Monday, February 3, 2014

Writing: A Horse of Another Choler

From as far back as you can remember, you have been a fan of accident.  This fandom applies to your reality-based life and its consequences as well as well as the inner life of your imagination and the fact of it holding you hostage until it realized it was screwed; no one would pay the ransom.

There was no doubt in your mind or imagination about your desired career outcome, or at least a third of it.  You'd thought yourself fortunate to have editing and teach to buoy you along in financial terms as opposed to some of the avenues open to you, such as preparing sites for auctions, being a journalist, or inducing persons at county fairs to throw baseballs at lead-coated milk bottles.

Accidents brought you to so many differing forks in so many roads.  For an example, a young lady you were dating invited you to a party given by the leader of her group therapy sessions.  Said leader invited you to yet another party for the purpose of wishing to introduce you to her recently divorced daughter.

A graphic arts designer with ambitions of becoming a magazine publisher, after having bought six or seven short stories and a few essays, asked you to do him the favor of supplying some copy for a client of his who was in the mail order business.  His gratitude for the copy you wrote was dinner at a better-than-good French restaurant with bottles of champagne.  

Mere luck that the client also appeared at the restaurant, helped finish one of the bottles of champagne, and in the process invited you to his office.  Five years later, you were senior editor at an expanding book publishing venture.

More accidents.  Charlie Block, the southern California representative for Bantam Books, asked you the favor of taking over his classes at the University.  "Just talk to them about what you do at the office and how things work."

Thirty some-odd years later, you were still teaching courses at the University.

In addition to those sorts of accidents was the significant one of happening upon your major influence, a writer in many ways as unlike you as possibility permits.  He was funny, angry, widely traveled, well versed in oral story telling traditions, living in a deep conflict with his Southern roots and those implications.  He'd almost directly learned story telling from listening to older slaves, telling stories to their associates, leaving him often the only white person in the room or barn or shade of a tree.

This is not to suggest Mark Twain was inappropriate for you to focus on.  You in fact did have some things in common with him, a significant one being anger, yet another being impatience.  This is to suggest the incredible number of more contemporary writers you were beginning to like, say Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth, who were in near complete awe of Henry James, whom you could not fathom.

For some years, you held on to your resistance of Henry James, growing even more Twain-like in your impatience because by now, you'd begun to have students who thought well enough of you to ask you questions.  About Henry James.

When you first came to Santa Barbara, you discovered by accident an associate from earlier publishing days, living and operating a publishing venture from Ventura, about twenty-five miles south of Santa Barbara.  Another coincidence is the fact of her holding a Tuesday afternoon brown bag lunch salon, at which you met a lawyer you rather liked who was, among other things, the only registered Socialist you knew.

The Socialist attorney invited you to dinner at his Santa Barbara home, whereupon you met his wife, an artist and whimsical ceramicist.  Friendships flared.  Soon, the artist said she had to know your opinion of a short story called "The Middle Years."  You knew enough about it to know it was by Henry James, and there he was again, a sort of taunt.  "Look at this, will you?"  the artist said, showing you a quote from the story you've seen well over a hundred times since:  “We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

"Oh, fuck,"  you said.  You knew you'd have to read enough of this individual to get at the vision that produced this observation, to see if it were meant in irony or truth, most important of all, to see if there were other things for you to attempt to understand, digest, then apply to your own reality-based work and to the imagination that sometimes kidnapped you and tried to ransom you off to someone.

You've gone through some of his novels and shorter stories, finding things that have attracted you as well as repelled you.  You may have even tried to use sentence structure and narrative cadences that came from him.  This was not a good idea; you have your own problems as it is with longer, convoluted sentences, which you need to spend time with in the editing and revision phases, pruning, truncating, trying to prevent from running away with you mounted atop them, the hapless dude, waving his hat, calling, "Help, help the runaway writer who can't ride a horse with any of panache."  Sore rump, but you'll have gotten in the panache.

Composition often does produce a sore rump; it is a bumpy, fraught ride for you, in particular when the sentence gets wind of something on the breeze, has its curiosity stoked, its adrenaline up for anything above a mere walk.

Your composition requires curry combing, cooling down, occasional splashes of water, a regulatory tug at the reins.  Time to think things over.  The rest is the madness of writing.

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