"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.
Monday, May 31, 2010
Sunday, May 30, 2010
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.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
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.
Friday, May 28, 2010
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.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
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.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
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.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
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.
Monday, May 24, 2010
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.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
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?
Saturday, May 22, 2010
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.
Friday, May 21, 2010
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."
Thursday, May 20, 2010
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.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
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.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
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
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.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
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.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
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.
Friday, May 14, 2010
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.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
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.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
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.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
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.
Monday, May 10, 2010
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.
Sunday, May 9, 2010
You grew up listening to, learning from, and being conditioned by voices. Not all these voices were in your head. More to your fortune, you were able to distinguish which of those voices were in your head and which weren't. The unfortunate elements of the equation appeared when you began to question those voices, internal and external.