Sometimes, when considering the warp and weft, the dramatic ramifications of your narrative voice, you are reminded of the drunk, looking for his car keys in the parking lot. This particular drunk of whom you are reminded looks in all the areas that are lit. Doesn't matter if the keys are actually in those lighted areas. The drunk goes there because that's where he can see.
The voice you want is not necessarily the one you get right out of the box, or into the early paragraphs of an early draft. You go flying ass over teakettle with long sentences, liking the way they seem to gain momentum, then present new clauses, almost as if challenges. Not many days ago, when you were heading west on the I-40, in some remote stretch of Arizona, you spotted a long freight train, dragging at least a half-mile of refrigerator and tanker cars across the desert. "There," you told Sally, "is one of your boss's sentences. There is no end of it in sight."
Dogs are too sensible to respond to such hyperbole. You allowed the matter to rest there, but you did know then, and you do know now how you often need to stretch out a little, work some of the kinks and quirks free, perhaps even shake off some lingering bad karma from the days when you were writing to impress yourself and others about how much you knew.
There is an explanatory phase to get through as well, where more than anything else, a certain confidence in the self of today is at the wheel and ready to go. This goes back to the first book review of your memory. There were likely others, more or less book reports from middle school, but this one, the one you remember, came when you set off on a sprint of enthusiasm, getting down the significance of the story to today's reader, the need for more historical fiction, and the refreshing way the rival sighs were portrayed rather than described.
You thought you'd done quite a job of including important matters, but it seems you had neglected to give the title of the book or the name of its author. That memory still smarts, the effect of it wanting to throw in birth and death dates of the author, date of publication, possibly even the names of some other titles published that year by the present author's friends or rivals.
In that particular metaphor for a parking lot light, you began the opening paragraph of a review of a collection of short stories with mention of two of the author's previous novels, his teaching position, and the state of the modern short story. That particular narrative voice had the sound of some idiot savant, being interviewed by a Public Broadcasting station in North Dakota, where most of the news is about snow, and the news that isn't about snow is about the cold climate. You had to rummage about in the tool kit for some chisels and pruning shears in order to end up with a more sensible lead: "Ron Hansen's latest book, She Loves Me Not, is a collection of twelve new short stories and seven others,reprinted his original collection, Nebraska."
The information in that sentence trumps the tone of its writing, which is fair enough, considering the number of drafts it took you to get all those information-waving voices you mentioned earlier to shut up so that you could get on with the job. The particular book under review, after all, is the subject--not your narrative voice. In fact, you could even argue with what you hope will stand as appropriate weight that the book, through your discussion of it, should speak for itself, with maximum a vagrant sentence or two from you.
Since you have about 750 words (three double-spaced pages) in which to talk about these nineteen stories, you need to weigh each word--in particular the modifiers--with consideration, causing the review to seem more inclusive and introductory than it can possibly be. No doubt you'll want to include an actual passage from one or more of the stories, imparting a sense of the author's narrative voice as a greater reason for an undecided reader to pick the book up or, in all fairness, set it down. Hansen is a skilled and empathetic storyteller, so the put-the-book-down potential does not seem too likely, but there, in itself, is another aspect of how voice influences readers on so many levels.
There are any number of writers you now enjoy reading whom you were at first put off by, thanks to their own voice, an instructor's tones, or the narrative voice of a text book. Hawthorne comes to mind. So too comes his chum, Melville. You were at first put off by Jane Austen, until you began to mouth the words as you read, then read her aloud. Only in the most recent years are you seeing the value in Henry James.
No wonder you hear so many voices, ranging about in your head like a PBX at some large hotel or corporation exchange. There are appropriate voices within for your dealings with reviews, with short fiction, with the longform, and with such essay material as this. You have to let the information come first,often in the form of one or more feelings, which adds a deliberation and cadence to your process if not an actual goad.
Within a few paragraphs, you begin to recognize then accept the voice now dictating the material to you. You need to listen, not try to out-think it or talk over it. By no means should you contradict it; there is a poetry in it you might miss if you do get in the way.
Two of the things writers seem the least sure, voice and style, are the things left after all the winnowing and editing are completed, the theme allowed to emerge, sometimes like the butt of your palm applied to your forehead in stark disbelief, mingled with amazement.
The voice speaks to you after a time. I am the genie in the bottle, it tells you. You must work hard at loosening the cork so that I may emerge and grant you the wishes you had for this work. I can do it, the voice tells you. I know I can. I have done it for so many others. You must let me do it for you.
Friday, November 30, 2012
Sometimes, when considering the warp and weft, the dramatic ramifications of your narrative voice, you are reminded of the drunk, looking for his car keys in the parking lot. This particular drunk of whom you are reminded looks in all the areas that are lit. Doesn't matter if the keys are actually in those lighted areas. The drunk goes there because that's where he can see.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
By the time he made what you've come to think of as the most remarkable comment you've yet had from an editor, you were on a first-name basis. You'd come to look forward to his visits to the university where you taught, and to come to your class, where he wold read from what you'd taken to calling his magical notebook.
The notebook had no magic to it, only the results of his ongoing ability to write new stories, all of them, each in its own way,quite remarkable. As you recall the notebook, it had either an inch or inch-and-a-half capacity. You'd have to look hard to find such a notebook today, covered as it was with the standard blue canvas you preferred when a high school student.
The true magic was his focus. Notebooks do not fill up by themselves. Every year he came on a visit, there were more stories. More. You kept track. He did not repeat himself. The magic was his ability to create a world, put people into that world, then have you--and so many other readers--care.
He was doing some of what you were doing, teaching, editing a literary journal, writing stories. You were teaching, editing a journal, writing stories. You wished to have your stories appear in his journal, which was, after all, the oldest continuously published journal in the U.S., The North American Review. He'd already published Tom Boyle, a teaching mate of yours, albeit from a different department.
You knew, because he told you, that he picked up the submissions from the mailbox where they were delivered, then bring them home, opening the envelopes in the entryway, and reading until he came to the table and fruit bowl in the living room, whereupon, most of the submissions would end their journey. If the story got all the way into his bedroom, he'd read the entire text, which was a sign that you'd made it at least to the short list.
A number of times, he'd sent you a note: "This one made it all the way to the bedroom."
The story producing the remarkable comment did not get far beyond the front door. In it, you'd used the analogy of a character, in the act of realizing something, become aware he'd in effect rushed to catch a train that had long departed from the station. The editor might have told you there were some nice bits in the story, as indeed there were, but he did not do so. He was too much a solid and splendid writer and editor and teacher.
A former student of his found her way across country and into your graduate-level class room, where she told you about the first thing he asked his new students. "What's different about you?"
This is in itself a remarkable thing to ask a student. You have asked it yourself on many occasions. You in fact ask the question in the opening paragraphs of your work in progress about fiction writing.
The former student answered the questing with information that flummoxed the editor, teacher, writer. "I was born," she said, "with six fingers on my hand."
You wish you could have been present at that moment, to see the look on his face. Even more to the point, you wish you could see where and how he used that response in his own work.
As such things work out, he did visit you in Santa Barbara, where you arranged for him to visit a horse breeding ranch in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley as background for a novel, and you did see, from reading the published work, how different it was from the novel he'd talked about while it was in progress.
His comment to you, regarding the short story you'd sent him at The North American Review was, "Shelly, that's taking the objective correlative too far."
Robley Wilson was absolutely right, you'd stolen the keys and taken the family car for an outing, and you'd been caught, driving without a license. You'd learned a good many things from his reading aloud of his short stories from that blue, three-ring notebook, many of which you later recognized in his collection, Terrible Kisses. Among the many things you learned was never to use such a tool as an objective correlative (See, "Shakespeare and His Problems," by Eliot, T. S.) in such a slipshod way that a shrewd reader could see you doing it.
Stories are not to show off displays of technical skill, they are meant to convey a dramatic impression that leaves the reader stunned with the intensity of human behavior. While they are entertaining you, they are doing other things to you that will cause you to be so impressed with so many of them that you will download them into your memory banks as though they were experiences in your actual life as opposed to your reading life. At some point, were someone to ask you if you'd read the event or experienced it in reality, you'd say that it doesn't much matter which answer you gave because both are so.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
A thing remains what it is until it changes.
A person retains the qualities that brought her to this point. Then she changes.
Characters change because they are turned on the lathe of story; they are spun, shaped, brought to contact with abrasive forces. If they are your characters, sometimes you are the lathe, but on other occasions, it is they who have you spinning, being shaped, brought into contact with the sandpaper of realization.
You've had enough experience with the way of things and people and yourself and characters to be accepting of change. Your approach to the concept of change is to make the best of it you can. A story long enough to be called a novella or novel is at it's simplest state, "Something happens and somebody changes." You might add a layer or two of nuance by saying that something happens and as a consequence someone changes.
You grow downright subtle when you up the ante to: "Something happens, causing someone and some thing to change." The thing might be a relationship. The thing could very well be an institution. The someone who changes could become bitter over the changes or resigned or working so hard not to let the change effect his behavior that it becomes obvious to the audience.
Books change you. These books can be yours or someone else's--no matter. You can reread a book of yours, then wonder how you could have not seen the glaring flaws, an awareness that shows you how your attitudes to words, phrases, modifiers, and descriptions have evolved over the time you've practiced your craft. There are, of course, the books of others that make you wonder what new discovery you will make when you reread it again in another year or so. These are among the friends you have kept in touch with.
You've learned to compose on a computer, to edit your own work and the work of others on a computer, to read proof on a computer, to copyedit on a computer because all the while you were rolling sheets of bond paper into a manual typewriter, change was going on about you, and you thought the change was emblematic of your own need to allow your work to change, to show some sense of the metaphoric you, standing against a door jamb so that your literary height maybe marked off with a pencil.
Not far from where you are composing these lines, there is a rather large Conklin fountain pen, its cap and body resplendent in a subtle agate hue. The pen reminds you of the writer who apparently secured a lifetime of Conklin pens for endorsing the product. The writer is the reason why you have two Conklin fountain pens. The writer is also the reason you went to Virginia city, Nevada, because you'd become aware that the newspaper the writer began his career with was publishing again. For some time, you contributed a column to The Territorial Enterprise.
Your desk is overrun with ballpoint pens, most of them bearing advertisements of banks or cleaning establishments or real estate salespersons. They are reminders of when, even in high school, your favorite instrument was the fountain pen.
Although you do quite a bit of composition on one or more of your computers, you will not let the fountain pens gather dust or the crust of dried ink. There are times when only the skating of the nib of a pen over a sheet of paper can provide the sense of intimacy you crave for early draft. This is not to say that you feel constraint when composing on a computer (from a wireless keyboard, assisted by a wireless mouse, both of which have been Blue Tooth paired with the computer); it is to say that in this one way, you have accepted the change but you are not going to abandon the way you began.
There is comfort in seeing how far you've come, whether it is checking the miles you've traveled on the odometer or ordering from Amazon.com the very first book on writing of your experience, which reminds you in its way of an encounter with a high school teacher who, you now understand, meant you no harm and in all probability wished you some greater ability in spelling than you had at the time. "How is it," she seemed to puff up as she spoke, "how is it that you are able to use and correctly spell a word such as denouement, when your general grasp on spelling is execrable?" And you, with the callow aplomb of a high school senior, said, "Because it is a writing tool I use when telling a story."
Callow aplomb no longer works as a description for you. That has changed, evolved, if you will, to smart ass.
For the longest time you told yourself--and believed you were speaking the truth--that the engine driving your writing goals was the engine of recording events. The events were your interpretation of what you saw, or how you translated your inventions to the point where they seemed real enough to be believed.
By slow degree, you began to see how this approach was growing at every level, including the levels of your imagination when you were inventing out of whole cloth.
Sitting under a moonlit-but-cloudy sky in the outside dining area of the Cafe Luna, where you have heard many conversations and expressions you assumed were coming from individuals who'd migrated from Los Angeles or that even more woo-woo world of the believer in "occult forces," you were at close hand in a conversation with a young woman who set you to an unplanned plateau with a simple, straightforward answer to a question you'd posed.
This young woman claimed with the utter sincerity of one who speaks beyond woo-woo, on the firm ground of reality, to have returned a psychotic horse to a state of eager, comfortable normality. She spoke in a way that caused you to understand how you'd already begun the process of writing to transport yourself and such readers as you might attract beyond the landscape of reportage or even of invented history, into the world of interpretation and exposure.
You asked for and got what seemed to you a plausible description of the horse in its psychotic state. No, you are not qualified in the formal sense to determine, much less diagnose, what is and is not psychotic behavior. On the other hand, if a human had done the human equivalent of what the horse did when the woman first encountered it, you might have used a less formal description of the person's behavior. Bat-shit crazy comes to mind.
You were not expecting this information from the young woman, nevertheless when it came, you not only did not doubt the information or the outcome that went with it, you saw it as a distinct plus. This was in a way the kind of question you sometimes spring on your characters when you find they are playing fast and loose with you or, fair is fair, they are presenting clues you are not yet able to see.
Questions related to why you do what you do are as frequent as those related to how you go about rendering a particular technical effect. As a side note here, you are able to see now how, at one time, you fancied fantasy fiction, spent hours reading and trying to dissect it, bring to your own attempts some greater sense of realism than you were able to find in printed work and even less in your own attempts. This finally led you to the conclusion that all but the most disciplined and imaginative fantasy writers chose the genre because of their fear of writing in any landscape approaching contemporary Reality. This judgment included you.
What we're getting at here is the direction your evolution is taking, and why you need to look at it, consider its implications to your writing and to your vision (which informs the tone in which your writing emerges, and includes the vocabulary you chose, with specific reference to words you understand must be changed to yet other words the moment you get them down on the page.
A favored writer of yours ever since you stumbled upon his novel of mystery and suspense, The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins had a favored technique. "Make 'em [the readers] laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait." What perfect advice for you to absorb and to throw at those students and members of your writing group who want more information right now.
Withhold. Make 'em wonder. Thus, make 'em wait.
Never give them what they want when they want it.
Never take the reader where the reader wants to go[because when you do, the story is over].
To all this merriment and speculation about the unquestioned return of a horse from a state of severe apprehension if not outright psychosis, you add your own contribution to the tar baby Brer Fox set out to trap Brer Rabbit.
You compose in order to discover things that surprise you and thus stand some chance of surprising readers. You, after all, read to be surprised, to taken to places that surprise you. These moments and conditions of surprise come in large measure from the interaction between characters, the chemistry they create with their own agendas and views of Reality.
You have known any number of horse trainers, but you have never known a person who has helped a psychotic horse regain the sense of adventurous equipoise and comfort congruent with sanity. You are not all that familiar with horses, but it is your observation of some cats that they had identity and comfort issues. This allows you to accept the possibility of horses with issues, but even more to the point, this tolerant view of behavior and outcome makes you more likely to be surprised by a turn of events. In the same way you have a particular fondness for rhubarb pie, you have an affinity for surprise.
Surprise in writing may not be everything. There has to be story.
Rhubarb in pies may not be everything. But whipped or ice cream mitigates much.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Much of what you use these pages for is to discuss technique with yourself. This in the hopes you will absorb them to the point where you join forces with brother and sister actors, using technique as muscle memory, rather than intellectual concepts. You will write without consciously hewing to technique, rather to the depiction of what each character would do, without your own sense of reaching or limitation.
You've probably heard or seen the expression "muscle memory" some time back in the past, but it did not impress you as something worth concentration until it was used several times by one of the most difficult clients you've ever had. He was the late, remarkable musician, Artie Shaw, of whom you were aware even before you reached double digits in age. Shaw spoke of repetition and practice of plateaus he meant to reach, then move beyond. He was not being immodest when he spoke of his ability to get tones and effects beyond the range of his instrument, the clarinet.
One of the few things you and he were in agreement about was the common denominator of time, as shared by writers, actors, musicians, and photographers. In all cases, the better of these artisans manipulate or control time, whether it is the interval between the opening and closing of a shutter on a camera, the pause between being asked a simple question and the actor's inert knowledge of when to read her line, the one word, "yes," the musician robbing an accent from one measure to cram the note into the following, producing the rubato effect, or the writer, ending a scene on an unresolved note in order to create the need within the reader to read on, to find out what happened.
Through practice, you are able to produce results which appear to emerge from the overall theme and, of course, the individuals "acting" them and "acting on" what they gather from one another. As you see it, your job is the directorial one of bringing an event to the page, then developing the individuals who turn the event into an incident, which in turn sends you scurrying within your own resources, wondering how you can manage to cope with so much anarchy.
Sounds easy, which makes you aware of how beguiling anything is that sounds easy. By the same logic strand, things that seem more than a little difficult tend to encourage non-performance, acts of shutting down the process you've worked this hard to initiate.
The product of engaging difficulty with any measure of success is satisfaction. You work to achieve entry into that landscape of satisfaction. The longer you remain a resident as opposed to an occasional tourist is enjoyment or fun.
Thus it progresses, degree by degree, until the barrier of seeming difficulty is met and out-maneuvered. With this kind of muscle memory starting to develop, there are bound to be some sore tendons and ligaments, but they are mere plateaus you practice to achieve so that you are meeting and challenging the gatekeeper of the difficult.
Achieving the sense of satisfaction now and again helps to keep you suiting up for practice every day, looking for an edge, looking for the muscle memory you can rely upon and so much admire when you see actors playing at improvisation, musicians playing improvisation, and photographers seeming to capture lightening in a bottle with a single, inspired exposure.
There have been times when you've seen it, a presence when you're composing, or editing something you've written, or discovered in your reading of another writer. That presence, the "it" you seek, can only come from the muscle memory you earn by practice.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
The driving route from Santa Barbara to Santa Fe is not by any stretch of the imagination direct. Stretch of the imagination is a vital passenger in the undertaking. The landscape begins citified and cluttered, wending its way through semi-arrid terrain into no-nonsense desert, then into .mountainous excursions with a gradual rise in elevation beyond the six-thousand-foot plateau.
All the while, the landscape resonates in emotions and colors for you. This is your part of the world, just as now your evening walk is a part of your part of the world. In both trips, you see distance and shifts of demographic and of physical landscape. You see places that impress you more on an emotional level than a visual one.
Both are integral tools to the inner life you've forged for yourself in your experiences with early beliefs about your choice of a profession. All you have to do, you thought in early naivete and exuberance, is locate the path, then follow it. In so many ways, the guidance for this undertaking comes not from Aristotle, who had a nifty habit of classifying things and making them seem thus more logical and approachable, but from Lawrence Peter Berra, better known as Yogi Berra,famed for, among other things, the wisdom of "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
Daily walks and occasional road trips lead you to view your own process of association as the beneficiary. You need as much time coming to the fork in the road as you do writing yourself in fork-in-the-road situations.
Somewhere on this latest road trip venture to Santa Fe for a Thanksgiving visit with family, you were reminded of your two splendid, near iconic forks in the road, your two mentors. There was never any clash between what you got from either, nor would they in any real sense disagree with their interpretations of the craft you seek, the craft they sought, and the craft they attained at such a high level. One was a writer. The other an actor.
They are both dead although you hear them in your memory. The actor, you were surprised to recall, will have been gone as a living individual some twenty-seven years. The writer at least twenty-five. In that special way of nightly walks and road trips, you have frequent conversations with these ladies, articulating the things each gave you.
Virginia not only acted, she taught acting at Yale, and shared some of her process visions with you. Perhaps it is a coincidence, perhaps not, but she became a serious vision in your psychological growth, thanks to you having returned to see a particular film, Pride of the Yankees, in which she had a single, piercing scene. She was the flirt, sent to tease Gary Cooper, in his portrayal of the naive baseball star, Lou Gehrig.
Years later, in her den, you watched the scene again, as she showed you what she did and how, through actions and gestures (which are themselves actions) she accomplished it.
From about that time, you saw as you'd never seen before, the connection between story and acting. After all, didn't story have characters? Didn't you have to embed goals, drives, abilities, and defects to make them simultaneous generators of believability and humanity?
This parallelism is well covered in your recent book, but still you read about the process of acting. The actor needs more than an entrance line of dialogue to "fit" into a scene; she needs some action to bring her into it, say the tearing up of a letter or an invoice, the turning of a portrait to face the wall before saying "I will not have that face, staring down at me."
Since about the time of Virginia's death, you'd had the thought of a joint actor-writer workshop.
On this particular venture into your inner process, you engage in some conversations with Rachel, and her early passions for the approach Sherwood Anderson took with his stories, accepting this "conversation" as a nudge to reread Sherwood Anderson.
But you also hear Lawrence Peter Berra and his advice about the fork in the road.
Is it an accident after all, that among your things for the trip are two books you've undertaken to write reviews for, is one title Acting with [Stella]Adler?
Was it an accident for you to have had two mentors, a novelist, story writer, and an actor?
And you can surely hear Stella Adler, directing her students: "What is your action, sequence by sequence. Physicalize. It is better to use your body than to speak words"
And you hear yourself asking, How do you manage to physicalize these thoughts? How do you bring them into dramatic worth?
And you grip the steering wheel, listening to the hum of the tires on the grainy road.
Saturday, November 24, 2012
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), reminded us we could not swim (probably meant bathe) in the same river twice. This vision has evolved to the 2012 era from the southern California philosopher Lowenkopf, whereby one cannot drive the same Interstate Highway twice.
A significant element in that change is the capability to form associations with persons, places, and things as the catalyst for the associations.
You were, earlier today, heading west on I-40, forming associations with a number of things including a particular book for one of the two reviews you have due and hope to have completed and sent off before I-40 leads you into the yet more familiar territory of US 101 and Santa Barbara.
A favored word came hitchhiking along with you on your journey and as hitchhikers tend to do, this word began making conversation, reminding you of the care you'd taken to include it in your last book, intending it as a useful tool in the craft of storytelling.
You needed little reminding. Event, as you see it, is a significant happening in a story, a birth, or perhaps a death, possibly even an anniversary celebration of a birth or death. All these, to be sure, count as events in your own personal storytelling toolkit.
But then, the voice of association began to appear roadside, and at length you were persuaded to stop to take it aboard, where it immediately began, as hitchhikers are wont to do, a conversation.
The association hitchhiker had no trouble with event, even going so far as to give it a nod of respect. But after a time, you found yourself caught in the conversation with event and association to the point where another word was included.
Story lines up in field formation around event, but it becomes filled with the coltish and anarchistic energy you so much admire in your favorite writers when event becomes nudged into incident.
Newspapers and Internet news blog sites are filled with events, many of which appear swept under a particular thematic rug. When an event becomes triggered into an incident, the results move closer to the equivalent of Page One.
As you listened to the conversation, shifting from sing-song conversation into a more oratorical shade of rhetoric, you noted how one of the two books to be reviewed is about acting, in fact a partial description of the teaching techniques honed as a student of the Russian actor/director, Constantin Stanislovski, by Stella Adler, an individual who acted as well as taught in this country.
Incident has a nice sound to it, neither too flamboyant nor bland in its implications. Incident wishes to present itself to you as, "Something was planned for the event, and as the plans became implemented, something else happened to affect two or more characters. As conversation wishes to become dialogue, event in story wants to boil over into incident. Thus incident is the event 'gang aft aglay,' as Burns had it in his lovely, haunting offering 'To a Mouse,'"
Such lovely logic here: Two or more characters approach an event within a scene within a story. Each has expectations of how the event will play out. Each has an inherent vision of being right, or perhaps entitled for one or ore reasons. These characters meet. Their purposes tangle. They clash. Brer' Rabbit's Tar Baby story can be seen as mere child's play in comparison to this immediate event, this--this incident.
You by no means feel as though you've let event down in your book, but if and when a revised edition is called for, you will be sure to associate that useful tool with the talkative and persuasive hitchhiker you picked up just outside Gallup, N.M.
You should also mention how persuasive incident was when he put the bite on you for enough for a decent cup of coffee, "Not the rabbit pee urn coffee they serve around here, but an honest double shot of espresso."
You recognized an incident when you experienced one.
Friday, November 23, 2012
Driving east along Interstate 40 toward adjunct destination Albuquerque, then north on Rte 25 to primary destination of Santa Fe, you became aware of the changes in Reality since your last venture into this part of the world.
I-40 is, as you noted a few days past, a major artery, a thruway for impressive amounts of commerce, a pivot point for the transmission of power, a platform for an array of types of transportation in such laundry-list segments as cars, RVs, trucks, trains, motorcycles, bicycles, and animal-drawn carts.
What you did when writing about it, in a thematic sense what you do when you write about anything, is give interpretation to Reality.
The word "interpretation" is at least a first cousin to translate. The Italians have a telling, two-word definition for the process of translation: "Tradditore, tratore." Those wonderful folks who gave us the Borgias as well as Virgil and Dante, tattoo the vision onto our literary skins of the translator as the traitor. You are as well reminded in this context of the definition of history being an account of events written by "the winners," to which you offer your own definition, informed in some part by your undergraduate major in political science and your major in literature. A political screed is an exaggerated account of events and their consequences written by the losers.
What you're edging toward here is the enormity of securing, editing, polishing, and presenting your view of any Reality, including your reality of, say, hearing a particular composition of music, watching a dramatized version of a narrative, close observation of a painting or drawing or fresco of some aspect of Reality.
You venture as well to include the Reality of another person, even another group of persons.
By an elaborate and pleasurable process of associations and memory, you ventured into this landscape of this essay as you drove eastward on I-40 to share the Thanksgiving meal with a significant part of your family. There are two other family members at this level of closeness who are miles and lifestyles away from you and for whom you feel the close draw of affection. There five others, one of whom you've never seen, at this level of kinship closeness with whom you do not share the special bond of closeness.
When the friends of your hosts had departed, when the guests were gone, there were nine of you, sprawled lazily about the kitchen, fussing over pies and coffee, conversations ranging like a dropped garden hose, spraying everything in its path. You do not recall which of the assembled dropped the first tentative pebble into the existential pond. Perhaps it was a dread of some work-related event or an un-welcomed chore, or some conversational venture into matters of health and/or happiness. But there was another and another, and suddenly someone recalling your past encounter with cancer and how you appeared to cope with it, and your late wife's encounter with her own cancer Reality after being a part of yours, and how she coped with hers and how you coped with the Reality.
Your I-40 venture was enhanced by the signs of the turnoffs to various Native American locales you'd visited relative to your wife's book project including most of the local tribes. You were also aware of the presence of casinos and the ready access to them. Into the equation of dinner conversation about the relative changes in Reality for some of the tribes and ongoing poverty as a Reality for others, your thoughts were rich with tribal thoughts as a part of the Reality you have options of investigating.
That is all background to the after dinner family chatter not breaking off until you found yourself in an election you had no thought to join. You were elected tribal elder, a position that seems to you to require a minimum level of respectable and demonstrable wisdom and a minimal presence of judgment. You have neither. You have abundant theory. You are well schooled in doubt. Even by your own view of the matter, you are not lacking in ego, which adds up to your growing sentiment that the visible divide in the past presidential and congressional elections has had its way with the nominating process.
When you think of tribal leader sorts, you do not think of yourself in their number. By some accidents and whims of Reality, you emerge as candidate through seniority. You are reminded of the trope: God favors fools and drunks.
Yours is the writer's toolkit of fear, uncertainty, and accidental solutions, which do seem to appear on the workbench at about the same time, one leading to the other until you have produced something that seems upon rereading a number of times to draw you into its midst, where you are better positioned to see which seams need caulking and which doors need to be rehung if you ever expect to get more use of them.
In some ways, when you think about it, there might be a connection between your blundering into being tribal elder through seniority and your arrival as a writer for the same set of reasoning.
Thursday, November 22, 2012
This day has always been one of your favorite holidays, in large measure because of it's absolute secular nature, so far as any cultures with which you have passing familiarity are concerned. Where ever you are, whatever the circumstances, this day has shone through with some special awareness or the simple luminous glow of circumstance.
Writing these words, you see a stream of family gatherings, beach or desert retreats, and varying circumstances of financial comfort or its lack, including one glorious time when instead of turkey on the platter, the prognosis was for wolf at the door. Yet, the eve of the night before, a special delivery letter arrived with a payment for a story you'd forgotten about. And what about that time when the traditional Thanksgiving feast was slated to be a can of Franco-American spaghetti, mistakenly picked up in a shopping frenzy by either you or your late wife. No matter the culprit, either of you could have been reaching for tomato paste.
You have all these memories, including your recognition that 2010 was to be your last with your wife, and you asking her if she'd like to have a gathering of those dearest to her, only to be thanked and told she'd be happiest with you and, of course, your cranky, notional dog, Sally.
You were born into a culture where, at a major Thanksgiving-type ritual combined with a sumptuous meal, a chair and place setting were kept for the so-called uninvited guest. He was not uninvited because he was unwanted. Rather, he could and should be welcomed at any Passover seder--without invitation. He being the prophet Elijah.
This year you are perhaps a thousand miles away from your normal landscape, the northern New Mexico home of your eldest niece, being joined by other family and friends, some of quite different cultures, reminding you in a wonder way of a Passover Seder depicted by Michael Chabon which featured a group of native Koreans who conducted the ritual in flawless Hebrew which the narrator, a Caucasian, was unable to join because he, of the entire group, did not speak nor read Hebrew.
The uninvited guest at this gathering is Los Angeles. With the exception of your youngest niece, the entire kit and caboodle here have in common that we no longer live in Los Angeles. We speak of it--at least you speak of it--as a bittersweet memory of what was once so accessible and nurturing and now clotted, unsteady, off its stride.
All things change. You hope for some changes to appear as uninvited guests within yourself, changes such as wisdom, a finer year for the magical sway of a sentence, the ability to build the literary equivalent of a fire, which is to say to ignite a smolder of passion within a dry paragraph. You are not the best host to such evidences as the greater amount of time necessary for you to perform an act you once performed without a second thought.
Any number of the guests here have Los Angeles stories. The manager at the seafood restaurant where you dined last night confessed being a Los Angeles expatriate. "Dorsey High School," he said, proudly. Not to be outdone, your nieces both confessed the same alma mater. A school cheer. A gratis flaming desert. Expatriate hands across the dining table.
We all of us have found other places to be in and to care about, but as the subject of Los Angeles creeps into the conversation, you are reminded of the text and title of that piercing short story from Raymond Carver, "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love."
Not long ago, as you poured yourself a second or perhaps third cup of coffee, you observed how even your return route to Santa Barbara was charted to avoid driving through Los Angeles. Rather, you'll take the back door, avoiding most of it, being funneled out onto the 101 in that northern part of the San Fernando Valley where the suburb cities have names that reflect history of others who even in the past, sought to avoid the real Los Angeles.
The real Thanksgiving is the key here; it is the holiday where, in that splendid, non religion way, you take stock of yourself, enjoy with that temporal sense of the earth transiting, of you transiting, of Reality moving, moving like electrons past a specified point in that energetic force we call electricity.
You see it with such clarity, your sense of thanks, your great relief at having survived so far, even at the loss of some things, the acquisition of others. Some many years back, you made a choice to attempt to capture such passage in written narrative, flirted with filmed and televised versions, but came back to paper and the computer screen.
How difficult it is, trying to capture the vision of the thanks, the parade of growth and movement. How hard to capture it in a way that will sustain revisiting. The best you can do so far is reach for a slab of the pie you have not yet tasted, top off your coffee, and wonder where you will find the opening line that will lead you to the opening paragraph that will lead you to a keepable page.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
As many Santa Fe residents will tell you, this is one of the oldest if not the oldest city in North America. There were no city planners a such. Unlike many modern cities, Santa Fe is relative in its innocence of a grid system.
A walk around any given block is an adventure worthy of Lewis and Clark, with a similar potential for results. You may not get where you intend. What you seek may not in fact be there any more, but what you discover is pure and simple, adventure.
Santa Fe is, thus, not a place for a person with impatience. As your life and writing process grew to a point where rethinking and restructure or--go ahead and say it--rewriting first emerged as necessities then came to be the greater pleasure than the first draft, you thought the tea bag of impatience had been pretty well used up, but both by vehicle and by walking, the Santa Fe system of streets proved you wrong.
Santa Fe has little in common with Los Angeles or, for the matter, Santa Barbara. Take away the Spanish founders and the binding tie is the fact of each population swelling. Things in Los Angeles, for all they are spread out, are easy to find provided they still exist and have not been lifted by the roots and moved elsewhere, such as some of the remarkable Queen Anne-style homes on Bunker Hill, or simply bulldozed down and built over, edited, if you will--extremely edited.
And editing is your point here, the exquisite sense of shaping things so that you can find your way in them without the frustrations that lead to impatience. These frustrations, by the way, are unlike the frustrations associated with suspense, conditions where you as a reader, become frustrated on the behalf of a character, who is about to do something you believe dangerous, ill-advised, or plain foolish.
These two types of frustration are the literary equivalent of high- and low-density cholesterol, the one a helpful and healthy working compound, the other tending to clog things and make for systemic clots.
After a few near misses on the streets of Santa Fe today, you had the positive awareness that you were not so far from impatience as you'd supposed. Missed connections, wrong turns with the goal in clear sight, then seeing yourself set off on an impossibly complex tangent, demonstrated a lesson you'd come close to forgetting. Impatience and frustration are valuable collaborators in story. Unlike most bank interest rates of today's market, they continue to pay high dividend, inflicting burdens on beset characters in ways most readers can appreciate.
Thinking you'd come to terms with impatience, perhaps to the point of understanding its dynamics borders on patronizing the condition and its use in story. An impatient person of only moderate impatience is not worthy of being in a story yet. The story has not begun until the character feels lost and no longer confident the way out is clear.
So, all right, you were at such a point for about fifteen minutes, until you realized you were in fact enjoying the situation. Then a solution presented itself, and you took it.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Interstate 40 between Kingman, AZ, and Gallup, NM, has been a refreshing revelation and inspiration to you. Williams, in particular on the lip of the Grand Canyon, seemed to reach out and grab you the way Virginia city did when you first beheld it, then took it in as though it were some fine old sipping cognac.
You fantasy about living in many small towns and, in fact, do live in one already, but Williams has a quirky newspaper, barbecue restaurants that tempt you, and the slap-dash architecture of a number of interests working without consulting building codes or master plans.
The highway, itself, is two-laned in either direction, well managed, its paving up-to-date, its vistas sometimes so stunning, you'd have to stop, merely to gawk. You've been over this road any number of times, going as far back as an age before you hit double digits. It has grown along with you, appealing to your senses of politics, political outrage, nostalgia,and existential understanding.
I-40 is no longer so raw and desolate as when you saw it first, nor are the vehicles that ply it huffing toward the five- and six-thousand-foot plateaus, sometimes forced to stop to allow the engine to cool down. You're used to signs alerting you to watch for deer, but I-40 throws elk and bear into the pot. It also has long strands of wind turbines and huge structures looking like a cross between a comic book super hero and an Erector set, carrying power in all directions.
Capitalism prevails here, with trucks and trains escorting loads of raw and manufactured goods in the cardinal directions, employing individuals along the way to tend to them. Some signs urge you to consider how easy it is to own a forty-acre ranch in this area, while others speak of growing potentials, all of which allow you to live your dream, become a rancher or a farmer, have hired hands, think Republican.
Friends who have traveled this road in recent years warn you of the potential for boredom, but you've had no need for books on compact disc or the use of your iPhone and its ability to reach pre-selected on-line FM stations that stream jazz or classical music. The magical name of Coconino County becomes real, welcoming you to its parameters and by the wondrous transport of association, transports you from the Coconino County of reality to the Coconino County of your most cherished comic strip of all time, Krazy Kat. As your Yaris swallows the miles, you find yourself looking for Offisa Pup, Krazy Kat, and Ignatz Mouse. What a splendid place to come so close to your nostalgia for that landscape and those characters. The mesas, buttes, and spotty clumps of trees remind you of the hours of imaginative fun you had following the whimsy and philosophical accommodations of those remarkable characters.
Names of places dear to your heart leap off the road signs. Second Mesa. Keams Canyon. In so many ways, you are tempted to detour. You promise yourself at least one greasy meal on the way back, then begin slathering over the potentials. Fry bread. Yes. This one last time. Fry bread.
The signs for Indian Trading Posts begin to appear, along with what strikes you as the distillation of cynicism into the brandy of absolute capitalistic opportunism. Genuine Indian blankets for as little as $4.99.
The architecture along I-40 varies from boarded-up frame houses, turned black in the desert sun, sitting close to buildings of adventurous concept, reminding you of dishes you've been served in restaurants offering nouvelle cuisine. Cast among them are outrageous tepees of the sort none of the local Indians would ever consider. In a remarkable coincidence of pulling off the road for gas, you find espresso coffee in a strip mall next to a used car lot.
You want I-40 never to end. With its gaudy excess, it offers you absolution from the overcoat of guilt you'd put on relative to your years spent with the carnival and your occasional thoughts that as you pursue your quest for strength and insight as a writer, you may have leaned with too much force on the illusory parts.
The I-40 is a splendid balance, showing how often it is that the good and beautiful lives side by side with the bad and the ugly. This remarkable road you once saw as a child and then again and again as more grown up has evolved, which is the precise thing you hope to do. The evolution is, you hope, toward vision, but vision requires discipline to capture a moment or two of it, then set it squirming down on the page.
What draft is I-40 in? Will you recognize it again?
What draft are you working on relative to you?
Will you recognize the revised versions of yourself, and will you recall these moments of hurtling over this vast, splendid, terrible, unquenchable terrain?
Monday, November 19, 2012
You've been on the road much of the day, striking out into territory you have not visited for some time. The gradual shift from southern California urban, mountainous and green, giving way grudgingly to scruffy patches of desert covering, reminding you of teenage boys trying to grow enough beard to look older.
Well past Victorville and heading east, you are aware of something missing. Your first and several subsequent temptations are to wonder what important thing you forgot to pack. Reading glasses? Your cell phone. A quick pat to the pocket reassures you about the glasses. The cell phone has been telling you to be alert for various turnoffs, and so it is not the phone.
Then you realize what the missing thing is. Trees. You are truly in desert now and as if to prove it, you pass several separate sites where homes or businesses have surrendered to what must be the monumental boredom of living here. And of course t e sun, causing paint to peel, the grain of wood to shrivel.
For some days now, you have been writing in this platform about the days and years and times you spent working the concessions with the Foley and Burke Shows, the memory of one event triggering things not so much forgotten as tucked aside, waiting for discovery.
Being on this road, which is now renamed as I-40, recalls the most protracted trip of your then life, moving along this same route when it was still US 66, filled with two great staples of nostalgia, the road signs for Burma-Shave, and the succession of truly awful attractions advertised by the gas stations along the way.
You'd thought a good deal about these attractions as you drove yet another highway, what used to be Route 99, the spine of the Central Valley. Some of the awful attractions were free wildlife exhibitions, which more often than not turned out to be a few tired snakes or toads, the occasional lizard, and perhaps a few arthritic rabbits, stuck in makeshift cages made from milk carriers or fruit boxes.
There were two-headed calfs and other biological outrages, petting zoos, and even an artificial trout pond. When you first saw these things, you knew straightaway that they had nothing to do with any reality you'd been attached to. You thought of such places when you were "with it," traveling with the carnival, because the Midway itself is a cheap illusion, so cynical in the final analysis that you came to realize you were in a large sense an innocent abroad in a larger Midway, and didn't you want to extend your own illusions to potential readers in much the same way you thrust baseballs at passersby, urging them, "Let's try the ball game."
Things are, of course, what they are as well as metaphor. The road cannot help being a metaphor, that humming ribbon of concrete between cities along the Central Valley. The Midway cannot help being the Midway. On your own turf, you have some power to tantalize others with the illusions of being with it. The moment you are off the Midway, you are no longer powerful, you are a mark.
"I can't see that college has done much for you," Ronnie told you more than once. "I don't mean that to bring you down. What I mean is, I see you being smart in ways you might not have got from college. You could as easily have got them from the Show."
You were tempted to tell him that being with it had not taught him anything about cars or the individuals who sold and repaired them, but such observations only increased his anxiety to find another "perfect" tuna salad sandwich.
At one or other of the "tear down" nights, when the entire carnival decomposed, deconstructed, transported itself sometimes upward of a hundred miles, only to have to set up again, you'd lost a wrist watch. True enough, being a gift, it had more of a sentimental value than a practical one, to the point where you resolved to replace the lost watch with something more reflective of how well you were doing "with it."
Almost as though he could read your intentions, seeing them as some bar code on your forehead, Papa Louie thought he had a watch that would be the equal of any you could find in the jewelry shop you'd intended to consult in Salinas. The price was at just the level to convince you that the watch was authentic, not some clock variation of the Cadillac Papa Louie had sold Ron.
"I won't take a cent from you," Papa Louie said, "until you've worn the watch for at least two days, then come to agree with me that it was made for you."
Things developed without a hitch, Papa Louie even insisting on yet another day of trial, Two weeks into your ownership of this handsome Longines Whitnauer with a metal bracelet and luminous dial, you happened to join Ron's friend George, at the cook house, where you were both in urgent need of coffee.
"You won't think it rude of me to ask," George said, "but did you by any chance--any chance at all--acquire that wrist watch from Papa Louie?"
"As a matter of fact--" you began, but George was already out of his seat.
"Son of a bitch," he said, several times. "I want you to know I consider you completely innocent." He strode toward the Midway with a murderous stride.
Sitting in your pet friendly motel in Kingman, you are not far from I-40, close enough for you to be aware of the occasional swish of a passing car on Andy Divine Boulevard.
This road, this desert, this metaphor is nothing like the Routes 66 or 99 of your earlier days; this desert is still purple in the lengthening afternoon shadows. This desert is still a bitch to be heading west on at about five or five thirty, when the sun is not merely in your eye, it is an anarchistic presence, making everything else seem to fragment.
This desert, once precious because it was lonely and mysterious, has your goddamned iPhone chattering at you about remaining on I-40 instead of taking a turn-off even you know not to take. There are no advertisements for amazing discoveries, only reminders that real estate prices "out here" are a thousand times less than they are in Los Angeles.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Papa Louie was quite right; you’d looked at his daughter, Honey, more than once, admiring among other things her posture, which reminded you of long-legged marsh birds wading through the wetlands with a measured, easy stride. You were also taken by her colorful blouses, the yellows and cobalt blue, the turquoise, and blued-down reds which accented her au lait skin and her glossy dark hair, with its undercoating of the red known as rufus.
Of course there were the more obvious attractions. You looked, you marveled at those, but of equal measure at least, you were attracted by her voice, which had the raspy, cigarette-smoker’s tang of carnival folk who chattered, called, cajoled, and in other individualized ways projected their voice over the mounting din of the Midway.
“Hey, let’s try the ball game.”
Or sometimes, merely, “Ball game,” projected while you extended the three baseballs in your hand.
Other times, “Don’t have to knock ‘em off, just tip ‘em over.”
And the Siren-like: “Will you win her a toddy bear?”
You in fact first became aware of Honey when you heard her pitch, floating out over a Midway evening, an inviting call over the less esthetic honking of so many of the agents.
Although you had that raspy edge to your voice, enhanced by a pack of Camels a day, you strived for that exquisite range between a hoarse sotto voce and someone who could attract attention with a mere word or two, because it sounded urgent. You were almost there, but, trying to be as objective as possible, you were focused on Honey’s voice well beyond those steamy, secluded-room fantasies your libido called up for you when you noticed her.
“I hear you been to college, that right?” Papa Louie said, as though he were starting the negotiations on some appliance or jewelry you knew in advance would require installment payments.
“A man who goes to college, he must be pretty smart. Maybe not smart on the streets, but hey—“ He reach across the table to nudge you. “—a man who goes to college, he don’t need to spend time on the street.” Another nudge. “He spend his time in an office or a court room.” Papa Louie’s eyes were like dark obsidian, polished, dense. “Where you gonna spend your time?”
This somehow led him to advising you that you needed a suit, which was one of the last things you needed, because a Hollywood actor for whom you’d worked had given you six of his. This was in lieu of cash, but at the time you were not alarmed by the arrangement.
“You work with him? Papa Louie said. “By golly, I watched that Flying Tigers movie of his five, six times when Imma boy.”
Because of what he described as her extraordinary beauty, Papa Louie felt an obligation to see that individuals he noticed watching Honey had honorable attentions. He went so far as to ask you if your intentions were, as he put it, with honor.
Looking back now on your response to that question, you are able to see more than a little of the smart ass college kid trying to sound more than merely “with” the carnival, rather “with” the “it” of sophistication and awareness. What you told Papa Louie was that you feared Honey’s obvious charms could easily override your respectful interest in her as a person.
Automatic transmissions were in the developing stages in those days, but nevertheless, your answer produced in Papa Louie a seamless shift from protector to manager.
“People who complete college,” he said, “they are people who sometimes see the possibilities for arrangements.”
Of course, as it developed, Papa Louie was not really Honey’s father and as much as you thought you saw a family resemblance, there was no direct blood tie.
Two days after that conversation with Papa Louie, while standing in yet another garage, on account of Ron’s Cadillac, you learned that Ron had purchased the Cadillac from Papa Louie. Standing in the mechanic’s office, lined with the types of calendars you’ve come to associate with mechanic’s offices, you heard the mechanic tell Ron, “I’ve seen more powerful engines in washing machines.
Two weeks later, Ron was wearing a fringed leather jacket at least two sizes to large from him, and someone had dropped off at your hotel in the lower-rent areas of Ventura, a brand new-but-un-hemmed pair of khakis, The Ventura county fair was the end of the season for you; all you’d need to do was walk a block to the Greyhound station, then be off the seventy-five-or-so miles to Los Angeles.
Your voice had achieved that scratchy burr you so admired, you’d successfully fended off Papa Louis’s suggestions that you consider some arrangement with Honey, and Ron was driving a moss-colored Ford with Nevada license plates. You were having a particularly rewarding runoff income at the Ventura Fair Grounds when your rasp-mellowed voice caused a face in the Midway crowd to turn around.
You had indeed thought to pursue a relationship with the face that turned to focus her eyes on you. True, she lacked Honey’s more stark and exotic appearance, but something about Betty you were not completely able to articulate caused you to feel vulnerable, wildly attracted to her, yet at times completely tongue-tied.
The few conversations about potentials for shared futures seemed to focus on her belief that your eyes were more on some horizon than on a particular goal and a plan to achieve it. “You seem,” she said at one point, “to always be focusing on uncertainty.”
If she were with sorority sisters, friends, even a date, you registered then and now in retrospect, only her, on that late September afternoon, apart from the Midway crowd, as familiar to you as your own clothing in the vast democratic potential of a strange Laundromat in a remote city. “I knew it,” she seemed to be saying with nods of her head rather then words. “I knew it would be something like this.”
Two days later, you were back in Los Angeles with enough earnings to see you through a few months of time where you and your typewriter had nothing to focus on but uncertainty.
Saturday, November 17, 2012
In the unlikely event you’d want a written resume of your work as a carnival concessions stand employee, you’d call yourself an agent, which meant your pay was twenty-five percent of what you brought in at a historical time where a quarter was the standard entry fee for playing at a booth.
If you did well, the owner of the booth invited you to continue in the next city. A booth owner thanking you on the last day of a fair without inviting you to stay with “the joint” in the next city was not the equivalent of being fired; after all, you’d been allowed to finish out without being told with great specificity not to come back tomorrow.
You were only fired twice in your five years of being “with it,” moving through and away from such arcane booths as inducing individuals to toss tennis balls into muffin tins with each cup being given a strategic number. The customer got three balls. A score of under nine or over nineteen produced a winner, a feat of near impossibility to the point of the teddy bear prizes beginning to look old and shopworn.
From “Add-‘em-up pans” you moved to throwing darts at balloons, dunk ‘em, which involved hitting a target with a softball that triggered a chair on which a clown sat to dump said clown in a vat of water, a hit the bell with a hammer contraption, a basketball throw, a ski-ball booth, and what emerged to be, as Teddy had predicted, your arrival at your talent, the baseball throw.
Six metal milk bottles arranged in pyramid shape on a platform mounted on a vertical automobile tire. Three of the “bottles” were weighted with about a half pound of lead. The others were merely their “normal” metal self of about a half-pound worth of weight each.
You or your spotter routinely stacked the weighted bottles on the bottom, decreasing the chances of a customer tipping over all six with the three balls his quarter bought. Putting the weighted bottles on top greatly enhanced the potential for all six bottles being toppled with a well=placed throw, thus your G or gimmick. A girl and her boyfriend were prime targets. If you could “help” her win by tipping all the bottles over, particularly with her first throw, thus winning her own teddy bear, the boyfriend became your mark. He’d need to show that he, too, could tip over those bottles. With the average price of a teddy bear about a dollar and a quarter, such strategies as loading the bottle stack often produced ten or fifteen dollars worth of income from the frustrated boyfriend. Arranging for the little lady to win yet another seemed to send out invisible waves of excitement, often drawing large crowds.
At one such venture, the boyfriend bore down hard on his throw, hitting a weighted bottle with such force that the ball ricocheted to hit the thrower in the forehead. “No wonder I can’t topple those damn things. They’s all weighted.”
By this time, you’d come into your own. You reached for the offending bottle, and then handed it to the boyfriend. “Damn straight their weighted,” you said. “You mean to tell me a guy your size can’t tip over a bottle with a half pound of lead.” If that didn’t do the trick, you could always, and sometimes did hand three baseballs to the girlfriend again, rearranging the bottles for a potential third teddy bear and quite possibly the end of the romantic relationship between the young couple.
The event with the Marine in Visalia, some nearby carnival workers theorized, could have gone any of a number of less dramatic ways than it did. A Marine in his late twenties, impeccably neat in his dress tans, strode down the Midway hand in hand with a statuesque, well-dressed woman a few years beyond the teen demographic. They seemed ideal for a stratagem you’d been longing to try.
“Hey there, Marine,” you called to him. “You won a prize for the lady you were with last night. Why not get one for this special person?”
Her response, an immediate and infectious smile, was exactly what you’d wanted. The Marine’s response was not.
Within seconds, the Marine advanced on you and slammed you into the outer railing of the booth. “I was not here last night,” he said, his face close to yours. “I was not here, understand?
The Midway code for a worker being in such trouble as you from a customer is called a “Hey, Rube,” a term covering any number of complaints or acting out. You were aware of a few calls of “Hey, Rube. Baseball.” Quickly, almost momentarily, carnival workers surrounded the Marine. As if materializing from the air, someone thrust a large swirl of cotton candy into the girlfriend’s hand and the couple seemed to be swept along by a cadre of ushers to the outer path of the Midway.
A few moments later, one of the Hey, Rube group called out to you in passing. “Hey, Baseball. Good gimmick there. Got to try that myself.”
Later that night, at supper, Ron, who’d been in the escort group, observed, “We take care of our own, so that makes you one of us. And you know what that means.”
You pretty well knew. The next time there was a Hey, Rube, you were expected to be part of the escort group.
Friday, November 16, 2012
The San Joaquin Valley is in its land-locked way the California equivalent of the Mississippi River, ranging as it does through the center of California from just south of Sacramento, meandering between mountain ranges in broad swaths of arable land south to Bakersfield, where the rich, loamy soil gradually gives way to alluvial fans, dry stream beds, then desert sand—lots of it. The Central Valley, as it is sometimes called, is in yet another reach of metaphor, a spine.
A number of California’s fifty-eight counties appear along this spine. Each of these has a county seat, which, in turn, has a large assemblage of outbuildings, stables, corrals, and venues associated with animals and agriculture. These counties have at least one fair a year; some have a number of fairs built around such local crops as asparagus, lettuce, and strawberries.
Fairs draw carnivals the way an unattended hamburger will draw flies. The particular carnival entrepreneur, Foley and Burke Shows, was the one Ron followed, attached to it through his mother and stepfather but also through the habit of working for many of the concessionaires at a range of jobs requiring increasingly more sophisticated abilities.
Ron’s stepfather Teddy, a gruff-but-amiable Man in his late sixties who attempted to manage his curly dark hair with pomade, saw you taking your being fired with a heaviness uncharacteristic of you. “Try not to let it get you,” he advised. “There is a saying among us that we discover our talents by being fired.” The “us” he was speaking of were his Portuguese forebears, but there was a kind of practicality to his wisdom.
While you were tucking into the steaming mound of scrambled eggs and linguica sausage he’d introduced you to, your opportunity to discover your talents by being fired expanded in the form of Dale, a short, dapper man with sharp-edged facial features. Dale and Teddy were, you imagined, friends. Teddy teased Dale about being even shorter than the actor, Alan Ladd, and Dale returned the favor by speaking at great length about Teddy’s failure to master the card game of klabiash.
Dale put you to work as an agent in his Guess Your Age booth after an experiment of asking you to guess the approximate ages of random individuals in the cook stand dining area. The G or gimmick was that you were not to guess the customer’s age because doing so would end the transaction and perhaps embarrass the customer. “You don’t ever wanna do that,” Dale explained. “What you wanna do is lose. You see a woman you know is fifty, you look her dead in the eye, like maybe you seeing something about her maybe her old man don’t see. Then say loud, so everyone can hear, ‘You can’t be no more dan thirty-seven.’ You see how it work? Then she say, ‘No, I’m—I’m forty-five.’ We both know she got to be fifty-two, fifty-three, but she’s hooked, you see.”
The next step is where you plead with her for a chance to get even, get the customer to pay another quarter if you guess her weight or maybe her occupation, and if you miss, the customer gets to choose a prize from the second shelf.
Dale’s booth had five shelves, the top level being lamps, bracelets, enormous teddy bears, and portable radios. The routine was in effect for you to sell a customer a $1 or $2 item for upwards of ten dollars. You did this by “losing.”
Watching you at one point, “losing” a guess of a walnut picker’s occupation (walnut picker’s hands were invariably stained a dark brown) by announcing that you could tell he was a bus driver, Dale confided to you that you seemed to have a natural affinity for losing, which took some of the edge off you not being able to win a ham with anything resembling authenticity.
And so, for a week or two, you were gainfully employed, you were with it, a carney, already set to wondering what the G or gimmick was in story telling, to the point where you could successfully “lose” at that, and be with in the ways that were ever so much more meaningful.
But then came a scheduled circus jump, which meant you had to dismantle your booth, store in Dale’s trailer, then drive two hundred miles to the next city in the San Joaquin Valley where, instead of being able to sleep, you needed to assemble the booth in time for the opening of the next county fair.
Even more interesting, there you met for the first time Papa Louie, a man who reminded you in many ways of the actor Sidney Greenstreet, except that Papa Louie had the burnished, leathery complexion of a Gypsy. He seemed to emerge from the interior of the cookhouse, confronting you while you took refuge in a cup of the bitter, over boiled Midway coffee. “I see you looking at my daughter,” he said by way of greeting. “You got some kind of, you know, interest in her?”
Thursday, November 15, 2012
Your first hint that the teddy-bear laden Cadillac, now transporting you to new and delicious vistas of the human condition, had issues was about twenty miles due south of Tulare, California, when, at approximately eight in the evening, it stopped. This came as a complete surprise to Ron, its driver and your Virgil to the Dante-like landscape he was about to guide you through.
One moment, the car was purring away as though it were a well-tended Cadillac. The next moment, it was not.
Ron maneuvered the car to the side of the road. Although there was a semblance of AAA and emergency roadside service in those days, there were no cell phones. Your contribution was to flag down what at first seemed to you a California Highway Patrol. As it approached, you discovered it was not. Rather it was a police car from the nearby city of Visalia. “I wish you hadn’t done that,” Ron said, sotto voce.
You did not get details on that for some days. For the moment, the Visalia police radioed a Tulare tow service, which gave you second thoughts about the Cadillac.
The tow service driver, peering into the motor compartment of the Cadillac said, “Interesting.”
Of course Ron wanted to know what was interesting.
“That,” the tow service driver announced as a judge of at least district court authority, “is not a Cadillac motor.”
“So, maybe some other GM heavy-duty?” Ron speculated. “La Salle? Maybe Pontiac?”
“Maybe,” the two service driver said. “Hard to tell.”
The difficulty was, in fact, so profound that Ron did not ever, to your knowledge, determine the provenance of the engine. Several months later, under similar circumstances outside Sacramento, you bade a philosophical farewell to the Cadillac which, by that time, had traded its traveling companions of teddy bears for the generic motor oil sold by a California chain of automotive supply houses known as Pep Boys (three partners, Manny, Moe, and Jack). You do recall Ron’s adamant threat to wreak vengeance on every gypsy in Medford, Oregon, but like so many aspects of this narrative, that information is for later.
The Cadillac is towed into a repair shop in Tulare, where a loaner car is arranged, but not until Ron puts up a $500 security fee. When you are settling into your motel, you joke that this is surely a pet-friendly establishment. Ron looks a "what" at you. You point to a large cockroach. He is not amused.
After an educational breakfast in which you learn from Ron and the waitress that folks in this part of the world may have heard of poached eggs but are likely to think of them as things eaten by the English or the French, you return to the auto repair shop long enough to transfer the teddy bears from the Cadillac to the trunk of the loaner car, and then out to the fair grounds, where hives of activity seem to be stirring up the dust. A city is coming to life, a city of dreams and hoke.
You help Ron carry the teddy bears to one of the carnival booths Ron runs for a wheezing, long-limbed woman named Grace, who begins eyeing you speculatively. Ron is the manager of the booth, meaning he pays the rent and the cost of the teddy bears and other “prizes,” for which he is paid fifty percent of all the money he brings in.
Grace gives you another onceover, “College kid, huh? Just might be the right image.”
Ron appears to know more about her comments than you do, mentioning your background in theater arts. While it is true that you took a few classes in the TA Department, one of them was learning to write for radio and the other was a history of motion pictures you took more to be with a girl named Janet, whom you believed you loved.
The ‘theater arts” from Ron seemed to make Grace’s lingering decision complete. You were suddenly confronted with your first job. You were now a carney. You were officially with it. Your job was to be a shill at Grace’s booth, a ham wheel, in which a large vertical wheel was spun, its flapping leather marker stopping on such prizes as a one-pound canned ham, a five-pound canned ham, a vacuum-sealed tin of Maxwell House coffee, a slab of Farmer John bacon, or jars of Smucker’s apple butter.
Players “bet” on a large baize-covered plywood board reminiscent of a roulette layout. Grace or one of her underlings spun the wheel, which could be controlled by a hidden foot lever. You were to appear at the booth every half hour or when there seemed to be few players. You often won the pound of coffee or the one-pound ham. When Grace’s instincts argued for it, you won the five-pound ham.
Your responses at winning were intended to induce real customers to risk their dimes and quarters, hopeful of the bigger win. Early into your second day working for Grace, you won a five-pound ham for a 25-cent bet, whereupon, and to your immense satisfaction, you burst into tears before declaiming that now, you could feed your family proper, a trope you’d picked up from the same waitress who’d frowned upon your earlier request for poached eggs.
By noon of the third day, at about the time you’d begun to enjoy being a shill, Grace fired you in such a way that you remembered it vividly and with gratitude when you find yourself writing a dramatic scene where it comes to you that you may have been shilling for Grace instead of writing at the best of your ability.
“You may have been some hot shot in college,” Grace told you, “but out here on the midway, you can’t win ham worth shit.”
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
You talk with some frequency to students about transportation and to yourself about the same topic with even greater emphasis. The transportation in these conversations—lectures really, and yes, you do tend to lecture yourself—has to do with readers being lifted from where they are, reading, to the landscape of a story. Once within that landscape, the reader may struggle for a time to get free. But in the final analysis, the reader slogs on, sometimes with the grim jaw set of a motorist on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where the exit ramps are only every twenty miles or so, other times with the glazed look of someone who has given up thoughts of resistance and excuses for not believing the characters, their goals, or their plight.
This morning, as a student read of her experiences as a young person, living in a small town, enthralled by the arrival of a traveling carnival, you were transported.
You knew this because you were already remembering the smell of onions, sautéing on the grill of the cook stand.
The first thing upon arrival at one of the venues the carnival you worked for, the food workers fired up the propane-fueled grill, splashed a generous dollop of cooking oil on its surface, then dumped mounds of diced onions to give forth their pungent announcement: the carnival was in town.
One of the carnival elders told you how this simple act saved the carnival hundreds of advertising dollars. “Onions,” he said, “tell the story. They tell people they’re hungry, they tell people we’re here, and they set off the epic confrontation of the carney and the civilian.”
But you’re getting ahead of yourself somewhat.
Once again, money had run out, the novel, which you were hopeful of launching you on your written way, had landed you a respectable literary agent, but as yet no publisher nor, so far as you could see, a way to get a revision that would bring you closer to the heart of what the characters wanted except for some vague sort of integrity.
You were big on integrity, then, as though you’d discovered it and had only to package it. In retrospect, the integrity you championed in those days was more like some libertarian politician’s simplistic solutions than a more nuanced concept of Reality. But that plays even more mischief with your timeline.
You were packed and ready to depart once again from your parent’s home on Corning Street in Los Angeles, where you’d retreated to finish the novel. Your destination was a small town separating the United States from Mexico. Your venture was to test the waters of general assignment journalism, then work your way to the point of experience where you could return to the district manager of the Associated Press, Hubbard “Hub” Keevey, who this time around, presumably would not laugh when you applied for a job at one of the AP outliers such as Reno. You actually had a resume in journalism, including excellent letters of reference and clips from your years as a copyboy at the Los Angeles night office of AP. Among these “clips,” was such solid reportage as “The Los Angeles egg market closed up today, with prices rising a penny or more in all the major categories.” And not to forget your major scoop: DOVER, England. Nobody tried to swim the English Channel today. Maybe tomorrow.
You were interrupted from stuffing shirts into a valise by your mother, advising you, “That fellow from San Francisco is here. He just pulled up in a Cadillac.”
Although this was your first introduction to the Cadillac, it, too, had a future in your life, wherein it died an inglorious death some sixty miles outside Sacramento, where it was beastly hot, and you and that fellow from San Francisco were stranded on your way to working the acme of the carnival season, the California State Fair.
“Why in hell would you want to work on a newspaper in El Centro,” that fellow from San Francisco (whose name was Ron) said, “when you could experience at first hand Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, Reno, Ventura? Where you could experience life as you’ve never experienced it…” His voice trailed off in the unspoken frustration of knowledge at the things I’d be missing. Things a writer needed to see.
“There are two ranks of humanity, those who are with it and those who aren’t. I’m going to show you how to be with it, a king in the world of marks.”
Some years earlier, an individual approached you at the UCLA student union where you, an English major with a political science minor, ached to write his way to self-awareness and education via the short story and occasional short novel. “I’m from the film department,” this individual said by way of introduction, “and I want to make great films and I’d like to have you come along with me.”
This will serve as partial explanation of how and why you shoved aside dozens of stuffed teddy bears in the back seat of the Cadillac to make room for your duffel bag and carry-on, filled with the clothing you’d packed to take you to El Centro.
You and Ron and the teddy bear-filled Cadillac headed north for a time, on 101, while Ron explained to you that you were almost with, the expression any one who worked for the carnival understood to mean on the job, with the carnival.
Before you could get “there” to be “with it,” Ron headed east to the inland route that would take you toward the beginnings of your new destiny, in Tulare, where the Tulare County Fair was about to begin.
But first, before any of that, you had to stop at a particular place Ron knew, where you could get what he described as the only genuine tuna salad sandwich to be found in all of California.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
You have attended book signings before.
Many of them.
Some—not inconsequential number—featured former students.
Others still were the book signings of friends or clients. Yet others were arranged by publicists employed by the same individuals who hired you to do many of the things required of editors beyond selecting manuscripts and editing the manuscripts you’d wished to bring to publication.
None were like this one.
This was a bookstore on East Colorado Street in Pasadena, where you’d been first taken as a youngster by your parents, an occasion made of it. “You will always find friends here,” your mother said, and of course you were too much of a literal mind to grasp her intention.
In your time, you’ve been in many bookstores in many cities and countries, but this place on East Colorado Street was in all probability the first bookstore of your memory if not your life to date.
With a foamy latte, you sat at a table outside, taking in the evening traffic. Although somewhat of a leap, the tall buildings, their shapes and sizes, the drone of busses, the sound of business chirping like a band of melancholy cicada, reminded you of New York.
As you entered the bookstore from the street level, you felt enveloped in books. You felt comfortable, assured. A sign caught your attention, and well it should. The sign announced that you would be speaking this very evening about your own book.
The venue for speaking was on the second floor, a large, comfortable area with a lectern and microphone already prepared, stacks of your book, and next to your seat, a pot filled with pens for your use in signing autographs.
You were yanked back in time to a signing for a great friend of yours, the noirish, Marxist-thinking mystery writer, Dennis Lynds, when it became apparent that you and he were in fact the signing and remained so for the better part of a half hour, when an elderly man came over to join you, and actually bought a copy of Dennis’s latest. You were on a close enough basis with him that you never had to buy one; you were on his publisher’s review list. You recalled Dennis saying how impossible the chances were of estimating how a particular signing event would develop: one person or two hundred.
Your publisher—more about him in a few moments—took a picture of you standing at the lectern, which he later posted on Facebook. His caption for
The photo alluded to you in a reflective moment.
The moment was in every way a reflective one. With one or two exceptions, the audience was entirely former students. One of the exceptions was the dean you’d come to regard with such affection. Many had published or had their plays and/or films produced. Most of them had found their variations to the same path you follow, which is to say they teach either at the old stomping grounds or venues they’ve sought out.
You spoke about a number of things related to the craft of writing, bringing in some of your favorite topics, by which you mean topics where you continue to discover yet more areas of passionate connection.
You in fact spoke about your nomination for the patron saint of characters, Wile E. Coyote, and you spoke of the generic you, the you-the-writer, the reader of your book. You spoke of circularity and dramatic endings that provide the reader a sense of some momentary closure, some dotted line across the blank page, separating acts or scenes or chapters.
When your publisher introduced you, early in his presentation, he confessed that you were his first professor at the graduate level, and how pleased he was that you were going to be together for two more projects.
If that isn’t circularity, it is instead mere coincidence. You know enough about story to have writer at least two books on the subject, and you know that while circularity and coincidence may be argued into some kind of agreement, in dramatic terms there are only complication coincidences, never resolution ones.
Not bad for an evening’s work, or for that matter, a lifetime of trying to think things through.
Monday, November 12, 2012
Books showing how to write stories are as old as the written language. As a writer and teacher, you’ve used what is arguably the oldest. As one who edits fiction, you rely on the tenets and concepts of this work.
This information might cause those who did not know you to assume your writing, teaching and editing bore the weight of the ages upon their shoulders.
But not so fast to judge.
True enough, times have changed. Dramatic genera, formats, and readership expectations evolve. Yet The New York Times bestseller list, the Pulitzer Prize nominees in the dramatic arts, and the Nobel laureates in those same aspects of dramatic writing bear out the strength of your thesis: Aristotle had it right in his Poetics. The root causes of story and their reasons for being are embedded in the dramatic genome “downloaded” into the psyche of the reader and the writer.
How then could your book on how to write stories have any sense of adding to the dialogue of the ages as carried on by such worthies as E.M. Forester, Janet Burroway, Stephen King, Barnaby Conrad, Anne Lamott, Elmore Leonard, and John Gardner?
Not to forget the memoir-leaning works on the writing craft you brought into being as editor from such as Donald MacCampbell, the literary agent known as “The king of the paperback novel;” Frank Gruber who, while story editor of a then famous Western TV series, wrote two mysteries a year for Dodd, Mead while writing books for you; and Bob Turner, who seemed to have an endless supply of TV and paperback novel ideas as well as the classic neo-porn satire he published with Maurice Girodius, while he was writing for you Some of My Best Friends Are Writers, But I Wouldn’t Want My Daughter to Marry One. No, indeed—not to forget them.
You thought long and hard about this salient aspect of publishing wisdom: Why is your book different? If an author couldn’t answer that, the time for the emergency room was at hand.
Simply put, The Fiction Writers’ Handbook, is a compilation of over three hundred fifty words and terms from the trenches of passionate and often pissed-off questions from students, from authors, and often from that most pissed-off of all questioners, yourself as writer, banging his head in frustration against the wall of craft.
These three hundred fifty-off concepts and terms are tied together with the simple device of THE SMALL CAP, letters without the ambition to be full-fledged capitals, nor the sense of lese majeste to settle for being mere lower case roman letters. When you turn to entry, say the one on EVENT, you will find additional uses of SMALL CAPS, each directing the reader to yet another entry or essay. This simple device not only saves you the boredom of using the parenthetical admonition to See or See also, it serves to demonstrate how pieces do not exist as stand-alone, they form a fabric—the washable, durable, drip-dry fabric of the modern story.
Writing is a chaotic enterprise in which you are in a large sense cleaning up after incalculable damages done to order by Reality. Seeing the possibility for some sense of structure, you feel less at sea as you attempt to bring your own craft into port after experiencing the raging crosscurrents of your own vision, constant interruptions of the wind of story from digressions that seemed relevant to you at the time, and those precarious, coded implications of convention such as point of view, verb tenses, opening velocity, and the sorts of cathartic resolution required by your particular culture.
Make no mistake about it, readers of the present are sensitive to the conventions of the past; they set their cultural clocks by these conventions. They also have expectations of their own personal growth of vision, which they assume you will have in some measure.
You wrote The Fiction Writers’ Handbook as a tribute to the book on writing you wished you’d had when you were setting forth on your journey. You could not have known this at the time you were seeking answers in the books of others, nor could you have known your own regard for the terms and concepts in your book.
In retrospect, you do not wish to have been spared the grit and frustrations involved in coming to the awareness of how these terms and concepts work for you. There is more than ample satisfaction in the sense that they work at all, leavened, of course, with the suspicion that you have come only this far on a journey that has no conclusion.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
There are times when your attempts to forge and craft stories reminds you of the obstacles, pitfalls, and frustrations of playing a pinball machine. The more you consider the analogy, the more it holds resonance for you, taking you back in time to your pre-teen years, and the hours you spent at Miller’s Drug Store on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Fairfax Avenue in mid-town Los Angeles. Those hours were spent watching your father, who seemed to have a magical touch with such new machines that were brought in to Miller’s.
You did not know the term “revenue generator” then. You did know that the nickel to play the machine had relative values for your father and for you and your sister. A low-end-of-the-scale cigar, a Creamo, could be had for a nickel. Your father was a cigar smoker, his sights and tastes higher than the Creamo, but these were not the easiest of times. A nickel was the price for a rectangle of ice cream about two and a half inches by four inches, covered with a crunchy chocolate icing, and mounted on a wooden stick that reminded you of an anemic tongue depressor.
This adventuresome presence in your life was called Milk-Nickel. It was sold from refrigerated trucks that roamed the neighborhoods of the city with what seemed to you an eerie prescience of when you, your sister, and your chums should crave ice cream. On rare occasion, when you’d eaten down to bare some of the Milk-Nickel stick, the magical word “free” appeared, meaning the stick was your currency for a free Milk Nickel. In that world and that time, having two free sticks gave you a sense of invulnerability, of the power of riches.
That was an enormously different Los Angeles than the one you visit on occasion now, clogged with vehicle traffic and in its own supportive analogy, as complex and mercurial as the pinball machines your father played. Pinball machines were different then as well, radiating a retro charm, with obvious traps to avoid and special, bonus point mazes and targets which sounded bells and buzzers, adding the score in tens and twenties as opposed to the electronic inflation of sounds and numbers in today’s machines.
Your father could and frequently did win enough free games to cause you to be the messenger bearing the news to your mother that dinner would have to wait. Sometimes your father’s skills were so great that you were sent home two or three times with the news that Jake was on a winning streak, and at least twice in your memory, your father was sent out into the night at eight o’clock closing with two or three Roi-Tan or Perfecto Garcia cigars in mitigation of the number of free games still on the pinball machine.
At the time, you had no real feel for the descent his fortunes had taken, bringing him to the Depression Era budgetary choice between a cheap cigar or no cigar at all and several moments worth of being in perfect harmony and coordination with a small, mischievous part of the universe. Often his reward to you for the time spent watching him without being a distraction was a nickel for your own weakness, the Milk-Nickel. That was welcomed, but even then, the sight of him, reaching that scoring groove that sent the free games counter climbing, was worth more.
Those visions of him were your first real awareness of him as a man of technique and concentrated effort, of a graceful power and subtlety, and you quite began to love him. Later, you pieced those memories and times into a cobbled awareness that it would take more than a Depression economy to stop him.
When you play a pinball machine these days, it is more for the nostalgia of Jake, hunched over the machine, his hands alert at the side flippers, confiding secrets to you about how much body English this particular machine would take before sounding that off-key groan signifying TILT and the peremptory end of a game. Even when technique is high and graceful, loss is a resident factor. Loss and TILT are only momentary challenges. So long as wire coat hangers could be sold, ten for a nickel, or bottles returned, or some unanticipated turn of grace, say the discovery of a coin or two in the cushions of a sofa, there was always the potential of a new game.
Gravity is a factor in story. So are the hazards of over-explaining, self-indulgent description, and point-of-view violation. Controlled motion is everything, but controlled motion requires practice and patience as well as coordination.
Sometimes, you use a bit too much body English, and then you hear the mocking equivalent of the TILT warning, announcing the game is over, the draft is spoiled, and you’ve nothing for it but to start again.