Thursday, September 30, 2010

Vision Statement

You have been asked to provide vision statements for two different and disparate entities, leading you to suspect that you should have one of your own as a basis of comparison to any others you might produce in the future.

 A vision statement is an assessment of the universe in its most general terms and those specific areas where you have interest and intent.  What, then, is your vision of the world about you as well as the worlds within you?

You see the world about you as a seethe and boil of competing agendas, populated with strong, determined predators who are programmed to attempt survival against significant odds.  The competition and predation provide fuel for relevant, meaningful thought against the backdrop of reflexive behavior.  You are impressed by and aware of competition.  To a certain extent, some of it voluntary, you are a predator although you do not like to see yourself in that light.  Rather than the camouflage of the hunter, you wear the tee shirt of the reasonable man.

Your inner views are equally seething although you are often able to go about your days in a condition relatively close to calmness.  Your vision statement in this inner landscape begins with attempting as much as possible to project an authentic good will and respect for living, growing things.  This extends to your wish to understand as much of it as you can through the actions necessary to dramatize moral conflicts, their potential resolutions, and the consequences of their success or failure.  You see yourself able through your work to come out at the end of each month with a surplus of words meant to define aspects of the human condition and with some small surplus of funds necessary to secure your comfortable habitation.

At one point in your life, you could walk past most of the more ambitious newsstands of most cities, where you would notice as many as four titles you had written.  Those close to you were constantly asking you when you were going to settle into writing something serious, a judgement that rankled because of your belief that funny was serious and that your vision was to move as far from comedy and its physicality as possible, inhabiting the more lumpy terrain of humor and its ironic comparisons. This led your close ones to believe you were having too good a time, but you were not having a good enough time; you were miserable in fact, reaching for understanding and awareness that were not ready to be found just yet because you, instead of looking for the more genuine ore, were concentrating on iron pyrites, also known as fool's gold.

You are at the moment having a good time in the sense of being able to spend some portion of the day using the muscles you have developed since about age fifteen and toward which you were gravitating since about age thirteen, when a long forgotten friend of your parents gave you a book you still have, containing in one door-stopper of a volume a number of novels, essays, speeches, and short stories written by Mark Twain.  It was for an event exactly one month after your thirteenth birthday, on which you were formally received into the cultural community of your birth by virtue of having flawlessly read portions of the Torah and then from the Book of Prophets portion of the Hebrew Bible.  For the same ceremony, you were also given a copy of short stories by Jack London and, probably because it was inexpensive and looked literary, a collection of the short stories of D. H. Lawrence.  For all practical purposes, you were fucked because these books, written in English, by males who were anything but from your culture drew your interests away from documents written in Hebrew, in which you had no thought to write.  You were led into the places where the English language met Icelandic and German, Anglo-Saxon, and Dutch.  You probably have a larger vocabulary in Sanskrit than you do in Hebrew, and although you can remember some portions of the Hebrew you so flawlessly read then, you probably have more stored away from The Devi Mahamtamayi or Chandi, as it is popularly called.  Go figure.  You were fucked because there was a vector, a vision, if you will, an inertia that drew you as a secular aesthete through the corners and alleys of English rather than any other language.  Your approach to foreign languages was like your dealings first with girls, then young women; scatter-shot and too arbitrary or temporary to forge any serious involvement.  Your vision was to save yourself for English, for American English, for the rolling cadence of the teller of tall tales and the sharp, short sentences of the laconic Westerner, rolling a cigarette with one hand.

Your vision was much the same as Huck Fin's vision when he first boarded the raft, to get away and find some sweet life along the river, which at that time was as big as any boy's dream.  Your vision was to ride that river and indeed you have, through journalism and pulp novels and television, stopping off for brief visits to pick up supplies.  The river you'd seen in your vision is mythic, the language you see even now is mythic.  There is no such thing for you as sweet life but there is a sense of memory set down, much the way Twain himself remembered his river, The River, in his quest to be a riverboat captain.  Your vision is not by any means complete, there are tides and shoals and reefs, islets, snags, and rocky bottoms in the river of your vision and huge, clunking barges to be avoided, but it is your river and it is no small thing to be set afloat upon it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


For as long as you can remember, your hair has demonstrated strange, idiosyncratic behavior.  Segments of it have risen like an impatient audience at the conclusion of a boring lecture.  Entire patches of it seem to grow with no regard for its neighbors.  Brushes and gels have been recruited to serve as disciplinarians, but they all took early retirement.  Keeping your hair short helps, but as so many things connected with hair, shortness is transitory, leaving unruliness as a resident squatter.

As you careened into what at first seemed the apex of being adult and consequently "of age," which is to say the need for shaving daily, you discovered similar insurrection on your lower left cheek, just above the jaw line.  With a day's growth of beard in place, you are able to trace an anomaly lurking in the grain, like a beginning writer at a writers' conference,wanting to know how to get an agent.  It is the same anomalous behavior you note on your head, a complete willingness to boldly grow where more compliant hair had grown before.

"Some mess of cowlick you've got there," a favored barber named Roy observed as you sat in his Santa Monica Boulevard emporium, appropriately swathed in neckband and cover sheet.  You'd heard the word before, even experienced that splendid visual sense of a cow, licking a patch of stubborn hair into submission with an endless tongue.  Indeed, your mother had used a splash of water from the kitchen faucet in loco bovinis to accomplish that very task.  Before Roy's diagnosis, Mrs. Forthman, the administrative assistant of Hancock Park Elementary School 408 S. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90036, upon seeing you, would snort, say that single word as though attempting to dislodge a strawberry seed from between her teeth, "cowlick," then repair to her desk for a bobby pin which she would thrust into place in the mass of anarchistic hair you bore as a matador thrusts the sword into the neck of the fighting bull, at precisely the right place.  Wisdom would have dictated you avoid contact with Mrs. Forthman, but she was the then equivalent of Rahm Emanuel to Ruth Angelo, the principal, to whose personal library you had unrestricted access.  A bobby pin was a small price to pay.

You have been with Maryelle, your present stylist--as though you had sufficient quantities of hair to style, for the best part of twenty years.  "You are a living display of cowlick," she observes each time she settles me into the chair at Salon du Mont, from which I can see the mall below and the stately Santa Ynez mountains in the distance.  This leads me, now that I have achieved almost simultaneously with male pattern baldness the tendency to reach for connections, to an inevitable equation.

Does your prose have cowlicks?  Are there anarchists dwelling within its murky syntax, eager to spring forth, all fustian and verbal Molotov cocktails?

You search early drafts nervously, perhaps even as alert for some mischief in order and control over chaos as Mrs. Forthman's concern for your appearance.  Or perhaps with the same exasperation your mother experienced when she remanded you to the custody of the kitchen sink tap, her last resort in keeping you neat.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Insect and the Windshield

Not long ago, as such things evolve, you had the occasion to look at something you had written and, as such things also evolve, thought at first that it was something you'd copied from another writer, speaking in another source.  Since there was no attribution given and with the growing sense of familiarity about the vocabulary and manner in which words were strung together with a seeming exuberant spontaneity, you began to remember the material as well as the circumstances under which you wrote it.  This full arrival of ownership, responsibility, and emotional involvement brought you to the kind of direct impact an insect has with the windshield of a traveling car.

To care with passion and the wildly intoxicating mixture of uncertainty and overwhelming curiosity about a work you have struggled to get down in some form, editing, restating, perhaps even moving the paragraphs about with muscular bravado, is an exact and exacting metaphor for a romantic adventure.

Even the wonderful detail of meeting somewhere an old flame and the bittersweet recognitions the encounter sends rushing through your awareness is an apt part of the metaphor.  Looking either at the paragraphs of story or, say, the fine archipelago of freckles across her face and nose, you experience the fond comfort of intimacy, a state of heightened awareness to nuance, gesture, intent.  Allowing the pleasing association to take you where it will, you arrive at the discovery that another such state of the kind of awareness you describe resides in reading.  What great feelings and connections arise when you read something you care about.  Conversely, what outrage you experience when, in the course of some employment or duty, you are immersed in reading something flat, linear, perhaps even episodic.

Another metaphoric insect meets impact with the windshield of reality:  Your earlier associations with alcohol, then drugs, then a combination were not mere youthful angst and impatience; they were an attempt to find the awareness you found in romantic relationships, in writing, and in reading.  True enough, some downside aftereffects to be dealt with in either of the three but even those add to the dictionary of awareness you sought and still, Google and Wikipedia to the contrary notwithstanding, seek.  Your most poorly written novel, your most disingenuous romantic relationship, the reading you felt you had to pursue, these were all bringing you a kind of credibility and awareness you could not have presumed to appreciate much less understand as you engaged them.  As Graham Greene wrote in the first line of The End of the Affair,  A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

Monday, September 27, 2010

What do you mean?

When a friend or acquaintance ask you "What do you mean?" after you've made some stab at a relevant response, your answer is apt to be a more detailed answer because you've been conversationally alerted to the need for more specificity and/or relevance.  Your response tends to be reflexive because you're used to your own battles between specificity and its potential bed mate, boredom, and the earnest desire to be understood in as much dimension and nuance as possible.  This is particularly so because you are so fond of puns.

When a literary agent or editor asks you, "What do you mean?" a different response emerges, equally fraught with conflict between irritation with the questioner for not getting "it," whatever "it" was and your deep conviction that what you'd been questioned on was as rich with meaning and texture as a cheesecake from Junior's is rich in flavor and texture.  You mostly know what you mean and when you don't know what you mean, you have a sense of intent that pulls you along as you slap down a word at a time as though you were engaged in a competitive game of cribbage. slapping down strategic cards one at a time.

A sincere part of writing becomes engaged when you have not yet sorted out the complexities of the emotional wiring diagram that is you; the words and sentence follow, giving you some hope you're on to something, perhaps even that you'll be able to identify that something.

You've had too many occasions to respond to "What do you mean?" with "What do you mean, what do I mean?" delivered as a riposte.  You needed a new strategy, learned at great pain and thoughtfulness.  "Okay, what I meant was---" is as good a response as any because you now have a few seconds, perhaps even as many as ten, to collect thoughts and begin explaining your way along the contentious pathway of clarity.

It's been some time since you've discovered the frequency with which you begin writing something to discover your intent, then arm-wrestle the meaning out of it. And so the adventure continues.  Only in recent times have you felt such a connection to your characters, richer, more supple than before, where they were invented to serve some plot-driven situation that reeked of your attempts to concoct it.  Now there is the sense of, dare you use the word collegiality given your complex feelings about universities?  Well, you dare, and you have those feelings about characters that are all cognates of the verb to love.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


In some moments of whim, you imagine yourself as Professor Henry Higgins for a variety of reasons, but in particular regard to Eliza Doolittle, more so the Shaw Professor Higgins than the musical Higgins, where characters break forth with such remarkable ease into song appropriate for the dramatic moment.  It is not that you have anything against song, even though you are not given to breaking into it at dramatic moments, resorting instead to words with Anglo-Saxon derivation.  Your first encounter with the Pygmalion theme came as a black-and-white film, going on scratchy, in which Higgins was portrayed by Leslie Howard and Eliza by the redoubtable and elegant Wendy Hiller.

Perhaps it was the black-and-white film, perhaps your age, and comparative range of sophistication at the time, perhaps the greater presence of Shaw in the former version; in any case you were deeply "in" the concepts and consequences of the play (film) than you were of the musical version.  Higgins was attempting to construct a fictional character out of a human, attempting to move Eliza a considerable step upward on the social elevator and was later faced with the awareness that having done so, he had more or less made her unfit for the class into which she was born and raised.  Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, although you admire both, were more Harrison and Hepburn.  Howard and Hiller were Higgins and Dolittle; above all, they were both Shaw.

Now for the reasons behind your sometime Higgins whim.  Can you, as Higgins did with Eliza, and indeed Shaw did with Higgins, create characters who successfully "pass"?  Are you able to send your characters off to a life where their intent is so bold, defined, and devious?  Will your characters "get" their purpose from you of carrying story to the point where it explodes off the page in a combustion that flies off the page into the readers' conscious and symbolic awareness?  Can you create characters who will believe one another, each reacting to the others in as complex a package as real people?  Many authors you have read possess this significant ability; you surely reach for it.

You have had some success in creating, say, women characters who appear more womanly than they appear as a mere embodiment created by a male.  You have portrayed various ages and professions, even races and social classes.  But as you well know, characters of the writers you admire have the ability to reach within themselves and respond to the ghosts haunting their locked rooms, places where the family secrets and individual desires are stored under lock, key, and cobweb.  Can you accomplish more than a stumble along those musty hallways of the interior?

Sometimes the answer to the rhetorical question you ask yourself--Just who do you think you are? is best answered with one choice word:  them.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is It Moot or Academic?

It is instructive, even memorable, to hear a group of sports fans arguing the relative merits of a particular team or two specific players, even more memorable and instructive if the two teams or players are separated by a generation or so.  Could Jack Johnson have taken Muhammad Ali, for instance, or the Brooklyn Dodgers with Gil Hodges at first and Pee Wee Reese at short versus the LA Dodgers of 1995/  No matter your entry point in the "discussion;" you can rely on the rising of cholers, an increased, often diversionary use of statistics, and yet more animated revival of a famous moment from a legendary sporting event.

It is another thing altogether to be privy to a battle of doctrine or theory being waged within a group of critics, each of whom has his/her visions and prejudices in place and running about much the same as a dog has fleas in place and running about.  Post modernism versus post colonialism.  etc.

And yet.

It is a thing of remarkable otherness to witness two or more academics in their scramble for the moral high ground.  All is relative calm and civility, in fact, all is that splendid word devised for such congruence, collegiality when the pathways of argument run more or less parallel as, say, anthropology moves for a time in step with sociology.  When the pathways begin to diverge, each academic becomes more anxious for the light of reason to appear to shine on his path to the exclusion of the other academic's path, particularly if there is a difference in discipline.  This, of course, sets forth in full regalia the straw man, Which is the more reliable, History or Sociology?  In response for this wish for solar preference, a buzzword is set free upon the discourse, a once a trial balloon but also a provocation.  Will this buzzword establish supremacy in the discussion at hand, thanks to its coded implication of knowledge of an inside bit of information?

It is often said by men and women engaged in law enforcement, specifically police work, that they are at greatest risk when responding to cases of domestic violence, but when we consider the coding and social ranking and caste system of the academic landscape, such encounters are mere flies buzzing about the head rather than mosquitoes seeking blood.  The academic equivalent of a duke is the department chair, who defers upward to a dean, who in turn defers to a provost, who kisses the ring of the president, who amusingly enough defers to wealthy alumni.  Below the department chair is the tenured full professor, followed in descending rank order by the associate professor, then the assistant professor, then the adjunct.  Buzzwords such as rubric or template are alarms sending some to drain the moats and raise the drawbridges,  Peer group and tenure committee are concepts designed to sound democratic but which are code for suffering and sufferance.  Most academics above the rank of a master's degree have had to develop a thesis or if you will Quixotic quest to demonstrate such qualities as research ability, relevance, primary and secondary source material, and ability to draw reasoned conclusions from assembled data.  They have had to defend their thesis, submitting to a committee with the mission of insuring focus, accuracy, relevance, and originality.  The written thesis must be defended in a rigorous debate, wherein the individual presenting the thesis is required to provide an articulate and lively assertion that supports its assertions.  In this process, many academics have undergone some form of abuse, possible humiliation, and the need to get back to square one to support the foundation of the essential argument.  One might think of this as a pecking system without being too far down the path of hyperbole.  One might also remember the likelihood of the abused becoming tomorrow's abuser, and what better target than a graduate student, a PhD candidate.

It has been a privilege, often a most boring one, to sit among "them," entertaining naughty thoughts as you took in the dynamic of the room, formed a sense of where in the entire structure the student resided.  As you learned, seemingly without effort, to enhance your vocabulary of profanity in Spanish, Italian, French, Polish, Russian, and Academic, you find yourself equipped to go forth in the world, able to support a thesis with verbal and signed aplomb, thus your credentials to attend and cope with a faculty meeting.

It is no surprise to you that you have close friends among the academic community and with one or two possible exceptions, some of your most considered enemies.  You and they are splendid targets to write about,  and of course you have, you do, and you will.

Friday, September 24, 2010


A remarkable gift came your way as a review copy.  Eleven hundred sixteen pages of it.  That would be The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, a compilation of so-called noir mystery and pulp fiction, written by some of the then masters in their field.  Black Mask Magazine was the quintessential pulp magazine, its covers bold with four-color depictions of tough gangsters, cynical cops, and machine-gun toting molls who were at once inviting and no-nonsense foreboding.  You began haunting used book stores for them, by the mid 70s owning well over a hundred, including the issue with the first appearance of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.

By that time, you'd risen to the point of authority at Sherbourne Press where you could and did dictate policy.  "We are beginning a mystery list," you announced at one memorable meeting, trying to sound more editorial than portentous.  You were riding high, with a growing list of money makers.  You set forth to contract a number of writers whom one of your favorite authors, William F. Nolan, called The Black Mask Boys, in his anthology of those noir pulp stories.  One of your first acquisitions was The Hardboiled Dicks, which you just recently had occasion to order from Amazon.  Quickly on the heels of leasing massmarket paper rights of it to Pocket Books, you swooped down on Frank Gruber to get Brass Knuckles, a collection of his Oliver Quade, The Human Encyclopedia, stories, and Gruber's close friend, Steve Fisher, teasing from him the novel he'd considered his best, Saxon's Ghost, a haunting--literally and figuratively--tale about a professional magician named Saxon, the Great.

You were working on one of the regulars from the mystery writers' poker game, Day Keene, whom you surely thought to land; after all, Day write a Gold Medal paperback original a month.  You never got Day, but his one-time neighbor from Florida, Bob Turner, came through for you, and there was the  excitement of getting Bill S. Ballinger to let you do a reprint of a mystery you'd read as a kid, Portrait in Smoke, which did well enough for you to convince him to let you have The Forty-Nine Days of Death.  Meanwhile, you'd gotten Gruber a bit taken in wine and promising to do an autobiography focusing on his pulp days, The Pulp Jungle.

For a long moment, while reading through this massive and encompassing work, you were hit with the sudden awareness that they were all of them--those you knew personally and by reputation--gone, which brought you up with a start before the rebellion kicked in, informing you that you are way too young to be a dinosaur.  Besides, you have the book, sitting now on your shelf next to The Hardboiled Omnibus and The Hardboiled Dicks, and to have these is to have it all.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Where is the boundary between eavesdropping and intrusion?

You are sitting at one of your favorite corners in your favorite coffee house.  Perhaps four feet away, a table is occupied by two women, sneaking up on middle age.  You have sat in this nook many times when the next table was occupied, some by individuals with interests and vocabulary at some remove from yours.  You were able to work away at whatever your purpose, only on occasion aware of a line of conversation that had slipped under the ropes and into your awareness.  In fact, one party to such a conversation in that same situation was now taking her au lait to two tables removed from you as you recalled a memorable line from her about her experiences with "beings on the other side, helping those of us who were finding it to transition into death."

The conversation today triggered in you a considerable atmosphere of eavesdropping.  You would describe the two with buzz words of your own, "club women."  Each had an enormous three-ring binder, luxuriant with press releases, diagrams of seating arrangements, agendas for past and forthcoming meetings.  Each spoke of financial streams, conversion strategies, learning directives, distancing techniques, and dialogue models.  You had the impression they each belonged to more than one organization.  Your eavesdropping brought home information that each was affluent enough to have residences in two states, preferring Santa Barbara but "having emotional roots in Colorado."

Although the emotional level of the conversation was a degree or two above inane, each spoke with significant hand gestures, as though swatting hundreds of invisible insects.  The one farthest from you habitually reached across her body with her right hand as if to smooth a wrinkled stocking on her right leg, which was draped across her left at the knee.  You had no interest in the content of the conversation; your notes and descriptions of it included buzz word phrases and descriptions of what appeared to you to be a manic display of energy.

When at length they left, they were replaced with two other women of about the same age and about relatively similar attractiveness, but their conversation and gestures were restrained enough so that you were completely undistracted, disinterested, back at your writing as though they did not exist.  All of which led you to consider the point where distraction by voice or content or gesture gives way to unabashed eavesdropping and what you termed in your notes taken on the spot the observation of the banal.

Which leads you further down the questioning line to the provocative one, do you consider eavesdropping on your characters?  Disclosure:  each of the two women in the first group reminded you after some consideration of women you dated, for a time while at the university, and after a long spell away from the university variously with the carnival or in Mexico, for a time toward your late twenties.  What spoken things invade your Teflon of concentration?  What conversations send forth the invitation to eavesdrop?  Back in the days when you were a happy if mediocre distance runner, your personal best time in a strenuous ten-kilometer course came when you found yourself behind two young women who chatted on a near-conversational level throughout the entire course, drawn in with an admittedly prurient tug that begin, as you remember it with, "Had he ever tried to do that with you before?"  Followed by an emphatic shake of a ponytailed head, followed by a "Did you enjoy it?" followed by an even more emphatic nodding of a ponytailed head, followed by a duet of giggles.  Such was your talent at the ten-kilometer run that you considered a time of forty-five minutes quite splendid.  As you finished this eavesdropping ten-k run, you were convinced there'd been a glitch in the electronic timing system.  How else could you have managed just a tad over thirty-nine minutes?

Eavesdropping:  what is overheard, how it is interpreted, what significance to be attached, and how trustworthy is the eavesdropper's interpretation?  Provocative questions for an early autumn day in 2010.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Meeting of the Minds

You have not attended so many meetings in your life that you think you are at the right-hand rat tail of some distribution curve wherein you have attended significantly more than most of your peers.  Because of the kinds of meetings you have attended, you do come away with the feeling that it seems as though you have attended more meetings.

Perhaps the most painful meeting you ever attended, even more painful that the one in which Dr; Koper showed you on a computer screen not only the location of the tumor but its size and color as well, was your first sales meeting as the newly minted editor in chief at Sherbourne Press, a general trade publisher out of Los Angeles.  You were in a suite at the Drake Hotel, drinking hotel urn coffee and trying to disgorge from a back tooth a stubborn flake of almond that had more recently been a part of a danish.  You had a bad enough taste in your mouth from the coffee, had just given a report on a novel you quite liked, and were speaking of it in terms of admiration whereupon a badly hung over sales rep called out from the rear, "Never mind the lovely prose.  How do I sell the fucker?"

Although that sales meeting stands out for its singularity, the rest of your experiences, including editorial meetings, writers' conference workshop leader conferences, and story conferences become a blur of generality and it is thus the generic faculty meeting as opposed to such faculty meetings as I have attended at any specific university.  They blend together in their awfulness, causing you to think dire thoughts, plot out vindictive short stories, and plot appropriate literary redress of grievances.

It is as much as any person can bear to experience the toxic emotional and subtexts dynamic of faculty meetings.  The true pleasure comes from the growing suspicion that your presence in such a meeting is likely an occasion of discomfort for one or more persons.  In the best tradition of psychological and dramatic soundness, the you that is an organism thinks well of itself, is appropriately outraged at any hint your turf is being encroached, your verges trespassed.  Of course it is so. The soothing balm you apply for such affliction is the knowledge that any unruly, disruptive, self-serving crowd scene can be quickly set in operation by imagining the characters as members of a faculty, broken down into a particular department at a particular university.  At such delicious moments, revenge is neither served warm nor cold, but rather as a gigantic smorgasbord.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


A ritual is patterned, coded behavior performed in expectation of producing a desired result,say rain or a bountiful hunt.  It may also be an offering to a deity.  Ritual may also be performed as an educational venture, its purpose to impart and maintain cultural values.

The most significant ritual associated with writing is the application of words to a medium such as paper, or digitally on a screen, or verbally in some voice-recognition program that stores the results.  From this ritualistic behavior, all fiction, nonfiction, and poetry come into life, carrying with them the associated mystery and magic implicit and explicit in their creation.

Those who write on a regular basis--at least six times a week--are apt to attach ritual of some behavioral sort to the process, notwithstanding the transfer of the process to muscle memory, where indeed no thought is required.  They simply write.  Your own rituals for engaging the activity include a variety of ventures frequently involving coffee and reading of periodicals; on other occasions music of idiosyncratic choice.  These and undoubtedly more occult behavior patterns not readily apparent to you are more or less regular launching pads but do not require the rigorous attention to detail needed by someone more compulsive or obsessive as you.  The very presence of all the qualifiers in your observations of this paragraph serve to reassure you that you could and do begin working where ever you happen to be, at any time after you have had some measure of coffee, and that you adhere to no particular device to get started.  

The true portal to putting words on a page is an emotion or combination of emotions, producing an image somewhere within your psychic frame.  You enter that door, bursting in on a rush of feeling, hoping to either describe or dramatize the array of feelings.  It is much of a piece with the first kiss of someone you would not mind becoming a lover to, inviting, promising, evoking an intense wish for detail and familiarity.  This is an apt but dangerous metaphor; how many times in either situation have you gone beyond that first kiss, then quickly reached the What-have-I-got-my-self-into? stage.

Discoveries, if they are to retain any significance, are fraught with consequence; thus do you require some part of the ritual to get you in for at least a page worth of words and directions; thus do the rituals that get you writing require your entry cue to be some form of vulnerability to some form of awareness or consequence.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Learning Curve

There is a tidal wave, which is often caused by some weather condition, a tsunami, which is conventionally regarded as  being the by-product of a seismic event, and the learning curve, which is occasioned when an individual is confronted with a mounting surge of awareness that understanding of a process or system is likely to be overwhelming.

For lo these many years, you have been close to the point of inundation by the learning curve of writing, sometimes being buoyed beyond the crest by the momentum of the current.  The buoyancy led you to believe that you were so to speak on peer terms with the learning curve, able to cope with it in most of its demanding clamor for undivided attention.  This is a feeling that allows you to float your way into the next project, whatever it might be, with a margin of confidence, but no sooner is the draft underway, perhaps even completed in first draft, when you become acquainted once again with that most devious and dangerous of waves, the learning curve.

All right, have it your way; you will never be so significantly beyond it that you will be able to body surf your way through the next project, never land ashore without some drag marks or without the feel of having been taken for a head-rattling, topsy-turvy tumble.  For every technique or device you learn, the next project presents you with the reality of encounter with a wave of such grand, formidable, imposing size as to cause you shivers of anticipation for the ride ahead.  There was at first a direct proportion between what techniques you were aware of and your ability to execute them with some measure of success, but you have long since reached the point where your ability to execute and your desire to include yet greater depth rely more on accident and randomness than any ability you have to measure the distance between them.  It is not constant.

So, as Nick Caraway observes in The Great Gatsby, you beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.  Your past is not Gatsby's nor anyone else's except the point from which you began and now measure yourself; it is much your own moments of beginning, what you thought and felt at the time.  The discovery that saves you, often buoys you aloft, is the recognition that it seemed magic then, that you could enter it with a mantra, an Open sesame straight from Ali Baba.  You know any number of mantras but none of them works in this context.  What you have is the magic from that time, beckoning you forth to try once again.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Working the Room

In its way, working the room becomes a personification of a business card.  It is the combined process of socializing and the subtle presentation of your professional self, at the same time a way of pulling in raw data from a landscape, as though you were a Mars Explorer on a mission.

Working a room begins when you enter a large gathering of people, much the same as the way you begin a story--looking for some portal of entry.  A familiar face or some revelatory display or activity will do the trick, draw you forth, away  from the edge, into the interior.

Just as the act of breathing has two aspects, the inhale and the expelling, working the room means taking in and emitting some aspect of you such as curiosity or energy; perhaps even conviviality.  If you look as though you're going to a party, other revelers will want to follow.  If you emit approachability, someone is likely to wish to approach you, even in the mistaken impression that you are someone else.  Surely the least thing you'd wish to be exuding is that Don't-tread-on-me aspect of your personality or anything vaguely suggesting defensiveness.

At one point in your life, from early teens until late twenties, you believed yourself to be a seriously dedicated introvert.  Although you admired large gatherings, you felt they were best experienced from a relative position of invisibility or costumed in some gear that gained unearned attention.  The attention was the be-all and end-all.  No conversation allowed.  Your career soon led you to the yearly room of what was for you the room of all rooms, the then-named American Bookseller's Association Convention, held annually at Memorial Day in and about the exhibition room of the Shoreham Hotel near Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.  All those publishers you'd heard of, whose books you'd read, whose authors you variously admired or scorned.  They were all there in the large halls, packed to overflow with bookstore principals from as far away as Alaska, as near as Bethesda and Arlington, certainly represented by the major book stores in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

You worked that room the way, as a teen-ager, you worked a soda or milkshake, drawing in every drop.  The thing that was not borne upon you until later was that you were making acquaintances to last you a lifetime.  Names were real persons rather than fuzzy pictures in Publishers' Weekly or The New York Times.

From time to time the convention was held away from Washington, in the far reaches of Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, even your then home town of Los Angeles.  Once, to your barbecue satisfaction, in Dallas.  Your working the room was now even slower, more deliberate; you had a better sense of who and what you were looking for.

Working the room was a part of learning publishing, but even more to the point, it was the beginning of a technique that has finally come to you as learning yourself.  You have subsequently worked rooms of writing organizations and conferences, academic gatherings, and purely social gatherings.  Your absolute favorite room to work is any room where you are free with your computer and your dog to transform yourself into the project at hand.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What Choler Is Your Rainbow?

You have spoken out with considerable invective against the use of what you consider artificial devices as a way to set a writer to writing.  Most of the results of such ventures emerge sounding precisely like what they are:  manufactured sequences of words, mere exercises, perhaps demonstrating the ingenuity resident in the writer but only on rare occasions demonstrating the emotional core of the story.  One such device remains in you memory over a span of at least twenty years; the student proudly announced having written two entire pages without once using a word containing the letter e.  Still reeling from that memory, you recall a new visitor to the Saturday workshop, announcing the three prompt words built into an essay.  Fortunately for you and the newcomer, your cholers were set at room temperature and you were able to make your point without a rant; the newcomer saw the point, then returned the following week with a promising beginning to a promising story.

With this disclosure about your general response to exercises and to the production of any writing that does not have some inherent purpose of demonstrating opinion, humor, irony, subtext, or the glorious nuances of story, this confession:  You sometimes resort to a device that sets two or more characters against one another, illustrates two possible extremes of a point, leads directly to the thematic goals of a story. Place a character who is confident into a situation with a character who is some degrees more than confident, say stubborn.  See what happens.

The goal of story is some kind of combustion.  When you find out what the combustion is and is about, you are past the half-way marker.

The best use for this device is as a tracking mechanism, one that insures the necessary amount of tension and chemistry between individual characters to fuel the story.  Comfortable is a positive enough attitude for a character.  Put a character who is comfortable into a situation where another character appears the extreme vector of comfortable, say lazy.  Ah.  Soon the comfortable character is not so comfortable, thanks to the reminder of the lazy character's laziness.  Similarly, the lazy character feels, shall we say pressured by the comfortable character?  Yes; let's do.

Comfortable you says yes, this is a worthwhile approach to apply on occasion to keep the wire of tension taut.  The lazy you insists that it is nevertheless a trick, a device.  Stories don't need devices, the lazy you says.  Yeah, but you'd never get off your butt and want to get things moving, the comfortable you responds.  Soon both aspects of you are at each other with taunts, jibes, perhaps even insults.  Just enough to get you wanting to bring another character into the picture--to absorb some of the heat.

Friday, September 17, 2010

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four

This is in its way an Odyssey of a French fried potato unit, that fabled shaving of potato plunged into a hot bath of cooking oil until it is transformed from fleshy white to a crisp, tantalizing finger of golden brown, going on a journey from plate to mouth, defining in its journey character, degree of intimacy between or lacking between characters, and that most defining character trait, intent.

An object, any object, whether some useful noun or worn-out appliance, may alternatively litter the landscape where you live or haunt your awareness as a consequence of you having discarded it.  You are, as indeed your characters are, a reflection of the items in a desk drawer, broken parts of reading glasses, USB cords from long departed computers, the collars and medallions of pets no longer alive, business cards handed you by persons of intent themselves, proffered in paroxysms of enthusiasm.

Some objects convey the sweet reminiscence of a former lover while others still may hark back to an era in your life, such as smoking, where lighters and pipe cleaners and tamping tools became the frequent fliers in your tool kit.  You and your characters are given to regarding them in a state of having been yanked into the shadowy atmosphere of reminiscence by their mere presence.

Thus objects go beyond Chekhov's gun, mounted on the wall in Act One, a mute reminder of its forthcoming role at the fall of the curtain following act three; they become objective correlatives or emotional land mines or flashing arrows which point the reader toward subliminal connection.

A single French-fried potato unit is an object in its own right, one you would immediately baptize in ketchup, sending forth relevant information about you.  That same shred of potato, resting on your plate, becomes immediately transformed as a character spots it, hovers over it, then pounces, lifting it to her mouth with a triumphant chomp.  French-fry and character have just assumed a significant definition, establishing at least a relationship of pre-existing intimacy with you or an intent to form one.

French-fried potatoes in real life are objects of interest on a one-dimensional level; in fiction they become defining moments from which story emerges, awaiting the decision to douse in ketchup or play out the scene in full-frontal nudity.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Conventional Wisdom

Some of the conventions associated with storytelling are mutable, changing every century or so.  In the eighteenth century, for example, it was not unusual for an author to directly address the reader, perhaps even slip in an occasional cautionary essay or discourse that veered sharply away from the developing line of story.  Point-of-view became another convention, moving more toward the epicenter of a narrator-character's innermost thoughts.  Yet another convention is the use of a two-line space break or some other visual device to signal to the reader, just as an indent signals to the reader, a shift in time and setting.

One particular rule of thumb is less a convention than it is sound dramatic physics:  Each character presumes and believes himself/herself to be right, even in the throes of indecision and dithering.  Such is my way, the theoretical character will argue.  I am powerless to stop it from possessing me.  A character proceeding with this belief is bound to cause story, this discovery being a gift, a boon to you who could not plot his way out of a boring party.

Even when you are at the low end of the ego supplement scale, thinking some real or imagined weakness has doomed your chances to attract Ms. Right or get The Job, or have a particular manuscript accepted, you yet consider yourself right to have behaved as you did, pursued such a goal, entertained such a notion (entertained, hell; you took it out for a night on the town).  It is no surprise then that with such a deeply held belief, you push characters and situations around.  But you are sufficiently experienced with the behavior of individuals within the quotidian world that you are often surprised you characters do as requested.  You continuously expect some display of spontaneity or outright rebellion; you in fact expect to be surprised.  Thinking about the matter, you reckon it probable that there is a direct ratio of relationship between your expectations and you being surprised by any given outcome on any given day.

There are, you suppose, individuals who would say such a vision makes you a cynic, perhaps even a pessimist, but the joke is ultimately on them.  You get too much pleasure from the surprise to be cynical for any length of time at all.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Getting" a Story

How do you know with assurance if you've "gotten" the author's intent when you've read a novel?  You're more likely to get such handholds and guidelines in the form of Introductions, Prefaces, and Prologues in history or other nonfiction narrative.  You're also more likely to get tables of contents, which suggest some through line of the author's intended direction.  Many novels, particularly genre fiction, begin with the literary equivalent of a scope statement or premise as it is being dumped in your lap.  Alas, many others are literary novels or novels of ideas whose premise is not so readily apparent.  This is where the trouble may begin.  The content is up for the grabs of individual interpretation.

Take a literary novelist for an example, say Kazuo Ishiguro.  Take his major work to date, The Remains of the Day, or Never Let Me Go.  Each in its way features a narrator with a recognizable goal, but not only does all similarity stop there, so does the reliability of the narrator.  With the loss of absolute reliability comes enhanced sense of reality because, when you think of it, how often do you consider those about you completely reliable and, indeed, how often do you consider yourself reliable?  True enough, you are working at being reliable, but isn't this a subjective grading scale?  Isn't everyone trying to become more reliable in his or her own eyes?

When we come to read, we come equipped with more baggage than we realize.  Among our toys and tools are attitude, background, social class, and political orientation.  This baggage is in effect the area of frustration between reader and writer, perhaps extending even from reader to characters and certainly writer to characters.

It becomes a tense atmosphere, this business of telling a story.  You are believing at the moment that the safest way through this mine field is to take off the snowshoes of trying deliberately to construct an atmosphere in which actions and objects are intended to stand for things other than what they already are.  Let the characters do that.  They require no assistance from you.

Create your own world, brick by brick, haled in place with the mortar you mix, taking some time to decide for your own purposes what the differences and similarities are between mortar and cement.  Then it is time to step back, not so much to admire your work at a distance as to allow it to stand for itself under circumstances beyond the point where you are constantly worried enough if you'd done too much or too little.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A decided lack of character

Agenda is the fanny pack borne by all characters who set forth on the stage, which of course is the page.  Agenda defines how these individuals will behave while in quest of their story-related goal, how they are seen by other characters, and of course by the reader.

Agenda is the armature about which the salient parts of character are wrapped.  What does that person want?  You are the casting director.  How did that individual get beyond your critical eye?  What part did you see that character portraying.  Even the pizza delivery person you are so fond of bringing into these vagrant essays wants something.  How many individuals can you imagine who would be content with a career delivering pizzas, wanting no added career bump?  At the very least this delivery person would want to run his/her own parlor, sending myriad delivery persons out into the world.

You have heard many law enforcement persons in their moments of shop talk, addressing the matter of the most dangerous job--responding to domestic violence calls.  There is an apparent critical moment in the procedure where both the aggressor and the victim turn on the responding officer.  Similarly there is damage to a writer for getting between contending characters.  Although you have compassion for them, even empathy, you must restrain yourself, let them solve their problems, lead the way to the explosions that are detonated within the sensitivities of these individuals.

You could well regard each of your characters as a version of the Golem of Prague, constructed from clay from a river bank, the forehead inscribed with an empowering word that brings the being to life for a single purpose.  You already have one or two characters in mind for a series, but the metaphor is the same; these are beings made to seem real, ambitions, fears, hidden agendas wrapped about that singular armature of what they want in this particular story.

They will and should become markedly real to you.  If they do not come to represent life to you, how can you expect them to resonate for anyone else?  They are clay from the river bank of your experience, just at the point where it merges with your imagination.  Some versions of the Golem story have the empowering word written on a sheet of parchment, rolled into a cylinder, then slid into the creature's ear.  When the creature has done its service, the power word is wiped from its brow or the mini-scroll is removed from the ear.  For your stories to be as successful as you wish, these characters of yours remain in the landscape you have cast them in, where they will, you hope, be encountered by myriad persons you may never know, possibly even persons beyond your own life span.  Getting in their way, telling them what to do will accordingly brand you as the one thing you do not wish to wear as a brand:  a control freak.  Enough that, as with your sister and brother writers, you are obsessive and compulsive.  That should be quite enough.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Primal Scrum

What is your primal reason for writing about a particular person, place, situation, or thing?

You begin the day liking the notion that the answer to your most rhetorical question, a sort of literary softball, is an index of your passionate concern.  You write about a person, a place, a situation, a thing because you care about it (them).  By most accounting, this is a proper, successful answer.  But it leaves you wanting.  How lovely in the extreme, or as Jake Barnes put it in another context, isn't it pretty to think you'd be in a steady atmosphere where it were possible to write only about the things that mattered to you.  No such luck.  Even the remarkable arbiter of such focus and concern, Gustave Flaubert, came to his desk some mornings convinced the previous day's work was lackluster.

Some mornings, you lurch to your writing venue, whether at home or in some coffee house, and your medium, whether your MacBook or a pen and note pad, clutching a coffee which you hope will open various portals, perhaps even chakras within, allowing the necessary traffic from emotions to intellect and assorted response mechanisms.  Through one stratagem or another, you literally have to write your way into caring, and you have to care enough so that when you reread it, the narrative voice you hear is not the voice of some Tea Bag politician, chanting the mantras of the deranged and deluded.  There are degrees of caring that produce a narrative with a purring rumble.  This is a nice, maintainable intensity, the sort that takes you without question through the narrative voices cast forth by the man and women whose work you admire and respect and wish to have your own work shelved with in public and private libraries.

The years of editing and teaching have impressed upon you how often the merest word will cause the purring narration to cough, possibly even to a stop.  If you care at all about your people and your theme, it becomes even more easy to let a sentence or two slip through the battlements on revision, sneaking through like commandos on a midnight raid, watch caps pulled down over their faces, their eye sockets ringed with carbon black so as to avoid detection.  Any simple word can and should sound the alarm, whether it is the ha, gotcha alarm or the alarm of excess or the worst alarm of all, the one of pretension.  They all mean the same thing in the end:  You cared too much or too little.  You were too exuberant or you rushed to be the first to finish.

You wouldn't do it if you didn't care; this is true enough.  But some days, you care more than others and when you find yourself recognizing this fact, how easy is it to try to plump up the enthusiasm with an adjective or two or perhaps some word you know will send potential readers running to their dictionaries, only to return to their reading with a fine sense of what a wonderful vocabulary you have in order to have constructed such a remarkable and intimidating sentence.

It does not and should not work that way, and you would think by now that you would understand this.  And you would hope that you do.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Every character who sets foot in a story you concoct has at least one secret--or should.  And after revision, does.  It is easy for you to sound so certain about this requirement, this dictum.  You should know; you are no stranger to secrets.  You have some.  You know of some of them resident in others.  You undoubtedly manage a few from yourself, filtered and protected by ingenious strategies, dodges, and rationale.

A secret is occult information, opinions, and events kept out of general circulation; it could be an instrument of a conspiracy and that lovely word cabal, born of just such a conspiracy.  It could as well be some fact or ritual which is revealed only to the initiate.

In its devious way, a secret is a burden, particularly if the bearer of it is fearful it could become public knowledge.  In fiction as well as in real life, individuals have been killed because of the fear that they knew and were prone to reveal a particular secret.  More commonly--and less dangerous--a secret is a burden to the extent of the bearer having to guard against revealing it, wondering at times if perhaps he has indeed let it slip out before the wrong audience.

Secrets frequently involve sexual information, whether relating to the bearer's awareness of his or her unconventional sexual identity or of the more common secret lust for another individual, this latter sometimes referred to as "a sneaker."  They may just as well involve secret or hidden agendas and in the area of social politics--as opposed to institutional politics--they may be the festering secret of one individual's distaste, even loathing for an individual it would not be tactful to go public with.

Like so many things of an idiosyncratic nature, secrets do not take well to being quantified, at least not on any convenient scale such as doctors or nurses making hospital rounds attempt to make when asking patients to locate on a scale of one to ten how much or how little pain they might be.  Your secret, the thing you would feel some degree of embarrassment or even humiliation experiencing might seem of no account or matter at all to someone else.  False tooth?  Big deal.  Have two myself.  Surgery to correct the bulbous nature of the nose you were born with?  Hey, no problemo--had my own honker worked on as well.

To the bearer of the secret, the risk of exposure could well go off the chart, otherwise the secret would presumably become public long ago.

Some secrets, as in open secrets, may involve clandestine relationships, sexual and otherwise and indeed, at the onset of Alcoholics Anonymous, the name itself was a code for implied secrecy because of the belief that a recovering alcoholic might be at some public risk were his or her secret to be universally known.

You once heard the playwright Neil Simon remark that the most intriguing dramatic opening he could imagine would be a character telling another character "This is something I have never told another person."

An imagination game you much enjoy is casting about in a group of individuals where you are trapped in a waiting situation, focusing on persons and imagining secrets for them.  Your own belief holds that such a playful exercise would reveal more about you than the cast of strangers about you, but even so, considering the individual characters you create for your stories are more stranger to you than intimate at first, they will be as likely to reveal their secrets to you as any seat mate in train or plan, whom you're not likely ever to see again.  They will want something from you in return. as all characters want from their creators.  They will want patience, understanding, empathy.  Some of them--you can't always tell which--will so wish to please you that they might tell you things they think you wish to hear.  They will lie and you might well take them at their word, only to discover, to your immense relief, that they are human, after all.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

code, cod, codify

Whenever you hear the word "code," part of you is sent back to your pre-teen years, before the stunning rite of passage known as girls, where a significant rite of passage was tattooed onto your psyche to the point where you can still observe traces of it in retrospect.

Those were the days of radio serials and bigger-than-life characters whose exploits suggested the adventures to be had in your life, were you not bound and anchored in your miserable quotidian routine.  These were the days of heavy sponsor identification with product to the excruciating point where every bite of bread cost you a pang of loyalty.  You were in a war of loyalty to Weber's bread and The Lone Ranger on the one bite, and Langendorf bread and Captain Midnight on the other.  You forsook favored Bosco to chocolateify your milk for the more powdery Ovaltine because Little Orphan Annie brought you a secret decoder ring.

You were an avid collector of the premium prizes that paid off in devices that put code in your hands then the way your iPod Touch puts music in your hands today.  Soon your older sister added to your stash of code-originating devices by showing you how you could create any number of codes simply by using a second alphabet that removed a letter or two from the standard A-B-C order, starting with, say, D-through Z, then adding the missing A-B-C- at the tail end, causing in one version of the code D to equal A, E to equal B, and F to equal C.  She also showed you how to take a page from any book you happened to be reading, and by using the first paragraph, create one kind of code and by using an entire page, create yet another.

Trouble came when, a virtual library of codes and encoding devices at your disposal, you had absolutely nothing worth rendering into code.  What could you possibly wish to withhold?  What information or opinions would you feel the need to disguise?  It was not as though you were some incipient Leonardo nor did you have any heretical beliefs.  You pretty much took the universe as you found it, had relatively good communication within your family, and had just enough momentum in questioning authority that you were still more of a smart ass than a radical.

Nor was your plight in any way given examples of creative assistance by the purveyors of the Lone Ranger Code or the individuals you'd come to think of as The Little Orphan Annie People.  Most of their coded messages were more or less right out of the Boy Scout or Girl Scout Handbook.  Once The Lone Ranger broadcast a message that, when you decoded it suggested helping your mother wash the dinner dishes, and fucking Tom Mix presented a message that, when decoded, urged you to try shredded Ralston cereal.

Fortunately, puberty brought with it things to be secretive about, things such as having an enormous crush on Rena Passacantando which, had you enough Italian at the time, you would have realized was a remarkable name that meant walks while singing or singing while walking.  You were young enough to not want the rest of the world know of your crush because you were still getting used to the benefits of being in love and were not willing to go public quite yet.

Codes cover any number of secrets, using language to impart secret or special meanings.  A sentence or paragraph or even a word or attitude that is coded is meant to convey a special meaning to a special audience.  If you are able to decode, you are privy to the secret intentions of individuals, which makes you wonder about the ways in which your characters use code to keep things from one another or identify like-minded confederates.  This in turn means there are insiders, those privy to intent and meaning, while outsiders are thought to be kept in ignorance.

There are genetic codes, civil codes, and combination codes, ways of keeping information secure, impenetrable, as secure in a rhetorical way as a gated community is in a security way.

You do your best to look at the ramifications of coded language and expression, making you realize how great the potential is for naivete, how easy it is to use code or slang or argot or buzzwords to speak over the heads of some or to forge a sense of "us" as opposed to the larger sense of "them."  There is a kind of coding inherent in calling an individual you or thee or thou, and even though you have been around Spanish-language speakers for most of your life, you are still a bit skittish about when to call someone tu or usted, occasionally having to be given a mild rebuke that you would call a particular person usted instead of tu or a kind of wince suggesting you may have unintentionally patronized someone by calling them tu.  It is equally indicative of code to know the difference between abuela, which is merely a grandmother and tu abuela which, with the right inflection, is an egregious insult.

Such tropes remind you that all of language needs not merely translation but decoding, information that reveals intent and hidden or occult meaning.  You used ig-pay atin-lay as a language-based code that allowed you the luxury of communicating with peers in front of adults.  There was a variation of pig Latin used among those who worked the carnival circuit when you did, allowing you to communicate in front of "the marks" the name carnival people gave to non-carnival persons, civilians, by slipping the trope eiz between vowels of a word, thus good day becomes geizood deizay.

You try to learn the secret codes of persons, places, animals, things so that you can feel closer to them and write of them with greater understanding and less judgement.  To this day you do not know which, the understanding or the judgmental, is the area of your greatest deficiency.  You may never know.  To a large extent, your desire to know and to rectify are the forces that keep you at some keyboard oor pen, setting words adrift, trying to decode their habits and meanings.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dialogue: It Was the Best of Problems, It was the Worst of Problems

A client of yours who is a literary agent has asked you to work with a client of hers on point of view, telling you the writer seems baffled by it.  Another, quite different agent, has remarked to you more than once that his biggest problem in dealing with his clients is getting them to understand the nature of "beats," those moments of activity in a story, the literary equivalent of notes on a musical score, expression volition and duration.  A client who is a writer finds difficulty in expressing motivation, and yet another has problems distinguishing voice from style.

You sympathize with all these difficulties to the extent that you had to work your way through them to the point where you felt confident with them, where they neither intimidated you nor caused you to either under- or overestimate their importance.

And yet.

You still believe the single most important aspect to the early and intermediate writer is dialogue, which is not what people say to one another so much as it is how characters advance story through its accelerated impact upon them.  It is in effect the energy created between one character saying "Good morning" to another, only to be met with the response, "Not that cheery-dearie business again."  Or, "I love you," provoking the response, "I'm supposed to issue a get-out-of-jail-free on the basis of that, right?"

It is true that some short story writers are able to express an entire narrative without using a word of dialogue while at the same time causing you to believe you have heard conversations among the characters.  It is also true that Harold Pinter could get "dialogue" out of two characters who didn't speak a work but instead rattled or otherwise got "dialogue" out of the sounds they produced by holding their portions of the daily newspaper and turning pages or otherwise creating sounds that evoked the nature of their feelings through the silence surrounding them.

Dialogue is not only the imaginary conversations within a single character or a pair of characters, it is in its way An American Gothic of drama in the evoked volley and return of feelings set against the deeper, truer feelings of the individuals; it is the seemingly magical effect of what is being said, set against what is being felt.  Of course it is not magic.  It is drama.  It is dialogue.

This early into the twenty-first century, the great dramatic dialogue seems to surround the issue of whether there is or is not a god.  You have close friends and some students on both sides of the debate.  Your own take is that there is none, although that only matters to you because you do not always address it directly in your stories.  You have not polled your characters on whether they believe or not, although you suspect a smaller percentage of them believe than those who do not.  The dialogue is, you recognize, a useful subtext, an argument your characters have had off stage with those about them, thus the residue of their differing attitudes as they engage one another.  How do such characters behave, speak to one another?  How do they speak of any basic matters?

There are a number of individuals in reality for whom you have measures of love along with regard.  You love some of them in spite of your regard for them because this, too, is part of human nature.  You feel love from a number of persons.  A number of persons you have loved have died, their loss particularly haunting because of you awareness that they loved you in ways that at one time defined your connection to the world and to reality.  It is feasible that the time will come when all those who love you in that particular way will be gone from you except in memory, revising your sense of connection to what you think of as reality and the universe.

The effect this will have on your conversations and dialogue cannot be forecast nor measured just as anticipated grief can only be spoken of aslant as opposed to straight on.  You can predict that in the process of aging, persons show a tendency to be haunted by past events and by the ghostly memories of significant individuals in their life who have died.  These individuals in some form or other of denial or displacement carry on dialogue with ghosts.  Your mother, for instance, frequently told you as a kind of ironic aside that if there is such a thing as an afterlife, your father will have a great deal to answer for.  This glimpse of her, this memory of her speaking to you, helps define her at once at her strongest and best and as an example of her own felt vulnerability.  This is the stuff of dialogue.  This is the stuff you need to remember.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Manuscript, the face you put on a story

A favored trope making the rounds at several levels of sophistication is the observation that one achieves at age fifty the face one deserves.  Particularly since in recent years you find yourself observing the presence of your father in the mirror on those occasions when you shave, you have no quarrel and great acceptance for the equation.  This leaves you the audacity and perhaps mischief to set forth an even more telling observation:  Any page of a writer's manuscript is the earned face the writer's work deserves.

More than ever, particularly with so many emerging writers submitting manuscripts in various degrees of completeness and in such variety of format, a page is in its way a calling card, a resume, a measure of the writer's competence and regard for a work in question.  One of the requirements for a book proposal, particularly if the work is nonfiction, is a demonstration of Why me? as in why am I the person to write this book?

And yet.

Considering all the manuscripts you have had presented you in your role as editor and as instructor, adding to those the many you have submitted of your own work, you properly ought to have a sense of how you wish a manuscript to appear--particularly your own.  Although you cringe at manuscripts submitted in the Times Roman font, you are as relatively tolerant of it as you are of, say, races other than your own, willing to look past the tint of a particular skin, the sag or arch of an epicanthal fold, the jut of a jaw to peer into the individual behind them, often thinking of them as manuscripts, stories out in submission, having great appeal to those who take the time and make the effort to know them.  Your bigotry begins to manifest itself at the careless use of homophone, where it's and its are used interchangeably to convey either verb in contracted form or pronoun, for the merest instance.  Because spelling was never a thing you could take for granted within your own writing, you begin to exhibit the resentment of entitlement you associate with those who have come by accuracy in their spelling with relative ease.  Do you not fucking spell-check your manuscript? you think when you see such egregious abandon.  It is one thing to be flippant about it, as in "I have trouble trusting a person who has only one way of spelling a word." but something entirely other when the periods and punctuation marks as well as the chips are down.

An early test of the dust jacket of a book is its potential to lure a prospective reader to pick up the book for a closer examination.  Your own standard of aesthetics dictates that you would not pick up a book designed to look like or remind you of something you would not pick up.  Subjective, but effective as a bottom line.  An early test of a manuscript is its clear unmistakable authority as represented by type face (you prefer and use American Typewriter), legibility, generosity of margins and proportion of text to white space.  There was a time in your writing life when typewriter ribbons were an issue to the point where the newer ribbons were saved for submissions, the well-worn ones or those embellished with black shoe polish (liquid, from the bottle) or laundry blueing (still available, by the way) used for beginning and intermediate drafts.  This makes you sensitive to the degree of blackness on the page.

Of course you want the senses engaged as you succumb to the invitation to read the page as transmitted by the previous page and the inherent sincerity and presence you are made to feel from the successive paragraphs.  You want every word, space, line, and margin to count for something; you are fucking Odysseus, on his way home to Ithaca, or so you say, and the Sirens are singing to you, trying to seduce you away from thoughts of Penelope and that kid, Telemachus, whom you already wish would get out and find some kind of a job whereby he could take care of himself and not be causing you to trip all over him.

You have tried any number of things with your face including mustaches, beards, goatees, and side burns extending down to a level with the corner creases of your lips, thinking variously to look older, attract sophisticated women, attract unsophisticated women, look more dignified.  None of it worked to any notable result, leaving you with embellishments to manage instead of merely shutting up and shaving.  You did try similar approaches with your approach to manuscript preparation to the point where you were spending more time with that aspect of presentation than you were with storytelling.

Back in the day, when you were assigned to a copyediting mentor who asked you if you were religious then told you that henceforth you would turn to a new Bible, The University of Chicago Manual of Style, you were also told of another book, the title of which will readily suggest how far back in the day back in the day was:  Words into Type.  Turn to page 45, you were instructed with the severity you might have been directed had Words into Type been a burning bush.  The heading is in bold:  Special Responsibilities of the Book Writer.  These are set forth in the following nine pages.  It is easy to be dismissive of a book about publishing that has the word "type" in its title, equally easy to thumb through the pages of CMOS, then ask with a patronizing air, "Don't they have people who, you know, do this sort of work?"

Yes, "they" most definitely have people who, you know, do this sort of work.  "They" are called authors.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Most of the stories you read--and write, for that matter--deal either with the need incumbent on one or more characters to arrive at a decision or the consequences visited upon those characters for decisions they have already made and acted upon.  Decision is a major, often unnoticed player in a drama, just as the act of decisions that are currently in abeyance but necessary are major players in what we like to think of as Reality or real life.  Sometimes the decisions are minor:  What shall I wear?  Do I really want oatmeal for breakfast today.  Sometimes they arrive in these difficult-to-open packages, making for a potential to dither.  Yet other times, the big ones sneak in between the striped shirt or checked shirt or oatmeal or omelet decisions so that, having opted for the striped shirt and oatmeal, you've sneaked in a larger decision such as the one you arrived at this morning, where you suddenly knew you were going to tell someone the equivalent of get stuffed and stay out of my life.  Even now, thinking about it, it doesn't seem any more important than what you ordered for breakfast (blueberry pancakes) or which shirt you chose (solid color).

This is somewhat disturbing because you more or less reserve telling individuals to get stuffed for a level of behavior rooted in that borderline area between fantasy and wish fulfillment.  In many ways it is good to have this alternate universe, this fantasy life in which you can do such things without having to deal with the consequences in Real Time.  But such is the nature of life and of your approach to it that even this kind of fantasy life has consequences.  These consequences have nothing to do with not being able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, rather they come to haunt you in reality because of your generosity in your fantasy life with telling individuals of your acquaintance to get stuffed.  There is a kind of residual holdover in which you find it easy to think of yourself as a grouch.

There is something unnerving about going through the warp and woof of your daily life, generally smiling or regarding things with admiration while arguing away the notion that you are behaving as a curmudgeon.  This does remind you that no character in a story you write or a story you read and admire should be without some kind of, shall we call it, inner dialogue.

You will find a more diplomatic way of telling this individual to get stuffed, making sure she is aware of the intent but also making sure you have not left yourself with any lingering doubts about your curmudgeonly state.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shouting Down Your Characters

Politeness, which is to say the conventions of considerate behavior among individuals, requires us to listen as well as to speak in response or to initiate.  Nice going in theory and, if you choose you associates with care, in practice as well.

How easy it is, sometimes in the flush of excited conversation or the drama of a particular moment, to metaphorically seize the microphone, then talk over the lesser voices and the stilled voices, filling the room with your bombast.  The point needs to be made, for you as well as clients whose work you edit, and for students into whose hands you are committed to deliver some semblance of technique.  The necessary point is, of course, the frequency with which you join brother and sister writers in taking over the stage from the characters, using your own passionate arguments and predilections to drown out the character.

Each character who sets foot on whatever stage you create should not sound like you, should in fact sound like herself or himself, should have the vocabulary, attitudes, and personalities consistent with the character in question.  Not you.  Not bloody you.  The time for such things is long past, both culturally and historically.

And yet.

You and how many others like you become so intoxicated by the cat nip quality of your own way with words that you often see fit to portray characters, decent (or indecent), hardworking (or relative idlers) individuals as though they were merely iterations of you?  Imagine being at a meal or other social gathering in which you were confronted with clones, mere iterations of your own rambunctious self.  You would be hard put to get the attention of anyone who might pass the olive oil and balsamic vinegar down this way in order to concoct some dipping oil for your

And you wonder with some bitterness at times about the rejection notes, particularly when the story seems so spot on.

Drowning your own characters out with your own voice and purpose constitutes two flagrant crimes against effective composition.  They are not supposed to sound like you.  Anyone who encounters them should be properly impressed that you know such complex individuals and that they actually choose to confide in you, and if you were not so given to the fustian waving of arms and diacritic marks, the readers might have a chance to do just that.

Why the fuck do you think so many readers are disappointed when they meet their favorite writers in person?  It is because these individuals pretend to crave privacy and the freedom to indulge their inner voices but in a nasty subtext really want to let you know how wonderful they are, to share their wonderfulness with you, so that you will, by God, remember what it was like to be near them however briefly.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sentence length

This is about sentences.  One-word sentences.  Two-word sentences.  Short, punchy declarative sentences.  Sentences that through no fault of their own slip gears from active to passive voice.  Sentences that go on and about for upward of fifty words.  Sentences as filled with as much sinuous mystery as a labyrinth.

You grew into your teens and twenties concerned about the length of your sentences because of your belief that your chosen work mandated short sentences.  Twelve or fifteen words for a sentence.  For a change of pace, the occasional twenty- or twenty-five-word sentence with a sprinkling of five- and six-word ventures.

Your core beliefs at that time had you visualizing a career as a journalist.  These same beliefs also held forth as a reward to be earned a column in which you expressed beliefs but as well ideas in sentences longer than fifteen words.

So much for journalism, which you respect when you encounter it as practiced by dedicated professionals who produce inquiry and stature in their investigations.  Had you more a taste for the academic life (not to mention ability), you might well have considered history, although it is more probable anthropology would have had its way with you.

Instead, evolution has had its way; you began to prefer longer sentences after years of having edited them down in other writers and seen the dangers of such length, growing vaguely uneasy about the use of shorter, punchier sentences in your own short stories, then come to terms with a natural-sounding sentence that was long but its intent clear and its path follow-able without cookie crumbs.

Lest you be misunderstood, you hasten to aver your admiration for the punchy vigor of short, declarative sentences or even those rendered in the passive voice.  You do not hesitate to use either when they come your way.  

You herewith sign on to the longer sentence, although it is to be watched with rigor for digression and incidents which may cause readers a sense of confusion or disorientation.  Long sentences have come to you as your voice has come to you, via practice, consideration, and examination of the longer sentences you write, particularly those in reviews or essays intended for use in newspapers or magazines.

Voice is a natural progression, away from the imitation of the many writers you have admired since the approximate age of fourteen.  Although practice and repetition can be helpful things, they are not ends in themselves.  Your voice may very well change, just as your preferential vocabulary--those words you reach for with the most confidence and ease--comes to you.  Just as well, things may change--in voice and vocabulary.  And so you may find yourself back to the simplicity of a shorter sentence, and yet word length of sentences is not a meaningful statistic or anything to be watched as other things in writing are watched.  It is the clarity and evocative power of a word choice, a sentence, and that delightful combination of sentences, the paragraph, are concerned.

A writer whose ideas have been stolen may write stinging letters of protest to the editors of op-ed pages; a writer whose teeth have been stolen can only grunt and gesture inchoately.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Music hath charms to soothe the savage editor

Music holds the world together for you.  Music is the psychic glue that bonds you to the beings and places and things about you, the sweet plangent gravity that causes attraction between bodies, determines rate of fall and mediates the rules of inertia by which you move or remain in emotional place or indeed feel anything at all.  Every time you hear music in one or more of its forms so agreeable to you, you are brought face to face with the awareness of your near illiteracy of its written language.

True enough, you can tell the whole note from its component parts, all the way down to the sixty-fourth note.  You recognize the sign that signifies rest or pause, and your Italian helps you with such vitals as when to start back at the beginning or what the intended emotional register is of a particular movement.  Even if you did not know the words, adagio lamentoso carries the slow stately procession of funereal dirge.  Nevertheless you are as far from being able to interpret it in its written form as players of it are able to do nor to speak of it with any but the most subjective result as you are emotionally removed from a language such as Greek or Sanskrit.

Being vulnerable in your ignorance causes your frequent reflection on how your results with words, sentences, and paragraphs has such greater depth, humbling you while making you yearn for equal skill with music and being simultaneously grateful for the use of words you have as yet forged over the fires of your ignorance.

Music and words require of their devotees constant practice in the physical sense of playing and writing but also in the ingestion sense of listening and reading.  If the two become conflated or confused, so much the better for the appreciation and understanding of each because each craft is about the use of symbols representing tones, performed against the background of time.  There are symbols to demonstrate the time frame in both music and writing.

The rewards of constant practice in either process are greater awareness of your feelings, closer access to them, and the remarkable ability to assign at your whim notes and words evocative of them.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Surprise! or Surprise?

Surprise is the emotional response to an unplanned event. It may equally well be the reaction to an event that was planned in advance but did not play out as anticipated.  In either case the resident emotion balances on the fulcrum of a business-as-usual stasis which may accordingly tip either to disappointment and dismay or elation and enjoyment.

There is no middle ground in surprise; a person, thing, or event is either more than you'd hoped for or less.  Getting what you want may come as a surprise, particularly if you'd despaired of achieving the goal, in which case the result is better than you'd expected (because you'd either written it off or put it on hold.)

As long as you are dealing with absolutes, you might as well make the point again:  a narrative without some direct or implied goal is not yet a story; every character of significance has some relevant goal to justify her/his inclusion in the first place.  Dorothy Gale's goal in The Wizard of Oz is to get back to Kansas.  Think how frequently she was frustrated from this goal during the arc of the story.  Think also that the moment she was back in Kansas, the story was over.  Thus the use of surprise in story assumes accelerating importance; when a character believes she has the stated objective in sight, a diversionary event (surprise) adds frustration, disappointment, and longevity to the story.

Surprise may have nuance, even irony, witness the iconic Somerset Maugham story from the early 1930s:"The Appointment in Samarra"

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture,  now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.  The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.  Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Think about the emotional effect not only of the characters in the story but on yourself, having read it. Some readers will have articulated at least to themselves the role surprise plays in their approach to fiction, reckoning somewhere in their reading process the role surprise plays in a given story.  Writers understand that reversals and disappointments experienced by their characters help bridge the often impenetrable gap between character and reader.  How many persons do you know who have never experienced a reversal or setback?  Even though it is a part of the human genome to plan for such events, how many of us has gone through any significant span of time in which there were no disasters, disappointments, or need for Plan B?  It is not a moment too soon to recall Robert Burns' poem about the poor, unfortunate mouse whose nest he inadvertently uprooted while plowing a field.  "The best laid schemes o' mice and men/Gang aft agley..." or as some of the remarkable late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Yiddish writers have noted, "Tsouris beliden,"  Trouble aboundeth.

Happy surprises are best watched with caution lest they seem a deliberate convenience; they should not be allowed to lead the reader to the conclusion or outcome without some careful fore-planning to make the reader accept the plausibility.  Thus it is always better to conflate happy surprises with, say, a discovered open zipper on a man or a visible bra strap for a woman, some embarrassment however tiny, recognition that even good things come with hooks.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Procrastination with a Purpose

During a reasonable week, which is to say a week in which you have more time than most unreasonable weeks, you have a fair amount of time to spend working at a project close to your heart and growing closer although perhaps more fearsome.  During such weeks you frequently order things from Amazon dot com or organizations like Amazon, places such as the estimable Powell's Books in Portland OR, or Tattered Covers in Denver, CO, or even the redoubtable Vroman's in Pasadena, CA.  More often than not you order books but sometimes there will be protective housing for an iPod Touch or super sensitive earphones the better to capture sounds from said iPod Touch.  An occasional pair of shoes, possibly even the new Canon printer ordered when you lost for the last time your temper with an HP printer and wished to disinherit it.

Since your taste in things to order is eclectic, the packages arriving in consequence of your procrastinations and dithering come in a variety of sizes and shapes.  In one of these reasonable weeks, you may well have ordered more things than you can keep track of, which is a good thing and, like most events in life a simultaneous bad thing.  It is true that when you do order something it is never a pure luxury; it will always have some useful application.  If it is a book, for instance, it is invariably one you would consider reviewing for your every-other-week Golden Oldie as opposed to the alternate week's selection from among the newly published.

You knew the big box was the Canon Printer because it showed a picture of a Canon printer on the box.  No surprise there.  But you'd forgotten entirely that you'd ordered a book that was an anthology of articles on acting techniques from various acting coaches and you were pleasantly surprised to see that you'd ordered the Fifth Piano Concerto of Serge Prokofiev, even though that turned out not to have been the piano concerto you thought it was.

Part of the rationale behind maintaining this blog with some relevant entry every day is to maintain the habit of setting forth into the unknown with no clear idea of what will appear, only that something, a forgotten package, will arrive in the form of an idea of notion which you must then unwrap to discover its contents.  The more often you set forth with nothing in mind, the more habitual it will be for some package to arrive somewhere along the appearance of the third or fourth paragraph, producing that most favored condition of being aboard the bucking bronco of an idea you are attempting to ride out until the buzzer sounds.

At times the "packages" that arrive remind you of white elephant gift exchanges, which is to say some of the ideas or concepts do not reflect the interest you may have felt when you were first unwrapping them, nor do they provide enough surge of energy to tempt you into rethinking, reformatting, or somehow reworking them into something more frangible.

It is, as you have discovered, pure risk, a risk that is sometimes ameliorated by the high of recognizing you've formed some sort of connection.  This theoretical connection may even be something you later discover is well known to nearly everyone of your acquaintance but you.  It is nice at your present age or at any of your ages in the past to have finally seized upon something that has been considered common knowledge or conventional wisdom, a fact that causes you to experience the relief of having caught up with yourself for a moment or two.  It is of course mind boggling to arrive at something you sense is out there, waiting to be noticed, waiting to be brought into the argument you seek to engage with Reality and Fantasy.  When such a package arrives and you struggle to get it opened, you get from your reaction the brief sense of why you are the eccentric and dissident and romantic and cynic and skeptic you are.