After you have explored the relationships among your characters--and make no mistake about it, you need to have a keen sense of that dynamic--it is instructive to spend some moments considering another,more abstract and strategic relationship. That would be the places where irony overlaps with subtext.
Irony suggests someone, more often than not a character, being out of the loop, not getting or not understanding some dynamic or relationship most of the rest of the characters and, indeed, most of the readers get. Under some circumstances then, irony can be a kind of conspiracy between the author, one or more characters, and most readers. True enough, there are some novels you reread, seeing within them things you hadn't "got" last time through, and so you were on the rat tail of the curve, orchestrated by the author and one or more characters. Simplistic but fair example, Sherlock Holmes, stringing out his line of thinking. Ah, the times you had to go back over that. And ah, the times you felt smug for puzzling out the solution to a mystery or working out the Sunday Crossword Puzzle in The New York Times.
Other examples of irony come when characters do not realize they are in agreement or, even more humorously, do not realize when they are not in agreement...
Subtext comes into the picture in strikingly similar ways, often ironic ways, in which, for instance, all characters believe they are right and behave as though the others have conceded their "rightness," or when characters believe they have a better understanding of a situation because of their imagined social, moral,educational, or political status.
How lovely to take a character out of his or her comfort zone, causing said character to feel vulnerable. Lovelier still if the reader can see the irony in the character being removed from a comfort zone, doing better in it that he or she could have done under ordinary circumstances within the comfort zone.
Irony comes most often from stating the reverse of what is intended, to the point where the reader sees the disconnect, thus it is a gap between reality and apparent reality, one or more characters caught in the struggle of the disconnect.
Irony, when overstated, becomes sarcasm. When you tell a person, for instance, I could not expect you to know that, you are overemphasizing the fact that you most surely do expect the person to know very well what you are talking about. And when you tell someone, Far be it for me to tell you this, you are in effect saying you of all others have some right to tell said person that thing. Similarly, I hate to have to tell you this is an ironic way of saying that you very much enjoy revealing this particular observation to this particular person.
Subtext is that no-person's land between what is felt and the context of what is actually said in relation to the feeling. I'd love to go with you. Well, I'd love to do X, if too emphatic, moves from subtext to sarcasm.
Does the fact of a character saying "I can't do this any more," reflect irony, sarcasm, or subtext? Depends on the magic word here, which is agenda. If characters are engaged in any kind of interaction, we as readers may reasonably deduce agenda. In fact, we want to be able to discern agenda. We also want to be able to discern the unspoken relationships between characters from which we deduce their agendas and subtext behavior.
Does character A truly like character B, or is he playing a game of manipulation? If the answer is yes, what is the intent--or objective--of this manipulation?
Time and intimacy will tell, thus you have to sniff it out, leave clues for the reader, allow your characters to make mistakes, but no more gloat over them than you would chastise yourself when you make a mistake.
Stories that focus on characters who make mistakes in judgement and performance take on several layers of greater nuance than characters who cling to the plot points as though they were life preservers.
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
After you have explored the relationships among your characters--and make no mistake about it, you need to have a keen sense of that dynamic--it is instructive to spend some moments considering another,more abstract and strategic relationship. That would be the places where irony overlaps with subtext.
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
You come upon a page where the paragraphs begin to remind you of past times, when you'd overpacked for a trip. Before you realize it, they seem stuffed, cramped. You wonder about the thoughts behind packing them at such density.
Suspicions are further exacerbated when you see there is no evidence of dialogue, not even the unpunctuated sort used by writers such as Cormac McCarthy, who take long trips but know how to pack for them.
The pulsing, stuffy paragraphs yank you back to earlier times, in particular reminding you of serious, grim English teachers who stressed the need for topic sentences in every paragraph. It is not that you have any objection to topic sentences; they can appear pretty much where they please--if you are not made aware of them because they seem so correct.
For your part, you have devoted hundreds of hours to writing paragraphs, some of them quite long, others no more than a word or two; on occasion they are lacking one of the two things those same grim, serious English teachers told you were required in every sentence. Those "things" of course are the subject--who is the focus here?--and the predicate--what the subject is doing or is being done to--and if a sentence has them in order to cross over the border into real language, a paragraph should have an ample supply.
Nor is this a rant against grammar; some paragraphs, when you look at them in a close-reading mode, have grammar going for them when they have little or nothing else. Of all the things you learned related to grammar, the thing you enjoyed most was diagramming sentences. The more complex the sentence, the more diagramming it was like working at the Sunday Crossword Puzzle in The New York Times, mysterious, adventurous. This is, then, a rant against boring paragraphs, ones that border on pomposity or some kind of faux-authoritarian voice rather than the storytelling voice of a man or woman who has a story to tell, then proceeds to tell it.
One way to tell if a paragraph is boring is to decide that it has interesting if not outright useful information, then goes forth to make you wish you hadn't taken the time or trouble to read the paragraph.
Another way to tell if a writer's particular approach is boring to you is to note the number of times you find yourself rereading one or more paragraphs, determined to get at the writer's purpose.
Still another way is to see if you find yourself skipping or skimming. Writers whose work you admire not only do not, accordingly, bore you, they intrigue and inspire you, make you feel the conscious desire to be as engaging and connected with your subject at hand.
It may be simplistic to set out the observation that is probably the topic sentence here, but such things do tend to start as elephants in the living room, then want to be recognized: Paragraphs that do not convey a sense of their author's care about them and concern for them have little chance in the world of being read with anything other than relief at the fact of their having come to an end.
Monday, August 29, 2011
At first you were thinking it was a boy thing; men writers going on in ways that sent you the subliminal message: this text is written by a male. But it didn't end there because you got it from a wide variety of women writers, sometimes writing about things that didn't matter if the subject was a man or not.
Then you began to think it had something significant to do with the noir point of view, but you were able to discover it in such un-noir writers as Charlotte Bronte and Daphne Du Maurier, so it couldn't be all about noir, either.
The closest you could come to identifying the "it" was the suspense novel such as Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, or The Confidential Agent. Toss in some Eric Ambler, say A Coffin for Dimitrios. Even the crunchy narrative of LeCarre. But how did that account for the ladies?
You've been rereading paragraphs of Louise Erdrich and Kate Atkinson and Denise Mina, looking for clues. You were about fifteen pages into a reread of Daniel Woodrell's The Ones You Don't,when the new George Pelecanos, The Cut, arrived. Maybe it was the Pelecanos that did it, perhaps it was the cumulative effect of all the sampling and thinking and looking.
What you think "it" is has nothing to do with gender or genre; rather it has to do with the writer's vision of the human agenda, his or her choice of characters who are driven over some relatively safe terrain and into what appears to be quicksand. Although you were quick to catch traces of subtext in Jane Austen, it was not until you read her Persuasion that you saw how well she understood agenda and that gap between what a person says--or does not say--and what that individual truly wants.
Thus does noir blend into edge, characters who have for one reason or another, been out on the margins, bumped heads with cultural barriers and lost something they'd valued, perhaps without even knowing what it was they'd lost, perhaps even keeping some of their dreams apart from their awareness.
It is the story of the man or woman who has lost something they wanted more than they had wanted anything else so far. Possible result of humiliation in there, too. Now the character is recovered--somewhat, caught up in life again, but perhaps not by choice.
So you are drawn to the writers who, throughout their time, created characters who were set apart, on some tenuous border between emotions and circumstances that are shaky. Uncertain. Contingent. They have the needs and the power to take us into dark places. If we are unwilling to follow, we need to look for safer work.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
It is Sunday afternoon; only a fool or a writer would be at the desk on such a balmy day. You have just been alerted by the publicist of your about-to-be publisher of a blog post, written by your editor/publisher, wanting you to check it for any inaccuracy.
You read the text, which moves you to call said editor/publisher on this balmy, splendid Sunday afternoon, thinking she will be out enjoying what is left of the afternoon and perhaps sharing a bottle of pinot grigio with an amiable companion, which will allow you about three minutes of a thank-you message left on her answering machine.
Turns out she is "there," in her work area, pleased to hear from you because she has two questions for you that are at the heart of a writer's inner compass, at once attractive and comforting while at the other extreme frightening. "What do you want to write next?" is the first question and "When can we anticipate it?" is the next.
Into the conversation comes the question of what she wants next and the calm statement that she has no problem seeing what you want to write next coming before what she hopes you will write next.
Publishers do like time lines, which is to say delivery dates, thus you find yourself talking in terms of February 1, 2012 and February 1 2013 for what she wants. Your mind is a hum of energized processing, of choices.
Reality has, for the moment, presented you with certainties, causing you to realize that certainties have finite borders, due dates as opposed to undifferentiated activities associated with submission, possibilities of polite or indifferent regrets. For a time, the universe you inhabit has become more structured than you are used to experiencing.
Structure often suggests if not outright demands a certain regularity of performance. For the first time since you have begun these notes, back in March of 2007, you look at the template for an actual number. It informs you 1682, which is something of a comfort because it means you have spent that many consecutive days with some observation or other here in this particular template, this particular blank screen, this particular equivalent of blank pages you have handwritten on or typed upon, plus all the subsequent pages after trading your typewriter for your first computer.
A manic medley of things you want to write spools past your mind; you take up minuets and square dances with a brigade of pseudonyms. A name you thought amusing when you were mildly drunk comes to you. Were you ever Adam Snavely? Of course you were. What about Walter Feldspar and Craig Barstow, those two red-necked cowboys you were in order to write Westerns? Yes, of course. And the ladies you were, in order to write romances. Roberta. Yes, you were Roberta Bledsoe. And another prank pseudonym: Gunnar Bjorkstrup.
It has long since been beyond the thoughtless indifference to choice. Of course you could write anything: It was important to believe you could do so--that is, before it became more important to discover what and why.
What once seemed so endlessly possible seems now to orbit about a matter of exquisite choice, a choice felt at some depth not previously investigated. Thus into the equation comes awareness that seeming as easy as it had seemed has cost you time, precious time, and now you must scurry to catch up.
Working within comfort zones dulls you to the need to take chances; stepping up to encounter a horizon line that extends beyond your normal horizons brings you the risk of seeing a vision you can neither describe nor dramatize much less explain.
You find yourself moving furniture, stacking chairs on tables, attempting to build a platform that will lift you over the horizon. And the clock begins ticking. February. First. 2012.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
"Mommy," the little girl says in a stage whisper that floats over the small patio where you are sitting,"that man--" she is now pointing at you--"that man is a spy."
The little girl' mother sucks in a gulp of air. "Shh," she cautions. "Don't be rude."
"But he is," the girl persists. "He's writing down things about us." She is made to seem smaller than she is because of her oversized t-shirt. A sun-bleached brownette, her face is all sharp lines and angles, articulating the heartbreaking beauty of her, struggling to get out and start breaking the hearts of boys.
You smile in recognition, confessing to her mother that you are indeed a spy, writing notes to remind you for some later use of your observations of the human condition. You are in the outer, bricked patio of Renaud's, a small French bakery in a postage-stamp-sized mini-mall, directly across the street from The Arlington, one of Santa Barbara's iconic theaters. It is a cheery, warm early Saturday morning. Ordinarily, you'd breakfast in, more than content to take your breakfast at the window looking out on the large yard next door, your observations more likely to be focused on a number of California scrub jays and the occasional linnet, possibly concerned with the presence of one of the two neighborhood cats. Then,off to your Saturday morning writing workshop.
This morning, mood, instinct, some summery itch for people watching, drove you hence to a favored table, set off at an angle that allows you to offer the subtext of enjoying coffee and brioche while doing exactly what you'd been outed by that young girl for doing. If there are two or more individuals at a table, you invent outrageous relationships for them. If they are alone, you imagine individuals they might be waiting for. You imagine which of the nine muses you are waiting for.
"Are you expecting anyone?" an elder version of the little girl will ask, and you feel the tingle beginning low in your stomach as you acknowledge her presence. "You," is your response.
Which is she? Which is her muse domain? You try to identify her.
"Do I know you from somewhere?" she might ask.
"I hope so," you say.
"Tell me," she says, "do you come here often?"
Now there is a spark of amusement that arcs across our gaze. We are both amused by the humor of recognizing one of the oldest pick-up lines in the world.
"Mommy, mommy. Now he's laughing. That spy is sitting there, all by himself, laughing."
Friday, August 26, 2011
If those books of his in your bookshelf are any indication, you have been enjoying the short stories and novels of William Trevor for over twenty-five years, closer to thirty. It is not unusual for you to carry such literary affections; even now you are enjoying a novel of Daniel Woodrell you first read in 1988.
Trevor is somewhat special because he is one of the few modern writers who consistently writes an omniscient narration in both novels and short stories. Omniscient narration is not easy to control; one literary agent you know says the narrative technique gives her whiplash. The constant shifting of point of view within the same scene can be distracting, irritating, bordering on frustrating. William Trevor manages to bring it off; his work causes no such whiplash or, as you put it, speed bumps.
This of itself would not be so bad except that William Trevor makes the use of the omniscient point of view seem easy. The very students to whom you have recommended him seem to think they can do it as effortlessly as he, forgetting your own warnings that a) he, William Trevor, has been doing it for over thirty years, hundreds of times, and b) all the authors who have led all of us into writing short stories and novels have done so by making their work seem so effortless that we are seduced into thinking it will be easy for us as well.
It isn't, we discover, but the damage has been done in large measure; we are caught up in trying to do the literary equivalent of getting the surplus toothpaste back into the tube.
Omniscient point of view is not your favorite point of view, not by any means, thus you have stayed with the omniscient point of view as written by Trevor from a grudging respect for his continuous craft, and from your curiosity to see how, yet again, he has taken up a theme or circumstance and done so without appearing to have repeated himself.
Your favorite use of point of view for the longform narrative is the multiple point of view, as set forth so expertly by that great friend of Charles Dickens, Mr. Wilkie Collins. So considerable are Mr. Collins's skills that in such works as The Woman in White and The Moonstone,he is able to disguise gaping rifts of logic in his plots, making coincidences and unconvincing behavior seem perfectly natural. That great pulp and suspense writer of the 1950s through the 1980s. John D. MacDonald, put the multiple point of view to great use as did his fellow mystery writer, Salvatore Lombino, also known as Ed McBain, who wrote about a mythical police squad operating from a landscape that bore close resemblance to Manhattan.
When you say multiple point of view, you mean switching the focus of perception between an ensemble case on a basis of at lease a complete scene to a single point of view if not, as Collins did, a longish chapter. Jim Harrison's wonderful novel, A Return to Earth, makes excellent, poignant use of the narrative device.
Omniscient point of view is a temptation because Trevor is so adept at manipulating it, but it is also tempting because it seems a lazy way out, allowing the less accomplished writer the sense of being in control without actually being so. The function of point of view, as you see it, is to cause the characters to be in a situation where their interactions and the dynamics that drive those interactions emerge as subtext. The lazy or as yet not fully capable writer cannot seem to resist slipping in stage directions, whispered asides to the reader, describing to the reader how a particular character felt or, with a big nudge in the ribs, inferring to the reader that a particular character "wasn't getting" it, whatever it happened to be.
Omniscient point of view, in your opinion, can be fatal for the writer, particularly if there are other problems close to the surface such as dialogue bordering on the weak or conversational, tendencies to describe as opposed to demonstrating in dramatic presence, and a narrative not given to approximations of urgency.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Most Friday mornings, you have a regular date for coffee, usually at Peet's, upper State Street, Santa Barbara. Depending on some dynamic of an individual or the entire group, the meeting venue will shift to the downtown Peet's in the 1100-block on State Street, or the significantly non-Peet's French Press at the corner of State and Victoria.
Attendance varies; there have been as few as four, as many as sixteen. Average is about ten. One of the regulars has been known to you for over thirty years. Average length of friendship at least ten years. You are often the first to appear, but when you oversleep or get caught in some unanticipated errand. you more or less have the option of choosing where you sit, which is to say that, depending on your mood, you can plunk yourself down where ever you chose. There have been times at such Friday gatherings where you were not particularly talkative, other times still where you were as animated as if you'd had two or three double lattes as opposed to your customary one. There are conversations from time to time about subjects where you have little or no information, at other times yet, the subjects being discussed are of no particular interest to you. In either case, you wait the conversation out, asking questions if you are interested, sipping your coffee and dunking your muffin if you have no interest.
You generally stay until about a quarter of nine. Santa Barbara being a relatively small town, there is the likelihood that you or one of those in your group will recognize a friend or acquaintance, then move to draw that individual into the group or detach yourself from the group for a moment's chat with the newcomer. All social, comfortable, relaxed, no particular rules or conventions other than the convention of gathering.
It has long been your theory that any given individual is a composite of several individuals, squatters as it were, or as they were, occupying the same body. Just when you think you have identified all your component parts, another appears and you make some attempt to drawn it into the group.
For as long as you have had this theory, you have posited that there is nothing unusual about it; the unusual begins when the host is not aware of the squatters or, if you will, the other tenants.
In similar fashion, you are often amazed--a step above being surprised--at the discovery that the individual leading you and all your others is someone other than the one you'd supposed. This is often the case when you find yourself acting and responding as someone with considerable quantities of youth beyond your own age or, contrarily, when you find yourself at some odds from your customary state of risk taking. And yes, there is quite the teen-aged boy wanting to show off for a woman of nearly any age. It is not that you have anything against showing off for women of nearly any age, but there is a difference in the way the younger iteration of you shows off and the way the more contemporaneous you shows off.
Since you were back in single-digit ages, there were individuals, mostly friends, who moved from your life circumstances or you were removed from theirs. As you aged and changed schools--five grammar schools, two junior highs, one high school, two university landscapes--the ebb and flow intensified. When you began teaching, students were a part of the tidal movement, causing waves of regret, some of which you had to bury. Lovers, coming into your life, then moving away. Some friends and family members dying; among these death was either more or less expected or sudden. Authors moving on to other publishers or, here we go again, moving on to death. Clients, moving on to their fates, some of whom you miss, others you were just as happy to see move on, such as one who was poached away from you by another editor.
Sometimes it was only in the breech, hearing from an old friend, a former student, an earlier lover, contacting you that made you aware of the gap that had insinuated itself into place. In some cases, the breech was natural rhythm or the need to move to another city or state or country, In other cases, some issue, some conflict of vision. In yet other instances, the culprit was the fact of both parties changing their interests or values. And yes, times where the relationship seems to have been characterized not by the breadth of association and feeling but by one or more areas of opinion.
Not all that long ago, an author described a book project he wanted to write. You made several suggestions which he was unwilling to take. Subsequently, sixteen publishers rejected the book after reading the first chapter. Supreme in his confidence, he published it himself, then sent you a copy, wherein you found several fatal errors in the first five pages, whereupon you told him, whereupon he told you he'd hired an editor, whereupon, with questioning, you discovered that the "editor" was an English teacher, whereupon you observed that adherence to grammatical rules did not insure a resonant book, whereupon he looks the other way when he sees you coming.
All of this is to say, some individuals and some relationships attenuate of their own lack of gravity.
You have differences of opinion with a number of your selves, but you greet and maintain eye contact with all of yourselves you recognize.
Sometimes, music gets away from you. It is more likely to be classical music than jazz. Last month, you thought some Chopin ballet music was Tschiakovsky. Janaceck, who had for some long while, been a great favorite, had managed to escape your recognition. Yesterday, music you were listening to was surely one of your early close bonds, Beethoven, but, damnit all, you needed the announcer on KUSC to tell you it was his Seventh Symphony. And true enough, about a month ago, you thought Kenny Baron was Barry Harris. It is not likely, however, that you could even not recognize Red Garland.
Some books come and go for you, although they generally come to you after a few moments. What troubles you most is rereading something you once thought was wonderful and now have a difficult time staying with. It is in its perverse way comforting to see that you'd completely missed entire dimensions of something you'd liked earlier. It is useless to flog anything, particularly yourself for something you did not know in the past, but not to forget persons you cared about and their not knowing something you'd hoped for them to know.
You are fond of remarking that parallel lines in geometry meet only in infinity but in novels they meet in the last chapter.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Select a news story from a newspaper, some accounting of an event that has taken place or is perhaps ongoing. An earthquake in what seems an unlikely place. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of tourists converging on a site. A revolution in an African country. Possibly an impending event, say a tropical storm, gathering momentum, marshaling its forces, now moving toward landfall.
It is easy enough to consult newspapers from throughout the world; a few keys properly depressed on a computer or smaller electronic device will give ample targets. The one standard vital to this exercise is that the story be newsworthy rather than feature, which opens doors toward interpretation bordering on bias or propaganda.
You have selected a story. It may be as momentous or apparently routine as you wish.
Now, select four individuals, two men and two women. They may be actors, politicians, educators; they may be individuals alive and working now or famed personalities from the past. They may even be from the news gathering professions, anchor persons, if you will.
The point of the exercise is to make your choices reflect as wide a spectrum for you as possible.
Now that the work of making the choices is over, the fun can begin, because the next step is to imagine each of the four persons of your choice reading the story as, in your mind's eye, he or she might read it. Had you chosen as one of your readers the now retired broadcaster Glen Beck, you undoubtedly would have reckoned him having to stop at some point to either hold back a gale of tears or prevent one from coming on. Had you chosen the current House (of Representatives) Majority leader, John Boehner, you would probably have the same problem. Had you selected as one of your four the actor Meryl Streep, you might have been surprised by the manner of delivery she chose but you would have to acknowledge how she brought nuance, depth, possibly even layers of conflict to her reading.
And think of the possibilities with Helen Mirren, Lady Gaga, and Leontine Price. Think of the way the story being read by the late Walter Cronkheit would have brought a sense of comfortable gravitas to the reading as opposed to that of the actor Jack Nicholson, which might well have infused the reading with incalculable layers of mischief.
In some ways then, voice trumps story; the tone, pacing, perceived intent of the reader all have their effect on the meat and potatoes of the story and its effect on the listener.
While in the game or role playing modes, we can consider the relative short supply of basic stories: a heroic journey (which also includes coming-of-age), the discovery, the new guy or lady in town, the clash of titans (The Iliad and such Westerns as The Military vs Indians, Cattle vs Sheep Ranchers, etc)and attempts at restitution, which clearly includes revenge. But the voices clamoring to narrate them are endless, multifarious, eager at the chance to bring forth some new thread of mischief or level of poignancy never before seen.
Until Mark Twain "found" his voice, American literature resonated with the subtextual gravitas of The King James Bible and the perfervid convictions of Noah Webster, of dictionary and of Little Blue Book Speller fame that the Bible was the literal world of God. It was a world where Hebrew was required at the Yale and Harvard divinity schools and where so much of the evangelical fervor of our current experience had its origins.
Of the many splendid things to emerge from the "voice" of The King James Bible, Abraham Lincoln's speeches and writing, and the immense and resonant fictions of Herman Melville and William Faulkner serve as excellent examples.
The dialogue between these worthies and the vernacularity of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman rose on occasions to argument, the sort that eventually forged modern American English at its most stunning best. The United States Constitution attempts to separate Church and State. Modern American Literature is no less vigorous in its attempts to separate Church and Status.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Don't tempt me.
Perhaps this will tempt you.
That's tempting Fate.
The fulcrum is reason or, if you will, caution. Wishing is at one side of the plank, fantasy is at the other. Ought to be a place in there for experience, another still for the optimism vs. pessimism genome.
Try encourage vs. discourage.
Whether we realize it or not, we chose characters for their apparent moral probity and courage, then create a war with the opponent being the smoldering seethe of vulnerability to the temptation. Let others worry if they'd given into the temptation only to be caught. Nathaniel Hawthorne gave us in Hester a splendid fulcrum. If we came upon her at the right age, we could have learned something from her other than what we did. We learned that she had the strength to rise above her circumstances, emerge several plateaus above Dimsdale. It took at least a second, later reading for us to see her real triumph, which was her understanding of her inner workings and her ability to take the consequences of her inner self without bitterness. We learned things about labeling and hypocrisy and double standards.
We have etymologically associated temptation with wrong or evil, equated it with dire consequences,even guilt. It is a word of our Abrahamic traditions, Jew, Christian, Muslim. It is a controlling word and concept, a reminder to stay in line, not to succumb to the second slab of pie, even regretting our having taken the first one.
Temptation is abstinence personified, daring to say no to instincts, being not merely careful but rather fearful of fantasy. It is pardoning ourselves in advance for any perception of a weakness we cannot control, recognizing the spirited inner child who dances with the social contract but knows when to dance alone, respectful of the social contract but not a slave to it.
Too much moral probity produces consequential ripples wherein every attraction is a temptation rather than a flower to be admitted. It is better, we argue, to suffer the regret of not having acted on the temptation than to experience the guilt of having taken the step, the why-not step into a future we had not planned.
If it is tempting, it is so because there is some risk. The artist--writer, dancer, musician, photographer, painter--understands the risk of risk, and governs her response to each new project with measured focus. Failure to take risk is as fraught as taking it; we stay where we are, we fall behind, or for a few moments, we move ahead. This is a world where staying where we are has the same valence as falling behind.
Being tempted is looking at the world with an expectation of fresh vision. Being tempted is courting change. Turning away from temptation, particularly with a sense of having achieved the moral high ground in so doing is turning one's back on the future.
Monday, August 22, 2011
No, not it's time-to-go time or even awareness of a cause being an irrevocably lost time, or enough energy having been expended with no possible hope of success time. Not those times at all.
Time instead for a recognition of someone somewhere in time--a returning of a gift in proper kind. Time, in fact, for recognition of some significant gift.
Much in the way of pennies, nickels,and dimes falling out of pockets and out of use, with scarcely a farewell dinner to commemorate the departure, there goes a word and a concept--requited, or returned, having fallen into the sofa cushions of convention.
Used to be, you had a crush on someone, he or she either welcomed you aboard, which led to all manner of enjoyment, or you were told to get lost, do not pass GO, not so much as a goodnight kiss in the offing.
Not having your interests reciprocated was bad news--unless you were an English major. For all the splendid potentials of romantic bliss, not to forget the occasional canoodle, being rejected put you on the same turf as your historic counterparts, men and women who suffered from unrequited--unreturned--affection, which in its breech, became transmogrified into love.
One example from many. Ernest Dowsen (1867--1900), gets a crush on Adelaide Foltinowicz, who would, as the saying went at the time, have him not. Ah, unrequited love; riding its emotional pipeline, Dowson wrote his best poem, Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae. It was cool to use Latin titles at the time. It was also inspired to come forth with the refrain, "I have been faithful to thee, Cynarra, in my fashion."
With the wind of unrequited love filling your sails, you'd be assured of at least a sonnet cycle, maybe a novel or a collection of short stories about broken relationships.
Men and women in the habit of unrequited love had no experience much less visions relating to the intimacy of the fulfilled relationship, which is to say the fraught companionship that lives between the interstices of sexual tension and who prepares what for supper. The fulfilled relationship is like the volunteer stand of flowers, appearing in the cracks of a sidewalk. Such innocents to the world of, shall we call it domesticity, cannot see the drama in such on-the-surface encounters as "You'd like me to do what?" or "I was thinking we could stay home tonight."
Being an unrequiter, you'd feel a companionship or bond with other writers and thus wish with some work of your own to quit or requite an author with whom you felt some palpable attraction, thus, for example, James Joyce, wishing to quit Homer, which he sedulously did when he produced Ulysses, and Shakespeare, quitting Chaucer--ah, what a nice combo there--by taking Troilus and Cressyde a notch upward with his own Troilus and Cresida. In our own times, Jane Smiley has quitted Shakespeare and the poet Wallace Stevens with her choices of titles, themes, and characters.
What remarkable opportunities we have to reply or acknowledge themes and situations from past works, keeping them alive and at the same time building a bridge of understanding from one era to another, perhaps even from one medium, say drama, to another such as a novel or a poem.
It is not too much a stretch to look for unintentional quitting, which is quite another matter than plagiarism. There are not many variations on story, three or four in all. This alone is the argument often advanced on the writer of "make the same different, just as everyone else does, only make your same better." One example of your own "same" is a notebook with completed stories, some published, some not, and copious notes, surrounding an actor named Matthew Bender, who is returning from an Off-Broadway performance of a dramatized version of The Iliad. Thanks to some cooperation from his agent, who serves the same purpose of the chorus in Greek dramas and the Shakespearean theater,Bender is more or less paying his way back home to Santa Barbara by appearing in small-but-prestigious theaters along the way as well as some that are more along the lines of bowling alleys and little theater. With the theme of returning home after the war, Bender joins Odysseus as a character returning home--two characters in fact,returning home: Odysseus and Leopold Bloom, Odysseus to Penelope, Bloom to Molly. Bender to an ex-wife, Polly. You had not seen nor consciously planned the quitting until you discovered that Ulysses is the Latinate form of Odysseus, and that the name Odysseus translates to "a man of many turns." Whoa, you said. Bender. Whoa. No whoa.
Unfortunately for Matthew Bender, he is not only up against two iconic works, he is up against the smorgasbord state of your writing agenda. Of course, if he wants to be brought forth from the bowling alleys and little theaters between New York and Santa Barbara,he will raise his voice a tad so that you can hear him. Then it will be quitting time again,
Sunday, August 21, 2011
It has always been difficult to be well read, early on because there were scant books and most of those were either in personal libraries or in remote monasteries, in more recent years because an increasing number of books were being published.
Your personal solution to the matter has been to read fiction with the focus of a coyote checking out the hillside for a rabbit or two for it supper, which is to say, Pounce right now and screw the consequences of routine and responsibilities. Included in your solution is the strategy of not returning to any book you do not have to return to, thus accounting for a number of opened books here and there. In a studio-like living arrangement with one large room, a generous kitchen, a bathroom with perhaps twice the volume of the early telephone booth, opened books are easy to notice. The rule of thumb has been that books left open for more than three days go to the library book sale dump box.
Nonfiction is another matter. You do not have to read a work of nonfiction all the way through unless, of course, you have to because the book will not have it any other way. Nonfiction books become reference books. Not that fiction cannot be reference. Nonfiction is stored somewhere between a Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress System, with you in the middle.
You'd hoped by now to be off the hook with the defensiveness about being well read, as though either being well read or not being defensive abut your poor score would confer upon you some measure of comfort the way seeing gradual increases in your credit score allows you the fiction of comfort about financial matters. No such luck.
The state of being well read is a cultural ideal you picked up in a working class family whose members all assumed you would go on to a university, which was seen as a kind of trampoline from which you would, after much flexing and tensing of muscles, bound high enough to free you of restraints and limitations associated with what manner of work you might perform and where you might perform it. This cultural ideal is something similar to a bar code tattooed onto your forehead, pronouncing you, if not intelligent then at least cultured.
Try putting that down on a job application. Work skills_____? Er, cultured. Or, as in one job interview, you surprised yourself by answering the question, Why should we hire you? with the admission that you had good taste. Oh, really? Do you? Well, we certainly don't want it said that the manager of our Los Angeles office doesn't have good taste, do we?
Although this put you in a tight spot, because having good taste is every bit as subjective as being well read, you did get the job, which meant you now got to put your good taste to the practical test of choosing works written by men and women whom you considered to merit publication.
It is heavy with you now that you will neither be able to read enough nor write enough. Both these activities are central to publication and publishing, both of which activities matter to you. But so also does discovery matter to you. The fact of being alive and afflicted with little or no opportunities for discovery seem a horrendous equation, which you do not want to come to pass. You are willing to nod to, even accept the notions of ignorance and stupidity as tickets to the amusement park of life, where there are more rides than you can possibly indulge. That's okay, too. Who ever met someone coming from Disneyland , describing herself as well ridden.
You hope to ride only the rides that lead to some discovery. The discovery does not have to be happy or even comfortable. Look at all those you've seen get sick while on rides.
You read and write for discovery, some parts of which may be the discovery that this particular book is not worth reading or that this particular piece or story is not worth writing. You are a bona fide optimist in the sense that you still think it possible to read something that will illuminate you. To put it another way, you do not believe you have read all the life-changing works out there, or that your years have carried you beyond the time when a work could change your life.
Same holds for writing. Who knows what discoveries that could lead to? Surely not you.
Saturday, August 20, 2011
A common thread running through stories published in such upmarket, literary venues as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, and, increasingly, The Sewanee Review, is the near absolute lack of a common thread. To confound a metaphor, these journals and their stories have in common their ability to see the stunning difference in the two or three basic types of story. They also share, in many cases, the ability to drill deeper into two or three of the major characters and the further ability to sketch in the peripherals as though they were, indeed, tangible presences within the narratives.
A belief you have no immediate means of quantifying relates to the fact that authors whose stories are given homes in these venues set about writing in the first place to find out what happens. Your added speculation is that these writers may well start out with an ending in mind, write the story to lead up to, then result in that ending, only to become dissatisfied with the result. Then the fun begins, the writer reaching beyond expectations to that lovely terrain of uncertainty.
As thought inhibits the first draft, certainty is an albatross draped around the neck of the story as though it were a tourist debarking in Honolulu. Safety is another drag on the potential of a story to rise above the level of mere acceptability and into the stratosphere of the memorable.
We do not write to ratify what we already know; we write to extend our time aloft, holding nothing back, reserving no insights or revelations for the next story because, if we are sincere about our craft, we write each story as though it may be the last we will produce.
Control freaks and obsessives as we are, we manufacture that faint angst as an anchor of the ego. Our worst fear is to be called derivative. Of whom, we ask, affronted. And the answer comes back, Of yourself. Oh, blow to the ego on that one.
The Internal Editor--the one that must be sent packing off--taunts with the challenge of what it is we could possibly learn from a story that we don't already know? Try humility. We could learn that; it is a splendid carrot to hold out for ourselves because, when fully engaged within such craft and writing self as we have, we have stepped out of the role of being a nice person. We are too focused on being empathetic to be nice. This requires a certain protective coating so that we can continue to discover other roads, other elephants hiding in the living room, other unthinkables for our characters to want of each other, for we are a needy species, wrapped in the Saranwrap and cling wrap and duct tape of our respective ego, fearful on some levels that our fantasies and urges may carry the taint of the perverse. We keep secrets from ourselves, our characters keep secrets from us, and readers keep their secrets from us and our characters.
When we find ourselves listening to a reader who complains about not wanting to read bleak and dark stories because life is already bleak and dark enough, our proper response is to nod sympathetically and relate how tough it is these days to get a story taken on anywhere with a story that is a replay of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. We should seriously doubt that such readers actually buy books rather than try to write against the grain of our own perceptions of the human condition.
Friday, August 19, 2011
It did not seem like a diversion from necessary work, much less did it seem a mistake.
You looked in one of the few non-grocery-specific cabinets within your studio-office-home, knowing there were relevant files which, you'd thought, contained materials related to the work at hand. The diversion/mistake resided next to the file box in the form of three ancient three-ring binders. Next to those were bulking dummies, pleasant reminders of another time and another range of technologies from your salaried days with book publishers.
Seen on a shelf, a bulking dummy would appear to be a hardcover book, six by nine, without a dust jacket. One of its purposes would be to help the artist construct the necessary artwork for that very item, the dust jacket.
Bad mistake. This particular bulking dummy had been put to use as your daily journal for the year 1999. How could you not be curious to see how it had been with you for a few days twelve years ago.
Worse mistake, the curiosity begins to spread to those three-ring binders, two of which were filled with plastic sleeve pages that made them effectively into a photo album. You became an immediate hostage to the rebels of nostalgia. Snapshots of cherished animal pals from past years. Several photos featured cat and dog friends, leaning against, about, and over this frog bank, which has been with you--made all the moves, from Hollywood to Santa Monica, to Summerland, to Santa Barbara, to here--at least forty years.
You purchased it on one of your trips to the Southwest, possibly Acoma, because you were determined to see that pueblo, thanks to Willa Cather's Death Comes to the Archbishop. Could have been any of several others. There were as well photos of Hopi kachina dolls, some sadly lost because of one of the Santa Barbara fires, but others having survived the venues, the experiences (traumas) of moving, as for example these to your right. (Okay, so the one in the middle is an oil painting of Sally someone gave you as a remarkable gift.) There are other items as well, small pots, whimsical vases that would be hard pressed to hold more than one flower, a tiny ceramic pot,hardly larger than a thimble, brought back from France as a gift from your sister, a carving of a raven by a Kwakutyl craftsman that came your way. These and others like them have become your lares and penates, your household gods. The carving of the raven is likely the possession you came by before any of the others in display. Of course there are photos of your relatives; somewhere you can even find a registration card from your junior year at UCLA.
It is amazing to have this unplanned archaeology thrust upon you to the point where the work that needed to be done--the client had even phoned to remind you--long set aside, your dinner hour receding into the distant past as you busily reconstruct moments that were of exquisite concern--not all necessarily happy or, to be fair, not by any means all sad--and want, demand your participation now.
In a number of contexts, the subject of alternate universe fiction has been as insistent on getting your attention as a puppy wanting to be let out to pee. Since including an essay on the subject in your forthcoming, now in press, book, you realized all story is alternate universe. Even today, with yet another client for whom you were prepared, you argued that all fiction is minimum parallel universe, bordering on into alternate, simply because of the potential for reader one seeing something reader two didn't see and visa versa, not to forget the wonderful synergy when editor queries or suggests to author.
In some ways, an editorial query is duality personified: It is immediately a slap in the face, as in, What do you mean, you don;t understand what that means? I understand what it means. It is also, with the right suggestion, the writer confessing to the editor, Wow,I didn't even see that.
Among the many things your own past is to you, it can be a past someone wouldn't want under any circumstances or, indeed, a past that invites envy.
You do not, as you sit looking out the dining area window at an apple tree in full fruit, contemplate the exact moments of acquisition of the things about you, even the temporary things such as the bowl of apricots, Lupe, the maid,brought you. As it is, discovering the wooden spoon and fork when tossing a salad recently, caused you a brief sense of disconnect because you had no memory of how you'd come by them. The more you tried, the greater the mystery. But the mystery soon solved itself. You got the solution from thinking about the apricots. Lupe is the source of the salad implements.
You are surrounded by the energy of things; an energy that extend into your discovery of notes, words, essays written by, of all people, you. There in your journal from 1999 was your thoughtful memory of a dream in which your father appeared to you, apologizing to you for not having taught or given you things he felt would have helped. If an apology was in order, it more properly ought to have been yours to him for not listening closely enough. The joy here is that you are not finished with one another. He has been dead since 1993, but appears in your dreams with some regularity. Almost without exception, you awaken from them refreshed and thrilled to have been the son of such a man.
It is fortunately not a choice one has to make between the then and the immediate now and the hopes for the future; all are fraught. Life is fraught. Life requires just as much close reading as story does.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Q: Why do things always have to get worse?
A: Two reasons. The nature of life is for things get worse or to remain the same but at the same time to seem worse. Most people, even conservative and/or cranky ones change, causing them to look back at an idiosyncratic time in the past where things were better, people more polite, children more respectful of their elders. It also meant social inferiors knew their place or at least were not as vocal and demonstrative in their visions of justice. As well,it meant there was a clearer scale of social stratification, a circumstance regarded by some as family values, by others as moral values. As the individual encounters more experiences, where hairlines begin receding here and sprouting in unaccustomed places there, the individual may begin to see things getting worse by degree, then requiring an entire shopping cart to transport them in their downward spiral.
The nature of story has always been for things to get worse. This is so because story, in the hands of the better craftspersons, reflects aspects of the human condition. By degrees more nuanced than fable, parable, or Hallmark greeting cards, story attempts to evoke salient features of human nature in general, the human condition in yet greater specificity, and behavior (motivation) in exquisite specificity.
One notable quality of story is its tidal nature. When the tide of awful things begins to ebb, the story is serving notice that it, too, is on the way out. Of course things will get worse again, in particular if the story to hand happens to be a novel, Even so, things becoming worse may signal book two of a series.
By its very nature, story is a more condensed version of the fraught quality of life; story is life on steroids. Steroidal behavior often drives us beyond our perceived boundaries. This is fitting and proper. Generations of readers have had their expectations tuned to expect this.
An apt metaphor here is the concept of and beyond J.S. Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." Tempering or tuning an instrument is based on the Western system of music based on intervals within the number five. In the interests of time, space, and, yes, interest, a step of logic (and explanation) that could fit here is being omitted. Suffice it to say that the same instrument used to play Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," back in the day when he would have performed it, would be tuned differently if it were to be played today, before a modern audience. Subsequent generations of listeners since the days of Bach have grown accustomed to a different tuning system.
Generations of readers have brought to the iPad a differing sense of what story is, how it is transmitted, how bad things can get within it, and what kind of ending is now of interest.
Regardless of what point along the arc of time we're considering, things have to seem increasingly beyond hope if they are to be taken seriously, which is to say collect reader empathy. Thus the unthinkable, come to pass. Generations of writers have been causing "things" that were considered unthinkable to come out of hiding to the point of involving one or more of the characters. Writing becomes modernized by successive generations of writers becoming inured to yesterday's unthinkable, hauling out today's (whatever it might be) , and setting it into motion.
A large portion of today's dramatic audiences might think nothing except mild amusement at the outcome of Joe Orton's gem of a play, Entertaining Mr. Sloan, but it is still not a likely candidate for a high school senior class play, nor would you expect to see it at summer stock in most Nebraska or Oklahoma venues any more that you would expect a literal interpretation of Nebraska and Oklahoma favorites to find wide audience in mid-town Manhattan or Los Angeles.
You, in effect, are your own index of the unthinkable. This is, by the way, the same index in metaphor that applies when measuring the individual perception of how good the past was and how much more refined it was in those days.
Some of us grow uneasy at the inexorable shift of balance between the racial demographics as well as the cultural and religious ones. Some of us are fearful we have demeaned the sanctity of life by allowing any consideration at all of abortion, much less the egregious hurt put on the tradition of marriage by allowing members of the same sex to partake. Raising the matter of the various products and substitutions for the Eucharist rituals--grape juice, for Christ's sake--is yet another unthinkable, come tumbling down to pass.
If story is to have any sense of grip or grit, its unthinkable must stretch outward. Story either grabs us or it does not. Used books stores are filled with stories individuals did not feel they had to keep, little more than candy wrappers littering the fields after the circus has packed up and departed. Of course there is the other aspect of the tide: libraries still refusing to shelve various titles because they contain one or more affronts to the good old days, when such trash had no hope of being published.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Every time you begin a new piece, you start with great expectations. Like the emigrants who made their way west after the Great Panic of 1837, you packed a few items into the vehicle as represented by the piece, and started forth, not at all sure of what you'd find at the end, less sure what you'd have to go through in order to get there.
The fuel for the trip was taken on board at about the time the idea for the piece came to you, its conversion rate to actual energy proportionate to the conviction you had that this one--this piece--could be the best ever, the most sapient, humorous, insightful piece yet, the one closest to narrative poetry, the one that would draw readers to your other work, respectful, understanding that they'd come upon you when you were at your peak.
In order to get here, you'd lost the emigrant's equivalent of horses, mules, oxen; you'd tossed furniture, made wrong turns, eaten poorly, drunk too much coffee, to say nothing to the numbers of cigarettes and bowls of pipe tobacco you'd smoked down to ash until about 1978, when you'd quit that particular habit. In order to get to the other side of the new project, you'd have to go through the prairie and canyons of discovery, outrun such metaphorical Indians and rapacious scallywags as you might meet along the way.
A project that did not have these hidden snipers in position was not a worthwhile project at all. You had--and have--to fear for your safety, your sanity, and any sense that you have evolved abilities in your possession. One word you are loathe to use in this context is "talent" because you are unable to define that word or indeed to separate it from the habit of making attempts. Talent, you believe, is some innate ability to do things correctly. You believe you have learned how to do some things correctly, most of which you have had to teach yourself. This is not because there was a lack of excellent teachers or sources available, rather because you were not at the time of exposure certain you understood what the instructions meant. You had, in effect, to learn from a graveyard of abandoned projects, of things given up upon, of what you thought of as sure things not finding the homes you'd imagined.
You are always buoyed with enthusiasm at the outset. Only when you are in, moving along, do the wolves begin appearing in the upper paragraphs, sniffing out things to pounce upon, perhaps even calling to one another at the signs of potential targets. Some of them are often so clangorous that you feel the need to stop right there for edits and rethinking.
The risk of lousy results is always there, hovering like a red-tailed hawk above, scouting out lunch. You are not quite friends with these marauders; you are no Rousseau, filled with embodiments of noble savages or the Hallmark version of Nature or the Forrest primeval. These guys can put a serious hurt on you.
Such awareness is a given. New ideas land on you like California Scrub Jays after peanuts on your patio table. You brush the less dramatic of them aside with the consequence of having to sit out there, a cold cup of coffee in hand, thinking, waiting.
Such is the way of it, the life and cycle of it. Wait, watch, pounce or sweep away--then, at length, embark, checking your equipment to see if you are prepared for the trip. The risk of it is a constant companion. You see it sometimes, when you are shaving or when you sit before the full-length mirror at your barber. The risks inherent in your vision of yourself are like the risks that inhere in a new project.
There is no other way for it. The journeys without risk are not worth the trouble; they are boring. It takes dissatisfaction to make the journey worthwhile. Imagine looking in the mirror and thinking from what you see that you can make the journey. Compare that with looking in the mirror and being so dissatisfied with what you see that you are eager to set off on the journey.
What was once Go West, young man, has now become Go West, old sport. You once went, but now you go.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Critical theory is a term applied to the reading, discussion, and evaluation of published cultural material. Often applied in accordance with a particular discipline such as Marxism, feminism, or structuralism, these approaches, as their names imply, support a particular vision of Reality. They may also suggest an opposition to or revisionist approach to a version already in place, thus structuralism giving way first to post-structuralism, then to deconstruction.
Such visions and conversations are the academic's equivalent of genre fiction, alternate universe in particular. They also invite comparison to The Talmud, a compendium of rabbinic discussions and arguments of Jewish law, ethics, and philosophy. These discussions and arguments have been recorded since about 200 of the Common Era. As you might imagine, some of the Talmudic "comments" and "interpretations" over the millennia have led to increasingly vigorous debate, not the least of which have focused on the definition of who and what a Jew is.
In the middle years of the twentieth century, a passionate debate raged among literary critics, focusing on such nuance as whether science fiction was literature, were Utopian visions science fiction and if they were, did that mean dystopias were also science fiction? The arguments did not stop there: If 1984 had been written by someone less scrupulous--code for interested in financial return--than Orwell, would it have been science fiction, and was it wrong to think of Brave New World as science fiction?
Bringing the inner turmoils of The Talmud and the worlds of speculative literature to the table of debate also suggests an invitation to the political spectrum: Progressive and Conservative,Tory and Labor, Capitalist and Socialist. Not to forget psychologists: Freudian, neo-Freudian, Jungian, even behaviorist, nor those strict constructionist jurists and their compeers, the liberals.
In the same ways extraordinary insights and visions have come from genre fiction, the academy, the political, psychological, and legal points of received acceptance, we have benefited from the dialogue and debate. We have even achieved a modicum of progress. Even though there could always be more such progress, the Universe appears to have its own sense of time line. This is, then, no argument for more just justice, faster progress, more tolerant tolerance.
We are talking critical theory here.
Save the critical theory until there is at the least an entire first draft down on paper or screen. Don't worry yet about whether it is not yet fully realized cyberpunk, only post modernist, even--gasp--mere modernist. Such elements as theme, objectivity, and truth, believe it or don't, are already there, waiting for their chance to appear, but until you get a draft committed to some medium, they are only bit players, waiting in the wings for their cue.
It is worth remembering that most of us were drawn into the text in the first place by the author's voice, telling us a story. We began to associate that storytelling voice with grandparents, one-size-fits-all elders, and the voice emerging from the print, after we'd got beyond the Look! Look! Look! See Dick! See Jane! stage. From that moment on, we had the key; we could read.
We were also screwed without knowing it.
Writing seemed so easy because the writers we were drawn to had worked their ass off, making it seem simple. We were screwed because we thought we could do it, too. We thought so before we sat down to do it.
All about us is the incessant drama of men and women from all disciplines, thinking they can do religion or philosophy, or law. Yet look how long it took us as an emerging race/culture to arrive at the Eureka moment of René Descartes1596-1650) and his "awareness" of the great dualism, I think, therefore I am. Then think how many revisions we had to get through to see through that simplicity to what we assume now.
In all parts of the world right now, men and women politicians are displaying bat-shit crazy behavior, thinking such activity is a necessary adjunct to saving their respective place in their respective society. We of this country are being handed a gift by the media, who seem to appreciate bat-shit crazy behavior as an audience draw. Thing is, we've always had nut cases in this country, men and women on both sides of the ideological spectrum, who discovered it wasn't as easy as it looked.
Save the critical theory until you have the material down. If your inner control freak can't wait to lay hands upon the work, try this approach:
Day One: Get as much down as possible, then set it aside. Do not spend more than thirty seconds worrying about whether this is the true point of beginning.
Day Two: Start by reading what you did yesterday, tweaking and moving about. You know how much writing time you have allotted. Don't take more than ten percent of that time for the fussing and line editing. Then start writing. Does not matter if it connects directly to what you wrote yesterday.
As the days progress, your manuscript will grow, meaning you will begin eating into your writing time if you allow your getting-to-work editing session take more than twenty-five percent of your allotted writing time. You are in effect wearing your control freak self off the job until a draft has been completed. Get it? You always spend seventy-five percent of your writing time writing. Your twenty-five percent editing time is the literary equivalent of Lean Cuisine.
Control freak that you are, you are delaying gratification for the moments when you have more to feel gratified about.
Monday, August 15, 2011
If you wanted one word to describe the total experience of story, your choice would be "consequence." You might have characters, situations, and settings floating about in front of you, but without consequence in the package, all you have is a laundry list passing itself off as story.
Consequence is pigeons come home or on their way to the roost. Consequence is the mortgage come due, the positive in a drug store pregnancy kit; it is the dramatic equivalent of yeast. Without it, story doesn't stand a chance of coming to life. The results would be as woebegone as a fallen souffle, hard and unattractive as a bicycle seat.
Of course characters are staples of story. We read story with the intent of becoming involved with them and their individual quirks as they are yanked into situations often not of their making. Our own quirkiness provides the chemistry of the attraction between us and them. Someone as "other" and "outsider" as I am, we reason, has had good reason to have trod into the same kind of crush I might have experienced.
We are drawn to read in the first place out of recognition of our own otherness and the vanilla worlds awaiting us if we are not careful. To the degree that we are able to empathize with these imaginary character beings, who dwell outside our own immediate frame of reference, we assign the term "literature" to the narrative at hand. The deeper our empathy, the more likely we are to upgrade our personal assessment from story to literature.
Situations that squeeze moral choices or their denial from characters provide us with the opportunity to move from the vanilla boredom and banality from our surroundings into the exquisite puzzle of imagination. Here is the setting where we long to live full time, but must be content to visit as a tourist. It is a world of adventure, falling love with persons and things, where secrets are discovered, then revealed, a world where exciting new formulas produce exciting new results, and where temptations appear of epic reach.
In part, we compensate by becoming storytellers ourselves; we read and write as though our sanity depends upon them. We are too familiar with those lackluster moments in our own life, our reading, and those oh, so embarrassing moments we sometimes discover in our own writing. With these fears in the back of our mind, we set characters into provocative situations, nudging them away from safety toward crescendo, then into incident--any incident from which there will be consequences, an innocent cat or dog hair on a sweater taken as "evidence" of a sexual betrayal.
The connective tissue of the body dramatic is consequence. Begin a narrative with an incident. Tie it to another incident in such a way that the reader will say of a character, "I can't believe she did that. She should have known." Known what? you think, giggling into your sleeve. The reader is already aware of the consequences approaching, the pigeons returning home. And you'll have begun another in a long succession of tales, all of which have outcome in the best of all places--the sensitivity of the reader.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
If stasis is the enemy of story--and you believe it is--then surprise, reversal, and change--which are the antiheroes of reality--enter the landscape of drama like liberating armies, setting the enslaved countryside free. But as anyone who has spent much time reading story will tell you, the freedom is tidal in nature. Soon the tide of change will ebb. More changes are necessary.
Writers tend to call this growth or evolution. Those who changed or evolved have done so to a level of comfort they call freedom; it is a level, the changed or evolved say, that they have worked hard to achieve. Now they wish to enjoy the comforts of their efforts.
Individuals who espouse the enjoyment of comforts tend to form or join groups of similar individuals who do so, their names throughout history forming a vivid and ironic lyric. The irony comes from the revelation that the underlying emotion at the basis of the wish to enjoy achieved comforts is anger. The anger is directed at individuals and groups whose interests and evolution fall somewhere outside the individuals and groups perceived as wanting also to enjoy comforts, and wanting to do so without having worked for them.
Thus we have come to understand the cultural wars between the conservatives and whatever handy word the zeitgeist offers up to serve as code for aliens and outsiders. Liberal is a word that comes to mind. Marxist and Red are others, and any compound word with welfare as its root yet another. Thus conservatives, who speak at some length of values--even core values--which tend to mean a farewell to dialogue and a gradual discovery that those alien others who have not experienced growth or evolution and who wish to do so should not be allowed inside the town hall wherein to address their opinions and beliefs.
Stasis, whether in story or reality, tends to be represented by some philosophy or religion that demands of its faithful at least a tithing of obedience if not a conscience-driven behavior. Many are led to believe their turn for enjoying the comforts of their efforts will come in the next life or some equivalent of a life held forth after this one.
This does not intend to argue that there is no anger resident among those variously called Liberals or Marxists or Progressives; anger is resident among all of us as a part of our individual genome. An individual who has buried his or her anger is not only a victim of a particular kind of stasis, he or she is also being led, whether by an overdeveloped conscience or an underdeveloped sense of awareness.
This is the time of anger and discontent from both sides of the spectrum, each suspicious of the other in increasing measure. Now, is the winter of the conservative's discontent made summer by tea party intransigence and calls for a Holy Crusade against the working classes. Now is the winter of the Progressive discontent rendered into an even more ironic devolvement into despair as intransigence and apocalyptic confrontation persist.
We are directed for the moment to Albert Camus's essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," in which Camus, well out of his own comfort zone," is writing of a figure who has before him an eternity of boring, meaningless work, settled on him by the theological equivalent of a conservative, advancing the argument that Sisyphus is a happy man.
It is difficult to be either Insider or Outsider without at some point considering Sisyphus and his condition.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
At the same time Shakespeare was writing his plays and poems Sir Philip Sidney wrote his Defense of Poesie, which, depending upon the kind of English major you were when you read it, you either found compelling and seminal or boring and flaunting that particular Elizabethan kind of cuteness that made you think of ruffles on sleeves and collars.
You were wanting to be a tough kid. Noir. Street smart. There was a coed named Jackie. Refused to tell anyone what her major was. what classes she took. Only some years later did you discover that Jackie may have hung out on campus but she was not enrolled as a student. Your relations with Jackie were the essence of simplicity. You'd approach her and hand her a five-dollar bill, folded in quarters. She'd take the money, then tell you a time, usually after eight in the evening.
At the appointed time, you would be in the outer lobby of the UCLAN Theater on the east side of Westwood Boulevard. A car would appear from the south, stop in the white passenger loading zone just beyond the box office, then drop a pocket-sized tin of Prince Albert pipe tobacco on the gutter. The car would then speed off. The tobacco tin was filled with a mediocre-to-good marijuana. Since you were already a pipe smoker of legitimate pipe tobacco, the Prince Albert may have been infra dig but it needed no additional subterfuge, although you rarely if ever used the marijuana on campus, the exception being the days of ROTC drill.
Neat in your cadet uniform, you'd have prepared yourself for the hour-and-a-half of parade by getting stoned with three friends who were in the marching band. After a general assembly, the band struck up, the color guard appeared, and the battalion set forth to march about the athletic field in cadence to John Philip Sousa marches.
One of your musician friends was a trumpet player by choice in his civilian approaches to music. The ROTC was thrilled when he agreed to play the tuba in the marching band. Another played the clarinet. The third, a bass player in civilian life, took up the drums for ROTC purposes. All three were devoted jazz players, deeply immersed in the rapidly developing harmonic variation known as be-bop.
Galling as it was to have to wear a uniform and lug a rifle about a large athletic field for ninety minutes, it was something else to do so, your mind massaged by the effects of marijuana, and the occasional sounds of John Philip Sousa marches where appropriate fifth-notes were flatted, and through the overtones of the ensemble band, you could hear certain chords not returning to their tonic but played out on the dominant or sub-dominant.
These sounds--Sousa marches with be-bop subtext--and your slightly altered sense of reality were likely to produce in you an extreme tendency to giggle, which would have brought a bevy of student officers to your side, questioning your overall sincerity, and the actual officers who were military, assigned to teaching ROTC classes, regaling you with such Socratic dialogue tropes as wondering if you'd think it so funny were you to find yourself in Korea as a draftee.
To--as it were--enjoy the music, while keeping your mirth to yourself, you spent considerable time reviewing The Faerie Queen and Defense of Poesie, neither of which you considered funny. One description from Defense stuck in your mind and has stayed with you to this day, a description of what you hope to become, what you have set your course on becoming, and what in effect is your pole star.
Listen once again to Sir Philip describing what you would become. Listen to him describing the storyteller:
"With a take, forsooth,he commeth unto you;
With a tale which holdeth children from play,
And old men from the chimney corner..."
That held you through the tedium and the giggles. That held you.
Friday, August 12, 2011
"This [story] goes back to the letter Susan Morrow's first husband Edward sent her last September. He had written a book, a novel, and would she like to read it? Susan was shocked because...she hadn't heard from Edward in twenty years."
Two paragraphs later: "Take your time, he said, scribble a few words, whatever pops into your head. Signed,'Your old Edward still remembering.'"
First line, next paragraph: "The signature irritated her. It reminded her of too much and threatened the peace she had made with her past."
This is all on the first page, the opening paragraphs of Austin Wright's novel, Tony and Susan. You are looking at all the tiny hooks and barbs he has embedded in these few paragraphs. Why should you care about a woman who gets a manuscript from an ex-husband she has not seen for twenty years? You care because your past reading tells you the manuscript will have to be even more enticing than the letter and its effect on Susan Morrow, whom you scarcely know. But wait a minute: the manuscript was sent in September and here it is, the day after Christmas. Questions already. Why has she waited so long to say anything about it?
Next page. The day the package and letter arrive, "She had a sneaky feeling that put her on guard, so that when her real husband Arnold came in that night, she announced boldly: I heard from Edward today.
"Oh, Edward. Well. What does that old bastard have to say for himself?"
Watch Arnold, you tell yourself.
And sure enough, here it is, the day after Christmas, and Arnold is off at a convention.
Whatever it is you suspect Arnold of doing at the convention, you are watching Susan like a hawk now because with Arnold out of the house, she now has three days to read the manuscript.
You cannot quote statistics on divorce, but you are in that curious way of negative effect, more convinced of Susan's dramatic presence because she has been married before. When you discover that this is also Arnold's second marriage, you are even more convinced of the authenticity of Susan and Arnold. So you know about "that old bastard" Edward. He was married some years back to Susan, who is now married to Arnold, who was also married.
But now you're coming back to the title, which is Tony and Susan. Who is Tony? First you have to learn that Arnold is a hot shot heart surgeon, so he has enough income among other things to keep his ex wife in a private sanitarium for the rest of her life because she is quite psychotic and delusional; no way can she live on the "outside." So okay,this reminds you of the first Mrs. Rochester of "Reader, I married him" fame, a reminder that makes you all the more antsy about Arnold because you never thought much of Rochester in the first place, and if Jane hadn't loved him--
What's going on here?
What's going on is, you're hooked on Austin Wright's deft unfolding of narrative and you haven't even met Tony yet. Not only that, Austin Wright was able to present much of this information with a remarkable shortage of "tells." The information appeared to come right out of the story itself, from the characters, from the narrative as opposed to the intrusions of the author, strewing information about as though it were some poison to kill off the gophers in the garden.
You haven't met Tony yet and of course by now you're primed to do so--because you know something. What you know is that Tony is going to be even more an occasion of intrigue and suspense than Susan. Again you fall back on your reading to date to ratify these assumptions. You are in effect a magician of performance level, on a busman's holiday, watching another magician performing an illusion you already know is not magic, merely a coordinated effort that gives the appearance of magic. Story is not real effect, it is the coordinated illusion of effect.
So Susan starts reading Edward's manuscript, that begins, "There was this man Tony Hastings, his wife, Laura, and his daughter Helen, traveling east at night on the Interstate in northern Pennsylvania."
In its way, it reminds you of Twelfth Night. Here is a woman who is not real, getting a manuscript from her first husband, whose name is Tony, which has to mean he is the Tony in the title.
You already saw what Austin Wright did with the opening paragraphs of Susan, so now we get Tony, his wife, aura, and their daughter, Helen. Illusions, right? Yeah, but watch the fuck out, Tony.
"They [Tony, Laura, and Helen] were starting their vacation, going to their summer cottage in Maine. They were driving at night because they had been slow starting and had been further delayed having to get a new tire along the way. It was Helen's idea, when they got back into the car after dinner, somewhere in eastern Ohio. 'Let's not look for a motel,' she said, 'let's drive all night.'
"'Do you mean that?' Tony Hastings said.
"'Sure, why not?'"
How is it you know they will not reach Maine? How is it that the illusion has you?
There are may be three or four basic story templates. Someone setting out on a journey. A stranger or outsider showing up in our midst. A story within a story.
Tony and Susan has all three.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
You first came upon this concept as an undergraduate, where your own machine was filled to overflowing with subscriptions to the major science fiction magazines of the day and where you were spending such disposable income as you had in used book stores. The term as you first encountered it was the title of a book by Arthur Koestler in which he took on the construct of the mind-body dualism of Rene Descartes. Being an undergraduate meant you were at UCLA, where, although you wore all the badges and insignia of the English Department, the ruling fiefdom was the Psychology Department, itself largely in the thrall of B. F. Skinner. If it were not behaviorist, their catechism ran, it could not be valid, much less accurate.
You do, from time to time, dwell on deconstructing behaviorism, particularly as it relates to what has been called the Sapir-Whorf equation, relating to investigations of how the language of a particular culture had a direct effect on its behavior. All quite provocative and useful materials for conjecture and attempts at defining yourself to yourself.
But this is background, a digression from the fact of science fiction/speculative fiction being the pole star department in the heavens of your psyche. To you, the ghost in the machine had been (and continues to be--particularly since the introduction of the computer to the equation) an extraordinary volition resident in all machinery that on occasion rises to rebellion against the designed function of the individual machinery. The ghost in effect has a mind--a mind of its own, a rebellious mind that seeks domination over the czarist function of the original design.
Today's ghost in the machine is probably no ghost at all; it is apt to be one or more crumbs from cinnamon-raisin muffins or cookies, eaten at your desk, either in tandem with morning or afternoon coffee or solo as snacks and/or mere indulgences. It is probable that the "ghost" in today's machine is in one or more ways interfering with your wireless keyboard and/or your wireless mouse, causing great mischief in your already whimsical spelling talents and sending flashes of reptilian brain behavior surging through your Cartesian being to the point where you can understand--if not sympathize with--the rage behavior of the rioters in London and surrounding areas.
You are in most ways fond of your machines. You are even now in serious debate about acquisition variously of iPhone, iPad, and a replacement Mac Book Pro, each of which you will surely subject to equivalent "ghosts" as raisin cinnamon muffins or oatmeal cookies. You will appropriately rail at whichever of these acquisitions you bring home, entering your own Lowenkopfian duality of a love/hate relationship with them.
You have been spending much time in recent days thinking about subtext and irony as they relate to story. The "ghost" in the machinery of personal relationships is love/hate. When in your dealings with man, woman, or child for whom you experienced the depth of abiding love, did you not experience irritation of a frightening intensity?
The ghost in the machine is the resident pattern of the individual person, place, or thing to become haunted by some equivalent muffin or oatmeal cookie crumb, investing it, them, with the moments of behavior that seem irrational and supernatural, and all the mischief that implies.
You are the ghost in the machine. You and your crumbs. You and your flashes of irritation, frustration, and bewilderment when, for long moments, the stars, asteroids, and planets of your Reality deviate from their orbit.
You are the ghost in the machine, scribbling furiously to capture the ironic behavior the deviations produce.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Because of the universal tendency to favor the squeaky wheel with the first round of attention, generations of hospital patients have learned to moan, crying babies get fed, and complaining customers get their concerns redressed.
When the subject of story arises, writers are directed to plot, characters, and suspense as places for the oil. However helpful this therapy might be, it offers no guarantee that the squeak will be cured. To put the matter in more dramatic terms, the narrative lacks dimension.
What causes story to run "thin"?
The squeaky wheels of plot, characters, and suspense often distract the writer away from the vital elements necessary to get the twenty-first century models of story out on the road and running. These elements are text, subtext, and irony.
Text is the entire run of the story arc, related from the sensitivity of one character, if we're dealing with a short story, upwards of six if the text is novel length. There is no place in either medium for the author; stories in the twenty-first century do not require an authorial point-of-view. If the author wishes to get into a story, the closest she can come is to introduce a character with whom she shares the dramatic agenda of this story.
Visualize an equation with point-of-view on one side of the equals sign and experience on the other. If you see that, you're on your way to seeing what story is and some of the squeak will begin to disappear from your narrative.
Subtext is the gap between Reality-as-it-is and how the important characters see it; it is the difference between what a character says and what she feels, employing all the constraints, desires, and permutations arguing within her right now. Think back about the smorgasbord of nuance at work in dialogue. Subtext is the crucible cooking away within all characters. The best dramatic treatment is heat, applied in liberal quantity, with the goal in mind of producing combustion. When subtext reaches combustion point, add enough more heat to make the crucible boil over. What your character will do might surprise you--and the other characters--but that's what you were reaching for.
When subtext reaches combustion point, then boils over, you will have installed the editorial equivalent of a plot compressor, a device designed to run on pure emotion, without the need for oil.
Irony has been enriching story for hundreds of years, making a notable appearance in Gilgamesh, one of the earliest dramas of our Western culture. To show that it is also a staple of Asian literature, there are grand moments of it in the Hindu epic, The Bhagavad-Gita, where Lord Krishna, disguised as a chariot driver, tells the noted general, Arjuna, to STFU and do what he'd been educated and trained to do. When Arjuna continues to dither, Lord Krishna,in effect, says, "Okay, you asked for it," whereupon he allows Arjuna a look at his true nature. This detail is a perfect example of irony, which is the difference between Reality and Illusion or the gap between what one character sees and another understands.
The most famous example of irony in our culture dates from the early 1600s. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, an early prototype of the literary buddy system, provide yet another vision of irony at work, where the illusion is seen as real, the real is seen as illusion, and the reader is convulsed with laughter at the disparity.
Sometimes the laughter produced by irony turns to tragedy, as in the case of Madam Bovary, modeled with some deliberation on Don Quixote. Other examples of the Quixotic refraction of Reality may be found through the centuries, into the present one.
Ironic characters produce the immediate presence of inner conflict and the broad potentials for using this device as a prism through which story can be refracted to an effect every bit the equal of suspense.
Next time you reach for the oil can, take a moment to consider the real reasons for your narrative running thing.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
After you've spent some time investigating the turn-on's and turn-off's of your characters, gathering a sense of how they feel about things, places, other persons in their life, and how they respond to strangers, you're ready to move on to an entire new level of intimacy regarding these individuals. In a metaphoric sense, you're ready to move from mere mushrooms--succulent and flavorful as they are--to the world of truffles and morels. You're ready to convey the regard, distrust, suspicion, even the social relationship of characters by the way they speak to one another.
Get out your dialogue hounds because we're about to do some serious digging.
Let's begin by asking you to put yourself into a letter-writing mode, the kind of letter you used to have to write by hand when you were thanking a relative for a gift, in particular if it was a gift you were not crazy about. If you're of a certain age, this will be the kind of letter you used to tap out with your IBM Selectric typewriter, still excited by the memory of that type ball, bouncing along with you . Now, of course, you can pick your design from a series of templates on MS Word or iPages, and personalize with your choice of typefaces.
There are six basic types of letters. Don't worry, you're not going to have to write them, but thinking about each will give you a handle on dialogue that will reflect your mastery of one of the most difficult aspects of storytelling.
Letter Number One: to a close friend, expressing sympathy, congratulation, or a desire to hang out
Letter Number Two: to a superior at work, a department head or a dean, or a vice president, informing them of some work-related contribution or achievement you made
Letter Number Three: to an elected official asking her to do something on your behalf
Letter Number Four: to a literary agent you'd like to represent you
Letter Number Five: to a lover, being frank and sincere in your admiration
Letter Number Six: to someone who's been hitting on you and whose attentions you have no wish to encourage (pay attention to this because we'll soon be visiting it in full regalia)
If no one you'd not interested in encouraging has been hitting on you, then imagine a letter you'd write to a neighbor two or three houses away whose dog barks all day after they leave for work.
All six of these letters represent differing levels of intimacy, social and generational plateaus, and agendas of one sort or another, including the one to a superior at work where your goal is to accrue brownie points for a raise and promotion. They represent communication with hoped for positive result. Each is loaded with potential for text, subtext, and irony. Even in your most intimate personal connections, you are being more than conversational. You are perhaps afraid a dear friend is about to enter a toxic relationship, but know better than to come right out with that concern. You are sending a love note because--well, a little nookie right now would set you up to take on the world. Nothing disingenuous or dishonest about any of these transactions; they do reflect the nuanced plateaus of closeness or distance, the degrees of intimacy or lack thereof in the landscape of relationships.
When these transactions do leak into trespass, an entire level of agenda becomes the fox, sniffing at the chicken coop. To see this in action, take a look at Act 1, Scene II of Shakespeare's Richard III. Gloucester, who is on his way to becoming Richard III, delays the funeral cortege of Henry VI and his son, both of whom Gloucester admits to killing as he hits on Anne Neville, widow of Henry's son. Anne has nothing good to say about Gloucester, referring to him all the while as thee and thou, even as he confesses to her that he killed her husband out of love for her. In a bold move, Gloucester hands Anne his dagger so that she might kill him in retribution. But she has no heart for the deed, still calling him thou. Gloucester seizes his opportunity to press his ring upon her, which she takes. And now, still wishing she knew his ["thy"] heart, she opens the floodgates of our concern for her by the simple act of switching from thee to you.
At the most basic level, your characters have talked their way into your story; something about them made you realize they could be counted on to say something memorable at the wrong time and, with luck, something forgetful at the right time.
Why is dialogue such a big deal that literary agents and editors look to see how you handle it? All you have to do is like capture some--you know--conversational idiosyncrasy for each character, right?
Thing is, you believe that, maybe you'd be interested in a deal on a chain of big box bookstores. Dialogue is not conversation. When did you ever hear a conversation that had story elements begging you for a dance? What turned you on were arguments or obvious situations where it was clear the conversants were talking about two, maybe three disparate things. Or maybe there were moments of obvious combustion: "He wanted you to do what?"
Here's a little exercise to chew on. From one of your favorite novels or short stories, pick a line of dialogue you enjoy to the point of relishing it. Maybe you like it for its wit or its fresh take. Maybe you like it because it's so expressive or revelatory. Take it out in public; use it in conversation, and watch for the response. Most people will just look blank if not outright puzzled. Try it with close friends and you'll get busted for trying out dialogue on them.
Even when dialogue sounds conversational, there is agenda or subtext scratching around like a puppy wanting to get out for a walk. Agenda, subtext, and irony thrive in dialogue, but they also haunt story like panhandlers in Wal-Mart parking lots. We'll investigate them in the next chapter. You'll have to cope with puppy's walk on your own.