Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Magic Notebook

By the time he made what you've come to think of as the most remarkable comment you've yet had from an editor, you were on a first-name basis.  You'd come to look forward to his visits to the university where you taught, and to come to your class, where he wold read from what you'd taken to calling his magical notebook.

The notebook had no magic to it, only the results of his ongoing ability to write new stories, all of them, each in its own way,quite remarkable.  As you recall the notebook, it had either an inch or inch-and-a-half capacity.  You'd have to look hard to find such a notebook today, covered as it was with the standard blue canvas you preferred when a high school student.

The true magic was his focus.  Notebooks do not fill up by themselves.  Every year he came on a visit, there were more stories.  More.  You kept track.  He did not repeat himself.  The magic was his ability to create a world, put people into that world, then have you--and so many other readers--care.

He was doing some of what you were doing, teaching, editing a literary journal, writing stories.  You were teaching, editing a journal, writing stories.  You wished to have your stories appear in his journal, which was, after all, the oldest continuously published journal in the U.S., The North American Review.  He'd already published Tom Boyle,  a teaching mate of yours, albeit from a different department.

You knew, because he told you, that he picked up the submissions from the mailbox where they were delivered, then bring them home, opening the envelopes in the entryway, and reading until he came to the table and fruit bowl in the living room, whereupon, most of the submissions would end their journey.  If the story got all the way into his bedroom, he'd read the entire text, which was a sign that you'd made it at least to the short list.

A number of times, he'd sent you a note:  "This one made it all the way to the bedroom."

The story producing the remarkable comment did not get far beyond the front door.  In it, you'd used the analogy of a character, in the act of realizing something, become aware he'd in effect rushed to catch a train that had long departed from the station.  The editor might have told you there were some nice bits in the story, as indeed there were, but he did not do so.  He was too much a solid and splendid writer and editor and teacher.

A former student of his found her way across country and into your graduate-level class room, where she told you about the first thing he asked his new students.  "What's different about you?"

This is in itself a remarkable thing to ask a student.  You have asked it yourself on many occasions.  You in fact ask the question in the opening paragraphs of your work in progress about fiction writing.

The former student answered the questing with information that flummoxed the editor, teacher, writer.  "I was born,"  she said, "with six fingers on my hand."

You wish you could have been present at that moment, to see the look on his face.  Even more to the point, you wish you could see where and how he used that response in his own work.

As such things work out, he did visit you in Santa Barbara, where you arranged for him to visit a horse breeding ranch in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley as background for a novel, and you did see, from reading the published work, how different it was from the novel he'd talked about while it was in progress.

His comment to you, regarding the short story you'd sent him at The North American Review was, "Shelly, that's taking the objective correlative too far."

Robley Wilson was absolutely right, you'd stolen the keys and taken the family car for an outing, and you'd been caught, driving without a license.   You'd learned a good many things from his reading aloud of his short stories from that blue, three-ring notebook, many of which you later recognized in his collection, Terrible Kisses.  Among the many things you learned was never to use such a tool as an objective correlative (See, "Shakespeare and His Problems," by Eliot, T. S.) in such a slipshod way that a shrewd reader could see you doing it.

Stories are not to show off displays of technical skill, they are meant to convey a dramatic impression that leaves the reader stunned with the intensity of human behavior.  While they are entertaining you, they are doing other things to you that will cause you to be so impressed with so many of them that you will download them into your memory banks as though they were experiences in your actual life as opposed to your reading life.  At some point, were someone to ask you if you'd read the event or experienced it in reality, you'd say that it doesn't much matter which answer you gave because both are so.

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