Monday, May 31, 2010

Ordinary Need Not Apply

"Begin with an individual," F. Scott Fitzgerald said in that long ramble of a story, The Rich Boy, "and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created--nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves." 

 You meditated on this information a good, long time as a young man, forging a lifelong fondness for the craft you believed you could learn from him and the actual ache of awareness you eventually did get from him. 

The Rich Boy seduced you into the belief that you could write about the people he wrote about, and while you might have eventually been able to do so, it was another story of his, Babylon, Revisited, that pushed you into awareness of what you thought you'd learned from the quotation about characters. Babylon, Revisited was the essential story of Fitzgerald, a man who was once something he wanted to be, had something he wanted to have, and because of excesses and lack of discipline, had lost the innocence of what had brought him to power in the first place. Now, with rigid self-discipline, he could revisit but only briefly, could catch glimpses of what he once was and once had, more as a visitor than a full-time resident.


You learned that you were more interested in individuals than types; using types was a lazy way of getting to the good parts. As a result, there were considerable gaps between the good parts, wide enough so that a stranger, happening upon them, could discern no secret revealed, no ache eager to be comforted, no discovery of intent or agenda that could lead anyone to care in that particular way readers require before they do care.

Everyone has a story; it is your job to know what that story is, to experience the inner yearnings and compare them with the outer presentation. Splendid food, splendidly presented, you say of some restaurants. Mediocre food, flashily presented, you say of others. Mediocre food, inelegantly presented, you judge of yet others. A hasty meal-from-the-can of cold Franco-American spaghetti or Heinz vegetarian baked beans, each honest and each not aspiring in its way, comes closer to the comfort foods of your palate than a slapdash work of pretension. 

 Thus your standards fall into place from reading and eating, two significant appetites that have grown under your management. Meals want honesty and reference points; characters must be presented so that their reference points somehow radiate or bulge or cry out beyond the protective presentation of cliche.

For some time now your favorite example of the lower-end character has been the pizza delivery person, the he or she whose professional goal is to deliver the desperation meal, the I-can't-bear-to-even-think-of-cooking meal in some degree of original warmth. But that person's goals and dreams outside the delivery cycle still have effect on the presentation, the flourish or tone of voice or response to the odor radiating from the box holding the pizza. It is as vital for you to be able to feel that person's presence as your story is worth. 

 With that in mind, the delivery of the pizza may remain ordinary in context of the story, but it will, because of its influence on your choice of words, your cadence of presentation, the responses of your more significant characters transform ordinary the same way dialogue transforms the predictability of conversation. 

 You once advocated to a rather stunned class the application of Heraclitus to your pizza delivery person in that, as you observed, you cannot deliver the same pizza twice. That was years ago. You still hear from students who remembered that lecture as opposed to not hearing from students who didn't remember the more ordinary lectures.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reversal

In one of his elegant-but-little-known song lyrics, "So Near and Yet So Far," Cole Porter not only objectifies Fate, he observes as it "steps in and mops up the floor with me." In the song, the singer's romantic ambitions are dealt a reversal; in real life, Fate does not necessarily tread on iambic feet and indeed may enter on roller skates. Reversal is a dramatic turn away from an anticipated shower of good fortune, of success in a venture, the acceptance of a story or book, an A-ticket to all the rides in the park.


Our nature as humans and of course yours as a member of the rejection letter congregation is to look with suspicion upon anything that appears to arrive with ease. Suspicion is wired in, at least to the point where we have a Plan B however vaguely formulated, where we believe the need to work up a sweat before achieving the desired results. In one of the apocryphal accounts of the Old Testament, David's Plan B was to run like hell if the rock he'd launched at Goliath missed its mark. We bestow our deepest regard and harbor our greatest hopes for results on those projects that vex us the most, seem most likely to slip from our grasp. A last-minute reversal that we engage and cope with seems almost a herald of impending success, even though we have scarcely caught our breath from the fright.

To some of us, reversal is an omen of lost power, the power being that sense of invincibility that in so many ways reverts us to our teen years when all was inevitable success, and reversal was like unto a misguided mosquito, strayed from its true course. As a species we are great symbol makers. You have come to believe, for example, that those remarkable drawings of animals on the walls of the caves in France represent boasts of animals safely hunted down into the evening meal and possibly even as expressions of meals yet to come. Thus a rejection slip becomes only a platform, a plateau scaling the heights of ambition. When you receive rejection letters, look how far you have climbed. That sort of thing.

Some in our midst see reversal as calamity; you have had your share of calamities to the point where you can no longer call to mind which among them was the most calamitous, preferring instead to think that the potential for future reversals is a sign you are still in the game. You suppose the game you are talking about in that sense is the game of life, but it could also be the game of writing, the game of editing, the game of teaching, and ah, the game of romance, except that some critic may impute your lack of serious intent in all these ventures to your consideration of them as games rather than endeavor.

Reversal is the force that knocks you on your ass with enough impact to cause you to marshal the intent to rise and go forth again--simple up endings do not count because those may only arrive as distractions. The measure of the reversal is in direct proportion to the effort necessary to recover from it.

Every story needs reversal. Every story needs that whoosh of impact that lays one or more characters low enough that the primal breath and intent is knocked from them for a time. The things you get up from, make sense of, translate into the poetry of newer energy and a sharper, clearer music are the things that make you who you are, that influence the vocabulary you chose from the available wonders of feeling and harmony about you. Grim determination is no small thing, not at all to be dismissed, but beware the you who gets of from the floor humming the music of the spheres, delighted with the sound of it while simultaneously wondering how it ever got in where you could hear it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The small town as a large metaphor. Take Bakersfield. No, you take Bakersfield.

Gilroy, California, is located between Salinas and San Jose like a place on your back you cannot reach to scratch; it is about twenty-five miles north of Salinas, which itself is more famous for things that were rather than what now is, and about forty-five miles below San Jose, which is big enough in area to think of taking on Los Angeles for sprawl, but doesn't seriously have the imagination to do so. This leaves Gilroy in a state of wanting to be scratched or possibly always just at an itch.


You have traveled through small towns in North America, and a number of them in England, which is in this context is best left to fend for itself. Small towns in North America are defined by men wearing hats and women coping with hair-do. 

 The hats worn by men in small towns in Mexico are of woven straw. In the U.S., the hats west of the Mississippi are baseball caps with the brims worn backwards, presumably to shade the neck, although the men in the Western states who do wear their hats with the bill facing outward tend to be into their sixties, their hats decorated with some military designation.

Although it is true that in some parts of the west men may be seen in the company of Stetsons, you can with good faith reason that these men are not so much wearing their hats as transporting them about. However tall their crowns or bent, spindled, and folded their felt brims, these Stetsons appear to be hovering slightly over the heads of their owners, a sort of Texas-style halo.

The women in small towns such as Gilroy cope with their hair-do as military personnel display hashmarks, as a demonstration of service. You can tell just by looking at their hair-dos that women in Gilroy have a hard life. The principal product of Gilroy is garlic, a delightful thing to discover in one's food, although the growing of garlic is not something you or anyone you know is particularly interested in talking about. To judge by appearances of their respective hair-dos, the women in Bakersfield have an even harder life than the women in Gilroy; the women in Bakersfield have some carrots to talk about and a good deal of whacked-out religious beliefs, which helps them feel entitled to feel that their life is harder than the life in Gilroy.

It is not so much the food that draws you to the Sunrise Cafe in Gilroy as the early morning gatherings of men who grow things, hunt ducks, and leave the house early rather than facing the hair-do of their wife. 

 Their conversation has a distinct southern twang to it, Arkansas and possibly Kentucky, but definitely places of origin that cause the Sunrise Cafe to place biscuits and gravy on the breakfast menu as well as grits and pretty nearly anything you could possibly think of in chicken-friend form. Their conversation is a recitative, done in a kind of rural Wagnerian opera cadence with the leader making a statement, the respondents either sneezing or simultaneously agreeing with him.

Mornings at small restaurants in small towns are mythic; their menus produce cannonball stomachs and a kind of dull, glazed over good fellowship that makes Shakesperean comedy seem mild in comparison. Teasing, exaggeration, and boiled-over coffee are the lubricants to the twenty-first century, postmodernist answer to the angst and anomie of the big city of the East, where a young person's life and social careers are often determined as early as pre-School, and the big city of the West where you could live your entire working career life in a neighborhood where there were only big box stores, franchises, and a constantly shifting set of neighbors.

Friday, May 28, 2010

You Are in Love

You have had enough experience falling in love with persons, places, things, even concepts to have more or less got the hang of it, to know some of the dynamics involved. (Who really knows all the dynamics, because after all, falling in love means removing existing boundaries.) There is a good deal of power involved; you award large chunks of it to the person, place, thing, or concept you have fallen in love with, perhaps even wondering if you have mortgaged some part of yourself or at least entered into a long term installment arrangement in which you make daily or weekly or monthly payments, somehow scrounging them up from resources you did not know you had.


Some of your associates and close ones have suggested you were too quick to fall in love and indeed, in your earlier years there was undoubtedly an overeagerness on your part, brought about because of your intense desire to experience connections extending beyond the ones you came by as a natural consequence of having been born into a loving family. But over time, things evened out and you began to see a greater value of and less despair in the act of falling in love.

One of the great learning experiences in that regard came from a place: you were and still are hopelessly in love with Los Angeles, the city of your origin and youth as well as the city it has become and is today, sprawling forth in every possible direction, including directions previously thought impossible. You are away from it now, going there only on rare occasion, except that you are there in one way or another in your heart and mind every day, having given considerable power over to its vista points and landmarks. You learn how to love and regard at a distance from such things, to estimate and place a value on experiences that can only be relived in memory, experience the distinct tang of grief at the realization that an old place or an old memory has been built over, changed color or shape or even existence.

Looking back at some of the persons you have loved, you are wrenched into a reality rear-ender, at first fooled or at least dazzled by the degree to which you believe you have become sophisticated. Truth to tell, you still have a crush on such persons; they are a core sampling of who you were then and who you are now and perhaps you are no longer in love with some of them but you are by no means out of love with them, and it means uncounted emotional riches to revisit loving them and the ways in which you loved. Nor are you any the less free of those whom you loved only to have your love unrequited nor, for good measure, those whose love you did not or were not able to return. It is all a dazzle of a calculus because its complexity is expanded by the fact that not all the love was romantic, meaning there were indeed other reasons for you to feel the orbital pull of others, having effect on your own wobbly path through the universe.

You are not alone in making promises to persons you love; it is a language persons of heart and purpose have, a way of communicating with another, of sharing, of hitching a ride on a traveling asteroid that carries your life along with the life of the lover, allowing you the delicious conceit that you are able to control its orbit into another galaxy of experience.

Being in love changes the way you travel; you no longer pack for one nor chose the places where you stop to pee thinking entirely of yourself. You move on a more splendid orbit, occasionally looking backward or forward to make sure the loved one is in sight, aware of the possibility that the movement you now enjoy and take for granted may place you in a different orbit, where you may still love but need to reckon with the need to love at a distance.

Falling in love with a person is experiencing light from a distant star, it is merging into your life the subtle sense that a choice you make, whether it be a word in a story or a sandwich in a Subway or Quiznos was not your entire choice but informed by hers. You may well have finished the story and eaten the sandwich but there would never be that same delicious uncertainty behind it because falling in love is, after all is said and done, a delicious uncertainty, a wrenching open of a portal through which the entire cosmos of connection from another person is invited in. Being in love is a privileged vision of the extraordinary self you are to the person who loves you, a self you had less chance of being until someone fell in love with you.

None of this so far has even considered Sam or Blue or Edward or Jed, much less Molly or Armand, Nell or that intense flare of passionate presence you call Sally. Your chum Barnaby Conrad has said that no story about animals has a happy ending; you would put it even more personally in that they all fucking leave you with memories, but ah, what memories, to inform the way you take on your awareness of your own life, and what companions they are to have influenced your own understanding of what it is you must offer up to those you would befriend. A life without an animal friend is a life not examined for the nuance of satisfaction or the understanding of how to communicate with another being without words.

As you write this, Conrad is being prepped for the biggest adventure of his life--open-heart surgery to replace at least one valve. No wonder he didn't make lunch on Monday or Thursday. No wonder you have the strong focus that life is so much about love and the persons, places, things, and, yes, animals on whom to apply that love in all the special ways that suggest themselves to you from your observation of things about you.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I Confront, You Confront, He, She, or It Confronts

Confrontation may well be the head-on meeting of two or more opposing forces but it is also the spine of story and in the ironic bargain the navigation system by which most of us maneuver the reefs and shoals of our daily reality.


A sophisticated balancing act begins when we set forth to tell a story, putting onto a collision course the same forces we claim to observe in fiction while at the same time pursuing any kind of civil citizenry. We manipulate characters into irresistible situations of stress, moral confusion, and the just-beyond-arm's-reach realization of heartfelt agenda at the same time monitoring, controlling, and restraining our own behavior in the names of consideration and social restraint.

To the extent that we inject our own sense of tension and temptation into the story at hand, we invite the reader inside the raging dialectic between teller and reality, between observer and actual participant, between character and temptation.

Conventional wisdom whispers into our ear the encouragement to focus on conflict as the engine of story, an encouragement we fall upon with the eagerness and recognition of fleas discovering a long-haired dog. But our results of following such a course are fraught with the misplaced energy of thin, one- or two-dimensional characters who barely hint at the conversation to be had between writer and character, between characters and readers.

If the reader is led to feel the tension the writer experiences between story and reality, then and only then has the story succeeded in becoming more of a portal to interior conflict than a mere traffic report of conflicting agendas.

Confrontation is the meeting within each and every character, however front rank or humble walk-on, of the character's core agenda and what the appropriate behavioral dictates of that particular character--what is felt internally and desired as opposed to what is said and done in consequence. Accordingly, confrontation is present in every stave of dialogue, a simmering, bubbling catalyst that may explode into a force that causes the character to say and/or do something that betrays the protective covering, the Kevlar vest of reality worn by the character. Most characters will not willingly betray secrets of agenda until the collision with the stress of urgent confrontation, knocking at the gate like the porter in Macbeth, demanding to be let in.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Secrets

Whether you put it to work as a noun or an adjective, secret is an emotion-charged word, a whisper campaign, a hidden presence that hovers over conversations, intentions, and agendas; it is an impromptu explosive device of human behavior, lurking prepositionally in the vicinity of any human transaction. Secrets do not even have to be shared. You have at least one, perhaps even more,artfully kept from yourself. Then there is that interior place called the secret heart where you store any number of dreams and ambitions, some artistic, some political, others yet a seethe of lust and additional others of a schadenfreude nature. Over time, you may have shared some of these with those close about you, the remainder fluttering about your interior recesses until such time as you are able to act on them, dismiss them, or simply take them out to count, much as a miser enjoys his collection of art or hundred-dollar bills, or baseball trading cards.


Secrets are the essence of covert, occult information, a catalyst for conspiracy in that those who are in on the secret are informed at the potential pain or disadvantage of those who are not in. Secrets are not democratic nor are they meant to be; they provide by their very nature a boost in status to those who know. Secretive persons are not preeminently trustworthy; even the suspicion that an individual may be secretive casts a shroud of negative ions about him or her, making us less likely to tell or express opinions that may be confidential, which, by the way, is the first giant step toward a secret. When a person tells you something in confidence and/or swears you to secrecy, your first response may be that of having been flattered by this elevation to such a lofty position as confidante, but on closer consideration, you begin to wonder if you are not being manipulated, adjured not to tell as an insurance that you will in fact tell. Sometimes you begin to look for ways to become temporarily or permanently miffed with your confidential source so that you can, as a gesture of retribution, reveal the information you were told in secret.

The essential nature of the human condition is curiosity, the wish to know intimate secrets of individuals you admire for one reason or another. Your sense of suspicion may have already led you to wonder what goes on in the secrecy of a particular individual's life, thus you seek validation for your curiosity. Sometimes a secret may become the currency of a deep bonding arrangement between you and a friend; it may also be a bribe offered a lover to keep that remarkable individual eager to remain within the radar of your own remarkable personality, an inducement to bridge the ordinary layers of protective coating you both wear. That's no big thing as a secret, you tell her, relishing her secret but eager for even more. You were drawn to her in the first place because of her mystery, what answers you might find in her eyes, what ease and comfort to your being in her embrace, what confidence and inventiveness to gather from the mere intimacy of presence with her. You recognize she, too, is curious about you, thus you both trespass on the mine field of familiarity. You walk more upright but also with greater care for fear that the thing that has attracted her to you is a fire that can be fed only by the fuel of your confessed or shared secrets. You recall the time you were helping someone paint the interior rooms of a house when you began exchanging secrets as if knowing precisely how the conversation had turned from mere flirtation to seriousness of intention. You reached for the home run, the long ball. When she heard it, she set down her paint brush, took yours from your hand and the rest became history. Even while you were enjoying the rewards and consequences of your revealed secret, you knew it would be impossible to expose a deeper secret for later use. Not unless you improvised some secret. And you knew enough to know you could not do such a thing.

In some ways, secrets related to romance are emblematic of secrets in general; they help define you to yourself. It is no secret to you that openness and discussion are essentials of any relationship you hope will last, thus your return to this not so secret thing you so enjoy doing, setting forth stories of individuals who are mirrors of yourself and completely opposite you at every turn. You use the telling of stories to reveal secrets first to yourself, then the page, and in good time to anyone who would come along to glean them and make of them what and how they will.

It is a certainty that you will reveal secrets; it is hoped for but not necessarily a certainty that you will learn from the revelations, using neither staunch honesty nor subterranean secrecy as weapons but rather as lenses through which to reflect humanity.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Suspicion

The moment suspicion elbows in front of you in the cafeteria line of reality, trust and optimism have suffered setbacks. By its very definition, suspicion evokes pictures of police line-ups, of persons of interest being displayed so that a potential miscreant in their midst might be identified. Suspicion is the fly in the ointment, the fox in the chicken coop, the awareness of and dread response to something gone wrong. It is the herald of the fall, the serpent in the garden, and hell, why not, the snake in the grass.


Things that seem too good to be true generally are in fact too good to be true; along comes suspicion with the notion that things are not as good as they seem, that there is a worse result than the one already planned for. Suspicion is the gut fear that the tab, when presented to you for payment, is going to be more than you bargained for; it is the sickening sensation that there is yet more to come when you believe you have met and gotten into bed with Rock Bottom.

Suspicion is the cynicism we offer up to the cheerful, the naive, those who seem always to have one more cheek to turn, one more smile to offer, one more rabbit to pull out of a hat; it is our protective coating to prevent over-optimistic rhetoric into our thinking and behavior. No wonder it is such a strong presence in the novel of detection, the tale of social consequence, the story of Edenic happiness known as the Utopia. Small wonder utopias are invariably boring and dystopias are so fraught; suspicion looms on the horizon like the rise and set of the sun. Suspicion exists to keep us honest, to convince us that no one, not even protagonists in novels and short stories are perfect; it recognizes our trespasses and the incursions of those who trespass against us. We are alive and suspect even in our better moments. Indeed, some of our better moments come as the direct result of our having suspected ourself of meanness of spirit or lack of motivation. We suspect we could have done more, should have done more, even to the point of seeing retrospective ways in which we could have done so. We could have been better children, better students, better lovers, and when someone praises us for something we have written, our momentary gratefulness is submerged by the suspicion that we could have done better, tapped more into the internal music and vibrant meaning of the work.

We are quick to suspect that some individuals are liars, all the while seeming to ratify our own relationship with the concept of truth, not in the slightest suspicious of our own tidal relationship with such abstractions as absolute accuracy. Parallel lines meet in infinity while truths converge readily within our conscience.

To use the words suspicion or suspect immediately denotes a negativity that haunts the rest of the thought process, the introduction of the worm of doubt into the apple of reality. There are the usual suspects of mystery and cliche fame, the unusual suspects of our imagination and doubt, gaunt, dark-eyed travelers in trench coats who loll about at street corners, waiting with abundant patience for us to pass by, whereupon they follow, just at the outer range of our awareness. We are always suspicious unless we are in those delusional states known as love, happiness, listening to music, or writing. And even then we are fearful, suspicious really, that the love, happiness, music, and writing will not last nor will the coffee that sustains them.

There is nothing worse than being suspected of entertaining some activity we may have contemplated but not yet done--unless it is the worseness of writing about a suspect or some individual's suspicion in an unconvincing way, producing the suspicion that you are not as accomplished a writer as you'd suspected.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Discovery

When some explosive presence detonates in your immediate awareness, you have no choice but to be transformed. Go, then, and be transformed. You are no longer business-as-usual, regardless of what business-as-usual used to be--or not be.


The discovery you have made confirms your worst suspicions. Or it ratifies your fondest hopes. Discovery is your A Ticket to the phenomenal universe, a gateway to the terrain where dots, once forlorn in their separateness and loneliness, are now connected in the exciting sense that one plus one no longer equals two, but rather three. Or maybe four. You have added some nuance of understanding to the point where all of creation appears to you to be engaged in a grand, cosmic canoodle.

Discovery becomes your personal trampoline on which, if you reach high enough, you may bound from dumbness to bliss for a moment or two before returning to the perpetual reality of all the things you neither understand nor are aware of. How does a nucleus really work? Why are there left-handed molecules? Why does water circle the bowl in different directions depending on what hemisphere you happen to be peeing in.

True enough, certain discoveries can undercut all manner of previous progress you have made, reducing you to a more quivering mass than a hunk of Jell-o in a school cafeteria, causing you to be suspicious of other persons, fearful of falling in love with one of them or falling in love with an idea or falling in love with a story. In that sense, a first draft is like a first date, filled with awkward silences and sudden, desperate attempts to project wittiness, understanding, sympathy. Even with considerable revision, the final draft is never quite up to the first bright flash of inspiration that lured you in, confident this would be the time you scored.

You may learn that not only does no one understand you, no one wants to understand you. It is three o'clock in the morning and you are faced with a gut-wrenching decision telling you to kill off a favored character. Then you discover that no one cares, not until the work in which that character appears has been published, attracted attention, then made over. Then the persons who are made to care become convinced what you did was a fluke you are unlikely to repeat. No one particularly cares about that either.

You discover how utterly vulnerable you are when someone who is attractive to you smiles at you. You discover that some parts of you do not wish to go it alone, moments later discovering there are parts of you who despair of ever finding someone willing to go it with you.

There are pairs of opposites everywhere, a gigantic dialectic only too willing to shout you down every time you have found an operating system, a Cosmic Snow Leopard that functions without bugs or hitches when you seek solutions from the universe for problems you observe as real and which in fact may well be real.

You discover that someone you thought to have wronged you and whom you considered to be a son of a bitch is weighing heavily on your conscience to the point where you forgive that individual, only to be wronged again by the same person doing precisely the same sort of thing. You discover that forgiving that individual has not brought you far along the road to comfort and happiness. You discover that happiness isn't all its cracked up to be--pretty boring in fact--and that pain may bring out the shortness of your temper and increase the distance between you and your work rather than allowing you to get inside it, be part of it, lose yourself in it.

You discover that there is no way to avoid discovery however industrious you are about numbing down your receptors. You discover you are in effect a first generation iPhone in a world of 3G iPhones, an 8 MB iPod Touch in a world of 64 MB iPod Touches.

You discover that there is nothing for it except to go forth, downloading the music of the spheres, hopeful some of it will remain and that it won't all seem like a dream. If you can't precisely whistle what you hear, perhaps you can hum a bit of it and perhaps someone will hear you and ask you what it is you're humming.

You discover a good deal about yourself by your frame of mind and the way you answer that question.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Heart's Desire

You do not expect to be asked so directly, and so you more or less carry it about on ice, preserving it, sometimes even worrying about its use-by date. But then she sends you an email and flat out asks you, in so many words, What is your heart's desire for a publisher for this project?


The answer is there of course, and it quickly swims up to the surface for air as you react to the import of the email, reminding you how you carry it about with you, how you are reminded of it every time you enter a book store, how there is always a wind chime tingle sounding in your idea box when you come upon the publisher's name on Twitter or see an announcement for one of their titles.

Most of the time, it is swimming underwater, an abstracted yearning mixed with visions of future projects dancing in radiant succession,like a surprised school of exotic tropical fish. Sometimes, when you least suspect it, the name emerges, energizing your need to work, to find the focus you so often experience when the work is going well.

You keep it nourished by work, by practicing the craft, by reading, by attempting to make connections between things not obviously connected.

The obvious heart's desire is to produce something you feel worthwhile for publication, something emblematic of you and, of course, of you truthfully with it.

"I don't know anyone there," the agent tells you after reading through the two lists you sent her, one for trade publishers, the other for university presses, "but that's not such a big problem. Isn't it interesting that you feel so strongly about them?"

Interesting? Back in the day, when what is now called BEA, Book Expo America, was called ABA for American Booksellers' Association, and always held at the Shoreham in Washington DC, you were presented to Roger Straus. And in a scene reminiscent of that photo of a young Bill Clinton grinning with admiration at JFK, you told Straus that some day, his house would publish you. Meanwhile, your number one choice for a university press rang a bell, recalling someone who'd worked for your agent when she was editorial director at St. Martin's and who'd moved over to Oxford and had since moved on yet again. Nothing unusual in that; in publishing, promotions are accomplished through job changes. You'd done that a few times yourself.

Being reminded of your submerged hopes and pleasures for this project was the end in itself,the lagniappe was in your feel for it being shared by someone who represents you to the book trade. Your true heart's desire goes one layer deeper than Farrar, Straus and Giroux, into that wide Sargasso Sea of the wisdom of Sam Becket, when he spoke of failing again, only failing better next time. You want always to love the work to the degree that you always do what is best for it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Surprise

A surprise may be an unanticipated discovery. Or not. It may also be an accidental revelation, or the result of a computation that equals an enhanced result. Surprise may be pleasant or not; it may be the advance guard of a reversal of fortune or the light at the end of the tunnel flickering, then going out.


Life is filled with surprises, but story has as much to do with surprise as transfat has to do with donuts; without surprise, story seems blah, unpromising, quotidian, much like real life. Surprise is the fuse that ignites, producing an explosion. The results of the explosion produce an emotional residue, often shock or amazement or fear. Surprise sometimes produces the shudder of apprehension, the realization of horror or terror. Surprise produces the ante needed to get into the poker game of love; it may be as complex as discovering you can't do without something or someone you thought you could get along quite nicely with out, thank you for asking.

Surprise in story arrives like an unbidden guest who thought the party was tonight, not tomorrow; it produces the tension and suspense of wondering what they--the characters--are going to do now, now that the surprise has arrived.

In some exquisite, final analysis, surprise must wait at the outer limits of plausibility, successful in its attempts to remain inconspicuous. One classic example of surprise in action at its most nuanced is to be found in Somerset Maugham's flash fiction, "The Appointment in Samarra."

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

You particularly cannot get away from surprise in your writing for a number of reasons so you may as well hunker down and get familiar with it. One not so pleasant surprise comes from rereading something you wrote a day or two earlier and left it in, thinking it was brilliant. Another surprise may come after someone has read a passage of yours you thought to be particularly poignant but which caused the reader to laugh outrageously. Yet another surprise may lurk when someone reads something of yours you were not quite satisfied with, then went on to tell you how moving and perfectly emblematic of a particular feeling it was.

Surprise is every joke you thought funny as a teenager; it is the discovery that someone in whom you had no romantic interest at all is smitten with you; it is being mistaken for the likes of a writer, say Norman Mailer or Margaret Atwood, in whom you can find no possible resemblance to your work or appearance; it is cruel, notional, considerate, loving, tender, inspirational; it is the awareness that you are not as dumb as you thought yourself to be nor as smart as you wished yourself to be. Surprise is a little kid on her first bicycle, waving thanks at you for waiting patiently for her to cross in front of you, it is your dog waiting up for you when you have been out late, it is a cat not throwing up a hairball on a clean shirt you have laid out to wear when you are out of the shower; it is the sudden sting of attraction that draws you to someone, it is the sense of being able to do better when you reread a draft of your new story, then going forth to do just that.

Surprise, you will come to realize, is as volatile as nitroglycerine; it must be handled cautiously, a trait you are not particularly noted for. From time to time in your life, you have come forth with laundry lists of things you believed you'd be better off without. One of these may turn out to be surprise, meaning for a moment or two in your own story arc, you have opted for the predictable and planned, wanting to foreswear surprise. A day or two later, you feel quirky and on edge, aware something is missing. Another day or so later, you realize it is surprise.

Trying to give up surprise is like trying to give up coffee. It was nothing to quit smoking, to give all your beloved smoking pipes to a private detective named Philip, to give away your stash of Cuban cigars, to wean yourself from unfiltered Camel cigarettes. It is not likely you will give up coffee, nor surprise. You could no more give up surprise than you could stop writing. There were times when you did not write, you mostly read or listened to music or brooded about the fact that writing had packed up and left home like some rebellious kid. But you put up Lost Writer posters on trees and phone poles. You offered rewards for the return of writing, and knew without having to be surprised about it that the way back was to read something dreadful in its awfulness.

You would think other persons, places, things, and books or stories or poems could surprise you but that you could not surprise yourself. This would be your one sure toe hold on sanity. But, surprise, you were wrong and the joke was on you, a condition that comes as no surprise at all; the joke is always on you.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ordinary Pleasures

It is every writer's nature to chose out-of-the-ordinary persons, places, and things with which to frame their narratives, each resisting the ordinary, even when attempting to portray the ordinary. As a consequence, we--for you include yourself in the fraternal and sororal numbers of those who wish to tell story as each of us properly believes it ought to be rendered--look for some distinguishing feature or trait or talent that anomalously singles out the remarkable from the ordinary while at the same time intending that exemplar to represent ordinary. Most of us will agree that the more time we spend developing, opening a character for own inspection, therefore to render him or her as ordinary, we are fulfilling the comet tail of the anomaly by causing the character to jump off the page in such a way as to suggest remarkable one-ness. F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing in "The Rich Boy" famously said, "If you start with a character, I can give you a type; if you start with a type, I can give you nothing."


Your own observation is that your notes, scribbled in a series of Moleskines or napkins or index cards or legal pads, reflect a certain meanness of spirit in that you seem to be drawn to notice the absurd, the exaggerated, those whose behavior and appearance cause you to see them not merely as not ordinary but ridiculous in some extreme. One such example is, as you noted down while at a coffee shop, trying to puzzle out the assignments for a class syllabus, an individual who struck you thus: "It's the hat, a fucking Panama, that transforms him from medium-well done overweight, middle-aged WASP with MPB (which you now realize is male pattern baldness) into a caricature from The Canterbury Tales, made even more egregious by the fact of his Blackberry ear piece." Since you know and have known the individual for some years, you have to admit this is the beginning of an essence he portrays, but it also says something about you and your willingness to beat up on characters who seem to you to have walked over that boundary of egregiousness. To show how deeply this perspective extends, you suspect your attitude toward this individual might be much more benign were he not to spend so much time in the company of a person with whom you enjoy flirting.

It is too early in the game to classify yourself as an absurdist although you do find the notion of absurdity one that reaches out to you, actually flirts with you. S oamn of the young employees at Peet's Coffee & Tea have tattoos; is there some uber-intelligence at work, screenig perspective employees. Peet's also appears to attract men who cut or otherwise style their hair in out-of-the-ordinary ways, and you have noticed that male waiters in Chinese restaurants more often than not wear white socks. The question comes down to what makes the cut when individuals, incidents, and things are auditioned by you for their absurdity? Some years ago, before you moved to Santa Barbara, you spent considerable time in the area of the now defunct Pan-Pacific Auditorium, roughly between Third Street and Beverly Boulevard as east- and west-running borders, Gardener and Fairfax as north and south-running borders. Every weekend, individuals with dogsleds, mounted on bright red wheels, drawn by a pack of six Huskies, would gather to race. Absurd? Yes, to you.

That of course is where the investigation takes you. Looking for the absurd, the anomalous, for the purpose of distinguishing these from the ordinary.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fringe Benefits

When you return to this at some later date, browsing for insights, material, descriptions, flashes of energy with which to infuse some literary broth gone a bit tame or stale, you will probably note a defensiveness or perhaps self-pity, in any case a step or two beyond the self-deprecation you normally wear. You will work at removing such traces; the awareness of them at the outset is typical of the way you begin to essay the current state of being. Defensiveness and self-pity are not your usual game although beginning with a theme and working through with it is, indeed, a tactic in your usual game.


You live on the fringes, largely by design, sometimes because of accidental and wonderful chance. At the moment and for the past ten or so years, you have lived in a small cottage between two large estates. In describing it, you often refer to it as the slave quarters, in all likelihood a cottage for the estate manager or head groundskeeper of Stonehedge, the estate a few hundred yards to the south of you. It is an old building, a wood frame probably from the 1930s, a few add-ons here and there and, most recently, because of an elaborate barter involving a first-generation red Ford Mustang convertible, a refurbished laundry room and bathroom with a spacious shower, and a sturdy-but-basic two-door wardrobe closet. Even as you write this, you can see evidence of at least three coats of paint over the original, age-darkened wood. There is an anemic, mustard-colored coat followed by at least two attempts to make the rooms seem larger than they are by means of a white finish. There are indications here and there of Sally's impatience at not being able to get inside or outside, depending on her whim, which is to say there are scratch patterns at the appropriate level for a thirty-five-pound dog. Some shelves were painted top and bottom, but others reflect laziness or cynicism on the part of the painter.

Looking at the defining details of the house causes you to regard yourself, the old metaphor of hey, a house is like a human body, right? You, for instance, do not have all the body parts you were born with, beginning with hair, certainly the wisdom teeth, but not to forget a few others, and oh, how about the original hip joints, to say nothing of a few millimeters of tissue here and there because of a Type-III tumor than had to be given its eviction notice six-and-a-half years ago.

As the house is between estates, you are between careers, both of which were engaged in and enhanced while you were honing the only thing you naively wished to be good at. You use that modifier naively because as you pursued the acquisition of skills and subject matter while you were pursuing editing and teaching to support the only thing, you realized a basic rule of Reality, which is that there is always more to be learned than you could possibly imagine. To achieve any results at all from your fondest ambition, you realized you had to start by learning yourself. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But it is the most demanding, time-consuming, mischievous, monstrous task in the universe for any one person. As things stand now, you are on the fringes of you, eager to learn more so that you can, metaphorically of course, paint the undersides of the shelves the lazy painters neglected.

Once, as a younger person, you'd managed a summer job in, of all things, a carpentry shop, your best reference for that position a grade of C in junior high school wood shop. The instructor, a man with a notable lack of some of the fingers he was born with, more or less thrust your report card at you with a sneer. "Lowenkopf," he said, "boys don't get C's in
wood shop. Boys get A's and B's. Boys know how to use miter boxes and band saws and distinguish between rip saws and cross-cut saws." You suppose he was telling you the equivalent of not knowing your own rectum from a hole in the ground. At any rate, you had the job in a carpentry shop with a kindly man who often had you using a machine sander on things, and who taught you something you never quite forgot. "You will sand and varnish every surface in my cabinets and bureaus," he said. "I don't care if the ultimate buyer or user is aware of all the work being done or not. I will know it, and that is what matters."

You go forth, on the margins of things by choice, metaphorically sanding and varnishing all the surfaces that go from you.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Surprise

You frequently use the concept of discovery as an index to inform you when you have completed early drafts of a work, then proceeded through the revision process to the point where you are feeling not merely comfortable about the work but bordering on confident. Conversely, when the index of confidence begins to bubble too noisily, you reckon it time to go back one more time for a search and destroy mission; your specific target in this pass is the distracting detail, the factor or memory or other response that pulls you and, presumably, the reader away from the trail of cookie crumbs leading to the witch's house.


So far, so good; but what kind of discovery impresses you, and why should discovery be so uppermost in your revision mind? First answer is the more general one of any connection or awareness you had not noticed going into the project, any connection that came to you in the heat of the first few drafts. Perhaps a similarity, perhaps a new path of understanding opening for you, perhaps the Archimedes moment of finding out something you believe you are late in coming to, a connection that must be seen, you imagine, by your peers. The second answer goes, you believe, to the heart of why you enjoy writing work: You write to discover how you feel about a thing or concept, you write to see how you would likely respond were the problems and issues of your stories presented to you in real life. You also discover how it would feel to experience things you have not experienced in your waking hours or to trespass in the landscape of fantasy where, by writing of others, you may experience the forbidden or the impossible.

You often bring gasps of recognition to classes or writing groups by pursuing the line that writers are control freaks, compulsive, and obsessive--all of which you believe to be true. The recognition of these aspects of the craft is a continuous discovery, bringing energy, satisfaction, and a deeper sense of connection to all the outliers of your persona. Through this calculus,which seems simple and obvious to you now that you have discovered it, you are able to tell yourself in so many words that you write to discover things which, by their essential nature, give you the rush of energy. You begin a particular piece or take up work on one underway in a manner similar to the musician practicing the coordination of improvisation; you start out on a theme, become immersed in it, then "accept" the new element or detail, or what "seems" to be the new element or detail, following it, trying to blend it with what you have begun, continuing until the connection appears, presents itself in a clear enough way for you to put it into words. It is important to note than you do not so much try to describe it as to evoke with words and images the emotional presence it brings you.

It nearly embarrasses you to think of what your work must have been like before you began looking for and receiving discovery in it, embarrasses you in the same way rereading certain favorites and being surprised at their previously unnoticed depths surprises you.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An Immodest Proposal

What is American literary identity?
Is it another metaphor for immigrants funneling their way through Ellis Island, having their names and heritages anglicized by first-generation editors, happy to have decent jobs? Or equally to the point, maybe it was an earlier, melting-pot breed of teachers, pushing copies of Middlemarch, The Brothers Karamazov, and Madam Bovary into our hands, telling us to shut up, watch our accents, and start reading these.
Henry James. T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound lit out for Europe as though it were the territory ahead, through their writing becoming the “them” of Europe, leaving the “us” of America to fend for ourselves.
When an iconoclastic, working-class Englishman “went West” by coming to New Mexico, then took our literary pulse nearly a hundred years ago in Studies in Classic American Literature, he observed how we were literally running to flab in our desire to please rather than impress Europeans. We were, D.H. Lawrence observed, turning our collective back on the search for our own identity.
Using D.H. Lawrence’s 1923 work as the inspiration and springboard for Volume Two, I argue that we have not only found our identity, we have begun, as is our wont, to export it. When the principals of the prestigious Mann-Booker literary awards debated in 2008 the wisdom of including American authors in the prize pool, UK writers were largely appalled by their suspicions which I tracked in the Letters to the Editor of the London Times Literary Supplement that including American authors would be tilting the playing field to an unfair advantage.
In what follows, I will—as D. H. Lawrence did in his Volume One—set forth “The Spirit of Place,” including a touch of zeitgeist as a nod to the spirits of Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck. From there I will set forth—as Lawrence set forth with a cast of eight particular voices—offer my own list of fourteen case studies to broach the twenty-first century in our letters. To date, ten of these worthies are still on their game. Some are a bit shaky; I would not vouch for their cholesterol numbers or the complete lack of sclerosis in their prose. There is the occasional dog that comes forth from them, but they surely and with evident heart help to define us.
1. Leslie Fiedler—a significant and cogent critic of the American literary scene, Fiedler is often brushed aside—too lightly, I think—for his politics. His stunning essay, “Come back to the raft again, Huck, Honey,” shoved issues of race, sexuality, and identity beyond the literary gatekeepers and into our awareness.
2. Ring Lardner—America can take credit for four art forms: baseball, jazz, bourbon, and the short story. Lardner was on intimate terms with all four.
3. Sarah Orne Jewett—a regionalist who was so spot-on, pitch perfect regional that she often fell through the cracks, but not without having a serious influence on generations of writers to come.
4. Louise Erdrich—her vast portrait of an area is in its way a Bayeaux Tapestry of the Midwest, its Native American inhabitants and its immigrant Diaspora from Europe.
5. Junot Diaz—Can a collection of powerful short stories and a novel about corruption in The Dominican Republic be on their way to becoming icons? Rhetorical question. Diaz, you see, takes his readers on a carnival go-cart ride through the funhouses of American reality.
6. Jim Harrison. Mark Twain incarnate, a master of the short novel, a writer with a stash of peppermint schnapps cached away in every story.
7. Jane Smiley—Not content merely to dramatize our mores, she jumps in the battle of describing the techniques and issues in the way we think and write.
8. Joan Didion—Not only does she in her fiction and essays “get’ us, capture us as though she were a street photographer and we a group of tourists, she has single-handedly put the face of grief up where we can get a sense of what to do with it when it comes our way.
9. Sherman Alexie—Just when you thought you knew about so-called Indians from reading Erdrich and Harrison, this hip, empathetic dude of a writer shows you a secret stash.
10. Deborah Eisenberg—just when you thought you understood the limitless scope of the short story, Deborah Eisenberg reminds you—forces you to see that you’d missed considerable dimension.
11. Richard Russo—your tour guide to the northeast and to the college novel. Of course, you’ll say, “I knew all that,” but you didn’t until you read him.
12. Ray Douglas Bradbury—No matter what you tell them or they tell you, at heart he is your favorite writer.
13. Luis Urrea—He can do more with myth and imagination that a roadside taco truck can accomplish with a meal.
14. Francine Prose—Doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or a treatise on what to look for in what you read, she transforms the concept of magical realism into realistic magic.
15. You thought there wouldn’t be an annotated reading list? Come on; with Smiley, Fiedler, and Prose in this group, there has to be an annotated list. Besides, the writer of this volume once ran a publishing venture that turned out annotated bibliography.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Where You're Writing from

Pick a place you have been before, some city at a distance, some locale such as an airport or train station, even a clinic, or restaurant, possibly even a theater or store. You are alone, enjoying the deliciousness of anonymity. Most likely you will not see anyone you recognize. You are perfectly aware of your own identity, the details, as it were, of your own resume or curriculum vitae. But you are a stranger to those about you. You could ask for directions, of course, except that you don't need directions. You know where things are or have a pretty good idea of where to look should your needs require something of great specificity.


Now we turn the tables, or at least rearrange some of the furniture.

You are a writer, of course; you know that about yourself, know it well enough not to have to stop some complete stranger to inform him or her that, here you are, a writer, at loose in this place you've been before, this airport or train station, or clinic, or restaurant, possibly in a theater or a store. In the first place, no body cares, that is, unless some fan recognizes you. No body cares or can recite the dates of your publications. Many of the individuals you see are not even readers. True enough, most of them can probably read, but many of them also would rather do something other than read, say attend movies or a theater or yoga lessons or a sporting event; some of them might be more interested in crafts, making stained glass windows or tossing pots, or painting in oil or gouache, or tempera.

You being a writer is of no interest to them, even though it is of great interest to you. They, whoever they are, might be more interested in problems of mathematical natures or just possibly causing progressions of tones from one or more musical instruments, or practicing law, wherein some written documents are thought of as instruments. The point is that you telling them you are a writer is not a sufficient condition to cause them to wish to read something you've written, Indeed, even if they, whoever they might be, were interested in reading such a thing as a short story or a novel, even though you are a writer is not sufficient enough condition to cause them to want to read something you've written.

Part of your job as a writer is to produce a work of enough stature that, without you even being present to urge them to read the work, they will nevertheless to some degree wish to read what you have written. Before this can happen with any predictability and regularity, there are some things you have to know that extend beyond the conventions followed in historical or contemporary story.

Anyone can memorize the ingredients which are constituent parts of, say, a cupcake. A surprising number of individuals who never baked cupcakes before could, if scrupulously following a recipe for constructing a cupcake, produce a whole bake pan of them. A surprising number of individuals with less technical knowledge and talent than you could follow a recipe for writing a short story, then produce immediately one of such nuance and emotional depth that it would find almost immediate publication. This is a condition that may not seem fair, particularly given the time you've put in on the honing of your own talent, but it has happened before and will happen again.

It would therefore be of no small assistance to your own resume or curriculum vitae if you had some idea why you'd come to this familiar place where no one knows you, some sense of the motivation for tucking into a particular work, some goal or effect residing in the part of creativity we'll call your heart and also in the part of your creativity we have called the mind or story center. Writing a story without building into it a sense of who you are, how you feel and think, how you articulate your material is like the master criminal who wipes away all traces of fingerprint and other betraying DNA.

If you do not know or are unwilling to disclose who you are, why would some complete stranger in this theoretical locale take anything you say seriously?

And yet.

And yet, weren't there times when you believed that all you had to do was demonstrate how much you loved words or had such a splendid vocabulary or a way with description was sufficient cause to make readers take an interest in your story?

And weren't there times when you were told that your narrative didn't ring true to some reader that your retort was, But it really happened that way?

And weren't there times when you seethed with envy when someone you knew to be a lesser writer than you was able to concoct things from whole cloth, then find a score of avid believers?

And weren't there times when you'd committed writing books by writers such as John Gardener and Anne Lamott and Janet Burroway and Barnaby Conrad to memory, holding forth on them like the individuals who appear on your front porch from time to time, wanting to chat with you about God?

If you tell me who you are and what your goals beyond being a writer are, the odds in favor of you being listened to go up. I want to be a writer is a sufficient condition but it is not yet a necessary one. I wanted to be a sculptor is not an effective way to get persons to look at your sculpting. I wanted to become a sculptor and so as a child, I began experimenting with the bricks in my parents' fireplace, and the cubes of butter in the refrigerator, and boulders in a nearby park, and one day, while I was playing with the side of my parent's garage, I caused the entire building to collapse.

Now that would be a sculptor whose work it would be interesting to see.

Who are you? Why should we listen to you, much less trust you? What are you trying to demonstrate about life? What can we learn from you?

Think about it: there are about a hundred words, more or less, on the opening page of a story. Successful writers are successful because they suggest answers to these and other mysteries of the cosmos within these few opening lines, letting us know who they are from the get go.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pomegranate Surprise

The invitation bore the gracious ease and urbanity of the host, reminding you that your agent was in town and hoping you'd be available for drinks at five to visit and chat. You were already a chum of the host, anticipated the presence of at least one other long-time chum, and even imagined you might just ask for and get something a bit exotic or out of the ordinary for drinks. Of course you responded, with alacrity and celerity, thoughts of Pisco punches or Sazeracs or even a Ramos gin fizz lolling over your tongue.


As you entered, you were handed without being asked a tall, pleasingly frosty glass containing a dark red fluid which you soon divined to be a combination of pomegranate juice, vodka, and a splash of San Pellagrino water. Not bad.

Your agent noticed you from across the room, detached herself from a conversation, and bore in. "We've got work to do. Sometime tomorrow, after six. Pick a coffee shop." A quick calculation led you to readjust watching "Treme" until a rerun later in the week. You picked a spot near where she is staying, confirmed the time, then allowed her to retreat to her conversation.

As time bore on and you were well into your second pomegranate surprise, as you called it, the room filled with individuals, approximately ninety percent of whom you knew from long experience, the remainder were those such as Alan Folsom, whom you'd known from having read. The one surprise was the appearance of the actor John Beck, whom you greeted with affection and he you with warmth; you'd not expected him to have known the host, although it appears to you that the host is well traveled and one of those amazing phenomena in American letters, a truly versatile and gifted writer in book, stage play, and screen play who remains largely unknown outside the tent.

Time and pomegranate surprises bore on to the point where a group of you began exchanging reminiscences. It came to you that this was a lovely type of bonding. Your agent, referring to
your host, spoke of having delivered him to a former sales manager of a large paperback house as a million-copy seller, to which the sales manager said expansively, well, if you want to talk about million-copy sales--at which point he nudged you--this one sold us a two-million title he'd actually pulled out of a slush pile. Anyone remember "The Harrad Experiment"? Of course he quickly undercut that with another nudge, recalling the time when you'd worked for a competitor and had presented a project for which you estimated sales of at least a hundred thousand, only to be told, quite archly, here at Dell we like to think in millions. We do not like to acknowledge lesser figures. More stories, more elaborate schemes and speculations, all of which caused you to realize a significant factor to the group ambiance. It was literally afloat with casual good cheer and fellowship; there was none of the tension, competitive edge, nor defensiveness you often feel when the demographic is overrun with wannabes.

Everyone in the room had been at one time a wannabe; you feel comfortable in saying that none of them had settled into a condition of well-fed or, indeed, well-read smugness. Long after the tingle of the pomegranate surprises had abated, you were nevertheless talking about a project in which you'd thought to take on D.H. Lawrence in your plan to write volume two of his "Classic Studies in American Literature," which could surely be taken as some form of hubris, except that the former sales manager squeezed your arm in chiropractic affection. "It has always amazed me that there has been no trace of the kind of thing you're talking about. Even if you fail, you'll have given yourself a gift."

While debating the wisdom of another pomegranate surprise, you actively pushed the work of two wannabes, one a student, the other a client, realizing this, too, was a part of that inside-the-tent ambiance so many wannabes regard with the suspicion that the entire publishing/reading tent is a vast conspiracy--until they are, as Alan Folsom was, and indeed you, and Gayle Lynds were, snatched in.

Just before taking your leave, your agent reminded you, "Tomorrow is a work day, and maybe you should think about coming to my Tuesday night at Borders in Thousand Oaks." One way or another, you reflected, every day is a work day. A gifted client of yours, with one book, a hardcover, from SOHO Press, is having a torturous time getting representation for a worthwhile project. Close to two hundred demurrals from agents. Tomorrow is a work day for him, too. Walking to your car, where Sally awaited you, you realized what you'd just experienced at the gathering was a form of alchemy wherein some of the known rules of the universe had been bent. Somehow, perhaps in just such a gathering, your agent, before she'd become your agent, had heard of you enough times that her curiosity drove her to Google and a search of you.

Sally had been napping when you approached the car. Seeing you, she sniffed for the tell-tale signs of what long experience in such things had taught her, the rumpled cocktail withdrawn from the jacket pocket, the unwrapping, the revelation. Look, Sally, chicken teryiaki. And what's this? Italian salami. And this? Aha, munster cheese. Eat up, old girl. Tomorrow's a work day.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Funny you should ask

Humor is burlesque and parody without props. Although there may be physicality to inform it, humor is comedy without the banana peel or the cream pie. In comedy, character types are sufficient enough conditions; in humor, articulated individuals, preferably pompous ones, are a necessary condition, but when all is said and done, anyone with pretensions will do quite nicely, thank you.


A man slipping on a banana peel is comedic, particularly if the slip comes as a surprise. A man who sees the banana peel, pointedly steps around it, then in doing so stumbles from the curb is an occasion of humor. We laugh at the misfortune of both those who slip, grateful it was not us who was the victim, but our laughter is a degree more intense and deeper when we are laughing at the person who seems the slightest bit self-congratulatory at having avoided the lurking peel, only to stumble a beat or two on down the line.

We laugh because of our awareness that it's a jungle out there, where ever there happens to be. We laugh at the sad awareness that there is no rock bottom, rather there is always potential for a far-better worse than any we could have imagined. Humor demands--and always gets--the last laugh, and were you to persist in graphing out its parabola, you would discover that the joke is always on you.

In its way, humor is as blind as justice: it has no specific issue with any of us, is perfectly neutral in assessing blame. Humor's end is not the vendetta of the last laugh, but instead to remind us that we have been chosen for special notice because we are human. We are the only species of whom this is true. In recognition of this fact, we sometimes try to dress up, costume, or otherwise adorn our pets, particularly but not limited to dogs and cats. When this activity does not produce enough of a desired degree of laughter, we are eventually presented with the sad awareness that in descending order, humor and the pet in question have had the last laugh because, however we rationalize our behavior of costuming or tricking or training or teasing, the pet is only afflicted temporarily. We may have momentarily humiliated Fido or Miss Kitty, but someone or something will remind us of our perfidy of behavior. The pet retains its dignity and we recognize our own inner Iago.

Perhaps the most volatile and damaging weapon of all, humor has the ability to topple individuals, attitudes, institutions, traditions, and behavior patterns. Being yelled at, shouted at, outwitted, or repressed are conditions we are used to experiencing; we can find ways of coping with these, even to the point of rationalizing ways in which we emerged waving the bloody scalp of revenge, but there is little relief from being laughed at as a result of having been caught out in hypocrisy or approaching the moral high ground as though we were Arthur, drawing Excalibur from the stone.


Friday, May 14, 2010

American giants

Big and expansive are adjectival qualities that seem to fit with America and its literature, a number of novels swaggering forth like playground bullies, the moral force and message of the authors straining the society about them as though it were a pair of used denims at a thrift shop.


Gatsby is all over hell and gone, its visions tart, unsympathetic, sometimes bordering on anti-Semetic, but when all is said and done and Nick Caraway has us oars against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past, it is not so much Nick's romanticism we feel as it is Fitzgerald's own sense of feeling betrayed.

Huck Finn, meant as a boy's adventure by an author just turned fifty,at the two-thirds mark of his life, and wanting boyhood again, could not help himself; he let so much of the artist in him slip free of his wife and friends for a rip-snorting venture that he captured lightning in a bottle and nearly kept it all there until his conscience somehow caught up with him and he tacked that dreadful reemergence of Tom Sawyer into it at the end. Still, there was a sassiness about him when he lit out for the territory ahead, and his accounts of the Grangeford-Shepherdson feud and his fun with European nobility, and the way he was willing to risk going to hell for his realization that neither the runaway slave, Jim, nor any person should be reduced to a state of mere chattel. There were all these moments to counterbalance the weights sewn into his cuffs by his conscience and the society he tried so hard to please.

There was the absolute perfection of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, standing so proud and illustrative of the small lives of small persons that it radiated outward in stature. Like Twain, he, too, should have remained west, where his instrument was forged, whence he came and brought with him the voices and sensitivities of his origins.

These are merely three: Willa Cather, Jack London, Ring Lardner, and for all he wrote clunkily, Theodore Dreiser, not to forget Grace Paley, all of them grabbing large hunks and moulding them into persons who sounded and yearned like us. They had in common the ability to find the giant amid the undistinguished, making large of the small, igniting a force that lit up and warmed the imagination of those who followed and read.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Illusions

How is it that you remind so many individuals--including complete strangers--of someone else? Last week, as you awaited a student in a coffee shop, a man approached you. You're probably used to hearing this, he said, but you're a dead ringer for that actor, what's his name? There is a long pause wherein you realize he has momentarily forgotten the name of the actor you remind him of and because he has momentarily blocked on the name, now expects you to know immediately who it is you should be reminding him of. Any hesitation on your part would speak to your dereliction. The sobering (for you) fact is that you have been mistaken for a variety of actors, not so much because of your physical configurations as due to your expansive tendencies in gestures. Your accuser/approacher is moments away from being embarrassed for not being able to complete the equation he initiated. You know, he says. What's his name? Sorry, you say. Ah, he says. Ah. Got it. Whitmore. James Whitmore. Flattering, you say. Very flattering, but he seemed so much more nuanced. The best you can do is assure the man that you and the late actor had a vague resemblance factor in eyebrows. The man shakes his head. Dead ringer, he says, showing no sign of leaving. You begin wishing the student would show up, which would allow you to ask her in the man's presence the name of her father-in-law. Her answer closely embodies one of your theories about human connections, associations, and relationships. Her answer would somehow convince the man you and she were making fun of him, conspiring against him as indeed authors do from time to time when they share information a particular character does not know.


Mercifully for the man who is positive you are a dead ringer for the late actor, James Whitmore, he leaves before your student arrives. When she does appear, you ask her, Do you see any resemblance between me and your father-in-law? From her response, it is made clear to you that the possibility never crossed her mind. Grandpa Jimmy? she says. You? How interesting. Her diplomacy is impeccable. She has graciously avoided saying yes when she had no thought to do so nor no, when doing so might have seemed somehow indecorous or judgmental.

Days later, you are leaving your favorite venue for coffee and a woman radiant in middle-aged coif and stature takes your arm and smiles. I just had to tell you, she says, how much you remind me of my father. She turns to the man sitting next to her, likely her husband, with whom she'd noted the similarity. Doesn't he? she says. The man nods. The woman's eyes mist. I just lost him this year, she says. I still look for him. The misting is more profound. You say, Thank you. I'm please to remind you of someone you care for. Her hand squeezes my arm, then let's go; she has reached the point of being embarrassed for speaking of grief to a stranger. You thank her and move on, touched, a parade of events moving before you like suspects in a police line-up, incidents of seeing missing friends and family in the gestures and faces of strangers.

We move through our daily routine as ourselves and reminders of others of varying possible identity to others. From time to time, when you are shaving, you see your father smiling at you, you see traces of your mother's father, that remarkable, relatively short man whom you rarely had the vision to see as he was before the synapses and brain chemistry began removing him from recognition. At your father's funeral, a longtime friend of your sister saw you and gripped her husband's arm. He's just like Jack, she said, and the knowledge that you reminded someone of your father was such a relief that you felt like dancing. In the same, favored coffee shop, you occasionally see your mother until she turns at some angle where it becomes apparent that the similarity has departed like a willful parrot fleeing its cage. You do not always look like you to yourself, sometimes haunted, pestered, abstracted. Sometimes you say or do things you had not anticipated saying or doing

At a writers' conference last year, you were approached by a man who wanted to shake your hand for the pleasures afforded him from reading your work. You thanked him profusely, even when he said how deeply disappointed he was that you saw fit to kill off Jacques in your last book. You have no idea who he had mistaken you for; you have never had a character named Jacques much less have you killed off such a character.

As a writer and an editor and a teacher, you manipulate reality,in large measure through the effective tool of illusion. It is only fair that in someone else's reality, you become illusion from time to time. It is a mystery that you often remind others of others, but it is a gift all the same.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pancakes

At the time when your most gainful means of employment was delivering the Los Angeles Examiner to a route extending just north of the Wilshire Boulevard Miracle Mile, one of your perks was a monthly pancake breakfast, hosted by the portly, mustached district manager, known to you as Mr. Raskin.

For someone your age, before girls became a factor to be associated with romance, a pancake breakfast was an occasion if not the occasion of romance tinctured with adventure, trumping in its culinary way the Saturday afternoon double-feature-plus-serial-plus cartoon matinee at the Ritz Theater where, even were the double features a dud, there was in mitigation an enormous banister on which to slide, extending from the mezzanine to the ground floor, splendid in its shiny mahogany luxury.

The pancake breakfast was an opportunity to out-eat your peer cadre of Examiner delivery boys, earning the opportunity to sit at the table with Mr. Raskin, who always wore a tie, then later to assist him with handing out such prizes as discount tickets to the Bimini Baths at Third and Vermont, or miniature golf at the course between the Pan Pacific auditorium and the Gilmore Gasoline Self-Serve on Beverly, or possibly a few point of ice cream at any Thrifty Drug.


Part of the romance of the pancake breakfasts was the venue, The Log Cabin, which among other things was the LA version of White Castle and the ten-cent hamburger. Long before International House of Pancakes was a batter blob on the chef's jacket, The Log Cabin featured a stirring menu of pancakes and waffles, including one offering of "our famous buttermilk griddle cakes that doesn't quit until you do."

Your mother was properly suspicious of these restaurants, primarily since the finished product was quite a bit larger than hers and was reputed to contain the most suspicious element known to mankind, Crisco. The Log Cabin also presented its syrup in a log-cabin-shaped tin, unlike the pristine dispensers at Du-Pars or indeed the home-use favorite, Vermont Maid, which came in an oval-shaped bottle featuring on its label a woman who was your first crush before you began to recognize the concept of crushes. She had long, amber hair, a noble visage that somewhat reminded you of Prince Valiant's wife. To show the absolute fickleness of your pre-puberty ethos, you were willing to throw her over for Log Cabin syrup.

Your mother was, you recognized early on, a superb cook, her weaknesses limited to coffee, which she insisted in boiling, then reheating just to make sure, and all things related to pie and pastry. You were by no means cheated; her cakes, cobblers,fruitcakes, floating islands, pandowdy, strusel, peche Melba, angel charlotte russe, and puddings of all sorts were only the tip of the culinary iceberg; her goulash, pasta, roast, fish, and a particular flair for the chop and the skirt steak left little to be desired, nor was she remiss in the lunches she prepared during your early years, as though to make sure that when the university cafeteria beckoned, you would remember whence you came. Just as you once crafted a short story about a man whose acquaintances were interested in him because of his dog, you had friends of each gender who, you realized, were more drawn to your mother's table than your conversation.

It is difficult to think of pancakes without thinking of the Log Cabin or of the syrup for the pancakes without thinking of that cabin-shaped tin.

Much of this reflection is a historical landslide that was dislodged by a friend extending you the wish that a current book project sell like hot cakes, a metaphor that invariably captures your fancy by wondering how hot cakes sell, then leading you over the falls of history and your own past with thoughts of your own experiences with hot cakes and such delightful side trips as latkes, sopapillas, beignets, and not to forget hush puppies.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Words, words, words.

Between is a good word for a writer, representing as it does even the trope "between projects," a hovering state of exposure to attractions nagging for attention or the even more hovering ambiguity of inattention.


Attraction is another choice word, thanks to its inherent recognition that a writer is drawn by forces of ideas, sexuality, mystery, surprise.

Of course surprise is a bonus word for a writer due to its tendency to push the momentum toward connections and discoveries not otherwise made.

Almost too obvious to be allowed to remain in the line, discovery is the secret reason, the unspoken reason why so many writers write. The usual pose for the writer to take is the one of steadfast proclamation, I write for an audience. This may be true after a lengthy, circuitous route, but the most compelling reason, the reason that actually brings addiction into the equation, is that the writer writes for personal discovery.

Addiction is a problematic word for any list of good words for writers, referencing the writer's public persona image of writing because it has become addictive. If anything, not writing is addictive; writing is either fun or a relief, fun because it is such a blatant opportunity to get even with a universe that seems to tend toward ignoring the writer; it is a relief because of the way it came on, almost unbidden, at a time when other alternatives seemed so unprofitable and dire.

One of the best four-letter words, dire compresses urgency, awfulness, and excessive, negative prognosis with greater dispatch than a mechanical claw at a junk yard, wrapping its components about a junked-out Mercedes. Dire need and dire consequences don't seem to clutter a page with the operatic yodel so common in overwritten material. Dire is so powerful, it could have been coined by Puccini, which would have made it even more wonderful than it already is. It is literally fraught with meaning.

Ah, fraught, you say. From our middle English friends, to fraughten or lade a ship or conveyance such as a narrative. How much will it bear?

Up to you.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Loss

During the life you have lived this far, you have lost enough people and things to know that there is no way to cope with grief, much less any way to go about avoiding the effects it will have on you. Given your experience to date in dealing with what you have left before you while attending to the things you wish to accomplish and experience, the reminders of what has been lost could overwhelm your enthusiasm for the present and your strategy for the future. Thus you are left vulnerable, a not uncommon place to be nor one where you are by any account alone.


You are used to the shelf life of persons, animal friends, and things are running on time lines, causing you to accept intellectually the notion of lifespan, but even in such cases, the heart has its own ways of dealing with what the intellect knows, transcending time, space, and causality.

You are less likely these days to be on the Hollywood Freeway, but whether you are traveling in that area alone or with others, when you pass the Woodman-Avenue turnoff, your thoughts and an occasional comment are drawn to Sam, the cat who visited you and stayed with you as your writing career grew, then, because you were home most days, opted to be your cat, who is buried on the hillside area adjacent the swimming pool that once belonged to George and Patsy Bishop, who invited you to inter Sam there, not far from their own friend, Black, as a gesture of solidarity and connectivity among human friends that developed as you became first George's editor, then friend.

Sometimes, when you are in Santa Monica, you will drive past the house your parents brought you to after you were born, and only the other day, in a writing workshop, when a student read a portion of her novel, set in Santa Monica at a particular locale, you were able to instruct her to have her character walk across the street to 516 Santa Monica, which you know is now a Chinese restaurant, but which was not always so because it was a remarkable place in which your father attempted for so many years various means of making a livelihood, not the least of which was inviting speculation on the outcome of various contests of speed among thoroughbred horses, but was also given over to the refurbishment and resale of luggage and trunks owned by some of the first-generation greats of the film industry.

Sometimes, when you see pictures of yourself at earlier ages, you blink at the preponderance of hair, curly, abundant, expansive in its cowlick abandon. On other occasions, seeing a runner plying one of your former routes, you are transported to the sixty-to-seventy-mile weeks of your own with your then dog companion, Molly. The male pattern hair hair loss is of little grief; you are fairly comfortable with the you of today, but thanks to the titanium replacements for the hips you were issued at birth, the best you could hope for would be half-hours on the treadmill at the Y, half-hours better spent in the pool.

As though it were a lathe, grief has in its way turned and formed your life, allowing you some voice in shaping outcomes and choices made after some loss, reminding you at all costs to cherish the immediacy about you and the manners in which you embrace it and those about you.

One of the great things a close and dear friend once said about you as he drive you to one of your destiny points of having your first hip-replacement surgery. "Because I've had the operation on my knee, I can appreciate how you'll come out of this, absolutely pain free. But
I'll always remember the way you walk now, as though you were trying to navigate through a pack of friendly dogs without stepping on one."