Let's say one gets--well, you get--more or less a hundred years to figure things out, see where you fit into the scheme of things you are too young and unsophisticated at first to see as the scheme of things.
Getting the hang of the language, you learn, for instance that it can be spoken, then written so that, later on someone else can read it. You learn in many ways how it is possible to read notes left by persons who lived out their more or less hundred years well before you came along, a discovery that caused you sadness when you realized there were men and women you liked, really liked, all because of things they'd written and left behind.
Then you learn about men and women who wrote things for which you had an intense wish to argue, but it was too late. Then you learn that the fact of such arguments being impossible or your recognition of them when it seemed impossible to get any conversation going was a push toward your wanting to mess with time, a push that led you to wishing to tell stories rather than what seemed an unhealthy focus on dealing with fact.
Lot of time wasted while you played around with the notion of facts as equivalents of the blocks you played with and, later, with Erector Sets, and then model airplanes, all of which in their times seemed almost but not quite enough. These things were not quite enough in the same way a recipe was something your mother followed to get stunning results, but you noticed how she always changed things at the last minute, which was how she got the stunning results.
Oh, the years you spent, wandering about, your pockets filled with notebooks and pencil stubs, watching, waiting for something to note that would fill those blank pages. No, they were not wasted years, but they were impatient years, years of wishing to make things happen. You were on your way to understanding the need to make story happen as opposed to looking at enough recipes that would make them happen.
The first time you read Don Quixote, you had the sense of its author trying to tell you something beyond the fact of its hero seeing things differently, his servant having a way of seeing things that differed from any of the more modern servants you'd read about. A sensible neighbor, which is to say a man named John, whom everyone thought drank too much and had rather bizarre notions, something akin to those of Sancho Panza, and thus a neighbor most adults warned you to pay little or no heed, was the only person you could discuss this different way of seeing things.
Whereupon John recommended you read an old play, one he warned you was likely the oldest thing you'd have read, and which he might have to help you with.
How could anything with such a simple, intriguing name as The Frogs be difficult? Ah, it was, but sure enough, there was another man, not so deluded as Don Quixote, but rather more like John--a distinction John liked. This man had a servant, a slave, actually, who seemed to know how to look at things in that way you so admired.
John explained to you how characters stood for things beyond themselves. He also explained to you how, because he drank too much at times, he was not himself, which was in its way a different way of not being himself when he read too much. "As you grow older," he said, "you will notice that there are differing ways of not being yourself, some of which are quite wonderful and others which will leave you with incredible headaches."
He went on to explain that either way was better than being the ordinary way. Being ordinary and not having a headache was in its way, John suggested, quite a bit less desirable than having a headache and not being able to keep your breakfast from coming up on you.
Not all that many years later, perhaps ten or twelve, you went through a time where you had such headaches and the occasional inability to keep your breakfast or lunch or dinner down. As John said they would, his words took on a greater meaning for you to the point where you came to see the ways of having headaches as ways against your own best interests.
You went on to attempt to learn the languages of such things as mountains and skies and why airplanes flew and why some colors seemed to advance toward you from a painting while others seemed to draw you into them. You had an even more intense interest in discovering why music sounded the way it did and why it could so easily lead you to feel so many things that you had no language for. In its way, music caused you headaches of another kind, headaches of yearning for a language.
You have more or less a hundred years to find and refine your language so that you can use it to define the worlds of both Don Quixote and his assistant. You have more or less a hundred years to learn the language of your heart, so you can speak to it and ask it what it wants from you, and so you can tell it without the need for subtitles, "Yes, I see. I see."
Monday, September 30, 2013
Let's say one gets--well, you get--more or less a hundred years to figure things out, see where you fit into the scheme of things you are too young and unsophisticated at first to see as the scheme of things.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
If you were to establish an arena or crucible, fill that receptacle with individuals who had agendas, you'd be on your way to the orchestration of an outcome. Say the crucible were a stock pot of the sort used in restaurants to boil lobsters. Say further that you filled such a stock pot with water, put the pot on a burner, turned on the flame, then introduced a lobster. You'd be on your way to an outcome.
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Early in your teaching tenure at the University of Southern California, you began improvising a narrative in hopes of demonstrating a practical answer to a student's questions. What exactly is story? What elements are absolutely necessary to make the material a story?
You did not realize it at the time, but you were being led by these questions to develop a profile you've used for yourself and as well placed on your students from that time onward.
Characters in flux, you said.
Characters with agendas, you said.
One or more specific points of view, you said.
Scenes, you said.
An intriguing beginning.
At least one surprise.
At least one discovery.
Others things, for sure. Suspense or tension. Close on to thirty different elements
Perhaps you'd been rereading Graham Greene's poignant short story, "The Basement Room." You began your own example with a little boy, although your little boy was American. The little boy approaches his mother, wishing to share information with her. "Every time you go out shopping on weekends," he begins, "the maid goes to Dad's study, knocks on the door, starts to take her clothes off, then enters Dad's study."
You are so impressed by your ability to pull these linked characters and their elements out of air so apparently thin that you improvise further, turning your narrative into template of the three-act play format.
Everything is there but the surprise and the discovery. You've led yourself into the free-fall area leading to the payoff.
The mother interrupts the little boy, asking him to wait until daddy is home and is having his dinner, so that the little boy can report what he's seen directly to daddy.
And as you complete the improvisation, you realize what you've done, which is to tell the equivalent of a joke. "The maid goes into Dad's study and he takes off his clothes and they do the same thing you do when Dad's at the office and Uncle Sid comes over.
How helpful for you to have had these improv tools back in those years where you struggled to plot out stories for the pulp magazines, the science ficton and mystery and fantasy pulps, where plot, which is to say story points, were essential things and you had the mistaken notion that you must have the entire pattern worked out in advance to the point where you knew what you were leading for the payoff of the story.
Much of these memories were pulled off the shelf and dusted for you when you visited the Amazon book ordering service, which had a recommendation for you. You'd like a book called The Pulp Jungle. Written by a prolific writer from the old days of the pulps, Frank Gruber.
You would indeed like the book to the point where you placed an immediate order, caught up in the tang of nostalgia. You'd been the one to acquire that book after suggesting to Gruber that he write what amounts to an early memoir of his days of the mystery and western magazines.
The profile you developed for yourself and students after that joke-telling sort of day involves listing as many story elements as you can possibly imagine. Then you number them in hierarchical order, starting with your own favorite element, your strongest. The last one on the list is your least favorite, the one to which you have the least bonding and connection.
For as long as you've been taking the profile test, your last-of-the-list has been plot. You are terrible at plot, that is, if you approach it from the plot-driven structure. You don't need plot. Something works better for you.
A group of individuals enter a scene. Each believes he or she is right.
Over the years, characters has been number one on your list, but that has become number two to your own preference for what makes a story spread fire in the air you breathe.
Voice, the vocabulary of the narrative and the attitude of the characters, spreads fire in the breathable air.
Voice is the lightning in a bottle of passion and conviction of story, of poetry, of music, of life. Voice is spreading fire in the air you and your characters breathe. Voice is the thanks you get when you love the language of story and passion.
Friday, September 27, 2013
Last week at about this time, you were at a writer's conference held in a small, picturesque college campus between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay. You'd been to this conference several times before, knew a number of the principals, and were looking forward to reconnecting with two individuals on the cadre of speaker/instructors.
One had published a longish essay of yours, "How to Write the Shirt Story," in a lively book called The Portable Writers' Conference. The other, a former student, had become a front-rank poet and is current chair of the writing program at a California State University campus.
There was a word on your name badge that did not make immediate sense to you. Turns out, it had something to do with a sandwich you would be served at lunch the next day, but for a long moment, you feared it was a judgment call.
Yesterday, at a working breakfast with two colleagues in a publishing venture, you sat at a pleasant, outdoor table in a small enclave of restaurants and shops called Victoria Court. As you were discussing something with your colleagues, a waitress came scurrying over to move a large pot of flowers in the center of the table. "Excuse me," she said. "Let me get this out of your way." She moved the flower pot well toward the unoccupied place at the table.
Ten minutes later, she was back, this time to move a French milk bottle with a cap held in place by a metal clamp, now converged to use as a dispenser of cold drinking water. "I couldn't help noticing," the waitress said, "you use your hands a good deal when you talk, and you make pronounced, dramatic gestures. Are you an actor? Should I recognize you?" These questions delighted your colleagues.
You were enjoying your breakfast meal and the interaction with your colleagues. When the waitress moved two objects out of the potential sweep of your hands, you were, for a moment reflective. Then you returned to your enjoyment of the moment.
The word on your writer's conference name tag was HAM. Could there be some connection, if not of a cosmic nature, then for sure of a personal one.
Robert Burns's excellent poem, "To a Louse," has the magisterial lines:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as ithers see us!/ 'T'would from many a blunder free us /and foolish notion.
You write with some frequency about made-up individuals who have misinterpreted the agendas and behavior of other made-up characters. You also put some efforts into interpreting the intentions, potential meanings, and hidden agendas in the words and behavior of those about you. In the process, you take considerable time shining the light of inquiry on yourself.
There is, among the ensemble cast of selves that comprises you, at least one ham actor, which is to say one who is known in the business as over-the-top. As a combination of penance and a wish to hang onto the tail of the comet of learning curve, you watch actors you consider to be low key. You marvel at the way they are able to convey the types of information you wish with a single word or perhaps a gesture such as a lift of an eyebrow.
Your eyebrows are not to be trifled with. They resemble elderly caterpillars, pausing to digest some delicacy found along the way. They were your hope of appearing low key. Thanks to hours spent before a mirror, you are pretty gifted at the eye brow shrug, that facial equivalent of the shoulder shrug. You can and do shrug one or both shoulders, hopeful of sending forth a message of sang froid or sangre frio, or insouciance, but you still have a way to go. Often such shrugs have caused the individual you were shrugging at to ask you if you were all right. One waitress thought it meant you didn't like your brioche.
When you trot out the quotation from Burns, you are in all probability questioning your tendency to bull-in-a-china-shop, which is not all that far removed from ham, or over-the-top. This is the rock. The hard place is the opposite end. Scylla and Charybdis will also do; you are frequently caught between them.
Phlegmatic is a word sometimes directed at you. Would you believe monosyllabic? And not to forget interior to a fault. Your own offering of contemplative does not earn you many brownie points.
Burns was talking about putting on airs. You do no such thing. You put on enthusiasms. You see this much about yourself. And as you told the waitress, "Move the flowers all you wish, but keep them on the table."
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Dialogue is the spoken language of dramatic narrative. When two or more individuals within a drama exchange information, they do so to a significant degree in dialogue. These exchanges may be straightforward. "Where would you like to have dinner?" "Which film would you like to see?" "Hey, your call, Mozart string quartettes orThe Miles Davis Quintette?"
Exchanges of information in dialogue have the potential to supply subtext, with the hand of coded or implied meanings hovering over each sentence like the subtitles of a foreign-language movie. A notable, often used device to amplify the need for subtext can be achieved by the simple addition of a third person to a scene where two individuals were on the point of arranging a romantic tryst.
The line of dialogue, "Your place, or mine?" is still floating between them when the third person appears, and with that appearance brings the dynamics of suspense and tension into the scene. "My dears," the new arrival says. "What a surprise, seeing you both here." Then, after a beat, "I had no idea you two knew one another." Then a longer beat. "Look at the two of you, sitting off in the corner like this."
Dialogue is not the only means available for the conveyance of meaning, intention, and thematic content.
In a figurative sense, body language speaks worlds of information related to personal and professional relations, social caste systems, and contemporary conventions. Consider the meaning of the arms, clasped protectively over the chest. Consider ways actors and individuals express their tension or relaxed natures, their enthusiasms or embarrassments. Visualize a person on her toes, arms extended. What is she saying? Imagine a person turned to watch the setting sun, a mist of tears moistening her eyes. What is she saying?
In many contemporary languages outside of English, there is the distinction between polite and familiar, most useful in defining degrees of respect or intimacy. A person may use the pronoun tu in Spanish to speak to a child, for one degree of meaning, to a romantic interest to define another. On the other hand, a lover may wish to use usted to convey respect.
Rumbling along its way to democratization, English has set such niceties as thee, thou, thine, aside for the you and your and yours, with subtext to fill in the blanks. But at one time, these social and status differences among the pronouns provided as complete a tool kit as a burglar's lock-picking instruments.
Witness the use of language in the famed Act I, Scene II from Shakespeare's Richard III, where Glouster, who would become Richard, has arrived at the funeral of Lady Anne's father-in-law, Henry VI, and her husband, both of whom Richard has had killed. And don't think Lady Anne doesn't know it. She even tells Richard that her father's coffin is bleeding because, back in the day, it was believed that if a murderer was near the coffin of his victim, the corpse would bleed.
LADY ANNE Black night o'ershade thy day, and death thy life!
GLOUCESTER Curse not thyself, fair creature thou art both. 126
LADY ANNE I would I were, to be revenged on thee.
GLOUCESTER It is a quarrel most unnatural,
To be revenged on him that loveth you.
LADY ANNE It is a quarrel just and reasonable,
To be revenged on him that slew my husband.
GLOUCESTER He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband,
Did it to help thee to a better husband.
LADY ANNE His better doth not breathe upon the earth.
GLOUCESTER He lives that loves thee better than he could.
LADY ANNE Name him.
LADY ANNE Why, that was he.
GLOUCESTER The selfsame name, but one of better nature.
LADY ANNE Where is he?
She spitteth at him
Why dost thou spit at me?
LADY ANNE Would it were mortal poison, for thy sake!
GLOUCESTER Never came poison from so sweet a place.
LADY ANNE Never hung poison on a fouler toad.
Out of my sight! thou dost infect my eyes.
Richard proceeds to make a move on Anne, who calls him a minister of hell. She calls him any number of other things, in most cases, thee and thy, but in a notable shift, moves to you, moments after he has offered to kill himself should she request it. She lets him know she already has
Contemporary drama has the potential for the cell phone, the electronic tablet such as iPad or Kindle, which opens the door for additional exchanges through phone calls, electronic mail, and texts. Pen and paper hover about our culture like moths about a candle on a Summer evening, the door of convention still open for the diary, the journal, the love letter.
Talk in drama must always have some kind of charge, some electricity, some signals of lightning energy, waiting for the chance to strike. It must never be conversation. The mortal enemy of story is conversation. What appears at first to be conversation must evoke the response of dialogue or there is one more unfinished book in the pile, one digital file in the reader, sent off to the Cloud for storage. "Have you done what I asked you?" "Is this something we both need to do?"
In real life, there are conversations, many of which are necessary exchanges of information, but if the conversation is too conversational, the information and intent may be lost.
In real life as in drama, individuals may sit for a time in silence, the chemistry moving in free, direct discourse, to hijack a scholarly term. Thus even in silence, each may be completing sentences for the other.
Annie and Jake, your own parents, took conversation to dramatic levels after developing the art for over sixty years.
"What ever happened to--"
"He's been dead for years."
"No, not him. I mean his cousin, I think it was.."
"They weren't related."
"Not him. I mean, I think it was Mort or Murray."
"Some help you are. What percentage of Jewish men are not named Mort or Murray?"
"I'm not a Mort or a Murray."
"Before I met you, I went out with a Murray."
"It was a Joey. And he couldn't have been much fun. Look what you got instead."
"Sixty-two years of fun, I got."
You are left with memories of such moments of them, watching sunsets or sitting on the front balcony, watching the evening turn to dusk, Jake's cigar beginning to glow in the growing darkness, Annie's eyes, shining with memory.
"So that time you didn't come home until six?"
"I told you, I couldn't leave. I was winning."
"You couldn't say, 'Excuse me, I have to get home to my family.'"?
"I had to give them a chance to win it back."
"So ask me then, ask me what have I done for you lately."
"Big shot." Then: "Where are you going?"
"Get you a jacket. When the sun goes down--"
"Bring one for yourself, big shot."
Thanks to Annie and Jake and how many hundreds of books read, plays watched, things written, you learn to live life so that the conversations, even the ones alone with yourself, are alive with the lightning of dialogue.
There are sure to be times when it is possible to watch the sun dropping below the horizon at sea level, and you want to have something to say, even if it is awed silence.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Of all the characters who have set foot within narratives created by you, two bear the closest resemblance to an actual person. One of these, Derek James, appeared, at first nameless, in the office of your principal character, in a fictional college campus somewhere in the boondocks of the California Central Valley.
The moment he held a tea cup in his hand, you began to have suspicions. When, after a few moments, he garroted the tea bag in his spoon by wrapping its strong about the bag, then tightening it, your suspicions were confirmed. He was a Brit and he was your epic good friend, Digby Wolfe, stepping on board in the story as he had so often in life.
Wolfe had a habit of garroting his tea bags in real life, often when the two of you, polar opposites in working habits, marshaled your forces to work on a project.
Wolfe had assigned to himself the name of Derek James in a novel the two of you were collaborating on, at once a satire on the Program at which you both taught at the University of Southern California, and a political venture showcasing the neo-Marxist philosophies so inclusive of both your political visions.
The other close-to-real character was Conrad Burnaby, whose first appearance came in an Australian glossy magazine, focusing on a writer's conference you were to be a part of Down, as they say, Under. The name Conrad Burnaby was a not-too-subtle play on your only other friend of the experience, chemistry, and exchange you shared with Wolfe. Anyone who knew Barnaby Conrad would recognize the play on the name.
Your favorite depiction of this character was as the proprietor of a chop shop, that energetic enterprise that openly took in stolen automobiles in order to chop them into component parts for sale to foreign countries and off market repair venues, an automotive equivalent of cheap knock-offs of big-ticket wrist watches.
Conrad Burnaby also had a sideline of replica wrist watches, an open steal from Conrad's fondness for buying five-dollar Rolex watches on his travels to the Orient. Since Conrad was stunning in his abilities as a trompe l'oeil artist, you also had him at work on counterfeit hundred-dollar bills.
As you reflect on these depictions of two of your dearest friends, you begin to realize how each one evoked for you a particular presence you were able to play on in ways that began to suggest to you what your more invented creations ought to do. Characters for which more whole cloth was required tend to do better with a full biography of them in mind. written to suggest some dominant trait. The dominant trait is to be set in motion as a counterpoint to some governing trait or agenda.
Wolfe, through his creation of the television series Laugh-In, had found a way to criticize human foibles, then, with greater specificity, the foibles of governments. But television networks had him so hemmed-in with conventions and their own need to heed demographics that they began to rein him in and he began to vent more spleen at them. His great moment of triumph came when he induced a sitting President of the United States to appear on Laugh-In, delivering one of the iconic lines from that show, "Sock it to me." The POTUS's inflection had to be, and was, on the last word. "Sock it to me?"
Characters based on Wolfe were nervous, circling. cynical, looking for a weak spot, including those on himself. You got to know this aspect so well, you believed you could play him. And so the plan began to grow. Why stop with playing only him? And why shouldn't a writer play all characters to come forth within story?
Conrad was a great raconteur. You'd long since become his editor, thus your near muscle memory ability to anticipate his speech patterns. The way an actor would play Barnaby Conrad was to take his love of telling a story, combine it with his curiosity about how things worked, and his fascination for machines with a large number of working parts. "Look at the work that machine does," he'd tell you, "just to achieve that one small activity." This was meant in admiration rather than any sense of judgment or criticism.
Virginia, one of your two mentors, was an actor. You'd been conscious of and observant of actors for some time. Thus when another friend, Leonard Tourney, approached you to join him in producing a series of mysteries to be performed at banquet dinners, you were overjoyed to participate.
You were able to pay professional actors a comfortable sum for their one night of improv, but more important to you, you were able to act with professionals, getting a sense of who the essential actor you was, understanding what your voice for the performance had to be and how the term voice had nothing to do with diction, rather with attitude.
Among the most glorious gifts you've realized were the times with Wolfe and Conrad. When you walk or think, they sometimes rattle within you. Work and friendship with them meant the give-and-take of friendship of that remarkable sort where you came to be able to finish sentences for them and they able to finish sentences you'd begun. With lesser friends, such things could become an irritation. With great friends, this behavior is the sense of houses with open doors.
You knew to give Conrad Serrano hams from Spain for Christmas and Wolfe, well, his eyes lit up over the bangers sausages from Butcher Arts. And they pretty well had your number. But those were the tangible gifts. The best gifts of all were the gifts of timing.
The best things you can do for them now is to keep Derek James and Conrad Burnaby busy in stories, hopeful someone will experience them, then say to you, What remarkable characters. How on earth did you dream them up?
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Some years ago, never mind how many, you were seated in Royce Hall, more or less the domain of the English Department at University of California, Los Angeles. Before you, at the lectern, was a man who was in fact chairperson of that English Department, in full presentation of a writer who'd aroused your interest and curiosity.
"How did the little girl get into the rabbit hole?" the lecturer asked, looking about him at his students, nodding, even bringing his pudgy hands together for the drama of a single clap. He appeared before you more as a character from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland than the chair of a prestigious English Department.
To this day, the expression "down the rabbit hole" remains a favored vision of entry into another world, one even less rational than those you haunt during normal times. You often think of going to one of your teaching jobs as "going down the rabbit hole" because of the administrators and faculty, the saving graces being the students.
The expression has great resonance for you, thus, this past Friday evening, when you heard the keynote speaker at the writers' conference you attended, use the expression, you were immediately drawn to the lip of hers and, because she spoke with such honesty and clarity, drawn down it with her as she spoke.
The rabbit hole into which Alice fell was a keystone of all rabbit holes. Over the years since its use, the rabbit hole has become a symbol for the gateway or portal into the other world of the satirist, the fantasy writer, the historical writer. Any number of writers you follow or their stories you've read have portals that lead the reader into their own world.
Any number of times, you've realized you were entering the alternate world you created for yourself, a world that would evoke for you and, in hopeful anticipation, readers who followed you. This alternate world of yours would evoke through comparison a satirical or sympathetic vision, perhaps even a dystopian one, but this is how story works.
Story prompts readers to decode events and things, takes them places they would not go under ordinary circumstances, as in, say, Karen Russell's compelling Swamplandia, then causes them to wonder how to get back.
Many of us who write story began with the notion to change the world, which is impossible. The world has its own agendas and say in the matter. But we can make a dent in the way persons use their imagination and in the way we use our own imagination.
We can encode and decode within our own imagination, both hiding and exposing our fantasy life, all the while considering moral and ethical subtext in our out-of-the-rabbit-hole lives.
You think nothing of falling down a rabbit hole when you enter a story, greeting the array of individuals who come forth out of your imagination to pester and cajole you with their version of how the events should be presented. Even when the work is to be represented by ideas and statements rather than persons, the rabbit hole sends forth notions, concepts, arcs of logic, and examples of real persons doing real things and story persons doing rabbit-hole things.
Questions to consider:
Are you down a rabbit hole with yourself?
Are you down a rabbit hole with another?
What things should you take with you?
What things ought you to leave behind?
Should you bring the coffee?
Monday, September 23, 2013
For as long as you can recall, words seem to chirp about you like cicadas, serenading the night. Words form connections, sharing their chemistry, producing the exciting lure of hidden secrets.
You come from, were born into, a culture where there is an entire coded system called gematria, in which, well beyond mere numerology, words have values that combine to produce powerful effects and cause the user to experience the inner and outer worlds of self linked to the entire cosmos.
By the same kind of happy coincidences, serendipity, wherein you became an editor and a teacher, you got a passkey to an entire other culture, where, like the gematria found in Hebrew, there are the bija words of Sanskrit.
Meditating, pondering, considering these words has the effect of stepping out into the sunlight from a darkened room. You were given such bija words by a teacher who, according to tradition, was given them by another teacher, who in turn got them by the purest form of meditation.
When you listen to morning and evening ragas, the music of this culture, the bija words seem to be humming in the background, yet another way music evokes images which you then try to describe, using favored words, hoping for chemistry, interconnectedness. In the culture of your birth heritage, the Hebrew word for life, Chai, is formed from two letters with the numerical value of eighteen. Even those among your culture who think little of the gematria concept will, if you poke, tell you eighteen is a favorable number, a good number.
Your interest in codes led you to happy hours at libraries, leading you later on, during days where you spent hours in pool halls, to experience the coded squeeze of guilt, wishing you were in the library, instead. At one time, your personal treasures included a Little Orphan Annie Secret Code Ring, a Captain Midnight Decoder, and a Lone Ranger Code Chart, which was more like a thin slice of Swiss cheese,, with random small rectangles, a device to be placed over a larger text so that the actual code message would become visible.
You learned to make invisible ink with lemon juice, and one day, in your favored branch library on Mullen Street, directly across the street from the hated Los Angeles High School, you happened on the so-called book code, where you learned to make an impossible-to-decipher code unless you knew which book and which page in that book were used as the key.
You were perhaps fifteen or sixteen when you discovered you needed no such devices. Staring you in the face was a simile that became the equivalent of your journey from darkened room to sunlight. As nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room of rocking chairs.
Soon after, you discovered the ways in which poetry opened up the equivalents of the number eighteen and long-tailed cats, and other scrumptious twists and turns of words from Samuel L. Clemens, leading you to what is still your favorite line, from John Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes, "The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass."
Language was probably the first cause of you being struck by lightning, rearranging your awareness, turning your normal wiring into another kind of circuitry in which you have become a lightning rod, calling down from the clouds, both real and metaphoric the jagged bolts of charged energy that leave you feeling singed, humbled, cloud-like.
Two weeks ago, you are reading through early draft material on Brian Fagan's latest book on the relationship between humans and animals. As you fall into his accounts of the use of and training of horses in famous cavalry and military operations, he is leading you through some notable cavalry engagements, into the famed Charge of the Light Brigade, a disaster of an engagement between the Brits and Russians at the Battle of Balaclava.
You grab his arm. "You're forgetting The Destruction of Sennacherib," you insist.
He, an English man, twitches his mustache. "God spare us from American English majors," he says.
"Nonsense," you tell him. "Listen to the damned poem." And you begin to recite. "The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee."
"Wait," he says. "You may be on to something."
The "something" is the coded part of the poem about a cavalry campaign from the Biblical past. The "something" is the meter of the poem, meant to suggest the gait of a horse."
Fagan twitches his mustache. "You must give me the citation. Shelley, wasn't it? Or one of those?"
"Byron," you say, getting your own back with a jibe. "We Americans help you Brits to sort out your bloody poets."
"But why Byron and why this particular poem?" Fagan asks.
"Because you remember things that stick. Do we really have any control over what we remember and why? You're writing about horses and I'm remembering a poem I hadn't thought about for years. Is there anything so mysterious about that?"
"We need more coffee," Fagan says. At which point, we are confronted by a man who looms over our table, offering to buy the coffee. He is a retired high school teacher. "Do you realize," he says, "how rare it is to hear two grown men debating Byron? People do not memorize Byron any more."
"Who killed John Keats?" You say. "I, said the Quarterly, 'twas one of my feats. English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Byron again. Eighteen twelve."
"Actually," Fagan says, "eighteen oh nine."
"Oh, my gawd," the man says.
"Nothing," you tell him. "Fagan knows Homer in the Greek."
Fagan begins to recite.
"Oh, my gawd."
Fagan has ratified your point and has subsequently agreed that the Byron poem does proper service to horses.
We snag details for reasons not always clear at the moment. These details come bursting forth, genies out of bottles, released into our surroundings when they are triggered, and so the importance of the particular kinds of madness that come from being in love with the universe, with The Periodic Table of Elements, with poetry, with words, with love itself. It is better to watch a sunset and indulge fantasy, reaffirming all those details we have stored away as reminders of the beauty about us. And if we happen to have been at the computer, writing love notes to some still inchoate chapter on a book you wish to write, thirst to write, there is comfort in knowing where to look for photos of the sunset you missed.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
A thing is an object in the drawer of your work table, which itself was a thing when it first came into your possession. Things go into the drawer when Lupe cleans the work table or when you, tired of the clutter of things, put one or more of them in the drawer.
Often, the things in your drawer evolve beyond things, into things you wish to save because they have meaning for you and, happily,or use for them. They have transmogrified from things into useful things to tools, perhaps even into mementos.
You have long sped past the need for a pencil sharpener or an upright standard pencil sharpener, but in the drawer is a pencil sharpener in the shape of an upright standard typewriter, a birthday gift from students, years ago.
From time to time, the nostalgia for the affection for that group of students is so great, you search through the drawer like an archaeologist, searching for potsherds, looking for a pencil to sharpen, merely to use the pencil sharpener. When you do find such a pencil, it is sure to have already a fine point, still there from the time of its last sharpening.
Clutter is itself a thing, which leads you to think of the philosophy known as Tao, the process of nature by which all things change and which you'd well better understand if you wish to lead a life of harmony. The book of Tao, The Tao Te Ching, makes constant reference to Reality, which it refers to as "the ten thousand things." Your connection to Tao was solidified some years ago when a Hindu nun gave you an illustrated of The Tao Te Ching.
Thus, for you, clutter is "the ten thousand things," which change from the top of the table to the drawer. Things to be kept are things that were once on the table top, but now in the drawer as opposed to the trash basket which, although it has incurred some structural issues, is no mere thing, it is kept; it has morphed from a thing to a keepsake or souvenir.
The table was merely a table given you by your father, who discovered it in a library branch that was being closed. Over the nearly fifty years you have had this table, moved it from Santa Monica to Summerland to Montecito to 409 East Sola Street, it is no longer the table, it is Jake's table, radiant of the mystical powers of connective tissue. It will surely outlast you. Will it go next to Santa Fe or to Venice, wherein to become Uncle Shelly's table? Or will it leave the family, take up with a new human with whom to forge a relationship?
You leave your physical and emotional fingerprints on the things about you. Often you pause in the act of moving a mere thing to the trash basket-with-issues, a moment of inspection for the vibrations of nostalgia or affection that may be radiating from the object. Yes or no, you ask it? Will you stay with me for a while longer?
Within your drawer of Jake's table, at this moment, is a small sheet of thirty-nine-cent postage stamps, each with a different Navajo rug. You save this because you are then able to savor the thought of owning each rug, imagining the way their presence in your studio would cause the room to become much other than it is. There is a pack of three-by-five index cards, which are splendid tools for writing things that will need later to be sorted into piles relative to their subject matter, which you will by then have forgotten. The main purpose of forgetfulness is to focus on remembering, looking for hidden and overt meanings, the way you look into a person's eyes to see if there are covert or overt meanings for you to decipher, then wonder about the way you wonder about the power of the rugs illustrated on your obsolete postage stamps.
There are fountain pens, flashlight-key-holders from Santa Barbara Bank and Trust, now subsumed by Union Bank. The logo is obsolete, but the light works and so does the key chain. Will you ever be obsolete, and if yes, will your light still work? You like to think on such matters.
In the drawer, there is a three-and-a-half by five-inch, sixty-four-page book from a famous series of books of the past, The Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books. This one, printed on decaying pulp paper, is Little Blue Book No. 1063, The Psychology of Laughter,copyrighted in 1926. Its chapters include "Laughter as Relaxation," "Laughter of the Unconscious," and "Bergson's [probably Henri, 1859-1941, a noted French philosopher] Theory of Laughter."
You are a fan of such older publications and have several others about, but what makes this one special beyond its mere presence is the fact of a slip of quite more expensive and durable paper, folded in quarters, and at rest between pages 18 and 19, is a poem, written to you. The poem imparts your own movement along the path of change and understanding of what it is to hum with the excitement of being and to wish to move beyond the freedom of lone-ness, into the charged dimension of connection, where selves crackle like fireflies in the summer evening.
There is also a much smaller book in the drawer, a Beatrix Potter book. Two-and-a-half-by three-and-a-quarter inches. This stays because it is the book you'd sought much of your earlier life, through hours spent in used book stores and libraries, the book that would have opened for you the secret of story and how to write them, understanding story as never before. The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit.
The beginning of this book is stunning. "This," it begins, opposite a drawing of a rabbit, "is a fierce bad rabbit; look at his savage whiskers, and his claws and turned-up tail."
You scan the drawing of this fierce, bad rabbit, looking for traces of savagery in his whiskers, and for portents of menace in his claws and turned-up tail. You find none. You turn the page in anticipation, whereupon you are confronted with: "This is a nice, gentle rabbit. His mother has given him a carrot."
There is everything you need to start out with on your journey to find story. You have had this book for at least twenty-five years, which says of you that you kept it as a souvenir, a companion, a tool, marking your change from someone who sought this book under the most extreme circumstances, but would not have recognized it, had he found it any sooner than he did, would, in fact, have probably tossed it aside with great impatience. Why are you presenting me with this?
You have, of course, changed. You would have changed under any circumstances, but in the condition you now find yourself, you can account for most of the change having come through your efforts as opposed to the passivity of changes arriving at your door at random.
Through your activity, you have turned away some changes, fended off yet others, and in a great burst of hospitality, flung open the door to invite in yet others.
You reckon cosmic forces such as the ten thousand things of The Tao and the five hundred things of the things and choices about you. Here and there, outside the drawer, you see see things that have come your way from previous lives, intended for different uses. A dime-sized circle of intricate small pieces suggesting a Northwestern Indian totem design, glued to what appears to be a tongue depressor that has shrunk in the laundry, this intended as a book mark. A pile of index cards with your own logo printed on them. A pocket-sized note book, half filled with intriguing notes in your handwriting which you will spend the rest of your life trying to decipher or find some meaning that caused you to make them in the first place. A brown elastic band, probably once a device for securing hair in place. How came you by such a band? What does it mean to you that you keep it? What do the thoughts and things, and connections do for you?
Why of course, they do the things the rugs on the stamps do for you in your imagination. They fill your days and nights with the adventures and information quests of your younger years and the realities they have now become.
Saturday, September 21, 2013
Every time you attend a writers' conference as a participant, you cannot help seeing yourself as a younger you, in various stages of the person you are now, writing about this phenomenon.
Although you've not attended many conferences as a student seeker, you nevertheless attended lectures, book signings, panel discussions, and readings, seeking some clue from those men and women who had crossed over the line from non-published writer to the established, published, opinionated individual who was able not only to accomplish what you wished to to but who did so with some regularity. At one time, it was apparent to you that some such individuals were actually invited to submit materials which had been guaranteed publication.
You saw your attitude describe an arc of awareness and change, moving from wondering when your own work would merit such attention to the point of doubting it ever would, to the accelerated point of envy of those who had achieved such status even though it was clear to you they were less admirable as persons than you were. How fortunate for you that this stage, perhaps your most dismal and meanspirited, did not last for long.
With some measure of self-awareness and discomfort, you moved on to life at the low end of the economic scale, much of your non-writing time spent in used book stores, debating which collection of stories to buy or wondering if this were the time to move on to some non-fiction part of your education-through-personal-reading.
Major targets of interest for you were the one book or meeting with one person that would remove the stopper from the bottle that had the genie of story telling trapped inside it as, indeed, you felt it to be trapped inside you.
These were days when you were so argumentative in nature that you argued with your books, making contentious remarks in the margins, questioning the author at every turn, sometimes with crude accusations of slovenly writing or, worse, slovenly thinking.
A wise and understanding writer, who later took you on as a student, suggested that there was no such book until you wrote it. Even then, although the book might be entertaining and probing, it might not be effective in the way you'd hoped for anyone except you.
With this advice and your gradual but determined acceptance of it, you turned a needed corner of understanding. The miracles in other writers' books were general miracles for their readers, specific only for them.
Soon, your number two pencil comments in your books were signal points showing you how the author achieved the desired effect, or a sign urging you to study this passage closer to determine why this effect worked.
Earlier this morning, in the midst of a seventy-five minute presentation on the modern short story, one of your forgotten deconstruction studies came rushing back to you across an enormous gap of time. The memory was coincidental because it also had to do with time, how an author you watched carefully was able to achieve a condensation and balance of time. You began warming to the memory of the short story "The Swimmer" by John Cheever. Soon, you were the genie out of the bottle, departing from your notes to the swimming pools of the affluent in Cheever World, that WASP landscape between New York and Connecticut, where work meant commuting to Manhattan, traditions, conventions, and behavior were as remote from you as culturally and politically possible.
"It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying 'I drank too much last night.' You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiararium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover, 'I drank too much,' said Donald Westerhazy. 'We all drank too much,' said Lucinda Merrill. 'It must have been the wine,' said Helen Westerhaxy 'I drank too much of that claret.'
"This was at the edge of the Westerhazys' pool. The pool, fed by an artesian well with a high iron content, was a pale shade of green."
Only a few brief sentences away from introducing the main character, Neddy Merrill, but already, Cheever is playing with time, condensing it, slipping in an implausible goal, giving the goal anchor and encouragement in ways you could not explain much less understand when you first read it. You knew however that you must strive to understand how John Cheever caught, in effect, the glint of hangover Sunday afternoon on the Westerhazys' pool and a subsequent number of others.
A friend in the audience remarked how, with the exception of two young girls who were texting, there was no sound in the lecture hall except the scribble of notes and the click of iPad keys, capturing notes.
"Most stories begin with an unstated understanding that the beginning action takes place against some background of distraction," you said.
You agree with that, but you don't recall saying it. You were in the place you find when capturing the hangover glint of a swimming pool on Sunday in a short story. Your own California short story in which your principal character believes he is watching a man who has been dead for some years, swimming the backstroke in the center lane of the Montecito Y.
How long does it take to chase down the entryway to a process, then find a way to enter it?
How long does it take to be able to do what you wish to do without understanding how you do it until after you have done it.
With one or two exceptions, say Hamlet's father, you do not believe in ghosts, and yet you are quite open to the fact that you are sometimes haunted. Something unseen explains itself to you, leaves you explanations to questions you have asked in some ghostly past.
Understanding of story is like that and understanding of the universe is like that, and to fulfill your part in the bargain, you are haunted with the warmth of information.