Sunday, June 8, 2014

Character

The man who hired you to come to Santa Barbara, where you would serve as his number two in the book division of a scholarly publisher was in many ways your polar opposite.  His politics were well along the conservative pathway, and he was a self-proclaimed pessimist, saying that his views more often than not proved out.  On the few occasions where his pessimism was misdirected, he was quick to apologize.

You mostly admired him and you were happy to have the admiration show.  This did not stop him from the frequent, "My office, and close the door" admonitions prefatory to discussions of the different pathways our working styles embodied.  Your least favorite of our discussions had to do with your upward mobility within the organizational ranks.  

As his retirement clock ticked away, he saw you in his place, which in fact happened, but here's where his pessimism came into play.  From about your second week of employment, he made a concentrated effort to keep you at some distance from the president of the company.  Barring ceremonial occasions, he was most successful.  At his retirement dinner, he took you aside.  "Two years,"  he said, clinking his champagne flute against yours.

"?"  you said, clinking back.

"Two years and you'll be gone."

He was all but correct.  You were still there, two years and six months later, but the last six months was only because the president could not think of a sufficient reason, until he came up with the one that best describes him.

Two years and seven months later, you ran into your former boss, who greeted you with the  acknowledgment that he did not owe you an apology.  "Had you still been working there,"  he said, "I'd have apologized.  But I was pessimistic and although I wanted to be wrong, I was not."

You, on the other hand, are an optimist.  This means you face a daily agenda of disappointments, which is the thing your former boss was insulating himself against.  You're made aware of this dynamic in a number of ways, but in the process of being interviewed by reviewers and book bloggers on the occasion of your most recent book, you became aware that the president who needed six months to figure a way to fire you had found his way into at least three versions of himself in various short stories of yours written over the years.

Your pessimist boss, whom you admired, was by most accounts a fair, inquisitive, talented, honorable man.  Worst case is a slight vector toward the tendentious.  The president, the chair of the English department when you were an undergraduate, and at least three chairpersons of the graduate program at which you taught for over thirty years were bigger enough than life to earn a place in that file you have reserved for authority figures of a particular level.

At one time in your early approaches to story writing, you'd begun writing the types of stories recommended to you by your then literary agent, stories in which, and these were his words, "the reader would feel comfortable having as a guest in the home."  

You tried hard to create such characters, but they were based on the individuals you saw in your parents' home, men and women for whom the working days meant the dull routine of making enough money to support lifestyles in Beverly Hills and children at USC or Stanford, possibly a few whose children went, as you went, to the State University system.  Never mind that UCLA was in many ways emerging as a major force.

The individuals who frequented your parents' home were persons for whom the night was the most exciting part of the day because it meant poker or pan or canasta, games of chance.  Night after night, the mantra in your parents' home and the homes of their friends was, "Where's the game tonight?"

You wrote about such individuals, and were getting to see them as having extraordinary talents which for one reason or another had been subsumed by an incredible need for status.  You alternately admired and in your way patronized, not seeing beyond your youth.  The agent was not impressed.  These were not persons readers would want in their homes.

This was one of many lessons to be learned about characters and agents and publications that only wished to entertain particular types.  You set about learning these lessons over the years to the point where you understand this much:  you have made yourself unconventional.  You attract unconventional sorts and yourself cause conventional characters to view you with suspicion.

There is comfort in the awareness that you could make the casting cut for one of your own stories.

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