Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Big Idear

At the time it was happening to you,learning how to read seemed a great, exciting mystery, filled with sudden, lurking surprises, ready to spring out to confront you.  Little boy, what are you doing here.

What you were doing was decoding codes, translating words you did not recognize much less understand into secrets you would share as soon as you found someone worthy of sharing them with.

With help from your parents and sister, you already had something of a jump on the process.  You could already identify the letters in the headlines of your parents' newspaper of preference, the afternoon Herald-Express.  Thanks to your sister, you also had a list of words to carry around with you, words that did not sound the way they were spelled, words such as enough and through.  There were also words some individuals added sounds to, words such as idea, which came through as what's the big idear.

The process of learning taught you to be alert for regionalisms, which began pleasantgly enough when a great tribe of your father's sister, brother, and various nieces and nephews from New York and New Jersey came to visit, stumbling over the pronunciations of Spanish and Chumash place names.  La Cienega.  Cahuenga.  And, whoopee, Hueneme, which came out like Hu way enemy.

Then there was their pronunciation of your mother's name, Ann, as Anner, and the eastern branch of the family's amusement at your strange accent.

Written and spoken words are often codes, regionalisms, or secrets shared among intimates.  From time to time, you are reminded of this highly textured, nuanced quality of written and spoken language when you recount a conversation, only to learn you'd misheard, misunderstood.  Even more interesting, rereading a book with the same sense of having missed something important, not having seen a particular clue the first or second time through.

Wait; it gets even better.  Discussing a book with another person who has also read, possibly reread that book, that individual points out something you nevertheless missed, even on the occasion of your own rereading.  How could you not have seen?  Now that you are told, the matter is so obvious.  But you didn't see it once, twice.

You've taught courses which in effect deal with close reading, going over a particular text on a sentence-by-sentence basis to demonstrate the complexity of the writer;s storytelling craft and to demonstrate, among other things, the difference between a news story and a fictional narrative.  Of course, during such times, students are often able to come forth with observations, translations you'd not even considered.

In a recent conversation with a friend who spoke of setting forth to reread the immense, textured biography of Lyndon Johnson by the writer Robert Caro, you are for some moments lost by the mere mention of that biography and that writer.  You are in fact immersed in the notion of language as a sea of code that needs to be decoded, translated, considered, revisited.  

You are led into the awareness that Caro's biography is in its own way as rich and evocative as James Joyce's fictional venture, Ulysses, wherein everything is a potential pun, political reference, and/or an attempt to take language beyond the mere description of event in what has been called plot-driven fiction.  

Thanks to your experience as a reader and an editor, you see and appreciate Caro's artistry not only with words, not only with meaning, but as well the ability to pack useful, viable information into a sentence and then a paragraph.  You see many others who attempt such grace but fail, not so much because they lack the information as because they overthink the entire process.

How fortunate you are to have any number of books scattered about the studio, opened to or bookmarked at the spot where you had to set the material down for a time to ponder and digest its implications.  By no means all of these are works of essay or commentary; many are novels.

You are reminded of the great comedic actor, Zero Mostel, saying from his death bed, "Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard."

This puts you in mind of your own take, Being born and entering the growth process is easy.  Reading is hard.

Friday, May 30, 2014

But It Really Happened That Way

There are any number of reasons behind your decision to put down a book or story you're reading with the certain belief that you will not return to it. When you shift the focus to a play, the point of departure comes with the decision not to return after the first act intermission.  If you find yourself turning grouchy or tired or, worse yet, bored, at a motion picture, there is no need to wait.

Over the years, and in direct proportion to your sense of familiarity with the craft of composition for your own work, you've built up an impressive list of "things not to do." In your reading of other writers or your presence at a play or film, you eager to enter the story, otherwise you would not have picked up the book or magazine or entered the theater.  

When beginnings cause you to become aware of, then start score of the things not to do, you have begun to question something the eighteenth-century critic and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to as the willing suspension of disbelief.  You are, in effect, thinking things about the story you ought not to be thinking.  You are in fact shifting from suspending disbelief to the point of bringing it on.

A writer you have learned a great many things from in one epic meeting, where you were trying to get him to shift from his current massmarket reprint publisher to the publisher you represented, was not an eloquent writer, which would have added even more weight to his ability as a storyteller.  

Because he was such a gifted storyteller, he could leave eloquence to lesser storytellers.  You've read a number of his Westerns.  You read them because you believed him.  And because of the one, long, epic meeting, you believed you would learn things about storytelling from him.

Belief in the characters, their goals, the setting, and the outcome is an essential to story.  With no reason to believe, all you see is an endless tide of events, most of these told or described rather than being dramatized and evocative, two qualities you're able to identify in story that engages you.

Your experiences as an editor and teacher have been enhanced by your reading of legions of manuscripts where your belief was altogether lacking or missing to a noticeable degree.  Your experiences as a reviser of your own writing added weight to your impatience with your own lesser drafts, eager for those editorial meetings with your writing self, where it was necessary to ask you what was going on here in the most literal sense.

You've had a good deal of experience with pointing out a scene or motivation or goal for which you had little or no belief. And your experience continues with being told one of the things that causes you to cringe, "But it really happened that way."

The only time you want to hear that is when the matter at hand is a documentary, a dramatic narrative, but not a story.  If the event or person is being yanked from actual history into actual fiction, there is bound to be some disconnect because the writer is describing rather than trying to capture and encourage the growth and multifarious nature of the character.

Because an event took place in reality, there is no guarantee that the event has story elements, nor is there some contractual agreement with the fates that the element will be believable.  Thus we come to the irony of a made-up event being as much or more apt to convey a sense of being real and believable.

From time to time you'll hear a few exchanges of conversation that send you scurrying for your pen to record those lines, the words and their intensity causing you to imagine scenarios at some remove from the individual speaking them.  This is a good thing because these real persons would likely get in the way of the patchwork quilt characters you could make of your own creations.  The less you see of the actual sources, the better because you are not at all likely then to be influenced by the real thing.

Real is event.  Story is a domino, tilted on its end to make its center of gravity higher and less stable.  Story is a finite number of dominoes, but the number cannot be known until the story is finished, looked at with a  critical eye, then checked with great care to make sure the characters do not do things from passionless logic.

You could and have taken this inherent irony one step more by wondering how you are affected when what is real is not believable and what is invented seems more in keeping with what seems true.  One result is that you tend not to see individuals in terms of non- causal relationships, where they exist from one event to the next and are less easy to take in as real.  Another result is how you see most individuals as in some kind of deliberate or helpless motion, borne onward by what happened in the past as it triggers causal and immediate consequences.

This would suggest you see most individuals as Sisyphus surrogates, destined to meaningless and repetitive circumstances.  But for you this is where story begins.  Someone wanting out.  Someone saying  No, I believe I'll try it this way instead.

You believe it begs the issue to stop the argument at the point where the writer must believe the character or the event.  Doing so makes the writer too literal minded, looking for things that really happened.  Story you can believe in is story that has not yet happened.  That is why you read.  That is why you write.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Emperor's Closet

Peering into the telescope of perspective for clues has been helpful, but not to the point where you can pinpoint those early days, when you became aware that anger was one of your default positions.  Nor can you locate a specific time when you were able to see anger in its relationship to fear.

You can remember a time when, driving your old first car, a 1939 Pontiac coupe, you were all but runn off the road by a passing eighteen-wheeler.  As the adrenaline and fear wore down, you felt a tsunami of anger and resentment toward the truch, prompting visions of speeding up, overtaking the eighteen-wheeler, then giving it a dose of its own medecine by forcing it off the road.

Soon, a third default status, laughter, arrived on the scene, directed at you for thinking you could catch up to the offending truch, then maneuver it off the road.  Through such visitations from these internal mechanisms, your awareness of your resident preferences began to emerge.  You are happy to report the process is still in progress, visiting you late into the evening yesterday, while preparing for today's lecture and discussion in your noir fiction class.

The specific discussion was the assigned reading, Richard Price's quite excellent noir novel, Lush Life.  You make this judgment because of Price's finely tuned ear for dialogue, his range of characters, the moral choices he forces these characters to make, and their outcomes.  All this is done without a trace of Price insinuating himself into the narrative as a control freak author.  

This last observation is crucial because Price achieves his narrative voice by inference and control, in direct and, admittedly, unfair comparison with Ayn Rand, who cannot allow her passion for the story to define it, instead seizing every available opportunity to rail and blather in the service of her own political beliefs when a more thoughtful writer would allow the actions and opinions of the characters carry the water.

After some deliberation, you realize you cannot at this moment compare Rand to a writer of her set of beliefs with any thought of the comparison being apt and fair.  In consequence, you're going to load the deck against her by comparing her to a quite opposite philosophy, yet one who uses the control and restraint you admire as much as you admire his politics.  Thus Eric Blair, who wrote as George Orwell.

You are tempted to compare Rand with two who more closely resemble her political and personal visions, Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh.  But this would only ratify your belief that there is no fairness in comparing Rand with anyone.  Because Amis and Waugh bring you to the position you wish to explore, you're also tempted to compare Rand with that quintessential nineteenth century phenomenon, Horatio Alger.

The position is of exaggerated humor, which has become what your early anger has evolved to.  You were thinking about your fondness for a wide spectrum of noir literature, even to the point where Hilary Mantell's masterful, historical Wolf Hall has noir elements.  

You were also thinking of the more straightforward noir, brought about by real time circumstances of more modern times.  The Dust Bowl/Okies exodus in The Grapes of Wrath for an instance, and of course Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and your own candidates for noir, Willa Cather's My Antonia, and the collected short stories of Katherine Mansfield you took along with you to class this evening.  Much as you appreciate and relate to and are able to connect dots between such titles, these are not the kinds of noir you write.

You are about revealing the truth behind the emperor having no clothing, the kind of truth that extends to the emperor having a commodious closet, in which hangs empty hangars.  It is not enough to show him as naked, he is not complete unless he is seen as thinking there is plenty more like that, at home in his closet.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Among your favorite type of story, regardless of the genre in which the story is set, is a situation when two or more characters appear to be in agreement but in actuality are talking beyond one another.

There are numerous causes for this, some of which you discover in so-call literature or close-reading classes, where the events of a character's behavior is so often the subject of debate.

You love to sit back, watching the interpretations fly, some of them in close accord to your own interpretations, others at some distance.  You are more engaged when your own work is involved and the interpretations come filtering in.  This is so because you know what you intended.

Readers, critics, editors often do not see your intentions, even in the face of the hints and clues you embedded to achieve a specific conclusion.  For reasons still not clear to you, your literary agent went to some lengths to convince your publisher to begin your about-to-be-published collection with a story other than the one you and the publisher thought to begin with.  Her take on that story was different than yours and your publisher's.

Although a number of reviewers have called out the beginning story for its agreeable qualities, an equal number mentioned the mischievous and lively intent of the story originally slated to start the collection.

That is nothing; your publisher and his editor had comments on others of the stories that left you bewildered to the point of wondering, How could there be any doubt of your intent?

This is by no means to argue the final results or, indeed, the intent of the editorial process, rather to reflect the wide potentials for interpretations among readers.  After all, there is no single profile for a reader; some are quite young.  Others are older, but they may not be as well read as their juniors.  Gender, social backgrounds, and ethnicity also introduce factors of interpretation.

In your first or second year of teaching at USC, you had an experience with a student whose work and potential you'd come to admire.  "Look at me,"  you once told him in exasperation.  "I'm trying to explain something."

"In the culture of my birth,"  he said, "eye contact is meant as a challenge, looking down a sign of respect."

You knew that.  Or thought you did.  When brought into direct contact with it, you learned it in a way you could file away for future reference, for enhanced understanding of a situation you might well have misinterpreted.

Cultural, social, and ethnic chasms abound, presenting the writer with great opportunities to see chances for the drama of the mistake.  In your early days of living in Mexico City, you were in effect a walking anomaly, a Californio who could read Spanish-language newspapers well enough, but who was taught Spanish with an emphasis on Spanish pronunciation rather than Mexican.  The most humorous result of all came when, in search of a barbershop--peluqueria--you wound up in a neighborhood dive bar,a pulqueria, more bewildered by the experience until you were offered a taste of the house special, mescal, along with the information, "We saved the worm for you.  Salud (also known as Drink up)!

This preference for the believed concord when in reality there is a significant dissimilarity of vision has produced for you the agreeable side effect of the closer read, where you take nothing for granted until you have looked closely for the most overlooked aspect of story you find so intriguing.


The mischief in apparent agreement.  The mischief in the revelation of the disconnect.  The mischief in the "engagement" and marriage of Dorothea Brooke to Casubon in George Eliot's marvelous romp, Middlemarch.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


You knew what you were going to say, if anyone came.

No one came.  You sat in Room 160B, The Old Little Theater, nursing a coffee you'd picked up from The Daily Grind, thinking over the senselessness that began last Friday, sending first the small, college town of Isla Vista, and then, as the news went viral, much of the country, after a disturbed young man acted out a disturbing amount of destruction against young men and women of his age.

Senseless acts often have grief tied to their consequences, much in the manner of tin cans tied to the bumpers of the get-away cars in which newlyweds depart from their wedding reception in search of a honeymoon and a new, remarkable life.  The tin cans of grief cause an unforgettable clatter in the Cultural Awareness.  The tin cans of celebration remind the newlyweds of the pranking well-wishers who are serenading them off to their future.

If you take the time to investigate, the Cultural Awareness is filled to the brim with occasions of grief, some of them, such as Katrina, categorized as acts of nature, others, such as the World Trade Center on 9/11, acts of deliberate violence, yet others, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25, 1911, the result of negligence.

The irreducible denominator is people.  To be sure, there were disasters before there were people, fires, volcanoes erupting, earthquakes, ice ages, meteors striking Earth.  When people came along, man-made disasters came with us, pelting us with the whim of our deranged visions, our tendencies toward error, and sheer dumb circumstance.

The grief-struck survivors are for some time, perhaps  the rest of their life, insulated with the tin cans of anger, guilt, bewilderment, possible desire for revenge, a possible resolve to lead a more productive life (whatever that may mean to them), and a possible resolve to lead a more engaged life (whatever that may mean to them).

In less than two weeks, you'll be at the one-hundred-twenty-sixth-month anniversary of having been made aware the unwanted squatter of cancer had taken up residence within you, and its eviction from the premises.  This was arguably the most traumatic event of your life.  It is by no means the same thing as the results of last Friday evening in Isla Vista, but it was enough to get you to experience the shock of awareness, the subsequent fear, and the bargaining with a Force that is odds of probability.

In addition, you had the reminder, four times a year for the next five years, that cancer might have enjoyed its stay with you so much that it opted to return.  With all this in mind, particularly the fear of the unwanted return, you with some vigor stopped bargaining.  Instead, you took a stand  Some might call your stand a risk or a gamble.  No radiation.  No chemo.

Still not in the same league as Friday night in IV, merely an eye-opener, one that dislodges an avalanche of associations, decisions, and even resolutions.

Reality is fraught with event, some of it as senseless and violent as last Friday.  For the longest time, you have turned to story as a way of finding some way to approach Reality with a working philosophy of operation.  The more you learn--and you admit the learning is by inference--from story and the men and women who make and have made them, the more you see yourself edging toward the margins of any crowd or group, jostled there by your own wish to do as well for your species as you can without bringing down any landslides upon your head.

You are not by nature a loner, have no desire or reason to live as though you were one.  You wish to experience, interact, observe, get some verbal portraits down on paper--yes, paper, not screen or ebook.

Yesterday, you spoke of pole stars in the heavens you see.  In addition to those, you see the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, close on to a hundred years old, shimmering, beckoning.  Of late, you are traveling with her collected stories in your car, for reading at those solitary moments at coffee shops, where, when the coffee is good, the atmosphere seems an extension of your desk, and there is the study of re-reading to be done.

Had there been anyone there, in Room 160B, Old Little Theater, you'd have told them the administration cancelled all classes for this day, that you'd stopped by, promptly at six, to see if anyone wanted to say anything about the fraught nature of Reality, and that you were there to listen.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Pole Stars

In the same manner  as a chef blends the chemistry of ingredients to produce a memorable dish, the writer blends ingredients about a braid of themes and conflicts, introduces characters and setting, then turns them loose.

In the same manner as an actor prepares for a role, developing a mosaic of gestures, attitudes, pauses, responses, the writer enters each character, observes them, and is drawn into them to the point where actor and writer have done the same thing; they have merged with the creation at hand.

You've eaten a number of memorable meals, prepared by chefs who have studied their craft, worked at it in the traditional ways of apprenticing to a senior chef, watching, experimenting, being willing to make mistakes.  Such meals were in fact memorable because your senses of awareness were enhanced for those moments at the table, your palate filtering the textures, tastes, exciting meetings of flavors you'd not expected.

You've also grown up at the table of a mother who came into her marriage scarcely knowing how to prepare the simplest meal, diving into the chemistry and physics of cuisine to the point where her simplest, most basic dish was a sublime experience.  

There are things to be learned from all these venues in which craft is addressed, visualized, absorbed.  You fit into the picture by having observed these crafts, your own experience as a person enhanced and textured by the myths you built up about them.

You were well into your twenties and your first serious attempt to see your major writing influence, Samuel L. Clemens, in the cold, bright light of examination rather than mere adulation.  You could copy him to the point where you could almost convince yourself you sounded like him.  The questions arose, did you in fact sound like him, and if so, what was the value in that?  Anyone who wished could go to the real thing, the arguably funnier, more piercing and insightful real thing, leaving you a mere shadow.

By this time, you'd begun to notice some of his weaknesses.  Although fewer by far than his considerable range of strength, they were nevertheless important to you because even these weaknesses were more sturdy, substantial, engaging than you at your strength.  Lesson learned:  You'd taken on a massive body of work from one of the most significant stylists, storytellers, and examples of a strong, moral stance  in the entire English-speaking world, spilling over into translations.

By this time, you'd come to mistrust and dislike textbooks as such.  In stead, you made his work your text book.  Your learning process had begun.  A great deal of time has passed since those early discoveries about him, his work, and you and your own work.  He and his work are still your pole star constellation.  You have chosen well; you have chosen someone you could never stop learning from.

You have come to see the inherent craft in the work of noted chefs, in the splendid men and women who give acting a memorable resonance, and the writers beyond Clemens who have brought the resonant hum of story to life for you.  And you have recognized the debt to your mother through the craft of devotion and reach extending into many parts of your life.

Your retrospective take on her is in many ways the reverse of the gifts you got from Clemens.  From your early teens through your mid-thirties, you were more focused on her weaknesses than her strengths.  How fortunate for you that you had time to observe, to see her in retrospect, to learn in yet another way the writer's tool of point-of-view, which is an incredible addition to the toolkit.

Among your joys now are those of watching writers you admire as they exercise their craft, giving you a tingle more intense than mere reading for pleasure.  You see the effects of their risk-taking, done almost to the point where it becomes muscle memory.

You see actors you admire, using gestures, expressions, timing, voice, showing you ways in which characters are not so much brought to life as they are brought forth as life.

You watch and you note and you understand from the tiny foothold you have achieved how fortunate you are to see such polestars in the sky each time you look up.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Eye Contact

These past few weeks, you've been on a new kind of book tour, where your appearance is in the form of answers to questions about you, your writing process, and the most recent publication, the collection of twelve short stories, published under the title Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay out Late at Night. 

You're not making eye contact with your audience as you were at Vroman's Books in Pasadena, where, leaning on the lectern, you faced a gathering that reminded you of times in the past, when you'd gone to book signings, hopeful for some hint of how to get yourself to the place where, that night in the past, that speaker in the past was standing.  

So your first job is to find some way to put some of yourself into the answers to the questions given you by book bloggers, individuals committed enough to books and publishing to take the time and effort to read, to maintain blogs, to reach out to other readers, most of whom want as much as they want most things to have books of their own to bring before a public.

Speak right up.  Provide answers that touch the primal sense of fear, envy, and determination you felt each time you attended a book signing or crammed into an auditorium to hear someone speak about his or her latest project.

For a moment or two, you're in a blink-off contest with the primal fear, which was, and is the fear that you've not done enough drafts, have not brought the idea you had, buzzing about like an annoying fly or mosquito, into sufficient focus.  You're well enough able to see that the books and stories you read and admire have the structure and dimension of many drafts, each word chosen with deliberation to do more than compose a sentence.  The sentences must convey action, movement, emotion, depth.  

Envy sounds in your head like a dentist's drill, even the more modern ones.  You can not only hear the whirring bite of the drill, you can feel the bits of enamel fly off against the insides of your cheeks.  When you read some of your contemporaries and the elders, looking for ways they made a word or two here and there stand for so much, then compare your own efforts, you suffer the disparity.  You wonder, will you ever capture the lightning in a bottle of nuance in the likes of a short story by Katherine Mansfield or Ray Bradbury or Philip Roth?

This leaves you only with determination, which you have to bring to work with you much the same way working persons you know bring their lunch.  There are several problems with determination, notable among them the way it diminishes humor, leaving a residue of seriousness that can turn into grimness.  You think about this from time to time because, well, who wants to read a grim writer?  Who wants to read stories where you'd need night-view or infra-red glasses to catch the slightest movement of humor.

So you answer the questions in ways you hope will make eye contact. In response to the question, What was the inspiration for these stories, you answer:

"The inspiration for the stories is every bit as varied as the stories themselves.  An inspiration for a story is like trying to eat a messy sandwich while wearing a clean shirt.  No matter how careful I am, a little dab seems to find its way off the sandwich and onto the shirt.  Sometimes a conversation heard in a coffee shop can trigger me.  Sometimes, hearing students finishing up a conversation as I sail into class will arrest me.  “What did I hear you say?” I’ll ask, and moments later, I’m scribbling something down.  When I came into class last Tuesday evening, I heard two students describing the near riot starting when the Panda Express in the UCEN (Student Union) ran out of orange chicken at lunch time.  I have been haunted by that ever since.

"A number of these stories and many others of mine take place in university settings.  Strange, weird, and wonderful things happen in university settings, where the politics, responses, and consequences seem to light up my story-telling mind as though it were a pinball machine. "

You're hoping all along for eye contact with those who read the blog where the interview takes place.  You're hoping as well to make eye contact with readers in whose presence you will never be.

Even though the process starts with you, there are enough things going on about you to keep you alert to the fact that you are at some remove from the center of the universe.  Once you remind yourself, for the unknown number of times, you are free to portray that center of the universe to the characters of your choice, then send the work out to make eye contact for you.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Footrace

A student in her twenties has told you she is quite passionate about her wish to become a writer.  To that effect, while pursuing a rigorous course of study and making the performance of The Dean's List (of distinguished students), she has asked you for hints, clues, and advice.  To this extent, you're pleased.  Having a committed and engaged student in a class is a significant boost to your own engagement and performance.  Having a student ask for advice and counsel beyond the range of the syllabus is the equivalent of icing on the cake.

The problem begins when this student informs you how, notwithstanding your apparent ability to cite examples from a large selection of books from about the eighteenth century until the present day, she does not see the value of becoming "that" kind of reader, what she calls the "historical reader."

She has a list of about a hundred canonical books, only about forty percent of which are fiction, from which she is content to draw.  While she agrees with you to the point of having written with some eloquence about the need for reading, her thrust is toward books written in the twenty-first century.  Seventeenth through twentieth century books in fact tend to bore her; she wants modern.  She takes the matter a step farther yet by saying she can "get all that other stuff" from you and her other instructors.  She can, she says, even read books about the books of past centuries.  Her interest is on the present moment, the now, which she manages to capitalize to Now when speaking about it.

Although you understand and sympathize with her position, you cannot endorse it because you hope to live long enough to write a book about nineteenth century American eccentrics, which will, you believe, sell another thousand or so more copies on the basis of a chapter you hope to include demonstrating how American eccentrics of the twentieth and twenty-first century could not have appeared on stage already formed; they had to have had some influential guidance from the past.

Your student, who was, you remind her, born in the last century, concedes your point, but has more or less drawn her line in the metaphoric sand at the mid-point of the twentieth century, insistent that the types, motives, and cultural themes from that point forward are more or less updated versions of themes from the past.  

Of course she wants to know of Cicero's oratory skills, but her greater curiosity is for the oratory of Martin Luther King.  Of course she has a sympathetic eye for the hubris of kings within Shakespeare, but "we" had Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush.

When you step forth to argue, you recall another book you wish to last long enough to write, in which you, hubris in hand, wish to write a book called Studies in Classic American Literature.  You understand a title cannot be copyrighted.  Nevertheless you intend to add vol 2 to your title in order to make sure you are in a sense usurping D.H. Lawrence, author of vol. 1.  You could just as well thought to compile a series of essays about more modern significant American writers.

The fact is, you were inspired to think of your project because of your admiration for the Lawrence and your wish to have those who have not read him become curious to do so.  Further, you like the notion of contemporary writers in effect entering conversations with writers of past generations by writing the literary equivalents of variations on a theme.

You and your student are two individuals,holding up lit candles in the darkness, each for the equivalent of a different cause.  What amazes you is the extraordinary number of wish-to-become writers who are confident in their belief that reading a book or two, say Aristotle's Poetics, and E. M. Forester's Aspects of the Novel, will provide sufficient information and awareness of craft to allow the dream of becoming a writer to be reached sooner than farther down the line, perhaps even NOW.

A year or so back, you have an experience with an author who objected strenuously to some comments you'd made about a work in what you believed to be in progress.  Oh, no, she assured you, you're wrong.  That book has already been published.  Because you could not believe any of the more traditional publishers would take the work on--for one thing, there was no real story--you asked who the publisher was.  And her answer:  The book was self published.  It did not need an editor because the "writer" had a number of books published.  No need to mention these were also self published.

Then there was the time an individual hired you to produce an editorial report on a project for a writer he much admired.  This, too, was a self published project, which meant an enormous statistical challenge awaited it.  True, some self published books are taken on by traditional publishers.  Those projects are few and far between, requiring proof of significant sales.  Your editorial report compared the similarities of the project under review to a number of already published works by other writers.

When you met with the writer to turn in your report, she immediately wondered ho you'd had the time to make all the comparisons and suggestions you did, given your own work schedule.  She was quick to admit she had no time to waste on reading.  You could have said that much was evident, but instead you observed that most successful writers you knew were omnivorous readers.  "Don't have time to look up such words as that,"  she said.

There was no point in saying what you could have said to her.  What words--three initials, really--you did have were for your ears only.

Writers or not, we are all of us in some aspect of a footrace with our own mortality and our real and imagined responsibilities in reality.  The writers you know and find to be admirable understand the exigencies of this footrace, and yet they are amazing in their willingness, their need to revise until they get the kind of sheen on the work they feel necessary before it can be shipped off to work.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Open Door Policy

Among the first things you remove from your own writing when you are revising, and from the work of another, when you are editing, is information--incessant, descriptive information.

When you have done the describing in your own work, you are more often getting a sense of where you are, why things behave as they do, and motivating factors for the characters as they set off in motion.  You have long passed the sense of using facts as argumentative tools, in a sense trying to badger the reader into accepting the entire story because the facts are all worked out and, to the best of your ability, are correct.

Correctness is not high up in the importance pyramid, not in story.  Characters come into story, either convinced they are correct, or seeking information which they wish to believe is correct.  Without trying to suggest facts and information should be anthropomorphized, they should not be allowed to argue or describe their way into story to provide background.  

If you are editing an accomplished writer, you find descriptions and information scattered about the narrative like the unopened boxes scattered about a new dwelling after moving.  You found such a box in your own studio, a relic from the move from Hot Springs Road to here, three and a half years ago.  You were right to be apprehensive when you saw and recognized the box.  The materials inside were all superfluous, overcome by a number of events, their usefulness compromised.

If you are editing a beginning writer, there is a great likelihood you will find paragraphs, sometimes even entire pages of background or description or argumentative evidence that X is a troubled character, Y is an undesirable place, and that Z is relevant psychological or perhaps geographical background to support X's troubles and Y's geological history.

There is some satisfaction in your pursuit of such matters in your own work, because these arguments, descriptions, definitions, and justifications are more often than not in the early pages, thinning quite a bit as the story takes on a dramatic sense of being dimensional.

Information on its own is kindling for the fires of boredom.  Explanation--in particular explanation given in the belief that the reader will not understand--is a fan for those fires, whipping it up to a significant enough whoosh to cause the reader to set the project down, perhaps for all time.  

Close on the heels of mere description and long stretches of events intended to serve as background for the past, present, and forthcoming behavior of characters is argumentation.  Your past experiences with argumentation have come at writers' conferences, once or twice in your private workshops, and in your adult ed fiction classes.  More often than not, they exacerbate because the writer feels backed into a corner, forced to decent the story with what begins as logic, increasing to fustian, and in a few instances to melt down.

Painful as these encounters can be, you are pleased to have them because they once again ratify your own vision of story as an instrument that does not require the dramatic equivalent of a thesis defense.  Such encounters also help you reinforce the patience necessary to tell a story in the most appropriate way.

What is appropriate for you is not a one-size-fits-all venture; your most recent publishing project reaffirmed that for you, leading to differences of opinion with your literary agent, your publisher, and your editor.  Your method of standing your ground involves taking their comments into consideration, doing a draft to see how their suggestions appear, then seeing if there are ways to triangulate so that the emotional tide of the story has not shifted from your original intention but rather has made the tide more graceful and memorable yet.

The biggest thing for you to absorb and accommodate is your belief that ambiguity plays an important role in a story to the point where you do not wish to spell out what you consider major defining moments.  That said, ambiguity, by its intrinsic nature, leaves the door open for interpretations of what was said, what was not said, what was meant, and what was not meant.  

In the long run, revision, improvisation, and open doors seem the most profitable, if ambiguous, approach. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Archimedes and His Rubber Ducky

A significant event in the life of a man who lived between 285 and about 212 Before the Common Era represents to this very day the embodiment of a life-changing, transformational experience.  The man was the mathematician, engineer, and inventor Archimedes.  The transformational event came during the course of his having taken a bath, which is to say he lowered himself into a tub, watched the water level rise against the tiled sides of the tub, muttered a cry of excitement, then sprang from the tub, presumably to dry himself, dress to some casual degree, then rush to his work area.

Used, as he was, to discovering, designing, and inventing things, Archimedes may well have taken this discovery more or less in stride.  You, who are quite a bit less familiar with discovering things, would have put quite a bit more than Archimedes in his purported yelp, "Eureka," or the more substantive "I've found it."

His task, as you understand it, was to discover the gram molar weight of an object of irregular shape, a crown, festooned with jewelry.  By using objects of various sizes, densities, and known composition, Archimedes was able to calculate the authenticity (as in its ratio of gold to binder materials) and worth of the crown.

At the time you first heard the story, you had nothing against taking baths with the possible exception that they signalled the end of the day.  After you bathed, you were expected to retire.  The story of Archimedes' discovery had in effect a transformative effect on you.  From the time of first hearing it, you were aggressive in your interest in taking a bath.  

You were able to turn your interest in bathing to your advantage in the sense of seeing the aesthetic reason for bed right after bath, changing the bath to bed ritual to the first night of new bed linens, then changing the time of the bath to earlier in the day.  This shift in routine was predicated on your performance cleaning the tub after your bath.

You could stretch all this to show how Archimedes' discovery changed your life.  Since then, few things have had as much significance in terms of immediate, transformational results.  To be sure, there have been changes, some of them at high plateaus of significance and consequence.  But most of them, even ones of such insightful awareness as Archimedes' with his bath, came as a result of repetitions.  Among those changes, some of the results also depended upon backsliding, forgetfulness, and the foolish stubbornness of one who insists on doing a thing his way long after he has seen for himself the wrongheadedness and impracticality inherent in his way.

Almost a month to the day after your thirteenth birthday, you were by ritual accorded entry into the status of emerging manhood by the culture of your birth.  You still have a gift from that ritual, itself as transformational as the ritual, perhaps more.  The gift was (and still is) a book.  To judge by its publisher and format, the book could scarcely have cost the donor more than five dollars.  You have read it through, cover to cover, hundreds of times.  You are likely to read it through any number of times yet.  Perhaps even this summer, when there are no classes to consider until September.  

The book contains all of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, all of Huckleberry Finn, portions of other fiction, including Puddin'head Wilson and A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur as well as speeches, excerpts from the longer and shorter works of nonfiction, and about everything a boy of thirteen could have wanted between the covers of one book. 

You did not know it at the time, and although you have no absolute certainty of the matter, this book could well have been the book you spent so many hours searching for in used book stores.  An various times of your life, you have had in your possession nearly everything Twain had published.  Were you inflicted upon some desert island or Pacific atoll, the more of these books with you, the better, but while still in the throes of this metaphor, the book you have and have cherished all these years would be the one single volume you would require.

Your own ah-ha moment, your equivalent of Archimedes' bath moment, was the awareness that the one transformative book you sought all through those strum und drang years of puberty and the even more fraught years of post puberty could only be a book you would have to write yourself.

You believe you've done that, written that book, which has certainly set you free in a number of ways to consider and commit to various others.  Even as you look at that book from time to time, knowing it was at once the answer to a long-time dream and a work you did not devote enough effort to, you see things you wish you were able to add.

How easy it is to realize you write your way up to the edge of each subsequent project, as though the world were flat.  Then you push yourself over the edge.  Sometimes, the recovery requires only a matter of a day or so, other times weeks, months, even years elapse before you know answers and have visions you did not have then.  That is process at work, you, in fact, at work.

So long as you set out on each new project to a point beyond where you can see landmarks of any sort, you may walk with some integrity.  But if your choice is to always keep the shoreline in view, you will have to live with the consequences of knowing the precise moment when you began playing your journeys safe.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Your Presence Is Required

In order to carry the weight of being a lead in a story, the individual character has to be alert at all times.  The alertness relates to being able to spot targets of opportunity that will bring the character in range of the character's ultimate goal.

The character must also be alert to the agendas of other characters, attempting--not always with great success--to see who is to be trusted, who is to be ignored, who is a potential threat.

Your own caveat in this litany of things the lead character must be on the watch for is the opportunity to make mistakes.  A story is an open invitation for mistakes of technique and logic on the part of the writer; the story must also afford lead characters the opportunity to screw up in epic and barely noticeable proportions.  

This necessity is because of your tendency to do such things, your observation that many humans have a screw-up genome, and many characters seem to revel in the potential, thus we all merge in the spirit of screwing up, characters large and small.  Edward Casaubon, from Marianne Evans' Middlemarch, comes to mind as a character who outdoes his own pomposity and ineffectuality, which for him are the norm, with movements and gestures outside his own ineffectual demeanor.

A lead character must, you believe, project an aura of desire for the things that drive the story.  It is not enough to wish to be loved, the character may wish to be loved by a number of individuals as a sort of trial balance, but wishes as well to attract, then hold the love one one other character in particular.  Witness Heathcliffe in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.  

Your reasoning behind all this began to come into focus when Sol Stein, whom you first knew as a publisher, then as a friend, then as a writer whom you were paid to edit for one thing only.  He warned you off the standards of line edit and narrative.  He wanted you to seek out soft spots, then suggest ways in which they could be reworked to aspects of shimmering presence or reverberation of tension or suspense.

You found such places for him, argued with him through his reasons why certain things had to remain as they were, and why certain other things could not be deleted.  Those activities and conversations helped you focus on things you were doing, but calling them other names.  Once focus began to sharpen for you, you found yourself able to say without hesitation that the moment a character set foot in the immediate present of a narrative, that character, however minor, should be "on," which is to say engaged with some time frame such as the present or the immediate past.  What, in effect, am I to do now? And What Have I done?

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), whose stories you seem to admire with increasing fondness, has this quality of presence although some of her stories border on being one hundred years old.  Her characters are so "in the moment" that it has come to you to use her stories to illustrate and exemplify the points you hope to make in your work in progress, A Character Prepares: Acting Techniques and Wisdom to Bring Your Characters to Vibrant Life.

You can hear some editors questioning your choice.  Why her, so far back in the past?  And your answer, because she has lasted, because most, if not all, her stories vibrate with an insistent sense of nowness, without the need for stage directions, footnotes, or reader feeder conversations between characters in order to bring dramatic information on stage.

Soft spots are places where the narrative sags, borne down by the weight of too much fact or detail, too much insistence from the writer that certain bits of information must be presented to the reader now, the literary effect of serving a delinquent in child payments with a court order to show cause why he should be allowed to get away with such mischief.

You edit your own work to remove soft spots, argue with vigor when an editor points them out in your own work, aware of course that the more intense your argument the greater the probability the editor was correct.  Now to fix the problem.  Often the fix can be effected with action verbs.  If the fix involves verbs of thought or conjecture, the root cause is due to one character misinterpreting the actions of another character.

Are you with me on this?

You think so.

Think?  You think?  After all we've been through here?

Intensity is not achieved with descriptions or suppositions; intensity comes from the observation to the gut or heart, to some glandular effect, which triggers response.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Impatient Narrator

For reasons you can address only in a speculative sense, you came into this world with a built-in predilection toward impatience.  Certain life events, among them years of driving or attempting to drive an automobile in Los Angeles traffic, did nothing to lessen your finger-popping, let's get the show on the road attitude.

Perhaps moving away from your place of birth helped, but also in the perhaps area, the fact of growing and observation caused a lessening of your tendency to want if not results right now then at least a clear path toward the necessary activities for producing results.

Another perhaps:  At age thirty-six, you developed that great occupational disaster, the gastric ulcer.  Your doctor, on discovering this, said you had two choices for treatment.  The first was to go to Mexico for six months.  The second involved a bland diet, alginates, and frequent doses of chalky carbonates of calcium that in effect protect the stomach wall and ulcerated areas from digestive acids.

Your doctor, who was also your cousin, urged you to take what he called the Mexican cure.  You were tempted, picturing yourself in such gulf places as Guymas and, on the eastern side, Vera Cruz or Tampico, but you were also well on the way to becoming an editor, and you were  eager to continue on that path.

Well, let's say you did continue the non-Mexico approach, then discovered being an editor required you to read materials that also added to your impatience index, which probably did not do your ulcer any good.  But let's also say that somewhere in the growth process, you managed to turn down the fires of impatience a notch or two.  Perhaps even three.

But consider what's happened while you were giving some effort to tuning down your driving impatience, not only with your own progress in learning and growth in your chosen craft, but the simple acts of getting necessary things done.

Since you're on perhapses and potential situations, consider also the way you have a yearning for tangible growth in three craft-related areas as well as the ongoing personal one.  The world about you has also grown in similar measure, requiring individuals you have some contact with to make decisions about putting certain priorities on hold because of true difficulty in taking steps to implement them.

There is inherent difficulty in developing technique.  You'd not thought to be sidetracked into editing, then teaching.  Then, for the longest time, fell victim of recriminations for taking time--necessary time--away from writing, compounded by taking time away from editing by teaching.  There you were at about age fifty, thinking you were only so-so in three things when, with a more concentrated effort, you could be so-so in one thing, hearing one of your heroes, Mark Twain, as he said, "Put all your eggs in one basket, then watch that basket."

If he is to be believed, Henry, your often waiter at Sly's restaurant, would like to retire, then spend his remaining days writing scholarly works, a fact that came forth last night when he made some statements about the sudden shift in the quality of Shakespeare's writing.  You did your best to sit on your impatience, because you had a sense of what was about to come, the tired old argument that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare.

What was meant to be a working dinner with your agent turned into a debate.  While good to have, debates are best experienced as planned events.  Wordsworth was certainly prescient in his sentiment that "The world is too much with us, late and soon."  Having an unexpected argument with a waiter about Shakespeare, or, shifting points of view, a waiter having an argument about Shakespeare with a customer, can be unsettling.

You have no wish to retire, thanks in some degree to your enjoying the aspects of composition as you now see them.  Twain was more than a writer, he was also a gifted speaker.  Although he had a notoriously poor sense of business, having lost huge sums on things of a speculative nature, he was also a successful publisher of sorts.

Once again, he, via his works, got you to thinking that there was in fact an amazing relationship between writing, editing, and teaching, which impressed you with such force that you were back to square one, which is being so-so at one thing, dealing with dramatic material.  Seeing this connection has led you to the most freeing revelation of all, relating to retirement.

You not only do not look forward to retirement and, thus, taking up some hobby, or becoming a volunteer; you look forward to not retiring, to working to what you hope will be a day or two before your arrival at ceasing to be.

The greatest joy of all of this is the absolute certainty that you will die with one or more projects of great moment to you, left hanging.  These could be resident in the clutter of notes and notebooks, or the one or two things still in your head but not yet set down in any written form at all.  

You could say you are impatient to get at these things even though in so doing they will be bringing you closer to death.  But these two things, your projects and your mortality, are parallel lines.  Unlike the parallel lines in fiction and some dramatic nonfiction, these parallel lines need not meet.

Thus you are cheerful in your awareness of the tsunami of clutter and chaos that await you.  There is much joy to be had in life.  For certain, clutter and chaos, the two defining moments of Reality, are areas where you have graduated from so-so to pretty good.

Monday, May 19, 2014


Last night, you dreamed of Duke again, possibly because he has become more persistent of late, but of equal probability because of a book you've assigned for discussion tomorrow.

The book, Rebecca, is in your noir fiction class, its opening line prompting the way you began this essay.  Duke, who was not Duke until you named him so, was a friend from high school, extending through university.  By any account, he was a close friend.

You'd lost acquaintances and grandparents to death.  Duke was your first close friend to be lost to death.  He did not live to see thirty, the culprit cancer.  

Because of your class in noir fiction, you've been reading a good deal of the genre.  Tomorrow, you'll talk, then lead discussion on Rebecca and Jim Crumley's ever-so-dark The Last Good Kiss, which Rolling Stone has called "the last good mystery."  Death, agendas, and unexpected twists abound in both novels, but Crumley takes the noirish tendencies to a place where, even though you'd been a long-time friend of the hardboiled detective novel, you found in him an awareness that seemed to draw landscapes of despair and inner turmoil into a new focus.

In some ways, you had more in common with Dave Lauren, who managed to walk into a moving train, or Mark Rashmir, a drinking and music-loving friend, than you did with Duke.  The process of diverging paths had already begun.  Yes, you and Duke were fraternity brothers.  Yes, he was as familiar at your parents' table as you were at the table of his parents, but what had once been nearly a daily contact had already begun to move toward monthly, if that.

His inherent generosity and an enormous sense of empathy made him seem larger than he was.  You find yourself wanting to say he was five nine or five ten, but he was five six, his body type tending to roundness, which he took care to present as trimness.

When you last saw him, in his room at The City of Hope Cancer Facility in Duarte, he was, as you would become, years later, after your debate with cancer, drawn, thin, his facial features like venetian blind slats.  He surely knew the noir nature of his prognosis when he motioned you closer to him, asking you to remember him, to write about him.  

This wish of his was the equivalent of seeing you as the vessel, the bottle into which he'd hoped to be inserted, then tossed into the ocean.  He surely wished to be remembered by all his close friends and she who had become his fiancee, but he was putting his hopes for visibility beyond a generation of friendly regard.

"Write about me,"  he said.  Then he pleaded.  "Write about me."

Duke has been gone for many years, and you have not written about him, perhaps because there was no traction for drama in him other than the sorts of sentiment Houseman found in "To an athlete, dying young" you found to border on the sentiments you wished to avoid.  The only negative things you could find to say or think had to do with his being gone and his having been so uniform in good cheer and a zest for life.  Wilbert I. Melnick, you would have written.  Bound to become a professor of history.  Bound to have caused those, such as you, who were neutral to history to become wrapped in its implications and consequences.  Bound to be a remarkable, sensitive husband and a supportive father, bound to excel at such things because he already did in fact excel at being a person of the sort such persons as you valued his friendship.  At the time of your friendship, you might have been an actor, trying out for the role of Sisyphus, casting about for a suitable rock.

This did not seem enough, and so Duke has haunted you, reminding you of potential reasons, differences in personalities, that were causing the parallel lines of your connection to fracture, then slip off at awkward angles.  

He caused your awareness of that wish to live in your age and beyond, based on legacies of constructive actions left behind.  From time to time, you'd thought about how desperate he was for a future, given his prognosis, to pick you as the medium, you to inscribe on the equivalent of that rock in New Mexico the equivalent of "Paso por aqui" passed by here.  His gift to you was in fact taking you at your word.  By then, you'd already known what you wished to become and to be remembered as, even though your vision was heavy on generality and quite light on specifics.

You first called him Duke, the Super Hero, because of his ability to inspire and solve the sorts of conundrums that occur between people.  There was certain to have been envy in your action, but there was enough admiration to give the name resonance.  Shortly before his departure into the Army, his fraternity brothers gave him a going-away gift, a silver ID bracelet, inscribed Duke.

With the name of Wilbert, Willie was an inevitable consequence, which you could not abide.  You gave him a name, but he has given you the gift of the things he was and the need to find ways to bring them to life.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Encounters with Failure

Things that cry out for your attention:

1.  Being about to sneeze.

2,  Being standing or seated before an audience, having an intense itch, mid back.

3.  The skin of a portion of the body covered by a cast or thick bandage, erupting in a significant enough sweat to cause  a droplet to form, then descend, 

4.  The annoying awareness of a pebble or sharp foreign object in your shoe, while you are wearing it, while you are halfway through walking across a busy street.

5. Being awakened at three in the morning with a more-than-urgent need to pee.

6.  Any of several potential dreams in which you are lost and trying to find where you are, aware you are sitting for a final examination in a class you haven't attended all semester; in a situation (possibly sexual) with someone you'd never think to be in such a situation (which is disturbing enough), then wondering what you'd said or done to bring about this situation.

There are other real-life and dream situations,by degrees imperative, disturbing, or arresting.  But these six hold a common theme which you relate to the sum of notes, observations, and portions of drafts of stories and essays you have squirreled away in the dozens of notebooks scattered about your studio.

One major purpose of making the notes is to achieve the first tangible sense of satisfaction in the entire activity of writing, which is getting down on paper or hard drive a string of words significant to you.  Part of the implication in the word "significant" is a string of words you believe has potential to become a longer, developed, possibly even completed string of words, or an insight you are convinced will become an active part of your creative toolkit.

Another purpose for making the notes is to provide you with reading material of the sort that will shove you into your daily time for composition, locking the door behind you, as it were, causing you to form a sense of congruence with the notes whereby you are they and they are you.

Into this calculus comes a concept you have lived with much of your life, for certain those years in which you have professed your main interests and goals in your working life.  The concept is failure, which you define here as a condition of not achieving or meeting goals on a project-by-project basis to the degree you'd hoped when engaging the goals.  The concept of failure has a given that you will, in attempting to bring project goals to fruition, have done beyond your expected best in order to achieve the anticipated best.

This last item, taken for granted, is the grace note that allows you some measure of comfort.  In baseball statistics, a player who is not at bat is a fielder, judged then in accountability by a metric known as a fielding average.  The fulcrum of the fielding average is the meme of chances accepted.  How many successful attempts a player made at a fielding opportunity are compared in ratio to the number of unsuccessful or error circumstances.

The baseball player also faces another metric as a batter, involving total number of times at bat against such performances as hits.

In the days when motion pictures and certain television programming were recorded on film, a director was measured against a metric called a burn ratio, in which he was judged by the number of frames of film actually filmed at sound speed against the number of frames in the final print version.

You are somewhat mixing apples and oranges here, certainly metaphors because here you are, looking at finished products, then taking into consideration the number of drafts to accomplish them.  One immediate flaw in logic is the worth of any ratio of numbers of pages or drafts or, yes, even notes or revisions, as a measurable standard of acceptable performance.  

Then there is the additional and quite delightful wedge into logic, Acceptable performance according to whom?

All these exciting possibilities for error, failure, and burn ratio explode before you each time you embark on that first venture of making notes.  One such example had results reminiscent of the six attention-getters listed above.  Julie O'Connor and Keith Kapuy, often providers to you of notebooks, gave you a useful, well-bound notebook of about the size of a four-by-six photo print.  You'd saved it for nearly a year before writing anything in it, pretty much thinking the notes you'd made were in fact close enough to a full first draft of text that you would use the notebook for that one project.

Something out of routine happened next.  You had the notebook with you at one of the places you ordinary stop for coffee, thinking to add more lines to those notes.  Instead, another idea came to you.  Rather than lose this, you started in on it, covering two or three pages.  Now, you had a notebook with two things to work on, or so you thought when you carried with you next to a restaurant in Carpinteria where you go on occasion for lunch.

You do not ordinarily leave notebooks in restaurants, but you left this one.  Not to worry, the notebook had your name and phone number in it, but when you returned to rescue it.  But when you did, you got a tale of irony often associated with closure.  Someone had seen the notebook, then read the few pages of notes, which were so intriguing, your reporter claimed, that the finder gave the notebook to a young writer he knew, a young person struggling to, as he put it, "gain traction in the world of writing."  

Irony stumbles all over itself here, in the manner of a drunk, returning home after a night of carouse, attempting to fit his door key into the lock.  For some time in your life, you scoured used bookstores, attempting to find the one book that would inspire you toward a discovery that would turn your views of storytelling upside down and inside out, resulting in an arrived state, by which you mean arrived at his own voice and vision.

Then you realized for there to be such a book, you'd have to write it yourself.  You have in fact been attempting to write such a book.  Your most recent one, The Fiction Writers' Handbook, was a step in that direction.  The edits on your most recent completion cause you to think you may have taken a step closer.  Steps, mind you; steps away from one kind of failure, toward another kind.  

Perhaps if you were to be convinced your life depended on your ability to say what those two note excerpts in the missing notebook were, you could recall.  Perhaps even if Peter, the psychiatrist who workshops his novel at your Saturday writers' group, could hypnotize you, there might be some hope of recall.  Now, the lost notebook is a step beyond a concept for a fantasy or metaphor, wherein your lost notes prove inspiration for another writer who, after all, was nevertheless an early reader of yours.

If you were able, at this stage of your life, to capture ideas on the page at the intensity of quality in which the ideas appeared to you, no doubt you'd be suspicious.  Ideas have to be exciting enough to intrigue you, capture and then hold your interest while you set forth on your next encounter with failure.