Tuesday, April 30, 2013


You'd first became consciously aware of the nature of distraction after moving away from the relative (for you) ease and lack of challenge at Los Angeles City College and into the larger-scale crucible of UCLA.  Midterm examinations arrived with a speed you'd not anticipated, primarily because you were enjoying so many things on so many levels.

In fact, you were enjoying so many things that you began to write about them instead of studying for your midterm examinations and establishing a program for demonstrating your understanding of your courses to your instructors.  The things you wrote impressed you; the examinations you wrote did not impress the instructors.  The second half of the semester would give you the opportunity to rectify your lack of planning and your approach to learning which was in the same relatedness as your lack of challenge at LACC.  But once again you were blindsided by the distractions of stories, arriving at the time to prepare for your final examinations.

You came away somewhat better on both counts, better examinations and better stories written in what seemed deliberate choices of stories and writing over examinations and piecing useful information together.  Once again, you were distracted from tasks at hand.  Once again, your specific interests distracted you from the overall thrust of a class.

Thus a dangerous habit was formed.  The only scholarship that seemed to matter to you was the scholarship triggered by your own curiosity or, dare you say it, distractions.

So far as your vision is concerned, Life and Reality, by their nature of huge strands of event and little if any at all of motivation or agenda, cannot compete with drama and story for the specific reason that they have little agenda or motivation except to preserve the species.  Life and Reality need distraction in order to convey story.  Distraction provides such essential elements as conflict, suspense, and tension.

This equation explains to you why your own Life and sense of Reality are so often challenged by one form or another of story elements.  This also explains why you are vulnerable to distraction., for instance the "discovery of" or "attraction to" a story or subject for an essay or even some expanded note taking as rendered in these blog entries.

Attention deficit disorder might, to the most minor degree, have a voice in the equation as it relates to you, but distraction is by far the more suspect with its tendrils of intrigue and interest, pulling you away from a reality-based task at hand.

You marvel at the way writers in all the genres you read have developed ways of throwing distractions into their stories, causing them to seem plot-driven and realistic at the same time but also representing serious departures from the kinds of logic we apply in Real Time.  You also study these ways, wishing to represent your own departures.

In its way, story is more rational than Real Time.  Story is based on a series of triggering events where one move causes the next, which in turn causes another, then, before the reader knows it, there is an entire downstream trail of consequence.

You have no sense of the number of times you've been distracted since those early undergraduate days,after you'd made the transition to UCLA, nor the more layered and nuanced  natures of the distractions.  Not studying for a course in, say, Shakespeare meant a conscious decision to spend time with one of the arguably most significant playwrights of our culture, which meant a downstream debt accruing interest.  Somewhere in the more immediate time to come, Shakespeare would have to become the distraction for some other Real Time debt.

The implications become clear; you are in a constant state of being distracted from Real Time by story, which by definition is more interesting and that marvelous word fraught which, you believe, derives from freight and in the context of your intent means filled with and carrying elements.

You are in a realer sense than you ever thought possible an absent-minded professor, because you are a professor who is constantly being distracted from many of the chores and responsibilities associated with being a professor, relying in a sense on your distracting interest in the areas wherein you teach.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Writers' Wars

A form of civil war wages within most writers, those who've gone head-to-head with doubts and frustrations, and one too many sessions where nothing keepable came forth.


An emerging writer has revised and polished a new story to a fare-the-well, hands it over to a literary agent or editor with an attitude resembling a chef who has set a specialty dish down before a customer.  The emerging writer is daring the agent or editor to find something she has missed.  The emerging writer believes she's captured the material at its most resonant state, caught the moments and moods and intensity of the story, set the implications, innuendo, and subtext well in place.


The advanced writer has revised and polished a new story to a point where it has begun to reflect surfaces and textures she'd not seen at the outset of the project.  Pleased with her work, she turns it in to her agent or editor.  "Here,"  she says.  "Here it is."  The agent or editor reads the material with care, then says, "Wonderful.  A nice piece of work."

"That's it?"  the writer says.  "That's all you've got to say?  You have no notes, no heads-ups at flaws?"

The advanced writer is satisfied with the work, but has come to suspect a few undiscovered glitches, a few things unaccounted for, some occasion of unintended mischief or even self-parody.

In many ways, the advanced writer has recognized an entire dimension beyond the emerging writer's vision, recognizing how supportive suggestions add to the strength of the narrative voice and the story itself.

True enough, the emerging writer has demonstrated a keen competence, one developed through hard work.  But the advanced writer has seen the full extent of the process at work, knows how important support and trust become as the process continues to build, evolve, strengthen.

The difference is profound.

This is not to say the advanced writer will always remain advanced and suspicious of compliments.  You know of one writer with enormous popularity whose dialogue has begun to sound clunky, whose prose has begun to exhibit the squeaks and groans of the beginning and emerging writers, whose audience has begun to look the other way, instead marveling at the intricacies of his plots.

Yesterday, at the birthday of a publishing pal you've known for more than forty years, he said things of your editing abilities that were the equivalent of "A nice piece of work," and you were immediate in your suspicion.  This was reflex, not modesty.

Today, your primary care doctor, for the second time in a month, pronounced you fit and ready to go.  You paused for a moment at the news and you were reassured when he seemed to read your concern.  You were there to get his equivalent of a go-ahead for the second time in a month, as requested by the opthamologist who, this Thursday, will replace the lens in your right eye, as he'd done with your left on the 21st of March.  "You're good to go for the surgery,"  he said.  "Knowing you, I'm sure you'll make your six o'clock class that day.  But do treat yourself to a nap before hand."

You could live with that.

You can also relate to the youthful, emerging writer you were in your twenties, the suspicion growing when there was too much praise, the irritation rising in an almost reflexive surge at a suggestion that a word, a gesture, a sentence were not clear.  Not clear.  What do you mean, not clear?  But even then, suspicion overrode the irritation.  "Show me.  Where?  Where was it unclear?"

And check your comments of irritation in these blog pages regarding some suggestions your sentences are too long.

The civil war still wages within, but you've long passed the time and places where shots were fired.  Writers' wars are every bit as gory and horrendous in their way as the likes of Korea and Viet Nam and Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Your strategy for some time has been the one of negotiation, to the extent that your definition of what a story is now includes the phrase, "a negotiated settlement."

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Characters and Dr. Frankenstein's Monster: Fictional Pals

With great thanks to your focus on dialogue and its uneasy relationship with conversation, your attention these recent days has been drawn to the individuals who speak the dialogue when story is alive and thriving, and who often speak the conversation when the story needs some time in the Intensive Care Unit.

You once considered characters and dialogue among your strengths as a storyteller, with plot ranking at the lower end of the curve.  Things have changed somewhat--in concept if not execution--and in ways that cause you to be less troubled about plotting because of the discoveries you've made with character and dialogue.

You often find yourself thinking of the so-called Classics and of a legendary figure from your culture of birth.  Mary Shelley's remarkable story of Dr. Frankenstein's experiments with the creation of human life forms have been a constant companion over the years, sometimes causing you a great deal of self-mockery when you'd compare your fictional creations to those of the good, or at least earnest Dr. Frankenstein.

Over the years you've had visions of laboratories and antennae to capture the energy from lightning and other undifferentiated sources, all of which seemed to suggest menace, forbidden knowledge, and a touch of alchemy.  With the possible exclusion of forbidden knowledge, all those attributions obtain with equal impact to Dr. Frankenstein's famed monster and to your character creations and to successful characters as constituted by other writers.

There is a touch of alchemy in the creation of a character and the way the subsequent he or she effects chemistry with other characters.  There is a hint of forbidden knowledge hovering about, but upon closer inspection, the knowledge is quite visible.

Character in story is the wrapping of the coil of attributes about the armature of the thematic personality of a specific character.  As robots are designed in science fiction to perform particular tasks, characters are constructed or wrapped in relationship to the forces they represent of desire, the need for the object of desire, and the relative intelligence to implement plan is to achieve their goals, get what they want.  

Even if a character is endowed with a moral compass of elaborate sophistication, the story stops dead in its tracks if what the character wants is too sophisticated and remote.  This is important because the character may say high-minded things, but they must be understandable by the reader.  Speaking of the reader, they want some hint of why the characters want what they do.  And speaking of the character speaking, much of what the character wants is transmitted to a tangible degree in the dialogue attributed to that character.

We humans are similar to characters in about the same way an ordinary mixed-breed dog is similar to a hound such as a bloodhound or blue tick.  Some similarities exist in both species, but the character and the blood hound are clearly more focused, more apt to be motivated by some single issue psychological issue than their human counterparts.

The character is a complex bundle of abilities, apprehensions, weaknesses, and desires.  The character's goals are immediate and pressing.  As the case with so many so-called child prodigies, early, notable ability or abilities are not without its or their consequences, such as an outer layer at least of mature judgment and a more generalized education.  The prodigy is bright, sometimes to the edges of naivete.  Even when portrayed as inchoate or inner-directed, such individuals often solve difficult problems with ease while remaining failures at the more simple social matters you confront.

You used to think characters' quirks and notions could be explained, described, and demonstrated.  How comforting for you to know you no longer believe this.  Characters quirks and notions come to true life by being acted.

The way characters speak to one another has an effect on the reader who seeks to enter their world and then describe their motives.  Characters who are too willing to "tell all" are objects of suspicion because they cause us to question the writer's motives rather than the motives of the characters.

The legend from your culture of birth is of The Golem, a figure who emerged in a number of tight historical spots, the most notable one in Prague, where an epidemic of anti-Semitism was directed around the Jewish community.  An heroic figure was made from clay, then empowered with the actual name of God, written on a small parchment, then placed in the creature's ear.  The creature came to life, protected its creators for a time, then was decommissioned by removing the scroll.  There are other legendary accounts of human-like and animal-like beings who were created for a single purpose.

Both these types creep into your awareness at the outset of composing a character.  You wish them to seem as real and convincing as possible, but where you once thought that "real and convincing" set of attributions meant as multifarious as actual persons, you now think to throw out the details and backstory irrelevant to the heart-wrenching issues of the story immediately before us.

Everything the characters say should be in effect like the magnifying lenses you used to find, to your great delight, in the occasional box of Cracker Jacks that passed through your hands.  Dialogue should focus the story to the point where it could well ignite some bit of story, then send it steaming for a moment before bursting into flame.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Must you dance/Every dance/With the same fortunate man?

You often find your way to open the door to a story that seems locked with the key of a single, simple word.

The word needs to show immediate potential.  When you see or hear the word, you know it works.  Variations on the theme of intrusion are such words:  intrude, intruder,intrusive,  You can visualize a wedge, forcing its way into a medium of resistance that begins to give before your eyes.

The more you think about the word and its meaning, the more it seems to have been coined with story in mind.  A story may appear to be moving along at an intriguing pace, setting characters after goals and moral agendas coming to bare-knuckle street fighting, but a significant intrusion will cause the story to reach greater significance and staying power.  Sometimes an intrusion with the apparent inanity of a shift in point of view in the narration, say Nick Carraway taking over the narration of The Great Gatsby, can lift the narrative to even grander implications and ironic heights.

When you heart someone say, "I don't mean to intrude," you understand that the speaker does in fact mean to remain present, at the least a nuisance or distraction, but often a deliberate shift in atmosphere, behavior, and protocol.

When in real life or story, a character asks, "Am I intruding?" you have just received a clue that the asker is at the very least aware of a situation in progress, and with a probability of wishing to put himself above that situation.  And what does that tell you about he or she who does the asking?

Intrusion signifies an inappropriate presence, often deliberate but no less an irritation or trespass  had it come about in any degree of innocence.  The trespass can be on an overall sense of morality, a specific landscape, a meeting in progress, a conversation.

Stories are supposed to begin with some stasis or accord or system being interrupted, often by a discovery (which can be counted as an intrusion) or the arrival of a stranger (who makes a discovery), or the reaction to a stranger arriving

Countless stories do in fact begin with the arrival of an outsider, intruding on a previous stasis.  Sometimes the outsider arrives to take the place of someone or, even more to that subject, to replace someone.  On occasion, the intruder is a predator, the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing, or the equally intrusive and dangerous fox in the chicken coop.  Sometimes the intruder/intrusion is death, either personified or presented as the specific death of a stated person, animal, tradition, or belief.

The imaginative writer, William Gibson, introduced in his short story "Burning Chrome," the concept of intruding in another form of reality he named cyberspace.  Ever since, hackers have intruded, trespassed on our cyber presences, bringing intrusion into the viral world as well as the world of Reality and the world of story.

Intrusion is the reminder that nothing lasts for ever, that some things have relatively short times in which to flourish before being terminated.  The inappropriate presence of intrusion is objectified in story and reality as an intruder.  William Faulkner's 1948 novel, Intruder in the Dust, by its mere title, suggests the dynamic at work.  The thematic intruder is an African-American character in the South who is an intrusion on the white concept of what an African-American male should be.  Racial issues also serve as intruders.  See how the word "dust" in the title suggests strife, perhaps even overt racism.

See also how calmness, stasis, and accord are the equivalent of targets of opportunity for the thugs and muggers of story, waiting to be waylaid in a convenient back alley, more often than not within the first few pages of a novel, the opening paragraphs of a shorter story.  What comes next is what academics call the destabilizing event.  Something happens to cause the reader some concern for the welfare of a character.

In quite generalized and equally specific ways, story depicts Reality, which is often quite boring, being intruded upon.  Think Emma Bovary's life being visited by two intruders, a painfully repetitious boredom and the arrival of her romance novels, which offer her some tenuous way out of her daily life with Charles Bovary via a series of adulterous liaisons.  In Joseph Conrad's novel, Lord Jim, one of Conrad's favorite narrators, Marlowe, is beset by the title character from time to time for assistance from moral and physical problems in which he has become entangled, thus a more benign form of intrusion, but by no means an undramatic catalyst.

An intrusion of any sort is a stranger in the midst, a potential danger, an undifferentiated menace.

The human intruder is also a trespasser, another word and term for someone being somewhere she or he should not.  Writers may on occasion inject as little as a single word, sometimes many sentences or even paragraphs of intrusive material in a manuscript under way.  Some modern writers, often highly successful ones who are seen by their publishers as a valuable commodity, fail to edit technical intrusions from their work, diminishing their own past excellence and frightening away the potential new writers necessary to maintain their critical status.

In some cases, a negative presence intrudes upon the sensitivities of a writer, causing him or her to believe their work in progress is lackluster and that any past successes were due to some accident wherein the wrong writer is being given credit.  Of course the reverse of this is true, you know one such case of an author who has parlayed a series of books to publication, all too willing to believe in their genius where their reception among readers does not support his beliefs.

You intrude upon the grunt-like progression of Reality with notions, ideas, beliefs that might change some aspect of some discipline or physical vision.  You make decisions to act, decisions not to act, and decisions to invoke on a manuscript the age-old Latin phrase-in-a-word stet (let it stand, let it be.  Okay as is.  Don't fuck with it.  Some of these decisions are intrusions against an established order or intrusions on carrying out change.

On occasion, you intrude or trespass upon the turf of good sense, better judgment, and higher moral principal.  In a theatrical, ensemble case kind of logic, you have played the part of the intruder and the intruded upon.  You cannot say which role you prefer or if, on consideration you like either, although you do relish the idea as a writer and teacher of intruding on the landscapes of indolence, inaction, tyranny, stupidity, and intransigence.

You appear--perhaps only to yourself--to own the ability to intrude better with humor than seriousness, although the joke of that assessment may be lost on you, which makes it one of the most intrusive ironies of all.

You are no stranger as writer, editor, or teacher to finding the doors of story locked before you, your job now to gain entrance.  The key you carry with you in all three avatars is the key of intrusion.  Start with the most outrageous intrusion you can inflict on the story, then put it to work.  "I don't mean to intrude,"  you tell the locked door.

But of course you do.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Point-of-View: First person cantankerous.

Questions arise with great consequential consistency.  One such question is, Where are you?  This has existential and geographical aspects. 

 At the moment, you are in a motel outside Monterrey, California, which is an understandable part of a well-orchestrated plan.  So much for the geography.

Existential is different.  You feel yourself somewhere between "Get's it," and "Ignorant."  Both these conditions are of equal ambiguity.

"Get's it" is intended to mean understands his present-day circumstances, appreciates them, has elaborate plans for activities which, when followed, have the potential for leaving him contented, even happy.  "Get's it" implies an understanding and acceptance of the "Ignorance" meme.  "Ignorant" as opposed to "stupid," which means you don't get that there are so many things of which you betray gaping holes of ignorance.

You believe the matter has a possible resolution, which depends to a significant degree on a technical issue you face each time you undertake to compose fiction.  Point-of-view is the filter through which fiction--any fiction, including yours--is filtered.  A significant question to ask about any point of view is, How reliable is the narrator?  

You believe in your own reliability, but of course there was always a great chance you might do that.  You believe others see you as reliable at least sixty percent of the time, leading you to consider what good numbers in that sense are.  How many people regard you as at least sixty percent reliable?  How many give you negative marks?  If you are not careful with how you file and refer to these questions, your conversations and writings might well suffer.

Another matter to take up with you as narrator:  Are you a naive narrator?  Of late, you've come to see Mr. Stephens, the protagonist of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day as a consummate naive narrator.  He is by no means a bad person.  You've said of him that "He simply doesn't get it."  You've just said that you believe you do.

You are in fact composing these lines and having these thoughts in Monterrey, the Monterrey of California as opposed to the one in Mexico, which you visited some years back and find yourself liking more than the Monterrey in California.  In relative terms, you'd rather be in Monterrey, Mexico than the California namesake, but you'd prefer Monterrey in California to any number of places in California, ruling out the argument that you have something against Monterrey.

Perhaps you are a cantankerous narrator.  Perhaps this location is existential and geographical.  You might for a time delight in the assessment, feeling you'd arrived at a destination wherein you'd experienced a diverse menu of experiences sufficient to qualify you as reliably cantankerous.

Narrators in story should not, you believe, feel comfortable, leading you to wonder at your own motives for choosing the qualities of cantankerousness to define you.  Comfort has been on your mind for a time, but when you spend too much time with the concept, nice as it sounds, dare you even say, comforting as it sounds, your cantankerous self steps forward to remind you that comfort does not produce good art or good story.

All right then, here you are in Monterrey, having once again visited Goldfarb, the brown tabby who will accompany you home on Monday to be your room mate.  Will he be Felix to your Oscar?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Cases of the Dropped Eaves

There is a sense of Victorian naughtiness and covert inherent mischief in a word you hear now only on the rarest occasions.  The word has moved close to being an endangered species, close to extinction.

 More modern synonyms emerge like mushrooms after a pelting rain storm.

You hear of interception, of capturing, of bugging and recording, but not a word about eavesdropping.  To use the word in speech much less in a story is to brand yourself with the stigma of earlier generations, of melodrama.

Perceptions of covert conversations have changed , dramatic conventions have evolved.  Today, listening in secret to conversations of others is accomplished through tiny transmitter microphones called bugs, allowing the eavesdropping to be performed at a distance, sometimes even a considerable distance between the covert listener and the actual conversation.  Sometimes the trespass is committed through the intervention of a cohort wearing a wire or hidden microphone.

In a wickedly funny novel, The Abbess of Crewe, the Scottish novelist Muriel Spark, making playful fun of the Nixon administration in this country and its eventual fatal flaw, the Watergate Incident, bugged an entire convent, recording more often than not conversations of boring piety and naivete but on other, more dramatic moments, conversations laced with the inner politics of a convent in England.

Although this may seem a silly thread for a novel, such exaggerations remind us of the delegate balance between dialogue that is worth eavesdropping on or recording or capturing and the kinds of conversation we are more apt to hear waiting in line somewhere, at a check-out stand in a market, say, of a ticket line for a motion picture.

At one point in your writing career, you became convinced that Sunset Strip and lower Hollywood Boulevard coffee shops were vibrant places to work at writing because of the potential for significant dialogue all about you.  Not.  Even though some remarkably dreadful transactions take place in the world of absolute reality, they pale against the needs of dramatic situations to be laced with edgy agenda.

You've never heard conspiratorial conversations and in the one situation where you were alleged to have been involved in a conspiracy, the entire case was thrown out on the basis of the alleged connective tissue alleged to be in presence between the alleged conspiring characters being too remove to bear any potential for a standard connection.

You do believe there are actual conspiracies being launched and abetted with consistent regularity, but few of them will be heard by eavesdroppers and indeed many of them will have been expressed in beyond the reaches of eavesdroppers or electronic eavesdropping devices.

Best case scenarios seem to be politicians forgetting a microphone was on before saying things of a politically embarrassing nature.

Working on occasion in coffee shops, you are convinced that the reason to be there is not at all for the content but rather for the ambiance.  You wish the challenge of overcoming the all-too-human chatter, thinking--hoping--this will get you focused enough to produce work.  You have one page of notes you secured from working in such coffee houses, so your visits are not for the sparkle of secretly obtained intimate materials.  You go precisely because in such places, persons speak as they would speak or behave anywhere else.

Generations of sophisticated eavesdropping materials are available, but in thinking about them, you are reminded of the days when you studied codes, inventing a number of your own before succumbing to breakfast cereal coupons you could redeem for coding devices of another era.  You felt powerful for moments until you realized how all the imaginative coding devices and coding systems yielded no significant good unless you had a message of true significance.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Apologies and Defenses

An apology is an expression of remorse or regret for some error of behavior.  A defense is some form of protection against an intrusion or strategic attack.  In many social situations where enthusiasm or temper motivate an individual to overstep the boundaries of civility, an apology becomes, depending on its weight of sincerity and recognition, a passport to mutual conversation.

There are times in academic circles when a candidate defends his or her thesis against reasoned and informed attack from peers or superiors.  There are times where many of us feel the need to defend a social or ethical position, also an intent, as in explaining "I only meant..." or "It was only meant in humor."

Such behaviors are common coins of social currency among the human species, each in its way carrying varying degrees of appropriateness in a wide range of contexts.

The value of each tactic is diminished when used as though a ticket to irresponsible behavior, a get-out-of-jail-free equivalent, a cover for significant, empathetic behavior among one's peers, superiors, and underlings.

When apology and defense appear in story, dramatic results suffer.  This is where art comes in.  The gifted storyteller wishes not only to transport us to a landscape fraught with relevant social and moral issues but to disturb us with a vision, possibly satirize an accepted aspect of conventional wisdom or behavior, or shock us with one or more devices such as irony, grotesquery, or exaggeration.

Writers such as D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley go into the attack mode where certain conventions have become their targets, reducing these conventions through a combination of exquisitely drawn characters and representative conflicts which leave no wiggle room or equivocation.

You are a devoted enemy of the trope "I meant no harm.  My only purpose was to illustrate."  For your own part, you are willing to risk harm.  So, in your opinion, have a good many writers of all ages, men and women who were and are willing to put their commitments on the line each time they design a story where the reader is as likely to emerge disturbed as the principal characters.

A significant reason for turning off the thought processes in the planning and arranging of elements in fiction is the removal of the appearance censor.  This gatekeeper wishes the author to sound detached, objective, removed, an unbiased observer, a true referee who has no stake in the outcome.

There are such authors and their major strength is their ability to report situations and circumstances with the sincerity of a high school debate club individual who has been able to argue and discuss the salient points of an argument from both sides.  Such contests have their value, but the value relates to intellectual balance rather than emotion-based outcome.  At some point, feeling-based intent is more revelatory, more indicative of the human condition than the intellectualized aloofness of civilized debate.

Apologists sometimes employ more irony than they imagine, beginning their arguments with a self-deprecation with intent.  And what intent:  to cause us to tell them how we appreciate the modesty, assuring them all the while that they have nothing to apologize for.  Apologia pro Vita Sua, John Henry Newman's apology for his life, seems a classic case in point.  The work was a passionate defense of his religious beliefs, a defense that combines the intent of apology with the intent of the defense.  However much you might disagree with his logic and elaborate defenses of his faith at a time when Catholicism was a serious issue in England and however much the 1860s time scape may have differed from the current one, you'd have been much more a fan of Newman were he have chosen another title.  The word apology in this title hints at his playing for the role of the humbled martyr.  You are put off more by those implications than the logic of the inner text.

Story and personal memoir walk the narrow cusp of allowing the facts, circumstances, and responses in the narrative to convey the intent of their creation.  On either side of the cusp are those arid wastelands of sermon, screed, accusation, and vituperation.  The memorable ones achieve recognition through their deft precision, not their protestations of faith or their rambling litany of conviction.  The slightest hint of apology or defensiveness become the literary equivalent of lead weights sewn in the seams of a narrative.

Believe it.

Invest in it.

Investigate it.

Present it.

But do not apologize for it, because you will have reworked and revised it enough times to have come to feel comfortable with it and a part of it.

Being defensive about it is a similar way of yanking the rug from under it.  If the work has been revised enough, the logical dust will have been edited out, degree by degree, leaving you with a lucid vision that could stand in its own defense, without any need for you to describe the things you already presented in context.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Make No Mistake about it

When you think of the word or concept of mistake, you often associate them with judgment.  Mistakes, by your definition, re previous judgments gone wrong:  the choice of a wrong mate or lover or project, the attribution of the wrong motivation or response to a character, either in Reality or in Story, the sense of being able to see some constant index or ratio of separation and congruity between Reality and Story.

A mistake or error in baseball can be throwing the ball to the wrong base as well as it could be a misjudgment of a fly ball or grounder or even the most common mistake in the game of baseball, swinging a bat at a ball in the belief that you will make meaningful contact with the ball.

A mistake is some misplay leading to disappointment, humiliation, embarrassment, or a combination of these elements.  Mistake is not taking in all the details or taking in too many of them.

The English language, so special for the way it takes in and adopts foreign words and phrases, appears to value individuality and clarity of intent over rule and convention.  When Winston began to taste good like rather than as a cigarette should, rather than ought, the worlds of grammarians and dictionaries were put on notice.  Their time was beginning to run out.

Such narrative styles and voices as you now have are based on words such as "that", which you go out of your way to avoid using, the how and why of you working to avoid sentences with the word "it," and your displeasure with the words "very" and "beautiful," each of which in differing vectors of degree produce more of a sense of abstraction than a concrete reality.  Try telling someone, "You look beautiful tonight" and there are possibilities you'll be asked in return, "You mean I didn't look so hot last night?"  You tell someone, "I'm very tired," or "very honored," or even "very hungry" and they are no more certain of your condition than they'd have been without the trope you have begun to think of as "the ambiguous modifier."

You believe it a mistake to use such words.  Even though you use "such" yourself, both as a predeterminer, "it was such a disappointment to eat at that restaurant", or a determiner, "I refuse to eat at such restaurants," and with some frequency as a pronoun, "such is their nature that they seem always to think well of themselves," you are beginning to give serious thought to avoiding such usage and, in fact, put such on your list of words to avoid.

Is it a mistake on your part to avoid words you suspect of not conveying their weight?  Shouldn't you give serious thought (and examination) to constructions which carry meaning forth in a clear, straightforward manner?

You do not approach these matters as a grammarian.  Were you to do so, you'd be subject to indictment as a fraud.  You do not write for grammar, rather to present clear, understandable images and resonant emotional responses.  Anything less--or more--would be a mistake, contrary to your intentions.

Characters with a history of previous mistakes, while not always the most reliable sorts, become interesting int their potential for future mistakes.  Characters who are relatively mistake free are not so reliable as they might seem, thanks to the reader's growing suspicion that their carryover hubris   (from a mistake-free past) will lead them to a mistake or the glorious series of mistakes known as a cluster fuck.

You believe you've an experiential pedigree for the errors you've listed in the previous paragraphs, making you a man of gravitas so far as mistakes are concerned; you know and appreciate the process in which they are made and the various processes that form Petri dishes for forthcoming mistakes.  You, accordingly, are not to be regarded as a reliable narrator, a status you once sought with a deep sense of determined effort, the better to be understood, respected, perhaps even admired.  There is the trap.  The mistake inherent in writing to be admired and respected appears to have infected many a beginning and emerging writer.  The true writer understands the absolute proneness of his characters to make mistakes and to make even more in attempting to conceal past mistakes.

When someone tells you, "Make no mistake about it..." you know it is no mistake to ask your mistake to be served with a grain or two of salt and a willingness to risk overcooking,

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Market

As you made your way through a mini-shopping center this afternoon, you crossed paths with a man engaged with what you at first supposed to be a civilized conversation with himself.  The man appeared in his mid fifties, not notably over weight, grayish hair a bit scraggly but his face seemed recently shaved.  He wore khakis, a work shirt with sleeves rolled, all appearances seeming to indicate the civilized conversation he was having with himself was similar to the kinds you frequently bring to the podium in your own diverse elements of psyche.

As you drew abreast of him, his conversation grew more agitated, his gestures more frenetic, waving with some emphasis.  You could not tell what thing or things or, were they merely abstract ideas, he was waving at.  You were close enough to make out his inclusive dissatisfaction with large segments of humanity, his conversation growing louder, his vituperation at "them all," and "all of them."  His dismissals began with the relative mildness of "To hell with all of them," building in crescendo to "Fuck every last one of them."

You were not only close enough to hear, you were close enough to recognize this individual's compelling need for a shower.

The moment in which you felt some community with the man came and went.  At one state of his presence, he could have been someone you'd have an agreement with in principal, a sense of mutual outrage at a Reality you sometimes find not at all interested in hearing your opinion, however urgent your opinion might be.

You reached your destination, the market of your preference, wherein you had a list of things you mustn't leave without selecting.  But the presence of a coffee and pastry bar arrested you.  To put it with greater accuracy, the associations with the man on a rant, the similarities you saw between him and you drove you to seek solace in coffee and a sticky bun.

No telling where the point arrived where you saw through and beyond the trope of the universe being balanced, orderly, and fair.  Too many of us humans milling and dithering about for fairness, orderliness, and balance.  Too many agendas seeking some form of recognition, perhaps a willingness to settle for balance, with equal likelihood to wish for some form of revenge.

You have not found your preferences in noir literature and its close cousins, the hardboiled detective story, and the shrewd visions of the novels of distopic theme by mere accident.  You read with pleasure and interest in other genera, listening to them, learning from them.  But in a manner similar to the coffee and pastry bar luring you this morning, noir beckons to you, sends you comforting signals that here, in these pages, you may find agitation but you will also find some sense of community.

An other of your appetites is for the fun and humor of the whimsical, which seems always to manifest itself in the midst of your own noir compositions and thoughts.  A few days ago, writing with some specificity about the loss of your latest friend to depart from your company because of a prior arrangement with death, you observed how you were at a stage in your life where you have experienced many of the available losses.  You did not come right out to observe how, regardless of one's age, loss hovers at close hand, much like the ubiquitous scavenging seagulls on the UCSB campus.

In spite of these losses, you do not consider yourself a morose or depressed person, a consideration that is leading you somewhere.  Losses of the sort you've experienced have not left you feeling bitter or with more than a slight touch of self-pity.  You've seen--in reality and fiction--individuals who were left in a state of perpetual fear or perpetual gloom or self-doubt or burdened with a vision no humor can trespass.

You still have that, hope to retain it, hope not to experience the traumas that would cost you the ability to see Reality in ways where, on occasion, you do rail at it, but where you are more apt to laugh at it because it is a Reality as redolent of absurdity as your ranting man was of body odor.

Laughter, whether at self or the cavalcade of events involving humanity, is for you the desert served to the meal of life.

Sometimes, the humor is bittersweet, in which case it frequently presents itself with laughter first, then the pang of connection to the loss part.

That, of course, is the nature of humor.

You've quoted perhaps your dearest of all friends, Barnaby Conrad, in these blog essays of yours, noting his acute observation that all stories about animals have an eventual sad ending.  You can add to that with your own observation about humor, which more often than not is a sad truth being revealed before your eyes.  Your laughter is you awareness of the sad truth and your mechanism for dealing with truths, be they sad or happy.

Yet there is another part of the connective tissue.  Individuals who have lost human friends often seek other friendships.  They do so by offering friendship in all their deeds and gestures, a strategy learned from having friends one loves.  Humans who have lost animal friends frequently set out to adopt once again, knowing a broken heart awaits in much the same way they know the bittersweet truths of humor.

Human friends.  Animal friends.  Laughter.

Imagine the awfulness of having none of these, merely to protect yourself from a broken heart.

Now that is funny.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Edge

At first, when you were setting forth, you listened to authority figures because you were surrounded by them, first your parents, then your older sister, trusting them and their pronouncements because you were still gathering opinions and judgments of your own.

After a time, there were more authority figures, doctors your parents spoke of with tones of respect, an occasional religious figure, and a growing succession of teachers.

Good fortune was with you.  Even when a much favored teacher read you out, you knew it was because you'd overstepped boundaries.

You did not start conflicting with authority figures until those critical moments when your opinions and judgments began to form, take shape, then petition for a voice in the ongoing conversation of reason and reality.

There were a number of years in which your voice in the conversation became strident, judgmental, and contentious.  Again good fortune was with you because those years were not as long as they might have been.  Although some of the results were painful, they were only so in relative terms.  In retrospect, they seem a tad less severe than your middle school/junior high years, which linger now as a painful blur.

Without realizing it, perhaps even until recent moments as this is being composed, you were in a conversation with the three r's, reason, reliability, and responsibility.  For a reference point, you recall all those qualities and your performance relative to them as the equivalent of the N gradings you received in your personal habits on middle school report cards.

Suffice it for now to say you'd reached a place with reason and reality where you found your own voice and level of conversation, by no means contentious nor by most standards over-emphatic in cooperation.  Perhaps it was the other r, the responsibility, that led the way, reminding you of the direct tie between what you do and do not do and the resulting consequences.  Imagine you in a sense becoming the big brother you never had (because the real one died in infancy before your time), learning your way through your willingness to take, as you started to think of it, "either the heat or the hit," the reputation and/or the feelings the consequences left you with.

You think some times of what might have been had you been a more reasonable person, contrasting those scenarios with your observations of the results of times when you thought you were at the end of your rope of reason.  For instance, had you followed your instincts at a particular time in your first real editorial job, you'd have quit in protest.  You didn't quit and the rewards became enormous, not only in the job but your attitude.

There've been many times since when your emotions arm wrestled with your reason.  You feel a narrow edge of comfort now, when you are at a point you could never have imagined when you bade farewell to that first job, then moved on to the New York-based job.  Your narrow edge comes more from not being a failure as it does from being a success.  You've not failed to pursue the things that matter in feelings.  This is the edge that allows you to write the words that matter in feelings more than they compute in reason.

In the formative stages at which you hint in these paragraphs, you were more inclined to make statements, often dismissive statements, directed at things that displeased you.  In all the times you've done the equivalent of measuring your stature with pencil marks against the door frame, these statements have become more conversational, allowing the feuding parties to have their time at the podium before making a decision.  This, too, is a narrow edge of success.  You are thinking warm thoughts about recently departed humans and a canine friend with whom you've had meaningful conversations.  These, too, contribute to the edginess in your narrative voice and the edge you hold in self-regard.

In story, you've learned, it is not the conversation, it is the dialogue.

In reality, you've learned, it is not the dialogue, it is the conversation.

In story, you tell reality to go be fruitful and multiply itself.

In reality, you ask, "What next?"  And then you stop what you're doing to listen.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Agreeable Cat and the Appropriate Dog

Some baseball players are known for their batting averages, others for won-loss records, others still for their fielding (innings played without committing error).  Many actors are known for their diversity of performances, others for their signature role, against which all other performances, fairly or not, are measured.

Some doctors are known for their specialties.  The surgeon who removed cancerous tissues from you was recently ranked in a national magazine.  One of your dearest friends and you were strolling across San Ysidro Road in upper village Montecito when your progress was arrested by an intense voice, bellowing your friend's name.  "Barnaby,"  he said.  "Barnaby.  Wait."  Indeed, the three of you met in the middle of the street, Barnaby Conrad observing his gentlemanly courtesy by introducing you to the doctor, who was not in the slightest way interested in you.  "Are you all right?"  he asked Conrad.  Still in his gentleman mode, Conrad assured the doctor he was.

"This is a small town,"  the doctor observed.

"Yes,"  Conrad said, "it is."

"Everyone knows I performed the replacement surgery on your knee."

Conrad suggested that while many people knew, including you, there were still a great many who did not know, and why stop us here in the middle of the street?

"Because,"  the doctor said.  "Because you were limping."

"I limp because of sciatica,"  Conrad said. "Not from the knee."

"Would someone seeing you walk know that?"  the doctor said.

Some doctors are known for their specialties.

You, for instance have a Gainor hip, an Avolese dental bridge, a Katsev lens and soon to have yet another from that gifted opthamologist.  You are enhanced by their expertise.  You would not be where you are without some internal tweaking by Koper.

Writers have specialties, often genera such as horror (Stephen King), wild-ass thriller (Elmore Leonard), and deep-tissue mystery/suspense (Kate Atkinson).  Writers have other specialties.  Consider characters (See Dickens.  Indeed, the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate lists quite a few of his creations.), scenes, dialogue, themes, and settings.

Writers have abilities to describe and define, as well to evoke or cause to resonate and perhaps reverberate within the sensitivity receptors of the reader.  Writers such as Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon have the ability to make inanimate things appear lifelike and to cause us to feel a sense of concern for things and places and conditions as though they were actual.

In some realistic senses, each of us, you included, forage about as though an early hunter-and-gatherer, attempting to wrest physical and emotional security from our surroundings while dealing with those beings who at first blush do not appear to be like us (or you).  The probability is, they are more alike than not, a few cultural differences and attitudes to the contrary.  Some of these cultural differences seem irreparable but in the hands of writers, they represent dramatic opportunities to force individuals into kinds of negotiation that we have seen fit to think of as evolution of a significant sort.

Another significant form of accommodation and negotiation presents itself in the midst of our foraging for physical and emotional connections with our surroundings.  Human-animal connections are often fraught with associations and individualized relationships.  The odds appear to be stacked in favor of the human, suggesting in some cases nothing more than a more attenuated form of slavery.  You look at some of the ones you see about you, shaking your head in what comes forth as wonderment most of the time.

You've had some form of animal presence in your life ever since your encounters during your late twenties to a short-haired domestic cat named Sam.  The relative differences in species lifespan has left you from time to time "between animals,"  aware of your foraging nature, aware of how much of your behavior is based on your observation of animal behavior, and how animals appear better able to get along after loss or parting.

You cannot explain in any objective or even accurate way the fact of most of your friends and acquaintances having similar relationships with animals.  Conrad had his share of birds, dogs, cats, at least one fox.  To you knowledge, Wolfe hadn't owned a cat outright but was perpetually suborning cats of neighbors, luring them for visits with choice morsels.  Fagan has a house filled with cats and a yard filled with rescue rabbits.  The Kapuy's have cats and birds; at one point, he had a monitor lizard.  Your literary agent lives in a five-dog atmosphere.

Your email and written mail have borne a flood of notes expressing sorrow at your current "between-animals" condition.  Five days without an animal--without a particular animal, the one described in the letters and notes--seems a wrench, reminding you not only of your loss but of a sense of constant incompleteness.

No question in your mind that you will restore the balance.  The loss of this balance is an entirely different form of vertigo than the loss of a relative, a close partner or friend.  You are far enough along a path of awareness to know you must not attempt to replace a relative, close partner, or friend, because even the attempt is futile, a vector of disaster, but also a way of undercutting your original relationship.  Thus you hunt and forage to fill in gaps and necessities from other sources.

You are thinking to start with an agreeable cat while looking for the appropriate dog.

A cat gives you the expectations of surprise and a sensate presence moving about you.  The surprise cannot be articulated; it is what you will discover at some time.  "The appropriate dog" is an animal of stature in whose presence you may be able to discover what those qualities are you so cherish and seek to keep in you life.  And of course what you have to do to keep them there.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Destinations: You Can't Get There from Here

Your cell telephone carries an application called a GPS, a global positioning system, which offers to guide you from one destination to another.  You've begun to use this device with some regularity, , representing a gradual change in you.  Often, you'd rely on what you'd call instinct or memory or perhaps feel.

One event in particular pushed you over the edge.  Although your friends, Steve and Melinda Beisner, live a scant ten miles from where you used to live on Hot Springs Road, you habitually got lost driving there when invited to social events, causing you frustration and your late wife considerable irritation.  The problem aspect of the journey was your impression of their street being below rather than above Foothill Road, an error in perception a GPS device or a street map would have corrected with little effort.

Your persistence in cruising the streets below Foothill only added to your frustration and Anne's mounting irritation.

You find it difficult not to trust your memory or instinct or feel in such matters.  The difficulty in not trusting instinct seems somehow offensive to you if you have any reason at all to believe you know a thing on some instinctive or muscle memory basis.  When you became lost after one wrong right-hand turn recently in Santa Fe, you had no memory or instinct to go on, pulled off to one side immediately, parked, and consulted a GPS device on your phone, and were heading in a profitable course within a matter of minutes.  You mention this to demonstrate the times when you do over rely on memory and the times when logic tells you to seek some informative device right now.

In some growing probability, there are devices of one sort or another to use when you lose your direction in a dramatic narrative.  Of course, there is the original GPS prototype, the Poetics of Aristotle,  Here, you'll find most of the basic dramatic elements, set forth in ways to guide you toward the escape routes for traffic snarls, the sense of setting, and the introduction and descriptions of relevant features.  In a sense, Poetics is a travel guide to the dramatic landscape.

After a number of years studying these Aristotelian concepts, then moving to such excellent modern variations as E. M. Forrester's Aspects of the Novel, you had some reason to believe you could find your way by instinct or memory, writing furiously and doing so as a sort of prototype of your early attempts to find the home of the Beisners without getting lost.  All you had to do is remember to go beyond foothill.  Their street parallels Foothill, but it does so north of rather than south of Foothill.

Although nothing connected with writing is as simple and straightforward as remembering to keep driving north of Foothill Road, you have at times felt yourself relying on similar advice.  But writing is no landscape to be plumbed or divined with a GPS.  Writing wants instinct and memory and feel.  Writing wants you to have the awareness of your frustration in trying to find the Beisner home and as well it wants you to have the irritation with you Anne felt as you with maddening consistency failed to find the Beisner home.

From time to time, you get flashes of life as it is lived in Reality, needing spurring from similar irritation and frustration, if only to remind you that ordinary is boring, tending to be even more painful in its ordinariness as finding your way in fiction or, indeed, finding your way to the Beisner's.

How mistaken it is to think of the times spent learning such basic techniques as the scene, dialogue, point-of-view, and rising action without paying heed to the amount of time you spent scouting out the terrain and making it your own.

You've been to Santa Fe, New Mexico and Salt Lake City, Utah, about the same number of times.  Although you have some affinity for Utah landscape, Santa Fe greatly intrigues you beyond the neat, ordered symmetry of SLC.  Santa Fe is an impossible garble of streets, cow paths, and roads, one of, if not the oldest of North American cities.  You also like the notion that some of the grids here where you live were meted and plotted and mapped by at least one surveyor given over to excessive drinking.

A GPS can get you through traffic, but it cannot get you through life or, least of all, story.  With all due respect to Salt Lake City, you don't wish your stories to have that precision and engineered symmetry.  Nor do you have all that much against symmetry or neatness and orderliness.  You wish to get lost in story and essay.  You wish to flounder and founder and meander.

You have long since been able to find your way to the Beisner's.  You are happy to say you cannot for the life of you approach your work with the same measure of confidence.

When you get to the Beisner's, a beer or margarita is waiting for you.  When you get to the
true locale of a story, satisfaction and wonderment await you, and the knowledge that the next time you set forth, the going will remind you more of Santa Fe than it will of Salt Lake City.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


In the normal course of events, many elements, stand by themselves, refusing to combine until a greater force oversees the connecting process.  When such connections are made, the elements may lose their individual traits and become something else or something other.  Sodium plus chloride, in proper proportions becomes neither sodium nor chloride by instead salt.  Salt plus water, which is a connection between hydrogen and oxygen atoms, becomes water.  Salt plus water becomes...

The picture emerges.

Many abstractions stand by themselves until they are joined, at which point they may become ideas, even concepts, perhaps hypotheses, possibly even a syllogism.

You reached this point by thinking how enormous a part the human presence becomes relative to things, both in the abstract and in the specific, reaching a stage of connectedness.

Disparate, seemingly independent things such as rum and Coca-Cola. might never have come together had it not been for human inventiveness or human need.  Then again, look how similar rum plus Coca-Cola is to the sodium plus chloride plus hydrogen atoms plus oxygen atoms in proper proportion yielding salt water.  The ingredients list of rum and of Coca-Cola are not as basic, nor are they off by much.

As someone engaged in living what has been called the life of literature or writing, you spend a considerable part of the waking and dozing day playing with various cosmic recipes, sometimes starting with abstractions such as character types or human goals, other times wondering what the downstream consequences would be if a specific character type were brought into a landscape with specific other character types.  Thus stories about such hot topics as race or gender.  Some persons also trying to live the writing life have brought disparate traditions,say Jane Austen and vampires, or Abraham Lincoln and zombies, into a useful connection.  You don't have to like either; this takes on greater relevance in light of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who do like either meme to the point of plunking down serious cash for each.

You are fond of making connections in the abstract because, when the time comes for these connections to be particularized, the result more often than not is a story or a nonfiction narrative such as an essay.  You also cherish making connections with people, some of whom become clients or students or friends.

Through these connections, you often discover connections with voices both contemporary and from the distant past, written visions provided by men and women who had some similar desire to live in the turn of literature and writing, extending your sense of connectedness to other times and places, with some hope of understanding the dynamics of other times and cultures.

You have formed innumerable connections with musicians of all eras and genera, and because your late great pal, Barnaby Conrad was correct in his assessment that you have a quirky and unsettling memory, you have formed connections with a number of facts that float about in an almost effortless orbit.  This last ability on occasion passes for intelligence, but you are not fooled enough by that to assume it is so.

As you've mentioned during the past few days and, you are pleased to note, on frequent occasion within this growing list of random exercises and thoughts you consider a blog source, you have been connected to a number of animals, some of whom drew your attention as role models because they seemed to you to be quirkier than you.

For all the evidentiary materials put forth to suggest that some animals, say arguably the most domesticated of all, the dog, is a source of pure, unconditional love, you enjoy making the connection that a dog can and does lie in that you've seen dogs pretend to be sniffing something or hearing something or in some way being interested in something other than an immediate position they wish to ignore or avoid.

You admire this, and not because you think it makes the dog seem more human, rather because it demonstrates that, like humans, dogs have a sense of themselves they wish to maintain.  A dog who gives up dignity or who gives up the chance to lie in order to protect dignity is a troubled dog just as a person who gives away dignity as though it were a bribe from the NRA is a person who needs some quality time with a competent professional.

There is more than a little admiration for the ability to make connections you've long attributed to dogs.  Your experiences with them has given you anecdotal and more objective data, certainly enough to break your heart when you think about it.  Dogs sense when you like them,  Dogs sense when they are in the presence of those who do not like them.  Unlike cats, who love to flaunt that awareness by rubbing up against their complaining humans, dogs make the connection and take the high ground away from those they sense have little regard from them.

Dogs are more likely to enjoy hanging out with humans, even to the point of appreciating conversation directed at them.  They do not have to understand the entire thrust of the conversation although you do think they are able to "read" the intent.  If they think you mean "bad dog," they may even find ways to lie in their body language, causing you to think they are sorry.  Not so much that they are actually sorry as that they recognize you are not as comfortable with the situation as you might be.

The dogs of your knowledge are, however laid-back they seem, dogs of purpose.  They want to get on with things, on with the conversation, on with the potential to connect the disparate with the enjoyable.  Small wonder your own sense of connection building is so open to their presence.

You've been having conversations with a particular dog for some time now.  Although she was not present to hear your conversations today, and in spite of some potential for recognizing the implications of a middle-aged man apparently talking to himself, you were connecting with the affirming powers of conversing and formulating your plans.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


A hole is a gap or space, once filled with substance.  That sums up hole in the abstract.  But consider:  Hole is a concept on the prowl of an attribution, much in the manner of a panhandler hitting you up for spare change.

Additional matters for consideration:  There are black holes, pot holes, and loop hopes.  There are port holes, man holes, and for attributions of persons we cannot abide, there are even ass holes.  Do not for a moment forget moth holes or bullet holes

Since you were about age nineteen or twenty, you discovered you could use a two-line space break to represent a gap between scenes in a story instead of a * or #.  Your writing life centered around this particular type of hole.  Soon, this hole grew to include the expanding universes of holes between finishing one story and the beginning of another and the sometimes black holes of submitting these stories for publication.

There are occasional holes in your sweaters, which can be repaired--often by you--with a crochet hook or a darning needle.  Occasional holes also emerge when a student or friend disappears from the fabric of your life.  Once again, a form of reweaving or repair is possible, thanks to the viral equivalent of the crochet hook, the social media.

Sometimes holes appear and you don't notice them in context, which is to say you chance upon them by happenstance.  Like the generic bareness of the word "hole," your discovery of this chance hole cries out for associations.  When they come, they bring the equivalency of flowers and candy brought by visitors to sick friends; they trigger memories.

An Indian rug, for instance, purchased at a famed trading post in the Navajo Reservation, an elongated rectangle of about 108" length and 32" width, runs at a diagonal across your work area.  The hole you noticed is one you are attached to by a recognition of its source, making the hold a considerable enhancement to the sentimental value of the rug.

Often in the late afternoons or evenings when you were composing or reading or editing, you were aware of the persistent scratching sounds of a thirty-pound dog, attempting to smooth out a resting place on which she would then flop to either the floor or one of two beds placed for her convenience.  The area of the hole in the rug coincides with one of the places this thirty-pound dog would gravitate for a segment of a nap.

In substantive terms, a hole becomes a significant lack of something, a fact more likely to call your attention because of the lack rather than the entire presence.

After witnessing and experiencing a certain amount of holes--no one knows for certain how many are necessary--a person is more likely to become obsessed with the number of holes in the vast expanse of persons, places, and things close to hand.

The human psyche is inventive and resourceful, spinning out numerous ways in which to provide reweaving or some mechanism by which we can selectively ignore holes.  Often this process involves some remedial activity such as a course in art history, by which we attempt to train the eye to see the entire surface of a work of art.

But we are resourceful creatures, trained in the arts of observation and association.  There is scant surprise when we hear about phantom limb awareness, limbs or joints no longer associated with the body to which they were originally attached appearing to ache, itch, or cramp.  In similar fashion, some holes remind us of the lost, vanished, removed part of the fabric representing our life.

Through the process of association, we're given the opportunity to observe how close we were bonded to some of the things we now consider holes.

There is some comfort in the knowledge that we are as shaped by the holes in our life as we have been by the substances.  Secure in the uncomfortable knowledge that at any moment a substance may translate into a hole, we try to take comfort in our ability to focus on the sections of whole cloth about us, holding up the universe, as it were, or at the least, the scenery.

But it is a cold, wary comfort, and we must try to stay alert.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


There are partners in crime, partners in business, and often partners in enviable romantic relationships.  There are partnerships in law firms, where the list of partners begins to sound more like the contents list on a package of processed food.

Acts from the days of vaudeville had partnerships, memorable among them Burns and Allen, followed in the early days of TV entertainment with Sonny and Cher. Abbot had Costello, Martin had the bad luck of Lewis, but in mitigation, Laurel had Oliver Hardy.  Thanks to the mischievous playwright, Tom Stoppard, we have a modern reprise of a great Shakespearean partnership, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.

Look anywhere, your memory banks included, and before long, you'll find a partnership that resonates for you with some kind of splash on the emotional scale, Nixon and Agnew, for instance, representing the equivalent of a long, sour grimace.  Come to think of it, a number of U.S. Presidential combinations provoke similar tummy rumblings.

Fred Astaire, ne Austerlitz, had three remarkable dance partnerships, his sister, Adele, then Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth before ending his career with the lithe and stunning Barrie Chase.

Procter had Gamble.  For a while, Sears had Roebuck, Chase had Sanborn, and if you spent any time in New York City, you'd recall that Horn had Hardart for the automat.  If you grew up in Los Angeles, you knew that some fortunate Pig was partnered with a Whistle.

There were and, to be sure, are loners, spiky, crinkly men and women who set great store by their ability to go things alone, to give, sometimes even graciously, but, as biblical language would have it, receiveth not.  These individuals often made a mini-religion of self-sufficiency to the point of sounding like those in many formal religions who begin renouncing so-called worldly things.  These individuals seemed to ignore the potentials for partnership rather than espouse any overt and cranky eschewal.

Much as you like to consider yourself a traveler along the path of sufficiency, you have to report a lengthy stream of partners of one sort or another.  The first was with a lad named Pierre in Miami Beach, Florida, where your business model involved repairing radios, for which you both had some limited abilities, repairing vacuum cleaners, for which you had only Pierre's word that he knew the insides of a Hoover the way you knew the back of your hand.  Your goal was to be able to rent a small vacant space next to a tailor, but the available financial resources seemed always to be spent of Peter Paul Mounds bars.

The first partner in the sense of which you speak here was a tiger-striped cat named Sam, who was voted partnership after having moved his things from your next door neighbor, Ray, when you lived in the Hollywood Hills.  The attraction between you was immediate.  Even though you both had active social lives, you reckon the draw was a subtext sense of loneliness, which might explain why Sam, who had no use for many of the activities you associate with cats--scratch pads, indoor gyms, catnip toys--enjoyed time hunkered down on your chest while you read, slouching in a large, overstuffed club chair given you by your father.  For your part, you discovered the greater joys of reading in that chair with Sam on your chest than your ordinary reading venues of bed, at your work desk, or Coffee Dan's restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.
The partnership seemed to come after a longish discussion in which you both appeared to acknowledge the need the other fulfilled.  The bargain was sealed by an exchange of tokens, a carton of Kitty Queen kidney as a gift from you and what Sam believed to be a dead lizard.

In subsequent years of your partnership, cat fanciers assured you no normal cat would do, or perhaps the words were "put up with" the expectations you had of Sam, simply because they seemed appropriate.  For instance, coming with you in your car when you ran errands, taking walks around the neighborhood at night, traveling to Virginia City and attending cocktail parties, sharing hamburgers, browsing used book stores, and seeming to take an interest in your work by settling down nearby when you were composing.

Another partner, Edward, was a blue-tick hound, meaning in operational terms that he was often away, sniffing things or pursuing them.  Although able to find his way home, he often arrived at a destination too tired from running and tracking to move, thus he had to be picked up.  Sometimes his pick-up points were remote, giving you an even greater knowledge of the outer Los Angeles perimeter.

Molly became a partner after showing her interest in accompanying you on your five- and often ten-mile daily running, but you had to learn to put up with her ability to sneak out of rooms or places you'd thought you left her.

And of course, Sally, who was known during writing conferences to become outraged if marauding coyotes drew too close, and who frequently saw the need to herd stray cats into the living room.

Your partners thus had differing, outstanding traits and quirks.  They came to grudging acceptance of yours, just as you were able to pretend to be outraged by Sally's breaking up of bridge parties and social gatherings at the next door Cudahy estate while giving her sotto voce praise for her sense of social justice.

When you collaborated with Wolfe, you had to balance your interest in getting subsequent drafts done in a rush before taking on the words one-at-a-time with Wolfe's frequent returns to places you'd long thought to have been settled and/or cured.

The thrust here is how and what you learned from your partners.  You for instance preach the virtues of rushing to get a draft done with as little thought as possible, but Wolfe still drags you back to an inept word or, worse, a phrase, causing you to replay it again and again until you can almost hear him, asking you, That sounds better, don't you think?  That gets it done and done funny, don't you think?

Sometimes, when you are having a dialogue or, more to the point, a monologue with yourself, you're drawn back to discussions in which you explained things to Sam, then became captivated by his behavior that seemed to suggest he understood your intent.

When the Dean elevated Sally to Department mascot, then found and posted a picture of her on the department website, you wasted no time enlarging the scope and length of your conversations with her to include a complete transparency of disclosure.

How fanciful is it to have lengthy times of conversation with an animal?  Who better than a partner to discuss strengths, weaknesses, strategies, and, most entrancing, the sharing of secrets ?  Sophistry, right?  Extended anthropomorphizing of animals, no?  Except that such conversations opened the door to discussions with humans and with the self who notes things down on paper or types them for inclusion here.

This kind of partner is the partner who knows you, your oratory self and your curmudgeonly self as well as your secret self, the self you are comfortable revealing only to a partner.  You are so used to your partner that you take for granted the soaring enthusiasms and comfortable stature you have achieved merely from taking things through and hanging out with someone who not only gets you but who has seen you, unshaven, unedited, unguarded.

After a time, it is difficult if not downright impossible to tell the partner anything but the truth. Is it any wonder you get the notion of having come as far as you have because of your partners?  Now, you've reached the point of saving the bacon from your breakfasts, splitting tuna melts, offering strands of spaghetti bolognese, checking your partner's preferences, finding picnic sites where your partner can get some interesting scents, and discovering through studied experimentation your partner's absolute favorite, the brisket sandwich at Art's Deli on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.

How many things of taste and preference are, in fact, influenced by your partner's taste?

These vagrant lines would not be approaching a true essay if you were not to pose the added rhetorical question, If you'd extend the same concerns and attentions to human partner potentials as you have with animal partners, wouldn't you have more close human friends?
You've thought that, in your sixteen years with Sally, you've more than once brought it up in her presence.  The answer you take back from her is typical, you believe, of her judgment:  If you give what you get from animals to yourself, you're better able to give proper substance to humans.  If you give what you get from your animal partners to your work as a writer, an editor, and a teacher, you may find yourself chasing the occasional ball or car, but in the long run, your sentences and paragraphs will stand on their own, some dogs, some cats, and some people will trust you, and the occasional dog or cat or human will love you.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Thirty-Pound Learning Curve

Loss comes in all sizes, shapes and varieties.  It arrives when you least expect it, when you have a mind filled with scattered details, and in the ironic way of coming even though you've prepared for it and thought to take preventative steps.

Something you once had as a possession, implement, friend, lover, idea is now gone.  You feel the sting of the missed subject, trying to remember where you were last in contact with it, wondering how you became separated from it,

A week or so ago, your keys went missing, leaving you in your frustration to leave a note for the maid.  Mis llaves son perdidos.  Yeah, well.  When you returned home, there they were.  Aqui estan.  A few days before that, going to the loo at Carl's Jr. cost you the half hamburger sandwich you'd thought to share with Sally, but the loss worked out when you simply ordered another, which was received with the innocence of one who'd not noticed the loss.

You've lost two close friends this year, which has proven irreparable in the sense of you not being able to accomplish retrieval by writing notes or ordering a new hamburger.  Rather, you cope with the losses by living with them, recognizing how the differences between you are in fact the things you miss most, how the differences were the things that cast back light on the friendships,  They've been gone long enough that when you hear someone talking about them, the descriptions don't sound anything at all like your absent friends, at which point you're reminded how we all see a person, place, thing, or the like back lit by our own perspective.

A thing you see or speak to or use every day is another kind of loss, its frequency of contact creating more of a constant sense of static electricity between you.  How do you, for instance, stop being shocked by an electric eel?  Answer:  Let go of it.  Having let go, you are aware of the loss of being shocked or, on a more probable basis, the sound of a particular voice or the energetic vibration of a particular personality.

Sometimes, a loss weighs in at about thirty pounds, a fact noted each time you take the subject to the vet, where she is weighed in, her weight recorded down to the tenth of a pound.  If she falls too much under thirty, Bonnie, the vet, chides you before suggesting such delicacies as salmon-flavored cream cheese or your own discovery of room temperature Brie cheese.

In your time, you've lost fountain pens, pocket knives, books, reading glasses, sunglasses, notebooks, and in one awful misadventure, a week's unemployment insurance cash, to say nothing of romantic relationships gone astray, a remarkable cat named Sam, a cantankerous blue-tick hound named Edward, teaching appointments, jobs, teeth, cancerous tissue, and of course a wife.  Although in many ways you remind yourself of the you in your early twenties and thirties, you have lost some of the outward appearances of those ages, but it is always a cheer when you are spoken of as not acting your age.

At one time in your life--you're no longer sure when--you lost your innocence although it may be said of you right now that some of your behavior reflects naivete.  You've lost nearly all the things possible for a person of your age to have lost.  Of course with this comes the gain of perspective, the kind of perspective you discuss at some length, sometimes continuing the conversation over a period of days.  

You may have been set in your ways in earlier years but now, through this informed discourse some persons foolishly call maturity, you become set in expectations,  You know who to expect all the nourishing expectations from and how, quite often, the price of admission to the discussions is a Super Deluxe Torpedo from the Italian Grocery on De la Guerra Street, cut in half, then transported to Orphet or Hale Park.  The rhetoric and exchanges must be kept at a suitable level if there is to be a growing connection between the involved parties.

At the moment, loss weighs thirty pounds.  Loss answered to the name Sally if she were of a mind.  Sometimes she required a "Hey, you."  In her early and mid years, she loved to run. her slim body seeming to hug the ground and yet provide a rippling effect.  Some of your fondest visions of her running were when she saw you at a great distance, recognized you, and came streaking toward you, every bit as much mirth as spittle seeming to fly from her lips.  The notion of someone so obviously thrilled to see you often seems the most recognition you could ever want.  Who else but a thirty-pound package of control freak herd dog, rushing to you could so validate your presence and importance.

When the thirty-pound juggernaut could no longer run so swiftly or turn with such sinuous eclat, you began offering to help with a hand up a stair or two or a trip down a driveway, but even then you were made to feel somehow she was allowing you to do this out of some noblesse oblige, thus the care and concern passing freely back and forth on both sides of the equal sign.  A thirty-pound juggernaut, whatever her place in the equation, kept up the balance.

You've heard it said--you may well be the one who said it--that learning comes from loss and how we respond to it.

Your thirty-pound learning curve began somewhere in November of 1997.  The rerun season has begun.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Another fine mess you've gotten us into

This is the week in your book review cycle where you get to select a work that has been published in the past.  Your choices for this aspect of the cycle often involve works you've read in the past, works which now speak to you across the gap of time since you last read it, wanting you back for another visit, another opportunity to see what drew you in the first place.  

More important, there are possibilities for you to see what you missed then, within the realm of possibility, what--if anything--you may have learned since your last reading.

With great glee and anticipation, you've dipped into an old friend from your undergraduate days, The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, in all likelihood the oldest extant complete novel.  There are at least two impressive facts about the version you've selected to revisit.  

The first fact is the information on the cover informing you the translator is Sarah Rudin.  The second fact is that you'd commended The Golden Ass to Brian Fagan as a way of bringing to life the chapter on donkeys for his new book in progress, as yet unnamed, dealing with the relationship between humans and animals.

You'd had no idea of the existence of the Rudin translation, but Fagan found it, remarked on its felicitous voice and attitude, causing you to ask to borrow his copy and then, after reading a single page, ordering it yourself to have as your own copy.

Now that you do own it, you are plunged into a rereading that has your head reeling with ideas, some of which you recall from your original contact with the work at the approximate age of twenty, naively thinking at the time how simple it would be to implement these ideas and as a result stride into the literary equivalent of the job market, quite able to support yourself and such family as you might acquire from your earned position in the literary world.

As it happens, you are able to some greater degree than when you were twenty to support yourself, but that ability is contingent upon your teaching and editing skills as well as your writing.

As it also happens, Sarah Rudin has as her publisher the same university press, Yale, as the protagonist of your unfinished novel, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, reestablishing your enthusiasm for that work well beyond the tiny coincidence if Yale being Rudin's publisher.  In real life, an oft heard mantra is "Location, location, location."  In the writing life and literary world, the operant mantra is more apt to be "Connection, connection, connection."

The connection between the previous paragraphs herein and the fact of Rudin's excellent, witty, and often downright funny translation is the word translation, itself.  Here's your explanation:

Translation is in metaphor the smuggling of valuable commodity across boundaries.  Often the boundaries are national, often they are as well of language, culture, and politics.  One of your favorite aphorisms is the Italian speak-for-itself, "Traddutore, trattore," or Translator, traitor.  To undertake a translation is in essence an act of some covert intent, of producing the literary equivalent of a replica wristwatch or a knock-off piece of designer clothing.

And yet.

And yet you, with some potential for translating things into American English from some Spanish and some Italian, attempt with some regularity the translation of chunks of Reality into the landscape of the Dramatic.  You attempt to portray scenes in which characters of a time and place and culture pursue agendas you might not be readily aware of until several drafts have transpired.

You  come upon a scene of outrageous humor or intimate poignancy or yet some other compelling emotional state.  Then you attempt to capture that scene, translate it to the story or narrative you have under way, translate it from the language of Reality to the language of Story.

Sometimes, often times when you have proceeded in some activity without thinking, you'll reach a point where you may have gone too far, said something of a possible hurtful nature or, even worse, of a bigoted or culturally insensitive potential, relying all the while on the cultural diplomatic immunity you have granted yourself, wherein your taste is above reproach.  

You find yourself in apology mode, smarting still from the humiliation of realizing you've trespassed on boundaries you'd not thought yourself capable of crossing.  "I only meant,"  you find yourself saying.  Or, if you are still in the defensive mode, "Don't you get the humor here?"  Your only meaning to say something unoffensive or acceptable is recognition of the mistranslation.  Your relying on the context of humor as a visa is lame, meant to splash layers of Teflon over your ultimate humiliation that will come when you allow yourself to see, as a writer must see, the consequences.

Language exists to be translated.  Feelings exist to inform and motivate.  Awareness of the need for precision of use and for depth of understanding hover about us like seagulls foraging for their breakfast.

Yo soy.
Io sono.
I am.
Ich bin.
Je suis.

They all reflect the joy of being you.  They all reflect the multiplicity of you which you must twist and bend to capture.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Missing the Point

If you think a day of working at composition causes you to feel like a writer, you're missing the entire point.  Even if the day of composition felt energizing, causing tingling inner sensations in places you'd thought too ordinary to feel tingles, even if your mind seemed to blaze with moments of understanding and being connected to something sensate and splendid outside yourself, even then, with all those benefits, you're missing the point.

And if the day of working at composition made you feel like a poser at the game of writing because of so many digital equivalents of crumpling the page and tossing it aside,or false starts or, worse, of what you've come to think of as mind freeze, where moments, sometimes hours pass with no words at all going up on the page, you missed the point.  Even if you hear from within a comforting voice, recognizably one of your own, telling you such days are merely days on the job, such days are in their way the same as the dazzling and special days where paragraphs seem to flow from you fingers the way three-pointers come from a Michael Jordan, the point of efforts you've put in are not connecting.

What about times when you've done your work, then walked off some of the tension and mood, returning to pick up a book which you are now able to read without the focus of close reading, following the text because you know the author or know of her or him?  You find yourself turning the pages, the words themselves a blur, the characters now alive within you, their aches and yearnings crying out for some kind of recognition or release.  You understand you are caught in someone else's story, the vision of another writer, imparting to you the sense you get when you look out the window of an airplane and see the ground streaming past you and the unmistakable sense of being aloft, the ground receding.

You are free of that day-to-day world and are gaining altitude and involvement in story.  For a few moments, you are too thrilled to be envious of the abilities of the writer you are reading.  Her story is paramount in your own senses, and you get the second lift-off of knowledge that you'd never have appreciated this work so much as you now do if you had not become a writer.  When you are actually flying, you close your eyes at this moment, press your head back into your seat for that surrender to the flight and the static electric anticipation of what awaits you at the other end of the flight.  That could almost have you at the cusp of getting the point.  Almost.

If you think that writing every day, even days when you are perhaps overcome with physical illness or tiredness from life events or from the cat-wants-out, cat-wants-in turbulence of everyday life, helps you to feel more like a writer than some wannabe or poseur, you are back to missing the point.  This is true even if you feel the suppleness and strength of habit and the quickness with which associations and ideas seem to hurl themselves at you once you've begun to work.  This is true even if you feel a momentary sense of confidence that the project you're working on, however daunting it may have been when it came to you and you said to it, yes, I'll take you on, is within your grasp, you are still missing the point, which by now has begun to nag at you, wanting recognition, your admission that it exists.

You think to give this missing point, this nagging awareness a brief nod.  Sure, you say, you get the message, which is that the thing that could possibly put you over the top is to admit the Big Admission, which is that you do not know what it is like to feel like a writer until you've missed a day of writing, a day of reading, a day of thinking, a day of scribbling notes with occasional speeds so demanding that you know you'll have trouble reading them later on.  Surely, you say, that's the missing link.  The addict going cold turkey for an entire day.

Close but, as the saying on the Midway goes, no cigar.  You gave the trigger a good pound with the hammer.  The marker was scant inches from ringing the bell that would have won you the cigar.  But not quite.

Nearly ten years ago, in fact December 7, 2003, you were in a surgeon's office, where the surgeon told you what he'd do the following morning to your unconscious body, wanting you to understand the one-in-a-hundred probability that when you awoke from the anesthesia, you'd be aware of having apparatus for a colostomy.  This apparatus, by a probability of ninety percent, would be with you for a month or six weeks.  The remaining ten percent probability was that you'd have it for the balance of your life.

He gave you another set of probabilities:  that when you awoke, there would no longer be cancer-bearing tissue in your body, or that some "floaters" might still be in orbit which would have to be pursued with radiation or chemical intervention.

At about six thirty the following morning, the matter was out of your hands.  Perhaps if you'd not relaxed and given into the rush of anaesthesia being directed into your bloodstream free rein, you'd have remained awake a moment or two longer, but when the anesthesiologist said, Here comes your cocktail, you scarcely had time to say Olives, not cherries.  Or perhaps you only had time to think of the response.

You knew nothing until well after three that afternoon.  You of course checked immediately to see if the colostomy apparatus was in place.  Not.  One more obstacle out of the way.  A nurse saw you've come awake, greeted you, fluffed your pillow.  You were ravenously thirsty, had been advised you'd have to wait some twelve to sixteen hours before you could have any liquid, but would be able to accept moistened swabs to run over your gums.

Two of those swabs out of the way and your cursory check of body parts over, your question, more to yourself than any audience.  What had you missed?  In work and social situations, you've encountered numerous pink telephone message slips, While You Were Out...

What had you missed?

The seeming jump from writely things to surgical things was no lapse of thematic continuity.  The thing that causes you to feel yourself arrived at any chance whatsoever of being a writer is the wonderment of what you'll have missed by not doing it.  You "get" all the lead-up and potentials you mentioned, including the diagnosis of your cancer.  What will you have missed is the matter.

Good days or bad, plentiful or scant, the reading of other's works a haunting reminder of how far you have to go.

Being a writer is the constant awareness of what you've missed and what you need to do to pursue it and attempt to catch up.