Friday, April 30, 2010

Trick of the Eye

Even though you stress the word "relevant" in your fondness for details in a story, and in the bargain regard some of the early pulp novels as being worthy of elevation to the literature status, you recognize in yourself a certain long-windedness that persists even when, in the direct context of conversation, you can see the eyes of your companions glazing over. What you seek to do in such circumstances is what you also seek to do when you write, which is, literally, to unglaze them with narrative voice.

It may come as a surprise then when you admit to a fondness for the brief, terse, poetic-in-its concision, miniature. No, you do not mean the short-short, the flash fiction, even some of those arbitrary word length stories with the clock set at, say, fifty-five words or perhaps one hundred. Those are of little interest to you, the literary equivalent of mosquitoes or persistent flies. You mean a paragraph or perhaps two or three, such as in the frequent editorial page columns of Verlyn Klinkenborg. You mean writers who are able within a few paragraphs to make you feel as though you've known the characters all your life, writers who cause you to feel your shirt sticking to your body regardless of the temperature outside for they have created an inner temperature that causes you to reel in the humidity.

Your first thought for today's entry in the on-going saga of your blog was what you considered a clever-but-doable one: You would within one paragraph express your feelings about concise, miniature portraits wherein the elements jumped forth like the fresh fruits or recently bagged fowl or even the pot of flowers so prized by the still-life painter. You even thought to title the essay Trompe l'oeil, trick of the eye for such paintings are remarkable visuals of the synecdoche, the entire represented by a few or perhaps only one of its parts, as in the long arm of the law.

You also confess to a certain fondness for the sudden need to cut a previously commissioned work by as much as twenty-five percent. When you were reviewing books for Swindell at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, you were given fairly generous word lengths which, on a few occasions, needed to be made less generous, which gave you the idea of experimenting with future work. You would write as long as possible then cut to some seemingly impossible word length. When you did it, you almost always learned how effective such an exercise was in getting you to focus on the most important point you wished to make as soon as possible. No wonder that your grades at UCLA began to rise meteorically right after you signed on to work the Associated Press night office; you simply wrote your examination blue books as though they were AP stories, meaning you had to stop to consider a lead before you began writing.

Life is different now in the specific sense that you have the leisure to write a first draft, perhaps even a second draft, in some cases even a third before you begin thinking about the movement of furniture, the arranging of paragraphs into optimal dramatic order. Life is also different in that this approach has meant that things will take longer, which in its turn means you will perforce be spending more time on a specific project. Yes, this, too, has a caboose to be tacked onto it; this state of events means you are spending more time each day writing something, whether it is an email to a friend agreeing where and when to meet for coffee or a cover letter for a book proposal or the opening statement of a book proposal.

Now remember, you were, as you let the bee-swarm of sleep wear away this morning, going to get all this down in one paragraph:

When you were younger, late teens to mid-twenties, even while your prolificness impressed you, you realized it was not enough because there were so many things going on about you and it was necessary to get at them all, somewhat like Nabokov,ranging about with a net for scooping up lepidoptra for further study. Now you have come to recognize that although you are interested in things you aren't even aware of being interested in, you need to consider priorities because things take time to evolve. Even a story, which you are pleased to have dropped a Nabokovian net over in order to bring it home for study, requires time to fledge, its own form and finish coming from a deliberate consideration of its special parts. Even though it is your idea and your vision, your proprietary rights begin and end with your observation and your feelings about what you see.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Get a Life! Get a Blog Life!

Half-life is the time a decaying substance takes to decrease by half its volume and potency.

Blog-life, a term coined herewith by you, is the period of time an individual has been blogging.

The conflating fender-bender of these two concepts reminds you of something you wrote about here a half-blog life ago. In it, you described the keen excitement of having approached your blog site depleted, having written yourself empty of sensation necessary to drive an idea of concept forward, bereft of idea to light up the nurturing sensation that fuels either. At that state, an emotion-bearing concept appears.occurs, dazzling you and the surrounding emptiness, daring you to take it on, ride it, see if you can stay on it for a while or, like one of Annie Proulx's hapless cowboys, get thrown.

This sense of empty despair, fulfilled at last with some semblance of an interesting ride, is the major payoff for your blogging, at once an exercise in improvisation, discipline, and the absurd confidence that there will always be something there to care about and propel you forth to a discovery or connection. Approaching the blog site has become in the past years a cyber version of earlier forms of practice, be it a journal, the occasional essay between stories, or the William-Saroyan-like approach of making a story out of a defense against being broke and not having had anything in print for a while: writing an impassioned "letter" to a landlord, explaining why it is more important for you to finish the thing you're working on than to write something guaranteed to bring in enough money to pay the rent.

This last was done back in the days when you had a landlord named Mr. Bernard, a cat named Sam, and a Dodge convertible that frequently did in traffic the social equivalent of breaking wind at a large gathering. You did indeed make enough to pay for the rent because of a novel you dreamed up in one of those throes of despair in which you believed you had written yourself out and were now doomed to boring jobs you could not stand and in which, as payment of the most ironic sort,you were doomed to do well. It is a fact that given a job with a publishing company, you will be promoted to some sort of title that has the word director in it or the words in chief, a reminder very much like the one you are getting from these vagrant paragraphs that it takes more discipline to stick at something you enjoy than it does to be a leader in a landscape you enjoy exploring.

It is a rather huge thing to know that you have told all your old jokes, done things herein that you ordinarily do to get the attention of a waitress who is off reading Emma or Sense and Sensibility in the service alcove instead of inquiring after your iced tea, and face every day the frisson of having nothing to say, a shiver that becomes more intense as the day wears on, leading you to the notion that you'd best get it done early in the day if you wish to have anything resembling a good day. You have had enough days where the blog didn't come until later, much later, in the evening, by which time you'd hoped to have accomplished other things as well, including writing for ultimate publication. It sometimes becomes like the ballet dancer who is forced to go on cold because he has not had the opportunity to practice and warm up or the musician who has to do a performance before it is possible to run scales, try out tricks and inventions, and come face to face with the self in the mirror directly behind the barre.

You can stumbled into bed, somewhat taken in wine, then recall with a jolt that you cannot allow yourself to pass out just yet and thus prevent the room from doing what rooms invariably do when you've had that much to drink before you do what you have programmed yourself to do over this blog-life of yours. You can be in a situation where someone has said to you in so many words, here, let us commence to do to one another what we have been talking about with our eyes and body language for some time now. There may well have been a time when such sweet Hubble telescoping of the psyches would have had you writing yourself a hall pass from the blog paragraphs, but that was then and any such instance was an incredible gift, and this is now, which makes this a gift as well.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Children's Lit or Lit Children

Whenever the subject of children's literature is raised, it is invariably done by adults. You do not believe you ever thought of children's literature as such when you were at an age when such things might have applied to you. There were sections in libraries and book stores where your interests did not lead you, largely because these sections had names that spoke to you of things older persons might be interested in, names such as biography and history, which held no attraction until you chanced upon a person whose biography you might wish to read or at least consult, and of course there were some child-like evidences of your naivete relating to history; you thought, for instance, that there was a real Norman, an individual much like the bullying playground Norman of your limited experience. But when you discovered Norman was considerably more than one person, you braved the history section.

If you thought of yourself at all in terms of what you were drawn to read, it was not as any of the euphemisms such as young person, boy (as in boy's adventure) and certainly not young adult, although you'd discovered early on that the things you wished to read were more likely to be in the general sections of the library or book store.

In later years you discovered that adults who wished to write for younger readers fell into two distinct groups, those who already wrote for and published in their field and those adults who had a seriously flawed view of what children's literature was all about. These later adults had lost touch with the children's literature that had been written since they were reading children's books. In some ways, they may have wished to return however briefly to that time of magic when their reading sensitivities and imagination were in bud and coming to full flower, just as many of us have come to see young readers as exponentially more sophisticated than we were at their age. Much of this has to do with the fact of restrictions being lifted, of the more vocal writers pushing themes about identity and self-image that were only hinted at in earlier generations. Boys no longer go on mere adventures, girls no longer get the soft, idyllic, languorous life. Both genders got issues they and their peers face on a daily basis.

Much of the stories involving younger characters are accordingly nuanced, probing, willing to allow their younger characters to step out of the shadowy lands of stereotype, where they are able to act on their fantasies, pursue their goals, and question the meanings we adults may have accepted too easily. Stories by writers who have understood their ways through childhood see the narrative as something every bit as tenuous and labyrinthine as the narrative of adulthood; they write of it accordingly.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Street Cred: Reliability of Narrator, Character, and Story

Street cred is the passport to the reader's entry into narrative. Without it, writer, characters, and story are left stranded somewhere between the bookshelf and the remainder table. It is the necessary condition for a tale of any length and for the individual characters who appear in it.

Narrative and characters must impress the reader with the reasonableness of the circumstances and potential for the results inherent in them. If the characters do not strike that flinty spark of being plausible, no splints or crutches of story will hold them for long.

The reader must believe in Jean Valjean's desperation that drove him to steal the loaf of bread and as well in Javert's determination to see justice done according to his vision if it. When George tells Lenny of the life he might have led instead of the life he is leading because of his promise to care for Lenny, we must be convinced of the integrity of George's promise and the ticking time-bomb that is Lenny if we are to have any chance of a stake in the outcome of the Steinbeck novel, Of Mice and Men. We must partake of Ahab's rage at the whale and the inexorable force resident in the whale is Moby-Dick is to be for us anything more than a simple, ill-fated adventure.

What better place for this credibility to begin than within the heart of the writer, that metaphoric-rather-than-anatomical place where emotions and dreams reside alongside that remarkable muscle whose job it is to pump Life's blood through the body. Not enough to say the writer should feel the conviction and essence within a narrative and the issues it depicts, the writer must experience the story to the point where the choice of every word is affected. If a word--any word--is to survive the second draft, it must earn its keep in the writer's inner cache of awareness, where the human condition and the writer's personality conflate.

There is more yet at stake; the writer needs to put to work the awareness of rules of language and the love of words with an approach that transcends mere descriptiveness and decorative trope. Language must transport the reader and convey feeling and nuance rather than show off vocabulary, the verbs and nouns revealing the undersides of the text, like stones turned over and examined during an archaeological dig. From the artfully implanted implications of the events and responses to them, the reader is able to glimpse then construct the dark side of the relationships so carefully protected by each character from others.

When such nuance is not present, readers tend to think of the narrative as one-dimensional, which by any account is flat, uninteresting. The moment there is a hint of a character doing one thing and meaning another or reacting in a way that provides the reader with some hint of a rebellion taking place just below the surface, the dimensions of the narrative increase, heightening the potentials for those necessary ingredients, tension, suspense, and curiosity.

In its most remote, academic pose, Street Cred is spoken of as willing suspension of belief. To be willing is to have considered the options, then made a choice. Good enough, so far as logic goes, but to suspend without thinking about it is to begin by caring, them to become concerned, then invested.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Mine Field of Story

As you see it, event is critical to story. At one point in the history of when you began pondering such things and trying to understand why you used them and, indeed, why some of them were so much more effective than others, you were firm in your belief that characters were the most critical element. How, you reasoned, could a story progress without them? But then as editor, teacher, and your own self as writer, you began to see numerous examples of narratives in which there were characters but no event. If, after some pages of angst and reflection, there were events, they were all events expressed in past or past perfect tenses.

Event has become for you the unexamined part of the formula, which is of a piece with attempting to understand algebra without paying any heed whatsoever to the equal sign. Look at the mischief possible when A and B are at an event. The event passes into history and now A and B are discussing the event with C and D, each attempting to convey implications and nuances. Of course C and D begin as more or less neutral audiences, responding to the "You should have been there" trope from A and B. The neutrality of C and D begins to implode and explode as A and B constantly contradict one another as their attempts to define or describe the event and its implications progress.

This came about because you were in the parking lot of the Montecito Von's Market, unloading purchases from the shopping cart to the back deck of your Yaris, when you saw a friend with whom you began to converse. (Anything to avoid the task of unloading.) Moments later, a late-model luxury car drew abreast of you, pausing to make polite inquiry from the passenger seat of how to reach the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, a dead giveaway that they were tourists because a local would have merely asked How do I get to the Biltmore from here?

Okay. Round One: You said, "Go to this (pointing to the exit) exit, then turn right. Proceed for about a mile and a half until you come to Olive Mill Road--" whereupon you were cut off by your companion.

Round Two: "Go to the exit, then turn left until you approach the roundabout, which you follow until you reach Coast Village Road, where you will proceed southeast toward Olive Mill Road--" whereupon your companion was cut off by you.

Round Three: "Why complicate things with the roundabout and Coast Village Road? If they turn right, they will be on Hot Springs Road, which becomes Olive Mill Road, which will take them to the Biltmore without the extra traffic and potential confusion." Which was true but not critically true, imperatively true. Thus the vision of a story in the making over this seemingly random event in which A and B are more closely joined by a relationship and a history and C and D are the innocent victims caught up in this particular event which is the emotional equivalent of the improvised explosive devices we have experienced in all their sudden potential for damage and horror in Iraq.

Thus this formula for you from one who tends not to trust formulae: In the beginning, the event is entirely in the present moment and remains so until the reader can see the trigger for conflict being tripped. This allows the writer to move back into the past for a brief connection in which one or more characters sees a relationship between the present time event and a past-time event. Perhaps just a hint, but enough of one to alert the reader. Back to the present event again and an increase in the rancorous exchanges of dialogue, suggesting with even more clarity that the characters are not about to maintain civilized discourse, they are fucking growing angrier by the moment. This would be a perfect time to shift from the present event to some seemingly unrelated collateral event, which provokes even more of a disconnect, causing either or perhaps both A and B to turn on C and D as well as upon each other.

The event becomes as artfully and carefully braided as a middle school girl's pigtail, and is ready to lead you into the mine field that is story, a mine field you attempt to cross wearing snow shoes--one step at a time.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Waiting for the Right Story

Yesterday, as you were winding up your comments to a client who to date has written two novels (both of which you have had an editorial hand in), she said with casual grace, "I so wanted to tell both these stories that I had to learn how to write." Her admission clung to me like the foam on the sides of a pilsner glass. The fact is that both of the stories she wanted to tell changed considerably from the moments of their beginning to their more recent form. The first one still has a way to go. The most recent one, which more or less triggered what you wrote here yesterday about happy endings, has morphed by a factor of about seventy percent and when I reminded her of this effective sea change, she was equally casual. "I had to work at the way the story went to get it to my liking."

She is good, you might use the term naturally good because she is so willing to listen to her characters and get their essential reality down on the page rather than a conceptual or thematic reality that so often leads most readers --including you--to ask, "You mean that's it? That's all?"

All of which brings you to the rhetorical, perhaps retrospective questions "What is your story?" and "What has been your story?" Ah, relations, you say. Not quite close enough. Relations reflecting the awareness of the constant argument between free and connected. Free of what? Connected to what?

Your basic story is and often has been the way things turn out after some plateau was achieved. It is at once a cynical, romantic, hopeful, frustrated vision, reflecting the various stances individuals within your vision have aspired to achieve, have actually achieved, then met with the awareness that the story had undergone some changes along the way. Yours then is the story of quest, longing, pursuit, the achievement, then the awareness that the story has just begun. You might say yours is the story of realization or recovery, although that implies a connection you have yet to see to certain Twelve-Step Programs. For the moment, it comes down to a deeply felt awareness that some progress has been made and that it is neither enough nor the progress that was anticipated or that, even more to the point, there is always something more out there to be learned.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Happy endings

Sometimes you get to wondering about happy endings, the people who read them, the people who are disappointed when they are not to be found, the critics who make fun of them, and the people who write stories that contain them.

You suppose within your wondering what is really meant by a happy ending, particularly what it would take for an otherwise realistic ending to seem by degrees happy, very happy, and Disney happy. Such endings could gradually lapse from being a more or less believable narrative of human affairs into a denouement wherein everyone got what they'd set out to achieve at the outset and those who'd opposed them through some agenda of selfishness or self-aggrandizement came to see that all had turned out for the best. It could also be that certain generational and cultural scenarios played out in demonstration of the fact that there is some universal wavelength of wisdom and understanding to which we could all tune for a sermon in which our behavior was rationalized.

This already alerts you to the residence within you of some cynicism, some willingness to suspect and expect dark motives in many of your fellow humans even though you look upon yourself as a relatively happy person in whom the fires of suspicion need some considerable fanning to flare up into active flame.

The conceit of the happy ending opens doors within your imagination, bringing forth scenes related to the behind-the-scenes aspects of happy endings. You begin by imagining a few individuals working at a Disney amusement park which, although certainly oriented to making a profit seems also focused on providing something that could be called good, clean, family fun, centering on some employees wearing costumes which allow them to impersonate such Disney regulars as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and perhaps even the Duck nephews, Huey, Louie, and Dewey, all of whom with apparent good cheer work the crowds, expressing their willingness to pose for pictures. The employee portraying Goofy has long since wanted to be promoted out of his hot, stuffy costume and inside, where he might be working on a newsletter or doing statistical analyses of which rides were the most popular and which less successful ones needed some sort of enhancement or outright replacement. And suppose said Mr. Goofy was confronted by his manager relative to his quarterly performance review. Not nearly as many customers wanting their pictures taken with you as with Donald Duck. Let's set a nice respectable quote for the next quarter so that we can qualify for a merit raise and a promotion to a new assignment. How is this going to make Goofy feel, particularly in relationship to Donald Duck? Your own suspicion is that when the costumes come off and we're out in the employee parking lot, Goofy is going to have some choice words for Donald.

You happen to have known the late sales manager at Harpers when the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were selling so well, whence your reports that she was an extraordinarily nice person but also one who was more than willing to let someone else pick up the tab for whatever was being consumed. Accordingly it is easy for you, who actually read and enjoyed some of the Little House books to imagine another writer of such scope as being a mean drunk or downright abusive, moving from the world of the good time and happy ending to another more severe world altogether, and other writers of happy endings yet feeling utter disdain for his or her audience.

To be sure, there are happy endings in life, touching, inspirational stories in which remarkable humans and remarkable animals are represented as sought-after ideals. Such narratives work if they do not seem manufactured, which is to say overly plot-driven. Probably the best definition you can think of is one that comes when the story ends before the good times are over and, by extension, a sad or noir ending allows the reader to see the price that is left to be paid.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What Do "They" Want?

"They"covers a multifarious group of publishers, editors, and literary agents, all of whom "you" wish to join as a badge-wearing member of the publishing industry, which is split into the rival gangs of the book trade, publications, and media. New kids to the turf are the e-pubers, which sounds like a Latin conflation of the word for boys and a term for the pubic area, but which really means those who publish on-line, which is to say they blog and/or contribute to 'zines and other electronic media.

Just as "they" have their motives for doing what they are doing instead of, as "they" are quick to tell "you," being in some really profitable profession, "you" have your own agenda for thinking to write with the notion of being read by others. Some of the agenda that drives some of "you" is to show "them" a thing or two for suggesting "you" pursue a more practical, even saner path of livelihood. In similar fashion, some of "them" wish to contribute to the written culture of humanity by providing access to works that cause some of "us" to think, reevaluate or deepen impressions of the landscape about "us."

True enough, some of "them" are either owned by larger, profit-making organizations with stock holders, or are paying heed to marketing and sales departments who owe greater allegiance to schools of business management than they do to such abstract philosophies as literary content, provocative depictions of reality, and discussions of social contracts. Equally true, however, some of "you" are owned by desires to achieve powers that will cause many of "them" to regard "you" as prescient, iconic, possibly even trend-setting. How many of "you" would resist for long being branded thusly?

You, acting as yourself, have attempted the literary equivalent of dual citizenship, taking payment from "them" much as a politician takes campaign funds from lobbyists, even muddying the waters by becoming what "they" call "you," which is to say a skittish "author," which many writers wish to be called but would no longer wish to, were they to discover how "they" tend to regard "you." Hint: "We take on authors in hope of finding writers. We often have to let go of writers who struggle to become authors."

Still acting as yourself, you have an abundance of feeling about both sides of the desk. You recall a time when you had just been elevated to a position where you could contract a project up to a $7500 advance without the need to go through a committee for approval. A group of "friends" who believed themselves to be authors, and who had track records of some publication, saw you as one of "them," which is to say a publisher "them" as opposed to an author "them." They converged upon you like fleas to a new dog in the yard.

"What are you looking for?" these writers who wanted to be authors asked you.

"Something that makes me know I want it," the you who was now seen as "them" replied.

"No," really," these wwwba's said. "What kind of stuff?"

"I'll know it when I see it," quoth you as "them."

"Hah," one sneered. "That's like Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart not knowing what porn is but recognizing it when he sees it."

"Exactly," you-working-for-"them" said.

And the battle was on. "Traitor to your class," one of them who was especially fond of Bartelby, the Scrivener, accused. "You've sold out your friends."

"I don't know what a friend is but I'll recognize it when I see it," you said. Or perhaps it should have been "You" said.

What you knew then and have seen no reason to change is that when you write, you want to be a writer, and when you edit, you want to be an editor, and when you want to be a teacher, you set forth with enthusiasm what you believe, and when it is time for you to be a friend, you are all three.

That works for you.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is it weakness of intellect, birdie, I cried, or a rather tough worm in your little inside?

In a fit of pique at you for some long forgotten specific, an individual to whom you were deeply close said, "You are not required to have an opinion about everything." The very formality of the rhetoric was also a clue to certain social standards that had been a part of an education that took for granted her having servants. You remember the exchange because it was so unlike her essential self in so many ways, but also because even then you were aware that in order to pursue some process by which you made your living from writing, you did indeed need to have an opinion about all the things you held in awareness.

There have been times--too many for comfort, actually--where even if you had an opinion, you were willing for some sake to not have one, or to sit on the one you had. This is part of what you like to think of as the interior War of the Roses, two houses or sides vying for the crown, which in this case was getting your way rather than accommodating. Not caring is of a piece with being asleep at the wheel, going through the motions of being awake and present but not caring enough to look about to see if there was some way to make some gains from doing something you did not wish to do or the even greater possibility of turning something you did not wish to do but had to do for some sake into an enormous plus. At the least, you are now in such circumstances able to see the play of subtext before you--what you do in arm wrestle with how you feel about what you do, or what you say and what you feel like saying.

As someone who is largely committed to being opinionated, you recognize the risky waters of giving offense, breaching boundaries of politeness,holding your tongue and/or in some way compromising the decisions and efforts that helped you evolve into the person you are now.

For a while you thought it was a simple matter of taste that dictated the way you felt toward writers you know personally or only through their works, but, late bloomer that you are, you see this extending across the entire field of expression where voice and opinion are required, thus your admiration of musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, photographers is also resident in your admiration for writers. Of course the reverse is true. "You do think David Sedaris is funny?" only last night. You had already seen things going wrong. "Not in the least," you said, not with intent to argue, although there was friendly willingness to do that; rather you were saying, as a writer you admire would have said, "No in thunder."

With this as prologue, there are writers whose successes thrill you and indeed they are successful with you. Even to the point of granting them an occasional off performance (Louise Erdrich's latest), you wish them well. Those whom your opinion leads you to disagree with may get the occasional, grudging awareness that something remarkable has finally come through. And there are those, particularly those you know personally, for whom your opinions will stubbornly rejoice when they step on the stage again, then trip. In this area at least you do not display meanness of spirit nor schadenfreude, merely the smugness of having chapter and verse to call them out on.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Notes from the overground

Even before the current obsession with pitch sessions in which writers "pitch" their story and book concepts to agents and editors, there was a certain inexorable logic to the concept of a writer knowing what the story was about, perhaps even what obstacles that required overcoming, and possibly a final word or two about the theme of the story. You knew a number of writers who could be relied upon to have answers to all these vital statistics because a number of them had lapsed into the world of television, which had buried deep inside itself a notion that it could do an editorial meeting one better by requiring the writer to speak about his--because there were many more him than her back then--intent in having written the story.

Your career in that sort of life was a rough-and-tumble intrigue involving film editors, assistant directors, drunken Irishmen, and cranky geniuses from the UCLA Film School, all of whom nourished ideas of breaking out of the rut that killed Fitzgerald (they used to really talk that way), and a pair of aging actors from the 40s for whom you wrote screen tests involving younger women and older men, for emerging actresses with whom they sought to have sexual dalliances. It is no wonder you did not want to know where your story was going until you were well enough in it to be convinced it was yours and that you were not looking for deliberate ways to secure and maintain the attention of potential viewers or, in your case, readers. That would all come--or not--in subsequent draft, where as if by some mystical connection, you would arrive at the proper beginning, the appropriate pace, even the resolution or, as many of those who did TV and wrote for magazines and books called it, closure.

This is all prologue to the question hanging fire in the short-order kitchen of your mind: How do you write notes and impressions in a way that will, at some unspecified time in the future, interest and energize you. The reason for this is your recent resolve to not be sidetracked from a project in the works with a fresh idea for a project that is completely unrelated to what you are working on at the moment. At the moment, you are working on a novel, which is interesting because of its theme, its locale, and the way it relates so tidily but at the same time plausibly to a single incident that happened in the past. Your interest is also there because of certain technical problems. Although you are well aware of them, material appears to be forthcoming and you are not at anything resembling a brick wall. You are interested in seeing how the novel will resolve and how you will ultimately cope with the problem.

Today was the day for a brief visit to the nether regions, to Down Below, to Los Angeles. As you ascended the upgrade known as Conejo (for rabbit) Summit, your attention was particularly required because of trucks shifting into the exit lane in order to be weighed out at mandatory scales, to the streams of impatient BMW and Audi's, striving for primacy in the fast lanes, for timid mini-cars, and for Law Abiding Citizens who would rather cause crashes rather than move to the right or, worse yet, speed up for a few hundred yards. Whereupon you were presented with an idea for a story that in effect had you passing through the outlier of Newbury Park and a good portion of Thousand Oaks before you became tangibly aware of your surroundings. The story almost told itself in your mind, suggesting such things as the protagonist's past, the job he was hired away from his previous job in order to take, and the likely scenario that things look good for him professionally for the moment, bringing into play the denouement, in which his behavior triggers suspicions in his wife wherein theme is set in place as well as an ingredient you are fond of, which is surprise, and the overall procession of events is the unthinkable come to pass.

Do you say screw it, as you have so many times in the past, start in on the story, and tell the novel, er, excuse me for a few weeks? Or do you try what you consider the sensible thing of writing just enough notes to preserve the idea (and trust you won't be seduced into, oh well, just the first draft) and hope you won't get another idea, equally compelling, which seems always to be the case when you are working on something.

In your current enthusiasm for the idea, your fear is that it will dissipate, which would leave you feeling vaguely uneasy at having let something so potent get away.

In simple terms, can you trust yourself to get convincing and intriguing notes down on the page?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


A plot is an elaborate schematic of events, leading to a conclusion that in infused with some resident emotion such as comfort, satisfaction, disappointment, redemption, dread, revenge achieved, justice done, justice waiting to be done. There are others, of course, including permutations just as in undergraduate courses there are the comparative studies disciplines and the compare-and-contrast essay questions on examinations. All these results produce one form of emotion or another in a degree sufficient to satisfy the reader who has read clear through to the end.

Plotted stories often cause characters to behave in ways that baffle their creators, the bafflement coming from the simple fact that the creator has lost touch with the simple causes why characters really do what they do or do not do what they ought and don't.

Many of us slide into plot-driven stories in our waking, non-writing lives, a term advisedly used in the plural because we so often each of us lead more than one life.

It is no easy thing, going about in a story, wanting something desperately to the point where we have been made a bit tetched in the head over it, wanting something or someone or some condition beyond what our reason tells us it is good to want a something or someone, or some condition. Part of the difficulty comes from the need to focus on being obsessive and at the same time compulsive/ The more forces in real life challenge and frustrate us, the more frustrating our goal or desire becomes, compounding frustration and irritation. We go about wearing our game face all the time, in waking hours, in sleep, and in the dreamless sleep where we are not permitted to see the causes, effects, and consequences.

The kid who is asked what he or she wants and who snaps in retort Nothing, or I don't know! has already been worked over by the system to the point of not daring to remain in touch with the desired goal, which essentially means not having any hope at all. The kid who is still full of hope is in danger of being mocked by chums or elders for such overt optimism. You'll see what your optimism will get you.

Well, here you are, whacking through the weeds of middle age, still optimistic that every story you begin will at some point be brought to a finish, that it will sooner or later find a home wherein it will be published, and from there a modest readership who will in some way or another be affected by it. You can't realistically ask for more than that, but you do; you don't so much want the story to change the world as you want it to change you. You have no tangible idea what you want to be changed, perhaps your temper, although without that you might become too serious and not be able to topple with laughter and ridicule the things that frustrate and enrage you.

You might somewhere harbor notions of changing how others see you, which presents the danger of you wanting to manipulate the outcomes with real persons as opposed to characters. This leaves you the heel of the loaf, metaphor for changing the way you see yourself. would you really want to do that, just as we were getting on so well?

You are left a character in life, following no scripted outcome. The horse you ride is no fine Arab, scarcely even a working quarter-horse. Ah, a hobby horse. Grown man riding the hobby horse of his urgent wish to tell stories. Not, perhaps, the classiest horse in the barn, but one that suits you. You'll take it. Giddyap.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Unkefer, the Bird Refuge, and an Art Gallery in Carpinteria

The large pond just below East Beach on Cabrillo Blvd. is known as The Bird Refuge. It is ar least two acres of a murky, algae-filled water that attracts birds, particularly ducks. Across the road from The Bird Refuge are two entirely different restaurants, the northernmost being Stella Mare, The Star of the Sea, a refurbished old mansion with a whimsical complement of rooms in which meals are presented as elegant and are close to being so. Next to it is the more laid back Casa del Sol, switching from an Italian name to the Spanish House of the Sun.

You have dined comfortably at each. If you were interested in a more ambitious meal, you would chose the Stella Mare, but today, having just come from a rather lackluster clam chowder at The Montecito Coffee Shop, your regular Monday venue for lunch with Barnaby Conrad, you were pleased that Duane Unkefer had suggested Casa del Sol for coffee and the business of settling your choices as judges for a short story contest sponsored by The Santa Barbara Arts Fund.

Here we are, you observed, two middle-aged men, seated at a patio built around the concept of watching ducks which neither of us intend to hunt and for which we are probably being charged at least an extra two dollars for the privilege.

This observation is nothing you consider funny. Borderline ironic, perhaps. Nevertheless it caused Unkefer, who had already been served his coffee, to spew a mouthful of it onto his jacket, then rush for repairs to the men's room, reminding you as he took his leave of the last time you met for coffee at the Carpinteria Coffee Bean, where his spew of coffee at something you'd said landed on no particular target. Rather, it seemed to just vaporize. This is not meant to suggest that Unkefer is a frequent spewer of coffee. It is another matter altogether. One of the prime ingredients of your long-term friendship is the chemistry it provides for each of you finding the other disturbingly funny.

You could, if you saw fit, observe that there is something inherently funny whenever two middle-age writers sit to catch up on events in the other's life, books read, projects being worked upon, and the still seemingly incomprehensible fact of Unkefer, who draws and paints as well as write, being a major partner in an art gallery. This in itself is not funny until you reckon with the fact of the gallery being in Carpinteria, next door to a restaurant called The Busy Bee, which is a trove of ceramic replicas of beehives, bees, and honey pots. It gets funnier when you reckon with the fact that a number of things in the window of Unkefer's gallery look as though they belong next door, or that when Unkefer observes his hours in the gallery, strange individuals and tourists seem to descend upon him to confide in him their troubles

You both approach the subject of the judging with practiced caution because one of the entrants in the contest is a former student of Unkefer's who happens also to be quite a dear friend of yours. You begin when a refreshed Unkefer returns from the rest room, speaking of individuals neither of you is fond of, at which point, even though there is a matter of a health problem attached to one person, Unkefer says something you find funny. Fortunately, you had not taken on a sip of coffee.

For the better part of an hour, the transaction between the two of you is not to discuss the individual findings you have achieved as judges but instead to cause each other to laugh.

There are worse reasons for acquaintances and friendships. Indeed, yours and Unk's began when, before you'd met in person, he called to thank you for a review you'd written of his novel, Gray Eagles. Things did not begin to get funny between you until he called, eager to show off his bargain of a used car, purchased for a mere $60 from the mechanic you'd given the car in frustration because it seemed completely uninterested in running for more than a mile or two before stopping.

Things have been funny ever since, in one way or another, including your prediction that Unkefer's decision to move to Portland would not last six months. How could you know, he wondered when he returned five months later, almost to the day. Because of snow, you said. In places where there is snow, women do not wear the kinds of clothing, particularly shoes, you are accustomed to seeing women wear on a year-round basis. Come to think about it, he did spew coffee when you told him Alaska was another place he wanted to avoid.

The contest, you say? Ah, the contest.

What are the odds that you had the identical first place and the two runners-up?

Funny you should ask.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Youth: The House of Mirth

Although you like to think of yourself as an adventurous sort, you come home from relatively few places. You come home from the Y, from a class, from a meeting with a client, from lunch with Conrad. from an outing with Sally. You come home from a bookstore or the post office, once in a while from Maryelle who trims your hair. Occasional runs to a market. A quarterly return from having your car serviced. As you think of these things, the sarcasm of irony mounts.

Sometimes on these occasions of return, there is a package from somewhere, a Fed-Ex or UPS, left in front of the garage or, if the deliverer is your swimming buddy, Rob, on the front porch. More often than not, you are not only aware of the content of the package, you are impatient for its delivery. It is a rare thing for you to come home to a package that forces your brow to pucker into a WTF scowl.

Yet packages do arrive and when you open them, you discover portions of scenes or conversations between two or more characters whom you do not know until you read a few exchanges. A batch of these arrivals have nothing you can see to do with the major project, the novel you call The Secrets of Casa Jocosa, nor any of the notes you've made to keep alive energy for additional long- and short-form works. You have to take them because they are somehow a part of your process. If you continue to ignore your process for very long, it will stop talking to you, creating all sorts of internal sturm und drang. The latest is a scene written almost entirely in dialog between two friends and the wife of one of the men. It's probable origin was a phone conversation of about a month ago in which you were contacted by Irzin Zucker, the publicist you used to employ back in the day when you were a rising editor at a publishing house that couldn't seem to make up its mind what it wanted to be. Irwin has kept in touch over the years. You still have on your desk a sort of good-luck charm he gave you when you left this publishing venture in order to sign on with a New York massmarket house. It is a slab of marble in the shape of a book, miniature but heavy enough to serve as a paper weight. Wishing you well at Dell, it says, a sincere but innocent gesture considering how that venture went and how you recovered from it.

"Would you believe I'm eighty two?" Irwin Zucker tossed off en passant and you guess that stuck with you because the end of the scene that arrived the other day ends with an exchange between the narrator and a character named Irwin who is not anything like the Irwin you know:

"Irwin? Have you been drinking?"
"Goddamned right I've been drinking. I've had two shots. Jack Daniels. How does a man like me come to have Jack Daniels?"
"It could come from plane trip. The bottles they serve."
"I do not take plane trips where I am given Jack Daniels."
"You're at home now, right?"
"You think I'm some sort of playboy out on the town? You think I'm calling my friend, Sid, because I'm somewhere I can't pay my bar tab and now they're threatening to break my fingers?"
"Take it easy, Irwin."
"What, Irwin? What is it?"
"Eighty-two is what it is, Sid. Eighty-two."

The actual conversation you had with Irwin Zucker was so completely opposite that you left it looking forward to being eight-two because he sounded so energized by it and comfortable with it, so you have no clue where this came from or where it goes. The entire scene is a bit over three pages. Your usual practice is to record such arrivals somewhere, then return to whatever it was you were doing or not doing. Like so many others, this may go nowhere or it may take its time, germinating, as your Beverly Hills line germinated so many years back.

You wrote what was supposed to be ad lib dialog for a TV series called I Search for Adventure.
One particular episode revolved around a man who brought in some remarkably well-photographed black-and-white footage of Africa by means of which he thought to write-off the entire cost of his African trip. The price was right so far as the producer was concerned, something like $500 and a screen credit. And so, after you had gone through the film on a movieola, timed it and wrote voice-over narration for it, you had Jack Douglas, the host, asking the filmer, "What was it that got you to Africa in the first place, John?"

And John's reply, straight out of your notebook of arrivals from the blue: "Jack, you've got to understand. I grew up in Beverly Hills. I've been trying to get out of Beverly Hills all my life and the farthest I ever got was Kingman, Arizona for a black-and-white Western with Vera Hruba Ralston. When this chance for Africa came my way, I knew I had to take it."

I Search for Adventure was not watched by enough persons to qualify for rating as such, but the episode with that quote seemed to have touched a nerve, and there is no doubt in your mind that satire may be the thing that closes on Thursday in New York, but in Los Angeles, it is as real as the palm and footprints in the lobby of Grauman's Chinese Theater. If you have any relationship to the old westerns of the 40s, you will remember Republic Studios, its flamboyant producer, J. Herbert Yates, and his wife, Vera Hruba Ralston, removing your suspicions that I invented her.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ironies: Missionaries from the Cosmos

Ironies sometimes appear in your life like Mormon missionaries in dark suits or Watch Tower persons, the males always seeming to wear bolo ties, the women square-toed shoes with two-inch heels that virtually shout out, "I'm sensible." You wish them well at the same time you wish them on their way. Sad to say, it is your own politeness that energizes them to say that one extra thing that means it will be another five minutes before you can peel them off and send them away. Politely, of course.

You do not particularly wish to spend your time with sincere individuals who want you to consider other approaches to coping with the Cosmos than you have already chosen. Indeed, their approaches may perfectly cope with the Cosmos they see, but such catechism does not suggest anything resembling congruence with the Cosmos you see.

You instead prefer the company of men and women who see the universe as a seething mass of contradictions, escape clauses, broken promises, and unhealthy tendencies toward lust. To be fair about the last part, the things and persons after whom they lust may not be in the neighborhood of sexual behavior but rather jealousy or envy or preoccupation. You, for instance, are often preoccupied with a man who by most accounts died in the year 1400. You have not attempted to convert another person to your interest in this man or his writings but by the same token of admission, nor are they surprised when you relate one or more of his characters to a contemporary event in real life or a contemporary story.

Thus the connection and return to irony are established. Sometimes you are caught up in routine chores and necessities such as laundry, income tax, washing the auto, washing the self, taking your pal, Sally, for a semblance of an adventure. With the exception of your times with Sally, such chore type outings tend to be predictable, their outcomes often bordering on a frustration that comes from the awareness of time better spend doing something--anything--else. It is entirely possible then that the idea for a new story or the solution to a work in progress will arrive on the metaphoric front porch, leaflets and bibles in hand. You groan inwardly and outwardly at the mode of arrival of the idea which is related only tangentially to your real life and by blood ties to your writing life.

No fair if you take the position that whenever you squirrel an hour or two aside for writing, your use of time is exquisitely efficient. There are times, for instance, when you are drawn to the New York Times crossword puzzle on either of your home pages. There are times when it suddenly becomes vital to your writing health and sanity for you to learn the composition dates of Mozart's last piano concerto, the 27th, and the span of time between it and the 26th. It becomes a matter of absolute life-saving importance for you to identify the tune that happens to be running through your mind like a cat trying to avoid a trip to the vet as the adagio from 26 or 27, things you need to know, rather to feel with certainty before you can undertake today's writing stint.

The men and women you admire who write and/or compose are admirable because they have produced things that not only live lives of their own, much as they were intended to do, they live lives within you. You recognize that there is practice and revision and the cyber equivalent of wadded sheets of paper, tossed in a wasteful disarray in or about a wastebasket. You recognize the potentials for mischief in both the worlds of creation and of day-to-day participation as well as the need to be attentive in each. You recognize that while Mozart might have been proficient on a viola as well as the piano, your instrument is the mind, which you are famous among your students for saying, "Don't think. Not yet. Time for thinking is after the early drafts."

The comparison between ironies and missionaries are infinite and you are caught between them in the great existential management crisis.

Friday, April 16, 2010

I've got a feeling

Start with any event from your past and you will have a story for the future. Most events you are likely to remember are in effect given the same kind of protective wrapping you find on packages at the supermarket except that these events are not shrink-wrapped in plastic but rather in one or more emotions. With the collaboration of time, these emotions are less likely to resonate, but many of them do not settle down for a long nap; instead they are shouted down by the clamor of new emotions arriving with the onset of new events.

Early in the day of your approach to the mechanics of writing stories, you were given the conventional wisdom from so-called and self-styled experts who observed that all stories contain a measure of suspense and where actual suspense was impossible then, at the very least, there should be tension. Suspense, you discovered from within and without, is anticipation, perhaps even dread, of outcome. Tension is more a matter of which person within a cast of characters will first become so taut and pressured as to be driven to some precipitous activity that produces an emotional and logistics landslide. Story, you read in available texts from such experts, was driven by suspense and tension. Not a problem, so far as the advice goes--but it did not go far enough.

It took you to discover for yourself that emotions drive story and in fact create the suspense and tensions of which the advice spoke, which is by no means to say that you were the first to become aware of this or, indeed, that you recognized it as a fact earlier than you did. The emotions from past events have half lives. A half-life in this case is the arc of time an emotion requires to reduce itself by half. We do not ordinarily measure emotions the way we measure the likes of earthquake or wind velocity or even hardness nor temperature. We do know that some events from our past still haunt us and we wish we could undo them or at least the lingering effect they have on us. Often when we write, it is to undo such events entirely or to revise our individual performance in them to the end that our past feelings are assuaged or entirely discharged. There are times when we engage our emotions experimentally, even tentatively, curious to have the invented experience of them as dramatized in a story. A number of these provisional scenarios deliberately cross over lines of convention, wherein we are able to appoint agents of self into forbidden situations we may enjoy by proxy.

Nor is this to say that all emotions are embarked on a half-life course. No matter how old they are and how occult, the moment their recall brings them crashing into the present, we are as angry or sad or happy now at reliving them as we were experiencing them for the first time.

Emotions are the planets and asteroids in orbit about an event, they are the major players in the stories that are you and us. They influence the characters, edging them toward the actions that provide the outcomes we can live with or brood upon for as long as we shall live.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Most of the people you know on any level beyond the mere familiarity of acquaintance are interested in outcome. Not surprisingly then, many of these individuals are writers or engage in some form of art whether it is photography, ceramics, music (which surely includes dance), or acting. Others, no strangers to reading and art, pursue their quest for outcome as scholars, scientists, attorneys, community activists. Only this morning one such friend spoke to you of his pursuit for outcome as it related to translations, his energy effervescing behind his need to get down his espresso and bridge the distance between the coffee shop where you breakfasted and the university where his class was scheduled for 9:30. Another such friend had no class but was interested in getting to his lab where he was pursuing a project that involved mud, a project that literally had his whiskers twitching.

It is your observation that those who are not interested directly in tracking outcomes born of their own projects are nevertheless interested in the outcome of baseball games, competitive celebrity-wannabe shows, even elections. Some of us like to look to outcomes as portents of extensive if not massive future behavior. In other words, outcomes as building blocks for additional building blocks. At this moment, the political climate and a certain N-sampling of past history suggest that after Barack Obama's decisive victory, he is likely to lose ground in the forthcoming bi-election. You even recall your hard-nosed political science instructor pronouncing: "The party that wins the election loses the bi-election."

You also notice more so now than you did as an undergraduate the way bias invades expectations (and hopes) related to outcomes. It is a fact that there have been six special congressional elections since Barack Obama's inauguration as POTUS, each of these won handily by a Democrat. This aggregate result at least stands as a rebuke to the general view that the 2010 elections will be seriously bad news for the Democratic Party and President Obama. We are all of us, of course, our expectations of outcome set on high flame, awaiting the actual results.

Story is your focus in these vagrant paragraphs. By definition and convention, story is an outcome in which contrary agendas clash, where behavior and sometimes ingenuity trump logic, and where more experienced writers need to discover again that the most emotionally laden and satisfying outcomes have their origins in listening to the characters they have created.

Take the leap with me to late sixteenth century Prague, where Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel created a creature out of mud,a golem, brought him to life by inscribing the Hebrew word for truth on the creature's head, then instructed the creature to defend the Jewish community against a virulent wave of anti-Semitism. After the Golem had completed its mission, the Rabbi deleted the first letter of the Hebrew word for truth from its head, leaving the word met, which is Hebrew for death, whereupon the golem crumbled to the clay from which it came. This story is presented as legend just as, later, the invention of a story about a particular Robin of Locksley morphed into Robin Hood, each tale having an outcome that at least temporarily provided satisfaction and perhaps even inspiration to the listener. Farther back in time came the story of The Iliad which, so far as we know, may have happened exactly as described in the epic poem of the Homer poets, giving at least an accurate picture of what societies were like at one time and also providing some an inspiration for survival and perseverance and observation of then prevalent custom.

Outcomes are risky business in general; no one can be completely happy with them. If they are too bright and cheerful, they are seen as bubbly optimism. If they are as laden with implication as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, they may be seen as overly grim, cynical reflections on such well-trod themes as The Meaning of Life. Outcomes have led Barnaby Conrad to observe (more than once, alas) that stories about animals are fated to unhappy endings. Today, while making that observation in relation to Madison, a much loved gray parrot who lost out to a marauding rat, that human life was similarly targeted.

And yet we persist in pursuing human affairs, even ones we consider relatively dumb, drawn about the metaphorical camp fire of the oral tale or the reading lamp of the solitary reader in the sure knowledge that the behavior of the invented individuals is of greater significance than the final outcome. In the end, we all of us, as Jack London's character did in "To Build a Fire," run out of matches. A heavy collection of snow on a branch above us melts from the fire we have created, causing it to drop precipitously, extinguishing the fire we labored to create. Speaking of London, he true enough gave us "To Build a Fire," but he also gave us a shot at a way out with another, lesser known story, "A Loss of Face."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Maps to Buried Treasure's Homes

At an earlier time in your reading history, nothing could interest you as much as a treasure map. The merest hint of one had you gripping the pages as though the prize might sneak past you. When such luxuries as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island brought a map directly into the foreground, where you could already visualize the site where the treasure was buried, you were impatient to get on with the digging. This love of treasure maps, buried treasure, and the quest for some cache, hidden away for later use, had less to do with money than with curiosity for what was to come next. Young as you were, you had already learned that treasures, particularly buried ones, were likely to contain surprises, often pleasing ones but just as likely some reminder that what needs to be hidden often contains some artifact which has information you would rather not know.

Treasure maps are thus not content with the role they have been assigned; they have ambitions of becoming a metaphor. just as a comedian nurtures ambitions of portraying such tragedies as Hamlet or Macbeth and the tragedian in turn wishes to portray the comic. Dig here, the map and the metaphor proclaim. Dig far enough down and you will likely discover riches that others before you wanted to preserve beyond discovery. These riches were often ill-gotten, embodying a theoretical if not actual curse on anyone who finds it, said curse being delivered on behalf of those from whom the treasure was wrested.

Treasure stands not only for wealth but power and of course power is the next best thing to knowledge and understanding. With power seductions may be set under way, which often have consequences of betrayal, revenge, and outright deception. With enough treasure, so the logic goes, one can purchase knowledge, even understanding.

Some psychologists and philosophers liken a boy's interest in buried treasure to the growing awareness of sexuality, particularly as exemplified by the ability to achieve and maintain an erection, generally thought to be one of the ingredients necessary to partake of sexual activity. Such theories go some way toward demonstrating how a young boy would see that metaphoric connection as, indeed, many a young girl would arrive at an awareness that she was a metaphoric site of a buried treasure, one she might cheerfully assist some explorer in discovering.

Discovery is the goal of the treasure map; with some particular end in mind, many a searcher for treasure has no further thought of the consequences. Continuing with the sexual metaphor, one consequence of having discovered the buried treasure and, so to speak, unearthed it, is the so-called post-coital sadness the sense of sadness-bordering-on-loneliness after the experience. The sense of having been away from, even separated from one's self for a time. This opens the door to questions about sexual activity as a vacation from reality and/or one's self. Another possible discovery is that with the proper person, there was no post-coital sadness, on the contrary an enhanced sense of participation in something larger.

Even though sex has irrevocably reared its head, butted its way into your life, crashed the party as it were,indeed been a frat-boy catalyst to some of your behavior, it has not removed your fondness for the treasure map nor the discoveries and revelations that might appear when the treasure is located and then opened. The surprise that awaits is for your taste the driving force behind fiction, even the kinds of fiction in which the treasure is either a man or a woman for a male or female protagonist or the reverse.
Discovery awaits us at every turn, discovery that an anticipated thing is unspeakably better than what was anticipated or unspeakably more dreadful than could have possibly been imagined.

Discovery, you see, is like reality; it exists on its own terms, regardless of what you think or feel. You may have been programmed in some way to anticipate a certain consequence from a trail of digging for a particular treasure, but reality has its own notions about whether you should even find it. Discovery belongs in every story. Reality belongs to some extent in every story.

You, in your own way, have chosen to go forth, a step or two up in class from the good Mr. Chaucer's Pardoner, attempting to sell or otherwise barter treasure maps to a segment of the public. You have come a long way in six hundred years, but you still have steps you can take. There is this map burning a hole in your metaphorical pocket.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Them" as a Social Force

The last time you became angry enough to do something you ordinarily wouldn't came when, in the process of bending to access the contents of the lowest shelf in a cabinet, hopeful of finding a missing saute pan, you rose abruptly enough to bump your head on the edge of an opened cabinet door. The damage inflicted required some days to mend to the point where you could successfully shower without noticing the break in skin continuity. The saute pan, having been flung with great force, might never be quite the same.

You did not need this head-banging incident to remind you of the potential for explosive anger response, much like the impatient genie in the bottle, waiting to be set free. And yet you very well did need the reminder, which in its way links you to brother and sister Homo sapiens.

Each time someone in your immediate vision or in some report you have read acts out on anger, you are reminded of the bond you share with so many of your species, seeing them in some of their performances as something that is no stranger to you in potential. Even strange cultists and political nut cases haunt you as being a reminder of what you could become were you not in some more severe process of editorial guidance. Since your own view of yourself calls out anger as a motivating force, you readily admit not only to its presence within you but of having to put forth considerable effort toward the goal of managing it.

When you speak these days of managing anger, in essence you mean acknowledging its presence, sometimes with a mere nod of recognition, as though you were of two different social strata in a large high school, then looking for a way to laugh the anger back into the shadowy sidelines where you believe it belongs. In that sense, anger is like fire; it can be a useful tool, providing energy and focus, or it can become destructive in the extreme. You can often control your anger with humor, but it is unlikely you will be able to laugh off fire. Thus the damaging effects of anger, a person-centered energy, and fire, a sometimes-neutral-but-often-man-made energy are noted along with the need to be aware of their inflammatory potential.

When you are angry enough to act out, you are no longer the steady, more ordinary you. As you act out, you begin a precarious journey that moves you away from everyday behavior. Anger is not the only path away from everyday behavior; any concentrated pursuit or study is yet another. The more a person pursues his or her craft or discipline, the more pronounced that person's individuality becomes; he or she is actively stepping away from mainstream behavior, thought, modes of execution. The reason for this is simple enough: the more we enter our discipline, the more we acquire individuality of voice and the muscle memory required to implement that voice.

There were times when you strove to achieve uniformity, which is to say a greater connection to acceptable paradigms of behavior, intelligence, response, social characteristics, and even empathy. That didn't work either in your social dealings or in your attempts to achieve greater reach and skill with your writing, your intellectual range, your thinking processes, and your opinions, all of which inhere in your voice and your vision.

You can mercifully see connections between your appetites, goals, behavior, and visions and those of others, yet you tip over toward being more like you than most statistical N samplings variously described as "Them." You are a part of "Them" but you are also the drop of water who recognizes his relationship to the ocean.

Your best chances are with you being you. The consequences may just be all the things you long for.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Not all goal-oriented stories are about soccer, hockey, or basketball

When there is something you want, some goal you wish to achieve, some platform you think to attain, the usual action is to plan a strategy which, if effective, will bring your goal to hand or reveal some missing steps or considerations necessary for another try.

So far, so good. You are aware of It, the Thing, of wanting it in your life, indeed as a part of your life. At this point, the language becomes burdened with signs of your agenda. You are as aware of wanting It as Macbeth might be, wanting to up his social standing. You are effectively aware of scheming to bring It within range. Congratulations! You are now a mere step or two from taking action. If you have planned with care, schemed, as it were, you can see into the future where you understand the risks and that you may fail as well as you might succeed. Now you are at the point of no return where, depending on the goal you wish and the necessary efforts, you see either success or failure. It is either go or no-go and the willingness to persist until some outcome is reached, at which point you learn to live with--accommodate--the consequences of having gained or lost.

No real surprises here; this is more or less the standard approach to pursuing a goal, whether the goal is asking X to go out with you (as a step toward effecting a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship) of making a career decision. A number of outside elements appear when the It, the something or someone you want will skateboard over lines drawn in the sands of your own conscience, the contemporary canon of moral and social standards, your own appraisal of the risks and consequences involved.

A basic play of human behavior attends the decisions you might make as the goal of the It originates in what some psychologists might call the id; let us here call it the Inner Child. Make no mistake from the nomenclature, the Inner Child can also want things of a sexual nature, complex or, if you will, simplistic enough to transcend social lines, as in the TNW syndrome, better known as Thy Neighbor's Wife.

Having allowed yourself the awareness of the signals sent forth by your id or Inner Child and spent some brief or protracted moments assessing the goals and consequences, you are likely to nod knowingly at yourself before doing what those athletic young men on aircraft carriers do when a plane is coming in for a landing and their angle of approach or ground speed or some other factor is amiss; they wave the plane off.

The matter of having wanted does not necessarily end with the wave-off; it has attached itself to you and influences your behavior in multifarious ways, not the least of which is the score you keep on the things you have wanted and for some reason or another can't have. There was a suit offered on sale in the latest Paul Stewart catalog, and yet another in the Ben Silver catalog. Elegant in their simplicity and comfortable drape, they struck you immediately with a pang of regret for not having, even though the last time you wore a suit was in July of 2008, even though there are two suits already hanging unworn in your wardrobe and when, oh when would you wear yet others? Do you go forth to rue the lack of occasions in your life where it would be appropriate to wear suits? Do you stubbornly wear suits at inappropriate times? Do you tell yourself that should an occasion for wearing a suit arise, you would already be prepared? Do you rather tell yourself, okay, time to move along to something of more consequence inasmuch as life is measurable by other things and standards.

This is the long way around the block of the goals and achievements made during a chunk of one's lifetime and the absolute likelihood of the greater number of disappointments, the need to hone and nourish the two or three things you set your heart and mind upon, then pursue with purpose and enthusiasm and, if possible, even a smile. It is about the way it is virtually impossible to walk about with neutrality or lack of interest but at the same time to see one's self as a person who samples the opportunities of life rather than one who sees losses and missed opportunities as a consequence of being a victim.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Disambiguation of the Short Story

A short story is a quick trip to a place and time where your primary intent was to relax and observe. Instead, you became distracted by what you saw, perhaps even irritated, but quite possibly disturbed or inspired.

Actual visitors on quick vacations often return with a tangible souvenir such as a sun tan or snow burn, a few extra pounds from overeating, the onset of an indigestion or a cold. These visitors are likely to have spent too much on food and lodging, accounting for their irritation or disturbed senses.

Readers of short stories, a different genre of travelers, come away from their visits with an emotion they did not have going in.

Each group, traveler and reader, come away with some souvenir. What the reader brings back lasts the longest.

This is by no means a diatribe on tourism nor a plea for persons to read and/or write short stories. Rather, it is an observation that where ever we go, however we travel, packed somewhere in our baggage is emotion--the way we feel about things and the way we feel about ourselves.

We read short stories in the first place, you argue, for emotional information, the feelings behind how persons in seemingly improbable situations bring their experience under some guidelines and are not completely run by them. Or perhaps not; one rank of short stories demonstrates how individuals who are possessed by a vision, say an artistic vision, are swept along by that vision, much like the hapless ballerina in The Red Shoes. Or was she so hapless? Another layer of short stories demonstrates the effects of characters who want something just over the boundary line separating acceptable behavior from the unacceptable. True enough, neither Anna Karenina nor Emma Bovary were players in short stories. Each needed a longer narrative to demonstrate the consequences each brought about when stepping over the line of convention, in each case the boundary of adultery, but otherwise the examples are fair because a smaller version of their larger story could have been made from the simple decision to reach over the boundary with the belief that she could do so with some control over the consequences.

We read short stories not only for happy endings or tragic, depressing ones; we read for the way the more modern stories end on a note of ambiguity which, as you look out your splendid windows here at 652 Hot Springs Road or the more commercial windows at your most frequented coffee shops, seems all about you. There are some short stories and some longer ones you return to because they are not in the least ambiguous in their conclusions. Or are they? You read and reread to rethink your earlier takes on stories you once prized because they seemed to merely end, as Bobbie Ann Mason told you her short stories ended--when their energy gave out. Life keeps planning surprise parties for you, with hidden friends and acquaintances popping forth with arms all waving, shouting surprise, and you feeling the stomach thump of having been suckered by some egregious excuse that got you out of the house, and now you get to the serious part of the party which centers around the covered casseroles and drinks and conversation. "I wish you could have seen the look on your face!" You don't need to have seen it; you felt it. Ambiguity rules, sometimes to the point where it runs over into the long form fiction. You want meanings, go take courses in Philosophy or mathematics. You want ambiguity, go look at short stories.

You think you know how it ends, but you come back as soon as a year later and you see something you wish you'd seen before, first time through. You remember feeling so smug, scrawling away in final exam blue books about short stories and what truths really lay hidden in Henry James' "The Jolly Corner" because you'd read beyond the canon and new enough to tilt the screen sideways to deflect the strictness of the cannon. You did have enough guts to take on the Hemingway short stories but even now you wish you'd been able back then to say what you felt about Henry James and The Jolly Fucking Corner because it wasn't ambiguous and inferential at all; what it was in fact was that he'd developed the technique of talking away from a theme and the emotions resident in the theme rather than facing them. You wish you'd written then about the fact that when Henry was back in Boston for the funeral of his beloved brother, William, he'd had a chance meeting with Somerset Maugham, who also happened to be in Boston, Henry pretty much in the closet, Somerset more out than in. And what did they talk about and why?

So it is all of it about a conspiracy that's being conducted in much fiction from about Thomas Hardy onward, the conspiracy of the author and the reader against the character, thus irony. But the joke comes to the reader if he or she will take the trouble to reread over time. The reader is often led to believe he knows the answers, but in reality, he knows only parts of them. Try a reread of Dubliners. Try Louise Erdrich's masterful "The Red Convertible." You'll see. It's not so fucking ambiguous any more, it is simply a matter of characters being caught out, doing something they might not want to be noticed.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Thank you for letting us see your past, unfortunately it does not suit our present needs

Last night you dreamed you went to Manderley again and when you awakened, you spent some time checking out the opening of Rebecca, finding it still had the pull from your earlier readings and the last one of about two years back. Prompted by the integrity of the experience, you couldn't help thinking to wonder if a river still ran through the Normal McLean landscape both physical and emotional. Yes, you are happy to say, the river not only runs through it, the river runs convincingly through it. Two out of two is pretty good as such things go. You have attempted to return to the past via stories you once held close to your heart, only to find there were occasions where it was like trying to initiate and maintain a conversation with a former lover. There are times when such conversations are not only possible, they flow with the natural good intent of both parties and the results are beyond satisfying, they are affirmations of what you were, what you felt, what you believed.

Revisiting a book you once cherished is of a piece with driving through the old neighborhood, where ever that neighborhood happens to be. Parts of California, as parts of everywhere, simply aren't what they were. This was first born upon you when you'd thought to take photos of the homes and apartments you and your family had lived in since that day when you were brought home from the Santa Monica Hospital at Fifteenth Street and Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica to a modest single-story house at 611 Fourteenth Street, Santa Monica. Little did you know at the time what a big deal it was considered to live north of Wilshire. You wanted photos of this house, the house you'd managed to track down in Burbank, whence the family moved after a time, and then to 6165 Orange Street, where for all practical purposes your cognitive and imaginative processes began to expand and flourish. This display of residences was a birthday gift for your sister, she who had also had considerable effect on your cognitive and imaginative processes. Trouble was, the fourplex on Orange Street was gone, the Burbank house on Providencia was gone, and suddenly you lost your taste for the project, even though there were a few available hits still available. The project skidded to a complete halt when 1455 Michigan Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida was no longer 1455 Michigan Avenue.

The past is simply not reliable that way even though the past is, in some metaphoric way, the way things were for you, but not necessarily for anyone else. Nor is the past book you've read necessarily going to have remained faithful to you in that way books have of being everything wonderful you remembered as opposed to a presence you wanted to remove yourself from with all deliberate speed. This observation obtains as well with books you contracted as an acquisition editor. There are many titles you remain proud to have contracted, others serve as a reminder that your sense of literary taste is not always what you suppose it to be. There are books you were sorry to have missed getting and now, when you see them in the library or used book stores or on line, you are relieved not to have gotten them.

The complete saving grace in this equation is the fact that some books from the past not only contain remarkable discoveries and nuance, they cause you to see how there is yet more to be gleaned, more effect to work its way through you. In fact, there are some books that seem to vibrate in your hands as you read, making you wonder how you could have presumed to understood the work in an earlier reading when this latest reading gave you such riches and delight.

The meaning of all this is that you must not let the past win out just because there were some parts of the landscape that were changed, obliterated, built over. You must engage the past with the same force you use to engage the now, not taking it for granted, not for a moment.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Onion as a Metaphor for Life; Life as a Metaphor for The Onion

How easy it is to identify with a character, even one from a different background than you, even from the other gender than you, if that character is shown combating a familiar conflict, experiencing the gulp that precedes a moral choice. 

Such matters wrench us into a story with little thought or push necessary, at which point we're off and running for the length of the narrative--unless something happens that causes us to pause. Such pauses are frequently associated with the highly subjective judgment that behavior or circumstances such as those portrayed in the narrative are not likely to happen in real life.

This last observation is often more difficult a standard to deal with. All life, it appears, really is a headline from The Onion. We want our story to approximate real life proportions, have a real life sense of verisimilitude, allowing us the extravagance that the events in a particular story could happen somewhere to someone. 

 For every period in the history of our species, there are characters such as the all-too real Michele Bachman, who, at this date, represents Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.  She, and any number of outspoken-in-ridiculous-extreme individuals, see conspiracy even in something as comforting to most of us as a bowl of Cherrios

Such individuals appear to us as narrative inventions, crafted to show some extreme representation of the absurdity resident in all of us. These characters, as well as some of our sports heroes and doctrinal advocates, represent metaphor more than individuality. And like some of us who are so fond of Googling our symptoms as a springboard to thinking the absolute worse about the consequences of a small lesion or bump, we believe these individuals to have been touched by the hand or some other limb of God, blessed, anointed, subjects of continuous interest.

We want our stories to ring with the veracity of reality, but at the same time, we want our reality to be plangent with the vibrations of story. It is true enough that we are all on the cusp of being ad mad as March hares, which is the very force that gives certain individuals their status; they are over the edge, each and every gesture a headline for The Onion. 

In consequence, we step forth each day, resolved at first to do out best at the ordinariness that extends before us, hours if not days dominated by routine and the frustrations only routine events can bring down upon us, longing however wrongheadedly for the romance and adventure Emma Bovary yearned for. For most of us, the illusion of ordinariness is shattered within the first hour or so of being awake and driven by the inner agendas of creativity or the outer ones of work, family, and societal obligations.

Simply put, as we expand outward from the points of our origin, we become progressively (bad word in some states) more eccentric and more perfervid yet in our belief in what we are doing, our rationale for doing it, and our complete willingness to make an excuse for our self in which we can be any damn (and damnable) thing we chose.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Computer wounds

There is a large metaphor residing in your work room, much like the equally metaphorical elephant in the metaphorical living room. Your metaphor, all right, your elephant is the spirited growth of the computer and things literally and figuratively tied to it. You have promised yourself to keep your nostalgia for your red Olivetti portable typewriter in hand, just as you have had to come to terms with the conversation-stopper bomb you drop from time to time, reminding those about you that you were here before television was here. But time was when a computer was something you plugged in so that you could process words without having to go through the histrionics of balling up sheets of paper, then flinging them at a waste basket.

The computer then became a gateway to the Internet, which was a 24/7 opportunity to find other things to do than write. It seemed to work better with the typewriter. First of all, the lack of the keys clacking against the paper and platen was a give-away that you were off somewhere in thought or perhaps even lapsing into alpha waves. You sometimes managed to keep yourself awake by the sound of the keys as they hit home, delivering energy to a word much as an artisan carpenter drove a tidy nail home. Little could go wrong with the manual typewriter that one or two well-chosen oaths could not contain. But as the typewriter morphed into electricity, the industrial revolution was sneaking through the lines. There were the rolls of Mylar ribbon, which, unless you were steady of hand, tended to flop over. There were exorbitant cleaning bills for electric typewriters and, in one or two less comforting experiences, the golf-ball type font could easily fly off the mechanism, once even striking you in the forehead.

The early computers had simple card games such as solitaire, and you seem to remember one inducement to see how well you could do playing twenty-one against the programmed game that came with the computer. The full-scale arrival of the Internet meant it was possible to engage in games of harts with complete strangers who lived in differing time zones. This was getting serious until you discovered ways to remove games in the generic sense and games in the Yahoo sense from the cache. One bad summer brought you to the edge and you swore off of hearts; you've never gone back and your output has felt the benefits. But the worse was yet to come. These were not games or even net surfing, they were gadgets related to wirelessness. It seemed--and still does seem--that the fewer wires related to your computer, the less likely you are to spill coffee, trip over things, or create rat's nests of intertwines cable and wire of one sort or another. The worst then had to do with the uncertainty of routers and cable modems and the way you took for granted being able to look up something on the spot instead of having to schedule a specific research session. When a wireless system goes, a dull ache moves in like an autumn fog, covering everything. You have long forgotten the path you took to get the system to function as it does, meaning then a mad dash to search for the documentation that came with the material, invariably turning up shamefully unanswered letters or even worse, unread student papers, or possibly notes for what seemed like tantalizing possibilities for stories.

Your latest computer distraction began quite unexpectedly late this Tuesday, when you suddenly noticed you could not get online to consult Google for some date of publication for some now forgotten book. It quickly expanded to mid morning yesterday when your ISP tech support argued that their modem was working but your Apple AirportExtreme base station was not, the proof being you could connect directly via ethernet cord, to their modem, whereupon Google was yours for the asking. Late that afternoon, you felt between a rock and a hard place when the manager of Mac Mechanic demonstrated to you the absolute reliability of your base station.

For a considerable time, nothing worked. You could use your laptop if you disconnected it from the large stand-alone screen, and hunkered on the floor the mere length of a usb cord away from the cable modem. Don't even think about the use of the printer, which was needed for a memo to the department head, listing classes you wish to teach.

Ike, the manager of the copy shop across the street from The Mac Mechanic, was pleased to print your memo. A large, balding man with scarcely room for another tattoo on his muscular frame, was sympathetic. "I know, man. When a computer system goes, it's like someone dissed your sister." Ike showed you a small room with a nifty computer-to-printer set-up. "You come back, try working here when things don't go right."

At about five this afternoon, you managed to get things working again, but such is the nature of your understanding of computers and wireless systems that you are still wondering what you did this time seemed to cure the problem when what you'd done so many time earlier had no effect.

The payoff is the realization that computer wounds are in some ways like taking a pet to the vet for some out-of-the-ordinary procedure. It is a painful process, a draining one, and it is no wonder that you have the tiredness now of depletion rather than the tiredness of fun and pleasure after a good writing session.