Friday, August 31, 2012

Laissez Fucking Faire

Although you enjoyed portions of your early years of education and had great conflicts with other portions, the years where you began attending colleges and university and outside lecturers, all the while beginning to read titles not on any class list represent to you the step between looking at the tools in your tool kit and putting those tools to work.

In recent years, where you’ve spent a good deal of time in one class room or another, it might be argued that although your job was teacher and you acquitted yourself with honest intent, you gained more as a student than as a teacher.

During all those years in classrooms and lectures, you’ve had sufficient opportunity to understand that in all of them, lecture-hall-large and seminar-room-small, there was always present at least one individual you’d call the equivalent of a troublemaker. Such a person has, in your experience, been called a wise guy, smartass, perhaps even anarchist or self-indulgent showoff.  You are certain of this because there is some likelihood that the individual in question was you.

This potential for assuming roles, student, teacher, eager listener, sincere questioner, rabble rouser, malcontent, crank, and argumentive for the sake of argument resides in you, but you’d be making a huge error in judgment if you were to assume such roles did not exist in numerous individual types.

By progression, then, you are now able to ask yourself questions you’d not considered with any measure of seriousness before:  Has your writer self ever got into arguments with your teacher or editor self?  Has your teacher self ever been called to account by your writer self?  Has your editor self ever been vexed to the point of near explosion by your writer self?

Take some time to think about these potentials for confrontation.  In particular, think about them in relation to the times—and admit it, there were times—when you pushed yourself away from your computer or pen or, before those times, your typewriter?  (Remember as you reread this that there were innumerable times when you did so in the uninformed belief that you had nothing to say and, thus, why bother?)

There is something to be said for the times when, new and in an I’ll-show-you frame of mind about writing, few if any of these internal squabbles existed.  You were still as the saying goes wet behind the ears or unread or untaught in relative terms.  You are not trying to build a case for shifting the blame for the times you talked yourself out of a day’s work writing on your education.  To do that would be erroneous and wrong.  Education was stepping in on the scene and adding an array of outside voices to compete with your inner voices.
There were times when you chose the wrong voices to listen to.  To some degree, you believe you’ve learned when to let the critics and teachers and editors back in the room.  In similar perspective, there are times when you learn to listen to and trust the editor within and the outside editor.  And there are times when what the writer wants seems so mischievous and fun that the other guys have to wait in line before they have their say.

You are thus approaching the potential on any given day for an attitude and climate which remind you in many ways of the circumstances at play when the discussions with individuals of known political differences from yours bring forth the subject of politics.

You are not going to convince them to any degree that will change their politics.   You may win the occasional argument, but you may just as well lose them, nor will they in any substantive way change your own core beliefs.  Laissez fucking faire.

You will attract some readers and, with diligent pursuit of craft, perhaps attract more, but you will do so through story, not through argument, okay?  Story is not argument; it is the deployment of emotional information and resonant details that make the information seem more real than it in fact is.

You will not, as a writer, out argue your inner editor or teacher, nor should they attempt to out argue you.  They will.  This is their nature.  You must let them laissez-fucking faire.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Writing Down Boredom

There is often some resident quality to the weather in and about the city where you live to make it an easy topic of conversation.  Unlike some conversations about weather in places other than where you live, these conversations tend to be lively—even combative.

All of which is prologue to the fact of conversations about weather here not being essentially boring as such conversations could be elsewhere.  This factor is prologue as well.  There is one more leg to the argument, one more step in the incipient syllogism.  The fact that most conversations about weather here are not boring does not preclude boring conversations.  There are, in fact, boring things to say about where you live.  There are boring things to say anywhere and you must be on guard not to say them.

This resolve is part of your plan for time spent within your inner life.  There is also a plan for your outer life, where you are vigilant about allowing any state of mind to flourish in which you say, think, or do things that ay bore another person.  And this stance is predicated on your belief that in order to implement it, you must start with yourself.  You must take pains not to allow yourself to be bored.  Boredom starts from within.  If you are interested in what you are doing, your logic runs, boredom has no chance to establish the merest foothold.

You try to carry sufficient note pads and writing implements with you even on routine trips to grocery stores or gasoline stations.  You are so involved with this and energized by the notion that you recall pants pockets of your youth, in which you carried about the occasional marble, a penknife for sharpening the stubs of Dixon Ticonderoga pencil stubs, the better to make notes on folded sheets of paper, stapled between covers made from cutting the cardboards from your father’s shirts into quarters.

Ideas were not easily come by in those days.  As a result of reading about writers you admired who did carry notebooks and did write things in them, you were often frustrated to the point where you’d write down the license plate numbers of cars you saw parked along Cochran and Dunsmuir Streets.  Your note might read, Saw car 6C7158 parked near Sixth and Cochran.  When this became boring, you’d walk to Wilshire and Cochran or Cloverdale, noting cars without-of-state license plates, thinking there was some greater intrigue in that process.

There were enough out-of-state cars to add some note of concern, but this, too, became ultimately boring.  You longed for things to note, to write about, to observe in some critical or consequential way.  For a long time, you were at an impasse, remaining existentially stuck until Betty Ann Bolger, a neighborhood chum you did not realize you had a crush on, demanded to see one of your notebooks.  You had nothing but some reports of cars parked in the neighborhood.  You reckoned these would demonstrate to Betty Ann how shallow you were.  There were no sudden epiphanies, but you did resolve to write about greater intrigues, thinking these would impress Betty Ann.  Thus, of a gradual wave of inventiveness, neighbors began to look suspicious.  Mr. and Mrs. Knapp began to look like spies; their Wire-hair Terrier, Ginger, a blind for passing information, and Myrna Frank, a willowy girl about two years your senior who had a habit of pushing you into corners and kissing you to see you blush, became a secret keeper of feral cats in the neighborhood empty lot.

Betty Ann was some time in asking to see your more adventurous notebook.  When she did ask, then scan intently, her response was fateful.  The notebooks with the license plate numbers, she said, were infinitely more interesting.  She almost tossed the offending notebook at you.

In that moment, more humiliating than Myrna’s kisses and your blushing, you learned a great lesson which you were not able to articulate for a few more years.  The lesson was that no matter what information notebooks contained, they could be an embarrassment if they fell into the wrong hands. The embarrassment could as easily come from the boring nature of the notes as the material itself.  Even then, you reckoned it was better to be embarrassed by the nature of the contents than by the boredom they generated.

You were desperate to grow up, which meant more than anything that you would have something to write in your notebooks.

From these observations and subsequent ones dealing with teaching young persons, you’ve finally come to see how important it was to get in there and start furnishing your inner spaces so that you could move on beyond neighborhood license plates and the imagined suspicious activities of neighbors to an awareness of the things that to this day keep you from boredom.      

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Seven Steps to Discovery

Seven things you write a story to discover:

  1. Whose story is it?  There are any number of successful stories with an ensemble cast of characters, but of all these, one has an agenda so overpowering that it sweeps the others along as though they were VW bugs caught in the wind pull slipstream of an eighteen-wheeler truck.  Ishmael had to survive in order to be able to narrate the tale.  The Great White Whale was a major player, but when all is said and done, Ahab’s is the story that most impresses us.  Lots of good supporting characters, witches and wizards among them, but it is Dorothy Gale’s story, pure and simple.  Lots of clues abound in stories named for their principal characters:  Rob Roy, Huckleberry Finn, and Ann of Green Gables, Ivanhoe, Elmer Gantry.  Of course they all need friends, opponents, and I-told-you-so sorts to play against.  What point in having Nora Helmer without Torvald?  Sometimes you know from the get go; other times you need a draft or two to find out, and when you do, there may be a tang of surprise and pleasure.

  1. What’s the story about?  The more memorable stories—those that have remained in vivid memory—leave no doubt.  True Grit is about bringing to some form of justice the man who murdered the father of the protagonist.  Hamlet is about a young prince, directed by his father’s ghost, to avenge his father’s death.  The essential quest or thrust of the story does not have to be achieved provided there is a suitable substitute discovery or understanding.  Philip Roth’s intriguing novella, Goodbye, Columbus, allows the protagonist to make some painful but valuable discoveries as he moves from youth into maturity.

  1. The prize?  For Dorothy, it is simple enough—getting home to Kansas, but if you’re a fan of L. Frank Baum, you can’t help but discover the other side of the prize coin, which is the price to be paid for winning.  In Dorothy’s case, it is growing discontent with the home (Kansas) there is no place like, and the desire to return to Oz. The prize in Dennis Lehane’s haunting Gone, Baby, Gone, is the return of a kidnapped child to its rather pathetic and indifferent single mother.  The price the detective pays is the break-up of his own romantic involvement and a conscience put to severe stress.  Going after a prize, any prize, even a Great White Whale prize causes a ripple effect that works its way to one or more of the important characters.  Emma Bovary comes to mind as an example of a character who sought a prize of freedom and romance.  The price she paid for these things was not pretty.

  1. Why should we care? The most direct answer to this significant question is found in a character who is seen disregarding or badly managing encounters with some life situation we as readers understand we will have to face.  John Steinbeck’s near perfect Of Mice and Men has several demonstrations of circumstances, from the dealing with an old pet to coping with someone of diminished capacity.  We tend to care about stories dramatizing experiences that squeeze characters in ways similar to the squeezes and pressures we have experienced.  We care if someone we identify with is vulnerable.  We care in Jim Harrison’s poignant A Return to Earth because we want to achieve the dignity his major characters achieve in a heart-wrenching circumstance.

  1. What is the major dramatic question?  How about the discovery that The Maltese Falcon is bogus, which is to say the sought-after goal is not there to be had.  Many of the Saul Bellow novels strive for some kind of stature or discovery that is beyond reach.  How much trust should young Jim Hawkins place in Long John Silver?  In Graham Greene’s short story, “The Basement Room,” the focus is on lost illusion of the young boy and his betrayal.  Greene, in fact, often uses betrayal as a major dramatic vector.

  1. Who are you?  What do you bring to a story in terms of tone, attitude, edge, if you will?  Remember, this is story, not journalism.  Are you bringing optimism, cynicism, anger, fiery rebelliousness?  All are valid because story is about evoked emotion.

  1. Where is all this coming from?  If these elements are brought forth from a textbook or some template, the results will be literary equivalents of paint-by-numbers pictures, possibly suggesting some minimal technical ease but none of the nuance and irony and controlled ambiguity found in more resonant fiction.  Your storehouse is your inner life.  This inner vision is reflective of your vision of How Things Work, of how people behave, of what individuals do under dramatic stress.  Your inner life is your toolkit for dealing with the outer world sometimes described as Reality.  Your inner life allows you to experience relationships with others, having first forged a relationship with yourself.  This life gives you the vocabulary to discuss with yourself why you find some writers compelling while having no patience for others. Your inner life gives you a sense of confidence in your ability to empathize and to observe the inner universe you inhabit as well as the outer universe where you are a guest.  Steps 1-6 come from your inner sense of how precarious some things are, how easy other things can be, and what they all mean to you.  Your inner life has helped you recognize the difference between confidence and blustering, bragging, and being the equivalent of a schoolyard bully.  So now you know.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Adjourning Your Inner GOP Convention

Try as you might, you could not avoid awareness of the Republican National convention kicking into some semblance of gear today.  With equal difficulty, you were unable to hold off an unpleasant association relative to you and the Republican convention.

As such things go, you’re ahead on points because unpleasant associations are more often than not potential learning experiences of high order.

Your first awareness of the convention was, of all places, in a veterinarian’s office, where you saw on one of the cable network news features a number of sweeping shots of the delegates of various states.

There were few persons under the age of fifty in any of the shots, fewer still who were at what you would call a healthy weight.  There seemed a general emotional tone running from dazed indifference to surly intransigence.

Although your political preferences are firmly within the parameters of the other party, nevertheless you have little use or respect for the conventions of either party.  You see both as outrageous waste of money and time, resulting in what is more or less highly scripted demagoguery.

You open the door for the unpleasant association with your belief that you and all your brother and sister Homo sapiens are brim full of such delegations, representing various aspects of the individual’s self.  Your pride in yourself includes the awareness of some conservative delegations, some racist sentiments, and other aspects of bigotry, stubborn regionalisms, and towering lack of awareness about issues crucial to intelligent individuals the world over.

Given your political, psychological, and artistic leanings, you are still vulnerable to tripping down the rabbit hole of metaphor visited so memorably by young Alice, as depicted by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known also as Lewis Carroll.

Mad factions rant and rave within you, causing you no end of internal conversation about the social contract and your role in it.  Battles about deficit spending, conservatism, and work ethic rage to the point where you begin to suspect persons in your vicinity can hear the clamor for smaller government.

You wish to listen to these inner voices with the same kind of morbid fascination you applied to your glimpses of real, regional Republicans as you saw them at the vet and later at your dry cleaner and laundry.  They are of an age and so are you.  They tend to be wealthy and you are not.  Some individuals you know from the real world barely scrape by, husband and wife both working, and yet they favor these wealthy sorts and hope to see them preserve their wealth.  The entire calculus is a mystery to you; so is the calculus of responsible government control over controversial issues being oppressive rather than protective.

You have spent a good portion of your life trying to install responsible control over things you do not wish to see in your writing, and yes, the matter always comes down to that.  Without control, your output would be more indulgent and self-absorbed, more about yourself as opposed to the records you contrive to capture the phenomena you see about you.

On numerous occasions, your inner convention has adopted one platform or another of disastrous proportions, sending you into a kind of head- and heart spin where you momentarily lost sight of your narrative plans.

Discipline is important when it becomes generated from inside, in response to some plan to produce or provide some good for some segment of humanity, no matter how small.  Your daily walk and your use of these cyber pages produce the ability to keep up and moving.  You don’t consider either of them having been engaged until you break a sweat from the walking and break some equivalent sweat of a reach you did not think you could make within these vagrant lines and associations.

By the time you have reached the bench across from the stone magnificence of All-Saints Episcopal on Micheltorena Street, a scant quarter block down from State Street, you’ve accomplished sixty percent of your quota.  Sunday evening, as you sat, drenched in a respectable coating of sweat, sprawled in the comfortable stretch of relaxation, a middle-age man stopped, regarded you for a moment, then asked, “Hey, bro.  You hungry?”  Thinking of an enormous and indulgent earlier lunch, you thanked the man profusely for asking, holding on as best you could to the sense of connection you’d just felt.  A complete stranger, seeing you, concerned you might be hungry.

You’re not entirely sure how you accomplished the remaining forty percent of your walk; Did you perhaps drift in some transcendental haze?  What you knew was how important that transaction was to you.  What you knew was that you wanted with your work to convey to those interested in story to come away from a classroom or editorial or story contact with you, feeling as you did then.

Your inner Republican Convention had turned in for the night.  Time to begin writing.    

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Quintessential Bored Editor

If there were to be a contest to determine TQBR, The Quintessential Bored Reader, the recipient would be the editor.  You could argue that students, forced to confront textbooks with some regularity, are apt competitors.  But when you factor in the number of boring submissions an editor has to read in addition to the other aspects of the editorial job, the TQBE Award goes to editors.

The factor that puts the editor over the edge in this competition is the sheer, ongoing number of things that must be read, a number with a footnote factor.  Most senior editors at publishing houses, and some magazines, have one or more assistants to filter out those candidates that are yet more seriously inclined to produce boredom.

When looking at reasons or for some handhold to help you better understand the causes of boring manuscripts, your best guide is to project yourself back to your late twenties and thirties, where there seemed to be tides of acceptances and tides of rejections, or to use a term you have come to dislike and distrust, you were still on a learning curve.

What matter that you still consider yourself on a curve or wave of learning or, indeed, that you intend to remain on a path of learning until senility or death overtake you and have the final word so far as your writing ventures are concerned?  You’ve more than once delighted in the fantasy of you, lapsing into some form of senility wherein you in effect “forgot” all the things that made your output boring or overblown, filled with pleonasm and orotundity.  But you digress.

The point from which you digress is the point where, in your opinion, writing reaches a crossroad, where it may proceed into moving, evocative narrative or the cumbersome rat-a-tat-tat of linearity.  Simple declarative sentences work well.  Subject, verb, the occasional modifier, set forth in a brief thought to depict a vision of an action.  In effect, such sentences provide stability for the occasional welding together of independent clauses, forming a kind of narrative freight train that has the effect of causing the reader to wave as the caboose passes.  Then, it is back to the relative briefness of the declarative sentence—until the time has come for another narrative extravaganza.

Mind you, while this is happening, the reader is not reacting as though watching a display of fireworks or some splendid Tchaikovsky ballet.  The reader is not agape at the daring of vocabulary or the internal rhythms or the onomatopoetic dazzle of sentences.  The reader has moved beyond awareness of such things, is rooted within the story, neither the style of the prose nor the exquisite choice of words.

Well then, how is such reader rootedness accomplished?  Try using yet another pair of concepts, beyond those you used the past week.  These two companions are Reach and Connection.  Simple, direct, declarative sentences have scant time to reach.  Even if they were to do so, they’d be overcome with telling some action, reminiscent of early readers for early readers:  See. See.  See.  See Dick.  See Jane.  See Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot.

The writer needs to reach not only for a sense of the inner life of his characters but of the connections the writer is making during the reaching process and the connective process the characters are undergoing.

Editors are in their way as cynical as cops, used to such alibis as “The story takes off in the second paragraph.”  Editors are not as polite and mannered as your pal, Barnaby Conrad, when, after a woman read five or six pages of material in which there was no slight hint of story, he stopped her.  “Is there,” he asked, “a point in this narrative where something happens?”

“A few chapters down the line,” the woman confessed, “someone is mauled by some bears.”

“I think,” Conrad, said, all politeness, “we’d better start with the bears.”

The formula is simple.  Junior editors filter the truly boring stuff from the editor.  From what the editor then sees, publication choices are made, enhanced, scheduled.  Then the reader gets a chance to not be bored, thanks to the editorial filtration process.

You have to keep thinking about interesting editors, who have seen everything, even the good stuff.  You will not go into here how you were spared the apprenticeship of having to filter things for a senior editor, although you did have to make sure you had inspirational things to say at sales meetings, particularly when sales reps would interrupt you by asking, “How am I going to sell the fucking thing to a buyer when I only get ten, fifteen seconds per title when I take your list on the road?”

Simplistic as the answer may sound, the formula works best when the writer sets forth previously unseen connections between two or more things of relative similarity.  Another way to put the matter is to say your chore is to see and transmit the miracle in the ordinary.

Connection is a bond between two or more elements or people or things.  Connection is the discovery that some farmers and orchardists get better crop results because they involve bees in their pollenization process.

What do you use in your pollenization process?  How do you connect ideas and things that seem if not outright indifferent to one another, then at least disinterested—at first?

What are your characters looking for?  No fair if you answer that with love or security or a good job or a rich boyfriend.  We all want similar things, or so we tell ourselves.

Reach for a connection.  You don’t get one of those connections; rewrite the scene until you do.  There are bored editors out there, trying to convince bored readers to read their books, which they are presenting as unboring.  You write in a bored frame of mind, thinking, this is my take on what they want, your stuff will not make the cut where it is sent on to the cynical bored editor.  Up to you to take your story somewhere story has not been before.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Magic and Illusions

Earlier this week you likened Excuses and Defensiveness to schoolyard chums, skipping off together on a romp.  The connection began with Excuses, those you’d made to yourself and others over the years and those offered to you, not necessarily in any chronology.

You thought, for instance, you were shrewdly avoiding excuses to a writer you much admired to the point of considering her a mentor.  She well knew your schedule as an editor.  You didn’t have to mention that.  Instead, you asked her for advice on making time to write.

Her answer was the essence of simplicity.  “Give up something that takes an hour or so of your time each day.”  She smiled.  “Even if it’s sleep.”

These past several hours, another pair of chums has presented themselves to you for your consideration.  You don’t have any live mentors to share them with.  In consequence, this time at your blog becomes your mentor and sharing ground.  The two are Magic and Illusion.

What to call magic?  It is means of producing a desired result by a combination of occult information, which could be spells, as a result of an incantation or formula, or by control of forces beyond those within the range of human understanding.

Illusion is an appearance or an impression of an event taking place or an ability being demonstrated.  There was some argument about an Israeli, Uri Geller, having psychic abilities.  Indeed, his signature effect seems to have been causing a spoon to bend.  Or perhaps to give the appearance of bending.  Is Geller an entertainer, a practitioner of psycho- and telekinesis?  Is that last question a mere redundancy?

In its way the subject of magic becomes a good index for charting emotional age.  To the young, a well conceived illusion seems absolutely magical, reinforcing belief in wished for extraordinary powers.  Experience may bring with it the sense of cynicism necessary to del with things that seem to defy demonstrable effects.

In some ways, the greater magic resides in something as simple as the sun rising every morning in the east and setting in the west, even though you have enough experience to know this is so and some reasons for understanding why it is so.  Were you to pursue the matter in enough depth, there is probability you’d shift your choice of words from magical to magisterial or perhaps magnificent, both of which are true.

When it comes to mastering some of the conjuror’s tricks, writers are right up there with the better illusionists.  You have a few tricks of your own, the results of experiment and thought and, in some cases, the mischievous results of pure accident.  You seek out writers whom you consider to be superior illusionists, individuals who transport you to places and times you know to be contrived, and yet you forget sometimes to breathe while reading their prose.  By continuous reading, you are in constant contact with writers who have honed their skills of illusion and magical abilities to plateaus where you sometimes reel in envy.  You are pleased for them, but in the most selfish way:  They continue to make it possible for you to believe beyond that Coleridge willing suspension of belief to the point where, as yesterday, when you learned Dennis Lehane has a title forthcoming in October, you had within ten minutes of the discovery placed an order for it.

Reading for pleasure has come to mean that you go over a work until you think you see how the author brought forth an effect that so impressed you.  Seeing—or thinking you see—how an effect it accomplished is cold comfort.  Now, aware it can be done, you have to look for ways to enhance your own sleight of hand coordination.

In some ways, this discussion stays in the terrain of being academic.  You can offer an explanation for a thing, but it does not truly work unless your belief it absolute.  The other element to consider here is belief.  The illusion of magic needs to be so palpable that you have no choice but to believe it, however many rational arguments your brain dishes up.  You have to out believe your rational mind. 

This is no easy trick because, over the years, you’ve managed to see some of the effects. For the longest time, this was the place where you were shut down, your rational mind a combination of The Red Baron and Eddie Rickenbacher, potting away at Fokkers and Spads and Sopwith Camels with uncanny accuracy.   You sometimes discover illusions as though part of the landing pattern at O’Hare or LAX.  You have to find ways to get them clearance to land.

You have to find a way to build illusions that go beyond rational argument.

You have to start with belief, then find ways to prop it up with details and sensual triggers to the point where what the characters want, never mind how trivial it is, seems achingly real.  And then you reach for it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


A gesture is shorthand for an emotion.  The gesture may be overt in its physicality.  Few fail to understand the meaning and emotion behind the extended middle finger.  Fewer still would fail to grasp the equivalency between the extended middle finger being thrust forth with vigor and an exclamation point.

The physicality of gestures may be more nuanced and multifarious, incorporating more than one action, say a well-expressed demonstration of appreciation or forgiveness.  Such gestures are often described as handsome or generous.

When you were more or less of grammar school age, your sister showed you what was then called a stenographer’s pad. A spiral bound rectangular notebook with the binding at the top.  Such notebooks were in common use among secretaries, who took dictation, which is to say their employer verbally composed a letter which the secretary transcribed, using one of two shorthand languages, the Gregg or Pittman. 

Your sister thought to master the Gregg short form language, thinking this would allow her to make a complete set of notes for the classes she planned to enroll in when the time for college came about.

Technology has obliterated the need for those particular types of notebooks or their accompanying chart of brief forms, which were useful hints for secretaries.  Curious to a point, you undertook to learn the Gregg brief forms and, for a time, saw the purpose of the charts printed on the secretarial notebooks.  As such things go, you were once able to read Hebrew and were able to slough along up to a point in Greek. 

The shorthand forms have fled your memory like customers from a brothel during a police raid.  Looking at Hebrew now, you are amazed to have had the degree of proficiency you had.  You are still able to make out an occasional word in Greek but that ability rests on a precarious foundation to the point where once, at your favorite Greek restaurant in Los Angeles, you once asked the owner for a translation of two words, only to be told “No substitutions.”

Life, as portrayed in stage, film, and printed/digital fiction, is given significant color by the use of gesture, a reminder how filled with emotion and response story is and how the better writers in our midst seem to have somewhere tucked away the equivalent of those brief forms from the secretarial notebook of earlier days.

You are drawn to individuals with a rich toolkit of emotion-laden words and phrases, persons who seem able with no thought to convey the emotions behind their enthusiasms, disappointments, and surprises.  These individuals are rarely forced to rely on such tropes as very or oodles or millions, rather they use their entire body to support words that seem to have dipped in the cocktail sauce of expressive feeling.

Some writers, in early stages of their development, see the need for exclamation points, and supportive adverbs.  When they do find their way to gestures, they will use such groaners as “She dropped her eyes.” Making you wonder, did they break?  And of course, “He threw up his hands.”

Only today, in this morning’s workshop, the question came forth about the use of italics to denote interior monologue, causing you to feel so pleased when someone spoke to the matter of the text in roman carrying the responsibility of informing the reader that you used the gesture of pantomiming applause.

Story is metaphor for orchestrated emotion, a definition that comes close to making story sound operatic.  Opera is dramatic.  Take away the music and you still have story.  Many remarkable motion pictures pick up an extra layer of emotional currency from a score, where the balance is even more nuanced than opera.  Some writers—James Lee Burke, Annie Proulx, and Lorrie Moore come to mind—have prose styles suggestive of a sound track in the background, the inner cadences of their sentences suggesting themes and sounds as well as feelings.

You could say sentences are shorthand for feelings; scenes are so with great certainty.  If a scene does not suggest and bring an awareness of feeling to the reader, the scene has not done its work in a positive sense, then goes on to provide some negative work with the evocation of a heaviness and leaden quality emblematic of the one unacceptable emotion in story—boredom.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Original Spin

There were times during your earlier years, say your twenties and thirties, where it occurred to you how original you were.  Things such as falling in love, becoming a writer, having friends who were gifted musicians, and working in publishing were helpful factors convincing you of the essential error of your earlier thoughts. 

Then, as such things will evolve, you spent an enormous amount of time fretting over the absolute lack of any originality within your immediate being and your study.  Back before such landing sites as the Internet, you were filling page after page in journal after journal with laments and dirges about A) the earlier hubris in considering yourself owner of any measure of originality and B) your awareness of how studied you were in your derivative nature.

This took you into your forties, whereupon the accidents that got you caught up in publishing from what you considered the wrong side—the editorial side--of the desk catapulted you into teaching, whereupon what you’d thought to have been a decent education revealed itself to have the same thickness and consistency of cafeteria peanut butter.

You were literally too busy preparing for students to worry any longer about originality.

The drop of water you were (and are) came to terms with the ocean to the point where you believe there are still wide avenues of discovery in many if not all areas where discovery is possible.  However, with that in mind, you’re also of the opinion that comparatively little truly original thinking is done on a day-to-day basis.

This is by no means to let yourself off the hook.  You believe you’d enjoy thinking and implementing things of a truly visionary and original nature.  You also believe there is a greater opportunity for originality than you’d supposed in the ordinary, dare you use the word quotidian?

The trick of presentation is in point of view.  Any person has a shot at a fresh, insightful point of view, provided the person can manage to quiet down the other interior voices clamoring for attention.  Some of these voices rank high in well-meaning intent.  With the exception of your mother tending to warn you from time to time about being careful, she was in her lifetime, content to have her say then support your choice of action.  Your father kept it simple.  Whatever you want to be, he said, be a good one.  Thus their voices go into the cheering section. 

There are a number of voices coming from the opposing team stands.  You’re happy to acknowledge most of these voices are component parts of you as opposed to the few carpetbaggers from your education and cultural associations.  With focus and ongoing discipline, you have managed to develop and exercise a narrative voice you admire and trust.

The more you feed and listen to this narrative voice, and the more you exercise it, allow it to develop opinions it can support, the greater the likelihood you will find something fresh to say about something that appears ordinary, perhaps even to the point of cliché.

Get on the best possible terms with your process, then use it to redesign the portions of the universe that interest you to the point where your designs work in harmony with the music and art and technology of the men and women about you.

Originality is every bit as much about what you do with the elements about you as it is about the invention of new elements.  Originality is you way of decorating the rooms of your inner life with the designs and placements that welcome you every time your eye registers their presence, every time your ears take in their cadences and pulses, every time your feelings resonate to their music.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Excuse and Defensiveness often go skipping off together like young school chums, romping to recess frolic on the playground. 

Excuse reminds you of the Monopoly Get-out-of-Jail-Free card or an existential hall pass.  Excuse tries to stare down Consequence.  What should have been done was not done and now there are consequences to defend against.  The culprit wants to be pardoned, to be free of the consequences.

Defensiveness reminds you of the bombastic forms of argument you’ve come to associate with passive-aggressive bullying.  These arguments are masked in the costume of trying to persuade you the arguer will never chance his mind and so why bother, this is the way it is?

When you find yourself thinking of an excuse, any excuse, even that most blatant of all excuses, “I did not feel like it,” you cringe from your experiences of the times when you offered excuses you felt to be quite genuine and in particular when you offered excuses that were entire inventions.

You like to invent truths, which is to say stories that are fabricated but appear wound about the armature of a consistent truth so far as the characters see it.  You do not wish to send characters off to truths other than those they see for themselves.  Invented truths being what they are, you know that this is the essence of story, an ensemble of individuals all of whom have a different truth, striving for a separate outcome.

When you find yourself sliding into the excuse mode, inventing scenarios that will exculpate you from some task you did not relish in the first place, you cringe even more with the awareness that you are poised on a slippery slope leading to defensiveness.

You capitalize them to begin this reflection because they are personifications of things you wish to avoid, but do with only minimal success.

When you find them appearing in text you are writing, the cringes change to outright groans and grimaces.  Prose should not be apologetic, even the prose in letters of apology in which you are open in your admission of having done something thoughtless or not done something thoughtful.  That was not you at your best, you mean to say, your intention being to convey to the person to whom you offer apology that you wish your transactions with that person to be generated from you at your best.

When you come to a sentence or paragraph or page that on sober reflection does not work, you do not make excuses for it.  The material didn’t work and needs further attention, which you attempt to give it. 

When an editor says of the sentence or paragraph or page that it does not work, you well could become defensive because that is, after all, a natural response.  You’ve attempted to make your “new” natural response the response of being willing to look at the suggestion—because it is a suggestion, not a criticism of you.  The editor may have seen something you missed. On the other side of the argument, you may wish to hold judgment.  If two or three others see the issue the way the editor did, look again, look even closer.

Strength comes not so much from the notion of rightness being like a batting average but from looking ever closer.  Strength comes not from successful defense or stubbornness, but the willingness to watch with care and to register the way watching with care and focus feels. Strength is a quality, not a position.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Beginnings a la Yogi Berra

Beginnings have become old friends to you in the sense that you have begun more projects over the years than you have any hope of recalling.  There were times when it seemed your special talent was beginning things. Never mind getting to the middle and the resolution.

In the sense of completion, time has been good to you.  Any number of things you’ve begun have found themselves with middles and endings to the point where you no longer have the fears you once had about whether something that seemed so exciting one week would end up a pile of marked-up pages, handwritten notes, and no printer’s mark # on the last page.

All this is prologue to the fact that you have officially begun something today, a project that you’ve actually wanted to do for about fifteen years.  Although you’ve wanted to undertake the project, by the nature of its title, you forbore, considering the title a prime example of egotism.

In your bookshelf is a copy of a book published by St. Martins Press, Stein on Writing, arguably one of if not the better book on how to invent, compose, and prepare fiction.  The flyleaf contains a generous inscription from the author: “To the editor who edits editors, with affection, Sol Stein.”

You have indeed edited him, taught with him, broken bread on many occasions to the point where once, while making a presentation, you made what you considered a cogent observation, which you attributed as having come from him. During the Q & A, his hand shot up, whereupon he not only disclaimed the observation, which he nevertheless agreed with, he attributed it to you.

You continue to admire and respect him, thus there is no sense of that kind of competitive atmosphere.  Rather, you’ve had enough evidences—right and wrong—to convince you of the rightness of putting your name not only in the by-line of a book on writing, as your most recent one, but in the title as well.  Your agent has reminded you that Stein’s publisher had made an offer for your current book, which you saw fit to decline in favor of an upstart new kid on the block.

As the table of contents began to make itself known to you, the familiar beginning rumbles started.  You began to sketch in the parameters of the vision, seeing how the final product might appear.  Pleased by that vision, you also know how things tend to change once they are begun, how the energy of beginning produces a kind of vapor of vision and concentration that attracts seemingly random or unimaginable notions from the outside, which is to say from the universe outside your current concept of the project.

You may not be asked this question, although your agent will likely ask you to prepare a prospectus for the project after you’ve done the first two or three chapters, so that once again you’ll have the opportunity to consider a contract with a so-called legacy publisher or a new-kid-on-the-block publisher.

At the moment, you’re more than happy with your current publisher, who has done more in the service of your project than you might with reason expect from a New York publisher such as St. Martins.

There are three other projects past the beginning stage, one you were to do in collaboration with your great late pal, Digby Wolfe, and two novels about a series character.  There is yet another you burn to do that also has you thoughtful about words such as ego and hubris in that the work is in effect volume two of D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature.  It will be a series of essays about twentieth- and twenty-first century writers you believe have shaped the modern landscape.  Thus in these paragraphs of less than a thousand words you’ll have taken on two individuals of some stature, individuals you greatly admire and respect.

There is a curious admixture of comfort, excitement, and awe in the atmosphere of forthcoming projects.  For the moment, these are what beginnings mean to you.

Surely you will use this space as you used it for the project whose publication date has been set for November 10, and for which you have already been booked into Vroman’s in Pasadena, one of the major independent bookstores of your youth, your literary coming of age, and your entry into publishing as an editor.   How splendid it felt to stroll unobserved by the staff into Vroman’s some years back, there to see a book you’d acquired, edited, and seen through production.

As Yogi Berra might put the matter, Beginnings are not begun until they are over.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


A boundary is a demarcation point, separating one thing from another, one country from another, certainly one property from another.  Boundary applies with behavior, performance, and ability.

A boundary keeps you in or keeps you out, governs your behavior or in its way provides you new concepts of behavior.

You sometimes do not realize how you’ve reached points in your life without observing boundaries and crossing them, each instance one of increasing concern to you as you watch behavior about you, and as your own awareness of boundaries is enhanced with experience.

From boundary comes the equally evocative word, trespass, and thus someone in or on your territory without authorization.  Of course you may not be above an occasional trespass on some property, either as a mere convenience or to compound an activity that may have legal and/or moral boundaries.

Seen in the proper light, all human behavior is subject to boundary.  If one is to love, one should do so without regard to boundary except that to love well, you must respect the boundaries of the loved, leave your own territory open, and hope the persons you love observe your boundaries.  If one is to pursue some form of art, one looks beyond boundary on the excellent theory that art is far beyond mere mimicry or design but rather a deliberate attempt to rearrange cosmic furniture.

When you were yanked from the relative comforts of California to the cranky grayness of the east, you were entered into a schooling situation where you not only had to memorize The Lord’s Prayer but in fact recite it every day.  You’d been aware of the word trespass before but never like that.  You did not particularly want your trespasses forgiven because they’d been committed in the interests of having fun and adventure.  No damage came from them.

Adventure and inventiveness came from these escapades, which mostly involved sneaking into yards in order to jump off of garage roofs, chinning yourself on clothes line frames, and in one extraordinary case on Orange Street, playing on a huge turntable that was intended to help ease cars out of garages and onto the driveway with a minimum of two- and three-point turns.

You’d not thought with any seriousness about forgiving those who’d trespassed against you because you couldn’t, until that time, think of anyone who had.  But there it was, every day, a reminder that there might be persons out there trespassing against you and you were supposed to forgive them.

Even at that age, naïve as you may have been about any number of things, you were not naïve enough to discount the fact that a trespass was a synonym for a multitude of sins.  No matter.  You did not feel sinned against nor did you find any connection with the notion that your activities might be sinful.  This was early contact with individuals who not only had to consider the implications of sin; they had as well to confess their sins on a regular basis.

Thus into your life came boundary and trespass, causing you to realize boundaries of your own, differences, sometimes subtle in nature, other times pretty well delineated.  These were boundaries you did not wish to trespass.

For sometime, you thought it prudent to observe and respect the boundaries of others, but that started to become somehow related to wanting your own trespasses forgiven at the price of you forgiving the trespasses of others.  Through writing and reading, you began to see the limitations inherent in such a course, whereupon you began the approach of respecting not so much the boundaries but the humanity of the characters you wished to create.  You saw an immediate difference.

Soon, the difference translated to real persons in the real boundaries of reality.  You saw a sense among all of us, real and invented persons alike, of trying to maintain the equivalent of forty acres and a mule, that mythic offering to free, independent persons as tools necessary to forage and farm for their livelihood.

Some things and some persons are going to be slower in changing than others.  You wish to observe the boundaries of those who look for change as that quality is defined by another splendid word, evolution.  You wish to see your written visions on some evolutionary track and along with them your attitudes, visions, and the ear for what these evolving persons and places are saying and doing.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Before the advent of the Internet and its various social networks, the notification, You are being followed, meant something sinister, intriguing, perhaps even menacing.

Being followed in those days meant someone, often a man wearing a Fedora, was “shadowing” or “tailing” you, hopeful you would lead them to some information they sought or to keep an eye on you to make sure you didn’t get close to a secret they were trying to preserve.

Being followed as you drove meant in effect all the above examples, but by car, where you stood the potential risk of being shot at, rammed off the road, or otherwise inconvenienced.

If you were a character in a Western, someone who more often than not was either of a non white race or a mixed breed, implying those individuals had some preternatural ability to “read the signs,” which in turn meant you could not fucking get away.  True enough, even while you were believing in the plausibility of such abilities, you also wondered how they with such frequency allow us to get away with treating them as the did.  In many ways, those fears are at least mitigated by what you have come to think of as the revenge of the casinos.  Gambling on the res puts money in the pots/Slip it to the white man, use tight slots.

Now, the common use of the term, You are being followed, means someone with a self-published book about tofu or prayer is following your posts on Twitter or Facebook, which is not so much sinister as it is boring.

On the other hand, You are being followed is a reality that will not go away, and from which following, there may be the equivalent of drive-by shootings, which is to say acute embarrassment as a result of vulnerability.

You are being followed by everything you have ever published, a warning that might seem small potatoes relative to the potential for your vulnerability to be exposed, but it is not in fact the public you are concerned about.  You are concerned about you.

Not too long ago, a literary agent sent you a note questioning how you could have “let” which is to say “encouraged” a particular author to submit a particular manuscript, believing you’d been the last of your sort to have “signed off” on the work as ready to go.  The agent was relieved to hear you were in fact not the last of your sort to have had dealings with the author.  As for you, there was the matter of feeling a pang for the author in question, understanding all too well the urge to have a work worthy of submission in the first place. There is the second place, which is having the manuscript “at” a publishing house, a third place of that publisher saying Let’s roll.  There are fourth and fifth places, too, but the point here is that after a time, you will happen upon something and, taking the full hit, wonder how it was you let that work go in the first place.

Soon, as though it were wearing a Fedora or driving some sleek foreign car with shaded windows, it is following you. Rather, they, as in some of your habit words, are following you.  Sentences beginning with “it,” the over use of and to connect independent clauses, unnecessary adverbs, forgetful use of very.

Clunkers of sentences follow you; making you wish you’d taken greater care to “shake” them, because there is danger they will find you, then        begin tailing you yet again.

There is, to be sure, a wide verge, a sort of no-writer’s land, between compulsive hanging on and being followed.  This wide verge is also a place you find yourself from time to occasional time, wondering at the fortuitous confluence of elements during the days you wrote that particular whatever it was, causing you for a few moments to think you have some relation with language and thought, after all.

At the moment, you have completed a final proofing on the second printing of your most recent title, feeling a bit smug from the effect of having knocked off a few Fedoras of a few sentences beginning with one of your least favorite words, “it.”

Stuck somewhere in the middle of a sentence or, better still, sandwiched deep within a paragraph, it does not seem so bad, nor will one or two of those follow you about.

Still, a writer cannot be too careful.