Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In the Beginning

Stories never seem to begin where you thought.  Even though there are times when a resonant setup presents itself to you, much in the manner of those impressive opening lines of one of your favorite short story writers, Lee K. Abbott, subsequent events (and numerous revisions) dictate otherwise.

You can tell yourself, by way of consolation, how rare it is in real life for story to begin with a notable flourish or impressive fanfare.  Telling yourself this reminds you how in real life story is often upon you and gathering momentum without giving you time to notice.  In some ways, story in real life is the equivalent of having walked unaware into a spider web.

Stories have supplementary background, sometimes a series of minor eruptions; other times yet a single, magisterial explosion sending the elements forth to wrap themselves about you and any number of others. Some stories involve numerous strands of event and history, events that have led up to the story now taking place.

A simple, straightforward rule to follow is to keep at least fifty-one percent of the story in the present.  Anything less is dramatic nature’s way of reminding you that you’ve begun too soon.

The old ones had a term for this, the in medias res, one of many examples of their shrewdness when it came to constructing stories and judging the attention span of audiences.  Their approach was to begin a story in the middle of things to the point of intriguing their readers, then taking a brief pause to slip in some of the backstory before moving forward once again.

You’ve come to recognize the effective use of time lines, taking a rest here at a dramatic open spot, sliding back into the past for a time, then seeming to meander along under the guise of catching up.  This impresses you with the sense of a narrative being told in strict chronology not being a real story, rather a parade of events, hence episodic.

When story (rather than mere event or reportage of event) is at its best, you as witness (reader) are in a constant state of surprise, not knowing where you will be taken next, only that you are clinging to the rails, eager to be transported someplace, somewhere in time.  You also enjoy being led to believe or assume certain inevitabilities, outcomes, and destinations, only to have them proven wrong; this, too, adds to the sense of realism, suspense, tension, and dread of potential outcome.  Now that you think about it, all these emotions obtain when life seems to be going on about you in an “interesting” fashion.

If you remain with a story for long, as a reader or a writer, you have begun to root for certain outcomes to be the resolution for individuals among the characters.  In some cases such as suspense or noir fiction, you begin to suspect then fear a particular character has in one way or another, emulated Icarus a tad too much, with the consequence that the wax holding her/his feathers together begins to melt with disastrous consequences.

You could not have progressed this far if the story had not somehow begun at a place where you were yanked into the narrative and held in place with those effective tools of suspense, tension, and curiosity.

You in effect want the witch to leave the right amount of crumbs for the children to follow.  If she leaves too many, you become quits with her dramatic housekeeping.  If she leaves too few crumbs, you become bored.  The right amount of crumbs (intriguing details) is the result of removing everything you don’t need, which is to say everything that fails to earn its way into your drafts and remain after close scrutiny.

Now that you think about your own opening sentences and paragraphs, don’t they come after revision has begun?  And if they’d been there all along, perhaps they got to the head of the line along about the fifth or sixth draft, when the narrative begins to show signs of having a chance to make it, and of beginning to get a second wind.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Negotiated Settlements

Without realizing it at first, you were being propagandized as you sought refuge, direction, and companionship in story.  You were being inculcated well before you knew what the word meant.  True enough, there were some bits of wisdom in Aesop's fables, and underneath Ben Franklin's spray-on practicality, there were some things that rang true for you, helping you to overcome some of the happy ending and justice-will-be-served stuff dished up like careless cafeteria mashed potatoes.

Because you took a straight-on approach to your college years reading, which is to say you managed to squirm your way out of history, you almost but not quite lost sight of the fact that many English novels ended with marriage because that was seen as the meeting ground ending where justice triumphed and the good guys got the good ladies, and the bad guys made themselves so obnoxious that their evil machinations were discovered and they got nothing, no wife, no dog, no friend.

You've managed to pack away enough history now to see where you'd missed out on a good deal more than The Peasant's Revolt, The Gunpowder Plot, and, over here, on this continent, The Dred Scott Decision, The Smooth-Hawley Act, and Reconstruction.

Endings were no longer the simplistic things you'd leaned into accepting; they needed a more open-ended display, where outcomes had a sense of the ending of an episode but not necessarily a one-size-fits-all finality.

The way you saw it, endings--those pesky resolutions of the issues and hard-to-reach itches of story--were more a matter of negotiated settlements, endings temporarily carved out of Reality by some characters, but by no means all of them.

A story could end with persons who were essentially likable, not getting anything close to what they'd set out to achieve.  The lesson to be learned was that virtue may be its own reward on an internal basis but it does not necessarily buy a load of groceries.

For as long as you've been aware of such things, you've been in that negotiation phase with Reality, in effect trying to make each story one you thought was the best work you'd ever done.  Whether it sold or not was another matter.  The satisfaction did not always buy groceries, but it bought a sense that there would be another project for which you had high hopes to the point where, when it was done, you knew you'd once again won an important outcome, not with Reality, which is always conservative and plays things close to its vest, but with yourself, profligate, got a million new stories.

Negotiated settlements give you a sense of having been engaged in an argument with the conventions, institutions, cultures, and traditions that bump shoulders with you every day of your life.  You can, and on occasion do come to the conclusion that it is foolish to argue, but it has been some years since you entertained the conclusion that writing was not a promising path.

A favored trope of yours comes from one of the great Hindu epics, The Bhagvad Gita, as translated in part by a man you'd come to admire, Christopher Isherwood.  "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof," he parsed out of the Sanskrit verses, aided and abetted by his teacher, Swami Prabhavananda.

At one point when the work was not only not going well, it seemed to have hidden behind a pile of argumentative attitude and internal conflict.  You went storming into the Vedanta temple for the vespers service, where you addressed yourself to that fiery and cranky aspect of the godhead known as Kali.  You'd been aware of her supposed presence ever since that motion picture version of Gunga Din,  Although you do not believe in her, you do believe in her representation of a force of creation and destruction, the aspect of the godhead known as The Divine Mother.

All right, you said, if I'm entitled to the work, bring it in.  Screw the fruits thereof.

That afternoon, you were hit with an idea for a short story.  When you next saw Isherwood, you told him about the "negotiation" with Kali, emphasizing that you'd never brought "the fruits thereof" out on the table.  He allowed that this was simultaneously admirable and all you could ante up.  He allowed that such an attitude would keep you busy enough to stay you from trouble.

Up to a point, that was a good observation on his part.  Reality has little interest in you, what with the 24/7 need it has for dramatizing the universe.  Reality also has no time for nuanced endings, rather it often provides scant results beyond mere conclusions.  The house always wins.  Some individuals appear to hit a good streak, but the rest of us have no way of knowing who those individuals see in bed next to them first thing upon awakening or, should they wake up alone, of what they see when they first glimpse themselves in the mirror.  Oh, Dorian Gray, where are you when we need you?

You are not bargaining, which is not to say you have renounced all hope.  You are comfortable with that most uncomfortable of all outcomes, the outcome of Sisyphus.  The work seems to continue coming, just as there will seemingly always be a large boulder for Sisyphus to nudge up that hill.

So long as you get the work, you'll feel you've met Reality's stare head on, without flinching.

To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof.

Works fine for you.

Monday, October 29, 2012


Adding a deadline to a story injects a muscular dramatic component characters (and writers) ignore at their peril.

Deadline personified is the loud talker at every restaurant and coffee shop, the one relative at a family gathering who has made a point of favoring volubility over correctness, and we won’t even mention politeness.

A deadline means time has run out.  A decision must be made, an assignment turned in, a payment made, an option renewed.  Deadline is a long, pulsing tunnel at whose end is yet another component vital to story—consequence.  Perhaps even consequences.

There are those who seem to relish having their decision made or their assignment done or their bill paid well in advance of the deadline, enjoying in the process the senses of order and calmness associated with preparedness.  You are not such a person.

You enjoy drama in all its potential presences, including the drama of pulling an all-nighter or whatever it takes to get the assignment done or the decision made.  When the matters of assignments or decisions arise, you like the process of going over the options, giving them some thought, then putting them as far from your mind as your mind will allow you. If possible, you attempt to forget about the project at hand, indulging the notion that you are letting it percolate through the folds and crevasses of your subconscious, even to the point of recalling a dream in the interim where something may have bubbled through.

As deadline time approaches, you may even be aware of having written some notes, an opening line or even a paragraph, possibly an outline, which you must now try to find.  There is perhaps some artifice in this; not being able to find your notes adds a surge of adrenaline or, if not that hormonal, then concern, which becomes the agent of focus.

If you have found the notes, they either impress you with their complete lack of appropriateness or the “you-ness” you have come to expect of yourself.  Either approach has the advantage of getting you to work.

There have been enough times in your life where deadlines relative to payments such as rent or installments of one sort or another were so fraught with drama that you tend to make those the exception.  Thus there is a slight chink in your sang froid, but it is a chink you allow in the interests of keeping your focus on the balance of deadlines on a more creative level.

A part of the process calls for you to impress yourself with the ease of it, of how you always manage to come through.  But this, too, is artifice, you gaming yourself into thinking it is easy when you know it is not, knowing how the difficulty of it all is part of the drama you live with.  There are those you know who flat out admit to it being difficult.  They complain about it.  They bitch and procrastinate and pick arguments and drink a good deal.

You have tried these things at one time or another.  They did not help, and you ended up by not liking the things you said or did when you were complaining, bitching, and procrastinating. Drinking a good deal is better indulged for other purposes such as camaraderie or mischief. Least of all, you did not like using the difficulty in meeting deadlines as an excuse to pick arguments.  This is particularly so because you have what you consider better reasons to pick arguments.

So far, you are on good terms with your deadlines, and they seem not to hold any grudges against you.  You are there for them and they seem to be there for you.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Required Reading

You've been spending some time lately in the company of Isabel Archer, a difficult company in many ways, filled with tricky combinations of irritation, grudging respect, outright admiration, and unanticipated flare-up of impatience.  Ms Archer is a fictional creation, her ultimate fate of some concern to you as teacher, writer, and person, all occupations you hope to do well at.  Her creator is Henry James, a writer you managed to avoid while you were a formal student, although in retrospect it can be argued you went to considerable lengths to avoid many writers, many things, and many comparisons and conclusions you ought to have made sooner given your choice of profession.

Ms Archer, in many ways represents your irritation and impatience as a student with your irritation and impatience as a writer and, with greater certainty yet, with your irritation and impatience as a teacher.
She is the protagonist of what many of your own teachers and other critics regard as James' finest novel, Portrait of a Lady,one that could with some irony be argued to belong in the list of most distinguished American novels.  Although James had long since packed his bespoke clothing and workout dumbbells to England, he nevertheless published in America, and cast Isabel Archer as an American.  He also had some rather poignant difficulties in store for her, including a final scene in which she realizes a terrible truth.

Would Portrait, you wondered make an excellent pair-up with My Antonia for your Winter comparative literature class? Each novel is about a strong, perhaps even headstrong woman, set down amidst a swarm of restraining conventions, confused men, and inflated romantic notions.  Had you the time to include a third in the compare/contrast calculus, you could include Madam Bovary.

Isabel Archer reminds you of your own impatience and irritation as they relate to the matter of students and reading.  Even though you read with great energy, not lost on you are the ends to which you went to avoid reading the titles assigned in classes, most of which were in fact assigned to supply for you then what you attempt to do in classes designed to provide wannabe writers with tools, skills, and ideas.
Your only defense against reading Portrait then as opposed to in more recent years is that at least you were reading with a hunger that seemed to defy satiation, as though each new thing might be the transformative title that would cause the inner lights to go on and stay on.

In that hunger, however misguided, you at least read.  Isabel Archer at various moments is aware of the same hunger for reading, but is also aware that much of her information comes from reading rather than experience.  She appears at times to prefer the remoteness of observing others as they experience rather than indulging personal experience.  Although James does not spell this out, he offers us strong suggestions of this view of experience applying to sexual experience as well.  James draws some interesting moral, intellectual, and emotional choices for her, then sets her forth like a wind-up toy to cope with them while he shrewdly and with penetration observes on her behalf.

With few notable exceptions, a good many of your students draw the line at reading.  They would have you know that they are too busy writing to read, even when you point out to them how their own lack of reading has in a real sense frozen them at a historical time at the past so far as narrative technique, character goals, authorial intrusion, and dialogue are concerned.  Good as Jane Austen's dialogue is--and it is quite good--modern drama, especially television, has given writers the opportunity to digest her technique and grow beyond the limitations of her reach.

Is it only your way of discussing reading?  When you bring up the subject, you see the drawbridge being raised and the moat drained by those who say their wish is to write, who say they are too busy writing to think of reading.  They look at you across the generation or so separating you and you see them wondering what privilege or leisure or other forces were at play to keep you away from your writing and so content to spend your time twenty thousand leagues under the sea or on Mars or in Afghanistan with adventure books from men well before your time, and how you could admit to a fondness for Jane Austen and be serious about it.

Like Isabel Archer, you have a clump of information yanked from your reading, but you also have your own experience to draw upon as well as your experience of having written words, millions of them, and from having edited millions of them.  You move among the worlds to the point where Isabel is as real to you as your companions at breakfast this morning, and you find yourself wondering as you walk and drive about your current city whether a character of your own design has been to this place or would likely go here.

Some of the steam of your impatience and irritation has given way at the realization that you have in fact eventually caught up with the readings assigned to you so long ago, perhaps to their advantage and yours.  You'd not have had much patience with Isabel when you were first given the chance, any more than you had with the whale and those who sought to cope with him.

Some of them regard you with the faint, patronizing acknowledgment that you have wasted your time by becoming well read, an acknowledgment that loses luster when, after a page or so of reading their work, you see what is about to happen.  At which point you are elected to the status of idiot savant, of a piece with the Dustin Hoffman character, Raymond, in The Rain Man.

The laugh is on them.  You are not in the slightest well read, and if their flirtation with writing turns into a full love affair, they will soon enough discover that neither are they.  Perhaps you'll pass one another on the way to the used book store.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Comfort Food Redux

The can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup in your pantry was nearing the use-by date, prompting you to check for a quick inventory of the "other" ingredients, a tin of white albacore tuna, and either canned or fresh mushrooms.  Of course bread.  Of course green peas.

Good to go on all counts.

Thus was today's lunch your number one comfort food.  The fact that you did not existentially require comfort food made the experience all the more meaningful.  To take comfort when you do not need it is an act of self-examination and reflection.

To  the best of memory and ability, you concocted the creamed tuna on toast the way She--Annie, your mother--made it.  Off to a shaky start in the sense that Annie always buttered the toast and you cannot recall the last time you've had butter in the vicinity.  Nevertheless. Unbuttered creamed tuna on toast induced a considerable sense of comfort.

You were chomping away with comfort until you reached the halfway point, whereupon your comfort became so comfortable you were forced to stop for a moment of reflection to see what the message or, plural, messages were.

Number one was the awareness that creamed tuna on toast still seemed a good idea.  A solid balance of elements were combining before your eyes into a meal fit to see you through some point of woe and possible sorrow, nourishing your game determination to prevail, to recover.

Number two was the message of seeing if there were any changes to the recipe.  If the "old" comfort food worked so well, mightn't a "new" version work better?

First thing to approach was to drizzle some balsamic vinegar reduction into the remaining creamed tuna.  You've come by a particularly viscid and tangy version, which imparted a light, fruity essence.  So far, so good.  The remains of a jar of roasted red pepper and caramelized onion slid into the creamed tuna base as though they'd been intended all along.

After a forkful or two, you said fuck it and added a few capers remaining in a jar tucked behind some pickled herring snacks in sour cream (which you most certainly did not introduce since it is well known that tuna and herring do not get along well).  Some tiny Greek olives you'd intended for a quick, impromptu pasta, asked to join the party.

In the space of a few moments, your meal had grown from one you quite liked to one you began to see as having spectacular potential.  Imagine, you thought, this entire concatenation spooned with generosity over a mound of broad egg noodles or a rascally corkscrew pasta.

You've come a long way from the more or less stove top version of your favorite comfort food to the state of it being a production.  The needs for comfort have matured in direct proportion with your culinary tastes, prompting message number three:  When your universe has gone to hell in a shopping cart, the shopping cart should be from Whole Foods or Gelson's, or Trader Joe's.  Comfort food should bring to tummy and mind the immediate sense that you are an adult, seeking nourishment to cope with adult issues.  As if to reinforce this received wisdom, you, long a fan of caramelized onions on such varied dishes as hamburgers, quiches, omelets, and souffles, have only in recent months learned how to bring an onion to that delicious state.  This ability plus a more or less stable reflection of the contents of your refrigerator to reflect your growth beyond Annie's Creamed Tuna on Toast does not guarantee smooth sailing over the seas of woe and travail, but it does speak volumes to your ability to get a culinary handle on it.

There is no escaping the need for comfort food nor indeed the events that will come along to trigger it, but you must not let that information stop you from being prepared.  Each time you go to the market, you must look beyond the ordinary, what both Annies in your life referred to as staples.  Another way to look at it:  cornstarch is only as important as the sauce it thickens.

You are in fact already congratulating yourself for having on what seemed a thoughtless whim, tossed in a can of Aunt Penny's hollandaise sauce into the shopping cart.  Come to think of it, that can sits next to Amore brand anchovy paste, and perhaps--this is only a supposition--that triangular-shaped tin of liver pate was meant to go next to the tinned Vienna sausages, which you'd bought in case Sally needed some comfort food in the future.

You two are no longer going to be content to hunker down against undifferentiated disaster; you're both going to dine well in its face.

Friday, October 26, 2012

It's That Time Again

Some inner backseat driver has directed you to a particular aisle in your supermarket of choice, causing you with a touch of edge to remind it that you have already purchased enough flowers to fill every vase.  The matter cannot relate to melons because there are still two at home and one in the shopping cart.

After a go-around extending several aisles, you are back, staring, thinking.  Your eyes flicker over the display of candles.  Two German words sound in your head.  Yahr.  Zeit.  Year. Time.  You respond aloud, "True dat."  Then you reach to pick a small memorial candle, a relic from the heritage into which you are born.  At the time of Jake's funeral, a mortuary attendant thoughtfully handed you a list of yahrzeit times for Jake, its dates rendered according to the lunar system of your culture, thus differing from the more common calendar.  He also handed you a small booklet with a transliteration of the mourner's kaddish, the prayer for the dead.  The list of dates was good only for ten years.  Had you thought to write the date and month of the Hebrew calendar, you could easily find a conversion point on Google.

During his final weeks, when the amazing and mischievous force you knew as your father was winding down his life force and vitality, he'd lapse on occasion into cultural and heritage matters, leading you to observe to him that with the exception of some splendid and descriptive explicative phrases in Yiddish, you'd rarely if ever heard him link so many words together.  English--Brooklyn and New York American English--were his lingua franca.  He was two generations away from any accent other than American.

Listen, he explained, drawing you closer, when you get to this stage, the mind makes fewer distinctions.  Only yesterday, there was a nurse I mistook for--here he supplied the Hebrew name for the Angel of Death.  She wanted to change my linens, but I'd have preferred a mild claro cigar.

At this point of conversation, he regarded you thoughtfully.  I guess, he ventured, you're my kaddish.  He was, in his way, asking you to agree to this ritual of saying the prayer for the dead.  Your Hebrew had long since taken flight, homing pigeons returning to the times when you read and spoke.  You were aware of the English transliterations and of the sing-song cadences of the prayer.  You had no trouble accepting the job.

For those ten years you had the transliteration, your observation was according to protocol, on the anniversary of his death.  Yahr. Zeit.  Year. Time.  Blended into one word as the German language tends to do with words, and as the Hebrew.

These years, you've settled on what you hope is an easy compromise with Jake, the heritage, and the cosmos.  You chose the date of his birthday, the time of his setting forth on this wobbly and remarkable planet.

In an accurate sense, neither of you was or is religious, more or less picking and choosing cultural and habitual tropes and rituals.  Your vision of death among other things holds little room for the possibility of his being aware of you lighting the candle or reciting the mourner's prayer, and so your placement of a small photo of him at a duck pond, throwing bits of bread to a squawking chorus of ducks, next to the candle is more for your amusement and greater sense that this is a secular thing, a request made, father to son, and the son, so long as he is able, carrying out the request.

There are other requests he'd made of you, most of which had to do with how you carried yourself.  Seeing him in the picture or, occasionally, in yourself as you shave, you are reminded to feed the occasional duck, to walk tall and, one of his particular admonitions, "Whatever you become, be a good one."

Your Hebrew is a shade above deplorable, but you try to put some body English and panache into it.  Somehow, a few years back, you came into possession of the tallis or prayer shawl, and at some long forgotten funeral, perhaps even Jake's, you came into possession of a yarmulke, the silken skull cap appropriate for wearing with the lighting of the candle and the reading of the prayer.  Truth to tell, you could probably be more effective with a few prayers in Sanskrit and, were he in fact, able to be the beneficiary, he'd be impressed.  That kid.  Never tell with him.

Of the many words he taught me in Yiddish, that splendid street language, two resonate a cosmic truth. Tsouris beliden.  Trouble aboundeth.  He lived as though that were so, and so do you, a fact that may make you wary at times but, truth to tell,  it also enhances your great joy at being here.

Added truth to tell, Jake may have been thinking to cover his ass, recruiting me to be his kaddish, but he was also enlisting me in a heritage and ritual that shooed away the Angel of Death as though she were a pesky fly, leaving me instead an ongoing and present-time ritual of day-to-day love, which is the best of all.

Happy birthday, Jake.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Years of Magical Writing

The moon, working with serious intent on becoming full orb, seems to hang in the early morning sky like a picture mounted a tad above eye level.  Pine needles and fallen jacaranda blossoms skitter across the streets like teenagers sneaking home past their deadline, driven by muscular Santana winds.  If you close your eyes when you walk, you can pick up the scent of aftershave lotion, pungent, bracing, awakening.

You are in about mid-block, facing almost due east toward Fairfax Avenue, mindful of the faint hint of sun, wanting to rise.  You are a comfortable witness to the battle for dominance between these two satellites.  When you pass persons on the streets--and you already have passed a few--they are speaking to you, either in mere recognition of you or paying some sort of lip service to the quality of early morning.  They are not speaking into cell phones; this is a time when there were no cell phones, when cell phones were still Dick Tracy inventions.

This is also a part of the city--near the Carthay Circle--in almost west Los Angeles, where police often conducted so-called field interrogations without leaving the car, as indeed the black-and-white, pulling abreast of you, then shining a light on you, considerate, careful not to blind you, did.  Greeting you by name.  Asking how the novel was going.  Used to seeing you on your morning walk, which was, in fact, your end-of-the-day walk that year, that magical year, one of many magical years, in which you lived in different places, looked for, and found different things.

The novel to which the officer referred was indeed going well. a respected literary agent was keen to represent it, and you seemed able to compartmentalize it from some of the television work you were doing and the pulp novels you were writing to build up some kind of war chest.  At this particular time, there was a reason for the war chest, a she who was twelve years your junior, thinking serious thoughts about biological sciences, and graduate school.

The magic of that year was the sense of being in love with many of the things you did, particularly the things related to the she and the plans you had, and for things having to do with all-night writing sessions, reading books that left you feeling connected with things you could scarcely see or understand, going to out-of-the-way places to listen to your friends jam into such early hours as these, and a growing sense that adventures or unfathomable depth awaited you.

Events of strange and convoluted complexity wrenched the she from your life.  You would not see her again for ten years; you would indeed experience other magical years in which editing and publishing took on waves of significance and relevance, connecting you with surprises, taking you to what for you were out-of-the-way places:  New York, Chicago, Tennessee, Washington, D.C.

These events led you into the magical years of teaching, in places you'd never think to go, much less places where you would teach.  In fact, somewhere near the middle of the campus in Los Angeles, where you taught for a number of years, there is a bank of pay telephones.  At this very spot, you kissed the she of the past, and, some time after that, it was on this bank of pay phones where, you'd spoken with her half-brother and received the news that she had died in her sleep, the night before.

The magic of which you speak in these lines is not the magic of spells or charms or formula.  This is the magic of living at a significant enough rate of intensity to produce love and to generate the energy of transformation.  This is the magic of bringing intensity to the work of writing to produce some connections and memory you will experience later, after it is done well.

These years later, years enriched by magical events you had never supposed possible, you wandered on your walk again, at a much earlier hour, but the magic of a waxing moon was in place, and an insistent Santana wind nudged pine needles and leaves along the street in a persistent skitter, and all it took was a policeman to provide enough of a formula to send you back in time.  He appeared in his black-and-white, stopped in a crosswalk.  As you drew abreast of him, he nodded in apology, acknowledging he'd blocked your way for the second time in a week.  He seemed so sincere in his apology that you were cheerful in your greeting.  As he pulled away, you called after him.  "The novel is moving along."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Argo Who?

The sales tech person at The Mac Mechanic offered to supervise the transfer of data from your about-to-be old Mac Book to my about-to-become default Mac Book Pro.  His suggestion was to bring in the "old" computer or the Time Machine backup, a suggestion followed by a long pause which he broke by asking, "Are you all right?"

You were indeed all right.  You were also in another time frame or, as Star Trek fans might suggest, a time warp.  The sales tech had said the magic words, "time machine," which elbowed you out of the present moment and into that delicious limbo you've known most of your life and from which you often  appeared to your mother to be in suspended animation in the midst of being seated on the edge of your bed, halfway through the act of putting on a sock.

There is the (R) trademark of Mac computers, the Time Machine, there is the novel of that name by H. G. wells, and such ancillary aspects as time travel, mind wandering, and Latin as well as English language versions of the trope "time flies."  There is the poetic, "But at my back I always head/Time's wing'ed chariot drawing near..."  There is an iconic short story from Ray Bradbury in which an individual travels back in time, whereupon he irrevocably changes it by inadvertently stepping on a butterfly.

In addition, there is your own observation about writing and real life being analogous to driving a car with rear view and side mirrors, with looking straight through the windshield representing the present, the rear mirror signifying a peek into the past, and the side mirrors standing in for distractions of one sort or another.

Easy to conclude how no one, not even those afflicted from dementia, are able to remain in one time frame for long.  The slightest memory sends you reeling or dancing back to the past, as you indeed were on lower Gutierrez Street in the premises of The Mac Mechanic.  Experiences, connections, and associations also distract you into side issues, in Reality and within your fiction and nonfiction.  You join brother and sister humans in the sense of coming hardwired with a time machine.

The reaches of such "machinery" are everywhere.  With certain of your friends and acquaintances, you are no longer at your present state of chronology, rather your social chemistry with certain friends sends you back in time to your high school years of sensitivity, where you, in particular, were a curious blend of exuberant, rebellious, a lover of words and wordplay, and more than a little bit of a smartass.

The standard humor of your time was a reprise of the old knock-knock joke.  "Knock, knock."  "Who's there?"  "Felix."  "Felix who?"  "Feel excited?  Har, har."  .There was also Warren, as in Warren Peace, and Amsterdam, with the resounding payoff, "Amsterdam tired of these knock, knock jokes."  All this was Argo, waiting to happen.  "Knock, knock."  "Who's there?"  "Argo."  "Argo, who?"  "Argo fuck yourself."  Which led its way to such excesses as, "Stravinsky."  "Stravinsky, who?"  "Igor fuck yourself."  You not only had to be there, you were there.

You went back there a few weeks ago, when a motion picture, Argo, was released, sending you back to 7850 Melrose Avenue, the campus of Fairfax High School, venue for any number of rites of passage, including, "Knock, knock."

You told no one of these associations when you ventured to the movie, which you'd have gone to on the strength of John Goodmn and Alan Arkin being in it.  Imagine your transportation via your own time machine, when both John Goodman and Alan Arkin had lines in that movie, "Argo fuck yourself."  The first time was a surge of the unthinkable having come to pass.  You exploded in gales of laughter, feeling yet a closer identification with the Arkin and Goodman characters but your own past.  The second time was a superb, personal moment.  The universe was not nearly so random as it seems from time to time.  There are, to be sure, moments of loss and grief in life, moments of frustration and disappointment.  But there are moments of a discovery of something golden and exciting and wonderful in your past, something as small and of relative triviality as high school humor.

From the last "Argo fuck yourself," in the movie, through the over-the-title credits narration by President Jimmy Carter, you were understanding your transformation from the more or less smartass champion of the pratfall, the slipping on the banana peel, and the pie on the face to the explosive and transformative power of words and situations and the deeper reaches of humor over comedy.

You could say--and you do--that Argo fuck yourself was that milestone time in your life where you not only paid lip service to the power of words, but began trying to get them down on paper.  Not merely any word, but more like Nabokov, chasing after the rarer butterflies, trying to capture the ones of the most value.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

At a Loss for Words

An often overlooked aspect common in its way to all individuals in Reality and to all characters in the uber-Reality of drama is loss.  Reminding a class full of wannabe writers of the prevalence among us of loss, you're often given examples relating to money, fame, trophy relationships, and power.

These are true things to lose, and you believe they have story potential, but there are more things to be lost than these, things you have lost in some way or degree and watched those about you lose with varying degrees of concern and side-effect emotions.  Among these things are friendships, faith, trust, confidence,balance, teeth, hair, perspective, lovers, hope, patience, enthusiasm, manuscripts, and one of the most significant things of all to lose which is interest.

These elements are the driving forces of the stories memorable for having subjected their characters to the most excruciating obstacles.  How characters respond to these loses define them and their behavior. Characters you create represent your own responses to such losses, perhaps not directly, but in some kind of metaphor or transferred chunk of an emotion such as grief or a determination to regain what was lost or to make some negotiations with the Cosmos through the writing of the story.

When you are thinking a particular character into being, you are in fact creating a person to mediate between herself or himself, you, and the Cosmos.  You cannot always know this for certain during the early stages of the process and perhaps not ever.  Sometimes, you are not aware of which loss you are trying to mitigate.

Money and fame are of scant interest to you, relationships are important, and power is of some interest so far as they represent viable things to embark upon, but even these have their accommodations downgraded while the more immediate and personal things seem to take hold to the point where you know you will finish reading the material if it is the work of another writer you admire, and where you will finish writing if the material is yours and once drove your curiosity.  Under such circumstances, another loss may come into play, the important loss of momentum.

Listing all these potentials sets of fear alarm bells, causing you to recognize how vulnerable you were in the first place to have presumed to write, and how vulnerable you have been in the past to loss, and how vulnerable you are at the present moment because you cannot for the life of you see your way out of such sorts of loss.

This is, of course, the perfect place for a writer such as yourself to be, a place where it can be said of you with some accuracy that you have lost your comfort zone.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Third and fourth Drafts of Reality

You have not physically returned to the campus of your alma mater more than a few dozen times since your graduation.  The adverb “physically” earns its keep in this context because, in fact, you’ve returned to it countless times in dreams, reminiscences, and most important of all, each time you set foot on the campus of another university, even the parent university of which your alma mater is a part.

Well before you attended your alma mater, in some cases living next door to or in the same city as other universities, you knew you would attend your alma mater, thus your bias when you say she is fairest, in physical presence and in dream, reverie, or reminiscence, fairer than all the others.  She is a focal point from which associations both painful and pleasant originate.  She has become, as she ought, bigger than life; she has become hardwired to your imagination.

Even now, as you cross the campus of another branch of the University of California and take in its beauty, you are comparing present-day beauty with the beauty of her.  There is no other beauty like that.  You encounter numerous forms of beauty during the course of a day, but none with her pull and compassion.

As chance would have it, you experienced this disconnect for over thirty years, each time you strode across a campus in the same city, the crosstown rival of your alma mater, recalling events from time to time and on other occasions the difference of the “feel” of a campus.

All campuses, all places, in fact, are good places to teach and to learn and to marvel at the glorious extent of the library within, and the almost tangible buzz of power lines on a windy day of the aura of research undertaken on that campus.  That buzz and thrum of the excitement of research and study triggers your imagination.

In that imagination, you are eternally prompted by some deadline, a looming examination for which you are ill prepared, or because of your associations with the campus humor/literary magazine and, later, with the five-times-a-week newspaper, deadlines for copy you were assigned to produce.

Your last physical venture on the campus was with some members of your family with the intent of scattering hands full of the ashes of your older sister in two places of particular focal-point importance to her, a memorial garden and the building housing the department of anthropology.  During that process, you detached yourself from family to approach the student union building, significant then in its differing appearance from the time you knew it.

Your first venture was to the fourth floor, where you stood for a time outside the door to what was once your office at the humor/literary magazine, enjoying the rush of related emotions.  You had no hope of the door being unlocked and, because this was a weekend, of anyone being inside.  You left your prints on the shiny brass knob, then descended a few floors, following signs directing you to the newspaper.  This large, inviting entry was open.  Two young men sat in earnest conversation at a desk outside an editorial office.  They both looked up, made eye contact when they say you.

“May I help you,” one of them asked, adding a respectful and deferential “sir?” to the question.  You were immediately transformed by virtue of that respectful sir from past to present as you have on so many occasions, more or less since you left the alma mater in the normal course of departure.  Without seeking it or thinking about it, you were no longer the informality of your last name or the democratic trope of your first.  Even in the pick-up baseball and football games played with your alma mater chums and, later, your Writers’ Guild chums, where you were addressed informally or at least democratically, you were the sir the younger players called you when they said “throw it over here, sir.”

At times during your tenure in graduate-level teaching, because of its professional-based focus, you’d be called by the democratic first name approach, which was much more to your classroom preference because the topic at hand was professionalism rather than respect of authority.  When, in fact, students were asking you questions, those situations were the equivalent of being asked to throw the ball over here, sir.  The important matter was that the ball was being thrown, and you did not need that microsecond to realize you were sir.

Now, you are once again sent back to those walkways and buildings and malls in Los Angeles, CA 90024.  Someone from those days has made contact, then gone to considerable trouble identifying recent repetitions in some of the themes in these vagrant lines, asking for your reasons.  These questions send you, looking into your repetitions for thematic connections,
caught up not only in the connections but the dissolve of time.

The wisdom of Heraclitus’ vision comes to you through the past.  Not being able to bathe in the same river twice and, by extension, not being able to revisit the same campus twice, or even make the same point twice, yet drawn back by remarkable events.  For similar reasons, you reread things you thought you loved, realizing how important the present is to the past in all things, and how pleased you are to have a present to make the most of you can and how doing so is in a real sense like getting second and third and fourth drafts on reality and connections as well as on story.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

In the Writing Process

Those splendid words “in the process” have at least two meanings for you, both of which are in a metaphoric sense the identification stamp transferred to your hand when you go to a music performance that has taken a break or intermission.  You show the stamped hand at the door and you are readmitted to the performance.

“In the process” is also your identity band to gain access into your next working session as a writer, whether the working session is mapped out for fiction or nonfiction.  This last is so because, on an increasing level, nonfiction requires the presence of story, some braid of elements beyond mere concept.

The primary meaning for you of “in the process” relates to your own definition of what story is, a tool you should have with you at all times but in particular at those times when you seek to develop, encourage, then harness a given story.  A mere concept: someone wants something, and then sets out to achieve it.  This is not yet story, is only a step or two toward story, regardless of how vital those early steps are.  Yes, story is recognition of a need or a desire.  An individual wishes to become a concert-level musician.  Check desire.

Now, what about the instrument?  The individual needs an instrument on which to perform in order to develop the necessary skills to reach concert level.  Check off the need.  Two steps are in place.  Yet, if the individual studies, practices, then achieves the desired level of ability, there is still no story, only another step or two toward the goal.

In order for the individual to fulfill the requirements for story, she or he must meet some obstacle beyond recognition or awareness, prior to achievement.  The individual must be in some risk of some relevant sort, forcing the individual to realize the potential of failure or, worse yet, of lacking all the necessary skills, even to the point of recognizing, pinpointing the lack before setting off on yet another quest to achieve the missing skills.  Direct paths and shortcuts do not produce stories; rather they derail stories, sending them back to the concepts of their origins.

Here’s where the first “in the process” comes into play.  Story is an individual recognizing a need or desire, meeting some opposition and vulnerability, and in the process discovering an unexpected means to achieve the goal or—and this is of equal importance—to render the goal no longer the central force it was at the outset.  With the example given of the individual wishing to achieve concert-level playing and interpretive abilities, what discovery could she make to cause that goal to lose its primary importance?  Some might answer that the individual would come to the awareness of the selfishness of keeping the abilities to herself as opposed to teaching others how to perform, thus enriching the instrument, the concert potentials, and the love of the music.
You’d answer toward expanding the areas of performance to include composition as, say, Joseph Haydn did or Mozart did, or that rascally pianist Beethoven did.  In apercu, you’d say that the desired goal of the outset was not enough.  The payoff has to include achievement and the internal growth and evolution of the original vision.

That would be you, neither better nor worse that you can see in comparison to those writers and writings you admire, rather a straightforward, almost reductionist expression of what story is to you of a late Sunday evening toward the final third of October in 2012.

The other “in the process” refers to the entire set of feelings, thoughts, techniques, and tools you associate with how you compose.  You make no mistake about it—although you have in the past—that composition of story, of narrative, and of conversational-level essay are components of a process, as surely as the baker who produces steaming, pungent rhubarb pies, or the actor who is able to transform the truth and authenticity of the actor’s actual self into the truth and authenticity of an imaginary being, are processes, in fact, the process, the creative process.

Where do you go from there?

You go into the process of composition, using the array of tools you’ve picked up along the way, either from your own trial and error or the close reading of writers you admire who appear to you to have such ample toolkits that they produce pages in ways that make it seem they are not even trying to produce.  You know better.  If you’d had any notion of how difficult it was, you might have been frightened away.  How fortunate for you that you chose men and women artisans who effectively caused you to think it was easy and fun.  There is no ease to it nor is there fun.  Try telling a composer/writer who is not writing/composing that it is easy and fun.  Wait.  Better not.  On the other hand, when you are in the process, it seems easy and fun even though you know well enough that it is not.

There is no ease nor fun when you read such contemporary writers as Louise Erdrich or Francine Prose or James Lee Burke or Daniel Woodrell.  There is neither ease nor fun when you read writers who are dead or writers you knew and have outlived, at least not until you stop comparing how far they went beyond your toolkit and imagination, speaking out across the ages to you as Rochester spoke out across the moors to Jane, as the Sirens spoke to Odysseus and his men as they attempted to sail home.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fifteen Things You Learned about Writing

In the matter of fourteen or fifteen days, you’ve read three novels of intense and diverse presence, each in its way grabbing you in metaphor by the collar, lifting you a tad off the ground then asking you how you can presume to think of yourself a practitioner of the same craft.

The three novels are Dennis Lehane’s latest, Live by Night, Virginia Woolf’s arguably most experimental The Waves, and Louise Erdrich’s latest, The Roundhouse.  If you were to add another week to the calculus, you’d have to add yet another novel, one also arguable as the most experimental of its author, William Faulkner, by which you mean your rereading of As I Lay Dying.

The effect on you of reading these is a salient reason why you seek out such works, which, each in its own way, is so daunting that you are, in the act of being metaphorically lifted off the ground, yanked past the sense of competitiveness and the stunned inability you sometimes experienced as an undergraduate, when you on frequent occasion came across narratives that seemed to drive the need to write from you, again with the metaphor, as though being dealt a spirited jab in the solar plexus that drove the breath from you.

At the time of your undergraduate years, you danced between this breathlessness and the naïve assurance that you, too, wished to “do” these things, construct these narratives, long and short.

The tricks to learn were these:

1) Writing is difficult, even when it seems easy, even when there seemed to be no end to the things you could produce.
2) Even were you to be able to write like one of the three writers you just mentioned or any of the others you felt “uplifted” by, you would not be doing what you ought and what you’d set out to do, which is writing like yourself, after, of course, finding who the you was in the equation.
3) Who is the you who for the longest time felt terrified to write in the first person because Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn seemed so unselfconsciously convincing—and daunting?  Who was the you who tried to forget having read Jane Eyre and Rebecca for the same reason.
4) Don’t for a minute stop looking for titles—past and present—that will lift you, deflate your breath, and in other ways transport you from your comfort zone.
5) Since there will be times when you can’t tell or predict the effect of a new title, allow yourself the luxury of discovering things you reckon to have achieved a narrative awfulness and emotional morbidity.  These are every bit as daunting as, say, Of Mice and Men, because they remind you how close you’ve come to committing the same or worse errors, or how disastrous your disconnect when trying to achieve something you considered “elevated” or serious.
6) When you achieved some matter of competence to the point where things you wrote were being given homes—not always the most prestigious neighborhoods—and some of your friends began urging you to get serious, you did just that.  You grew serious to the point of realizing no one wanted to publish serious things you wrote.  Even when you are serious, you are funny, but it was not deliberate, that funny was the funny of someone putting on airs of seriousness.
7) You are too impatient (still) to be serious.  Even you think you are funny when you become too impatient, then begin acting out, somewhat like a huge stork, waving its wings and yawping.
8) You have come a long way, understanding what you are not.
9) With one remarkable exception, you have not done well with deans.  This again reflects on your impatience with seriousness.  This reflects on why you are not at your best in faculty meetings, even those where you do not say anything verbally (apparently you nevertheless communicate with body language).
10) If editorial meetings go on for too long, even when you are editor in chief, you are not at your best.
11) Sometimes, even when you are doing your best not to be serious, the writing will still have that serious tang to it, something like over-the-hill hamburger.  This is one of the reasons writing is not as easy as you thought or, for that matter hoped.
12) You’d rather read mind-blowing novels now than you did when you were an undergraduate, whioh is one of the reasons you’re rereading some of the things you read when you were thinking writing was easy.
13) Every once in a while, you get a glimpse of what you are that is not based on what you are not.  These times come to you more often when you’re writing than when you are not.
14) Most of the time, writing keeps you from being too serious.
15) You hope it shows.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Writing Zone

Whenever you enter a bookstore or a supermarket, you are embarking on a Hero’s Journey.

In a happy conflation of convenience and coincidence, you often think about a grocery store while you are in a bookstore and of books when you are in a grocery.  There is more fact than hyperbole to this given that for the past few years, your grocery of choice and your bookstore of choice are in the same shopping mall, more or less defined by the intersection of State Street, the main drag of Santa Barbara, and the adventurous cross street, Las Positas.

True, you sometimes bail on Gelson’s Market and go to Whole Foods (where you find the selection of peanut butter even more fanciful and the varieties of olives yet more plentiful), and particularly when you are looking for older, even used books, you’ll slip away from Chaucer’s and into the depths of Amazon.

True enough.  But the connective link remains strong and ductile.  There are products in both, adventure-laden products, shouting for your attention much like dogs or cats at an animal shelter trying to convince you to take them home.  There are products you simply would not buy, however glamorous they might look, a description equal in its application to foodstuffs and books.  There are products you’ve tried and have resolved not to try again under any circumstances.

There are, rolling around in your head like the tine bb in a spray can of paint, suggestions from friends.  A trip to a grocery or a bookstore is an undertaking, a safari, a vision quest and in each visit to each one, you are reminded of the late Joseph Cambell, who put to words the concept of The Hero’s Journey.

The fulcrum of these disparate concepts resides in an object of about the size and weight of a candy bar, which is not an accident of design.  The concept also came spilling into your lap in a book.

Sometimes, on rare occasions, you purchase for snacks a so-called diet bar, which you first learned about in a book by a former basketball coach, Barry Sears, who went on to articulate a diet/energy concept called The Zone.  By modifying and regulating food sources, one can maximize healthy bodily function, attain ideal body weight, and experience the comfort of “feeling healthy.”  More often than not, your purchase of these snack bars are The Zone brand, since you did indeed, at one time when it was critical for you to do so, lose weight.

Barry Sears, the father of The Zone, has a sentence that transcended dietary and performance boundaries and into your writing landscape.  “You are always,”  Sears has written, “as close as one meal away from The Zone,” by which he means you can easily get back to the diet aspects of The Zone Diet by your next meal.  He is even saying it is natural for you to screw up and provides at least one way of doing so that will, in fact, keep you in The Zone Diet:  a snack of half a Snicker’s bar and a half cup of cottage cheese (but please eat the cottage cheese first so you don’t mess with the glycemic index).

The zone you are even more interested in is the story zone.  You’d be content if you could be sure you were never more than one writing session away from the story zone, but so far, your best approach to that ideal is to embark on the seeming hero’s journey of as many writing sessions as you can manage, certainly at least one of at least an hour or so a day.

Narrative health resides within the writing zone in a manner similar to the physical health and metabolic blast of the individual in Barry Sears’ Zone.  You are aware of being alive and involved, yet it is a world without your conscious awareness of thought or the critical senses of sorting out feelings, as though they were unmatched socks, found in a large drawer.

The writing zone is a splendid concoction of a disembodied voice, the unseen prompter at a stage play, whispering the words into your ear, doing so with the perfect pitch of each character.  Should you hesitate for a moment, this prompter supplies the missing words until you are blissful in your unawareness of their origin.

What a wonderful world you inhabit, amazed by the scope of your vision yet in complete and excited thrall to the suspense of what your characters will say and do next.  You cannot hold them in restraint.  They are moving beyond your ability to think new activity for them.  They have their own volition and agendas; they are sweeping you along for the ride, and a chilling, adrenaline-charged ride it is.

To be sure, there is an occasional speed bump where you have slipped in one of your favorite words that do not on this special occasion belong.  But you are never more than a word or two away from this zone, or so your senses tell you, with the same certainty Barry Sears uses when telling you how close to The Zone you are.

The writing zone is where it all happens, which is to say narrative health, loss of excess weight, and that itchy sense of being a part of something intriguing and as truthful as anything you’ve ever experienced on you own.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Six Things to Screw up Your Prose

1. Sentences that begin with “It.”  Takes us all the way back to Bulwer-Lytton and his dark and stormy night.  Used in connection with the verb to be, “It” triggers the sound of trains approaching—trains on the same track.  It was.  It is.  It could have been.  It might.  It never.  It always.  All these its cannot help trigger questions in the reader’s mind.  It was cold.  Okay; what was cold?  Let’s hear it for proper nouns and for pronouns as these parts of speech relate to the dramatis personae in a story.  It was raining when Fred got out of the car, already in trouble for being an intrusive, authorial stage direction, can return the focus to where it belongs, with Fred.  “A steady rain was falling when Fred got out of the car, making him wish he’d brought his raincoat.”  Oh, ho; this means the rain is not coming from nowhere, and is having a direct effect on Fred.  You first began to notice this monster when you used it yourself in a story or novel.  You could not at first relate the use of it to the fact of being thrown out of the narrative each time you did.  The reason was the invariable sound of the relentless inner editor, asking you that infuriating “What?” each time.  What was raining?  What was cold?  You don’t want to mess with the inner editor until about the third run through.  Starting sentences with the neutral, indefinite “it” creates a kind of inner cross-examination between you and your inner editor reminiscent of a much younger you being asked where you were, why you didn’t call.  You find it difficult to stay in the story zone with that kind of irritation.  Difficult enough for you to write from a place of irritation or anger related to a moral disconnect or social issue.  Starting sentences with it gives you one more thing to look out for when revising.  You already have a laundry list of things to look out for.

2. Sentences beginning with “as” become problematic because they dilute the sense of action by comparing it with another action.  “As Fred entered the room, he saw…” No, thanks.  “Fred entered the room.  A large group had congregated near the refreshment table.” From that point, Fred can get on with his agenda.

3. You could say much the same thing about beginning sentences with “There” as you have about “It.”  Worth noting is how frequent such beginnings tend to hook up with the verb to be, which is a visa to get you in without pat downs into the country of passive voice.  There are.  Yep.  There were.  Oh, how tempting.  You maybe have something against Carson McCullers, starting The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter with “There were…” Okay, things change.  Narrative styles evolve.  But look:  There was no answer when Fred knocked on the door.  Maybe because you mentioned it, you’re sensitive to it, yet “Fred knocked on the door.  No answer.”  Back in the day, Mark Twain, no slouch when it came to the language, nailed the notion in place with the opening of Tom Sawyer.  “Tom?”  No answer.  Would have knocked it off the table if he’d said, “There was no answer.”  Keep reading there.  It only gets better.  “You, Tom.”  Still no answer.  Twain knew enough about language and story to make both of them sit up and bark. “Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no effect on society.”

4. Very.  Hard to pin down what very means.  Very cold.  How cold is that?  Colder, you presume, than mere cold, but then what?  Let’s see some effect of the cold on someone.  The weather in Central Park was so cold that the flashers were only describing themselves.

5. Replied.  Maybe once in a while.  Retorted?  Never.  Responded?  Forget it.  Scratch also grumbled, barked, remonstrated, requested.  All valid words, but unnecessary in most cases because said is such an invisible word, and once you have a conversation between two characters going, you can consider dispensing with the said.  Snorted is out.  Ditto sneered.

6. You get into animated conversations when the subject of adverbs arises, at which point you remember as though it were yesterday reading a volume of Graham Greene’s autobiography in which he was not kind to himself for having used an adverb in a recent novel.  One fucking adverb.  He even told what it was and how it was used:  “—she said, sadly.”  So okay, the adverb is a legitimate if over privileged part of speech, so let’s use it with care, which is to say one per page at the maximum, and no double adverbs such as eerily, uncannily--  

There are many such words and tropes to watch for in writing.  You are acute to the number of times you hear in conversations about you the tropes “You know,” “You know what I mean?” and “I mean.”  You cringe when you hear yourself using them, only recently causing one conversant to ask you if you had a toothache.  You’d said, “You know” not moments before saying something was very pleasing to you.

Life is indeed first draft for story, essay, and even these vagrant lines.  You do not always get the opportunity to edit life, your conversations in particular, but you do have opportunities to seize upon when it comes to the written word.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Teller in the Tale

Three questions of major dramatic importance:

1) Who is telling the story?
2) Why that person(s)?
3) Why not use the more impersonal, objective or neutral perspective?

1) You want a source with a stake in the main dramatic problem and its outcome, exposing the depth of the source’s commitment and potential reasons—if any—that source will have for bias. For example, Nick Carraway in Gatsby.  Fitzgerald sets him up straightaway as starched, conservative, reliable.  He is also a convenient target for Gatsby, a gateway, in fact, to Daisy, who is, after all, Gatsby’s new target.  In addition, Carraway comes to regard Gatsby with a mixture of idealism and admiration, thus the reliable narrator suborned.

You may not agree with the source or even like her or him, but—and this is vital—you empathize with that person because her/his goals because you grasp their meaning to the character.  Possibly, you’ve had similar goals.  Thus you are rooting for this character in spite of not liking the individual.

2) Your choice of POV is as important to the outcome and its outcome—by which term we mean the payoff emotion and its ramifications—as the use of filters and length of exposure time in photography and as the uses of pause and attitude in an actor’s delivery of lines.

Your choice of narrator(s) has a direct effect on the emotional payoff of the narrative.  Look how our opinions of Pip rise and fall, then turn to direct empathy in Great Expectations.  Observe how close to the interior core of Huck Finn we are taken in this eponymous narrative.  See how we resonate, much as Rochester resonated across the moors separating them in Jane Eyre, when Jane announced toward the resolution of that novel, “Reader, I married him.”  Consider your feelings about the sanity of the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart when he observes, “And yet people think me mad.”

3) An impersonal perspective distances you and the reader—if any—from what the characters felt as the story evolves, leaving you little choice but to rely on authorial intervention for description, which is something like a retired theater convention wherein an author directs an aside—a “tell”--to the audience.

Our goal as storytellers working in the twenty-first century is to evoke rather than describe.  Readers are more prepared to “get” the story if they feel it, more prepared to reject it to the point of stopping their reading if they are told, and in particular, if they sense the author trying to argue them into the “logic” of the story.  The main logic of a story is its emotional core.

Even worse than the argumentive narrative tone is the one where the reader senses the writer wishing to show off a command of language or a facility for metaphor.

Authorial intervention in narrative—usurping the role of the characters—is the dramatic equivalent of Fox TV News attempting to elbow its way past the agitated mob and into the ranks of journalism.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Unthinkable in Story

You find it safe and not a bit threatening to regard your life as it now stands to be focused on arranged and hoped-for outcomes.  You have “arranged” to formal teaching for at least another three years, have given little or no thought to how long you’ll maintain your private workshops, can’t see your way to returning to the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference after changes in its ownership and management visions; your approach to individual lectures or presentations is pragmatic.

There are at least four books you wish to write, thus each of those projects has a hoped-for outcome, to which you add the hoped-for outcome of their publication.

In addition, there are hoped-for outcomes related to living arrangements, health, recreation, study, times with friends, times related to musical events, splendid meals, and a broad, undifferentiated spectrum of outcomes that land indiscriminately on your fancy, much as a mosquito chancing on your arm of a summer’s evening.

Beyond all these is the hoped-for outcome of improvement in your craft as a writer, as an editor, and as a teacher.

These hoped-for outcomes or goals are not the entire sum and substance of you at the moment, but they do represent a significant picture of what you are now, on October 16, 2012, if not a significant picture of who you are.  Along those lines, you like to think of yourself as a work in progress.

No surprise that such goals and projected or hoped-for outcomes are useful informants when the time comes for you to create characters for your own work or approach the analysis of the characters of other writers in the matter of your teaching, book reviewing, and other nonfiction writing.

Somewhere in the computation of why and what you are, what you think and why you think it, how you write and why you write it, there is a disconnect.  You’ve thought and written about this disconnect before.

When you consider the men, women, and in-betweens you’ve followed as a loving and trusting reader, you are reminded how their creators, their authors, sent you beyond your comfort zones by making worse consequences than you could have imagined. The unthinkable had come to pass.  This neither means nor intends unthinkable events are the exclusive province of story; the unthinkable often makes its presence in real life, shifting, often shattering the lives of those it effects.

Story thus moves you beyond your tolerance for accepting the downward arc of the hoped-for, makes you better able to peer directly into the eyes of the unthinkable as it approaches you in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, wanting to know if you’ve got any spare change.  Story has given you a menu of unthinkable things happening to individuals you in some ways know better than you know real, live persons.

Story, as you encounter it and taste of it and feel yourself grow from it, challenges you to bring better, more intense unthinkables to the characters you create, not to fill some temporal standard or dramatic convention but instead to help yourself and, perhaps, some unseen reader accept the real fiction that your story is fiction.

In some ways, particularly sexual, fantasy is about gratification.  You’re comforted to see that many of your fantasies, in particular the sexual ones, move toward partnerships, mutuality, regard for another.  To that extent, fantasy could be seen as an accurate index of one’s==your—depth as an individual.

To the extent that dreams and hoped-for outcomes are fantasy, let those dreams and hopes and fantasies focus on the unthinkable as the object to be transcended.  Whether we get to the unthinkable and conquer it, or it wags its finger at us and says, Sorry, kid, not this time, we are not settling for the easy out.  We are saying we are in life and in story to win.

Monday, October 15, 2012

In the Writer's Bubble

Questions of major importance for storytellers:

Who’s telling the story?  (If it’s you, there’s trouble ahead when you seek a publisher.)

Why choose that particular character (or characters)?

Why not use the more impersonal, objective, omniscient perspective? (Go ahead, but make sure there’s enough return postage on your SASE.)

You want a source for telling the story with some stake in the main dramatic problem and its outcome. No question about it being Dorothy Gale’s story in The Wizard of Oz.  None.  An ideal source for a narrator is someone who is committed to reaching an outcome, someone who has a stake in that outcome.  (You may not agree with the source or even like her or him, but if you get into that person’s needs and feelings, you’re still likely to root for that person to achieve the expressed goals.

The choice you make for the filter or point-of-view of the narrator(s) is as important to the overall outcome as the photographer’s choice of a filter (or not) and the degrees of exposure in a photograph.  The choice of narrator(s) has a direct effect on how the story pays off in emotional value. Most of us know tomorrow is another day, but when Scarlet observes that likelihood at the end of Gone with the Wind, the statement resounds.  After all these years and readings.

An impersonal perspective in the narrative point of view distances the writer and the reader from what the characters felt as the story evolves, leaving the reader to turn to you for hints (descriptions) of how to react.

Twenty-first-century story is based on evocation rather than description.  Don’t get smart-ass here with the observation that your story is set in the past, say the nineteenth century.  Nineteenth-century stories carry the sound of the nineteenth century narrative, complete with author stepping up (and in) to comment.  Never mind longing for the old days.  Get with the twenty-first century, even if writing a narrative set in, say, the nineteenth century.

We are more prepared to “get” story if we feel it.  Authorial presence has become an intrusion and distraction.  Today, the conventional wisdom is to rely on characters and our own interpretations of their behavior.  Authorial intrusion in narrative is the equivalent of Fox TV news elbowing its way into journalism.

You believe readers tend to pick their preferences based on how the reading experience makes them feel.  There are no right or wrong answers associated with reader choices.

Stephen King is a writer who impresses you big time with his technique, his choice of themes, and his seemingly unearthly ability to establish the tingling sensations associated with fear.  All of this tells you he has developed his deft approach for evocation of fear to an enviable precision.  When you read him, it is to see how he stays on message with such skill.  His message is fear.  You do not read to be frightened.  You read him to learn ways you might use to evoke the sorts of things you wish to evoke, things such as suspense, tension, discomfort, even dread.

Reading to become frightened is every bit as admirable as reading to make discovery or to be confronted with puzzles of behavior and choice.  By reading to become frightened, the reader can learn how to withstand some of the amazing terrors Life presents at all levels.

You read to discover how you feel in tight-fitting situations involving your own behavior and the behavior of others.

Not all that long ago, you expressed your disappointment in another writer to that individual by telling him you thought better of him.  Having said that and reflecting on it for some time, you also wondered how many persons past, present, and future might have occasion to say that of you, to have the disappointment in you that has led them to realize they’d expected better performance and outcome from you.

Everything you write is in some way or another a reflection of what you read and why.  This is a win-win situation, one that offers you the sense of dipping into your observations and fantasies in order to extract results that will leave you less baffled and tentative as you leave the writer’s bubble after getting in your day’s pages before venturing out to edit, teach, befriend, and accept friendship.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Writer and HIstorian as Detective

Some of the writers you most enjoy reading bring you to an emotional landscape you find comforting because of its honesty and insistence on an existence that is neither too dark nor too bright. Not straying for long from either.  Their narratives can take you back through the centuries or, for that matter, forward in equal measure.

Thus you’re reading family history, such as John Galsworthy’s Forsyth Saga, and Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall with the same abandon as Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land, or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, or Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.

There are a number of regional writers you favor, men and women who take you to a part of the geographical landscape you’d never think to visit or, in some cases, revisit without thinking of them.  Names such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Daniel Woodrell, Tim Gatreaux, Carl Hiaasen, Harry Crews, and Joan Didion come to mind as trampolines for the imagination and for the visit to their special places, informed by their special moods.

One of your dearest friends, who once served as secretary to Sinclair Lewis, spoke of how Lewis would draw elaborate maps of his landscapes, to the point of who owned which property and who’d owned it before, his cityscapes having grids and monuments.  Lewis wrote in terms of these maps as well as his sense of characters and story, making his Main Street in the fictional town of Gopher Prairie as distinct and real as actual towns in the Midwest.

No wonder, then, you are so fond of two writers, a generation apart, who have created their own fictional landscapes with which to populate a narrative.  William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County in rural Mississippi, making of it a legendary place, yet one where anyone who wishes may travel to learn of the doings of individuals and families across the entire spectrum of humanity and social class.

Louise Erdrich has done much the same with her fictional Ojibwa Indian reservation, sequestered among the badlands and small, fictional towns of the Dakotas.  You have in actuality driven through and around such places, awed by their strangeness and rampant poverty, startled by occasional signs of affluence.

On one such venture in actuality, you stunned by the apparent lack of concern for a large, fallen totem pole, being in a real sense, carried away by armies of termites.  An individual who bore some tribal connection to the totem pole explained that this was the natural order of things rather than the tragedy you saw.  Thus were you given a lesson in another way to view things to the point where, fifty years or so after the fact, it has become a metaphor that helps you see life, existence, and a more functional sense of how Life works.

Erdrich provides you with an array of characters who want things, who have history, dignity, lust, and the kinds of humor you gravitate toward, humor that helps you see how to cope with the inevitable history, dignity, lust, and surprises inherent in Life.

More so than many contemporary writers, she, Louise Erdrich, nudges you by indirection to look back over the things you have written, most of them unrelated except that they come from the tenor of your emotional landscape at the time of writing.

There are a few overlaps, places where characters and themes persist to the point where you’ve begun visualizing histories and connections.  In larger measure, the individuals, with one notable exception, are left to their own devices.  The exception came to you when you were an undergraduate, and has remained with you over the years.  He has been many things, standing before you now in opening chapters of two novels set in the more or less immediate present, waiting to be made, at last, whole.  In a respectful sense, he is your Yoknapatawpha County and your Ojibwa Reservation.

Story is a necessary element, as your preoccupation with it in these blog essays will attest, but history and place are necessary and so are the myriad connecting points of your life.

In some real and vital senses, the detective, the investigator, is a historian, piecing together aspects of behavior and motivation to supply foundation for one or more existential problems experienced by other characters.  In the academy, historians are seeking solutions and interpretations to behavior that the sworn law officer or the private operative are familiar with on another level.

No coincidence or surprise that your undergraduate protagonist from a short story called “Fish” has morphed into what he has been all along, an investigator.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lunch at the Writers' Table

You were becoming weird even before you were aware of what weirdness was.  Same thing as saying you were beginning to inspect and inhabit your inner youness, all the while accustoming yourself to interactions with your peers and adults such as teachers and adults who were your parents’ friends, and adult members of your extended family.

For a time, you wanted to be like your peers, aware of ways some of them formed discreet groups, aware as well of particular peers who befriended you and you them.  As such things evolved for you, wanting to be like (and be liked by) others became its own desperate goal for a time, slowly morphing into a laissez faire attitude that by now has considerable influence on how you enter a situation and behave within it.

The history of this weirdness and otherness factor came into focus this morning in the flotsam of your thought process during comments in the Saturday Writing Group you host at the Café Luna in Summerland.  The conversation sent you reeling back to one of the more unpleasant times in your life, which you referred to even then as Stalag 17, the gulag, and JBenwald, all from the youthful harshness of being an inmate in junior high school.  The notion was made even more vivid by the reflections of one of the group about her experiences in the junior high school slightly north of you toward Hollywood.

You vividly recalled an awareness of a larger group of students whom you assigned group qualities with no real evidence of their own preferences in the matter.  They all seemed to know one another, which in retrospect informed your vision of their group-ness.

Indeed, at a high school reunion, you learned that two of this junior high “group” had married, and one other from the junior high group, whom you also known in grammar school, reflected that you and she had known one another over a major span of your separate lives.  “If we’d known how to be friends then,” she reflected, “we’d be able to say we were lifelong friends.  As it is, we’ve still known one another most of our life.”

Yet another, whom you’d desperately wished to be in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with, but had no ability—even minus ability—to engage a functional conversation with, confessed the same thing about you, leading to the greater honesty of you confessing you were too busy being weird and her confession of her being too busy being popular.

The thrust of your memory this morning was the memory of your own eat-lunch-with group, self-acknowledged weird sorts, and a boy who sat nearby but not with the group.  He seemed to identify with your group’s weirdness and yet saw himself as outsider to that.  You remember thinking he should be eating lunch with us.  You remember even talking to him at times, and, alas, you remember the “reason” why he remained an outsider, although you do not remember the source of the judgment.  Stanley—the boy—was good in math.

You were, likely still are, one of the least arithmetic persons you know.  Stanley confounded the “us” by consistent high grades in math tests, a fact that seemed even to irritate Mr. Hunt, the math teacher and by you account one of the most disliked and dreaded teachers.  Stanley was “good in math.”

That was all then, a time during which you indulged certain fantasies, initiated your own rituals, formed a protective Teflon ® about your feelings as you began in one way or another setting them down on the page.

Now, you, in effect, sit at the table with the writers, your demographic enormous in terms of age, gender, race and background.  There are, to be sure, those with whom you have friendships that transcend class, background, age, and race, others who cannot abide you nor you them.  Yet there is the at times grudging awareness that the common bond is the weirdness, the differing line that brought us to the table.

As you breakfasted this morning, someone came to the table with a book by an author for whom you have no regard as a writer, but whose appearance and spoken condolence at the memorial to your late wife moved you.  You should really read this book, the reader of it advised you.  And your response, a brisk nod, a nod with an adverb, perhaps, he nodded wisely or he nodded knowingly.  It was by no means, he nodded dismissively or he nodded curtly.

Writers are a segment of and rendition of a larger humanity, as large and petty at the same time as you are large and petty, as argumentative, insightful, notional, and quirky as you.  It does not matter if you are good at math, so long as you get your pages done.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Lessons in How to Bore

If ever there were a more direct means of boring a reader than a deluge of unnecessary specifics, you have yet to discover it.  There is a possibility that you may discover such a way in your own work, thus this hope you apprehend the miscreant in your revision.

An example of what you mean:  “Fred returned home at his east-facing apartment at 7:23 that evening, which had already gone dark in spite of Daylight Savings Time because of the advance into the autumn equinox.  He climbed the twelve steps to his second-floor landing, then walked the thirty-two yards to his apartment door.”

None of these facts will have any additional relevance to the story.  If you wished to make this information yet more boring, you could add how most mornings, by virtue of the east-facing nature of the apartment, Fred was accustomed to being awakened by the rising sun.

You suspect there to be yet unexplored areas of boredom available were you to include some information about how fortunate Fred felt to have an east-facing apartment in this city and at such a favorable rent.  You’d be severely undercutting your purpose of demonstrating and inflicting boredom if you were to somehow make this material relevant to the story which, as you’re quick to observe, scarcely has a chance to sprout because all the details are blocking out that good, east-facing sun which might nourish and encourage it.

True enough, you could produce boredom at an entirely new level of sophistication by having Fred, as he fits his key in the door lock, hear the phone ringing, burst inside, nearly tripping over his cat, then catch the phone on the last ring before the answering machine picks up, allowing him to indulge a long, cute conversation with a friend.  Conversations, particularly when they are filled with one- or two-word exchanges such as “Yes,” and “Well,” and “Huh,” lapsing into the more prosaic, “Depends,” or “I see,” give us a shot at establishing some serious reader disinterest.

Looking at that exemplary opening, you see a missed opportunity.  Weather reports have had their moments in the long history of boring readers.  You could remind readers that even though it had gone dark at that hour, that time of year in that city had an otherworldly quality thanks to the occasional rain squalls or sundowner bursts of wind ruffling the trees which, after all, because it may have been autumn, but a gentle autumn, still had their leaves, which rustled, suggesting the languorous personality of the city as the more intense aspects of night drew down.

An author, questioned about such excesses, might smile patronizingly at you before informing you that these aspects were the very sorts of things Virginia Woolf might have set in place to give a proper sense of the world in which Fred and his associates moved.
Virginia Woolf would have done no such thing.  She was most considerate of her use of detail; invariably it had a purpose other than to bore.  Invariably her purpose produced interest, even though it may have been the interest of enigma.  But enigma is not boring unless it becomes like the unwanted splash of ketchup flying from the bottle after you’ve smacked its bottom with a heavy hand.

When you think of these elements of boredom, you shake your head in wonderment at all the times you were guilty of them because they were things you’d found in your early reading.  You believed these things were still necessary, that there had been no evolving progress in narrative, thus you set forth to do them and, believing you were on the track now to the point where you could nearly smell success with each new venture, you began to question why such work often left you bored.

You literally had to bore yourself out of it, and Fred in the bargain, which is to say you had to learn which characters carried an aura of boredom with them, only too eager to share it with whomever they could grab onto.

Now, when you see them coming, you have surprises for them.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Second Winds, Literary and Others

Some years back, a student told you she hadn’t asked to be born.  Your response, immediate and pointed, surprised you, but in times of woe or weal, it seems to come back to give you some nudge of friendship.

At the time of the response, you were swimming at least a mile a day, a fact that could have had some influence on your response, which in so many words was that you surely wanted to be born. In fact, you swam a dedicated freestyle crawl to get to that egg first.

That particular swim was your most significant athletic accomplishment to date.  Although you came perilously close to running track events, your interest in so-called sports was from a sense of fun rather than competition.  You were in all ways a mediocre athlete.  Your talents leaned toward having fun.

While experiencing the pleasures of long distance running, you learned to appreciate the concept of the second wind, investigating all the anecdotal aspects of it you could find.  At first, your second wind began to wave its hand for recognition around mile six.  As your runs extended beyond ten miles, second wind began arriving around mile eight, more or less seducing you to investigate greater distances.

With swimming, the second wind kicked in at about the half-mile mark, inducing you to a) swim more boring laps and b) zoning out to a kind of alpha-wave state where boredom could not intrude.

Second wind for walking, at least the kind of walking you do, kicks in at about the beginning of mile three.

There is in fact a second wind that comes with writing.  At first, the second wind seemed to kick in around the finish of the first draft.  Callow youth that you were then, you took that sense of exuberance at the finish of the first draft to signify fun, which often meant there was no second or third or, heaven forefend, fourth or fifth draft.

Now, second wind in writing means the beginning of the revision progress which, in similar fashion to the second wind in running and swimming, the revision process produces a series of discoveries and insights that lure you on to the point where there is some kind of combustion or boiling over and there is even more fun to be had with the discovery, which leads to yet more risks.

Second wind in life is yet another matter to consider.  Life is in some large measure about gains and losses, the gains coming more from love, experience, wisdom, and insight than more transitory things. Loss, similarly, often relates to things and people you love being somehow gone from you.  No longer can you run a10K in less than forty-five minutes. Pure loss.  Even purer, given your having upgraded to titanium hips, running 10K at any speed is no longer a good idea.

You loved running.  Swimming was fun, but you did not love it.  Walking is fun, and so you try to keep fun levels to the point where you need a second wind to lure you into extending the experience and the results.

You love life and consider it fun, pushing at it so that you will need a second wind in it.  For the moment, writing is the second wind of life even though, anomalously, it is one of your life-long loves, itself representing a history of gains and losses.

With a second wind in life, you stand the possibility of being a more enduring person, a friend, a lover, and yes, a teacher and editor, things that extend the potential of being a more insightful writer.  For a time, of course.  Few things last as they are, evolving, catching a second wind.

Meanwhile, you have writing, with revisions, draft after draft, enhancing chances of discovery, warmed in the gentle rays of fun, waiting for the second wind to kick in.