Sunday, June 30, 2013

Reading for Surprise and Discovery

You read for the rush of surprise and discovery.  When you approach nonfiction, you're hopeful of the surprise of discovering some insight to go along with the presented information.  

This is revenge of a sort, for now, you'll have set to memory an event or fact which you're able to associate with a feeling, a considerable contrast to your sense of impatience at being instructed to set basic facts to memory in order that they might become muscle memory, but not in any sense of being able to connect seemingly disparate facts or even related facts.

Whether through flaws in the way you were educated or, to be fair, ways in which you were being lazy, you were for the longest time content to be satisfied with memorizing facts.  Through much of your university days, essay-type examinations and the occasional papers were opportunities to demonstrate what you'd assumed was a better-than-average memory for facts, which you were able to deploy with some logic and commentary.

Then came your job with the Associated Press and your discovery that writing your examinations as though they were news stories produced startling results.  Your grades went up, and you began to see a connection between fact and event, between event and effect.  

Fiction and poetry were yet another matter.  Reading these for the rush of surprise and discovery led you to seek the resident emotion in every scene, and because of your immersion in wire service forms of journalism, you narrowed your focus to include motive.

Things have been expanding ever since, or to express the matter in a more causal way, you've been making up for the gap between you and your education of the no-nonsense, no-surprise, factual sort and the inferential, unspoken, connective-tissue type of expression, the elephant-in-the-living-room-type of education.  Welcome to the world of reading and rereading, of writing and rewriting.

This is a world of surprise and sensation, where you find yourself taking on scene after scene and paragraph after paragraph any number of times until your internal surprise register signals to you a surprise connection.  No more reliance on speed, rather a delicious realization that for some time you have been improvising with ideas for nonfiction and with responses for fiction.

A significant key here is the awareness that you are powered by some resident desire, say revenge or to take down pomposity or to luxuriate in some new discovery.  That is, in metaphor, the horse you ride, chosen for its personality because, when all the murk and dust are cleared, you wish the work to have a resident attitude.  In order to get it at its best, you must be as fair to all sides as possible, in actuality tilting a bit toward your antipathy in order to add greater weight to it so that your own characters and agenda will have had a workout.

Orwell is a splendid role model.  Much as you admire him, you still attempt to mount the horse Twain rode from time to time, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses he brings to his anger- and outrage-driven essays against pomposity and conservative agenda. 

Deconstructing Didion has helped enormously, ditto a man you nearly let get away from you until you stumbled into a friendship with John Sanford.  John's stories about his own friendship with Nathaniel West and the magical summer of their working on novels in a rented cabin in upstate New York sent you back to The Dream Life of Balso Snell, Miss Lonely Hearts, and The Day of the Locust.

Connections, you have come to recognize, have given a purpose to all those facts you ingested without knowing why; they influence your present day diet of facts.  The world is a random place, filled with enormous stretches of beauty and similar patches of grim, despair-laden detritus.  Your part is to inspect samples of each, then try to make some useful sense of them.

Your world requires more connections and fewer factoids.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Cats and Dissatisfaction: Primal Forces in Story

Dissatisfaction is a major dramatic force.  Dissatisfaction produces struggles, ripples of protest,  reminiscent of a metaphoric cat.  The cat was if not satisfied, then by no means unsatisfied, cat-like in its behavior.  Dissatisfaction is a cat, resisting being placed in a carrying case for a trip to the veterinarian for shots and or treatment that will in the long run provide a more comfortable present and future for the cat.

Even if not satisfied, the cat is busy doing cat-like things until a greater force wishes to take said cat to the vet, at which time the cat becomes an instrument of drama, displaying such dramatic qualities as acute reflexes, suspicion, and a near preternatural ability to misinterpret movements or gestures made in its direction.

You are at the moment caught up in the struggle between the actual cat and the one of the metaphor you've introduced here.  You have had cats in your life, many of whom have left you with a fond regard for the species, based on your perception of specific friendships formed with specific cats, misadventures with other cats, and crossed-purpose relations with still other cats, a more or less analogous metric of comparison to your relationship with humans.

Your present cat is a better-than-imagined success in that you wished an animal presence to fill a void left by a dog.  You've had dogs in the past who were not pleased with the results of their visits to veterinarians, and you in fact had two cats who, although not overjoyed at the prospects of visits to a vet, wallowed themselves to be taken without the need for a cat carrier.  

Your present-day cat made the trip from the animal shelter to your  abode in a case you selected with thoughts devoted to the cat's comfort.  The ladies at the animal shelter who put your about-to-be cat spoke praises of the cat carrier you'd purchased, one of them telling you how her own cat would probably want to hang out in such a cat carrier as this.

In a broad, general sense, you are acute to the responses, surmises, and reactions of other persons, part of a package you hope translates as empathy.  The lady who praised your cat carrier was responsible for you, despite evidence to the contrary, hoping your cat might indeed like to hang out or at least enter on some basis of equipoise into the cat carrier.  

The fact of two ladies needing to secure your cat into the cat carrier could have served as a warning, but in general, your cat was (and still is very much so) an affectionate cat, seeking human contact.  This led you to make assumptions not borne out by fact.

There were earlier attempts to get your cat into a carrier, consultations with friends who are themselves in relationships with cats, and a serious study of a You Tube film featuring a veterinarian who demonstrated how to secure a rather cranky-looking cat into a cat carrier much less commodious and aesthetic than the carrier you got for your cat.

In a shift of the real with the theoretical, your actual cat becomes the abstraction, the need for getting him to a veterinarian is the actuality, thus the art of drama switches roles with the banality of reality.

From your experience with cats, you conclude that a cat who is not fated to visit a veterinarian is, if not a satisfied cat, by no means a dissatisfied cat, thus no real story.  Getting your not-dissatisfied (yet) cat to the veterinarian changes the playing field of reality to the stage of drama; it is the equivalent of the opening scenes of Hamlet.  Agenda stalks the battlements.

The way to bring satisfaction into drama is to have someone confront the satisfied person with an accusation--"You're too damned satisfied with (fill in the blanks)"--or a challenge: "I'm tired of you sitting around with that fat cat look of satisfaction all the time."

If you were intending humor here, you could attempt to start a story with getting a cat or equivalent into a carrying case for a visit to a veterinarian, but you are not trying for humor, you are wishing to demonstrate how satisfaction and dissatisfaction can be manipulated to create dramatic circumstances which will produce the destabilizing, lack-of-stasis atmosphere associated with a story in progress.

Characters who are dissatisfied want something.  They wish to be left alone, to be allowed to participate in something with a greater hand in the outcome.  They wish to be paid more, to be given credit, to work less, to have help, to get out of a Sisyphus-like situation; they may want love.  They may resent certain characters who appear to be satisfied with such things as the status quo, with prospects for the future, with prospects for their stated and unstated needs having some potential for being realized.

Characters who are satisfied arguably wish to continue being satisfied, but relate to drama only to the extent that they become targets of the dissatisfaction of another character or group of characters.  We can identify with the characters who are satisfied if we are given sufficient reason to suspect the motives of the dissatisfied characters.  We can also side with the characters who resent the apparent smugness and lack of inertia resident in the satisfied characters.

In a real sense, acquiring a cat to fill a void left by a dog makes perfect sense--until the cat has been in a fight, either with a neighborhood cat or a chain-link fence, and the newly acquired cat would be on the receiving end of some attention to the tiny puncture wound on his back.  At this point, the sense or vector line of the story resides in attempting to get the cat to the vet or risking the cat's recovery with a splash of an antiseptic salve that worked wonders on the now absent dog.

Thus story has complications, contingencies, potentials for improvisation that come from the single most basic condition of drama:  two or more individuals enter a scene (or landscape) each convinced of the absolute rightness and moral authority of their respective positions.

The cat, back from the vet, still thinks to want affection from you, still is willing to accept supper, which it eats with a satisfied gusto--before taking off into the late afternoon.

Perhaps you've missed the potential for humor after all.  True enough, there is no story in persuading a dog to go to a vet.  The dog in question for whom you experienced the void which led you to consider a cat was in fact frequently used in filmed advertisements for the veterinarian to whom you wished to take the cat.  The dog in question appeared to enjoy the attentions lavished when given shampoos at the grooming facility of the veterinarian.

There is intrinsic and extrinsic story in making plans to take a cat to a veterinarian.  You have some scratches to show for your efforts and a cat who has been missing for some hours.  The cat will probably think things over in time for its breakfast, but consider this:  the cat has a collar to which is attached a medallion with its name, your name, address, phone number, and the phone number of the vet.  The cat also has a medallion affixed to its collar advising that the cat has an implanted microchip which, if scanned, would give your name, phone number, address, the name and phone number of the vet, and the name and contact information of a cat rescue facility.

Imagine a story in which, after some time, you receive a phone call in response to one of the medallions the cat wears.  "We have your cat, whom we're holding for you to come and fetch.  You do have a cat transporter, don't you?"

Friday, June 28, 2013

Cliches For Dummies

At one time in its lift, a cliche was a beacon of originality, a life preserver thrown to a drowning essay or story, an indication of how language could team up with ideas to produce a vision of how someone felt, how a thing looked or tasted, of how a person may have come to resemble the appearance of his dog.

A cliche gave us something to reach for at one time, but now, finding one in our language, written or oral, is like having a fleck of spinach on one's front most teeth without our being aware of it.

To be fair to the cliche, it was once awl-sharp in its presentation, so much so that it helped us see a thing in perspective.  Comparing a thing, for example, to a dead horse was only the first step in the formation of a wonderful vision.  Someone, somewhere, had arrived at the unimpeachable notion that a dead horse could not be kicked, which may seem a bit overstated, but when used in connection with some implacable resistance, some unrelenting stubbornness or failure to think a matter through, the trope became as much a part of the language as, say, States Rights are to a GOP politician.

Some man or woman in dim reaches of history, was fond of and therefore observant of turnips, perhaps even to the point of dissecting several, studying the vegetable for texture, tensile strength, fiber content.  That nameless individual came to realize that turnips may have a moisture content but no circulatory system involving blood.  

There was, in fact, no blood to be found in the turnips under observation, leading the individual to conclude some now-forgotten behavior or response was as fraught with difficulty as getting blood from a turnip.  (If you were dealing with the matter, you'd be more likely to consult beets.  Even though beets, like turnips, do not bleed, they at least have the virtue of a dark red moisture.  But the point is borne home when, to your knowledge, no one has used the analogy, like getting blood out of a beet.)

The simple, organic truth is that cliches were once apt definitions of a situation or circumstance in reality.  The cliche has, like yesterday's toast, become stale, overused to the point where it is offered as a shorthand to describe a situation that might provide more insight were it to be addressed with a fresh take.

When you address editorial chores on your work or the work of a client or student, you try to devote a complete, focused pass to rooting any trace of the cliche, however apt the cliche might be.  Using a cliche is the equivalent of wearing a rented tux to a formal gathering.  Rented tuxes are notoriously first-time associations of young men with a ritual of finery and display to which many are not familiar.  

This is by no means a bad thing; traditions and rituals do have to begin somewhere, but the average first-time use of a tuxedo is associated with graduation from high school and the senior prom.  Two or more cliches are scraping their heels on the floor in impatience, the one being a cultural association that this is a time to cross the barrier of initiation into the ranks of those who are sexually experienced.  Although sexual mores have evolved, this entry into sexual experience may still be associated with such rituals as forming romantic connections that may lead to marriage.  In some cases, these cultural stepping stones may lead to unwanted pregnancy, which leads to other choices that transcend mere sexual urges.  In any case, we are presented with the masculine cliche of a high school senior in a rented tux as a symbol for a young person on the cusp of a major plateau in life.

Acute, illustrative proto-cliches provide a remarkable vision of behavior.  You believe Will Rogers (1879-1935) was responsible for the observation of an individual, "He was as nervous as a long tailed cat in a roomful of rockers."  A splendid observation, memorable, illustrative, but, alas, now a cliche unless it is used as a barrier to mark where the bar should be set for another, acute observation of a similar nature.

Part of your concern for excising cliches from your work is your desire to keep your own narrative voice, such as it is, free from distracting elements, one of which is the use of trite and convenient material.  For a long time, your reaction, on discovering some monstrous cliche squatting in the foundations of a narrative of yours, was to contrive a fresh metaphor, but what you learned in the process was that a contrived metaphor, which is to say a metaphor catered for this particular banquet, has the look and sound and feel of contrived dishes at numerous banquets, where it joins the already cliched rubber chicken or banquet fame.  You cannot contrive freshness. 

Freshness comes from being so engaged in the material that the visions of it are closer to the intent the story conveys to you as you write it.  You look for cliches that have--here comes a cliche--piggybacked onto your text, hopeful of finding them and replacing them with direct, declarative sentences, which are often the more illustrative way of conveying information, in particular emotional information.  You are embarrassed, therefore, when, after your own efforts, a neutral or supportive editorial hand finds cliches you've missed.

Finding cliches in your work suggests to you a laziness in your dealing with the material at hand.  One positive approach is to attempt a new draft without reference to the old.  The mind is like--watch for this cliche--a magnet, attracting--another cliche on the way--the iron filings of association.  Do you risk the associative, no-thinking approach to get at your deeper feelings?  No question about it.  Yes.

Thus this observation:  We--you included--live in a world where cliche abounds.  When we're in a hurry, we often find the temptation to reply in a cliche.  There are choices to be made.  Depending on your relationship to the person who asks you, How are you? there are choices to be made.  Do you think that person really wants to know or is merely throwing up a conventional and casual greeting?  Do you say, Not bad,  What about you?  Do you say, Oh, same-old, same-old?  Do you say I have an intermittent ache in tooth number twenty-two which I am attempting to insulate with Tylenol?

And this question:  Do you live in a world of cliches, from which you are attempting to rid yourself in order to make even your talking to yourself as fresh as possible so that you can come closer to getting at the more accurate sense of your feelings and responses?

Is there some moral imperative, having admitted you wish to lead the literary and writing life, to develop a sense whereby you can discriminate between your views, the views of others, and the splendid opportunities the writing life gives you to engage in dialogue rather than solipsism?

If you said yes, smile.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Eye Contact

Things change.  Ask Heraclitus ( 535 – c. 475 BCE), the pre-Socratic philosopher who, even then, thinking about something as quotidian as baths, observed how one could not bathe in the same river twice.  Ask him and his followers about the mutable nature of things.  The Google of those early days was a wide-spread group of books or scrolls, often with Latin titles that began with the words, De Re, then went on to some descriptive noun such as materials, metal, water, even a generalized matter.

Nothing appears to have slowed the mutable nature of things; they still change, recession or not, global warming or not.  Boundaries change, standards change, measurements change, minds change.  Seemed like a grand idea at the time, but now, there's change.  

In many ways you'd yet to articulate, you've changed.  In ways still not clear to you, you're in the process of changing.  Such as?  Ah.  don't ask.

You were wishing to change in terms of reaching age six in order to be permitted to carry a pocket knife, which you considered the most remarkable tool a boy could carry.  Reaching six and being given a pocket knife for your birthday, change took on a different aspect for you.  Perhaps for the first time, you had mixed emotions about the age process; soon enough, you've be out of sixth grade and grammar school, into what was then called junior high school, grade level seven-b, which for your world meant John Burroughs Junior High School, Sixth Street and McCadden Streets, mid-city, Los Angeles, where you would be known as a Scrub, the lowest plateau of social order, subject to hazing, taunting, and the mindless terrors only a grammar school student could suppose.

While you were thus occupied with the age process, you remained confident you would not change in your affection for licorice cigarettes, Fleer's bubble gum, and Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, grade 2B.  You have not had a licorice cigarette for fifty years, although your late great friend, Barnaby Conrad, once gave you a package of Black-Jack chewing gum.  You've not used bubble gum for at least twenty years, and although you have one or two Dixon Ticonderoga pencils about, you cannot recall the last time you used them.

Things changed in that you did not have to suffer becoming a Scrub at John Burroughs Junior High School.  Instead, you moved from Central Beach Elementary School, Miami Beach, Florida, across the street to Ida M. Fisher Junior High School, where the hazing was different only because Miami Beach was not Los Angeles, and where instead of being in grade B-seven, you were in grade seven-B, section 1, thus you were 7B1 and you were used to doing something you'd never think to do in Los Angeles, you wore short pants.  

Some, but not all of your destiny was interrupted or, if you will, changed, because you did indeed graduate from John Burroughs Junior High School and, as you expected, attended Fairfax High School.  Changes came about because you'd been bumped up along the way, causing you to be the youngest and shortest in your classes at John Burroughs, until a growing spurt took you in hand, enhancing your length.

By the time you graduated from Fairfax, you were far enough removed from the classmates you'd started with to the point where you'd make eye contact in the hallways, but were more in connection with your new peer group.  Without giving those matters much in the way of thought, your interests focused on changing yourself into something you had no concrete vision of, a writer.  You were also interested in such concepts as approaching manhood, where you had a notable role model, your father, and as your college career progressed, other role models to serve as guides.  But still no sense at all of how you'd manage to make the journey, should you have been given a vision of yourself today, to what you are and what you are quite happy with today, although curious about realizing some if not all the changes in store for you.

There are some changes in store for you that you try to forestall with such things as exercise, diet, curiosity, study, work, and relationships.  One thing you may be able to forestall for some several years is death, but in some ways, that has become for you a kind of analog to the peers you left behind you when, at age nine, you were gone from Los Angeles to live in the East, New England, and the South.  

You make eye contact with death and it with you.  You are no strangers; it has taken your grandparents, your parents, your sister, your wife, two of your closest, dearest human friends, and a line of cherished animal friends beginning with the cat, Sam, who left you in about 1970, extending to your most recent departure, who took her leave as recently as April 15.

Just yesterday, you made eye contact again, a mere passing in the hallway, an acknowledgment that someone from your world was gone, a person whose politics were so far removed from yours that you'd come to agree that you'd acknowledge your differences, and talk around them.  

You had no idea you'd be making such eye contact with death, which is and yet is not a complete abstraction.  It is also an aspect of reality, and so you are each aware of the other and you acknowledge its metaphoric ability to bring change to your life at any moment, that in the best dramatic weights and balance, it has the power, you have the illusion.

You have moved on to another peer group beyond the change you made on your return to Los Angeles.  Now you make eye contact in the hall with your work, the area in which you began doing things in high school to get you launched to where you are.  It recognizes you and you it.  You recognize and make eye contact, or try to, with such abilities and strengths as you have, wishing to keep that contact and recognition strong and friendly.

In numerous ways, each vision you attempt to strike eye contact with is a new project in the making, a new book, a new story.  Right now, there are a few you pass in the hallway, wanting to leave the equivalents of mash notes in their lockers.  As you had crushes on girls in the hallways of John Burroughs Junior High and Fairfax High, and then UCLA, you have crushes on a number of books and stories and novels.  Seeing them reminds you of the personalities of the young women on whom you had crushes and of your half-formed romanticism, working its way within you and in effect helping you describe the you you are today.

You walk down corridors of schools in your mind and in reality, greeting student, dream, and faculty alike, greeting ideas and attempting to make eye contact, holding on for that exciting nod of recognition where you understand some form of relationship has been established.

Of course you have effected a relationship with death.  At the moment it is not a fearful or resentful or even defensive one, merely a respectful one.  All your nowness, all the things you have become are too eager for those other relationships where conversations turn into ideas, ideas turn into visions, and you are able to step into those visions for the sweet rides of connection.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Some time ago, you heard yourself telling a class how "One keepable page a day works out to a novel a year."  The information stuck with you, through days of many pages or no pages at all, days where keepable was an abstraction, a goal, the quest of a Joseph Campbell heroic journey.

Some more recent time ago, you heard Dennis Lynds asking Duane Unkefer, who was about to have yet another drink, if he'd done his pages for the day, to which Unk replied, "I've been off my game for a while."  Dennis' response, "Got to get you back on the horse."  And once again, you heard Unk's demurral.  

You remember that incident as well as the first.  Took you a while, but much in the manner of a recovering booze abuser, you began marking the time since you began getting at least one page a day. No celebrations, only the awareness of a personality lingering about the work area, where ever the work area happened to be.

Sometimes the page was handwritten, not an uncommon experience under any circumstances.

Before his life was cut short by an unanticipated traffic accident, Dennis wrote under his own name, the pseudonyms of William Arden, John Crowe, Mark Saddler, Carl Dekker, and perhaps yet others you're unaware of.  You place his total at over fifty booklength works.

Unk has, to you knowledge done three.  This is not meant to dis Unk, whom you consider a friend, nor is it meant to romanticize Dennis, who was also a friend while he lived.  The two men are different types of writers, each approaching story from a different purpose.  Both took pains with their manuscripts.

Disclosure:  you met Unk after having reviewed his major novel, Gray Eagles, a review that caused him to seek you out.

Disclosure:  Dennis was so prolific that you ghosted a few of the novels he wrote without a by-line for a series character with many authors.

This puts paid to anything but the focus on pages, the personal effects on a writer having produced pages, the reenactment of the heroic journey, the lifting of the writer from one plateau to the next highest.

The ultimate problem with the meme of a keepable page a day being equal to a novel a year is the difficulty in knowing which page to keep, how many non-keepable pages must be written in order to find one that is keepable, and the added metric of there being the great possibility of editorial notes to cope with even after a book is accepted.

You are currently in the process of editing a book for another editor, a highly fraught set of circumstances in which money and confidences have been exchanged and a publisher is waiting.  You've discovered in addition to the author having "and" as a habit word, also having a habit meme consisting of sentences with three linked independent clauses.  This usage accounts for nearly forty percent of the text in question.

This is one of the things editors are for, thus no judgment is intended.  The process revolves around pages.  What you produce becomes a gateway for your eventual satisfaction.  What you don't produce becomes an engine of dissatisfaction that takes on its own agenda, perhaps to your continued uneasiness.  Even if you work at producing pages but do not in fact produce them, there is a minimal plateau of satisfaction you've reached.

Small wonder how your adjunct interests and activities hover about the production of pages, undershot by the desire to cause some of those to be keepable.

Another thing you find yourself telling students, your arms separated by at least the length of your body, even more if you're feeling expansive.  You have to know this much, you say, now bringing your hands to a gap of about a foot, in order to write this much.

The disposable pages are thus as much a part of the process as the keepable ones.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Tell-Tale Hurt

Early in the opening paragraph of Edgar Allen Poe's short story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator asks us readers, "but why will you say that I am mad?"

Although packaged and presented as a horror story, "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a skillful presentation of a narrator unintentionally portraying irony.  The story is about a murder the narrator has committed.  Unlike the kidnapping and murder of Poe's other, even more famous short story, "A Cask of Amontillado," the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" has chosen a victim with no tangible connection; this was a killing for a much more impersonal motive. 

Fictional and actual profilers, psychologists who construct a profile of a murderer, could well argue Poe's unnamed narrator to be an extreme narcissist, one who chose a victim at random, then orchestrated the death in order to prove how impossible it would be to detect the killer.

The narrator does not protest innocence, rather instead, the narrator protests sanity.  "But why will you say that I am mad?"  The narrator is shrewd about not leaving a clue about gender.  There are reasons to argue the narrator of either gender.  Gender studies scholars (are you being ironic there or a step up from irony, which is sarcasm?) of today might wish to open the argumentative door of the narrator being transgender, if for no other reason than opening the door for equal opportunity, perhaps invoking the spirit of how race relations in this country have improved to the point where miscegenation is recognized and on its way toward accelerated acceptance.  Thus the recent acceptance of dramas in which African Americans, Latinos, and Asians are portrayed as antagonists, as criminal, as intrinsically evil.

Your grudging acknowledgment of Poe's prescience and considerable dramatic influences (in particular on the shortform narrative) is not enough to bring you into his corner as a fan, yet you still acknowledge his effect on how the more effective characters are influenced by the heavy hand of irony, of quirkiness, of that brooding and internally armored front-rank character so prevalent in today's more resonant fiction.

When dealing with the works of your students,your clients, and those sent to you by literary agents, your first impulse is to examine lead characters for niceness, which in this case means a sense of balance and equipoise bordering on consideration.

There are numerous tenure-track jobs in reality for individuals with consideration, persons who empathize and demonstrate either by direct knowledge or from instinct the basic tenets of The Social Contract.

In the work of beginning writers, characters are either too nice or too much representative not of individual traits but of some form of malice personified, evil incarnate, you might say, or at the lesser end of the scale, solipsistic, acolytes of Narcissus.

You like gritty, bothered, pestered, absorbed, obsessed characters, goal oriented to the point where they are easy to give off warning signs of zoning out on reality, focusing instead on some aspect of their goal, which is often curiosity.

Thus you are able to tell students, clients, and yourself for your own composing sessions, Who are they?  What do they want?  Why do they want it, whatever it may be, right now?  What are they willing to do to accomplish their desires?  In a world where the term "racial profiling" is as fraught with the potential for bigotry, you propose this new term, "character profiling," which should allow the profiler (and you) to see far enough into the future to understand how the character is apt to behave if and when the goal is reached, the heart's desire is achieved.

From this vantage point, you can begin to visualize closure beyond the one-size-fits-all endings of contemporary short stories and novels, then into a suggestible state of mind and heart where the energy of the story at hand has presented itself at least in vague presence.

Who knows how many times you've gone over Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado," looking for a template, only to discover it in terms more visible to you at the conclusion of James Thurber's remarkable and thematically similar short story, "The Cat-Bird Seat."  

There are more than generational differences between the writers and between the writers and you as reader here, nor is it possible to hold up Thurber as a paradigm of niceness and normality to Poe's quirky, troubled life.  The major difference is Thurber's frequent arrival at what can only be described as acute, memorable humor, while Poe rarely arrives there, but often arrives at a horror Thurber could not hope to approximate.

Humor is the exposure of sad, wrenching truths in the human condition.  Horror is the representation of the sad, wrenching anger and frustration individuals inflict on themselves, on others, and on animals.

Poe was not funny.  Thurber was.

Thurber was never horrific.  Poe was.

Both had excellent control over the way the characters behaved within their narratives and the effect such behavior was likely to have on their readers.

Neither was nice.  From things you have read about both, each tended to be unpleasant and reactive when taken in wine.

Each had access to that un-nice vision when composing.  But Poe was not funny.  Thurber was.

Congratulations.  You may  have just worked out why you prefer Thurber to Poe, and why you think it important for a writer to leave niceness outside the the work area when sitting to compose.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Details: Mustard vs. Mayonnaise

The more you think about details in a narrative, the more you begin to see them as ghostly figures in Goya etchings, haunting the story in ways you've only just begin to suspect.

Perhaps this is a generational thing since among other storytellers, you grew up among the likes of Philip K. Dick, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman, Richard Matheson, and Fritz Lieber, haunting used bookstores and mail order dealers for back issues of Weird Tales.  But an equal possibility is your arriving at an ability to put details in a physiological place.

If you start your formulation with the shifting in brain waves as one passes from the waking state into the fraught, personalized world of the sleeping state, you are ready to finish the analogy in progress with the borderline cusp between Reality and the world of equally fraught, personalized management of story.

Story is managed reality, managed dreamscape, arranged to produce feelings in readers that draw forth from them their own cusp worlds between sleep and wakefulness, between actual reality and the reality of story, presented as though real.

Sometimes--often--in the dream world, an object or its lack takes on a drugged, truth-serum force, evoking emotions of one's own.  Sometimes appearing in one's dreams without, say, shoes, or particular items of clothing will provide the equivalent of a sound track, radiating an emotion of bewilderment or embarrassment or loss.  Sometimes an item or detail in a dream will evoke intense pleasure or desire.

Details in stories convey a sense of reality, but since a significant task for story is to radiate reality, the details must be chosen because of their emotional impact on the writer or the characters, perhaps even both.  A single adjectival or adverbial attribution to a detail can set it in vibration, where it will evoke the sense of being real that is the narrative equivalent of hyper reality.  An old shoe.  A new shoe.  Even a brown shoe, or Uncle Fred's shoe sets the detail in motion.

Some stories seem to shimmer with an urgency that, on reexamination, seems numinous, near mystical without any explanation.  To this day, you recall a dream you had when you were a scant five or six, and had in recent days been given your first experience with a then frozen treat called a Popsicle, an ice pop that was nothing more than frozen, fruit-flavored water, another distinguishing feature the two wooden handles for the user to grip while working away at the confection.  

The experience was a sensual delight for you to the point where you could not wait to get the next Popsicle in reality, you were so eager, you dreamed of having one.  In your dream, you experienced the feel of your tongue against the cold, of the melting ice within your mouth, sugary, fruity red.

Most important of all, the thrill of dreaming and experiencing with vividness something you wanted.

Details evoke that same sense when you read them; you are more likely to believe, which is to say resonate with the demands and puzzle and imbalance set forth by the story.  The proper choice of details is every bit as important as the characters, their personalities, their quirks, their needs, their methods of dealing with the obstacles in their way.

John believes he loves Mary and wishes a romantic relationship with her.  Ho hum, that is until it is clear to you that, worthy though John may be, Mary's interests are elsewhere.  No more ho hum; you've been where the fictional John is.  Now you look for, you crave some detail about Mary that will cause you to have the same regard for this fictional Mary as you may have had for a real Mary.  Now the story is on, and you are in your way as much a part of it as the fictional John you are rooting for in his ardent wish to have Mary recognize him for the fine fellow he is.

Because they are small, idiosyncratic things, details must be managed with care.  They must not be allowed to seem formulaic.  If the detail is cheese, it must be of a color and smell that evokes taste or softness or its appearance as melted.  Plain, dumb, old cheese with no attributes won't do it.

A student in your writing workshop this past Saturday spoke in passing of bologna sandwiches her father made for her and how now, she prefers bologna sandwiches, if at all, with mayonnaise.  Then, it was mustard.  A day later, you had no bologna in your refrigerator, but you did have sliced turkey, which you would normally dress with mayonnaise, but today, Dijon mustard.  Also, as of this moment, you now have a packet of bologna from the Italian deli in your refrigerator.

Even were this essay slide into a discussion of the comparative virtues of mayonnaise over mustard or the reverse, the subject would still be about details, wouldn't it?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

From Time to Time

In what may still prove out to be yet another error of judgement on your part, you were never a fan of the writing of Marcel Proust.  Were you unable to sleep late some night in some hotel or lodging not your own and the only other book than A Remembrance of Things Past, also known as In Search of Lost Times, was Atlas Shrugged, you might be persuaded to have another go at Proust.  But not now.

You do like the thematic approach you understand him to have taken with time.  In the process of adding years to your curriculum vitae, time has acquired a shape, a personality, an insistent presence.  A recent rummage through a suspect shelf in the kitchen cabinet produced not only the record you were seeking, you also discovered a photo of a quite young you, perhaps six or seven, but not likely any more.

Time has turned you on its lathe, drawing you out to a taller you with better posture, quite a bit less hair, a deeper voice, a much more acute range of vision, and greater sophistication wrapped about the armature of any story you tell today.

Time has also added to your body the same effects visible on a well-traveled street.  You have pot holes, scars, a greater allergic awareness of things Acacia now than in the past, an incredible tolerance for coffee, and an almanac-like present-day awareness of fools and foolishness now you had no inkling of then, the better to not suffer them lightly, much less at all.

Relative to the you of that picture in which, face contorted to keep your eyeglasses perched high on your nose, you cling to your mother's Pekingese, Ming-Toi, a cranky lap dog and no pal for a six-year-old boy, you had a greater wish-for list than experiences, you are at about the same ratio now.  This is not to minimize or criticize your range of experiences, rather to admit to a broad spectrum of things undone that you hope to get done.

For the six-year-old you and the current day you, time was and still is the fulcrum.  When you first came to the last line of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, you were about twenty.  Nevertheless, you found yourself borne with some regularity back into the past, searching to discover ways you'd come to be the person you were then, in some ways as cranky as your mother's Pekingese.

Now, among other reasons, you find yourself borne back into the past to dwell with fondness or grief over things and persons in your life now lost to you, roads taken and not, decisions that have stood the test of time (which, near as you can decipher the concept, means outcomes you still endorse and enjoy).

From time to time, you perform Dr. Frankenstein-like experiments with time, freezing artificial moments of it on paper or on screen preparatory to sending it to appear on paper along with an ensemble of individuals you have created, plucked out of the waters of your imagination like a fly fisherman capturing sleek, darting trout from hidden pools, using dry flies that approximate real life insects real life trout might well consider for a snack.

You find comfort in the awareness of how time influences writing, music, photography, art, and biology, each of these concepts having time as its denominator as you in fact have it.  In each of these concepts, you included, timing is everything.  How long will it take?  What are the intervals, if any?  What things did you leave in the past that might be recovered and used to some benefit?  What past things are better left, perhaps lost in metaphoric cushions of the large, cosmic sofas on which you have sat or reclined in all innocence, unaware of things slipping from your pockets?

This is not the time for if only, nor was the time when you stood in front of 6145 1/2 Orange Street, a scant half block away from the Miracle Mile in mid-city Los Angeles, where and when Miracle Mile portended great miracles of imagination and discovery and where, indeed, the present day you of 409 East Sola Street, Santa Barbara, still senses portents of miracles to come with time and an obsessive need to imagine.  Considering a few accidents you experienced between then and now, you do feel the presence of the miraculous, skittering about like a burrowing animal that has found its way into the foundations and is now digging for its own possibilities.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

On Hearing Voices

You've had a number of teachers, many of whom resonate for you to this very day.  You needed to listen with care before you were ready for a mentor, and even when you had one, who resonates within you to this very day, you did not think of her as a mentor until she told you she heard voices, then asked you if you heard voices.

By this time, you cared enough about her and the influence she was having on you and the influence you expected she would continue to exert, that you began to worry something might be lacking in you because you did not hear voices.  When you spoke to her of this, she assured you that there were those who saw visions.

Seeing things or hearing them were on a par; neither was better than the other any more than being right- or left-handed was better.  Some situations were reducible to a simple either or an other.

You had a writer friend who confessed that he saw things on a screen within his head, a small, TV-like screen where his characters moved about and spoke.  All he needed to do was describe what they were doing.  You were several years away from recognizing that his writing was, in fact, descriptive as opposed to a more internal focus.

At this time, you began a series of doubt experiences, fearful because you neither heard nor saw.  Once again, your mentor reassured you with questions, wanting to know where the words and feelings began when you composed.  You explained to her that perhaps you were the third possibility, one who felt.  You were neither aware of voice or picture; the material emerged.

Ah, Rachel told you.  That makes you a hearer.  You go home and write.  Listen carefully.  You did, but because you were self-conscious, nothing came out for a number of days, during which you mostly sat, staring at your typewriter, daring a sound or vision to appear.

In time, you were approached by a concept for a story, amused by it, thinking of the actor, Sheldon Leonard, a frequent regular on the Jack Benny show, his voice sounding like an archetypal, Damon Runyon-esque gangster or con man.  Hey, bud, the story said.  Got something I wanna show you.

The next time you saw Rachel, you were able to tell her about the experience, so relieved at having one or the other, a sound or a vision, that you forgot to be embarrassed by your late awareness of process.  That was then, back in time, during the days of radio and television, and typewriters.

This is now. If you listen to a place long enough and with focus, it will begin to speak.  The longer you listen, and the more focus you apply, the more the place will begin to speak to you.The place will start by giving you a sample of itself during various stages of the day and its potential inhabitants or inner forces and mechanisms.  Even now, with vast improvements in your eyesight, which you never considered flawed or faulty,  thanks to cataract surgery, you see without contact lenses better than you were able to see with them.  This refreshed or revised sense of vision adds dimension to your hearing places as they describe themselves to you.

You contemplate further and the place begins to cooperate with you, giving you hints of how a particular character would relate to it.  The beginning is in your awareness that place has a personality.  There may be considerable sophistry in your concept of hearing the place.  There may be equal sophistry in your belief you can hear or read your own characters, who are, of course, your creations, your Golems, made from mud and myth, and need to combat forces of stasis and intimidation.

There may be considerable sophistry in your quasi-anthropomorphising if surroundings, of inanimate things such as rocks, mountains, deserts, oceans.  Not to forget attributing human qualities to animals.  In the true tradition of fiction being enhanced and exacerbated reality, there may be sophistry as well in your reading of humankind and a reductionism in your use of tides, lunar and oceanic, as a metric for the behavior of segments of humanity.

In metaphor, you may have come forth all these years, written these millions of words in search of your craft, only to be at the place you were before your mentor, amazed at her ability to hear voices, her ability to bring characters to life on the page, still unable to define the how and why of the way you intuit and form person, place, and thing for your stories and essays.  In actuality, you may have only made a slight dent in the surface of understanding your passion and the focus on story your passion has given you.

If so, you are much more grateful than frustrated or saddened.  You still have the voices of all the persons, places, and things you experienced, and your awareness of them speaking.  And the time to listen.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Balancing Act

Thanks to the convenience of the Internet and those ingratiating applications known as "Aps," you no longer need to be too concerned about keeping a running balance on your checking account. You can check in on a regular basis to see the state of your balance.  Thus the term precarious may hover, depending on your prudence or impulsiveness, reminding you in yet other ways how vital a concept of balance is to story.

A comfortable balance works better in banking terms than story terms, in the former reflecting a stasis and comfort,in the latter sending a warning that the story is about to become overdrawn, lacking in assets.

Running balance sounds better in financial terms than dramatic ones.  A running balance is a daily reckoning.  Individuals you know who keep them appear confident to the point where you suspect that unlike you, they never get warning notices from their bank.  You also suspect them of knowing secret ways to get cats to veterinarians.

Balance conveys stability, an ability to cope with gravity, the poise to proceed without the merest hint of a stumble.  Admirable in many circumstances, but not in most fiction, unless, of course, the author's intent is to set the balanced character off kilter.  Many stories begin with what academicians call destabilizing events.  Used with proper finesse, the destabilizing event can cause mirth by supplying a banana peel for a rigid, pompous character to chance upon, then literally fall victim to its slipperiness.

Most of your friends appear to strike a balance between their work posture and their other posture, other relating to anything where individualism and whim have free rein as opposed to more conventional and formal aspects of work.  You're pleased to have found the possibility for keeping formal structures at a limit, the need for a greater balance no longer concerning you so much as, for example, when you reported to a publisher who expected rational decisions of you while at the same time having as a favored expression, "I have a gut feeling--"  His expression had nothing to do with digestive disorder.

In your reading and composition, you are drawn to off-balance circumstances and characters.  You do not need to look too far about you in the real world to find stasis.  You do wince whenever you hear yourself responding to a How's it going type of question with a same-old, same-old kind of response.  You do so because same-old, same-old is a stasis.  Story can emerge from it, but requires a push.

You like to think you can find the sorts of books and stories to read and dramas to watch where the push is already in place.  Hamlet, studying for exams at Wittenburg, had no idea that the push was already in place, but his father's ghost surely did.  " I am thy father's spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night/ And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt off."  Okay, chalk up a destabilizing event.  And down the food chain we go until much of the dramatis personae are dead.

Balanced persons do not attract you, in life or fiction. as much as those with the occasional totter or stumble.  You in fact begin to suspect yourself should you find your running balance is not teetering close to risk.  At one time in your life, from about your senior year in high school until your junior year at the university, you made some effort to gamble on such things as the relative speed of horses, of the outcome of various card games, and even of the potentials to be had from tossing about two small squares on which were incised anywhere from one to six dots.Won a few, lost some.  Quit because of the accompanying boredom, which led you to take irrational risks merely to keep from being bored.  These were the wrong imbalances.

Better risks were the growing knowledge that examination times were strong incentives for you to discover short stories that wished to be written, resulting in you having at least a manuscript that mattered to you, the risk being you had not read or absorbed enough connective links between the assigned readings.  But often, you had both to show for your efforts, thus farewell to horses, card games, dice, and even high-stakes Scrabble.

On any number of occasions, you've consulted chiropractors, hopeful of having a balance restored.  In recent months, you've taken to visiting an old acquaintance who is a splendid physical therapist, seeking both enlightened exercise proscriptions and manipulations relative to having had replacement surgery on both hips.  This kind of balance is not boring, it is freedom from mechanical imbalances.

On occasions, you are hired to inject imbalances to stories that are, by their very nature, too balanced, too graceful in terms of gravitational and frictional pulls.  Unlike backs and legs, story thrives on imbalance, appears even to congratulate itself as its characters, in search of a dream or goal or some form of discovery, appear to seek out unconventional methods as you once did in the face of an unusual auto-immune system disorder wherein one internist advised you that you appeared to be allergic to yourself.  Several alternative medicine consultations down the road, you found yourself in the office of a practitioner of Chinese herbal remedy where you learned, through her interpreter that she had matriculated from a conventional medical school only to remain impatient with potentials for healing.  There were, you heard from her interpreter, more direct ways of bringing a disrupted body into proper balance, but first, the doctor requests the honor of seeing you protrude your tongue.  The interpreter also told you the estimable doctor was well aware of the possible significance of one extending his tongue in this country, but you would be doing her an honor to extend your tongue as far as you were able.

When  you did so, the doctor shook her hear.  There followed a long trail of the verbal equivalent of Mandarin ideograms to the point where you got the impression the doctor and her translator were arguing.  "What,"  you asked, "was the doctor's diagnosis?"

"Bad,"  the translator said.

"That's all?  Bad?"

"Very bad,"  the translator said.  "Very not balanced.  Very not balance at all."

You were ultimately diagnosed and cured by the least likely of doctors, a dermatologist.  Being back in balance taught your auto-immune system a thing or two.  You like to think that on reflection and a measure of stubbornness, you kept that balance while giving yourself over to the greater sense of living in the shadow world of dramatic imbalance.

You've had your share of stumbles and imbalances, your various running balances of temper, patience, finances, understanding, and education describing ups, downs, and destabilization, adding up to a balancing act of sorts in which you are well motivated to look for, then take the least paved, poorest graded road, and if one such road is not apparent to you, why then, make it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Holy Grail Found in a Used Bookstore

Addiction comes in many forms.  When you were quite a bit younger, you harbored fears about being addicted to licorice cigarettes, small cylinders of licorice perhaps half the diameter and length of a real cigarette.  They were packaged in cardboard boxes which you carried about after school,  in your ventures in the large swaths of vacant lots that were even then on their way to becoming a large housing tract.  This undeveloped landscape was your jungle, wherein you imagined explorations, safaris, and adventures taken from whatever you happened to be reading at the time.

This was the time of penny candy, where a trove of varieties of shapes, flavors, and brands were available.  You knew of several venues for these purchases, but far and away your favorite was a combination magazine-book-candy-smoke shop at the southwestern corner of La Brea and Olympic, walking and biking distance from where you lived.

Licorice cigarettes attracted you at first because of the cardboard containers in which they came, bright reds or greens with stark black lettering and scant illustrations.  You were also attracted by the number of quasi-cigarettes per package.  Then, as habit persisted, and you heard adults speaking of their addictions to real cigarettes, your alarm began to appear when you found yourself up to two, sometimes three packs a week.

You had no such alarm when you began smoking actual cigarettes and pipes, nor did you consider yourself anything beyond a coffee drinker until, one hungover morning, you awoke to a considerable headache, no fresh cigarettes in your then apartment, and few scant grains of coffee in the can you'd been saving because you'd thought to use it as a container for pencils.  Going through your kitchen trash to find yesterday's coffee grounds, still damp in the used Chemex filter, you heated water, then re-used the mess to brew an emergency pot.

While the water was dripping and the very things the filter paper had filtered from yesterday's coffee were dripping through, anemic and murky, you scrounged through the living room wastes for cigarette butts that might provide enough puffs to convince you of being sufficiently alert to consider a  breakfast that would take away the hangover's persistent reminders of last night's excesses.

Some hours later, you were at the market on Hollywood and Gower, paying for a pound of cheap coffee, a quart of milk, a cylindrical box of Quaker Oats oatmeal, and a pack of Camels with coins from your change stash, your mind focused on the short story you'd subsequently sold, and would deliver tomorrow, whereupon you would be paid fifty dollars, which you knew would be spent on such luxuries as better coffee, Benson and Hedges cigarettes, and likely such luxuries as lamb shanks and sole or yellowtail.

The worst-case scenario, having to scrounge for butts and used coffee grounds, did its best to remind you of the degradations associated with addiction.  Subsequent to that day and one or two others like it, you've heard enough worst-case addiction stories to convince you you were more late-twenties romanticizing than demonstrating addiction.

However a reach it may be to link a deeper kind of addictive behavior to the hours you've spent in used bookstores, away you reach, thinking again of your financial reserves being limited to a pocketful of coins, desperate to find your version of the holy grail, the book you believed would, even as you read it, cause elements both real and irrational to coalesce, imparting the secret that would unlock the doors to your greater understanding of drama, of story, of character, event, dialogue, circumstance, emotional depth, and yes, empathy.

For years, at times when you could well afford hardcover books purchased new off the shelves at Pickwick in Hollywood and Vroman's in Pasadena, and Martindale's in Beverly Hills, or used in the shops on Santa Monica Boulevard or Vine Street or Las Palmas in Hollywood, you read, absorbed as best you could, then moved on, not yet satisfied.  You were well into your fifties when you began to suspect that not only did no such one transformative book exist, rather that all those you'd devoured were only a piece of the larger mosaic.  You must continue to look, you must continue to read because they all contribute to the end goal you seek.

In a real sense, much of this dances about that most genial and generous of writers, Thomas McGuane.  You've just gone to the bookcase housing your short story collection, whence you pulled forth To Skin a Cat,McGuane's first collection.  The bookmark is still in place where you left it, at the precise place where you stopped reading because your reading had given you an idea and you did not wish to go any farther, lest the idea become more McGuane than you.  And thus you labored for quite some while on Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which you have yet to finish, although you have returned to it numerous times and have a sense of how and where it will end.

A scant week ago, over a leisurely lunch with McGuane, you told him of this as you spoke of short stories, of writers you both knew, of writers you each preferred, and, indeed, of one you'd never heard of before, recommended by him.  Maile Meloy's Half in Love is also a collection, and before you'd got past the opening paragraph of "Ranch Girl," you knew you were in for a ride you'd never take, not even with Annie Proulx's remarkable short story, "The Mud Below," which is about bull riding, while Meloy's "Ranch Girl" is not.  Nevertheless, although you got something stunning and remarkable from the Proulx, you were, yourself, riding the Meloy story, as hopelessly addicted to it as you feared you were to licorice cigarettes.

You are in fact Jonesing on story, hopelessly in love with the form and the effect the powerful ones have on you.

You are a city boy.  You have perhaps ridden horses a few hundred times.  You do not sit a horse well at all, and although you have respect for horses and for farms and ranches and barn cats and have formed a kind of bonding passion for herd dogs and bluetick hounds, you are a city boy.  Your ride is neither the bronc nor the bull or horse, it is the urban short story, as cranky and pestered as you are in the city, as bored by concepts of rural life as only a city boy could be.

Talking to persons who have written short stories, reading the short stories of writers such as McGuane, who make you want to sit a story of your own and let it loose to see if you can ride it down, even though it bucks you and throws you on your ass, willing to get back on again, and screw the humiliation or sore bones, just to get the sense of doing that thing, much like the young protagonist in Annie Proulx's short story.

The vision you sought from one book is not to be had, but the vision from being in the world of story, trying to keep on it even though it wishes with great passion to throw you, this is the discovery of the holy grail in a used bookstore.  This is the knowledge you need, the knowledge that somehow urges you back after you've been thrown.

In 1967, a writer by the name of William Murray wrote a novel called The Sweet Ride, in many ways about surfing.  You've watched more surfers than rodo performances, and although you are not of that world either, it is closer to you and when you stay on a story until it gives you some of the responses you saw in it, you think of what you've been through as a sweet ride, perhaps in a nod to Murray and his novel, perhaps in recognition that there is a sweetness and harmony to the most noir and bleak as well as the most focused of poignancy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Power is energy, controlled and transformed.  Difficult to think of an act being performed, a thing being made or unmade without power.  The source of power is energy.  Throughout history, energy has been transformed into forces that compete with natural events in the sense of causing eras such as The Bronze Age or The Industrial Revolution.

Power is the cause and effect of such conditions as politics.  You could say--and believe you will--that politics, which are caused by power, has a direct influence on story.  You could say further--and believe you now will--that story releases and directs energy within those who read and witness it.  And while you're at it, why not go all the way, by saying story itself is the control and transformation and manipulation of power?

A major theme in story is opposing forces, which takes us to observations governing inertia.  Objects at rest tend to stay at rest until overcome by a greater force or power.  Thus power lurks about the stage, waiting to propel opposing forces into opposition or waiting to give a nudge to such abstractions as Fate, Karma, and Justice.

Story is about two or more individuals in some kind of competition where some kind of settlement awaits, depending on the individuals themselves and the current attitude of the writer who sets forces into motion and away from stasis.

Years ago, although perhaps not that many, you experiences the bumper cars in carnival fun zones as expressions of enjoyable collision, perhaps made more enjoyable because they were ways of working off the pent-up energy of frustration, anger, resentment, and on the other side of the emotional ledger, enthusiasm, joy, commitment, and the energy released from discovery.  As such things go, you could even say you get energy from discovering things about yourself and those about you that did not speak well to the curriculum vitae you wished to present socially.

Someone in story has power over others.  In some cases, the fact of this power being in place may be due to positive social, moral, and political reasons, but such assessments might mean nothing positive to those on the other side of the power.  Even when used democratically or evenhandedly, the mere presence of power may produce resentment, which, you see, is an energy in itself, prompting actions which may be considered anarchy.

Power does not, then, even have to be used; the mere fact of its presence may cause resentment or such other energy sources as intimidation.  Look at that river.  How we going to get across it?  Forget the question of why the asker, the intimidated ones, would want to cross the river for a moment or two, although suffice it for not to say that plausible motivation, say motivation to cross a river, is of itself a source of energy.

Isn't motivation, after all, a driving force in story?  Who would want to kill Uncle Charlie?  In order to find out, we have to examine the relationships Uncle Charlie had with those about him, validating your theory that motive is nascent power.  Someone who knew Uncle Charlie had sufficient energy/motivation to wish him dead, then to act on that wish.

Story is controlled power.  Those in power have and exercise the energy necessary to demonstrate their position to those of lesser rank or privilege.  You don't get to play in the big kid's sand box.  You don't get to eat with the adults.  You must remember, you're the junior faculty here.

Any number of wonderful story moments arise when the power shifts without the one in power realizing it until a bit too late. If one in power is deposed, the energy turns the story toward humor and cosmic justice.  If the focus is on one without power who gains or regains lost power, the payoff is one of triumph, the mood and implications radiant of positiveness.

Story is all about power, power shifts, and things that transform the power into some kind of inertia, either the inertia of stasis or the inertia of movement.

If you look at story as a motor or engine, converting energy to emotional product, you'll have begun to sense story as it ought to be sensed.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Story as Habeas Corpus: Help, Help, I'm Being Held Prisoner in a Story

Momentum is everything in the early drafts, and yet momentum is the the indecisive cat, not sure if it wants to leave the room or come back in once it has gone out.  Momentum fights a difficult battle with detail and both momentum and detail fight you.  So many verbs, wanting to be the cat and be let outside, only to return for some whim.

Detail begins to want to stop you in your tracks, bore you with detail, where the number of paces a character takes seem of moment only to be overshadowed by a particular shade of hair or a description of a face.

Vocabulary wishes to get in the way, wondering of you why you spent so much time as a youngster, pouring through dictionaries.  Why. indeed?  So that you could feel more comfortable with a full tool chest, confident it was the range of words and the way you threw them off that made the story.  You were well ahead of the game because you knew umbra, penumbra, and antumbra; you did not have to be stuck with mere shadow.

Although you know, going in, that the place where you began the draft will not remain as the place where the final draft begins, you nevertheless need some sense of a boulder, chugging down the face of a hill, that necessary first line that pulls the cork out of the bottle, releases the pent-up genie.

And with whom do you start?  Do you in fact have the right person?  Is there no better person to be the narrative filter?  If the work at hand is not fiction, rather an essay, are you in the proper frame of mind to deliver the voice you feel appropriate for freighting the narrative information?  Are you to be ironic, serious, inflated with gravitas?

Difficult as it is to proceed in such a quandary of thought, you need to make some decisions, you need to do some thinking, some primary arranging to get a forceful narrative start that will urge the genie out of the bottle, ready at least to nod his head to you in thanks for allowing him out of the bottle.

You are in fact supposed not to think, rather to listen to your senses begin to articulate the narrative path.  You try to keep your eyes open for any wanderers, youngsters who might wander off, then become lost.

Over years of practice, you've developed some first draft process, making it rare when you pause to seek a vision of what is to come next.  Pausing, seeking visions, those are the equivalent of shamanism, aren't they?  They're thinking, which should not come until the first draft is largely completed, a mass of lined note pad pages or unspellchecked computer pages, dashed off at great and inaccurate speed.

Of course this is all sophistry; the first draft should be given more than thought; it should be given your living presence so that it can be heard, like a prisoner in a remote jailhouse, writing a crude, pleading writ of hebeas corpus on the back of a paper bag.  Help, help, the writ says, I'm being held against my will.  You have my body in the hoosegow,  Let me fucking go.

When you began to consider stories as writs of habeas corpus, you began to think more of the characters as prisoners, including your tolerance for the cliche that ninety-five percent of inmates argue they've been wrongly detained.  You wouldn't be in here, you want to rail at them, if you hadn't been doing something that appeared illegal.

They may agree that they were doing something suspicious, but whatever it was, "they" had no right to arrest you or subject you to such additional humiliation.

First drafts are in their way anarchists, shouting, yowling for social justice, wanting to be heard now, demanding your attention--or else.  How difficult it is to make adequate sense of them at times.  You often approach yours with a sense of foreboding, wondering what you will discoverer beyond the fact of you having tried to get the writing done as quickly and completely as possible, confident that the discipline of speed with overcome the consequences and awkward style of too much extra detail.

First drafts are a relief to have done.  However much more difficult it is to begin thinking about where the story begins, where it ends, and what its tone is, who's in charge, such considerations seem to make the ultimate, necessary thoughts worthwhile.

Monday, June 17, 2013


When a thing or condition is apparent, the trouble begins.  To whom, for instance, is that thing or situation apparent?  Yes, of course, apparent things seem to be where they are thought to be, but there's the question again--to whom do they seem to be in place or even in an emerging condition?  And don't forget this question:  Is that person a reliable witness.

We're used to speaking of appearances, the coming into view or perception of some quality or person or place, for that matter, any noun.  We're not so used to speaking of apparentces.  Your spell checker is not used to seeing apparentces, will have no truck with the word, much less its meaning.  And because apparentces is a neologism, a word coined for this blog post, it may never come into view beyond these few lines, although you do believe it is an easy new word to interpret.

But look, will you, at the mischief caused by appearances.  If a thing is apparent, its presence can be felt if not seen.  How long will this appearance last?  If this presumed thing is apparent, can it become non-apparent after a time, perhaps overcome by some forceful logic or even a lessening of interest?

At some point during your reading of one of your favorite genera, the mystery, you may be delivered the appearance that the proverbial butler did the proverbial it, killed the individual whose corpse was discovered in the main salon, some imaginative prop, say a champagne cork, stuck between his rictus sardonicus death gaze teeth.

Good luck with that.  You are being manipulated by the author, which is one of the reasons you were reading the mystery in the first place, no?  Yes.  You are also being manipulated by those sublime forces contributing to such aspects of you as your curiosity, your level of cynicism, and such abilities as you have to gauge apparent (there's that word again) motivations.

As a reader of mysteries, you're aware of the big three of mystery deconstruction, Means, Motive, and Opportunity.  Who among the ensemble cast of characters had the means of access to the victim, the motive for committing the crime, and the opportunity to do so?

In a successful mystery, everyone at one time or another is an apparent suspect.  Indeed, in at least one Agatha Christie mystery, pretty much all the ensemble cast had the means, motive, and opportunity to do in the corpse discovered in a railroad drawing room coach.

So far as mysteries are concerned, you enjoy being led down what you call the garden path, led to believe by dint of your own prejudices, your own bigotry, your own misanthropy to suspect the apparent worst in everyone.  Of course you get a chance to realize how you were being played.  This has happened often enough, because you've read any number of well-constructed mysteries, that you enjoy the game of being caught out, but apparently you will have learned something of enough significance to move you away from your prejudices and closer to a rational, reasonable person.  Good luck with that, too.

With apparent elements in play, you are dancing as well with another weasel word, seems.  A fitting synonym for seems is appears.  Something apparent or appearing seems to be emerging, seems to be in place, seems to be orderly or logical or sensible or even tangible.

Ever hear of the rationalization, Seemed like a good idea at the time?  What about, We seem to be in substantial agreement.  Watch out for those appearances because in the long run, we have to face the apparent reality that what seems apparent may only be provisionally apparent and what is actually apparent is--here it comes--what is merely or barely or some other adverbial weasel word undercutting what can be seen and examined.

When you having a debate-type argument or discussion with someone and your conversant nods, maintains eye contact, and even makes vocal and sub-vocal sounds of agreement, you have considerable cause to think you are in apparent agreement on the points under discussion. This seems more evident as the conversation continues, adding more fuel yet to the apparent argument you might engage in the future when each of you discovers the apparent concord or accord was no such thing.

A story doesn't seem to be working out as you'd thought earlier in the game because apparently there are elements missing or too many divergent elements present.  You appear to have lost control.  You appear to be on the wrong end of an argument.  You seem not to be able to do anything about it.

All boils down to perception, doesn't it?  But whose?  We're back to that again, don't you think?  Seems to get more complicated when an answer appears to be closest at hand.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Reasons for Being Cranky

Jane Austen's most quoted universal truth is at once a splendid way to begin a narrative and an intended irony of equal splendidness.  You have learned much about your craft of choice from Ms. Austen, much of it built around the constructs of irony, your most favored of all learning platform of hers the novel Persuasion.

The truth of universal acknowledgment you are beginning to notice is that a man of your age or thereabouts is apt to be cranky.  There are longish laundry lists of reasons for this crankiness, moving in as though squatters who have found a fine, unoccupied home in which to squat.  

Some in your generation are afflicted with noticeable arthritis, others have taken on the dreaded ring of adipose tissue about the waist, while yet others have been blighted with gravitational downturn, which is to say wrinkles, bags, and sags.

Yours is also a generation which is some sort of plateau so far as career advancement is concerned, a time where our Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon forbears would have amassed many tales of successful woolly mammoth hunts or heart-rending portraits of aurochs and bison on the walls of caves.  Men who have aspired but not yet delivered on their aspirations to a satisfactory pre-set standard are wont to be cranky.

Men who have played it safe and are now mired in safety and regrets have tendencies toward cranky, and while we're on the subject, men who have spent much of their time allowing their own cynicism and negativism to rule them appear to have embraced a dystopic vision of the universe, its engines and attractions.

There are, to be sure, myriad reasons for being cranky, many of which are not at all a part of the individual genome but which are entirely accidental.  Among these is the play between envy and jealousy directed at another who appears to have profited from mere happenstance rather than purposeful industry.

If you were to grade yourself (which you suppose you are in the act of doing at this very moment), you'd say you were less cranky now than you were at , say, a past time of twenty years back.  You'd also say that on an average, you were cranky now less than twenty percent of the time.  

You also have to admit the arrival of an insight as you enter this paragraph into being.  The insight, a not so gentle tap on the metaphoric shoulder, demanding your attention, is that being in the presence of someone who appears to be not cranky more than ninety percent of the time provokes your suspicion if not your direct crankiness.

This means you have parameters in which being cranky does play a part or, to rephrase that, you are suspicious of parameters or philosophies or lifestyles in which there is no room for cranky responses.

Your best supposition at the moment is that in your more salad days, your cranky index was well into the forty percent range, meaning among other things that you were carrying about a load of resentment and anger that needed to be addressed with the same kind of oversight a street corner salesman must display to avoid being rousted by the cops.

Resentment and anger take effort to deal with.  Far better to work them out by inventing characters and situations whereby you can write your way through them and in the process begin to recognize trends and tendencies which in effect allow you to give them up, offer them, as the Hindus would say, to the fires of Brahman, certainly to bid them a fond farewell.

Reading and writing have led you to conclude that anger and resentment, while among human traits, are also apt to bring forth characters and situations that are cliche, a place you wish to avoid.

Reading and writing lead you to conclude that another hard wired condition--fear--although fraught with potential for cliche, is quite positive if used with close consideration.  You do believe--at least for the moment--that at some distant point, you were fearful of the effects of crankiness on your person.

You have suspected for some time that your default position is enthusiasm and thus you see, via another messenger, a kind of cosmic pizza deliverer, the strategy of looking for something to enthuse over or around or about when the crotchets of crankiness are pestering you for any spare change.