Monday, July 5, 2010

Letters, V

Old habits die hard.  I'm writing this to you in hopes it will save you from the same error I have made these many times over the years, hopes that are immediately made not as altruistic as they might have seemed but rather are redirected at me in retro-fitted hope that something can be learned from them.  By me.  Once again, you have become the railing off which the billiard ball is caromed.  And yet, I am truly fond of you, watching your progress as you emerge from your own shadowy origins.

The habit of which I speak is the short story.  In this case it is a particular short story I have provisionally called "Uncle Charlie," whence it will remain until when and if a more apt title presents itself.  The story itself has emerged because of notes I was making for a novel that has evolved--are you ready for this?--from the notes I was making for an earlier short story, the energy of which I did not wish to lose while I was pursuing a lengthened proposal my agent had requested, thinking to angle for a two-book package that, if effective, could at least provide an income stream that would allow an eighty- or ninety-percent focus on works in progress over the next year or so.  The plan was working, up to a point, but I should have known better by now, stopping every day or so to add a comment to the notes on the short story, buoyed immeasurably by the thought of keeping the story alive while pursuing goals of a higher priority.  Made me feel energized and organized.  The story in question concerns a man who has just been given a career promotion that is in many ways a crowning achievement for him, one he wishes to celebrate with his wife, who interprets the celebration as a ceremony of another kind altogether, a nice play, I thought, on mixed messages between individuals.  I knew the husband pretty well because I had co-opted him from an earlier story, one not yet published.

You need some background on the wife, I reasoned, and so a background check was ordered, and the result is some three thousand words to date on a short story in which the wife appears briefly as a sixteen-year-old, the principal character becoming her uncle, about whom you knew similarly little.  On page 14 you have already discovered that Uncle Charlie is a PhD in the Classics, used to profess at UCSB, is now a regular and professed adherent of AA, and has just taken up with a barista named Trish from The North Star Coffee Shop on State Street.  You also have a suspicion that a doctoral student named Kate had come to UCSB from Stanford to study with Charlie and had become physically involved with him as well, which probably explains some of the reason you advanced to yourself the rationale, Well, just a page or two a day until the narrative achieves a better shape and direction.  You have been involved for too long with such sophistries and tropes from your days with publishing ventures and, indeed, with your days in the university not to recognize the arrant nonsense of your rationale.

I first noticed the tendency back in the day, when I had grown tired of the journalism and graphic arts courses that drew me to Los Angeles city College.  The courses in their English Department awoke in me the sure knowledge that I must transfer across town to the University of California in Westwood, wherein my major would be the no nonsense English major with a specialty in American Literature.  Having then arrived, I reasoned how splendid it would be to do well my first semester there, not only for the satisfaction of doing well but to effect the application of a rubber stamp on my registration card that would allow me to enter the stacks of the then main library.  Fox being allowed to enter chicken coop.  Stuff like that.  Trouble as that as final examinations came about that first semester, so also did the idea for a short story.  The exam period was long.  So was the short story--about sixty pages as I recall.  Ars longa, vita brevis took on a new meaning:  the length of a short story is in direct proportion to the intensity and extent of the real-time obligation.  I did not get my registration card stamped ADMIT TO STACKS that first semester; it began in the second semester, but not from what you would think.  You would, for instance, not think that it was because I'd begun dating a girl named Louise, who worked at the library, but that is another story.  The short story habit may have been in place before the move to UCLA; that was the first time I'd noticed it in operation.  It has been as close a companion as the remarkable animal friends I have encountered over the years, dogging (pun intended) my heels.  It is the habit of which I write, from which I seek to break away.

So here is the current state of affairs, young or middle-aged writer friend:

Along with the book length manuscript I sent off to my agent was a proposal for the book in question, selling points and tools for Toni to use when she approached publishers.  Happy to report, she loved the book itself and the proposal, particularly the one describing the novel I'm working on, but also reacting with a snap to a nonfiction project I'd planned to engage right after the novel is finished.

Agent likes the idea for the novel, LOVES the nonfiction project.  Could I expand on that description?

I could and did expand the description, which has completely knocked the novel-in-progress out of the work order I'd devised, due recognition and thanks accorded to ENK, who has shown me a thing or two about work order.  Now, I love the nonfiction project and take notes which I place in the novel notebook.  The novel already has seven and a half chapters, including maps and timelines.  There is another notebook for short story ideas.  There are two notes for short stories which are way down on the priority but, upon rereading them or, you might say, revisiting them, still contain the energy.  Lightning in a bottle?  A genie in a bottle is probably more appropriate.

Latest short story introduces Harry and Emily.  In order to get to know Harry better, I pillage and loot an unpublished story called "Insouciance."  In order to know Emily better, I discover that in earlier notes she was Ella and before that she was Sarah, which was better than Ella because Sarah has tattoos and they didn't seem right on Ella, nor does it seem right that Ella is the name of an ex-girlfriend's dog. On the other hand, it was all right for Emily to have a tattoo which she got, I discovered, after the way her parents treated Uncle Charlie, whom Emily loves and thus I not only had to get to know Uncle Charlie, I had so much relevant information orbiting about that it simply said it wanted to orbit about something tangible, which is an approximation of it wanting to be orbiting about the armature of a novel.

There are better ways, young or middle-aged writer, or even geezer writers to learn how to construct a novel than the stumbling effect I have just described.  The facts are that what I have described to you is a corner I have backed myself into or, if you prefer, painted myself into because of all the goddamned practical advice I'd been offered in books I wanted to believe but ultimately could not, and in classes I took which prompted ways for doing things that were more straightforward, honest, you might say, direct and to the point.

There is no direct and to the point way of writing a goddamned novel or short story; if there were such ways, the world would be filled with formulaic and well-machined novels and short stories instead of the goddamned novels and short stories orbiting in abundance about us.  The thing is, dear writer friends, that there are all those sturdy folk out there wanting some degree of perfection, and there is no such thing, only madness, insanity, compulsive behavior, and irrepressible dreams fighting for survival in the jungle of modification and standardization.  You will not learn a whit from writing a standardized novel or short story.  Once in a while, a standardized mosquito may slip through the defenses and get a nibble of you, but until you are bitten by a truly crazed mosquito, you have not really been bitten.

I know what it is to be bitten by nutcase mosquitoes and to have read rollicking stories that have not been sanitized or mass produced into a dreary Eggo waffle existence.  You want decent waffles, you have to think of a place like Roscoe's or make your own from scratch.  Doesn't matter if you never made a waffle before, you need to learn a little basics of kitchen chemistry, then set out to break some eggs, sprinkle some flour, add a splash of milk, get your waffle iron fired up, and stop looking for the perfection that can never be because its flip side is standardization.  Why are so many novels and short stories so awful?  Why are so many pancakes and waffles at the International House of Pancakes so standardized?  Look at the people who go there, seeking perfect waffles and pancakes, dragging their perfect mates and kiddies along with them. No wonder they are so depressing, why the waitpersons are so apologetic, hiding behind the false sincerity of knowing the best their kitchen can produce is fucking standardization.

Looks like I gave away the store today, which I don't mind in the slightest if it means that one or more of you will burst their creative eggs on a novel or story that takes me somewhere.

1 comment:

Lori Witzel said...

Loved this. (But then, I would.)