Every so often, in search of some specific document or record, you uncover a stash of handwritten notes and printed out pages of manuscript that at first seem to be lecture notes for a particular class interspersed with portions of manuscripts from that class.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Friday, February 26, 2010
The difference between getting hit with bad news while you're alone--say a letter or an email, or a rejection slip on something you thought to be a shoo-in--and being hit with the news while in company is profound. In the former, you're plunged immediately into the self-pity of "What am I going to do now?" which, although it sounds a hundred years or so away from and more modern than "Oh, woe is me!" is still about the same thing. In the latter, you're more likely to careen right past that operatic response and be thinking about recovery strategy, as in, "Now what?" as in "Now what will I do?" And if you've been hit with unsettling news before, chances are, even while you're absorbing the implications, you're answering your own question, forming a plan.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
The writer's major goal is to bring story and dramatic thrust to narrative, but close upon the heels of that goal is the need to bring power, where ever it exists, face to face with truth. You can start messing with that equation by doing to the definition of truth what we have so successfully done over the years to the tax code, leaving the appearance of confrontation without actually raising the hackles of concern and discomfort. Power should not be allowed unrestrained or unmonitored. For those who care and hold relevant beliefs, even God should be confronted with truth on a regular basis.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Makes perfect sense. Your process--whatever it may be--is your portal to enter an arena, a landscape, or some skein of associations.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
You first heard the expression "in character" from an actor, a curt reminder that she was not herself but rather an individual in a drama, waiting to go on. Being "out of character" yourself, meaning you were singularly you, you were at that moment a distraction, an anomaly, someone out of the range of the "character's" experience.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Your observation of the best source of inspiration persists. Work, or the involvement in a process, produces work for a composer. You first became aware of this process in operation watching Ray Bradbury feed quarters into a slot in a room at the UCLA library where one could rent a typewriter for twenty-five cents for a half-hour. On those rare occasions when Bradbury hit a snag, mindful of the clicking of the timer on the typewriter clock, he'd start working on another story. Writers' block and thinking things over were not affordable options. Later, when his finances made things slightly more affordable, Bradbury began buying used stand-up typewriters, positioning them about a table, each typewriter containing a story in the works. You're working on typewriter A and reach a point where nothing is coming forth for thirty minutes, why you simply slide the chair along to the next typewriter, then begin to work on that story. During those Christmas vacations when you had work as a temporary mailman, you saw the results of his process: every day, his mail was filled with the envelopes obviously containing galley proofs for correction. Thus you were impressed with his methodology almost at the same time you were impressed by the stories.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Ever since you first read then saw a performance of Terrence Rattigan's play, That Winslow Boy, you have been haunted by the major defining moment and narrative hook set so firmly in place.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Today you are in the process of talking about a character who appears desperately to want something, starting with Dorothy Gale, who desperately wants to get out of Oz and back to Kansas, then moving along to, of all individuals, Brer Fox, who in his search for supper has focused on Brer Rabbit. This is story-telling stuff right out of the Aristotle Poetics, a character desperate for achievement of a goal driving the story forth. In a blinding flash of recognition, you are so convinced that the Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit story comes right out of Aristotle that you forget the connection between Brer Fox and Wile E. Coyote, forgetting even to mention him as your selection for the patron saint of characters. There is such a splendid balance between the character who wants a particular prize, no matter what it is, the antagonist or individual standing in the way of the character achieving goal, and the humiliation available to fall on the goal seeker lest he fail in his task. Look at the stature Brer Rabbit gains merely by surviving. Look at the seeming invincibility Road Runner has. Look at the effect failure has on Wile E. Coyote and Brer Fox; each becomes more determined, more focused and thus more likely to appear undignified. How do your non-animal characters react in such triangles? Do they become more determined and, in the process, do they lose by degree any semblance of dignity?
Friday, February 19, 2010
The most favored cliché of the journalist of the past, particularly he or she who worked for a tabloid or a Hearst paper, was the novel in progress, hidden in the bottom drawer of the desk. The novel would not only transport the writer out of the day-to-day operatic posturing so common to such newspapers, it would transport the reader to new levels of human understanding.
A favored vision of today’s novelist is the mystery novel in progress, hidden somewhere on the hard drive of a computer given over to romance or historical adventure. This covert mystery would ply the fecund motives of the publishing world or the academic institution, landscapes where ambitions are as flagrant as a fleet of Hummers on a used car lot.
Although the mystery is for the writer the literary equivalent of the Jungian archetype, the greater likelihood still of the established writer’s hidden agenda is to rewrite a classic.
Of the many authors who have done this very thing, Valerie Martin comes quickly to mind with her memorable take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Named for her invented character, Mary Reilly, her novel pretends the eponymous narrator is an Irish maid who thinks she works only for Dr. Jekyll.
Joyce Carol Oates has taken on a number of classic genres to the point where she may be pursuing them without even thinking about them.
The Australian writer, David Malouf, has edged magisterially toward his venture into the classics, arriving via a previous output of short stories, novels, and poetry. In his latest work, Ransom, from Pantheon, he does a number of remarkable things all at once, and does them all with a seemingly effortless panache. First of all, he takes us back to those same wonderful folks who gave us The Trojan wars of The Iliad. Secondly, he provides us with such delicious information about the likes of Achilles, Hector, King Priam, Queen Hecuba, and of course the attendant gods and goddesses that, certain now that we missed a good deal of the subtext in earlier readings, we return to The Iliad for another go round. Thirdly, but by no means the end of his accomplishments, Malouf renders the language in such an exquisite rendition that we lose track of the sense of having read a 2010 text. Rather, we are thrust back into the simple dialogue elegance of such iconic films as A Man for All Seasons and The Lion in Winter.
You may have thought you experienced Troy in your readings of The Iliad, but here is Malouf’s presentation of it:
“Laid out on uneven ground along a rocky bluff, Troy is a city of four-square towers topped by untidy stork’s nests, each as tall as a man; of dovecotes, cisterns, yards where black goats are penned, and in a maze of cobbled squares and alleys, houses of whitewashed mud-brick and stone, cube-shaped and with open stairways that at this hour mount to dreams. On the flat roofs under awnings of woven rush, potted shrubs spread their heavy night odors, and cats, of the small-skulled breed that are native to the region, prowl the parapets and yowl like tormented souls in their mating.” One thing impresses us from this: we know Malouf has been to Troy. Not, by the way, Troy, N.Y.
As the original begins with the consequences of Achilles’ anger, so too does Ransom, but already Malouf’s reinvention is busily at work, showing us the mounting impatience among those involved in the siege of Troy. Achilles is in “an endless interim of keeping your weapons in good trim and your keener self taut as a bowstring through long stretches of idleness, of restless, patient waiting, and shameful quarrels and unmanly bragging and talk,
“Such a life is death to the warrior spirit…War should be practiced swiftly, decisively. Thirty days at most, in the weeks between new spring growth and harvest, when the corn is tinder-dry and ripe for the invader’s brand, then back to the cattle pace of the farmer’s life.”
You probably already know why Achilles was angry from having read The Iliad, but David Malouf also spells it out to the point where Achilles takes a step that precipitates the greatest rage and bluster he has ever known. The consequences lead directly to the death of Hector, but what you probably missed in The Iliad were Hector’s last, whispered words to Achilles.
Were Hector’s words a taunt or merely a reminder that even though Achilles has a goddess for a mother, he is still a mortal? And was it merely these words or a growing dissatisfaction with all Achilles had held previously dear that led him to the rage-driven slaughter and desecration of Hector’s body?
Along comes Hector’s father, King Priam, seeking a way to ransom his son’s body, give it a proper burial so that it may start its journey to the underworld, and set in motion the deeply disturbing and memorable meeting between two men who wear such jagged battle scars from their encounters with grief.
Ransom begins appropriately enough with Achilles. “The sea has many voices. The voice this man [Achilles] is listening for is the voice of his mother.” His mother is a goddess of the sea, she occasionally comes to him. “Do you hear me, Achilles? It is me, I am still with you. For a time I can be with you when you call.”
Ransom continues as King Priam watched the body of his dead son being dragged about. His mind clouded by the grief of his doomed kingdom and its people, his son, Hector, and yet other sons who have died in battle, Priam sits disconsolate. “Seated close by him on the couch is the goddess Iris.” She smiles, indulgently. The soft light has a calming effect as he bends to listen to her, telling him about “the way things are. Not the way they must be but the way they have turned out. In a world that is also subject to chance.”
In the communication from Iris, Priam devises a scheme to get Achilles to release his son’s body from further abuse. Before he leaves on his mission, Priam reveals to his wife, Hecuba, a secret he has never told another, one that links him to this world Goddess Iris has described, a world governed by chance, where there is always a chance of redemption.
Scene after magnificent scene rolls forth from this magical book. Magical? How? Magical in the sense of it only being 220 pages and yet containing so much poetry, emerging as if from only the desolate personages of two men, mortal enemies, for a time brought together for rituals of healing and understanding.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Anger is such a lovely emotion for introduction into a dramatic narrative. As persons in real life have discovered, anger may be expressed in any number of ways. These ways not only help define the character who is behaving in anger, the ways also help determine the nature and outcome of a story.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Once you begin asking questions of your characters, probing their identity, goals, and artfully concealed agendas, they will meet your gaze of enquiry head on, eye contact assured, then proceed to lie their way out of your scrutiny, wanting to go forth undetected. It is not only you they are retreating from; they rarely appreciate the greater knowledge of what they are about.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Front-rank characters come equipped with a built-in booby trap, a trait that guarantees narrative explosions and surprise. The trait, of course, is that each character is utterly convinced he is right. In the extreme example of that loving couple down the street, the Helmers, you have the husband, Torvald, thinking himself a good provider, an excellent family man, a devoted and appreciative husband, a doting father; and you have Nora, the wife, thinking she's doing everything possible to keep the household running smoothly, the children tended to, and appetizing meals set forth for Torvald. That's the surface. Once, when Torvald was quite ill, Nora borrowed a good deal of money that helped pay for treatment that saved his life. In addition to her wifely duties, she has taken jobs to earn back the money to repay the loan, but to protect his pride, she has not allowed him to know this, instead letting him think of her as a child-like creature, forever innocent and naive. This play, which demonstrated the primacy of Nora and the fact that Torvald's love was both conditional and selfish, was a time bomb, arguably an early skirmish in the women's movement, with Nora leaving Torvald and her children with a slam of the door that was heard around the world.
Monday, February 15, 2010
The effective translation of emotion into written language often loads more demands than mere description can bear. Writers have memorably conscripted adjectives, adverbs, and metaphor into service with uneven results. In the irony of unintentional pathos, writers have also attempted to Shanghai poetry as a means of conveying in more exquisite detail the heights and depths the human awareness can reach. Same results: some poetry soars, other gets on the Daedalus list for trying to fly, and yet other poetry sinks like a hastily defrosted chicken pot pie in a hungry tummy.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
If we were to spend any time with our characters in social activities, we'd make an interesting discovery. We are linked to each of them by a personal chemistry, just as we engage without thinking about it in chemistry relationships with our real-time friends and associates.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
You are standing in the wings, awaiting your cue to enter.
Friday, February 12, 2010
If I had only known, I didn't realize, and How could I not have seen? These three cases of self recrimination have become an integral part of the human psyche. We as writers cheerfully pass them along to that great demographic of ambitions, our characters.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Something happens, then somebody changes. Not too shabby a way of looking at long form fiction. For the shorter version, you could say at a bit more length, something happens and someone considers the possibilities. In both long and short forms, something clearly must happen so that the event and the relative awareness of the event become part of the theme of the narrative. Something happens, although we're not quite sure what, but it is enough to cause Gregor Samsa to undergo a remarkable metamorphosis.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Without even thinking about it, you reached a state in your evolution as a writer when you were no longer writing to everyone but to a much narrower group, still without many facial or demographic characteristics, more along the lines of mystery readers or science fiction readers or adventure readers, or readers of contemporary event. This was because you were thinking these would be interesting landscapes to be writing in and why shouldn't readers in these fields like your material? You had ample reason to find out why readers in any field might not stand in line to pick up publications in which your work appeared. Indeed, you had equally ample reason to find out why you began to get the distinct feeling that readers had expectations, one of which was that the writer make the metaphoric equivalent of eye contact with them as they tell their stories.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
All fiction, however intellectual, propagandistic, or political, is based on emotional foundations. Even such a notably novel- and short-story-of-ideas writer as Aldous Huxley, after riding his wit and curiosity to remarkable heights, saw the need for such incursions into the emotional smorgasboard as professional and romantic jealousy, guilt, revenge. Through experience with reading, we have the opportunities to take sides with and against characters who respond to things that seem calamitous, often going against the grain of the author's intent, not so much out of perversity as the simple fact of being attracted to one whose response seems to jibe with our own sense of what is correct and effective.
Monday, February 8, 2010
If you practice enough, the common wisdom proclaims, you may not achieve perfection (although you might), but you may indeed achieve muscle memory, that precious ability that allows you to do without thinking and thus reach beyond the received standards of excellence. Buoyed by your muscle memory lapel ribbon, you may even achieve freshness, invention, ownership however temporary of the ability to demonstrate your art.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
It was a brisk day, brisk with hope, enthusiasm, expectation; a sharp day in which a wind cleaned the edges of buildings and store windows, making everything seem in sharp focus. A tang of iodine was in the air, or perhaps, being from Santa Monica, you filled in that detail. It was not your imagination that included a few seagulls, scavanging a late brunch. You inhaled deeply. "This is so like San Francisco," you said.