Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Successful Assholes: Make No Mistake About It

Many of the events in your life have been determined by events out of your direct sphere of interest or control.  You had no say, for instance, in which hospital you were born nor, indeed, did you have choice in the circumstance of being born.

True enough, on one occasion, when you were a few degrees into irritation at someones disclaimer, "I didn't ask to be born," your response, impulsive and immediate, impressed you.  "I sure as hell did,"  you said, then went on to describe how, while not overtly conscious of the intent, swam like hell to reach that egg.  In the immediate months after that declaration, while swimming your daily laps and recalling the conversation, often burst into giggles, which had adverse effects on your intake of air and water.

Events are often determined by intent, which in its way is determined by desires and other awareness of internal and external goals such as hunger, curiosity, tiredness, loneliness, and other subjective targets.

Events often produce outcomes.  These, in turn, can be ranked as successes or failures, accidents or mistakes.  Successes are often the result of mistakes or accidents.  You find yourself thrust into a curious speculation, wondering how many of your successes were accidental.

Often in this blog landscape, you've considered the accidents by which you became a teacher and an editor, each a bifurcation from your original and singular career goal, to say nothing of your goal for individual reach.  Yesterday's observations about mistakes has sent you careening along the path of considering such matters as goals, intent, execution, rates of success and accomplishment, and of course the matter of judgement.  

This day-old curiosity about successes and failures in general and yours in specific has reminded you of a novel you were fortunate enough to have read for the first time in your late twenties, The Posthumour Memoirs of Bras Cubas, by the Brazilian writer, Machado de Asisis.  You were drawn to the work by its subtitle, Epitaph of a Small Winner.  

At the time you first read the novel, you were intrigued by the effect the  reasoning and thought processes of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had on the author.  You, too, seemed drawn to the skeptical cynicism of the philosopher, liking the notion in the novel that the protagonist was summing his life's successes and failures from the point beyond the grave when the first worm had had a nibble of his--Bras Cubas'--flesh.  In fact, the dedication was to that very worm.  

You enjoyed the calculus by which Bras Cubas was able to say he'd achieved a worthwhile goal by having a life with a tad more successes than failures.

You are still drawn to the noir.  In fact, you were just told in an email from the dean that you will be giving a Spring course in noir fiction, which came about when, during a conversation with the dean, you expressed you noir theories and posited the potential for a book on noir studies.

This interest in and identification with noir landscape does not yet cause you to think dark, brooding thoughts.  You are, in fact, as often enthusiastic and ebullient as you are moody.  Thus your identification with Bras Cubas and your sense that all your mistakes have led you to a place where you have the means to devote some significant portion of your life to pursuits you care about and are drawn to. 

If mistakes were somehow obviated from these pursuits and if, worse of all, your successes were not tinged with the potential of being accidental, think how slight and shallow the results.

Referencing another somewhat surreal work to which you are drawn, popularly known as the eponymous Tristam Shandy, you recall a favored quote:  "When a man gives himself up to the government of a ruling passion,—or, in other words, when his hobby horse grows head-strong,—farewell cool reason and fair discretion!"

Your hope, particularly when you are in the full devotion of composition, is to give yourself up to the ruling passion and, thus, to shout a fervent "Adios!" to cool reason and fair discretion, both of which, true enough, are required in subsequent drafts.  But not at the outset.

Mistakes galore and occasional successes emerge like guests at a neighborhood block party, where you are a designated host.  Come eat, drink, and join the conversation.

In keeping with your observations about mistakes, there is at least an equal measure of possibility that success breeds as many assholes as does mistakes.  The mistake-ridden asshole attracts a certain dignity from his or her willingness to have and execute intentions.  The success-ridden asshole often pays the price of being seen as a more perfect asshole, a paradigm for whom, indeed, a school of proctology should be named.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Some Notes of Mistakes and the Assholes Who Make Them

On your last trip to the market, you bought two items by mistake.  Your error in both cases was selecting a product directly next to the one of your intention.  You didn't realize the mistake until the time came for you to use the product.  

The first product, vegetable juice (four vegetable servings in one glass) didn't register on you until you'd poured a glass full, then sipped at it, thinking you'd somehow picked up a spoiled container.  Then you read the label, whereupon you saw the list of contents.  The container and use-by date were beacons of congratulation, applauding you for your healthy choice of a fresh product.

The second mistake did not become apparent as a mistake until you opened the container, preparatory to measuring out a cupful to introduce into a pan of boiling water.  This was not steel cut oatmeal.  This was flaky oatmeal, the kind you've deliberately eschewed in favor of the nutty flavor and gritty texture of the steel cut, the kind most likely to turn mushy.

Both products are fresh and usable.  You've pretty well killed the juice, and as for the oatmeal, well, next time, you'll double check.  The point here is two mistakes riding on the irony of your recent cataract surgery in both eyes, leftie on March 21 of this year, right-o on May 2.  The irony is enhanced when you consider how vast an improvement the vision in your left eye and how neither it nor your correctable to 20/20 right eye require contact lenses any longer.

Mistakes, such as those in these previous paragraphs, are of judgement.  You could also say lack of attention.  To speak to your love of pun and inference, you could say lack of focus.

Mistakes come in all formats.  Consider the possibilities of mistakes in identity, mistakes in assuming information to be accurate and correct, mistakes in estimating outcomes, mistaken intentions.

There is hardly a mistake you can conceive of where you are without significant experience.  If uniforms were to be issued or identity insignia developed for degrees and numbers and durations of mistakes, you would be esteemed on sight as a distinguished veteran.  Over the span of years you've been engaging in scientific analyses of mistakes, one important product has emerged.  You are no longer ashamed of them, you have in recent times become accepting of them as indications of your humanity.  

Someone with your record of mistakes has some experience with being called an asshole.  When you think about the implications of being called an asshole, you render the term to mean "a person who makes many mistakes."  The last time someone called you an asshole, your response may have seemed on the surface to be quick-witted, but you believe it was more in the spirit of shared humanity.  "So are you," your response began.  "We're just assholes in different tribes."

Mistakes, their causes and consequences, are valuable tools for the writer's toolkit.  Your standard method of producing the armature for a character is to determine what that person wants.  Then you begin winding intentions and actions about the armature.  Mistakes, past and present, are good physical demonstrations of intentions, how the character sets about achieving goals, and how the character has been shaped by the consequences of past mistakes.

Since these reflections are about mistakes, you will keep discussion of successes to a minimum, hopeful of reminding yourself that tomorrow's notes could well deal with successes in executing one's intentions.  The common denominator in this dialectic is asshole.  Successful individuals are by no means free from being assholes.

You may be mistaken in your belief that mistake assholes have better traction as characters than success assholes.  This is, of course, a question of judgment and preference.

At one time, someone in whom you sensed the potential for a romantic interest asked you your preference in chiles.  Red, she asked, or green?  You are a fan of both, but since a chile Verde is one of your favorite main dishes (try spooning chili Verde into a fresh, flaky baked potato or sweet potato), you said green.  Big mistake.  Not what she wanted to hear.  Even your avowed preference for chicken simmered in mole sauce--you started to say cut no ice, but that would have been a mixed metaphor and, thus, yet another kind of mistake.

Like their creator, many of your characters' biggest mistakes are mistakes in judgement.  This may point the finger of asshole (another mixed metaphor, right?) at you, but consider this:  You'll never run out of material.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Ill-Tempered Sentence

A few weeks ago, at a regular meeting with an editorial client, you suggested he look up a particular word in a particular dictionary, The OED, The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language.

You were emphatic about suggesting The OED, not at all because your client was born in the Devon coastal town of Lyme Regis, rather because OED not only ranks the various definitions of each entry but as well because OED is noted for capturing the first known written use of the word, then more or less tracing its history, up to the moment of the most recent printing of this vast storehouse of a reference guide.  

OED definitions are relevant in this case because the dictionary is a quite valid analog to the core sample, a hole dug into the earth to extract a history of the various layers deposited in the place of sampling over the Milena.  The dictionary is akin to the rings of trees or the levels of enamel on the teeth of animals or reptiles; it shows history, evolution, origins, and suggestions for usage.

The world you wished the client to consult in OED was partnership, a word which, on the surface, would not seem to require an entry large enough to require much room for definition beyond its historical meaning.  At the time of your suggestion, you had no idea where this historical trail would lead you and your client in reference to a book underway dealing with the partnership between humans and animals.

It would be nice, if impractical in terms of space required to have your own copy of OED.  A digital edition would be a high class problem, so too would an abridged version, printed in smaller type, equipped with a magnifying lens to make for easier reading.

A practical matter for you is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, which is based on the OED principles of historical use, and which, to your great joy, has a usage committee composed of a number of men and women who write.

When you are away from home, with no AH4 close to hand, you rely as so many of your acquaintance do, on Google, thinking to check if warranted with OED and AH4.  Whether you have your MacBook Pro on hand or must rely on your iPhone, you are still not far from some responsible storehouse of meaning for the thousands of words a person is apt to encounter during the warp and weft of a day.

With a toolkit brimming with words, we have access to describing the feelings that inflict themselves upon us like any number of other natural disasters such as fires, floods, tsunami waves, earthquakes, landslides, and avalanches.  In addition, ideas sometimes have similar effects of catastrophic natures, rendering us, in irony, speechless, but as well inchoate, angry, inspired, delighted, curious, resentful, and apprehensive.

A vocabulary in general and words in specificity would seem to address the problems of communicating ideas.  The worm in that seeming logic  is the belief that sufficient tools can make or fix anything.  This is of a piece with saying that so many keys on a piano should make it easy to express musical ideas along with the ability to evoke emotions in individuals who listen to those ideas.  

Musicians such as Bach and Haydn and Mozart, to name a mere few, certainly had ease in discerning the ranges of pitch and tone and harmony resident in instruments.  Bach even understood and expressed in writing how each of the available key signatures in Western music evoked distinctive emotions (which explains, for instance, why Mozart chose the key of D minor when he wished to convey the most melancholy tonality).  As well, Bach understood well enough the progression of intervals in Western music to write The Well-Tempered Clavichord, wherein he investigated the properties of all twenty-four major and minor keys. Even these well-advanced artists in the language of music needed considerable practice to be able to put their understanding of the language of music into tangible compositions.

You're fascinated with the theory that early reading experiences, both positive and negative, led most of us who would compose our own works to believe these works were easily come by and that they were arrived at in one vision, perhaps mulled over a bit, then set down.  You recognize that naive belief in yourself.  In addition, you're aware that you'd made your commitment to the process well in advance of discovering how difficult the process was.

In subsequent years, you've experienced the thrumming and tingling response of validation upon learning how Beethoven, for all his amazing swirl of musical vision, did the equivalent of a tight line edit on his compositions, fussing, fidgeting, pushing players beyond their own awareness of their ability.  Even Mozart, who seemed to be able to compose works of stunning complexity in short bursts of effort, needed to revise, to replay with his inner orchestra, often many times over to get the crisp sharpness and braided complexity that so defines him.

Writers should be able to do this as well, but so far as you know, only a scant few men and women were able to do so with less than several drafts.

If you're not careful, you'll find yourself able to deconstruct things in order to affect a style or understand a theme, but will you be able to capture the focus of readers, then hold it, spinning the ideas and feelings through the medium of the words?  

You know it when you see it, more in the works of others than yourself. This awareness comes to you through the courtesy of men and women who've been writing for hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands.  They're all aware of how many hours of practice they needed to be able to make the immense difficulty appear simple to you.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lawn Order

The first thing you notice about homes in the desert is their lack of lawn.  The yards may indeed have lawn furniture, but these are deployed over the coarse grained desert sand or crushed rock, or some sun-bleached conglomerate that is reminiscent of cremated human remains.

The next thing you notice is the similarity of desert front yards with neighborhood front lawns in more conventional areas such as the neighborhoods through which you often pursue your evening stroll in Santa Barbara.  You see lawn furniture, bird baths, active or no longer running fountains, bird houses, and the occasional piece of sculpting ranging from the more sophisticated examples of sculpting to statues of birds or dogs or jungle animals, the most popular specimens (regardless of their geographical locale) being pink flamingos and gray or white long-beaked birds such as egrets, ospreys, or herons.

Whether desert or oasis, some front yards have tendencies toward used washer parts, boats in various stages of repair, either on towing trailers or suspended above two or more saw horses.

Yet another similarity between front yards in high desert locations such as Yucca Valley or Joshua Tree or even Palm Springs  are whimsical mailboxes, some on the more commonplace wooden support, others more complex constructions involving quarter-inch iron rods, bricks, gnarled tree trunks, and the more generic stamped metal, spray painted a matte black.

There are numerous ways you may deconstruct an individual.  Not the least of these ways is the individual's front yard or the individual's choice and presentation for all the world to see of a mail box.  In keeping with E.B. Whites observation that the individual who sets pen to paper is creating a form of self-portrait is the acquired wisdom that a lawn or its condition, or a rock garden and its design, or such extremes as finely raked Zen gardens, or flocks of concrete or plastic birds is a kind of personality fingerprint, in effect a true and authentic manner for an individual to mark and define personal territory and to present an image.

You've spent the last several hours driving through neighborhoods that had, so far as you can see, no tangible reason for being where they were, scattered about desert equivalents of metropolis.  The most affluent of these was Palm Springs.   Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree were among the more diverse and difficult to classify.  A common thread running through these neighborhoods was the fact of their residing under the blazing, bleaching summer sun, relentless from about six-thirty in the morning until close on to eight at night.  

The summer sun wants to bleach out color.  The home owner wants to somehow stand his ground against the sun, accomplishing his goals by the application of numerous coats of pastel, celebratory, and often patriotic color schemes, each capable of holding the bleaching desert sun at bay for another year or so before surrendering into the appearance of leftover vegetables and wilted salads.

Large numbers of individuals demonstrate their preference for desert living, claim to have established some form of mystical bond with the sand, the heat, the dust, the almost constant heavy breeze.  In the same way their home yards demonstrate their stubborn independence, their posture and squinty presence seem to radiate a defiance against the wind, the alkaline dryness, and the sheer persistence of the desert.

Sometimes, when you are at writer's conferences or programs and lectures, you have from your view of the audiences a sense of their stubborn, often misguided persistence, their stubborn presence before their writing implements, the sense of the distance in their eyes that match the far-off gaze of the denizens of the desert.

Such conferences or programs are splendid in practical terms.  Individuals wishing to learn how to set down their dreams and fantasies in defiance of the cynical human tendency to question the validity of story are filled with the same flinty stubbornness as those who spend their days and nights facing down the desert, even to the point of sensing themselves making progress with the stubbornness.

Prowling through these spots in the desert, you noted any number of bookstores, some of them pointed in their announcements of having only used books in stock, others a surprising combination of the brand new and the read-to-the-point-of disintegration hardcover and paperback editions.

There appear to be fewer things to do while living in the desert than while living in places where the lawns tend more to the green.  Numerous saloons, pubs, taverns, and liquor stores speak to the popularity of drinking the spectrum of massmarket beer, designer beers, wines, and the certifiable hard stuff.  Numerous TV satellite dishes advertise the potential for watching dramas, realistic encounters, sports, and dueling chefs.  The book stores speak to reading.  

You'd be surprised to the point of incredulity if sexual interactions were not thought of as valid pastimes, nor would you rule out the potential for dynamic and vigorous differences of opinion at various establishments where liquor was sold, served, offered to guests.  The message here is that persons in the desert would do these things with a greater stubbornness and flinty disconnect than persons with grass in their front yards.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Travels to the Edge and to Joshua Tree, California

E. B. White, an essayist you've favored since you first discovered him in your teens, and had a lifetime of being able to understand and appreciate him, had a particular observation that has remained with you.

"Whoever sets pen to paper,"  White wrote, "writes of himself, whether knowingly or not."

The more you arrive at understanding of him, the more you appreciate and see the implications of this observation of his.  You frequently writer by setting pen to paper, later to transcribe it to computer, often even to these vagrant pages of your blog turf.

From time to time, reviewing your multifarious notebooks and these blog essays, you in fact learn things about yourself you'd not set out to learn, even though you've arrived at a state where you engage in writing in order to make sense of the events in your life, their meanings, their effects on you, and, of course, your dealings with others.

You say of course here because of your primary discovery that some of the things you set on paper have solipsistic tendencies, and secondary discoveries that portions of you are silly, even to you, while other parts represent you, showing off in general and in specific for you.  

This latter aspect is of a piece with you trying to impress yourself with such things as insight, erudition, and humor, all in mitigation of having found yourself lacking in these qualities to the point of being concerned about the lack.

Other aspects of your discovery journey have demonstrated how deliberate pursuit of such things as insight, erudition, and humor can lead to inanity and, worse yet, boredom.

The hero's journey begins in earnest when one sets forth with an honest curiosity in mind, fueled by a decent sixteen-ounce latte and the likes of a peanutbutter and jam sandwich, the latter two often being forgotten in the whirlwind attraction of the former, the honest curiosity, which envelops and informs with no regard for process, which is already quite able to cope with the incoming information on its own.

The hero's journey begins in solipsism when tries to learn things for effect as opposed to learning them for use.  In a real sense, you're traveling to discover tools and other useful parts of yourself with which to deal with the journey ahead, the books to be read and written, the losses to be experienced and weathered, the choices to come, such as which music to listen to now, which things to write now, which animals to adopt into this time of your life, which memories to dust off and polish, aware that they were a part of the toolkit that got you to this point.

At the moment, you are at an apparent edge, inside a funky motel in a small town called Joshua Tree, just above such splendid centers of society as Yucca Valley and Twenty-Nine Palms, all of these in the California high desert in the general vicinity of Palm Springs.

You are here on a whim, away from the ordinary, the recognizable, the familiar.  Given your personal assessment that a person would have to be deranged somehow to live here, there are significant numbers of deranged persons to support banks, a Starbucks, numerous restaurants, an all-night laundry, and dramatic desert vistas about which Joshua trees are strewn with a whisical abandon.  You've already seen a few places here where you gave fantasy to living for a time, ratifying your own membership in the deranged and lunatic fringe.

Part of the tools you seek for success, by which you mean peanutbutter and jam sandwich engagement, come from whim, travels to the edge, and its pursuit until you are deemed too lunatic to be issued a driver's license.

Meanwhile, you set pen to paper, digital word to blog.  You read books with no set pattern relating to subject matter or timeline plateau.  At about eight this evening, the temperature in this high desert landscape was ninety-five, the prospects for adventure shimmering in the purples and magentas and rose colors of the dying evening light, and you out for a few moments in the gravelly patio, looking at the lights speeding down from distant stars.

Friday, July 26, 2013

And then, what happened?

During your senior years--there were a few of them--as an undergraduate, you worked the night shift, 3:30 p.m. until 12:10 a.m. for one of the world's largest and most influential wire services, The Associated Press.  Among other valuable things relative to reporting facts and attributing sources, which caused a dramatic rise in your grades at the university, you learned to watch sentence length, paragraph length, and story length.

The AP financed an extensive survey which concluded that the optimal sentence in one of their news stories should not exceed seventeen words.  There were other findings related to  the optimal number of sentences in paragraphs.  Of course the AP joined numerous other journalistic conventions in the belief that the essential parts of the story belonged in the first paragraph.  

(Adherence to these conventions became the primary cause of your grades on essay-type exams taking an enormous upward spike, even to the point where you were awarded extra points for keeping your answer terse and "mercifully free of padding.)

You've had an ongoing dialectic ever since, in which your sentence length shrank and grew.  One result of this long-sentence vs. short-sentence debate is your observation of how the AP concept of shorter sentences and lead paragraphs relates to real time conversation, to dialogue in fiction, and in general and specific ways, amount of information within paragraphs and entire narratives.

These observations relate to reader overload, the burdening of a reader (and conversation overload, which is the burdening of persons in conversations) and your own metric, the coefficient of boredom.
Stories that begin with too much background about characters and their motives produce a sense of intense disinterest.  

You, alas, have too much direct experience with telling persons in real life and readers of narrative more than they wish to know, with little regard shown for finding ways to freight the information and/or to cause the reader/listener to care and wish to hear more.

The key to all of this is withholding information to the point where the listener or reader, on the edge of curiosity bordering on impatience, asks the relevant question:  "And then, what happened?"  The sooner you can get the listener or reader to feel that degree of curiosity, the quicker your established communication is in place.

You also have experience with short, one- or two-word answers to questions, both in real life and in narrative writing,  This approach to response is the other end of the curve, the rat-tail end.  Such answers are of equal negating effect.  "Sure." "Nothing."  "Yes."  "Okay."  "Why not?"  And for real luxury, "It all depends."  

A question directed at a person or evoked in a reader is a potential opening of communication.  You in effect evoke a question in the reader's mind every time you set a story in motion.  "What's this character doing?"  "Why?"  "How will this work out?"  "What obstacles does this individual have to overcome?"  "What are the potential dangers?"

Most formulas, if repeated often enough, will produce results that, while not entirely bad, are boring.  In consequence of that awareness, you don't wish to carry these lines to a formulaic conclusion.  You do wish to observe that questions, direct and evoked, produce opportunities for response.  In story and conversation, response signifies the ante into the pot of communication with a response, which is either the beginning of a conversation or the involvement in a narrative.

Conversations and stories fail when they present too much undifferentiated information too soon.  Dialogue begins to sour when characters speechify, talking at a perceived problem or situation rather than speaking directly to it.  Dialogue begins to sweeten considerably when the reader is able to sense that there is something going on here beneath the surface, some subterranean design or agenda none of the characters may be able to see with clarity.  With the correct modes of presentation, the reader will become aware of anomalies and sub-surface correlatives.  Then the reader begins examining every word for that most ideal contraband to be found in story, intent.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Objects in your dreams may seem more weird than they really are

Sometimes it happens over coffee, but more often a few bottles of wine or several bottles of beer.  Perhaps it even comes with coffee and cognac after a splendid meal where at least one of the servings was comfort food.

The "it" that happens is the recollection of a past time or times, of a past person or persons, quite possibly a cherished animal friend.  There's been just enough companionability to bring nostalgia and remembrance into the collective mind of the conversation.  With this companionability comes the awareness that this moment, too, will be evoked one day, under similar circumstances.

Remember the times we used to...remember when...remember.

The "it" can also happen when you are driving somewhere, for instance taking the Garden Street on ramp onto 101 southbound, a frequent if not daily point of entry for you.  Up the entry ramp, watching ahead of you, through the rear view and side view mirrors to secure smooth entry into the traffic stream, needing to be alert to merge left in order to be free of the approaching exit strategies that will take traffic off the 101 and onto either north or south Milpas Street.

Safely positioned now, at optimal speed, southward toward Montecito, then beyond to Summnerland, you've done in actuality what you do so often during the course of the day.  You're focusing directly into the present, checking the rear view mirror of the past, using the side view for hints and orientation and a form of triangulation where you are now merged with the reality of now, a direct part of its process.

The "it" can also happen in your dreams, your imagination and memory and your individualized sense of imagery having direct effect on the visions that present themselves to you.  At times, you expect to see signs that read "Objects in your dreams may seem more weird than they really are."

Remembrance comes upon us as much without invitation as with, sending images and emotions almost as wary as you when, for instance, you are trying to merge with the southbound traffic on 101, or, miles north, when you've sheared off the 101 to 217, westbound to the campus of the University, then need to cope with the left turn that will take you past a triple opportunity for merging vehicles as you settle  along your way to Ucen (for University Center) Way, and your own destination.  Because of your past experiences, at this latter place before turning onto Ucen Way, you think of UCLA, which is where so much began for you and so much ended.  

You think of how being at UCLA ended whimsical thoughts that you might teach and sent you roaring off the grid, convinced you'd pretty much burned any bridges behind you that did not have to do directly with writing.  You think of how you were distracted from a job at a newspaper, southward toward the approximate venue of the current new television series on FX, The Bridge,  and how, instead, you went to follow the Foley and Burke Shows, which were carnival concessions.  

You did not think it in so many words, but you were aware of how your resume, if you were being accurate, would include experience at being a shill, running a baseball throw booth, a dart-throwing (at balloons) booth, a guess-your-age booth, and experience with a booth called add-pans, cupcake pans with numbers on each depression for an about-to-become cupcake.  Customers tried to toss tennis balls into numbered chambers whose aggregate total would be under nine or over nineteen.

When you are at Ucen Way, having thought of UCLA and then into the present moment again, you are aware you are there to do something you'd never thought you would do, but have in fact been doing nearly half your life.  You are there, at the College of Creative Studies, UCSB, as a visiting professor.

Some times the "it" of recollection can be a particular bit of recorded music, which sends you back to times when you heard the same or nearly same material being played live.  In a sense, you've outgrown Tschaikovsky's 1812 Overture, but you are presented the memory of when it was presented to you by your mentor and her husband, complete with a firing cannon and university carillons on their hi-fi stereo with the enormous loudspeakers.  

Nor can you forget the first time you saw/heard it live at the Hollywood Bowl, with puffs of smoke from the firing cannons hovering in the Summer evening mist,  and an even more spectacular display of ringing bells, the chime replaying in your ears and subsequent dreams.

The 1812 is a splendid example because you've outgrown the music, but you still rejoice in the memories of Rachel and King playing for you and sense of absolute power and mischief when you heard the Hollywood Bowl version.  You turned impulsively to your date to tell her, "I want to write books like that."  This was a fine thing to say to anyone but her; your relationship was already beyond saving, but it was your good fortune to have similar things to say to the cosmos about you and your increased good fortune (and occasional embarrassment) to remember having felt such power and mischief and given voice to them.

Remembrance has become for you an improvised connective device, using some event or object or person to send your gaze upward to the rear view mirror, in which you see then feel the effects of something from the past.  

You've made no attempt to catalogue such things.  You reckon the remembrances are about half pleasant, which may account for your frequent smile.  The other half of the remembrances tend toward the bitter-sweet, thus you are, in a way similar to the fact of you teaching after thinking you'd foreclosed that option, at least even with the cosmos, your most informed calculus being that you have at least a fifty percent chance of experiencing something of pleasant nature  in the present or in remembrance.

Even if you encounter the bittersweet or the entirely bitter, nearly any composition of Maurice Ravel (except for The Bolero) can turn things around, or those first four string quartets of Mozart, or pretty much anything by John Coltrane.

So what then if you happen to catch a sour rememberance.  There's always a good chance the next will take you back somewhere you once enjoyed.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

R.S.V.P., Regrets, and Dramatic Subtext

The invitation has the design and presentation of well-thought professionalism, and a cordial, conversational text.  After the time, date, and place of the event, there is the final commentary:  regrets only.

This is a step away from the more standard, RSVP, which is in effect asking the invitee--you in this case--to please let us know if you're coming.  Respondez sil vous plait.

Regrets only takes matters to more nuanced levels.  The most conventional meaning to be had  is a question: Are you sorry not to be able to attend this event?  

Looking at the invitation, its promise of a pleasurable event, and its kindness in the hope that you will appear and in consequence contribute to the pleasurableness of the event, you are made aware of the codes of civility, politeness, and protocol necessary to maintain a culture.  

If you are unable to attend the event, politeness and consideration for the host place upon you the burden of conveying your sorrow at not being able to attend.  But are you really sorry?  Is there the possibility you are sorry to have been invited in the first place, putting you in the position of the euphemisms of "fib" or "white lie" of regret.  Are you in fact relieved to have a previous engagement or commitment which allows you to send your regrets?

Such spectrums of nuance and possibility remind you of times where, when asked to RSVP, you were able to respond in the now dated language and verb tense, Shelly Lowenkopf accepts the invitation to dine or to celebrate or to watch two remarkable persons exchange vows or to watch one person graduate from some extended program of study and learning.  

You recall times when you were even moved to accept the invitation with alacrity, or those more special times when you were able to accept the kind invitation with alacrity because of your admiration for the person or persons extending the invitation and your anticipation of time in their company for whatever ritual, be it something as unmomentous as a pot luck supper.

Regret is a human condition well suited to dramatic interpretation, thanks to its power as a motivational force.  In real life, we regret things done and things left undone.  Sometimes the mere thought of your own behavior in a remembered event triggers the potential for a story, which becomes in effect your way of revising, editing the real event, getting some satisfaction of shepherding an invented character through what was once your own naivete, bad judgement, or, worse yet, hubris.

You join others in regretting things said and done to us in addition to things we have said and done.  This sense of regret is key in constructing characters who are setting forth to redress some words or deeds they may have committed, thus the driving force is atonement.  On the other pole, there is the possibility of a character acting to exact symbolic or actual revenge for real or imagined torts committed against them.

When you hear the word regret, used in some formal way, you begin an immediate line of questioning.  "We regret to inform you..."  Do you?, you wonder.  Whoever you are, do you really regret the information you're giving me?  Are you sorry about your having denied me some request?  Is your regret sincere?

You have no regrets about reckoning a number of friends to whom you can extend invitations or they you, where the responses are as conversational and straightforward as, "Aw, jeez, I can't," or, "Consider me there."  In such cases, there is often another question going along with the ritual of invitation and acceptance, "Can I bring anything?"

Sometimes such questions bring surprising results and consequences.  On one occasion, you recall asking if you could being something, thinking a few bottles of wine or some ale or perhaps even a bottle of rum, only to be told, "Potato salad."  This seemed simple enough.  The delicatessens you thought to apply for potato salad had what you considered lackluster potato salad.  Driven by a heady combination of wanting to do well by your hosts and by your own sense of self, you embarked on a process of making--and throwing away--enough types of potato salad to make you reevaluate your entire concept of it.  After consulting recipes, now lost to you, you prepared a large quantity of what you considered remarkable potato salad.

When the event was over, although your potato salad had been at least fifty percent depleted, you had considerable remains to work on.  Even good potato salad becomes boring after a time and thus, by day three, you began adding things to it, the most significant thing of all being sardines.  There was some magical chemistry you've never been able to duplicate, except that now, when someone asks you if they can bring anything or you are the asker, you have the memory of that potato-salad-with-sardines taste.

Thoughts of regret make you aware of the importance it has played in your life and your thinking about stories.  One of the more memorable novels to read relative to regret is Thomas Hardy's stunning novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which is about a hundred twenty-five years old, and yet still has one of the most compelling opening chapters of a novel yet produced.  Regret for behavior exhibited in that opening chapter inform the balance of the novel.

You regret many things, not so many as the things that give you some sense of purpose and pleasure, but enough to realize these things, these regrettable incidents, both in terms of things done by you and things done to you, supply you with an array of story that move past you like the ancient herds of migrating buffalo.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Listening Game

Thanks to your editorial associations with the world-class archaeologist, Brian Fagan, you've had close, regular association with subjects and matters you only skimmed as a student and now take with the same grains of familiarity you employ when considering the motives and behaviors of friends, family, and associates.

You're no longer surprised when, in the course of working on a Fagan manuscript, you come across studies of tree rings from which certain definite inferences may be drawn, nor from the analysis of ancient atmospheres based on pollen counts taken from a core sampling of soil.  Such wonders extend to means of determining the diets of humans and animals long dead, after effects of famed volcanic eruptions, and analyses of frozen tundra.

By comparison with some of these measuring devices and your own study and association with narratives, many of which are close to a thousand years old, you've arrived at a place where you can approximate the time of composition of a spoken or written narrative.

As the publication dates approximate your own times, your ability to fix the exact moment of composition--your own version of tree ring analysis--becomes more acute.  The analog of the tree ring in this case is the authorial use of point-of-view, the filter through which the story must pass.  

The memorable frolic of Henry Fielding's 1749 masterpiece, Tom Jones,  betrays its time and place not only through vocabulary and, in many cases, stilted formality, but through the frequent pauses the author makes to address the reader.

Nearly a hundred forty years later, the presence of the author has been subsumed by the narrative voice of Mark Twain's eponymous character, Huckleberry Finn, who addresses the reader, yes, but as a fully formed individual who is in effect giving us a memoir of his most recent string of events.

Although you'd picked these two titles more or less at random, by way of demonstrating how the conventions of narrative in fiction had evolved, the two novels have more in common than in disparity.  There are remarkable differences between the two authors, not the least of which was their social backgrounds, but there are similarities there, as well.  

While Fielding still remains (largely through Tom Jones), if only as a benchmark for literature majors, Twain still influences and in a number of ways defines what the storyteller ought to do and how, in fact, the storyteller does so.

How many novels and dramatic narratives does one need to read before patterns of any significance emerge?  As you were embarking on your reading career, not certain what it would accomplish for you or you for it, you were faced with a number of ironic circumstances, the common denominator of which was the fact of the narrow path of potential a focus on literature offered in terms of a career.  

This was brought home to you one day when, as you sat in the main chamber of your favorite of all libraries you'd ever visited, the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA, you were joined by a fraternity brother with a thick, annotated reading list.

After a brief, whispered conference, you each managed to dismay the other.  He was studying for the impending examination for admission to the graduate school of the English Department and assuming you were as well.  He had no idea how shaky your grades in all but literature and music courses were.  In a moment of clarity rare for you in those days, you saw how structured and conventional his ambitions were.

You were already filled with one impossible fire, he with another.  Not long before this meeting, you'd read of F. Scott Fitzgerald's conversation, whether actual or apocryphal, with his classmate, Edmund Wilson, in which he'd confessed his wish to become one of the major writers in the world, then his throw-away question, "Don't you?"

Because you and your fraternity brother each held rank on the staff of the campus humor magazine, you'd had numerous chances to read his material.  Although you had hopes about the quality and potential of your own work, you were not overly impressed with its quality, which was why you were in the library, going through a pile of books and journals, looking for things to grab hold of, hand- and footholds on the steep escarpment of literature.  You placed yourself several steps above your companion, and you thought at the time you understood why.  He was reading to get into grad school.  You were reading to burn bridges, close doors, and fling yourself into the mercies of George Gissing's 1891 narrative, Grub Street, where a first reading had brought forth an immediate sense of identity.

The establishment you sought to enter was in fact Eastern based, or so you thought.  You had no wish to go East.  By this time, and because of the times you'd been in the East, you hated the East.

Your fraternity brother wanted the conventional track to teaching, which at the time was an MA from Berkeley or Stanford, a PhD from a Big Ten or Ivy school, then perhaps back to someplace adventurous:  Montana, Oregon, with luck, home again in Los Angeles.

That evening, you are sitting in Ken's Hula Hut, a jazz joint in the wilds of upper Melrose, before the area became upmarket decorator, furniture, and design country.  You're wanting immersion in the hard, reaching harmonies of the be-bop aspect of jazz, careening past swing and into places where convention was carded, asked to show ID.  You were well into your admiration-friendship of the alto sax player Sonny Criss.  That night, between sets, you were talking about future places, future plans.  Criss was asking you if your instrument spoke to you yet. You knew he was aware you were no musician, thus you thought you understood his question.  You said yes, the conversation between you and your instrument had begun.

"Next set,"  he said, "I'm going to play an old standard.  Gershwin.  'Oh, Lady, Be Good.'  Gonna play it like you never heard it played before."  He nodded, in thought.  "When your instrument talks to you, you go where it takes you."

Your fraternity brother got his PhD, didn't publish much, got cancer, died.

Criss followed his instrument, got cancer, died.  Too soon.  1977.  From time to time, you play his many records, sometimes laughing as you consider how far ahead of his time he was and how effective he still sounds today, and how effective his friendship feels today.

You got stage IIIa cancer, probably could have died, didn't.  From time to time, you listen to Criss and his instrument.  You try to listen to your own.  It is a listening game.  You are listening for the tree rings and the pollen and ash and the sounds of writers through the ages, listening to their own instruments.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What's going on here?

"What's going on here?"

Intriguing way to begin a scene, even more intriguing if the scene happens to be the opening scene of a short story or a novel.  Not too shabby a way to begin a chapter in a novel.

The question throws an immediate challenge at a reader.  As the dialogue and relevant dramatic activity develop, the reader begins to understand on some non-written, non-verbal level how this question and its answer are metaphors.  The reader not only wishes to find out, the reader becomes aware as information is given a slow trickle onto the stage how much is yet to be learned about the essential details, how much may be buried within details not yet presented, agendas not given full disclosure.

The reader is alerted to watch for revealing clues, which may be buried everywhere, within sentences, with casual references--"Oh, that old business again?"  and a suspicion that things have gotten out of hand and may--no, not may, will--reach the bursting point.

Life has any number of bursting points up its sleeve:  relationships end, jobs are terminated, individuals fall ill and die, minds become confused, other minds change.  Thus do things burst.  

Life has many surprises up its sleeve, thanks to its intensity of agenda.  Life doesn't set out to make you fall in love or become curious, but because you are a product of a process of evolution, there are things and sounds and tastes and, yes, of course, persons with whom you experience attractions.  These have evolved even as you have evolved.

Sometimes these attractions seem on a level with the attraction between two elements, say hydrogen and oxygen, or perhaps corn meal, some oil, a touch of cinnamon, and perhaps an egg.  Sometimes the attraction is between you and stories.  This attraction has also evolved from rather straightforward, linear stories to ones where there is more implied than said, more in the interstices than in the action scenes, more in a shrug from a character than a long explanation.

Most successful stories are about something going on, about some one or ones, reaching the point of combustion at the potential of something going on beyond the ordinary, the normal, the accepted, the acceptable.  Such stories remind us to be suspicious of explanations that are too glib or formulaic.  

Most successful stories are about someone trying to do something they consider extraordinary because they want something beyond the conventional or easy.  Such stories are often about someone being upset by the energy of the character trying to do something, such as stepping out of a mould and attempting to define or achieve individuality.

What's going on here?  Someone attempting to find individuality in a bustling, crowded, polarized world is what's going on.

You could also ask the question about the stranger arriving on the scene, the new kid in the class room, for instance, or the new worker in the office, or the new editor in the publishing house.  What's going on here is the new person bringing the aura of suspicion and change, of the unfamiliar.

Go back  to Madam Bovary, opening paragraphs, when the new kid was brought into the schoolroom, wearing that strange-looking cap.  You'll see how the new person, the stranger in town, the unknown quantity has effect on the locals.

How often do you ask of your dreams or your stories in progress or your waking life, What's going on here?  How often do you give straightforward answers?  How often do these answers help you move along to the next plateau and perhaps the next story?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Dialogue as a Second Language

You're used to hearing writing described as a lonely process, although you do not agree with the assessment.  True enough, you're often alone in the physical sense, even though on occasion you leave the comfort of your work area at home for a coffee shop filled with customers engaged in chat and conversation.  You do this to fine-tune your focus on work by blocking out the very conversations you'd come to experience.

Once at work, you're far from lonely; you're in the company of characters and landscape you've created, focusing on them,  In the process of this focus, you've transported yourself into another landscape of time, space, and causation.

For the past several days, you've been living in two parallel universes.  One of these is the alternate universe of your own devising, dropped on your desk almost like a legal brief or, to apply heat to the metaphor, like an indictment.  

You'd not set out with any plan to design this alternate universe the way you'd have done had the material on your desk been a novel.  This universe was a group of your short fiction, often written in times such as these, between classes and editing assignments, or as delightful excuses to avoid working on something longer.  

The stories have all had homes in various journals, some no longer thriving.  Every one of them has passed through some form or another of editorial review.  The fact of their having been published was a contributing factor to their being about to appear under the same covers, subject to yet another editorial review, and of course your own.

The other parallel universe is, of course, the world of reality as it is, or as it presents itself to you, as the reality it is.  This other universe and your response to it and your interpretation of it, is a direct and proximate cause of this alternate universe you've brought together over some years and in various moods, all of which are recognizably you--so far as you are concerned.

Going through this potpourri of your visions, you've focused on the world of dialogue, which is the world of characters speaking in dramatic terms as opposed to the conversational tones you're used to hearing about you when you're out in the actual world.

This morning, you're at one of your favored breakfast spots, puttering with the New York Times crossword puzzle, making some inroads on a latte with an elaborate design, waiting for the rest of your meal to be delivered and for your frequent Sunday morning companion, Jim Alexander, to appear.

Other breakfasters are beginning to appear, including a gentleperson of about your age, who is seeming to address the same puzzle as you with a vigorous ease.  Sounds of conversation waft about you like the pleasant bitterness of coffee aroma from your latte.  These sounds are in their way incomplete or distracting even though the persons engaged in producing them seem comfortable and sociable.  They are speaking in conversation.  You've been intent these days on dialogue.

When Jim Alexander arrives, you're relieved because at last, with another writer present, you can switch to dialogue.

Dialogue is in most cases another language, neither American English, conversational discourse, nor the oblique approaches to communication so useful and serviceable in the world of reality.  The inner dialogue a character has when alone or when being introspective among a group of others is called interior monologue.  This inner talk is also unlike the more descriptive aspects of narrative; it is taut, tense, often incomplete or barely declarative sentences.  It is the poetry of your inner selves, the articulations of your fondest desires, your most forbidden fantasies, your darkest moods, your agendas of discovery and understanding.

You live in an area where there is a significant and diverse Latino community, thus numerous occasions for ESL or English as a Second Language Classes.  With that in mind and your sense of disconnect at having spent so much time in your own world of your own language and your own visions of trying to express ideas, feelings, understanding, and empathy, you are teaching the equivalent of ESL classes every time you give a writer's workshop.  You are trying to write and feel your way into the language of story.

If you have learned anything at all about story, you've learned that it cannot be described, it must be conveyed, through dialogue, interior monologue, and narrative.  These are not languages of English or Spanish or any other fine and descriptive language; these are the languages of the human spirit, caught up in the immediacy of coping with the world we all inhabit and try to understand.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

What is not said in a story is as important as the things that are said, he said.

 You pick up a promising novel, find yourself intrigued by the narrative voice issuing from a lead character, then watch for the anticipated event that will confront the character with the need to act.  Or react.  Or take steps.  Perhaps all of these.

In almost no time at all, you've bonded with that character, his or her narrative voice, and way of responding.  You may even begin to suspect the character of some quirk or flaw or predilection.  If all the circumstances are positive, you might even have a few moments of realizing you've been transported to a place you had no interest in going, arriving at a time other than the present, where you had no particular interest.

Let's say you're four or five pages in, aware of a growing commitment to the story.  One other moment of realization comes to you:  You're in to stay.  Unless there is some egregious flaw or breach, unless the hologram of plausibility and tension is shattered in some unanticipated way, you're in for the long haul, intending to real all the way through.

Although you do read many books during the course of a year and have dealings with entire manuscripts or portions of works intended for publication, you do not arrive lightly at the states you've described here.  Nevertheless, when you do reach that state with a work you're reading, a feeling of satisfaction and warmth begins to seep through your awareness.  

Even though the narrative itself may be horrific or disturbing in its thematic implications (such as the manuscript you're reading for a friend, dealing with a front-rank character who has just suffered a debilitating stroke), the warmth of satisfaction at being "in" a narrative is tangible, appreciated, welcomed.  Of course you hope to produce such an emotional landscape with every story you write.  These feelings are the ones that seem to have appeared as you set about trying to learn the storytelling craft.

Here you are then, engrossed, engaged, pleased to be identifying and sympathizing with this narrative voice.  You come to the end of a chapter, which ends in satisfying tension or outright suspense, for a moment smiling at the degree to which your focus has been arrested by the character's depth, complexity, and momentary dilemma.

With eagerness, you turn the page, only to discover the author has pulled the rug from under you, swept the tablecloth from under the place setting with a deft flick by switching to the point of view of another character, one who is being introduced to you in the opening lines of the new chapter.

Cut to you being in your publisher's office, having just had a pleasing chat with your editor, who has excused herself to get a copy of her notes on your recent work.  You're curious to see the notes, pleased to see your editor's office is every bit a jumble as yours when you worked for publishers.  There is a knock at the door.  In comes the editor's employer, the publisher, who introduces herself, then presents you with what you can only call a high-class problem.  

The publisher wants to engage you in a three-book arrangement which will be likely to occupy as many as five of the next years of your life.  You don't have to make up your mind right here on the spot, the publisher tells you.  Take your time.  Then she hands you her card.  Maybe by the end of next week you could let me know.  She offers her hand, then leaves.

You sit there, stunned, flushed with a sense of purposeful satisfaction at reaching such a plateau.

A moment later, there is another knock on the door.  It is your editor's assistant, holding a folder with your editor's notes on the project for which you were summoned here.

You've done here in imaginary effect what the imaginary book you were reading and describing a few moments ago had on you.  You've introduced parallel narrative lines.

With your hard won understanding about the nature of parallel lines in a geometric sense (having experienced severe difficulties with geometry in high school to the point where you did not grasp the concept of alternate interior angles of the same degree), you now accept that in reality, parallel lines meet only in infinity.  In dramatic narrative, they meet in the last chapter.

Or sooner.

Two distinct characters being set in motion, confronted with intriguing obstacles or decisions, causes you to understand on some level that their stories are tied by some link, the discovery of which will add even greater satisfaction to your pursuit of this narrative.  

You read on, absorbing the status and demeanor of this new character.  While you do, a new suspicion begins to grow in your mind:  Perhaps there will be yet another character introduced, causing you to have to go through this same exquisite tension yet again.  A favored novel, Wilkie Collins' 1868 The Moonstone, was written in this multiple point-of-view fashion.  You'd probably experienced this narrative approach before reading The Moonstone, but because of the effectiveness of this form of narrative, this has become the default example for you.

When you think about story and structure, no wonder you think about parallel lines; you are setting forces in motion, causing concern for their safety or possible detours into disaster.  You are creating the suspense of wondering how the character is who is out of immediate focus.  You are creating entire lines of concern you'd not imagined when you began puttering with what the story was and how best to tell it.

Parallel construction is a different matter altogether, a negative one that in effect creates distraction and that unwelcome presence, anticlimax.  Parallel lines keep the focus where it belongs, on the characters, away from you, the writer.

Parallel lines help introduce into the story the forceful presence of implication and evocation, both of which are well above simple description.

What is not said in a story is often every bit as important as the things that are said, particularly if the reader is saying them for you.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Dark Side of the Story

When you take a quick look at yourself, you're more apt to be blinded by the brightness of enthusiasm and an eagerness born of impatience to get things moving.  This quick look sends back reports of near normality because of the way the enthusiasm trumps so many resident quirks.

You would in fact rather be up and eager and alert rather than lugubrious, dark, cynical.  In this frame of mind and reference, you are aware of but forgiving of your quirks.  Sure, have a few quirks, but on balance, you're pretty upbeat, your politics left-leaning and your mode social.  

You're pretty much the sort who is not surprised when out in public, at, say, a coffee shop, trying to slip in some writing, one or more strangers will approach you and start a conversation.  Even at your age, you're not invisible when out in public, even though there are times when you try to make yourself invisible as a kind of actor's exercise.

Nevertheless you tend to gravitate more in your reading and writing to characters on the dark side of the line, darker than you.  You set a tentative boundary because you don't want the dark side to be so tedious in its darkness that plausibility disappears.  Let's leave it at this:  you recognize the need to push characters of your creation over the line you've set up for yourself in real life.

If you allow your characters to stop where you see yourself stopping, don't expect to experience a tingle of excitement or apprehension or tension when you reread what you've written.  Don't expect the transactions and responses and subsequent resolutions to resonate for you.  

Don't expect to push the confrontation to the point where the responses frighten you.  Under such circumstances, you're trying to get out with a show of edginess and probing while still maintaining a degree of comfort.

Yeah, well.  Comfort has to go.  Nice has to go.  If these two qualities are allowed to remain, somewhere along the way, the narrative is going to turn to mush for you, and you are not all that fond of mush except that it is oatmeal, prepared with some deliberation.

You're looking for encounters between and among individuals that reflect some plausible image of the reality you see going on in these early years of the twenty-first century, slightly beyond the bubble of comfort in which you live, bleeding into the polarity and extremes you see just beyond your line of sight and reach.

You're looking for entitlement, encounters with connectedness, desperate seeking for connections which may in the final analysis be impossible to maintain for any significant time.  You're looking for individuals who tie meaning into knots they find it impossible to untie, persons who seek meaning from things they've purchased at the literary equivalents of garage sales.  

You're looking for persons who've tried any number of conventional and unconventional things, hopeful of extracting tangible meaning, men and women who've been infused with expectations they can never seem to meet.

When you were in high school, it seemed to you many of the girls you were interested in were drawn to sullen types in leather jackets who seemed to understand motorcycles.  You were sullen in all the conventional ways but cared nothing for motorcycles and accordingly knew little about them except for the two primary brands being Indian and Harley-Davidson.

Trouble was, sullen seemed to go better with motorcycles and leather jackets.  Your brand of sullenness got you nothing but a few premature creases on your brow.

The way you see yourself now, if you're not careful, is someone whose sullenness is masked by his enthusiasm for the wild literary rides of investigation and essay, and from reading literature with an increasing focus on the noir or dark side of men and women who have begun to feel betrayed by the conventions they'd been led to believe would bring them a measure of happiness.

Dylan Thomas, the tormented and troubled Welsh poet, wrote of his craft:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

You're looking for the meanings in that secret, dark side of the heart, meanings that will help you and your characters find some escape velocity from the heavy orbit of convention.