At what you’ve come to think of as an intermediate point in your attempts to understand story, you reached a point of self-evaluation where you were forced to agree with a number of editors who’d encouraged you but eventually said no to a particular project.
You were of course curious to understand why projects you were pleased with and which got you some ink of encouragement were, in the long run, not for “them.” You’d already run through a few necessary tantrums as a result of which you’d invited all of “them” to go be fruitful and multiply themselves. The second half of that rant always has to do with relying on your own vision, which is in real speak a great idea but in real write wants some added attention.
You spent considerable time examining opening sentences, concluding after some time that those were indeed things that got you read at least through the first paragraph. Your discovery relating to the first and second paragraphs was an eye opener. Many, many verbs of thought, consideration, possibility, competed with scant verbs of action. Many were the instances when your narrative ventured forth in the passive voice. Er, we seem to have a problem here. Worse yet, such tropes as “This could cause trouble down the line.
By degree, many of these nice persons, those rathers and somewhats were squeezed out of the text, transmogrified into no nonsense equivalents of dramatic self-interest. After all, if a story wishes to remain polite, how far will it get in the world of drama?
One by one, the thought verbs were offered buy-out packages. You had casting calls for verbs on steroids. Action and event, formidable presences to be sure, elbowed their way into your consideration. You said some insightful things to your narratives, but you freighted them in an inciting manner.
The scenery trembled with the force of your verbs and accusations. Although you are a fan and devotee of the so-called hardboiled school, there was still something missing. Some shows closed after a scant week or two. Meanwhile, editors were applauding what you were doing to the scenery, but obdurate in their continuing sense that, in the final analysis, the work was not for them.
All the while, you came to a grudging awareness that action could not carry the entire load. In the most Shakespearean of Shakespeare’s plays, which you venture to the histories and your one favored comedy, Twelfth Night, action alone does not bring the audience to care. There is a missing element.
What better element could that be but consequence. Actions need consequence. Consequences produce more actions. Try, for instance, arguing that last sentence with any of the authors of the various versions of Antigone.
The dance between event and their consequences is the ballet of story, making high, spinning leaps, seeming to remain aloft in defiance of gravity or common sense.
This is not to say you have found the balance you need. Nothing could be at greater odds with the facts. You can, however, see the need for event and consequence as partners, sometimes as graceful as ballet dancers, other times as quirky and self-absorbed as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s expert vision of the contrary forces within each of us.
In fact, a balanced event is something that when seen through the eyes of a principal character is often a threat, a sign or sense of an opposing force with overwhelming stature. The balanced event becomes in time that character’s enemy personified, the force and symbol that character will have to engage.
And why is this so?
It is so in order for there to be the consequences that will supply the outcome.
Thus consequences cannot for too long without outcome, just as events themselves cannot merely proliferate without consequence.
Long, driving series of events cannot sustain themselves without other props, certainly not without a throughline. If there are too many events and no suggestion of throughline or tangible presence of consequence, we tend to call the result episodic.
Episodic worked in the magazine and movie serial, but even they had a tangible path toward an outcome.
We might not like the outcome, as indeed many at the time did not like the outcome of Conan Doyle’s early attempts to kill off Sherlock Holmes. But many of us know how that turned out, which is to say once again, we are aware of the consequences.
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Monday, July 30, 2012
Sunday, July 29, 2012
Early in your career, in fact while you were still an undergraduate, a faculty member threw you under the bus. This was not the first time you’d been hung out to dry by a faculty or administration member, but these events were not what you’d call unprovoked; you were a bit of a handful.
The undergraduate situation was, however, the first time when you were more or less innocent of malevolent or mischievous intent, also the first time you were treated in this manner because of such issues as writing and reading.
The faculty member had an awe-inspiring reputation. The daughter of a famed attorney, she’d made a name outshining her father, first as a reporter for the Hearts papers, then as a novelist, then as a screen writer.
She was Adela Rogers St. Johns. At the time of which you write, she was adjunct faculty in the UCLA graduate school of journalism. Your take on her reputation then was that the university was quite proud to have her on faculty.
UCLA was not the powerhouse it would become. That status still belonged to the Berkeley campus. But UCLA was coming. You had two major players in your English Department studies, one of whom published regularly in The New Yorker, the other a major player in Melville, Whitman, and Twain scholarship.
Because of your position as editor of the campus humor magazine, you were included, much against your will, on a panel discussion relative to contemporary reading. You were eager to hear other members of the panel, your eagerness extending to Ms. St. Johns. Because of your low rank on the panel, you were the second speaker. To your credit, you said what the audience surely felt.
You, too, wished to hear Ms. St. Johns, thus your intention to leave with the exhortation to the audience to read everything they could get their hands on, from the pulps to the works of Raymond Chandler, and the emerging greats in science fiction, to the comics as well as the canon of Western literature. Thank you for your indulgence, Now your hope that the next speaker would be as brief so we could all hear Ms. St Johns.
The second speaker took the hint and was as brief as you. Then came Ms. St. Johns and the tsunami. She was sure you were a nice, sincere young man. But please, let’s hear no more about comic books or pulp magazines or science fiction. Your time is too precious for that. Read the classics. Read literature. Read works of reliable and known greatness. Warming to her passions, she listed several such works, returning again and again to assure the audience how nice you must be (you weren’t as nice as she supposed). But reading was a serious business.
You twitched and suffered for the long two hours of the presentation. Ms. St. Johns could not let go.
Although you believed even then that she was dead wrong and believe so now in even greater intensity, you were at the age where such a focused berating left scar tissue.
You were made aware of that scar tissue yet again earlier today when, in a presentation, you returned once again to the comics for an important point which you made, noticing after you did so how many in the audience took note of your observation.
If you have trouble identifying your own narrative voice, you observed, you would do yourself the greater favor by hearing in your mind the narrative tone of Donald Duck than the voice of Mickey Mouse. Mickey is too nice. He is so nice, he squeaks. Donald is—well, he is Donald. He may have a few moments of serenity or amused tolerance, but in large measure Donald is pissed. Pissed and doomed to become even more so to the point where he flies off and into the orbit of full tantrum.
Individuals say they prefer Mickey Mouse, but they are lying if they do. In their deep, secret heart, they know Donald Duck speaks for them. Donald Duck brings it.
Acknowledge your inner Donald Duck. When he speaks for you, the Cosmos hears you.
Donald Duck explodes for you, he expiates your meekness, he rages for all of us who find it necessary to hold back.
You go, Donald.
Saturday, July 28, 2012
Of all the things you are likely to misplace, your key ring or cell phone cause you the most vexation through their absence. A good candidate for the third most pestering absence is a recent acquisition, a black Sailor fountain pen. Other probabilities for misplacement present themselves. To your credit, you are quick to take up these probabilities.
The key ring contains the means of starting your car. Without it, you’re more or less stuck wherever you are, although you do have a spare key hidden on board as insurance against being stranded. The cell phone, to your mounting displeasure, has become a force of commanding importance to the point where you resent the feeling of being helpless should you leave home without it, then find yourself beyond the point of no return, where it is inconvenient to return for a 2 ¼ x 4 ½ rectangle.
You are rarely without some writing instrument, often carrying three or four. But somehow the glide of the Sailor nib over most paper surfaces has become so satisfying, so sensual that its absence produces a longing a mere ballpoint pen cannot soothe, and the small, pocket-sized German Kaweco barely mitigates.
When all three go missing at the same time, the frustration enhances in logarithmic progression, a feeling that reminds you of the sense of loss and displacement when story goes missing in a narrative you’re working on. Whether fiction or nonfiction, there is, you believe with ardent certainty, a need for the sense of purpose and direction you associate with the narrative recipe you’ve come to associate with story.
Without this presence, the narrative seems to have lost at least one dimension, perhaps even more. Some vital sense of personality or voice or edge or a combination seem woefully absent. You set out like a hardscrabble miner, prospecting, looking for a trace of something that, to his best experience and information, should be present somewhere in the vicinity.
Like the miner, you’ve prospected on, sometimes for days on end, pursuing whim, potential clues, and informed observation, digging, sifting, working to keep at bay the mounting sense of boring sorting through the landscape in search of clues that the sought after ore is indeed present and at close hand. You trace your steps to the characters, wondering what it is in their personality or dreams that will produce a sense of elements that may coalesce into story that you may stake claim to.
The past successes of other prospectors serve as inspiration for the prospector evoked here for this example. Whether a university trained geologist or an individual who was apprenticed or simply hung out with a dedicated prospector who was said to “have the gift,” our character starts off with a better statistical chance because of his or her training.
The past successes of other writers swept years from your life by causing you to believe writing was easy, that your attempts would eventually pay off, and that there were well-graded roads leading to a comfortable career as a storyteller.
Such thoughts run through your mind while you search your paragraphs with the cold, suspicious eye of a writer who has misplaced his story. You do understand that something is wrong, but you are not always well able to see the place. This is not because of anything you’ve done that is intrinsically wrong, rather because there are things awaiting your attention that need to be done in order to have completed the story.
On your evening stroll tonight, there was a sign mounted on a utility pole on Anapamu Street, between Santa Barbara Street and the next westerly parallel, Garden Street, showing a photo of a lost cat and offering a substantial reward and a warning that the cat is not social, frightens easily. This area, more or less the scant outskirts of the civic hub, is not a likely venue for coyotes, making the chances for the ultimate recovery of this missing cat a statistical probability.
You were thinking of putting up a sign of your own, announcing a lost story, offering a reward for recovery. You’d not be making fun of the frantic owner of the lost cat; you’d in fact be joining him or her in solidarity.
Misplaced things, whether cell phones, cats, or stories, remind us of the transitory nature of any possession, including that vaunted one of self-possession, which is held forth as some role model of mature behavior.
You have in your time misplaced self-possession and mature behavior as well as story, a cat named Sam, a key ring, and a story. Your chances of misplacing any or all these are limited only by the fact of you not currently have a cat in your life, although you’d been thinking, even to the point of having a name for it. This would involve a complex negotiation with Sally. And the cosmos.
Friday, July 27, 2012
There are certain risks associated with skimming the surface of anything, of not spending the time to investigate depths. Among these risks are those associated on every level, real and metaphor, as they relate to becoming caught up in the undertow, that capricious tide running contrary to the shoreline.
Ancient seafarers understood the sense of safety implicit in keeping the coastline in view. Today, we use as metaphor the journey beyond the point where we can see land to signify risk as an ante into the pot, the winning hand being discovery.
You don’t go beyond or below, you run the risk of seeing little of interest, of missing some experience or vision that has a life-changing potential. Not going beyond is another way of saying “playing it safe,” the “it” being any experience or venture out of the ordinary.
Your experience with such things is a mixed bag, reinforcing your belief and understanding of the strategy where the greater regret invariably comes from what you have not gone beyond your previous limits to experience. There are to be sure some memories of botched ventures, but even in retrospect you can say you were never looking for perfection.
The experiences of going beyond recognizable landmarks are among your favorites. Somewhere in the area below your umbilical, the tingle of excitement and a sharp, almost astringent pleasure begin to radiate, of a sudden finding a place in your mouth, then traversing your torso in tiny, electric flickers, almost as though you were being bathed by a determined cat.
You’ve had the experiencing after a night on the carouse of difficulty coordinating the gestures necessary to get your house key into the door lock. Sometimes your attempts to get deeper into a project have let you with that key in the lock feeling, other times you’d have settled for that instead of the frustration you’d felt at not getting close enough to a project, sensing something was missing but neither being able to locate it nor identify it with any sense of being accurate.
There were times when friends, family, associates asked you when you were going to do something serious, which was bad enough on one level, but you made it worse through your sense of the frustration that came out of the woodwork like hungry termites.
Sometimes it seems to you that things have taken forever, both the things you’ve actively sought and the things you’d hoped would occur to you merely because you sought them.
Doesn’t work that way.
The universe is both passive and active; with little regard much less patience for you to issue a hall pass. You can in fact work your butt off in quest of a goal and not earn it, only to find the answer or reward delivered to you as though a gift from the representations of Greek gods who were lowered onto the stage in some sort of basket.
Chances are some bewildered FedEx deliveryman might mistakenly bring you something you’d sought for long, difficult years. But the chances are just as equal that he will not or that, indeed, all your work and focus will not accomplish your goal, either.
That does not stop you.
Nor should it.
You could argue that the universe might cough it up, as it were, dumping it in your lap. Trouble with that is, you might not trust it.
For “it” to have any chance at all of working, you need to be inside “it,” deep in communication with it, close enough even to see enough of its bells and whistles for you to make a temporary sketch. Even then, you’ll no doubt have missed an important detail. You’ll have to keep going back until you get it.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Monday, July 23, 2012
Summer months from about the middle of June through the early weeks of September have a special attraction. Unless you have signed for summer classes, your chances for long stretches of time alone with writing and reading projects are at their highest. There is a luxurious laziness, a not having to be so concerned about shaving laziness, a t-shirt and jeans laziness, a stripped-down to basics laziness where priorities change, needs change, tides wax and ebb on a different schedule than when you are more defined by professional and occupational terms.
If you’ve planned well, there is enough put by to bring you to September with the growing tang of regret at the loss of summer light and the loss of summer spent with ideas and characters you’re trying to understand and the considerable sense of being unrecognizable, marginal. You are doing the equivalent of leading the literary equivalent of the beach bum’s life. There is the sense of amusement you had yesterday when, at a brief outing at Orpet Park reading the Sunday New York Times and spending some time with the crossword puzzle, you’d dozed and awakened with the amused dreamlike conceit of thinking a person who’d come upon you could easily have thought you and your dog residents of the street and left you some spare change.
You are culturally a part of a religious minority. You’d been tangentially aware of it by virtue of having attended schools in Los Angeles where you were majority, but then came World War II and the frightening experience of being told by the mother of your best friend how lucky you were to be living here instead of Europe, where “people like you” did not have it all that well.
Soon enough you were in schools and circumstances where your minority status was pronounced. You’d already made the connection that the cultural personality about you was oriented in another direction. In your early twenties, you had experiences of being the only one of your culture in a particular gathering. Then, because of your interests in music, you were frequently the only one of your race and color in a particular venue. And then, because of friendships, you were the only one of your culture and race and color in a particular venue. You thought little or nothing about being the only white-Jew in an all-black, all-Asian, all-Latino landscape, all the while forging the sense of comfort first of all within yourself and then of comfort where you were. Such experiences helped you forge the sense of those with whom you were comfortable and with which parts of yourself there was ease and lack of any need for defensiveness.
Thus you moved into your later twenties and the beginnings of what you called your professional association years. And thus you moved from the vigorous bubble of intellectual and artistic and social contacts you experienced during your university years at UCLA to what you’ve come to think of as The Bubble Years.
You surely live in a bubble. Although you believe it is a heterogeneous bubble, nevertheless, it is an enclosure. You’re given frequent reminders such as the fact that the newspaper that has published your weekly book column is the organ for a political bubble quite other than yours. There is also the instance of a conversation among friends at a restaurant a week or so ago wherein one of your number gave vocal thanks that he was not a member of “the right-wing lunatic fringe,” his actual words. Moments later, a man stopped at your table to deliver the information that he was, his exact words, “a member of the right-wing lunatic fringe.” How easy it is to shrug such things off as California, or Los Angeles, or even Central Coast California. There are, in fact, portions of California where you are in a bubble of comfort or an intruder in some other bubble.
You will not call Art a friend but you are on a first name basis with him from your mutual membership at the Y and your attendance at the Wednesday Writer’s Lunch at Casa del Sol by the Bird Refuge. Although Art is modest about his writing, he has two books to his credit. He and you are in a writer’s bubble but your political bubbles are worlds apart. You are cordial to one another because of the writer’s bubble. Otherwise, you suspect you’d scarcely speak.
Through this commodious vicus, you arrive at the writer’s bubble, wherein you meet all manner of cultures, races, philosophies, interests, and ranges of ability. The writer’s bubble is the most comfortable of all because most of the individuals you meet within it have given up such things as culture and race and religion and politics even while professing these very things, sometimes in extreme renditions. There is a purer, freer sense of being within this bubble, in which you can be impatient bordering on intolerant with those who might claim some measures of cultural or artistic or intellectual heritage with you.
Within the writer’s bubble, you are the individual you have forged by design and taste, your allies often surprising you, your potential enemies surprising you even more, your strengths and weaknesses coming to you through unexpected discoveries you’d not anticipated.
Being within this bubble does not allow you any equivalent of the summer vacation you look forward to. When you have moved through these various bubbles, you have become the true outsider, the one who is delightfully free to wrestle with his otherness, his not belonging to any place or thing.
As a writer who has become an editor and thus a teacher, you have become a hyphenate, a writer-editor-teacher, to which you must add yet another, you must add student and observer.
You might, if you chose, say you inhabit your own bubble, which means few allies or compatriots. Perhaps an occasional companion. The danger that lurks is the danger of all your characters coming from the same bubble, all your ideas born within the same bubble, all the persons you think attractive or reprehensible coming from the same bubble. In that sense, you must make sure you are not in any one bubble for too long.
Sunday, July 22, 2012
Saturday, July 21, 2012
Friday, July 20, 2012
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Monday, July 16, 2012