Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Tools of the Tried

Once the concept for a story is mounted in place, the stage set, as it were, for the combination and collision of elements that will produce a surprise none of us, neither the characters nor you have anticipated in totality, it safe, but not entirely prudent to relax, watch the action.  Working this way is of a piece with trying to stage a surprise party for someone with a large group of friends.

Who or what will make the surprise target suspicious?  What complete stranger might give the whole plot away, without any intent of being a spoiler?

The analogies seem to focus on the writer, although characters have been known to tip the hand of the surprise.

Relevant culprits are the writer not being willing to trust the reader to "get" the intent of the characters (which is reminiscent of the adverb not trusting the verb to get the work done), the writer trying too hard to make the characters civil, the writer thinking, and the writer failing to send the characters into the point of combustion.

Other important tools here are the sentence, the paragraph, and the scene.  All are predicated on the word.  Do we really have to go into words, particularly equivocal words?  No, not here. No discussions of sentences beginning with "it" as in "It was raining," or "It was cold."  Please.

A sentence has more effect when it is framed in the active voice; a paragraph redolent of the sensual presence of smells, tastes, pulsing heat or bone-chilling cold is a paragraph that takes us somewhere.  We might not wish to go there, but so much the better.

How nice it is to be able to assert with conviction that the scene is the basic unit of drama, nicer still to be able to say so in connection with the basic tools forming the foundation of the scene, yet nicer to discuss the ingredients required to concoct a scene.  Characters, of course.  Setting.  Pacing.  Thought you'd never get around to dialogue.

There are more, of course.  One of the great ingredients in a scene is suspense, curiosity about what will come next.  Some pretty remarkable things relative to scene will come next.

You'll see.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

How Concept Becomes Story

 That's a great idea for a story, you often tell yourself when you see or hear something that strikes sparks within you, even though you know at the moment that the idea is not yet a story; it is only a concept.

In your Mind's Eye, you see sperm cells racing toward the egg.  Or you get more elaborate and imagine those stalwarts, Lewis and Clark, setting forth at President Jefferson's commission, to find The Northwest Passage.

For the concept to become a story, one of those sperm cells has to make it to the egg ahead of the others.  For the Lewis and Clark Expedition to become a story, matters have to become yet more sophisticated.  There has to no discovery of the Northwest Passage, because there wasn't any such thing.  There has to be and was the remarkable trail of discovery along the way, as recorded in the journals of the two men and of the implications for untold millions who were affected and still are, after their journey.

Story is outreach.  Someone strives for--reaches toward--a goal.  Story is reversal or frustration.  A writer is sitting in the outdoor patio of a coffee shop, her latte growing cold while she is typing away on her laptop, her narrative growing to the point where she is quite concentrated, her latte grown cold.  Enter a bottle fly, buzzing about her, sensing a profitable landing spot, somewhere on her head.

Irritated, she swats at the fly.  The fly avoids her swat with ease, then buzzes her from another direction.  The irritation of the writer grows.
But this is still not a story; the writer is not n invested character yet.  When the fly makes another pass at her, and she stops, roots about in her briefcase, withdraws a copy of The Atlantic Monthly,  then rolls it into a bat, we have the beginnings of outreach.  Depending on the type of story this narrative will eventually become, its writer meets potentials for scenario.

If, for instance, the story is to become a romance, the writer uses her rolled-up magazine to swat the fly, misses the fly, hits her table in such a way that her remaining latte splatters all over the jacket of a nearby young man who, even now, is awaiting his fiancee.

Were the story to be of the speculative fiction alternate universe genre, the writer would once again miss the fly, but this time, she would strike the table top in such a way that the resonant frequency would cause her to be shifted into a parallel universe, where she would find herself in a landscape where it became within her immediate means of preventing some person from being persecuted, perhaps even killed, creating a bond between her and that person, and further enlisting her in a series of chores, trials, or tests to be performed.  For some period of time, the protagonist could reenter her own world and return to this one by striking the table top.

Story is now well under way; the protagonist has a task or a quest.  the story develops as she attempts against opposition to perform the designated task or encounter the object of her quest, be it an actual person, a particular document, or a token that is valuable to someone.

Story is the pursuit of a goal, the discharge of a duty, and the release of unanticipated energy.  This last is of particular importance to the author.  The unanticipated energy is the reverberation of insight or knowledge that has come in the writing of the story. This insight is expressed through the actions and perhaps the interior monologue of one or more of the characters.

The closing moments of story are achieved when the characters, their motives, the effect on them of reversals and frustrations, and the need to achieve a compromise with Reality are, metaphorically, tossed into a crucible, then heated to combustion.  Now the characters are left to clean up the residue and the readers remain to each in his or her own way, to take some sides and take some meaning from the events.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The politics of the written word

How does narrative differ from stream-of-consciousness?

You believe they are the same.  When they are not congruent, one or the other has been jostled aside by the author, attempting to butt in line with some observation or other with the justification that the reader has to know.

Readers are not so sure about this.

In much the same manner as the author, a politician from any layer of the political spectrum will justify behavior in the name of the American public.

Constituents are not so sure politicians know who they're talking about  when they refer to the American public; they are in fact not sure what politicians are talking about much of the time, their cautious and self-exculpatory tropes causing frustration for their constituents.

Readers are not so sure they need to have the reader appearing in front of them to explain things, to lead them through the labyrinth gardens of narrative.  You've come to conflate Readers with Constituents in terms of the relative degrees of frustration each demographic has to experience, Readers emerging a tad ahead of the game because they can always set the book down and leave it down.  Constituents have to wait sometimes as long as six years to get the satisfaction of voting against an incumbent senator--even then, such satisfaction as can be had is likely to be only in the vote as opposed to the unseating of the incumbent.

When you edit, you try to edit the author out of the narrative, keeping it where you feel most comfortable with it--in the control of the characters.  This makes it easy to suggest stream-of-consciousness as an anodyne for that boring sense that pretends to objectivity but which is in actuality linear recitation of detail, woeful and noticeable in its lack of sensuality.

When you write, you take effort in revision to keep your opinions to yourself, instead permitting "them," the characters, to advance the lines of action and response, each to the others.

When you read, you notice passages, chapters, even complete works wherein the writer agrees with the approach you use or is successful enough to be allowed egregious lapses of editorial guidance.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Alternate Universes

What goes on in the Writer's World?  Where and how does it differ from the Real World?

Let's address this part first:  The goings-on within the Writer's World should differ from Reality.  These activities are complex, causing associations to bounce all over the place, as though the Writer were in some conflated game of jai-alai or squash rackets.  The writer needs to make associations between as many things as possible. The Writer could, for extreme example, be stuck in a waiting room somewhere, waiting, say, to get a flu shot or a driver's license renewal, or even in a police station, waiting to be fingerprinted in order to be able to teach in an highly bureaucratized education system that receives some money from a State government.

Associations are available in all such Reality-based places.  Only last week, when you were in the lobby of the Santa Barbara Police Department, waiting for the fingerprint specialist, you found an ancient copy of Architectural Digest, another yet of Vogue, and still another of Popular Science.  You tried to associate the magazines with the individual or individuals who caused these magazines to be in such a place, where the more plentiful reading materials were the Spanish language newspaper from L.A., La Opinion, and the weekly advertising venues for used car sales.

Associations are available in the Subway Sandwich Shop on Milpas or the Quiznos on State Street where in each, when you are asked which accessories you want on a sandwich, you reply espinacas and pepina, to which they counter Ah, you mean spinach and cucumber, at once they not trusting you to know the Spanish words and you not trusting them to know the English.

The goings-on within Reality are routines in which cadres of individuals are called upon from time to time to ratify cultural values, others feel the need to challenge them, and still others become motivated to break away from these values.  Occasionally, your work as a Writer will be held up to standards by which educated individuals will wish to impose upon you conditions of clarity,by which they mean conditions in which your meanings and intents become manifest.  Occasionally, you will be in the same position, applying subjective standards to the ideas and expressions of others, lest they be ambiguous or wrongheaded.

You try to spend as much time as possible in the Writer's World, measuring potential friends and associates against the work and educational manifestos you have concocted for yourself.  It is a world you enjoy, but it is fraught with discouraging, bad news.  Each time you feel you have learned something, you have your entire lifespan to date to reflect upon as a considerable time where you were innocent of or, worse, ignorant of the thing you just learned.  You try to take some pleasure in having finally learned the thing you'd gone all this time not knowing.  Rather than admit such judgmental things as stupidity or ignorance, you attempt to learn more, one way of which is by associating or connecting things you previously thought dissimilar.  It can be said when you are being happy in the Writer's World that you are living in a fool's paradise.

This may be so.  Nevertheless, it is better here than in the bureaucratic limbo of Reality.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mise en scene

For all practical purposes, you live in one commodious room.  To be sure, there is a small room for toilet, shower, sink, and some shelving for toiletries and supplies.  There is as well a small closet for clothing and shoes, even some shelves for storage.  And not to forget the most comfortable kitchen you've had relations with in at least twenty years.

Since you are now on your own, you've made a point of extending yourself to what you like to think of as a comfortable neatness.  The worst offense in your eyesight now is a pair of shoes, tossed to one side.True, there are a few corners where books that no longer fit in the available shelves, have begun to encroach,much in the manner of a group of ants that made their way in last week and which were put to rout with an application of, of all things, cinnamon.  Books will not respond so well to cinnamon, but something can and shall be done.

Your point is that your immediate surroundings look relatively tidy.  To put it another way, they do not look foreboding.  Alright, you do have Lupe in for three hours a week, and she is quite good as a reminder that you, too, need to keep things in order.

Thus the leap from neatness of home to the metaphor for story and essay; you are inviting guests into a landscape each time you set forth.  Shoes should not be left lying about.  Ants should be warded off with a Maginot Line of cinnamon at the back door.  The flowers should be kept fresh or discarded.  Dishes washed. Etc.

Even if your fictional or essay landscapes are chaotic, noir, or otherwise afflicted with some cultural or personal malaise, they should be in their appropriate way inviting.  Even if the only guest is you, the landscape must be made inviting, however thematic in its awfulness or implication.  The characters may make a perfect botch of things, but as you direct their responses, you should allow no distancing or distracting behavior; the reader should see character-induced chaos, not authorial sloppiness.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Next is not only for barber shops

It is the nature of life to barrage us with all manner of existential questions, some of which--Suppose?, What if?  How about?--are useful to you in your work and other enjoyments of your surroundings.  There are two such questions that seem to arise more often, each as persistent in its way as a request for spare change from a panhandler or a charity call from some organization connected with children or illness or, in fact, children who are ill.  These questions are:  What next? and Now what?

What next? tends to arrive in context with some disaster, some reversal, some unanticipated tweak of fortune that you recognize as one that you will be some time repairing, getting over, perhaps distancing yourself from to the point where you can add its arrival and departure to the number of other events of similar intensity that you have endured.

Now what? is the more temporal of the two; it implies the need for a plan, a strategy to help return to some greater level of productivity and purpose, perhaps even to the point of building a callous if not a buffer against some future return of What next?

This is a fine example of defensiveness in motion, of recognition that the individual is likely to experience the beset condition that goes with life,but it is also far ranging in its optimism because it suggests that so long as you find a thing to to that provides you some measure of a process to be come lost in, you will be able to take comfort in being here on this perilous-but-wonderful journey.  Isn't it remarkable how the act of being lost in something allows you to filter your satisfaction into your external surroundings?  And if that isn't an existential question, what next?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dare to Think the Worst

If you're at all serious about your reading and your storytelling, you need to get out of the quick-fix, sound-bite mentality of pop communication, which can easily have lulled you into skimming and skipping.  You need to get into the dramatic dimension of implication.

Whether you're reading someone else's story or writing your own, it's wise to pay as much attention to what goes between the lines as to what is actually said.

This is because most memorable, resonant fiction pays such attention,no matter when it was written.  You can find it in, say, a scene from Jane Austen, as well as locating it in a short story by Deborah Eisenberg.

What, then, is this noteworthy and important "it"? To give it a simple name, call it subtext; to make sure you see it at work in a story, visualize it as downstream consequences.

If the reader misses the implications of these consequences, an entire dimension of the story goes begging--serious but repairable with a second, closer reading.  Were a writer to miss these special consequences, the albatross of editorial rejection is yanked in by the collar.

Read between the lines and behind the scenes for the unspeakable having transpired, the unspeakable being your worst fear as a reader, the tangible evidence that your characters have pushed you to allow the unthinkable to come to pass.

Sure, action is character, but often, fearful of conservative library review boards and evangelical critics who are already hostages of some dogmatic vision, the author prevents characters from doing what people have been doing since homo sapiens evolved.  The artful and honest actor has learned to remove boundaries, often bringing by a mere gesture or pause an entire new meaning to an action, a line of dialogue, or a motive.  Writers can do no less.  Readers have in their hands--whether electronic reader or paper edition--the great option of putting the work down--and not returning to see where it went from there.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Closure means something that was opened, investigated, looked into, discovered, has been brought to some kind of a moment of understanding.  The understanding may reflect frustration as in, this is all we can expect to know at this time.  The understanding may reflect a sense of finality:  Well, that's it, he's really done it this time, in spite of all our warnings.

The moment someone in the story says no, it isn't over, it's still closure, but it is also the opening of a new story, with a different perspective and/or point of view.

It is perhaps a holdover from the old days of The Unities, which said that among other things, a story should take place in real time, and that when a thing was over, it was probably because in those days, when a thing was over, everyone was dead.  Shakespeare went against grain in Hamlet, leaving two characters alive at the very end.  But in a sense, wasn't he giving a nod to the Chorus by allowing Fortinbras and Horatio to tidy things up after the rest of the cast had been pretty well worked over.

Closure has to be manipulated to give the sense that some if not all the characters are willing to pick up such pieces as were dropped, then get on with things, leaving it to the audience/reader to take the final hit, the realization that things are not as over as they seem, perhaps even guessing an epiphany or some lesser form of realization will come to one or more characters.

Even "And they all lived happily ever after" isn't the closure trope it once was, our suspicions and cynicism as readers creeping into the most romantic of experiences, the most closed of closures.

We read fiction to see things of chaos put away in some kind of satisfactory order.  You like to speak of closure as negotiated settlements, which means a communal sense that we might not have gotten as much as we'd wanted, but no one in the ensemble cast got away with a steal.

We call some closures poetic justice, by which we mean someone least deserving was going to walk away with a huge coup, only to have a last-minute pigeon fly over that character's head and let loose with some conveniently released poetic justice.  We want the Universe to be friendly, even though we realize is is more often neutral, on some occasion a tad spiteful.  We want the Universe to care, thus we go about in it on quests for visions that will bring us guides, mystical operating instructions that show us where to look, how to concoct the magical elixir.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Generational Thing

It is surely a generational thing, you being in a transitional generation where, having negotiated a per-page rate with a publisher for editing a novel, you asked when you could expect the manuscript and the publisher said, "Oh, here it is."  She was in Florida and you were not.  And then, you heard ping, and indeed, there it was, in your in box,  After ending your conversation with her, you realized you were about to "learn" how to edit this electronic manuscript without going through the process of printing it out before you began.

That was some years ago.  You rather enjoyed your learning experience.  Although you did print out a number of proposals for your recent 528-page project as well as printing a number of copies of the entire manuscript, your agent thought nothing of submitting it in electronic format nor were you surprised when it sold on the basis of an electronic-rather-than-paper manuscript, much less did you give thought to the content edits coming via MS Word track changes, ditto the copyeditor's version.

So you have "moved over" from paper submissions and paper edits with even less effort than the switch from a series of PC computers to your Mac Book.

But there is more to it than that.

You came to books when the options had to do more with the kind of press the book was printed on, when the type was letterpress, then morphing into photographic, when you had to make decisions about how a book was bound, what the basis weight of the paper it was printed on mattered, and how many pages to the inch the printed version bulked.

This all came flashing through your mind at coffee this afternoon, as you browsed The London Review of Books, coming upon an advertisement for a special printing of a book by Julian Barnes, offering the buyer options of the entire binding being in leather, or in the more standard three-piece binding, the spine of which was leather.  All copies of the book would come with a slip case.  The ad did not list prices, but having dealt with the manufacture of some five or six hundred books, you began to assess the prices and even toyed with the notion of how nice it would be to own such a book.

When you think of the craft that goes into the making of a book, you will appreciate the opportunity to carry some portions of one with you on some electronic device or other, to look at, reference, have on your person the same way you have a folded twenty- or hundred-dollar bill, tucked away against emergency or, better, for a whim.

Even though your electronic book may hold the text as a genie-in-a-bottle prisoner in some agreeable type face, even though it may in fact hyperlink to relevant streaming sites, it does not smell of glue.  Nor does it lie flat if it is smythe-sewn, nor mousetrap if it is perfect bound or printed on cross grain paper.  Nor does its cover have blind stamping or three-piece construction.

Your ebook is virtually weightless, it is true, but do its pages have deckle edges, does its spine support head and foot bands?  Does it anywhere have the smell of leather?


But whatever format it is, it is a book.

Last night, on your evening walk, you saw a massmarket paperback of your great pal, Barnaby Conrad's second and probably most important novel for him, Matador.  You'd never seen it in that form before; you had direct involvement in it being made available on an electronic device.  Once a book, always a book,

Friday, July 22, 2011

Eleven Chickens in the Air: A Juggling Act

Starting a new project is in many ways like beginning a new romance.  At first blush, you tend to be excited by the possibilities, expanding way out beyond entertainment and discovery toward meaning something.  Indeed, in past instances, you'd reached a point of wondering whether the chemistry had come from some attractive feature you were caught up with.  Could it lead to that remarkable discovery on both sides?  Could it, as you'd begun to suspect, change your life?  And hers?

How, indeed, your life has been changed by romances and new projects?  You can see the sharp dichotomy between those that were and those that were not; you can see now the reason why each surge of initial chemistry causes a moment of introspection, of the lip chewing deliberation about potential outcome.

You'd been toying with a work plan for some days, since signing off on the copyedited manuscript of your latest, humbled as always more by the copyedit than the content edit.  Somewhere in your not-too-remote past, you'd been given information you did not think was going to lead to a howler on an urban myth website such as Snopes dot com.  No juggler has been able to get more than eleven objects into orbit.  You'd even spent time trying to check a reliable source for this fact--if it were, indeed, a fact.  The closest you'd come to any reliability was a chum, often given to accuracy of statement, who'd for a time been married to a circus trapeze artist, from whom he'd heard the same figure--eleven.

Over the years, that number has stuck with you.  Eleven balls.  Eleven dishes.  Eleven live chickens.  Eleven fiery torches.  Eleven tumbling pins.  Eleven.  Try for twelve and you're up to your ass, as it were, in broken dishes.

The book you've just finished among other things names over three hundred fifty such objects or,if you will, conditions, or, if you won't, qualities a storyteller has to keep up in the air simultaneously, making storytelling incrementally more risky than mere juggling.  If there is any question at all about your ability as a storyteller, there can be no doubt about your outstanding inability as a juggler.  You are lucky to maintain two objects airborne; three is a distinct non-event.

You began a few prefatory remarks about this disparity in objects in flight between the juggler and storyteller, leading you directly to the game plan of revising a book published some twenty years ago, encouraged to do so by your literary agent and current publisher, provided, the agent said, you work on it in the morning and get back to your novel in the afternoon.

Music of the spheres.  It is not so much that you have a short attention span as it is a matter of time management, what with three editing chores logged in and ticking.

Some hours after devising a provisional table of contents for the revision, you produced a solid first draft of the Preface.  The content of the Preface will surely undergo changes; you might even play with it in these vagrant pages of blog.  What matters most is a sign, not from above, because the signs from above you're most likely to believe are lightning flashes, tornadoes, and pissing rain storms, rather from within.  Last night, you dreamed of the Preface and the table of contents, sure signs that you were "in story," that you'd become a part of the project and the project had reciprocated.

It was as if a new romance were winking at you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Canned Tamales

No one would set out with deliberation to write a dull or boring book.  Even those writers who have written and published dull, boring books did not have dullness or a vision of bored readers uppermost in mind hen they set forth.

It is true that some academics--many academics--ultimately write books that are dull and boring; these are called textbooks.  It is also true that individuals who are not academics and who think they have led interesting, exciting lives set forth to write memoirs which are, nevertheless dull and boring.

You are not talking about such books.  While it is true that you believe a good fifty percent of fiction and nonfiction are relentlessly boring and dull, you are seeking to address here the interesting and exciting nonfiction books that come into your life.  And although you may catch some howls for this, you are for the purpose of this argument, ranking books of poetry, particularly the good ones, with nonfiction because books of poetry are about the multifariousness of reality as opposed to story.  This is not to say that there is no story in reality, rather that fiction is more of a managed reality than nonfiction.

The problem you encounter with the nonfiction books you like enough to keep is a high-class problem.  It is rare for you to be able to simply read through all or parts of an enjoyable nonfiction book without being driven in the process to order another nonfiction book.  Perhaps a novel, perhaps a book of poetry, but more than likely another book of nonfiction.

A novel sometimes has the effect on you of causing you to search for all the other novels of an author you like, Kate Atkinson's Case Histories being a splendid example of that.  In general, you are more likely propelled by a work of nonfiction to another work of nonfiction by another author than the nonfiction author with whom you began.

You are well aware that novels and works of nonfiction you enjoy are the equivalent to other readers as cinnamon to ants, as canned tamales to a serious Mexican.  But this is another matter, one you may get to--one of these days.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Illustrated Moan

As a young person, your closest friends were often a step away from such imaginary friends as Hobbes, the imaginary tiger-friend of young Calvin in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.  Your "friends" were characters from the books you'd read, most of them involving some form of journey to a difficult-to-reach place in order to carry out a goal.  Thus were two of your friends Henry Morton Stanley and the object of   his quest, Dr. Livingstone.

You had some neighborhood friends, all of whom went to a different school than you, and some friends from the school you attended, but in large measure, going to the Saturday movie (two features, a serial, and a cartoon) and reading were such serious business that you felt more comfortable enjoying them alone.

Grainy B movies, radio serials, and Big Little Books provided your greatest sources of made-to-order friends to serve as your companions as you plied the vast reaches empty lot behind where you lived on Cochran Avenue, between Sixth and Fifth Streets, and when you navigated the absolute wilderness of what has become Park La Brea Towers on your way to the Hancock Park Elementary School, corner of Third and Fairfax.

You got a quantum leap forward when you discovered the lean, no nonsense prose of the pulp magazines, notably Black Mask, but as well Dime Detective, Thrilling Wonder, Amazing, Weird Tales, and a number of other titles reflective of the Western genre.  This was about the time when you began thinking less about "staging" your own dramas in overgrown lots and writing them out on lined pads with the portrait of a romanticized Indian chieftain on its cover.

Not many years later, you were an undergraduate, desperate for girlfriends, money for dates, money for books, thus a series of jobs in which your major function was to watch something, say the cars in a parking lot, or to lift something such as bookshelves and lawn furniture, or that truly defining job available at Christmas break,the temporary deliverer of mail.  You were not so much "out" of the characters-as-friends business as you were "in" trying to effect characters on paper.

For three years, you had the same amazing route, which is to say,it was a segment of west Los Angeles defined by Pico Boulevard at its northern boundary, extending southward for about six blocks.  There was one particular delivery to which you regularly delivered manila envelopes, laden with thick interior content.  Because of the return addresses on the envelopes, you knew not only what was in them--because you'd hoped to get them as well--but who the addressee was, because you'd been reading him for some considerable time.

The envelopes were from a spectrum of pulp magazines.  Their contents were galley proofs,printed strips of paper intended for their author's reading, lest they contain any unintended typographical errors.  You well understood the ethics and issues involved. You, as a government employee however temporary were morally and legally obligated to deliver the mail to its addressee.  On the other "side" of the issue was your curiosity.  In due time, you would be able to read the stories you delivered to this author because you not only followed him, you followed the magazines in which his stories appeared.  But due time to a temporary mail deliver who wanted to be a writer was time spent in the hell of curiosity, just as similar time was spent in the hell of being between your own stories.

What to do?

One day, Fate helped you decide.  As you hefted such a thick envelope before delivering it to its rightful owner, you thumped the envelope speculatively in your hand, whereupon its flap sprang open.

Sure enough, there was a wad of folded galley proof inside, a terse, handwritten note clipped to it.  Any thoughts of rectitude were gone from you--you'd already noted the first line of the galley proof and were yanked from the streets of west side Los Angeles to the worlds out among the stars, planets, asteroids, and galaxies.  You sat on the corner curb of Patricia Street, reading the story, marveling at its energy and reach, knowing the exquisite smugness of the reader who had experienced this fiction before all but a handful of mortals.

As the days of that Christmas season and the next and yet the next progressed, many such envelopes happened to develop sprung flap.  The result was electric.  You probably read as many as thirty stories that way.  Not only was there nary a dud within them, they all went off in so many different ways that you knew you had in a kind of highly personal albeit illegal way, seen yourself as that author's acolyte, him as a kind of mentor, a mentor of wonder.

About fifteen years later, when you were regional president of the Mystery Writers of America, you had occasion to present an Edgar Award--a porcelain bust of Edgar Allen Poe--to the writer of those remarkable stories.  With him standing next to you at the podium, you told an abridged version of the opening flap syndrome.  "The only author I have ever committed a federal crime in order to read,"  you said, handing him the statue.

"You son of a bitch,"  Ray Bradbury said, "you opened my mail."

"Did you ever consider,"  Barnaby Conrad asked you some years later, "that he may have been smiling when he said that?"

Conrad and Bradbury are close enough friends to allow you some hope that Conrad was right.  There has always been somewhat of a personal edge between you and Bradbury when you were in the same room, and you like to think that some two or three years ago, when you'd chosen to write a retrospective review of Fahrenheit 451  for your weekly column, and Bradbury had called Conrad to say, "Did you see what Lowenkopftransformative crimes of a young writer's career.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When Ivan the Terrible Becomes Ivan the Not-So-Hot

You have reached an age that has more to do with experience than any hint of chronology.  Had you in fact been more precocious, you might well have reached this age some years ago, because it is arguable that even some years ago, you'd had enough variety in experience to allow you to reach the age of which you now speak.

You'd had experiences in career, romantic relationships, friendships, educational opportunities, and the omnibus assortments of reversal and frustration that appear in life.  While accruing these experiences, your reading tastes ran toward the noir, which seemed to agree with your sense that sometimes you'd hit one out of the park,other times not even seeing the one coming because it was so fast and had such a spin on it.


Whether naivete, witlessness, or some idiosyncratic cocktail of your being reared, you remain positive, well beyond neutral in your dreams, aspirations, and the things you attempt.

So then, what is this age you speak of, the age of which you are now a card-carrying member, which you can whip out much the way you do with your membership card for the Montecito Y?

It is the age of reckoning the potential for disappointment or failure in a venture, then risking it anyway.  It is the age of knowing with a certainty which things have the potential to make you happy, and it is a belief in the instincts of discovering the company of potentially happy persons.

Even though reading and writing have caused you moments of frustration in the past--and will do so in the future--you know the great likelihood each has for getting to to come of age and to remain engaged with yourself and them in that meeting ground.

When, as the poet--don't go getting cute now--as William Fucking Wordsworth says, when "The World is too much with us--" you are of an age where the world doesn't have to fucking win.  You can win, at least to the point of spending as much time doing things you enjoy, things that contribute to your growth and happiness as possible, things where story exists and writers and poets have some say in how the story progresses.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The G

As you were preparing to embark--quite literally, because embarking meant leaving your then home in Los Angeles--on a career in journalism, a large Cadillac pulled up in front of your parents' home, where you were temporarily lodged.  The large Cadillac was packed to near overflow with the largest collection of stuffed toy animals you'd ever seen in aggregate.

The driver of the Cadillac was relieved to have caught you before your departure to what would have been Calexico, California, a town that by its very name conjures close proximity to the Mexican border.  Had you gone to Calexico, you would have gone with the intent of being a cub reporter at the newspaper, The Chronicle.

Instead, after spirited discussion, you went off with the driver of the Cadillac,your immediate destination quite a bit north of Calexico to Tulare, a city of about fifty thousand, located in Tulare County, which is of not much help to individuals not familiar with the yawning stretch of the interior valley, nor is the information of it being eight miles south of Visalia, although some placement might begin to appear if you were to express its location as being between Fresno, (to the north) and Bakersfield (to the south).  Nor would it matter much that the Tulare County Fair is held every September, but it would and did matter to the driver of the Cadillac.

You began your career as a raw and naive entrant into the world of the carnival in Tulare, California, where your first job was a shill, your  assignment to induce other individuals to play The Wheel of Fortune, a large, vertically mounted wheel that had pie-shaped segments , illustrated with pictures of canned hams, one-pound tins of Maxwell House coffee, slabs of bacon,and gift baskets filled with canned groceries.

The driver of the Cadillac walked you through the carnival midway, showing you The G, or gimmick, for every booth, including the Guess-Your-Age-Occupation booth, and the one where you were to develop your best talents, the baseball throw booth. "Of course the bottles are weighted,"  you would eventually taunt skeptics, "they have three-pound lead weights.  You mean to tell me a man your size can't known down a bottle with a three-pound weight."

There was on actual G, or gimmick, to the juggling acts, although there was--and still is--a physical restriction.  The most objects any juggler has been able to keep up in the air at any time is eleven.  You were taken to see a smooth operator juggling eight rubber balls, another juggler who had six bowling pins in the air simultaneously, and yet another juggler who casually tossed about six live chickens.

There are any number of objects the writer of fiction must keep in the air.  Sometimes, as a classroom exercise, you have been able to number twenty-three or -four elements.  Let us say that there are an even two dozen, things such as plot, dialogue, characters, suspense, backstory, description, and the like.

The G is that they must all be juggled.  No wonder it is such a common observation that there is no such thing as a perfect novel; somewhere there is a flaw, somewhere the writer didn't keep enough things up in the air and some of those aloft fell to the ground with a notable thud.

Fond as you are of Gatsby, much as you relish and admire Huck Finn, indeed, much as you envy Louise Erdrich's ability to keep so many things up in the air at once, there is only one that has come even close to the sublime, where every word works.  Of Mice and Men.  There are many splendid close-but-no-cigar prospects.  In its way, Joe Heller came close with Catch-22;  and do not ignore The Plague of Doves.

Each time a novel comes rushing forth, clamoring for attention, you dive into it the way you watched the jugglers, tossing, catching, tossing, making it seem so simple.

But ah, you know better.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ordering Ideas from

There are times when you feel you have been given things, gifts of entire subjects or, perhaps, questions to ask the Universe with the almost certain possibility of satisfying answers.  You do not always know who the donor is or why you were singled out for the gift you were given.  But you take it.  And you write about it.  Somewhere.  Perhaps even here, where you have indeed written about such gifts since March of 2007.

You have these attitudes because there are times when there are no gifts; you then have to make your own things or wait out the time for gifts to arrive, as though these things had somewhere else to go before stopping off where you sit, waiting.

Thanks to the addition to your life of a cell phone with a built-in Wi-Fi Mobile hot spot and a laptop MacBook, you have had the opportunity to waiting out the arrival of gifts in places remote from your home base.  This allows you a way out in the form of being able to write about where you happen to be, which is not in any way cheating although it seems so obvious that it begins to feel like cheating.

Wanting to write and liking to write are of themselves gifts, but they are nothing without having something to write about.  For the longest time, you were concerned that being too opinionated would give you unhealthy things to write about, causing your output to be tainted with the sound of screed, the sclerosis of agenda, and the potential for propagandizing what you hoped would emerge as story.  This approach left you nowhere to go, particularly since you'd been reading things that sounded to you as though they were laden with screed, agenda, or emotive gloss.

From time to time, the gifts began arriving, as though you'd ordered them yourself from Amazon, then forgotten about them.  You would not--to extend the metaphor--order a boring book from Amazon, nor, once you began to think of it, would you order anything boring from Amazon.  Checking through a recent list of things you ordered from Amazon--mostly books and CDs--the most bland, if not boring thing you ordered was a two-quart stainless steel sauce pan, which you have to admit does not sound exciting.  When you removed it from its shipping box, you were taken with the grace and beauty of it.  Such a thing would never qualify as boring.

Although you are a bit miffed with Amazon right now over their attitude about California sales tax, you are not about to let the opportunity for a good metaphor get away from you.  When you are waiting for the gift of an idea or association, you are going to imagine ordering one from Amazon, even to the point of describing what function you'd like the idea or notion or even a good, quality comparison to accomplish.  You are even going to imagine customer reviews.  I have been using Amazon ideas for years, someone from New Jersey will write, and they are always useful and competitively priced.  You may even like Amazon ideas enough to write a review yourself.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Against the common denominator of the number of hours per week you have available to read, you have subscriptions to four publications specifically related to the appearance of new books.  Used to be five, but the Washington Post decided for reasons beyond your ken not to continue mailing printed copies of its weekly supplement, Book World, to subscribers who do not take the entire newspaper.

You subscribe to at least eight so-called little magazines, which publish short fiction, poetry, and essays in addition to reviews of forthcoming books, thus your sensory apparatus, which is literally subjected to billions of impressions each day, are additionally impressed by advertisements and reviews of books.  Thus bombarded, you visit at least one bookstore a week, wherein you are attracted to yet other impressions or visions of books of potential interest to you.

This assault is not a new phenomenon; it is a siege that has been bombarding you for much of your life, during the course of which you have bought books published by major publishing houses, scholarly and niche publishers, university presses, and small mainstream publishers.  These purchases have been made in response to your curiosity about a subject where you were interested in expanding your awareness, in hopes of being entertained, and in a kind of combination of these seemingly different goals.

In addition, and either as a paid employee or contracted consultant to various publishing entities, you have designed hardcover and paperbound books of various genera, in some cases supervising them through the various stations of production from raw manuscript from the author to printed book.

This background has provided you with a certain sensory radar you had no thought to obtain.  This radar is an uneasy analog of racial profiling.  You can pretty much distinguish a self-published book from a kind of published you do not have a readily defined, one- or two-word name for, thus enhancing the sense of unease.

There is something about the self-published book that calls out to you, perhaps in aggregate qualities, perhaps from only one or two, such as the cover design or the type faces used.

One of the book reviews to which you subscribe frequently has full-page ads from companies that produce self-published books.

Sometimes the mere title of a book suggests its origins.

The only thing you have against self-published books in a general sense is the larger potential they radiate of the potential to be boring, perhaps even tempests in a teapot.  You have even been paid to edit books you knew were about to be published as a self-publishing venture.

The judgmental landscape between the traditional and self-published book is gray, so far as you are concerned.  You have gone so far on some occasions as to suggest self-publication to a writer, the ultimate goal being to sell enough copies to entice a traditional publisher to want to take the work up.

Nor is it a matter of you believing traditional publishers are unfaltering in their competence against self-publishers being incompetent; any number of titles you are aware of, having been published by traditional publishers, have been botched in the crisis management that often appears to go with traditional publishing.

In some ways, your attitude toward the self-published book reminds you of the associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, who, when speaking of pornography, said he could not describe it although he did recognize it when he saw it.

Whimsical cover design.  Strange type faces.  Strange margins.  Woeful lack of copyediting.  (In fact, you were just sent a portable document format [PDF] of a self-published book, no doubt in hopes you would review it.  There were six copyediting mistakes on the first page--possibly even more--at which point you stopped counting--and reading.)

You are for the little guy.  You are, in fact, a little guy.

You have, in fact, chosen for your latest book a start-up publisher with a business plan you believe has as a part of its genome the future of book publishing.  You chose this publisher over a traditional publisher that much impresses you.

There is a good deal riding on your choice, internally as well as in the external sense.

Thus it invariably returns to risk, doesn't it?  There is a risk with every sentence, every word.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Prices to be paid

Some years back,when you were still thinking there was something to be gained from the discipline of taking journalism assignments, you were assigned an interview with a ballerina.  She agreed to meet you in a rehearsal studio at eight on the morning after she had danced the lead role in Swan Lake.  

By the time you'd arrived, she was well into her stretching and bending exercises, which she continued for nearly a half hour before stopping, spending perhaps five more minutes with you, then dismissing you so that she could shower, dress, and approach her breakfast and whatever else the day held in store for her.

During those five minutes, you remarked how much you'd enjoyed her performance the night before and spoke with admiration of her discipline at exercising so comprehensively the morning after.

She said, and you thought she did so without any trace of bitterness, "I am thirty-seven years old.  To dance the lead in Swan Lake at this age and not exercise would leave me nearly unable to walk."

Such words and thoughts lead you in your own way to thinking about the price to be paid for attaining any ability at all, then for using it, then for keeping it up.

Tomorrow, you will set forth on your twofer plan--two new book projects.  Nonfiction project:  complete revision of a book originally published in 1991.  Working hours on it, 7:30 a.m. until 12:30.  Half an hour for lunch, an hour for some editing chores, then back to the novel, which is already turning out to be something other than what you expected.

Prices to be paid.

Glad to pay them.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Usual?

There are at least three places of coffee-related cachet you patronize where you are apt to be greeted with the question, "The usual?"

This likelihood suggests your regular patronage and the formulaic nature of your tastes, which is the medium (two shots of espresso) nonfat latte.

There is another place you visit where, after preliminary greetings which may go on for some moments, you sit in the chair you customarily occupy.  The person serving you feels no need to ask you, "The usual?" nor for you to suggest it, although you both know what "it" is.  You have been receiving "the usual" here for about twenty years.  Both you and she know what is to be done with such hair as you have topsides, and how to manage the cowlick whimsicality sprouting from the sides with the persistence of volunteer flowers finding homes in cement sidewalks.

These ventures, into which behavior would seem to indicate in you a person of scrupulous devotion to habit and routine.


You are no such person.

True enough, every Sunday morning this year, promptly at seven, when the doors to Gelson's Market in the Loretto Plaza open, you arrive to purchase the Sunday edition of The New York Times,whereupon the assistant manager nods at you, and says, "I could set my watch."


Said nevertheless is nevertheless'd in open recognition of the fact that you walk the fifty or so yards from Gelson's Market to Renaud's Patisserie, wherein you partake of what is almost without exception your Sunday morning breakfast, filling in as many blanks of the crossword puzzle as possible before the arrival of one or more individuals who customarily arrive at about the same time as you, and with whom you engage in social banter about books, short stories, politics, and the incredible blonde who sits at the window table.

For some considerable time, you have vetoed the notion that composing a poem, paragraph, or dramatic situation in your head is the equivalent of actual writing, instead producing at least five thousand words of material a week.  Not content with those results, you have, since the onset of the present century, written something every day except for the six weeks immediately following the surgery to remove the malignant tumor residing and branching out within you.

And yet.

You dare say it.

You are not a creature of habit.

TRUE!  compulsive, very, very dreadfully compulsive I had been and am, but why will you say I am a creature of habit.  Ah, much in the manner of Poe's narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," you argue your marriage to Whim, perhaps even winking at a premarital fling with Caprice.

You are, in fact, pleased with yourself for having somehow acquired the discipline to practice, the willingness to set off on a course that could and sometimes does result in a creaking, lurching, noisy failure.  There is scant room to catalogue and sort the props and pleasures you are afforded by such process; there are so many rewards that you are overwhelmed by thinking of how you should begin describing the entirety of it, and so you content yourself with the smug recognition:  It is what it is.

And you are who you are, borne about on the winds of chance, a hound dog sniffing into the wind.

And you let it go at that.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Freedom to fail better

With all the editorial suggestions for adds and cuts plus the copyeditor's suggestions and occasional reformatting, the manuscript for The fiction Lovers' Companion closed out at 518 pages.  With Chris Moore's lavish Introduction, the backmatter reading list and conventional front matter such as blurb pages, half title, title, copyright, and Contents, you're thinking a 530-page manuscript and a bound book at about 120,000 words of actual text.

You've just pressed the send button on it.  Unless there is some unforeseen issue or glitch, the next time you see the work, it will be in print and on-line, meaning that in at least one sense, you will have begun already to grow away from it.

It is not as though you haven't seen your work in print before nor had similar feelings before to the ones you have.  This is the moment you imagine it would be like, had you children, where they went off to school.  The growing apart process begins.  You can no longer cosset nor comb nor suggest other dress combinations; "it" is out there on its own.

Yes, you do write many things with the thought of publication, and yes, you do relish the notion of earning a living from things you write, but over the years, the process has become so personal and focused on craft and ways of discovering and expressing opinion that the publication part seems almost an afterthought.

The years of being involved in publishing are conflated with the years of being involved with writing. Chatting with David Starkey this morning, shortly before being recorded for his local TV program discussing the arts, you were not surprised to discover the source of his being prolific is his practice of writing a poem a day as a warm-up for the day, which among other things involves directing the creative writing program at Santa Barbara City College.  You would have been surprised to hear his personal approach was anything other than having such a muscle-memory approach to work.  You are, in fact, somewhat surprised to discover that some individuals who say they wish to write do not write much or not often.

It is easy not to write, but in the long run the easiness of not writing becomes painful, impinging on such things as fun, connectivity of ideas, and awareness of the exquisite linkage between things that at first blush appear dissimilar.  Not writing makes one ordinary.  The moment you are ordinary, you begin to feel, then act ordinary.  The you discovered through writing is off on some vacation, watching terrible films or reading dreadful books.  You are attracted to ordinary persons and they to you.  Soon, you are attending ordinary films with them, listening to ordinary music; you are eating ordinary meals, being bitten by ordinary mosquitoes.  Your responses are ordinary.  Interesting persons seem beyond your reach.

The saving grace is the enormous surge from reading one poem or short story, listening to one beyond-ordinary musical work, falling in love with one out-of-the-ordinary person.  You are saved again; you can get back to work, essaying the risky business of getting something down on the page or the screen.  You are no longer ordinary,and there is the comforting sense of things you had never dreamed of as being in a relationship, having at it before your very eyes.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dieresis or umlaut--you be the judge

You would not think to use a dieresis over the "i" in the word naive.  You are aware, thanks to automated features of MS Word or iPages, of the use of an accent when using the word naivete.  It would not be amiss to see naivete with the dieresis over the "i" and the accent over the terminal "e."

Your copyeditor does.  (Your spell checker, with some nudging and insistence, has finally agreed to use the word copyeditor as one word.)

Such things, and myriad others like them, stand out like zits on a teenager's face as you now address the copyeditor's queries--a busted URL, for instance, or a humorous remark that Samuel Taylor Coleridge always spoke well of you, this after you'd referred to him as pompous--on your book project.

Interesting and insightful as the content editing process was, copyediting causes you to consider again how important all aspects of the language--even the mechanical ones--are.  You are stunned to note that you know the difference between the dieresis--the mark placed over the second of two consecutive vowels to indicate they are pronounced separately, or, as the terminal "e" in Bronte, to indicate that the "e" be pronounced--and the umlaut, even though they look the same.  The umlaut, of course, of course, is to signal an assimilation in the pronunciation.  You're big time up on this because, back in the day--not your day--the first "o" in your last name had an umlaut.  Even to this day, you can tell if an individual is European, as the lady at a German restaurant and,later a dry cleaner, if they pronounce your name loovenkopf, snapping the pf like boys in a locker room snapping towels. This distinction even gets you into the matter of the diphthong, with a word like boil, where there are two consecutive vowels, the first of which glides into the second.

In its way, copyediting details remind you how compulsive you are about language, at the same time making you aware how many others are more so than you when it comes to these mechanical details.  You go along, thinking you've got something, then you are copyedited and you begin thinking you've got something, all right; you've got a lot of learning to do merely to keep up with this remarkable language of our English.  It is a language that not only invites foreign words, such as naivete, into the family, it with some boldness usurps yet others.

Your own naivete about spelling was demonstrated when you incorrectly rendered the word diphthong the first time, resulting in one of those dotted red lines from your snotty spell checker, reminding you that you'd left out the first "h," a process that sent you to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, unabridged, where you came across a word that has been missing from your vocabulary for some time, and for which you will have to find a use.  Dipshit.  What a lovely discovery.  Dictionary, what a lovely distraction. Which, when you come down to it, is precisely what you were trying to do with the very book project that got you copyedited in the first place and with which you must now return...

Monday, July 11, 2011

You can't miss it

You are sitting in Cafe Luna at breakfast, minding your own business, which is to say eavesdropping on interesting conversations until they stop being interesting, when a writer friend comes in, sees you, then switches his coffee order from to-go, thinking to drink fast here.  You both grow animated about things you have recently read, your conversation being drawn inexorably to the subject of point-of-view.  Your strongest point of agreement centers on the importance of the author staying out.

Writer friend finishes her coffee, leaves.  It is now time to check out news and politics on your Android cell phone, which you are in the act of doing when you are approached by a by no means unattractive lady, possibly in her forties or early fifties, with a hint about her of New Age that you are trying to pinpoint in order to be able to use her in a story, suggesting her look of New Age without--author keep out--saying she looks New Age.  She introduces herself, complements you on your introduction of the novelist/short story writer Simon Van Booy at the recent Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, then gets down to the business at hand.

She is, it seems, the current chairperson/moderator of a writing group.  The job is passed around, she explains, to keep things democratic, which sounds more or less all right until it develops that no one in the group has any experience in actual editorial work, much less is published (with the exception of one in the group, who has "published a few book reviews on Amazon").  Her request of you has you, for once, momentarily speechless.  You are a serious bombast; for you to be rendered speechless is an accomplishment.  The lady is, as you noted, attractive and kindly.  "I was wondering,"  she'd asked, "if you'd be kind enough to share one or two of your writing prompts for our writing group."

You ask her what she means by "writing prompts."

"You know," she assures you,"things you use to get started."

When you explain that you use characters, events, and situations, and that you use those not to get started but to continue, she regards you with the blank fear of having heard a foreign language in a foreign country.  "Don't you have some, you know, set of triggers?  Some words, some--some catalysts?"

"Ah,"  you say, thinking you now see the light.  "You mean feelings.  Emotions."

From the way she backs up a step or two, then frowns, you realize you could just as well have said "French kiss," or perhaps even "foreplay" to have achieved her response.  Not that either of these terms are remotely offensive things to say to a stranger, nor do you mean to imply you thought her prudish, rather the meeting before your eyes of two dissimilar responses to a process.

Your visitor did not remain at your corner table much beyond that exchange.  She thanked you for your time, wished you well.  You wished her well, all the while wishing she'd not seemed to bewildered.
She had in metaphor asked you directions to get from Summerland to Carpinteria, a relatively short distance; you'd replied with directions to get from thought to emotion, a distance it has taken you years to achieve.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Things that go bump in the night

"The past is never dead,"  William Faulkner once wrote (Requiem for a Nun). "It's not even past."  This vision is at once a key to unlocking some of the long, windy sentences in which Faulkner's characters wrestle with the past, it is also an excellent metaphoric template for rereading books you were once enamored of.  As the memory of them persists,you are drawn to reliving some of them, often amazed by the things they taught you, amazed in equal measure by things you missed altogether.  In this sense you are often drawn to reflect on what you have learned over the years from the friends you cherish.

Rereading a book that had been assigned reading in your undergraduate or high school years, or rediscovering an encounter you'd made on your own, or from the recommendation of some reviewer or, better still, a friend, reminds you in subtle, under-the-surface ways how important the past is to you.  Not that you spend much time living in the past--the present seems always a better option-- but having access to the past as a reference point is of a piece with having a record of your progress in attitudes and abilities.

 You suppose it can be argued that rereading a book is a deliberate act of spending time in the past, but because you were riffing on Heraclitus to a friend you'd just rediscovered after an enormous gap, it now comes to you that not only was Heraclitus right, so were some of the deconstructionists:  You can't read the same book twice.

As Hamlet quickly discovered in the play named after him, ghosts have agendas.  There is scarcely a ghost in Western literature that does not want something.  Thus ghosts are upon us like street persons hustling us for spare change; ghosts want something done in this world, the world of now, that they couldn't get done in their lifetime.  Their agenda may,in fact, have been the contributing cause to their death.

Many of the ghosts who would enlist our mortal energy might be individuals we'd known while they lived; others may be complete strangers, sensing in us some sympathetic quality.  There is equal possibility that the ghosts are no more spectral than visitations of us at an earlier time, wanting us to be in some way quits with an event or action that was bungled in the past.

From ghosties and beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
May the present deliver us

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Aesop's Foibles

 An apt and tempting comparison is the one between story and an apartment with a particular view, in an older building.  The older building part has particular appeal for you because it speaks of countless tenants over the years, each occupancy obliterated with a paint job and a few containers of Mr. Clean and some Lysol.

Most stories are painted over versions of other stories, the significant truth a beginning writer struggles, argues, arm-wrestles with over the years until she/he "gets" the awareness that the essential elements are, indeed, the particular view and the arrangement of furniture as orchestrated by each successive tenant.  Students, for instance, are likely to scrounge some furniture from their parents, improvise yet other, say book shelves, with such potentials as five- and six-foot lengths of one-by-twelve boards, propped up with bricks or, as you did on several occasions, salt lick blocks purchased from feed and grain stores for something like twenty-five cents each.  Milk cartons also make excellent shelves.

There is an interim time when you do the equivalent of buying expensive furniture on time, which in fact makes the fiction you write become informed with more desperation when you realize you are not only living beyond your means, you are writing beyond your vision, writing with the thought that this will--you hope--sell, bringing in enough to buy off those installment payments.

Then comes the time when you arrive at an arrangement and placement that pleases you, and screw the expensive furniture; it's away we go into eclectic so that every corner has some whim of yours, and the particular view seems somehow to have become transformed into a cohort of your individual vision.

This is what it comes down to.  You are then, to follow the metaphor, decorating an old apartment, joyously moving such furniture about as you have, looking for the best sense of chemistry.  Nights, you are dreaming about yet another apartment, this one an analog for alternate universe, in which graduate students are disappearing from a university in downtown Los Angeles.

You are quite pleased with your own apartment in reality, discovering that, like characters in stories, it has foibles and quirks.  Some mornings, when you are attempting more elaborate, multi-course breakfasts, the fuse switch for the kitchen shuts down and you have to move to the fuse box, flip the switch, then return to the kitchen, where you need to reset the digital clock on the gas range and the elaborate toaster oven you bought yourself as a move-in present.  Thus the foible.  The quirk resides in the fact that your landlady is a sculptor; everywhere you turn--laundry room, garden, garage, storage area--there are statues of humans, executed at about a 1-8 scale.  They are really quite attractive;  you were pleased to discover one in your own garden area.

Again more metaphor; sometimes a story or essay you have underway has a foible or a quirk.  Reality has foibles and quirks.  You have--well, you do.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Fiction Is a Risky Business

Much of the conventions relating to dramatic writing may be found in Poetics, a book by Aristotle (384 BCE--322 BCE).  Some of those conventions refer to dramatic platforms no longer in use.  Although interesting and insightful, the great practicality of these observations relate to the study of contemporary forms of verse and play no longer being produced today.

Poetics is still a useful source of study for playwrights,novelists, and short story writers.  You could argue that portions of it influence such notable works on dramatic construction as Anne Lamott's notable Bird by Bird, Sol Stein's ubiquitous Stein on Writing,  and E. M. Forester's epic, Aspects of the Novel, which you have at times past employed as your basic text for your fiction writing classes.  You could--and do--say Aristotle's observations have had an influence on your own work, The Fiction Lovers' Companion.

You could also say--and do herewith say--that a major characteristic of twenty-first century fiction, particularly the traditionally published kind (as opposed to self-published) is predicated on the shrewd,imaginative departure from Aristotelian convention or, indeed, any convention.  An alert interviewer would at this point ask you to explain what you mean by the terms "shrewd" and "imaginative."  You in turn would have cause to answer:  "Shrewd" as related to departure from convention relates to the use of a particular fear or trait bobbing about within the psyche of a significant demographic.  The departure would be shrewd because it would represent to similar individuals in real life a shared fear or awareness or resentment, thus causing reader identification to the point where the reader would root for the afflicted character.  "Imaginative" departures are those that seem to sidle up to the convention and mosey around it rather than attempt to mug it or become some sort of jihadist evangelical.  Shrewd and imaginative are choosing Huck Finn to narrate a novel; dumb is succumbing to the temptation to bring Tom Sawyer back into the narrative.  Shrewd and imaginative are having Lionel Esrog be afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome in Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. They could also obtain in Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Detective's Union,in which the entire construct of Israel didn't work, whereupon the Diaspora moved instead to Alaska, where it has not fared significantly better.

Shrewd and imaginative could also refer to the matter of leaving it to the reader to decide if a particular narrator were reliable,  then coming forth with Alice LaPlante's Turn of Mind, in which the narrator is an orthopedic surgeon, retired at the height of her career because she is afflicted with Alzheimer's, then confronted with the fact of the murder of her lifelong friend and neighbor, who happens to have also suffered the removal of four of her fingers.

Shrewd and imaginative is turning the servant girl poser for Jan Vermeer's painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring,into the protagonist of an eponymous novel.

Shrew and imaginative means taking enormous risk, then making it seem so probable and likely that the only wonder is why no one has done so before.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Now, you tell me.

It has taken you some considerable time to articulate what drew you to story in the first place.  Never mind that you had begun to burn up available sources to the point where you were given free rein in the Principal's bookshelves when you were at Hancock Park Grammar School; that was the result, not the cause.  You hadn't the skills to question much less identify the why of it.

Now, some equally considerable time later, you have more the sense of the why.  Reality, even at your earliest ventures into it, was always so fraught with detail, implication, choice, potential for disappointment, greater potential yet for misunderstanding.  At such an age, radio was the only medium available to you on a daily basis.  One movie a week, which at the time meant a double feature with an installment of a serial and a cartoon (although Wile E. Coyote had not come along yet).  Thus it was easy for you to conclude that Aimee Semple Macpherson was an actress, much as the constant star of radio drama, Mercedes McCambridge.  It was your mother who introduced you to the difference between the two, the former being an evangelist, the latter an accomplished actor.  It was also your mother who, in her way, introduced you to nuance when she told you that there were persons who would not take it well were they to hear you referring to Aimee as an actor.  They might think, she said, that you were being disrespectful on purpose.  Although she never used the term "smartass"to describe purposeful, it was not long before others did because even then you were a smartass; sometimes you simply didn't realize it.

Story was of profound interest to you because--ah, now you see it--of the way it kept the focus on interest.  Also, story kept the boring and predictable incidents out of Reality.  With story, you need never be overwhelmed by the fraught nature of Reality, much of which did not concern you, even greater amounts of which did not interest you.  Funny how once your interest in girls became more pronounced, you had even more reason to read; but that is another conversation.

The essential nature of this conversation is the way story keeps the details and activity and responses relevant, simply ignoring the slower and denser pace of Reality.

Story offers life as it ought to be, a welcomed anodyne to life as it is.  Story offers us a haven, a retreat from the mundane, the ordinary. Story forces the focus on the miraculous inherent in the small things about us, the gestures, the relationships, the lives.  Story is celebration; Reality is fraught.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


You were just informed today by the executive editor of the publisher of your forthcoming book that the copy editor had suggested the inclusion of yet another entry to your text, which itself is an enormous glossary of dramatic, literary, and writing concepts.  Copyeditors being what and how they are--and are you ever grateful on a personal level--yours was concerned that not enough readers of your work would know the term bildungsroman.

The fact that the word, Germanic in origin, is rendered in roman type face in an American, Canadian, or English text speaks with some eloquence to the fact of it being, as the Brits would have it, a not unknown word in English.  But copyeditors operate on a particular level of intelligence that is focused on wanting you to have things you need at hand.

You agreed to give the matter some thought, particularly along the lines of  producing a separate entry for "coming-of-age," then linking it to bildungsroman.  While you were giving the matter some thought, you were spending some time back in the sand box of your own coming-of-age, both as a person and as a writer.  Even though you are now officially visible as a person and a writer who has come of age, you still wonder if looks are deceptive; are you in actual and literary fact "of age?"

True enough, you are not told these days as often as you were in "those" days to act your age.  Being told that often provoked the response that although you might be acting out, you were not merely acting; what they saw was what they were getting and even if what they saw was not mature, you were not going to pretend to be mature in order to shut them the fuck up.

For a great many years, presumably years in which you were either coming in actuality to be of age or approximating that goal, you gave Reality priority over your own vision.  Relatively few individuals urged you to give your own vision priority.  Among these were Rachel Maddux (1912-83), whom you are proud to call your mentor.  She was more concerned than you about your vision, in some large measure because she was smarter and because she knew the importance of vision where you were so sure of yourself that you believed you had it to throw away.  She could see right through you and yet was always supportive of what you thought you wanted to be.

It does not seem that she has been dead nearly thirty years, in part because for you she is not; she is still essential to your coming of age, whatever that age might be.  She is still unlimited reach.  One of your favorites of her stories had the title, "The Next, the New, the Promised."  You think of that title in the strangest, most wonderful places.  You think of it every time you begin a new project.

At the times you were closest to her, you wanted the world of Reality, aching for it at every turn, but she has always been there to remind you about the nature of illusion and, thus, the wisdom of seeking the counsel of your own vision.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

So what is it you have against Nabokov that you are always reading Chekhov?

You come from a culture where the merest conversation is seen as an invitation to argument.  The only possible answer to "What time is it?" is "Who wants to know?"  Every choice becomes a Talmudic nuance.  This observation becomes manifest the moment you attempt to place an order, say for the short ribs,in a kosher-style restaurant.

The waiter is bound by the same cultural heritage to fix you with the glance known as The Ray, which is the cultural equivalent of a finger prod on your sternum.  "So," she will accuse, simultaneously becoming Mother Figure and rabbinical scholar, " something is maybe wrong with the mushroom barley soup?"

A temperate response to that would be, "I'm not in the mood for soup this evening."  But such a response is, well, it is out of the culture because, even if true, it would seem to preclude further conversation.  Of course "seem" is the key here, because it would by no means stave off the waitress' rejoinder, "That explains why you are not looking so hot tonight."  Your only way to get out of this mare's nest of a colloquy is to say,"I had a yen for my Mother's  showcase dish, short ribs."

There any number of other cultures that beckon you to approach, particularly the Italian because you not only associate it with so many of your favorite dishes but because of the way no conversation among Italians seems real to you unless accompanied by hand gestures that are at least of enough motion to suggest swatting away flies or bidding unwanted concepts to take flight from the area.  French is attractive as well if only because she who has cut your hair these past twenty-odd years engages in discussions in French with another stylist that sound like the most acrimonious of exchanges, but which invariably are about where they are going for lunch.

So yes, there is some sense of ethnicity you find inherent in real dialogue, real exchanges of dramatic information; yes, a character expresses herself through what she says in equal measure to how she delivers the information.  Story is, to throw in a culinary metaphor, the cooking stock of drama, boiled down at a simmer to a thick, savory essence.  In similar fashion, the ardent, argumentative pursuit of conversation that is bent on discovering essential matter, becomes the stock of dialogue.

Reality becomes time out from drama, moments between story, where the players catch their breath to prepare for what comes next and what will be discovered and acted upon as a result.

Monday, July 4, 2011

It's About Time

At one point in your late teens and early twenties, you were envious of the musician; all they had to do was play the notes from the score.  The notes, you believed, would take care of everything.  The notes would lead the listener, as they led you, to the interior regions, where the feelings roiled like the water waiting to unlock the essence from the tea leaves.

You were not only younger then, you were also jealous.  Even if the musicians were not present enough to unlock the panache within the music, they could follow the notes as written.  The notes would bring them in, glorious with the composer's intent so inherent in every measure, the certainty of Beethoven so immediate in evidence, the fraught nuance of Mozart revealing itself as the arc of design progressed, the stunning surprise of discovery and awareness spiraling from Coltrane's  improvisations.

Much younger, then.

One of the reasons musicians practice so much is to allow them to be present when they play so that you, without even thinking about it, would believe they were present when you hear them.

In this particular sense, nobody gets a break.  Regardless.  Whatever the medium--poetry, photography, dance, short story, acting, drawing, novel, oil, essay--one has to be in it for "it" to have any shot at emerging for anyone.  You practice in part to develop your chops, but the real reason you practice is to make sure you know the way home, which is to say inside the thing you do.

All these forms you just mentioned have as their common denominator time; they are all depending on the use of and interpretation of time.  When you look at, say, fine art photography or urban landscape photography or street photography, the nudge of recognition in your emotional breadbasket should among other things remind you how important it is to manage the moment or moments in a story or essay.  When you see a dancer achieve a dazzle of elevation, appearing to hover for a long moment before descent to the stage, you could, if you watched closely enough learn how to cause a sentence, possibly an entire paragraph to remain suspended for a long moment, causing within the reader an ache or awareness and recognition as the paragraph rejoins its brother and sister paragraphs.

You are no longer jealous, or even envious; you watch brothers and sisters you admire, realizing again and again how easy they make it seem because they practice until it has become muscle memory.  You look at your sentences, deployed about the page, showing off with the braggadocio of taking that extra risk and making it seem so effortless.  

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Characters Caught in the Marxist Struggle

Advance warning to characters:  If you do not have opinions, visions of how things are or ought to be, and attitudes to match, all sorts of authors and writers will do so for you.  They will begin by attempting to push you out of the way or stand in front of you in line at the coffee shop where, as you wait for your order to be filled, every moment is critical.  They will slip in ingenious tropes and descriptions, in effect telling you how you ought to feel and readers how in fact you feel.

You, of course, know better than that, but you learned somewhere down the line to be polite to your elders, and thus they, your authorial elders, are working away on the often hidden agenda of wanting the world to know how clever they are rather than how conflicted or engaged or concerned you are.

It should be enough to make your blood boil, reminding you at least of the times on this planet where humans were held in the kind of bondage we thought of as slavery and which we think of now only as a more benign term, working class.  True enough, one of the earliest surviving documents from our dual heritage, which is to say the heritage of characters and authors, has a master dependent on his slave in that remarkable play, The Frogs, and you can imagine the murmurs running through the audience when it became apparent that the character of the slave actually knew more than his master.

It does not change things one whit to admit onto the bargaining table the fact that you are, after all, the creation of authors and writers, therefore they should be allowed to upstage you, steal scenes from your grasp, explain you away as though you had no capacity to do so.  It does not occur to them that their work leaps forward in graceful, ballet-like leaps after they have listened to you for a time.  They in fact would rather not listen to you, then claim to have become the bug on the windshield of writers' block.

For all they go to great lengths establishing your credentials, doing things to you of the sort biologists do to laboratory animals, they still do not wish to grant you the sort of freedom they complain about with such fervor when they are misunderstood or, worse, not read by professional readers such as literary agents and editors.

When the Wall--yes, that wall--came down in Berlin, they were gleeful in their assumption that Marxism was dead.  You have only to read some of the books and stories published since then to see how an entire class of beings--characters--is still being oppressed in a classic cultural war.  At one time, the concept of point of view was a character's Declaration of Independence, but with time and eight years of a Manichean presidency still lingering in the background, your struggle to be heard is still being waged in the egos of anxious writers, bad novels, and graduate-level writing programs where the emphasis is more on grammar and verb tense than it is on story.

You are supposed to be the go-to guys; some authors  sense this and their work pulses with an intensity many critics cannot figure out.  Who among them would be caught saying so-and-so listens to her characters?  Others do not have a clue what point of view is or what it means, relying on sophistry of academicism which allows writers to come at narrative the way Republicans come at taxes, with enormous loopholes.

It is a scary business, seeing you exploited by authors and writers as though you were little more than factory workers in small, remote countries where the price of labor and, as a concomitant, dignity are not given their true value.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


 A person you once cared about to the point where you two might marry,once said to you in a fit of pique, "You are not required to have an opinion about everything."  Such, indeed was the connection between you that her response has remained with you these many years.  The tone and verb tense of her observation freighted to you the level of education and privileged life style she'd led from about age twelve onward until her premature death, perhaps a symbol of the issues and reasons that caused you to think marriage to her was not the splendid idea you once believed.

You in fact believed and still do believe you are required to have an opinion about everything, not of necessity for your own use but rather for the individuals you might create as characters or as facets of real life individuals you might have occasion to write about in an historical context.  Thus do you go about, notably on your evening walks, rendering judgements on things you might otherwise not notice were you content to remain neutral.  With due respect to journalists who are in fact required to keep their opinions out of their reportage, they are also required to note the opinions of those about whom they write.  When you were a journalist, thinking this could be your profession, you were supported in your belief that a news story written by you should require no by-line; it should speak for itself.  The fact of your recognizing this led to your wanting a by-line, which is to say you wanted in some way for the things you write to convey an opinion that leads to emotion in the same way a freeloader party crasher is drawn to the buffet table.

Not many days ago, a former student who had long since become a friend, even to the point of providing a blurb for your forthcoming book, caught a reference in these vagrant blog pages wherein you relished the fact of not being an academic.  "The fuck you're not an academic,"  he said.  Your reply was not too shabby.  "The fuck I am,"  you said, "I rarely, if ever, use the passive voice."  Not bad for spontaneous at the breakfast table, but you wish you'd said instead, "I'm too much an auto-didact."  You might have even added the adjectival "undisciplined."  There is seldom a direct path to your quest for information or your additional quest about the platforms of the sources you have found.  As a consequence, you are on occasion a naive narrator, perhaps relying on opinions of others without ingesting the material in some greater detail.  You could, on occasion, be adding the propaganda or agenda of others to your opinion without being aware you are doing so until later.

You do take pride in being in large measure self-taught, even though you did have the experience of studying with some men and women of scholarly formidability.  There is hubris in this, you know, just as there was hubris when you were being interviewed for the position of running the Los Angeles office of a major publisher by a woman who was a major shareholder and high-echelon editorial functionary.  "What's so special about you?"  she asked.  You drew yourself erect.  "I have good taste."  This stopped her for a moment and you could tell she was not used to such a response.  You could also tell she was a high-echelon functionary in the organization for an important reason.  "How,"  she asked, "will this good taste of yours reflect on a balance sheet?"  She might well have been speaking of overripe fish when she spoke the words "good taste."  "My balance sheet will reflect my having acquired books others will want to read."

"Take him away and let me think,"  she said.  "Get him coffee and those things the Mexicans out here take with their coffee."

"Churros,"  you said, not knowing that had been the deal maker, your knowing that word.  You were led to another table, quite a distance away by an acolyte who despaired of your hire.  "Bad,"  he said.  "You argued with her.  She is not to be argued with."  You were already beginning to be suspicious of such locutions, thus you asked the acolyte where in the East he had gone to school.

You started work two weeks later, in an office on Wilshire Boulevard between Fairfax Avenue and Crescent Heights, a brief stroll from the small, shady street where you once lived with your parents and sister, the place, now that you think of it, where your opinions began to grow.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Visions on Victoria Street, 93101

 With increasing regularity from a number of disparate points of origin, you are hammered with the vision of all fiction being a combination of alternate universe and mystery.  Both genera have serious readers, individuals who by habit are not content to stop with any one particular title.  In the bargain, there are any number of writers who persist in writing yet newer projects in these categories.

You came up in the era where science fiction was in its heyday; for a time when you were an undergraduate, your Christmas vacation was spent working at the post office, where you invariably were delivering mail to one Ray Douglas Bradbury.  Knowing who he was and having already had some minor experiences with your own publication, you knew what was in some of those thicker envelopes from magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories,because you were already a subscriber to them, worked at the post office in order to continue your subscriptions and, indeed, give subscriptions as Christmas gifts to such worthies as your sister and friends who were devotees of fantasy and science fiction.  Alternate universe stories were a regular feature, so much so that you'd long since surrendered any sense of the alternate universe being a philosophical conceit, an impossibility beyond the pages of pulp magazines.

In similar fashion, you devoured Hammett and Chandler and as well other mystery writers you'd one day edit, Bill S. Ballinger, Frank Gruber, and Steve Fisher, finding in their quests for information and for justice a mythic pathway to unraveling your own ongoing quest for solving the mystery of who you were and what the real identities were of those you loved and cared for.

Much of these elements appear to haunt you on your nightly walk.  You seem drawn to Victoria Street, which is actually one block away from the street on which you live, Sola Street.  For the longest time, a building on the west side of Victoria Street, between Santa Barbara and Anacapa Streets, has drawn your attention.

It has finally come to you that every novel is an alternate universe novel, including the mystery novels you have underway with a Santa Barbara setting.  In fact, in your alternate universe,this building is owned by your protagonist, who has turned it into a notional used book store, which he enjoys owning but, like your late father, does not enjoy being tied down to.  How pleased he was when Arlene came into his life, being referred to him by the owner of a hotel for transients, one block north, also on Victoria Street.  Arlene is on the run from an abusive boyfriend, who has told your protagonist that a bookstore is one of the last places in the world the abusive boyfriend would think to look for anything.  The novel, Santa Barbara Dreams,begins in Arlene's room at the hotel for transients, with the corpse of the abusive boyfriend sprawled over Arlene's bed and the jowly countenance of a police detective thrusting itself in your protagonist's face.  Not to worry; things get worse.  They get better for you as you prowl these evocative streets, where motives and conversations from the alternate universe of your own point of view conflate in the mysterious process you have come to accept as writing.

It was a long time coming,not made any easier by your mistaken conviction that it made sense to write about the universe of others rather than the universe of your own vision.