Friday, August 31, 2012
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
- Whose story is it? There are any number of successful stories with an ensemble cast of characters, but of all these, one has an agenda so overpowering that it sweeps the others along as though they were VW bugs caught in the wind pull slipstream of an eighteen-wheeler truck. Ishmael had to survive in order to be able to narrate the tale. The Great White Whale was a major player, but when all is said and done, Ahab’s is the story that most impresses us. Lots of good supporting characters, witches and wizards among them, but it is Dorothy Gale’s story, pure and simple. Lots of clues abound in stories named for their principal characters: Rob Roy, Huckleberry Finn, and Ann of Green Gables, Ivanhoe, Elmer Gantry. Of course they all need friends, opponents, and I-told-you-so sorts to play against. What point in having Nora Helmer without Torvald? Sometimes you know from the get go; other times you need a draft or two to find out, and when you do, there may be a tang of surprise and pleasure.
- What’s the story about? The more memorable stories—those that have remained in vivid memory—leave no doubt. True Grit is about bringing to some form of justice the man who murdered the father of the protagonist. Hamlet is about a young prince, directed by his father’s ghost, to avenge his father’s death. The essential quest or thrust of the story does not have to be achieved provided there is a suitable substitute discovery or understanding. Philip Roth’s intriguing novella, Goodbye, Columbus, allows the protagonist to make some painful but valuable discoveries as he moves from youth into maturity.
- The prize? For Dorothy, it is simple enough—getting home to Kansas, but if you’re a fan of L. Frank Baum, you can’t help but discover the other side of the prize coin, which is the price to be paid for winning. In Dorothy’s case, it is growing discontent with the home (Kansas) there is no place like, and the desire to return to Oz. The prize in Dennis Lehane’s haunting Gone, Baby, Gone, is the return of a kidnapped child to its rather pathetic and indifferent single mother. The price the detective pays is the break-up of his own romantic involvement and a conscience put to severe stress. Going after a prize, any prize, even a Great White Whale prize causes a ripple effect that works its way to one or more of the important characters. Emma Bovary comes to mind as an example of a character who sought a prize of freedom and romance. The price she paid for these things was not pretty.
- Why should we care? The most direct answer to this significant question is found in a character who is seen disregarding or badly managing encounters with some life situation we as readers understand we will have to face. John Steinbeck’s near perfect Of Mice and Men has several demonstrations of circumstances, from the dealing with an old pet to coping with someone of diminished capacity. We tend to care about stories dramatizing experiences that squeeze characters in ways similar to the squeezes and pressures we have experienced. We care if someone we identify with is vulnerable. We care in Jim Harrison’s poignant A Return to Earth because we want to achieve the dignity his major characters achieve in a heart-wrenching circumstance.
- What is the major dramatic question? How about the discovery that The Maltese Falcon is bogus, which is to say the sought-after goal is not there to be had. Many of the Saul Bellow novels strive for some kind of stature or discovery that is beyond reach. How much trust should young Jim Hawkins place in Long John Silver? In Graham Greene’s short story, “The Basement Room,” the focus is on lost illusion of the young boy and his betrayal. Greene, in fact, often uses betrayal as a major dramatic vector.
- Who are you? What do you bring to a story in terms of tone, attitude, edge, if you will? Remember, this is story, not journalism. Are you bringing optimism, cynicism, anger, fiery rebelliousness? All are valid because story is about evoked emotion.
- Where is all this coming from? If these elements are brought forth from a textbook or some template, the results will be literary equivalents of paint-by-numbers pictures, possibly suggesting some minimal technical ease but none of the nuance and irony and controlled ambiguity found in more resonant fiction. Your storehouse is your inner life. This inner vision is reflective of your vision of How Things Work, of how people behave, of what individuals do under dramatic stress. Your inner life is your toolkit for dealing with the outer world sometimes described as Reality. Your inner life allows you to experience relationships with others, having first forged a relationship with yourself. This life gives you the vocabulary to discuss with yourself why you find some writers compelling while having no patience for others. Your inner life gives you a sense of confidence in your ability to empathize and to observe the inner universe you inhabit as well as the outer universe where you are a guest. Steps 1-6 come from your inner sense of how precarious some things are, how easy other things can be, and what they all mean to you. Your inner life has helped you recognize the difference between confidence and blustering, bragging, and being the equivalent of a schoolyard bully. So now you know.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Monday, August 27, 2012
Sunday, August 26, 2012
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Friday, August 24, 2012
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Beginnings have become old friends to you in the sense that you have begun more projects over the years than you have any hope of recalling. There were times when it seemed your special talent was beginning things. Never mind getting to the middle and the resolution.
In the sense of completion, time has been good to you. Any number of things you’ve begun have found themselves with middles and endings to the point where you no longer have the fears you once had about whether something that seemed so exciting one week would end up a pile of marked-up pages, handwritten notes, and no printer’s mark # on the last page.
All this is prologue to the fact that you have officially begun something today, a project that you’ve actually wanted to do for about fifteen years. Although you’ve wanted to undertake the project, by the nature of its title, you forbore, considering the title a prime example of egotism.
In your bookshelf is a copy of a book published by St. Martins Press, Stein on Writing, arguably one of if not the better book on how to invent, compose, and prepare fiction. The flyleaf contains a generous inscription from the author: “To the editor who edits editors, with affection, Sol Stein.”
You have indeed edited him, taught with him, broken bread on many occasions to the point where once, while making a presentation, you made what you considered a cogent observation, which you attributed as having come from him. During the Q & A, his hand shot up, whereupon he not only disclaimed the observation, which he nevertheless agreed with, he attributed it to you.
You continue to admire and respect him, thus there is no sense of that kind of competitive atmosphere. Rather, you’ve had enough evidences—right and wrong—to convince you of the rightness of putting your name not only in the by-line of a book on writing, as your most recent one, but in the title as well. Your agent has reminded you that Stein’s publisher had made an offer for your current book, which you saw fit to decline in favor of an upstart new kid on the block.
As the table of contents began to make itself known to you, the familiar beginning rumbles started. You began to sketch in the parameters of the vision, seeing how the final product might appear. Pleased by that vision, you also know how things tend to change once they are begun, how the energy of beginning produces a kind of vapor of vision and concentration that attracts seemingly random or unimaginable notions from the outside, which is to say from the universe outside your current concept of the project.
You may not be asked this question, although your agent will likely ask you to prepare a prospectus for the project after you’ve done the first two or three chapters, so that once again you’ll have the opportunity to consider a contract with a so-called legacy publisher or a new-kid-on-the-block publisher.
At the moment, you’re more than happy with your current publisher, who has done more in the service of your project than you might with reason expect from a New York publisher such as St. Martins.
There are three other projects past the beginning stage, one you were to do in collaboration with your great late pal, Digby Wolfe, and two novels about a series character. There is yet another you burn to do that also has you thoughtful about words such as ego and hubris in that the work is in effect volume two of D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. It will be a series of essays about twentieth- and twenty-first century writers you believe have shaped the modern landscape. Thus in these paragraphs of less than a thousand words you’ll have taken on two individuals of some stature, individuals you greatly admire and respect.
There is a curious admixture of comfort, excitement, and awe in the atmosphere of forthcoming projects. For the moment, these are what beginnings mean to you.
Surely you will use this space as you used it for the project whose publication date has been set for November 10, and for which you have already been booked into Vroman’s in Pasadena, one of the major independent bookstores of your youth, your literary coming of age, and your entry into publishing as an editor. How splendid it felt to stroll unobserved by the staff into Vroman’s some years back, there to see a book you’d acquired, edited, and seen through production.
As Yogi Berra might put the matter, Beginnings are not begun until they are over.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
A boundary is a demarcation point, separating one thing from another, one country from another, certainly one property from another. Boundary applies with behavior, performance, and ability.
A boundary keeps you in or keeps you out, governs your behavior or in its way provides you new concepts of behavior.
You sometimes do not realize how you’ve reached points in your life without observing boundaries and crossing them, each instance one of increasing concern to you as you watch behavior about you, and as your own awareness of boundaries is enhanced with experience.
From boundary comes the equally evocative word, trespass, and thus someone in or on your territory without authorization. Of course you may not be above an occasional trespass on some property, either as a mere convenience or to compound an activity that may have legal and/or moral boundaries.
Seen in the proper light, all human behavior is subject to boundary. If one is to love, one should do so without regard to boundary except that to love well, you must respect the boundaries of the loved, leave your own territory open, and hope the persons you love observe your boundaries. If one is to pursue some form of art, one looks beyond boundary on the excellent theory that art is far beyond mere mimicry or design but rather a deliberate attempt to rearrange cosmic furniture.
When you were yanked from the relative comforts of California to the cranky grayness of the east, you were entered into a schooling situation where you not only had to memorize The Lord’s Prayer but in fact recite it every day. You’d been aware of the word trespass before but never like that. You did not particularly want your trespasses forgiven because they’d been committed in the interests of having fun and adventure. No damage came from them.
Adventure and inventiveness came from these escapades, which mostly involved sneaking into yards in order to jump off of garage roofs, chinning yourself on clothes line frames, and in one extraordinary case on Orange Street, playing on a huge turntable that was intended to help ease cars out of garages and onto the driveway with a minimum of two- and three-point turns.
You’d not thought with any seriousness about forgiving those who’d trespassed against you because you couldn’t, until that time, think of anyone who had. But there it was, every day, a reminder that there might be persons out there trespassing against you and you were supposed to forgive them.
Even at that age, naïve as you may have been about any number of things, you were not naïve enough to discount the fact that a trespass was a synonym for a multitude of sins. No matter. You did not feel sinned against nor did you find any connection with the notion that your activities might be sinful. This was early contact with individuals who not only had to consider the implications of sin; they had as well to confess their sins on a regular basis.
Thus into your life came boundary and trespass, causing you to realize boundaries of your own, differences, sometimes subtle in nature, other times pretty well delineated. These were boundaries you did not wish to trespass.
For sometime, you thought it prudent to observe and respect the boundaries of others, but that started to become somehow related to wanting your own trespasses forgiven at the price of you forgiving the trespasses of others. Through writing and reading, you began to see the limitations inherent in such a course, whereupon you began the approach of respecting not so much the boundaries but the humanity of the characters you wished to create. You saw an immediate difference.
Soon, the difference translated to real persons in the real boundaries of reality. You saw a sense among all of us, real and invented persons alike, of trying to maintain the equivalent of forty acres and a mule, that mythic offering to free, independent persons as tools necessary to forage and farm for their livelihood.
Some things and some persons are going to be slower in changing than others. You wish to observe the boundaries of those who look for change as that quality is defined by another splendid word, evolution. You wish to see your written visions on some evolutionary track and along with them your attitudes, visions, and the ear for what these evolving persons and places are saying and doing.
Monday, August 20, 2012
Before the advent of the Internet and its various social networks, the notification, You are being followed, meant something sinister, intriguing, perhaps even menacing.
Being followed in those days meant someone, often a man wearing a Fedora, was “shadowing” or “tailing” you, hopeful you would lead them to some information they sought or to keep an eye on you to make sure you didn’t get close to a secret they were trying to preserve.
Being followed as you drove meant in effect all the above examples, but by car, where you stood the potential risk of being shot at, rammed off the road, or otherwise inconvenienced.
If you were a character in a Western, someone who more often than not was either of a non white race or a mixed breed, implying those individuals had some preternatural ability to “read the signs,” which in turn meant you could not fucking get away. True enough, even while you were believing in the plausibility of such abilities, you also wondered how they with such frequency allow us to get away with treating them as the did. In many ways, those fears are at least mitigated by what you have come to think of as the revenge of the casinos. Gambling on the res puts money in the pots/Slip it to the white man, use tight slots.
Now, the common use of the term, You are being followed, means someone with a self-published book about tofu or prayer is following your posts on Twitter or Facebook, which is not so much sinister as it is boring.
On the other hand, You are being followed is a reality that will not go away, and from which following, there may be the equivalent of drive-by shootings, which is to say acute embarrassment as a result of vulnerability.
You are being followed by everything you have ever published, a warning that might seem small potatoes relative to the potential for your vulnerability to be exposed, but it is not in fact the public you are concerned about. You are concerned about you.
Not too long ago, a literary agent sent you a note questioning how you could have “let” which is to say “encouraged” a particular author to submit a particular manuscript, believing you’d been the last of your sort to have “signed off” on the work as ready to go. The agent was relieved to hear you were in fact not the last of your sort to have had dealings with the author. As for you, there was the matter of feeling a pang for the author in question, understanding all too well the urge to have a work worthy of submission in the first place. There is the second place, which is having the manuscript “at” a publishing house, a third place of that publisher saying Let’s roll. There are fourth and fifth places, too, but the point here is that after a time, you will happen upon something and, taking the full hit, wonder how it was you let that work go in the first place.
Soon, as though it were wearing a Fedora or driving some sleek foreign car with shaded windows, it is following you. Rather, they, as in some of your habit words, are following you. Sentences beginning with “it,” the over use of and to connect independent clauses, unnecessary adverbs, forgetful use of very.
Clunkers of sentences follow you; making you wish you’d taken greater care to “shake” them, because there is danger they will find you, then begin tailing you yet again.
There is, to be sure, a wide verge, a sort of no-writer’s land, between compulsive hanging on and being followed. This wide verge is also a place you find yourself from time to occasional time, wondering at the fortuitous confluence of elements during the days you wrote that particular whatever it was, causing you for a few moments to think you have some relation with language and thought, after all.
At the moment, you have completed a final proofing on the second printing of your most recent title, feeling a bit smug from the effect of having knocked off a few Fedoras of a few sentences beginning with one of your least favorite words, “it.”
Stuck somewhere in the middle of a sentence or, better still, sandwiched deep within a paragraph, it does not seem so bad, nor will one or two of those follow you about.
Still, a writer cannot be too careful.