Sunday, October 31, 2010

Easy for You

Whatever you knew or believed you knew in the past, and however you acted upon that knowledge, you were naive by today's standards, today being the immediate present.  Raw.  Slapdash.  Hurried.  Unedited.  Unsure-but-determined.  Wary.  These are all apt descriptions of the glorious states of activity known to you as Life (note the capital L) and Writing (with similar instructions to look for caps).

You hope to do your best with both Life and Writing, wish to excel rather than endure of slog through, following well-worn paths on which there are scant traces of accident or, for that matter, noteworthy achievement.  And for the record, yes; an accident can become a noteworthy achievement.  You have followed analogs of that path, your failures and successes more related to an impatience to move out or off  or away rather than remain safe, bored, some landmark always in sight.

You need to remind yourself from time to time:  Retrospect means editing the past to impart the clarity you may have missed in the exuberance of knowing, believing you knew, and acting or holding your temper or horses or any other convenient metaphor.  You are not trying to relive or revisit the past with any thought of changing it but rather to glean from it the energy that set it in motion in the first place.  You are mercifully past the point of trying to get by on first draft.  The big lesson to date is the awareness of endorphin seeping into your brain as you try to get it all down, in Life and in Writing, making of it some form recognizable to yourself and your fellow humans.

For a considerable time you fought the notion that something so remarkable could appear after the first draft.  It was all, you believed, in the spontaneity--which it is, but when that spontaneity is well articulated, there is more there for all to share.  Of course not all spontaneity produces positive results; accordingly, a close editorial look may prevent--edit out--lapses of logic or insight or awareness of consequence.  The appearance of ease speaks to a strong, editorial hand and a dollop of endorphin splashed on top.  To make it appear easy is to remove the difficult parts of syntax and language and boring cadence and traces of lecture.  To make it appear easy is to have convinced yourself and passed the message on without the need for rococo elaboration.  To make it appear easy is to send it off with parts of yourself attached.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Old Friends

On most occasions, it is a warming pleasure to see someone you have known from a past time in your life, a school mate, a neighbor, a workmate, a student, and of course  client.  We are all of us in some orbit of passage, of growing older, wiser perhaps, more affluent, less affluent, more acerbic, more accepting, pouchier, in someway a victim to gravity.  In spite of the more obvious signs of aging, there is nevertheless a sense of comfort or enjoyment or even a determination to be comfortable; often wisdom and empathy shine through.

There are times you see such individuals when a sense of alarm sets in, before you notice it, calling your attention to some extreme process that has found foothold.  Before your eyes the image you have carried of the individual has been tarnished, possibly rumbled or otherwise distorted, leaving you to sympathy where there was once a different kind of sympathy, one infused with optimism, hope, expectation.

Somewhere along the pathway of your most recent book reviewing circumstances, you fell into the pattern of alternating a new title with an older one, drawing a line in the sand of at least a five year gap from publication day to your re-review of the book.  Your choices for these alternate-week selections are based every bit as much on whim as your choice of the freshly published work.  Well, perhaps not; perhaps the availability of the older book is also influenced by its presence in the garage you have over the years turned away from being a garage and into a library, complete with floor-to-ceiling shelves and a disorderly presentation of your own reading tastes.

Thus you have written as the adult you, the book reviewer you, the you who as editor for various publishing houses, had to write descriptions and discussions of books that were submitted in hopes of publication, the you who has evolved a persnickety and idiosyncratic relationship to the materials that come to hand.  And thus, in the musty aisles of the garage, you have sought a new older title to review.  One of your theories about what fiction should do for the writer and for the reader is to focus on a particular quest for a particular thing, where the sought object may or not be discovered but where something of greater value is unearthed.

While you are about, dispensing thus tropes as though they were advance notices for an impending circus, you discovered not so much a new older book to review but instead the awareness that such books you have read in the past and been drawn to are now as the old friends and acquaintances you feel the squirt of alarm at seeing.  Something about one of you--you or the book--has undergone change, and the other--you or the book--has remained unchanged.  This is no mere clash of centuries.  Some eighteenth century books still spread warmth through you like a sip of splendid cognac.

You have spent much of the day in contemplation, wondering how to categorize or quantify the sources for concern or disaffection.  Can you, to use a Facebook expression, unfriend a once favored older work?  This is not a light exercise as warm-up for a day's writing stint; this is a calamitous discovery, one that may have been triggered by the literary agent of a dear old friend, wanting you to go through his most notable, breakthrough work, the one that catapulted him into fame, doing a search and destroy on unnecessary adverbs before said work is sent off to take its rightful place in the e-book venues of the world.

At the moment, your mind is a tumble of old friends, books that literally got you through your pre-teens, then the raucous scrum of your teens and into your completely insensible twenties, launched into times that seemed more appropriate extensions of your education than your formal education was in reality.

Somewhere in there, Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss are waiting and so, too H. Rider Haggard's She, and yes, goddamn it, the Albert Payson Terhune books about goddamn collies which at the time seemed the only possible dog in the world until you got that equally goddamn job working on the goddamn Lassie series.  And was it that you had to be nineteen or twenty to enjoy This Side of Paradise? It wasn't, was it, that you'd gone drinking on a forged ID at the Garden of Allah, where he, F.Scott Fitzgerald, lived and drank, and met an actual drinking buddy of his, was it?

Whatever it was, you are watching the goddamn garage.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Georgia, on My Mind

In many ways you have only now begun to understand, Georgia was your first love.  You were a rowdy, wise-cracking six-year-old, newly moved from the outliers of kindergarten and first grade to the big time.  Having some kind of coordination and being generally good at games were the two passports into polite society, or so you thought. You had neither.  Even then, you were good at what passed for wit.  Georgia had coordination and hauteur. She drew your attention first and foremost because of her approach to the tether ball court.  "That's your side,"  she would say, drawing a line in the gravel with a decisive slash of toe.  "This--"  indicating the opposite side from which her opponent stood,"-- is my side."

No one could beat Georgia.  You began keeping written records of the boys and girls who challenged her.  For every game she won, you made a tick mark.  There were no tick marks for Norman, who was a sixth grader and, thus, in every way unbeatable--except this way.  No tick marks for Stephen nor Albert.  Peter, who was even shorter than you, saw the uselessness of trying.  So far as you know, Ivan began losing his milk money to her.

One day she approached you.  "What things are you writing about me?"

"The games of tether ball you win."

"That's nothing.  I can do other things."

This was before you understood much if anything about sex and so you were afraid to ask what other things.

"I can beat anyone I want,"  she said.  "I can beat you."

You recognized the truth of this, but for the next two years, you challenged her every morning and if you could find her, every afternoon.  By the time you were eight, you discovered the great joys of sneaking into the back yards of houses on the way home toward Orange Street, finding the houses with garages with sides facing a patch of lawn.  You would climb to the top of the suitable houses on Lindenhurst and Blackburn and Maryland Streets, jumping from the garage roof to the grassy patch.  You were building a reputation as a splendid roof jumper.  As such things go, word got out and yo were even invited to baseball and football games in which your class mates attempted to establish their own reputations for coordination.

None of this helped in any way with Georgia, who showed you no mercy, only disdain.  "I'll say this for you,"  she said one morning after beating me again, "you are truly a terrible tether ball player."  At this point, you experienced an early nuance of love.  Across the years, you can see her Nordic blonde hair, her supple arms, her purposeful, no-smile expression as she maintained the record of wins against all comers, and you can see you, who would grow some in the next five or six years to the point where your nickname was Shorty, wanting to be a part of that cavalcade of event, competing against what seemed like unutterable perfection.

During the advance of years when you were made aware of sex by your own hormonal growth and by the incessant signals of nature, you frequently found yourself drawn to the cool, Nordic types, seeking in them the utter perfection and stature of Georgia, wanting as it were to regain that sense of being in the give-and-take of coordinated perfection.  In retrospect, you can see that as a part of a pattern of growing away from some things and toward others.  Some years later, when you were writing and acting in so-called Mystery Dinner plays, an actress you'd hired to play one role improvised something you believed to be truly wonderful and in a flash you were reminded of Georgia and instead of responding to the actress as the script called for, you showed your enthusiasm by telling her you loved her, and as Georgia had been ready for you, the actress was ready with yet another splendid improvisation.

The moral you take from these vagrant lines is that it always produces a kind of euphoria to work with individuals you recognize straightaway as at the top of their game and euphoria is, after all, the name of your game.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nothing Bad Ever Happens to a Writer

 A staple feature of the World War II action movie is the character of The Scrounger, a street-wise individual who has the gift for turning up whatever it is that happens to be missing from the immediate reaches of his company.  In various films, you have seen scroungers bringing forth bottles of cognac, chickens, eggs, and a host of things you'd expect to be available at Costco.

In a way, a writer is a scrounger who job it is to sift through the events and potentials of life as it is being lived out in whatever venue.  Writers find ways to get at things; they discover the stories behind the packaged glop passing for story; they insert meaning, purpose, and the bloody intensity of human beings who are arm wrestling with that massive engine we like to think of as Fate.

Nothing bad ever happens to a writer.

It is not as if in order to reach full strength as a writer one has to subscribe to some posse of martyrs or scape goats, rather that in order to achieve any kind of technique and familiarity with insight into the human condition, a writer needs to experience or have the wit, as, say, Stephen Crane did, to imagine the experience, then not merely describe it but evoke it.

Writers have their work rejected, or the work goes out of print.  An idea that seemed so promising last year seems destined for the bottom of a catch-all drawer, loaded onto a forgotten flash drive.  Writers get dumped by their romantic interests or their literary agents or by critics.  People die on them in ways that are often remarkably undramatic.  Writers age, get arthritis, sometimes require titanium hip replacements. Writers lose arguments, make terrible mates, have no idea what constitutes a good poker hand, cannot for the life of them distinguish between late Haydn and early Mozart.  Writers are passed over for promotion, their contracts not renewed, their bank cards cancelled.  Dogs bite them, cats cough up hair balls onto their lap, flying birds loosen their bowels over writers.

Computers crash on them, wireless printers refuse to recognize them.  Their cars are repossessed, they are given thirty days notice or sixty days or ninety, but the meaning is clear enough--outta here.  Friends betray them, they in turn betray friends.  Editors find them impossible, out of touch, no longer relevant.

None of these things are particularly reserved for writers, they happen to writers because they are a part of something larger; it is called humanity.

There was a time when you were called a boy wonder because so many of the things you wrote found their way into publication in one form or another.  Then there was a time when you were thought of as in mid-career and another time when you were considered a late bloomer.  You had at one time resented all these things because in your mind it meant that you had not fulfilled your potential.  People pestered you to write something serious and then when you did they pestered you to loosen up.

You start thinking about writers whom you can now access only through their books because in effect they have died but not to worry, their friendship still shines through.

A writer who is more or less your contemporary was the one who alerted you to the concept that nothing bad happens to a writer.  He'd come to realize it as he took care of his dying father.  When you began to see the simple beauty and wonder of it, bad things did stop happening to you.  People you knew and cared for died but they would have died anyway and at least you got to know them and in a sense have their fingerprints on your personality.  Promotions and positions you were all set for did not materialize and all about you the conviction persisted that these were events that would have happened whether you were a writer or not and so quite naturally you took comfort in being a writer.

Perhaps if you live long enough, you will be able to use the material that filters through the prism of creativity.  Perhaps not.  It will be a good thing if you can but not a bad thing if you cannot.

The only other adage or concept that has as much meaning for you as the one that holds nothing bad happening to a writer is a line from the Bhagavad-Gita in which Krishna, disguised as a chariot writer, tells the mighty Lord Arjuna, a sort of General Mac Arthur of his day, "To the work you are entitled but not the fruits thereof."  This was told to you at a splendid picnic for you and Christopher Isherwood, the man who was responsible for translating that line from the Sanskrit.  The work, he said, reaching for another hamburger, is the reward.  Writers ought not write with thoughts of reward, the work in and of itself should be the joy.  You translated that to a short story where Krishna was a cab driver and Arjuna was the equivalent of George Clooney in the movie, Up in the Air.

The reward is the satisfaction for doing the work which then becomes not the work but an extension of you.

It may seem that nothing bad happens to you; on the other hand, if may seem that you are incredibly naive for thinking nothing bad happens to you.  This is not Candide, although at times you allow yourself into being lulled toward such a belief.

What happens to you is opportunity.  Somewhere, somehow, it is opportunity, waiting for you the way Sally sometimes does when she has refused to accompany you on some errand or chore, but waits for you in the driveway, up and alert at the sound of your car.  Opportunity is Sally, waiting for you, walking to the house with you.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Schrodinger's Cat--er, Egg

The future will take care of itself, you believe, without any help from you.  The future has no agenda as you think of agendas;the future merely is and will be, a cavalcade of event poised to happen.  So long as you are alive, you are a player of some sort in this cavalcade; no matter what you do or do not do, you will be playing a role in the production.

The simple act of placing an egg into hot water becomes an epic act of assertion against the forces of time, space, and causality.  In setting the egg into the water, you are performing the anarchic act of controlling the future.  You can in some way control the shape of the future by removing the egg from the water somewhere between the egg becoming soft boiled or hard cooked.  You could do the same thing with a live lobster, your removal of it from its hot bath a determinant about whether it is merely a mildly pissed lobster, a scorched lobster, or a lobster who has had the ghost boiled from it.

Far fetched as these examples of future manipulation are, they serve also as the even farther fetched metaphor for story; when you take the principal character out of the hot water, you have had a direct effect on the future even though you may not be aware of your own intent to manipulate when placing said character in some kind of soup.

However much you offer disclaimers, you are somewhat of a manipulator, toying with the sense of time that is a story, arranging and rearranging to achieve the most resonant feelings from the drama you have created and the consequences you have set into motion.

You have a limited partnership with future events by virtue of having done things in preparation for what you are today, making plans of some tangible sort, having goals toward which you strive, even dreams which percolate from your most hidden self into your most social self.

The future has the last laugh because it can remove you from the water as necessary, leaving you variously a pissed lobster, a soft boiled egg, or a lobster who has given up the ghost.  Because you think of yourself and feel viscerally about yourself as a writer, you are willing to cede the last laugh to the future out of the supreme writerly ego of fancying yourself some sort of cosmic joke, perhaps the explosion of tension that will be provoked when the future decides to pluck you out of the hot water.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Stations of the Crux

For a brief while, you allowed yourself to believe that the most significant element in story telling was plot.  Never mind that you were not as so many of your contemporaries, able to rattle off plots with the ease and glibness of a salesperson.  In fact, for a time during this brief while in which you believed plot to be so important, you watched carefully your parents, each of whom was a sales force to be dealt with.  Your mother did it by projecting a sincerity and interest you came to realize was absolutely true.  Your father was more in the natural mode, half friend, half comic commentator on the world about him.  Your fondest memory of him in that role was when he was already into his eighties, lured away from a managerial job by your mother's youngest brother, wanting him as the sales person in his men's clothing store.  An enormous customer, having the stature of a professional basketball player, entered the store, looking for something a tad unusual, something that, as the customer put it, went against the grain.

Your father pulled out a suit with a plaid, horse blanket pattern, got the customer to put on both trousers, then jacket, telling him all the while the suit would make him a new man.  Your father assured the customer that his closest friends would not recognize him, then went on to paint a portrait of what it would be like to step out into the world with such a new, vigorous identity.  Go ahead, your father urged, just step outside and note how the natural sunlight enhances this bold and complementary pattern.

The customer did so.  We could see him preening into the front windows of the store, even going to the point of stopping a woman passerby to solicit her opinion of this remarkable suit.  At length, your father busied himself with returning sundry jackets and trousers to their hangars and places where they waited as though dogs in an animal shelter for some customer to take them out into the world of commerce.

Some five minutes later, the customer outside, sporting the window pane suit, strolled back inside, sauntered up toward your father.  "Yes, sir?  Can I help you, sir?  Something in a shirt or tie perhaps?" Then your father smacked the butt of his palm against his forehead.  "I'm so sorry.  With that suit and all, I didn't recognize you."

Within the next few minutes, the customer had his check book out and was writing in it.  Your uncle's eyes met yours and he smiled as if to say, "The natural in action."

You were not and never have been adept at plotting and so you advanced to the point where you believed character was the most important aspect of story telling; from that vantage point, you could look down wind and see the vestiges of plot.  Sure enough, with such impetus, you began slowly to produce stories you were paid for.

But there was still something missing and it was not until the mid 1980s when you began to believe voice was the most important aspect.  Voice gave you a way to see the kind of payoff you wanted and, accordingly, the kinds of characters you'd need in order to effect such payoff.  These being literary stories, they did not pay you as much as the pulps, but they did pay you in a sense of conviction that has had you more or less walking in lock step with it ever since.

What could be the next plateau?  Of late, you've been asking yourself and other writers, particularly those you merely read but do not know in person, about point of view.  Thanks to your editing experience, you are not likely to let a story go with a clangorous point of view violation, often breaking convention only in service of a delicious effect.  The thing you like most about attaching so much weight to the need for point of view integrity is that it keeps you the hell out, unable to meddle in the affairs of these individuals you have created.

One of your great friends says this is all sophistry.  He is a splendid writer and an even more splendid friend.  He is also more literal than you in his writing.  You are at some point in the process inclined to agree with him; you do mystify and conflate and interpret.  But there you are, that is you, the writer in the work room, sending his characters out into the sunlight to examine themselves in reality.  And perhaps your father is in his way winking at you.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Connections

It is a moment so rare and memorable when you are able to recall engaging in an activity without any awareness of previous backstory.  By backstory you mean some attitude, feeling, intention, or event going on in your life but not at the present moment in the foreground.

Even upon awakening in the morning, you are bringing along some baggage, some remnant of a dream clinging to you like a doorstep evangelist, some agenda influencing your immediate state of mind, some activity that awaits you and as a consequence causes you to sprinkle from the ketchup bottle of dread all over your attitude or some glorious anticipation, as pungent and beckoning as your first coffee of the day.

Trying to think of a recent moment that had not exchanged some molecules with a past activity produced no examples and left you in a funk.  Not for long--it is true, but funk nevertheless because it feels so good, so independent of mind and matter to be in place, on your own, in no way influenced by a recent phone call or having read something disturbing about the forthcoming election or recalling a necessary payment to be made or discovering a note reminding you of your promise to write something for someone, give some sort of a lecture for some reason, edit a manuscript for someone, etc ad inf.

Truth to tell, events began piling up on you to stay at about the time you achieved your majority, possibly even sooner, because as you recall, you were getting a bit frantic about what you believed the world expected of you and even more frantic at the discovery that the world was not concerned about your sorry ass nor was it even concerned about its own.  Even now, when you settle down to read a book or listen to music or pursue the vector line of a story roiling about your component parts, you are on some level aware of doing so at the expense of something else, a something else related to you managing to some degree the needs and responsibilities of which you are aware as a member of this society in which you live.  Even though you believe you will enjoy such a moment, you enjoy even taking such moments as though withdrawing them from a cosmic account.  Joyous as it is to read a book, it is even more joyous to read it instead of doing something else for someone else; exciting and uplifting as it is to listen to music, listening to it instead of doing something you feel obligated to to is making the experience even more acute and focused.

The good actor always knows what came before and what comes after.  You do not always know what comes next but there is that delicious sense of having just come from something and now there is this activity of this moment to engage.  You bring slipstreams of your movements through time and space, amazing yourself at times with the sheer enormity of the self-importance you have accorded yourself, causing you more than once to wonder if you need this inflated sense of valid purpose the way you sometimes feel the need for an afternoon cup of coffee.

It is good to be about, doing things for yourself and for others, splendid to be aware of others doing things for you or perhaps because of you.  These are all bits of tissue connecting you to the universe, to others, and of course to yourself.  The occasional moment of feeling adrift, unconnected, does not last long, perhaps about as long as the effects from a decent cup of coffee, prepared by yourself with known ingredients or prepared for you by someone you have a connection with.  Moments of feeling connected flash about like fireflies of a summer evening.  It is a comfort to watch them, to experience them; it is even more a significant comfort to offer them.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Places

The list of physical and emotional places wherein you feel some sense of belonging, comfort, and orientation becomes an index of who you are and how you came to be as you are now; it is the closest thing you have to an existential atlas.

Even though you have not lived in Los Angeles for over thirty-five years, you have worked and visited there during that time, finding yourself on rare occasion in portions of its vast surge where you became disoriented but soon reestablished your location, thanks to an overwhelming muscle memory sense of place.  Growing up in a place has that effect of installing an inner compass of awareness.  To a lesser degree, you are not likely to lose your way in Santa Barbara although the jut of the coast line plays hob with your sense of true cardinal directions; San Francisco holds relatively few surprises, and you are often able to recover from lapses of attention to landmark in the Bay Area peninsula outreaches or, for that matter, in the imponderable grids of the San Fernando Valley.  A few years of lark with a traveling carnival made the Central Valley a knowable if foreign landscape.

When you are unsure of your surroundings, your first impulse is to look for landmarks, buildings or street signs or some physical anomaly, perhaps even proximate freeways or riverbeds--places you might have visited or used before.  You search for clues, some of which tell you as much about yourself as the place you seek to identify.

When you are unsure of your surroundings in a performance piece or written work, you similarly cast about for landmarks, guesses of the author, possible historical era, possible emotional thrust--all personal clues to what the work is and you are as a result of it.

The true certainty in life is the inevitability of taking the wrong turnoff somewhere, finding yourself lost, bewildered, directionless--uncertain.  You cast about for landmarks, clues pointing you to one or more of the cardinal directions, perhaps even a person to whom you can apply for some helpful clue.

The true certainty of the writing life you have chosen is the inevitability of having taken the wrong turnoff, stranding you emotionally, bewildering you, causing you once again to recognize that you are where you momentarily are because you took a risky side trip from a path you'd considered safe.  In real life, you search for the familiar.  You might have been taken as a child to this very locale; you may have driven past the site any number of times in the company of a parent who'd taken you this way for a purpose that did not seem at the time to have any meaning for you.

Now, because of your experiences in the writing and publishing and teaching lives, every journey is fraught with a rich brew of memory, invention, and purpose.  It would be so easy to question your reliability as a narrator because of the way revisitation and contemplation provide added layers of meaning to what you did in the past and what you did not do.

It comes down to feelings, doesn't it?  The feelings set free in the deconstruction of these fraught events are your familiar landmarks and points of orientation.  They cause you to feel as special as you were made to feel special when taken on birthdays to lunch at  Clifton's Cafeteria and then a double feature film with vaudeville acts at the Orpheum Theater; they cause you to ratify the sense of having emerged from a loving family when you sat at one of the gatherings at your sister's home or the homes of your nieces, watching your parents as each became such sturdy and loving landmarks, providing even then, at that remove from their home the emotional orientation that is their continuing gift to you.

The landscape changes as you change.  Old is retrofitted, torn down in entirety, moved away, bulldozed under.  61451/2 Orange Street, where you lived seemingly forever for about four years is no longer a four-plex apartment building; it is subsumed into a condominium.  But it and its people and the fears and dreams and adventures you experienced there as the youngest child of Jack and Ann, the younger brother of Pennee, are there for you.  So, too, is the Los Angeles of your birth, mysterious, adventurous, so filled with outrageous promise that you drank it in as you drank from the all-you-can-drink for ten cents freshly squeezed orange juice from the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine just below Sunset.  You drank the outrageous promise as though it were orange juice, offered in a toast to the imagination and future.  The taste still lingers.

And so do you.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Comfort Zone 2

Buried within the card catalogues of your mind and the digital crannies of Google is a table that defines the size and growth progression of habitation and intent on landscape.  The table defines where urban morphs into suburban and rural.

Summerland, California, is about a mile-and-a-half southwest of the outer reaches of Santa Barbara.  It is not a hamlet or a settlement; let's say somewhere between a village and a small city.  Okay, let's use up our vocabulary for such places by calling it a community, a word that already connotes a measure of friendliness.  It used to be more like a pair of well-worn Levis, but that was its MP, or Mellow Period, well before the Yuppies found it and more or less built an enclave up toward the top of the foothills, known to some folks down at the Cafe Luna as The Yuppie Hills.

Summerland has neither bank nor the merest hint of mini mall.  All mail is delivered by a truck from further south in the Oxnard/Ventura area, distributed to the numbered PO Boxes at the PO where Lillie Avenue is intersected by the East/West transit of Evans Avenue.  There are two places to buy liquor, one of which is in a gas station that used to be called Jack Gas, but is now of a more generic name to reflect more municipal eclat.  You can pull from the same memory bank at least four antique shops variously located about Lillie Avenue; a unisex barber shop, a gym, an upmarket grocery that hosts weekly barbecues, the veterinary compound where Sally is more likely to go calmly if she knows her host will be Don, the bather and nail trimmer, rather than Bonnie, the vet.  Dogs--even Sally--do not seek out vets as friends.  Bonnie is fonder of Sally than Sally is of Bonnie.  Things such as rectal thermometers and blood, drawn for test panels, get in the way of serious friendship.

Summerland also has a fire department which is technically on loan from Carpinteria, which is about six miles south, and which itself has what it advertises as The World's Safest Beach and the Mecca of surfers, Rincon Point.

Law enforcement is a county matter, which means the California Highway Patrol cars often seen outside the Nugget or Tinkers are not conducting State or even County business but rather refueling the officers themselves on such things as on-duty officers eat or drink.

When you first came to Santa Barbara to be, of all things, the production manager for a scholarly book publisher, the Nugget was a convenient venue for such basics as hamburger, draft beer, and the occasional splurge steak.  Lillie Avenue was then and still is the main street, in many ways the only street in Summerland with any pretense of conducting a two-lane coming-and-going business, other streets such as Banner, carved out of the steep escarpment of hillside, vaguely paralleling Lillie Avenue.  Below--west--of Lillie, Highway 101 flourishes with its attendant rush of north- and southbound traffic.

Greenwell Avenue, which is the destination and intent of this sketch is the southernmost street to intersect Lillie Avenue.  In fact, where Greenwell begins, Lillie turns abruptly into Calle Real, for no good reason any of the locals can discern.

There are two ways of approaching Greenwell; your favorite is to go through the expanse of Summerland, then a left for about half a mile to something now called The Summerland Preserve, which is a rustic parking lot set amidst an ambitious display of native chaparral and trees including examples of what you think of as the great Australian hoax.  The eucalyptus tree was Australian, but enterprising sales persons turned the tree into a gigantic Ponzi scheme, selling the tiny seedlings as potentials for windbreaks, fuel, and paper pulp.  The eucalyptus in its many avatars has done well in California, but more as an exotic relative with smashing good looks and a moody personality.

The Greenwell Preserve has become a place you like to think of as a comfort zone.  You have spent much time there, alone or, better, with a loved one and with that special loved one, Sally.  Some nights, when there is no cloud cover, you sit in the presence of whispering trees, the scurry of rabbits, coyotes, the occasional fox or family of deer, all of which hold great interest for Sally.  Day light makes it possible to see red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, crows, and those energetic seasonal visitors, the barn swallows.

Night is the favorite time.  It is possible to relax in the light from stars so distant that the light you see from them is a mere remnant of a star that once was and no longer is.  This puts you in mind of the metaphor of lit fuses, burning away in the metaphorical night of your thoughts.  Your friends and loved ones, alive and departed, give forth the same magnificence of light.  You see dear friends whenever you think of them, but at Greenwell they all seem so specially available to you.  At Greenwell, thoughts of loss, actual or impending, are cast at a distance and you are there, scritching Sally, if she is nearby, or listening to that throaty rumble of hers that alerts you to the fact that she has picked up a scent of some sort and is, by god, protecting you.  You truly are protected there at Greenwell, where you are in the midst of the lights from afar and the life all about you.

Sometimes Sally will take more vocal offense and her halloos incite the Davis dogs, all Jack Russells, to respond.  There is a glorious chorus of dog throughout the area and you know that in the next day or two, either at the Post Office or in the Luna Cafe, you will be told, "You were at Greenwell the other night."

Yes; it is so.  You were.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Reward Your Inner Anarchist

By most accounts, anarchists are individuals who are willing to use force of some tangible measure to overthrow existing social conventions.  Because of your own age, background, and observations, certain generalities jump forth at the mention of the concept of anarchy, notably "bomb throwers" and the "Molotov Cocktail."  These two terms spoke volumes to the incendiary nature of anarchy, beginning with their use against the established dominance of the Russian nobility during the increasing war of social classes, spreading as well to an organized uprising of classes in Spain and also, down the road, between Russia and Finland.

In one way or another, anarchy is alive and well in some form throughout the world today, two examples drawn from the hat being the so-called Pirates of Somalia, who are using force of a particular kind to interdict commercial and passenger shipping; the erstwhile Tamil Tigers, fighting for a form of Tamil separatism; and within out own demographically rich American landscape, the Tea Partiers who appear to be willing to use force or its threat to stop anything with which they take political issue.

The longer you discuss and attempt to define anarchy and its implications, the greater momentum you give to turning the discussion political, which for a change is not your intention.  You wish instead to turn the thread of conversation to the dramatic effect of literary anarchists, writers who mess deliciously with accepted form and formatting, who throw Molotov Cocktails of rhetoric and inventiveness at the established order as set by academics, critics, and teachers of grammar.  Each of these establishments is important for the writer to be aware of then separate from to the exact degree of his or her originality of voice and ambition of thematic matter.

The more absolute goals are those of authorial intent, which carries with it the burden of being somehow accessible to at least a small modicum of readership and which ought not to be obfuscatory or cutely prolix for the mere sake of obfuscation or the prolix.  Cute doesn't win any cigars here.

From your observation, the jury is in hopeless deadlock on James Joyce, particularly as Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake are concerned.  The cigar is clipped, lit and handed to Joyce's ghost to puff at through eternity or at least so long as Dubliners is read.  Joyce moved forward against convention with strides you found exciting, intriguing you to push forth in your own way, not with the early focus you'd wished but with enough sense of purpose to feel the potential.

Having characters who may turn anarchist is an enormous help, particularly when you get to know them well enough to sense the energy of anarchy within them and thus begin to fear the mess they will make once they are aroused.  The temptation to hold them in rein grows in direct proportion with the early satisfaction of the work under way.  Warning:  once it begins to seem safe and secure, elitism has begun to sink in.  In this case elitism means the ka-ching sound of the marketplace cash register will have begun to sound in your mind and you, aware of how helpful this can be in supporting you through other projects, becomes a siren's song having the same effect on you that it did the sailors who worked for that dude from Ithaca, Odysseus.

Into every dramatic situation, dare to bring along your inner anarchist.  Show him where the bottles are and the lighter fluid or the anti-knock ethyl gasoline or perhaps some kerosene.  Show him where he can find liquid soap or other such gunk that will cause the literary bomb to stick to its target, wreaking enormous damage to established tradition.

Pick your conventions and traditions with care.  Recognize that humor and sometimes the merest act of comparing two seemingly disparate elements is enough to cause ignition.  Then toss away.  You will have become an anarchist of humor and perhaps even of satire and you will still be able to hold your head up in the knowledge of the social contract that should be the lingua franca of all humankind.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It only hurts when I squeeze

Necessities of one sort or another have forced you to ration available time for such pleasures as writing or reading into fifteen-minute increments, an idea you plagiarized from a dentist who, when rescheduling you for a future meeting, would tell the office manager to schedule Mr. L for two units.  Or on one project of architectural complexityproject, you were down for three units.  Not always quick to pick up on the dental nuance, it took you about two units of thinking things through and noting time spent in the dental La-Z-Boy.  Fifteen minutes was, indeed a unit.

When things are going well, you can get the better part of a full page of scribbled text on a story in one unit.  When things approach drought, the same page can require two and possibly three units.  It is a splendid feeling to zip through page after page, luxuriating on a larger span of time or forgetting about responsibilities outside the world of writing in which you try to spend much of your time.

This last condition, although it feels wickedly good to you explains the degree to which individuals who are more client or acquaintance or student are more likely to have occasion to be exasperated by you if not outright irritated.  This is a good explanation for having writers as friends; they, too, are likely to extend their writing times at the expense of such responsibilities as their own contracts with reality exact.

The unit has been a particularly good measurement for classroom situations, particularly your late night fiction workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, but also for your Saturday workshop and intermittent classes here and there.  They, which is to say students or attendees, get fifteen minutes to read their work and another fifteen to hear responses, followed by your summary.  It was in this activity that you learned a basic law of literary physics:  Not all fifteen-minute segments are the same.  Some, because of the material being read, appear to go on for hours.  A busy mind makes time pass with relatively more quickness thus you attempt the busy work of doodling or constructing bawdy limericks.  This has its disadvantage because of the individual reading away his or her fifteen-minute segment wanting to "hear your notes."

The ideal writing time for you is a four-hour increment--but when was the last time you had the cushy advantage of four consecutive hours?  The ideal reading time is at least an hour, but there again, you have had to learn to take advantage of the unit; you can get quit a few pages read in fifteen minutes and if you find something particularly delicious, you can mark pages or insert index cards or some other confetti of signs that direct you back to the choice parts.

The apparent length of the fifteen-minute segment during which someone is reading from her/his work is in direct proportion to the editorial notes given.  Tight, evocative prose generates two or three suggestions; long narrative descriptions or talking head conversation masquerading as dialogue provoke the sorts of sermons no student wishes to hear.

Such things are, of course, all relative; they are also relevant.  Time constraints have the effect of getting things out of you as though your creative receptacle were a near empty toothpaste tube, greatly reminiscent of the days before you gave over completely to espresso coffee and, when the coffee ran out, had to resort to a second use of an old, sodden Chemex filter.  Back in the day, that reused chunk of grounds might have had the butt of a half- or three-quarter smoked Camel cigarette.

We all write against some aspect of time; you are no exception.  Every day is a separate battle for as many units as we can, dare you say it, squeeze out.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Vision Statement


Visions come and go.  They arrive from an enthusiastic collision of random stimuli, which merge to form something quite other, the sum being significantly greater than the component parts.  Visions also slink into the shadowy land from which ideals emerge to tantalize with their seemingly unrealizable clarity, where their true shape depends more on who sees it than what it in essence is.

Because of MBA Program endorsements, large organizations and in utero start-up ventures embrace vision statements with fervor, stressing the need to articulate their purpose.  These vision statements become the guiding force of how the entity thinks of itself and how it works.  You could, accordingly, say a worker bee's vision statement is to gather enormous quantities of nectar; a female mosquito's   vision statement to attack as many bare arms as possible.

Although many individuals have some pattern of goals, others lack a more articulated plan.  When you think about it, you have several goals, all linked to whatever writing project is before you on the note pad or the screen,  Whatever the immediate venture, your vision plan includes completing the instant work to the optimal shape possible for you, then pausing to consider potential results, desired results.  Then you thrust into the next, thinking as you do of a short story Rachel, your mentor wrote, entitled "The Next, The New, The Promised."

There is no time line or cut-off point at which juncture you will suddenly quit; part of your vision statement includes breathing your last while scribbling away on a pad or punching up some sentence onto the screen.  Your vision statement includes doing this, writing furiously, writing like hell, using all available resources and, should those be insufficient, Googling (nice verb, that) forth new ones.

It is comforting to see this as your vision statement, even more so when you are able to see it in practice, watch it at work, more or less like looking over your own shoulder, chiding the writing you for an unnecessary adverb.

Thus:  To write like hell, enjoying every heavenly word and moment of it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Casting Call: Interesting Characters Only. Bozos Need Not Apply.

How important is it for you to like your characters?  Put this question in context with another:  Hoe important is it for you to see the potential in the character without necessarily liking that individual?  Now we begin to narrow in on a truth not readily recognized.  The story is going to reflect the point of view and personality of one or more of your characters; it will only reflect your point of focus (note the difference) and personality.  The same script with the same case will seem continents apart thanks to the attending personality of the director.

Like it or not, you are the director; you hold auditions for the characters, picking them for some reasons that may ultimately be mysterious to you.  Surely you see some potential, whether it is for the potential explosiveness resident in that character or because he or she reminds you appropriately of a person in real life--or another story--with whom you have unfinished business.

Freud and some of his acolytes were fond of saying that when two individuals hunker down to engage in the act of love making, the scene becomes crowded with the parents of both parties.  Neo-Freudians suggest the potential for even more individual presences.  In similar fashion, when you begin to see the need for a particular character for whatever reason, you begin with a shall, an outline of convenience to which you add quirks, issues, hair-trigger responses.  Perhaps you even go so far as to set forth a character who is in some way an ideal for you.  As that character develops, you see more of his or her details and complications.  The business of pushing plot points along becomes almost secondary, even subsumed by the way the characters behave, particularly under stress.

A competent actor, waiting in the wings for her cue to enter, knows where she's just been, what she's just done, what her motives are for having done so.  Perhaps she has just come from her lover.  Perhaps she has just come from someone whose lover she wishes to be.  Perhaps she has hopes that the individual she will be meeting when she steps into the scene will be enthusiastic about the prospect of becoming her lover.  Perhaps it has nothing to do with sex.  Oh, right.  And perhaps it has nothing to do with politics.  Or status.

Perhaps you are the sort of director who tells his actors conflicting stories, hopeful of inciting a chemistry of tension and edginess between them.  But based on a few years experience, you rather think that is not your style.  You like them too much, even, and particularly the problematic ones, the ones you brought in for some of the reasons listed above, to bedevil the protagonist or to experience a quasi-closure with a hang-nail event from your past.  Percentage wise, you try to respect if not like the other persons about ten percent more than you do the front-liners.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Enthusiasm

There are days when all you have to go on is the memory of enthusiasm.  Thanks to whatever the conditions and circumstances that got you into writing, more thanks yet to the times you spent bent over a note pad or a typewriter--remember that fire-engine red Olivetti portable?--or the computer, there is by now some semblance of muscle memory connected with the process.  On such days as today you are fueled by the enthusiasm of previous days, not the slightest bit dismayed or, even worse, thoughtful about the process.

Enthusiasm is so vital to the understanding of where the energy to pursue and question originates.  Because it was an off-and-on day of sprinkles, your thoughts were drawn across the continent and the years to another rainy day when a desperate fourth grade teacher read something to your class and after she had finished her reading, you asked her if it were possible for a person to make a living doing such a thing.  That memory might have been triggered by the 800+ page book sitting nearby, The Autobiography of Mark Twain.  More of consequence is the awareness of the enthusiasm from that day, which probably was an emblematic day from your point of view.  That detail stands out among the days between, when there was no present time enthusiasm, only some memory of it.

Story is vital.  So is unaccompanied cello suites of J. S. Bach, or piano improvisations by Red Garland.  So is an actor's performance in a play or film.  So is a song sung by Irene Kraal or Carmen MacRae.  So are all results of prolonged enthusiasm, say short stories by Louise Erdrich or Tobias Wolff.  In these details reside the enthusiasm that were part of their birth and part of their cumulative effect on you as you take your enthusiasm to work each day, or if lacking, borrow, tempo rubato, from the enthusiasm of an earlier day.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It isn't a story if the reader stays home.

It it brings an entire level of awareness to the story you wish to tell when you have written yourself past that first flush of excitement, toward the point you begin to understand will fuel you all the way through to the completion of a draft.

Invariably for you there is a diminution after seeing the first draft, a sense of wonderment at what you have created, as in, does it have any real chance at life?  But soon, you begin to see where the enthusiasm came from and you begin to pick up fuel, determination, even a mischievous vision because now you have a better idea of where to begin and where to end; you might even have a vision of what it is all about--what it was you were trying to teach yourself.

This last awareness is important for you because back in the day, you almost ruined yourself for good by thinking you could write novels without having to revise them or indeed know what they were about.  A novel a month for those years made it possible not to have to work at jobs you had no interest in, but it also meant you were drawing your resources out to as thin an extrusion as you could tolerate.  Then no fiction of almost any kind for years, during which time you began to beat up nonfiction with the same abandon.

After so much abuse, editorial work seemed the only way out until the forces of accident brought you to teaching as well.  Talk about increased levels of awareness; you began to see the value of acting and editing skills as teaching tools, which, because they worked, allowed you to see the more gradual evolution of a story through the constant sifting known as line editing and the constant blocking or placement of characters-as-actors within scenes, which you consider the basic unit of story and drama.

Winding up today's weekend session you called a Boot Camp, it came to you that storytelling can be taught provided the writer understands the tools and their use, a word at a time.  The splendid example that exploded the world for you and for a middle-aged Korean, Jay Lee, was a word you had him pull from his Korean vocabulary, in spite of his protestation that no one but  Korean speaker would know what the word meant.  You wanted a word a Korean would use to describe an alien, a stranger from another village, an individual palpably not Korean.  He gave you the word.  Put it in the story, you advised.  That is the word the narrator would use in describing the American soldier who wandered, wounded and dazed onto his family farm.  Even though the American reader would not know the word, he would know it in context of its use.  Even a word from another language, used strategically, conveys a meaning.  The four Latina ladies in attendance agreed.  We had, you explained, an international agreement, made possible because in many ways behavior is self-explanatory, especially the behavior of someone seeing a stranger.

Jay Lee assured you of his thanks for the weekend, then confessed he still had a great deal to learn, this man who was an English major in Korea, where he also learned French and German, then came to America to attend Harvard divinity school.  The least you could do was expose your own need to learn more and to suggest that the method you had chosen for attempting this learning was writing storie.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bad Choices

It is a truth universally recognized or perhaps only editorially recognized that ordinary characters in possession of normality, portrayals approximating a significant lack of otherness, must be in search of a viable quirk.

Eliminating a number of logical steps, you leap to the conclusion you believe to be well-founded:  Writers, by nature themselves quirky, are not attracted by persons with normal personality profiles.  Writers are themselves obsessive and compulsive, a fact you recognize as applicable to you as well as to your brother and sister writers.  If a character pokes along in a semblance of normality or uniformity for too long, you, as an aggregate, will move things along by having them fall in love with someone more appropriate for a writer to fall in love with than for a civilian to fall in love with.  Writers want things they cannot have.  This makes them sound venal but it has little to do with finances and more to do with solutions to dilemmas, answers to problems, triple-word score words in Scrabble, understanding of universal enigmas that are of no matter to mere civilians.

The more writers work out answers to these cosmic questions the more they reach into some of their core issues, coming upon them like those hearty individuals who roam popular beaches on Monday mornings with metal detectors.  Writers uncover more than lost keys or loose pocket change; they uncover old animosities and long buried hurts, memories of reversals, being passed over for dates.  As these events are sorted out and understood, the writer charges forth, energized, bent on overt revenge against the time and place and perhaps even the antagonist of that long ago reversal and humiliation.

It is not so much that civilians have not experienced humiliation as it is that they have, thanks to the normality, been able to move on, to heal.  We writers are a festering crowd.  Oh, yeah?  Abandoned, were you?  I was tossed aside by my biological and adoptive parents, shunned by siblings.  Well, I'll see that and raise you two ex-mates who left me because they hated me.  Oh, poor John, in the midst of a two-book contract, he had to go and fall in love with a girl who was completely unselfish and totally in love with him.  To make matters worse, she had no bad habits and made no demands on him.  Completely drove him to a writers' block.  He's done so much better this time.  His new girlfriend is a kleptomaniac, constantly being picked up for shoplifting tins of Underwood's minced ham at the local supermarket, occasionally runs off for the odd weekend abroad with her first husband.

You exaggerate, of course, because, as writers are wont to do, you find it difficult to stay within the conservative boundaries of plausibility, seeking in your way a hyper-plausibility that because of its very antic absurdity all the more mirrors reality as you see it.  Were you to deconstruct the previous sentence, it would scream out the fact of you seeing the ebb and flow, the warp and woof of reality as a fabric of absurdity.

In your universe people often get what they want but not when they want it.  This does not translate to the late arrival of a bratwurst on a roll at a restaurant so much as it leads to the sudden arrival of a contract to publish a book previously written and now set aside in favor of a new project you wish to have published because it in some way solves or avenges an earlier problem.  Failure comes as the result of performance rather than non-performance, of attempt rather than no effort.

Some writers have turned cynical following this philosophical vector, morphing slowly into bitterness, alienating themselves from persons with senses of humor, persons who see absurdity not as a doom or even as a failure but rather as the line in a fraction between the numerator and denominator.  Their writing becomes more a matter of rationalizing the results when bad things happen to good people.  You are more fascinated by the consequences arising from good things happening to bad people.  You would rather be embarrassed by a premature stand on cynicism than vindicated by a premature judgment of cynicism that turned out to be correct.  Thus you seek to manage the universe with a vision that appears sour and not trusting, but you are not willing to sit on the same side of the cafeteria as those who share this vision, precisely because you fear they'd spoil your appetite.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Risk Factor

While it is true that you wrote any number of things with commerce in mind rather than the outcome of some pursuit of curiosity, you were also experimenting wildly with various genera, determining which you enjoyed and which held little or no interest for you.  Equally true, while the cash register did kaching from time to time, it never reached that hoped for state where you did not have to reach or blunder into areas you considered distractions.  You got some on the job training but fortunately not enough to obviate the accidents that drove you into publishing and teaching, both venues where you did get on-the-job training and perhaps taught yourself things you might not have learned for additional years until, by mere volume of writing, something approximating the now of you began to emerge.

All the while, friends and associates were after you to variously stop horsing around, write something serious, take on issues and conflicts more earnestly grounded in moral choice.  Thus you began a flirtation with yet another genre--boredom.

To this day, however antic or absurd your material, your early drafts reflect the bad effects of your having taken this bad advice, of having got serious.  Oh, how serious you became.  The good fortune was that you ultimately could not help yourself--you began doing things to puncture the pomposity that emerged from you like garlic fumes from a freshly baked pizza.  You took matters a few steps beyond by thinking to "write comedy" which is to say deliberately write things that paid off in laughter, which is to say comedy, a style that requires as a metaphor, a series of cardboard coffee cups or perhaps, in better-paying circumstances, Styrofoam drinking cups, either of which was intended for one use.  Same with comedy.  Set up, payoff then throw the cup away, introduce another set-up.

It took some time, teaching and writing with Digby Wolfe, before you realized that the kind of mischief you wanted was dramatic in nature.  If you were to read the same scene a number of times, the laughter--if any--would appear in different places.

The tune has changed somewhat, to a more pronounced shake of the head when the question is posed: "Don't you ever take anything seriously?"  The answer runs more to the notion that you do, indeed, take things seriously, that humor is a serious business, a business of revealing sad truths, particularly to yourself.

It has taken some tweaking and quite a few vision statements, often written when you are in the midst of meetings wherein the rhetoric and silliness fly and the serious desire to point out the real pathetic fallacy emerges.  The real pathetic fallacy is not the personification of inanimate objects, it is the belief that we are a serious species, tasked with the discovery of nothing less than the true, authentic, real meaning and purpose of life.  From this position we abdicate dignity and heart, marching lockstep in the posture of a particular culture, so intent that we do not see how funny we have become.

If a thing such as writing is worth doing, it is worth doing at the risk of immediate failure.  No risk--no significance.

Degrees of unseparation

You left the city of your birth sometime in 1973, moving most of your earthly goods and two Blue Tick Hounds approximately ninety-five miles north, where you have more or less remained to this day.  In the process you gave up the sprawl and clamor of a rampaging modern megalopolis for an area often referred to as a resort or beach town.  You went from a 24/7 city to a place that then was pretty much under wraps by 8:00 p.m.  You inherited a staff of young workers, some of whom had just finished their college undergraduate work and were thinking over their options, which to them meant moving to the city you'd just left or New York or Boston or San Francisco.  You should also include Washington, D.C., because that is where your dear and esteemed assistant made her way to career and marriage.  Age provided you with the wish to come to this small town; age provided them the desire to get to the big time big town.

You had published a startling amount of material, much of it best left to wallow in generalities.  A small town, you argued with yourself, was precisely the place to get some serious writing done, a view worth an entire examination of its own (possibly even tomorrow).  People had been asking you for some time when you were going to write something serious.  Indeed, as senior editor, then editor in chief of a scholarly publishing house, the time had arrived for you to be serious.

Since you'd come from a rather painful learning experience relative to writing plot driven stories at the behest of two literary agents, you did embark on yet another digression, the writing of serious material.  The problem with serious material is that it can also emerge as ponderous, dry, even pompous.  Thus did you write yourself into pomposity which, as you well understand, does not sell because it so rarely is of interest to anyone.

In this small town, you learned that there is a more intense degree of interrelatedness than there is in a city the size of Los Angeles or New York.  Of course there are crowds, cliques, groups everywhere, including your small town, but you may have had a doctor's receptionist in a writing workshop of had a friend who knew the gopher man from AA.

What you learned about the interrelatedness of characters came more from living here and thinking to write about it than any overt or deliberate vector.

Interrelatedness was and is the key.  Let the lesson begin.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Grief

Grief is the most difficult of emotions; it is difficult to experience, difficult to be around, difficult to understand.  You know you have lost something, perhaps an irreplaceable something or someone; you know how it effects you more from what you now do not feel than what you do feel.  It is not a seething, boiling thing such as anger.  It took such a splendid writer as Joan Didion an entire huge book to evoke some of is presence and consequences, and such was her effect that she left you with the suggestion that there was even more she could have adduced. While understanding what grief did to and for her, you can only imagine the potential for its effects on you.

By the time a person reaches age forty or so, grief has made some sleep-over visits to the point where, where you are in a non-grieving state, you are able to deconstruct some of the earlier versions:  your innocence, for example.  Ha.  You call that a grief?  I'll see that and raise you two Blue-Tick hounds and a mixed breed named Molly.  I'll offer you Silverman and Boren and Joe-Ann.  What about Cake and how about...?  And then there was that job where you were going to head a department in an MFA-granting program in modern fiction?  And what about that gig of head writer for an HBO spin-off series based on the play Steam Bath?


There are large griefs, middle-sized ones, and tiny, momentary ones.  After each one arrives, you try to pick up your remaining marbles or chessmen or cribbage pegs or whatever the hell you use to keep score and try to get into another game.  Persons about you find it difficult to talk around the elephant but somehow, because you feel close to them, the elephant disappears.

Grief is a natural consequence of being alive but knowing that does not make it any more welcome.  Grief is like being that guard, Bernardo, on the battlements at the castle where the ghost of Hamlet's father is seen.  Who's there?  he says, and sometimes when you feel grief, you ask that question, because grief is also the ghost of past losses which you temporarily forget.  There they are, hovering, waiting to pack on to a present grief.

Sometimes, in the midst of grief, you laugh uproariously because it is the natural explosion of the tension caused in the first place by grief.  You once saw Jerry Lewis, being auditioned for a role in a long, serious TV drama.  It was a role he very much wanted and after he read his lines, he brought out, literally a bag of props which he attempted to bring into the audition.  The insistence on using the props lost him the job.  He was real and believable enough without the props.  Grief is like the bag of props,  You hurt and mourn enough without them.  Time to move on.  Time to write something else in a way you have possibly never thought to write in before.  Any grief pushes you beyond what you think you can bear to lose, as though you were so confident about the things you had in the first place. Grief is your entire connection with life, objectified in this one next loss.  Grief is you vulnerable in a way that seems as though you had set your identity on a line and cast some dice.  Grief is liar's poker with reality, the loser buys the next round.

Grief is a reminder that you have had persons and places and things and abilities of matter to you.  Grief is Reality at closing time, "Last call."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It Really Happened That Way vs. It Rarely Happened That Way

When you begin making lists of things you want to do such as which books to read or which music to listen to or which plays to see or which book project you wish to work on, or with whom you would cherish a conversation, you begin to wonder not only who within you is in charge but about the wisdom of making such lists in the first place.

In fact, the act of seeking some guiding taste much less wisdom often seems daunting.  It also seems you are  at times the target of a corporate takeover with contesting shareholders lobbying for your signed proxy.

It is a wonder you get anything done with all that territorial clamor going on within. The wonder inherent brings you to the conclusion that every event in which you participate deserves its own special narrative voice.  Life would probably be simpler if you could deal with it as you deal with revision and self-editing, replaying words, postures, and attitudes, but life is not nearly so malleable nor cooperative as story; you must settle on a narrative voice then go forth until you find yourself in an untenable position.  Even then consequences are hovering about, waiting on your decision.  Life and story have in common consequences; without consequences life is not a life truly engaged nor is story a pathway to a fair resolution.  Life is rarely as resolvable as story; it is too filled with extraneous details reminding you that it is not about you.  Naturally you turn to story, which often turns out not to be about you but nevertheless suggests the potential for being yours.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Time Lines

How long will it take?
When do I have to be there?
When is it due?
How long before I can have it back?
How long before I find out?
When will I know?
When will he, she, or it know?
It shouldn't take this long.
So long?
Back already?
I'll get to it later.
Is it over yet?
You're late.
You're early
Not again.
Never again.
I hardly started.
I'm already behind schedule.
It won't last long.
It will last you forever.
Done already?
I can't wait to get there.
I can't wait to get out of here.
I can't wait to get out of there.
We've only just begun.
It seems like only yesterday.
How long has this been going on?
Do we have time for this?
I don't have time for this.
Is there any time left?

So soon?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Craig's List of the Cosmos

Because bad news of any sort, be it the determination by a publisher that a particular work is not quite--note the equivocation-suitable for it, some misfortune appearing in the life of a loved one or even one's self, the sudden anemic behavior of an auto or a pet, or some truly disastrous event with broad down-stream consequences, is in most ways a cosmic crosswalk guard holding forth a HALT sign, it appears to travel faster than good news.

By definition, good news is a reshuffling of the cosmic furniture to effect a more comfortable universe, with happy consequences.  Things appear to go our way.  We are grateful.  We even stop to congratulate ourselves for all the hard work we put in, thinking surely that the hard work effected the good news.

Not so fast, Buster.  Hard work, considerable planning, taking risks, perhaps even a touch of teamwork thrown in are all important adjuncts to the human condition and there are times when they may be seen as having influence on good news.  By and large, the universe is so engaged in its unfolding that it does not have time to take sides; it has shown no favoritism to good news or to bad tidings.  The Universe simply unfolds as it believes it ought, not as we think.  Our attempts at influence more or less cancel themselves out.

Even though it may be argued that there is racial and social class exploitation and that there has always been such exploitation, even though injustices are frequently called out in some tribunal or publication or work of art, the news, which is to say the ongoing succession of events unfolds with equal speed.  There are those who always appear to get their good news first and some of those persons are seen as magnets of good fortune on the basis of their world and personal outlook.  Their getting any kind of news, good or bad, is simply a matter of point of view and since fiction writers presumably know the ins and outs of point of view, they are expected to know that there is an element of propaganda involved in attaching judgments to the news.

Similarly, a spate of bad news after sessions of good news may lead to the suspicion that the Universe doesn't want anyone to get the wrong idea about it being a perpetual fete champetre.

You may not get yours (read good news or bad news, depending on your present mood) today or even tomorrow, because, after all, it is not about you; it is about itself.  You have invented fictions, fantasies, and mystical connections to support your beliefs about the way the universe works, concoctions starring you.

But it is not about you; it is about itself.

You, on the other hand, are not so selfish.  You are surely about yourself, but you do not always cast yourself in a starring role, and even when you cast yourself in a starring role and the universe appears to deliver, you have also cast yourself in a role of sharing with close ones or perhaps feeling the triumph of having scored a decent review or two for your performance.

You are not likely to cast yourself in flops and so when the role you have cast yourself in does fail, you get up, dust yourself off, then start looking for the Cosmic Craig's List for some call to audition, whereupon you step out once again on the Universal platform, trying, desperately trying to remember your lines, which you knew so well and with such expressive grace only moments before.

Old Man River just keeps rolling along and the Universe keeps happening; it doesn't particularly care if you're with it or against it.  Your best defense is always to have a plan but it does no harm if in addition you realize that the mere act of being here is a tremendous cosmic accident and you are incredibly lucky to have reached this point.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Comfort Zone

 When calamity crashes the party of the quotidian, when catastrophe descends on comfortable routine like a group of unannounced visiting relatives, the individual sufferer must confront the option of lapsing into despair and all its attendant hangovers or moving about in search of some comfort zone wherein to retreat.

Comfort has many facets, extending well beyond the notion of one-size-fits all.  Comfort, however idiosyncratic, has a basic soothing effect, numbing the tingle residue of calamity, more or less sending out invitations to a party.  You are fortunate in having some of the standard comfort zones such as the company of certain individuals and even certain groups of individuals.  Because of your ow well-visited comfort zone of the companionship of a dog over the years, you have recognized any number of other individuals who find the thought of life without a dog companion intolerable.  There is also the solace and stimulation of music, and of course reading.  Being in the audience where a play is being performed or being in the proximity of some screen on which a film is being projected is another comfort zone.

You are saving as desert the comfort zone of writing because if the writing session goes well, you are plunked into the ultimate comfort zone for you wherein you are able to arrange disaster, catastrophe, and calamity for others.  True, these others are real only in your imagination and you must expend energy and thought in your portrayal of them so that you will continue to believe them and accordingly others may also accept their credentials.

Comfort zones are thus inside jobs and attitudes, nooks and crannies of yourself in which you may hide from the prying eyes of real time disaster and catastrophe; they are also literal outside jobs as you concocted earlier this evening when you were in need of such a place.  You drove to the southern extremity of the village of Summerland to a place where you frequently bring Sally for walks and away time.  You announced to a favored patch of the park your intentions.  You claimed this area as a comfort zone in your own name and announced intentions of returning to it from time to time for the specific purpose of securing comfort from it.  Being inanimate, it did not appear to venture an opinion, more like a kind of bucolic Whatever, leaves even seeming to conspire in a sigh.  No problem; the internal portions of you seemed to like the idea, whereupon you felt comforted.

Whether any tangible comfort was exchanged is, depending on your approach, moot or academic.  Possibly even placebo.  Nevertheless, you were fortunate enough to feel comforted, thus beginning what you hope is a long, serious relationship with Greenwell Avenue (See Google Maps), Summerland, Santa Barbara County, California, U.S.

It may be that you will be able to effect a feeling of comfort simply by thinking of Greenwell Avenue; on the other hand, you may actually have to drive there to experience the comfort.  Bad luck would have you in need of comfort, thinking of Greenwell Avenue, achieving no comfort as yet, driving there only to experience the additional disappointment of finding no comfort there.  If, however, you are embarked on such a venture between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., you stand the chance of a decent cafe latte or au lait at the nearby La Luna Cafe, and the less ambitious urn coffee at Cantwell;s Grocery at the foot of Lillie Avenue until approximately 8 p.m.

Comfort comes in varying strengths.  So far as you know, it is non-addictive.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Job

There is something about the energy of fifteen persons, gathered about a table, wanting some sense of where to begin, as though there were indeed a perfect way to begin, as though there were some transformative ritual.  The something becomes palpable; they are here to get something, some validation for the strange behavior they have been demonstrating over some period of time which, taken in aggregate, has sent them the message that they want to write.


You see yourself in every one of them because they are all of them at differing stages of advancement.  As a rule of thumb, the more challenging their questions to you, the more uncertain and nervous they are; you have been in all their places and a few they have not yet demonstrated.  Your goal is to show them more places to be.

This is the first time you've worked with Toni.  Your commentary and direction flows nicely according to the syllabus you have prepared and the order of subject you have mutually decided upon.  When it is your turn to introduce your background, you try with diplomacy to suggest that your way into where you now find yourself is not necessarily a good or likely way for them; they must find their own path which will let them out at the proper place and time as themselves rather than you.  The similarities are present but so are the differences.  Each is important; they are not as cray as they may have thought (they may however be crazier than they could possibly have imagined.  We'll have to see.)  There are things you wish they would be able to get over this very weekend, allowing you the sense that you had imparted some strong emotional guidance.  You have sniffed out three or four who might be able to do just that.

You have given presentations with literary agents before, but never at so intimate a level and never with a literary agent who is at the moment representing products of yours.  Here you are, doing some of the things you do well, perhaps even best.  Today is the exact anniversary of you being free of cancer for 82 months.  It is the day someone close to you has been diagnosed with a riot of cancer with road trips to the lungs, kidneys, and liver.  One of the implications of this knowledge is that you will undoubtedly do things and behave in ways you had not imagined or considered.  Loss and awareness each bring information and behavior in their wake; when they team up, there is no guessing the responses.  You will have to wait and see.  Now, in addition to having the behavior and responses of others both real and the constructions you make of them as characters, you have the opportunity to observe your own behavior and response.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dumb. Down.

Back in the day of the typewriter and such niceties as yellow second sheets or foolscap paper, on which early drafts are written before the final draft on some rag-content bond paper, you could compromise the life cycle of many trees writing about what comes first when you are possessed by the idea that ultimately becomes the story.  This is still the case even though a good deal of your work gets to the screen much earlier than it used to.  A concept ranks high as the potential egg that morphs into the chicken.  So too is the vision of a project, which in many ways is your favorite first step.

Ever since you as a teen-ager came into ownership of Margaret Nicholson's Americanized version of Fowler's Modern English Usage, you wanted to compile such a book, having written all its component parts.   You have done so.  Your first notion was to call it The Fiction Writer's Tool Kit.  Your literary agent sent it forth that way, but came to like better your alternate name for it, The Elements of Fiction.  Although you still like The Tool Kit, because it is, you believe, a tool kit, you have no problem with Elements because it is also that.

Today you have discovered that among the places to have passed on it, the one publisher you did not want to claim it has also passed on it.  You have never been a great fan or Writers' Digest nor their book division, and so when you hear from them that it does not speak to their audience, you are not only not dismayed, you are relieved.  One of the adjectives they used in describing it was professorial, which you have been.

"What's your vision of this project?" you were once asked by a producer who was considering seriously your notion of assigning you the first draft assignment to dramatize F. Scott Fitzgerald's minor masterpiece, The Cut-Glass Bowl.  When you told him you saw it period he countered with a suggestion that you try seeing it contemporary, which didn't work for you because you felt the story needed a link to the past to make it work.

You mention this event because there has been thrown into the pot the concept of dumbing down the level of Elements.  You said you'd entertain the notion and have been thinking about it off an on for a few hours, which were hours enough to lead you to the memory of a time when some of your students asked you to supply them with examples of dangling participles so they could readily identify that trope and subsequently avoid it.  You recall the great effort it cost you to be able to dangle a few stray participles.  This exercise would not have taken you so long had you been a more orthodox grammarian, but you are not.  You do not, for instance, put commas where you know them to belong as the result of knowing grammatical structure in a formal way; you place your commas and semi-colons where you wish the reader to pause, the comma being a one-beat pause, the semi-colon a beat-and-a-half.  It follows that the colon is a two-beat rest.

Therefore, as you used to say in the spelling out of a geometry proof.  Therefore, you will not fucking consider dumbing down your text, because you don't think you know how.  You can and will rewrite it, revise it as many times as sound editorial query will reveal ambiguity or anomaly.  You can't dumb it down because it will not sound like you and it will not reflect your vision.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chaos Theory

When things go on about you in a semblance of normality. they present an exuberant chaos which you are drawn to examine.  This chaos seems unremarkable because it has no direct claim on your attention; it is something you can enjoy as you enjoy the ocean when you are not swimming in it or unceremoniously dunked in it.  You observe with pleasure the wax and wane of tides and the clamor of waves breaking on the shore, or the mere sight of any aspect at all of the ocean as seen from a distance, as though you were nodding to an acquaintance in friendly recognition.

The ongoing chaos lays hands upon you when it trespasses the events of consequence related to your day-to-day activities and your long term visions and goals. Thus the expression "when things are going well," in response to the chaos taking on a cadence and resonance that seem to lift you slightly above the ground, informing your steps with a jaunty flair.  Things going well impart a connective tissue with the chaos, extending a sense of family or at least community wherein all elements seem to be in sync with your moods and needs.  For delicious moments the letters and emails are acceptances of stories or go-ahead encouragement for article queries.  Some one wants you to give a speech or conduct a class, someone has found something of yours uplifting and encouraging.  The Universe, whatever you see of it, radiates; all forces appear for a long moment to be in some agreeable alignment where even traffic noises emerge as two-part inventions composed by J.S. Bach and the rustle of trees in the grove outside your bedroom pulses with the lush evocations of Maurice Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe.

When things do not go well, the universe appears to you in discord; your professional life skitter about like squirrels on the outside palm trees, nervous, suspicious, wary.  Assignments that seemed so certain and positive dissolve before your eyes.  The envelopes now contain neither acceptances nor encouragement, shifting with sudden remoteness and impersonality to generic wishes of good luck for your career elsewhere.  Luck?  Has it ever been a matter of luck?  Persons close to you erupt with significant health issues.  Persons younger than you speak of feeling their age and warn you that you too, someday, will feel yours.  (But what you are feeling is theirs.)  Your close animal chum shifts from the commanding presence of her earlier years to a moody participation in long afternoon naps.  You are alone only in the existential sense of such leadership as you have at all as a human, able to have some measure of focus on the chaos about you.  You recognize it as what it is, a narrative in which your awareness is the stage master who decides which details you note and which shrink back into the shadows.  You are as alone as you allow yourself to be, as unconnected from the chaos as you have pushed away the details that so matter to you at other times.  There is a subversion going on within you of the old triteness, "The devil is in the details."  Your separateness is in the remove you have effected with the chaos.

In woe or weal, the life preserver that bobs before you in the uncertain waters of existence is the instinct to reach forth to embrace the chaos.  The devil may indeed be in the details but so is the story, so is life, and so are the sounds of life, words and music.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

It's around Here, Somewhere

The "here" is where ever you happen to be at any given moment; the "It" is whatever you happen to be looking for, either at any given moment or as a holdover from a previous search that has been ongoing.

More often then you can recall in reliable detail, the "it" was finally located in a place that speaks of superior-if-not-perfect logic, which is to say a place where it ought to be.  This of itself speaks to some measure of organizational skills.  This observation is of as yet immeasurable importance because in the writing of it, you have just made the discovery that you are not the great slob you had come to believe and ruefully accept.

How can this be so?

Socks in the sock drawer, printer toner cartridges next to the reams of printing paper, reference books in a single convenient shelf, etc.  But the "here" wherein "It" is somewhere around is a different "here" altogether; it is the here of connections stretched and extended beyond socks and the sock drawer.  The things that go missing are rarely such ordinary things that go missing such as reading glasses or house /car keys; they are the artifacts of thoughts and suppositions stunning enough to you to cause you in some way to note them on paper or on the computer, or to tear them from magazines or newspapers.  Perhaps they are then stapled or paper-clipped to other elements which speak to the connection between them in spite of their seeming disparate natures.  Perhaps they are stuffed into a folder or another container.  Perhaps they linger in some attempt at a to-do file.

Amid the chaos are the traces of your attempts to seek connections or note their possibilities.  It is not that you have any special antipathy for order; you salute it when you see it, often long for more of it about you, but in the longer projections of time you recognize your contribution to the chaos carries only a small degree of slob-ness; the rest is recognition that however beautiful and stunning some portions of the universe are, however many of the pictures of interiors featured in Architectural Digest suggest an orderly approach to comfort in the midst of the furnishings of life, there is adventure and comfort dwelling the curiosity to make things known to one's self.  If there is mess and clutter from the search, if the labor does not suggest immediate classification, if the clutter is from an ongoing search, so to is life an ongoing search, so too is the need to sift through the artifacts of clutter to find tools and mechanisms to cope with life and the self.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mickey Mouse Music

A sometimes sobering connection to the contemporary era is the fact of background music so often playing just below your awareness as you venture through malls, office buildings, department stores, even coffee houses (which you would think would know better).  The sobering continues when you are put on hold for a human voice to emerge on the line while you wait on the telephone for the likes of technical support from your cable network Internet supplier or that other technical support now euphemistically called health care.  You are not thought likely to maintain your patience waiting for the various plateaus of connection on telephone calls, and you have no hard proof to support this belief but you suspect the management of the malls you so warily approach want some measure of your compliance, thus they provide you with music.

It requires some discipline to your imagination to imagine the groups of musicians who record such music.  Regardless of its genre, it all emerges from the sound studio sounding the same, a kind of musical equivalent of the packets of non-dairy creamer served with coffee on airlines or the increasingly popular portable meal trucks.

You first became aware of the music of which you speak while riding in elevators.  The music, homogeneous in its ghastly sound, seemed geared to assure you that were you to become trapped in an elevator for any length of time, you would be safe and soothed, not at all trapped or suspended within the bowels of some building with a design suggesting you were visiting tiers of a wedding cake.

The music of which you speak was in your younger days referred to as Mickey Mouse Music, a term you heard for the first time from a dear friend, the expressive and articulate pianist, Mort Jacobs.  Speaking of another musician, he said, "He's working now in a Mickey Mouse band."  It took no imagination at all to discern what he meant.  You knew immediately that the musician referred to was producing the kind of music that no musician wants to produce for him- or herself.  You also knew then and for all this time to come that while music is of paramount importance to you, so too is the silence of the inner self and of places and venues that need no Mickey Mouse band playing ameliorating or reassuring sounds thus to spare you from the ethereal sounds of silence.

Music of the spheres has as many (if not more) genera than music.  There is to be sure country silence, river and stream silence, ocean silence, mountain silence.  During some of these silences, you hear the occasional sound of a train passing through or a hawk keening its hunting cry overhead; there is the rustle-of-wings silence at night where owls sweep the area for a midnight snack of hapless rodent, indeed the anguished cry of the rodent singing its death song.  There is the silence of frogs, of cicadas, the sudden rush of wind, the silence of heat thermals rising, the excellent silence of tall grass performing unobserved salsa in an afternoon breeze.  The sound of things growing, of ideas sprouting; the thrum of wings of the migratory birds and the flutter of ideas at night, wanting to try their wings in your imagination.

It makes some sense to you that certain insects are drawn to certain plants, that nature has a plan for individuals within a species (it's called mating) and for some inter-species attraction such as the immediate draw you felt with Sally the moment you saw her.  It makes sense that the non-Mickey Mouse Music is so evocative of nuances of emotion within the human species because it is, after all, composed by humans, men and women of what you like to think of as emotional index.  It also makes sense that there has been a history of interaction between writing and music.

As you have noted earlier, there is some connection to noise that is refreshing because it is the noise of individuals doing what they do best, interacting and sharing ideas.  There is a connection to the inner silence that should provide a sign for the individual experiencing it:  PERSONS AT WORK.  The working individual, at least that kind of working individual to which you refer, is a flurry and hive of noise and silence, words and music; the inner self is the forge on which is pounded out the great original sounds and concepts of the universe.  Humanity may not have made the mountains or the rivers; indeed, humanity often cannot control the mountains or the rivers, but there are glorious moments when they are able to control and shape the ideas and sounds that inspire us, generations after they were argued out in the solitary cell of creativity to which we all spend some of our time, listening. We need no Mickey Mouse music to reassure us.  We have our own music of the spheres of our self.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Borders (the un-bookstore kind) and Boundaries

When you begin a vision of self with a vision suggesting superiority or merely enlightened awareness at the expense of others, you are distancing yourself from forms of contact and interaction that support your basic instincts as a social animal.  This distance mechanism, if pursued, is a direct path to feelings of remoteness, where suspicions and loneliness may lurk, even be nourished into resentment, which represents an even deeper push away from contact and human discourse.

Frustrating and slow-moving as human engagement may sometimes be, it is nevertheless the wellspring from which insight, intent, and behavior emerge.  Could a person go it alone?  No question.  Could a person flourish and create alone?  Same answer; examples abound of productive men and women in quasi-hermetic conditions.  But were they happy at what they were doing?  Or did they somehow manage to convince themselves they were put upon, thus creating as they did in spite of instead of because of their remove?

Scant distance from these observations to one of your favorite and more productive working places, 3917 State Street, Santa Barbara, California, a coffee shop crowded equally in observation of free wi-fi  and superior coffee.  Whatever the motive, they often talk, chat, visit, all symptoms of their humanity.  You do not particularly need wi-fi access; there is your cell phone, if necessary.  And while you cannot match the foamy splendor of a Peet's latte, you have equipment at home to provide a good approximation of a Peet's latte.

Why then would you come here when you could just as well find the solitude you associate with you work for the lower reaches of Summerland, say, in the Greenwell Road Preserve?  You come here to be pestered and bothered, to need to focus beyond a strident voice or an engaging conversation; you come here because you are a city person who sometimes needs traces of city, if only as an avoidance mechanism.  But also, you need the sense of contact even if to create a wall about it.  You are one of many anomalies afoot on this planet, a writer who needs himself in solitude but must have people in order to write.  Perhaps if there is time, you will learn to write in solitude, where the only strident voice or engaging conversation is yours.