Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Ghost in the Machine

   To some degree, after the mind, reading, logical thought, and writing are in place, concepts mob about us like panhandlers in parking lots, wanting not spare change but rather our spare logic, our belief systems, our giving up of the connective tissue that helps us evaluate to make useful decisions.

The French philosopher, Rene Descartes, brought such a concept into our culture, the duality of I think, therefore I am.  A classmate of your once made fun of this with his Latin parody of the original Descartes Cogito ergo sum, rendering his version Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum, I think I think, therefore I think I am.

The English philosophical writer, Gilbert Ryle, published a rebuttal to the Descartes concept in 1946, The Concept of Mind, speaking to the foolishness of such dualist body/mind theories, referring to it with a phrase that captured your attention when you first heard it and later, when Arthur Koestler used it as a title for a subsequent book, The Ghost in the Machine.  Koestler’s “ghost,” and to an extent Ryle’s is the more primitive portions of the brain, parts that have remained while others have evolved or at least been equipped with modifications that allow a more straightforward use of the mind’s capacities to calculate, perceive, use logic, and override such primitive aspects as articulated by the ghost.

Ryle speaks of what he calls category mistakes, arguments in logic made by persons whose brains are still haunted with the demanding voice that overrides abilities and developments in language and cognition.

Wherever there is spoken and written language, such ghosts patiently await the opportunity to override evolutionary progress.

Thanks to, among other sources, poetry, nonfiction, drama, and fiction, intellectual and emotional understanding of the human condition have grown in exponential leaps.  Artists and scientists, curios about the way the human mind works, have in a sense produced the dramatic equivalent of Sanskrit, a language in large measure enhanced to discuss spiritual and religious themes, with a major goal being the definition of the ways for an individual to experience cosmic understanding and, thus, cosmic awareness of the nature of reality.

Literary theory and criticism ask us to examine texts from numerous perspectives so that, for example, a text as diverse as a Tolstoy or Nabokov novel emerges not as one single text but as a stack of texts with different possible interpretations, say Marxist or post-modernist, or even post-colonial.

The closest you can come to an acceptable “theory” is the value you place on the first emotional response to the entire text, before the conceptual biases are discussed and identified.

The ghosts begin walking when the critics link characters and inanimate objects to symbols of a movement or theory.  The arguments in logic and the concepts related to literature are the defining factors as they describe us.  Even when a scene or entire piece emerges as absurd, say a Beckett or Ionesco, the scene is illuminating the absurdity of the universe but also the absurdity resident within the observer.

To say of a thing that it exists, “is” as it were is to give it theoretical life.  Adjectives and adverbs extend some greater specificity to the thing and to us as observers.  When we recognize a thing as absurd, are we drawing defining boundaries?  Are we describing ourselves?  Are we describing or defending the universe?

Arguments about the logic of a premise or a condition abound, making in the abundance drama, story, events with consequence.  The more story attempts to define with specificity, the more it becomes vulnerable to misinterpretation and fallacious logical provenance.  The more story becomes open-ended, the greater our opportunity for looking in, then seeing sanity.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Another of the bits of information about writing dramatic narrative you took to heart without sufficient investigation was the injunction “Give the reader someone to root for.”  You interpreted this to mean choosing a character whose goals caused readers to resonate in sympathy.

Thus you set off on a long run of trying to argue with the reader in the sense of contriving characters the reader would on some instinctive basis want to win whatever it was she or he sought, whether it was Dorothy Gale wanting to get back to Kansas or Detective Harry Bosch, fed up with the bureaucracy and old boy networking in the LAPD wanting to bring the murderer down because, well, because that represented poetic justice and because that also dramatized the so-called comedic ending, which has little to do with comedy and heaps to do with the return of the universe to its orderly state before a heinous series of murders were committed.

You have never yet known a young girl who wished to get back to Kansas and as you read subsequent works by Lyman Frank Baum, you grew increasingly pleased to discover that Dorothy wished to return to Oz because, given the choices available to her in Kansas, hanging out in Oz with Ozma, the queen of Oz, was not all that bad a bargain.  You actually knew a cop somewhat like Harry Bosch.  There is even reason to believe the character of Harry Bosch was based on the cop you knew.  Although you got on well enough with the cop, and you actually enjoyed the time spent in his company, and although you wanted him to win out over the kinds of creeps and weird sorts who went around humiliating people, then killing them, you did not see him as a potential long term friend.

Of equal truth, you would not wish as friends any number of men and women whose fictional exploits have led you to important emotional and intellectual rewards, nor is it accurate to say you were rooting for them even in the way you used to root for certain sports teams back in the days when such things mattered to you.  While you were on the one hand able to suspend your skepticism and disbelief relative to whether these characters did or in fact could exist, you were more interested in seeing how they got into the situations they did and to what extent they were able to get out of these situations with minimal damage or punishment being inflicted on them.  You were also playing with the game of guessing the author’s stand on certain social issues because the time came when, after you’d read enough and made the then shocking discovery that some men and women were able to make a living from writing such stories as you admired, you knew this was what you wished to do as well.

A significant reason why you moved away from your intense boyhood interest in sports had to do with your discovery that your sports heroes were pretty much redneck bigots, their humor much of a single, bigoted, sexist type and, with few exceptions, their bigotry was especially high in racial content.  You began accordingly to suspect the politics of any character you came across and thus there you were again, at some odds from potential sources of valuable education.  Root for such individuals?  No, thank you.  Root for Gatsby in his attempt to woo Daisy Buchannan?  Pass once again.

The person of craft may have any number of solid, first-rate friendships within her or his craft, but then again, perhaps not.  Perhaps the process of taking on the apprenticeship makes one leery, suspicious, lonely, feeling out there on the outskirts as opposed to in the thick of the social stew.  There may be any number of writers with whom you can talk shop and process and outright technique.  (How do you get that vibrant interior monologue?  How do you get your characters to stop talking?  How do you arrive at what has become your narrative voice?)

How do you cope with the fallout from having found your narrative voice and as a consequence found the necessary sense of confidence to allow you to write as many as three or four pages of draft without any protracted thought?

An answer, a simple enough answer is:  through empathy.  You neither befriend nor coddle nor dismiss your characters, rather you treat them as they must treat themselves, which is to say they know they are right.  They know they are ahead of you on points, no matter what their age, no matter even if you know you are ahead on points over this particular author.

You do not buy into this system.  Instead you empathize with your characters and the situations they find themselves.  After all is said and done, you put them herein, wanting to see how the might fare in circumstances that at very least cause you extreme discomfort.

 You owe your characters some sense of dignity, even though they are about to do something wrong or have already begun compounding wrong things as a further consequence of something wrong they’d done in the past.

You don’t pile on excuses or questionable backstory; rather you see them as doing what they consider necessary things to facilitate what they consider necessary outcomes.  You certainly don’t patronize the victim or the addict any more than you’d patronize say a single mother, raising one or more children.  You in fact stand a chance to learn something from individuals you might consider unfortunate, that is to say, you could learn something if you do not let your senses of entitlement or superiority or even discomfort take over your behavior.  And you do, don’t you, concoct stories to see how they will pay off so that you are less deer-in-the-headlights and more writer in the midst of getting mud and sweat and even blood on your work clothes.

The message should be clear, but you are the first to recognize it is not always so for you:  If you look for desperate and despicable behavior in characters, you will surely find them, but if you look for dignity first, then examine where there was a parting of the ways, you will find considerably more than desperate and despicable behavior.  You will find humanity, extending a hand to you.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Up to One's Ass in Broken China

The goal at first is to get a succession of triggering events down in some semblance of a relation to reality.  This is how the juggling process begins—a few balls, metaphorically tossed into the air.

By “triggering events,” you mean incidents having a direct effect on another, incidents such as a decision made or delayed, an attempt toward a goal, an encounter with some mind-changing force, to mention a scant few.

Of course you require characters, individuals to portray these circumstances with sufficient presence and motive to cause them to seem resonant with inner life and ambition, thus convincing to any reader who happens upon them.  Not to forget a setting against which to portray these events you are about to cause to happen or, indeed, the pace or rate of occurrence with which they take place.  While you’re at it, you need the manners in which these creations of yours, these characters, speak to one another.

Quite a house of cards you’ve built already, and yet the characters don’t even have names nor have you selected the historical or near-present-day time frame in which this fraught, writhing presence squirms its way along the birth canal.

Have you given so much as a moment to the selection of your amanuensis?  Don’t try the delaying tactic of wondering aloud if your edifice can stand without an amanuensis.  How many books on narrative technique, your own in the bargain, devote space to such things?

Your amanuensis is the point (or points) of view you have (or, appropriately, will have) appointed to take down the notes and minutes of these events and, in doing so, impart particular cultural, social, educational, and psychological biases to your narrative-a-aborning, which you, in your wisdom (or perhaps blind chance) intend as an ironic backdrop against which to play this counterpoint.

Will you need to be reminded that some amanuenses are so eager to take the story out for a spin that they will present themselves as reliable, trustworthy reporters while in fact they are naïve or have some time back parted company with such niceties as truth?  Perhaps you’d not conducted sufficient interviews to determine how significant their world view, leading you in subsequent drafts to discover they have an uneducated vision of the history of evolution, much less a familiarity with the constructs of logical procession.

All this to get a narrative launched?  Could you be thinking of the final summary of Huckleberry Finn, where he arrives at the point where “There aint no more to tell and I’m rotten glad of it because if I’d of knowed how much trouble it was making a book, I’d never have started.”?  What factors have you not yet enumerated in these vagrant paragraphs, but surely must employ?  What, say, of voice, the resonant frequency in which a narrative is written so that, whomever your amanuensis, your narrative will seem to have your brand on it like a name tag sewn into a schoolchild’s sweater by a concerned mother?

What also of surprises, those moments arriving within your paragraphs like uninvited guests—after you had already planned the menu and rate of service, but which now will have to be built in because—well, because, damnit, the implications now are more mischievous than you’d realized and you are a fool for mischief.  

These metaphorical balls, tossed into the air, have made you a juggler in spite of yourself.  Excellent advice for the beginning juggler: Do not use dishes until you are at an advanced stage of ability, lest you find yourself up to your rear end in broken china.

At one point in your life when you were in theory experienced enough to distinguish urban myth from demonstrable fact, you were told by someone who was briefly married to a circus performer that the maximum number of items a juggler could juggle was eleven.  You have tried to verify this information, although how many jugglers have you come in contact with in your time? When you were with the carnival, your had no associations with the side show performers (with one notable exception that turned out a disaster) and you still have no way of knowing.  Your own attempts at juggling have brought you no farther than threesies, even that not for long.

Now that you think about it, in much the same manner as Briony Tallis, the remarkable novelist narrator from Ian McEwen’s, Atonement, wonders if her inner life makes her different than most other people or whether there is not much difference at all between individuals, you wonder how many individuals you see in the warp and weft of your life are juggling metaphoric things of the same and even more intense awareness as you.  Are you seeing any ten- or eleven-dish jugglers?

Are you in fact anywhere near that level, or are you limited to the scant three items and those only for moments at a time?

Are you, in fact, accomplished in any manner or do you stride forth, up to your ass in broken china?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

You Could Almost Say

There is the occasional fear that you have worked your way through the attic of notions and ideas to the point where there will be nothing coming for a time, which is of a piece with saying you fear you have no opinions for the time being, are simply sponging up impressions, waiting for some distillation process to complete itself.

This fear triggers the fear in general about not writing and the downstream consequences of that.  You are not so much aware of what you do when you are doing it as when you for some reason or other do not.  It is, then, not writing that makes you a writer, it is not writing that causes you to think about what being a writer means to you.

For much of your life, it was considered bad form to write about characters who were writers.  Artists barely made the cut and in order to do so, they had to be pretty much like Dorian Gray, where there was some transformative process going on.  James Joyce surely got away with writing about writers, so did Lawrence and Mrs. Woolf, all three of whom were born within the relatively same time span.  The form was of equal badness even to think of yourself in terms of these—that would be posturing or showing off.

The best you could do under those circumstances is write about individuals who were searching for something related to understanding, which is well along the way to what you think writers are trying to do, and do it to such a high degree of specificity that the descriptions, thought processes, and logic fall away to events and facts speaking for themselves to that important third party, the reader.

You do not think much about reading when you are in the act of reading one or more things.  As is the case with writing, you only think about being a reader when you have for some time stepped away from reading.  At such times, you are aware of yourself as a reader in the breach—your act of not reading reminds you with some pain that you have been away.

It is a gigantic leap of faith to attempt a syllogism here with breath, as in you only thinking about the act of breathing when you have been rendered breathless by some internal or external force.  You cannot go too long without breathing, an imperative that adds great weight to using it in any metaphor or simile.  You do become aware of yourself as a breather at times when you have stopped breathing, but also at times when your breathing becomes raspy or halting, or in great gulps that indicate some kind of pressure.

You become aware of yourself as a writer when you do not write but also when your narrative becomes mannered or stodgy or strained or stylized to the point of being less comprehensible and immediate as your accustomed state.

The place where these activities—writing, reading, and breathing—occupy the same plane is when they are brought to mind by events and conditions that take them degrees off the course of muscle memory and simple engagement, reaching the extreme of not engaging them at all.

Practice has a healthy effect on all three, helping you reach the point where you are absorbing a delightful state of being.  Not doing any of the three for a few moments now and again emphasize the fact to you of you being those steps beyond mere sensate that you so enjoy and strive to perfect.

As a breathing, reading writer, you stand some chance of reaching a plane of activity from time to time where your vision is useful, accurate, evocative, where you have some chance of getting at a story without too much stumbling over its inner rhythms and breathing patterns, and where, after you have set the work aside for a time to allow it to age, you are able to take a breath, then delve into reading it, your delight expanding as you find entire sentences, perhaps paragraphs where what you set down seems to fly off the page with meaning and some form of logic and some form of dramatic cohesion.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Trip to the Store

When you were of a certain age and the world about you had not completed its transition from the corner grocery, where the customer was served by the clerk, into the supermarket where the customer moved the shopping cart through the aisles, you’d be sent on occasion to the grocery on Fairfax Avenue, midway between Wilshire Boulevard and Sixth Street.

Your payment for this errand was a few extra cents, which had been added to the funds you were given to make the assigned purchase.   Depending on the time of day of the errand, your fee meant you could afford one or two chocolate-covered graham crackers or an enormous dill pickle in that emerging state between cucumber and its final destiny you so preferred.

By that time in your young life, you were already on wheels, an imaginative construct of a two-by-four, a wooden fruit box with a length of broom handle nailed across its width dimension, all mounted on a discarded roller skate that has been unscrewed to allow for its emergence as two sets of two wheels.

Being sent to the store was an adventure of serious consequence, not to be undertaken in a lighthearted manner.  Given your mother’s high standards, which were well known to you, catsup meant Heinz with great specificity, mayonnaise meant Best Foods, mustard meant French’s.  Even flavored soda meant a specific brand:  root beer meant Par-t-pak; cream soda meant Dr. Brown’s.  You’d transgressed a few times to your immediate regret, which is to say her disappointment.  Unless she had the requested Swan’s Down Baking Flour, how could she produce such splendid cakes as those you cherished above all others?

It is not all that much of a jump for you to the place where you are sent on another journey.

These journeys are assigned to you as often by you as they are by another person.

Your book reviews are about a thousand words.  A short story is about five thousand words, a novel about seventy-five or eighty thousand.  Your most recent nonfiction book was a bit over a hundred fifty thousand.  Word lengths are mere parameters; there is no telling how many times you are sent out for a replacement when you have used the wrong word or sentence or paragraph or entire page or perhaps even an entire chapter.

You continue venturing with, at, and on a project until you think you’ve come to see it, at last, as it ought to be—as it appears to you in that delicious abstraction called vision.  Then you reach the point where persons connected with the publishing process see it and decide it has some worth, which makes you aware that you are reaching a critical point of wondering if you’ve left anything important out or repeated something too many times or said something you ought not to have said in quite the way you said it.

Sometimes you are sent back again to revisit something you thought you’d nailed—until someone connected with the publishing process questions a word or a phrase or asks you in the margin what a particular sentence means and you say, of course it has a meaning and the meaning is the perfect rendition of clarity except that now it no longer seems clear to you.

You do continue to say (and believe) you write to find your way through the maze, whereupon it becomes your added task to portray a particular maze and to bring opposing forces together either as strange bedfellows or outright opponents, contesting some rite of passage or ownership or participation or morality, and so, with a bit of prodding, you realize you have missed or overstated.

So many writers seem to grouse about the process, and in your own way, you’ve had experience with the immediate recognition that what you saw was not what you expressed.  You needed another trip to the store, not the one at Sixth and Fairfax but the one inside, which is quite a bit larger, on the order of a COSTCO or some other big box, with wide aisles and enormous shelves, and displays of considerable height and thickness.  It is to these inner aisles you repair when you are seeking the correct word, the unused phrase, the clearest path to the vision that comes to you from the events going into the story and attempting to work out of it.

Once again, you’re sent on an adventure.  Nothing will do but for you to return with the right item this time.

You do not feel imposed upon or misunderstood on such ventures.  They are every bit the adventures you had when you raced the streets on those ball bearing roller skate wheels, nailed fiercely to a two-by-four, clicking over the lines in the pavement, letting you know you were on a mission.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Imaginary Friends

“Talk to my lawyer.”

You first heard that expression delivered with operatic scorn in some old, even-then predictable black-and-white movie, a second feature from which you soaked every last dreg, as though slurping the remains of an ice cream soda.  This was, after all, a second goddamn feature.  You were aware from the opening scene that the story was already building downward momentum on its Sisyphean tumble down the hill, but this was your Saturday afternoon time at the movies.  This was story, good or bad.  You were taking it all in, even this awful dreadful coda.

The speaker in the scene was being accused of some crime that was just short of heinous, yet still of some consequence.  You were scarcely into double digits age wise.  Any accusations against you were minor issues you could well handle.  You did not need a lawyer.  You did not nourish ambitions of becoming a super criminal.  Instead, your young mind yearned to be involved in things complex enough to have a lawyer around, just in case.

You were not quite taken up with the notion that you could have an involvement with story that went beyond the double feature at the Ritz or El Rey in Los Angeles, or the more prosaic Roxy or Ditmas in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and the reading, the constant reading as though it could provide you with a single discovery that would transport you to the life you sought where there was adventure and the sensible requirement of having a lawyer on retainer.

Your relations with your parents, sister, and teachers were for the most part without contention.  Only on the rarest occasion were you confronted with evidences of a trespass against parental dictum or common weal. When there were such times, you suffered no surprise at the allegation that you’d committed a tort.

Only once did you say, “Talk to my lawyer.”  You had no particular fondness much less any respect for the teacher to whom you said it.  The stunned look on her face when you did say it, the communal gasp from your classmates, followed by the gales of laughter, seemed to settle the matter.  Smart-ass kid from California.  Maybe he did have a lawyer.

“Talk to my lawyer” was a grand assurance that someone was there to protect your position, much the way your parents and sister were there as assurances of a family unit.  “Talk to my lawyer,” meant you had leeway to experiment, to expand within your imagination.  Spoken to Mrs. Welsted, the teacher on whose watch you were exposed to music, “Talk to my lawyer,” meant you had an edge.

Thus out into a world where some of your peers had an imaginary friend.  You had an imaginary lawyer.
How comforting you would think it to have kept that special edge and that special lawyer to whom, when the outside world grew murky, you could refer real and imagined opponents.  Perhaps this would have led you to another imaginary character you prefer not to bring out, your imaginary Sherlock Holmes.

How comforting to be bright, logical, able to sift the real clues from the bogus to the point where you presented unimpeachable logic which was also impeccable in its accuracy.  You had no such ability although you were aware that the closer you came in behavior to your imaginary Sherlock Holmes, the more intolerable you would become.

From here, it is a medium-sized leap to the matter of defensiveness, which you rail against in your own behavior, the behavior of your characters, the behavior of your friends, and of your students.

One thing was clear to you:  you’d put roadblocks between you and your writing to the point where there are pages of your earlier journals in which you complain about not having the time to get any writing done.

Although there were any number of sources where you could have found the solution, the best one in your opinion was your own awareness.  Priority.  No verb in that sentence.  Not unless you make it have one.  You have writing that needs doing, start on it first.  The energy spent being defensive about not having enough time could have provided any number of half-hour sessions.

Defensiveness in general is often a similar waste of energy that could be put to better use.

Perhaps this is where your imaginary lawyer has gone to work.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lost in Translation

When you think of an event that really happened, whether you were there or not, your mind begins to form a scene, set in a particular place with a particular group of individuals.  You are in effect scrolling through it to see if you’d missed anything had you been there or relying in a most unreliable way on someone else’s interpretation of it.

When you think of an event that has not yet happened yet, but which you wish to make happen, you become aware of what a danger expectations of future events can be.

And yet, when you set an imaginary group of individuals into a place, quite real or an entire product of your imagination, you are not restrained by memory or version, but it may still take you a number of drafts to get the situation to your liking.

Describing actual events is in a real sense the act of performing a translation of history.  Someone is sure to object to a verb tense or mood.  Someone else will not like the verb you chose to represent the action you thought you saw or think you remember.

Once, early in your brief career with journalism, you were sent to report on a speech.  You had what you thought was a good enough reason for not going—a copy of the remarks the speaker was to make.  You had another place you’d rather go, and so you did.  Forget that you turned your copy in on time.  Forget that the managing editor informed you that the speech was not given.  Forget your smartass response that what you turned in was what the speaker would have said.  Do, however, remember that your presence was required not only to check the possibility of the speaker straying from the script—how many times has you deviated with great swerves of energy from lecture notes and intent? —but to verify that anything was said at all and to be a witness to potential responses.

Once in your brief career as a romance writer, an editor sent you a note telling you she was accepting a story of yours, then asking why you continued to write such stories because your rate of acceptance from her was perhaps one out of four or five.  This meant you only had the groove for this kind of story at a low rate of connectivity.  Both editors pointed out something vital to you which is the importance of a particular kind of presence being required for two almost diametrically opposed types of story.

Even if you are artistically and emotionally present when you compose fiction, there is the need to make sure your translations reflect with some accuracy the feelings, goals, and visions of the invented individuals of whom you write.  You’d not think to tell a fiction editor, This is what my characters would have said.  You are in fact saying, This is indeed what they said, and in a real sense, it matters not if I were there to hear it or not. There is a good deal of psychology and philosophy to be snowplowed out of the way when composing fiction.

A student asked you last night in all earnestness, “You said all my characters sound alike.  How do I change that?”

There were any number of things you wished to say, but each one of them would be you, replying to you, which is not where the question came from.  “They have to want different things,” you said.  “But they have to believe they want the same thing.”

The student blinked.

“It does not stop there.”  The reader has to understand the gap in their vision.

The student blinked again.  “I just want—she began.

You stopped yourself a scant instant before lecturing her about using the word “just.”

“Don’t try to explain them to each other or to us,” you said.

“How do I avoid that?”  She said.

Day one of Lent and already with the catechism.

There are more things you do not understand about the process of inventing, then portraying events, than you do understand about plucking them often simultaneously from things you actually experienced or were told about or read about or invented.

Things get lost in translation.

Reality often becomes lost in translation.

You often do.

This morning, in a conversation, you were recounting an event that seemed to you to serve as an excellent illustration of a point you were trying to make.  For a while, the person you were in conversation with looked at you in a way that reminded you of the managing editor who told you the speech you’d reported had not in fact been delivered.

You could not recall then, nor can you recall now whether the event you recounted happened in actuality where you were a witness, whether you’d heard or read the story at one remove, or whether you’d invented it out of whole cloth in the most ironic way of all, using individuals you knew in reality as characters in make-believe.

Romantic notions fill and fulfill you when you tell someone you love them, when one or more of your characters exchange that observation with another.  Now you can embark on the remarkable journey of discovering how those observations translate from one language to another.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Story preoccupies you as you enter your evening class, it trails behind you as you leave it to seek out dinner and conversation, but follows you into the restaurant via your iPhone and a grumble of conversation from a multi-published author who plays the conspiracy theory card on account of not getting reviews.

Story is, you maintain, a chunk of reality made dramatic by the injection of abnormal stress between two or more forces.  Story may well be a tale told by an idiot or Benjy Compson, who then emerges the most admirable in The Sound and the Fury.  Story may also be a recounting by a minor character such as Nick in The Great Gatsby, but in any case, story comes down to some attempt at a resolution and the consequences of that resolution in, say, Dennis Lehane’s remarkable Gone, Baby, Gone, which left a sour enough aftertaste that it temporarily ended a relationship and caused a return of stolen property that triggered not only a fire storm of reaction but, nearly fifteen years later, a sequel in which the consequences were played out even more so and to even more excruciating results.

Story begins when someone wants something, takes steps to acquire it, only to become aware of an opposing factor blocking the way.

Story is not a series of lists or traits.

Nor is story a slew of details.

Descriptions are not story.

Themes are not story; they are adjuncts or residue of story.

Story is not weather reports.

Story is not endless self-flagellation about past sins of commission or omission.  Under no circumstances can you consider as story one or more individuals relating each to the other information the other already knows.  “As you know, Fred—“

Story is not the quickest, most direct route toward payoff.

Story is not about agreement, only the mistaken belief that an agreement has been reached, and even then, the parties involved are not absolute in their certainty that they were agreeing to the same thing.

You did tell the grumbling author in as many words that his stories are frequent hostages to his narrative style, the former often becoming indistinguishable from the latter.  That did not seem to help either him or you.
Directing critical commentary to an author or a student carries the risk that you are talking about your own work, whether in specificity or the breach.

You believe each story is a direct kin of a mystery.

You believe each story is a direct kin of an alternate universe story.

In either or both cases, finding fault with or holes in a story becomes the equivalent of challenging the creator of the Bible or Upanishads of having made narrative errors.

Editing your own work is no less fraught with the mischief of risk.

Writing story is reputed to be a lonely business.

You find it more risky than lonely.

A significant risk is the potential you will discover something about the work in progress, whether that work is you, yourself, a short story, or a novel, and the further potential that this discovery will be enough to upset your view of Reality.

Writing must remain risky and of course to sit at the table, you must take risks.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


  Outrage is not only the last straw, it is an end in itself, a completion, a cross-section of abuses, betrayals, and the smugness born of entitlement, packaged together as though it were a snowball to be thrown, explaining the intent of the original act as though it could not be seen without exegesis from the moral high ground, those cure-all code words, “I only meant—“

Trouble is, “they” are used to speaking in the coded narratives of entitlement, used to meaning what they say in their own private scenarios wherein we few, we precious few, are all but invisible.  So of course, no harm is done.  How can one offend much less harm the invisible?

What a grand strategy, holding “them” or “it, away from “us” beyond the screen of invisibility.  The ‘them” are individuals with cultures differing from “ours,” the “it” is their belief system as it is used to translate reality into art and science.

Into this calculus, the novel marches on stage, as full of itself and edgy as Stephen Colbert, daring us to take it up, give ourselves over to it, take emotional sides in the one or more conflicts waging within its pages to the point where we have seen what many of us begin to see in our twenties and thirties—connections between ourselves and the characters in novels, judging our reading experiences more through the connections we make than any particular stylistic skills of the author.  Yes, M. Flaubert had a gift for le mot juste, Mrs. Woolf and Mr. Joyce turned stream of conscience ass-over-tea-kettle.  Nevertheless, the connections we made with Emma and Charles, Mrs. Dalloway, and Leopold Bloom and Molly (fucking Odysseus and Penelope) trumped all stylistic niceties.

We are in effect nudged in the ribs by a spectrum of characters who are as different from us as the reality that evolved them and us.

Your own choices are clear:  You can hold off these “them” and ”it” at amusement level, or you can lower yourself into them with the anticipation of reaching outrage.

To be memorable in the first place, then to remain there, the novel must somehow move the reader beyond amusement to the point of concern for the consequences exacted on us as readers.  With a final shove, the delightful state of outrage can be presented as though it were business as usual.

You do not read for business as usual even when you are pointedly thinking to escape novels that outrage.  For one thing, even if you pick up a particular author who stands out in your mind for a particular technical quality—Harlan Coben comes to mind as someone whose plots seem as exquisite as furniture constructed without the use of a single nail—you find you cannot finish the work unless something about it triggers the outrage response.

Another example that comes to mind is how Dan Brown managed to outrage you serially with The Da Vinci Code.  You continually reached places where you told yourself you could put the book down.  You did no such thing.  You read all the way through.  There is a kind of art in that.  You respect it, wonder about ways to apply it to your own work because you have illusions about readership.

You in fact wish to be read.  You write to be read, aware, well aware you are somewhere between an acquired taste and an accidental discovery, your salvation residing in the fact that you get enormous satisfaction writing for yourself.

You are often moved to write by some sense of outrage.  This inner roil and fury is not the same as, say Upton Sinclair, writing as a muckraker.  You do admire muckrakers.  To an extent, you are a muckraker of the emotions, but you will have to spend more time thinking that awareness through to something more useful than a mere descriptive title.

Many of the novels you admire, Huckleberry Finn, Catch-22, The Ambassadors, The Plague of Doves, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, My Antonia, among them are novels where characters are so pinned against so many different walls that the only possible payoffs seem forced, arbitrary, technical impossibilities.  Even Karen Russell’s remarkable Swamplandia and Jim Harrison’s A Return to Earth had troubles toward the end, where dramatic conventions still require some knotting together of loose ends that reality does not always afford.

Nothing for it but to keep trying—with the writing and the reading.

Be sure to pack some outrage.  Never tell when it will come in handy.  Pays to have enough to go around.

Monday, February 20, 2012

You as a Character in Someone Else's Story

Few things are as humbling as the recognition that you may well be a character in someone else’s story.  This realization hits with particular emphasis on days when, although you have at least one project under way, your time at the note pad in the coffee shop or behind the computer screen in your work area is start-and-stop, a sentence—if that—at a time.

The Sunday New York Times Magazine and its piece on how much stores such as Target know about their customers, sometimes even more than the customer knows about herself, was not the trigger to these thoughts.  You’d had them over a span of time, adding depth to them on such days when the necessary material did not come rushing forth, even in a form you had reservations about as it arrived before you on page or screen.

In the spirit of wanting to keep up with the zeitgeist in which you live, you make lists of the social, moral, ethical, financial, and spiritual eddies and currents you see frothing about you.  For today, President’s Day, February 20, 2012, while in the midst of a cantankerous and in large measure outrageous battle among the four surviving GOP aspirants for the right to challenge the incumbent in the forthcoming presidential election, you see an obscene expenditure of money, spent on advertising, promotion, and propaganda for candidates who call themselves conservative while speaking to issues that have become coded memes and tropes for racism, sexism, anti-labor sentiments, social inequality, and evangelical extremism of virulence enough to make the views of the so-called Puritan settlers on this continent seem the equivalent of schoolyard bullies.

Those elements are the ones you have currently considered.  Were you to be asked for your own list of problems needing solution, you’d begin with racial issues, followed by gender inequality and, as a subset of that, women’s choices as they related to contraception and abortion.  Next on the list is health care.

Even as you write this, one of your worst fears is realized.  The sound of incoming email alerts you to a communication from a political action committee.  The note apologizes for the recent flurry of requests for donations, then goes on to state that this one, today’s appeal, is fucking serious, stated in such a way that you realize once again how lonely the sense of broad political concerns has become.  “They” need some money for whatever reason, well, then, you’re a name on their list.  Send out a panic note, of a piece with those email scams you get from time to time from a friend who is supposedly stranded in some foreign airport, needing money to get home, and please wire a few hundred, which will be repaid with great dispatch, right?

You are reminded of past contributions to the presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, and to the political war chest of Edward M. Kennedy, all three of whom were of extraordinary financial structure.  Here you were, giving them money.  What’s wrong with this picture?  What’s wrong is the implied code here: You and others like you must go into competition with large corporate donors in order to level the playing field. You must take on the role of David, going up against Goliath. You must help support progressive agendas against those who have already used their power to tilt the playing field toward the enormous tax advantages they already enjoy, not to mention the social benefits “they” have and resent your aspirations to achieve.

Regulations?  Heaven forefend.  It is you who should be regulated against, lest you write off one meal as a business expense, use public funds to pay for your medical adventures, attempt in any way to make contact with and organize others of a like mind to take steps toward a more balanced and equitable approach to the business of doing whatever it is you chose to do as life’s work.

You are reminded of the stunning and tragic ending of E. M. Forester’s A Passage to India, where two potentially great friends, an Englishman and an Indian of Moslem faith separate, the Indian calling after him as a representative of the British imperialists to go home, to get out, to leave us alone.  There was trouble enough before you came.

Sometimes the sense of inchoate helplessness and frustrations are overwhelming.  You are, even within yourself, a fragmented character, beset by any number of pressures, thrilled at the opportunity to address them in essay, short story, novel, and classroom assignments, eager to be at the optimal level of strength in your role.  The energy requirements are significant.  Even on those days when the sentences come out as splats from a depleted tube of toothpaste, you feel the connection with yourself when you squeeze the tube.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fire Your Inner Travel Writer

The Accidental Tourist is far from the only work of Anne Tyler to give you a banquet for thought but in this case, the title alone is enough to provide a first-class ticket to protracted destinations of contemplation and evaluation.  Not all the ride was smooth, though you have to admit up front it was not Tyler’s narrative technique that caused the bumps; it was the overall impact and its effect on you.

Stories are supposed to do that, you believe.  If stories do not do that, they are the equivalent of that style of travel writing you find particularly loathsome, where you are given a time period, say thirty-six hours, to “do,” which is to say experience a selected venue such as Barcelona or Key West or Portland (either Maine or Oregon will do for the sake of these notes).  In such pieces, you wake up early, forget the amenities of coffee at your lodging in order to beat the locals to some special place where the locals hang out (and probably get considerable satisfaction watching you and such other strangers and tourists who appear, eager to eat the big breakfast burrito special or whatever other local dish is the secular communion wafer by which you absorb the local culture.

You could easily see this dish being the oyster Po’boy in New Orleans), whereupon you’d be served overdone coffee at tourist prices, and served by waitresses who’ve been influenced by the waitress in Five Easy Pieces.  Remember?  “You want me to hold the chicken.”  This is a form of tourism.  While it is not your preferred tourism, you are not here today to speak any more unkindly of it than you already have.

The accidental tourism on your mind today is the travel you take to the less traveled parts of yourself, where there are no yearly rituals such as, say, Mardi Gras, or the Iditarod Race, where the accommodations are not always the best, but then again, neither are you.  There are no hawkers of tourist trinkets, but there are in mitigation the occasional discovery of something you hadn’t recognized before, some pleasing discovery of tenderness or cynicism or sentimentality or sympathy you will bring back with you, perhaps to keep uppermost in your awareness for some time to come.

You are not looking for posh or luxury on your travels; you are seeking some kind of balance between an attitude and a prejudice, an accommodation of a different order and intensity in that it is an accommodation of a prejudice with which you began your journey and a realization or discovery that you’d only touched the surface of a matter or relationship.

Sometimes on such accidental travels, you meet the equivalent of the stereotypical tour guide, who offers to show you things you’d never dreamed possible.  In this particular type of travel, you need to listen to all their blandishments and promises because these individual aspects of your own preconceived notions want to shock you out of thinking and into the merest reflexes and conditioned responses.

You are accidental in the sense that you’d not set out to visit this specific place, although you’d hoped to find yourself somewhere and in a situation where you were other and uneasy.  Thus you always wish your destination to be unreachable, your flight cancelled, your train overbooked, your car beset with some strange inner complaint that produces odd noises to the bewilderment of mechanics and service representatives.

Some days, skimming through your email and news blogs, you find yourself bombarded by the ravings and ranting of your zeitgeist to the point where you despair.  It is one thing to bring that despair into your internal travels, but another entirely to let the despair become your principal traveling companion.  You must take special care to listen to the tour guides, the souvenir salespersons, the locals.  You must at all costs stop trying to blend in with the surroundings, to distance yourself from the tourist you are.

When you return from a writing session, you know you’ve traveled well if you feel somehow battered, deceived, reeling from sensory overload, and yet eager to get back.  How many times have you lost your wallet in there?  Your innocence?  Your skepticism?

It took long enough for you to realize the essential dangers of first-class accommodations.  Now, you long for the bad food, the bed bugs, the men and women who look so sincere, the men and women who do not.  How do you know which is real, which isn’t?  How do you know which of their stories is real and which has been specially contrived for you?  And later, when you reread and think to revise, how do you know what you actually saw and what “they” wanted you to see?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Rememberence of Things Pasta

Where does an idea begin?

Does it begin with curiosity?  A need? Is it an explanation or defense for activity you’ve already decided to act upon?

Asking these questions, you don’t mean to imply the chemistry and electricity of the process we assign to thought.  Rather, you seek the source at which visions, suppositions, agendas, and notions converge and collide to become a tangible force beyond fact, bearing enough of the energy borne of enthusiasm to produce some additional form of activity.  You begin then by saying “it” is not an idea until “it” is acted upon in some physical way.

In your estimation, an idea must trigger enough enthusiasm or dread to serve as a catalyst for the additional behavior necessary to push the idea toward some sort of fruition.  This makes an idea a seedling, often of an unknown plant or tree form that must be nourished if only to identify it along the way to determining its potential use and value, and to whom this use and value will apply.

This botanical analogy can go only so far.  Seedlings, plants, even weeds, which are the name we give to unwanted plants, have an entelechy, a dynamic purpose coded within, urging its host toward realization and translation of its potential.  Within the acorn is the entelechy for the oak.  For all it is an unattractive pest, ivy knows what is expected of it.

Ideas may have an entelechy, waiting to unfurl, but there is no certainty an idea is so endowed.  A good many ideas are, in their way, like the things we regard as weeds, scarcely worth the fantasy on which they were written.

Like weeds, ideas appear in the strangest places, making their investigation worthwhile for that glorious and noble sense that they might provide some additional clue to the things that make our species better able to care and think for itself.

Ideas are idiosyncratic; yours may strike some as dumb.  There are occasions when “theirs” strike you as less than intelligent.  Ideas are tools.  As with such implements, the ability to use these tools is a step or two toward not mere survival but a survival with implications, meanings, realized potentials.

Many of your ideas arrive in the form of a story or in some discussion in which story is decoded beyond the stages of contemporary cryptography.  You are obliged to work on these ideas until they fit some skein of logic you recognize for its familiarity or greet as something foreign, at which point you must learn to accept them, live with their implications, or run the risk of your curiosity and enthusiasm going out on protracted strike.

Some of your best ideas to date have little or nothing to do with story as such; they are reflections on how seemingly incompatible food groupings might in fact work well.  You were in such a mood when the thought occurred to you that it would be interesting to try linguini pasta with a fruity olive oil, some sardines, raisins, and pine nuts.  No one with whom you discuss this idea seems to think much of it.

Sitting moodily over a plate of linguini with pine nuts, raisins, sardines, and garlic, you thought to add a few broccoli florets for color, whereupon you begin to wonder if you really like pasta in this manner or are enjoying it to preserve your sense of being an outsider.  Will it make you any more an outsider if you saved half the recipe for tomorrow?

If you truly enjoy it, why has it been over a year since your last experience with it?

Do you get more ideas with entelechy from inside or outside the box?


Friday, February 17, 2012


Digging about in your desk for some forgotten “something or other,” you came upon the bottom half of an old Parker fountain pen of uncertain vintage.  The encounter was like sudden, unplanned meetings with someone you’ve known for a long time.  There is no doubt in your mind that subjecting the nib to a stream of warm water for a time would make it every bit as useful as it once was when it was likely your only fountain pen, one you used every day.  Nor do you doubt the outcome were you able to find the upper portion, the cap, or a reasonable surrogate.  Any color would do.

You cannot estimate the number of early drafts of short stories, essays, chapters of novels, you wrote with that pen.  It made the shift with you from blue ink to your preferred brown.  You were doubtless thinking of it when you came into possession of any number of the fountain pens scattered about 409 E. Sola Street in various stages of use or disrepair.  Thinking to give the Parker a more dignified place of repose, you extracted from under a pile of books a cedar cigar box given you by your sister, which, when opened, revealed another bottom half of a fountain pen, a glorious Shaeffer given you by Steve Cook and Brian Fagan for some real or imagined event.  This pen is also in working condition and for some considerable time provided the same service as the Parker until, as with the Parker, you became separated from the cap.  Instead of wondering what it is with you to cause you to misplace caps of fountain pens, a plan forms in your mind.  You will send the bottoms of each to Sam of Pendemonium, in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, describe your plight and your willingness to accept any color top for either pen.  If this plan is successful, you will not only have two old friends back in service, you will be motivated as well to send your two Conklin pens, one with a replica of Mark Twain’s autograph, to the Conklin service department for repair, at which point you can begin to rid yourself of an entire Birnham Wood of ballpoints clogging your desk.

Which brings you around to the purpose here.  Early drafts written in ink, and then transcribed to a series of typewriters is the purpose.  You’d begun thinking along those lines Wednesday morning in what you still think of as Anne’s memoir class.  Anne last taught that class in 2010, the year of her death.  One of her requests to you was your continuing it, and so you have, not at all sure whether it is the individuals in it, the subject matter, the continuing bond of carrying out one of Anne’s wishes, or a combination of the three that make it so enjoyable for you.

Whatever the calculus, you appear on Wednesday mornings and opening lectures seem to present themselves to you, this past Wednesday being one in which you warned that you were about to reveal a former reliance on a technology that would betray your age.  You spoke of carbon paper, of hands smudged with the carbon substance, which led you in your mind to recall what a painful process that was because you were—and are—such a dreadful typist.  Your ability at the computer keyboard is not that much improved, but repairing errors of spelling, of typographical sorts, or of sudden changes of editorial mind has become incremental, even exponential in their ease of application.  You can see all the advantages to computers and have indeed edited entire books without handling a single sheet of paper, but your heart is back there with the Ancora fountain pen Lizzie gave you or some of the others you bought on whim from The Fountain Pen Hospital in New York, or those splendid Sailors from Fahrney’s in Washington D.C.

After an ensemble of Royal and Underwood uprights, you came into possession of a red Olivetti portable; a gift from an individual you’d thought might become your mother-in-law (but that is not merely another story, it is a trilogy).  You wrote a great many novels and stories on that typewriter until you were made the gift of an electric, which slowly began to impact your working habits and your patience.

Much of the time, fountain pens are in on the getting down of notes, of pages of commentary, actual pages of text in fact.  In many ways, you’ve had to learn to compose on the computer, which still seems more inevitable than comfortable, but you have no issues with inevitability.  You do have a sense of sentimentality toward fountain pens, to inky brown smudges on your fingers, to the near mystical feel of a flexible nib, bending under the thrust of your enthusiasm, splaying out the ink like snail tracks or the inner rumble of satisfaction you experience when, as you walk along the beach, you see appearing in the sand the paw prints of dogs.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Moral Certainty

There is a growing need for you to understand something about understanding something.  This is of particular importance because, once again, you have been appointed a professor somewhere, and professors profess, right?  And even when you are not a professor, you profess, right?

The thing to understand is that the weight of importance falls on what you do not understand as opposed to what you think you understand, what you believe to be so, and what you practice as a result of your belief that what you believe is at the least workable.

How much better it is to set off talking about something you do not know, rather than the hurried, impatient sense of wanting to correct someone who has views that differ from yours.  It maybe of equal frustration for you, when you hear someone who expresses more or less the same views as yours.  If you do not know this person, he or she has introduced a ghost in the machine.  You already knew that bit of information.  In all probability, you knew it even better, although it is essentially the same.  This, of course, is vanity carried upward to exponential heights.  If you know that 2 x 2 equals four, you might be surprised to learn there are those who do not think so.  You would certainly be suspicious of such a person.  Someone propounding the product of two times two as four begins to rankle because it is boring.  Your knowledge of the fact of two times two equaling four becomes proprietary.  You are even better able to appreciate the connection between two times two and two plus two.  Thus comes arrogance, which is the trampoline to moral superiority.

We need to discuss  the things we do not know, are not certain of, or want some prodding about.  From such discussions, we may approach the state of a kind of agreement where we may each of us sneak off to the privacy of the personal work area the better to test out this new working hypothesis.

If we work at it with enough passion and the energy gleaned from impatience, we might approximate art, which is to say some form of divine failure, some momentary sense of having seen the shimmer of an ideal before the vision begins to blur into reality.

Understanding is not art, it is the temporary presence of delusion.  Understanding is the catch-22 of reality; it cannot fulfill itself until it produces some significant doubt about the ability to understand its behavior.  It is the dog who, chasing its tail and catching it, believes he has solved the problem of the tail.  Were he to hang onto the tail, he would surely languish from thirst or hunger or both because who ever heard of a dog being able to eat or drink with a mouth filled with tail?

For any number of years, you were convinced you might come across a book somewhere, in a library, in a bookstore, in a thrift shop or that remarkable shelf you recall in the motel in Ashland, Oregon, where, on your way to see non-Shakespearean plays, you saw books you’d always wanted to read.  One book, fiction, essay, poetry, perhaps even a recipe book, would somehow make clear to you all the things you were hoping to codify in order to put to work creating a body of fiction at once coherent and illustrative of splendid ways to write and live. When you realized the impossibility of that task and stopped looking, it became immediately clear to you that you no longer had to place such a burden on every book you read nor, indeed, on every piece you wrote.

You are not attempting to write yourself away from learning much less into stupidity.  You will distance yourself from learning in direct proportion to the way learning seems to draw you toward it the way Odysseus’ sailors were drawn by the Sirens.

More catch-22 there.  Any learning you pick up will be the equivalent of a knock-off made on the cheap in a Third World country.  Perhaps there is a possible solution:  if you try to write your way into learning until you die, stupidity will not have a chance to catch up with you.  It will be like the holding patterns of airplanes waiting to land at O’Hare and LAX.

What was on that scrap of paper you threw away at the coffee shop?  Was there anything to have been learned from it?  Would it have stupid to save it?  Would it have been better not to write anything on it in the first place?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Swiss Army Knife of Emotions

There is a splendid self-fulfilling prophecy about the word “emote,” at the absolute least because its first four letters are the same four as the word “emotion.”  The word “emote” is an analog for producing emotion; it is nearly an equation hidden (but not too carefully) within itself.

Individuals who emote, actors in particular, are referred to as over-the-top, meaning they not only show emotion, they show it all over their shirts and blouses, they exude it, they propel it forth in a stream, reminding you of the effect on one individual in a room who has eaten a garlic-laden dish while all the others in the room have abstained.

Depending on one’s background, emoting emerges as ethnic indirect proportion to the number of individuals of a particular culture there are in a room…or a play…or a short story…or a novel.  Your own ethnic and cultural backgrounds lead you to place Jewish and Italian at the top of the list, French next, then Mexican, then Spanish.  This racial profiling came to your mind because for the better part of the past twenty years, the person who cuts such hair as you now have is a native of France.  You once came upon her in an animated, hand waving and hand wringing exchange in French with another woman.

You assumed they were in some fierce argument, perhaps related to accusations of poaching customers or not returning a borrowed scissors, or, worse, some basic disagreement about the craft and science of hair cutting.  Ma, non, Maryelle explained to you.  We were discussing where to have lunch.

None of this is meant to suggest or imply your belief that emoting resides only in what is linguistically described as the Romance languages.  You have vivid memories of some boyhood years when you were living for a time in the small township of your parents’ birth in east central New Jersey.  You were at a farmer’s market with your father.  One man, wearing a gray suit with an ominous red diagonal motif and a tie-less shirt, buttoned at the collar, appeared to you to be alternately jumping up and down while pushing at another man in a butcher’s smock.  The butcher-smock man was saying something in a language you’d come to recognize as Polish.  The man in the suit was shouting in a language you could not identify. You turned to your father for help.

“He,” he said, pointing to the agitated man in the suit, “is asking a question in Hungarian.”

“Yes?” you said.

“You call this a sausage?”

“And the butcher?”

“The butcher is answering him with another question.”

“Which is?”

“I suppose you’ve already had experience with this kind of language.  The butcher is saying, ‘What the fuck do you know about sausage?’”

You are of an age to have appreciated so-called ham actors in an oddly prescient set-up to your own acting career.  Ham actors were those who’d learned their craft well, but who, perhaps too much directed by booze or ego, over-played their roles.  Among these were John Carradine, John Barrymore, Akim Tamaroff, Mischa Auer, Robert Newton, Donald Wolffit, Bob Hoskins, and Nigel Bruce.  Your admiration for them was extensive.  Surely they lived for those moments and those roles when they could cut loose from their more restrained performances.

As you grew into some of the hand-me-down clothing of your destiny, you were assigned the job of shill at a carnival booth.  The actual booth was called a ham wheel.  Players bet dimes or quarters in a manner similar to roulette bets.  Were the wheel to stop on your spot, you could win a tinned Hormel ham, or a pound of Maxwell House coffee, a pound of Farmer John bacon, or a jar of Best Foods mayonnaise.  Of course the wheel was rigged, controlled by the individual who spun it, calling out the suspenseful results as it clicked to a stop.  Your job was to win the ham with such brio that all and sundry in the vicinity would be motivated to wager on the next spin and the next, and the next.  You assured your boss that you’d learned the equivalent of winning hams in the Theater Arts Department at UCLA, a fact that got you the job, but after two fairs in two cities, Visalia, and Bakersfield, you were fired.  “You can’t win ham worth shit,” your boss said, a rebuke that still stings when you think back on carnival days.

There is a bit of a ham, an emoter, within you and, as a result you need to watch to make sure your characters climb towards but do not reach the top, which they then go over.   Response in the act or lack thereof, rather than the words, piled on like some emotional Dagwood sandwich.  This is as true when characters (or you) come to realize they have done something they knew better than to do, but did it anyway, as when they venture into disaster without prior warning.

Reality is like the forest or, for that matter, like Nature; when seen in particular ways, it is fuck all lovely, stunning in its implications, shimmering with possibility.  Those same implications and wonders can put an end to you with no thought much less remorse.  Reality doesn’t care.  The best you can do is care.  Go ahead.  Care.  See if Nature cares.  See if Reality cares.  Some others may care.  Perhaps even some others you want to care will in fact care.  Emoting will not help.  Caring will.  Caring is your entire toolkit, reduced to one Swiss Army knife with a nicked blade.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

You Think You Know Your Jukebox

The jukebox in a neighborhood lounge or tavern is an excellent metaphor representing the individual’s choice of preferred stimuli.  While we’re at it, the neighborhood lounge or tavern is no slouch as a metaphor.

Consider:  The lounge and tavern are in essence similar landscapes, separated only by cultural divisions and language use. Individuals frequent such places for a similar menu of reasons, among these the simple act of getting away from some other place or situation, often related to home or workplace.

Individuals may go to one or the other to meet friends, in hopes of igniting a sexual connection, or getting hammered.  A person who frequents a lounge may visit a tavern.  In similar fashion, tavern-goers may venture into a lounge on occasion.  But each will feel more comfortable in more familiar surroundings.

A lounge is less likely to have sports memorabilia or photos of pop culture icons or indeed, neon signs representing available avatars of beer.  A tavern begins with a shuffleboard, often contains one or more coin-operated pool tables, and features at least one bulletin board, if not an entire section of wall, on which are affixed with pushpins a galaxy of postcards sent by regular customers from their vacation travels.  Taverns do not have drapes, nor are they likely to have framed photographs of Myrna Loy or William Powell.  Their restrooms do not suggest aroma therapy or tropical flowers, rather they are evocative of the beer so many of their patrons have begun to part company with.

Consider:  The patron of lounge or tavern arrives for one or more of the purposes already noted, places his or her order with the bartender, takes a sip, then is transported into the heady cocktail of need and nostalgia, whirred furiously within the patron’s psyche.  The patron begins feeding quarters into the jukebox, selecting songs that increase the atmosphere of nostalgia because they evoke the mythical and mystical personal landscape of THEN, related in its idiosyncratic way to Oz, because transportation to each place, THEN and Oz, has been achieved because of a cyclone.

THEN is either “back in the past,” when the patron was involved and, presumably, happy—or the patron is waiting for the other THEN to merge as in, “and THEN—“ the landscape of fantasy played out in the patron’s inner iPod.  The songs on the jukebox are the cyclone, spinning itself into the vehicle, leaving now for Oz.

The jukebox as metaphor:  We play our songs, which is to say we carry on the hard drives of our emotion the memories of actual events and those outcomes we contrive in fantasy.  You hear singers as diverse as Helen O’Connell, and Carmen McRae, singing lyrics coded with images of times and individuals who still cause your heart to lurch and your senses to gasp.  Her.  Helen sings “Star Eyes” and you see a specific pair regarding you in their almond-shaped radiance, studying you as though you were the most resonant narrative you could ever hope to write.  Carmen sings the old Monk “Ask Me Now” and you’re back in the lounge of the Watkins Hotel on Adams and Western, south central L.A. hearing her sing it live, while you sat at a small table with someone who seemed to be the embodiment of what personal chemistry meant to you.  This had been the third or fourth date.  Seriousness was its subtext.  You’d already taken her on the first date to Ye Little Club on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, where Bobby Short nodded his approval as you sat near the piano, then began to sing “Let There Be Love.”  When he got to the line, “Let there cuckoos, a lark, and a dove/ But please, let there be love,”  you were aware of her knee, bumping your calf.

Voices and places and moods do matter.  Their effects haunt you, intrigue you, inspire you; they do all the things you could possibly hope to extract from voices, places, and the intimacy of ambience.  Sometimes, when you share such things, you begin a bonding process with someone.  Other times there is an ironic presence inviting itself into the conversation, a chaperone as portrayed by Peter Sellers.

This ironic presence is the essence of story.  Two individuals begin with the belief that they’ve decoded the essential mysteries of the universe.  They have, but the essential mysteries are different ones because the universe is so enormous and fraught that it cannot possibly have only one mystery.  Each of the two individuals is certain the other sees the same mystery.  They are both serene in the belief they are describing the same mystery, the same shade of blue, the same play of light on the same lake.  Now the story begins.  Each individual comes to the slow realization that the other is seeing a different shade of blue, a different play of light.  It is manifest now that there are two different lakes in the equation.

Life is rushing away from scavenging and foraging, away from agriculture, into urban chaos.  But the individuals and their visions and memories have not found ways to unfriend the ironic presence that is the essence of story.  More and more, the narrative voice has had to give up control of any message or pat explanation, stepping back into the shadows, happy to leave the discovery to the characters themselves and to the readers.  Sooner of later, for every Heart of Darkness that moves us and disturbs us, there is some direct response, reaching across generational and culture gaps to present us with Things Fall Apart.  It is enough to send us to a lounge or tavern of our choice, fishing in our pockets for quarters.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dilated Pupils, Dilated Students, Dilated Sentences

Long sentences take you over the dramatic rapids, through the white waters of the past and their effects on you of earlier situations, into the reefs and shoals of the present moment, where you are aware with prickling intensity of what went wrong back then, all the while feeling the pressure of the immediate moment to make decisions relative to things hovering about you now.

You tended to avoid such sentences, perhaps from the belief that they discourage the kinds of activity you wished to portray.  Although mannered in its way, the narrative you wrote in the past reflected your vision of individuals as bewildered by their circumstances as you were by your own.  Goals and their achievements seemed to you of high temporal nature then.  You went to graduate school or you did not.  You were embarked on a relationship that would lead to marriage or it would not.  You took a particular job or you did not.  One close chum bowled you over by his observation that he did not know whether to buy a pair of shoes or go to Mexico.

Such things became the focus of your emerging writing:  tickets to a concert or play, winning a treasure hunt, correctly identifying the gestures in a mime contest, contriving a word with a Q or a Z in it to fit on a triple-word score in Scrabble ®.  Small victories.  Portents of larger ones to come in more serious transactions such as relationships.  The explosive argument between emerging artists.  Hints of insights to come while pondering in unguarded moments the conundrums described by some about you as “mysteries of the universe.”  Individuals, bewildered as the adults they had become, by the disappearance of play and improvised amusements they’d found with such ease when they were younger.  Adults dissatisfied with such adult things as golf, bridge, dancing, and tennis.

Laboring to the point of struggle with the belief that you were naïve in your avoidance of the darker sides of personal interaction, you dutifully took on the reading of noir writers, Simenon, or Hardy for instance, who, from your university reading recollections managed both darkness and a repudiation of convention, and doing so in longer sentences.

You fought with the notion that you could in actuality read noir and still write to amusement, even attempting to conflate noir and amusement.  You took on the noir panoply of Black Mask Mystery Magazine writers, along with James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and John O’Hara.

If James (Henry) and Faulkner (William) don't get you seeing and feeling dark, nothing will, you were advised.  Thus you read at them as well and, for good measure, Conrad (Joseph, not Barnaby, who was already becoming your closest friend), and Ford (Maddox Ford).

They got to you but they didn’t get you; however dreary the others, however seemingly appropriate their visions, yours remained that the work and the subject still had to be fun.  In fact, the breakthrough may well have been the awareness that humor opens the door to darkness.  Through James’s increasingly long sentences, you see men and women struggling with meanings, intentions, and existential doubt as they arose, almost in the nature of salon debates.  In Faulkner’s sentences, you saw men and women arguing with the past—their own past, the Civil War past, and Faulkner’s past.

You finally made the connection with their pasts, your own past, and your cultural past.  Story begins where characters expect to understand things, where characters believe they know one another.  Pasts converge in novels and scriptures and philosophies.  Your culture provided you the vision of the Talmud.  You’ve been less than a student of it than you might, but you are aware of its cultural effect on you, The Law, the focus on ethics and morality as argued over the generations, argued with the notion of defining, clarifying, thus your cultural heritage is that kind of argumentive clash that is not yet a clash.

The memory of Belle, your favorite waitress at Linny’s Delicatessen in Beverly Hills, arguing with your choice of a sandwich, becomes a cultural metaphor.  Something is maybe not to your liking about the corned beef here?  Max Krauthammer, the owner of Linny’s, grows disturbed at your unwillingness to consume the rest of your cabbage soup, which you denounced as being sweetened, thus Russian, a serious affront to Max, whose roots were in Vienna, and your own heritage, back there in the wine country of Hungary from whence the legendary Zinfandel came to California.  Cabbage soup is not sweet.  Neither is it sweet and sour.

Today, as you are having your eyes tested, you are peering through a machine.  The doctor asks you what you see.  “Nothing,” you reply.

“Ah, a true Buddhist,” he replies, opening the door on the same kind of conversation you’d have use to begin a story. Such conversations are not supposed to take place in reality; they must be reserved for your stories. Of course he realizes he has not flipped a particular switch that would have caused you to see something he could use to quantify your vision potentials.  Of course you both recognize the value of seeing nothing as the basis for some beginning of understanding.

Do you understand more about yourself and the universe when you finish a story?  You understand enough to know it is not amiss for you to use longer sentences, just as it was not amiss this morning for the doctor, seeing you to the door, to remind you to get your sunglasses on against the glare soon to assault your dilated pupils.

Do you have dilated pupils and clients?

What is the vision of one sentence, trying to squirm out of a paragraph the way a cat attempts to escape a carry box?


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Your Interior Indiana Jones

However long the necessary time for you to write a novel or story, and by whatever means you use to get the writing down in some form, these times have nudged and bumped you out of reality as a communal sense and thrust you headlong into your own equivalent of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

Within the reality of communal reach, you have hunkered over tables in dank rooms, intent on causing precise geometric action between striped balls and solid ones; you have fancied yourself in differing states of romantic connection with a wide spectrum of womankind; you have sat in crowded lecture halls, trying to relate the professor’s version of a particular poem or story or novel with your own; you have tried to follow the narrow-but entrancing thematic pathway illuminated by sundry jazz and blues musicians through the smoky and beer-laden haze of small rooms; and you have felt yourself spin precipitously if you dared close your eyes, which was the thing you most needed to do in order to sleep your way beyond the chaos and uproar you’d drunk yourself into as a consequence of the persistent reminders that you did not know who or where you were in relation to yourself, to the literature you’d studied, the geometric and physical reactions you’d tried to understand on pool tables, and least of all to the community of which you’d presumed yourself to be a part.

Your equivalent of the hero’s journey, your personal bildungsroman, has emerged to be your attempt to write your way into the forces and systems through which you travel with a goal of emerging as less a travel writer and more of a veteran, returning home after a distracting series of adventures which would on contemplation and decoding, render you at the least sufficient company for yourself.

To be sure, there would be—will be—additional adventures, times when, once again, you will leave the clangorous din of the community, entering frontiers you’d not dreamed to exist, sent by your curiosity as Lewis and Clark were sent by President Jefferson to chart a place, a construct, that did not in fact exist, nevertheless bringing back records of things of some insightful nature.

You are not a great one for bringing souvenirs as such from your outer travels, rather memories of how a place felt, what it was like to talk to someone at a particular “there” you’d visited either from abject curiosity or a desire to be distracted from where you were or were not, relative to where you’d traveled from. 

Nor do you tend to have many tangible mementos from your inner travels, wherein you built edifices of words and paragraphs, tried with varying degrees of success to bring individuals to life in ways not unlike Dr. Frankenstein’s attempts to create life.  You have the printed results, of course, but they have a tendency when held up to the light to lumber about, much as Dr. Frankenstein’s creation did, seeking in ways that remind you of the ways you sought and persist in trying to access.

Many of the writers you admire have produced considerable bodies of work, among which one or two are brilliant reflections while the others must be content to shine.  Not all stars are of the same brightness, but taken together, they cast an encouraging light.

The simple act of finding an inner terrain to travel is no assurance you will find significant artifacts there to discover.  Interior error is as much a possibility as error in the communal, outer world. The danger always exists that, having secured the funds and equipment for a trip to the interior, you will return empty handed or with a sack full of tourist gewgaws, made in some other interior landscape where the labor costs are cheaper.

Thus is the heroic label taken from your journey, the romantic from your deed, the error-free aura from your performance, all of which is as it should be, inner and outer.  Nevertheless.

Nevertheless, you pack for the next trip with a clean shirt, your nails at least given a fresh trim, your cheeks and chin shaved, in case you should meet La Belle Dame Sans Merci, whom, you have it on good authority, might well be in the neighborhood.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tiger, Tiger, Burning LED

The notes and journals you made before your discovery of this most recent format, the blog essay, were often filled with complaints about time.  In particular, your complaints spoke to the issue of not having enough to spend on writing projects you squirreled away in thought and fantasy in those remarkable moments shortly before you fell asleep or, after you’d managed to sleep six or seven hours and were now swimming up toward the surface layers of your mental instruments.

Among those complaints were resolutions, magna cartas you’d force upon yourself, declarations of yourself as what you wished to be, a person who spent some significant time during the day writing things that were not necessarily complaints or, if they were complaints, then they were complaints beyond the pronoun I as it related to you, rather as it related to one or more individuals who were constructed as fictions, intended to represent segments of society to you and such readers as your work would attract.  Sometimes, these ventures took hold, working past your personal sense of woe and complaint, into the landscape of places you’ve variously called Oz, after that remarkable landscape created by Lyman Frank Baum, or circumstance, when you wished to suggest a place other than Los Angeles, where you experienced so much growing up, and Santa Barbara, the place you came after leaving Los Angeles, wishing and hoping for Santa Barbara to become your one-size-fits-all landscape.

More often than not, this later stratagem has worked.  You have been able to look over the shoulders of such writers as Ken Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, and his wife, Maggie, each of whom wrote mysteries, and, later Dennis Lynds, who also wrote mysteries, and later still, Sue Grafton, who still writes mysteries.  There were such digressions as Rich Barre, who paid you to read and consult on his work.  There was Leonard Tourney, who wrote of and still writes not at all of Santa Barbara but of the England of Elizabeth Tudor, Will Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlowe.

Small wonder and no surprise that a character you developed in a series of short stories as an undergraduate has morphed into a person who is approaching your age, who has a relationship with Santa Barbara you can relate to, having lived here approaching forty years, and who, at some degree of plausibility to you, has had sufficient experience to allow him to become a licensed private investigator.  Thus, small wonder and no surprise the fictional works you have made some headway with are mysteries, involving him.

It has, in effect, taken you all this time to figure how to make mysteries, which you have admired since your teens, work for you, and with whom you have a relationship that in metaphor parallels your protagonist’s relationship with romantic encounters.  Of course this approach allows you to have included some of your own ventures at, toward, and with romance to the point now where you can begin to define what you mean by a romantic relationship to the same extent you can discuss relationships in eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century novels set in England and the U.S.

The early English novels ended in marriage, which is surely one way of ending novels, but it seemed to you that those early novelists saw that as a kind of poetic justice, a stability, even a fortress of social gathering.  Later novels, thanks to influences from France and Russia, did not consider marriage as necessarily harmonic as, say, Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice.  Even Charlotte Bronte’s sister, Emily, was in on the potential for marital mischief, and the matter really got going with George Sand in Middlemarch.

With this definition more in mind, you set forth, driven by the things that have driven you over your own lifespan, your own observations of society about you, and an overwhelming potential for long-term relationships to suggest some of the remarkable extremes of possibility, ranging from your own parents and the apparent train wrecks at the other end of the spectrum.

More to the point here, there are times when your complaining about not having the time have led you to developing strategies for writing something every day, causing a dramatic upswing in your production and publications, and in addition occasional flights of whim, fancy, and pure improvisation that have effectively let this tiger out of its cage to wander about as it pleases, stopping to take your attention when it pleases.  Of course you give it.  Who would not attend a tiger?

 Thus, arrival at the point:  For all your recent discourse and investigation of various elephants in various rooms of the house, there is the unleashed tiger, that stealthy, prowling animal who is in search of a romp.  What better romp than a seemingly ordinary situation that can and often does speak to harmonious relationship or a pleasing-but-ultimately-humdrum conclusion?  Perhaps it is a turn of phrase that reminds you of Twain.  Maybe a simple statement of something as undeniable fact that is in fact deniable at a high order.  Possibly someone stakes claim to secrets of the universe or moral high ground.  Whatever the trigger, it produces an effect that nuzzles against you, saying "Let’s romp."  And you do.  That has to be recognized and dealt with.  That has to be lived with.

Antic revelry is alive and well in downtown Santa Barbara, a worthy opponent to the you who took—and is often in danger still of taking—everything so bloody awful seriously.



Friday, February 10, 2012

Sheep That Pass in the Night

You have never been on cordial terms with arithmetic or its snootier cousins, mathematics.  At best, you had what had been called in those dreadful Nixon-Kissinger days, a détente.

Beyond the occasional crisis that arose when you miscalculated the occasional bank balance or ignored some aspect of the personal budget, the worst experience came when you were brought to bear with long division, which is to say occasions beyond the immediate capacity of your muscle memory relationship with multiplication tables.  Not only did long division of you require to determine how many times some dreadful number such as, say, 237, be found in some larger number of equal dreadfulness, say 6,218, you were required to record with exactitude the fractional remainder, that part less than 237.  To add even more humiliation to the process, you were also required to demonstrate your ability to express this remainder as a fraction or a product of the decimal system.

You made many mistakes, enough that you later stumbled through algebra and geometry, resenting the assurances of your teachers, fellow students, and parents that in later years, as you plied your craft as an adult, these disciplines would become of enormous value to you.

True enough, the time came when you were to design and otherwise layout the text of books, a task you thoroughly enjoyed—until someone pointed out to you that you were using geometry as the basis for your design. Of equal truth, with one and in its way ironic exception, the books produced on your watch fit well within their budget and subsequently earned their keep.  For reasons unknown to you, your arithmetic abilities betrayed you with a book titled How to Get Out From Under, a self-help guide to declare bankruptcy or restructure disastrous financial positions, a project that, because of your miscalculations, cost the publisher $1.16 for every copy actually sold.

With all your mathematical errors put forth to ante you into the larger poker hand of reality, you have no reserve about admitting errors of significant and insignificant other natures.  Some of these mistakes were moral, ethical, judgmental, romantic, baseball related, editorial, grammatical, automotive, and time line, to say nothing at all of career.

This was not intended to be a litany of self-mortification, nor, as you begin to reflect on some of the mistakes in greater specificity, do you suspect it will become a condemnation or even a reproof.  To the contrary, if such things matter at all, you do more things correctly than not.  You are by no means error-free—you make big fucking mistakes, but you also do well enough in the few areas where you do things well, in particular areas where you’d never thought to do well under most circumstances.

For whatever reasons, you’d been keen on taking a course in dramatics, but the pre-requisite was public speaking.  At the time and now, the pre-requisite makes sense but you were as effective in public speaking classes as you were with your earlier ventures with long division.  Even in junior college, where you had an incentive of a different sort, a young lady urging you to take the class with her, the results were as flat as a fallen soufflé.

Errors are things somehow bungled, good intentions gone awry, shoe laces left untied, i’s not dotted, t’s not crossed.  You sometimes send off a thing containing an error before you realize it is an error.  Sometimes, in an idle moment of thumbing through a book, you see an error someone else made, but all the same regret because, in that way of cosmic things, it is associated with you.  The motivation for this entire essay and in particular this paragraph has to do with the forthcoming second printing of your latest book, in which you discovered errors

Navaho blankets are said to have deliberate errors introduced into them so that they will not be exact replicas of sand paintings, whose purpose is to cure some error in the cosmos then be obliterated.

Some errors, if left unattended, will over time appear not only to have corrected themselves but in the bargain to have become prescient as they reflect a greater understanding of the way things work.  These errors, once called old wives’ tales, or perhaps cultural lore, assume irony because the real error was in the way they were interpreted by those of us who are looked upon to interpret such things, a truly patronizing way of looking at survival strategies of those who came before us.

At the moment, you have no preference between error and mistake.  You are every bit as likely to say the one as the other.  Both mean the same thing:  you were wrong.

Committing an error, while frowned upon in baseball, places the individual in the enviable position of learning something.  You would with great cheer accept the potential for error (or mistake) as a senior discount for learning something.

Not all learning is beneficial, nor is it worth holding onto.  You’d be mistaken to think you knew the difference between which learning is worth holding onto and which to have packed up for the thrift store, the next time its truck is in your neighborhood.  You’d be wrong to try to implement the belief that you knew and it would be an error to try to convince others that you did.

It would be an error to think you will never make another mistake, a greater error to think so poorly of yourself for having made one or two or sixteen here and there.

There are many individuals who have such poor visions of themselves and such dreary prospects for any kind of future that they have invented systems of judgment and punishment for themselves and for you.  Others still have devised systems where they will need to relive many lives in order to pass enough judgmental scrutiny to allow them, at last, some relief.

You see them and they see you.

Ships that pass in the existential night.

Make no mistake about it.  You all have a long way to go.