Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Doorway to Story


There are vital things to be said about getting first draft down on pages, even handwritten pages, about not thinking overly about where the narrative is going, and pursuing event upon event until you begin to get the notion you are repeating yourself. 

There are vital things to be said about how then, and only then do you begin giving critical thoughts to articulating such details as whose story it is, what it is about, and what the goal is.

There are other questions to be asked and answered in as direct a manner as possible.  The vital things to be said for such strategy are, for you, of an intense, personal nature.  Without these vital considerations, you’d still be putting the literary equivalent of the cart before the horse.  This is a bad equestrian strategy as well as a bad literary one.

Early in your story writing attempts, you hit the speed bump of plot, the remarkable sense of design you found in the stories you liked.  In the same way there is inevitability in a Navaho rug, you saw patterns you feared you could never duplicate.

You could say you were so intimidated by plot that your writing sessions became thinking sessions in which you attempted to map out goals and strategies for characters you scarcely knew.  Such a strategy could not last long.  Friends who wrote for the kinds of magazines you longed to write for had the habit of reminding you that the payment rates were low, meaning you had to write a number of stories to stay afloat.

At the same time you were making this discovery, your reading and studies took you to the so-called picaresque tale, which seemed a more accidental narrative than a plotted one.  

The picaresque tale seemed a gift from the muses, particularly when Saul Bellow, a writer who alternately attracted and intimidated you, produced what seemed like a modern picaresque classic, The Adventures of Augie March.  You didn’t need a plot.  A quest would do.  Even a quest for self-discovery would do, if it were not spread on like the Horatio Alger novels (which did sell and did influence generations).

There you were, at that remarkable point so ably articulated by Yogi Berra.  “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” 

You took both roads, causing your reading to be an interesting hash of eighteenth- and nineteenth century coming-of-age novels and twentieth century pulp mystery, pulp science fiction, and literary science fiction.
But at least the approach got you writing enormous quantities, throwing away even greater quantities while an essential truth emerged.  Your doorway into story was through character. 

Instead of plot, you needed to make sure there were always at least two characters on stage, individuals who believed they were right.  Not only that, each character needed to know he or she had a dark side and a light side, each of which came to the surface when the character least suspected.

One of your two special mentors told you to write dark as though it were light and light as though it were dark, a sentiment echoed by your late pal, Digby Wolfe.

Of a sudden, things were beginning to look more functional.  One surprise revelation that came wriggling out of your difficulties with plot is the realization that formula is predictable enough without settling on one before discovering who the characters are to function in them.

What do the characters in a story want?

Why do they want it now?  (If they can wait, you’re in trouble.  Okay, perhaps you aren’t in trouble, but your emerging story is.)

What are they willing to do to get what they want?

What have they already done in service of reaching their goal?  (If they’ve done nothing, how do they feel about that?)

This may also help:  How do they feel about the achievement of the goal?

Saturday, September 29, 2012


Nothing is ever what it seems, although there are potential stories inherent in individuals who take things at face value, and even more nuanced stories possible as organizations and groups proclaim transparency for their agendas.

Writers are more apt to encounter resonant stories when they see the world about them through lenses of cynicism or skepticism.  You find yourself more open to surprise when you take things as they are presented, thus making you a) old enough to have had some experiences with the way things are presented b) of a nature where cynicism emerges as an I told you so, and c) mindful of ways language has the power to cause individuals to see what they wish to see, often in direct opposition to what is.

With these attitudes in place, you’d think the real and apparent would be prime targets for your investigation as story material, but in fact you are drawn to a greater depth by the unseen, the mysterious.  Once, in the process of a routine medical examination for your dog, and another time when the examination was for you, you were asked to supply fecal samples to help determine if there were any occult blood.  Until those times, you’d neither thought of nor heard of the potential for blood being occult, as in hidden.  Occult meant something otherworldly and paranormal, what book editors call woo-woo.

Occult can and does mean hidden.  Hidden means not just the world to you but also possible worlds, worlds of discovery and surprise.

Nearly as you’ve been able to decipher the interior codes that describe you, much of your approach to the kinds of writing you perform have to do with discovery of how you manage in the universe, how you communicate with others, how you interpret signs and data, and how you solve mysteries of existence.  You came into this universe at 11:46 in the morning one early September some years ago at approximately Wilshire Boulevard and Fifteenth Street, Santa Monica, California.  Your parents, a number of adults, and a remarkable older sister subsequently instructed you in things.  For some time, you took much of this instruction at the face value you’ve described above, then in the course of experiences, shifts in attitude, and a growing sense that things did not add up, the books did not balance, you began to question, then form your own visions of how the universe works and at what points your view diverged from more conventional views.

Why were things hidden in the first place?  This question evolved to the greater question, why were there so many elephants in so many living rooms?  It now seems there is scarcely a room you can visit, whether an actual room or a metaphorical one, in which there is not at least one large bump.  Experience has taught you to expect—to suspect—an elephant as the cause of the bump.  Writing has led you to believe your suspicions were well grounded.  Writing has led you to believe there are bumps within you, with the same elephant-to-bump ratio within you as within Reality and Metaphor.

You are not the same individual on a daily basis.  There is some comfort in measuring the number of things you get done over a period of time, considering the Marx Brothers-styles of management philosophies.  Your inner Grouchos, Chicos, and Harpos seem to agree on a basic product, which you thought at one time, was the short story. Then it became the novel, and then the essay.  At some point editing was thrown in, followed by teaching, followed by an omnibus approach.

This was quite a satisfactory vision of you, but something remained hidden, urging you to look for it.

True enough, you do produce (and have produced) a fair amount of writing, but as your investigation of occult things continues, the discovery begins to loom before you. Your writing stands you in some kind of stead, but this is so only because of the major product.

The elephant, waiting under the bumps in all the uninvestigated rooms.

Friday, September 28, 2012


Sometimes when you are working well into the night or when you have begun at an early hour, your attention is caught by the sound of your dog, Sally, engaged in the primal meme of moving about on one of her sleeping venues in what appears to be a slowly narrowing circle.  This behavior has been explained to you as going back to the outdoor dogs, making a nest for themselves in the snow or frost.

Although the explanation makes sense in a functional way, you enjoy the picture for a number of reasons that have less to do with the specificity of dogs in the snow and more to do with language and writing.

Because many dogs who perform this circling gesture are from breeds that have little or no association with snow, this explanation may have a greater content of verbal inventiveness than fact.  Although Sally is a mix of the Australian cattle dog and the Australian Shepherd that is American rather than Australian and may not have as many shepherding instincts as commonly believed, and she is by design an outside dog, you’ve not seem her performing this circling behavior outdoors. 

The notion of a dog making a nest for itself in the snow has enough plausibility to sound right, but it also has a tad too much plausibility to the point where the explanation could be a great canard.  The transmitting medium is word, either spoken or written.  Words can make absurd things sound plausible.  Words also have the power to make things with solid background in scientific or practical applications sound absurd.

When you see Sally in this kind of frustrated action, pawing at her blanket or bedding, you are aware of her seeking some kind of comfort and balance, which reminds you of your own occasional circling.  You at such times are not trying to make a nest in the snow.  You are in fact trying to make a comfortable sentence, brimming and fresh with energy and clarity.

Sometimes you despair of writing your way out of this morbid sense of narrative quagmire.  You circle endlessly, in your head, on notepads, on the computer screen, attempting various word orders in your attempt to capture the seemingly hopeless task of bringing a sense of living presence, order, and excitement to ground in a single sentence.

At one time, your circling produced a rat-a-tat of short declarative sentences, not so much with the same intent as Hemingway as the hope of building some kind of bridge between the inner and outer causes and the realistic effects on the persons crossing the bridge.  At the time, you were losing your fascination for Hemingway and gaining a different kind of fascination from your mentor, Rachel Maddux, and from Thornton Wilder.

Whether the explanation for why a dog circles is spot on accurate or fanciful to the point of daftness, Sally does it often and you try often enough to rearrange the furniture of a sentence until it works its way into the save column and, in its way, out of your system in the manner of a passed kidney stone.

When she is successful with her circling, Sally has earned an hour or so of naptime.  When you have done with your own, you have earned a temporary return to the orderly flow of narrative information.  For a time there is a sense of quiet, comfortable industry in a room fraught with potential for misadventure.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Guest Rooms

 Most of the inhabitants of your inner boardinghouse are close relatives to the point of being actual aspects of you.  Many of these boarders are able to take over or wish to be in charge, explaining in part some of your less-than-predictable behavior.

There are a few guestrooms, however, places for the occasional drop-in guest, some individual you’re pleased to have at close range in order to observe their behavior, the better to emulate it and/or learn from it.

Two such guests have been with you across the range of your decades, your moods, your visions, and your attitudes.  They are not at all alike, although they do have things in common, such as being Midwesterners by birth.  One is a long generation older than the other; for about fifteen years, they were both alive at the same time.

To this day, you are ardent fans of both.  You’ve more or less hung out at places favored by both, to the point where you made a point of becoming a columnist for the newspaper where the former worked, the Virginia city, Nevada Territorial-Enterprise. 

You’ve spent some time parked outside the latter’s apartment on King’s Road in the West Hollywood area and another on Amestoy Avenue in the nearby part of the San Fernando Valley called Encino, trying to absorb some greater sense of the man.  By a strange turn of fortune, you were even able to pass an afternoon with a friend of his in a now-vanished Hollywood landmark called The Garden of Allah.  The friend, also a writer, made an appearance under his own name as a character in the latter’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned.

These two guests are Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, each of whom has a distinctive narrative voice you studied at great length, looking for ways to use similar techniques to enhance what you saw as entirely lacking in your own narrative.  As such studies go, yours produced plausible approximations, but of course imitations soon reveal themselves as being an attempt to pass for the original, and why, you reasoned, would anyone wish an imitation when there was so much delicious original available?

Of course you were in the Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Boulevard, a few doors away from one of Fitzgerald’s favorite places, the Musso & Frank Grill, to repair for martinis.  Fitzgerald wandered into this fabled book store to purchase a copy of what many consider his magnum work, The Great Gatsby, only hear the salesman wonder aloud if the author of Gatsby were still alive, a speculative question that sent Fitzgerald with some deliberation to Musso & Frank’s.  You were told this story by the salesman who’d wondered to Fitzgerald if Fitzgerald were still alive.  Actually, he was not much longer for this world.

What alchemy and magnetism drew you to admiration of these two with such a tug?  For starters, it was the depth of vision of each, and the way each seemed to understand how to make characters reveal themselves, even though of the two, Fitzgerald was more the one to describe his characters and their goals rather than being content to let their actions convey their inner agendas and their eagerness to achieve their goals.

Of the many things you have reread, you find these two constant sources of compelling curiosity to see what things you may have yet missed.

Each, in his own way, took extraordinary steps to gain approval.  Of the two, Twain had more close men friends than Fitzgerald, while Fitzgerald seemed bent on appealing to the ladies.  Given the relative shortness of his life—forty-four years—Fitzgerald produced a remarkable amount of work of lasting value.  Twain, who lived to see seventy-five, was even more industrious.

Through their individual voices, each was able to make a range of characters at all social and age levels come to life.  You find it comforting to see such diverse friendships remaining with you over the years, looking over your shoulders as you look over theirs.  Even their lesser known works buoy you with the recognition and awareness that each, in spite of severe inner turmoil, came back time and time again to the thing that mattered.  Their personal lives may have experienced troubles, rejection, loss, and loneliness, but their literary lives often flew.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wile E. Coyote to the Rescue

Your personal point of commitment to a story you’re reading comes when a character of some interest to you takes a fateful step toward a goal.  The character puts thought into action, desire and yearning into motion.

This equation allows you to measure your own sense of involvement against demonstrable interest—any kind of interest—coming from a character.  You do not of necessity have to admire or even like the character.  You may, in fact, root for a character to fail, at which point he or she may realize something to the extent of satisfying your sense of dramatic closure. 

You are in effect comparing your reaction to the situation to the character’s involvement in the story.    You want to be at least equal to the character’s interest; otherwise you’re likely to put the book down without picking it up again.

The operant concept here is the character’s understanding of a truth or of Reality.  This is so because at present your purpose in writing is to lead yourself (yourselves) to discovery.  You do not have to enjoy or even like what you discover. You consider the process of discovery of something unsettling or even repugnant as a basis for story.  A character discovers some uncomfortable truth, then sets forth to cope with it, meeting opposition and reversal on the way.

So far as involvement is concerned, you as reader or writer feel some emotional connection with the character setting off on the venture of coping.  If you cannot feel that character’s emotional connection with the discovery and subsequent response to it, you are lost as reader, lost as writer.

An essential ingredient in this business of commitment is time.  All characters earn their way into a story by nature of wanting something.  Major characters move up to the level of being major because they want what they want now. 

They’ve tried being patient, but patience removes a character from being pulled into the sinkhole that story must in time become if it is to remain story and not mere recitation of event without throughline.

See, you said time was of the essence.

The clock is ticking.

The grace period is running down the drain.

Time is up.

Characters with patience are characters in control.  Wile E. Coyote is front rank.  Imagine Wile E. Coyote being patient.  Wile E. Coyote is the ambassador of impatience. Wile E. Coyote is desperate.  The desperation he suffers is in direct proportion to his lack of patience.  The degree of humiliation awaiting him is indirect proportion to his lack of patience.

You see how it works, don’t you? A character who is trying to be patient is immediately vulnerable.  A character who is patient is a character who is in control.  True enough, we, as readers, want to see someone in control lose that control in the Wile E. Coyote sense of losing it to the extent of being humiliated.  Again.

And again.

The formula for a character:  Who is this person?  What does this person want it?  Why does this person want “it” now?  What will this person do to achieve “it”?  And then, what happens to this character after achieving the “it”?

  And there you are as writer.  You are impatient for discovery, pushing character toward the destabilizing event of the discovery that sets story in motion so that you can launch into a response, Wile E. Coyote to the rescue.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dusting off Your Inner Archaeologist

Archaeology has been on your mind the past several hours.  One reason is because one of your more prolific clients is an archaeologist and you have a meeting with him to discuss approaches to his next book.  Another reason comes from the interplay developed between you over the years and many, many books.

He—the archaeologist—has taken to the notion that nonfiction books have a story, a dramatic throughline as opposed to an argued thesis.  His books surely have a well-constructed logic to them, but they seldom veer from story line, which makes them so readable.

You—with a few exceptions—were terrible in science-based courses.  You might go on further to say you were terrible in most courses, but when they focused on men and women who wrote books, it could be said of you that you loved them.

This is not to say that you have become, through editorial osmosis, an archaeologist, rather to explain that certain aspects of the subject and of discoveries and means of accurate establishing of the ages of artifacts have left the equivalent of the lint in the pockets of your jackets and trousers.

The shift from client to editor status to friend to friend came about when one day you suggested the Stone Age hunter carried about in his tool kit the then equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, at which point the archaeologist’s mustache twitched and he said, I’m going to use that and give you credit for it.  Some years later he told me I was famous for the observation, it having been referenced a number of times.

You are thinking about archaeology because the Swiss Army knife is back again, this time as the principal subject for a book, based on your synthesis-making observation that those of us who do carry Swiss Army knives with them—you do not, preferring a smaller, thinner pen knife; the archaeologist does—carry in effect some thirty thousand years of civilized technology about with them, ranging from the blade to the miniature data storage drive.  Thus the sweep and thrust of the archaeologist’s next book, which will take it’s title from the original name of the Swiss Army Knife, The Officer’s Knife.  It will bear the subtitle, from needle and scraping blade to tweezers and flash drive.

You are also thinking archaeology because you are able to associate the sifting through layers of sediment for potsherds, projectile points, and other tools as well as bits of evidence embedded in rocks or amber.  Archaeologists have advantages of scientific and cultural knowledge you scarcely approximate.  They also have the patience to deal with and classify minutiae you envy from a considerable distance.

Your kind of archaeology involves digging for details from which entire scenes and events may be constructed, sifting through endless detail for one element that ignites the fires of the imagination into a fire of curiosity and outcome.

Some days, your sifting produces nothing, scarcely a sentence or two that totter or wobble rather than stand on their own.  Some days, you think it a profitable work session to have “discovered” the name of a character, a true bonanza to have discovered why that character belongs in the story, which is to say what that character’s archaeological significance is.

You often have to dig for it, look for connections or guard against anomalies.

On your evening walks, particularly as you pass the blocks roughly from Anacapa Street to Laguna and Victoria westward to Arrellaga, which outlines a number of parks and public gardens, you see trash containers filled with the sorts of things archaeologists look for, evidences of eating and cooking, the better to determine what was eaten, how it was prepared, and with what kinds of tools or implements.

In a larger sense, we are all of us archaeologists, coping with, using, preserving, or discarding implements that define and describe us and out levels of sophistication and imagination.

In one of your classes, you are an archaeologist, leading students through a great storehouse of cultural and dramatic information, William Faulkner’s soaring masterpiece, As I Lay Dying, holding up a reference here and a connection with another work Faulkner most surely must have known, placing him and his people in an even more articulate context.

All this archaeology has made a more careful, deliberate person of you, a person with a writer’s eye and patience and persistence, mindful you may have missed a salient detail.  You are aware that there is more than the devil in the details.  Sometimes the character is in the details.  The story is in the details.  And you are the archaeologist who sets a few shards and scraps and projectile points into a meaningful and dimensional orbit that takes the reader directly to the place where persons lived and had social order, expectations, and agendas that they might well have been holding in secret.

Monday, September 24, 2012


For as long as you can recall such things, you’ve had problems with conflict.  This has embedded irony.  Your personal life was filled with conflict on numerous levels, but you could not see how to distill those dynamics into story.  As a result, your stories often tended to be reflective or whimsical rather than confrontational.

Conflict boils down to confrontation.  Perhaps you began to get the dynamic through the process of writing enough reflective and/or whimsical narratives to become frustrated when the results didn’t please you.  Perhaps it was something altogether different to the point where you were yourself becoming more confrontational and more aware of the consequences.

Perhaps your evolving sense of dialogue being something more substantial than conversation played a part in the calculus.  Perhaps it was the years as junior-level editor, where you were filtering materials on a par with or worse than your own from the editorial meeting where publication was decided. 

Unless there is some variety of confrontation taking place, either in actuality or in the minds of one or more of the characters, story begins packing its bags for a long vacation.  Not only that but episode becomes the squatter, the problematic tenant who refuses to leave, who has sophisticated ploys and gambits for resisting any notice to vacate the premises.

This real estate nomenclature is apt; story is about occupancy.  Although the term “premises” becomes a play on words, it is appropriate play.  A story begins with a premise that needs development, which is to say there should be an accelerated spiral downward into some morass from which extrication appears impossible.

As you are writing such complication, such story spirals, you are inventing from whole cloth on one level, the level of invention, but you are also using your own emotional store of experiences where you felt despair or helplessness or the salty tang of acute frustration that, just once, the world of Reality did not look at your suggestion.  When you were collecting your obligatory portfolio of rejection slips, you had no way of knowing you were also making a folder of the times you’d been rejected as it were by Reality.

Thank you for letting us see your agenda.  Unfortunately, your suggestions for Reality do not meet our needs.  Do to the enormous number of agendas received daily; we are unable to offer individual commentary.  We wish you the best of fortune with your plans and hope you’re able to implement them elsewhere—but not here; not in Reality.

Now that you think about it, you’ve put considerable effort into constructing long, elaborate plans for implementing your own version of Reality.  The times, coincidental as they might have been, when your plans actually dovetailed to some degree with Reality, you let your guard down to the place where you began to suspect you understood the way the world and people and some animals worked.  Lots of luck.

Not all confrontation has to be acrimonious.  You’ve shaken hands with Reality any number of times.  No hard feelings.  Run the fucking universe as you see fit.  I get the picture.  No need to explain.

Being who you are, you’ve honed some skills, perhaps by the mere practice and repetition process.  This leaves you in a confrontational relationship with Reality, which is healthy in the same way as practice and exercise are healthy:  they keep you limber and active.

If you were to become compliant, accepting, you would doubtless get by at a different level than the one you occupy now.  You’d be a shadowy individual at the outermost edge of things, able to take notes from the sidelines, the shadows.

But you are no such person.  Through the rejection slips you’ve received from Reality and publishers and some individuals, you are out of the shadows, vulnerable to the tsunami of Reality.  In a real sense, you have placed yourself in story so that you may on occasion work your way inside a story, inside a performance or a conviction or agenda to the point where you are it and it is you, where it sounds like you and you sound like it.

Confrontational and happy to be so.

You got a problem with that?  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Give the Keys to Your Inner Teen-Ager

In the early days of setting pen typewriter to paper (you want early, you’ve got early), your demographic was about evenly divided between characters your own age and those who had morphed on into adulthood.  Your goal was to tell entertaining stories that at the same time probed into matters of understanding and awareness.

Underneath it all, you wanted to show your younger characters having a leg or two up on adults, more or less able to cope with them on a peer level.  Not a good idea.  You soon discovered that adults regarded younger persons who wanted to be their peers as smartasses.

That, of course, was then.  Now, the playing field has shifted.  Young persons in your narratives want to be in charge, and older persons want to make up for things they hadn’t realized they wanted when they were growing up.

As time progressed, you also discovered an interesting reverse was true.  Adults who wanted to appear as peers to younger persons were reaching for the wrong product on the wrong shelf.  You were not aware of the ironic dynamic going because you were still too much a part of it.  You had to watch the meaning of irony evolve from mere crossed purposes to an internal war being waged within the human psyche as well as between Reality and all those who choose to comment on it.

For your part, you wanted to be young with grown-up awareness and techniques.  In your frame of view, grown-ups wanted to apply such techniques as they had with the idealism and energy of youth.  While you were wishing for instructions in the smorgasbord of pragmatism, adults were smarting from the idealism and certainty they’d recently put out for lawn sales.

Some religions and other philosophies try to dance around this inner schism—because it still exists in so many of us—with non-dualistic approaches.  God is in everything.  God is everything.  The universe is replicated in everyone and everything.  Some approaches go so far as to offer a hypothetical proof in the fact of the human blood stream equaling the chemical composition of the pre-Cambrian Sea.

Like so many medications and systems, these religions and other philosophies work well in some cases but not all.  They also have lists of side effects that remind you of the warnings you’re given when you purchase prescriptions.
Your personal solution is a democratic one, involving your recognition that you’re composed of a broad demographic of temperament and attitude, but also of age.  You’re often surprised and amazed when you in effect turn the keys over to your inner teen-ager who, after listening to your attempts at explaining how things work out there in the world, surely has ideas of his own that are interesting and valid.  The next plateau is to ramp that up from surprise to confidence.

There are things to be learned in the process, not the least of which is to stop buying into propaganda about gender and generational conflicts.  Most of this propaganda is orchestrated by individuals who listen to their inner Karl Rove, whose goal is control.

Do you in fact wish to be controlled by someone your age?  Have you experienced truly enhancing advice from inner and outer entities telling you to act your age?

Ah.  You already know the answers.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Gertrude Stein was referring to Oakland, California, where she lived for some years as a child, when she observed, “There’s no there there.”

An astute, thoughtful writer and thinker, she was not given to the superfluous word or clotted, orotund paragraph.  Reading her requires an effort, one you find yourself on occasion struggling to provide.  This reticence to engage her on your part has been with you much of what you will call your adult reading life. 

While you were a younger reader, you were not aware of Stein.  You read for a particular kind of adventure that was a cocktail of escape and roleplaying. You did not become aware of more nuanced possibilities until you were in your mid-teens, at which point you had your first serious go with her early novel, Three Lives.  Looking back on that experience reminds you of how your default emotion became impatience.

So far as you were concerned, Stein required more patience than you were willing and, important to say, able to give.  Some of her writing about Cezanne impressed you because the reproductions of his paintings you’d see impressed you.  Three Lives did not engage you as you’d thought or hoped.

Your impatience was spurred by your discovery of her observation about a rose.  On the other hand, you gave ongoing thought to the missing “there” in Oakland, most dramatically so when you had reasons from time to time to be in Oakland.  You attempted to find a “there” in Oakland, wondering if in fact some thereness was to be had in Oakland’s next-door neighbor, Berkeley.

You were literal in those days, trying to discover meaning in things, eager for possible connections or, alas, clever classifications.   The lack of a there in Oakland or anywhere else kept you thinking to the point where you thought you’d got it and could begin applying “it” to things that mattered to you.

Now, years later, looking for a there or essence has become muscle memory; you look for it across the board, scanning persons, places, things, and your own self and work with the same purposeful industry the beachcombers show as they sweep the sands with their electronic sounding devices.  Beep, beep, beep, huh?  Something there, huh?  Okay, let’s have a look.

The “there” you seek goes beyond buried coins at a beach or even the occasional knock-off wristwatch or house keys the beachcomber is more apt to find, extends to what you bring to the search, what signals you send out in the first place for there to be an echo, picked up by your sensor.

You need the discipline of bringing you to your searches so that the “there” you detect will not be empty or a knock-off, but some small grain of substance from which you can adduce, deduce, and recognize substance.

The “there” you wish to be there is, accordingly, some measure of substance, some measure that you’ve brought some to ante into the pot, some willingness to observe, take it, synthesize, evaluate, then file away to be a useful ingredient in some future association.

You cannot do it while coasting or merely showing up, having hurriedly tossed on a layer or two of awareness.  You must bring an eagerness to participate, to respond, to examine, and to listen.  You must pack plenty of risk for the ride.

Passivity is for others.

Friday, September 21, 2012


In the not to distant past, when you were making simultaneous marks in the worlds of writing and publishing, you had frequent association with a craft where perfection was a given.

That craft was typesetting.

At the time, you were used to seeing long strips of foolscap paper representing the typeset materials before they were arranged in page format. 

If you saw an apparent mistake, such as the word “manuscript” rendered as “manuscurt,” your next step was to check the manuscript.  If the manuscript indeed said “manuscript,” you made the appropriate proofreader’s symbol around “manuscurt” and next to it, the initials PE, for printer’s error.  The compositor by tradition corrected the error without charging the publisher.

Even during the next shift from the so-called “hot metal” of the Mergenthaler linotype to photocomposition, compositors stood by their standard of complete accuracy.  If a project got into type with errors, whether the errors were PEs or the publisher’s, the publisher took the hit for missing the typographical error.

You were reminded of such nostalgia as you read through the final set of proofs for your latest project, mindful that these pages are no longer called proofs, rather they are ARCs, advanced reading copies, sent forth to review sources and blurb sources, with a band across the cover that reads “Advance Reading Copies.”   On the back cover, there is a bold notice: “This is an uncorrected proof.”

Yours is pretty well corrected, although you did find manuscript misspelled, and you did see in a longish reference you’d made to William Faulkner’s novel. As I Lay Dying, a character named Jewel Bundren referred to as “her.”  Nope.   Jewel is indeed a man, the favorite son of the character about whom the novel takes its title.

In an earlier set of proofing, you discovered in the text the statement that Captain Ahab was the only survivor of Moby Dick. 

The standard courtesy is for the author, particularly in a work of non-fiction, to take responsibility for all the errors.  You have no problem with this even though you’re pretty grounded with the knowledge of how the word manuscript is spelled, who the only survivor is of Moby Dick, and the actual gender of Jewel Bundren.

In publishing process as in life, there are ample opportunities for mistakes.  Some of these opportunities transcend mere knowledge of information or, indeed, of spelling. Although you can often catch some of your mistakes, there is no certainty that you will catch all of them, a lack of certainty that bridges the worlds of reality and writing. 

Some of these mistakes originate with you, either from inadvertent decisions or complete ignorance.   The very individuals whose job is to support the accuracy of the project may introduce other mistakes.

Mistakes sprout up about you like unwanted hairs growing in places you’d not thought programmed to grow hairs under any circumstances. You make enough mistakes not to be overly disturbed by their frequency or to cause you to hesitate before making most decisions, your operating philosophy being that a morbid fear of mistakes will in the long term produce more mistakes than not.

You tend to get beyond bad situational mistakes the way you get beyond the number of games of chess you have lost, the sheer number of those losing games being enough to steer you away from chess encounters and toward situations and events where you have a greater chance of success.

There are relationships you’ve had that were mistakes from the beginning, but since you ventured into these with good, open faith, you are not so concerned about relationships as you are about chess.

You’ve made mistakes with written things, leaving too soon, staying too long, taking the wrong point of vantage, underestimating or overestimating the theme or importance or how you felt or how you allowed fear and impatience to influence your departure or diagnosis.

Writing and life and mistakes all go together, a kind of existential fraction where risk is the denominator.  Neither life nor writing without risk of mistake can amount to much of interest.  This is perhaps the main reason why there are so many things you didn’t finish—you didn’t see the risks to take.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Negotiations with the Universe

Over the span of years in which you read for escape—to get away from the restraints of the pre-teen years—then for identification—to experience vicariously what some teen-agers were experiencing that you weren’t—and then for competition—to see if you could do as well if not better than some of your fictional favorites—your preference for characters has experienced what you will call a literary Darwinism.

With few exceptions—here we go with the set-off comments again, this time using Huck Finn as an example and some of the Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald characters—your preferences have grown away from one- or two-dimensional sorts and toward the more flawed, quirky, and even notional.  Your operating theory being that these qualities of cranky, pestered individuality added not only more dimension but also more interesting dimension.

There is also the distinct possibility that you’d begun to suspect the sort of person you were about to become yourself.  As you tried your own hand at mastering the techniques of storytelling, the notion of other and of quirkiness and even more certainly of flawed impatience became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An accomplished curmudgeon is limited in the range of characters and subjects he can essay, leading you to pursue a more Zen-like approach to existence.  To date, impatience still prevails.  The good news is still manifest in your impatience to get to work and, in consequence, to skirt things preventing you.

You have evolved by degree from preferring interesting adventure to investigations of the noir, darker sides of matters.  You do not root for dark results although you surely root for characters as pestered as you find yourself with the world about you.

More often than not, you are willing to settle for negotiated outcomes, remaining suspicious of the ones where the triumphs of virtue emerge as operatic exaggerations.

This is by no means an uncomfortable or frustrating place to be so much as it is fraught and precarious.

You await events and invest in characters of your own with a watchful eye, waiting, waiting…

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


We all read and tell ourselves stories in order to connect to a defining source.  Without reading and story, we—you among them—stumble along unlit highways, hopeful of a ride from some driver who appears to know the way and stops to pick up hitchhikers.

Defining sources can be for us anything that gets us through chaos in some reasonable approximation of comfort.

Reading and stories are enough to override the built-in genome of mistake, or the inability to recognize pole stars and shorelines when we see them.

Instead, reading and stories are lifelong companions who stand with us in the dark or when we feel disoriented.

The universe is a vast, disorganized place on which we have attempted to impose grids, city blocks, and roadways of order.  In response, the universe has demonstrated numerous times other agendas than to be organized.

You live in a comfortable universe, where such concepts as size, restrictions, inconvenience, and potential dangers remain on the far reaches of the horizon.  In most physical senses and most existential ones, comfort and convenience are your joint-tenant denominators.

When comfort and convenience do not seem to buoy you along on the existential sea, you take to questioning, to looking at the interior of things—yourself included, then to reading and story, in search of some defining source.  This source has many shapes and forms.  Neither panacea nor take-as-directed remedy for symptomatic angst, this source may well distract you by providing more questions tor you than you had questions for it.

No surprise to you then, the realization that a major aspect of this defining source has been and remains the salient reason behind your pursuit of the craft of storytelling.  This is a pursuit in which you strive to make some headway, some sense of gaining.

Storytelling, as you see it, involves among other things a product of value to you.  Storytelling cannot, you believe, be successful unless it produces some discovery, some arrival at information you did not have before.  You are not only talking about factual information, you are talking about emotional and existential discovery as well.  Such discovery goes beyond awareness of how you feel about a particular person, place or thing, extending into downstream consequences of how such feelings motivate your subsequent behavior.

Through discovery, you are placed in time and circumstance, vulnerable to consequence, vulnerable to interaction with human and animal forces, vulnerable to opening the creaky doors of philosophy and morality that may require squirts of the literary equivalent of WD-40.

Talk about Soren Kierkegaard and his leap of faith, you, as a writer take this leap of faith:  By pursuing your course of inquiry, you are addressing problems you may not even realize you are conflicted with, seeking answers you do not consciously realize you seek, gleaning solutions from your resolutions of these problems in the hope and trust that doing so will, in your conscious life, be amore honest and honorable person.

This is not an easy faith to rationalize much less accept.  You see yourself in a pattern of becoming less tolerant of individuals and circumstances where transactions with them seem of limited potential or satisfaction.  You are not going to change them; they surely are not going to change you.  Civility, yes, but close contact—no.

This leads you back to the seemingly anomalous position of civility within the Balkan aspects of yourself, accepting and trusting those disparate aspects to be civil and respectful if not open in accommodation.

You are by no means a hermit.  You would not wish to live like one, a position that brings you to the point where you elect to live with the literary equivalent of imaginary playmates, characters of your own creation and, of course, yourself, or keep at the spinning of narrative, watching intently as it weaves forth discoveries for you to investigate.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Capts. Kirk and Picard Held Hostage by Star Trek Fans

As a writer, you show up for work every day, pass through the portal, glance nervously at the time clock, swipe your card, then make for the desk, where you bring out your Thermos of coffee and any other relevant tools, not the least of which may be books with stories from other writers, both from past times and contemporary.

Through an array of rituals and habits, you set off, either reading or writing, your goal to get past the warm-up stage and “into” what you are reading or writing as quickly as you can.

If and when you are truly “in” a story or Reality-based situation, you demonstrate your participation through expectations, anticipation, and a willingness to speculate about future outcome.

By its nature, “in” means the opposite of passive.  In fact, if you do not have expectations, you’d not be reading a particular type of book, say mystery or science fiction or fantasy, in the first place.  In Reality-based situations, you may go so far as to have expectations of boredom or other forms of results that are distasteful to you.  In some Reality-based situations, you may do what individuals bored with their books do; they put the book down or turn off the reading machine.

Sooner, rather than later, you begin to root for or form responses to a lead character, as in the case of Tom McGuane’s remarkable short story “Casserole” in a recent New Yorker.  You were building a sense of wariness about aspects of your own behavior, wondering if you were not overstepping boundaries between not suffering fools, and being a touch cranky.  Perhaps the better word is impatient.

There are times when you read certain writers not for the same pleasures you experience when you read other writers but instead because these writers quickly send your cholers racing upward.  You read for the expressed purpose of being outraged, outrage being a powerful force to bring to your own work.

You enjoy developing anticipations and expectations in the things you read, particularly if you are wrong in the sense of having been led to expect one response or reaction, then given another, at once more imaginative while remaining plausible.

You are not pleased to foresee some outcome.  You in effect want to be wrong, at least surprised.  In the otherwise powerful and absorbing novel Gone Girl from Gillian Flynn, you were so hopeful that the throwaway cell phone buzzing in the male protagonist’s pocket didn’t mean he had a secret girlfriend.  This was not a deal breaker, stop reading, put the book down, but it was a disappointment rather than an enhancement.  Part of your enjoyment from reading the novel was asking you how you’d have supplied the clue that the character had a secret girlfriend.

Part of your near addictive following of the television drama Breaking Bad, comes from the concept, which is in its way as simple and straightforward as the driving force in William Faulkner’s outstanding venture into stream-of-consciousness, As I Lay Dying.
A high school chemistry teacher, diagnosed with a Stage Three cancer of the lungs, wants to provide for his family.  Thanks to his background in chemistry, made more plausible by the backstory, Walter White has the ability to prepare a high quality methamphetamine, which commands a premium price in the market.

Addie Bundren is dying.  The arc of the story is to provide a casket for her, then transport her body from the family farm to the nearby town of Jefferson.

In both cases, the straightforward goal produces what Faulkner himself has referred to as the agony of moral choice.

Breaking Bad unceasingly throws complications at the ensemble cast to the point where we expect the complication but are nevertheless surprised by the nature of it.  This is a good time, you tell yourself, for an unexpected complication.  That of itself may be redundant.  If a complication is expected, there’s bound to be some reflection on the wits and resourcefulness of the characters.  A surprise complication is a more engaging complication.  A surprise complication that makes one or more of the characters vulnerable from unexpected consequences is even more a part of a web of intrigue that maintains emotional involvement.

What do you look for in story? You look for the chance to care enough about the circumstances to the point where you find yourself making choices and assumptions for the characters.  You see yourself imputing motives that may or may not exist.  You see yourself confronting the characters in similar circumstances.  You are not only “in” someone else’s story, you are taking that story down the road of fan fiction, where readers make up their own adventures of characters they have brought so deeply inside their own imagination that they overstep the boundary between the character as presented by the author and their own wish for continued contact with the character.

Captains Kirk and Picard are in a sense held hostage by Star Trek fans who have found the portal into the imagination through which myriads of writers pass every day, on their way to work.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Being and Something or Other


Sooner or later, you’ll ask yourself with conscious deliberation that waits for an answer the same question you pose reflexively every day, in waking and sleeping hours.

“Who—“ even more to the point “—what the fuck are you?”

You can’t fail to have noticed your curiosity or, for that matter, your stake in the answer.  Haven’t there been times when you’ve found yourself as it were, swimming out beyond the reach of shoreline as reference point?  Haven’t you on some occasion wondered what you were doing in a particular situation or that particular relationship? Weren’t there times when you found yourself the equivalent of a productive manufacturer of widgets, being suddenly directed by a CEO of an organization producing wadgets?

These and similar questions or rhetorical and existential natures have led you toward what you consider a major position in life, the position of acceptance.

You begin by accepting the circumstances, setting up the cosmic equivalent of a You-are-here sign.  Then you deconstruct the circumstances, careful to get the relevant ones in and the unnecessary ones out.  Steps one and two lead you toward step three, understanding, which is followed by step four, developing an agenda.  This formula, in itself not easily come by, has guided you through all manner of things, such as being a writer and dealing with those implications; having, then not having Stage III cancer; surviving loss, getting on with your agendas.  If there are things/circumstances/conditions you are not comfortable with accepting, you set forth on a course of change until you’ve effected the change or come to a negotiated settlement with acceptance.

All these approaches require some form of outside help and influence as well as an accelerated awareness and appreciation of self.  You’ve made some progress defining what self is, to the point where you sense yourself being comfortable enough with the picture you present of self in action to allow you to plod on toward the next plateau.  Not surprising to have come to the next level of questioning, is it?  This is so even to the point where, without deliberating on the matter, you referenced in the previous sentence.  “—you sense yourself being comfortable—“

Being.  Ah, yes.

The next plateau.

What is being?  Is there something beyond awareness of self?  Does the question as expressed here suggest a solipsistic regard for the essentials of existence?  Are you in some ways—in many ways—limiting your potential for understanding the nature of being by making you the armature about which reality is based?  Perhaps you assume you meant no such indulgence of suggesting the entire ocean depends for its awareness of existence—its being—by being recognized, validated, from the point of view of a mere drop of water?

Do you, in fact, need to know what the nature of being is in order to exist?

Couldn’t hurt, could it?  This is all the more so because you’re programmed to write about the phenomena of being in dramatic ways, breaking down concepts into the agendas, angst, desire, and hidden fears of characters as plausible clones of actual persons who were, are, and shall be.

What next for you?

A recommendation has been left in the suggestion box of your subconscious.  Sein und Zeit. Sounds like a law firm, but in actuality, it is the German language title of a quintessential work on the nature of being and existence, Being and Time, it’s author Martin Heidegger (1889—1976).

Because of his unapologetic attraction to certain aspects of the German National Socialist Party, you’ve maintained a distance from Heidegger and his conceptual visions, preferring in his stead a philosopher influenced by him, Jean-Paul Sartre. 

One of the many doors acceptance opens for you is the door of tolerating some distasteful drops of water in order to not only appreciate but swim in the larger ocean.

And so, for the moment, you end this exploration with the fait acompli of ordering a copy of Being and Time from Amazon, who has already assured you of the shipment of your order.  You may expect delivery in about a week.

Deliverance may take a while longer.

Meanwhile, being goes on its way, as being tends to do, undifferentiated, but willing to respond to friendly gestures.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

When the Well Runs Dry: Writing and Nothingness

When you approach the daily writing session or, as occasional warm-up, these random observations, there are words but no narrative glue.  You begin reaching into the narrative equivalent of the spaces between the cushions of a sofa or easy chair, searching for another metaphor, the small change of attitude, left behind from some other transaction during the day.

In this case, the equation does balance in an arithmetical if not metaphoric way.  If the well is dry so far as writing is concerned, the reason is clear.  You’ve brought nothing to it.

You find the well dry because you have brought no energy to the process, not the energy of addled and pent-up frustration, not the drive of outright displeasure or anger, not the sublime, soaring sensation of enthusiasm or pleasure, not the feelings of hunger you associate with curiosity, and for a certainty, not the impish, mirthful exuberance of mischief.

The well will be dry as well if you bring neither youth nor age nor middle age.  There will be no sense of impatience or even the fearful potential that the well is dry because the well is as leaky as a knock-off raincoat of unknown provenance.

Most days, you are much like the peddlers and drummers of old, carrying an array of wares with you, most accommodating to any vagrant idea that comes by and wishes to take up a life with you.  A few yards of sarcasm here, a ribbon of mirth there, and a make-up-your-mind flare of impatience when the idea does not seem to know how it wishes to present itself.

There is a lingering flame of fear at the thought you might on any given day resort to laundry list making or, worse yet, dear diary, today I had lunch with the gang, took a nap, bought the week’s groceries, browsed this week’s New Yorker.    All this and not a word of how you felt about it or what the downstream consequences of such forms of record keeping would have on your need to keep your feelings and vision alert.

There are empty wells all about you; reference works and accounts of varying degrees of accuracy, but these wells are factual.  They cannot show you how to feel; you have to show yourself how.

To be sure, there are full wells about you, men, women, and young writers, producing the deft braids of observation, understanding, and imaginative presentations of emotional information to the point where you understand how daunting it is to communicate such braids and at the same time how important it is to try.

In some ways, sitting to pursue your work time at a project, only to discover the well has dried is like coming home or to your workspace, only to find a complete stranger in your customary place.  This individual looks like you, sounds somewhat as you do, but does not write like you, not in the least, and yet this individual on occasion turns in copy that purports to be from you.

This is not a time for politeness.  Writing is not a time for politeness, at least, not writing writing.  Google writing and Wikipedia writing and Yahoo writing are often direct, straightforward, often fact checked with great purpose.  But they are not writing writing; they have no quirks or seething rancor or the giddiness of awl-sharp language and emotional penetration, nor do they cast shadows on the walls of the inner reader.

Coming to work empty-handed is only a disaster if you let the emptiness talk you down from your purpose, which is to believe enough in what you’re doing and the format in which you’re doing it to lean on the horn if there are any slow, clotting words in the sentences ahead of you.