Of all the onerous work-related tasks you've been required to perform, the simple act of cleaning out some restaurant cooking vessels stands out as the worst, not only because the vessels needed to be cleaned of months old chicken remains but because those remains reeked with such intensity.
More often than not,the concept of hard work was related to and in fact informed by the slow passage of time while it was being done. It was one thing to do lifting, straining, pushing or, on a more non-physical level tasks that seemed to require mindless attention to details such that no one would notice them. You did not object to the physicality so much as your sense that you were entering a competition with Sisyphus.
No need,then, to fill in the details of an equation where such elements as purpose and interest trump output of effort. No need to delve into discussions of karma yoga, works as worship, if you will, or work as an offering.
Think instead of the most difficult work you've ever had, which is writing. Think how, its difficulties to the side, you are pained to be away from it. The experience with those tall stock pots called in restaurant lingo bain Marie (literally bath for Marie) altered your relationship to such chicken dishes as coq au vin, and pollo en mole, both of which you had fondness toward. The experiences with the difficulties associated with writing may have had effect on your feelings about bad writing, particularly your own, but nevertheless present in your editorial activities.
And yet. Yet there is the sense of awareness that this activity is worth the effort; this activity is the one activity that might be onerous but isn't; this activity, however many difficulties reside within it, is not really work so much as it is a portal to another sense of being and awareness wherein you stand for some precious few moments a chance against the events of ongoing reality.
A chum of yours from early in your Santa Barbara tenure was William Campbell Gault (1910-1995), a prolific writer of mysteries and adventure stories for young readers. In addition to being a client of a literary agent you knew well from your own publishing days, Gault had appeared in the pages of Black Mask, the quintessential mystery pulp.
You were pleased to have been the instrument of his having connected with the late Sara Freed, editor at Walker, a publisher of a nice mystery line. The thing about Gault you remember to this day is his emphatic statement, "I'd rather be the world's worst writer than a good anything else." Happy man, Bill Gault.
Those sentiments of his are not far apart from the relationship you have forged with it. In some serious ways, there is for you as a man, an analog between caring so much for writing and being attracted time and again to women who are smarter than you. There is the surprise and adventure of something to be learned in either circumstance.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Of all the onerous work-related tasks you've been required to perform, the simple act of cleaning out some restaurant cooking vessels stands out as the worst, not only because the vessels needed to be cleaned of months old chicken remains but because those remains reeked with such intensity.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
We have at least this much in common: We all remind someone else of someone else.
You, for your part in this vast existential drama, remind a rather pleasant lady who frequents your favored place for getting coffee of her late father. She has brought her husband to confirm the similarity, then her daughter.
Not that long past, you reminded a customer at another coffee venue of an actor. More recent still, you reminded a man of a former victim. He approached you in the rest room of the restaurant he manages, informing you that he completely understood why, moments earlier, you'd politely informed him he'd not known you from "back in New York." It is not that you do not know people from New York, rather that you do not know so many from New York that you would not recognize one here,three thousand and some miles away. With the exception of some family, whom you'd recognize with ease, and a few casual, non-publishing-related friends, say academics, who live in or Near New York, the only others are acquaintances from your days of formal connection with publishing. This man, a bit more than your size, had about him a more intensely guarded and watchful demeanor than you are used to among your circle of friends and acquaintances.
"I just want you to know," the man persisted, "that I completely understand why you didn't let on out there." He cocked his head towards the public interior of the restaurant, where you were with two others.
"I didn't let on because there was nothing for me to let on. You really do have me confused with someone else."
"It couldn'ta," he insisted, "been pleasant for you."
You opened your hands, as though releasing pigeons. "It wasn't me."
"Nothing personal, understand? I had nothing personal going there. I hardly knew you, except you were pointed out to me. You get me? It was something I was paid to do. I'd get those jobs because I was, you know, good at it. Fast and hard."
He saw he was getting nowhere with you. Before you danced around him to leave the room, he said, "No offense, yeah? And I don't do that work any more, okay."
There was a bit of a problem when it came time to get the check for the meal you and your friends had moderately enjoyed. The waiter told you your money was no good here, indicating you could leave a tip for the service, if you wished, but that was entirely up to you.
Even should you choose the life of a hermit, the "it" or "that" of interpretation for your doing so is not entirely up to you; "they" will bring into the game interpretations of their own, adding adjectives and adverbs to you and your behavior you might never have considered much less employed.
"It" is a curious game; "it" could be called memoir, in which one of "them" could recall an incident with you. But was it really you? It could also be called history, and all you'd have to do to see the irony in that would be to read one of the many histories of the U.S. Civil War written by a scholar from the north and another from the south to give you a relative placement of the meaning of history. "It" could also be a novel or short story. How would "they" respond to that, and how would "they" see you?
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
When a booklength project is taken on for publication, you feel pleased with yourself because of the trinity of individuals happy with the project, you, of course, your literary agent, and the editor who has expressed enthusiasm for the project by offering to publish it. You know there is more to the picture, that you are by no means finished with the project. Forces involving taste, vision, expectation, and pure randomness also will have things to say and do where the project is related.
You felt the cosmic dice beginning to roll when the editor called to speak with you, express her enthusiasm for what you had done. Watch out. Indeed. Her vision of the project--in this case a nonfiction project--was somewhat more grand than yours; she saw it as appropriate for two segments of readers, a situation one might call a crossover. As you listened to her arguments for this conflation of reading public, you began to translate the downstream effects. No need to worry, she'd have done that for you had you not articulated the implications.
The dice were bouncing off the green felt bumper when she told you how happy she was with the six hundred twenty page manuscript. "Your vision calls for a greater reflection of the dual readership, which means a different focus, all within the same word length," you said.
"That sums it up," she said.
You were in large measure on time, the final seventy pages going in yesterday, late afternoon. Early indications beyond your own belief that you'd made the necessary changes seemed to have been positive, allowing you the sense of feeling like a thirsty plant, wanting the assurance of water, perhaps sunlight, perhaps even a bit of other nourishment.
Even when you were working on projects where you were not so close to the degree of investment you feel with this one, there were still those moments that remind you of being panhandled with some vigor for spare change, that sense of someone seeing one more thing that could be done, the dread that if could well be you who saw and needed the one last thing to be done.
Why should there be any certainty where producing written material is concerned? Simple answer: There shouldn't be. More complex answer: Why should there ever be certainty?
Parts of such ventures are games. Where ever you look, individuals appear who enjoy games. Some games involve balls or perhaps pucks or weights, but they are still games with rules for performance and for scoring. They have time limits, just as life has a time limit. They have consequences to any number of individuals who are mere observers of results and probabilities.
You did not finish the celebratory coffee you ordered earlier nor the frothy draft beer you ordered still later, nor the small, hand-crafted pizza you ordered even later. You were in some ways going through motions, waiting for the other shoe--any other shoe--to drop.
Music, the company of friends, lazing with Sally, and reading are portions of your equivalent of watering the neglected plant. Deep within your stash of compact disks was a remastered reedition of"Red Garland's Piano," a satisfying venture into the world of blues and pre-bebop, leading to Garland's being yanked by Miles Davis into one of the most significant groups modern jazz has known. There is such energy in the music and its chromatic flight of inventiveness, reminding you of textures, braids of connective tissue, evidences of life all about, evoking in you the feelings of nostalgia that send shivers of enjoyment along your synapses.
You first had the CD back in the late '50s, when it was a vinyl 331/3, drawn into the sounds of the block chords, sharp ninths, somewhere between the sounds of tinkling crystal and laughter, intimate and complex in its uniqueness. You learned of Garland and much of his repertoire from that album, listening to it over and over, thinking how splendid it would be to have your own voice so recognizable, so easy to fit in with shorter narratives as well as the longer ones.
Listening now, particularly to track number one, makes you aware how important the feelings of nostalgia are to you, and how, all this time later, you seek to impart it into your own work with that same suspenseful bass line Garland brings up through his left hand.
Nostalgia is the container that is difficult to fill; thinking back on past moments of significance, you can manage with ease to bring one more vision, one more thing to the table.
Monday, March 28, 2011
There is always another way to describe a process. Your own description of things observed, their how and why,their primal twitches and reflexes, help you ease your way into the deeper history of how you came to see them in the first place.
Often you were introduced to a process as a part of what is considered basic information. Things and persons were provided as recruits in an army might be provided a uniform. One field jacket. One shirt. One pair pants. Etc. Thus you were exposed to and allowed yourself to grow into a place of mild acceptance, but a growing irritation smoldering under the surface. There were times when you thought it no doubt had to do with girls, as in your own hormonal nudges that caused you to look then be attracted, then act. But even then, naive as you were, this did not seem right, nor did the added smolder of irritation as it grew into anger, until you more or less came awake to the fact that girls and hormones were one thing, your anger another; they were not to be conflated. They did not have to be conflated; your parental role models, not always easy for you to read, were not distractions that caused you to conflate your anger with the anger you were beginning to see among others, where men believed it was anyone's fault where the anger came from in the first place, then took it out on the closest target, which often happened to be a woman.
You were through all of that pretty fast, but you were still angry at something, it mounting until it became anger at nearly everything. Later in the game, you began to recognize you were angry at the information you were presented as absolute, indisputable fact, angrier still at yourself for having bought into it for so long. An occasional flare-up still comes your way; you wonder, will you ever get free of it? It is probable you won't, but as Huck said, that ain't no matter, at least not so long as you keep trying to stop taking every explanation of process as some incontrovertible gospel, without so much as a flicker of challenge from you. Is it, you wonder, possible to work your way into being a cynic? At least a questioner, right?
Becoming the kind of writer of your upward spiral of dreams presents to you, you recognize there is a kind of monasticism about it that has nothing to do with hormones or girls or close relationships so much as it does being with yourself on a long project and running through the gamut of intimacy with it while attempting to maintain a relationship of intimacy with yourself.
Because you live in a city that by relative size is small, you see in your daily rounds individuals who have become familiar to you and you to them. I know who you are, a complete stranger tells you at about noon today, as you sit in one of your favored coffee locales, sipping latte while trying to work out a pesky paragraph relative to your revision project. You are tempted to tell this individual that you congratulate him for knowing you because you do not always know who you are. But at the last minute, you forebear, thinking your response, intended as an irony, may slip over the boundary from irony into that suspect country called sarcasm. Then what? You'd have bewildered someone who was trying to be nice, show appreciation, that's what.
It helps that you know where a major source of your angry sentiments had their origins, not by any means from your family of origin but rather your education of origin and your responses to it, and how it distracted and diverted you. What you have now is scarcely of the intensity of your previous anger, more an impatience with the relatively large amounts of things to be learned and the smaller amounts of time in which to learn them.
At least you will not have the institutional targets at which to direct your impatience and cynical eye; you will have your lurching, grasping self.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Quite without intention, a thirty-inch by forty-four-inch table has become a revelation both of serendipity and need for you. To begin, it did not start out in life as a table. You have no idea what it was intended for and now, there is no way for you to find out. For some years before you moved from Danielson Road to Hot Springs Road, it began achieving its identity by serving as a coffee table adjacent a long-gone sofa. Before that, before it came into the more active centers of your memory, it was merely "around," which is to say not in immediate use, a thick slab of redwood you connect with having had origins further up the coast at BigSur. Somehow, a set of legs, about one foot high, came into your possession, probably from the so-called King's chair your father rescued from the time of his auctioning off the assets of the famed Pasadena Playhouse. Imagine yourself sitting in this chair, he chided, being any Shakespearean king you chose.
As it so happens, the redwood slab fit well on the legs, its first step toward tablehood. Somehow, it acquired a thorough coating of black wax shoe polish, imparting a grainy gravitas, to which even more wax was applied, giving it now a dignity. It has survived the move from Hot Springs to here, residing against what is more or less the west wall, under three windows facing out on a garden. On this table are arranged in some semblance of neatness a combination tape deck, CD player, FM radio, two speakers, a pre-Columbian terra cotta doll, a stack of books ranging from late Victorian fiction to contemporary, a Hopi kachina doll with an arm needing repair, a Miwok basket filled with potsherds from the Second Hopi Mesa, a stack of things published in my undergraduate days, wanting placement in the nearby bookshelf, a stack of literary journals, another pile of books, and a small bag of dog snacks for Sally.
If this arrangement does not speak to the concept of the polymath, little else does. Thanks to the weekly ministrations of Lupe, the maid, this table, which for all its disarray, does not appear cluttered, is the most chaotic aspect of the apartment; it is also a monument to polymathism which, you maintain, is the entry ticket a person needs for admission into the tent of the writer. You acquired the pre-Columbian doll because you thought it beautiful. Could you write about it? No. but you'd know a number of sources to consult so that you could write about it. Don't get you started about Hopi kachinas because you not only did publish about them, some unscrupulous sort out there on the internet has pulled a number of the pieces from a magazine and is offering them for sale for something like twenty-five dollars. Do you stand to make anything from the transaction? No; it is the only publication of yours you know of that you hope does not sell. But that is another matter.
The matter at hand, thanks to the table that did not start out to be a table is that the writer who did not start out to be a polymath needs to become one; you need to pursue your way toward becoming one, every writer needs to open up to the lure of the curiosity of every and all things.
This goes well beyond the mis en scene of a clutter-free desk; this goes to the forgotten element in the writer's tool kit, every bit as vital as enthusiasm. Curiosity. Get there. Once you think you know, you're screwed.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
There are moments in your current revision where you have pause to consider the way your writing style has evolved from, charitably, a step or two beyond the mere linking of declarative sentences, driven by pauses, pacing, and other timing devices to its present state, just beyond rococo, this sentence being a prime example. You do enjoy the long, languorous sentence, swirling about like a barista's display of ingenious design floating atop your morning latte. When such a sentence appears between the bookends of shorter, ten- or twelve-word sentences, the effect comprises for you an orchestrated paragraph, one that gets at the intent and movement of your characters, suggesting a vivid pattern of story, setting, and individuals caught up in these media.
This discovery becomes disturbing in its way because you are currently setting aside an hour a day in preparation for your comparative literature class, which begins in two weeks, wherein you will compare and contrast The Ambassadors by Henry James with Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick. It is not that you have anything against Henry James as it is that you do not have much going for him, while you have much going in favor of Cynthia Ozick. Not the least of the things you admire about her is the way her characters seem so edgy, jostling one another to get off the page or occupy the window seat or get the waiter's attention by some subtle glance or gesture as opposed to James, whose every sentence seems to you as though it were extracted from conversation at dinner with an individual he had just met and whose social pulse he was attempting to take through that individual's sleeve.
You were not sufficiently drawn into James by your instructors at UCLA, nor were your independent readings of him much help in building the fires of enthusiasm for him as, for apt comparison, Booth Tarkington, 1869-1946. He and James were near contemporaries. Both were prolific, trying their hands at various formats. The difference for you, particularly with The Magnificent Ambersons, but also the Penrod stories and the delightful Mary's Neck, was that you were drawn into the Tarkington because of some sinews of connection to feelings and concern for the effects of the characters. You were more or less marched into reading James because his works were assigned. You read them because of the certainty that you would be missing something if you did not read them, and even then, you read them because it was unacceptable for you as an English major to believe that you were not able to see what so many of your peers and instructors got from him. You still have lingering concerns that had you been more able to see nuance and exquisite moral and psychological layers and concerns in his work, your career would have taken on greater challenges, leading you to become the more polished critical thinker you wished to be. But you could not "get" James, in large measure because you did not care. You did "get"Tarkington. Of course, James is still resting firmly on the plinth of esteem; Tarkington is all but forgotten. Except for some vague memory that he wrote the novel from which came Orson Welles' finest film of all, Tarkington is not studied nor discussed. You are in fact reading Colm Toibin's All a Novelist Needs, which is more or less scholarly in intent and more rather than less about Henry James. Toibin has even written a novel in which James is the protagonist.
What this augurs for you,beyond your sense of concern about your sentence length, is the hope that when this revision of yours is done, and your publisher chooses from the list of things you'd like to do next, she chooses your proposal for writing what will in effect become Volume Two of D. H. Lawrence's Volume One, Studies in Classic American Literature. Are you listening, Lynne? Because one of the chapters will surely be on Booth Tarkington.
Friday, March 25, 2011
As you pursue your course through the revision of your latest work, you are alert to some of your many, unconscious, habit words, tropes you find crawling through your prose like termites in a seldom-used basement. From this list of habit words, you attempt to root out unaccustomed squatters, words such as "accordingly," which, even though an -ly adverb, you seem to favor as a means of beginning a new sentence. Ditto for "thus" which pretty much goes without saying because you are making a point or conclusion which should be obvious in the first place.
One of the surprises to find its way in was "stratagem," a word you did not think you cared for all that much, but there it is, or was. Stratagem made you think of the times you'd come to composing your notes here with nothing particular in mind (that was another word, "particular.") and the need for something on which to take off for at least enough words to equal in length a newspaper column. On one such venture, as the day drew closer to being tomorrow, leaving you with the awareness of having written nothing for yourself that day, you began by running off a well-reasoned attack on the need to write something for yourself, picking up momentum with each sentence until it was a veritable steam engine of a screed. Oozing from the interstices was a defensiveness you have come to dislike more than -ly adverbs or, for that matter, screeds. The more you realized what was at hand, the more amused you became until you reached the point where you were able to delete the entirety of the screed document, then move on to some notes about defensiveness that were worth thinking about, even worth further thought.
Absent a specific goal, you find irritation and anger worthwhile subjects to pursue because the act of doing so will more than be enough to bring you to a specific upon which you may stand forth to take your solo improvisation. This is more helpful than you might realize because a portion of your self-image is now as a man who has taken irritation and anger from his list of habit emotions, a thing you did not realize you had, not in so many words, until this very late afternoon, when you grew irritated and angry at the number of habit words you'd used.
Revision is supposed to make you aware of such things; it is also supposed to make you feel better at the opportunity for expressing in better form something you'd thought you'd presented in good enough form right from the egg. Things, in your view, are not always what they appear; they may be better or worse. Revision is a kind of absolution from the spirited chaos of early creation, it is an opportunity to move away from old habits and clutter.
To a point, there is truth in the observation that having said or ventured nothing, there is no clutter to clean up, but you can see several problems with that, including the considerable one of having to suffer the irritation and potential anger of having ventured nothing, having made no sign at all of alertness to your surroundings. Only today, when someone at a coffee shop asked you how you were doing, you replied that you were cleaning up some untidy prose. Your questioner heard only the cleaning up in your response; she wished you well in your prosperity, not at all intending sarcasm or irony. Yet it is true, you are in a real sense in the cleaning up business, wherein you wish yourself every success. And a sturdy broom.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
You had to leave home for coffee because you were out of milk, a small-but-telling symptom. While ingesting the first few sips of your latte, you looked up to see a woman smiling at you, telling you she enjoyed your last performance, wondering if "they" were going to "take you on" as a recurring character. Before you can think of a response, the woman's friend tugs at her elbow. "He's not who you think he is," she says. "He's a writer."
This is getting good, so you settle back to watch, indulging another sip. "Might I have read something you've written?" you are asked by the woman who has just managed to assign you a new profession. Once again, you are riffling through a stack of potential answers. "Can't you," her friend says, "see that he's here to think?"
It comes to you that you probably would have allowed your mind to wander as you subjected it to its caffeine bath, would have settled on just about any vagrant theme or topic to come your way. "Well excuse me," Woman Number One tells you, the edge now palpable in her voice. Palpable. Able to be felt. Able to be touched. You have not spoken a word to her but she is already irritated with you. "I'm sorry to have bothered you." She turns with an abruptness that speaks of her being no stranger to turning away from situations. "Tell me his name," she says in a stage whisper to her friend. "I want to know so that I'll never buy another of his books."
Her friend says "Clive Cussler."
You in fact know Cussler and in one remarkably civil exchange, loaned him your cell phone because his own had lost its battery charge. With the exception of a certain tallness, you do not resemble him. Woman Number One apparently knows this, too. "He is not Clive fucking Cussler," she says. "Clive Cussler lives in Nevada."
You'd like to call out, "And collects vintage automobiles and aircraft, which he stores in huge hangars," but this does not strike you as a time to share such information, thinking it might, under the circumstances, make you sound like a smartass.
"He may be Alan Folsom."
"He doesn't look anything like Alan Folsom."
Thanks to a party you attended last May, you are able to agree with this assessment; you do not, in fact, look anything like Alan Folsom. This is the last of the dialogue you are able to hear, The women have moved beyond your hearing range, leaving you to indulge the exact activity you were suspected of by Woman Number Two: drinking your coffee and thinking vagrant thoughts, although they are no longer so vagrant. What is it about you, you wonder, that causes strangers to think of you as an actor or a writer other than who you are? You are reminded of a woman who approached you at another coffee shop, urging you to pretend your latest book was a rectal thermometer. Your apparent delight at the anarchy of her metaphor caused you to laugh and her to further explode.
Had you not run out of milk, you'd have missed the exchange and some if not all the attendant associations, including a few possibilities you hadn't reckoned with. The driving cause behind all this has nothing at all to do with your appearance and more to do with the fact that you are under the gun of deadline, revising with a fury, focused on the task at hand, with no hope of being done today or even tomorrow. Maybe Saturday. Certainly Sunday. It is an in between day, a day of about eight or nine hours of work extended through various stratagems of procrastination to a fourteen or fifteen-hour day. It is what you do. You are a navigator out beyond shore line.
Such days are, on reflection, the best days of all, better than the rush of excitement for a new beginning or an effective ending. Better than the arrival of a bottle with a note inside, containing an
insight of some considerable value. An in-between day. A work day.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
There were few times in your life when you did not at some point have to experience standing in line for something. Standing in line is related to but a realm apart from having to wait in an office or airport. Working your way through the back alleys and side streets of your memory, it is probable among your first ventures with standing in line was the excruciating wait at the four-spigot water dispenser in grammar school. Such waits were agony because of the urgent need, having spent your generous allowance of energy on recess play.
Later waits were those long lines for purchase of tickets to the musical and dramatic events you had to see. In some ways reminiscent of the wait at the water dispenser, such events, be they symphony, ballet, or musical drama, and in one notable case because you believed you were tragically in love with Diane, who wished to become an opera singer, musical drama did not mean Gershwin or Rogers and Hart, it meant opera. As such things go, you saw the virtue of becoming an usher at the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theater, and the Shrine Auditorium, all busy venues of the day, your day, in Los Angeles. There were even a few usher ventures at the even more rarefied Wilshire-Ebell Theater, where you were drawn to hear string quartets and one-person piano recitals, performed by men and women of notable talent.
Some of your early writing ventures were wound about the armature of waiting in line for tickets to a particular performance. They were all more or less the same, with you supplying fictionalized versions of interactions with others in line, ahead of or behind you. In effect they were written versions of street photography, abetted by your own rampant senses of mischief, adventure, curiosity. Watching the first several minutes of a recently discovered documentary on the incredible street photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, rekindles those long waits at ticket boxes in various parts of the city, you among a diverse demographic, causing you to realize what a lively and up-beat entity a line of people could be.
You were on the cusp of the computerized movement away from having to stand in lines to register for classes at the university, but even so, on those occasions you did need to stand, and wait, you felt an adventurous shimmer of anticipation, much like a group of individuals gathering to become a dragon in a Chinese New Year's celebration. You find yourself wishing you'd thought to save some of the materials from this time in your writing life. As those things go, it strikes you that you could revisit such events and circumstances, to which you'd now see fit to add your understandings of story that were notable for not being present, even in your memory. From what you've watched to date of the Meyerowitz documentary, which you believe was made in the early 1980s, you picked up a great sense of his enthusiasm for what he was doing, taking pictures of people on busy streets, talking about it to a friend, enjoying himself. You, standing in line, Leica-less, were in your own way enthusiastic about the writer you were hoping to become and, now that you think about it, the writer you have become.
Sometimes these days, when you sit before the enormous twenty-three-inch-diagonal screen given you by Brian Fagan, attached to your modest MacBook, you find yourself standing in another kind of line, where, before you get to the ticket office, you are surrounded by non-writing projects such as class notes, editorial chores, necessary letters to read or write, and a tray of email correspondence, including bill payment. Sometimes, up ahead of you, are blank spaces, a myriad of non-writer, existential thoughts wanting your attention. Sometimes, there is even nothing. At such times, you pause, fingers hovering over your wireless keyboard, grateful when the screen flashes the warning that the keyboard is perilously low on battery and if you don't wish to risk losing the work in progress, you will install new batteries right fucking now. Even though you have nothing on the screen much less anything in mind, you welcome the distraction. Surely there will be some connection between removing spent batteries, installing new ones, typing a few tentative keystrokes, there will appear something.
Such moments were always there, you realize that, even in the days of the strange and wonderful typewriters your father brought home for you from bankrupt business he was preparing for auction. You were not nearly so close to discipline then as you are now, and so you had no awareness of being in line, waiting for those entities ahead of you to reach the box office. You'd get up and leave, or perhaps read, or perhaps telephone a friend, all of which meant in the long run that there was time you needed to spend in line in order for your own ideas and feelings about story to reach the box office.
One of your long--for they often ran to thirty or forty pages of double-spaced text--vignettes ended with a character not at all unlike you presenting himself to the clerk at the ticket office, and reciting a date. "Two tickets to 'Lost in the Stars,' please. Center. Close to the stage as possible."
Now, it is a different matter. When you reach the ticket office now, you are no less agreeable than your character, in quest of a perfect experience and the perfect date with whom to share it. "One short story, please," you say. "And all that goes with it. Close to the stage as possible."
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
No matter how much some things change, a manuscript page is still 8 1/2 by 11inches, paper or computer screen; it holds about two hundred fifty words of a double-spaced type face, a fact that holds many points of artistic and financial interest to you.
Word length is indeed a factor here, whether in relation to the number of words you have written while behaving as a writer, or the length of a manuscript you are coping with for editorial or production purposes. For a writer, word length relates to the limitations imposed directly by an editor or indirectly as a statement of the approximate lengths of materials being accepted by said editor. In that case, you are either over limit, under limit, or, as was the recent case with the publicity department of the publisher of your forthcoming title, right on target. In another way, indeed, the Tao of this essay, word length relates to a calculus similar to the way "burn ratio" applies to a film director. Number of words written as compared to number (and choice) of words appearing in the final version, as analog to the number of film frames exposed by the director compared to the number of frames appearing in the final print before the venture is released to the public.
As you write this, you involved in some final revisions of a book scheduled for publication in late July or early August of this year. Your directive, as you interpret it from the editor, is to put some considerable new stuff in without fucking with the word length. Her polite way of putting forth this suggestion was, "I couldn't be happier with the current word length." This means some room is going to have to be made for the new stuff at the expense of stuff already there, looking for places to add the new stuff, which non-rent-paying tenants to evict, all without fucking with the word length which, according to your calculations, comes to 150,000.
You would not be in the position you are in if you were not a writer to some degree, nor is the position remarkable in its ability to cause you concern. Going through these 150,000 words, you, already on record as a staunch enemy of such tropes as the comma splice and -ly adverbs, are appalled at the number of each to have wormed their way into the manuscript, nor your apparent forgetting of your resolve to purge all your writing of your most egregious habit word, the incessant use of that ugly -ly adverb "accordingly" as a way of beginning a sentence or, worse yet, paragraph. It is all right to use an adverb to occasionally split an infinitive, which seems to you the most constructive use for the adverb, but matters ought, you argue, to stop there so that you can continue with the effect revision has upon you. Revisiting earlier work has a simultaneous effect; it horrifies you with what you do not know at the same time it impresses you with what had not even suspected you did know, a situation that is constant in keeping you at the point of believing you are even. Batting .500 is not a bad thing; you are grateful for the life jacket thrown you by that aspect of your personality with a modicum of faith in your choice of profession.
Monday, March 21, 2011
It has happened again.
The new digs at 409 E. Sola St. are not what you would call commodious, perhaps 18 x 18 in the main room, 17 x 10 in the kitchen, a modest shower-only lav, and a walk-in closet of about 5 x 12. Neither you nor Sally feel cramped; if you did, you'd have a 50- or 60 sq. ft patio and an outer yard by way of amelioration. And were this unusual season of rain to be at an end, you would doubtless extend the range of 'it."
You first became aware of the "it" happening again when you noticed the current issue of The Paris Review on the dining table, The New York Review adjacent the bed, The London Times Literary Supplement in the reading chair in the southwest corner of the main room, Harper's Magazine in the lav. The Prairie Schooner is tucked neatly against the side of the writing desk, as though it belonged there. What of The Kenyon Review? Why, it, still in its mailing envelope, rests atop The latest issue of New Yorker, which is atop a stack of London Review of Books on the table against the south wall. You showed great wisdom by not bringing Tin House inside; it is still in the car because you'd thought to read it at breakfast this morning, but that came to naught because, while diving for your reading glasses, you'd discovered also in the car a copy of The Atlantic Monthly.
The books are neatly shelved although you did notice the beginnings of a stack of recently read titles in a convenient space directly south of the four-tier book shelf in the kitchen. You have been scrupulous about keeping this shelf neat so as to preserve the illusion of overall neatness. This arrangement demonstrates how your reading habits have accommodated themselves to your by-now "broken-in" living quarters, seeming to require that you read different things in different places.
In mentioning the dining table, where you sometimes do in fact dine rather than bringing whatever meal into the writing desk. You are pleased to notice a vase of flowers, including numerous camellias you have poached from the large house next door at 414. What you had not expected to see there, in addition to The Paris Review, was your scarcely begun copy of the new Kate Atkinson, Left Early, Took the Dog.
Looking back at this at some future time, you'll have divined the significance of "it," the literary equivalent of the koi fish growing in size in direct ratio to the pond in which it resides: books. Books and magazines. Books and magazines everywhere.
From time to time when you were still living on Hot Springs Road, a slight tick above the church elementary schools at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and El Camino Presbyterian, you'd hear that particular, high-pitched clamor of children at recess, reminding you of your own recess days, in particular at Hancock Park Elementary School, Third at Fairfax in Los Angeles. True, you were at any number of others, some notably pleasant. But Hancock Park recess was the recess you remembered; the world was beginning to unfold for you. Games were erupting all about you. You were sure of being chosen to play some game on some arena, although you did enjoy slipping off by yourself for that most wonderful recess of all, second only to reading furiously: the opportunity to run until you were breathless, then gulp enormous quantities of water, your pulse still pounding in your ear, the advanced army of perspiration already forming under your arms, perhaps even on your forehead.
Games are still erupting all about you, but so, too, are books and magazines and journals and now electronic screens as well.
The images merge into one; you think of the books you wish to read and those you wish to write and, your chances of being about the playground long enough to attend to some of them, your own and others. The bell has not rung yet. Recess is not over. The high-pitched clamor of excitement rises in your ears. You are thirsty. You feel the pulse rising within you and the advanced army of drops of perspiration.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
It is not as though you had made some new turn of philosophy about your own work, arriving at the realization you were going to give them up as you in fact did with cigars, beloved pipes, and the occasional cigarette. You had--or so you thought--taken the pledge on adverbs. As smoking was a recognizable threat to your health, the injudicious use of adverb was a recognizable threat to the health of your prose.
Back in the late 1980s and early '90s, you'd become aware as you sat listening to readers at the SB Writers' Conference, droning on through a litany of adverbs, taking the effort to tick them off as they appeared, racking up those four vertical lines and the fifth, a diagonal, slashing across them, five, ten,fifteen adverbs, then confronting the reader with the number. Even back then.
The -ly adverb is one of your anti-habit words, so much so that you become aware in the heat of first-draft creation when one buzzes in, an uninvited mosquito, slipping under the screen or through some interstice between paragraphs. You are wary of that, of very; you run in cycles where you begin connecting independent clauses with and. You know it is a distraction to watch for such things when you are composing early draft--aha, early is an -ly word, but it is not an adverb. Such things undermine the place you attempt to reach when you are at composition.
All right then, the point of this is that you have these last several days been in earnest in your attempts to meet the deadline for the revision of your work, a due date fast approaching, all the more notable because an email from the promotion department arrived today, wanting you to fill in blanks as they represent useful information about you.
With the exception of a leisurely breakfast with friends, you have been at it again today; there is perhaps half an hour of light left in this soggy, wind-driven day, and perhaps three to four more working hours for you to ply the required revisions. You mention the time frame at all because of the mounting sense of dismay you have felt all day, seeing -ly adverbs that were embedded in the text you submitted to an editor, who then was impressed to the point of sending you a contract to publish which you, with no conscious adverbial intent,signed and returned.
We are talking hundreds of the fuckers.
It is good you have had this opportunity.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
On some occasions as you sit in one or another of the workshops you give for writers, you cannot help performing a curious dance consisting of focus on what is being read, a few dips and twists of schadenfreude, swatting at the flies of irritation at some word or stream of words that yanks you out of a narrative, and an outright irritation at the way you were allowed for so long to approach such personal areas of story telling as description. Some of the tools can be explained, in particular those called to your attention with examples: The X scene in story Y, where character Z confronts Character A.
More often than not, however, you had to learn by seeing how published authors managed. Even then, with description in particular, you were not always the brightest Crayola in the box, and it was some time before you were able to set aside your personal hubris of thinking your descriptions were superb. This belief was of a piece with you taking immense pride in your dialogue, thinking you'd nailed the trick because, by golly, your dialogue sounded the way people do when they talk. Yes, well. And you'd thought your descriptions of particular weight because--get this--they demonstrated your range of vocabulary.
You are after this point: description needs to be presented in tandem with point of view. Description is not how you see things, not how the writer visualizes things, nor is it mere stage direction; it is the product of point of view. "It was a dark and story night" may have done well for Bulwer-Lytton; look at the mileage he's had from it, but his trope now stands as a prime example of intrusive author. In that bargain, he even has who knows how many bad opening sentence contests named after his writing. We need a character to pull it off. "You want me to go out into that fucking dark and stormy night, you gotta be out of your fucking mind." Now we're getting somewhere.
The description of anything is the perception of the character whose turn it is, in fact allows you some if not total insight into the head and sensory apparatus of that character. You in particular were told about the gun mounted on the wall in act one being a portent. Watch, the instructor told you. If that gun isn't fired during the course of the play, you will feel cheated. Oh, how stubborn you were as a teen ager, thinking to yourself that you would not ever have a use for a gun on the wall in the first place because that was not the kind of writer you were. Damn well told you were not; you knew bupkes--beans--about causality. Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph meant getting the reader caught up in the story; it was a device. Yeah; it also meant starting the story where the story began, and while it was true even then that you had no taste for Bulwer-Lytton, you nevertheless thought you could lure the reader in with a hooker that demonstrated how, oh boy, this is gonna be one hell of a clever ride. Even though an enormous segment of the reading public does not get off on the kinds of reading you most admire, that is no excuse for trying to catch their attention with literary cute or even funny cute.
The years you spent working with the carnival, learning how to be convincing when, as a shill, you "won" something, and learning how, as an agent or barker, it was not the loudness of your voice that brought them in were not years spent in vain. Put you in front of a baseball-throw booth and more often than not, by tossing a ball to some guy, he'd come over, either to take a free shot, or hand you the ball and say no thanks, giving you yet another chance to lure him in. Different with the ladies. You'd pretend to be juggling, purposely muff, sending baseballs all over the place, and of course the ladies would help you round up the loose. Men. Always showing off. Etc. Of course the goddamn milk bottles were weighted. Of course you'd have one display set up with the weighted balls on top so that the merest tap would send the whole display tumbling. Look at that, folks. If the little lady'd been playing for real, she'd be able to select any prize on that third shelf.
Get you out of the story; get your characters in. What appears to you to be a glorious, romantic sunset doesn't matter to the character who, seeing it, senses something ominous in the air or becomes chewed up by the hounds of loneliness because he'd been dumped by his squeeze. Got to stop objectifying the details, let the characters experience them so that the reader can experience from the filter of the character rather than the talking head of you.
Let me describe how deep my feelings go. Er, no thanks; I'm kind of busy reading stories that work.
Friday, March 18, 2011
Back in those palmy, buoyant, sixty- and seventy-miles-per-week, pre-hip-replacement times, running was as much a habit as it was an unalloyed pleasure. Your favorite running shoe was the Etonic "Street Fighter." You did,in fact, fight the street with all of its distractions, dips, thrusts, and pot holes. You ran not for the sake of improving your time or lengthening your stride. You ran for the sake of running, by most accounts unaware of the endorphins you were manufacturing although not by any means unaware of their effects on you.
When you ran, it was as though you were connected to an endless stream of Mozart chamber music, morphing as the miles piled up into Ravel and perhaps Delius or Dvorak. If your tastes required jazz instead, it was the evocation of early bebop to the articulations of Bill Evans and Fred Hersh, drawing escape velocity from the concepts of Charlie Parker, John Birks Gillespie, and Miles Dewey Davis, undershot with the subtext vocal melancholy of Carmen McRae.
When you ran was as memorable as when you did not run, the former being the celebration of a process, whether you were good at it or not, the latter being the pained awareness of what was not there, the elephant in the living room and then the living room without the elephant.
In its own, personal intimacy, writing has the same reach and effect, but with this difference: Writing is about competition. The competition works within yourself and extends to others. Writing is much about length of stride, time elapsed, splits, as it were. It did not matter to you that you were a relative mediocrity in your running efforts. It matters to you with each sentence, word, and syllable that you write, beyond the feel of it and the effect it has had on your life.
The hips you were born with have given way to titanium ball-and-socket contraptions; they function to the degree that you are as unaware of them as you once were of the hips you were issued at birth. These allow you painless mobility, balance. Poise. They also make it improvident for you to run any considerable distance. You may walk such considerable distances, but the results are not the same. There are joys to be had,but no endorphins or their side effects, those brief moments when your thoughts write poetry to their surroundings.
There is no equivalent to not writing. The act of not writing is the pain you experienced when cartilage was gone, leaving bone to scrape over its counterpart rather than glide; it is the pain of withdrawal from habit, the awareness of missing awareness, as though some conscientious employee or intransigent Republican had turned off a few senses to cut down on the expenses of running them; it is you as a traveler stranded in some inhospitable airport, it is the elephant-less living room.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Events are occurrences on some tangible landscape, engaged in by one or more individuals with an agenda. The presence of the individual or individuals in the landscape may have been premeditated; it could as well have been occasioned by boredom or pure happenstance.
Your life is influenced by events and, to a degree by the non-event, the anticipated or hoped-for thing not taking place. Difficult to tell which is more prevalent because of the quality of self-interest invested in much of what you contemplate, then begin. It comes with regularity that although you encourage and initiate events, they are not of necessity about you, rather events are results of other sensate beings, performing in consequence of needs. Your event may coincide by happy accident with the events of others. When, yesterday, for instance, you waved to a group of young-to-middle-aged men in a park that they were to feel free to use the charcoal grill next to the bench at which you were sitting, you had no idea that yesterday was the birthday of the man carrying the large sack of charcoal briquettes, nor that he and his friends were about to celebrate with what appeared to be an elaborate taco lunch. You had no idea you'd be invited to share in this event, a fact that in its simplicity and stunning good cheer still warms you.
You do not need to plan events in order for them to arrive at your door, as though delivered by Rob, the affable Fed-Ex guy who also happens to be your swimming buddy at the Y. At one point in your life, you were contemplating a narrative with a tip of the hat to Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891), in which a character who has indeed read Oblomov has decided to take to his bed, there to remain as long as possible. Once he has begun his quest, he finds it impossible to spend any significant time in bed at all. Planned event being overcome by yet other events. When you were the editor in chief of a scholarly publishing house, you were requested by the publisher to use certain acronym or initial designations on your memos, thus such tropes as AFDAD (and further distribution as desired) and the more ominous OBE (overcome by events). That you made sport of such things was with little doubt a demonstration on your part of political incorrectness, with even less doubt a contributing factor leading to your eventual discharge. Nevertheless, there you were, overcome by events of your own unquenchable mischief and the stodgy appearance of events.
Taking some time to consider where this mini-essay is going, you realize there are few moments within your waking life where you are not engaged in or looking forward to some event, even if it is the event of finishing a particular event, then turning to music, reading, a meal, perhaps even a nap. Writing is one of the major events, about which you rearrange the furniture of your day; writing becomes more of an event when the writing is related to some form of discovery, thus it has gone through the years for you to the point where writing about most other things becomes a chore, something likely to be overcome by--whoops--events.
One enemy in particular of the event is attention span. If you are in the act of writing in an investigative manner and you are motivated to stop writing in order to check your email possibilities (ah,perhaps an intriguing note from a chum, requiring some imaginative response) or the NY Times crossword puzzle or some news blog, you are sending yourself a message that the investigative writing has led you far enough off course that your attention has wandered and you have begun to, ugh, think with critical (editorial) intent. Bad business; once again, you are OBE, which is to say the more cheerful and pleasurable event has become subordinate to another event, that mawkish, pompous, parental aspect of you so unlike most of who you have become.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Some things work the way they're advertised to work; they behave until, with abrupt finality, they no longer function or other. Then, they are tossed, dispensed with, dumped into some maw, whereupon they are recycled either as something similar to what they were, or into their new appearance as something altogether different. Useful as such things are in terms of their convenience, the ease they project into the warp and weft of our routine life, and the degree to which they make our life more memorable are indexes of how cheap they are, how replaceable and transitory their stay in our life.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
You have read, thought, searched, indeed written at considerable length about the spectral quality of authenticity that may or may not appear in a given narrative. You are in fact disappointed when authenticity does not manifest itself in works you've paid money to read; you are dismayed when, on close inspection, authenticity does not appear in your own work.
Authenticity, in both the sense of being present in a narrative or absent from it, is the literary equivalent of believability relating to the characters, their motives, and the setting of a particular story. It is of no matter that these individuals, their agendas, and the landscapes on which they scroll are products of imagination, the writer's ability to recall, and of wistful thinking. Without the presence of at least the foundations of authenticity, there is no belief possible, only instead the negative inertia of disbelief from which the story has a difficult if not impossible shot at recovery.
In your vision of story and dramatic intensity, authenticity is planted with details relative to the behavior of characters, the ambient mood of setting, the overall grandeur or its lack inherent in the landscape. These details spring from the writer's imagination and emotional experiences, reminding the writer of their actuality in fact, cementing it in place with an emotional sealant.
One does not--nor do you--pull detail with caprice, as though from the shelves in a COSTCO display; you use them as judicious reminders, Post-it Notes of emotion and reality. There it is: Detail represents the props and triggers you use to convince yourself of the reality of persons, their agendas, and the arenas in which they flourish or fail in their attempts to put their agendas into practice. You write to remind and convince yourself. Although you respect the reader, wish the reader to accompany you on the journey you initiate, you do not write to convince the reader not argue at the reader.
You do ask yourself at some point in the revision process what things characters know about the world about them and about each other, believing it is as much a point of view violation to tell the reader what the characters know about each other as it is to shift mid scene from the head and sensitivities of one character to the head and sensitivities of another character. If two characters who have known one another for a long time were to each finish sentences for the other, the reader would not be surprised, because this phenomenon is common under such circumstances. However. The reader, seeing two such individuals in the act of finishing sentences each for the other, is more inclined yet to believe those characters are real and that they have a tangible history that exists off the page.
Readers want to believe. It is important for you to stand aside, allowing them to believe; they most often do not believe when you try to argue them into their belief with a welter of detail. The next time you are in such a situation, make sure you recall how youngsters are often caught out in fanciful reporting, perhaps extending their embellishments to outright lies. They become trapped by their own need to supply details, the presence of which might be enough to achieve the tipping point frombelief to outright skepticism.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Whether the times are of woe or weal, one constant is there for you as a life preserver, bobbing within reach in the existential sea. Depending on who the swimmer is, the one constant has a number of possible identities, including such tropes as God, faith, friends, even science. You have no intention of giving bad reviews to any of these, in some ways recognizing them as useful presences in life. You would not have listed them if any of them were, in fact, the thrust of your observation; you have had too much experience trying to build some degree of suspense or notion of intrigue into your opening paragraphs to pay off as though your intent here were nothing more than a simple declarative sentence.
The more you think about it, the more you realize the appropriateness of your choice for support and such agreeable side effects as solace, comfort, pleasure, and energetic infusions, allowing you to move through the woe without becoming further bogged or distracted by self-pity or, even worse, despair. And of course your favored constant keeps you buoyant in times of ease and excited connection with what appears sometimes to be the entire universe in all its manifestations of beauty, challenge, and personality of apparent order. In such times, even more so than in times of woe, it is vital for you to know that although you are of It, It is not about you; you are along as a tourist, a sightseer, an adventurer in some cases, perhaps even a docent or tour guide in others. You are along as a friend, with some good fortune as a lover, perhaps a student, perhaps a teacher. Your choice of path is to write about experiences real and imagined, braiding the two so that whoever reads the one or the other gets some stunning awareness of the opposite braid, thus sharing your vision, even adding to its texture.
In each of these extreme modes, you are apt to stumble into the vision that It is about you, that your actions have provoked the causes of your woe or your celebrations of success to a degree not supported by the actual outcomes themselves. It is true that you participate, deliberate, attempt to change the directions of certain forces about you. In equal truth, you pay some prices or reap some consequences for your actions as well as benefiting from the results or consequences of other activities.
The Universe is on occasion a matter of quid pro quo for you, but never on the exact terms you were taught to believe or had come to hope were in effect. Sometimes there is justice, other times not. The Universe has a grand and gifted ability to surprise you, but the Universe has seen your like before and is under no obligation to notice you much less be surprised by you.
All right; you have held off long enough before revealing your favorite constant, your life preserver, your Kon-Tiki that will transport you from woe, if not to weal, at least to some state of awareness that emphasizes the creative aspects of the human condition.
Why, of course: curiosity--the intense, immediate desire to know something you do not yet know or to know better something you believe you already know. Curiosity--the thing that makes you wonder about yourself until you think it, do it, imagine it, or experience it in actuality. Curiosity--the thing that leads you from the past, into the present, eyes cast ahead on the future, where problems exist in ways curiosity can assist you in discovering circumventions, avoidance, feints, strategies. Curiosity--the thing that can leave you with the necessary energy to move toward the next step.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
For much of your life as a reader of books, reading has been important to you, in no small measure because of the information you could discover, glean, investigate. In your early teens, this importance became more focused as it began to become clear to you that you wished to spend as much of your working and waking lives connected somehow to the publishing industry, the writing craft, and the furtherance of your education. By these means, so your reasoning went, you would be able to earn sufficient income to tend your basic needs while developing both your ability to tell story and your ability to improve the workings and functions of your mind.
You did not then nor still do not now comprehend the full implications of your association with books and the materials often contained in them any more than you understand the implications of a puppy, getting loose to make her way somewhere as dictated by her nose.
As a student, you took for granted the notion of your hours spent being immersed in the reading of books, to absorb story and information. Left on your own, you'd be apt today to attach equal weight to the information you took in, more its champion than its challenger, only offended or skeptical in egregious moments of overstatement and/or abject disagreement with a particular book or story, but of equal likelihood willing to take a though for biblical granted everything on face value that came from your reading. How fortunate for you that you were not left on your own or that your reading had a cumulative effect on your critical abilities.
Individuals who live as you do find it easy to take possession of internal landscapes, retreating from such metaphorical guard rails as critical thinking, questioning, judging attributions and, most obvious of all, developing and living within your own parameters of understanding, curiosity, and practicality. Although you like to think of yourself as one who listens to a multitude of points of view,tries to understand the sympathy of scattered and diverse visions, the actual percentage of your adherence to such standards is bare in its minimalism.
Reading, that universal goal among literate and scholarly cultures, can be addictive, pulling the individual reader deeper within the framework of self to the point where the self becomes absent from discussions, literally too preoccupied to venture out for new experience, information, and point of view. You could, in fact, become trapped within the limitations of your own reading preferences, which may not include materials chosen for their antagonism to your own visions, interests, and hopes.
Imagine being trapped inside your own imagination, subject to the rigorous suspicions of your own doubts and cynicism. Imagine your own vision is the only vision available to you.
The writer and artist strive to spend time within their inner "studio," by feel the requirement to come out from time to time, checking in with the reality outside. Whenever a person slams the door behind, so that the spring lock clicks into place, that person has entered the locked ward area, where bigotry, hatred, and various afflictions known as various insanities abide.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
Which is worse, the fear of not having anything to say or the fear that what you had to say was somehow lacking either depth or significance, possibly even nuance?
Friday, March 11, 2011
Some readers, quite serious in their affections and afflictions for reading, are able to recall favorite plots, which is to say organized patterns of agenda and incident, from stories they read years ago. Even though you've been reviewing books for various publications for the better part of forty years, you are least able to remember the plot of a given story unless it is something as focused, say, as Jack London's "To Build a Fire," or Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado."
This inability might be one reason why you are not the plotter you'd hoped to become; on the other hand this might be why your stories are inclined to be more a matter of circumstance than the design that inheres in plot. What you appear to be telling yourself here is that there is small wonder the tool of plotting is so low on your personal set of preferences. As the United States Supreme Court Associate Justice said in reference to pornography, he cannot describe it but he knows it when he sees it, you say in relationship to plot. You do understand the need for the quest or the discovery, the sudden awareness of an unauthorized corpse, the cute meeting between heroine and Mr. Right, the bandits who threaten the peaceful farmers, etc. You've had actual experience editing some tolerable plotters.
Simply put, plot does not rank high for you.
In addition to such things as character, voice, dialogue, you are more taken by the hooker, the beginning presentation of intrigue that serves as the metaphor for the famous personality serving as an official greeter in a gaming casino or up-market restaurant. An engaging hooker is your preference, your magnet for getting you into the swirl and eddy of story. Think of it this way: You are invited to a party or gathering with the full awareness that you will know no one else there except the host. Accepting the invitation means you will at some point find yourself in an unfamiliar surrounding, struggling to remember the names of strangers to whom you have been introduced, struggling with even more might to think of some gambit with which to enter a conversation.
The hooker takes you past all of that in story; the host should and often does do that in social life. The hooker causes you to care, overcoming distractions and timidity. You are in, signed on, bound to a journey that will take you somewhere strange, unanticipated, perhaps even uncomfortable. But you will not care. Not any longer. You are neither argued aboard or complaining about the service; you are in.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
By the time you met him, several million copies of his books had sold. Since that time, hundreds of millions of copies of his books have sold. A prolific author as well as a legendary best-seller, he has by your reckoning ninety novels and numerous collections of short stories, at least ten. The margin of error in your figures is at the low end of the curve, let's say + or - one percent. His death in 1980, yet additional hundreds of millions of copies of his books have been purchased.
He was by any account a story teller as opposed to a stylist who had a way with story; his narratives had shape rather than elegance of structure. No one you know of has ever listed him in any kind of stylistic elegance hierarchy, no one you know has ever quoted a line of Louis L'Amour dialogue nor recalled a particular scene. Even the earlier analog of Louis L'Amour, that dentist-turned frontier-writer, Zane Grey, dead since 1939, is more often quoted or cited for some particular scene. Of the two writers, L'Amour held the edge in elegance, although that is not saying much.
L'Amour knew story, understood it, in his way seemed to have treated it in a manner suggesting the stock trope of many frontier and country novels, the horse breaker, man or woman who understood and were able to convince wild horses to accept the civilization of bridle, saddle, and rider.
Your paycheck at the time of meeting L'Amour was from Dell, the massmarket paperback imprint of the Delacorte family. In New York, when you'd call in at 750 Third Avenue, you'd hear the receptionist say, "Dial, Dell, Delacorte," although the receptionist would not miss a beat if you asked to speak to someone in the Yearling or young reader segment of the empire. L'Amour drew enormous royalty checks from the most significant rival of Dell, Bantam Books.
Your mission was to convince L'Amour to leave Bantam for Dell. Although you were not authorized to offer terms such as advances or royalty percentages, you were aware of the enormity of the coup, were you able to bring this great treasure to Dell. In practical terms, had the plan worked, you'd have earned yourself four or five years of remarkable influence in massmarket publishing. Should your balance sheet radiate health after those years, your editorial future could have extended your time spent in the part of the United States then believed to be the hub of American book publishing.
You had brought about the meeting by calling in favors from a few friends, and with a pitch you thought might at least cause L'Amour to consider. Any given paperback title of an Agatha Christie mystery had appeared already as a Dell edition and a Bantam edition. You even had one title--thanks to your passion for browsing used book stores--that had started Dell, gone to Bantam, then returned to Dell. Surely, your proposed argument went, Louis L'Amour readers were even more likely to collect L'Amour titles than Christie fans were to care one galloping hoot who'd published her work.
But you never got beyond the first sentence of your pitch because Mr. L'Amour, among other things, was a man of considerable loyalty. What was then accomplished at that up-scale Italian restaurant on the Sunset Strip was a leisurely lunch of shop talk, talk about writing and books and history that Mr. L'Amour without doubt forgot in its entirety, but which has remained with you to this day for the bit of information he set forth, assuming you already knew it. You may well have known it, but you could not have articulated it as well as he did. "You've served your time as an editor," this amiable man noted as fact. "I'm sure you've had any number of opportunities to observe that most writers begin their story too soon--even before there is story."
With judicious eclat, you broke a breadstick, then dipped it into some olive oil and balsamic vinegar. "Every editor goes through that," you managed to say with some aplomb because you were already floating. This casual assumption had lift-off force for you; you were flying. You wanted to get out of that restaurant and back to your red Olivetti portable because this taken-for-granted truth for L'Amour was pure, vivid revelation, and what do you do with revelation but put it into a story, several stories, all stories.
The closest you ever came to meeting Graham Greene was when you were stopped at a traffic light in Beverly Hills and he, lurching in slight tipsiness with the splendid actor, Trevor Howard, crossed in front of you. This meeting was some time after your meeting with L'Amour. You'd found a quotation from Graham Greene in his novel, The End of the Affair: "A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead."
You were tempted to roll down your window, thereupon to call forth, "Mr. Greene, I agree with you." And for emphasis, you'd even throw in the unnecessary adverb, "completely." But he would have no idea what in the world you were talking about.
Wherever we are--yes, even in Beverly Hills--we make sense to ourself, often using a rib or two from another person, another thing, another work. The sense is our property, to repress, squander, yes, even to write about--if we choose. We run the risk of our sources and our readers not having the faintest inkling of what we mean unless we supply some context. And even then, there is no guarantee they will care. Enlightenment or its second cousin, understanding, is something we strive to achieve, but in an analogy with the enormous information about whales and whaling in Moby-Dick, the reader may well decide to pass on the offert desert.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Few things are as unsettling as certainty.
For a long time, when you were younger, you were certain about the world around you, certain you had powers to change or fix things or that those you knew had those powers. In any case, you were certain they could be fixed.
Then you reached a stage where certainty was lost, but you thought it was innocence. There were more things at the time you were certain about than you were innocent of, thus the irony of you mistaking the one for the other.
Your father, who was neither a cruel man nor notable for being not generous, once played a prank on you that he spent some considerable time trying to atone for. The prank was taking you to the convex window of a jewelry shop in Beverly Hills, then telling you to reach into the display for one of the wristwatches on display.
You were innocent of experience with concavities and convexities, causing you to take your father at his word. Bingo, lost innocence. Frustration, Infantile rage at the betrayal if the certainty afforded you by a faulty vision of reality. Although the event still rankles, it is in memory of the frustration that you experience emotion rather than emotion against your father. An enduring series of baseball games, time spent talking, playing, or merely spending time together brought you back to the certainty that he loved you and you returned the depth of regard.
Now that you are well along toward the outer reaches of middle-age, you have had experiences coping with uncertainty and with certainty. Of the two,you vastly prefer uncertainty because there is a kind of comfort in the awareness that there are few things of which you are certain, in simple measure because things are so mutable, because in fact you are mutable.
There is a kind of responsibility inherent in certainty that you are no longer willing to accept as your due. Certainty breeds pomposity while uncertainty leads you to audacity, the audacity of knowing you are either going to have to look "it" up or find someone to explain "it" to you, possibly both.
Uncertainty surrounds you with the drama of possible knowledge and understanding or the deep, existential darkness of not knowing and wondering if you will ever come upon a solution. To be certain deprives you of some of life's most inspirational moments, times when, out of the creative despair of artistry, you compose something you hope will stand some test of time with you and perhaps even for the rest of humanity.
A writer who strides into story with certainty is bound to come against the brick wall of formula. A writer who is certain of gloom and despair is taking certainty off on another tangent of pomposity, a vehicle that will surely deposit him in the same, overcrowded parking lot of vehicles each looking pretty much like the other.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
You are suspicious of titles with names in them, in significant degree because they remind you of writers whose work is more a construction than a story, a string-like mesh of enough elements, tucked and folded, and woven to cause a pattern to appear. The Eiger Sanction. The Bourne Identity. The Ambler Warning.
You didn't mind A Coffin for Dimitrios,(difficult yet to mind anything written by Eric Ambler) which in probability influenced these others. Nor do you mind the suggestion that The Bourne Identity remains one of the most famous--read copies sold--spy novels; you do not read such fiction to dissect formula but rather for the kind of pleasure that should fit under the category of travel writing because of the way it invariably takes you someplace you had not expected to go.
This becomes prologue to a title that presented itself to you during the course of an email you wrote to an old chum who, hot having heard from you for a considerable time, had left a phone message for you, wondering if you were all right and would you contact your old pal, Digby.
More of the prologue: Until recently, and since 1976, you have lived in Montecito, a nine-plus square-mile community just west of Santa Barbara, arguably one of the wealthiest areas in the state. A literal translation of its Spanish name is Little Mountain. One famed resident was a classmate of yours at UCLA,another still teaches at a university where you once taught, yet another is not someone you know on a personal basis, rather by reputation for the vigor and fervid nature of his political opinions. In recent months, Montecito has noted with a mixture of pride and alarm the residence of the former wife of a former vice-president of the United States.
Montecito also publishes a weekly newspaper for which you have been the principal book reviewer since 2005; it is a newspaper referred to by some as "that fascist rag," because of the often expressed political views of its principals,although their views are nothing resembling fascist. They are instead libertarian, which is more endearing in some of its attitudes.
The title you unintentionally invented was The Montecito Transaction, thus the potential for suspecting you of willful neglect of your own standards by coining it. You will have to see; it is still spinning about, a pinball not quite sure which hole it will allow itself to sink into. Montecito is a hive of, among other things, illegal rentals, some extended to individuals under the most altruistic of circumstances, others yet under the more venal. Montecito is a place of excess and of entitlement to the point of outright whimsy as in the case of a Rolls-Royce and Bentley, each vying for the same parking space at the Von's Market (called Von's of the Stars by locals) inflicting considerable damage each upon the other. "I naturally assumed," the owner of the RR said after the fact, "that you would cede the privilege to me because mine is the more expensive car."
There are large numbers of pleasant individuals resident in Montecito, many who have gone out of their way to be affable, cordial, even friendly toward you; they are not being overlooked in this brief visit to this remarkable enclave any more than your obvious edge toward the community has been allowed to make its way into these vagrant paragraphs. Yet there is a visible daily exchange of Montecito Transactions taking place in the various stores, restaurants, banks, even the library (where one outraged resident was heard by you to say, "You'll have to talk to my lawyer about that." in reference to a twenty-three-dollar overdue book fee) and not to forget the Y, where, in the hot tub you heard teen-age girls complaining that they were limited to one spa manicure per month.
Montecito Transactions may morph into something stand-alone, a euphemism for some form of betrayal or of riding a sense of entitlement to some form of social impasse if not outright collision. It may come to nothing more than the reason you no longer hold the Saturday writing workshop in the Community Room of the Montecito Library (which has over the years you have rented said room a tendency to double book); half way through the ultimate Saturday, we were beset by a group who were advocates or perhaps even acolytes of a particular form of yoga, demanding we vacate the premises so that they could begin their session. You nodded with what you felt was sympathy before telling the yoga leader that you had booked the room and paid for it. She tried to trump you by claiming also to have paid for the room, then, when she saw that was not going to get her anywhere, maintained that she had booked the room earlier than you. When that gambit failed, she pulled out her last hope. Looking at your motley group of writers, she announced, "I surely paid more than you did."
Montecito Transaction. Pictures at eleven.
Monday, March 7, 2011
At some point in the undifferentiated future, your attention span is going to catch up with you, wrestle you to the floor, then get you to sign some agreement equivalent of the Magna Carta. You will then be obligated, bound by the significant ties contractual agreements have held for you for your entire working life, when your own income was related in no small way to the agreements you forged as an editor with writers and, in appropriate enough balance, to the agreements you forged with various literary agents and publishers with whom you had dealings as a writer.
How easy for you to shift into the mode of railing against such villains as MTV, shorter TV scenes to accommodate more commercials, even that splendid invention of your great pal, Digby Wolfe, the neighborhood integrator (as in there goes the neighborhood) of his, "Laugh-In." Your screed against such noble and ignoble changers of pace grown more intense with each new example as it occurs to you. Twitter, for example; say "it" (whatever 'it is) in one hundred forty characters--or else. Texting. Emoticons. Email.
Easier still to pick fast-paced events from among slower ones, then present them as evidence of a growing trend which, thus emboldened by the distortions of your logic, you view with increasing alarm. O, tempore, you could hear yourself saying. O, mores. (More likely, oh, tempura, oh, morays.) You believe you feel more comfortable, for a certainty more relaxed, when entwined in long-term attentiveness than the tug, the near-masculine attribute of the pull of a short-term infatuation. It is not that you have anything against shorter work; you after all admire the short story (in particular those of Louise Erdrich and Deborah Eisenberg) and all but fawn over the intricate construction and powerful inner reach of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, but of late you have come to enjoy as well the sense of richness and belonging-ness to such work as Hilary Mantell's Wolf Hall. Even now, you are slathering to get at and into the book that arrived on your doorstep earlier this afternoon, George Elliott's Daniel Deronda, which, if memory of your last venture with it holds true, will keep you with a smugness throughout the coming weeks.
Your ultimate point being that having a short attention span is a serious distraction, bringing you to the point of a duelist slapping the cheek of the adversary. The adversary is, of course, time, but you are quick to note that it has always been time; that is the delight of being alive and tempted by books and by ideas and by the idea that you could think to construct books and ideas of your own while trying to maintain a semblance of sociability. When you were living amongst a cadre of blue-tick hounds, you identified with their nose, which with such dispatch alerted them to the spectrum of scents out there,waiting for them. You are blue-tick in spirit so far as ideas and stories are concerned, and thus the wonder that you ever get anything beyond a half-done state. Oh, to have single-mindedness of focus, for just a moment--to see what it might have been like.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
With some frequency, you find yourself on the downside of a conversation in which you have been asked but just as often challenged to explain what is funny and in some extreme cases what is so funny.
To get the obvious out of the way first, you are often caught off guard by the question, which was directed at you in the first place--"What's so funny?"--because the funny thing was you. You were laughing because you had done something counter to your resolve not to have done it. You may well have been laughing at the way you did something, once again having done something counter to your intentions, creating in the process an image of yourself that causes you to laugh at the picture you have presented to the world about you and to you in particular, attempting to cope with some need or responsibility.
Thus you have begun to describe and demonstrate what is funny in terms of your prime target--you, Starting with you, people are funny; they are humorous because, like you, they are hives of inconsistency, alternately confident, unsteady, unsure, thinking to have at last caused the rocks to dislodge in sufficient number to cause a landslide. You and those like you are walking, living comedies of the absurd in the warp and weft of your daily life.
In addition to the characterization of the theater of the absurd in which you are headliner star, the universe, although stunning in its magnificence and natural beauty, is also a fit arena for absurdist drama. In case you hadn't noticed, it is a jungle out there except when the jungle has dried out or flooded or burned or perhaps even exploded.
Funny is among other things someone--you included--thinking exulting enough thoughts to consider himself in some position of knowledge or authority or--dare you go so far--grace or familiarity with the laws humans from time to time associate with a natural and proper order of things. Funny is thinking you have the right tool in your toolkit, the right sentence in your story, the right paragraph in your book. Once "they" get a look at it, "they" will appreciate the distance you have come, the ground you have covered, the tremendous forces you wield over the elements.
Events, by the nature of their being the products of human ego, inventiveness, determination, and wrong-headedness, have the potential for rollicking and bumptious humor, which is to say funny moments, which may cause others to laugh but not you in the role of the beholder.
What's so funny? can be seen as a thinly veiled probe in which the questioner is wondering if you are laughing at him or her. In such cases, it does not provide ready help to suggest you are laughing with rather than at--funny, you see, has become a threat, a heat-seeking missile of ridicule and mockery. Some of us have already been on the real and/or perceived firing line of those attacks.
What's so funny is you, in particular when you are trying to effect the most seriousness of purpose, to solve cosmic conundrums with homily and a faith in extra-human agency. The more we attempt to put on disguises, the more we begin the process of appearing funny to someone else. Truth is, there are already those to whom on any ad hoc basis we already appear funny.
Dignity is a lovely possession, a kind of psychic immune system that begins with the notion that a human who has most dignity at all is the one who realizes how funny he or she at heart is, then sets about asking us all to celebrate with the ritual of a good laugh.