Monday, June 30, 2014

Schmoozing the Characters, or Boarders in the Rooming House of Ego

How well can we say we know another person when, in fact, it is a lifelong struggle to keep up an acquaintance with ourselves? 

 When you are composing story, you like to delegate this sense of self-knowledge to your characters, well aware now that potential surprises await you.  They--your characters--are in about as much of a hurry to take advice and direction as you were then.

Now is different.  By now, you've sat at many sides of many tables.  When you sit to compose now, you're reminded of one of the principal tables your parents had from about their mid-sixties through the end games of their lives.  

This table was a luxurious, eight-sided table, intended for poker games.  There were other important tables in the house, but these were only for poker in an emergency; these were dining tables.  Much as card games mattered to your parents, dining tables mattered even more.  From watching the eight-sided poker table, you learned that you did not care for poker.  From your experiences at the dining tables, you learned that conversations over meals were of an inestimable value.  Over such tables, you learned considerably more about the considerable subjects you were presented in various schools and the university.

A longtime pal, Leonard Tourney, with whom you cohosted many ventures, was quick to take you on about this business of yours, wherein you talk of "listening" to characters, being surprised by them, in any way thinking of them as beyond your immediate control.  After all, Leonard has reasoned during iterations of this dialectic, "they" are your creation.  "They" are privy to all you understand and do not understand about the way drama works and, beyond that, to the denominator of the human condition.

"Well and good,"  you say, which is a nice thing to say during a conversation wherein divergent points of view are being trotted out for inspection.  "Well and good you should argue that, because--" and then you drop your bomb of logic or perhaps it is more a bomb of bombast than logic. 

At any rate, you spell out your theory that each of us is more than one personality.  We are, in effect, boarders in the rooming house of ego (Nice title, that), each of us in a clamor for something different, each of us driven by a different emotion or by a different one of the seven deadly sins.

"That being the case,"  you say with the same drawn-out cadence of "Well and good."  Then you express your vision that the various selves composing you have had a long opportunity to get to know one another, decide on some form of centrist government or coalition.  These differing aspect of you in fact often do form alliances.  Thus at times even the most cynical of your assortment of selves agrees to sit back and watch the spectacle to come, adding no further doubt or cynicism.  You can hear him saying, "Okay, let's get this clusterfuck over so we can set about making repairs."

Your main point here is that the component parts of you do not always know one another with any great certainty.  These aspects of you have frequent surprises for you in daily life, so why shouldn't your characters have the same proprietary rights to surprise in your fiction?

Why shouldn't your characters have the stature to stand up to you and your rules, sending you to search the waste baskets and between the pillows of your imagination for any hint of dramatic spare change?

This is not in any way meant to suggest your arguments persuade Leonard or, for that matter, anyone else, including students or clients.  Agreement works better in the abstract than it does in reality.  Stories are neither abstractions nor reality, only simulacra.  Agreement kills drama.

Your friendship with Leonard and your professional collaborations flourished more because of disagreement and differing points of view; its shape something to consider as a metaphor for story.  Consider:  Story is a quest for a goal, achieved in the face of reversal, disagreement, and change.
If you and Leonard brought equal quantities and qualities of the same thing to the table, what purpose would there be in such a collaboration?

One proof of this theory is the difference between your writing styles and method of delivery.  Which brings you back to your relationship with your characters, how and why you accomplish a working relationship in the context of storytelling.

Your approach to early draft fiction writing is what you call "The Schmooze" Effect.  A character is called for, you immediately stop composing to schmooze the character, find out vital details about that individual, which in turn give you hints of what that character will do in a tight situation.  A schmooze gives you the potential for being surprised.  

One important detail to establish is the awareness that your characters have no reason to trust you, may in fact lie to you.  Here's your role model:  Early on in "King Lear," when Cordelia speaks from her heart, Lear sends her away.  Later, Act V later, Edgar says, "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say."

You may not like what you hear, but until that aspect no longer matters, you are little more than a scribe, taking notes.  Until you can see and accept the difference, you are not "in" the story, you are not a writer, you are a contract worker, specializing in description.  And often those who read you will say of your work, "Oh, his descriptions are so real."

Not at all, good sir or madam.  Not real enough.  This sends you back to another favored bit from Charles Baudelaire's "The Flowers of Evil."

The missing piece of the puzzle is the reader; the one who is busy wondering what ought to be said as opposed to the one who feels what she feels.  Thus:

You know him, reader, this delicate monster,

Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Growth Rate

Until you were well into your first year of high school, you showed few signs of achieving  any approximation of your present day height.  You can still recall your height being listed on your early drivers' licenses as 5'7" and 5' 8', causing you to watch your father, who was 6'1" with that teen mixture of impatience and envy.

If your father had been less than six feet in height say a 5'8' or 5'9', you'd have been more of a mind to live with your height as it was.  Or so you like to believe.  In your impatience and envy, another issue, stature, paced about, nascent and eager.  

You got your height.  First 6'1, then that final growth spurt where, almost as an afterthought, another two inches appeared.  During those times of growth, you imagined door jambs with penciled markings, chronicles of your progress.  At one point, well into your high school years, your mother told you she'd have done such a thing. 

 Such rituals as tracking growth progress were common to her generation and yours. At one point, she showed you a baby book with your name on it, including birth statistics, one or two sepia photographs, and yes, a few indications that you'd been measured as an infant.  "But,"  she said, "we moved too many times to think of a door-jamb record."  An old sadness visited her whenever she spoke about moving.  "If we'd been able to stay at the house in Santa Monica--"

There was never a proper way to finish that sentence.  "The house in Santa Monica" was the house you were brought home to after making your first appearance at the then Santa Monica Hospital, Fifteenth and Wilshire.  The unspoken what if in your mother's sentence was a defining moment in the lives of all your family, mother, father, sister, and you.  

Had your growth been charted on a door jamb, it would have been there, 714 Fourteenth Street. You'd likely have gone to Santa Monica High School.  You'd likely have achieved a height of 6'3", but many other factors could only be represented by that same punctuation mark your mother used when being unable to finish her if.

You did not in any conscious way conflate physical height with stature until one afternoon, years after the fact, when you sat in your car, parked across the street from that house, trying to measure what you had become against some of the many moves that brought you back to this place for a few moments of reflection before heading to the freeway that would take you miles to the south, where the campus of the University of Southern California awaited you as a workplace.

Stature has to do with the way an individual sees himself or herself; it has to do with the way the individual sees the world, then attempts to do things with some kind of agenda.

Although you missed out on the record of your growth, pencilled on a door jamb, you have indeed set forth on another iconic metric of your culture and, perhaps of cultures beyond your own, the journey.

The physical journeys you've taken during your years on this planet are much akin to those missing height markers, interesting, formative, but by no means a complete and accurate depiction of the inner journeys taken to discover you.

By any account, your childhood play of replicating the Lewis and Clark expedition was a more apt comparison.  You've set forth to find the equivalent of a Northwest Passage that was not there, wondering for the longest time What am I? as opposed to the more relevant Who.

So far as comforts go, it has been a considerable one to have made that discovery:  The what does not exist in any practical measure, only a gray abstraction.  Thanks to an individual you consider one of your primary mentors, the Lewis and Clark expedition has taken on considerable change.  

You've been charged by this mentor to identify with The Mars Explorer, sending your sensors out into the darkness of Space, sending back photos, soil samples, and such other responses of which you are able.  The difference between your explorer and the Mars Explorer is considerable.  Your territory is the darkness between people, the use of your senses to grasp the emotions and the responses they cause.

Junior high school and much of high school were not pleasant times for you.  One memory from those days remains with you because of the way it exploded in your darkness with a spectacular burst of light.  

A teacher tasked you with a paper on the Aurora Borealis, which you undertook with great zeal.  The paper was returned with any number of markings and the notation:  "Too many problems to merit more than A-.  The good parts were the feelings.  The descriptions were so-so."  You most remember her for this:  "The key to this kind of writing is to evoke.  The key to this kind of writing is the vocabulary of the heart."

Sometimes, when you look for ways to impart information to students, you think of her.  Better yet, her presence has been evoked.

Meanwhile, your journey continues.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tea? For How Many?

You are sitting in a small, wood-themed office, conspicuous in its neatness even though you are aware of tall, gravity-defying stacks of manuscripts.  The woman facing you  radiates a confidence and presence well beyond her small frame.  You reckon her to be in her mid sixties.

"Shall we,"  she says, "go to tea?  You do take tea, don't you?"

She watches you for a response.  "Ah,"  she says, "you don't.  No harm, then.  This will be your introduction.  This will be the one you remember."  She pauses, thoughtful.  "I can't imagine they never took you to tea in New York.  Were you never at The Russian Tea Room?"

"Yes,"  you say.  "Many times.  But always later in the afternoon."

You noticed a trace of the wistful in your voice.  You had been in a number of such New York offices as the one where you now sat in Boston. You'd sat and worked in a number of publishers' offices in New York  You'd nearly been invited to tea earlier by a legend from New American Library, but the invitation from the iconic Ned Chase had had to be put on a Next-time basis because of a sudden emergency.  

Now, the subject of tea had come up again.  At 8 Arlington Street, Boston, for that matter.  In many ways, hallowed ground.  The Atlantic Monthly  offices were here; they had been so for years, time enough for Mark Twain to have been here, and Twain's great friend, William Dean Howells.

The woman you faced, Sylvia Burack, was a name you'd known since your teens, when you'd begun to read her books and the monthly journal, The Writer, which she and her late husband had published and edited.  She rose with an elevation of majesty.  "Come,"  she said.  "I will introduce you to tea."

Soon, you were in the main salon of what was then called The Copley-Plaza Hotel.  You were well aware of the maitre d' greeting her.  "We have your table, Mrs. Burack.  There will be you and your guest then?"

"I was thinking,"  she said, "we might have Mr. Cooke join us, if--" she let the remainder of the sentence follow her gaze to the bar, where a man you recognized as the TV host, author, and journalist stood among a group.

The maitre d' picked up the thread Sylvia Burack had allowed to linger.  "Hors' d combat, Mrs. Burack.  Beyond extended conversation."

"A shame,"  she said.  "But do tell him to stop by."

This was by no means your first visit to Boston.  Your sense of wistfulness across the street, in her office, was in its way nostalgia.  An author of yours from Boston was the occasion of one of your more triumphant trips to New York, where you arranged the massmarket rights of this author to go to Bantam Books, producing in the paper edition a million-copy sale.  You'd been to Boston for publishing-related conventions and events.  This was your first time in Boston as a writer.  This was your first time in Boston for tea.

The afternoon was in metaphor a slice of Boston on your plate, a parallel to the tiny sandwiches, the savory and the sweets set next to your tea, a smoky oolong.  The afternoon was a turning point.

A turning point is a necessity in a scene, bringing one or more characters to a tangible change from one mindset to another, from an observer to a participant, to an understanding that there is no turning back.

Turning points energize, propel, incite future action, the consequences of which lead to some form of resolution.  Why look beyond Shakespeare for turning points, when there are so many?  Macbeth turns from being a good man to becoming a murderer.  Hamlet, previously a carefree college kid, decides to kill his uncle.  Romeo and Juliet marry.

While taking tea in Boston, you were experiencing a turning point.  At the time, you were drawing a paycheck from a publisher.  Good, challenging, honest work.  You'd already been responsible for one or two things you felt considerable satisfaction for having championed.  

You were nearly at the point of thinking this could be the job you might ride into the sunset, writing your own books as you wished, perhaps as editor in chief of this publishing house, perhaps even as its publisher.  There is a likelihood these books would be safe books, books written by an editor in chief or publisher of a scholarly publishing house, tart, edgy, perhaps even a tad smoky as the oolong you drank at The Copley-Plaza.

Trouble was, this publishing venture did not satisfy the entire body that was you; it was a scholarly publisher, which is a useful, honorable, vital thing.  But it was not tea at The Copley Plaza.  It was not you.  At the time, you were sliding along in your forties, delighted to have found yourself at this point, but not at all confident you wished to stay here because you continued to have the sense of a journey.

Story is about journey, isn't it?

A straight line is not a story.

Story is a journey with distractions, oppositions, and dead ends.  It is a maze which you are able to solve when one of your characters does.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Got Any Spare Changes?

There are a number of forces buoying, driving, governing, and opposing us as we attempt navigation on, through, and against them during the course of a day and, of course, during the arc of a lifetime.

During a given day, you find yourself confronting one or more of them, a confrontation that often comes as a complete surprise.  When, for instance, you peer into the bathroom mirror of a morning such as this one, you are looking to see such variables as the possibility of residual shaving cream or the related potential for having missed a patch of nascent beard.

You are also looking--because in another context, you've trained yourself to do so--for change.  To the forces mentioned above having effect on us, you add yet another, change.

At some time in your life, you were handed story, much as a city-dweller youth such as you is handed his first pet.  You are charged with taking care of it, advised to understand it, see to its needs even before seeing to your own.  You are responsible for cleaning up its equivalents of indoor messes, are subject to frequent advice about how and where to exercise it.

In some ways, there were hopes that both, story and a pet, would enhance your growing experience and provide you with a storehouse of enriched memory and behavior.

At your own pace, you indeed learned from story and pets.  Change, which is so universal, is resident in story and pets.  At one point in your life, when you were writing furiously on a red Olivetti portable typewriter in order to provide enough operating expenses to keep you from working at a number of distasteful non-writing jobs, you had adopted your first real pet, a short-haired domestic named Sam.  

In Sam, you recognized change, thinking at the time that he was growing older and smarter, while you were growing older and typing faster.  Part of your love for Sam came from your awareness of the ironic buffer zone between your paths, which began simply enough, with your mutual decision to become room mates.

Change is an important element in story.  Landscapes change or, conspicuously, upon revisit, they do not.  Characters, in particular lead characters, change in some significant relationship to the goals they set themselves, the problems they must face.  All story has some established metric between event and change in character.

You could say, and you do, that change in a character comes from the precipice edge of landscape as they know it.  Your character is driven by event and goal to the precipice.  If the event and goal do not push the character over the edge, you must do it for her or him.

After that point, there is no going back, and the character is not the same person as he or she was at the outset.  Midway through Macbeth, King Malcolm is murdered.  The person who performs the murder, Macbeth, is never the same.  Before, he was a good, loyal, successful soldier.  After, he was a driven man, pursued by the ghosts aroused by his actions.

You cannot help looking in the mirror for more than shaving cream or neglected swathes of beard.  This is because you've also noticed changes of one sort or another.  You're looking for effect.  You already know the cause, which is the passage of time.  In any number of ways, you're approaching what you'd hoped at age seventeen to become.  Would the seventeen-year-old you, a college freshman, recognize the visiting professor who is you today?  

Perhaps that was a trick question.  When you were seventeen, you were quite impatient for the changes you wished to take effect, to click into place as useful tools, some mechanical, others of a more intuitive nature.  

You are still impatient at this age for things to click into muscle-memory use, tools of judgment and execution you can rely upon without the need to search the Internet for user guides.  You think now you'd want to take that seventeen-year-old for a beer or two, recommend some books, share some tricks of the trade with him.  

You understand now, as you understood then, that he would not listen to all the tricks.  Even then, one of his habits was beginning to form, the restless stalking of used book stores for the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail, the life-changing book that would cause him to see his own vision, hear his own voice.

Your present cat, Goldfarb, stops by your desk, reminding you of his ardent desire for his supper.  You tend to this, reminding yourself of the earlier you and your roommate, Sam, the parallel paths of then and of now.

You think of Heraclitus and his "discovery" of change, which was formulated about four hundred years before the Common Era, and still resonates with a freshness over nearly three thousand years.

You think of your characters, and you wonder what changes they see when they look in the mirror.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Goes without Saying

When you are serving as an editor, hired to edit a manuscript, one of the more persistent actions you perform is to circle a particular word or phrase, use the proofreader's symbol for deletion, then write in the margin, "Goes without saying."

By these actions, you're conveying to the author that she or he does not need the marked matter; the reader will already have seen it.  An exaggerated example for illustrative purposes  of what you might mark under such circumstances is:  "If you come any closer,"  she said menacingly, "I will shoot."  Menacingly is unnecessary. The rest of what "she" said is sufficient to convey the menacing intent.

If "she" were employing irony and we readers knew, for other instance, that the gun in her hand was a kid's squirt gun, you might want to get the fake menace in there.  "If you come any closer,"  she said, her voice a throaty suggestion of menace, "I will shoot."  The difference between the two is actual warning and a playful, sexual tease.

So far as you're concerned, many things--too many, in fact--go without saying.  Because of the writer's inexperience or desire to please the reader, or perhaps even because the writer is so unsure how well things are going, he or she needs to be what actors call "on the nose," or too literal and straightforward.  In yet another possibility, the writer might not trust the reader to grasp the intended meaning.  Were you editing such a situation, you'd draw a circle around the offending matter, then print in the margin, OTN.  On the nose.

Among the conventions for preparing manuscripts for submission, there is the significant one of setting margins of at least an inch on the sides and top and bottom.  Your own preference is an inch-and-a-half, left and right sides.  An inch and a half provides some room for making notes.

Another such note would be a mark or circle at a particular spot with the shorthand "au qy" which most writers understand to mean author query.  Such a "qy" could be anything relating to fact--"on pps 197 and 213, Irene's eyes described as hazel.  They blue here.  She wearing contacts?"   And the potential for a note after a manuscript entry, "she dropped her eyes."  Did they break?

 Or there was another qy of a similar nature, made by the editor on a recent project of yours.  The editor had circled the name of an individual in your ms, then written in the margin, "who he?"  

Meaning the editor did not know who the individual was, and wanted you to add as brief a description of the individual as possible.  Never mind your immediate response on seeing the query being "How could you not know that?"  Instead, you print nicely, and use proofreader symbols to indicate an insertion, "a Civil engineer and U.S. Army officer responsible for the oversight and construction of the Panama Canal."

No help, the awareness that some information is generational and the editor may have just cause to suspect that a contemporary reader would not understand the coded implications in such popular tunes as Cab Calloway's song, "Kicking the Gong Around," or Fats Waller's song, "The Viper's Drag."  The editor would want you to identify Cab Calloway (as Caleb Calloway, 1904--94) and The Gong as a slang term for an opium pipe.  The same editor would want you to identify Fats Waller as  (Thomas W. Waller, 1904--43) and viper as a slang term for a marijuana smoker, emphasized by the play on words of drag as an inhaled breath and a slang term for a dance step).

Editors may want you to explain to the reader something you already know and take for granted that the reader will know.  After all, not just anyone would read your material, would they? And the editor is wanting to make sure that those who do read you know what you're talking about so that they'll read you all the way through to the finish.  

Suppose the writer and the editor disagree?  Depends on when the decision to publish is made.  If questions come up after the agreement to publish, the author is considered right, although most seasoned writers will listen to most seasoned editors.

You've been a dog in both types of fight, the editor/writer dogfight, and the writer/editor set-to.  Most of them have gone well enough, but in each case, you've come away with the metaphorical equivalent of an editorial hangover, which is to say, for the potential au qy to that term, you held a grudge for a day or week or so, until the matter faded.

Your worst grudge as an editor was for a book on cosmetic plastic surgery, written by a genial surgeon, assisted by a self-important and humorless contract writer, who kept questioning your objections to his use of the word "modality," wanting instead to use such synonyms as "sort," "type," and "method."

The contract writer insisted that such publishers as Springer-Verlag, and Elsevier had no issues with such words, whereupon your counter punch, those are scholarly publishers, this book was for a lay audience that would be bored stiff and put off.  That was nearly forty years ago.  A touch of the rankle remains.

Your most recent contretemps with an editor was the use of a title of a composition by Mozart, Eine Kleinenachtmusik, which you argued would not be foreign to a contemporary American audience.  You even offered to translate to A Little Night Music.

As an editor, you like wide margins for just such queries, comments, and observations.  As a writer, you like wide margins because they impart a gravitas to the text, making the text seem as though it were almost in print already.  Although you know better, to some extent you are daring editors to make marks or queries or anything that does not relate to physical design and typography.

Each of you is speaking.

The editor is saying, "Goes without saying."

You are saying, "Goes without edits."

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Melvin Shaw, your downstairs neighbor when you lived at 6145 1/2 Orange Street, Los Angeles, in what was to become postal zone 90036, loved board games.  He had dozens of them, most of which he leveraged against you.  You play a board game of his, he'd be willing to discuss playing one of your games, which was more or less an ad lib or improv on some theme of adventure.

On a given day, you'd have to play a round or two of Parchesi or Chinese Checkers in order to get him to play Lewis and Clark, in which you were out looking for The Northwest Passage, or The Lone Ranger and Tonto, looking for injustice.  Thus were you and Melvin Shaw defined by your approaches to play.

On a particular day, your life was forever changed when a complete stranger wandered westward along Orange Street, saw you portraying Merriwether Lewis (because Melvin could not or would not pronounce Merriwether) and Melvin in costume as William Clark.  The stranger was of medium height, with a gray-and-brown mustache and steely blue eyes.

"Boys,"  the stranger said, "I want you to sit down and listen, because I am going to teach you something of great value.  I am going to teach you all about catalytic agents."

You have no idea why he singled the two of you, nor did you have the wherewithal to wonder how many other little boys he initiated into the rituals of the catalyst.  But single you he did, seating you both on a gentle slope of lawn, while he stood a foot or two away, on the sidewalk, his bony hands dangling at his sides like the dead chickens depending from hooks at your grandmother's favorite butcher.

"Boys,"  the mustached stranger said, "a catalyst is a thing that causes something else to change without itself being changed.  Do you get that?

"Do you like to play Monopoly?"  Melvin said.

"A catalyst is a force.  Can you see that?"

When you nodded, he seized on you.  "Show me you understand," he insisted.

You said a catalyst would set you in motion if it pushed you while you were in a swing, waiting.  Inert.

"You boys understand what it means to be inert?"

"Do you play The Uncle Wiggly Game or Sorry?"  Melvin said.

"Inert means having no life or maybe means not having any propelling force."

"I see,"  the stranger said, "that I've got me some smart boys here.  Now listen to me.  An agent is a person or substance with the power to cause something to happen."

"I have a pocket chess set,"  Melvin Shaw said.

"A catalyst,"  the stranger said, "causes things to happen.  A catalytic agent transfers momentum from one thing to another."

"The bell ringing at recess,"  you said.

"That's right,"  the stranger said.  "The bell is a catalytic agent."

"Do you think," Melvin Shaw asked, "Old Maid is a girls' game?"

A few years later, your teacher, Margurite O'Reily, sent home a note to your mother, wondering if your mother knew you were using words such as catalytic agent.  Your mother answered the letter by replying that neither she nor your father knew what you were going to say.

Your mother might have said you did not always know what you were going to say.  You didn't.  The words were there; in a way, they made sense to you.  They came from somewhere, after the equivalent of having to playboard games with Melvin Shaw.

Catalyst and catalytic agent stuck with you as a force or, as you would later come to call it, conceptual energy.  Such energy drives story, separates it from the "and then,"  of one event as another, packaged as story, when all the while, story was something else.

At about the time you were learning about catalytic agents and having your life changed, trigger was a level you pressed on either of your faux pearl handled Gene Autry cap guns.  Doing so would bring the desired noise, an approximation of the things passing for gunshots in the Western movies you were so fond of.
Western movies always had a strong lead character.

At about the time you were enjoying Western movies and the triggers on your Gene Autry faux-pearl-handled cap guns, you understood that the strong lead character had by way of distraction a romantic side story which you had to suffer to get back to the real and more temporal point of the story, which was in one way or another, getting a specific chore tended to, a chore that meant a face-off with an opposing force. Let the record show  that at the time, the most significance the word trigger had for you beyond being the lever on your cap guns was that the name of Roy Rogers' horse was Trigger.

While we're on the subject of records,  let the record show:  You were all for the face-off between the strong lead character and a shrewd, calculating opposing force.  The romance was to be suffered in silence.  Perhaps if you timed it correctly, you could avoid it by going to the candy bar.

Let the current record show your belief that the romantic interlude is as fraught with story as the face-off between the strong lead character and her or his opposition.

And let it show as well that story is an orchestrated series of events, each triggered or impelled or, dare you say it, catalyzed by an agent.

You knew these things through muscle memory, although you could not smooth their definitions out from a balled-up wad of paper, tossed away in the frustration of not being able to get its definition down on paper in any way close to your true understanding of their concepts.

You knew what story was.  Thus you were sent to lead the expedition within your own experiences and learning and the result of having your play sessions interrupted with occasional, memorable lessons from unknown and unknowable adults.

This is how it works.  All you need do is pursue the essence of that process until you have it installed as muscle memory.  Helps for you to understand it to the point of being able to write about it with an illuminating clarity, but not in any absolutist way necessary for you to do so.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Writer at Work: Alone and Palely Loitering

Some years back, you read to escape boredom and the tyranny of your young imagination. You did not look for connections or reasons, only for goals to achieve, discoveries to make, adventures to embrace. You looked to reading for transportation.  The destination did not so much matter, only that it be a place where there was a need for your presence.

You were well beyond school, where you knew for a certainty you'd best leave, before the connections began to come, already working in areas where, in effect, you were hopeful of finding many of the goals to achieve, discoveries to make, and adventures to embrace you'd read for earlier.

You'd already met and become friends with Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, one of your early reading preferences, begun making connections you'd been steered toward making while in school, charting your own course toward the territory of the autodidact, the self-taught, the marginal, the inner directed.

Here you were, by yourself, in a movie theater in New York on a sudden whim, watching a Batman movie in which one of Batman's many arch enemies, The Joker, tells him in so many words, "You need me.  I complete you."

Later that night, you were at a publishing related banquet in which the keynote speaker was one of your favorite science fiction writers, Isaac Asimov.  You do recall what a captivating, animated speaker he was, how you enjoyed the nuance he seemed to project.  

But you did not take his words to the place where you store cherished words and thoughts; you were too busy considering the implications of The Joker, telling Batman "You need me.  I complete you."

To this day, you recall the adventurous flight of fancy that single exchange of dialogue set loose.  You imagined the whale telling that to Ahab, Sancho Panza telling that to Don Quixote.  You recalled telling a group of students how Conan Doyle would never have got beyond A Study in Scarlet if the narrator had been Sherlock Holmes rather than John Watson, M.D.

Later, during a long walk about the city with your great pal, Digby Wolfe, you carried the matter farther with Dionysius and Xanthias, his slave, in Aristophanes play, The Frogs.  "Ah," Wolfe said, his expression heavy with the irony of his creation of the television icon, Laugh-In.  "Rowan," he said, "and Martin."

For the next several blocks, your exchanges were of pairs.  The Smothers Brothers.  Abbott and Costello.  Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa.  Jack Benny and Mary Livingston.

Wherever your conversations with Wolfe, they brought you the nourishing sense of argument with another autodidact.  They brought you love of him and the gradual shedding of the hand-me-down awareness given you and the gravitation to the place where your own visions collide.  

If these collisions do not always produce new matter, as from the collisions within a linear accelerator, they brought--and bring--gifts of energy and curiosity.  Both these gifts fuel you, keep you on toward discovery.  And you have to admit, part of the reason you write, and part of the reason you write as you do is because of discovery.  You write with the same goal you had when you spent so many hours browsing used book stores, thinking in one of them to find a book that will be as a codex for you, causing a lasting vision to snap into place.

Of course you've abandoned that quest.  Such books exist.  They are, in fact, books and stories you must write.

Walking to your car after lunch today, you had an imaginary conversation with Wolfe.  "Beowulf,"  you said.

"What about him?"  said Wolfe, dead these two years.

"Beowulf and Grendel.  Ahab and the whale.  Same story, retold."

"Don't forget Jaws,"  Wolfe reminded you.  "The Roy Scheider character."

"Protagonists and antagonists,"  you said.

"The one completes the other."

"Too bad you couldn't have seen True Detective.  Cohle and Hart, against an antagonist."

"Didn't have to,"  Wolfe said.  "Didn't I give you That Winslow Boy and, while I'm at it, Entertaining Mr. Sloan?"

He did.  

He is not gone.  You couldn't have been more unalike.  The fact of his now being dead and you not is not an active element in this thesis.  The fact of having him to argue with is.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Newton's Laws and Story Laws

 Consequence is the price we pay for what we have done, what we have not done, and also for things done or not done that have no direct connection to us.  Until someone turns up a secret.  Or someone wants something that person, under ordinary circumstances, would not think to want.

Some things make workable equations the moment you consider them.  Take Causality = Consequence for an example.  Could have come right out of Sir Isaac Newton.

Causality is a force that inspires or directs an action or event; it is the momentum necessary to overcome an inertia of stasis.  Once the condition of stasis is overcome, the consequences, when traced with a focused vision, produce most of the necessary events for a story.

Easy for you to say "most of the necessary events."  Depending on the kind of story you're after, "most of the necessary events" is the equivalent of a recipe telling you, "add some vegetables" without telling you what kind of vegetables.

Story starts with a condition of stability or as close to stability as the characters and their various agendas will allow. Something happens to upset that stasis, destabilize it, bring down some cosmic force with a convincing demonstration of its intensity.  Someone in the ensemble cast of characters wants and has been brooding about a change in some status or other. 

Story can--and often does--stop with thin characters or unimaginative motivation. Someone wants an abstraction rather than a specific.  Someone wants more specificity than to be loved.  Someone wants to be loved by a particular person.

So let's take a closer look at what could be considered imaginative motivation.  Let's take the characters and their motivation from the story focusing on a young woman, Antigone, and her Uncle, King Creon.  To simplify the path of causality, Antigone has two brothers, both of whom were killed in a battle.  This battle took place in Ancient Greece.  

When you consider the relative dumbness of reason for another ancient Grecian battle, the Battle of Troy,as in The Iliad, then consider some of the more modern conflicts, it is quite possible to conclude that we have not evolved much in our ability to continue as social animals.  

You could say of war then as well as now, War is an expensive and dumb way for settling dumb issues that could just as well been settled by diplomacy.  When you read The Iliad,  you don't spend much time thinking the whole thing began because when Paris found out Helen was married to someone else, he didn't shrug his shoulders and say, "Oh well."

At any rate, one of Antigone's brothers is given a ceremonial burial.  The other brother, Polynices, had political issues with King Creon to the point where the king has denied him any burial at all, much less a ceremonial one.

Okay, a few dominoes of causality have fallen at this point,  The brothers are dead, and King Creon has made it clear that Polynices is to be left to rot or become food for the feral dogs, rather than being embalmed and buried.  

This fact alone would, in accordance with the religious beliefs and practices of the day, deny Polynices into the underworld and any chance of any kind of the afterlife considered to be a given by the then prevalent religious beliefs.

The real destabilizing event--events, actually--involves Antigone's insistent determination to bury Polynices.  The real story here is not Antigone against King Creon.  Each had tangible love and respect for the other.  The clash is between Antigone and convention.  If you thought Hamlet had a rather messy last scene, go back to reread Antigone.

You could say Antigone was from a dysfunctional family.  Her father was King Oedipus, which puts you on alert from the get go, but her mother was Jocasta.  Yes, that Jocasta, who, in fact, was also the mother of King Oedipus.  Antigone is thus her father's half-sister.

You cannot help comparing such stories to their more modern counterparts, where the social structuring and dynamic are different but the potential for causality remains pretty much the same.  Two individuals in the recent play and filmed version of it, August, Osage County, who seemed a well suited romantic match were let in on the secret that they were brother and sister.  The story here was about romantic and inter-family dynamics, seeming to argue the thesis that any relationship is a crap shoot.

How easy it was in past times to associate the strings of events we sometimes find in life and often find in story as Fate or, if you were Greek, The Fates.  Or maybe if you were something other than Greek, Destiny or Fate or Karma.

Or story.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


What are you reading for or watching when you are participating in the unfolding of a story?

One possible answer is:  the way the characters behave.  This is a good possibility if you factor in dialogue as an aspect of behavior.The better characters and the actors who portray them on stage or screen bring a spectrum of nuance to their behavior, their every word and movement a possible indication of some elephant in the living room, some secret, stashed in some vault.

You are also looking for surprise, aren't you?  What thing will the characters do or not do to one another, or to themselves, that will deepen your investment in the story?  Thus, you watch for clues, indications of the potential for details which seemed irrelevant to explode into importance.  The mere act of looking for surprise puts you on your guard.  

Without realizing it, when you find yourself awaiting surprise, you are in effect changing place with the baby sitter or governess in a horror film, told she can go anywhere in the house she pleases, but stay out of the_____ (fill in the blank:  attic, laundry room, garage, guest room). 

 And you know the baby sitter or governess will in fact go to that one place she was forbidden entry.  She will do so because she is curious, because she is not really a baby sitter or governess, but instead a spy or detective or distant relative of a former employee of the owners of this household, to whom some great misfortune has occurred.  

You know what will happen.  It may not be exactly what you suspect, but isn't that the nature of a surprise?  Thus this calculus:  surprise leads to a relevant discovery.

You may not have anticipated what the discovery was, but it did cause you an accelerated curiosity about what will happen next, what the characters will do.  And you will watch closely to see if there are any cracks in their demeanor, any clues, hints of another elephant, hidden under the carpeting of another room.

You have been experiencing two of the more vital presences on stage or page, tension and suspense.  If the story is in any way a success for you, the surprises, discoveries, and actions will have had noticeable effect on you.  In a sense, entering a story is of a piece with going to the doctor for a test, where the nurse puts sensors on vital spots of your body in order to monitor and come away with a record of your internal responses. 

 In the same sense, setting the book down or going into the lobby for a between-the-acts refreshment is the equivalent of the nurse removing the sensors, swabbing the exposed spots with alcohol, then directing you to remove the hospital gown and return to your clothing.  You know you've been through something.  You know your responses are important.

If you were a viewer or reader and there were no responses indicative of tension or suspense, you'd stop reading or leave the theater.  You'd in effect remove the hospital gown, the uniform of participation in a story.

The more you read or watch stage and filmed drama, the more you become aware of the need to look for clues embedded in the details and apparent frontline interaction among characters.  You need to search for possible relationships between what you believe the story to be and what the characters are doing in response to the things about them.  The more you read or watch, the more you become alert to the need for clues relating to the overall story and to a particular scene that appears to be contributing to your understanding of the context in which the story is set.

You are in effect looking for and at items which,were they built into wrist watches, would be called complications.  Some watches are so filled with complications that it almost seems an effort to consult the watch for the main reason you wear a wrist watch--to be able to tell what time it is at the moment you consult.

Some stories are so filled with complications that you find yourself losing track of what the story was in the first place, which is to say what the goal of the character is or what the intent of the character is.  

Most of your watches are complicated only by a device which shows you the numeral for the date.  The assumption is that you will know the month.  You have a watch or two with complications such as timers, but you can't recall having used it.

You like the notion of a layered story, filled with nuance an implication.  You're quite willing to take the current assessment of your short stories as being insightful and intriguing to some, baffling to others, but with no particular pattern of which has too many complications.  There were no signs of not enough complications, which is an indication you are at least getting the basics across.

Time was, many of your stories were complications which amused you, set in a pattern that seemed to move on an "and-then" basis as opposed to a "because-of" or "consequential" basis.  Much as you enjoyed writing and living those early ventures, there is more of a sense of accomplishment in the more consequential ones.

You read and watch now for the process of consequence in motion, thinking perhaps the right amount will rub off when you compose.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Eggs, Stories, Parades, and Who's Gonna Clean up This Mess?

Santa Barbara, where you have lived for the better part of forty years, rejoices in celebrations of its cultural heritages with extravagant and energetic festivals held in the larger city parks.  Today, the day of Summer Solstice, Santa Barbara offers one of its two major parades,and the inspiration for this essay.

The Solstice Parade is a gallimaufry of whimsical floats, individuals with Druidic body pain, marching bands, and ad hoc groups, in and out of uniform, in and out of synchronized step, traversing the main drag, State Street, from Cota Street, which you could call way, way downtown, northward to Micheltorena Street, which is by most local accounts, mid, mid downtown.

You'd want a final point of reference for what would be uptown, or, as the locals call it, Upper State Street.  That reference point would be one of  the major arteries intersecting State Street, thus Mission Street, which, true to its name, would lead you to Mission Santa Barbara, with, among other more positive things, its shameful history of doing despicable things to the indigenous Chumash people.  The other major artery, farther north of Mission, is Las Positas Road.

Parades in Santa Barbara tend not to go much beyond Micheltoerena Street, probably because they are often held during the warmer months of June and August, suggesting the potential for the participants' flagging energy, but you have to consider as well the potential for boredom.

In mitigation, Las Positas Road includes the Earl Warren Show Grounds, which is a major venue for visiting circuses, a cat show, a gem show, a horse show, an enormous used-book sale, and the other major parade-oriented yearly venture, Fiesta Santa Barbara, or Old Spanish Days, an opportunity for gringo Republicans, enthused by the lure of too many margaritas, to wear costumes from those old 1780s days, and drunkenly fall off of horses. 

State Street begins to widen and take on non-downtown aspects beyond Micheltorena Street.  You would not want parades much beyond Micheltorena Street; if you had them offered to you, there's every chance you would claim a prior commitment.  

Living where you do now, the Solstice Parade has a direct effect on you relative to traffic, your ability to park near where you live, and your need to plan to stay in or venture out for much of the day.  Eager to preserve your customary parking place, you walked to The French Press on State and Figueroa, where you were to meet a friend for coffee.

Morning coffee has long been a ritual, best taken in slow, appreciative sips.  As you were sipping, there about you, street vendors were setting up their wares in anticipation of what the official Santa Barbara Solstice Parade web site refers to as an "influx of over a hundred thousand, from all parts of the world."

When you live in a city that relies on potential visitors, you become inured to tourists being called influxes, noting the frequent irony in references to panhandlers, street people, and buskers as influxes.  What you were impressed by today, for block after block, was the enormous number of vendors selling the confetti-filled egg known here by its Spanish--Mexican, really--name, cascarone.  In Spanish, cascara is eggshell.

Wherever there is a large Latino population in North America, you will find the cascarone, which has been variously used as a part of a courtship ritual, a convenient way of throwing confetti, a game, and a gesture of extending wishes for good luck to another.  

In some parades, the marchers throw cascarones at the bystanders; in yet other parades, the audience showers cascarones on the participants.  To live among such cultural riches without once having a cascarone broken over your head is to have lived in a severe bubble.  For one thing, it may mean no one you know likes you.  For another, it may indicate you are a neatness freak

Recipe:  Take one egg, puncture the end or cut off the tip.  Drain the contents of the egg.  Wash the insides of the egg.  Allow it to dry thoroughly.  Stuff the egg with confetti.  Seal the hole with wax or a patch of plastic cling wrap.

After coffee, you and your friend strolled down toward Cota Street.  You noted dozens of sites where cascarones were on sale, a harbinger of the confetti-filled streets to come.  You were also taken with the connection between a cascarone and a story, in particular if you are hit over the head with either, surprised, covered for a few moments with bright bits of paper.

What a splendid way to describe story:  something that hits you over the head, then covers you with a celebration, parts of which may linger for some time to come.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Writer as Process Server

 In its generic way, story is the human joke; it is the way each of us approaches a particular narrative.  Story is a shared event, each participant believing he or she is right; if a story is not directly about a character we can identify with, then it nevertheless is about our individual interpretation. 

 Story is about the reader or the writer, noting some details, being oblivious to others until later, when they are pointed out to by others.  These "others," are equal in their amazement at the things "we" have caught.

If being an egotist or narcissist were civil crimes rather than social crimes or pure bad taste, you've have been even luckier than you were to get out of your early years without a visit or two from a process server or two.

True enough, you looked--and continue to look for tangible clues leading to the discovery of persons about you want, what their true motives are, how these individuals mean to achieve their agendas, which is to say, how they will pay up when the bill is tendered and they must confront consequences

From your investigations, you've at last closed in on your own agenda of all these years, understanding what a story is and the social accommodations that attend the consequences of story.

Although story began much earlier, let's say modern story began on November 6, 1740, when a printer named Samuel Richardson more or less self-published a book called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded.  Excepting for a class of scholars, critics, and bored housewives, few readers had had sufficient connections with books of this sort to consider it a novel.  

Many of those who came upon Pamela back then took it to be quite literal, took it to be as truthful in its depictions, took the eponymous narrative focus to have been quite real and, in the bargain, to have been quite put upon so far as her virtue was concerned.  

Richardson could well have had a real person in mind as his model for Pamela, the subject of a popular scandal in the newspapers of the day.  But the possibility exists that the sedate and innocent protagonist was formed from much whole cloth supplied by Richardson.

Pamela was represented (and accepted among readers) as a real individual.  Perhaps, given the persistent sexual implications, Pamela's name had been changed to protect her privacy, but real she was in the minds of the many readers of her exploits and the attempts of her impulsive young employer to have his way with her.  Many readers became indignant upon the discovery that Pamela was unreal.

Such was the nature of many readers in those eighteenth-century days.  A scant twenty years earlier, readers had been taken in by Daniel DeFoe's account of a character he named Robinson Crusoe.  There was some greater reason to think Crusoe was real; a contemporary story of an island-bound castaway had documented accounts.

Such is the nature of the way the novel has evolved, from expectations of it being an actual account to the point where fiction is often given greater credibility than nonfiction.  Even if the reader were not "there," when the characters met and interacted, the reader has evolved along with the novel.  Now, the reader is offered (and readily accepts) the sense of being a fly-on-the-wall presence.  Even if the fiction addresses the reader in the first-person, the reader is all too willing to believe Pip or Huck Finn, or Holden Caulfield or Augie March is there, telling the story for the reader.

Another thing to consider here is the way story has grown from two or three basic fonts which can be and have been repeated endlessly, the evolution being found more in the nature of the narrative than the enlargement of the fonts. 

Thus story has led you from self-absorption to an enormous curiosity to know the details others find exciting and transformative.  You are slogging along the path, having just passed the point where you are absorbed in curiosity.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Long Sentences

With some frequency, the subject of long sentences finds its way bubbling to the surface in the huge stew pot that is metaphor and actuality for your waking life.  

You did not always write long sentences; you certainly did not dream in them.remember, favoring instead the effect of the shorter, simpler declarative sentences. Short sentences got the work done, let you know who was in charge.  

Even back then, when a character in your own work or the work of a writer you admired said such things as, "I'll have to think that over," or "There are many ways of looking at the matter," you knew that character was not the one to follow.  He or she was too reflective to make it in the kind of action-driven material so dear to you.

But when the enormous effect the prose style of Ernest Hemingway released its hold on you, then strode off to try its hand on younger college students, you still favored the shorter sentence. This was true even though you were relishing ways of implications, writing in ways where nuance could invite itself in, then decide it liked the food and wished to remain for a time.

In the narrative style of Henry James, you found a man who could spin out a long sentence the way the spider outside your kitchen door seems able to spin out a web. In much the same way you find annoyance with the spider as you wend your way to the laundry room--"Can't you find another place to weave your web?"--you used to wax irritated with James.  "Can't you just say it, man?  Do we have to put up with all those dependent and independent clauses?"

More to your immediate liking was the way William Faulkner took on a sentence, lulled it to sleep to the point where he was able to slip in a reference to the immediate past then start to get smug about what he'd done, whereupon he'd see if he could possibly throw in a hint of something that happened a generation or two back in the past, and then, as though showing he had nothing against the immediate present, have someone remind the characters and us that dinner was waiting.

You did not then nor do you now fault James for being sloppy; you don't catch him messing up his tenses or violating point of view or adding such troubled expressions that would cause the reader to give up.  

In the manner of a reliable travel agent, Henry James sold you a ticket somewhere and by golly he may take you the long way around, but he got you where he said he was going to.  You may have seen or overheard some things in the process that caused you to hope for some explanation, but you always had the feeling his shyness preventing him from nudging you in the ribs in a situation as delicate as his study of two married couples in his novel, The Golden Bowl.

Although he was tough going at first and still merits close attention from you, Faulkner is more your man when the matter is long sentences.  Faulkner had a thing about time, saying in effect that we cannot escape the past, however much we try.  Some of it comes forth like an over eager Labrador Retriever, wanting recognition and a chuck under the chin.

You relate well to that--long sentence well.  You continue surviving, remaining, carrying your artifacts and memories from the past along with you.  In a metaphorical sense, you have storage lofts in which memories, effects of deeds, and the effects Life has had on you are kept.

No wonder your sentences are long.  Sometimes, when you reread them, you wonder how it is you progressed to this stage from such short sentences.  You recall your time at the Associated Press, being told the AP had spent a good deal of money on a survey.  The conclusion of the survey:  Readers do not like sentences with over seventeen words.

You often enjoy a long, languorous sentence in much the same matter you enjoy a large steak.  None of these dinky fillets mignon for you at such times.

The thing about Faulkner's long sentences for you is that more often than not, you read them for the ride.  He is a long ride, but he leaves you wanting more.

The closest you have come to that is some over-seventeen-word sentences and a great passion for what you are doing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

There's good news and bad news

The process begins with you making copies of the thirty-odd published short stories, which you send to your publisher.  So far, you've agreed on two things:  He will publish a collection of your stories.  The collection will be of twelve stories.  

Your meeting at Jerry's Delicatessen in Woodland Hills is for the purpose of selecting the twelve and then, time permitting, deciding on the order.  When you appear at the deli, you have your list of twelve preferences, arrived at with an enjoyable process of many cups of coffee and perhaps one list of choices for each cup.  

You have lived long enough, spent enough time in the publishing trade, and dealt with enough authors yourself to anticipate a wide diversity between your choices and the publisher's.  You're thinking a match of four out of the thirty-two or -three you'd provided.

You are surprised, heartened, to discover an overlap of eight, which is to say there were only four  differences of opinion.  To extend the cordiality, you are in complete agreement about which story is to be the first.  

In a matter of moments, as the waiter is taking your sandwich orders, you find further accord about ending strategy.  You both like the idea of ending with what in many ways has become your favorite story, using as the penultimate the story for which the entire collection takes its name.

You've scarcely had two sips of your Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic Creme Soda and yet the finished project is one-quarter set already.  Now comes the haggling.  There is one story the publisher wants (it is on your list as well), but he claims not to see the purpose of the title, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."

Now, you take a deeper swig of the Dr. Brown's.  "Irony,"  you say.  "Think about the themes running through the story, the lover drawing the opening notes of a memorable and beautiful chamber music composition on the exposed belly of the protagonist.  Think about the ending scene, with the protagonist's ex, singing country Western into the night.  Think--"
The publisher furrows an editorial brow.  "How many of your readers understand German?"

You are set to reply that you don't understand the German language, much less German persons, but your brisket sandwich has arrived.  You munch thoughtfully.  "How about," you say, "we go with the translation of the title into English, 'A Little Night Music?'  Get it?"

The editorial brow furls as the publisher wonders how many readers will get it.  You take another bite of brisket, wash it into oblivion with a sip of Dr. Brown's and enter that alternate universe of understanding that is enhanced by your years as an editor yourself, as a writer, and as a teacher of literature and writing.

This alternate world is in fact the world of story, the world you've described yourself, numerous times, sober, tipsy, and sloshed.  "Story happens when two or more individuals enter an arena, each believing he or she is right."  Your certainty about this is above moral certainty; it is a clarity you worked for years to achieve.  

If all the crumpled sheets of typing paper you'd filled then rejected yourself were piled about you, you'd be buried.  And then came the computer, which meant hitting the delete button instead of snatching a page from your Olivetti and, in later years, your Selectric.

If you were a sculptor, you'd be buried in gravel.  But no matter; there is a vast, shimmering landscape out there called Reality, which each of us, you, your publisher, and the millions who have no truck with books or stories, will see as his or her own vision of Reality, "getting" or not "getting" the intentions of any given other.

Thus armed with brisket sandwich, deli mustard, a creditable rye bread, and ice cold Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic Creme Soda, you changed "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" to "I've Got Those King City Blues."  And wouldn't you guess, one reviewer, who liked the story, perhaps even to the point of favoring it above the others, didn't see why you couldn't;t have called it "Eine Kleine Nacht Musik."

But wait; there is more.

You, your publisher, and your literary agent agree in principal that a story collection should start with a strong, thematic, slightly off-the-wall story.  You and your publisher had such a story in mind, but not only did your agent not "get" it, she tried it out on other clients of hers who were completely baffled.  Your agent waged a strenuous campaign to have the story you and your publisher wished to begin with placed second to "I've Got Those King City Blues."

There is more.  Good news and bad news.  The good news is a significant number of reviews, the least enthusiastic of them ranking the collection four out of five stars.  An amazing number of reviewers loved the nuances, humor, and pathos in various stories, frank in their admission of not "getting" other of the stories.  But each reviewer "got" different stories and didn't "get" others.

We were correct in our assessment of the last two stories, which seemed to strike differing chords among the reviewers.  

Ah, well.  Your deli epiphany of differing visions of the same thing was not a fresh epiphany.  You've had it before.  You've had it at other times, for other things.  All you can do is what you've been trying to do since you began:  Wrench the passing vision from the skies, and try to set it in orbit where you can watch it.

Your literary agent has another vision.  "There's good news,"  she will say, "and there's bad news.  The good news is that you're being published.  The bad news is that you're being published."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Drones of Propaganda

 Throughout your early and middle-aged years, you were subjected with some frequency to the propaganda that experience and maturity brought with them the gift of the degree of empathy known as mellowness.  

Because you spent some time each day in one or more of those areas known as cranky, sarcastic, irascible, or mean spirited, you hoped the propaganda was on target.

There is scant fun in being cranky.  Sarcasm is every bit as difficult an emotion to convey as intended in real life as it is in narrative.  Explaining sarcasm is of a piece with explaining the behavior of open carry gun enthusiasts who persist in taking automatic weapons to stores and public places where they are more apt to see families and otherwise engaged adults than possible opponents, much less assailants.

Irascible is okay once in a while in a classroom setting, if it helps emphasize a learning point.  Meanspiritedness is, for all practical purposes, parading one's sense of entitlement, mixed with that splendid German word, schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others.  Alas, quite often, true mean spiritedness produces the misfortune the schadenfreuder wishes on his object of meanness.

You hoped the drones of propaganda would single you out as a suspected snark, whereupon it would blast you with rays of empathy, which you could share with all those with whom you had contact.

Once again, conventional wisdom underestimated you; here you are, skipping into the wilderness of the years beyond the so-called middle years, not the least laid-back.

True enough, you've described an arc from another great social marker of Type A Personality, critical, competitive, and work-obsessed to the point of diminishing the competitive part by turning the focus of your competitiveness onto yourself.  What a relief it is to be able to see yourself losing steam by turning the light of inquiry or competition from another to yourself, and doing so by making positive suggestions to yourself about goals you consider necessary.

Over this long course of self-education, you have encountered any number of persons you did not like.  Investigation into this aspect of yourself produced multifarious results.  You had--and still have--a large spectrum of reasons for not liking a particular person, some of which you recognize as seeing the similarity to a trait in you you wish to remove from your tool kit, but have yet to find the means.  This has resulted in what you like to think of as creative misanthropy.

Such persons become great candidates for characters in your fiction, the stipulations being (1) you do not demonize them, portray them as pure evil, evil for the sake of evilness or, for that matter, stubborn for the mere sake of being obdurate, and (2) you must cause them to be recognizably better at something than you.  This last is helpful in two ways; it makes for a more dimensional character, and it allows you to deal with your competitiveness in a positive way.

Your protagonists are heroic because they persist, often beyond your own tendency to open your hands in the dismissive gesture that often accompanies the condemnation of a person, place, or thing to the expression, "Fuck it."

Your antagonists are heroic because they more than your protagonists see a valid reason for change.  What this has come to mean is that vision is not about you, it is about what you see and how you present it in narrative.

Early on, you noticed how bolts of lightning seemed to single you out, come after you like schoolyard bullies.  Unlike schoolyard bullies, all they seemed to want was to charge you with enough energy, enthusiasm, and edge to get you beyond the promise of propaganda and into the real powers.  Thus you wander about, waiting to be struck again and again.  If there is the slightest sense of static in the air, you become alert, extend your arms like lightning rods.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Time Zones, Time Travel, and a Surprise.

For some years, you've alternatively seen, considered, and obsessed on the similarities between the writer, the photographer, the musician, the actor, and the dancer.  

During those years, you'd only to consider the kinship before you achieved the same state as when your mother found you, as she put it, "one sock on, one sock off, sitting on the side of the bed, staring off into the something."  Your shoes lay in wait for you, your breakfast awaited you, the potential for your day waiting to unscroll before you, once you got on your other sock, then got into your shoes.

The common denominator you see among those craftspersons is time.  Of course the photographer is reliant on light, but the result the photographer desires depends on the amount of time the shutter is open, allowing light to come through the lens in the process of registering an image.  

If all notes were of the same duration, music would sound more like a junior high school band than a vast cornucopia of tones.  If the actor were to deliver all her lines at the same pace and intensity, the results would be unbearable.  And what dancer would willingly surrender the qualities of timing that enhance her fluidity and presence?

Such thoughts send you into the "one sock on, one sock off" state, which, by its distinctive and reflective nature, is influenced by time, if for no other reason than to seem to suspend time.  Small wonder, or no wonder at all, that in such suspended states, you were drawn into long reflections about the similarities among actors and writers for approaching their craft.  

Metaphor helps here, because metaphor helps us see a thing by reminding us of the similarity between the thing we wish to describe and something else that may have no relation to it at all.

Think then of the actor and writer being roommates, sharing a house.  They use identical keys to enter the house, wherein the writer writes and the actor investigates the roles to be played.  Each is not only using an actual key to enter the metaphorical shared house, each is also using a metaphorical key to open the mysteries of story.

The potential for metaphor continues when you consider how the writer and the actor are separated from their own selves, transported into the otherness of invented beings, the characters.  Writers may do such things in non-writing time as playing pick-up baseball games with other writers.  Actors may take time off by writing or painting or running long distances, taking time from being in another dimension to be in the present moment.

Individuals who create and/or inhabit other places, other states of being, and,if the work in question happens to be historical, other eras, are as used to different time zones as the transcontinental traveler is used to them.  The difference is the simple one of time travel being a near default state of the actor and writer.  

Whether you are writing or performing in something that takes place on, say, the sixteenth of June, 2014, you are nevertheless entering d different time zone because the story is set in a place that has its own agenda, where you are, in effect, "one sock on, and one sock off."

You are firm in your belief that the entire species is used to travel in all the available time zones, past, distant past, present moment, and future.  On numerous occasions, you've made the metaphor of being in an auto, the immediate present being what is directly in front of you, through the windshield.  The past is accessible through the rear view mirror.  You've even thrown in the side-view mirrors as distractions.  To emphasize the strength of the metaphor, you've even asked a most rhetorical question, "Who among us remains entirely in the present for any significant length of time without some reminder of an event from the past, a future engagement, or a lateral distraction?"

Such temporal ventures, travels in and beyond your own time frame, often leave you with a dizzying sense of pleasure at having recognized some aspects of your behavior within the ongoing enormity of Reality and of Being.  You've actually experimented with considering such time travels at times when you were not at your higher levels of existential comfort.  

The experiment was a success.  With it came the recognition that such moments are apt to be your moments of greatest possible control, moments where, if you look carefully both ways before crossing the street, or indeed of driving through an intersection, you have attained maximum potential for getting to the other side unscathed.

During moments within this particular time zone, this suspended time zone, you realized you'd forgotten to add one other similar occupation to your list.  The archaeologist digs through layers of past time, looking for artifacts, clues, traces, hints of what it was like to have lived there, then.

Archaeologist works.  It works so well, you can hear your mother, calling you across the years, urging you to get your other sock on, then your shoes, then come to your breakfast.