Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reflections on the F-Word

You are once again returned to that state known as pre-publication.  A different, more steroidal sense of being goes with the state.  Anticipation comes rushing forth when you least suspect it.  The book is done.  ARCs, advanced reading copies, have been sent to review sources and to potential writers of blurbs.  You've already answered the questions of two Internet review blurbs.  

At any moment, when you least expect, a review can come forth, praising your work, as some of the blurb writers have done, or expressing negative views of the work .

You've put in enough years working as a salaried employee for a variety of publishers to understand and appreciate this time.  Negative or tepid reviews of books you sponsored and edited have as much impact on you as negative visions of your own work.

The healthiest thing you can do right now is what you are doing, putting your time into fleshing out your new project, going through the rituals of recognizing the extent to which your new project has begun to move in, leaving suitcases, boxes of books, pet dishes, clothing, the equivalent of a lover moving in.  Indeed, this past week, you've experienced what you call dream sessions, in which you are neither fully asleep or awake, asking yourself questions about things missing from the proposal, wondering if any of the chapters on your tentative table of contents are superfluous or derivative or both.

You are working your way to that "don't think" state you brandish before your students and clients.  Get it down on paper or on the hard drive.  Soon, all too soon, it will be June.  Your class load will be down to two, both on a Wednesday.  By the middle of June, you will have worked most of yourself into the bubble of absorption wherein something you recognize as being quite difficult and challenging bumps fists and heads with something you consider among the most satisfying and energizing activities possible.

The Why-me moment has already come and gone, reminding you of your pal, Brian Fagan, being commissioned to write the book Before California, which is pretty much a historical account of California from the arrival of its first settlers to the sighting not terribly far from where you live of the Portugese and Spanish explorers, the so-called Entrada or entry of white men into the area.  Why ever would the publisher commission him, professionally an Africanist (who'd cut his archaeological teeth working for the elder Leaky)?  Why not a Californian or, at least, someone more familiar with the lore and findings?  Why, indeed?  Answer:  Because those who could did not, fearful of the repercussions, should the community disagree with their methodology and findings.

In a major sense, Fagan was willing to fail.  He was also willing to commit to the project, to enter its bubble, become a part of it.  Because you were its editor, you are also on the lookout for reviews.  Most of these fault only the relative brevity, not the methodology, not the speculation, not the informed building of potential scenarios of why and how various events happened.

You have done enough of the three things you do, write, edit, and teach, to have left you with a vision of what it is like to feel the enthusiasm and intrigue of a new project, the sense of being launched into it, the arrival of the first Why-me moment, and that intense mixed message of enthusiasm for the project and your own involvement in it along with the certain awareness that you will fail.  You will fail because your enthusiasm and discovery will have nudged you to take greater chances than ever before.

You will fail because you are compulsive, but you are also impatient enough to want to get the project done.  You are impatient at the thought that you must at some rapidly approaching time, let go, sign off.  You are impatient because you cannot have the opportunity for one more draft.  You are frustrated because your earlier moments of enthusiasm for the project caused you to project it as having the potential for being your best work yet.  You are impatient for the knowledge that you will not cringe when looking at the work ten years hence.

There are high probabilities you will also conflate this new project with other of your failures while at the same time comparing it with some contemporary work done by a person much younger than you, without your experience and information.

This relationship you have with failure is in no way a co-dependency, rather it is a comfortable vehicle.  You are going to have fun in your relationship with failure.  You will not make it any promises nor will you expect Failure to enter any lover's pact with you.  Each of you will respect the other.  Each will be entitled to have its night out.  Neither of us will tell the other, "See, I told you."

You will take chances, nudging yourself to do so until you reach the point of recognizing you have blundered onto a risk more daring than the main risk in your previous project.  

Sometimes you enjoy imagining what would you do should you even in a daydream or a sleep dream have an encounter with the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett.  You are nearly a fan of his, which means you respect his work and what such of it as you understand with certainty has done for you.  You respect but do not make that epic jump of loving as, for example, you love a Franz Kafka or a Philip K. Dick or a Louise Erdrich.  You respect him for his attitude toward failure.  "Fail again, only next time, fail better."

In your imaginary meeting, you'd thank him for this splendid meme and tell him he has had a lasting influence on you, and he'd nod, trying to identify you.  "Lowenkopf, isn't it?"  he'd say.

And you'd say yes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What Say You?

What characters say in fiction is quite clear to readers, but emerges as something of a bafflement to individuals at the lower rat tail of the learning curve.

This observation is based on your observation as an editor, where you had to read many proposals, as an instructor, where you were morally obligated to read submissions all the way through, and as someone who was all too painfully on the rat tail.  You often spent hours trying to find artful ways to lead up to significant matters, in particular if those significant matters had some taint of the painful or hurtful about them.

Characters speak to their agendas or around them, lest their hidden motives be discovered.  They speak with a great moral authority or in an obsequious deference to someone with some kind of power over them.  Some characters in certain cultures have ways of showing respect or deference.  Our culture often encourages this degree of respect, opening the door for what has been called subtext, which is to say saying on thing while feeling quite another.

Throughout the centuries, a small group of authors have grasped this divide between what is said and what is thought.  You are not surprised to find these authors among your favorites, speaking to the issue of dialogue in the first place.

Sometimes, when you think about how you first saw dialogue, you are forced to cringe.  You took a fierce kind of pride in what you thought dialogue was, to the point of considering it your strength.  Interesting characters, saying interesting things.  The problem was that your characters were not always as interesting as you thought and to make matters worse, the things they said were not dialogue, they were conversation pieces.  Even now, at the thought of it, you feel a slight tingle in your cheeks.

Dialogue is not conversation.  No wonder you had to spend so much time nudging your characters' conversations toward dialogue.  "Oh, and by the way--"  or, "Speaking of crimes of passion, you didn't happen to have killed your husband, did you?"  No, those are exaggerations, although you can and do argue that story is exaggeration, dialogue is exaggeration, and so are characters exaggerations.  All these elements, story, dialogue, and characters, are exaggerations of what persons are in Reality, their inner furniture rearranged to make them fly off the page with a steroidal intensity.

Story removes wasted moments from Reality, supercharges it, causes the universe in which it is set to begin the metaphorical snapping of its fingers to get all the wasted details and descriptions out of the way.

Early on, Act I, Scene 5, when Hamlet is summoned to the roof and battlements of Elsinore Castle to greet the ghost who had been appearing at midnight, we get the sense of his subtext when the ghost speaks:

                                   Speak; I am bound to hear.

   So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.


 I am thy father's spirit, 
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, 
And for the day confined to fast in fires, 
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature 
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid                                  To tell the secrets of my prison-house, 
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word 
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, 
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, 
Thy knotted and combined locks to part                                                 And each particular hair to stand on end,                                               Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:                                                       But this eternal blazon must not be 
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list! 
If thou didst ever thy dear father love—

O God!

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.


 Murder most foul, as in the best it is; 
 But this most foul, strange and unnatural.

 Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift 
 As meditation or the thoughts of love, 

 May sweep to my revenge.

This is done so well that we can almost hear Hamlet's inner thoughts, the things real persons say to themselves at such times.  Oh, fuck.  Murder, is it?  I knew something didn't seem right.

I'm on it, Dad.  I'm on it.

Dialogue conforms, even betrays our worst fears, our most emphatic insecurities, our overwhelming self-delusion.  How could such things possibly come from conversation, which in its way is rhetoric in quotation marks, although even our conversation has about it the glorious potential for two or more persons to be talking about two disparate things yet believing they are in some sort of agreement.

Barroom brawls are often examples of circumstances where two otherwise unwilling combatants have gone to relax, have a few drinks, perhaps watch some sporting event on TV, or simply engage in friendly conversation.  The beer or booze has put one edge on, taken another off.  Unquantifiable, the number of brawls that began with no overt intention to get into a brawl, the combatants instead, taking umbrage at their interpretation of something said or unsaid.

Dialogue is often barroom brawl, on occasion without the booze.  What characters say to themselves and one another are assertions of agenda, goal, intent, the equivalent of a schoolyard shoving match.

Dialogue is your literary agent, asking you when you are going to write a book on dialogue and you, replying that it will have to wait until you finish your current project on character, then get to the novel she's been pestering you to get back to, and you reminding her of this, and her reminding you how nonfiction at the moment is more likely to draw readers than fiction and you not caring so much if it sells or not so long as it is honest, effective information, presented with enough irreverence to make readers suspect it might well be true.

Monday, April 28, 2014


If an individual is confronted with a major, well-orchestrated surprise, we are safe in assuming the first response:  "I didn't see that coming."

The moment you offer the merest hint of surprise, the reader/audience will change their posture, lean forward, then begin to speculate:  Where?  When?

Another safe assumption about surprise:  Readers are drawn to it.  So many readers flock to the next story by Stephen King because they enjoy his artful way of making the most innocent item an agent of creepy fear.  Close reading of any given work by King will reveal his exquisite timing , surprising us with an event or condition we had not expected even though we were drawn to the title in the first place because of King's overall reputation.

Surprise, in literal and figurative terms, is the arrival of an unanticipated visitor.  The arrival may be regarded as bad news, thus scary, playing on our primal fears, causing a specific set of physical responses.  But surprise may also be the polar opposite of fear, causing an avalanche of gratitude, gratefulness, even sentimentality.

Any wonder surprise is such a staple element in story?  Any wonder why individuals who face long hours and days of unending routine are driven to story for a glimpse of worlds where events are not always so set in stone?  Case in point, Emma Bovary, who was said by many critics to have been driven to excessive behavior because of her longtime diet of romance novels.  

The notion of her responding to a daily life of incredible routine and boredom has equal standing.  She could well have found Nepenthe in adventure novels or travel guides.  Her choice instead of romance novels is a reflection on the life of aching routine, of the probability of Charles Bovary being a snorer, of the greater probability that the notion of motherhood being all-rewarding did not in fact satisfy her longing for a life outside the kitchen, the nursery, and the quasi-spiritual and social offerings of the church.

Readers are often grateful for the novel that throws its primary characters into surprise-driven chaos.  This preference follows their own life cycle being predicated on relentless routine.  Thus we see the two polar opposites--routine, which embodies the elements of boredom, and surprise, which promulgates the tingle of the unexpected.

Your own encounters with surprise run on the same logic.  You have a routine which is mostly of your own devising.  Some negative surprises take you out of your routine in order to cope.  Some positive surprises are often linked to the sense of adventure connected with distractions.  Adventure and distraction often lead to discovery.

A favored surprise for you comes when you are distracted, led to a discovery that provides you some flavor of emotional satisfaction.  Another kind of surprise is the sense of a thing you've been working on having reached the point of not working for some undifferentiated reason.  

You set the work aside.  Later, when you come across it and are intrigued by it to the point of focusing on it, you are surprised to see that it holds your interest and, in the bargain, supplies you with enough material for another paragraph or two, which means the project is still alive, the Mars Probe, sending pictures back to you, awaiting your interpretation.

You use surprise as a subjective guideline.  If a work causes you to experience surprise responses to it as you are composing, your level of energy and excitement grows to the point where you are operating at a delightful pace, sometimes scarcely able to type fast enough to keep up with the vision surrounding you.

Sometimes, later in the evening, when you are walking off the energy you've generated, you are surprised at how clear every shrub and plant along the way seems, how dark and mysterious the night sky, how dramatic the miscellaneous light sources from such orbs as stars, planets, street lights.  You are surprised by neighborhood cats, out on patrol, by individuals filling up water containers from the machine outside Victoria Market, and the waft of some bit of cooking, causing you to discover you are hungry for senses and glad to be out among them.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Spell Check

From time to time, you are struck by the sudden, unanticipated replay of a memory from the past that was not so much negative or fearful as overwhelming.  One such memory, from your best attempt at accurate reckoning, comes from you in the third grade, where spelling and its attendant implications seemed to have been uppermost in your school time routine.

Third grade meant you still recessed and played in the south-facing yard, impatient with the advent of your destiny into the play yard of the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade.  School meant Hancock Park Elementary School, on the east side of Fairfax Avenue, a scant quarter mile south of Third Street.

The recurrent memory was an in-class spelling bee, which you, still morphing into irreverence, took with some degree of seriousness to the point of considering yourself ahead of the curve when it came to spelling.  You were on a four-person team, pitted against another four-person team.  Each of the teams had a boy-girl-boy-girl lineup.  You were on a team with a boy named Ivan, who, while not a friend, was someone you thought highly of because of his ability to swear in Yiddish.

With you and Ivan on a team, you felt a certain invincibility because of  your belief at the time that all girls were de facto better spellers than boys.  In the years to come, you also had the belief that girls were better at math and science than boys; that girls in general tended to get better grades than boys because they were less given to mischief than boys.

In your recollection, the spelling bee was moving along well enough, having you eager to get your word.  But someone on the opposing team, a girl named Elizabeth, drew the word elephant.  You'd heard that word before, more than likely had read it any number of times, without the awareness that it would ever come up in a spelling bee.
You gulped, as though the word had been given you to deconstruct.  

You reasoned that the word had been sneaked into the spelling bee to see if the contestants would seize up on the ph sound, mistaking it for an f.  Nevertheless, as Elizabeth began, "Elephant.  E-l-e--"  You froze. You were of a sudden unable to visualize the word.  "p-h--"  Elizabeth said.  And for you, prideful of vocabulary and spelling, the sense of not knowing where to go from there.  "a-n-t.  Elephant,"  Elizabeth said.

Not only was she right, no one but you seemed to think her accomplishment any sort of real feat.  "Yes,"  the teacher said.  And now it was your turn.  Whatever the word was, your memory will not let you see it.  You were correct in spelling whatever the word was, and the teacher said "Yes," again, but in that moment, you'd crossed some kind of divide between child and emerging scholar in which you understood two things, the going was about to be rough, and you were no speller.

Because of that day, so far back in time, you know how to spell elephant.  For a time, you managed to slip the word "elephant" into the occasional paragraph or sentence.  You did not recognize the defensive strategy you were employing, but you were in effect showing off your ability to spell elephant as a distraction from the words you surely did not know how to spell correctly.

As the years progressed and you found yourself looking more and more to Samuel L. Clemens as a role model, you could be heard to say that you'd come to mistrust a person who knew only one way of spelling a word.

By that time, you'd begun to develop greater degrees of mischief than any grasp on spelling.  In fact, some of your spelling was borderline mischief.  This obvious weakness caused you to spend considerable time with dictionaries, which only seduced you into learning more words to misspell.  

Your arrival at junior high school introduced you to the phenomenon of study hall, which you'd heard of from your sister, but had no tangible way of reckoning.  A kindly study hall teacher offered her charges the possibilities of learning Spanish, as she was choosing to do, or use the study hall time to attack their homework.  You'd had enough Spanish to know this was the primary language outside of English you wished to pursue, and thus in no time at all, you learned how to misspell words in Spanish as well as in English.

During this time, among the positive things you were identifying and putting into practice, you were demonstrating the great negative of what in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island were called penmanship skills.  If prizes were to be awarded for poor penmanship, you would still have trophies.  You did earn recognition, which is, in its way, something.

Another of these memory traumas came to you early into your transfer to undergraduate status as an English major at UCLA.  You'd had considerable experience with libraries before, as tourist and borrower, in Los Angeles, New York, Providence, and Boston.  Soon, there awaited you a job at the Beverly Hills Public Library, shelving returned books and returning books that had been left on the reading tables.

Yet, there was this moment, when, one morning, you found your way into the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA, once again overwhelmed with the vast number of books, but this time experiencing the ache of knowledge that however much you might try, you could not possibly read them all.  

With a combination of mischievous charm and two neatly rolled marijuana cigarettes, you induced a library worker to stamp your university registration card with the designation "Admit to Stacks," which meant you no longer had to wait for your books to be delivered, you could descend into the great bowels of the library to browse through these many, many things you would never have time to read.

While at UCLA, you'd somehow become friends with a teacher in the journalism department, Robert Kirsch, who moonlighted nights at the copy desk of the Los Angeles Times, ultimately becoming its most notable editor of the then stand-alone Book Review, as well as a daily column.

Hanging out with him, playing poker, drinking endless cups of coffee, you came to think how great it would have been to have such a job, where you were paid to read books, write reviews of them, all the while preparing a weekly book section.

You have recurrent dreams of this, as well, and of seeing him, in later years, on his way to the beach with an armload of books.

But there you were, a poor speller, with remarkable, or perhaps unremarkable penmanship, and a sense of wonder at how much there was to be had from reading all those many books.  

Other writers you know and knew had lousy childhoods or magical ones to influence their work.  You had in your toolkit a not-so-hot ability to spell, idiosyncratic penmanship, and a hunger for books, qualities, with which you strode out of the university and into the streets, seeking answers which, if you got any of them at all, led you right here to this.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Retrospective Wince

Of the many traits, qualities, and tendencies hard-wired into the human kind, your favorite candidate for Most Overlooked is doubt.  And yet, the potential for doubt is legion.

You can begin your deluxe doubt safari by doubting the truth of a statement--any statement,  This is a basic Skepticism 101 approach to the ever widening gyre of propaganda about you that has been presented as though it were fact.  There is some small satisfaction in having doubted, researched the ramifications of your doubt, determined your doubt to have been justified, then sit back, smug and at peace with the entire transaction.

You can have suspicions about something presented to you as fact or high probability, then do nothing to research your doubts, at which point, you become the loser in the transaction.  If you are not careful, dozens of such events will occur to you, but you will not respond with research.  You in effect become a tacit accomplice to the propaganda that is pretending to be fact.  

You can doubt that your failure to check on your suspicions will produce any adverse results.  But you will be wrong.  Your insulation of doubt and cynicism will have thinned a bit, making you more likely not to question the next stirring of doubt within your internal mechanisms.

Over a period of time, this could lead you to stop doubting, leaving a hole that will soon fill with the complacency of thinking you are well informed enough about a few tiny things.  This complacency will allow you to think you have good instincts, good judgment, thus able to judge how much you know of a thing or condition without ever having articulated the potential for mischief.  You are, after all, a shrewd, well-read fellow, are you not?

In fact, you are hardly well-read, simply because you've read a few dozen or hundred books.  You are perhaps shrewder than you might from time to time imagine because of the accidental and eclectic factors of your choices for the books you did read.  Yet you doubt there was any grand organizational force behind your accidental choices of things to read.  In greater fact yet, you read many of the things you've digested over the years as an idiosyncratic response to being bored and wishing not to be bored, but holding interest and focus and self-awareness hostage with the demand that the thing you seek to read be on its face inspirational and filled with vital, vivid information.

You are in many ways at your most strong when you most doubt your intelligence and understanding, a state that causes you at least this much honest self-evaluation:  You wonder which thing or things you need to understand in order to move to whatever may be on the next tier.

This position often reminds you of the times you ran a carnival booth where the object of the role you played was to see if you could guess the age, weight, profession, and various other improvised traits of an individual customer.  The reward for the customer was a series of prizes or premiums arranged on the shelves of a large bookcase.  The most expensive prices were on the top shelf.  The least expensive, at the time scarcely worth the two or three cents you'd paid for it, at the bottom shelf.

At the time, the customer paid you 25 cents, a bet that you could not guess his weight.  Of course you couldn't guess it, because of the laws of profit and loss.  Your "loss" or failure to guess correctly meant you were selling the customer a prize worth two cents from the bottom shelf.  Not a bad profit.  But wait, for another quarter,let me see if I can guess your occupation.  If I miss, your prize will be from the next shelf (a prize worth at best five cents).

The customer comes forth with another quarter.  You ask to see his hands, which you've already noticed seem to be covered with a brownish tint betraying a walnut picker.  You take a long critical look at the customer, then smile in recognition.  You've got him nailed this time.  "You are,"  you announce loudly, "a bus driver.  Those limber arms of yours was a dead give away."

Of course the walnut picker is overjoyed to have put one over on you.  You plead an opportunity to "get even."  The ante is upped to a dollar. The prizes on the fourth shelf are beginning to look intriguing, although they're rarely worth the dollar of the customer's bet.  You lose again, calling the customer's attention to the lamp or nightstand radio or stuffed teddy bear, worth perhaps a dollar fifty.  

Your goal is to work the player "up the shelves" to the point where you are betting in effect that you can pretty much guess anything about the player.  Which state he was born in.  How many foreign languages spoken at home.  You are pretending to know this individual while selling him the extreme doubt of your knowledge.  You are selling him on your rube-ness and him on his ability to fool you.  Good analogy here.

When you are sure of a thing, you've accepted the challenge to show proof.  When you lead with doubt, you are challenging yourself to do as well as you can plus an extra spurt of something more.

When you begin reading what you consider to be a well-written story or longer work, you begin to doubt you can extract all the many clues and nuances, a doubt that often reminds you of the doubts you experience in everyday life.  The more you read, the more you are making a tacit agreement to come back to this work in another year or five or ten, because you doubt you'll have extracted the many wonderful implications from the one reading.

After a time of working on a story or novel, you doubt you could be more clear or artful, and so you consider the work finished and it is until your agent has read it and made suggestions, whereupon it goes to a number of publishers who see things you at one point doubted you missed.

What is more humbling than coming back to something you wrote some time back?  One more humbling thing is coming back to something you wrote and "sold" to some publishing venue some time back.

You doubt you'll ever get beyond this point of what you think of as The Retrospective Wince, which is what you often do when you return to something done way back when you were too dumb to doubt but thought at the time you were pretty good to have tried.

Friday, April 25, 2014

What You Are Working On and What Works on You

You have a friend who asks you with some regularity the question "What are you working on?"  Sometimes your answer surprises you, because it seems to come from one of the ten or twelve notebooks or clutter dumps spaced about your studio rather than from some inner focus associated with the mind, heart, or viscera.

You like the fact of the answer surprising you as much as you like the awareness that you are at any given time so scattered in your focus and so apt to be working on so many things at once rather than the equivalent of the actor in some stage or rehearsal or performance, remaining "in character" all the while.

Your process has made a measure of sense to you, even though most of the time the idiosyncratic nature of it appears to you to be working against itself.  Some of the voices in your head who belong to entities not a part of the cooperative that is you are voices that chide you for your scatter.  

To this day, indeed, to this very day, you pay some homage to one of these voices by making a habit of making your bed a first thing priority.  You make your bed before you dress.  Even if there is coffee left over from the night before, within easy reach, you do not allow yourself a sip until the bed seems restored to a semblance of what it looked like the last time Lupe, the maid, appeared to change the laundry.

One of the inner arguments you have with yourself is the one in which one of your more rigid internal presences argues--actually taunts you--with the vision of how many more things you'd have in your published book case were you to work exclusively on one project until it is done.

Your appointed spokesperson for the counter argument is quick to present the impossibility of your life, as now constituted, to such a path.  You are, this spokesperson posits, geared to the parameters of that nasty buzzword, multitasking.  Your strategy has for some time dealt with the need to do a number of relevant and irrelevant things during the course of the day, having the result if you making use of spare moments between such varied chores as teaching, editing, reading, exercise, household chores, and writing.

You rather like the sound of this spokesperson, once he finds the groove, reminding the jury that you are every bit as productive on such days as you are on days, say during summer vacation, when there is little or no teaching, when you are more apt to focus on a single chore.  Then, much like Spencer Tracy in his portrayal of the fiery lawyer Clarence Darrow, in Jerry Lawrence's play, Inherit the Wind, you drop the closing argument.  Sometimes, when you have a more or less uncluttered day to address your work, your priorities are capable of being naps or reading rather than composition.

You could, and have, had lifestyles in which you wrote all day and, for the sake of spare cash or, indeed, grocery money, would have to take some detours around a contract to deliver a novel by X date in order to craft an essay on Western history for the likes of Charlie Sultan, who published such magazines, or the occasional short story for a Western or science fiction or mystery magazine.

Life doesn't happen to you in one-project-to-the-end increments with enough regularity for you to get accustomed to it.  In fact, life doesn't happen to you that way any more than driving your 2008 Yaris anywhere at all allows you to look only straight ahead, ignoring the rear view mirror or those mounted on the sides at eye level.

When your friend asks you what you are working on, you may find yourself surprised to hear yourself referencing a short story you began some weeks ago or a novel you at present have as number four or five in future projects.

Only this morning, you found yourself thinking with some fondness about a nonfiction project you want to work on after you finish the novel you wish to get back to after you finish your current nonfiction project.  Part of the energy driving this future project is the audacity behind its concept, which will begin with a relevant essay on D.H. Lawrence and his still-felt influence, then present a series of twelve essays on American authors you've already chosen, reveling in the audacity that you will title this project Volume Two of what was D.H. Lawrence's Volume One.  There is even more energy to come from the fact of you recognizing a harmony you intend to be inherent in your essays with the tone and register of voice in Lawrence's Volume One.

To some extent, your plans are pie in the sky, potential arguments to the point of you wishing more to have written than to be in the midst of writing.  Again your Clarence Darrow-like spokesperson to your defense.  You do not minimize the time and effort needed for a project and in fact extend your own carrot before you; you will have to live a long time to get a shot at the things in your notes and notebooks.

You have just accepted delivery of a new batch of Field Notes notebooks to go along with the Moleskines and the yellow lined notepads. 

The true answer to the question is that you are working on yourself, in hopes of arriving at a state of greater understanding, mischief, and ability to outdo the horse whisperer and the dog whisperer by becoming the word whisperer.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


A distraction is any thing--any noun, really--that causes you to shift your focus from a task or, for that matter, from another noun.  Tasks, after all, are nouns; they are things.  Sometimes, they are persons, or places. Sometimes, distractions are events.

A distraction wrenches your focus from the thing or event you were engaged with, calls attention to itself in some provocative way, perhaps with an event bearing some intriguing decoration or theme, then reels you into its orbit.  

If schools and personality tests were focused more on situations where distraction were given the attention distraction deserves, your life would have taken a more privileged turn. There is no telling where you might be at this moment or if, indeed, you would be writing this at any moment.

In many cases, gifted authors use distraction as a trampoline for suspense or tension, using artful shift in point of view or perspective, much as a magician or prestidigitator uses distraction to keep the viewer from seeing the mechanics of the narrative device we recognize as suspense.

These same gifted authors will take us up to the end of a scene in which a character is expected to make a decision or instead has taken a step where he has believed there to be firm footing, only to discover there is none.  The author shifts our focus to another character, in another place, perhaps even at an other time.  We are left, reluctant but intrigued, to follow the new character and the new situation.  We--most of us--understand we are being played, manipulated; we have as much as plunked down our money to be played and manipulated, much as we plunk down our money to be manipulated when visiting a chiropractor or masseuse. 

If you were to consult a dictionary for a definition of the literary term "anticlimax," you would in all probability come in contact with the word "distraction" as an approach leading to a definition.  Anticlimax is a distraction from what might otherwise have been a dramatic closure, which is to say a tie-up of as many loose ends as are likely to be tied.  The distraction muddies the effect brought about by the more agreeable ending or closure, injecting into the narrative the same, mindless spawn of events we so often experience in real life.

Most mornings, you awaken by design and deliberation or by the secondary outcome of having slept your full.  This morning, because you were up quite late the night before, you slept past the time you'd normally sleep your full.  Thus you awoke with the knowledge that Reality had gained a jump on you.  

Dozens, perhaps hundreds of events had already begun their course while you yet slept, meaning your time of waking, whenever it was, became a fraught time, a time of catch-up.  Indeed, there were things to be dealt with in the form of telephone and electronic messages of various sorts, requiring responses and action.  

You could with some justification call these events distractions.  With equal ease, you could argue to The Cosmos--which is always too busy to listen or respond--that these distractions might not have happened or, if they were determined to happen, would not be so severe, had you not been distracted the night before with the result of you being up and working longer than ordinary.  

In some ways, your relationship with The Cosmos puts you in mind of the conflict between romantic partners when such matters as career, household management, care for children or addled adults cause distractions from the original romantic intent.

What seemed like a good idea at the time was in all probability a first-rate good idea, but it has now suffered attacks from the attack drones of distraction.

At this point in your life, you find your relationship with the Cosmos to reflect a remarkable similarity to a romantic relationship attacked by a swarm of hungry distractions.  There have been times when you felt a tangible sense of romantic bonding with The Cosmos and its cousin, Reality.

Now, The Cosmos is in effect miffed with you for asking of it the equivalent of "What's for dinner tonight?" instead of "Hey, we've both had a real day.  What say we go out for dinner?"

The Cosmos would like you to think you are remiss for not having asked that question.  But for all it matters, you know better.  You were distracted.  Try using that as an excuse.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Voices Redux

The voices you often hear do not all have their origin in your head.  You hear two Public Broadcasting stations, one originating in San Luis Obispo, the other in Thousand Oaks, each attempting to converge on the presumed opulence of Santa Barbara, each with a different personality, with perhaps forty percent of shared programming.

You mention these two because, Santa Barbara being what it is, quirky, with distinct pockets of weather and demographic, perhaps sixty percent liberal/progressive to forty percent conservative/libertarian, bat-shit crazy, has areas where the signal from each station becomes occluded or crossed with the broadcast band of yet other FM stations.

There you are, driving along, hearing those voices when, of a sudden, you hear others for a block or two before the intended signal comes through once again.  These glitches in man-made voices are somewhat of a comforting reminder of how man-made things are.

You sometimes hear the voice or voices of individuals protesting a range of political agenda, and you have at times heard bullhorn voices from law enforcement agencies, directing you to abandon your living quarters because of the potential danger from a fire that has spread to the trees, shrubs, and underbrush in and about the city.

Another form of voice, sometimes catching you by surprise by its literalness, is an amplified voice of some anonymous travel guide, informing the passengers of a whimsical display of tourist vehicles of some historical intersection, edifice, or reenactment.

These days, there is an almost certain probability you will hear amplified voices inside markets, calling your attention to specials on items you would never buy at any price, or describing such itsms you might well buy from time to time, but describing these in terms and tones that call your intentions to purchase into the arena of doubt.

When you were still using the swimming pool at the Montecito Y, you often heard voices invoking the name of a merchant/explorer from Venice, one Marco Polo, and in certain parts of the lower east side, you hear voices in Spanish advertising the ready availability of sodas, beers, and ices, as these items are meant to be dispensed from pushcarts.

On any given day, these recent years, regardless of your teaching, consulting, or working-at-home writing projects, you are subject to commentary from a wide range of voices, to the point where you not only take them for granted, you don't even try to identify them.

You understand that this is a dangerous business, listening to voices of whom you may to some degree be unsure.  Some time back, you've given in to the approach whereby if the information sounds at all sane and bearing some scent of potential use, you take it in, file it away, then hope you will recall it when an appropriate need arises.

To an increasing degree, a number of voices you hear are from men and women whose written works have moved you to some plateau related to intrigue, curiosity, envy, understanding.  These voices are approximations of what you imagine from reading them what they would sound, speaking their own stories.  This is of some matter to you because of your hope to speak the way you write and write the way you speak.

This is indeed of some matter because of another of the voices you hear, reminding you of the number of handwritten pages you throw away and of the significant number of computer pages you delete before saving an edited one.  Thus the clear and present danger you indeed speak as you write, filled with habit words, repetitions, incomplete sentences, and adverbs.

In a manner you sometimes associate with wealthy playboys who collect a varied stable of cars, sports cars, SUV's and vans, you like to try your hand at "being" or "driving around" in your preferred narrative voice,noting things you see that please or displease you, keeping abreast of your agendas, reminding you to eat meals, suggesting things to wear, and reminding you, if necessary, to take a nap.

Somewhere, in one of your notebooks, you've started a list of the numerous voices you hear, attempting to give them defining names, The Cynic, for example, or The Grouch.

Much of the attention you pay to recognizing and defining your inner voices comes in the service of keeping a lively toolkit for your profession.  

Some professions rely on a pole star for an orientation, and ways to triangulate a way home.  For you, it is the voices.  They are perhaps not so reliable as a pole star, and when one is genuinely lost, the sight of a pole star can be a soothing comfort.  For you, it remains the voices.  Sometimes, if you are lonesome, you will say or do something provocative to get them shouting and arguing.  The ringing clamor is all the navigational tool you need.


Mark Twain wrote a short story called "The Grandfather's Ram," which you first came upon in all innocence.  You had the vague expectation that it would be funny, but this was nothing extraordinary.  Most everything you read of his had some claim to that quality. So many of his pieces, whether stand-alone sketches or portions of larger works had that effect on you.  Nor did you expect "The Grandfather's Ram" would have a lifelong effect on you, either, but it did.

When you are questioned now about influences on your life in general and your writing life in greater specificity, how easy it would be for you to begin with Huckleberry Finn as the primary influence, then let the matter come to rest there, in that flawed-but-magnificent embarrassment of riches.  

Huckleberry Finn does cover considerable ground for you, but the short sketches and scenes within such larger, autobiographical and so-called travel writing were telling you things not only about the construction of story but about the voice and tone by which they should be related.

The set-up of "The Grandfather's Ram" is simple enough that you'd allowed yourself to coast right over the effect it invariably had on you without stopping to understand why the story worked as well as it did.  The setting for the story was the Nevada mining town of Virginia City, home of the Comstock Lode.  Twain was a reporter for the Territorial-Enterprise, always on the alert for a piece such as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," or his pice about a prehistoric discovery, "The Petrified Man," which he could deadpan his way into a prank.

Some of Twain's chums began to alert him to a grizzly sort who, when he'd reached the proper degree of being in his cups, would tell an amazing story about his grandfather's old ram.  Surely, Twain's chums assured him, he could make an excellent piece out of the tale, once he'd heard it in its entirety.

Twain made the mistake of believing the elaborate set-up.  Then, one day, while he was at his desk at the Territorial-Enterprise, his friends came dashing over to inform him that Old Billy was approaching the perfect state of intoxication to begin his nostalgic tale.  Twain rushed over to the old venue, where Old Billy sat, musing.  "My grandfather's ram," he began.  "I don't reckon them times will ever come again."  

And off he went, his narrative careening into as patchwork quilt of a narrative as ever was, one colossal digression triggering another each successive one building on exaggeration to the point where Old Billy spoke of one man who'd worked at a rug-weaving factory, having the misfortune to have fallen asleep while at the loom and being drawn into it with the fatal results of being woven into a length of six-ply broadloom.  His family did not know whether to bury him rolled up or spread out.

The narrative moved on from there, with never another word about the grandfather or the ram,  Old Billy kept on with his narrative until his tipping had caught up with him, and he slumped forth in his chair, in a deeply resonant snoring slumber.

Twain recognized he'd been had, pranked by his pals.  Old Billy always began the same way when asked about the ram, but he was invariable in his departure from the dramatic line.

The sooner you learned to look into Twain's sense of construction and his willingness to be seen as genuinely perplexed by some of the effects he'd labored to achieve, the closer you came to understanding how story fits together, where it takes the reader, and what it does to the reader.

Much of his material is held together by that particular alchemy of voice and sensitivity to the narrative form, a degree up from the oral tradition stories he'd heard as a boy, eager--sometimes too eager to secure respect from some of his more formally educated peers, most of whom you find occluded by layers of formality and boredom.  One of the great ironies was Twain trying to impress "them," while "they" were wishing they could achieve his narrative vision.

There were others who impressed you in much the same way, notably Ring Lardner, who came into the world when Twain was fifty, and the recently departed Elmore Leonard.  How could you as well not be influenced by Booth Tarkington, who joined us when Twain was thirty-four?  And Willa Cather, and Joyce Carol Oates, whom only today in a class on noir fiction you called "the queen of noir writing."

You are influenced by writers who made you cry at the effect of their words, and the things you take away from reading them again and again, each time as though for the first time.

A writer has an original voice when starting out, writing as though that originality was the only originality.  A writer who reads and has the experience of despair at the story and words of Joan Didion and Louise Erdrich and Kathleen Mansfield is a writer who brings a new sense of what voice and originality are; this is the writer who hears all these worthies calling out, "Not that.  Not that.  Try this.  Try this.  Yes, now you appear to be getting the hang of it."

You rejoice in the voices of these worthies, reminding you, "Not that, man.  Not that.  Here, try this."

Monday, April 21, 2014

In the Writer's Toolkit, There Had Better Be a Magnnifying Glass

You did not give serious thought to the term "tool kit" until the archaeologist, Brian Fagan, began hiring you for editorial readings and consultations on his books.  He spoke offhandedly of the need for prehistoric peoples to have a set of working tools, then went on to describe some of the more common "tool kits."  Your own contribution to that equation was to refer to these items as "the pre-historic Swiss Army knife."

Thinking about some of your own early tool kits has reminded you of some of the more obvious items, more descriptive of the boy you were than mere physical descriptions of you.  The number two Dixon-Ticonderoga pencil, of stub length, was a major feature.  A pocket-sized notebook, quite often one you'd glued together yourself, was a presence, along with a pocket knife, one or more marbles, sometimes a piece of tar (for chewing), and, depending on your ability not to use up the entire box at once, a hard, resinous, fruit-flavored candy, the Jujube.

There was also the Duncan Yo-Yo, as you knew it then:
and, it your finances were opulent, a small envelope containing a yo-you string.  An occasional treasure such as a lump of colored chalk would come your way.  If you were really into your supply mode, there would also be at least one paper match book, because you could never tell when you had to light a fire, but also because, at the time, homes and apartments regularly had incinerators for burning trash. 
From time to time, you came into possession of a pocket-sized box of wooden matches, which you took care to preserve because the box could make a useful transportation for a small turtle or any number of insects you might find agreeable.  Having wooden matches on hand signified to you a level of sophistication your retrospective memory still savors.

At any given time, your toolkit was apt to have a length of string, kept in a neat hank, thanks to instructions from your father in trying knots and his own advice that if you were going to carry string with you, you'd want it in some form where it would not be difficult to access or use.

An occasional small rock would suggest to you that it wished to travel with you for a time before you found something irresistible for you to throw it at.  You did not at the time consider the nuances of that.  Throwing a rock was nothing more than throwing a rock.  Sometimes, you did not even have to throw it at something, rather the mere act of seeing how far you could throw it became satisfaction enough, although there were times as well when the force with which you could throw the rock gave you the satisfaction you wished.  

Now, in retrospect, you are able to think of yourself alternately as an enabler of rocks or at least one who sent them places they might not otherwise have gone.  Thinking about this symbiotic relation between the boy you were and rocks causes you to consider picking up the occasional rock, having some measurable effect on its destiny.

All these were indeed aspects of your toolkit, but you are leaving out a significant tool, one that has a great significance for the man the boy has become.  That vital addition to your toolkit is the pocket-sized magnifying glass, which allowed you to look at blades of grass, fallen leafs, of course your own skin, and such insects you could get to hold still for investigation.

Your first came as a surprise or premium in the box of Cracker-Jacks you often bought.  This magnifier was made of plastic, which gave it a tendency to scratch, impairing your vision of the things you sought to see up close.  Your sister told you to consider this magnifying glass as a message for you to get and carry with you one of better quality for more sophisticated investigations.  She was helpful in getting you to save for
 something more able to withstand the rigors of your pockets.  She also showed you how, by holding the glass at an angle where it captured the rays of the sun, you could in fact focus light to burn a hole in a newspaper--any kind of paper, for that matter; especially the foolscap paper on which your school assignments were written--or pretty much anything you wished.

You now have a sophisticated pocket magnifier, a gift for your renewed subscription to The New York Review of Books.  There are times when you actually carry it with you in the event you will wish to magnify something special.  The device even has a button which will turn on a small reading light.

Sometimes, as you've noted with some frequency, you require a good deal of time to recognize a small miracle, previously hidden from you. In this case, the recognition this very day, this twenty-first day of April in the fourteenth year of the twenty-first century, that the quality of a magnifying glass to focus enough light and, thus, heat to cause smoke, then charring, then actual fire, is the perfect analogy for story.

Story focuses the energy of life onto the reader, causing awareness and warmth to the point where it leaves a mark.  Story causes the reader to experience magnified now, a presence so intense that it can and will burn holes in the fabric of mythological truths surrounding the individual.

Many characters in story are running from things.  Many others are running toward things.  Many readers are yearning to run from or toward.  Story magnifies the yearning.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hamster Wheels Are Not Yet Stories

A favored stimulus/response mechanism for you comes at times when you receivev editorial  notes on something you've written.  The backstory to this revelation resides in your belief that you've gone through a manuscript enough times to have caught the anomalies, inelegance, and, to be severe in your bluntness, the manuscript contains your belief that any ambiguity or question raised in your text is intentional.  There--you've said it.  The ambiguity is a part of a desired effect.

Those are your intentions.  Now, as you skim through editor notes, your eye will catch a suggestion for another example or a wish for some attribution.  So far, nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing is out of the ordinary until you come to the kind of query or suggestion that turns you into the equivalent of Lance Armstrong, shooting up some enhancement substance.  How, you wonder through the rising cholers and blood pressure, can that not be clear?  You read the query again, then the indicated text.  Sure enough.  The editorial query was justified.  You could have been clearer, pellucid, if you will.

Such discoveries are at the top of your pleasure-of-discovery list.  Some day, perhaps, you will deliver a manuscript of the sort you deliver when you are the editor, not the writer.  Yet, perhaps not.  No matter, that is, no matter if you go over the material to the point where you can no longer see the needful detail calling out its woeful lack of specificity.

You enjoy the feel of a clean page, one where the narrative thrust seems to take you by the hand, then lead you through the loops and whorls of the fingerprints of logic, building an effect with fact and cadence and voice, leading to the fewest possible conclusions.  There is a sense of satisfaction, of you having cleared your metaphorical throat of ahems and er and um, taken a sip of water or coffee, then gone on to seek out all your habit words, those words such as and, thus, accordingly, and seeming to, or, worse yet, the adverbial seemingly.

At one time, years back the discovery of such things was occasion for discouragement.  Would you ever find your way to clean pages? Would your manuscripts stir in copyeditors and fact checkers the sense of, oh, oh, here comes himself, better watch out.  

Times have changed.  Of course you hope to turn in clear, clean copy,  Of course your focus on such activity enhances your eye for catching such things, possibly even catching them before you have the chance to set them down.  But now, the fact of another pair of eyes, looking as well to have your back, is a call to the battle cry of watching things to a closer degree yet.

Since you began making these specific notes, another opportunity presents itself to you.  What, after all, are such notes for if they are not to be gone over?  Gone over for what?  Gone over, for one thing, an accelerated sense of logic in development.  Although the gloves are off when it comes to riffing and you find yourself seduced away from your main purpose because of a memory you have triggered or because of an unseen connection among disparate concepts, you look for ways to more direct, effective transitions.  You look for potential building of themes and your hopes of resolving them to some degree by the last paragraph.

You look also for repetition of thematic material, not from a standpoint that repetition is fatal or even a flaw, rather as a way of keeping pace with subjects of consistent importance to you.  Two such repetitions here within these blog paragraphs are risk and consequences.  You're pretty consistent in your regard for them, welcoming them to the table whenever they appear.

In what may be the most significant theme of all, story intrigues you the most.  This is so because of the significant number of times a narrative comes rushing out of you, impressing you with its urgency to be told, but impressing you with every bit as emphatic a sense that it has emerged not yet story.  This awareness used to effect you with the same sense of dismay that you were doomed to produce dirty copy.  You call yourself a story writer, yet you cannot always see how some of your narratives are something less at the moment.

Setting things aside is an important key.  The first things you look for on return to an early draft project or random notes or these blog paragraphs are the sources of energy and interest.  Thus another exciting discovery, a few paragraphs of dialogue between two or more characters, clashes you set down in some flurry of enthusiasm.

Does the enthusiasm still flutter?  Does it call out to you, give us the next step?  Get us off this hamster wheel on which you have left us.  Call off your daily routines.  Listen to us.  Listen.

If not, what can be done

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Because of events in your fourth, fifth, and sixth grade years relative to your handwriting, thereafter referred to as your penmanship, you now have at least twenty-five fountain pens, one of which is almost certain to be with you on most of your ventures out of 409 East Sola Street.

Because of events leading up to your ardent wish for a pocket knife, your subsequent acquisition of one as a birthday present on your sixth birthday, and the subsequent fate of that particular pocket knife, you have any number of pocket knives.  Once again, you are not given to hyperbole with the observation that at any time, there is a likelihood of a pocket knife being in your pocket on even so insignificant a venture outside 409 East Sola Street as the long driveway, where the Sunday edition of The New York Times awaits you.

In a small sense, going forth with a writing implement and a pocket knife can be seen as gestures of rebellion, or assertions of your sense of grown-up-ness.  In another sense, prior to your years of classroom issues with your penmanship, there was sure to be at least one stub of a number two Dixon-Ticonderoga pencil in your pocket, along with some form of notebook in which to write things.  In those pre-penmanship days, you were able to decipher your handwriting without much difficulty.

The penmanship issues were in large part a result of you being moved from California to the east, where school desks had actual inkwells, filled  at least once a week with what has become your least favored color of ink, midnight blue.

Of course the third element in the toolkit equation is the notebook.  You have many of these scattered about.  One or more of them find their way into a jacket pocket.  Many of them have notations in your favored color of ink, a tint resembling rich dark espresso coffee muddled with frothy cream, thus a shade of brown.  

Notebooks these days have matters of greater consequence, not the least of which is your University ID number, which allows you to long onto the University Internet.

With so many pens, knives, and notebooks, a certain aspect of misplacement, searching, and outright loss are inevitable.  Sometimes, in the crease of your reading chair, or in the pocket of a jacket you haven't worn for some time, you will find a pen or a knife or notebook you'd presumed lost.  You greet it expansively, promising to take better regard of it, recognizing its importance and, at the same time, its vulnerability.

One such pocket knife went the way of the original one, this more modern version bought for a specific purpose, every bit as dear to you as fountain pens, notebooks, and pocket knives.  This was a Laguoile, small enough and thin enough to be a pocket knife, but with a long enough blade to essay such things as a melon, the long, pointy loaves of French bread, undoubtedly a salami or summer sausage, and without question, thin leaves from a round or brick of cheese.  Your Laguoile, unlike the one pictured here, also had a corkscrew, in the event that a bottle of wine should require its assistance.  

This was to be used only for picnics.  Picnics deserve an essay of their own; they are representatives of rituals vital to human survival.  Talk of the need for survival suggests itself when, as the English poet, Wordsworth said, "The world is too much with us, late and soon."

The picnic is vital for your own sense of place, which means your need to arrange a picnic suitable for one human and one dog, then find the proper place for both.  Champagne, a chilled Gewurtztramanier. Folle Blanche, or Pouilly Fuisse or, a cold pale Sierra Nevada ale for you, sufficient water for Sally.  The Italian Market on De la Guerra was an excellent place to begin.  Perhaps a stop at Gelson's Market or the Tri-counties Produce for pears or melons.  The Xanadu or Our Daily Bread for the ficelle, and cheese according to the whim of the moment.  Surely olives.  Perhaps a fresh cucumber or a cucumber brined just long enough to have made the transition to pickle without giving up its crispness.

There are picnics for two humans as well, and of course there are picnics for large groups of humans, each picnic an answer to a specific need or situation.

With picnics in mind, you've been looking at the advisability of another Lagouile, this time without the corkscrew because you already have at the ready a combination bottle opener, corkscrew, and knife to cut the seal of a bottle of champagne or rascally white.  And you know it is effective for cutting a cantaloupe and an avocado.

There are many splendid places in memory for a picnic.  Among your favorite, where you and Sally often went, was a spot about half way up Deer Creek, off the Pacific Coast Highway at the southern end of Ventura County.  Sometimes, after your meal, you'd sit at the edge of  one of the ocean-facing ledges, watching the tides, aware Sally was getting added scents of deer, perhaps coyote or bobcat.

Perhaps, with some coffee from a thermos, the notebook and pen would come forth for some observation.  In any case, the occasion was the dream of your earlier years come true:  an adventure, a celebration, a sense of being somewhere in the midst of flying, crawling, scurrying life, the dance of tides, and the textures of your most favorite of all meals, the picnic.