You are swimming about your business, engaged in a mind-at-rest round of lap swimming, or on an evening stroll, mind equally detached from you or perhaps even the more accurate, you are detached from your mind, functioning on auto-pilot.
Something mechanical malfunctions. A leg cramps. Your head has an unexpected meeting with the low-hanging branch of a tree. More than once, back in your running days, you unthinkingly ran into a parked car with enough force to send you deciding for the ground rather than remaining standing.
What you say at such times and how you say it, be it ever so tense, is your voice, a quintessential you, reflecting in appropriate vocabulary and articulation or their appropriate lack thereof your voice.
You do not always speak in the HD version of your voice. sometimes diluting it with deferential or quasi-humorous costuming to reflect such cultural programs as manners, social contracts, and respect profiles.
Writing in your true voice makes you by degrees less diplomatic but often more open and friendly sounding than the curmudgeon you suspect to be lurking in the shadows.
By means of a calculus you do not find overly difficult, you believe speech is voice in ways conversation or discourse is not. Dialogue is the Ikea furniture of story; you must assemble it yourself in order to get it to work as it ought. When it does work, it is always a tad out of line or one leg is less long then the others, tilting precariously at the precise moment when it should shut up and listen.
Somewhere between vectors of argument and sarcasm, dialogue is the fuel of story, each exchange upping the odds, increasing the tension, turning up the heat to the point where the crucible that is story boils over, with no regard for where the detritus lands or what kind of mess it leaves.
Voice, then, must not be too polite if the story is to succeed. The narrative flow may seem civil enough, but there are charged warnings of something about to erupt, someone about to announce they’ve had it with things as they are or with being treated as they have, to say nothing at all of not having been recognized for some potential or admirable quality.
We tend to admire dialogue where Character A not only appears to be telling Character B things Character B might not wish to hear, Character B has rebuttal beyond such playground tropes as “Says who? or “You and what army?”
Story should be—often is—like those days gravid with static electricity and threats of cloudburst, charged, heavy, even a bit menacing although you can’t quite put your finger on why.
Story, even long story, even War and Peace story, does not have time for gradual build-up. You must get it from the outset because if you do not, you will be looking for places to set the story down or for the on/off switch on the Kindle or iPad.
Sometimes the most unlikely characters are the ones who are most apt to throw the fraught cautions of dialogue to the wind, perhaps in realization that they were on a loser’s course, headed for collision or, worse, being lost without the loss being noticed.
Sometimes, in the midst of a group, you withdraw to listen, imagining the possible avenues which might grow, were a particular line of emotion to be introduced. Your favorite moments in conversations and stories arrive when it becomes apparent two separate issues are being argued and each side is growing more agitated over the fact that the opponent is not staying on point.
If there has been serious drinking, this boiling point arrives, then comes to a peak moments before the characters become maudlin in the sentimentality of their regard each for the other. The wife will take a pointed look at her husband, wanting him to leave—now. The husband will be thinking they should have left half an hour ago, before things reached this point, where it is now a half hour too late. Someone’s feelings will be hurt. There will be remorseful telephone calls later. Someone will become maudlin about a Jack Russell terrier.
Voice is the drunk in the bar, wondering if he can have one to go when closing time has been announced. It is the next line of dialogue after, “What do you mean, we’ve drunk up everything in the house?” Voice is the realization that things have not only changed and can never return to their point of origin; no one can remember what the point of origin was in the first place.
Timid writers lose sight of the fact that confrontational speech brings the storylines out into the public, away from the predictable, into the turn of metaphor we all wish narrative to be. The modern story appears to have come from a conversational kettle boiled over, from another planet, from another galaxy, yet remarkable in its resemblance to our own.
Thursday, May 31, 2012
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Your philosophy for rewriting seems to be paying off dividends for you even though the financial market has all but come to a halt, with interest rates hovering under one percent, much like a gang of panhandlers feeling the pinch, no longer content with the prospect of spare change. Their pitch is for a few extra dollars, or a brisk reminder that the price of a two-shot café latte will buy a loaf of bread and a small packet of sliced bologna.
Your philosophy is to keep rewriting, draft after draft until some previously not ventured detail manifests itself. Such details lead to dimension and to discovery of things that were not quite there in the narrative. The material then announces it is willing for you to move on. You have learned something through connecting a few dots you had not connected before.
There is something of the mystical in this approach, assuming you have built a complex and relatively complete picture of a situation, where lacking details must be brought out one by one until you get a sense of having moved from the reality in which you are a working writer, at labor on his story to the point where you are a spectator, transported into the reality of the story. Fond as you are of long, wrap-around sentences, the transportation you seek is more often accomplished through the use of short, emphatic sentences or sentence fragments, sounding as though lifted from a poem or a blues lyric.
How easy it becomes to derail a sentence or paragraph with a misbegotten word or phrase, effectively causing a speed bump.
The right detail carries with it a kind of emotional gift wrapping, coming in the first place from a feeling from one of the characters, a feeling you intend the scene to convey, working its way around the descriptions, verb choices, tempo, until you feel it percolating through you.
This is easy work when you are editing someone else’s work; when you are at your own, it is slow, precarious work, reminding you of a French motion picture you saw long ago, in which a truck rushed through the Amazon jungle carrying nitroglycerine. You knew the device would have been gratuitous without an actual explosion. When you are at you own work, there is the sense of the nitroglycerine, about to be detonated by the bouncing of the truck over the corduroy road.
How many explosions must you endure before the work gets through? Enough details are necessary to cause you to remove the unworkable details, the events that don’t belong.
You might then say working a scene through to completion is overwriting it, then cutting the overwriting, then putting back the details that won’t go away, then wondering again if the whole scene were necessary in the first place, then setting the latest draft aside, opening yet another blank document before jumping in to get your impression of the scene.
You could as easily have been describing opening the door to let the cat in, then opening it once again after the cat has seen fit to remove herself once again, only to realize, yes; the inside is the more desirable, I shall remain inside.
There is no logic to the process, this much is clear. The moment you attempt to apply a logical process to the design of the story, you send it rushing off in bewilderment, not wanting to spend any more time in your company.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
As though having once again bumped your hear on the low-hanging limb of the peach tree adjacent the entry gate to the yard where your apartment is placed, you have come to a sudden, arresting contact with a word you’ve managed to dribble away like the loose change that slides out of your pocket when you read in your lounge chair.
The word is expectation, which you have in COSTCO quantities, which does not always have the Ikea-like need for self-assembly, which, as you think about it, underlies story in a remarkable calculus involving everyone.
Readers expect to like a story they have begun until, like inertia, the force driving the story bogs down. This may be a direct result of the characters in the story not having expectations in sufficient quantity to support a story. There is also the possibility that the writer will have had expectations that something other than dramatic force, say your ability at description, or vocabulary will be sufficient vehicles to move the reader forward to the point where beginning writers always assure us something momentous awaits.
There are practical aspects to expectations as well as the more ethereal ones emerging from ego. With some considerable experience to back you up, you expect a given story will require ten or twelve revisions. If you begin to experience a sense of maybe having nailed the story earlier, as it were, your sense of maybe soon devolves into a sense of cynicism. Why, you will begin to wonder, is this story coming to fruition so easily when others have not or, worse yet, when you still smart from the memory of having one you truly liked get away from you too soon?
The answer is clear; you have expectations once you begin that you are in for a long ride, including those “work sessions” you admire while you’re experiencing them but come to regret later. In these, you are suddenly out of the dream state where you’re beyond memory of the dream and into—literally into—the current project, working it a word at a time to the point where one of the characters says or does something that becomes a give-away, a gift of understanding coming from somewhere deep within your reservoir of understanding some of the behavior patterns of what you have come to think of as The Species.
Garrison Keillor reports dutifully on the news from Lake Woebegon. You get the occasional news release from The Species. Two Cro-Magnons finish a quick barbecue of woolly mammoth. Now they need a place to make out. One says to the other, your cave or mine?
Story is all about expectations, of characters expecting to be disappointed and thus unable to see how good fortune has been visited upon them, of characters expecting to be recognized for their accomplishments only to discover that those who were to give them this honor had mistaken someone else for them.
You expect to be entertained and are in fact driven into boredom. You expect a particular event to be dumbness revisited only to discover it a feast of intellectual and artistic depth. You expect to get a story done, only to see that it is opening vistas you had not imagined, that it is in fact not the short form you’d thought but getting on toward a family saga, which daunts you at first then energizes you with enthusiasm because of the dramatic and artistic implications. Yet once you reach a certain point, you recognize your first impression was correct. The work is only a short story. The work is a satisfying story and you are pleased to have been involved with it, but you wish to hell it would have let you know earlier how prescient your expectations were.
Whatever your expectations with yourself and your civilian life or your work and the writing life, they are never met quid pro quo, a fifty-fifty balancing act. Whatever your expectations, the outcome is better or worse, sometimes better by degrees, sometimes worse by cascades of degree.
Characters, even though they are at their basis artificial concoctions prepared by the bartender of your writing psyche, cannot be allowed to merely wander on stage with no agenda. Each must have some agenda, some expectation. The kid who delivers the pizza expects a tip. His expectation leads to his behavior. Those strange individuals who comb beaches with those electronic metal detectors after weekend holidays expect to find valuable jewelry find instead cheap imitations from China.
None of this prevents you or anyone else from having expectations nor from the hopes that these expectations will be met.
If you’re not happy with the way your expectations are working off, you can always return to reading, where you will discover contrived, managed outcomes, complete with their own surprises.
Monday, May 28, 2012
You sometimes feel as though you are undertaking one of those entertainment tours of a motion picture studio back lot, except that the tour is not at some physical studio somewhere in Hollywood or Studio city but rather within your psyche.
This is one of the many side effects connected with a life spent loitering and squatting in the landscape of story. Internal conflict is a key element in story, in its way as loaded with agenda and purpose as the outside forces writers use to beset their characters.
Downstream aspects of internal conflict have been eddying and swirling about in your awareness for some years, ever since the realization hit you that you, as well as some of the stronger characters you’ve created, are an ensemble cast, an acting troupe in metaphor, all trying for the best dressing room, the starring role, the leader of the pack.
With your awareness that these disparate aspects of you are an emotional equivalent of what was once Yugoslavia came the added vision, however muddied it renders the metaphor, of an Italian parliament, spending more time trying to form coalitions than actually passing legislature.
There are indeed wannabe Marshall Titos, strutting about in the nooks and crannies of your psyche or, to extend the metaphor beyond any safety zone for metaphor, you or parts of you are the inmates, running the asylum.
All right, you’ve played fast and loose with metaphor, but you’ve also painted the picture you were attempting to paint. A number of your aspects see themselves as the natural leader to run the show. Wide apart in their diversity, each believes, as well-constructed characters believe, that he is right. His vision is the most nuanced and balanced; he is the silver-tongued devil who, if he can convince no one on the outside, at least convinces many of the component parts comprising you. There is also an aspect who is quick to admit his fondness for old Burt Lancaster films, particularly the Elmer Gantry sort, who are able to dredge up yards of blather and rhetoric. There is yet another for whom you have a sentimental attachment; he reminds you of the character actor of another era, John Carradine, gaunt, a replica of many El Greco portraits, a stewing cauldron ready to boil over with emotive gesture and vocalism. A fine actor, you prize him for his memorable roles as the ham actor, ham as in hamming it up.
There are, to be sure, other actors wanting to portray you, not the least present is the one who relishes the role of the boring lecturer, and please do not fail to include the pugnacious, quick-to-take-offense sort, the sober version of the mean drunk, itching for confrontation.
When a significant event arrives, you become the casting director, watching all these sorts as they audition for the part. Hey, wanna see my impression of Al Pacino? No? Can’t blame you, really. So many Al Pacino moments on You Tube; why would you want to bother with an impersonation?
A story—all right, one of your stories—requires these types. Had you realized this earlier, you doubt you’d have opted for some other way of wresting a living from Reality, but you might have evolved into a different ensemble cast, which by your reckoning could have resulted in a much more conflicted you or a more yoga instructor sort.
The payoff is not a matter of mere accepting what you have or, were you of a more spiritual nature, of counting blessings, either from some supernatural force or from the rather terrifying force of evolution. The payoff is holding frequent casting calls, watching the applicants closely, then bringing the results to the script for which the roles were cast.
This is a round-about way of saying you need to be better able to rely on your bright, dark, and gray sides so that they are free to improvise in all their magnificent, irrational brightness, darkness, and those pesky, difficult-to-match shades of gray.
You are well justified to pose the question, What is the story?
Your justification continues when you ask, Whose story is it? This question is—and should be—followed by, What is the goal?
So far, that’s a nice, logical package.
Now comes the combustion:
Who are you?
This is not meant in condescension as in, Who do you think you are to presume to tell any story at all?
This is meant to suggest that you’d better know who’s in charge. Is it the Al Pacino wannabe? Is it Burt Lancaster? Is the producer of your story a coalition, perhaps bringing in emotions and insights from parts of yourself you’ve barely gotten to know?
Time to find out.
Sunday, May 27, 2012
When you first set forth to write, your inspiration is from the things you’d read, set against the counterpoint of the life you’d been living. Not too much action or adventure in the life you had going. There were occasional bursts of imaginative play, the guaranteed Saturday afternoon double-feature movie with cartoon and serial. The occasional comic book with some sense of plausibility built into it.
For the major part, life was simply okay, Los Angeles in the waning years of the Depression, great sunny stretches of days, your own awareness that your parents considered themselves on a downward turn of fortunes from what had been more agreeable comfort.
Your own fortunes wrapped around the usual childhood misadventures: tripping in an empty lot, landing on something sharp enough to warrant stitches in your left wrist. Chicken pox, of course. Glasses. Being short of stature. Finances requiring you to make shoes do by cementing drug store retread soles on to the worn-out soles. The cement not holding. Getting used to the flapping sound accompanying each step.
Your sister’s wise observation that some of your wealthier companions were no less bored. Boys, she observed, need to learn to make their own adventures, otherwise they’re stuck waiting until they grow up, and grown-ups are every bit as eager for adventures as boys are.
An irony you were not to realize until your late twenties was your daily search for adventure, as evidenced by your scribbling down potential sources of adventure in the neighborhood, on the way to school, and in the vast, undeveloped acreage that was not yet Park La Brea Towers, a gigantic array of apartments, duplexes, and five or six maximum-height towers, the limits addressed in respect of potential earthquake temblors.
At one stage in your life, you wrote a weekly television program called I Search for Adventure. Your job was to skim through eight-millimeter film made by amateur explorers, write narrative to be read by the guest explorer, followed by five minutes of “conversation” with the host of the program.
Sometimes, friends of yours working at the same studio would stop by to see if you were free for lunch or coffee. They would ask you with deadpan seriousness what you were doing.
“Searching for adventure,” came your reply. Sometimes, if the film were bad enough, you’d say, “Searching for story.”
Things have not changed all that much. This morning, over breakfast conversation with a friend, you recognized that your essentials were still focused on adventure and story. You did not tell her about I Search for Adventure, but you did see how important it is for the individual to pursue the quest. The concept of adventure has certainly evolved as your years have increased, but a constant factor is risk. At the early time, the your at five three and then a grudging five four were risking boredom, tempting it by clambering up to rooftop of garages, then jumping to patches of grass below, an enterprise that seemed to satisfy some physical needs, but the risks of the imagination were variations on themes of adventure stories.
Not until you began to have your characters take the risks you were fearful of taking in Reality did the sense of boredom begin to pack its bags and make for the door. The risks shifted from foreign locales and mere anomaly to the more pronounced risk of what you might learn by trying to find out what made things and people and societies and organizations work, most of all what made you work, even more to the point, which of all the characters of your invention was the closest to the real you.
All of them were, but you needed a good deal of writing to get to that understanding, a good deal more writing yet to reach the point where you knew how to approach the information you’d dug up.
You appear to have gone through a particular crisis of identity without having realized it, no doubt attributing the symptoms to other elements. The crisis had to do with the accident of you working toward developing and recognizing and welcoming your identity at about the time you became aware of the concept of the unreliable narrator.
You spent years trying to convince yourself you were reliable. The effort was not entirely wasted because you did get to look at parts of yourself you’d come to think of as nerdy or self-important or, worse, stodgy, which were in fact your earlier attributions for reliable individuals.
Parts of you are still reliable, but with the forgiveness of humor. Reliable is no longer self-important.
As you got to know the constituency, you found the unreliables had a plurality. Pleasing to know how easy it is to be able to live with that. The reliable forces are committed to getting you to work every day, the unreliable forces are bent on anarchy and curiosity and mischief. The coalition has been in force for some time now. We are not expecting splinter votes.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
Depending on which source you consult as a standard, an editor may be seen as a grammarian, an individual who inserts or deletes commas, removes prepositions from the ends of sentences, points out anomalies in usage and meaning, ventures into such serious furniture moving as rearranging the order of paragraphs.
Those more familiar with the book and magazine publishing industries are more apt to see editors as collaborators, supportive rather than the adversarial types they are imagined to be by first-time entrants into the multifarious worlds of publication.
The term “editor” or “editorial consultant” tend to acquire quotation marks as the individual using them in self-congratulation places them in his or her profile on one of the Internet social networks. This fact becomes even more self-evident as actual book and journal editors list themselves and their resumes on such platforms as Linked-In and Face Book.
Because you have deposited paychecks from six book publishers, a number of literary agents, and a number of magazines, your definition of editor tends toward the more stringent insistence that the individual has seen more than one book-length project through the editorial process, beginning with its acquisition and its presentation to a publications committee, including the preparation of a memo of enhancement notes to be negotiated with the author. Because you have also served—and still do—as an independent consultant, you’ve had some control over the fate of a work due to having been recommended to an author by a publisher, a literary agent, or another author.
A good example of what an editor does is found in your recent suggestion to an author who’d been recommended to you by a literary agent. You suggested the work in question begin with the protagonist, a middle-aged woman, having just discovered her husband has fathered an out-of-wedlock child. This is followed by a brief telephone conversation between the service manager of an up-market auto dealership and the wife, suggesting that her husband’s car, in for repairs, was in dear need of a brake job. The wife thanks the service manager and says she’ll pass on the information. Moments later, the husband asks the wife who that was on the phone. The wife tells him it was one of her girlfriends, with a question about lunch. The next scene is in the airport of her husband’s hometown, where the wife is bringing her husband’s ashes for interment. This all happens in the space of a few pages. The agent was pleased to the point of wanting to represent the project. A publisher, after hearing the arc of the story, wanted an exclusive look.
In the past several months, your experience with editors of more or less the sort you are has been cordial, but it has also been frustrating. Significant among the cordial responses were those of the works as individual projects. The editors were saying they saw the need for these projects, all of which happened to be nonfiction. Significant among the frustration-inducing responses were those noting the inordinate length of some of your sentences.
Rule of thumb: One editor says something you find notable, you growl to yourself, then listen attentively to see how much weight to give the observation. Two editors mention the same thing, you set the growl aside, then listen more attentively, then begin to look for approaches to cure the complaint.
While you are doing so, looking for ways to approach your fondness for sentences that sometimes occupy paragraphs the way seniors from the local retirement homes occupy cafeterias at the lunch hour, you observe how, with equal frequency, use short sentences.
Yes, comes the reply, but those often have no subject or are otherwise more fragments, although intelligible in meaning, rather than actual sentences.
Frustrating news comes in threes, right? And so you await the third.
Well, yes; there’s this. You’re in danger of overwhelming the reader with the intelligent tone.
You would not be in this level of discussion with an editor if the works in question were not well along the path to publication. Were the circumstances any less focused on the ultimate publication, you’d have heard standardized tropes and memes of disengagement. In these cases, disengagement—rejection—was off the table.
You would of course have a look. This was said with plans already beginning to form for amicable solutions, the most amicable of all being extended toward the project.
Rule of thumb: When you are dealing with editors as opposed to “editors,” the degree to which you listen to the note is directly proportional to the quickness and intensity with which the second vision arrives.
Are editors always right? Absolutely not. They do have a high degree of rightness. As you’ve have likely consulted an ENT m.d. with the symptoms of a sore throat, you’d be likely to have the structure conversation with the editor who was asking you to look at some particular symptom, your mutual goal to get the manuscript—your project—asymptomatic. You would not blame the ENT m.d. for telling you that you might have to lose those tonsils.
Are “editors” always wrong. Absolutely not, although when they are right, they are more likely to be irritatingly so, which takes the matter back to you in its way because you’ll feel foolish for having missed with the “editor” caught whereas you are grateful to the editor for having caught whatever “it” the it was.
Sol Stein, who has written one of the most remarkable books on storytelling ever written, Stein on Writing, inscribed a copy of this work to you, calling you the editor who edits editors. This bit of generosity from him is also an inspiration. Sol has set the bar high. Your nonfiction work in the works is called The Dramatic Genome: The DNA of Story. The one after that will be called Lowenkopf on Writing.
Friday, May 25, 2012
When you returned home from a round of mid-afternoon chores, you found an old friend waiting for you. Nothing for it but to invite the friend in, put on the larger of your Bialetti stovetop espresso makers, and set about getting caught up.
You’d not seen this friend for what seems like an age. Although you were quite close at one time, you are not aware of having thought of this friend for several years.
Seated at the kitchen table, waiting for the splendid chemistry of water, heat, ground coffee, and the no-nonsense simplicity of the Bialetti espresso machine to complete its process, you took a long, nostalgic glance at your friend. At the basis of your friendship was story. “Tell me about yourself,” you said.
Like you, your friend had aged—well, you thought. Sturdy in appearance, not bent over. Fewer wrinkles than you. “I’d have recognized you anywhere,” you said.
The coffee steamed its way into life, made its presence known, was served. “You first,” you insisted.
Your old friend was the book, Writing Magazine Fiction, the author living the kind of double life you could barely wrap your imagination around. He had a name, Walter S. Campbell, for his academic life, for he taught courses in professional writing at a university; he had a name, Stanley Vestal, for the books he wrote, both fiction and non-fiction.
No question about it, Writing Magazine Fiction was your first writing book, the first book you could talk to about this thing you wished to do, to understand, to form some kind of lasting bond with. Until you met this book, recommended to you by your high school creative writing teacher, Herman Quick, you had no idea such things existed or that those who wrote the stories you so admired has such a remarkable thing as an approach to their work.
You believed… Well, that is another entire matter.
Because of this book, you were motivated to buy a box of Crayolas. “You will,” your friend told you, way back then, “require a box of sixteen different colors. Also purchase three copies of the current issue of your favorite fiction magazine.”
At the time, the world was swathed in fiction magazines, many of whose pages you thought to infiltrate by means of your own stories. Armed with your box of Crayolas in sixteen colors, you sat before a stack of nine or perhaps twelve magazines, ready to get to work, but something about the Campbell/Vestal narrative voice so intrigued you that you lay your crayons aside to browse the sections of short stories, which you more or less supposed was to be your trampoline, nay, your catapult to recognition, whereby you might venture your way to page 129, the novelette, then to page 135, the “complete novel,” whatever that was (even then, your mind was of a contrarian turn—you were already thinking about “the incomplete novel”)—and then to page 158, for the serial which, you’d begun to understand, was the means by which Mr. Dickens wrote his way to independence.
At one point in your association with Writing Magazine Fiction, your mother worried that you might lose some of the crayons if they were not kept in their box. She kept her own counsel on the twelve magazines strewn about your desk and, as was typical of her, wondered if this flurry of activity was related to homework for your classes.
As you recall such things now, homework was more or less one pile, the crayons and magazines yet another, and the stories you were working on the only neat thing in your entire room because they did not have the reckless opportunity for being scattered.
Hanging out with your old friend has already shown you one thing you got from it; most of your own writings about writing have an emphasis on plausibility. You have already found numerous places where plausibility was emphasized, so that much rubbed off. So did such things as structure and motivation. In less direct ways, so did style and voice.
Most important is your awareness that your old friend was a valuable jumping off point. You never fucking used those crayons for their intended purpose of sifting through published work, underlining such things as tags, motivation, psychological shadings, and social pressures, all of them quite valuable, but not in that manner.
Since you parted company with Writing Magazine Fiction, you have written one skinny-but-useful book, Secrets of Successful Fiction Writing, and gone through some frustrating publishing ventures with two publishers relative to your recent The Fiction Lover’s Companion, soon to be released in revised format by yet another publisher as The Fiction Writer’s Handbook. You have contracts for yet two others. As you look through the list of credits for the author of Writing Magazine Fiction, you are aware with the present-day certainty you could not have had then that it is an honest, plausible if you will, representation of what worked so well for Walter S. Campbell, aka Stanley Vestal, just as yours serve the similar function for you of being the retrospective gift to yourself of being the book you wish you’d have had then, when you were starting.
There is no way for you to recount how many times you read or reread Writing Magazine Fiction. Even though you did not use the crayons, you jumped into the swirling, tide-hatched sea of storytelling, flailing, paddling, sometimes taking in great gulps of air when you’d not intended to do so. Somehow, you stayed afloat until you caused yourself a measure of buoyancy. Now, you are alert to the need to take risks if you have any hope at all of keeping this as your life’s work.
The basis of all you have learned and taught yourself is in this book, which is in many ways dated, a relic, not relevant, nor were you ever able to have with it the conversations you had with E. M. Forester’s Aspects of the Novel. Nevertheless, welcome home, old friend.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Style, as it relates to narrative, may have infinitude of variations, based on genre, authorial voice, and contemporary time line, given added definition by the degrees of formality or informality in its DNA.
You have come from an immersion in the style of text written about ninety years ago, yet in its way sounding more modern than yours. The culprit here is your fondness for the occasional paragraph-long sentence. The immersion has been Dashiell Hammett who, each time you reread him, seems more damned sensible than before, a man whose life circumstances forced him to develop a viable vision and narrative voice in direct contrast to your own circumstances, which dictated that you look about to see which style seemed most appropriate.
Even though your parents were working class, they were more than respectful of learning and the directions you and your sister ultimately took, they insisted upon it, thus you were not battling their class prejudices or constraints, you battled instead cultural standards of your own imagination and manufacture, which is to say you battled your own unseen self-image.
Hammett seems to you to speak and write in what you think of as an evolved cynicism, neither given to romanticize the working classes nor demonize the leisure classes. Rather, he took in what he saw, processed it, but did not judge an outcome until he was given provocation to do so.
You are increasing your awareness of words, phrases, tropes, constructions you do not wish to use because of your belief that each in its way dilutes the meaning you have in mind when you compose, thus style represents to you a clarity of expression that gives off clues of its sincerity. But you are alert for opportunity to inject the ridicule of icons in search of an effect you recognize as humor.
Doesn’t humor undercut sincerity? In fact, isn’t the humor funnier, more humorous, more entertaining if it undercuts the enhanced sincerity that sometimes motivates you and moves you about? No need to answer that question; you already have a smile.
Have you come as far as you believe you have, across the yards and lawns of reams of typewriter paper, boxes of accordion-pleated perforated paper being drawn through your first – and second-generation dot matrix printers, only to discover how, in spite of your oft repeated injunction to stop thinking during the first draft that you had come this far only to reach the point where you did not have to think about all the cautionary laundry lists of things to avoid when you compose?
Simple answer: yes.
Complex answer: Hoo boy.
Does that mean you still have yards and reams of paper to go through before you begin writing your way beyond thought and into the muscle and muscled memory of enlightened creative thought to the point where you might even get a decent draft down so that you might return to it later to interpret it and thus be able to converse with it on some major level of compatibility?
Simple answer: yes.
Complex answer: Hoo boy.
You have not been concerned with your own writing style for some years; content with the teaching-related information of wanting to instruct your students to write the way they talk and talk as they write. You can do things that will have effect on your style, not the least of which is not beginning sentences with “suddenly,” or “at that moment,” or It is or there are/were, and watch those adverbs. These things will have some effect; so too will your own distaste for the word “that,” a fact that prods you into orotund sentences unless you are careful and deliberate to an even greater degree than you currently are.
You sometimes put your foot down (having taken it from your mouth) by way of cursing your attempts to explain everything you can about the English language that related to writing narrative prose and narrative fiction. This foot being put down business has no demonstrable effect on your writing, causing you at the time of discovery to suspect your writing has barely worked past a communication barrier, how many feet need to be put down before you get control of your sentences?
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
You come stumbling toward fiction like an actor portraying a drunk in a low=budget movie. You want to stay on screen as long as possible, hopeful of another job. You will show “them” a thing or two about portraying a drunk, as though your doing so will add some previously unrealized dimension and panache to the portrayal of a drunk.
You wish to learn as much as possible, hopeful your own writing will be enhanced in no small measure because of your growing sense of wishing to devote more care to your work.
Your own lengthy path of discovery related to opening chapters of longform work and opening paragraphs of short stories has led you through some hardscrabble terrain at times, places where it was all but impossible for you to follow the trail, until you stumbled on a key discovery, in the manner of locating the ignition keys to your car after thinking you’d misplaced them.
The narrative for novel and short story do not have to adhere to strict chronology.
With the ability to move the furniture about to suit your strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies, you gravitated to the discovery that the tale could begin anywhere so long as it began with a scene where action outweighed description by at least an eighty-twenty ratio. You also came to prime your canvas with the notion that the entire first scene and as much of the second as possible ought to take place in the present time, which is to say no or few compound verbs, no had wanted, had thought, or had been for you.
Much of what you read extends sympathy to these approaches, which in such depths as there are of your mind converts these approaches to conventions, which much of the time ought to be followed.
These are some of the authorial fingerprints you advocate for contemporary fiction, thus you speak as writer and editor, but this is also the manner of your suggestions to students when you are wearing that particular uniform. You also see how increasingly your preoccupation with voice has led you to being able to articulate it, not at first in every sentence you write, but in as close to every sentence as possible later, after you’ve finished your own revisions and have become willing to bring in the editorial team.
You more or less give the project over to cooler heads and other hands, other eyes, after reaching the belief that you have taken in a good long quaff of the project, now pronouncing it fit, but in no way unmindful that the editorial process has not gone peeling rubber out of the parking lot. In particular, you are more likely to be called to watch while a new incision is made. This is the editorial incision. This is the fate awaiting any protracted work where audience is a part of the equation. By the time a work reaches this editorial state, you’ve had two rounds of emotional entanglement with it, the first being the rush of curiosity and raw energy in wondering what and where and how, the second a more deliberate process involving revision, sometimes rethinking, other times drawing connecting links.
You have had extensive editorial and surgical experiences, allowing you to reach a retrospective stage where a doctor was once able to edit your bodily layout. Thanks to the passage of time, most scar tissue associated with this surgery has vanished; you do not by outward appearance appear to have been hors de combat for six weeks, nor is there the line running more or less from your sternum down to your pubic mound visible as it once was. Editing that has been done and agreed upon does not leave a scar line.
There is a splendid sense of give and take in the editorial process, where you have at times fought with tenacity for a comma while having seen immediately the need for the loss of an entire paragraph.
You are much more likely to enjoy the completed work if the editorial process has been as intense for you as the creation and your own revision, your acceptances and refusals as much of the part as the others.
Then time passes; the work is in a real sense gone off to lead its own life. You take a last, fond look, thinking how far your concept of process has evolved. The work is as exciting as anything you can imagine, each step along the way seemingly an overwhelming set of decisions to be made. You wonder, will you make the right one. You wonder will you listen as the process progresses. Will you listen, and to whom?
Will you stand your ground? This question causes you to run the equivalent of a Stubbornness Film Festival, in which you revisit consequences of your past alliances with stubbornness. Has your stubbornness enhanced or detracted from your stature?
Will you consider a second opinion?
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Many authors who have been recently published in book form for the first time have a momentary sense of invincibility, of momentum, surely of a continuing sense of purpose. Whatever the dynamic leading up to the first venture, they’ll have gone through a ritual of trial and rejection seeming unusual in its harshness.
The process is no more harsh in actuality than any number of disciplines; the academic profession comes to mind as an example. An individual who has earned a doctorate at one of the more rigorous and prestigious universities has seen as many forms of rejection, hints of favoritism, or irrational standards applied in judging the outcome.
Publishing—even self-publishing—is not a rational landscape. There are no reasons to suppose it is, even to the point of realizing that any hope of finding rational behavior and equal opportunity and advancement on sheer merit are wish-fulfillment fantasy, set in large type font.
You have been on such a long fling with publishing that you can no longer remember your motives for wishing to indulge it other than what may have been your single, one-dimensional reason. You wished to be published.
Thanks to a number of books on the subject, notably Walter Campbell writing as Stanley Vestal, a number of teachers of creative writing (the names Herman Quick, Vernon King, and J. E. Johnston come racing to mind) you were alert to the flurry of rejection slips you were about to endure before the arrival of that one special envelope which you would keep forever, paste in a scrapbook, or somehow enshrine. The special envelope would contain a long letter explaining why the magazine who’d accepted your story was won over by its dramatic grandeur.
You have interrupted the writing of these paragraphs to check out the Stanley Vestal title—Writing Magazine Fiction—was available on Amazon. You need another book, right? But the Campbell/Vestal was available. You ordered it to remind you of one of the earliest catalysts of your memory. From this vantage point, Herman Quick, your high school creative writing teacher, made a solid choice. Magazines of all sorts proliferated in those days, including the pulps, which you were on your way to loving with the same fascination you later found in your attraction to young ladies you knew from the outset were wrong for you. You would try your hand at all manner of short stories, including the then called confessions which differed from the more contemporary confessionals.
True enough, you collected your share of rejection slips from a cornucopia of sources. Of equal truth, however, the first sale did not produce a letter for a scrap book but rather a phone call that baffled you because the caller, after asking for you by name and waiting to be transferred to you from your mother, who’d been waiting for a call to confirm an afternoon of mah jong, failed to identify himself, his publication, or the piece he was buying. “Lowenkopf?” he said.
“Yes,” you said.
“We’ll take it,” he said. “We may have to cut some stuff out of the middle. We’ll see.” And then he was gone.
The magazine arrived some months later, in an envelope with a check paper clipped to the front cover.
Nor was it rational for you to have discovered that what you’d thought was the first was no such thing, a previous acceptance had been unexplainably sent to Tucson, Arizona, as though you’d lived there or that someone with your name was living there.
Even less rational was your becoming an editor, working the “other” side of the desk. Your “publisher” was a mail-order genius. Because you’d written some mail order copy describing—you’ll never forget this—a collection of short stories by Henry James, the ‘publisher,” no reader, became convinced that he could make a fortune selling books by subscription through mail order, avoiding the cost of bookstore and distributor discounts. Based on his sales of other books, he came forth with a list of titles he wished to publish. Waving a list of titles at you, he asked how many of them you thought you could write.
You began to think you were seeing such a thing as permanent paychecks. “All of them,” you said.
This strategy worked for nearly six months, when the “publisher” called you into his office, and asked you to close the door. You’d been in enough office situations by then to understand that a superior who called you into his office, then asked you to shut the door, had something to tell you he did not wish the rest of the world to know.
You were not working fast enough. A book a month wouldn’t cut it. Surely you had other friends who were writers. After a few months of being highly regarded by a growing coterie of friends, the “publisher” said a friend in the publishing profession had told him that books needed editors. Thus you became his editor, whereupon a literary agent who’d thought you unsuitable for the kinds of books he seemed to place with some regularity turned the tables by offering you as an editor a book on writing he had written.
You have seen too many projects succeed when there was no rational reason for them to do so and many other projects fail in spite of the overwhelming logic that they should do well.
By this time, your publisher was publishing enough titles to hire a sales manager from a New York publisher, a seemingly rational move that produced disastrous results of the sort a first-time author could not imagine—until the time for the author’s first royalty statement.
Grown men and women often cry when they see their royalty statements.
You want rational, stay away from publishing. But the more you think about it, where else would you go?
Publishing is irrational. Its people are irrational. Its readers are absolutes paradigms of the irrational. But they are your irrational. And you, in your mysterious ways, are theirs.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Last Friday morning, at the weekly coffee gathering, two of your companions were speaking of baseball in the near-code language of the fans of any sport. ERAs and RBIs, IPs and DPs hung over their conversation like the glow from the lights being turned on for the second game of a double-header.
You knew what they were talking about but not who. There was a period of about twenty years when baseball was the equivalent in your life of a youngster in class, waving his arm to be called upon, not so much to show off his knowledge (although there was some of that at all times) as to add his ingredient to the stew of the subject at hand.
For all you were—and are—a book and journal person, you had more than one foot in the dirt of the batter’s box, both feet in the grass of the outfield, where the sound of a baseball being met by a Louisville Slugger bat was as resonant for you as Charlie Parker’s chord changes on “Donna Lee,” which, even then, you knew to be at heart “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
You could tell from the sound where the ball was likely to be sent and how, as a lazy, can-of-corn fly ball, a snarling line drive, or a grass-chewing grounder, perhaps the most notional of all species of the ball propelled by the bat. At some point after hearing the sound of bat meeting ball, you’d begin to look for it, determine its intent, its estimated time of arrival in your vicinity. You batted and threw right-handed. After hours of practice, you’d achieved the muscle memory of shifting your weight to your right foot if the trajectory of the ball were in any way a fly, allowing you on catching the ball to shift your weight to your left foot as a part of a seamless catch-and-release relay of the ball to the infield cut-off person. No one on base was going to advance on you after you’d made the catch.
Such calculations and games and moments were likely the closest you’ve ever come to coordinated grace. Even then, you knew your affair with playing baseball was of a comparison to your date for the senior prom, a fluke of sorts, a cosmic anomaly. Before you’d ventured on the first dance at the prom, aware of your lackluster dancing abilities, you told your date, Anna, that while you were no Fred Astaire on the dance floor, you were the equivalent of Gene Kelly when it came to fetching punch.
You happened on a preference for playing positions in the outfield because you associated the remoteness from your teammates as an expression of individuality. At times, while playing, you went so far as to have a paperback anthology of poetry in your pocket, in case the opportunity arose.
Your association with baseball was not through high school or college sports but rather the pick-up game, where the demographics of the sides—for you could hardly call them teams—often depended on the whim of when third base or catcher were called home to supper. In later years, the games included screenwriters, novelists, attorneys, book publicists, and newspaper reporters. They often included one or more of the players being handicapped with a raging hangover, something the young, neighborhood fill-in players were yet to appreciate.
Baseball is a young person’s game, a fact you began to appreciate at these later games where many of the players had joined you in your thirties or were senior to you by upwards of twenty years and the younger players would without guile urge you, “Over here, sir. Throw it over here. Sir.” As the years progressed, you even heard some of the younger players, coaching the pitcher about one of your contemporaries, “He can’t fucking hit breaking stuff.”
Your first major league baseball game was a key factor in the romance you were to have. Fenway Park was, and still is, for all its boisterous fans, the equivalent of the hushed silence of a museum or art gallery. Most of the Red Sox players on that day were not mere men, they were heroic. Ted Williams. Dom DiMaggio. Johnny Pesky. Bobby Doerr. Could it be that these men were not only able to play here but be paid for doing so?
There were other major league parks, but none so iconic as Fenway Park, and you’re glad of it. Your favored baseball venue, Gilmore Field, home of the Pacific-Coast League Hollywood Stars, is long gone, fodder for some future cultural archaeologists, but the right field bleachers are as clear as they ever were on Sunday afternoon, where you sat through countless double-headers with your father, keeping score in your rumpled handwriting. Bases loaded. One out. Things look bad for the Stars, but the batter connects with a high-chopping grounder to shortstop, and before your adrenaline had a chance to alarm you, you’d written down the code. 6-4-3. Double play. Short to second to first.
Games and contests are ephemeral. You knew that then; you know it now, which in part explains your evolved indifference to most games. The game is only the background, the subtext, the counterpoint. The people in the bleachers and the rise and fall of interests, passions, admiration for a particular moment; these form a code of their own, which you’ve set forth to decipher, to make some sense of in a world where such ironies attach themselves to the need for making sense.
You and your sentences often do not make sense, although you do try to decode them and the intense sense of longing behind them. You find it easy when talking about your father to speak of the ways in which he was able to communicate so much of his person without words or with few words.
When you needed him and his words, there were those endless Sunday double-headers and the walk home afterwards.
Baseball made a splendid subtext for you watching events, trying to capture them in codes related to batting averages, innings pitched, stolen bases, and the scorecard numbers representing their positions on the field. You were an 8. Eight is always center field. Sometimes you were a 7, right field, which position you’d often be assigned if there were an unusually high number of left-handed batters. Possibly a 9
You caused yourself great gastric uproar when chasing a well-hit fly ball that sailed over your head, inducing you to swallow the wad of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco you’d taken on as some kind of status symbol. You caught the ball, but your stomach could not tolerate the mischief you’d subjected it to.
You subject yourself to mischief, watch for it, and try ever so much to find a code for it.
Sunday, May 20, 2012
The more energy you put into casting a complex and weighty net about your primary characters, the greater the likelihood some of the weight and complexity will spill off onto you.
Modern story requires nuanced and unending stress as a landscape on which the flawed, the wounded, the pompous, and those in some form of recovery from something are scrambling to stay even with themselves.
The weight of this awareness piles onto your vision of what a story is, where it ought to go, which details to pluck from the reality you see about you to remind you of what you have left behind to come here.
You give yourself a few paragraphs of comfort to warm yourself to the task, whatever it might be. Today, it was a few thousand words of edits and additional materials for the revised edition of what was once The Fiction Lovers’ Companion, transmogrified into The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, which did not require much warm-up before you were able to complete drafts that stand up to some inspection.
Then into the off-roads, the side roads, the metaphor becoming highway related because you believe the momentum—whatever the project at hand—comes best from a sense of straying from the freeways and onto dirt roads, little traveled.
Once, when you were eight or nine, you, your mother, and sister drove from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., passengers in a car driven by a man you remember only as radiating impatience, now that you recall him, impatient at his wife, Hazel, and what he referred to as her timidity while at the wheel. You took the then operant Route 66, the stops and sights so burned into your memory banks that you have occasional dreams of those places on Route 66 as they were, then, a series of gas stations with adjunct zoos featuring a few down-on-their-luck coyotes, armadillos, snakes, and Gila Monsters, red soft drink coolers in which twenty or thirty bottles of Royal Crown Cola and Hires Root Beer and Bierley’s orange soda sat, up to their necks in the melt from large chunks of ice. You recall eating at a series of truck stops where the waitresses called everyone but you Honey; they called you The Little Man because you were little then and because your horn-rimmed glasses gave you an expression alternately studious or mystified.
You mention this trip because you have ever since experienced a sense of having some sort of transformation in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico and the locust-filled streets of Amarillo, Texas. No, not mystical, certainly not religious, rather a sense of genuine affection for the decay and sun-battered landscape, the garnet-red dusty awfulness of it to the point where it becomes the default landscape when you set forth into the unknown. Until the time of that eastward trip, everything about you was familiar and known. Of course you couldn’t know that it was not known or even knowable, but you did know it was familiar.
At that time, the farthest you’d been away from home was to Pismo Beach, which you remember as being more Western than coastal, thanks to the fact of wooden plank sidewalks instead of the familiar concrete.
You revisit the Route 66 of your mind in metaphor when you set out to discover a theme, a handle on a scene or story. You are a traveler back when you were small, too frightened to be scared, vulnerable, watchful.
Indian trading posts, pawn shops, gas stations that gave free maps, signs promising exotic experiences or authentic arrowheads or the best hamburgers in the world, or the ubiquitous Burma-Shave roadside signs defined the entrance to what you have come to think of as The Haunted Theme Park.
The haunted part was because you moved farther away from the familiar on that first trip, past the point where you could not see West any longer, and for the next years, it seemed you might never return.
During those years, you did well in school, but that was no payment for being away. In more recent years, you returned to Arizona, to New Mexico, to Indian reservations, to adobe and stucco monuments in the desert. Route 66 was all but gone, yet the lure and mystery of it seemed to bounce off the mirages and buttes and mesas.
There was one other place, more or less in midtown Los Angeles, that held similar feelings of mystery and adventure, the right field bleachers of a vanished baseball stadium. But that is another story, another time, and another landscape, one that has less to do with baseball and more with people; you revisit it when you need to explore the inner terrains necessary to produce story
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Characters, like some strangers, have too much story.
There are times when characters behave like strangers you meet while traveling or in doctor’s offices. Perhaps the crowded conditions in a coffee shop or restaurant force a shared table. The circumstances provoke the issue. What are you here for? Once the surface tension is broken, the secrets and confidences come pouring forth, faster, sometimes that the truth.
You have over the years developed an early warning system alerting you to potential excesses of unwanted information via conversation from actual persons and characters. As such alerting systems developed, you were also able to discern times when you were the perpetrator, let’s say the inflicting agent, of such information, and as a teacher, you had to have some sense of when you were going over the line. If you did not, those end-of-semester evaluations would do it for you.
Your quandary as a writer: How much information is enough? Rephrase that question: How much information is too much? Aha, depending on the whim of your viral or actual writing group, At what point on the scale of revelation should you anchor your determination to withhold?
Your quandary as a person who sometimes finds himself in a doctor’s office, coffee shop, waiting room, restaurant: How much familiarity to allow, volunteer, accept?
You have fought on both sides of this civil war, thinking to dazzle with information, which has led you into the promising territory of embellishment, exaggeration, and the wickedly inventive lie which, after all, fiction is said to be the part of, is it not? You have also been a sniper for the other side, thinking to withhold so that the potential reader, driven by curiosity, stays with your text for page after page. In this role, curiosity of the reader is your imagined conspirator.
You also recall your conflation of the young person, perhaps from boredom, perhaps from a wish to cover up some defect or disaster, begins to improvise an excuse for not having come home at the required time or having stopped to play, whereupon some scavenging dog pounced on the groceries you were sent to procure. Already starting to sound contrived, eh?
Then there is the famed Don’t think approach, subtitled The Sanity of the First Draft. Don’t think until the entire draft is completed, a strategy, you could argue, that merely puts off the decision of how much to cut or leave in the next stage of the text.
Evocation—in particular as opposed to direct description—ranks high in your esteem as your way to tell a story, the nice barnacle of irony attaching itself in that view being the choice of which detail to describe in order to provide the recipe for evocation.
All these internal battles and choices, roil about you each time you set forth to get a sentence up, dressed, and out the door, concerned that it might be overdone or not adequately prepared. Should you have let it wear its Sunday-best verb so early in the paragraph?
A joke dear to your heart emerges when you early- and mid-stage writers they are control freaks, obsessive, and compulsive. In some ways, when you reach this part, you remind yourself of Hunter Thompson’s opening paragraphs to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where his medications have clicked in ahead of those of his traveling companion, who has already begun to see phantasmagoria. Wait, he is saying, until he sees the real monsters. Wait, you are thinking, until those in the audience realize how crazy one has to be to manage all this narrative phantasmagorical presence.
You sometimes wonder if there is any chance you are too sane to be the writer you wish to become, if the stories and novels of those you so admire seem so beyond your reach because, well, because you are flat-out not crazy enough yet.
Friday, May 18, 2012
Two effective approaches toward beginning story:
1. You are Number Two person in a company or team or faculty. Story begins when someone in a supervisory position confronts you with the news that you are now Number One. Right now. Start behaving like Number One.
“But,” you say, “where’s Fred?”
“Never mind. You’re Number One. That’s all you need to know.”
2. You are Number One. You are used to the quasi-dictatorial power, of getting your way and, in the process, of seeing a pattern of successful performance of your company or team or faculty. You have met performance expectations in significant measure; you have even added admirable innovation.
Story begins with you being told by someone in a supervisory position that you are to work closely with X, sharing power. X can be of either gender, of any race, a friend or enemy from the past, or a complete stranger.
“Why this sudden change?”
“Not for you to ask. Start working with X. Right now. Start behaving like a team.”
“No or. Not negotiable.”
There are of course other ways to approach a story opening, most of which involve some rug somewhere being yanked from under one or more individuals or, contrary to that approach, one or more individuals being induced to stand on what we cynical and knowledgeable readers see as a rug.
Option number one comes to you with a certain personal pang at the realization of the times you have allowed yourself the passivity of being that number two person rather than that number one person. You are by no means that mythical figure, the natural born leader. You in fact doubt there is such a thing, only the reputation of one. Nor are you a natural number two person; you are neither except when you are being lazy at the implications of being a leader.
You need to make this clear, the leadership relates to you being a leader to yourself, a CEO, if you will, to your own ego. You cannot even think to lead others, readers included, if you are not able to lead yourself, treat your characters as individuals who work for you, delegate a sense of mission to them, perhaps introduce them to the concept of quotas or performance standards, then allow them to go about their assignment without the need for your micromanagement, which is hemorhoidal in nature, a certain pain in the ass.
In recent months, you’ve been seeing this circumstance in orbit, but having shot yourself in the foot a number of times with your own articulated sense of impatience, you find yourself counseling yourself to the longer haul, with results every bit as unsatisfying as those resulting from your impatience.
What you’re working toward here is the realization that it is better to take the lead and make a mistake than it is to confuse passivity with patience. Give it a timeline, then take steps. Win some, lose some.
Same thing with story.
Exact same thing. Story is moving along at a pace not much beyond a plod, you need to step in, give it an ultimatum, which in its way begins to sound much like option number two, doesn’t it?
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Conventional and unconventional wisdom:
1. Excessive use of the verb to be—I am, you are, he, she, or it is—spirals us to the passive voice, which is not such a terrible thing, provided you’re content to transfer authority to the object rather than the subject.
We write—you emphatic in your wish to be numbered among the we—in order to present characters who take their own lives and the lives of others into their hands, to venture, question, probe, and otherwise investigate as opposed to allowing ourselves to be acted upon.
I act. You act. He, she, or it acts, and well the system should work that way. I identify with, you identify with, he, she, or it identifies with some individual who is captured in the act of setting forth to discover as opposed to, ugh, having to settle for characters who have demonstrated as a singular trait the ability and continuing wish to sit about, waiting for a greater inertia to come along, then tumble then into activity.
2. Readers care; they really do. I mean, look; I read and I care. The elephant here is the fact that reading and caring have made you aware of the possibilities to the point where the only places where you have to read are places where the text is of such a compelling nature that you have to read what you have to read.
You can find a sufficient quantity of available things to read, yet of this mass, a relative small number cries out to you in ways that engage you to the point where you have to read. There is in fact so much to read that you are able without the slightest degree of defensiveness to set down something that has turned sour on you without the obligation to see it all the way through.
Some critics and teachers try to get around the guilt trip by reminding us that there are essential flaws everywhere; the great many unreadable flawed materials have more overt flaws, and hey, no one is perfect, except that some writers appear to be perfect, handing their work the sense of inevitable perfection as opposed to inevitable perfection. This is frequently referred to as the God’s Hand School of writing.
3. Even if you draw characters from real life, it becomes somehow confrontational for you to admit doing so, thus placing you down on the scale of achievement in matters literary. Fact is, even though you believe you are constructing from whole cloth, you in all probability are drawing the individual from family, school, or close friends, a fact borne home to you as you realize you’ve not only lost certain characters, you never had them in the first place, and your lack may be traced back to the Famous Writers’ School.
6. In spite of the conventions to the contrary, you may find it appropriate to start a story with several tons of backstory, most of which requires definition and explanation. What you will discover is that the individuals who persist in telling you this have, themselves, published less than substantial numbers of story.
7. One of the best ways of splitting an infinitive is with an adverb.
8. It is all right for you to write about things you do not know.
9. With so many things being published, no one will notice if you don’t read much. Bullshit. They’ll notice.
10. It may be all right to write about things you do not know, but it is less dangerous to write about things you do know. Depends on whether you want to write short stories and novels or instruction manuals. Your choice. One thing for sure, no one will ever try to steal your idea for an instruction manual.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
When you existed in that precarious and desperate landscape between the ages of eight and twelve, you were keen on collecting pocket-sized note pads and toy premiums from breakfast food box promotions and inducements from afternoon radio serials. You also devoured as side dishes to your normal reading tales classified as boys’ adventures and historical narratives.
The 8” x 12” cardboards that came from your father’s laundered shirts became covers for your own hand-made notebooks, which also made use of the stationery from the slew of insurance companies from whom your father tried, with varying degrees of success, to wrest a living.
You’d intended the notebooks to be places where you could transcribe your own adventures, which at the time disappointed you for some of the same reasons boys of that age are disappointed about so many things, and which explains why, in addition to the adventure books you read, you thought to create your own.
In retrospect, you have romanticized the toys you got for box tops or post cards or some proof-of-purchase label, but at the time these toys spoke of the same adventures you read about, jealous of the boy and girl protagonists for having the fortune to be part of such exotica. At one time, you had decoder rings, magnifying glasses to burn holes in the most stubborn of papers or leather.
You had mirrors in case you needed to signal distant friends, warning them of a menace you could see but they could not. Some of the adventure serials you followed, notably The Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet, broadcast coded messages, which you took outside to decode away from prying eyes. Of course there were no prying eyes; you had to manufacture them.
Favorite targets for prying eyes were the maids employed by the more affluent families in your neighborhood to shepherd five- and six-year-olds in addition to their other cleaning duties. For a time, your notebooks included reports of these maids’ activities, including your suspicions that they were up to no good, meant to kidnap and ransom off their charges, then flee to Arizona, where they would begin life anew with their wealth a mystery.
You had the good fortune of living in close proximity to a wide swath of undeveloped acreage extending more or less from Sixth Street northward to Third Street, and from Cochran Avenue to Fairfax Avenue in west central Los Angeles, the same area long since the residential sweep of a development called Park La Brea, augmented in later years to include apartment buildings of ten or twelve stories, now known as Park La Brea Towers. Until you were well launched into your teens, you shared a double life with that relatively flat but nevertheless undeveloped acreage. To add to the potential romance of the area, it directly abutted the area known as the La Brea Tar Pits. In your double life, you were alternately a guide, a safari leader, and an archaeologist, your notebooks reflecting your suspicions that the area was inhabited by various predators, among whom was your favorite, the saber-tooth tiger. When more adventurous exploits claimed your imagination, you were convinced you could hear the dying pleas and agonies of prehistoric animals, mired in the mud and tar pools.
In these adventures, you at last found use for the signaling devices, the decoder rings, and the whistles guaranteed to achieve a pitch beyond human capability to hear but not so high that dogs would fail to hear them, alert to the coded notes you would send them, bidding them to rescue you or protect you against some unseen menace.
Life is different now; the dangers and menaces are quite different, but surely nostalgia for those times causes you to ply the supermarket aisles where the cereals are shelved. From time to time, you browse the shelves, looking for some trace of some magical toy being offered. From time to time, this nostalgia reminds you of the advertisements on the back pages of comic books, offering a variety of magic such as pet chameleons, ventriloquism apparatus, instruments offering X-ray vision, fake blood stains, pocket-sized telescopes, and magic tricks any boy could perform with minimal practice.
You could find complete tool kits for private detectives, devices that allowed you to listen to conversations in the next room, and that ubiquitous prank for the unwary, the joy buzzer, a device small enough to conceal in the palm of an eight- or nine-year-olds hand, guaranteed to cause the next person whose hand he shook a convincing quasi-electrical shock.
For those years, you were in a world where you could be the life of the party (by slipping an impossible-to-detect powder in a sugar bowl which, when subsequently spooned into a cup of coffee, would cause the cup to froth over), an inspired practical joker (itching powder), a super sleuth, or an imaginary big game hunter. You could signal imaginary friends, warn untold multitudes of rampaging elephants, solve crimes.
Then you entered your teens and your imagination, already as eager to slip free of its bounds as an impatient puppy, took you in other directions, away from some forms of magic and careening full tilt toward others. But enough of that bored, eager explorer who was you remains, and you seek adventures yet as though they were toys in cereal boxes.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Sometime early this morning, you came across a ghost in your small, phone booth-like bathroom, well enough designed to accommodate a comfortable shower and a relatively generous amount of shelf space, but not large enough to accommodate you and a ghost.
The ghostly apparition was a good likeness for your paternal grandfather, Max; whom you’ve noticed in recent years, watching you from the same perspective of this morning, your bathroom mirror.
You had a comfortable relationship with him during your time together. Even when he opted for dementia in his final years, it was a benign, agreeable dementia, where he frequently spoke of wanting to go to a particular city in Europe or a particular street, York Boulevard, in the north central portion of the Los Angeles basin, a street whose fascination for him was impossible to determine.
You have also seen apparitions of your father, always a pleasing occasion. Although not the most communicative of individuals on a conversational basis, he projected through his presence a sense of being glad he was with whomever he was with. He was also given to outrageous one-liners and behavior that often seemed to sum up a situation with a flourish. Whenever you saw him in the mirror, you were transformed from the mere happiness of your default to an extended and jaunty impudence.
You have also seen traces of your mother and your paternal grandmother in ghostly apparition. As well, you’ve caught the occasional glimpse of the you with the high pompadour of your teens and the subsequent buzz cut of your twenties.
Your paternal grandfather was gone well before your appearance. You’ve seen enough photos of him and heard enough stories to think that should his ghost appear at any time during your shaving or tooth brushing activities, you’d wink a welcome at him.
Missing then from the ghostly parade is Becky, your remarkable maternal grandmother who, though deaf, unable to read any but the barest of English, was well read in Tolstoy and Pushkin and Turgenev. She found her way by bus through the sprawl of Los Angeles to the point where you were wont to joke that the only English she could read were the words “Kosher” in the window of butcher shops, and “Fairfax” on the menu of busses.
All this leads you to wonder about the ghosts you sometimes see peering back at you from the paragraphs you produce. You have your favorites now, some of them holdovers from your favorites when you began. Of course Mark Twain has remained with you as a constant. Traces of Hemingway appear and you wish they would, even though on some levels you appreciate the contributions his preoccupations with the language and the craft of writing have contributed to the writer’s tool kit. Sometimes you will see wisps of Fitzgerald, which make you smile, and the appearance of Faulkner’s labyrinthine constructions, which you find yourself enjoying nevertheless make you super aware of the need to wander back, strewing periods amid the clauses and phrases.
You see Elmore Leonard strutting forth and, once in a while, a paragraph right out of Louise Erdrich.
Times when you think you have forgotten about John O’Hara, there is some flash of him, hopeless in his Pennsylvania-ness as he yearns for Princeton and Yale.
Sometimes, when you have got a good squirt of mischief to come off without causing you an additional squeeze of impatience with yourself, you see a flash of Lorrie Moore, and you congratulate yourself for having grown.
Which brings you to the vision of yourself least haunted by the ghosts of men and women whose essence you set about to absorb. This vision is fraught with possibility and temptation. After all, you have been impressed in a positive way by a number of men and women; as well you have learned much of what not to do from a good number more.
Where, then, do you believe you stand most like you, most like the attitudes you send off that sometimes shock with their bluntness or seeming lack of tact? Where is the default, ghost-less you on the page?
Dialogue. Sometimes interior monologue, but more often you are most you when your characters exchange information. You catch the tang of impatience in your dialogue much the same way you inhale the briny awareness of iodine in the atmosphere hovering about the ocean. There was no such sense all the while you were forced to settle for the Atlantic, but there was immediate iodine when you were back at the Pacific.
Of course they are laughing at you because you cannot see them, but you will watch with care lest they want to take over your story in ways you could not imagine to do.
Monday, May 14, 2012
In a tad under eight years ago, a drug-addled homeless person and former Marine worked his way into a murderous rage on the outer fringes of Beverly Hills. He somehow gained admission to the home of a screenwriter, Robert Lees, killed Lees, decapitated him, then went tromping out the backdoor of the Lees home, scaled the fence of the neighboring house, encountered the owner of the Stanley Avenue house on the telephone, stabbed him fatally, then fled the scene.
As John Donne put it in his poem, “The death of any man diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.” Fair enough. You’d taken to reading the names of American military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan with that particular shrug of horror at news of a life so needlessly lost in so needless a cause. You tell yourself you were experiencing a kind of cultural or perhaps existential grief.
You’re pretty sure you’d never met the screenwriter, although there is high probability you’d seen some of the results of his television work. Difficult to attach much to the news of his death, which you’d learned about only yesterday in a coincidence so well suited to the electronic age and world of the electronic age adjuncts, social networks.
Los Angeles and environs being what they are, there is a chance Robert Lees never knew his backdoor neighbor, who was Morley Engelson, M.D., whom you indeed knew, especially by his less formal name, Buzzy.
At one time, you and Buzzy were approaching the off-handed informality of pre-teens and, later, of early teens, the kind of informality that happens between cousins or does not. Whenever you appeared at the home of your mother’s oldest brother, you were given cordial greeting and, when appropriate, invitations to dine were offered in ways you had no thought to question. When you did arrive, the assumption was taken for granted that you and Buzzy had some specific plan or the more casual “hanging out” plan. He had an older sister with whom you were on comfortable terms which might have been more comfortable yet had you not been prejudiced by an event over which neither you nor she had any hand or control.
At one time, Los Angeles was well served by a dairy run by the matriarch of a pioneer family, the Rindges, whose holdings included an original Spanish land grant in the Malibu area. The matriarch was named Rhoda. The dairy took her name, spelled it backwards, whereupon it became Adohr Dairy. As a shrewd and memorable advertising campaign, the Adohr Dairy published photos of Adohr-a-ble Babies, of which Morley/Buzzy’s sister, Barbara, was one. Your attitude at the time speaks volumes for you. Years after the fact, perhaps fueled by your mother having preserved a copy of the advertisement, you nourished the belief that Barbara had been unduly influenced by this event.
As such family things go, you saw Buzzy from time to time when you were both at UCLA. You were aware of him having been accepted at the University of Chicago Medical School, aware of having been impressed by this fact. Some time after completion of his residency, he called you, wishing to become your family doctor. You were pleased to accept, and for a time, your office visits led to coffee or lunch in the restaurant in his building and attempts on both your parts to see if there was connective tissue beyond family connective tissue that could be interpreted as friend connective tissue.
You were aware that he’d remarried, had heard glowing accounts of his wife from your mother, but events took you away from Los Angeles. There were some hilarious connections with Buzzy’s father, who did his best to lure your father into accepting a full-time position with his clothing store. As such things go, Buzzy was at neither funeral for your parents nor were you present at the funerals of his.
Somewhere in flight in your mind, in particular since you’d promised your late wife to keep her adult ed classes going, you’d think of family members alive and dead, reminding yourself, as family numbers began to dwindle, that somewhere in Los Angeles, you had Buzzy, who had owner’s shares of race horses, and Barbara, who’d married a man named Hugo. You’d count these two cousins and the daughter of your mother’s youngest brother, wondering if you’d ever hear more, much less meet.
You have another pair of cousins, second cousins, children of the son of your mother’s older sister. You get some news of them through your youngest niece, including a recent photograph of the gravesite of this cousin, who is interred in Tahiti.
Memoir, you have come to recognize, is you, or the individual writer in context with family and with others, friends, perhaps, or associates. You have more memories of he whom you will now call The Tahiti cousin than he whom you still think of as Buzzy. As a simple descriptor, you and the Tahiti cousin were more mischievous, frequently at one prank or another to the point of having to stuff handkerchiefs in your mouths to keep from betraying your capers with laughter.
You found out about Buzzy yesterday in an accidental meeting on Facebook with his ex wife, the result of you hitting the wrong link. Suddenly, you are one cousin less, which is an enormous inflation of the occasional thought you gave to him.
Exchanging notes with his ex wife, you had a mental image of one of the after-office visits with Buzzy, something, you seem to recall had to do with you having a constantly dripping nose and Buzzy whipping out his prescription book with a flourish and writing, Sudafed, and some of the prescription shorthand so favored by doctors. Whereupon Buzzy described a project he was hoping to assemble for his wife, wondering if you could help him locate a craftsperson who could make a hand-made booklet. You could, and did, writing her name and phone number on one of the three-by-five index cards you’d begun to carry at the time.
Buzzy did not tend to stay too long with his wives. In reminiscing briefly with her, you spoke of remembering the leather booklet. Dale was vibrant with the connection, telling you it was a scant three feet from her as she wrote to you.
The drug-addled ex-Marine is in maximum-security prison serving two life sentences with no hope of parole. In a gruesome and grotesque sense, he gave you back a missing cousin a month short of eight years ago, when he killed Buzzy.
Earlier this morning, when you were having coffee with a former student, she reminded you of something you’d said that influenced her decision to set her career on hold and write.
All about you, persons are saying things, doing things, not saying things, not doing things that have downstream consequences. The remarkable Canadian writer, Jeanette Winterson, wrote a memoir about her homophobic stepmother, her memories of events and their consequences hitting you like cold splashes of water to the face. She gave you a picture of consequences that made her. She is the third writer in recent years you’ve seen needing to relieve herself of that burden of consequences. Louise Erdrich and Joan Didion are the other two.
Consequences define us. Thus defined, we act or do not act, speak or do not speak, write or do not write. Julian Barnes has captured this phenomenon with great skill in The Sense of an Ending. It is fiction, but of course so much of the consequences and pivotal events in your life are fiction in the sense of their being your interpretations.
What consequence, real or imagined, was Kevin Lee Graff attacking when he killed a screen writer, decapitated him, then, not satisfied with that, strode across a yard, found Buzzy, and killed him?
Sunday, May 13, 2012
A favored route of investigation for you is the discovery of some near polar tug yanking its way within you. For most of the day the tug has been between the focus and discovery of what you will produce here and your continued reading of the short, wonderful Julian Barnes novel, The Sense of an Ending.
Much of the day was spent in the near perfection of writing additional material for the revision of your about-to-be-reprinted and, in the bargain, renamed The Fiction Lovers’ Companion. You’d already seen a few puzzled frowns at book fairs and signings. The title did not give a clear message. The new publisher was quite emphatic. The Fiction Writer’s Handbook. What, indeed, is in a name?
Occasional moments of moving away from the computer to read in the Barnes, and the occasional thought about what would come here. The goal, since this blog site was established was to ensure a daily stint, making some writing each day muscle memory rather than chore or duty. (You’d come up with previous plans to deal with that contingency, plans such as working on your weekly review or transcribing notes, or beginning a new story. All of these seemed to have worked, leaving this part of the workday even purer amusement.)
Even pure amusement can become a habit, however. This site must also be attended each day. To take a day off is to invite one of the things you have written about on many an occasion—consequences.
The consequences of not spending time here are all subjective, all weight bearing on your sensitivity, but of course of concern to anyone else. If you do not improvise or rant or play here, the consequences will be unknowable until tomorrow, when you need to get something done or when you sit to compose something you’ve already begun thinking about.
The risk is that tomorrow might come before your improvising self arrives, and a book, such as the one by Barnes, can make the matter even more difficult to settle because his narrative voice on this one has you by the collar and any grip you might have had on your own narrative voice will have become a day looser.
How long has it been since you have come to realize how important for story to have at least two textures, a) the main thread, played out against b) some event or condition or circumstance? Sounds the essence of simplicity, doesn’t it, but your memory of your earlier work is a memory haunted by episodic strands of events, of the equivalents of “and then they…”
This sensibility has bled into your daily life to the point where you can remember times of being stunned by the discovery of the relative lateness of the hour, say 11:15, and the need to stop whatever it was you were working on to get something yanked out of thin air and organized for an improvisation before midnight and the start of another day. You are hoping this does not smack of superstition to you when you come back to read it at some future time. No problem if it sounds compulsive or even plain weird so long as it does not sound a superstition.
Thus this is written against the background of adding revised pages to the book, which is done against the tension of student papers, which is being done against the tension of reading the Julian Barnes and already coming up with the handle on the review you will write of it. And all of this is against the tension of The Dramatic Genome, which has taken on in addition to the personality it had begun to evolve, a sense of tribute to your great chum Digby Wolfe, with whom it was born over one romp of a linguini with clam sauce luncheon at Via Maestra.
There is always something to say when the texture of tension is present, nudging you, teasing you, wondering in your ear what the bloody hell is keeping you.
Keeping you from what?
Why, the next thing, of course.
Saturday, May 12, 2012
Much as you try to hide the fact, there is an unsettling presence of the bombast and pleonastic squatting in the midst of your narrative landscape as though a participant in an Occupy strategy.
In a similar manner to your immigration policies as they relate to other undocumented aliens, you do not organize raids, border closings, or deportations. Rather, you have come to rely upon editing—your own of self, and others of you—as the equivalent of enlightened border guards. There was an editor you much admired who was willing to allow you to use the adjectival “inherent,” which she said was in common, conventional usage.
The editor balked, however, at your use of the verbal form, “inhere,” growing even more—dare you say it—obdurate? when you pointed out its origin, the Latin inhaerēre, as stick to or stay to, and after all, weren’t we looking for vivid verbs? You even supposed she’d get her dander up were you to use the verb “cohere,” and the door was left ajar when you speculated she’d pass on intrinsic but ask for a synonym were you to use extrinsic. A pattern was beginning to emerge.
See: Your vocabulary at work for you. Bombast. Pleonasm. Tsouris with editors. As your late pal, Gary Boren, was wont to philosophize, “Tsouris beliden.” Trouble aboundeth (your translation.)
Another editor you admire suggested to you that David needed only a rock and the simplest of weapons to dispatch Goliath, and you had any number of simpler-words-as-rocks at hand. Nor were you seen to be in combat with anything so formidable as Goliath.
So, you asked, thinking to be rhetorical, you’re thinking shooting fish in a barrel when it comes to my prose? The moment the statement was out, you saw you’d, well, shot yourself in the foot.
Yes, she said.
You have to admit the sad truth of the observation. Although you do not chose to win arguments by dint of drum rolls and lectern thumping, in fact wanting more to converse than argue, you are in fact given to the drum roll, and many a lectern has made its way back to the repair shop because of your use of emphatic gestures, lavish, but no less sincere sweeps of one or both arms, resulting in more glasses of red wine spilled on more carpets, thanks to the extravagance of your waves.
Some of this is, at root, cultural. An early procession of girlfriends used such vocabulary as phlegmatic, diffident, and non-committal when discussing—all right, complaining about your attitudes, and your mother from time to time observed how inward you tended to be unless discussing music or literature or food.
However difficult it is for you to pinpoint the equivalent moment of Big Bang in your outward expressiveness, you recall with some vividness a time when you were being prepared by an attorney for an appearance before the grand jury of Hamilton County, Ohio, of which Cincinnati is the county seat. “You must remember at all times that you are given to emotive behavior.”
“A nice way,” you replied, “of saying I am a ham actor.”
“Yes,” he said. “Much of a ham.”
Yin and yang.
Warring extremes. The stoic and the bombast.
The fulcrum is a longstanding enthusiasm, roused the same way a bored dog in a yard is alert to the footsteps of a passerby.
Words you have cached in memory from a long relationship with crossword puzzles come spewing forth at odd moments, even in conversations where, having given voice to a word such as, say, preternatural, will in effect call conversation to a screeching halt.
We all of us—you believe—have at least two argumentative factions within, railing in continuous debate, the actual causes of the debate adumbrated, or should you be content to say overshadowed or, better yet, forgotten? You’d be happy were there only two competing factors; your inner landscape is more like an Italian parliament or fraternity food fight than the conversational hum and purr you like to imagine having transpired at such salons as Bloomsbury.
You are stuck with the prospect of spilling your wine on a reader. The best you can do is hope for a good pinot. Vintage is everything these days.