The recent arrival of a bookshelf ordered on line brought untold resolutions to never again order anything sold with the designation: Some assembly required.
Such items may well not be a challenge for those who score "high manual skills" on aptitude tests, but they are no friend to you. In fact, had you been born into the Ice Age, or even the Stone or Bronze Ages, a so-called cave person, you would have been screwed, perhaps even fucked. "Sorry," the leader of the hunting clan would have said, "We were hoping for someone with greater toolmaking and butchering skills. Perhaps even the ability to throw a spear with accuracy at a considerable distance, woolly mammoths being what they are."
You were able, after some frustrations, able to assemble the bookcase to the point where it holds books without wobbling or sagging, bringing you to the awareness that the next time you see the designation "some assembly required," you will also look for a warning that some swearing may be required.
This is not mere hyperbole. You often order stories and have recently accepted delivery on a novel. Assembly is definitely called for in both. So is swearing. So it should be. To get a short story or novel to stand without wobbling or sagging, you need skills of dramatic carpentry and design, true enough, but to get these bits of literary furniture to hold feelings, themes, zeitgeists, this requires the swearing born of anxiety, concern, faith, and a reach across some chasm that separates the known and familiar from the mysterious and transformative.
You would be properly suspicious were any short story or novel assembled by you to emerge in perfect plumb without some swearing or expression of dismay along the process, nor would the occasional kick in the shelves be amiss. The simple truth is: There are no instructions for this sort of thing; you must begin afresh each time, as though you faced an impenetrable learning curve, goaded by an equally inextinguishable urge to see the new project through to its wobbly, sagging emergence into the world, whereupon you would need with some haste to create a shim which could give it greater stability in the eyes of those who would chance to lean upon it.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
The recent arrival of a bookshelf ordered on line brought untold resolutions to never again order anything sold with the designation: Some assembly required.
Monday, August 30, 2010
You feed Sally a generous breakfast because she has lost some weight and because you might not be seeing her for a few days. Then you load her into the car and start down the PCH toward LA, taking a route she has taken with you for a number of years. Little does she know what awaits her. You are barely punctual for a ten o'clock appointment at the office of the man who was the instructor in veterinary school of your present vet.
Sally is logged into the bureaucracy. The Brentwood Pet Hospital is like an episode of ER but no George Clooney, rather a cadre of Goldens, a Whippet with front legs in a cast, a frizzy poodle and an amiable pound dog, short hair looking like a mix of hound and boxer. The doctor is only half an hour late and this was because another doctor was using the ultrasound device. He spends some time feeling about Sally's throat, grimacing with what you try not to interpret as truly bad news as in inoperable bad news as in unable to remove the afflicted thyroid which has been diagnosed as nodular with high probability the nodules are malignant.
A bit more than an hour later,he returns Sally to you, a patch of hair having been shaved below her chin. The tumors have been scanned and emerge sufficiently lacking in the density associated with cancerous behavior. Besides, both aspects of her thyroid have nodules at the same place; unlikely behavior for cancerous tumor. Sally's chart is off to an endocrinologist and Sally is back up the coast to Santa Barbara, with the attitude of one who knew all along that this was no big deal.
The vet's grimace turns out to have been his skeptical look, the look of not trusting a diagnosis and wanting further verification.
Your own expression was much other than skeptical, rather jubilant. You'd thought the proper course would have been removal of both her thyroids to prevent cancer from metastasizing and spreading through her body as cancer cells are likely to do, an act that would have put her through a rough week and then a life time of needing to take thyroid pills, just as Mary Conrad needs to take them or, for that matter, a former student, Donna Barnett.
Sally knocks off a hamburger patty and one of the two sausage links that came with your brunch. You both burp happily northward up the Pacific Coast Highway. You experience the pure effervescent joy of knowing a dear friend is out of harm's way, of a chaotic universe with a moment of respite and enthusiasm. Your friend dozes while you drive, hearing a lively music of the spheres, the sounds of a world where for a moment all is well. You are reminded of the tail end of the motion picture, The Lion in Winter, where Peter O'Toole as Henry II of England sets Katherine Hepburn as his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, off in the bark that will take her back to the castle where she is more or less under house arrest. He waves fondly after her. "Sometimes," he calls after her, "I think we'll live forever."
As you approach Deer Creek, one of Sally's favorite gamboling and sniffing places with a stunning, hundred-eighty-degree view of the coast, you call to her in the hatchback platform where she is now coming alert. "Let's live for ever, kiddo, and write the hell out of things."
The expression on her face suggests she is nodding. She is really taking in the rich smells of chaparral, sea iodine, and the animal population of the canyon: coyotes, bobcats, birds, rodents, squirrels. Maybe, she seems to be saying, fifty-fifty. Write the hell out of things and spend some time in places like this. Deal?
Sunday, August 29, 2010
What makes a story interesting?
You ask because of a recent brush with boredom, which caused you to define your awareness of the way the major feeling associated with that unfortunate state is the sense of being alarmingly disinterested while at the same time being trapped within a situation from which there is no immediate retreat.
At such times when you were finally freed of a bout of boredom, it seemed to you that everything about you, the merest hint of a flower or tree or dog or cloud carried sensual transportation to a happier state.
Disinterest and trapped are both conditions wanting some greater specificity as a means of conveying the helplessness and of unseen walls moving in on your living and breathing space. Disinterest conveys a state where no persons or creatures or matter are close enough to hand for which to display some concern or connection. Disinterest, a cousin once removed from boredom, is the awareness of being surrounded by facts, random information, persons, materials, utensils, and art of little or no consequence for you. You utterly lack the conditions necessary to care about any of them. Trapped means there is no apparent exit, no escape hatch through which you may flee, heaving sighs of relief, taking in gulps of celebratory air. You are stuck where you are and in the situation you are in for a period of time that by its very nature will seem longer in the experience of it as it weighs in upon you that its actual duration. Thus boredom begins to approximate being without agreeable sense stimuli for a period in which time is ductile, capable of being drawn out to its extreme limits.
So you have ventured toward definition of interest via the negative route by which you defined what it lacks. Radiant stimuli, landing on your thirsty receptors, provide the beginnings of interest. All persons, places, and things emit vibrations; those with whom you feel in some form of connection evoke a response in you of recognition, familiarity, intrigue, and perhaps even a touch of mystery. These qualities urge you forth into that delightful state of being interested, of caring, of in ways you scarcely understand urge you to open your receptors further, taking in the powers about you to the point where you respond by sending out responses of your own, which have their effect or not on the persons, places, and things of interest to you.
Interest may be a wide avenue or a back alley. It may be mutual or of no consequence, adding to the two qualities that so constantly reside in story--suspense and curiosity. Take any two persons performing the same activity, say reading a book. One interests you to the point where you begin creating a pearl in your imagination. The other does not send forth body language or vibrations or aura or any kind of psychic radar that cause you to register that person's engaging details.
A day without interest of any sort is intolerable, an hour without it is boredom, the exit from which is the ingenuity of your imagination.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
If the book you are reading begins to displease you, you can skip ahead, hopeful of finding a more engaging foothold, or you can set the book aside, never to return. If a film you are watching in a theater begins to turn your sensitivities as though you had eaten the wrong taco at the wrong restaurant, you can get up and leave. Similarly you can switch the channel on your TV, seek another CD for a more enjoyable musical experience, bail out of a play or lecture at an intermission, toss a magazine aside or even not renew your subscription when renewal time comes about. You could, if you were a student, drop a class when it became apparent to you that the instructor was monotonous in presentation or brought a particular bias to the presentation that caused you to wait for another instructor to act as your guide.
These ventures all have the common thread of an escape hatch. You are escaping from disinterest or lack of engagement. You are escaping from boredom. By extrapolation, boredom is the product of circumstances that force you to remain in the vicinity of an exposure to dramatic, statistical, or artistic material that by its very nature causes you to wish to avoid. Boredom is being trapped in a situation where you are being presented with some form of information you wish no exposure to.
The presentiment of boredom arrives with an ominous cadence of inner responses being triggered in you, causing you to estimate a level at which your tolerance will erupt. Boredom is the realization that you must endure even more information you do not wish to inflict on your sensory receptors. If, you tell yourself, I have to read one more page, hear one more sentence, endure one more scene, I will do something that allows me to expel the pent-up resentment that has been building within me.
You would think that a writer would use the process of writing to construct dramatic situations that cause the exact opposite of boredom, which is to say empathy, involvement, concern, care. You would think that one of the writer's earliest motivations was to create emotional and imaginary landscapes he or she was unable to find anywhere else and thus satisfy an inner craving for transportation away from the drabness of the quotidian and into the excited tingle of another world. You would think so and in an approach that has still not entirely given way to skepticism or cynicism, you approach new books with the belief that they are tickets to another universe, a fraught universe, a universe that causes your skin to tingle, your mind to roar with anticipation, your feelings to perform arpeggios and glissandos on your spinal column.
But we are of course not all tuned to the same responsive key nor do we have interests shared by great swaths of humankind. Your interests can and do bore others, which has made you aware of the great tool of voicing by which it becomes possible to interest individuals with the information you are eager to provide rather than bore or distract them.
Spending time in a condition of boredom is a humbling experience for a writer, one possibly lost in the sheer exuberance of escaping the atmosphere of boredom. Your own biggest fear is that of boring those you wish for some reason or complexity or reasons to interest. The sense that you are boring such an individual is worse than a hundred rejection slips because you have become alert to the multiplicity of reasons for the rejection slip that have nothing to do with boredom.
It becomes so easy to generalize: The key to effective storytelling is to begin with an irresistible sentence, followed by another, and then another, after which you will have built sufficient momentum to cause whoever shall read them to urge you to continue. At this point you will have experienced the seeming magic of power by putting into play the great dramatic maxim, "Never take the reader where the reader wants to go." Yeah, right.
Well, actually, it is right. Withhold. When you present the reader with more information and/or philosophy than the reader wants to know, you have brought them right back to the point at hand, which is to say you have put them not in care's way or harm's way but in the way of boredom.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Sometimes as a youngster, you tried your hand at fishing. The results were often more frustrating than the satisfying fishing stories so many of your friends tell, but if only in metaphor, you did catch something every bit as meaningful to you than the fish you did not catch.
Because it had never occurred to you to investigate fishing, your memory bites onto the tempting bait of your father, appearing before you, revealing to you with the same sense of importance as a rabbi unrolling a Torah, a display of small hooks. "With these," he said, "You will be able to catch fish--" his hands spread to a remarkable width,"--this long. First, you will need a line." From is pocket he drew a tidy skein, black and shiny, radiant with the implication of tensile strength. "And of course, something to attract the fish." You were then led to the back yard, where a patch of sunburned grass awaited under a clothesline holder that reminded you of a saguaro cactus. Your father, who was always gifted at producing things, showed you a shovel with which, in a single scoop of the earth under the clothesline, unearthed a clutch of worms. "Fish," he said, "are attracted to worms."
Your mother, who wanted no truck with worms, informed you that fish may also be attracted to tiny pieces of hamburger, chunks of bread, even pellets of peanut butter, none of which she had scruples about handling.
The early venues for your fishing expeditions were invariably what was called Westlake Park, now called MacArthur Park, in the lower reaches of Wilshire Boulevard in midtown Los Angeles. There were indeed fish there, and beyond your ken of sensitivity, you spent considerable time there because, just across the street, were the offices of an eye surgeon-opthamologist whose patient you were in hopes of correcting a strabismus. Although many fish were attracted to the various bait you set out for them (including worms you did not tell your mother about), none of them were motivated to fulfill your father's predictions.
Some years later, your fishing expeditions extended to the Santa Monica Pier at the far western extreme of Wilshire Boulevard, where you actually caught a fish or two but really learned how to fish by yelling obscenities at the fishermen on the incoming boats, provoking them to throw fish at you.
A hook in time became a word. The line became a sentence. The bait became, gradually an ironic statement and then, later still, what a character wanted, what a character dreamed of, or a character being forced to make a decision.
As you became more deeply involved with publishing, your fishing expeditions tended to be overtly social, arranged by printers and manufacturers and paper companies for their clients. Thus your first experience with waders and a spinning reel which was guaranteed to bring forth rainbow and brown trout found you at the crack of sunrise, badly hung over, in the cold waters of eastern Tennessee, wondering about your balance. Hush puppies and trout sauteed in bacon grease are, you discovered, excellent anodynes to the common hangover. Ventures of a similar nature were repeated--sans hangover--off the coastlines of northern and central California, all of them having to do more with the social than the fishing.
Thus it is the metaphor of fishing rather than the act of fishing that attracts you. He who is probably your closest friend, Barnaby Conrad, gets a gleam in his eye when you mention woolly buggers and other of the so-called dry fly fishing lures. He is a catch-and-release man and although he has in fact written thirty-seven books, soon to be thirty-nine, he has no need to see a metaphor so much as the activity itself. In the larger sense, this is true. There is action and there is metaphor. Action may become metaphor, but metaphor rarely becomes action. Writing is about action, and even though Mr. Conrad is a catch-and-release man, he is not at all adverse to a trout fillet or two for breakfast of a late summer's morning after being out in the river with his four-beat cast and his instincts honed for where the big ones may be lurking, just below the surface.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Time and convention are often the rugs of storytelling, caught in midair by some novel or short story, as they are being yanked from under the concepts and guidelines of the dramatic past.
Because they are so basic, some truths tend to fall between the cracks as you scurry about in your investigations of the provenance and credentials of less obvious, more arcane verities. It is as though you are drawn away from simple truths wearing sensible shoes by enticing minor ones clad in four-inch pumps.
No surprise that each time you need to remind yourself of one of the most basic truths of all, you come away with a sense of having at last recognized in some permanent way its import, then resolved to control it. You even have specific approaches to support the control.
The basic truth in question is the recognition that storytelling is an evocative rather than descriptive enterprise. In apercu, you don't describe how a character feels about a particular situation, you put the character into some form of dramatic action--action verbs rather than thought verbs--which conveys to the reader how the character felt at a particular time or indeed feels right now. We should know from our own observation as opposed to being told a thing is so by the author, which is to say by you.
A serious culprit in boring dramatic prose is the piled-on depth of description of things, events, responses imputed to characters by a garrulous writer. The reader who enjoys fiction is the reader who enjoys the work of experiencing the results of the thing the writer enjoys creating.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
A litmus test is a decisive evaluation of a single factor, used in chemistry to determine if a substance is acid, which is to say sour, reactive with metals and carbonates, and has a pH less than 7.0; it can exist in a liquid, solid, or gas state. Another form of the litmus test determines if a substance is alkaline, or has a pH greater than 7.0. From this chemical use, litmus test has evolved into civilian life as an indication of the quality, composition, or veracity of any single factor such as attitude--the litmus test of her sincerity--or event--the litmus test of the event's effectiveness--or fact--the litmus test of the truth and accuracy of information.
The litmus test of your ability to see and render reality of attitudes, such as your own cynicism or approval; events, such as your perception of interpretation of a performance by one or more characters; and facts, such as your awareness of the qualities inherent in persons, places, and things, is in what you consider a final draft of a story or essay. On balance, you are comfortable with the results, meaning at any given time you can be confronted with something that impresses you by its location at either rat tail of the Bell Curve.
Attempting to quantify or measure ability, insight, and instinct are at best exercises more rooted in philosophy and theory than in actual heft. Sometimes feeling you are at either rat tail produces a feeling of impatience, the urge either to get more down at this level of intensity or improve dramatically from this level of awfulness-producing feelings. Such days come and go in no particular order. As great as the rush of completing a draft is, or of being able to assess that the current draft is the best you can get out of a project, and now on to submission, the acknowledged feeling of being attuned with the universe is the feeling that comes in the middle of a project, launched and awash with curiosity mingled with fear mingled with the sense that you have some sort of a plan that will likely see you several steps ahead. Then you have only to contend with the fear that on the morrow all this confidence will have left you and that the material which only yesterday seemed so certain and comfortable is something written by a passing stranger who found your keyboard unused. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; indeed it is not a neutral thing, either--it simply is, leaving you facing the metaphoric equivalent of what the ancient seafarers faced when setting forth in their crafts each day in search of some goal, whether it be immediate food, discovery of new trade routes, or new territory. These ancients knew enough about sailing to insure a relatively comfortable rate of venturing forth and safe return. It might take some time, particularly if there were no landmarks in sight and a certain amount of reckoning were required, yet they set forth with attitudes and goals.
Worst case scenario for you--you get a bit wet.
Been there, done that.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Having a short story out in circulation is somewhat like being at a deck or patio party of a Summer's evening, filled with risk and mosquito and the sharp tang of citronella candles burning to ward off the pesky dive bombers. The host or hostess suggesting we all retire inside being the equivalent of the envelope with the news that the story has found a home in some journal.
Having a book in circulation is, as you've previously noted, of a piece with a colonoscopy; everyone has a look at your insides, clucks tongue, makes guttural noises of appraisal, wishes you the best of luck. Unlike the acceptance of a short story, the news of acceptance for a book means the second round of work, those unanticipated hot and flat spots some editorial eye has found and has called to your attention .
Having a dog at a grooming service is exponentially, achingly worse, even though you understand fully that having a soothing bath and having her matted areas trimmed is intended to improve her comfort and sense of well-being. You are immediately aware of the vast numbers of persons about you who have dogs; not only that, they have their dogs with them. It is one thing for Sally to want to stay in her room when you go to the Y or for coffee at Peet's or La Luna Cafe; she has merely opted out of accompanying you, as she routinely opts in when you leave for a teaching gig. The connection between person and dog is borne in on you by the absence of the dog, your utter lack of ability to visualize where she is and what she is doing. You have in effect consigned her over to Don, who radiates a concern for his animal charges, even to the point of noticing Sally's arthritic walk. Your sense of comfort at having consigned her to Don is similar to your having in a real sense given your entire being and consciousness over to Alex Koper over six years ago, knowing he would leave a considerably long scar on your torso, from sternum down below belly button, in his search-and-destroy patrol within your entrails. You did not need to be reminded of the considerable bond between you and Sally, nor do you need to spend too much time thinking through the ramifications and consequences of being in such a bond. Unless there is some anomaly, you will outlive her, which means among other things the need to embark on those five stages outlined by the late, lamented Dr. Kubler-Ross. In the strength of connection there is the vulnerability you feel every time you are away from her, every time you have something in circulation, whether it is a manuscript, your admiration for another person, your regard for a political/social ideal, or the simple fact of loving a person, place or thing, there is the potential for anomaly that will get your sense of comfort and confidence stuck waiting on some desolate runway, as you work your way through Dr. K-R's five stages.
What it comes down to is that a life without risk is no life, rather an existence; it offers nothing to experience, write about, or love; it is as empty as the tombs and caverns of the ancients that have been looted of their treasures, leaving the rest of us to wonder what the culture was that produced them.
Monday, August 23, 2010
How real is realism? How impressionistic is impressionism? Why would either of these issues matter to a writer constructing a story?
Realism can be defined by arguing that it attempts to portray the world and its inhabitants pretty much as it is, where the characters and writer are of more or less the same mind about the history of events that have taken place to the moment of writing. There was, for instance, the Crusades, the succession of kings in England, and presidents in the U.S. William Shakespeare writes a play in which he demonstrates how the man who became the actual Richard III became the anointed King of England, tweaking actual events, inventing others. Along comes a writer such as Philip Roth, who takes a slight detour from realism when he writes a novel in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and becomes President of the United States. Roth also writes a novel in which a man becomes transmogrified into a female breast. May we argue that both the playwright and novelist were merely tweaking realism to provide a dramatic and thematic effect?
We may have assumed that impression somehow distorts or exaggerates reality or, if we wish to be argumentative, assert the impossibility of rendering reality as it is and regardless of approach add or subtract some element from it, offering merely our individual impression of a reality in which our particular story can gain traction.
Neither of these issues--reality and/or impression--has value to the writer until the story is at least in the first draft, possibly even as far in as third or fourth. Tempting as it may be to assume a pose or an approach, such issues in the beginning add the presence of thought to the process of getting the work down in the first place. Even if a writer wishes to tell tales in which magic or an extrapolation on known scientific discovery play active parts, it is more profitable for the writer to tell the tale in the form in which it appears, then discover the proper means for setting the jewel of medium into the setting of dramatic construction. The real questions are the basic ones: What is the story about? Whose story is it? What is the goal? Why should we care? Thus if these critical-related questions were reshuffled to something as basic as What is the one tool a writer should carry into the opening confrontations with a story? the answer would be variations on the theme of care/concern/curiosity. Then we reach into the tool kit for the wedges that propel the idea into being, the characters who will be the actors who demonstrate the story, and the narrative voice, which provides the emotional landscape.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
For all it is nothing less than miraculous for two individuals to form an intense and lasting bond, it stretches the imagination beyond limits to find a book that inspires trust, fidelity, challenge, and growth.
You have in your ways been involved in both types, seeing them flourish, becoming a self you liked better as a result. These bonds--those of friendship, romance, and remarkable books--seemed often to arrive by accident, when you were least expecting them. You have the delights of the memories of them, reaching out to you as you reached to them. You have also the sense of trial and error, how a word or two, a tone of voice, a vagrant attitude could put you off such a relationship, in effect motivating you to replace the relationship on the shelf whence it came.
All too often you are aware of the other side of the coin, of you for one reason or other failing to make the cut or, as is said in show business, the call back. Being on this side of the net is not an easy thing for your ego or, for that matter, for anyone's ego, and yet it is a part of the wisdom you, as a rock rolling down a hill, pick up from the simple inertia of rolling downward.
Just today an old and dear friend sat across a table from you and told you of behavior she felt almost powerless to stop, behavior that was, as she put it, from an individual she recognized as her and as well as the her she did not like being.
Connections with individuals seems so rare to you that the entire concept has a sense of the mysterious if not the downright mysterious. Connections with books seem equally rare. At the moment your glue for holding these things together is your own work, whether it is writing, teaching, or editing. It is mysterious if not mystical when you are able to invest in these activities to the degree that you feel some added connection with them.
You could well have added music to the list because there, too, it is difficult to cope with the sheer number of compositions and their interpretations. The individuals you are drawn to, the books and musical compositions with which you seek to form some kind of bond seem at first infused with bravura, that meeting place where confidence, bravery, and agility conflate, then wish to come forth to converse, to share.
The more you look at and consider these qualities, you can see why the numbers seem so enormous to you, so unlikely, which pushes you back to the beginning and the sense that you must work to keep them in view so that you can, as your ability allows, send them forth as your enthusiasm allows.
To have cherished friends, remarkable books and music to which you can repair, you must seek as you have sought storytelling skills the craft of being a cherished friend, or reflecting the conversations you have had with the books and music you prize. These are no small tasks at any time, nor have they ever been, but to your credit you have recognized those who have accomplished them.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
When it is working, you scarcely notice anything but a sense of smooth inevitability that takes you into an awareness well beyond thought. The "it" is, of course, the conveyance known as story, involving, mysterious, primal.
When it is not working, you become aware of and fret about the fact of it being a rail bed of a narrow-gauge train, the dips and upthrusts of grade numerous and sudden. The turns are not always banked with any subtlety or with attention to comfort. Sometimes a cow or frightened deer panics, frozen on the tracks.
Sometimes it is altogether less like riding a train and more like being a flea a big dog is trying to shake from his back. The more you think about it, try to make repairs, add mechanics of smoothness, the more the metaphor grows to the extent of you trying to give a large dog a bath in a small tub. Both of you get wet. Neither of you wishes to be wet. Neither of you, in fact, wishes to be where you are, doing what you are doing.
At such times there are few certainties, one of them being that the metaphors for what you are attempting to do and are in fact not doing become more monstrous and disorienting. If you have been in such situations often enough, you will recognize the feelings of uneasiness and dread spreading through your awareness. If you persist, the worst that can happen is the result of some flat, stilted pages in which you attempt to explain too much, perhaps noting as you read these pages that you are explaining to yourself. Also, if you persist, the feelings of dread and disorientation will begin to slide away and you will have ridden through the poorly banked turns and precipitous drops, experiencing once again the awareness of being, pure writer being. For reasons still not entirely clear to you, risk is almost always involved in the sense of disconnection; you need to see how effective taking some risk or unexpected turn is as a companion on these ungainly moves through the landscape of process.
Formula breeds certainty of result and safety and boredom. Risk causes the forehead to erupt with the tingle of fear and entrance to the unknown. Boredom produces more of itself, predictable, correct, safe, too polite to say how boring boredom truly is.
Friday, August 20, 2010
A longtime pleasure has been your investigation of the potential for unseen connections between pairs or triads of words. At times, unseen meanings and relations jump forth at you like little kids in border towns, selling Chiclets gum. On other occasions, what you supposed was already apparent jostled at you like aggressive bargain hunters at a Filene's basement sale.
The former circumstances bring unalloyed joy and noticeable surge to your writing energy. The latter tend to produce the result of the butt of your palm as it strikes your forehead. Both responses are, you believe, integral to the process by which you set words down on notepad or computer screen when you go about composing.
The words responsible for bringing this effect out from the wings and induced to take a bow are vulnerability and risk. You have for some time been convinced that one of the things that brings a character--your own or someone else's--to a point of interest to you is the vulnerability that character brings to the story in which he or she appears. Vulnerability equals the risk of being hurt as the result of a venture, a position taken, of neutrality affected, of an attitude. Vulnerability means the risk of being wrong, making the wrong choice, facing the consequences of making no choice. Vulnerability is a woman who loves to dance, who has had her feet trod upon a few times too many by partners who are not so nimble. Yet her love of the dance draws her onward one more time. It is a risk she takes and in the process of taking it, she endears herself to us.
Vulnerability is openness to being hurt, disappointed, rejected, dumped; it peers over the shoulder of happiness looking for a wedge issue and as such you have seen it and you have witnessed it in those about you. The salient point in you observation is that even when it takes up residence in a person for whom you have no special fondness or respect, you nevertheless feel a tinge of empathy, however brief. Poor S.O.B., you think. About to get it. Should said poor S.O.B. get too much of it, you are in danger of experiencing schadenfreude, which has an enormous rebound from the satisfaction you felt the S.O.B. deserved to the guilt you experience wishing it upon said S.O.B.
A character who has no vulnerability is difficult to like. The goddess mother of Achilles understood this well, and left that small part of his body vulnerable so that her son could then go forth to appear in The Iliad and, for that matter, untold legends. A character without vulnerability is a mockery of the human condition, even insulated from hubris and pomposity; a character who is afraid to love, afraid to take risks, afraid to change his mind, afraid to speak his version of the truth, or any combination of these is someone we can readily identify with because we readers have ourselves experienced all these fears and the unnamed fears of the unknown. Readers, serious, well-read readers, are part romantics, part cynic; they expect something to go wrong because they are past the age of having learned to read, at which point birthday cakes have been the wrong flavor, cherished pets have died or been returned to the store from which they came, promises broken. Subsequently, first and only loves have soured, friendships have been for any number of reasons abrogated, life has proved itself to demonstrate the calculus of unfairness. Thus a reader encountering characters for whom nothing goes wrong will soon lose interest, thinking the suspension of disbelief has been misplaced by the author or the author's editor.
You read in anticipation of something going wrong, especially in the case of individuals who believed everything was just getting good or right or happy. You wish to see how these individuals handle things going wrong. Even if you secretly believe Achilles was a schmuck for taking umbrage as he did at the outset of The Iliad, you gradually understand what being a schmuck was under those circumstances, when such lofty stature was reserved for men of royal or military rank, and you could get on board in The Iliad with the comfort that being a schmuck in those days meant something grand and dramatic, possibly even tragic. Now anyone can be a schmuck and our literature is the poorer for it. Don't worry: someone will think ill of you when some of your work appears in print or digitally because, after all, you have quite unintentionally made yourself vulnerable by putting your feelings and visions and leaps of imagination in the public eye.
Without risk the only consequences are regret and rationalization for the failure to take the leap. With risk there is the great cornucopia of failure waiting, and even a character with a notable resume of failures brings something to the stage, a sense of utter nobility, stubbornness, or foolish, or a delightful combination of all three. Who could want more in a character?
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Craft is a pleasing word, a lovely word, especially when taken in context with vehicle, each suggesting a medium of transportation, for moving you from one place to the next. A horse is a conveyance; you would appreciate most horses where ever you met them, but you would not think of either as a craft or a vehicle. Somehow both words became embedded in your sensitivity from a line of dialogue when you first saw the motion picture The Philadelphia Story. Speaking of a craft, a yacht, really, the Tracy character, portrayed by Katherine Hepburn, said of it with a fond sigh, "She was yare." You could not wait to consult the word in a dictionary, mentally fondling it, loving the sound of it, eager to have occasion to use it. When you finally did, an editor had circled it and written in the margin "Use words people can understand." This did nothing to diminish your fondness for the word and the sense it conveyed of a craft making graceful progress, exuding a sensual joy in movement. "People should not be resistant to new words," you told the editor. As you recall, you did not work long for him.
It is possible to think of craft in yet another way, as a verb and a noun, to craft a sentence or a story or an essay, as a word to connote the making of those splendid things and for the same reasons of which Dylan Thomas wrote:
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
What a comfort then to aspire to having a craft, a vehicle, as it were, for conveying words and ideas and pictures, moving them along by evocation as opposed to the kinds of descriptions that seem to fit more in instruction manuals than in stories and essays. As you tap the gunwales of your craft before launching it or, often times having already set it afloat only to notice leaks, seepage, over lading, you are in a comfortable stream with the men and women whose works you have come to admire over the years and who have each in some special way added a sense of the yare-ness of their craft to the destination you intend when you set forth. You have also learned from many of them the literary equivalent of an awareness you came by on your own. An event or destination is never exactly as you anticipate; it is either far more pleasing than you'd supposed or far more dreadful than you'd suspected. The point of arrival frequently changes when you use your vehicle. This is because you may have made wrong turns or discovered a short cut or received information directing you to an unanticipated destination.
When you notice a dent or scratch in your vehicle, you take it to a body shop to have repairs made. Even as you write this, you are aware of a dent on your Yaris, the scar of a falling branch in a wind storm. There is also a slight scratch on a fender, the result of you miscalculating your closeness to a large boulder adjacent a neighborhood park where you walk and picnic with Sally. Neither of these repairs will cause the vehicle to run any better. You know that, but there is an innate sense of wanting to care for all vehicles you may have in your possession. A vehicle is, after all, a tool, a cohort in getting you started, then delivered. You would be in desperate straits if your record of departures and arrivals in your Yaris were of a kind with your departures into stories and essays, some of which have been years in the making. The positive side of that is the way you have been dealing with these tools, these vehicles, these craft for years and are at a plateau right now where in the midst of one journey, you unexpectedly see the way to use portions or all of a journey on which you'd embarked in the past.
Tony Judt, a British historian, university professor, intellectual and cultural critic, just recently dead this past month from the Lou Gehrig disease, wanted his stone to read, "He wrote words." His use of words was so precise and elegant that you felt a connection with his process, his craft. Your hope for your craft is found in that old German word, yare: quick, active, lively, graceful.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The labyrinth began as you were pushed over the edge of mere interest into free fall, landing in a clump of morbid curiosity. The meaning was clear: You had to find where this would take you. A character--Ben Coleman--had already assumed an interesting enough past that you began to feel a familiarity with him to the extent that you knew he had a promising future and a problem for which he has no hint of preparation. At his current age, Ben has been through enough to own outright with no payments due a wariness that you see in many men of his age and position.
At the moment, Ben's wariness has just been sent off to storage; he has just been given a performance review in a job he took to get away from the politics of the academic life. Not only is Ben given a bump in salary, he is given a promotion.
What would all this mean if Ben did not have his wife, Emily, to share it with? Emily and Ben are each number two mates. Thus you have a window facing on a portion of Ben's wariness, a window that will be flung wide open when Ben phones Emily to suggest they meet at a restaurant known for its splendid cuisine and ambiance. Ben wants to celebrate.
The labyrinth exudes more mischief and tricky passageways when you stop to wrap history and event about the armature that is Emily. Such is her nature that when Ben calls to suggest they meet at the restaurant, she becomes convinced that Ben is going to ask her for a divorce.
Knowing that as the platform for your story, you naturally wanted to dig a bit more into Emily and how she got to where she is, which meant you had to place her in terms of family and how she "learned" to become so vulnerable. This meant inventing a plausible situation that began more or less when she was in her early-to-mid teens, and thus you came up with Uncle Charlie, her father's brother.
This is all going on while doing edits on a nonfiction book project before sending it to your agent and focusing on her notes for the opening chapters of a novel you have in the works. This is also in addition to another story unrelated to Ben and Emily, and Uncle Charlie, written in detailed enough notes to capture the lightning and store it in a bottle.
All of this is prologue to the fact that you are now on page sixteen of a story you believe it appropriate to call "Uncle Charlie." And thus the theme of labyrinth, with you seeking your way out of one of these corridors to keep focused on one thing at a time, a lesson difficult enough to comprehend when you were a teen or a twenty or even a thirty, but which now seems--well, hopeless.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
On one memorable afternoon when you were between jobs and writing projects, the world seemed too open for comfort. You found yourself amid a similar group of between-the-cracks writers, gathered at an idyllic and hospitable park just off Coldwater Canyon in the affluent fringes of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley.
The sun was still up, lunch was down, and so was your luck. The most pressing need was the need of mid-thirties and forties men to play at baseball. Before long, your group intentions broadcast themselves to others in the park. You were joined by a group of younger players, in need of distractions from the angst and tug of their own generation.
Under most circumstances, having nine available players per team is its own grandness. You recall being on a team that included not only the former President of the Writers' Guild (who reminded you the Volkswagen sunroof with a decadent FM radio you drove had been financed by the Credit Union), but as well a publicist who had only recently introduced you to a longtime crush from your earlier years, the actress Veronica Lake, by telling her of your amatory interests, and a writer whose screen play you had once attempted to acquire for a former employer who had authorized you to go as high as fifty thousand dollars for the rights to novelize the screenplay. You were gently told by his agent, "Shelly, dear, Bob cannot afford to do anything for fifty thousand dollars."
These elements of the day and the game and the combined admiration and suspicions shared among the adults come to you across the years that are, themselves at the spine and heart of this essay. "Don't fucking pitch inside to Irwin," for instance. "Somebody has to fucking be catcher. We could rotate; you know, take turns." These and other forgotten voices are brought back from having been filed away in distant memory by yet another voice, one of the younger players, who was positioned at second base. You had just made a routine catch of a fly ball in shallow center field. The inning was still alive, with a runner at first, thinking perhaps to advance to second after your catch. "Over here,sir," the young second baseman called. "Throw it over here, sir."
It was the sir. The advance guard of generational differences was closing in on you. You may have been a sir then but you did not feel like one, did not want to be recognized as one. You wanted to be the young hot shot, able to sit at the table with the staff on sitcoms, contributing your share of ideas, then sneaking home after work to get at something truly solid such as a short story or a novel, working with real editors and publishers instead of producers who wanted girlfriends' dogs written into scripts.
It is somewhat of a leap to get from that game to the present-day activities. The leap arcs over a gaping chasm in which you recall the storm of outrage Somerset Maugham drew down on himself when asked by a charming lady what advice she could give her son, who wanted to be a writer. "Give him twenty pounds [which at the time was the equivalent of one hundred dollars] and tell him to go to hell." You also recall individuals who were technical writers urging you to get a job with a defense company, allowing you to write technical manuals as a hedge against starvation. You recall an earlier girlfriend urging you to take education courses because teachers had entire summers in which to write. You recall yet another chum who urged you to join him at the Department of Motor Vehicles, giving and grading drivers' license examinations, while a fraternity brother, after several miss-starts in careers, signed on with the post office and urged you to follow. Think law, yet another urged. You'd be good at law--you're argumentative.
You have in fact had any number of jobs, perhaps the one thing you have in common with your brother and sister writers. You were a shill at a carnival, the manager of a Guess Your Age concession, a luggage repair person, and perhaps one of the best non-writing jobs ever, the manager of a parking lot at the corner of Wilshire and Dunsmuir in the Los Angeles Miracle Mile. Even during the droughts between publication, even with such jobs as an auctioneer's assistant and a guard at a chicken processing plant, the word was out on you that you were a writer, that while others did things such as take vacations, have girlfriends, get married, follow career paths, you wrote, each page coming from a series of second-hand typewriters effectively burning a bridge in the conventional world.
If marginality had a crest, you could wear it sewn to your blazer pocket. "If you had any money," the great trial lawyer, Melvin Belli once told me, "I'd sue you." To which you replied, "If I had any, I'd let you." It was over his failure to deal with edits you'd suggested for his book project. You are in a real sense the kind of person written about in a play by William Saroyan, whom you knew, and Maxwell Anderson, whom you did not know. You were the surfer of the sea of ideas, playing on your used typewriters with the abandon of the zither player in the sound track of The Third Man, all of which you confess not from some attempt at false modesty or any kind of modesty at all, but rather from the awareness that there is no true career path in the work you have chosen except the path of trying your damnedest to get things down as they come to you, take the consequences, and learn how to gauge the literary suspense needed in fiction from the suspense of gauging how to keep your check book balanced and alive. Just the other day, a writing pal, Randy Weiss, who has worked his way well up the corporate ladder at Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, where you have indeed banked these many years. Randy gave you a green elastic bracelet of the sort you used to see worn by those commemorating Missing in Action service persons in the Viet Nam conflict and, later, on a happier note, the Lance Armstrong "Livestrong" campaign, which you were almost tempted to follow because you are now a few months from being seven years free of cancer yourself. But the bracelet Randy gave you has more than a merry feel to it. Placing on your wrist, he said, "Wear this and you will never bounce a check." This was a joke. Irony. Magic. You take it as recognition that you are one of a fraternity and sorority of greater meaning to you, those of the men and women who each as an individual has merely survived the process and continues in the process. At this very moment, you have taken time from a job editing a truly dreadful project from a person who has goals and ideals every bit as lofty and grand as your own. You can respect that just as you respect the splendid editor at a major house who this very day was so sorry she could not justify taking on and giving a home to a project of yours making the rounds like an actor going on audition call.
It is impossible to tell anyone how to make any progress or headway in this remarkable enterprise called writing without writing your autobiography because it is different for each of us, the paths slithering forth with every page we fill and sometimes even with every tap on the delete key. Back in the day, typewriters did not have delete keys but they did have the ability to produce rows of X's. A man in Los Angeles keeps sending me emails asking your advice about which school his son should attend and which courses he should take. You think he comes back to you because you have a different answer each time. Or maybe it is because of your writing style.
If you like something well enough and long enough, you will in some way have it, either as a reality or a blazing memory. Over your bed is a water color done by Henry Miller, who began to notice you looking at it each time you visited his home. One day he said he thought you ought to have it and you said you did not believe you could afford it and he said you could. Some times in your mind there are events, stories, circumstances that seem somehow to be a part of a fabric, a sort of Bayeux Tapestry of ventures and misadventures. Some of them you are not yet able to afford but by looking at them with enough intensity and belief, you are able to find ways to bring them down out of your head and onto your note pad or your computer screen. Then, with some shuffle of energy and expectation, you find that you are after all able to afford them.
Monday, August 16, 2010
When R. came to you as a client, he'd just sold the advertising agency he'd built from the ground up for enough to buy a modest-but-comfortable home and have enough to support himself for a few years of writing. He was particularly eager to beat the five-year estimate placed on his expectations by a well-known and generous writer. The next time you saw her, you ventured to ask Sue Grafton if she'd told R. it would take him five years to get up to speed. She thought for a moment, furrowed her brown, then asked you, "He's already pretty good, isn't he?" When you nodded agreement, she clucked her tongue. "Yeah, if he's that far along, five years ought to do it."
Indeed, at the launch party for his first mystery novel, R. was particularly pleased with the fact that he'd slid under the five-year bar by about six months. He was pleased well enough with the fact of having developed a protagonist with wide enough shoulders to carry a series, pleased well enough to have found the kind of poetry he heard within the landscape of his own voice and brought it to the page, even proud of the fact that he'd started in motion a kind of gustatory icon, the Rincon Burger, a hamburger with chili and cheese that was a specialty at the snack shop of the gas station in La Conchita, the small enclave of homes, house trailers, and horse trailers just south of Santa Barbara and the cove known as The Rincon, arguably one of the better surfing spots in this part of the world. R's protagonist was an ardent surfer, called Gramps by the surfers because of his advanced age of 37.
That first novel was like letting the genie out of the bottle. About one a year came forth, bringing excellent reviews, book tours, and a sense of a writer finding his groove with themes, background, and story, even to the point where he was fast friends with Dennis Lehane, who certainly gave him blurbs and ditto Michael Michael Connolly. Thinking about the math involved and the fact that R. was a pretty well developed story teller at the start, there is little doubt that he put in his mythical ten thousand hours honing his craft to the point where it would do what he wanted.
One of the great signs of R.'s success was a sign at the La Conchita gas station, Rincon Burgers served here. They were also a feature at other eateries up and down the coast.
Whatever it was about the idea of writing a single character, the time came when R. decided to give that character a rest; he went instead to an elaborately researched and imaginatively plotted story involving the Lake Tahoe that was, back at the turn of the twentieth century, a sunken boat, secrets, conflicted relationships, and skillfully rendered characters of a great inner complexity. R's craft had brought him to possibly his best work to date. Unfortunately, it was his last. Somewhere in the Bermuda triangle of turmoil in the publishing industry, changing tastes among readers, and the daily pull of getting one up, out of bed, into some coffee and over to the computer, R. found an entire new way of satisfying his interests and curiosity, one that had nothing to do with using the craft he'd built day by day, hour by hour, and book by book. Such things happen. Parts of La Conchita were buried in a mudslide. The gas station that sold Rincon Burgers went from one off-brand label to another, then finally shut down, replaced by a hybrid farmer's market in which it is possible to buy organic fruits, frozen lobster tails, and on at least one occasion, arugula.
Keeping a craft alive and nourished is like maintaining a long-term intimate relationship, one that certainly entails romanticism, empathy, sexuality, curiosity, a dash of cynicism, and the poetry that sounds pretty much 24/7 within one's own head, the thrumming of words, the sudden awareness of a pulsing cadence, the appearance to you, perhaps arriving in the midst of a conversation, of a perfect string of words, a magical opening line. Your craft is like an amulet worn about the neck or the rag-tag collection of things that attach to your key chain over the years. There are times when it seems to you your own craft has suggested separate vacations, making you wonder if there had been somewhere in your enthusiasm for the relationship in the first place a lapse in the ongoing courtship you waged. Had you forgotten a birthday, neglected to send flowers, shown undue interest in someone else's craft and spoken of it with too admiring a voice as though to suggest to your own craft, You might want to consider losing a few pounds?
Events take you south toward Ventura or Thousand Oaks. Each time you pass the gas station at La Conchita, the gas station that is now only the skeleton of a gas station, you think of its heyday and the Rincon Burgers. Once, when you and R. met to discuss some pages, you asked him to describe for you the total impact of the Rincon Burger, its heft and lubrication, whether it in fact had chili or pickle. What were the boundaries? One of the boundaries emerged as R. discussed the burger. He'd become a vegan, but as someone into his craft, knew his character would have thought long and hard about the joys of the Rincon Burger, imagining the explosion of taste and satisfaction against the roof and back of the mouth.
Craft is, after all, a sensuous beast; it responds to the tastes and passions you put forth. It should and frequently does have the capacity to break your heart, a good sign that it might break the heart of a reader or two. It needs to be cultivated no so much because it is jealous as because it wants to get out, stretch, reach for meaning and understanding, capturing the hum of the cadences you hear when playing it like any other instrument you would play. You may well find yourself a player of a craft that is a mere ukulele, strummed with all the energy you can muster, going up against the rich baritone cello of Yo-Yo Ma as he skates and slides over the Unaccompanied Cello Suite of J.S. Bach, but no matter, it is your ukulele and you are strumming it for all you are worth, which is after all the major thing you learned when putting in your first ten thousand hours.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
How much control do you need over a story?
Ask that question at a group of writers and you'll get a neat arc of responses all the way from complete control, as in a step outline, to the other rat tail of the bell curve to freedom bordering on anarchy. Which ever their method, the writer you most admire is she or he whose final work appears the most natural and spontaneous, a highly subjective answer, you know, nevertheless so, measured by a sense of plausibility in the performance of the characters and the added sense that while the characters' actions seemed real, they also contained an element of surprise.
One of the reasons you are so fond of Louise Erdrich's works is the emerging sense that anything could have happened, but these events did happen. You have no close-to-hand idea of her work habits, so you can only speculate, and you do speculate that she knows a great deal about her characters, possibly in the form of biography, perhaps even in elaborately sketched time lines. Knowing what she knows about them, she has more options, and although Leonard Tourney,your longtime friend and co-host of the Saturday Writing Workshop, the Lion's Den, disagrees with your take, you believe the characters clamor to be heard, do such surprising things as James Cagney did way back when, at the time he pushed half a grapefruit into the face of Mae Murray, or the story about Marlon Brando, told you by your mentor. She and an unknown Brando were in an off-Broadway play, one of his first New York stage appearances. Brando had been lackluster in rehearsals, causing ripples of worry among the cast. He was cast as a menacing criminal. Five minutes before his cue, Brando had disappeared, driving the stage manager wild with anxiety, only to be told, "That crazy fuck is outside, chinning himself on a fire escape." Brando came in on cue, without missing a beat of the play's pace and action, but considerably out of breath from his exertion. He delivered his lines breathlessly. The effect on the cast and the audience was stunning. In a sense, Brando was taking liberties, but he knew how he wanted that character to sound, delivering those lines the author had written.
You want the absolute control of knowing your characters well enough to know what they might do, given the chance. This produces mischief, to be sure, but it also produces the energy of surprise that grips you when a character brings something from the depths of himself or herself to the page, stunning and triggering the other characters, sending the story scooting off on a life of its plausible own, leaving you as amazed and energized as everyone else. You wish to give them the chance, which is why, for you, outline is tentative, provisional, subject to the explosive whim of a character being pushed to the edge, then nudged over into emotional free fall.
This may or may not be related: For most of your life, you have been a strong admirer of the compositions of Beethoven, whose sterling quality for you is the drama produced by the cumulative outcome of each note seeming to be the only note that could possibly follow the previous. In more recent years, and with all due admiration still obtaining, you find yourself drawn to two of Beethoven's teachers, Haydn and Mozart, each of whom seem to anticipate risk in composition, then pounce on the opportunity. The significant difference between the teachers and the pupils is a resident humor in their work, invading even the most plaintive of adagios. You by no means dismiss the humor in Beethoven, examples being readily available in the third movement (scherzo) of the Third and Fourth Symphonies, but the humor and good spirits dally everywhere within the music of the teachers, while the pupil appears to you to be more deliberate. Insert joke here, as in the Third Symphony, where the entire orchestra engages a conversation with a single bassoon.
Yes, it probably is related. Composition is, after all, composition, and the results in both written word and composed music point in the same direction, evocation of sublime emotional expression.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
When individual characters in a story converse, does their dialogue have to give the effect of an argument between them?
The simple, direct answer to that rhetorical and simplistic question is yes.
Even when characters are in accord, there is an ever present sense of a word or two being misunderstood, overly emphasized, felt or construed in some ironic or cynical way you know will ultimately lead to explosion. Yeah, right; you're doing it because you love me.
When Character A makes unblinking eye contact with Character B, then says, "I see what you mean." a portion of our reader sensitivity is already leaping ahead to wonder if Character A does in fact see what Character B means. Thus the seeds of anticipation and ambiguity are broadcast, the former setting in our minds a scene in which Character A will come to some kind of accounting for having with such emphasis seen what B means. As well, we are drawn to the reality of our own communications with those about us and the comparatively low rate of satisfaction we have. Some of us writers are even more likely to wince, having experienced editorial queries on our own works, notations asking us if A really intended that observation. Truth to tell, it is a world of anticipations being driven off cliffs and of ambiguous fates out there.
Look at it this way: when two or more characters converse it is indeed not mere conversation of the sort you are likely to have among a group of civilian (non-writer) friends; it is instead an enquiry board or an arbitration panel or a grand jury, trying variously to effect a cause, an agreement, or the extent of guilty participation.
Magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Liberty, from the heyday of short fiction would tend to view the simple phrase, "Honey, I'm home" as a simple announcement from the head of the family, in from an energetic, productive day at work, ready for some quality time with the kids before supper, a Kool-Aid metaphor for the Great American Dream being firmly in place. Later in the same century, along comes Playboy in cynical riposte to the point where "Honey, I'm home," produces another reaction altogether, "Geez, I thought you said he never left the office before six," and the even more cynical "Will you please shut up and remember why you're here!" Some might argue about the use of the exclamation point there; it was included to indicate the speaker's ardent wish to business at hand to be concluded rather than interrupted, thus occupying even more time before a potential confrontation might emerge.
Among the words you use to describe the resident emotions of scenes is edge. You have seen plays written by Harold Pinter in which even though there was no dialogue being exchanged between the persons on stage, the mere rattling of a newspaper became dialogue, implying impatience, anger, irritation.
Dialogue is the unseen mosquito buzzing about in the room, the static electricity that sparks from the characters' clothing as they sit or stand; it is sexual tension and/or suspense or suspicion or resentment repressed at some degree of effort. In David Lodge's remarkable novel, Deaf Sentences, it is a man losing his hearing, constantly misreading homophones, getting progressively more muddled as individuals close at hand increasingly shout at him. However it sounds in appearance--"Did you sleep well?"--it is a world of implication in its own right, a reference to something in the past or some ongoing symptom that if not treated will become, that does become epidemic. Dialogue is the unthinkable, come to stay for a nice, long visit.
Friday, August 13, 2010
There is not much doubt from your perspective: a day well spent is a day spent writing well. But it is also a given that a day writing miserably, writing in the absolute conviction that you'll have produced no pages worth saving, is a day still better spent than not writing at all.
The fulcrum here, possibly even the culprit, is muscle memory. MM is the culprit who has you doing IT rather than other things that might have turned out to be more fun, or at least doing IT for enough of the day to satisfy the inner workings to the point where there are neither regrets nor recriminations.
This is all prologue to events of about six this morning in which your early thoughts were of pleasant anticipation at the thoughts of the Friday morning coffee klatch with longtime friends. As you stood in the bathroom, draining yourself, it was as though some unseen assailant had entered behind you and delivered a rabbit punch. There was no other person but you; you may never know the exact nature of the assailant but nevertheless it had you tumbled across the floor, landing with a smart thump on the entry ledge to the stall shower. Not a pleasing thing for your ribs. On the floor and in some state of disarray, you heard another clatter which later proved to have been caused by the cat, frightened by your own collapse, jumping onto the spice shelf, in many ways as bad a move for her and several bottles as hitting your ribs on the shower ledge was for you.
Somehow you managed your faint-headed, by now sweaty person back to your bed where you flung yourself to sleep fitfully until nearly noon, awakened by the awareness that regardless of what the cause of your sudden spurt of stability, you needed to begin thinking about what you would discuss right here in this very template. It took another nap for you to make the connection that whatever your assailant, it was not forceful enough to knock you away from the need to render these paragraphs.
Some hours later, the ribs sitting up and begging as it were for a few aspirin, you were at your customary place, finishing a review that was due today, then attending to this. It comes as measurable satisfaction to be doing this now, but it will come as even more measurable later, when you are scrolling through these notes and questions and reminders and remonstrations: on this day, which had high potential for being a day well spent writing well, it became instead a day where doing this added to your sense of recovering from whatever it was you needed to recover from.
Part of you will say, in this indistinct future when you examine these scrolls for artifacts from which to construct larger edifices, Big deal; you made a big deal about getting some sentences down. But you will be able to counter: No; that wasn't the matter at all. The matter was that you do what you profess to do, rain or shine, alert or dizzy, for you and all the world to see, as though either you or the world had any interest.
The part of this worth keeping is the fact of it having been done at all and the unknowable, unseen effect muscle memory will have on future days.
P.S. The cat scored a bottle of turmeric powder, a jar of cloves, another of star anise, and something rather murky looking you'd no doubt been keeping in some sentimental esteem.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
On any given day you tend to awaken with a primary goal of securing coffee in some drinkable form. Then down the list to that wide variant so familiar to the life of the freelance writer. Shall it be a class to teach, an appointment with an editorial client, perhaps a meeting with a group of fellows or girls or fellows and girls? Perhaps even some chore or other, some element that must be reckoned with, prepared for, driven or walked to.
Sometimes such logistics have played merry hell with your day book and your more formal list of things to do on your Google home page, making you aware, painfully aware, of the length of time you will need to get through, yes, endure, before there is a space of blank, a symbol and metaphor for the freedom to address a grander list of things under priority that have little or nothing to do with the earlier list (although this freedom may draw on the things you encounter when performing the activities on your earlier list).
This list is your true agenda. Although this agenda may vary from day to day, for reasons which vary, it is a recognition of a muscle memory acquired over the years since your early teens, its roots going even farther back. This muscle memory and agenda habit are so engrained that even a day of procrastinating instead of writing is a day better spent than doing something else of the earlier list and wishing you were writing. You do, of course, procrastinate, either by reading, doing online crossword puzzles, drinking more coffee, re-watching The Wire, checking political activity on political blogs, and "researching," a euphemism for looking up arcana on Google as though a serious contestant in some intellectual Jeopardy rerun. Sometimes your procrastination calls forth speculations of how your day would go if you were able to spend more time on your agenda rather than time away from it doing such things as you have already listed.
Your agenda for today was (1) working on a short story to be called Uncle Charlie and (2) doing more reading and research on a book you wish to write to be called Obsidian: The Cutting Edge, a work of nonfiction completely out of your normal range of interest except that for the past few months you have begun to think about the enormous effect it has had throughout the ages, what a useful tool it is, what a gorgeous mineral, and how it feels to heft. It does not hurt that a world-class archaeologist has offered to write an introduction for it, suggest sources for you, and read your early drafts.
This would have been, along with normal procrastination, a wonderfully normal day in August with only one time out for coffee with a client. The order of agenda was dealt a serious blow, however, upon receipt of notes from your literary agent on one of the chapters in a novel that enthuses the breath in normal cadence from you and turns it into something more resembling a pant achieved at having negotiated a steep hill in the midst of a run. The things the agent liked, suggested, and questioned yanked you back into the novel to the point where it began talking to you, specifically slipping a note from a long silent character who now wants to reappear, which fact gives you a surge of adrenaline because any number of characters in this venture have already established agendas and they are clamoring to be heard.
It is comforting to be through with the early agendas and alert to the messages these muscle-memory projects slip metaphorically under your door, eager to be acted upon.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Dialogue is a siren's song leading the story teller into the temptation of trying to find it in the way characters speak as opposed to placing it directly at the roots of how they act.
For some years, you listened carefully, working to capture on the page what you heard out there in such realities as the coffee house, the workplace, even the classroom. As a consequence, your dialogue reeked of authenticity but conveyed boredom in conversational form. You in effect gave voice to boredom, thinking it would be interesting if it sounded real but dooming it from the get go for that very reason.
Since those days of conversational characters, over-explained and linear story lines, you have with the fervor of a circuit-riding preacher advocated the view of dialogue in which it is specifically:
not really American English.
not a tool for explaining the story.
not a platform for addressing the reader.
not the author speaking to the reader in any way.
With these embargoes in mind, you have moved closer to the interior of story telling rather than story by description. You are pleased to be in this position because among other things, you have wanted to be here without being able to articulate the mechanics of why you wished to be here. It was somewhat like being sympathetic with your need to involuntarily shout ouch or worse, when you hit your thumb with a hammer.
Understanding what characters want is a major step forward; so is what you understand to be subtext, the difference between what a character actually feels while saying what is actually said at the time. These two elements have moved you closer: (1) awareness of what the character wants, and (2) the sensitivity to the fact of the character being caught in the bind of having to speak to appearances--the Social Contract, if you will--while feeling indifferent or oblique to it much less in hearty endorsement.
In an exchange with your literary agent yesterday in which she told you of a friend who'd been fired as editor in chief of a publishing house because of his irreverent behavior toward a martinet of a publisher, you were reminded of a similar situation in which you, as editor in chief, were fired because of your relationship with the publisher. The man who fired you was a significant force behind your learning the inner life of dialogue. Occasionally one meets such persons in life and while they may seem a puzzling quantity at first, they merit close attention not only in what they say but in ways their behavior speaks to who they are and what they want from others.
As you noted to your agent, "Your friend the late Pockell reminds me of how I 'left' my ed in chief gig at the scholarly publisher. The Publisher was a short, martinet of a man whose behavior taught me much about writing dialogue." You went on to recall a particularly memorable exchange with him, EHB:
"You didn't tell me you went to Yale."
"Because," I said, "I didn't."
"You wear J. Press. Only men who attended Yale wear J. Press."
"But I didn't attend Yale."
"And you wear striped ties with houndstooth jackets. You dress Yale."
"An accident. I have no idea what people wear at Yale."
"How do you rationalize not wearing Brooks Brothers?"
"I don't rationalize it. I simply don't do it. With the exception of one shirt, an emergency purchase, I tend not to like Brooks Brothers clothing."
"Odd. Very odd. You appear neat in spite of it."
When members of my staff saw us together, they would say loud enough for me to hear it, "Well, there's the long and short of it."
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
All relevant dramatic activity is rooted in consequences, which in turn is linked to event. Even in the opening scenes, characters appear as a consequence of backstory activity and planning. Consequence is the result--singular or plural--of behavior or its specific absence; it is the metaphoric rock being dropped into a pond, the ripples being broadcast upward, outward, downward. Or, of course, a conspicuous rock that is hefted, then not dropped into the pond. We may be just as pleased or disturbed by an event not taking place as we are affected by its performance.
Consequence begets more activity--individuals being motivated by or responding to or hit by yet another metaphor--falling bricks. These have been dislodged by previous activity or its lack, an effective illustration of how story runs on the fuel or energy provided by the introduction of consequence.
The most minor characters and their most nuanced front-rank counterparts define themselves by the manner in which they act or withdraw from action, setting forth the ripples, helping us anticipate the consequences in terms of how other characters will respond to what they have said, done or dithered at.
The consequences of characters doing nothing, neither reacting nor initiating some form of gambit in search of a winning agenda, are in delightful irony transferred to the reader, whose revenge is the act of setting the book down or, as Dorothy Parker put it, "This is not a book to be set aside lightly; it should be hurled across the room with great force." The characters themselves may be propped up by the author via endless philosophical conversations, by lavish smorgasbords of description, or narrative disquisitions of backstory, but without the lurk and menace and promise for misadventure of consequences, they will fall as though they were another metaphor yet, the house of cards.
In order to make readers care about characters, you need to make the consequences of their behavior nudge them into the approaching traffic of vulnerability, where every step becomes a hazard.
Monday, August 9, 2010
Because It is sneaking up on you, awareness is not a key player in the dramatic equation. If you saw It, you would recognize It, wouldn't you? Here is where the entire equation falls apart. You would not recognize It; you have no idea what It looks like. Even when It lays a hand on your arm or calls out to you en passant, asking for the literary equivalent of any spare change, you still do not consider It an adversary or even a miscreant, not even a Republican.
So we have established that twenty-first century life being what it is, you do not necessarily recognize It when It confronts you. It could well be someone approaching you as a cuarandero or shaman is approached in a rural village, asking for you help, please, senor, do you have any charms or potions that will cure my ailing manuscript? You are thus in a two-down position because you do not like to say no, but they, whoever they are, have already spent their budget on the services of a literary cuarandero or shaman and quite obviously the manuscript is ailing. They thrust it at you. See. It is sick. There are of course other Its It might be; Life does have a sense of humor.
This being the twenty-first century, there are enough Its out there to be offered as a loss leader at COSTCO and so you may have already opened the package and tried to use It before It reveals its true nature, its It-ness, to you, You are a pending file in a limbo of Its, your poise and comfort an oncoming windshield in rush hour traffic on a Hollywood Freeway in the midst of a migration of bees; your chances of getting out of any one situation risky, your fate almost certain. Worker Its and Guard Its will sense you out, then come rushing at you to the point where you would gladly trade places with Franz Kafka's lead character in The Trial.
You understand only too well this is not some Oliver Stone conspiracy theory, they're-out-to-get-you scenario. The simple matter is, there is enough It out there to withstand an avalanche of reason or symbols to the contrary of reason. Although you try to keep up with the literature, do the reading, check in daily with Google, make outrageous claims about having been saved or enlightened or merged with the One without a Second, you are mindful of the enticing target you are, out there alone, in plain sight, where It can see you.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
The act of wanting something triggers useful and delightful energy, provided that the desired something is in fact something you deeply and genuinely feel. Engaging in action not genuinely wished for nor sincerely felt may also produce energy, but like so many medicinal and psychological products advertised on television, doing so also produces side effects. Notable side effects from activity not genuinely wished or sincerely felt are boredom, resentment, tiredness, and anomie. Notable effects of performing at levels of indifference or distraction (sometimes referred to as multitasking) include mediocre results, blurred intent, and loss of focus.
Knowing what a character wants is an enormous step toward knowing that individual. Indeed, knowing you want is an enormous step toward defining yourself. Since the thrust of this observation is about the kinds of energy so useful to writers as tools for presenting dimensional characters, it seems to you instructive to mention here a phenomenon of accumulated energy many psychiatrists refer to as displacement, which is a shifting of actions from a desired target to a substitute target. Or to move into the purview of that fellow from Vienna, the Id wants to do something the Superego does not permit. The Ego comes forth with a substitute way--displacement--of the psychic energy of the Id.
A classic specific of displacement at work is the tale of the unfortunate individual who is yelled at by the boss. Feeling he cannot safely yell back at the boss, the subject goes home whereupon he yells at his wife, who goes storming into the kid's room, demanding to know why the kid hasn't cleaned his room. In this truly democratic sharing of the energy, the kid storms into the back yard whereupon he kicks the family dog.
Displacement is thus a splendid tool for use in fiction; it is true Reaganesque trickle-down. As agreement is a spoiler for story, the displacement of the individual who is being yelled at by his boss can spoil the trickle-down by the stratagem of telling the boss to go be fruitful and multiply himself. Of course story begins again if the boss says, "You're fired," and is given yet another direction when the individual goes home energized by having told the boss off, then boasting of it to his wife, whose response is the cross-court volley of "Schmuck! You'll be fired." Of course we have to wait until the next day to see if the boss has acted as on the retort as predicted by the wife, which gives us a chance to switch the strategy by having individual himself confront the son about the condition of his room.
Look at the possibilities there: The son can say "Fuck you, I'm outta here," which gives/provokes/motivates the wife to say, "Like father, like son." The son can also say the equivalent of white man speak with forked tongue, to which the father can reply along the lines of being older and wiser gives him the privilege to tell the boss to go fuck himself because he, the boss, was morally wrong (a judgement call, of course) and because the father has the pride of the family breadwinner to uphold, which gives you, the writer, a chance to show hypocrisy in action.
Comes the dawn, the individual can receive an email from the boss, saying in effect, undoubtedly you were preparing to come into work this morning, which is a noble thought in the abstract, but since you no longer have a place to work here, I hope you have another place you can go to work. You also have the opportunity for some moments of suspense by having our boy being directed by the receptionist to stop at the boss' office first thing on arrival, whereupon the boss tells our boy how refreshing it is to have an employee who sticks up for his rights, and won't he please accept this upgrade in job status because he, the boss, values the strength of independent thinking and the absence of presence of a yes-man.
Using a yes-person as a lead character in a story is bound to produce results using displacement, unless, of course, the yes-person agrees with the boss, and so to make this trope work, you'd have to begin the story with the boss complaining to the loyal (and sincere, don't forget) employee that the boss finds the employee too agreeable and, thus, not a reliable dissenting voice, which could possibly get said adoring employee to tell the boss to go be fruitful and multiply himself, thus does displacement become a viable tool in the construction of dialogue as well as story points.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
Closure is a term persistently used relative to the modern short story. In some ways, the term , at least as it relates to the conclusion or ending helps distinguish the evolving modern short story from its grandparents which end with what you call an ending or even a punch line, possibly even a resolution. To your mind, closure is too reflective of psychology and particularly what you have come to think of as television psychology wherein friends and relatives of a murder victim get closure when the perpetrator is brought to justice, convicted, and punished, or perhaps when someone gets closure after the death of a loved one or the break up of a marriage, even one in which the divorcing partners bear no particular animosity to one another.
It is quite true that pain experienced in the past loses much of its immediacy, seems remote. However painful a hangover, the memory of the most recent does not prevent overindulgence as much as it ought. Today's headache is always worse than last week's; today's painful lesson more intense than last year's.
You cringe when you hear the word "closure" used in any dramatic sense but it is an even deeper cringe when the implication moves toward the psychological, as though most of us ever close off the effects of an experience that has touched us deeply. We "get over" aspects of losses or tragedies; we soldier on--at least many of us do, and days, weeks, perhaps even months elapse between memories that cause us to revisit the pain and yes, often on those revisiting occasions, the ache of immediate loss and grief have morphed into a bittersweetness where we have mixed in some of the pleasure, which also remains in some degree, but "getting over" is a relative term, we become acceptant, moving on in our own time and way, perhaps even with a new relationship, a new object in our life to move us away from what once was, but closure sounds and seems to slick, too pat to be reflective of the way the human condition works.
Since November of 1997, you have been touched and pleased by the active presence in your life of a half Australian Cattle Dog, half Australian Shepherd mix who goes by the name of Sally and who pretty much accompanies you where ever you go, but as you cast your eyes on the painting Barnaby Conrad has done of her predecessor, an outrageous bargain basement mixture of breeds named Molly, you are out there raw for a moment of grief and loss before the sweetness of memory kicks in to remind you of Molly's companionship that went on just short of twenty years. That is not closure, because before Molly there was a certain Blue Tick Hound named Edward and there is no closure there either, just an extraordinary relief that you had such a friend as Edward and your sad awareness that Blue Ticks do not tend because of their natures to reach advanced years.
Perhaps there is some closure in having had people and things in your life and not allowing yourself to feel too attached to them because their loss can be such a grief, but if this is so, you are glad you are not such a person and that you do not go around having closure with things that are no longer available to you. They are available in your thoughts and dreams; they are a part of you and you will never be quit of them.
Friday, August 6, 2010
Many of the Eastern-based religions and philosophies use illusion as a rhetorical paring knife with which to strip away adornments and concepts not directly connected to the godhead. Illusion is by most accounts a distortion, an appearance somewhat lacking or completely lacking in validity. Optical illusions may, for one example, suggest--notice the verb there--the appearance of a thing advancing toward your point of vantage or retreating from it.
Illusion is some distortion of reality. Many of the Hindu sects jump in on this point and adhere to the belief that there is only one reality--the godhead. All else, they argue, is illusion or maya, even chuckling to themselves about a situation or circumstance that it is all maya. The Taoists like to call illusion the Ten Thousand Things, of which they are at pains to remind you of the potentials they hold forth for duplicity and betrayal. In other words, illusion becomes the object of suspicion. You don't know any Hindu or Taoist agnostics or atheists although you do know a few adherents of Buddhist sects who claim the concept of godhead to be an illusion to be regarded with the same suspicion some Christians view Satan, working to distort the reality of the godhead.
You have come to be more interested in the illusion of writers and writing which has helped you develop an illusion of your own, an illusion of what Noam Chomsky must feel when he thinks about the ramifications of language and the incredible things that have been said about it by behaviorists and others who seek to categorize human activity and construct into neat one-size-fits all categories.
You are filled with admiration for Chomsky for having, in a single review of a major project by the behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner, pulled the rug from under that aspect of psychology, which is the still evolving study of how and why humans behave as they do. Part of your admiration comes from the fact of Chomsky having attacked Skinner's top-heavy reliance on reenforcement as a key to behavior, but even more of your admiration comes from the more basic fact of Chomsky having pulled a rug from under a concept you consider tyrannical. In fact you enjoy the power writing can provide to topple any such tyrannical behavior, which is of itself an illusion. Thus your equation of using the illusions you create through writing to topple other illusions which you suggest through the means--if you are successful--of writing.
It is certainly an illusion to create in a few paragraphs a man, woman, or child who seem to emerge as actual reality to the point where you believe in them and others like you believe in them. It is a staggering illusion to read the illusions of men and women who have lived out their entire lifespan before you were born and yet find entry into their illusion, which in turn arms and readies you to lead your daily twenty-first century life and, wonder of wonders, write about it.
The joys of sharing your illusions with others is in direct proportion to and highly motivated by the joys you have had while you had an entry visa into the terrains of other writers. Some of these joys of which you write were in fact rather dark joys, grim joys, by no means joys that exalted you or served as letters of commendation for individuals such as, say, the recommendations you wrote for students wishing to pursue graduate studies. They were in fact illusions of critique, of earnest and measured criticism of behavior and consequence, such as Chomsky critiqued when he wrote about B. F. Skinner.
And the best illusion of all to begin with is the illusion that is you.
Whatever strengths you now have, you once exercised to achieve; you stumbled in the process and were not your best self. Whatever weaknesses you had, the memory of them remains in your muscles if not your heart and mind. You are a walking argument, a walking best effort, hoping the stronger illusion is the better illusion and that it will prevail. Top performers have lackluster performances. Star athletes have bad days. All writers are susceptible to illusion, cliche, false pride, and bitterness at the lack of recognition their skills receive. All of us are vanity of vanities writ large and leaky ego an ongoing possibility.
We step to the computer screen or the note pad, a hybrid of hope and idea, seeking that opening sentence and the illusion that it is the right one, the one that brings forth from within the next sentence and the next.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
The fact of your having been editor in chief for six years of the book division of a scholarly publishing venture has not weighed heavily in your thoughts these past years until yesterday when, at a faculty meeting, you were informed that you were being assigned to teach the course Academic Writing in the Fall. Your first reaction was the acknowledgement that to the person making out the schedules, the assignment made perfect sense. You even found yourself nodding in agreement with the logic you'd supposed. Things began to fall apart after that, the entropy achieving a rapidity that had you using the adverb "rapidly," as in "rapidly fell apart."
The designation of the course led you to understand that it was not at the graduate level, your more customary place for teaching. Nevertheless, why shouldn't undergraduates learn how to prepare scholarly papers for journals; why shouldn't they in fact read and deconstruct scholarly journals; why, indeed, should they not wish to write things they might find homes for in scholarly journals.
The next plank to be removed from your already shaky platform was the discovery that, like so many of the words tossed about at the meeting, words such as "conversation," "window," "cognitive," and "returning learner," the designation of academic writing had nothing to do with publishing, such as your other courses do but rather with teaching individuals to write college-level essays, research papers, and term reports.
Having spent some time on line, examining various curricula at various institutions, you have reached an interesting juncture. You cannot recall in specific numbers how many books you have published, nor how many essays, nor reviews. You think the number of published short stories is thirty-two, but it could easily be more. It is no stretch to say that you have, to use a buzz word from your own publishing background, been a "shirtsleeves editor" for at least five hundred book-length projects, an acquisitions editor for a few hundred more, all these numbers and history preamble to the wonder that you would sweat to get a grade of B in the course you are about to teach, such is the disconnect between the two worlds of teaching and writing/editing you inhabit.
It is one thing to be confident about a book project currently out in submission. A number of publishers have already invited submission of the entire manuscript based on your proposal, and your literary agent is more than a little taken with the chapters of the novel you are sending her. The vision of yourself with the academic tables turned is, if not hilarious, just a step short.
You vividly recall a time when a school chum of yours approached you one afternoon with the announcement, "We should be spending more time in the library. We need to get ready for the PhD exams." The vividness of your recall of that moment is because of the clear vision of the paths before you. Less than four months later, a novel completed on legal-sized sheets of onionskin your father found at an office supply company he was auctioning off, you were headed for Mexico and a life that nodded respectfully to the library but which wanted no part of the PhD exams.
Interesting challenges now await you. You think you remember what a topic sentence is, but just in case:
What is the topic sentence?
The topic sentence is the first sentence in a paragraph.
What does it do?
It introduces the main idea of the paragraph.
How do I write one?
Summarize the main idea of your paragraph. Indicate to the reader what your paragraph will be about.
There are three reasons why Canada is one of the best countries in the world. First, Canada has an excellent health care system. All Canadians have access to medical services at a reasonable price. Second, Canada has a high standard of education. Students are taught by well-trained teachers and are encouraged to continue studying at university. Finally, Canada's cities are clean and efficiently managed. Canadian cities have many parks and lots of space for people to live. As a result, Canada is a desirable place to live.