The locked-room murder mystery is a staple within the detection genre. One or more corpses are found in a landscape, which has been sealed off or to which no apparent access could have been found, causing the reader and one or more detectives to wonder how the body got in and the killer got out. Among the most famous of such mysteries is the short piece by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but your own favorite is Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.
Although there were no corpses involved, you were more or less in a locked room most of Saturday and yesterday with eight writers and a literary agent. There was no mystery at all about how you got into the room or out of it, but while you were there, you couldn’t help thinking about some of the connections revolving about locked-room locales and the metaphoric locked room of a story, wanting to establish itself as an entity without leaving the tracks of the author who perpetrated it.
You are also led to think of the characters who by some stealth or motive or combination thereof manage to work their way into stories, how many of them you have followed, eager on their behalf as they sought ways of escape.
At this point, you begin comparing friends in the outer world, which is to say real individuals with whom you have some bond of friendship, and imaginary individuals, men and women of a spectrum of ages, ethnicity, geography, and social status. And you consider the times you have followed them, real and fictional, into locked rooms. Your vision cannot be complete without you considering occasions in which some of them followed you into locked rooms.
Grief, despair, and bewilderment are often the repo men of reality, edging you into situations other than a comfortable or near-comfortable relationship with the narrative of life. They lurk about you as though you have defaulted on your payments of happiness, comfort, and equilibrium and now wish to call you to account for having reneged on a conditional sales contract.
At this moment, one of your oldest, dearest friends is consuming ever more oxygen as his life ebbs away like a waning moon, another is finding it more difficult to get about without having to lean on something, and your great canine friend, with you since 1997, is experiencing times when getting to her feet is a frustration.
These are some of the consequences of having friends in the first place, which is a saving grace when you think it through, attempting such exercises as wondering how your life would have been ever so much less meaningful without them before arriving at the observation that, knowing how books and stories end has in no way prevented you from rereading them. You glance to your right, at the splendid oil portrait of Molly, with whom you shared fortunes before Sally came into your life. The portrait was a gift from the friend mentioned earlier.
Friends, whether human, canine, or fictional, form a major presence in your life and, you venture, in much life in general. Friends, characters, dogs, cats are the connecting links with incidents you pull from the shelves of memory to give second or third or sixteenth thought when, as Wordsworth put it, “The world is too much with us, late and soon…”
You tend to forget sometimes how close your friendships were with individuals and events you created or how your friendships with characters and events someone else created saw you through the dazzle of experience and the worrisome clang of processing that experience into some useful product.
You’ve spent considerable time in locked rooms of your own stubbornness or lack of planning or frustration, using the story you forged in your imagination as a kind of Swiss Army knife of implements to get you out.
Sometimes, as you reminisce or try to recall events, you not only have difficulty remembering where you first picked up the story, you have moments of difficulty recalling if the information came to you from reality or fiction. You’ve often observed how boring information can be unless it is freighted by story, an observation that gives weight and substance to your resolution of the equation: Dramatic information is more memorable.
There’s a story in there, somewhere.
Monday, April 30, 2012
Sunday, April 29, 2012
From time to time a word lodges in your vocabulary in much the same way you’ve felt sesame seeds or strawberry seeds lodge in between your teeth. The seeds not only taste pleasant, they can be flossed out with ease. The words are not so easy to remove; they linger, waiting to pounce on sentences and paragraphs to the point where you find yourself sifting through your narrative the way those perfervid, earnest scavengers comb the beaches early of Monday mornings with their metal detectors, seeking materials not visible to the naked eye.
Such preoccupations with words, their use, and your determination not to use some of them, such as very, or suddenly, or possibly, and others still that are not adverbs, words such as it, in particular combination with variations on the verb “to be,” which lead you in a downward spiral toward the passive voice.
Your attitude about such words and their placement is only one side effect of your conviction that voice is the top of your preference pyramid for the dramatic elements you believe necessary to construct story and nonfiction narrative expressive of your own preferences.
Story in some ways reminds you of your mother’s baking, in particular your favorites among the remarkable output of cakes seeming to surge from her ovens. Her product was always characterized by a fluffy moistness, a springy, almost playful cake, reminiscent of a freshly bathed baby or puppy. This says nothing about the individual textures or flavors, your own favorite being a banana cake that brought ingredients together as though they’d met in a linear accelerator, the particles colliding to form new, unique element of taste. A piece of one of her cakes, dangling from a fork, caught the light as though it were posing for an advertisement, luxuriant, inviting fluffs of wispy ingredient, begging your attention, inviting you to taste, then savor.
You took story for granted for some long years, aware your favorites had special qualities you could never hope to duplicate through anything so direct as an outline or formula. Rather, you were driven by the need to be prolific so that one in every five or six would cohere in such a way that you could reassure yourself you were at least achieving what Mark Twain would call the hang of a thing.
Of all the elements you were surest so far as story is concerned, voice was the one you were closest to being able to employ without conscious thought, the luck, you believed, of the drama.
Your vision made sense. Voice determines the characters you select, their strengths, which may prove not to be strengths in the long run, their fears, their areas of persistence.
All the while you were wrapping strands of attitude and personality about the armature of story, you were writing and selling a variety of stories at about thirty-five hundred words to pulp magazines, taking you well away from your tendency to the episodic and marching you in lockstep to a more functional procession of scenes that led toward a combustion if not a denouement.
One evening you found yourself at a sit-down dinner party hosted by your friends Dennis and Gayle Lynds, placed next to a spare, affable man with inquisitive blue eyes and a wry, enthusiastic smile. As you were holding the meat platter for him to transport some lamb to his plate, he asked you what you did. In as many words, you told him you wrote what you thought to be short stories. This was a nuance he appreciated, telling you he believed writers should not write anything they did not consider to be a valid form until they’d found a way to put their own thumbprint on it. Then, in short order, he asked you to send him such a short story.
By the time the fruit and cheese platter had begun its rounds toward your end of the table and the coffees and cognacs were being poured, you’d reached a defining moment without realizing it. At that time, your approach with a short story was to start with a premise that stood well beyond the boundary of the ordinary story, then attempt to manipulate it back toward a more or less ordinary ending so that you could find a home for it in a magazine where you might be paid so much as a hundred dollars for the story.
The story you were working on before you’d received the invitation from your dinner companion involved a man who became obsessed with the dog of a close friend to the point of conniving to steal the dog, disguise it, then raise it as his own.
You knew the story was going to your dinner companion, who lived and worked in a remote university town in South Dakota, where he taught and edited the prestigious literary journal, South Dakota Review. Your knowledge also included the fact that you could not think to manipulate the story back to a state where it appeared to have anything resembling a conventional ending. You knew this because of the quiet authority you sensed in the man, whose name was John Milton.
Voice took over, leading you through familiar neighborhoods of formula and predictable complication to an unmarked landscape that had no basis in reality for you. Although you’d moved many of your settings away from Los Angeles and in some cases begun to use Santa Barbara street and place names, this neighborhood was neither. True enough, it was more Santa Barbara than Los Angeles, but it was also more your reality than it was Santa Barbara.
Somewhere in your files, you have John Milton’s note taking the resulting story on, and the next, and, with the next, his observation that you and your landscape had become one of his regulars.
That observation is in many ways still true; you with regularity now set your stories in a place where it is not in a place but of a place. This place, its street names and institutions, bear a resemblance to Santa Barbara, but the strange, occasionally drunken grids of this city are not the grids of authenticity. The survey team consists of voice and attitude; you hear them as you compose. If you do not hear them, you retrace your dramatic steps until you do.
Your decision to render these essays in the second person point of view are of the small suburb of Montecito, to the immediate south of Santa Barbara, in a real sense discovered in a stone carriage house on Park Lane when John Sanford was still alive and lived there, and you went to visit. These essays are of but not in the physical confines, the surveyed confines, they are of the voice you heard from long, vigorous arguments with John Sanford and from having read all his books, and from having sensed the idiosyncratic note of your own voice wishing to speak to you as it does, in this way that makes so much sense to you these days.
Saturday, April 28, 2012
Thoughts of doppelgangers and a finite number of body and facial types were proliferating early this afternoon when you took a break from a weekend-long intensive workshop you are co-hosting to secure a cup of coffee at the sprawl of a café in which the workshop is being held.
A man in his mid-to-late sixties, in apparent health and posture, approached, embraced you, then announced that you had not changed one bit since he knew you in Muncie, Indiana, where, indeed, you appeared always to be ahead of the curve.
You did not know what curve he referenced and although you were impressed by the warmth and sincerity of his greeting, you were forced to admit to him that he’d clearly mistaken you for another, citing as evidence the fact that you have never set foot in Muncie, Indiana.
Your greeter was not at all taken aback, venturing how well he remembered your wit and spontaneity. He was pleased to see that the years had in no way diminished your sense of mischief.
You again appealed to his reason. His observation about your sense of mischief was accurate to the person you were, not the individual he supposed you to be. Since such conversations are dear to you, you persisted with the observation that you were happy to see him because he was such a chipper and agreeable sort who was, nevertheless, a complete stranger to you.
At this point, he was joined by an equally fit-looking woman with an elaborate coil of fluffy white hair, piled imaginatively on her head. Almost immediately, this lady agreed with you that you were not the individual the man thought you to be. The man began laughing. “You’ve worked this all out, you two. How rich this is. What fun we’re having. Shall we go inside for some wine?”
Soon, the woman, whose name was Iris, repeated her firm belief to the man, whose name was either a Stewart or a Stuart, that you were indeed not the Philip Stewart or Stuart supposed you to be. Shortly after, a waitress brought you your coffee, addressing you by name, which is to say your name, not Philip.
You tried to explain to Stewart or Stuart how you have in recent months been taken for other individuals, at which point Stewart or Stuart grew toward the truculent in his behavior. He appreciated that you were trying to spare him some embarrassment but began to suspect you were having him on as well, taking advantage of the situation to poke fun.
At this point, without the slightest conscious intention of mischief, you may have made a mistake. “The way the real Philip had you on?” you asked.
Iris shot you a warning look, which seemed all the more poignant when Stewart or Stuart replied with some belligerence, “What do you know of those time? How could you possibly know what Philip was like?”
Your own naiveté visited you with the awareness that Stewart or Stuart’s effusive earlier greeting of you could have been fueled by his having a snoot full or at least some head start on being in, as they say, the bag. This explained in part his seeming pleasure at seeing you and his immediate displeasure at the news of you not being Philip.
There have been times when you have apologized for not being yourself. This usually meant you were feeling a tad or more off course, ill, plain tired, possibly, when you consider certain years of your life, in the bag yourself or close to it, or hung-over from having been.
This all conflates in the knowledge how much unlike our self we may be from time to time and how, through the whimsical varieties of individual personality, even when we are our self, we are not our self.
The self—the normally agreed upon tenant of the shell we call home—we believe reports in on some regular basis or that takes off on other, less regular bases is neither always trusting nor trustworthy. These over-the-top situations and circumstances intrigue you as much as any thriller or noir mystery thrills you, appeals to the comedic side of you which, like the Phil you’ll doubtless never meet, loves to complicate the situation known as identity.
Friday, April 27, 2012
Characters struggle to get to their safety and comfort zones, but writers won’t let them. Writers seek their own comfort spots, but their characters won’t allow it.
In both cases, the comfort zones are not comforting enough. If they were, more readers would set books or magazines or journals or electronic reading devices down in search of some other diversion for the steady stream of event, encroaching like a line of determined army ants, the stream we variously call Life or, in a more generous state, Reality.
Comfort and safety zones are not twentieth- or twenty-first-century inventions; they have been with our species before it had the ability to speak, well before it had the ability to incise words into rocks or clay tablets, or paint them onto scrolls of various compositions.
Some of your favorite stories involve men or women who are about to sit down for a meal, sneak off for a nap, perhaps slide into a few moments of recreational canoodle, only to be interrupted by the express delivery of a story point.
Knowing a character means knowing a number of things about the individual, strong points, weak points, fears, hidden agendas—you name it, the more secretive the better, because we readers enjoy secrets every bit as much as we writers enjoy inventing them.
Good places to begin are within our secret trove of writer’s secrets, things we know about ways the universe works that amuse us. You, for instance, have an entire index of ways in which you will show off for particular types of girls, women, and in-betweens, amazed when you catch yourself doing so until you begin to look about to discern why and what you hope to accomplish, a goal that could be as transient as eliciting a smile from a certain, well-tattooed waitress at one of your favorite coffee houses to a hug and a cup of coffee with a certain wealth assets manager from a local bank to a dinner date with a certain former student to leisurely conversations with a broader range of demographics.
You believe there is a calculus between secrets and dreams.
Only last night, in a brief flash of dream, such a person for whom you’ve showed off on numerous occasions, appeared. She was in the background of a more-or-less recurrent dream in which you cannot remember where you parked your car, a dream often exacerbated to the point where you further cannot remember which of the cars you owned was the car of focus in a particular dream.
Sometimes, as you are writing a scene, you experience a discomfort that seems to spread outward from the thorax, descending into the lower limbs, the uncomfortable awareness emerging that you’d used the scene in an earlier story or that you were not writing your own scene but perhaps copying a situation you’d read in the work of another. After a time, you begin to realize you’d dreamed the scene or something like it, in vivid enough resolution to have you here, at your computer or note pad, sketching the details of a dream rather than working your way through a story.
Such fleeting insights and recollections lead you to speculate that many of the prolific writers you admire have worked their way through the caves and grottos of such introspection to the point where it is rare for them to reach outside themselves to define a character, finding it more easy by far to use as armatures for their characters their own secrets and fantasies, then wrap traits most congenial to story about these armatures.
Real individuals are often impenetrable, their defenses and distraction devices so acute and sophisticated that you find their agendas a code you cannot crack.
Through an interest you developed in bullfighting when you were in your mid-twenties, occasioning frequent visits to the bull rings in Tijuana, and some of the border towns such as Juarez, then later into Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey, also because one of your oldest and dearest friends performed in the ring and still paints and draws of it, you came to understand the meaning of a Spanish-language term as related to the bull, querencia, a terrain within the bullring where the bull goes to feel comfort, or protected. Most bullfighters are quick to identify such places. The more spectacular in their midst attack or invade or trespass within this area, a tactic of some risk to their safety. The bull is, by now, at least frustrated, in all probability producing a good deal of adrenaline, considering its strategy. Remember, the bull is wired to attack anything that moves.
Neither characters nor writers must be allowed to find and remain in querencias. Comfort stations are for later. Ease is for after the final draft has been on the revision lathe for a time.
True enough, some writers find the work easier than others; many find it easier than you do, but you do not do it because of the sense of it being easy, rather because of the sense of fun and satisfaction while you’re doing it. Your experiences with beginning writers and with yourself when you were in earlier stages than you are now, leads you to conclude how irrational it is for beginners to think this is easy work, particularly when their own work betrays, as indeed yours did (and still may) how difficult it becomes.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
In the past several days, you’ve had reason to tell two writers things no writer ever wants to hear. The first case involved an individual who’d published four books. The second was a student’s master of fine arts thesis.
Each work was unrelenting in its dreadfulness, leaving you to remember a discovery at least fifteen years ago, in which you realized how difficult you found writing a negative review. You can think of three or four—no more than four—graduate theses you rejected, accompanied with suggestions for revisions.
As an editor for several publishing platforms, you were with some frequency put in positions where you had to outright decline or recommend declining the opportunity to publish a particular work, which, arguably, no writer wants to hear, either, but which is an integral part of the publication process. Even with the submission/rejection activity being a part of the publication convention, any number of writers have called you names, notably a moral coward, judgmentally impaired, lacking in literary taste, and fearful of taking chances with experimental work.
Being called those names has led you to a number of responses of your own, including the gambit of putting the situation out of your mind as quickly as possible, replying with funny ripostes, and reminding the caller of a more civil paradigm for individuals engaged in publishing professions.
The thing you believe no writer wants to hear is that the work in question is significant in having achieved such a weighty degree of awfulness. You have no wish to hear such sentiments expressed about your own work and in fact write with the hope of hearing quite the opposite sentiments. With this in mind, you look for ways to suggest a more measured approach.
Trouble is, writers do not wish to hear measured approaches, making you all the more respect authors who have engaged the editorial dialogue, listened, and recognized the process is not at the same level as county fair prizes for pies and cakes, which may be enjoyed by six or eight persons; rather they are for stories and novels, intended for a larger, broader readership with no tangible use-by date in mind.
Trouble is, any writers who do not hear tangible admiration of high order being directed at their work will reflexively assume their work is being considered as significant in its burden of awfulness.
In writing classes and workshops, the writer who hears, as though it were a mischievous puppy escaping its yard how well-written is the material the writer has only now finished reading will want almost reflexively to know what the hearer really thought of the material because the writer is trained to believe that if the first comment has to do with how well written the material is, then the speaker is about to deliver the bad news, drop the other shoe, apply the coup d’grace, that the story is awful, the characters do not seem real, the dialogue is too chatty, the scenes go on too long or are repetitious, and other such symptoms.
You’re not fond of telling a writer how awful the work is, even though you may sincerely believe it to be so; this is not from any wish to be sparing of feelings or from fear of reactions as much as it is your belief that such commentary, given in such a direct manner, is not helpful except to reinforce the writer’s resistance to listen to editorial suggestion in the future. There is yet enough of the editor and teacher within the writer who is you for you to hope the target gets the message.
In the two recent misadventures you write of here, the novelist is incapable of listening to editorial suggestion to the point where he wondered openly why you would want him to subject his work to an editor when he, himself, had already edited the work.
The thesis candidate was at this stage of transaction not even faintly defensive, which is a good sign for the candidate, her work, and her future as a writer.
Matters are a bit more complicated with the novelist, who pressed you to write a review of his, who was overjoyed with it until the penultimate and final paragraphs, then wondered in so many words how you could do such a thing to him as you did with those paragraphs, considering all the things he had done for you and the writing community.
Here, the complications grow hazy with point-of-view implication. So far as you can recall, he has over the years you’ve known him, bought you five or six slices of pepperoni pizza. In more recent years, he has purchased the writers’ conference wherein you have been a workshop leader since 1980, a fact that may well justify his claim to have done things for the writing community. You cannot tell; you do not have access to his point of view, a fact that underlies all fiction.
What, after all, is story but a clash of characters, each with an overwhelming belief he or she is right?
The MFA candidate can do well to consider your notes, revise the thesis, and grow confident in the awareness that her talent is not at issue here, rather the setting of it on the page is a risky venture that is meant to be risky for all who approach writing.
He and she and you, who set words down on the notepad, the computer screen, or the printed page, run vulnerable.
Two hundred-fifty words of text to the page.
Two hundred-fifty opportunities for risk to come forth.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Change hovers about us wherever we go, a panhandler or mugger, lurking in the shadows of a parking lot, wanting from us the personified equivalent of spare change or the entire wallet.
Never mind that our hands are already full in our ongoing relationship with gravity and its cousin, friction. They are measurable and predictable to the point where we can determine the probability of an object standing or falling or slowing down or speeding up, depending on its center of gravity and/or weight, which are both measurable.
Although change is in some ways as inevitable as forces of gravity or friction, it is more difficult to pin down, its rate and degree of progression often in open defiance of any but idiosyncratic measure.
You have changed in ways you are not even aware as well as those ways in which you are. Over the years, you have parted company with items you were issued at birth, the most noticeable being the thick, curly tangles of hair that once romped with freedom where now only scant sprout-like growth resides. As your father once observed, you are presenting more forehead to the world.
You have given up some habits you wrestled with over the years, not the least of which was smoking. As well, you’ve sent certain attitudes off packing, but here the measurement of change becomes subjective; perhaps you are in fact the only one who can tell, a fact which has the potential to cast suspicion on your overall reliability quotient.
The fiction and nonfiction you write and now have in progress are of an increased resemblance to the things you wished to write when you’d found yourself moving beyond the first gear in the metaphoric transmission of the writing process. The change brought about with time and practice and the adjunct activities you perform such as editing and teaching is also subjective in nature, yet in reading things you’d written years ago, you can see places where the gears did shift to some useful ratio you’d not been aware of before.
In earlier times, you gave scant thought or attention to change, taking it as an inevitable, perhaps even to the point of regarding it as you’d regarded death—something you’d get to in due course, but, not unlike St. Augustine, not just now.
This is not to suggest you’d believed you could ignore change and death, with the result that they’d move on, leaving you to change and die on your own terms. This is to suggest that both qualities are hustling you from time to time, hands out, palms extended, clever, companionable pitches coming forth from them, reminding you of the top-tier sales persons you’ve known or seen in action, in effect doing you more good than harm because of the ways you are now able to look at change and death, with a touch of insouciance.
You do not take leave from your temper to the degree you used to nor with the regularity of earlier years, but you do lose it often enough, and over trivial enough things to remind you once again of the differences between perception and reality. Losing your temper over a triviality, you argue, should be one of the first things to be sent off to the thrift stores when their truck is in your area. The clue word here is should. Ought. You give yourself lower marks for losing your temper over a triviality than over something of greater consequence.
You have only in recent days lost your temper over an incident that has led you to resign from an association of over thirty years duration. Your loss of temper and the resignation were done in relative sang-froid. The issues and schism were so clear that you first thought then felt the need to resign.
A week earlier, you’d lost your temper over a matter of childish insignificance, then gone storming about for several minutes, an alpha gibbon shaking his fists at the heavens, hooting, bellowing, using a favored expression at such times, “I can’t believe you did that.” Such an expression of feeling is often thought to apply to the object of lost temper. In a sense, it is, but not yet. The failure to believe is in fact directed at you. You are in actuality complaining that you did or said whatever it was that triggered toe outburst of reaction.
There is some comfort resident in the awareness of you doing such things with less frequency than you did in your early years, yet you are aware of not wanting to get by on that kind of comfort, nor that type of results.
Your attention draws you back to the subject at the center of gravity of your being, which is your relationship to story. Through story rather than introspection, you attempt a closer, clearer understanding of the juggernaut that is you, careening through the marketplaces and universities of Reality.
Story is more hospitable to you than introspection because of the way story forces issues, does not leave your side any more than change abandons you or leaves you free of its tantrums and stratagems. Story, too, has undergone changes, in some quaint ways impudently metaphoric of some of the more physical changes wrought upon you.
For a planned work to be called Guilt Literature, you are looking with care at works from the eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century Western canon. Talk about high foreheads. There has been a swirl of Darwinism, Jane Austen-ism, change, and gravity turned loose on story, yet it is still recognizable for what it does to us and for us, whether we read it, write it, or both. It has changed, but you can still recognize it by its smile.
You have changed, but you are still recognizable by the laugh lines in your prose.
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Reading Colm Toibin’s provocative and cogent review of Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Sense of an Ending, in the current edition of The New York Review of Books, set off a falling row metaphor of dominoes in your mind, the Barnes novel causing the Henry James short story “The Man in the Middle” to topple, which in its turn tipped the James novel, The Ambassadors, which had its way with Ian McEwen’s Saturday, which fell on Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, which triggered Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, which…
Thus, here you are, pausing as you sometimes do to consider story in which one or more characters speculates on whether his or her life had been lived well, which is to say to its fullest potential.
There have been, you note, men and women of all stripes and ranges who have distinguished themselves by expressing attitudes and activities that in turn have made life seem a grander celebration of good or evil or intelligence or industry or inventiveness than we could ever hope to make of it, rendering them, in our consideration, paragons of positive and negative achievement.
Degrees of potential seem to erupt from such stories of the extraordinary in our midst; reminding us that mediocrity lurks as a worse fate than failure. Such is the nature of our societal history that extraordinary success is presumed, prima facie, to have arisen from the ashes of failure. To put it another way, Failure 1 is the prerequisite course for Success 1.
You currently follow the trail leading to the belief that more individuals will see their lives as having bordered more closely to failure than to success, while the same life, viewed from differing points of view outside the self-observer, will be seen as having some footage on the success coast.
Seeing a life in retrospect is an occupation of the middle-aged, those in advanced middle age, and those who appear to be waiting out their final orders. You are more than benevolent toward yourself in your regard of your life as a mischievous and agreeable patchwork quilt of failure. The Peter Principle has often propelled you in areas where, in earlier stages of your life, you saw yourself as lacking the social skills, lacking the drive, or the ability to perform at the level you now found yourself, your vision of self visualizing you in some office, all right, some corner office, but nevertheless not the main office, doing in more or less solitary residence the things you do well.
Had this sense of being a living embodiment of the Peter Principle happened only once, you would have been more convinced of its accuracy, but when it comes in new surroundings, more or less yanking you out of the corner office and into larger gatherings, you begin to suspect that “they” might be right.
Throughout the years since you first read it, the splendid critic, Edward M. Said’s final work Late Style, has been one of the literary ghosts haunting you (along with the ghosts of the books and stories you have wanted to write, have written copious notes about, even paragraphs and pages on, but have not yet completed). Said argues at kinds of stylistic traces of maturity in the works of artists at the end of their career, suggesting more than simplistic resignation or even acceptance, but rather a more balanced vision of the quality we talk at and about, when we speak of the life lived in some useful degree.
In many ways, you feel young, young enough to venture the occasional foolishness and brio not associated with late style or any sense of mellowing. You once heard your literary agent describing you to a publisher as a person who did not suffer fools lightly, particularly himself. You agree that you take foolishness with serious focus, and mean to infuse your later years with it on a grand scale of texture and nuance.
Some stories, particularly in the later works of Henry James, deal with individuals who come to believe they have wasted their life, and others in which characters who apparently have wasted their life are by no means aware of the fact.
The Julian Barnes novel, The Sense of an Ending, beckons to you because it so clearly makes use of Barnes’s friendship with the late poet, Philip Larkin, and because you’ve enjoyed much of Barnes’s earlier work, notably Flaubert’s Parrot. But the interior battle over subject matter begins taking hold, and amid the clamor, you find yourself insisting you are not as interested to read about individuals wondering if their life was well spent or not as you are about individuals who have expansive, bodacious plans, doomed for the magnificent fireworks of gaudy failure.
Success is rather boring in comparison to the endless varieties of quest expended on its behalf.
Monday, April 23, 2012
A good part of your gravitation away from such random attractions for potential careers as airplanes, restaurants, the law, a sound effects man for radio dramas, and an announcer of minor league baseball games had to do with the fact of you being an omnivorous reader.
You enjoyed reading aloud, either to yourself or your mother, the books she got from the nearby rental library. Your tastes ran the gamut from comic books, Sir Walter Scott, boys’ adventure books, girls’ adventure books, nonfiction about Native Americans, fiction about Native Americans, and the then remarkable humorous novels of Max Schulman, as well as, to your then mind, the casual sophistication of H. Allen Smith.
By the time you reached Mark Twain, the metaphoric penny had dropped. To make sure, you asked a teacher if it were possible to make a reasonable living from writing such things as Mr. Twain did.
At the time, although you’d experienced living in such places as eastern New Jersey, Brooklyn, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Florida, your assumption was that somehow, whatever you did, you’d live in or near Beverly Hills. To your credit, you soon disabused yourself of that goal, preferring instead Santa Monica, city of your birth and the place where you in fact lived before departing southern California to what is called the Central Coast.
You do not recall the exact words of the teacher when you asked her if one could make a living from writing; you are firm in your belief that what she said has been borne out. Thinking of her response, your association travels forward some fifty years to an estate on Romero Canyon Road, where you were in the company of the playwright/novelist Max Wilk, both of you uncomfortable with your surroundings because of their evocation of, sigh, Beverly Hills. You were discussing the writing life. Wilk placed a cautionary hand on your forearm. “Kid,” he said (people tended to call you kid until about five years ago, when they began to call you sir) “it’s a tough dollar.”
He was, in fact, at the Romero Canyon home because of its association with the Hollywood culture, negotiating payment for his services as you were for yours. To writers at all levels, the Hollywood culture had Mafia-like connotations running all the way down to things you’d seen when you ran the Los Angeles office for Dial-Dell-Delacorte, and fifty percent of your focus was on dealing with “Hollywood people.” You were thought to be “a natural” because you, a Californian, “could speak their language. You know, a little Los Angeles, a little Yiddish, a little literature. Just don’t contract some Thomas Mann or Whatshisname Brecht?”
“Berthold,” you said.
“Right. You talk literature, but all the while, you’re looking for—“
“If that means massmarket, then yes, demographics. Lots of zeroes. Six, seven zeroes, feshtaienze?”
“Capito,” you said.
“Funny,” they said. “Very funny.”
You were at one point led to believe you’d been hired because you were funny and could speak California.
Heard only once from Max Wilk after that meeting. He’d made some deal. You never found out what it was. You’d come away from your “conference” thinking there had to be a better way.
While such things were going on about your mise en scene, you were doing what writers tend to do, “discovering” other writers who’d found and managed to maintain a narrative voice in spite of the myriad distractions life offered such as disasters, love affairs, terrible reviews, existential doubt, telephone calls in which the caller announces this is an attempt to collect a debt, other calls wondering what advice you had for a seventeen-year-old son or daughter who wanted to be a writer.
Your primary discoveries were Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, each in his own way as different from you as can be had. Since then, you’ve piled on a list of others you admired, un-friended some you thought you’d admired, and careened as though drunkenly across the landscape in wild, capricious pursuit of your own narrative voice as though it were some escaped steer on the open range.
Twain and Fitzgerald still remain, but a host of others, notably Katherine Mansfield, Louise Erdrich, Deborah Eisenberg, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson, and Daniel Woodrell occupy significant status.
If ever there were a writer on whom you had a crush…
You were in the Winchester Cathedral, delivering a lecture on William Golding, with particular focus on his novel The Spire. “Mind,” a crisp English voice whispered, as you moved about, warming to your subject, “don’t step of Jane Austen.”
A few days later, you were a bit farther north, in the Devon coastal town of Lyme Regis, the birthplace of the crisp British warning voice, also a longtime friend. You were walking along a distinctive stone jetty you recognized from having seen it in the film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. As you strolled, you found yourself thinking of Anne Elliott, your favorite of all Jane Austen’s heroines, quite likely the one more like Jane Austen. She was portrayed as strolling this very route, discussing with a distraught young naval officer the fine and basic points of the contemporary romantic poets. Anne is the protagonist of your favorite Jane Austen novel, Persuasion, to which you are in fact devoting five weeks of discussion and investigation at the moment.
Austen’s use of point of view, her narrative skills, and her dramatic instincts make for a series of scenes and their consequences that can—and do—inspire many a twenty-first century novelist.
Many of her nineteenth-century contemporary novelists sound nineteenth-century, which is to say distant, shadowy. Austen’s language seems to evoke the time and place; her psychology seems to rush us ever so much closer to the interior of the individuals she has brought forth as characters.
In so many ways, Jane Austen has become every serious reader’s favorite novelist, whether they know it or not, placing her a few notches above Carolyn Keene, and those remarkable Nancy Drew mysteries.
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Vision can be a precarious, risky business.
You are often unsure if your vision of reality—say a relationship with an individual or a client or a student or a project you were retained to edit—is coincidental with what you will call uber-reality, that splendid abstraction of an event as it really took place.
You often enter relationships with guarded optimism, happy at the prospect of some evolutionary progress. You might call that stage one. Stage one is thus filtered by optimism as opposed to neutrality, indifference, or, worse case, suspicion.
Stage two is still positive. You find yourself wondering from time to time if there is in fact the possibility for uber-reality, the abstracted and unfiltered truth of what is happening.
You were fortunate to have two persons you still consider your mentors, one a writer, the other an actor. The actor frequently spoke of “the truth” of a character she was portraying or that character’s perception of the truth or lack thereof in other characters. Your mentor was encouraging rather than defensive when you argued with her use of the concept of truth in these contexts. She seemed to enjoy your progression as you came to realize, then espouse as though it were your original idea that truth is idiosyncratic. Your truth might be another’s lie…or indifference…or ignorance…or the reverse of all these options. She seemed even more to enjoy your accepting the fact that your vision of truth is pure idiosyncrasy, that there is yet another point of view that is more insightful and in the bargain more accurate.
So then, there you are at stage two, wondering if your vision of a person, place, thing, or dramatic idea resonates for you, and perhaps the added tail of the dog, wondering if there are things you can do to make it more so. Can you, in effect, articulate it with greater clarity or insight?
Many of the valued persons, places, things, and projects of your life are at stage two, progressing toward long and short-term goals. Others have reached advanced stages where you began to see there were wide if not insurmountable differences in vision: The person, place, thing, and you were woeful in your utter lack of being congruent.
Among your favorite things to read, write, and think about are such mismatched visions, come to the point of argument, with each side vocal in the expression of non-responsive arguments, you, for instance, arguing for pasta with broccoli topping, your correspondent arguing for some entire new subject matter. In such cases, act two builds to the point where each believes he has “convinced” the other, where each goes forth thinking an agreement has been achieved.
This last is, you believe, one of the staples of irony in literature, whether that literature has comedic pretensions or not. Any sort of agreement ends or flattens story on sight, the animal control officer approaching the stray dog with a restraining noose. The joke is on the characters, shared by the reader. The joke may well be on you if you do not remain alert to your own agenda, making sure you are signing the right contract, agreeing to the same thing, expecting similar or near-similar results.
In recent years, thanks to developments in computer and programming technology, the trope “what you see is what you get” has entered the language to the point where, on page 2001 of the fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has WYSIWYG as an entry. This can and does work for some things, but what you in particular see is not always what you in particular always get for the pure and simple reason that no one else is apt to see with certainty what you see. You work to make yourself as clear as possible, increasing the potential for you emerging with less clarity.
Some individuals about you have begun to bump into physical things, resulting in their growing unwillingness to enter darkened places or to drive at night. What they don’t see is beginning to become what they get. Some individuals have begun bumping into realities of another sort, where what they see—or have written—is not always what other persons get.
In one case, notorious to you, a first-time novelist who was given an enormous advance for his work, complained about the editorial suggestions he was asked to consider. In later years, his career foundering, he is complaining that his publishers are too busy to offer him editorial support.
Yet another case involves a writer who cannot apply Euclidian geometry to his version of his work and the critics’ views. What he sees is not what he gets. That verb, to get, becomes the instrument of punning here as well. This author is the Rodney Dangerfield among writers: He gets no respect.
The former writer could care less what you think; he barely recognizes you to the point of having called you Fred the last two times he saw you.
The latter writer is another matter. He knows you well enough to have asked you to review his latest novel. What he saw was not what he wished to get.
In some existential abstraction, each time you begin a relationship, continue one, begin a project, take on a new client, or begin a new class, you are courting the disappointment of your optimism and expectations. The man you came to Santa Barbara to work for, nearly forty years ago, and of whom, despite your political and philosophical differences, you were most fond, told you often how he always saw the bottle as half empty and had no expectations of success. It was easier to apologize when he was wrong, he said, than to suffer disappointments.
There are things you have written and done of which you are pleased; many others were disappointments, things that did not pay off as you’d hoped while in stage one.
This does not stop you from trying, nor from loving the process of trying, nor of thinking the bottle half full.
Saturday, April 21, 2012
Whenever you come across a display of electrifying dialogue that seems to take over the story in ways that burn it into memory, you can’t help rethinking the time when you felt your own approach to dialogue was your strength.
At the time, what you considered dialogue was no such thing; it was conversation. True enough, you had an ear for a turn of phrase, the occasional lapse into an ironic, literate commentary, the appropriate zinger. But what you had was not what you thought or hoped. If anything, what you had was banter or footnote to the story going on in the background—precisely where it should not be.
There have been many ah-ha moments related to your discovery of what dialogue is and is not, some examples being the most egregious misuse, even more unwieldy than your own, others hypnotic in the way each exchange caused the characters to step forth on the stage to claim his or her spotlight.
The most recent avalanche of effective, you might even say definitive dialogue comes from the television series, Justified, which comes from characters and circumstances developed by Elmore Leonard, who has evolved over the years of his vast productivity from what seemed to be the shadow lands of fiction, the Western.
How could a man with roots in Detroit write such convincing and satisfying fiction? A simple answer is his use of dialogue, and we all know what William of Occam said about simplicity. Universes, he said, must not be unnecessarily expanded. To put it another way, the simplest solution is the best solution. Persons have been saying that for years to the point where now, when you hear it spoken or think it yourself, it sounds like dialogue.
When David Simon, the executive producer of The Wire, decided to pull the plug on that remarkable series, so exquisite in its range and depth of characters and their issues, you despaired of having anything as cohesive available again on television. You’ve come close in a few venues to being given an opportunity to teach a course on The Wire, causing you to revisit its construction and narrative flow in ways well beyond mere audience admiration.
Justified has the same sense of cohesiveness, beginning with a regionalism that implies a stratified and well-defined social culture, weaving a larger pattern of events in ways that are more organic and set in place than episodic. Grudges die hard, relationships have ripple effects, agendas are often hidden under tarpaulin in the bed of an old pickup truck or buried in the gritty Kentucky soil.
The characters have been wound about the armatures of pure need and desire, an overlay of familial devotion and a sense of courtliness that barely misses being exaggerated. You would not, someone asks of a character, shoot a man while he sits at a table with food in front of him, would you? The answer, almost a parody of a Sir Walter Scott novel, is an order to stand up and move away from the table.
To be sure, Justified has two enormous attractions for you, the sure touch of Elmore Leonard’s editorial hand, embellished by the noir flavor and its resultant case of characters. There is also a third presence you hinted at a few moments ago. This series, The Wire, and one or two others stand as literal and figurative novels because of their construction, their flawed characters, the realness and plausibility of the situations, and the sense that such thriving activity, although dramatic in its focused enhancement, happens about us.
This morning, in your Saturday writing workshop, you saw two powerful examples of how dialogue could and should replace authorial intrusiveness, bringing characters and their goals to the forefront, changing the possible outcome of story, moving the dramatic activity away from the sidelines of stage direction into actual explosions of activity from characters in which their movements demonstrated their goals and inner conflicts.
If you say it correctly, the exchange of dialogue becomes the acupuncturist’s needle on the corpus of the story, producing energy lines, tingles, reflexes.
Sometimes, when you experience an immediate, unexpected frustration, you find yourself saying, “Damn.” In other cases, your responses are worse by a considerable margin. Those cases are real life. “Damn” or “Fuck” or anything you might consider in between, however much an explicative they are, are still conversation. In drama, such moments call for dialogue or gesture or a combination of the two.
Listen for the potential irony. Listen for the courtly exaggeration. Listen for the desire to maintain pecking order or to bargain.
Listen to them.
Friday, April 20, 2012
The first draft of a story of any length is like a first date gone well. You know you want to see it again; there are already gestures and glances you want repeated, questions you want to have answered, shared interests you wish to revisit, disparate visions that now seem interesting for the first time.
Perhaps you said something that caused her eyes to mist and she reciprocates with something you can begin to feel moving under the short ribs or climbing along the tear ducts.
You could never presume to estimate how many revisions either would require of you. Back then, ages ago, in the days of the shiny red Olivetti portable typewriter, when you were on a schedule of a novel a month and you allowed yourself the conceit that you might rework the occasional scene here and there, you were nevertheless surprised when you saw the growing layers of wadded-up sheets of manuscript paper. You’d sneaked back for another run-through of a scene, your “reason” being because you liked it.
Unless there was some prearranged agreement to keep preparations casual, you thought with care about when you would shave, what you would wear. Even so, your anticipation was for the first rush of seeing her at evening’s start. The anticipation expanded to thoughts of what would be said, how it would be said, where it would be said.
Starting work in the morning was at the same level. You brought your coffee and toast to the desk because of your eagerness to see the last scene from yesterday, wondering did the dialogue hold up? Was there some crackle of interest in the narrative; did the sentences swoop and barrel roll before you like stunting airplanes?
When you were well along in your interest with someone, there was the excitement of an unanticipated meeting somewhere, the market, the laundry, a coffee shop. Once, while driving along Olympic Boulevard, westward toward Santa Monica, you were stopped at a traffic signal, where you noticed in the next lane, her window down, waving at you, pointing to a diner-type coffee shop. Lover’s luck, you called it. Once when you were in a producer’s office, waiting to discuss changes he wanted on a project that you hadn’t cared about all that much in the first place and was being changed once again in a maneuver you’d come to think of as the producer’s girlfriend’s dog, you found among your script material the pages from a short story you’d all but forgotten and you were transformed into several moments of the person you’d hoped to become. The producer was not at all pleased with you or your attitude that day.
Not all producers are as removed from the understanding of what transformative experiences might mean to a writer. This one was because, as you realized in subsequent weeks, this was the level you had attained. You did not think sunk; you thought attained.
This particular project, although it paid you well enough in relative terms, was like a date you had high hopes for at the outset but which had turned sour around the halfway point, meaning you were faced with the prospect of being home by ten or ten thirty or stopping somewhere to listen to some music and, finding no one you cared enough to listen to, stopping off at the bar in the bowling alley, where the pounding sound of bowling balls, being lofted onto the alley and the squawk-like chatter of the pins being hit seemed to offer you kinetic relief.
Dates and stories. Conversation, companionship, magic, some kind of chemistry, some trace of potential, but work is needed. You have no idea how much work. How many dates? How many drafts? What revisions, apologies, switches in point of view will be necessary for the step forward to the next level?
You can see it anywhere, a coffee shop, the bar at the Olio e Limone Pizzeria, the outside tables at Via Maestra, the “it” you see being a sudden reach and clasp of hands, a bump of hips, two persons sharing a pannecotta or a tiramisu, a particular jut of chin or toss of head, a single peal of laughter at the same frequency as the ring of a wine glass.
You can also see ”it” in a magazine or journal or book, perhaps even your own computer screen or a page of handwritten draft of your own work.
Whichever “it,” it is, it is intimacy.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
You first heard the expression from an individual with whom you’d already begun to have a stormy relationship. Although the expression did have what you considered a sound premise, you did not begin to pay it the attention it deserved until your discovery that F. Scott Fitzgerald uttered the expression well before the individual from whom you first heard it.
The expression is directed to all writers. “Kill your darlings.” By this, Fitzgerald and, to be as fair as possible, the individual from you first heard the injunction mean to rid one’s sought-after effects, observations, figures of speech, ironic comparisons and the like that have more to do with demonstrating one’s own brilliance, rather than illustrating some key point or dramatic theme.
You could go so far as to make a general rule out of the observation that such tropes and figures have the opposite effect of enhancing the story or supplying by indirection some vital dramatic information.
Your darlings gravitate toward long, sinuous sentences. Your practice is to allow them free rein as you pursue early drafts, going so far as to see how many semicolons you can add to the cadence as well as the vagrant clauses and those locutions bordering on redundancy, as though this were some game.
When he was still giving his daily workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference, Barnaby Conrad enjoyed assigning an exercise in which the goal was to produce a sentence no less than five hundred words in length. This proves to be a challenge and a worthwhile exercise, wrapped in the same package. As you follow its phrases, clauses, and slithering through verb tense progression, you become aware of nuances beyond the mere fact of a beat elapsing, an event performed, a reaction made to a psychological vector, which actors and many writers refer to as responding to dramatic stimuli.
On any number of occasions, you’ve heard Fanny Flagg attribute Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café to her indulging the five-hundred-word sentence at the occasion of her first Conference attendance. Working to keep a sentence alive for over five hundred words seems a good way to lose sight of darlings, which might want to creep in, uninvited.
Most of the darlings you’ve seen or dreamed up yourself belong to a kind of description glorying in its own brilliance, a self-conscious attempt to demonstrate some recondite fact or human trait.
The phrase is not meant—you believe—to discourage originality, although you do have to admit, in a manner not unlike the circuit court judge who claimed he did not know how to define pornography but surely knew it when he saw it, how easy it is for you to detect originality in your work and in the work of others. You also believe you are supposed to recognize originality because you enjoy such exquisite taste, which tends to bring the discussion back around to darlings and their relationship to demonstrating one’s erudition, sensitivity, even compassion.
A fun part of revising any work comes when you work up a good head of steam, then plunge through a draft as though a Cossack on a stolen horse, scimitar waving in all directions as the darlings fall in your wake. They were not needed. You could push your luck on this to say embellishments are distractions; a successful story does not need darlings to give it stature and resonance when, in fact, a story with a weak spine or scoliosis needs a darling or two to distract from the fact of its inherent need for some support.
Darlings call attention to the author, when in fact the author should be pointing the way to the characters, their plight, and the manner in which they address the problems besetting them. This is the function of story, last time you looked. A particular aid comes to you in the form of narratives read at gatherings. When a number of individuals compliment you on your reading, then call forth a phrase or two of particular eloquence or beauty or grace—you see how easy it is to become seduced by such glorious adjectives? —then you darlings have taken up squatter’s rights in your story or essay.
Does this mean a litany of straightforward declarative sentences? Does this mean no figurative language or hyperbole? Does this mean no striving for rhythm or cadence or the compressed essences of poetry? No such meaning is intended or implied. If you stand aside, allowing the characters you’ve chosen to present the material in dramatic fashion. The characters will be all too eager to bring forth their own darlings, eager to bring them into the writing game. Your own standard of judgment will center on whether you become jealous of your own characters for the easy fluidity of their darlings, whereas yours were so clunky and gauche.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
The difference between two prepositions, “at” and “to,” becomes the fulcrum for successful storytelling in the twenty-first century.
What you mean by “successful;” is itself idiosyncratic. What was successful in storytelling terms in the remote past of the twentieth century has already lost some of its patina. We do know—and you do believe—that success in those particular terms in the twentieth century was at a remove from what it is now, scarcely an eighth of the way into the newer century.
You will, of course, get to those distinctions, using as your wedge those two propositions, at and to.
Nineteenth- and twentieth century readers were accustomed to having stories directed “at” them, directed more or less as descriptions and, as a result, possible to skip over, skim, ignore, or, worse even yet, believe you’d grasped. Directed stories land in the vicinity of the reader; they may capture complete reader attention or only a portion of reader focus.
With some remarkable exceptions in mind—Jane Austen, for instance, or George Elliot, or Virginia Woolf, and perhaps you’ll allow William Faulkner in there as well==the preposition “to” did not apply with great specificity to readers; writers were still in the habit of including the literary equivalents of footnotes, stage directions, and explanations to readers.
Conventions for telling story undergo change while story remains more or less what it has always been—the techniques for conveying it have evolved, moved closer to the dramatic material itself and the audience on the receiving end.
How does this shift appear before us?
At one point in the early history of the medium, the author, knowingly or not, took on the role of a narrator, a chorus, or some filter, in effect reciting the story in ways similar to the ancient poets, those proto-Homers who recited The Iliad or The Odyssey, describing, using language and delivery to convey a sense of presence.
These ancients spoke at the audience; they told us what to believe. If the story were interesting and the delivery was presented at the proper degree of plausible sincerity, the audience had cultural incentives to take these elements in as an appropriate approximation or actuality; the audience found no problem believing the emotions hinted at and evoked.
Now, the audience is accustomed to having the story envelope them, take them in with its immediacy. The audience wishes to experience for themselves what the characters are feeling, without having the narrative points thrust on them as though they protective garments pressed upon children on rainy days. The audience thus wishes to have the story happen to them, to experience both the sensual and philosophical darts being thrown at them as they are thrown in everyday life.
Having the benefit of past convention and dramatic traditions, the contemporary audience may sense something wrong without being able to articulate the resulting mismatch of hearing a modern story being rendered in nineteenth- or early twentieth-century conventions.
You are by cultural preference and by self-directed study more comfortable with reading late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century narrative. To the extent you have favored some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers, you have less difficulty accommodating to the narrative conventions of those styles. To the extent that their grasp of dramatic technique seems remote to you, there is less chance you will be able to read such writers to any degree of intimacy that could be argued as close. The devil maybe in the details but the division comes with the arrival of the narration.
You are willing to have it described to you because, as you were coming up, you read much earlier works than such classics as the Sinclair Lewis novels or the Steinbeck. For all he was a stylistic entrepreneur, Ernest Hemingway was seldom mired in the engines of his style to the point where readers were left neither knowing nor caring what the characters wished or what they were willing to do to achieve their wishes.
How good you would have felt, knowing these salient facts when you were confronting ways to tell the stories you wished at the time to tell. Because you were, in fact, still listening to the conventions of your earlier times, you would have paid only scant heed to anything as small and apparently notional as a few prepositions. You would not have recognized these prepositions as the plastic card contemporary equivalent of the earlier key to the hotel room.
You’d have not been able to gain entrance and without clue of how to proceed.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
The fabled New Yorker magazine perches at a tip of the literary triangle much envied by such competitors as The Paris Review, Granta, and Tin House. Even readers who hold no brief for New Yorker—flat out do not like it or anything it represents—are aware of its presence. The magazine is thus a presence to be scorned, admired, envied, entry to its pages sought by a larger percentage of working writers than could be accommodated.
Within these iconic pages, and in addition to the weekly “game” of seeing how many of the cartoons one “gets,” is yet another edgy template of sophistication, the weekly short story.
A significant presence in the first-generation New Yorker staff cadre, Wolcott Gibbs, eternally famous for his trenchant essays and his robust taking to the mat of the narrative style of Time Magazine, ventured one of the better descriptions of the New Yorker short story you have ever heard, related to you by Gibbs’s son, Tony, who also put some time in on staff. “Take a typical short story by the likes of O. Henry. Remove the first two pages, delete the last two pages, then send us what remains and we will, by God, publish it.”
The observation, although fanciful, had the right amount of seriousness and plausibility, its tone anticipating the ring of authenticity resonant in the narrative voice of the accomplished contemporary humorist, Stephen Colbert.
New Yorker short stories are uniformly provocative, as steadfast in their pursuit of uniqueness as possible. You have seen a wide variety of voices and styles appearing in those pages of finicky, almost fussy determination that New Yorker fiction shall be as difficult to pin down as, say, Mitt Romney is difficult to define. Opaque is an adjective seemingly designed for their fiction.
Endings seem to want to be as far away from the comedic endings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction as can be had, nevertheless leaving some residue of sensory awareness not unlike the after burn of a freshly ground horseradish. Beginnings, although more in line with the conventional tug of a destabilizing event or attitude, identify some individual in enough hot water to make many readers concerned enough to continue reading through the next tier of complications.
You, for some time, have called middles muddles, perhaps even reaching that state of pun truth from the hundreds of stories you’ve read in that remarkable publication.
The ending is supposed to leave the reader with some emotion relevant to the theme of the story but also reflective of the accurate nature of reality as opposed to the literary housecleaning associated with idealized endings.
The ideal of early and mid-twentieth-century fiction was to reflect a certain happy-if-strained state in which the values many conservative politicians praise in lofty abstractions allow contentment and fulfillment to trickle down.
Not any more.
Almost as though it were some adjunct of street photography, the contemporary short story is dramatizing the uncertainties, the loose ends, the missed connections, the agreements that are not agreements because the individuals are agreeing to different things.
In many ways, the modern short story begins where earlier stories end, at some basis of resolution or plateau, followed by erosion, destabilization, or entropy.
In yet other ways, life has become the art of The New Yorker short story, tart, edgy, not demonstrating any clear path to resolution, leaving you to wonder if you are still the bottle is half full person you were in your youth or whether you have had to negotiate your endings to those where the best chance of satisfaction is the knowledge that you have done the best you can.
You are living in a particular time of stress and turmoil, with its own particular symptoms, but you cannot imagine day-to-day activity was any better two hundred years ago when Jane Austen poured the final measures of her remarkable talent into Persuasion, which is your favorite of all her works. There were notable similarities between those days and the mise en scene of which you write these lines today.
Monday, April 16, 2012
What makes a story work?
What causes people to look up from a conversation or a drink or meal when a particular individual enters a room?
What draws a bee or hummingbird to one flower in a bed of similar flowers?
What makes us care about one person, place, or thing and not care about other persons, places, or things in equal measure?
What makes us care about a character who may “live” in a remote culture and/or another historical era?
Where is the boundary between curiosity on the one hand and attention to the immediate task on the other hand?
Why are we as a species so often engaged in internal and external civil wars?
What would it be like not to care about any or all of the previous questions?
Why is curiosity thought to be the metaphorical instrument that killed the metaphorical cat?
Have you ever seen a non-curious cat?
Curiosity is the itch within the brain; it pesters us to find out why, how, when, where, possibly even whom. Curiosity is the human equivalent of a dog, attempting to scratch a rug, carpet, sofa, even a wooden floor into submission. Most of us who care about dogs have figured the connection with the dog pawing and circling before it settles down. Some of us have reached the point of assuming a constant level of wonderment, of what it, of, go ahead, say it, of curiosity about the self, about others, about the cosmos.
Curiosity is the thing that forestalls sleep at night; sometimes sneaking into the dream state to inject glimpses of forbidden solutions which, upon waking, we are somewhat shaken to realize we’d entertained on some level. Yes, that includes sex, argumentativeness, sorrow, certainly fear and its BFF, dread.
Without curiosity, there would be no story, no invention, no shortcut or alternate route; there would be no regret, recrimination, enormous satisfaction or graveyards of bad ideas, inventions that perhaps did what they were designed to do, but in the process made their intended purpose seem silly.
Without curiosity, there would be no accidents, some of which prove to be disasters while others yet prove to benefit humanity in remarkable ways.
A character who ventures into a story without curiosity will be seen to be timid, conservative, lacking the qualities to carry a narrative on his or her shoulders, perhaps from the fear of “things” getting out of hand or an unwillingness to challenge the mighty, often impenetrable weight of logical progression.
Curiosity will be seen as having no brief for precedent, wishing instead to strike out on its own, distractions be damned, discovery for its own sake. In fact, in some scholastic incidents, curiosity maybe seen as the enemy of an on-task discipline, where a task—any task—represents the ends, disciplined application the means, and curiosity the distraction, because who knows where the distraction will lead.
Curiosity may become a partner to impatience if we are momentarily involved with an individual who is led off on her own vector of curiosity, while we are left waiting their pleasure. If we are the distracted, digressive one, we run the risk of explosive reaction to someone who is impatient, waiting for us to finish our inquiry.
The image of the “pure” scientist persists, she or he who follows a line of inquiry regardless of its final destination. To a similar extent, the musical player who embarks on a course of improvisation is following a similar course. So, too, the writer who is not bound by the metaphorical albatross of an outline, in which the outcome is set and now the resolution is adjusted to make as plausible-seeming a result as possible.
In so many ways, you set forth on journeys of wondering how a thing would be, aware by now, as you more or less have since your late twenties, that a resolution is never as you anticipated; the resolution is much better or much worse than you projected. Indeed, sometimes it is better than your dire worse prediction or worse than your best anticipation.
To put curiosity into a workable platform, you must begin by caring. The next step is the awareness that caring may mean dread as well as excited anticipation. You must dread an event or outcome or you must have high hopes for it. Not caring doesn’t work here.
You must launch forth. As Walt Whitman put it, “Now voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.
You wonder if that works.
Sunday, April 15, 2012
Change begins with the discovery that you have been doing something the same way over a span of time, say the amount of time it takes you to fill the shopping-bag type conveyance your laundry gives you to transport your shirts to them. In this case, you have uncontestable proof you’ve been wearing shirts with blue patterns, shades, and overtones. Nothing wrong with blue patterns, shades, and overtones, except for the observation that you have shirts whose characteristic hues tend toward brown, orange, green—even a few of yellow and peach propensity.
Change, in that case, is a signal to review different kinds of books, eat a different restaurants, try other coffee shops, take Victoria Street home instead of Micheltorena Street, take your evening walk west instead of south, switch to eggs for breakfast for a time, buy green grapes instead of read, switch from Anjou pears to Bosc, try rappini as your principal pasta ingredient as opposed to the habit you’d get into with broccolini, listen to Ravel instead of Mozart, big band instead of trios and quartets.
Change means giving other factors within yourself a voice, even to the point of replacing some of the favorite words in your vocabulary—perfervid, say, or oleaginous, or prolepsis, even slowing down a bit on vast, disingenuous, bullshit, calamitous, and gerund-as-adjectival iterations of fuck—in favor of other worthwhile candidates to express the existential joys, sorrows, doubts, and abstractions with which you form relationships.
Vocabulary is no small thing to change any more than things or individuals with whom you fall in love are less than significant.
Truth is, although experience often dictates to the contrary, there are any number of splendid words out there, music to be absorbed, books to be read, poems to be memorized, remarkable things to put on pasta (Greek olives, for instance, crumbles of goat cheese, and the fruity arbosana olive oil you discovered only yesterday, not to mention the red and yellow peppers you bought at the farmer’s market because you were so taken by their color) persons to fall in love with, and stories to write.
Additional truth is that there have been times in your lifespan where you have recognized and in emotional if not legal ceremony adopted certain preferences, traits, even qualities from which you mean never to part. These acquisitions, these acquired traits, define you as well as the things you see yourself hard wired into. They have effect on the changes and recasting of priorities you make from time to time, but they in no way make you unrecognizable to those who knew you before you decided to rearrange the furniture.
All about you, there is change. Your most favorite use of the concept is musical, as chord progressions in the jazz genre of be-bop are called changes. Instead of a musician asking if he knows the chord patterns of a particular melodic line, he will ask, “Do you know the changes on How High the Moon?” Years ago, many, many years, you were in a crowded lecture hall at UCLA, where Andre Previn, still young in his emerging genius, was lecturing about the chord progressions in be-bop. He played several bars of a Charlie Parker song you’d heard hundreds of times, Donna Lee. “This melodic line represents the changes on a familiar old song,” Previn said. “Anyone recognize it?” In a flash, you came closer to understanding be-bop than ever before, because, within that flash, you’d been led to see. Before you had time to think about it, you called out, Back Home Again in Indiana. Every bit as surprised as you were delighted when Previn nodded, you felt the joy of seeing differences beyond your ability to describe them. “Exactly,” he said. “Let’s listen again so you can see how the changes work.” He cued up Donna Lee, set the stylus down, and you began to hear Charlie Parker’s inventive understanding of changes and their remarkable effects.
Change reflects not only your own growth but as well the growth of things and individuals about you. Change reflects the general ability to understand, the drift toward greater understanding, and the abandonment of things we no longer need to understand. These are all, essentially, separate journeys of growth and change, but in that odd, wonderful way of synecdoche, where the whole becomes a symbol of the part or the part reflects the totality, much of it is there for you to observe and experience. You may be drawn to other things, places, individuals; they may be attracted to you. Always there remains the potential for repulsion as well.
You step forward with undying gratitude toward the things you have changed from and those you change toward. So long as there is change, things will grow. So long as you change, even if it is as minor as switching to the green shirts for a time, you stand a chance.
Saturday, April 14, 2012
From time to time when reviewing a book for your weekly column or some one-off assigned review, you feel the duty to add a note of disclosure. The author is a personal friend; you are a member of the same faculty, you have had a previous association of rancor, ideological difference, or some elephant in some living room you wish the reader of the review to be aware of. By use of the disclosure, you are alerting the reader to some bias favoring the author or the author’s reputation, or perhaps favoring you and, if not your reputation then your sense of pride in your powers of critical analysis.
No such disclosures are necessary in fiction, which of itself is a major reason for your preference for fiction. At the same time, you are ratifying the belief that the writer not only must present some form of bias, the writer can scarcely avoid doing so.
Nevertheless, many writers at all levels of technical achievement persist in the attempt to maintain a rigorous objectivity, a condition of equal misguided footing to the emerging writers who render characters in extremes of good or evil, with no tolerance for that all-too-human state in between wherein the truly despicable are truly kind and altruistic and the likes of Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu kick cats.
In recent months, because of a combination of editing your own work, editing the fiction of clients, or attempting to teach fiction writing at intermediate and advanced levels, your focus has been on how point of view has evolved from nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction to the present day narrative which, in increasing numbers, has brought the story and the narrator seemingly closer together than ever before, at the least to the point where there no longer seems to be an authorial aura hanging over the story, by which means the author is able to filter emotions, explanations, and reasons.
This information, you maintain, is vital to story in general. You also argue that the information must come filtered through the characters, evoked as opposed to being described by character and/or narrator.
“It was hot that August night. Mary felt the drops of perspiration starting at her forehead.” Wrong, you say. Whenever a sentence begins with it—sorry, Bulwer-Lytton, sorry, Dickens—the author or the author’s appointed second is stepping on stage to address the reader. “Mary did not like these hot, sweaty August nights,” allows us the narrative conceit of funneling the information through Mary so that we may believe we are privy to Mary’s feelings rather than being told what they are.
While this narrative shift is evolving about us, another is appearing, yet is not remarked upon to any noticeable degree: Conclusions and endings are less conclusive and seemingly less emphatic in their finality. Some short fiction, particularly short fiction appearing in magazines, may in addition to their opaque resolution, may arrive at the end of their text at the exact bottom of a page, whereupon the next page is often a large advertisement or the headline and author by-line for another narrative, at which point the reader knits a brow, then complains, “That’s it? That’s where the story stops?”
With increasing frequency, the answer is in fact, “Yes; that’s where the story stops.” Of equal frequency is the narrative, editorial, and, of course, authorial intention that the reader will internally add to the narrative. We all of us seem to be saying that although there are senses of finality in quotidian activity, some of them are baffling, inconclusive, uncertain. Some are frustrating, others yet are provoking. Welcome to the simulacrum. Welcome to life meets story. Welcome to story meets life.
Many of the interesting individuals you know in what passes for Real Life, the outer narrative, the day-to-day drama, are fond of the use in their own oral narrative of the phrase, “But that’s another story.” Even they can see the tidal chart equivalent of story, the wax and wane.
Has the species trivialized story by snipping of a chunk of its tail, thereby in metaphor trivializing life, the narrative on which story is based?
A portion of you grapples with such matters each time you stride out beyond a sentence or two,
In case you’d forgotten, a disclosure is called for at this point: When writing short stories, you have frequently written past the point where the story ultimately ends, attempting to tack last scene upon last scene onto the scene-ending line, sometimes writing five or six botched or inappropriate final scenes before the awareness forced itself upon you: You’d already finished the story.
Trying to add explanations or meanings beyond the point of necessity is a distraction. Upper among definitions for the term "Anticlimax" is "an unnecessary distraction." False clues, red herrings, and hidden agendas are mischievous distractions. The former muddy story; the latter give it a sense of plausibility.
Take your choice.
Friday, April 13, 2012
When you pause to consider the many components necessary to produce the briefest story, a natural leap of conjecture for you is the even greater enormity of elements present in you or any of the species from which you come.
How easy, in that context, to look upon the men and women you admire, wondering by how many vital components they outnumber you; which qualities do they have and to what degree, and is this a fair index by which to judge?
You grew up amid the “screw loose” trope, where an individual of demonstrable eccentricity was judged to have a connecting piece that was not as tightened in place as it might be. In recent years, the metaphor of “two bricks shy of a load,” intended to mean a more exquisite metaphor of personal lack, has become the trampoline for an imaginative run of description. Your own favorite in this context is “two ants short of a picnic,” but you have nodded approval at any number of others.
The important recognition inherent in such metaphor is the innumerable components required to produce a functioning, creative human being. You could extend the metaphor: an individual is a vast, complex mosaic, wherein the individual pieces have appeal and beauty because of their separateness, then combine or maybe seen to combine as some larger, yet more remarkable beauty. The human being and the single mosaic tile now join metaphoric hands; the drop of water recognizes the ocean.
Both mosaic tile and human component need some kind of glue to keep them in proper, which is to say useful, format. Proper glue in the mosaic is some form of cement. Some psychologists have called the human equivalent ego supplement.
When the cement in a mosaic tires or becomes compromised, one or more of the tiles may disengage. When the ego supplement in an individual loses its grip—remember the expression, “Get a grip on yourself?”—some of the components lose contact with the motherboard, resulting in a different flavor to the performance. Such symptoms as “Not firing on all cylinders” come to mind. Whether the mosaic or the individual or both are under diagnosis, the patient is now seen as missing some quality or attribute.
Same thing applies to a smaller, lesser mosaic or, to use the current descriptor for humans brought to term without all the standard equipment, a challenged person.
This entire line of self-diagnosis was brought about by a response you found yourself giving when, after accepting an invitation to a gathering, being informed of the attendance of an individual you find annoying, your remark to yourself was the equivalent of a Bronx cheer. After a moment, you queried yourself, wondering at what approximate emotional age you were when producing that response.
Six, you told yourself. Best case, seven.
Being that there are emotional age six times that still feel good, you in quick order devised this mosaic theory, wondering how many of the multitudinous mosaic tiles that comprise you were currently residing at an age under puberty, an age where whoopee cushions, jokes about bodily functions, and a general rebelliousness rule the emotional roost.
For some considerable time, no one has suggested you act your age (and even were they to do so, you’d have a difficult time deciding how your age should act). This does not always mean you are in fact behaving according to the standard perception of how your age should act. You like to think you are not. This has little relationship to actual numbers and more to do with an operating philosophy. While it is true that the years you spent in junior high school were dreadful, particularly in comparison to years spent in the fifth and sixth grades, you also observe how any age carries with it a potential for being “a bad time,” leaving you at the mercy of some circumstances and your own ingenuity. There was, in fact, a difficult spell in your later twenties, one in your early fifties. In each case, you were aware of having evolved to a say in the matter.
Not more than a few weeks ago, a dear, longtime friend of about your years asked you one of those “When did you stop beating your wife?” questions. “What,” he asked, “do you do to deal with your night terrors?”
You paused for a long, difficult think. By its very length, your silence conveyed an impression polar from the one you’d decided upon. Thinking had dug a hole for you. No sense trying to convince him you had no night terrors other than the occasional regret at having too much dessert.
Your mosaic is doing well, thank you. Your world is filled with enough activity to keep you more than engaged. You are about to become overwhelmed with books once again. You have near crushes on too many ladies. There are writing projects acting out in armed rebellion, seven classes a week, a schedule filled with speaking engagements, a refreshing number of individuals whose company you admire, and now that you think of it, a refreshing number of individuals close at hand and on a more global level whom the merest thought of produces within your psyche the Bronx cheer reflex.
Some things within the mosaic have no use-by date.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
Because you were self-taught as a writer for so long, taking bits and pieces of technique from stories you’d read rather than from books instructing you how to write stories, you gave little overview to process other than the act of getting the material down with as much speed and deliberation as possible. The first emphatic awareness of technique came as you began to understand that there were times when narrative would grow—characters would do things that might well surprise you.
Because you developed an early fondness for F. Scott Fitzgerald (without understanding his social goals and dynamic), you “borrowed” his narrative habit of making observations about the human condition. Many of his early observations remain with you to this day because of their acuity. He was born in the nineteenth century, a few years before your father.
Fitzgerald was a generation before you in his grip on narrative convention, light years beyond you in observation, discipline, and use of his ability. You were in some ways the embodiment of one of his more note worthy narrators, Nick Caraway, so far as naiveté was concerned. You saw him tell in many cases where younger writers dramatized; because he did so with what you considered remarkable skill, you tried to narrate the same way. Right for him, even in his less-than-successful attempts such as Tender Is the Night, wrong for you. Wrong.
You were recruited at the university hire with the notion that at least one of your courses would deal with the need to recognize one’s narrative voice, how to identify, then expand on that expression of dramatic information.
Thus no surprise when, first quarter, the catalogue reads:
LITERATURE CS 102, Section 3
Instructor(s): Shelly Lowenkopf
Time(s): Tuesday and Thursday, 6:00 pm - 7:20 pm
Place(s): Bldg. 494, Rm. 143
CLICK HERE FOR COURSE REQUIREMENTS
EC # 27086 DEVELOPING A WRITING VOICE AND PRESENCE
You were led to believe the students, though in their early twenties, would be well read and confident in their information rather than arrogant with what passes for useful information, perhaps even defensive in the presentation of the information.
Your students’ abilities were not misrepresented. Their alert, unsuspicious brightness was evident as you led them into a discussion of the nature of characters and how those characters are best brought to life. For many of them, creation of character meant basing characters on some part of themselves. A few admitted to branching out, reaching to borrowing a trait from some real life individual, another trait from someone else. One or two even confessed (the word used advisedly because the admission was made with some sense of having perhaps overstepped a boundary.
How relieved they seemed when you, with some fustian, attempted to disabuse them.
You were in a large sense re-disabusing yourself, reminding yourself of what you’d had to come by through the trial and error of creating too many flat, inconsequential characters who scarcely had enough inner depth and turmoil to fill a single dimension.
The trust and relief you saw in the students’ eyes quickly shifted to nervousness and uncertainty as you spoke of the need to get in there and beat their characters up a bit, treat them as though the Fates or Reality had agendas against these individual characters.
This produced nervous laughter.
Wait, you thought. Wait until they read the first two chapters of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Wait until, some time over the weekend, they’ll have read Bartleby the Scrivener. Wait.
As it is, each of them quickly confessed to some personal moment of defining inner conflict where story took off, began flapping its wings, then achieved lift-off into personal drama that informs such writer tools as sense of humor, sense of irony, and some form of some sense that they have already to a degree been forged in a crucible.
They gathered their things in a thoughtful manner at the end of class, hanging around, not nearly so eager to take off into the night as they were last week.
No surprise to you how they reminded you of you at that age. No surprise to you how valuable a gift to be present as they discover the things you need to know every bit as much as they need to know these things.
“I get that you’re saying,” one of them ventured, “that they are more important than the story. I need to see how that works.”
You’re in this together.