Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Elephant as Suspect

When things seem simple, watch out.  Simplicity covers a multitude of complexity, causes you to ignore potential nuance, invites snap decisions.  It is one thing to admire simplicity, another still to take it for granted.  Were you to encounter on some personality test a True-False question:  “Things are always as simple as they seem.” You would without hesitation opt for False.

Stripping away details of description allows events to speak for themselves, without the need for stage direction.  Things that speak for themselves bid you to listen to them before moving on to the next sentence, the next idea, the next encoded emotion.

You were drawn to mystery fiction early in your reading years because of the inherent puzzle wanting to be solved.  Made sense then; life was yet more a puzzle then than now.  A good portion of the reason life was more puzzling came from the fact that you had no storehouse of experience dealing with feelings; many of your experiences were one- or two-timers.  The characters you admired solved problems with logic, with brainpower.  After a while, you began to see that these worthies coped you're their feelings off stage. Your pole stars were writers who could concoct a puzzle, which some seemingly attractive individual was able to solve by dint of brains, logic, and stored knowledge.  Ah, how you prized these qualities. You prized them to the extent of wanting to emulate their fictional counterparts.

All that bought you was an unusable vocabulary and an armor plate against feelings.

So your way “into” a story is through the unspoken, the various elephants you’ve been writing about these past few days—the things your characters think and look around while trying to pursue the wisdom of informed choice.

Which gets you back to the elephant with which this essay began—the mystery.  Your early approaches to writing mysteries of your own were not satisfying because you were going at the construction of the puzzle from the outside.  You wanted a puzzle that could be solved with some effort, where you already knew the result.  It did not help that most of your friends at the time were mystery writers or that, thanks to those two great friends, Dorothy B. Hughes and Vera Caspary, you were immersed in the Mystery Writers of America, which meant you had even more contact with mystery writers, and that as an editor, you’d begun contracting mystery writers and, of course, editing the results.

Numerous things had to give.  Dorothy B. Hughes helped you through the first one.  “Never,” she advised, concoct a puzzle to which you already know the answer.”

Day Keene (remember, a paperback original novel a month) talked you into the second.  Day got his start as an actor.  “Characters are actors,” he told you. “Make them audition to get into your stories.  Don’t be afraid to pass on the unpromising ones.  They have to want to get into your story.” And most important, he led you down the path of “At heart, all novels are mysteries.”  Which led you to the revelation of the novel—any novel—as a mystery to be solved, as in, What is its mystery for you?  What is its mystery for the principal characters?  And not to forget, what is the emotional denominator of any scene in a short story or novel.  Of course you’d have to tack on to that, How do you feel after having figured what the novel means, then adjusting it to accommodate, and What do you want the reader to feel after she’s finished the reading, and how about what vital emotional information have you left for the reader to discover?

The thing that has to date helped you the most is the awareness that every novel is a mystery; every story is fraught with the attempt to hide a crime.  In a literal sense, the crimes could be embezzlement, robbery, arson, even murder, but seeing that, you are able to jump to the true crimes of passion, crimes such as betrayal, hidden agenda, revenge, identity theft, and ego strangulation.

The best puzzle of all is one you could not solve going in.  You had to squirm and fidget and drink coffee and itch until you see what it represented in terms of elephants you could not face without help from your characters.

Yesterday’s elephants won’t help at all with today’s mystery.  You have to go in unarmed every time you begin another.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Inner Elephant

Because of its size, the elephant has become a metaphor of ironic exaggeration.  The irony comes from the ease with which a topic of elephantine size can be ignored with what amounts to convenience.

As such a metaphor, elephants lurk everywhere, showing a particular fondness for living rooms, which puts the bite of irony in place with exactitude.  The living room is a metaphor in its own right, a place where the family gathers, in some cases to share convivial intimacy or, to use yet another metaphor, to hang out.  Forget that electronic and telephonic devices have invaded the living room, in a sense overshadowing such earlier aspects of hanging out as conversation, playing or listening to music, or entertaining friends.  Remember instead the meaning of the metaphor.

The elephant in the living room represents some awareness or knowledge that becomes ignored, overlooked, talked around. The elephant is a family secret or a societal secret, a fact or group of facts everyone in the living room knows to exist.  It is also the one thing no one in the living room will refer to in a direct manner.  Uncle Fred is hitting the sauce again, well, you know he has always loved his martinis and it seems such a shame to limit him.  Aunt Louise is getting it on with the gardener?  Poor woman, she so needs the company of a man ever since Uncle Leo ran off with his secretary.  And who are we to judge?

As metaphors are wont to do, elephants come in various sizes, by which reference you mean that some are gifts from a particular culture or race or gender while others still get their start in families, regions, even continents, all of which produces the double whammy of an individual’s ability to see someone or some behavior in terms of the unspoken elephant.

On a cultural level, you might argue for the elephant in the living room being a polite step up from the more earthy metaphor arrived at when someone has mistaken the punch bowl at a lavish gala for a chamber pot, thus the turd in the punch bowl as the proletariat elephant in the living room.

 Thus euphemism, an inventive way of making a fact seem less polite and considerate than it is.  You might start with such euphemisms as “crossing over” or “passing away” as euphemisms for death, then allowing your memory to fiddle with the number of euphemisms you have used during the course of a day.

Questions arise, as they must.

Is intimacy impacted by too much or too little euphemism?  Surely elephants in the living room take up some of the space that could be better occupied by intimacy.

When was the last time you used a euphemism?  And since we’re on the subject, are there any elephants in your living room which, although of a comfortable size, has scant room for the books you bring in nor the paintings you have considered buying, much less places for even one elephant to spend its time?  Are Buddhist monks and nuns paradigms of elephant-free living rooms?  Do, in fact, elephants in living rooms require pairing with another elephant to keep it company.

Part of why you write is to do search and destroy missions on the metaphorical elephants in your life, which makes it begin to appear that a) you will need more writing of discovery and b) have precious little time left to lead your elephant-free life.  It might even mean a manner of ironic comparison between you and the protagonist of Flaubert’s remarkable short story, “A Simple Soul,” in which the protagonist, a devout, religious person, sees God coming to fetcher at the moment of her death, and in complete harmony with the rest of the story, God appears as this simple soul’s dearest possession, a parrot.  This is not to infer that your last earthly vision will be of an elephant, nor indeed the much less elegant vision of the fecal matter in the punch bowl, but rather the last-moment realization that you had not yet achieved complete transparency and openness, that there were still a few baby elephants traipsing about in your psyche, leaving you with the open, heartfelt, but nonetheless crude valedictory, “Oh, fuck, I missed that.”

But perhaps that is the essential openness of the lifelong writer, the “oh, fuck” recognition of missed things, metaphorically right under your nose.  

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some Other Time

The conversation at lunch today brought your focus on the common theme of the passage of time in any kind of creative activity.  This was brought home to you from the way an artist who specializes in landscapes done in oil discussed her time spent before the board or canvas, or canvas over board, attempting to get down a moment in time before the light changed, casting the painter’s equivalent of a differing point of view over the work.

You’ve spent some time conflating the writer of narrative with the actor, the photographer, and the musician, but until today, you’d not articulated your sense of how the painter is also doing her work in relationship to time.  The fact of you having medicated yourself with antihistamines against a cold that had its own agenda with time made the sense of timing all the more vivid.

As a general rule, you are either engaged, which is to say “in” something you are composing, reading, or listening to, or “out,” outside a work, trying to figure a way in.  The tidal nature of the antihistamine and the cold, engaging in, do you dare use the pun cold war? Helped alert you to the tidal nature of interest and involvement.

When you sit before a computer screen or note pad, when the actor pauses in the wings, waiting for the cue to enter the scene, when the musician, either playing from memory, improvisation, or a marked-up score, or a photographer, having adjusted the lens aperture and shutter speed, confronts the next step, the entry, they are all conscious of and guided by time.

They are in the equivalent of that moment between consciousness and the abrupt drop into sleep.  Once in the medium or the sleep, time becomes more than relative, time becomes idiosyncratic.  The passage of events may speed up relative to the actual passage of time, or it may draw events out to the point where every detail of movement seems exaggerated.

For you, the most excruciating moments are those before the blank note pad or computer screen.  Time seems to take on a personal quality in that it appears to throb, reminding you of the cue you are waiting for before going “on,” entering the stage of the inner world.   Now that you think about it, you have the same awareness when you “stand” before the sleeping state, waiting for your cue to enter that stage.

The most appealing way to get “in” is the way with the most risk.  Potentials for danger, reversal, emotional and physical pain have the effect of producing the tingle you were talking about a few days back.  The more you think about the complexities and danger of risk, the more you sense yourself going into an alert mode, a place where solutions come rushing at you to the point where all you have to do is reach out, then grab one, wrestle it to the page, tweak it, then try to ride it as it takes you beyond the constraints of time.

Whether it is in the act of sleeping, reading, or writing, there is a sense of time moving because all these activities involve event, but not mere, simple event, rather event as a fraction in which event is the numerator and intent is the denominator.  Some dreams are so uncomfortable that your intent is to get out of them, either by orchestrating other scenarios or, if things get rough, waking up.  Some reading is so satisfying that you override your time constraints of social or work-related obligations to stay “in” someone else’s story.  In similar fashion, if the reading proves boring or predictable, you can end the association right now, and no need to be polite about it.  From all this behavior, you can see how it goes with your own writing.  Sometimes that need for a cup of coffee is your way of overcoming the throb of time passing in reality in ways that remind you of the struggle between your thinking mind and the writing mind that wants you back in the story.

When you are afflicted with a cold, analgesics help to a degree, but by far the best analgesic is being “in” some reading, some writing, or some dreaming, to say nothing of being “in” some music.

Having a cold is having the double whammy of the time zone of reality, ticking away as it might under ordinary circumstances as well as the sense of having your frontal lobes and sinuses packed in bubble wrap.  The best way to get out of this is to get into something where your time frames are the operant ones, and the best way to reach these is to stare down the things you most fear, least know or understand. Doing so takes you, by another lovely analogy for the manipulation of time back to your primitive self, being chased by some now defunct predator.  You are deliberately staging your own chase by your own saber-tooth tiger.  And this time, time is on your side.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Get Serious

Not long ago, you spent the later half of an evening amid a group of individuals whose politics and attitudes were while not exactly congruent with your own, enough so that the flow of conversation reached that quirky comfort of conviviality.  You quite enjoyed yourself, moving through a range of discussion as varied as the subsequent range of wine bottles.  Your sense of the evening and its attendant pleasures had to do directly with the sense of bonding with others and the reaffirmation and articulation of values and passions already well in place.  The resident emotion was of good humor, even when the turn of discussion went from time to time to some particular social, political, or moral outrage.

The setting of the evening would have made for a splendid background for the sorts of short stories you might expect from the likes of Ann Beattie, Deborah Eisenberg, and Julian Barnes.

The evening was in marked contrast to a gathering in which you were in your more accustomed role as an outsider; your politics in this gathering was the exception, thus your sense of being the one who has brought outsider views to the table, a table well set with sentiments and attitudes well to the right of yours.  In this earlier gathering, you were not nearly so relaxed.  You were, in fact, on guard.  Thus went the potential for humor out the window.  In the more convivial gathering, humor was spontaneous, free-flowing, bordering at times on the self-deprecation that goes with social guards and restraints being told to be at ease.  In the other situation, such humor as you were able to see came from irony, which borders on sarcasm, which is self-revelatory in the sense that sarcasm and irony are attempts at some kind of conspiracy, some implication of a moral high ground,

There is much to be learned from both situations. When you are among a group of individuals whose politics and overview differs markedly from yours, conversation may move into the better forms of argument, in which points might be made by anyone at any time.  But you as well may be in situations where the ruling passion is stubborn adherence to some larger sense of value.

You are not, however clever or persuasive you might be, how scrupulous in your logical progressions you may emerge, going to convert anyone to your vision nor are they going to change your mind.  Such confrontations are nevertheless valuable for both parties; this can be significant argument, during the course of which, although not prepared to give a scant inch, both parties can learn something they did not know before the argument. More often than not, both parties chose to ignore this potential, hanging instead on their position, not willing to give ground.

For the longest time, you were not comfortable in such situations, thanks in large measure to your observation that you were not going to change anyone’s mind.  There is no give and take of humor possible.  You still feel that, thus the persistent sense of blur in such circumstances.

The choices are clear; the relaxed opportunity is one for bonding and reaffirmation, the tense condition offers at least you an opportunity to learn something you might not have seen, but it does so in an atmosphere of tension, seriousness, and possible pomposity. There is a temptation to opt for the pomposity and the potential for learning, but this is not the only way for you to learn.  And besides, you rather enjoy the atmosphere when humor is in the room.  Argument is fun, but so is the bonding among like-minded friends.  Besides, you can always refine your learning-through-argument by reading a book or magazine, then arguing the pomposity out of it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Adverbs and Prepositions

For some years, you have waged a contentious battle with the adverb, in particular those ending in –ly.  As things now stand, you are a bit ahead on points, devoting at least one revision pass to tracking down any you may have used, then finding ways to cure it, either by your favorite approach, the more active verb that needs no adverbial support into the narrative at hand.  Sometimes curing an adverb isn’t so easy. Depending on how the material sounds when you read it aloud, you might go so far as to allow the adverb to remain.

This is all well and good, thinking as you do of adverbs the way a gardener might think of a gopher, but you do have to admit that your dislike for this part of speech has had a major effect on the way your style emerges, which is your way of admitting that the adverb cannot be set aside as a bad guy and have the matter end right there. 

It would also be nice to think your early-draft writing style has evolved from its excessive use of adverb because you are finding less of them as you undertake revision, but you are wary of taking too much assurance from such subjective appearances.  Right now, your working approach is to go at the first draft as though you were in some contest with time, wanting to get the information down with as little thought as possible, suggestive of what individuals with more belief in “other worlds,” or “the other side” than you by far would call “automatic writing.”

In some ways, you are haunted by the adverb even when you are at pains not to use it, or to be as sparing as possible.  Your most significant objection to the adverb is its clunky sound, an unpleasant noise made even more objectionable when two of them are thrown into a sentence.

Your relationship with the preposition is on more comfortable grounds.  The preposition is a linking word, often used with nouns and pronouns, sometimes in connection with phrases, which is where the grounds grow less comfortable because some instances of prepositional phrases involve adverbs.

“Don’t screw around,” is a sentence that puts the preposition to noble use, the subject of the sentence being the unspoken-but-understood you.  Prepositions have a comfortable relationship with what used to be referred to as the f-word, but which has made its way into the language, in particular tandem with prepositions.  Thus fuck around, fuck with, fuck over, fuck up, and that useful, descriptive noun, fuck-up.

Your favorite preposition is “through” because it is important to you in fiction to take your characters through experiences rather than around, over, under, or about.  If you are “in” a story, you are, indeed, somewhere, but if you have been through a story, you have been on the dramatic equivalent of the E-ticket at Disney World; you have a history of events, associations, responses, perhaps even agendas.  You can trust characters who have been through events; they have been shaped, done to, pounded as though a dough for some imaginative puff pastry or no-nonsense loaf of bread.   

Of course you are in part talking about yourself when you speak of having been through things, but when you begin thinking about your own experiences in terms of how useful they might be for you when you are composing fiction or nonfiction, you need some time to consider the provenance of your experiences.  How many of them were real?  How many have you read in the works of other writers?  How many were wish-fulfillment fantasy?  They all seem real enough, which brings the problem home –to use another fine preposition—before you.  By bringing yourself and your characters through situations, their actual occurrence stands a greater chance of convincing others of their authenticity, at which point your invention may well become someone’s reality, as so many inventions of so many other writers have become yours.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Prickles, Tingles, and Such

There is no mistaking its presence; you feel it in the spine, midway between the shoulders and the sternum, a tingle working its way up and down the spine, transporting the elation and excitement as though they were visiting royalty.  In effect, elation and excitement are visitors, bringing you news of the sudden connection of random particles within your imagination.

These visitors are soon joined by yet another visitor, one you chose to think of as a collision of audacity and mischief.  You were not expecting these visitors.  They arrive with no advance notice.  Nevertheless, you are far from disturbed or in any way irritated by their presence, even though the implications of their arrival are clear.  You are about to undergo a transformative ride.  To mix the metaphor, your interior furniture is about to be rearranged to accommodate these guests.

The aptness of a mixed metaphor makes perfect sense to you.  For one thing, you are about to fall in love.  For another, you are in all probability going to show off.  No question about the amount of coffee you will consume nor the nervous fidgeting, self-examination, straightening your posture, tidying places and things in no immediate need of tidiness.

The object of this response is a vision of a remarkable set of problems, dynamics, and behaviors, presenting themselves to you as an idea that wants your attention.  Although not jealous, this object understands the nature of its power, because its arrival does carry the accoutrements of power with it.  This arrival wants things from you in such a way that you are once again made aware of the second set of physical symptoms, beyond the elation and excitement.  These symptoms announce their arrival with prickles.  Prickles of anticipation.  Prickles of doubt.  Your spine and viscera become playgrounds for it.

“It” of course is fear. Fear you will not do justice to the idea.  Fear that you will screw this one up.  Fear that at last you have encountered a relationship with a concept so layered with nuance and texture that you will surely screw up.

One way or another, whether the new arrival is the potential of a relationship with an actual person or the arrival of an idea for a project or, and yes, this has happened, too, both, simultaneously, you know that both the dizziness of the elation and the prickle of fear are necessary if the relationship is to have any chance of success.

Of course you set forth with complete confidence.  Ah, what Dr. Kubler-Ross might have said, breaking your venture into component stages?  Would she not have noticed you showing off for the new arrival?  Perhaps a word or two, here and there, but a special word, something you don’t ordinarily use.  Perhaps an elaborate demonstration of risk to demonstrate how many resources you are bringing forth to be present for this remarkable arrival.  Every love and every story that comes to you is, of course, the most remarkable yet.  But just when you feel you have earned this chemistry, this stunning sense of attraction to this new love, the prickle of fear returns to remind you of the need to risk everything for it, to hold nothing back, lest it tire of you, become bored with you, seek other company, more intimate company, elsewhere.

Ah, congratulations.  You’ve experienced sexual jealousy before, but have you ever experienced sexual jealousy with an idea, a concept, a vibrant, shimmering idea that fills your being with responses you were only vaguely aware of and, thus, had not stopped to hone them?

Hurriedly you set up exploratory meetings, coffee dates.  Meals. Walks. Chores, even conflicts.  You are checking to see if there is a future, a way into the give and take between you and it where you set out to forge a language ideal for you both.  You wish to learn its language and impart yours to it.

A sudden return of fear, reminding you of all the failed relationships of the past.  Had these in fact failed because there was insufficient substance at the beginning, or was there some greater sense of you being derelict in your attentions?

You try for a time to think of the times the chemistry worked, where the elation and mischievousness blended with the fear, bringing you out the other side with something you had not anticipated.  But the fear reminds you, that was then; you cannot duplicate nor clone success, you must live with the tingle and the fear.  These are the necessary tools of your kit.  They keep you honest, neither arrogant nor self-consciously cautious.

Because you are an heterosexual male, you refer to the vision, the idea, the concept as feminine, thus you show off for her, you take a few risks, and she has not shown any of the signs you feared.  She is still there.  As though you were some improbable flying ace from a World War I melodrama, you push your goggles up on your forehead, bow with gallant exaggeration to the fear and the tingle, kiss your fingertips in dramatic flair, then leap into the unknown.

Moments later, even as you are falling, smaller versions of the image come to you.  In that great, falling prickle of fear, you unscrew the cap of your pen, then set it to the blank page, capturing first a word, then another, and soon, for moments, you are where you should be, beyond fear and elation, but no stranger to either of them, and for a moment, she is smiling at you, and this is how you think to spend your days.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Modern mystery novels and numerous newspaper accounts of crime scenes make pointed reference to DNA traces as substantial evidence placing a particular individual at the venue of the crime.  DNA is shorthand for deoxyribonucleic acid, which is contains instructions used in the development and functions of most living organisms. This genetic information is stored in DNA segments called genes.

A good analogy for DNA is a computer, its assortment of soft ware, and the accompanying instruction book.

In a real and vital sense, story has genetic components, which are stored in the dramatic equivalent of DNA.  As biologists consult genes for information, readers in their way consult story.  Not all readers consult story for the same reason.  Critics are looking for idiosyncratic themes and information strands that might be prove meaningless to conventional readers.  Editors are looking for potentials for general reader interest.  Conventional readers—if there truly are such individuals—are looking for emotional responses; they are looking for gateways to places they might never have otherwise visited, and they are looking for incentives to stay in these places until the trip they have embarked upon has come to an end.

You are at some pains to draw this parallel between genetics and story for the same basic reason you were—and remain—convinced the modern story and contemporary philosophies of acting techniques are developing along parallel lines.

Much of your conviction about the genetic/dramatic parallel comes from your last non fiction book, in which you spent time discussing and linking over three hundred fifty dramatic elements, some (such as plot, point of view, and scenes) seeming quite appropriate for your study, while others (such as Wile E. Coyote, Captain Ahab, and Sisyphus) seem to be things you’d drawn in from the far reaches of logic, but which have relevance of high order.

The more the reader (critic, editor, teacher, conventional reader, and writer) understands the construction of story, the more the reader will be able to see the connection between story as we have come to recognize it in a literary and teaching sense, and to see that story is wired in our species and reinforced on a cultural level with some manner of daily repetition.

To an unrealized degree, most of us are in fact educating ourselves to think and relate in some form of narrative, whether we are aware of it or not.  The more thoughtful among us who venture professional lives that involve producing narrative are trying to bring about the union of the way we write as an individual and the way we speak as a member of the species.

While we are in the process of reading the things our curiosity drives us to read, we are developing an awareness of story as never before.  The gap between the narrative report and evaluation (nonfiction) and the evocative, nuanced approximation are finding more places of convergence to the point where the dominant theme if each is often blurred.

“I am what I am,” Popeye, the Sailor, informs us.

The Critic then asks, “Who are you?”

The Reader asks, “Who am I?”

The Writer says, “Think about it.”

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Boiling your inner lobster

You’ve pretty well admired a number of film and stage directors to the point of understanding how directly your admiration has to do with the movement and direction of characters you have created in the past, characters you may be currently dealing with, and all those casting calls for characters you will put forth for characters whose agendas and needs are at this point unknown to you.

In so many words, you need to see the characters of other writers and characters of your own devising as actors in circumstances constructed to suit your curiosity.  Of course that is not enough.  Although they are entirely reliant on you as their creator, your characters must not only have qualities, quirks, and abilities that impress you, they must also have some inherent ability to surprise you as they go about attempting to realize the goals you have established for them and the consequences downstream as they pursue their goals.  It is not enough to let things go to such concepts as poetic justice, whatever the hell that is.  If there is to be a payoff, then the payoff should come from one or more of them, the other characters, not from you, passing some judgment of your own version of Mt. Olympus or Rushmore or where ever.

Of course the story is your business, but your part of the transaction is to push the characters to extremes they did not believe they could tolerate.  Your part of the story is to make things as fraught with tension, doubt, and inner conflict as possible, to apply the heat to the crucible into which you have placed them, almost as though they were live lobsters you are about to boil as a prelude to turning those live lobsters into commonly acknowledged versions of edible lobsters.

Your business is not to explain the motives, afflictions, backstory, and agendas of your characters to the readers.  Your business is to guide the characters by limiting their actions, response time, dialogue, and inner monologue to the individual beats of activity they are engaging.  Your business is to listen to these creations of yours, these characters, then reflect on what each of them is doing at any given moment.

Suppose the reader is motivated from reading your version of the story to suppose things are going on, both on and off stage, that you had neither intended nor, indeed, considered.  High-class problem.  This is a sign that the characters have come to such a state of life that their off-duty activities are transmitting messages—they are reaching the readers to come.  If you intrude, which is to say explain or describe their activities of your characters, you are not allowing them the freedom to do as they wish, which is to take this story of your contrivance and render it into something memorable for the way it breaks free of the readers and their expectations.

Never take the reader precisely where the reader wants to go.  Leave the reader off a block too soon or a block to late.  Leave something unexplained, ambiguous.

True enough, you are in effect describing a kind of story you much enjoy.  It is not impossible for you to enjoy other kinds of stories, particularly the stories produced by writers who are not only not among the living now, they have not been among us for fifty or sixty years, perhaps even more yet.

Used to be the short story was resolved or brought to a conclusion with some kind of closure reminiscent of the punch line of a joke.  Such stories now—stories by the likes of Somerset Maugham and F. Scott Fitzgerald and particularly William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry—but they are accepted now with the understanding that they are dated.  Clever.  Honest.  Illustrative.  Nevertheless, dated.

Stand back.  Let them duke it out.  Push them a bit.  Do not by any means make it too easy on them.  Under no circumstances explain their actions, however cleverly an approach you contrive.  No more of this “He would never forget this moment,” or “She understood now that she’d been living a lie.”  Both explanations may be perfectly valid, but it is better for the reader to see this than for you to include it with the stage directions.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Son of In the Event

An event is an observable activity.  The more significant the activity, the greater the likelihood it will evoke rich and often complex feelings.  This activity is the dramatic equivalent of a cell in biology.   If your goal were to construct a living entity, you’d do well to start with a cell.  If your goal is to construct a story, you’d better start with an event.

Characters cause, express, and react to events.  Although characters may not intend to do so, they pass along the consequences and cumulative effects of event the way a sneeze explodes microbes into an environment.  Think about the times you have been thrown out of present time agenda and into some past event, surprised to find yourself there, the emotional equivalent of showing up at an appointment or gathering inappropriately dressed for the occasion.

A beat is a basic event, performed by a character—any character and every character. To the dramatic writer, a beat has the same function and purpose the cell has to the biologist.  The writer actively uses events to launch a story, a beat at a time.

At one time in the history of narrative storytelling, the writer described what characters did and how they felt while doing it, often stopping from time to time to address the reader with commentary about the story in progress, as though taking the reader beyond the boundaries of the scene in which the story took place.  The dramatic writer had no such luxury, nevertheless the gesture known as the aside was developed, allowing the character to speak directly to the audience as though conveying his agenda and a portion of the author’s.

Early in the act I, scene II of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Gloucester, not yet anointed as King Richard, has a confrontation with Lady Anne, the widow of a man he had killed to advance his succession to the throne of England he so coveted.  Before our eyes, he woos her, dramatically pressing his suit upon her to the point where she grudgingly accepts his attentions.  When she is gone, Gloucester remains on stage alone, where he tells us in so many words that he plans to marry her, then do away with her.

A modern playwright would more likely have allowed Gloucester’s entrance speech in which he chooses the role of villain, followed by the passionate nature of his come-on to Lady Anne to convey his full agenda.  For all his chops, Shakespeare wanted to make sure we got Gloucester’s intent.

In more recent years, the aside has vanished from dramatic presentations. The “reader feeder,” the device of less skilled fiction writers to convey vital information to the reader, is on its way to the revision waste heap.  As story evolves, the modern dramatist and narrative storyteller have in effect shared the burden with the audience by delivering event in ways that evoke rather than describe the dramatic action.

To be sure, we see things happen but thanks to the actions and accompanying dialogue, and interior monologue, the reader is well able to get the feel and intent of the activity being presented.

In the early draft stages, too much focus on details and justifications will distract the writer from visualizing the proper amount of beats, their cadence, and their intensity to produce the proper balance.  Best to overwrite and over describe at first, then revisit, removing or tweaking so that the key events are preserved and the distractions are eliminated.

When the events are in true focus, even when presented by writers known for the uniqueness of their narrative styles, the reader will absorb the style as well as the sense of intense presence in the moment of the scene in play.

Effective storytelling does present each beat, each event in its moment of occurrence; it does its job so well that even one misplaced or unnecessary word becomes a speedbump for the reader.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Much as you enjoy thinking and taking about the scene as the basic unit of drama, you are fond as well of speaking and thinking of the lowest common denominator of the scene, which is the beat.  A beat is an action.  Jack woke up.  Better yet, Gregor Samsa awakened.  A scene is a number of beats, placed in some order to secure some dramatic and emotional effect.

Drama does not need to run in a strict chronology, thus its component beats may be arranged in ways the author believes presents the desired emotional residue.  This optimal arrangement, this non-chronological order of beats is the plot.

Although some novels and stories have memorable plots--usually because these plots are simple to the point of simplistic (Les Miserables, Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick)—it is still possible to make the observation that readers are more apt to recall characters with vivid detail while recalling only the barest of details of the plot.

You for your part have written numerous novels and short stories that found their way into publication and an almost impossible to document number that are mercifully away from your ability to do anything meaningful with them.  You have edited works of fiction, seeing them through both the editorial and production processes, yet you could not estimate with any degree of confidence the approximate number of beats in a novel of average length or a short story of any length.  Your point here is that even with a production oriented need to know the approximate number of words or characters in a text for the purpose of determining the size of the type and the width of a standard line, your senses are more apt to retain the names and background of characters rather than the detailed specifics of the plots in which they found themselves enmeshed.

This is your trump card for the argument that character may supplement plot but character also has the greater likelihood of being recalled, certainly more likely than plot.

Readers and writers begin with the knowledge that characters are mere constructions.  Characters may be built on or modeled after actual individuals, but that is of insignificant consequence if the character is presented in such a way that he or she emerges as real to the reader.  True enough, a story has almost no shot at publication if it sounds contrived, nevertheless the reader recalls the characters, particularly when they are seemingly at their wit’s end.

You might argue that a character find himself or herself at wit’s end is in fact a major plot condition, piling it on with the added observation that the author of a well-crafted narrative has given the character some ability which she must recognize in herself, before setting out to do battle.
Best hope is that the reader will recall a specific plot point or scene because that point or scene had some personal resonance, a fact many critics and shrinks consider proof that we as a species are bound together more in story than racial/ethnic tradition.

We enjoy and seek particular kinds of stories and their situations because we want to see how characters as flawed as we can have a hand in dealing with the wolf pack at their heels.

No matter how much out on the limb a particular character is, we root for that character to extricate himself from that plot because we have identified with the character.  At a certain time in our life, we’ll have tarried with any number of plots.  Yesterday’s pain might have left a scar, last week’s fright may have had an effect on our timing, some plot details might cause us to twitch with discomfort because we’d been somewhere similar, but we have faith in our characters; they’ll get free of the plot complications and go on doing things we’re tempted to watch.

It is a temptation we cannot, in the proper story, resist.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Learning Curve

The percentage of your income from editing manuscripts ranges from notable to considerable.  Your fees range from exorbitant—in cases where you suspect the effect the immersion in the work will have on you will be painful—to reasonable for the work performed.

In recent months, you have turned away two commissions from writers of nonfiction projects, each of which the author was better able to discuss in conversation than in the actual text.  In both cases, the text betrayed the hovering presence of the Ph.D. as terminal degree.  Some Ph.D.’s are flat out eloquent in their ability to set events on paper in an invigorating fashion.  Two of your most productive and interesting nonfiction clients are in fact Ph.D. types.

Of possible relevance to the calculus you are building here, each has been granted this degree outside the United States.  The two commissions you did not accept had earned their Ph.D. degree from a respected American institution.  (You’ve alerted yourself to this set of circumstances to the point of being interested in arriving at some outcome.  But not at the moment.  The circumstances surrounding your experiences with American Ph.D. diplomates are not yet evidentiary, nor is the fact of your acquaintance with yet another Ph.D. granted by an American university, who as well as being brilliant in her chosen field, has produced two remarkable historical thrillers.)

In the same period, you returned the entire fee to an individual who was so sour, so narcissistic, so radiant of undeserved stature that you would not be surprised to discover this person had been awarded a Ph.D.  The individual surely has a M.A., writes and thinks like an academic, which is to say as laden with poetry and metaphor as a haggis is loaded with oatmeal, as sure to contain passive voice constructions as haggis is sure to be served with rutabaga and potato.

Still, this is not a screed or even a mild takedown of advanced degrees or academic writing.  Those deserve an essay of their own.

This is about the cumulative effect of all the reading you have done, as an impressionable and curious younger person, as an impressionable and curious if not remarkably good student, as a beginning writer with a burning appetite and curiosity, and as an editor in the making, this last fact being directly responsible for your becoming a teacher.

As you worked your way up the ladder in publishing, your job, among others, was to read everything that came in, write some kind of evaluation on the project, specifying its potential or lack thereof and the estimated number of hours necessary to put it through the production process.  You saw some remarkably poor submissions, submitted by individuals who thought them worthy of publication.  You also became acquainted with the necessities of estimating the cost of a particular project and the need to place a realistic price on it.  You came also to learn you were being judged in the final analysis for your ability to identify and recommend projects that had a reasonable chance of “earning out” or making enough profit to subsidize the more literary projects that came through.

At one point, in the employ of a massmarket publisher, after you’d estimated a potential for sales in the hundred thousand neighborhood, you were curtly reminded that you were not in Kansas anymore, Toto, massmarket meant millions, not a mere hundred thousand.

As time chugged along, you’d begun to feel that the overall skill of dramatic writing had improved; you were seeing better submissions and were reading more substantial works for your pleasure, which reminds you of another digressive essay relative to the fact that you read not for pleasure but for enjoyment, the difference between these two standards of excruciating nuance and importance.

It came as a shock when you realized the simple truth; your underlings were culling the dreadful material, a fact underscored by the realization that you were dealing with graduate-level students rather than undergraduates, thus even their dreadful ideas were more of consequence than undergraduate writing.

You believe there is a learning curve.  There surely was one for you, and there is surely more room in your own cranky psyche for patience with students than with many editorial projects you’ve seen at close hand.  With your own work, patience is not in the equation; you are not a patient person, but with your own work, you are stubborn, a quality that carries you through the rough spots.

The temptation to say no is growing greater when an editing project visits you with the persistence of a bill collector.  The fee you’d just returned represents losses in time, income, and your regard for your own instincts.  In the face of a troubled past with the writer, you took the person on because you thought it had a potential for making a lasting impression on a diverse audience, something and somewhere in the vicinity of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  There was, of course, some ego involved; you thought of directors who’d coaxed memorable performances from actors who’d already reached the top of their game.  You thought this would be a nice coup, helping this author bring off this project.  In your dreams.

If you are not patient, you are not cynical.  Somewhere at the core, the ruling energy comes from enthusiasm, and that is the thing you are at pains to preserve.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


There are any number of ways to portray the passage of time in story, a simple example being to start a new paragraph or even a sentence with the word “Later.”  You might also try “Then.”  Sometimes a mere paragraph indentation or the two-line space to separate one scene from the next will suffice.

A slight nudge from the narrative voice, such as “Time moved past her without leaving so much as a shadow” provides the reader with the sense of a narrator so caught up in events that she has been caught up in a daze.

Some writers—you among them—have sketched in the movement of time with such tropes as “Early the next morning…”

You can also slow time down by using stratagems including the addition of relevant detail or background to some dramatic action.

Word choice helps convey the sense of motion in either direction, fast, or slow.  Reading scenes aloud—your own as well as those of writers you admire—is instructive; you’ll see how words with double-o or double e seem to slow time, while short, declarative sentences, if piled on properly, can produce the breathless sense of running or struggle.

You have the power in story that is denied you out there in reality; you can speed time or slow it.  Thinking about the effects you wish time to have on your characters, you begin to see tiny ways, perhaps word-choice ways, perhaps types-of-action ways, to objectify time, making it an adversary.  Taking care not to get noticeable in your manipulation, the choice of words, sentence length, and cadence of language can project the subliminal—repeat—subliminal use of the ticking clock, the shortened fuse, the expiration of the deadline.

But as yet, you’ve said nothing about the importance of pace, the tempo at which time elapses or does not appear to pass.  The length of sentences is an obvious entry into the waters.  Short, choppy sentences suggest running, gulping for air, decisions to be made—now.  Longer sentences, you might even bring in Faulkner here, can demonstrate, as so many of Faulkner’s sentences do, the plight of characters who are attempting to free themselves of their past, but being caught in the snarl of consequences from such an attempt.

At one time in your writing life, you were too much taken with the craft and structure of Ernest Hemingway, reaching into your paragraphs like a hungry worker at a boarding house dinner table, reaching ahead to connect clauses that could just as well stand as sentences in their own right.  You wished to embed the connective “and” between these independent clauses, sometimes teasing a sentence into a complete paragraph, thinking that by doing so, you’d captured Hemingway’s hypnotic cadence and pacing.  You did no such thing, but you thought you had, setting yourself back in your efforts to write enough to see who you were, which version of you was uttering the sentences as you worked to transcribe them into early drafts.

Style was and still is of great interest to you, but in your late teens it seemed to matter so much that you be able to replicate those you admired that you were led away by the tsunami of style from the absolute necessity of story.  You worried in secret about your lack of story material, while at the same time pouncing on John O’Hara, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Jerome David Salinger.  You in effect taught yourself style without teaching yourself story.

The characters in the stories of successful writers, even writers whose work you did not admire, all had agendas; they wanted something, were willing to do something or, in the case of a personal learning experience that seemed to appear out of nowhere for you, not do anything.  The novel Oblomov, by the Russian writer Ivan Gancharov, published about 1860, was about a young aesthete who took to his bed, wishing to remain there.  Himself a member of the leisure class he was satirizing, Gancharov had an agenda, which brought you closer to understanding story.  Your plan was to have a character who wished to do the same thing, but found it impossible to do so because life kept getting in the way.  Almost there, you were; you needed a better-realized protagonist, a more plausible purpose, and a greater connection to theme.  Close, but no cigar yet.

Pacing is important beyond the protagonist running from the bad guys or rushing to get home for an important event.  Pacing relates to the rate with which information is exposed.  (Not all that long ago, you’d have not even thought to say, “exposed,”you’d have said revealed, and let it go there.  Revelation is important but exposing has a bit more nuance about itself.  Not only does revelation mean what information is exposed, it speaks to the kinds and relevance of information, things relating to who the character is, her backstory, her strengths, weaknesses, her needs, her goals, her fantasies.

Looking at this, you begin to think you might be able to keep pace with it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Noir with a touch of mischief

Some of your favored sensual experiences are solitary in nature.  This does by no means suggest you believe they are best experienced while your are alone, rather that however tempting it might be to add something, say a hooker of Crème de Cacao or a shot of rum to a pile off superb chocolate ice cream, the chocolate ice cream is a sufficiency unto itself.  Ditto with cognac, and an entire laundry list of gustatory experiences, including watermelon, cherries, and a deft sauté of kale.

Other things do work well in combination, baked beans and brown bread coming to mind as well as the more conventional yet still iconic bacon and eggs.

You have read with enjoyment novels set in the historical past, a fact whereby you can admit to enjoying historical fiction.  You absolutely admire contemporary mystery/suspense/crime novels, each as stand alone representatives of their genre, yet you have no objection to an artful marriage, thus the historical suspense or mystery, Mr. Wilkie Collins being an excellent executor of this form.

This is all backdrop for the shotgun wedding within your own psyche when it comes to the noir, suitably bleak or dark story, shot through with the zany tropes you might discover in any Marx Brothers film epic.  Noir and zany seem to have a natural pull on your attentions, reminding you of two kids competing for the attentions of their mother.

In a way, this blend of opposites has established squatter’s rights on many of your works, arriving in such force at one point in your career—early thirties—that you were concerned about never being able to write your way through it.  The chemistry was so persistent that your concerns centered on your never being to cut free of it, thus goodbye meaningful writing career.

Your work has evolved to the point where you might be said to have written your way through it, but there is nothing evidentiary to back up this thesis with data.  You in fact have not written your way through the persistent sense of mischief that emerges at the drop of a serious paragraph.  The mischief seems to always be there.  

Mischief was surely present for moments, hours on end, while you developed the dramatic vectors of the short story,” Love will make you drink and gamble, stay out late at night,” which title was taken from a well-known blues that may be sung by a male or female voice.  The presence was so strong that you were put in mind of a trope from Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, “a world full tickle.”

In a strong sense, you take your noir from Dashiell Hammett, those wonderful Continental Op stories, and such novellas as The Gutting of Couffingal, and The Red Harvest, while taking your mischief from any number of The Canterbury Tales, particularly the portion where a character likely modeled after Chaucer himself is interrupted in his narration, to be told “No more, for godde’s word/Thy drasty rhyming is not worth a turd.”

Given the extravagant number of writers whose works you admire, and a considerable-but-not-extensive number of writers whose works you do not admire, you would think to have an easy time with your own conflation of the noir and mischievous aspects of narrative, but it is not easy in that sense, being you, which means you have found the ideal writing comfort zone, the un-comfort zone.  If composition is comfortable, you will be tempted to dawdle, do boyish things.  If it is too noir, it is likely to be so because you are fulminating, ranting, and how do you make a verb out of screed?  Do you say screeding?  If it is too mischievous, Captain Spaulding steals all your scenes and the zanies will have won the day.

You have arrived at what you are by practice and misdirection.  The state is not comfortable because it might veer out of control at any given moment, but when all is said, done, and edited, the results are you and they are fun, which is about as noir as you can get.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

Long before you had awareness of or access to the Internet and the prospects of hosting your online blog site, you were doing a more-or-less equivalent in a series of notebooks and bulking dummy samples from paper manufacturer’s samples, holdovers from your days in publishing where you were responsible not only for editorial selection and editorial quality, but manufacturing as well.

Your earliest records, morphing from diary to journal, then straying into essay or at least examination spanned a time from your late teens onward.  You are able to track various degrees of progress both in your writing style and the content.

This is the backstory to your growing awareness of the tidal natures of fiction and nonfiction in your writing life and outside it.  No telling how much nonfiction you have produced or even any possibility of a reliable ratio of fiction to nonfiction.  Your preference was always fiction, particularly at times when your nonfiction was paying the rent.

These vagrant blog pages are about ninety percent nonfiction, some of which was done to help you work up a sweat while engaging some story or other.

Observation:  Your approach to nonfiction has been to impart information and/or opinion, both facts you have come to regard as detrimental to writing fiction.  The notion of focusing on fiction is attractive, often impossible to ignore.  In similar fashion, the notion of giving up teaching and the drastic rollback of editing are attractive, often impossible to ignore—completely.  You recognize, to the boundaries of accepting the emotions behind the desires, the necessity for continuing in some way because of their contribution to your feelings for story and your ability to employ such techniques of storytelling as you have.

To express it in the simplest terms, you write nonfiction to acquire, process, and store information in your memory and emotional banks, the two places where interest rates are neither pitiful nor at issue.  You write fiction to discover what you know about the human condition.  If, after reading your own fiction or the fiction of any of a number of writers you admire, you discover glaring inadequacies in your own work, you have the standards then of men and women whose work moves you as your pole stars.  From these stars, you have the option of finding your way upward toward higher standards of insight, content, and narrative tone.

You’ve long followed the course of writing at a particular work until you have come to some surprise recognition of a connection or insight you had not experienced previously.  Thus it is no surprise to you that having completed another draft, you move back to the beginning again, in search that defining moment of discovery somewhere.

You have long since come to see how so much of fiction presents information in an oblique manner.  You are particularly fond of fiction because you as writer cannot explain things; the characters and the events have to speak for themselves, inviting the readers into the field of experience as though they were there, eavesdropping.  Within your field of vision, story is not explained; it is implicit in the behavior and sometime non-behavior of the characters.  Nor are you allowed an opinion in fiction as you are in nonfiction.  You owe a kind of integrity toward all your characters.  Writing is difficult enough without this regulatory loophole, but it is a necessary presence; you must be sympathetic with all of the characters, even those who stand against the individuals you’ve chosen to represent as protagonists.  Your opinions reside in the characters you chose, their goals, and their strategies for achieving their goals, but it is fatal for the reader to catch you deliberately loading the deck against a character to make that individual s poster child for negativity.

Nor is it seemly for you to contrive a story along mechanical lines or stop short of revision at the point where you have not been made aware of the connecting links within your characters and the outcome of their story.  You did this enough times in the past to the point where storytelling shut down within you, absented itself for a long hiatus in which the only writing you could venture was nonfiction.

You worked your way out at considerable cost to your sense of wellbeing.  Nonfiction can be subtle, nuanced, intriguing, and elegant in its presentation of complex and fresh insights.  Its overall effect can be as significant and heady as a visit to a museum. This is not to be passed off in a light manner.  Fiction—story—dramatizes for you the exhibitions playing out in the museum of you emotions; if successful, it enters and has effect on your dreams.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


 Depending on one’s interests and preferences, the word putter has multifarious potentials in verb and noun form.  You will dismiss the most obvious noun use out of hand; you have no interest in golf.  You have on a scale of one-to-ten perhaps a one, a scant one of conversation with those who have a nine or ten interest in the game.  As a noun, putter means a club used to advance the ball to the cu once the ball has advanced to the green, that area directly about the cup.  This is as far as you are willing to take the noun.

The verb “to putter” has significant permutations relative to your interest in writing in specific and the literary life in general, thus putter as a verb can be conflated with the procrastination necessary to get yourself into a writing mood and, eventually, writing mode.

Similar, but not congruent, puttering can be the procrastination you undertake to delay the beginning of a writing session.  This kind of puttering can be procrastination because you have a place to write about but have not yet come upon a way to reach that destination.  You can also procrastination putter because you have a place to go but for some reason or reasons, you find yourself unwilling to proceed.  This is often the time for serious puttering such as embarking on a major distraction such as shopping for groceries, browsing the selection of new arrivals at Zappos, or driving Sally to the shampoo salon in Summerland.

In a more generic sense, puttering can be reading a particular book, skimming a stack or books, ordering books from online sources, or, in the case of serious puttering, driving to Chaucer’s an independent book store of some considerable size.  If you wish an extended putter, The Book Den is appropriate because of its downtown location, which means more time necessary to find a parking space, even though The Book Den is in easy walking distance.

Puttering is trolling for ideas, energy, connections.  When you troll thusly, you are trolling the entire universe.  Subjects of no previous interest to you take on exquisite attraction to the point where you are only too willing to continue your research at the library or online via data bases and web sites.

A splendid puttering strategy of considerable use begins with a notebook that must be fresh, which is to say with no entries on any of its pages. If no notebooks with unmarked leaves are available, there arises the question of where to secure such virginal volumes, which necessitates a decision relative to the farthest source from where you are.  So far as you have been able to determine, the most remote place is the student store at the university, in Goleta, but perhaps there is a source to the south, in Carpinteria.

Actual sessions of composition and/or revision are great fun.  No question about it.  These sessions are even more meaningful because they have produced some form of material you have written as opposed to materials from other sources that you have scanned or photocopied, the latter sessions remarkable more for the writing they kept you from committing to some kind of keepable format as opposed to things you have “thought through.

Puttering is fun as well as inspirational.  A proper session of profitable puttering should produce at least one potentially fecund idea for a story that you will write the hell out of as soon as you have organized your notes and looked in on the books you’ve purchased or borrowed in pursuit of some trail of curiosity.

You are not the sort of putter who needs to organize the notes he has applied in several relatively fresh notebooks lying about the house.  For one thing, this activity would require a large ring binder and a sufficient supply of dividers, all of which would require a specific label because there is, so far as you can see, absolutely no value in having all your notes together in one place if the subject dividers are not given exacting captions.  Nor would you be content with the bellows-type file arrangement because this would require time spent in maintenance, which you simply do not have, given your teaching and writing loads, nor do you have time to sort through the drawer of your writing table nor the pockets, drawers, and artful crannies of the antique secretary you inherited from your mother.

This last activity is not really puttering.  It is instead simple compulsive behavior, an activity with which you are mercifully spared.  You have better things to do with your time.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Not long after you’d taken the need to commit multiplications to a degree of muscle memory, you were faced with yet another chore for your memory, valence, the number of bonds of which an atom of a particular element is capable.  The atoms of some elements have multiple capabilities for bonding, meaning they have more than one valence and you were supposed to memorize those so that you could write equations based on the observed valences of each element, producing such things as NaCl and H2So4.  By doing so, you’d be demonstrating your basic understanding of hoe elements bonded, formed compounds.  You’d in effect be able to speak to and understand concepts in chemistry and physics.  The world would be a bit less mysterious to you, and if you truly grasped the significance and language of valence, your immediate future was organic chemistry, where equations grew sophisticated in ways you’d not have suspected before.

You did not do well in chemistry.  By a series of accidents, you did well in physics, which was every bit as much a confusion to you as it was to your instructors.  It did not make sense for you to be so good in the latter and so unresponsive in the former.

There was a time when you were so desperate to understand chemistry that you set about trying to assign valence to words, tracking the way they bonded with one another.  At one point, you tried to connect the words in the sonnets of Shakespeare, which caused you to appreciate the sonnet as a poem and the sonnets of Shakespeare as deft constructions that had an inner resonance, but there was no help in your understanding of chemistry.

The thing about your attempt to construct a valence table for words had to do with the reality of certain words sounding clunky, awful in fact.  Some of these words were “that,” “therefore,” “potentially,” “suddenly,” “very,” and “just.”  To be sure, there are other words that had a rebarbative effect for you; you wanted as little to do with them as possible.  These words seem to have the effect lifeguards attribute to some individual swimmers they have had to rescue.  These imperiled swimmers, when being rescued, would panic and make their rescue more difficult because of their panic-driven clinging to the person rescuing them.  Some words—in particular “that”—attach themselves to sentences and drag them below the surface.

For the longest time, you were obsessed by the sounds of words running well together and words producing a kind of clunky, jerky atmosphere, making you want to get past them whenever you encountered them.  You were alternately trying to pull apart the sentences of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, two writers whose styles were as polar as you could imagine. Surely you could, by studying them, evolve your own.  The notion appealed to you, but it never quite paid off; you of course sounded like neither, picking up from Hemingway the use of the word “and” to connect independent clauses, while picking up from Fitzgerald the tendency to stuff words into your sentences to the point where they more resembled sausages than narrative.

The question you learned to ask everyone you came in contact, including yourself, was “Who are you?”  The answer to this seemingly koan-like enigma is answerable.  Your belief is that it energizes the way your sentences come forth, the way you dramatize, describe, even conflate.

Style is what comes after the thinking, writing, and editing; it appears as the story—if the work is fiction—begins to appear, or as the narrative—if the work is nonfiction—steps forward to take responsibility for the direction of revelation.  If clothes make the man or woman, which is to say present the individual to an audience, style gives the narrative its distinct flavor, to which the true condiments, herbs, vegetable stock and essential agreements impart personality and substance.

Beyond all metaphor is the voice, the attitude and intent of the writer in the choice of words, the cadences, the inner rhythms, pacing, and sense that this narrative accurately and honestly speaks the language of story.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


You go about looking for surprise the way some individuals probe sofa cushions for loose change and others comb the beaches with metal detectors.

Loose change thus becomes the equivalent of what you look for in your stories, hell, even in your paragraphs.  Things you may have had and lost without even being aware of the loss.  Or discovering things that got away from others, persons you might never know.

If you are looking for something, then find it, how can the discovery be a surprise?  The answer is simple enough:  You look for discovery but have no idea what the discovery is, much less what to do with it until you pause for some time to take in the implications of what has been found.

One of your favorite types of surprise is the result of a discovery that is described by the concept “In the beginning is the end,” otherwise represented as “The end is in the beginning.”  This is serious stuff, several levels beyond which way the roll of toilet paper drapes (under or above); it is the sense of the kind of circularity of history and event posited by the Italian philosopher and pre-physicist, Giambatista Vico.  If you write enough beginnings, then work on developing them, you will ultimately discover the end of the story, which came to you as a surprise, wasn’t all that much of a surprise to the aspects of your craft that produce beginnings for you.

A splendid example is a short story you once wrote called “The Ability,” which you just chanced upon while preparing a batch of stories for your publisher, who thinks to prepare a collection of your short fiction.  The story begins with your protagonist applying for a job at a university.  Part of the pre-job activity includes having an identity photo taken.  Three or four times, you had the photo being taken by a student who was first seen reading a copy of The Heart of Darkness.  Each time you revised the story, you omitted this detail on the grounds that it was not relevant to the way the story developed, except that in subsequent drafts, you replaced the book, then, at greater length, paused to think the matter through.  The Heart of Darkness detail belonged in the story, you reasoned, only if the payoff of the story was the payoff moment of the novel, with Kurtz’s fiancée saying those chilling words, “O, the horror.”  At this point, you knew you had the ending in mind, worked toward it, achieved it, and were thrilled with the results as well as the details, like loose change, you discovered while reaching toward it.

Part of the excitement of story is the gradual discovery of the surprises that link beginnings to endings, of actions to agendas and metaphors.  Story is about something organic as opposed to something merely episodic.  If you are not careful, your stories can become events that produce no sense of discovery, whether the discovery is a half dollar, a wristwatch, or a bracelet.

It has come about that you were asked which of your stories is your favorite, causing one in particular to leap to the front of the line, and it is an emblematic display of your short fiction.  For a few moments, you were even comfortable with the proclamation that “Coming to Terms” was your favorite story, but as you began to wonder why this was so, you were dealt another surprise.

You are fond of a great number of your stories because they rise to some moment beyond their intended theme that amused you profoundly when these moments came forth.  There is one particular moment in “Death Watches” where a man whose current agenda is to arrange his affairs so that he will not die alone.  In the process, he attempts to rescue a cat from the animal shelter, intending the cat as a companion, but his application is denied because he is not considered a safe bet as a cat person.

Another such theme comes when a man is tempted to steal his best friend’s dog, and yet another surprise comes when a man in a group therapy environment is set upon and mugged by one of his group mates, who had not realized their connection because of the darkness of the landscape in which the attack took place.

These surprises are quite typical of your vision of the cosmos.  You reason that there would be more of them apparent to you if you looked harder, were not so impatient to move on to the next surprise.

You sometimes remind yourself of these otherworldly individuals who patrol the beaches, particularly early mornings after holiday weekends, their metal detectors sweeping swaths of sand, their faces grim with intent.

The quest you have in mind is the buried surprise that will produce an explosion of the kind of laughter that is undershot with some sad universal truth about why you laugh, why you do things that are in the long run funny, even to you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Appointment

After a flurry of household and personal grooming activity—tidying up in the kitchen and trimming nails or shaving—you focus on the appointment with an amused snicker.  The amusement is because the appointment has reached the point where you are no longer casual about it.  You were tidying up beyond your normal neatness.

Your amusement with yourself is because while tidying, you were thinking of your parents.  You were in effect bringing them into an equation.  Trimming nails or shaving is part of the delaying process. Perhaps adding a dash of existential adrenaline to the stew of procrastination already at noticeable simmer.

At such moments, the appointment seems of overwhelming importance.  Surely you will be late.  Excuses—which is to say defenses—already begin to form in your mind.  Contingencies arise, presenting themselves as potential candidates for the simmering stew.  After all, it is a sympathetic stew.

Isn’t it?

As with so many things in the universe, the stew has only limited awareness.  The rest is in your hands.  You need not be clean-shaven or tidy for this appointment.  Some may argue that your appearance at the appointment trumps the appearance you present upon arrival.

Last defense arrives as though from an eager FedEx delivery person; you need, desperately need coffee and it is too much bother to make it at home.  Well enough.  You alert Sally to your departure, wend your way down the drive to your car, aware now that you have used up every last stratagem.  The most you can hope for is a chance encounter with someone, who will provide the distraction of conversation.

Although your choice of venue is crowded, you see no familiar faces or, better put, no one recognizes you.  Your name is called by the barista, announcing your presence to anyone who might give you last minute reprieve by recognizing you.

You experience the flush of hopelessness at this last-ditch inevitability.  Time has run out.

There is nothing for it but to begin writing.  It is not that you have nothing to say or to write about; you have in fact left off yesterday’s work on a project, filled with anticipation and opinion.

 The appointment is for the practice, the beginning session, these self-same notes to precede the day’s output, the musician’s equivalent of running scales and practice.

The thing to be learned at the appointed time is to bypass the fear of what you have written, if anything to transfer the fear to the fear of what you do not write because you have stopped to think about it.

There are times for thought, both before writing and after, in the drafts and revision process.  There are time for no thought whatsoever, rather to keep the words coming as though they had a life of their own, without you stepping in and trying to give them one.

If you stop to think, you may indeed come up with something, a connection, a new direction, even a fresh idea, but then you have to get back into the stream again, stop thinking about how good that connection was or how you did not see it coming, as though you were trying to convince yourself that you were back to spontaneous again.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Wizard of Was

When you grow nostalgic enough about Los Angeles to write of your associations there, you think with some frequency about two men with whom you have almost nothing in common except that they typify for you the sorts of individuals who have been drawn there to live out the remainder of their life.

The two men are L. (for Lyman) Frank Baum and Wyatt Earp.  At various times in your life, particularly as a student for a year or so at Los Angeles City College, you drove past Baum’s house on Melrose Avenue with some regularity.  As you interest in aspects of Western history grew, you’d also drive past 4004 Seventeenth Street, where, of all remarkable places, Earp lived and died.

Baum and Earp seemed—still do—splendid examples of the sorts drawn to the energy and possibilities of Los Angeles.  Earp found his way to the film studios, where he served as a consultant for producers of Western films.  Each had an energy for adventure, each had aspects of political views you found repugnant when you became aware of them.  Like many successful writers, Baum had the irony in his life of not being able to write off the imaginary city of Oz; his fans clamored for more to the point where Baum had money to invest in other things that were less successful.

You have no first-hand information to support your imaginative scenario that Los Angeles provided the inspiration for Oz, but thoughts of the connective tissue for your theory begin to tingle each time you say the names of the two cities in tandem.  Los Angeles.  Oz. Los Angeles.  Oz.  You can see Baum walking about the area along Melrose between Western and Vermont, lost in his Los Angeles haze, pulling into his fictional landscape individuals he must have seen around this Baja Hollywood part of the city, converting its denizens into viable characters of fantasy.

You made similar pilgrimages to places where a more contemporary individual of troubled convergences lived during his time in Los Angeles, and of course F. Scott Fitzgerald also died there, occasioning Dorothy Parker’s famed obituary, “The poor son of a bitch.”

His reasons for being in Los Angeles had directly to do with the aspects of it you’re least interested; the men and women whose lives served as magnets for individuals who wanted to try their hand at living the magical, enchanted life of a certain level of fame and affluence.

At the most basic level, the thing you least of all had in common with these individuals was the fact of your being born here and raised with the sense of them having been drawn here.  You had dreams similar to all three, sought with some deliberation to write the way Fitzgerald wrote, wished to exploit the fantastic aspects of story the way Baum did, and felt somehow tied to the Western heritage of mining, prospecting, and seeking public relations type approaches to earning enough to live in enough comfort to write your way through the doldrums of emerging technique and into full productivity.

Stunning as it was to be in London, where you were able to visit such iconic places as you’d read about, and tread the same walkways as some of your heroes and heroines—“Mind you don’t step on Jan Austen.”—having grown up in the stucco and whimsy, the larger-than-life, the deliberate exaggerations, and the make-believe come to life made you suspicious of every other city you have seen.  From your reading and the conversation of your parents, you knew New York had an aura, but when you first saw it, you asked yourself This is it?  Boston had a cachet, and you were impressed, most notably with Fenway Park and the Commons, but no sense of historical awe.  Chicago had been touted and trumpeted, but once you were there, your mind was considerably west of there.  Mexico City?  Ah, quite a bit like—dared you say it?—Los Angeles.

Small rural disasters in the high desert seemed more exciting than New Orleans, and long deserted ghost towns in the Panamints and Sierras held more of a sense that drama had been played out there of the sort that would be more your cup of empathy.

Perhaps it was the sense of unrealness in places such as Tonopah and Bodie and Panamint City and Virginia City that caught you as a youngster in Los Angeles, colored your visions of where a place should be and what it was.  Perhaps it was your picking up the propaganda history of this incredible, intemperate, Katzenjammer Kids clump of film sets and staged scenery that made it more real for you than anywhere else.

When you were a teenager and your parents took you with them to Las Vegas, you overheard someone in one of the casinos telling a tourist they didn’t have to go to Los Angeles because Las Vegas could build a better Los Angeles, a Los Angeles where they’d want to remain.

Your classes at the university were over at six forty, which was no time to think about driving through rush hour traffic, and so you haunted such places as The Pantry on Figueroa, Philippe’s on Commercial Street, The TastyQ on Vermont, Roscoe’s Chicken ‘n Waffles, possibly Moon Fat Low in Chinatown. Maybe even the Far East in Little Tokyo.  None required much driving.  A leisurely dinner avoided the driving crunch, more or less opened the Harbor Freeway or the Hollywood Freeway or the Santa Monica Freeway so you could head northward with some dispatch.  But it was a rare occasion when, much as you wished to be home, you’d want to stay on the freeway system, preferring instead to drive through the neighborhoods, to gape at the shadows and ghostly images, marveling at the occasional surprise of some architectural whimsicality, a monument of unselfconsciousness in this quintessential unselfconscious-and-yet-mannered place,

Street names and neighborhoods lulled you to the explorer you were when you tracked L. Frank Baum and Wyatt Earp and F. Scott Fitzgerald to their hiding places amidst the crannies and history of the past.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Los Angeles

When you are “from” a place that seems to define your identity, even though you are no longer “of” that place, parts of the place are as familiar to you as your knees or elbows, and you often find yourself seeing parts of the place strolling through your psyche like rubbernecking tourists.

The place is Los Angeles.  It is El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula.  You are able among other things to find true north, speak and read Spanish, use chopsticks, and brew your own espresso coffee because of it.  Los Angeles is not L.A. for you as it is for so many of its émigrés; it is Los Angeles or, if you are speaking of it or writing about it from where you are now, which is ninety-five miles north in Santa Barbara, it is “down below,” because to get there you’d head down 101 or PCH.  Los Angeles has more to do with event than it does screenplays or the enormous wealth associated with the higher plateaus of sports personalities, the legal profession, or the entertainment industries.

Los Angeles is a living demonstration of a linear accelerator, long corridors in which ideas, some quite ordinary, others remarkable for their dumbness, others still signposts of originality are speeded up with the intention of causing them to collide in anticipation of creating yet newer ideas subject to summary judgments of ordinariness, dumbness, or originality.

Were you now to return to Los Angeles for any length of time over a day or so, you would suffer disconnect rather than disorientation.  The funk and whimsicality of the generations in which you grew up had captured the outrageous humor and zeitgeist of the ever-widening gyre now resident in your impressions and the impressions of your generation.

Other funk and whimsicality await those younger than you to make of as they will.  Your Los Angeles has enormous signs on which are painted ice cream cones, thirty-foot high donuts, motels in which the rooms are in the shape of tee-pees (The Teepee Motel, of course) and slavishly modern buildings originally intended as department stores but now entirely other.  Your Los Angeles has a funicular called The Angel’s Flight traversing Bunker Hill instead of its present locale, a gaudy wooden stadium called Gilmore Stadium, an even more housing-tract-like baseball park for a vanished minor league team and, seemingly buried in south central Los Angeles, a replica of the Chicago baseball park called Wrigley Field, named, if you reduce it to its lowest common denominator, after chewing gum.  It would also have a Chinese restaurant on Sunset Boulevard named after its owner, an actor named Benson Fong.  The bistro not too far to the west on Sunset would be a Belgian Restaurant called Frascati rather than what it now is, and the cocktail lounge pianist would be Mort Jacobs.

If you spent any time at all in contemporary Los Angeles, you might have cause to wonder where you were, even if you were in sight of places you once visited and patronized because the buildings would have had some form of reconstructive or cosmetic surgery performed on them.  You would know where you were emotionally because the humors and outreach of Los Angeles dreams and attitudes would be calling out to you the way dogs at animal shelters advertise their willingness to share with you this commodity we all have in common, appetite for life.

Well after you’d moved northward to Santa Barbara, you stopped after class, at 1102 South Crescent Heights Boulevard for a visit with your parents before heading northward.  The arrangements of furniture had undergone significant shuffling and rearranging since your last visit.  Noting your disorientation, your mother said, “It’s changed, but you’ll see; this way is better.”

After a time, you found yourself in agreement.  This new way was better, a fact that had much less to do with the actual placement of furniture than the way your parents moved about the new scheme, their happiness and comfort tangible.

Los Angeles is the same way.  The neighborhoods you played in, lived in, haunted, have all been rearranged.  Although the locations have been given the effect of a coat of paint and some furniture replaced, the personality remains.  You can hear your mother saying, “This way is better.”


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cat's Whiskers

Early in your acquaintance with writing, you’d not thought of it being a means of self-expression.  That far back in time, there was precious little of you to express.  Then, writing seemed easy beyond thought.  The stories of others seemed as easy as the appearance of puppies and kittens,

Only after your early attempts at writing stories of your own did writing seem to change into something of a challenge, something difficult to the point where you were visited with the analogy of capturing a butterfly in order to draw it, then proceeding to kill it in your examination.  By the time you were going about deconstructing stories and reading books where instructions for writing your own stories were provided, you realized you’d put more deliberate, conscious effort into your studies than you had any other activity.  It was perhaps more of an effort than you realized for you to learn how to read, but you were not at the stage of life where you thought such comparisons through much less were able to make them.

At about the same time, you became fascinated with the phenomenon of the crystal radio, a simple, non-electric means of receiving radio broadcast through a pair of earphones using a device called a cat’s whisker, a sensitive chunk of galena, a coil of cotton-covered copper wire wrapped about a cardboard tube, an antenna of some imaginative sort, and a ground wire, which was a wire running to a metal structure such as a radiator.  Memorizing the wiring diagram was as simple as memorizing the 3’s of the multiplication tables.

To this day, you can and have doodled the wiring diagram.  All the elements for the so-called crystal radio were easily come by.  Within a day of learning curve, you were listening to the twenty-four hour classical music station in Los Angeles.  No electricity was required.  Your next plateau was teaching yourself how to convert the coil into a tuner, no severe strain on your abilities. Using a coil with more rounds of wire, you were able to bring in other local radio stations.  True enough, these were the days when the band of radio you were able to reach was amplitude modulation or AM; FM had not yet been developed for public use.  Nevertheless, with relatively simple materials, you were able to have your choice of several local radio stations.  You were, in effect, able to use your knowledge of a portion of the properties and qualities of radio transmission to fulfill your needs.

You knew the equivalent wiring diagram of story, as well, and you did write a large number of them, which you actually began sending out to various publications ranging from true romances, science fiction, and mystery.  The results were by no means at the same rate of success you’d experienced with your venture into radio.

In fact, you were dismayed by the lack of success you were having to the point where you began dissecting more short stories, trying sedulously to copy the techniques you thought you were teaching yourself.  By this point, there was no going back, no dropping out.  Writing was difficult for you, but by then you’d come to realize that it was as difficult for all who ventured at it.  There was no going back because the few times you’d told yourself there was no pointing continuing, you invariably got an idea for a new project, which invariably found a home in some venue or other.

It has not become any easier; in fact it seems to take you longer now to approximate the effect and tone of your intent.  Because of numerous experiences, there is indeed more now for you to express, largely matters involving frustration, impatience, and determination.

As a teacher and editor, you have particular impatience for individuals who are put off by the difficulty to the point where they refuse to put in the time necessary to bring their ideas to ideal or even passable life.  As a wannabe, you have even more impatience with yourself when you discover said self on the cusp of wanting to walk away from a project you know to be incomplete.

There is the kind of satisfaction known as fun that comes with the knowledge that writing is more difficult than you supposed, that it becomes even more so as your attempts at it continue.  If it had been as easy as you’d thought so long ago, it would not have revealed itself to you as the difficulty it is nor would you have half the pleasure in trying to accomplish half the qualities you’d hoped for way back then.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Just Things

By most standards for what constitutes a small town, you live in one, not the least of these standards being the number of time a week someone with whom you are in some form of conversation refers to it as a small town.

A significant consequence of living in a small town is your awareness of the degrees-of-separation phenomenon, by which you are socially linked to the equivalent of a Tupperware or Mary Kaye kind of tree.

Common among the humorous references to this sense of small-town awareness is the observation that even if one were to forget what he’d eaten for breakfast on a given morning, he’d soon come in contact with someone who would know and tell without being asked.

As so many things do, this degree-of-separation condition has led you to consider that people are not the only entities linked; inanimate objects are linked, ideas are linked; they are linked in some way you are certain has nothing to do with Eastern religions or Transcendental philosophy.

Thinking back, you remember being aware of this when you were eight years old, although you had no perspective or vocabulary with which to articulate the belief then.  When you left school for the day, you were close to the intersection of north-south Fairfax Avenue and west-east Third Street, mid town Los Angeles.  The most direct way home at the time would have been to remain on Fairfax Avenue, heading due south until Sixth Street, at which point a quick right turn would have you on an alleyway on which you turned left (south) for a block until you reached Orange Street, whereupon you turned right for about a half block.

There was a connection in place between the way you read this route, which did not hold too many distractions for you, and other routes which you associated with potential adventures as opposed to being home as quickly as possible for anticipated snacks.  Other, longer routes took you down streets with one-story garages directly adjacent patches of grass, making it more of a romp to climb to the roof of said garages with the intent of jumping from them to the grass below.  There were empty lots where weeds and grass grew tall enough to hide you, making for opportunities of pretending you were searching your way through various jungles you’d read about.

Yet another route home led you past a golf driving range where, on occasion, you found stray balls which you knew the owner would pay some small token, between a nickel and ten cents, once or twice as much as twenty-five cents, Miller’s Drugs at Sixth and Fairfax had a lively display of candy bars.  Two doors down, Weiner’s Market sold graham crackers dipped in chocolate.  A nickel was enough to sate your boyish hunger, although there were times when one of the Weiner owners directed you to the washroom where, after a thorough rinsing of your hands, you were allowed to explore the depths of the commodious pickle barrel for the same five cents.

Thus routes taken had associations with tangible goals or imaginary ones or the completely sensual one of leaping from the roof of a garage to the loamy richness of the grass below.

That was then.  With few exceptions, your desk is littered with objects that remind you of other objects, of people, of tasks, of places you have been.  The windowsill directly behind the kitchen sink has bottles you find attractive, each of whom you associate with a particular person or an event.  Next to the bottles are small vases, small enough for one or two tiny flowers say a pansy, or perhaps not a flower but an attractive leaf from a weed.  There are ceramic images of animals, each of which had been purchased at a different Native American reservation or pueblo.

On one windowsill is, of all things, an unused eraser, a souvenir of an archaeological site in central England.

Such objects are everywhere, reminders of persons and places, of course, but also of the minor miracles of them arriving at their destinations.  You are weeks short of having been in this venue for a year.  You’d think you’d remember the deliberation with which you set things out, but you have no such memory; you confront these and other similar objects as discoveries.

Ancient homes and living arrangements had shelves or altars for household gods, the lares and penates set forth as reminders of the cosmic forces they represent but also as objects to remind individuals they were protected, somewhere familiar.

There is something protective and reassuring about the scatter of objects within your line of sight.  From time to time, you discover something you’d thought to have lost.  There is a moment of warmth as you re-welcome it to this place you have made your home.

Sometimes when you are in the kitchen, doing dishes, one or more of these items or photos claims your attention.  There is among them a small plate, purchased by your late wife at a sidewalk sale.  You recall her pleasure at having purchased it for ten cents.  Although it scarcely constitutes a match, it is sometimes used as a transportation for a bowl with a gripping handle, a relic from a long since defunct North Beach restaurant, secured for you by a then girlfriend.  There is some potential for all these things about you to find new homes one day, when you no longer need them and they are no longer able to serve you.  You try to imbue them with the pleasure you feel from your associations with them over the years, hopeful your enthusiasms and pleasures add some patina to them that will catch the proper glint of light and reflect to whoever shall see them next the pleasure you experience having them at close hand.