Thursday, January 31, 2013

Frustration, the Key to Successful Story

In most of the things you read and write, frustration plays a role equal to the array of front-rank characters.

Someone is in a near or complete state of frustration, either at the seemingly slow progression of events, a failure to make one or more of the other characters "understand" her agenda, or perhaps even the intransigent nature of opposing forces.

Someone is being interrupted from a task by one or more individuals with priorities and needs of their own.

Without frustration, there would be no story, no sense of nuance, no conspiracy theory, no calloused-over grief or remorse.  Love letters would work.  Impassioned speeches would produce the desired results of the orator, scientific experiments would deliver one or more useful datum which would in turn produce beneficial results.  Young couples would not have to wait before being able to afford to marry.

Without frustration, the world of Reality would in effect turn into a Utopian society, wars would become relics of the past, family squabbles would devolve into family meetings or conversations at meal time, lovers' quarrels would end almost before they began, departmental politics t universities would impart yet a more positive meaning to the word Collegiality.

Without frustration, there would be no humor, a presence which, as you understand it, relies of humiliation of pomposity, cutting down to size of inflated senses of importance, and the general taking of the self with too much seriousness.

Without frustration, there would be too many books on the joys of communal living and Utopias, both of which, in their most ideal formats, would be peaceful, agreeable, and therefore quite boring.

Bring on frustration, jealousy, hegemony, and despotism, then watch story grow.  This observation might suggest your belief that story rises only from negativity and is therefore of itself a negative element, but that observation would miss the point that story is the most democratic of all forms because it is so free in its willingness to accept the notion that all characters, however bright or befuddled, believe in their own vision, their own sense of being right, having a correct, functional perception of the way the universe works.

Many of us in fact have little or no preparation for considering the ways of quantum physics, how matter behaves, yet most of us do have a sense of how persons ought to behave when they are not behaving so poorly.  This is to say each of us has experienced the feeling of the world going downhill in a shopping cart, with some degree of salvation available if only the rest of those about us would stop arguing long enough to take up our own brand of quantum physics.

Story, under those circumstances, could be held to incorporate much cynicism related to the human condition, the viewer quick to take on the role of the despot without pausing to consider the despotic nature such a role implies.

So long as there is frustration, yours with any of a number of institutions and specific individuals (including yourself), and the frustration of others with you, there is a Petri dish for the culture of story to provide nourishment.

Story attempts to wedge open gates frozen into a locked position.  Story speaks of the awareness of humanity that there is frustration available at every turn, then attempts to pressure some motion to effect the desired change.  A plan, there's the thing.  But in order to be story, early plans must somehow fall short.  Some degree of failure must costume up for every story, else it is not a full story but perhaps simple propaganda or fable or sermon.

How comforting it is to believe good will, energy, and diligent pursuit of an outcome will produce the very outcome desired, but if it does, no story, because there will have been no frustration or only the set-up frustration that put the story in motion.  John wishes to marry.  He has had this wish ratified by the occasional sight of Mary.  We would be horrified were John to make his feelings known to Mary, then her immediate agreement.  She must find some reason to add the spice of frustration to the dramatic stew, thus she sets John a task, which seems the height of absurdity to John, but what the hell; if that's what it takes, he'll have at it.  Now we have a potential for story and the added potential of uncertainty of outcome.  John may think the task he has been set is rather minimal, but he nevertheless finds it not so easy as he thought.  The task, it turns out, is damned difficult, and while he is engaged in it, John has second thoughts.  Perhaps marriage was not such a good idea after all if it involves so much nonsense.

Seeing John's uncertainty, we are energized right along the narrative primrose path because we're not sure John can perform the task nor if, when he does accomplish it, he will still wish to have a marriage partnership with Mary.

Frustration and uncertainty are part of the dramatic genome.  Without them, we may have narrative, we may have tale, but we do not have story.  Not yet.

At first, the task John has been set appears little more than a bother, but to those of us who have read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, another aspect enters the picture, wearing a costume every bit as gaudy as those worn by frustration and uncertainty.  This one is risk.  I'm to endure all these hardships as a prerequisite to working my tail off for the rest of my life to make a home for Mary and any children we might have?

If the task is too simple, we readers loose interest if not faith in the story.  Probably both.  If the task is too difficult, we begin to suspect we are being manipulated in some way or other, perhaps in service of some philosophical outcome.

If the outcome is too preachy or philosophical, the modern tools of critical theory allow us to think the narrative less story than some form of propaganda.

Story in its more abstract form emerges as the true protagonist of every story within the latitudes of drama; it demonstrates with plausibility and regularity how frustration, conflict, reversal, and uncertainty are never far off.  For all they offer us risk and potential menace, they also demonstrate how necessary it is for us to recognize them in their stronger rather than weaker aspects, the better to able us to negotiate our own ransom and negotiated settlement with that most abstract and villainous potential of all, Reality.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Writer's Interior Fillibuster

You are a walking argument.

Also a sitting one, as in sitting down to a meal in a restaurant where choice is a fulcrum and decisions sit at each end of the balance bar.

Also in a bookstore, as in which aisle to peruse, which choice, choices, to be made.

Also, any number of other arguments, such as whether to listen on the car radio to NPR or an all-classical or all-jazz format.

Or plug your iPod into the MP3 outlet for relay through the car sound system.

Settling down at some hour in the night with the agenda of sleep uppermost, there is that slight nudge from the memory of an article noted in the latest New Yorker or the London Times Literary Supplement, surely one last thing you could digest before sleep, the better to process it while sleeping, perhaps to the point of encoding it into the already over programmed code of your dreaming process.

Coming to wakefulness at some time in the morning, the day's agenda tugging at you for preferential treatment, that moment where the rotors and generators of the sleep mechanism have still not stopped spinning, there is that moment of temptation for investigating the potential for a last half hour of sleep and the suggestion, the promise of some insight being offered by your unconscious partner of an insight that will carry you through the day ahead, better prepared for the mischievous warp and weft of reality.

Or...

?

Choices, sides to be taken in an internal debate on questions, issues, preferences you have debated many times before, from all available sides.

Although you may on occasion take time to consider the options before making your choice, you are not an indecisive individual.  In fact,  one of your internal debates is whether or not you are too quick to chose, rendering an informed choice almost impossible.

ll this is your resume, your curriculum vitae for creating characters from whom you will create stories in specific recognition of the differences between these creations an an additional recognition that they, as you do, are in a constant state of exacerbated internal debate.

Small wonder your definition of story is:  two or more individuals enter a setting each believing him- or herself to be right in terms of morals, taste, goals, and preferences.

There is a voyeur's pleasure at watching these aspects of yourself, enhanced as though on steroids by your own concepts and understandings of conflict.  There is the additional pleasure of creating someone who has differing tastes--cats, tea, Norman Mailer, abstract art, the Jefferson Airplane--from you, whose politics differ from yours, who is more or less decisive, smarter, quicker, even more impatient than you, and doing so with respect bordering on admiration.

You want these creations to be able to take you down in an argument, to outdrink, outlook, outthink, out write you, a testament to the fact that while you have not given up thinking you are right, you are able to spend time in the company of those beings who also think that of themselves and yet are not loathe to spend time in your company.

This dialectic is a true two-way street.  You are amused to find yourself being patronized in real life, disturbed to discover yourself patronizing characters whose views and tastes differ from yours.  You have grown more tolerant of the self of you who in real life does not get things, needs them explained, is easily misled.  You are appalled to discover yourself in your writing on the despotic or bigoted side, thus committed to the scary push in fiction of the arguments and anomalies in accelerated forms of debate within your interior senate.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Uncertainty? Certainly Not.

Stories or games with certain outcomes are neither memorable nor exciting.  Their hold on our attention and curiosity are minimal, the likelihood we will read anything of metaphorical or symbolic content into them is negligible.

Games that move into extra innings or overtime become memorable reminders that final outcomes often develop on some accident or fluke.  Stories involving clashes of opponents who appear evenly matched have the added advantage of reminding us how disappointing predicability is in story.  We thrive on uncertainty, aware on some level that Reality has been misrepresented to us in so many ways.

At various times in our life, we set out on the equivalents of wander years, learning from first-hand observation the true anonymous, impersonal nature of the universe, simultaneously learning from observation certain basic laws of physical properties.  Our mistake is trying to conflate the two.

On some occasions, an early bird may get a worm, but not so often as we are led to think.  There are times when being forewarned is a valuable commodity, but there are as many times, in particular when the warning source is not reliable, when being forewarned advances group paranoia and conspiracy theory.  Sometimes a bird in hand may well be worth two in the bush, but on other occasions a bird in hand might result in being bitten.

During these wander year equivalents in which we hone our powers of observation and discrimination, we stumble over the discovery that some stories are simplistic learning experiences, meant to teach us some basic and idealized social or ethical value that may not hold up under closer scrutiny, might in fact be formula and certain outcomes in disguise.  We learn to separate these stories from the pack, then lead them to the barn or stable where fables,legends, and myths are kept.

The more those of us who read continue to read, and the more those of us who write continue to read and write, the more we are able to discriminate between the story and the propaganda packaged as story, perhaps even coming to a plateau of cynicism, which seems at first blush to have been as far as we need to go.

Although do not consider yourself a cynic, you have been one and were happy to have been so, thinking yourself freed from the constraints of the cultural fairy tales and myths with which you felt yourself slowed down.  Aware of cultural myths and their hold on you, you spent time reading, thinking, and writing away from the inevitability of cultural normative behavior, the saber-tooth tiger complacent at having avoided the La Brea Tar Pits.

Being all cynical is as bad as being all accepting.  There was still this large streak of optimism you found, emptying out your pockets from time to time, and this was to say nothing of the tendencies you had toward romanticism and small pockets of mysticism.

The clues lay embedded in your reading and writing, like the Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring and Captain Midnight Decoder Badge of your youth.  Having these devices close at hand, you began to see that the things you wished to put in code were more or less doomed to remain on code, but things you put into story needed not so much special devices as much as they needed individuals such as yourself to read them, applying cynicism, detachment, curiosity but also optimism and, even better than optimism, acceptance.  The brand of acceptance you sought was not the acceptance of being overwhelmed or of defeat, rather the acceptance of uncertainty.

Story runs best on uncertainty.  Knowing what a character will do removes some of the fun in reading and writing.  Thinking you know what a character will do, then allowing that character to have the equivalent of borrowing the family car is the acceptance that speaks to your overall regard for surprise and exploration rather than rigidity and control.

Much is made of athletes performance rations, points scored, hits per times at bat, elapsed time in swimming laps or running or biking distances.  Innings pitched, games saved, assists.

Less is made of the number of successful experiments achieved by a scientist against the metric of total experiments.  Artists are expected to have somehow transcended failure and rejection, arriving in mystical state at being not only artist but as well, a professional artist.

But nothing has really changed for the professional or near professional.  Each has arrived through a series of experiments, failures, near misses, and some successes, the rich irony being the difficulty often present in distinguishing any of these activities from any of the others.

We relish uncertainty in stories because we recognize uncertainty in ourselves, our friends, our family, and those we meet on a less intimate basis.  The Heisenberg uncertainty principal says in effect that certain properties of a particle, such as position and momentum, may be seen and followed, but the more the focus becomes on one, the less the information of the other is available or reliable.

Story thrives on such anomaly.  Story involving characters with arguing inner goals or directives make excellent additions to story.  There is in effect a quantum physics of story, and in that physics, the greater the uncertainty of outcome and the effect of the outcome on one or more characters, the more meaningful and personal the story becomes.  The clearer and more predictable the outcome, the more inconsequential and forgettable the story.

All well and good for the understanding to be had, an understanding that reminds us of and applauds our recognition and acceptance of the uncertainty within ourselves.  Learning when we are uncertain is more meaningful and lasting than learning from certainty and smugness.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Portraits

Two American Nobel laureates in literature have with some frequency addressed the man you are sitting next to by his first name or its less formal version.  A third Nobel laureate has called him mendacious.

In kind, the man you are visiting, Barnaby Conrad, refers to the first two as Mr. Lewis and Mr. Steinbeck.  He refers to the third either by his initials, EH, or the title-less Hemingway, although when he does so, his voice conveys an endorsement of respect.

Talking about these individuals in one of those One-word-to-describe contexts, you assign outrage to Sinclair Lewis, concern to John Steinbeck, appearance to EMH, and respect to Barnaby Conrad.

Among the many portraits he has drawn or painted, Conrad has done at least one of each of the laureates.  Mr. Lewis, suitably framed, is right there in the room with you, catching a bounced glint of morning light.  When Conrad says, "As you know, Mr. Steinbeck [1902-68]has moved on, he means the lively, appreciative charcoal is no longer in his studio but now hangs in the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

"E.H." he reminds you, "is still out in the studio."

Later, on your way out of the house, you tread over the large black, rubberized mat with the distinctive white lettering, El Matador, that used to repose in the entryway to Conrad's eponymous San Francisco bistro, where you first met him in person, having been lured there after reading his books and essays.

When you peek into the nearby studio, E.H. is not only there, he emerges as a person captured in a moment of happiness and celebration of, say, landing a big fish or a paragraph or two of a day's writing.  He is by all of Conrad's account in this portrait, approachable rather than the prickly writer of letters accusing Conrad of poaching on his turf.

Below E.H., a self-portrait of B.C., kneeling, paintbrush in hand, mischievous in his contemplation of some spatial blend of reality and art in the making.

The interior of the studio holds you for a moment, its B.C.-assembled models of World War I airplanes dangling from the ceiling, stacks of books bursting from shelves like youngsters in anticipation of morning recess, amusing monuments to neatness, revealing themselves as piles of what are best referred to as "stuff" and "unclassified treasures."  You could spend hours playing here, a reminder of what "work" was for the man who caused all this mischievous clutter.

Leaving the studio, you're brought up short by a large, perhaps 3 x 4 plaque lying on the gravel, its patina reminiscent of a perfect plum.  You'd seen it once before with a similar, shivery reaction, as it lay against the entryway to the studio.  The lettering is as somber as the lettering on the El Matador mat is welcoming.  Barnaby Conrad, the serifed letters read.  There is no mistaking the function of the plaque.

When you spoke to him the first time you'd seen it, he smiled.  "You didn't read the second line," he said.  "The dates.  This one has beginning dates and ending dates.  This was for my father.  We replaced it.  He spread his hands.  "A story is not over, you see, until the final date is added."

You find yourself back in the studio for a moment, taking in all the remarkable clutter once again.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Beat from all this activity

In much the same way objects may be broken down into such basic parts as atoms or even particles, story takes its shape and personality from its component events.  Those who deal with stories for stage and film open the door for our narrative versions of story by referring to events as beats.  We use beats from time to time, but often, we lose track of them, trying to keep  other objects moving in the remarkable juggle that is story.


If you were to take any given story, in particular one you felt had a continuous sense of engagement, leading to a resounding payoff, then break it into its component beats, you'd have an amazing record of action.  Mary wakes up.  Mary realizes she has overslept.  Mary rushes to get dressed, decides to skip breakfast. And so on, until some engagement with one of Marty's goals is attempted, missed or perhaps bungled, a level of desperation is now in place, where things look as bad for Mary's goals or plans as she could possibly imagine, and then, as a result of her own action, a resolution or negotiated settlement with reality is achieved.  All these movements and awareness can--or should--be represented by a beat.

You could take matters in hand by performing a beat of your own, which is realizing how the plot of a story is the strategic arrangement and presentation of beats.

What possible benefit could come from seeing story as a procession of events, a Mardi Gras of beats?  For starters, this vision could keep you out of the way of your characters, allowing them to see or not see as befits their contemporary attitudes and the cumulative effects of their experiences, without you around to nudge the reader or drop in stage directions.

Another benefit comes from the way such activity could allow you to start the story in the right place, without some long narrative equivalent of the old movie voice-over technique of an unseen narrator telling the readers where they are and what they are about to see.

Somewhere in the process, this allows you to see how many times you'd visualized the story through the filter of the verb "to be," which often produces an effect called passive voice, which is a way of making the object of an action into its subject.  The ball was hit by him for a home run. Thanks, but you'd prefer, He hit the ball for a home run, and when time for revision came, you'd likely take the matter more in hand with He hit a home run.

Passive voice is grammatical, thus you have to give it some thought when you reread your work because the spellcheck and grammar function of your computer is not going to do it for you; it thinks the passive voice is okay on the grammar and spelling side and as a consequence expects you to do the work with the narrative.

You could almost say that story was a matter of you throwing things at your characters, of some of them throwing things at others of them, of all of them trying to get out of the way of being pelted by these rocks while at the same time trying to get on with bringing their agendas to some sort of resolution.

Back to benefits from seeing story as events careening about.  Add this one:  Focusing on event keeps you from wanting so much to leave a fingerprint on the project that you throw in some fancy metaphor or high-faluting usage meant to produce a laugh or mount a high horse.  In the best sense, your fingerprint comes from the fact of the characters, under your direction, pushing matters beyond your own boundaries of safety and comfort.  Go ahead, you tell them, but you guys are going to have to clean up any mess you make.  They look at you as if to say, who are you?  We didn't come here to clean up messes.

And you, emboldened by the tingle of excitement of maybe having pushed matters too far this time, tell them, Look at your contracts.  Your job is to get into trouble.  Your job is to get into interesting, memorable trouble.  Your job is to make readers care and to make your creator care.

This is also a splendid thing to throw in the face of critics who come down on you for writing plot-driven stories, at which point you can tell them that your characters are pretty complex and may have started out with plans and notions based on a concept but are in fact so quirky, rebellious, and inventive that they have taken you first of all to places you'd never thought to have visited, having in your own life experiences been there with such dismal results.

If you have put any work and effort into understanding your craft, you'll have come to the point where you realize that writing begets editing and revision, which begets removing thinking verbs and replacing them with action verbs.  You'll have realized the need for practice the same way your artist friends sketch and your musician friends run scales to keep up their manual dexterity but also to help them associate actual sounds with actual keys or holes or guitar frets.

Story has evolved to a point where, in this century, you have the choice of describing your characters in action, as if from a distant, god-like voice that turns out most of the time to be your own, or evoking your characters in action, by allowing them to take the wheel of the dramatic chariot and stay out of the ruts while minding the way the horses behave.

To put it another, more action-related way, you have the choice between publishing or being self-published.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

After -30- Banquets, What?

There are any number of imaginative theories about how the use of the numerals 30 came to be the journalism equivalent of The End or End or # at the end of stories, signifying there was no more material to come.  Suffice it to say thirty in any of its written or spoken iterations--that's thirty for now--mean the end, done, a thing is over.

At one point, when you worked at the Associated Press night office located in the Los Angeles Times building, you ended a story with roman numerals XXX, which occasioned one of the older telegrapher-typists to A) call you a smart ass and B) speculate that back in his day, handwritten manuscripts had an X at the end of each paragraph, an XX at the end of each page, and a final X at the end of the story, thus XXX, which is in fact Roman numerals for thirty and perhaps the very cause of the thirty.


A patient editor at the now defunct Hollywood Citizen-News, where you contributed a column about the doings of your high school, instructed you off the # you'd been taught in your journalism class, adding that if you were to get anywhere in journalism, you'd eschew your fondness for adverbs and focus on ending your pieces with -30-.  You remember leaving the building liking the sound of the word eschew.  Journalism was by no means all bad, even when you were fired from one job for reporting a speech that was never given.  The fact that you replied, "This is what he'd have said if the speech were given," caused this editor to make a suggestion you still value.  "You'll find a more sympathetic reception, I believe, in fiction."

The being fired was after a long, happy association with journalism in near perfect conditions, the five-times-a-week Daily Bruin of your UCLA days, where you three 30s around with what seemed reckless abandon until, sated with the sight of your by-line, you strived to write stories that contained their own documentation, allowing them to run as straight news pieces.  Your journalism days provided you enough income to have enough for the beef-and-cheese sandwiches at the snack stand adjacent the Janss Steps where, on a clear day, you could in fact see Catalina, for pitchers of beer at The Rack on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, and the occasional bottled beer at Dude's, a barbecue in Westwood Village.

Your experiences with the Daily Bruin allowed you a splendid, unfettered range, which you were only last night reminiscing about with another DB alum of the day, Marty McReynolds, who is in  a real sense the inspiration of these vagrant paragraphs because he'd sent you 30 notices for two former DBers.

Every year, at the end of the Spring Semester, shortly before graduation, the Friday, in fact, of the last edition of Daily Bruin until the Summer session and a new round of officers and staff, there was a -30- Banquet, commemorating the departure of the "old" editorial staff and graduating seniors.

The year of your own departure and thus your -30-Banquet of record, came with the simultaneous departure of a remarkable person you'd begun to think of as your future mother-in-law.  Her -30- editorial bore a title you teased one another about for the next ten or so years.  "After Graduation, What?"  There were no enormous student loans then, nothing more ominous on the horizon than the forthcoming Barry Goldwater heralding of the so-called Conservative Revolution.  There was the after graduation innocence of uncertainty, some rumblings about the Korean War, much to be done about social issues and civil rights, much uncertainty about careers, books to be written, certainly books to be read, lives to be lived, explorations to be launched, travels to be undertaken.

As things worked out for you, things were not as uncertain as they ought to have been, which is to say you were not that all apprehensive about where and how you would evolve into the evolution you'd hoped for.

Your first published novel was written on a red portable Olivetti typewriter, the gift of your former editor and anticipated mother-in-law.  Your second was written on an electric typewriter in a boathouse on Lake Washington, your third on an island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  But nearly all these events and certainly all subsequent ones were driven by the most important energy to drive a person--uncertainty.

Nothing has changed in that regard.  Nothing.


She whom you'd have had as mother-in-law was not in fact your mother-in-law.  She whom you'd have had as your wife was not and one cold, blustery night between the classes you gave every Tuesday night at the University of Southern California, you learned from him who you'd have had as brother-in-law of the 30 Banquet for she whom you'd wished to marry.

Last year, the 30 Banquet of a great, long-time chum, one of two at the tip of the triangle in terms of that remarkable chemistry of respect, love, intimacy, and empathy.

Now, you are attending a 30 Banquet for the other of the two, thankful it still has many courses to be served, many commendations and reminiscences yet to recount.

The laugh lines on your chin have become more pronounced, your eyebrows bushier, as if in mitigation of your hairline growing thinner.  You reminded two persons today for whom you autographed copies of your book of the actor James Whitmore, a stirring flattery, reminding you you are very bit as overconfident today as you were at your Daily Bruin Thirty Banquet.

-30- the end of one story and a purposeful stride into the beginning of a next.

-30- Banquet.  The reminiscences and commemoration of friendships and working lives.

You have heard it said that living in the present is the most adventurous way to proceed, that looking back too often tends to distract one from the invariable uncertainties in the road ahead. You have had grand companions to this point in the road, there are two books in the works and two more at least rumbling around, genies stuck in their bottles, offering you blandishments and willingness to grant you wishes, were you to let them out.

After writing -30- to a number of stories, you come to understand how, in the best of all possible worlds, you will not be around to get all your anticipated stories underway nor indeed effect all your anticipated, hoped for results.  Rather, you thrill in the absolute wonder of the process in which there will always be more stories and relationships and -30- Banquets than you can possibly attend,

Friday, January 25, 2013

Bears, Itchy Sweaters, and Barnaby Conrad

The opening sentence to a novel, a short story, or an essay should be the literary equivalent of an itchy sweater.

 Someone, somewhere, in a situation the writer has devised, is attempting to find a way first to scratch the itch, then contrive a way to be free of the sweater.  If the wearer of the sweater is before an audience, delivering a presentation, or in some other, public arena, say a restaurant, church, synagogue, or mosque, trying to carry on in spite of the itch, then the author has created an immediate bond between the character and the reader.

The message is clear to all who have experienced itches.  We have all experienced an itch of some sort or another in a place where the itch was located beyond a convenient scratch, or of such a nature where it is best attended in private.  Bonuses for the writer are the tightness of the sweater and the embarrassing presence of others.  Itches in private are only itches in private; itches in public are stories in motion.

You learned to bring these concepts together in useful dramatic form from a man who lay before you in a hospital bed, furnished with cheerful, colorful linens he might have designed himself, covered with thick blankets unlike any hospital blanket you might imagine.  They were more suggestive of some warm, cuddly puppy than a serviceable covering.

"I think,"Barnaby Conrad said, watching to be sure you'd been served coffee, "we have started with the bears."

Some years back, perhaps as many as fifteen, when the yearly late June madness of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference was in full sway and Conrad was engaged in his customary morning workshop, you'd slipped in the back door to wait for the session to end.  The day was a Thursday.  From long habit, you'd meet him for lunch on Mondays and Thursdays.

A grandmotherly sort, perhaps in mid to late sixties, stood before the group, reading in precise, clipped tones that resonated throughout the room, but which seemed to you to be causing numerous consultations of wrist watches, shuffling of feet on the carpeted floor, shifting in chairs.  The reader's voice had the precise cadence and diction of Nob Hill, San Francisco, or of Beacon Hill in Boston.

Conrad, too, appeared a degree or two beyond his normal projection of patient interest.  Intrigued, you focused on the reading, admiring her diction, trying to follow the narrative of a group of four friends camping in the Yellowstone National Forrest.

A few individuals in the audience could no longer remain seated.  They rose, making their way to the exit.  The reader continued and you began to see the problem:  her narrative was a series of episodes, held together with the connective duct tape of "and then they..."

By your computation, you'd heard the woman read about three pages, which, had they been double spaced, would have been about seven hundred fifty words.  Because of her voice and inflection, you liked the woman, but at the same time your own sense of impatience--never one to take a back seat for long--began to grip you, reminding you of one of Conrad's cats at home, pestering to be let out.

After a few more "and then they" proclamations from the reader, Conrad, in diplomatic politeness, interrupted her.  "This is all wonderful lead-up,"  he told the reader.  "But something has to happen.  Something of dramatic and consequential significance."

The woman nodded her understanding.  Yes, she assured him, she did see the need for dramatic event, but first, she had wanted the reader to get to know the four characters and understand the pristine remoteness of the area.  Then she was prepared to bring in the drama, which was quite extraordinary, she assured Conrad.

"Something happens then?"  Conrad said.

Nodding her head for emphasis, the woman explained, "In the next chapter, not very far off now, these individuals are attacked by a group of bears."

It seemed to you Conrad was searching for the right way to present his findings without even the slightest affront to the reader's dignity.

At length, he said, "I think we'd better start with the bears."

The room filled with a communal gasp of understanding as those present rose to their feet, struck by the lightning of insight and the need for lunch.  For years after the event, the mantra was invoked.  Start with the bears.

Before your friendship with Conrad began, you were in classes or groups where the presiding figure was either a writer or an academic, possibly even both.  You'd heard such tropes as "Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph," and "The shotgun mounted on the wall in Act One must go off by Act Three."  You also heard some academics use the term "destabilizing event" when speaking of an opening line or paragraph, and you promised yourself that should you ever be published or become a teacher, you would never use such a term.

You do agree with Barnaby Conrad that writers are not born, they are made.  They are, in fact, made from their own work.

It took Barnaby Conrad to lead you to starting with the bears and wearing itchy sweaters, where you have been these many years, trying to make yourself from your work.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Schoolboys Snapping Towels in the Locker Room

You'd not heard the expression Renaissance Man until you were well into your final undergraduate year.  When you delved into the implications of what it meant, you wished to become one and were willing to devote considerable time and effort to the enterprise.  As you began to realize how high that bar was set, you thought instead to pursue difficult but at least attainable goals of becoming a writer and an autodidact.

You did not hear the term Renaissance Man used again until it was used in context with Barnaby Conrad.  As you came to know him (and hear the term again and again), you began to have a sense of what being a Renaissance Man involved, and you realized accordingly that you'd been smarter as an undergraduate that you originally supposed to keep your focus on things closer to hand.

Sometimes, without seeming to engage deliberate thought, you reach past the shaving cream bomb for a well-aged shaving brush with a silver handle, its badger bristles fluffy and alert to the task at hand.  The process requires thirty seconds or so of facial steaming with a wash rag, then a choice to be made from one of the tubs of shaving soap given you for some birthday or some Christmas by Barnaby Conrad at some time in a past that has enough individualized memories to make it a happy, wondrous blur.

The ritual of shaving with a brush takes longer than the more slap-dash daily approach using an aerosol container of soap and emulsifier and heaven only knows what other long chemical names with -enes and -ous inserted into their names.  You believe Conrad gave you the brush and tubs of soap after you once confessed you'd for a period of time shaved with a straight razor.  The confession came about when he'd questioned a particular scar on the middle finger of your right hand and you'd had to confess to the day when, shaving with a straight razor, your mind had wandered just a tad, you'd let go of the razor, then reached reflexively to retrieve it.

"Seems to me,"  he said, "a man should have a shaving brush."

You were half way through the lathering process this morning before you realized you'd reached past the striped can of Barbisol and the distinctive blue-and-white Noxema bomb to the shaving brush.  After you finished shaving and the brimming bowl of cafe latte before you, your target through the early morning rain was the Rincon Point enclave where Conrad waited, an imposing figure yet in the hospital bed in the living room which, of all the many maze-like rooms in the house, is an overflow of various trompes l'oeil, including a pair of what appear to be needlework pillows of famous portraits from major galleries, each with the head of a dog.

A Hospice nurse was just finishing her shaving of Conrad's Google Map of a face, its features in full relief, revealing merriment and curiosity.  "I always wondered how I'd look, being shaved.  Tell me, how do I look?"

You were thinking of the shaving brush and your choice of the almond-scented cream.

"You look,"  you said, "born to being shaved."  You were thinking he looked born to most everything he'd attempted, including the afternoon with you riding shotgun in one of a succession of Dodge vans he favored, when he located a mini-mart of a Chevron station in nearby Goleta, he located what the manager swore to be authentic low-fat Gummi bears.  "Now,"  he said, popping a slithery one into his cheek, " I can eat twice as many."

Because of his enormous range of interests, he seemed in perpetual and animated conversations with a broad variety of friends.  One late June night, when the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference was being held at the beachfront Miramar Hotel, you stopped by the cocktail lounge to pick up a Campari and soda to take with you to the basement auditorium where your late night fiction workshop was held.  Seated at a corner table were Conrad and Patrick Cunningham, a longtime friend, also a man who'd been in the bullring and who had written books.  They were arguing as you approached about a particular corrida they'd seen in Spain, disputing a succession of moves the way two chess buffs would deconstruct a fabled game.

"That wasn't the way of it at all,"  Cunningham said, bolting to his feet.  "Hold my hat,"  he said, thrusting a seasoned straw at you while he swept the tablecloth off the table he and Conrad had been sharing,then draped it in the manner of a cape. Although both had obviously been toasting their friendship a number of times,  Cunningham seemed to lose thirty or so years, his stance and demeanor in place as a torrero.  "Here,"  he said to Conrad.  "He did this, bringing the bull to a skidding halt."

Not to be outdone, Conrad rose.  "Nice pass, but that would not have impacted a bull of such size.  Here,"  reached for a chair, hefted it by its back, then thrust the legs toward Cunningham.  Two tipsy friends were nevertheless convincing torrero and practice bull.  "Try that pass on me.  You'll see."

Cunningham advanced, extended the tablecloth cape.  As though Conrad were a bull, Cunningham challenged him, dared him to attack the cape.

You have seen a number of corridas--no where near the aggregate of these two--but enough for you to see the seriousness beyond the apparent mischief.  For the next ten minutes, the cocktail lounge became a bull ring before ending as many such things do, with each participant believing he had demonstrated his point.

Cunningham strode to the doorway, then called back.  "If I had enough money with me, I'd buy a substitute bull."

"If it were me,"  Conrad smiled, "I'd hook to the left."

Schoolboys, snapping towels in a locker room.

At the Wednesday writer's lunch held at the Cafe del Sol, facing the Bird Refuge, Conrad and writer Laird Koenig were pursuing another confrontation.  "I tell you,"  Koenig said, "it was Maria Ouspenskaya who portrayed the mother in the film version of Dodsworth."

"Was not."

"Then whom?"

In some ways, the one-up contests between Conrad and Koenig give you the most pleasure of all.  Neither is a show-off, yet each is proud of his store of fact.

"So, you want to marry my son?"

"Yes, that's the line.  But not Ouspenskaya."

"It was she, who, by the way, was a student of Stanislavski at the Academy."

School boys, snapping towels.

A year or so after the bullfighting incident, but still at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, Conrad approached you.  "I owe you lunch for what you did last night,"  he said.

Such offers were more often celebrations when he'd sold a particularly high-priced painting or had landed a book contract.  You naturally wanted to know what it was you'd done.

"The way you one-upped Artie Shaw."

You were not aware you'd even been in an exchange with Shaw.  That would not come for at least another five years.  What Conrad referred to was Shaw, being the speaker of the day at the eight o'clock program in the main auditorium.  Before an audience of about three hundred, Shaw related how tired he'd come to be with playing one of his big hits, Frenisi, when the band was on tour.  "Every damned night,"  Shaw said.  "Play Frenisi.  It was driving me wild and I'd come to hate the damn song."  But not, apparently, did Shaw hate the song as much as his lead piano, a gifted-but-moody young man whose name Shaw could not remember.  In fact, Shaw went on, nobody in this room could possibly know.

Suddenly, you knew.

The pianist warned Shaw somewhere near Waterloo, Iowa, that if one more fan requested Frenisi, he was going to walk off the bandstand and never come back.

You were seated well toward the back of the auditorium.  "Dodo Marmarosa,"  you said.  "He was your pianist before Johnny Guarnieri."

Standing at the lectern, microphone on, Shaw said, "Son of a bitch."  Then he said it again, and then,  "Dodo fucking Marmarosa.  That crazy kid."

"Be sure to order the lobster Newberg,"  Conrad said.  "You brought Shaw down in front of three hundred people."

Schoolboys, snapping towels in the locker room.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bad Pages

Story, in so many ways, is like a cat, unable to decide whether it wants in or out, whether its last choice was the correct one.  You've watched cats and some dogs wrestle with the problems related to decision.  You've yanked many a sheet of paper from a typewriter, pushed many a computer delete key yourself, drawn neat, editorial lines through paragraphs on manuscripts sent you to be edited, written stet in the margin, having changed your mind and now wanting it to come back into the story.

If the story is not going well, neither is its sincerity, the painful result of indecision. How do you or any writer you know of deal with the incessant problem of coping with insincerity, once it creeps into a piece you're working on?

A favored approach is to attempt to stare down the insincerity, write around it, find a way to admit to something without subverting the piece into that most dread essay of all, the confessional.

Thinking at this stage is often bad business because the mind has a habit of sending out communiques of a defensive nature.  As the insincere piece scrolls along, appearing to gain momentum, the sense transmits itself through your fingertips, up your arms to your torso, then a short trip into the brain, where you are thinking when you should be associating, listening to the actual, honest attempt of the piece.

Your favorite diagnosis for those times when work is not going well is the one of Showing off of Intelligence, which on its face is not so bad if you are able to define intelligence as the association, then conflation of two or more seemingly disparate things, calling attention to the unseen similarity that links them.  Not a bad diagnosis.  Often you do catch yourself,wanting to "use," which is to say show off significant (which is to say inflated) information.  Information is information.  You can use it in ways that will bake it appear significant, but you can also try to pump it up with adjective and metaphor, a not so subtle reminder of your intention.

Past ways for dealing with insincerity meant a dramatic ripping of the sheet of paper from the typewriter, crumpling it, then sending it in a high parabolic arc toward the nearest waste basket, using slow deliberation in the insertion of another sheet of manuscript paper, then warning it, "This time, I'm going to get you right."  This is your warning that you intended even more rigorous honesty than before.

You have only moments ago done the computer-age equivalent by selecting all of a blog essay in the works, pressing the select all button under the Edit heading, causing the lines you'd typed to be outlined in blue.  Next step, the delete key.

How pernicious the process can be.  You begin to smell the insincerity, which has a metallic tang to it.  If you're not careful, the tang will cover your tongue.  The insincerity wants to remind you how much time you have invested in the project.  Too far along to say no.  Surely someone with your cleverness can fix this.  A device, perhaps.  A ploy.  A gimmick.

Some years ago, you set your mind against device for device sake, for gimmick to cover the trail of the fact of you thinking you cannot get out of a scene when, in fact, you have not been able to get in.  Are you going to set that resolve aside?

If you delete now, this material cannot be saved.  Nor should it, but you are thinking perhaps another paragraph or so, at which point you'll find your way back to the intent lane, the essay will begin to heal, take care of itself.  Like some of those too big to fail corporations that got our finances in such dreadful shape, you are thinking surely the next paragraph will return to the honesty of statement as opposed to defense or explanation.

The next paragraph is not convinced.  It is in clear need of help, but you have begun to over think, looking for a sentence or paragraph that is a device rather than a sincere launching of an action or opinion.  What threat have you sent forth?  Have you said, I will edit you out if you are not sincere?

This sometimes helps.

You must not be too impressed with previous paragraphs unless, when you read them, you feel the itch of forming tears or a choke in the throat or some bodily sign telling you you've struck a resonant chord.  You must be ready to delete, to send packing.  Never mind there was a good line in there, a good figure of speech.  Are you actually comfortable with the notion of trying to impress yourself?

These are things you must get used to by recognizing how they get in the way of story as opposed to helping it come out of its hiding places.

Bad pages are help notes sealed in a bottle, then tossed into the ocean, in hopes someone somewhere will find them.  They are desperate, bit too much has been said about how good it is to be inside and working, too little about the need to remember how important to the process despair of getting back inside is, and what a gift it can be.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Friendship and Barnaby Conrad

 Barnaby Conrad makes story of his friendships and friendships of his stories, sharing each with the adventurous éclat of a schoolboy trading sandwiches at lunch.

He has told a memorable range of stories, engaged an even more memorable spectrum of friendships.  If you know him for any time at all, he'll have shared his stories and his friendships with you to the point where you feel the stories happened to you and the friends were yours all along.

Two of his longest and  deepest friendships are so vivid with him that you tend to think of these remarkable individuals by their first names rather than the charismatic San Francisco newspaper columnist, Herb Caen (1916-97)or the electrifying bullfighter nicknamed "El Ciclon," Carlos Arruza (1920--66).  Herb and Carlitos.  Conrad has made them your pals.

You are more respectful of one of his first employers, the Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis, whom you tend to refer to as he does, Mister Lewis.  Same holds for one of his mentors in the bull ring, Juan Belmonte, whom he calls Don Juan.  The artist Norman Rockwell remains Mister Rockwell; his literary mentor at Yale, William Lyon Phelps, the scholar and critic from Conrad's New Haven days is still Professor Phelps.

When the San Francisco attorney, Melvin Belli, often referred to as 'the king of torts," discovered you knew Conrad, he invited you to a fine lunch at Scandia, hopeful of discovering "What does he say about me?"  When Belli found out that what Conrad said was complimentary, he let you pay the bill.

Thus far, you have also had "friendships" with Stewart Granger, Zsa Zsa Gabor (Darling.  I'm so relieved to hear you say Barnaby was gored in Madrid.  I thought you said he was bored."), Sterling Hayden, Howard Duff, his pal from Yale John Ireland, Sandy Vanocer, Anne Francis, William Styron, Richard Widmark, William F. Buckley, Jr. and his son, Chris; Gore Vidal, Thomas McGuane, and Tom Brokaw.  From Conrad, you know enough about Mr. Steinbeck to think of him as well, but always as Mister Steinbeck.  Because of Conrad, you were even hired to edit an unwieldy memoir from the legendary Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, also known as Artie Shaw, but that is another, less friend-oriented story.

 Filled with the ebullience of their human subjects as Conrad's portraits are, there is an even more compelling sense of presence and anima in his merest sketches of animals, which range from scribbled sketches as a way of autographing one of his books, acrylic mock-ups of fishing and nature scenes, illustrations of dogs and cats, not to forget sculpture and tromp l'oeils so convincing, the viewer is tempted to pick them up or pet them.  A sculpting of a cat in the front yard seems about to clamber over a fence, whereupon to scoot to freedom.  A wooden portrayal of a cat near the mailbox crouches, poised to spring at an unsuspecting bird.

Of course his portraits of humans telegraphs his fondness for the species, emphasizing some small, remarkable feature about each in addition to the overall sense of his having captured the subject in motion.  But his animals vibrate with some electric sense of dignity resident in each one, almost as though Conrad could see beyond what most of us see in animals.

He has had an outrageous procession of animal friends, including a python named Porfirio, a fox, numerous birds, a succession of dogs and cats.  Birds, particularly ones with the abilities of speech, seem to have held a special place in his heart.  

One African Gray named Madison had the mischievous habit of being able to duplicate Mary Conrad's voice, a talent Madison seemed to relish by calling in a convincing approximation of Mary, "Barney, pick up the phone."  Other times, Madison was won't to call out, "Barney, I'm home.  Come help me with the groceries."  This often led to conflicts when the real Mary arrived and called out, "Barney, I'm home.  Come help me with the groceries."  Sometimes, when he tells the story, his eyes twinkle.

Who can say for certain?  Perhaps not even Conrad, himself.  The long, ongoing procession of birds and animals into his various homes could be a way of trying to play some trick on Reality.  "Every story about an animal is ultimately a sad story,"  he has observed.

After a moment's reflection, he brightens.  "But that doesn't mean we should stop having them in our life."


Monday, January 21, 2013

Barnaby Conrad: Trompe l'Oeil

Barnaby Conrad has often said he paints pictures, draws portraits, and carves wooden versions of such objects as egg beaters and living things such as crocodiles and brown trout in order to avoid writing books.

When you pause to consider the number of books--novels and nonfiction--he has written, this confession of his seems yet another elaborate gesture, in effect a tromp l'oeil come to pass.  Conrad has in fact painted, drawn, and carved dozens, likely hundreds of these tricks of the eye from which the genre takes its name in French. He is quick to remind you how, in this context, one of his favorite commissions was to paint a swimming pool on a San Francisco rooftop, about which the client then deployed deck chairs, and served drinks there to guests.

His books run an eclectic spectrum, starting with his first novel, The Innocent Villa, of which he and the critics are dismissive, followed by his breakthrough bestseller, Matador, a roman a clef featuring a moody Spanish bullfighter.  An historical thriller, some years later, featured a character based on his younger self, attempting to foil the escape of a Nazi war criminal from Spain at the close of World War II.  His most recent fiction is a fanciful account of the life of John Wilkes Booth, after his assassination of Abraham Lincoln, wherein Booth is portraying Abraham Lincoln in a festival, and is shot by a man portraying John Wilkes Booth.

Nonfiction Conrad titles run from instructions on bullfighting to memoirs of his time as owner of a noted San Francisco bistro, to his stay at the Bette Ford Rehabilitation Center.  In the heyday of more literate magazines, he wrote travel and nostalgia pieces, including portraits of some of his many friends.

At a birthday celebration for him not long ago, the hostess placed two memorable party favors at the setting of each guest.  The first favor was a small wind-up toy with the built-in ability to recognize and stop short of running over the edge of a table or any raised surface.  Within moments of being seated, the guests had their toys sashaying over the table at a happy buzz, sounding like the aggregate giggle of amused youngsters at a playground.

The other party favor removed any doubt that decorum and dignity were to be shown the nearest exit.  At each setting, there was a clear plastic envelope containing one form or another of an exaggerated, paste-on mustache, ranging from the toothbrush shrub of Oliver Hardy to the handlebar often associated with barbershop quartets, and the shaggy droop reminiscent of Mark Twain and the Old West.





Within moments, the guests sprouted their facial furnishings, resulting in a sense of the mischievous ambiance of a Marx Brothers movie.  For the rest of the six-course dinner and suitable after-dinner refreshments, Barnaby and Mary Conrad, of all the guests, maintained the natural ease and good fellowship of persons who'd been born and raised, wearing exaggerated mustaches.

The Conrad home, in the Rincon Beach enclave just below Carpinteria, is in its way an extension of the wind-up toys and mustaches, although to be fair, there are many features, including Conrad's own paintings, charcoal portraits, sculpting, and intricate carvings best described without apology as art.  Even so, the atmosphere of mischief and irrepressible humor are as much a presence as the iodine tang from the nearby beach and slough.  The light switch in the guest bathroom is a case in point.  When you're aware of turning the lights on or off, you're drawn to the switch, a rascally conflation of a photo of the Michaelangelo statue of David and the up-down on-off lever, placed just a tad below David's waist.  No matter how many times you've been to Puesta del Sol you find yourself hesitating for a beat when you think to turn off the lights.

Today, you find yourself in the library, a room that seemingly has more books, photos, paintings, and drawings than it can accommodate.  In the center of the room, facing the western bank of windows, you see a large hospital bed, one that easily could be a part of some elaborate Conradian tromp l'oeil.  The details of the bed suggest the care Conrad takes when he renders details.  This one even has lettering attributing the bed to Hospice.  In the corner, you see two tall tanks of oxygen.  What fun Conrad might have had, carving and shaping those.  There, in the midst of the bed, a form Conrad might have done as a whimsical self-portrait, down to the faux Rolex watch he bought from a display outside the Tijuana bullring.  The figure's sidewalls, fluffy and cottony, protrude, as Conrad's do.

A nurse, wearing a Hospice jumper, nudges the figure with gentle concern, waking him from a doze.  "You've got a visitor,"  she says.

The figure in the bed comes to focus immediately, takes you in, then leans forward.  "Another fine mess you've got us into,"  he says, then motions you to the chair at his side.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Scheherazade Process: Adventures in Writing

You believe the well-thought out frame tale of A Thousand and One Nights has its origins in the works of Muslim storyteller equivalents of Homer, the product of more than one teller.  Thus Scheherazade is legend; there was no such real person, even though the primary translator into English of her tales, Sir Richard Burton, gives her a fine curriculum vitae, including the fact of her being a great reader and astute student of human nature.  His notes on her add to the sense of her having been real, just as Homer's "people" and gods were real, just as any enduring characters, say Anna Karenina, or Tom Jones, or Mister Micawber are real.

Scheherazade appeals to you because she represents yet another example of the frame tale, arriving from yet another culture, suggesting the format has relatives in all parts of the world, is still ripe for contemporary use, and for the highly personal reason of your own identification with this narrative process.  A group of pilgrims, riding from London to Canterbury, tell stories to pass the time of the trip.

The legendary Scheherazade kept herself alive for a thousand and one days through her ability to tell a prickly and punitive king stories with excruciating cliffhangers.  In some versions of the legend, the king had discovered his wife cheating on him and had condemned her to death, whereupon, still seething with vengeance lust, he married a new wife each day, then had her executed the next.  When he married Scheherazade, he got more than he bargained for.  In some versions of the legend, he's fallen in love with her to the point of wanting to keep her alive and stop marrying new wives.  Had you world enough and time to take this delight of a legend in hand for your own version, you'd in rapid order have the king's inflated self-importance and vindictiveness drive Scheherazade to the arms of a more considerate and tender man, but that digresses, nay, veers from your intent.

In a real sense, Scheherazade has taken up studio space within your own psyche.  She keeps you doing what you need to do if you are to have any chance of realizing your self-imposed goals.  She keeps you writing.  Not only that, she keeps you mindful of the need to study things, observe things, consider things, and write things of interest to you. 

In earlier days, before your arrival at the computer form of composition, you wrote early draft on any number of stationery pages supplied you from bankrupt organizations by your father, who auctioned off assets of such organizations for various referees in bankruptcy.  At times, dozens, even hundreds of such pages often met the wastebasket with considerable force.  Other times, they met the wastebasket one crumpled page at a time.

Your present day equivalent is the delete key, top right of the keyboard, although there are at times when, at various coffee shops of your routine, there is the familiar feel of a sheet of paper, torn from a note pad, then balled into an expressive wad.

There is indeed some role reversal involved with this inner Scheherazade.  You could well be the source of killing off her interest with some of the things you produce, and so on that basis, she serves as a kind of role model.  What could you write that would be of interest to her?  How ever could you hope to keep her interest?

Of course all such things are simple turns of imagination; it all comes from within your own imagination, mixed with what you have read, leavened by any recent associations you've made between items, events, and individuals you once thought to have no connection or any possibility of connection.  Things such as being spoken to by characters, being tormented by them, crying when they die or run away from home, these are all a form of sophistry.

But they seem real, real enough for you to do things within your power to encourage the development of this Scheherazade process.

At one time, your mentor told you her process was taking down the dictation of the voice she heard in her head.  She then asked you if you heard voices or saw pictures.  Wanting to be like her, you were prompt in your response.  Voices, you said.  The degree of whiteness to the lie is irrelevant; your answer was a lie.  You'd in fact never considered either possibility.  You sat to compose.  Things came out.  Even when you were otherwise engaged, things came out and you scribbled them down.

Soon, very soon, you began a purposeful listening for voices, the word meditating being at the time close to an affront because you were not at all comfortable with that process, much less did you have much understanding of it.

Years later, when you were in fact meditating, you were seated in group of others meditating, your chairs arranged in aisles.  You thought you felt some pressure against your knees, as in someone attempting to move past you without disturbing you.  Without opening your eyes to break the spell, you drew your knees closer, thinking to let the person pass.  Then you heard the whisper.  "Please," the whisperer said.  "Get my name right.  My name is not Nancy.  My name is Polly."

When you went home, you changed the character from Nancy to Polly and were not surprised when the ending you'd been seeking "came" to you.

This was one of the first times you connected the fact that your characters not only could but should have conversations with you.

You were fortunate to have yet another mentor, an actor, to whom you related this incident.  She was not in the least surprised.  "How do you think I 'get' the characters I portray?"  she said.

You would not go so far as to consider a mentor, more a colleague, lurking within those shadowy walks and passageways of your psyche.  There is nothing of the remotest supernatural about this; it is all quite natural and functional.

In a large sense, you're grateful to have got all this when you did; it allowed you to stop shouting over the conversations your characters and ideas wished to have with you, and in her way,Scheherazade is in there, keeping you in production, providing you with things to listen to.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Secrets of an Autodidact



You've spent time in schools beyond the normal run-through times associated with life after high school, and were even considering yet one more year before you came face-to-face with the reason for wishing to continue:  You were a bit nervous about doing nothing but starting a novel.  Many of your friends had already moved along on their pathways to PhD. degrees or J.D. degrees, or the MD status.  You were comfortable, making enough to keep you at the smorgasbord UCLA offered you, more than enough credits in your back pocket.  One of the wiser things you did at that age was recognize the time had come, to give crude paraphrase to Stephen Daedalus valedictory in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to encounter risk and forge the unarticulated conscience of yourself.

High faulting talk for acknowledging the need to become an autodidact. You'd had a magnificent library to use and some instructions on how to use it; you'd had years of taking courses out of curiosity rather than requirement, and you'd had a certain amount of hubris burned off the hard-to-reach parts of your ego, leading you to the place where you could say you had some awareness of how to make out the instructions for assembly that came with you, as though you were some piece of furniture manufactured abroad, sold at a then equivalent of Ikea, given a hasty translation from its native language into English.

This last is not so fanciful as it might sound.  At one point during your residence in an apartment in the Hollywood Hills, your neighbor discovered you one afternoon, in the grip of frustration, its related anger, augmented by a severe sense of bewilderment.  The then-equivalent of Ikea was a store called The Akron, at which you'd purchased a bookshelf with three tiers.  Your attempts to assemble the unit were getting you nowhere.  Your neighbor, a skilled and imaginative interior decorator, took charge, discovering first of all, and to your great relief, that you'd been given the wrong instructions.  "This is not an instruction for a bookshelf.  This is in fact instructions for an outdoor picnic set."  He could have said, "dummy," but he did not.  Your relief at learning the instructions were wrong was soon held ransom by the inner question, "Why couldn't you have seen that?"

This has more or less been your mantra.  And yes, the bookshelf has survived the years. Assembled, restrained, it has long since lost the appearance of self-assembly.  And yes, you still find yourself asking, perhaps the Cosmos, perhaps those disparate aspects of yourself who may well be the equivalent of an outdoor picnic set, "Why couldn't you have seen that?"

No, "Better late than never" doesn't do it for you, thus you begin and end your days impatient, and you are now comfortable--if you can call the feeling comfort--with the awareness that it is your nature and process to "see" things, to discover, to in effect integrate what you've seen and learned on your own hard drive by writing in dramatic narrative and in addition to integrate through writing in these vagrant paragraphs you call a blog.

This is not the most comforting awareness you could have made for yourself, but it is your equivalent of throwing away the instruction sheet and on some kind of trial-and-error basis, fit the pieces together to arrive at a useful piece of furniture.

Sometimes when you are asked for a resume or, if the request comes from the academy, a curriculum vitae, you stop to consider the source, then put down one of the following tropes, writer/editor/teacher, editor/teacher/writer, or teacher/editor/writer.  Although you vastly prefer the first, you have come to terms with all three.  You are not an outdoor picnic set.  You are not by any account a modish bookshelf.  Nevertheless, you can still hold books.

Thus your philosophy--fitting the pieces together to see what the furniture is, rather than beginning with some preconceived notion of the end result.  For some time, the bookshelf adjacent your bed had a slight wobble, which you addressed by using a remedy you'd not have suspected, a shim.  What on earth did you know of shims?

"Imaginative use of a shim there,"  the mover said, bringing the bookcase into your latest digs.  "Would never of thought to do that."

Negotiated settlements with the Cosmos and Universe are worth striving for.  Your medium for attempting them is through story.


Friday, January 18, 2013

In a Relationship

With some regularity depending on when new semesters or quarters begin and you address students who appear interested in entering the writing life, you become yet more appreciative of the uphill struggle they and you face.

Friends who teach art, acting, and music, each in their own way, share this sense with you, causing you to feel that shivery pairing of desire and obstacles to be overcome.

More than once in these blog paragraphs, you've noted how you were in a sense seduced into this life as a result of your reading experiences, which, in aggregate, were scattered, certainly unstructured.  By the time you got into structure, which meant courses such as Seventeenth Century English Literature, or Nineteenth Century American Literature, or The Age of Pope and Dryden, the die had already been cast.  You were already in.  Structure was something you felt you had to endure.  The then chair of your undergraduate English department felt it another part of structure for you to take at least a year of English History, to provide a background against which the things you read were written.  Because of your raging interest in a classmate named Kay, you were learning more about anatomy than about English History, with the result that you took the year again, this time without sitting next to Kay.

But even then, you realized how you'd been led into the uncertainty of the life you were to lead because of the fact that most of the things you read seemed so easy, made it so accessible for you to experience it, made you think you could do it as well, your passport being that you were in love with it, ached for it in ways similar and yet significant in their differences from the way you felt about Kay.

The writing life, like any relationship, is about love.  You've had to investigate the ways of loving self, others, and the life, itself.  They all seemed so easy at first, an appearance you gleaned from watching men and women you admired, seeming to deal with similar techniques.  You had some bumpy rides, learning to love yourself, and so you thought to skip over that for a while, looking for ways to love others.  The least problematic at first was the writing life, itself.  All you needed was to read omnivorously, write with persistent regularity, edit with severity, take risks.

Somewhere along the way, about the time, you reckon, when you discovered the ease of getting ideas did not guarantee the coordination of getting them down on paper, you felt like the Titanic, not substantial against the icebergs.  Your sister, meaning nothing but help and encouragement, suggested your beginning spot was developing a style and a voice, a suggestion fraught with distractions because you were not yet sure who you were, much less were you able to love the venture that was you.  How then should you expect to be able to love anyone or know which of the things you read and were excited by you actually loved?

A few jobs taken outside the writing life seemed so numbing that you were quick to find ways to do the writing life equivalent of what lesser actors or musicians do:  show up, read your lines, move on.  The days were long.  Your room was littered with drafts of things written in a hurry and either mailed in or hand delivered, notably one novel, slid under a publisher's door, five or six pages at a time.

Try getting along peacefully with friends who ask you when you're going to write something serious?  You were dead serious, a fact you realized one evening when you'd been shrewd enough to start out your evening of drinking within walking distance of your apartment.  As you recall it, you were quite aware of being drunk, resting, or so you'd thought, on a front lawn fence, when someone asked if you were all right.  You were more than all right, because you'd solved the first of a few necessary problems related to loving yourself and others, thus having an understanding of who you were and how you felt about "things," either things in general or things in specificity.  Your insight was a matter of being quite serious about being funny.  Funny was your attitude, your voice.  If you were not funny, there was cause for editorial and thematic investigation.  If you were serious and not funny, you were a goddamn academic and you had no wish to become one of those, particularly since you'd seen what it had done to a dear friend.

How to convey such things to students you're meeting for the first time?

As you see it, the answer opens the door for at least two more essays here, including the detour into becoming an editor, which was an accident, and the detour whereby you were recruited into teaching because of your editorial experience (also an accident:  an editor from a competing publisher asked you to do him the favor of taking two of his classes while he attended a sales conference).

Start with why you're here.  In the beginning of a relationship, there is chemistry and the mutual sense of good looks.  There was chemistry between you and the writing life.  Each thought the other good looking.  Now, you are in a real relationship.  It never asks you when you're coming home or why you forgot an anniversary.  Sometimes, you spend hours together and no one says a word.  There is connection and respect and a sense of companionship you could never have imagined when your goal was merely to write stories of lasting, resonant worth.  Now, it is enough that you are in each other's company and you understand one another.

Sometimes, when you're out for dinner with the boys or on an occasional date, you're aware of wanting to take something home for your dog, Sally, and the companion of your relationship.  Different gifts for each, yet each contains a large measure of you, because this is what relationships are.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

When Secrets are No Longer Secret

As a younger person, you were envious of individuals who had secrets, were in a sense thrilled when someone, anyone, offered to share a secret with you.

"I'll tell you a secret, you have to promise not to tell," became the closest thing to a mantra you experienced.  You longed to have secrets of your own.  Feeling transparent, obvious to all in your lack of so much as one single secret, you began inventing them.  Years later, many, many years later, when you heard Neil Simon express his belief that anything beginning with "I've never told this to another person" was an immediate and profound lure, you sensed a connection with an essential dramatic truth.

Most stories are build around secrets and their discovery or, in some dramatic way, a revelation.  Some stories made much of the fact that what one person considered a secret either was not nor had never been a secret or was nothing of significance.  Thus material related to secrets and secrecy could be scary, funny, ironic.

All the while you were growing toward what you have become, you longed for secrets the way a miser longs for a hoard.  At one point, barely into two-digit age, you thought you had a secret, which was the fact of an incredible crush on Rena Passacantando, a crush you nourished for days, weeks, which at the time were considerable spans.  But It was Donald Munn who told you that your secret did not amount to much because not only did he have a crush on Rena Passacantando, but so too did Archie Triponi and Sal Fado.  Every boy in the fifth grade, with the possible exception of Joseph Cherniss, had a crush on Rena Passacantando, and he might have, but he was notable in his slow development in that area.  Well known among boys in grade five, Public School Number Ten, was that Joseph had yet to experience his first boner, yet another facet of secret and secrecy and those who know and those who do not.

We all have secrets.  Some of them may be secret beyond the point where we are aware of them.  In those circumstances, others may notice our secrets, half expecting us to act on them, waiting, watching us as though we were a lit fuse.

You have secrets, including those you know about.  With certain individuals and in certain circumstances, you half expect one of them to inform you that you have the equivalent of a speck of spinach leaf on your tooth.  What better thing to say of an individual who is a friend.

A particular secret of yours is the fact of your introversion.  By your own standards and experience, an introvert is not as likely as you to be out in public, doing things before audiences, in some cases, either through words, deeds, or a combination, revealing secrets or expressing opinions you believe to run counter to convention.  In some cases, after such admissions of introversion, you are often met with surprise.  "But you're so--"  Struggle to find a word here.  Perhaps "--open." arrives.  Perhaps "--outgoing."

You are brought to this crossroad in what seems to you a natural series of circumstances, beginning with the fact of you bringing characters and notions out of your own swirl of impressions, experience, and imagination.  All these are of high idiosyncrasy.  Another person, having the exact experiences as you, could well have differing interpretations and expectations.

The writer, actor, and other expression-oriented persons of your experience (such as musician, painter, photographer) work their way up to personal boundaries, then, almost as a rite of passage, work their way through.  Your characters, for example, are able to do things social, moral, ethical, creative in nature beyond your own ability to do specific things.  You're constantly aware of actors who no longer even think about personal lines they would not cross when a part they are playing suggests to them the need to trespass.

At times when you pause to inventory events or deeds in your life of which you are not fond or comfortable with, you often arrive at things your characters have done that in your opinion outdistance your own trespasses.  In fairness, when you consider events and activities you'd include in your curriculum vitae, you see characters of yours who have gone well beyond your accomplishments.  This is an important metric to you because it means you have more or less unlimited freedom to push your characters in both directions, at the same time blending the two extremes within the same character.  They are as conflicted as you, except that their conflicting urges may be less apparent to them than yours to you.

If you are to maintain your interest in any character you bring on stage, for however brief a period, even for a no-lines appearance, you must maintain interest in yourself and the schism between your proud list and your broken taboo list.  You must also be willing to push them and you to greater trespass, the better to make them and you more tangible.

You have just enough experience performing as other individuals to understand how, your personal deeds of unpleasant behavior to the contrary notwithstanding, there are behaviors on both sides of the spectrum you can perform if you do so not as yourself.  This leads you directly to the place where the writer/actor steps beyond the self to offer a plausible entity beyond the self.  The writer/actor, through observation and practice, arrives at this vision, as you did, with the sense of having found someone else's toolkit, then being told to go forth and use it.

If you were at perfect ease rather than the more accurate sense of negotiated comfort with your own various components, the results could lead to the problem of all your performances being about you and based in perfect ease.  The fact of them housed in negotiated comfort means you need to be alert for inflections, insinuations, intimations that it is all about some comfortable you and thus vulnerable to self-interest (as opposed to self-discovery).

Trained actors can and do manage to perform with other actors for whom they feel no chemistry.  The audience, for its part, can often "tell" or feel the presence between two characters, which leads to a superb blend of presence and reality, a presence that makes being any kind of participant in a story a memorable experience.

This has you thinking about the value of some chemistry between your various, secretive selves, particularly those who have secrets from you.

What this comes down to is the way secrets and territory are defined by ordinary and beyond.  You need to keep your secrets from becoming ordinary, you have to develop a greater familiarity for trespass, all in the service of causing the necessary chemistry between you and your acting partners and your characters and, should the occasion arise, your partners in crime.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How Your Story Got to the La Brea Tar Pits

Much ridicule has been directed toward a particular actor's workshop exercise in which the actor attempts to "be" a non-human, possibly even inanimate object, say a tree or a rock.

Go ahead.  Laugh, if you will, but doing so will in effect deaden one of the qualities you seek to bring into your writing--the sense of authenticity as it relates to a specific place or time.

After you've stopped laughing, here's something for you to imagine yourself being.  No fair cheating or even worrying about what others might think of your silliness.

You are to become a Mars Probe.  Your exercise, then, is to roam about this distant, seemingly inhospitable planet, gathering data, then reporting your findings back to Earth.

 How absurd and lacking in usefulness, you say, and yet you do more or less the same thing each time you compose any narrative, be it something quite simple such as any large city of your knowledge, any small, almost forgotten town of your acquaintance,or a living dorm in a university.  The fact of you using them transforms them into an alien world, much in need of such a probe or report.  The consequences of your use of such a place, whether it is an actual city or one of your extreme imagination, are that you have co-opted that place, made it yours.  Now it has a personality you've given it, its features your version of those features.  If these things were not so, you'd be copying that place or taking it for granted.  Why would anyone want to read your copied version of such a place when they could have Google Maps or some search engine description?

Which brings us then to the final accounting, in which your La Brea Tar Pits has to be different from the real La Brea Tar Pits, but not so different that it turns the reader of your story into a nit-picker, nipping away at the authenticity of your La Brea Tar Pits.

To carry the matter ahead,because as a younger person, you lived mere blocks from the La Brea Tar Pits, you often played there or hung out there, thinking the things prepuberty boys thought, playing many of the games they played, and convincing yourself that you could, if you listened with enough focus, hear the anguished cries of the animals trapped in the tar bogs.

Since you have the choices of characters, more or less hold auditions for them before casting them in your stories, you have them and their personality and attendant agendas as filters for the perceptions and impressions of a specific place in your story.  Frank tended to avoid the La Brea Tar Pits because whenever he was there, he experienced the sharp pull of an undifferentiated fear that something might happen to him.  One day, something did happen, differentiating itself in the fact of a glob of tar gumming up the drive chain on his bicycle.  "See," he scowls at himself, "I told you so.  That place is a jinx for me."

Billy, on the other hand, is fond of the place, spends all his spare time there, even to the point of packing himself peanut butter and jam sandwiches to take when he bikes his way over to its grounds.  no surprise that on one of Billy's outings there, he finds some small item of incredible archaeological interest.  Through the different lenses of these two characters, we get pictures of some of the Tar Pits interior and exterior qualities.

If you were to use that quasi-device known as the wide omniscient, you argue, you could "tell" the story and it would sound authentic.  You might argue that but you'd have a difficult tie convincing most of your readers who had any experience with reading fiction in this century.  And you do wish to be convincing. Go ahead, say it.  There is no harm in such an admission.  You wish to sound authentic and convincing as opposed to using strongly stated logic to argue your stories and characters into place.

Following such constructs and dramatic conventions, of a sudden the signposts begin to point in the direction of drama, of motive and the motions through which it moves on its course, who its most vulnerable targets are, and how they are likely to respond.

You might, in delegating necessary authority to your characters, arrive at an uncomfortable feeling akin to being asked for the keys of the family car.  At such moments, you have no wish to hear the argument that being in such a position is of great value to you, that you will look back on such incidents with the fondness of knowing they were inspirations for serious learning.  You have no wish to hear such discussions, yet you are well convinced of their validity.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

When Worse Is Not Worse Enough

Small wonder the apple has become a symbol of innocence.  In its shape and color, the apple invites closer inspection, seems to inspire some form of contact, then who among us is surprised when the first bite marks appear on its shiny skin?  Risk is the danger of the worm being introduced to the apple.  The worm is slithering, purposeful hunger.  The apple is at once a crisp, juicy repast and a model of sublime, luminous stasis.

The worm by itself is nothing new, by no means story.

The apple, already a paradigm--apple of his/her eye, apple for the teacher, folkloric bringer of health (as in keeping the doctor away)--is attractive, but not yet dramatic.

Put a worm and an apple in the same scene and you have a story underway.  The story progresses in direct proportion to the worm's appetite and their consequences.

When the paradigmatic apple becomes vulnerable, we are drawn to it; a bond of sympathy, perhaps even empathy, has been created.  Depending on our individual nature and the writer's skilled intent, we have chosen sides.  We root for the worm to "get" the apple, sate itself, then crawl off to some shady safety in which to nap.  Or we root for the apple to survive the invasion of the worm.

What happens next?  Is the apple-fattened worm now chosen for an amuse bouche by a robin or towhee?  Does the apple wind up in a pie which finds its way to a county fair in which it is awarded a blue ribbon?

Whatever happens next must be more intense than what happened before.  If not, the story needs emergency roadside service from the editorial equivalent of the auto club.  You subscribe to this concatenation as a result of your reading, studying the form, and your own attempts at rendering your own versions of story and your subsequent efforts as an editor of other individuals' attempts as well as your attempts as teacher to use this assemblage of intent and event and consequence to those who also wish to render their particular versions.

We lift ourselves, the reader, writer, editor, teacher, pupil aspects of ourselves, up to the next plateau which, near as you can read the sign, says ACCELERATION.

"Things" must come faster.  Couldn't hurt if they came with more INTENSITY.  Some might reverse the order of these two qualities here, which reminds you of your mother's instructions in combining the elements for cornbread:  Do you bring the milk to the cornmeal or do you bring the cornmeal to the milk?  Does this make any difference?  Does this have any effect on you?

At some point, and why not now, you have to consider the next plateau, which is by no means original with you but which you have put your thumbprints on by giving it a name:  THE UNTHINKABLE, COME TO PASS.

There have been enough moments in your life where you believed things could not be any worse, only to discover that things, like the worm, have a fondness for apple.  this leads you to understand how in story, we identify with the worm.  We want them to become worse to the point of admiring those writers who have the vision to take matters beyond our own threshold for worse.  Something about the condition and the way the characters respond to it give us a sense of assurance that there is something within each of us that can cope with the unthinkable.

Writers and actors who push beyond this barrier of enough and into the unthinkable are in effect speaking to the resiliency of characters, stories, inventiveness, and the entire human species to survive trauma.  If story is in fact, trauma personified and objectified, its resolution is what we read for and write for.  It is us.  We are it.


Monday, January 14, 2013

When Story Becomes Greek

Aristotle had it right.

No particular surprise there; Aristotle had many things right.

Even though our present day understanding and articulation of things structural and things potential has evolved in logarithmic proportions during the Common Era, most of Aristotle's (384 BCE-322 BCE) visions of them (and, while you're at it, of the Universe) were apt.

He saw a condition of potential as a condition of actuality, which he called entelechy.  Entelechy is put forth into practicality with the question, How does the acorn know it is supposed to grown into an oak?

You'd not be surprised if James Carvelle were to answer that question with, "Because it's supposed to, stupid."

You might answer the question with the simple, "Programming."  You could also go on to say entelechy is also a matter of genomes and codes, articulating themselves with the authority of confidence.  Ever willing to bring story into the conversation, you raise aloft the tale of The Ugly Duckling as though it were a communion wafer--behold.  The Duckling had no clue.  But not to worry.  The swan entelechy had the matter under control, a Captain James Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard of the spaceship Destiny.

A significant part of the pleasures to be had from reading stories and writing them makes itself known when you, as reader or writer, "discover" the entelechy at large.  This discovery allows you a glimpse beyond what the material could be, offering a hint of what the material wants to be.  When  you know what the material wants to be, you are in danger of becoming a critic, a teacher, a writer, or all three.

We arrive here at a--if not the--major difference between Story and Reality.  Think of reality as a blob of undifferentiated information, intent, and seething momentum, crammed into a space too small for it.  The result is as cranky, impatient, and frustrating as the southbound Santa Monica Freeway near the junction of the 405 at rush hour.  Reality is as fraught as the lower East Side of Manhattan traffic, the same snarling conflation of humanity and machinery Dustin Hoffman, in his portrayal of Ratso Rizzo, strode through, pounding the side of a taxi, "I'm walking here.  I'm walking here."

Think of Story as Reality with a motive well beyond keeping the species alive.  Story wants to do more than maintain stasis.  Story is about discovery ripped from Reality with the same effect as adhesive tape being yanked from the chest of  hairy male.  Story is an attic or basement in which some secret or revelation is stored, waiting for you as you begin sifting through the storage boxes, dusty photo albums, scrap books bulging with items cut from yellowed neighborhood newspapers.  You are an archaeologist, sifting through the potsherds, looking for entelechy, alert to the fact that there might be more than one.

Once, when you sat in a room, listening to Eudora Welty, speaking about her approach to writing, you shook off the shiver of a thrill when she said, "When I begin writing something, I'm always so glad to discover it's a short story and not a novel."

Across the thirty-some-odd years since you heard her say that, you connect the fact of her writing to find the entelechy of the material, its genome, its coded awareness of its own destiny, coming over the reader and writer in slow degrees, like the first awareness of a blush or an itch.

No wonder it feels so good and requires some immediate response once you are aware of it.  No wonder it is so much like trying to follow directions before the GPS was so plentiful.  No wonder there were parts of you who refused to admit you were lost, who was sure the answer was right around here, somewhere.  Your sureness was being tested.  Being lost and refusing to ask for directions was a metaphor for quite other things, things in life relative to where you were with your career plans.

Now you are confident enough of your entelechy to know that being lost and not asking for directions is your entelechy.  What possible worth can it be if you know your directions and way out not long after you know what the opening line is, who is present in the first scene, where the materials with the discoveries are located.

Lost again?

Write your way out.

Fair to ask characters for directions but just to keep you honest, not fair to have characters who work in gas stations because that is always where one she or another suggests you go for some information.