Tuesday, July 31, 2012

When Your Inner Felix Unger Leaves a Note for Your Inner Oscar Madison

At what you’ve come to think of as an intermediate point in your attempts to understand story, you reached a point of self-evaluation where you were forced to agree with a number of editors who’d encouraged you but eventually said no to a particular project.

You were of course curious to understand why projects you were pleased with and which got you some ink of encouragement were, in the long run, not for “them.”  You’d already run through a few necessary tantrums as a result of which you’d invited all of “them” to go be fruitful and multiply themselves.  The second half of that rant always has to do with relying on your own vision, which is in real speak a great idea but in real write wants some added attention.

You spent considerable time examining opening sentences, concluding after some time that those were indeed things that got you read at least through the first paragraph.  Your discovery relating to the first and second paragraphs was an eye opener.  

Many, many verbs of thought, consideration, possibility, competed with scant verbs of action.  Many were the instances when your narrative ventured forth in the passive voice.  Er, we seem to have a problem here.  Worse yet, such tropes as “This could cause trouble down the line."

By degree, many of these nice persons, those rathers and somewhats were squeezed out of the text, transmogrified into no nonsense equivalents of dramatic self-interest.  After all, if a story wishes to remain polite, how far will it get in the world of drama?

One by one, the thought verbs were offered buy-out packages.  You had casting calls for verbs on steroids.  Action and event, formidable presences to be sure, elbowed their way into your consideration.  You said some insightful things to your narratives, but you freighted them in an inciting manner.

The scenery trembled with the force of your verbs and accusations.  Although you are a fan and devotee of the so-called hardboiled school, there was still something missing.  Some shows closed after a scant week or two.  Meanwhile, editors were applauding what you were doing to the scenery, but obdurate in their continuing sense that, in the final analysis, the work was not for them.

All the while, you came to a grudging awareness that action could not carry the entire load.  In the most Shakespearean of Shakespeare’s plays, which you venture to the histories and your one favored comedy, Twelfth Night, action alone does not bring the audience to care.  There is a missing element.

What better element could that be but consequence.  Actions need consequence.  Consequences produce more actions.  Try, for instance, arguing that last sentence with any of the authors of the various versions of Antigone.

The dance between event and their consequences is the ballet of story, making high, spinning leaps, seeming to remain aloft in defiance of gravity or common sense.

This is not to say you have found the balance you need.  Nothing could be at greater odds with the facts.  You can, however, see the need for event and consequence as partners, sometimes as graceful as ballet dancers, other times as quirky and self-absorbed as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s expert vision of the contrary forces within each of us.

In fact, a balanced event is something that when seen through the eyes of a principal character is often a threat, a sign or sense of an opposing force with overwhelming stature.  The balanced event becomes in time that character’s enemy personified, the force and symbol that character will have to engage.

And why is this so?

It is so in order for there to be the consequences that will supply the outcome.

Thus consequences cannot for too long without outcome, just as events themselves cannot merely proliferate without consequence.

Long, driving series of events cannot sustain themselves without other props, certainly not without a throughline.  If there are too many events and no suggestion of throughline or tangible presence of consequence, we tend to call the result episodic.

Episodic worked in the magazine and movie serial, but even they had a tangible path toward an outcome.

We might not like the outcome, as indeed many at the time did not like the outcome of Conan Doyle’s early attempts to kill off Sherlock Holmes.  But many of us know how that turned out, which is to say once again, we are aware of the consequences.

Monday, July 30, 2012

You've Pissed off Zeus Yet Again

At this stage in your writing life, there are two basic machines working, sometimes as a hybrid, to power your output.  Both are based on a metaphoric extrapolation of satellites or sentinels, sending back information for you to interpret in one way or another.  In a sense, these satellites are like lymph nodes in that they support the metaphoric extension of your immune system. 

These “lymph nodes” protect you from being overcome by bad taste, poor literary judgment, and silly influences as opposed to lunatic risks that might produce something of value.

One of these machines is the Response Drive, cutting into operation when you read or see something you find to be of incredible dreadfulness.  This response leaves such a bad taste that you are driven to provide an immediate substitute.  A valuable subset of this Response Drive includes stimuli that trigger uncontrollable envy; say the kind when you read Dennis Johnson’s Train Dreams, or nearly anything by Daniel Woodrell or Deborah Eisenberg. 

Thus a good formula for firing up your own engine is to happen at random upon some stimulus of awful evocation or to deliberately consult a short story or novel by any of the worthies named above, to which you have a larger list of candidates.  The Response Drive has a degree of passivity embedded, although the final product will probably have shed that passivity in the course of revisions.

This leaves the Connection Drive, which cuts in at the most curious times and places.  In metaphor it is of a piece with you having gone to the Humane Society any number of times when you were in need of a new animal partner, only to meet disappointment after disappointment.  Then there was the day you went, locked eyes with Sally, whereupon you both said “yes.”

You could call that event an example of connection or inspiration or chemistry.  Neither of you had an idea how things would work out, but you both seemed to affect some kind of first-draft agreement, and now you’ve evolved into a kind of arrangement where you are shifting the Felix-Oscar roles on a daily basis, but each of you is aware of the broader “Odd Couple” implications.

In the Connection Drive, as in Real Life, there is an element not necessarily present in the Response Drive.  You’d have brought Sally home that same day in November of 1997, except that Sally had somehow been put into a cage of a dog named Bonnie (which you could never imagine working as a name for Sally) and thus Bonnie’s papers were filed with the Bonnie cage and there was no possibility that Sally was a spaniel/terrier mix.

Bureaucracy has its way with ideas and concepts that come through the Connection Drive, sometimes adding a special tang to the development, producing yet other unanticipated results.  Once it is in place and working, there is a constant undertone of excitement and anticipation, all of which is invigorating.  In the simplest of terms, you do not know how it will work out.  You are driven by curiosity and some kind of awareness of power that you do not have relative to other things.  These qualities, curiosity and power, motivate you to find the outcome.  You are working against the calculus that you can never hope to render the vision exactly as it has come to you.  But this is small potatoes because there are so many circumstances where you are swimming between Scylla and Charybdis that you seldom give that much pause.  Being between Scylla and Charybdis is a part of the human genome; if you were not there in a given matter, you’d be suspicious, probably have to stop what you were doing and read a book by Tom Clancy or Dan Brown to get the Response Drive to kick in in order to get some work done.

Although you may have come hard wired with these two approaches, you did not know you had them in your tool kit until recent years.  As a consequence, you suffered when work seemed to avoid you like the blind date who’d managed a look at you, then bolted.

Now, it comes to you that you may have gone too far, offended some metaphoric equivalent of Zeus and become Sisyphus, pushing your rock up the crest of a hill, only to see it tumble down the other side.

But there is story in this, too.  It is not an eternity of boring, meaningless work.  There are endless permutations of pushing that rock up and what happens to it and you on the way up and down.  And so, if you have, indeed gone too far, you’ll hope to discover how and when, and whom the Zeus was you pissed off.

All you know so far is that it was worth doing.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

You're a better person than I am, Donald Duck

   Early in your career, in fact while you were still an undergraduate, a faculty member threw you under the bus.  This was not the first time you’d been hung out to dry by a faculty or administration member, but these events were not what you’d call unprovoked; you were a bit of a handful.

The undergraduate situation was, however, the first time when you were more or less innocent of malevolent or mischievous intent, also the first time you were treated in this manner because of such issues as writing and reading.

The faculty member had an awe-inspiring reputation.  The daughter of a famed attorney, she’d made a name outshining her father, first as a reporter for the Hearts papers, then as a novelist, then as a screen writer.
She was Adela Rogers St. Johns.  At the time of which you write, she was adjunct faculty in the UCLA graduate school of journalism.  Your take on her reputation then was that the university was quite proud to have her on faculty.

UCLA was not the powerhouse it would become.  That status still belonged to the Berkeley campus.  But UCLA was coming.  You had two major players in your English Department studies, one of whom published regularly in The New Yorker, the other a major player in Melville, Whitman, and Twain scholarship.

Because of your position as editor of the campus humor magazine, you were included, much against your will, on a panel discussion relative to contemporary reading.  You were eager to hear other members of the panel, your eagerness extending to Ms. St. Johns.  Because of your low rank on the panel, you were the second speaker.  To your credit, you said what the audience surely felt.

You, too, wished to hear Ms. St. Johns, thus your intention to leave with the exhortation to the audience to read everything they could get their hands on, from the pulps to the works of Raymond Chandler, and the emerging greats in science fiction, to the comics as well as the canon of Western literature.  Thank you for your indulgence, Now your hope that the next speaker would be as brief so we could all hear Ms. St Johns.

The second speaker took the hint and was as brief as you.  Then came Ms. St. Johns and the tsunami.  She was sure you were a nice, sincere young man. But please, let’s hear no more about comic books or pulp magazines or science fiction.  Your time is too precious for that.  Read the classics.  Read literature.  Read works of reliable and known greatness.  Warming to her passions, she listed several such works, returning again and again to assure the audience how nice you must be (you weren’t as nice as she supposed). But reading was a serious business.

You twitched and suffered for the long two hours of the presentation. Ms. St. Johns could not let go.

Although you believed even then that she was dead wrong and believe so now in even greater intensity, you were at the age where such a focused berating left scar tissue.

You were made aware of that scar tissue yet again earlier today when, in a presentation, you returned once again to the comics for an important point which you made, noticing after you did so how many in the audience took note of your observation.

If you have trouble identifying your own narrative voice, you observed, you would do yourself the greater favor by hearing in your mind the narrative tone of Donald Duck than the voice of Mickey Mouse.  Mickey is too nice.  He is so nice, he squeaks.  Donald is—well, he is Donald.  He may have a few moments of serenity or amused tolerance, but in large measure Donald is pissed.  Pissed and doomed to become even more so to the point where he flies off and into the orbit of full tantrum.

Individuals say they prefer Mickey Mouse, but they are lying if they do.  In their deep, secret heart, they know Donald Duck speaks for them.  Donald Duck brings it.

Acknowledge your inner Donald Duck.  When he speaks for you, the Cosmos hears you.

Donald Duck explodes for you, he expiates your meekness, he rages for all of us who find it necessary to hold back.

You go, Donald.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lost: Frightened Young Story. Substantial Reward for Recovery

Of all the things you are likely to misplace, your key ring or cell phone cause you the most vexation through their absence.   A good candidate for the third most pestering absence is a recent acquisition, a black Sailor fountain pen.  Other probabilities for misplacement present themselves.  To your credit, you are quick to take up these probabilities.

The key ring contains the means of starting your car.  Without it, you’re more or less stuck wherever you are, although you do have a spare key hidden on board as insurance against being stranded.  The cell phone, to your mounting displeasure, has become a force of commanding importance to the point where you resent the feeling of being helpless should you leave home without it, then find yourself beyond the point of no return, where it is inconvenient to return for a 2 ¼ x 4 ½ rectangle.

You are rarely without some writing instrument, often carrying three or four.  But somehow the glide of the Sailor nib over most paper surfaces has become so satisfying, so sensual that its absence produces a longing a mere ballpoint pen cannot soothe, and the small, pocket-sized German Kaweco barely mitigates.

When all three go missing at the same time, the frustration enhances in logarithmic progression, a feeling that reminds you of the sense of loss and displacement when story goes missing in a narrative you’re working on.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, there is, you believe with ardent certainty, a need for the sense of purpose and direction you associate with the narrative recipe you’ve come to associate with story.

Without this presence, the narrative seems to have lost at least one dimension, perhaps even more.  Some vital sense of personality or voice or edge or a combination seem woefully absent.  You set out like a hardscrabble miner, prospecting, looking for a trace of something that, to his best experience and information, should be present somewhere in the vicinity.

Like the miner, you’ve prospected on, sometimes for days on end, pursuing whim, potential clues, and informed observation, digging, sifting, working to keep at bay the mounting sense of boring sorting through the landscape in search of clues that the sought after ore is indeed present and at close hand.  You trace your steps to the characters, wondering what it is in their personality or dreams that will produce a sense of elements that may coalesce into story that you may stake claim to.

The past successes of other prospectors serve as inspiration for the prospector evoked here for this example.  Whether a university trained geologist or an individual who was apprenticed or simply hung out with a dedicated prospector who was said to “have the gift,” our character starts off with a better statistical chance because of his or her training.
The past successes of other writers swept years from your life by causing you to believe writing was easy, that your attempts would eventually pay off, and that there were well-graded roads leading to a comfortable career as a storyteller.

Such thoughts run through your mind while you search your paragraphs with the cold, suspicious eye of a writer who has misplaced his story.  You do understand that something is wrong, but you are not always well able to see the place.  This is not because of anything you’ve done that is intrinsically wrong, rather because there are things awaiting your attention that need to be done in order to have completed the story.

On your evening stroll tonight, there was a sign mounted on a utility pole on Anapamu Street, between Santa Barbara Street and the next westerly parallel, Garden Street, showing a photo of a lost cat and offering a substantial reward and a warning that the cat is not social, frightens easily.  This area, more or less the scant outskirts of the civic hub, is not a likely venue for coyotes, making the chances for the ultimate recovery of this missing cat a statistical probability.

You were thinking of putting up a sign of your own, announcing a lost story, offering a reward for recovery.  You’d not be making fun of the frantic owner of the lost cat; you’d in fact be joining him or her in solidarity.

Misplaced things, whether cell phones, cats, or stories, remind us of the transitory nature of any possession, including that vaunted one of self-possession, which is held forth as some role model of mature behavior.
You have in your time misplaced self-possession and mature behavior as well as story, a cat named Sam, a key ring, and a story.  Your chances of misplacing any or all these are limited only by the fact of you not currently have a cat in your life, although you’d been thinking, even to the point of having a name for it.  This would involve a complex negotiation with Sally.  And the cosmos.

Friday, July 27, 2012


There are certain risks associated with skimming the surface of anything, of not spending the time to investigate depths.  Among these risks are those associated on every level, real and metaphor, as they relate to becoming caught up in the undertow, that capricious tide running contrary to the shoreline.

Ancient seafarers understood the sense of safety implicit in keeping the coastline in view.  Today, we use as metaphor the journey beyond the point where we can see land to signify risk as an ante into the pot, the winning hand being discovery.

You don’t go beyond or below, you run the risk of seeing little of interest, of missing some experience or vision that has a life-changing potential.  Not going beyond is another way of saying “playing it safe,” the “it” being any experience or venture out of the ordinary.

Your experience with such things is a mixed bag, reinforcing your belief and understanding of the strategy where the greater regret invariably comes from what you have not gone beyond your previous limits to experience.  There are to be sure some memories of botched ventures, but even in retrospect you can say you were never looking for perfection.

The experiences of going beyond recognizable landmarks are among your favorites.  Somewhere in the area below your umbilical, the tingle of excitement and a sharp, almost astringent pleasure begin to radiate, of a sudden finding a place in your mouth, then traversing your torso in tiny, electric flickers, almost as though you were being bathed by a determined cat.

You’ve had the experiencing after a night on the carouse of difficulty coordinating the gestures necessary to get your house key into the door lock.  Sometimes your attempts to get deeper into a project have let you with that key in the lock feeling, other times you’d have settled for that instead of the frustration you’d felt at not getting close enough to a project, sensing something was missing but neither being able to locate it nor identify it with any sense of being accurate.

There were times when friends, family, associates asked you when you were going to do something serious, which was bad enough on one level, but you made it worse through your sense of the frustration that came out of the woodwork like hungry termites.

Sometimes it seems to you that things have taken forever, both the things you’ve actively sought and the things you’d hoped would occur to you merely because you sought them.

Doesn’t work that way.

The universe is both passive and active; with little regard much less patience for you to issue a hall pass.  You can in fact work your butt off in quest of a goal and not earn it, only to find the answer or reward delivered to you as though a gift from the representations of Greek gods who were lowered onto the stage in some sort of basket.

Chances are some bewildered FedEx deliveryman might mistakenly bring you something you’d sought for long, difficult years.  But the chances are just as equal that he will not or that, indeed, all your work and focus will not accomplish your goal, either.

That does not stop you.

Nor should it.

You could argue that the universe might cough it up, as it were, dumping it in your lap.  Trouble with that is, you might not trust it.

For “it” to have any chance at all of working, you need to be inside “it,” deep in communication with it, close enough even to see enough of its bells and whistles for you to make a temporary sketch.  Even then, you’ll no doubt have missed an important detail.  You’ll have to keep going back until you get it.  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Improvised Explosive Devices of Story

An IED is armed service lingo for improvised detonating device.  In that military context, it has been the frequent source of shattering and random injury or outright death.  IEDs bring the confrontation associated with armed conflict to new and extreme levels formerly unthinkable.   In their horrific way, IEDS are the unthinkable of political conflict come to pass, reminding us how, boring though negotiation might be, negotiation is the more preferable method of confrontation.

On a more lofty level, although no less a political one, the short story has become the literary equivalent of the IED.  The modern short story, in the hands of such diverse writers as Annie Proulx, Deborah Eisenberg, and William Trevor, is explosive, often confounding the characters involved in them as well as the reader.

The writer does not, you believe, enter the short story landscape intending to wreak severe damage much less moral or ethical havoc.  But around the third or fourth run through the narrative, something happens, some strategic spot makes itself known to the writer.  Alert for possibilities of discovery and psychical mayhem, the writer is drawn to the point of considering the use of the IED.

Now it is planted, given appropriate camouflage, and left to announce its explosive presence when a character unintentionally trips it.  Some writers are so deft in placing these devices that the IED is left to detonate off stage, allowing us to imagine four ourselves the effect.

To be effective, the literary IED has to be something so ordinary that neither characters nor readers have their suspicions raised.  Often it is some minor detail, doing double or triple duty as a characteristic or a detail chosen to indicate ordinariness.  Neither reader nor character must suspect.

In that recipe the secret of the short story resides.  The ordinary is explosive in its implications.  The explosive is ordinary in its own implications.  This is the skeleton of the story; it is also the dramatic genome the writer must understand because it has been embedded in all of us who read.  Makes no difference if we like stories with happy endings or even stories, which are more fable or sermon than story.  We have all known the stealthy ways in which things we care about are lost.  We’ve had rugs yanked from under us with varying degrees of force to the point where now, at the slightest hint of something giving way underneath our feet, we tense, cringe, wait.

Much as we remind ourselves the bottle is half-full, our ducks are all in a row, things will work out well, we cherish the notion that we are not complete fools, only partial ones.  We’ve seen enough to know that lightning may not have anything against us as a person, but if we happen to be standing in the wrong place, we are going to experience the same result as Dolores Haze’s mother did in Lolita.  Lightning, picnic.      

We tell ourselves we may be optimists but we are not foolish.  Some of us come forth with the awareness that we are programmed to be aware of the cosmic IED, to believe we can see it and, thus, avoid triggering it..

There is nothing to be ashamed of; it is written into our genetic code.  Thus we are drawn to look at particular characters in particular circumstances, our preferences programmed into us by our genetic and cultural heritages and, of course, from that negative option source, our reading heritage.

We are not asked if we want something new to read any more than we are asked if we are tired or thirsty or hungry.  Something tells us we want something to read and we do, titillated and ecstatic over the prospect of reading about someone of our preference, walking down a road fraught with danger, not to mention IEDs.

With each new explosion in our reading, with each in our real time life, we are presented with information that gives us the potential to be alert to strange things awaiting us on the road ahead.

Each time an IED from a short story blows up in our face, we are relieved not to have had that same experience in our real life, but we are not really certain we mean it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Learning from Writers You Can't Read

From the early reaches of discoveries you made as a teacher comes the major awareness of how much good information and potential for learning in the reading of a work you are not on the best of terms with.

Such works give you a printout of things not to do, and as you read such works, groaning inwardly at the graceless prose or obvious devices, you are removing the potentials resident within your own prose to follow suit.  While there is more to be gained from making your own mistakes, there are positive things to be had from seeing the mistakes of others and the momentary sense of smugness at the thought that you would never do such a thing.  This smugness lasts until you catch yourself doing that very thing, taking the hit of your error, then finding ways to correct it.

This is all prologue to the fact of your ongoing difficulties with two writers of some stature, the late John Updike and Richard Ford.  You’d arrived at a grudging acceptance of many of Updike’s short stories, but could never find the motivation to finish any of the Ford you’d begun.  Because of your pal Duane Unkefer’s near madness for Ford, you’ve tried again and again, but no use.

This is by no means to say Updike and Ford are lacking skill or reach; each has considerable presence on the page.  Your objections to their work has more to do with a sense of regret in the latter and a dislike of the tone of the former.  That said, you consider each at a high level of ability to have a presence on the page.

Nevertheless, her you are, over a third of the way through Ford’s latest, Canada, and to put the matter in as few words as possible, you’re in deep.  The first-person narrator, Del Parsons, whom you reckon to be in his sixties at the time of his writing the narrative, is looking back at his mid teenage years where he and his fraternal twin sister, Berner, and their parents lived in Great Falls, Montana.  The mother was a teacher and had dreams of teaching at a small college, writing poetry, perhaps a few stories, while teaching literature. 

The father, a bombardier on a Mitchell B-25 medium bomber during World War II, emerges thanks to his son’s reconstruction of him and Ford’s relentless ability to convey, evoke, and dramatize, as a complex, likeable fuck-up of achingly accessible behavior.  In many ways, the father is the more sympathetic character in the novel, and yet, you could argue that the mother is as well, and so are the two kids.

So also are the individuals we meet for only brief moments about a hundred pages in, characters who happen to be at a small bank in South Dakota when Bev Parsons is robbing it and the mother is outside revving the engine of the getaway car.

Ford is a facile, graceful writer, and this time he not only has you, he has you reading at a slower pace than your usual wont, the better to drink in the vividness of place while at the same time considering the implications of the events, the naiveté of the young narrator, and the occasional zinger of a rhetorical question this narrator is asking of himself, through which he is also asking of the you when you here at his age and the you of your present age, just as the narrator has moved from being naïve to more complete in his formation.

From this author who you’d not been able to read before, you are immersed in the outcome of one of your favored conditions, the unthinkable, come to pass.  You are very much the hostage of a dramatic writer who has the exquisite ability to withhold information, causing you to read for the same reasons you find reading attractive.  Ford uses information as event and manages to turn event into information.

We cannot know the people in our everyday life, you believe, with any sense of certainty, a fact that means you wish to trust but cannot quite do so.  You do the next best thing.  You invent plausible characters whom, even though they may lie to you from time to time or cheat you, you are able to believe them.  This is important because you will follow them as they lead you to places were you might not have otherwise gone, and where you will learn things you might otherwise have refused to see.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Clinking the Wine Glass for Sound

Some of the many stories you read and enjoy depend on conflicts and consequences, which are then resolved by actions.  You see no story in the mere presence of some family feud.  There is, to be sure, resentment, what you might call bad blood, but no story yet.  The feud lingers in the background, until some event between specific members of the feuding families trigger a flare-up of the old history of animosity.

When the animosity fuels an event in present time, the story begins, which is to say the lingering, perhaps even smoldering concept is ignited.  You see nothing unusual about these circumstances or how they progress from landscape to concept to triggering device or what you have heard described as a destabilizing event.

Let’s get down to specifics, taking as armatures about which to wrap the accouterments of character.  Bill and Chuck, two white-bread names, equal slabs cut off the plank of ordinary, except for the fact that Bill, a pretty savvy computer tech, with six years of college, is from family A, and Chuck, a physical therapist with a degree in chiropractic, happens to be from family B.

Family A and B are the equivalent of the Grangefords and Shepperdsons out of Huckelberry Finn, the animosity between these modern equivalents as acrimonious as their counterparts which, you believe, Twain intended to be representative of the North and South in our Civil War.

Bill and Chuck not only work out at the same gym, they go for beer at the same tavern, which happens to be patronized by other members of the two families.  One day, when both Bill and Chuck are in the tavern, no matter how it happens, beer is splashed, landing on both Bill and Chuck.  Each apologizes to the other, no real harm done.  In fact, each is quick to signal to the bartender that the other is to have a fresh beer, paid for by his opposite.

This dynamic is witnessed by some elders from both families, who mutter among themselves.  This would not have ended so peacefully in the old days.  Family meant something then.  Family honor meant even more.  You get guys going to college, look what happens ; they make light of it.  Buy each other a beer and hey, no harm, no foul, right?

Soon, the brooding escalates.  Members from Family A and Family B are outside, mixing it up.  Bill and Chuck are watching from inside.  “Think we ought to join in?”  Bill asks.  “What I think,”  Chuck says, “is that we ought to have another beer.  Let them settle the old stuff.”

And they do.

Consequence and  resolution are acted out before us in a demonstration of generational differences.  The same circumstances could have several other permutations.

Such types of stories are often called plot-driven because they revolve about the armature of constant physical action and of a resolution grounded in some kind of defining action.

The “other” type of story follows the pattern of consequences up to a point, the point being ways in which the story is resolved. Stories such as Herman Melville’s Bartelby the Scrivener are often referred to as character-driven.  The reader cannot always guess the way the story will be resolved, the outcome seeming to resonate from or even within a character.  This is also true of Shirley Jackson’s disturbing short story, “The Lottery.”

Novels as diverse as Dennis Johnson’s Train Dreams, John Steinbeck’s aching Of Mice and Men, and Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News take us a step beyond action, allowing us to experience the effect of the action on one or more characters. 

We are in a real sense left at the mercy of our individual sense of empathy.  Directly after Jim tells Huck he doesn’t have to worry any longer about his father coming back after him, Huck gives us the resolution he will have to be dealing with, taking off for the Territory ahead of the rest, because he can’t stand it any more.  Huck’s hegira will not be from the grief of loss but the ever worse fear of what will happen to him if he stays.

Hearing Marlowe’s tactful lie to Kurtz’s fiancée at the conclusion of The Heart of Darkness is an aching, touching act, a kind of literary flicking the rim of a crystal wine glass, where each of us hears the resonant frequency only so long as we can bear it.

We learn over time to give what we think of as a close reading to the works we read earlier, seeing perhaps only the plot points then, now prepared to pay closer attention because now we’ve clinked a few glasses ourselves and been present at the clinking of others.  

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Writer's Bubble

Summer months from about the middle of June through the early weeks of September have a special attraction.  Unless you have signed for summer classes, your chances for long stretches of time alone with writing and reading projects are at their highest.  There is a luxurious laziness, a not having to be so concerned about shaving laziness, a t-shirt and jeans laziness, a stripped-down to basics laziness where priorities change, needs change, tides wax and ebb on a different schedule than when you are more defined by professional and occupational terms.

If you’ve planned well, there is enough put by to bring you to September with the growing tang of regret at the loss of summer light and the loss of summer spent with ideas and characters you’re trying to understand and the considerable sense of being unrecognizable, marginal.  You are doing the equivalent of leading the literary equivalent of the beach bum’s life.  There is the sense of amusement you had yesterday when, at a brief outing at Orpet Park reading the Sunday New York Times and spending some time with the crossword puzzle, you’d dozed and awakened with the amused dreamlike conceit of thinking a person who’d come upon you could easily have thought you and your dog residents of the street and left you some spare change.

You are culturally a part of a religious minority.  You’d been tangentially aware of it by virtue of having attended schools in Los Angeles where you were majority, but then came World War II and the frightening experience of being told by the mother of your best friend how lucky you were to be living here instead of Europe, where “people like you” did not have it all that well.

Soon enough you were in schools and circumstances where your minority status was pronounced.  You’d already made the connection that the cultural personality about you was oriented in another direction.  In your early twenties, you had experiences of being the only one of your culture in a particular gathering.  Then, because of your interests in music, you were frequently the only one of your race and color in a particular venue.  And then, because of friendships, you were the only one of your culture and race and color in a particular venue.  You thought little or nothing about being the only white-Jew in an all-black, all-Asian, all-Latino landscape, all the while forging the sense of comfort first of all within yourself and then of comfort where you were.  Such experiences helped you forge the sense of those with whom you were comfortable and with which parts of yourself there was ease and lack of any need for defensiveness.

Thus you moved into your later twenties and the beginnings of what you called your professional association years.  And thus you moved from the vigorous bubble of intellectual and artistic and social contacts you experienced during your university years at UCLA to what you’ve come to think of as The Bubble Years.

You surely live in a bubble. Although you believe it is a heterogeneous bubble, nevertheless, it is an enclosure.  You’re given frequent reminders such as the fact that the newspaper that has published your weekly book column is the organ for a political bubble quite other than yours.  There is also the instance of a conversation among friends at a restaurant a week or so ago wherein one of your number gave vocal thanks that he was not a member of “the right-wing lunatic fringe,” his actual words.  Moments later, a man stopped at your table to deliver the information that he was, his exact words, “a member of the right-wing lunatic fringe.”  How easy it is to shrug such things off as California, or Los Angeles, or even Central Coast California.  There are, in fact, portions of California where you are in a bubble of comfort or an intruder in some other bubble.

You will not call Art a friend but you are on a first name basis with him from your mutual membership at the Y and your attendance at the Wednesday Writer’s Lunch at Casa del Sol by the Bird Refuge.  Although Art is modest about his writing, he has two books to his credit.  He and you are in a writer’s bubble but your political bubbles are worlds apart.  You are cordial to one another because of the writer’s bubble.  Otherwise, you suspect you’d scarcely speak.

Through this commodious vicus, you arrive at the writer’s bubble, wherein you meet all manner of cultures, races, philosophies, interests, and ranges of ability.  The writer’s bubble is the most comfortable of all because most of the individuals you meet within it have given up such things as culture and race and religion and politics even while professing these very things, sometimes in extreme renditions.  There is a purer, freer sense of being within this bubble, in which you can be impatient bordering on intolerant  with those who might claim some measures of cultural or artistic or intellectual heritage with you.

Within the writer’s bubble, you are the individual you have forged by design and taste, your allies often surprising you, your potential enemies surprising you even more, your strengths and weaknesses coming to you through unexpected discoveries you’d not anticipated.

Being within this bubble does not allow you any equivalent of the summer vacation you look forward to.  When you have moved through these various bubbles, you have become the true outsider, the one who is delightfully free to wrestle with his otherness, his not belonging to any place or thing.

As a writer who has become an editor and thus a teacher, you have become a hyphenate, a writer-editor-teacher, to which you must add yet another, you must add student and observer.

You might, if you chose, say you inhabit your own bubble, which means few allies or compatriots.  Perhaps an occasional companion.  The danger that lurks is the danger of all your characters coming from the same bubble, all your ideas born within the same bubble, all the persons you think attractive or reprehensible coming from the same bubble.  In that sense, you must make sure you are not in any one bubble for too long.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Small wonder you took to the notion of writing stories back in those early days.  When you began, there were few compelling thoughts behind the process.  Although you did not know it at the time, the major obstacle before you was the extraordinary degree by which you were working from enthusiasm and playful confidence rather than familiarity with craft.  You in effect would need years to discover how little you knew.  Your enthusiasm caused you to think enjoyment was enough.

You were in effect seduced by reading the work of men and women whose degree of craft made what they did seem easy.  There was a great message here, but you’d need years to be able to understand it to the point where you could even discuss it with yourself, much less with others.

Surely, you believed—note believed as opposed to thought—with time your work would take on that same quality you so admired, the ability to transmit the appearance of reality, an appearance you spent years trying to master by describing it rather than evoking it.

Sorry.  Doesn’t work that way.  The devil for you was in the details.  You sought to argue with the details by means of vocabulary and a super literal stylistic approach, still not seeing why it was that narrative presence was no chore at all for the many writers you admired and why it seemed denied to you. 

Description may work wonders for travel writing and for some aspects of memoir, particularly if significant, dramatic action emerges.  In most cases, description is overkill.  The major element here is detail, the telling, resonant detail, sometimes buried with a seeming innocuous hand in the midst of a paragraph.

You were not completely numb to the task.  Since your late teen years, you’d been drawn to a line from the John Keats poem The Eve of St. Agnes.  “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.”  Oh, the hundreds of times you recited that to yourself.  As well, you deconstructed the line in any number of ways. 

There was this exemplary rabbit, see, brought on stage to demonstrate, to evoke the coldness of the night so that when the herdsman’s fingers were numb “as his rosary he told,” you could not help yourself.  You were there, in situ, shivering with cold, prepared to see the visible traces of frost on the ghostly vapors of your breath, your southern California breath.

For journalists and essayists, even, you allowed, historians, the devil was in the details, but for the storyteller, the story was in the details.  They had to be chosen with delicacy, shrewdness, deliberation.  One detail too many and you were out of the setting of the story.

You were almost where you’d wanted to be, except for the fact that there were still some obstacles in the way, centered on words associated with pulp.  Try pulp fiction.  Try pulp characters or action-based plots or formula faction, all descriptive of worlds you found yourself wishing to enter. Alas, you allowed yourself to hear the equation between pulp and action sounding somehow at a lower level of story, on top of which any number of your friends and acquaintances told you they were waiting for you to settle down, thereupon, in that settled-down state, to write something serious.

Trouble is, when you write serious, what comes out is boring, dull, descriptive to a fault.  Thus more years writing your way out of seriousness and into something you could be serious about without fear of being flat or plot driven or anything other than what you wished when you’d been captivated by some ruling notion you were able to convince into story.

You’ve had this conversation many times with yourself and over many a beer or bottle of wine with a number of writers to the point where you can at the least speak for yourself now: 
There are any number of writers whose work resonates for you, inspires you to do your kick-ass best, wondering from time to time if you’ve earned seating rights at the same table.  You read them in awe and wonder.  There are those who inspire you on a fear-based level of wondering if you belong more at their table than the table you aspire to join.  You don’t like the idea of responding in a fear-based way, but these writers are important for you because there is so much in their work you’ve had to make yourself aware of for the specific purpose of distancing yourself.

Even were you to distance yourself for paragraphs, pages at a time, there is always the danger that this is where you’ll find your seating card.

When you think about some of the accidents and attractions coming your way when you started, you take some moments to celebrate your naiveté then, without which you might possibly not be here today, jotting these notes to yourself as a reminder.

Too many cooks spoil the broth, too many thoughts spoil the need to write, too many details spoil the story, and too much reliance on past successes spoil you.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Boredom Revisited

When you are in the condition you know of as boredom, you feel a simultaneous sense of being trapped, impinged upon, caught by circumstances to the point of feeling victimized.

Unlike those who appear to enjoy being the victim, you take no such pleasure.  When you discover your behavior suggesting any slight propensity to enjoyment, you begin looking for the nearest exit.  You look also for ways to turn these negative feelings into some form of pleasure.

Often this pleasure is mischievous, close to the pie-throwing slapstick of the comedy you so enjoyed as a teenager, growing up near a movie theater specializing in films from the old, silent era, and your closeness to yet another theater specializing in reruns of old Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton films.

Thus an important metric penciled on the wall here:  You’ve been imprinted with Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Kops, and other such icons of that early filmic era.  Thus also the escape from boredom triggers within you a wish to celebrate in the physicality of the comedic.  The rest of the time, your tendencies are more likely to transfer to the humorous, where there are dynamics beyond thrown pies, swinging doors, and long beams carried by innocent workers.

The most boring situations are those in which you are forced to wait for appointments you did not much care to be keeping in the first place.  Other boring situations include suffering through long introductions of persons you hope to hear speak.  Still other boring situations, perhaps the most common in your present life, have to do with reading things you are obligated to read because you are either the teacher or editor of the writer.

Another, painful example of such reading is when the work you are reading was written by you.  This condition leads you to an exquisite sense of being trapped by the lack of story oxygen you decry in the boring writing of others.  More often than not, the causes of the boredom are the side effects of you trying to demonstrate how much you know, how clever you are, how extensive your vocabulary is, what, in effect, a splendid thinker you are.

Thinking has its place in revision and ordering the materials you decide to keep after having culled the showoff chaff.  Thinking has its place in brooding over the strains and wrenches put upon your characters by the constraints of the story in which they appear.  Although your characters are not bored, they should have the same inner anguish you experience when you are in fact bored.

What this amounts to is the need to keep your focus on the atmosphere of the story or essay at hand, the awareness of the pulsing, the contracting and expanding of its moods and circumstances rather than your aside observations on their meanings and significance.

Comedy, as you’ve noted, runs deep within you, but so, too, does humor, which is a learned thing while comedy is more of a reflexive thing.  If used properly, comedy can lead you into those wonderful, explosive moments when you realize you’ve been trapped in the center of an aisle filled with overweigh, boring persons, and now you can’t take it any more; you want out.

Thus you play with these elements, struggling to get them into the right arrangement for the maximum use.

Thus these notes become the effect of you, interviewing yourself today on what story is and what to do about it.  Story, you begin, is a character recognizing the condition of being bored, experiencing the trapped sensation of it, wishing only to be free in order to do something demonstrative of that illusory sense of being free.  Free from the boredom, of course; other kinds of freedom need footnotes and philosophical gloss.  In story, your story, the mere appearance of being free of boredom becomes reversal or complication.  Thus we have gone from stasis to destabilization to breaking free to discovery.  You’d almost think you were in a position where some kind of ending or vision is in sight.  Fair enough.  Head for it, reach for it.  Go ahead.  See what happens.

Friday, July 20, 2012


Even when the subject is magic, as in slight-of-hand, you are after a time visited with the notion of how good it would be to take this illusory artistry beyond the point of self-amusement, out into the world, where you are the one creating the illusion.  Thus you move, don’t you, from the realm of the awed viewer to one who wishes to achieve professional status.

Thus also, professionalism becomes performing the magic, the illusion, before an audience.  Payment?  Of course, but realize how relatively low on the pyramid money is.  The real payment is seeing others accept or buy into the illusion.  Another tangible payment is seeing some young person or some older cynical person become enchanted by the effects you evoke while working the illusion.

All may well be vanity, but so, too, is vanity illusion.  A cornerstone principal of Hinduism is of all that is not the godhead being illusion.

Writing is surely the use and manipulation of illusion.  Professional writing asks more nuanced definitions, such as the sense of satisfaction a writer gets from providing an illusion that transports one reader from one place to another.

If you ghostwrite a speech, aren’t you creating an illusion for your client.  If you happen to be the late Robert Kennedy, entering the African-American neighborhoods in Indianapolis directly after the assassination of Martin Luther King,Jr., thereupon presenting them with an illusion of forgiveness and comfort and resolve, aren’t you in a real way creating a landscape of illusion within a greater landscape of shock, grief, anger, and helplessness?

Thus professionalism becomes the accumulation of confidence, empathy, understanding of story, and a power of some magnitude to propel a narrative.

You have been paid for some of your illusions, sometimes in money, sometimes in complimentary copies of the work.  As well you have been paid in absolute indifference to the work, to responses indicating its triviality as well as its aptness.

And yet.

You continue to work at refining your presentation of illusion to greater enhance the sense that it might be something more than mere illusion, that there might be degrees of accuracy and compassion and wit, and that sad wisdom called humor.  If these elements are lacking from your illusions, they are not missing through your lack of trying, but rather from your lack of ability or understanding.  As a result, you look for ways to improve the quality of the illusions you seek to create.
There are possibilities with which you must in effect live in order to pursue your illusory path of trying to create vivid, compelling illusions.  Uppermost among these possibilities is the one wherein no one is interested in them because your choices had no real basis of resonance.

Part of professionalism resides in the acceptance of that hypothesis as an actuality.  You believe you’ve had enough contrary experience to convince you to the contrary, but if you’ve any hope of staying on the professional path, you must not take professionalism for granted, rather you must work at it every day, look for ways to refine and define such professionalism as you have at any given moment.

Put all your eggs in one basket, Mark Twain said.  And watch that basket. Put all your professionalism in one work, and take care of that work, but do not coddle it nor become lulled by the sense of accomplishment when you have captured a thought, wrestled it to the ground, then set it out on a page or two for all the world to look at.  If all the world only wished to do so.

Being a professional is not easy.  When you have made the move from amateur to professional, you’ve left excuses you never thought you owned, tied and packed neatly for the thrift store.

Whatever the problem, professionalism means being somewhere tomorrow where there is a paper and pen or a screen and keyboard.  And words.  And visions.  And attempts to capture them whole and set them where they can be seen.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Even when writing seemed difficult bordering on the impossible to you, all you had to do was find something to read and things would balance out.  Then writing seemed easy again, not because of anything you’d done, except perhaps to read.

So far as you were concerned, there were two distinct types of things to read.  First and foremost, you found books that engaged and engrossed you to the point where you’d put aside necessary chores to finish them, rereading passages that seemed to sing to you.  In some cases, your game was to pretend you were some of Odysseus’s sailors, hearing the sirens.  If you were called back to reread or called to read on, you were glad to comply. 

What could be the polar opposite?  Why of course, writing that seemed to you sketchy or indulgent or somehow using language and story techniques at a distance. You were on the alert for the appearance of any of your favorite tropes in such things.  Writing at this level heartened you because it was being published, which meant to you that you could—and did—find your way in.  Such books made it possible for you to come after the books you loved, the ones that made the concept of story telling seem simple.

It is not simple, nor is mere narrative prose simple even if it reads as though it were.  You’ve been spending some time reading the latest work of a writer you have not taken to well in the past and whom you are now quite admiring. 

The author is Richard Ford.  The work has a one-word title, which you love because it seems to have such nuance. Canada,  You’re in such awe of Ford’s use of sentences and detail and of your favored tactic, withholding, that you find yourself writing some of the passages in your note pads.  You’re quite taken with this one:  “Chickens bobbed and pecked over the dry ground.”  Not that there is much importance to the chickens, but if you’re going to have them in the story in the first place, having them represented this way helps you see them, believe they are present, believe you are there with them in the scene.

When you are in the scene, you are in the story.

When you are in the story you are engaged in that simultaneous thing humans do; you inhale the elements to the point where you are a breathing part of drama. 

In what stand for you as the old days or the pulp days, you were in the frequent company of noir fiction that was not always of an even quality.  Nevertheless you felt the kinship with it beyond whether it was either of the two types you described above.  You could get at the feel of that type story—but not quite.  You could get at it except for the places where your own attitude shone through.  In this way, you came to what you would call noir or dark funny.  Funny in places, but dark in others. 

One of your favorite writers from those times, when pulp novels were flourishing in magazines and as massmarket originals, was Jim Thompson, 1906-77.  Here’s how he starts Savage Night.

“I’d caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago, and three days in New York—three days of babes and booze while I waited to see the Man—hadn’t helped it any.  I felt lousy by the time I arrived in Peardale.  For the first time in years, there was a faint trace of blood in my spit.”

Years of reading and trying to get your writing squeezed into that mode started to produce some results.  And while you were experiencing those results, you were being squeezed into being an editor, which meant that persons who wrote such things were coming into your office or having drinks with you and telling you about strange things they wished to publish.

And you listened.

And you published some of them 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Story as Pheremone

Because of your experiences as a writer, an editor, and a teacher, you are not only able to see this vision played out, you have yourself participated in this vision as something yet else—a student.

Ah, the hubris of visualizing yourself transmogrified from student to writer, nevertheless it is so in part, this vision you are about to present.
The vision goes like this:

Almost all individuals have some narrative to recount, some collection of events they bring out with greater speed than grandparents bring forth pictures of their grandchildren.  Some of these narratives have been forged in the fires of resentment and perhaps even victimization.  Other narratives are of bragging about friends and family who have achieved success as though success were an inherent family trait, falling with the abandon of dandruff on a blue suit. 

Yet other narratives are of the I-made-it type.  These are mere examples of narrative.  They are brought forth for stranger and friend alike.  Whatever their emotional origins, they are rarely withheld, in fact, more often than not, they are broadcast.  These are not real stories, they are accounts of injustices or of some turn of fate, the more or less contemporary equivalents of the narratives given by humans during the times of ancient Greece and Rome, where such phrases as “turn of fate” were replaced with the generic ”the gods” or the names of one or more specific gods.  We have a great deal to answer for with our insistence on monotheism.

As well as these narratives, there are episodes, which are closer to being story but not quite there.  Episodes are strings of incidents.  They are put together in good faith by individuals, some of whom even strive to be storytellers.  The best way to get the sense of what episodic means is to listen to a young person describing a film they’ve seen or some television drama beyond situation comedy.  Episodic adventures or, if you will, narratives, are punctuated with “and then they,” or the singular pronoun, “and then he,” or “and then she” the necessary linkage for events to become story substituted as these “and then” tropes.

A story is brought into being when one or more characters sets out in pursuit of something or when a strange force arrives in a place where there is an established social order.

Many individuals earn the reputation for being bores or “Johnny one-Notes” when listeners conclude they have one or two narratives or when they attempt to tell a history that is linked with “and then I” or “and then he” or “and then she” instead of some thematic or chronological line of development.

Indivduals who share stories are in a real sense sharing dramatic genomes, which sounds sexual in some ways because the act of sharing stories is close to being as intimate as a deep, committed sexual connection can be.  Story is satisfying because it conveys dramatic information and coded cultural information, leading to a sense of understanding, of closeness of a deep, highly personalized empathy that can and often does transcend mere physical connection.

Listen to the conversation of two lovers, then listen to the conversation of two individuals exchanging stories, each offering favorite moments or explanations of the events that took place within a story.  Sometimes the exchange passes over a simple detail, which in some special cases, produces the same result as a lover saying, “Do you like it when I touch you there?”  No matter where the “there” is.  This is not about mere tactile sensuality; this is about cultural, social, human sensuality, the kind transmitted through story.  You know someone better if that person has told you of a cherished story.  True enough, that information may cause you to feel a disconnect from that person.  There are risks in all social exchange.  Of equal truth, knowing an individual’s preferences in stories might suggest a greater depth and or warmth about that individual than you’d previously suspected.

“What’s your story?”  we sometimes ask with an undertone of irritation.  We wish to know what that individual is up to, what that person’s intentions are, how they will affect us.  There are so many terms and uses for types of stories, to name but a few:  A sad story,  a likely story, a cock and bull story.      

Sometimes you think we are attracted to those we care about and given ample reason for feeling repelled by others because of their personal narrative, the goals, intents, and motives by which they are governed.

Although there are any number of quick-fix clichés that could be used to describe you, most of which you would detest, you believe you’d be much more content accepting someone’s interpretation of you as the story they see as you—whether you agree with the assessment or not.  After all, it is a story, and that is the primary form of recognition imprinted on our sensitivities.

Like bees, insects, and birds programmed to visit particular flowers, trees, shrubbery, and plants, we are responding, whether we realize it or not, to the individuals with stories from whom we can draw sustenance and provide on some level a form of pollenization native to our species.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Marxism of Story Telling

A significant reason behind your fondness for reading relates to your perception of the relationship between the reader and the writer.  On it’s face, the relationship is pretty simple:  Writer works at concocting a story, pursues it through a number of drafts, then sends it off for publication. Reader sees the story, reads enough to determine that he’s willing to see it through to the end, then does so.

You could tweak this formula somewhat with nonfiction, whether a news story, an instruction manual, an op-ed piece, even—here’s the tricky part—a textbook.  This last is tricky because it opens the door for committees associated with adaption for courses, in other words, men and women who have power over what we are taught, which is to say what we think we are learning.

Further, at certain levels, what power does the student have.  The student can scarcely refuse to read the book.  Best-case scenario is when the student objects to what is published in the textbook, finds contradicting or supplementary sources, then forms her opinions accordingly.  How often does education, particularly at the lower levels, work that way.

Thus this short cut to your theory those Marxist principals can apply to reading if there is an overdone cultural pressure applied to the reader.

You’ve reached the point where your reasons for reading something are pretty much based on your taste and curiosity as opposed to need.  You are in fact in a situation of power to the extent that you can and do assign reading for classes, holding the students responsible for a response to the contents of the reading. 

In one notable case during the last quarter, one of your favorite novels was on the reading list.  One of your students resented it, found it scattered, distracting, and ineffective.  You did not agree with her vision of the novel but you were pleased by the strength of her distaste, and for the way she was able to articulate the things she found lacking.  One major thing was the fact that all the chapters seemed like individual short stories.  You not only felt this to be true, you are also quite fond of short stories.  Your student did well for disagreeing with you in such articulate and vivid fashion, and was graded accordingly but you do not think she learned from the experience yet, thus the assignment of the book, the causing her to read it, was somewhat of a tyranny to her; she was being exploited in a sense as Marx equated the exploitation of workers.

You like reading because of the choice.  In the same way, you like writing because your choice of what to write is mediated, even dictated by your enthusiasm.  You have various committees to go through before your work reaches publication, but the most important of all of these committees are the ones resident within you, composed of aspects of you that pull a project together, assess it, edit it, allow it to go forth to the point where it can be seen by others.

Even when the work is in the hands of others, it will have reached there because what you did satisfied them enough to consider its potentials.  If and when it is published, it will experience its additional fate on the basis of what complete strangers think about it.  You are still the winner because you brought it to the closest point of your dream for it; you in effect had the opportunity to argue it into congruence with the image you first had of it.

Your own reading is yet another matter.  You follow the whim lines of curiosity.  When a reading project becomes unpleasant for you, there is nothing more in store for the relationship between you and it.

Pleasure in reading for you often means being caught up in a situation or locale you’d never have thought to enter.  Some of this is recognition that you enjoy being seduced into reading something you might not have read.  It also means that if you chose something because of your fondness for, say, the author, or the genre, there is no guarantee you will stay to the end; you may well begin to suspect this is something you will put down without having to return to it.

Nice to think of these two areas, reading and writing in the same critical way.  Makes you think of the times you speak of writing the way you talk and talking the way you write, bringing those two means of expression into congruence.  This is a good discipline to hold in mind because of your tendency to get formal in tone and somewhat longer in sentence than most readers find comfortable.

If you can write for the same reasons you read, then turn the process to read looking for the things you seek when you write, both activities will have the potential to crackle with excitement and intensity.  Not bad qualities for your reading or your writing to embrace.