Friday, December 31, 2010

Notes from the underground

Sometimes you find yourself fretting about the fact of not obsessing enough about your work.  This worry comes into particular play when an editor has been through your latest effort, thought well enough of it to offer publication, then presented you with some document of suggested improvements, eighty or ninety percent of which do in fact add clarity and nuance.

These flurries of concern on your part do not have the baggage of perfection stashed in the overhead luggage compartment.  Perfection, in such cases, is of a piece with your concerns that you do not obsess enough about your work, both perfection and enough being abstractions, arguable degrees of arguable qualities.

Nor is it a matter of applying the sophistry that were you to be more obsessive, your work would as a result move on up the food chain to more prestigious publishing venue, or even the more egregious sophistry that you must learn to accept the limits of your vision.  The matter is about the respect you need to even carry the craft to the water much less to paddle it and navigate with it once it is afloat.

The matter goes on to be about the state of caring in general, which is enough to keep you up some nights with the kinds of worry that are not occasioned by phone calls from collection agencies or the news that one or other of your proposals has been less than successful with its intended audience.

To begin, the manuscript:  You are a notoriously idiosyncratic speller, using any occasion to launch into a Lewis and Clark expedition of spelling variation on a conventional word.  Although you quite enjoyed diagramming sentences on the blackboards of various middle and high school classrooms, your sense of parts of speech and other grammatical adornments is the equivalent of having to count numbers on your fingers in maths problems, your awareness of such arcana that, for instance, the word so can be used as an adverb may account for the larger body of your knowledge of syntax, grammar, and the awareness of what a solecism is.

The manuscript is the writer's calling card; even in these days of electronic submission, the manuscript tells the editor your level of plateau in the writing society just as one's voice is often a cultural give-away, or one's school tie an index of claimed status.  As an editor, you can often "tell" on the first page if a particular manuscript has "it."  As a writer, you wish your manuscript submissions to carry the subtext to the reader, Be alert, you are reading the work of a professional.

Then there is the all-important introductory sentence, called the lede by newspaper folk.  Is it of "Call me Ishmael" intrigue?  Does it coax the reader along to the point where the reader is no longer aware of reading sentences but is rather transported to the venue of which you have written?  Does it eschew stage direction and backstory and authorial self-consciousness, moving instead with bold step into drama, where the reader is aware only of characters at accelerated risk rather than a writer of burgeoning self-importance?  Do you write to tell a story or impress yourself?  (The second response can be and has been fatal to the writer's intent.)

Is there some inherent need pushing at you to tell this particular story?  Will not telling it cause you some form of psychical harm (such as guilt, remorse, a growing sense of refusal to take on the problems a creative person must confront)?  Are you reinforcing your fear of taking risk?

Have you let fear of failure inhibit the audacity you have nourished in order to hone a writer's craft?

Have you, for fear of being misunderstood, left out the audacity in this story?

Have you moved beyond the point of fearing you will be misunderstood (for however pellucid and engaging your prose and the concepts it enlivens, individuals--some good, some despicable--will misunderstand you.  And there is nothing you can do about it except to understand yourself with the same pellucid and engaging awareness a writer needs to a higher degree than the need to identify predicates nominative or relative pronouns or indefinite antecedents.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Funny You Should Ask

 The concept of funny implies a circumstance of absurdity and potential discomfort directed to some source.  Played out in dramatic terms, the circumstance produces laughter.  The concept of funny brings us into that no-person's land between humor, which is more apt to be existential and dramatic in nature, and comedy, which is physical, but not far enough removed from the existential to preclude a well-placed pie in the face.

You are motivated to these observations and examinations because a friend, who chooses to use the blog pseudonym of The Querulous Squirrel, but whose real name is known to you, considered earlier commentary of yours as funny, to which you replied that Life is funny.

Life is just that, physical and bumptious at times, painful in excess at other times, yet the cure for either or both, to the extent cures are available for events in Life, is a point of view that sees event and circumstance as funny.  One proof you offer in support of this observation is the presence in almost any culture you can think of where there is occasion for someone scrabbling to attain the moral high ground to announce of a particular behavior, remark, or attitude:  "That's not funny."

Such utterers are drawing lines in the sand, representing themselves as arbiters of what produces laughter and, indeed, where laughter is inappropriate.  For openers, laughter appears to have been wired into most of our glorious species, but has become subject to cultural attack by those who have chosen to disconnect a major form of coping with circumstance.  There is also the possibility that those who remind us a particular vision or attitude or conclusion is not funny are in actuality saying, Don't laugh at me.  Do not make fun of me.  Can't you see I am serious?  (As though seriousness is some beau ideal, radiant in its transcendental flourish.)

Funny is odd or ironic, both primary causes of laughter.  A thing unlike conventional things is funny.  Ironic is opposition borne home; it is a tickle on the ribs of Fate, it is that magnificent cliche of the barn door being locked after it should have been; it is also an awareness that when one's ducks are all in a row, one bullet can have a fatal effect on any number of them.

Funny is Whose ox is being gored?  Funny if it is not your ox.

How many times have you been admonished, told, ordered to be serious?  Is there a correlation between those times and the behavior that evoked such admonitions.

Most humorous things may be reduced to such serious matters as survival, ethics, empathy, respect for the feelings of others, respect for the feelings of animals, regarding all individuals as deserving respect even when they, by their own actions, appear to want to be regarded as pariah.  Most things of humor have to do with attitudes taken on by ourselves and others in ways that at their core take on an absolute sense of being right about interpretation and behavior.

Funny things are, indeed persons slipping on banana peels or being hit in the face by a well-timed thrust of coconut cream pie; they are also occasions of individuals, yourself included, thinking to know answers in the absolute when, in fact, behavior so often depends on context, the understanding of context, and the awareness that context is often as vague as our most recent intention.

Sisyphus is portrayed as a man doomed to eternal repetition of a meaningless act, about as dreary and unhealthy a circumstance as a human could endure.  But along came Albert Camus to observe that Sisyphus was probably a happy man.  Your own reasoning on this score has to do with Sisyphus and many others similarly dedicated to meaninglessness had to "invent" funny to allow them something stronger than ale, something less apt to cause a hangover.

Life is funny and we would be a good deal closer to a significant seriousness if we were able to recognize and embrace this.  To put matters another way, if life were not funny, a significant number of individuals would come forth to invent funny; many if not all of them would be writers.

You have no quarrel with those whose views on such matters as faith and prayer and supernatural manifestations are tangential to your own.  You have no quarrel with men, women, and children who end their days with some form of prayer before they lapse off into sleep.  Your quarrel is with the men, women, and children who allow days to elapse before indulging the prayer of laughter.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Summer Life

 A large (and naive) part of your early game plan was to make your living from the writing you did (as opposed to your current state where a pleasant income stream is based on writing produced by other writers, or yet another stream involving individuals who wish to learn how to have what they write become publishable).  Fearful of your egregious lack of command of the craft known as plotting, you imagined you could find your way to some measure of a comfort zone with short stories, vignettes, reviews, and essays.  To an extent, this scenario bore you along in a kind of anxiety-ridden comfort, by which you meant that your trips through the aisles of Hughes Market on north Highland Avenue in Hollywood were fraught with the implication of how far a crock pot full of chili would go as opposed to the potentials from some ham hocks, green peas, and carrots in the same crock pot.  The big existential issue to be encountered had to do with whether you could maintain the discipline not to splurge should simultaneous payments for two or three shorter pieces arrive at the same time.  Such events did, from time to time, occasion ventures into caviar, splendid reds from the Martin Ray vineyards, and oh, his lovely, handcrafted champagne.

Seeing a number of your friends move over toward the paperback original novel, with generous advances and agreeable royalty percentages, turned you into a midnight study fanatic, where you deconstructed, outlined, and otherwise got a handhold if not the actual hang on plotting to the point where you set off, only slightly fictionalizing the events you experienced one summer while working the carnival season, when a certain young lady named Honey, worked at the booth next to you, saw no future in the carnival life nor the restrictions of being a member of a large Gypsy family.  "You've got to get me out of this,"  she told you one steamy evening during the Labor Day Weekend at the enormous State Fair in Sacramento.  "I have no real skills outside the carnival and cooking and my body."  She edged closer to you as she said this, the effect causing you to envision a life of carnival during the summer, writing, her cooking, and her body during winters.  "I see you in the motel with that red typewriter of yours,"  she said.  "You have something to go to when this is done.  You've got to get me out of this."  Then she touched you in a way that made you forget about writing and cooking.  There was enough edge in her desperation to provide you with a tad over fifty thousand words, which that rascally agent, Donald MacCampbell, turned into ready cash.

Your next long-form venture involved your acquaintance with Bimbo, the Snake-girl, who, your absolute disliking for any of that form of reptile to the contrary notwithstanding, saw you as a kindred spirit, the absolute proof of which, she argued, was manifest in a secret she made you promise to uphold.  You have long believed that persons with secrets long to tell them to writers, their agendas multifarious and inclusive of the hope their secret will be betrayed in print.  Remember, you were still relatively naive, in spite of your red Olivetti portable typewriter and The Viking Portable Conrad.  You imagined Bimbo's secret had to do with an incredible flexibility of her hips.  Had you been less naive, you'd have seen that as an asset rather than a secret.  Bimbo's secret, revealed to you in the hot tub of a motel in Bakersfield, was a sorority pin.  Bimbo swore she was a member of the Phi Sigma Sigma sorority, and you wanted to believe her.  The novel you drafted had a Bimbo surrogate securing the sorority pin from a jilted suitor, wanting an illusion of a university education and sorority affiliation to stand in stark irony against her carnival life.  You called the work A Summer Life, which MacCampbell hated because it was not enough about sex and too much about status.  "I am not,"  he told you, "called King of the paperbacks for nothing."

You have nothing against sex although you have come to regard it in written form much the way you regard whales in Moby-Dick.  A little goes a long way.  Evoke, as Flaubert did in Bovary.

It could be an amusement to dig through your papers and/or memory for traces of A Summer Life, resurrecting it now.  At the time, you listened to MacCampbell which led you through a set of Viconian Circles James Joyce might have enjoyed had he lived to see it:  After a year of magical winking, or perhaps even magical wanking on the page, you moved on into the accident that brought you to the other side of the desk, the publishing/editorial side, where among other things, you were acquisitions editor for a brisk little seller called Don't Step on It--It Might Be a Writer.  The author?  Why, of course:  Donald MacCampbell.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Horse d'combat

What must a character do to get our attention?

The character must behave in some thematic way that appears motivated by feelings and social pressures to the point where the thematic behavior becomes less apparent to us and the character's own inner feelings resonate within us, either in a positive and identifiable manner or in a negative and repulsive manner.  We must not be allowed to remain neutral; neutrality unhinges us when it appears; how would it be otherwise when transferred to a character.

It is the literary equivalent of a sauna or a cold shower to begin writing while in a neutral frame of mind and emotion, then pursue a path until the mind takes over or an emotion begins to overflow into some unrealized behavior.  You could score points were you to declare that story, in its most generalized form, is unrealized behavior, true for the writer, the reader, and the character.

When the writer, the reader, or the characters become too much involved in realized, expected behavior, a fog of numbness begins to set in, dulling the desires in all three species--writer, reader, and character--to reach forth for some goal beyond the ordinary.

Writers write--you write--to keep the numbness at bay.  In earlier times, before you were able to articulate this strategy, you found some solace in reading.  A work that stunned you brought you forward with purpose into the inertia of your own unrealized behavior which, at that earlier time, was to dream of having the strength a writer of your imagined maturity had.  Your heroes were men and women thus mature and prolific.  Their lives might be going to hell around them but they were able to write their way through the hell and seem to you luxuriating in the kind of comfort you wished to have.  A work that stunned you by its awfulness, its simplistic, formulaic attack on the reader's interests, much like a battalion of ants advancing on a blob of spilled jelly, nudged you over the edge of what were the limitations on your own imagination.  If only, you thought under the constraint of wanting to learn, you could write what and as you pleased, you could share in that comfort you sought in your own bearing.

It is not so much that you are all that serene now as it is that you have had those moments of having written from the numbness of neutrality to the edge of your imagination, then trespassed on the unthinkable.

You sit among friends or even by yourself at a coffee shop, scribbling some detail on a note pad, an as yet unskilled horseman, trying to saddle the great romping steed of enthusiasm and daring so that you might get in as much as a paragraph or two before the horse throws you and you are left, amazed to have been brought along this far, amazed there are no bruises or aches from your precipitous departure from the saddle.  A few sips of coffee, a look of appraisal at a young woman much too young for you, and you are back, willing to mount the horse once again.

There are ages when the ordinary is attractive, an irony because even though you strive for the uniformity of your own age group, the awareness is growing within you that unless you do something soon, there will be long stretches of numb time for you to cope with.

It is a relief to be here now; when you see the clouds of numbness and ordinariness gathering on the horizon, you can pick up your pen and begin somewhere.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Engines of Mischief

A gimmick is first and foremost an engine of mischief that causes what is apparent to seem real enough to be predictable.  Experiencing this resulting and expansive confidence leads honest folk to stake belief systems and/or sums of money on an outcome that has been arranged against them in advance by dishonest folk.

Where ever people gather, gimmicks will abound, teem, even froth, luring the innocent to tiptoe over boundaries they had not previously transgressed.  This shift over the borders as it were comes when the innocent are operating in the confidence of their own inherent goodness.

Such beliefs in the goodness of our species is by no means a bad or disabling thing; with it in our genome, we have survived and grown through the millennium, but along with our evolution we have developed the need to become predators of unrivaled nuance and guile, if for no other reason than to keep up with our growing awareness of the limitations for grazing and survival within urban landscapes.

You were first introduced to the concept of the gimmick in a formal sense when the chum who lured you away from journalism and into worlds where your fictions might stand a better chance for survival took you through the carnival midway, introducing you to "the G" or gimmick of every amusement booth, including one--the fun house--you'd have sworn was as close to innocence as you could get given the advances in sexual experimentation among teenagers in the twentieth century.  What possible gimmick could a fun house have beyond the minimal price of admission.  Ah yes, your friend said.  The G is alive and well here.  During the last stage of your trip through the fun house, you are led into a room that tips you onto your side, then your back.  You would be surprised, your friend observed, how much loose change and other valuables fall from unsuspecting, innocent pockets, and you will notice the late model cars driven by most of the individuals who own or work in the fun house.

The G or gimmick for the storyteller is to present a specific audience with someone to root for or laugh at.  The essence of humor is to cause the audience to laugh at the teller, hence the teller must seem to be naive or, failing that, the teller must appear to be so self-involved and self-important that his or her downfall in stature is accomplished by the gradual denuding said individual of such pretension as said person demonstrates.

The G for non-humor is to set an individual on an apparently hopeless quest and/or to make that character appear to be headed for accelerated disaster.  There are other fictional Gs such as reversal of fortune or the seemingly foolproof trope in which two individuals believe they are agreeing to the same thing when in fact they are set on the collision course of missed communication.

As a general rule, the G you are so often tempted to regard is the university or college, in no small part because of your associations with it as an organic thing, seeming to draw humans into its wispy tendrils as they maneuver for some ideal or goal.  Publishing houses remind you of universities, the unholy alliances often orchestrated over a project that brings a fresh source of energy on stage.  The energy exists in the form of a particular manuscript or the individuals who are responsible for shepherding the manuscript through the slalom course of publication.

A basic example of what you mean by the definition with which you began this essay is the shell and pea gimmick, where the rube or innocent or, for that matter, the mark or victim is led to believe he can "tell" which nut shell hides the pea.  The manipulators of this particular gimmick are deft, skilled craftspersons, well able to secrete the pea between the webbing of their fingers , although one such practitioner used as his G a wad of thoroughly chewed chewing gum on which to store or stash the pea, meaning that although the mark or victim believed he saw the pea being placed under a particular shell, he could pick any of the three walnut half-shells, confident the pea would be found in none of them because it was stuck somewhere to his hand.

Story is manipulation of apparent reality and actual reality; we approach it with one kind of confidence, the confidence that something will go wrong.  An artful practitioner will lead us to believe that the thing that has gone wrong was totally unexpected, contained a wrenching turn of events we could not foresee even in our darkest moments of cynicism.  We will despair even more as we fall victim to the practitioner's sleight of hand.

But we always go back to the shell-and-pea game that is story because, although we may not have articulated it in so many words, we know that things will somehow resolve.  We may not get the results we crave; who in fact does?  We will get some results, some negotiated settlement in which the force for whom we have rooted will have gained some kind of dramatic recognition, and who among us does not crave even a moment's worth of that?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Numbers Game

Try as you might to recall when you first took it on as a literary meal, intending to digest it and make it as much a part of you as other works by the same author, you can neither identify when you came on board Life on the Mississippi nor when in fact you began to grow suspicious of the information it provided in the lush, rolling paragraphs of its opening pages.  Somewhere, in some other work of his, Sam Clemens had spoken of using dull, dry statistics to build the case for a monumental hoax on the innocent.  This warning was borne out when you happened upon a particular piece of his, "The Petrified Man," which constructed with elaborate care the discovery near the Comstock Lode silver mines the alleged remains of a man who, on closer investigation of the details as presented, had his left thumb attached to his nose.  After a few more paragraphs of seemingly close detail, came the revelation that the right thumb of the long-deceased "discovery" had his right thumb affixed to the little finger of his left hand.

Thus were some readers taken in by the fiction of a petrified individual offering a two-handed nose thumb at them, and you were hopelessly a fan of the author, in whose works you found other magnificent tricks that suited your boyish temperament and grew beyond into the cholers that fired up your youth and middle-aged passions.  Here was a true hero, one who had come to relish the consequences of a prank, in particular a prank advanced upon the unsuspecting embodiment of seriousness, decorum to the point of stuffiness, and a suit of dignity donned without regard for its flaws of tailoring.

It is also true that you note in yourself the complete impossibility of addressing the subject of Life on the Mississippi without some egregious lapse into a tributary of distraction wherein you relate events or comparisons tangential to your most frequent rereading of the work.  In this particular case, your side trip is charted on the possibility that the numbers and physical descriptions imputed to the great river might have some uncharted snags, which leads you to the subject at hand, the numbers game.

You can use numbers to explain things, add an aura of mystery to them, cause confusion, cast the probabilities of things happening or not.  Numbers carry the weight of heavy eaters, the luster of streetwalkers, and the imposing presence of bling; they may be displayed like the up-market foreign cars outside a Sunset Boulevard bistro or reveal the unpleasant truths of sixty-dollar Chevrolet Impalas on a used car lot.

Most of your life has been spent looking over your shoulder at numbers or over the pages of your checking account register, hopeful of some favorable turn of addition which resulted in you having higher numbers than you'd supposed.  You are leery of such cliched tropes as million-dollar smile or toupees and wigs with Porsche price tags, suspicious of writers who present the exact number of words contained in a manuscript, cynical about end-of-season mark-down pricing that removes in many cases sixty or seventy percent from the price of an object.  It has long been a cliche for one character in a story to wonder aloud how much a particular thing cost or for another character who is the perpetual low-baller in the war of economics where you, by implication, foolishly paid too much whether it was for fare on a bus or a senior saver at the local motion picture house.  You could have got it from NetFlix for less.

The digressions attach themselves to your comments on Life on the Mississippi like interest charges on a credit card invoice, this in large measure because the Mississippi, although enormous and powerful and muddy and romantic--all things you in your own ways are--it is not western.  You continually wish to use it as a stepping stone to Roughing It, which is western, or to Innocents Abroad, which you yourself are.  They are all measures of a man at the top of his game, where he had no thought to please his wife or her family, where he had no thought to please even those same elite readers that these works had brought him.  You could and do add the first three-quarters of Huckleberry Finn into this number game because it was a fiction that was cruising along much in the manner of one of the riverboats Twain himself piloted and loved doing.  In Roughing It, were you to turn to the chapter titled "The Mexican Plug Horse," you would find an amazing parallel to the individual at a used car lot, thinking to acquire his first automobile, a parallel showing how much the writer understood of his own dream-to-needs ratio and who in addition understood the perfect target for his investigation was himself and his own innocence abroad.

You hope never to get over your own; much of it has been wrenched from you by circumstances beyond your control, other of it by the mere fact of the age process, yet other of it by random chance, yet there are, as you proceed, large swaths of it, meandering before you like that remarkable river upon which it is doubtful Clemens/Twain was ever happier.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Creamed Tuna on Toast

  Although you would heft the can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup several times, not trusting yourself to go so far as reading the ingredients listed in such small type, you would, at length, toss the can into the shopping cart because it would have made the cut.  No question about the peas; those would be frozen as opposed to canned.  You'd have already selected the bread which would be some multi-grain.  You probably have not purchased nor used market white breads for decades, any so-called white bread being a sour dough or a ficelle these days.  Nor would you think to butter whatever bread you'll have used preparing what has for you become the dish you have in mind, the Holy Grail as it were of Comfort Food, which was not presented to you as comfort food in the first place.  The dish in question is creamed (thus the Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup) tuna (Chick of the Sea, when it could be afforded) on toast (which then meant Wonder bread (because of your sister's brand loyalty to a soap opera called Our Gal Sunday) of Langendorf (because of your belief that even though there was no "real" Captain Midnight, the actor who portrayed him surely insisted on Langendorf sliced white).  Going through your library of spices and herbs, you could probably find a fresh bottle of ground pepper, which your mother also saw fit to sprinkle over the completed dish.

Your mother, who was a superb cook, and whose skills reached legendary heights among her associates when it came to any baked goods with the exception of pies, was going more for nutrition and filled tummy when she served forth creamed tuna on toast, reminding you with a wry smile that if the matter were weighted toward economy, the dish served would be Kraft Dinner, an unholy arrangement of macaroni and cheese which, as the financial tide turned, your mother countered with a holy macaroni and cheese which broadcast small, piquant tomatoes among the noodles and the tangy sharpness of a serious Tillamook or other, non-Oregon cheddar.

To be sure, you have other, more sophisticated comfort foods whose roots clump about the plumbing of your youth, but the top of the pyramid is creamed tuna on toast, a position it achieved because of your own taste and preferences, which are, after all, the purpose of this investigation.

You might, under possible circumstances, prepare and serve creamed tuna on toast to some of your friends, possibly going to the point of securing for the "bread" over which the concoction is to be spooned the brioche baked at Renaud's, the significant French bakery in town, slicing the eggy,  yeasty muffin in cross-sections an inch or inch-and-a-half thick, but this proposition only adds to your intended thrust here.

Taste--your preferences, your judgement of what in all things works and what does not--came to you a day, week, year, month at a time in a youth where you took in and judged the tastes of adults as the standard by which things stood or fell.  In the simple exchange of you having friends eager to stay for meals when you were young and your own experiences being invited to stay at the tables of the parents of your friends, you had a fitting set of standards by which to judge the power of your mother's tastes in preparing food and, to this day, feel her influence when you reach for a particular product at a market.  Would Annie give this a thumbs up?  Or would she consign it to that undemocratic waste bin of "other?"

Taste in music came next because you so frequently hid in the room next to the one in which your sister was given piano lessons, your "ear" on the proceedings the heating vent serving both rooms.  You dearly, deeply, even with reverence love your sister, but she was, you came to understand, no musician, in large measure because she resisted practice, and because when asked which pieces she wished to engage next, her choices did not reflect the curiosity of exploding discovery but rather related to things her friends were "studying," things you were likely to hear at recital programs of junior high school bands rather than developing musicians.  It was no easy thing, seeing this disconnect between you and a person you cared for at such depth; to think it through, to essay it as it were, you had to deal with your own potential for dealing with music.  Was this something for you to "do" as in work at, or "appreciate" as in love for the experience? At the least, this could put you back on track with your sister, allowing you to argue and discuss openly with her, whereby you might actually learn things from her here as you had elsewhere.

This last is important because it was your sister who led you to the library on Mullen Street, just off Olympic Boulevard, helping you secure your first library card.  It was your sister who loaned you her bus pass and gave you detailed instructions how to find the downtown library in Providence, Rhode Island, therein to secure a library card.

Taste comes from preference, need, opportunity, and accident.  Why should we hire you as an editor?  a number of publishers asked you, to which you replied first and foremost "Because I have good taste."  When you were asked to back this up, you ultimately learned they were talking not about whom you read and why but what kind of profit/loss statement you brought to the table relative to the titles you'd contracted or urged the contracting of.  Thomas Mann and Willa Cather and James Joyce were as pawns in the larger chess game of which emerging writers typified these emerged writers.

Taste obtains not only at your favorite bistro, Via Maestra, but as well at a Subway Sandwich Shop or Quiznos.  Taste guides your hand when you reach for a book at the local independent bookstore or reach over yet another; it is given a sharp elbow when you find yourself disliking something that has achieved wide respect among individuals you have come--by taste--to admire, making you wonder what you have missed.  Taste is what drives you into a paroxysm of fury when someone challenges your assertion of the genuine worth of something.

Taste defines you, motivates you, captivates you, dances with you, makes great fun of you, whispers into your ear the kinds of reassurances you crave when you think to prepare creamed tuna on toast.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Turning Points

You were having lunch yesterday in a courtyard venue with a large, running fountain as a centerpiece, comfortable metal chairs slightly off-balance on a stone floor, warmth coming from overhead heaters, and the appearance of warmth seeming to drip down from a noon sky cloudless for the first time in a week of steady rain.  Off behind you is a gallery of the paintings of various artists, one in particular a grouping of lemons in a still life, arranged and lighted as though by Rembrandt.  The price tag for the painting was $22000.  Across the room, a moody scape of green hills that seemed to undulate before you, painted by your hostess for Christmas dinner, the price on the painting somewhat less than the still life with lemons, a red dot indicating it had been sold.

The price tag on the sandwich you'd ordered--spicy, homemade Italian sausage, piquant pickles, a mound of slaw, and a lightly tossed salad--was $14, which added to the perspective of where you were and why you were at this particular restaurant:  to discuss the possibility of you and your literary agent becoming the principals in a television show to be called Agent and Editor, wherein actual writers would appear on camera with you to discuss their book project.  The conversation morphed into a discussion of the editorial work you believed necessary before an editor in one of the large or medium publishing houses could muster enough support to have a contract to publish offered for her novel.  

Landscape, a morphing, surreal sense of reality, and a growing awareness of a humorous-absurdist counterpoint to Joan Didion's stunning work, The Year of Magical Thinking, have been your psychical house guests for well over a month, exacerbated by the events of December 7 of this year at about 11:50 a.m., in which someone close to you moved from being a radiant, live person to being the radiant presence of a dead person.

When you first read the Didion work, you had experienced brushes with and actual encounters with death to the point where even your own life had been, you realized, at potential risk.  But as you read the Didion, you felt only marginally at risk; the threats you digested were hers, presented with a dazzle of exquisite presence.  You were transported to one of the most intense existential experiences of your own gallimaufry of experience.

Now that death has moved in about you, the work presents you with your own gallery-like display of pictures, events, possibilities, needs.

When you arrived at the mortuary this morning, your first task was to hold the paper cup of coffee and cell phone of the employee who was trying to fit the key into the lock of the door.  As he fiddled and your hand began to warm from the coffee, you noticed a discreet sign that asked of whomever should read it:  Please don't block the hearses.

Finally inside the office, you were able to deliver the coffee and cell phone while the employee excused himself before moving into the next room, where you heard drawers being slid open, papers shuffled, a plastic carrying bag being fluffed open before the employee returned, handing you the bag and a standard-sized manila folder in which were the official certifications and details of the death of the individual you had not all that long ago helped shift herself into a more comfortable position on the hospital bed facing east-to-west in your living room.

It is a disconnected feeling, driving through the city with such a package, particularly when, at the awareness of Sally shifting her own position on the hatchback platform that is her customary place, it occurs to you that you, wealthy as you are in a variety of frozen casseroles, have nothing for Sally's breakfast other than the one large bone-shaped biscuit you'd had as a leftover from your accustomed coffee shop.  The disconnectedness turned into purpose when you headed for your everyday supermarket, but it returned with immediacy when the first person you saw was a classmate from the elementary school you'd both attended in Providence, Rhode Island, lo those many years earlier.  She offered a warm clasp of hands.  You then saw emerging from the late morning shoppers T. Corragessan Boyle, who insisted on a hug.

It is simultaneously liberating and exhilarating to drive through a small city in a small car in which, in a small plastic container, are human remains.  You feel as though you have engineered some gigantic coup against large bureaucracies, not the least of which is the funeral industry itself.  An idiotic grin passes over your face as you pass other cars, laden with Christmas presents, groceries, youngsters and dogs, in one case a station wagon filled with surf boards.

You drive to the southern extreme of Summerland, the small enclave just below Santa Barbara, turning off toward a small park-like enclave among avocado groves and horse pastures.  The place is Sally's favorite because of its opportunities for running when she was younger, for the occasional deer, coyote, possum, and yes, those times when she approached skunks with insufficient wariness.  The area has become a comfort zone for Sally and for you and for she whose remains you now carry.

You suddenly understand you are here for more than a few moments to allow Sally to sniff and deliver herself of such bodily effluvia as she might wish.  Seated on a large rock, you carefully open the plastic container and marvel at what you see.  Once as a child, your curiosity got the better of you, causing you to spill a tin of tooth powder on the ledge of a sink.  The contents of the plastic bag had that same preternaturally white shade.  Interspersed in the fine granules were larger granules of what were surely traces of bone.

Toyon shrub, and as though you were composing a gift list, a number of yet other places occurred to you, places for the cup full here and there, in particular the garden of her last ten or twelve years, which was undoubtedly her most expansive gardening undertaking.

There is a strand of beach just south of the Big Sur, Garripata Beach, where surely a cup or two will be just the thing.  Then there is an enormous permanent planter outside the window of the museum in Los Angeles where your sister worked, and indeed where some of your sister's ashes were added to the conversation.  These two women were enormously close, your sister and this remarkable woman who was constantly reminding you to do nice things for dogs.  So yes, a visit south to the museum as well.

It felt expansive to let these bits of her spill from the bag, some of it rising as a tiny mist, some actually coming to rest on your shoe; you felt a richness beyond measure as you saw the way of giving the gifts of her to places and things she cared about.  As the notion for new places persists--Hale Park, for instance, where she walked with you and Sally, or Cold Springs Trail, where she hiked with her beloved Border Collie, Angus--there will be less of her to go around and your gestures--for they are mere gestures--will become less expansive.

But there always was more to her than met the eye, and even a little bit goes a long way.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's three o'clock in the goddamned morning

It is easy enough to make the generalization that storytelling is a matter of arranging the emotional furniture of our fantasies and wish lists without compounding the trope with the notion that these fantasies and wishes have their origin in our earliest years, when sexuality and gender matters and, if we have siblings, birth order are forming but still inchoate.  With such notions of drama anchored in place, we set forth with the false sense of security resident in the belief that a story must give us someone to root for, must have opposition, tension, potential for reversal, confrontation, and resolution.

How convenient.

Perhaps a scant million words in, we may have already reached the idea that something is missing.  But we aren't quite sure what.  Perhaps another million or so words will help smooth out the wrinkles, providing us with the literary equivalent of a freshly ironed shirt every time we set forth.  But the million marker looms, then lands either in the waste basket of typewriter or fountain pen fame or the trash of computer composition fame.

All these words, now we can even say of them millions of words, and still the gnaw of incomplete imagery persists.  We are driven to reread our favorite published writers, sensing they have in large measure the thing we sense to be missing in our own work.  What is it, and why can't we articulate what it is so that next time, when the triggering circumstances for a new story present themselves to us, we are on top of it and can manipulate it?

You have dared yourself to look at the work of others, stubbornly arguing that your own work reaches as deep as the work you admire in others; so then why can't you put your finger on the acupuncture spot?  Perhaps another million words in, you begin to doubt you will understand the problem.  Fair enough; you're getting closer.  The problem is you and the understanding of you.

You remember the times your mentor was on your case to get the words and feelings down while you were young.  What she wanted you to evolve was your own vocabulary for the things you were feeling in those late teen, early twenties years so that you could draw on them for the rest of your working life and, if you were fortunate enough, to insure that the rest of your life would be the rest of your working life.  What it meant is that all those words were helping you understand the feelings and wishes and fantasies from that time so that you could access them and use them in the same way you understood the more simplistic tools of story telling such as plot, character, reversal, narrative, and defining moments.

It is every bit as helpful for a writer to know such things as it is for a musician, say, to "know" the emotional tone of a particular key or for a painter to know if a particular advances or retreats.  It is also important for a writer to know the him of himself and the her of himself, otherwise he would be limited to writing only about one gender or even worse, thinking to write about both genders and not doing a good job with either.

If you were going to, say, "write" The Iliad, you would have to be able to do a hell of a lot more than describe battle scenes, you would need to know from the get go why Achilles was so pissed in the first line and you would have to know how much of a wrench it was for Hector to know that he probably would be killed in battle and what then would happen to his wife and child but you'd also have to know how how his inner life would have gone had he acceded to his wife's wishes and gotten the hell out of there with her and the kid while he had a chance.  You have to know your feelings and fantasies, whatever they are, and your wishes, however secretive you've been with them, and your sense of the climate of the times in which you live so that they can be played out, one against the other, so your narrative is not merely an episode but rather a texture of emotion, event, and details that sing drunkenly into the night to the point where some neighbor complains about not being able to sleep because of the singing so early and so off-key in the damned morning.

To understand even a hint of this makes the millions of words in the trash worth the pain.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Endorphin on the Rocks

There was never a time when you were working on the project whose name your literary agent asked you to change from The Fiction Writer's Tool Kit to The Elements of Fiction where you did not intend for it to be published.  You still in fact intend that; most of what you write is composed with that thought in mind and is appropriately given your rapt attention to the end of making the work as clear, resonant, and reflective of you as possible.  To bring it to this point, you fuss and obsess here and there as well as structurally, your overall goal being to have pushed the project to the point where you have learned something from having written it that you did not think you knew.

Connecting the previously unconnected dots in your universe gives you a more confident base on which to stand your emotional easel and its creative process.  Whatever the work, your goal is to experience through thought, writing, revision, and editing a web of presence that has dimension and a subtext of humor.  A subjective sign that you have achieved this or perhaps come as close as you are likely to get is the sense of experiencing the excitement of endorphin being released.  Other satisfactions such as revenge or revising some personal history as you would have had the event give you enormous satisfaction, but nothing matches the exultation of having produced a satisfying connection of idea, identity, relationship, and emotion.

Because you have been an editor (and indeed still function as one), you have sympathy and empathy for the process.  You expect to be edited; you want to be edited, believing as you do that with an editorial nudge, you might be persuaded to think a concept through to a deeper nuance of result, chose a better word, or give up entirely some outrageous trope that caused you such mirth when you first keyboarded or penned it.  Your literary agent was editorial director of two major literary publishers; her own friends are editors, and even now she has working for her as editor an individual whose work you respect.  One of your literary agent's friends is also a journey person editor and ghostwriter who has just accepted the position of acquisitions editor with an as yet unnamed publisher, asking your agent if she could take your project along with her when she reports to work.

Your agent has shown you an email from this acquisitions editor to be, wanting to talk primarily about your work, offering what she describes as minor adjustments.

The Elements of Fiction is also at a major eastern house, with decisions on it promised for "after next week," which effectively means into the first or second week of January, 20011.  The Elements of Fiction is essentially three hundred seventy separate essays on different aspects of dramatic structure and story telling, each successive essay adding to your own belief that there is no other book dealing with the construction of fiction that resembles your project.  In addition to being arranged alphabetically, the essays are meticulously cross-referenced, your goal being that the user would approach your work in search of one particular term, then become lured from essay to essay until they had all been read, at which point the reader would tuck the work beside his or her writing area as a kind of trampoline of idea and emotional understanding of the elements you see orbiting about the cosmos of story.

You have a list of potential blurbs from writers whose names will impress potential buyers of the book; you believe you have in mind a former student with an enormous imagination and following to supply the introduction.  Unless you are hit by a rogue truck or a safe falling from on high or, as Graham Green wrote with such delicious irony, killed by a falling pig, the work will be published, but what you are looking forward to now is what the acquisitions editor will say in her or his notes to you and what new potentials will emerge, and what new endorphins will be squirted forth as you once again reenter the overall landscape of the work and seek to own it after being away from that part of the process for the better part of a year.

You have frequently quoted in these vagrant entries and in other appropriate opportunities the lines from the Hindu epic, The Bhagavad-Gita, "To the work you are entitled but not the fruits thereof."
It seems to you appropriate to a degree higher than you are able to calculate that enjoying the work so much and realizing there might be even more from a particular source rides the great ironic cusp between your happiness and comfort and the boredom and acceptance of Sisyphus.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It only doesn't hurt when I laugh

There are dictionaries and thesauri which you can consult to find the meaning of a word.  In the process of investigating one or both of these sources, you are presented with a menu of possibilities, allowing you to see how a particular word might have taken on new meanings and implications since it was first bandied about, thus the reference book becomes like a catalogue of layers, much in the manner of tree rings being used to measure the antiquity and structure of a meaning.  Such investigations may seem like distractions but they are important research, geared to help you find not only the right word but to help you get it into the right place in order to present the exact color of meaning you intend.

But you soon reach the point where one word is not enough of the help you wish.  What you're after is an understanding of the vision or sound resonating within you, somewhere, wanting to be sorted, experienced, known, then conveyed.

When you set forth, with only the sound or the vision, there is a sense of wonderment, tugging at your sleeves, inviting you to some serious investigation.  The more you think about the invitation to proceed, the more overwhelming the task becomes, daunting you with the weight of all you do not know and understand, causing you to wonder if there are any short cuts.

Most discovery comes at the price of a determined focus and, in many cases the accompanying discomfort of frustration, dead-ends, and the Contrarian of whom you have been speaking these past days, suggesting to you in snide stage whispers that there is no guarantee of profit in this pursuit for understanding, as though all curiosity should and must produce you with an immediate business plan.

The pursuit of what if and wonderment in general is a presence you see residing uppermost in the men and women you admire the most, are in fact envious that these individuals seem to have arranged their priorities to allow the pursuit of understanding regardless of consequences.  What you see in them is a goal orientation contrary to your own resident Contrarian; to this moment in your life, this particular type of goal orientation appears to you the most likely to produce the condition you think of as happiness.

To carry this one step farther, you believe that sharing this kind of investigative happiness with another person produces an inner satisfaction that leads you to a better understanding of why you so enjoy writing.  Naturally it is selfish at first; you must edit and refine and polish the vision or the sound in order to share it with another person.  Then you must try to polish and refine even more to set it out to persons you may never meet.  You are aware of men and women of inner gloom edging on misanthropy.  Edgar Allen Poe and Patricia Highsmith come to mind as examples.  Even these two, you will argue, polish their gloom and darkened visions as an act of love.  It is not their fault if their happiness is to be found pursuing the bleaker discoveries that inhere in human nature any more than it is the fault of those who produce the touchy-feely tropes we associate with greeting cards and inspirational sermons.

Every ten to twenty years in our Industrial Revolution Society, a cusp is reached where men and women, trained and adept at a particular process find themselves unemployed because their process has fallen fallow; there is no further need for it because it has been supplanted by new technology and/or understanding.  These men and women, if they are the right age and temperament, can be reeducated to perform other, useful tasks, giving them the satisfaction of having a new process and of being a contributor to the larger process of humanity.

Many of us, yourself included, need to press for the priority to pursue the inner process of vision, therein to produce yet another kind of product that can be articulated, coaxed out of the shadows of inchoate, inexpressible emotions, then forged into a narrative that can be shared.  This is by no means to suggest that we should all become writers although it is to suggest that we should all become lovers in the sense that we have discovered, each of us, within our depths of experience a narrative that may be shared as a philosophy and offered in the spirit of honed articulation to those we care about.

Your own process leads you to believe your own inner vision, however tinged with the side dishes of impatience and intolerance in specific political areas, however burdened at the moment by the baggage of grief and loss, is centered in humor, which, you are pleased to note and quite willing to share, is sure to be found in the qualities you have just used to describe your own inner self.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Man Who Was Not with It (Apologies to Herb Gold)

When you first went off to work the carnival, to "get with it," as carnival employees spoke of their occupation, you were looking for metaphor because, after all, you were now a graduate of a respectable English Department at a respectable university where your flair and talents were less for the scholarly curiosity and discipline, more for prank, insouciance, and the perfervid evangelism of intuitive forces as substitutes for work.

How splendid you felt when your first job was as a shill at a game called The Ham Wheel, an enormous wheel hung vertically, having a diameter of about eight feet.  It was free-wheeling up to a point; the agent or individual who ran the booth could control where the wheel stopped.  The wheel was a mixture of numbers, as in a roulette wheel, and symbols for such things as canned hams, one-pound tins of Folger's coffee, one-pound packages of sliced bacon, or chips with numerical values such as five wins, one win, ten wins, which could be redeemed for such additional prizes as teddy bears, stuffed dogs, Kewpie dolls, and other prizes scornfully referred to by carnival employees as slum, which was the then equivalent of blue-collar bling.

It was your job to approach the booth when there were only two or three players, plunk your quarter down, and "win" a canned ham, over which you were to exclaim loudly enough to attract attention, which would in turn attract more players.

There you were, a graduated English major from a pretty good university, several published stories to your credit, freed from the drive to make journalism your calling, on the lookout for the metaphor teeming about you on the carnival midway.  It did not hurt that your employer at the time was Joyce, a rather attractive women who wore no wedding ring, did not seem to have a boyfriend.  You liked the idea of being paid twenty-five dollars to be a shill, even writing letters in your mind to friends about the unfettered romance of the carnival life.  Even though this was your first job, you thought of yourself as a full-fledged member of the life; you were with it, bringing entertainment and adventure to those who sought the romance of the dramatic and unexpected.

When you won your first ham, you exclaimed loudly.  I won this--this remarkable ham for twenty-five cents.  Emboldened by the quaver in your voice, you allowed that you had never won anything before, that it was always the other fellows who seemed to win things.  In what you considered a stroke of libidinous genius, you leaned over the railing, hugged Joyce, then kissed her.

Mindful of your job, you said at some volume that it was clear your luck had changed for the better.  You slapped another quarter on the betting board, the wheel was spun again, and won a one-pound can of Folger's drip grind coffee.  You were ecstatic in an emotive way, seeking to convey to these good people who'd gathered about you the virtues of taking risks, of finding a sense of purpose and belonging at the carnival that was transformative.  You would never again, you averred, eat a ham sandwich or drink a cup of coffee without thinking of the Foley and Burke  traveling shows.

You wandered off toward the halo of light cast by an overhead fixture, in your mind the Charlie Chaplin tramp, taking dramatic exit after a poignant adventure, a lilt of the romantic in your gait.

That evening, Joyce fired you.  "You can't win ham worth shit,"  she said.  "And another thing, just so you don't get any ideas.  I don't do boys.  I do girls."

You were fired the next night from a booth where it was your job to guess the weight, age, occupation, or state of birth of the player.  The owner of the booth groaned openly when you told a man whose hands and arms were stained a shiny brown that he was a picker in a walnut orchard.  "Your job is to fucking lose,"  you were told.  "Your job is to make them think they smarter'n you.  How the hell you gonna make any money when you guessing the right thing?  You tell 'em the truth, they gonna go spend their quarters somewhere else."

The Carnival was and is no more nor less a metaphor than other ventures that have drawn you forth, academic ventures or gaming booths, if you will, and surely publishing.  You are most comfortable being with it in the sense of the feel it is to be a writer, where you deal with manipulation and illusion, but only in the dramatic sense of shapes and appearances, where as Mark Twain had Huck Finn put it, you might tell some stretchers from time to time, but mainly, you tell the truth.  You do not have to worry about "making" the reader think he or she is smarter, that is a given; you know for a fact that the reader can surely tell when you have strayed from the truth, whatever your vision is.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Plains Indians, The Contrarian, and You

 The Plains Indian, mounted upon a horse he had probably liberated from some enemy or other, sits at a strategic vantage point, surveying the course of battle he is about to engage.  Before kneeing his horse into a forward charge, he says to no one in particular and yet to the entire Cosmos as he visualizes it, "This is a good day to die."  It is not so much that he wishes his life to end as it is his sense that if it were to do so, it would be in battle, no doubt among close associates, all of them doing what they had chosen to do, which is engage in a particular sort of encounter.

For your own part on this rainy, sodden day toward the end of the Fall solstice in a La Nina year, this has been a good day to write.  It did not appear that way for a number of small reasons, punctuated by a ten-year-old cat's insistent nagging for some portion of her daily board, added to in some measure by the persistent set of leaks emerging on the roof of your ancient cottage, and the need to cover your Canon printer with, of all things, a spare rain coat.

There were an encouraging number of distractions in the form of telephone calls and email messages from those about you who were checking in to see how you were getting along, making you aware of the efforts you were putting into coping, and on assessment, deciding you were more than a little bit ahead of the game for the moment.

This awareness of how you are doing makes you realize some far-fetched perhaps kinship with the metaphorical Plains Indian of eld, his laconic view of death as compared with your enthusiasm for this being a good day to write.  You have thoughts and visions rumbling about in regard to the novel underway and the encouragement of Jim Alexander to whatever else you may do, put in at least an hour getting some of the material down.

As it so often happens, the act of sitting down to compose, either here, in a notebook, or some other computer file, causes the loud voice of the Contrarian of whom you wrote yesterday in this platform.  The Contrarian said in his harsh flatness today, This is a good day not to write.  It is one thing to write when you have something to say; it is yet another to presume that even when you believe you do have something to say, you will be able to set it down as something that will interest anyone.  More likely, it will send individuals who at one time supposed you had something of interest to say skittering off in search of something worthwhile.

It was and  is a good day to write, which I began by telling the Contrarian to go fuck itself.  There is something exciting about the notion that any particular day's work might be the last for all time or for some necessary or unnecessary hiatus.  No matter what the inner or outer emotional climates, starting any day by telling the Contrarian to go fuck itself sets the kind of tone you have chosen as a cornerstone of your voice and your vision.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Contrary Wise

If you were asked to chose a modifier or descriptor to best define you, it would not be long before you came forth with the word contrarian.  A long-term resident within that funky abode you think of as your psyche is an individual whose voice is strident enough to be distinguishable above the other, more reasonable voices or, indeed, the cheerleader enthusiasms of your more proactive tenants.  Contrarian always wants to know why, sometimes even pushing the matter to Why now?  Even if you tell him something tinged with irony such as, Because the building is on fire and we have to evacuate, he will want the last words, which will be to the effect that he does not smell smoke yet.

Contrarian you wants to write when he is committed to some other activity; he also wants to do something else when you feel the need to compose.  He is impatient, self-indulgent to the point of believing his own entitlement, in particular when it would be to a better advantage for the totality of you to shut the fuck up and go along with the majority rule.

Contrarian you believes he works best when he is under a deadline or is commissioned to produce a particular work, but of course he relishes the adrenaline squirt of last-minute-itis, arguing down the you who likes to be finished ahead of time for a final run through to check against anomaly, repetition, and what you have come to think of as Moby-Dick, more about whales than necessary.  Nah, says Contrarian, you don't need to mess with that stuff.  You do, of course; you have only to look at something you wrote in the past to see where and when Contrarian got his way, leaving solecism, slapdash punctuation, a redundancy you'd have caught with less of a time squeeze.

So what is it with Contrarian?  Is it that he wants you to stumble time after time?  You don't think so.  You think he has become addicted to the endorphins squirting forth when you make a discovery, turn an unexpected corner, connect dots you'd never have believed could be connected.  He wants you coffee'd up, tense, near manic in presence; he believes himself the consummate improviser because he is fast on his feet, but there is more to it than that.  Swift connections and daring leaps are good tools, but ultimately discipline is even more to the point.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Aye, There's the Rube

For some time now, you have been convinced that voice is the major force in relating story or, for that matter, any narrative.  At one point in years past, before you were fortunate enough to blunder into editing and, because of that, into teaching, you'd thought to earn your keep through journalism, staying at it until you could earn your keep at writing.  There was a no-nonsense voice in journalism you admired for a long while, carrying you from your undergraduate days on the student daily to a forty-hour-a-week job at the Associated Press night office, right off the editorial room of the L.A. Times.  Added to the subtext of accuracy and authority you saw in the Associated Press style guide was the pulse of event, coming in over various machines, giving you the intimacy of knowing as much about what was going on in the world as you were able to absorb.  You were taken to editorial task at times for trying to add sparkle to such quotidian events as the egg market closing up or down today as the case might have been.  No one, the steely editor reminded you, gives a damn about the drama in the egg market.

This was of course a nail in the coffin of journalism for you; you wanted drama in everything.  Since you worked the late shift--3:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m.--you were turned out into the streets of downtown Los Angeles when the atmosphere of drama and romance hung over the landscape like the aroma of onions from a hamburger grill, sharp, enticing, exciting.  There was a Japanese restaurant around the corner that served a late supper or early breakfast for workers in the downtown floral and fish markets.  A tavern for cheap pitchers of beer featured what seemed to you at the time the most remarkable hamburger known to man, and some slight distance away was the all-night haven of The Pantry on Figueroa Street as well as a Log Cabin where it was possible to secure hot cakes as round and thick as the tires on a child's tricycle.  This, too, turned out to be another nail because its very atmosphere seemed to infuse you with drama and excitement.

Hubbard Keevey, the editor, set you straight when there was an opening day side and you applied for it:  The reporter's excitement is for the story, Lowenkopf.  Your excitement is for the drama of the story.

Thus, when Ronald Albert Lawrence came calling for a visit in a used Cadillac convertible, its rear storage trunk and back seat crammed with stuffed animals from one of the downtown magical streets, and invited you to come with him to join the carnival, you yourself applied a nail to a job with a small town daily newspaper in Calexico, threw some khakis, underwear, and polo shirts into a bag and hied yourself off, little dreaming your first adventure would come on the precursor of I-5, just north of Los Angeles, when said used Cadillac convertible gave up the ghost.

Over the arc of your time with the carnival, you learned a number of things about human nature in general and one resounding truth about Ronald Albert Lawrence, which was his hopeless attraction to automobiles that died of various ailments on lonely back roads of California and Nevada.  You also learned of his ambition to lure just one auto mechanic or used car salesman to one of the carnival booths he managed, avid of wreaking on that hapless individual a symbolic revenge for all the used cars that had died under his ownership.  You learned of remarkable revenge fantasies which, when played out, would have separated the unknowing auto mechanic or used car salesman from hundreds of dollars and endless humiliation.

You also learned about voice and style in another sense than short stories.  As an agent or barker, your job commenced with the ability to attract a strolling carnival goer to your booth, whereupon to try his hand at such things as baseball throw (your favorite), tossing balls into cupcake pans with numbers painted on them, trying to achieve a high score or a low score, guessing an individual's weight-occupation--state or origin (almost your favorite), and similar games of chance.  Always on the lookout for an intriguing pitch, you came up with what you thought a splendid ploy.  "Hey, buddy,"  you'd call out to a passing young man strolling with his date, "You won a prize for the girl you were with last night.  How about winning a prize for this one."  This worked well enough until you tried it on a uniformed Marine with several rows of decorations on his chest, who not only failed to see the humor, but who challenged you first with the flat assertion of being on duty last night, then came at you, determined to secure an apology.  Perhaps worse.  You shall never know.  Someone shouted the magical carnival mantra, "Hey, Rube," which meant there was a potential menace to a carnival worker.
Carnival workers are not Judge Judy; they want and usually get quick justice.  The Marine suffered minor damage to his uniform, was handed a stuffed dog--"for the little lady"--then escorted off the midway.

Fountain pen works best followed by ballpoint pen, followed by direct composition on the computer.  Listen to the voice you trust most, appears to have some awareness of the humor of the human condition, has some eye for the absurd as ordinary.  Hubbard Keevey, one of the great AP editors of the last century, had a gruff, economical mien, a voice reminiscent  of a Boston Bull Terrier at bark; it stuck in your mind because of what he said and how.  Undoubtedly, had he hired you to work day side and get away from the egg market and Pacific Coast League baseball scores, you would have discovered the voice of truth in regard to your own stand on voice at some later time.  It is helpful for you to regard any given moment as a work in progress.  Your regard for it, as demonstrated in your voicing of it internally, saves it from being journalism and offers it a chance for becoming the drama you hope to capture.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Grief is like a Tupperware container lurking in the lower reaches of a refrigerator.  You discover it by accident, reaching for something else, something ordinary and familiar.  You were vulnerable, didn't realize it was there, weren't prepared to find it, didn't want to have to deal with it.

By the time you discover its components, your responses have tugged at your viscera, misted your eyes, yanked you through at least two time zones of emotional growth to the point where some childhood loss revisits you with the mindless persistence of a schoolyard bully.  You are suddenly age six and you are with a group of acquaintances playing in the empty lot that faces Wilshire Boulevard.  One of your chums digs into his pocket and pulls out a pen knife with faux pearl handle, conspicuously using it to shave a point on a piece of lath.  The knife is yours; it was a birthday present.  You claim it, realizing it must have fallen from your pocket when you were at its new owner's home.  "Finders keepers," he says, reciting a mantra you have already heard any number of times, "losers weepers."   So many years to have remembered that loss, and yet it was there, waiting for a moment of association to remind you.  Grief does that, connects the dots of loss, reminds you of what was and can no longer be.

What triggered this particular time warp:  you were shaving this morning, even a bit cheerful, thinking how the day was shaping up with opportunities to spend time with individuals you truly enjoy and who will not be embarrassed if there is a momentary lag in conversation.  Your gaze happens on a hair brush that was not yours, that contains wisps of hair not yours.  It takes you several moments of regarding yourself in the mirror, reminding yourself that any number of similar triggers await you as you move from the bathroom through the living room, out the front door through a garden you admired as a viewer but not as a gardener.  Each event could, you reason with yourself, be a disaster of a reminder, yanking you from this moment to the past, where outer momentum stops, mugs you with a grip determined to hold you rooted to some past in which you are effectively frozen.

Grief is when someone of sincere, unquestioned intent spells out for you the amount of time it takes to get over things.  A cold takes two weeks.  A broken bone takes a month.  A rejection letter, particularly one that informs you how close you were to acceptance, takes six weeks.  Such calculus causes you to recall individuals who have been gone for eight or ten or twelve years, and you understand that you are more accepting of their loss than you are over the effect.

Part of the euphemism called "growing up" involves experiencing loss of various individuals, experiences, concepts; you'll have lost enthusiasm, idealism, interest as well as individuals who were once alive.  You will have lost beloved friends, teachers, relatives.  If you are of any account at all, you will have seen the inevitable tide, then gone about your way to acquire enthusiasms, ideals, interests, and individuals to replace those who were lost to the extent that you cherish these as well as grieve for what you have lost.

It is or should be a part of your natural order that grief hides behind things you care about; its true value is, eventually to remind you of the exquisite beauty you found in the daily associations as well as the monumental moments when you knew you'd been in contact with a person, place, or thing that was exceptional.  The most intense grief of all would be the loss of the ability to see some aspect of wonderment in the unexpected places you are most likely to encounter these individuals, these landscapes real or from someones imagination, these things given you by another who thought to share enjoyment with you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Risky Business Is Profitable

To be the storyteller you realize best in your most protracted fantasies, you have to risk the tight-rope walk over the abyss between conventional sanity and risk.  You used to think the abyss was between sanity and insanity but the more you experience of each, the more you have come to realize that there isn't that much difference.  You have been variously crazy about a number of things, ways of behavior, and yes, of course, persons.  While you were being crazy about these things and individuals, you were among the few to know you were crazy; many of those about you thought you were pursuing vectors of your individual agenda.  Nothing crazy about that.

At one point, when you were discombobulated crazy about a particular young lady, your mother began to investigate with you the possibility of sending you to Italy.  Although you had no handle on the language, and only began to get one because you followed what you thought was an attractive coed across campus and into a room in Royce Hall, where she was teaching Beginning Italian, your mother believed you would not stand out as anywhere approximating crazy when compared to Italians.  This attitude of hers, you believe, ultimately cost you a trip to Italy; it was due in part to you becoming interested in a writing project that more or less kept you occupied day and night for some time.

You experienced a great deal of near craziness, or perhaps it was only early angst, by becoming involved with writing projects that took no risks and therefore had nothing to teach you about the risks you needed at the time to take.

Holding back invariably produces the kinds of frustration that lead individuals with potential for being writers into distractions such as booze and girls, but even those distractions become frustrations because the things you would be likely to do while drinking were utterly predictable and the girls, to their credit, began to discover your relative shallowness or they were aware of even worse, of you mistaking shallowness for depth.

Risk is a helpful agent in such times; risking all for a project begins to teach you that outcome is a tricky business.  What you want to do instead of thinking about the outcome is to enjoy the process of writing things where you took risks.

Happiness, whatever that word may have meant to you in the past or come to mean in the future is all about hours and days spent working at something so risky you can see no exit; it is the scatter of notes and notebooks, of computer files and handwritten pages that are surely the most remarkable treasure maps ever devised by the boy who was you when you were lured in to think that yes, you could do this.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


If you take the notion that writing is a conversation with the Cosmos, it becomes easy to finish off the equation with the notion that the other side of the equals sign is reading.  Reading is the other force in the arrangement, the two activities keeping you connected no matter what the writing project of the moment (right now it is two book reviews) and often balancing the reading accordingly.

If you did not have before you the two books to read and review, you would doubtless be going full-bore into the current edition of The Paris Review because of its long and penetrating interview with Louise Erdrich.  Not that you won't be at that by Thursday, not that the interview won;t be in its way speaking to you as though an interesting conversation in a neighboring room, creating wonderment and distraction from what you need to be reading and writing.  This is the way the pattern works for you.

If there were no books to review or interview to read, you would be puttering with the novel that has been reaching across a chasm of grief and distraction, a clear path of enthusiasm to walk that will lead you back to risk-taking-as-usual, which provides its own kind of emotional reward.  You would, under those circumstances, find something to light upon, likely the London Times Literary Supplement, which would get you thinking about subjects you would ordinarily not be thinking, making you aware of more things you wished to read, all of which has you wanting to enter the cosmic conversation and do so by writing to see how your responses come forth.

You do work best under the gun of some deadline; an impetus in which deadline and roaring enthusiasm are married is irresistible. The real excitement is the synecdoche, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, where the potential for conversing with or about a topic raised in the relative past or the distant past adds texture and dimension you'd never guessed at when you first began to imitate those early writers you so admired that you wished to join them.

It is a lovely process when it works; you see yourself not as a man pushed well along into the habit of working daily at his craft but more as an eager young student, waving his hand to be recognized by the teacher so that he can demonstrate his own addition to the conversation.

The platforms and potentials for making some regular form of income from indulging this conversation have shifted measurably from the days when you sought to learn how.  There were any number of publications for which you could have (and ultimately did) focus your attempts to join the conversation.

Now it becomes necessary to engage the kinds of conversation for which you have no ability much less interest in order to live entirely from the payment your writing brings.  Thus your sidelines of editing and teaching.  These activities are entered so directly, without deliberation or thought that you take them as being a part of the conversation; seeing what you do as conversing still has things agreeably if not ideally reduced to the common denominators of reading and writing.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Let me count the ways

Ways to begin:
1.  with a pronoun

2.  with an emotion or sensation word

3.  with a plan or vision (as opposed to an outline or a plot diagram); a sort of metaphorical or actual treasure map

4.  with a complaint, which may be about yourself, someone you know, someone you do not know, or some institution with whom you have a political issue

5. with a mischievous intent (writing about an institution such as a university), which means you are taking it upon yourself to become the avenger not only for real and imagined insults of your own but as a class action suit on behalf of brother and sister humans you sense might have been offended through earlier transactions

6.  with a satirical intent (which means you have to not only make fun by showing the idiocy and egotism of the individual or organization, but as well to show a viable solution)

7. with a question to which you do not know the answer but are attempting in good faith to arrive at a solution, making you the literary equivalent of the pure scientist who investigates for the pleasure (fun) of discovery

8. with a dramatic situation or need for a choice to be made that pushes you at least one hundred eighty degrees away from mere exercise and day's writing/practice time toward going over some boundary or limitation you feel inheres in your present process.  In other words, you must a) push yourself beyond comfort zone into discovery and b) you must do so with sufficient regularity that when you do so again it will seem like fun

9.  with a reaching out to a person, place, concept, or thing with which you have more than a few disagreements, an activity that will allow you to come away with the sense of being able to argue convincingly on behalf of an antagonistic force

10.  with the taking on of a narrative voice of a person or thing you consider to to be your polar opposite, an exercise you must repeat often enough to gain the understanding that you must find ways of supporting all your characters

Sunday, December 12, 2010


The more you revise a story, the more you iron out the bumps of chance, smoothing the fabric into something other than you'd seen at first glimpse.  The events grow before you into a complex web of causality that suggests but does not deliver with specificity a sense of inevitability.  Some readers and writers alike speak of this condition as Fate or "meant to be."  You don't think of it as destiny or even such other plateaus as karma; the mere fact for you is that in story, the cobwebs suggesting something related to the way the events play out are cobwebs to be kept, other cobwebs, mere decorative cobwebs, or cobwebs no one character fears or perhaps loathes, need to be brushed aside.

Characters behave as they do beyond a complex plot, which sometimes appears as a menu for a scavenger hunt:  Character A gets there first, sees the clue, gets the item, then moves along hopeful of returning first with all his assigned "things."  No, thank you, no.

Such tropes as "Just then" "Suddenly," and  "On a whim" have long been erased even from your most rapid composition, you are pleased to report, but there are other stragglers that continue to speak to some greater sense of ominous design.  These must be shown the back door, sent off with a sandwich, then told to head somewhere else.

 Characters do what they do not because you have constructed a complex pattern for them but because they are drawn toward behavior by their own needs and quirkiness.  The moment they appear to be doing things because they need to check such activities off their personal list, the writer has betrayed them and his/her own commitment to reach deeply within to pull forth the most emotion-charged activity as opposed to wondering how he'd allowed himself to get caught up in this situation in the first place.

You have no argument with persons doing things they do not always understand; you are a prime example of a person who likes to think (note the verb) he knows.  In story, however, such grace notes are not allowed; they slow the sense of inevitability which is so important to the success or failure of a particular narrative.

When two characters believe their meeting was inevitable, there must be information somewhere that takes us as readers beyond the point where they are willing to let the meeting go as having been ordained by the cosmos.  The cosmos is already over programmed and does not need such burdens.  They met because of similar interests or having been similarly educated or abused or some other plausible landing site of connective tissue.  It is alright for us to see them believing their meeting was destined, but the information needs to be there for us to know better.

Revision of this sort is a significant step, one beyond mere changing words here and there or shipping a particularly orotund sentence off to the assisted living community; this is the step that puts the sense of time and place into the cracks and interstices of activity, an editorial thumb flicking the lip of a crystal goblet.  Oh, my, what a lovely ring.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What do you mean, you agree with me?

  Agreement is the enemy of story.  When characters agree, you find yourself beginning to look for signs of misunderstanding, hints that they believe they are in accord but are in fact on entirely different vectors, parallel lines that may appear to meet but in this case will meet only in an eruption of argument.

One of your most favored moments of agreement is that particular time when it becomes a contest to see which character agrees with the other more than the other agrees with him.  What a jolly time that is because it can and often does lead to an argument.

What do you mean, you see what I mean?

I mean, I see the logic and sense of your argument.

You?  You see the logic of it?  Man, there must be something wrong with it then.

You mean, anyone who agrees with you is an asshole?

I mean you, specifically, agreeing with me makes me wonder about the structure and integrity of my position.

This riff comes about because she who is now gone from me except in memory was a vocal fan and supporter but in equal measure a person of her own vision and stand.  Ninety percent of our arguments were substantive in the sense that they were not the you always or you never sort, but rather rankings of things in importance.  You recall a real knock-down, drag-out about which was more important in story, character or voice.  There is, of course, no one simple answer to that sort of argument; often arguments are entered to allow the combatants to forge their own stand rather than convincing the other.  You do not, you argue, argue to win, you argue to flesh out your disagreement or, if you will, to emphasize for yourself a particular vision.  In that sense, argument is like trying to make sure all three legs of a tripod are of exact length. the winner being the tripod which, because of the exact leg length, is now a firm center of gravity.

If someone is with you and supportive, her arguments carry more weight; you know she is not being supportive merely to keep some peace (which is not keepable at best), she is being argumentative to keep you from becoming lazy.  If someone always agrees with you, you do not trust that individual after a while.  This has nothing to do with you being morally certain of your correctness; it has everything to do with the need to engage challenge.  The exact nature of challenge, of course, is its beginning point, which is with you.  It is not about you, it is with you; if you do not challenge yourself with conviction and vigor, who then but, of course, friends and lovers, perhaps even the right editor.

You are a passenger on the see-saw of grief, sometimes up, sometimes devastated by a small detail that pulls the rug of comfort from under you.  At such times, it is glorious to be argued with, to be tested to the point where you are having to reach within you for the small change of your confidence, the coins that fall from your pockets on the precarious see-saw of grief.  You are undone by the awareness that a person who so disagreed with you at times and was so supportive at others is now someone with whom you can argue only to the extent where you push beyond your memory.

If you or your characters or your friends or anyone you care about, such as your students and readers, is not pushed to that extra step or two beyond the comfort zone, arguments and praises are meaningless because their intent is to comfort rather than to support.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Magic is old hat, with equally old rabbits

 Although you have flirted from time to time with magical realism, you are more likely, when you have pinned yourself down, edited away or boarded up portals to the overt supernatural, to arrive at a tactical position where there is invariably an explanation for everything.  Supernatural to you means volition and agenda from non-living sources, perhaps from sources that once were human, but even there, you are quick to spread the Crime Scene Do Not Trespass tape.  There are enough motives inherent in any two people to produce the exquisite tension of story, which lives side-by-side with the even more exquisite tension of the quotidian in all its routine boredom.

In such cases of the daily routine, the blooming of a flower is magical realism, even though flowers bloom with some regularity in nearly every venue.  In such cases you do not need alternate universes or charms and curses .  You have spent entranced hours reading such stories and count yourself as irrevocably changed by Philip Pullman and his Golden Compass Trilogy to the point where you have plans to produce a novel set in a venue where you've put in considerable years teaching.  At the moment in your scant plans for it, there is indeed a portal through which graduate students disappear.  There too, you believe an explanation exists that is of a logical par with the motivational logic in a mystery novel.

The escaped kitten you are attempting to trap is the notion that reality-based novels are as much magical as their sister and brother genera.  The key for you at the present moment is the enormous flux resident in daily life as individuals pursue their curiosity and agenda, setting forth elaborate cover stories as if to mask the meaning of their behavior not so much from others as from themselves.  Do we--do you--set up these elaborate motives and agendas to hide true intent?

Nothing bordering on originality to ask such questions; philosophers have been asking such questions for hundreds of years, psychologists for scores of years, and anthropologists and sociologists  for at least a hundred years; the issue grows more pointed when you itch to know if, just as writers require editors, individuals need some sounding board somewhere, someone to edit the insubstantial from the text.

You were at one time a fan of the spectacular magical effect, but have now reached the point where true magical realism is to be found in any of the keys of modern harmonic scale and in many of the novels and studies that you live amid both literally and figuratively.  For that matter, there are untold mysteries you have scarcely begun to identify, crouched between the intervals of musical scales outside your Western-oriented ears; and now the art of translation makes it possible for you to try on emotional garments of other cultures as you check yourself in the mirror to see how well you fare as an Asian or African or Meso-American.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Spare me the details

The devil, widely presumed to reside in the details, is more apt to be discovered lurking in the story, whatever the story might be.  This is judgment, but it is appropriate in its judgment; details do help define the personality of individuals, places, and things, but they seldom lead us awry with a mischievous motive or any motive at all.  We are all aware of being bored to irritation by the sense of being trapped in an outburst of detail.  Similarly, we are at first excited in our distraction if a particular detail or set of details leads us off track.  It is only when we discover the distraction was for naught that we become irritated on that account.  If we read something, then interpret it as devilish--misrepresenting itself as true magnetic reality--we do so with the complicity of our own motives.

Story is another matter, being a collaborative riff between writer and reader in which the former proposes, then the reader comes along to suppose.  If not outright bedeviled, the character is at least surprised.  Your own oar dipped into these waters is that the reader reads for a menu of emotional responses, uppermost among them surprise.

Story--literate, literary story--takes us out of the linear, plunks us into a mise en scene reminiscent of reality, but because it is story, it is a simulacrum of reality that has been given several jolts of causal enhancement; you might even say a bumped-up determinism.  Story is ambiguity, clothed as atmosphere.  This is where the details come in; the writer manipulates them so that surprise is not only possible, it is inevitable.

The best surprises of all relate to you as writer, with your character surrogates out there on stage, being reminded of things you already knew, surprised by the intensity with which they resonate through the hallways of your emotions.  You have known a person to the point of taking a person for granted, then gone beyond to discover even more deep nuances of that person, and so what more surprise could there be?  Whether these types of surprise come in your own life or on your pages, they are the surprises that buoy you up when the plot--which is to say some pass at reality--is not holding up, or when life--which is to say that enormous barge of event being tugged against the current--leaves you feeling the enormity of being.  Surprise does not always mean disaster; it sometimes means a discovery that reaches beyond disaster so that you and your own narrative are, for a few moments at least, where you ought to be in relationship to the shore line.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


You think you know a person or a character.  Whether the person is someone close to you or at some professional remoteness, whether the character is someone you've seen through enough pages to get a feel for, you realize there are those individuals in reality, in the writings of others, and even in the early drafts of your own work where a major plot turn simply doesn't scan; it is neither plausible nor implausible.  The plot turns or events are as uninteresting as a breakfast at I-Hop, more starch than real substance.  The disappointment is as profound as the disappointment you feel when you find yourself in an I-Hop due to all other reasonably similar venues being closed.

Good people, good characters, good events are events that bring surprise to you.  By surprise you mean the experience of an unexpected emotion, plangent in its intensity.

What greater way to experience surprise than to ask real life persons or your own characters questions they were not anticipating?  Not accusatory, mind you.  Yesterday, during lunch with a friend who is a superb shirt story writer whose publisher was so taken with her collection that they thought to cash in more on the novel format, she asked you a surprise question about a building you'd invented out of whole cloth, plunking it down on a plot of land well known to you both.  The moment the question was out, you were off in a whir of gears meshing, other shoes dropping, connections being made.  You could nearly feel the drips of endorphin as you answered, It was built in two differing times; there was an "old" portion and a "new" annex, details which will effect your story only in nuance and indirection, only in ways that will convince the reader even more that the place is real and the persons behaving in them are realer than you thought you could make them.

In a parallel way, you have undertaken a non-writing task as a way of working through if not off a trunk load of that most complicated and difficult of all emotions, grief.  You thought you knew the individual whose papers you are now attempting to arrange in some functional order, whose jewelry and personal effects you are trying to sort out for friends and beloved nieces.  You already knew about the fifty-pound sacks of peanuts in the laundry room, kept there so that they could be meted out in a more reasonable way to their intended audience, the neighborhood squirrels.  You already knew about the two hundred-pound gunny sacks of bird seed because, after all, these were part of the landscape you were used to.  But the flurry of peanuts and seeds from jacket pockets, purses, and car compartments were another matter; so too were the blizzard of notes scribbled on the backs of receipts, half-eaten sandwiches, book advertisements torn from newspapers and magazines, and secret caches of notebooks in places you would not yourself think to squirrel away notebooks (and you have managed to find any number of imaginative places to squirrel thus away).

Characters who have lives of any sort generally have secret lives that are not at all devious or in any way at odds with their apparent character but rather even more intense than suspected.  Their elephant in the living room, going on right in front of you, was an even more intense curiosity, passion, generosity, sense of being than willingness to drive ten miles every morning for a decent coffee latte would suggest.

Characters who love or hate or fret or fear are often putting on a show of normality; either that or your own powers of observation need some immediate injections of gamma globulin or similar incentive; the individuals you care about in real or fiction are leading secret lives of seeming normality lest they emerge too frightening, too threatening in their embrace of life.

Such individuals also tend to have a number of groups of friends because it is rare for them to have friends with more than twenty or thirty percent of the same interests; thus they are Protean in their interests and tastes, trying not to call too much attention to themselves so that they may be free to amass useful information without having to account for it and, indeed so that they will not have to visit their disappointment that their interests are shared at a similar level of enthusiasm.

It is true that you are in serious engagement with a novel that has the word Secret prominently in its title; in fact, secret is the second word in the title.  And so you are focused on the discovery and dramatic revelation of secrets.

Are the things you believe to be your own secrets actually so secret?  Perhaps they're as visible as the classic t-shirts sold at rock concerts, and you are not nearly the potential surprise you had thought to be as you look furtively about you, comfortable from the way your Moleskine notebook thumps against your chest, thinking to slip onto the record yet another secret.