Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dear Instructor, Thank you for letting us see your course proposal

The Wire is a sixty-segment novel-for-television, set in contemporary Baltimore, where it follows the lives and interactions of an ensemble cast. Noted for its gritty, well-written scenes and its characters, all of whom are memorable in their edgy plausibility, it takes on social issues such as drugs, education, corruption, and the politics of survival in such professions as government, law enforcement, working conditions, and journalism. Scarcely a week elapses when you do not think about it in some way, even if it is the unfortunate one in which you wonder if many of the excellent black actors who appeared in it will ever again have such opportunities to display their talents.

You are thinking about it now because you are preparing for a meeting next week in which you are to present a list of courses you believe should be offered as a part of a curriculum for students whose goal it is to become a writer. On that list, you are asked to indicate which you wish to teach (as opposed to courses you would teach if you got stuck with the assignment). You had long ago decided you are no longer interested in teaching courses that do not interest you, thus were you to get stuck teaching a particular course, such as one of those you'd been politically maneuvered into, you would turn the course into something that would excite you to spend time with.

What a splendid course there is in viewing, discussing, examining issues and themes residing within The Wire. Because of its length, you'd either have to break the course down into two parts, The Wire I and The Wire II, that is unless you picked a handful of characters and scenes for examination, as you had already reasoned you would have to do with another course that will appear on your list. That course is one you would call The Canterbury Tales, your introduction relating the Chaucer work to the frame-tale narrative before you moved along to "The Knight's Tale," "The Miller's Tale," "The Pardoner's Tale," and "Sir Thopas' Tale," ending with the remarkable "The Wife of Bath,"demonstrating the various levels of social position, the relationship between the ranks, and the attitudes of each.

As you are working on this proposal, thoughts of The Wire never far from your mind, you happen to be reading Clockers, the imposing novel by one of the major writers on The Wire, Richard Price. As you write about The Canterbury Tales, you cannot help thinking about the parallel stories of the two majors in Clockers, Strike, a young black drug lieutenant to a drug captain, and Rocco Klein, a homicide investigator, and the way the ensemble casts of Clockers and The Wire are in so many ways counterparts of The Canterbury Tales.

Your reasoning takes you on this particular vector: It would be more a political reality for you to expect to have a course on The Canterbury Tales offered than one on The Wire. Having succeeded, you could use The Canterbury Tales to bring in The Wire for comparison, which is certainly something you'd enjoy doing. But this gives you more than a buzz; it gives you a high. Why not a third course, combining the two? The Academic Senate is a potential reason why. But the thought of it won't go away, each frame-tale explains and explores the other; each is social in the intense, pulsing presence memorable story defines . These are the kinds of connections that come from writing story; this, too, is worth talking about in the class room.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On hearing voices

Ordinarily voice would mean to you the narrative tone residing in a story or essay, the genie of attitude in the bottle of the writer's intent and the characters' agendas. This time it means the voices the writer hears in his or her head after having let someone read a work.

You yourself have often added to the clamor heard by many a writer, often with the question "Surely you don't intend the story to begin here, do you?" At other times, you have asked "Why did you decide to tell this in first person?" Even though you are quite willing to throw yourself into a work by an author known or unknown to you, trustingly giving yourself over to the writer's artistry, it is likely for you at some point in your reading to pause for a moment to ratify the author's techniques as you did with your recent immersion in the Alaska-based mysteries of Stan Jones or the historical treasure afforded by Hilary Mantell in Wolf Hall, or to bookmark for yourself some aspect you would have preferred to have gone in other directions as in Louise Erdrich's most recent, Shadow Tag.

You have seen traces of the voices at work on clients, writers whose work you have editorially guided, shepherded, even championed. Marcy, for instance, had revised to a splendid edge a complex novel that involves three generations of love story, unconscionable racial intolerance, and a modern day run at salvation culminating in a disastrous boat race on the Mississippi River. A friend, colleague, in fact former client of yours, and now a self-styled marketing expert, encountered Marcy at a writers' conference workshop and put a voice into her head that has effectively prevented Marcy from even looking at the work for six months, much less starting something fresh. Jim, who dedicated his first published book to you, has another, ready to go. The son of perhaps your closest friend has just become an acquisitions editor for a new publishing venture. You spoke well of Jim's work to your friend, who asked to read it for his own enjoyment then came to conclude that his son might be interested in seeing it. Jim discovered that your friend attends a Wednesday writers' lunch. Jim informed you that he'd arranged to meet your friend there in order to give him the manuscript. "They will try to lure you into staying for lunch," you warned Jim. "Don't stay. Deliver the manuscript, then leave."
Later that night, you received an email from Jim. They don't like where my novel begins. They don't like the fact that the protagonist doesn't appear in the first chapter. They don't think the antagonist is antagonistic enough. "You stayed for lunch," you said. They put voices in his head. "They invited me to come again," Jim said. "The more you go, the more your novel will change," you said. "It will become like a modern wristwatch, loaded with gadgetry and complications. It will become more like a cell phone than a novel."

By the same calculus, as salaried editor for publishers, you have been assured by writers that their reading group loved a particular manuscript as it then stood, a fact that should trump your objections to it and your memorandum of necessary attention points. Further, as the consultant you now are, one of your clients, a writer of nonfiction books, produced a work that resulted in his being invited to appear on the Jon Stewart Show, where he was met with great warmth, only to be excoriated by a critic who accused him of being too anecdotal.

In a large sense, we humans are all of a piece with Macbeth, who certainly had an agenda, haunted by Banquo's ghost; we all hear voices--indeed, we crave voices. For many of us, the worst pain of all is the absolute absence of voices.

"I don't know, Mr. Modigliani. Your subjects all seem to have such long necks. Couldn't you find models with more normal necks?"

"Un, listen, Signor Picasso, you're kind of taking liberties with proportions and exaggerations."

"Really, Melville, we'd be more inclined to take your Moby-Dick story if you could cut twenty or thirty thousand words about whales."

There are built-in programs that cause us to see things as we see them and as well programs that want us to give some thought about pleasing others. It could be argued with some success that individuals who are in marketing positions are programed to think they not only know a particular market but can effectively predict it one hundred percent of the time, although this argument could be countered with the one stating that these individuals were merely expressing their own opinions, then producing documentation to support it.

How about some ground rules?

1. Hold your ground.
2. If someone makes a suggestion, say changing Flicka, of my friend fame, from a horse to a dog because more people have dogs than horses, thank that person kindly, then hold your ground.
3. If upon rereading your material you become morally convinced that Flicka would do better, as in provide a better, more nuanced and meaningful story,as a dog, then change Flicka from horse to dog.
4. If an editor says he or she will publish your story provided you change Flicka from a horse to a dog and you believe you can make a plausible dog of the character, it is okay to change, but if you are still convinced Flicka must be a horse, thank the editor and walk away. Your pal, Barnaby Conrad, wrote a novel called Matador, a fictionalized version of the last day of a bullfighter named Pacote, modeled closely on the last day of the real bull fighter Manuel Sanchez, known as Manolete. One film producer loved the story, wanted to acquire the screen rights provided Conrad would be willing to change the character of Pacote to a prize fighter. Conrad said no.
5. If your friends love your work, will you secretly wonder if they have any taste?
6. If your friends don't get your work,will you secretly wonder if they have any taste?
7. It is not so much about story or theme as it is about your enthusiasm and vision. Who'd a thunk another book on Henry VIII would sell? Hilary Mantel did and poured it on.
8. How do you get the voices of others out of your head? Try listening to the voices of your characters or themes.
9. Even with so-called formula fiction, the characters have to have enough of a voice to convince you they are real.
10. The Islam equivalent of the sabbath is Friday, the Jewish sabbath is Saturday, the Christian day is Sunday. Some Buddhist sects will ask you What's that? if you ask them if they believe in God. Who is right?
11. You have enough to listen to with your own voices and those of your characters. NPR is okay for news; Terri Gross, tempting as she is, remains a gamble.
12. Look where listening to outer voices got Joan; sold to the English and burned at the stake is what.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Power Play

The moment you are attracted to the notion of a particular story being something you could engage as it pulses just beyond your reach, it assumes power over you. Willingly, you grant this power. As you move to delineate, define, develop the story, the balance of energy tilts your way until, eventually, you have power over the story. This is an ongoing process where you are sometimes under the thumb of the story, other times its master.

More often than not, you are in an arrangement, an understanding with the process of story, neither victim nor exploiter; you are merely pleased to be in the semblance of a relationship. You are by no means tempted to leave the relationship, although there are brief times when you feel that the relationship has, as in the case of some real-time romances, forgotten to call.

There are also times when you feel almost giddy with pleasure at having got the story near your early vision of it, a vision sometimes so heartbreaking and haunting that is hurts to swallow. You want to indulge in a bit of showing off for having seen the story through. You are, of course, showing off your power to the story, a behavior likely to last until you see the work in proofs or in published form, which is another moment of accommodation. Then, it is as though someone you had a crush on and who reciprocated had revealed that she had freckles. Conversely, perhaps you'd expected freckles, then discovered she had none. You have nothing against freckles, having just as easily been able to fall in love with them as to fall in love with someone who had not a one anywhere on her body. What you have in abundant presence is a joy for the crush itself and the knowledge that it is reciprocated, then the discovery of realities which must be acknowledged, accepted, eventually even prized.

In addition to being tidal, power is rarely one sided; even slave and master may, as in Aristophanes' The Frogs,cause a shift in status. One party to the power may rule even without the conscious consent of the other. It is not uncommon for attractions, writer to story or person to person, may have no apparent explanation, in which case the power seems mysterious and deliciously special. The source may reveal itself as the writer works at the story or as the two individuals work at the formalizing of their attraction.

Even as the intimacy is enhanced between writer and story or person and person, there is a delicious feel of recognizing the pull of attraction, then giving over to it. We have similar power relations with the things we read, the music we listen to, the art we cast our eyes upon, taking them in, recognizing the power they have over us for the first time or the hundredth.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Obligations, Promises, and Intentions

The past is a place you visit to see how much--if anything--you've learned since then. You use it to ratify or validate things you once or presently consider certainty, to confirm suspicions, and build precedent from which to make future decisions.

You never quite know how to dress or what to pack for your visits, much less do you know how long you will remain. Real-time travel issues of your own or of friends warn you of potential hazards and delays, going and return, reminding you in yet other ways of the inherent mischief possible.

Could you have done something better? Could you have listened to someone longer? Could you have better picked up on hints that your presence was wanted or not wanted? Was there something you could have done and did not? Was there something you did and should not have?

Hazardous thinking, all of them. And yet, you are aware of the temptation.

More so in recent years, you have put effort into writing down due dates, times for meetings, even dates on which obligations are to be discharged, all of which seem to be the major causes for visiting the past in the first place. Perhaps the strategy was merely to help you keep better track of obligations, promises, and intentions. Perhaps it was even more--an attempt to keep you away from verb tenses associated with should have and could have, honing your focus on the road ahead and how to be prepared for it.

One of the great pleasures of reading and writing story is the awareness that such deftness and complexity gain shape from the lathe of revision and the knowledge that real-time life offers no such opportunity.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


You are indebted at the very least to the following writers:

1. Mark Twain--who got you started thinking you could, too.
2. Louise Erdrich--who made even the smallest walk-on seem gifted and magical.
3. Daniel Woodrell----who knows how to elegantly frustrate his characters.
4. John Steinbeck--for first causing you to feel the goddamned Salinas River.
5. Jane Austen--who did not always say what she meant nor mean what she said.
6. Grace Metalious--who showed you how even soap opera could be compelling.
7. Graham Greene--who show you where to put the humor.
8. Digby Wolfe--who showed you how what you considered humor wasn't.
9. Bobbie Ann Mason--who showed you what POV really means.
10. F. Scott Fitzgerald--for showing you how to use lyricism in the midst of a story.
11. Richard Price--for showing you how to listen.
12. Sarah Orne Jewett--for explaining regionalism to you.
13. Rachel Maddux--for showing you where care begins.
14. Mazo de la Roche--for hooking you early on people who were completely foreign to you.
15. Dorothy B. Hughes--for luring you into the Mystery Writers of America
16. Vera Casperay--for showing you what happens when your narrator falls for a dame.
17. Day Keene--for showing you there was nothing wrong with a novel a month.
18. Louis L'Amour--for nudging you into better ways to begin.
19.Lawrence Lipton--for showing you what professionalism meant.
20. Hilary Mantel--for showing you how to find the new buried within the old, old.
21. Sol Stein--for urging you to never take the reader where the reader wants to go.
22. Adela Rogers St. John--for failing to embarrass you.
23. Geoffrey Chaucer--for The Pardoner and The Wife of Bath: Middle-Ages Noir.

Individually and in the aggregate, these and a handful of others led you to see that any success you could ever hope to achieve would come from you being more you, in fact entirely you, and not them.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Learning not merely how to write but when to write it

In a meeting with a student yesterday, you were handed your own reading copy of a manuscript that turned out to be exactly what you asked for: the first draft, the very first draft of the first scene of a short story. As you read through it, one minor suggestion quickly arose--reverse the order of the first two sentences. A mere editorial enhancement. Reading farther along, you felt yourself gripped by a growing sense of unease that had nothing whatsoever to do with the student, who after all truly did give you exactly what you'd asked. Rather the sense of discomfort spreading just below the enjoyment level of your medium latte was a strike of lightning hitting you, particularly the you of the past, directly in the middle of your attitude.

Unfortunately for you, there was a time when you conflated energy for writing with first-draft performance. If you messed up with a word or sentence, you merely struck it out and substituted right there on the spot. This effectively meant first draft was the only draft. You took great refuge in the thought that being a lousy speller meant you had to go through the first draft to clean up spelling errors. Even novels were produced this way, thought out for their form then written as quickly as you could, then shipped off to whoever would have them. You felt a kinship with one of your heroes, Fitzgerald. You couldn't spell, either, and you had a great affinity for such potables as scotch, bourbon, vodka, and a wide range of liqueurs such as Benedictine, strega, amaretto, and anything with a licorice aftertaste. Mornings after, you consulted the ramos gin fizz, which often meant you had to be in San Francisco because where better to get the ramos gin fizz than the Buena Vista at Sunday morning breakfast.

So much for all that.

What the student had done, you noticed, was a nearly pitch-perfect map or chart of the emotions of the protagonist of the tale, line by line. You were able to see beyond the literalness and excess of the lines of text into the perfectly placed responses the character was experiencing as the scene progressed. The student was so successful in this that you wondered, still smarting from the lightening strike who had taught whom.

You are quite fond of saying (and sincere in the saying of it) "Don't think during the first draft. Get down what comes out. The thinking comes in subsequent drafts."

You are also quite fond of saying that however much fun the first draft is, revision is even more so because it is in this process of entering the story that your own awareness of feelings, subtexts, and intentions come forth or need to be made to come forth. As you were imparting this theory of yours yesterday, it metastasized into an overt strategy, representing yet another nuance of your theory about the ways in which drama inheres in the developing story.

It helps also to have been reading the splendid novel, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, in which the characters' agendas so deftly and convincingly define them.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


You have a particular fondness for 7-11 stores and the various service station convenience stores, second only to the small neighborhood groceries on the fringes of the older parts of town here in Santa Barbara. Perhaps your favorite of all is The Italian Grocery on De La Guerra Street, which you patronized back in an earlier incarnation as well when it was on Olive Street. The moment you enter, you are overwhelmed by a cloud of ground coffee, olive oil, sliced deli meats, and the yeasty tang of fresh rolls. As if this were not enough, you are nearly assaulted by rows of canned and bottled groceries with the most colorful and evocative labels, labels that are so frankly ethnic that you find yourself sneering at the smug uniformity of the brands stocked by the chain supermarkets. Even the canned Heinz baked beans on sale at the chain supermarkets look different at the Italian Grocery.

The Italian-Greek Deli on lower State Street is now a Verizon Store, brightly lit, its ambiance now the ghastly yellow of fluorescence, but when you are in the neighborhood you like to recall the steaming pot of ravioli and the evocative pastoral scenes printed on the sides of the boxes of pasta. And there is also the Laguna Market, where the ethnicity switches to the foods you saw in the stalls and larger markets of central Mexico and where you are willing to suffer the urn coffee for Yolanda's sweet breads.

Whenever you enter a Von's or a Ralphs or even Gelson's, you find yourself looking over your shoulder as though suspicious of being followed. You are not as comfortable in such stores and it has taken you all this time, today being the operant discovery, to understand the dynamic. It had nothing to do with your having been a box boy at McDaniels' Shop 'n Save Markets, which was your first job up and away from a newspaper route; it was the nostalgia for the small neighborhood groceries of your early youth, where you did not shop with a cart, you approached the counter and gave your order to a clerk, who fetched things from what seemed unbelievably high shelves, where, for instance, one of the Weiner boys would put on a rubber glove, then reach into the pickle barrel to secure the right degree of doneness to the pickles you were sent to fetch and where, if you were in some unimaginably acute state of grace, you were allowed to wash your hands at the small sink behind the counter, then fish for your own pickle.

This insight about the how and why of smaller grocery stores seems at first blush to be undershot with nostalgia and for a sense that the thing that drives you down to the Laguna Market and its boiled coffee or the Italian Deli and its mouth-watering torpedo sandwiches is a wish to bathe in the dregs of early impressions. But this is barely enough to justify the price of admission. What's really at stake here is the way associations finally open themselves to you if you persist in looking at a thing because it was something you always liked.

Just yesterday, you were arrested by a stand of deep purple snapdragons, thriving in this lovely pre-Easter/Passover explosion of Spring. You approach the stand and bent closer, remembering how it was that as a younger person, you thought snapdragons such great friends because if you were to grip them just so at what you imagined to be a jawline, they could be made to open and close their mouth-like arrangement of petals. Doing so yesterday brought you back in contact with a dazzle of associations, chewing oxalis, which you thought of as a child to be sour grass and these years later, you could experience the acidy taste on your throat. These associations had only about twenty percent to do with youth as such, the eighty percent remaining had to do with the miracles waiting to be discovered in small things. At the time of first discovery, you believed magic could be learned. The magic was in the discovery of the unalloyed miracles of small things. You have a pocket filled with toys now, most of them not so important because they can provide you with a compass or a map to guide you from where you are to where you wish to be or that with a few taps, you could be in conversation with someone across the continent. These are sophisticated, grown-up things and are not to be cast lightly aside. But more important, these toys and implements remind you of the discoveries awaiting you whenever you set foot outdoors. You were discovering what it was to be alive, how energizing, dazzling, exciting it is and how glorious it is not to have outgrown it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Waste Management

Whatever it happens to be--idea, inanimate object, seed pod, or unfinished torpedo sandwich tossed at a waste can at a park and missed--you note it, take it in for a moment or two, then move on to another random assortment of things. Some things seem so hauntingly meaningful--a plush Donald Duck, say, sitting on a cushion of a cushion-sprung sofa discarded on a back street, that you grab a shot of it with your cellphone or Leica or perhaps make a note of it on the handful of three-by-five index cards you often carry.

The devil is said to reside in the details and there are details everywhere; it is impossible to get away from them because there are no public access vacuums. There is stuff everywhere. In your own room and work areas there is stuff, its only difference from the outside stuff being that it is stuff you have brought in with you, perhaps even from other places you have lived or other places you have visited.

To the extent that you have any sense of neatness or order or perhaps even a sense of design, things are arranged about you. Sometimes this is total chaos of chance, a receipt, for instance, from the Conserv Fuel #6111 at 150 South La Cumbre Rd Santa Barbara Ca 93105. It makes sense that you would purchase 9.296 gallons of 87 octane but why would you keep much less request a receipt? Ballpoint pens which you hate, fountain pens which you love, crumpled napkins, okay they must be investigated for scribbled notes. The battery recharger for the Leica is a no-brainer, the red 2010 Weekly Pocket Planner from The New York Review of Books also obvious, all these things having some purpose that have immediate significance to you or some embedded significance. Sure. On the back of the receipt from the gas station, two figures, the mileage on your odometer and the number of gallons purchased, your curiosity about miles per gallon (31.6587).

The key to these things, this river of events and elements into which you try at times to swim, is you and what calls to you for attention and, when you attention is gained, what you do about it. It often amazes you how easy it is for others to see some quality, beauty, say, or squalor or perhaps even waste or decadence or tragedy in the things that are strewn about the landscape. The worst thing you can do is affect some shield that blindfolds you to the things about you, even if this means you are likely to be distracted from tasks at hand.

It is as ineffective, you reason, to be insulated against noticing things as it is to be too open and alert, yanking your purpose from under you by providing distractions. You were never one for middle ground and so that approach seems even less practical to you. Museums, book stores, stationery stores, hardware stores, food stores, the lairs and retreats of animals.

The metaphor of the world you inhabit as a huge waste dump seems appropriate at times but more often than not your interest has nothing to do with possession, rather to classify, notice, somehow arrange and make connections that lead to the individuals you try to induce into your stories. Who left the sofa on Greenwell Avenue? You haven't given that a thought in nearly a year. Who left the Donald Duck stuffed toy and under what circumstances? That sometimes keeps you awake at night.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Most of the early books you associate with your discovery that you, too, wished to spend your working life among them were fiction, many of them by Twain. Until you chanced upon one work of nonfiction in particular, during your junior year at the university, yiou were seeing books as bright, reflective surfaces, things that shined in the darkness of your ignorance about the world about you and the people and animals who inhabited it.

Then came this particular book, which held the promise of being about the very nature of persons. It was for some time a light shed upon a dimension you had not previously considered. The book was a text book, a red buckram binding without a dust jacket, its spine embossed in gold leaf. Introduction, it read, to Psychology.

The type face was cold and foreboding, the illustrations seemingly as remote as the old copies of National Geographic you used to find in used book stores or the garages of your friends. One thing in the early pages of the text stood out, the information--pronouncement, really--that the organism tends to think well of itself.

Although you did think well of yourself, it was pressing in on you that you did not think well enough of yourself; things were lacking. You needed to discover what it was you could do to cause you to think well of yourself. Getting good grades did not seem to be the answer, nor did having a job that paid you well enough to do some of the things you wished. For some time, you must have been a considerable pain, asking your acquaintances what it would take to cause them to think better of themselves.

The course for which the red book was a text, Psychology 1A, proved a disappointment, particularly after your discovery that the entire psychology department at UCLA seemed to be run by so-called behavioralists, modeling approaches other than strictly historical ones around the work and theory of one B. F. Skinner.

You did know that you felt pretty good about yourself when you were writing or reading or listening to music (particularly jazz) or eating elaborate meals washed down with as elaborate a wine as you were able to afford at the time. It was a no brainer from there: you spent more time listening to music, reading and writing than you did studying and attempting to discover the intent of each of the classes you took. Classes such as psychology 1A that produced no immediate good feelings tended to be ones in which you were least likely to make connections or draw conclusions.

It is amazing to you now that you advanced as well and as far as you did with such attitudes, but there you have it, avoiding things that did not help you feel better about yourself than you already felt, reading and writing a good deal, listening to music, eating elaborate meals, looking for the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail, a book that would not influence you beyond the point previous books influenced you but explain to you the mechanism by which the earth turned on its axis, individuals behaved as they did, things got published.

You had to learn that there was no such book; every time you felt you had a line on such a title, your investigation and ultimate reading of it would disabuse you of your belief in formulas and incantations. Everything, book, person, random matter alike, needs to be taken in and processed with slow, deliberate care, then stored away in some convenient receptacle, say a memory, to be used as a spice on the events before us.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Running on Empathy

A significant feature of the free association techniques encouraged by analysts with a Freudian bent is the information deduced by the analyst and possibly the analysand as well. This aspect has long enthused you, taken as you are with the lightning-like static of seemingly free-floating ideas being related to others in ways you have just begun to understand. The possibilities yammer and cry out with the possibilities that you will learn more about your characters from this associative process as the story develops and the revision begins to provide you with yet greater results.

You particularly enjoy the times when you approach your blog template with nothing apparently to use for your theme. There is then a tingle beginning below the surface of the skin, radiating outward from the inherent doubt that you have at last exhausted your store of prepared essays, run dry, and now will have nothing to say; you will be effectively shut down. Don't expect help or bright flashes of ideas. Empty. Stunned into silence, aware only of the void rather than the thrum of ideas waiting to burst free.

The feeling of depletion, of having reached a temporary end of the associative process from which a torrent of relevant ideas emerge is a necessary condition to your own progress, the taunting excitement of potential failure that goads you into the turf of despair, where the homies may fall on you.

If you were to admit defeat, concede that you had nothing to write about on this particular day, little would be lost for the associative writer parson you have striven to become and indeed are. You would have experienced another time in which the process did not work for you, opening the possibility of another such failure in short order, a sign of systemic entropy as opposed to muscular, determined venture to collect more process-related associations. All the more reason, then, for the excitement, the gamble, the tingle of disaster hovering about you.

Are ideas so scarce or so valuable to you? Much of the time, if you had any more, you would give them as you do dollars to those asking you for spare change or using them as suggestions to students who seem choked up in their fear of having for the moment nothing to say.

We all have nothing to say until we begin saying that nothing, observing the facial tics and nods or scowls, looking about us for signs. Even when alone, we write to parts of ourselves or to images of unseen readers we hope to reach.

Look for an individual, however you have invented him or her. Look for a person you have endowed with some agenda, then, instead of writing about yourself, ask this individual, How does it go with you? Ask in the language of your streets and terrain. Ask from the depths of your curious heart. How goes it with you, whomever you are? What is your wish, your dream. Be careful how you ask, What is your problem? Think of the way it may sound. You want the to reply, and you want to be able to listen.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Marginal Characters

Thinking about characters who appeal to you on some deeper-than-ordinary level, you are more often than not drawn to outsiders, men or women of any age who neither arrived on schedule or took conventional evolution for granted. Most of these outsiders are moral enough--as moral as any of us--to inspire the trust a reader needs in order to sign on to one of their adventures; they have a more instinctive understanding of the use of the semi-colon rather than the more strictly grammatical approach. They are not angry persons bent on revenge or evening any particular score so much as they are enthusiastic about social justice in general, often arriving at that place from a situation in which they were shown the back of the hand of social justice.

They are naturals for a dramatic landscape in which surprises are every bit as likely to be pleasant as unpleasant. But they know this about their life and its surrounding terrain; this knowledge allows them to politely refuse targets of opportunism as well as opportunity. Sometimes they make choices that surprise them, finding ways to live cheerfully with the consequences.

It does come down to consequences, doesn't it? These men and women of your dreams and imagination, the strangers who appear before you in your inventions, they all take risks in the end, straying from potential boundaries or limitations of convention, consequences and conscience fitting nicely into their being. They may be strangers until you get to know them, but they are all of them you in one way or another.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Last Ultimate Final Word

To hear something spoken of as the last word is to hear a prompt for filling in the implication that the subject under consideration is the latest most received wisdom on the matter. The last word, in that context, is a synonym for latest, recent, perhaps even newest. If, however, we were to apply just a tad more heat to the last word trope, we'd find ourselves in the midst of a squabble, one at first worth dropping some eaves upon.

The squabble could be a lover's quarrel, the righteous indignation between a married couple, and, moving further up the organizational chain, such elements as a faculty meeting, a community town hall meeting, a board of director's meeting, and by no means to forget legislative houses in this country and abroad. Therein, having the last word is an invitation to exchanges that often typify the intent and nature of dramatic dialogue:

Consider either of these:
You always have to get in the last word.
Do you always have to have the last word?

Either approach is a trap because regardless of the answer, the circle is not completed.
Yourself, you prefer the answer of "no." as perfection on the grounds of it likely being more provocative to the accuser than "yes," which in its way is acknowledgement and more or less pushes the burden back on the accuser to say or do something that will end the exchange. In either case, this moment of the accused having the last word is a splendid place to end a scene, chapter, or story because it transfers the dramatic potential into the reader's crucible of awareness and it becomes possible to see the story going on off the page with a life and consequences of their own. You like stories that end with one-word acknowledgments, a yes or no. Perhaps you'll allow a maybe.

Final words make for tantalizing opportunities; a character may be motivated by their consequences into infinity, having frequent occasion to revisit the final words with an expertly chosen I shoulda said. Given our obsessive-compulsive nature as writers, we easily appreciate and identify with a character's shoulda said moment, the fabled spirit-of-the-stairway moment in which the character not only has the final word, it is a memorable zinger ala Sam Spade's valedictory "The stuff dreams are made of." from The Maltese Falcon.

Life--as we know it and do not know it--pays little heed to final words, cranking out new events, new people, new situations, overcoming final words however impudent or elegant. An occasional moment of morbidity or self-pity can cause some of us to consider what our own hope for final words would be. Some of us who are seriously enough into the writing craft would like nothing better than to be remembered in addition to our written work as some martini-dry final words, an observation about the human condition and our final observation as we are on the very point of leaving it. Thank you for allowing us to see your life. Unfortunately, it does not fit our plans and we wish you the best of fortune in placing it elsewhere.

In any case, we mull over final words, wanting to reprise the opportunity for our observation because we were quite possibly poor losers originally or because we have finally come up with a way to get our own back (which implies a strong sense of having lost it back there in the parking lot or board room or bedroom or somewhere). I was thinking about that conversation we had the other day and it occurred to me that I might not have made my point clearly enough.

Er, what conversation was that?

Why, the one about having the last word.

Sorry, I don't recall any such conversation.

Oh, come on!

No, really. Are you sure it was me you were having the conversation with?

You want to ask, What kind of world are you living in that you would not remember? But if you are any sort of person at all, it will come to you that your individual is living in his or her own world, a world to which you are sometimes granted a visa that must be stamped on entry.

Friday, March 19, 2010

My Battle with Metaphor

Much of your writing life has been conducted in an uneasy relationship with metaphor, beginning with a distant memory of some teacher telling you you could never hope to understand romantic poetry, which of course you at the time wished to write, without some degree of intimacy with it. But with some notable exceptions in your reading, it became apparent to you that you'd have to find some other way in with romantic poetry because so much of it, metaphorical, allegorical, and simile-like, did not stand the test of time. This was about the time you discovered William Carlos Williams, but that is for another time, since this means to stay for at least a few paragraphs on the subject of metaphor.

You began filling notebooks with such metaphor and simile as you encountered, reaching the point where you hoped never to see another and wrote for yourself in simple, declarative sentences that seemed pretty straightforward and uncluttered. It was no wonder you felt a growing affinity with the then pulp magazines, mysteries, science fiction, and westerns. Lousy pay rates but you were pretty prolific at the time and saw your clear to making enough to keep you in books, a night a week out at some place where jazz was to be had, and something adventurous to throw in the crock pot.

Then you discovered Raymond Chandler, who seemed to produce metaphor the way you produced excuses. Out the window, sometimes even literally, went the straightforward declarative sentences. What are these, Richard said one night when he came by your window to meow, a way of signaling you out of the house without awakening neighbors, stepping in the process on balled sheets of paper. Metaphors, you said. What are these, John Carroll said when you turned in pages on a screenplay. Metaphors, you said. Lad, he said. He wanted to say more. As long as I'm paying you, there will be no more goddamned metaphors in the screenplays.

Look, I said one day. Raymond Chandler uses them all over the place and they even hired Faulkner to do the screenplays of his novels. Lad, he said. He wanted to say more. It may be vulgar for me to say this but you can, if you wish, blow your nose without using a handkerchief, which is precisely what most of the people who will pay to see this movie would do if they thought they could get away with it and which many do without even thinking about the consequences.

I arrived early the next morning with thirty some pages, and not a single metaphor. When I drove down the sprawl of driveway, I saw two men,drunkenly brawling near the porte cochere. As I approached, I recognized one of the brawlers as John, cocking his arm back for a swing. "You son of a bitch," he said to his opponent. "If you had any decency, you'd tell me where you are." Both his eyes had been fairly well puffed beyond vision. "And you," his opponent said. "If you were half the man you make yourself out to be, you'd stand still." Thus spake not Zarathrustra but Clark Gable, a frequent roistering companion of John.

"Is that you, Lad?" John said as you approached. "On a Saturday?"
"I brought some pages without metaphor."
"Why would you do that?" Gable asked, turning in my direction, his face as bruised as John's. "Why would you write anything without a metaphor? Goddamn you, LaFitte [for that was John's true surname]What have you done to this man?"

At which point, John's mother called to inform us breakfast was ready.

"Christ," Gable said, "I thought we were at my place. What the hell are we doing at your place? Where is my car? I suppose you sold it."

John had abandoned or forgotten the causes of his fight with Gable, turned to you. "You see, Lad? With people like us, metaphor is unnecessary?"

You actually wanted to believe that and for a time you did, but there did not seem to be on the pages you wrote the things you hoped would be there. You could not articulate what those things were. You looked for them in vain. It helped some that Christopher Isherwood spoke to you of times when he deliberately tried to cause the pockets and hems of his denims to appear threadbare, "Saintly in their wretched simplicity," he said, but there was nothing wretched nor simple that you could find in his writing; it was all elegant and pointed as well as honest.

They come at you now with the persistence of telephone solicitors, male and female, asking you how you're doing today, approaching you like coffee stains on a freshly laundered shirt. They have made you as wary as a man with dandruff venturing out of the house in a blue suit. Of course you check for them. Why, a student once asked, do your comments on our stories always contain metaphor?

Your answer could have been--but wasn't--synecdoche; the part always representing the whole or the whole always suggesting a part, or things wanting to connect as if on their own. You would have to be two ants shy of a picnic not to get the message.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Speak the speech, I pray you

The spoken word in a dramatic narrative is a welcomed respite from the conversation of the workplace, school, home, and all those places in between where we attempt to convey our needs and dreams to others. Although these spoken words have subtext and make some attempt at nuance, they are not dialogue and they are precisely not dialogue because no matter how we yearn or try to be characters, we are merely ourselves. As ourselves, we speak conversational English, trying to enhance the result with wit, possibly even humor. We go about our daily routine approaching moments when we wish we had dialogue to offer but at the same time mindful that dialogue does not work in the quotidian any more than conversation works to any effect at all in fiction.

The secret is to understand that dialogue in fiction may be given the sound of conversation, but it and trees falling in the forest have in common the need for a hearer. You might say each, the tree and the dialogue, needs a listener or a reader. If conversation between two or more individuals becomes too focused, the participants become self-conscious or distracted.

We have in common with our characters the trait that causes us to say one thing while meaning either its very opposite or an understatement of our true intent. In conversations, we have devices to defuse the sentiments and bits of information put forth. In dialogue, we speak at these elephants in the living room, their appearance beginning to appear before the reader as though intent had sprung a leak and was spilling slowly forth.

None of this means we cannot have an enjoyable time with friends or that dialogue needs to be confrontational; in either case we should be understood and the motives of our characters begin find places through which to leak. If, in a conversation, we allow that today wasn't particularly eventful, in fact even a bit boring, this can be an excuse for another round, a commiseration, or some attempt at raising the level of conversation to something more substantial. If in a story nothing happened that was particularly eventful, the reader should have the option to think one of the characters was lying or perhaps failing to notice something momentous, which the reader has already seen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Speed Reading, Speed Writing, and the Ever Widening Gyre

A major book you have not read, regardless of your reason for not having read it, is a book that has gotten away from you. With the hundred thousand-odd books published every year, even two or three missed connections a month add up to at least thirty more quality books a year that have passed you by.

Worse yet to contemplate, even given you read two or more books a month--actually, you read five--there are still dozens of titles a year whizzing past you, waving as they go. Read and retain as much as you will, you are nevertheless in a hopeless race to keep up with the information, education, and challenge necessary to sustain your growth as an individual.

Major books are novels, collections of tales, biographies, essays, and poetry that will leave some lasting impressions on you, influencing your behavior, invading your dreams, and appearing unbidden at unexpected moments where you are trying to cope with woe, weal, and adventure.

These titles have become major to you through an eerie osmosis, its origin in advertisements, reviews, author interviews, and sightings in which they are being carried and read by complete strangers whose magnetism, charisma, and growth seem to emerge from the very book in question. If I were to read that book, you think, I would radiate the same magnetism, charisma, and growth potential.

Because there are so many books extant and waiting now to be published as though in a holding pattern at LAX or O'Hare, your major books may not be someone else's major books, or they may be books you have yet to read which appear on someone else's list of major books.

Here are a dozen books which are on a number of individual and institutional lists. When the time comes, which is to say, when you read them, some of these titles may be on your own list. But maybe not. This will open the door to occasion a sense that there is something lacking in you, but it can and should be pointed out that not all tourists to Egypt enjoy seeing the Pyramids, and unusual as it seems, not all visitors to The Prado Museum in Madrid are glad to have gone.

Jane Eyre
Pride and Prejudice
Huckleberry Finn

The Origin of the Species
Letters from an American Farmer
On Walden Pond
A Distant Mirror
Out of Africa

Truth to tell, with one exception,you have read all twelve of these particular major titles more than once, returning for sentiment, nostalgia, and the sense that you may have missed something still sitting there, waiting to reveal itself to you. You don't want, as some might do, to commit to reading that missing title this year although the more you think about it, the greater likelihood you will, thus acknowledging a relationship with that novel, an ought relationship as in you ought to read that book.

From such readings and lists come graphs expressing you and your taste, something to consider as you cast your lot with a new reading or writing project.

Added truth to tell, there are short stories, essays, novels, and book-length studies you wish to write, largely for the energy you know will be generated as you work at them. From a city in Ontario, Wolfe appears, hoping to secure your interest in finishing two projects you'd embarked upon some time back, demonstrating the lure of books unread and unwritten and what you may discover from each and how much better or worse, agreeable or stubborn, funny or serious doing so will make you. Interestingly enough, your collaborations in the past have brought two absolutely dissimilar working styles together, his slow and deliberate, line by line, extracted as though a volunteer hair growing where hair ought not to grow, yours impatient and impulsive. And the effects you have had on one another over the years; he is no longer the spontaneous force who invented Laugh-In, you are no longer as serious. You are both at a stage now where it seems you are at a restaurant, enjoying a meal. (Not the restaurant in New York where, in the company of a vegan client, you both ordered rare liver and onions.) The waitress has tried several times to remove your entre plates before you have finished.

BTW, the unread book on the list is Middlemarch.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Seven Ways of Looking at an Ambiguity

Last night I dreamed I went to UCLA again. It seemed to me I stood midway between Royce Hall and the Library, amazed at finding myself there. Unlike the protagonist's experience in Rebecca, I found no gates closed against me, no ominous chains or locks, only a mild and not unpleasant drizzle as I purposefully moved toward the library and the sprawl of steps leading to the main entrance. From that point, it was over to the western banister, a large concrete slab near which chums often met between classes and at which place many of us left books, notebooks, even temporarily unworn jackets or sweaters, a sort of large, informal substitute for a bank of hall lockers. There were present at the steps a group of younger men, all clad in suits and ties. They did not seem to know me nor I them, giving me the sense that some form of closure with them and the venue, itself, had been achieved, a closure that could not be sorted out at the moment because, approaching me was a young woman who apparently had been expecting me and although I did not recognize her as a specific individual I nevertheless felt pleased to see. I strode toward her and the dream ended.

There are two psychotherapists in my Woodside writing workshop, one Jungian psychiatrist, making him perforce an M.D., the other a psychologist who is also an educator and multifarious writer, currently about to publish a book about the uses of LSD. Each of the two have a similar take on dreaming, more or less boiled down to one of five or six episodes a night of events during which the individual dreamer resolves or edits waking hour conflicts. Each of them was discussing these dream sessions in his own context, leaving me to wonder aloud of patients of Freudian psychiatrists have Freudian dreams, patients of Jungian analysts accordingly have Jungian archetypal dreams, patients of more eclectic therapists having eclectic dreams, and those of us not in any special mode of dialogue or, perhaps, past patients in a dialogue, having random dreams. We concluded affably that the psychiatrist/therapist is a partner in the transaction, his or her encouragements, even sub-vocal grunts being a part of an invitation to "have" a particular format of dream.

Not too long back, after mentioning the details of one of your dreams in a classroom setting, one of your students offered a Zen interpretation which seemed entirely plausible. In general, it is difficult to dismiss dreams as having no contextual value nor indeed precluding their predictive or warning or omen potentials given the vast outreach possibilities of the brain as a processing organ.

You don't think you'll be spending too much time ferreting out meaning from your UCLA dream or the sense of closure it gave you, rather content to interpret it as a fanciful construction implying you'd finished--dare you say come to terms with--your classroom aspects of learning and were more likely now to achieve learning in the library.

You'd give a pretty to know who or what or both the young woman was, what she wanted, and what was in store. But you suppose that will be the subject of one or more dreams to come. The question is whether you will remember the answers that will occur, which very question leads you back to the subject you raised yesterday of resident attitude and motivation for writing.

Ambiguity is as much a presence in life as loss; it may be redundant to say you live with loss and ambiguity but nevertheless, redundancy earns its keep here. The things you believe you know, the experiences you believe you have had, the observations you have made with varying degrees of intensity are all subject to the revision of your waking memory, your sleeping dreams, and the contrary impressions of individuals who claimed to be present at the same time or place. You may love some of these individuals deeply, consider some not worth the time it takes to hear their views, or regret having any cause for further dealings, but all of these bring into play alternate views of the reality you carry about.

Much of what you write and write about is an attempt to deal with ambiguity, have a dialogue with it. A dialogue you will remember and it will remember. One of the lovely ironies inherent in ambiguity is that the more you invite readers in to your reality, using deliberate techniques that allow them to see their certainties in your narrative, the more you are using the tool of ambiguity.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Free Range Writing vs. Processed Writing.

The process of writing, as you have come to understand and intend it, is a continuous and evolving pleasure, otherwise why, not being too much a masochist, would you persist in doing it, why would your files, such as they are, your hard drives, your shelves and notebooks be filled with it? At one time, it is true, you entered the process with a number of different purposes, not the least of which was to extract revenge upon reality for not having heeded your vision of how it ought to go, at other times to provide the equivalent of historical footnotes, citations drawing the readers' attentions to the ways in which plans laid by others in reality had failed to materialize or had produced such dismal results as to need some sort of scholarly rebuttal.

Reality, for most of us, is undershot with loss. Being yanked by circumstances from the known universe of an eight-year-old and transplanted across the continent, with subsequent moves to New England, then Florida before being able to return home to the known universe of Los Angeles again, you had lost a sense of continuity. You recognized your chums from the past but they seemed to regard you differently, sometimes as a complete stranger.

He who was your best friend, and you remember what best friend meant at that age, had the grace to remember you and even suggest that you spend time together playing, but there was something lost, something you tried to sort out as you walked to his new home away from the old neighborhood in which you as well no longer lived. Then fate yanked him away, perhaps for the same reason you were yanked to New York and New Jersey and Massachusetts and Rhode Island and Florida, perhaps because his parents had had to return to their older turn of Portland, Oregon for financial reasons. Then, after you'd each had as it were a removal, you saw him by merest chance at what used to be called Westlake Park, before it underwent the shift of its own to being MacArthur Park, after the least likely iconic hero for Los Angeles, Douglas MacArthur. In those days, you still had not attained your growth and he, your friend, strode toward you, tall, confident, smiling, hand out to shake your hand, so perfectly sure of his gesture that you understood immediately that from this point forth you would shake hands when you met and that you could not and would no longer call him Bobby. Would you ever achieve his graceful movement and presence? Before the gaps, you'd been more or less the driving force of where to go, what to do, what invention you would slide into as you pursued your inventions? Would it be the La Brea Tar Pits today or perhaps the enormous billboard fronting Wilshire Boulevard just west of Fairfax? Well, you did learn something that day at MacArthur Park because, when it became apparent that he was meeting other friends and so were you, that each of you lived in yet another part of the city, you would likely never see one another again, and so it was your recognition of this that prompted you to extend your hand as you parted.

There were, of course losses before and afterwards. You were thirteen or fourteen that day at the park. Losses increase in proportion to one's age. Dogs, cats, ah, grandparents, schoolmates, parents. Friendships. Romances. Jobs. Only recently, in your journal, the note to yourself, "Farewell # 31," good-bye to a tooth. "Don't you worry," Dr. Avolese told you. "
We'll get you a better one." You write to mourn losses, to temporarily replace them, to invent scenarios in which what was lost is found or realized as inevitable. You write to get on with life, which you do by observing it in ways that do not turn you away from wanting to observe. You thus write to immerse yourself with growth and evolution.

Your end product from these things you write is not merely discovery but the discovery of mischief or fun or pleasure or all of these, lumped within a single paragraph, stuffed like a generously constructed sausage, ready to be shoved within the bun of a larger context, an essay, a story, a review, a book.

What will it get you?

Sometime in the past week or two, the need arose for you to sort out the two filing cabinets in your room,activity that necessitated a sequence of piles on the floor related to auto maintenance records, tax records, materials for the University of Southern California, huge piles of forms from Antioch University, American Express statements, and the like. As the piles began to narrow, there was one clump of pages you realized had come from one of the first printers you had own, from a computer that had DOS as its operating system. Segments of short stories, one completed story you'd entirely forgotten about, and yet another you thought you'd lost.

In a real sense, that discovery was the answer to the rhetorical question above, the What will it get you? question.

It will get you you, and the mischief of getting your spell checker to cope with the repetition of a word without a comma or period between them; it will get you the anarchy of a temporary slice of reality exactly as you had wanted it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Travels with Sally

There is something about traveling alone with a dog for a trip of two or three hundred or so miles that is at once energizing, affirming, and satisfying. Not by any means that lesser distances with the same dog are lacking in satisfaction; quite often a simpler trip, some ordinary chore or even a trip to swim laps at the Y pool is the better for her company. The longer the trip, you might say, the more different its rhythm and camaraderie. A simple trip to the bank, for instance, usually brings her a biscuit or, if the teller knows her, one for now, one for later.

The longer distance, say the approximately three hundred twenty miles between 652 Hot Springs Road in Santa Barbara and 121 Fox Hollow Road in Woodside, affords a dramatic shift in scenery--the Pacific Ocean, the San Joaquin Valley, and those majestic tall sticks, Palo Alto, the redwoods-chances to chat, chances to pause for rest or coffee or, in Sally's case, water; certainly there is an opportunity to discuss and merge opinions on meal options. Do we want, for instance, to hit the Quiznos for her roast beef and your turkey on the way up, then a more leisurely supper of carnitas at Mariscos in Soledad on the way down. And since one of us seems interested in peeing around San Juan Batista, do we pull off at The Artichoke Capital of the world at Watsonville or Stay with it a few more miles to Gilroy, the Garlic Capital, where we might just crash for the night, thinking about the breakfast options at The Paradise Cafe, where the hot cakes are the size of a steering wheel on an eighteen-wheeler and Sally enjoys the linguica sausage?

Seen as an invitation to consider the fairness of factoring in Sally's needs, the longer trip represents an opportunity to revisit a trip made untold numbers of times when you lived in the hills just north of the Hollywood Bowl and had significant reasons to visit San Francisco, and now in more recent years, like the circuit riders of eld, visiting writing groups. The result is thinking more like Sally in terms of smells, bits of landscape added to her portfolio, freedom to stroll away from untoward traffic, some variety of greenery, and places to effect removal of waste material with comfort.

None of these Sally-like approaches are disagreeable to you and when you factor in your priorities with hers, you find her ahead on points. Thus does she slow you down to be alert for adventures, for places you, oriented to different types of goals, might ordinarily miss.

Arriving at downtown Woodside by about eight, you have time for a latte at the Woodside bakery and an opportunity to fill the two water bottles you carry for her. Alongside Buck's famed Woodside Restaurant, there is a long, pleasant walk way alongside a stream that mostly is conducting serious stream business. There are eclectic patches of grass, a large horseshoes game layout, and a wide enough pathway to accommodate humans, horses, and dogs. You sip and walk, Sally sniffs and investigates. It is just the right prelude to the writing workshop that begins at nine. You come outside to visit her during midmorning break and of course you lunch together, which means some venison jerky for her and perhaps a sandwich for you, followed by a walk along the back part of the parking lot of Roberts' Market, which abuts a large, lush tangle of shrub and grass.

This is a group of writers you've been with for over twenty years; meaning some good friends and always one or two works in progress that are thoughtful and engaging. Five o'clock arrives always a bit too fast for your taste. Then it is farewell for another six or seven weeks.

Sally greets you warmly as you slide into the car, buckle up, and move down Woodside Road toward the 280, which will lead you at length to the 85, which short-cuts you to 101 south, just before Gilroy. You are scarcely two miles away from Woodside and Fox Hollow Road, telling Sally how the open road beckons to us and our whims, dog and human, now. Suddenly, on our left, is the linear accelerator associated with Stanford University, the sight of which always reminds you not so much of sub-atomic particles in rapid movement, intended for collision, but of ideas sent about at a dizzying speed until they gather escape velocity. There is a sense, especially toward this time of year, of sharp, friendly light, causing the fields to vibrate with light, making the cows and horses so dazzlingly black in the light that you think you can see the traces of rufus lurking in their hides. The horizon seems wide open; you and your dog are darting southward and the afternoon is yours. A Prius pulls abreast of you and Rob, from your group, nods before peeling off. A few moments later, a BMW flashes its lights behind you, and Dell shears off for his turn-off. The horizon yawns comfortably before you. You reach into the glove compartment for a handful of venison treats, which you pass back to Sally.

The afternoon is yours.

Supper is your call, you say.

After a few moments, she clambers from the rear deck to the passenger seat, dances that circling down dance so many dogs seem to know from birth. Comfortable, she reaches over and socks your leg. She's up for an ear scritch, but not too much.

The afternoon closes in on you as you see the announcement for the 85 turnoff slightly ahead.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Designs on You

This is yet another argument for feeling the chemistry first, rather than sorting out the rationale for a particular story or, for that matter, a design.

A story begins with a prediction of the outcome made by the reader, then implemented by the characters. The reader continues if he or she is interested to the point of caring about the characters. The writer has designed or manipulated this concert of ambiguity with deliberate intent.

The prediction or, if you will, the predictive premise of the story is an impending collision, also anticipated by the reader, abetted by the characters and the writer.

In all these assertions about story, the writer is using similar conceptual tools used by the designer. These two creative endeavors, story and design, bifurcate at the point where the writer picks up the tool of surprise, which is vital to story, and the designer reaches for the tool of utility, which is vital to design. It is not that the writer wishes to be less utile or that the designer foreswears surprise. A writer has no quarrel with his story being useful in demonstrating a social or moral problem or, for that matter, their solution. Nor has the designer any problem with an unanticipated or surprise use being inherent in a design.

Both writer and designer do best when attacking and developing a concept from a powerful energy of caring as opposed to a deliberate, thoughtful deconstruction of the need for the particular design or concept.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Is it weakness of intellect, Birdie, I cried...

The fact of you agreeing to be one of the two judges in a fiction contest--short stories and stand-alone segments of novels--reminds you once again of the notional climate inherent in any contest and/or submissions landscape. There is, for instance, the fact of you with a work of your own in submission for two months with a publisher whose books you have published two reviews. Speaking of which, there is the persistent campaign being waged by the author of a self-published book to have you review his project, despite your assurances that anything you might think to say about the work would hardly encourage anyone to read it, much less to buy it. There is also the incest of you living in a city with a larger-than-median percentage of writers, both published and aspiring, and, speaking of the nooks and crannies of interconnectedness, the other judge in this latest writing contest is not only a friend but someone who became a friend as a direct consequence of a published review of his last major novel.

There were also times when the writers' conference with which you are associated, in concert with the local daily newspaper, had a yearly contest, the awards being full and partial scholarships to the conference. As a judge in this contest, you frequently gave the highest marks to those submissions you thought had the least to recommend them, your theory being that they most richly needed the writers' conference.

Let us take a number, say one hundred, representing the number of times you have served as a judge in a contest. This is separate from the approximately one thousand book reviews you have written and at least ten thousand full manuscripts or manuscript proposals you have had a say on in your capacity at various editorial venues. Is there some terse, cogent philosophy you can articulate to describe the process by which you cast your lot for or against? If such terse, cogent philosophy existed, it might be this: If something aroused the adrenaline of your interest to the point where you felt invested in the outcome, you stood for it. If not, not.

What causes the adrenaline to flow in a genre you think you hate or at least have no interest in? What causes the adrenaline not to flow when the work is in a landscape you admire, written by an author whose work you admire? You would think a man with your experience would be able to give Power Point answers, the slides already on the screen of your mind, but the added fact is that you are vastly impatient with Power Point presentations, thinking them a gross sham.

The simplest answer--pace William of Occam--is that you like what you like on the basis of external chemistry. Same is so with individual persons; you like something in their manner or stature or posture or tone of voice or a combination of these and no doubt reflecting sexual, intellectual, and artistic considerations in the summary. You do not, accordingly, apply a cookie-cutter set of standards so much as you apply a chemical response which you then begin to break down into more component parts such as potential readership, artistic and intellectual challenges inherent.

Do you, in effect, say or think to another person, Thanks for letting us see you, but are not right for us? No doubt you do.

How many manuscripts have you accepted without any thought of editorial suggestion?
How many friends and acquaintances have you accepted without any thought at all of wishing to tweak some large or small mischief?
Added to this calculus, how many novels or short stories, even by your own reckoning, even novels or short stories by Louise Erdrich, are perfect?
Is Conrad perfect? Wolfe? Fagan? Cook?
You know from intimate association and those tumultuous teen years when intimate association was put on hold that you least of all are in any way perfect and you are well able to live with that, just as you are able to live with the utter anarchy of unfinished business and clangorous coincidence in fiction.

Accordingly, even though you are hired, or in this recent case enlisted to judge, you do so by the one reliable standard you have encountered so far, the utter anarchy of chemistry.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Care and Feeding of "in"

You've been at some pains in your attempts to describe how to get "in" a particular narrative, experiencing greater degrees of the narrative's reality than you do the settings of the reality you just left. Most probably, you will never get the exact coordinates to your satisfaction; for one thing, when you're in, you're never sure quite how you got there, and for another, when you're out, you aren't entirely sure how or why it was you were evicted.

Although you frequently gain access to "in" where your computer and large-screen monitor are set up, you also get "in" at another favored venue, Peet's Coffee, using no computer at all but rather your favored implement, the fountain pen.

There are yet other places, some of them benign and innocent, such as La Luna, a coffee house on the main drag of the village of Summerland, scant miles away. Also, there are dangerous places such as your Yaris when it is on Highway 101 or perhaps the Pacific Coast Highway, or perhaps even the 280 you use to traverse the Bay Area north of San Jose.

The ease of visiting "in" is problematic. There is increasing probability you will ultimately gain admission upon brief effort. Only rarely are you to be confronted with "Closed" or "No Admittance" or the more quixotic"Already Filled to Capacity" signs. With increasing regularity, you discover, with a jolt similar to the awareness of lapsing from being awake to full-on sleep, that you have been "in" somewhere, in some narrative-related venue, with no clue how you got there. The problem with problematic in this case is that the more you think about the care and feeding of "it," or "How You Can Achieve IT," the more likely events, possibilities, and consequences occur of a piece with Sally, being over at the Cudahy's, hooraying the guests of a bridge party to their absolute distraction, with you wondering how she got over there in the first place as opposed to you taking the most reliable step to secure her return, which is to turn on the engine of your car, a gambit that brings her on the run, hopeful of an adventure of greater magnitude than barking at the participants of a bridge party.

It is best, you believe, merely to observe the process of gaining entry, perhaps even considering writing a history of it, better than forcing your way at the process with an academic paper, fraught with conditional and subjunctive tenses. Besides, being "in" changes from time to time and place to place to the point where, were you not careful, you'd have forced your way into a now empty building where a monumental party took place only last week.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

There is a thin line between writing for yourself and writing for others. If you are sincere about writing for yourself, there is a sense of urgency straining to get the concept down in enough detail so that the material lives as a vibrant set of notes for you to reconsider at a later time. If you are writing for others there is more likely to be some rhetorical device such as irony or question, beckoning you and a potential reader into the labyrinth created by the collision of ideas. Worst of all, if you are writing to show off, there will be name dropping and stunning flights of vocabulary, each a testament to acquaintances. Thus this warning to yourself: You do not have to convince anyone how many persons or words you know, merely an eagerness to listen, to engage in conversation or argument. Or more briefly, ideas--not fustian.

There is by now a built-in detector of such things that catches you on the second or third pass, surely the fourth. One by one, names of friends are set aside unless their inclusion is a part of some joke, naming, for instance, a grammar school in a short story the James D. Wolfe Elementary school, which sounds sincere and real enough; after all, you attended the john Hancock grammar school in Los Angeles and the John Howland grammar school in Providence, RI; your junior high schools were named after an educator, Ida M. Fisher, in Miami Beach, and a naturalist, John Burroughs, in Los Angeles. Why wouldn't James D. Wolfe hold up, even if he is in real life the creator and head writer of Laugh-In? But naming a grammar school after a friend brings the school to life, just as naming a seller of Chinese replica wrist watches Conrad Burnaby amuses you no end because in real life Barnaby Conrad knowingly wears a Rolex replica he bought for five dollars on a trip to China.

It is difficult to tell for sure how some of your friends get into your stories; perhaps the guiding principal is mischief and fun. The momentum does not stop with this definition. Mischief and fun quickly translate into attitude and voice, which are essential ingredients so far as you are concerned. You are fairly certain to use USC as the venue for a novel you are toying with after the current one has had its way with you, and the only invention will be the name of the department in which the main action takes place, a name that will be influenced by your attitudes and experiences. It seems appropriate to you somehow to have the department quartered in the Doheney Library, which is real enough, and which was funded in some measure from profits realized from The 1922-23 Teapot Dome oil scandal. This fact and your awareness of it prompted you to be invited to meet with a dean at the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences to defend you thesis that all the buildings at USC are named for crooks. The Dean quite properly named at least two that are not, but you were able to counter with two more that are.

Names, attitude, and voice impart nuances the writer wishes to convey. Plots matter, story matters, but the voice behind the intent matters even more. Even were you to research a topic so thoroughly that you could be said to know it, another writer could use the same incidents from real life to convey an entirely opposite attitude and yet another writer could use them to provide a yet more apposite vision.

If location is everything, voice and attitude are trump cards.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hey, kid, get away from that paragraph! The shouting elders.

Back in the days when you had shed your cocoon and had begun to become aware of the increasing number of outer things to study, things such as grass and flowers and trees, which could yield such succulent surprises as sour grass to chew, snapdragons to play with, and the Ceratonia siliqua tree which produced the remarkable snack of St. John's bread, you were increasingly aware of elders whose mission in life seemed to be intoning "Hey, kid, get away from that_____" filling the blank with an appropriate noun.

This awareness of shouting elders came at a time close enough to your learning how to read that you cannot say for certain which came first, the warning or the reading. No matter, it is a certainty that until this very day, March 9, 2010, you had not conflated the two, the shouting of warning or the learning to read.

Many paragraphs in your life--entirely too many--had that built-in tone of voice that conveyed "Hey, kid, get away." In a sense, you are now traveling back to your youth, a whimsical sort of Captain Nemo, going under the surface of reality to such exposures to those two wimpy kids, Dick and Jane and their wimp dog Spot, as in "Look. Look. Look. See Dick run. See Jane run. See Spot run." In comparison to some of the paragraphs awaiting you through grammar school and what you had come to consider a death camp, junior high school, Dick and Jane and Spot were an idyll. After all, they did get you through the vocabulary and verb tenses. And yes; it is true; the "Hey, kid, get away!" voices that inhered in all those dreadful paragraphs of all those dreadful text books did move you inexorably toward the notion of constructing your own goddamned paragraphs to do with as you damned well pleased, which more often than not was to construct a story in which something of consequence would happen to someone of some consequence to you.

Equally true, there have been equivalents of elders and contemporaries telling you the equivalent of "Hey, kid, get away." to your paragraphs and stories, but these have imbued you with a stubborn determination to mostly plod forth, hopeful of shedding that youthful outer coating of rebelliousness merely for its own sake, the teen- and twenties-years surliness, and those tendencies linking admiration for other writers to a path that was more derivative than you might have wished.

Your paragraphs have a goal in life, a mission they hope to realize. Each of them that goes forth is much of a piece with an actor, who has been waiting in the wings for a cue to enter, delivering not only a series of lines and a logical vector but an attitude, a voice, a presence. Your paragraphs are, without having articulated it as such before, wanting to steal the entire freaking scene with their presence. This has nothing whatsoever to do with delivering the punch line of a joke or a "J'accuse!" indictment but rather the entire package of meaning, feeling and presence that contributes along with the other paragraphs to delivering a story that in its turn fills the reader with its presence. Your theoretical, metaphorical paragraph is synecdoche personified, the long arm of the law, the American Olympics team, the part standing forth as representative of the whole.

Go, paragraphs!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oliver Sutton

Then is a word to be taken seriously, but when?

Then usually works as a working-class version of subsequently, or the more up-market trope of at that time, but such word play introduces the potential for querulousness as in "at what time?" The reader expects the writer to keep abreast of the time sequence in a story, even mess with it because most readers don't expect things to observe strict chronology in narratives because things as such don't observe strict chronology in reality. At the very least, most of us are in the past two or three times an hour, remembering or trying to remember things we needed to have done, and are looking into the future an equal number of times in anticipation of some event, whether it is a survival-oriented anticipation such as when is lunch, or some kind of sensual gratification as in a view of a pleasing sight or smell or experience.

When you think about it, then is on a level with all of a sudden or its second cousin, suddenly, or its relative from the country, at that moment.

Things happen, right? Things happen because your characters cause them to happen by things they've said, done, not said or not done. You didn't remember my birthday? You didn't remember our anniversary. You didn't remember that I'm allergic to____. Things happen because people do things to your characters or try to do things to your characters. Things happen because you have hit some resistance and need to introduce some new element into the story. While it is true that such an invention could easily be a just at that moment moment or even a just then then, you don't have to prepare the reader for it because the reader is there for the just at that moment moment or the then then. In the real world, it would have to be the just-at-that-moment moment, which is a pain in the ass to punctuate, all the more reason for not using it.

You have given this all some measure of thought. Fair is, after all, fair. Just as it is all right to occasionally split an infinitive (providing you do it smoothly, which means using an adverb), there are times when then is appropriate, particularly when someone one of your characters has a romantic interest in asks the leading question, Then what? At that point, the smart thing would be to end a chapter or a scene because you'd have pretty well established the probability of the reader staying with you to the next scene or chapter.

Of course, then you'll have to deliver. Something will have to happen. So why not let it?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Now and Then

Of all the mischievous, intriguing, and pesky words in the English language, few are cantankerous as now. In some broad, dictionary sense, now means at the present moment. Yet there are other senses attaching themselves to now so that the word buzzes about you like a persistent housefly on a summery day, more attracted to you than you would want anything to be. You swat at it, hopeful of driving it away, and for a time you appear to have been successful, but then it returns wanting something from you, persisting until, at some length, you are driven away. It has won. You have moved on from now to then.

Then is, of course, another matter. Then is a lovely transitional word meaning at that time, which is in a sense a rear view mirror that lets you see where you've been; it may also connote the notion of future activity via such trampolines as subsequently. Then is a word that can be handled, fine-tuned, even tamed to do a writer's bidding without the need for calling in a linguist or a Word Whisperer to tell you where you were going wrong.

At the present moment--now--you are in the midst of something or you are poised on the brink of leaping into something, your ideas and enthusiasm all fired up and ready to go. Now, you say, I'm ready with my writing time, whereupon, if you are not careful, a voice whispers, What took you so long? By the time you have answered, Now has departed, and you are confronted with a Then that is looking at you expectantly, as if to ask where the previous material is. You don't like to write from a defensive stance and so you move on to another seemingly innocent word that also has albatrosses hanging about it. That word is coffee. After making and drinking some coffee, you will have arrived at a new and non defensive now, the better to get some pages. Along about the time you'd decided to call it quits with smoking, you'd come to realize that the inner whisper encouraging you that now would be a good time to fill up your pipe or light a cigarette was merely a device, a task to perform so that the now of putting some words down would be transferred to then, ostensibly a time when you'd be comfortable and settled, "in" the story, a word and concept that are pesky only when you are "out" of story and "in" futzing around. Coffee contains caffeine, which is a known enhancement of the tools you bring to the keyboard or the notepad. Coffee is not a distraction, for which read excuse, but an enhancement. You are quite not being devious by carefully washing out the inside of your stove-top espresso maker, measuring out the proper amount of coffee (which you have retrieved from under the frozen okra and spinach in the freezer), which particular blend or type you have considered for some minutes, not wishing to sail forth into your work powered by caffeine from the wrong coffee. And the special, battery-powered frother has saved you the time of needing to pour the heated milk into the Oster blender, which would then have to be taken apart and scrubbed. You are minutes ahead, which you will squander on being "in" your story, now that the proper coffee is ready.

In guarded enthusiasm, you look at notes and reread what you had written then, ready to pounce upon the now. Ah, you think. This works. You are ready to make that step, the one you often feel just as you slide from waking state into the chummy clubroom of sleep, the confident step into the now of in.

What took you so long, the voice asks.

The fly of now buzzes about you. With luck and a bit of discipline, you won't even think about it; you'll step forward to where it lives and you will be well beyond then and now.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


There are any number of rules, edicts, and perorations relative to what is acceptable in written prose, but when you either write something egregious or read it in the work of another, you suspect there need to be even more cautions than there are.

Some of your recent favorites emerged a few weeks back at a Friday morning coffee soiree, beginning with the observation that paragraphs should neither be begun with "And" or "But." You took immediate issue to these and as well another ventured edict against one- and two-word paragraphs, causing a stirring within you that you were more fond of the paragraph than you had realized. Or perhaps it was that you felt a proprietary interest to them that began, as you eventually reckoned, back to the days when you were a student at Central Beach Elementary School, Miami Beach, Florida, where you were introduced to the concept that every paragraph had a topic sentence. You'd come to accept the notion that painful experiences were filtered from memory much in the same way one of your early favorites from comic books, The Shadow, had the ability to fog men's minds (and render himself invisible).

Not so.

You recall countless exercises in which you and your classmates were presented with paragraphs from which you were bidden to seek out the topic sentence, then defend your choice, whereupon you were presented with yet another dictum: one idea per paragraph. You, where no stranger to mere perversity by this stage of your life, argued that there was no reason why a paragraph could not have more than one idea, a view that understandably drove the teacher beyond the limits of patience when she observed with tart hauteur, "Perhaps they do in California, but rules there don't seem to count for much."

You were not about to take that rebuke in good grace. "Perhaps if Florida had been on the winning side in the Civil War--" you began, only to be interrupted with "You mean The War of Northern Aggression, don't you?" It was and remains a conflict in which a sixth grader has little hope for immediate redress and must instead nurse wounds and humiliations and boredom for that magical time when the language seems to bloom like stands of wildflowers along the outer reaches of the state highway, then assumes the even greater tenacity of volunteer flowers, springing up unexpectedly where asphalt and concrete would seem to preclude them. Language that is yours come over you like a wave of puberty, causing you unutterable and sometimes embarrassing excitement and abandon, which you simultaneously try to express and repress. Language brings such invasions to your entire being that the feelings of lust mixed with adoration and previously inexperienced admiration for the likes of Lita and Gloria and then Pauline could be shrugged off as youthful folly; language was not only your new steady, language returned your lust by revealing more secrets to you, reminding you that rules and topic sentences and sentences ending with prepositions were as child's play. You were now an adult and language was not only a remarkable tool, it was a responsibility.

Today, egregious means to you too many adverbs, too many adjectives, long defensive streams of attribution that suggest you or anyone else using this remarkable language as a tool are arguing and not terribly sure of your ground in the first place. When you read a writer such as Muriel Spark or Joan Didion or George Orwell or Michael Chabon, you no longer experience the hum of envy sparking to life in your belly as you did when friends and schoolmates got bicycles or toys that seemed so magical, you sense a membership in a guild or trade union where these journeymen and women have achieved the knowledge of our condition, the human condition, and are now showing us ways to use our condition for the optimal results.