Saturday, November 9, 2013


You are at a Santa Barbara restaurant when it used to be csalled Josie's Cielito Lindo, or beautiful little sky, attending the Wednesday writers' lunch.  For reasons lost to you now, you are in a vivid conversation about, of all things, the pre-Raphaelite Movement in Victorian England, and the impact some of the pre-Raphaelite artists had on book design and illustration.  You recall singling out Sir Edmund Burne-Jones, arguing that he was more or less overshadowed by a close associate, William Morris.

This event will have been at least twenty years ago, possibly even twenty-five.  It took place somewhere in early September because an author, whose books you were responsible for publishing, had given you as a birthday present, a copy of the latest novel of one of your favored mystery writers, Ross Macdonald, the pseudonym of Ken Millar.  

Both were present at the luncheon because Millar, seeing you had a copy of the book, offered to inscribe it for you.  This led to a prolonged conversation while lunch was being served, wherein you questioned his seeming reliance on coincidence in many of his books.

A quiet, reserved man who'd formerly been a literature professor, Millar became as warmed to topic as you'd ever seen him, expounding and expanding on the web of coincidence in the world, citing the fact that you'd been introduced to him by a former classmate of his at the University of Michigan who was now a faculty mater of yours.

"And if you think that is not a coincidence,"  he continued, "you might ask the young lady sitting on your left who her great uncle was."

Which you did.

"Oh, you must mean Uncle Edmund,"  she said.  "Edmund Burne-Jones."

"The pre-Raphaelite Edmund Burne-Jones."

"Oh, yes,  that was Uncle Edmund."

Then what about the fact of an individual in your Wednesday morning memoir class having known for some years two individuals in your Saturday morning writing workshop, a coincidence you mentioned to one of those Saturday morning individuals on this very morning.  At first he did not recognize the Wednesday morning woman by the name you gave him, but by a process of elimination, he did recall Kathy, but by her former married name.  And when you heard that name, it became clear that you'd known her former husband, Ben.

One of the first persons you'd met in Santa Barbara, thanks to an invitation to a brown-bag weekly luncheon given by a former publishing friend from Los Angeles, was Ed, just moved from being a trial deputy for the Ventura DA.  From Ed, you met Ben, who at the time was probably married to Kathy, whom you would not meet for quite some time, although you went on to meet Peter and Laeser, both of whom knew her then as well as now.

Two robins scarcely make a spring, but would you have thought during those early days in your publishing career that Fred, whom you saw more often during the Memorial Day holidays in Washington D.C., where the major book publishing event was held, than his New York office, would become one of your oldest friends?  No, of course not.  And would you expect that Fred's boss, who for years was the editorial director of Bantam Books, would start peppering Fred with the notion that you, Fred, and he should start a publishing venture doing only mystery and suspense novels?  No, you would not have suspect such a thing, but you can already feel the heat of your heart, warming to it.

Nor would you have suspected that an impromptu picnic with Christopher Isherwood, arranged by a group of nuns, would have had a dramatic influence on your teaching career, or a passing remark made by Isherwood at a memorial service would have caused you to make a choice that would link you to a remarkable series of events in India, then New York, then Hollywood.

Coincidences, by their nature, are difficult to classify, even to quantify.  The best you can do in story is relinquish control of your characters and of events surrounding them, allowing the chemistry of their connections to determine vectors and outcomes.

This is often difficult to achieve, not only for you but the individuals you attempt to teach and those who hire you to edit them.  This is in many ways the most difficult thing of all.  Let go.  Why, after all, did you set forth on this path?  You did so because you believed you have a story to tell.  Perhaps numerous stories.

The vital snippet of information from all this is the awareness that the most you can hope to accomplish is set in motion a character who is composed of a psyche and emotional spectrum you have created in the context of difficulty, otherness, perhaps even a sense of isolation, caught up in a goal of significant presence.

Stop nagging me, they will say if you listen.  Stop trying to control me. Can't you see I have my own problems and my own agendas for solving them?  Are you trying to live my life for me?

Stop trying to describe coincidences, your past history tells you.  Stop trying to explain your choices and means of resolving the opportunities you encountered.  Stop trying to assign determinism and other heavy-handed philosophy to outcome or its lack.


Tell the freaking story.

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