What are we doing here?
We’re eavesdropping, that’s what. Eavesdropping and/or seeing things we were not intended to see, trespassing on the characters’ private feelings and artifacts, in one way or, perhaps, in several ways. We’re making ourselves privy to their secrets. You could say we are snooping. This is often what we do.
At any moment, we may be discovered, confronted, challenged, asked to leave.
We’re readers, is what we are doing here, yearning to make sense of our own, unresolved secrets, thinking somehow that these individuals, these characters have some technique or plan. We know how it is with characters; they often come through at the last moment with some solution or other, achieved after a bloody showdown. We watch for hidden clues about their vulnerability, smug in the conviction that, however well drawn they are, they are still not real as we are.
Because we have a long experience with fictional outcomes, we can see ahead in some ways to the outcome. In other words, we patronize these characters. We read in order to patronize them, but we don't let on. We say instead that we read because we love words or love stories. We follow now, alert to the banana peel on which these characters will all slip. How easy it has become for us to distance ourselves from these dramatic incidents. This, of course, is the key; we are separated from the core conflict through our empathy with the characters. You, for instance, would never do what Gatsby felt he had to do in order to win Daisy. Never mind that Daisy couldn’t be won the way Gatsby had in mind or that she wasn’t, in the long run, worth all that effort. We can see that from our lofty vantage point. See how easy it is? Works every time.
We’re also writers, which is what we are doing here, looking for ways to push our characters far enough out of their ordinary index of response and need they’ll encounter when it comes to survival techniques of sufficient magnitude to impress us out of our yeah, yeah skepticism for want of a helpful insight.
You do see the trick don't you? You push a character beyond your own imagined ability to cope. Now the character has to cope, affect some kind of plausible closure. Now, everyone around you marvels at your shrewdness—never mind the character’s problems. You get the credit for solving a problem you were probably too timid to solve when it really came to pass for you to solve in real life.
After all is said and done, we’re writers, and as such, we get insights, right? Perhaps we don’t get these insights 24/7, but often enough when we set to working on a project, right?
Okay, so we’re all looking for the least dark path, the least precipitous, the least dangerous road, reader, writer, character, in the process, bumping into each other in the darkness of existence.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
What are we doing here?
Monday, January 30, 2012
Everyone has a favorite poet.
Even persons who claim not to care for poetry have a favorite poet. The favorite poet for such persons often turns out to be Elizabeth Barrett Browning, citing sonnet number 43, beginning with the line everyone who doesn’t care for poetry has allowed to slip into memory:
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”
Another poetry beloved of those who cannot take poetry is the remarkable farmer/poet, Robert Burns, whose poem, “To a Mouse,” begins:
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle.
ending with the powerful:
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Some individuals who claim not to like poetry are nevertheless as impressed by John Keats as you for his line from “The Eve of St. Agnes” with one of the most memorable descriptive lines in our splendid language, told in the context of how cold the night was (ah, bitter chill it was): “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.”
And what about all the times you went out to the fabled woods with W.B. Yeats, because a fire was in your head?
It was once presented to you by Peter Wigham, who’d professed modern poetry at UC, Berkeley, that in spite of his insights and technical ability, Ezra Pound could not be considered great because no one knew any of his work from memory. Without batting an eye, you replied:
What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
which happens to be from The Pisan Cantos.
“Oh, bloody hell,” Wigham replied, “we need a drink.”
You have gone through stages of thinking William Butler Yeats was your favorite poet,
Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, all of whom you are wont to call forth in various shades of near or actual drunkenness.
Try not to bring such lyricists as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart and “Yip” Harburg into the picture. Of course they were poets. Even more individuals who do not like poetry remember their lyrics.
With all due respect to those mentioned and previously favored, you now have another to add to the list. You recognized this fact subliminally a few days ago, when the latest copy of The Georgia Review arrived and you noticed the presence of some of his
recent poetry. Then you decided you had to stop in at Chaucer’s, your independent bookstore of choice, to see if the new Penelope Lively novel had arrived. It had and you forthwith acquired it, but at the same time, your glance happened upon Everyday People,
by Albert Goldbarth.
Were he in mortal form, Peter Wigham could chide you with the fact that you have none of Goldbarth’s lines filed away on your inner hard drive, but after it being your turn to suggest the need for drinks, you’d assure him that you likely will.
Goldbarth is a man of great with, who sees the humor of pain and the pain of humor, the quirkiness of situations in which people engage.
One of his poems begins:
She wants her husband dead: that’s understandable,
he’s such a dick. (Small parties of the size that require
the rearranging of restaurant tables sometimes start
their evenings by a round of fanciful avenues
toward his demise, each followed by a rousing toast thereunto.)
Goldbarth is a poet who probably puts ketchup on his eggs, loves long,
conversational lines, slips in a metaphor with the finesse of a
seasoned bartender serving up a Sazerac cocktail or a Ramos gin fizz. He is a poet of heartbreak, poker games, a swirling sentimentality for his wife, and an enviable understanding of the qualities that cause atoms to become attracted to one another or hate each other’s guts. You see connections between him and
Burns and Pound, maybe even Marianne Moore, but there are probably none except in the crucible within you that he heats up every time you read him.
You are setting forth, a tall glass of crushed ice from your new refrigerator, spiked by grapefruit juice from Whole Foods, about to sit back and let some of Everyday People sink in and work their way with you.
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Much has been made of and written about the elephant as metaphor, you among those who write of hidden behavior and archetypal blindness to the obvious.
To your knowledge, no one, least--and most regrettably of all—you, has addressed the inner elephant with anything approaching the cynical eye of the hunter or the writer. How well hidden is the elephant within? Are there, in fact, more than one?
Your first thought is to protest that there are no elephants whatsoever. Because you have some experience at casting a cynical eye upon the world about you, a cloud of doubt passes before your awareness. Piracy, plagiarism, and perfidy have become the modern horsemen of the apocalypse, cut from four in an economy measure reflective of the current financial downturn.
Camouflage has become a vital tool for the inner elephant, yours or anyone else’s. The great mass over in the corner could as well be an elephant as a neglected pile of unread books or unwritten stories.
You move closer with intent to prod.
“The fuck you think you’re doing? A querulous voice challenges.
“Checking to see if you’re an elephant.”
“Like I’d tell you if I was.”
“Were,” you say. “If I were an elephant.”
“I’ll tell you this. You deserve an elephant.”
Always one to get the upper hand returned, you ask, “What makes you think I don’t already have one?”
“You had one, you’d have more of an edge in your voice. You’d be the human in some elephant’s living room.”
“Elephants,” you explain, “are secrets.”
This produces a laugh from the undifferentiated mass who is beginning to resemble the individual Yossarian meets in the hospital ward in Catch-22, completely covered, one tube for ingoing nutrients and medication, one tube for outgoing waste. “Humans aren’t secrets? I suppose by your standards, writers aren’t secrets, either.”
The two of us, two secrets, at least two who are not elephants, but who might be anything else, are bonded for a brief moment in laughter at the unknown and unknowable.
Saturday, January 28, 2012
You are not by any means a fisherman. The times in recent years you have gone fishing were less from the standpoint of bringing home fish than for some aspect of sociability. Your times of freshwater fishing, with one exception, have never been in California. You were reminded of this fact some time back, when preparing for your move from the relative largeness of Hot Springs Road to the more preferable now but nevertheless smaller studio apparatus here on E. Sola Street. One of the items you tossed was a license to fish within the boundaries of the State of Tennessee.
Your visits to Tennessee were in connection with the fact of the publishing house you worked for using what was then called Kingsport Press to manufacture most of its books. The fishing was more curiosity on your part because you’d never before that time fished freshwater or lake. Your most memorable recollection of that first immersion has you in the extreme, head pounding stages of hangover, slithering about in waders a bit too large for you, up to your chest in the icy waters of an Appalachian stream, waiting for the thud of a canon that announced dawn and legal time to begin fishing.
Sure enough, to the east a faint trickle of light had begun to appear, but there was more than one thud, mostly seeming to come from inside your head. Your line was baited and ready. All about you, sounds of rebel yells seemed to peal forth. Fisherpersons about you began casting and, as if by some ethereal design, a cadre of men in bib overalls and the most basic fishing gear you’d ever seen, emerged from the streamside, burlap sacks tucked into their denims as though they were bibs.
These men, all highly scornful of you, your plastic rod and sophisticated reel, your woven creel, and of course, your waders, moved like the predators they in fact were, seeming to gather trout from all sides, sliding them into their burlap sacks, moving quickly downstream. “This innt sport for us’n,” one of them told me. “This is our supper.”
A mile or so away from where you were, the wives of your fishing mates, all of whom were employees of Kingsport Press, had set a camp. Even now, they were using Dutch ovens to bake corn bread and remarkably fluffy soufflés to which would later be added such trout as you and your mates caught. There were Coleman stoves at the ready, fresh bacon grease crackling away in anticipation of the trout, which, like much else in Tennessee, would be dredged through self-rising corn meal.
Breakfast was some time away, which was, to your opinion, all to the good. The pocket pint of Martel cognac in your wader pocket did not seem a good inducement. You were vulnerable to experiences about you and the experiences of the night before. By the time the sun was up and contributing to your bodily warmth, you sought the comfort of a rock outcrop for what you’d intended to be a brief nap. In actual time, your nap was over an hour—payback for last night’s conviviality and vulnerability.
Breakfast was a welcomed switch from hangover to a greater sense of comfort. It was here you’d learned that the men in bib overalls and primitive fishing gear were “hill people,” who indeed did not consider this sport but rather a necessity. You were also lectured on the virtues of catch-and-release fishing, a philosophy built around using hand-tied flies rather than bait, after you’d taken the one or two fish for your morning meal.
Each year, after the conclusion of the writers’ conference in which you participate, one of your dearest friends repairs to Montana for such catch-and-release trout fishing, joining other friends from the area in taking one or two for breakfast, then switching to the hand-tied fly for a day of catch-and-release fishing.
It has come to you how, in many ways, when you set forth to your time for writing, you are in effect catching and releasing words, sentences, ideas, notions, hopeful some of the material you’ve put down will be keepable. Your friend, Dennis Lynds, used to say that a keepable page a day amounted to a book a year, which would have been all right to an earlier friend, Day Keene, except that Day could not have managed to survive on the income from only one book a year. He and Dennis were skilled enough to produce more than one keepable page, a place you thought you might reach if, to mix the metaphor, you stayed in the stream for long enough hours, casting away. In time, you were able to produce a book a month, but the cost was great and you in effect had to spend considerable time unlearning some of the bad habits you picked up.
There are any number of things you must be vulnerable to, in life and in writing life; it is no small thing to go about with guard down, flesh, impression mechanism mechanisms, and feelings open as, again mixed metaphor, fly paper.
No wonder you need so much music in you life. No wonder you talk to yourself. No wonder you have long conversations with Sally, surely keeping her awake longer than she relishes being kept awake.
In a real sense, you are reminded of what your Tennessee friends called “the hill folk.” Fishing was not a sport to them, it was a necessity. You had not thought at all about keeping yourself open to things when you began writing. You were young enough to weather disappointments and satisfactions, often experiencing them in such close order it was difficult to distinguish one from the other.
Now, you more or less take being open to disappointment and satisfaction as a part of a day’s work, but on occasion you have to stop for some moments to sort things out, talk them over amongst yourselves and Sally, then find a way back into the stream, catching and releasing. Disappointments still come, their rate is about the same as always, and their effects have in no way diminished. Disappointments are the natural outcome of the work. Not all work works. When it does work all the time, you have no doubt particularized boredom. It is by no means all right to be disappointed, nor is it all right not to be open to possibilities. As with the metaphor of fishing, the worthwhile satisfactions, like the trout, seem to be hiding in the deep pools, off to the side, where the footing is a bit risky.
Friday, January 27, 2012
In the most simplistic terms, vulnerability is the state of openness to the experience of being hurt. The hurt may be physical, emotional, or both. Some individuals who have experienced physical or emotional hurt have developed protective shields, calluses, if you will, or a warning system that keeps them from reengaging the same experience that produced the original pain.
Many times the individual callus is a detachment from personal relationships or an extreme work ethic that consciously or unconsciously screens out the necessary responses and reactions so often associated with deep personal relationships. Such individuals can provide an excellent armature of personality about which to wrap personality traits for characters in story. The reader, upon recognizing such a character, will expect that person to be thrust into a circumstance that forces the character back into the fear of hurt. The writer is in on the conspiracy, recognizing a good dramatic situation when it is presented.
How profitable is it then for a writer to begin compiling a personal list of vulnerabilities? Your contribution to the conversation is the belief that the profitability rate of return is high. Where to begin, then, as a tentative, toe-in-the-water approach to considering your own vulnerability index, more or less in a small, desktop Moleskine notebook, close at hand when new characters are being cast in a new story?
Begin with a list of characters memorable to you, men, and women of all ages who have experienced such emotional hurts as loss, abandonment, extreme consequences from acting out anger, unrequited love, smothering love, the suffocation of control freaks, and multitudes of humiliations, real and imagined in the home, school, and workplace.
These ought to get you going because, you argue, you became aware of these individuals and identified with them in the first place because of your own vulnerabilities or—and this is significant—your fears of vulnerabilities regarding situations and circumstances you were on the cusp of entering yourself.
You believe the creative individual needs awareness of personal vulnerability in order to be open to it, which is probably a more poorly organized way of saying you wish to remain open to as much as possible in the way of experience and thoughts outside your present orbit. Some of these moments of openness may cause you emotions of discomfort or disorientation or downright pain and regret, but the potential benefits of going forth without calluses or body armor or emotional detachment seem worth the risk in terms of things experienced in fuller fashion. The risks: you may get a crush on someone who does not reciprocate. You might take that one or more steps beyond to the shores of lust and desires for connection. You frequently get crushes on ideas. You often spend considerable time wooing an idea, thinking you’ve a relationship going, when it decides you’ve begun taking it for granted. Or perhaps you’ve spent considerable time on something you find satisfying and no one else does. Your vulnerability has been tested. But in a better sense, you have developed calluses and defenses that allow you to the plateau of risk, the sandbox where the big kids get to play with their feelings and ideas.
For some reasons, when you were seven, you had the seven-year-old equivalent of a crush on a girl named Georgia, who was in the sixth grade, taller than you, and in possession of what you then considered unbeatable athletic activities. For as long as you can remember, you challenged her to a game of tetherball. Once or twice you were able to score a point, but more often than not, she beat you with a kind of mechanical grace that intrigued and impressed you to the point where, every day, when you saw her, you challenged her to a game. The thing you see now in the retrospect of the decades is that she never so much as patronized you with a sigh or even questioned why you were so intent on being humiliated by the results. You cannot recall so much as the briefest of conversations with you; it was always you, bringing the challenge to her and her striding to the tetherball pole, nodding at you to serve, then engaging.
In many ways, that is your first conscious memory of vulnerability. Of course there were others, and more to come. There is no thought of stopping now; the more you stand forth vulnerable, the more you will be able so stand again, at another time, in another circumstance, another situation, whether it is love, a new story, a new idea, abandoning some standard you once thought remarkable for its strength, parting from a loved one through death or disagreement or even the gradual sense of disinterest.
You cannot be in love or in friendship (which is surely love) or in a story or a classroom without allowing yourself the great luxury of being vulnerable. It is unthinkable to hold back, and when you find yourself doing so, you realize you are turning away from risk, turning, as it were, away from the sight of Georgia, appearing in the schoolyard, in all ways unapproachable except for a game of tetherball.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Story is in many ways the equivalent of ordering a bookshelf from Amazon. You have ordered it in the first place because you have enough books to fill it. In fact, thinking about it, you may have underestimated the number of books now on the floor or tables or the shelves in the bathroom and will need to order yet another.
Story is the equivalent of the bookshelf arriving from Amazon and the subsequent discovery that the “some assembly required” description is more than a little hyperbole.
Story is setting the respective pieces in some area, then attempting to decipher the instructions.
Story is the discovery that the individual who wrote the assembly instructions hates writing.
Story is finishing the assembly with one or more surplus screws, causing you to wonder if the individual who boxed the shelf were an individual who hates readers or if perhaps you’d missed some vital step in the assembly process.
Story is having a shelf that wobbles.
Story is the discovery that while assembling the shelf, you either taught yourself Anglo-Saxon or had access to a rich treasure of profanity you had not realized you owned.
Story is the discovery that your shelf has caused you to invoke the pathetic fallacy wherein you implied that the shelf had a mother.
Story is the realization that you will, the next time you purchase a shelf, visit a store that sells pre-assembled shelves or provides a service in which some individual, usually a man wearing glasses and a duck-billed cap will assemble the shelf, all the while making sarcastic remarks about how busy you must be.
Story is the awareness that you do not assemble shelves; you assemble scenes that neither wobble nor leave extra screws.
Story is the awareness that you are capable of far more spectacular failures than mere wobbly shelves from Amazon dot com, that things far more significant than bookshelves have failed you, not merely because of your difficulty with the instructions but also because of your difficulty with wrenches, screw drivers, angle irons, and drills, your ineptitude with thematic material and motivation.
Story is the awareness that most individuals who in successful fashion assemble bookshelves have better engagement with their senses of temper and frustration than you do.
Story is the awareness that even though it is about your characters rather than you, a wobbly story nevertheless reflects on you.
Story is the awareness that you have attempted to control outcomes, which, because they are images of reality, are as difficult to control as the events in reality are difficult to control.
Story is the awareness that, as you need some shelving for your books, you need some construction to hold your inventions, and further that these constructions are every as liable to wobble as the bookshelves you assemble.
Story is the awareness that men who wear glasses and duck-billed caps and who probably hate readers are nevertheless necessary adjuncts, for reasons you may never understand.
Story is awareness. When all else is said and done, story is awareness, adjuncts to process, for reasons you may never understand.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Illusions seem to make sense when they appear or are brought to mind; they often project an aura of an idealized atmosphere in which success, if not love, conquers all; dreams and hopes come to fruition. The rent somehow will be paid because, the illusion tells us, right action produces desired results.
The entire universe, illusion whispers in our ear, is an interlinked network of cooperative cause and reward-oriented effect. We may not be paid in the coin we visualize in our separate illusions, but we will be paid in some coin because for every action, there is a reaction, equal in force and opposite in direction, right?
How ever fraught the universe may appear to us in the more practical terms under which predators lurk in anticipation of supper or unseen dangers and fatal surprises must surely await, some small part of us still grows the avocado pit in a flowerpot, nourishes in some way or other an illusion that some small part of all will someday, somehow be well.
You give up some illusions each time you begin a new project, each time you fall in love, each time you are asked to prepare a resume or curriculum vitae. Illusions are neither all positive nor by any means all negative. The ease in which an illusion with potentially harmful effects may be surrendered is equal to the force necessary to let go of an illusion built on a moral high ground or platform of unending cheer.
Is it an illusion for us to imagine we have given up the illusions of our more callow years? Is it an illusion for us to believe we have substituted common sense, whatever that may be, for illusion?
Some of the Eastern philosophies have gone far along the track of objectifying illusion, even to the point of giving it a name: Maya.
Vanity of vanities, one prophet says, all is vanity.
It is possible, isn’t it, to substitute illusion for vanity? Maybe vanity is illusion, or illusion vanity.
Some of the same Eastern philosophies that have named illusion Maya take matters to the extreme position of saying there is only one reality, that being the godhead. Everything else, they argue, is Maya.
In some cultures, the individual who falls in love with anything but the godhead is regarded as a fool. Yet other cultures regard the individual who does not fall in love as a fool.
Is being foolish all that bad? You are not a reliable source to venture opinion on that because of your perception that foolishness is your default position. Of course, foolishness may be an illusion, but if it is, then there is likelihood that its polar opposite may also be an illusion. Indeed, all judgment maybe an illusion, leaving the possibility that the only non-illusory things are those that can withstand the rigor of scientific observation, evaluation, and demand for proof.
Two parallel lines have been hypothecated to meet only in infinity.
Can the same be said of illusion and foolishness?
If someone says of you that you look different, is that a complement, an accusation, or an illusion.
You do know this: it is more difficult to write something in actuality than to imagine having written it, and that observation is no illusion.
You are also aware of the illusory nature attached to something you have actually written that strikes you as being good beyond the ordinary degree to which things you have written seem good.
Why do the words “seem” and “appear” fill you with suspicion when you see or hear them?
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
When you first encountered the scene, you were stunned by its implications to the point of not being able to process it farther; you could not translate its significance as a tool in your own writing and your understanding of the writing of others. Your circuitry shut it out of you memory, pushing it away as though it were a dream with meanings and implications too fraught to allow inside.
The venue where you saw it is forgotten as well, one of the small, pinched neighborhood theaters with sprung, uncomfortable seats on the mom-and-dad-store fringes of Hollywood, where classics and historical treasures appeared as if by whim between undistinguished double bills, where the ticket takers wore shabby blue suits while trying to accommodate unruly mustaches.
You’d been a fan of Laurel and Hardy at the time, doubtless a reason why you went on that particular night. When you had concerns about how you could presume to manage any sort of career relative to writing, Laurel and Hardy films injected a sense of purpose. You were appreciative of the inevitable pace their narratives rode to the splendid moment of combustion, eruption, and some final outrage of a spectacular disintegration that began with the expression on Oliver Hardy’s face. This particular scene, the one you could not at the time process, was one of the more sublime examples of cosmic chaos.
Some years later, as you read through a series of essays by James Agee, most likely Agee on Film, you came across a sentence that allowed you at last to process what you’d seen in actual words rather than visual images/
The scene—really more of a moment within a scene—featured Laurel and Hardy as piano movers. They are maneuvering a piano over a rope bridge, strung precariously over a gaping chasm. “Midway across,” Agee writes, “they meet a gorilla.”
You may have read the entire collection of Agee essays. You may also have not done so. What you did do, and what you now wish you had in your hands, are the manuscript pages you embarked upon. You called it The Gorilla on the Bridge. Those were remarkable days in your young life; you frequently wrote as though on the manic cycle of what was then referred to as manic-depressive syndrome. You learned a good deal from your writing during that time of your life, but you had not yet learned how to drive through to the finish, to stay with the project, in metaphor abandoning projects as the subsequent gorilla arrived on the bridge.
Perhaps it is well you do not have the pages, perhaps the time elapsed since their birth has meant something approximating growth in your abilities. To add to all these perhaps tropes, perhaps these lines represent an opportunity to reconstruct not merely a story but rather the evolution of the sense of what a story is. You’d have been sure to have notions then of what the gorilla represented, even to the point of a well-justified explanation for what it was doing on that bridge in that particular moment. One thing you have learned—in some measure from Moby-Dick—is that it is possible to tell readers too much about whales to the point where they begin rooting for Ahab. This realization could well become the driving force; the gorilla as protagonist.
Literature is filled with Leviathans, mocha-colored whales, gargantuan sorts, King Kong sorts. With due respect to the original King Kong, he would not think to venture onto so spindly and restive a bridge; he had his eyes on, shall we say, other matters.
Things to keep this notion and image alive: Where was the gorilla going? Whence had he come? What was on his mind? Why should we care about him?
Imagine his frustration at seeing a roly-poly man in a bowler hat and a virtual scarecrow of a man, exerting themselves with, of all things, a piano. Imagine him, having to explain to his mate why he was late coming home.
The bridge itself is a remarkable metaphor for life, causing you to wonder if that seriously neglected Thornton Wilder had at one point in his life seen the Laurel and Hardy film. What effect might it have contributed to The Bridge of San Luis Rey?
We think we have answers up our sleeves when we set forth to dramatize some existential nightmare. Filled with confidence, we pile on the weal and woe to the point where the moment of pure dramatic impasse is reached, then we—at least you—marvel at our gorilla, then pause, our message and its supportive metaphor looms glorious in opposition.
Then we pause, waiting for an answer, congratulating ourselves for the gorillas, our attention focused squarely in that unique landscape of challenge.
Monday, January 23, 2012
If we’re to get the most benefit from our reading of a particular narrative, we’re well advised to spend time wondering who the narrator is, and what he or she had in mind for us—at the outset and the conclusion.
Were we being seduced into the belief we were about to share some romantic idyll, only to Improvised Explosive Device of social consciousness or moral inquiry thrust upon us as an onion peeled before our eyes?
We can begin our reading-examination by questioning the author, moving him or her into the interview room, then asking straight away: Why did you chose this particular character or group of characters to narrate your story?
This is a reasonable question to ask. If, for instance, we were able to pin down Herman Melville about why, of the voluminous and remarkable dramatis personae he chose to narrate the events of Moby-Dick, he opted for Ishmael, he’d be able to look at us with slight askance as he explained how Ishmael had to be the narrator because he was the sole survivor in the contest between the whale and the obdurate Ahab.
Melville’s answer—any author’s answer—is still to be ingested with a grain or two of salt or in liquid form as the salt of some grain. Authors do not have to tell the truth nor to be cooperative or, even more confounding, may be an habitual liar. The author may have been at pains to build a particular persona such as Somerset Maugham did, conveying one personality while being quite another in day-to-day, non-writing life.
In most cases, readers are left to evaluate what they read on circumstantial rather then direct evidence.
Excellent starting points for reader evaluation are two seminal works from Samuel Langhorn Clemens, Innocents Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi, each sent into the world as autobiographical excursions, each combining fact with a great deal of opinion, both direct and implied. Writing as his self-proclaimed persona of Mark Twain, Clemens approaches each work with his signature deadpan narrative voice. Do we trust him? He goes on as though he expects us to—and we do until we sense our reader’s leg is being pulled along with the attitudinal leg of actual individuals in the text. Thus Twain shows us a major device, the potential for alternate visions of the same reality. Twain was by no means the first to do so, nor was he the first to feign ignorance of what he was doing. Using these techniques, he rode into the twentieth century on a wave of irony. A century later, he—and we—are still riding.
Do we take Mark Twain as reliable?
In England, a remarkable novelist, a mere five years Twain’s junior, was born. Twain lasted until 1910. Thomas Hardy remained until 1928. Twain’s work informed the twentieth century. Thomas Hardy’s monumental opera dragged the nineteenth century kicking and screaming into the twentieth. Which of the two do we consider reliable? Why? Hint: the answer has the word humor in it.
Do we consider any narrator entirely reliable? Given our knowledge of Truman Capote’s troubled personal life, are we able to take him at his narrative word or is there always the acerbic hint of agenda clinging to it. And yet. Capote surely read George Orwell, particularly Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, his first booklength venture, written in such a way that we become absolutely convinced of his accurate, documentary style. Because of its narrative tone, its judicious, almost frugal use of personal pronouns or references, its seeming objectivity, Orwell’s account is still in print, still seen as a model of a particular type of memoir. Compare Orwell’s approach in Down and Out with Capote’s twentieth-century narrative breakthrough, In Cold Blood. Read Capote’s Hand-Carved Coffins and Music for Chameleons, then ask yourself the question Capote was prompting you to ask all along: Are these two works factual reporting or fiction? Then ask yourself why he was at such pains to blur the two states.
An earlier account by the same sections of London described by Orwell, The People of the Abyss by Jack London, takes narrative tones ranging from self-piteous to hectoring, and political posturing. Try finding a copy of The People of the Abyss in most libraries, much less in bookstores. Amazon or Alibris are the more likely sources and their selections are limited.
A valuable point emerges here: The ease and fluidity of an author’s narrative style can lull us into an unwary state wherein we glide over the things we might ordinarily regard with some suspicion. Authors such as Twain and Orwell, later Joan Didion, can inject the occasional adjective of judgment with such deftness that we swallow it whole, taking it in, scarcely recognizing how we’ve been led along the pathway of their intent, cajoled and teased into the emotional response the writer wishes to convey. We are being led along the narrative trail by the process of evocation rather than mere description.
Same thing works in photography. A photographer has perhaps photographed the same building in differing conditions of light, choosing the one exposure that most expresses her desired effect.
Even when we read for pure information, as opposed to such adjuncts as enjoyment or disagreement or traces of bias, we cannot avoid the need to ask questions, to challenge the statements, to engage authors dead these long years with questions. How do you know? What did you feel? Are you fucking kidding me?
Sunday, January 22, 2012
Many of your friends with various versions of e-readers are enthusiastic about the variety and number of titles they have already downloaded—still have to work at being comfortable with that word—and are as likely to brag about the length of time necessary to perform such an operation as they once were relative to their successes with romantic interests.
In a gesture of housekeeping, you removed several “aps” or applications from your iPhone on the grounds that you have never used them or rarely used them. You forbore to delete “aps” that allow you to download—that word again—books. Out of curiosity, you checked to see how many downloaded books you have on your various appliances (which are not really all that various). You were able to find a download of Jane Austen’s novel, Possessions, which you mean to reread for purposes beyond mere enjoyment, even though the purposes are on vacation from your memory at this moment.
On the other hand, there are now three books of the bound sort on your work table as you compose here, four if you’d care to include the Moleskine notebook you sometimes carry with you when you are not carrying the two smaller notebooks which you also sometimes carry with you, the “sometimes” in the equation being a matter of whim and mystery. (Why are you motivated to take the red Moleskine on certain days and not on others?)
When you were faced with the necessity of moving from Hot Springs Road to this amusing-in-its-analog-to-Inner-City at Sola Street, you’d arbitrarily decided to take only a hundred books, a number that expanded immediately when you thought to cull your collection of short story collections. That was a tad over a year ago.
It was once possible to move about here at Sola Street without tripping over piles of books or toppling stacks of them. Such luxuries have vanished; each day causes you to acquire some new book or other, each for various reasons, not the least of which are the ARCs, the advance reading copies sent you by publishers in hopes of a review that will generate sales momentum.
Today, a Sunday, would seem to have provided some respite since there are no deliveries of mail, FedEx, or United Parcel, nevertheless there you were at Chaucer’s with the specific goal in mind of acquiring Gogol’s Dead Souls, which arrived in your mind as an excellent adjunct to your teaching of Joseph Heller’s iconic Catch-22. It is true that you could have downloaded (no way are you going to get used to that word; it sounds—as ENK would say—gross) Dead Souls, more than likely at a lesser cost than you paid for the Penguin edition, but you’d have then had to store it in some sort of system that would in effect be your compromise between the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress System, which you might have been able to do, but would you have been able to retrieve it with the ease of its downloading? And would you be as likely to reread it in digital form, as you are likely to reread it in its print version? You understand perfectly well what a generational thing this is.
One of your dearest friends, who has written well over thirty books, is not computer literate and although you have written well over thirty books on typewriters before writing yet others on computers, you are at least of junior high school level in your computer skills. You have even edited books on computers, without ever having seen the paper manuscript (if in fact there ever was one).
In some ways, your approach to paper publishing reminds you of the aftermath of serious parties in which much is consumed and participants “fall asleep” on various sofas, beds, chairs, floors, and the like. You see the convivial survivors on your clean-up rounds. You see books, strewn about the relative smallness that is 409 East Sola Street in much the same way, set about the areas you tend to gravitate to in one reading mode or another, dog-eared, bookmarked, or somehow festooned with slips of paper, index cards, or Post-it Notes.
You understand perfectly well that you could experience the same results with e-books, allowing you space at 409 for such things as flowers, plants, small ceramics, and photographs, but again the matter of electronic filing and storage enters the picture joined at the hip with neatness.
Perhaps the issue is not even as much related to neatness as it is to rowdy parties, spontaneity, and mischief. Perhaps writing, editing, teaching, and, in fact, reading, are better accomplished when they are indulged in a party-like atmosphere of conviviality, argument, the occasional harsh word and/or misunderstanding.
One of the books on your desk is Arthur Koestler’s The Case of the Midwife Toad, which came to you in a discussion with a biologist, lingering with the tantalizing awareness that your next book review is to be an oldie. Even while you were having the discussion with the biologist, the opening lines of the review presented themselves to you.
The Koestler rests directly atop D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, which you intend to use in your Spring quarter class at UCSB, along with the small volume not far removed in size from the red Moleskine, Harry Frankfurt’s remarkable On Bullshit, which you also thought to bring to the university in honor of your earnest belief that Professor Frankfurt’s work has even greater relevance at a university than in the sclerotic streets of the inner city.
What it comes down to, your own belief of the inevitability of the wider universe for electronic books notwithstanding, is the sense of the print book being more convivial, more likely to provoke responses and reactions beyond its text.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
Friday, January 20, 2012
Story and life are built around decisions.
There are decisions made in each, triggering action and, of course, triggering the response of no action. Story and life may have, in a metaphoric way, become the equivalent of toothpaste squeezed out of a tube. Those are the decisions or their lack that have left a permanent appearance of consequence, which in its own way goes at the tube of toothpaste again for another squeeze.
Story and life revolve about the concern, the suspense of which decisions will be needed now “to get out of this mess.”
A story without decisions is no more a story than a life without decisions is a life. In each case, the lack of need for a decision or the lack of consequence for a former decision are of a piece with the shoplifter who takes some trinket for the excitement of getting away with the theft.
The imperative to make up your mind resonates within you, reminding you how much a part of your life story is and how inextricably story is wrapped in life. This imperative produces the strange calculus where you find yourself wishing your moments of leisure and memorable dreams involved more decisions, more crisis points, and more pressures to do “things,” even if these “things” were such small details as connecting random ideas.
Again the metaphor speaking to you, urging to make your life more story, make your story more deliberate. Conflate story with deliberation; conflate deliberation with the build-up to decision.
At times these matters seem arbitrary, perhaps even self-canceling. You also see story and life more as a sense of alertness and openness to potential. You, the pragmatist, survey the options before making the decision that will send you and your story along a particular vector. There is an improvisational presence in such an approach that appeals to you because of your fondness for the improvisation resident in jazz.
For the moment, the goal is surprise. A decision made has an unforeseen consequence, which leads to the eruption of surprise, which leads to the energy of discovery. You, your narrative, and your characters derive great mileage from such combustion.
This line begins to make sense: you, your narrative, and your characters experience the pressure of arriving at a decision, which becomes the tipping point. Once you and they pass the tipping point, only another draft can save the situation.
If you all pass the tipping point with enough momentum, there will be surprise, discovery, and energy to continue. In this calculus, boredom becomes minus inertia, the force that slows the narrative, spaces the decisions at greater distance from one another, delays or clouds the surprise, suppresses the energy to continue.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
No matter how intense the global conspiracy against you may seem, there is invariably another, more subtle and well orchestrated, in progress directly beyond your immediate notice.
Both the observations above are fact, operating in the face of your inability to recall when there was a conspiracy directed against you as an individual or representative of gender, race, or profession. To be sure, you represent a number of types against which considerable prejudice has been and will be directed. By no means do you attempt to minimize these discriminations, but you do wish to distinguish such aspects as racism, gender prejudice, political preferences, and other cultural biases such as humor and religion or lack of humor or lack of religion from conspiracy. The last conspiracy you were aware of had to do with subtext issues during World War II.
To provide additional stacking of the deck, you venture your belief that conspiracy-theory advocates at any place on the political or philosophical spectrum approach bat-shit craziness. Nor can you venture any plausible reason why anyone would wish to organize a conspiracy against you or, for that matter, participate in one.
You recognize the potential catch-22 here in which such sentiments as those of the previous paragraph could get someone to think of you as naïve, perhaps even hopelessly naive, because, after all, there are a good many crazies “out there,” and in addition, it is a jungle out “there.” But once again, you observe that such responses do not constitute a conspiracy. Conspiracies have their etiology in such exchanges, since you mentioned the lower case catch-22, as that between Yossarian and Clevenger, in the upper-case Catch-22, where Yossarian posits that persons he doesn’t even know are trying to kill him, and Clevenger, growing exasperated, challenges Yossarian to be reasonable, it is not personal, “they” are trying to kill everyone.
As you see the matter, were you to rob a bank on your own, the result would be felonious grand larceny, but if you enlisted others to help you rob the bank, you would not only be committing grand larceny, you would be engaging in a conspiracy to commit grand larceny.
These observations are abstracts, of course. What you are getting at here is that Reality, which may well be unaware of the specific you, is engaging in a regular conspiracy against you because by its nature, Reality causes things to happen, things often expressed by erosion, breach, or outright loss.
You have nothing against Reality, which, you believe, is doing the best it can. At one time, you staunchly maintained you were ever doing the best you could, but now you willingly acknowledge times when you have coasted, looked for an easier way than the apparent path before you. You wish to be doing the best you can so that by not being satisfied with a particular act and its downstream consequences, you may push yourself to attempt yet additional expansion, this devolving into your general approach to things. You would like to think you could do better as opposed to thinking that because of sloth or negligence, you might have done better.
You believe Reality borders on conspiracy because of its relentless, mindless attention to the detail of consequence. Reality is not out to get you so much as, with or without volition, it is out to get everyone. You think it well and good that Reality has no volition, that it merely is, merely creates and produces consequences. You could go so far as to say consequences are the Sisyphean rocks that must be pushed atop the hill whence it totters a moment before tumbling on its downward journey. If this is so, you have made a joke of it, at the very least by not taking it with sufficient seriousness.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
A significant key to an effective beginning, either of a story, a novel, or a daily work session, is a sentence so provocative and ambitious in its reach that it invites the second sentence before there is time to think about it. Make no mistake; some time is put into crafting that opening sentence, that “Call me Ishmael” sentence. In comparison, the second sentence arrives as if from nowhere or, rather, from the energy and audacity of the first.
Much is made of opening sentences. There are, in fact, books of these opening sentences, two in particular compiled by chums of yours, Barnaby Conrad and Donald Newlove. To your awareness, there are no such books of second sentences or, of growing importance, the third and fourth sentences, those workhorses who pull the wagon of story along in relative anonymity.
A reader who comes upon an intriguing first sentence could be put off by a second sentence of no distinction, followed by a third of even more lackluster aura. You must not, and do not underestimate the importance of a proper opening sentence. You have in fact on occasion put the greater part of a work session into discovering an effective first sentence.
This build-up is for a purpose. As you were writing these sentences, a metaphoric light bulb went off in your head. Fond as you are of the no-nonsense “Call me Ishmael” type of sentence, you are more fond yet of a longer, more convoluted sentence, one constructed on the order of freight trains running through segments of the city where their presence is an occasion for traffic in all directions to be brought to a halt.
These trains mean business. Most of them are freight trains, making them an immediate metaphor. As freight trains freight cargo, sentences, in particular first, second, and third sentences, freight large cargos of dramatic information, drawing them past a given point such as a reader who wants to get at the vital details of the story in order to discover what happened.
There is no accident or mere whim connected to your preferences here. Long sentences have the ability to freight story information, which in turn intrigues the reader, who then finds himself needful of turning the pages to secure additional information.
The author has the advantage of knowing the reader wants an intriguing story. Many authors have a few tricks up their sleeves, not the least of which is maneuvering the protagonist into a tight spot, then beginning a fresh chapter from the point of another character. The shrewd author can also contrive more complications, causing the reader to foreswear other intentions in order to stay on, reading for another chapter or two.
Sometimes the attendant device is referred to as a cliffhanger, after the novel by Thomas Hardy in which a character literally hung from the edges of a porous cliff on the west central coast of England.
An attractive, often forgotten combination of opening lines comes from an author of unparalleled significance and reputation:
"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"
There is a well-built opening, a foreshadowing of the opening to come when the author, writing from the point of his eponymous Huckleberry Finn, has him in direct address to the reader: “You don’t know about me without you have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mr. Mark Twain, but that ain’t no matter.”
This is a serious opening sentence, one you have been haunted by for all these years since you first heard it, working on opening sentences of that very sort in hopes of latching on to the tail of a comet that is story. Mr.Mark Twain could do it both ways, the simple, straightforward opening so well deployed that after a mere three words, we are well into being “in” to stay, and the longer, more relaxed, conversational approach that enchants us before we realize it.
Poor wretch that you are, you have come to realize why longer opening sentences so intrigue you. This is because you have the opportunity then to tease the reader along with cadence, with language. Long sentences in narrative are like arpeggios in music, where the notes in a cord are sounded beyond simultaneous; they are played individually in ways that suggest—important word there, suggest—the full-bodied cord but also attenuate the notes and, thus, the overall effect. What you cannot accomplish with dramatic material, you fake with length, cadence, and—if you are lucky—a suggested comparison of seemingly incompatible concepts.
It is jolly fun to come by these kinds of opening lines in the first draft or so, although it is no secret that such “luck” is the result of ten or twelve differing versions of the same sentences, using different word order, different sentence order, perhaps slipping in an outrageous comparison or a metaphor or a simile or anomaly.
When you are off on a long sentence spree, you are no longer thinking individual words; you are sending scouts ahead in search of appropriate comparisons, metaphor, simile, perhaps ironic comparison.
This last, ironic comparison, among other things is the suggestion that a particular tope is a metaphor, when in fact it is no such thing. It may be something else, but it is no metaphor. It is a line that has discovered a life of its own, then growing audacious, it suggests second and third sentences that take the reader on an epic ride from predictability and the predictable development to a surprise, based on the sudden addition of materials no one, least of all you, recognize as being relevant to the story.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
If this note were being written in New York, you could preface it by saying there wasn’t much time before the food arrived because you’d sent out for Chinese. The New York joke is that you scarcely have time to click off the phone from making the order when there is a knock at the downstairs door and the announcement,” Delivery!”
This, however, is central coastal California, where the delivery here is more often than not pizza, presented in reasonable time ratio to the order being phoned in, but still not quite so fast as New York Chinese food.
You’d have rather ordered out from a Chinese restaurant, even though the anticipated delivery is only metaphor; so, in fact, was the ordering out.
In keeping with yesterday’s observations about rituals, these notes are about a kind of ritual, a celebratory rite, a family gathering for dinner.
Your closest family members are respectively ninety miles away and several hundred, Venice, California, the former, Santa Fe, New Mexico, the latter. You believe the son of a favored cousin resides in Portland, but the sad fact is you’ve never met him.
Who then of this “family” gathering are nearby? What manner of metaphor do you float here? Funny you should ask; all these family individuals are indeed aspects of you. Some of them are as remote to you as the Portland son of a cousin, which, you believe, makes him your second cousin or cousin once removed.
When you have a family gathering, you have no idea how many will arrive because you have no sense, after all these years, of how many of you there are. You’ve dealt in some detail with the difference between individuals such as yourself who have any number of components, but do not for a moment doubt who the CEO or department chair is, as compared with the multiple-personality disorder individual who is unaware of the psychical equivalent of the room being double-booked.
There are indeed times when, confronting some consequence of a particular act you’d performed or not performed when you’ve wondered, “What was I thinking?” The implication there is bewilderment at how the sober, rational, considerate you must have taken leave of your senses to have done or not done what has caused these consequences in which you are now immersed.
What you did basically was let the teen-aged you take the car without checking to see if he had his learner’s permit. Now, you’re the one who has to do the equivalent of attending Traffic School to neutralize the mark against your record.
You have enough marks on your record without help from your Teen-age Driver Self. In similar fashion, you’ve enough questions and concerns about manuscript projects in the works without having to cope with the “advice” of your internal editor person, who is not above assuring you, each time your author’s copy of some past work arrives at your desk that you want to hold it up to the light, perhaps even have it framed, because it is sure to be the last thing you will ever see published anywhere. This Internal Editorial Person has on some occasions gone so far as to assure you that you couldn’t manage to get things published on your own blog site.
Another aspect of you is there to shake his head in wonderment at the increased prospect of what “they” will do when they “find out” about you. He’s pretty evasive about identifying who ”they” are or what the circumstances they will discover are.
You have to like this guy’s opposite number, the one you’ve come to think of as The Big Spender. “You can do it, kid, go ahead. Show them. Nothing you can’t handle. Nothing.”
Of course there is The Skeptic, who asks if you can trust the person who asked you for a story or essay, and who doubts the client will pay you for the edits, and who believes the dean—any dean—is another kind of politician, an academic politician. What about Susan” you counter. She was great. And what about Bruce? Ah, The Skeptic says, rarities. They don’t make deans like them anymore.
There is the Don Rickles Stand-up Comic you, the Let’s Buy out the Bookstore you, and the John Wayne you, not to mention those joined-at-the-hip Lewis-and-Clark aspects of you who are big on explorations to the point of forgetting where they are. And there is for a certainty what you call the Royce Hall Nightmare, named after the building at UCLA that housed many of the English Department classes. Named for the American philosopher and advocate of absolute idealism, Royce Hall figures in this recurrent dream as the site for a classroom to which you trudge with some reluctance to sit for a final exam for a course whose name you do not know. All you know is that you have not attended any of the classes during the semester. You’d think to call it your Kafka dream were it not so firmly located in Royce Hall.
There are of course other figures, some as murky and ethereal as Cousin Ted, the M.D. from Portland, others of yet more remote and featureless bearing. They are all there; they all have opinions about the way you are being run. One in particular is not at all satisfied with the way you deal with finances. He is quick to remind you that as an editor, you were always on budget, even when your choices of books were less than prescient. But, he is quick to point out, you cannot say the same for yourself; you did not need that extra latte, nor did you have to tip so generously at that Italian Restaurant or…
What you have done is to invite them all to the table. It is in fact only a table for you, with a side dish of bacon strips and chicken tid-bits for Sally, but in your mind’s eye you ordered a range of pizzas, some with anchovy, others tending toward vegan, for all and sundry of you, to break pizza with you, in recognition that you are where you are in some measure because of them. You were thinking of champagne, but this is a weekday affair and there are two classes tomorrow, so you settle instead on the bottle of San Pellegrino you discovered toward the rear of the refrigerator.
Monday, January 16, 2012
Ritual, as you understand it, is a ceremony in which words and actions are presented according to a particular formula in order to secure a specific result. You have seen a wide variety of religious rituals, including your own participation some few years back when you performed a set of actions, using words, song, and gestures from the culture into which you were born, marking your own rite of passage to the status of manhood or, if that plateau were still not of your abilities, at least recognition that you could now join the minyan or group of men entitled to read from and celebrate accordingly the Torah or ark of the covenant between your culture and its rendition of the creator.
Since that time, you also attended the first communion of the children of Catholic friends, regarding the event as one of parallel significance to the culture of your birth. You have attended the Hopi Snake Dance as well as numerous of their dances of the Kachina Clan, wherein men were momentarily supposed to be inhabited by the essential being of the mystical forces the humans represent.
There was a Navajo Blessingway Ritual, at least two Russian Orthodox Easter services, several celebrations of a Buddhist festival in honor of Buddha’s birthday, The Day of the Dead ceremony in Mexico, and a wide variety of funeral rituals reflecting the varied rituals of the deceased. You were surprised to attend the funeral mass for your friend, the poet, Kenneth Rexroth, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, since you’d thought him to be Buddhist, but then, none of us are what we seem.
You attended a particular ritual yesterday that you’d experienced more times than you can recall, sometimes with a boredom or lack of interest that led you to a light drowse. The ritual involved the evocation of Agni, the Hindu god of fire. Hindus have a shrewd understanding of ritual, from the point of view of the god or personality being ritualized and from the point of view of the participants.
Most ceremonies in which the presence of some of the aspects of the divinity are evoked involve offerings of food, flowers, water, and ghee candles which, when lit, become representations of fire. Things that have been offered to the godhead in such ceremonies become Prasad. Taking some liberties with Sanskrit and Hinduism, you venture to describe Prasad as food offered to the divinity, which has first whack at it before it becomes a potluck lunch for the civilians. You have no way of knowing how the godhead felt about yesterday’s cuisine, but you were grooving on the fish, the chicken, the rice, dal, and cucumber yogurt, and indeed the nun who was on the serving line saw to it that you had a particularly large chunk of fish.
You were not bored yesterday because during the time you’d have been meditating on some godhead aspect or another, you were putting together a reading list for a forthcoming class in narrative technique. You nearly responded aloud with your decision to include Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior as required reading, but although you were excited about the inclusion of D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, you’d not been surprised by the appearance because it seemed so appropriate. As the notion of the next title appeared in your mind, the part of the ritual you were more or less tuning out on involved the Sanskrit equivalent of bel canto singing, call it chanting. Thus your aha moment discovery that you were going to require Harry Frankfurt’s splendid small work, On Bullshit, blended with the chanting. If anyone were particularly aware of your voice, it would have been in the context of surprise that you were a speaker of Sanskrit.
Vedanta, the form of modern Hinduism that develops its parameters from the ancient scriptures, The Vedas, is in its way amazingly like the culture into which you were born. Indeed, at least two of the monastics you known from your association with Vedanta, are from the same culture. It is a remarkable atmosphere in which you are allowed to attend rituals, eat enormous amounts of Prasad, and believe or not believe as you wish, according to your own tamping down of the turf in preparation to plant what you will.
You do not consider yourself a religious person by any means, thus the occasional Vedanta ritual more often than not puts you in some relationship with yourself and some of those about you where you roam about in a state of being up for or open to surprises via the collision of orbiting ideas.
Even were you meditating on such things during the ritual yesterday, you’d not gain Brownie points nor would you lose any for not, which is one of the reasons you went yesterday. Had you not, you’d have gone to your favorite coffee shop, using such crowd as was or was not there as the background noise you’d have to focus in over to indulge your own rituals.
Writing is a ceremony of evoking the presence of feelings, then trying to make sense of them in some coherent way that leads the writer and the reader from a sense of the ordinary to a sense of surprise and engagement.
One of the Sanskrit chants you heard yesterday translates in its opening lines to:
From the unreal,
Lead us to the real,
Lead us to light…
You could say the same thing about the ritual of writing.
And you believe you will.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Your idea of comfort has evolved over the years from its location in the middle, and thus on firm footing, to the edge, where there are potentials for erosion, landslide, and miscalculation of the boundary. Firm footing and secure placement have long since vanished in your estimation; they are not guarantees of safety, stability, or protection.
At onetime, comfort may have meant the presence of these things to you as a set of prerequisites. Now, these qualities suggest the drowsy snore of complacency. You are neither fond of nor comfortable with the state of complacency. Which does for you the opposite of what its definitions suggests as its byproduct. You’ve had experience with you as a complacent sort. In that state, it is a rarity for you to get any writing or thinking or serious conversation. Worse, nothing seems funny when you are complacent. Things being funny suggest to you that reality has not lost its edge, however random it may be as a force.
Funny things are simultaneously things at the edge of some boundary and suggestive of some disconnect between the way Reality is spooling out and the way this spooling out is interpreted by varying interest groups, even interest groups whose goals and philosophy coincide with your own. Any comfort from being amidst a number of like minds becomes as tiring as being cast in the midst of dissidents whose extremism and self-glorification become causes of alarm.
Alarm, allowed to go on for too long before being coped with in some way, becomes funny because of the way hysteria closes ranks about its host, wanting to protect it from those who may have practical solutions to the problem at hand.
Sometimes, when the heavens are raining with too much deliberation for you to be able to enjoy walking in it the downpour, you find a measure of comfort and reassurance in the act of trying to make lists of funny things going on about you. In particular, you look for traces of funny things in your own behavior or lack thereof.
Such exercises pretty well define your approach to constructing story situations. When you are editing someone’s fiction, you take similar bold steps, asking questions and making suggestions that lead the client or student to considering things off limits, in other words, unthinkable things. This is not exposed cynicism. The unthinkable come to pass is the cornerstone of story. In similar fashion, our preparation in real life for the worst outcome of our fondest dreams has a sobering effect on our behavior directed toward others and certainly our behavior toward our self.
At various times in your life, you can see how focused you were about bringing more comfort into focus. Of course you were uncomfortable at the time, producing the motivation to work toward a goal of some stability and a greater sense of security. You could say that you’ve been stable and you’ve been secure, but neither of these things produced anything but boredom.
There are those who complain that they are too old, possibly too frightened, or even too insecure to put much faith in risk. Too old, too frightened, and too insecure individuals are not going to put risk at any distance by ignoring risk. The true unthinkable come to pass is not taking enough risk to keep boredom and purposelessness at bay. Sitting or standing close to the edge is a start. Taking daily strolls about the edge is keeping the awareness of risk where it belongs. You swat at comfort instead of flies.
Come in, someone says, and make yourself comfortable.
Thank you, you respond. But no, thank you.
Saturday, January 14, 2012
Much of the events of December and January, popping into reality like those imaginative, illustrated children’s books, come through to you as pleasant in ways neither better nor worse than other times of the year.
You contemplate—but do not indulge—trips to favored places such as the Southwest, the Big Sur Coast, even portions of the high desert. You do not give into these notions because of your experience with the roads being filled with individuals who have given over to their travel whim. December and January become social times, reading times, possibly even motion picture times.
Things you particularly dislike about these times are the procession of lists. Every traditional publication has some sort of list, a trend that the Internet sites have embraced with due diligence and a lack of originality that becomes stark for its presence. You refer to lists.
The Ten Most Lists or perhaps The Ten Best Lists, or The Ten No-No Moments of the Past year. Among these lists, The Ten Best Books of the past year, and Ten Books to Anticipate in the Coming Year.
This is all prologue to the polite note in your email in-box, sent by the Administrative Dean of the College where you are scheduled to teach within the University of California, Santa Barbara. The polite note has been supplemented by verbal exhortations from only the second Dean you have greatly admired in the procession of past Deans in your life.
This particular Dean would more than likely been amused rather than provoked by your in-class observation that most of the buildings at the university where you once taught were named after crooks. But, as one of Christopher Marlowe’s characters said in a differing context, That was in another city.
The list of which you write here is a list of books. You might say the list of books for Course 102: Writing Narrative: Discovering the Student’s Individual Voice through the examination and writing of 20th and 21st century fiction and nonfiction. The “Course 102” part and the “Writing Narrative” part are the College’s nomenclature. The rest, the Gravamen, you could say, rests on you.
Even as you sipped the wonderful coffee brewed by the Dean, and munched the splendid pastry fresh from the oven at the hands of his wife, you had no trouble rattling off appropriate titles, honest, hard-working titles that you envision having the same metaphoric effect on the students as that mad bomber had on the Federal Building in Oklahoma. Leslie Fiedler. George Orwell. Christopher Hitchens. Maxine Hong Kingston. Virginia Woolf, Hannah Arndt. As the Dean speaks about university politics, you thrown in “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” for good measure.
The course begins to take a finite shape in your mind. Assignments appear before you. Lectures tumble as the frozen salmon dinners tumble from your freezer compartment. That last metaphor is not so far-fetched as one might suppose. The last time you recall a meal with salmon came when you’d prepared the makings of a tuna salad, the mixing bowl filled with such joys as hardboiled eggs, torn strips of fire-roasted red peppers, tangy relish, and a pistou made from Kalamata olives and mayonnaise. All it wanted was the tuna. There was none.
You were hungry. You did have a tin of salmon. You have great respect for salmon, witness the number of frozen salmon dinners. You in fact add to the number from time to time, thinking how healthy and delicious a salmon entrée will be. But for reasons of pure whim, you are also “off” salmon, a fact born home only two nights ago when, at your favorite restaurant, you were offered the choice of a Salmon that had only that day begun its morning in the waters of the Northwest or a sea bass recently of the Atlantic. No contest. The sea bass won.
This only appears to be digression. Lists, particularly reading lists, have analog to the salmon dinners in your freezer. How do you know which reading list you will find relevant in May or June? How do you plan for such things as moods and passions? The great probability is of you caught up in a passion paralleling the vector of the class, but with a different cast of triggering incidents and events.
Your only defense here is the equal probability of the Dean knowing this about you.
Okay, “Bartleby” stays. Love and Death in the American Novel stays. Woman Warrior stays. For now. It just occurred to you that you forgot D. H. fucking Lawrence and Classic Studies in American Literature.
The question now turns to how much room is there among the salmon dinners in the freezer. It is all metaphor.
Friday, January 13, 2012
You are not the writer you set out to be when you in fact set out to become a writer. For one thing, you had no sense of what a writer was like in order to become or try to become anything like him. You had an eclectic group of writers who’d in fact had something to do with your wish to follow what seemed the path as apposed to a more elective one. You were reading the likes of Mark Twain, James Joyce, Albert Payson Terhune, as well as writers of so-called boy’s adventure stories, into which you lumped names such as Howard Pease, Joseph Altschuller, James Fenimore Cooper. At the time, you believed there was a Homer. You also read Ellery Queen, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis. You read Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey. You were taken with the poetry of Ogden Nash, and from about middle school through high school, a nonfiction writer named H. Allen Smith.
You’d heard about a “lady writer” and thus checked in on Willa Cather, as well Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings, and because your mother had a card-playing friend named Edna Ferber, you also took up the real Edna Ferber. Because your parents subscribed to the afternoon Hearst paper, you became acquainted with the flamboyant attorney, Earle Rodgers and thus his daughter, Adela, who with no intention, became a major force in causing you to think more seriously about the subject at hand, which was the writer you hoped to become.
After a time, you became a devoted follower of John O’Hara, but you had no desire to become him, only like him in that his short pieces appeared with some regularity in THE NEW YORKER. You were also impressed that he was one of the first, if not the first American writer to use the word fuck in a novel, The Farmer’s Hotel, published by the then major house of Random House.
You adored much of the work of James Thurber but you had no desire to be like him even though, according to your perception, he “got a lot of stuff published,” your belief in those still naïve to the point where you thought being a writer meant you wrote things, then sent them off to be published, and they were. There were, as yet, no intermediate steps such as revision, much less the risky business of submission. You became aware of how much more—on an incremental basis—Mark Twain meant to you because along about that time, you began reading his nonfiction. At the midpoint of high school, you became aware of a writer you thought it would be fun to be like, Max Schulman, who wrote loosely constructed novels that were funny. You wished—and worked with a particular earnestness—to write funny things. A significant reason why you were not the writer you wished to become was because you had yet to separate the jokes and posturing from funny; you were in fact too serious about being funny, thus you were unintentionally funny, a thing you could not yet see.
Being the writer you wish to be means admiring any number of writers, some older than you by centuries or at least generations, others significant in their relative youth to your age; it means the long, bumpy road to discovering who you are, then trying to capture that individual and his fantastic ideas in some format that will resonate to many who read it.
Sub-plots and complications, staples of fiction writers, attach themselves to your personal narrative with the awareness that you did not always know who you were, much less did you have ideas about what kind of writer that unknown you wished to be.
There was some help along the way when, one afternoon well into the game, after you had not only written many things but saw them through into print or production, you asked yourself in so many words what you wanted to write. The answer surprised you in a sense. The result was a short story. You had no trouble with short stories because, still harboring some of your early beliefs about writing in general and story in particular, you did not believe you could write a novel, even though you’d by this time written a good many of them and published quite a few of those.
You finished this particular short story you wished to write, sent it off to a man you’d met at the dinner party of a good friend, then forgot about it, thinking it was more a gesture, something you did for one of the many tenants living within the edifice. John Milton, then the editor of a prestigious review, took the story, and another, and another. He said, “I guess you’re one of my regulars now.” And you thought so too; doors opened in the interior, those separate, suspicious tenants got to hold the equivalent of block parties. You started to get to know yourselves.
Then John Milton had a heart attack, from which he did not recover, but you did.
You are still not the writer you want to be; you do not think you will until you finish this intriguing thing before you in which you investigate and describe what you call the dramatic genome. It will help that Lynn, your publisher, wants to do a collection of your stories, and it helps that you have a handle on this novel you want to write, and it helps that the assistant dean from the College of Creative Studies at UCSB wants to know how much you expect to be paid for teaching a course in narrative writing, but having accomplished all these things, you will only have arrived after the fact at what you thought it would be good to want to be at one point. You’ll have read books, edited manuscripts, argued with friends and enemies, and perhaps discovered one or two individuals who’d been squatting within, not paying rent or contributing in any way, and you’ll want to know what they want and they’ll want to know how you come to call yourself a writer without having given thought to…and they will whisper something into your ear one night while you’re asleep and you’ll take the equivalent of notes in your sleep, waking up the next morning wondering what those notes were. Days later, they’ll come to you when you least expect. You’ll recognize the information as a clear indication of the kind of writer you’ve always wanted to be. Then you’ll try to get it down on a note pad or the screen somewhere, and then the fun will begin all over again.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
When “The world is too much with us, late and soon,” as William Wordsworth put it nearly two hundred years ago, you feel the same pinch about reading and writing some persons experience about money. To be sure, you are not free of concerns about money, late and soon, wondering if what you have saved will last, and in particular wondering if you will ever earn more money either from the things you do best or the things you may, worst-case scenario, have to do at some future time. This doomsday scenario in light of the email you just received from the Assistant Dean of Administration at The College of Creative Studies, wishing to iron out payment details with you.
You are concerned when teaching and writing assignments threaten to impinge on your reading for pleasure time, which is of a certainty not for the pleasure associated with leisure but rather the reading for pleasure associated with learning what not to do when you write and what to experiment with when you do. You also are wary of your writing for writing sessions, where you go forth thinking you know what you will be doing, only to discover you are presented with other facts, other associations, and other directions than those you’d supposed you’d be negotiating with.
At such times, the temptation is great to take up where you’d left off from any number of books in a particular pile adjacent the chair where you tend to read during times of greater leisure. There is one book in particular, a thick, outsized book of some heft that you despair of getting back to at any time in the near future.
That book is a tyrant. That book is also a challenge, an inspiration, a Sisyphus. You of course mean The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition. Dictionaries, more so than the more close-to-hand Spell checker, are valuable to you because you came into the game such a miserable speller, one who is better served by his memory of how words are spelled (from the incessant number of times you have to look up the spelling of so many words) and his stubborn insistence on using the spell checker even resentful of it.
For some years, it pleased you to tell the story about one of your top favorites of writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was such a dreadful speller that he inadvertently gave the name to an actor of some ability and reputation. Fitzgerald, an eventually lapsed Catholic, intended the dedication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, for his childhood confessor, a Monsignor Faye. He could not fucking spell Monsignor, which he rendered Sigorney. Does that name ring any bells? Think of the daughter of Sylvester “Pat” Weaver. Go ahead, think.
From such mischief comes vindication and enablement of your spelling defects. During the days of your first editorial rise, you hired as an assistant a young woman fresh from the trenches of Houghton Mifflin, who, she informed you, had just published a splendid unabridged dictionary to counter the dreadful Merriam-Webster’s unabridged third edition, the controversial and much reviled MW3. Your employee offered to secure a copy of the AH 1 at a discount price. You accepted and have been with AH through 2, 3, 4, and now, the fifth iteration.
When the world is too much with you that you cannot spare the time for, say, an Aurelio Zen mystery such as Ratking, you turn to AH5 to scan the pages, the columns, the no-nonsense articles about this strange, unruly, quite splendid language of ours. There is a chemistry sparking between you and such a lavish, approachable dictionary, locking eyes with yours as though there was no question you should become lovers,
Soon, traces of peanut butter, avocado oil, perhaps even grapefruit pips will have contact withAH5. Its pages will, as the pages of AH4 have long since acknowledged, become dog-eared, wrinkled, possibly torn and patched. AH5 will bear you no recrimination; it will continue to provide you endless fascination, hours of becoming lost in the conversational cadences of the language that so buoyantly supports us both.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
What are all these mysteries of which you are writing to discover the answers? For some time you have urged the vision of storytellers—of which you count yourself one—setting forth on a narrative, deliberately tweaking the circumstances and occasions for moral choice, in order to box yourself into the metaphoric corner, thence to see what your characters do as a way of demonstrating to yourself the answers to stresses and choices you have no real-time answers to ascribe.
All most convenient, isn’t it, this notion of you at no physical or true moral risk, sitting back in your garden-like dwelling here on East Sola Street, walking distance to some remarkable parks, equally convenient to a number of coffee shops, restaurants, at least one book store and at least one art gallery where you are known by name and greeted as though some collector or critic.
What about the email you received from the Assistant Dean for Administration of the College of Creative Studies, addressing you thusly, “Hello Professor,” asking you questions about the name of the course you will teach in the Spring of 2012 and how much you expect to be paid for doing so. These are in essence existential mysteries you will need to puzzle out or, if you wish to look at it in a certain way, you will need to discover.
This approach leads you to wonder if you are as baffled by the world going on about you as you sometimes feel? Do you trust the information you glean from your surroundings? Were you overstepping your boundaries when, only this evening, you told an anthropologist about Clovis Point projectile points? Were you on stronger or weaker ground when you told him his descriptions were evocative and interesting until he slid into the first-person narrative, using, of course, the pronoun “I” as thought were a Kevlar vest, insulating him from his deeply held convictions and feelings?
These are in part some of the “things” you hope to discover through writing, which is an ironic tie-in to your belief that irony has become a major narrative tool in memoir, short story, and longform fiction.
Irony, skepticism, and cynicism are tools useful in coping with the mysteries you confront. Will you, you wonder, be able to interpret the extent and depth of mysteries you observe about you in reality, then transform as code into the characters of your creation when you write your own narrative or read the narrative of others? What an irony would result were you able to note a mysterious behavior, track the irony down, and in the process completely misinterpret it? If Noam Chomsky is right about so-called primitive peoples not in fact being all that primitive but rather more than a little sophisticated, can’t you assume some of these so-called primitives were really having on visiting anthropologists who walked among them, noting and interpreting behavior.
You continue in your belief of the story containing coded language, which you, as a storyteller, helped instate. You are drawn to so-called novels of suspense and mystery, in whose pages you have long ago lost interest of discovering who killed the momentary equivalent of Cock Robin, but rather instead which facts you have taken down with artful energy, then gone on to misinterpret as far as it is possible to misinterpret observable facts. This is a safe position in relationship to moral high grounds, which have the most slippery footing of all.