Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Risk of Copying Yourself

 It is good to come at a new work with a slight tingle of fear that in your enthusiasm, you've bitten off more than you can digest.

Perhaps your enthusiasm was given that extra boost of enthusiasm by memories of times you found yourself so interior during a project that it seemed to take on a life of its own, a life beyond you, leaving you an observer rather than a participant.

 If the beginning efforts of a work prove problematic,being able to reside inside the work to the point of establishing a doorway through which you may enter in order to do the necessary interior work is fraught, seemingly impossible.  Yet it is the impossibility of the undertaking that at last secures entry and makes some kind of finishing touches possible.

Impossibility plays a dominant role in a drama,setting from the starting moments a standard of thought, connectivity, and technique you hope to approximate rather than achieve.  If you feel the material is resident in the comfort zone of your grasp, you come into the task too relaxed, perhaps even a tad too confident, to make the necessary leap from the observation of your notes and outline into a vision of entirety.

If you sense waves of reserve,bordering on outright fear at the number of elements necessary to manage, your chances have already begun to improve.

To reach the point of enjoying the particular work enough to feel you are inside it and a part of it, you must be willing to travel to the edges of familiarity.  Practice does augur a greater refinement, but even then, the practice for a specific   feature some leap into unknown or unseen portions of the stage; you must not be entirely confident.  

An actor performing in a long stage run must find ways to move into the character to the point of finding some gesture, some nuance of interpretation that makes the performance more than refined repetition.  However refined the repetition is, it will still emerge as something you did to good effect, recognized it as such, then needed to vary in some way that would cause you time of fear that you had lost the inside position and were resorting to replication of something that had worked earlier--in rehearsal.

If fear doesn't get you there, perhaps anger will; something is necessary to keep you away from being derivative, of others and of yourself.  It is every bit as important to keep ahead of the vision as it is to strive for it in the first place.  If you are too busy observing how good you were earlier, you will miss the necessary frisson that will become your vehicle to ride into the next performance.  

Monday, May 30, 2011

Caught between a Rocky Editor and a Hard Therapist

The editor's position in the literary dialogue is to nudge the writing away from the almost-word, that more general, less articulate trope, into what Flaubert termed le mot juste, the vibrant identity badge of truer exactitude of meaning and appropriateness.

The psychotherapist position to the patient, in similar fashion as editor to writer, is the same herd dog guidance toward understanding behavior, the motives and/or reflexes that may trigger the behavior, and, of course, the potential consequences of the behavior.

Although there are some possible exceptions to this comparison of similarities in which editors and therapists become too aggressive in proposing their notes, the likelihood for supportive suggestions is high; writers and patients who listen, then reconsider their options, then perform as themselves are positioning themselves to grow by understanding their own intentions, then acting on them in what you consider "prudent sincerity."

Writers may err in their communications and inventions; non-writing individuals may propound faulty agendas.  Both these assertions are integral aspects of literary and human behavior.  There is no moral imperative to write with clarity and grace nor is there any imperative for an individual to approach The Social Contract with absolute openness and grace, although some cultures appear to award Brownie points for scrupulous adherence to The Ten Commandments or some similar codification of ethics.

As an aggregate, humanity tends to award points for good behavior, however inelegant and inarticulate the performance may be.  The trouble begins in writing and human behavior when style is seen to trump story and/or behavior.  "But I was only trying--", "It may have been crude and exclusivist, but it was intended as humor," each trope being the equivalent of the famed, recent Twinkies Defence, where the standard rules were overwritten by the ingestion of some complex carbohydrates and some hydrogenated compounds.

Writing and human behavior bear comparison because each involves the interpretation of mammalian behavior; the clearer the presentation of the action or inaction involved, the greater the number of hits on the theoretical audience comprehension chart.

You have grown more impatient over the years with the written behavior of students and clients, this in direct proportion to your impatience with your own written behavior and your awareness that the process whose steady company you have sought for half a century remains in relative aloofness to your interests, meaning something other than familiarity breeding contempt, rather that it is and always has been up to you to make all the moves and gestures.  Do not expect it to get easier in some metaphorical sympathy fuck; expect it to take as long as it does and require the work it does because of one thing and one thing only:  you care.  It owes you nothing, just as neither the universe nor reality owe you.  The universe and reality are.  You are.  There is no equation, no equal sign connecting the parallel lines of you and them, no implied result much less any sense of cosmic justice.

You have happened along in a remarkable era in which your birth language has won significant stature over its many rivals, many of the contemporary writers exhibiting gifted ability to portray convincing presences with which to investigate moral issues and conundrums of the time.  Editorial and psychological insights are helpful and you are well served by considering them in the dialogues held among the facets of you within the crucible of your writing process.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

To Tire of a Thing

  To tire of a thing is to find no surprise or revelation in it, to take it for granted to the point where it is allowed to slip by without notice, to see nothing exciting or promising in it.  To tire of a thing is the opposite pole of being lost in the nuance and scope of the thing, to wish distance from the thing, believing in the process that you know it so well that it has no effect on you any longer.  To tire of a thing is to suggest to yourself that you have absorbed and retained its essence but now no longer need it in your life.

Does it say more about you than the thing of which you tire?  Much of Life is predicated by that exquisite duality of the "it" on which things all depend.  You could, for instance, tire of false or unhealthy notions, of theories and practices that are no longer useful or growth oriented.  You could be tired of change merely for the sake of change, without any thoughts of loyalty or respect for the usefulness of something that works.

Are you in fact defined to some degree by the things you tire of and cast off?  And then there is the matter of your style in becoming tired of things; is your tiredness presented with panache or is it more slapdash, tending toward the irrational?

The thought of tiring of things is so fraught with implication that the examination reminds you of the enormous effort in waking each day to this remarkable condition called Reality which, no matter how boring or cumbersome or, itself fraught, is the landscape on which all of us own homesteading rights.

Being tired of a thing, then having the means to distance yourself from it is a great luxury and a responsibility.  Distance from a things of which you are tired seems easily achieved, but it could also send an individual life into a downward spiral, which is no small complication.

Best approach is to watch everything with care and focus.  After all, could you imagine growing tired of writing?  Reading?  Music?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Amuse Bouche

What qualities and conditions are involved when you find yourself caring about a person, place or thing?  You might extend "thing" to the particulars of a book, a story, or an essay because these, in their way, are as plentiful as persons or places are to you.  

Sometimes, when sitting at one of your favorite coffee house "offices," or in some more overt public venue such as the Y, a book store, a street, or park, you will be attracted to individuals by some trait or physical appearance; they will have caught your attention long enough to cause you to feel more than mere curiosity, delving into a more specific kind of curiosity, such as Would this person be good to have as a friend?  What are the enjoyable signs radiating from this individual?  How far does your curiosity go?

Such individuals remind you in particular of books you encounter at used book stores.  Some quality--a remembered review?  an earlier resolve to have read the book?  an intriguing presentation of a subject that is dear to you?--has called the book forth to your attention.  Now, you pick it up, heft the chances of developing familiarity.

You might say you are caused to care by an assessment of the possibility of a relationship.  The assessment is as idiosyncratic as you can imagine the nature of idiosyncrasy to be.

You might say you are drawn into caring by some pheromone-like substance, detected by some radar you are ill-equipped to deconstruct.

You might also say you are drawn into caring by a sense of impending chemistry between you, the person, place, or thing (including book, magazine, story, or essay, and with great emphasis recognizing the potential for poetry) in which you understand you need additional contact with the person, place, or thing to allow you the sense of being able to create thoughts, words, sentences, and, ah yes, feelings.  You are drawn to potential tools for your personal toolkit.

It is a demonstrable truth that you are attracted to many items in the shelves of the larger grocery stores you patronize, a truth made manifest by the numerous entries on your American Express statement for Gelson's Markets, Trader Joe's, and Ralph's.  It is equally demonstrable that there are any number of items in these establishments over which your eyes seem to scan without picking up the slightest clue of a potential relationship.

In your earlier, bachelor days, your larders often reflected an indication of your personal finances, it seeming to you that when you were on your uppers with finances, your shelves were crammed with pates, kippered herring snacks, exotic olive oils, boxes of couscous, salmon roe, and of course real-time caviar, as well as equally exotic crackers on which to present such delicacies.  During times of greater stability, your diet was more apt to be more conventional, the whole grain, lamb, assorted greens, a crock pot of chili or perhaps a chicken soup.  Now you appear to be back to such concepts as fire-roasted peppers, pickled garden vegetable garnishes, beans in unlikely sauces, tinned sardines from Portugal, a variety of peanut butters, and, indeed, Thai peanut sauce, presumably to drench the numerous versions of rice, each in its unique packet.  Something about these items caused you to think you could have a relationship with them.  You were in effect, opting on behalf of your dog companion when you chose a lemon-herb roasted chicken and a barbecued chicken for her.  It is a responsibility, choosing the amuse bouches for your dog.

Why do you care?  It is not an easy thing to answer nor any the easier to pursue in thought or essay. You tend not to finish--reading or writing--stories you do not care for; you know this much, and perhaps this is where the thread is to be picked up.  You care about things your instincts and appetites tell you can and should be finished, brought to some agreeable conclusion or awareness.

With so many things about you that you do not care for or about, you in particular do not wish to spend time with persons, places, or things that do not hold out to you that sense of a promising relationship.

Even Sally would, you believe, find sense in that awareness.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Writer as Secret Sharer

Two words worth your consideration today--every writing day--are "mystery" and 'secret."  To give them due respect, see them set against the landscape of discovery. While you're considering these parameters,you might also pause to consider some index of progress by which, much as you monitor your bank activities, you are able to plot the extent of your discovery.

How many mysteries piqued your curiosity?  How many of them led you to some discovery about their content?

As a species of writers who are discoverers, we read to discover the mysteries and secrets embedded in the text of others, whether these texts are investigations of, say, who killed Cock Robin, or, in fact, your own book, aptly titled Secrets of Successful Fiction Writing?

Reading was presented to you at an early age as a key to unlocking the mysteries of successful navigation of the reefs and shoals of our culture, of cultures past, and of the imagination and energy with which those cultures are fraught.  Somewhere along the path your early reading took you upon, you bought into many of the dynamics of prejudicial response, needing some considerable time before it began to occur to you that you could neither believe everything you read nor have a clear process for deciding which things you could trust or to what extent you could trust them.

Text is as much a mystery to you as many of the individuals you encounter, a circumstance that leaves you much of the time on the uncomfortable cusp of arguments about whom to believe and to what extent you should believe.  Sometimes the argument boils over, leaving you determined to trust nothing but your own interpretation, a condition that leaves you feeling isolated, but not entirely sure of what it is you are isolated from.

No wonder you are so concerned with trying to create the dramatic equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein's monster from the parts you think essential to story.  So many investigations lead to disappointing results.  So many mysteries are so fraught with potential answers, yet none are entirely satisfactory.  When you work at your own stories, for a moment or two you can see some outcome that is less uncertain than the reality about you.  For a moment or two, the dreamer, the user of drugs, the artist have visions offering them a certain sense of security and control, a method of defining the inherent chaos in all things that seems close to some ideal of truth.

For a relative time, we have identified something, but it changes as the universe changes, as reality changes, as the focus of investigation changes.  Through the lens of text, we may look into the intimacy of another person's reality, that person's universe, hopeful of clues that will help us cope with our own universe.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I Hate to Tell You This...

It has become a habit-by-negligence for you to replace such terms as dislike, or strongly dislike, or abhor with the word "hate."  You cannot place where this trespass onto the turf of hatred began, which makes you suspect it has been some time in the making.  Such things begin easily enough, I hate the though of going there.  I hate having to do that.  Even to the point of "hating" a particular person whom, in more temperate moments, you'd be more than content to merely dislike or, even less, disagree with.  Thus do such things as hatred escalate, perhaps as a more visible symptom of a discontent with a particular thing or things in your life at the moment.

As some racial- and genital-related epithets are becoming taboo words in the conventional world about you, hate is beginning to assume such a cause celebre within you because of what hatred says to you on sober reflection.  Hatred speaks to all the significant social frictions abroad in the multifarious walkways of today's society.

These paragraphs are prologue to the recognition that you must learn exterior to deal with the inflation of dislike to the upper reaches of hatred and as well, you must learn to deal in more conscious fashion than you already do with the interior or writing-related aspects of hatred.

It is a splendid idea to chose persons whom in reality you dislike, or possibly dislike intensely, then corral them to serve as an armature about which you wrap other necessary traits to represent characters who are necessary adjuncts for your stories.  Individuals who are so purely dislikable are easy to spot; every adjective or adverb you throw at them must come out because they reek of your prejudice toward the real individual.  The consequence is that your portrayal of a dislikable or difficult character becomes exaggerated, reaches the inflated real estate of evil for the sake of evil, which by your own definition is no longer real, is an abstraction, counter to your wishes when it comes to creating characters.

You must work at such characters until you are able to be comfortable with them, finding ways to see some admirable qualities about them.  Even when you were in your teens, writing your way toward some measure of understanding, it would make your teeth grind when some fellow wannabe writer wrote a story in which the entire motivation of a character centered on his or her tenuous hold on reality and sanity.  You wanted to burst forth with some expletive to the effect that craziness is barely sufficient cause, much less is it necessary cause.

It is none of your business as a person that some of your characters may be mean spirited or hateful; such characters were created for the characters you care for to cope with.  You must be indulgent of both, capisce?  

This may have no effect whatsoever on the persons you dislike or the things you dislike in real life; you would be riding for a fall were you to think this awareness can give you better marks in the so-called people skills. 

It is not even a matter of some judgmental license; you will go about, disliking those persons you dislike, dreading certain chores or events, being quite at odds with aspects of The Social Contract you recognize only as concept and not as acute muscle memory behavior.

Working on such a character now, it has become easy, almost fun, to turn the process of disliking his real life counterpart into someone of dramatic interest.  Well and good, you tell the character.  But just wait until it is reality time again and you see the individual.  Just wait.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

All Walks of Life

 It is nearly three in the morning.  You were walking off the considerable energy from writing you had in those days.  If, in fact, it had been a few hours earlier, you might have gone to one of your favorite neighborhood lounges or ventured up on the Sunset Strip, thinking of exotic drinks such as Pimm's Cup Number One, with a diagonal cucumber slice.  It was all about the romance of having written the day's output, wanting some ceremonial way of commemorating it before taking to sleep.

The beam of a searchlight finds you, blinds you momentarily with its harsh brightness.  "How's the novel going, Mr. Lowenkopf.?"  Two of LAPD's finest, out on neighborhood patrol.  You are at that moment not much different from where you are at this moment, ninety some miles north of where you started out your life, awaiting the consequences of a finished work, embarked in a new project which has no tangible end insight.  It is another era.  Even in the portion of LA where you were stopped so frequently, walking at that hour, the attitudes of the officers would have shifted; you would not have been profiled as a writer, embarked on a project with no tangible end in sight; you would be profiled as quite something else.

Santa Barbara is more of a walking town than LA.  Your neighborhood is about four blocks east of the main drag.  Were you to walk two blocks east of your north-south cross street, Laguna Street, you would be approaching the hilly portion of town called The Riviera and a winding whimsy of a street with the self-important name Alameda Padre Serra, named after you-know-who, and the real estate would be rising in price and self-importance along with it.  You invariably chose the other direction, which reaches toward another kind of self-importance altogether, that of resort-town self-importance which,in Santa Barbara, is self-importance with red-tiled roofs.  There are, within your present walk parameters, places where you could get a beer or ale, which seems to be your drink of choice these days, possibly something with a tequila base, and even two opportunities for coffee you consider quite superior to the likes of Starbuck's.

It is good to be back at these walking tours; they remind you you are walking not so much because it is good for you to be indulging a weight-bearing exercise as because it is something you often did when you were finished with the day's writing.

Walking under such circumstances is often a bittersweet experience.  It is good to have written but it is not always good to be through writing for the day.  Sometimes, as you walk, you pass offices or living quarters where persons are seated at computers; they are not through writing for the day.  Seeing them strikes you as having visited a lost opportunity.  Even on days when you despair of having anything to say about anything, you feel the sense of being at a computer or note pad is something of a comfort, a chance that were anything to come through, you'd be able to get it down, perhaps shape it into something.

You envy the neat integrity and mesh of completed work, but so long as you shall live, you believe you will see time spent away from this damned delightful madness of writing as missed opportunity.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sleepless in Seattle, But Bored in Omaha

Your first line of defense when you encounter a dramatic situation you find boring is to set the book down, then keep as much distance between you and it as possible.  Some years of suspicion-based play and movie going have taught you the lesson of aisle seats toward the rear; even though you were "busted" doing that very thing some weeks ago, you nevertheless intend to rely on your strategy.

Circumstances alter when you have taken on an editorial job for which you had reasonable hopes, but where, alas, your written comments and suggestions begin to less resemble copyreader marks and more approach slashes of impatience and exasperation.

Circumstances alter in yet other ways when, wearing your third hat, your teacher's hat, you find yourself reminding yourself of the need for one of the things you hold in limited supply--patience.  You have progressed to some extent by reminding yourself to be the teacher you wish you would have had back in the day when courses in creative writing often meant yet another immersion in a learning process that had little to go on except from-the-book exhortations such as "Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph," "Build toward the denouement," and the infamous, "A shotgun mounted on the wall in act one must be fired by act three."  Plays were three-act confabulations back then, which was easy enough to accept, but you'd had little experience with places where there were guns of any sort, much less shotguns, on the wall, and now, seeing a gun on a wall would give you a sense of despair to go along with your growing fear of boredom.

When you find yourself growing bored with your own characters, you know you have reached a point where there is entirely too much deliberation, perhaps not on the wall in the manner of a shotgun, but on the table as in occupying too much thought and needless examination of possible scenarios which might chose to spring from the matters close to hand.  Your impatience--is it impatience with boredom, or perhaps your own momentary sense of ineptness?--can bear it no longer; your editorial self comes in with a mischief that begins with a low chuckle in the belly, moving upward until your upper torso is quaking with it.  You hone in on a spot--usually hiding between exchanges of dialogue--then begin insertion of your mischief.

Mischief has become your metaphor for the rear aisle seat; it is your way out of and away from boredom.  It often begins for you in the midst of dialogue, in particular when two or more characters are engaged in exchange, one of them either being well ahead or well behind the other.  Example of the former:  A man has brought his girlfriend to a well-known restaurant, thinking to propose marriage.  They have never been to this restaurant.  She--the girlfriend--seemed always to speak of it in hushed awe.  Before he can get to his main intent, she has assumed and now speaks to what she believes is his intention of dumping her.  Example of the latter came to you earlier this afternoon, in a scene between your principal character, having his breakfast at a downtown bakery, being interrupted by a detective who observes that your principal could be getting The Financial Times on his iPad, but the principal has already divined the true nature of his presence, which was to warn him not to leave town.

More than likely, mischief of this sort is expected in Los Angeles, which is often used to epitomize the fraught nature of reality, but in your vision, Santa Barbara, a scant ninety miles from Los Angeles, is exponentially more lunatic because some of the great lunatics of Los Angeles have come here to get away from the lunacy.  There is a frightening desire here to behave like old money, even when the money there is happens to be illusory.

With much due respect, places such as Omaha, Fargo, and Bakersfield are more welcoming venues for boredom; it is served in such places as though it were the luncheon special or the topic for the Sunday sermon.  Persons in such places expect to be bored and thus such pass times as bingo and watching television are seen as anodynes to boredom while in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, individuals expect to be eccentric, behave as though they were oblivious to the conventions of Omaha, Fargo, and Bakersfield, and often consider themselves as bored when doing things that would give an Omahan, Fargo resident, or Bakersfield person a heart attack.

It is difficult to think of writing for publication in the sense of traditional rather than self-publication without some homage to the deities of mischief, not merely the occasional paragraph or chapter, but more the persistent application of confrontation and eccentricity of drama as life, represented by places where life is not only fraught, it is risky with convention and the intensity of competition.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How Curious (The Observation, Not the Question)

As you were venturing to ask yourself a pointed question this evening, thinking in advance that you knew most of the answer, awareness came flooding in about yesterday's comments relating to priorities.

The question you were in the act of proposing to yourself, curious to see how you came down on the answer was the straightforward:  Do you believe you could work on two booklength projects simultaneously if one were fiction and the other non?

You have had any number of issues in the past with a liberalized approach to focusing on your projects, but with time have come to see the longterm effects of doing so and with a plan of a six-hour writing day, you're wondering how it would be to start the morning session with fiction, take some time for either exercise or chores or reading, then return for three hours at a nonfiction project.

You decided to give the day over to such considerations, then settled in to one of your favorite activities, notes of agenda, a laundry list of priorities you wanted to get at with some combination of purpose and dispatch.  Item number one, get finished with an editing job for a client.  Item number two, ditto for another ditto.  The lightning struck with item number three, which relates to your novel in progress The Secret of Casa Jocosa:  Although you know your protagonist pretty well, you need a detailed description of his life before he found himself with enough money to buy into Casa Jocosa in the first place, and what circumstances make him an effective investigator/series lead for a batch of proposed thrillers.

You had scarcely got the note written on your note pad when the vision struck home and you found yourself looking at a pretty tight first draft of an opening scene in which your man finds himself in a cheap hotel, "not quite at flea bag level but more a place for transients than any serious tourists," being badgered by a detective about the corpse on the bed, a hole in his forehead and chest.

Intrigued by the fate of the corpse and the consequences that caused his once live presence to become deceased, you found an appropriate way to end this scene, then embark on what you think might be chapter one. This is a delightful circumstance, a step or two beyond mere outline or notes; this is a direct step into a prequel for the work in progress, giving you dramatic history rather than outlined speculation, adding into the mixture attitude you wished your character to have but had no particular reason or knowledge of your character's past history to build upon.  You have now; you know that your man was once, at a tough time in his life, a rent-a-cop for his former brother-in-law's security firm.  You see sources of dramatic energy moving out of the shadowy world of notes and outline, into the world of dramatic confrontation.

The point you neglected to make yesterday, when you were mulling over priorities and hierarchy relative to dramatic energy, things beyond suspense and tension, was the need for curiosity.  The reader needs to be kept in a constant flurry of curiosity, wondering whence the next surprise or reversal.  In order to maintain that level of curiosity, at least into the second draft, you need to be open to your own curiosity about the characters and what drives them forth to work their mischief on the page.

Curiosity.  You understand?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Read the Ingredients List

It is often said--and you have joined this chorus--that suspense is the lubricant of story, easing it along, building to some explosive moment where we are all of us, characters and readers alike, drawn forward, eager to see who will now do what, and what the implications are.

As bottles of various fermented beverages are required to carry on their labels some accurate indication of their alcoholic content, stories are often held up to the standard of suspense content:  How much did you care?  For whom were you  fearful?  For what were you most concerned?  Had you, alas, reached a point of suspected despair for the time spent following the story, wondering why?  Did the characters appear to be milling about, a nervous hive of discomfort as though wondering why they had allowed themselves to be wrenched into such a lackluster narrative?  Had they all decided on a trip to Esalen and a course in advanced yoga for writers?

Unlike Newt Gingrich, who has blathered himself into a corner, producing suspense of a sort relating to what new blather he will use to disentangle himself from his past locutions and moral outrages, you believed with all sincerity that suspense was the necessary condition but have come now to see it as a sufficient condition.  Tension is often as effective as suspense, but you must not forget that even outright suspense, when applied to a character no one cares about is not going to save the day.

The day saver is caring about the character in the first place; a way of approaching such care is to render the character in some way vulnerable.  Even hubris may be seen as a vulnerability because we know from previous reading that hubris will bring a snob or deluded person down.  If a hubris-ridden character is presented in enough dimension, she or he will command our attention because we, intellectual equivalents of NASCAR racing and mentality, want to see her or him or, for that matter, both of them, brought down.  There is the acute, delicious fear that they might not be brought all the way down and so we wish to make sure.

So let us rearrange the  constructive furniture a bit:  start with a character who is somehow vulnerable.  She wants something she cannot have, like that frightening Ursula Heggi novel about the undersized girl who has to come to terms with not merely being short but being a dwarf.  Disturbing character, made remarkable by her attitudes.  Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn takes the same precipitous path for a man afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, making us uncomfortable in our awareness of what he must accommodate with every breath he takes.

From vulnerability, let us move on to an individual character's agenda, what matters to her or him, just as you are now evaluating former positions of invincible weight in the matter of story.  Perhaps we can even see a bit of the inner wrangle with the agenda experienced by a character.

Then, you believe, time for considering suspense and tension; seeing a vulnerable, avid individual in some risk makes for a possibility that others will join us in caring.  Then a dash of tension, that taut, electric sense of polarity across which arcs the spark of confrontation.

Perhaps it will work.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hear It for the Poets (No, not the self-published ones)

Big, wide-ranging discussion in this morning's writing group about the advantages poets have over prose writers when poets turn to fiction.  You started out playing devil's advocate in order to get the conversation heated to the next notch, secretly believing that yes, poets do have an advantage because you are coming to see how important every line, every word is in a text.

Your opening salvo used the ammunition that poets tend to become obscure more than prose writers do, but you don't think this is true of most seasoned poets, and with full consideration of some of your own early drafts, you believe it is easier for a prose writer to be obscure--however unintentional the obscurity is--than most poets.

Since you were feeling quite honest, you even went so far as to venture that your perception of obscurity in poetry was more likely to reflect your inability to read the signs than the poet's inability to convey them.

Prose is saved from bad writing by the fact of the bad (poor, clunky) writer's mastery of story.  Poetry is saved from obscurity by the bad (poor, clunky) poet's mastery of image,  this trope effectively defining your approaches to taste in prose storytelling.  You admire Mark Twain, whose language is so deliberate in its seeming casualness and conversational tone, but you do admire writers who are able to drop an image or implication without having to nudge the reader in the ribs, the equivalent of asking, "Did you get it?"

Lackluster writing--alright, writing with excessive -ly adverbs, parallel constructions often beginning with as (As John entered the room...As Mary opened the celebratory bottle of champagne...both cases presenting simultaneous activity, which undermines the writer's intent of making one seem more important than the other), and adjectives stacked up like planes in the holding pattern at O'Hare--is trumped by a compelling story in which there is some texture and complexity to the characters.

It is often more fun to reread Louise Erdrich and Kate Atkinson than it is to venture a new writer.

There was a time when you were still at USC when the chairperson of your department considered himself a poet and spent endless effort trying to convince others of the fact.  Thinking of him as Arse Poetica, you took delight in edging some of his favored poets toward the short story, where they generally excelled, got published almost immediately, then fell in love with the short form.  "Hey, what are you doing, messing with my poets?"  There was an advantage:  the poet could see how story was formed.  Even now, you are in close contact with such a student, her poetic craft assured from a number of solid publications, listening to you as you attempt to nudge her toward a novel she began in your genre fiction class.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Are You Being Too Hard on International House of Pancakes?

There are leaps of faith, leaps of logic, and leaps of wonder, all of which conflate when we leap onto the page.  Most leaps have safety nets of some sort and you suppose there are safety nets for leaps onto the page as well, but nothing good can come from any of them.

Safety in thinking, wonderment, and writing produces results as flat and unappetizing as hamburgers in a truck stop cafe or, indeed, pancakes as leaden and uninspiring as those served at the International House of Pancakes.

You equate safety in such areas--including pancakes--with youthful desire to conform to adult standards long enough to understand that acceptance by the adult world is neither safe not satisfying and is itself not unlike hamburgers in truck stop cafes or the International House of Pancakes.  After a brief spell of conformity, youth sees the substrata of hypocrisy and wants to leap away from it, propelled by a magnificent rebellion that can turn into useful momentum.

Equally useful are the leaps into middle age and beyond, each carrying its own characteristic of fear and gloom in the former and crankiness in the latter, bold, sturdy emotions to serve as leavening for the kind of humor and acceptance that must be forged to help us--each in his or her own way--arrive at a comfort zone from which to experience the outrages and joys inherent in life and to distill them into meaningful works of expression.

When we are passive, even the passivity of being indecisive, we are letting the events define us.  When we are active, however much more formidable the events are than we, our definition is forged by the posture with which we strode forth splat to meet the event.

We have the choice of being ourselves in the story that is us, or one of the unnamed victims.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Will Work for Story Concepts

   You have sneaked up on another dichotomy relating to story, the first portion of it being when you can scarcely wait to get to the keyboard or a pen and note pad to begin drafting out your argument for or against some notion that has you now eager to argue.  The other side of the duality is manifest when you are coming to the note pad or the keyboard with no such dynamic at all, waiting for something to arrest you.

Thus you are either proactive or reactive to a swarm of stimuli.  It seems so much easier to come to work motivated, your mind and senses having chewed on something for a time.  But it is beginning to strike home that, scary as it is, you think there are better results when you think yesterday was your last day, only you didn't realize it at the time because you were too busy writing.

It is not an easy feeling to have that sense of separation from your toolkit and all your individualized maneuvers, to have told all your jokes, made all your observations, and now you are empty to the point where it is as though your interior landscape is like some of the ghost towns you have visited, places where there once was life and commerce and agenda but now only traces, shadows, dust.  You have been in social situations where you felt embarrassed to the point of humiliation because you had no response, no idea to venture,no clue.  It was beyond not knowing where the fish fork went in relation to the salad fork or the desert fork, it was the utter sense descending upon you that were you to be asked your opinion or for a fact or an example, you would have nothing to offer but silence and a squirm or two in demonstration of your complete lack.

The only confidence you have in bringing yourself in contact with such awareness is because of the times you have found ways to wriggle past the door, thinking yourself so beyond the point of trying to wrong the metaphoric final lemonade from the lemon that you are back into your process without realizing it.  Naturally you suspected this approach had nowhere to go--naturally you were wary of traveling abroad with nothing,no opinion,no vision, no urgency.

It means you had a successful day yesterday and are still recovering.  Soon there will be opinion again; soon there will notional mischief, clambering to get out, but it is important that you not be permitted to take this for granted.

While you are in this exhausted state, scarcely able to bring forth a single thought, it is possible that someone will say or ask something that triggers a response in you, and you will be able to respond.  Nice when it happens, but you cannot assume there will be someone to ask the proper question of you or make a triggering remark.

You are at the mercy of your process.  The best thing you can do for it is trust it, next best thing, read like hell.  Also effective:  listen to conversations about you.  Also try wanting something tangible, something a step or two above mere idea or concept.  With your mind's eye, take pictures of this reality in which you find yourself, sometimes like those unfortunates who stand at freeway exits with hastily scrawled signs pleading for help; their signs are financial, yours are dramatic.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Process Server

Any process loses operating inertia and continuing momentum when it is diluted by extraneous detail.  An English Jesuit, William of Occam, said something along these lines when he posited that universes must not be unnecessarily expanded, a vision famously resonant as Occam's Razor.

Story, being process in motion, becomes stalled when details are packed into it without proper regard for balance, function, or overall capacity to bear a load.

Chose details for story as though you were going on a camping trip, mindful of the extra work transporting extraneous details and frills. Recall reports of things tossed from Conestoga wagons during the migration westward, when life on the road and, indeed, the road itself became fraught with complications.

Tim O'Brien's stunningly insightful The Things They Carried illustrates the way details earn their keep in a narrative, thanks to their relevance.  A relevant detail, you hasten to add, is no mere attribute; it is propellant, imparting identity, possible volition, even greater possibility of denoting social and intellectual classes to which the characters belong.

Anything tossed into story for mere whim is not doing the tosser or the story any good; the action of a story may be a dramatic propellant but the relevance of a detail must be manifest or it does not belong.

Resonant, effective stories are like survivors, men and women who have weathered ordeals thanks to their ability to remain standing after they have come through the editorial process of scrutiny and the rigorous application of what is and what is not plausible.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Surprise in Your Toolkit

The more open you are to surprise, the greater the likelihood of discovery as you follow the trail of the characters as they dodge their ways about the story and you, withholding from you as you with some semblance of purpose withhold from the reader.

Of course you reach the place where the arrows are all pointing at you, the techniques and insights you have struggled to select and hone for inclusion in your toolkit turning into boomerangs, returning to you.

There is no hiding behind technique.  Even though you may admire the tropes of dialogue in some, the interior monologue in others, the deft manipulation of yet others, studying them to see how they manage it, there is no certainty in technique, only formula, no surprise, only repetition of something you did once before, enjoyed the way it worked, then thought why not try it again?

You need your toolkit, but to use it properly, you need to extend beyond what worked for you the last time and the time before that.

What you need in the sense of metaphor being used to illustrate the point is to find yourself hunting a woolly mammoth with a .22 caliber rifle and the knowledge that at a safe distance, said .22 caliber projectile would have thee same effect on the mammoth as a mosquito on you.  But the metaphor does not sneak off into the underbrush.  If you get close enough for any chance at inflicting the kind of damage you hope for, you also run the risk of having  one pissed woolly mammoth coming   at you.

The moral to all of this is that you cannot stay at safe distance; you have to get closer, closer still, into the area where risk of botching the entire scene comes rushing at you.

Best thing you can do is to come at your work prepared by all your previous work, all your previous reading, but caught out by surprise as a concept comes rushing out of the mists, straight at you.  Best not to turn and run or wonder how you did it before.  Best to be taken off guard, vulnerable.  Best to see where it goes.

Such moments lurk along the pathways, emerging when you least suspect them.  Of course you have to play your part, which is to recognize that you are somehow separated from your outline, your precise charting of events, skillful in their graduated acceleration.

You have to risk being genuinely frightened that none of the implements in your toolkit will work.  Then, you might have a chance.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Give It a Better Name and All Will Be Clearer

When you were hop-scotching into your late teens and early twenties, equally and thus painfully alert to certain young ladies and compelling, edgy writers who seemed to have something to say, you existed on a level close to pure reflex.  This is not to claim or even hint that your current position in the chronology escalator finds you less reflexive; it is more that experience has given you familiarity with and names for the stimuli that demand your attention.

The elderly bumble bee is still drawn to the flower.  You are still alerted to the presence of your flowers.  Having names for them all is a sufficient condition but not a necessary one.

Age--which is advanced perspective along with arthritis--provides a perspective which you are at liberty to accept or ignore out of hand.  If you were foolish as a younger man--and you were foolish with some dedication--having reached your present age does not preclude your evolution as a fool, but you are nevertheless better equipped to recognize the signs of your reflexive behavior and give names to them, much as Aristotle codified genus and species so many years ago.

You find more metaphor within the arc of your growth, in which components of your Self became (and still may become) opponents, reminding you with some amusement of the War of 1812, which you were always at a loss to understand, one probable reason why your grades in high school history were so abysmal.  You in fact recall walking through the halls of Fairfax High School with your dear chum, Clayton Somers, who went directly from Fairfax to Harvard, passing the ladies who were resident counsellors, who viewed you as some forerunner of The Odd Couple, wondering what basis there could have been for conversation between us, much less friendship.

You are perhaps pinning too much weight on The War of 1812 about which you know enough to write, The Brits burned down the White House and we fucked up Toronto, but nothing was really resolved, and a good many loyalists living in America moved to Canada and became Canadians.

This view of The War of 1812 might suggest you tend to see world events in cable TV sound bites, but that suggestion would miss its mark.  As a generality, you see reality as an enormous complication, subject to multifarious "takes" or visions, a prevalent one holding the working classes (of which you consider yourself a part) enduring oppressions from classes above it and below it, the above wanting to exploit it, the below distrustful of it and uncomfortable each time one if its minions appears in a suit.

This is not meant to imply your own personal dissatisfaction with where you are or with any perfervid sense of class rage, although you have had choice things to say about entitlement when you meet drivers of Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris, and Audi A-3s while competing for parking spaces in the Von's Market parking lot in the Montecito Lower Village.  But you have largely solved that issue by moving your patronage to the Gelson's Market in the Loreto Plaza.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Two Ways of Looking at That

 You have just come away from the final session of a weekend writing seminar, given in tandem with the literary agent, Toni Lopopolo, starting Friday afternoon, nine in the morning until eight thirty yesterday, and nine this morning until five.  Appropriate breaks for coffee and meals.

Eager--perhaps even impatient--for some sense of change, some tangible way to engage students to the point of provoking a deeper understanding of the writing craft, you came up with a exercise in which each participant was to rewrite the opening chapter of a work in progress from the point of view of another character.  This is one of your "secrets," although you cannot claim credit for originating it.  You have used it yourself when a particular scene felt soft, inconclusive, non-electric.

The results were uniform in their electrifying results, causing one participant to switch the point of view focus and another to switch focus from the individual he supposed was the protagonist.

Naturally we compared both versions.  Part of the discovery from the participants was valuable information they hadn't exploited about characters other than their main narrator.

Fiction is growing more dramatic; scarcely a genre emerges as a seemingly flat presentation of narrative information.  Of course fiction from earlier times was dramatic, even intimate, but there was a notable distance between reader and writer, even in such experts as George Eliot and Henry James, each of whom, it seems to you, more or less argued and described their entry into the skins of their characters, then presented the characters to the reader via devices that were more rhetorical than psychological.

It is one thing for you to attempt such things yourself, quite another to toss off the invitation to another writer to try another draft.  But all were willing and all quickly became energized by the results to the point where yesterday they wished to quit earlier than planned because the discovery had been so emotionally draining.  "So," one of them said, "this is what you're talking about when you say writing is hard work."

It is so, and you do take care to express it that way, using the work hard rather than difficult, the distinction for you being that it is fun at the same time it is hard.  Difficult connotes to you the ongoing sense you had when you as a young student were presented with the mechanics of long division.  There was indeed a time when writing was hard because you had so many inner editors and lack of confidence when it came to such basics as spelling and verb tenses.  Then it switched before your eyes from difficult to hard, and you knew you had found a calling.  At least, you knew you had found a way that called to you, with no promises, no guarantees.  In fact, at first, after determining through strategic questions that some writers could indeed make a living from writing, you despaired of ever being able to make enough to be considered a living.  And at first your standard of living was such that a big night on the town was having enough money for a cup of urn coffee at a neighborhood coffee shop while your more sensible friends indulged such extravagances as hamburgers, egg salad sandwiches, and that oddity that swept through your group of friends, the lettuce and tomato sandwich on wheat toast.  At some point, your sensible friends tired of their jobs, went to law school, or set sail into Ph.D. programs whence they could teach and research.

Had you been more sensitive to such things, you might have picked up on the practicality of trying on various points of view earlier in your career.  Even as lawyers and doctors (medical and scholarly), they grew dissatisfied and returned to writing, sending into effect that glorious irony of you thinking your practical friends had taken a more sensible approach to real career and your sensible friends, inflating the effects of some of your early  publications beyond any sensible measure, looked upon your path as the one they wished they'd taken.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Well Enough: Alone or Not?

What is the well enough we can't seem to let alone?  How many times have you seen or heard the question raised or delivered in some diatribe or performance review?

You have heard the description levied against you both in the active sense and its breach; you have thus been seen as tinkering with a thing long past its use-by date and someone who abuses protocol by not doing anything even though something is called for.  But in defense of those charges or rather in explanation of them, you believe that most individuals are tinkerers, fidgeters, fussers, wanting another shot at the improbable attainment of perfection, optimistic really that one can always do better.

You have yet to come to complete terms with doing better; the process of revision and perhaps even restructuring could possibly lead to a better effort.  This doesn't mean you in large measure coast at, say, eighty-percent level; you feel pretty comfortable that your efforts are at high quality.  Some of "well enough" goes back to yesterday's blog posting as it had to do with time and priority.  You would rather do fewer things well than more things at, say, seventy-five percent level.  

Indeed, you find your not being able to leave well enough alone responsible for it taking you to write such things as letters to the damn Bank of America, attempting to find out why they see fit to charge you $19.80 some months after you cancelled a checking account there, then becoming involved in an additional exchange in which they are on the cusp, or so they threaten, of reporting you to a financial reporting agency.  By your account, you have already invested twenty-five dollars worth of time on the matter, meaning if you knew how to pay the $19.80 and what it was for, you could have left well enough alone and remained free of contact with the damn Bank of America by paying the $19.80.  A phone call to the customer service provoked a long series of push-button responses that led to you leaving a message that provoked a return call that resulted in a shouting match that began after being told this conversation might be recorded for quality control purposes, to which you asked if you could record the conversation for the Small Claims Court.  You have learned that it is not easy to deal with customer service applications based in India.

India does have its problems but you happen to believe that India and Brazil, rather than China, are strong representations of the future.  They are for the moment well enough and although you have some interesting ties to India, particularly some of its culinary dishes, and are equally fond of a Brazilian restaurant on 45th Street in Manhattan, you are willing to ascribe a state of wellness enough to India and Brazil and leave them.

The true answer to all this, in your best understanding of William Hazlett's approach to the essay, is the fact of you becoming a contrarian, which is not necessarily crankiness although it reserves the right to be cranky when the occasion warrants.

Most days, you are content to let well enough alone, as well allowing sleeping dogs the opportunity to remain asleep, to defer the turning of most stones until later, and to avoid the necessity to mind much less pay any attention at all to your p's and q's.  The days of movable type being fond relics, you do not think you have any p's and q's; you are concerned with persons and things that matter and can scarcely find the time to stay current with them, and you are not--repeat, not--willing to let them alone.

Friday, May 13, 2011


It is considered a sign of success in life even more significant than amassing large sums of money or property or of having some extensive collection when you have achieved the ability to do what you wish it, when you wish to do so.  Taken that way, success can also mean reaching a point where you specifically don't have to do things that are abhorrent to you; you are more or less free to choose.

 Thus success translates more to your ability to manipulate time, specifically time where you have the opportunity to do things related to maintaining health, curiosity, read, and consider narratives where scenarios of your creation seep forth.  You frequently find yourself caught up in the observation of and participation in such scenarios, caught up in the dazzle of a smorgasbord of ideas, each tempting you with its urgency, reminding you in a kind of irony how time manipulates you as much as you manipulate it.

Time had a slower tempo when you were younger, more or less waiting for ideas to settle in so that you could chose which ones you wished to investigate.  It seems to you that you had to put up with a good deal of boredom, waiting for things to gel, but that was then; you believe now that things have gelled because you were ready to take the necessary step of setting your own priorities, discovering what kind of life awaited you under the circumstances of you following priorities that may or may not have the best recommendations and experiences but which are nevertheless your priorities.

Sleep has become particularly fraught. You think to retire early, say eleven or possibly twelve, feeling the near smugness of a day well spent and well worked, but your dreams and between the acts of dreams seem sped up, dashes of images and sounds, clamoring for your attention, the attention you'd removed from your list of priority.  Before you know it, morning light bleeds in through the drape and it feels as though you'd not so much slept the deep sleep of forgotten dreams so much as you'd been writing reports of segments of dramas going on about you, wanting the restraint of editorial order.  Story is, of course, an imposed order upon the chaos of life and reality; in dreams, chaos wants its chance to break free and have its say.  As a result you are sometimes running or swimming or driving great distances through desert and coastal landscapes, and for some reason not yet clear, seeing the countryside from the window of a train rushing from Heathrow  to Paddington Station.

The day then becomes a rest from the intense chaos of sleep and the thrilling pull of your sleeping narrative voice.  But of course the day has plans of its own, time has plans of its own, reality certainly has plans, most of which have no role for you.

And so you sit in various venues, before your computer or a note pad, trying to make sense of some detail that has presented itself to you with a whispered promise that it has just told you something it has never told another.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Proof of Intent

Something is wrong with the server hosting your blog, causing it to operate at the moment in a read-only mode meaning you can read other blogs, but cannot post new material on your own.

Something similar has come to pass over the years you were with this practice and this format, earlier versions causing you a sense of desperation at the thought of a break in your consistency.  Over the years, the despair has turned to anger, reminding you of the times when events prevented you from taking your daily run and, later, your daily swim.

Habits of active construction are hard come by, the more so because you realize how important it is to you that certain of your habits be exercised daily.  You have written a good deal today, but like the fact of your animus toward Blogger dot com simply because it threatened to interrupt your habit is an animus that pleases you because it serves to ratify who you are and what you do; the outer world has nothing to do with it—this is you for yourself.

At some point, your server will be open and you will be able to post this and you will be able to fiddle with the time of posting so that it will appear to have been posted within twenty-four hours of yesterday’s brief essay-for-blog.  You did not fiddle with the date on this, which is your revenge because you have figured the way how to not let a little thing such as a server being incapacitated interfere with your own internal rhythms and whims.

Knowing how to manipulate the system in this manner is a matter of some comfort to you; it is proof of your growing habit of letting nothing stand in the way, of seeing not only priorities set into habit where you hope they will gel, but of taking your pleasure in them as they continue to define you.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

First-Draft Life

You would be hard pressed to recount with any hope of accuracy the number of times an individual within your hearing had uttered the fabled words of regret and of self-exculpation, "If I had only known."  No telling, as well, how many times those words came soaring from your own mouth, filled with the need for some form of absolution for the particular error or otherwise wrong move you executed.  Or not.  Because this moan and wail also relates to not doing things that, in retrospect, would have been better done than not.

Fact is, even as advanced along the index of control freak command of the situation--any situation--as you are, it is better for you not to have known then--whenever then was--what you know now.

For one thing, we are still not completely unwired from the thralldom of our beginnings as gleaners, hunters and gatherers; we glean information--or should--from every transaction, filing it away into the cabinets and hard drives and recesses of--well, of us and who we are.

In a lovely kind of biologic justice, we are wired to forget anniversaries, our manners, and sometimes even our morals.  We start out with some, but not enough knowledge, causing our parents consternation if they love us or a kind of morbid fascination, waiting to see what will happen next, if they don't love us.  We do not always have a woolly mammoth or deer in sight; sometimes our spears and arrows miss and we starve.

If we knew everything with the certainty that water, if heated to 212 Fahrenheit degrees at sea level would boil, we'd likely become smug, more conservative and Puritanical than we already are, boring and, of course, bored.  Bored silly.  Smug as we are now, we would become even more smug because we know, and have a strong set of statistical credentials to ratify our knowledge.

What would be the point of reading a story if we already knew how it would end?  What would be the point of writing the story in the first place because the lesson of it would already have been learned, the discovery inherent in it would have been discovered.

And as long as we're in a writing mode, we would already know what the final draft would be like at the outset, obviating the need for revision and editing.

But the sad and wonderful truth remains:  If there is indeed a god, she is a writer, urging us all, as you have so often urged beginning writing students, to get it all down first, before considering revisions.  No matter how much we attempt to reverse the trend, life is lived first draft.  We can go home again to do what we now know better to do, but home isn't there the way it once was.  We can clone Rover or Rex or Fido, and they will break our hearts for looking exactly the way the original Rover or Rex or Fido looked, but they will be busy living their own first draft lives.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When you think about all the unanswered questions that haunt you, the mind boggles--because you like that word and any reasonable opportunity to use it--and in the bargain reels.  How many others are there out there, like you in some degree, perhaps asking even more questions than you do, all the while you thinking this is epic proof they are brighter stars than you?  Of course this, too, is a question.  Perhaps your choice of vocation has to do with the number of questions you ask, but there is also--isn't there?--the likelihood of you being what you are because you were not satisfied with the answers you got and wish to provide more dramatic and elaborate answers than the ones you feel are available.

What are you, then?  How should you fill out this particular form from this particular publisher? It makes some sense to say that you are a writer, an editor, and a teacher.  You might ask, as you mother did on frequent occasion that you are a mischief, or, as has been suggested from time to time, a troublemaker.  It makes no sense to say, when asked of your profession, that you are an asker of questions and a questioner of answers.  Even you, who could also list your occupation as a smart ass, could answer that such an answer sounds too smartassy.

You are caught in the grind of pairs of opposing forces, the chomping jaws of attempted reason; you are mugged and left without your wallet by the thugs of urgent need--for what thug ever has time on his side?--and the bureaucracy of filing a report so that the forces of justice may set forth to redress the crime.  But  your difficulties in describing your muggers reflect not so much your lack of observation powers but rather your preoccupation with your own, inner world.  Unless you know your attacker, as in, that was Fred, from the office, you are every bit at risk of getting your description wrong.  He was, you might say, a small, nervous person who spoke in a tone I found disrespectful and unpleasant.  Could you please be more specific, sir?  Well.  He kind of looked like Fred.  From the office.  But no way was he Fred.

Days later, Fred confronts you at lunchtime.  For fuck's sake, why did you tell the cops the dudes who pounded on you reminded you of me.  Now, they want an alibi, and I can't give them the real one because I promised I'd stop seeing her, so now I gotta go find a new alibi just because some mean ass dudes remind you of me, when I'd never done the slightest rude thing to you.

You apologize buy telling Fred that you said the first thing that came into your mind, which does not in any way satisfy or mollify Fred, who, because of you, is now a person of interest in the sense that not only you think the dudes who jumped you are reminiscent of him but in your confusion, you've got them thinking so, too.

Of course the entire mugging was a metaphoric one, including your wallet, which was not in fact taken but nevertheless represents your comfort zone, your sense of personal confidence in a world gone dangerously lunatic.  And now.  Now, the cops think of Fred when they think of these forces, which allows you some insight into how such things as racial and social profiling are nourished.

Everything, including questions, has consequences.  It is your fate as a graduate of UCLA, editor in chief of a number of book publishing ventures, teacher at a number of crazy universities, to be caught up in a particular batch of these consequences.  Just as it is possible in the eyes of the law to be considered a party to a conspiracy, which is by most accounts a felony, it is possible that your consequences make you a co-conspirator in a Kafka-like concatenation of events that may be best described as writing.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Household Gods

As you sit before your computer at your work area, your hands are resting on the edge of a table common enough in many branch libraries you've visited, but this particular table has been with you for years, making the trip north from Santa Monica when you moved to Santa Barbara; it has become your desk.  It was given you by your father.  Directly to your right is a two-shelf book case with sliding glass doors, a gift from the remarkable English anthropologist, Hilda Kuper.  Sitting atop the book case is an elaborate china pitcher, alive with figures of asters ranging from pinkish red to a full-blown red.  This pitcher and a series of delicate tea cups were much favored by your mother.  You have never taken tea from the cups nor used the pitcher for anything until last week, when it became the perfect vase for an ambitious bunch of red tulips you found at the Gelson's market.  Directly across the room from you is a five-drawer dresser of some period also beloved of your mother, while to your left is a four-drawer cabinet of the same era, also a reminder of your mother.  Living as you do now in a pleasant-but-small studio and large kitchen combo, space is an issue, particularly since the one closet, generous in proportion to the overall dimensions of the room, is nevertheless not what you have been accustomed to in past years.  When you moved in, your landlord in fact offered you a larger piece of furniture that would have picked up the functions the closet has had to delegate to other arrangements.  Thankful as you were, you refused the generous offer because, well, because the four-drawer dresser, while it could have gone entirely, or been stored, was after all, your mother's.

Only this afternoon, you went at an afternoon snack, a brioche from Reynaud's Patisserie, served up on a salad-plate-sized dish of thick clay, glazed in an umber glaze, its perimeter an imaginative display of brown and white dots arranged to suggest daisies.  You know nothing of the dish's provenance; you acquired it for ten cents at a sidewalk sale as you parked on the street next to the Trader Joe's on Milpas Street, its parking lots filled to capacity.

When the time comes to consider such things, you will offer any and all of these things to your nieces, but there is no telling which--if any at all--of these things they will want because it is not yet clear what if any meaning these things have for them.  Your youngest niece does in fact still have and use a waffle iron also much beloved by your mother.  She has as well a crock pot and electric skillet you used as a bachelor.  She also has an eclectic and diverse silver setting for four removed by you piece by piece from various New York hotels.  She has placed a "tibbs" on a set of thick, long-handled serving bowls from the now defunct Broadway Chowder House in San Francisco, a gift to you from a woman you loved enough to contemplate marriage with, secured by the gift of six fat marijuana cigarettes to a busboy at the Broadway Chowder House.

Things are only things until they become mementos, relics, artifacts.  A large basket, filled with shards of broken pots, have meaning to you not for their individual textures or patterns but because you came upon them one night when you lost your way walking about on the Second mesa of the Hopi Reservation.  A shaving brush once belonged to one of your dearest friends.  A Navajo carving is an inevitable reminder of an old pal who gave it to you.  The pencil sharpener in the shape of a Royal upright typewriter is a birthday present from a group of students you have not seen in over twenty-five years.

Many of your books are gifts from their authors or persons who knew of your fondness for the authors' work.  You are surrounded by mementos, relics, and artifacts, all of them in their separate way being of especial value to you because of some association beyond the beauty and/or usefulness of the thing.  Two of your favorite polo shorts, seriously frayed at their collars, were gifts from your sister.  You could get an unrusted hammer from a hardware store but prefer in stead the one given you by your sister.

The list of associations grows; so many of the things you are so close to on a daily basis are imbued with the spirit of a person, place, or event, even down to the faux marble paperweight in the shape of a book, commemorating your leaving Sherbourne Press to run the Los Angeles office for Dell Publishing, the two-foot rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald, complete with a hip flask and a Princeton pennant, given you by Barnaby Conrad after he realized he'd already done one for inclusion in a large mural in a local bookstore.

These items are your lares and penates, your household gods, your fetishes and icons, binding you and caressing you within a world and home of your own making.  The presence of these things keeps you not merely from being lonely but from the unconscious awareness of loneliness; they remain constant reminders of your connectedness to a world about you.

Only yesterday, you heard from Thomas Sanchez, he of Rabbit Boss and The Zoot-Suit Murders, whom you'd not seen nor heard from for minimum twenty years.  Somehow he, in Paris right now, had seen something of yours and thus the exchange of words and a hoped for reunion.

There does come a time in life--the sooner, the better--where words and things and persons and events merge into artifacts and lares and penates, filled for a time with the energy of their current person.  They are the curios and mementos and relics of what it is to be alive and to reach out; they are the most precious things of all.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


Your strategy for readings, performances, and lectures may be called the cynic's approach or even the curmudgeon's approach because you are surely blood relatives to both, although in the case of readings, performances, and lectures, you like to think of your strategy as one reflecting self-preservation.  Not too long in the past, perhaps a month, you'd accordingly positioned yourself in the back row of a theater, where a screening was to begin in a matter of moments, smug in the fact that you were, indeed, mere feet from the rear door.

The only problem.

Just before the lights dimmed, your hostess saw you and said in these very words, "Are you sitting in the back row in case you have to make a getaway?"

Indeed, not ten minutes into the film, you did make your way under the cover of darkness into the resuscitating dusky light of evening, into fresh air, and a restorative Aloha Burger next door at The Kahuna Grill.

This past week, you deftly avoided a front-row seat saved for you at another venture, positioning yourself within access to an escape route.  Except that one of the principals saw you and sat next to you, dooming you to ninety minutes more audience time than you would have wished, during the course of which, you were rescued, not by a Kahuna Burger but by voices.

It is your belief that writers are either "hearers," meaning they hear their material, either dictated to them by some detached, mellifluous voice or by the ensemble voices of the characters they have created; or they are "seers," visualizing the events and in some cases, subtitles, such as those applied to foreign language films.  You are a hearer.  When you heard these particular voices of rescue, you thought with some amusement that they were real voices, speech everyone about you could hear.  But it soon came to pass that these detached voices were your own, doing their best to keep you looking attentive, alert, perhaps even interested in the material being presented about you.  They were lead-ups to arguments or confrontations of the sort characters in fully realized drama have when there is to be some important rhetorical explosion, a discovery or epiphany.

In general, you are supportive of live performance, of readings, poetry slams, plays, even lectures.  In general, you are also conservative with your cynicism and curmudgeonly mien, saving those for dealings with truly impossible adjuncts of bureaucracy, thus the welcomed appearance of these voices to help out.

When the going gets tough, the writer hears voices.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

You Can't Fucking Go Home Again--Not to the Same House

Back in the days when you still had a sister, you embarked on a project for her approaching birthday.  You did not get far with the project because some of it had vanished without you knowing it.  The project was to take pictures of all the places you'd lived in Los Angeles and surrounding areas as a family, including the last place, which she'd left after her marriage.

Even though you were only in Los Angeles one or two days a week at the time, you were enjoying the concept, drawing maps of the locations of the places, even going so far as to track down the locale of the most problematic of all, on Provedencia Street in Burbank, which was only the second locale you'd ever lived in and had such few memories.  You had no memories at all of the first place, a house in Santa Monica, where you'd been brought home from Santa Monica Hospital at Wilshire and Fifteenth, but the address of it was written on your birth certificate.

The place where memory truly clicked in for you was the third place, the four-plex apartment at 6145 1/2 Orange Street.  There you came into a world of experience, of time passing, of friendly and unfriendly dogs, of places where clumps of sour grass grew, of backyards where small, important adventures awaited an awkward boy with horn-rimmed glasses who had a stuffed dog named Prosperity.  Sixty-one forty-five and a half Orange Street was the capital of your universe, one scant parallel block from fabled Wilshire Boulevard, perpendicular to Fairfax Avenue.

You started with photos of the Santa Monica house, but when you went to Orange Street, the project came crashing down like missed dishes being juggled by a juggler.  Orange Street was still there, but the house and its immediate neighbors were gone, subsumed into a condominium arrangement that greatly resembles the sorts of self-assembly bookshelves sold by the likes of Staples and Office Max.  Gone, too, was the house of your sister's first residence, now a large apartment complex.

"Oh, them places,"  a resident of contemporary Provedencia Street said, "they went, one by one.  Pity, too.  Some of them was true Mediterranean, tile roofs and all."  Now they are ranch-like anomaly, another stylistic betrayal in a place where things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Of all the places you can't go home to again, Los Angeles seems to you the most passionately unreturnable because it is so given to change and recreation.  Los Angeles is an ideal metaphor for the past you cannot return to--except in memory.  It is a place where dreams metastasize, sometimes yanking entire neighborhoods along with it.  Nevertheless, it is a young, hearty, bright city, even its more seedy neighborhoods seeming to say Look at me, I'm up next.

It is everyone's Emerald City of Oz, replete with memories of the different Wizards who held forth.  Your L.A. is the L.A. of Madman Muntz, who didn't do all that well with used cars, and so he set forth to sell TV sets; of Earl Schieb, who offered to paint your car for $19.95, for an ice cream franchise called Currie's, where you could get the Mile-High cone for a mere dime; where the Angels Flight, a peeling orange funicular, groaned its way up Bunker Hill; the Hollywood Ranch Market, and the disc jockey-turned-recording entrepreneur, Gene Norman, broadcast nightly from the large music store, Music City, Sunset at Vine.

L.A. must be experienced to be appreciated on any terms.  The L.A. of today is a foreign country to you; whether you will know it as you once did is doubtful, but the L.A. of yesterday pierces the night sky of your imagination with the kleig lights announcing premier showings of new movies.  The L.A. of your memory is a metaphor for all the antic behavior and expectation you find in your own imagination, as colorful and appealing as the boxes of petit fours deserts served at the long gone Lucca's Restaurant on Western Avenue, as irreverent as the wrangler at the pony ride on La Cienega near what has become the dread Beverly Center.  "Fuck it, kid,"  he said once to you as he took your dime.  "Save your money and ride a real horse."  But you were a kid and the horse was a Shetland pony, and you were right where you felt you ought to be.  

Friday, May 6, 2011

I wandered lonely as a writer

Often when writing is discussed, someone will attempt to land the sucker punch of loneliness to the craft, as though a writer wanted nothing more than to be amidst a group of friends or family or even, dare the writer even think it, readers.  Listen to most writers for any length of time and out will come this tired trope of how the act of writing is somehow akin to being in a solitary confinement, where no one cares about the plight, whatever the hell a plight maybe, of the poor writer, where sacrifices are made on a daily basis to the Muse, propitiation for the visions, insights, and ideas said muse might chose to whisper into the writer's ear and without which in the first place the writer would be all vocabulary but no story.

True enough, you know some individuals who produce material, some of which is published, who are not persons you would want as friends or associates.  Nevertheless, they are writers.  Afflicted writers, you say of them, and there is some likelihood that all of us who writer have one or more afflictions, and there is also the likelihood that the writers you consider afflicted consider you in some degree a rogue, outsider, or misfit.  Even with this as backstory or, if you will, subtext, it is somewhat of a jump in momentum to consider yourself lonely because you have been chosen to be a writer.  Writing is far from martyrdom, even though there were times before you broke through certain barriers to some semblance of being published on occasion, you felt with each new story you sent forth a kind of stoicism in the face of rejection that links to martyrdom.  It may be hands held under the tablecloth or some hidden connection with martyrdom, and it was more or less of a piece with teen romanticism , but you did not feel lonely.  To put the matter in as blunt terms as you can, if there were times when you felt lonely, it had more to do with you, your state of mind, and your person skills than it had to do with your writing state of mind and your writing skills.

Many writers have associations with other writers; we do tend to make friends with persons of the same interest range. We sometimes form reading groups with these friends or at least have some system of reading the works of friends, supplying support and occasional suggestions when asked.
Writers who are used to publishing on some regular basis have literary agents with whom they are in contact, editors with whom they work.  If anything, there is a sense of relief in being able to squirrel away the necessary hours to satisfy one's literary Jones.

The writer of fiction is constantly being badgered by characters, wanting some quality time.  How, they seem to be asking, are we going to have any semblance of intimate relationship with you off all the time with your pals, griping about the state of publishing today?

The writer of nonfiction is as though locked in a linear accelerator where ideas rather than electronic particles are sped up with the deliberate intent of causing them to collide, producing yet other, newer ideas.  Writers of nonfiction may on occasion seem spooky, trying to keep track of things, but usually they are among the first to duck when they sense an invasion of friends or guests.

Some writers you have observed, still floundering within the learning curve, hopeful of a reasonable balance or foothold, will keep silent about their writing activities, not yet confident enough to show anything of their work to anyone, and one individual of about this level seems to appear out of the shadows from time to time, desperate for ways to secure publication of the two things she has written, thus to earn her way out of a detestable job and into the seemingly more secure and pleasant job of supporting herself on her writing.  Writers of any stature at all are aware of such individuals who are starting along the path, much as you did when you were setting forth.

Many of us write because we have discovered that not writing produces some symptom such as a headache or acid stomach or the gloomy behavior of which Ishmael spoke when he was explaining to us why he signed on The Pequod in the first place.  Others of us write because of our belief that it is expected of us, as in being told by friends or family or teachers that we have a way with words.  At the slightest sign of our individual advancement as a writer, we are beset by those immediately below us, eager for clues about how to get into the big kids' sandbox.

In short, we are not as lonely as we would wish to be; it is not a lonely business, and sometimes we run the risk of being considered rude when we take steps to insure we get out pages done.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011


You have long since reached the place where you are disabused of any notion that writing a book is a one-person activity.  While it is often true that volumes of journals or diaries or memoirs are written without much public knowledge of them being written, even those, you have come to understand, involve other individuals, persons you variously admire, love, respect, detest, and various other energizing responses because, truth be told, you do draw even in these ventures from those about you.

From your time on "the other" side of the desk, as editor in a number of book- and magazine-publishing venues, you were aware of the individuals who contribute in some way other than authorship to the making of a book.

You have one step to finish on your latest book venture before it will momentarily at least be wrenched away from your hands while others do to it.  This most recent phase is checking through the manuscript presumably for the last time to see what queries or suggestions the copyeditor has.  Almost everything a copyeditor does is mechanical in nature, looking for standardized use, consistency of use, checking for anomaly, possibly making some suggestion for a reason to deviate from CMOS--Chicago Manual of Style-suggested standardized use.

In anticipation, you have begun composing what probably will be your last text addition to The Fiction Lovers' Companion, the Acknowledgments, the first of which will be your ongoing recognition that you are not in this alone.  A longish phone conversation with the Executive Editor/Publisher had convinced you of that.  So much is at stake here, including her thoughts about what the next book project should be.

Acknowledgments extend far and wide, to friends (amazing how few friends you have outside the perimeters of publishing), family, and individuals within the publishing house who have loaned their talents to yours.  Also, you must consider a group who comprise the most significant area of surprise to you, students of yours for whom you hold no special warmth or regard.  It is nothing at all to acknowledge those men and women with whom, over the years, you have shared information, hints, tricks, and from whom you have gleaned and foraged information you have been able to put to work in your own writing.

For a time you were faculty mates with the late, fine storyteller, Richard Yates, who spoke of the dispiriting times he experienced dealing with students he knew he was not reaching.  For whatever reasons he became one, Yates was a recovering alcoholic.  He left USC to take a job with more classes and, thus, an overall larger paycheck, but after a short time was no longer in recovery, rather he was, in a succession of fatal prepositions, off the wagon, in the hospital, and out of the human condition.  Did bad writing--whatever that is--kill him?  No, it wasn't that simple or direct.  It was his own personal circuitry to the amount of unlettered work, beginning work, he could tolerate that opened the weak spots in his psyche to let the need for drink override his sure knowledge of what would happen next.

At one time, in your late teens and early twenties, you showed a remarkable aptitude for the drinking habits and attitudes that could have brought you into that scary terrain in which Yates lived.  How fortunate for you that your own misconceptions, leading you to romanticize alcoholism, did not get the opportunity to take hold.  How fortunate for you that one of your dearest mentors, herself in recovery, noted the relative work you'd have to do in order to accomplish that wretched state, allowing you to understand how easy it was for you to accept your freedom from that particular dead weight about your energies.

But you have come to think that, for all the dreadful material you read as a teacher and an editor, there is a saving grace.  Your own dreadful writing, which you had to write your way through and still, on occasion, need to write yourself well past, is in its way a light house, at least a beacon, reminding you as you consider the individuals and things you wish to cite in your Acknowledgments,to nod in recognition to those students with whom you could not connect, whose work you could not abide.  Recognize if you will what they, too, have contributed.  Wish them well, and realize now and into the future their contributions to this book.