Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Story

1.  A story is a condition where the viewer peers over the shoulders of one or more characters, eavesdropping on conversations and circumstances well beyond the viewer's comfort zones.

2.  A story is a ticket to a landscape the viewer has always yearned to visit.

3.  Story is the place the viewer chooses as a stronghold to escape boredom.

4.  Story must appear to be more real and fraught than Reality.

5.  Story is the calculus of ambiguity.

6.  For a story to be true, it must contain at least one uncertainty hidden among the secrets.

7.  A character must lie at least once during the arc of a story, although perhaps the character has lied in order to get into the story.

8.  A character is often more vulnerable at the end of a story than at the beginning.  

9.  The writer of the story is often more vulnerable at the ending of a story than at the beginning.

10.  The reader of the story is more vulnerable at the ending of a story than the beginning.

11.  The most memorable stories are those where the reader begins to suspect the possibility that every character was drawn from him or her rather than from the writer.

12.  By now, you should have found at least one story that seems to be warning you about something.

13.  Your mother was right.  There's a lot going on around here that nobody seems to grasp.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Wrtiter

1.  There are two types of writers.  The first, those who write of events and the individuals within them to the same degree the writer believes the events occurred and the individuals behaved.  The second, writers who compose scenes and individuals from the whole cloth of their imagination, which includes invented events and contrived characters.

2.  The former type of writers are nonfiction writers.  The later are storytellers, which is to say they are not bound by their impressions of what happened in fact.

3.  Children are often remonstrated or chastised when telling stories of their own invention as though the stories were as those of the first type of writer.  Some children see the irony in the remonstrations, in many ways transforming the  irony into the necessary energy to become writers of the second type.

4.  There are two other types of writers.  These are not always spoken of:  writers who insist on putting more information into their narrative than necessary and writers who do not.

5.  Even though there are lines to be drawn relative to excessive or scanty details, writers who leave things out that they could have included are more apt to attract readerships than writers who tell us more about things than we wish to know.

6.  Writers, for the most part inventive sorts, tend to save the outer limits of their imaginations for their descriptions of what outside forces are most responsible for the lack of sales of their most recent book.

7.  The most difficult thing for a writer to learn is where to begin a story.

8.  The next most difficult thing for a writer to learn is where the story ends and, thus, when to stop.

9.  Not all writers are able to write on key.  There is an agonizing comparison between a writer and most singers at most neighborhood taverns on karaoke night.

10.  In more recent times, the growing conventional wisdom is to trust writers who invent their stories to a greater degree than writers who limit their composition to demonstrable fact.

11. Writers are kidnap victims, their essays and stories become their ransom notes.

12.  It is one thing to believe a writer, another to trust the writer.

13.  Every time a writer procrastinates, the story is winning.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Actor

1.  An actor is an individual who knowingly pretends to be someone else.

2.  Some actors pretend to be actual historical persons.  For their efforts, they are paid at least a living wage.

3.  Some non-actors believe they are actual historical persons.  For their efforts, they are thought to be delusional. Some of these are given medications.

4.  So far as known, most actors who portray actual historical persons are not thought to be delusional.

5.  One actor, Charleton Heston, portrayed Moses and Michaelangelo without being thought in the slightest way delusional, but when he became a vocal spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, serious questions arose.

6.  Every year, at various conventions celebrating science-fiction themes and comic book super heroes, non-actors converge to impersonate characters, and to mingle with the actors who portray many of these characters.

7.  At least once a year at a street parade in New Orleans, a group of young and middle-aged men, riding motor scooters, gather to impersonate Elvis Presley.

8.  At certain times in the past, women actors were forbidden by law to appear on stage, resulting in boys pretending to be Ophelia and Queen Gertrude in Hamlet.

9.  In Twelfth Night, the character of Viola, a young woman, is portrayed by a boy who pretends to be a girl who pretends to be a boy.

10.  When persons in Real Time hold differing opinions about a matter, they are said to be argumentative. When characters within a story hold differing opinions, they are said to be 

11.  The novel called The Second Life of John Wilkes Booth presents a character who is an actor, running away from assassinating another character who was a real person, Abraham Lincoln. In his attempts to fabricate a new, non-acting persona for himself, the character becomes an artist, famed for his penetrating drawing ability, as was Barnaby Conrad,the author who wrote the book.  In this novel, the character, John Wilkes Booth, has been maneuvered into portraying the man he shot, Abraham Lincoln, in a Fourth-of-July celebration, whereupon Booth, as Lincoln, is set upon and assassinated by another character portraying John Wilkes Booth.

12.  The actor who portrayed the King of Siam in the Broadway production Anna and the King, was married to another actor who reported how her husband would awaken in the morning during the run of the play saying "We are hungry," to which the actor who was his wife would respond, "Well, we can just get our own breakfast."

13.  It is common for a person who is not an actor to be told such things as "Act your age," "Act surprised," "Act as if nothing happened," "Act as if you meant it," and "At least act as if you were sorry."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Elephant

1.  There is at least one in every story, often in the living room.

2.  Because of its size, the elephant has become an ironic metaphor, too large to be ignored, yet, by some conventional agreement, banned from being discussed in direct terms.  Violation of this convention is considered grounds for excommunication.

3.  Because of its universal meaning, living room has become a metaphor no less ironic than the elephant lurking within it.  Living rooms are designated areas where characters gather to act and, often, to behave. Living rooms and characters are arranged and furnished to reflect communal éclat and respectability.  One sofa with a sprung cushion, or one character with a soup stain on his necktie, represents a breech of the Social contract. In some living room, a crocheted doily on a headrest of a chair or sofa is prima facie an elephant.

4.  Front-rank characters such as Protagonists and Antagonists have greater potential for being memorable if they have at least one interior elephant and one interior living room.

5.  The conventional wisdom of an elephant never forgetting is an elephant in the living room.  Ask yourself why this is so.

6.  A narrative in which two or more individuals with no trace of an elephant in anything resembling a living room is not a story.

7.  Sometimes an elephant will seem small enough to go unnoticed.  Try explaining that to Mabeth.

8.  Sometimes an elephant will lie about its size and intent.

9.  Sometimes a living room is not a living room; it may be a backyard or someone else's living room.

10. Sometimes a story begins when a character asks, "What's that elephant doing here?"

11.  Sometimes a story begins when the elephant in the living room stirs, rises, then greets one of the characters, wagging its tail.

12.  Sometimes the story ends when the elephant is invited to dinner.

13.  Sometimes elephants enjoy hiding in the living room.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Deals Writers Cut with Conscience and Integrity

Of all the types of stories available, Romance, either by itself or in some cross-over context, still remains most popular, even though many of us who compose understand that the mystery is in many more ways the role model for story.

Mystery forces us to focus on solution.  It brings us to an inner courtroom drama in which our own means, motives, and opportunities are brought forth as expert witnesses in Existential argument.

The words Always and Never are the yeast and dough of argument.  Throw a few of these into a conversation, then stand back to watch it rise to the occasion

"You always say that."

"How would you know?  You never listen to anyone but yourself."

And we are off on our merry way to an argument that could accelerate in excited rhetoric, complete with aggressive gestures, arguments ad hominem, sighs of purported martyrdom which in reality signify raw, unthinking sarcasm.

Much, but not all, of dialogue is argument, a number of contending thesis points rushed into collision within the linear accelerator that is drama.  The "not all" part, those aspects of effective dialogue that are not outright argument, are moments when two or more individuals are talking, each confident his or her line of stated presence is in fact the sole topic at hand, the topic others are interested in following all the way to conclusion. Of course there is this added complication:  Each party believes in the utter logic and rational progression of his argument.

Such boundaries and nuances are the parameters of story, which it becomes possible to describe as individuals thrown together to articulate a common purpose, each side seeing itself as the model of rectitude.  No matter if opposing visions are at opposite poles.  

Story is two or more visions of the moral highground, this itself an irony.  The moral highground is often internal and, thus, more difficult for the outsider to recognize, describe, and, thus, argue with.

Note the ease with which dialogue falls off the horse of argument, landing in a patch of conversation.  At such times, story parts company with the narrative, needing a hand up into the saddle again if matters are to continue.

Your take on the matter:  When dialogue and story are meshed and moving along well, the reader begins to understand that the antagonist will prevail.  The reader wants the protagonist to do something, to step forth with a solution.  But the time has not yet come; the antagonist must win the early arguments, whether by force of argument or ruse or a combination.

Some writers and critics use the term "worthy opponent" in discussing such moments.  True enough, these are critical times. If the opponent is too worthy, the reader might be tempted to root for the antagonist, which defeats a major purpose of story.  Yet, if the opponent resorts to too much bombast, the entire set-up seems rigged, even trivial.  

The wise, seasoned writer, himself or herself a devoted reader as well, will find ways to show the opponent's personal stake in the matters at issue, eliciting enough sympathy to keep the opponent plausible.  We like it best when the opponent has the appearances of a nearly good winner.

The protagonist's impending victory must seem remote, its rightness of cause growing in our awareness to the point where we feel the squirt of fear that comes from our knowledge that good guys do not always win.  There are probably more guilty ones than innocent ones in prison, but there is also the probability that somewhere along the way, a deal was made.

Story reinforces our sense that somewhere, a deal was made, adds to our awareness that we, too, have made deals from time to time, plea bargained out of the more dire consequences of our own actions.

There are few types of story to which these sensibilities and sensitivities do not obtain, which in fact makes us as readers more prone to be argumentative when we enter the mode of composition.

Reading and composing, we are in constant arguments with the deals we've cut with our Conscience, hoping to negotiate a settlement we can live with in some measure of integrity.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Coming of Edge Novel

For the longest time, you were attracted to coming-of-age novels.  Many of these novels seemed unstructured, threw young persons into some sort of dramatic crucible from which these young persons were able to effect a cure or solution. 

You believed you had the necessary qualifications.  You were young, unstructured, eager to roll up your sleeves and get at the work of effecting a solution.  If there were no inherent problem or difficulty, you would have been more than happy to cause one, which you would then solve.

Many of these coming-of-age novels were called picaresque, which was one of the earliest Spanish words you learned that had nothing to do with profanity.  A picaro is a rogue, which you were not but wished to be one.  

Many boys of your then age, which is the age before girls play a more significant role, long to be a rogue for the sheer imagined pleasure of it, after which, you would come to a greater plateau of senses by renouncing your roguish behavior.  You'd read Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons at least once by then and even at that age were able to see that George Minnifer Amberson was a quite negative specimen of a comer of age.  

Boys of your then age were more likely to be thought of as a rascal, which still has a nice sound to it and at the time was more within your grasp.  Rascals are more likely to sneak out at night, as you did, wearing a black oil skin rain coat and one of your father's Fedoras, pretending to be variously The Green Hornet, Bat Masterson of Wyatt Earp fame, or your own invention, Moe, the Magician.  

You were these individuals as the mood struck you, leaving letters in personal mailboxes, warning persons of your approximate age that their behavior was totally unacceptable.  

As you write this, you call one note written to a girl named Eleanore, in which you complained about the way her laughter at Saturday movie matinees was irritating and inappropriate.  You also threatened Miller's Drugs at Sixth and Fairfax with a boycott if they did not lower their ice cream prices. 

At the conclusion of bookish coming-of-age adventures, the young persons were generally thought to have arrived at some greater status point.  You were at first more interested in becoming the lobster in the pot, the young person in the crucible, the discoverer of the hidden treasure or secret map or solution.  But then experiences, disappointments, and continued reading led you to a return to rascality that has been your companion ever since.

Many of your favorite stories seem to you as active satires and ironic send-ups of coming-of-age, by which is often meant buying into a system that leaches the mischief and rascality out of the young person.  

Your favorite coming-of-age stories are the individual sequences in Twain's consistent take-downs in Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad, in both of which he has at convention, propriety, and growing up by making delicious sport of these plateaus, offering you with each rereading an awareness of how likely it is that you are still, at your age, a naif, still struggling to be a reliable narrator and reader, but still missing clues.

Only last year, when you were preparing a lecture on memoir and you turned to Twain's Life on the Mississippi for what you considered some of the most splendid prose and evocation, did you realize the passage you were after could well have been a great humbug, based on Twain's own confessed tactic of distracting readers with figures and potential facts that were neither accurate not substantiated.

At times when your evening walk begins later than you'd planned and you are out on the streets toward the relative quiet and stillness of midnight, you hear the occasional chatter of a nest of crickets and if you listen closely enough, the mischievousness of coming-of-age stories, sending you little darts of reminders, causing you to think of Humphrey Clinker and Tom Jones, and even the poignant yearning of Holden Caulfield.  

These transport you to what you like to think of as the reverse coming-of-age stories, the anti-Horatio Alger adventures, the pointed, wry, probing of Flaubert and Sentimental Journey, and Sterne's Tristram Shandy.  But most of all, you think about and began to laugh at the rascally possibilities of one of the most mischievous coming-of-age novels of all, Gregor Samsa, Franz Kafka's protagonist in the stunning Yiddish Theater venture of The Metamorphosis, where, perhaps to get back at his father, Samsa turns into a large beetle.  Thus the coming-of-edge novel, your home all these  years.

Friday, July 25, 2014

East Is East and West Is West and Always the Twain

Unless the young reader is born into some family circumstance of unusual intensity, home life is going to be routine, with a measure or two of hum-drum thrown in.  Small wonder that characters from novels, plays, and films became the  beacons for an inner life, paving the way, don't you know, for confrontation and ultimate reconciliation with James Thurber's icon of a short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

When you first came upon this story, Thurber was at the point of beginning to eclipse Mark Twain in your estimation.  This was not so much of a crisis as it was a turning point in your own vision of who you were, what you wished to become, and the seeming obstacles to be encountered and vanquished.

You were, for all intents and purposes, between Twain and Thurber.  Twain knew how to send a person on an adventure.  He in fact sent you on several, including your determination to get a job at his old launching pad, The Territorial-Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada.  

But Thurber was alive and producing new materials with some regularity, including drawings, cartoons, short stories, and dramas.  You were also at the stage where you realized Thurber and his circle of friends had a level of sophistication to which you aspired, influencing your tastes in reading and in fantasy.  

Thurber was also much of the East.  Even though he was from the Midwest, he'd gone to New York, he'd secured a job in New York, he was published in New York, he was performed in New York.  You were fighting--and would continue for some time to fight--the battle between East and West until one November afternoon after your career in publishing had been launched to your near satisfaction.

The wind off the river was crisp, reminding you of the iodine tang of the Pacific and of the way winds seemed to bounce along streets of San Francisco, taking traction the way cable cars gripped their way up the hills.  You were with a group of publishing associates, all easterners but you.  The day had a flavor of chestnuts roasting on street corner braziers, the waft of hot dogs and sauerkraut from the Nathan's and Neddick's stand.  You and your group moved past a Chock Full 'o Nuts restaurant, its spicy Arabic coffee blend adding its voice to the clamor of the street.

You couldn't help yourself.  "This day"  you announced, "is so perfect.  This is like San Francisco."

You felt an immediate group hesitation, as though all five or six of you had been jostled going trough the turnstiles at a subway entrance.  Then you were told their version of the day.  "This is indeed a remarkable day, but this is not like San Francisco.  This is remarkable because it is New York.  If San Francisco is anything, it is like New York."

You were reminded of the famed Saul Steinberg cover of The New Yorker, a map, really, showing the entire continent of North America, reduced to a narrow border against which the largeness and importance of New York proclaimed itself.  And there you were, reconfirmed in your westernness, your California-ness.

Not surprisingly, you have a number of easterner friends, but they have found their way here, and you began here.

True enough, the young reader who was you wanted adventure where ever it was available, and for the longest time, you wanted New York as the natural roosting place wherein to process your adventures.  He wanted New York suits, New York ties, New York literary agents, New York publishers.

Events such as the this-is-like-San-Francisco day meant among other things that your life was catching up with your reading, which is to speak of a number of realizations that it was time to be you instead of characters you admired.  Most of your favored characters now are men and women who emerge from the crucible of story accepting negotiated settlements with Reality or accepting the possibility that their earlier goals were pumped up with the froth of youthful restlessness and impatience.

You are western restless and western impatient, a crazy, haphazard force in search of a story he can run down amid a terrain of mesas, high and low deserts, strip malls, and espresso bars seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  Your favored characters are men and women who walk the city streets as though attempting to disguise the sea legs acquired from reading  and writing too many stories about the far away places of the interior.

You are perhaps more in need of adventure than ever before, because you've moved through the plateaus of the young reader, the YA reader, and the adult reader, where protagonists and antagonists had their work cut out for them.  Many of the individuals you see are back into routines of days at parks or lawn bowls or hobby centers, the focused vision of the character on a quest gone from their eyes.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Plot-Driven and Fast, No Question About It

The man seated across the desk from you wore a suit and tie.  You cannot recall ever seeing him when he was not wearing a suit and tie.  At the time you have in mind, you were wearing a suit and tie; you often worse suits and ties during those days, or if not a suit, a sports jacket.

Some time earlier than this particular day, the man in the suit and tie had given you a book which he inscribed to you, "To Shelly Lowenkopf, a Horatio Alger boy in a Brooks Brothers suit."  The book he gave you was a limited edition, one of seven hundred fifty books, Horatio Alger, Jr: A Biography and Bibliography.  

You did not wear Brooks Brothers suits; yours were from the longstanding rival, J. Press, thus were you in a way taking part in a rivalry between haberdashers for Harvard and Yale, neither of which you attended or had any wish to attend.  

The man seated across the desk from you, wearing a suit and tie did not, so far as you were able to discover, go to a university of any sort; he was too busy writing short stories and novels, and by the time your paths had crossed, he'd turned his attention to motion pictures and television.

Another man who sat across the desk from you and whom you'd never seen wearing a suit or tie, a man whose name is William Francis Nolan, was interested in writing a biography of considerable interest to you, which he proposed to call King of the Pulps.  For a number of reasons, this biography, which would have been the biography of a man born as Frederick Schiller Faust, was never published.  

At least for the scholarly record, such a book should be published.  If it were written by William Francis Nolan, there are strong possibilities it would earn its cost and keep; Mr. Nolan has the ability to cause such things to happen.

Mr. Nolan in fact wrote a number of books for you, including two biographies, two novels of mystery, and at least three science-fiction anthologies.  But the biography of Frederick Schiller Faust remains unwritten (although that opened the doorway to an irony for you), and so far there has been no thought of a biography of the man in the suit and tie who sat across the desk from you on the day of which you speak and on a number of subsequent other days.

The man in the suit and tie, seated across the desk from you, looked at the neat, tidy box you presented him.  "What,"  he said, "is that?"

You told him it was the edited manuscript of the first of four books of his you would publish.

He pushed the box back across the desk.  "Kid,"  he said, "no one edits me."  At the time, he was the story editor of two ongoing television series, to which he'd contributed nearly two hundred scripts.  "I edit people.  People don't edit me."

Unlike a number of individuals with whom you'd had similar conversations, the man in the suit and tie did not project any hint of hubris or bristly defensiveness.  You remained on a friendly working basis until you left the publisher where you acquired the beginnings of a biography, The Pulp Jungle, and collections of his short stories, containing biographical Prefaces.

The man in the suit and tie was Frank Gruber, (1904--69), who was by most accounts a plot-driven writer and who actually listed in The Pulp Jungle his own candidates for the basic story types.  The list of his work is staggering.  

For all Frederick Schiller Faust produced a cornucopia of story, Gruber may well have surpassed his output, his mind cranking out adventure after adventure, whether in the mean streets of Times Square and lower Manhattan or the Old West.

"When I came up,"  he told you, "the pay was awful, sometimes as little as a quarter of a cent a word.  Even then, you had to go to the editor's office and sometimes threaten to punch him in the nose to get your check.  You had to make every moment and every word count.  You had to get up in your cheap hotel room and start typing the minute you had your coffee.  You had to be fast and get it all by the second draft or it was the French key (the hotel or rooming house manager inserting a lead key in the front door lock, then snapping it off to stop the delinquent renter from entering, packing his things, and taking off into the night)."

After Gruber's novel, The French Key, was published, then made into a movie, he never again had to worry about paying the rent.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Keep the Light on and the Door Unlocked for Your Characters and Friends

To be sure, there are men, women, and children swarming about us, some of them quite visible, others, nevertheless swarming, but invisible to us.  We view them with a mixture of admiration, envy, and jealousy.  We see them as the leaders, innovators, courageous ones we in secret long to be but which we know ourselves to be beyond our reach.

The envy and jealousy enter the picture via the door, still ajar, of rationalization.  However grand the achievements of those we admire, we, too, could have been where they are, if only--

The If only trails off into a multitude of excuses.  If only we'd had the time.  If only we'd not had to spend so much time caring for poor old Uncle Fred.  If only we'd not been burdened by the onus of a family mired in poverty.  Then we might have had the piano and the hours to practice on it, memorizing the sounds, positions, and the multifarious sounds.  Then we might have had that pellucid moment in which the memorable lyric or theme came to us.

Alas.  Fate has dealt us blows which had us down for the count, wherein the Cosmic Referee hit seven, eight, nine, and ten while we were unable to raise ourselves from the canvas floor of mediocrity.

No wonder we are so taken with reading.  Small wonder we have our favorites, a list that extends well beyond nice guys.  No wonder we recall so many of those who lived on the margins comparable to the margins on which we feel ourselves residing as squatters.  Even though many of them don't make their way entirely out, many get well beyond where we feel ourselves at this moment stuck, trapped, destined.

Earlier this morning, in your Memoir Writing class, you listened as a woman recalled the time in her early years when he grandmother was reminded by her patron that a girl such as her grandmother had only one career before her, a lifetime of service to a large estate.  

This reminded you of Jane Eyre, about to be graduated out of the orphanage in which she grew up.  Jane was told in all frankness that the only potential employment for her was as a governess, with the implication that Jane was not attractive enough to consider a career as a prostitute.

From such remembrances of things you've read came the litany of the favorite characters of a lifetime, not all of them by any means sympathetic or attractive. The characters either achieved their goals or had a good shot at them, enlisting your belief and support.  In every case, the character had some measure of self-awareness as a cause of your envy.  Why else would you keep the light on and the door unlocked for the likes of The Pardoner, protagonist of his own section within The Canterbury Tales?.

You've met some remarkable individuals in person as well as in print or on film or on the stage, some of the former and many of the latter becoming friends and companions and yes, lovers, too. In a crazy kind of inversion, you judge your friends in Reality by the standards set by individuals in story.  The individuals most dear to you in life have or had the qualities most manifest in books and drama.

You are drawn to individuals with more than the conventional quantity of focus, persons who want something or things with an intensity that by its own nature pushes lesser things off the list of priorities.  In consequence, many of your friends and most of your characters in one way or another bay at the moon, eschew polite conversation for flat-out, passionate argumentation.

With more than due respect and admiration for those who join bowling leagues or stamp clubs or get up early for breakfast meetings of The Toastmasters, you recognize there is some sort of impenetrable schism between you and them at the same moment you salute their humanity and purpose.  You go so far as to apologize in advance if you seem in any way to patronize them, for that is not your intention.

Your intention is to ferret out individuals who might otherwise be lonely, feel themselves on the margins, were it not for some internal drive that makes them want something more, and want it now.

You want nothing less than friends and characters who see life as a metaphor for The Holy Grail, who lose sleep plotting ways to renew their quest.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Same Old Short Story

Fond as you are of novels and, indeed, eager as you are to finish work on a nonfiction work in progress in order to get at a novel that has essentially been filing habeas corpus petitions in its desire to get attention, a visitor to your residence would have a difficulty getting a read on your tastes.  

 That would change when the visitor came to the south south eastern corner, where a dedicated shelf, a reading chair, and the nearby eastern wall betray you.

The closest you've come to hearing from a person inside your small studio living quarters, "You sure have a lot of books," came when a FedEx driver, after your signature, surveyed the arrangement, then observed, "You get in a lot of reading, I see."

Relative to the overall space and arrangement of your living quarters and the ongoing invitations of books to take up residence, you have a noticeable amount of books but not the overwhelming number you had before moving here, thinking to take only a hundred of your favorites.  Nor are you likely to have any guests who are themselves not readers.  Nor do you have that many books in electronic format, lurking on your computers or tablets.

With the possible exception of the kitchen, most of the things of any interest are under stacks of books or surrounded by them, and the kitchen is not by any means innocent of books:  Two shelves are packed to overflow, and the south wall has a badly improvised stack, teetering to the level of the windows.

Nothing to be said about the stairway leading to the main room, its western wall close to becoming a hazard.  Also noting except this scant sentence about the books among the linen shelves in the bathroom.  Thus your adopted and adoptive family, titles you've acquired in the three-and-a-half years of your residence at 409 E. Sola Street.  

You might slip in a sentence or two about books in or about the patio table and, of course, scattered about your car, for what is a car to you without a book or two, just in case you find yourself somewhere with time enough on your hand for a paragraph or two or perhaps even a page.

The bookshelf of your betrayal, which is what this essay is about, is your collection of short story collections, most of them single-author as opposed to anthologies.  But the west wall of previous mention has a number of those.  This is the domain of books filled with your favored reading material, the short story.

The beginnings of research for a course you will teach, featuring the short stories of D.H. Lawrence, got you to thinking about your preferences and your association with your preferences and the times you were caught out in rain storms.  You do not merely think about D. H. Lawrence in the sense of, oh, yes, he wrote poetry and novel and essays and some short stories.  Some is putting it in mild terms.  Some! is better.  At least two thick volumes of them, which you remove from the shelves, where they reside between Ursula K. LeGuinn and Ella Leffland.

In and about this shelf are many of the stories and writers who comprise as much of what you've wished to be from time to time as you could let yourself recognize.  Many of the volumes are inscribed to you by the authors, and one of them, a collection of William Maxwell, could have been, if you'd have trusted the book review editor to follow through on his promise of getting the book autographed.

Looking at the range of authors in these shelves is like discovering aunts and uncles who not only wished you well, they shared the deepest recess of their memories and fantasies and talents with you.  Of course you knew they were not writing for or speaking directly to you, but as you read them, you believed they did, and what is more, you wished to learn their secrets and techniques so that you could write that way, yourself.

Right there between Ron Hansen and Ernest Hemingway is Nathaniel Hawthorne's collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, containing a story you first read at age nineteen.  The story made up for "The Minister's Black Veil," which got you into the trouble of your expressing your views that the story was meant to be funny, reminding you of The Lone Ranger, who was to come.  High school teachers do not favor students thinking a minister who wears a black veil over his face is in any way like The Lone Ranger.

"Ah,Lowenkopf again,"  Mr. Aigner, Boy's Vice Principal, said.  "Why are you here this time?" 

"The Intelligence Office" in effect gave you your own A-Ticket to the Transcendentalist Movement among American writers.  This story is in its way a forerunner of a type of science fiction story where lines of imagination, metaphor, fable, and existentialism intersect.  The story opens with a grave figure, wearing a pair of mysterious spectacles, sits at a simple desk in a small, simple office in "the corner of a metropolitan office."

A number of individuals visit the office, bringing questions to this grave figure providing them answers.  The inquirer who caught your attention for keeps was a man who came in with this memorable quote:  "I want my place!--my own place!--my true place in the world!--my proper sphere!--my thing to do, which nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry, and which I have vainly sought, all my lifetime! Whether it be a footman's duty, or a king's, is of little consequence, so it be naturally mine. Can you help me here?"

Thus did Nathaniel Hawthorne turn you to your awareness that you, too, wished your own place in the world, and indeed felt that Nature had somehow fashioned you awry.  From this story, you learned that you had to find your way and, in effect, your own identity.  Thus did Nathaniel Hawthorne in a sense become the paternal grandfather you lost to the influenza epidemic before you were born.  He nudged you into thinking about lead characters in short stories wishing to find a place, a true place, a heroic journey of self-discovery, a quest of some sort.

At one time, you believed writing a novel was beyond you, although you did not reach this conclusion without trying.  Later, you found the short stories you'd written to be excellent building blocks.  You threw yourself at the novel with great éclat, telling yourself you would learn your craft not by revising but by writing new ones.

Easy to see you were stalled in the murk or pure, unbridled energy rather than the lessons to be had from focus and asking a great many questions along the way.

The collections of short stories in your south south east wall are simultaneously your questions about craft and your unending fondness for the short form.  There is a relevant story about your encounters with each of the authors in the shelf.

P. S.  Still looking, Nathaniel.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Acting School for Characters

More often than not, the connection between the writer and actor first articulates itself when the actor is chosen to portray a character from a tangible work, a book, a story, a stage play, a screenplay.

In essence, the actor goes through a process similar to the one used by the writer in bringing the character out of the shadows and into the midst of story.  The result is a fascinating symbiosis whereby the actor adds yet another layer to the palette of traits provided by the author.

At the outset of creation, the author had the need for a package in which to place the goals, imperfections, inabilities, fears, and talents of the recognizable entity we think of as a character.  In the process of developing the story in which the character appears, the writer assumes the metaphorical persona of a ceramicist, adding a touch of attitudinal clay here, removing a certain amount of confidence or experience there.

After numerous revisions of the story, in which the authorial comparison to a ceramicist continues, the author adds, removes, complicates, simplifies, almost certainly at one point or another in the creation mixing the metaphor of ceramicist with, say, a surgeon, removing, rerouting, aging, addling, sharpening.  

A completed character, that is one who has been revised, edited, left out all night to see how he or she fares in the wilderness, has evolved from a faint glimmer to a plausible presence.  A completed character is, at the extreme least, a mixed metaphor.

In the cases of successful series of adventures featuring a particular character, say mystery novelist Tony Hillerman's famed Navajo detectives, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, the palette of traits and goals has been extended over time.  Leaphorn, for instance, has to deal with the loss of his wife to cancer; Chee has to cope with an unspoken inner desire, growing over time, to become a shaman.

If the character first appeared in a play, say Hamlet, or The Death of a Salesman, the character has, in a lovely anomaly, grown while remaining the same.  How does Hamlet do this?  Why, he still seeks revenge for his father's murder, he still stirs up the hornet's nest of politics at Elsinore Castle, but he has as well evolved by being portrayed by the likes of Lawrence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Brannaugh, and Richard Chamberlain, pushing the boundaries of his presence, his motives, and his actions by every actor who would bring some special inner presence to this most special role.

Lee J. Cobb brought such a powerful presence to the character of Wiley Lohman that it was said of him he "owned" the character.  And yet, Cobb's ownership did not scare off Dustin Hoffman or Brian Denehy--nor should it.

The writer and the actor share the process of finding and articulating character.  In this process, the writer tends to be pushed back into the wings, his or her work completed, while those who would stage or film the actor at work begin their own processes of discovery.

The common trait shared by writer and actor is the ability to concentrate.  The actor concentrates on the character to be portrayed, then devises movements, a rhythm, a voice to bring the character forth.  The writer concentrates on each character as an individual, then as the entire ensemble, dithering and plodding about in search of the mischief that is story.

You've had a few moments of being in full concentration, where time, space, and causality are gone.  Then the characters begin moving about, doing what they will, while you follow them, trying to observe.

Concentration.  The focus on the now.  The focus on now to the point where even thought of believing is transcended.  You watch actors at work, using their powers of concentration.  You try to find the place where the actor has stopped being the actor, the writer no longer the writer.  You try to find the place where there are no splendid and bright metaphors or spectacular exchanges of dialogue, because those are in a real sense you, acting as publicist for the self as a writer rather than you, being the medium through which the character emerges.

Characters are bigger than life.  To get into a story of yours, the character has to exude a sense of yearning for something, a yearning ordinary individuals have but do not yet know how to articulate.

You need in effect to send your characters to acting school, where they learn to concentrate on the parts they are about to become.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


Some years after the Great Depression ended and World War II was over, your mother set out on a campaign to, as she put it, "make up for those awful years of Kraft Dinner."  She did so with two macaroni-based dishes, one featuring a sauce of a sharp, tangy Tillamock cheese, purchased at the Farmers' Market; the other macaroni dish had fresh roma tomatoes and diced Kalamata olives.

Both dishes became immediate successes to the point where you were not alone in requesting them. Nor were you alone in your enjoyment of them.  To this day, when offered a chance at some first-rate mac and cheese or even a recent macaroni tossed with a fruity California olive oil and goat cheese, you held back, this in honor of Annie's versions.

 To this day,  thoughts of Kraft Dinner, a packaged concoction purporting to be macaroni and what Kraft considered cheese, cause your stomach to describe a lurch.  

The Great Depression brought disaster to the fortunes of your family in many forms, including the regular appearance of Kraft Dinner and Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, both of which your father accepted as payments of debts from the owner of a neighborhood grocery, itself a victim of the depressed economy.

With the end of the Depression and the War, family fortunes, while not back at their former glory, made a return to  a level where your mother's abilities in the kitchen were once again able to flourish.  

True enough, you were making up for the effects of rationing and some privations, and you were entering the teen years, where no food, good or bad, goes unrecognized.  Of equal truth, your eating interests extended well beyond mere quantity, bounding into variety and innovation.

Thus your then favorite restaurant of all restaurants, The Bit O' Sweden, a smorgasbord of epic proportions on Sunset.  Large platters of sea foods, herrings, pates, salads, and savories punctuated chafing dishes of meat balls, which stood like prison towers above roasts of lamb and beef, which in their turn nested among various fowl, some en plumage, others such as Cornish game hens, awaiting the pleasures of passersby.

Not since the days of the Pequot Room at the Hotel Narragansett, in Providence,where you relished the slight tinge of iodine in the Little Neck clams, which you mouthed thoughtfully, waiting for the wedge with bleu cheese dressing, the the pasta with a tangy Marinara before the New York Cut of a splendid steak; not since then did you see such variety, thus forming many of your tastes for the years to come.  

At the Bit O'Sweden, you ate all the obligatory dishes, salads and individual vegetables, stipulated by your mother, filing those away as well in your memory banks, because this was, after all, a gustatory coming of age beyond the mere filling up on whatever fuel was available.

By then, the metaphor had grown to include reading, in which you loaded your plate with unknown variations on unknown themes, wishing to take it all in, showing little or no patience and even less discretion.  Of the two, dining and reading, your tastes at the table are probably more disciplined.

Now, many of the great buffets of your time are past memory--past-but-vivid.  Today, you see the greatest smorgasbord of all as Life, itself.  Your gait quickens, your spine straightens, your eyes twinkle as you inspect the possibilities, looking for adventure, understanding, and the hearty melange of challenge in the chafing dishes before you.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Bubble Gum, Bubble Wrap, and Cultural Bubbles

Once again, the collision of seemingly random events throws you into a familiar bubble you had not realized was a bubble.

The first event was a phone call of epic reach, extending beyond the particular bubble in which you placed yourself when you signed to have your land line and cell phone listed as Do-not-call Numbers relative to solicitations and advertisements.  When the land line rings, you answer it with an awareness of what it must feel to live within an estate or gated community with an aggressive security system.

When the phone rang this morning, you answered with the certainty of one who had reasonable filters in place, a certainty that was shattered immediately by a gambit that traps most telephone solicitors, whatever their motive.  That gambit comes directly after your identity is established, as in:

"Mr. Lowenkopf?  Mr. Shelly Lowenkopf?"


"How are you this morning, Mr. Lowenkopf?"

Most of the individuals you hear from by telephone are not persons who want to know how you are this morning or the growing variation, "How is your day going so far, Mr. Lowenkopf?"

When you hear such gambits of outreach and establishing contact, your immediate response tends to approximate, "It was going well until this phone call."  

Today was another matter.  This was George, as rapid-fire a speaker in English as speakers known to you as speakers of Spanish or Italian.  This was George, who allowed you probably would not remember him but he, on the other hand, was well aware of your exacting tastes in art and the finer aspects of rugs, tapestries, and woven carpeting.

This was George whom you became convinced you did not know, George who must have you confused with someone who does have taste in such things, someone who most assuredly is not you.

George was not put off by your modesty nor the great advantage at which you held him because, at this very moment his wife was packing the remaining things they were taking with them on their return to Turkey, which was his reason for confessing how vulnerable he was at your hands.  Carpets and hanging pieces could be yours for pennies on the dollar.  Were you to see some of these things now, you would surely take even greater advantage of the situation and then, because it was clear to him that you were not by any means a cruel person, you would offer him a fair ratio of what would still be pennies on the dollar.

No, George could not believe you had no interest in exquisite rugs; you were saying such things only in recognition of the position of vulnerability in which you held him, at which point he drew out for you the taxes and tariff fees he would have to pay, were he to send such treasures back to Turkey. 

 If there was anything George could tell about you, it was your keen appreciation of art, of your need to have your personal life surrounded with significant reminders that the world has great beauties to offer such as you.

By the time you had consigned George to his forthcoming journey, you were aware of a bond between you that extended beyond a mere conversation.  George had put something, however fanciful and open to charges of potential mendacity, into his exchanges with you; its energy remaining long after you turned your attentions back whence they'd been distracted.

But not for long.  

The conversation with George led you to recall the tenor and building of non sequitur upon non sequitur of a story you were for some long moments trying to identify, reaching the point where you'd have been satisfied only to remember the author.

Not too many days ago, you'd been in a discussion about an author you much admire.  Perhaps he was the key.  But you soon became quite sure the author you were seeking was not Dennis Lehane, nor was it another dialogist you admire, Elmore Leonard.

The best thing to do in such circumstances is to push the entire matter as far off into the distance as you can, your past experiences reminding you that the answer will soon appear, whether you are in the midst of a conversation about an other matter or, by yourself, moved on to another subject.

Sure enough, within a few minutes, you had the name of the missing author.  It was you.  The key to your memory of it some comments you'd made in a recent blog essay about how, in many ways, the easiest way for you to begin work on a short story is to do so as an act of procrastination from another task.

The story you had in mind was from a considerable time back.  The story was long enough to have staked some claim to novella length, that is, if your sense of story at the time were closer to what it is now.  So then, call it a narrative rather than a novella or a long short story, which might well have become a more traditional length, if you'd had the tools to revise it.

You were in a bubble then, for a number of years.  There were characters in your narratives,  This one even had a goal, which was winning a competition.  Its shape was something you're going to have to fiddle with, experiment with, try to retrieve, revisit in light of the bubble you are now in so far as shape and structure of story is concerned.  The memorable thing about this bubble was the dialogue.

At the time, you had no vocabulary for what this dialogue was.  Now you see it as a vision, perhaps your best at the time, of persons trying to communicate, but talking about different things, then coming from the exchange with a sense of having been a) articulate and b) so articulate that one could not help being understood, and c) having little or no clue that understanding was in many ways like a cat, wishing to be given its supper.

Many things have changed since you wrote that narrative, which is why you would like to try your hand at bringing it back, if only to see some of the things you were right about back in that bubble, and what changes have overtaken you.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Stop Acting So Innocent

 In strange, lovely ways, you have come to realize how, across a wide chasm of years, you've used writing short stories as a means of procrastination.  These ways were born upon you during the past few weeks, as reviews on your recent publication of a collection of your stories began to appear.  

The connection finally came when, about a week ago, you had occasion to write the following exchange of dialogue in a short story.

"Stop acting so high and mighty."

"I'm not acting.  I am high and mighty."

When  the time comes for self-editing, you're most likely to remove that last sentence on the grounds of it being unnecessary; the intent and meaning were resident in the more direct response, "I'm not acting."

Although you like the exchange and the story, the dialogue threw you out of the story because much as you want to get this story into the completed draft state, you also want to get an entire draft on the book you're writing, which, in a direct way, is about acting.  You were procrastinating the latter by doing the former, a gambit that allows you to say that you were working and, thus, how could that be procrastination.  The answer is to get up an hour earlier or stay up an hour later, working on the story, but keeping the book on acting as top priority.

Yes, you recognize how funny you are.

Even though this exchange of dialogue, in shortened form, is a keeper, things in stories are not supposed to kick you out of them, rather the exact opposite.  Things are supposed to keep you concentrated on the persons and events of the story.  This brief exchange had the effect of prankster friends attaching a chain of tin cans to the rear bumper of the honeymoon getaway car.

First and foremost, if an actor--in this case one of your characters--is acting, that's a red flag.  The character shouldn't be acting unless the story calls for the character to be seen, assuming a role. For that matter, an actor in a production should not be seen acting; she should come through as focused, entirely in character.  In an entire sense, characters do not act, they are.

Second, you recall back, back in the day when, tiring of the journalism and graphic arts aspects of your focus at Los Angeles City College, you transferred to UCLA to get serious about your studies and to find ways that would encourage your writing times.  The "ways" emerged during your first semester at UCLA.  The "ways" were final examinations, for which you scarcely studied, instead producing a thick sheaf of materials you considered at the time to be short fiction.

Those pages were short fiction, perhaps a novella.  But there you were, procrastinating by not studying what you ought (and for which you are doubtless still making up to this day in terms of things you're reading now you didn't read then.  

Proof.  You were interested in Transcendentalism and Nineteenth Century American then.  How could you not have read all the Hawthorne assigned you, in particular The Blythedale Romance, with its focus on life inside and outside communes?  Should have, but didn't.  Instead wrote a novella about characters on a scavenger hunt, which in its way was a metaphor for attitudes toward material possessions.

True enough; in subsequent years you wrote short fiction as number one priorities, especially since you didn't yet think you were ready to embark on a novel.  Of equal truth, you can think of few more intense ways for triggering the emergence of a short story than to have a deadline for some other project.

Let's get back to that neglected theme, the one of characters and actors acting.  This return of focus brings you face to face with your belief that an actor in theory acts because she or he is busy translating a series of physical and verbal responses to a simulacrum of interpretive behavior surrounding the ways a fictional being behaves.  You accomplish this by transcending the technique and by becoming the character as opposed to the trained, alert individual portraying someone else.  You are that other.

Another possible explanation is that you have still to train yourself with as much effectiveness as you'd wish in the matter of staying on the bucking bronco of a horse of bull for some respectable period of time before being bucked off.

Being told to "Act your age." is another trope that reminds you what's at stake here.  That exhortation means in effect Be the most serious, conservative, gravitas-laden old coot of which you are able to achieve.  It means, Here, take these acting techniques, then apply them to yourself during working hours or family reunion hours, or times when you find hidden, procrastinating, rebellious selves, eager to step forth to take over a one-person show, where, to great effect, you become Stephen Colbert, interviewing Jon Stewart, both of whom are well known to be you.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

In the Moment, for a Moment or Two

When Time passes in Reality, its measurements involve clocks, shadows moving from one side of trees and buildings to another, of time zones, of planets in orbit, of children being called in for dinner, of saloons and taverns closing or, perhaps, opening.  There is a sense of purpose, agenda, movement, all according to a cosmic schedule.  So many moments of darkness or shadow, so many of light, and moments of gray in between.

When you focus on such passage of this kind of movement, thoughts turn to the anticipation of stars appearing or the orbs of sun and moon on the equator, of shadows lengthening or shortening, of distinctions between darkness insects and daytime insects.  

Such thoughts make you feel small, but not diminished, more an awareness of the extraordinary mechanism  of Time, and how a part of its agenda is the slow, steady manner in which things evolve, both in species form and individual.

Sometimes, watching night skies, you track not only the movement of the constellations but as well yourself, from the young, owlish person you were, squinting from behind horn-rimmed glasses, wondering what, if anything you could do to assist Time in helping you evolve.  Some of that early impatience remains with you, the major difference resident in your coping with it, rushing now to read and note and write and listen.

At one time, you barely had the patience to listen to a longer piece of music because of your eagerness to get inside it, take it apart, understand how it worked its own presence in relation to time.  As your music teacher attempted to teach you the written language of music, she impressed on you the way notes had specific durations as well as pitches and moods.  If you depressed this pedal, you in effect sustained a sound for a longer time.

When you had a job working at the camera shop on Brighton Way in Beverly Hills, your employer impressed on you the importance of time as it related to how long the shutter remained open so that the right amount of light got through the lens.  What great mysteries were inherent in such passages of time.  

As if that were not enough, he pressed into your hand a camera, a Leica, with a focal plane shutter, which was an even greater nuance for controlling how much light appeared on an exposed frame of film.

When Time passes in Story, the shadows and tides and evolutions are expressed not so much in minutes or hours but in units that remind you of stars in the evening sky, units called beats.  Within the boundaries of a short story or novel, there are an infinitude of beats, but the only ones you notice are the ones that need to be there to remind you of the specific, inexorable, deterministic effect of the light of drama, passing through your characters and onto the diaphanous skin of narrative.

If the story is your own composition, you've gone through it to remove all the unnecessary beats, beats that are in effect idle conversation and wasted time between the orbits and movements of the forces of characters, engaging in their orbits.

Such stories require of you units of time in Reality, units that cannot be measured in any standard way, rather instead as however long it takes you to remove all the unnecessary beats, then examine to see if you need to insert necessary beats you might have thought were not needed.

Persons you know who act are aware of Time and of beats, at once linking musicians and photographers with the likes of writers such as you.  Such persons have an expression of being in the moment, which is Time out of Reality and in fact Time within Story, where Time, space, and causal relationships merge into a single narrative presence.

Sometimes, when you are in Reality, you are reminded of times when you still lived with your parents, impatient with the speed at which you were evolving.  You quite often would sneak out, against curfew constraints put upon you.  Or you would sneak in, not wishing to be seen in a particular state of being drunk or stoned.  You find yourself being drawn into the Story moment, instead of the Reality moment from which you are only too willing to depart.

Such thoughts make you aware of differing Time zones, those in which you alternately abide and reside.  Being drunk or stoned, in those days, was one of your solutions to the great waves of impatience that crashed over you in your urge to be evolved.  Reading was another solution.  Writing things, attempting to capture your own impressions of light and life on the film of your imagination was your then equivalent of the rolls of thirty-five millimeter film you shot with that focal plane Leica camera.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Schemes of Mice and Writers

In the manner of a tour guide, eager to move stragglers from one intriguing exhibit within the writers' museum, to the next, you urge yourself from yesterday's observations about concentration, along the steep path of consequences, to the time-share condo of awareness.

For a writer, being aware of a person, place, or thing means being absorbed in it, taken up by it, as attentive of it as of a pebble that has insinuated itself into a walking shoe. In literal and figurative senses, being aware is the equivalent of being yanked away from the quotidian pathways of ordinary reality, into the Santa Monica Freeway, southbound, at four in the afternoon pathway of dramatic narrative.

The closest parallels you see are those between the writer and actor, each of whom creates the sense of plausible presence through techniques related to concentration that leads to the reader's and audience's awareness.  

By turning concentration into a laser of projection, the skilled actor causes us to see a mouse where there is in fact none.  The actor's concentration on an imaginary mouse in effect nudges us into seeing it.  In the great irony that is the filter, the imaginary mouse of the actor is not the mouse seen by the audience.  That mouse is the mouse of the audience's individual experience, thus white, gray, dun, even piebald.

The skilled author knows better than to describe a mouse, for even a person fearful of an actual mouse is not driven to be fearful of a description.  The skilled author shows a character being surprised by the mouse, challenged, upset by its presence.  We, for whom mice hold no fear, are laughing at an adult who is not us, reacting with such motion, to a mouse.  Whether or not we actually see the mouse, wee sleekit, cowerin' beastie, we see the effect of the presence of a mouse.  Which is better?

Through the process of concentration, we arrive at the consequence of what you have called a plausible presence--a thing or condition that with such plausibility to be real has in fact become real, completing the primary responsibility of the actor and the writer.

If nothing else, being a writer all these years has brought you the muscle memory by which you are transported from reality into focus on story, then deeper into the state of awareness where details are calling to you as the Sirens called to Odysseus and his sailors, who were, you'll recall, on their way home from the Trojan Wars.

There are times when you read The Odyssey, or treat yourself to the remarkable reading of it by Derek Jacobi, where narrative circumstances cause you to forget these dudes are on their way back to Ithaca, whence they came, these seven or so years earlier.

More responsibilities, from both the actor and the writer:  to call you away from a stated purpose, which has already been imprinted upon you by the needs expressed by the character.

Spend some time with Vladimir and Estragon, who, in Samuel Becket's play, are waiting for Godot.  If the actors are up to their task of concentration, soon, we, too, await Godot.  The matter does not stop there.  We never see Godot, but consider how, at least for a time, we begin to wonder where he is, what he is doing.  

We are more shrewd than the characters.  We realize, before they do, that Godot is not going to arrive, at least not in this theater, and not on this ticket of admission to it.

Awareness of details will do that to you, in fact should do that to you, if you are immersed in story.  Novels of mystery and detection offer up details as potential clues, aha-moments wherein you recognize a detail that was placed to trigger mischief, and there you go; you've tripped the warning wire, which has succeeded in arousing your suspicions about something.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Honk if You Like Hemingway

At the same time the average lifetime expectancy for individuals has increased, so too has the number of dramatic deaths--those in motion picture and television drama--increased as well.  As a result, you've watched with interest as more characters die and the actors who portray these deaths are called upon to simulate states of plausible, convincing death.

Watching the season opener of Ray Donovan, a series marked by intelligent writing and acting, you noticed one of the characters, a young professional boxer, as he was done to with near brutal effect by a larger, seemingly impenetrable hulk of a fig here.  The character of your focus was floored after a rapid, deadly combination to the body and head.  As he lay on the canvas, the referee beginning the count, the actor's eyes seemed to glaze over, reminding you what a fine performance the actor gave.

In rapid consequence, you recalled Al Pacino's performance as a blind person in the film, The Scent of a Woman, during which there was never a thought of the Pacino character being anything but blind.

How do they do it, these corpses, fighters knocked senseless, the blind, the injured, the young actors portraying older and/or afflicted individuals?

Even though it is not enough, one word defines the mechanism, and is itself a key factor to the art of performance, indeed of writing, of storytelling at any level.  The word is concentration.  The actor concentrates on the who and what of the character.  The writer concentrates on story.  The athlete is "in" the event, concentrated on performance.  The painter concentrates on the inner vision, whether that vision be abstruse or of a high figurative degree or of an intended portrait of absolute realism.

The performer gains entry into the project by an ability to concentrate.  You are far from stating an original belief with the recognition that the actor is concentrating on a controlled reality, where you have no entry or exit; the actor is concentrating to convince self of a condition, such as death or petite mal seizure or drunken wobbliness.  

The actor is not concentrating to convince you.  The actor is concentrating to convince herself of a condition, a broken heart, a broken leg, a spider descending on its silk, its point of eventual arrival some three or four inches above the perciever's face.

You have tried this form of conversation many times, as a set up to the improvisation of feuding characters in their attempts to hammer out an agreement of sorts, one that will lead the reader to the resolution of the story.  In this improv, the characters ratchet upward the contentiousness and edge in their voices.  Your only awareness at the moment is of the degree of focus, the concentration by which light the reader or audience disappear.

You have seen this degree of concentration dissipate because of the presence of one unnecessary word, a word embodying innocence and at the same time the snap of the finger of a skilled hypnotist, breaking the hypnotic force of concentration in a character.  The unnecessary word is often an adjective or adverb, some unnecessary attribution as it calls attention to itself.

Think of the suspense scenes within movies you've seen where a character, in hiding from a menacing presence, fights the urge to sneeze or pant.  The situations are similar.  A word, meant to send along information to the reader or the audience, now becomes the agent of betrayal.

Think as well of the gifted mime or impersonator, who appears to hijack the presence and personality of some well-known public figure.  Then understand the how of the wonder of impersonation.  The actor is concentrating on the target, then passing along information to muscle memory.  The impersonation is now the result of the practice and understanding of the implications of muscle memory.  Actors do such things from observation followed by concentration followed by performance.  And what is performance but action?

A writer impersonates the style and voice of another writer, using the same formula, observation, concentration, then action.  The observation is of sentence length and idiosyncrasy, of sound, texture.  The performance is a muscle memory imitation of the style of the writer to be mimicked, perhaps in exaggeration to the point of ridicule.

What actor comes so often to mind as a demonstration of an impersonator's seemingly magical abilities?  James Stewart is a likely candidate because his voice, gestures, and rhythms are so unique.  What writer comes most to mind as a target for impersonation?  Honk if you like Hemingway.  Then, think how you would not only impersonate Hemingway but how, more than once, you did.  Think of the time when Hemingway's son, your classmate, actually sent him one of the impersonations, to which he wrote back to his son, "Tell S.L. nice try, he got me."

An actor can cause you to see a mouse where there is none, death when there is in fact life, chills when there is in fact heat, and suspicion when there is no cause.  The actor achieves these ends via concentration, then action.

Note how seldom description transmits information in story and how often action does.  Note how, every now and then, a character in a book or story you're reading does something to surprise you, causing you to stop to think why.  Then ask yourself if this was in fact the thing the writer intended you do.

Whether in films, stage plays, or books, characters concentrate on doing the things of story, without in any way seeming to care if the audience knows or reacts.  Through their own rigorous concentration, the actor and the author take us to some wall or its equivalent within a scene, where we can eavesdrop.  And if we concentrate hard enough, we can almost hear the characters think.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Tourist Trap

Boredom is more than a state of being; it is a tangible country, a place where inertia and expectation are placed in quarantine promptly on entry.

To gain entry into this state, you are required to declare all desire and agenda, then leave them at the border.  The principal activity here is lack of movement, a condition prized among its locals, often represented in their crafts as ennui, lethargy, and languor.

The major crop here is passivity.  To even think of that quality as a religion would be an anomaly. No matter what you think of religion, it often embodies such qualities as zeal, conviction, certainty, and faith, all of which require a large footprint of action.

The State of Boredom attract numerous tourists, who are drawn here by the shrewdness of an advertising campaign promising inactivity and assurances of no choice whatsoever being required from them during their stay.  Some find this irresistible and, were some activity and research necessary, would file for permanent resident state.

Waitpersons in the local restaurants present meals as soon as customers appear, removing any need for menus, thus nipping existential choices in the bud.  The one movie house always plays the same feature, a French cinema realatie presentation of a blank screen.  

At first blush, the library would seem to offer more variety and, thus, choice, but, you see, in the country of Boredom, everything has been thought through with mischievous care.  The library's collection of fiction consists of self-published first novels; its nonfiction holdings are the proceedings of sociology symposia.

You do not want to be here, which is the first step in leaving Boredom behind you.  A desire is in effect a grapefruit seed or avocado seed stuck in a pot of coffee grounds to provide a sense of growth and adventure within a room.  While you are here, experiencing the products of Boredom, you can feel your brain and body parts, experiencing the after effects of spending too much time in the sun, drinking that one-too-many rum punches, allowing the waiter at Sly's of 686 Linden Avenue, Carpinteria, CA, ("Just blocks from the World's safest beach") to talk you into the affogato desert.

The things to be learned here are, thus, leaden, weighting-down things, acceptance-of-things things as opposed to the risky business of telling stories in your own voice, in a world where there were and are now so many men and women with such excellent voices.  There is the daily chill of discovery among the small things and large monuments about you.  There is the nightly parade of surreal dream images that come crashing into your sensitivities, reminding you how you are in ways not at all clear to you enhancing the muscle memory of taking chances, conflating seemingly dissimilar things, starting off on quests or missions.

In dreams, remembered or not, you are always embarked on some mission, sometimes wearing strange uniforms or, in some cases, being fully clothed except perhaps for a shoe or two, or some other anomalous configuration known to your subconscious, which is not speaking to inform but to connect disparate themes.  Consequently, you are never bored in your dreams.

Which raises a subtle-yet-telling point about dreams.  Why do so many critics warn us about the potential for boring others with our own dreams?  A strong candidate for an answer emerges here, particularly in the face of dreams being a process shared by most-if-not-all humans share.  Dreams are the process whereby we function as individuals.  

Dreams are explanations, footnotes, if you will, of us, striving to be our self.  It is one thing to say of Gregor Samsa that he awoke from fitful, uneasy dreams to discover his transmogrification; it is yet another to cause us to have to wade through the dream.  Kafka knew.  

Even before you'd given this some deep thought, you knew Kafka was right to withhold the process, allowing the story to stand as a magnet of ambiguity, drawing implications, conclusions, and interpretations.

At times, when you were studying his story, you wondered what your own dreams would be like if they were advance scouts, warning you that you would soon become a bug.

You remember separate times when Elmore Leonard told you how important it is to ignore the temptation to relate dreams in detail, which was enough to get you thinking.  But he also said, "Dreams are not stories.  Dreams are only drafts of stories."

This was advice you could relate to, coming from the place where you believed details were as much a part of story as activity.  The spilled milk of no crying fame is merely a detail, giving some setting a shot at personality.  Someone trying with some desperation to clean up the traces of the spilled milk bring story into the picture.  Someone trying to clean the traces of spilled milk before the spill is noted by a specific individual, who is likely to be pissed, gives that burgeoning story a kick in the narrative pants.

Action is the wake-up call, the place story gets a toe-hold.  Action is the note in a bottle, tossed over the wall.  Help, help, I'm being held captive in Boredom.