Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Increased Minimum Wages for Characters

Earlier this evening you were in a part of Santa Barbara that surprised you for a reason that seemed on the edge of being too convenient a metaphor.

For eight or ten minutes, you were in an area where your cell phone carrier, Verizon , has no connectivity.

You are used to having coverage.  To put it in more practical terms, the metaphor in mind, you are not used to not having coverage.

By driving a few more blocks, you were able to achieve connection and thus able to make the call that produced information you needed in order to be able to pick up a friend.

The metaphor is this:  You're used to having some sense of connectivity with the writing process, which means in effect that you're never more than an hour or so away from being able to take off on some project in the works or begin some detailed notes for later use, or even spend time in these blog pages, which you have come to consider the writer's equivalent of a musician running scales, if for nothing else than to hear the tonal progressions while maintaining manual dexterity.

You are in effect surprised when you think to compose and there is no reception, meaning you are cut off from the source of the signal.

As you did earlier this evening, the equivalent of moving away from the dead zone, a change of attitude or the deliberate focusing on a raw feeling is sufficient to produce results.

There is no way of estimating how long you had to move away from dead zones to realize that story extends well beyond description.  You cannot describe a condition, even one of extreme emotion, and expect to have that suffice as story.

There is no way of estimating how long it took you to understand that story not only went well beyond description, it is a stream of action, of movements, thoughts, responses, wishes, and interactions.  You can guess that you required something like forty years to learn that these actions, these moments, sometimes referred to as beats, when arranged in the proper order, produce the thing you despaired of ever being able to grasp, which is plot.  In a true sense, plot was your geometry.  How many times did you have to lurch your way through geometry in order to get it?

Pick a locale, any locale.  Pick a number of characters, all of whom are well defined with goals and individual senses of how committed they are to achieving those goals.  Now endow each of them with the unassailable sense that they are right.

A worthy practice at this point is to invent a scene in which as many of them as possible are together, each wanting to implement his or her agenda for accomplishing his or her defining goal.  Then write the same scene from the point of view of each character.  This is often necessary to get you out of the picture and the characters and their agenda up front.

Now you can pick the character whose point of view causes the greatest avalanche with the least amount of effort.  Now you are in story, beyond mere description.

If the project you need to be focused on is an essay or review, you need to pick a point of apparent plausibility and another that seeks to pick an argument with the plausible point.  Now you have two or more focal points in an argument.  Allow them to collide.

You can follow argumentative points with the same easy you can follow characters, that is, you can if you take the effort to make the points of contention seem less than obvious at the outset.

Story, whether invented or real, wants plausible contention of a seemingly polarized pair of opposites whom you've dragged to some negotiating table.  Neither pair of opposites is comfortable in the same story or essay with the other, much like young persons, at certain ages, feeling embarrassment when they are seen in public with their parents.  You are the facilitator, trying to forge some negotiated settlement.

Now, you can show off a bit, describe a few things, like how pissed each side is at having to have given up so much.

What we give up to get what we want is story.  What we get what we want without much effort is fantasy.

Sometimes jealousy and envy hover over the results of story like pesky flies on a summer afternoon.  The more we are aware of their presence, the more meaning the negotiations take on.

A character is most alone when that individual refuses to negotiate, either from fear of living with the inevitability of negotiation or the piled on hubris of thinking himself/herself to be so right that the other party has no bargaining chips.

Increase the minimum wage for characters as well as for restaurant workers.  Every character should have at least one significant bargaining chip.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Putting Some Teeth in the Narrative

Proof is evidence a certain thesis or argument is true.  To prove water boils at two hundred twelve Fahrenheit degrees at sea level, you'd want to start with a quantity of distilled water, take it to the beach with a Coleman or Primus stove and a thermometer, then heat it to two hundred twelve Fahrenheit degrees.

In that demonstrable sense, proof can be one or more arguments, statements, physical objects, arranged in concert to make an irrefutable argument.  Thus the thesis is defended, the argument made, the proof accepted, the result then assumed to be "true" or "correct."

For some time, in high school, you had extraordinary difficulties with geometry until, after some effort, you were able to see that the issues were arguments which had to be demonstrated based on previously demonstrated truths or certainties.

Proof and its applications has been on your mind since a dream or near-dream state where you dreamed, imagined, or in actuality heard someone saying "I want more proof."

Proof of what?

Who is it wanting this proof?

What will the results and consequences be?

These questions are specific to that particular proof, which identity, like so many things in life, you may never discover.  Thus the existential itch of curiosity, which must be added to other such itches.

Some additional questions come to mind in relationship to this statement:  Is the questioner some part of your psyche and if so, which?  What existential matters have you been wrestling with in dreams or dream-like states?  What if the asker were not you?  What if the asker were from the Animal Shelter or fire station, both your neighbors?  Or the husband-wife teacher pair?

Will you be a better person if you discover the answer?  Will you be more of an idealist or less?

In a compelling sense which you are compelled by your curiosity to consider, aren't stories and essays the equivalents of proof to questions you have of--starting with yourself--your own wishes and concepts, the wishes and concepts of other individuals, and the wishes and concepts of the entire universe?

Is the desire for proof an adjunct of you seeking the writer's equivalent of The Unified Field Theory?  Or perhaps the quantum physicist's quest for proof of how It--the Universe--all began?

Is this itch for proof, assuming it is yours, related to your multitude of notebooks, with pieces of scenes, scraps of moments, brief glimpses of the kinds of lunar and solar eclipses that can and have taken place between and among individuals.

You've in recent days come across a quote by the German philosopher you started following in high school, because you admired what you thought was his cynicism.  At the time, you were not at all cynical, a fact you considered a weakness.

Most ironies work this way for you:  Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher you'd thought to lead you into a more urbane and workable cynicism, appears to you now to have some cogent thoughts about writing and the novel.

"The art of [the novel]" he wrote, "lies in setting the inner life into the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life."

You take that to mean the novelist must get the inner character traits rattled to the point of distracting the character, as soon as possible and with a simple, direct stimulus.  The character must see or somehow experience something which offers proof that all is not well. Right now.

You were scarcely through your breakfast this morning when you were hit with such a destabilizing event, a phone call that brought certain elements and facts to mind, proving the existence of a truth you'd long been aware of, the irrational nature of the universe, everything in it with the possible exception of flowers and music, but with particular reference to yourself.

Within moments, while the conversation was still in progress, you saw the outer boundaries of a novel to be called The Dentist. There have been dentists in your family, and you have a pretty good friend now who was a dentist but has decided he would rather sell bolts of cloth.  You have had experiences with a dentist you were put into contact with as a prank by some friends who worked for what was then one of the major manufacturers of books, Kingsport Press.

The prank brought you in contact with a book, Teeth, Teeth, Teeth:  The Incredible World of Teeth, the dentist who wrote it, and an early venture into the world of the non-rational.  You have only just checked Amazon to see if the book is still available.  You can have a copy this week for less than fifteen dollars.

While indulging your breakfast conversation, you were also caused to think of the son of a noted novelist.  You've met the son twice, the famous novelist once.

You have multiple experiences with the person who telephoned you this morning, including once having owned the same car, a VW Fastback whose floorboards had holes large enough to allow the driver to see the pavement underneath the vehicle.

The conversation also called to mind the son of a famous motion picture actor, a man who continues to seek public office.

There is also the matter of the individual who called you being a writer whom you first met some years ago on the occasion of you being assigned to review a novel he'd written.

After you finished the telephone conversation, you experienced a tingling along the chakras and a sense reminiscent of the times you'd been openly consorting with a compound called d-lysergic acid diethyl amide, and falling in love.

You scribbled notes in a pocket-sized notebook under the heading "The Dentist."  A complete set of lower teeth, you wrote.  A dentist who thinks he knows enough about the human condition from the observation of human mouths and teeth to enable him to write fiction.

Such events and attempts to see proof of some thematic reality in them are a part of the larger attempt for proof that is you, which is to say as actual and inclusive as possible as opposed to hubris-driven or, of equal awfulness, an unquenchable naiveté.

Of those two extremes, you would rather discover proof of the naivete rather than the hubris.

Some six hundred years ago, when composing his monumental The Miller's Tale, for inclusion in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, "A worlde full tyckl."

Nice turn of phrase there.  The world has been tickled from the outset.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Your Own, Internal Walton Family, Saying Goodnight

You live in the midst of a residential block, one next door neighbor a fire station and, off at a slight angle, a city animal shelter.  To your immediate north, a home large enough for two college instructors, in front of them a rooming house.

This sounds as though you'd need ear plugs, but even the occasional fire that brings forth the two engines housed at the station seem restrained even in their rush to be at the scene of disaster.

There are occasional parties, which from the hoots and laughter  of the participants, lead you to think are hosted by your teacher neighbors.  You are in the midst of a collegial group of neighbors, your cat, Goldfarb, more of a social instrument that you'd supposed.

You exchange cans of cat food with the teacher neighbors, who have two cats, thus twice the finicky attitude toward food as Goldfarb.  Your landlady, who lives directly above you and who professes a severe allergy to cats nevertheless invites Goldfarb in for the occasional snack, and you've discovered from some of the firemen that they, too, are hosts of an occasional afternoon equivalent of tea for Goldfarb.

This might suggest a tubby cat, but no; he remains constant at the eleven pounds he weighed when you brought him to stay with you.

From time to time, you'll awaken some mornings to sounds of conversation from the animal shelter.  Notice your use of awaken to rather than awakened by.  Sometimes you awaken to sounds from up above, your landlady, who is a ceramist, using some machine or other.  On rarer occasions yet, you'll hear a sentence or two from the teachers.  Some evenings, if your landlady is entertaining, you can hear muffled conversations from the balcony patio.

For living in the midst of a residential block, you are well insulated from sounds you'd ordinarily associate with apartment-type occupancy.  You are aware of this comfort bubble in which you live.  The thing you miss most from your last residence is the constant, bickering ambiance of squirrels and your own name for the collective noun describing the presence of crows, the anarchy of crows, along with the variety of smaller birds intrigued by your scattering of peanuts and seeds.  There were also frequent visits from owls and hawks.

Here, in mitigation, you have voices of another sort.

Some nights and mornings, you hear conversations.  They lure you from the edges of sleep the way a hand-tied fly might lure a trout in a mountain stream, sending waves of curiosity to ripple through you, itching to get to a pen and note pad to take down the exchanges.

They are, of course, the provocative conversations of dream or near dream, where you cannot see the speakers.  Your only clue to their identity is the manner and topic of the words, which in a great sense takes over the attention of the portions of you that sleep and dream, giving you yet another tug to cope with.

Pairs of opposites won't leave you alone.

Dialectic comes to you at all hours, your imagination filtering the sides and opinions to the point where you become a fan of both sides.

You did not have to be told not to describe dreams in your narratives.  Like Kafka, you could say of a character, She had a night of uneasy dreams.  You could up the ante on uneasy; She tossed and turned through a night of disquieting dreams.  You could get specific up to a point:  He dreamed of being chased by hungry wolves.  

These conversations you hear are in all probability your own internal equivalent of the Walton Family, saying good night after having lived through an adventure.  They are more apt to be using dreams as a way of discharging the tensions and arguments of your waking hours, both in your own life and in work you are undertaking at the moment.

One voice you heard has been saying "I want more proof."

You tried saying "Proof of what?"  But you got no response.

Once, some time ago, when you asked a similar kind of question, you heard what sounded like, "Shh.  He's listening."

Of course, you were listening; a conversation with enough weight for you to remember can be a useful moment in a story, a piece of a puzzle to record in one of your notebooks for times when you thumb through them, looking for possibilities.

Dreams.  Scraps of conversations.  Situations that come to you as you walk the tightrope between sleep and waking, some of these secret enough that the sleeping you does not yet trust you to remember them for fear of what you will do with them when awake.

A few days ago, you wrote in these essays of the consequences of a writer being obsessive, compulsive, and a control freak, all in all a dangerous combination.  You can add to that yet another drug-like aspect to the writer's medicine cabinet.  You hear voices.  Sometimes, you're not sure if you dreamed them or heard them from the animal shelter or the fire station or the lady across the street, asking you, "What was that piece you were listening to on the radio yesterday where you couldn't get out of the car until it was finished?"  As it is, she already has enough examples of such things to have been able to say of you, "Nobody can say you aren't eclectic."

No one has said you are not.

Back in your early twenties, Rachel, who probably accepted the fact that she was your mentor, asked you if you heard things or had visions.  The question scared the hell out of you because you already were aware of hearing things but had not made the connection with your process because you were not even thinking of process at the time.  You had all you could do to think of wanting to tell a story.

She asked you what you thought a story was and once again you were frightened to the point where you said you didn't know; you simply wrote down what came out.

And she said, Don't you think you ought to find out?

You still didn't know she was your mentor.  You only found that out after she and her husband moved to Tennessee to grow apples while she wrote a book that was made into a film about growing apples, in which Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn starred.

You found out after her husband died and she'd call you to see how you were doing and you could tell she'd been drinking a great deal, and that, too, frightened you because even then she was asking you questions that disturbed you.

Sometimes, the voices you hear could be Rachel, asking you questions, or someone wanting more proof, or someone not wanting you to hear. Sometimes you can get scraps of conversations down in your notebooks, knowing you may not be able to fit all the pieces together.

Sometimes, when you dwell on such things, you think you are screwed; your life is an attempt to piece answers together against serious odds.  Other times, most other times, after you have listened to enough conversations, you waken to the sunlight coming through the window above your bed, a north north east window.  You see the light and you realize where you are, in this particular bubble of the comfort of being the kind of writer you are.

Sometimes, you'll still look to see if Sally is awake yet and wants to go out, but her bed is no longer here, so you look instead to see if Goldfarb is up and he wants some breakfast.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Writer's Internal Baueux Tapestry

A novel, in particular the types of novels you enjoy reading and writing, is an extended adventure in which aspects of yourself who don't get much time out in public are allowed to take over the conversation, suggest the movie we'll watch, the meal we'll order, and even the restaurant where we'll eat it.

No, the we is neither metaphor nor narrative device; the we is you, the component parts of you, in some cases parts adopted to fill some emotional or narrative gap, then adopted, take in as family.

The more you are able to move beyond the more familiar aspects of you, the better the chances for the outcome of the novel, which is to say the greater your chances of being able to maintain conversation with it after it is returned to you with editorial notes.

Most of the novels you enjoy reading, as well as those you have in mind now to write, are satires.  By this you mean a subjecting of institutions and or characters to a deliberate scrutiny by which the outer layers of some trait are peeled away, revealed to be untenable.  That is the fun part of satire.  To complete the satiric equation, you need to essay or at the least suggest a viable alternative to the thing you were making fun of, by which you mean you were undermining.

A number of novels you have read to date are not satires.  Moby-Dick is not a satire, nor is The Grapes of Wrath (although you see some satirical motifs in it).  Neither is My Antonia.  Formula things such as Tom Sawyer or The Bobsey Twins novels are not satire, although each comes close in places to unintentional self-satire, but in both cases, these contain enough sincere, kind observations of human behavior to get them past the border guards.

On the other hand, no point listing all the novels of satire you've encountered, taking you back in time to the likes of The Satyricon, The Golden Ass, Don Quixote, Peregrine Pickle, The Adventures of Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, and the like.  These caused you some years ago to give yourself over to an acceptance of such traits as irony, pomposity, misdirected sincerity, and humorlessness as much a part of the human genome as story, suspense, tension, and reversal are to the dramatic genome.

This pathway, a satiric freeway, as it were, has led you in more recent years, for certain all the years of this century, to consider all novels as satire, whether intentional in their goal or not.  You by no means like all novels, even many of those which set themselves to be satires (which had become the approach you've begun to take with a novel given you as a Christmas present, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, the farther you progress into its clotted depths).  

This strategy allows you the luxury of thinking novels you don't engage with as unintentional satires.  Not so crass as it seems; the joke can be on you.  You can not like something because of your inability to understand it or some form of bigotry or snobbery (or both) that prevents you from engaging it.

A short story is another matter.  By its nature, the short story does not have the room for the kind of closure novels require (although Alice Munro seems to have found ways to give satisfying clues and directions to her intricate tales to the point where, well after completing a reading, you find yourself processing things, relationships, tendencies, all of which make you want to go back for another visit to see what you've missed).

That is the answer for you; a short story takes you right up to the edge of an emotional Grand Canyon, then tells you, Careful, if you look down, you might become dizzy.

Some short stories drip satire.  Ring Lardner comes to mind.  Tom Boyle.  John O'Hara.  Deborah Eisenberg.  Katherine Mansfield.  Anne Proulx.  Even so, you have to look.

This is written with you in the midst of looking at a forthcoming collection of your own, causing you to feel something like a street paver, covering speed bumps, pot holes, and other distractions.

The same rag-tag principal of characters beyond your customary selves applies to short story appearances.  Dealing with so many, all at once, you can see a larger tapestry of event and relationship, an individualized Bayeux Tapestry of your own, with events representative of the invasion of middle age and its subsequent antagonists rather than the Normans, setting forth to restructure England.

You had not reckoned with this at the time you began with formula short stories, then moved beyond formula to your own sense of what they ought to do.  And when you spent countless hours, studying the embroidery and details of the Bayeux Tapestry, there was no sense of any connection other than a generalized sense of history.  But something happened one day when you found yourself memorizing the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales.  And subsequent things happened when you found yourself considering drawings from Native Americans on animal hides or on the walls of shaman's caves.

Short stories are adventures for you, men and women setting forth on raids, hunting expeditions, explorations.  You have no idea if the family of characters dwelling in your psyche will live happily ever after or even get along.  You have picked them up at the beginning of a journey, then brought them to a temporary truck stop or cheap motel or three-bedroom home along Alameda Padre Serra, here in Santa Barbara, and you have brought them to a point where they are at a party or gathering and it is time to go home, but something unknown is preventing them from leaving just yet. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Who's in Control Here?

The mind has many states or, as you prefer to think of them, characteristics,  You prefer your own mind to be in a state of focus because of the many pleasing experiences you've had in that condition, at once exploring, questioning, literal, and figurative.

There are times when you fine-tune your focus, pushing toward the excessive preoccupation you are quite ready to call obsession.  In such states, you are hyper aware of a situation, the wording or implication of a specific sentence, a reach for a vision or understanding.  Sometimes, when your investment in a project takes you beyond workaday patterns of sleep, recreation, and other activities, you are in an altered state, part sleep, partial waking stage, replaying a scene or phrase dozens of times.

You in fact obsess until you arrive at a sense of becoming one with the project.

A compulsion is a powerful urge to behave in a specific way that may often be lacking in a rational base.  You do the thing or are drawn to a thing or behavior in a near mechanical way, often rationalizing your own irrational behavior as you engage in it.

If there were some Richter or Beaufort scale to measure such behaviors, the numerical values would be well beyond the gentle sweep of the middle range of the bell curve.  Obsessive and compulsive behaviors yank the individual away from business-as-usual behavior and into the stratosphere of the aberrant.

Let's visualize those two conditions as two legs of a three-legged stool. Then, let's call the third leg of this extreme furniture controlling behavior.  

We have all experienced exposure to persons who not only seem to enjoy being in charge of whatever circumstance they chose, they seek these situations with aggressive resolve.  Your most recent experience with this type involved a person named Michael, who not only sought to control the kind of wine you were drinking, he wished to control the size and shape of the glass from which you were drinking and, as though that were still not enough, he wished to dictate the way you held the glass (by the stem at midpoint, rather than the bowl).

You often reach a point in dealing with a workshop or classroom with students who fancy themselves as writers when you set these types before them, then accuse them and yourself of being an amalgam of all three, obsessive, compulsive, and controlling.

There is nothing for it but nervous laughter of recognition, which becomes progressive in increased loudness when you suggest the likelihood that they are not yet as obsessive, compulsive, and controlling as they need to be in order to be able to find their way inside the characters as they, in their turn, find their way into story.

You're able to speak of opening scenes for stories in a close approximation of how most beginnings play out, which is to say about eighty-five percent of direct, present time action, and some fifteen percent description and/or backstory.  Such a recipe for balance between obsession, compulsion, and control does not to your awareness exist because they should all, in your perspective, be fighting for equality.

You are at one point or another playing arm wrestle with Reality, trying to bend it if not pin it to the table.  You are messing with the sense of time, either standing still or passing.  You are controlling the comfort level of all who appear in your narrative, the more uncomfortable the better.  You are obsessing on ridding the narrative of distracting elements, covering holes of logic with the right sentence or two, and being compulsive in your attempts to keep the characters as distinct from one another as possible.

For a pointed look at how this process works, let's spend a few moments considering as great a paradigm for demonstrating control as the character Wile E. Coyote demonstrates the extent of existential being necessary to be a successful character.

In Moby-Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, tells us straight off, "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

Coyote explains with action.  He emerges scruffy, dusty, hungry; we catch him in the flagrante of setting a trap for roadrunner.

In both cases, the author has taken control of the character, put him in motion, given him a goal, then begun squeezing.

If that were not enough, consider Michael Henchard in the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy's masterful The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The writer begins by exerting crucial control over the character to the point where the outcome is set in motion.  In consequence, we shall always see the three of them, Coyote, Ishmael, and Henchard as doomed to the lower levels of humiliation.  Ishmael is spared.  To a degree, Henchard is spared.  But all three, thus the Coyote as well, have been marked.  Allowing them much leeway would in effect have deprived us of memorable characters to obsess about as we measure the onus we have placed upon characters of our own creation and, having done some to some degree, trivialized them.

Thus the circle is completed by our compulsion to produce something memorable in yet another sense, the myth-biblical one.  Yes, that one, The Book of Job.  Point of view is important in this remarkable work of narrative.  We must read it first from the POV of the Jews, who consider the character of Satan a metaphor.  Some glosses on Job see him as The Adversary.  As a writer, you can and often do see Satan as a pivotal or Antagonist.  But the Jewish POV does not stop there,  ambiguity entering as it does in all effective drama.  Is God the Protagonist or the Antagonist.

The Christian POV wants us to consider Satan a Fallen Angel, which introduces yet another layer to the ambiguity.

The Jewish version also raises the question that Job must have been fooling around somewhere for God to have become so willing to have at him.

Great stories, lasting stories, provocative stories all speak to us in ways that invite us to see how obsession, compulsion, and control force us as writers to pile more bricks upon our characters, to obsess until we are compelled to take that extra step that will find an individual character who is so inspired that all the other characters will be forced to take notice, then come to memorable life.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


There are a few actors you can bring to mind who have an adequate range of expression but who, in your view, portray themselves rather than the characters they are cast to be.

Where ever possible, you avoid performances of such men and women because you have been so spoiled in so many splendid ways by men and women who are able to project so many different characters over so wide a range.

John Wayne comes to mind as someone who never left much doubt he was bullying the character into pretending he was John Wayne rather than John Wayne taking the effort to step outside himself to be the character.  Much as you admire her presence, Katherine Hepburn appeared to have been the victim of many women actors, forced in a sense to wear the directorial and dramatic equivalents of girdles to fulfill male- and box-office-dominated visions of the ruling classes.  A few managed to radiate range and potential, paving the way for many first-rate women actors at present.

You are still in the process of touching up and in some cases re-framing already published stories to appear early in 2014 in a collection of twelve stories to be called Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay out Late at Night (which is the title of the penultimate story in the collection, and which takes its title from a Billie Holliday blues.

Only this evening, a friend remarked to you that you have kept them a mystery for so long.  Your reply:  "They were mysteries to me before I wrote them," which speaks to your process for fiction in a way you realize was begun in vulnerability and remains so to this day.

You've learned enough from these thirty or so stories from which this group of twelve has been culled to have developed an even closer bond between the actor and character, conflating the things you have learned to date from your writing mentor, Rachel Maddux, and your acting mentor, Virginia Gilmore.  When the tweaking and recasting of these stories is finished, you are back at finishing the opening two chapters of A Character Prepares, which title is homage to Constantin Stanislavsky, the noted Russian director who brought modernity to the stage, influencing actors and writers.

Once again, you will have written a book about writing to open mysteries of storytelling to you and, you hope, to the likes of those to whom you teach the elements and concepts of fiction.

Finishing this book will, you hope, solve enough mystery to allow you back to the two novels you have already set in motion, both of them featuring a character who is in many ways you as well as not you in even more ways.

This you first appeared in a short story called "Fish," written when you were an undergraduate.  The same character appears in a short story, "Molly," in the collection, wherein he considers the logistics of stealing a dog belonging to a close friend.  He also has walk-ons in a few others.

Some of your recent editorial focus is to keep him from sounding like you.  Some of your recent editorial focus is to keep any and all your characters from sounding like you and, from sounding too much like one another, even though they might come from the same family, school, or part of the country.

The character who is to a degree based on you, call him, if you will, your alter ego, appears as the narrator of the two novels yet to come.  You have a time line worked out for him and, because of a combination of whim and a fluke, you also know something about his grandfather who, unlike either of yours, was once assigned to the U.S. Army Camel Corps (and yes, there was one; you did not make it up.  You have made many things up, but you did not make that up.  You did make at least one hundred dollars from writing stories about this character's grandfather.

Your belief today, December 26, 2013, calls for both the writer and actor to step out of self in order to use the things the self has acquired, but as aspects of an entire range of other individuals, not of the acquiring self.

The acquiring self, you believe, is observing, taking in behavior, at times practicing the behavior in front of mirrors or in the privacy of the work area, the better to become actors or characters representing others.

The acquiring self, whether actor, writer, musician, dancer, artist, or photographer, tries to explain mysteries of behavior.  All these selves have at least one thing in common, which is time and its portrayal in their medium of choice.

Your thanks to LFB for, among many other things, calling you on the mystery related to your stories.  This was not done in an accusatory sense, more as an observation.  You are quite comfortable with this observation.  In particular, you would not like to keep your discovery of the mysteries of your stories in any way a secret from yourself.

What do you do?

You observe mysteries, then attempt to solve them for yourself through the winding up and setting loose of characters.  You wind them up as wanting something.  Then you step aside to observe them, wandering, careening, wobbling, pondering.  They less they are like you, the greater your chances of seeing more stories, more differences, more mysteries.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Sooner or later, any woman with whom you've had the good fortune to share a romantic interest will tell you in so many words, "You're funny."

In some ways, being told this is an acknowledged arrival at a plateau from which things progress in remarkable, positive scenarios of intimacy that seem to you to enhance your quality of life.  (Not that your quality had been in any way negative before.)  

Being told you were funny seems to clear the air for what is to follow.  The true humor is that what is to follow is not always readily available as knowledge or understanding.  Being funny is now an accepted part of the language, a recognizable aspect of your psyche and world view.

Being told you are funny can also be a critical fork in the road, as in, "You are funny and I am looking for serious."  Or, "I don't know how to relate with funny all the time." Worse yet, "Don't you ever get serious?"  You do, on occasion, and that seems to you always to produce funny outcomes.

In one case, when you said, "But I'm not funny all the time," the person of interest responded, "See, there you go again."

True enough, you have on occasion said or observed things, only to be told, "That's not funny."  One of the consequences of being told you are funny is the expectation that you will most of the time if not always be funny.  If you are content in the landscape of a particular romantic atmosphere, you are often given to seeing things you consider humorous, which can mean things of irony or visions of attempted reconciliation between painful things and dreams that have bounded off in distracted abandon.  Your contentment can produce a "See, I told you so," reminder that you are funny.

The kind of funny you mean does not mean odd or strange or somehow aberrant; it means tee hee funny, laughable funny, as in, we are in a situation we'd do better to laugh about than do something of potential danger.

The kind of funny you are does open the potential for someone to think you are making fun of her or of something she holds dear when much of the time, you are making fun of the situation, saying in effect that the two of you are casting directors for the same play, but each of you, because you are individuals, are seeing the play as a different genre.

One of you may be seeing the drama as a tragedy, the other as a comedy.  Much depends on timing.  Comedy is tragedy, speeded up.  If you slow down comedy, it becomes lugubrious.

There are times when you tell yourself, "That's funny."  There are also times when you tell yourself, "You're funny," but it does no good for you to try to be funny because while funny is a commentary, it cannot be described, it must be expressed through attitude, improvised the way jazz musicians improvise variations on chord changes and harmonic reaches or the way classical musicians approach their opportunity to perform a cadenza, which is in a major sense the performer's tribute to a written, orchestral work.  The finest cadenzas you know of are the Joachim cadenzas to the Mozart Violin Concerto in D minor, and the Beethoven in D Major, Joachim being a violinist known to both composers.

Being funny is subjective.  For you, it is an attitude, producing results that have the physicality of comedy and burlesque, but at other times the demonstration of painful truths so resident in humor.  You are not always happy when you are funny nor funny when you are happy.  The culture into which you were born and nominally raised begins to grow suspicious if funny gets out of hand, thus there is a note of restraint and suspicion that you might be getting on toward being told your funny is not funny, with an understood "anymore."

Being funny is also risky, but with that said, you do not consider it as risky as being neutral or reserved or much of anything connected with being conservative.  However great the risks of being funny--being misunderstood, being ignored, even patronized for apparent foolishness--the risks of being seen as neutral or reserved are greater.

Fear goes well with being funny because if there is enough silence in response, there is the fear you are being too funny or not funny enough, which will cause you to do something that will get you told, "You're funny."

There is unintended funny, which is self-satire, which you try to avoid, but that has the potential for pushing you over into being too serious, which is, as you've observed, a gathering spot for funny.

One solution has presented itself to you over the years, which is to go out of your way to avoid romantic attractions.  Now that would be funny because, thanks to the steps you have taken to become who you are, and the hours of practice you put in on honing your process, you are vulnerable to fall in love with things.

You are in love with stories, essays, flowers, dogs, cats, albondigas, mole sauce, osso bucco, and music.  You fall in love with women who are way too young for you and way to old for you.  You fall in love with words, poems, Christmas tamales, trifles, picnics, and the sounds of corks being coaxed from bottles.

Sometimes, when you are composing words for some specific purpose, you lose awareness of the surrounding now and become a part of the work, skipping, dancing, a grin beginning to spread across the solemnity of your lantern jaw, and you can almost hear some voice telling you, "You know, you're funny."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Screw Moderation

 Discussions with a varying group of friends and acquaintances about the recent motion picture from the Coen Brothers, Inside Lewyn Davis, (which you quite enjoyed) has led you to return to a recent decision.

You prefer a story that has more figurative, coded information than the linear, plot-driven narrative. You in fact prefer thematic distractions to the point where, if you are not careful, you can with some ease pour too much theme, description, and connective tissue into your own narratives.  This realization is not a surprise to you.  

Two related incidents cause this awareness to resonate inside your brain pan.  The first of these is your current activity in polishing and in some cases reentering the batch of twelve short stories that will appear in March.  The second incident was the pleasant surprise of being joined at lunch by a musician you've followed since the mid 1960s, and have known personally since the late 1970s.

Charles Lloyd, alto saxophone and flute, and in recent years, experimenter with a Hungarian reed horn, remarking on the meditative powers inherent in being on tour with a group, playing the same piece daily in different venues.

Some of the stories want replaying in order for you to get a more thematic sense of them, which you hope to put in the revised version.  Replaying also reveals places with the literary equivalent of squeaky reeds or unnecessary repetition.

Hearing your narrative read aloud is the key because, although you see things, you hear them better.  And when you are doing the reading, an occasional word or sentence will have the same effect on you as an aggressive street person, wanting spare change.  Simple truth:  you do not have spare change.  You have change you toss in an old oatmeal tin, then redeem at a machine or supermarket or bank.  

You are both chipper and grouchy about giving money away.  If the request is pleasant and shows awareness of the seriousness of being underfunded, expressed as the true meaning of humor, you're up for sharing.  If the request is a growl or demand or, worse yet, an apparent scam, such as so-called law enforcement benevolent societies, you can feel your hand tightening on your money clip and spare change.

You are both chipper and grouchy about composition.  Depends which mood is upon you.  The important thing is to begin, to work your way beyond moderation to the point where you care and it shows.

Simple truth:  Sometimes you've let things slip through the cracks or you've read through the work so many times that the glitches become invisible.

Simple solution:  Get the work to where you think it is ready for performance.  Then set it aside for at least a day.

Another simple solution:  Think of a story as a spirited comeback to some perceived insult or slight.  Write the response, but don't send it.  Wait a day.  Perhaps two.  Then reread it.  You did this once, some years back.  The result is still with you.  When you reread the snotty, insulting comeback you'd written, you had a long moment of wondering what the stimulus had become.

Simple truth:  a story or essay or review is a performance.  The more you see it and live it, the more it will be balanced between the literal, straightforward expressions of action, reaction, and thought and the figurative, with its potential for ambiguity and thematic distraction.  Balance is the key.  You write to achieve it.  You edit to achieve it.  You read it and the work of others to achieve it.

Because you speak of balance, this does not make you by intent or default a moderate or a centrist.  You are neither.  To you, not caring is a moderate position.  Caring is extreme.  You either care or you are a moderate.  

The lunch at which you ran into the musician was the final, let us say secular part of a yearly anniversary, a pagan ritual, really, from a tradition of which you are a part.  During the ritual, you were spending some considerable time trying to focus on aspects of you as self.  Some in this culture would call this meditation.

You hesitate to call it that because of potential associations with religion.  Although you consider yourself an atheist, you recognize a good, practical basis for spending time looking for and examining aspects of self in terms of self being related to a larger picture.  A drop of water being related to a stream or a rain storm.

Some degree of the self that is you continues to discover in your self the qualities of enthusiasm, mischief, and curiosity.  Through reflection (but not meditation) on those qualities, you on occasion see things to work at deleting or changing, things to consider in new ways.

The narrative in you and your stories has the same basic essentials, but over time and with reflection and a measure of patience, you see ways of editing, of revision.

You're comfortable with the likelihood that enthusiasm, mischief, and curiosity will remain as essential adjectives describing the noun that is your self.  But perhaps tomorrow, when next you look or read through, you will catch something you missed before.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Parallel Lines

Begin with two parallel lines, each of which includes a pair of opposites.

Say, Literal and Figurative.

And, why not, oratorio and opera.

Literal is What You See Is What You Get; no metaphor, no implication.  Each word, sentence, and paragraph convey a single meaning.  No left turn.  Stop.  One way.  No parking between 9:00 a.m. and 6 P.M.  Go fuck yourself.  Open for business.  For rent.  Free estimate.

Right away, Figurative opens the door.  No single-meaning phrases accepted here.  Double meanings welcomed.  Implications, inferences, suspicions preferred.  Go multiply yourself and be plentiful.  A wise horse knows its own fodder.  

Oratorio is a musical composition for orchestra and voice, involving characters, and choir.  There are two venues in oratorio, the orchestra pit and church pews or a pew-like arrangement on a stage, where the choir and characters sit.  No moving about and interacting.  To preserve the spirit of paring opposites, Oratorio was likely begun during Lent, a season of austerity.  Oratorio is significantly religious in theme, perhaps at an eight-five to fifteen percent ratio, the fifteen percent involving mythical characters and themes or perhaps folk tales.

Why have Oratorio, then, when you could have opera, where there are characters, dramatic themes, and as well expectations of characters mixing it up on stage?  To get figurative about an oratorio, you could have some fun by calling the genre Protestant (Puritan) opera.

When you began trying to make your way as a storyteller, impressed and aware as you were with the figurative, you felt unable to operate on that level yourself.  You are now relieved that so many of your early efforts are no longer available, in particular those notebooks where you sought to invent your own metaphor, your own figurative use, your own ventures into synecdoche and its potential antonyms.

Fearful of yet another flaw (your major one at that time your apparent inability to deal with plot or in any way articulate for yourself a dramatic pattern for the generic format known as story), you undertook to be as literal as possible.  Poor lad, you began many sentences with one of the least specific words in the language, "it."

It was raining.  It was growing dark.  It remained to be seen.  It was time for dinner.

What was raining?  What was growing dark?  What remained to be seen?  What was time for dinner?  And, Why should we care?

Some writers had and now have the gift of being able to imply, much without thinking of the power, merely executing it.  You spent years beyond junior high school in hell, trying to figure some of the implications in Ernest Hemingway's short stories which, to this day, you favor over his novels.  In this hell, the best you could do was compose in a linear manner, beat by beat, struggling to keep your narratives afloat, until one day a friend observed that you had more things going on in the background of a story than you did center stage.

With a little deconstruction, you were able to determine what your friend meant.  You were producing subtext without realizing it.  Of course you overindulged with this discovery to the point where first teachers then some kindhearted editors observed that you seemed comfortable enough with metaphor and simile and thematic traction but, sad to say, had failed to latch the corral gate, which allowed story to go riding off into the sunset without you.

Now that you are mindful of the long lines of unemployed figures and figurative speech hanging about your work area, you make some accommodation for the subsequent revisions and drafts to come after you've begun to get a saddle on the story, perhaps even staying on without being tossed for the first few drafts.

Somewhere between these parallel lines, there is the sweet spot, where neither you or such readers as you may have move through your story in a state of being engrossed, in the dramatic moments, a continuing sense of endorphins seeping into their awareness as all of us with investment in the story--reader, character, and you--experience this fragile but lasting membrane of story.

Begin with parallel lines, each of which contains that vital pair of opposites, the literal and the figurative.  When they blend well, they produce an extraordinary cocktail of ambiguity.  In this ambiguity,  the characters individually believe they are right, the reader has that same sense of understanding the implications of the outcome, and you are more prone than not to a sense of the outcome being alchemy you only understand in part.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

When Kids--Well, Shortstories--Leave Home

When a thing does not seem to work or to fit it, the best strategy, you've learned,is to write around it.

When a thing wants in, despite all your efforts to keep it out, the best strategy is to leave it, then move on.

Movement is important because, as you have come to realize, movement is forward process, which is to say, movement is getting things down.  Another perhaps applies here.  Perhaps to set the pace, and by its cadence, remind you of things that need to happen as well as necessary details.

Soon, you will go back with  thoughts and remedies,  The process will be at work, trying to reach the right pitch of voice,the right details in and the distracting details gone, sent away.

You are in the midst of a sobering experience, reviewing work you'd not seen for a time.  You had warm memories about the works.  They are your favorite form.  You thought you'd seen them through their awkward stages, but of course you'd once thought you'd seen yourself through awkward stages.

The same things work for you that work for them; stages come in like fresh tides.  They recede when you have had an opportunity to observe and to grow.

Sometimes your stages play tricks on you.  Having noted some quirk or awkwardness, you set out to show it better ways, which immediately reveal to you how serious you've become.  Can't you lighten up a bit?

There is something to be had for growth, for being able to read for paragraphs on end without once finding a clinker or soft spot, only to be arrested by a word or some ache-producing trope as having begun a sentence--any sentence--with the word "it."  "It" was cold.  "It" was raining.  "It" was to be expected.

A number of your notebooks are filled with lists of words you swear you will not use again.  Such lists did not come from one moment of composition, when you'd asked yourself to compile all the words you believed were the literary equivalent of empty calories.  Very.  Not an easy word to describe and yet...



Just, in particular used with as or when.  Just as...Just when.

Many adverbs that bloat rather than modify.

The use of "and" to string independent clauses together, a risk with the potential of causing the whole, elongated sentence to blur instead of illuminate.

They are good kids, these stories, even the two or three the publisher of your forthcoming collection did not like to the point of telling you, pick twelve stories out of this batch, but do not include the following stories in the twelve.

First thing you are going to do when you get the twelve you've chosen showered and trimmed, with an occasional tuck or addition here and there, is to go back to the ones the publisher wanted to drown, open these up for a close look at why someone who is hung-ho for publishing you in the first place should dislike these, all of which found pretty decent homes.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Failure, Revision, and Dreams

 You have reached the point in your career well beyond your accommodation to rejection.  A significant part of the early game is arriving at a place where you feel comfortable enough to submit your work to individuals you may know by name, but not in person.  

You also understand how many such individuals have nothing personal  invested in you or your work until some happenstance where  something produces enough chemistry for them to respond to you. You understand now that a rejection slip or a letter of regret or a wish for good luck or even an encouragement to try "us" again, or to let us see your next project, whatever it may be, by which time they may not remember who you are now, having the temerity to address "them" by a first name.

You understand that a rejection is a recognition that you have finished something you thought well enough of to submit to a specific place or places.  In effect, you are attempting to start a conversation, but the person or individuals with whom you are attempting this dialogue  respond like strangers you meet at a party,  Nice talking to you, they say, only it was more a politeness than a niceness, and although that is something, if you are not comfortable with the work you are doing, it can lead to frustration of the sort that can lead you to think in terms of conspiracy theories.

In a real sense, it is a conspiracy theory, but not the kind you thought, about the old school tie or connections approach.  The conspiracy is more of your own making, that you can do it all by yourself.  You can and must do some of it yourself, but you cannot possibly do it all.

After a time of this, and with an equivalent of a batting average, you were able to move beyond that sense of sting when you opened the envelope or got the email saying no and wishing you the best of luck elsewhere.

You never wanted it to be about luck.  You wanted and arrived at a place of your own making, a place of success and failure.  You understand:  Any successes you've had with your work have been the result of a combination of risk and accident.  To achieve this jumping off place where you embrace risk and the accidents it can provide, you have to be open to failure.

Failure helps you understand how the things you read when you were deciding you wanted to do this were similar results of attempted conversations that paid off.  You were in effect having help from all the books you read that you liked and all the books you read that you hated.  Thus you had a picture of where you wished to be and where you wished not to be.

Some editors said they would enter a conversation with you provided you would listen to some suggestions.  Funny how many of these suggestions reminded you of things you saw amiss in the books you hated or in the works of classmates or, later on, authors whose materials you were assigned to edit.

Today a psychiatrist who is a student in your Saturday group told you he was amazed at how you could pick seemingly hidden things out of sentences and paragraphs.  You nodded thanks, wondering how it was you could not see some of the comments your publisher had made on some of the stories in your forthcoming collection, all stories that had been previously published in other, sometimes prestigious journals.

How could they have been good enough to appear there and need your attention for a new iteration?

Because perfection is a myth.  We live in the midst of failure:  failed souffles, failed relationships, failed attempts, failed follow-through.  You have been in situations where someone, whose judgment and taste seem lacking to you, is able to spot something you missed in the revision of your own story.  Why does this character's severe allergy to peanuts come so far into the story when its consequence is so important?  How could you not see that?

You could not see it because you are distracted or bored or in love or interested in music or curious about how, because a spider has eight legs, if you could hear it walking, would it sound like two horses?  You could not see it because you were in some other world than the story where the infraction took place and all the while, you should have been where you needed to be, focused on what you needed to be focused on.

Failure is the place to rise out of.  At this stage of the game, you have a sense of being in the place of failure and of having realized, then tried to work your way out, by falling in love with a risky outcome that thumbs its nose at convention and expectation.  The fact of taking the risk is often not enough; other factors influence the outcome.  In consequence, you take the attitude of hoping for success but knowing the potential for failure, nevertheless.

Failure is having a dream, acting on it, then falling short.

Revision is valuing the dream enough to try it with another outcome, another, previously undreamed of approach, either of ingenuity or desperation, although since when could you distinguish to you satisfaction between desperation and ingenuity.

Revision is trying to overcome failure.

So let's say you have managed for the time being to overcome a failure to the point where it becomes viable.  Then someone comes along and wishes to reprint it, provided you spend some time on one or two crucial points?

So you'll have grown a bit, won't you, a tad away from what once was success but is now seen as having a missing part or an inarticulate part?

Will you ever work past failure?

No; you'll have had to stop dreaming in the first place.