A favored story of yours, repeated over the past several years with the occasional embellishment is one of your favorite examples of how fiction works, and to what purpose.
Being a story, it happened only in your imagination. You use it to demonstrate what you mean by that quality of narrative known as voice. Imagine, you conjure before a group of students, a family gathering. As you wait for this direction to take hold, you think of your own family, and the gatherings that seemed to flow with such natural ease. With one or two notable exceptions, you held high degrees of fondness for members of your family, were comfortable with them, held kind regards in addition to familial love for them.
You approached most extended family gatherings with a sense of dread because the formats were so unvaried and because you are more fond of variety than you are of routine.
Against this personal theme, you press on with the introduction to your students of a grandmotherly type who is at some remove from either your paternal or maternal grandmother. You adored your paternal grandmother and where almost overwhelmed by respect for your maternal grandmother, the respective adoration and respect completely removed from the grandmotherly type you evoke. Your fictional type is more out of Norman Rockwell than she is from Central Europe. As you see her, she wears white gloves to the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, for the ladies’ tea, an event neither of your grandmothers had ever attended.
Picture her, this ersatz grandmother, being coaxed to recount the story of her meeting with grandpa, of her demurral, of her glass of sherry being topped off by her clan, then sighing a Norman Rockwell sigh that combines graceful defeat with grateful nostalgia.
You lean in to make your point. “You have heard this story any number of times,” you say at near oratory. “You know the details. What you want is the sound of her, telling the story.”
This is an example of what voice means to you, the love theme of an invented grandmother, played out to the children and grandchildren who, in addition to adoring her, have other memories, perhaps competing, perhaps detracting, in which she and they had emotional transactions.
Now, you think of your own grandmothers and the stunning lives they led. You think of the circumstances in which they brought their own personalities to the family and the specific effects they had on you, and you understand even more about voice than when you invented the bogus grandmother to serve as example.
In so many ways, story is your grandmothers, whispering their stories to you while you are trying to explain something to someone else or, in significant measure, to yourself.
Dramatic information is a thing apart from the mere fact and convention you associate with education. There is scarcely a time you can remember when you wanted to be other than what you have tried to shape yourself into these many years, but from those memories of such things as, say, physics or anthropology, there were those similar flashes of triangulation. You would be charitable if you said of your mathematical abilities that they were handicapped, but even in those moments, when you were faced with essay-type questions in algebra or geometry, and were given characters with problems, you did not care one iota for the mathematical solution. Billy had three times more oranges than Fred. But Fred had six times the apricots of Tom. That was all it took; you were off wondering how Billy got the oranges and how Fred could have been so smug as to accumulate all those plums without thinking of the consequences.
Life does not move in straight lines. Life takes you in counterpoint, even when you are attempting to analyze the vectors of the counterpoint. The more closely you look, the more you are apt to find the surprise that hovers over everything you thought you knew.
Monday, October 31, 2011
A favored story of yours, repeated over the past several years with the occasional embellishment is one of your favorite examples of how fiction works, and to what purpose.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
A few days ago, you were placing yourself on an analogous plateau with the nameless heroine of Daphne DuMaurier’s splendid novel, Rebecca. She’d dreamed—dreamt, she said, using the British verb tense—she’d returned to Manderley again, in a sense reliving a frightful adventure that had enormous effect on her life. Your own returns in dreams are often to Los Angeles, where so much happened to you, even after you stopped living there and remained only a commuter.
The next likely place for your dreamtime return is in the west central portion of Nevada, the more or less unspoken or invisible side of a triangle articulated by Reno and Carson City. Your place of return is Virginia City.
You have not been back in actuality for some years, perhaps as many as thirty, a growing tide of nostalgia arguing with you, trying to talk you into and out of a last visit, a visit from this side of your life experiences, a visit as a survivor.
The biggest argument against going is the sense that the Virginia City now in existence is no more the Virginia City you knew than the Virginia City you knew was the Virginia City Mark Twain knew and he, of course, was your reason for going there in the first place.
You have spent much of the day in Virginia City today; all of it while you were quite energetic in your waking state. You spent it with Gail Payette, nee Hinton, yet another survivor.
Gail is the stepdaughter of Pat Hart, a fiery, animated dark Irishman with a shovel-shaped face, mischievous eyes, and a chiseled brow ridge. You have in common with him thick, aggressive brows that behave as steroidal caterpillars.
You were in your late twenties when you first visited Virginia City, just coming into reliable streams of income from your writing. As you drove away from Virginia City after spending your second visit, you came away a contributor to The Territorial-Enterprise, the newspaper Mark Twain used as a launching pad for his unique career as America’s populist voice.
Gail Hinton was about fifteen years your junior and, as you quickly discovered, a schoolmate of she who caused your heart to perform acrobatics and whom you were beginning to suspect was your destiny. In later years, perhaps even in these years now, she is a part of your destiny.
As such things go, it was not the destiny you’d imagined. But for a time back then and there, she, the stunning young woman to be, took Gail Hinton as her friend, sharing dreams and the wild fantasies of bright, emerging intelligences.
Gail’s stepfather owned the Brass Rail Saloon on lower C Street, your saloon of preference and comfort, much as the Café Luna in Summerland has become your venue, your landscape of preference and comfort. It is true that you drank a good deal when you were in attendance at the Brass Rail, but the weather, the ambience, and the persons you came in contact with were all mitigation against the drinking lapsing into tipsiness, much less being drunk.
Your favorite ritual was a leisurely New Year’s Eve supper at The Sharon House, a gathering of friends from Los Angeles and San Francisco in the main suite of The Silver Dollar Hotel, followed by the gradual drifting to The Brass Rail where, frequently, Gail would be there to alert you to a phone call coming your way from she of your destiny. Often, after the phone call, you would secure from Pat Hart a cognac balloon, generously filled with Martell’s VSOP, then wend your way to the place holding the most attraction for you, Piper’s Opera House, where the famous came to perform, where surely Twain lounged in the lobby, taking in the passing parade, and where, in later years, Twain returned in triumph to share his observations on the human condition.
The weather was in the high teens or low twenties, the streets coated in a fine granulation of snow. The cognac was just the necessary factor to keep you comfortable as you tuned into the sounds and vibrations of the past. From time to time a local would pass, wish you a happy year forthcoming. Or one of your two or three great friends would stop by to clink glasses, or Pat Hart would stand in the middle of C Street to fire off a round or two from his .38, welcoming in the new year.
You and Gail went through some of the history you had shared, in the process supplying background and the nostalgia of what things meant to us then. Through your conversation, numerous cups of coffee, your history of that time went through an enhancement where your own visions of what happened were given interpretations you had not considered then. Today you were given a validation of what was once you and then the layer of significance that goes with nostalgia. You had not realized how much effect you and your friends had on Gail, nor her and her family on you. And if course it was all happening interior but as well in that place you weren’t sure you’d ever visit again.
They are all of them back in orbit within you now, luring you into conversations based on their eccentricities and yours, their needs and dreams and yours.
You had not been back for many years. It was not as though your memories or dreams were wearing thin. They are every bit as splendid to revisit as a favored novel or short story or poem. Today, you got another picture of yourself there, and you recalled conversations and protestations of connection with individuals who were there then and whom you now see, having survived not only the mere chronology, but the intensity and personality of a place that drew so many quirky, eccentric sorts and a sense that you were forging a survivor’s home of nostalgia.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
As the nameless narrator of Rebecca dreamed of returning to Manderly, you have had dreams in which you return, not to a burned-out estate on the Cornish Coast but to another, much less foreboding place. Truth to tell, the place is not foreboding at all; in its way, it is welcoming, wanting much of me, wanting focus and a sense of devotion.
The place is also a condition; it is the halfway mark in a project. Unless the project is a book review and the time somewhere between late Thursday and noon on Friday, the temporal aspects are of less moment. Your column is due by noon on a Friday. Halfway mark on such a project means the end is reachable if not in sight. With all other projects, the halfway mark is in its own, existential way, the hallmark.
Being in the middle of a project is much of a piece with having been attracted, fallen in love, then embarked on the remarkable trail of discovery. In most cases, there is no way you could possibly finish in one working day. You are in so many ways as adrift as an ancient seafarer, moved beyond the sight of land. You have none of the sophisticated modern devices of navigation, only your own sense of direction, the ability to identify some stars, some ability to relate your position to the momentary location of the sun in its transit of the sky.
As much as this is a scary place, it is a comforting if not comfortable place, comforting because of your familiarity with the feel of this place, the sense of taking assurance from the lack of familiarity. You are out on the sea of your own imagination, with no guarantee of any kind of catch to sell when you return home, hopeful of packing your catch off to market.
There are those about you who wish with ardent sincerity to write but not to be in this particular place; they wish to have written but not to see the endless hours of darkness before the sunrise, the sense of having to retrace steps, perhaps all the way back to the outset.
After you’ve done the work, you are eager to experience the response of someone who has been exposed to it. Does she or he resonate to it or project cold, implacable resistance, arms folded across chest in that classic gesture protecting the self from close hand intrusion? This heady blend of impatience and curiosity seek to override your hope that you will see things to put in and take out for the overall benefit of the project.
In some instances, your patience delivers itself on the shores of a discovery of epic proportions; you find something you’d have been embarrassed to have left in or, in the converse, you’d find something you’d taken so much for granted that you’d forgotten to put it in, leading you to the defensive “What do you mean?” defense asked by the arrogant.
Once, many years ago, you were asked to write a book review that would be used to judge your potential fit as a staff member of the high school newspaper. You were big on such things as theme and subtext during those days, a tad more anxious than eager to demonstrate your visions of reality. You set off on the review with the equivalent of popping a wheelie, verbs and intensifiers shooting from your prose, your imagination unable to take in anything more wonderful than a position on the newspaper staff and the resulting approval to enroll in the journalism class.
Days later, when the paper was returned, you experienced the pang of embarrassment from the teacher’s note atop the page. Would have helped, the teacher noted, to include the name of the book under review. To date, this had been your most serious gaffe; in its wake you do argue yourself into one more run-through, one more editorial pass, one last vision.
There is comfort along with self-impatience with this approach, but not the self-impatience of the one who wishes to have the writing over with so that one may bask in the glories of having written. Such glories are misguided at best. Having written is in its way like post-coital tristesse; you have at best a few moments, perhaps a slight doze, before the need is back, urging you into the awareness from which all process begins.
Friday, October 28, 2011
Humor, reduced to its most simplistic denominator, is revelation of an uneasy, often sad truth. Unconscious humor is the analog of taking aim at some target, then promptly shooting one’s self in the foot. Unconscious humor is you, astride your high horse, poking fun at something in a manner certain to expose your own absurd behavior.
You are not alone in seeing absurd behavior in others, nor, at times, in yourself. We all have suitable receptor sites for the awareness of humor in others and receptor sites of equal suitability to help us ignore its presence in ourselves. In similar fashion, there is a tendency inherent in communication, made even more obvious in written communication, to use habit words.
Any word may become a habit word provided it is used often enough to call attention to itself. The one you notice with the greatest regularity is “and,” an innocent enough word on its own until you see it creeping through your sentences and paragraphs like a trail of ants across a gleaming white tablecloth.
Another habit word invading your prose is “accordingly,” which scores bonus points because it is an –ly adverb, and because of your frequent placement of it at the beginning of a sentence to sum up and restate material from the immediate sentences which should, if they’d been given proper rendition in the first place, need no summary or restatement.
Yet other habit words earn bonus points for the fact of their being unnecessary. One such word is “very,” another of similar nature is “quite.” We need all our imagination to imagine the distinctions between having a character who was annoyed, very annoyed, or quite annoyed. Some critics in our midst might venture the opinion that quite is a degree beyond very, at which point you would become annoyed in sufficient degree to stop following the argument, regarding it as time not well spent. Don’t forget “just” as in just not or just as I was beginning. Of course “only” may be substituted for just. I only wanted you to see-- Yeah, well. If you wanted us to see, did you have to want to so often?
The detection and purging of habit words is a major step in revision, tightening the noose of clarity, dimension, and intensity about your prose, culling the indecisions, the “somewhat” and “slightly” from their squatter occupancy of our verbs and nouns.
Writers whose work conveys such immediacy and purpose, such as Joan Didion and Christopher Hitchens, have built into their sensitivities an ability to convey us without bump through the hills and valleys of their argumentive landscape, paving each step with care, yet seeming to toss things off in a conversational tone. You may be sure each has taken pains to produce not a mere slice of an argument but a full-on cameo, etched with precision, clotted and cluttered with no habit words or ambiguity.
They continue to resonate among us because they cause their intentions to spring from the page or screen, already vibrant with the vision they evoke.
To this date, you have written yourself in the neighborhood of seventeen hundred fifty notes herein to yourself. You have surely been aware of a number of your habit words; those already listed herein plus such additional ones as “writ large,” “on steroids,” “nevertheless,” and a great favorite, “thus.” After all this hoopla about habit words, they and others like them have butted in to the head of the line in front of your vigilance. Habit words are things you watch for when you undertake revisions. Habit words, unconscious repetitions rather than deliberate repetitions made for some effect or another, are of themselves sufficient reason for the use of at least one form of editor—the content editor. They are also sufficient reason to employ the services of the copyeditor, she or he who approaches the text for the purpose of examining consistency of usage.
Written language often has the appearance of informality, perhaps even of being conversational, even while in the face of our awareness that conversation sounds often inane or banal, sometimes repetitious. Conversation rendered in complete sentences runs the risk of sounding by degrees too formal. As any number of individuals you observe, your spoken narrative is often accompanied with a display of hand and body gestures, an emphasis here, a lifted eyebrow there, the flutter and dart of both hands about you as though you were patting out a fire that had begun in one of your jacket pockets.
What you are attempting to do, written or spoken, is what the accomplished magician does—use the hands as distractions while creating an illusion at once plausible, mystifying, curiosity inducing. Your great pal, Barnaby Conrad, caught that imagery in his dedication to you of his penultimate novel, The Last Boat to Cadiz. You did not consider yourself the magician he claimed you to be, merely an editor, doing a friend a favor.
Writers and editors have no secrets from one another; friends have no secrets. Most assuredly of all, they have no habit words between them, only the honesty of artful narrative.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
You have been attracted to things from beyond the womb, a condition that has remained with you as far back as your memory reaches into the past and as far ahead of you as the future holds.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
You are so accustomed to living in a world of flux that the ebb and flow of the tides, the wane and wax of the moon, the rise and set of the sun are no longer phenomena to you—unless, of course, you take the effort to observe them as such and to remind yourself of their individual wonders.
Were you to give these items, tides, and orbits awareness of their progressions, you’d be anthropomorphizing them, a flaw in logic, to be sure, but at least a recognition of their power in your life as you embarked on the cyclic process of your days.
But you don’t stop with that process. For reasons known and unknown to you, you have planted both feet into the world of story, where they have taken root.
Now, you are subjected to the universe about you, the splendid mockery of the mocking bird, the lush tonality of Ravel, the muezzin’s sound of a Coltrane solo, the clamor of voices in your head of Mark Twain and Louise Erdrich, and your own mentor, Rachel, urging you to go out on the heroic journey search for your own voice, a stray that from time to time seems to have wandered from the corral.
Within the worlds of story, you are subject to the laws and behavior of power. Things and phenomena and persons, actual or your own creations, have power—over you, over each other, over themselves, extending upward and downward in a dizzy riot of anarchy.
As love is, as passion and interests are, power is anarchy. You have no control over it within story. You often have scarce control over it in real life. If you are in love with someone, that individual has power to distract, confuse, confound you. It is a tidal pulsing of emotion and mystery, reminding you of your love beyond the particular individual, all the way into the mysticism of being alive, arguing at the same time with the vision of what life is and where it ought not be anthropomorphism.
In story, scenes are often stunning visions of power at work with one person having the power and another either wanting to neutralize it or usurp it. In real life, power exists as a cultural force as well as one of transaction between two or more apparent peers. Power taken by force, with no regard, often produces fear, which leads to resentment or some breakdown of the psyche. Power that is held onto jealously is likely to produce suspicion, perhaps even paranoia. Power given freely is often a gesture of respect or love.
Many stories use power as a fulcrum, turning the point of power on end, allowing one character to escape from a force that has become tyrannical, affording freedom. Many relationships, particularly partnerships, turn on the same fulcrum, wherein one partner has progressed in some way, negative or positive, while the other has remained steady.
In some cases, stability is seen as power, in yet others, it is a cause of concern that it has become too conservative.
Power is reputed to corrupt, with the added burden of absolute power bearing the weight of absolute corruption.
What is the power to tell a story or the power to love? Each is an ability to see the real universe and imaginary ones in different perspectives. For you, it is not much of a choice between story or love; you have to love story in order to tell it, thus you chose love, already loving story.
A student approached you recently to thank you for recommending to him Aristotle’s Poetics, which is arguably one of the first books to discuss story. Written about three hundred fifty years before the Common Era, much of it now obsolete, it still gives you a core sampling of a distant time, where we are connected by a love for the details and effects of the story, however different we are as individual participants in the ongoing story of life about us. The power of story and the power of life have evolved. You rush to meet it.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
As Casey Stengel said in another context, “You could look it up.”
You could consult your most recent book, which seems as though it might be an ideal source to consult for your question at hand. What is a novel? You have read enough of them and written enough of them to cause you to think you might know the answer. You would also think that because of your current involvement with two of them, you might have some clues, something to get you through two, count ‘em, two dark nights of the soul attendant on the venture you know relates to that particular longform narrative known as a novel.
A novel is in its special way embarking on a love affair, where you are simultaneously imprinting and being imprinted upon. You have learned to live with your quirks and visions, having reached a true with them and they with you. But now you are sharing these with another individual, which is part of the plan all right, but you are used to them and she will see them. If you are fortunate, these will touch her as endearing. At any rate, they will not prevent the back and forth that is needed in love and in a novel. Well, you have settled some of the definition. A novel is your quirks and visions, not to forget your fantasies. It is the creation of individuals who must not be you, who would cause the atmosphere to clog and back up if the characters were all like you. Maybe one. But no more. This is the thing the beginner, the narcissist beginner does not understand. You have to see differences as endearing as opposed to things resembling you. In a sense, just as you set forth to forge a persona with a lover, you have to effect a livable relationship with your characters. In love, one plus one equals three, perhaps even four. There are the two of you and the two selves you become because of the relationship.
A novel is among other things ways of having characters do naturally things you might not be able to do at all. A novel is producing characters who have expectations you might find attractive but might just as easily find repugnant or unthinkable. A novel is, on both sides of the equation, the unthinkable come to pass, the good unthinkable and the not so good. Even that observation opens the door for novels to come. Imagine a love relationship so open to understanding that it surpasses expectations and creates unanticipated awareness and altruism. Suppose it is so fulfilling that it wipes out the old individuality of the partners, replacing their separate selves with something completely unforeseen. What are the remarkable potentials there? “You didn’t tell me we were going to progress this way?” “That’s nothing, you didn’t tell me you’d inspire me to things I never dreamed of doing. You’re scaring the self out of me.”
Not all novels, but surely some do just that. Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, or A Return to Earth to name just a few. Or The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich’s emotional taffy pull, gets at both sides of the unthinkable.
Okay then, a novel is a vehicle being driven over unfamiliar streets, steered by drivers who think they know the right route, only to discover that they are indeed in the wrong city.
A novel better not be like anything you’ve written before, lest you realize you are being derivative of who you were earlier. Embarking on a love affair better not be derivative, either; both of you will recognize it all too soon.
A novel and a love affair are ventures into the unknown in a sincere attempt to discover a new reality, where there is some justice, some rule of law, some sense of adventure for the inevitable discovery.
Monday, October 24, 2011
Early in your life, you were at great pains to take the world about you at face value. Things were what they seemed or said to be. You were, then, too young to think about ramifications of this vision. This was the time of your chronological youth, your emotional youth, and such traces of intellect as may have been present.
For all its eventual drawbacks, this atmosphere was no-nonsense, sensible on the surface, and relatively free of conflicts that trespassed upon your imagination. This was, after all, the time of authority, parental, teacher, and cultural, all of them clamoring for your attention, all wishing of you some abstract vision of you as “well behaved.” What “they” said must, you reasoned, be so—for the simple reasons that they had experience and they had no visible reason to lie to you.
Fortunate for you, the imagination does not respond well to Edenic vistas or Manichean polarity. While seeming to doze under the warming sun of authority, the imagination has an agenda quite its own; it is always planning to run away from home. Of course, being your imagination, it plans to take you along, making of you Huck and Jim on the raft, afloat on the magisterial muddiness of one of the world’s great rivers. Even today, your species has been unable to cope with much less tame that river. Even today, the imagination to which it is analogous is an attractive nuisance, luring you into its eddies and swirls.
And what a trip it is to ply imagination. The two of you, as tentative as new lovers at first, then with enhanced brio, begin to thumb your metaphoric noses at any “them” in your path, parent, teacher, and/or culture.
The true enemy, you soon discover, is not society, nor is it the rules of law which society enacts, nor indeed their troglodyte approaches to enforcing those laws. The nature of humanity is to plod. You plod along with sisters and brothers. From time to time, an individual appears who seems to skate or dance or even swirl with evident grace, providing role models we of the species aspire.
With the swagger of the accomplished nose thumber, you and your imagination have sorted through the available suspects; you level your accusations at the real culprit, Seriousness. When you, as a particular individual, or we as a species, consider ourselves too seriously, we expose our potential for the absurd that is wired into our genome.
Given your own potential for absurd behavior in which, more than once, you have taken careful aim at a supposed target then shot yourself in the foot, you settle instead on the mantra of William of Occam or, for that matter, any Buddhist monk or nun: the simplest solution is the best solution. Owning up to inherent absurdity is the saving grace. Any attempts at denial or disguise in our absurdity cannot help but provide the quality available in large doses to all Homo sapiens: pomposity. There, in elegant simplicity, is the target. You seek to capture it as though with a security camera, close-up on the culprit, strip it bare of its fancy clothing, then send it packing as the humbug it is.
You have your work cut out for you. There is much pomposity abroad. As though in possession of some advanced degree from an online diploma mill, there are many who wave documents purporting to be deeds to parcels located on the moral high ground. Much work awaits you. But you must take care not to get in your own way.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
You look for many things in the books you read, the things you write, and the things you are recruited to read as teacher or editor. Of course you look for the traces and development of story. You also look for idiosyncratic reasons to care about what you are reading, and if you go for long periods without finding such things in what you write, you begin to contemplate the delete key if you are on board your computer or your pen if you are at the handwriting-on-note-pad state.
Discovery is of primary concern. You read and write in hope and quest of discovery. You need to find out something about yourself, about your species, about some of the many other species, about the universe wherein you abide on some sort of temporary basis before joining it for good in an altered form.
Whatever entertainment is, you hope to discover it as well; perhaps connections with things you had not thought were related. The unspoken thing is surprise. Often a discovery is a surprise in addition to the weight of awareness it addresses.
You go to a place you have visited many times before, perhaps even made discoveries there, but familiarity has asked if it might share the table and so you invite it to sit. You are not expecting a discovery at this table. Yet you look to one side and you encounter the gaze of someone else who has come to the place for the first time, an expression of elegant curiosity sending signals outward. You had not expected this discovery or surprise.
There are lessons everywhere just as there are stories. Sometimes discovery, story, and surprise conflate, trigger things you didn't realize you were looking for or even trying to understand. Story, discovery, and surprise all toss information and awareness at you as though all of existence were some child’s game. And of course what children do with their games is learn about themselves and the worlds they inhabit. It is a strange, almost reckless calculus to equate story with play, but it is that very thing, you and all your brother and sister writers at play with the universe.
For some considerable time, it has been your belief that there were only two basic story templates, the hero’s journey or coming-of-age, and the new kid in town, the arrival of someone into our ecosystem who brings suspicion and the aura of newness. You are now close to adding a third, making of the metaphor a three-legged platform.
On occasion, the legs may need to be evened a bit, but if you add mystery to the group you include the propellant of curiosity, the search for a solution to a puzzle, and when has life not been a puzzle?
Perhaps you have learned that a slight twist to the familiar produces surprise, something you were not expecting. Perhaps it will help to consider how story lurks behind the familiar, waiting to expose the surprise.
Every year, when you go to Brian Fagan’s for Christmas Eve supper, there is a lovely metaphor, set beside each plate. It is long, cylindrical, a long string dangling from one end. You pull the string and there is a large pop, Now you plumb the depths of the cylinder to remove a party hat and a surprise toy. Over the years, you’ve kept the toys in the dashboard tray of your car, reminders that you should never get too far from toys, even though last year’s toy was pointedly useful; it is a bottle opener, just the thing for the occasional bottle of Sierra Pacific ale when you and Sally are off on a picnic.
You were not expecting the surprise you got when you met the gaze of elegant curiosity.
Discovery changes you, surprise changes you; they rearrange your molecules, cause you to examine yourself as if for the first time. And in fact, you are doing just that.
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Friday, October 21, 2011
When you discover a remarkable scene in a short story or novel, and in those even more heartwarming moments when, as you seek to revise something you have written, you meet a paragraph or two that brings the sense of blood rushing to serve some neglected part of your being, you are catapulted back to a time in your life where one of your great pleasures was to lift large rocks in the garden after a rain shower.
Much of your adult reading and writing life has, in metaphor, been a continuation of lifting rocks after rain, watching the scurry and industry of the creatures in their attempts to restore some kind of balance or stasis to interrupted routine. All story is, in fact, results of interrupted stasis. Someone sets forth, perhaps, or some stranger enters our nest.
These events are captured with words, joined into sentences, nurtured and arranged into paragraphs. For some time now, you have been focused on the scene, which is the basic unit of story. This focus does not in any way imply mastery, because every scene is or should be new, wanting its own discovery and logic. The focus on scene has led you to the awareness of the scene and your curiosity about what makes it work so well when it works, what causes it not to work when it stumbles, falters, then fizzles out.
You had listed a number of elements present in the successful scene, all necessary ingredients, but the notion has come to you that you may well have done the equivalent of publishing a recipe for lemon meringue pie without having included instructions relating to the lemon. Included in that notion is the awareness and appreciation in your awareness of the forgotten ingredient. No question about the ingredient existing; it is the sentence, which may appear in a number of roles, starting with narrative but certainly stepping out as dialogue.
Sentences may be short, declarative, pungent. They may be long, languorous excursions through time, clauses, events. They may useful in suggesting a particular emotion such as fear or dread, at one end of the scale of feelings, or reflective, even contemplative. Sentences may be in the active voice, wherein a subject, some person, place, or thing, colludes with the predicate, which in its own way conveys through action some movement or progress on the part of the subject. Even such simplicity as “The apple is red.” Shows subject and predicate at work, wherein the subject apple now extends the state of being. Of course there is that lovely adjective giving description to the apple’s state of being.
Sentences may also be cast in the passive voice. “A vote was taken,” is such a sentence. In that particular example, we’d have to rely on context to determine who the individuals were who took the vote, but we’d have the advantage of knowing we could turn the sentence into active voice by adding the pronoun “we.” We took a vote. Want to move the sentence back to passive? Okay, “The vote was taken by us.” In the sentence “We took a vote,” the subject is we, the predicate is took. Using the passive voice, we focus on making vote an object, in fact the direct object.
All right with the grammar. At onetime, you were excited by grammar because you appeared to have skills at diagramming sentences, especially when you were in a mischievous, show-offy mood where you feigned disinterest and preoccupation to the point where the teacher would pounce, and then, off to the blackboard, where, with heavy squeaking of chalk, your diagram of a sentence was to you like a theater marquee. Subject? Yeah, right here. Predicate? Un huh. Goes here. Direct object. Yep. It was as though you were announcing the arrival of Omar Little on The Wire. You’d best be right. And you were.
The sentence gets you going; it is the first few strides in the day’s work; it is the song that vibrates through your being when the gun is fired at the start of a marathon or your own favorite race, the twenty-kilometer. It is a sense of coordination, management, distance covered, and the exquisite awareness of elapsed time, all coming into play.
You worked hard to achieve the stature and condition that allowed you to know you could finish any race you decided to enter. No guarantees about elapsed time or indeed your position in the pack of other runners at the finish. Some of that was up to you, some of it entirely beyond your control.
Same thing with sentences. They are remarkable structures. To you, they are creatures, living things with their own personality, their own culture, their own sense of preferred word order. Best you spend some time with them; listen to them. See what they have in store for you.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Most thoughts you might entertain about the effects of sound reason and logic on opinions are quickly put to rest when you read the “Letters to the Editor” section of the community newspaper for which you contribute a weekly book review column. Although the demographic of right- and left-leaning political preferences are about at a balance in Montecito, CA, 93108, at least the owner-publisher, and his editor-in-chief son tilt decidedly toward Libertarian, and the associate editor/publisher rails at the chicanery and pettifoggery of anyone whose politics are in any way approaching centrist. You neither exaggerate nor have to go looking for editorial instances where the Montecito Journal, with its circulation of about 25000 in any way gives the progressive vision with sympathy, much less without open scorn.
On numerous occasions, some readers have advocated for a measured, considerate dialogue within the Montecito Journal, only to be met with more letters to the editor, as written by the tip of the pyramid among those of emotional and/or intelligence deficit.
It is also your observation that broader landscapes than these Montecito voices also sound the tocsin for the measured dialogue and conversation for which America is so famous throughout the world. Who among us does not in some way relish the ideal of a civilized conversation instead of a frenetic rant?
But this is more often than not an abstraction. The democratic discourse, in which everyone has her or his say, is, alas, a myth. The myth of civilized conversation.
When translated into dramatic settings, civilized conversation becomes even more an abstraction or, at least, an example of something that cannot hold its ground. By its nature of civility, dramatic conversation becomes boring. We are not interested in it for long. In our hearts, we yearn for dialogue, for the disputaceous, the argumentative, the non-responsive. We love it best of all when the conversation reflects two or more characters launched on two or more vectors, often at right angles or in direct opposition.
Now, we are talking.
Now, we may begin to present the human condition simultaneously at its best and worst which, by the way, is a staple of the human condition. True enough, there are some morbidly awful individuals lurking about and on the other side of the bell curve, at the same rat-tail proportion, there are seemingly angelic sorts. Most of us roam about in the middle, that portion of the bell curve that resembles an anaconda in the process of ingesting a large number of Famous Nathan’s hot dogs.
There is a class of individuals who attempt to bring us down to earth when we take off on flights of dialogue, which is to say the dramatic equivalent of anti-aircraft fire. These individuals urge us to be rational, to calm down, to expose our dramatic selves to the effects of measured, thoughtful conversation, supported with facts, data, calmness, and consideration. Role models of civilized and informed conversations are held forth almost as though they were communion wafers. A subject often neglected when such conversational meals are brought forth is the copious quantities of liquor consumed at such events. No less neglected is the need for copious amounts of alcohol to make the conversations bearable. A cynic would say that the alcohol made these conversations less intelligible than they were. A dramatist would say that conversation has little chance of being remembered, less chance yet of being interpreted as intended.
Dialogue sets the whole process to rights: a group of the aforementioned participants in a proper conversation, desperate not to get home where they may at least pass out in familiar territory; now they are all leaving the parking lot at the same time, amid the implacable sounds of fender meeting fender in grudging regard for the available spaces.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
You join your brother and sister Homo sapiens by knowing where in the body a particular pain resides when it finds a temporary or semi-permanent lodging place. Sinus headache? Spasm in the left calves? How about a hitch in the shoulder from swimming too many laps, or that scratch on the forehead—no, not the one from the argument with the tree branch, the one with the wall of the swimming pool when you were showing off and trying to do a flip turn?
Easy as it is to locate and either treat or favor such bodily pains, locating the psychical often poses problems. Where does it hurt when you realize you have done something against your own self-interest? Suppose you have made a fool of yourself by doing something against your better judgment or, equally painful, not done something you’d considered it prudent and ethical to do? Where do they hurt? How do you apply the analgesic or bandage or message therapy? Suppose you are severe in your response of disappointment? Suppose you receive news almost simultaneously of one thing you’ve worked at for years being returned as unusable while something that may have taken you all of one day to compose has been given a home and at a princely sum?
Where does it hurt if you are dumped or deceived or betrayed?
You have splendid memories of such joys as finishing a marathon, of seeming to range into a sensual zone after swimming more than a mile, of the stunning sense of having captured the lightening in a bottle that is an effective sentence. There is an all-over feel good sense, but its very nature of being all over brings a note of incompleteness with it because you don’t know exactly where within you it is lodged, however temporarily.
Some feelings, the so-called positive or energizing ones, evoke behavior such as dancing or skipping, possibly even making wide, sweeping gestures with your hands, accompanied by gestures resembling the closest you will ever come to dancing.
Yet other feelings, the ones culturally felt to be less social, even bordering into the anti-social, trigger physical responses such as frenetic behavior and general expressions of irritation. Some of these behaviors are signified by behavior of aggressiveness known as acting out.
You know the symptoms, the manifestations, but not the places because their points of origin are different kinds of pain, they are emotions. Sometimes these emotions wear ski masks to hide their identity, as though you did not already know who they were. They are in effect terrorists attacks they do not fight civilized, friendly wars, nor are their allegiances as likely to bear any recognizable flags of identity as, say, a Charley horse is.
Sometimes emotions will have left their equivalents of IEDs, improvised explosive devices that take you even beyond the mere and transitory pains of sprains, scrapes, and arguments with tree branches.
Sometimes, after you have seen the damage they can cause, you resolve to take on the emotional equivalence of isolationism or at least to purchase better body armor.
Such thoughts do not, you are pleased to say, last long. There are certainly undocumented emotions out there, waiting to sneak beyond your borders. There are any number of emotional terrorist organizations, all with seemingly conflicting agendas, acting as though you hadn’t enough agendas of your own, phoning or emailing in credit for explosions and kidnappings and random acts of destructiveness.
They are risks you have long since agreed to accept. Threats and actual acts will not keep you inside, isolationist, conservative, suspicious. Because some of them get out of hand sometimes, you are not going to let them keep the high ground.
The more you think about it, the less dangerous they become and, in spite of the ever present risk, the more boring they appear.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
The basic unit of dramatic construction is the scene. As the atom contains smaller particular components, the scene is a matter of events, arranged in a pattern the writer believes leads to a resonant emotional payoff. These events are called beats. Every action within a scene—even a thought—is a beat because it occupies time.
Tom sat up. One beat. Tom sat up, then looked about him. Two actions, thus two beats. Tom sits, looks about him, then returns to sleep. Three beats.
Get the picture? Even “Tom thinks things over” is a beat because Tom, doing so, uses time.
There is no minimal number of beats nor any number considered to be a surfeit so far as dramatic conventions are concerned, that is, so long as the elapsed beats contribute to the overall development of a story and the unfolding sense of the characters within the story. We’d be no less likely to be put off by one beat too many or one beat too few in a story than we would notice an extra or missing note in a symphony.
Unless the missing notes were the fourth in the opening salvo of notes of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor, opus 67. If the note were to go missing here, many of us would “notice” the omission because of its lack, while others among us would in their mind fill in the note without further thought.
This is a demonstration of what you try to do, particularly when you are telling a story. This is evoking the presence of the note. This is bringing the reader into the scene, in fact into all the scenes, as an active participant.
You have noted many times the presence of time is the unifying force in story, music, and acting. Timing has a role in photography because it defines the amount of light allowed to pass through the lens and onto film or the digital sensor.
Timing in all these endeavors brings into play the pacing of the dramatic, musical, or photographic beats or events. The same series of events will undergo a change of personality when the tempo is increased or slowed down. An impatient character forces a sense of tempo change upon a scene to the same extend and degree a lumbering or merely deliberate character evokes a response of impatience. Oh, get on with it.
In similar fashion, a number of sentences of approximate length, delivered at the same tempo, can have a hypnotic effect on the reader/audience. A symphony orchestra can change the personality of a well-known passage of music by using a similar approach. The orchestra is traditionally tuned to a scale in which the tone of A, Concert A, vibrates at 440 beats per second. The conductor may literally speed the entire orchestra up or down by an adjustment in the vibration rate of A. Of course the conductor may also increase or lover the tempo at which the beats or notes are played.
A run of short declarative sentences will impart through evocation the sense of the narrator being excited, out of breath. Longer sentences, Faulknerian sentences, make splendid examples appropriate for this investigation because Faulkner wrote of and spoke of the sense that he could not get away from the past. What better way to show a narrator engaging his entanglement with the past than through languorous and serpentine sentences, spiraling off in all directions as the individual tries to shed the past as though it were some clinging spider’s web?
The scene also has a beginning where some dramatic equivalent of a large rock is dropped into the equivalent of a pond, producing destabilizing effects, triggering action, sending readers in curious pursuit of wonderment. These things may be described and, to an extent, have been described, but the ones you most remember, the ones you most try to emulate in your own work are the scenes where descriptions are pushed aside for the more fecund soils of evocation.
Of all the things a scene should have—setting, characters, beats, dialogue, tempo—to name only a few, it should also have the one thing it cannot produce directly; it should have the presence of evocation. To put it quite another way, it should have the opposite of literal presence.
Monday, October 17, 2011
After some careful review and consideration, you reckon you understand why so many writers of the sort you enjoy reading have had so many different jobs. While you were yourself indulging a similar run of occupations, many of them seasonal or temporary, you were more often of a mind that you were in these jobs because you had slammed such doors as a professional career might open to you.
There were momentary flirtations, notably with journalism, but by the time you’d careened into your mid-twenties, you’d already begun to acquire the same kind of patina and attitude by which you’d recognized yourself as an outside-the-sand-box sort. One gay friend spoke to you of her ability to spot other gays, giving you that word and concept of gaydar for your vocabulary. You understood the analogy between your friend’s sense of out-of-the-sandbox (in this case it was closet as well) and your own sense of what kind of jobs and lifestyles awaited you until you were able to support yourself in some lifestyle of your choice as a result of your successes at writing. You understood and accepted the possibility that you might always be doing the equivalent of eating with the help and that they, too, would think of you as other.
When you worked for a time at the telephone company, spending much of your day soldering connections, you came face to face with this social strata shuffle, as you called it when, having become attracted to a telephone operator whom you saw and talked to on coffee and lunch breaks, you invited her to a party given by a number of your classmates from the Film Department at UCLA, a move that, had she accepted your invitation, would have had probable results different from what actually happened. “Operators don’t go out with solderers and wirers,” she told you. “You look like a nice guy, but if the others knew I was dating you—” she let the consequences hang like an interrupted call. “Rich girls don't marry poor boys,” you said. Wrong thing to say. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Forget it, you told her; you were just quoting Daisy to Gatsby. And of course she was no convinced you were beyond the pale. “I don’t know them,” she said.
Over the long haul, you think it good that you had such a range of jobs and did so poorly at the truly well-paying jobs available to you so that at moments of wavering confidence, you were not tempted to put in the sort of energy you needed to be good enough at something away from writing to make great sums of money. You have a better idea of what it is like to work at jobs, particularly mind-numbing jobs.
You have been many things, actor, shill, sales person, juggler, bodyguard, flaneur, impostor, liar, box boy in a supermarket, clerk in a bookstore, and a page in a library. You managed a parking lot and were an assistant cook in a hot dog stand next to a cat and dog hospital. You delivered chickens in roasts in West Hollywood and varnished furniture in west Los Angeles. You induced people to throw darts and baseballs, you led people to believe you were truly trying to guess their weight or the state in which they were born. In addition to being someone who writes, you are given the occasional speaking fee for talking about writing, the benefits of teaching people things about what they have read and what they have written. In some ways, you are in dread of having the need to do one or more of these things again.
Most of the individuals you write about are some combination of these occupations. Perhaps they even share the dread you associate with them. You have been in and out of relationships, thinking at one time or other how good it was to be in or out of relationships. You were having coffee today with a woman with whom you once had a relationship and after ten minutes or so, she observed that you were still very much mischief, weren’t you? It has never been good to not be in a relationship with a dog or with writing.
You have been vexed by dogs and by writing, which is about the way things should be.
You are not vexed about being outside the sand box; you have found enough things and loose change of one sort or another outside the sand box to keep you preoccupied with artificial realities for long periods of time in which you have not had to come up for a particular sporting event or most movies or television. Thus you are odd, notional, irreverent. Apparently you are still mischievous. You have just been offered a job at the university and you are afraid you will take it.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
A dramatic scene may—and often does—reach vibrant intensity with only two characters on stage. The successful scene is not limited in that sense to only two characters; it may contain as many more characters as you can accommodate without sending your story into a downward spiral where all sense of tension, suspense, and interest are lost. The culprits in such situations are too many irrelevant details, the anxious author wanting to explain things, and characters being present without being given agenda or expectation.
In addition to the characters on stage in a successful scene, one, two, or many; there is another important presence you often overlook, particularly in early drafts. When you are reminded that you have forgotten about this presence, you with some frequency need another run through the dialogue amongst the characters, checking to see if there are ways to imply the presence of this important element.
The presence is power—make that Power, the advantage one character has over one or more characters in a scene. The power may be social, reflecting the status or achievement of the character in power. By the same calculus, the power may be generational, the older generation commanding and receiving deference from the younger generations. But this may be in reverse as in an older individual in the care of supervision of children or grandchildren.
Power maybe sexual. An individual who is sexually attracted to another may be already more manageable to the whims of the person who is aware of this power in the first place and who is willing to use it as a form of negotiation. In similar fashion, power may relate to intelligence, creativity, and/or artistic ability.
It should go without saying (but does not necessarily do so) that life and events in Reality tend to be more episodic and linear than scenic, which is cause for some of the power factor to be vitiated. In many cases, Reality circumstances do not need to be resolved or are mere opportunities for the participants to be polite or perhaps even more than polite, passive. Cultural and social conventions are then seen as signposts to be observed or allowed to momentarily lapse, with no suggestion of harm being done.
Dramatic situations—scenes—often involve an unthinkable exaggeration of pressures or impulses. The more this “unthinkable” pressure is applied, the more yet another presence is felt on stage, the presence of tension. Yet another presence can be seen hovering in the wings, waiting for its opportunity to appear. This presence is Curiosity, a first cousin of suspense in that the reader is at first curious to see what happens next, then steps over the boundary into desperate to know, addicted to know what happens and what the presence of yet another guest—Consequences—will be. All these presences are the guests of power. So far as the writer and many readers are concerned, they are welcomed guests. Who does not like to read a narrative wherein But it is wise to consider how many instances you see about you which speak to you of power, instances you are well advised to remember for use in your own fiction, such editorial and teaching circumstances that come your way.
At this stage of your investigation and ruminations here, you are willing to divide your power players into two groups, those who have the power in full awareness and appreciation of it, and those who have the power but are by no means aware of it or, consequently, thinking to use it as a weapon. This last could comeback to haunt you.
For now, it is enough to consider the effect power can have in a scene, rereading your own work and such work of others that comes readily to hand, for instance the opening scene of the new Denise Mina, The End of the Wasp Season, in which, Sarah, on page one, first paragraph, is confronted by a force that is at first an abstract power, the power of undifferentiated fear, which, by page ten, is specific and exquisite. “ ‘I’ve got money…,’ she said to no one. “ This is followed by: “ ‘ Money?’ said the angry boy quietly. ‘You think this is about money?’”
Saturday, October 15, 2011
When you were a kid, at about the age when you were aware of the nature of sexual attraction because you’d already begun to feel them, a popular sub-genre of B movie was set in the jungle. Never mind that the “jungle” was probably the back lot not twenty miles from where you lived. The jungle movie had as its mcguffin the safari or trip through the deepest, most dangerous part of the jungle. Most such films had at least one obligatory scene in which a tribal elder or a cynical white guide would cock his head, as if listening to something in the distance, at which point some film editor’s assistant would include two or three bars of drum music on the sound track. The preternaturally attractive, non-sweating, neatly dressed female love interest (why else would she be there, right?) would ask, “What’s that?”
Even then, you’d wanted the tribal elder of cynical guide to say, “The fuck’s the matter with you, you can't tell what drumbeats are?” But the screenwriters had him say instead, “Native drums. The natives are sending messages.”
If you’d had any sympathy for the love interest at all, it would be out the window when she’d invariably ask,” What are they saying?”
Of course your respect for the tribal elder or Stuart Granger type safari leader would vanish as well when he’d say, “The natives are restless.”
You can still recall the rest of the dialog. “They know we’re here and they resent our coming to bring our ways to the jungle.”
“You can tell all that from the drums.”
“Lady, the drums are their literature. Just because they can't read the classics doesn't mean anything out here.”
Even then you’d begun to connect literature with a culture, story as a means of keeping the people and special events in their lives preserved. Although the persistence of sexual attractions provided you with any number of distractions, symptoms, regrets, and fulfillment over the years, you were not distracted from literature for long.
One of its many souvenirs is the ongoing gift of surprise it offers you, making you lean toward the notion that literature has a sense of humor. This is closely followed by another notion, also humorous in its way: you are still, at this stage of development, incredibly naïve.
A startling example of your naïveté came when you succumbed to an inducement to subscribe to a literary journal, based on a well-written letter that arrived in your mail not too long ago, promising intriguing articles on a number of topics where you have unresolved curiosities.
The journal arrived with an article from an individual you believe to be among the five top book reviewers in America. He had a memorable piece on Stephen Crane, which you promptly tore out of the magazine and filed. Soon, you discovered the truth about the magazine. The truth is that you and it are on differing political vectors.
Thumbing through the second volume in your subscription, you find an interesting enough article on Lawrence Durrell to think of saving. But the editorial and much of the contents and arguments of essays do little to relieve your sentiment that you are not getting on in major ways. Nor does it help that some of the material you find disagreeable is well written.
Thus these words describing your sentiments about the humorous intent of literature and your own sense that you still remain naïve. Literature is a vital force; humorous literature is, you believe, even more vital and forceful in considerable measure because of the ways it portrays and copes with the foibles and pretensions of a particular culture. There are mischievous potentials for you being caught up in your own preoccupations and interests in literature to the point where your ignorance and naiveté are exposed. What lively circularity. Literature is, among other things, a series of records of voyages of discovery. Literature is also the revelation of hubris, ignorance, and naiveté.
The inner natives are already restless. You can hear it in their drum messages. They are talking about you.
Friday, October 14, 2011
Every time you set out to portray some facet of Reality and its denizens, you are performing one or more acts of translation. As it often turns out, you are engaged in translation without knowing the actual language and conventions of the individuals you bring forth, making your attempts even chancier.
From time to time, as you engage in your own translations, you recall the dramatization of Robert Graves’s novel, I, Claudius, set back in the time of the Roman Empire and its menu of emperors. You will not venture beyond your admiration for the performance of the English actor, Derek Jacobi, lest it distract from your reason for thinking of it in the first place: A group of elite guards, a platoon of Germans, probably mercenaries, were in service to one of the emperors. The German guards came forth speaking in a blatant cockney accent, which distinguished them from the other representations of military and, by their cockney accents, seemed absolutely in place and plausible as German language speakers.
This example is your shortcut around the need to describe in detail the way some evocation and some details—but by no means many evocations and many, many details perform the job of translating reality into a believable state the reader/audience willingly accepts as an authentic version of reality.
Each time you imagine two or more characters in a setting, then proceed to follow their agendas, you are in effect attempting to translate a reality that is an invention of your own making. It often seems unusual that you would not know what language they are speaking or what secrets they are hiding because, after all is said and done, you have invented them, brought them to this particular setting in the first place. How could you not know the depths of secrets and agendas they carry about with them?
Simple enough, old pal; even though you have brought them forth, you are limited in much the same way as you are with individuals you encounter in Reality. You may think you know; you may in fact know enough to satisfy your curiosity, but don’t you also choose friends for their ability to surprise you? You might even be surprised to discover they speak one or more languages in which you have no vocabulary.
Some years ago, you came across a two-word epigram in Italian. Tradutore, traitore. There it is. The translator as traitor. You do your best to get at the essence of authenticity, even in these notes to yourself. Even so, there is the fear and sense that something has been lost, a genie wanting out of the bottle, a better vocabulary with which to render the information that grips you, squeezes your arm, makes impatient gestures at you.
In so many ways, the problem is a simple one and thus, as with many simple things, the embodiment of complexity. Whether you knew it at earlier times or not, you were trying to portray emotions. Early in the game, you were willing to let adjectives and adverbs take care of those feelings. Not any more. And so you search for the right words, coupled with the right gestures, undershot with the right tone.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
At first, there seemed no thought to the process going on within you. The equivalent of auto-pilot drove you to learn the language going on all about you, sopping up the names of things as a way of keeping track of them and, eventually, of being able to talk about them. From this remove, you venture that such learning of the language was notably selfish; if you knew what a thing was, you could ask for it.
You have vivid memories of a condition where you were three or four, triangulated with great specificity to where you lived at the time. There was a large blue mailbox in front of what was then Miller’s Drug store, southwest corner of Sixth Street and Fairfax Avenue, mid-to-western Los Angeles. You had a relationship with the mail box in that your mother often allowed you the pleasure of inserting letters into it, from which you realized that the language could be written; you could in effect write a letter to someone, mail it, and be certain the letter would be delivered. Even though you did not yet know how to write, you filled a page with scribbles at which you worked with energetic flourish before folding it to what appeared letter size, then taking it to the mailbox.
Although you did not know the exact address of your intended recipient, you had faith in that blue mailbox. It would know where your mother’s cousin, Jean Friedman, lived. Somewhere in The Bronx, of course, but the mailbox would know.
After a period you consider a cultural haze, from which you emerged able to read and to write, you were embarked on a lifetime of reading, shunted into fiction by the accident of your school books—textbooks—being so insufferably tedious and boring. A major step was being told by your principal that you were trusted to take whatever book you wished from her office. The only price you had to pay was the principal’s assistant, a Miss Forthman, taking upon herself the task of securing your unruly hair with a bobby pin. Your pals, Jack, and Peter, and Stephen teased you. “You were in Miss Angelo’s office again.”
You referred to this period as a cultural haze because you pretty well maintained your pose of not thinking about what was happening to you in your education, you more or less assigned the same level of focus to the information given you and the skills you were asked to demonstrate. You did not begin to question or assign preferential rankings to things until you’d squirmed and wriggled through three more grammar schools—P.S. # 10, in a small town in New Jersey, John Howland Grammar School in Providence, Rhode Island, and Central Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach, thence to what you still consider the most miserable school appearance of your career, junior high school, variously endured in Miami Beach and Los Angeles.
You were nearly radicalized by the time you reached high school, but your experiences there certainly put you over the top, all of which is relevant to the emerging theme here that the effects of your reading and writing had undergone a rhythmic and tidal pattern in which you alternated between reading for yourself followed by trying to put the most agreeable spin on what you wrote, all the while reading things of incendiary impact.
By the time of your arrival in high school, you focused without hesitation on what you hoped were techniques that led to publication beyond your high school paper and one or two community newspapers such as The Pico Post, and the Hollywood Citizen-News.
At the same time, a good deal of your reading was selected with the notion that familiarity with it would automatically enhance your extended opportunities for publication. To be blunt about your approach, you were reading and writing in the quixotic belief that you would encounter the one book and write the one piece that would create an explosive epiphany of such magnitude that you would be a professional writer. As various men of the clergy held forth various wafers with the proclamation, “Behold, the body of Christ,” you expected in some phantasmagoria of transubstantiat-ion to become what you hoped to become.
By most of your accounts, you put in close to twenty-five years studying what you thought was the craft of writing for others, publishing things here and there, simultaneously reading things you hoped would give you more of the edge of self, your cynicism given the equivalent of steroids when one or two things you’d written for television brought you a modicum of income for a time. They’d been deliberately written against your own grain, leaving you with unresolved conflicts to resolve.
Which you did.
Over the years, the tide has come in and gone out, waxed and waned, ebbed and flowed.
Of course you wish to be read, understood, subjected to the convivial dialectic of different cultures and agendas.
To accomplish this, you are back as you were when you were an unthinking kid, scarcely formed, As you read for yourself and do your damndest to interpret Reality for yourself, you attempt to bear the full weight of it yourself. Tomorrow’s essay is likely to be about interpreters and interpretations. You write for yourself; you write to decode the mysteries of your selves, to interpret your intentions for yourself, refine and polish your definitions so that the next time the tide comes in, you will not be caught asleep.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Whenever you reach a stage within a short story or longer narrative in which an atmosphere of calmness and near objectivity enter the stage you understand at some point thereafter that you have been lulled into the entropy of story falling apart.
In similar fashion, when you reach the stage in teaching a particular group of aspirants where you are calm, matter-of-fact, given to observations about the conventions of twenty-first-century fiction, the signs of disaster are all around you. What surges of enthusiasm, argumentativeness, and reach can come from such calm, such poise?
If you do say so, you have become rather flamboyant when enthusiasm merges with argumentativeness, much like the device sealed into the container with the highly theoretical cat of the physicist, Irwin Schrödinger.
Quite often this enthusiasm cum argument erupts when you are discussing story points and story construction. You hear yourself setting forth when you start out: Here are, you begin, some things you might consider here, that would turn this narrative of events into a story.
You are, even in your vision of what is and what is not story, simultaneously trying to present complex information and reliving your own struggles wherein you cranked out yard after yard of narrative, thinking you were producing story, hopeful the irritation does not show, hopeful the emerging shift in aggressive behavior is seen as passion rather than mere defensiveness as in you defending some beautiful ideal of story whose time has lost its bite.
Earlier in the week, you had a similar sort of encounter with someone who’d thought to hire you to provide editorial guidance for a book that has a splendid potential which the author steadfastly refuses to address, wanting instead to dazzle you and subsequent literary agents and subsequent editors with how his work draws heavily on one book you’d edited and two others that were released a week or so ago by major publishers. When you spelled out the problem, which as you saw it was too much other sources, too much other arguments and citations, and precious little of this author, he countered with a device much employed by mid-tier writers: “I hear you,” he said. “But I’m confused,” he said. “Maybe,” he said, “you could explain why these sources would not be useful to my thesis.”
You tried to dance about the second truth, but he pretty well forced it out of you. “This is not a thesis committee,” you said. “This purports to be an original project, which you are either unable or unwilling to define.” At that point, you stood, because you knew what was coming next.
“How do I go about paying you?” he asked.
You started for the door, causing more than a few of the customers in the coffee shop to look up from their coffee. “You don’t,” you said, because he could not pay you enough to take on such work, although you could think of two or three in the area who would see him as ripe for the plucking.
“Five thousand,” he called, reaching for his checkbook. By this time, you were at the door. “Seventy-five hundred,” he called. As you shut the screen door behind you, you heard him call. “Ten,” he said. “I know we’ll work well together.”
When you got home, there was an email from him, telling you he’d learned a great deal already.
So had you.
You’d learned that your enthusiasms and visions often prevent you from engaging in activities that seem at first blush to be artistic and financial cornucopias.
Now, in large measure, you are saving the enthusiasms and arguments for the writer you feel most comfortable with. He may be a bit stubborn and slow, but when he says he will listen to you, he generally means it.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
You are for all practical purposes a fan of reality. Were it not for reality, you wouldn’t be on board the planet to be writing about this. For some considerable time, you believed that the mere recording of it would get you where you wanted to be in relationship to your writing. Of course at one time, you had thoughts of journalism—until you made a number of significant discoveries about inventing things.
As a result of your earlier belief, your studies focused on achieving a vocabulary of terms and phrases best suited to recording reality as it came out of the gigantic mills of humanity and of the evolving changes taking place in the planet we inhabit.
Why wasn’t this working? More to the point, why weren’t you noticing that it didn’t work?
“It,” you approach, wasn’t working because it had only one dimension. Flat things don’t work for you as well as textured things do, “It” wasn’t working because it was not interesting; in fact, it was boring. Boring to write, thus for a certainty, boring to read.
To your credit, the message was not long in reaching you; you had to filter reality through whichever characters you brought onto the page. You were responsible for giving reality a twist, an apparent agenda or purpose. It was up to you to give reality the thing it does not have—a personality. Thus equipped with knowledge you were lacking before, you were able to confront another of the great mysteries and conundrums reality placed before you, right after it hit you in the kishkes with puberty and the serious desire to record things—events, observations about reality—on some form of page.
The discovered mystery and the attempts to solve it had to do with the spread between the point A of reality and the point B of creativity. How many times did you have to teach courses called “Creative Writing” before your students were able to demonstrate to you how that vibrant gap between reality and creativity work? Appearances. Ambiguity. Subtext. You may never discern the number of course you had to teach before it became clear to you that you cannot describe reality with any expectation of a satisfactory result. It is all in the evocation. So the cat has fled the bag. Reality may be intimated, inferred, suggested, even implied. This is why it caused Flaubert such pains. He saw the need to suggest the reality he was trying to portray. All these approaches give reality the élan vital it lacks in—tee hee—reality. The moment you describe reality, it falls flat on its asterisk.
Ways to infer, intimate, and suggest reality include the deft use of detail as a sign post, or a particular character inveighing against some facet of reality in a manner that reveals some secret about her (there is subtext again), or an indication of some great cosmic anomaly. All of us who purport to write are in fact storehouses of these items. They appear to us as secrets in our dreams, as misspelled words in the love letters we write; they are in their way cosmic spoonerisms, great, humorous anomalies we know actually exist but which we have been culturally led to shun as great moments of shame that must be concealed.
As writers, we pick the details that expose the concealment. When they are funny, which is to say when they reveal our intense secrecy, we laugh at them. When they are sad, we try not to cry because crying is often seen either as a weakness or as a stratagem to call attention away from the truth.
What truth? What is the truth?
That is what we write to discover, each in his or her own vision.
Monday, October 10, 2011
The moment a noun—person, place, or thing---captures your attention, you are kidnapped into an alternate universe where that particular noun holds you hostage while it sends out ransom notes.
You were not always so susceptible to the smaller details, favoring what your culture spoke of in high faluting éclat as Thee Big Picture, a universe of facts, sound-bite explanations for those facts, and in one way or several others, implicit faith in the cultural cannon.
At the time, you were of a particular age where your cultural sisters and brothers appeared to you to be on the equivalent of a tenure track to a happiness of undifferentiated and specific goals. For them relationships, intellectual and artistic adventures beckoned encouragement. Included in the momentum of fulfillment were the promises of potential in matters of the individual essence, the Self, with whom the aspirant could forge a lifelong companionship. All one had to do was believe in the cultural equivalent of transubstantiation, take a number from the ticket dispenser, then wait until your number was called.
After some extended displays of patience on your part, you realized your number was not going to be called. This marked the beginning of your real education, your first dip of your oars into the waters of the autodidact.
The graduate school with the best offer, given your credentials at the time, was a series of jobs with a traveling carnival, where you were exposed to the nuances and machinery of illusion and explication. “Of course those milk bottles are lead. Of course they have weights in the bottom. Two pounds each. You mean to tell me someone with your arm couldn’t throw a baseball hard enough to knock over a two-pound bottle.”
Such courses led you for a semester or two to the absolute bottom run of television experiences. Here, you learned among other things how to cue a laugh track, that lovely device that seduces you into thinking something notoriously unfunny is in fact hilarious, while at the same time not thinking anything overly sentimental or treacly sincere were not funny, even though you had difficulty not laughing.
With no difficulty at all, including no need for copies of your undergraduate transcripts, you enrolled in a graduate program with a series of pulp fiction publishers, riding the keys of a red Olivetti portable typewriter to a mock heroic replication of the works of Victorian Era novelists who earned their keep writing for the magazines and journals who published their stories in installment form before they became books. One of your contemporary role models, a poker buddy, Gunard Hjersteadt who took the name Day Keene, and wrote as much of everything as it was possible to write. He wrote at least a novel a month.
Hell, you could do that, you reasoned.
Well told. Doing so became on-the-job training.
While everyone was looking for the Big Theme, you looked for the volunteer flower or tree that got its start in a crack in the sidewalk, in the look of absolute mystery in a baby’s face as it watched the clamber of kittens or the swift flash of shadow from a branch borne into motion by the wind, the sudden anomaly of tenderness stealing into a redneck’s face as he helped his arthritic wife into a chair at a coffee shop.
You are crazy mad for the pull of the small, the things that seem insignificant at first blush, but on further study they reveal—even betray—tenacity you recognize as family.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Life is no more complicated now than it was, say, thirty thousand years ago, when decisions of all sorts were required of the Cro-Magnon peoples. It may seem more complicated now, but is our nature to think the immediate now is hot. The distant past resonates nostalgia. Yeah, right. There are more of us, which adds to the appearance of greater complexity, but imagine a Cro-Magnon or, slightly earlier, a Neanderthal, being asked to describe his platform or come up with a vision statement. Archaeologists and anthropologists are not of the same mind about whether these elders had speech capacity, and their only visual relics are stunning renditions of handprints (all in red) and animals, seemingly erupting from the rock walls on which they were painted. No written graffiti, no early versions of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
In recent months, various publicists have asked of you such things as your brand, your vision statement, and your mission statement. Prior to that, you were with some regularity asked for proposals, curricula vitae, syllabi, and exegetes, not to mention methodologies, business plans, and resumes. Only this morning, someone asked you how many books you had written and you in seeming reflex countered by asking her how many pots she had thrown. To credit, she responded, “Fair question.”
There was arguably a less dense population during the time of Walt Whitman, which may have accounted for the fact of his having been asked for none of these badges of entry or, indeed, anything resembling a grant proposal. He, himself, had merely to follow his chosen path of evolution from birth to self-actualization to self- determination to poetry, thence to what your great blog pal, Mary Carroll-Hackett cited as “walking west into spirit.” For your time, there are computers with enormous storage capacity, bristling with hunger for your existential appendages.
Not many days ago, you were approached to teach at a particular college within the ever metastasizing University of California, where, you are willing to bet, there will be those who want one or more of these documents from you.
Understand this; you are not setting yourself on the same tier as Whitman. Until you typed that sentence, the idea was as remote from you as one of the moons of Saturn. While you are up and thinking about such things, obeying the cultural nudge to promote yourself in addition to having gone through the crucible of beginning to forge and kiln yourself, you offer up this vision statement:
You are naturally friendly, because you are the spawn of Jake and Annie, and you were aware of the individuals they attracted into their lives and the exquisite measures of friendship they provided to you, your sister, and their close friends and relatives. You are your father’s son in terms of having been given your mantra from him, which needs no translation, even though mantras are traditionally imparted in Sanskrit. The mantra Jake passed along to you is, “Hey, Annie, when do we eat?”
Your friendliness does not preclude a serious level of impatience, which has been honed and stropped over the years you have spent in university-level teaching and in publishing. It is not so much that you would never ever buy the metaphoric equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge or underwater real estate in Florida as it is that such a prospectus would have to start in the right place, have an intriguing premise, and not come with either a weather report or long introductory self-congratulations from the presenter.
At one point you heard your literary agent describe you as a man who does not suffer fools and your immediate thought was, “Well said.” This was followed by how much trouble such trait had got you in over the years because of the judgmental side of your nature it implied, a fact that extends to your curriculum vitae and, when the same material is used outside the university landscape, your resume.
Your vision is that Life is a shotgun wedding of Theater of the Absurd and Noir mystery. Pain of some sort is always right around the corner, regardless of whether you follow through on what you had planned or, at the last moment, veer off because of your realization that it was a crazy-assed scheme, only to realize later that for you the crazier-assed the scheme, the greater the likelihood of it meriting your attention.
Just this morning, you asked a woman you are growing fond of whether she swears to or at herself in her internal monologue and she looked at you as though you had just asked a crazy-assed question. You have that effect on some individuals. Thus the distinct possibility that there will be no pictures at eleven or any other time.