Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stick to the script

Although Reality is filled with dramatic events, it comes packaged as though it were Hostess Twinkies.  And we know what those are—uniform, artificial, the consistency of artificial whipped cream.  No surprises there.  In fact, Reality often comes designed as the rooms in a Holliday Inn, all layouts and furniture the same, making it safe to get up in the dark for a trip to the loo in any Holiday Inn in America without fear of barking your shins.  Neither unpleasant surprises nor any pleasant ones.

 So we turn to a scripted version of Reality, one we call story.  Here, we can rearrange events, remove the impersonal elements from events, causing them to collide with characters who are more like us than we realize, even though they may be of other cultures, other times, remote—even imaginary—places.

You might chose to argue that Reality has no need of enhancement, that there are enough tyrants, oppressors, bureaucrats, and self-righteous politicians to give as good as any character in any story.  You could go so far as to argue that there are no surprises when events in Reality take a downward turn because, after all, aren’t we warned by whatever culture of which we are a dues paying member to expect reversals and to prepare for them in advance?

True enough; we are filled with the cultural equivalent of Christmas carols, all year, twenty-four/seven.  These messages, standards, values, if you will, are broadcast as the conventional wisdom.

For a portion of your life, you had little quarrel with conventional wisdom, but somewhere—probably 7850 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, California, which was and still is the locus of Fairfax High School—you began to question it and the apparent wisdom it was purported to have.  In a broader sense, you are still trying to figure that out, which is one reason story has been such an intellectual trampoline for you.

Much conventional wisdom you see funneled into the culture reminds you of the geese who become the hosts for the foie gras made from their liver; it is often nothing short of obvious propaganda, orchestrated and broadcast to protect the status quo, which is to say it intends the hearer to shut up with the questions.

Your interest in the so-called hardboiled school of detective fiction was an adjunct to this line of thinking even though you did not make the connection until Andre Gide did it for you with his comments about the mystery fiction of Dashiell Hammett.

From about that time, you began to see fiction as a metaphor, the specifics coming into place more and more, but not fast enough for your satisfaction.  Erich Maria Remarque, the German novelist, whose works enthralled you, helped scoot your attentions to the right direction.  “Writing of the deaths of so many millions of Jews became impossible, so I concentrated on writing about single deaths.”

And somewhere along the way, you came across the expression “The miracle of the ordinary,” which had you focus on the small details that caught your attention, requiring years until you refined it to suit your own process.  Now, when you speak of relevant detail, to authors, to students, and to yourself as a writer, you know what you mean—any detail that causes some alarm system tingle within you or some twitch of curiosity or some tickle of sexual awareness or some musical feeling of a resolved chord.  The other details are winnowed in the editing, nice details, and in some cases, you hate to see them go, but if they do not resonate now, how will they resonate when you come back to look at them later.

Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no effect on society.  Thus spoke your ultimate go-to writer, Mr. Clemens, who himself knew a good detail when he saw it, in spite of the considerable internal and external battles he fought.

Naked people are at their most vulnerable, particularly if they are not comfortable with themselves, even when clothed.  It would be child’s play to make fun of them for their vulnerability, but although you admire children’s literature and read it, you have neither wish nor reason to write it, nor would you be likely to unless you encountered something as special and intriguing as The Phantom Tollbooth.

The details of what a person wears, the details of a room, the personality of a piece of music, the effect of light on a landscape, a dog or cat hair on a sofa, these are fingerprints on the soul of a story.  They are not to be flourished, merely to be used as acupuncture points on the body of the story.

The script lays it all out in an order and lighting display Reality cannot match.  When you are surprised by a story, you are sent as from a linear accelerator down the long hallway of your imagination to collide with other dramatic elements, all traveling at the speed of light, the collision forming another element of the colliding particles.  Reality says, Okay, you’ve done pretty well, or perhaps, Okay, you really screwed up this time, but what did you expect?  You weren’t following the conventional wisdom.

Story tells you, You have just added another tool to your emotional tool kit.  Story reminds you not to listen too closely to anyone or anything that tells you to Take it easy, kiddo.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Story says it fucking was.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Friends and Characters

You’ve had sufficient reasons to spend time these past few days looking at your short stories, the most dramatic one of all the prospect of a collection of them appearing in January or February of 2013 after ten or twelve of them will have been presented on your publisher’s website on a one-per-month basis.

Sorting through them, looking for themes, intentions, and related approaches to characters and conflict, you notice a tendency to use the names and qualities of certain of your friends, which is a habit you picked up to a slight degree while still in the university, but with increasing deliberation after you began the process of being paid to learn, which is to say writing at least a novel a month for a number of years, turning to your first love, the short story, if there was any time left in a given month.

There were such times, amazing as it seems now, because those years of twelve novels a year, while they may have done you some good, set up seemingly impenetrable barriers for fiction for the next four or five years, thus you solution to write a nonfiction work every month, to the point where you couldn’t do that, either.

The happy solution was that you needed to write or you would tend to become crabby, irritable, unsatisfied, haunting used bookstores and new ones, looking for the one book, old or new, that would transform your frustration, make everything clear to you, provide not only subject matter but voice.

Didn’t work.

For such a book to exist, you have to write it.  The rest of the knowledge attached to that information is not encouraging:  such a book can only exist for one time, then you have to find another or write another because you will have changed.  The message is the same with stories, too.  Even if you are wanting a bit of mischief and using real names or close approximations of real names.  A longtime associate of yours, for instance, is the science fiction writer, Charles E. Fritch, whom you happened on when a group of your friends were working in the aerospace industry as technical writers, Jerry Williams before he veered off to attend law school, Len Pruyn whose writing began to connect for a time, and Michael Hurley, the disturbed musician who left L.A. for San Francisco, where he began writing books for a series you edited, while drinking his way through sales jobs in San Francisco.  Thinking about Charles E. Fritch’s name, you invented a character, Chick Fitch, whom you brought out from time to time when you were bored.  Pruyn is Dutch for brown, thus Lennie Brown.  Jerry’s middle name was John, and so Jerry Johns.

A young lady you were enamored of at the time was reading a book co-written by Len Pruyn and Day Keene, in which a character named Lowenkopf appeared, causing her to laugh to the discovery by the professor, who brooked no reading of fiction in his classes.
Mischief is fun.  There is a rather malicious character named Shelly in your favorite Ray Bradbury story, “The Parrot Who Loved Papa,” the papa being Hemingway, the malicious Shelly understandable because your personal relationship with Bradbury was, until most recent years, a cantankerous one that had its origins when you were his substitute mail deliverer during Christmas vacations.

Inventing characters is as difficult as forming a good friendship, although there are differing goals and parameters.  You need to be more forgiving of a friend; characters must be in constant need to earn their keep in a story.  Sometimes you have to kill them off or transform them in ways you had not expected.  Different laws and reasons obtain.

Both will and do surprise you, which is why it is easy to feel devoted to them.  With enough surprise, you will not be allowed to rewrite a book you had already written nor retell a story you’d already discovered your way out of.  You have discovered in two stories the relevant fact of a character named Unkefer having lived in a 1963 AMC Pacer, a vehicle the actual Unkefer owned but did not, so far as you know, live in.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Keepable Page

Having your tummy filled with a memorable meal, eaten in the company of one or more dear companions will produce a response of comfort and satisfaction you have come to treasure.  Such moments are not come by with ease, and when they do present themselves as opportunities, you are quick on the uptake.

There are three or four other such memorable times, one in particular where you draw the line at the number of participants to one other, the individual you think of as significant other.  There are moments when you more or less must be alone or in that state of focus where, even if there are others about, you are only aware of them as background ambience you are in fact trying to hold off.  The most significant of these times is when you are composing.

For some considerable time, you’d thought your future lay in the folds of some form of newspaper, a daily, a weekly, and a special interest journal.  All of these required your ability to compose right now in a large room filled with the clatter of typewriters, howling editors—in those days, editors were given to howls, motivated in large measure by impatience, rebarbative individuals whose cynicism and world-weary bearing had taken up residence in their jowls and the doughy lumps under their eyes.  The smell of printer’s ink and the constant pulse of a newsroom were sounds you expected to take with you wherever you went.  We know how that turned out.

You could well experience the sensational experience of music by yourself, although you have been privileged to know others with whom it can be shared almost on a note-for-note basis, the way you used to share baseball games with your father, each movement a nuance of note.

All these joys, whether shared or experienced alone, have in common a short duration; they sometimes last longer in memory than actuality.  A meal, a performance, an act of lovemaking, getting one page to do what you’d hoped—these may happen—they have happened—but they do not last for long and you attempt to pass this information along to your characters, as though they were some adjunct of the children you never had.  You wish to get them used to the fact that there are more frustrations and howling newspaper editors than there are keepable pages.

One old pal from the past, Dennis Lynds, liked to remind you that a keepable page a day was a novel a year.  Another old chum, Day Keene, was too busy writing to think in terms of keepable pages.  His interest was producing keepable books.

You still return to a moment in your memory, from the time of clattering typewriters and howling editors, when, thinking to open the door of possible revelation, you ventured not so much a question as an opinion to a thirty-six-year-old ballerina, the morning after she’d performed the lead in Swan Lake.  It was a scant seven-thirty, the morning after.  She’d agreed to meet you in the rehearsal studio, where, standing at the barre, she’s already worked up a respectable sweat.  “You must really love the dance to be so focused on practice,” you said, already thinking how knowledgeable you were, how much you, too, understood of such things.

“Sonny,” she said, dropping into an extended bend of a squat, “I’m here doing this because if I don’t, I won’t be able to walk.”

You were not yet thirty-six then.  You had no real idea what it was like to do the lead in Swan Lake at thirty-six.  You were able to write copy in drafty rooms with clattering Royal standard typewriters and men who wore green eye shades, who wore both belt and suspenders. With the years, and your memory of that moment, you have learned a number of things, some of them with direct relationship to the facts about why you were not long for those newsrooms, those buildings where the press was actually in the basement.

With all the splatter and removal of boundaries brought about by anyone who wishes, being able to publish work on some electronic forum, you still feel the privilege of being able to set forth pages each day, hopeful one of them at least will be keepable.

For a project to be available toward the end of 2012, you are reviewing some stories from the past, some of them going back in time of having been published ten or so years ago, and you feel the privilege that an occasional scene or paragraph still brings forth the feelings you bent and squatted, and exercised to be able to write.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” is memorable because it has stuck with you for at least forty years.  Predicated on the need for a nameless character who has to provide life-saving warmth for himself against the arctic chill, London’s character has some—but not many—matches and access to burnable spruce tree limbs.

“Day had broken cold and gray,” London writes.  In fact, “exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high, earth-bank, where a dim and little traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.”

In a stark recasting of the story circumstances, you have been recruited to light a fire.  Your fire is more metaphorical than that of London’s character; it is to be lit in the northernmost reaches of Santa Barbara rather than the Yukon, where the atmosphere may tend more toward boredom, sloth, and procrastination rather than life threatening Arctic chill.

You are now charged with great specificity to build a metaphoric fire under a group of students and faculty.  Instead of matches, your tools will be books, stories, essays, possibly even “The Wire,” one of the more resonant television dramas of recent memory.

This mission statement came together last night, after you’d all but dismissed the notion of taking on yet another creative writing course at yet another venue.

In your entire span of career at these venues, you have had energizing association with two deans, one in particular who’d been at MIT to study linguistics with Benjamin Whorf, and whom you admired because of his willingness to discuss with you The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that thoughts and behavior are determined to some considerable degree by language.  This discussion provoked the enormous outrage of your department chair (as in, “How the fuck could you stand there talking linguistics with him at a reception that was funded and held in the first place to focus on the needs of our department?”).

The other dean was the remarkable Susan Kamei, who always had time for a chat with you about anything, listened to your suggestions for classes, had a biscuit at the ready for Sally, and caused Sally to be Department Mascot on the Department’s Webpage of the university site.

Now you appear to have another shot at inflaming the imaginations of students, articulating similarities and differences among brother and sister faculty and, far from least of all, raising the bar over which you hope to pass.  This from a Dean with whom you can discuss and argue as colleagues, a man who frames his wife’s paintings, a man who is dedicated to his vision of the college he oversees.

This may sound as though you were backing off from your goal of completing writing projects, but as you drove home last night after a splendid meal and conversation, you were greeted with the arrival of an email from your editor/publisher informing you of her plan to reprint The Fiction Lovers’ Companion in January or February of 2012, schedule your proposal for The Dramatic Genome:  The DNA of Story, in January of 2013 (which means for all practical purposes you have until late August or early September to finish, and to simultaneously publish a collection of short stories.  So no, you will not be backing off into teaching, even though your agreement as visiting prof will be three classes a year for three years.

You are still a bit edgy about UCSB, thanks to comments by friends of yours who teach there about the general attitude of students.  But you are being brought in for your fiery potential.  It is nothing less than what you hope to embed in your writing, so why not the teaching as well?

Saturday, November 26, 2011


In a tangible sense, the only tools you have for constructing any sort of narrative is your vision—the way you see humanity and the cosmos—and your voice—the tone with which you infuse the narrative.  Voice also influences your choice of subjects and/or the characters you use to dramatize the vision.

You could tack on a few subsets of tools or resources, such as your life experiences, which in some ways or others influence your voice.  And what about the things you have not experienced in actuality but fantasized them, perhaps even to the extent where you now believe they are products of reality rather than products of your imaginative longings?  Don’t these count as tools?

Sure they do, but unless you have articulated to yourself your visions and your method for setting them forth, these other elements still have their patina of freshness about them, rendering them as potentials, as thought-about things rather than used things.

For as long as there was written language with which to make commentary, and well before those times, when narratives were expounded in courtyards and public squares, the world has been moving away from us.

There has always been the sense of the old order, the old traditional order, and its undercutting by the peasantry, the working classes, making a mockery of things by not appreciating much less understanding the rituals, neither appreciating the poet’s art nor the ceramicist’s, much less the dramatist’s.

When one of “us” stepped forth to deliver, as, say, Robert Burns did, such wisdom as “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy,” “we” knew one of our people understood the calculus of life and made it available for us.

When one of “our guys” such as the multiple felon, Huddie Ledbetter, made his guitar come to life with songs of our inner woes and fears, we more or less forgot his criminal past because we’d once again heard a man or woman singing our song.  Although she’d come from a privileged background, she was nevertheless only one of ten surviving siblings, not the halest nor hearty of youngsters.  And since she’d already had a vision or two, what better way to make points than to “give” her to the church.  By the time she began composing liturgical music, she was one of “us,” sharing her visions with us, her resources resonant in her vision and her voice.

Times change.  The earth moves inexorably away from what it was to what it wants to become which, in many cases—the pyramids, the Colossus of Rhodes, The Ronald Regan Presidential Library—is a monument to self, and pass on some crumbs to “us.”

Esterhazy, wanting to outdo all the other empires of his day, hires Joe Haydn as his court musician so that all his peers will know he had the vision to select someone who would live beyond his own stature and, to “our” benefit, turn the potential for Western music on its ass.

Dystopia reflects the ongoing sense of the world, of reality, gathering escape velocity.  At least one artist or writer per era gets it down, memorializes it, beings it into the language.

Such was the agitprop of your time that, not long after December 7, 1941, you had found yourself swept up in the certainty that you would never forget Pearl Harbor.  You cannot think to count all the events of which you’re aware since then of the things you are supposed never to forget.  Even with such remarkable tools available to you as your iPhone model 4S, you have not been able to remember toothpaste or liquid laundry soap your last two times to the market.

The world, your world, your reality, is getting away from you.  You can think of a number of reasons why to the point where you do not wish to remember any more.

At the time Conrad’s great pal, Herb Caen wrote of the incident with the Japanese tourists, you were outraged by the potential racism.  Two Japanese tourists to San Francisco recognized Caen, approached him to ask if he could direct them to Coit Tower in North Beach.  “You didn’t have any trouble finding Pearl Harbor.”

Perhaps your vision now requires you to remember things you’d managed to forget, and your voice is ready to cooperate.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

Truth is batty

The other day, when you were setting forth on an essay for this blog site, you broke one of your and its primary rules.  You stopped to think.  You did this rather than moving along the paths your whim guided you, opening your proposed flight of fancy to a rather rude remark from your internal editor.

Interior editors are never known for their tact and if you have had any past progress in shutting them down, they will speak up with a particular determination for survival.  They mean to be heard.  They want to be heard.  If they are not heard, they will not be heeded and how can they continue to serve their appointed position as interior editor if you pay them no heed, rather continue working despite their stratagems?

And what was this thought you stopped to think, this fatal trope that woke the sleeping interior editor from its drowse and into its curmudgeonly self?  You’d written “truth to tell,” a standard trope meant to signify the absolute veracity of the forthcoming confession.

“Whoa there, just a moment,” your internal editor bellowed, loud enough to catch your attention.  “Isn’t everything you write the truth?  And what is truth, anyway?”

Just like that, it got you.

Yes, of course you tell the truth.  Mostly.  And truth is the accurate depiction of events and facts as you recall experiencing them or as you have seen them.  Mostly.

You have a number of friends who are accomplished actors, their studies focusing on offshoots of the Stanislavski method as interpreted by the likes of Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, and Jeff Corey.  Your great friend, Virginia Gilmore, herself a product of The Actor’s Studio, frequently spoke of the truth of a character’s persona, the authenticity of that being as she or he engaged the plot contrived by the author.

Truth is one of the words you put on your do-not-use list along with such others as “very,” “just,” “suddenly,” “almost,” “somewhat,” and other words that sound as though they mean something of exquisite exactitude but which, on closer investigation, turn out to mean no such exactness but rather a gray vagueness.  Truth is your version according to your memory and conscience, but it is equally someone else’s vision of what happened and what is.  Your truth, when watching two individuals discussing something in French is that they are having an argument.  Their truth is that they are discussing where to go for lunch.

“We need,” some character in a drama says, “to get at the truth here.”

We most certainly do.  Most effective drama is predicated on the eventual revelation of what really happened, what was felt, and how the events and feelings cohere, and—most importantly—by whom.

Truth is your version, set up against someone else’s version.  Truth is the dramatic effort expended in making several geometric figures congruent, or arguing that different geometric figures are in fact the same.

Truth is often sent to dine at the children’s table, while the adults, experienced from years of nuance, are left without need to answer the pestiferous questions of the young and literal.

Geometry provides a comfortable way of dealing with parallel lines, offering that they meet in infinity, but for the present are kept apart by a set of ninety-degree angles.  Perhaps drama can provide a comfortable way for dealing with truth, in particular those truths adjudged absolute.  How about, truth is validated only when two or more characters agree on a scenario of events and consequences?

Right, you believe that and I have some nuclear reactors in Japan I’d like you to look at.

To your internal editor’s dismay, your current take on truth is that it is the one constant guaranteed to keep story going, each character firm in the belief of the truth she or he senses.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011


You have had a boarder for as long as you can recall, certainly since the times you took up writing as your go-to point of interest.  You’re not sure when the boarder moved in or, indeed where the boarder passes the days and nights.  Much less are you sure what gender to assign to your boarder, thus the pronoun varies when you take the time to consider a profile, something amusing you might jot down in your notes for possible expansion into a story, or on occasion part of a resolution to serve the boarder with an eviction notice.

Your boarder is an anarchist.  If not a bomb-throwing anarchist, certainly a snit-throwing one, capable of tantrums, going out on strike, taking up the devil’s advocacy at the least convenient times for you, seeming to want more than anything else that you change your writing style and voice from amused witness to pissed-off provocateur.  You are a frequent witness, which is a good thing and you are often amused, which is another good thing, but to say you are an amused witness is not accurate.  Some of the writers you admired as a younger person were amused witnesses, Robert Benchley, say.  But you neither have his suave aplomb or his pencil-thin moustache.

A major step you have noticed in those among your students who have listened to you and gone on to some significant beyond-writing-student plateau.  This step represents forming a coalition if not alliance with the inner anarchist, a shift from politeness, restraint, and control into the worlds of schadenfreude, revenge, and telling the truth, this last surely a euphemism for telling some one or some thing to get stuffed.  This, you note, is precisely what an inner anarchist should do

You have, time and again, noticed beginning writers stepping up to the metaphoric plate, waving the bat of irritation or exasperation, then proceeding to hit the next story out of the park, find an immediate home for it, then wonder what the hell happened as they try to replicate the story rather than express in some new way the emotion they have discovered. The better actors are said to have “found” a character, by which the intention is that the actor has transcended the limits of self to inhabit the character.  An artist is said to have found a period or momentary subject of vital focus.  Writers discover their voices, their discoveries being anything but the nice, polite young person they were raised to be, mannered and polite to a fault.

Politeness works, it really does, in social situations, but the writing situation is something other, entirely beyond the constraints of civility.  Of course you appreciate your coffee strong, your music bluesy, your narratives noir, but around these armatures you attempt to wrap strands of civilization and culture as you see them, a fact you were a long time recognizing and a technique you were even longer in learning.  Many of your characters are pissed without knowing it.  Others are well aware of being pissed and mortified that it will emerge in their behavior during unguarded moments.

You were thinking it would be nice if you could send the occasional sandwich to your anarchist or perhaps some clean linen on occasion, scoop up some of the dust bunnies; you want it to feel at home.  You particularly do not want it to consult Craig’s List or some other information network, looking for a new place to hang out; you want it unhappy, right where it is.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cause and Effect

If the events in Life begin to seem as though they were part of some story set in motion, our first response is to suspect some extra normal editorial agency is stacking the cards.  “Extra normal editorial agency” is code for an entire range of sources:  God, astrology, Fate, karma, no name a scant few.

Although Life is not simple, nevertheless it is simplistic; somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, lurching forward with the resident dignity imparted it by Boris Karloff, the actor who portrayed it.  Life is a patchwork of event, incessant, endless event, bringing to mind the eternal activity of Sisyphus, a man who came to grief as a result of his hubris-related activities.   You don’t mess with a god such as Zeus without at least a pair of aces in the hole.  Much of a piece with some of the neo-conservatives running about today’s political landscape, waving their arms to call attention to themselves and their woefully inarticulate catechisms, Sisyphus was not happy with the status quo—his status quo.  The gods were, he reasoned, having too much fun.  Being a mortal sucked; he wanted to join their ranks.

Events in life happen whether there are consequences resulting from them or not.  The absence of anyone being in the neighborhood to hear a falling tree does not preclude the next tree falling on deaf ears, no matter what you call the situation.  Trees and their counterparts fall all the time because they have become a part of an event.

We as a race and you as an individual have taken steps to secure survival, tradition, and values, but none of these events insures there will always be open conversation about a matter or, indeed, that any form of open discussion on all matters will be considered a good thing by individuals who have the power to make and sustain such judgments as well as those equivalents of the wonderful contemporary equivalent of “Occupiers,” men and women who chose to participate in a dialogue.

Open discussion is a lovely abstract, as ethereal and ghostly in its transient beauty as a dramatic sunset.

Life is the same sort of abstraction; individuals are born, they progress, they witness and perform rituals, they pass over the bar, not all of them as sure as Tennyson that they will meet their maker face-to-face when they make such a crossing.  Everything happens in life, is repeated to such a degree that many of us do not experience the full reign of possibilities much less the nuances. Sometimes, listening to acquaintances engaged in banter, so few things happen that you hope some aspects of story comes their way, even for a short time.

Small wonder how many of the better writers are so artistically and personally involved with control, as though the exercise of it is a lasting and tangible matter; it is no such thing; Life simply is, and because it proceeds in so multifarious a texture, we are happy to give it attributes that speak of invisible forces and as well to see in it patterns that speak of the who-places, the what-places, the where-places, the why-places.  

Story is an attempt to control life to the extent of giving it a sense of precedent.  Story is deterministic where life is random.  You might say story is an analog of law, trying to build precedent into discussions about Life, its focus and direction.  Critical theory is an attempt to codify the causes and effects, placing them in some perspective, where there is neither too much elitism nor mind numbing accommodation.

Artists must take their chances along with the rest of us; they must work their way to the edges of convention and civility in order to observe both, then, like the Mars probe, report back with samples and impressions.  While artists are taking their chances, we must sample their reports, risking the discomfort and occasional pain of their visions lest we become so assimilated and acculturated that we can no longer be sure if our vision is the group vision or the voice of individuality.  As much risk as there is in artistry, there is greater risk in the place where politeness surrenders to conformity.

You are gnawing at bones of decision as they relate to what your mentor, Rachel, called in a short story, “The Next, the New, the Promised.”  The newness of all the things you have neither thought, written, or experienced crowd about you like alumni at a reunion.  The visions are distracting, fireflies of wonderment.  The promised is the covenant you make with a new project, like a puppy brought home from the animal shelter.  You offer this new project a home and somehow it snuggles against you and now as you bring it to your work area, you wonder what kind of home you will be able to provide for it, wonder did it do the right thing by agreeing to come with you.

Of course you are simultaneously using the pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphizing, imparting a human-like shape to the new project.  It has taken a risk, you are taking a risk.  The two of you, in the existential night of work, are trying to effect some sort of relationship you can live with in some kind of creative harmony.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


At about the mid point in your career at The University of Southern California, you were frequently assigned to teach special seminars, where the focus was on at most two elements related to dramatic narrative, say plot and character, or structure and pacing.  Sometimes, depending on the whim of the Chairperson, the seminar was Aristotelian Structure, or The scene as dramatic unit.  Such seminars met for two-and-a-half hours, once a week.  The registration was limited:  never more than eight, sometimes as few as five.  In the semester you have in mind, the enrollment was three, which was enhanced by the fact that all three had been in at least one other of your classes.

Classroom hours were from 7:00 p.m. until 9:40.  Considering that all three students had some form of daytime employment, traces of train wreck often began at about 8:00, by which point such hamburger, hot dog, or similar fast food began the digestive process, combining with the effects of a day’s work.  All three showed early traces of nodding.  At one point, as you neared the strategic point in your discussion of suspense, all three were in danger of whip-lash to the point where you suggested we call it quits for the night, with no harm done.  To a person they held forth their ardent belief in sleep-learning.  And so you continued until nine.

Some years later, you were at a book signing where there was one person in the audience who, it developed, thought you were another author entirely, staying only because he was embarrassed.

At yet another lecture/book signing, the audience was not what you would call extensive, but when Q and A came about, three of that group discovered to their chagrin that they’d come to the wrong room and, thus, had listened to the wrong presentation.

Such memories came fluttering to you like lost pigeons this evening when you sat in a landscape with room for a hundred twenty-five seated and another fifty standing along the aisles or rear.  By your account, this evening there were four individuals beside yourself, all of you present to experience a ritual being performed.  No matter really that the ritual was of a religious or spiritual nature or, indeed, that you are not what you consider a pious individual.  As you watched the ritual—evensong—being performed, it came to you once again that the number of persons experiencing the ritual is of little or no significance except perhaps to those who set regular store by vesper services or for that matter by any ritual at all.  It had a collective effect on the individual performing the major portion of the ritual, being of a piece with the repetitions that go into making anything muscle memory.

Ritual, whether it is spiritual or artistic, is an offering of a self at a particular time.  If repeated, it will cause associations, voyages of the mind and of the muscular-skeletal system; it is one way to approach building technique, exercising talent, ingesting a belief, or reaffirming membership in a particular discipline.

Ritual requires repetition by someone.  It does not require an audience although the presence of an audience while the ritual is being performed has what a former President of the United States once referred to as a trickle-down effect.  He did not intend his observation in the context you are using, but it does obtain.

The act of writing has become a ritual for you.  Although you often have some associative response to the ritual of attending this particular vespers service or its duplication in various other locales, you get more stimulation from writing.  You do write with the notion, goal, intent of being published, thus read and discussed.  It is a fond notion; the positive responses to your work far outweigh the negative.  There is some satisfaction in this calculus, but it is also clear to you how there is no sense of rankle or bitterness at the thought of not being read.  Better to put it this way; you would not stop performing the ritual now if there were no audience because it has become a part of a larger calculus that, non-religious and non-pietistic sort that you are, bears similarities to religion and piety.  Religion requests and often is given belief.  Writing asks of you that you believe enough in what you are doing to insure the literary equivalent of an afterlife, which is to say an eternal new project, something appearing somewhere after the last one has been finished, published or not.  Writing asks piety in the sense of requiring you to respect what you are doing and always work actively at trying to be even better than you are; it also nudges you to articulate—if only for yourself—what you mean by the boilerplate “trying to be even better than you are.”  Thin line between the individual seeking spiritual advancement and a more powerful, immediate way to convey the human condition in dramatic terms.

There are some professional writers, their considerable bodies of work to the contrary notwithstanding, whom you consider to be on the same plateau as a pietistic meringue pie of a religious professional.  There are remarkable individuals in the writing and religion professions with whom you get on in ways that seem apt and comfortable.  Two such individuals, both nuns, embraced you this evening, the one for whom you compiled the index for her last book going so far as to threaten to kill you if you did not show up for a particular ritual in early December.  There was not a word spoken of Christmas.  This too, this front steps encounter, was the kind of ritual that is more likely to bring a tingle to your skin, a lilt to your heart, perhaps a twinkle to your prose.

Monday, November 21, 2011


The edge is a geographical location in the atlas of your imagination.  It is a representation of the extreme boundary, a place beyond which under ordinary circumstances you might not venture.

It is scary beyond the edge; there are no conventions to lead you back to safety, to manners, to sensible decisions.  Once you get beyond the edge, you may have done something so frightening that you can see no return to civilization.

But writing is not ordinary circumstances.  Writing has issues with reality.  The circumstances of reality are in fact made more unordinary by the presence of writing.  Each narrative has a version, the one you wish to correct, and your own.  Soon, you will come to loggerheads over which version of the narrative is the appropriate version.

The presence of stalemate or loggerhead becomes a sign to announce the forthcoming need for a plan, a stratagem.  Then you will have to use stratagems in order to have your version prevail.  You will wonder about the civility and fairness of your stratagems as you wonder about so many stratagems you see being employed in reality, propelled by forces of perceived entitlement or raw privilege.

Edge is the force jostling ahead of you in line or the freeway driver who swerves in front of you, triggering the sense of having been invaded.  There is a tangible response from a tangible squirt of adrenaline. It is the celebratory cocktail you sip for having gone beyond the edge, the place where safety stops and discovery begins.

You close your eyes and step forth, excited and in simultaneous dread.

You were excited when you read about ancient mariners venturing beyond shoreline, familiar guideposts gone.  You spent time in any number of writing situations where it was incumbent to stay within the edge, which became the place where it was generally recognized, most of all by you, that safety was of primary importance.

Looking at your work, you do not always feel you have pushed any great border or boundary, nor, in mitigation, are you aware of places where you might have pushed farther.  No problem if the results seem plausible to you now, they were not so when you set out.

Edge also suggests the tone of voice or attitude where impatience, irony, and cynicism come together, expressed as that most ironic double positive of all, “Yeah, yeah,” wherein the reader knows the two positives are intended for a negative.

Edge, then, is the polarity between civility and astonished disbelief at some profound lack of social awareness.  Dialogue without edge of some sort becomes conversation all too soon.  Plenty of conversation in reality; story wants the clamor of disbelief, of taunting, of pushing one or more of the others—any others—over the edge of their position and into a place where they are responding in ways they have been taking such exquisite pains to cover up.

Edge is often used as a metaphor for the borderline between sanity and over-the-top delusion.  He or she is over the edge.  You are over the edge.  Perhaps we are all over the edge.  Perhaps we return to the earlier supposition that the greater demographic a particular over-the-top behavior or perception has, even though it is still arguably insane, enough of us in the species are doing it to cause others to consider it a normal trait instead of a delusion with a large statistical demographic.

You watch from the edge or the fringe or the boondocks, well aware you are being watched by men and women who are taking the behavior down, milling it into sustainable narrative.  Your goal is an edgy vision of life at the edge of a landscape wherein individuals look for safety, for comfort, for some kind of assurance.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Works for Me

Few events in story take place at a distance from the goal.  You could say--and sometimes do--that goal is the heartbeat of story.  Are "they," the characters, nearing the goal?  Will it have been worth the effort?  Has, in fact, enough effort been expended to make the goal seem worthwhile?  Was the goal worthwhile in the first place.

Depending on the story, you sometimes substitute your own goal for the one articulated in the narrative you are reading, and even though you have contrived a considerable goal for a story you have in progress, you often find yourself using the actor's trick of substituting one of your real life goals for the goal of the characters.

Goals may be achieved or not; they may, once reached, offer immense satisfaction or turn out to become an object of scorn.   On rare occasion, goals are exactly what the seeker anticipates.  Goals achieved seem more or less worthwhile but almost never are they on a par.

This alone is cause for the atmosphere of anticipation so necessary within a story.  The reader wants to know if the effort, planning, potential suffering, and potential collateral loss were worth it.

At such moments of reckoning, irony may be tossed in from the writer through one or more characters, leading that individual to internal or external wondering about the cost for achieving the goal.
Thus anticipation:  We anticipate some dramatic decision, some settling of the cosmic accounts.  We also anticipate a reckoning in the assessment of worth.  Was "it" worth the risk, worth the effort?

Was it worthwhile for the reader?

Was the risk and subsequent reward worthwhile for the writer?

One milestone you need to pass whether as a reader or attempted writer is the milestone of anticipation?  Did your spine begin to tingle?  Did you find yourself laughing out loud at the rampant mischief?

Quite often, you embark from home port without a destination, which is also to say a primary focus of your writing activities is the discovery of a goal.  Your potential for finishing any given piece of work is predicated on the discovery of the goal.  If, at length, the goal seems lackluster, you have the potential for changing it, tweaking your anticipation, making the entire process once again one of discovery.

Sometimes you are overcome with mischievousness, in which case the discovery turns on the seekers--information or tangible results they did not expect nor want.

Your characters embarked on a story, and all you got was this lousy goal.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Moving the goal posts

Few events in story take place at a distance from the goal.  You could say--and sometimes do--that goal is the heartbeat of story.  Are "they," the characters, nearing the goal?  Will it have been worth the effort?  Has, in fact, enough effort been expended to make the goal seem worthwhile?  Was the goal worthwhile in the first place.

Depending on the story, you sometimes substitute your own goal for the one articulated in the narrative you are reading, and even though you have contrived a considerable goal for a story you have in progress, you often find yourself using the actor's trick of substituting one of your real life goals for the goal of the characters.

Goals may be achieved or not; they may, once reached, offer immense satisfaction or turn out to become an object of scorn.   On rare occasion, goals are exactly what the seeker anticipates.  Goals achieved seem more or less worthwhile but almost never are they on a par.

This alone is cause for the atmosphere of anticipation so necessary within a story.  The reader wants to know if the effort, planning, potential suffering, and potential collateral loss were worth it.

At such moments of reckoning, irony may be tossed in from the writer through one or more characters, leading that individual to internal or external wondering about the cost for achieving the goal.
Thus anticipation:  We anticipate some dramatic decision, some settling of the cosmic accounts.  We also anticipate a reckoning in the assessment of worth.  Was "it" worth the risk, worth the effort?

Was it worthwhile for the reader?

Was the risk and subsequent reward worthwhile for the writer?

One milestone you need to pass whether as a reader or attempted writer is the milestone of anticipation?  Did your spine begin to tingle?  Did you find yourself laughing out loud at the rampant mischief?

Quite often, you embark from home port without a destination, which is also to say a primary focus of your writing activities is the discovery of a goal.  Your potential for finishing any given piece of work is predicated on the discovery of the goal.  If, at length, the goal seems lackluster, you have the potential for changing it, tweaking your anticipation, making the entire process once again one of discovery.

Sometimes you are overcome with mischievousness, in which case the discovery turns on the seekers--information or tangible results they did not expect nor want.

Your characters embarked on a story, and all you got was this lousy goal.

Friday, November 18, 2011

It was the best of books, the worst of books

Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is find, then read a book remarkable for its awfulness. Thus in one sentence have you managed a stream of intangibles and imprecision’s, and vagaries. Best = optimal thing you can do at a precise moment for the sake of your craft as instrument.  The precise moment relates to a time segment you entered in a less than engaged condition; you might even call it a bored condition.  There are books strewn about, pretty much wherever you go, so finding one is not a problem.  There are wide potentials for types of books, including the genera such as mystery, alternate universe, thriller, romance, historical, science fiction, and the like.

Tastes vary; yours is neither the worst nor the best informed, nor does it represent a middle view.  You are drawn to writers who, by the reading of their books, you are motivated to put in a day’s work writing.  You may find the book poorly written for a number of reasons including your old foe, the adverb, but not to forget clunky sentences, spending too much time in a character’s thoughts, a cadre of characters who sound quite the same, and, when they don’t sound the same, sound dreadful.

The lucid, thematically accessible, cliché-free narrative with interesting characters, which is to say purposeful and inventive sorts who wish to effect some kind of change inspires you to take chances while putting story or essay out there where it is sure to be seen.

Thus reading becomes fuel, a splendid supplement for those days you so favor where no ending is in sight, where the simple awareness of your modest craft is all you have and in the bargain, it is nothing unless you have vowed to extend it by any means possible.

Sometimes you can go for days at a time without being reminded of these years when you predicate your income and your output on the basis of a fifty-to-sixty-thousand word novel a month, for which you got advances ranging from fifteen hundred to twenty-five hundred dollars a month, not bad for the time, and if a particular work earned off its advance and the publisher were reputable enough to take a personal interest in its authors being paid in full, you could take some time to make the next a bit more thoughtful.

You would not have to—as you needed to do with Deadly Dolly, set fire to an enormous warehouse wherein the conflagration ate away the more rational and evocative memes while the characters fled from Dodge (and logic and believability) while the fleeing was good.  There were times when you were surprised at the degree of cover-up devices you included with sincere belief that the devices were valid story.  Doing something of that nature for so long, there had to be results. After a time you could no longer write a book a month—perhaps the single best technique thing ever to happen to you.  Under the circumstances, you learned to do first draft without recourse to either outline or thought.

The door swung wide open and you met face to face that stunning force known as revision.

At first, you saw revision as the enemy the anti-spontaneous presence in the process.  Your own rambunctiousness demanded a freer approach, which must, you tried to reason, be out there somewhere.  It is, of course, never “out there” it is “in here.”  And after you realized that, located it, then began to apply the techniques, you were on your way.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

When There Is Nothing Left

Depending on the time of day and the work schedule at hand, there is always something new to begin, whether it is a matter of these vagrant blog lines or some new review or a new chapter or--in the realm of possibility--a story.

No matter what the project is (or the projects are), the important thing is to hold nothing back, to keep nothing in reserve, to spend it all.  Either that or work until your eyes grow heavy and you find yourself debating between the polarity of a nap or coffee.

There is a counterpoint of tingle accompanying this strategy, the heady energy of confidence in the return of new material in time for the next session.  You have no idea where the new associations and enthusiasm will emerge or where they will come from.  You do know that your best chance is to stay engaged, in some semblance of a conversation with a part of the world about you, manifest in the stream of literary and political journals arriving in the mail and some of the more reasoned, less hysterical news sources associated with blog sites as opposed to those of cable television and never from network television or newspapers.

If you are of a particularly critical frame of mind in which nothing seems to be emerging as fresh material, there is always the chance that some notes or observations in a number of venues will provide some help, even to the point where you have already begun a cohesive stream of observation.

There is a fear lurking in the background that nothing may connect for you, at which point the dial will register empty.  You will sit then, staring at the empty marker, feeling your thoughts squeeze like a boa about its prey, forestalling any connection with ideas and opening vector.  Often the fear of this painful squeeze-down will prompt a few drips of idea followed by a few more until, at length, a fuller stream has emerged and you are no longer running on empty.

These signs remind you from time to time of the ambiance of the surroundings in which you work, the working conditions themselves, which are poor relative to other work areas you have known but nevertheless more preferable by far than any others.  Some times you sit, waiting for the material to arrive, not at all sure from whence it is sent much less where it will be delivered if, indeed, delivery is all that certain.  On other occasions, it arrives as though from some spending binge you indulged earlier, delivering copious notes which seem ample and in extensive enough detail to maintain your interest and direction for some time to come.  When the appropriate time for their use arrives, you find they are not useful, their details indecipherable, your potential opportunity for having ready material for yet other days gone in a poof of logic.

Looks may deceive; some days, when work seems to have produced plausible and powerful interactions and contrast, the rate of keepable pages may sag.  Other days, when work is slow and contentious, an incredible number of keepable pages may earn their keep.

Ultimately tired of low-level days, you step forth with questions.  How much harder could your characters have tried?  How much more trouble could they have caused?  What stands in their way?  Which nurses secret agenda?  How much more could you have done to effect direction?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Conspiracy Theory

Story is a simulacrum of reality, etched onto window glass with the sharp edges of detail.  As you study the stories of others for clues and techniques and surfaces onto which to etch your own narratives, you in many ways concentrate in order to filter out the inexorable clomping of reality about you.

The more you focus, the more the real story distills, drop by drop through the filter of your concentration, allowing the characters to wrest control away from you, borrowing the family car as it were, then lurching into the fender bender that is story brought to life.  Nevertheless, like some mindless troglodyte, reality continues to lurch and lumber about you, neither intent on parking lot scrapes nor demonstrating any desire to avoid them.  Although reality is without volition, story thrives on it.

You sometimes celebrate your life over your morning coffee, pleased, even excited to have survived for another morning with so much of you intact.  As reality progresses about you, age progresses as well, the bull in the china shop of some of your friends, the ticking clock of us all.  Your pleasure comes from being allowed to pursue the disaster course of writing as the source of your livelihood.  With each swig of coffee, you become buoyant in the stream of disaster that narrative represents.

If something you are working on of a particular day goes well, you will have set collision courses in motion, planned train wrecks, arranged unintended consequences. You’ll have chanced upon disagreeable sorts of individuals to humanize, stressed upstanding paradigms of civilization to the point where their behavior breeches cultural conventions, and unearthed some previously sacrosanct convention the way a truffle-sniffing pig uproots its prize.

You’ll have replayed in your mind the longstanding discussion between you and your mother where your mother urged you to find elevating, cheerful stories against your petulant insistence that the words “cheerful” and “elevating” were oxymoron so far as story was concerned.

Story is the disaster dwelling in event; the something that eternally has gone wrong and which cannot be replaced once the wrong has been righted to the extent a thing can be repaired.  These elements are your bedfellows; you can neither escape them nor think to work without them.  Disaster is always primed to ruin the picnic. Here you are, sipping coffee, square in the midst of it, and feeling pleased with yourself for having the perspicacity to have begun articulating yourself as a part of this delusional landscape, being greeted by sister and brother participants in the same conspiracy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Getting to Be a Habit

Habits are the activities and attitudes you do on a regular basis, often without giving thought to the procedure.  One example is your use of habit words, which you repeat unintentionally in early drafts, then sedulously remove, replace, or adjust.  Of your many habit words, “and” appears more often than you’d like, ditto “accordingly,” “thus,” and “seemingly.”

You’d be pleased if habit words were the only habits you’re aware of having to undo or re-do.

Writing every day is a habit you consider vital.  As your consecutive time of writing every day increases, you see psychological and craft-related benefits, but since it is a habit, there are times when overcoming the inertia of not writing becomes an unpleasing task.  You do not at all resent the writing; you do resent the habit, a resentment that turns irony on its head as the process of resenting the habit rewards you with a vision you had not considered, one worth five or six hundred words and enough inertia to put some work time in on a project.

There have been times when habit meant a condition of repeatedly not doing something, the “something” more often than not becoming the act of writing.  If you repeatedly do not write, you are allowing the negative forces of inertia to overcome the things and causes that contribute to your wanting to work every day.  You are much happier when you write every day with occasional lapses into disliking the habit writing has become than you are not writing, feeling a sense of loss and remove from your stated goals.  Not doing something self-defeating, immoral, immature is positive, even worthy of congratulation, but it is not virtue.  Doing something for the purpose of feeling virtuous is a dangerous act of self-delusion; writers are deluded enough without that; you are deluded enough without self-congratulation.

Habits performed with regularity tend to work their way into muscle memory, actions performed to achieve some goal, perhaps even the goal of propaganda.  How nice it is to do something vital without the need to think about it.  But this sense of niceness is predicated on the outcome of habit, which means to you that you must think with some regularity—dare you say habitually?  Thought processes can and do become habitual, having the quality of making you by degrees arrogant, defensive, deluded, all abstractions unless you apply them to something you have read in the work of others or something you have read in your own work where a knotty moral deadlock is unsprung.

You hereby put yourself on warning not to become a creature of too much habit, only enough to recognize the process and its downstream effects.  You have enough trouble keeping your process clear of academic themes and confrontations as it is.  You’d like to make a habit of the practice.
The danger of doing anything not fun for too much of a time is building a habit of the unpleasant.  Whatever their range of stories, men and women who are happy with their work have found the closest potential for happiness, so long as it does not—well, you get the idea.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Shine Wore off

From time to time, you play a role in a quintessential boy drama.  You were playing such a role one afternoon, when prowling lower Milpas Street for photo ops at two stores where pinatas are hung in gala display.  A complete stranger, all genial smile and twinkling eye, pointed at you.  "XYZ,"  he said.  In recent weeks, your friend, Dan, of Cafe Luna fame, warned you, "The barn door is open."  And, memorable because your former student Debo, a Yoruba prince and a Yalie, is tall and dramatic.  While you were mid seminar lecture, he deftly slid a note onto the lectern before you.  "The zipper," the note said.  "The zipper is open."

Simple fix there, and no serious disruption of the cosmos.  In a more nuanced way, you are touched and reminded by the blog essay of a dear friend.  She writes in the context of having dreams, then aspiring to bring these dreams to life in reality.  She writes of the shine of the dream illusion wearing off.  She is by no means cynical; her focus is on familiarity, its particular comforts and strengths, the potential disparity between dream and reality.

Your friend has nudged you with her essay, which means the essay was a roaring success because you could not deflect its importance.  Because of its relevance, you had to let it in, offer it a drink, allow its contents to seep through in the same way your Bialetti stove-top maker performs the alchemy of turning water and coffee grounds into the viscid pungency of espresso.

Because of her essay, you realize you have been going about for a matter of years with the psyche equivalent of an open zipper. More gapes open than your fly; your persona is exposed.  Your shine has worn, your patina beginning to erode.

A good deal of this lost shine relates to dreams--or at least the effects of dreams.  Much of the time, you are aware of having lost your shine, aware of having outgrown the "Boy Wonder" stage that saw you through early advancements in school, in entry-level writing projects, into the "caught-up stage," wherein you were advancing or regressing on your merit or lack thereof rather than on the mere foundation of youth.  Then, in imperceptible degrees, you moved into the "late bloomer" stage, each of these avatars representing the sandblasting of illusion and certainly of shine from you.

Each of these sandblasting events was an epiphany for you.  You have the integrity of your work to define you, and since much of it has its origins in dream or dream-like states called flashes of imagination or perhaps insights, the work rather than the illusory halo defines you.  A favored quote you might not have otherwise noticed came to you on that remarkable day when, somewhere between Santa Barbara and Santa Monica, you and Christopher Isherwood stopped to enjoy the picnic lunch prepared for you by the nuns of the Vedanta Convent in Santa Barbara.  Isherwood spoke of the need for simplicity in translating the fabled Hindu text, The Bhagavad-Gita, from Sanskrit to English, Isherwood working along with his charismatic guru, Swami Prabhavananda, when he related how easily a line came to him that in essence defined the entire project.  "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof."  Isherwood waved his hamburger as though it were a conductor's baton.  "Just the right amount of everything in eleven words, including the thereof that imparts a sense of the biblical archaic."

You believe the work is the fruits; if the work is done well, you feel it somewhere in your stride, in your ability to detect the presence of a mockingbird in the neighborhood.

Maryelle, who has been, by your reckoning, cutting your hair these past twenty-five years, is amused when you make sport of the thinness your male pattern baldness has inflicted on the top of your head.  She shrugs away the fun you make of yourself by observing that only those who are taller than your six feet three inches can see the extent of the thinness.  To all others--

You wave away her demurral.  You are not likely to be called Tarzan, as you were in middle school, nor curly when you seemed to erupt with rings and curlicues curlicues curlicues
The shine has worn off and you are the better for it; you have the dreams to look forward to and the work ahead of trying to iron out the wrinkles and bumps that come with dreams.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Let's Hear It for the Elephants

The living rooms of most effective stories are filled with elephants, pachyderms being, of course the metaphor to indicate the unspoken.  In the case of story, the unspoken is a huge presence; it is the thematic impact on the reader, gift of the writer.  Story is all about the unspoken, material that each of the characters is certain the other characters are aware of and, thus, why be repetitious?

Your name for this particular elephant is subtext, the no-man’s land between what a character says and what she feels.  For social and dramatic reasons, we are not always free to speak the ongoing scenario our mind produces, even in our sleep, as filtered through remembered dreams.  For reasons of our own experience, however much we nourish leading a lifestyle of being able to respond as we wish, we proceed in slow fashion, mindful of the consequences when we spoke out.  Not always worth the landslide we may have triggered.

How comforting it is to be in situations where you can say what you feel.  How remarkable to have individuals in your life with whom you can exchange such conversations.  How remarkable to have one such person for a confidant.  Being so fortunate requires as a prerequisite an extraordinary degree of intimacy.

How do we address the matter of intimacy in the first place?  It helps to have a history of comfortable back-and-forth with another person, but such dialectic often begins with calculated risk.

Here you are, considering the mechanics of speaking your mind and already the living room is filled with smaller elephants such as risk, trust, familiarity, loyalty, each in its specific way crowding the original elephants, driving us, Homo sapiens sapiens, in possession of the remarkable gifts of speech and articulate thought, into defensive behavior or, worse, non-communicative behavior.

Solutions await us, but first we need to clear our own psyche of the resident elephants, the squatters who have taken up residence in the living room of self-interest.

We cannot deal to any effect with the elephants in the living room of culture until we have dealt with those elephants crowding reason and interconnectedness out of our own agendas.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Chemistry is the affinity matter experiences when interacting or behaving as itself.  The composition of matter is analogous to the personality and composition of humans.  You enjoy the aspects pf chemistry where potentials for attraction, repulsion, and the results of combination come into play.

You are often aware of any chemistry between you and other matter or another person until you have noticed idiosyncratic signals of pleasure, interest, or the yet more idiosyncratic sense of a thing or individual being of value.

In the same manner that chemistry opens up attempts to describe behavior of matter, the qualities of magnetism, interest, and value cry out for definitions in which an equation is available between things that are not human and between things that are.

 When you know with some specificity why you are attracted, like a person, place or thing, feel some commonality of purpose and response, you become swept up in a mythos built on the interconnectedness of things.  The results are comforting; you feel less adrift or positioned on the margins.  Such connectivity is a heady brew.  The cosmos seems less impersonal.  You begin buying more than your usual amount of flowers, reading more poetry, smiling.  People use such descriptors for you as enigmatic, mischievous, mysterious.

When you are open to and aware of chemistry, you are vulnerable to the Cosmos in the opposite way you are girded and armored in your suit of cynicism. You will of a sudden be aware of the songs of playful birds, you will be hit by falling poems, you will think you see the faces of forgotten teachers in the insides of pansies, dogs, previously indifferent to you, will follow you, strangers will smile at you, stories will present themselves to you as though homemade sandwiches at a picnic.

You may well think you are in love and, if the Cosmos has its way, you may well be.  You certainly have a crush on chemistry.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Ideas are cheap, so the conventional wisdom informs us.  They buzz about like flies on a spring day, like moths about a lamp, of a long summery evening; they march with the determination of army ants at a picnic, are as impudent as raucous jays and humming birds, tipsy on the pyrocanthus berries, fermented into mischief over a languorous autumn.

The cheapness of mere ideas, concepts not full in their developmental stage, confronts us each time we attempt to market or otherwise launch our own without added plan or effort at development.  Right, we say, nobody would want a simple device to clip sheets of paper together, much less would they want pegs or pins to hold wet laundry to clothes lines.  No one would want to go to the effort of reducing a message to a scant hundred forty characters.  At such moments, we appreciate our ideas and our sarcasm as it makes ironic reference to enormous successes, a subtle implication on our part that our idea, too, is iconic in scope.

As the subject of ideas begins to relate to story, you are aware of the many ideas you had at about the same time someone completely unknown to you had the same idea, the difference being that he or she brought it to completion, polished it, found a publisher for it.  In some ways, you could even feel a kinship with such a person, Herman Melville, say, for the two of you having an idea, his about an enormous white whale, you for having concocted an enormous mass of radioactive matter orbiting the reaches of outer space, the whale and the radioactive mass being pursued by individuals with, shall we say, an agenda.

Ideas have surprise and disappointment embedded within their genome.  After the original rush of happiness at the arrival of the idea, you reach the host gift it has brought along for you, some revelation or connection you hadn’t anticipated.  This surprise provides the energy for the second wind of energy needed to complete the draft.  The disappointment is the growing awareness, seeping through the energy of enthusiasm, that you have not the language nor the emotional vocabulary to capture the idea as it shimmers in your imagination, beckoning you the way the Sirens called out to Odysseus.  Try as you might, you are accommodating here as you accommodate in Reality, reaching for the ideal, settling for what has come to you, the tangible, the actual.

This is a mixed bag of an essay, dealing with ideas in the first place, the need to execute the idea in your medium, which is words, then wondering through the process of revision whether you were remiss in your studies of words and of languages, leaving you bereft of a significant vocabulary.  There are times as well—in particular when you were at the stage of working with an editor—when your vocabulary was characterized with such descriptors as recondite, orotund, baroque.  At such moments you have sympathy for the musician accused of using five or six notes when a one-beat rest would serve better, yanking you back to your fondness for Beethoven because his notes seemed to you to proceed with such inevitability and no ornate flourish.  You read through your work again like a border guard on the alert for smuggled adjectives and adverbs hidden in the skirts and flourishes of your sentences.  You think of your favorite painters, nothing how neither Velasquez nor El Greco need extra brush neither strokes nor gratuitous splashes of light.  They have enough.  Enough of everything.

Accommodation in your work is not a bad thing, no compromise of ideals; it is recognition of your awareness that ideas transmit themselves in the clothing of the ideal, but sometimes there is the equivalent of dandruff on a paragraph, wanting a brushing.  Sometimes there is a touch of an imperfection; one of your characters emerges before you with a fleck of spinach on a tooth.  Do you throw her into the recycle bin or do you celebrate her as the surprise bearing gifts of energy.

Sometimes there are not enough accommodations.  What you believe you know of your species does not come through the filter of your words with sufficient presence or plausibility.  Another draft or so to try again.  Beckett’s approach to this matter was to believe each idea he presented was some acceptable degree of failure.  Fail again, he said, but next time, fail better.  Perhaps, in your efforts at accommodation, you can find some level of plausibility that will allow you to let the idea go forth with no strain on your conscience.

What, you wonder from time to time, is the uncharted land between the cliché and the ideal?  Does it reside in the fleck of spinach on your character’s incisor?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beyond the Blue Horizon

The horizon is a line separating the sky from the earth.  There is no actual line present although it appears to be present, as though some tangible boundary.  By standing on a rock or chair or, for that matter, a ladder, you can extend the horizon, which is to say that you can enhance your vision so that the horizon seems to retreat, allowing you to see a greater distance of earth, proportionate to the increase in height you achieve from the viewing point.

You could in theory, go on, increasing your scope of vision by raising your point of vantage. As many before you have spoken of broadening or increasing horizons, you speak from time to time of increasing your own
horizons or broadening them.  The meaning, however much a metaphor at the time, means you wish to see more, understand more, have an increased vision of some cosmos or the entire cosmos.

To that end, you attempt the equivalent of walking about on tiptoes—anything to allow you a greater vision, as though the mere extension of range will provide the intelligence to distinguish like from like and from unlike, as though input alone can be enough to transform itself into accurate, useful information that might be used to assemble some useful insight or awareness of some small part of the universe at the moment unknown or, if known, incomprehensible to you.

You associate the term and concept of horizon as a navigation device by which you plot your course of awareness of a destination every bit as abstract as the concepts of insight and understanding.  

The most useful device for increasing the scope of your horizon is equally an abstraction; it is the imagination.  You have experimented with the imaginations of others, enjoying opportunities to see how others have made it possible to see well beyond where they stood or climbed.

You have even used certain substances given the euphemisms of conscious expanders, which ought to have had remarkable effects and did, but wonderful as they were, their origins were outside you, hints, as so many things outside of you are, of things you might do with a little or a great deal of imagination of your own. With imagination, you are able to chart orbits and outcomes, transporting yourself to places you have visited in fact or in dream.  You have seen outcomes in your own life and the affairs of others that stand as rivals to actual outcomes, struggled to grasp and understand the qualities that make a person, place, or thing plausible in story and in real life.

In many ways, you have expanded your own horizons by the simple process of observation, but most important of all to you is the ways in which your regard for another person can expand your horizon, demonstrating emotions and responses you assumed to be beyond your upper registers.

You have learned the most valuable lesson in life and in drama, which is that you push things toward that horizon where the sky appears to meet the land or sea, then you shove a final shove of parting, sending the circumstances cascading over the line, where you must follow.  It is there, as you observe the wreckage of that final shove that you imagine the strategy for cleanup, and you know what to do next.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Your Town

From time to time, you find yourself returning to Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a place for you of resonant nostalgia.  In ways, Grover’s Corners is as real for you as Virginia city, Nevada, its characters fraught with analogy and meaning as the persons you knew—and the one you still know—from your times in the snowy Sierra.  The graveyard is a significant presence in Our Town; it is the entire setting of Act III.

Although you have visited the graveyard in Virginia City to pay your respects, no one you know is interred theThe dead to whom you pay respectful visit are historical, one in particular a prostitute of some repute.  But the cadre of the dead you have known in Virginia City shore your spirits, reminding you of them, of times and feelings you discovered on your journey through your own adventures.

On your first visit to Grover’s Corners, barely in your teens, you were touched by the romance between George and Emily to the point of envy.  These two characters made the idea of love and its evolution seem so tangible that you felt you could reach out and capture some of it in your hands—if you were quick enough.  You must have caught some, because they have remained with you over the years since your discovery of them and your occasional return visits, seeking in these returns the flashes of wisdom and understanding you caught in many of the things you read with, at the time, the belief you could ingest wisdom and insight in the first place by the mere act of being well read.  You were not well read then nor have you become so at this state of your adventure.  You were more likely naïve than you were anything else then.  You have been out and about long enough to have begun connecting seemingly disparate things, a condition that will have to pass for insightfulness. Although you admit to the goal of wishing you could read and decipher persons as though scanning some barcode on their forehead, you are willing to settle for what you have, which is the occasional occasion at which you can make connecting links.

In more recent revisits to Grover’s Corners and Mr. Wilder’s remarkable play, you have been drawn to the character of The Stage Manager, the modern equivalent of a chorus, who addresses the audience, breaks the fourth wall, addresses the characters, and seems to have a comfortable attitude toward the human condition.  So far as you know, the part of The Stage Manager was the last role played by one of your favorite actors, Paul Newman.  It is a role you would relish playing.  You find a strong sense of identity with that character, in particular because he could be portrayed by—in your vision, someone as young as late thirties and as old as Newman was at the time of his portrayal.  He could be of any race, any ethnicity, any attitude so long as he in some way made it clear he relished the job, enjoyed having a domain and a dramatis personae to keep believable.

You enjoy this opportunity for witnessing events, commenting on them, having some responsibility for keeping out any props or mannerisms that might detract from the sense of authenticity that inheres in Mr. Wilder’s drama.

At times, you are hard pressed to manage your own stage, which becomes now and then as though it were defined by yet another playwright, Samuel Beckett, wherein characters spend their times on stage buried up to their head in sand, stuck in a large jar, or taking refuge in white boxes.

Your intent is not to write such stories, rather absurdist stories of your own making, with characters more or less fully clothed—except when they are appropriately not—and in some setting with a past that might be light years away from what the present is now.  Every bit as curious as the characters in Mr. Wilder’s play or those denizens of Virginia City, where history and expectations hung in the afternoon breeze, your characters are trying to chart their way across a complex, pesky landscape.

Today, at lunch, your old plan and hero, the newsman Sandy Vanocer, was bemoaning the current state of the country and universe.  “But Sandy,” you reminded him, “the universe and this country have always been in a sad state.”

“True enough,” he said, “but we’re here now.”

And that is precisely the state of affairs you want your Stage Manager to have to cope with.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


 A recipe is an instructive list of ingredients needed to produce some particular result.  These outcomes are often associated with food in one form or another; say a pie or a casserole or even something more ambitious as Beef Wellington.  But it would also be appropriate to think of another set of ingredients, say plot, characters, and theme, as constituents of a story.

Formula is every bit as instructive as recipe.  You could consider it the DNA of the rules governing behavior of a system.  You could also consider formula as an entity that leads to an anticipated result.  The result itself may vary in quantity, just as the results of a recipe might produce a larger pie or casserole.  Plot, characters, and theme are ingredients that sound more at home in a reference to a formula than to a recipe.  But both terms produce expectations provided enough ingredients are used and few extraneous ingredients are introduced.

Experienced chefs and individuals who are often referred to as natural-born cooks seem to have in common an understanding of the particular chemistry or relationship of ingredients humans have been ingesting for millennia.

Storytellers are on occasion regarded as natural renderers of dramatic event because they seem to know when to pause, how much of a particular ingredient to use at a time, and how many ingredients—in particular characters—a given story can accommodate without losing its consistency.

Skillful chefs and cooks, writers and dramatists are often spoken of as knowing the tricks of their craft.  In some cases, these individuals are thought to have discovered or mastered secrets known to those who are born knowing their craft, or those who have achieved skills seemingly without trying.

These individuals, whether their expertise is culinary or dramatic, are often regarded as having magical qualities, by which is meant a more intense insight or an uncommon skill for combining seemingly disparate elements.  There is no magic, only the fact that some are more skilled at what they do than others.  For magic, read “recognition,” the skilled chef or dramatist recognizing early on the radiant chemistry that suggests the blending of elements and the guidance required to bring them to some tangible outcome.

What seems like magic or secret is not so much magical or occult as it is fun.  Some individuals, who appear on the surface to have preternatural skills at cooking or writing, possibly even both, have in fact a well-developed capacity for enjoyment.  Go ahead; call it by its name—fun.  Often these individuals will tell you what they do is hard work.  Believe them; it is hard work being good at something, even if you have skills for it.  Do not believe them when they tell you they dread it, that the performance has become increasingly more difficult.  They are also enjoying themselves by making it seem that what they do is a chore.

There is some genome in the chef and the writer that influences its host to behave as though everything that emerges is an act of transparent spontaneity.  It is no such thing.  Even the spontaneous, the improvised, have to be rehearsed, practiced, performed.

Even you take some pleasure in making your quips and puns seem made up on the spot.  They are rehearsed at all hours, in all circumstances. You often chance upon a pun or a spoonerism that causes you to chortle out loud, but having done so, you carefully set it aside, waiting patiently for the moment when you can bring it forth as though—voila—you have only now come upon it.

It is fun enough to do actual improvisation, getting into punning contests with suitable competitors.  This is an adult version of child’s play; it is developing muscle memory.

Being good at something is pure ecstasy provided you truly enjoy the thing.  It is some sort of cosmic revenge to excel at something for which you have no heart, no passion, no hunger.  To care for a thing is only effective if there is a soupcon of yearning and passion, which bring with them the recognition that you can never achieve the level of expertise you seek.

You belong to a species where a good many individuals wish to arrive at instant excellence without the work.  They are immediately recognizable.  There are others within the species who wish only to be entertained, passive in their wish to provide the entertainment for themselves.  There are also those who strive, their outcomes predicated on carrying successful performance to the attention of those who wish to be entertained.

You fit into this calculus by having taken some steps toward the ability to enjoy and entertain yourself—then to take it public, for the consequences.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Narcissism and You

Not long ago, when you were in casual conversation with a group of friends, the judgment of narcissism was delivered about a particular writer.  You took this in with some interest because days earlier, you’d heard the same judgment rendered about yet another writer.  The judgment came from a literary agent who’d spent years in the saddle as an editor for major houses.  Two such references could be coincidence, but when you’d had similar thoughts about a writer, you had some hard questions to ask yourself about yourselves.

Because of his well-identifiable behavior, the designated narcissist from your group of friends falls into the no-contest category; his regard for himself radiates from his regard for himself as a writer.  He is argumentive in his pursuit of himself as a superb craftsperson, no less an advocate for his complete modesty in reaching such a state, content to let the facts as he sees them speak for him.

The other two candidates are persons you know at a closer degree, prompting the need for this disclosure to yourself:  You have not been able to bring yourself to finish any of the works of Narcissist Number One.  You are fairly comfortable with many of the works of Narcissists Numbers Two and Three.  This leads you to Plateau Number One, which is that you can and have enjoyed works from writers known to you to be narcissists.  In the logical bargain, you have encountered among students and clients unpublished writers whom you would classify as narcissists on the evidence they provide, which is in essence the superiority of their editorial judgment and storytelling ability.

This paves the way for you to examine yourself as a candidate for an advanced degree in narcissism.

You pretty well are comfortable with the way you see story.  A diverse enough number of editors and readers have found dramatic integrity in your vision.  The worst disagreement with such a person, himself a fine storyteller in his own right, was over a single matter in a single story, your heavy-handedness with the objective correlative.

Even though your last book was nonfiction, it was about story.  You took at least ninety percent of your editor’s suggestions without so much as a blink.

You are particularly open to notes from your agent, and you are as of now committed to following your editor to another publishing venture.

Such narcissism as you carry about it leavened by your willingness to listen to sources you respect, nor are you one to set such a high price on “sources you respect” that they cannot be found.
As a writer, a tad more than a person, you are willing to listen to suggestions in the service of making your dramatic and existential visions more acute and penetrating.  You have no problem with the construct that your ideas and visions are better served when they are vetted.

That said, you cherish the notion of independence, of being able to be on the alert for ways to be the most reliable person you know, the person you most enjoy spending time with, the person who, aware of his shortcomings, is neither afraid to admit them nor to educate himself to better cope with them.

You have two spectacularly close friends, the Yalie and the Brit, and a number of dear friends, women and men, among whom to exchange the gifts of self and closeness.  You carry plangent souvenirs of parents and sister, you have two mentors, Rachel and Virginia, and you have the ongoing gift of a relationship with Swami A, whom you served as disciple and as editor, as neat a give-and-take as you can imagine.

So you see where this is going, do you.

You are, with all these riches, and with all the riches of everything you have read and written, and all the music you have listened to and often hear in your sleep, without a significant other.  Do you, you ask yourself, need one?  Could you survive nicely without one?  The answer to either question evokes as much fear as your questioning your narcissism quotient.

You would not ask such questions if there were not someone you had feelings for any more than you would ask yourself if a particular piece were ready to go off without being edited.

Writers need editors.

Persons need friends.

Musicians need instruments.

Actors need a role they have interpreted.

Can you be productive and comfortable among your trusted selves?

Are you a self-delusional narcissist?

You think you know the answers to all of these.

The best editor for them all is your most vulnerable self.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

In the Soup

In the kitchen and the writer’s work area, surprise explodes upon the scene with the power to cause a spectacular gamut of possibility.  One ingredient—surprise—introduced by accident or deliberation, transforms an entire cosmos from the bland predictability of recipe or formula into a memorable and radiant chemistry.

As a particular stock becomes a promising basis for a soup, conflict becomes a spawning ground for the rich texture of story.  The analogy continues:  Some soups, a gumbo, say, or a cioppino, are rich enough to stand alone as a one-dish meal.  Well, perhaps a ficelle or loaf from a fermented dough, to serve as a complement to the soup. Other soups are by design or from kitchen disaster rather thin, amuse bouches at best, not intended for a long haul much less a serious haul.

Some conflicts are complex and provocative enough without added ingredients to provide momentum for a long story.  In story, much as in soup, after a certain point, you want to be careful about adding ingredients, lest you cause a chemistry of the cancellation of effects rather then the symbiosis of ongoing adventure.

Surprise works best if you do not see it loitering about as some throwaway hint, buried within a laundry list of ingredients, brought out as if by accident or last resort.

Under the most ideal circumstances, something you have set forth in the soup or the story, almost without conscious deliberation, calls itself to your attention.  Perhaps the trigger was your tongue, perhaps one or more of your characters.  Whatever the device, it is a useful tool, a transformative, magical trigger your secret selves were keeping hidden from you.

As you taste the soup or read the story draft, you want to say of the surprise, “I knew that all the time.” as you connect it to its place in the scheme of things.  Truth to tell, you did not know it all the time.  Had you in fact known, your surprise would have to be enclosed in quotation marks, it would have been an irony; as well, it would have been a formula, a device, a conveyance.

Whether in the kitchen, the work area, or out in Reality, surprises of all nature come over you like the marine layer sneaking in along the coast.  Your behavior is your first clue that you are a participant in a surprise.  You have abdicated your role as the trained observer/writer, watching the universe play our its ongoing Bayeaux Tapestry of events.  You are now the embodiment of the surprise itself, playing out your role in the transformative drama that has you acting in response,  You are now an audience, watching yourself and the behavior of your response to this surprise.  As with your discoveries from your writing, this surprise is something to know about yourself, something you will undoubtedly wish to learn from later, when the surprise has had its way with you.

What are the chances for you and this surprise?  It is no surprise to you that it has changed your perspective.  You suppose you could try to effect some sort of pact with sensible behavior, but your greater experiences have left you with the awareness that you have already given up on that some time ago, favoring instead your chances with yourself outside the auditorium filled with sensibility, where platitudes and formulae are broadcast to roaring cheers.

This behavior is one of the many things you enjoy and accept about yourself.  Although surprises have the ability variously to disappoint you, knock you down, delight you, bowl you every which way, send you scurrying to capture the notion or insight before it escapes you, there is within you an eagerness to go serve as lightening rod for surprise, to attract it, draw it into you, and absorb its charge.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Take care. Take very good care.

Why should we care?

About your story.

About any story.

We should care if the story and its outcome mean something of emotional significance to one or more characters, and to you, the writer.

We should care if the situations within your story and the conditions within your characters resonate with a mythic anguish you understand on a verbal and non-verbal level,

We should care.

About your story,

If you are beset and it shows through your choice of events, outcomes, and characters.

We should care if your behavior in this time of exquisite crisis shows you in a posture we admire, might even wish to emulate when we are in such excruciating circumstances, whatever they may be.

We should care if you are not taken in by convenient platitudes you then attempt to fob off as realistic, workable solutions.  This is life we’re talking about, and what respect do we have for characters who think and feel in the shorthand of platitudes?

We should care—and we may well do so—if you care and it shows through actions and implications as borne out by your characters, with no stage directions or authorial interruptions.

There are not as many reasons why we should care as there are reasons for us not to care, which means we have our work cut out for us.  We must not be suckered in by false sentimentality, platitudes or gratuitous anything.

We should care because we are discovering something we hadn’t known when we began.