Wednesday, June 30, 2010

That's the Spirit

What was it like there, in that place you were writing about with such focus that the sense of time became like a sink running over?  That meant you were pretty well inside the narrative, had the characters placed so that you knew if they had to shout at one another or could rely on a stage whisper.  Of course, if the narrative were not fiction, you had the arguments placed in some semblance of blocking so you could tell if they had to shout at one another or could, yep, rely on a whisper.

You're getting at The Spirit of Place for a particular reason; you wish to take on in your own way from D. H. Lawrence, where he left off in his prefatory material to Classic Studies in American Literature.  You have been touched, teased, and inspired by Lawrence's work since you first read it, years back.  You loved his voice then, you listen to it even more closely now because, in this remarkable work of his, he gives you vital cues about how to listen to him; you get the sense of what sort of fellow he was, and you admire his read on America, gained so quickly from his time here and, of course, from his reading of those who came and went before him and helped define the very sense of place he was writing about.

The Spirit of Place has a special place in this nonfiction project, but in anticipation of it, you need to remind yourself that Spirit of Place is a presence in every scene in every story; it captures not only those basic sensual things as humidity or lack thereof, or height or whether the smell is from sage brush or the iodine of the ocean, it is the character of the place, blazing in on the senses of your characters, making them aware of their comfort or discomfort, their sense of vulnerability or safety, their ease or sense of being socially one or two or three down in relationship to all those standing or sprawling or, perhaps, lurking about.  If John, a character, ventures into a convenience store for a Reese's Peanut butter Cup, he must take in the Spirit of that place, register it however briefly, demonstrating among other things the power of the right word.

Spirit of Place is political, ethnic, ethical, social; it is gang turf or the simultaneous off-putting and achievement oriented strand of Rodeo Drive; it is run-down-at-the-heels tenderloin or newly gentrified downtown, it is L.A.'s Bunker Hill, it is Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.  It is all the ambiance of all the places you enjoy, say the Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles on Pico.  The need for Spirit of Place is basic and is to be sketched into stories as though through the literary equivalent of Japanese calligraphy.  The Spirit of Place for the nonfiction work you're contemplating is more attitudinal, more reflective of the Balkanization process going on amongst the political factions; it must suggest and intimate absolute quirkiness and borderline madness rampant not only in the U.S., but which is part of the human condition everywhere.  You are political, no denying that nor is there any sense denying your own quirkiness and idiosyncratic nature.  Nor, since the entire idea is triggered by a  book written by D. H. Lawrence, who has a few quirks and wrinkles of his own, should you want to ignore these.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Somewhere a Voice Is Calling

You want to frame the question in a way that will be daring and presumptuous enough to challenge your personal borders.  If it doesn't challenge you, how can you expect it to challenge anyone else?  That's for starters.  So how about this:  How can you tell when a particular bit of music was composed by Mozart and not by anyone else he happened to admire?

There are simple and more complex answers to that question.  You are more familiar with the former than the latter, although you are growing more comfortable with the concepts and vocabulary of the latter.  Then there is the matter of a collateral question, one that steers the conversation away from the original question and its answer:  Are you comparing yourself to Mozart?  The direct answer to that question is a simple yes, the more nuanced answer contains your growing awareness of why you make such a reach, the man's energy, his sense of humor, his inventiveness.  He is a splendid standard to set, given his stunning, varied output, nearly all 600 +/- of which is being performed over 200 years later.

You can distinguish most of his music from some of his contemporaries because it has such a distinctive voice, his harmonic sense merging with these other aspects such as energy, sense of humor, personal favorites (such as Haydn and J.S. Bach) and what the music of his time sounded like.  It is also instructive to pick a voice from another discipline as well as one from you own, thus you are able to pick out such stylists as Elmore Leonard and, of course, Ernest Hemingway in a blindfold test.  You listen for the voices of others as you listen to your own.  What do you sound like?  What are your rhythms, your cadences, your dialogue, your narrative.  Can you recognize your own voice, distinguishing it from the work of others?  And why do you personally think voice is so important that you have to make this kind of argument about it?

Voice determines the way your stories evolve, the characters you chose to perform in them.  Although somewhat of a stretch, voice would become your way of casting Jack Nicholson, of I want you to hold the chicken between your knees fame, as Lear, Al Pacino as Robin Hood, Sean Connery as Scrooge; similarly Meryl Streep as The Wife of Bath, Helen Hunt as Varya in The Cherry Orchard, Susan Sarandon as Lubya in the same play, the common theme being you would not expect these characters to come equipped with these voices.  What a splendid new dimension an unexpected voice, perhaps your own voice, can give to a work.  Voice is your take on the performance that is your story; it must come through to you before you can trust it to carry the burden you place on its shoulders.  Accordingly, you must ask questions, constantly probing to find out how you feel about the circumstances that have insinuated their way into your psyche and are not attempting to scoot free as a story.  Plot is important only after the fact of the story being told; voice will speak to the reader, assuring the reader of the tone of the story.  Listen to the voices you hear about you during the course of a day's adventure.  Make note of the ones that attract your attention as compared with those that disturb you.  Be able to acknowledge if a person's voice bears the tells, the give-away gesture or facial tic the skilled poker player looks for in the face of his opponents.  Be able to distinguish Mozart from Haydn, Beethoven from Mozart.

Be able to tell your most secret you what voice you would have reading to you, whispering to you, reading your work aloud, and of course reading her work aloud because you would never become involved, would you, with a person whose voice was a rasping nag or an off-pitch squeak; you would only become involved with someone whose every range was one you knew and understood for the emotion behind it; you would know when she was irritated, with the world, with you; you would know when she wanted you to make a decision and when she wanted to make the decision.  You would know because you listen, of course, but you would also know because there was a moment when you heard her speaking when you knew this was a voice you could become involved with.

This is exactly the way you want your voice to sound when you transfer story from your mind and heart to the page; this is why there are writers you admire and those whose voice sound to you like that off-key alto in the coffee shop who calls your attention from what you were reading or writing or whomever you were conversing with, wondering Who is that?

Got to listen for the voice.  Got to have it in your work.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Burdens, Summer Sale

In thoroughbred and quarter horse racing, a handicap is an added weight assigned to a horse in a particular race as a means of evening the competitive edge among the contestants.  The handicap, in pounds, assigned to the horse is listed in The Racing Form as one of the factors available to the betting public.

In the dramatic sense, which is the only sensible thing we speak of here, a burden is a noticeable load of back story a character in a narrative is assigned by the writer to carry.  The character may prevail in spite of the handicap, may become deterred by it to the point of losing, and/or come to terms with it in some unique manner.

Although dramatic burdens do not necessarily make a character appear more attractive to the reader, Blanche DuBois nevertheless worms her way into our concern because she is so visibly burdened with vulnerability.  Through the alchemy of story, what happens to Blanche happens as well to us, including her moments of disconnect, where we are not convinced her grip on reality is all that intense.  Looking at another Williams character, Laura Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie, we meet the only person in the cast who has never done a hurtful thing to anyone.  Physically and emotionally burdened, Laura is another Williams character for whom it is easy to devote large shares of empathy.

We must be careful not to arbitrarily maim and wound our characters in hopes of their afflictions providing us with more--which is to say more intense--story.  Rather we need to consider the relative ease with which a seemingly ordinary event will leave its scuff marks on the polished brogans of your psyche, an event that may not be noteworthy to ninety-nine persons out of an arbitrarily selected hundred, but which you have remembered over the years in spite of your attempts to talk yourself away from its more pernicious effects.

Characters without burdens are like attractive young persons in their early twenties, only partially formed, not yet really beautiful or really handsome, those qualities more apparent with the aging process and the grace with which the individuals bear their burdens.  They may perform to an extent in your narratives, but are they up for the hopes you have for them?  Can they truly recognize anguish of moral choice, or have they as yet failed to pause with a tremble over the nuances that will cause them sleeplessness later on. Nor is this to suggest young persons cannot be afflicted with burdens.  Look at the real-life example of the English writer, David Mitchell, whose splendid earlier novel, Black Swan Green depicted a thirteen-year-old boy in a small town, undergoing a year of his life, given to a hopeless stammer, trying to hide the fact that he is the anonymous poet whose work is appearing in the local paper, trying to cope with his parents' failing marriage.

There is also the matter that your burden may not be mine, my shyness may not be yours.  Younger characters also carry with them the burdens of their ideals and their love; is there anything so helpless and wretched as early love.  Imagine yourself falling in love for the first time, then imagine yourself at the point where you are now arrived, suddenly finding the early flutter of love within your breast, wondering if, at your age, it may be indigestion or perhaps, oh, no, not heart and all that arterial nonsense, then deciding, oh no, what will this do to my work?

Burdens are forces to be contended with at any age, any stage of life; they are handicaps, leveling out the playing field, but what playing field, what humanity, what purpose, what end?  And what about the burden of realizing in a hubristic haze how you are not at the moment at love and thus able to go about your days with full focus on the things you have opted to specialize on, which is to say self-education, reading, and, of course, writing.  Then, at the high crest of egotism you are riding, someone from Facebook contacts you, wants to friend you, and you know this person, but there is a particular buzz as you begin tentative correspondence.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Payoff

Every--repeat, every--dramatic narrative concludes with an action or presentation of the verge of an impending action, either of which tips the scales in a result that produces an emotional effect.  You feel the thunk of it in your gut, as you often do after reading a short story by Deborah Eisenberg or Louise Erdrich, or William Trevor.  You know something has happened or will happen to persons you know, now that you think about it, as well as you knew your high school chums and even, yes, even some of your university chums.

You know and you have some concern because none of these writers is likely to be translated into Hallmark cards; rather each of them depicts plausible endings, momentary conclusions in on-going lives--because each of their characters has a life off the page, so far as you are concerned.  You would be more likely to call one of them and say hey, let's meet for a coffee or drinks than you would high school classmates or university chums.  Not that you have anything against these, to be sure, but rather you are impressed at how close you get to individuals who are dredged up from the imaginations of these superb writers, dipped in a bit of batter, then tossed on the page to get crinkly done.

In the longer form fiction, the emotional effect is articulated in greater detail, a killer is brought to justice, separated lovers reunite, the bond between then different and more durable; a deadlocked jury finally reaches a verdict, a tyrant recognizes the error of his ways then vows to change his ways.  Shorter fiction has a less conclusive effect, often deliberately vague as a reflection of how inconclusive and episodic mush of life is.  In a true sense, the short story makes life seem less a series of episodes.

Over the lifespan of long and short forms, beginnings have undergone more significant change than middles or endings, being more disposed now to begin in medias res than in their eighteenth or nineteenth century forbears.  The notable example of The Iliad, composed more or less in the year 850 BCE, comes to mind as an exception to the tendency, along with the wonder more writers did not see the potential for such beginnings.  Middles have more or less gone their own way, allowing variously for shifts in narrative voice, jumps ahead or to the rear in story line, and introductions of subplots or themes.  Endings have grown more tentative, as if in direct relation to the complexity of life, the Balkanization of states, institutions, organizations.  Nevertheless, we do want some sense that a story has come to as much of an end as it can get without appearing to tack on another story.  Many stories thus end with a significant death, not particularly the death of a front rank character as, say Charles Ryder, the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, but of Lord Marchmain, a distant second-tier personage.  Doesn't hurt that Ryder's marriage has come to an end, either; there is a sense of the vital events having taken place, the chips fallen where they did.  And of course with Gatsby dead, there is nothing left but a brief valedictory from Nick Carraway, the narrator.  Even though it is a bit much to put The Sun Also Rises in the same shelf as Brideshead and Gatsby, there is to be sure that requisite emotional thump when Jake Barnes, reflecting on Bret Ashley's subjunctive scenario, gives her famous soliloquy.  And not to forget James Joyce's major work, Ulysses, which does belong in the same shelf; Molly's soliloquy leaves us with a gut wrench.

Payoff is what we read for.  It is emotional information melded with an opening of the senses, an awareness of some part of life.  Payoff is what we work at and hope for in life; it is what we read for when we read; it is the private dance Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire do in our minds when we set forth to get a story down, perhaps to be performed as the Homeric tales were, perhaps as a joke to be told among a group of friends, perhaps as a poem or short story or long-form work that would not leave us alone until we got it in a way we thought was right.  Now we can close our eyes and see our words and their effects, come to life like Rogers and Astaire, endlessly lithe, supple, beautiful, radiating the sense that whatever happens in life or story, there is music and dance to take us up and cast us as lithe, supple, and beautiful as they.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Where They're Coming from

No character however minor his or her ultimate role in a story, appears on stage without an attitude informed by some earlier event. We may actually see the event taking place without having the slightest notion of its effect on the particular character who happens to be present. If the character is truly minor, it is possible we will not see the event; we may not even know about the event, but the character in question does and performs accordingly--because of it.

Stage-trained actors and, to a lesser extent, film actors know it is not enough merely to appear for their moments in a scene. The immediate now is charged with colliding forces. We may have to deal with individuals in reality who are able to do their job in a workmanlike fashion, but that longtime favorite of yours, that Joe-the Plumber of your blog posts is the mythical pizza delivery person. He or she may have just come from an unfortunate customer during the last delivery, perhaps one who counted out payment for the pizza in pennies. The delivery person may also be an aspiring actor, either practicing various character types or, thinking the person to whom the pizza is being delivered is in some casting position, is showing off with voice, attitude, posture, whatever.

A matters stand now, you are procrastinating in the preparation of a book proposal with a particular revision suggested by your agent, doing so by doing a step beyond taking notes for a short story idea that came fluttering in. Your protagonist, still quite vague to you, has just been ordered away from his brother and sister-in-law's home, indirectly accused of at best being insensitive, at worst a sexual predator, thus you knew the territory in which the thematic arc was taking. You had no idea why you had him walking away, thinking to catch a latte and reconnoiter bus schedules, which baffled you even more because you had to stop and figure out why he does not have a car--everyone in southern California has a car.

This led you to the conclusion that he'd probably had his license revoked, which also brought you closer to the notion that he was in recovery from booze. Then the real gift arrived, the information that even though he was half in the bag when he gave his lectures, no one seemed aware of that fact. Bingo, you discovered he was a PhD. In a flash, you understood that his subject was the Classics because of another arrival of metaphor. By the time the character is out of the first scene, you also know you are going to mess with the time scheme, shifting into the indefinite past, where more of the problems on his plate are delivered. The more you know about where he is and where he was, the more you know about him and are thus able to throw impromptu exploding devices, dramatic style, in his path. You even know the name of the graduate student who was part of The Problem.

True enough, he is the principal narrator; it is his story to the point that it is tentatively named after him, as in "Uncle Charlie," a title that will not bear irony until after the story has been read through. Nevertheless, past, present, and future scenes begin to appear, each triggered by you're having scarcely written two scenes.

The real point is that until you know where a character is coming from--literally and figuratively--you are at a loss to be as specific with his behavior as you might be, losing opportunity for tension, that glucosamine of story. What kind of tension? Remember, Uncle Charlie was banished from his brother and sister-in-law's home because of their belief that he was paying too much and too close attention to their sixteen-year-old daughter, whom you will meet early on and find some assurance that she did not feel threatened by him or made the slightest bit uneasy in his presence. Of course this gives you the third scene in which Uncle Charlie will have picked the coffee shop to patronize in search of his latte, thereupon to be confronted by a barista who, although older, has similar enough features to his niece, that he becomes impressed with the similarity. But the matter can't stop there because you are just reminded of an incident a year or so back when you stopped in the very coffee shop Uncle Charlie is patronizing. A barista whom you found rather attractive but had no memory of ever having seen her before greeted you by asking you if by any chance you had the year before delivered a lecture on William Goldman in Salisbury Cathedral. As it happens, she was correct, prompting you to have the fictional barista at the North Star Coffee Shop ask Charlie if he is in fact Professor Hecht because either her friend or roommate had a class with him a few years back and has retained her class notes to that day. You're still not certain where this is all leading, but this is all material you did not have until Uncle Charlie was out on the street, looking for coffee.

Finding out where your characters are coming from, where they're going, and what their plans are give you the very things you were after when you started thinking about Charlie in the first place, which is story. And the real truth is that you'd had no thought of Charlie as a character in the first place; you were merely doing some background on Ella, his niece, for whom you have plans in yet another venture.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Too Much Too Soon

A common story telling disaster, of which you are a sometime unwilling participant, is the desire to let the reader see what is going on, what is at stake, what the prize or contention point is,and what the potential menace is, a sort of Kubler-Ross index before the reader learns of an issue in the first place.

True enough, you intrigue the reader with the sense that two trains are already on the same track or are about to be shunted onto a common course, but this is done by oblique reference. Anything remotely resembling Little did they know, finds repose in the trash bin. The mantra is withhold; don't tell the reader what the reader wants to know until the reader is close to shaking with impatience to find out, which is toward the final paragraphs of a short story, the penultimate chapter of a novel--or later.

Nor is it prudent to take the reader where the reader wants to go. For all practical purposes, once the reader gets where he desires, the story is over. You don't have to believe that, but 1) make a list of your favorite stories that allow such things early on. Short list, right? 2) take a look at a story of yours in which the lead character accomplishes a major goal just as the story is setting out. See any problems? Hear any thunk sounds, like a large souffle dropping its collar right out of the oven? Unless the real story homes in on the consequences of a character accomplishing a major goal, the natives will be getting restless and the readers will be impatient enough to bail on you.

Things accomplished too soon, too easily, too much as if by accident or divine intervention all have the consequence the writer least wants to deal with, the Kubler-Ross index as it applies to the scrap of paper attached to a returned short story, or the Thanks-for-letting-us-see-the-enclosed letter that comes back with the book length manuscript, containing that impersonal-yet-snotty trope, unfortunately it does not suit our needs.

There is no one way to describe what the our needs of that kind of letter intends but you can be sure that some of those needs are for characters who seem to do things neither good for them or you, characters who are too comfortable about the wrong things, not uncomfortable enough about the right things, they are Emma Bovary, looking for a life that is quite beyond her grasp, Captain Ahab too pissed with one creature to realize he is angry with all of Nature, the way a faithful parishioner was after discovering God didn't see fit to grant him what he wished; they are individuals who achieve their heart's desire only to be left wondering, what now, what do I do with this situation I have wrought upon myself?

Bad dialogue, too much description, too many coincidences. Mere moths fluttering about the Coleman lantern during a summer's camp-out compared to the heavy hand of Too much, too soon. Even when we tell ourselves a secret story, we know not to make the payoff to soon or too easy, the better to enjoy the satisfaction of the feeling that emerges at the end, a haunting surprise of satisfaction that comes from a source deeper than the payoff.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Best Defense

Doctoral and masters degree candidates defend their thesis, politicians defend their voting records, defense attorneys defend their clients.

The matter should stop there. Okay, so homeboys defend their turf. For sure, that ought to do it, but many writers also want to get into the act, creating a good deal of mischief and, alas, nonsense. Not the least of the many writer defense gambits is the "but it really happened that way" trope. There are other defenses, to be sure, the vagrant adverb or tacked-on adjective, just to make sure. Make sure of what? Why, to make sure the reader "gets" the writer's intent, of course. As if the reader could not be trusted in the long run, could not pass a simple quiz, needed at all times to secure help from Cliff's Notes. Ah, another matter, this. Readers are not to be trusted--only to the cash register line, where they buy the writer's book, but from there a dizzying, downward spiral of not getting authorial intent. Accordingly, the writer--already well along the path of being a control freak--must step in to make sure.

Given a particular word length to which a writer must adhere, at least one hundred twenty-five thousand words, for example, the writer will invariably come up short. A hundred twenty-five thousand! What are you guys trying to do to me? But try telling the writer to chill, let the story tell itself, let the characters advance the story. Go ahead, try. If you are not a writer, you will not sympathize with the potential for anxiety here, the vast cosmos of differing interpretations orbiting around a single scene, an exchange of dialogue containing only a few sentences. Writers will be quick to tell you how, in any instance, the text and subtext of an entire scene might be taken apart by readers, reassembled into something the author might not even recognize, giving them the right to make the preemptive strike of defending the work through narration and dialogue, but more often yet by mere description.

The appropriate response from a writer whose meaning has been car jacked by an over-zealous reader is "Oh, I see." Perhaps even, "How interesting." We should expect to see attitude, bias, intelligence, humor, and yes, pathos, too, in a work of fiction without having to suffer through mini pamphlets justifying their appearance within the text. Res ipsa loquitir; the thing--story--speaks for itself. Or should. I had no interest in writing this originally but my friends, family, colleagues at work, fellow Boy Scouts of America, said I ought to get it down on paper. Well, you might have done just that, but if the work is to reverberate with its own independence of spirit, you need to remove the arguments you use to keep it moving before your inner eyes and let it go forth as the story it wants to be.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Opening Gambit

We like to think others will care for and about what we write. Um, no; this is a dangerous presupposition to which some of us add further momentum with the fiction that any manuscript or notebook left unguarded or not copyrighted will have the shelf life of an unlocked bicycle in the parking lot of a shopping mall.

Dream on, you say, because in large measure we do in fact dream on, artful in our construction of conspiracy theory. The true national anthem of the American writer is not "O, say can you see..." but rather "O, what will they steal from me?"

A sad truth: Much of the written material produced in any given day fails to grab interest from anyone other than the person who wrote it and even then, reader involvement is questionable, tricky. An intimate diary, left at such potentially fecund venues as a coffee shop, airport waiting area, or a college class room would probably go unread without some intervention advertising the lascivious contents to be found inside.

The entry way to making the reader care is nestled between the narrative voice and something or someone the narrator passionately wants (or wants to do), underscored by the narrator's disclosure or unwitting revelation that the thing wanted (or wanted done) is essentially taboo. It is not merely enough for a character to want something; the character must be able to see the consequences of achieving the desired object will cause some notable consequences. Or the possibility that the narrator could be hurt. Or betrayed.

We should be made to care because the well-known person of interest has been morphed into the narrator or narrator/protagonist of the work in progress, a person who is at some risk, to catch the drift of it, and of accelerated risk if we are any judge of risk ourselves.

All well and good, you say. Risk is the key. But how am I to portray a person of interest as being engaged in a risky business without some kind of introductory background, some assessment from me, as it were, that hey, this guy or this lady is about to step off the curb and into a serious mess? The answer of course is to have said character about to step off the curb and into a serious mess when, of a sudden, another player in the story, perhaps a cab driver or someone already seriously late for home on account of having stopped for a few drinks with the boys, yells out a warning to our character. Hey, you wanna get kilt? Our character shakes his or her head, no, but thanks for the warning, then steps off the curb anyway. You realize of course that the curb in this paragraph is metaphorical as indeed is the cab driver of someone seriously late for home on account of having stopped.

Look how quickly Gregor Samsa got messed up. Just one night. Scarcely a paragraph. The man who went to sleep a man, had some uneasy dreams, then woke up shall we say transformed, as though some sacrilegious editorial sort were holding him up over his head and saying, Behold, the body of story. And to be sure, some readers could easily consider that trope as being disrespectful, but since when were you concerned about the sensitivities of a precious few? Isn't this a democracy? Second Amendment and all, right?

So you begin by taking a risk with a character taking a risk as opposed to your eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ways of starting out a story with a long philosophical ramble through a neighborhood, such as the Dorset landscape Thomas Hardy used in his nineteenth- and early, early twentieth-century novels. You might even start with a wife telling her husband to be careful, trying to manipulate an auto with the driver's seat in the wrong, English side, through the turn of a narrow country road about which are set many cottages with thatched roofs, and the husband, a man who figures even though he is from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, he still knows a few things about driving in Dorset, says yeah, yeah just before the car breaks loose and goes off the road. See? the wife says. Yeah, the husband says. I see, all right.

Oh, goody, we have front row seats to a domestic squabble. But you're shrewd and you're not going to give them the leisure of having their argument right now, the see, I told you kind of approach to which shut up is the only possible retort. Oh, now; we're going to have instead an irate farmer advancing on the two forlorn Americans, wanting, no, demanding to know what they're going to do about his ox who'd been spooked by their bloody car going off the bloody road, which is more or less what you'd expect from an American driver. Of course your American driver is going to want to get the farmer off to the side, maybe slip him a five-Euro note and say Can't we bloody forget the whole thing? But the driver's wife is still pissed because her husband didn't listen to her in the first place and seems not to be handling any kind of critical theory too well, so she figures a plan of her and calls out to her husband, who is leading the farmer off out of earshot, Hey, she calls, thinking I'll fix you to her husband. Don't forget to offer money. This morning you offered that guy twenty Euros and he dropped the whole thing. Of course there was no This morning, no twenty Euros, no previous incident, but try convincing the farmer of that.

So you know all this, understand it on a subliminal way, don't have to be reminded; so you begin messing with your narrator right away and each time you see a particular story of your begin to start running toward the kinds of dramatic-yet-seemingly ordinary openings, like the stories in The New Yorker, you get an inner wave of satisfaction , maybe even thinking I wonder if I should send this one to them. I wonder if this isn't going along like a pigeon leading a flock, all the other guys maintaining a respectful distance behind, unquestionably certain he's going in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Boundary: Where No Good Character Fears to Tread

A boundary is a demarcation of limit or extent; it is the edge of a terrain, landscape, attitude, or principal. In dramatic narrative, boundary is a limit of behavior a character sets for himself or which is imposed either by other characters, conventions, ethics, legal principals, or a combination of these. Significantly, boundary in story represents the terrain beyond which a character resolves not to venture, but of course there would be no story if he or she remained true to his/her word.

Boundary represents the grown-up version of a child being limited to a specific yard or block or neighborhood which must not be transgressed without parental approval or guidance of some sort. Boundary may be physical, moral/ethical; it is often the place where story begins, with a character having just defied boundary limitations in action that represents breech of authority, faith, convention, or ethic. In such cases, a significant layer of the story is the dramatic consequences the character faces, particularly as pangs of conscience or lack of such pangs have influential effect on the subsequent behavior of the character.

Some of the more basic instances of boundaries being ignored would involve a young girl of a particular religious faith sneaking off to date a boy of another, proscribed, faith, a sort of Romeo-Juliet situation in the making; perhaps of an individual resorting to shoplifting or some behavior coming under the general heading of white-collar crime. A more sophisticated violation of boundary would be an occasion in which an individual of either gender required a form of heart surgery in which one or more valves needed replacement. Make the patient an orthodox practitioner of Judaism or the Muslim faith and factor in the replaced valve coming from a pig, thus transgressing boundaries in a significant way. What are the consequences? Would the individual be banished from synagogue or mosque? How would the individual self-esteem hold up? What would such a person then do that the same person would never consider before the scientific intervention?

The mere mention of the word boundary opens wide the portals of story potential: an individual who is seen beyond his or her boundary may be seen variously as an adventurer, a fool, or someone who is hopelessly lost; an individual who strays from the boundaries of convention in which he was raised may be seen as a rebel or a lost sheep. A boundary in fiction is set up or already exists to be trespassed upon or stepped over or completely obliterated; it is a challenge of culture, type, convention--anything that restricts behavior, knowledge/understanding.

If we begin with two characters--your personal argument for openers--then add conflicting agendas and social or moral boundaries, story is bound to happen; the twenty-first century equivalent of the free-range chicken.

Monday, June 21, 2010


The sooner a narrative or essay attacks a sensory defense or recognizes a sensory need such as curiosity, the more likely a reader will be tugged into the gambit. Make no mistake about it; getting the reader involved is a gambit.

If the language of the previous paragraph is redolent of chess and strategy, it signifies positive effect is being sent forth. Reader involvement--getting readers to care--is a chess game of a sort, with orchestrated opening moves, including the potential sacrifice--not of a pawn in an actual chess game but the revelation of a secret, the flash of surprise, the unanticipated discovery that changes everything. A hint of any of these is the equivalent of an opening gambit.

The defense is a sophisticated mixture of suspicion, negative interest (read lack of interest), not caring what happens to the players--after all, it is well known that they aren't real. But suppose that sensory defense is breached? Suppose the Reader forgets about plausibility long enough to form some kind of relationship with one or more of the characters.

Curiosity is a wedge to get the arms-locked-across the chest of suspicion out of the way. We want to find out more. Want to see how X behaves in Y situation which is coming up. Doesn't hurt that one or more characters can be vulnerable; once our watch out response kicks in for a particular character, we want to see if he or she can safely avoid the emotional trap awaiting, a trap we know is there because we are, after all, readers, which means we know something of consequence is going to spring forth on a character whom we either like or feel a certain arm's-length antipathy toward. Basically the good guy will be hit in the face with a wet squirrel, the sleazy guy will be invited inside for an iced tea.

Everything you could possibly want in a character to whom you give your heart is to be found in the protagonist of Daniel Woodrell's latest novel, Winter's Bone. Bree Dolly is a tough outer shell protecting a loving, caring interior. She wants to get out of her life in a remote corner of the Missouri Ozarks, where her father has gone missing, probably dead in one of his drug-dealing misadventures. Bree has her mother, who is in and out of dementia, to care for and two young siblings, who are close, by her reckoning, to fend for their mother and themselves, allowing her to fulfill her urgent desire to join the army, get a start on making a life of her own. But legalities step in, forcing her to set out in search of her father before she can break free of family ties. It is not enough to say that family ties dog her every step; Woodrell, an elegant and poetic writer, leads us shivering through the Ozark winter on a quest with some unexpected menace. She is remarkable and splendid, you think as you reread her exploits. Her humanity outshines her natural beauty. As she shows one of her siblings how to first hunt, then skin, then cook a squirrel, you are aware of never knowingly having eaten a squirrel. Dozens of them live in close enough proximity to you that you could, were you willing to take more matters into your own hands, experience eating a squirrel. You know that you would do so for her, a safe enough bargain given she is a character, but she is real enough a character that you fantasy her presence.

This fantasy element is key; all you characters must in fact be individuals you more than construct, you fantasy. Until you read other of Woodrell's books, you had never eaten a fried bologna sandwich although you have in your time eaten countless freshly sliced bologna sandwiches. Woodrell made the fried version sound interesting enough so that you bought the first bologna you have purchased in years, then fried it, then plunked the results between slices of bread, in one venture with sliced onion.

All right, here is the equation. You do the things you do because many of them are the acts you are willing to move out of fantasy and wonderment into actuality.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Many, er, Happy Returns

As the mousy, anonymous narrator of Rebecca did with the fabled Manderly estate on the Cornish coast, I sometimes dream I return to Los Angeles again. Being in L.A. these days, awake or asleep, opens a complicated drop-down menu of awareness choices, alternately joyous, sad, conflicted, extensively aware of the consequences of change.

Returns of any sort at all are a chancy business; returns to a place of one's birth and youth are particularly fraught. Such returns remind you that you have left a portion of your life there, frozen in time in the manner of your image jelled in an old photo, while the rest of you, the you afterwards, has grown toward dreams of yourself in another venue, possibly even as another person.

Return invariably connotes doing something again, something experienced earlier at least once; it is taking books back to the library, giving a complement to someone who has complemented you, doing a favor for a person who has gifted you with some considerate behavior. You may return affection, travel the reverse direction of a journey undertaken earlier, reply in some manner to a tennis ball sent in your direction, or send an unacceptable meal to the kitchen whence it originated. In similar fashion, you may purchase a notice to be sent back to you after a letter you originated had been delivered to its intended receiver, and you might also send an unwanted communication back to its origin.

Going back to a place may be a part of a happy pattern such as a repeated visit to a restaurant, coffee shop, or theater, your expectations comfortable and positive at each iteration. Conversely, there are places and things for which return becomes fraught with a complexity of discomfort and a sense of disconnection.

The act of returning to a place after an absence rushes you toward this jarring sensation of disconnect. By your absence, you are out of the rhythm of the place you vacated, your psyche vibrant of the other place or places you might have spent your time. Much as you may have been loved, cherished, respected where you were before you left it, the shadow of otherness, alienness, and foreignness have been stamped on your visa, perhaps in subtle degree but not so subtle as to fool all the border guards, Some of them will spot the otherness you have accrued by your act of absence. The ever widening gyre does not stop spinning there; should you return to your new turf, someone there will note the way you have picked up the trace of an accent or some other mannerism from home.

Thomas Wolfe reminded us that You Can't Go Home Again, not without collision with consequences. But in greater truth the consequences and their traces follow you where ever you venture. A return becomes a cosmic tattoo, needled into the skin of your psyche. In the proper light, the right persons will see the patterns and bar codes; they will scan you, read you, get you, whereupon they will return such empathy and creative force as you and they are able to emit and you will both think of this condition as the beginning of love.

The return of a planet or heavenly body to a particular point in its orbit becomes a symbol for a new beginning. Sisyphus, urging his rock to the top of its hill, thinks this is the start of another effort or, perhaps, the end of an older one. When migrating birds or swarming insects or foraging herds return to a familiar place, they commemorate the click of gears in a life cycle. In days before the computer, touch applied to the return key on a typewriter sent the carriage mechanism slamming with satisfying alacrity back to a beginning position whence an entire line of keystrokes awaited their own particular fate.

Return is adventure, consequence, and discovery, waiting to happen.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Words

Words sneak into your awareness and hunker down like squatters in abandoned houses. They are as devious as visiting relatives, persistent as commission sales reps in big box stores, urging you to try things you have no intention of ever owning, assuring you how useful they are, hinting that if you order now, you'll also get steak knives thrown in for free.

Words flutter about like a mob of hungry pigeons, alert for targets of opportunity. They pout, strut, dart, the brave among them taking risks that amuse and annoy us. Some words, well known for their interior music, are as buskers or street-corner performers, suggesting the activity inherent in their name. You have only to see a word such as buzz or its cousin, buzzing before a picture of a bee or a band saw or some form of attention-getting mechanism arrives. When buzz is used as an adjective, as in buzz words, even then it is fecund with exoskeleton thanks to its meaning of special vocabulary for a particularized discipline. As a verb, buzz works well, signifying some device set in action to signal an arrival or a call for attention. I'll buzz you in. The buzzer clamored for his attention.

When you see or hear the word susurrous, you are transported with immediacy to the whisper of a stream over a bed of rocks or the secretive conversation among a throng of doves; not to mention the fun of conflating the word with the imaginative name for a Japanese-made auto. The word used to describe this sound of meaning quality, onomatopoeia, conveys an Oriental sense of mystery, revealed only by the chanting of a mantra to unlock the linguistic door.

However sensual the sound of susurrous, another word from the S family, squeamish, embeds the sensors that trigger a feeling verging upon another S-word yet, stomach, in a turmoil of discomfort.

Tuna, by itself, is not particularly humorous, nor is sandwich, but the mere thought of conjoining the two to produce tuna sandwich sends a grin of near mystical mischief to appear, a love note from your secret place of meaning. Try repeating the phrase tuna sandwich a few times without cracking a smile.

Words can do that to you, transport you, change your mood, inspire you, even frighten you. Edgar Allen Poe spent some considerable time deliberating over word choice, intent on conveying a mounting atmosphere of terror, aware of the effectiveness each word bore as he erected the pyramids and sphinxes of the bizarre and enigmatic. He may not have succeeded in frightening you as, say, his later-day acolyte, Steven King, has done, but Poe has left you a legacy, the receipt of which is to make you suspicious, wary, uneasy.

Spectacular is a word you use from time to time as a way to describe certain friends, male or female; it has become a useful term because of the way the merest phrasing of the word in your mind suggests the bodacious, good-cheer presence of the individual.

Your earlier mention of the word mantra, the mystical pattern of words used in mysticism-based meditation. Mantras often contain the word from Hindu prayer, Om, or Aum, which itself is an exhortation and invocation; they also contain Sanskrit designer words called Bija words, usually a conflation of the qualities of a particular god or goddess. These Bija words are quintessential buzzwords, intended as meditational tools to help the spiritual aspirant observe then experience the very qualities inherent in the words.

There are also cooking- and food-related words such as succulent or esculent, or perhaps even savory, their very mention likely to provoke images of curries and gumbos, of posole and menudo, causing you to slather as you consider.

Words have the power to turn you inside out, to arouse, mollify, enrage, enchant, engage you. The musician is guardian of her instrument, the chef protector of his knives, the hunter of his weaponry. The writer's tool is the kit of words, the possessive vocabulary he or she might own, with newer, more modern tools as much on the wish list as the iPhone on the modern person's wish list

Friday, June 18, 2010

Practice into Process

Unless you begin with a specific topic in mind, often merely an energizing word, your approach is to start with a list of random words, writing them down in a list as they come straggling in like kids at play,reluctantly heeding the call to dinner, wondering at first if there is some linking pattern between these words you have not yet divined. Depending on what sort of day this has been, sooner or later one of the words will land with a particularly loud thunk, like a baseball hitting the sweet spot on a bat. The sound of the word falling into place signals all at once the arrival of energy, intent, and purpose.

Now the momentum shifts into a higher gear, thanks to the sound of the inherent voice, at once beguiling and commanding; it is the perfect combination of force. Ideas are easily come by--until you want them, at which point you are in competition with parts of yourself dominated by judgement instead of those parts of yourself led by curiosity and playfulness. Playing with words in this manner is of a piece with a musician running scales, developing dexterity of execution and a sense of humor. You learn from practice what a sense of humor is, which is laughing at the judgmental parts of yourself.

As the scales provide a trampoline for the musician, playing with words provides the energy, intent, and purpose that provide you with paragraphs of meaning and with characters to carry those burdens forward as though they were lading the hold of a transport such as a story or an essay.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Introductory Comments

The individual chosen to introduce a speaker to an audience expecting a speech or a book to an audience expecting story or memoir is chosen for the ability to be witty, knowledgeable, and brief. These three qualities are just as likely to go to the introducer's head to the point where he or she will want to amply demonstrate the first two before paying any heed to the third. 

 Who would be able to resist being thought witty? The prospect of being thought knowledgeable is enough to set the blood racing, a perennial revenge for all the cramming for final exams in classrooms long since vacated, an opportunity to show cognitive skills, impress friends.

An aisle seat in an auditorium or a rear table at a banquet becomes a strategic premium because of the potential for a quick getaway. Readers have less strategy to worry about; they can, if the Introduction begins to linger like the proverbial last guest to leave a party, start skipping pages until they arrive at the text.

Although it is made pretty clear in the usage bible of the American Book Trade, The Chicago Manual of Style or, more informally CMOS, that an author is not the one to introduce his or her book, there is some element of mistrust, possible mischief, and a good potential of ego in the opening paragraphs of a short story, the opening pages of a novel or memoir. 

 Wanting the best possible reception for the work, the writer wants to take every chance to make sure the reader has the proper background with which to begin the story; fearful of the effects of academic literary critical theory, the memoirist or historical novelist will want the reader to have a core sampling of the zeitgeist or spirit of a particular time or understanding of a current local custom or tradition.

What the writer wishes to offer as an inducement is often quite different from what the reader wants or requires in order to commit to the reading of the work all the way through. The reader wants story, which is to say someone of interest in a situation fraught with danger, moral choice, temptation, discovery, intrigue. The reader wishes to know this in the same way a passenger wants some idea of the destination of a bus or train he has boarded, after which idea the passenger can enjoy the scenery.

Wouldn't it be splendid to run a study with a large n-sampling of professional writers in which their first draft opening pages was compared with the arrived at opening of the draft that goes off into submission? The answer is an unequivocal yes, reminding us--all of us--to start with people in motion. One of the more powerful openings of recent years is to be found in the opening paragraphs of a short story by the exquisite American writer, Deborah Eisenberg, "The Flaw in the Design."

"I float back in," is the entire first paragraph.

"The wall brightens, dims, brightens faintly again--a calm pulse, which mine calms to match, of the pale sun's beating heart. Outside, the sky is on the move--windswept and pearly--spring is coming from a distance. In its path, scraps of city sounds waft up and away like pages torn out of a notebook. Feather pillows, deep carpet, the mirror a lake of pure light--no imprints, no traces; the room remembers no one but us. 'Do we have to be careful about the time?' he says.

"The voice is exceptional, rich and graceful. I turn my head to look at him. Intent, reflective, he traces my brows with his finger, and then my mouth, as if I were a photograph he's come across, mysteriously labeled in his own handwriting.

"I reach for my watch from the bedside table and consider the dial--its rectitude, its innocence--then I understand the position of the hands and that, yes, rush-hour traffic will already have begun."

Think first of all of what has been going on in those few paragraphs; picture the participants, guess at their ages, their social ranking and status. Then think what you have been led to assume, and how there was probably a good deal more that had appeared in earlier drafts, tweezed out like stubborn hairs linking the brows.

Introduction is the seamless immersion of Reader into Story, of you into the life of others, of your allegiances toward these persons into whose life you are now able to eavesdrop upon, wherein you will make your own judgements about them, either rooting for them or waiting to see what their mischief has wrought upon them. 

The matter is no longer about you, not if you are successful; in that case you will have set individual inventions in motion, doing things neither you nor the reader dare do in the framework of the lifestyle each of you now lives, yet daring the reader to imagine the parts of these invented individuals that haunt your secret moments.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Landscape is the locale of a story, incised into the awareness of the individuals who have pestered their way to the point of being given an audition. The lawns, shrubs, rocks and buildings of the landscape are etched into the characters' nervous energy; so are the buildings, offices, and bedrooms; as well their attempts to cover the more egregious among the spills, scars, and obsolete fashions.

A significant irony related to landscape comes when the writer finally realizes how, regardless of where the story is ultimately set, it was written with a place close to home in mind. We are adaptable as a species, supremely inventive as practitioners of the writing craft; we can set a story in the Arctic Regions, calling it, say, Dutch Harbor, or Anchorage, but if we were raised in Tucson, the emotional landscape will be Tucson. Tucson with parkas, perhaps, but still Tucson. The reverse side of this irony becomes apparent when the writer, trying to differentiate Dutch Harbor from Tucson, begins piling on details that, if not properly managed, will turn on the writer, making them seem artificial and contrived.

Landscape bursts with energy; it is the cemetery of the hopes, dreams, successes, and unrecorded failures of those who lived there. We have only to stroll through the rows, observe the rococo of the monuments and tombs to intuit the ambiance of the place. There is always someone in a landscape who knows the secrets and can, often for the price of a drink, be induced to hold forth on the secrets of the place. It is the writer's job to find such informants, and to listen to them.

It is instructive to read the opening chapter of any novel by Thomas Hardy. Many of his novels were written in the waning years of the nineteenth century, a few memorable ones lapsing into the early 1900s. Here is a perfect example of the way the spirit of those times called for the long, descriptive meander. The Return of the Native is as good as any, although The Mayor of Casterbridge also serves to illustrate the point, which is to get all the information in later. Much later. Nevertheless, Hardy's novels do imply the exact relationship of the characters to their social stations and the landscape from which they spring.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Let's Face It

Reality often imitates art, particularly when it imposes subtext, the dialectic of simultaneous engagement upon us, just as it confronts characters with the need to say one thing while feeling its opposite. Writers join their brother and sister artists in the frequent minefield the creative workplace has become, meeting head on a dialectic rarely spoken about, one that presents itself as a noun and a verb.


The writer faces a work session having come from life outside, which is to say Reality; now comes the need to put on the dramatic faces associated with characters--what they want and feel as opposed to what they say and do.

It is no wonder the creator is by degrees seen as a lonely, beset, cranky, notional individual; you sometimes think of the writer as a psychotherapist or analyst, spending hours listening with attention and understanding if not sympathy to individuals who are conceived in stress and problem and unfulfilled desire, with raging needs, ambition as rampant as kudzu in a Southern hillside. It is no wonder that when writers of advanced technique gather socially, there is at first empathy, then sympathy, then the flare of frustration as each moves toward his own vision of what Reality means. Thus the concept of the artistic creator as control freak. No wonder it sometimes becomes a shock or disappointment to meet one's artistic heroes. Even less wonder you find yourself at times, in a midst of roistering, cheerful writers, sensing the potential for disconnect. No wonder writers often feud.

Face as the noun represents the attitude you put forth in order to get into the activity--reading, writing, feeling, even some thinking--you need to perform in order to get something down on your Moleskine and/or your computer screen, while you face as the verb and try to come to terms with the conditions and feelings that make up your reality. It is not by any means that individuals other than writers have any less a need to engage this conversation with The Cosmic Forces, or that they are any more daunting for you because of the choices you have made, rather it is that you have to cope--face--with your own faces and those of the individuals you would bring somehow into the world.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Price

No matter what they tell you during the early stages of your growing acquaintance, your characters ultimately want to know how much this is going to cost, what the price will be for them to achieve or attain or otherwise grab hold of the thing they want, the thing that causes the story to come into being in the first place.

Perhaps one of the characters has thrown caution to the proverbial winds in an attempt to secure something of particular importance. Suppose the character has been successful, at which point you can ask if the character has or will acquire buyer's remorse. The Price and The Consequence are literary first cousins, a fact made abundantly clear to the reader if the character who got something or some one has been paying the price for some time and is in fact grumbling about it.

In back of every story and every front-rank character within the story, the price is some kind of issue; it was either worth it or it was discovered to be not worth the cost. Many longer stories are about the cumulative effect of a price being paid until, as many auto or home owners find themselves in the current financial downturn floundering in that condition euphemistically called "under water," where the amount due is more than the car or home is worth. The owner sees the position, decides to cut losses. Or not.

What price does a character pay for speaking up when silence would have done or, opposite, not speaking up and having to pay that price. In Budd Schulberg's memorable screenplay, On the Waterfront, Terry Molloy has discovered the price to be paid for allowing himself to trust his older brother, Charlie, when it came to "managing" his professional career as a prize fighter. I could have been somebody. I could have been a contender.

There is within any story, however oblique, a prize as seen by someone to the point where behavior is changed, perhaps even moral guidelines are moved or completely obliterated. Your vision of that prize and your understanding of the character's relationship to it helps in large measure to determine how you feel about the character, defines the ways you identify with that character or not.

Characters who have achieved some sort of prize, who have willingly paid a price to achieve or acquire or attain a status may be looked upon with bewilderment or bemusement by other characters who still have not achieved their goals or who have set their goals high enough to cause other characters and many readers concern.

Is it worth it? your character asks. Was it worthwhile? Did I pay too high a price? Do I undervalue the thing I got because I did not pay enough.

Look at it this way: At any point in a character's life, the character may endure significant introspection, wondering if arriving at this particular moment was worth all the effort necessary to do so. At any point in the construction of any kind of creative manuscript, the writer may similarly wonder if arriving at this particular condition of the draft in progress was worth all the effort necessary to produce it and as well wonder if the work needs more effort in any of a dozen possible areas.

What price will you pay for writing or, similarly, not writing a particular story that presents itself to you? What costs have you paid in the past for not spending enough time with a story or from having spent too much time working at it?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Readers as kleptomaniacs in a big box store

Curiosity is a force in fiction that causes the reader to care what happens next and to whom it happens. It is a dramatic element, curiosity is, always coming on stage breathless from the last place it attended, playing on our sympathy, our sense of personal identity, and the depth to which we are able to empathize. The sight of a character in want, danger, or serious speculation is sufficient to arouse our curiosity by flashing those warning lights of complication.

You could do well to add denial to the list; with enough denial leaking from a character, the concept of arousing interest becomes the dramatic code words for not when but how soon the thing being denied will explode its ashes all over the character. "Oh no," a character will announce to the Cosmos, "I've got too much on my plate to even think about romance." (Actually, The Cosmos is a nice metaphor for The Reader.) This is quickly followed by a chance meeting with--surprise--a romantic interest of spectacular quirkiness and energy, to bring to the mat all previous defenses to romance.

When a thing happens in Reality, there is often a mark-up in cost of the sort we are reminded of in post-holiday sales, where the discounts on list price are stark reminders of the profit margins enjoyed by so many retailers. This mark-up is usually the addition of complications that abound with all human events, reminding us how Reality has its own agenda. When a thing happens in story, the extraneous complications are discounted, filtered out, making the effect seem undiluted, intense, fraught. We are curious to see what the consequences will be, in some measure because we have been programmed through previous reading to expect that no act, even the act of inaction, goes unnoticed or unpunished in story. Drama is the quintessential tier of on-end dominoes, placed to trigger the next. No more dominoes, no more story.

To exaggerate the metaphor, readers are kleptomaniacs in a big-box store with awesome security. Readers are curious not only to see if they are correct in their suspicions, they want to project themselves into story to see if they can get away with lifting that tube of lipstick or that pair of sunglasses without being caught.

Vulnerability in one or more characters is a starting point for arousing the reader to be curious--to care. Add a touch of potential menace or failure and the reader has felt the oh, oh buttons being depressed. It is also possible to start with a character in high gear with hubris or pomposity for starters. The reader cares to the point of wanting to see that particular character crash against the guardrail of humiliation. Of course the seasoned writer will up the ante by allowing the hubris laden and pompous to win a few rounds first, enhancing the desire to see and taste the deliciousness of the ultimate crash. Those are the stakes for those of us who wish to sit in the game.

Ante up, guys.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Power to the Pupil

Power is the force with which a character enters the scene you have written then transforms it through the exertion of a particular, thoughtful energy. The transformation arches across the dialectic of the calmness of accord into a calamity of argumentative encounter, or the tangible palpitations of tension into unthinkable agendas of fantasy-spurred desire.

Power is the dynamic inherent in a piece of bread held forth as the body of a savior, a piece of shriveled cactus held forth by a shaman as a gateway into another dimension of being, the soft swell of bosom in a young woman that transforms a particular young man, all muscle and hormonal impetus, into a helpless mass of inchoate desires.

Power is also the argument between opposing forces that the piece of bread truly is the body of a savior or merely a metaphor for the body; it is the schism that splits entities, the souls and resolve of individuals, the hunger for knowledge, the insatiable resolve within itself to be fruitful and multiply, thus producing even more power. It is of course corruption, but it is also the folded cardboard used to shim a wobbly table, it is what I have that controls you; it is the thing in your smile that disarms me; it is the way you look at me or the way you do not look at me; it is the residue from when you catch me covertly watching you out of love or lust or a combination of those worthies; it is what comes to me when I realize the playing field on which we both compete is suddenly level; it is the unplanned sentence that comes seemingly from nowhere but really originates somewhere in my limbic system, defining perfectly not only my own appetites as writer but underscoring the subtext of the work in question.

In the ordinary world, the world of conversation and prattle and arterial sclerosis of freeways and the frustrations of bureaucratic institutions, power is more democratic; what we lose in one place we regain in another; the Social Contract watches over us, nudging us into politeness in our use of power. But in the world of fiction, where the Social Contract is the first element to be given a pink slip if not an outright rejection letter, power is amped up to the status of being capitalized, given a personality. Now as Power, it is the corrupt maitre d', alert for bribes, the mustached bouncer outside the Sunset Strip night club, sizing up the characters; it is the subtext in play between two lovers, each craving a particular sexual activity from the other that is being dangled like a six-inch stiletto pump before a foot fetishist, used to entice as a means of demonstrating and building power; it is the sense any two partners might have about which of the two is the more important to the product they provide; it is the betrayer's edge over the betrayed; it is the discovery or awareness the betrayed discovers that changes the game plan.

Power is your awareness of what you can get me to do for you and the comparatively small price you will have to pay for such service; it is the sense I have when the words fall into place with few or no cross-out, no revision, no long explanations; it is the sudden metaphor, like a bachelor button growing through a pock in the sidewalk; it is the tears that form in my eyes after reading your work, the surge I experience when I see your tears after having read my work. It is what I give you and get from you; it is what returns me to the desk day after day, setting forth sentences, drawing lines through them, pressing delete keys, waking up in the middle of the night to see if I kept a back-up of what was deleted in an angry haste; it is what I feel every time I seal an envelope or box about my work, then send it forth.

Make no mistake about it, all drama is sooner or later about power; it is all about you; you manipulate it the same way those big-chested men with sinewy arms manipulate your furniture when you move into a new place or out of an old one, when you end one story then begin another. Outside the world of drama, you are able to see power in more realistic terms, where there is some insulation from the effects of it, where you can remove yourself from overbearing, power-made individuals, perhaps not for long but for enough of a recess that you are able to feel more in control of your environment. Trouble is, in this world, it is not nearly so exciting as the inner world, the world of story, where you live and have come to know that you are thus a manipulator, you dispense power the way the neighborhood connection, the drug dealer, dispenses product. Only a fool uses his product instead of selling it on the streets, you are told when you find yourself getting into writing, and you largely believe this at first, but it is heady and attractive and of course it has power over you and of course you realize now that you are addicted, so what else is there for you but to stay at it, working those streets, luring more characters in as you progress along the path of your own powerlessness. Some of your friends step forth in other kinds of meetings, talking about how they are powerless, they have no control over their life because of and they fill in the blank which may be alcohol or drug or gambling or food or sex, but they have power over you because you understand that you are powerless over all of these and anything else that may come up, poetry or essays or novels or even memoir and they, with their vulnerability, are just the sorts about whom you can already see story beginning to happen.

Friday, June 11, 2010

It's a Mystery to Me

Mystery and subsequent revelation--the ritual in which secrets are bared--reach metaphorically back in time to tie us together as a species. Mystery and revelation are commonly associated with religion and/or wisdom thought necessary to make life more meaningful. Commonly associated with some form of mind-altering substance, mystery and revelation in such diverse social gatherings as the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Peyote Cults allowed the mind to be altered through substance and ritual in order for the congregant to experience an closer understanding of and relationship with The Cosmos (whatever the appropriate priesthood took The Cosmos to include).

For the writer of the twentieth and, now, twenty-first century, some form of religious belief or professed atheism is often a subtext to the way characters, their agendas, and their themes emerge, bringing to mind as examples the likes of C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Cynthia Ozick, and Flannery O'Connor. Just as likely for the twentieth- and twenty-first-century writer, mystery and revelation are present, not merely as subtext but as basic premise. As most jazz musicians and many classical musicians are steeped in The Blues--a genre in which notes are sung or played flattened or gradually bent (minor 3rd to major 3rd) in relation to the pitch of the major scale--modern writers are grounded in the construction of the mystery, a novel or short story in which a puzzle is presented and, after the necessary ritual of detection, solved to the point where some kind of justice, stated or unstated, is evoked and celebrated.

Mystery and revelation, if not present in the DNA of the individual, certainly reside in the DNA of dramatic writing. In the same sense that such critical theories as Marxism, Feminism, deconstruction, Post-modernism, and the like can be applied to all literature, the critical theory of mystery leading to revelation can be applied as well--if not better. From such far-flung fringes of the literary landscape as, say, Don Quixote and Henry James' The Ambassadors, each work may be seen and analyzed as a mystery (at the very least, What will the characters do next?)solved with a discovery of the organizing pattern and the revelation of the cause. Even moving back to the nineteenth century and Mr. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, we can look for and find an identity revealed, a secret of behavior revealed, and ironic consequences of justice both social and cosmic.

Checking the list of ingredients found in a representative mystery, you will find murder, betrayal, drugs, money laundering, sexual transgressions, blackmail, and concealed identity. As well, there is a likelihood of secret dealings, attempts at cover-up, and threats of violence if some of the secrets are revealed. You will often find corruption and the consequences of it on subsequent generations, martyrdom, hidden agenda, and unbridled ambition, all behavior to be found in much of Shakespeare but more recently in Arthur Miller.

There is in fact a kind of poetry as well as poetic justice in following an investigator who may also have an agenda as he or she follows the trail of clues, hints, and red herrings that will lead to the epiphany of discovery; it is a poetry that reaches deeply into our literary being, causing many of us to be secret mystery readers, still not willing to come out of the closet with an affirmation of taste. Soon, somewhere down the line, in a work by Dennis Lehane or Ruth Rendell or Sarah Paretsky, perhaps in an earlier work discovered in despair of anything else to read, by Ross McDonald or Josephine Tey, the circuitry will be made. The mystery is wired-in behavior for the writer. All the writer writes is mystery and ritual and revelation, as the writer follows the trail of story to see what the discovery will be.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The language of story

How do we recognize individuality when we see it?

What causes the zebra to stand out from the herd? Are there some standardized forms--tin cans in a supermarket display--that take on individuality only after we have removed one from a collection? Is there some trait or combination of behavior pattern that speak to us in a rhetoric of awareness that operates beyond our conventional senses? Is there, in fact, a distinct language of recognition by which we communicate through the calculus of apartness?

These inquiries underscore the need we had ab ovo to pursue the rhetoric of story, for only story reveals to us the dialectic between the individual and the multitude from which the individual emerges, trying simultaneously to become camouflaged against the background of others while trying to establish voice, ambition, expertise, and understanding.

Each front rank character in each memorable story is by default larger than life, striving to achieve expertise of a sort in a human pursuit. Ishmael, signing aboard The Pequod to escape the depression that has threatened to overcome him, seeks solace and soothing effects. Had he remained on land, he would merely have trespassed more deeply into depression and despair. In his wish to escape, he entered the region of the unthinkable, where strange men and a beast so large as to take on mystical dimensions become his quotidian. If we accept one of the arguments raged about by Ahab, Ishmael has entered a landscape of causal malevolence and brutality. Indeed, he will be spared only that he may be able to relate the details of the malevolence; he will have entered the literary equivalent of a black hole.

When you think of Melville and his whale and his Ahab and his Starbuck, you are looking at not only a story but a metaphor for all story, the living, breathing synecdoche where the whole is one of the parts and one of the parts stands for the whole. The white whale as metaphor for opposition and confrontation, Nature incarnate, a simple lash of its tail enough to send a boatload of individuals careening into eternity. Melville attracts and repels because he dares place such cosmic forces before us with the exquisite inevitability of the dramatic meeting. Ishmael has signed into the Unthinkable just as his brother being, Achilles, signed into it when he railed and raged against the pettiness of Agamemnon and, later, was drawn into battle with a force every bit as formidable as the whale, Hector. The only difference was that Hector, too, fought within the inevitability of the war into which he was drawn, the war of rival forces and the war of custom and convention for a man of his rank.

In story, a character is articulated by the battle he or she encounters, however innocently. The forces that keep the character in the story serve to remind us who read how each time has its own forces to keep the character in confrontation with contemporary Fates. The circumstances that doomed Antigone would not, today, doom a bright, vibrant young woman and so we must look at ways to engage our modern character with the whale, the war, the desire to secure a burial for her brother that confronted these historical characters. Tess, Hester, and to a significant degree Jane Eyre faced the beasts of their time and station.

You look for those social, moral, and existential conventions that define your characters so that they may try to wriggle free long enough to tell the story of how they were caught up in the first place.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Metaphor is a mischievous but useful way of connecting two or more things in a relationship they might not have had otherwise. Not only that, metaphor brings us a step or more away from language that is merely descriptive, linear, instructional; closer to the way things appear to us in reality. And how is that accomplished? Metaphor, the marriage broker or eHarmony of language, causes us to consider ideas and concepts in context with the life about it, blurring the world of Reality to the point where it becomes a constant shimmer of ambiguity, mystery, and intrigue.

No wonder we inject metaphor and digression into our stories. If they were meant to be pure reportage, metaphor and digression would be the first two things the metaphorical editor with the metaphorical green eye shade would strike out of the copy, and the third ambiguity would be the true nature of the human being which is at least a duality. No, not the duality of God and Man, rather the duality in which each of us is also its double or reverse, the one who wants for a thing to be so that he or she appears to dither but is instead measuring the potential outcome against the ideal goal.

There is an entire dimension of metaphor in the waking life of Reality and in the dream life of reality, but you have had such awareness in you made suspect by years of teachers, jobs, and instruction books that warn you off, holding forth the simple clarity of the declarative sentence, achieved without unnecessary adjective or adverb as a paradigm to be observed. While it is possible to visualize such a world and write of it, you find yourself not using all the tools in the writer's toolkit, rendering your world dependent on event that proceeds step by ponderous step in the present tense, the present moment, with little or no possibility of association or comparison. You would be apt to get the same meaning from a text each time you reread it. There could be no possibility for ambiguity or metaphor in a text that was essentially recipe instead of evocation.

The anarchists in your life were the teachers who injected poetry into your life, the middle school teacher who sent you scurrying to read the poetry of Gabriella Mistral, and the apologetic man who knew of your eagerness to get on with "real" writing allowed that you might find more to relish in Geoffrey Chaucer than in Ernest Hemingway, but asked you at least to compare and contrast the music in the styles of each. The same mild man once suggested there was more to be had in evocation than description. You were not even one and twenty at the time, no use to talk to you. It was the experience that counted, to the point where you saw yourself as wanting to be the rodeo rider of language, tossing a lariat over it, hog-tieing it, wrenching it to the ground, free of any sense of the interior of your own self or of the reader.

Now it is, of course, different to the point where you can see the process beginning to emerge before you; you are more of a kite flyer than a bull rider, the ambiguity more descriptive than the clarity, the metaphor poking its head above ground like a curious gopher, seeking a midnight snack, waiting for its opportunity.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


You needed considerable time--years in fact--to move away from your rebellion against Annie and Jake, easing instead into a conversation, even dialogue with them. There are still times when you hear yourself talking about them or when you find yourself thinking about them, when you realize some of the outposts of rebellion are still in effect, reminding you of those stories of Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific Islands, holding out long after WW II had ended, their loyalties still out there for the emperor and what the empire stood for.

The necessary time to effect this shift was, you now see, in direct proportion to the distance you hoped to place between you and them. What could be more an issue than a young person, respectful of his parents, wishing to forge his own ways and styles, his own vocabulary, his own voice? What could be more ironic than a young person becoming aware of the vast devotion and affection his parents inspired universally, while he enjoyed no such connective tissue? What issue could be taken more ironically by this callow young man than being told his parents actually wanted him?

It took considerable hand wringing and flat-out rebellion to arrive at the same kind of conversation and dialogue with literary parents and influences, none of whom actively sought him out in the first place. In a grim coincidence, the rebellion against Annie and Jake came out at the same time you were alternately seeking freedom from and scurrying to the protective cover of:

Samuel L. Clemens,
Francis Scott Fitzgerald,
Ernest Miller Hemingway,
Ring Lardner,
James Agee,
William Saroyan,
John Fante,
Carson McCullers,
Dorothy Parker,
Edna St. Vincent Millay,
James M. Cain,
Dashiell Hammett,
Raymond Chandler,
John Steinbeck,
Jane Austen,
Geoffrey Chaucer.

At the current stage in your life, you are completely thrilled to see or hear of any trait of Annie or Jake emergent in you. Nor do you become defensive or argumentative should you see traces of "them," those others, in your work; their appearance in your work, just as a walk-on by Annie or Jake in your persona are welcomed as influences, not as individuals you are attempting to imitate.

In truth, you have tried to imitate them all, including Annie and Jake, but you discovered to your frustration at first and then your growing awareness that they cannot be imitated, they matter to you because they are so clearly recognizable; no one asks of them "What do you mean?" Persons may well ask of you, "What do you mean?" at which point you have to go to the source, yourself, ask yourself what you meant by that, then produce an answer. You also need to make sure you write that answer down so that you will remember it and be influenced by it.

You did make a prodigious attempt to do many of the things SLC did, bumming about the West, even working for his old paper, the Territorial-Enterprise, but the bite was missing until you realized it was not enough to be angry at the things he was angry at; you had to learn what you were angry at, then see where it led you. You spent considerable time wandering about Fante's Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, thinking how wonderful it would be to live in one of the building alongside the steep incline of the Angel's Flight, but you lacked his poetry, which made perfect sense because it was not your poetry and although you admired his passion and his music, you admired them because they were poetry and music, but his poetry and music, not your own. You had similar "encounters" with all the others, having a particularly difficult time of it with F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom you envied for the results of his work rather than the actual work itself.

Once you and a chum who also cherished writing ambitions grew by degrees increasingly more drunk, taking turns, as it were, giving up some of your favorites. You didn't realize at the moment how you were giving up the notion of copying them or their lifestyle, but rather you were giving up the notion of imitating them, which is to say trying to counterfeit them. You and your chum came to the same conclusion the next day when neither of you had a hangover headache, as though some great gift were visited upon you. Nor did the room spin nor the mid night supper at Ah Fong's on Sunset and Crescent Heights come up to inflict misery upon you.

Hardcover books today sell at twenty-five and twenty-six dollars, you tell students. Why would anyone pay that much to get you in imitation of someone else? Invariably, they will respond with a bleat, But how else do I get there? And the answer is that nobody knows but if you are going to get there at all, it will most likely be as you sounding like you.

Sometimes, when you are reading through your work, you will be caught off guard by a comparison or a particularly deft combination of words, producing an image that produces deep within you a mischievous laughter and you think, pure Twain, twenty-first century. Sometimes you will happen upon a particular understanding of the human condition and you think Fitzgerald might nod approval, although he might then scold you for some earlier infraction. You had the good grace to excuse yourself when someone observed you were stepping on Jane Austen, and it pleased you to think you heard her voice telling you to mind, don't let it happen again now that you know the rules.

It is so much nicer now, them knowing they no longer have to take care of you or even warn you off projects that lack merit; you knowing that they owe you nothing beyond the considerable pleasure they have afforded you and whatever wisdom and understanding you got from them came not from them hectoring you but rather you listening to them. That, of course, goes for Jake and Annie, too.

Monday, June 7, 2010


A betrayal is the breaking of an allegiance, a deliberate reneging on a promise or previously professed devotion. Every time we speak ill of a friend we are at risk of betraying the covenant of friendship. Every time we speak ill of ourselves, we are making it easier to betray the image of the self as an instrument of integrity, creative reach, and consideration for the integrity, creative reach, and wonders of imagination we find in others.

Before even considering such aspects as craft and conventions, a writer needs to take some stand with regard to the health and well-being of the writing self, establishing a code of ethics and behavior, paying some form of dues to the concept of curiosity, as in What are the things I need to know, What is the Self to which I am being true, and How can I hope to judge the work of others if I cannot judge my own?

It was comparatively easy to have ideals in your own early years because much of your experience came second or third hand, from books, from classroom examples, from the teen and twenties equivalents of moot court proceedings in which you had long, argumentative conversations with peers, lubricated by massive doses of the cheapest red wines available. One of your favorite affirmations was an emphatic avowal of what you would not do: I would never compromise my ideals. I would never--ah, the bugbear of the teens and twenties, selling out, the betrayal of ideas for money and/or political gain. You, who worked in the television industry long enough to accrue points for membership in the Writers' Guild, learned how collaborative and product driven television is, gained practical examples of the things you disavowed in your earlier days, doing in practice the things you'd previously sworn you would not do. The cost was learning more extensive and useful dramatic techniques, without which there was nowhere for you to go, a fact you realized to the point where you returned to what you considered your more proper sphere.

Cutting to the chase--one of the things you needed to learn--you learned what you felt you needed to learn through a series of less traumatic betrayals, which is to say you wrote an extended series of novels and short stories, at first with no plan, then with a growing sense of plan to the point where the betrayals were reminders that what you seek is a lifelong process, that to a degree each finished project is a betrayal of what you most hope to achieve, and which you recognize you will, if you are at all to progress, need to continue betraying such things as pride, humility, hubris. It might work.

At the moment you are sitting in a lofty perch of having a project out in submission, represented by an agent who is solid behind it, requested by a number of potential publishers. You note the fact that publishers tend to hold editorial meetings in the middle of the week; most publishers you worked for had meetings on Wednesdays, one or two others you know of had those meetings on Thursdays. There is a chance you will have to betray some ideals; editors have notes and thoughts about the best form of a work. As an editor, you have had such notions about the potential for a work. It comes to you that this form of betrayal is not covert, not back stabbing; it is done to move yourself through an association of trust with individuals you respect to a point where you have learned a tad more than you did when you first finished the project and sent it forth.