You are the sorcerer. You are also his apprentice. You occupy the same body. Although you do not come to combat over the difference in roles, each of you is aware of such concepts as turf and boundary. Status plays a role. The sorcerer cherishes the thought of having served an apprenticeship and of having amassed a level of confidence if not actual street cred. A sorcerer is more aware of risk in a practical sense because many of his activities are performed in aware of the relationship of risk versus consequences.
The apprentice is both worshipful and cocky, wanting to try his hand at some of the alchemy and spells he believes he can handle. He is not about to be intimidated by something as paltry as a risk. Sometimes, when the sorcerer is hunched over some tome or in the throes of some experiment, the apprentice wants to sneak in a rain storm or small earthquake--nothing over a 3.5 or 4.
When you begin to feel yourself losing control of your outward senses in the moments before you cross over from browsing the pages of a mystery novel to becoming entranced by it, you feel yourself on the exciting cusp of awareness. The moment is for you much like the moment before the body shifts gears (and brain waves) from the waking state to the layered pudding of sleep.
When the process is in motion, there is the dizzying sense of being on a conveyance that has whisked you past the last recognizable stop and into a surreal world where things morph from the real to the fantastic, seemingly at whim. The whim, of course, is your own. You know that much about it. The whim is also the whim you did not know you had.
There are discoveries in mysteries and dreams that surprise you with their inventiveness and unexpected appearances. Talking dogs. Former girlfriends from you distant past. Individuals from your immediate present, dangling themselves before you in ways you had not expected you had interests in delving. All these, of course, are turns of event in dreams. Some of them happen with such intensity that your excited anticipation betrays you by waking you out of your dream. Those turns in mysteries get your interest at a similar high peak when the investigative officers begin discussing the need for exhumation.
When a crypt or grave is invaded in a mystery, some shocking surprise is guaranteed to follow. The corpse will not be the one anticipated. The anticipated corpse will be something other than human or animal remains, say old telephone books or bags filled with sand to approximate the weight of the supposed deceased. Another potential for surprise and complication is the discovery of more than one corpse.
On numerous occasions, you've had reason to perform literary or memoir exhumations, disinterring journals or old drafts of old manuscripts or perusing the pages of notebooks for that illusive paragraph or two, of a sudden vibrating with some kind of urgency, much in the manner of a cell phone with its ringer muted, vibrating to let you know someone out there wishes to have words with you.
Like the exhumations in mysteries, delving into such accounts of events of your life or your imagined accounts of events you wish had taken place tend to provide surprises, some of them in their ironic way like the contents or lack of contents of the disinterred containers from mystery novels.
You exhumed some accounts of your time in the early 1990s, pursuing a number of short stories to successful completion and publication, your pursuit of a statuesque young woman often referred to by your pal, Digby Wolfe, as The Viking, and the tangible evidence that your handwriting has gone through some evolutionary changes.
Most if not all these journal notes were first draft, thus the surprise that after a span of over twenty years, they did not present to you a picture of yourself you had to gulp to accommodate. The surprise was that the corpse looked pretty healthy considering the gap in time and the sense you have of having made some steps forward.
Such ventures of exhumation are vital to the process you think of when you consider the consequences of trying to use words to describe stories, which in their own way are puzzles. Your choice of tools are words, but you're well enough aware of the concept of the sorcerer's apprentice that you realize you are, in these terms both the sorcerer and the apprentice, engaged in a dialectic that could grow argumentative.
Of course you recognize that, were you to check your notes of the 1970s, your positions as sorcerer and apprentice would maintain about the same ratio of generational difference. But if anyone can take a risk, it's you.
Friday, May 31, 2013
You are the sorcerer. You are also his apprentice. You occupy the same body. Although you do not come to combat over the difference in roles, each of you is aware of such concepts as turf and boundary. Status plays a role. The sorcerer cherishes the thought of having served an apprenticeship and of having amassed a level of confidence if not actual street cred. A sorcerer is more aware of risk in a practical sense because many of his activities are performed in aware of the relationship of risk versus consequences.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Once you've made a list, then gone public with it, you've opened the door to all manner of mischief.
In general, lists, in particular long lists, can be intimidating, but they are by no means immune from mischief. You got an immediate note from ENK, alerting you to a mistake you'd made in rendering a Joan Didion title. That was the kind of alert you could fix by changing the title to The White Album, which is, after all, fact, by no means a matter of mischief. Even in matters of fiction, which is to say your fiction, your take on Reality, you are interested in fact and consistency. Thus the matter of mischief or, you should say, the source of it.
Within moments of yesterday's list, done for your Wednesday Memoir class, you were besieged with a clamor of complaints. All of them were from you.
How could you, the first complaint began, think to provide a list without George Orwell's essay, "Shooting an Elephant"? You've been using the essay in various classes at various student levels for the better part of fifteen years. The reactions from students of a large political and generational spectrum have always been vigorous, introducing the necessary element of subtext into the discussion.
That objection duly noted, you went on to question how you could possibly have compiled a list without an essay or story from James Thurber. No matter what the thrust of the list, compiling one with a hundred specific entities without one of those entities being a Thurber is of a piece with a laundry list without a single shirt or a grocery list without bread. You could well imagine a grocery list without, say, anchovy, but grocery lists at the least have rolls if not an outright baguette or ficelle or loaf. Lists should have a story or essay by Thurber or at least a reference to him.
You began thinking about the Thurber short story, "The Catbird Seat," which you like to use in connection with a story by Poe (whom for some reason you've decided to be hard on) called "A Cask of Amontillado." To demonstrate your point, both are stories of revenge. You wonder if there could have been a Thurber story without Poe having done his, thus you are grateful to Poe for having supplied the impetus for Thurber, although you believe Thurber was a pestered and snarky enough individual to have been Thurber without "The Catbird Seat," just as Poe would have remained on the course to be Poe, allowing you to be glad that Thurber came along to distract you from not being a great fan of Poe.
Another complaint, even though it sounds gratuitous in the face of you listing three items from Mark Twain, rails against your inclusion of the segment from Roughing It which he calls "The Mexican Plug Horse," a series of episodes so clear and acute that you are as well reminded--via complaint--that you did not include the William Faulkner yarn, "Spotted Horses," which has some of the dead-pan humor of the Twain.
By any standards, your list should have also included another stand-alone tale from Roughing It, "The Grandfather's Ram Story," and if you had any thought of exposing students to story-telling techniques, wouldn't you have also included on the list his magisterial "How to Tell a Story"?
Of course you would, but the imp of the list of the perverse got hold of you and gave you a good shaking, causing you to wonder what you had in mind with that list you compiled yesterday.
The complaints and mischief seem to pile up like bugs on the windshield of a car driving across the desert. Your list did not have Nicolai Gogol's Dead Souls, an omission you might seek to rationalize by the expedient of not thinking your memoir students needed to know about this remarkable book. But this is of a par with making the judgment for your students without giving them the opportunity to consider whether they needed to read the Gogol or not.
You also took some flap for not including Herman Melville's piercing long story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener." Once again, how dare you be so arbitrary? You could well have removed something on the list in order to accommodate Bartleby as opposed to the choice you made instead of the Melville.
Of course you did not know which of the hundred one items on a list that was supposed to stop at a hundred, otherwise you might have been more deliberate and never got the list done. While it is true that you included an essay by Raymond Chandler, you never gave so much as a thought to Dashiell Hammett, and so no wonder your dreams grew uneasy last night in the manner of Gregor Samsa, the narrative fulcrum in Franz Kafka's haunting The Metamorphosis.
There is no earthly reason you did not include Hammett's novel, The Glass Key, which is in its way the most political and morally conflicted issues of the Hammett works. And while you're on the subject, how come you didn't include on the hundred list Hammett's most convoluted, The Dain Curse, which in its complexity reminds you of William Faulkner being set to write the screenplay for a Raymond Chandler novel, and having to give up because he could not decipher it.
Yet another complaint over the absence of a short story by Dorothy Parker, "The Standard of Living," reminds you of your opening observation about the tyranny of lists in the first place. The list you composed yesterday was composed in all innocence of Parker's story, leading you to wonder what kind of a list-compiling mood you were in when you made those hundred choices. To think you passed up John Sayles's short story, "At the Anarchist's Convention," causes you once again to wonder what kind of focus you were applying.
Is, in fact, a reading list without Philip Roth's novella, Goodbye, Columbus, much of a reading list? Of course not. Even if it were by some strange slip of the imagination, what positive comment could be made of a reading list without Roth's short story, "The Conversion of the Jews."? And how could you not add to the Steinbeck list his short story, "Chrysanthemums"?
List compilation is neither a safe or sure business in the first place, nor can you get shut of the consequences from doing your level best, then turning off the lights to wait for the dammed mosquitoes to slip in and begin their angry anthems of dinner music.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
By Shelly Lowenkopf
Lists are tyrants. There are many types of both.
There are laundry lists, shopping lists, and from my publishing background, front lists and backlists, meaning books appearing in the front pages of a publisher’s catalog or the back pages, where books already in print are listed.
Some lists are extensive and inclusive. Some tyrants are benevolent and populist oriented. The thing they share most is the fact of their being arbitrary.
A tyrant begins with the assumption of being correct. A list often takes the moral high ground of correctness, even though it recognizes some limitations, then becomes defensive about the items left out.
This list was requested of me by my Wednesday morning Memoir Class, some of whom have been with me since I assumed its teaching post in December of 2010. As a mere request and thus an abstraction, it was not a tyrant. The moment I began considering candidates for the list, it became a tyrant for me, requiring a kind of elitism I tend to distrust when I do not outright dislike it.
I offer this list of one hundred things I’d like the class to read with the awareness of dozens of things beyond the hundred mark already fluttering about me. I can and do herewith say these things have the aggregate power to work alchemy on anyone who undertakes to read them, digest them, and find ways to bring them into permanent internal residence.
Some of the things on this list are works I have edited, written, or wished that I had edited or written. Others are transformative experiences for me which I offer in the remembered spirit of shared and traded sandwiches at school lunches.
There is no particular order or design to the order in which these suggestions are listed other than the order or design of serendipity, which seems to me an excellent approach to reading.
1. Twain, Mark (ps of Samuel Langhorn Clemens). Life on the Mississippi. In effect, a memoir of a river and a young man.
2. ____________. The Innocents Abroad. Memoir
3. ____________. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Fiction.
4. Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Fiction.
5. Kingston, Maxine Hong. Woman Warrior. A memoir.
6. Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography.
7. Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams.
8. Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl.
9. X. Malcolm. Autobiography.
10. Burroughs, Augusten. Running with Scissors. Autobiography.
11. Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Memoir.
12. ____________. Blue Nights. Memoir.
13. ____________. The White Album.
14. Wilde, Oscar F. De Profundus. Memoir.
15. Geronimo. Autobiography.
16. Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks. Memoir.
17. Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Fiction.
18. _____________. Memento Mori. Fiction.
19. Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Fiction (short story collection).
20. ________________. “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem.” Short story.
21. Erdrich, Louise. The Plague of Doves. Fiction.
22. _______________. The Roundhouse.
23. Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. Memoir.
24. Greene, Graham. A Sort of Life. Autobiography.
25. ________________. Our Man in Havana. Fiction.
26. Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. Memoir
27. Eisenberg, Deborah. “Some Other, Better Otto,” Short Story.
28. Diaz, Junot. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Fiction.
29. Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.
30. Mahfouz, Naguib. Echoes of an Autobiography.
31. McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. Memoir.
32. Wiesel, Elie. All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoir.
33. Coetzee, J.M. Foe. Fiction.
34. Coward, Noel. Present Indicative. Memoir.
35. Conrad, Barnaby. Name Dropping. Memoir.
36. ________________. Fun While It Lasted. Memoir.
37. ________________. The Death of Manolete. Biography
38. Kincaid, Jamaca (ps of Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson). A Small Place. Memoir.
39. Shaw, George Bernard. Joan (act 1). Drama.
40. Hellman, Lillian. An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir.
41. King, Stephen. On Writing. Memoir.
42. Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle. Memoir.
43. Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Mineral, Miracle. Memoir.
44. Winterson, Jeanette. Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal. Memoir.
45. Terkell, Studs. Working. Biographies.
46. Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America.
47. Bukowski, Charles. Post Office. Memoir.
48. McPhee. John. Coming Into the Country. Essay.
49. _____________. Uncommon Carriers. Essay.
50. Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath. Memoir.
51. _______________. Of Mice and Men. Fiction.
52. Lowenkopf, Shelly. The Fiction Writer’s Handbook. Essay.
53. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Skin Trade. Memoir.
54. Athill, Diana. Stet: An Editor’s Life.
55. Houston, Jeanne. Farewell to Manzanar. Memoir.
56. Price, Richard. Lush Life. Fiction.
57. ______________. Clockers. Fiction
58. Atkinson, Kate. Started Early, Took My Dog. Fiction.
59. Mantell, Hillary. Wolf Hall. Fiction.
60. Fossum, Karen. Broken. Fiction.
61. Donoghue, Emma. Room. Fiction.
62. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Crackup. Memoir.
63. Fagan, Brian. Before California. History.
64. ____________. Fish on Friday. History.
65. ____________. Cro-Magnon: Portrait of an Ice Age People.
66. Harrison, Jim. A Return to Earth. Fiction.
67. Barnes, Julian. Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Memoir.
68. ______________. Levels of Life. Memoir.
69. ______________. The Sense of an Ending. Fiction.
70. Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. Memoir.
71. July, Miranda. It Choses You. Memoir.
72. Keaton, Diane. Then Again. Memoir.
73. McMurtry, Larry. Literary Life. Memoir.
74. _________________. Horseman, Pass By. Fiction.
75. Buckley, Christopher. Losing Mum and Pup. Memoir.
76. Dubus, Andre, III. Townie. Memoir.
77. Wolfe, Tobias. The Old School. Fiction.
78. _____________. This Boy’s Life. Autobiography/Memoir.
79. Proulx, Anne. Bird Cloud. Memoir.
80. _____________. The Shipping News. Fiction.
81. Richards, Keith. Life. Memoir.
82. Caro, Robert. The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Biography.
83. Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror. History.
84. Ruden, Sarah, (translator). The Golden Ass. Fiction
85. Gorra, Michael. Portrait of a Novel. Memoir.
86. Lawrence, D. H. Sons and Lovers. Fiction.
87. _______________. Studies in Classic American Literature. Essay.
88. Yardley, Jonathan. Second Reading. Essay.
89. Ford, Richard. Canada. Fiction.
90. Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Fiction.
91. ____________. Death Comes to the Archbishop. Fiction.
92. Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Biography.
93. Graves, Robert. I, Claudius. Fiction.
94. Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men. Fiction.
95. ____________________. Band of Angels. Fiction.
96. Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Fiction.
97. Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. Fiction.
98. O’Brien, Thomas. The Things They Carried. Fiction.
99. Johnson, Denis. Railroad Dreams. Fiction.
100. Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer. Essay.
101. Smiley, Jane. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel. Essay
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
There are times when your composition sessions are the literary equivalent of bird watching for a particular type of bird or a butterfly hunter's quest for a specific species. You are in effect stalking an ah ha-moment, hoping to trap it in the net of your imagination, then bring it to a page in your notebook or some file on your computer's harddrive.
Birds, butterflies, and ah ha-moments are in flight everywhere you look. Men, women, and children all about you are bringing them in. A friend of a friend even brought in three four-leaf clovers gleaned from an afternoon's walk.
The higher up the chain of collectible things you go, you reach a point where you move from the tangible bird or butterfly or four-leaf-clover to the more ethereal thing, the idea, the embodiment of a what-if question posed to the Cosmos. Such quests may provide you in time with tangible solutions to problems, discoveries of near genius. They may also lead you to the end point of your time for composition, your allotted time for capturing words, concepts, missions, agendas, ideas, when in fact you have nothing to show for your search. If you were another type of hunter or fisher, you'd either go hungry or eat Plan B, some canned or dried substitute for the sought after goal, be it bird, fish, or some form of mammal. In either case, whether you'd dined on Plan B or skipped dinner, you'd feel incomplete and thus frustrated, your demeanor tinged with frustration and disappointment.
Finding an ah-ha moment produces a range of tangible excitement and expectation; you are at once energized and aware of some transcendent force now humming within you, allowing you to see the universe much in the manner an astronaut is able to step outside a space vehicle, literally on the rim of a perspective rarely experienced by humans.
Friends who are artists rush to sketch or draw their moment. Musicians set down in recognizable symbols the thematic sound. You have words in your toolkit. You rush to use words to make the ah-ha moment as specific as possible before it fades from your vision.
Your own approach to such matters is to think the moment in however many directions the moment appears to have. Get as much of it down as you can, neither overthinking the matter nor pausing to recast impressions. You want a loose document, as complete as you know to expect under these first-tier circumstances. Fuelled by the excitement and energy of the material, you get as much as possible, continuing during the days to come to get date in however manner you are able, because this is a prospective project. There is neither guarantee not reason behind the project, it simply for the moment is.
At some point, if you listen closely, the material will begin to talk to you, a paragraph here suggesting a scene there, a detail suggesting an atmospheric event or souvenir. There could, you begin to understand, be something exciting to you embedded within the project. You might even have a sense of where and how the something of excitement will present itself.
Days later, you reach a point where you seem to be repeating material you've set down before. Some of the description or background begins to appear unuseful to you. The editing process has begun to visit you, wanting your attention. You give it, aware you have rarely felt so alone, so uncertain about this project.
You've reached one of the most trying times, where you only need to develop a purposeful and effective beginning, middle, and some form of closure. You need to do this with the only tools in your kit, words.
The whole of what you've learned by doing resides within you as you search for structure, pacing, point-of-view. Now you begin to think in other ways, the ways of technique and narrative integrity.
Alas, you have only words to help, but as you read what you've set down, you find you've been more formal than you intended, too defensive, perhaps too remote in ways that now seem to compromise the entire project. Another time through and the material is beginning to resonate a familiar force within you, the force of aptness, of turning both you and it inside out. You are doing this all with a matter of vocabulary, a few punctuation devices, and a good bit of the alchemy of words as they blend together to form more than mere sentences and paragraphs, rather to form characters, intentions, places, and things.
True to habit and practice, you set the material aside for a time, allowing it to give up its secrets good and evil.
Now you are back to it, curious, caught up in its implicit and explicit themes and story. Words leap out at you like snarling mosquitoes at a Midwestern picnic. To be sure, there are numerous right words and effects, but for the moment, you begin to wonder if language has betrayed you. Haven't you in fact used language to bring down a noble feeling and a first-rate project?
This is a curious and important time, where you are placing your craft on the line in all probability offered you because you did well enough in a previous project. This is your payoff for doing good previous work, but that was it. That was then, a wonderful then, where you felt power as you've not felt it before. You felt power whereby you could make the last project sing out in glorious counterpoint. But not this one.
You are chastened, humbled, perhaps even a bit frightened at the way words you were so secure about appear to have deserted you.
Now, you are a tad past the halfway mark, thinking how you cannot let this project meet betrayal. You find a place to strike a word, another place to transport sentences, still another way of having a character say something that causes you to believe the character is after all real and the venture has some possibility.
As for the venture, splendid though it still is, perhaps you are expecting too much from it, but there is a way about it you find compelling, and surely one more time of close reading cannot possibly hurt.
Monday, May 27, 2013
Not as though you needed reminding how living in a relatively small town plays out, nor indeed how living in a small town more closely replicates fiction. Nevertheless, living in a small town reminded you about fiction to the point where you were almost unable to enjoy a rather sumptuous Memorial Day party at which a great many of the guests were known to you because the atmosphere crackled with many of the elements of story.
The atmosphere was, in fact, so crackling that you were edging toward the exit, your car valet card already in your hand, before you were stopped by someone who was not your dean at the university but who nevertheless told you you were on for two courses in the Fall quarter, a conversation that took the edge off your departure and in the process made the prospect of a beer seem attractive.
You have lived in this small town over half your life. Let's say 53 percent. This is enough for you to have become aware of the profound changes in the city of your birth as well as your adopted city. Some of the individuals you know from this adopted small town are individuals with whom you have a history of thirty or, dare you say it, forty years. You are able to wax nostalgia relative to two places, a fact that takes you beyond time and into a kind of collective awareness of how things--you know, things--change.
Having reached such a stage, you have in common a friend, Fred Klein, whose ninetieth birthday is today and how you and some of those present at this evening's gathering know him from the days when the BEA (Book Exhibit of America) was the ABA (American Bookseller's Association) Convention, where publishers traditionally gather over this weekend to display their Fall list. This year's BEA is at the Javitts' Convention Center in New York.
When the BEA was the ABA, it was held at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C., thus another form of nostalgia for things Washingtonian such as Harvey's Restaurant, where one could get a superb diamondback terrapin soup. But not any more because there is no Harvey's any more.
You can discuss with friends you've known for at least thirty years--and indeed would discuss such things with Fred, were he here instead of New York (where people you know have in large measure stopped going because it isn't the same any more, either, only not in the same way Los Angeles is not the same or Santa Barbara stands vulnerable to becoming.
After all, what is now D'Angelo's Bakery on Gutierrez Street, used to be a roller skating rink, and one used to be able to see respectable Spanish language movies at the nearby theater on lower State Street.) that you have stopped thinking in terms of age because you know the secret of keeping yourself thrown into projects that matter to you to the point where you are not coping with hobbies in any sense of the way a retired person would be coping with time.
A number of you are looking toward the northeast, where traces of a fire manifest themselves on the horizon, sending a steady dusting of ash, dropping from the sky like miniature parachutists. One in your group watches such an ash, spidery and long, appear to decide which of two sleeves it will fall upon, then plucks the ash, drops it to the lawn, then brushes at the sleeve of a person he seems to have wanted to touch all along.
Each of you in the group is thinking about where he or she might have been during the last fire, where you were evacuated from your home on Hot Springs Road. A fire such as this, from the Sage Hill Campground, while by no means as virulent as the last significant fire, is still enough of a subtext for those watching its traces to be yanked back in memory to a time of another fire, which is in an ironic way, a nostalgia for famous fires of the past and a kind of gallows humor reflection on how modern fires are lacking some of the gravitas of past fires, and you reflect how this fire appears to have originated in China, to take advantage of cheaper labor costs.
There are, to be sure, individuals present at this gathering you do not know and variously introduce yourself or are introduced to. Such is the nature of small towns that when one individual you do not recognize asks someone if you are a poet, they are promptly shown the three past poets laureate of this small town in mitigation, then shown other poets before being told in no uncertain terms that you are not a poet. This is not meant with any noticeable rancor, only a good, small town sense of neatness. Conspicuous adjectives attached to you are short story writer, reviewer, essayist, teacher, novelist. But not poet.
This being a small town, there are tides of gossip ebbing and flowing, some of it rancorous as only gossip in a small town can be rancorous, which brings up a topic of conversation (total gossip in nature) relative to the agendas of a few persons present at this party and a few persons not present.
This is the last day of a holiday weekend, commemorating Memorial Day. You have had at least three conversations with other persons in which you agree to take up topics related to the agendas of others in more, shall we say small town modes, knowing you are not at all likely to have these conversations, which would not make anyone comfortable or, most important, better informed.
These are the seedlings and gardening tools of story, but these elements take significance only because of your vision of them. Vast quantities of food and drink have been prepared for this party, which uniformed serving persons have been at responsible and agreeable efforts to circulate. Rivalries, crossed purposes, secrets, and unflattering opinions have been shuffled and sorted, alluded to or, in one case where you held your tongue, kept in its carrying valise, like a cat being given a trip to the vet.
Some of the vast amounts of food and wine and beer will find their way to homes of the serving staff, where newer stories will begin forming and where, in the writing of this, you've made a toasted cheese sandwich to go with one of the bottles of ale residing in your refrigerator on this day in late spring in this small, small town.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
Even now, in its approximately ten percent of what was before moving here to Sola Street, your library contains numerous books written well before your birth. Some of its authors lived and wrote hundreds of years before your appearance. Other authors, you are pleased to note, were born well after you; some of these, you are even more pleased to note, were for a time students of yours.
The two books of your present collection you made special efforts to bring are two volumes you've had most of your life. The oldest, The Rand McNally Atlas of the World, its spine wobbly and tattered, was a Christmas gift to you, barely ten years old. Time has made of it a near work of fiction. Places it describes no longer exist. Descriptions no longer apply. Beyond its sentimental value as yet another tangible gift from your sister, this book drew you to it for hours of inspection and imagination, wondering if you would ever visit some of the places described or photographed.
Not long before being given this book, you'd traveled by auto across the United States, following the old Route 66 to its terminus, beyond which lay a sense of dread even though you'd heard your parents talking of Back East in terms of places, friends, and family. For the longest time--as long as you were there--Back East was an amalgam of things gone wrong. With the exception of a year living in Providence, Rhode Island, you needed to return to what you considered true home before you could reconnect in meaningful ways to Back East and what you might experience there or--for that matter--anywhere.
The second oldest book was a life-changing event. It, too, has parted company with its spine, its signatures held intact with the gauze and Kraft paper backing used for case binding in the days when it was manufactured. This book has twenty-four pages of front matter and 1178 of text. The great probability is that its price was less than the Atlas. Like the Atlas, it held you and your imagination in rapt fascination, indicating places you knew you'd have to visit, things you'd have to do, in many ways the person you'd try to become.
The book is The Favorite Works of Mark Twain. Thanks to the bounties of used book stores, you came close to having a complete set of all Twain's works, which you returned to over the years, your familiarity with the man growing with each revisit and with each connection or gleaning achieved with each revisiting. Two of these yet remain with you, The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It.
Thoughts of these books remind you of the incredible amount of factual and emotional information you got first from books, taking in the data and feelings as though they were absolutes, items to be learned if you were to be educated. Somewhere along the way, you began to see the way the spine on this logic had suffered as much as the spines on The Atlas and The Favorite Works, indeed any works.
Not to say you are smart or wise, but the difference between smart and wise is the difference between having a thing in memory and feeling its entirety to the point where it becomes muscle memory. Information without attached feelings of your own about them is the equivalent of the clutter in your room, "things" strewn about in ways that speak against useful retrieval.
The Atlas set you off on a journey of investigations of real and imaginary locales. The Favorite Works set you to looking at ways individuals both real and imagined could serve as larger examples of human conditions about you, eager, mischievous, and energetic as puppies and kittens, wishing to explore the worlds beyond them.
Books and reading are worthy companions, but they are no substitute for the adventures you must have in order to make the information something of your own.
Saturday, May 25, 2013
The laundry where you take your shirts has a policy of asking you if a particular day for picking up is convenient or if you'd prefer a rush service. In the years you have been using this particular laundry, you have never returned for your shirts on the precise date of delivery.
Some years back, in discussing the recovery time for a procedure he needed to perform on you, a surgeon suggested you'd need about six weeks to be back at your previous form.
Most automobile mechanics base their standard activities on a flat-rate book in which most regular tasks are broken down into a time frame.
Gardeners and plant nursery specialists have pretty solid estimates of various germination or blooming times.
Many such processes can be expressed in time frames of reliable accuracy. You're quite fond of reminding students how one keepable page a day will produce a reasonably sized novel a year. When making such statements, you often stop short of discussing the odds of getting a keepable page a day. Creative things have their germination time, this much is true, but some, William Faulkner's magisterial As I Lay Dying, for instance, was produced in just under six weeks. Donna Tartt's second novel required ten years.
From sublimity to ridiculous levels, there was a time when you lived at 3153-D Barbara Court in the Hollywood Hills, where you wrote a novel a month for at least a year. In the former cases, the works took the amount of time the author needed to access and then capture them. In the latter, a month was all the time you allowed yourself, although in some cases, you worked more than an eight-hour day. Of equal truth, in some cases, you worked less than an eight-hour day, thus the need for longer work days.
From about 1974 until early in 1980, you were editor in chief of the book division of a scholarly publisher where, even more than scholarly standards, adherence to schedules and a devotion to planning ahead were given high priority. This was management style. It was not your style, which in some way contributed to you not remaining in the employ of the publisher after 1980. If a project were completed before it was contracted and scheduled for publication, you had no difficulty keeping the process on track. Works presented and contracted in a partial state provided another set of logistics, starting with the author, the author's available time for writing, the author's need for additional research, the author's teaching schedule, and as an outlier, potential sources of relevant research becoming available that would have an impact on the finished project.
Perhaps the most significant reason your position with that publisher was terminated had to do with the polarity of rational versus subjective. A rational program is, first and foremost, rational. Such a program may well be orderly and smooth. Subjective approaches attract contingencies the way magnets draw iron filings. Neither approach is right, neither is wrong, but quite often, when schedules posited on rational platforms are not met, subjectivity will be seen by the rationalists as irrational. Rational visions will be seen by subjectivists as intransigent or perhaps inflexible or possibly even irrational. A significant mantra at this publishing venture held: Failing to plan is planning to fail. Your own approach respected the need to plan but warned of the dangers of too much time spent on planning and hypothicating.
In subsequent circumstances you found yourself in ironically reversed positions, where you were in fact calculating the costs in potential lost revenue based on a failure.
Plans profit from consistency and observation. Plans also profit from contingency scenarios. A Plan A without a Plan B is a potential train wreck, based on the theory that a single train, when derailed, can be the instrument or object of a wreck.
Time is a vital factor; it is also a variable rather than a static force. A day's work teaching may depend on the number of classes to be taught, the amount of material to be covered, the energy of the instructor and the students on a given day. A day's work of editing would, under some circumstances, be judged by the number of pages edited, but it could just as well depend on the insights gained by the editor for sharing with the writer. A day's work at writing could be the discovery of a character's name as well as it could be the completion of a tricky and cogent scene.
A day's worth of learning? Sometimes difficult to know what you've learned until you experience a day's work writing in which you drive yourself and your characters into an impossible moral or intellectual or artistic quandary, at which point, exhausted, you quit for the day, then come back tomorrow.
Friday, May 24, 2013
There are a number of ways of considering a group of actors or characters. Ensemble is a large enough umbrella to accommodate enough of these definitions with enough shelter to keep them from being rained upon by some possibiity you've forgotten or not considered at all.
You're particularly fond of a definition that would include a consistent group of performers, taking on different dramatic options. As well, you like the implication that the performers are of more or less the same rank of importance, with one performer, as an example, taking the minor part of, say, a delivery person in one venture then moving on to a lead role in a sub sequent work.
This will not be the first time you've linked such ensemble acting troupes to the human psyche. In your own ensemble, you frequently switch roles, doubling as a hot-headed teen-ager and a simulacrum of a university professor or, dare you say it, a mature writer. You are alternately liberal and conservative so far as money management matters obtain, patient and understanding but also well able to perform roles where acting-out impatience is called for.
As your awareness and appreciation of the self-as-ensemble metaphor enhances upon itself, you also find yourself auditioning for various roles that occur to you from time to time, going in to auditions cold, which is to say with little practical experience except for the occasional fantasy, or some painful memory of having taken such a role in real life only to have bungled it or not given it as complete a go as you'd been able.
In some profound ways, you can suppose your writing life is the equivalent of making up for missed opportunities, over-the-top performances or under-realized ones. Of those two potentials, you don't yet know which is the worst, only that you are aware of a restraint and reliance on spontaneity hovering somewhere, inches beyond your grasp.
At those times when you try to give face and specificity to these fancies, you try to cast them, using actors from your and earlier generations. Thinking about some of your choices, you see the emerging pattern in which you are more a character actor, your choices occupying a wide swath of the ensemble that is you.
Frequent appearances as representing you are John Carradine, whom you appreciate for his exaggerated ham actor, also the fine Russian actor, Mischa Auer, Akim Tamirof, John Barrymore, and two character actors with whom you had significant friendships, Grant Withers and Denver Pyle. With the exception of these last two, the performances of the others were chosen when they were portraying exaggerations.
Even in those fledgling days, you were aware these aspects of you were exaggerations. You wanted to become a ham actor, which is to say you wished to emote, intent on copying a style out of currency by at least fifty years. No wonder you needed to get beyond this place, recognizing what you came to consider restraint with dignity in the unachievable stage persona of Gregory Peck. Nevertheless, it is good to have such a role model, someone to aspire to, in a true sense being content to reach any level at all of approximation.
There are also within your personal ensemble, such aspects as both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, not to forget the antic-ridden Marx Brothers. But most haunting of all the inner actors of your troupe is the masterful performance of Laurence Olivier as the disgruntled comic, Archie Rice, in John Osborne's The Entertainer. Such aching and wonderful subtext here, both in the performance and the character.
You required a considerable amount of effort and insight to be able to direct these inner selves while at the same time imparting a touch of you more than mere copying, rather some small injection of some part of you. You require still even more effort to effect the understanding that being is beyond performing. Being is a presence, genuine, motivated, aware. Being is a state in which you are beyond role models and mentors, where you have close read the part and have chosen the unnamed side of you to carry the self onto the stage and step beyond performance, into being you.
The same skills are called for in whatever you write.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
The name for the condition that calls your attention away from its focus on a particular thing is distraction.Under normal circumstances, reality is as filled with distractions as a cheap hotel with cockroaches. In reality we--you among them--are so used to distractions that we grow tolerant of them. Perhaps we even reach the point of distracting ourselves from a focus because we are so grown used to being distracted that the stage of focus becomes abnormal.
Story is another matter. Story thrives on focus. In the same way a powerful hitter in baseball is said to have a good batting average, a gifted storyteller produces narrative without distractions. A good writer, in comparison with a so-so writer, is a person with a high story focus average.
There are myriad ways to insert distractions into stories. These ways distractions come from habits begun when we were learning language, being taught its nuances and subjected to words and tropes considered eloquent or possessed of gravitas. In some cases, cultural ornaments seep into our narrative stream and need to be captured before the narrative is allowed to progress beyond the fourth or fifth draft.
In story, a distraction may be a small word, something that sends the reader scurrying into some kind of question or comparison, resulting in the narrative flow of the story screeching to a halt. What was that word? Why was that word used here? Why would this particular character say a thing like that at a time like this?
We turn to story for any number of reasons, one of singular importance being our wish to avoid an atmosphere of distraction. We turn to story to be led, sometimes down the metaphoric garden path, which is to say seduced away from a more questioning standard of belief or logic. We turn to story with a strong narrative pull, which is to say a shimmering presence where we have scant awareness of the words and more a focused presence within the dramatic lines of movement and inquiry. We are asking the same questions as we sense the characters asking, feel the presence of the same motives we sense to be the ones governing the characters.
Oh, well, a character says, and we say--at least you say--who would say such a thing in a story? Only individuals in reality say such things and thus we are reminded once again of the reality the story is trying so hard to distract us from. Thus we have become distracted by a distraction from an artificial world. Such distractions may be the imputation of motives that do not seem appropriate, logic that seems tortured or at a great reach, or based on some premise we cannot connect with the character who seems to be emitting it.
The focus on revisions and editing leads you to suggest the processes are in effect the removal of distractions, Any word or trope that disrupts the smooth progress of focus is a target for editing, for deletion or for being converted into a less obvious synonym.
There are times when you find yourself in reality, looking about for things that draw your attention away from some inner focus, some existential problem you're worrying away at. Often the distraction is a strident voice, the offender equally male or female. At other times, the voice wouldn't be so distracting except for its loudness, or some idiosyncratic speech mannerism you find to be an irritant.
Other times, distractions emerge when you are eavesdropping on a conversation, either because it is too interesting to ignore or so irritating that it has pulled you away from some other line of investigation. The irritant is the logic, which requires mountain goat leaps. Thus you can and do become irritated and distracted when logic eludes you.
Such moments do not--cannot--count as actual writing but they count as being research; they alert you to related gaps in your own narrative. They alert you to potential mischief up ahead if you continue in the way you seem to be headed, not somehow insuring the integrity and precision of each word you set down then come back later to question.
A single, effective sentence seems an easy task to achieve, but only after it has been captured and examined for the literary equivalent of fleas. Sometimes, in rereading, a sentence will strike you as silly or banal or inappropriate; it will impress you as being false, ill-made, simply not true.
In a similar manner, some batters in baseball have the knack of fouling off pitches not to their liking. Each sentence has an optimal length, sound, meaning, and texture.
There are no accidents in story. Some things may appear unplanned, but by this constant process of combing, suspecting, refining, you've built a certain ability to spot these accidents, recognize them for the effectiveness they bring, then sign them up for the big leagues. What once may have been an accident has been vetted, examined for fit, welcomed into the narrative line with open adjectives.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Your early preferences for humor leaned toward the physicality of silent film comics, vaudeville comics, and actors whose patter was a thematic linking of jokes. As you progressed, your preferences began to focus more on actors whose physicality tended more to gesture and timing rather than such overt activities as pies in the face, pushing, shoving, and pratfall.
You were well along in your twenties before you realized you'd for some time been drawn to reading stories where the intent was the take-down of parody and, ultimately, satire. The more such things you read, the more you felt an attraction away from your favorite visual comics, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton and Chaplin, into the more plausible everyday-ness of literature. As if in conflict with your emerging preferences, you began to haunt in particular the silent movie theater on Fairfax, not far from your old high school.
All about you, you were feeling kinships with things you thought funny but could scarcely identify to your satisfaction. Thus the sense of being distant from real seriousness, a kind of remoteness from gravitas. "When," many of your friends and acquaintances said, "are you going to write something serious?"
Such questions produced an immediate sense of anger. You were being serious in your pursuits, but lacked the ability to articulate much less see the object of your search. One day, in your brief career as an actor on live TV dramas, you became lost on a complex set for a Playhouse 90 drama in which you were to go from one set to another within a matter of a few minutes. You made a wrong turn and came face to face with a great idol of yours, Buster Keaton, who blinked at your predicament and said, "Take it easy, kid. We all get lost from time to time."
In many ways, that became a mantra which, repeated and considered in some detail, led you to see that there were ties between slipping on a banana peel or being hit in the face with a pie, being lost, and experiencing loss. Comedy gave way to humor. Humor became the personification of loss, despair, and things not being as easy to achieve as you'd thought, then hoped you could somehow manage. Somewhere in the back of humor is the embers of the fire of despair and hopelessness. Humor in many ways is the default condition when certainty begins to look not so certain, then borders on becoming uncertain, then illusion.
On many occasions, you've heard rendered as a verdict the fact that some particular thing was not funny. A good fifty percent of the time, you agreed with the assessment because you felt the attribution of humor is sometimes offered as a defense or excuse for being insensitive, bigoted, or cruel. The other fifty percent of the time, you found yourself doubled up with mirth. You watch carefully, sometimes unable to break with cultural conventions you yourself believe to be bigoted, racial, sexist, entitled, trying to articulate your way to as pure a sense of humor as you can achieve.
If you can laugh your way around, through, and beyond despair, you still remain in the game of getting some life lived, experienced, digested without becoming in fact the exact sorts of targets you use humor to take down. When your impatience, anger, intolerance, and misunderstandings of situations lead you into dark corners, the light of humor shows you ways of avoiding those pitfalls--next time. You're only too willing this time to pay the toll, which is laughing at yourself.
There were and are times of despair relative to your writing. Can you work your way through with laughter and a potential for understanding? Despair leads to stopping. Laughter leads to continuing. Despair leads to a refusal to look in the mirror. Humor leads to polishing the mirror, the better to articulate the flaws.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
"It is a truth universally acknowledged," Jane Austen tells us as she exposes us to her fictional romp, Pride and Prejudice, "that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
In that memorable opening sentence, Austen is playing some of us, those who take her at her word, accepting her observation without question, while others in our midst might apply a the more cynical question, Why buy a cow when milk is so cheap? A single man in possession of a good fortune may indeed be in want of a wife, but perhaps not just yet. And perhaps not ever.
Under many circumstances, virtue can be its own reward, although that observation may be seen as being of equal ambiguity to Austen's statement. Although virtue can in fact prove rewarding, the questions persist: Who is being virtuous? What is that individual being virtuous about? Who is witness to the virtue being enacted? Virtue, when taken to the merest extreme, can reveal a prig, a naif, an individual out of contact with reality.
Besides all that, what is virtue? Among other things, virtue is moral excellence. Our Western, Christian-based ethos has gone so far as to offer seven virtues, offered as the positive side of the equation in opposition to the seven deadly sins. Chastity ranks high as a virtue. So do temperance or restraint, humility, charity, and kindness. Although these were and are held forth as personal goals, they are not recognizable as having dramatic potency unless exaggerated almost to the point of absurdity.
Now we arrive at the nest level of "Besides all that..." With all these qualities and traits floating about in our remarkable English language, what do these terms mean? How do we define them in practical, livable terms? Don't we need to set them in dramatic motion against their polar opposites to provide them a more discernible clarity?
Thus, What is meaning?
The thrust of story is to provide a landscape for such concepts, ideas, and circumstances in order to illustrate their meaning to the point where we can identify them, decide if they are at all attractive, then enlist in a course of action which will make our own life more congruent with them.
If this is so (and you happen to believe it is), the collective we you've been aware of, and you in particular, have spent much time, effort, and thought trying to line up life force and personal philosophy with shadow individuals invented by writers with various motives for telling story.
Small wonder so many societies--including non-literate ones who rely on oral tradition and crude drawings or symbols--take refuge in story. If we (and you) are not careful, we (and you) are vulnerable to control by story.
If we take the step of comparing our fantasy visions to story, we could be on our way to becoming the very Big Brother George Orwell was warning us about when he contrived the story of 1984. In this manner, we'd be engaging ourselves in a perpetual war, most likely one waged against self-education or at least, reason. We'd be propagandizing ourselves with rationale to support belief in the system holding us in thrall by keeping us fearful of experiment and a simple but basic demand for an explanation.
Austen wanted and wrote toward the comedic ending, where single men in possession of a good fortune not only wanted a wife, they wanted one whose virtues (and other qualities) transcended class and were in fact often from a less privileged social rank.
Again with the question, What is meaning?
Meaning is a series of bundles of dramatic information selected and placed in specific order with the goal of producing one or more recognizable emotions. Meaning is a condition we attempt to provide by the way we live, behave, and believe.
Sometimes, in attempts to to extract meaning from your life to the point of understanding, you find yourself wishing to go back over incidents and experiences, testing the ways of interpreting them. Other times, meaning is something best shared through the enthusiasms of story. In those times, life plus enthusiasm is your own equivalent of music, which is yet another window on the rainbow of feeling.
Monday, May 20, 2013
The first time you're aware of hearing the word "struggle" was at its use by your mother, who was at the time in a state you later learned was called "exasperation."
Annie was a splendid cook, who came by her talents without any apprenticeship, rather through her own ingenuity and her ardent desire to please her Jake, first and foremost, but then you and your sister got in on the process.
You were all affected by what has been called The Great Depression, the economic one. Annie's struggle was, as she put it, finding ways to make interesting meals on a whimsical budget. Those times are long past, but you still flinch at the sight of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and Kraft dinner, which was an atrocity committed on macaroni and cheese. In later years, perhaps as some sort of revenge, Annie made a creditable macaroni that makes you sigh at its memory.
The next memory of struggle is the one you most associate with the word, although there has been for some time a secondary meaning with growing resonance. Struggle to you represents the iconic Marxist clash between working class and management, of miners struggles for safer working conditions, of overtime for a more-than-forty-hour work week, of collective bargaining, of the right to form unions, of respect for the working classes, indeed, of respect for the value of work.
Neither of your parents were activists in the formal sense, but your father, having fallen in the Great Depression, from the ranks of the highly affluent and respective of his employees to the hardscrabble of trying to excel at whatever job he could find, was sympathetic in his consideration of the worker's dignity.
You recall being taken to the now defunct and paved over Gilmore Stadium (Just north of the Farmer's Market at Third and Fairfax http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBk_wiU86hg) on May 19, 1947, to hear the then Vice President of the United States, Henry A. Wallace, speak, to hear him use the word struggle, to get some sense that he and, later, individuals like him stood tall in your estimation. You also heard the filled Gilmore Stadium roar its approval at a speech about human rights and dignity given by Katherine Hepburn.
In what was to be a turn of irony, your interest in struggles remained political long enough to have you following the civil war in Spain, then turn to reading Steinbeck and his investigations of working classes at so many levels. With a forged ID and the now creditable stature of six feet, three inches, you were able to find your way into another long gone bit of Los Angeles history, the Garden of Allah, (Sunset Boulevard, between Crescent Heights and Havenhurst) where F. Scott Fitzgerald was known to frequent. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvAk5-RTR0w). Here, in the cocktail lounge, you had frequent conversations with a man named Frank Fowler, a writer who later changed his name to Borden Chase. Still Fowler, he'd been a driver for a gangster named Frankie Yale, then a cab driver, then a sandhog, a worker employed in the building of the Holland Tunnel, connecting New York and New Jersey.
Chase conflated and helped you conflate struggle with story, his novels and screenplays showing workers under pressure from external conditions as well as physical ones. He was often surrounded by wannabe writers and you had to wait for your chances, but the most memorable chance of all was the night you realized he, a sturdy and controlled drinker, was growing more conversational. "Gonna tell you a secret, kid. Gonna tell you how I got the idea for my biggest success yet."
Sensing pure discovery with no risk on your part, because you had nothing he could possibly have wanted, you waited.
"You know Mutiny on the Bounty, kid?"
A nod from you.
He grinned. They don't get it. My Red River? They don't fucking get it. John Wayne doesn't fucking get it. Nobody gets it. Red River is Mutiny on the Bounty, only mine is on horseback. The struggle is the same. The characters and stakes are different."
This series of meetings with Fowler/Chase ended while you were still a student at UCLA. The Garden of Allah was gone from reality by June of 1959.
Your struggles with story were still in their formative stages. You arm-wrestled with story as though it were the Roadrunner and you Wile E. Coyote, thus you lived for some time in the buttes and mesas of your own despair and isolation. One day, on some now forgotten project, you saw Story as Roadrunner, dancing past you again, and you experienced a glimmer of understanding.
The struggle is never over.
When struggle is gone, story is gone.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
There are two classes of individuals you're aware of, real persons and characters. Many characters seem realer to you than real people do. Some of this has to do with the fact that characters are less insulated than real people, they're meant to be known on some primal level, even if their part in the story tends to be mysterious and devious.
Real people are more wrapped in goals, defenses, and protective coating, many of which relate to their survival but not to a particular story in which they happen to be involved. Real persons, you included, tend to be juggling stories. Characters have fewer plates to juggle, fewer stories. You've become used to editing out distractions in story, but you cannot always edit out distractions in real life.
On occasion, you try to schedule your distractions, thus there are times for classes, time for editing, and time for writing. But writing has grown more insistent, wanting more from you. For instance, it wants you to read more, to spend more time practicing, even beyond the practicing this blog site is in terms of practice. Writing wants you to do the equivalent of the Western gambler, shuffling the cards, manipulating the deck, dealing yourself hands, figuring the odds on the possibilities remaining in the deck. This is not the sort of thing you have a memory for. You remember persons from real life and you remember persons from stories you've read and stories you've written.
Back when you first read Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, you felt a tingle of familiarity because, as the script writer did in the novel, you were doing a number of things simultaneously, trying to gain strength in a number of differing media, trying to finish things dearest your heart, sometimes seeming to forget who went where, which character belonged to which story. Those times were too much like real life to allow you the ease to take the risks needed to develop the strengths you needed.
Small wonder you have just put Aunt Julia and the Script Writer on a reading list for a course you hope to give at the University either this Fall or in the Spring Quarter. You want to somehow transfer the tingle of association to students you don't yet know, young men and women who need to be put in danger of having writing want more of them than they have time to give.
Until recent years, you always wanted things from it. Now the tables are turned and it wants things from you, making it clear that it has carried you, but now comes time for payback. You're asked to read with more care, write with more care, practice numerous exercises when you're out and about. You're asked to take more notes, spend more time putting together backgrounds for characters who may have only the briefest appearance, write alternate appearances than the ones you've planned for them, all the time watching their responses.
You're required to find new ways to turn up the heat on each and every one of your characters. You're asked to make lists of characters you can recall who seem more alive and motivated than persons you know from real life.
A character is a real person, edited down to pure, mean agenda and a dark side that wants results now. No long, leisurely post-doctoral research grants. Rather, a crash course, an immersion in research that is a product of writing and reading and thinking, not the way you think but the way a writer thinks.
A real person wishes to be more like a character, caught up in the fast lane, but there are all these distractions to be dealt with. Characters remind you of two visiting young classical musicians you overheard poolside when you were a member of the Montecito Y. They were in their late twenties or early thirties, man and woman. They'd been in a series at the Music Academy and an additional performance at the Arlington Theater with a major visiting Symphony, conducted by a major conductor. They sounded like kids, talking about the fact that they'd soon have enough money to live in Europe and hire a financial advisor. Characters are overpowered by something springing from a desire or an ability they've disciplined but not controlled.
In Hamlet, the young price at one point says, "Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all." In its way, writing makes characters of us all. We are driven by some portions of our calling and have spent so much time at achieving any measure at all of the craft that we are in effect stunted in emotional growth, struggling to catch up with the adult world about us, regardless of our chronological age.
You'd think being a teen-ager once would be enough.
You'd think that, but you'd be a writer thinking it instead of an adult, say an adult who works as teacher or editor.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Your next door neighbor, at 415 E. Sola Street, is Fire Station Number 3. Construction was begun in 1918. By 1929, it was completed, following the architectural footprint of Santa Barbara whereby it had an unmistakable Spanish appearance. A long driveway to its northern side leads to a spacious back yard in which an adjunct of the animal shelter shares occupancy.
Although you've visited the Fire Station on numerous occasions, the result of conversations and greetings initiated while you were entering or leaving your car, you've never had occasion to visit the animal shelter. You hear dogs from time to time. Because of the location of your apartment and the configuration of the Animal Shelter, there is a potential for you hearing dogs from time to time. Difficult to imagine circumstances where any given dog would welcome being a guest at the animal shelter, thus much of what you hear is in the nature of a canine complaint.
Thursday, at about five in the afternoon, when you were leaving for your six o'clock class at the University, you heard such a dog from the Animal Shelter, bark twice. It was the type of bark Sally was wont to make when she was impatient with you for not doing something she'd have preferred you to have done with more dispatch. Not only was it the type of irritation, it was the sound of her irritation. For a moment, you were stranded in time by the sound and the memory of Sally's barks, which seemed to you to be saying the equivalent of "Hey, you forgot me."
You stopped, a step or two beyond your gate. Sally had been gone only a month. Aural hallucinations need no explanation when only a month out. Aural hallucinations in fact need no explanations at any remove.
Often, particularly at night, when you are aware of a fire engine moving out onto Sola Street and then toward its assigned target, you are no longer on 409 East Sola Street, and the Fire Station is no longer at 415. You are instead in your room on Calle Mesones (big tables) in the section of Districto Federal known as El Centro, hearing las lloronas, the criers, of fire engines, rushing to nearby targets, to the clatter and nightly attitudes of a narrow-but-busy city street. Spanish words you forgot you knew return to you, and you are transported.
Much is made of visual hallucinations; you are indeed one of the makers, attempting to create visual impressions through your writing and, in case you hadn't realized it, through your reading. You're fond of announcing to various of your students how there are two basic types of stories, and two basic approaches to the perception of story. The two basic types are The Hero's Journey and The Stranger in Town. The two basic perceptions are visual and aural. Some individuals see the story they are in the process of writing. When they read their own work or the work of other writers, they see the events. Other individuals, such as you, hear voices. You hear a disembodied narrative voice, just as often female as male. The gender is the least important aspect; the tone of the voice, hurried, nervous, sarcastic, angry, ebullient--all these are the important factor; they are the tone of the story.
Much of your non-writing time is spent in some kind of preparation for writing. You look about you for small things, not knowing where they will take you in your associative state which seems to you to be the equivalent of your muse. You listen for sounds about you, aware from your frequent visits to these blog notes of the numerous times you're made aware of disagreeable voices in the background of whatever reality you happen to be inhabiting at the moment.
You look for and achieve visions of individuals real and imagined doing things they might not do in Reality, thus their attraction for you. The moment they seem movable from Reality to your Suppose landscape, they are in fact auditioning, playing scenes for you, improvising to see if there is chemistry between them and, of course between them and you.
You hear voices, a sign thought at one time to be a leading indicator of a tendency toward insanity. Didn't Joan hear voices? Didn't many of your fictional heroes and heroines hear voices? Didn't your mentor, Rachel, tell you she heard voices? And didn't your eyes well up when you heard this because you also heard them and were relieved to know there was yet another connection between what you wanted to do and someone who was already doing what you wanted to do?
Seeing visions and hearing voices may break your heart, but your chosen craft has broken your heart any number of times, often for real reasons but as often for reasons you'd inflated beyond the norm.
Hearing Sally the other day, asking if you'd deliberately forgotten her was the kind of heartbreak these aural hallucinations provide. Sometimes, in your dreams, you get the equivalent of a sound track, a musical track. Years after the fact, in dreams, you are at Ken's Hula Hut on Beverly Boulevard, with your pal, Sonny Criss on alto, Teddy Edwards on tenor, Hamp Hawes on piano, Clark Terry trumpet, playing what seemed to you quintessential '50s bebop, "Sunset Eyes." This, too, breaks your heart, in part because you'd remembered the sound and the drive. Bebop and youth and throwing away the then harmonic conventions of swing and late 40s jazz--added heartbreak.
Not long ago, you are walking down State Street toward The French Press for a quick latte. A woman stops you. "Where," she asks, "do I know you from, because I know that I know you?"
She is old enough to be a contemporary, so you go to the A-mantra. Fairfax (for high school), City College (on the off chance) UCLA(on the larger chance). "Of course," she says. Then she tells you your name and she's spoken enough words and you've started the search and identify process which brings forth her name. She nods and tells you what her name has become, but you are seeing and hearing hallucinations of her, the same kind of her as the music of your bebop dreams and your heart, for a moment, experiences a wrench because when you'd first known her, you recall now, there was your hallucination, not hers, that there could have been something between you.
"Did you come here to retire?" she asks. Not an unusual question. People do come here to retire.
"What ever became of you?" she asks. "What did you end up doing?"
And you tell her, you've been exerting all your efforts to discover the answer to that very question.
Friday, May 17, 2013
During one long stretch of time, story ended with a number of loose ends being tied, often as a build-up to the even more symbolic union of marriage between two characters from differing backgrounds and attitudes. Thus the comedic ending, the bringing on stage of compromise, peace, accord. all of these perfect endings for sermons or tales with embedded and symbolic morality.
Some readers who may have been neutral developed a thick, questioning hide, suspecting how real life could supply only so few comedic endings in comparison to the more immediate vagueness and uncertainty of ambiguity. How long would the combatants in a feud remain without squabble? How long would the good guys continue winning merely because God or Right or Moral Probity were on their side? And what about, How long can we get away with ignoring the darker sides of the human condition while trying simultaneously to imply that dark side stories produce dark side persons while bright side stories produce god-fearing, respectful sorts?
Such endings became targets for men and women who saw through the propaganda, who refused to drink the metaphorical Kool-aid, that flavored sugar powder to which one added water and ice cubes to accomplish the kind of drink a young person would enjoy.
Except that now, young persons seem to have become another metaphor, the tail, wagging the dog. For the better part of fifty years, YA literature has been the go-to place for encounters with major moral, social, and emotional boundaries. YA novels have supplied considerable weight to arguments being expressed by persons of good heart and mind, searching for something beyond mere answers, pushing at boundary and envelope, and tradition, or any other barrier that might get in the way. The object of the search more often than not has been discovery, perhaps even enlightenment.
For the moralist and fabulists, endings were rigid in their optimism and sense of obligation to some higher power than the presumptuous brain we are most of us equipped from birth onward. From YA novelists and beyond, we begin to see stories based more on the uncertainty, fragile nature, and vagueness of contemporary life.
Writers producing materials they intend for a yet more sophisticated audience have been notable in their focus on the YA novel, introducing characters and themes representative of a number of contemporary dart boards. We hear them from time to time as they discuss the growing awareness of YA readers, and we see from them a near unified front relative to a major modern narrative aspect, the thrust of ambiguity.
Ambiguity is uncertainty in action and embedded in the surrounding landscape as that lack of confident awareness relates to motive. Ambiguity grasps on to modern story, reflecting the contemporary arguments in all their often complex splendor. When the arguments appear a bit too staged or managed, readers will be sure to become suspicious, asking for the fairness of ambiguity rather than absolutism.
These arguments take most of us away from story and plunk us in among the angry, the frustrated, and those trying to claim moral highground by backing a well-lubricated campaign of religion.
You take sides with those who believe ambiguity is a vital presence because it both allows and then forces the robust reader to make choices, assumptions, and commitments. You want the reader to own his or her vision of the story being read, and to imagine a deep argument with the author of the work regarding the meanings of the most ambiguous aspects of the story.
The clearer and cleaner the ending, the more dramatic shortcuts the writer has taken. The more wiggle room for the characters, the more the reader will begin to suspect the author of having hit a buried treasure of potential embarrassment to all sides competing in the story.
If the ending seems too clear, don't trust it. The moment the ending provokes you to say, "Wait a minute. What about all that propaganda?" the greater the probability the writer has created a universe with close ties to reality.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
You reach for a box of old photos or a journal on the top shelf of the closet or high up in a cabinet where things are stored. The object of your search is there and available. But as as you remove it, something hidden on top of it dislodges, tumbles, catches you on top of the head.
Congratulations. You've described nostalgia.
Think of nostalgia as a form of homesickness, of affectionate regard for a past time or place, or person, or even many persons. Trouble is, with the warmth of memory comes the bittersweetness of distance, remove, perhaps even regret, spreading out before you like a cup of coffee spilled on your morning newspaper.
Nostalgia is sentimentality personified, a journey down the memory road to a past you miss while, at the same time, understand is irretrievable. You cannot recall the last time you've been back to Virginia City, Nevada although there is enough nostalgia to have caused you to dream of being there at least twice this year. The fact of writing this could even trigger another such dream, where the place is as romantic in setting as you felt it to be when you were a more regular visitor.
You know why you do not return. Thanks to pictures on its web site, augmenting the inexorable movement of time, you know not to expect anything resembling what it was, nor can you expect to recognize persons whom you know there. The Virginia Citians you'd see, should you go, would be a new generation, a generation of others. You'd be another tourist to them. A deadly chemistry would find its way into conversations. Rituals would not conjure the same atmosphere much less the results of old times.
Nostalgia is correctly used as a state of being or condition experienced most often by humans. If you were to humanize it, speak in terms of what it wants, you'd be committing a tort called the pathetic fallacy. Doing this, you observe how nostalgia wants you focused on the good old days, the rituals you performed or witnessed being performed then, with individuals you were with at the time.
Nostalgia wants to make you yearn for past times, allows you do do so, then yanks the table cloth from under the dishes with a deft, wicked snap, leaving you with a sense of loss, both of a particular time and its accouterments and of the overall passage of time.
The memorable poet, William Carlos Williams, wrote any number of memorable poems, but one in particular results for you because of those three opening lines before the payoff:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
So much depends on where and who you were when you first experienced nostalgia. You were barely into double digits of age and you were homesick for California, filled with nostalgia for it and the places you'd come to know even though you did not at the time understand why the places meant so much to you. You'd have nightmares in which you were somehow unable to leave Florida.
Your nostalgia was for being outside on the street in Los Angeles, where the season was close to what it is now, and you were with friends, with no clue that you'd soon grow apart from most of them. Your definition of friend was different than it has become over the years. The big draw was the way twilight seemed to hang on the evening and conversation, such as it was, flickered like dreams so reaching and exquisite that they were painful to recall.
The nostalgia list has grown in logarithmic progression over the years away from that residential north-south street in the mid-Wilshire District of Los Angeles, although you can still feel that not-yet-dark quality, the smells of jasmine and the crepe paper appearance of the jacaranda trees. At one point, you squeezed your eyes shut to hear fragments of differing conversations, many of them as filled with inaccuracy as only the conversations of young boys can flaunt accuracy.
These days, your nostalgia is more for friends you've grown apart from in a more basic, primal sense of living and not living. Your current cat reminds you of a first cat whom, in much innocence, you took to Virginia City twice. He, in his own innocence, allowed you to do so
You are experiencing some nostalgia for books you read at special ages. These were books you could not read the same way again. Those books and the things you wrote shimmer in the nostalgia of evenings in the twilight and advancing darkness. One constant remains, the uncertainty of what waits for you on up ahead, the ahead of then and the ahead of now.
Time is making a story of you, setting you into a conversation with a past that was looking for a future you have to pry out of your own sense of nostalgia.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
For as long as you can remember, individuals in your life have approached you with the question, "Can you keep a secret?"
In the early years, you took the mater with serious intent. After all, it was your word, and you understood on some abstract, nonverbal level how important a matter it was for you to keep your word.
As time passed, you began to see the difficulty in keeping secrets. Your reasoning that you were not so trustworthy as you'd first thought, explained your distrust of telling secrets to others or listening to theirs.
With additional passage of time, you began to suspect that knowing the secrets about your characters gave you a greater sense of power over them than the simple fact of you having been their creator. You invented secrets about many of them, wondering how long you could go without revealing the made-up secret about the made-up character.
Secrets are in effect withheld information, facts, opinions, details not meant for public consumption. Secrets are in greater effect hidden bits of information. Every secret has a gatekeeper. The modern secret has the equivalent of the bouncer, the guard behind the braided rope at a cafe or restaurant, meant to keep some out while allowing others inside.
You like the notion of keeping information secret from readers as long as possible, allowing them to discover--along with you--things the characters discover as the story progresses or perhaps have known all along, but see no reason to air them.
The notion of secrets buried within a story intrigues you; although much of your life is an open book, you do have some secrets. Here is the most intriguing part, the question of whether you are in some manner keeping secrets from yourself.
Because you theorize a self composed of a multitude of separate personality centers, you find it convenient to refer to yourself at appropriate moments as a congress or parliament, on occasion even borrowing the Southerner's "y'all" or the more formal you all. You try to run a transparent self.
You can bury some of the attitudes and events for which your memories are not fond or wishing to become more prevalent, but because you did these things in the past or did not do them, you try to invite them all to the negotiating table. There, you offer them a vote or a few moments at the podium to address the rest and perhaps convince us to return to the old ways. Thus you are not with any conscious deliberation hiding skeletons in the closet. But nevertheless, the question emerges from time to time: What secrets are you keeping from yourself? And if there are any, are you merely withholding them as you do in story, waiting for the most expeditious moment to bring them forth.
Your late pal, Barnaby Conrad, confided many secrets with you, treating you each time as though you were some kind of emotional hidden security box at a bank. Almost without exception, having sworn yourself to secrecy, you'd discover individuals about whom the secret was composed, speaking openly about it. After a few of these situations, you invented the secret that you knew each time he swore you to secrecy, you'd find others aware of it within a matter of days.
Sometimes when in conversation with a friend, he or she will catch you smiling, then ask, "What's funny?"
You confess. "I'm trying to imagine what secrets you might have."
Once, when you did that, the individual said, "I know what you're going to get for a birthday present."
Another time, a friend said, "I'm thinking of dedicating my next book to a cat"
And yet again, a friend said it was her secret that she hated spinach.
Your most significant secret might be the fact of you having friends with strange secrets.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
When someone tells you to take your time, your first thought is to replay the suggestion for irony or the irony on steroids that is sarcasm. In similar fashion, when you hear someone advancing the theory that time will tell, your first impression is to wonder what exact thing it is that time will tell.
When you are asked to do something or it is made clear to you that you ought to do some particular thing with all deliberate speed, you cannot help wondering if you will have the time to do it and then, after a brief calculation, the added wonder of what thing you will need to cancel or reschedule or avoid all together in order to do the thing you were asked or importuned to do.
You return to the subject of time with some regularity, not only in regard to your personal schedule and your professional agendas but also relative to time being the common thread in dramatic writing, music, photography, oil, acrylic, and watercolor painting. There are other places such as dancing, acting, and cooking (as in hours in the over on stove top).
A simple sentence, "Time is running out" can assume any number of interpretations starting with as insignificant a deadline as a discount coupon at a store having a deadline, Time can be running out on a warranty, a parking meter, the use-by date on a carton of milk and the deadline time for ordering French toast made from brioche dough at Renaud's Patisserie in either the Loreto Plaza or the small mall across State Street from the Arlington Theater.
Time is running out can mean there is a greater statistical probability that your lifespan will not be as extensive as it was ten years ago, not that you are looking all that dreadful, rather than you are ten years farther down the line of probability. At such times, there is a good gulp of royalty in the speculation that you could be hit by a bus or truck tomorrow, even though there might be no statistical probability for you to be hit by a truck or bus tomorrow.
Time for a haircut, time to pick up the laundry, time to clean out Goldfarb's litter box, time to get service on your car. Time to get serious. No time for fools. No time for fooling around, a sentiment that brings forth thoughts of time to get serious, no more fooling around, time to get to work.
Works of art do remarkable things with time, freezing segments of it or capturing the essence of time passing quickly or in slow motion.
When the time comes, we'll be ready or we will not be ready. When the time comes, we'll understand or find out or discover or be sorry or be elated with joy. If there is no time like the present to do something, there is the moment when the good times are over, the time to pay the piper, and a time to take a stand.
This time you mean business in a way you did not mean business all those times in the past when you were presumably at play or out to lunch. Of course, this time you mean it, this time counts, this time you won't make the mistakes of the past. These times may be times that try men's souls, but you have to allow for the potential that such times generally try womens' patience.
In the best of circumstances, you believe it is time you knew because in the worst of circumstances you spend considerable time worrying about the extent of things you do not know and the degree to which you do not know them, thus your suspicions about how dumb you are may well be validated but you are still in the dark about the extent to which your knowledge is attenuated.
Time to go. Time to reconsider. Time to get back to work. Time to grow up. Time to slow down. Time to make your sentences shorter. Time to make your sentences longer. Time to call it a day. Time to get back on the horse. Time to get off your high horse.
Take your time