Saturday, June 30, 2012


After eons of use, a broken heart continues to survive as an apt metaphor.  Along with its adjectival—heart-breaking—use, broken heart remains the go-to description for a loss or disappointment of wrenching, epic intensity.  In its simplicity is the artful descriptive conveyance of raised and dashed hopes, the pottery of dreams in shards, the promise of connection to a vision or another person as forlorn as two unmatching sox in a drawer.

Broken heart, as a trope, also reminds you on a daily basis of two essentials to being a writer:

1) the number of times every day you are disappointed as a writer and as a person
2) the ongoing need as a writer and as a person to remain vulnerable to having your heart broken.

Without openness to experience and the potential any experience has for immediate explosion or meltdown or entropy, you are no longer a witness and thus you have no miracle to reflect upon and report, no illusion to be shattered or exposed, no expectation for some small ragamuffin of extraordinary beauty and impact to invite your senses to dance.

Being thus vulnerable is not without risk.  You will be seen as moody, melodramatic, self-important, all things you in fact become when the right stimulus pickpockets your wallet of propriety.  When a dog with a worried expression or a cat seeming to be trapped on a ledge become reminders that the jungle out there of hyperbole is never far from encroaching, you are of course moody for unknown things outside yourself  When a publisher speaks of your next project after the next one you owe, you strike poses from Verdi and Rossini and Mozart opera, flamboyant, Italian.  How are you not self-important when filled with visions you wish to share, fearful you cannot convey the grace and individuality of a particular thing, a particular place, a person who radiates the quality of a cornflower volunteered within a sidewalk crack?
You have completed a scene in which you have set into dramatic motion everything you wish to include, well aware you held back on details that were quite dear and meaningful to you, lest you be seen as too literal, too controlling, too unwilling to trust the already heavy breathing of your details.  An editor you trust will suggest things to you that seem so sure, so accurate, so achingly apt that you now wonder how you could have missed them.  And your heart is broken.  Yet again.

The new barista with the topaz eyes at the coffee shop meets your gaze two days in succession with an attitude that you realize, as you sip your latte, has broken your heart although you don’t quite know why.  And on the third day, your heart having been broken twice, your eyes meet and there is no attitude, only recognition, and you are again devastated as you are hours later when a sentence that seemed to greet you with that same fresh, I-m-alive attitude seems to have lost something in the context of the previous sentence.

To be sure, there is no device sensitive enough to tally all the flashing music of discovery you experience during a fraction of a day, no measure of the times some nerve ending or sensory receptor sends you a letter of acceptance, informing you some part of your body enjoyed some idea or figment or sight or sound or smell.  Much less yet can you account for all the thousands of times you have not even noticed “feeling good” about something although, had you not “felt good” about it, you would have noticed with that brooding ache of subsurface dissatisfaction.

Life is like the super cargo ships, laden, packed, filled.  Like the cargo ships, life sometimes has unintended passengers.  Certain anthropologists will speak with glee of the unintended transport throughout the world of the Norwegian brown rat or the rattus rattus black rat species species.  Life has rats in some of its cargo.  You have to be vulnerable to be heartbroken if you are to have any hope of seeing and trying to capture those remarkable sentences and senses and baristas with topaz eyes.

Friday, June 29, 2012

High Wire Act

Sometimes the voices in your head remind you of a family gathering before the meal is served, tinged with hunger and impatience.  Other times, the voices remind you of a faculty meeting before the agenda is addressed.  The atmospheres of each is crowded with the resonance of new arguments to be explored, new jokes to be tried out, and the democratic leavening of gossip offered about as an hors d’oerve.  Old complaints appear with the ant-like persistence of Ron Paul posters, appearing two days after an election.

These voices are nothing to be concerned about; you’ve heard them most of your life, although it was not until you were moving along into and beyond your teens when you realized they were mostly you in your various stages and states.

The others were a clutter of authority sorts, real and concocted by you as a kind of universal, adult “them” at whom to vent your smoldering resentments at what you called the vital lies, things you were supposed to take at face value.

Because you came up during a golden era of what you will call “radio before television,” some of the voices were of individuals you listened to for their sounds as well as their content, not yet aware that you’d have to have a range of voices much like the watercolors in your favored watercolor tin.

Some of your voices beyond parents and teachers were Aimee Macpherson, Jack Benny, George Burns, a woman named Eleanor Dean, who read stories on a local radio station, yet another evangelist, Sister Mirandy, and two men with wide differences in their voices, the nasal, twangy, Mel Lamond, and another known only as Old Pal Gus.  These two were the respective voices of the Los Angeles Times, and Examiner Sunday morning comic section read.  You were not at all interested in evangelism, Sisters Aimee and Mirandy had voices that informed you of places of excitement and enthusiasm within yourself you recognized but did not yet know how to articulate.

Your favorite voice of all was the nightly newscaster, Chet Huntley, whom you admired for his voice and for his political commentary, a respect that carried over when he moved to New York, then teamed with David Brinkley on the nightly NBC television news when television news had some measure of substance.

The voices are the reason you sometimes leave the quiet and comfort of home, venturing to the Café Luna in Summerland, or Peet’s on upper State Street, where the voices to be overcome are not your own but rather the voices of a wide range of others, finding themselves in need of a place to work.

You’ve not discussed this with anyone else but there is some sense you are on the right track thinking the buzz and chatter of others presents the right degree of distraction that must be overcome in order for the work to come.

Sometimes at home, one of the voices has won out and there is no need to go anywhere other than where you are, where you still have access to Peet’s coffee from your freezer, and a range of Bialetti stove-top espresso makers should you feel the need.

Voice is the way you sound when you write.  Although you often hear the material as though Chet Huntley was discussing it, when you read it aloud, there are wry traces of David Brinkley present.  Both men provide good platforms for putting satisfying voice into the work, getting it in shape to the point where you then remove these two so that what remains is you—all of you, or those who argue with the most force and conviction.

Whether the work at hand is fiction or nonfiction, you believe it needs a voice to impart life and attitude.  Without voice, fiction and nonfiction are mere bundles of information, the fiction being more emotional information, the nonfiction carrying fact along a pathway toward a conclusion that is both informative and emotional.

You believe story without voice is every bit as much a flailing neophyte swimmer as the youngsters you see in the instructional classes at the Y.  You also believe that voice without story is of a piece with a musician running scales or a dancer practicing steps or an actor doing vocal exercises.

The human experience is overloaded with conflicting and supporting techniques that allow us to present dramatic and factual information as well as to receive it.  Herein reside the troubles you confront as a person and as a writer on a daily basis.  You chose with care the individuals you wish to spend time with, whose works you read; you chose friends, intimates with the belief that you can understand and relate to them at the same time you provide them access to your meanings and intentions.

You are not always successful.

The work you do with story is by increased degrees of complexity more problematic because you may be telling one story in good faith while a second story or third or fourth is being received in equally good faith.  You toe the high wire of ambiguity in good faith.  When you slip or fall, you get up and begin again, your good faith still present but having gone through gauntlets of risk to the point where it has become now the good faith that has taken some falls, sees the potential for more, trudges on without the confidential shine and empathy it had in the beginning.

Your voices begin shouting instructions.

Are we there yet?

Are we lost?

Is this worth it?

Shut up, you explain.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Summer Light

Things you once had and are now gone from you assume a perfection they never had when they were with you.  You enjoyed them then, and retain them now in memory with that lemony sting of having undervalued them because they were so easily come by.  Even though you may well have worked for them, it was summer light then.  All things seemed easy.  Even difficult things.

Sam, the cat who saw you through your first ten or twelve novels, became yours in that most abstract sense of the verb “to have,” when his “owner” came to you one afternoon and said, “Well. I guess he’s your cat now.  He spends most of his time with you.”

Part of that particular magic may have come when you gave him a name he liked better than the name he had.  Or perhaps he became your cat because of the pure accidental choice you made in buying cans of Kitty Queen Cat Kidney as opposed to some other brand.

You thought of Sam and his past perfection last night, when you returned from your walk, choosing to sit in the darkened patio, sipping ice water and cooling down.  A neighborhood cat who has been checking you out for over a year, appeared with a thump in front of you, springing from the slight wall at your back.  You first became aware of Sam’s visit when he appeared with a thump, no doubt from the outer porch that connected your apartment with Ray, your neighbor.

This cat, a trim and self-possessed shorthaired domestic, could well be someone’s perfect cat, and you in fact have taken a liking to him, but he is not Sam.  What was Sam is buried in the back yard of 4064 Woodman Avenue, Sherman Oaks, not far from the burial site of the cat of an author of yours from the days when you were both cat persons, in so many ways perfect in what you were doing then and in the perfection of your dreams for what you would do as life unfolded at the same time you strived to achieve your dreams. 

You were the editor in chief of a small, growing publishing house.  The author, in large measure through your support, was writing hardcover works of nonfiction after having written paperback originals for the pulp markets.  The author was being reviewed in The New York Times.  You were being mentioned in Publishers Weekly.  Sometimes, at parties held at the author’s home at 4064 Woodman Avenue, Sherman Oaks, the author would invite you into his work area with a wink to the other guests of editor-author secrecy about a work in progress.  There, he would pour you a hefty measure of Martell VSOP cognac and one for himself, the exact amount to push each of you over the edge of sobriety and into the mischief of solemnity.  “Fuck seriousness,” he would say, clinking glasses.  You of course responded in kind.  It was easy to be serious under such circumstances.  You needed reminders about illusions.

The author wanted to be writing novels that would be published by some of the Eastern publishers.  Your illusion was that you did, too.  Being editor was a step toward some unconnected wisdom or knowledge or access to the things that would bring you back to story after having written yourself ahead of your technique.  You were waiting for story to catch up with you, to present you with memories.

The things you strive for now are shimmering, numinous platforms and concepts for which you reach, sometimes during walks, sometimes after them, where, instead, neighboring cats appear, or sometimes in dreams that cause you to lurch awake in your bed, to find yourself sitting, hand out in a reaching gesture.  These platforms and concepts are gone before you have them as you “had” Sam, but you have had that slight touch of a passing handclasp, the charged, static-electricity touch of a lover with whom you “had” a relationship wherein a brief touch of a hand, perhaps held in a theater, or escorting from a car, or merely a touch of a momentary parting is more tender and resonant in memory than a night of lovemaking then.

And yet you reach, both for the platforms and concepts and for the memory of the brushing of hands, and the brief exchange of a glance, her cobalt eyes sending and receiving understanding, connection.

Some days, good days, you see as many as two or three cosmic truths, tangible as the brush of lover’s hands and the meeting of the eyes.  These truths are as accessible to you as the peaches depending from the tree of the yard next door.

Now, all you have to do is find a way to use them—to get at those peaches before they become gravid, before they fall to the ground or attract marauding birds.

Life is filled with the imagery of imperfect things, waiting for you to put your fingerprints on their patina, waiting for you to use them, inviting use. This is the noir in which you live, the sad understanding that you can never get them quite as you would have them, but trying, reaching to get them before they fall or the birds come.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More Noir

Noir story continues to be whispering in your ear that it is, after all, about you, trying to explain that when you took your first tentative steps along the written path, it—the entire concept of you making your way via writing, was all about you.  This was because you knew so little of yourself.

It was natural, in that condition, to “look up” information, to read things “about” it and apply a kind of calculus that was part recipe, part formula, and part an unquestioning faith in what you considered your education.
There was a time toward the end of your high school career when you had considered yourself well read on the basis that you were in a relative sense, better read than many of your contemporaries.  You went on to college-level courses in which you “studied” literature, meaning you became aware of individuals and their work you’d not heard of before.

Ah, the arrogance of it.  Only a few days ago, you came across lists of things students in England of your approximate age then should have familiarity with.  Arrogance does not put the matter with enough force or clarity.

What you needed to do, you accomplished on a level of competence but not significant competence.  You had to learn to read for actual sense of meaning and authorial intent, sometimes in situations where you scarcely knew your own intent.  You had to feel so far off the mark of standard you’d assumed to acquire by your mid or late twenties that you must come to doubt you could even compete with your goals.

You were setting yourself up in part for noir.  You say “in part” here because you can never prepare for noir with complete certainty.  You can recognize its nature even to the point of inviting it inside of you to see where and how it would fit, but you cannot know the enormity of it within you or about you until you see portions of it at play in the world about you, within persons you know, and within that individual you’d come to despair of knowing as much as you’d begun to despair reaching your artistic goals.  This individual, of course, was, and still is you.

It is easier to see noir in things you read and in persons you come in contact with than it is to see into your own cavities of noir, your storage compartments, as it were, where the first two months are free.

There were times during the ageing process when you mistook noir for cynicism, stepping aside as if to avoid a dog dropping on a sidewalk, but you have come to see noir as more than mere unstructured cynicism.  Noir is more a sense of awareness of humanity at all levels, struggling for things it may not achieve, then taking the sour grapes way out, rationalizing your way toward a negotiated awareness about how far one may dream without giving way to absolute fantasy.

Noir is not anti-romanticism, nor does it seek to discourage such visions, rather it is the awareness that everything comes wrapped in ultimate pain.  Even too much noir is painful because it reminds us of what we thought we had to have, how we achieved what we had to have, and what we had to have has made of us.

Noir is one of the most difficult stories to give an effective ending, thus so many noir stories end in death or uncertainty, others still end with someone waking up and finding next to him or her in bed the person who had to be had.

Noir is not all about you; noir is about the wiring and genomes of the human condition.  These are things to be learned.  You are noir, looking at someone or something in a simple act of observation then hearing the message being tapped out on a cellphone keyboard.  It is telling you that you are no longer a mere observer, recording this remarkable someone or something.  The IM comes chirping in through your sensory on-ramps.  You have to change your furniture because of this person or thing.

From a perspective of numbers, you are more accustomed to the changes and planning if the remarkable thing is a story or an idea, but even that has limitations.

In another sense, noir is all around you, daring you to find ways to cope with the notion that you can’t quite grasp it, however close to hand it is, however acute your abilities to capture a tangible essence of it with words.

Noir is the post coital tristesse without the coitus.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Parallel Lines

There has always been noir in literature (stories where criminal and near-criminal activity drive the behavior and expectations of the characters).  We haven’t always seen it as such. 

There has always been Marxism (you know, the worker being exploited to produce more wealth for the overlords), but because Marx wasn’t born until 1818, and didn’t get around to observing things for the early years of his life, we had other names for it.

There have always been parallel lines, which in geometry meet in infinity and which in fiction meet in the last chapter.

Noir fiction and Marxism are two dramatic lines that often appear together in fiction, their focus on characters who might not be bright in the bookish or academic sense, although they come with wired-in shrewdness, street smarts, and a sense, if not a code, of fair play wherein they wish to conduct the balance of their expected lifespan neither as one who exploits others or is exploited by others.  They neither wish to work in the hive of academic or artistic ideas nor to avoid work in favor of surfing the seas of idleness.  They are men and women who bear the scars of some form of abuse, which might in fact have been more social and, thus, class oriented, than physical or sexual.  They want—ah, they want to be decent or to have the opportunity to be decent.

They are, at all costs, human, these noir characters, as human, say, as Frank and Cora, of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.  By the time Frank and Cora have found some momentary release in the sexual chemistry that has each clawing with desperation at the other, they have been pushed over the line of decency to the point where each new encounter, each re-visitation of that chemistry becomes their entry visa into the landscape of noir.  Without the chemistry between Frank and Cora, there is no story, no way out of interminable yearning.

The Cain novel—in fact, all his novels—suggest yearning for relationships and conditions where some degree of freedom and dignity are possible, where some kind of romantic love trumps the American nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century equivalents of arranged or forced marriages, and the option for personal discovery and growth are not squashed.  They are set in appropriate dramatic circumstances where there are considerable barriers to these goals, and where the subtext is an often excruciating sexual tension.

Noir literature leads us along the tracks of parallel lines from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) to a work completed ten years earlier, often regarded as an American classic, Desire Under the Elms, a not—as the English would say—inappropriate comparison because of the Frank-Cora-Nick triad in the former to the Eben-Abbie-Ephriam configuration.  If this similarity lends weight and dignity to noir literature—and you believe it does, the canoe of your argument has been rowed to the point where the shoreline is barely visible.  Thus, these added oar strokes:

  1. The Greek myth involving Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Theseus
  2. Sinclair Lewis’s remarkable (and you think best of all) 1929 novel, Dodsworth.

Bringing in themes from the Greek myths adds to the flavor of the Greek Gods and demi-gods, many of whom were powerful enough to exert their personal wishes to the point of causing chaos among the male gods and surely causing humans to be wary of calling attention to themselves that might incur their annoyance if not outright wrath (see, for instance, Sisyphus who, although by some accounts a candyass, was nevertheless at one time a king.)  Note also how Greek myths translate to the present day with little need for explanation, suggesting myths are genomes of cultural qualities inherent in those of use now afoot in the twenty-first century.

There are enough noir titles available from a wide spectrum of authors to suggest some interesting possibilities, not the least of which is that noir fiction has been buried—well, half-buried--under the living room rug as a sub-genre, a distinction of some respect but at the same time offering an impatient sigh as though noir were a misbehaving child.  There are enough similarities, say parallel lines, to allow inclusion of that near-perfect novella of John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, among the ranks of noir fiction.

Noir was a term, if your memory serves, once applied to the gothics such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, where some dramatic elements appeared to be supernatural, but were then explained away as having natural causes.

Perhaps you are being fanciful or jumping ahead of facts, but you believe an argument can be made for the noir novel being the male gender equivalent of the romance, in particular the comedic romance which, despite its name, was not so much intended to imply comedy as it was an ending that featured one or more marriages.

You’re picking an arbitrary number, but it is fair and accurate for you to think you’ve read at least a thousand noir novels, many of them written by your poker and drinking friends, Day Keene and Bob Turner, drawn not only by the particular cover art of the 1950s and 1960s massmarket covers, but by the texts as well, taking individuals such as you, who at that point was trying to hide the secrets of his darker side from himself, and plunging them into situations from which extrication was not an easy chore.

You’ve in a sense been putting off two novels you see now as noir, and perhaps this recitation of things you’ve known and suspected about noir fiction, yourself, and the world about you will be instrumental in providing the proper nudge, applied to the proper place.

The presence of noir, within you, within your vision, within your work, does not preclude the presence of humor, in fact, the two seem to you yet another pair of parallel lines which you hope will meet on your computer screen and your note pads.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Where the Quotation Marks Go

You have to be desperate in order to break away from the comfort zone of conventional success, whatever that term, “success” might mean to you at a given time.

Desperate may also earn quotation marks, indicating any number of ironies, not the least of which is an inner drive to break from the income from the relative ease of writing to formula in favor of a venture out into the unknown, where you are in the sudden position of no immediate income stream plus a blank computer screen, which is to say no immediate project which will become the vehicle from your departure from the comfort zone.

Here’s what’s wrong with that picture:  The projects that were bringing in the income stream were neither inspirations, visits from the Muse, or social/moral issues about which you felt a burning passion.  They were instead results of a long time learning some of the many elements that comprise story.  You made the mistake of thinking you would work on these until an inspiration came along. 

You have since learned that inspirations are things persons who do not write—or paint or act or photograph or compose—visualize as arriving, in neat packages; say packages such as the distinctive blue Tiffany box.

Any of the pulp things you sent off, month after month, had the potential for what you believed you longed to write but were too frightened to attempt.  So instead, you made a few desultory starts on “literature,” a term that deserves the quotation marks here because you’d made it inaccessible, not real story, and in the bargain, you’d invested it with a kind of scary surface that, once touched, would spoil.  Almost without variation, you cannibalized these intermittent bouts of literature, injected them with story, sent them off, and began the next without realizing what you were doing, which was making yourself desperate in a way that frightened you so severely that you were afraid to touch fiction for a few years and had to go back into editing to seek another word rendered in quotes, “refuge.” 

By relying on something you could do well, you didn’t have to think about fiction until it caught up with you, made you desperate without the quotation marks, which more or less proves your point here:  You have to be desperate to tell stories as opposed to being in despair that you are not able to write stories and, perforce, must “settle” for nonfiction.

You need to be so desperate that you read and write beyond the notion of commercial success, which is a term that should also go into quotation marks because of recent experiences you’ve had as an editor and a reader, discovering works in which you had no hand or interest, works that have been huge commercial successes.
Much as you would still like to have an occasional commercial success, you would rather have a personal success first, meaning you’d like to have produced something you did not think you could bring off at first and are now quite pleased you persisted with it.

Your reading and your writing have the desperate need to focus on dramatic rather than commercial success.  You wonder how a scene has been made to pay off.  Did you learn something from reading that scene that you can carry over into the writing of your own?

Without variation, the answer comes to you:  push the dialogue, push the characters, enhance the circumstances to the point where you are no longer using your tools with an assured sense of result.  Push your concepts by giving them steroidal urgency and need.  As you read, question yourself:  Did the inner forces—inner doubts and arguments—trump the outer ones, or was the situation the exact reverse?  In that calculus, of which elements were you the most aware—inner or outer?  Do you see a pattern you can exploit with your own people, your own circumstances, your own conflicting moral choices?

When persons you know tell you they read for enjoyment, do you think they put quotation marks around the word enjoyment?  Do you think they enjoy seeing characters sweat out problems they doubt they can handle?  Is there an unspoken layer of sadism in you when you read for enjoyment with enjoyment in quotation marks?

All this has to be thought out with care in the hours when you are away from your work stations, the one at home in front of your large screen, the one at Peet’s where you use a lined note pad and swill away at Espresso Forte lattes.  Is your sudden spending even more time at Café Luna because of the new barista or because it is overall a more conducive work area?

The hours when you are not working on reading or writing are important in the sense of being a significant entryway into your inner life.  In some ways, your attitude toward your inner life is similar to your attitude about a story in early draft; you are not comfortable with sharing, even though, at the proper time, sharing, conversation, close arguments with persons you admire, find their way into the attitudes and conflicts in your stories and the nonfiction book you’re working at.

When Bettina asks you what you’re working on, it is one thing to say, an essay, a review, a story.  She would think you quite daft were you to say you were working on your inner life.  Of course, you are working on daftness as well as your inner life, your hypothesis being that it is quite better to be daft than a curmudgeon.  In fact, now that you think about it,
You resort to daftness and lunacy and humor as anodynes to the prickly darkness of the curmudgeon.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


In most of the more popular theories of modern behavior, if a person does a creative thing often enough, say writing stories or poems or novels, the individual will acquire a significant voice and vision of such strength and originality that the individual will find an audience for her or his work, thus earn a way to publication.

Such theories are well grounded in optimism and the not uncommon belief that hard work pays off with positive results.

This is not to argue that hard work is unnecessary, or that it can produce positive results such as audience, publication, and wide acceptance.  Instead, this argument allows hard work to have its virtues without the necessity of producing significance, voice, vision, originality, or publication.

The formula under discussion here is the formula by which virtue, if persisted in, will be rewarded; virtue will produce successful results.

At last, you are entering the arena of personal, questioning formula, questioning the wisdom of having an opening intent as anything more than a hypothesis, by which you mean a supposition that the problem you are attempting to dramatize will produce a solution somewhere in the vicinity of the hypothesis.  You’re also throwing this into the soup:  the safer the problem, the greater the potential for the ending to be a dud.  The more unthinkable and squishy the problem, the less ease you will have in attracting any effective ending into the orbit.

The true antagonist is easy or relaxation or confidence.  You’re beginning to see that the kinds of story most attractive to you and your approach to coping with it involve making fun of the things that most frighten and otherwise concern you.

These are generalities, but they are instructive in the sense that they explain why you’ve needed so long to come to grips with story in a way where you’re beginning to feel you can get along with it, rather than try to memorize formulas relevant to it or, indeed, to use these formulas with the confidence that they’ll work.

Some basic elements, such as opposing forces, are not formulae; they are necessary conditions.  Although you’ve known the difference between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions for some time, you can see where you were willing to allow your characters stop at the sufficient condition level, rather than digging into them to find necessary conditions.  Go ahead, say it; you did not see how to get past the sufficient condition boundary.

Dialogue has been a significant non-formula necessity, well beyond Socratic dialogue and into the intentional pressure chamber story—at least the stories you’ve read, digested, studied, and remember—is supposed to be.  Authors as far apart in theme and range as, say, James Thurber (1894-1961) and Flannery O’Connor (1925-64), more or less contemporaries, use dialogue as a cattle prod, instructing you, through your envy of the technique of each, to push your characters (and yourself) beyond the comfort zone and into explosive, spontaneous levels of revelation and discovery.

Among the critical discussions applied to modern fiction, say fiction written after World War II, are those relating to authorial intent, some in fact arguing that being able to see or discern the intent is the way to understand the story at levels beyond mere recognition of necessary conditions being brought into heated discussion.

Your intent has not always been clear to you, a shadow you were willing to hide behind under the guise of wanting to do nothing more than entertain or amuse.  But over the last quarter century, you’ve also noticed a number of individuals being caught in some cultural gaffe as racism or sexism or a combination of the two, trying to defend their way out by falling back on their intent:  I was only trying to have some fun.

So are you, but not with that being a get-out-of-jail-free for being racist, sexist, or a bigot.  You are trying to have considerable fun while not being a racist, bigot, sexist.

You are trying not to hide behind anything, in particular your own woeful lack of knowledge.  Thus you go riding off into the world you admire like the protagonist of Annie Proulx’s splendid short story, “The Mud Below,” in which the protagonist has found, quite by accident, his life’s work, which is to be a rider of bulls at rodeos.

You have no brief for the rodeo in general, much less the rodeo life, which you consider to a few notches above the polo life.  You have at the writing life as the protagonist of “The Mud Below” sees bull riding.  It is not an easy life, but it is his choice.  The entire story is about many of the shortcomings of the rodeo life, the intent of the protagonist to remain in it, the intent of his mother to keep him out of it.

Your body bears the physical and psychical scars of a devoted life, your limps and aches not by any means all related to writing, but such stature as you do have has come from it, by no means from any sense of fame in it but rather from the things you have learned, taught yourself, and learned from others.  Because of the writing life, you’ve also learned to read at a different level, looking for and seeing such things as intent.
To all intents and purposes, you are a cross between a naïve and an unreliable narrator, which makes sense because you are naïve in your own real life visions and as well you are unreliable to the point where enough of your students recognize this about you that they are able to take it in as a way of teaching themselves how to ride the hulking leviathan that is story.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Leap of Risk

To experience a feeling, event, or understanding, you must endure it, be present for it, participate rather than be a passive observer.  From your own experiences with experience, it is often a hard-won encounter with reality, in some ways like ingesting an anti-depressant drug because of the way memories of past pain and suffering or their polar companions, joy and exultation, tend to level off at the rat-tail ends of the curve.

Experience is in its way more than a catalogue of things that have happened to you or things you wished to happen that did not take place; it is a kind of metric by which you assess potential outcomes.  You use your experience to calculate the level of risk, which with promptitude you measure against your previous experiences with risk taking.

If you allow yourself a high score when it comes to successful outcomes of risk, you feel free to glow in the confidence of believing you have good instincts.  You cannot help thinking you’ve got a handle on Reality after all, in spite of earlier times when you’d thought your ambitions were to be things you took out only in private, while you sat in a low-level hum of envy in the presence of individuals who’d found ways to achieve ambitions such as yours.

If your experience with risk were somehow presented to you in balance sheet form and your discovery was that you’d not done all that well as a result, you don’t think you’d stop taking the kinds of risk you’ve taken in the past.  You might edit them somewhat, look for newer risks, look for more things to factor in.  But there has to be that sense of confidence that comes from having a body of experience as a guide and so, as a part of your wish to be a storyteller, you’d take storyteller risks, which is to say you’d jump at what seemed relevant bridges between what you know and what you wish to know.

One more failure cannot change you too much at this point in your individual story arc.

You are making somewhat of a leap here with the observation that many experiences are not always so reliable.  The Mark Twain observation about a cat on a hot stove is an exception, to which you add your own observation that experience is not always the best teacher.  It is good to be aware of your experiences but not bound by them.  If history is, as some cynical observers have suggested, outcomes written by winners, your history of wins is to be balanced against your history of losses, to get a closer look at a true history.

It is your experience that an anticipated event, when it takes place, is always more pleasant than anticipated or less, but your anticipations are rare occasions of exactitude.  Your anticipations of dread are afflicted in similar degree; an event is worse or better than the dread would have you believe.

You’re amused by your reaction when some risk you’ve taken causes a miserable result, causing you to rue not listening to your intuition, which is based, among other things, on your experiences.  You should have listened.  Right.  But when your risk produces a result you like, you give yourself metaphoric pats on the back.

Go on taking risks, but as well go on being prepared to execute second and third and fourth drafts.  See yourself, either as yourself now or as an extension of yourself through one or more of the characters you create, always in some form of action, always questioning, always mindful of consequences, always prepared to take the leap of risk.

If real time does not afford you the opportunity to do a second or third draft, don’t worry, your fictionalized version of it will.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Arguing Neighbors

Since you were old enough to put words to such concepts, you’ve been beleaguered and badgered by arguing neighbors wherever you lived.  The arguments on occasion reached epic heights of acrimony, causing you to lose sleep, your ability to concentrate, even to think out rational solutions to rational problems perplexing you at the time.

On occasion the arguments devolved to things being thrown.

The arguments seemed to have begun at all times of the day or night, sometimes for no apparent reason.

The arguing neighbors were, of course, you, snarling, sniping pairs of opposites, their exchanges escalating from the relative calm of Socratic arguments into accusation, recrimination, and at last the exasperation of one of the parties wondering what the other expects.

You more or less solved the problem out of a need for time to work, sleep, think, read; you also solved the problem from a growing awareness that none of the arguing combatants was in any way malevolent or had pernicious agendas.  Quite the contrary—each combatant thought he was right about what you needed to do next.  In fact, some of the arguments had to do with which of the combatants had your greater interests more at heart.  Some of them even thought they were saving you from life-reducing errors.

Back to conversation again, now that you’ve figured out the opposing forces within, following them to the point where each said in effect that you could trust it when it offered suggestions.

This is, you believe, the way it is, the roiling inner lifestyle, as it were, playing out from one or more genomes with which our species is encoded at birth.  Sure, there are occasional mistakes and some individuals have no inner conversations or are swept along by inner voices of such range and intensity that they in effect become the driver for a time.  Sure.  On balance, most of us, you included, develop a social contract with these neighbors.  Your friends who write are, you admit with great fondness, quite daft, but are so in the daft ways of writers.  Musicians, writers, photographers, artists, and actors have overlapping points of interest and similarity.  In particular, this group you’ve just mentioned are all manipulators of time.  There are other things attracting you to them and them to you, thus the attraction away from ordinariness and toward the daftness that comes from being caught up in a particular focus instead of a particular lifestyle.

To observe that ordinary individuals do not have inner arguments is to buy into an enormous landscape of error; the entire Homo sapiens species has inner conflicts, some of them quite similar to your.  In fact, while you are different, somewhat apart, you are also approaching being congruent.  How would you have any hope of inventing characters that seemed lifelike if you did not have some similarity of inner conflict with the kinds of individuals you would not object to having as readers and, in fact, strive to understand so that you might better be able to accomplish that relationship?

You were going to use an adjective and call the relationship between you and your readers a happy one, but that, too, is a dangerous judgment.  You could attract readers who find your logic, circumstances, and characters so specious as to cause them great guffaws of mirth.

Relationships are fraught with possibilities.  Nearly every relationship has the potential for becoming metaphor for arguing neighbors.  Better relationships take this aspect of the chemistry between individuals into account.  Something in the chemistry of a close bonding causes the individuals to live in a state of mutual accommodation. 

You could advance the hypothesis that if there were no real-time arguments among neighbors, there would be no story.  Were you to do so, you’d be speaking to the attraction of the inner narrative, as seen, heard, felt, and remembered by the writer, the painter, the actor, the musician, the dancer, the photographer.

The “it” of the creative narrative may owe a great deal to time—time, for instance, in the kiln, or the tempo of a composition—but it also owes to that personalized strand of linked impressions we call design, and what is story but a particular strand of scenes and impressions linked in a particular pattern?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ambiguity Strikes Back

Ambiguity has become the bored, cranky child, no longer content to fuss in markets while mother is shopping, fussing in story while writers are trying to compose.

The word ambiguity pries open the door to uncertainty, indefiniteness, and inconclusive results, which go a long way toward explanation for some of the short stories in a given issue of The New Yorker.

A banquet buffet has been ordered in anticipation—a key prerequisite of ambiguity—of thirty participants.  Four arrive, a fact that will cause the chef pangs of anguish and frustration.  Who knew there would be only four out of an anticipated thirty?  In this way, anguish and frustration join the glorious possibilities of valence to ambiguity.  Of these four arrivals to the buffet, two are offended because the buffet is prima facie a stern rebuke to the laws of Kosher.  One of the remaining two is a perfervid vegan; the remaining guest is self-conscious about being the first one to cut into an elaborate, two-tier Jell-O mold which is an amazing replica of a Frank Ghery architectural design.

So easy to see how this scenario is fraught with implications and tangents of ambiguity?

For the longest time, story had a ritual-level cargo destined for an anticipated delivery.  Then things began to happen in story in much the same way things happened in art.  Anarchists ran rampant through the traditional forms, brandishing torches and slogan-bearing signs.  “Down with comedic endings.”  In fact, “Down with Endings.”

In an analogy to the way the pointillists wanted the viewer to do some of the work of a painting, post-modernist writers wanted the reader to take some of the work load, supply endings the writer only hinted at.

Who knew?

You knew because you were reading as much as you could get your hands on, foolishly thinking at first that understanding how conventions were evolving would ease your way into publication.  While it was a lovely ride and you do not regret one minute of it (now that it is long past you and in retrospect less ambiguous and frustrating), that was no more a way into publication than any other form of alchemy, which is to say a method of transforming base metals into more precious ones.  The way to turn base stories into precious ones was and has always been a blending, but not of science and mythology or magic or even wistful thinking but rather of individual vision and voice.

 If you didn’t breathe the life and enthusiasm of your own senses into story, you might be following all the directions, might be assembling the equivalent of a bureau or chair you’d purchased at Ikea, but it was doomed to the sameness and standardization of recipes and rules, and what kind of story was that?

Ambiguity is a challenge to end your stories where they seem to you to end rather than where you think convention calls for them to end.  Convention is much like the watermarks you saw on buildings in places such as New Orleans and Miami, showing where the water rose due to a particular flood in a particular year.

Do you want to go on explaining what all that dramatic information (implications) means?  Which seems sharper, the sense that although this is a story, it could nevertheless be happening right now, or Life is tricky enough without having to stop at every turn to figure out what it wants?

Of course there is a third option, which says in effect that neither life nor story can be figured out, so you might just as well go for the emotional bang at the end that provides the most enjoyment.

If you are striving for neither too much, nor too little, what seems the more attractive (and don’t say “entertainment.”)?


Okay, that means someone in the story learns something, which turns out to be whatever it is you’ll have learned from having written the story.

Interesting analogy:  During World War II, Navajo “Code Talkers” were used to send messages encrypted in the Navajo language, thus to foil enemy interception and interpretation.

Story is code for life experiences, encrypted in a language of irony and ambiguity, then directed at readers.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


The more you think about the meaning of the word “ordinary,” the greater your conviction that it has an enormous presence in the things you have read, read now, have written in the past, are working on now, and will work on in the future.

You began reading in the first place to buy your way out of ordinary events and circumstances, most of which were wrapped around the armature of being a child of the later years of the Depression, but also because you were buoyed up by a loving family and, with one major exception, good schools until you hit junior high school.

You read not so much for escape—although you often did read to escape potential boredom—as you did from curiosity.  Reading was a good way to find deeper answers to questions being lobbed at you.

You read because the characters you met in books and magazines were to a person remarkable beyond the individuals you came in contact with in real time.  Although no one made the equation for you—fictional individuals were more remarkable than real persons—nevertheless you were compiling quite a score of stellar characters.  At one point, before you were ten, your real-life heroes were Admiral Byrd, Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Count Basie.  You admired Gene Autry and had a boyish crush on Lana Turner.  Your list of fictional friends was growing with each book you read, a trend that has remained to this day.

Thinking about close friends, men and women who were well beyond ordinary, you begin to see a common theme, a braid of quirkiness, moodiness, outrageous talent, unquenchable curiosity.  In nearly every case with the possible exception of Barnaby Conrad, you did not see these friends often, but when you did there was a chemistry as of, how shall you describe it, of meeting a new character in a book.  Since about 1980, you’d have lunch at least twice a week with BC.

Because of your wealth of reading-level friends, you had no need of a great many real-time friends nor had you developed the techniques for making them.  The other side of the equation became your own attempts at acquiring skills in the storytelling craft.  These attempts in an indirect but tangible way helped you develop skills necessary to recognize fictional friends and get them to talk to you.  Early in your publishing career, you had the opportunity to spend a few moments in conversation with Elmore Leonard, a man who is so prolific that he has no need of a large cadre of real-time friends.  From him you learned that if you listened, characters might talk to you.  This was not all you learned because when you began to think about it, you realized he was creating characters as memorable, sometimes even more memorable than Dickens’s characters.  You don’t tell them what to do, you listen to them and they will often tell you what they wish to do.  This was not an easy thing to learn; nor was it an easy thing to recognize.

You have spent a good portion of your life being ordinary and doing ordinary things, some of which is necessary as an integral part of growing up.  Now, however, the time has arrived for you to be as little concerned with the ordinary as possible.  You experiment with stratagems to bring some quality of out-of-the-ordinariness into every day, sometimes focusing on the things you eat, the clothing you wear, the books you read, the stories and books you write, the things you go out of your way to see, the things you go out of your way to avoid.

Ordinary defeats the writer, ties lead weights to his feet, then pushes him off the edge of a pier.  A writer must think beyond ordinary in constructing a story, which is an unequivocal directive to begin with a cast of characters who are beyond ordinary, in particular when they are selected in order to portray ordinary individuals.

Ordinary does not allow escape routes or opportunities for having memorable goals, much less the intellect to contrive ways to achieve those goals.

Ordinary means your characters are not as smart as you; out-of-the-ordinary means they are smarter, know more than you do, think faster than you do, solve problems that would leave you weeping with frustration.

A reasonable question becomes how it is possible to produce characters who are smarter than you.  A reasonable answer is to cause them to think in a different way than you do, talk in different ways, ask different questions, have different goals.

Think about how you become aware a person is smarter than you, then think about the reasons you’re led to think so, then invest those characters you wish to be brighter with those qualities.  The big mistake is always resident in thinking shrewdness and intelligence have to do with memorized fact.  Another big mistake is thinking shrewdness and intelligence are related to not being wrong, about making mistakes, about embracing a hypothesis with some resident flaw.

Ordinary is being too easily pleased or never being pleased or wanting too much to please someone or something.  Ordinary is being so predictable that you are ordinary in your boring application.

You become ordinary if you try to apply the solutions that work in the story you’ve already completed and sent off to the story under way.  You become ordinary if you insist on the ending and turns of event you had when you began.  You lose ordinary when you write yourself out beyond your toolkit of easy fixes and repairs and into problems where you think you may have gone too far this time, only to realize you’ve only begun.

In metaphor, it is not ordinary to push your story vehicle far enough away from the point of departure to have lost sight of the shoreline, then realize you’ve left your navigation tools at home.  Now you’ve done it.  You’ve moved beyond ordinary.  Now you’re at risk of telling a story that is no longer ordinary.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The G

When you go through motions of comparing the person you wanted to be with the person you’ve become, you begin to get a glimpse of how remarkable the process of creating a story is.

Forgetting all about some of your preteen flights of career imagination such as being an aeronautical design engineer, a restaurateur, an importer of merchandise from Latin America, and a professional gambler, then focusing on becoming a writer for the pulp magazines, you are more often than not amazed at how it is you ever became any of the things you have or, for that matter have not become.

Stories tend to work out in much the same way.  You begin with a wrinkle in the cosmic rug, try to smooth it down, watch with some amusement as the wrinkle spreads or appears elsewhere, then with some aggression, seems to show deliberation in thwarting your efforts.

You cannot think of a thing you’ve written that has come to completion without having undergone some dramatic transformation, leading you to the uneasy analogy that what you were experiencing when you thought you were maturing was more than mere resting in oak barrels that once contained sherry or bourbon or some fermenting beverage.  If your stories reflect heavy rewriting and revision, your life experiences also reflect unanticipated activity in many categories.

There were times when your visions of the techniques you wished to acquire and the work areas where you hoped to put them to use seemed as remote as possible, leaving you feeling at sea in an existential sea of your own making.  Nor did it help that at the time you spent hours at the farthest reaches of Malibu beaches, where you did not expect to find stories.

You set off on a distraction of following the carnival life for three or four years, thinking this would fill you to the brim with material related to the real, the apparent, and levels of human curiosity.  You got one novel and, if your recollection is accurate, two short stories plus two losses of your heart to women who were in one way or another unavailable.

You thought yourself on to something when a side show performer took you into her dressing room tent in order to show you a sorority pin she claimed was authentic.  Perhaps it was, but her role in the carnival was Bimbo, the Snake Girl.  By the time you met her, everything seemed an illusion.  In one way or another, you’d learned The G or gimmick to all the
amusement concessions, leading you for a time to think all activity, in or out of the carnival, had a G.

Then you moved to the sketchier outer reaches of the world of television, where the carnival seemed less illusory.

Sometimes working on a story reminds you of being between those worlds, where you pack up your words, then move to a new landscape, aware your visions are on hold until there is some surprise explosive force.

One woman who had three booths and an Airstream trailer you admired warned you not to get one because if you did, you’d be so comfortable that you’d never leave the carnival.  Of an evening before a new county fair venue would open, she’d pour you Campari and soda then extend her arm to cover the carnival lot.  She told you we carneys were here because we were uncomfortable and the people who came to us came because they were uncomfortable.  She told you that you didn’t belong with either group, the carneys or the civilians, whom most carneys call marks.  If there were a refill of the Campari, she’d also tell you you didn’t belong with the comfortable people, either, not if you were what you said you were. 

She was right, and you owe her for wanting you not to stay with the carnival, but to remain somewhere among the comfortable and uncomfortable, taking notes.

You do the equivalent of that when the paragraphs do not seem to link together as they did when you first began setting them down in order to see if you could decipher their meaning.

When you were a kid, you were big on maps, no doubt because of your reading of treasure maps.  Gas stations gave maps away with such abandon that even you, as a kid, could ask for and be given them.

Your mother was indulgent up to a point, but when your collection of maps grew, she offered to buy you an atlas.

It all seemed random until you were nearly thirty.  Then it began to make sense.  Stories were starting to make sense.  Maps were beginning to make sense.  Even though they were of the same landscape, they represented different ways.  All you had to do was figure them out.

If you’d had only one vision of you, it would have taken even longer to get here.

Now that you’re here, you need to look for the G every time you find yourself feeling comfortable.