Based on your experience as editor in chief of four book publishing venues of enormous diversity as well as the head of the Los Angeles office of an enormous massmarket publisher with roots deep into the early days of the paperback so-called pocket book, you have a certain awareness of how books find their way into print and how books that may not in all honesty be books as much as they are compilations of authorial and editorial come into being.
Only yesterday a friend told you of the amazing coincidence of a Hungarian sausage maker facility next door to a veterinarian hospital in the small high desert community of Pear Blossom, California. You are fond of sausages, look toward Hungary as a wellspring of your paternal heritage a few generations back, and have had some quality relationships with veterinarians from the time a certain black and white cat came into your life while you were furiously churning--for that is the word--pulp novels from your Hollywood Hills apartment to and including today's visit with Bonnie Franklin, the personal physician of your fourteen-year-old Sally. Although the proximity of sausage factory and vet office did strike you as an interesting example of context, it did not make you cynical about, nor does your association with books. As indeed the protagonist in the Brazilian writer, Machado de Assisi, realized about himself, you are a small winner for the connection, by which you mean you are more optimistic about things that get published than you are pessimistic about such things as The Da Vinci Code and The Ladies' Number One Detective Agency being published (and all of Tom Clancy). For one thing, such books help finance books that have chances of lasting beyond any equivalent of a Use-by date.
All this is background, lead-up, perhaps even an apologia for the fact of not being so prolific as you once were. This drop in prolificy--dare you even run it on to profligacy?--came about because you learned and are still learning to revise your own material (to the point where it sometimes becomes difficult to get a letter written) and because you have in one way or more, edited some five hundred booklength projects into publication.
It will take, you are now reckoning, a return to being prolific to answer the questions haunting you about how much of you gets into your work, with and without your volition. At one point, even though you were studying the nuances of mystery writing with Dorothy B. Hughes and her good friend, Vera Caspary, nudged by both into the office politics of Mystery Writers of America, you were relieved to discover you no longer wished to write mysteries, only to read them. Now, some years later, although you still read them to some degree, you are more interested in writing them to the point of having one worked out in some detail and near to seven chapters done, the second, involving the same character, who is not only you but the you you have been writing about since undergraduate years.
Reading Julian Barnes' estimable Flaubert's Parrot was like grabbing hold of an electric eel without the benefit of wearing gloves; the novel was meant to reveal to the reader that the narrator, a retired doctor and widower (whose widow in fact has the initials E.B.) is a stand in for Charles Bovary, but what some of us might infer as well is that Flaubert's Parrot is also an excuse for Barnes writing a fictionalized and well-layered biography of Flaubert. You are a fond reader of Barnes, thus you notice certain of his themes and conceits, leading you into wondering what your own themes and conceits are.
While slipping in a well-deserved coffee and brioche at Renaud's Bakery today, making notes along these lines, you heard two elderly gentlemen at an adjacent table. One of the men was noting in a rueful manner that it has become invariable for him to discover portions of his hearing aid in his fresh laundry. Were you to need a hearing aid, you do not believe you would allow portions of it to stray so far as to find its way into your laundry. This is, of course, your way of noticing materials that abound in the world about you, forgetting that at least two, sometimes as many as three times a week, you leave home without your cell telephone although you never seem to leave without your pocket knife or fountain pen.
If you are to discover revelatory things about yourself, you will have to find more relevant details to bring into the conversation.
Back in the earlier days of your writing, you'd have brought things around to conclude somehow, a coda recapitulation or modulating bridge that brought you back to the Hungarian Sausage Maker, located next to a veterinarian hospital in Pearblossom. But you are no longer content to allow those kinds of resolutions, which may be the reason behind your wish to return to the mystery.
Monday, February 28, 2011
Based on your experience as editor in chief of four book publishing venues of enormous diversity as well as the head of the Los Angeles office of an enormous massmarket publisher with roots deep into the early days of the paperback so-called pocket book, you have a certain awareness of how books find their way into print and how books that may not in all honesty be books as much as they are compilations of authorial and editorial come into being.
Sunday, February 27, 2011
You are not fond of disclaimers of any sort; they seem to you to have an immediate air about them of department chairpersons, late for a meeting or of a generalized portrait of defensiveness, which is a quality you dislike in yourself, and try to purge at any cost. Defensiveness is among the first thing you look out for when you revise, either your own text or someone else's. I'm not often late; this is redacted to, I was late this time, an admission that makes you pleased for all the excuses you could have used, including the more apt one of having lost track of the time, but did not offer as an excuse.
Thus you have in yet another way defined yourself in sufficient degree to move on toward your intended nub, the disclaimer that this book, story, film, play, and yes, even poem, was based on an incident in real life. Oh, please. Aren't dramatic narratives supposed to suggest, even evoke a reality so effective and pulsing that it causes us as readers or viewers to feel concern for the safety and well being of the characters involved? Aren't poems in some degree set upon us by their creators with the intent of causing us to see at least two realities--the actual one and the one we have made of the actual one--in ways we have not before seen them?
You find the real life disclaimer most distasteful in film perhaps because of the perception of the producers that this information will make the wavering ticket buyer hasten to the box office, but also because of the perception that numbers of potential audience members will go out of their way to see a story "based" on some event. This speaks also to the condition where many readers will prefer a fictionalized version of an historical event because the truth can be hinted at ion format greater effect than it could in a non-fiction format.
Are we readers being sold story as though it were non-fat milk, or at a, say, two-percent level? When an event is based on what happened, where does the magic of story end and the dreary pallor of reality color the text. And wasn't it M. Focault who said there was no difference between fiction and history,thus history should be shelved with the novels?
The individuals and incidents in this story are fictional. Any similarity between actual persons and events is purely coincidental. Yeah, right. The disclaimer is there in that case so that Uncle Arnold won't sue. The disclaimer is also there to suggest that the similarities are so effective because they damned well match actual persons and events and the publisher wishes all those who are apt to do so to believe they are getting a diplomatic presentation of The Truth as opposed to only a simulacrum.
In a workshop situation, you have encountered on numerous occasions the defensiveness that comes when the writer, asked to regard some trope or other, perhaps even an entire situation where the dramatic bridge needs greater construction, will defend, But it really happened that way. Your response, Doesn't matter. If presented that way, it is bad story, will send the perpetrator howling and complaining that you are trying to rob them of their creativity.
You, who almost became a newspaper reporter, needed years to get beyond the terrible attraction of transforming the real into the fictional. What helped was your attempt at using what you considered effective dialogue; no one knew what you were talking about. Of course not; it's too dramatic. People only go so far in journalism; they go over the edge in fiction.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Sometimes, when you are least conscious of doing so, you become aware of having arrived at an accomplishment you never sought to achieve.
In order to make that awareness more meaningful yet, you return to a moment in the recent past, when someone you'd known for a time, said in self-piteous defense, "I didn't ask to be born." Because you'd heard and read similar statements, you spoke out, riding a wave of emphasis, expressing the belief that you not only asked, but competed to be born, likening the competition to a race in which you out swam all the other sperm cells to be first at that egg. However hyperbolic the trope might have been, you often feel a kind of affirmation when, at the end of a lap in the Montecito Y swimming pool, you plunk your hand down on the rail for the purchase to effect a push-off for the next lap.
You did asked to be born, at least to the point now of believing you wanted a part in the process. Typical hubris from a man of hubris, you might well say of yourself, because now you complete the circuit, more or less providing a metaphoric slap of your hand on the railing of the metaphoric swimming pool in which you swim, which is, after all, life.
You find yourself from time to time as having survived. You are the surviving member of your immediate family. Photos of your parents and sister peer out at you from ledges and shelves of your studio where, after a scant two months of residence and the rent for the third still in the mail, you do not quite know yet where everything is. Thus these photos, one of your father feeding a passel of ducks, another of your father, holding an infant sister on his lap, yet another of your mother and late wife, still another of a group of friends featuring you and your late wife, peering out at you as subjects of snapshots often do, reminding you of a particular time and place. You have survived them all through no particular conscious volition to do so nor, in fact, to do anything except to endure, to grow, to read, to write, to listen to music, to interact with friends, to present materials as a teacher to students, to edit manuscripts which will cause thrumming, purring writers, clangorous, impatient writers, and lofty, brilliant writers to emerge as more so themselves than when they began the project you are now editing.
Sometimes, as you drive with Sally to your favored park-like venue, Greenwell Avenue at the southern tip of the community of Summerland, you call out to her, "Let's live for ever and support ourselves on novels, short stories and the occasional review. We'll picnic on the Super Sub from the Italian Deli on De la Guerra Street, listen to Haydn and Mozart string quartets, John Coltrane and Red Garland, perhaps a splash of Maurice Ravel, and not to forget the old CDs of Carmen McRae and Irene Krall." You both know this is not possible, and there is a sense of communal adventure between you over the mere fact of having survived this far.
You often survive the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, the occasional piece that wants to be written, relationships, classes, attempts to educate yourself, and such afflictions as naturally attach themselves to your growing process. Lest it sound in any way cynical, you remove falling in love with your laundry list of afflictions, adding it to a string of individuals and things for whom you experienced that remarkable and complex occupancy of your heart, mind, and sundry receptor sites, some of which have no names.
You have survived cancer, with Dr. Koper telling you, "While I was in there, I took your appendix as well. It looked all right, but just to make sure---" and you have survived the generic and specific bouts of encounters filed under Loss. You often survive at job situations (unless your impatience--such as at Antioch University--shows you the way out.
As things stand, you anticipate an extended wave of survival in consequence of a splendid momentum to date. In a considerable and real way, you did chose to survive; it seems to have heard you, or perhaps it has been too busy coping with the unfolding of the universe at large to pay you any particular heed.
Friday, February 25, 2011
You need to be careful about provoking the reader to become too thoughtful about the credibility of characters and their situations; the moment the reader becomes too thoughtful is the moment you have let something already illusive start to wriggle free. The freedom in this case, slithered to by the reader--you, yourself if you put on your reader's hat--is the freedom, however dubious, of reason. The moment you begin thinking at too great a length, this does not seem possible, this does not seem realistic,this does not appear believable, that moment is notable because it is the hole in the fence or fabric or whatever else you wish to call it through which the reader escapes.
This is all the more tragic because the reader does not want to escape; the reader wants to stay rooted to your narrative voice, concerned for the outcome and interactions stirred into action by the frothing of competing agendas.
The reader may begin on a note of skepticism, looking at a particular work, daring it to cause thought during the reading. Thus you and the readier don't mind thinking after the story has concluded, but not while it is unfolding. This should give you pause to consider such things as how much information to give at a time, how many figures of speech, which are in effect like power point presentations, so cheerful in the way they call attention to their text; how long your dialogue should go on without some interruption. It is an enormous balancing act for the writer, so filed with enthusiasm to tell the story, so eager to explain why characters act as they do, so eager to be able to throw aside tactics of current convention.
You are among those who complain about the relative lack of reading done by those who wish to become read as well as mere readers, often forgetting the hard truth that you in your own way may be responsible for more individuals not reading because the process has been made so painful, so boring, so intense in the way it is packed with all the information you want the reader to know, even before you have provided the reader any opportunity to develop intimacy and curiosity about what is being discussed.
Ah yes, you, neither the you of metaphor nor the you of generality but the you of great, detailed specificity.
This to be said on your behalf: You do believe the reader is better served by not knowing enough than by being spoon fed with too much, When a reader tells you, I wish I knew more about_____, as opposed to the reader telling you, You know that long explanation of how_________ works, I have to tell you I skipped some, then you know you have achieved a better sense of balance and you are closer to where you wish to be. You want the reader to want to know more, even though this step is a bit of a piece with loaning a Jaguar model XKE to a teenager; what the reader will do with this knowledge is often an occasion of terror for you,
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Even if you are nothing more ambitious than a tourist, investigating a particular setting, you never go to a place or arrive at a place without some expectation, some reason for being there. It is thus a rare occasion when you are anywhere without some sense of purpose, even if the purpose is the immediate withdrawal from the place.
In the part of you that creates for fun and the other part or parts of you that create for some more down-to-earth purposes, reason and intent--the logic and expectation--inform consequence and outcome. Trying to set characters in motion for a story or prepare a syllabus or lecture for a class lead you to places where it is natural for you to expect some outcome. All this presents you with the connection that your characters should be aware of this insight you have. It is not that you want all characters to behave or think or even feel about things as you do; what a disaster that would be. You want instead your characters to be assured of knowing why they are sent to a particular place, what may await them once they get there, even to the point of their having strong senses of dread or, if appropriate, expectations of pleasurable outcomes.
As you do not wish to find yourself in places without purpose or some fanciful form of design, you also wish those you have the good fortune to create to seem to appear just because they are following some outline developed by their creator. It is one thing to wander about with the thought of an aimless wander, but another altogether to indulge such a wander while allowing the mind to wander over the elements of a project in the works, a project wanting some answer you are at the moment unable to provide. Even then you are somewhere serendipitous, hopeful the locale and the wander will combine with other loose elements to provide a solution.
You number yourself among those who, on a sudden whim, feel the need to be at a particular place, believing its ambiance will provide a solution to some internal or external itch that wants your immediate attention. Some if not all the individuals you create should have this regard for the more mystical reaches of landscape.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Some of the most equivocating, non-specific language you have had the privilege of reading is the language associated with guarantees and warranties, those documents meant to assure you how safe you are in many of the various transactions you indulge during the course of a day.
Fiction, drama, and certain types of poetry aspire to a kind of seeming anomaly of ambiguous certainty,where you are left pretty much to see the story as you see it after having been nudged into the almost correct place by the author via,of course,the author's characters. Politicians, the clergy, and certain advertising sorts would have you believe you are being given more definite foundation on which to stand, complete with promises of good health, good performance, endurance, integrity of product, superb engineering. Thus are you attacked by prose that promises you, cozens you, assures you on the one hand and prose that tries to help you evoke your own vision of essential feelings. You are not assured of the durability or accuracy of these feelings.
There is no guarantee under any circumstances that a day's worth of writing will be at all useful, that you will come to see it as keepable, an integral part of a project in the works, an inducement to pursue another project, an intriguing detail of bit of business so evocative of the human condition that you wonder how you came to see it as opposed to some man or woman whose writing you admire having beaten you to the insight and its capture on the screen.
At one point not that many years back, the bottom drawer in the three-drawer Queen Anne writing desk your mother gave you was filled with guarantees commending the integrity and durability of a number of products. In one enormous cleaning binge, you disposed of all of them because of an observation that the items for which the guarantees were written were no longer about the house. You gave little thought to guarantees after that realization. Writing should not come with guarantees; however nice it would be if writing were guaranteed to be understandable, but even that is not so easy to give. This is as true for you, returning to these pages later in search of some insight or attitude as it is for someone else reading these sentences.
Much as it would give you comfort to think your future reading of these sentences would give you an immediate entry into a realm of idea and plan, no such comfort exists,
We have come in a full circle, back to the point where there are few certainties; understanding a strong presence in the as-is bin, no guarantees, what you see is what you get and you may not by any means see enough to get much at all.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Your preoccupation in recent days has been with specific words as they relate or, with some specificity obvious to you, do not at all relate to the telling of story. A recent review choice you made involved a novel otherwise constructed in a craft-pleasant manner but for the author's seeming relish in constructing sentences where independent clauses were conjoined by "and" to the point where you believed you could go for days without wishing to see another "and" much less use one in your own written communication.
"If" has a splendid pedigree for dramatic usefulness. If only, for instance, gets a story going in two short words. If only he had, if only it would, if only things had gone as planned. Sometimes a scheme of narrative leaves us with the sad commentary, "What more is there to say?" as an ironic footnote, indicating the way story so often speaks for itself. If and If only are significant in the way they not only provide but insist on more words, more details.
A favored trope of yours is the way If can lead to the expectation of another big word in story--consequences. If this continues-- If this does not stop--If no one intervenes--- and now we have the reader concerned for the consequences to all parties to a performance or non-performance.
Some characters enjoy the momentary sensations of power washing over them when they imagine abilities, power, or circumstances not available to them and, in potential, never available to them. If I were--ah, taste the expansive power of if, wafting genie-like powers about the universe.
Of course there is the old "if" standby of "If I'm not mistaken--" to open up nuances of potential. Imagine the speaker of such words, already dripping with the false modesty of suggesting potential error but not for a moment giving that potential much thought for being apt. He or she who favors that particular if is playing at enormous risk with the Odds, the Fates, the Cosmos. Even if you are not mistaken, story insists upon the presence of someone who believes with a vigorous passion that you are indeed mistaken, your memory was faulty, your information was wrong, your surmise was askew, your vision was impaired.
All of this makes If a delight as a playmate, a word to be reckoned with in the most literal and figurative senses. You like to think the final reckoning, the resolution of a story of yours, will come from a series of ifs you have set in motion, making them more difficult and complex in succession, and which your characters will be able to unravel at the proper moments. This can be possible--if all goes well.
Monday, February 21, 2011
When you venture to act on a recommendation from a friend or acquaintance, you are in a significant way, stepping from your own landscape, with all its familiar and undiscovered sites, into the landscape of another person.
In the exchange, you'll have expanded your own parameters and, thus, your own sense of boundaries you and your source populate. At the same time, you'll be adding specific measurement to your regard for and appreciation of the other person. There is immediate adventure awaiting you here, one where a musical analogy is appropriate. Before you accept or take the recommendation, you are in your own landscape, which corresponds to your home key. You have perhaps asked Person X for a recommendation or Person X has stepped forward to commend someone or something to you. In the musical analogy, let's say you were at the simplest key, C, simple because it has no sharps or flats to stir up complications. The moment the recommendation is sought or offered, you move from the safety of home to the perfect fifth above C, which is G. Moving from C to G now requires resolution. In music, you could resolve the move by hitting or returning to C; where recommendation is concerned, you need to endure the decision whether to take the recommendation or not. If you take it, how was it. Did the recommendation satisfy you? Was it, as in the case of two long-remembered recommendations of restaurants, an Italian and a Chinese, from an individual at the topmost tier of friendship, a disaster?
Recommendations can and do serve the forces of story, thanks in no small part to their effects on the attitude of the recommender and the recommended. He thought I'd enjoy that. She thought it would help. Both scenarios await the dropping of the other shoe, as in: How could he have concluded I would enjoy such a thing? and Did she actually believe her recommendation would help or did she have some other motive, such as avoiding any closer contact?
A successful recommendation--one that provides useful information, enjoyable experience, helpful company, the equivalent of a special tool--creates a sense of pleasant indebtedness between the parties. Hey, man, I owe you one. Or, you are special. Let me know if I can ever help you. A recommendation gone awry can inject suspicion and/or downright resentment into the landscapes where the two parties might abut.
Successful and unsuccessful recommendations can and do lead to "If you hadn't, I'd never have--" sentiments, meaning continuing gratitude or a fast developing enmity.
You recall both your parents recommending particular courses of behavior and action to prevent you from suffering consequences each had in his and her own growing process, said recommendations appearing to you now in retrospect as yet other sincere, tangible demonstrations of their almost limitless love for you. Lucky you. Although you did not, at the time, feel so much lucky as impatient.
"It's a different world now," you insisted.
"Is that so?" your father said.
"Not so different," your mother said.
Think about it: when characters spend any time at all together, one has the quintessential Italian restaurant, the only worthwhile Chinese restaurant in the entire Tri-Counties area--you'd have to go to L.A. or San Francisco or New York to find better--and, of course, the confidential disclosure that you will experience grief with any computer but in significant measure you will experience less with a Mac than a PC.
I see you're still driving an American car. Let me tell you something--
Sunday, February 20, 2011
"What" has become a favored word for you.
There is a majestic impertinence to what as it emerges in some thread of counterpoint to the events of the present moment, some of these moments perhaps instigated by you,but other moments more slow, inexorable statements from well before the events that brought you here, writing this or, for that matter, here at all.
At the same time a question and a particular, specific thing, what, by its purposeful nature, leads you to expectations and their consequences. If you know anything at all about drama, you know individuals have expectations; these lead them to actions which--bingo!--have consequences. So this is what you want? On the more confrontational side, "what" leads us to What do you want?, causing you to ponder your own long- and short-term goals.
Imagine two characters sitting together. "What?'' one character says. "What, what?" the other says. "When I say what, I do not expect to be answered with two whats. I expect--" "What?"
Imagine three characters.
All of them wanting to know. Wanting to know what?
Try to write a story in which there is no what, not even a trace of whatever.
What's with you, anyway?
What's going on here?
I'm going to give him what for.
Okay, you have convinced yourself. What is a splendid word for your tool kit. It may seem neutral at first, but repeated with mounting insistence or curiosity or impatience, what can be the capstone of story. Holding things in place by its authoritative weight and imposing directness.
What is the cork, holding the genie imprisoned in the bottle. What are you doing in there in the first place.
Try beginning a writing session with that single most important word.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Whatever it was in the way of a literary squeeze or problem--deadline, length, setting, information, point-of-view, et alia--you believed yourself able to write yourself out of it, using a brash combination of technique, fancy footwork, and the occasional, but not entirely unanticipated, epiphany. With the naivete of the young and brash, you believed you could. Often, you did so, enough times, in fact, to the point where you more or less took the successes and, in particular, the epiphanies, for granted.
Beginner's luck. You see that now, grateful for it because it kept you writing, got you in the habit of writing for the epiphanies rather than the strengthening discipline of writing. The luck was that somewhere in the middle, the two forces, writing for epiphany and writing to feed the habit, met, became friends, wary perhaps, maybe even outright suspicious. Why, for instance, would you not write to learn some connecting link you had never before imagined? Much better a goal than the mere act of practicing, getting in your sentences, watching them become paragraphs, not liking something here and there,Xing it out,going back over it, waiting for the movement, the flow to pick back up, watching the paragraphs become pages. The men and women you admire still do that--produce the pages; they do not appear from nowhere. They have to have some moment of beginning, some equivalent of big bang that sets them off, responding to the explosion of which they are a constituent part.
Last night, the power off in your apartment, the two flash lights pretty well charged,but the computers both red-lining it, your cell phone warning you its battery is at fifteen percent and waning, you switch onto the wi-fi hot spot feature on your phone, haul up your blog template, then by flashlight, begin texting, but instead of pushing Publish, your thumb hits X and the brief paragraph is gone. It is cold, blustery, raining; you have no taste for plodding out to your car, where you could plug the cell phone into the car charger, turn the wi-fi connection on, and begin anew, which it appears you will have to do. In that moment, you recognize the impact a daily blog entry has on you. It is the red wheelbarrow of the William Carlos Williams poem. So much depends. As if in recognition of your epiphany, the lights return, the utilities are up and running again. You are relieved because you are now able to use a full-sized keyboard, are neither cramped nor constrained. You are able to write by lamps and overhead lights rather than the mere, flickering beam of a flashlight. You are able to tell more than you had thought to be able to tell,
There was something delicious about being reduced to your available equipment and your ingenuity. The epiphany it gave you this time is that you have evolved from writing yourself out of a problem and into an interior pathway leading closer to the heart of the subject at hand, whatever and however it might be--even, for that matter, if it were you. The difference becomes an understanding of how living things feel as opposed to the earlier version of how to fix a broken, working system.
Nice to think you have some choice now; you can do both if you need to. It is no small privilege to be able to approach a broken working system, even less small a triumph to gain some understanding of how a living thing feels, and to empathize with it for some moments before your cultural and generational and geographical differences draw you apart. Perhaps even long enough to get some of it down on the page, where you may be stunned by the beauty of it.
Friday, February 18, 2011
It is a coincidence that the comments you were about to make about chaos and order were interrupted most of the day by a chaos caused by a storm that has swept through the city much in the manner of a tour of unruly tourists, leaving you in its wake without power for much of the day, the consequences reminding you of video coverage of such notable storms as those hitting New Orleans and Galveston. The wake you are left with is the detritus of abrogated commitments, of things not sent, of things needing to be written, then sent.
As you stand forth to argue how order, in particular the order of accord and sweet agreement, is the enemy of story, you by subtext become a fan of chaos. A Zen garden is relaxing, a thing of contemplative and aesthetic beauty, but so is the forest, the jungle, the unplanned. As the soaring heights of a cathedral or edifice constructed about the principals of classic balance and controlled relationships offers one kind of response, a sense of gravitas and longstanding tradition, so too does chaos have its own beauty, bringing you toward it with an edge of anticipation you have come to treasure.
Order reassures you; it is the universe in its most sublime perfection. Chaos challenges you; what the fuck do you make of this mass of information and challenge? What great simplicity sleeps fitfully underneath its tangle of sheets, pillowcases, and duvet?
Order is an end result; it is, such as you are ever able to produce it, your gift to your landscape, your first or second draft of a temporary reality. It is easy to see chaos as enemy, leaving order to be your friend, but these are conventional visions of the two. If we see Huck as chaos and Tom as order or at least the tugging conscience of convention, we get a better perspective of the chemistry they exert on one another. Remember Tom's clever use of a moment's chat with Huck as his excuse for being late for class, causing him the "punishment" of having to sit next to the new girl,Judge Thatcher's niece, Becky. Remember as well the magnificent chaos and energy of Huckleberry Finn until Tom returns to tug at the scenery to the point where the ending is a near ruin from which Huck can only be rotten glad it is over as he takes off for the territory ahead.
It is good to have the order of lights and computer, but make no mistake about it, the chaos of being without lights, the concerns related to being without power were not without drama, the tidal shifts of contingency as they break on the shores of routine.
It is always good to restore order to mess, spill, and other disasters, but it is worthwhile to contemplate for moments the presence of chaos in our midst and therein to reaffirm the curiosity of the self in all this wonderful sprawl of existence.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Your tastes in most things run toward the eclectic; your preferences for discreet events and performances rather than a particular genre or historical era. Your favorites become strange bedfellows, musician/composers as diverse as, say, the late Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008) and Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) or writers as multifarious as Day Keene (Gunard Hjerstedt) (1903-1969)and Deborah Eisenberg (1945--).
The most obvious common thread among your favorites it the fact of their being prolific. Never mind that Keene for some time wrote a novel a month and that Eisenberg appears to labor over a short story for an interminable arc of time; each has an enormous body of work, which allows you to observe of yourself that you like artists who produce. This preference extends into acting and the visual arts, where your tastes remain at the same eclectic levels of preference, for instance Claude Lorrain (1600-82) and Sam Francis (1943-1994). The connecting link of being prolific leading you to the awareness that prolific creators (J.S. Bach, Haydn, W.A. Mozart, etc) are constructing worlds--realities--in which they spend considerable time. There is a direct relationship between spending time in the structure of one's craft-shaped imagination and one's subsequent tempering and forging as an individual. This residency, almost without exception (but shall we say Arthur Conan Doyle was an unwilling resident?)does not of necessity augur for a pleasing, considerate individual (F.J. Haydn appears to have been the exception), but that is of no matter; the matter is the ability to have such a creative landscape of one's own into which to retire.
The decor of this landscape is more notional than eclectic, the furniture on occasion being rearranged or thrown out, altogether, with new tastes, preferences, favorite colors being set on display for the primary visitor--you. Neatness counts only so far as it matters to you, not some living or long-dead authority figure. Loudness is permissible so long as it is desirable. With this awareness comes modifications in behavior, causing those who see you to regard you in a different manner depending on the extent of these inner changes.
You are still, within and outside this landscape, a social animal; that aspect of you appears to have been wired in, but you are in large part your own social animal, its reach and resonance reflected in the work you produce.
From time to time, when you emerge from within this special landscape, you may run the risk of becoming as that wonderful dualistic creation of Robert Louis Stevenson, the salient question being whether you will be Dr. Jekyll on the inside or the outside, ditto Mr. Hyde. Which ever you chose, there will be some possible temptation to remain inside, where everything is so much more to your liking. And your taste.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
You are dipping your toes into a novel recommended to you, in fact loaned to you by a friend whose judgment you trust. As is the case with many things you read these days, it is not for mere pleasure; it is for the potential of it being a book you can extract an essay from. Since this is the waning hours of Wednesday and you have a weekly review due on Friday, there is more than a little speculation about the potential for this book. Will it be of use to you? Will there be within it some information that will cause you to plunge into an idea or more along the way to a larger project than a weekly essay? Will you learn something enormous?
These are no more idle questions than anything else you do, these early days of 2011. It is not at all idle to wonder where Lupe, the maid, put your polo shorts, or what happened to that tan sweater from the Aran Islands, or when you will finish your revisions on the book project with the 24 March deadline. Consequences surround you, which is where you wish the consequences to be.
In similar fashion, choices and preferences are about you--and should be. You are in large measure defined by your choices and preferences. (You tend to put ketchup on things at some remove from your preferences, although this is giving ketchup a bad rap, since much of the time, you are fond of ketchup.)
It is important to have opinions, to know how you like your eggs, why pasta that is not al dente is offensive to you, why Haydn's music should suddenly become so interesting to you, why compositions in the key of D Minor, even by composers you don't particularly know or enjoy resonate for you.
The book you are reading. Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Supposedly one of those novels that has mystery beginnings which morph into a different kind of investigation, just the sort of thing you'd been thinking and writing about lately as it became clear to you that the current batch of students are not finding ways to get deeper into character and its dramatic nuances. The going is tough here because not only is the opening slow, which is not always a problem for you if the characters' behavior and needs are intriguing in other ways, but because the author's fondness for conjoining independent clauses with "and" is becoming a distraction. All of this is leading you through some things that make you feel ablaze with hubris, into the more reasoned ground of understanding how important it is for the creator to have opinions, thus how important it is for you to be made aware of the lonely aspects of this craft via recognition that he or she who creates needs opinions to impart to the work a sense that the world you guys create will have some greater sense of being able to sustain itself.
The hubris you are particularly eager to work your way through is the sense that you know more than your editor, a fact that balances itself out when you realize your editor sees your work with greater clarity than you do.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
As you were lurching through your younger years, story meant to you a succession of half-hour dramas presented at afternoon and evening hours over a mocha brown Emerson radio, located in the living room where on occasion it was listened to by the entire family, other times by you alone. Other times, you were aware of your sister, listening to her choices from what seemed to you both as an enormous menu. On infrequent occasion, some electrical storm or disturbance would play merry hell with the circuitry of the grid in which you lived, meaning your avenues for story on that particular moment were cut and you recognized the helplessness and hopelessness to come in the form of crashed drives and lost connections in a technology you had not the prescience to imagine.
There were evangelists you rose early to listen to, with the caveat from your father that the rest of the family had no such interests. Your interests were by no means religious, rather they were entranced by the range and reach of the voice of Aimee Semple McPherson, ditto the drawl of the homespun Cousin Mirandy, and two Sunday morning voices,one, Pal Gus, reading the funny papers of the Los Angeles Examiner in a voice you later realized was hung over, and the distinct, nasal Mel Lamont, who read the funnies from the hated (because of its anti-labor policies) Los Angeles Times.
Story was everywhere, so long as that mocha-colored Emerson radio was there, but you'd been disappointed enough when the tubes--radios were powered by receptor tubes in this pre-transistorized era--went and there was no money for replacements. You were driven to the discovery of the so-called crystal radio, a non-electric form of radio reception involving a coil of wire wrapped about the cardboard tubes about which such necessities as wax paper (for wrapping lunch sandwiches) was wrapped or shorter tubes about which rolls of toilet paper were engaged. The longer the cardboard tube and the more rounds of a thin, cotton-covered wire spun about it, the more broadcasting stations could be reached, thanks to a simple, seemingly miraculous device called a cat's whisker or galena crystal, thus the term crystal radio. You needed an antenna, which was achieved by climbing the garage roof to access a telephone pole, clambering about half way up the pole, and extending a long length of wire. The circuitry was completed when you attached a line from the cat's whisker to a radiator, from which you had judiciously scraped a bit of insulating paint. Now your radio was complete, with the exception of a pair of earphones.
Your favorite stories were the weekly serials featuring bigger-than-life heroes, some of whom--Jack Armstrong, for instance--were more or less of your age. But the kid's serials and daily soap operas were nothing when you could listen to such joys as The Lux (soap) Radio Theater, which featured hour-long dramatizations of movies and then, a tad later, Jack Webb pre-Dragnet, as a San Francisco private detective named Pat Novack, earnest competition for Howard Duff's portrayal of Sam Spade, and not to forget those special moments when radio was about to lose ground to television, but not before Orson Welles did a season of the Harry Lime adventures.
Story began for you as something heard; you were invited to fill in your own descriptions, which you did, willingly enough. The basic rule was that you had to believe the situations. If you did not believe,then there was no story, nothing to mull over after the fact. Because you adored your sister, you affected a great love for the Peter Paul Mounds candy bar, a concoction of chocolate-covered coconut. But your favorite candy bar of all was the Baby Ruth because of the high probability of one or more of the peanuts buried beneath its chocolaty surfaces becoming lodged in your inter dental spaces, emerging when you least suspected, a delightful aftertaste. This became for the longest time your early metaphor for story, the surprise appearance of the peanutty chocolate representing the sudden wonderment about one or more characters in a recent story.
Even now, as you posture before a class, discussing the need for surprise and aftertaste in a story, you can taste the Baby Ruth candy bar, a hidden surprise emerging from the spaces within.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Story come from the itch of curiosity located midway between the shoulder blades, the far-flung spot an inch or two beyond reach. As you do with all such itches, you reach to scratch, a natural enough response, although there are times when you think to test your ability to use the mind's focal powers to take you away from the itch.
After all is said, done, and thought, what is an itch but a demanding tingle, a sensation of nerve endings, skin surface and sub-surface, possibly even a response to some form of life moving over a particular point, the point itself more often in an inconvenient locale?
Looking at itch for a time, you reflect on the responses to itch, then compare the responses to story. An effective itch and an effective story have much in common, perhaps not the sort of congruency you were taught in geometry, but yet an awareness of the effect an itch has on you and of the effect the elements of story have on you. Cautious against the possibility of following a potential comparison down an illogical pathway, you try to think your way into an itch this time as opposed to thinking yourself away from an actual itch. Soon your lower back and mid spinal area are alive with itching, wanting your attention.
Shouldn't the opening to a story provoke some similar response in a reader? Only if it has produced a similar response in you, the equivalent of a real itch you have tried to employ the use your mind and array of emotional responses to create a distraction. When, at last, you give it, reach for the source of the itch, perhaps having to contort a limb or two, perhaps even a twist of the torso, then scratch. You are reminded of times when the itch became so cranky and demanding, much like the demanding child in a grocery or department store, its caterwauling securing the impatient response of parent. Your body recalls the contortions, sends ratification to some remote, unreachable part of your torso, causing you in your wish to scratch the pesky itch to appear as an enormous puppet, maneuvered by a hidden manipulator. You imagine being seen in your attempts to get at the source of the itch, self-consciousness now sending you even more emphatic messages. Read me. Read me. Scratch me. Immediate response requested.
Such responses should be, you decide, the symptoms and provocations of story, those you write as well as those you wish to read. Stories that do not provoke itches in you are not memorable for you. How can you bear now to read any story that does not produce such a response? Now you have a sense of direction you did not have before.
The conflation of itching and the relief of scratching lead you to the understanding of the dramatic process and intent of telling a story; the itch must be significant enough that a mere pass at a scratch will not suffice. It mixes the metaphor to suggest that a story, in order to provide significant, notable itches, must provide a kind of combustion where the frustration of trying to deal with the itch drives the reader beyond mere frustration, into those entire areas of emotion and physiology where the grid systems of electricity, empathy, and frustrated attempts at scratching run amok.
One such story by an author other than yourself is Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible," which set you in a tingling state while and after you read it.
For a time after making the connection between itch and story, you were quite pleased, visited as you were by a succession of itches here and there, feeling the smugness of a miser counting his cache of wealth. But then the itches persisted and you realized you had no cache of story at all, merely the receptors to attract reminders of the drama about you. To get them down in any form, you must first experience them, feel the urge to scratch them, then grapple with the distortions necessary to get at them.
The simple solution employed by individuals who itch is the insect spray or the tube of hydrocortisone or some other balm-like compound, say aloe vera, but you have chosen the path of the writer; your insurance does not cover such remedies.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
It is as close to the Big Literary Cliche as you will ever find: a character sets out in search of some tangible goal such as a person, an item, or an explanation/meaning. For some years now, it has ceased to matter to you that you do not know how to plot because you know this bit of universal vision. It is as though you found after years of trying the thing you are talking about, which is the understanding that the play of story begins after a search followed by some unanticipated realization or discovery.
You had been reading books of all sorts, fiction and nonfiction, tearing novels apart, scribbling in the margins of nonfiction books as though you were one of the commentators in the Talmud, thinking somehow that the next book--fiction or nonfiction--would be the one that would impart the answer. At that wondrous point, you'd be able to tell stories without having to go through the labyrinth of learning how to plot.
Your discovery was the essence of simplicity: you didn't have to know how to plot so long as you brought in characters who thought they were right on a particular point, then made that contested point the crux of the narrative.
What you hadn't expected was the added realization that there is at least a beat, maybe even more, after the discovery. What you also discovered was that there are no simple discoveries. You'd have to find a way to bring that extra beat or two in, not kicking and screaming and obvious, but in a plausible way. You also discovered that however well that extra beat or two of recognition or realization or action might work, it would not work the same way in the next story; you'd have to reinvent the wheel every time. It cannot be, you tell yourself, a formulaic situation because it will then produce stale, flat-dimensional travesties of story.
You also learned what a glorious process it is, under any circumstances.
But you already knew that much.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
You find yourself nodding agreement at the ongoing celebration of the Internet, reaching its affect into our daily lives like the gloved hand of a food handler or sanitation worker. You are aware of the Internet's presence, to some degree antiseptic, reaching for greater connectivity while preserving our security from invasion from sources of mischievous intent.
Beyond metaphor for the sake of illustration, the plastics technology that enables more gloves to be made even more recyclable and prevalent than they are now spreads into our awareness and very being like the hands of the various specialists who examine our reproductive and digestive processes.
Gloves are more prevalent than cell phones, ubiquitous, creeping upon us as the forest advanced in Macbeth's tortured visions. Even our language uses gloves called euphemisms, lest the language offend, but in some particular cases because the language has not by implication offended or caused enough fear and confusion.
One language glove you wish to point out goes by its formal name, the adverb, under which passport it travels forth among sentences and paragraphs seeking to modify, by your understanding, any other part of speech except a noun. Many adverbs call themselves to our attention by their -ly endings; other adverbs are more sly, for instance who would suspect so of adverbial intent? When you think about it, what else could so be? I am so not going to use that locution. I am so over it. And, as Kurt Vonnegut was wont to say, so it goes.
Your particular focus this time is on the adverb brought in off the street like a day laborer, thinking to prop up a lazy verb by offering a sign post of intent when the user doesn't trust the real culprit in the first place. A more descriptive verb could be brought in as a last-minute substitute. If the work at hand is fiction or perhaps traipses over into history or memoir, verbs with more visual credentials help inject a sense of immediacy and drama into the narrative, reminding us of the power of the ungloved word to evoke a presence, perhaps even an era or landscape, mayhap even an ethnicity.
Adverbs clutter sentences with the detritus of unresolved meanings. While it is quite proper to evoke and imply in most types of text material, it is a truth often recognized that such tropes as sadly, menacingly, disinterestedly and the like are more like a relic often found in a super market shopping cart, a shopping list which isn't your own.
Friday, February 11, 2011
How do you get into a narrative or story to the extent of causing the reader to feel the connection?
You begin by remembering the importance of every scene in the narrative; each must make a contribution of feeling relevant to one or more of the characters or to the theme. Even better if you can hit a twofer. Then you remember the need for the entire piece whether short form, novel, essay, or memoir, to arrive at an aggregate emotional payoff. It is not an ending until it has an emotional impact. It is not emotional if the reader either feels nothing or finds him/herself being argued into feeling something.
Suppose my story is epistolary, such as Gilead by Marilynn Robinson? Or maybe even Ring Lardner's You Know Me, Al?
Look at the effects Cynthia Ozick achieves with the letters written between brother and sister in Foreign Bodies. Every one of them not only conveys emotion, they show background, attitude and character development.
Let us see characters believing in the hopelessness of their desires yet still holding onto them.
Let us see characters doing something against a background of some debilitating emotional or moral tugging at their coat sleeves, or, perhaps try the man-who or woman who approach, as in the man who wore out twenty pair of hiking shoes in his trek across America, or the woman who'd been married three times before she reached age twenty.
If it is to be done using dialogue, do not be literal, as in "I see in you a man of great purpose and unwavering determination." Even though other characters can be more reliable sources of information about your front-rank players than you can, dialogue works best when the lines are delivered against an ironic counterpoint, Sisyphus, for instance, saying, "Gotta run now, My rock is due for its fifty-thousand-mile check up."
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Last night in class, you took a survey. "How many of you," you asked, "Have seen the film, The King's Speech?" A significant number of the assembled students raised hands. There is an apt analogy, you said. The analogy is between the king, as portrayed in that film, and you.
You saw a flutter of bewilderment works its way through the rows, you pausing all the while to let the potential for understanding burrow its way in.
You all have the literary equivalent, you proclaimed, of a speech impediment. A ripple of ahhhs; the connection was beginning to be made.
The editor is the equivalent of the speech therapist, portrayed in such nimble fashion by Geoffrey Rush.
To your ear, the manuscript you have completed sounds quite on the mark, quite effective in the way it addresses points you wished to make, then stretches beyond expectation, even your expectation, to make points you did. The therapist--editor--would hear the repetitions you do not hear, the locutions that might take the reader out of the moment and off along another path of awareness. This person would hear the vocal interstices, the ers and ums, the moments where you explained what was already apparent and needn't have been explained all that much in the first place.
This is not limited to beginners or intermediate writers, nor--holding up an edited page of your own preface--your instructor.
Gasps and laughter of explosive relief emerged as your message sinks in--for the moment.
One brave individual is yet to be convinced. How about, she asks, those books on sale at airports?
Paperbacks? you ask. Massmarket paperbacks?
A defiant nod.
You speak of your own experiences as editor at a paperback house and as writer of paperback fiction. The quota system. Well-prepared manuscripts transmit to the editor with a quota the semblance of professionalism, making that editor more prone to saying yes. If the opening pages are dramatic, neither filled with weather reports nor clogged with sclerotic descriptions, bring on the contract.
Good story and good writing are essential. But they can always get us a step closer to the true insides of the drama and the individuals to whom the drama appears.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Story resides like an illegal squatter in the interstices between opposing views. It flourishes when the debate is waged within you, each side raising its voice and rhetorical stratagems, rowdy, seedy politicians wanting your vote, your loyalty, your campaign contributions.
How many times have you been torn between poles in some argument that seemed so important, so vital to your well being and moral choice? You have lost count. These doctrinal arguments waging within you are more often forgotten than resolved. Sometimes your memories carry you back to moments, times in the past where such arguments flared, leaving you with the picture of you impaled, helpless, ridiculous to yourself. One such time reminds you of the ridiculousness. You were still living in Los Angeles, for some reason walking almost due south along Crescent Heights Boulevard, about to cross Pico Boulevard, your destination some six or eight blocks south south east toward the apartment of a then girlfriend. You were carrying a full-length mirror which you'd intended to give said girlfriend although you had not consulted her about her desire for such a mirror. For every two blocks you walked south, you retreated at least one, your frustration progressing as you perceived silliness of vector rather than appreciation of purpose. You'd long since forgotten the mechanics of the circumstances of your decision to take that particular mirror to that particular person.
How many times have you had such inner arguments, acting them out in some such Laurel and Hardy demonstration? How is it that you still have such inner debates over matters of no lasting consequence or direction? It all devolves to your multiple personality vision of yourself and, of course, of others, extending well into your vision of your characters.
Today, thanks to contemporary telephonic and electronic devices, it is possible to see otherwise sane-appearing individuals having such arguments with other persons on a cell telephone, unless they happen to be truer to the multiple personality diagnosis. You do not always know. Yesterday, you were drinking afternoon coffee at a coffee shop, watching what you were certain was an example of a non-telephonic argument or at least conversation being waged by an individual in the outside parking lot. He appeared to you to be growing more agitated as he marched about, waving his arms. The more you watched, the more your certainty of his beyond conventional behavior increased to the point where you recalled his at one point being asked to leave the shop because he was disturbing customers. He entered the coffee shop, ordered another coffee, then gratuitously attempted to engage other customers in conversation, convincing you of the severity if not accuracy of your diagnosis. But then, his cell phone rang, whereupon he began directing his agitation to the telephone and the person at the other end of the connection, proving, you guess, that today it is possible for disturbed individuals to have cell phones, extending the potential for arguing and ranting with and at yet other dimensions.
It is surreal to argue with yourself, but the equation is advanced at least exponentially by the cell phone, which has become in its way an aspect of you with aps or applications from the application store but also units of argumentation and suspicion from the source of story--you.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
In the beginning was the voice,whether you knew it or not. Listening wasn't your strength or even proclivity in those days; it may in fact still elude you. What you did here then was filtered through the hoopla of youthful urgency and the sensory overload of reading and writing in all-night marathons. Much of what you listened to was live performance jazz, in places where music of any sort was a temporary attraction, and where the effect was like the chorus of frogs or cicadas, singing to the night as though the night could offer them some comfort.
You also listened to your own, over-exuberant self-assurance, telling you you could be successful at what you wished to be accomplished in, all this without having to in any way suffer for doing so. All you had to do was practice; the rest would take care of itself for you.
The rest did not take care of itself, not until you began to understand from your friends who were musicians that even those like you who practiced did not find things taking care of themselves, but nevertheless they all had in common the thing you lacked. Even you, with limited schooling in music, recognized the players by their voices. You heard a recording and, without being told, could identify the player. A chum who played a rousing alto saxophone hugged his instrument to his bosom while exclaiming that it was his university, his place where he discovered what he meant. In a way that was not unkind, he noted how you were in a university where you discovered what others meant. You needed to learn to listen to yourself, he counseled, listen until you could hear yourself.
Busted. When you listened, you heard all those writers you admired but you heard nothing of yourself except for that insistent mantra of wanting success. How could you approximate success without knowing what success meant to you?
Going out in search of your own voice is a bit like the ads you see on Internet sites for online dating services. Dates are not difficult to come by, chemistry is difficult to come by. Voice is not difficult to come by, your voice is difficult to contain because of the early potential for it sounding whining or demanding or entitled. You'd published your million words, oughtn't that count for something?
Not without a voice.
Many of your students already understand the need to wave their arms with ferocity or interrupt or do something to catch your attention in order to get a question or a word or an observation on the table; you are the genie free from the bottle, swooping, flapping like a hummingbird, darting about as though you had been pent up longer than it seems you have been pent up, broadcasting your voice about you with a reckless abandon that can only be brought to earth during the process of revision.
Monday, February 7, 2011
March 14 seemed a long way off until today. Although you were not thinking of it in specific terms, not until it came up in conversation, the middle of March even had a quality about it of lazy comfort, of reading your book a week for review purposes, catching up on the stack of London Times Book Reviews sitting on the table you brought over from Hot Springs Road, reading student papers, perhaps even sneaking in a few hours here and there on the novel. You'd even had the romantic notion of waiting until the afternoon sun had warmed the bricks in your enclosed patio, inviting Sally out to sprawl on them, and sip through a large cup of coffee with her, enjoying your new surroundings, drinking in the neighborhood sounds.
If the past is a foreign country--iconic first line from L.P. Hartley's novel, The Go-between--the future is a genie in a bottle, struggling to get free of its prison in order to work its mischief, have its own moment, exert its power to excite, offend, disappoint, inspire, educate. Until about 1 p.m., the most pressing things on your agenda were being here to meet the man from the phone company, then to receive your new number and service, then to return to a remarkable novel-in-the-works from an affable, grandmotherly sort who swears this is her first work. March 14 was as far from your consciousness as even such matters as dinner plans, Sally's afternoon stroll, and checking the mail to see if the Auto Club had unscrewed its screw-up with your 2011 auto insurance; it was a non-issue. Had someone mentioned March 14 to you, in as polite a manner as possible, you'd have been dismissive although, having recently forgotten a lunch engagement at a place you much admire in pursuit of peanut butter and plum jam, you might have thumbed through those pristine pages of your day book, just in case. It is a minor offense in relative terms to forget a meeting; it becomes serious business to forget a meeting at the Via Maestra.
It is also somewhat of a truism that he or she who lives by the sword--etc, a metaphoric way expressing consequences if there ever was one. To the extent you have been involved these years with publishing, you have indeed lived by the sword. Even now, as you think of March 14, you cannot help thinking as well of February 11, which is the due date for this week's review, a book winking at you from the self-same table you mentioned in the first paragraph. The wink is an invitation to read, an invitation you have avoided with the same purposefulness as a waiter,"too occupied" to notice your steady glance of inquiry.
This note from your editor after having sent you her notes: And all of that said, I have a deadline for you - March 14 - when I will need the finished manuscript for copyedit. Can do? (And, of course, if you want to send me one or more portions along the way, I'm up for it!)
Sunday, February 6, 2011
You had not been asleep more than fifteen or twenty minutes before you were awakened by the sudden, piercing fear of not having brought with you any of the books of John Sanford, catapulting you erect, and into the new kitchen--it will no doubt remain "new" for some months until you get used to the idea that there is a shelving accommodation of some comfortable size for books--where, by the night light from the gas range, you were able to see at least two of his titles.
John was driving a classic old Jaguar XKE well into his nineties. He phoned you to what he called coffee to celebrate his latest coup. "How many writers do you know who've gotten a two-book deal at age ninety-two?" What John called coffee was a muddy broth whose grounds found their way into your interdental spaces. His "refreshments" were either Sarah Lee pound cake, or some variation with a chocolate frosting. The physical aspects of coffee with John were, to say the least, memorable; the conversational aspects were inspirational. On this particular occasion, I said, after the invitation, "But I thought you weren't speaking to me." To which he replied, "Kid, life's too short to hold on to temper. I'll admit, there were ten or fifteen minutes where I wasn't speaking to you, but now I'm inviting you for coffee."
Before you got onto a not-speaking relationship with John, before you undertook blogging as a form of organizing and invigorating the writing day, you kept a journal which you attempted to pursue as a distinct journal rather than a Dear Diary, today I thought of a story but was too shy to write it down kind of narrative. You'd been doing this long enough, since you were about twenty-one, even earlier if you count detailed day books as anything of worth, that you'd switched from first person to writing about yourself in third person. Your thought was to make it easier to write about yourself, your thoughts, feelings, questions, and events; the he, you reasoned, was almost invisible; it was the goddamn I sticking out from every paragraph like the salami from Harpo Marx's raincoat that led you to switch from I to he.
John, you noticed, went even further, switching from he to the second person, which explains at least one of your debts to John as, indeed, it explains how and why you address yourself in your blog as you. "Why do you write the volumes of your autobiography in the second person?" You asked John this question on the occasion of the Sarah Lee cake having the chocolate icing.
"Because," he said, "that's the way it comes out."
"That," you said at the time, "is the damnedest, silliest thing I have ever heard."
"What is? The second person?"
"No. The fact that it comes out that way."
"Listen, kid, if it comes out that way, you've already made the decision. Something inside of you that you like regards that as--"
"As fucking scripture. As the Talmud. As the Miqra. The Tanakh."
"I didn't think you went for that stuff."
"I don't, but it's where all the stuff comes from that many people believe. Here, have more Sarah Lee."
Two days later, you were working away on your daily warm-up and before you knew it, you'd written you instead of he.
Getting back to sleep was an easy comfort; you were able to get yourself there recalling that magnificent old copy of the Meriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of the American Language which he'd beaten you to the purchase of from Georgia Young, the head librarian at the Montecito Branch of the library. And the fact that John Sanford did not use a typewriter, nor in fact did Maggie Roberts, his wife, who wrote the screenplay for the John Wayne version of True Grit.
You were a son of a bitch when you tried to convince John about the virtues of The American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the American Language, and since that discussion came at an earlier time, may have resulted in your not talking for a day or two.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
The athlete puts forth energy, efforts to challenge muscle strength and suppleness in physical performance. The musician maintains a constant relationship--a virtual marriage--with one or more instruments, all the while keeping an ear tuned to the characteristics of tonality. The actor rehearses lines while investigating the nuances of character to be portrayed. The angler "reads" the stream or creek for signs of which insects may be abroad, thus influencing the choice of bait. The painter sketches and "reads" for gradients of light. The photographer is alert for the potential of exciting images and for the shifting nuance of light.
And so the respective Process of each matures.
These observations are recognizable for their simple-minded reduction, yet all the above practitioners do in fact resort to some basic form of maintenance to keep their abilities honed. What of the writer? What should the writer do to continue the growth process and fend off the atrophy of complacency?
You read. You write these vagrant notes to yourself. You begin projects, often with no hope of finishing them, an approach to writing you have come to regard as important in its way as involuntary breathing is important to life. There are no guarantees you will finish even when you set out with a reasoned conclusion in mind (or somewhere). At length, Life will continue without you, but that is no reason for you to give up on the process nor to think of life as being defined by such convenient benchmarks as beginnings, middles, and endings. Franz Schubert may or may not have intended to finish his work we know as his Unfinished Symphony. Mozart is believed to have pushed himself to completing his Requiem before death came visiting. Any number of men and women pushed themselves beyond what we consider endurance to finish a project, but in our conventional wisdom, we are seduced into believing such efforts were for us, those unknown to the creator. You stand up to call bullshit on that notion; these men and women were riding the high of being engaged in their work; they were not thinking of us, they were in the work, part of it, away from the awareness and effects of whatever it was that brought them down to their death. As you read with some eagerness the pages of Edward Said's last work, On Late Style, you came to the conclusion that Said had indeed not been able to finish, what we have instead is a presentation of intermediate draft, of more notes than final text. This awareness produces admiration once again for Said, but also has caused you to think what a remarkable project it would be to "get" more arguments for late style, the products of mature process, down on paper.
As a younger writer who was in a real sense getting on-the-job-training by being paid to write interviews and profiles, you interviewed a thirty-six-year-old ballerina the morning after she'd done the lead in Swan Lake. You met her at eight in the morning, at a studio, where she'd been at the barre for at least half an hour. When she spoke to you, she dispelled any notion you might have had about her working through exercises as any sign of devotion to her art. "This kind of work allowed me to do what I did last night, true enough, but the simple fact is, if I did not do it, I would not be able to walk later this afternoon when it would be time for lunch." For a few moments, you wanted to marry her, so tangible was the sense that she was in so deep into her craft. You think of her from time to time, ratifying her inclusion on your list of persons who do for the sake of doing in a way that has nothing to do with numbers of success or flipping off the personification of Failure, rather doing it for whatever endorphins manage to squeak out.
It is splendid to finish something; you are all in favor of finishing things, the consequence being you intend to live beyond any concept you may have of your own late style, and into that world where, as you hang out with peers and the conversation drifts into aches, pains, and slowing down, you with polite resolve remove yourself from the surroundings and begin wondering if there is something and some Siren out there that will lead your energy and thought away from vectors of conclusion, into the warm light of curiosity.
Friday, February 4, 2011
If you are not careful with the way you conduct yourself in print or in person, you run the risk of coming across as serious, which wouldn't be so difficult to live with were it not for two things: (1) for as long as you can recall, individuals about you wondered aloud when you would "get serious," and (2)you are in dead earnest when you are being the opposite of serious, which to you has for some time been humorous. You could add a third "thing" which is that having fun often connotes to you going on the attack against pomposity, seriousness, the moral high ground, and formality.
Not only that--by which you mean all the above "things"--you do not enjoy discovering pomposity or formality in your appearance, your lectures, and your writing. Such discovery is the equivalent of being told your zipper is not as up as it ought to be, there is spinach on one of your teeth, or some wag is able to tell you what you had for breakfast from the simple act of looking at your shirt front. You were responsible for a writer friend granting permanent retirement to a necktie after you observed that so long as he wore that necktie, he would never go hungry, needing nothing more than some hot water into which to dunk the tie for a nourishing soup.
You are not comfortable when you are formal. Your best thoughts on the reason for this discomfort is the fear you had at one stage in your life, about fourteen to about seventeen, when you thought you were about two ants shy of a picnic. You can't have been fun to be around at that time, your defense being to bully all and sundry with a vocabulary and repertoire of memorized poetry of such breadth as to stun the recipient into silence. Pity the teachers who had to put up with the output. It no longer matters to you that you be seen as formal because formality has, on reflection, got you precious little. Nor was formality fun, but there you were, convinced that what you considered fun was more an index of how little you knew and how little you cared for things, which, you came to realize, was as though Conventional Wisdom, objectified as being any adult in authority, was whispering in your ear that fun was stupid and uncaring. You began to assume then assert that you knew different.
Fun is quite specific; it is the enjoyment of being immersed in something and/or someone you care about, music, for instance, or story, or writing, or friends, or a lover, or some stunning example of role model, fun is playing on the floor or in a suitable stretch of unvarnished landscape with a dog; it is going to endless baseball games with your father not so much from any love of the game as from your awareness that this was the way you could communicate with your father that was better than any of the ways of communication you had developed outside the ball park. You were a terrible, at best mediocre baseball player but that helped add to the communication and so you believed it was time and effort well spent; it repaid you handsomely with time spent with this remarkable man, whom you contrived to become immersed in baseball with and, at other times, speculations about the relative speeds of horses circuiting about an oval track. Fun is writing with serious intent, yet not being pompous. Fun is finding the presence of pomposity within yourself, then making fun of it, hopeful such fun will shield you for long periods of real time and writing time from the dangers of pomposity, which are no fun.
When you set out to relate something to someone or write something to see what it is and what it means, you may become so serious in your approach that you will write your way into pomposity. If you are fortunate, you will begin to enjoy the quest for understanding before you become sidetracked into seriousness.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Opening velocity is a term you use to describe those fraught, inviting moments when a story you are reading races into life, its beginning luring you inside to continue. The term is also relevant for describing the moments when the elements of curiosity and mischief collide somewhere in the inner reaches of your sensitivity, alerting you to the imminent birth of a new story or essay of your own.
Either scenario, reading or writing, portends joy and much work; you are launched into discovery, which is always exciting, drawing you to greater awareness of individuals and circumstances in cases where you already have been inoculated with an array of feelings.
The concept of opening velocity works with other aspects of life experiences--if you allow it, if you do not step toward the routine or anticipated experiences with a measure of dread or distaste. Mere enthusiasm helps, but, as in story, it is not enough; it becomes the equivalent of passivity, exerting influence on your choice of verbs and the way you employ them vis a vis subject and object. This kind of sloppy choice paves the way for you to be borne along by events rather than approaching them with agenda, an aspect of behavior that may work well enough were you to follow the detachment/non-attachment approach of some Eastern philosophies, but if you chose to live story, to make your life as much your story as you have been able to render some of your concoctions, it is not enough to allow yourself to be wind-tossed, as the old Western song of your youth had it, "Lonely but free I'll be found/Drifting along with the tumbling tumble weeds."
The chemistry of attraction is less a mystery to you than it once was, only because you have allowed yourself to be drawn to persons, places, and things for the most idiosyncratic reasons. You have a history from which to draw. That history has inflicted loss, gain, growth, frustration,impatience, glut, and discovery upon you in ways that leave you now, at this moment, believing you've led a happy life, with an opportunity to turn in as your final draft a positive narrative rather than one laden with cynicism or misanthropy. As much as things could change for the worse, so too could they change for the better. In his magisterial poem, William Carlos Williams observed:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
When you first read that poem, many years back, you were stunned into the meditative silence poetry can and does evoke, unable to think or feel beyond it because of its evocative pull into its own world and its own evocation of an entire universe. You were a boy then who spent his time building model airplanes, wondering if you would ever have the gumption to approach girls, not certain at all where to find the doorway to enter the world you'd wanted to enter when you discovered Huckleberry Finn. Model airplanes have long since disappeared from your red wheel barrow, but these things of opening velocity take you again and again and again into the story you are drawn to discover.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
It is difficult for you to assess the diversity and ubiquity of notebooks among the belongings you have amassed over the span of years at your most recent venue or of the one you brought with you from the ones previous to that, or indeed of the ones you have lost or parted with along the way. They range in various sizes, from the nine by twelve originally intended to serve as a sketchbook for the pen or ink or charcoal artist to the small, intricate venture intended for pocket or purse. This says nothing (yet) about the spiral-bound (top or side) nor the steno pad, nor the reporter's notebook, Another indeed will suffice for the various incarnations of the Moleskine, or the faux leather with perforated pages, which you took with you for a visit to England, primarily to compose notes for a lecture on The Tower in, appropriately enough, in Salisbury Cathedral, and which contained instead the names of whimsical-sounding cities and villages.
Notebooks are challenges; incentives to note odd locutions or questions such as the one you wrote in a notebook only yesterday when a customer at the Cafe Luna answered the chirp of his cell phone with a hostile-sounding challenge, "Who is this?" You were reminded of the opening line to Hamlet, which, you're quick to argue, gets at the crux of extentialism with the lovely "Who's there?" Notebooks are for taking souvenirs of life, for composing laundry lists, to be sure, but also to compile coded shorthand that becomes so profound, it is lost with the loss of the details of dreams experienced moments before awakening.
Skimming through used Moleskines, you find yesterday's non sequitir, something thought of great significance, but now a bleak, lonely reminder of the game the mind plays most on its own selfishness. Some notes provoke genuine bafflement; they neither define nor describe, leaving inchoate clues in place of tangible directions.
Notebooks demonstrate promise: it used to be said that behind every successful man was a woman, which for all its high-flown rhetoric means men should suffer women when in truth the reverse would be the better approach. Now it is said that behind every successful man is a note book. Or two. Or three.
Notebooks also demonstrate the reproof of the romantic notions that they are there to catch unimpeded the droplets of nature that fall among us or the inspirations. Nothing is as uninspiring, ultimately depressing as a notebook in which the narrative thread follows only for a day or two, then ends in some cryptic italic of Finish later. Use examples.
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
You have been engaged in a long-standing internal argument in which the Conservatives that the position that nothing comes easy. With that philosophy in mind, they argue, you should apply tough love to anything involving your creative resources. Be prepared, they warn, to fail. Your inner Liberals scoff at this dire pronouncement, snickering at the irony of ease with which the Conservatives betray their inherent stinginess.
In your sometimes role as mediator or these proceedings, you stipulate the presence of flux as the contrapuntal theme against which the argument persists. Thus the steady march of events, difficult and easy, some of them the necessary bureaucracy of the society in which you love, others the random-but-pleasing distractions about you, and yet other events the ones to which you have in some manner contributed.
Your own preferences and tendencies direct you to the exact spot on the shore of the Heraclitus's River, where you enter the flux, the flow, the stream of events about you. This river of flux is, of course, all about you to some degree, but to a greater degree proceeding with no awareness of you at all. The degrees by which you attempt to influence this ration--to build what publishers and MBA types (is there a difference these days?) call "platform"--is an index of your personality.
It is difficult, you argue, to contemplate life without flux or to hope to achieve growth and reach, and, yes, happiness without flux lurking somewhere on your front lawn out out the kitchen window. Absolute calm and certainty are as much a threat to you as they are to dramatic narrative; reach means extending yourself beyond comfort, even if you have set yourself the primary goal of achieving comfort.
You see Trouble as an ally in the drama of living and the reach toward the fine understanding resident in the collision of forces already familiar with one another, yet aware of suspicions lurking like squatters in the storage rooms of these forces.
Without trouble, there is only calm and stasis. With too much calmness and static inoculations into flux, the tendency to appreciate trouble emerges like a volunteer flower growing in some impossible crack in the sidewalk.
Without trouble, no person has a friend or a driving force; without trouble the writer relaxes into a stasis from which recovery is too painful to consider.