Thursday, February 28, 2013

Office Hours

If your persona contained the linguistic skills and sardonic visions of Ambrose Bierce (1842-probably-but-not-necessarily 1913), you might define the word office as "a place where one goes to think about necessary work that cannot in fact be performed there."

This observation is true in some measure when applied to many of your publishing-related jobs; it extends to a lesser extent to your work area here at 409 E. Sola Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101 which, in terms of dimension, is about the same size as one of your largest offices.  This particular large office, at 1640 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, 90035, was in many ways your most lavish and well-equipped, marked in your memory with the irony of being a place from which you fled from time to time to get away from writers.

You were, for a time at 1640, an editor, learning his craft on the job.  Then you became a senior editor, which meant you could begin spending more time away from the office in the pursuit of doing your job.  Soon after, you became editor in chief, whereupon, one afternoon, the publisher visited you in your office, looked about with clucks of amazement.  "Don't see how you can get any work done here.  How about I have the wall--"thumping the wall dividing your office from its neighbor--"removed and some shelves build."

This involved your frequent association with a carpenter named Buster for a greater period than you'd imagine necessary for removing a non-weight-bearing wall and the construction of shelves.  Buster was, as he enjoyed reminding you, a craftsman, one for whom every unnecessary nail was an affront.  "Things should fit,"  Buster said.  "They should not have to be nailed.  Most things these days, they have to be nailed and glued."

During this time, you sought and found some refuge in the storage and shipping area where, because of the demographics and cultural backgrounds of the shipping department (largely from Lake Charles, Louisiana) you were introduced to boudain sausages, hot links, and barbecued short ribs.  When your enjoyment of these became apparent, you were further instructed in a remarkable snack named Cush-Cush, which was crumbled day-old (or older) cornbread topped with cold buttermilk,  You did so well at this that you were invited to participate in the noon hour and break time domino games.

A contemporary photo of you from Publisher's Weekly reflected the current men's fashion of sideburns dropping precariously close to the chin line and an equal tendency for the rest of your hair to look as though you'd slept on a washboard.  Lunches were often in Beverly Hills or the Sunset Strip, but when you were lunching or breakfasting alone or with friends, Brownie's Deli, a few doors south on La Cienega, suited your palate and your time away from office-like behavior.

The notion to leave Los Angeles was born of grief and awareness of smog and congested traffic.  In many ways, 1640 So. La Cienega, even though you could not work there, had a hold on you it is difficult to forget, but you'd caught the eye of a New York publisher that wanted representation in Los Angeles.  The publisher made an offer, which resulted in an exponential increase in irony, including an intensification of your inability to get beyond making lists in your office of necessary things to be done and the further necessities of finding places out of the office to accomplish them.

"You're a natural," the publisher told you, "because you know the territory and the people."  You also discovered in a subsequent sales meeting that she had an intractable antipathy for the image of a snake to appear on the cover of any title published by any division of the parent company.  This was not at first unsettling to you because at the most minimal level you have no slight interest in herpetology.  As your tenure progressed, you were reminded by any number of peers and superiors, including the senior editor to whom you directly reported, "Mrs. Meyer does not wish to consider snakes on book covers."

A number of your early acquisitions provoked memorandum informing you that your acquisitions carried too much of a California flavor, observations that came to a head when you'd got your hands on a preproduction copy of the screenplay for Robert Towne's original, Chinatown, which you'd thought to get him to novelize.

Your office at the time was a building not far from where you'd lived as a five- and six-year-old.  It was not erected then, an attractive nuisance of a large lot facing Wilshire Boulevard, where you in fact played.  Whether from nostalgia or a budgetary matter, you refused the parking garage and parked on Orange Street, one block from where you'd lived before.

You will say this for New York, they appreciated the merits of Chinatown and believed it would novelize well, thus authorizing you to go as high as $50,000 for a preemptive bid.  Not so much as a smarty-pants but rather because of the screenwriters and assistant directors you were avoiding in your new office, you expressed the belief that $50,000 would be chump change, more an insult than an inducement.

You'd got hold of the screenplay in the first place as a favor from the author's agent who, when you told her about the top offer, said, "Shelly.  Dear.  Bob Towne doesn't do anything for fifty thousand dollars."

When you reported back to your superior, he raised what at the time you considered the quintessential existential question a New Yorker would ask of a Californian:  "Who the fuck does he think he is?"

The rest of the conversation went:

"He knows who he is."

"That is so California."

"Which is why he is here and, I might add, why you have me here."

"Well, we'll have to see about that, won't we?"

They did.  They saw about it.  And you saw about and perhaps through it, which has some bearing on your next office, which was at 2040 Alameda Padre Serra, Santa Barbara, CA 93103, in a building that was called a part of the Riviera Campus because it was located in a section of Santa Barbara called The Riviera, and because it was formerly the campus of what had been called California State Teacher's College and later became, for a brief time, University of California, Santa Barbara.

After about two months at 2040, you were moved from a desk in an unenclosed vestibule to an office with a window through which, most days, you could catch easy sight of two of the Channel Islands, resting on the comfortable blue of the Pacific as though they were mounds of pastry.  This office was far and away the most attractive and agreeable offices you've ever had.  In keeping with past experiences withstood in offices, you'd come to a rapid understanding of what a delightful place this was in which not to be able to get any work done.  As an added bonus, on Mondays and Thursdays, you could leave your office, walk down a narrow hallway which led to the balcony of what was once the auditorium of California State Teacher's College and which had by then become The Riviera Theater, Santa Barbara's equivalent of an art house movie theater.  You could watch the projectionist, screening the forthcoming week's features, if you wished to do so.

Because the function you were hired to perform in this airy and comfortable office was tied directly to the publisher's vision of scholarly book publishing, you were somewhat suspect, a suspicion inflated by the fact of your arranging for the sale of subsidiary rights on a project published before your arrival to a friend at a massmarket publisher for an advance of $30,000.  While Bob Towne had sneered at $50,000, your new employer in some analogous way bristled at the garish extravagance of $30,00 for mere subsidiary rights (when there were so many works of true scholarship, waiting in the store rooms to be taken up by some curious scholar).

Neither the general publisher, the massmarket publisher, nor, as you were yet to learn,the literary publisher, are without quirks and ironies.  Within a matter of months, New York was back, knocking, as it were. The offer was your office to be a corner office in midtown Manhattan, the title on the door to read, per your choice, editor in chief or editorial director.

By then, you'd had opportunities to taste California irony and New York irony in ample enough measure to remind you that you are at heart Californian.  You may not dress California, but you breathe it in and exhale it with a sense of relief, especially during the times you are in New York.

You remained at 2040 Alameda Padre Serra, with its view of the Islands and the occasional movie for another five years, at which point, it was time to leave the Riviera and move downtown to lower State Street and the ironies of The Fithian Building, where your office was cramped, ramshackle, and as whimsical as the dysfunctional family that ran it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Naive Narrator, the More Naive Writer

 Relative to the many things you do during the course of a day, you spend a considerable amount of time reading.  Even though you are often judgmental about the amount of writing you accomplish during the course of a day, you for a certainty spend a good deal of time preparing for, thinking about, then revising what you have written on a given day or a previous day.

In the same spirit of relevance, you listen to some music at least six times during the week if not every day.

There are other necessities such as sleeping, exercise, chores, and the clever ways you manage to combine drinking cups of cafe au lait with some sense of relaxation or what you might call moments of reflection.  There are windows for actual teaching and other windows still for preparation for teaching.

These details have relevance when placed in context with your frequent failure to give adequate appreciation to the amount of time and preparation that must have gone into the writing of the things you read and the musical compositions you listen to.  This failure to appreciate effort applies just as well to jazz, which by its nature depends on improvisation.  So yes, your perception often does not take into consideration the hours of practice and study a player needs in order to interact with another player and as well the ability of a player to improvise rather than play informed interpretations of written scores.

Because many of the things you read when you were an emerging reader and, a bit later, when you were an emerging writer, seemed so accessible and so touched you with their range of ideas, information, and well-articulated feelings, you were not only seduced into the desire to try your own hand at writing, you were attracted to the works of writers who caused you to believe writing was easy, that anyone who wished could do so as well as your role models did, that you, too, could with comparative ease, write with as much effect as they.

By the time you recognized your miscalculations, you were already in beyond the point of no return, to the point where today, having worked at learning your craft for over fifty years, you recognize the need for more practice, more growth.  Your hopes of catching up with your role models are so daunted that you are in a compelling sense in beyond the possibility of envy.

Whatever else the warp and weft of your day contains woven into it, the necessity burns for you to put down some words each day, rain or shine and, your recent, departed cold as a case in point, in illness and good health.

 In many cases, you'll not have put down enough words to suit you.  In many other cases, even when you have managed a more respectable number of words, say between three and five thousand words, or the equivalent of between twelve and twenty standard 8 1/2 x 11 manuscript pages, that may seem acceptable for the time being, but of course the number of words captured on the equivalent of a page is no guarantee that these will be keepable pages.

As Oliver Hardy found cause to tell Stan Laurel many times, "Another fine mess you've got us into."

This awareness in some ways ameliorates your early belief that the things you liked to read or listen to were simply set down without revision.  When you first discovered that Mark Twain has set Huck Finn aside for a number of years, you could not imagine any reason for his having done so.  Even though there are some structural issues with the book from about the eighty-percent of the way in mark to the lead-up to the ending paragraphs, you believed in the myth that this book and others you so admired were conceived as an entire unit after some thought and deliberation, and that was it.

Not until much later, when you saw photographs of Fitzgerald's handwritten emendations to Gatsby did you appreciate the enormity of work that could go into a work to give it that lofty sense of standing on its own, above the fray of composition and the editorial process.

You thought editorial process meant changing a few words, looking up the spelling of a few others.  Your first several novels, while not shabby in concept, reflected this cavalier notion of revision.  If you live long enough, there are one or two among them wherein you might wish to rectify youthful folly.

Of the many things you have come to terms with in accepting the greater realities related to storytelling, two have made a lasting impression, often to the point of having major effects on your third and fourth and fifth drafts.

Start late.  No matter where you first see the story beginning, through effective self-editing, you will find a later place yet in which to begin.  This is invariably a place where there is a good deal--eighty-five to ninety percent significant action and movement.

Leave early.  You stay on too long and you find yourself with nothing better to do than explain things the reader should have been able to see without help.  Thus you commit anticlimax, which means the introduction of one or more major distractions from the point where the reader senses that the story has come to an end.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Functional Guide to the Use of Tools in Fiction

Until you were well along your way as a writing teacher and workshop leader and as a book and magazine editor, you'd never heard of much less considered engaging in the practice known as prompts.

When you were first asked by a potential student if you gave prompts, you had no idea what she was talking about.  When you investigated, then discovered what prompts meant, you had no words or concepts with which to display your sense of utter amazement that someone who wished to write should need a prompt.

Later, in the kind of workshop you'll talk about in a few moments, you encountered a participant who read something that had a strange, unearthly quality to it, a quality that at the time caused you to remember the old Frankenstein's monster motion pictures in which the fine actor, Boris Karloff, portrayed the monster, cobbled together from a myriad of human corpses, then energized to life by a process much on the order of electric shock therapy.

After the student finished reading the piece, she announced that the work had been an exercise for her writing group, then went on to explain what the four or five prompt or trigger words were, so that you and the other students in the audience could see how deft her braiding in the prompt words and concepts were.  She also revealed that, somehow, this particular piece had somehow resulted in her being awarded a scholarship to this writers' conference, and wasn't that almost as good as being published.

At this point, you understood how you felt:  flabbergasted

To make matters more complicated yet, some years later, at the same writers' conference, you became attracted to a student to the point of entering a romantic relationship with her.  She, too, it seemed, had won a scholarship to the conference,  She, too, belonged to a writer's group, which made their weekly meeting a platform for prompts, which the group members would write, then read to one another, then save with the notion that when they had enough narratives to make a book of approximately three hundred printed pages, they would have no difficulty finding a publisher who would be only too happy to publish the work.

Instead of being confrontive about the notion that writing from prompts seemed to you a literary equivalent of the Frankenstein's monster, you invited your friend to a workshop you co-chaired with a longtime friend, Leonard Tourney, wherein many of the regulars were publishing with some regularity or close to it.  Your thoughts centered on the belief that this atmosphere would suggest to your friend that writing from prompts inevitably produced results that sounded as though they'd been written from prompts.

In all fairness, your friend adapted well to the group, producing one or two ventures close to the level of publishable quality, although her frequent complaint about "writing your way," the your given heavy emphasis, was too confrontive and conflict based.  She did not  like conflict.

But, you protested, fiction is based on conflict.  In fact, conflict is the armature about which conflict is wound.

She spoke to you at length of her belief that your vision of fiction was different from hers.

As it should be, you countered.  Fiction is a matter of an individual voice and approach.

All the while, she was attending meetings of her original writing group, calling from time to time to inform you of how a certain session was enlivened by a combination of fortuitous prompts.  She used that term--fortuitous prompts--a number of times, to the point where you asked her if, in fact, her definition of fiction was in fact a series of fortuitous prompts.

How unfortuitous you thought.  A person did not have to accept your vision of fiction, nevertheless, someone who wished to write fiction needed a personal vision of what story is and how it works in order to produce fiction that does not appear derivative of the fiction being produced by a writer who has established her own voice and vision.

This is all prologue to your regard for prompts as a means of generating narrative.  A great many of your previous entries in this years-long succession of blog essays attempts to clarify and define your own vision of story.  This prologue is essayed with the awareness that:

1. Musicians, when they are not in the act of performance or rehearsal for a performance, will run scales or exercises to keep their fingering or bowing or blowing or a combination of these at performance level.

2. Athletes will in their way exercise or train for performance with some daily combination of exercise and stamina work.

3. Dancers will in similar fashion exercise in order to move up to rehearsal for an actual performance.

4. Artists will sketch, paint, carve, draw.

5. Photographers will make exposures with certain goals in mind.

6. Actors, when not in rehearsal for a specific play, will practice diction or do the equivalent of exercise at workshops where they join brother and sister actors who are intent on keeping awareness and execution potential at a fine-tuned level.

Writers will do the equivalent of sketching, writing about characters or places or circumstances that intrigue them.  In the back of your mind, there was an awareness of something else they did, something you'd come across in the 1980s, during your earlier days running the late night fiction workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference.

This very day, a friend asked you to comment on something he'd written from a series of prompts.  His argument for using prompts stopped you cold in your tracks.

In essence, he admitted he'd not have written what he had if he had not had the prompts as a framework.  The prompts were more or less of an assignment, which made him feel the obligation to write.

Once again, you find yourself on the opposite side of that divided highway.  You don't approach writing with the notion or desire to have found a way to get things down on paper or, to be more reductionist, to have written.  The process is alive before you, often frustrating but over the long term, made satisfying because of the calculus that writing is a means of getting emotional and visual information down in some form, at which point the scaffolding, drop cloths, and tools are moved to the side and the finished work or the near-finished work stands shining on the grass, a vehicle perhaps, waiting to be ridden or a pond, waiting to have fish set in it, or a tool, unlike any tool you'd ever seen before, waiting to be picked up by some character you'd also deposited there on the grass, eager to show you and anyone else who would care to listen what wonderful things could be made by using that tool, which was unlike any other.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Characrters: Your Inner Circle

Of course the disagreeable Phil, who'd approached you as you basked in the sunny warmth of the outside dining area at the Xanadu Bakery, per your report yesterday, was an invention.

His origins were real enough.  He is based on an individual you knew in real time, carrying along with him many of that individual's traits.  Of equal weight, he is also taken in metaphor from one of your ribs, as Eve was taken from Adam, as most writers take their created characters, indeed, as the better actors construct their versions of the characters they portray.

The calculus is there for any who wish to see.  Take Willy Loman, the focal point of Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman.  By reading the text of the play, we learn that Willy is in his sixties, close to sixty-five.  The play begins with him having been given a pay cut, a blow administered by the son of the man who hired him.  Already in debt from his attempts to live at a middle-class level, Willy has also lost some of his youthful enthusiasm and energy, leaving him to recall past triumphs and glories that cause us to wonder about their accuracy and Willy's reliability as a narrator.  In short order, we learn that Willy's wife has more or less bought into the extravaganza of his vision.

Any number of actors have taken Willy on, notable among them Lee J. Cobb, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, Rod Steiger, Frederic March, and most recently, Philip Seymour Hoffman.  All of them have brought different dimensions to Miller's Willy Loman, each winning some major award for the effort.

In similar fashion, the character Blanche Dubois, from Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.  Blanche has been brought to life by an incredible spectrum of actors, including Ann-Margaret, Arletty, Vivien Leigh, Faye Dunnaway, and your own favorite, Glenn Close.

Point made?  You believe so; the actor blends a specific real life individual with a part of himself/herself.  Phil was in many ways drawn from the portions of yourself you recognized with such impatience and a wish to be rid of him.  You were playing on the spectacle Phil presented to you as he haunted the outer tables of the Xanadu Bakery, desperate for companionship and compassion, an almost over-the-top version of himself, a candidate for self-parody.

To have any chance at all of bringing Phil to the page with a modicum of success, you have to see the irony of him being so desperate for attention that he pushes persons away from him.  You have also to see yourself as Phil, then draw from him a simple truth, the simple answer to the simple question of what he wants.

What works in reality does not always work in story, nor does the reverse invariably obtain.  Phil wanted recognition.  The moment you recognized him with a measure of respect, he had his dignity back.  He feigned another appointment.  You knew this about him.  He did not have another appointment.  If you'd encouraged him at all, he'd have not only shared more of your raisin-cinnamon roll, he'd have begun reminiscing.  He'd have had some stories about the ambiance before the fire, perhaps even gossip about how the fire got started.

You could have encouraged him for a while longer, but you wanted him to leave while you still had the understanding about him of what he wanted.  You wanted him to leave while you still respected him to any degree.  You wanted the subtext of the encounter to be how you learned from listening to him.  Although the episode was, in the final analysis, about you, it was about you learning from him, thus his importance in appearance.

When the narrative is all about you and your understanding, what is the purpose of the narrative except to show you in a positive light?  Alas, there are times when you wish to appear in a positive light, causing you to manufacture circumstances with that payoff in mind.  That's the equivalent of giving yourself a banquet.  Try composing a scene about such a person, imparting dignity to him or her, not making fun of him or her.

Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire have painful, down endings, demonstrating the pitfalls of following illusion without questioning it at some point.  Both plays were necessary to illuminate the often sinuous and precipitous path of reality.  Alternate plays with happier endings could have been written, but how many of us would have been as moved by them as we have been with these.

In creating a character you wish to appear with some resonance and credibility, you need to observe and be able to step back from your observation to the point where you will be able to see your judgement, then write beyond it.  By your reckoning, you'll need to follow the sinuous and precipitous path of reality as it courses through your own uninvestigated selves, for there are many of them, and their numbers increase each time you create another character, using this process.

Where do they go when you've finished with them?

You need to find out from them first of all who they are and what their ratio of truth is to their ratio of fantasy-wish fulfillment.  You need to listen to them long enough to learn what they want, recognizing they may lie to you.  You need a sense of what they are willing to do to accomplish their immediate goal.

Attorneys complain with some frequency that their clients lie to them.  Some shrinks you know, without mentioning specific names, will close their eyes for a moment when talking about patients who either lie or with some deliberation camouflage reality.

Where did Phil go in such a hurry after you gave him that brief note of recognition he sought?

They come from you and they return to you, the ones you like, the ones you tolerate, the ones you try not to pity, the ones you go out of your way to avoid.  They return because you are their home.  They are you.

Some day, you may be giving a gathering for a close friend, a loved one, and one or more of them will appear, just as Phil appeared to you.  If you can accept that, your planned gathering has a reasonable shot at success.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Conversation in a French Bakery

A combination of convenience, curiosity, and temporal circumstances brought you to The Xanadu Bakery Coffee Shop, a frequent stop when you lived in the neighborhood.

You were forty or so minutes early for a meeting with a potential client, hungry for coffee and what you considered the Xanaduy's signature pastry, the raisin-cinnamon swirl.  Armed with a fresh copy of The New York Review of Books, you staked out an outside table, spread your various implements--iPhonbe, laptop, notepad-then settled in.  When the coffee arrived, you noted an improvement in its present flavor and aroma, perhaps a reflection of new ownership.  The raisin-cinnamon swirl also seemed somehow better, more flavorful, reflective of its yeasty dough and the plumpness of the raisins.

Between sips of latte, a forkful of the pastry, and a few paragraphs of the NYRoB, contentment settled in, until you were aware of a presence, standing before you, silently requesting your attention.  The presence was male, thus your survey of him was quite different than had he been a woman or person younger than the range of your university students.

He was about your age, but an immediate sense of superiority settled in because you reckoned you had weathered your years better than he his.  By his clothing and posture, you guessed him to be somewhere between comfortable and borderline affluent, someone used to getting his way some of the time and giving way at other times.  He did not seem to be dressed as though there were a woman in his life or directly in his hopes.

"You,"  he said, approaching accusation, making you wonder, retired attorney.  "You used to come here often."

"Moved,"  you said, wondering in fact if the server with whom you'd carried on a flirtation were still employed here.  "This is more or less off my radar."

"Don't I know it?"

You took a sip of latte, straightened an imaginary wrinkle in the NYRToB.

The visitor did not budge.

"You're not going to invite me to join you?"

You gave this some thought.  Be rude all at once or by degrees.  "Expecting a client."

"Client,"  he said.  Definitely a lawyer.

You then asked him where it was that you'd met.

He sent a loud hoot into the afternoon before addressing the assembled array of outdoor tables and chairs, all of them unoccupied.  "He wants to know, where did we meet.  He wants to know, how is it I think I know him."

You told him the answers to those questions would be helpful.

He pulled a chair away from the table, eased himself into it.  "You're not touching your raisin roll."

Not to be intimidated, you wanted to know, "What do people call you?"

"That's rich,"  he said.  "You, of all people, don't know my name.  Okay, then.  Okay.  Call me Phil."


"Anything but Ishmael."

"What do you want, Phil?"

Again to the unpopulated chairs and tables in the courtyard.  "He wants to know what I want."  He pulled off a strand of the raisin-cinnamon swirl, which he bagan chewing.  "We are not so different as you might think,"  he said.  "We are more alike than you imagine."

He did not sound as though his goals were financial or religious or even politics.  Chewing his strand of pastry with evident satisfaction for a few moments, he rose.  "Recognition,"  he said.  "Is that asking so much? "

This was a sunny, near balmy day between two cold storms moving through from Alaska, then finding their way more or less along the route once referred to as Route 66.  On such a day, your first thoughts were that you did not wish to recognize Phil, or whatever he called himself.  You wanted to enjoy the coffee, read your journal, discover if the waitress were still here.

You wanted a bit more time alone to enjoy the small things of the day, not to be pestered by a man who wanted some conversation.


Against most of the things you'd come to recognize from the times you'd begun having conversations with yourself.

You pushed the pastry plate at him.  "Here, take some more."

Phil met your eyes for a moment.  "Thanks, kid,"  he said.  "Thanks a lot.  Don't have the time now.  Your client is here.  Maybe another time, huh?"

Saturday, February 23, 2013

In Character

Your formal introduction to reading was the Dick, Jane, and Spot series of books, which were so repellent to you that you struck out on your own, wishing to put these characters and their well-intended, perhaps even effective repetitions behind you.

"Come. Come. Come.
Come, Spot, Come."

After all these years, such tropes are still burned into your hard drive.  You remember these books because of your sentiment that reading had to be better than this.  Indeed, reading became better as fast as you could manage.

Geometry took a bit longer, although your sister, characteristic of her lifelong effect on you, helped set the bar of your expectations high by imparting a snippet of information that parallel lines, so far as geometry was concerned, met in infinity.  This observation seemed transformative.  You spent time wondering, speculating what the circumstances would be for the meeting of the lines.  Since the meeting was in infinity, it could well be a secret meeting.  You supplied the word "tryst," which had a mischievous sound to you, but both mother and sister suggested in one of those you'll-understand-when-you're-older tones that you keep tryst to yourself.

Later--much later--you were able to supply for your own students an observation about parallel lines.  "In geometry, they meet in infinity.  In fiction, they meet in the last chapter."

Geometry did not live up to your expectations, much less your understanding.  You'd progressed from the grade of B in Geometry I to a D in Geometry II.  Passing grades were necessary in both to satisfy the then State requirements.

Again, you had to find reasons to use geometry, to make it work for you.  There was some immediate help in the form of a course in typography and graphic design, your first experience with having to visualize the inner beauty of pages of printed text.  Of a sudden, you were on good, then glorious terms with geometry, and by the time you were in your early forties, you were designing books because you enjoyed the process.

Against this background of you and your confrontations with Reality, the learning process, and the sometimes achingly slow growth of your storytelling craft, you began to see yourself as one of a series of parallel lines. How natural for you to think of having trysts in infinity with those parallel lines you were aware of.

For instance:

You knew from watching dramas, from skilled actors, and from your own exercises in learning acting techniques that a character whose role calls for the portrayal of being drunk makes a point of exaggerating his or her appearance on the side of sobriety or deliberation.  This lesson came home--dare you say in dramatic fashion--early one morning when you'd returned home from an evening on the carouse.  Trying to fit your key into the door lock produced such a riot of understanding and awareness that you were overcome with giddy laughter.  Taking yourself and the key in both hands, with some focus and deliberation, you fit the key into the door, gained entrance, stumbled to the sofa, where you disturbed the morning repose of your cat, Sam.

You also know, from watching parallel lines of you, actors in plays and film, and characters books, experiencing situations of uncertainty, that there are certain giveaway activities, "tells" broadcasting indecision, bafflement, uncertainty.  These traits are the dramatic equivalents of radios, tuned to emergency broadcasting frequency.  You begin by watching yourself in your attempts to orient yourself to a place or a situation.  You watch crowds for signs of those who are lost, uncertain, undecided, taking mental notes about how characters sometimes call themselves directly to your attention with gestures meant to cover up their embarrassment at being so vulnerable in public.

Reversing the situations, you watch for the movements you make in situations where you are confident and which behavior in public places seems to convey to you confidence and purpose in others.

Spending time in coffee houses has become the adventure of the actor's studio for you.  Sometimes, as you enter your two favored venues, the Peet's Coffee and Tea on upper State Street, or the Cafe Luna in neighboring Summerland, you chose an exercise.  You are about to enter a room where there are a number of others in various states of a snack, a meal, or coffee.  Your goal is to be invisible, not so much as a visit from the owner, a chat with a waitperson, a nod from another customer.  With a growing rate of success, you find you've taught yourself to keep your horizon limited to the edge of your table, to immerse yourself in what you appear to be reading, writing, or sipping, not looking about, offering in any way a glance or body language suggesting you are available for a nod, a smile, a conversation.  Of course, if you'd been quite determined not to be noticed, you'd not have gone out in the first place, but the effects on the exercise and your ability to observe would be compromised.

Working the other side of the street is more difficult, involving more eye contact and inviting posture, extending the horizon beyond the edge of the table.  In effect, you are making yourself an attractive target, which at one point meant attracting an invitation to buy raffle tickets, and another still resulting in a conversation you were also relieved to have at an end.

The point is that all this filters through you and your observations.  You are indeed one line, attempting to run in parallel with characters created by authors and actors to the point where you admire them.

As yourself, the observer of yourself and the world about you, certain basic needs come to the front of the line.  You must see, describe, and learn the idiosyncrasies of the world about you, lest it revert back to the Dick, Jane, and Spot world, the world where you were casting off in your own vehicle.  You and the universe you see must hold some promise for you, the observer, just as geometry held forth the key to helping you design the interiors of books and have greater appreciation of countless others.

You must learn to be a participant as well as an observer in the universe you are able to call to mind and presence about you.

Friday, February 22, 2013


 There are many past times in your memory that you enjoy taking out and reliving, much in the same way you reread certain books or stories, watch performances of plays or films where the outcome is a certainty to you.

When news reaches you that an old chum or former hero has died, you do the same thing, recalling times, events, possibly even outcomes, where the sense of the departed person is , to your delight, powerful and evocative.

Such recollections and, indeed, such revisiting of books or plays or music or films is given the name nostalgia, which to your ears is a lovely name, its sound soothing and reassuring, giving you the visual images of Indian-head pennies and buffalo nickels, liberty half dollars, and, wonder of wonders, silver dollars.  The denominations of these coins are low enough to remove any sting at the association of nostalgia and money.  The nostalgia is for the way the coins rang when dropped on counters,  The nostalgia is for authentic marble counters, and for coins with thick ridges in their edges.

The nostalgia extends to a radio you could make, using a cigar box, an empty toilet paper tube, a remarkably simple and inexpensive device called a cat's whisker (in reality a lump of galena with a wire device that served as the equivalent of a tuner), and an equally inexpensive roll of double cotton-covered copper wire.  You'd have already had a pair of ear phones from a birthday or Christmas past.  This so-called crystal radio did not need electric current, adding to the magic of its nostalgia; the moment it was connected in the proper order, the cardboard tube wrapped with fifteen or twenty turns of the copper wire, it was a radio.  It was connected.  Music and sounds were there to be had by moving the wire pointer (the cat's whisker) over the galena for a sensitive spot.  You heard Beethoven's Third Symphony, 'The Eroica," on such a radio.  Even now, when you hear it from a compact disc or a concert hall, you hear it as you heard it then.

So yes, nostalgia is magic, and it has nothing, absolutely nothing in the way of grudge against modern technology, not iPod or Kindle Fire, or your laptop of your iMac Computer with the twenty-one-inch screen.

Of the many files on hand in your personal nostalgia library, the time of the crystal radio is a proud relic.  This was a time when you were a boy for whom the world was so great an adventure you at first resisted sleep, lest it deprive you of potential discovery, when even sleep was a story in the making.  The better the story, the longer you remained awake.

This was a time when you waited for things to break so that you would be given them to make of what you will, and thus a pair of your sister's roller skates could be unassembled, then brought to the ends of a two-by-four of about an eighteen or twenty-inch length to make the prototype of a skateboard.  A wooden fruit box from the trash heap of Weiner's Grocery on Fairfax Avenue, needed to be mounted edgewise at the front of your skate-wheel chariot.  A broken broom handle became the handlebar.  You had a street-smart scooter.

Wind-up clocks, when broken, provided gears and springs and inner pieces that seemed like skeleton parts of prehistoric creatures.  Elections brought envelopes thick with descriptions of ballot measures, but you knew them for what they really were, maps to treasures the early Californians had buried.  Your mother's and sister's used foundation garments provided elastic for slingshots and rubber bands for model airplanes.  Empty thread spools needed only a rubber band, a button, a Popsicle stick, and a few notches, carved in the spool's edges to become a splendid wind-up toy that scuttled along the ground, even climbed over some obstacles.

Nostalgia grew up to a degree when you reached high school and were able to speculate with chums from the same grammar school about someone who'd gone to another high school than yours, or, even more mysterious, out of state.

"Wonder what happened to old James."

"He was neat, James was."

"Think he went to L.A. High."

"Heard he moved to Hollywood."

"No, man.  Hollywood wouldn't have been so bad.  James had to go to Hamilton."

"He didn't deserve that, not James."

You pull some of these nostalgias out of the air like a magician, pulling rabbits out of a hat, to demonstrate the splendid sense of magic and trickery about them but also to commemorate the fact that nostalgia is not the simple process of reaching an age and beginning to spend what have been referred to as unhealthy amounts of time dwelling in the past.

You do believe in spending a considerable amount of time and focus in the immediate present, as many fine actors do when they are at work, representing other individuals, characters from plays, novels, and stories.  You even have what you call future nostalgia, in which you speculate on what your iPod or Kindle Fire will represent to you at a future time, and what uses you might find for broken or discarded things in the fabric of your stories and essays.

When you think nostalgically about some of your past friendships, you are often haunted by an old pal to whom you gave the nickname of Duke.  You were close friends through high school, fraternity brothers in college.  Duke was drafted to serve in the Army, which he did with what seemed to you like remarkable good grace, but about nine months or a year in, he was sent home and became rather distant until the day you braced him for an answer given a sad picture.  Duke had been diagnosed with cancer.  A planned wedding was put on hold until treatment at the City of Hope could be completed.  Trouble was, Duke continued losing weight, and on your last visit to him, he asked you to please write something about him, and he asked you if you understood what that meant.

Some of your nostalgia is trying to fit Duke into stories, and each time you do, you find another reason to cherish the effects of nostalgia.  In real life, his name was Wilbert, which is one of the reasons even then you wanted to start calling him Duke.  Wilbert Melnick is a believable name, but Duke is more of a contribution to filling your promise to him.

You have other nostalgia debts as well.  You owe Wolfe the book, The Dramatic Genome, you began together, and in yet another way, you owe the kid who was you the ongoing search among the cultural and artistic trash heaps for useful and intriguing parts.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Not long ago, in search of some document or publication or other, you came by accident across a sheaf of correspondence between you and your big sister, written when you were living in Mexico City, trying among other things to wean yourself away from a career in television that you'd found not to your expectations or liking.

You were hard at a novel, which you were growing more and more devoted to, happy to be away from Los Angeles, happy to experience the enormous energy of Mexico City, which seemed to you then to have even greater potential for eccentricities and discovery than your areas of operation in California.

This energy seemed to resonate through your written conversations with your sister.  You'd always felt close to her.  Even though she was seven years older, you'd reached the point of a hearty sense of peer respect.

This caused you to recall your letters to your mother and hers to you during the time, filled on your part with descriptions of places and people you'd thought to be of interest to her.  Her letters to you had to do with motherly concerns for a son away from home.  Eat well.  Drink only bottled water.  Make sure the milk is pasteurized.

You did not correspond directly with your father, nor he with you, yet you felt a deep abiding love for him and were aware of his concerns for you.  Before, during, and after your long venture into Mexico, the communication between you and Jake was most often non-verbal, or with you making some sort of Greek chorus description of a problem that perplexed you, a project that excited you, or your confiding some broken dream that needed repair.

Jake's responses were supportive but the substance was invariably his presence rather than some long platitude.  "Just because you're getting good, try not to stop growing."  "Be whatever you want, but give it more than you thought you had."  You could almost see them coming, then came the good part.  He'd sit with you, watching you.  He'd touch you.  He'd offer you a cigar.  He'd say, "Let's go to a ball game."

Baseball was his favorite.  For years, Sunday double headers at the now vanished Gilmore Field, home of the Hollywood Stars of the then Pacific Coast League.  Sometimes, he'd appear to whisk you across town to Forty-second and Avalon, and Wrigley Field, a replica of the Chicago Cubs home field in south central L.A., home of the rival to the Hollywood Stars, the L.A. Angels.  They weren't the Stars, but it was baseball, and it was time with him.

"What's a ball game without a hot dog?"

"Time for peanuts, right?"  And he's let out a shrill whistle to the peanut vendor, ten, fifteen rows down, and suddenly you'd see the sack of peanuts flashing through the air, headed right at you.

Sometimes, you'd be aware of him wanting to say something or ask you something.  "You think this is all about baseball, all these years?"

No, you didn't think that.

Later, well into his eighties, and shortly after a successful surgery to remove a small tumor, he drove to Santa Barbara to visit.  "Made a decision,"  he said.  "Radiation.  One, maybe two shots,  Just to make sure.  Wanted you to know."

"Do you really need it?"

He smiled.  "Who knows. Gotta figure Maybe yes, maybe no.  The way I look at it, I beat the cancer.  Was Stage 4.  All gone. That's like the dealer is showing twenty and I had seventeen, so I had to take a hit.  So maybe I'm on a roll.  Why quit now? "

The radiation created more problems than it solved.  For the next five years, our ball games were on TV; he had to stick pretty close to home.

In many ways, you were having a conversation with him when, after your own run-in with cancer, you shook off chemotherapy.

There are many ways to be with people if you care about them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Campaign Ribbons, Then and Now

As a youngster who grew up in the midst of World War II, and lived for a time close to an imaginary line dividing two basic training centers for draftees and recruits, your daily life was filled with military insignias.

Such forms of identity meant a great deal to you then, considerably more than when as a student later at a campus of the University of California, you were required to take ROTC courses, including ones where you needed to be able to identify such insignia and their functions.

The pre-teen you had his pack-rat collection instincts grow from the premium pictures of airplane pictures your father got with his Wings Cigarettes to an extensive collection of shoulder patch insignias worn by servicemen to identify their larger organizations and more significant, idiosyncratic smaller divisions.

You spent a good deal of your income from selling out-of-town newspapers or the Miami Herald to servicemen in army-navy stores, buying the more colorful of those imaginatively embroidered identity patches.

By the time you reached high school, your interest in things military had turned in other directions, focusing instead on cereal boxes, pulp magazines, and massmarket paperbacks (many of which you have today).

Identity meant different things to you at different times.  You still "collect" cultural tags by nothing such varied things as speech patterns, posture, clothing, jewelry, types of tattoos, etc but in general you are now more interested in classifying your own past approaches to your culture, your past and present reactions to politics, and the inexorable evolution of how you are a product of your experiences as well as your responses to them.  This does not preclude judgment, either of yourself or of others, but it does allow you a perspective you lacked before.  You are now as close as you've ever been to being able to withhold judgement on your characters until you have them in third or fourth draft.  You can more or less trace your evolution from being much more judgmental and critical of others than yourself to the point where you are more apt to be critical of yourself than of others, comfortable in the belief system whereby your best shot at changing anyone or anything is by changing your own approaches and/or techniques.

When you were collecting military insignia, you also had a growing collection of what was called fruit salad, small ribbons resembling regimental neckties in pattern, worn by service men and women on their uniforms as a sort of visible curriculum vitae or resume.  These ribbons included being stationed in various theaters of operations, having been awarded medals or citations, having been wounded in battle, and other capabilities.

There are no civilian equivalents for many of the "campaigns" or services you have experienced, leaving you to discover such things about others from conversations, research, gossip, and other forms of civilian activities, including that most civilian activity of pure speculation.

Many of your speculations prove accurate to amazing degrees.  Others are so far off the mark that you are taken aback by your own naivete and wrongheadedness.  Your closest equivalent to the military Purple Heart or having been wounded in the service of country is your survival of cancer, including the excision of tissue you were issued at birth.

Hardly anyone of your age has not lost both parents, nevertheless you continue to experience effects of those losses and have come to expect that most others have similar or near similar responses.  You have kept a number of your mother's favored tea antiques, including two cups from which, whenever you prepare boiled eggs for yourself at home, you use as egg cups.  To the best of your memory, you've never taken tea from either, nor made tea in the pot, although you frequently use the tea pot to hold bouquets of flowers.  You often see your father when shaving and are of relative certainty to spot him at least once a month in one or more dreams.

You sometimes find yourself in a dream conversation with your sister, which invariably ends with you in the dream coming to the awareness that this conversation cannot be real because she is dead, a condition that produces the racking sobs of grief.

In the past year, you've taken on two more campaign ribbons or, to follow the military tradition, there is a ribbon for major deaths.  Yours has two oak leaf clusters, signifying the death of two of your oldest, dearest friends.  Your reactions to these are to catch yourself thinking Digby or Conrad would have enjoyed a particular book or film or play, then swearing to the cosmos at their absence, followed by a sense that you wish to be as much a presence to your remaining friends as possible.

You've had a piecemeal relationship with flowers most of your adult life to the point of thinking your surroundings were incomplete without something in a vase or pot nearby.  There are perhaps other ways of describing your late wife's relationship with flowers, plants, and trees than saying she was unyielding in her passion for their welfare and positioning and care.  A way of describing this effect on your relationship with plants, succulents, and flowers is to say it is a rare shopping trip you make where you do not bring something growing home for the purpose of hanging out with it for its time.

The back yard is a tribute to your attempts at hanging out with potential plants from avocado and chiramoya seeds, each one thinking things over in its own container.

You have the civilian equivalent of relationships with a number of cats and dogs, a history that appears to have eased your awareness of the relationships of friends and remaining family to their cats and dogs.

Perhaps some of us are able to see these various civilian equivalents of campaign ribbons; perhaps this special sight helps us form friendships and reactions.

In any case, you do not need tangible sight of these civilian campaign decorations nor do you need the equivalent of a uniform on which to display them.  They are all a part of you.  You may forget about an individual one for a day or two, but then, in some quite ordinary braid of event, you'll think to have boiled eggs for breakfast, or you'll think to spray some water on a cymbidium, or catch a fleeting glimpse of Jake in your face as you lather up for a shave, using the brush Conrad gave you one Christmas, or you'll note a bucket of Dutch iris in the market and think, was it that Anne was so fond of these, or did she grow them because she knew you liked them?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fed up

Much of storytelling has to do with imparting dramatic information to the reader.  Imagine a character named Laird, leveling a gun at Fred's head, snapping off the safety on the gun, then saying:  "Last chance, Fred.  Tell me where the money is."  Then Laird licks his lips.

You don't need to be told Fred's in trouble.  You don't need to slip in some interior monologue saying in effect, "Fred could see that Laird meant business."  Fred has already seen what we've seen.  Laird's licking his lips.  He wants to do this.

But you do it anyway--just to make sure the reader gets the seriousness of Laird's intent.  And while you're at it, hey, why not throw in an adverb to make sure there's no doubt.  "Last chance,"  Laird said menacingly.  "Tell me where the money is."

Welcome to the dysfunctional world of the Reader Feeder, home of tone of the most common mistakes the emerging writer makes, and makes again, to cover his tracks.  A few of these in your manuscript are sure to win it an all-expenses-paid trip to the rejection heap.

You've detailed in The Fiction Writers' Handbook what the Reader Feeder is--the lazy writer's way of presenting information that should become apparent to the reader through the action, not the stage directions.

Sometimes, an inventive writer gets the notion to use dialogue to impart the desired information, doing so in the mistaken belief that putting the Reader Feeder in quotes is, after all, showing, rather than telling.

"Hey, Fred, how's your wife, Vanessa, these days, and my niece and nephew, respectively, Mary and John?"

Not a promising start.  You may know brothers-in-law in real life who talk that way, but when they do so in fiction, a noticeable strain comes over the narrative.  The strain becomes even more pronounced with Fred's response, "As you know, Laird, tomorrow is Vanessa's birthday and we were hoping you'd join us for a small, intimate, family celebration."

A potential key here is that leaden phrase, "As you know..."  Telling a character what the character already knows is, at the least a time for the reader to sigh with impatience, bordering on a decision to set the book or story down for good.  The simple expedient of switching "How many times do I have to tell you..?" at the least turns the conversation back to dialogue, with its confrontative, insistence on reestablishing a dramatic fact that has play in the story.

Do not tell the reader what the reader already knows, and if you feel the necessity to do so, at least do it in such a way that will cause the reader to expect consequences that will alter the texture of the narrative.

Readers wish to observe their favorite characters as though eavesdropping on them, being an unseen observer to the ongoing drama.  Characters, for their part, do not have the luxury of explaining their circumstances or laying bare their past relationships and unhappy childhood to complete strangers.

Sometimes it is a disservice to bludgeon the emerging writer too hard with the "Show--don't tell" observation.  Some minor things can be told, leaving important things to be shown.  But when they are force fed or force-shown--"I couldn't help noticing you wear your watch on your right hand."  "Most left-handed persons do, you know."--the result is that most bloated feeling of all, having been exposed to the Reader Feeder.

Monday, February 18, 2013


Vocabulary is a tricky business, in its way a metaphor encompassing capitalism and free market.  In other ways, vocabulary is the process of importing words, phrases, and concepts from other languages, building them into your own potential for one of the most outstanding, defining things about you.

There are words used by other writers that have impressed you to the point where you find yourself trying to use them, not only in your stories and essays but in your spoken speech.  There is also the matter of your belief that you should speak as you write, write as you speak, and edit both with a blend of good sense and pragmatism.

As you pursue your meditations on vocabulary, you've compiled a list of words which, on the surface, appear as handy, useful tools but which, on closer consideration, need to be set aside because they do not approximate in meaning what they say.  Words of this nature such as very, somewhat, perhaps, and interesting come to mind, all of them, you regret to say, causing your sentences to grow longer when, in fact, they are already long.

Another such word is enough, which appears in your written and spoken uses with the same kind of regularity credit card bills appear in your mail box.  As a practical matter, you know enough about credit cards to know you must pay the balances each month rather than allow a lingering balance to add more cost to next month's bill.  Enough is one of the many relative terms you try to catch as you review each piece written with the intention of keeping it.  Enough breakfast, for one small instance is a different matter from enough money or enough interest, and come to think of it, isn't interest close to being a weasel word?  That's interesting.  What does that tell you?  Something is "of interest."  Big deal.

At one point, when you were still pre-teen, and you'd been skipped an entire year in the schooling  progression, you took the mistaken belief that vocabulary played a major role.  Big mistake.  In a real sense, you equated learning with vocabulary, leaving out the important middle step of connecting the meanings and nuances into concepts.

You could fool some people with vocabulary, but not everyone.  Later, you were in close proximity to individuals from wealthier backgrounds than your own, and you saw some of those individuals trying in an analogous way to manipulate others with references to their resources.  You also hit a brick wall in which you not only did not get the scholarship you'd applied for (because of your most uneven grade average), you were told in so many words that you should consider other options than college.

Once again, for a last, brief fling, you took refuge in vocabulary, trying to finesse your way into college with words instead of essaying college by using words.  You needed some time in your own Twelve-Step Program, where you acknowledged that you had no power over your life because of your dependence on vocabulary.

A special and meaningful way out of your vocabulary dilemma was to immerse yourself in poetry, through as many of its forms and potentials as you were able to accommodate.  Although you marveled at and felt resonant frequency from such diverse poets as Hopkins and Moore and Dylan Thomas and  Yeats, there was the pull of the cadences, pauses, and music of sentences, their words striking you with images of young birds, scurrying across a field for flight.  And so it has been:  trying to remove the leaden words, the empty words, the words that mean the birds need to scurry a few more yards before that stark, crisp moment when they are yearning to be aloft, then lifting.

With the right array of vocabulary, you can be as mischievous as your favorite bird, the mocking bird, pushing images up, onto the page.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Pay and My Aunt's Pay: The Forms of Story

You had to admit it, you cut a more-than-acceptable figure in your favorite tweed suit, taking a last review of yourself in the mirror before partaking of the room service breakfast awaiting you.  There was a slight sense of a breeze, but this was Autumn in New York, and what was a little breeze?

You were scheduled to chair a panel on editorial decisions as a key to the publisher's identity.  The venue was the then well-attended yearly convention, Face-to-Face.  Later in the afternoon, after the panel, you were to interview for an editorial job which you had high hopes of being offered.  You were coming off a fairly good balance sheet and you'd already been the West Coast Director for another New York publishing house.

All right, hotel croissants are rarely beyond mediocre, but you were hungry and eager, even with the breeze you still felt, each time you stood.

In some ways, in many ways, the breeze was a metaphor for your professional life at the time.  The fabric of the trousers of your favorite suit, known to you to be thinning, had chosen this brisk, windy morning in mid-Manhattan to part company, reminding you of the choice to be made.  You could stay with the suit trousers, hopeful of keeping your poise, or play high-stakes poker.  Bloomingdale's was a scant few blocks away--a risk to be taken.

With less than ten minutes to spare, you were back in the hotel ball room, ascending the speaker's platform with no wind at your back because in fact, you were well covered now by a pair of narrow-wale corduroys, which pointedly did not match rather complemented your suit jacket.  Weren't you, after all, California incarnate?

The panel discussion went well enough that you were then and there invited back next year for another visit by some of the Face-to-Face organizers.  The job interview was another matter.  From the very start, you and the publisher did not hit it off, him going so far as to observe that you didn't have to wear corduroys to prove you were a Californian.

The next day, you took a shuttle to Boston, where you engaged in a first; you took tea with an elegant publisher, Sylvia Burack, publisher and editor of The Writer Magazine.  You'd had tea hundreds of times, but you'd never taken tea at the Copley-Plaza, wherein, somehow, you felt yourself in some elegant time warp, miles from New York, eons from Santa Barbara.

"I'm wondering," Mrs. Burack said, "if we could get something from you that might draw some letters of outrage.  Something to reflect the difference between what you see as an editor and what our readers wish to believe."

"P.O.N.R."  You said.  "P.O.N.R and the first three pages."

"I shall have to see it soon,"  she said.  "Meanwhile, here is Allister Cook, come to join us.  You don't mind, I hope."

There was a moment on your flight home to LAX, with connecting flight to SBA, where you sipped at some San Pellagrino water, munched some airline peanuts, and did some mental math on what you'd accomplished, how the trip had more or less been paid for--except for the corduroy trousers--and how you'd get along without your favorite suit.  A stewardess interrupted your train of thought by asking, was there anything else she could get you?

"Thanks," you said.  "I seem to have everything in hand right now."

You watched her retreat.  The plane on which you were a passenger was following the sun, heading due west, an ideal scene break, an even more ideal ending to a story.

To be sure, there were things in motion before your eastward venture, things left on hold.  There were cosmic, financial, and professional accounts to be reckoned, in particular a rather notional, self-involved publisher who was already suspicious of your interests in and connections to the more literary sides of publishing, threatening to bring such matters to a head.

P.O.N.R.  Point of no return.  Point within a story where the life of at least one character will be changed.

Three to five pages.  The number of pages an editor will read in anticipation of something happening.

What you said to the stewardess.  A negotiated settlement.  With?  Why, Reality, of course.

Those were elements more or less falling into place for you.

You began thinking about then writing short stories in ways you'd not thought of before, except that when you think of it, you'd been wanting to write all along.  In order to do so, you had to learn some craft issues relating to format.  You had to learn to start with your people in direct motion, on the very cusp of it, or having only moments ago said or done something emphatic, at which point, if you're lucky, the reader may begin to care.

Sometime later this year, a collection of some of those stories will be brought to life, step two in their own journey, removed from some publications no longer being published, strolling hand in hand to keep one another on the path.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What do you bring to story? Really.

You have sometimes had conversations with actors or seen interviews with them in which they expressed the preference for portraying a character as unlike them as possible.  In your experience, there's been a uniformity of reasons for this preference, the most appealing reason from your perspective is recognizing the differences between you and the character makes less likelihood that the actor will draw on personal preferences or traits.

This gradual, growing awareness was important for you because it meant you needed to look beyond and around and beneath yourself when bringing qualities to a character.  You had, in other words, to get out of the way, build the character around the story rather than yourself.

This mantra is so important to you that you will herewith repeat it:  The story is about you only in the sense of reflecting and refracting your vision.  If you are feeling in a kind of bittersweet mood when composing a story, you look for overall bittersweet elements which then comprise the inner struggles of every character in the story.  If all the characters reflect your own quirks, they will begin to sound and act as you do, which is not what you wish for them.

Your standard approach to setting a character in motion is to have the character fill out an application.  What job are they applying for?  What do they want?  How far are they willing to go to get what they want?  How immediate is their need?  If Fred wants to be a success in business, he'd better start now.  If Mary wishes to become a writer, she needs to start writing now and continue to do so every day.

 Pursuing this line may seem basic, even simplistic, but look where it leads.  Mary wishes to secure a research position at another institution, well beyond the junior level of her status.  It would help her greatly were she able to show some research in written form, thus she borrows from her peers and superiors a project she's been working on, perhaps even to the point of telling herself she will make amends and attribute proper credit to her coworkers, later.  Now we have a sense of how desperate Mary is and in the bargain, we have a story under way because, of course, she gets the job.

You don't believe you'd go to the extremes Mary has.  This is because of your own sense of ethics and your having wanted things such as Mary has, but taken differing approaches to achievement.

You still have a lingering resentment to the departmental politics that separated you from the University of Southern California, thus you've begun a novel set at that very university, in which a number of graduate students have begun to disappear and a character who is and is not you is supposed to solve the mystery and restore some form of justice.

Thus the question, What do you bring to story?  In this recent example, you bring revenge, but you also bring a greater reality and potential for stepping into originality because much of your short fiction has some actual or tangential relationship to the university and its bureaucracy.  You bring understanding, frustration, disappointment, and intense satisfaction to stories set at this landscape, including another irrational grudge against your own Alma mater for not taking you on, allowing you to spend thirty-four years with its crosstown rival.  From such squirts of irritation, pride, awareness, and satisfaction, you see characters who are going to bring more to your story than your mere grudge-based agendas, which you already understand to be petty.

Your first quarter at UCSB in effect took care of grudges on that level.  Here you are, at a branch of the University of California, here you are working with a dean you admire, teaching courses you've designed to push the students and you.  And here you are in a complete reversal of your situation at USC with regard to your faculty mates.

You bring to story the willingness to expand on your own limitations and motives, confident your choices of characters and their goals bring a sense of thereness to your stories.


You have to ask each individual you encounter who wishes in any way to discuss with you the possibilities of publication, What do you bring to story?  You ask, wanting specifics.  Generalities won't do it.  Sure, you bring mischief, but that wonderful word is only a cover for blowing a whistle of some sort on some sort of activity you see as an abuse of power or status or intent.

As your interest in the techniques of acting increase, you see yourself being able to go well beyond your few, scattered quirks.  You see yourself able to create characters who plagiarize, murder, loaf, impart information in which they have no belief.  You see yourself able to build characters of remarkable strength about the armatures of your current dean, your previous one, and a former student who is not only an assistant dean, he is the author of a series of detective novels involving a character with your name.

What do you bring to story?

You bring disruption, amusement, challenge, all at the expense of characters who are unwilling to experience their own darker places, then proceed beyond them, or, of course, their brighter, plateaus of discovery.  So far as you are concerned, these stand the greatest chance of all for happiness.  To find out something you bring to story that you did not know may stop you in your tracks for a day or a week or perhaps even a month, but it is a discovery that will keep you writing.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Five Kubler-Ross Stages of Story

What's your story?

This question can--and is in this instance--asked with sincerity and invitation among writers for conversation, recognizing at once the great breadth of similarities and extraordinary facets of individuality between us.

This question can, and is often asked--as you did earlier this morning--with an edge of irritation bordering on self-interest and, say, the irritation of being thirty-six hours into a cold, thus your comment to a driver who honked at you for taking a moment longer than he thought necessary at a stop sign.

This is, then, an investigation of the former, your concept of the dramatic story.  But in fairness to those portions of your personality less interested in writing and storytelling than the majority, it will reflect some of their attitudes about life in general, just as your more elevated responses reflect your more literary attitudes toward story.

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher (535-475 BCE) has left us with the observation that one cannot bathe in the same river twice, a fact the American poet, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) put to memorable work in a line from his poem,Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,  "All things are a-flowing, sage Heraclitus says..." which reminds us of the inevitability of change and movement.

You think of this motion of time and space and individual differences and preferences from time to time while trying to set story in motion.  You do so because in effect you cannot have the same conversation twice, even with the same person, even when it seems to you that you in fact are having exactly the same conversation again.  A great difference is the fact that you were not likely to have been as irritated by the conversation the first time through.

You also like to think of the enormous capacity and flexibility of the English language (and yes, nods to Noam Chomsky) many other languages.  English in particular seems to take on words from other languages to the point where we not only don't think to italicize them to show they are foreign, we actually forget their sources of origin.  They are in our linguistic tool kit.  Period.  No one you know would think to italicize, much less explain bungalow.  Taco?  Not likely.  Move over a scosh.  Suffering from ennui?  Not a chance, too many things on your plate for that.  And, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

Language, a splendid, nuanced, superb tool kit, the thing prized and revered among many writers you know, also enhances the potential for the opposite of its intended communication.  Language can cause two or more persons to engage in a conversation, a condition that is not yet story but oh, so close to being one, because each of the persons in the conversation is convinced of his or her correctness, of making his or her intentions pellucid.

There is story in that,  In fact, for you, that is a major component (and delight) of story.  There is the conviction of being right, which leads to the wonderful potential for conflating this with the Kubler-Ross Stages.

Denial.  They must have understood me.  How could they have not?  I was being perfectly clear.

Anger.   How anyone could have misinterpreted my intention is infuriating.

Bargaining.  Well, I suppose there were a few unnecessary adverbs.  Okay, I admit it, I did use some low-calorie words, but even so, I was pretty clear.

Depression.  Makes you want to think twice about trying to express your feelings to anyone.

Acceptance.  Fuck it.  Time to move on, get over it, under it, around it, through it.  Thus, your own two-word phrase for the closure of a short story, negotiated settlement (in which the characters are not only "settling" with one another but with the greater, often less personal presence of Reality.

The Kubler-Ross model is, by your perspective, a model for a short story.  (Haven't spent much time applying it to the longer works such as novella and novel, but it seems to have potential there, as well.)

She got it all wrong.  That was the last thing on my mind.
She'd have to be pretty dense to take things that way.
Well, maybe I came on a bit strong, I'll admit that, but she could have seen it was my enthusiasm talking.
Women.  Oh, boy.
Okay, can't win them all.  Time to get back up on the horse.

The question,What's your story? emerges in direct response to the work underway on fiction writing, and your attempts to bring to it what you do not see in sufficiency in other books on fiction writing.  As well, it has to do with the fact that a collection of your short stories is being prepared for publication, thus editing, thus the order of presentation of stories, thus the door being opened for that omnibus copyright notice, Portions of this work have appeared in slightly altered form, in the following publications...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Absent Friends

Within the space of less than a year, you have seen two of your closest and longest-term friends reach the end of their life.  Gets you to thinking.  Not so much about lifespan as about the nature of friendship.  In most cases, we can plan on a use-by date so far as life is concerned, knowing from other experiences that having a statistical probability of reaching Age X is no guarantee.

In one way or another, Death is always jostling you in a crowded mall or during intermission at a concert.  Death is in metaphor the denominator of existence.  You started playing around with your relationship to it at about age thirty, looking about for clues, arriving now at the acceptance (and hope) that your own use-by date will arrive finding you in the middle of a project.  Those who care about you may even find three by five index cards with future projects listed.  These blog paragraphs may well contain some got-to-finish project that seemed to keep you moving along, inoculated with curiosity for the outcome and enthusiasm to get at it.

Friendships, especially these, James Digby Wolfe, and Barnaby Conrad, bring you to a place where you consider your day-to-day behavior with the friends still in your life and the potentials for as yet unformed friendships to begin.  In many ways, you were pleased but baffled that these two should seek your friendship, to the point where you'd begun with each to fear you were not bringing enough to the table.

Both were excellent raconteurs.  In many ways, Digby Wolfe was able to do with a rhyming dictionary what a Chinese businessman did with an abacus.  Conrad could--and did--hold an audience spellbound for long moments.  Both were gifted, splendid writers.  You were--well, you were you, trying to unravel secrets you felt were braided into story, trying to find ways that would make story stand up and wag its tail.

You'd been in Santa Barbara less than a month when you'd been invited to participate in a Career Day program at the Cate School in Carpinteria.  Conrad, an old boy from Cate, seemed to have had some function that day, you were never quite sure what, and when you asked him later, he could not remember.  He approached you.  "You used to come into my saloon in San Francisco,"  he said.  "You always brought the same underage girl, whom you described as your ward.  I always remembered that."

At this point, you'd read everything he'd published, and gone off into central Mexico to follow the bullfight circuit and write a novel called The Wrong Arena.

Three of four months and two parties later, he told you of a Writers' Conference he and his wife ran.  "We should find a place for you."

The "place" was the basement of the auditorium at the now defunct Miramar Hotel, where you ran or were run by the late night fiction workshop, sometimes staggering out of the basement at four or five in the morning, hopeful of some coffee from the kitchen.

Digby appeared in one of your classes at USC, bearing an outline for a television drama, which you, without any idea who he was, because, given your sour experiences with television, you "didn't watch television."

You suggested it had momentum for a mini-series,  Two weeks later, your pockets bulging from an HBO check, you discovered he was the originator and head writer of Laugh-In, and had a number of Emmy Awards for such things as The John Denver Special, a Frank Sinatra Special, and several other dramatic ventures.

Of course you had other friends at the time.  Because of your ongoing wonderment about why Wolfe and Conrad should bring you into their spheres, you found yourself opening doors of reserve and discovery with those individuals you'd come to recognize as individuals you loved.

Being a writer entails a certain amount of an introverted, inner life wherein you find it easy to convince yourself you are a witness more than a participant.  Conrad and Wolfe had things to contribute.  You watched, wondering what you could possibly bring forth.

Well before each of them died, you began to see what items they in fact brought to the table and it came to you because of your closeness to them to see what these things were.  You bring love and respect and friendship.  You listen.  You bring books and music and enthusiasm to the table.  Both men were involved with living, with ideas,notions, causes, effects, and enthusiasm.  You can be a good friend by bringing these as gifts, as Conrad and Wolfe brought them to you.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Does He?

As early as Monday afternoon, you had the feeling you were being followed.  In the same manner some thoughts are difficult to shake off, this particular feeling was easy to overcome, then outright ignore.  You are not, after all, given to paranoia.  On a measurable scale of suspicion, you rank at about five, more a cynic than one who is chronic in his suspicion of the motives of others.

By Tuesday afternoon, however, the feeling of being followed was back.  At one point, as you made your way about on some errands, then toward your afternoon class, you turned suddenly and thought you'd caught one of "them," because by now it was more than one.

You caught a glimpse of a black, knitted watch cap, appropriate for the less-than-mild winter weather.  A dark jacket of the sort sailors and merchant marine personnel wear while standing watch on the individual you saw sent you on a devious route home, even to the point where you had your afternoon coffee at a place you do not ordinarily frequent.

Luck of the draw.  You were observed there by two students.  This being a quintessential small town, they each reported to you that you took your latte to an inside table, along with a banana nut muffin.  If these two could spot you, any number of others might.

After a night of varied and pleasing dreams, you awoke feeling energized and ready to take on today and its two classes.  Your role in each was limited to a ten-minute introductory paragraph or two.  After that, your task at hand was to listen, to encourage, to--dare you say it?--facilitate the collision of two or more disparate ideas or notions in a way we have come to associate with learning.  (If such an approach is engaged with serious enterprise, both student and teacher emerge having learned something positive, although the thing learned in a positive way may be about a negative thing.  Education, after all, should alert students and teachers to potentials for mischief, misapprehensions, faulty logic, and unrealistic expectations).

As the afternoon wore on, you saw more individuals with the black, knitted watch caps, and you began to realize they were now working in teams.

You made your way to the CVS Drugstore on upper State Street, just before the acute angle of intersection with De la Vina Street emerges.

In 1966, a then faculty mate of yours wrote and published a piece that has, approaching fifty years later, become a benchmark of essay writing and profiling of a noted individual.  In some ways, the writer in his own way seemed to want to rival the subject of this piece in stature.  The piece was called "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."  The writer was--and still is Gay Talese.

You have spent more time in Talese's presence than Sinatra's, although to be as accurate about such things as possible, the combined time of your presence in the company of these two giants was a tad under half an hour.  In the spirit of disclosure, you have little if any personal affection for either, although you consider each, in his way, an enormous conglomerate of talent, discipline, willingness to take artistic chances.

Reading and rereading the Talese profile on Sinatra, you can not help reaching the conclusion that Talese admires his subject on levels well beyond such writing as associated with publicity or paid-for-fluff.  If your writing about Talese's abilities as an essayist and profiler and serious observer of the cultural scene does not reflect your respect, you have indeed failed at building the metaphor of your intentions and the already present gap between your abilities and Talese's is widened even more.

Talese, in writing about Sinatra, is writing about a man whose immense talent and the source of his power is in his voice which, at these moments of his association with Sinatra, is at a low ebb of vulnerability to the point where, as Talese with such skill points out, when Sinatra's voice goes fallow for a time, a portion of the world shuts down.

You, too, have a cold.  The "them" who were following you were virus, wishing to establish a brief residence, squatter's rights, if you will, in you.

In relation to the cold Sinatra had in 1966 and Talese's writing of it, your own invasion is analogous to a drop of water regarding the ocean.  The effect of the cold is not on your voice but rather on your major instrument, which is you enthusiasm.

You have ingested enormous quantities of water, knocked back nasal decongestants, cough suppressants, and immune system enhancers.  As well, you've settled in with an enormous supply of disposable tissue and yes,before anyone asks, you have set a rich pot of chicken soup to simmer.

There are few comforts available at the moment except to reread this stunning portrait of a man whose music you admire (and grew up on), as presented by a former faculty mate who, in your opinion, was abusive to his students but who inflicts no such abuses, in greater fact, only a sturdy and inspiring respect for the language and its ability to convey a presence.

You stop short of saying "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" is prose to have a cold while reading.  You could, and have got Talese's thundering and bravura effects without having a cold, which in some remarkable way gives you a plan to deal with those virus who are squatting even now in your sinuses.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Barnaby Conrad March 29, 1922--February 12, 2013

Being in the living room of Barnaby and Mary Conrad's home gives you the sense of being inside a Faberge egg.  Over the years and your times of being there, you acquire some sense of the dozens of items, drawings and paintings from their honeymoon in Paris, a set of Modern Library  classics he was given for being a guest on some radio show, small and large carvings from blocks of sugar pine, photographs of persons and events so eclectic that even Aristotle would not have been able to classify them, Mary's needlepoint made into pillows, real things looking exaggerated and magic, magical things looking preternaturally real.

More often than not, the only times you remained in this room, other to be taken in by Conrad to be shown something relative to a conversation, was on Christmas days, where you balance a plate of turkey, stuffing, and occasional specialty dishes brought by one or more of the guests.  Your own plate was light on everything but a mound of green peas, mashed potatoes, and Mary's gravy, brought along over the months leading up to Christmas, a blending of stock and some giblets, and a great deal of what you once heard Mary's cousin, Julia Child, refer to as "pure cookery."

In that room, you were surrounded by children and grandchildren from Barnaby's and Mary's first marriages, then, later, from their one daughter, Kendall.  Carmen, herself an eclectic mix of maid, cook, and housekeeper, would appear with the gravy boat and a large salver of the greenest peas you could ever wish to experience.

Christmas seemed to be the only time cold enough to dictate indoor living, although there were in fact Christmas dinners when you were out on the deck, where the traffic flow seemed to have some agenda toward socializing or roaming out to the beach, for walking off the intake of food. The deck was also the place to reminisce with Conrad and Sandy Vanocer, sometimes with Stewart Granger, who always seemed to need Conrad to listen to him figure out why some new romance had not worked.

One Summer, when the Marine Layer brought excessive cold, you balanced on your lap a large, bright bowl filled with Mary's gazpacho, amused by the irony of taking its pungent tang in the living room instead of the outer deck.

These past few weeks, there has been another event in the living room.  Instead of lunching with Conrad at the Villa Real Market or the Taco Grande in Carpinteria or the Pharmacy Lunch Room in the upper Montecito Village, you visit him as he resides in the Hospice hospital bed, installed there so he can face out toward the slough and catch the afternoon and evening sunlight.  Earlier, there was a television set, turned to capture the news, its sound turned off, the figures seeming to report activities that were too mundane and manufactured for this room of wind-up toys and old memories, and the residue from the years of lightning-in-a-bottle flashes of wit and nostalgia.

At whose order or suggestion or initiative, the tv set was moved aside.  Conrad had clearly begun to retreat from its constant need to be relevant, to be in some kind of motion.  Sentences grew shorter.  The ambiance of the room seemed to move off the walls, out of the paintings of Mary as a young woman, of Conrad's bullfighter friends, of the flotsam of a life of creative reach and the savoring of inquiry.  

You like to think of him savoring those long, bed-bound hours by revisiting conversations had in this room, relishing the connective tissue of the dozens of items in it, reminders--sometimes photos or drawings--of friends.

Once, when you were in a hospital, he came to visit you for a few moments.  "I had to see with my own eyes that you would recover,"  he told you, then was gone.  Later, he spoke of friends who had not managed to get out of the hospital, of the bullfighter, Carlos Arruza and his longtime chum, Herb Caen.  "Hospitals are not comfortable places to be,"  he said.  "I am never comfortable in a hospital."  At the time, he was drinking an iced tea out of a tall glass, which he pressed against his forehead for a long moment.

This living room was a good place for him, a place, you like to think, where if he closed his eyes, he could hear the hum and chatter of conversation in counterpoint to the tinkle of ice cubes.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Gorillas in the mist, and you, observing characters

Such terms as "overcoming obstacles," "conflict," "opposition," and even "in spite of" are seen by convention as major aspects of story.  Although some emerging writers find such concepts, in particular the one of conflict, to be painful, many others come to terms with such needs as integral components of story and, doing so, seem to find their way into publication on a regular basis.

Close examination of real-time life and imaginary life reveals the potential in both media for these tropes to appear, to demonstrate their presence in one way or another or, for that matter, in several other ways.

Awake, asleep, in fantasy-daydream, much of the human species lives in a constant state of story.

You have begun to note in these pages how story began in its ways to tempt you in much the same way education tempted you.  Your interest in story came because of your disinterest in the childhood options about you.  This was distinct from being bored.  You were interested in expanding the options you had as a seven- and eight-year-old person.  Your most accessible portal was reading.  One or more stories, plus your faithful following of the illustrated, four-color, Sunday newspaper comics, shoved the door wide open.  Your interest led you in rapid succession to more stories, which at that time and at that level of self-communication, seemed to you the most direct way to achieving and maintaining interest.

In simplistic terms, you never looked back.  At such times in your life when you were experiencing boredom, you also experienced regret that there was no hint or trace of story in your life.  in consequence, you attempted to engage life as story, more often than not with disastrous results.  But by this time, you were writing with some kind of purpose and regularity.  If real time life became boring for any reason, you had two excellent ways of engagement:  writing or reading.

These paragraphs are a concise undercoating to your intended chapters dealing with reasons for reading and writing.  You've experienced enough students and writer clients to be convinced that there are as many potential reasons for reading and for writing and for a lifestyle with heavy emphasis on both as there are individual cases of cancer.  In fact, you can triangulate your own reading, your own writing, and your own cancer to locate the Writer you'll need to become in order to write these two brief chapters (reading and writing).  At the moment, it is tempting to believe you will be able to do so without the need to mention your experiences with cancer.  Books about writing do not have to be about cancer.  This is made even more plain to you because you do not often think about cancer any more, rather you think about and react to the life you have had after coping with cancer.  Some of the effects of it surely still effect you, but this is your entire point of intention in these two brief chapters on reading and writing, all of which come under the heading of Who are you?

The use of second-person in these blog entries came as a suggestion from your friend, the late John Sanford, who wrote histories and a three-volume autobiography in it.  You enjoy its use because it reminds you without the need to think about it any longer that you are writing these entries for yourself in order to let yourself know how you feel and think about things and at the same time to underscore the path to communicate with others by being as open with yourself as possible.

Your fiction narrative is still a reflection of you, its themes filtered through characters of your invention.  In fiction, then, you delegate the story to them, confident they will do the better job of conveying the full spectrum of meaning.  You also learn how, even though the characters are yours, you learn more by listening to them.

Thus, there is some kind of agreeable circularity.  You still write to engage story.  You still read to experience story and listen to others.  The universe is not about you; it is about itself.  When you listen, you get story.  When you don't listen with close attention, you in metaphor remove yourself to the position of an overbearing father, refusing his teenage children the use of the family car.  Still in metaphor, you are in effect helping them earn their own car and their own life.  Deeper yet into metaphor, you are creating lab animals with particular strengths and weaknesses, then setting them loose in mazes whereby you observe their results.  Dian Fossey with gorillas.  Jane Goodall with chimpanzees.  You with characters.