Few things get done at three in the morning.
If you are in a hospital, three is about the time someone comes around to take your vital signs, awakening you in the process from a sleep that had transported you miles from the hospital. Even at that state of being made aware you are in a hospital, there is little for you to do except allow the taking of your signs. Fine enough for the nurse or intern, but a matter of passivity for you.
Your good fortune is expressed in your not having been awakened in a hospital at three in the morning for nearly ten years, but this is mere wordplay; you are on occasion up at three in the morning, sometimes for the simple purpose of being roused by your bladder, other times by the direction your dreams are taking, other times yet when there are in fact no dreams, no rapid eye movement sleep, noting but awareness of the moment.
When you were younger, three in the morning was a time for coming home from a revelry of the night before, possibly even being celebrated by an early breakfast that would last you until the eleven or twelve hours you'd then sleep to, sated, comfortable, filled with a youthful disregard for the mosquitoes of middle and advanced ages
Up at three, you have a few options, including trying to regain sleep, reading from a book or magazine, reading from something you'd written earlier the previous day. In desperation on one three-in-the-morning situation, you hauled out your iPod, plunked in your ear phones, and listened to a few chapters of a recorded book. But this, too, was three-in-the-morning stuff because the recorded book sounded so competent and engaging--because you cared more about it than the thing you'd written.
The most basic circumstances of the universe are at play when it is three in the morning in your time zone. This means you are in a bubble. Most persons you know are likely to be asleep. Hearing from you at such an hour would not cause them to think kindly of you, might in fact set off an avalanche of referred irritation. "You know what that crazy Lowenkopf did? Fucking called me at three in the morning. Had the nerve to preface the conversation with the hope he didn't wake me up, like I'm always up at three in the morning, waiting to hear from him."
Two in the morning is not much better, although there have been times when you were up at two, not because you couldn't sleep but because you were so into what you were reading or writing or listening to music or making love that you were only then preparing for the sleep that would take you out of harm's way.
Those early morning hours are harm's way and there you are, in the midst of it. Nothing gets done except brooding and the sense that Reality is a jigsaw puzzle with one missing piece. Often the thoughts left to be dealt with came as a result of something that could be dealt with at a more sensible time, say six or seven, possibly even eight o'clock.
You read somewhere--and what you read may be nothing more than urban myth, dressed up in a journalism suit--that people often die between two and five of a morning--something to do with shifts of metabolism, their waxing or, in this case, waning. You take careful inventory of your vital signs, arguing yourself into the fact that you will not, in this particular three of a cold, gray morning, die merely because you were awake rather than asleep when the roll was called up yonder.
On some occasions, when you were up at two or three with no reliable sense that you could soon recapture sleep, you thought to check in with your dog, who made it clear she was putting up with you, but did not encourage this uncharacteristic solicitousness from you.
You could and have gone into the kitchen, where you prepared various concoctions such as warm milk, herbal tea, or a bowl of cereal with raisins and sliced bananas. You could, and have, indulged the game of returning to bed, lights out, then trying to concoct a story boring enough to put you to sleep, but this approach invariably produces enough mischief and interest that you are somewhere close to a note pad, doing things you are able to do at all hours but would rather not be doing at three in the morning.
From about five o'clock onward, individuals begin drifting to work; bakers bake bread, mothers of schoolchildren make sandwiches which will be traded off in sophisticated lotteries where the rules and rates of exchange are known only to the young. Coffee drinkers will set to boiling, steaming, or reheating dregs of yesterday's coffee. Tea drinkers will set on kettles. Toasters will come into play, and the world of your time zone will begin to essay the forthcoming day. From about five o'clock onward, the world begins to take on a more reasonable,even rational approach to breaking various types of fasts, preparing for industry, sliding into a mindset where things are given priority.
From about six onward, the entire aspect of Reality takes on more of a sense of reasoned, comfortable enterprise. Writing seems less a hasty proposition of despair and more a possibility of addressing solutions that seemed so remote at two or three.
Things you'd written in your twenties and thirties were trying to get the attention of Reality by telling it to go fuck itself because that was how you went at things then. You'd had scant experience waking up at three in the morning back then.
Now, it is your experience that when you are up at three in the morning, nobody cares. When your recorded books sound better than your own, nobody cares. Your agent has told you the latest draft is still shy of being issued a boarding pass, and nobody cares.
You need the experience of being up at three in the morning,feeling these things, understanding them, waiting them out until the time arrives when others are up, dealing with bladders, cats wanting in or out, dogs wishing to be scratched, coffee awaiting your making, the toaster being turned on.
Nobody cares until they are up and you make them care.
Monday, December 31, 2012
Few things get done at three in the morning.
Sunday, December 30, 2012
Whenever you begin compiling mental lists of the jobs you've had before you evolved to a truer representation of your profession, the one with the greatest resonant pleasure and sense of being close to where you belonged is without question the years you spent as a page in the Beverly Hills (CA) public library. Your job was to re-shelf the returned or non-circulated books to their proper ranking as determined by the Dewey Decimal System, a classification with ten major headings, each of which is broken into ten sub-headings.
When you came to work, you simply went to the return desk, where the library equivalent of shopping carts awaited, each filled with books that had been left on the reading tables or returned by borrowers.
Libraries have evolved much since those days, many of them well in step with electronic technology. "Your" library seemed modern enough, the head librarian always back from some meeting or convocation, her knowledge and energy readily apparent, her pride in her own work and calling manifest. You also had a secret crush on one of the reference librarians, which to your late teen and early twenties hormones, seemed the perfect balance. You frequently saw "her," had contact, even conversation with "her," and were actually paid for handling books, some of which you were able to read on the spot.
Thus this prologue to introduce the subject of your fondness for the library and the sense of a growing relationship with it that came to fruition when you entered the publishing trade, were often sent to main and regional meetings of the American Library Association, and where library adoptions of books you'd acquired as editor meant the success of a particular title. Not to forget the pride of being given your own subscription to Library Journal, which you were expected to read as a part of your job. To add meat to the stew, not to forget your own sense of satisfaction in early December of this year when a book you'd written was given a :highly recommended" review by Library Journal.
Before, during, and after these associations with the Library as an institution, you carried on a more or less secret life, having to do with the person you wished to become, the things you wished most in life to do, and the growing, absolute sense that there were no formal ways for you to achieve these goals. If they were to come to pass, you've have to pursue or blunder or experiment your ways into them.
In a real and significant sense then, the used book store, as a specific place and as an abstraction, meant as much to, perhaps even a tad more than the library.
The place you were sent by Dave, of Spider's Pool Hall fame (see entry of December 29, 2012) was a used book store on the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, presided over by a younger man than Dave but every bit as edgy and driven as Dave. He hat a sharp, angular face, accented by large, black horn-rimmed glasses. He always wore a blue suit, perhaps his only suit, and a red tie, perhaps his only tie.
The things you sought in his store, some of them with his direction, were several plateaus above what you sought at Spider's pool hall. You could not have articulated your quest at the time; the closest you could have come was to say that you were looking for a particular book that would have a transformative effect on your life and your writing ability. You were in effect looking for yourself and your themes and cholers and humors and politics. You were looking for young love and lost love and everyday love and the remarkable bantering love of your parents. You were looking for heart wrenching joys and the acute, momentary stab of the wisdom accompanying the laughter of humor. You were looking for secret love letters in your notebooks and explanations for the hows and whys the world was as it was and its inhabitants what they were. You were looking for heredity, environment, esp, sanity, and Transcendentalism. You got instead some books at reasonable prices and cards entitling you to a free spaghetti dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant, although if you wanted meat in the sauce, you had to pay for that.
You got thoroughly misunderstood by your teachers, misunderstandings you were only too willing to reciprocate. You were as moody as the moodiness you later saw in James Dean, but you had neither leather jacket nor motorcycle. You drifted away from pool hall friendships and more into nodding acquaintances with others who paced and prowled the shelves of the used bookstores.
You became other in the non-pool hall sense, the other from the used bookstore sense, where for as little as two dollars, you could buy works of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Dashiell Hammett. The man at the La Brea used book store would eye your purchases carefully, his voice edged in scorn. "You're going nowhere with that crap." He pounced under the counter and came forth with a smaller, six-and-a-half by four-and-a-half-inch green book, your introduction to The Loeb Classic Library, and for the first time since you'd known him, he smiled. "Half of this book will be of no use to you because it is in Greek. But the other half will more than make up for it."
"What is it?"
"Plotinus. He is worth your while."
Many things were worth your while, but you still did not know who you were and, as things were beginning to become clear to you, Stanley Vestal's Writing Magazine Fiction was not the transformative thing you'd hoped.
In time, you discovered a used bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard, where individuals regularly traded old copies of National Geographic and Life for credits on collections of short stories or books showing the way to save money by developing film in your own bathtub or raising chinchillas. Over the months of your prowl there, you saw at least three sets of guidebooks from The Famous Writers' School, which meant persons other than you, wishing to become writers, had joined you in the discovery of used bookstores.
Once or twice, you'd stumble upon a book such as Jurgen by James Branch Cabell, or The Golden Ass by Lucius Appuleus, which made you think you were perhaps on the right track, but growing tall enough to cause bartenders to think you were twenty-one set you on another track, which meant you could hang out at The Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard, or, further west, The Cock & Bull, where you sipped Moscow Mules or Pimm's Cups, and ventured conversations with the more sober among the screenwriters, all of whom cautioned you against taking Hollywood money.
In a fit of frustration, you said you'd be happy to take anyone's money for your stories, which earned you a few months of patronage from a husband-wife writing team who tried to convince you that the secret of story telling was to take something with a well-known plot, then recast it as something else, Mutiny on the Bounty being offered to you as the "key" to the current John Wayne-Montgomery Clift movie, Red River. This gave you an ah-ha moment, but after several wild rides, you realized it was only an ah-moment; the ha had somehow eluded you.
But you were far enough in to see the logic of one piece of the puzzle: you were not interested in reselling books that mattered to you. On the other hand, you were interested in reselling Writing Magazine Fiction.
Years later--many years later--you've reordered Writing Magazine Fiction from the present-day equivalent of a used book store, Amazon. The work is not transformative, but you had not expected it to be. Rather, the book is still what it was, more than a competent guide. By the nature of where you bought it, the book was something someone else no longer wished. The thing transformed is you, not by any one thing but rather an entire cascade of event, wish, fantasy, idea, and the fierce, no-nonsense logic of revision. This is not to say by any means that you invented the process of revision, but you did reinvent it for yourself, and the reinvention is right there in your book, The Fiction Writer's Handbook, to prove your point.
Saturday, December 29, 2012
True enough you spent many of your youthful hours in pool halls, one in particular, called with some affection Spider's on the south side of Santa Monica Boulevard, midway between Fairfax and La Brea. Look at the care you have taken to locate Spider's in geography. Doing so helps you find the essence of the place, dark, cave-like, the occasional sounds of the balls clicking or caroming from the railings of the long tables.
The atmosphere is almost church-like, sepulchral. This is initiation into a realer culture of masculinity and bonding than you were able to find in your own culture's rites, however pleasing and meaningful they were. Your birth culture presented you with abstractions such as truth, honesty, integrity, all valued, all prized, nevertheless abstractions in comparison to what you learned in those hours spent at Spider's and places like it, watching, listening, observing.
You had serious problems in your early encounters with geometry, which seemed beyond your grasp, describing you to yourself as somehow lacking. Your parents and sister were supportive to the point of saying, "Don't worry. You'll get it." But you did worry, and for the longest time, you did not "get" geometry.
How nice at this remove to say that the geometry involved in call-shot or eight-ball or three-cushion billiards provided the instant epiphany to help you avoid a series of D's and F's on your record. That "niceness" would be the equivalent of the comedic ending in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature. The fact of being able to use geometry some twenty-five years later to design books is a hindsight bonus; it would have had no useful meaning for you when you spent time in Spider's.
While you were there, eating beef-and-cheese sandwiches on French rolls,watching other players speculatively, serious enough in your desire to discover, then exploit your own style of addressing the pool table, the snooker table, and the billiard table, you returned often alone to practice, soaking up in addition the sense of male bonding, male ritual, and the things that imparted a sense of comfort to you that you could not verbalize.
On one such occasion, a person of more or less your age brought a guest with him, a girl, transforming that male ritual cave into what was a real epiphany. You immediately fell in love with the girl, whom you recognized from your own high school.
When you brought her to Spider's, the seeming ritual nature of the pool hall took exponential leaps within your awareness. "You don't hold the cue like that," she told you. "It's not like someone's going to take it away from you." Amazement was now occupying the unused room in your heart. When you are in a pool hall now, you think of her and the things you learned from her. She was the one who brought up the subject you feared to raise. "If you want," she said, "I'll go steady with you." You had not had what you considered conventional dates, which meant movies, the Hollywood Bowl, and musical comedy at The Greek Theater. As though she had immediate access to your thoughts, she said, "We'll go steady until we decide not to. If we don't decide not to, I guess we're in for the long haul."
There are things of value you learn from individuals you consider to have value. You prize these learned things and the individuals from whom you learned them. There are things of value you learn from individuals whose impressions on you were negative. In such cases, the things learned have transcendental value, being worth knowing and keeping regardless of their source.
Lois, from Spider's, from Fairfax High School, from places you were happy to discover within yourself, was of the valuable kind.
One of the principals at Spider's was a man named Dave, who unruly hair that never seemed to look the same, kept asking you what you were reading beyond the text books "they give you guys at those so-called schools." Dave was the first of a long line of individuals you came to admire because of the value they put on reading. In another year or so, you would learn that the name for such individuals, man or woman, was auto-didact. They tended to be long-winded, argumentative, disdainful of anything that smacked of academia.
In later years, some of them were openly scornful. "A college kid, eh? Let's see how much you know?" They'd taught themselves and in so doing taught themselves as well that there was no end to the available learning. There was, in fact, a distinct virtue in trying to follow the trail, where ever the trail took them.
"Heidegger," Dave said. "Do you know him?"
You said, "Who?"
"Kant?" Dave said.
"Jesus," Dave said.
"Is that another question?"
"Never mind the smart ass," Dave said. And he gave you the address of an establishment that changed you life in ways you'd never have thought possible, certainly not in the ways Spider's had changed your life.
Friday, December 28, 2012
Sometimes in a quiet moment, when you are trying to pull the most resonant word out of the murk, or when you are on the point of drifting off to sleep, you hear the neighbors arguing. Of course you are then roused to curiosity. You listen, eager to hear the extent, the charges and countercharges, the points of view.
Of course the neighbors are not your actual neighbors on Sola Street, most of whom you are insulated from by some distance or sound-absorbing hedge. The arguing neighbors are having at it within you, pursuing the ongoing dialectic between the urge to compose based on response to some idea or concept, and the urge to compose as a response to something you've read or heard during your travels in Reality.
There is a kind of rivalry between the two, reminiscent of the rivalry in baseball between the Giants and the Dodgers or, closer to home, your alma mater, UCLA, and USC, the crosstown, private university where you taught for so many years. For the longest time, you'd thought reactive composition, writing as a kind of protest or refutation, was more reflexive that setting forth out of finding yourself resonating with some combination of forces you'd not previously considered. But you've long since come to the awareness that even the most vituperative rant, if followed where it takes you, will likely leave you with the present of some discovery, some thing or connection about the universe, about things, or even about yourself that you did not realize you knew.
This awareness allows you to listen to the arguments, even participate in them to the point where you can sense the participants about to turn on you with something not quite an ad hominem attack. Who asked you? We were having a perfectly fine conversation before you joined in.
Once again, you've come to an awareness. Perfectly fine conversations have their place in human contact. They allow for choices of restaurants or television dramas or even vacation sites. They allow for times for future meetings. They accommodate individual agendas and idiosyncrasies. But perfectly fine conversations move you from the worlds of drama you seek to inhabit, even to the point of putting protective coatings around information and the individuals involved in the conversations.
You want in essence a dramatized version of the Talmud, the law governing the individuals of your cultural heritage. You want the logic and awareness of the laws and traditions of your more or less adopted cultural heritage, where individuals are striking flint-like sparks from their partners in argument, forging visions of attitude, edge, behavior that will lead to some kind of action by which we may get an even clearer vision of the individual's tastes, preferences, and goals, his or her willingness to be a social animal while at the same time respecting the needs inherent with being an individual.
To be clear, you have little taste for the kinds of argument that include the you-always or you-never tropes, the facets of argument that reveal more of an individual's tendency to meanness of spirit rather than openness of mind and heart.
A few years back, you received a phone call from someone you'd not seen in a great number of years, perhaps as many as forty. The conversation was doomed from the start because of your caller's this is a voice from the past attitude, but in equal measure because of your tendency to become irritated by such an approach. Each side fired shots across the other's bow, much in the manner of those wonderful Horatio Hornblower seafaring novels. "You always were an arrogant son of a bitch," your caller informed you across this void of years without contact. And your response, "What else have you learned about me?" This came from some depths of passion and conviction, thoroughly pleasing you with its seeming existential awareness of the situation two former friends had got themselves into. Your response clearly had some effect on your caller, who sputtered, then hung up, ending the conversation.
This is not the kind of dialectic you prefer. Cuteness and impatience do not mix as well as, say, rum and lime juice.
Cuteness was probably a part of your tool kit at one time, but you'd have to scrape about to find it now. On the other hand, you have by no means sent impatience packing.
Something to work on.
Impatient writers tend to let small details get past them. Impatient writers tend to convey an attitude of faux martyrdom, which is high falutin for victim. Don't have time for this nonsense, whatever this nonsense happens to be.
Writers don't have time to be impatient. Doing so turns off the argument far too soon.
Thursday, December 27, 2012
Several years ago, your mentor commended a novel written by a chum of hers, Robert Paul Smith. The novel, Where Did You Go? “Out.” What Did You Do? “Nothing,” reminded her in tone and range, of you. For the better part of a year, the novel haunted you to the point where it did precisely what a successful novel should do. You lived it, returned to it the way you return to a favored restaurant, even to some degree caused you to bring in characters such as the ones Smith had in his narrative.
After a year or so, your original copy of the novel became lost in the shifting sands of books, magazines, and journals that crossed your desk, lined your shelves, and became part of the clutter about the large, overstuffed club chair your father gave you.
Recent thoughts of the Smith novel caused you a frantic search for it; surely it would have made the journey when you moved here to Sola Street from the semi-rural outliers of Hot Springs Road. As your search revealed, the Smith novel did not make the trip, causing you once again to resort to Amazon and a promised delivery of the first week in January, where you will see what you will see in an experiment similar to the one you made earlier this year, when you ordered from the same source the first how-to book on fiction writing you’d ever read or owned.
Smith had also written another novel that caught you in its grip, So It Doesn’t Whistle. It, too, is on its way. Spending some time with them will be the literary equivalent of finding a doorway where one or both your parents marked your height with a pencil mark and a year.
Although this was not done, in some measure because your growing years were also moving years, you find yourself thinking about the potential trauma you’d missed, given one of your early nicknames was “Shorty,” and given the sudden eruption in your first year of high school, where you became six feet, then experienced two more growing spurts wherein you gained yet another three inches.
The relationship to the Smith books, particularly the Where Did You Go? “Out.” What Did You Do? “Nothing.” Came about because the act of sitting to compose—compose almost anything (including a shopping list)—brings that question and response to mind. There is a point where you become “out,” at least in a terrain you’d neither anticipated or even recognized, wondering how you got there, trying to retrace steps and strands of association such as the one that brought the Smith titles to mind.
So far as the Smith novels are concerned, you are doing “nothing” until they arrive and you begin thumbing through the opening chapters, looking for some moment of friction where inertia is overcome and you are caught, just as you were caught last night until at least two this morning because you’d happened on an application on your iPhone whose name meant nothing to you, and which led you to the downloaded text of Huckleberry Finn, by the writer who was dead long before you were born but who nevertheless spoke to you in much the same manner Rachel spoke to you when she was still alive. (She would not have been pleased, you think, with some of your early novels. She was all right with some of the short stories.)
For you, now, much of what happens when you compose is the act of going out, going somewhere, moving with measured step until you forget you are walking—until you reach the point where you are going somewhere, but not sure where, waiting, as it were, for associations and impressions and memories to catch up with you. Some of these “going out” ventures are the equivalent of stuffing notes into bottles, then taking them to the beach, where you set them adrift, hopeful the tide will take them and you somewhere you had not thought to go.
There is a distinction between setting forth with a destination in mind, then being distracted from that destination because another has demanded your attention, and the more faith-based approach of setting your craft in the water (or sand, or mountain, or city), being “out” for a time, until you arrive somewhere. Both are exciting, exhilarating approaches. Both have at long last become friends upon whom you can rely.
Arriving at this point, there seems to you some continuity to what you observed here yesterday; this is the equivalent of a love letter to process rather than to outcome. Make no mistake, you are destination oriented, but you want to be as surprised and delighted and informed by the scope and nature of the destination as you were by the initial urge to set forth, as your near-mentor said, for the territory ahead. Huck was fleeing from being “sivilized.” You are fleeing from the mechanical certainty of formula. Huck was rotten glad it was over. You’re rotten glad to have discovered if.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
We do not choose our friends the way we choose our characters. This factor of difference holds as well for the characters of other writers we choose to remember, to like, to envy, even to detest and revile. In comparison to the way we treat characters, our friends have an easier go of it, a fact that is often borne home to us when we stop to consider that we have been chosen by our friends, some of whom may be writers.
When our writer friends publish, we read their work with some apprehension, wondering at first if we have been co-opted by them, made into characters in their stories. Reading all the way through a friend's story without seeing scant trace or yourself can seem a relief at first, but only at first--then comes the affront for not being there.
We do not choose characters in terms of like or dislike, rather because of our curiosity to see what we will do to them, what the Fates will do to them or, depending on our vocabulary, what God will do.
This is a pretty reliable indication of why we read fiction, having grown away from the fable- and religious-based stories with morals into the more capacious and genuine curiosity about what will happen to these individuals we have come to believe could be real. This is also a good index of why many of us write fiction: To see who and what we are, to wish to invite our so-called dark sides to the table to break bread with the brighter more collegial us.
You sometimes suspect yourself of having secrets from your explored and surveyed areas, thus you use this triangulation or inferential way of forcing issues with enough pressure to cause these secret areas to reveal their secrets. You are not looking for excuses to chastise or reproach yourself any more than you are looking for ways to hold banquets in honor of your long service to something or other even if that something or other is you.
You want to be where you are for the recognition of how difficult it was to have won any sense of ability and your awareness of how easy it is for those neural pathways to fill with leaves and gunk in a manner similar to the roof draining systems when they become clogged with leaves.
More and more, as you look about you, there are individuals who are approaching retirement age in something else, wanting to come to the writer's sand box, where there seems to be no retirement age. At this thought, you take severe issue; the process of keeping the interest alive,of searching for more appropriate details, reminds you more than ever of an archaeologist, in careful, measured scouring of a site for the most minute clues and particles.
Some authors you have come to respect have reached an age where they talk openly of their most recent work being their last. You want not to believe this. You want to believe Philip Roth will write yet another and again another. You want Alice Munro to become overwhelmed by at least one more story and then another and yet another.
As for you, your hope is that you always have another project in the works, one in fact you are racing against the most unforgiving of all deadlines to get done. In a real sense, you are hoping to go out with the sense of disappointment at not having finished the one in the works when you are edited out of existence. Stories, essays, novels, reviews--they are all splendid things to have done even with the knowledge that were you to look at them farther down the line, you'd find things to cringe at. You are fond of product, perhaps too fond of it, but you are also fond of the process, which you have made your process, and, alas, perhaps not fond enough of it.
The late mystery/suspense writer, William Campbell Gault, once told you, "I'd rather be the world's worst writer than a good anything else." He's been gone since 1995. The last time you saw him, he was in a favored restaurant on lower State Street, a happy man.
The message you took from him and from your own ongoing affair with Process is that happiness is best served by pushing and shoving Process in the face of impending Disappointment. The Disappointment means only one project will not be finished. The happiness means disappointment is transitory, that the Process is the unpaved road you follow across the vast desert of your imagination.
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
At some point in the writing process, you revisit an awareness of how vital filtration is. Whether the work is nonfiction such as a review or an essay, or the inventive exploration of fiction, you're in the metaphoric sense thrown from the horse you're riding by being hit with another metaphor, the low-hanging branch.
The hanging branch is often one of the first two or three paragraphs. Knowing this, you are not surprised; in fact, you tend to watch for its appearance in its most common form, the generality as opposed to the specific example. There are more treacherous versions of this low-hanging menace, such as your taking for granted that something you accept as a specific may not be so willing to show itself. Worse yet, you may be in one of your explaining modes, looking for places to insert parenthetical phrases, translations of foreign words, or descriptions where you in effect refer to Shakespeare, the English writer.
A writer you once admired because even as an undergraduate he was selling adventure stories to the pulp magazines, gave you his secret. Ed, for his name was indeed Ed, said the secret to being prolific and successful was to get everything down as quickly as possible without stopping to think about the consequences or remember how you'd used three or four words when one would have been enough.
You have in effect spent the balance of your writing life trying to adhere to that approach, even to the point of repeating it to some of your classes with evident conviction. As you were to discover all too soon, the major point to Ed's logic was the relatively low pay, sometimes even a fraction of a cent a word, for pulp stories.
When you conflated this information with your eventual experience that it paid in one sense to use five or six words where one would do, you did your best to ignore Ed's advice and in the process build into your vocabulary certain words, such as somewhat or perhaps--"He was somewhat gruff in his manner." "She was tall, perhaps five ten."--to add weight.
This process brought you a possible thousand dollars over the years you wrote at that level, before a combination of your own eye and a few kindly editors reintroduced the argument that in one way or another, you must slow down a bit, listen to that inner voice when it tells you, stop, go back, you don't need that sentence or that verb tense. You in particular want to avoid wherever possible using the passive voice. The ball was hit by him for a home run. The bank was robbed by him of several thousand dollars.
Here, in fact, is what you do most of the time. Correct as you go. There've been too many times when you didn't and then, going back later to look for the scoundrel you knew was there, you couldn't find it, meaning that the solecism had camouflaged itself to your critical eye, Not a healthy condition.
Another thing you do is start the new day by reading through what you did yesterday, catching additional solecisms that often cause you pain.
By the time you've completed a draft of anything, you've gone over it minimum four times, at which point you now find it comfortable to set the material aside for at least four days before looking at it again.
Some of this filtration process has been nagging at you since the horrible time some weeks ago when someone suggested this would be a splendid time to get some of your earlier things out on the market again in purely digital form. The someone who suggested this allowed that you'd want to clean up some things, remove the occasional -ly adverb, tighten the dialogue. You took a tentative look. And yes, tentative was one of those revenue-increasing words. "He cast a tentative look in her direction." (You actually got paid for that once. You hope it was only once. Such revisiting of earlier, more hurried work, causes you to think about some kind of cosmic debt to charity building up, karmic payoff for so many excesses.)
Filtration has come to have a different meaning at this stage of the writing game. You have to continue taking enormous bites out of the Universe, scooping in the details that call out to you, asking you to notice them. The vivid ones remain, the tentatives and somewhats have no foreseeable shelf life. But it all has to come in and--here's a keeper of a word--percolate. Details need to earn their keep.
You've realized this in a painful number of ways but once again, the realization bears repeating (after all, repetition can be a part of the percolating process): Writing began as a game because it seemed so much fun and the men and women whose work you so admired made the game seem such fun, something you could do virtually without thinking.
Then the activity became a habit, and you were screwed. Difficult as you have come to see it in its expanding essence, the withdrawal is terrible.
You do need to check your filtration system from time to time, which is what you have done here.
Monday, December 24, 2012
When some brooding, heavy-with-consequence thing falls upon you, pinning you to the floor for the moment, unable to rise, you struggle into the process of accepting the loss. No question about it, the incident is in some way or other an actual loss or the recognition that something you'd once had is no longer with you except in the cluttered pockets of crumpled receipts and memory.
You think that thing or condition or person is gone, in its place the awareness of its loss a memo to you. Now, the memo informs you, you will have to mend yourself, find some roll of duct tape or some tube of super glue, half-used and crumpled, then begin to repair the places where the loss lived. Your first goal is to repair well enough so the loss is not outwardly noticed by others. Then you want yet another protective coating so that you do not notice the repair. The more you notice the repair, the more often you'll be back, attempting to touch-up or paint over, which will remind you again and again of the original need for the repair.
By this stage of your life, there have been enough associations with loss and the subsequent need for repair to have made you a handyman, the knowledge cold comfort, nevertheless comfort.
In small bits and pieces, the lost things, the vanished individuals, the displaced memories filter their way back home without you noticing. They have described an orbit of being away from you, but as orbits often do, they return as small chips of awareness that call themselves to your attention when you are composing. A character begins to remind you of someone long gone or forgotten, someone with whom, too much in love to go to sleep, you'd driven to the desert with to watch the sun rise, then buy breakfast melons from a farmer's stand, run by the farmer's wife, who smelled of sudsy eucalyptus shampoo. A detail, as in a plastic whistle from your early years, suddenly, inexplicably gone, turns up in a story, prompting the memory of confession years after the fact from your sister, who had actually begun to worry she'd impacted your interest in music. Rachel, your real life mentor, urging you to write down details to make sure they would return when you needed them to breathe life into a scene that needed ever so much more than mere plot.
Samuel L. Clemens, your imaginary mentor, telling it as though speaking directly to you to make sure you got the import of it: "The almost right word is really a large matter--it is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning."
How old does one have to be before lost things begin orbiting back?
Old enough not to care about such things as tenure or merit raises or even on-the-job promotions; old enough to live in the world of one's own senses instead of trying to diagram and somehow master someone else's seeming perfect recall, old enough not to be envious of the ease or vision or voice of a much younger writer who is getting it all so early in career, and most important of all, old enough to have formed the habit, harrowed out the neural pathways of repetitive behavior that forces you to write something every day or suffer the consequences of withdrawal.
Old enough to think it matters, but not young enough to think anyone else will of necessity care. Old enough to understand that if you do want anyone else to care, the burden is entirely yours. There is plenty of material out there already for people to care about. Someone waving his hand and saying, I know, I know, call on me, works through about grade four or five, after which, knowing the answer is no longer enough.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
What is American literary identity?
Perhaps that question, with all its apparent simplicity, ignores the large elephant in the living room. The elephant becomes metaphor for immigrants funneling their way through Ellis Island on the east and such ports of entry on the west as Seattle and San Francisco. Their names and heritage were anglicized by first-generations equivalents of editors, earnest individuals, schooled in the melting-pot philosophy. At every opportunity, they told us to shut up, watch our accents, and start reading from the Western Canon.
The likes of Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound lit out for Europe, as though Europe were the territory ahead, through their reading, writing, and friendships, becoming the "them" of Europe, leaving the "us" of America to fend for ourselves.
At that time, an iconoclastic, working-class Englishman did the unthinkable of going West--to New Mexico--where he took our literary pulse in Studies in Classic American Literature, observing how we were literally running to flab in our desire to please rather than impress Europeans. We were, D.H. Lawrence observed, turning our collective American back on the search for our own identity.
Using D.H. Lawrence's 1923 work as the inspiration for a necessary volume two of Studies in Classic American Literature, you became convinced that the America of today has not only found its identity, modern America has, as is its wont, begun exporting it. Some of the earliest exports came just a tad after the tall tale when Europe, intrigued by stories of crimes,their causes and solutions, began to tire of murders in the mansion, wanting instead those American precursors of noir, the hardboiled mystery.
When the principals of the prestigious Mann-Booker literary awards for United Kingdom writers debated in 2008 the wisdom of including American authors in the prize pool, UK authors were appalled by their suspicions, which you were amused to track in the Letters to the Editor of The London Times Literary Supplement. The sentiments in large measure expressed the belief that including Americans among the candidates for awards would be tilting the playing field to an unfair advantage.
In a sense, not so much Look out for the Yanks, rather, the Yanks have already arrived.
Time then for you to begin Volume Two of Lawrence's work, setting forth as Lawrence did, "The Spirit of Place," including a touch of zeitgeist as a nod to the spirits of Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck. From there, you will set forth with a cast of fourteen case studies to broach the twenty-first century in our letters. Some of your choices may be shaky, but there is little question that they have the heart and words to define us.
You'll thus begin with:
1. Dashiell Hammett--a major player in democratizing murder and violence, allowing us to see the consequences at all levels, showing us the reality and universality of the darker side of humanity.
2. Dorothy B. Hughes--like Hammett, but with a special flair for bringing politics and women's issues to light without seeming to propagandize or moralize. She also put together a believable strand of details that made her mysteries seem several plateaus above the puzzle mystery.
3. Leslie Fiedler--a significant and cogent critic of the American literary corpus, Fiedler is often brushed aside--too lightly, you think--for his Marx-influenced politics. His disturbing essay, "Come back to the raft again, Huck, Honey," shoved issues of race, sexuality, and identity beyond the literary gatekeepers and into our awareness.
4. Ring Lardner--Americans can take credit for four art forms: baseball, jazz, bourbon, and the short story. Lardner was on intimate terms with all four.
5. Louise Erdrich--her vast portrait of an imaginary area in North Dakota is in its way a Bayeaux Tapestry of the Midwest, its Native American inhabitants, and its immigrant Diaspora from Europe.
6. Jim Harrison--Mark Twain incarnate, a master of the novella, a writer with a stash of peppermint schnapps cached away somewhere in every story.
7. Jane Smiley--not content to dramatize our mores, she jumps into the battle of describing the techniques and issues of the ways we think and write.
8. Joan Didion--not only does she "get" us in her essays and fiction, capture us as though she were a street photographer and we a group of tourists, she has single-handed put the face of grief up on the bulletin board where we can get a sense of what to do with it when it comes our way.
9. Sherman Alexie--just when you think you've got a handle on Native Americans from reading Erdrich and Harrison, this, hip, empathetic dude of a writer reaches for a secret stash to share with you.
10. Deborah Eisenberg--you may think you understand the limitless scope of the short story, and even have some support to your belief, but Deborah Eisenberg reminds you--forces you to see--that you'd missed considerable dimensions.
11. Richard Russo--your tour guide to the northeast and to the college novel. Of course, you'll say, "I knew all that," but you didn't--not until you read him.
12. Ray Bradbury--no matter what you tell them or they tell you, at heart, he is your favorite writer.
13. Luis Urrea--he can do more with myth and imagination than a roadside taco truck can do with a meal.
14. Francine Prose--doesn't matter if it's fiction or a treatise on what to look for in your reading; she transforms the concept of magical realism into realistic magic.
15. You thought there wouldn't be an annotated reading list? Come on; with Smiley, Fiedler, and Prose in the group, there has to be an annotated list. Besides, the compiler of this volume was once editor in chief of a publishing venture that specialized in annotated bibliography.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
If you were to allow the metaphor of fiction being like birds, the novella would occupy the perch between the short story and the novel. The metaphor suggests all three formats being comfortable with their word lengths. This also suggests the fiction family is a happy family. Best not to go there, not now, at any rate.
Let’s stay with the novella having more thematic material and more of a resolved ending than a short story, but less of either than a novel. Let’s also stay with the widespread affection for the novella felt by writers, readers, and critics. Let’s get personal by mentioning two modern novellas published a tad over twenty years apart, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. Each is in its way a gem, demonstrating the near perfect blend of theme, setting, circumstance, and dramatic payoff.
Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, via its quality and length, is surely a novella; so too, arguably, Muriel Spark’s memorable The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. All you have to do is start running through a list of preferred readings; the novella begins to appear with greater regularity than you thought. Kate Chopin, for instance, whose The Awakening appeared at the tail end of the nineteenth century, made its way into the world a few years before the novella that got you thinking about where this is going. James Joyce published one collection of short stories, Dubliners. The last selection, “The Dead,” was arguably more than a short story; it was in fact a novella. For all the times he enjoyed getting into a longer narrative, Saul Bellow found that exact and exquisite pace and economy with Seize the Day. Not to forget Melville’s Bartelby, nor indeed to forget the fact that for all it evoked the sense of being longer, The Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s epic exploration, was a novella.
Basically, you’re coming from thinking of Of Mice and Men to have reached that place where, however often you reread it, the narrative sings artistry to you, causes you to rejoice that you’ve chosen this particular craft to follow rather than any other. That one novella raises the bar so high for you that for what is left of your working life, you think of it, strive to do your best, and realize what a standard that work is for you to aim at.
You’re also coming from another great favorite, more in its way reminiscent of Mark Twain, yet another bright star in your personal heaven. William Faulkner’s opening narrative for his short novel, The Hamlet, has been reprinted as a short story, even to the point where it is rendered in the quotation marks accorded to short stories. “Spotted Horses.” Yet the narrative has earned its italics; it stands alone, meriting mention with those other grand Faulkner novellas, The Old Man, and The Bear.
With the introduction of a chunk of a larger work having a stand-alone life away from the novel—the literary equivalent of giving the teenager the keys to the family car—you are almost home for this one.
Back in those measure-out-the-pennies days of your career, you maintained your subscription to Harper’s Magazine. By the 1990s, there was less need to be so watchful. A subscription to Harper’s was taken for granted. By the 1990s, your interest in baseball, and in fact most sports, had retreated into the background. The October, 1992, edition of Harper’s had a tipped-in folio that brought you and baseball back for a brief fling, reminding you how something as relative in its transitory nature as a baseball game could with such ease and grace become an iconic moment, where something of passing note becomes a symbol, a metaphor, a vibrant, thundering bit of heraldry, unique, separate, but joining such evocations as, say, Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as a tribute to the humanity you happen to be a part of.
Don De Lillo’s venture into the novella comes in the form of what was the opening to his novel, Underworld. The title of this omniscient point of view masterpiece is Pafko at the Wall, its subtitle, The Shot Heard Round the World. Consider: October 3, 1951.
Let’s talk Harlem, say between 157th and 159th Streets. Eighth Avenue. Harlem River. Coogan’s Hollow. The Polo Grounds. Let’s talk the final day of the 1951 National league season, with two teams tied for the right to represent the National League in the World Series. Let’s look at a three-game play-off between the archrivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. Giants take the first game, but the Dodgers humiliate the Giants in game two.
We are now in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Dodgers up by one, Sal “The Barber” Maglie snapping off sliders and curves, keeping the Giants at bay. But The Barber has tired. Two Giants are on base. Bring in Ralph Branca to pitch to Bobby Thompson.
Andy Pafko is the Dodger left fielder, the symbolic focal point of the novella bearing his name, particularly since, after Branca bears down, pitches a breaking ball to the batter, Bobby Thompson, there was a brief meeting between Thompson’s ash Louisville Slugger bat and the pitch from Branca. The ball is met, lifted, propelled down the left field line. Three hundred fifteen feet away, hunched against the left field wall, Andy Pafko watches the flight of the ball as it sails into two eternities. One of these will carry the Giants into the 1951 World Series. The other eternity will send both teams as well as a supporting cast featuring Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, the restaurateur, Toots Shoor, and J. Edgar Hoover into that timeless space where literature lives.
Pafko at the Wall is about as much relative to baseball as notes are to music or words to poetry; it is a record of humanity, the games and standards and anarchy of the human experience; it is the history coming from something of relative shortness—say forty thousand words—made all the larger from what it implies as well as what it describes.
You are the kid who sneaked into the game, you are Sinatra, razzing Gleason, you are Gleason’s fans, after him to re-run some of his famous lines, you are Sinatra’s fans, looking to him for his take and approval, you are Toots Shoor, telling Sinatra to calm down, you are J. Edgar Hoover, learning that the Russians have tested an atomic bomb.
You are Andy Pafko, the Dodgers left fielder, watching a small, horsehide sphere, sailing its way into history.
But most important of all, you are a reader, reading one of the most exquisite literary forms.
Friday, December 21, 2012
Among the many bonds connecting characters with actual persons, desperation tries like the overeager school kid to edge in at the head of the line. You have done things when motivated by desperation to do something--anything--rather than do nothing. This has given you an index of empathy with fictional brothers and sisters. In all but a few cases, doing nothing has left you and some of your fictional brothers and sisters with a residual regret and pain that is difficult to forget. The exceptional times for not doing anything are those when you--or the character--turns away from taking a cheap shot or attempting to argue with one or more individuals who are locked into a stand to the point where they have become intractable.
Most memorable characters got to the point of being memorable because they were driven by some form of desperation. Their opponents are also driven by a kind of desperation by which law or rules in the abstract must be obeyed. Ahab, anyone?
The key to memorability often resides in some form of desperation, which should present you with more than a clue, rather a flash of insight. Characters known for adding self-interest, the dramatic of ethanol to gasoline, to their desperation are heard to defend their activity with the all-inclusive, "I did it for you," but such protestations don't get far with other characters and, it is to be hoped, don't get far at all with readers.
Good as it is for you to be desperate in a particular Real-life situation, or for a character to be desperate in a dramatic one (dare you suggest Jean Valjean from Les Miserables?) the more that desperation hinges on self-preservation or the protection of the innocent, the greater the chances a character will emerge from performing some tangible act with a mote of respect and dignity.
Respect and dignity are excellent in their abstract versions as well as their real appearances. Your own role models in Real life are men and women who have placed a high value on these qualities, seeming to radiate them in most of their behavior.
But when applied to characters, respect and dignity take a back seat to the pressures desperation exerts. Being without respect and dignity after once having had them makes for the kinds of characters we need, persons who are vulnerable, who have become desperate--perhaps even desperate to restore lost dignity and respect.
Had to do it, the vulnerable character says. Didn't have any choice.
Yes, you did, the respectable, dignified character says. You absolutely had a choice.
The trick is to keep that approach real enough, honest enough, aware enough of its own vulnerability so that it does not emerge as moral high ground or in any way a license to patronize. When the moral high ground seems to become a gated community, someone has fallen asleep at the entry gate. Unauthorized humor can and often does sneak in.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
When you open the front gate leading to the garden where you live, you step into a square of moderate size, perhaps thirty or thirty five feet on all sides. Directly to you left is a parking enclosure for two cars, which borders a single-dwelling home, belonging to your landlady. On your right, the front gate of a rambling wood-frame house, a small, one-car garage, and directly beyond that, the yard and south wall of another house.
Approaching this square a week or so past, you saw two men, neither of whom you recognized. Both were in their mid to late forties. The taller of the two held at about breast level the yellow-on-one side, dusty rose-on-the-reverse cape used by the matador in the first two thirds of the bull fight, and at all times by the assistants. He was demonstrating to a man with a large white table cloth a maneuver or pass known as a media or half Veronica.
Both men seemed ill at ease if not embarrassed to be caught out by a stranger. Both nodded with reticence as you passed.
You could scarcely stop yourself from what happened next, which becomes one of two parallel lines that support these paragraphs. "That posture will only work in Spain," you said in passing, "where the bulls are considerably larger than those in Mexico."
The mouth of the man with the actual cape drooped. He wanted to say something, but nothing came forth. "To deal with the Mexican bull, you want your own feet closer together, the left hand pulling the cape about your hip with a snap, leading the bull to attempt a turn in an arc shorter than his length."
The man with the table cloth said he couldn't fucking believe this.
The man with the cape still was unable to get out any words.
The man with the cape observed that such a conversation could only take place in California, but as you neared, then opened the gate to your garden area, you reminded him that it likely took place with some regularity through portions of Mexico.
The last you heard was the man with the table cloth, still unable to fucking believe the sudden spontaneity of the conversation, the unlikely potential for it happening.
Point of view, you told yourself as you traversed the twenty or thirty steps to your apartment. Point of view is the way all of us have for describing the activities of Reality that go on about us. The historian, the archaeologist, the politician, the theologian, the artist, the writer--we all have an evolved point of view sufficient to describe our chosen discipline.
You've not seen nor heard from the two men with, respectively, a fighting cape and a table cloth, although you were reminded by the scene of another, perhaps six or seven miles away and twenty years earlier, beginning in the cocktail lounge of the now moribund Hotel Miramar, involving a man with a Miramar table cloth and another man, pretending to be a fighting bull, holding a dining chair, its legs extended, to simulate the bull's horns.
Both men were Caucasian Americans. No telling how many bulls they'd actually fought. Although both were by any standards drunk when you saw them thus, there was no surprise for you to see them playing at something they'd both done in sober seriousness. Nor is there any telling how many actual bullfights you've witnessed. The telling is in the fact of your point of view; you'd seen an understood some of the pageantry related to the bull ring.
Reality has that effect on us; it presents us with a swath of behavior of inexpressible complexity and variation, leaving us at its mercy as we attempt to explain, even describe, and dare you say it, teach some of its aspects.
True enough, most of the things you witness are inexplicable to you; you've more or less had to narrow down, to specialize, to limit your point of view and your vision.
Once, someone you very much loved and thought you wished to spend your life with told you, and this is an exact quotation, "You are not required to have an opinion on everything." Not that you by any means did, but the prompt for her outburst was, in fact, an opinion you'd ventured.
During the Thanksgiving vacation while you were in Santa Fe, your nephew, an accomplished jazz flutist and saxophonist, took you to a restaurant where you were to hear some local players. Before you could hear them, you had to suffer a punk rock group, whom you described to your nephew as having a scant range of harmonic tools, "Nothing more than the one, three, and five chords, repeated." He nodded agreement, then flashed you a look. "I didn't know you played," he said. "All these years, and I didn't know," Because, you told him, you don't play. You listen. You may not get from listening what a player gets from playing, but you get something. One of the reasons you listen is because of the considerable"something" you've got over the years of your listening.
Point of view again. You look, or in this case listen, to a stratum of Reality, taking from it what you can.
Back in the day,before Jefferson appeared on nickels, when a nickel meant a buffalo, your material grandfather had a habit of extending two coins to you, a quarter and a nickel. You always took the nickel, a fact that amused your grandfather to the point of his remarking about it to your uncle. In fact, you cared more for the buffalo than the denomination, but in other fact, you had a stratum of smartass emerging. "Once I took the quarter," you said, "the game would be over. I'd be a smart kid, but there'd be no more game."
A former student of yours has published a novel to some acclaim, wining prizes with it, and also being prized for a poetry chapbook. She's just published yet another chapbook, How Fire Is a Story, Waiting. She's getting good response from that as well, and seems on her way.
But when you consider the vastness of Reality and the permutations for point of view, what you see is How Story Is a Fire, Waiting. Story wants to burn, to turn things to ash or to mix them with oxygen or to create heat. Story warms, colors, cooks, causes changes.
You live in a fire zone. You've been ordered to evacuate three times. On other occasions, you've seen fire leap over the highway to graze on the other side of the road. There is danger, energy, and a rough, natural beauty where fire is.
This is the place where you hunker down, looking for the details to capture, to bring into your visions for unforgettable moments of warmth, where you can hear the truth of Reality, sizzling.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
The day is cold, damp, and cranky to the point where you already know you are not going to be allowed outside for the afternoon recess, with its opportunities to do what you'd begun the habit of doing every afternoon.
Running in such weather was of particular joy, beyond the joy of erupting in rivulets of perspiration, taking in great gasps of air so cold you could feel the insides of your lungs protesting. There was sure to be no running today, no recess.
Seeming to ratify this dread state, a late afternoon squall of rain began pelting the windows, slanting in the wind. You were at best ten years old, too young by far to appreciate the implications of Mrs. De Angelo, your teacher, late thirties, one of the more consistent things about her being her slow, deliberate way of talking in order to gloss over the New York accent in her alto-register voice that wanted to say "arit-ma-tic," who on occasion called attention to a pronunciation of yours to your class mates. "This is how they say it in Califor-ni-yeah," drawing out the syllables.
Those were days when being screwed meant no recess or having Mrs. Welstead to come in to present the music lesson. There was little room for nuance then; things were what they were, in large part directly related to what you could not do or what you had to do because one or more adults said this thing was what someone your age did. Or ought to do. There was a certain romance to knowing you had a list of things you disagreed with, did only because you were told you were supposed to. Didn't mean you had to agree or like
Those were days when an erection was still a boner, when that entire process seemed to sneak up on you, bringing results you could neither anticipate nor control. Five or six years later, when the results were more matter of fact, you understood from the cause and effect of your Senior Problems high school teacher, Mrs. Josephine Davis, wearing a white angora sweater, and the effects of your fifth grade Teaching Assistant, Mary Cohen, wearing a white angora sweater. You knew in high school that Mrs. Davis wore white angora sweaters with greater deliberation than Mary Cohen did.
Things were in flower all about you on that no-recess day, including your puberty and your literary ambitions, when Mrs. De Angelo sighed and said, "Well, I guess I'd better read to youse."
She opened a book and read. "'Tom!'
"'What's gone with that boy, I wonder! You TOM!'
"The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for 'style,' not service--she could have seen through a pair of stove lids just as well."
As it so happened, a copy of that book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,was on sale at, of all places, a nearby drug store, for twenty-nine cents. In the rates of exchange and value systems of the time, twenty-nine cents was enough for one model airplane and four pieces of penny candy at Mr. Lieber's candy store, or two admissions to Saturday movies either at the Roxy, or the Ditmas, and seven pieces of penny candy. With one more penny, you could purchase three comic books.
Memory fades on your net worth at the time but it reminds you, however much you had, that you needed to engage in negotiations where you were mortgaging the time and energy needed to secure that balance. Since you do recall agreeing to "watch" or sit with Edward Beagle, while his mother went to a movie with friends, your best guess is that you were in for about three or four cents while lacking the twenty-five.
You were at the drug store just before closing time, and had the book shortly thereafter.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was by no means the first book you'd read nor the first book to have resonated for you, so you cannot account for it having spoken to you in that particular context, but after you'd stayed up most of the night, reading it, devouring its implications, you knew you had to find out the answer to a question that had begun to possess you.
The next day, you asked Mrs. De Angelo if Mark Twain had been able to make enough money from writing that book to live on.
She closed her eyes in thought, for Mrs. De Angelo, although blunt and outspoken at times, did have a fine reserve of thoughtfulness. "He probably made enough to last for a while, but he probably had a lot more reasons for writing a book than wanting to live on the income from it."
From across the years, you remember Mrs. De Angelo for having introduced you to things you still live with. From Mark Twain you learned the value of having friends with whom to have adventures and how, if such individuals were tied up with adult-based things, you could invent such friends, then call them characters.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Urgency is an immediate, pressing need, an existential itch desperate for scratching, an impending sneeze while an audience member at a concert. Elements of urgency are contributing factors to one or more needs demanding your attention now.
Sometimes, you can see urgency and consequences, those two mischievous twins of story, skipping down the road, hand in hand, their exuberance and their chemistry threatening the orderly movement of the narrative.
They are adorable because their obvious joy in each other's company transcends mere cuteness or impishness; they are having the fun we hope to have when we consult story. The hoped for fun changes somewhat from to genre to genre. We read Stephen King because with such expertise, he leads us to the fun of being frightened to the point of dread, not only of what comes next but of those hours in the late night or early morning when we snap awake from the fear aroused by some sound or play of moonlight or shadow, the urgency of some creeping, monstrous thing, here in the room with us.
Some of the late, lamented Donald E. Westlake's mystery novels, in particular his novels featuring the criminal Parker, have such a sense of immediate, urgent danger, betrayal, and sudden, spontaneous violence, that we realize we've doubled down on our bets for fun, wanting that chilling tingle of suspense with us at all times. When he writes as Richard Stark, Westlake presents us with the anti-hero, Parker, who is so good at being a robber that he finds it impossible to consider any other profession. Trouble is, Parker often comes up against other criminals who are neither so good or operating under the same moral compass guidance as Parker, thus the constant wonder to spice up our reading fun, What can go wrong now?
Men and women writing in every genre have found ways to provide us with the urgencies of those genera, offering us unlimited potential for fun. We--you among them--like to give more high-minded definitions for the fun, some of these little more than excuses for transference, for identification with the Parkers of our imaginary Reality, the one often so far away from the real reality.
"You could never get away with that in a story," some of your early echelon students say of an idea or a concept. You can, provided you impart enough plausible urgency.
How do you accomplish that? Thus the inevitable and cynical riposte. This is, after all, a world and reality of logic, where water boils at 212 Fahrenheit degrees at sea level. How do you make anything of that? Any number of ways, including the setting of the story in Denver or Santa Fe, where water boils, true enough, but it does not boil at 212 degrees because neither city resides at sea level.
Early viewers of Star Trek, urgent for weekly adventures featuring the actors Shatner, Nimoy, and Takei, acted out their own stories, beaming one another up or down or out via teleportation and accomplishing warp speeds as though such things were an actual rather than fictional qualities in our real Reality. Made perfect sense for them to do so, as indeed it made sense for you and a fellow named Josephs to act out The Lone Ranger, which produced in its whimsical way a greater drama than the actual Lone Ranger narrative.
You were always chosen to be Tonto, in spite of your argument that the real Tonto did not wear horn-rimmed eyeglasses. Week after week, you were informed that you died better than anyone else at Hancock Park Elementary School, one particular death from atop a pile of packing crates actually drawing applause from Georgia, the sixth grader who regularly beat you at tether ball.
No matter, your contrary argument that Tonto, the real Tonto, did not ever die; your ability at dying made you as Tonto a done deal.
Desperate for a literal role reversal, you went so far as to argue that it was well known not to be Jewish, but Josephs trumped your urgency with his own need to remain the Lone Ranger. He reminded you that he, too, was Jewish, and as though to put the matter to permanent rest, called you out for being able to say fuck you in Spanish, which was a thing the real Lone Ranger would never say in English or Spanish.
Such things were in orbit about you and you were not yet ten. Being able to fall off boxes in the playground of Hancock Park Elementary School or jump from garage roofs on Maryland and Blackburn Streets, or say fuck you in Spanish were not tools you saw as useful, nor was there true urgency yet in your needs to do so. Instead, you abandoned your urgency to be the Lone Ranger. You let Josephs make good on his threat to "get me another Tonto," a fellow named Jack, who had the good sense to put mud on his face to cover his freckles.
You began an activity that both puzzled and drove you, companionable qualities, now that you think about it, to those or urgency and consequences. You were driven for some time to make notebooks, more often than not pocket sized, more often than not composed of the pulpy foolscap paper so common in schools in those days.
The consequences of having notebooks led you to the exquisite urgency of needing something to "put" or write in them. For a while, you were committing to memory multiplication tables and the symbols for the known elements; you experimented with filling notebooks with these--until you discovered the ready availability of both in a dictionary that sold for twenty-nine cents in the Thrifty Drug Store at the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Cochran Street.
The need to put things in these notebooks and the consequences of as yet having nothing to put in them ultimately led you on to collecting small premium cards that came in packages of Wings cigarettes. You amassed quite a collection. You believe you can actually lay your hands on one of these card in a matter of minutes.
You needed another five or six years before you were able to quell the urgency of finding things to put in notebooks, but you are happy to say that the urgency to do so, once established, remains with you to this very day.
Monday, December 17, 2012
There are times when a thing--any thing--is complete unto itself, has no other meanings or implications. A good example of this condition is the quote from Sigmund Freud, "Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar."
The first thing to question in this case is, Did Freud actually say this? Adjunct questions emerge. Is the saying Apocryphal? Was it invented to make a humorous side note? If Freud did make the statement, what was his frame of mind at the time of doing so?
Whether Freud ever said such a thing or not, it is a provocative statement. Isn't it?
There are also times when a thing resonates well outside its own physical borders, becoming a metaphor, or a unit in another great form of allegory, the synecdoche. Thus, for example, the bald eagle becomes America, a man of about your height and build, wearing striped pants (which you would never wear) and a stove pipe hat becomes the incarnation of America.
Some things are mere details, in large part forgettable or skimmed over with ease. An example here is the descriptive clause, "a short man with a mustache." So what? Even when we add the adjective pencil-thin to modify the mustache, the result is the same. So what? Who cares? But look at what a detail can do to make the description memorable: "a short man with a Hitler mustache."
Another nice use of a simple thing, the kind of thing a woman is more likely to notice than a man, is seen in Leo Tolstoy's highly nuanced novel, Anna Karenina, wherein the protagonist is presented as a younger woman, not at all confident about her attractiveness, fussing with self-doubt as she dresses to attend a ball. Her mother gives her a simple cloth band to wear in her hair, telling her the band will remind her how attractive she is. Tolstoy knew a few things about women. He knew a few things about observation. He knew a few things about psychology. Anna wears the band to the ball, where she "allows" it to remind her how attractive she is. Not long after, Anna receives a complement that makes her blush. What power did that hair band have?
What power do things have?
To a considerable extent, you've positioned yourself so that you are surrounded with pictures and objects, each of which radiates with the aura of at least one past event or association, and if it does not, it is some object, a flower, plant, or photograph, brought in because of the pleasing, resonant sense of aesthetic it causes to vibrate within you. Even those few things that do not resonate are nevertheless conveyors of some useful function you appreciate.
Another person seeing these items, these things, could miss the resonance they hold for you. The mug, for instance, from Usingers, a purveyor in Milwaukee, intended to hold beer, was given you by a dear and favored cousin. The mug has not, in you possession, been used for beer, rather for hot chocolate or, in its current incarnation, to hold fountain pens.
A Native American basket, given you by a woman at the Acoma Pueblo, filled with potsherds, shards of broken pottery you were guided to by a man you met in a trading post near the Second Mesa, became one of those "Don't go down this path," conversations. "If you go here, you will find only things potters have discarded for various reasons I do not wish to talk about, but I can tell you these shards are not what they seem to you."
He would tell you no more. The shards all have designs, all of them seeming to you quite beautiful and wonderful, which truly makes part of the point you are after here.
In the kitchen is an ocher-colored dish with a flowery border, purchased by your late wife for ten cents at a sidewalk sale on Salinas Street. You have no idea how many breakfasts you've eaten from that dish nor can you hope to imagine what dishes it served before it came into your possession. The dish is shelved with a bowl of more or less the same color, with an entirely different provenance, the late San Francisco Chowder House, where it once served chowder and was secured for you by a former lady friend who "bought" it from a busboy with a super-thick doobie.
Which of your things will begin a new life cycle for ten cents at a street sale after they are no longer with you? Your father's pocket watch? A pocket watch from a student? A framed 3 x 4 photograph of a blue-tick coon hound named Edward?
Things that do not resonate for you have no business in your living quarters. Things that resonate have the quality of the Roman household deities, the lares and penates, or the farm fetishes of the Zuni; they are embodiments not of gods but of events and meanings that influence your story, your moods, your attitudes of respect and veneration as you go forth into the day. To be clear, you do on many occasions go forth with respect and veneration for the associations and experiences you have had during your time on this planet.
As the time approaches, you may think to give some of these things to specific individuals, thinking they may radiate some of the magic into the lives of these persons that they radiated into yours. In this act, you will have wished the recipients the magical equivalent of being well of being invulnerable to disappointment or of the need for some solace for some disappointment or loss. Magic such as the magic you describe cannot be bequeathed, only the intent of the magic. Thus the love and friendship and devotion you give and receive are the true coins of story and the most tangible bequests one living person can give another.
These are times where publishers are giving free downloads of novels, where Amazon is selling your $19.95 book for $13.60, and where it may be downloaded on a Kindle or Nook for a tad over seven dollars. Money is not the reliable index it would like to be. Things may work well for you but not another or the situation may obtain in the reverse.
Intent radiates in the same way mischief radiates from the Donald Duck fork in your kitchen drawer. Your intent radiates mischief but it also radiates all the fuss and complaint about the things that influenced Donald Duck. Intent radiates outward the way story radiates, spiraling like light from distant stars. You love with a special fierceness the stories you receive from those who have been gone from this planet for centuries and find yourself writing stories to them as a way of thanking them. Payback.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
A recent conversation about the increasing number of front-rank characters who are disagreeable got you to thinking about the shift in literary demographics.
Agreeability is something we do when we are with friends or clients or students, or when we are out performing the errands we associate with survival in cities. Depending on what kind of demographic we live in, our agreeability index has an automatic default somewhere around polite.
You recall once, some years back, saying "Excuse me," when you'd brushed against someone on Fifth Avenue. The individual, as you recall, stopped, turned, and asked, "You talking to me?"
Your own response, "Yes, I was asking your pardon for having bumped you."
"Buddy," the man said, "where are you from, cause you sure as hell aren't from here."
You'd spent enough time, off and on, in New York, to understand how this "conversation" did not have much longer a life. You were quick to observe the same was true of him; his act of returning your apology was every bit the outlier your apology was. Turns out he was from Truro, Massachusetts, thus you'd actually had an exchange of sorts with him. "Been there, once," he said when he learned where you were from.
You were able to say the same thing about Truro. "Didn't like it," he said, learning where you were from. "Didn't like Truro," you said. Then you both shrugged and, because streams of foot traffic were edging around both of you, moved on into your streams of walking traffic. One or two more exchanges and you might have suggested a quick beer over on Third, two foreigners to Manhattan, but not to the Social Contract, not a trace of Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in The Midnight Cowboy in either of us
Unless we are among individuals we are close to, agreeability is set low, a tad above recognition for consideration as a minimum ante in the ongoing game of the social contract. When we are in the composing mode, we are much more apt to give characters that Ratso Rizzo edge, which is more than a little bit a quest for mere recognition,
Characters do not set out to be heedless in their transactions; they become burdened with obligations, real and imagined. They become beset with an ongoing need to perform financial calculations in their heads, wondering when and if "the money" from some source is going to appear in time to meet a particular need. Once you established the present length and route of your evening walk, you began slipping into what you call the interior routine of it, wherein you know where to turn and even how far along you are, all the while working at the solution of some interior problem, a story, a lecture to give, a book to review, a reminder that this week, Sally seems to be amenable to bacon once again, do you need to visit an ATM. After two incidents of nearly colliding with another walker, you resolved to find a solution that would keep you in the outer rather than inner moment.
The solution was right there in your cell phone, a built-in camera, a reason for extending outward, looking for small details to photograph. Trouble is, you've pretty well documented your walk route, so now, you need another route.
Characters who could once focus almost entirely on the details of the story they were in no longer have such luxuries. They are now beset, considerate to a degree, but not much beyond. Just before you'd reached your exact halfway mark at State and Sola Streets on Friday night, a man stopped you. "Hey," he said.
You were so close to rudeness. "Hey, yourself."
"Aren't you the book review guy? I thought I recognized you."
You stood, nodding, pleased with yourself for not displaying any of your magnificent potential for rudeness.
"I need," your interviewer said, "a good book for my wife."
Hearing this caused a complete change in the way you felt about the man. For one thing, he reminded you of a couple you'd seen at breakfast earlier in the week, him with his Wall Street Journal, folded the way your father folded his morning newspaper at breakfast, reading the columnists, arguing with every sentence they'd written, turning to you or your mother on occasion. "Listen to what this lunkhead says about labor unions." Then he'd read an offending sentence or two. "Do you understand the gravity of what he's saying here?"
Thus warmed by thoughts of your father, you were able to cringe at the first impression of the couple, her with her tennis outfit and clanky bracelets and cell phone, him with is WSJ. They seemed somehow bordering on ugly and disagreeable, until it was time for her to leave, whereupon his hand snaked out, grabbed her wrist, spun her around for a hug, which she not only tolerated, she encouraged. They were no longer ugly or disagreeable; they were affectionate.
These are the things you hope to see, on your walks, in yourself, in your work, things not entirely comfortable for you until that last, extra beat, where humanity joins the picture.
You gave your "fan" a title of a book for his wife, and for the rest of the walk, you felt as though you'd sent a love note to someone you didn't know.
Saturday, December 15, 2012
In the course of the past few weeks, you've been--not sure whether to use the verb confronted or consulted here, and cannot think of a suitable in-between--approached by two individuals for advice on how to embark on a career like yours.
This has some disturbing aspects to be thought through, and think them through, you have, arriving at a point where you have bent and shaped your evolution into the might-have-beens, then come to the conclusion of having no regrets with the possible exception of wishing you'd started a bit sooner.
These challenges or consultations or confrontations continue to relate in some ways to the development of characters for use in story, which also affords you the amusement of having to do as well with the development of your own character. There are times, such as a recent one with a client, where you were irritated to the point of boiling anger at the difference of opinion between you and the individual, a point where you wondered how you'd come to take this person on in spite of the previous warning signs. Even at the boil of anger, you saw yourself being considerate and helpful without betraying any of your own irritation at self for getting yourself into these circumstances.
So there you were, being asked by a father how to position his daughter as you positioned yourself, "career-wise," as the father said, and then, in a separate consultation, beginning with questions about the pros and cons of graduate school, a request for a series of guidelines and road maps leading to "a life of writing, reading, and publishing such as the one you have."
There you were, under the spotlight of inquiry, reminding you of a favored television series of yours, some years back, set in motion by the producer David Simon, who had moved from Homicide: Life on the Streets to more or less the same Baltimore neighborhoods in The Wire. You saw yourself as a suspect in the interview room, being interrogated by Detective Frank Pembelton, as portrayed by the splendid actor, Andre Braugher, working you, "explaining" your own motivations to you, and leading you to the understanding that more than anything else, you now wished to confess.
And so, you confess.
"Accident," you said.
You are where you are--and not in other places or circumstances--by accident. To be sure, there was deliberation, some intense times of preparation, other times of absolute clutching at straws or trying to fit yourself into various roles in various dramas for which you had not thought to audition. There was the time you were fired from a publishing company for not wishing to become president of the company. There were all the times you were promoted to editor in chief when you were wishing instead to remain as editor, with enough time for your own writing. There was the time when, after a lunch you realized was orchestrated to get you drinking beyond your safe limit of prudence, you were ushered into an office in one of the tower-like buildings in Century City, introduced to a man named Victor, then left alone with him, whereupon he offered you the editorial directorship of a New York-bound company. There was the time, a year later, when you were striding down Third Avenue in New York, only to hear your voice being called. Turning, you recognized Victor, who said, "Look, you've come this far. There's still time to take the job."
Accident is a series of things that happened to you and to your characters that influence who and what you are at a given moment. Accident is the lathe on which you and they are set into a spin to which the tool of Reality is applied to effect designs, shapes, and scars.
Accident is the discovery that you were right when all evidence pointed to the contrary or wrong when the same standards of reversal obtains; it is the moment you were motivated beyond one- or two-drink at lunch prudence to do what you truly wished or say what you truly felt.
Sometimes when you are writing dialogue, you recognize the potential for accident, the sweet, mischievous inevitability of saying something you knew you should not, thus allowing it to become an accidental lapse of discretion.
Accident is a lunch between you as the guest of a publisher, both of you agreeing with a cavalier wave of the hand to a waitress that a third bottle of wine is called for as the publisher begins drawing an organizational chart on the back of a cocktail napkin. Thus with the information of this and previous paragraphs, you demonstrate the less-than-accidental presence of wine at lunch. Thus you see the publisher at this luncheon printing in your name at the editor in chief strata, just below his at the publisher layer. Thus the accident of you making quick mental adjustments in reckoning the joys and frustrations of this arrangement, and thus the accident of your saying, "No, fuck no."
Accident is the awareness of you at five or six of an evening, realizing you have a dinner appointment and have neither bathed nor shaved, instead spending the greater part of the day here at the computer or off at a coffee shop with your laptop, after putting in five or six hours on a project that will still require, by any reckoning at all, at least another thousand hours. And yet, such a day, such an unshaven, unbathed as yet day, has a luminous glow of satisfaction only you can see because it is all inner.
Accident is also the effects such days have on you that cause some who see you to see you as they wish to see you, causing you to become an accidental player in their drama, working some alchemy by which you are not only offered the role, you rise to meet it.
Friday, December 14, 2012
The first diagnosis was Raynaud's Syndrome, with the added-in-haste emendation, "with idiosyncrasies." Those idiosyncrasies soon outweighed the symptoms that caused the original diagnosis. Next step, let's try lupus erythematosus, which had the advantage of being a problem with the autoimmune system. Indeed, your symptoms matched some, if not all the visible benchmarks of that unpleasant affliction, shortened as if making it sound familiar would make it more friendly or at least not so virulent.
Besides, lupus erythematosuys opened the door to prescribe that glucocorticoid known as Prednisone, which has its own approaches to idiosyncrasy in the numerous potentials for side effects. You came in earlier, with some hand and toe symptoms that led to suspicions you may be harboring Raynaud's syndrome, then behaved as story should by becoming worse and less understood to the point where one or more doctors felt it worth the risk of idiosyncratic response from Prednisone to let it have its way with your symptoms, which were regarded by the doctors who saw you as undocumented laborers are regarded by Republicans. Your symptoms were upgraded to undifferentiated immuno-anomalies,
Sixty milligrams of prednisone a day is considered the highest dose without increasing the likelihood of idiosyncratic responses. There you were, with it and, later, a compound called a beta-blocker, normally given to individuals suffering from angina.
The three previous paragraphs are backstory, linking you to your actual past, a theme you are examining for the third day, and the relationship between cause and effect as these factors apply to character.
Had this been fiction, you might better have said that at a point in your fifties, you'd contracted some odd, undifferentiated auto-immune system uproar for which you were prescribed a compound that is the medical equivalent of truck drivers on amphetamines--necessary evils for the overall, greater good, but watch your wallet.
This is not fiction, it is discursive, investigative build up to why some characters do what they do and as well why, in the process, they become game changers, in similar fashion as that wonderful random force, Anton Chigurh, created by Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men.
Prednisone has been known to have side effects in which the user gains weight, loses weight, develops edema and other forms of bloating, and as well experiences changes in personality. You did none of these, but unbeknown to you, a more insidious idiosyncrasy was working away on the tip of the portion of the hip that fits into the socket. Soon, the tip of the bone was covered with coral-like growths, which had increased in size to the point where they were scraping the socket of the ball-and-socket portion of the hip,
This discovery came after you seem to have resolved your immune system issues and were back on the streets, running your customary ten miles a day.
A particular vector of cause and effect got you to the point where you needed to take some steps to be rid of the effects of the scraping that accompanied each step you took. You were literally sent off in a tangent from your accustomed behavior.
This is the sort of detail and effect you need to establish with characters in order to see how reality has shifted for all the individuals you create, what effects there are in their presence or absence.
Simple, pop-psychology build-ups are not sufficient to the task, nor is it necessary for you to include the relevant details. What matters is that you know it, that you can see how it effects the character's present-time behavior and the character's vision of self as the character imagines being seen by others.
You were never going to be a commanding force as a runner. Running was something you enjoyed and profited from well beyond your ability to compete or set standards for stamina. Nevertheless, it is gone from you and you've put some effort into substituting swimming to the point where you did not consider yourself recovered from your cancer surgery until you could swim a mile and a half at least five times a week.
This is where things come together for some attempt at resolution, this area where thematic elements are resolved almost as they are in a musical composition. The inherent pleasure in floating these things out that come from the autobiographical you is as significant to you as a character you invent, sharing her or his backstory to the point where you see if the character is driven or settled, accepting or resentful, jealous or confident.
This has nothing to do with awards or even setting personal best standards, rather this has to do with finding things you can do to make the things you cannot do any longer seem significant as regrets but not as life-diminishing anchors that weigh you down to the point where you are unwilling to investigate the potential of other things. Therein, you have a line by which to measure the ways of yourself and the ways of your characters.