Few of the longer-form narratives have as much built-in empathy in their dramatic genome than those relating to journey. Characters journey away from something, toward something, through something, often with a goal in mind but just as often with no tangible target except to be quit of one thing and hopeful the benefits of reaching another destination will be rewarding rather than punitive or painful.
After you've spent some time on this remarkable sphere orbiting through this even more idiosyncratic galaxy, it grows more likely you will have made enough connections between persons, places, and assorted nouns to the point where one thing will strike you as a metaphor or symbol for a larger action. Accordingly, you will begin to realize that any departure from anywhere to anywhere else is a journey and that most of the things we do during the course of the day can represent embarkation on a journey.
Starting a story or novel are sure points of embarkation on some journey of discovery and adventure; even a trip to the market is a journey of quest. Approaching another individual is a journey, often with surprising destinations involved.
It is sometimes frightening, other times sobering, other times still of a wild, humorous nature to consider you had in effect embarked on a journey toward your own death scant seconds after you were separated from your mother, the cord snipped, your bottom smacked, your feet daubed with ink with which to transfer your footprints to the surface of your birth certificate. You have experienced the death of some of those close to you, heard about the death of those who were influential in some way, noted with a potential of alarm the shortness of the sizzling fuse that is a metaphor for the lifetime of certain of your friends and acquaintances. You have experienced many of the valedictory ceremonies, the funerals of those who respectively followed the faiths of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Mentors have died on you but their journey of mentorship continues as you find yourself asking yourself, How would Rachel have done this? How would Virginia portrayed this?
Much of what you have learned to date relates to journeys taken and not taken, reflected in the simple observation that overall, the salient characteristic of your journey should be to continue stepping off the curb or dockside or up the up ramp or down the down ramp or that ritual you variously associate with starting with a fresh computer screen or a fresh sheet of ruled note pad from Office Max. Some of it comes from journeys involving the opening of a book or the closing of a book; any journey is a representation of what you wish to do for yourself and for any who might chance to read your work--take us somewhere we have not been before, showing us there something we had not seen in quite the same light, something we had been trying to articulate and were not quite able to find the precise words until now.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Few of the longer-form narratives have as much built-in empathy in their dramatic genome than those relating to journey. Characters journey away from something, toward something, through something, often with a goal in mind but just as often with no tangible target except to be quit of one thing and hopeful the benefits of reaching another destination will be rewarding rather than punitive or painful.
Monday, November 29, 2010
For all its implications of tyrannical rule and a potential for Sisyphean boredom, practice still comes recommended as a catalyst for perfection.
You have to remind yourself from time to time what practice meant to you in earlier stages of your development; it meant learning your multiplication tables the better to participate in simple arithmetic, drawing endless rounds of ovals and slanty push-pulls to effect a semblance of legible penmanship, it meant endless practice alone in which you sought to understand first the physics of two colliding marbles, then the more nuanced results of collisions between billiard and snooker balls. None of this practice brought you anywhere close to satisfaction let alone perfection.
As time passed, you practiced getting words down on endless reams of paper your father delivered from bankrupt organizations where he had been appointed by bankruptcy courts to liquidate assets. Who would want stationery from a defunct organization? You would. You practiced sounding like Ernest Miller Hemingway, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Ray Douglas Bradbury (to whom you delivered mail during Christmas breaks) and for a while the then-popular television playwright, Paddy Chayefsky ("I dunno, Marty, waddyou wanna do tonight?"), until, at length it came to you that you had no idea what you sounded like, then set about finding out on more reams of failed stationery, producing more failed stories and novels. It came to you in a horrible realization that the things you wrote or wished to write were not described anywhere in books ostensibly intending to instruct beginning writers how and what to write and so you practiced discovering that as well.
Mind, it was not so much the notion of where a writer was supposed to acquire ideas for things to write about as it was the matter of taking such ideas, which were already floating about in orbit, then wrestling them to the ground.
You know or have known many musicians, none of whom ever ventured some estimate of how many notes they'd played to this point in their career although, truth to tell, you do hear many writers complaining about the number of words they have written with nothing approaching a satisfying result. Some mathematician, overhearing you complain about the difficulties inherent in visualizing a million of anything asked you if you'd ever seen a full-panel screen door, in which there would be--give or take a few--a million tiny squares. You had some wonderful reversal of example at the time because the mathematician had visions of becoming a writer. One sentence for every square in the screen door, you said.
If anything, practice drives perfection farther off the chart; perfection of the sort writers, musicians, painters, photographers, actors have in mind is some unused Greek letter, representing a theoretical quality that can never be achieved. In the first place, who the fuck would want to write a perfect novel when he or she could better write a stunning novel or an exemplary one or a riveting one or a transformational one such as The Plague of Doves? Perfection is a systematic tweezing out of the imperfections that make a novel work in the first place; it is a short story with perfect characters and a perfect theme and perfect dialogue, all of which, to bring in an adverb for help, makes the work perfectly boring.
Practice, if done with heart and devotion, opens the practitioner to possibilities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Not all pigeons flying overhead in a story have to represent freedom or, were the pigeons to poop while aloft, represent karmic justice, delivered on the heads and shoulders of those who flaunt the laws of decent behavior. Opportunity. Practice opens the door for opportunity which, taken, may produce disaster or pure, open flight.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
For some, winning is not the only thing--it is everything. You have no problems with such thinking but it does bring with it the awareness that individuals who think in those terms would have a difficult time being a writer.
True enough, finishing a page is a form of winning, but of itself it is nothing. Finishing a page is only a step toward a sharper vision, what you might call a focus or, better yet, a matter of timing. Then, with a particular writer's calculus set into place, timing becomes the span over which the refinement becomes honed and the inherent drama becomes apparent.
Timing is at the heart of this precarious business of writing. The rate of discovery is only one such example. How much the reader learns and when. How much the characters learn, when, and how.
Action scenes, if they are to remain action scenes, present dabs of raw, persistent dramatic information, coming at the characters like mosquitoes on a Summer evening. Start mixing in a few thoughts and reflections and the action scene becomes diluted, expressing the sad, humorous truth that action and philosophy are the literary equivalents of oil and water; they do not mix well.
Reflection is best saved for later, after the action has elapsed, a form of Monday-morning quarterbacking in which characters can dwell on the consequences of what they did or did not do, and at what speed or leisure they did or did not do some of the things available.
You are not even at the Look! Look! Look! See Dick! See Jane! stage of being able to read music but you do know that a page of musical notation has a splendor of time-related notations and indications, including notes on which to depress sustaining pedals and lively Italian instructions about intensity and spirit. Your envy of the composer is apparent, you hope, when you finish a page of your own work, because it is about time that you paid recognition to the fact that where writing prose of any sort is concerned, it is about time.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Part of the inexorable pull the mystery genre holds for you is the ongoing implication that "they" cannot always get away with "it;" "they" may get away with "it" sometimes, but never completely; there is always something to spoil the completeness of "their" getting a free pass. You understand that this smacks of such concepts as karma, cosmic retribution, even divine retribution--that there is indeed a personification of justice somewhere as a hungry animal wanting its evening meal. You also understand that a great many of "them" get way with "it," they have as well a kind of built-in mechanism to defend this tendency. The tendency is variously called entitlement, privilege, and power.
Down these mean streets, Raymond Chandler wrote, a man must go...thus the step forth from the primordial ooze of entitlement and corruption to a working class hero, a kind of secular dybbuk, someone who stands against the mashed potato dam of entitlement, poke at it, incurs great risk and precious little reward for doing so except for a kind of inner satisfaction that resonates within you each time you complete the reading of a well-crafted mystery novel.
The mystery novel is primal, you believe; it is the basic myth of any individual who has any thought about someone else.
In recent days, you have just completed reading Dennis Lehane's excellent, engrossing mystery, Moonlight Mile, in which the male protagonist--for there is also his counterpart, Angie--hopeful of a job with an old line Boston investigations firm, is told in so many words that although he is an excellent investigator (and we see numerous examples of how true this assessment is), he is also afflicted with class rage. As this behavior is described to our protagonist (because we have taken to him immediately, heart and soul), we understand how accurate the charge is, how understandable his class rage is, and how we discharge segments of our own class rage by buying into the basic construction pattern of the mystery novel. You, as a writer, are particularly willing and able to ante up in this game. Your own cards relate to your own status and your upward and downward visions, those you see and are thus aware of, those you act out rather than act upon.
You are fond of the mystery because it allows you a vicarious sense of having a chance at a favorable outcome; you've attempted mysteries of your own in the past without allowing yourself to see the implications, leading you--yawn--down the same old path of thinking to chose some aspect of the mystery formula without any true investment in the causes inherent in the formula.
At last you are embarked on a mystery with a broader scope of emotional vision. Your enemy is every bit the personification of entitlement as the entitlement specter upstaging all the characters in Alan Sillitoe's short story, "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," wherein the winner of the race is entitlement when it should have been pure, raw ability.
It takes years of pounding words in and crossing the less evocative ones out to present the merest sense of technique. It takes years of pounding at the shell of class myths that have formed about you in the manner of plaque forming on teeth, calcifying, becoming in fact calculus. You needed and still need to scale away at the protective coatings that were passed out to you from about youth onward, much the way cigarette samples were passed out at the schools you attended as a student. You had already reached the degree of snobbery where, unless you were broke and desperate, you shunned the Camels and Chesterfields and Lucky Strike samples for English cigarettes, Players and Craven A's, or the Turkish Murads and Fatimas. You need to see beyond the shell, into the belly of the dragon, which in this case is the dragon of snobbery.
This is not a recasting of yourself or your beliefs in the sense of self-improvement. There is so much improvement necessary that you could not hope to undertake it; the key instead is to see what these class myths have led you to believe or not believe, how they have led you to behave, how different and how similar the you of today is to the you who would not be seen smoking a Camel or least of all a Lucky Strike unless he were truly desperate, and how he rationalized not the desperation but the snobbery.
Your way of avoiding the mystery, after five or six of them, was to confess to having no plausible motive to kill of another person, not even a character. You are still there, which is where some lesson awaits you, pawing at you like a puppy eager to be recognized.
Friday, November 26, 2010
Evolution has unpredictable effects on words, sending them into an upward spiral of choice or a downward spiral of outright neglect.
At one point in the not-too-recent past, the word gross meant primarily the large amount of something, its second meaning tipping particularly in adverbial form toward something meaning patently evident, as grossly unfair. With the passage of time, the lesser usage, patently or inexcusably awful took prominence to the point where the single word, gross, formed a summary judgement on persons, places, things.
As such things evolve, the word fuck has morphed from a disrespectful and utilitarian way of looking at love making into a curse that carries with it increased degrees of malevolence from the cursor to the cursed. It may also mean affection by irony, in that one urging it on another is not upset with or bears any ill will toward him or her to whom the suggestion is addressed. It may be used for something as simple as a disagreement about which among a series of choices is ventured, as in "Let's take in a flick."
The word also has come to mean a state somewhere in between bewilderment and a recognition of utter, catastrophic chaos, as in we're fucked or how the fuck should I know? Although it still has a sexual connotation, the word, alone and unto itself or as a part of an epithet, has suffered a kind of rhetorical deflation where it is applied as an adjective to even the most innocuous appliance or event. Pass the fucking butter. Let's watch the fucking "Law and Order."
Describing a thing as no fucking good comes forth still as not particularly polite, received standard American English, nor does it convey more than mild annoyance unless delivered with suitable body English and timbre to express greater degrees of malevolent intent. That is no fucking way to read a book, or That is no fucking way to write a book, both of which are surely negative in their intent are nonetheless only a degree or two under mild disapproval.
You remember the first time you saw the word used in what you will describe as a major publishing house book, The Farmer's Hotel, a short novel written by John O'Hara, published by Random House. There it was, the elephant in the living room now given recognition to the point where it would be no surprise to see the word appear in any given issue of The New Yorker magazine or such literary journals in the U.S. as The Georgia Review, The Sewanee Review, Tin House.
In some cases, you have used the word in classrooms and have heard students use it in their fiction. You have urged friends to join you in getting the fuck out of a particular venue, comfortable in the assumption that your intent was merely a mild irritation with a current situation or place. In one lecture, you discoursed on the affinity of fuck for prepositions, thus fuck around, fuck over, fuck with, fuck about, out, and perhaps even aside.
At one point, it was gross to go on about the variations on a theme of fuck. Norman Mailer attempted to use it in his breakthrough novel, The Naked and the Dead, but ultimately rendered it as fug, whether on his own plan or under pressure from his publisher. This produced one of those glorious moments in which Mailer met for the first time the remarkable writer, Dorothy Parker, to whom the word and its multifarious meanings were no mystery. "Ah," she said upon the introduction, "You're that young man who can't spell fuck." Many of us, you included, think of this story when we think of Norman Mailer--not at all what he would have wished, to be sure.
In some social and professional landscapes, it is still gross to speak of it, leaving us to wonder aloud what those individuals use at moments of being sorely vexed or apparently. Oh, dear, simply won't do it. Probably because it is too fucking lame.
Gross, you say.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
You have noted and called out for attention in previous notes to yourself the reminder to keep at a thing until it surprises you. This is another way of saying that a piece, whether long or short, invented or reported to the best of your ability to report, or to attitudinize until the right attitude appears, should be poked at, prodded, rearranged, or simply fussed at until it reaches some critical mass and it explodes in your face.
The explosion might well be a shattering of elements into a new format or the introduction of some detail in greater degree or even in some form of menace. It might also be a vision where the entire sense of the piece speaks to you as if to say, won't this just bee too funny or irreverent or both for words? For the past weeks, you've been thinking the simplest way to express this phenomena or, if you will, explosion, is to remind yourself to keep fussing and tinkering until you feel the endorphins clicking in. All well and good, but there is a tinkering possible with that trope as well; you more often than not write yourself into a nice straight shot of endorphin under most circumstances--unless the work has gone completely off somewhere. But even then, in retrospect, it was better to have had the bad day, triggered by the bad result, than to have had no day at all. The endorphin released by this awareness triggers the awareness of all those years you were seeking to get by on the literary equivalent of other writers' endorphins. Street endorphins, baby. You don't want generic any more; you want your own brand.
Used to be, whenever you'd get to the place in classes of talking about revision, then come to the rhetorical question, How do I know when I've revised enough? The answer you'd give was good, so far as it went. You've finished revision, you'd say, when the only person who notices the changes you've made is you. The answer now is, When it gets you high.
For some years, you've worked best under the weight of some deadline. It has been helpful to turn that particular gun into a mirror which you point at yourself, which is to say your own deadlines add spice to the broth; an impatient man, your impatience for the story drives you to get into it, then by subsequent degrees, through it, then out of it. Some of the absolute best times are when you've been taken over by the work, can't see your way out of it just yet, are fretting, reliving the scenes even as you indulge what passes for sleep. Somewhere along the way, whether in the shower, swimming laps, scanning the shelves of the market as though those shelves had answers rather than mere products, "it" comes to you, and the next wonderful rush is translating it into words.
Used to be, you were looking for ways to describe the sensation, but "it" wasn't the sensation, "it" was the process. Not any more, baby. Anything less than this is too much like mere work, and you'd opted out of that a long time ago.
There were moments when you were dealing with pain as a result of surgery and it seemed to you the task was always assigned to a nurse who flat-out approached you with a discussion about pain management, the dialogue taking the arc where the nurse would tell you to look ahead of the pain arc as opposed to waiting until it caught up to you. The analogy for you shines with clarity: You work with the notion of building to the discovery that will lead to discovery. Anything else is playing for safety; anything else is kiddies' aspirin for a migraine.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
On this eve of Thanksgiving, which is one of your favorite holidays, you find yourself in the neighborhood of Cafe Luna on Lillie Avenue in beautiful downtown Summerland, thinking perhaps to settle in with a latte and some quality time with a lined note pad prior to taking Sally a scant mile beyond to the place in the road where Greenwell Avenue bends in an arc dissecting a gentle declivity and a long row of avocado groves.
You are scarcely through the second sip of latte served up by Janette, her hair out of its tight, customary, work-a-day bun and dangling in reflection of its owner about to have a day off, when the proprietor, Dan Van Hurtem, appears, sees your coffee, gets one of his own, then sits to join you. The conversation quickly moves to the area in Los Angeles bordered by Hollywood Boulevard at the east-west vectors, and La Brea (the tar) Avenue drawing its user from the northern extremity up in the hills well across the sprawl that is LA to the ocean along the beach cities.
In that particular Hollywood Blvd.-La Brea Ave. area, you spent considerable hours developing a habit that remains with you to this day--browsing--seriously browsing--the bowels and innards of used book stores. We are not talking mere garage-sale displays of crumpled Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy and Louis L'Amour novels, nor indeed the thrift shop room, filled to massive overflow with long forgotten editions of Reader's Digest Condensed books, but the more edgy and quirky independent bookstores in and about L.A., to which you were drawn as a moth by flame and a teen-ager to a pool hall from the one used bookstore from which your addiction grew, in large measure because of the owner of the Hollywood Boulevard Book Store, who always, by the way, wore a blue suit, a solid-colored red tie, and, of course, his horn-rimmed reading glasses, the lenses of which were just less thick than the bottoms of Coca-Cola bottles.
Here was not only heaven in the abundance of books you could then afford, but one of the earliest mentoring forces in what you hoped would become your writing life. You knew you were in the right place when you saw the young man you considered to be the best writer in your creative writing class. Age being what it was, you would never extend friendly gestures to one another, but he did nod at you in a way that you thought conveyed some respect beyond mere recognition.
The proprietor had already elicited from you the fact that you wished somehow through living, writing, and reading to transform the play dough that was you into a Writer. From time to time he would suggest books to you, but equally important on some of your check-out, he'd ask you how you could read such things as those and hope to become a writer, at which point he would sweep your choices off the counter, then lurch through the shelves, pulling out collections of short stories by the Russians, philosophy from the Germans, plays from the Greeks, and, sparingly, an occasional contemporary novel, all of which he'd push at you and tell you to stop screwing around, get out of his goddamned store, already, and make something of yourself. On such outbursts, he would steadfastly refuse to accept money from you.
You do not know if you have, on this Thanksgiving eve, made anything at all of yourself or if you have approximated what Proprietor had in mind when he told you to make something of yourself. You see yourself differently now across that wide swath of time, yet much of you has remained. Some male pattern baldness has worked at your hairline much the same way erosion has worked at the Hollywood Hills. You weigh relatively the same, would be recognizable to anyone who knew you BT, which of course means back then.
You do know that there was indeed a time when you passed many an hour at a pool hall on Santa Monica Boulevard and for a time during your first job as an editor, investigating the physical properties of billiard, snooker, and pool tables, even to the point of having your own custom-made cue, but that brought you neither the results not the sense of growth that browsing used book stores produced. There have been times when you have in a sense met yourself in used book stores, one in particular, Bart's in downtown Ojai, California, where there were several copies of books you had written. Katie, a lady friend who lived in Ojai, even bought you a copy of an anthology in which you had a short story about an android who enjoyed eating first editions of books.
The eve of Thanksgiving part of the theme here relates to The Proprietor and to the hours you have spent browsing used book stores. Never mind the new book stores, such as Chaucer's Books just off State Street and Las Positas, in the Loreto Shopping Center; that is another matter altogether. What ever you have made or unmade of yourself has been made or unmade in some principal way in used book stores, browsing, searching for the literary equivalent of the philosopher's stone, looking for the one book that would so inspire you that you would write the one book that would make you a better writer and a better person. Even more than with girls, with used book stores, you realized such vital truths as the fact that
You were looking for answers and what you found instead was taste and a modicum of you, with the covers only slightly foxed, the spine still in good shape, the pages not too badly marked up, the texts something you could chose to learn from if you wished.
For this, the eve of Thanksgiving.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
In most rational systems, the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, no more but certainly no less; it is a balanced equation. Add such elements as imagination, intuition, transference, displacement, and such lovely, thought-provoking emotions as revenge or control or even vindication, and as rationality scurries out the doors and windows, story enters like commandos on a moonless-night raid.
Many memorable stories have such recognizable elements as gritty characters, crackling dialogue, stunning surprises, and plausible reversals. They may even contain brisk narrative, vivid description, bone-aching suspense, but it is more likely they are in fact memorable stories because they have an undefinable chemistry than because they have any of the technical elements or any of the motions mentioned. Even thrown in a few more bits of technique such as point-of-view, description, pacing; these additions still do not account for the memorability as much as the inherent chemistry accounts for it.
This is not a revelation for you; in fact, you've been thinking, teaching, and writing about this phenomenon for some years. The revelation is the time you spent ignoring chemistry, all the while marveling at the deftness with which your favorite writers knew how to conjure up the very chemistry you were at such pains to ignore.
Water, or perhaps you should say formulas under the bridge. By happenstance, perhaps even by chemistry, you happened upon a favored short story by another writer that is also among the favored short stories of yet another writer. To be more specific, You keep coming back to Tobias Wolff's short story, "In the Garden of American Martyrs," which you find to be electric, stunning, emotionally satisfying. The "other" writer who is fond of the story is a close friend of Wolff, fellow name of Tom Boyle. As each of you discovers the fondness for the story, there is a bond of chemistry between you to the point where Boyle is impressed for reasons you'd not thought of, namely that Wolff's strength is with the memoir. But, you venture, he can still turn out the occasional wonder of a short story. Look at "Bullet in the Brain."
It's as though, Boyle theorizes, Wolff gets his short fiction from places none of the rest of us look.
Chemistry, you venture.
Chemistry, Boyle says.
Even more so than the novel, which you adore, the short story bends light, time, and emotion, refracting them through unanticipated prisms. To get the proper bending or chemistry or magic, you have to know where to look for the spare prism, which you hold up to the light, thinking to catch images in much the same manner Schrodinger sent his theoretical cat off on its theoretical journey. Schrodinger's Cat is pure theoretical physics, hypothesizing potential behavior. On that level, it is nearly meaningless to you, yet as story or drama, it remains in your mind, brought up from time to time as a conversation that may have been going well for you begins to turn away from your vision of how the universe of persons works.
When a work in progress works, which is to say comes together, there is a moment of Cosmic Sigh in which the work recognizes itself, then sets forth to be in the imagination of all those who have bumbled across it.
So much time is spent working on achieving the technique necessary to take a bumbling step, a lurch more than a confident stride forward.
A bumble may result directly in abject failure. Conversely, in attempting to regain the momentary loss of balance, the stumbler may have made a noteworthy discovery. A confident step forward invariably seems mannered, controlled; it is a one-way ticket to causing the strider to become the object of humor.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Sometimes visits can be a disaster. Subsequent encounters become even worse--train wrecks or misdirected expectations. Things to dread or, worse, invent emergencies calling you back to where ever you were before the visitation.
Visits do not have to be negative. Returning to a novel or short story that once held promise for you can remind you of a visit to an old neighborhood, or a meeting with an old friend. Of course these visits are fraught with scenarios for disaster but in equal measure they are brimming with the potential to reconnect you with some discovered delight, reaffirming the choices you have made over the years, giving additional substance and nuance to memories.
With this in mind, you have to confess that much of your early reading was embarked upon to get away from the boredom of your daily life, or at least those parts of it that seemed boring to you. Reading then offered an immediate platform for escape, a platform that influenced nearly all the choices you made, which is to say you wanted adventure, alternate universes, recognizable opponents. You had no serious business with the meanings, not until you were in junior high school and such works of nonfiction as Microbe Hunters and The Education of Henry Adams came your way. Richard Henry Dana's years before the mast added dimension. First Twain then Thurber began poking away at various parts of The Establishment, and you began to see a greater purpose yet for reading beyond mere transportation, reading for understanding of intent, reading for visions of the writer's mind. Most influential of all was Twain;s essay that was, for you, so shattering, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." This was not only satire, it was awakening satire, from which you awakened from dreams of naivete to see that he wasn't all about telling jokes or setting up absurd situations for the adventure of it but rather to demonstrate anomalies in human behavior.
Some individuals with whom you were friendly in the past continue to interest you and, presumably, you them. Some things read in the past hold up nicely under a differing kind of scrutiny. You want the meat of the coconut, the juice of the grapefruit. You're looking for things to help you relate to your surroundings and now your surroundings cover ever so much more of the universe than when you were a kid, interested in being an adventurer.
Approaching an old friend is of itself a theme for a story, especially if you see someone you know, away from where you live. It seemed to you that every time you took some shortcut through the central part of Mexico City, you'd run into someone you knew from L.A., and you remember all those times when the same thing happened in mid-town Manhattan; it was always the same. What are you doing here? And then you would have to explain.
Once even, there was Victor, who caught me coming out of a hotel on The Avenue of the Americas, well, Sixth Avenue. You said you didn't like it here, Victor said, and yet here you are. I don't like it here, and yet here I am. You couldn't fucking take the job I offered you because you didn't like it here, but here you are, anyway. Are you working for someone else? Actually, you said, I am. So why would you work for someone else when you could be working for me? Because I'd have to be living here.
When you go somewhere for a visit, whether it's a book or a place, it's better if you can find something to respect and learn from. Taking Victor's job would have meant running a pretty large-sized operation and it would have been fun, but those things do not last, that thing did not last, and although things did not last here, it was better to be somewhere you liked when things do not last than someplace you thought might be an adventure.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Most if not all story is a reaction to something that has already happened or a defensive fear of the consequences of something that might happen, Thus story has had time to sprout an emotional bud, and now inspires some sort of visual plan where the furniture of reality is rearranged.
It is not by any means that you have issues with Reality, although there are parts of it, particularly bureaucratic parts that drive you to impatience. Impatience turns out to be one of the more useful tools in your toolkit; your desires to get a desired thing underway or to remove yourself from the slipstream of an bureaucratic system inspire story. Reality simply is. In recognition of some of the more magisterial aspects of it, you seek to create a story of your own in which your reality may plausibly be substituted for the real Reality without creating any speed bumps or disjunctive associations.
You could also say that one of your reactions to Reality is an admiration so intense that you wish to snip off a bit of it, propagate it as you have done with the leaves and stems of succulents or, in some cases, even common geraniums. Fond of you are of seascapes or mountainous or valley landscapes, the thing you most enjoy about Reality is the people who lurk and skulk about within it, those who stride with vigor and purpose, those who complain, even those who seem to reach near evangelism with their inner happiness.
People are attractive because most of them either initiate or take pains to avoid initiating events. Bring a few together in a room or under the stars, particularly there at night, because after all, that's where the concept of lunacy got its start, and things happen to them, seemingly with no proper explanation or introduction. It is as though Reality is speeded up when people are around. Nature isn't in as much hurry; look at the time it takes for mountains to form or species to evolve or tides to etch grooves.
Put people in the room.
Schedule an event.
Double- or triple-book the room.
Now you have two or three different groups of persons trying to occupy the same space.
Now you have attitude and expressions of entitlement.
Now you have story.
If you were wise enough, your story would also have pace--slow, stately processions if the work were to have any sense of gravitas with which to convey your intent. But you are impatient. Slow is not your game. Pace is more your game than gravitas.
Comedy is tragedy speeded up.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Control is the spine of drama.
Characters jump into story thinking to control a portion of their destiny; perhaps as much of their destiny as they possibly can, growing as fervent in their goals as an addict on some other more tangible substance. Characters want there to be a destiny to control, wanting to exert influence on other characters and events, daring in some cases to presume to effect outcomes involving the elements, the Fates, the public at large--even wanting to challenge their own image of what they presume God to be.
As a reader, you are more likely to root for the success of an individual whose target goal is one for which you find ready empathy. Becoming a fan of such a character draws you more deeply into that character's range of goals and your own presumption of aspects of the character which are unstated, perhaps note even dramatized.
A major dramatic awareness dawned upon you when you began to notice how shifts of power among characters influenced the way they act and feel, some characters in stories as well as many individuals in reality relishing their ability to control situations and circumstances. Such people in reality are called control freaks, their tool kits including a sophisticated array of responses , some of which are the wide-band broadcasting of a sense of entitlement or perhaps even more to the point a greater-than-normal sense of being right. Who among us does not like to be right, even if more often than not he. does not have the strength of conviction associated with being right?
Still other control freaks project a strong enough sense of being hurt or offended by the merest hint of opposition as to turn off any serious opposition from all but those who are not easily deterred in asserting their own correctness.
Imagine the drama inherent in a marriage between two control freaks.
While you are on the focus of controlling behavior, imagine how controlling you are about your own work and the characters you create, making you wonder at the same time if some of this control extends into the corridors of reality which you walk every day. You have already admitted to being obsessive and compulsive; why not add control freak to the list? Why not as well pick particular situations where you perceive you are in a situation where you are being controlled by a control freak or feel the exertion from the force field of someone trying to control you? At least catalogue the gamut of emotions you feel under such circumstances, the better to write telling dialogue when situations emerge in your stories.
Imagine also the forces of attraction and admiration between you and your dog, who combines from both parents the instinct to herd other animals and whose tool kit includes implements to effect the herding?
It is only a slight leap in logic to move to the notion of yourself herding your characters, all the while proclaiming their freedom of inevitability--the freedom to do as they wish. You do not believe this last for a moment because you have already gone to such obsessive effort to arrange the circumstances that pen your characters in.
Control is the backbone of drama and you are a literary equivalent of a chiropractor.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Working the room is an expression you and others use to include appearing at some gathering or event where a number of strangers and friends are present, touching base, allowing yourself to be introduced, having fun with one particular lady by telling her you were a security guard and asking her for identification. It is the sort of thing where, depending on the primary event, you not only manage to enjoy yourself, you might possibly stir up a tad of business.
In this case, you were introduced by the eldest son of your close friend to a woman who's been speaking of her trip to New York and the need for copious research, whereupon the son of your friend introduced you as a writer whose stories he enjoyed, an editor, whose projects he respected, and a critic, whose views he finds intriguing. The woman reddened, hastily advising you that she was not yet ready for you, but would definitely call. She pressed you for a card. When you learned the nature of her research and the focus of her project, you were aware of the potential ringing of a cash register. Reaching for an olive that rested comfortably in a bowl of mates, you were sideswiped by a bearded, mustached man with the same intent. "I don't see how you can write for that paper," the man said, "but I'm awfully glad you do. I'm your biggest fan." "Flatterer," you respond. You are not friends so much as associates; you have had long, splendid conversations with him on any number of subjects. When his students came to you, they were well prepared, had impressive reading experience. When some of his students had worked with you, he found them, as he put it, quirky and Lowenkopfian. On the basis of his compliments, you allowed him first shot at the olives. It is not every day you get Tom Boyle for a fan.
Still working the room, Sandy Vanocer stops you. It invariably betrays your age to have the image of him working the presidential conventions for NBC back in the days of David Brinkley. "If you don't send that fucking review of the Pat Conroy to Nan Talese, I'll do it for you." You agree that he, by virtue of knowing Conroy and Ms. Talese personally, is the better one to send the review, but still, you are getting room-itis. You spot groups of closer friends, with whom your relationship is more along the lines of boys in locker rooms, snapping towels at one another. A bit of parry and thrust to get you back on your game of being observer rather than recipient. But you get no solace from your friends, no reminders that work, occasional fun, and moments of quietly enjoying company or arguing fiercely against the outrage of Lisbeth Salander are the primary things. Is it possible you have worked the room too well.
A great old pal pulls two long-neck beer bottles from a tub and leads you outside into the gradual arrival of a soft rain. This is more like it: sipping beers in comradely quiet.
A woman neither of us knows and, from her dignified posture and frizzy haircut, we would like to know, approaches us, her own long neck in hand. "Can either of you imagine spending time with anyone who does not think life is essentially humorous?"
We think this over as the rain begins a more pronounced presence. Three individuals of a mid autumn evening book signing, standing in the rain while Barnaby Conrad sees us through the window and would clearly like to join us if he did not have a line of other room workers, waiting to get his autograph. Wordlessly, we three outsiders begin to laugh in unison.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
For most practical purposes and some on the impractical side, text--the written narrative plan of an article, poem, story, or novel--is more than what it sets out to be; it is also a metaphor for reality. The fun starts when the author completes the text, then takes steps toward publishing it. The fun increases when someone else--a reader, an editor, a literary agent--sets eyes on the text, absorbs it, then translates its meaning for himself or herself, such as the case may be.
Although each of us, writer included, reads the same text, the intent may differ among readers and even more certain, the meaning may be different.
I don't want you to interpret my story that way, the defensive writer says. I'll interpret your story any goddamn way I chose, the reader responds. It's my story, the writer counters. Shouldn't that have some say in the matter? Not if you're Tom Clancy, you say, or someone similarly offensive such as Tom Wolfe (the living one, although the dead one had some clangorous moments now and again). And so the dialogue progresses between writer and reader over the issue of what the text really means, as though neither you nor any other reader were capable of discerning what the writer intended.
The mischief here is that generations of teachers and critics have made careers from venturing their guess as to the real meaning of the text, the author often too long dead to offer a word of defense. It is in the classroom and workshop where the writer, perhaps emboldened by the more vitriolic and combative tones of letters to the editor (particularly in the Literary Supplement of the Times of London), waxes pre-emptively defensive. My text is better than yours, and so when you read it for the first time, you'd jolly well better be on the lookout for my intent, nuances and all. (Never mind that in recent years, we had a President of the United States who on more than one occasion said he had no interest in nuance, pulling along in his slip stream untold millions of supporters who also threw nuance under the bus, then backed up, just to make sure.
Does a thing mean what it's author intends or what you make of it? Does a thing mean what it means or what you think it means. Suppose you know the writer of the thing is wrong; does that give you license to change your version of the wrong writer's wrong thing? After all, if you know a thing is wrong or has no nuance, why would you bother to listen to its argument? Why would you even consider the possibility of changing your preconceived notion if your pre-conceived notion of the thing were that it was wrong in the first place?
Suppose you knew you were wrong about something and a critic disagreed with you, questioning the notion of your wrongness and insisting you were absolutely correct? Then you would be called out for denying your true nature of being right or correct by proclaiming your own fallibility and confessing to being wrong.
Nothing related to text is safe. Even grocery lists are subject to interpretation, the most common ones relating to gender, social rank, age, and ethnicity. What do men know about choosing a rutabaga? Women are too considerate to spend much time inside a space shuttle. Having sex in a car should be limited to teen-agers, who mostly have sex in cars in the first place.
What it comes down to is that unless you are a member of some cult with stringent moral and ethical visions, you have a different vision of the universe, the differences articulated by your origins and attitudes. If you wish to be understood by a wider swath of readers, you need to write about situations common to most of them, interpreting them in ways you believe they have been led to accept as falling within the general range of possibility, which is to say without venturing into nuance. Each step away from nuance leads you closer to being misunderstood.
You know what I'm saying?
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
When you were young to the point where Trigger took a capital T (because what other Trigger could there be beyond Roy Rogers' horse?) story had a limited meaning for you. Boys, young men, and slightly older men doing things on and off horses, or racing to or away from things in fast cars or boats, these were the objects and subjects of story. These were the elements of stories you wished to follow.
Girls, young women, and overtly sexual women were distractions you knew you had to put up with, thus some degree of nuance was already beginning to worm its way into your all-adventure psyche. With each passing year, you began to allow more nuance into story, recognizing the effects girls, young women, and overtly sexual women had on your real and imagined behavior. The progression forward was a welcomed immersion in one of the great drives associated with the human condition and, indeed, the dramatic condition.
Soon, you began to see the importance of events, then the causal relationship between them wherein one event could trigger another, retaining its lower-case t and having nothing to do with Roy Rogers or his horse. In fact, it has been some considerable years since you have given this much thought to Roy Rogers and his horse, focusing instead on triggering devices in your own multifarious careers as a writer, editor, and teacher as well as a male hopelessly imprinted by now with the notion of the importance of the sweet nuance in your life called women.
Life is not about you, it is about itself, the eddy and swirl of tides and currents, the pressures of generations, the needs for expansion and contraction, exploration, trade, interconnectedness, and how you, as a mere leaf can set about effecting a relationship with a forest. Drama is appealing because of its nuance, its causality, its determinism. Drama helps give the momentary illusion that it is about you thanks to the fact that drama makes you aware of how you feel about things and people, then go forth and relate to them. Drama somehow gets you synchronized with this incredible surge called life, breaking it down for you into more digestible bites.
The result is that much of the time you are devoted to trying to manipulate the flow of units of life into scenes, pages, moments. You will ultimately be buried by the stream of events, perhaps even welcoming this ultimate burial but you do wish to leave behind items, elements, influences that will nourish yourself and others as you go lurching along, triggering events, experiencing feelings, moving even farther away from triggers with a capital T and closer to the lower-case t of the catalytic agent trigger that moves drama along.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
The expression "elephant in the living room" demonstrates an effective way to bench-press figurative language, bringing forth a vivid, perhaps unforgettable image to demonstrate one of the ongoing nuances of human behavior. Elephants are widely known to prefer the out of doors, where they are more apt to feel comfortable in the first place. An indoor elephant is something most parties in the living room are aware of but for one or more reasons chose not to speak of it. By its size and absurdity under the circumstances, the elephant represents for most of us the things we chose not to speak of because of some cultural reason.
Cultural reason may, of itself be an elephant; it may relate to the three things convention holds the public discussion of a risky business. Those three things are sex, religion, and politics. In many ways through many cultures, the first things we wish to establish about a new acquaintance have to do with sex (do they or don't they? are they straight, bi- or gay?) do they attend the same church as we or are they, say, Pentecostal or Evangelical? or even more other than we are? Do they vote to include or exclude?
A potential synonym for the elephant in the living room is a step upward on the gritty scale, the turd in the punchbowl. This metaphor moves us from mere size and improbability to the despoiling of the confection that was the punch bowl, it is closer to suggesting outright, deliberate, boorish, uncivilized social anarchy. If an elephant in the living room is zero sum conversation, the turd in the punch bowl represents a social and moral judgment against the alleged perpetrators, something to be spoken of with due disgust.
Both metaphors remind you of kinds of perpetrators and unwelcome presences of the sort we associate with writers who are about more than merely constructing puzzles or entertainments, writers, in fact, who dramatize something to the point where, touching the outer reaches of ambiguity and universality as their work does, causes the reader to ask morally related questions, make assumptions, form opinions.
It is not so bad to be an elephant in a living room and, depending on the symbolic nature of the punchbowl, it is no stigma in being a turd; it is in fact something to keep in the back of your mind when you are feeling comfortable or perhaps polite is the word you are wanting not to feel. Perhaps this is a signal to be a bit more aware of investigating something with fuller honesty of impression and, accordingly, expression.
What you are basically saying is that there is room for you and the elephant in the living room; there is a pact of conspiracy between you: the elephant represents and you evoke its presence. There is room for you in the punch bowl.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Some mornings--and very good mornings they are--you are up with a spurt of energy already devoted to getting some words down on something, a vagrant scrap of paper, the back of envelopes to be mailed to such suppliers as the telephone company, the trash pick-up, and American Express; perhaps a stray note pad or, with some luck, as far as the computer. All this happens before coffee is even thought of, almost as though you'd begun writing while still surfacing from some dream.
Other mornings are more of a step-by-step routine, where first thoughts are devoted to preparation of coffee at home or, failing the needed coordination to effect simple coffee brewing, the decision to head north toward Peets or south to La Luna Cafe. Difficult choices abound. Peets has splendid coffee and arguably the most dreadful pastry outside of a hockey puck or bicycle seat. La Luna has passable coffee and with equally arguable effect the most flaky, buttery, tasty croissants in the entire Tri-Counties area. Whichever the choice, on such mornings the personality of writing is similar to a large animal, shifting in its sleep, stretching, coming to alertness with a slow, almost stubborn deliberation, wanting all in the vicinity to know it is the boss. This gradual coming to life is idiosyncratic. Matters not if copy is due somewhere, if some client has already begun to bombard you with email and telephone messages or, indeed, if you are in the middle of something such as a short story or a book-length matter. It has a mind of its own and it wants you to be aware of that fact.
Under such circumstances, it could well reach three or four in the afternoon before you have done much in the way of getting words on a piece of paper or on a screen. By this time, you have resorted to looking at political blogs to inject some adrenaline or pure fear into your cholers; perhaps a quick run through The New York Review of Books and, if no help there, the London Times Literary Supplement. Absent any mercurial rise in writing fuel, you moodily take on stacks of papers, sprawled like napping sentries on the battlements, thinking to yourself that these stacks need some form of order just as you need some form of order. Order was never a strong suit of yours, thus recriminations have little serious effect.
Basically, you spend your time on such days waiting for the monster to become hungry, to want to be fed; you want some outrage or some wildly outrageous conflation of events to get the process moving, and almost every time, just before the monster is up and yawping with hunger pangs, you have come to think of your favorite opening line from your far-from-favorite play of Wm. Shakespeare. "Who's there?" That's it. Bernardo, the guard at the battlements of the castle in beautiful downtown Elsinore, wants to know who's there and so, by all you hold dear, do you. Is it a person and what does she or he want? And you begin to add to that: What does she or he want NOW? One word, set into place like that, and you feel the thing rousing. So what if it is hard on five o'clock; so what if the time to that point has been a series of frittering, delaying gestures?
It is equally acceptable to have your awakening jump-started, as it were, blasted forth by some concatenation of events from your dreams, your smoldering resentments, your irrational focus on some bit of music, as this morning's wake-up call sounded much like the finale of the Prokofiev Sixth Piano Concerto. But in its way, you're showing a tad more favoritism to the hungry animal within; the drama is exquisite. The predominant question emerges, day after day: Was yesterday your last day of being able to write anything beyond a grocery list?
Take the drama and run.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Aristotle (384-22 BCE) was among the first we're aware of to pin the butterfly of story to the dissection board, where it might be dissected, speculated upon, improvements for its survival offered. Subsequent names such as Milton, Pope, and Dryden were offered to those of us who pursued the liberal arts paths through its gnarly bifurcations, causing some of us to arrive out of the academy only to return to it as a teacher. Others among us went forth to become editors; yet others chose that most precipitous path of the writer, while you with no real deliberation and quite a bit of serendipity became that ultimate hyphenate, the writer-editor-teacher-critic.
As the beginning, defensive writer is wont to say, this--the previous paragraph--all has a point, which you didn't begin with, neither from stubbornness or ignorance of the in medias res approach which was known at least as far back as that classic of in medias res, The Iliad. You began where you did because the theme is system and who better than Aristotle to have started us thinking about systems, right?
Over the years in which storytelling has extended its metaphoric arms to embrace us, critics and writers have attempted to deconstruct the concept to the point where they could explain how they themselves do it and, ever ready to push the envelope, demonstrate how you, too, can do it. Following some systems, you actually produced stories that were paid for and published. One editor whom you greatly admired even went so far as to call you one of his regulars, which was nice while it lasted because he had raised the stature of his journal to a fine level. It did not go far enough to suit you; in fact no sooner had he told you that you were one of his regulars when he promptly died.
Nevertheless, you had a system that produced stories for you and apparently for other editors as well, one of whom took your work on with dizzying regularity. You to this day are on the fence about why he decided to fold up his literary tent. Nevertheless, system worked in the sense that it worked for you. You have seen your way through any number of students, most of whom you have impressed with the need to forget about the other systems out there, instead developing one of your own. It will surely have any number of the qualities Aristotle noted, back there before the Common Era began.
Individuals appear on the scene, eager to learn the conventions and systems that will make them better storytellers. They want to beat the system of the moment by mastering it to the point where it appears to anyone who reads their work that they know all the correct applications of technique. Ever spend any time at a Hyatt Regency or Hilton Motel? you ask from time to time. Both chains display works alleging themselves to be art. The perspective is right on, the colors are--well, they are presented with some pretense at nuance. The themes are in many ways less offensive than some vacation photos you've seen. But they don't fucking work. They don't take you anywhere. They don't remind you of anything except that there is a soft drink dispenser and ice machine down the hallway.
There are stories of that sort, as well.
They don't take you anywhere, except to the book store or library, where you can find stories that do take you somewhere, written by men and women who are still explaining to themselves what it means to them. You are thinking of using Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves as a writing text book. It might make some sense to use the book about writing you have written as a textbook as well because you say in so many words that the whole idea of story is not a system; it is evolved through all the disappointments and dead-end writing, all the near misses, all the acceptance letters, all the times when your ink cartridges ran dry or your computer swallowed something or your dog got sick on a manuscript or you threw something across the room because it was so wonderful that you couldn't stand being so close to it and because you were insanely jealous that someone other than you had written it.
If it exists somewhere else, it is not you.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
When you are in a story to the point where you are no longer aware of the way you came in and are now casting about for some kind of literary GPS for clues leading to any of the cardinal directions, you have arrived at an articulated dislocation most non-writers, non-musicians, or non-actors experience every day, although they fail to recognize the condition on any conscious level.
You do not intend to ignore the painter or sculptor or photographer or dancer from your list of Henry Morton Stanley, seeking--and finding-- the equivalent of David Livingstone in the depths of Africa as a metaphor for the discovery of a significant goal at the end of a discombobulating quest,nor for that matter do you intend slight to the quantum physicist who reaches to understand how it all began, the it being in practical terms us. Even though your atheism is quirky with unlettered anomaly, you mean no slight either to those who leap across a chasm of reason and cultural morass with--for them--tangible consequences should their leap fall short.
The activities you know to a closer degree have revealed some of their secrets to you, or perhaps by dint of studying them, you have understood them to a greater extent than the others, The ones you cherish are about timing, about portrayal of feeling over a span of elapsed time. The absolute joy is being so engrossed in them that you for moments at a time seem to own them. Of course you do not, not even your own stories, which are products of your own imagination. The entire process is an interest-free loan from the universe, which is the bedrock cause of you being here in the first place. The awareness that you are in deep, looking for an answer, a way out of the labyrinth, is exhilarating, you can almost feel the droplets of endorphin being squeezed from your psyche. When you first were on to this discovery, you could neither describe it nor articulate even to yourself its source. You cannot say with certainty that you know it for sure, but there is a greater sense that it is not merely for the personal pleasure it gives you, rather the feelings come from the desire to share the results.
Back in the days, the explorers would come back with their discoveries to present the proof of their journey to some royal society or other in England. This was often a wealthy man's occupation, the rest having to work under unbelievable circumstances to make ends meet. Today, the investigations are going on all about you; men and women of every age are setting forth to define the universe while in the process of having a dialogue with it.
One of your dearest hopes is that your journeys of discovery and investigation will never sound boring to anyone, least of all to you.
Friday, November 12, 2010
A distraction is something that takes your focus away from its previous landing, then positions it elsewhere. Distractions can be welcomed, particularly if they carry with them a promise that has become lost or abandoned during your previous focus. Promise plays an important, dare you say distracting role in the process. Distraction is the "Look over here," or "Look at me," or the "Watch this." of a bored, unfocused mind.
Distractions may also become disorienting, having you arrive somewhere you had not anticipated, as though you'd boarded the wrong plane or train. Now you have to retrace your steps, wonder what it was you were doing. It is like going back inside a theater you've just vacated, suddenly aware you are missing wallet or glasses or cell phone, not finding the offender, despairing of the consequences, then discovering the missing object waiting in your car, where you'd left it.
If a distraction is handled artfully in something you are reading, you do not get the speed bump sense of the jerky driver at work; events appear to blend naturally, following the purpose of one or more characters which is, after all, the intent of the author.
You do not wish to distract persons who are having anything at all to do with something you have written. Having been on more than a few bumpy rides, you cannot abide the thought of subjecting anyone to the jerky sense of discontinuity crossing the border from concept A to the next destination on the itinerary.
Magicians are the ones to watch when it comes to managing or manipulating distractions. Each gesture of a magician is a nuance, leading you away from something in order to protect the dramatic essence of the final, emotional effect which is, after all, the gulping emotion of wonderment. It is all illusion, we say of the magician. How grand it would be to be able to say of your own work, it is all illusion, carefully orchestrated to produce this gulp of amazement.
I think I can see how you did that, you have said on occasion to some writer you admire.
It was the purest luck, the writer often says. I was being led by, perhaps intuition, perhaps by--
Magic, you say in unison.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
This is in fact a funny planet, a humorous planet on which the basis of true humor is revealed to the human species the way the physical laws of gravity are revealed to everything, including humans. The mere alignment of humor and gravity speaks to the basis of humor. Gravity governs the attraction between particles as well as humans. Humor reveals sad truths, gravity reveals attraction. Bodies may be drawn to one another, falling objects or, for that matter, even falling wolverines are drawn to other bodies as they fall. Persons are drawn to one another, referring to the draw as chemistry. Depending on the way you feel about such things, being drawn to another individual may make you wish to consider you had been intimates in another life, that you are perhaps soul mates or other such phenomena, when in effect you are drawn to internalized gravity, images of some cultural or idealistic attraction which, in your romanticism, you attempt to inflate.
The sad truth, which is to say the humor, of this planet is that you are going to lose out to forces you at one time may have thought you controlled but which in reality have controlled you as much as gravity controlled you. Even if you were at one time smart or good looking or particularly well-coordinated, it is not a good idea to think that these elements can help you with anything beyond momentary gravity; the planet is littered with monuments of individuals who have thought to better themselves by dint of good looks or smartness or such coordination as, say, Kareem Abdul Jabar or Ted Williams possessed at one time in their life span.
The steps to the next plateaus of experience come from finding a portal to a landscape in which the individual is further individualized as some form of instrument, a writer, an actor, a dancer, a poet, a biologist, dare you include editors and teachers? You dare. Abraham Maslow called such individuals self-actualizing and as you think about it, you believe he nearly had it; perhaps he actually did have it for him. For you it is all about the work, which is not to be done in a vacuum because that removes you from those two immutable areas of behavior, gravity and humor. Sad truths and attractions should not exclude you otherwise you would not be subject to the behavior others on this planet experience. You should see yourself as a sad truth attempting to do superb work in a clatter of conflicting attractions and distractions. Your own sense of what constitutes superb work is also subject to the sadness of revealed truth, which more often than not doesn't hand out awards for popularity or brightness or real success. Each time you attempt a work with the determination to get maximum satisfaction from the work itself and not any prizes for originality or brilliance or even relevance, you are less likely to find yourself in the theoretical free fall in which you placed the equally theoretical wolverine a few paragraphs back. Nor is it lost on you that some temporal success is in its way a vote of contemporary confidence which you are, from time to time, amenable. Thus gravity is able to have some effect on you after all, even though you recognize the funny nature of this planet and the laws of physical and psychological behavior that seem to hold controlling interests.
Although they were at one time great friends, one even the teacher/mentor of the other, you think Thoreau and Emerson were both fit subjects to have schools of proctology named after them. They represent to you gravity and gravitas in action and a kind of self-delusion solipsism.
The planet as it is, funny as it is, suits you, even though sad truths abound in such degree that you cannot remain self-piteous or lonely for long because of the ongoing gravity of persons and things to which you are attracted, drawn.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
At its deepest roots, impatience is a hunger or eagerness, a roil of emotion you suffer while waiting for a particular event to begin--or end.
Impatience calls into play the transition from "Are we there yet?" to "How much more of this do we have to suffer?" Impatience, which you drew upon in large measure from your father, reminds you of him at the ceremony in which his youngest granddaughter was being married to the affable Japanese national, Noriasu Tani, where representatives of the Jewish faith and the Buddhist faith spoke in collegial harmony to the point where your father could be heard to stage whisper, "How do you say enough in Japanese?" This subtext of course is "When do we eat?" Thus impatience morphs into an appetite; something to do or not do, something to eat.
This particular emotional state has a particular application for you each time you pick up a book or journal. Early in your reading life, you were impatient for story to begin, suffering long introductory passages with the same impatience you suffered what you had come to recognize as obligatory romance scenes in the motion pictures you fancied. You itched for something to happen to someone or for someone to set a plan or venture into motion. Along with your reading tastes, this impatience evolved to the point where you became impatient when the story ended before you wished.
As so many of your traits, abilities, and interests evolved in ways you begin to think are measurable, your inner reservoir of impatience asserted its own maturity. Now, it paces about with the nervous energy of wondering when you are going to get to the day's writing, made impatient by the quotidian necessities you sometimes have to confront first. There are also residual moments of impatience when you become impatient with the output of a particular day. You call that writing, your impatient self says to your more languorous self.
How much, your impatient self demands, do we have to put up with before you are firmly established within a paragraph or a page or two or three? Are we there yet?
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Surprise is the elephant in the living room of story. We work to get the details, motives, and character traits so plausible that they are practically pestering us for spare change or information that will lead to securing the services of a literary agent. We spend hours working over story arc, particularly those of us who are not natural plotters or planners. Honing. Sharpening. There is event, intent; there is consequence followed by remorse or exultation, each of these elements squeezed out as through a narrow birth canal, pushed from a flash of imagination to the point where these events and intents and asides are all arrivals in present time of the unthinkable.
We no longer think about surprise; instead we think about surpassing the moment so that we achieve a scene in which the results become not only memorable but emblematic of right now in the twenty-first century.
At the expense of our own emotional ease and well-being, we edge in for a closer, more honest look at what they, our characters, want and what they are willing to do to themselves and to others in order to achieve their ends. Of course we provide them with ends. Dude who is a lock for the job of Thane of Cawdor is already looking beyond, wants to be something more. A black chauffeur has to take a job driving a persnickety old gal. Keep that goal shimmering in front of them, something they dare not hope for but dare not forget.
Any number of individuals are willing to settle, going so far as to start right now, reaching for practicality, packing their one or perhaps two dreams into a sturdy container, then setting it aside while they go about, building up a security system for themselves and their families, even trying to connect that security system to the American version of the holy grail, The Great American Dream. Nothing wrong with that, and a lot about it that is essentially right, but such a system does not produce viable characters up front. Maybe someone who's been paying into that sort of system for too many years, then begins to think other, as in some sort of dream. Bingo. Enter story. All of a sudden, someone wants something because he or she has seen a time line.
Front-line characters are not willing to settle; they are lying if they say they do. The surprise is this thing they have been nourishing all along, feeding it the way a young person caches away a puppy or kitten which is now being fed from scraps sneaked from the dinner table.
How to exploit surprise? Start by asking yourself what is it about you that has surprised you in the past? What has been your most recent surprise? Is there any relationship between past and present surprises? Are you still paying off in conservative coin for the surprises you discovered in past renditions of yourself? Are you still buying into the tired old chestnuts about preparing for a rainy day, or are you now wishing you'd put more time into preparing for a rainy day.
There was a time when your father had a job selling insurance policies. One of his props was a booklet he was instructed to show prospective clients, a booklet featuring a full-page photo of an umbrella. One of the last pictures in the booklet was of a funeral, graveside, coffin still above ground. You turned the page from that to a family being protected by an umbrella. Long after the fact of his having given up that particular line of work, your father told you how much he hated using that booklet and its highly managed photos, showing the benefits of that umbrella of protection against the rainy day of the inevitability we all face. In all likelihood your love for him became more and more articulate as he harked back to that time in his life and how he wished to distance himself from it.
Some professional gymnasts, aerialists, like to use the term "working without a net." You could say the same thing about working without an umbrella. You came by it by indirection and observation, your resume or, gussied up for teaching, your curriculum vitae, attests to the places you worked with and without the umbrella, the times when, accordingly, there were or were not any surprises in store.
The surprise is within us as readers and as writers; we ignore it at our peril, looking for the story points on some document of proposal or sales pitch, in effect taking cheap formulaic solutions as opposed to those that rock the reader's consciousness and the writer's uneasy dreams. Mind you, this is not surprise merely to do something unconventional but rather to let some lingering, perhaps even festering emotion have its say. Remember Julian English in John O'Hara's Appointment in Samara? Throwing that drink was waiting to happen and probably came after O'Hara had had a few drinks, himself, freeing up the energy to one of the more forceful conclusions possible.
Monday, November 8, 2010
Someone you like, perhaps even to the point of admiration, approaches you. "Surely," the person exudes, for this is no longer the neutrality of that wonderful, useful verb "said." This goes beyond said to exudes; the individual sends forth enthusiasm and presence as though those qualities were pheromones, instigating further contact and exchange.
The moment is not sexual, is not meant to be that kind of attraction. The focus at hand is shared experience and the added sharing of response to the experience, which appears to undercut the argument for its non-sexual nature, doesn't it? For your part, however, you want sexual encounters to be confined to the enthusiasms of one-on-one. This "Surely," can be conducted in public or at least in the midst of a group of disinterested others; this "surely,"can be between you and a man or a woman with equal ease and enthusiasm; it can be an exchange that sets or removes boundaries as either of you sees fit.
"Surely you have read (or seen or experienced) a work that is filled in at the moment." Whether or not you have seen or read or otherwise experienced, there is an exchange that makes you wish to re-experience the object in question now that you have this other person's enthusiasm. (Still sounds sexual, doesn't it, what with the enthusiasm and commentary being metaphor for bodily fluids and other grand spinal and cranial sensations?) This may explain why although you do not act on such things as you once might have, you are drawn to men and women who are enthusiastic in their responses more than you are to individuals who are, for instance, acerbic or denigrating or overly critical to the point of having missed transmitting their impression of the intent they saw in the work. (All right, so it is a kind of sexuality, which is no surprising given your own enthusiastic reaction to sexuality.)
What to embrace and what to avoid--two ways of looking at the world about you, including your own visions and the visions of others as they relate to things, places, and individuals who are no longer living but who have left some grain of impression upon we who live now--and react.
There was a time when you were daunted by libraries, particularly the first ones you had repeat experiences with. Those early experiences were humbling because of your impression that in order to have any say in what happened to you in life, you needed to have read ALL those books. Indeed, at that time, you were so indiscriminate that you believed you had to read books (and listen to people and see performances and look at works of art) that you didn't like because who were you not to like them or the truth that inhered in each. Shortly after you discovered the magic and miracle of girls and then women, you understood better that some books and performances and works of art held no particular truth you could recognize much less would want to recognize. The miracle of the specific became uppermost, growing on you much as your height grew upon you, catapulting you from the dreariness of 5'7 to 5'9 then, unh, just made it to six, then, in a mighty surge, to six three.
So long as you continue doing so, it is sufficient to read the books you will read, not read the books you have no interest in (until someone you find interesting or admirable causes you to have an interest), not like the persons you don't like, not out of meanness of spirit or feud or even bigotry but rather because you have no real reason to like them.
It is dazzling to like the books you like, to relish the music you relish, to enjoy the plays and films you can open the psyche to; these things and such accouterments as flowers and food and poetry and the stark colors of the southwest and the sensuous feel of Navajo fry bread in your tummy, although no friend to a cholesterol index, cause you enthusiasm, which is quite sexual which, after all, defines the kind of being you are, and is no elephant in the living room or anywhere else in the confines of 652 Hot Springs Road.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Voice is everything.
There is not much difference between the strident, disagreeable voices you hear in coffee shop conversations or, indeed, in telephone calls soliciting news of your state of health before plunging into attempts at selling you things you didn't much want, nor even more to the point, many of the books you find staring out at you from the shelves of bookstores, the library book sale racks, or in the mere advertisements of forthcoming books in the better reviews. All these things have voices, rely on voice, fly or fall on the conveyance of voice.
Factor in the audio book and you have ratified yet another way the effect of voice on result; a well performed audio book will impart dramatic quality to a mediocre text. An excellent text, poorly read, has to settle for its chances at the lower levels of success.
According to our tastes and sensibilities, we embrace, put up with, or are put off by the emerging voice in a transaction, be it literary, political, romantic, or merely the occasional commercial transaction we must all engage. We have some time in the past made the necessary accommodations with those we regard as friends--as they have with us. The live quality in the voice of a friend is love.
If a story has no discernible voice, most readers will give it one resonant with their own taste, which is an acknowledgment to the writer of a loss of control of a major sort. A writer can ill afford a neutral voice or, for that matter, any tone suggesting passivity; the tone of a story must reflect the feelings and attitudes of those who are plucked from the comforts of the Sunday afternoon doze to confront the incessant needs of drama. These needs, as insistent and yet notional as a cat, wanting either ingress or exit, do not allow the character any more leisure than what has already been taken. Persons in real life situations have distractions, moments, priorities, perhaps even individuals for hire or emotional blackmail to do their bidding. Persons in stories have no such choices, rather they face the Ben-and-Jerry menu of consequences, things that we readers know will happen to them down the line no matter what they do.
The thing that keeps us at our reading is the suspense of seeing what those consequences will be, how smart we are to have avoided those consequences in similar situations, or perhaps the envy of imagining a consequence we dare not hope for (because we know we have done nothing to earn the outcome, because always in the back of our mind is the intent to do the things we hope will provide consequences we can not only live with but enjoy).
By the time we have reached a certain age (which varies among us) we have heard voices of parents, teachers, clergy, politicians, scientists, prognosticators, sales persons who tell us we look way groovy in a particular item of clothing we have serious doubts about. We have heard friends telling us in the particular voice of for-your-own-good that something we are contemplating is the equivalent of a major magnitude train wreck. We have heard silver-tongued orators and professional actors declaiming lines in which wisdom and understanding and love dwell. We have, if we have been at all fortunate in love, been compared to a summer's day and come out the better for it. We have been warned by favored waitpersons off particular dishes at particular restaurants--"The chef is having a bad day."--and we have been reminded by students of our effect on them even while the voice of an administrator from the same institution is plangent with the need for more careful articulation of teaching goals and their results.
The cumulative effect of this experience has given us a sensitivity to voice in all its permutations, even voice originating in us and our written expression. We are wary of how a thing will sound, acute to our opportunities to say the things we have to say, eager for the right note, that ebullient clink of sound that is as a joyous flick against the side of a crystal wine goblet, resonant with the cheer of the moment and the awareness of the wonderful fluid within it.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
You've been given any number of notices, ranging from acceptance to eviction. These included such last-minute instructions as the need to cut entire sections from a novel appearing serially, the need to add another ten minutes to a speech already underway that you were just rounding up, the need to cut at least ten minutes from a reading, and indeed, the need to prepare a keynote speech for a writers' conference on fifteen-minutes notice because the scheduled keynote speaker, a noted author you'd come to hear, had slipped away during dinner and instead of going to the men's room as he'd announced, was two blocks away at the Elk's Club, knocking back double shots of bourbon while telling various of the local Elks to go fuck themselves.
Another notice that came unexpectedly your way was the one informing you of a vote by the academic senate which accorded you the rank of adjunct professor, which had the almost immediate effect of causing your daytime employer, a PhD in history, to refer to you in his inter-office memoranda as Prof rather than the less sarcasm-laden SL by which you had previously been addressed.
There was a notice from the Sansum Clinic informing you of the results of a test citing a III-2 lesion on a body part you had come to take more or less for granted along with other body parts, and yet another notice some years later delivering you from any lingering consequences after the removal of said lesion.
There were notices about you sent to your parents, proclaiming you to be insufficiently endowed with the qualities of cooperation and responsibility thought necessary to perform successfully at the third grade level in spite of having earned respectable grades in all your subjects, causing your father to ask of you, "What are you, some kind of wise guy?" to which you had no recourse but to answer, "I guess so," at which point your father was left to observe, "That's a rough road to take." But he never tried to talk you away from it.
Some informed you of under- and overpayment of federal and state taxes, the need to renew city or county dog licenses, California driver's licenses (with reminders that being licensed is a privilege, not a right or entitlement), subscriptions in danger of expiration, notices that your services were no longer required at the publishing company where the president referred to you as Prof; a notice that someone you loved had better things to do in her life than see you again, signed with a shard of poetry in French that let you know the notice was being dictated by one or more parents; notice that you had won a contest; notice that you had not won a contest, notices to cease and desist; notices of forthcoming celebrations, notices that rights in particular stories had reverted to you; notices that novels had earned back their advances; notices that novels had not entirely earned back their advances and thus would you modify your prose to a greater sexual explicitness; notices that a particular book of yours had violated contemporary standards of sexual explicitness; notices that a review you'd written had taken a well-worn trope of disapproval; notices that your contract to teach was being renewed, notices that you had once again failed to submit the rubric of teaching goals as they related to learning goals; notices that your resignation had been accepted; and notices that someone from your past was on the Internet, hopeful of contacting you to pursue a romantic relationship once you subscribed to a particular service.
In addition to notices, you have had offers, one of which was for a free cremation, another for a burial at sea complete with a hand-calligraphed Oriental prayer scroll. Offers also extended included having portions of your body elongated, others reduced, others still rendered free of arthritic pain. There have been several offers of free admission to seminars in which you would learn the secrets of the financial universe, opportunities to sell any time-share participation in ski-lodge areas, and yet another offer of a trial size vial of pheromone extract which would presumably draw women to you who might otherwise not be interested in you in any slight degree whatsoever. A freelance editor in Los Angeles will tell you exactly what's wrong with your prose, and a former lady friend is willing to teach you the ins and outs of Argentine tango in exchange for editorial services on a novel.
The landscape bristles with notices, offers, and opportunity; such things are the smorgasbord of life. You have only to decide on the ones closest to your priorities, then place the choice ones on your plate while studiously avoiding temptations that might seem attractive but which would ultimately distract you from your purpose or cause you to prematurely be buried in a metaphorical sea of temptation, the teacher of Argentine tango coming to mind in resounding fashion on that score as indeed she had in the past. Even at this remove, you recognize the attraction has nothing to do with tango but rather the flurry of activity that surrounds attraction, whether it be words, visions of imaginative mischief, or the articulation among entities who appreciate and truly listen to one another.
Friday, November 5, 2010
For as long as you can remember back into your reading past, there were frequent times when you browsed the shelves of used and new bookstores alike, searching not merely for some entertainment or touted classic but for the one book that would so alter your perceptions and understanding that your life would have been transformed, as of that reading. Titles long since forgotten have passed through your brain much as an ice cream cone passed through your intestinal tract, your life interesting, at times dramatic, even entertaining and meaningful to high degree, but not transformed.
All the books on writing fiction had passed their way through you, some even leaving residue, but none of a transformative result. When you began teaching a fiction course at USC, the then department chair who had pulled you in off the streets had observed, "Surely you'll use E. M. Forester's Aspects of the Novel as your text." You said surely, then rushed to the massive, well-stocked student store, where you found and fell on the Forester, admiring it, in fact using it, but not transformed by it, either. Nor were the books you had contracted as an editor nor the things you had written, nor the one notable opportunity you had to reject Lajos Egri's impressive-in-its popularity Art of Dramatic Writing (which a subsequent department chairman, discovering your having refused the opportunity to reprint that work, shook his head at you as though you were not so much his faculty member as a random scale of academic dandruff).
Convinced as you are that there is no one book of such a transformative nature, you nevertheless made lists of books you thought might be so, then undertook to read them, pursuing them as though attempting to secure the marrow from a lamb shank bone. This led you to the all-or-nothing conclusion that only such a book as you might someday write would have that transformative effect on you, a challenge to produce, damnit, or forget notions of being transformed. Settle for some level of mediocrity you could not articulate because even that would be judgmental.
Time has had its way with you and you with it, with an impressive amount of frittering in between. You have written what you consider to be a transformative book which is indeed out in circulation and which has produced a number of explosive results including one now retired publisher from a major house vouchsafing his belief that you have achieved a state of senility previously unrecognized in someone so young as you are and another editor quitting her job and asking to take said transformative work along to her next position.
Being transformed has not done for you what you'd hoped; you still have enormous cowlicks, for instance, a nasty temper, an overly fond regard for Texas barbecue, and the absolute certainty that transformation only works one project at a time, which is to say each new project needs to contain its own qualities of alchemy whereby mere words take on that most precious quality of all, being interesting. You are adrift in a mystery in which you are loathe to kill of any slight character much less any of the major ones, and you are toying with a fantasy which is, as you consider it, a revenge fantasy in which certain academic types of individuals and the circumstances they provoke are holding sway against your judgment that revenge is in fact trumped at every turn by imagination and fun.
What you appear to have demonstrated is that such transformative books as there are have largely come to you with their batteries on low, needing all your ingenuity to get them into operation. Transformation is like a dropped iPhone call on ATT; if you redial and say nothing, perhaps the person at the other end will not notice, having come to expect dropped phone calls and dropped transformations.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Nearly everyone who has undertaken the writing of a protracted piece of any length or genre knows the finished product is at some remove from the original vision of the work. It is a cynical argument to insist that those who have undertaken the writing and don't know the final version will be different are either rashly naive or perhaps academics.
It is also cynical to think that the process can be made any different for those who believe in the magical of formula or, for that matter the formula of magic.
Magic does happen in life and in writing but not from any of the advertised sources; magic comes from the ordinary, the fussed-over detail, the uncertainty whether there will be enough in the pot to feed so many guests, enough scenes in the story to satisfy any kind of reader who, if he or she is any whit of good in the first place, approaches things with a modicum of cynicism.
Magic comes when the performer becomes aware of the need for some element to complete an earlier vision or, indeed, illusion; it does not come from outside sources, from little people running around with benign smiles and recondite spells; magic comes from the creator's anguish that some extra something would make the illusion more satisfying. Magic comes when the performer has run out of finite properties and must bring in something previously unconsidered, perhaps even something not at first thought worthy. Magic comes when the performer infuses the landscape with a combination of need, necessity, and the unspoken desire to provide a memorable experience to someone the performer considers special.
Magic comes to a story when the writer has used up all the artifice and formula, intuits there is a missing beat, a lacking nuance, a curtain that has hung unnoticed, a risk not yet considered. This is a perfectly luxurious story, the writer seems to be saying, all done up as nicely as possible, but which is still missing the touch that will make it a story that reverberates rather than one that is reprinted in some anthology of paradigm short stories.
Magic is a coffee stain on an otherwise clean shirt, an unnoticed crumb at the corner of a perfect mouth, one lock of unruly hair, standing forth in cowlick glory, a pair of socks that do not match, an unnoticed zit at the end of a nose. Magic is the quality humans supply when they are anxious to offer perfection instead of the true humanity of their gift, which is a smile instead of a package, a story instead of a perfectly cut diamond, a bunch of flowers instead of a Faberge egg, a novel instead of a necklace.