Monday, January 31, 2011

Editing Furniture: The desk stays in the studio

The clutter and enticements of your past often linger within you as a metaphor, sleeping in your memory attic, or perhaps the linen closet of nostalgia.  You step over events and the traces of their documentation (photos, printed programs, letters, framed awards, certificates, publications) without a second thought.  Your purpose is to emulate friends and associates who are more orderly, who think in advance to file things where they ought to be filed, who have a sense of where things ought to go.  These same individuals know when to discard things whose purpose or use-by date are short-lived.

Your friends have taken you on nevertheless, perhaps seeing in you adorability in the jumble and clutter you evoke at the mere hint of attempting to retrieve a specific project or item from the aggregate that is your mind, your work area, and your work ethic.  It is a rare time when you are outright unprepared; you have too much experience behind you to allow being caught without a flurry of thought and/or opinion on a matter.  You do require time, however, to make it seem that your opinions or preparations seem to have some order.

The amount of necessary time to prepare seems to you to be in direct proportion to your take on how much clarification is needed.

Moving is a form of intensified editing; you are paring down books, furniture, items you came by in the first place because they seem to you to be pure art.  No one else, looking at these, could have reason to suspect the item on your wall was art; at best they'd guess you considered it art or that you were making some form of statement by putting such a thing on the wall.

One of your oldest and dearest friends wondered today how you were coming with your edits.  You know better than to go general with this friend.  Instead, you tried for humor, explaining how you'd edited a sofa, a book case, a night stand, and an overstuffed chair.  He blinked two or three times before wondering if there were some new approach you'd discovered for making fiction sound more domestic.  "We live in a different world than the one we were born into,"  this man, who once had a computer for nearly a month before having to admit he did not know how to turn it on, said, a rueful smile dancing over his lips.

This observation, an essential truth, is already a cliche to be avoided at all costs, except when having lunch with a chum who will not pounce upon it with gotcha élan.

The subject is moving, changing residences, going through things you and others have written, received as gifts, read in some periodical, then set aside for some project that either came to grief or fruition.  Can you live without X, you ask yourself as you heft X.  You think of T.S. Eliot and his objective correlative, you think of the joyful times you had in the past, hanging out with the novelist/short story writer/editor/teacher, Robley Wilson, and the time you sent him a short story when he was editing The North American Review.  One of your characters had occasion to observe that he'd rushed to the station to catch a train that had left days earlier.  "That," Wilson told you, "is carrying the objective correlative too damned far."

Moving is carrying things too damned far.  Using the act and process of moving as a metaphor is carrying the objective correlative too damned far.  The only positive thing to come out of the exchange of venues for certain items and not for others is the certain knowledge that if you were using moving as a metaphor, you would have the good sense not to call it out in direct narrative.  It would be, as Bobbie Ann Mason did in her remarkable short story, "Shiloh," kept in the background.  How tempting it must have been to contemplate a story set in a park, commemorating one of the most intense battles of the Civil War, involving a husband and wife who get into an intense argument.  It was a mark of her maturity as a writer not to have called the parallels to the readers' attention, which means, now that you think of it, that you are severe in your dislike of the moving process and wish it were completed.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Beginning Writer's Life: Carping Diem

 As in other creative endeavors, there are stages in the writer's recognition that maturity exists, is a worthy goal to pursue, followed immediately upon such recognition to the striving to achieve it, the arrival at the early plateau, and the subsequent exercises of discipline to keep it limber and functional. 

In similar fashion, there are stages of writerly development where the major activity is complaining.  Complaint in a writer is often a cover-up or defense, waged against the fear that other writers are progressing at a faster level, finding voices, "seeing" or understanding the dimensions in orbit about a moral or ethical situation.

Complaining writers often are drawn to one another, whence they bond in fear and recrimination rather than striving to discover steps to bring them closer to their craft.  You can close your eyes and imagine the sounds of them carping, whinging, taking offense, chanting the mantra "Carping diem."

The writer's obligation is to disturb rather than to complain.  Even when a writer's complaints are grounded in validity, they sound too much like a screed, too little like a story; their concepts are still rooted in self-advertising rather than self examination, in expressions of superiority rather than empathy.

A certain maturity is assumed when the writer recognizes the need for the antagonist to be as dimensional as the protagonist, perhaps a tad smarter than the protagonist, possibly even a bit heavier with empathy.  The protagonist must describe an arc of plausible-yet-effective change, all this in the process of devising a strategy and attitude that is of higher quality than the strategy and attitude of the antagonist.  It is fitting for the antagonist to be better looking, smarter, more disciplined in the practice of his or her talent; this gives the protagonist a worthwhile opponent, one over whom a victory is an accomplishment, not a mere dramatic convention.  In real life, it is good to succeed for the sake of participation; in drama, it is good to succeed as a winner in the cosmic poker game of story.  At least in our mythos, taking part is more important than the laurel of victory or the sting of defeat; in the mythos of the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna learns that participation is everything. "To the work you are entitled," Krishna tells him, "but not the fruits thereon."  How many of us work, in particular for the mere sake of doing the thing?  How many of us work for the recognition?

How many of us work for the sake of complaint?

A writer with a complaint is a traveler who has picked up the wrong novel at the airport.  A mature writer's duty is to disturb readers.  Of course the goal takes with it the sense of entertaining the  reader while providing the disturbance.

How can I ever hope to do that?  the beginning writer, the cranky writer, asks.  Find a way, comes the answer.  They didn't tell me I had to do that when I began, the cranky writer complains.  You weren't ready to hear it, the veteran says, you were too busy complaining.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Occupational Hazards

The occupation of editing as it relates to a literary publication or a publisher of books is often so fraught that the editor is forced to take the actual manuscript home to read in some relative solitude or to seek a place outside the office with its routines of meetings  and other activities that would shock the book- or journal loving reader into a state of catatonic default.  There is enough of the intuitive and creative about the process to cause the editor to yearn for reading and editing time to the same degree the writer yearns for reading and writing time.

Although you believe the editorial and writing yearnings originate in opposite, even opposing sides of the brain, you further believe the common ground is focus.  At what state of focus will the mind begin to wander toward the state where endorphins squirt forth and time appears to have taken leave?How grand it is, whether editing or writing, to lose that part of self as organizer, as universe in order, i's dotted, t's crossed, ducks in a row.  How grand to feel on an almost nonverbal level the affinity between you and story, as though, having read some of the accepted canon, you are now a member.  You are fond of your friends, still warm from the memory and interaction of the regular Friday morning coffee, and look forward to such ad lib encounters with one or more, even though your sense is of a greater likelihood you will meet more remarkable friends in the pages of books and magazines, where characters are wound about the armature of agenda and needs.

"They," which is to say your educators, employers, and perhaps some family members, say story is the linking factor in the most and least of us, that story is our opiate rather than opiate being our story or excuse or passport to interest.  Even those of us with accessible or predictable story are by degrees more refreshing than those with mere ego or inflated self-image.  We make differing stories from a singular event, translating as our languages, cultures, and agendas diverge, bonded in our absolute commitment to differing interpretations.  It is a wonder when a story or a relationship holds.  But it is not surprising.

Who's Story Now?

You are sitting in a mini-banquet room at a hotel with several ice machines, an observation desk, and an exercise room, facing fifteen writers who are hopeful of advancing their projects to the point where they can send them out into the world of publication with some notion that they will pass the first obstacle, which is the obstacle of being read all the way through.

As you listen to these fifteen writers, and interact with your co-hose in this venture, a literary agent who once ran the editorial side of two major book publishers, it comes to you that this group is a good representation of the basic components within a group.  Many of them have a number of stories, others have only one, it is the most daunting story of all for a writer to cope with.  It is their story, the autobiography of them, up to this moment.  Their story will change.  If they do not change it, life will change it for them, perhaps to the point where their story will no longer be autobiographical but rather imaginative, innovative, evocative.  They will be able to take events from the reality in which they live, twist, bend, and shape them to symbolic events rather than reported, literal events. 

This is a freedom with a price tag attached or, if you prefer, this is the string of tin cans tied to the bumper of the car of a friend, intended to surprise and provide a moment or two of startling distraction.  If you follow the price tag analogy, the price is the energy and focus needed to fall in love with the event as you let it go from what it was, while shepherding it toward what it wishes to become. If you follow the string of tin cans analogy, you risk the consequence of the friend being startled and surprised enough to respond with irritation.  Either way is a winning way.  The thought of falling in love or arousing some form of disturbance is irresistible for the writer who has moved from self to story.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

This Can Only Mean One Thing (Yeah, It Means "Watch out.")

You first began to think consider the importance of interpretations during a more generous and expansive time in the world of books and publishing.  Even now, as you engage moving some of your books and effects from where you've lived to where you are living, you see that you've kept reminders, such as The Modern Library series.  You still have the copy of Dubliners, the James Joyce collected stories, printed in a uniform hardcover edition, cover price one big buck and a quarter.  You were led to consider interpretations when you discovered there were "interpretations" older works in various uniform editions, your choices often made not so much on the text as whether you knew anything about the individual writing the introduction, acute in your student days to the "interpretations" that gave you the most generous presentation of extras such as reading lists, glossaries, annotations, and the like.

Your attempts to collect one of the uniform complete works of Mark Twain went askew when the owner of the used book store at which you purchased many of the volumes for under a dollar each regretted that some of the titles were no longer available.  (But to your thinking, Twain needed no generous presentations of commentary; any collection of his works was sufficient to the task and screw the size and color of the bindings.  Any collection of Twain was, as Dryden said of Chaucer, "God's plenty.)  You mention the Twain material now because of your less-than-enthusiastic response to the recent autobiography which in aggregate editorial stampede is just the sort of mischief Twain enjoyed producing.

Interpretation gave you serious moments of thought and added contemplation when, after the established fact of the actor Lee J. Cobb "owning" the role of Willy Loman, the actor Dustin Hoffman took it on.  Your own meditations and observations were ratified by the excellence of the Dustin Hoffman portrayal or interpretation but have received yet added ratification by the recent announcement that another Hoffman, Philip Seymour, is about to take on the role.

At one point when you were seventeen and a college freshman, you had the opportunity to see the filmed version of Romeo and Juliet six times in one day, an interpretation you took on as many a seventeen-year-old would take it, with a mixture of absolute wonder and self-absorption.  Romeo was interpreted by the much-too-old English actor, Leslie Howard; Juliet was the no-spring-chicken-although-stunning American actor, Norma Shearer.  You were stunned all over again when actors of a more appropriate age were cast when the Italian film director, Zeffirelli, made the choices.  In similar fashion, you accepted the notion of interpretation in all its democratic glory when Lawrence Olivier, Kenneth Brannagh, and Mel Gibson portrayed Hamlet, and indeed spent time and effort considering the portrayals of Henry V as interpreted by Olivier and Brannagh.  Luck had you walking past the theater in which a matinee performance allowed you the joys of watching Al Pacino portraying yet another Shakespearean king, this one Richard III.

The point of all these scatter shots of example extends beyond actors and beyond the writings you have set down in which actors and characters in short story and novel form a glorious connection with professional, well-trained actors who interpret characters, each attempting to bring some detail or other to a character and this being a useful formula for a writer to examine.  (Wouldn't it be remarkable to see Jack Nicholson "interpreting" Sherlock Holmes?  Every bit as exciting, you argue, as having seen Meryl Streep portraying a rabbi in American Angels.)

Interpretation is not the sole landscape of the actor; interpretation is an integral part of the writer's reality (consider for a moment or two the need the Swiss playwright, Jean Anouilh felt to interpret a play written some thousands of years before his time, Antigone. )  Consider times when someone has interpreted something you'd published to have a meaning and intent at some angularity from your own vision.  Consider the times you have returned the compliment by seeing or hearing some trope to have an intent at odds from the creator's.

It is a sometimes wonder, other times a source of grand dramatic opportunity to revel in the potential for two or more individuals sitting down to plan something they appear to be in complete agreement about to be convinced of the complete degree of agreement and accord, then veer off to the performance which demonstrates the gap in interpretation.  (Writing about this vast Sargasso Sea of difference even among agreers, using the most generalized of terms has just this moment caused you to see the interpretation of a stalled story in a way that could give you the missing direction.  A group of individuals are meeting in an up-market hotel, using one of their conference room facilities to plan a bank heist.  You are already up several degrees of conflict when the safe man is at odds with the leader over the poor quality of refreshments and yet another member of the team is not comfortable with the notion of the driver of the get-away vehicle being a woman, even though she does in fact have NASCAR points.  Writing the previous paragraphs caused you to reflect, Suppose they set out thinking they were in sync but in fact were going to rob the wrong bank?)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nice to See You, too

From time to time you hear nominal readers complaining about a writer such as Cormac McCarthy in the context of not wanting to subject themselves to the discomfort his stories put them through.  From time to time, such as tonight in class, you feel the wall of resistance between you and the class when you speak of the need to push the characters and readers over the margins and into the potential for discomfort.  Oh, do I have to, is the plaintive cry.  I feel so awful writing about those things.  You pounce.  Then those are the things you should most write about.

What about, someone asks with mounting tenacity, individuals who like to read for pleasure?

You want to be a novelist or short story writer, you venture, or a composer of greeting card verse?

But what about beauty?

Ah, you say.  Forget about the price it just fetched, think how much beauty there is in Van Gogh's The Irises, and think how stark and disturbing that beauty is.  Think about doing that in a story.  You want to be writers or guides at Disneyland.

Which leads to the question, Is there anything wrong with wishing to be entertained?  Of course not; entertainment is a valid part of the human experience, but so is the telling of story that linger in the memory and show a picture of the kind of starkness of The Irises.  Muriel Spark's rather persistent poke in society's ribs that is her novel, Memento Mori, is a relentless take on a condition we must all face sooner or later, the condition of age and what the condition will do to us in specificity and what it may already have done to friends, associates, family members.

There was a time when your mother was on your case to write something nice, like the old fashioned stories.  Your response was variations on the theme of you making them as nice as you can without making them too nice to be published.  Then you would delight in taking her on a tour of some of the moments in the canons of western literature  where the reader was apt to get roughed up a bit, some of the Thomas Hardy, for example, and look how angry Ahab was over a single whale.

Nice works, but only when it is portrayed in context with the sorts of things that go bump in the night and in the sensitivities of individuals who try to fend off discomfort as though they were instead trying to stave off Count Dracula and his thirsty minions.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Income, Outcome, and Real Friends

In reality as well as in fiction, you have to have enough interest in an individual to care about any outcome they might encounter.  You do not have to like them.  In some way, perhaps the same way a worker bee knows which flowers to attend and which to avoid, you have to have some recognized sense of what the individual is about in order to make that next step of caring in any degree.

In most cases, your concerns about outcomes relating to strangers comes to mind when you are in coffee shops or restaurants; to a lesser degree your attitudes may become awakened, even aroused, in waiting rooms of medical centers, lines awaiting entry to a theater, perhaps even lines of individuals awaiting flu shots.  Conversation and its tone are the first wave, the literary equivalent of pheromones.  If a particular voice appears to honk or snort, perhaps even to speak at a decibel rate you find disagreeable, you begin by wanting that individual to stop talking.  Your experience is that such individuals do many things, but not talking is not one of them; they honk or snort or drone to the point where it is time for you to ante up and you do, with irritation.  I'll see your honk and raise you one pigeon or crow, flying over your head.

As your interest in an individual increases, so does your tendency to wish bad cess to that person.  This is where story comes in.  You must resist the urge to demonstrate your disapproval, your sense of superiority, your sense of moral outrage, even against the most self-absorbed, entitlement leaning individuals.  In story, you must approximate acceptance of that individual, searching for some skill or technique to blunt your sarcasm and disapproval.  This is the only way you can prevent the runaway slide of that character into monstrous cliche and intrusive attitude.  You want not only worthy opponents, you want bright, skilled, articulate opponents in order to have your protagonist's ultimate triumph have stature.  It is nothing to defeat someone who, on face, is despicable; it is only when you are up against an Iago that your true skills of evocation and resolution are called into play.  Goodness for its own sake is dull, lackluster.  Evil for its own sake strikes you as eighteenth- or nineteenth-century, in its own way as dull and lackluster as Sir Galahad is in his representation of goodness.

You want friends who disagree with you on specifics, thus the mutuality and reciprocals of the friendship bond.  Truth to tell, aren't you a bit suspicious when someone you know agrees with you too much?  You begin to wonder what the ramifications of this agreement will become.  How nice, when you have given what you consider a decent performance in some venture, only to hear a friend say, You'll get it better next time.  First that squirt of irritation:  What do you mean?  Then the reality, what you did could have been better, but your friend is still in your corner, supportive, still your friend, yet confident of your ability.

You want opponents who are not cliche, who are bright, perhaps a bit too bright for your own comfort.  You want opponents whose opposition to you and your regard of it help you delineate yourself with greater acuity than a mere acolyte.  In life and story, an opponent of dimension and reach helps you see yourself as worthy of the best life has to offer.

Opponent:  someone for whom you reserve your best retorts.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Unsame Old Story

Is it changing before your eyes or are you the one undergoing the change?  Perhaps you are both complicit in co-dependency, each relying on the other for clues leading toward definition.

Although you have cause to believe it has scarce awareness of you, even greater reason to suspect the relationship should continue on that note of imbalance, you nevertheless believe your awareness of It, for It should be bumped upward to the status It deserves, has been an influence of marked effect on your life.

Even now, as you deal with change, of emotional and physical impact, you are as concerned about It in a way similar to your attempts to lure Negrita, the feral cat you have been feeding these past years, into making the move from the semi-rural ambiance of Montecito into the whimsical sprawl of "The Barb," which is to say the downtown park-like areas adjacent the central city.

You are pleased with your new lodgings, but the simple fact persists of it being a step down in square footage from a semi-rural cottage to a wood-featured-but smaller studio.  The bathroom is perhaps twice the size of the telephone booth that once rivaled mushrooms for the places it appeared.  The main room, wood floor and beamed ceiling, looking less like a square because of the elegant lines of the beams.  Say four hundred square feet.  Then as commodious a kitchen as you have encountered on Danielson Road or, indeed, on Hot Springs Road.  There are accommodations for some books but not as many as you have come to rely upon, making your collections expand as a koi in a pond will expand its size to relate to the size of its pond.  In transporting your treasured short story collection, you have already begun to prune.  You would like them all, but space is a factor if you are to have any room to move about.  You promised to do your best to induce Negrita to come with you, despite the probable likelihood that were you to succeed, she'd be on her way back to Hot Springs the moment she slithered out the front door.  Neighbors have agreed to watch for her, leave her dishes of dried food and bowls of water.  They have shown no such willingness to take on the culls of your short story collections.

This referendum is, after all, about the short story, a prose narrative that has evolved much the way such insects as ants, crickets, and beetles have evolved, bent on survival in spite of and perhaps because of the notion that the short story is an appetizer to the novel's dinner.  The short story has developed considerably in this country, ranging from the tales and sketches of Washington Irving, taking more of a single-effect narrative with an ironic payoff as delineated in criticism and in actual examples by Edgar Allen Poe.  The Poe model persisted for nearly a hundred years, surviving some serious structural changes by the likes of Jack London, undergoing some tweaking at the hands of Henry James, splashing off with great panache by James Joyce in the early years of the twentieth century, marching on toward ambiguity cloaked in irony as a cadre of serious writers came tromping through, a serious artistic invasion by writers who began to see in short fiction the same kinds of elaborate nuance they discovered in the longer form, the novel.

The twenty-first century, short story-wise, is in its way like twenty-first century politics; filled with innovators, those who resent, and perfervid traditionalists, the latter two categories least likely to have read much--at least not with any great pleasure--of the writers who are coming forth from the assembly lines of the MFA Programs and the small magazines with circulations in the high three figures.

Your particular stake or interest in the short story came from the belief that you did not know how to do the plotting that was required in many of the stories being published while you were growing up, leading you to rambling interactions that arose by seeming accident while the characters were engaged in something else.  As time passed, you began to understand that plot for you meant a clash of character goals or personalities, which was not, you have come to realize, a bad place to be.  Now, you think about plot on rare occasion, rather you think about clash of intent.

Many of the older stories still compel you to return to them, so you are not tossing them away as you are your books.  In simplistic terms, you believe a novel is a result of something happening that triggers at least one front-rank character to change.  The short story does not allow such luxury as change although it does allow the writer to push their characters to the edge of a dramatic chasm, leaving the reader to imagine how it will achieve the kind of closure they feel the characters are most probable to obtain.

You are in fact, leaving some of your books of stories to fend for themselves, but it is a comfort to realize how many of them have fended so well all these years for you.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Horse of Another Choler

 Habitual things such as writing every day, brushing your teeth, making sure Sally has water available in at least two different places, exercising, reading, and the like produce beneficial results much of the time; these are preferences for overall well-being, health, if you will, and the general sense of comfort.  With the possible exceptions of writing and reading, they are not apt to provide adventure or excitement.  You cannot, for instance, recall the last time brushing your teeth produced much in the way of excitement, although there was that incident with Sally's water dish that did produce rising cholers if not outright adventure.

Habit takes over when you make at home or order out the same thing for breakfast, forgetting the part about coffee, which is more related to identity than to habit.  Mornings, you begin to identify things after you've had a few sips of coffee.  Hand.  Cup.  Lips.  Habit often becomes so intense in its habitual way that it precludes such vital elements as pleasure, apprehension, the smug sense of self-indulgence, anxiety, and the like, all important spectators in the Today Show that is you rather than the one on television.  You spend time after those opening sips of coffee, thinking about the benefits of varying routines, thinking about the new sets of problems and accommodations change invokes.  This produces the immediate surge of anarchy you need to cause the day to move into some pattern suggesting adventure rather than routine.

Good as it is to get the endorphin surge from finishing a project, which in turn sets you about in scatter-gun fashion until you are kidnapped by a new project, there is adventure to be had when you are mid-project, not at all sure where it will take you.  It is not so much that you enjoy anxiety or uncertainty--you don't--as it is a need to experience these feelings, perform the emotional equivalent of keeping in touch with them.  It is numbing to always experience the sense of having learned something or to have made connections between two or three things previously discreet for you; there has to be some valleys of doubt, impatience, and anxiety in the interstices to help buoy the enthusiasm when it comes.

Sometimes when you are at sea, lost as it were in a revolving door of options, a lovely, warm sense comes over you, making you realize you are as well in your element when you are confused as you are when you are enthused, focused.  You find yourself using the line-of-sight method employed so many thousands of years ago by the early mariners, their memory banks filled with pictures of places by which they can now cast their course of action.  Confusion is as much a familiar sight as the stucco buildings you drove through in your last trip to Los Angeles.  Self-doubt is a great old pal, reminding you of class reunions, accidental meetings of old chums, even accidental encounters with former students who, by any account are doing well, perhaps better at their age than you when you were their age.

Doing what you enjoy seems at times as though you are playing out a habit, which of itself is not bad by any means; it is good to catch yourself tweaking and adjusting the exuberant feelings you experience in such moments.  Doing what you enjoy can lead you into that exciting state some favor when they gamble.  The state is called Risk, which is another acupuncture point on the metaphoric body of the spirit.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Story, not the Devil, Is in the Details

You were taking your first sips of coffee at the Cafe Luna in downtown Summerland when another Cafe Luna customer entered, drew abreast of your table, then stopped to tell you what you'd had for breakfast across town at the East Beach Grill.  "You had,"  she said, "the two-three-two combo.  Two eggs, three hot cakes, two sausages.  You were with that guy who used to be sales manager at Bantam Books.  Fred."

"Fred,"  you said.  "I wish I'd seen you.  I'd have said 'hi.'"

"I wasn't there.  Can't stand the place.  Someone I know saw you."

The small town connecting link at work.  There are enough people in the area that extends from Carpinteria in the south all the way to Goleta and the University, northbound, that you sometimes forget you live in a small town.  Until it behaves the way you think a small town behaves.  You go about the vectors of  your day filled with the purpose of the moment,the near future, and of course the past, being yanked back to that quintessential small town where every memory and impression carries with it the tingle of gossip.  The small town inside your head is populated with gossips.

When you are in the present moment, filled with purpose or adrift on mild currents of drowsy input, you are as close to being in control of your intentions as such things are possible.  The moment future probability or past action are available for consideration, your own point of view is hostage to interpretation.

So far as ideas rather than tangible things or actions are concerned, it is still a jungle out there; even your own interpretations could be influenced by the gossip you hear from your own internal parts.  It may sound simplistic for you to suggest the solution to yourself of just get on with it, the it being the story at hand.  When you return to a particular book for yet another read, you may well see a different story, an "other" story than the one you carried about with you.

It is rather a mountain goat leap of logic at this point to say that the specific details in a story are important for reasons other than you think; they are there to provoke and provide the sense of reality rather than the argued and logical facts of reality.  It is entirely possible that the friend who told your friend what you had for breakfast got it right on the button, in particular if you like the notion of her observation reflecting gossip.  But it would have made an entire new vector of story had you been convinced you did not have the two-three-two breakfast combo that morning, settling instead on oatmeal.  Hearing the recitation of your activity, you could well have thought, That's the trouble with small town gossip, the gossips can;t even get the details right.

Two important constants in these vagrant lines:  the small town flavor, and the importance of details.  How many times have you overheard, even participated in arguments over the accuracy of the details.  None of the participants were arguing about the presence of the details, rather the accuracy of them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Worlds apart

For the longest time, you have taken comfort in your observation that you are a composite of personality types, starving actors who, like your pal Digby Wolfe and his one-time roommate, Anthony Newley, owned one good suit between them, wearing it when auditions and interviews emerged.  You and your component parts live in the same body; although they own more than one suit between them, they have had to come to terms with what to do with a number of suits they have not worn for years, now that you are living in what you thought to be two worlds, the Old World of 652 Hot Springs Road, and the New World of 409 E. Sola.

There isn't the room for all your things; belongings collected over the years have been consigned to various fates outside 409 E. Sola.  In some cases, your interest in them has waned, perhaps not to the point of outright abandonment but candidates for the Undecided pile, that grand purgatory bordering the Rescue Mission or Good Will.  Your collection of Big Little Books made the cut; it now occupies a ledge under a commodious kitchen window.  The collection of colorful ale six-pack cartons did not fare so well.  Interesting graphics are one thing, space is another.

The act of moving may have been the trigger for the realization that you are living in more than the two geographical worlds.  You live in at least three worlds so far as your interests intersect with your ability to earn a living.  While in the process of trying to earn your entire living from your writing, you acquired experience if not talent as a painter's assistant (bad, very bad at coiling hoses), the manager of a parking lot, a gopher at a luggage shop, an auctioneer's assistant, a telephone solicitor, a carnival barker and booth manager, a newspaper person.  All these were good things to have done as a person who wished to write stories about working class individuals.  These times were the two worlds times, wherein you had these various jobs while aspiring to publication in sufficient measure to support you.
Reaching the makes his living as a writer plateau, then tumbling from it, led irrevocably toward the hyphenization of writer, editor, teacher, from which there is apparently no immediate relief, a forthcoming book and the deliberation with the publisher which of a list of three will come next, ignoring the ardent desire to get back to the novel in the works.

This high-class problem must be reconciled with your promise to take over three of your late wife's classes plus the weekend intensives you have fallen into giving with your literary agent, plus the pile of editing projects that seem to approach you with the same casual demeanor as a panhandler wanting to help you rid your trousers of those lumps of spare change.

This is neither a good nor bad scenario, not until you find yourself in the midst of a class or an editing job, wondering what is going on with the characters you have created in the novel or the concepts you have begun to address in an essay or review.  At those moments, you realize you are moving from the pleasure zones you encounter when working in rather than on publishing, when somehow the persistent momentum introduces itself to the point where you are organizing, administrating, assigning to others the tasks you most enjoy; you are in a sense promoted, but is it really a promotion, to another world.

When you are composing, the world about you is not neat, even less than it might be if you are composing in your favorite manner, with a fountain pen on a sheet of lined note pad.  Coffee, crumbs, index cards, books, and magazines are a sea frothing about you; it takes considerable time to clean the area after a composing session.  This is a lovely, expansive, enthusiastic world in which anything is possible.  It is even possible you will finish such a venture, which is to say complete a draft, whence you need to be doing as you are on your project headed for publication in July, revision.  Revision brings out in you such neatness and order and attention to detail as you never possess in other worlds.  The neatness and order apply to the finished manuscript, where you perform to an almost exact comparison the work you are performing in moving from 652 Hot Springs.  What ever were you thinking with those adverbs?  How did you expect anyone else to interpret that sentence when you had to read it aloud twice before you recalled the impulses that went into your having written it in the first place?

It comes down to this:  You don't believe having a neat desk or work area will in any way add to your niceness or efficiency as a person.  You do have implicit and explicit faith that revisiting the draft, even the one that got the editor onboard in the first place, will make the manuscript nicer in its ability to entertain, disturb, and educate.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Usual Suspects

If there is such a thing as a creation myth for story in the dramatic sense, the lovely area between anticipation and disappointment has earned its way into it as a primal force.

Anticipation, you see, means an eager, positive expectation from a forthcoming event.  We approach individual and group meetings, performances, entertainments with the interest and pleasure receptors well honed, looking forward to entering the moments those meetings, performances, and entertainments (such as meals) will occur.  We are up for the adventure of enjoyment.

Disappointment is not the mere negation of expectations, it carries the nuance of having been led astray, either by our own expectations, some unforeseen disaster, or our faulty reliance on the judgment of one or more other individuals.  We are disappointed when a thing or event does not live up to our prior expectations (which, if everything related were optimal, would have exceeded our fondest hopes), thus are human not content with satisfaction, we wish to have our expectations exceeded in ways that surprise us.

The no-person's land between Anticipation and Disappointment is the storyteller's dream turf, the territory where drama, conflict, hidden agenda, drug deals gone wrong, and arguments over easements are alive and well 24/7.  The area is Suspicion.  When we begin with the suspicion that we will be disappointed, we are questioning the motives of others and the enemy of story, which is stasis, is ousted from the conversation.  We suspect we will have a terrible time, which means that even though we were to be met with a modicum of pleasure, it will still have been blunted.  Even more of relevance, there are those who would judge such an approach as cynical, which in its own way means suspecting something will go wrong.

Readers, of course, want things to go wrong; readers thrive on things going more and more wrong, past their threshold of accepting quotidian foul-ups.  Readers are so focused on suspecting things will go wrong that they will begin skipping pages if accord, unity, and cooperation persist.  You have to hand it to readers; they know things providing pleasure, comfort, and satisfaction are harbingers of forthcoming disappointment.  Readers love it when two individuals who appear to be well suited for one another fail to recognize the pleasures to be had in such comfortable and productive relationships.  Readers want characters to be mismatched, even to the point of wanting them to be miserable in their mismatched condition.  You'd be tempted to argue the cause of readers being mean-spirited or transferring their own sense of being misallied.  Such temptations would cause you to overlook the true rationale:  Readers want to see the characters they like find pleasure because these readers want to see how it is done in order to try the technique themselves.  Readers in fact are happiest when characters are able to find hidden pleasures, hopeful that they, too, will turn up some unanticipated pleasure when and where they least expect it.

Readers know that characters who suspect one another are more apt to engage in story that will push boundaries going in, which is to say with opening complications--and going out, which is to say with some form of resolution.  Readers will become suspicious if the resolutions are too fair, even-handed, or lavish; the complications can never be too severe or unfair.  In the responses of the characters to severe and unfair complications reside the best and worst of the species as the Homo sapiens entry in the parade.  Men and women in modern stories may be disappointed, but in their responses to the disappointment, they convey what we like most about ourselves as individuals and as a species.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Belief systems

A belief system is an orbit of information, promise, and hope subscribed to by individuals and groups.  It offers its faithful the metaphorical equivalent of steak knives; failing that, it offers some form of salvation and/or real estate on the moral high ground.

In your life thus far, you have kicked the tires of several belief systems, from the broad and all-eembracing to the specific and arcane, more often leasing rather than making an outright purchase.  You are still on the fence about one or two, going through the motions with them more from muscle memory than full-on presence.  Other belief systems you once held in cheerful regard at one time, are now like invitations from high school chums who now, after all these years, want to friend you on Facebook touching but no longer compelling.  You do not, in this instance, like the verb made from the noun; you have no problems with making,maintaining, working at friendship, only to the concept as a verb, friending.  Yet other belief systems from your past float up to the surface of your consciousness like chunks of mystery meat in the stew at a cheap diner.

You are in favor of belief systems as a general purpose.  They seem to you to organize themselves and you in comfortable and comforting ways, a convenient pole star to lead you through the existential night.  You do not hold much belief in the ain soph, the abyss of endless light that is a part of the cultural tradition into which you were born and raised with some whimsicality, pursued on your own with even greater whim.  The ain soph is an abyss over which the faithful must cast their soulful being each day as a demonstration of their faith in the vast intricacies of our mutual belief system.  And yet.  It neither suits you to disparage it nor those whose faith allows them what you consider to be the illusion of their leap.  After all, the cultural tradition in which you were not raised (but which has abounded around you) has produced at least one memorable philosopher who openly speaks of a leap of faith. True,the context of the Kierkegaard leap of faith is different from the ain soph but who are you to gauge the intensity of risk for the sincere in either culture?

Who, indeed, are you?

At the least, you are your own belief system, barely articulated here, yet beginning to find yourself defined by daily degree in the totality of your blog notes, your most sententious writings and pronouncements, and your most scattered writings over the years as well as some of the more purposeful examinations you have set down.

The totality of your written (and spoken) words are the ghost of the elder Hamlet, stalking the battlements of the castle, seeking to induce you to the act of revenge,which in this case is to to search down and edit into some semblance of dignity the excesses and exaggerations you have rendered thus far.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"You can't laugh at the same joke twice." Heraclitus

  What is the one place you can turn for humorous results without risk of disappointment?

   Fear, of course; our communal fears or your own personal fears.  The reader or viewer, watching us struggle, may experience a moment of painful connection, which intensifies to the point of discomfort at the fear that there is no release or way out of disaster.  

The absolute sense of helplessness and vulnerability triggers the release of laughter.  As a matter of cultural self-awareness, we understand what our laughter means; the discharge of the tension arising from the vulnerability and fear, the relief that this time we are not the victim, some individual in a film or play or story is the victim.  The laughter is the payoff of humor.

If we chose to pursue the matter, we may discover some hidden truth in our laughter, thus does humor become more than a mere release; it becomes revelation through the baring of a sad truth.  Back to rhetorical questions such as the one in the first sentence:  What is a sad truth?

A sad truth is an awareness of a constant result, learned during or after an event we once thought to be safe.  Thus the awareness that doing this particular thing will always produce pain or discomfort, either physical, psychological, or both.  

Pain and discomfort may collude to provoke you into cautionary behavior.  Thinking to protect yourself, you could with ease make yourself more vulnerable to the potential growth in learning that may--repeat, may--come from taking a risk.

You could argue that attempting to arrange outcomes in hopes of safety may be more risky than you once thought.  Experience with risk will trigger humorous memories.

You could argue that humor abounds, dwells where ever there are individuals doing things of any consequence, but in doing so you bring in another aspect of humor, which is to say point-of-view, or  the gored ox.  It is not funny if your ox is the one who has been gored.  What was your ox thinking of, getting in the way like that?

We may be seated in a large auditorium, laughing at some communal trigger, but yet another question arises:  Are we sure we are laughing at the same joke?

Monday, January 17, 2011


Every time you write about secrets, you discover a secret about yourself that you had managed to keep secret.  Either that, or you have manufactured a secret since the time of last writing, a positive sign, you reckon, because it means many dimensions of the process are still growing.  You are not relying on old secrets, nor have you dressed any of the older ones up to seem more contemporary, more twenty-first century.

It is no secret to you that you are preoccupied with secrets in general and a few of specific nature because, after all, you would like to be working on your novel, which has the word secret in its title--The Secret of Casa Jocasta.  In ordinary circumstances, you would be working on The Secret of Casa J. because there are so many other things due for you to work on and it is no secret to you that having distractions of an urgent nature is a splendid way to get you working on something you consider of high, gnawing interest to the point where you can visualize scenes playing out in high-nuance definition.

You are under the obligation to which you agreed:  you must have revisions done by the 24 of this month to end to your editor.  It is not that you need to be yanked back into a project you spent some years thinking about, writing, and revising.  Nor does your wish to be working on The Secret diminish your enthusiasm for the project to be called The Fiction Lover's Companion. Nor yet is it a secret that were the tables reversed and your editor on your case for a replay with more--or perhaps less--color of a chapter in Secrets, you would be wanting to scoot off somewhere for unfettered hours with The Companion.  These strategies and gambits are well known to you; there is no secrecy hanging about as squatters.

If you have become immersed in an inviting novel or short story, you are engaged by the characters and their plight, in particular the shadowy area between their desires, expectations, and tenacity.  The more quirky the characters, the greater their edge, the more fascinated you become, wondering what secrets lurk within, waiting the moment of dramatic combustion for them to explode into the story.  This has the effect on you of wanting to redefine yourself, make yourself more quirky than you already are, more goal oriented to more fanciful outcomes than you already own in fee simple; you want mortgages, tontines, mysterious alliances, unanticipated benefactors, even to the extent of Charles Dickens' Mr. Pip having the most unanticipated benefactor of all whom, in your more expansive moments in the classroom, you have equated with Dickens' concept not of a mere escaped convict but of Fate, itself.

But this is no secret, either.  It may be a secret to some, but this is one dimension of yourself you claim to know beyond secret cabal with the more conservative and prudent aspects of your component parts.  Your secret is that you have become less cloudy, your opacity in gradual retreat to the point where, by virtue of the pages you have read and the pages you have written, you have removed the mystery that is you.  But the secret is that although the mystery has been illuminated by the light of understanding shining through the landscapes you create, it is still opaque if not downright dense to you.  

Sunday, January 16, 2011


The concept of a need conjures up a hole in the fabric of some one's universe or the sense an organization has of being somehow incomplete or bereft of a particular commodity.  Need may just as well relate to even more amorphous apparitions such as love, esteem, honor, even the sense of morality.

Needs are multifarious; they relate where individuals, groups, institutions, and societies are concerned, offering forth a complex profile of existential health.  Men need jobs or at least occupations, which in large measure keep them out of the way of purposeful women.  Men also need a sense of purpose, which is good for keeping them out of saloons or therapist's offices.  Men are good at meetings, in particular meetings that keep them away from actual work.  Women need to be understood; they are happiest when they are understood by individuals whom they admire, but they have often found it expedient to accept being understood by individuals they tolerate, or less.  The biggest mistake a man can make with a woman is to tell her he does not understand her, which is tantamount to admitting he has no clue what she needs.

Needs are an introduction to the irony of seeming specific until someone asks you what you need.  A waitress at The Club Hotsy-Totsy, a long defunct bistro in San Francisco, once asked you if you needed anything.  Your answer surprised you and her to the point of a great discovery, an enormous air fare bill, and emotions neither of you thought you had.  Hearing or reading the word "needs" often reminds you of the times when stories or essays you have written and sent forth into the world of publication came back to you with the notation that your work did not meet the needs of the particular publisher.  Oh, yes, publishers do have needs, although they tend to be generalized, say romances or mysteries, or materials referred to as woo-woo, or of an extra reality basis that includes "the other side," ghosts, spirits, and the like, all as eager as the sales persons operating from telephone cubicles to make contact, pass along information, right old wrongs, or to inform some deserving relative where they'd cached an enormous sum of money.

Publishers do have generalized needs; they do not always know how to articulate these needs until they see a submission that causes them to think, I've got to have this.  When your first editorial job led to the promotion of status where you could be sure of getting a particular book project you wanted, a number of your writer friends pursued you, hopeful of discovering your editorial needs.  When you were forced to generalities such as "I'll know it when I see it," you were accused of having sold out your ideals.  Only one of your friends from those days went on to forge any kind of reputation as a writer and indeed you did call him into your office one day, setting forth the challenge, Matt, I need a mystery.  What you needed most in those days was not the ideals your writer friends seemed to have thought you'd abandoned but experience in the ways and who's of approaching reliable authors for reliable projects.

Will you ever be in a place where you have no needs?  You doubt it.  Your vision of yourself and those about you suggests with a strong voice that an individual who has no needs is dead, insensitive to the point of being as good as dead, or deluded beyond measure.  The times for being dead, insensitive, or deluded are, you reckon, a long, long way off.  Even if they are not, you need to get to work because a certain editor has given you a certain schedule which you need to observe.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Happy Camper

You have been wracking your memory files of late, trying to remember when you first heard the expression "happy campers."  No specific moment comes to mind; you took the phrase in as a metaphor, assuming it meant a group of individuals in some venture-laden circumstance.  The individuals who were indeed happy campers were in various incarnations audiences, participants, classrooms, congregations, perhaps even voting blocs.  Whoever they were, they were pleased with the status quo; things had gone their way, their travel itinerary had been fulfilled with success, they had been fed well, perhaps even with imagination; their seating or sleeping or dining conditions were at least satisfactory, perhaps even bordering into splendid.

Now, you are not so sure.  It is the streak of stubborn cynicism that visits you when a phrase or concept becomes too well used, is thrown at you as though some sort of gauntlet which you are supposed to take.  Because of the price of oil, the gulf oil disaster, the bi-election disaster, job insecurity, candy-assed conservatives railing for more restraint, and the increase in number of poorly edited publications, and goddamn administrators at colleges and universities with their goddamn rubrics and templates and formats,you are no longer so willing to be free with your expansive gestures
as you once were.

You want to know who these campers are who are so self-absorbed as to think they have somehow become standards of contentment and comfort.  You are calling them out.  Who the fuck are happy campers?  When you were in fact a camper, you were dismayed to discover something unanticipated in your sleeping bag, particularly if it were a snake.  On the other hand, finding nothing in your sleeping bag meant at one stage of your development that you were a social pariah, so low in esteem that no one would attempt coarse humor at your expense.  Such a state would make you unutterably an unhappy camper because at the time you were unable to unravel the nuances of popularity and pariah behavior.  At that same age, you'd have been a particularly happy camper were your sleeping bag to contain such tributes to your social standing; persons would have thought it clever or prestigious to have left some irritant token in your sleeping bag, thinking it a great lark when you discovered it and reacted with appropriate mock outrage.

The happy camper has become the new and, you think, unreasoned standard of contentment and comfort.  Now that you have taken strides toward becoming a curmudgeon, you are not willing a snake-free sleeping bag or some mess-kitchen chipped beef on toast meal become a standard for elation or comfort or satisfaction.  In your own, secret, anarchist heart, happy campers are akin to Tea Baggers, men and women even more cranky than you, angry at the thought that the Constitution of the United States could in any way be interpreted as a modern document, that all persons were, indeed, created equal.  Tea Baggers are somewhat happy campers now because a few of their acolytes have gained election to representative bodies at state and federal levels, but to you they are as young persons throwing temper tantrums, a condition unappetizing even when young persons are demonstrably young as opposed to senior citizens behaving as though they were young.

Whoever these campers are, you hold no brief for their happiness.  If you were to learn that one or more of your favorite writers were campers, you would not want them to be happy.  Look, you would say, as Joyce Carol Oates or Annie Proulx, or Don DeLilo, John Maxwell Coetzee, or even the redoubtable V.S. Naipul; these are truly unhappy persons, turning out literature to enrich our lives.  Jamaica Kincaid may be a happy camper, but surely Edwidge Danticat is not, nor could you ever imagine Philip Roth or Jerome David Salinger as happy campers.  And yet, they have all given us literature in greater number and weight than happy campers.  Can you, for even a moment, consider William Golding to have been a happy camper, or, say, Henry Louis Mencken?

This calculus, you have just realized, would prompt the realization that a definition of literature could contain the trope:  a narrative written by an unhappy camper.  All of this would lead you to ask of yourself:  Are you a happy camper?  Your answer would be, Fuck, no.  Except.  Now that you think about it, you can see the emerging throughline.  You are not a happy camper unless you are writing.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Alright, Why Do You Read?

 Even though it was observed as a resident element inhuman behavior even before Heraclitus observed that one cannot bathe in the same river twice, the observation was not named for anyone.  William of Occam had his contextual razor named after him, Robert Boyle had a law-for a fixed amount of an ideal gas kept at a fixed temperature, pressure and volume are inversely proportional; while one doubles, the other halves--and Jacques Charles had his own law about the manner in which gas expands.

The unnamed law you are considering staking a claim to resides in the dichotomy of those who read to be entertained and those who read to be comforted.  You could also stake claim to the pair of opposites in which a great number of people are always on the look out for breaking matters into dichotomies.  There are any number of Lowenkopf's Laws; as a teacher and a writer, you are versed in making statements that sound as though they have been tested, argued, then ratified into law.  There are, in fact, so many Lowenkopf's Laws that you have trouble remembering them, and resolve, the next time you are accorded sabbatical, to codify them.

You have no objection to being entertained while you read; depending on the author, you find yourself moving with dispatch along the enjoyment highway, in particular when the author has begun in deft, dramatic fashion, to expose some institution.  Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is a prime example.  While Chabon is entertaining, he is also exposing bravura ability to use exaggeration to take down pomposity.  Although there are times when you read for the literary counterpart of comfort food, you have formed the greater habit of reading to deconstruct, to see how they--the men and women writers you so admire--achieve effects you find admirable to the point of wishing to include them in your own tool kit.  Thus you read to further your education, as an individual and as a writer.

Richard Russo's novel, Straight Man, is the sort of literary prank you admire.  Under its apparent burlesque and farcical story line beats a heart of serious concern, adding realism to the concerns and to the situations and circumstances that appear to be farcical in the first place.  From the first paragraph, Russo's protagonist sets off on a riff about being entertained that sets a stage for serious inner conversations with one's self and, later, with one's friends and associates.

In a comforting way, there is a nice logic here, in particular when you ask yourself as you do here the rhetorical question: Alright, if you read for education, what do you write for?  The answer always amazes you even though it does not surprise you.  You write for education.  You write to understand how you feel about situations and circumstances you may have slept through, either actually, or in metaphor such as the metaphor of being so engaged in arousal with a certain young lady that you were in danger of failing the classes you had together.

You are constantly working out worst-case scenarios, situations that combust in the night, for which you have no practical instruction manual.  You can pretty well take a new computer from its box and have it working to your specifications within a matter of an hour or so, but the approach you take to story means that you have to write not only the story and its resident situations but as well its instruction book, the Idiot's Guide or Cliffs Notes, or For Dummies.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ask yourself. Go ahead--ask

From your own experiences with a lifetime of decisions, and from your conflation of decisions made and not made with story, it comes to you that decisions made are the risky ones and as well those most apt to bring interesting, rewarding experiences.  Decisions made on the other side of the equals sigh, decisions to not engage, to stay at home, to refuse the invitation or the opportunity,those are the safe decisions, the conservative ones.

You are not by nature a conservative person, although it is true of you that you will sometimes spend two or three days in a row opting out of opportunities with the thought of maintaining some sort of balance, of restraint, even decorum.  Such days are not memorable.  Often you are wrenched from them by an invasion of rebelliousness.  Sometimes a particular book or story or bit of music will rouse you to your bumptious, exuberant self, cause you to have had enough with restraint.

Some members of your inner parliament, notably the conservatives and right wingers, are speechifying about the virtues of restraint, of listening, of taking time for reflection and consideration, urging you to such hyperbole as acting your age, setting a good example, showing common sense, and a number of other tropes that seem to you as useless and ambiguous as some of the words you so dislike, words such as very, and reasonable, and remarkable.  These are all words that are difficult to quantify in any emotional-based sense.

There are times when you form temporary alliances with these conservative members of your inner selves, hopeful of getting their help in support of a particular goal.  You attempt to sneak up on Good Working Habits, for instance by the recent campaign of making your bed directly you awaken, stretch, and bound over to greet Sally, feeling pleased with yourself for having begun the day on a note of neatness.  After deciding to prepare coffee and breakfast in, or venture to the Cafe Luna, you take moments to tidy your desk, replacing pens, ink bottles, stacks of note cards and pads, increasing the sense of being embarked on a neat, orderly day.  Thus emboldened, while you sip your in-house coffee (Peet's Geruda blend, ground on # 5 for the espresso machine) of your Cafe Luna Peerless blend (a few steps down in taste but, nevertheless, a creditable latte) you take matters to their fullest by asking yourself the major question:  What is the major priority today?  The answer often stuns you with its honesty:  The major priority is to get to your writing, but if you do, you should still leave time
for these following necessities, all of which is to say that you recognize the need for some form of order.

For too many years, you have assigned the wrong priority to the needs at hand that lead more directly to your happiness.  Survival is important, but so too must happiness have its moment or two.  Ten minutes of the right kind of happiness can make a day of routine necessity seem bearable.  With bravado and exuberance, you could compose the two hundred fifty words necessary to fill a sheet of manuscript paper.  The odds are significant against those two hundred fifty words being keepable in  the long run, but they are a platform that extends itself, and maybe those two hundred fifty words will trigger another two hundred fifty, which might mean ten minutes needed to come out of your sleep time, but in such a case, you'll hardly notice; you'll sleep with contentment at having opted for, of having recognized and listened to your non-conservative representative from within.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reality as Ambiguity

One of your oldest and dearest friends was bemoaning the fact at lunch Monday that short stories of today, particularly those in the New Yorker, aren't as pleasurable as they once were; they are more ambiguous, he observed, sometimes deliberately so.

A reason for this, you ventured, is the growing resistance to the one-size-fits-all kind of endings of the past in which the payoff was more like the punchline of a joke, making the entire story a joke rather  than a nuanced narrative.  Another reason is because endings in reality are so hard come by today; we are more used to ambiguity, catch words, outright solecisms.  There are more emerging splinter groups and less finality.  Fiction reflects its time, whether we know it or not,whether we agree with the concept--or not.  Your pal has openers to sit at the table; he's written over thirty-five books, numerous essays.  He probably does not write short stories anymore because having one's second ever short story chosen for inclusion in one of the Best of collections could make a writer a bit self-conscious.  Barnaby Conrad may affect not minding being self-conscious but you suspect he is not at all happy being so, prompting him to take great pains not to be.

Jacques Derida and Michel Focault to the contrary notwithstanding, writers do matter in the sense that they have produced the text in the first place (unless they happened to have been Raymond Carver,who was undone literally and  figuratively by  Gordon Lish.  We do not have to know or like the author; in fact,it is probably to our advantage in many cases if we know nothing about the writer,reading merely for the adventure of the ride the author has promised by having allowed the story to be published.  Some authors, particularly novelists, will say things in interview situations or in prologues to the effect that it is not profitable for the reader to attempt to see the author in any of his or her characters.  Forget entirely the ways many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers went out of their way to publish anonymously.  Much of the reason behind this had its roots in the English law wherein writers were likely to be held responsible for libel, slander, and other related improprieties, punishable offenses that could and did have harmful effects on the wallet and the bum.  Whatever the reasons, an anonymous or pseudonymous author, knowingly or not, was worth a sponsoring membership in the Deconstructionist Club of the early twenty-first century, giving breath to the later philosophy of criticism we think of as post-modernism.

Many of the newer works appear before us as thinly disguised masters or doctoral theses, wanting, oh, wanting to remove trace elements of authorial emotion, wanting instead a panegyric to scholarly clarity which is not the same thing as emotional or even psychological clarity.  The author's scholarship and even handedness may be evident as subtext rather than the story teller's subtext of the difference between what is said and what is felt.

These are ambiguous, contentious, polar times, with new splinter groups splintering forth every day,each with an agenda, each with an adversary; in some cases, adversaries may be seen as tormentors.

Your own interpretation of the modern short story is of a negotiated settlement, skillful to the extent that none of the principals gets hurt, or perhaps even suggesting that some degree of discomfort resides in all human relationships.  Deborah Eisenberg is,in your eyes, the ideal short story writer for the time; her characters are filled with purpose, often driven to it,but they are lucky if things work out for them at the end; a number of her stories are represented by aching and longing that are emotional equivalents of the recent oil spill off Louisiana,  pouring millions of gallons of angst into an already muddied and beleaguered sea.

Conrad's holiday gift to you was a year's subscription to the New Yorker.  It is not so much that he cannot see irony in having given me the antithesis of his tastes in short fiction as it is that the thought of being ironic might make him uncomfortable.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Surprise: It isn't about you

When you first set foot on the trail, hesitant in the same way a bicyclist is hesitant when riding on a narrow, crowded street, you wished to show off your understanding if not your mastery of the techniques you believed were the conventional techniques used to demonstrate an understanding of what went into a story and what did not.

Like that same metaphorical bicyclist from the previous paragraph, you felt you had enough of a sense of balance to try a few tricks, equivalents of not holding the handlebars, perhaps even the literary equivalent of rolling through stop signs, even popping a wheelie.  Now that you look back on your younger self, you realize much of it was about you and your wish to show off rather than experience the thrill of the ride.  You were more interested in acquisition of, then demonstrating the acquisition of technique rather than withdrawing your callow ass from the scene as you allow the characters to take over, leading you but also the readers to a destination they might find entertaining or shocking or funny or some manner of revelatory.

Your public persona probably doesn't know as much about the work at hand as you like to think it does or, to take it a plateau or two upward, you probably don't know as much about writing as you have presumed to know in your published work about writing and literature.  You've reached a place where it isn't so much about what your public persona knows or doesn't know as it is about how well your private persona is keeping up with your public persons.

To come to the point,it is not at all about you, public or private; it is about them,the characters and concepts you bring forth, and the freedom you are willing to give them.  You have written and lectured endlessly about the obsessive and compulsive natures of the writing persona; you have paid only modest lip service to the control-freak nature of most writers, yourself included.

The beginning writer treats sincere editorial suggestion as an affront, a direct personal attack:  You never liked my work.  The accomplished writer welcomes editorial vision and suggestion.  Even if the suggestion is not taken, the fact of it being given at a particular point sends the clear message that a trained eye has found a soft spot, a place where less is needed so that the truth stands out in bold relief.
The emerging writer treats editorial commentary as though it were a thesis committee,challenging the methodology, sources, and intellectual arc of the thesis.  Small wonder many beginning writers are able to convince themselves that there is an ongoing conspiracy against them that will be kept in force until there is, by some magical transmutation of base elements into gold, a radical combustion.  As you read between the lines, which is to say the personal letters, of a number of prominent authors, you will find them carping away at critics,publishers, and literary agents, even to the point at times of taking on readers for having had the gall to dislike a particular work.

Confident writers--confident artists of any stripe--are rare.  Anxious artists are continuously comparing themselves to writers whose success mystifies, even baffles them, directing their frustrations--wrongly, you argue--against the public, reverting to thinking it is about them again and damn the public's stupidity for not seeing who the true artist is.

The confident writer trusts the characters, says in so many words and in so many refreshing ways, It isn't about me; it's all about them.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Another fine mess you've got us in

 You return to favored places, hopeful of recapturing events and conditions you found comforting, pleasurable, possibly inspiring in the past.  In similar mindset, you return to books you've already read, music you've heard before beyond your ability to remember the number of times.  You also approach these already-read or heard ventures with the distinct hope of discovering something you hadn't noticed before.  In all such returns, you are emphatic in being up for revelations that transport you to places you had yet to visit.

You think Heraclitus had it right when he spoke about not being able to bathe in the same river twice;  the river is different and you bring different experiences as well as any number of new cells to the experience.  Even so, you return to older haunts, even while trying out the new.  After all, if you were to discover a restaurant you enjoyed as much as you enjoy the Via Maestra 42, here in Santa Barbara, wouldn't you want to return for another experience?  If you discovered a writer you admired as much as Joan Didion or Louise Erdrich, wouldn't you wish to fall upon that writer's next work?

In this frame of mind, after a long, collegial discussion about your manuscript with your editor--she who went to bat for it, wanted to acquire it, saw in it an entire dimension you'd not considered when you wrote it--you return to this place where endorphins once sprang forth.  You see a place that seemed magical to you, but now your senses are tuned for something else; your eye falls on an unnecessary word, a too generous hand with a modifier where none was needed.

You returned, looking for the sense of discovery so prevalent during your writing of it, but it is no longer the same place, it is a work place and you are the shop foreman, charged with quality control.  You did not think to return to work, but you should know by now that this what there is.  Soon, July or August, your editor said, there will be books and others will have the opportunity to see if they can find the connections you found, the pleasures and comforts you found, the expansive sense of the writing self as it chews into the concepts before it as though they were discreet meals, made with the hand of a crafter rather than an hourly worker.

Your editor spoke of making the tent large enough to include those who love to read story as well as those who love to write it.  "All this,"  she said, "can go in.  Should go in."  There was a pause, which meant the proverbial other shoe was to be dropped.  "I'm thinking,"  she said, "that the manuscript is already long enough.  But of course, that shouldn't be any problem for you."  Which is her way, the editor's way of saying, "That shouldn't be any problem for you, because, after all, that's what writers do, isn't it?"  How many times have you asked that same rhetorical question from your editor's desk?

Your own question for yourself, opening the file that contains what you intended as the finished product:  Did you come here as a tourist or a worker?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In Search of Lost Time

    Because the stem of your watch was extended during one of the moments you probed the pockets of your denim jeans, looking for your keys or a pocket knife, or perhaps even for pocket change, time came to a halt for you.  This was no H.G. Wells time-machine extravaganza in which time became frozen, rather it was the illusion of time having conveniently moved slower than its normal wont.  You were led to believe it was ten or twelve after six when all the while, it had been ten or twelve past six two hours ago--two hours and growing.

Even though you understand full well the mechanics of what happened, down to the possible moment when the glitch took place (you were changing from a pair of cords into a pair of tattered denims, thinking to toss the cords into the wash for tomorrow), you nevertheless feel cheated of the time you thought you had.  This brings you round the loop of logic to the fact of enjoying moments such as these, however they are filled with tension.  You are moving from one venue to another, which involves logistics, trips, where to put things, which things to toss or give away, which things to transport now.  You are involved in preparing a list of projects you'd like to piggy-back onto the publishing agreement now in its final stages, all the details having been worked out to the mutual satisfaction (and optimism) of, as they say in contract jargon, both parties, i.e. that entity referred to hereinafter as Author and that entity who shall be referred to hereafter as Publisher.  No time for modesty here:  you're saying in as many words, take your choice among these three, a complete revision of a book (Secrets of Successful Fiction Writing) you wrote in 1991, an audacious bid to write volume two of Studies in Classic American Literature, volume one of which, written in 1923, argued (persuasively, you thought) that America was still looking to England for its literary heroes), written by D. H. Lawrence.  You'd chose fourteen modern (mostly living) authors to go up against the fourteen in Lawrence's work, your major point being that the tables are rather turned in two ways, England and Europe are looking to the U.S., while the U.S. is looking in some measure to its Asian and Latino imports.  The last project, has long intrigued you; its title comes from a review Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about a convention of nineteenth century crackpots, eccentrics, and loonies all of whom, you argue, had for all their madness, much more stature than our own pack of crazies.  The particular Emerson locution you so admire is "Mad Men,Mad Women, Men with Beards."  You would attach a subtitle to help make the point that everything seems better in the past, but in this case, our own historic nutcases, such as Sylvester Graham, "inventor" of the graham cracker, win the race hands down.

Each of the three require a certain edge you feel you have grown into, having yourself spent so much time on the edge, where ease, leisure, and unfettered expanses of time seem so abstract in comparison to the realities that obtain.  

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A new story.

Nothing is where it once was, the proportions are different, the light is different; windows are not where they ought to be but of course ought is the operant word and condition.  Ought in this case refers to conditions from the past.  Everything is exactly where it seems to fit best; the situation and circumstances are different but they are taking on a sense of having been where they now are for some time, longer than seems possible.

You are no longer at 652 Hot Springs, where things were where they ought to be because you had a hand in arranging them to be there.  This is no different from a new story or a new essay or a new review, where you in a sense feel your way along in the dark, trying to make things fit or perhaps reaching the conclusion that they don't belong, they need to be moved elsewhere or discarded.

During the course of any given day, you do not find it unusual to venture into places you have not been before, you adapt with ease, taking in details, orienting yourself, lining up points of reference.  You adjust in the same way to the surroundings of a story, becoming a part of the setting, venturing into the time frame.  Story, too is often a place where nothing is as it once was; you cast about for familiar faces and things, much the way Sally is doing now, sniffing at the new and the moved, the things that were once somewhere else.

409 East Sola is a new story.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Things You Carried--or Not

Story is never so alive as when it requires decisions to be made.

These decisions can be large matters of ethics which, when examined in close range, are not all that momentous because the answers are already well understood.  A moral person is likely to make moral decisions, only on rare occasions being tempted to make immoral ones.  Of course story is resident in such moments, particularly if the moral person does in fact make the immoral decision, whereupon story begins, and we are able to track its consequences.

Story also seethes in potential when an immoral individual suddenly--or perhaps not so suddenly--decides on something moral, which purposes we also track.

Your belief holds the smaller matters to be more important because they are quirkier, have more edge to them, and do tend to refract if not reflect some grander ethical scale.  Decisions of a small matter have been in the forefront of your activities lately because of the need to do something you find more a chore than an occasion of trauma.

You do not like to move from one living arrangement to another; it was a serious chore moving to your present lodgings at 652 Hot Springs Road from 1367 Danielson Road, a geographical distance of less than two miles, although it meant leaving a three bedroom, two bath condo for a cottage perhaps fifty percent smaller.  You were able to adjust to the size, thanks in no small part to what was once the water tower of the estate on which you live,  As well there was a garage in which you surprised yourself by being able to nail sheet rock and particle board to the beams and braces, creating a relatively snug venue you turned into a library, complete with over a thousand books, many of which have succumbed to mildew and other indignities associated with being leaked upon by the torrents of rain that have visited us over the eleven years of your stay here.

Now you are no longer a man with a wife, you are a widower; as well you have been politely informed by your landlord that much as he regarded your presence here, the time has come for your cottage to become the cottage for the appropriate caretaker of his mother, the Grand Dame of the estate.  And so, the thrust of this venture which has led you to compare the decisions needed in order to complete a book (or a story, for that matter) and the decisions of what to take--keep--and what to discard when moving a bit over five miles west of here to 409 E. Sola Street, where your venue will be a rather generous kitchen, a large studio room which will serve as a combination bedroom, sitting room, and office, plus a yard for Sally, large enough you have determined, for some outdoor furniture and some serious thinking over of things al fresco as well as in camera.

Much of what you have accumulated these past eleven years needs to go; there is simply no room for it, and the mechanics and expense of storing things makes too complex a consequence.  You have limited yourself to one hundred books which you will take with you, one candidate for which you purchased only yesterday when you toured the William Eggleston exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts.  That book plus the remarkable Eggleston you were given as a Christmas gift now reduce your potential to 98.  When you consider the Omnibus edition of The Works of Mark Twain you were given some years ago, in fact almost a month to the day after your thirteenth birthday, you are down to 97.  Not to forget The American Heritage Unabridged  dictionary of the English Language nor indeed The Chicago Manual of Style, which is to the publishing industry what The Old Testament is to religion, another twelve over-sized art books, and at least eight books about or containing the work of one Geoffrey Chaucer, and you begin to think you have invented a serious problem for yourself in re the titles "available" to you.  Which novels could you say farewell to?  And what of the argument of securing electronic download of some books on a storage device, obviating the need for shelf space.  Do you really want to keep a copy of The Heart of Darkness?  And in anticipation of the electronic solution, you have already downloaded( dislike that word) Middlemarch on your new Droid X phone, thus allowing you to toss the paperbound edition.  And what of your collection of Big Little Books or your collection of massmarket paperback with their lurid and vigorous covers, all of them printed on non acid-free paper, thus the eventuality that they will give up the ghost at about the time you do?

Books are not the only things to be considered, there is a large overstuffed chair given you by your father when you were sixteen, long since consigned to the garage, but now its fate seems clearer. As well, a set of dressers and chests from your late mother's tastes and preferences, some your companions for at least twenty years, but also facing the gallows because there is no place for them at 409 E.Sola Street, Santa Barbara 93101, nor items of kitchen tools, kept more for sentiment than use.  When, indeed, did you last use the wooden bowl your maternal grandmother used for preparing gefulte fish?  And whence came those awful iced tea spoons with the pagodas and Japanese fan ornaments?  Clothing becomes yet another matter.  The list goes on to such a degree that its very extensive reach becomes its own death sentence.

Traveling light is not seen as a virtue until it is time to travel.  The things you keep, have kept, are more often than not things of sentiment.  It is easy to see the comfort in tangible things.  Just yesterday, you noticed Liz Kuball's childhood companion, Bunny, tucked in a safe bedside chair, when you visited her Los Angeles apartment yesterday.  Bunny made you ache for the presence of your own stuffed animal, a dog, probably modeled after a wire-hair terrier.  His eyes were missing, a wire armature protruded from one of his front paws.  Appropriate for the historical era in which he was presented to you, his name was Prosperity.  Like you, he was a child of the Great Depression.  How Bunny made you long for Prosperity.  He would have made the cut.  Had you his presence, he would have gone to 409 E. Sola with you, but of course he is retreated into the shadowy past and the way he will come with you to 409 E. Sola is in the long run the best way of all, making you think to imagine your last word will be Prosperity, surely worth a comment to he or she who may be with you.

Stories do attract a good deal of clutter just as living spaces do.  You have decisions to make on so many levels.  Thinking about the conundrums, you realize that decisions define you, what you keep, what you consign to the trash, what you have accumulated in the first place.

Most of us are excellent in accumulating memories and impressions; these as well define us, make us who we are, sometimes detracting other times adding stature.  What you hope always to take with you are memories such as of prosperity, and of Annie, and of Jake, and of your splendid sister, Pennee; also of your lovers and your friends, and of students.  Of the two mentors on whose lathes of technique you were formed, Rachel Maddux and Virginia Gilmore.  Of the books you read and loved, the books you read and hated enough to write ripostes; of the things you have written and have left behind, of the things you have written that have eluded you as Prosperity has eluded you, of the books you hope to write, of the books you will write; all this defines you as you ought to be defined if you are to be defined at all.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Fear is not a guest you'd invite over for iced tea and cucumber sandwiches of a leisurely afternoon.  Fear never waits for invitations; it barges in like an unwanted guest, often catching you while you are in the midst of something else, perhaps sleeping or taking a shower or writing or not writing.  

Perhaps you're waiting for someone or fighting the mechanics of a deadline, which seems to be getting away from your control.  Fear, you realize, loves catching you off guard, rendering you without defense mechanisms, which is not the worst thing, the worst thing is when fear catches you before you reach the state of confidence you usually have in effect as you operate your way through the labyrinths and alleyways of your life.  Fear takes so much of your energy and attention, triggers such severe forms of survival mechanisms and despair that you feel close to if not entirely naked in the most existential sense.

Grief is a tough enough emotion to cope with, but at least it will sit down to a cup of coffee with you or some music, even to the point of suggesting particular compositions to help you.  With grief you are in a kind of partnership.  With fear you are on the run as the Nazis go from house to house, demanding to know if any Jews or other non-Aryans are living therein; your goal is to be away from the source, but you do not always recognize the source.  

You have tried on occasion to get fear to come out for a drink or coffee or even some conversation, but fear is not having any of that; it is the classic schoolyard bully; it wants to humiliate you, prove once and for all its dominance over you, even wanting to make you pay in kind for the last two or three times you stood up to it, laughed it down.

For much of your life, you have been attracted to individuals who seem to radiate confidence, who prepare for their performances, who are able to quote men and women from history who have been paradigms of self-confidence and self-reliance.  Some men have a taste for blondes and while you have found many blondes attractive, you have similarly found yourself attracted to brunettes and redheads.  There used to be a particular type who, even on a non-sexual wave length, would draw your attention. Many of the men you admired seemed to have a built-in arsenal of confidence and know how; fear to them seemed as alien as penguins in Hawaii.

Thanks to what you've begun to think of as the immediate present, you've admired two women who seemed comfortable in their confident assurance, whose public moments seemed to you to radiate purpose, direction, and drive,  One wishes to be a writer but has not written much, the other has an advanced degree in the facets of psychology related to motivation.

Both seemed to you to achieve a melt down at about the same time as you followed their arc across Facebook like fireworks displays on the Fourth of July.  You are sincere in your doubt that either would consider herself to have had a melt down.  What you saw was a blizzard of quotations from diverse sources, tails pinned on the donkeys of purpose, exhortations to all who would listen to be a part of the solution, to take a hand in destiny, to do something for the species.  

What you saw was sincerity writ large, but what you also saw was a crack in the armor of confidence and purposefulness.
What you saw is not by any means a gender issue because you began to recognize the same thing in men and women:  what you saw was loneliness and the fear of ongoing, continuing loneliness.

One of your major beliefs is that from loneliness we writers write to provide the dramatic effect of light from lighthouses.  We write to find our way and to share the journey of discovery with others.  Sometimes we need to show disturbing images and situations because they are our own fears and our own fears are by definition disturbing, distracting.  

You and many you know fear such generalities as death, disappointment, rejection, failure.  Our knowledge of these elements may temporarily elude the viscera and become more abstracted thinking or strained logic, but eventually we begin to see through persistent attempt how even in death, disappointment, rejection, and failure, there is some apparatus for dignity, and if not dignity, if that is lost to us as well, then a presence of grace in the death, disappointment, rejection, and failure.

You have solved nothing; you will experience numbing fear when you least expect it or, were you to expect it, in ways well beyond your anticipation.  But you are also onto the awareness of a basic strategy in martial arts, wherein the experienced participant uses his own energy as well as that of his opponent.  Fear is a necessary source in story, it is a vital presence in your own eventual understanding of why individuals behave as they do.  

When you are perfect in your confidence, you are apt to overlook small, remarkable details such as those noted with such regularity by the photographer William Eggleston or by writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck and Annie Proulx.  When these worthies come to expose their feelings, there is an entire relationship they have negotiated with fear, a relationship that allows them to proceed with a willingness to risk failure, to lose everything.

Fear may not stay for tea and cucumber sandwiches, but you, once you sense its presence, can turn on the flame under the kettle.