Saturday, August 31, 2013

Trapped Words

Ideas, notions, and concepts come at all times.  They arrive in many forms, some half-articulated, others more like the imaginary maps you drew with a hoarded stub of a Dixon Ticonderoga # 2 pencil, kept in your pocket with small note books, pictures of airplanes, and a red-and-black Duncan yo-yo.

They arrive to be sorted out, understood, perhaps even decoded.  Now that you are beyond carrying pencils and have moved along from Esterbrook fountain pens to some of your favored Italian ones, your small notebooks are filled with hints or clues that attempt to decode the messages you get.

Because you have spent more time in schools than you ever supposed you'd spend, you have picked up words and terms of the school, the academy, the class room.  They make a certain sense to you that is on a level of the earlier ideas and concepts that came to you, back in the pencil days.

One such word is story.  When you first heard it in class rooms, you were uneasy about your ability to understand it, in much the same way you were not sure you could translate things of algebra or make sense of things related to geometry.

When the world turned about on an axis of accident and irony, you were the one using the word story, and you felt as uneasy as you did when you were a student and professors in philosophy classes were talking about a term called truth, which you'd heard a good deal about, particularly in admonitions that you always tell it.

In time, you learned that you had to break such things as long division, algebra, truth, and story into definitions you could explain to yourself and feel comfortable with.

All the while, experience was putting new things for investigation and study before you to the point where it seemed you'd never catch up.  Take the word subtext, for instance.  Some of your students were coming to you, confused at the way other of their instructors expected them to know what it meant.

You were disturbed with the discovery that you were saying words in the school language without really having those words as muscle memory, things you could do, understand, play with the way you used to play with another kind of toy, the kaleidoscope, where you were in actuality moving a few bits of glass trapped inside some mirrors and prisms.  The effect often overpowered the mechanism.

People said things.  You said things.  People meant something else than what they said when they said those things.  You found yourself occasionally tripping over the gap between what was said and what was meant.  You began to understand that subtext was the thing felt but not said when the thing said was being spoken in hopes of having it sound agreeable or acceptable.

For about a year, you were saying subtext all over the campus, buttonholing students to tell them subtext.

What is said, as played against what is not said but meant.

I'm glad you liked it.  (You'd better have liked it)  (Your like or dislike of "it," whatever it may be, is of no concern to me.)

Maybe next time.  (Ain't gonna be no next time.)

Destabilizing event is another word that you'd have felt bewildered by if your major had not included numerous courses in American and English literature.  A story begins with a destabilizing event.  Some event brings chaos to play, demanding a response from a major character.  If Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, had merely had heartburn or, perhaps an attack of kidney stones, there'd have been no play.  King Hamlet had to have been murdered by his brother, Claudius, properly working up King Hamlet's ghost to demand of his son that he seek revenge.  Now, we've got a story.

When you were discovering it from your reading (some of which you still marked up with those stubs of Dixon Ticonderoga # 2 pencils) you thought you were learning first- and third-person narrative.  I said.  He said.  She said.  

Free indirect speech is third-person narration.  It uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech, set forth to make it seem to the reader that the story is coming from a character as opposed to being an authorial intervention.

There is no telling the number of short stories and novels you published before you found out about free direct and indirect discourse, making you think a great mistake had been made and you'd sneaked past the border guards undetected.  Worse, for a time you believed you would write better short stories and novels now that you knew about free direct and indirect speech.

Big mistake.  Bit a few years off your writing arc. Fact is, if you understand point of view and are able to accept the fact that your characters provide the narrative and dialogue rather than you, this information will allow you to nod sagely when you hear academics speaking, because you know what they mean.  You can also ask them what, in addition to their scholarly work, they may have published in the way of fiction.

Not long ago, a friend asked you if you had any trapped words.  This made a great deal of sense because the image of words being trapped is so visual that you can feel them, rattling the cage, trying to free themselves.  Trapped words send subtext back to school, its tail tucked between its legs.  Looking for your own trapped words helps you look for them in the characters you create. helps you see what myths and realities they're holding onto, all the while debating who to share them with, who to trust.

You keep returning to a conversation you were fortunate to be invited to between your late pal, Barnaby Conrad, and that wonderful playwright, Neil Simon.

In his spectacular way, Simon knew a thing or two about trapped words.  "A great way for beginning a story,"  he said, was having a character tell another, 'I'm going to tell you something I've never told another person.'"

Friday, August 30, 2013

Funny, You Don't Look Like a Writer

Mistaken identity is often a starting point for humor.  Depending on the extent of mistake, say an ordinary-looking individual being taken for a cold blooded killer, the results may reach deep into the response mechanisms and cues we take from the culture from which we have emerged.  

The reverse is also a Petri dish of potential, say a cold blooded killer being mistaken for a sidewalk guard outside an elementary school, or a teller at a small, mini-mall branch of a bank.

So far as you are concerned, there is nothing about you that would cause you to be mistaken for someone else, but this vision of self you have has been tested on numerous occasions to the point where you are no longer surprised if the reverse of your opinion is demonstrated.

Because you have bushy eyebrows and are tall, you are often mistaken for the late actor James Whitmore.  On one occasion, when you were approached by a person who said, "My God, I thought you were dead," you assumed he was mistaking you for the actor.

From time to time, you've compared your eyebrows with those of a man you admire to the point of near idolatry, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, well known as Mark Twain.  Because he affected a bushy mustache as well, you'd given serious thought to growing one of your own in order to enhance the similarity.  Only you know the extent you went to model your narrative style after his, but there again, another truth about identity manifests itself.  

There is only one real model.  Everything else is an imitation.  Happy as you would be to be thought in any context with Mark Twain, you must be yourself, bushy eyebrows, but no mustache nor deliberate attempts to imitate.  You can try to affect his dead pan humor, which sometimes works, but sometimes, when you are trying to keep a straight face, you explode into laughter, a response that you've become willing to accept because that is your you response.

At one of the coffee shops you frequent, a bright, attractive woman saw you and burst into tears, a response that had a profound and stirring effect on you, made even more profound when you discovered why.  You reminded her of her late father.  When she told you things about her father, you were humbled to think you could be mistaken for an individual with such abilities and background.

Because one of your two respected mentors was an actor, you have paid closer attention to actors "being" or portraying characters, particularly in the way they spoke their lines of dialogue.  Your mentor was married to the actor, Yul Brynner, who, when he was performing as the King of Siam, was wont to say upon awakening in the morning, "We are hungry.  We want our breakfast."  You believe your mentor when she told you of her reply to that, "Well, we can just fucking get up and make it ourself."

You have, whether due to the eyebrows or some other accident, been mistaken for other writers, in a number of cases being told your latest book changed someone's life.  In short order, you knew the individual was talking about a book you not only had not written, you had not much cared for it.

You have also been accused of not being serious enough in your writing and in about equal measure of treating too many things as jokes.

From her, you developed the habit of reading your material aloud, hoping to catch misplaced word order, unnecessary words, and a complete lack of dramatic sense within discussions between two or more characters, making you realize at times how envious of actors you are.  Even though you would like to be able to "mistake" yourself for an actor, you recognize when reading your material aloud how much work there is yet for you to do in the simple regard of making your characters individuals.

This explains to you your own fondness for actors and the fact of you having invented a character, Matthew Bender, who is an actor, having many of the distinctly un-Yul Brynner actor experiences and more along the lines of having jobs in which he is portraying characters with a limited dramatic scope, as in "The Man in the Chicken Suit," where Bender is "performing" in front of a chicken restaurant.

This also explains why your character has the surname of Bender, because you, in effect, are seeing him as someone else.  Most of the Bender stories are in or about Santa Barbara.  But as part of the biography you have written for him, he is in a sense on his way back to Santa Barbara from an off-Broadway appearance in the play Troilus and Cressida, which is about the Trojan Wars, right?  And one of the big names in another version of the Trojan Wars was Odysseus in The Odyssey, right?  And if you deconstruct the name of Odysseus from its Greek origins, you get "a man of many turns," right?  And so your own sense of discovery produces a kind of chili at the way Bender and a man of many turns play out, right?

And so it comes to you that a way to put some time into learning your craft as a writer and as a wannabe actor in order to write stories about characters who are real enough not to be confused with the characters of other writers is to write a book about how to conflate the techniques actors use to help them individualize their portrayals with characters with a book for storytellers about how to think like an actor.

This suggestion was prompted upon you by a publisher who thought you might be the one to do the job.  In the process, you might come closer to mistaking yourself for a writer.

You know exactly what you'd say to yourself:  "Your latest book has changed my life."

Thursday, August 29, 2013


There is a large measure of accuracy within the observation that you are a dawdler.  At earlier times in your life, say when you, your parents, and sister lived at what was then 6145 1/2 Orange Street in a Los Angeles so relatively young that it knew nothing of zip codes for mailing things or area codes for long distance calls, your mother would on occasion find you sitting on the edge of your bed, staring off into space, one sock on, the other still in your hand.

"Don't dawdle,"  she'd tell you then.  "Your breakfast is getting cold."

"I'm thinking,"  you'd say.  And in what may pass for honesty, you believed you were thinking, drawn along in a rather straight line, wishing for a greater sense of adventure in your life than the straight line you were on.  

That was one of the things it was like to be five or six, with five- or six-year-old adventures limited to radio programs geared for you, where adults and young persons you began to suspect were not all that young got into adventures.  

Being five or six also put you in a position where any number of adults, teachers, for instance, or rabbis, or relatives seemed to think it their responsibility to teach you things you later came to discover were coded messages of a particular cultural type that seemed to center on how responsible five- and six- and seven-year-old boys should behave.

There was also the considerable lore boys who were three or four,perhaps even five years older than you wanted you to be aware of, perhaps showing off because they had finally reached a plateau where someone looked up to them for their wisdom.  If you were lucky, fifty percent of this lore was useful.

One day, when you were six, an older boy named Leon, who used to race past you on his bicycle, calling out something like "Hi, kid," or, if you happened to be with a group of other boys, "Hi, stupid," turned around after racing past you, screeched his bicycle to a halt, then came back to ask you what you were doing.

You were actually in the process of assembling a primitive form of radio called a crystal radio, which seemed to take its power from a combination of radio waves and a long antenna.  When you told Leon, he said that was alright for grammar school kids, but he was going to tell you something that would effect the rest of your life, if you thought you could stand it.  He watched you carefully for a moment, shook his head, then turned to his bicycle.  "You're not ready for this yet."

"What?"  you said.

"Skip it.  You're too dumb for this."

"At least tell me what I'm too dumb for."

"All right,"  he said.  "You're too dumb to know about catalytic agents."

He was quite right, but in a rare stroke of dramatic logic, you called after him.  "We already had that,"  you called.  "They give us stuff like that early at Hancock Park School."  Leon was in his first semester at a junior high school you would ultimately attend, therein to spend some of the most miserable years of your life.

"Catalytic agent,"  you said, already liking the sound of it.  "Catalytic agent."

You had never seen Leon so defeated.  "Ohm's Law,"  you called after him.  

Two days later, the boyfriend of the maid who worked for your parents stopped by for a visit.  Because of his job at Douglas Aircraft, a plant in Santa Monica that produced airplanes, he seemed the ideal person to ask about catalytic agents.

Leon was right.  In one way or another, you've been dealing with, even inventing, catalysts of your own.

There was one program you listened to because there was nothing better on at the time, called "The Uncle Whoa Bill Show," where once a year, around this time of the calendar, Uncle Whoa Bill and his assistant, Piggy, would instruct you to look somewhere non-adventurous for a birthday present your mother would have hidden.  She often chose the piano bench.

You were more fond of programs such as Red Ryder, Tom Mix, Jack Armstrong, Captain Midnight, and of course the Lone Ranger.  But even these were beginning to grate on you because they usually had code messages for their fans, using some code ring or badge or secret wallet.  The messages were a step or two up from your birthday surprise being in the piano bench, more along the lines of "Captain Midnight urges you to help with the dishes after dinner."

It is no wonder you were frequently thinking when you should be putting on your other sock, followed by both shoes, before coming to breakfast.

True to form, you dawdle these days, even though there is no one about to tell you to hurry up, you have a class, or to warn you you'll be late for breakfast with friends.

Your dawdling is of a more complex, perhaps even cynical nature, where you wonder who was the individual who got stuck being Uncle Whoa Bill, always having to tell his listeners that instead of crying when they hurt themselves, all they had to do was say "Whoa Bill" and the pain would go away.

Somewhere along the way, you had enough experiences to provide at least an interior adventure if not an overt, literal, outside one.  Things previously unconnected seemed to want to introduce themselves in your mind, not only in the morning when putting on your socks but--and here was the beginning of the adventure--at any time, without warning.

You were still young enough when this began to happen that your mother, no longer telling you not to dawdle, asked you if you were listening.  A number of teachers asked you the same question, and with good reason.

This was almost as wonderful as your discovery of girls as a stunning source of adventure, complete with the kinds of coded messages Captain Midnight and the Green Hornet could not or would not divulge.  You were no longer a hostage to a fact, memorized for its own sake.  And to this day, you have never been asked or in any way held accountable for the fact that water boils at 212 Fahrenheit degrees at sea level.  Whenever you have to boil water at sea level, you just turn on the flame and wait it out.  But connecting boiling water with, say, cooking pasta or lobsters was another matter, involving decisions, theory, applications, even meals or food for thought.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On the Pathway between Wise Guy and Smart Ass

Somewhere between your time as a student in the forth grade, you were yanked out of what seemed the comforts of life in Los Angeles.  Your destination was the other side of the continent, where a grandmother you'd never seen before awaited, and several small incidents were burned into your awareness.

One of these "incidents" was the Arizona desert, to which you still feel drawn back to.  Another was a drinking fountain in Washington, D.C., which, while you were taking water from it, caused you to be vigorously yanked by your hair, then told you were not meant to drink water from that fountain because it would be unseemly for you to do so, further because you would then be drinking water "one of them" might wish, only to be denied access because you, a white person, would be drinking and thus "one of them" who might wish to drink water, would have to wait until you finished drinking.  

At the time, you were used to the kinds of frantic recess activity only a fourth grade boy could appreciate, which meant you were used to spending a good deal of time at a drinking fountain, taking in huge quantities of water.  You could understand the impact this might have on anyone awaiting their turn at the faucet, but you could not for the life of you understand why "one of them" would be an issue.

The grandmother you met for the first time did any number of things you'd never experienced before.  She grilled hot dogs in a cast iron skillet.  She made the fluffiest, most delicious apple strudel you have ever tasted.  She warmed sauerkraut, using a tiny dab of chicken fat.  She sprinkled caraway seeds into the warm sauerkraut.  She sometimes made sauerkraut out of purple cabbage.  At this same time, you were taken to a restaurant on Hester Street in the Lower East Side, where you often ate as many as four hot dogs, all strewn with sauerkraut and a piquant, thick mustard.

Before you were able to return to Los Angeles, you learned to enjoy then crave little neck clams.  The faculty of a grammar school in Providence, Rhode Island, were impressed with the things you said about The Iliad and The Odyssey and how naive you supposed the Pilgrims to have been for allowing themselves nearly to starve to death in spite of being so close to incredible supplies of shell fish.  They were willing to overlook your relative innocence in long division, advancing you well beyond your school grade of entry.

Before you returned to Los Angeles, you had a route delivering The Miami Herald to neighborhood in Miami Beach where a significant obstacle to your ability to deliver papers were occasional signs informing all who saw them that dogs, Negroes, and persons of your race were not welcomed on the premises.

In fairness, you also learned how to secure coconuts from trees, how to remove the husks and thus be able to eat the meat of the coconut if you'd lost your lunch money lagging or matching pennies.  You also discovered, thanks to a captain in the U.S. Army named Al Anastasio, who also happened to be a dentist, a remarkable delicacy called an anchovy pizza pie.

The range of things you discovered while away from Los Angeles prepared you and shaped you for something that has remained with you, becoming a useful tool and awareness set, more valuable that what at the time you considered to be the discovery of anchovy pizza.

You'd heard the words metaphor and simile and allegory before, along with an occasional hyperbole.  You were prepared for them all when you returned, jumping on the terms, relishing them, sprinkling them into your conversation.  

Recalling your initiation to these words has brought memories of your then writing style back to you.  "Today, our entire class boarded a yellow school bus.  When we settled down, Mrs, Knowlton told us we were going to a dairy that was way out on La Cienega toward Culver City.  It was a dairy named for a woman who owned many acres of land in Malibu.  Her name was Rhoda and she got the name of the dairy by spelling her name backwards."

You can close your eyes and recall many such examples.  At the time, you had no way of making the comparison that learning such words and their meanings was as momentous to you as, in a matter of scant years, puberty would come to mean to you.

How grand it was to go from straightforward declarative sentences, however sincere and direct, to implications, double entendres, and your most favored of all narrative devices, the pun.

There was no telling where the next excitement, the next literary equivalent of anchovy pizza would come from.  Let me kill you, sweetheart.  A hearse of another killer.  Little hearse on the prairie.  A man for all Susans. And the myriad puns on the names of fish:  Hard of herring...change your tuna...I think I've got a haddock...

By the time you'd learned to cope with a synecdoche, you were well on your way to being what your father on occasion referred to as a wise guy.  But then you discovered the pleonasm,and your position as a smart ass was assured. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Reality is an ongoing procession of events, some interrelated, others with no connection whatsoever.  When you find yourself engaged in a segment of it, you have two distinct scenarios from which to chose.  You can in a sense objectify Reality, engage in what is called the pathetic fallacy of imparting human or animal characteristics and attributes to it.  Then, thinking you sense some aspect of personality, begin to craft activity or plans to fit your vision.

The night seems to exude a quality of mystery and adventure.  In response, you give yourself over to those qualities, seeking from them hints of what they wish from you.

The second possibility is that you already have a plan in mind, an outcome you hope to bring about with as much specificity as you can manage.  Thus, against the background of Reality, churning out a constant thread of event, you set forth with your own agenda.

Neither of these approaches is correct behavior against the standard of the other being incorrect or wrong.  Each represents an approach for initiating some protracted agenda.

Of course there are other possible scenarios.  Events from the impersonal loom of Reality may force decisions or activities upon you.  Your response may be completely reactive, bringing to you a form of parental direction:  Reality made me do it.  Had I not done it, I should have been shoved aside or drowned or ridden over, perhaps even buried.

You have read and written enough stories to recognize the undesirable potentials of this last approach,  You're more comfortable with an agenda, a plan, even the most pragmatic one within your imagination.  You or someone else, wanting something to the degree of willingness to take steps to achieve the desired outcome.

Let's say you are invited to dinner.  Grateful for the invitation, you begin considering something to bring along with your presence and appetite. Bottles of wine come to mind.  So do flowers, for this is a time for bright, chipper-looking flowers or plants.  Not to forget splendid examples of melons and fruits.

After spending some time considering options, you set forth to a shop with a particularly diverse selection of local, regional, and foreign wines, in a sense measuring your own response to the varieties and labels you encounter.

After yet more time, the sales clerk approaches you, wondering if he can help.  "It must,"  he ventures, "be some important dinner for all this deliberation you're putting in."

But no, it is not "some important dinner," it is an important dinner in the sense that all dinners, even meals taken alone, should matter.  Perhaps the fact of a dinner being taken alone gives it a built-in need to make some ceremony or ritual of it so that it will be remembered in spirit if not specific instance as an opportunity to bring more than self to an event.

You select the bottle, then stop along the way for a bunch of Gerbera, the so-called African daisy, tall, cheerful, their colors as social and outgoing as the tones in a kid's watercolor paint box.

The arrival you make is now at a level where you are bringing gifts, recognition, awareness, all at high levels that have nothing to do with politeness or social conventions, although neither of these aspects of the human condition are in any way harbingers of you, arriving at less than your necessary condition.

Discussions of logic involve necessary conditions, those being required to fill standards of integral presence, and sufficient conditions, those conditions which are the basic ante in the poker game of presence.

Since you wish to be a person and a writer, working in simultaneous cooperation, you must stop to consider the necessary condition.  Sufficient is not enough for you.  Nor is it enough if you are composing ideas or characters of your own.

Even if you are dining alone.

What do you bring to the dinner?

The actor undergoes training to learn how to fill a room with a particular kind of presence.  How, for instance, does an actor convey his love for another character?  One place to begin has him watching her, each times she comes on stage in his presence.  He brings to his presence the delight and sense of engaging mystery and awareness that go beyond his lines of dialogue or his narrative stage directions.

Even if you are dining alone, the things you bring to dinner define you to yourself, your character to the self of your character.

Through a lifetime of reading and observing and attempting to capture characters on paper, you learn how to bring to your presence that sense of earnest conviction that allows you to project, to radiate that awareness, that love you bring with you as you confront the large, spinning, thrumming loom of Reality that goes on, weaving endless yards of event against which your own limited moments must compete.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Non Campus Mentis

Yet another way for you to have lost your innocence came when you sat across the desk from a man named Lou, who took a thick manuscript from you, handed you a check, then said the two of you needed to have a talk.

Until that moment, you'd had only one other kind of situation in which persons on the other side of desks told you of the need for some form of discussion.  "We'll have to talk about this.  But not just now."One or two of such conversations were enough to let you know that was code for the fact of you never being in the same room with the individual again.

When the man named Lou said you needed to have a talk, you braced yourself for the strong possibility of this being the last time you'd be in Lou's office, seated across a desk from him.  You went so far as to glance at your watch, checking to see if there were still time to get to the bank before it closed.  In those days, the expression hammer was code for presenting a check for cashing.  You had time to hammer the check from Lou, now in your pocket.

"I understand you're a fast worker,"  Lou said.  "I have no complaints about that, but I see a market opening and I need more product."  He hefted a hefty memorandum, beautifully typed, bound in a manner you'd come to associate with legal briefs.  The memorandum had cost Lou close to ten thousand dollars, which he'd paid to a man you knew as a shyster and con artist named Bentley.  In many ways, Lou wished to be Bentley, not understanding how he was in fact the shrewder of the two, that Bentley was all bluster and affectation.  But Bentley was Lou's weakness, and thus fare well, cool reason.

"You must know some writers who could write the suggestions on this list that you're too busy to write on account of you're writing one a month for me already and I don't see how you could do two."

You did indeed know some writers.  You did not have to hammer Lou's check.  In fact, you left his office with yet another check, a retainer, he called it, for you to recruit "some writers who could write the suggestions on this list" that Bentley had charged Lou close to ten thousand dollars for.  With that additional check, you stepped over the boundary of being a writer and became an editor.  If you had not fallen into that particular rabbit hole, you may not have become an editor at any time in the foreseeable future, if ever.  

As you well know, if you had not taken to being an editor, you might not have been asked by another editor, your competition from another publisher, in fact, to take his classes at the university while he attended a sales meeting.  And you know how that worked:  You became a teacher.

Being a writer is its own form of insanity.  You came of age at a time when it was thought to be uninteresting if one were to write about what it was like to be a writer.  One editor even asked you, "Who the fuck cares?"  Other editors asked you "Who would want to read a book set in Africa?"  And when you answered, "Ask Joseph Conrad," he said something to you your father often had cause to say, "Wise guy."

Other editors, still, told you that people did not wish to read books about South America or books written by South Americans, and you were once again called a wise guy, thanks to your responses.

This is not meant to suggest you were prescient, although you probably were, in particular given some of your then answers.  This is meant to demonstrate that as a writer who had to go out of his way to invent disciplines and landscapes other than writing to write about, you were suddenly presented with two turfs about which to write that have provided you with excellent character types, metaphors, and themes.

In short order, you moved from having to rely on research to being able to draw on experiences in the worlds of publishing and teaching at a university level.  You were also able to draw on the experience of setting the bar high on your plausibility levels for each discipline, push beyond it to what you considered exaggeration or hyperbole, then discover your hyperbole to have been exceeded by reality.

Publishing and the university taught you to write crazy, which is to say pick a level you feel goes beyond the plausible, then wait to discover the unthinkable has come to pass and that if you are to stay ahead of the curve, you must think beyond crazy.

With the worlds of publishing and the university in mind, you are able to watch such noir, unthinkable-come-to-pass cop shows as The Badge, Southland, Life, NY22, and the even grittier, Luther and Low Winter Sun for entertainment.

Odd things happen in the publishing world, challenging standards of rational behavior to the point where you, in publishing related situations, throw away so-called bottom-line or rational modes of behavior, then embark on the bottom-line of crazy.

Right now, as a result of a situation you find yourself in the world of teaching, you find yourself drawn to what appears the most apt metaphor with which you will ever be presented.

When you think of college novels, the first and in its way most distinctive that comes to your mind is Randall Jarrell's stunning Pictures from an Institution.  You also think of John Williams' wrench of a novel, Stoner,probably the first American novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Fanshawe, Richard Russo's Wickedly funny Straight Man, Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, and the Nabokov romp, Pnin.  Oh, all right; you think of Joyce Carol Oates's I'll Take You There, and of Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe.

You do love them all, but now you see something that brings the matter to its most wonderful.  Start with Charlie Parker, Mr. alto saxophone.  Mr. Be bop.  Think of his side, "Relaxin' at Camarillo."  Think of his heroin addiction having him sent to the Camarillo (California) 
State Hospital, which was a repository for drug addiction patients, and for difficult-to-treat circumstances, not the least of which is schizophrenia.  Think of this facility finally closing down, its lavish features being taken over by, you guessed it, California State University, Channel Islands.

The original architecture and signature Spanish bell tower are now a part of campus life, but a campus of another sort.  Surely there is room in there for an office, the office of someone quite like your pal, Ernest, from the UCSB Department of French and Italian, appearing at the office every day.  Think of him being invited to sit in on meetings, his expertise being sought.  After all, an emeritus professor would know much cool stuf, no?  And think of this individual being a hold over inmate, and think of the things you have seen and thought you exaggerated that came true, such as an entire department in an entire university, tasked with the chore of writing condolence letters to wealthy alums on the death of their cherished dog or cat or bird.


Sunday, August 25, 2013


Each time you sit somewhere to compose something, you are making choices.  These choices begin with the medium itself, whether the composition will get its start on the smaller, pocket-sized notebooks you carry about with you, the sometimes present lined eight-and-a-half by-eleven note pads, or somehow on toward the captured keystrokes that will make their way to the hard drive of a computer.

Often there is a driving force behind the setting forth of the composition, some buzzing insect of an idea that wants introduction to an enclosed environment where it will have enough flora and fauna to nourish it while it grows under your observation.

Many of the ideas or notions you trap within the confines of these blog parameters are equivalents of lab animals, waiting for opportunities to evolve into something more mature, something with the wisdom of experience.

What possible experience could these ideas have?  Why, they could be revised, cut, pasted, conflated, transported, expanded upon.  In such cases, words would be added, to them, deleted from them (you have any number of habit words that cause you to groan when their repetitions begin to call themselves to your attention), their orders or verb tenses modified or removed altogether.

These ideas could have similar experiences to many incidents and events in your non-composition life, your standing in a grocery check-out line or your reading a book in a coffee shop life, where, only a week ago, you were approached by a man who introduced himself to you by telling you a book of yours had changed his life, then went on to talk about the book in a way that let you know he had mistaken you for another writer.  These ideas, and others like them, have met with obstacles, frustrations, misdirection.  Some of them have fizzled out, become lost, or were scooped up to be used as ingredients in another idea. 

Over a lifetime of learning to recognize ideas, how to cope with them, and in some grand sense, how to care for them, you are no longer surprised by them.  You are perhaps distracted by them, warmed by their ability to keep you away from the more mundane activities, and thus sometimes likely to take them for granted.

Ideas have been close friends at times, leading you away from self-centeredness and toward a greater sense of looking for places where there is a tangible connection between you and more things than you might have guessed.  Thus, ideas keep you guessing and connected in ways it is good to appreciate.  Ideas keep you investigating the scale of your experiences, your wish list for understanding, and your vision of the way ideas work.

In some ways, knowing the little you do about ideas allows you to see how they behave for you the way notes do for a musician.  Players know the ranges of their instruments, which notes they can produce, which are beyond their ability to achieve unless they move to another instrument with a different range.  Fond of short stories as you are, there are ranges of ideas that will not fit in them and require the broader scale of the novel.

Musicians know through muscle memory the sound of each note in the instrument they play.  This allows them to improvise or reproduce, just as you improvise here and rearrange, edit, revise, and remove words, ideas, phrases.

Thinking these things, you are sometimes horrified at the way you took ideas for granted to the point where you were at no pains to care for them.  You in a sense treated them the way John James Audubon treated the scores and hundreds of birds he sacrificed to gain the muscle memory he was able to use in his portraits.  

You have to treat ideas with respect, thankful they began coming to you in the first place, but now to keep them coming.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Possibilities to Consider When Falling

Someone is falling.

Perhaps that falling individual had been climbing only moments earlier.  Or maybe standing at an edge.  A precipitous edge.  Perhaps that individual was mounting an escalator at a train depot before falling, trying to read from a Kindle Fire, a novel, say, while moving upward.

Well, perhaps the individual who is falling is also late for an appointment or, in fact, quite early, with generous time to spare.  How often do you hear about individuals falling when they are early for an appointment?

Could it be that the individual who is falling is a man of middle years, or an emeritus academic or physician, a doctor, for example, who once performed orthopedic surgery?  On the other hand, suppose the individual captured in free fall is still quite young, head and heart throbbing with tumescent dreams.

Or maybe a woman, not only falling but doing so at a moment in her life where there are important decisions to be made.  Is her fall in any way related to the important decisions clamoring for her attention?  There is something compelling about her shoulders, her posture, both standing and in stride.  

If she is in fact the person falling, does the suddenness of her no longer standing or in full stride but rather in fall, in any way detract from the excellent configuration of her shoulders?  Probably not.  Destabilizing events, sudden shifts from ordinary such as standing or striding, tend to grab our attention and hold it, focused tightly on the fall.

So there is this woman in free fall.

How far does she have to fall before she lands?  What will she land on? Will it be a controlled landing or an awkward one?  If we knew she had such a notable posture and excellent shoulders before she began her fall, would we have concerns about these aspects after her fall was completed?

Falling, you see, is an excellent beginning.  If we find ourselves at opening moments of story, where someone, by most accounts a complete stranger to us, is captured in free fall, so too is our interest captured.  We wait for that individual to complete the fall, watching to see how she or he negotiates the fall, responds to the impact of landing.  We learn significant things about that person from the mere way of landing and the response.  

Had we seen that person before the fall, there exists splendid probability that we would not have noticed.  Except perhaps for the woman with the extraordinary shoulders and posture--at least, those of us who are men would have noticed because we are given to believe we are hard-wired to notice such things.

So there you are, a lesson in beginnings.  A dramatic approach to a way to cause some readers to care, perhaps even to the extent of rooting for the person who is falling.  Perhaps even to the extent of awakening some curiosity about what the person was doing before the fall.  Perhaps even entertaining some suspicion that the person in fall had been pushed or nudged.

If it is true that you are hard-wired to notice a woman with extraordinary shoulders and posture, it is important to your wishes to understand the mechanics of story telling for you to know how to place such information in the order of awareness of a narrator.  If you were to see such a woman falling, it would cause you greater concern if you knew about her posture first, and your awareness of her posture would vanish, shoved out of the way by your concern for her safety.

Of course, there are other possibilities to consider.  The person falling may not be in an actual physical fall but rather a fall from grace, a fall into or out of love, a fall in standards, a fall from stature or position.  Stories may begin with such falls.  

We care about qualities in all things only after we see them in some moment of stress or conflict.  There are any number of species of insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals you were completely unaware of until you first learned about them in context with their being an endangered species.

Some species is falling.

Someone is falling.

What will you do?

You will begin by caring.

If the plight of the species or the individual is interesting to you, abundant with intriguing detail, your caring will evolve into rooting, and they will reside among your friends.

Friday, August 23, 2013


 When persons in real life become desperate, they often resort to prayer, meditation, or some ritual in which they attempt to enlist the assistance of a larger force outside themselves.

Despair brings a different kind of response to characters in story; they may well pray, meditate, or offer a chicken to the likes of the Oracle of Delphi.  They may burn ghee lamps and offer a flower to some aspect of the godhead or chant a mantra, but they also devise a plan, then embark on implementing it.

Some persons in real life are active as well as contemplative.  There are a number of ways to consider and judge such individuals, but you find it a better use of time considering characters who respond to desperate circumstances, situations where most if not all hope is gone, with some kind of plan, however risky or notional.

These are the individuals in real life and fiction you find the most interesting, their ratio of interest increasing in your estimation to the degree that their plan or effort after prayer or meditation or some other kind of offering has originality, even to the point of brashness.

The term "chutzpah" comes into play here, that amalgam of audacity, imaginativeness, and even insolence.  Chutzpah, particularly in the face of despair, is humanity's best hope, the refusal to be daunted, the willingness to stand up to the Fates in the manner of the protesters who stood up against the tanks in Tiannamen Square.  It is also the true artist, standing against convention to present a vision that seems fresh, pure, and sincere.

When the door is opened for despair in story, there is the small crack in the cement of convention through which a flower can volunteer, an idea can emerge, a vision can be discovered.  The worse the despair, the greater the potential for one stunning vision or discovery that will return some modicum of hope to the picture.  

Standing up against despair with a plan of action is no guarantee of a successful ending.  We've suffered through too many stories that had to have a happy ending in order to satisfy some convention or philosophy or psychology, at the same time seeing that some ideas, however good they seemed at the time, weren't good enough to snatch victory from the hungry jaws of the jungle.  It is in fact a jungle out there, one we add to in our own stronger moments.

But look at the dynamic.  In Snow White, the poisoned apple given Snow White by the witch is so virulent that it not only kills her, its very power keeps the apple from being further ingested, thus its effects can be cured with a kiss from the prince.  

Don't try this if you're not sincere.  And desperate for an outcome other than the one you are presented with.  Look at those two love-struck kids, Romeo and Juliet.  Took a tremendous risk, then another, then another.  Thirty-six hours later, they were dead.

You want characters who stand up to despair, once it has been thrust on them.  You don't want them too willing to put everything off to faith in some larger thing that they lack some edge of chutzpah, some plan, some Teflon coating of audacity they take forth into their plan to come through as much intact as possible.

Despair is a challenging thing, a changing thing.  True despair can be life changing.  You neither want nor like smart-ass winners or losers.  You prefer characters who understand the effects of risk and loss, who see the probabilities clashing and colliding all about them.  You want characters who appreciate dignity, will sacrifice illusions to achieve it, understanding all the while that most settlements are negotiated.

In your own negotiations with cancer, you'd seen ways to proceed.  You took the one that said no to the conventions of chemo and radiation.  A past experience with a sudden anomaly in your autoimmune system made the risk seem something you could play with audacity if not chutzpah.  This was certainly not you making a medical decision because it seemed to you the circumstances spoke to the equivalent of a moot court argument.

This was you, making the kind of decision you'd expect from characters you've only just begun to dream about.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dare to Cast Your Inner Ensemble

The ensemble cast has become a staple ingredient of some of the best filmed drama, particularly the dramas produced outside the Big Three conventional networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC.

At one time in recent history, an ensemble cast meant a group of actors who worked together, performing a series or season of plays, say an all-Shakespeare cycle such as the comedies.  The ensemble concept could also be a group of actors who went on tour, performing a selected group of plays in various cities over the course of a year.

You were aware of such groups, even attending some of their performances as opportunities arose for you.  But it was not until the advent of the memorable television drama-as-novel, The Wire, that you began to pay closer attention to the implications of an ensemble cast for writers such as yourself, who valued and learned story elements from stage and film.

The Wire is a drama set in Baltimore, MD, that first aired on HBO in 2002, ran its course of story in sixty episodes, the final one providing significant closure in 2008.  Since your original experience with it, you've revisited the series via disc at least three times, once in connection with your proposal to teach a course on its major areas of focus.

There is no hyperbole to your assessment of the extraordinary effect The Wire had on subsequent television drama.  For any number of reasons, some unclear to you, others relating to your attempts to "find" another series with as much power and impact as The Wire, you've tracked down and watched any number of subsequent ventures.  Among these were Breaking Bad, which for a certainty captures some of the dynamic and implications of The Wire, particularly in its taking characters to deeper, more noir-like dimensions.  

The Shield, a splendid ensemble effort, pulled actors Glen Close and Forrest Whittaker into its orbit.  You continue to follow Justified and Longmire, and have put in your time watching Southland, Life,and a recent discovery, NY22, regrettably cancelled after the first season,in spite of some notable writing by its creator, Richard Price, who was a major writing contributor to The Wire.

Such television ventures as these set multiple story lines into motion, cutting away from individuals, pairs, and combinations of characters in the ensemble at moments of rising action, switching to other individuals or groups in collateral situations.  The result is often a brilliant mash-up of soap opera drama, incisive character development, and edgy implications about contemporary social issues.

These and other series like them, say Sons of Anarchy or The Bridge, move beyond textbooks on how to write story; they speak to inspiring approaches to motive, response, goals, and time lines as conveyances for the collateral social, psychological, and political elements that so convincingly breathe dimension into story.

The various ensembles of characters in these dramas interact with one another in plausible, engaging ways, often producing moments of heightened concern, fear, recognition, humor, pathos, and the sometimes absurd or extraordinary reaches of potential within the human condition.

To reach such ensembles of character for works intended for print publication, the writer does well to consider the craft of acting in the first place, in order to see the potential within an individual brought onto the digital equivalent of a page.  The writer draws from personal experience, observation of others, and of course that great undecipherable, the sphere of imagination.

Simply put, you're beginning to take this one step beyond and into the world of the ensemble cast.  The process works like this:

At any given moment, you show up for a given life event, whether the event is something where you are completely alone, such as composing, reading the work of students or clients, or reading for the equivalent of what you call reading for pleasure.

You may also be showing up to host a class, to meet a potential client, to have lunch or dinner with friends, to attend a social gathering, to attend a performance.  Your immediate goal may be to extract such enjoyment as possible out of an event, to discuss plans for some work-related activity, to console or otherwise support a friend, to discover some bit of information.

You may even be going so far as to be seeking the complete adventure of leisure, with no other purpose than "to see what happens."

The fact is, the you who arrives for one or more of such things is an amalgamation of the various yous who inhabit you:  the impatient you, the hungry you, the bored you, the frightened you, the combative you.  Depending on the event, you may arrive in a particular costume of occupation in addition to your outer wardrobe.  You could be the teacher, the editor, the late-middle-aged-man on the flying trapeze.  

You may be at the moment haunted by ghosts of individuals no longer alive or the ghosts of unfinished, unattended purposes, moaning like the ghosts in scary fiction.  You may be haunted by ghosts of unresolved relationships.  You may be sixteen or seventeen, trying to act your present age, but just as well, you might be your present age while trying to project or at least hold some control over the seventeen-year-old who stalks your battlements like the ghost of Hamlet's father, wanting something from him.

An experienced ensemble actor has been all these.  The experienced ensemble actor shows up for work in a play or story, mindful of the role for tonight's performance, trying to assert some kind of direction over the ensemble cast within him, wishing to perform contrary and conflicting roles.

In many ways, you are reminded of Ronald Harwood's estimable play, The Dresser, in which an aging Shakespearean actor's personal assistant, or dresser, attempts to keep the actor's life together.  The play and the film made of it, with Harwood doing the screenplay, is a romp which you vastly admire.  One scene in particular stays with you, in which the actor, somewhat addled with drink, steps out of his dressing room wearing the garb and black-face of Othello, whereupon the dresser reminds him, "No! No!  It's Lear tonight.  We're doing Lear!"

There are other insightful and memorable moments of actor and character revelation, where the actor speaks of being so caught up in a role he's portraying that he can imagine himself as a spectator up in the balcony, watching himself on stage, performing.

Some days, you are aware of the equivalent of showing up as Othello on a Lear or Macbeth day, circumstances which have nothing to do with being drink addled.  Perhaps the glue holding your ensemble together is a concoction of enthusiasm, carino, and the wish to be on stage in any role at all, the page Mountjoy in Henry V, or, for that matter, a pizza delivery guy in any production at all.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


For as long as you can remember such things with any clarity, your approach to the life about you was being judged as impatient.  Although you were aware of sometimes having to wait for things that mattered to you, your solution was to find something of matter in the interim, a word you did not know at the time, thus your own thoughts using the word meantime, in the meantime, do this as a substitute.

Be told often enough that you are impatient, that you were an impatient boy, and soon enough, you will hear suspicious sounding judgements from others about you, say friends or, worse, teachers or parents of your friends.  Some of these will actually use the word "impatient" when calling your attention to your behavior, and increasingly, comments on your report cards began to use that word, that impatient word to the point where two things happened.

You saw yourself as an individual with a more tightly wound inner clock that most of those you came in contact with, and you began looking for qualities to dislike about individuals who were pointed out to you as exemplars of patience.

Perhaps your most serious encounter with impatience was the belief that you could write novels with little revision beyond a quick starting each day by taking a Dixon Ticonderoga Number 2 pencil to the typescript you'd produced the day before, then retype that, then add the day's new material to the pile.  Then perhaps a spell check, because, although you are still not the speller you'd like to be, you are at least more of a speller than you were.

There is some possibility that you were too impatient to spell words the way they ought.  You remember telling one teacher you had no patience--there was that word again--for people who knew only one way to spell a word.  Then you brought up the differences in spelling in England, only to be reminded that those differences related to the Middle Ages.

There is also a grand possibility that by writing novels so quickly for so long, you wrote yourself into a corner of not wishing to finish some projects you felt were important, leaving you with a number of years when essays and nonfiction books were the only things you could manage, looking at the novels your contemporaries were writing the way teenaged boys tend to look at other teenaged boys who have girlfriends when they have none.

You did not begrudge your friends their own novels; you begrudged you your unfinished novels because, among other things, you heard Rachel's voice, reminding you it was important to get your writing discipline down now, while you were still at the age where you were at the most acute stages of sensory awareness and intuitive power to grow.

You were also hearing that goddamn poem by Andrew Marvell (1621-78), "To His Coy Mistress," and the lines, "But at my back I always hear/Times winged chariot drawing near/And yonder before us lie deserts of vast eternity..."  The rest of the poem was about the kind of impatience you felt as a teenager, the impatience of sexual tension, which you came to recognize then as well as now as a great motivating force in real life, story life, and poetic life.  Let's get it on while we still have time, the poem seemed to be saying to you then.  Perhaps because you were impatient to find ways around the speedbump of sexual tension but because you were haunted by the notion of life being a fuse, lit at about the moment you emerged from the womb, its length indeterminate.  No problem with unlit fuses, but then, along comes puberty with a Zippo lighter.  

All about you, patient people were getting things done.  Or so you thought, until you discovered that discipline helps you break your impatience down into manageable segments.

You got that from one of the most impatient of men, the man who called himself Mark Twain.

The problem with being impatient and undisciplined is that there are times when the voices begin arguing all at once, softly at first, to the point where you think you can accommodate them all in short order.  Through the process of identification, you find yourself thriving on the old TV cop shows with ensemble casts, those such as "The Shield" and "Southland," and Richard Price's "NY22," where you see the differing situations as the arguing, scheming, conniving aspects of yourself, calling for attention and mediation, the kind only you can handle, right now.

You even tell yourself how a disciplined you can handle all these calls for attention, how a little shrewd handling can get the problem under control.

No such luck.  You have to tell them that things take time, things have their own inherent speed, their own awareness, their own sense of what a close friend calls carino.  You try to rush things at your own expense.  Better to respect the time the thing that wants to get done requires.  You can say a novel takes a year, which is a lot more respect than the month you used to give it.  You can say a short story takes a month, but the way to really put impatience on hold is to tell it that things can be done sooner, but they might lose some of the special qualities that will cause you to see their carino and to grow with what the carino has provided.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Characters, Armed and Serious

"This is going to be a great evening for you, but not so good for him," your old pal, Digby Wolfe told you one evening in the mid to late '80s, when you were in a now defunct night club, Slate Brothers, on the northern limits of La Cienega Boulevard.

You'd been taken to see an exercise in a kind of humor called insult humor, as performed by a stand-up comic, Don Rickles who, Wolfe informed you, could insult Frank Sinatra in front of an entire gang of Sinatra's acolytes, causing them to cringe and Sinatra to roar with laughter.  One such zinger was, "Hey, Frank, make yourself at home.  Go hit someone."

On this night, shortly after Rickles began his routine and began picking on various individuals in the audience, a drunk began his own routine on Rickles, stepping on his lines, calling him out on statements, and in the mounting rudeness of which such drunken improvisers are capable, stepping on his lines.

Rickles appeared to warm to the challenge, firing several sharp ripostes across the drunk's table.

The Slate Brothers had a traditional long bar, filled with customers turned toward the small main room, filled with tables big enough for groups of four or six.

The atmosphere became charged as Rickles continued working over the drunk with imaginative insults that seemed so well orchestrated, they caused you to ask Wolfe if they'd been written and planned.

"That's all ad lib.  All of it."

The audience began to applaud, thinking Rickles had put an end to the interruption and would now continue his routine, but something of equal ad lib fell into place.  The drunk was enjoying the attention, and the audience was beginning to enjoy the competition.

This was the point at which Wolfe made his remark to you about the great evening for you.  "Don's taken this a step too far," Wolfe explained.  "Watch.  The audience is beginning to side with the drunk."

Sure enough, a few in the audience, apparently liking this sport, began to join the drunk in shouted remarks, not the least of which were, "Let him talk, Don."  And, "Hey, bring him up there with you."

You could feel the group atmosphere of the fifty or sixty persons in the audience beginning to show open hostility to the man who'd once been their hero, the man who'd put away the likes of Sinatra, his Rat Pack, and other seeming social icons.

After trying to regain the upper hand, Rickles gave up, gave a few insults to the audience, then left the stage early to a mixed chorus of boos and jeers.

Later, when Wolfe took you back stage to meet Rickles, the comic shook his head, then apologized.  "Sorry guys, I lost it back there.  I let it get to me."

In the few minutes of the visit, you realized that Rickles, the Insult Comic, was in reality a shrewd, decent, even sensitive man, completely different from the stage persona and game face of rapid-fire insult.

From that moment on, you were aware of audiences and those who performed before them in a different light.  Any audience, however large or small, is a part of an equation, separated from the performer or performers by an equals sign.

One of the best performances of Lawrence Olivier, in your memory, was of the failing, third-rate comedian, Archie Rice, in John Osborne's play, The Entertainer.  You've watched the film a number of times, the final scene, showing Archie hitting the bottom, reminding you of that evening when Don Rickles wasn't acting; he'd lost the audience.

You've had enough contact with actors to know that the better ones among them are able to empty their own self from a role.  The actor then fills the void  with the essence of a character who might be as far away from their own personality as a full polar opposite.  This leaves the audience to see him or her as the interpretation of the character.

There are other actors who, whatever their role, are simply themselves,   with no traits recognizable other than a few repetitions.  

From time to time, you are concerned that all your characters think, talk, and act like you, which opens floodgates of introspection about your own dimensions.  At various times in your life, you've been told to stop fooling around and get serious.  But you have enough experience with those attempts to sense classroom audiences and speaking engagements having a sobering effect, both on you and those before you.  

You do not do serious well, and so you've learned to try braiding something else into the texture, a sense of something lost or about to be lost, a sense of fear of laziness or uncertainty.  But these, however sincere their motivation, seem to require more rehearsal to get at.

You can't think of too many times you've been told to get serious when you're enthused about something, thus that seems to be your default position, you embodying an enthusiasm for most of the nouns you care about, persons, places, or things that resonate to the point where all the seriousness is emptied and the thing itself comes rushing in to greet you like a long lost friend or student.

Sometimes, looking at your characters at work in a story, you feel as though you've been brought to a police line-up to identify the one in the group who seems to stand out as the serious culprit.