Friday, September 30, 2011

Lights from Distant Stars

Some nights, when there is no cloud cover, or when the marine layer does not hover like a descended nictating membrane, the sky is clear, the view pellucid.  You can and often do marvel at the arrival of light on your eyes, light that has traveled millions of miles at the incredible speeds of which it is capable. As though the light show were not enough, it is enhanced by your understanding that some of the lights you are seeing are not only from distant stars but, in some cases, dead stars.

These lights are, among other things, pulses of energy, coming to you across the skies of time and distance.  With a nod of recognition to the enormity of the process of which you are a part, you move inside for a beverage of choice.  Depending on your mood, the beverage can be a bottle of ale, a cup of herb tea, or a latte made with your stovetop Bialetti espresso maker.

Then, on to one of your bookshelves, where you confront the equivalent of energy from across the skies of time and distance.  Perhaps a new translation of The Iliad, maybe instead something from your meager collection of the Loeb Classical Library, rescued last minute from your precipitous move from Hot Springs Road to this smaller place.  Of equal possibility, one of your Big Little Books, those chunky, pulp paper bricks of pure adventure and entertainment from the 1930s and ‘40s.  If the mood is of a particular nostalgia, the book you were given for your thirteenth birthday, a $2.95 doorstopper, and a collection of novels, stories, essays, and speeches by one Samuel L. Clemens, who has led you through the shoals and reefs of your youth and beyond.

Many of the books you have brought with you and some of the many that seem to have appeared in stacks along your walls and bedside, fall into the Desert Island category, the books you would want close to hand were you to be transported to a desert island, your companions as you coped with the urgencies of survival.

In the same way you are almost mystically connected to the past by the simple delight of looking up above you at a sky full of stars, you are connected to more specific past times through books written by men and women who lived in other times, other cultures, other societies.  In some ways, you are able to identify the literary sense of time and place from the manner and style of the narrative.  This is a similar kind of identity you are able to make when you hear a particular work of music, its melodic patterns and other characteristics, possibly even its lyrics if they are present, serving as temporal bookmarks.  You are able to do this while an almost complete illiterate in musical terms, merely from having listened with care to music for as long as you can remember.

Thomas Hardy, whose works line the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, invariably begins his novels with one or more persons walking along a pathway in the Devonshire countryside, wherein he describes shrubbery, cottages, vehicles, dray animals, and individuals before thinking to introduce story elements.  He introduces these elements as though he were relating them to you rather than allowing them to evoke themselves in the manner of twenty-first century novels. The reader of Hardy’s time had come to expect such introductory, descriptive matter as a matter of course.  Even though contemporary conventions suggest the hint or intent of story on the first page, today’s reader is in effect showing a visa to the past by giving a close reading to the opening pages of, say, Tess or Jude.

 What at first may seem a desolate or lonely path is often illuminated by the past and present-day light emitting from the distant stars, books, and memorabilia from others who have trod them in the past or who are, like you, setting forth on a journey of discovery.  Each time you set out, you are emitting some form of energy—light, if you will—that can illuminate the way for another.  This is one way we can take from our expanding universe and give something to it in return.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cause and Effect

You are the product of argument and the host of ongoing argument.  You were born into a culture that thrives on argument as much as it thrives on egg bread, dipped at this time of year into honey, prized at the onset of the Sabbath as a harmony every bit as symbolic and mystical as the Eucharist. Argument thrives within you as your various selves try to forge available truth you can each accept with as few reservations as possible.

This is the stuff you are made of; it is argument, not rancor. 

Back in the earlier days of your human species, before there was written language, there was still a measure of a code of behavior.  If, at a barbecue back then, you were to casually pluck a musk ox haunch from your neighbor’s plate, you could expect to be on the receiving end of one or more blows to the nearest part of your body to the individual you’d “borrowed” from, the concept of borrowing no doubt still in beta format.  

Such behavior today is still pretty much a no-no unless you were given a specific invite.  And you could very well have a well-developed sense of interest in that foxy Cro-Magnon lady to the point where, were she to reach for some of your tri-tip, you’d be flattered.

By the time writing had been invented, your culture was well along its way into making distinctions about degrees of human behavior, distinguishing right from wrong, even good versus bad to such an acute degree that the translation of pilpul, the word for the distinction-making process is “hair splitting.”  With due diligence and practicality, your culture needed the equivalents of lawyers to interpret (and argue) these distinctions, hence the introduction of the rabbi. 

You have spent a lifetime immersed in more arguments than you can number.  Get up now or sleep another half hour?  Oatmeal or Cream of Wheat?  Poached eggs or scrambled?  Major in literature or anthropology?  What about journalism?  Was college necessary?  Was puberty necessary?  Apparently, yes to both.  Family gatherings were a nest of argument.  Schmuck, why English literature?  Look what they did to us, cast us out.  

At least American literature looks the other way.  Arguments.  The arguments of growing up as a rough block of wood, set spinning on a Christian lathe, with expectations you will emerge with your Ten Commandments sounding as though they’d come from The King James Bible.  Recalling times when, in order to begin the matriculation process at Yale or Harvard, you needed to be proficient in Hebrew.  You had just enough proficiency in Hebrew to know you were not interested in Yale pr Harvard.  If you’d wanted one of those schools, you’d have preferred Brown, on whose athletic fields you sometimes played for a time.  But Eastern schools lost the argument to Western schools.

You argue with yourself over which project to work on as, indeed, you often argued with friends who thought you were being notional and obstinent when you insisted you were dead serious about what you were writing, after they’d asked you when you were going to get serious.

You were serious, but nothing you did seemed to come out serious.  After years or arguing within your own personal House of Parliament, you have arrived at the notion that argument is the leavening agent of the life you wish to live and the messenger you must try not to shoot.

Sometimes the argument is over which verb to us, whether to modify a noun.  Because of your experiences with the larger culture in which you were raised, the expression “You people” causes your hackles to raise, your antennae for nuance to spring forth.  You people can mean so many things.  It can mean you.  “You people,” an individual you were not entirely certain about, “you invented dialogue, you know?”  He paused to let that sink in.  “Before your people inhabited the earth, there was only conversation.  The closest we came to dialogue was Socratic discussion.  I only wish—“ he said.  “---that I had been born into your culture instead of having to discover it.”

You wanted to tell him the rest of the equation, that not all of your culture, not all of any culture, is pretty.  There are, you wanted to tell him, those in your culture who would write you off the voting roles, as it were, call you a Sleeper, as in one who does not observe all the rituals.  But you believe this individual will—perhaps already have—found his way.

You have long ago argued your way out of the center of the room, out into the hallways and outer walks.  There is comfort within the culture of the outsider, but of course not all of it is by any means pretty.  You sometimes find yourself standing next to individuals who are having conversations.  You look first to see if they are wearing Bluetooth earpieces before moving on to the next, summary judgment.

As you approach certain intersections while driving, you take a close look at the pedestrian who is making waving gestures, lest he or she is waving someone or something other than you on or, indeed, making threatening gestures to that image.

By your evaluation, you are in the sixth or seventh percentile of craziness, just about the right plateau to enable you to do your job as a writer with a modicum of ease.  It took a good deal of argument to get you here.  It was not that the rejection letters had to spell it out for you:  Sorry, your work is not crazy enough.  Please keep us in mind for your next, larger madness. You are trying to argue your way up to the eighth percentile where, you are told; some of your suspicions about things will get forged into mild paranoia.  Distrust is of itself not a bad thing.  How much of Reality is, after all, illusion? 

A person you once loved to the point of distraction told you that she could not think to stay with a man who was so argumentive.  Another person who distracted you said your apparent belief that you could argue your way out of anything gave you a quality that resembled arrogance.  You tried to argue her out of that belief which, on reflection, may have proved her point.  To her.

Arrogance has no place in your tool kit.  Arrogance does not need to listen.  Arrogance believes it hears the source.  End of argument.

Each book is an argument, each story, each review.

To the end of your time, individuals approaching you will be thinking you are talking to them, waving them on.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Kiss before Being Screwed

Your aims and goals:  Although they may put some stress on achievable reality from time to time, your aims and goals are reasonable.  Aren’t they?  You have not, in effect, set your sights too high, have you?  Nor are you in any way attempting to pack too much metaphorical clothing into the metaphoric suitcase of reality.  Right?

If this were one of those space-filler, discover-your-true-personality tests residing as squatters on websites or throwaway magazines, and you were to have answered, “yes” on one or more of the questions, you’d be waiting now to be kissed.  You in fact enjoy being kissed while being screwed.  Settling for comfortable results may make you more like one of the boys, but the question then becomes, “Are the boys happy?”  The answer is manifest in so many cultural phenomena such as looting, soccer hooliganism, hate crimes, and one of the larger elephants in an already overcrowded living room, white-collar crime.

You could distinguish white-collar crime from everyday street-level crime by noting how white-collar criminals can afford an attorney while street-level criminals must rely on the Public Defender’s office.  You could also say that the white-collar crook’s behavior comes from the sense of entitlement meeting the stark reality of the credit card interest rate while the street crime is more often the direct result of need.

But you digress.

The target here is the level of consideration given to the risk taken and the probability of success.

Take Herman Melville as an example.  Once a man who was doing quite well, thank you, as an author, he’d more or less backed himself into a corner.  In order to get out of it, he’d had to write Moby-Dick.  By your standards, in particular the ones you make allusion to here, Melville died a happy man because he was able to go where the whale took him.  In fact, he died confused, broken, not at all buoyed up by his joy at producing such a work.  He’d have preferred to have met the same success as he had with his earlier books, by which means he might not have had to take on jobs that may have seemed menial to him.

No stranger to menial jobs yourself, you have often been numbed by them to the point of putting off writing for a day or two, at which point it became yet easier to put off writing for another day.  You did so, seeking some form of solace elsewhere, running through such ordinary distractions as drinking and drugs to the more sophisticated one of relationships.  You have elaborate theories about the origins of such relationships, but those theories are richer in fantasy than verifiable fact.  More important than such speculation, you came into forceful connection with the need to set your priorities and sights on finishing the projects that came your way, reckoning that these projects, published or not, would do more for your comfort than drinking, drugs, or relationships taken on as a specific plan to cure your inner earthquake.

Simple point of fact:  You can use writing as the Aleve or aspirin that will soothe your inner Ahab, remove the bitterness from mommy dearest, and steer you clear of your internalized brothers Karamazov.  The act of completing any given story may be a cover-up for you having used the toys and dolls who are your characters to work out a psychodrama spinning out of control in your gut.

Reaching higher can and does produce monumental crashes as well as extraordinary success.  Knowing both rat tails of that particular bell curve, you prefer rat tail to non-performance, thus failure to talk of what might have been.

It is a numbers game and you are a part of it.  Some nights and Saturday afternoons, you retire to comfort zones, overwhelmed by immersion in the
Befuddled romances and adventure tales of beginning students, but you could just as well venture upon tales of transformative vitality and nuance.  You are whom you are as a person because of a numbers game, you being a number of specific outcomes as well as choices not made, roads not taken.  Someone interested in seeing some of these vagrant blog reflections given refinement and publication asked you among other things what you considered the significant theme of your fiction and nonfiction.

You did not need time for the answer.

Risk, you said.

Risk is a good theme for fiction, men and women taking risks on themselves and long-term relationships.  Risk is a good theme for nonfiction.  Large numbers of individuals have succeeded at high level; they have brought near evangelism to metasuccess.  Your interests gravitate to those who have taken great risks, taking off with the steam power of the enthusiasm fueling their dream as they spring upward toward sun or moon, that intent look of focus in their eyes, that near arrogant tilt of chin as they soar upward, reaching, reaching, reaching.   

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Stranger

Whenever you introduce a stranger into the room, the conversation stops for a brief moment.  The surface tension has been broken.  The stranger is an intrusion into the familiar, the comfortable, the predictable.  If you listen closely when the conversation resumes, you can hear a sight discord enter the tone of conversation.  The stranger is having an effect; the stranger is bringing newness into the familiar.  Even is the stranger was originally from here, she has been away to school, away to work in a larger city.  She may have had the temerity to want another place, any place that was not here.  She may have the highest quality recommendation, the relative of a friend, a visitor to one of us.  She may also have come here to work for one of us.

This is the second of the two basic story types, but second only because you mentioned the other one first.  What does the stranger want?  What is the stranger doing here?  We are going to have to make sure the stranger knows how we do things around here.  There are, after all, rules to be observed, traditions to be followed.  It will be up to some of us to show her her place.

This story may be stood on its head by the simple device of switching the point of view to the interior sensitivities and agendas of the stranger.  By that simple twist, the story of invasion becomes the potential story of paranoia:  They’re against me.  All of them.

This story merits additional turning when you internalize it.  You have some vague idea of the differing personalities crashing in your psyche.  Some of them are old friends, others, such as the Eternal Cynic, are trying to lead you down that path.  The Inner NY Times Critic is there, too, wondering how you dare to call any particular sentence you write a real sentence.

By working around with these individual aspects of you over the years, you’ve managed to produce some basic accord, some sense that we are somehow linked even though we have differing visions of Shelly.  When some new facet of you emerges, all the others become as GOP extremists, suspicious, wanting to shut things down, complaining about the spending versus income, forgetting entirely that the spending problems were likely to have been exacerbated when they were running the show.  These conservative aspects of you wish to erect barriers so that illegal immigrants cannot sneak into your psyche, raising intellectual, artistic, and psychological hell, probably willing to work faster, cheaper, perhaps even the worst fear of all—better.

You do have to be civil to these entities and aspects because they are, in a real sense, family; they too are you.  Often they are embarrassments to you, causing you to avoid company when they have achieved a majority.  You’ve heard many of their arguments before to the point where you wonder what effect they are having n others if they are boring to you.

On any given day, when you set forth to work, there are moments of suspense and lingering adventure emitting from your writing self as it wonders who is, in effect, in charge?  You feel fortunate that your writing self will brook no nonsense, will pull seniority, anything to get rid of these albatrosses, hanging about its neck.

Getting a keepable page of text is no small thing; it is hard work.  You’ve become fond of the writing self, trust it, do not tend to think of it unrealistically or tell it fanciful things about itself.  When it makes mistakes, does not get things as sharp and insightful as possible, you find that reading someone else you admire has a leavening effect, and, of course, trying to redo the misbegotten work often will produce a better result.

This is not easy knowledge to live with, but if there is to be any chance of capturing the textures and insights you seek, you must respect the stranger in our midst for the freshness of vision he or she may bring.

Fresh visions, then, are provocative because they are threats, hiding behind a new perspective, a new recipe, a new awareness.  In that sense, any fresh vision that arrives within your psyche, whether invited or not, brings the threat of an awareness you may have to give up something you hold dear in order to understand.

Such are the ironies and perils of the work you have chosen.

Such are the joys.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Hero's Sandwich

The big question you confront each time you set forth on a new written venture is which of the two basics it will be. 

The first venture has been co-opted by Joseph Campbell, with his designation of “Hero’s Journey.”  You have set out on many journeys in your life, but you did not think any of them heroic at the time nor do you in retrospect consider any of them so.  The term bildungsroman is more to your taste because of its relationship to coming-of-age.  Many of your journeys have kinship with becoming your present-moment self. If you were urged to give a nametag to your vision of journey, it without hesitation would have to be The Discovery Journey.

The second archetype venture is the chronicle of a stranger in town—any town—and the downstream consequences occasioned.  A stranger in a room is an adventure of consequences.  You sometimes find yourself a stranger in town or a room—particularly a classroom.  You may also consider yourself a stranger when you have conflated the two archetypes, starting out in an area or manner for which you have no remembered skills or prototypes at hand.

There is in fact nothing heroic about starting forth on a new story or essay even though it is often with the subtext sense that you might be courting a result ranging from disapproval to danger.  Not that disapproval or danger have no consequences; in fact there have been numerous dust-ups as a consequence of things you have written.  True enough, the political ones had the likes of the FBI asking questions among your university instructors, bringing you contact with one kind of trouble.  But consider this; consider the consequences of one particular note you sent where the major text was “I love you.”

Beginning a new piece is a journey for which there is no GPS to steer you beyond your own curiosity, which of itself is interest on steroids.  You may think you have a destination, set the destination as your goal, but as Robert Burns reminded us then and reminds us today, “The best laid schemes of mice and men/ Gang aft agley and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy.”  Nor is it lost on you; you have had too many experiences of setting forth with goal in hand, only to meet a series of bends in the road ahead.  Or behind.  Or off to one side.

If you are being honest with your writer self, you will not consider the new work complete until you have, through the writing of it, come to discover something—some relationship or consequence you had not realized before—which in turn you may embrace or be made to feel discomfort or distaste.

The statistics working against you on any specific piece are stunning, sometimes powerful enough to delay or abrogate the conclusion.  On some such ventures, you identify with Dorothy Gale as she is transported against her wishes into a new dimension, that place made archetype of its own as Oz.  In recognition of you not being where you began and found a modicum of comfort, you make it a priority to get home.

And what will you do once you have found your way to The Wizard, discovered him for the humbug he is, then made your way on your own?  You will keep your bags packed, ready for the next venture, no more cynical at discovering the Wizard for a fraud than you were cynical before, instead vulnerable to and eager for the next bit of curiosity that will lead you down some path or other.

Have these journeys of yours had any effect on the way you see the world about you or those worlds within your sphere of imagination? Not that you can tell, but there is mischief afoot here. You have not taken an inventory, have not seen dogs or cats scurrying out of your way in avoidance nor reckoned yourself the cause of infants bursting into tears at the sight of you.

Somewhere, in some city or venue within that geography known as The California Central Coast, you were engaged in conversation—you’d finished the prepared remarks relative to describing your new book.  Someone had asked you one of those where-do-you-get-your-ideas types of questions.  Why do you do it?  And as is also the case with questions of that sort, the questioner began to answer her own question:  “Is it because you so love your work that you’ve become addicted to it?”

Some truth to that question-as-answer, but what came to you was a question of your own:  “Why is the thirty-six-year-old ballerina so scrupulous about doing her daily exercises?”  You knew the answer before you’d asked the question, but you paused for a moment to summon the shadowy presence of dramatic effect, which came forth with a rustle of her skirts and a flicker of her fan.  “Catch-22,”you said.  “If she doesn’t exercise, she won’t be able to dance again.  Hell, she’ll scarcely be able to walk.”

Sunday, September 25, 2011

In Re: Banana Cake

For far back as you can remember, a glorious procession of cakes and puddings had their origins in the secret reaches of your mother’s kitchen, emerging like the Botticelli Venus for birthdays, family dinners, and spontaneous festivity.  In time, you came to realize that you were the beneficiary of a fierce competition between your mother and her closest set of friends, guinea pig to the cake, icing, or pudding that would once again set “the girls” scrambling to their own laurels for recipes of greater worth.

The family joke was that when the request for a particular recipe came, your mother, under the guise of producing her creations ad lib and ad hoc, would deliberately neglect a vital ingredient.  This would allow her added one-up of her competition.  “I don’t understand it.  That recipe always works for me.”

To her credit, she never attempted pies, generous in her devotion to the pies, breads, and pastries of her close group.  But let the subject turn to the cake, the pudding, or the cookie, and her eyes glinted with the mischief of a true, accomplished baker.  From this cornucopia came a cake that has always been your favorite.  The banana cake with chocolate frosting has seen you through many a birthday, many a high point in your life, many a time when some extraordinary solace was necessary.  She has been gone for almost fifteen years, but her banana cake lives on, its fluffy, flecked yellow insides, its thick swirls of chocolate icing luring you to raise the forkful to your lips, then close your eyes to indulge.

You were not surprised at all when asked your preference of cake for your recent birthday.  “Banana,” you said, knowing it would be “other” banana, nevertheless nostalgic as you bit into it, tasting the double joy of what was and the present moment.  Your eyes nearly teared up over the luxurious wonder of it; you had had noting approximating a banana cake since 1995, at about which time Fate had caught up with your mother, causing her to forget perhaps even more than one of the ingredients.

Icons are like that; they shimmer in memory, as inviting and tempting as The Sirens were to Odysseus and his men.  When you happen on an idea for a story or an essay, the equivalent of your mother’s splendid banana cake begins its journey through your memory to the point where you are off by yourself, a tall glass of the coldest possible milk close to hand along with a dish, a spatula, and a napkin to catch such crumbs and icing as may find their way to your shirt.

You set forth, filled with the confidence you can evoke this particular banana cake, cause editors to slather over the result, as though judges at a contest, identifying Ann Lowenkopf’s banana cake in a double bind test.  You adore that cake.  Although you foreswear attempts to describe it, you do work to some degree at evoking it to the point where the reader will stop you one day and say the equivalent of, “Man, your Mama sure knew how to bake a chocolate cake.”  It is an impossible goal.  You know that going in.  As you consign draft after draft into being, you are reminded of your father’s jokes about your mother leaving out ingredients.  You rack your brain for clues to dimensions you may have left out, scurry to blend them in.

With grateful thanks, you accept the equivalent you got for your birthday, when someone asked you what cake of all possible types of cake you wanted.  Reality and imagination have made the equation work to the most wondrous point of all, your absolute gratitude at having this particular banana cake, this particular icon, to strive for and the modest presence of technique you have to essay it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Most Sundays, your day begins with a stroll down the driveway to pick up the blue plastic sheath in which your copy of The New York Times is wrapped.  Then, buried within the innards of this fast-becoming anomaly, this papery wrap of popular culture and information, you venture upon the magazine section, wherein you seek with fingers at a near tremble the Sunday crossword puzzle.

Your more immediate goal is to see if you are able to begin at the beginning, building words and letters in a way that will allow you additional clues relating to the words and spaces you do not readily know.

A finished puzzle is a good analog for a story of some length, brought to a completion.  You are fond of puzzles for any number of reasons, prominent among them the sense of sudden discovery.  A crossword puzzle is a series of words interlocking, a momentary accord, a lull of no neighbors within a tenement, arguing or playing their TVs at too high a pitch.

A finished story is a discovery and a momentary accord between characters.  Like the completed puzzle, it represents discoveries you have made about your characters and yourself.  For a few hours of work or perhaps many hundreds of hours of work, you have learned to be a witness to a drama you created in the belief that you had a specific goal in mind, that somehow you were energized to pursue it to completion.

Somewhere along the way, you have learned something else:  The finished product is never what you imagined it to be at the outset.  The discovery you’ll have made at completing the story in some way adds something to you.  At one point in your life, you might have thought the “something” to be a protective coat, Teflon, or some other name with a registered trademark.  Now, you are of a different mind; the “something” is a greater openness, a greater vulnerability to the incessant parade of events of which you are aware, of eventual news about the events of which you are unaware, about future combinations of neural traffic jams and gridlock and triggering devices that produce ideas in the Cineplex of your brain pan.

The crossword puzzle has become one of your equivalents of the ballerina doing her stretching exercises; it often leaves you amused by the mysterious ways words and their sounds seem to hook up for occasional relationships.

A significant factor in your judgment of the relative state of completion of any given work of yours is the awareness of one or more discoveries.  Earlier this week, you were puttering and fidgeting with a review of the new, first collection of short stories by one of your favorite writers, Daniel Woodrell.  It was no real discovery that you enjoyed the stories, certainly no surprise.  In the writing of it, your discovery came when, while writing about Woodrell’s relationship to noir voice and its implications, you’d found yourself equating noir in fiction with the blues in music.  You smiled to yourself at the knowledge that some words and concepts were in temporary relationship, just as they are from time to time in a crossword puzzle.

You could, from all this, say of yourself that on some regular basis, you hold the world up to your ear and listen for the same sound you listened for as a young person—the sound of the swelling ocean.  You listen, all smiles, your mind racing to make puns and jokes and relationships.

Friday, September 23, 2011


There are fortunate and unfortunate resemblances between publishing a book and causing a child to be born into the world.

By your own choice, you have no children.  Perhaps this is because of some prescient vision of how much work is necessary to be at all close to good parenting, how much effort is required in sending a book forth, and what your own priorities were and are.  Perhaps, too, your awareness of the uncommon good fortune you experienced in your choice of parents.  You were from the get go certain you’d have to scurry about to find the patience and wisdom expended on you by them.

You’d already begun to appreciate the necessary effort in producing a book; since you hope to produce unlimited numbers, how could you take that incredible risk of parenting as well?

Some fetuses don’t make it all the way to term; they miscarry of their own volition or are aborted by their putative parents’ decision.  Some of the more tenuous pregnancies that do evolve to maturity send someone into this remarkable state called life with allergies, muscular and skeletal anomalies, and immune system deficiencies, another reminder of how specialized and tenuous our entry ticket is.

Some manuscripts don’t make it all the way; they miscarry in their own, individual misery, or they are cannibalized for some aspect that fits a new project in a manner not unlike organ donations.  Abortions are common events among writers, sometimes for reasons similar to critical decisions relative to fetuses.  What seemed a good idea at the time has produced something that no longer seems attractive.  I can’t cope with another one.  Not now. I already have my hands full.

Grimness—the essential element for humor:  Is there a Roe v. Wade for manuscripts?

You have a strong sense of wanting to have been born.  Although you’d had scant opportunity to develop your Australian crawl as you now employ it, you made sure you out swam all those other cells, got there first.  You have a similar sense that you never began a story without the intent of finishing it or investing it with attributes that would help it survive in some agreeable way after you’d told it to go out into the world on its own.

Whenever you hear stories, in particular those from the more affluent areas of Mid-Manhattan, of parents with murderous intent, wanting to get their children enrolled in re-eminent pre-schools, you think of yourself and other writers, wanting a particular story accepted by a particular publisher, be it journal or book venue.  You have learned from your own experience and your observation—sometimes hands-on—of other writers that regardless of where the work is accepted, however lofty or not, there is some irony that will surface, some monumental event seemingly designed as proof that perfection, indeed, even approximations of perfection, comes to us as an abstraction.  This is reality; there is no perfection.  If you want perfection, you should not for a moment have thought to be a writer.  In saner moments, you expand the metaphor to human; if you want perfection, you should think outside the human parameters.  You would be a chocolate pudding, a Mozart piano sonata, a bird feather, a hot pastrami sandwich, a John Coltrane solo, Louise Erdrich, reading aloud from her own work.

As there is no perfection in the transfer of the idea to the final draft of the manuscript in which it resides, there is no perfection in publisher, however much you may want a specific one.  When you were in high school, for reasons now lost to you, you wished to go to the senior prom.  You could not imagine anyone who would wish to go with you as your date, a chilling reality that nudged you into a strategy that was a cultural trap you could not see at the time.

You approached a girl you considered attractive beyond measure. Her outer features were of uniform spectacularity, but you were particularly drawn to her eyes.  Perhaps a tad of hyperthyroidism at work there; the eyes seemed to stand out in relief, convincing you that you would be able to have conversations with her in which eye contact was important.  A relief.  You would not be caught out, gaping at her other features.

“I’ll go with you,” she said.  “I’ll even show you how to dance.”  You were not sure she knew you needed instruction, but this offer impressed you with her intelligence.  “But you must promise me something.  You must cross your heart and promise me that when anyone asks you who you’re taking to the prom, you’ll tell them it’s me and the only reason I agreed to go with you is because you told me you had this enormous crush on me and that your heart would have been broken if I refused you.”

When you agreed without hesitation, she did something you remember to   this day.  She grabbed your jacket lapels and yanked you close enough for what you thought was to be a kiss.  “All right, you little fucker, how did you know I didn’t have a date?”

This incident is no mere digression.  Rather it is a metaphor for the potentials whichever publisher you chose.  You had a memorable and happy experience at your senior prom.  She did not seem to notice that her fur cape was shedding on your tux jacket.  The things amiss with your current publisher are relative nickels and dimes compared to the one- and five-dollar bills of experience with other publishers.

At one point in your youth, you were called to task by a now defunct newspaper—The Hollywood Citizen-News—for whom you covered high school sports and high school outreach.  “Listen, son,” the editor told you.  “It is not necessary to write about high school football as though the outcome had world-wide significance.”  You have never done so again, nor have you written about anything as though it did.  You might have believed in the importance of a thing, but you’d started to adhere to the notion advanced by Anton Chekhov of the writer as a witness.

You have witnessed many strange things happening to yourself and others in the steps directly after the final stages of editing, when the work went for all purposes out of your hands and into the world.

Sometimes at night, while you are courting sleep with the same kind of focus you court stories and ladies, you are kept awake by the crosstalk of projects in your brain, arguing as though renters in a tenement.  They all want out and in an irony of quasi parent who wishes for his children to be on their own, you are already trapped into that sense of adventure to come as it relates to things you can know and effect and things over which you have no effect at all.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Sometimes you are so overcome by a single word that you begin scheming and plotting ways to use it in a sentence or story, possibly a review essay, where it will for a time have seemed as though it belonged to you.

You cannot, of course, own words, but they for their part come dangerously close to owning you, finding their way into your secret places so that you dream about them on the same levels of fantasy where your uninhibited wishes appear to you in dramas where you are a participant.

It is not a safe or comfortable world, this place of everything-goes fantasy; in it you have had relationships with persons you did not know you had "those" feelings about.  You have also used words in what seemed as though they were ordinary circumstances, making a deposit at the bank, for instance, or retrieving your shirts from the laundry.  But you were snapped out of the dream by the anomalous things you said in such mundane circumstances.

You, who would never think to introduce the subject of hydrocarbons into your conversations with friends or your classroom lectures, were using that word with someone you had no idea you wished to sleep with.  Perhaps this was sufficient condition for saying hydrocarbons to her, the overriding knowledge that protected you and, of course, her.

Words have the power to wound, to flatter, to explain, to inspire; they are helpful in getting you out of uncomfortable or unpleasant situations, of opening the door to pleasing ones.

As your tastes turn in such areas as choices of friends and acquaintances, reading matter, writing subject matter, food, and music, they run to and away from certain words.  If there is a single word you dislike more than any other, it is "that," which you will take such pains to avoid using as to provoke awkward, clunky-sounding sentences, which send you scrambling some sentences back, the better to remove the need to use that, even though you have substituted a trope with more words than you might have used had you remained with that.

Sometimes, when you plunk down an -ly adverb on the table, as though it were some ante in a literary poker game, you wince, once again retracing your steps in order to find your way around -ly.

Words such as unencumbered or prestidigitation rattle about in your brain pan the way you imagine a Tourette's victim would begin ticking and twitching except that for you these are exciting, tingling moments, primal, thus visceral.  They are in many ways the equivalent of finding a particular woman attractive.

Vociferous.  What a grand word to roll off your tongue in the course of a lecture.  Serendipitous.  Pleonasm. Chthonic.  Words that you imagine destroying the circuitry on your spell-checker.

At times, you are amazed to discover such words emerging in early drafts, particularly of stories or drafts of your novel-in-progress.  Sesquipedalian.  Ontology.  Quintessential.  Words that cause you to giggle at the thought of what an editor would do, were she or he to see them in something you'd in all earnestness submitted as final copy.

Words are tools.  You have not the carpenter's nor draftsperson's nor even gardener's affinity or respect for tools as such but you respect them in abstract.  You might possibly leave a rake out overnight, where the evening mists and humidity might do it mischief.  You have in fact played merry hell with a pair of battery cable jumpers, and a much prized hammer, the gift of your late sister, has not retained its youthful patina anymore than you have.

You have not, to your memory, left words out all night, nor failed to tidy up after cutting a clutter of chatty dialogue.

Interesting anomaly regarding words:  It is one thing to tell someone in no uncertain terms you love her, a deed that might even secure you some attention, but, effects of words to the contrary not withstanding, saying nothing at all, but listening attentively has its merits for effectiveness.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


You spend a considerable amount of time in avoidance.  On balance, this is time well spent, considering the nature of what it is you have chosen to avoid.

You could say object as well as the nature or intrinsic qualities you hope not to contact.  Your target of avoidance is The Ordinary.  You capitalize it to make sure you understand you have objectified it.  You will continue to do so; it is your ardent hope to show The Ordinary no mercy.

Ordinary things, friends, books, meals, loved ones:  They have no place in your life.  But they are stubborn and persistent, analogs of army ants and snails, rigorous in their mindless intent.

The thing to do with the ordinary is transform it into something special, something unique, something with the ability to surprise and enchant.  To accomplish this, you have to begin by holding the ordinary in some out-of-the-ordinary way, to regard it in a different manner, in effect demanding it reveal its hidden nature to you.  This means you have to suspect every ordinary thing of having some hidden compartment in which a secret or surprise is lodged.

Such behavior is already enough to make ordinary people suspicious of you,but since you are already out on the edge, sending in reports from the margins and borderlands, that is no step toward solving the problem.  It also helps to be in love, a condition many individuals understand and wish for themselves.  Others, those suspecting you might be in love, enjoy watching you.  Cynics that they are, they are waiting for the sight of you, crashed and burned along the roadside.  The trick here is to be in love with so many individuals and things that even a momentary crash and burn cannot stop your progress.

The best thing of all is to be in love with persons and things at the same time you are in love with your work.  The energy shifts in flawless synchronization from one to the other, bees and butterflies moving from plant to plant, thing to thing, carrying and depositing motes of pollen as they progress.

It is a rewarding tingle to be in love with your work, to be grateful to yourself for having chosen it and persisted to the degree you have, to have it show some sign of gratitude at being chosen by you.

In a negative sort of way, you can be grateful for having found something you love so much that not doing it at all is even more painful than doing in poorly.  But in a quite positive way, doing the thing you love poorly is ever so much better than doing it Ordinary.  Doing it poorly means coming at it ill prepared, uninformed; doing it Ordinary means doing it in attempts to please someone other than yourself, orienting it to an audience as opposed to bringing the challenge of your pleasure to the audience through your application of that pleasure to the work.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Automatic Pilot, The

The day is filled with clients and potential clients, buzzing about like flies at a picnic, wanting the authorial equivalent of what flies at picnics want.  The first client was sent to you by your literary agent, who wanted your take on a work that has great humorous and satiric potential.  When you tell your agent it would be a mistake to send this work out in its current condition, you become the recipient of a string of Italian profanity you had never before considered.

A potential client comes across your radar screen thanks to a remarkable book publicist with whom you have had ongoing banter for nearly forty years.  He once asked you, during a Christmas party at his house, if you would go across the street to his neighbor, who was expecting you and would give you a cup of sugar.  Not suspecting a set-up, you took the offered cup and strode across the street, rang the doorbell, and were greeted by Doris Day.  This time he has sent you one of the most dreadful examples possible of a self-published book, wondering what suggestions you could give the author for his next book.

Another client is impatient for you to finish your edits of his novel, the editor of your weekly book review sends you an email inquiring whether you'd already sent your copy, a polite way of reminding you that you had not.

Your one o'clock class is excited about the potentials they have found in the first hundred pages of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn,which you expand and expound upon, a hero's journey undertaken by a hero with Tourette's Syndrome.

You must put some evening hours into devising a syllabus for this weekend's intensive session, "How and Why to Read Like a Writer."

As you sit at your desk, sated by a lackluster teriyaki turkey burger and a splendid accompany salad of homegrown vegetables, Sally begins a bark you more often associate with her warning off the raccoons or coyotes on Hot Springs Road.  Since there are neither raccoons nor coyotes in this part of town, you manage to piece together the fact that Sally wants attention, at least a tummy rub.

Finally sated, she storms over to her bed, where with doyenne's sigh, she plops down for her night's rest.  This reminds you of the same attractive potential for you, whereupon you prepare yourself until, somewhere between brushing your teeth and wondering who that zombie in the mirror is, you realize you have not done this part of the day's routine, addressing some sentiment or notion or other in writing.  You also recognize the sense of relief that you remembered to do this, while suffering the pang of having no slightest clue what your subject matter should be.

Put it on automatic pilot, your automatic pilot tells you.  After all,the devotee of the writing life trusts the mechanism of the automatic pilot.  You argue back:  the writing life that relies on the automatic pilot is an unexamined writing life.

All right then, the automatic pilot says, eager for bed.  Fucking improvise.

The trouble with that is adrenaline.

More often than not, improvisation, even when it produces eventual failure or disastrous results, also produces that heady sense of working the high trapeze without a safety net.

You gonna let a little sleep stand in the way of improv, the automatic pilot says.

No, you say.  No.  Too late in the game for that.

Bring on the examination.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Wannabe and Conspiracy Theory

There is a conspiracy to keep you from being published.  Make no mistake about it, your overarching goal is to find homes for your work.  By design, year of birth, and cultural influences, you think first of printed publication, but you are well aware of and have no animosity toward electronic modes of publication.

While you're in the thinking process, you also think "being published" first means having your work appear in a hardcover book.  Even though your most recent publication was by all accounts a reference work, you did not find it in any way disturbing that it emerged from the publishing process as what is commonly called a trade paperback and, in a simultaneous publication, an electronic or e-book.

In the mail today you received a hardcover book from a publicist you have known since your first job in book publishing, while you were coming up, and when you were editor in chief.  There was a note clipped to it, from the publicist (who knows of your present day activities)asking what suggestions you could give that would produce some interest in the book.  There are many hardcover books such as this one as well as many hardcover books that have the look and feel of a hardcover book with a chance in the world.  Seeing this book helped you over the hump of preferring a hardcover to a trade paper edition.  This particular book virtually cries out that it was self-published.  After you read its first paragraph, all doubt had vanished.  In a real sense, you are already a part of a conspiracy against it.

The conspiracy against you begins with your own indolence, your own moments of not practicing enough, not reaching deep enough into the story or high enough into the craft.  The conspiracy against you is in large measure you not producing text that will turn the heads either of the young first readers at publishers venues or secure the attention of those men and women within the trade whom you know on a first name basis and can count on their reading the work first,

The conspiracy against you is the hundreds and thousands of manuscripts being sent through snail mail and electronic circuitry every day, all of them with expressed expectations of finding publication.  The conspiracy against you resides in all the gatekeepers who see your work, who look at it after having spent hours, days, reading materials that come flooding in.

If your work does not secure their attention to the point where they are moved to read beyond the first two or three pages, then beyond the first chapter, then all the way through the manuscript, finally attaching a note to their superior--You need to look at this--then the conspiracy is in firm place against you.

It is something of a miracle that you have had as many stories published as you did; they got through the wall and were passed along.  For the moment, your publisher tells you she wants to continue being your publisher, but the conspiracy against you could surface there if you did not take exquisite care with the material you showed her.  The conspiracy could come from your literary agent, who is now a good friend.  She could tell you that her editor thinks your work needs attention before it can be sent out.

You are becoming part of a conspiracy against a writer with a genuinely funny and compelling story because of the things you are finding to say in diagnosis of why an editor at a publishing house will be able to put it down after the first chapter, which ends with literally and figuratively a shocking revelation about a primary character.

Conspiracy abounds.

This is why musicians practice, artists sketch, photographers "take" images, writers blog and keep journals.

Not too long ago, at the birthday party for a friend, you were in conversation with the mystery novelist, Sue Grafton, whom you've known long enough to know the name of the novel she wrote before she wrote A is for Alibi.  She spoke evenhandedly of throwing away a hundred-fifty-page draft of the newest work in progress, as though such things were matter-of-fact.  She asked you if you were still teaching, and when you said yes, she observed wryly, "Doesn't get any easier, does it?"  You of course agreed.  When it becomes easy, the turkey vultures of conspiracy begin hovering.

Another writer whom you met back in the 1980s and who has long since become friend rather than student, didn't bat an eye at a note you gave him on a work in progress.  "There,"  he said, "goes the opening chapter."

When we first become aware of the conspiracy, we tend to think the way around it is through knowing someone who wants to give new talent a boost.  As time and work progress, we understand that it is knowing someone who wants to give any talent a boost and will be happy to do so provided the manuscript is the most memorable, resonant, bravura performance.

The conspiracy has the tenacity of street-wise panhandlers, hustling for spare change.  You need the greater tenacity of looking within the people who propel your story, nudging each to grab hold of some agenda and ride it like a bronco rider, reins in one hand, feet tightly planted in the stirrups of emotional discovery.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cave Paintings and Words on Pages

Today you are sitting at a large table in a shaded mall, in the midst of many other tables, all filled with books, all manned by men and women who have some devotion to books beyond their interest in them.  You are near Broad Street in San Luis Obispo. Good cheer seems to surround the day much the way an early morning marine layer surrounded you as you drove the hundred miles northward along the101 Highway you've plied much of your life on various errands of pleasure and work.

You are there to talk about your book, to sell copies of it, to answer questions about it, to suggest to complete strangers and some individuals you know or who know of you that your book is a tool that can help them, that will help them in their own writing.

Seeing the broad demographic of ages, cultures, genders, generations strolling the mall, you cannot help be reminded of your days in booths at carnivals up and along the spine of this long-necked state of California and into Nevada, where, for some years, you worked at various booths featuring games of impulse rather than actual chance. These games were made to seem easy but in fact were no such thing.  Your earnings were twenty-five percent of the money you brought in.  If you "blew" or lost too much stock, for which term read stuffed teddy bears, stuffed dogs, and the like, you were likely to be fired, unless the "stock" you lost earned out against your gross take.

There were and are some undeniable comparisons between what you did when you worked for carnivals and what you do as an author.  You represent in both cases  the fantasy of the possible.  Not everyone who reads your book will learn from it, much less publish, although the driving spirit that undershot your composition of this six hundred-twenty-six-page book was to convey your particular fantasies about reading, writing, and overall focus.

You went out of your way to invest it with more stuffing than the stuffed dogs and teddy bears of your carnival days.  You spoke of it with hope, affection, and that remarkable thing that has come to you over the years of laboring to be of any account as a writer, the desire to send a message.  There is much to be cynical about on the carnival midway; cynicism of equal measure in the publishing world.

You thought as well today about the remarkable animals painted  on the walls of caves and caverns throughout the world, places the original artist knew well in advance would not be widely visited.  Why were they at such pains to represent such remarkable animals, as though erupting from the  stone?  Your guess is because they felt some close sense of connection to these animals, that these drawings were a part of some larger ritual of communication.

You looked today at the books of others as well as your own new book and for a moment, you understood why you were at pains to represent words and sentences and paragraphs and ideas as though you had joined with them in some larger ritual.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


There is never enough.

There is always too much.

If there is a middle ground, it is a boring place to be.

Reality is like that; it thrives on its own complexity while ignoring its own substance.

You understand this because you have never had enough, were overwhelmed by having had too much, twitched away from the outstretched hand of boredom.

You gulp at learning, understanding, even wisdom as an hormonal teenager at a smorgasbord, heaping your platter with more insights than you can possibly consume, much less digest, all the while regretting your failure to peek under the dome of that last chafing dish off there on the side.

Digesting some of the materials often brings an ache of inner protest.  This thing you have ingested--this learning or understanding-- was supposed to be healthy; it looked so appetizing and inviting.  But now it is lodged within you, sodden and listless.  It wants weeding.

Middle grounds thrive on accommodation, democratization, negotiation.  Such landscapes are fine vacation spots for serious lovers, worthwhile friends, estimable colleagues those to whom you were drawn in the first place by the electric crackle of differences between you.

Reality is the shopping mall foyer where traffic from other places is always passing through.  You may use it as a landmark or meeting place, but if you are not careful, reality will bowl you over with as little concern as the person who races ahead of you in the checkout line at the market.  It is not so much a matter of reality having no conscience as it is of realty being buoyed along by its own sense of purpose and self-importance.  We are not important to reality; it is the standard by which most of us attempt to measure things.

Instead, we should attempt to measure ourselves, our reactions to ourselves, our myths, which is to say the stories we pass along to those who come after us as a coded message that contains useful information about human behavior and how others have coped with the world and its forces.  We should catalogue our behavior as we approach one another with expectations from ourselves and others.

To a large extent, we have begun such studies, calling them variously story, drama, and poetry; we learn of ourselves by reading and writing this avoidance of calamity called reality.  It is out myth.  It is our literature.  

Friday, September 16, 2011

Any Questions?

Here you are, wedged between a rock and a hard place.

Nor is it lost on you that with deliberation, you navigate yourself between rocks and hard places by design on a daily basis in the process you have come to associate with writing.  You do this because of your fondness for forcing issues; in particular, you enjoy forcing issues within yourself.

Today's rock and hard place become an irony as well.

Irony, of course, is a disconnect in the pattern of reality as it unfolds; it is also saying one thing and meaning its opposite.  I am so happy to see you.  Yeah, yeah.  Irony is inferential suggestion that you mean and intend for interpretation a meaning other than what you say.  Irony, kicked a tidy bit in the butt become sarcasm.

The rock and hard place of today are your literary agent and your publisher's publicist, both of whom are most sincere in wishing positive results for you and your undertakings.  Each of them has suggested that your presentations tend toward the professorial.  To this description of professorial, they add the attribution "graduate-level," by which they mean pissy-assed pedantry.

True enough, you do favor the occasional ramble of a sentence which moseys like a happy drunk, walking home, sauntering into dependent clauses much in the manner of Henry James, for whom you have lower levels of enthusiasm than you have for, say, James M. Cain.  But by and large, you groove on the declarative sentence so frowned upon by academics.

Of equal truth to tell, you were thinking about the way the expression "between a rock and a hard place" parallels Scylla and Charybdis, both of whom started their careers as sea nymphs, then ran afoul of tenure committees.  It is probably worse to be between Scylla and Charybdis than a rock and a hard place.  One immediate risk is that you will be thought of as academic in addition to the original plight that placed you between two such forces.  Fuck that.  You went with rock and a hard place, right off.  For that matter, you wouldn't have used Scylla and Charybdis before a graduate class unless you were in a rant in which you were pissed over the lowering of awareness in general and the lowering of references to classical antiquity in specific, simply because you think it's a pretty good idea to have some awareness of what those dudes were doing.

Whether rock and hard lace or Scylla and Charybdis, languorous sentences or simple declarative, the consensus is of you at peak performance in spontaneous answers to Q & A.  Fucking forget about having to give the topic of a subject before you are invited to speak about it or, indeed that either rock or hard place suggested the topic in the first place; you are tarred with the brush of having taught at the graduate level and, sometimes in ironic circumstances, forced to serve on committees.

This is powerful input for a man who does, after all, wish to communicate in meaningful and memorable example.

There!  You have said it without so much as a pause to think about it; you wish to convey scenes, impressions, layers, subtexts, and nuances as opposed to mere words.

Put that between your rock and hard place.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Thrilled to Meet You

There is nothing like it, no worth using.  By its unique nature, it is not something than can be bottled or rendered into formula.  Nor is it arrived at easily or without potential for pain.

You have to be honest with yourself; you cannot hold anything in reserve, no fall back, no plan B--nothing you have conveniently forgotten about until the moment arrives.

Such is its nature that it can appear at any time.  You can be at a beginning, or swimming along toward the middle with the shore line in sight, perhaps a bit of a concern because of the distance, but nevertheless a tangible shoreline.  Sometimes,   it may appear at the end game.

The notes you may have written when the idea first visited you have  all been covered.  You are not much for outlines in any case, and so there you are, alone, no shoreline insight.  You take the same precautions now that you apply when something seems not to respond between your keyboard, your computer, and the printer, especially back when you were using goddamned HP printers.  You look to see if the plug has come loose in such cases; here, you move to the beginning and reintroduce yourself into what you have written, hoping the addition or removal of a word or two will help.  You listen to the voice of the story and of the characters.

There is nothing.  Now the shoreline seems to have disappeared.  How had you managed to come this far without securing some notion of how you might return? Then comes the fear that you might have played it out with the thing--whatever it was--before this one.  You pride yourself on reworking until the piece, whatever it is, offers up some surprise, some thing you hadn't realized before.  So yes, you do write with some hope the universe will reveal a portion of itself to you, let you in on some secret seemingly known and taken for granted by everyone else around you.  And if the universe will not be forthcoming, then perhaps some scintilla of awareness about the human condition because you are haunted by Chekhov's vision that there is no explanation, no understanding.

This all makes sense to the point where you know the writer has to stay out of the way of the story, butt out and allow the characters to carry forth the arguments, grudges, urges, passions, and deepest fantasies.  But you no longer write for sense; you write to see the animals standing just beyond the surface of the rocks, looking for an escape hatch.  You write for the thrill of being out there, lost.  All your navigational tricks have been used up.  You have no compass nor knowledge of the night skies.

This is the excruciating moment in which you reach within, sometimes in despair, for something, anything to get you through.  When the something comes, you feel faint relief because the fact of the something arriving, making connection with you, is no guarantee the result will be worthwhile, much less usable.  It may work and you may feel the tingle of it.  It may not work,and you may well feel the leaden coldness of its heaviness.  But that moment, where there is no certainty that what arrives after you have emptied yourself to it will be of any value to you, is the most remarkable and sought-after moment of them all.  This is the moment that affirms what you do.  This affirmation is all you can have.  In many ways, you understand this, but not in enough ways.  Not yet.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parts of speech

Go ahead, admit it:  Your favorite part of speech is the verb.  Verbs do things, get things done, create conflicts, stir up the rhetorical pot, introduce complications.  May I present trouble?  May I sprinkle a little nuance on your conversation.  Stories begin when verbs collide.

No disrespect intended toward other parts of speech, although many who know you would not seat you next to an adverb at a sit-down dinner party.  You have, on the other hand, forged fond intimacy with many a noun and proper noun.  In fact, stories often originate when nouns collide and proper nouns object.

You pal around with prepositions, some of whom get you into trouble on a regular basis which, for a writer, is a situation to be desired.  Prepositions also get you out of boring situations, another matter of high regard for you.

Adjectives require handling.  Best not to use too many of them in tandem since they have a way of taking over the conversation, diverting attention from the nouns.

Gerunds require management, in particular at those times when they attempt transgerundification, making the switch from "Walking into the room, you felt at home," to "Let's go walking," which of course is no longer a gerund, if you get my drift.

In the same manner as some individuals will slather ketchup all over a steak or hamburger, you have ands, ors, buts, and some--but not all--as's in COSTCO quantity.  True enough, too much ketchup can ruin a hamburger and too many ands, ors, and buts can play havoc with a sentence, but nothing ventured--nothing read.

You are amazed by the frozen foods equivalent of language these days, with friendship cards, condolence letters, and letters to politicians being offered us, allowing us to sign on without examination of the implications of what we have just voted for or against or in support of or opposed to at all costs.

Parts of speech, when put together in some of the stunning ways of potential, are often described as poetry and can be considered transformative. With some thought, practice, and, of course, feeling, poetry may appear anywhere, in narrative, in story, in spoken language.

Parts of speech may be weapons, instruments, tools.  For your part, you like to think of them as levers, dislodging ideas from their resting places.  The sound of them can resonate within you for years, perhaps forever.  They are remarkable enough when you find them making sounds in your mind like water rushing over stones.  You can keep yourself alive and energized with such parts of speech.  And the true joys of them become apparent as well when they are used to describe you and your meaning to another who tells hers to you.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

If at First You Don't Succeed--Revise

For some years, the tail end of June, followed by the relaxed stride of July and the amble of August have meant more to you than mere Summer.  They meant a time of long walks and, before you needed your hips replaced with titanium, longer, mind-clearing runs, producing a lighthearted vessel into which came concepts, curiosities, and even what seemed completely realized stories, all buzzing about like files and moths trying to get past a screen door.

To extend the analogy, it was a time where you were gathering secret caches for the autumn and winter months ahead, months of lecturing, reading student papers, months in which you somehow revert to student status yourself in your own longing to improve.

Improve what?

The way you see the persons, places, and things about you, your fascination with the notion that nouns and proper nouns have secrets embedded within them of such value that, were you to understand them better than you do, your work would take on a luster of excitement and vitality.

There are, after all, secrets of discovery, moments you still recall when you discovered or became aware of something you knew was of value to you and would remain with you.  As the hormonal tsunami of puberty sloshed over you, proper nouns tended to have girl's names, giving you the sense that in addition to the much desired "making out," you would beyond that encounter ways to learn more about them and about yourself as you began slowly to experience boredom for the cultural paths that loomed ahead.  You became attracted to such books and poems as you could find in which the proper noun protagonist, young man or women, strode off into some misty future, as Stephen Deadalus did, to encounter reality and forge something in the smithy of your soul.

Years later, you came out of the university, your toolkit meager in comparison to many of your friends.  You had nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, gerunds.  You also had curiosity and enthusiasm.

In its special way, this tail of the comet that is June, this splendid July, and dreamlike August have visited and left remarkable gifts for you, their host.  Early September has come, leaving you a warming pile of birthday cards.  At the side of your desk is a growing pile of books all of which relate to some pursuit of some curiosity, all of which you, in your naivete, believe will result in a project of some sort.

Yesterday, you took delivery of a number of boxes in which, twenty-five books to the box, were copies of your most recent title.  Even though you knew the contents from having gone through the writing, revision, editorial passes, and copyediting, you indulged the ritual of thumbing through the pages.

When, in May of 2008, you purchased the second new car of your life, you set out on a scrupulous regime of careful parking, regular washing, waxing, and vacuuming the interior.  The first scratch came in December of that year; you noticed it as you brought a load of groceries from the Von's Shopping Center in the Montecito lower village.  You were philosophical, even though it did give you a pang.

In similar fashion, hefting your latest book, you experienced the Von's parking lot experience of discovering a typo.  Hardly anyone will notice, you told yourself.  Perhaps she who took the photo of you that grabs attention on the back cover,but who else?  And then another, which will be noticed.

Waddyou, some kind of a perfectionist nut?  What about that paperback novel of yours which had to be reprinted because the wrong final chapter was printed in it?

Perfection is the standard we apply after the fact to something we wanted to make as well as possible.  Perfection is wanting to copyedit late June, July and August of this year.

Your first class of the Fall Semester is this afternoon, after which you will drive forty miles south in your scratched Yaris to deliver the first presentation of book tour, your topic:  voice.  Tomorrow, a mere two classes and two lectures, but Saturday you go one hundred miles north in your scratched Yaris for part two of your book tour, a lecture on the how and why of point of view.

Most of the individuals you will meet on these ventures will in one way or another be hoping for glimmers of information and understanding.  The lovely elephant in the living room--you might even say the scratched elephant--is that hardly any of the individuals you see between now and Saturday will suspect you of being present for precisely those same things, information and understanding.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Oscar and Felix, Shelly and Digby, O.M. and F.U.

 Even though you once made a semblance of a living from television, enough so that you were a member in good standing of The Writers Guild of America (Western division), you were never fond of television.  Until the amazing David Simon venture, The Wire, the most significant thing you'd got from television was the financing of a Volkswagen sedan with a sunroof and FM radio, through the Writer's Guild Credit Union.

Although your brother-in-law was either top or second echelon set decorator for the iconic television series, Laugh-In, the politics between your brother-in-law and you was such that you made it a point not to watch Laugh-In until it was too late, which is to say that subsequent events made you wish you'd been there ab ovo, the skits and tropes committed to memory.

You were even more naive than Billy Budd when a natty, impeccable Englishman of about your age began appearing in one of your classes at the university, asking uncommonly bright questions, making memorable observations to the point where, despite his weekly uniform of crisp tennis whites, you began to see him as a considerable force.

It was not long before he began reading from a project he had in mind. The project sparked your imagination to the point where you suggested to him that it would make a good candidate for a television miniseries, say a six- or eight-part venture, set in a mythical tennis club.

Said natty,intelligent Englishman politely inquired if you would be interested in working on the development of said project.  At the time, in addition to your Billy Budd naivete, you were perilously broke.  To say that you were between projects would be making a severe euphemism of a disastrous reversal of fortune.


Your reply to the bright, crisp Englishman was swaddled in civility.  You did not, you said, have the leisure to pursue something as uncertain as a television project on speculation.

You thought that would be the end of it, particularly when the Englishman said he quite understood.  At next week's  class, he pressed a check into your hand.  The logo on the check was HBO.  The check was made to you in an amount that,given your circumstances, got your attention.

This set of circumstances came winging back to you across the years of knowing Digby Wolfe when, scant hours ago, the phone rang and he was thinking it high time one of us should contact the other, if only to reaffirm the kinds of affection that develop around mutual interests and pursuits.

You have had greater successes in the abstract than the actuality with Digby, although there is a work you both think has potential, tentatively called The Dramatic Genome.   Working on any project with Digby has been an intellectual stretch and joy, but it would be difficult for you to imagine two individuals with a greater range of dissimilarity in working process.

You adhere to the get it all down in a blaze of activity approach.  Digby is a sentence if not a word at a time.  While you are racing on to a new encounter or connection, he will pause dramatically. "Shel, don't you think that word back there should be in the past tense for greater clarity?"

You, of course, had raced beyond and are now looking for which particular word, back where?

re you'd been a fly on the wall if not a direct participant in the weekly writers' sessions of Laugh-In, seeing the incessant churn of situation.  Hearing his voice again, merging in the crucible of friendship, takes you into the landscape of dramatic construction, where individuals strain, as Chekhov's characters strained and, indeed, where Chekhov strained to make sense of things.  Although he did not say what you are about to articulate, he might well have.  The spectacle of individuals trying to make sense of things that are inherently senseless is an essential basis of humor.

Chekhov might well have said that.  James Digby Wolf might well have said that.  And here you are, fortunate to be in the middle of them, taking it in.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Wisdom of Sticky Buns

With rare exception, when you set forth from 409 E. Sola Street, you have a destination in mind.  Even if it is to be little more of a venture than the evening's walk, you have some presentiment of the route you will take.

You also have some sense of what awaits you and an anticipated outcome.  You are, say, going out for breakfast.  Potential knowledge of the three likely places informs who you are likely to see, which further informs your decisions about what--if anything--to take to read or to work on.

Additional potentials for adventure of a high order--your choice of venue influences what you will have for breakfast, the only non-variable in the equation being the non-fat latte.  If you were hankering for oatmeal, you would not head south to the Luna, where the oatmeal is in the store room but not yet on the menu, nor would you go there for the French toast.  On the other hand, they know their way around poached eggs.

A venture out for your default breakfast of a brioche, latte, and a bowl of fruit is tinged with the adventure of choice and outcome because the Luna Cafe orders its brioche from Renaud Patisserie and serves the same brand of coffee--Peerless--as Renaud.  Until Friday, there was a factor reminiscent of a Robert Ludlum novel title.  The Sasha Factor.  Your breakfast options in your part of town would be the small Renaud Patisserie some four or five blocks away, or the larger one in the Loreto Shopping Center, which also contains a remarkable independent bookstore, Chaucer's.

A definite adventure factor is trying to decide which Renaud Patisserie to attend, thus the chance of being waited upon and chatting with Sasha, who, elegant posture, enigmatic smile, and a provocative collections of ear rings notwithstanding, seemed to trump these attributes with an insouciance that infused your breakfast meditations with an overall eagerness to get into the day's activities with a bit of brio, perhaps even a dash of adventurousness.
Alas, on last report, Sasha had quit, become, according to the report from Ingrid, the manager, "burned out with the restaurant business."  Perhaps from just such customers as you.

Breakfast is an important meal to you, psychologically as well as nutritionally; indeed it is important in ways that relate to why Sasha seemed so special.  It is way beyond the time for you to become burned out with the writing business.

You can--and often do--tend to your breakfast needs at home, sometimes adding to your usual out-on-the-town menu with a piece of fish, say a kipper; eggs, oatmeal, and that grand comfort food, peanut butter and jam on cinnamon raisin toast.  Nor are you ignoring the possibilities of eggs Benedict or another breakfast favorite, smoked salmon, scallions, scrambled eggs, a few green peas or asparagus, tossed over some angel hair pasta.

The business you cherish is the business of writing, wherein you set out with a different destination in mind, an unanticipated destination.  Truth to tell, the results are not always met, much less are they predictable.

You set out each day on a journey you have almost no hope of gratifying for some time to come--if ever.  You may not know when or if you've reached a destination of any significance. In many ways and cases, you are a man of judgement.  However lofty this may sound to you at times, you must give it the weight it requires.  You have arrived at whatever state this present moment is because you have made judgements as evidenced by decisions of whether to persist or abandon, stay or go, embark or debark, write on or write off.  You are one judgmental fool, is what you are, and it has taken you years to learn not to judge your characters.  You may--and do--judge the character and characters of others.  You may think you understand things so long as you realize you do not really do so.  You may even think you know more about someone or something, allowing yourself the lovely escape hatch by which you allow the ample possibility of others knowing more than you do, but when all the grounds and lees have been allowed to settle, you evoke pictures of persons, places, and settings, happening upon them the same way a photographer happens on a memorable shot, a moment of a multifarious reality you can experience even though you'd not been there, perhaps not been there because it happened before your appearance on this planet.

You do not begin this kind of journey with the same measure of certainty you experience when you set forth for breakfast.  Uncertainty, fear, blunted ambitions, and frustrations often sit at the breakfast table with you, whether it is at Dan and Janette's Cafe Luna, the Arlington Renaud's, or the Renaud's in the Loreto Shopping Center.

The only one who seems to have a momentary handle on things is Renaud, himself.  Not long ago, when he discovered that the Janine's bakery was leaving the bakery venue at Gelson's Market, also in The Loreto shopping Center, Renaud took it on,branding it La Reve Bakery, where it is now possible to secure impeccable sticky buns, made the more impeccable because of their component dough, which is also the brioche batter Renaud uses for his patisserie and to supply the pastry needs of Cafe Luna.

Renaud knows the how and why sticky buns are not to be served within the walls of his patisseries, just as you know to get a sticky bun to go and take it to Peet's when your craving is for a higher order of coffee. This in tandem with your awareness not to judge your characters and the impossibility of understanding how things work have you positioned slightly ahead of the game for a time.  But not long enough to suit you.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Canon Fodder

Depending where you happen to be and when you happen to have been there, American Literature will be as difficult to identify as a lineup of suspects in a police station.

Extending the metaphor, selecting role models for what constitutes and does not constitute American Literature is of a piece with taking a youngster to the animal shelter to chose a dog.

A good deal of what may or may not be American Literature depends on who is or is not defining the standards of educational competence, which coms down to the politics of religious conservatives mounting commando assaults on school boards and library committees.

Because of one strong segment of your reading interests, you think American Literature is defined to a larger extent than is commonly accepted by crime fiction, your own definition of crime fiction broad enough to include To Kill a Mocking Bird, but also One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the former being about the fallout of behavior that was not a crime but made to seem as though one had been committed, the latter about a seasoned criminal who came forth with a hoped for solution to another prison term.

Fond as you were of the Hemingway short stories as a younger man, you vastly prefer the prose textures of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond chandler, and see the noir and hardboiled styles having more of a role in describing culture than the managed propaganda of boosterism for middle class values that are more  cultural fantasies than workable ethos.

Alternate universe, science fiction, and speculative fiction are more interesting to you than reflections on the gradual fading of values that reflect an attempt to imitate European visions of social class behavior.

Education is often presented as familiarity with a particular canon or body of work.  In that sense, it becomes easy to substitute the word values for canon; you are educated if you are literate in our propaganda.  If you are lacking, you by default become unworthy of joining our clubs, working for our firms,marrying our daughters, sending your children to our schools, praying in our tabernacles, your remains laid to rest in our cemeteries, your spiritual essence welcomed in our turf in the after life.

The men and women who have composed and presently describe our landscape at the highest levels of truth telling and accuracy are not necessarily those who are invited to the awards dinners when the medals for canon are being awarded.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Just Rewards, Only Rewards,and You Call This Rewards

   To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof--Bhagvad Gita
For numerous reasons, this particular quote and the men who wrested it from its original Sanskrit, then translated it, have been some of the stars shining through the dark cover of night.  Often, when the night appears to be a bit misty or a good deal more cloudy, thinking of this line from The Gita, and particularly of the Englishman-come-to-America, who helped the Bengali-come-to-America to translate it, helps you see those stars you have come to value, along with the moon.

It is all metaphor, of course, even, when you come down to it, the aspect of work, the thing you do or, better yet, the work you have chosen to do.

The Bhagvad Gita is the quintessential story of karma yoga, work as worship.  You came into life within a culture you often admire and from which you take great identity, even though you regard YHWH as a metaphor.  Nevertheless, you love the tradition of not placing the vowels within the name because to do so, according to much of the culture, brings forth the power of that force.  Given the experiences that befell Job, you are sent reeling across one the culture of your birth and into the culture you stumbled into some years back, wherein you met the Swami who translated The Gita from Sanskrit with his disciple, Christopher Isherwood, who told you about all the arguments and discussions regarding this translation over an incredible picnic of hamburgers and Kosher dills, lovingly prepared by  Vedanta nuns.

One of the things Isherwood observed is the seemingly circumspect way the Hindu/Vedanta approach to mentioning of The Godhead is in some ways similar to your own cultural reasons for omitting the vowels.  "Description as limitation,"  Isherwood said.  "Hindus and Vedantists refer to 'It' if you will as 'The One Without a Second.' "

That,too, is a metaphor for you.  Joys and insights to Jewish and Vedantist sisters and brothers for whom these are Reality as opposed to metaphor.

Working at something without expectation of reward has become for you an anomaly; the act of the work becomes the fruit.  The sense of it becomes the fruit, the doing it is worship, although neither to YHWH nor The One without a Second, rather to itself.  There is this delightful, mindless moment where the work is done with neither hope nor expectation of becoming better.  Better is already of a reward nature; it is highly subjective, capricious.  You are probably better than you were when you began or even ten years ago, but these things, too, open the door for the invasion of subjectivity, and you have only to look at the GOP debates of the past hours to see the capricious nature of subjectivity gone off on steroidal rampage.

You are by no degree in possession of the disciplines required by the spiritual student in either of your cultures; your temper still has the ability to flare much as the wildfires of your native state,your cholers as acidic as bile, as liquid as molten lava.  And yet there are moments when thinking of the mist clearers that allow you to see the stars of your choice in the sky of your choice, you do see a measure of control as a fruit of your added labor, which is portraying the dramatic nature of your species in a narrative form that is interesting.

Interesting, to you, represents the margins, the extremes of the existential landscape, the hillsides and oceanfront, the places where conventional wisdom dictates against lingering, much less building an edifice.

Writing books, reading books,listening to music, hanging out with friends, falling in love,eating remarkable meals; these are all stars in your personal sky.  Each one of them has a dialectic.  Writing a book can mean writing a bad or so-so book.  Reading a book can be disappointing.  The music can become clangorous.  Hanging out with friends is tough to find fault with, it is true.  Falling in love can mean the chemistry stops developing, producing in its way the same kind of heartburn as eating a meal that seemed remarkable.

To the risk you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof.

We'll see about that.