. We may have yet other occasions where we regret things we have not done to our characters, such as letting them have a taste of the consequences that lay in waiting for them at the end of every paragraph.

How many of the transformative narratives we have read contain a series of consequences that, like the sorcerer's apprentice, thought the sorcery looked easy enough to invite a confidence that was quickly undercut? How many equally transformative narratives have we read that came from a character being in one way or another pushed into an unseen tide of consequences? Jane Eyre graduating from the oprhanage is simplicity in itself. She is considered old enough to take care of herself now. Bye-bye, Jane. And Huck Finn, reaching the point of needing to get away from Pap. Simple, right? Just take off, right? Right.

Longterm solution to the problem: unseen consequence is the guardian angel of the writer, the catalytic agent, the driving force. Even such modernism as Waiting for Godot evokes within the viewer/reader an anticipated consequence which meanwhile is messed up all over the stage by the actual consequences that emerge from the characters and their goals.

Now along comes irony to have a shot at upstaging consequences. A character sets forth to provide an agenda that will enhance her situation, say Miss Rebecca Sharp, of Vanity Fair fame, who has an older man, a bit of a rough-and-tumble, but still well above her financially and socially, wrapped in her charms to the point where he proposes to her, in the process spelling out how much of an income he will settle on her. Trouble is, Becky is, alas, already married. And so what are her husband's chances of getting a decent dinner that night? And what are his prospects of a bit of canoodle? Consequences, you see.

Being the opposite of the stated or intended, irony becomes an ideal co-conspirator with consequence, shoving a bit farther down the path toward some lovely dramatic goal such as pathos, bathos, poignancy, satire.

As a species--human and character--we have enough foresight but not too much. Those of us who are able to read the future with unerring accuracy are often not terribly prepared to take on the role of a true front-rank character, rather instead a target of opportunity or merely a target. Although you could never figure the meaning or significance of the title, The Postman Always Rings Twice, you knew that Frank Chambers had it within himself to become a shark; all it took was Cora to show him the way. In fairness to Cora, would she, you could reasonably ask, have entertained such thoughts about her husband if she had not met Frank and experienced the enormity of the chemistry that neither of them anticipated?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Something happens and somebody changes

Something happens, then somebody changes. Not too shabby a way of looking at long form fiction. For the shorter version, you could say at a bit more length, something happens and someone considers the possibilities. In both long and short forms, something clearly must happen so that the event and the relative awareness of the event become part of the theme of the narrative. Something happens, although we're not quite sure what, but it is enough to cause Gregor Samsa to undergo a remarkable metamorphosis.

Things are in a rapid state of flux most days, but some of us are too caught up in routines and custom to notice, leaving us vulnerable to the more sudden revelation, the epiphany, if you will, of the short story. He did not realize he was (1) growing older (2) more set in his ways (3) more conservative (4) more desperate (5) more frightened (6) more out of touch with reality and so he (1) ran off with his secretary (2) forbade his daughter to do something she very much wanted to do (3) considered suicide (4)suspected his wife of something (anything) (5) bought a sports car (6) broke off a long-standing relationship with someone.

The conventional wisdom holds favorably for enhanced performance coming as the result of practice. Not bad logic, but by the very nature of that logic, standing up and sitting down can in addition to producing a regal sense of posture bring about arthritis.

We do not ordinarily appreciate characters who seem to have been content with their lot in life, accepting their status as though it were the product of a fast-food stand, making do, exuding a happy-go-lucky aura and following popular culture as though it were directions on a Google map. For us to appreciate such a person, that individual will need to suffer some devastating loss and not respond with a mere shrug, to experience some milestone birthday, say forty or fifty or sixty or seventy and say, No more; to have been given a death sentence and consequently decided to "go out" following the script of some heretofore unrecognized agenda.

The effects of change on the individual character remind you of the crumbs you find on your shirt front after trying to wrestle through one of those croissants sold at Peet's, your preferred coffee venue. You would think that a place with such superb coffee would attempt a match-up with a provider of at least adequate pastry, but the aura of story hovers over this pairing, of nearly every imaginable pairing; story spreads outward from the discovery of a splendid thing and the consequences of that discovery. A scant two miles south of Peet's is Raynaud's Bakery in the Loreto Plaza. Their French toast is a joy to behold, their brioche are fluffy and yeasty, their quiche and even their tuna salad or Salade Nicoise are choice, but the consequence is that their coffee is of a level with Starbuck's. When you set forth for French toast or for your usual medium latte, respectively, you are not going for breakfast nor for coffee; you are going for story and its consequences.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Voice of the Coffee-House and Your Stories

Without even thinking about it, you reached a state in your evolution as a writer when you were no longer writing to everyone but to a much narrower group, still without many facial or demographic characteristics, more along the lines of mystery readers or science fiction readers or adventure readers, or readers of contemporary event. This was because you were thinking these would be interesting landscapes to be writing in and why shouldn't readers in these fields like your material? You had ample reason to find out why readers in any field might not stand in line to pick up publications in which your work appeared. Indeed, you had equally ample reason to find out why you began to get the distinct feeling that readers had expectations, one of which was that the writer make the metaphoric equivalent of eye contact with them as they tell their stories.

By the time you more or less blundered into working on the other side of the desk, the publisher side, you'd begun to learn something about reader tolerance as in how much of anyone's writing was a reader willing to take? This insight came to you as the result of 1) many, many long letters, sent to you simply because of the accident by which you were able to sign your letters as Shelly Lowenkopf, editor, and 2) by the amount of time you were spending in the writing of letters. Thanks to a remarkable secretary named Peggy, you quickly reached the plateau where ninety-five percent of your letters did not take more than one page and a good sixty percent of these did not take more than one paragraph. Even though you were dictating many of these letters to Peggy, you were also seeing some image of the recipient in your mind's eye, which gave you the added impetus to address all your writing to someone. You could easily delete the address, Dear Whomever, and the complementary close, Yours, or Cordially, or Sincerely after the first draft. It seemed appropriate to write stories and chapters of novels to or at a person, particularly someone you knew well enough to be fond of or in love with or respectful of.

This was as close as you were able to come at the time to articulating voice, which includes authorial intent and state of mind, leavened by authorial feeling in general and specificity. If I don't like you, I'm not going to be casually informative, certainly not overtly respectful, perhaps even a bit snarky or ironic. Depending on how much I like you, I'm going to be informal, confidential, up front, conspiratorial, with the occasional tease tossed in.

By now, much as you like writing to a particular person, especially for the conveyed sense of intimacy and informality, you appear to have come full circle. The circle is easy enough to explain. You are writing for yourself, to yourself, at yourself. You are also going public with it, leaving it out there so that anyone who wishes may eavesdrop. There are likely to be many who will in effect switch to other channels, to other authors, to other voices, to other genera other than those in which you write. At one time, you may have been snarky about that, but as things stand today, you are not snarky when you find a book that does not speak to you.

You get a certain reinforcement of your approach by spending some hours per week in a coffee shop, not merely enjoying the coffee but being aware of the background voices and conversations and their effect on you. A favored game is trying to settle down to writing, then seeing how long you can remain absorbed before some particularly unattractive voice arrests your attention, wrenches you from your absorption. Male or female? Low, high-pitched, squeaky, idiosyncratic with such filler words as I mean or you know? Imparting the manic sense of self-importance or perhaps even at the other end of the spectrum, self-pity?

These coffee shop voices are supplements to the voices you do not want for your front-rank characters--unless, of course, you want to start them off with the albatross of being someone who will have to undergo some change. These coffee-shop people are all perfectly delightful, reasonable sorts who bear you no ill will and may scarcely recognize you. It is not their fault that their speech mannerisms tend to irritate you or put you off. But the same thing is true of the professionally trained voice, say the radio disc jockey or the commentators on the various music stations which draw your interest. So the calculus does revolve about you in the area of pure voice. Your coffee-shop people have an age range from about early teens on through seventies and eighties, the occasional pre-teen dragged in by a parent or grandparent. Some of them have voices you'd cheerfully listen to. You can't tell from looking. The individuals at every age who seem most visually pleasing to you may check out to have voices that need WD-40 or 3-in-1 Oil. They all inform the catalogue you keep in your head of how you want your work to sound and how you do not, under any circumstances, want it to sound; how, alas, it most certainly sounded at one tie before you were aware.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Feeling around for Feeling

All fiction, however intellectual, propagandistic, or political, is based on emotional foundations. Even such a notably novel- and short-story-of-ideas writer as Aldous Huxley, after riding his wit and curiosity to remarkable heights, saw the need for such incursions into the emotional smorgasboard as professional and romantic jealousy, guilt, revenge. Through experience with reading, we have the opportunities to take sides with and against characters who respond to things that seem calamitous, often going against the grain of the author's intent, not so much out of perversity as the simple fact of being attracted to one whose response seems to jibe with our own sense of what is correct and effective.

As we approach our own writing, we are drawn to authorial voices that seem to agree with our own, but even there, care and consideration are needed. You, for example, have fought a running internal battle with writers such as Huxley, Isherwood, and Auden, admiring their smarts or, to put it another way, envious of the moral choices they made and the chances they took in service of those choices, while edging more toward the noir writers whose characters seemed more grounded in the everyday mystery rather than the more cosmic ones. Isherwood was particularly vexing because he seemed to be able to do both, and while there is no credible argument to support Huxley and Auden having no sense of humor, Isherwood first and foremost was able to laugh at himself, telling you endearing stories about ways he attempted to appear humble and rumpled, the better to seem humble and spiritual.

The passive nature of the expression "care and consideration are needed" should not detract from the importance of the observation; you need to chose words and movements with care lest they emerge too elaborate for your own taste, too operatic perhaps or too wallowing in self-pity or sentimentality. John Steinbeck has not been accused of sentimentality for mild reasons; there were places where he was pulled in beyond the boundaries of restraint. Philip Roth may, on the other hand, never be accused of sentimentality, nor may he be accused of over elaboration.

This is what you are working toward, the right choice of words and actions to evoke, not describe, the response you float out for each character. Two towering examples of such splendid restraint occur in music you admire. Each is the adagio section from a concerto. Look or, rather, listen, to the adagio of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major, then move into more modern times, the early twentieth century, to be specific for Joaquin Roderigo's Concerto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra. Each is a wrench yet neither topples into literal and figurative opera of Canio's aria, "Vesti la giubba" from I Pagliacci. Wherever there is performance, be it dance, singing, architecture, poetry, short stories, charcoals, or even trompes l'oeil, you watch for signs of deliberate choice and restraint. Naturally, you reflect the same tastes in real life. If you did not, there would be unresolved conflict you'd need to sort out and deal with.

Monday, February 8, 2010


If you practice enough, the common wisdom proclaims, you may not achieve perfection (although you might), but you may indeed achieve muscle memory, that precious ability that allows you to do without thinking and thus reach beyond the received standards of excellence. Buoyed by your muscle memory lapel ribbon, you may even achieve freshness, invention, ownership however temporary of the ability to demonstrate your art.

At some early age, most individuals are urged by their parents and teachers to practice. This urging is often at odds with a young person's own interests and enthusiasms, producing a stand-off in which there is no real winner, loss emerging as the dominant residue. You will appreciate in later years, the parent and/or teacher admonishes. Yeah, right, thinks the young person. There are those young persons who are drawn into practice by their own interest and curiosity, rendering it a form of play rather than a relative of discipline. Some of our cultural icons, Mozart, for instance, or Beethoven, or Schubert or Gershwin, and yes, girls, too, thinking Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, and the likes of Margaret Drabble and her more famous sister, Antonia Byatt, strode forth in youthful play, developed their craft and their talent for craft. Others among us practiced at another level to the point where we became adept, yea, even unto the point of achieving muscle memory, but not at piano or poetry or composition, rather at loafing or scattering such attention span as we had in the interest of being well-rounded.

The result: a good deal of catching up by way of no longer reading for mere pleasure but for content; writing not for mere familiarity with the sixteen verb tenses of our language but for the ability to sketch in emotion and implication, the steady hand of subtext underscoring the even steadier hand of substance.

Thus at some relatively advanced age, the age beyond which we first had crushes on older persons such as teachers or the parents of our friends, or even the friends of our parents, into the age where we experienced hopeless crushes on contemporaries or near contemporaries. Thus we suffered the anguish of romantic loss, perhaps cataloging that loss with the loss of beloved pets, possibly grandparents, possibly even parents.

The next step on the learning curve was risking a full commitment for some achievement. Ah, the hours you spent trying to master the techniques needed for being an effective center fielder in the game of baseball! They were satisfying hours, emphasizing some abilities you didn't know you had such as speed and a sense of where a given batter might hit the ball. But there was the sinking--no pun intended--feeling that went with the increased knowledge that you could not hit the curve ball, and the growing awareness of others with whom you played that your knowledge was no secret. It took some--but not many--years for you to recognize that you were not much for spectator sports; your interest was in playing. A fond, avid reader, your interest similarly was predicated--note the verb there--on writing. You read others to write you.

Hail, your arrival at the risk plateau! Everything you read involves a series of risks. It is not merely that Writer A is more advanced or prolific or proficient or even more insightful; the risk is that you might find yourself taking chances that, even if successful, are derivative or worse, which is to say cliche. How do you like that? You don't, any more than you like the fact that a risk may not pay off. No wonder you feel such an affinity for Wile E. Coyote, thinking himself shrewd in his agenda to bring down Roadrunner, but more often than not finding himself having just overrun the edge of a mesa, nothing under him now but cubic meters of warm desert air to cushion the inevitable fall. Wile E. Coyote's destiny is to be humiliated as a result of his attempts to catch Roadrunner. You found ways of publication early enough on to give you the (mixed metaphor coming here) albatross of the Young Wonder, and it took you considerable time to get beyond that.

What do you risk when at the very outset, you abandon thought and proceed as though seeking your way in the darkness?

The simple and simplistic answer--for they are the same--is fresh discovery. A more sophisticated answer is an accidental insight or implication that supplies new dimension to the work at hand.

Both these qualities relating to discovery and potential art via accident may as well appear as the result of thought and, indeed, careful planning--but as well, they may not. Both qualities do not put in guaranteed appearances when you abandon thought before plunging into a work, leaving you with the quandary of what to do as (1) the beginning, and (2) any moment of having found a narrative wall you cannot scale or otherwise avoid smirks at you while waiting for your decision.

You move forth in as close a relationship with one of your characters as you possibly can, reaching toward one of that character's goals, feeling as much as possible that character's emotions and needs. This empathy forces you toward visualizing a specific scene where the goal is alive and radiating within the character. Now an obstacle, reversal, or distraction--all three, if possible. Whatever comes first.

Time later, after it has been written, to approach the ways of making it seem plausible.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Where I'm From When I'm Away

It was a brisk day, brisk with hope, enthusiasm, expectation; a sharp day in which a wind cleaned the edges of buildings and store windows, making everything seem in sharp focus. A tang of iodine was in the air, or perhaps, being from Santa Monica, you filled in that detail. It was not your imagination that included a few seagulls, scavanging a late brunch. You inhaled deeply. "This is so like San Francisco," you said.

All about you, there was a stunned pause from the group you'd exited the meeting with, before a revealing "um hum," and an accusatory, "This is not about San Francisco. This is about New York. This is way New York. We live for this time of year, when it is like this. You people don't have to wait for times like this."

You people.

Others. Johnny-come-lately. Carpetbagger.

If you are from a place and have spent any time at all there, no matter where you are at the moment, it is always in relationship to that place, and thus if you are from the likes of New York or Boston, then San Francisco and L.A. and even Denver are out West. I am now, you say from the lobby of The Brown Hotel, Out West. If you are from Pismo Beach or Pacoima or North Hollywood, you go back East,particularly if you once lived there and/or still have family somewhere east of the Mississippi River. Similarly, Portland and Seattle and Vancouver are up There unless, of course, you are from those estimable places. Alaska thinks of all of us as below or down, we for our part think of it as Way up there, distinguishing it thusly from such easier venues as Seattle and Portland.

Friends and associates from New Orleans think of it in terms of districts, much as the Parisians have divided their city into arrondisments and the Londoners render their city into postal zones.

When you first came to Santa Barbara, you were tied to Los Angeles in a number of ways that had nothing to do with birth; you got your contact lenses there, took your blue tick hounds to a veterinarian there, could think of no place to get authentic rye bread or corned beef in Santa Barbara (still can't), and so an additional tie. Nor did it loosen any bonds when on occasion you drove past your alma mater on your way to your job at USC, which had a wrench because your maternal grandparents lived in that area and because, from time to time, you lived with them and seemingly were always walking or biking in relationship to The Colisseum, that hulk of a stadium wherein you so frequently watched your alma mater be clobbered in football by USC.

For all practical and impractical purposes, Santa Monica is northwest of Los Angeles. If you are approaching along the Pacific Coast Highway, you are likely to be shunted into the beginnings of The Santa Monica Freeway at a point called The McClure Tunnel, whence you find yourself east bound through a portion of West Los Angeles as a sort of buffer, arguably in Los Angeles by the time you have passed under the North-South 405 Freeway, draping over the Santa MOnica Freeway like an arm-wrestling limb. If you come into Los Angeles "inland," which is to say on the 101, you may be eased into the enormity of it by passing through such outliers as Augorra Hills, Woodland Hills, even Brentwood, which earned a kind of cachet it didn't really need from a former USC footballer who was at some odds with his wife.

When you are in Los Angeles, the familiarity and memory of it surrounds you and even though many of the buildings you knew have come and gone, you still know short-cuts that baffle your non-L.A. passengers. But when you are in Los Angeles, you are nevertheless from Santa Monica, which has undergone relatively as many changes as Los Angeles has undergone. The library is where it is, not where it ought to be. There is a Chinese restaurant at 516 Santa Monica Boulevard, instead of Boulevard Luggage, once an elaborate and nearly successful-on-its-own luggage shop where, were you interested in estimating the relative speeds of thoroughbred horses, you could find the means of putting your money where your opinion was, and in whose cavernous cellar you could indulge anthropological study of such various Asian games of chance as Pai-Gow and the ever popular Fillipino card game, Paiute.

The Los Angeles and Santa Monica you are of are not the same as it is now for those who are there: the old Eastside Brewery is gone, nor does the long lived disc jockey and entrepreneur Gene Norman, broadcast his nightly show from the front window of Glen Wallach's Music City at Sunset and Vine, although Johnny Mercer's iconic Capital Records building on upper Vine remains. No Taix French restaurant on Commercial Street, no Eastern-Columbia department store at Broadway at Ninth, no whacked-out commercials from Madman Muntz, who went from a used car dealership to a manufacturer of TV sets, nor Clifton's Cafeteria, nor Earl Scheib with a $19.95 paint job for any car, $29.95 for a deluxe. No serious Angel's Flight, nor the worn splendor of Bunker Hill, nor the unforgettable smell of fresh peanut brittle wafting from the ice crfeam Awful Fresh McFarlane candy and nut shops, nor indeed the scatter of Curry's stores, with their enticing logo, The Mile-High Cone, which prompted the nick name of your tall, gangly high school chum, Paul Cohen, as Mile-High.

It is true, you know of some who are of a place and who were removed from it almost at infancy. But they, too, have substitute places, foster homes in the more metaphoric sense of the word, from which they relive sights, scents, experiences, applying them to that other place they happen to be.

The more you write of your own L.A. and Santa Monica, the more the memories escape like grammar school kids, eager for recess. The Frank Lloyd Wright house near Griffith Park. The Fox theater on the pier at Venice. The green, wedding-cake architecture of the Wiltern Theater at Western and Wilshire. The Watkins Hotel at Western and Adams. And not to forget the original Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles on Pico.

Where you are from is a gift of the most glorious sights and scents, the biggest dreams and disappointments, the unexpected changes and discoveries; it is the common denominator of a fraction you carry with you that is a part of the heritage that was given you when you, through no fault of you own were led to believe that more pleasures than sorrows awaited you on your way to providing an emotional portrait of persons with dreams in places with pasts.