Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Boundaries, Physical and Literary

In the beginning was a remembered boundary, the 6100 block of Orange Street in the western side of Los Angeles.  You could go anywhere within reason on that block, but you could not cross its southern face to get to the empty lots on the next street over, Wilshire Boulevard.  Even though there was scant traffic, you were required to have your crossing observed/supervised by an adult.

Same for the north face, which was Sixth Street, a well-trafficked street.  Never mind that you didn't particularly want to cross Sixth Street; the rule was that you couldn't.  Your one regular dispensation was the fact of you being allowed to cross streets on your northbound route to the approximate corner of Fairfax Avenue (running north/south) and Third Street (running east/west), which was the location of your grammar school, Hancock Park Elementary School.  You were given frequent reminders about looking both ways before crossing,  You were reminded of safety, as though it were a live, viable quality.

At least once a week, often as many as three times a week, you also had permission to cross Third Street, from the southeast corner of Fairfax Avenue to the northeast corner, which effectively placed you at the entrance to the Farmer's Market that had been there since before your birth (and remains there today).

For most purposes, this was the physical world of your scope.  On occasion, you, your mother, and sister walked the block or so to the nearby corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, whereupon your mother would drop nickles or dimes into the collection box of the Wilshire bus, which took you to the Fifth and Hill Streets terminus of the Wilshire line in downtown Los Angeles.  Not bad for a kid, up to the point where you wanted a richer potential for adventure, exploration, and discovery, three words that held great sway over your choices in reading.

You pretty much knew reading was even more than the square or cube root of the Wilshire bus.  Reading was your transportation to strange lands and familiar ones in historical and contemporary times.  If you felt like going twenty thousand years under the sea or following the likes of Horatio Hornblower, you picked up a book, in effect removing all the supervision and permission and discussions relating to safety.

As the years progressed, you earned the confidence necessary to allow you to cross as many streets as you wished, and your curiosity about the potentials for transfer from buses to street cars in and about Los Angeles led you well beyond the point where you could--and often did--board a bus in downtown Los Angeles that transported you to the far extremes of Los Angeles County, which is to say you more than once rode to Long Beach, your then equivalent of the edge of the world.

During the progression of these same years, you undertook reading to places where you became not just lost but absurdly so.  There was an occasion when your mother asked you which book you'd like for a birthday present and you gave her a title relating to celestial navigation.  

Who knows what she'd come to think about her son by that time, but she secured the book for you.  The book did not go well,  You were able to make out the words with ease, but not their aggregate meaning.  You spent a good deal of time with that book, but you learned little about navigation or celestial bodies.

In a relative sense, you read more reasonable books because you'd read things about these books, and came to conclude how beneficial it would be for you to have read them.  Thus, early on, you read books you'd heard were such refined and lofty things as pillars of Western Civilization.  You found somewhere a story that led you well outside the cause-and-effect stories you'd been reading, into the Harvard Classics Series, where you learned the names of many Latin and French writers, but once again, scant awareness of what they were talking about.

You tried to convince yourself that these writers were boring only because you did not yet understand what the fuck they were talking about.  You were so convinced of your boredom and lack of understanding that the effect of many of these writers are still a chore for you to contemplate.

A sympathetic librarian directed you to the Loeb Classical Library, some titles of which you still have with you.  Depending on the color of the dust jacket, green for Greek and red for Latin, the books bore their original language with an opposing page translation.  

You appreciated this approach to reading and, once again, incorrectly posited you'd be able to learn both Greek and Latin as you read the English text.  Another idea that did not go well, although you were beginning to make something of the thoughts of the authors and their arguments.

However lofty your intentions, you did not become the classical scholar you'd hoped to become.  You in fact had these hopes because of things you'd read that suggested a well-read person should know and understand such things.  

But since you could not become a classical scholar or elevate yourself to a peer level with some of the more recent writers who wrote in French or German, you could and did move on to stories which were at some distance from plot-driven a+b=c formula, into character-driven narratives in which you were not only given choices but began to feel the burden shifting to you.

True enough, you were using nineteenth century and early twentieth century education models and standards from England and Europe.  You were in effect, trying to be another culture's version of the man of letters.

No wonder you were drawn to so many loners, in effect taking the same journeys as you, the journeys of the self-taught, the autodidact.  The writer is among the most notional of all journey takers, only on rare occasions having a specific destination in mind.  

Monday, September 29, 2014


If curiosity were money, you'd be well off.  You have more curiosity than currency.  Sometimes the moment becomes so fraught with curiosity that you are almost stunned into a motionless stupor, wondering which book to pick up first, which search engine to consult, which line of which poem has the key, which short story or novel has the voice, which essay has the outcome.

If enthusiasm were money, you'd be considered a spendthrift, somehow made the subject of an intervention by one of your more rational and thoughtful components.  You spend enthusiasm on projects, on flowers, on dogs, on listening to music.  

You spend enthusiasm on pressing the delete button to send the wrong words to cyber limbo.  Then you come back to the keyboard or the pen and start again, taking out loans against tomorrow and your need to be op and alert at an early hour.

Can an aspect of a self turn in another aspect of a self, wanting in the bargain some form of conservatorship?  Can the rational aspects of the psyche accuse the others of collusion, a word often used in tandem with conspiracy.

These are not idle propositions.  They are based on a fascination for the noir and hardboiled and dimly lit stories and poems and music, but they do not define a man who is dark and cynical himself.  Among the more glorious sounds and harmonies you're aware of, there is the choral section of Beethoven;s Ninth Symphony, the part based on the poet Schiller's "Ode to Joy."

One of the more memorable dramatic experiences you've experienced in recent years is a podcast video segment, sponsored, you believe, by a bank in Portugal.  It begins with a single musician sitting in a town square, turning his cello.  A little girl approaches, puts a few coins at the cellist's feet.  He begins playing.  Soon, another musician appears out of the crowded square, then another and another, until there is the equivalent of a full symphonic orchestra, playing the main theme from the final movement of the Beethoven.  Soon, the musicians are joined by a full chorale.  Together, they send surges of joy bouncing off the walls, the people; the entire square is a stunning mass of performing joy.

In his way, in that symphony, the Ninth, Beethoven has taken us on a roller coaster ride, swooping down to depths of despair and gloom.  Then, as if to show us how we embody the conversation between the dark and the heights, he gives us that final, emphatic, glorious hymn to the resonant frequency we can achieve.  All we have to do is stop, open up the doors, then listen.

As if to emphasize his intentions, Beethoven, himself not a happy or outgoing man during his lifetime, now completely deaf, writes some of the most amazing string quartets the world has ever heard.  He, of course, heard the music within his interior self.  You cannot hear these string quartets--two violins, a viola, and a cello--without a radiant sense of connection with the species of which you are apart, friend and stranger alike.  At times, when you hear such music, you hear it with dearest departed friends and family.

All you need to get oriented are the first four string quartets Mozart wrote and dedicated to Haydn.  You could throw in some of the piano sonatas Haydn wrote.  You could throw in Beethoven's Violin Concerto for a lark, the Ninth Symphony, then those final dead quartets and with these, you'd have a language with which to begin understanding the vocabulary of story.  You would not think it out of the ordinary to like dark, murky story while still considering yourself in such battered terms as a romantic, a positivist, an optimist.

What is it about dark?  One thing is the promise dark brings of light, night's promise of day, Mozart's gut wrenching adagio from the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, moon's promise of sun, and all the other possible one-two-punch combinations that come to you as you consider these things.

Which gets us right down to where we should be in the sense of humanity having its dark, sometimes creepy, sometimes cynical and misanthropic aspects as offsets of romanticism, of reach, grasp, attempt.

Which brings us to exquisite gardens, say for an example, the Portland Rose Garden, and its opposing aspect, a clump of volunteered plant or shrub or flower, growing in a crack within a slab of sidewalk.

Which brings us to starting over when that activity becomes necessary.  For every time you rip a page from your note pad or press the select all button on a MS Word or Mac Pages document, then follow through with a swipe at the delete button, you are tipping your hat, nodding your head to the keepers, the pages you liked enough to take with you.


Behind the exultant, soaring feeling you get when your fingers are flying over the keyboard, and the project it going well, yelling out to you, "Keeper, keeper, keeper." there is an equally live feeling that comes from hitting the delete.  You've allowed yourself to fail, opened the doors to it, invited the neighbors in to celebrate.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Humor Me

The use of spoken and written language in Real Time often bears an unpleasant resemblance to the use of firearms.  There are many responsible and thoughtful users of each, resulting in a spirited and vivid literature  reflective of communication, and an imaginative display of tools relative to hunting, marksmanship, and related sports.

Both language and firearms have the added ability to effect civil and political outcomes as well as to cause accidental and deliberate injury.  Laws such as those governing libel and slander have been enacted to provide protection from written and spoken injury.  Common sensical and social conventions also govern and suggest standards for the use of language.  Civil, criminal, and common sensical laws also obtain where the use of firearms is concerned.

Frequent accidents occur in the use of language and of firearms, incidents where feelings are hurt, reputations injured, and individuals and property brought in harm's way, sometimes to the point of maiming and outright fatality.

Beginning with the First Amendment and extending through statutes and conventions related to freedom of expression, an extensive corpus juris defines what may be said and published. Nevertheless, books and publications have a significant history of being banned at national, state, and local levels.

Within recent years, state and Federal laws regulating the sale and possession of firearms has undergone spirited revision and articulation, resulting in seeming ironies where some states allow open carry of weaponry in places where no weapons of any sort would be presumed necessary.

With equal but in large measure unnoticed irony, language in Real Time delivers painful projectiles at individuals, demographics, genders, sexual and religious orientation, racial background, and social strata with the same kind of velocity and potential for injury as a bullet from a gun.  

The irony is often compounded when the deliverer of such remarks expresses anger and frustration over the fact of his remarks not being seen for the humor in which they were intended.

Such anger and frustration work better in story because humor in literature is more often respected for the live ammunition it is, while in Real Time, the term "intended humor" is a code for a cover-up.

Dialogue in effective and memorable story proves itself to be one of the most powerful of dramatic weapons, expressing by subtext and attempts at evasion the things a character does not wish to say but nevertheless cannot help saying in some way.

Within the murky terrains of story, dialogue is the equivalent of open carry, regardless of where.  Its targets are hypocrisy, the moral high ground, and whatever vital lies of whatever culture or society are permitted to wander about.

Perhaps you push the matter a step or two beyond the boundaries set by some of the writers recognized over the years for the characters and the way these characters speak.  Names such as Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, Louise Erdrich, John O'Hara, Dennis Lehane, Denis Johnson, and Margaret Atwood come to mind, all of whom evoke the arguable presence of humor in their dialogue.  Add Mark Twain.  Add Geoffrey Chaucer.  Add Sinclair Lewis.  Add Joan Didion.  Add J.D. Salinger.  Add Franz Kafka.

Many of these writers had their works banned on one or more arguments of the moral high ground, which is to say they fired barbs at targets.  

If we pause for a moment to examine that great ox of story and analogy to see whose ox has just been gored, we see the underbelly of humor, bared for us to see and laugh at.  When dialogue sparkles to life, we see the things characters are at the same kinds of pain to cover up as some of the individuals in Real Time who are speaking at us, probing, sometimes with deft probes, more often with more cumbersome ones, probing to see, all in good fun, you know, if we have a sense of humor, so they can tell us exactly what they think of us.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

When Story Meets Inertia

We are standing in some port of arrival.  A subway station.  An airline terminal.  A bus station.  A train station.  Some conveyance has just arrived.  Now, we are waiting for a particular passenger to debark. We are here because of that passenger.

But wait.  Perhaps instead, we see a new arrival time posted on a nearby screen.  The individual we expect has met with a delay. The journey has not finished with us.  Not yet.

Because of extreme weather or traffic conditions, the conveyance has been rerouted.  The anticipated passenger must take a bus or a train or an alternate flight.  The Godot for whom we wait is stranded at an intermediate point.  The best laid schemes of conveyances and travelers have gone into chaos.

Even though we were not on the conveyance that was supposed to have delivered the anticipated person here, to this terminal, we have been caught up, if only in metaphor, by the mechanics of story.  Our expectations have been engaged.  We have been made to care about the person making the journey.

Whether we have deconstructed the matter or not, we have related somehow, on some level of emotion, to the unraveling of expectation.  We have experienced once again awareness of the ways in which things in motion can be derailed.  This is so because of the times we have found ourselves fretting in the uncertainties of what seems a great Cosmic limbo.

By now, we are well aware of the ease and precision with which our species can send a small object into orbit about a planet other than our own, then return to Earth at a precise point, one less than a single square mile.  

And yet.  We have the ability to arrange configurations of traffic so dense and clotted that movement of any sort within these configurations is all but impossible. 

Story--all story--yearns for destination.  Without a port of final delivery, story is at best a shaggy dog story, a narrative that has played with our collective and individual patience to the point of making us irritated.  In our irritation, we recall the details of the shaggy dog story, firm in our resolve to inflict it upon another victim.

You exaggerate when you suggest the resident streak of resentment within us wherein we begrudge simple, direct movement from Point A to Point B.  Even while you 're aware of the exaggeration there, you understand one of the principal dynamics of the dramatic genome.  Story equals anticipated destination in conflict with actual arrival at the destination.

Depending on its length, complexity, and variety of moral choices the traveler embarks upon, story is a matter of movement from a specific point to another specific point.  So long as it does not seem a mere random choice, the point of closure leaves us with the feeling of having at least come to the right station.   

Some writers, throughout the history of narrative, have left us, or at least some resident part of us, waiting still, our own expectations and unresolved yearnings still supplying shortcuts for the very Godot you mentioned some sever paragraphs earlier.

Seen from the inside of your own attempts at story or the wondrous outside when you travel the stories of other writers, inertia becomes critical.  A story in motion tends to stay in motion until overcome by a greater force.  Alas, that greater force often proves to be the uncertainty of the teller, getting in the way with burdensome details.

Story that stops moving has become narration held for ransom.  Story that loses movement becomes boring, ponderous, potential polemic or Hallmark greeting card sentimentality.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

Who's Watching the Store?

Much of what you've learned about the process you indulge when you compose centers around the awareness that someone has to be in charge.  In much network television and many  of the cable TV dramatic series, that individual is called the Show Runner.

You have a Show Runner because of the seniority system rather than any sense of the democratic or political approaches.  Your Show Runner got the job through ignorance.  At the time your show Runner came aboard, you knew nothing about the term or the concept.  

You knew little enough beyond the constructs you'd picked up from one of the books you've had most of your life.  The book was written by a man named Stanley Vestal, who, even though he published it with a prestigious venue, a university press in fact, used a pseudonym so as, you suspect, not to mess with his own career as an academic.  Few things make you feel old, but that is one thing that does.

From this book and that way you have of going about as though you were a magnet, causing things to stick to you, whether they were useful things or not, you knew that stories had to have conflict--"Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph,"--rising action, denouement, and closure.  You knew stories should also have suspense and if there were no suspense, there should be tension.

This was more than enough to engage your teen-aged self, give you days and weeks and years of writing and rewriting things as though you were following some recipe from the back of a corn meal box.

Difficult to say when your reading habits shifted gears and you were no longer reading for the pleasure of reading, instead reading to see how some of "them" did what they accomplished and how to avoid what some of the "others" did that you found to be discomforting.  Probably around age nineteen, when you came into possession of a convincing-although-false identification attesting you to have been twenty-two.  This meant you could--and did--go to places where writers hung out, places where you began to absorb things that were more apt to come from men and women who wrote every day than from books such as the one on writing you had at home.

By this time, you'd had more than one classroom writing teacher, most of whom were quite nice and sincere, you admit from this remove.  But so far as you could tell, none of them were publishing things, not until you made the move to UCLA, where you found a man who published with some regularity in The New Yorker and who published books via Alfred Knopf.  You were also aware of a wide swath of differing opinion between most teachers and most working writers.

You were still some years from giving the merest thought to teaching, which means you did not come to the conclusion that you were going to teach the way you'd wanted to be taught, not until your second week as a teacher at USC.

You were well along the way to having a mentor, one who not only wrote and published but read your material, made suggestions, and collaborated with you on a run of television plays.  From about that time onward, you gave scant thought to rising action, denouement and suspense, beginning instead to get more familiar with that aspect of you who took over when the time for composition came.

By the time you realized you had a Show Runner who, in turn, had a semblance of a personality and agenda, you were also aware of other editorial-type voices in there, many of whom had a wish to contribute.  This realization was only one of the reasons you sometimes feel the necessity to leave your studio, which is quiet and comfortable, thereupon  to seek the ambient noise and high-jinks of coffee shops.

There are some voices, friends really, you don't mind listening to.  Your two mentors, Rachel and Virginia.  Perhaps Dennis Lynds,  For a certainty, Digby Wolfe.  Although you were more likely to make suggestions for Barnaby Conrad than he to you,there are times when you hear him and listen.

You on occasion hear your agent, wondering if you need a particular passage you like.  The twenty-odd years in which you co-hosted a workshop with Leonard Tourney open the door for his voice as well.  The fact of so many of your inner voices coming from sources long dead or, indeed, from writers you never met in person, have little to do with the matter.

Sometimes your Show Runner wants to take the day off, meaning you're left with the precarious issue of whom you should heed.  A large part of the matter comes down to trust.  Sometimes, it is a shouting match.  You want to yell "Shut up.  Can't you see you're distracting me?"  

But you're too busy to stop, too busy, trying to get it all down.
Who's watching the store? as your father was wont to ask.  We won't know until third, maybe fourth draft.  If then.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Call Me Whatever You Wish, But Please Don't Call Me Normal

Your favorite stories are those in which otherwise likable individuals are pushed beyond their likability, where egos declare blood feuds upon their alter egos, where sanity and lack of reason trade places, where logicians and philosophers, in the midst of arguing whether the glass is half empty or half full begin throwing glasses at one another.

When the moment arrives, often close to the beginning of the story, when the rules of narrative convention, are called into acrimonious dispute, you feel your pulse engage and take sides with the participants.

A patient in an examination room nods at relief when the doctor enters.  "Doctor,"  the patient says, "I'm so glad to see you.  I have these difficulties."

The expectation is  for the doctor to offer a heart-warming response.  Instead, the doctor says, "Wait.  You think you have difficulties.  Let me tell you, you don't know from difficulties."

Alright, this is your fanciful version of your favorite reasons for the beginning moments of story, but if you look closely, you will see how you stand in relationship to one of your own more conventional assumptions.

You favor one story in which an embittered man becomes an even greater monster than the monster he yearns to take down.  This is, of course, Captain Ahab.

In another story, a young man, because of a few acts of kindness to a wretched convict, is offered a chance at a life of opportunity and growth, only to have it undercut by a manipulative old crone.  This is the story of Pip, in Great Expectations.

What about this one, in which a young man, attempting to revenge himself on a father he feels is abusive, takes the extreme step of turning into a beetle.  Franz Kafka, the author, fascinates you because of a simple discovery you made reading about him, his resolute fondness for the Yiddish theater.  You find it difficult now to read any Kafka without suspecting his overriding intent to be satire.

Michael Chabon seems to work this transformative mischief on every outing, but you became convinced when you read The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a murder mystery of consequence set against the background of the failure of the state of Israel, its subsequent move to Alaska and, as the novel begins, our discovery that Israel has failed there as well.

When you begin to look at the patterns of forceful, abrupt change within certain types of story, you experience epiphany.  Such remarkable and stunning reversals as, to name only a few more, Karen Russell's Swamplandia, and Richard Ford's Canada use comparisons between extremes to complete the equation in which the insane appears quite sane, the sane emerges as daft beyond recognition.

You've only begun compiling the list in recent years, but the fact is, it was in place long before your appearance and will extend well beyond your times, all because of the combative and conflicting natures of sanity and its opposite number within our own sense of sanity and its opposite number.

Wiser individuals than you have observed occasions wherein the inmates had dominion over the asylum, but you harbor the belief there is some particular genome wishing to tie the tin cans of inevitability and balance to the genetic material.  There are individuals who become so fearful of evolving intelligence that they become attracted to those extreme ruling politicians who advocate a step backward on the evolutionary escalator.

Whatever this says about you, mad individuals in the literal sense as well as in the fictional have long attracted you. At this stage, you cannot be sure of your own evolutionary trend.  If you awaken some morning after a night of uneasy dreams to discover you'd turned quite normal, you are earnest in your hope you'll have the good graces to feel disappointment.  Think of all the things your could do with madness.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Writing Bernie into the Script

You've had a great deal of time to think about Bernie, which you have done in many ways and under the most extreme of existential circumstances.  There is every reason to believe you owe your life to Bernie, to believe you would not be here now, writing these words, were it not for Bernie.

In some gesture of cosmic respect, you call him Bernie, a diminutive more affectionate than not for Bernard, whose middle name was Marvin.  Sometimes you catch yourself wondering how long it would have taken you to learn to call him by his initials, B.M., which you;d have made sure everyone about him would understand was a profound tease for bowel movement.  

Having been spared the reality of having a big brother, you spent time with the dynamic of calling him B.M., his losing his patience with telling you not to call him that, then leaving some sore spot somewhere on your body, half affectionate but half considered the necessary evil of keeping a kid brother in place.

You never got into such contests with your older sister, whom you adored, the one notable run-in coming about half way into her marriage with a man you grew to dislike at first, then disrespect, then move back to the point of being indifferent to him.  You may well have reached a similar point with Bernie.

Keeping in mind the constant of your parents having a knowledgeable grip on the subject of birth control, you can also conclude how unlikely you'd be here on this late day in September if Bernie had lived.  He'd have been enough.  A boy and a girl.  Bernie and Pennee.

Without giving it much thought, if any at all, Bernie gave you a shot at being the second kid.  He did it because of his death of SIDS at the approximate age of six months.  Sometime later, you seemed like a good idea.  Later still, after all the principals are out of the picture, here you are.

Try as you might, you can't write the matter of who you are and how you go about being you without any added thought.  At the extreme least, Bernie's sudden death made your mother more watchful, protective, and cautious with your upbringing that she might otherwise have been.  

With Bernie in the picture, your response to him may have been near what it has been to CW, your way of looking at Conventional Wisdom.  In any case, your lifelong relationship to CW has been in many ways that of a younger brother, at once contentious, a tad fearful, combative, envious if not outright jealous, and not to be forgetful of familial love. 

You want a name like BM to call CW, which is the same as saying you intend to irk it, get under its skin, play pranks on it, and, after you began to devise ways to do so, write stories in which CW or something that represents CW to you, is left taking a pratfall.

Try as you might, you cannot become the complete anarchist, not when there are things about conventional wisdom you admire.  So you watch with care, hopeful of discovering places where you might poke fun, focus burning rays of ridicule and satire.

The way you see it, Bernie would have been focused and successful, his college career not as much a gallimaufry as yours, the likelihood great of his terminal degree being a PhD. or LLD or perhaps an M.D.  And you?  You would not have become the kind of failure you strive to be, rather a failure who stopped trying, stopped taking the kinds of risks you take, all in service of being fearful of abandoning CW.

You have taken the money and run, which is to say you've begun picking on and teasing at CW as though it were your older brother.  You have one story underway in which one brother has deliberately bought into a retirement home environment in order to be on the same campus, once again, as his older brother. Even in your imaginative dreams, this is not going to be a well-negotiated reconciliation.

How many stories await in which the Bernie you never knew in your lifetime has become your lifelong big brother, with you stuck, wearing his hand-me-downs?  And how much more thanks will you come to recognize you owe Bernie these days?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What a Difference an __um Makes

If you are essaying a topic or concept, hopeful of wrangling it into a penned-in animal rather than a loose maverick, there may be some accommodations available for you beyond convention.  Such an accommodation could be the argument you make for drawing out the word "moment" until it becomes "momentum."

There is at least one example (if not precedent) to be found in extruding the word "date" into its singular form, "datum."  You could also throw in for good measure and to fog up the argument a bit the shift in numbers from simulacra to simulacrum.

Momentum comes to you in effect a cocked fire arm, with a shell in place at the ready, that tiny, resident lethal addition of the terminal __um, owing its definition to the physics description of moment as an entity with quantity and distance.

Momentum may be seen as the effect(s) of one or more moments, arriving at a destination such as the temporal one of now or the physical one of here, delivering a quantity of consequence.

A story is said to have momentum when it oversees delivery of a linked group of moments, delivering a single or multiple package of emotions.  Some of the dramatic FedEx and UPS deliveries are abstracts like closure, justice, romance, and pay-off, all words which, when given proper use, will provide some emotion for the reader or viewer to take home, as it were, to savor, to cherish, to mull over, even to the point of experiencing some life-altering adjustment or understanding.

No wonder some cultures are so nervous about the prospect of women reading and of children, learning to distinguish among logical tools and fallacies.  Someone who has read, has paused to question and consider, is someone who may not take the party line as it has been passed up the generational ladder.

Go ahead, ask your question about which emotion in fact stands all by itself, with no help from others.  Would you say anger?  If you were too quick to answer yes to that, might it be a good idea to go back to unravel some of the cables of emotion, starting with anger.  Is all anger the same?  Is it free of amounts of other feelings?  Are you sure?  To be even more blunt, do you find it possible to regard feelings as single-braid entities?  

If the issue is anger, isn't it possible to conclude some measure of fear resides within the mixture?  And what about the reverse; doesn't being in the condition of fearfulness for long periods of time evoke some form of impatience or anger at the presence of so much resident fear?  

While fear has clear advantages as a warning against impending danger or disaster, and often can serve as energy for important relevant activity, too much fear may as well produce apathy, lassitude, and passivity.

There you are; momentum is the parade of events past a receptor of emotion. Does that sound at all familiar?  When you consider it, you are yanked back by the scruff of the neck into a class called Electric Shop, back in Middle School.  Electrical current, you were asked to consider, is the flow of electrons past a reference point.  

From this consideration, you were led to consider the rate of speed at which those electrons proceeded, their density, their polarity, and their pressure.  What would a Middle School boy do with such information?  How would it influence his thinking?

Not many years later, the boy in question was beginning to look at the movement of events in a story or essay, past the point of his reading them.  With the progression of such observations and thoughts as these, no wonder the boy grew to the point where he felt it safe and fair to say the more intense the events, the more fraught with emotional upheaval their consequences and, therefore, the greater the likelihood a momentum has been established.

Story requires the continuous passage of moment past a point of reference, which is the point of NOW in a story.  Such a linked procession is called dramatic momentum.  If a story does not have momentum, you are correct to ask what, at that particular time, does it have.  You are even proper to ask if the lack of momentum is a soft spot, the writer's equivalent need to a rubberized supportive gesture.

More usual than not, you discover, is the lack of dramatic moments in which the actors behave, their inner lives drawing them to a screeching halt on the terrain of self-pity, self-doubt, and abusive process, directed in an inward manner.

Story becomes momentum incarnate, a relevant and significant parade of individual moments in some kind of emotion-linked parade past a point into which the reader may peak.

More and more dramatic momentum in the twenty-first century has to do with the characters being delegated more authority to carry the story into a tangible momentum, where the reader/viewer forgets about the author/director.  The reader is in effect "inside" the story, experiencing it as the characters do, complete with their assortment of responses to one another.

With your response to this dramatic momentum, you notice a sharpening of taste.  Your story palate is being educated.  The stories in which you get close enough to the characters to eavesdrop on their thoughts or make judgments of your own, as you would and do make on actual persons, has been forged.  The more you begin to see your alignment with those writers who allow you some say in the interpretations of the life and experiences of their characters, the more your own momentum picks up momentum, begins to move without you realizing, without you giving so much as a shove.  Ah, wouldn't Sisyphus have been pleased to have you along on his shift?

Monday, September 22, 2014


Interesting to you how two disciplines with little or no apparent similarities will each have a similar defining approach to a basic element.  You're thinking right now about physics and drama.  You could just as well have spoken of the way things work in Reality and the way things work in story.

The phenomenon of which you speak is moment.  Sometimes in your perambulations through the reaches of Reality, you wear a wire which records conversations you track on your way.  Only this morning, working at your breakfast almond croissant and coffee, you heard a fragment of a conversation that arrested you.  The conversation was about a particular thing or person not mattering.  You were taken by the choice of words.  "It [whatever the thing was] is of no moment."

You had to see the people having this conversation because of the way that one sentence, culled from the morning mist of breakfast coffee and rolls, evoked Shakespeare for you or, to be fair, Ben Johnson or Christopher Marlowe.  Possible later on in history.  Oscar Wilde?  Arthur Wing Pinero?  Harold Pinter?  No matter.  

The language got to you with its seeming classical turn.
The speakers threw another anomaly at you.  From their dress and stature, they appeared to be contractors or construction workers, from the likes of whom you would not expect to hear "moment" use in that manner.

Another score for the Universe.  You like anomalies, actual plants and flowers growing as volunteers in the most out-or-the-reach places, food trucks taking the step beyond standard fare such as hamburgers and hot dogs or tacos and burritos to what has been called fusion foods, where cultures blend, mesh, intertwine.

You remember a moment now at least forty years in the past, because it took place when you lived in Santa Monica.  There, at the Buddhist Temple in West Los Angeles, in celebration of Hana Matsuri, the birthday celebration for The Buddha, you saw Asian kids eating pizza and tacos, Japanese kids eating burritos, and African Americans wielding chopsticks with which to manage their sukiyaki.

So far as physicists are concerned, a moment is a combination of a physical quality and distance, the fusion food of that discipline.  Dramatists and actors, the individuals who portray the dramatists' works, see a moment as a particle of the larger dramatic genome.  

Moments are events in a specified time frame; they are either reproduced right here, in the present moment, or are descriptions or reenactments of moments from the past, brought into the present moment.

Moments in drama behave at times as though they were the bumper cars of fun-zone entertainment booths.  Both are in constant danger of collision, which makes the dramatic zone and the arcade zone vehicles more likely to collide with as yet unanticipated results.

There are moment's notices, in which there is only a short time for some news of a new potential for collision.  There are moments of rest, but if you look closely, you'll see how well-engineered these moments are; at the moment the audience's sense of interest and concern seem about to break, there is another moment introduced, a moment of collision.

There are moments of madness, moments of regret, moments of sanity, moments when the tab is summoned, moments of respect, even moments of truce.  However they are described, these are the pulse points of story.

You've seen drawings and photographs of atomic and subatomic particles, invited them into your awareness with the notion that they would help you understand more of the physical and textural properties of this Reality in which you live.  In a number of ways, these tiny particles inform your tendencies toward believing or not believing things you can't actually see, but do take as a given.

At some point when you construct a story or an essay, you arrive once again at the plateau where you understand the basic physics of drama:  You have to experience and believe all these multitudes of moments, and their effects on one another.

You have had help from all the moments spent on rereading things you thought you understood the first time through.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Disproportionate Disappointments

 Because you live in what has been called a resort city and tourist destination for considerable years, were born in yet another, and as a youngster, lived in another still, you are aware of the creeping phenomena of visiting guests and family.  Most such creeps have been pleasant for you, but the stories you see and hear about you make you aware of some of the devious ways of visitors.

In the same calculus, you are made aware of expectations, the ones you have for experiences and ventures outside your writing life and to a significant extent within your life of composition.  Disappointment is the unwanted visitor or guest, boring in upon you, hovering, holding you to task with expectations of being entertained, engaged, brought into close contact with adventure.

Your writing life is built around a whimsical collection of computers, fountain pens, notebooks, lined yellow legal lads, computers, and electronic tablets,  There is a chair of relative comfort sitting before your favored desk, a small library table that was a gift from your father.  

Your large, desktop computer is the main resident, principal among a stack of note pads, pencils, reading glasses, and books.  This is your home base.  A general atmosphere of quiet comfort prevails.  There is scarcely a window you can look out without being able to see some semblance of patio, shade, trees, shrubs, bricks, plants, and garden.

Why you'd think to work anywhere else is still a partial mystery to you, best explained by the notion that there are times when the atmosphere is too comfortable, conducive, and quiet.  During these times, you want irritating voices of strangers, intrusive strangers, ambient noise, music well beyond your taste, and, if these inducements are not enough, you want the feeling of being crowded.

The sophistry behind the reasons you leave your Edenic studio, your Sylvan glade, rests in your belief that you require outside levels of ambient noise, distractions, and irritations to break through the Teflon layers of procrastination and resistance you've built about you in order to be able to work at your normal pace and in the confines of your home studio.  By leaving home, you are setting yourself up for an inoculation of the kind of irritation or dis-ease or crankiness needed to get you over the speed bump of entry into your material.

Here, within the process of swatting at a passing idea, then bringing it to your worktable, your coastal fog or marine layer begin their moments of coalescing.  They are not meteorological in fact, but in fancy they are similar to the sense of involvement you experience when an idea comes to you and you begin to see the potential of having it for dinner one of these days.

However excited you are by the rush of recognition for a new project, and how eventually well you do with your bringing the project to reality, you've had enough life experiences to know the time will come when you doubt the effect and sanity of the project.  You will wonder aloud whatever possessed you to undertake such a project.  

You will feel foolish.  You will be foolish.  You will begin to question whether you have in so many words betrayed the project and yourself by thinking you could accomplish it to any degree beyond the way you so narrowly squeaked through your last project.

Disappointment is a relative come to stay with you, an elderly parent or grandparent or beloved friend of your parents or grandparents, seeking shelter with you, wishing to live with you as a reminder that you are in fact disappointed and not alone in your disappointment.

From about the time you'd written enough words to know how your words sound, how to deal with their weaknesses, and what to leave or edit out, this sense of noble disappointment arrived to stay.  In mitigation, you have to remind yourself how happy you are to be at this game of disappointment, of always being a tad off plumb, your vision subject to a slight skew.

This sense of disappointment has left its self-pity and -sorrow somewhere about the studio, amidst the piles of note pads and manuscripts.  It means you have to push at anything, even a polite or not-so-polite letter to someone somewhere, asking for my money back because something was less than okay; out was awful.

You're going to try to get it to talk to you, then you're going to work on yourself to listen to the characters and to their agendas, hopeful of capturing some of the subtext and dialogue and yearning.  Then you're going to work on the project until you'll hope to have sent all the sagging, scratchy stuff packing to the point where, for however brief a time, you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Through Various Glasses Darkly

For most of your life, you have gone about in the world wearing some form or another of glasses.  Early photos of you show an owlish boy, hair plastered or watered down against an army of rebellious cowlicks, as eager to erupt as you were eager for the recess-time escape from the classroom.  

These photos have you scowling into the camera through lenses mounted in black or tortoise-shell in horn rims.  For a while, you switched to wire frames, perhaps from your parents' judgment that these would better withstand the furies and unrest of boyhood. You proved equally at home breaking horn-rimmed glasses as you broke wire frames

By the time you were ten or twelve, you'd become inured to such terms as strabismus, far-sightedness, and the more generic "weaker left eye."   You even knew the Latin abbreviations for the eyes on prescriptions, os for oculus sinister, and OD for oculus dextrus, thus left and right, adding to your growing accumulation of foreign words and terms.  

The word sinister had a nice ring to it.  Because your left eye was measurably the weaker of the two, and because the comic books you then read and the radio serials you listened to were filled with sinister characters, you got even for the inconvenience of glasses, ultimately bifocal glasses, and in the bargain another Latin-sounding word, by doing your best to appear sinister.

Few of the types of characters you wished in your boyish fancies to be wore glasses.  By degrees, you therefore abandoned potential careers as a cowboy, a pilot of a mail delivery airplane, a fireman, and for reasons you've not yet been able to reconcile, a maitre d' for either an Italian or French restaurant.  

To the best of your knowledge, one could be sinister while wearing glasses. You read extensively to acquire sinister traits from the likes of Long John Silver in Treasure Island and even more so from the arch villain from Wilkie Colins's stunning, The Woman in White, Count Fosco.  

The great likelihood is your being seen as grouchy rather than sinister, but at this remove, you're willing to accept that grouchiness has some cachet, and although cachet has more of a French origin than Latin, your boyhood self was willing to negotiate.

This did not stop you in your secret heart from wishing to be a cowboy or pilot or fireman or maitre d.  These secret urges had the positive effect of causing you to read books about individuals who followed these professions to the point where reading became the engine, while the content of the reading became the fuel.  When questioned about your preferences for birthdays and other gift-giving times, you openly sought a Daisy B-B gun, Red Ryder model, faux pearl-handled six-shooter, Gene Autry cap guns, or fur-lined pilot's helmet, with goggles.  Only a matter of time before your secret hearts were beginning to find their way into stories.  

A writer who wore glasses could still write Western stories.  When one editor of a Western magazine suggested to you that your name did not seem to go with Westerns, you became the alter egos Craig Barstow, which sounded Western enough and Walter Feldspar, which allowed you in metaphor to ride the horses of your dreams across the terrains of your imagination. In those same dreams come true, there is the persistent picture of you, accompanying your regular column for the Virginia City, Nevada Territorial-Enterprise, wearing horn

As a glasses-wearing writer, you had two other landscapes to traverse before you could hang up your spurs, one of these was commercial television, which lasted a few frustrating years, followed by a few more years in which a noted literary agent sought to corral (his choice of verbs) your abilities to the point where you were attempting to write stories for the coated-stock monthly magazines referred to as "slicks."

You discovered at length the strong possibility of at least one glasses-wearing writer finding what would today be called a narrative voice.  You were not a commercial television writer nor were you at the time interested in any of the kinds of drama you've become interested in of more recent years.  

You were an anomaly, a lover of unslick, of so-called pulp, except that your concepts of plot were un-pulp-like, undershot with sly, mocking undercurrents, and characters riding off into their own sunsets instead of your sunsets.

Wouldn't you know it, your eventual development of cataracts was the cause of your farewell to contact lenses.  A jumble of drug store reading glasses sit at the ready on your desk, but they are more often than not left at home, forgotten.

Wearing glasses, then switching in your mid-forties to contact lenses, you pursued careers and agendas you'd not thought open to you, while in real time pursuing careers you'd not thought open to you, proving that the imagination is a magnificent steed to ride upon, however riding-challenged you may be in real life.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Shortcuts to Story Payoff

You have often thought of Santa Barbara as the place you came to in order to get away from Los Angeles, even though that conceit didn't work.  The moment you got the job that would justify leaving Los Angeles, you got another one for which you had to commute to Los Angeles, at least once a week, often two times.

During those thirty-four years of commuting to Los Angeles while essentially being away from it, an infinitude of individuals came to Los Angeles, by no means to make up for you leaving it, but for all the reasons people leave places such as Santa Barbara and move to Los Angeles.  

With all those new individuals, moving to Los Angeles to find their true selves and in the process advance their careers, you were leaving Los Angeles, convinced at the time you'd already found yourself, and now wanting to spend time developing what you'd found.

Los Angeles was giving you the equivalent gift of the eponymous gift of the O. Henry short story, "The Gift of the Magi."  This had nothing to do with having your father's pocket watch as Jim, a principal character in the short story had, although you did indeed and still do have your father's pocket watch, which he apologized for having nothing else than that to have left you.  

This was not the wrench for you it was for Jim.  You already were aware of things he had left you that were of deeper consequence than the watch.  Although the watch is cherished, it was far from his only legacy.

The job you had before leaving Los Angeles, the job that no longer was, became the reason you got "The Gift of the Magi" job in Los Angeles.  The jobs for which emigres to Los Angeles were hopeful caused considerable clotting and mischief in the traffic.  Being familiar with the terrain meant you knew a thing or two about short cuts, a knowledge that played even more of a part on the days when you had occasion to make the commute more than once a week, while still being obligated to giving your employer in Santa Barbara at least a forty-hour week.  This meant to you the need for at least a forty-two or -three hour week.

The job Los Angeles gave you was a job you'd never considered in any form after one semester in which, in the interests of close contact with a potential girlfriend, you signed up for two education courses.  Bad move.  The very word, pedagogy, as deployed about those classes, injected a morbid fear of boredom into your already chaotic visions.  

By this time in your career, you were used to boring lectures, which have the same effect on you as trying for a comfortable night's sleep in a Motel 6.  You responded to boring lectures by a studious avoidance of instructions known by you to be boring.  No surprise that you needed more than four years to graduate.

There you were, on the receiving end of a lesson, teaching courses at graduate level, aware each time you strode into a class room of the potential for being a boring lecturer and teacher.  Since you were in major effect trying to teach these graduate students how to write narratives with little or no boring portions, you were also in effect trying to discover ways you could avoid producing material with boring outcomes or even mere boring moments.

In ways similar to those instinctive moments of knowing shortcuts to avoid traffic sclerosis, you began to develop through cause and effect shortcuts through boredom.  You are now comfortable with the awareness of how one simple number two pencil can provide shortcut to story, to visceral moments, to visions of characters who have no shadows, rather they are individuals who radiate tangible personality.

You are comfortable with an awareness basic enough to border on the outskirts of cliche:  The job of the storyteller is to evoke rather than describe.

What elements is the storyteller to evoke, you ask?  A presence as fraught, confrontational, and seething as the Santa Monica Freeway, southbound, at the Arlington Avenue turnoff, which, by the way, is an excellent shortcut to the target destination of Jefferson and Figueroa Streets, outliers of the university where you were more often on time than not.

Storytellers evoke inner landscapes of individuals trapped in the vehicular thrall of Los Angeles Streets, each with an agenda to pursue, with dreams to color the agenda, and with a compelling sense that the agenda is not only worthwhile, it is fucking vital.

You'd be remiss if you failed to mention shortcuts here in Santa Barbara.  Thanks to an influx of individuals seeking to escape the traffic of Los Angeles in order to find calmness and purpose here, and with equal thanks to the growing fact of Santa Barbara becoming a commuter destination, you've had to develop instincts for shortcuts.

Instead of reaching your favorite local coffee shop, The Daily Grind, by staying on State Street, past the near impossible left turn onto De la Vina, turn left off State Street onto Constance, heading almost due west until you reach De la Vina at the moment it stops being a one-way southbound street.  Turn right, past the Chicken Ranch Barbecue and Laundromat, for another block.  You will be heading in the right direction, be on the right side of the street, and have saved two- or three-tenths of a mile, had you stayed on State Street to Las Positas, where you could get away with the left turn.

Oh yes; don't start your story with background or description or backstory.  Put a few individuals in action.  Let them--and the readers--figure out what's going on to the point where they become curious.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Salute Your Adversarial Gorilla at Some Point in Every Story.

First come the characters, then the task or set-up, then the beginnings of opposing forces, which at once begin to accelerate.  There you have it, the beginning of story, which presents you with a presentiment of the ending, a "this can come to no good" presentiment.

Say you have chosen as your characters those iconic, Beckettean prototypes, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, each in his appearance and manners suggesting a wild difference from the other.  The former, tall, reedy, easy to distract; the latter a variation on themes of roundness, a role model for a snow man, his round head seeming to have been plunked on his round torso.  Hardy's other trademark prop, the ever present bowler hat.

The task, the movement of a piano.  They struggle against a mild upward grade, seeming to have some measure of control and poise, but what's this?  We are shown the upward grade in context.  The path leads to a mountainous gorge, spanned by a narrow bridge of planks, held by vines and ropes of questionable provenance.  The essential characteristics of the bridge re its flexibility and rustic engineering,

Thus does The Piano begin.  The two piano movers are dressed in Alpine shorts, suggesting The Piano is an excerpt from a longer work in which Laurel and Hardy are set in motion in some Alpine locale.  For our purposes, this excerpt is nevertheless a complete story, a stand-alone, in its way demonstrative of the shape and personality of story.  http://youtu.be/4bmCg_o8mAU

We are only seconds into the vision when Hardy's impatience manifests itself.  Hardy is, of course, impatient with Laurel; he is always impatient with Laurel.  Such is the nature of their dialectic.  Laurel is always gawking or looking or distracted.  Hardy is always impatient to get on with things, whichever things manifest themselves at the moment.  Laurel is fated always to be the engine of Hardy's impatience.  An Oliver Hardy who is patient is not in any way a story, rather the opposite.

The story has already begun, but from the moment the pair has the piano on the bridge, the point of no return has passed.  Story is running at full throttle.  Two helpless men on a flimsy bridge, several hundred feet above any convenient land.  They could not be any more vulnerable nor could we be any more involved.  We are, however, suspicious.  We know enough about story to know this particular point is a plateau to be surpassed.  Ah, there it is.  Some of the planks give, and Hardy has taken a tumble, leaving him yet more vulnerable, hanging from one or two of the more secure planks, his legs dangling.

Of course Laurel will attempt some tactic of rescue and of course this will in some manner incite more of Hardy's volatile temper.  We now have  two men and a piano halfway across the bridge.  To remind us of the precariousness of their position, the producers allow us another view of perspective.  Precarious,.  Scary,  We still have no knowledge of why they are moving the piano, where its final destination will be.  Our own lives have been assigned such Sisyphean tasks with equally little explanation.

Whoever devised the next step, he or she has demonstrated an understanding of the surreal nature of existence, of story, of the essential psychology of story.  Coming across the mountainous span from the opposite direction on this essentially one-lane bridge is a gorilla.  Laurel attempts to warn Hardy.  "There's a gorilla."

Edgar Kennedy, a contemporary of Laurel and Hardy, had a trademark facial expression celebrated as "The slow burn."  Kennedy could steal a scene with his slow burn sense of events going wrong beyond belief.  Much as you admired Mr. Kennedy;s work, his facial registration of an existential cluster fuck was nothing to the inner anguish and world weariness of Oliver Hardy.

"There's,"  Hardy mocks, "a gorilla."

But there is in fact a gorilla.  In the manner of a serious opposing force, he has an agenda.  He causes things to happen, the sorts of things you might suppose a gorilla could cause to happen.  By this time, on levels beyond conscious levels, you are drawing on your own sense of experience in the world,on the plank bridges and whimsical rope and vine engineering, and of the considerable distance down, to the bottom of the gorge spanned by the bridge.

This, too, is story at its best, where the absurd, by its very absurdity, is no threat whatsoever to our concepts of the real and the imaginary.  Yet there are memories, social and of high personal nature, and tangible fears.  And there are triggered responses that send chills if not chills and adrenaline through our bloodstreams.  The absurd, exaggerated japery of two great performers and one unexpected gorilla send our senses into the spin of understanding, acceptance, and bonding rituals most of us experience every day and which some considerable number of us relate to on a first-name basis.

No book on fiction writing technique, including the two you've written and the one you're currently grappling with have suggested the need for your lead characters to encounter an adversarial gorilla at some point in your next story.  This is a matter you will do well to correct.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It won't be long now, you say? What won't be long?

There are times you check over your notes or active composition when you come upon one of the most dread discoveries in your work.  The discovery is a single word, a word even more disconcerting than "that," which you find annoying, or "very," which you find irritating, or your favorite twofer,"accordingly," both an -ly adverb and often a word that does not need saying in the first place.

Added to this laundry list of what you have come to think of as complaint words (not because they indicate a meaning of complaint so much as because you find yourself so often complaining about the ways they sneak into your composition) is the most simple of words, "and."  

Often necessary to link two or more terms in need of connective tissue, "and" appears in your early drafts more than you wish,  In consequence, you lecture yourself.  You point out the way too many ands within a paragraph begin to weight the words rather than allowing them the glorious sense of flight for the sake of fun and clarity of meaning.

The word you have in mind for your own Most-Wanted List is "it."  Convenient as "it" may be, the word is a deliberate reference to some noun, some person, place, or thing, as a substitute for repeating or calling the noun by the name it came into the world with, perhaps forged in the fire of words originating as English, or borrowed from other languages with the same aplomb as portions of America were borrowed from other countries.

Your biggest issue with "it" begins when you find yourself responding with an interior "what?" when the word appears within someone else's prose.  What, you find yourself asking, almost in direct reflex, was cold?  What was raining?  What was the right time or the wrong time or the appropriate moment or the inappropriate one?  What didn't matter?  What was another example?

So much for mere issues.  When, during the process of revision or editorial review, you find yourself face to face with an undifferentiated it in your own composition, you not only confront the way you'll need to circumvent the usage, you suffer a measure of irritation that reminds you of the cross-section of a wedge of Roquefort cheese, veined through with the blue of a tangy, characteristic mold.  

The difference between the cheese and your reaction to the unintended "it" is frustration and, yes, a touch of shame.  You'd think to have matters under better control by now.  You don't.  In effect, "it" has its way with you.

The goals you've set for your sentences and paragraphs are high.  You wish these units of language and story and meaning to move forth with a graceful clarity, often betraying an amused awareness of the gap between human aspirations and human behavior, to say nothing at all about the gap between your own aspirations and the actions you employ to implement them.  

You do not always fare well.  When you do, one of the reasons has direct relationship to the care with which you go about your prose, tweezing out ands and thats and its and very.  You do not do this to have the literary equivalent of a well-articulated brow line.  You in fact have a wild and antic brow line.  Your major concerns are not so much perfection of grammar or syntax but of a clarity of the arguments and conflicts, struggling to provide the basis of story.

There are so many things going on within story, all at once, often at crossed purposes.  Weasel words, such as the ones you've been dealing with here, can slow the reader down, cause the sudden wrench of attention with the current action to an "it" or a "that" or a "very" or accordingly, a few paragraphs back.

Being watchful of such words has had a profound effect on the way you compose.  It won't be long before you find out why.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Two Poems for Times You Find Yourself Palely Loitering

Two of your favorite poems have remained your favorites not because of their surface romanticism, which is considerable,but for some greater, much more modern and realistic purpose.  

Both poems take you well beyond the romanticism so appealing to your pre-teen years and all the way into your twenties, where you sometimes cried yourself to sleep in envy of these works, so moving, tantalizing, so just a bit beyond your reach that you thought you could one day draw abreast of them as a fellow contestant in a race.

Your good fortune led you soon enough to the awareness that such notions of competition were not only unwise, they were impossible.  Thus freed, you could cry yourself to sleep in the service of more practical goals, the ability to untangle your frustrations associated with your own composition and the ability to turn these poems into the equivalents of background music you could begin to hear as you attempted to deal with your own frustrations of composition.

Both poems take you to the timing and placement and discovery of story.  Both take you beyond the emotional reach you seek when you read, and into the realm you seek when you enter the terrain, poised to compose.

The poems are William Butler Yeats's (1865-1939) "The Ballad of the Wandering Aengus," and John Keats's  (1795-1821) "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."  Lovely as it is to take both poems as visions evoked in their creators by the psychedelic of Romanticism, to braid Irish fabulism in the former with Arthurian knighthood-errantry in the latter, you also view them as literal representations of what ii feels like to encounter an idea for a poem or story or essay.

Each poem contains a quest.  In "Aengus" the narrator is from the Tuatha De Danann, a tribe of supernaturally gifted beings spoken of in Irish mythology.  He had a dream about a girl. Aengus "went out to the hazel wood/Because a fire was in my head."  Doesn't this sound like a writer, getting an idea for a story?  As the Yeats poem continues, 

"It had become a glimmering girl  
With apple blossom in her hair  
Who called me by my name and ran   
And faded through the brightening air."

The dream soaks through the layers of sleep and consciousness to become the object of the writer's innermost desires.  He must follow until he captures the essence to the point where he is able to replicate it for all of us.

Think in the mean time about what individuals have done in their transactions with the various gods, the risks and stands taken.  Think of Prometheus and Cassandra and Sisyphus and Leda.

Back to Yeats, Aengus is so determined to capture the story, there is nothing for it but for him to stay on task until the job is done:

"Though I am old with wandering  
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,  
I will find out where she has gone,  
And kiss her lips and take her hands;   
And walk among long dappled grass,  
And pluck till time and times are done,  
The silver apples of the moon,  
The golden apples of the sun. "

The Keats poem can be seen the same way.  In Stanza IV, 

"I met a lady in the meads,
  Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,         
  And her eyes were wild. "

By Stanza V., his writer is in, over his head with the idea.

"I made a garland for her head,
  And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
  And made sweet moan."

Of course the poem plays out as Keats wrote it, a lasting and fateful journey into Arthurian legends and the shadowy mists of the ghostly English cultures.  But it also fits as you see it, the writer drawn into the immediacy of the creative ghosts and spectral shadows.  "O, What can ail the, knight-at-arms/Alone and palely loitering?" the poem begins.  And you say it it, What ails him is that he is stuck, can't quite get at it yet.  How many times have you palely loitered over a next step that would not come because you had not ridden deeply enough into the story yet?  How many times have you stood from your desk and told yourself, "This knight at arms is going into the kitchen to make coffee and stop palely loitering?"  

The poem continues:

"I saw pale kings and princes too,
  Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—'La Belle Dame sans Merci
  Hath thee in thrall! ' ”         

Aren't these some writers you know, who have been caught up from time to time?

When story hath you in thrall, coffee is one hope for a way out as you grow old with wandering through hollow lands and hilly lands, hopeful of finding the answer to your story somewhere in there, in absolute mash-up of the Yeats and Keats.  This is why you sojourn here. alone and palely loitering, though the sedge is wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing.




Monday, September 15, 2014

As True as Your Last Royalty Statement from the Book You Never Wrote

Your preoccupation with telling lies or the truth leads you into the prickly, thorny path between fiction and memoir.  The ease with which fiction may be conflated with telling lies comes from the notion that fiction is invented.  This notion hits a speed bump with the revelation that characters, however invented their heritage, nevertheless provide a truthful portrait of what a particular character thinks and feels.

Many writers you know build their characters by deciding what those individuals want.  Next step is to attempt some physical visualization of the character, which often involves picking a real life person as an armature about which to begin wrapping personality traits.  No writer you know, nor any of the writers past and present, whose work you admire, has ever confessed to a deliberate construction of characters who act contrary to their goals or beliefs.

The inherent truths of a character begin with the goals of that character.  The character may lie or distort the truth to accomplish a stated goal.  Iago may tell Othello things he knows to be untrue, but these lies are a part of Iago's purpose for being on stage.

One character's vision of another character may be a misreading or inconsistent vision, or clouded by personal agenda.  A policeman may, in spite of some misgivings about the innocence or guilt of a suspect,  have an agenda for wanting to believe the suspect is guilty of a particular crime.

The author may also have a nuanced agenda to the point where the behavior of a certain character sparks conflicting views.  A splendid and telling example of this dramatization of reporting about a character comes when we hear of the final moments in the life of that great Shakespearean scalawag, Sir John Falstaff.  For starters, we are not at all certain he is an actual sir, rather a pretender.

While his death is described to us by a tavern maid, Mistress Quickly, some of us may agree with her descriptions of the old boy going to his death as he went on a carouse, calling for another round of wine, remembering the occasional wench,  Others hearing Mistress Quckly's account, will have cause to conclude that Sir John has become fearful for the fate of his immortal soul and wishes to renounce the roister, the carouse, and the venal excess in order to seek forgiveness and, thus, take his last breath in repentance.  Not that Mistress Quickly introduces these thoughts or suspicions.  She can be seen as telling the truth as she saw and heard it.

Much the same sort of last minute opting for salvation is seen at the deathbed of the elder Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited.   Will he or won't he?  Was that a nod or a scant twitch?  Once again, the potential for a split decision hovers about the characters.  In the Shakespeare, you can argue that much of his work has hints of his possible Catholic faith.  Evelyn Waugh made no bones about his Catholicism, so wouldn't it be a certainty that old Marchmain repented at the end?

For all Shakespeare and Waugh may have been practicing Catholics, taking the sacraments to the end, they were also storytellers, well aware of the dramatic intensity of ambiguity, where any of several possible truths might have applied.  They have left such matters where they belong, with us, to argue among ourselves and within the solitary point of meditation.

If we were to offer the assumption that nonfiction, say memoir, was a different matter, wherein truth was a requisite, wouldn't we be staring down the same uncertainty?  Nonfiction is a description of truths seen by the reporter, but are these truths any more likely to be accurate because the medium is nonfiction?  Were some of the exchanges of dialogue in memoir actual or only the observer's best guess of what was said?

Throughout the history of drama and history, writers have given us another filter by which the truth becomes manifest.  That filter is, of course, us, adding to the dialectic, the conversation, the argument about how much we should believe of the outcome of any given account, the outrageous fictions of The Simpsons, the historical plays of Shakespeare, and the wrenching dramas of Tennessee Williams.

We carry any number of individual filters within us, each one at some pains to maintain a vivid sense of what is true and what isn't.  More often than not, these filters know the difference between fantasy/wish-fulfillment and Reality, as in The Reality.  Most of them would not knowingly lie to the others.  But all of them have secrets they are unwilling to share and truths they are not ready to accept.

The best we can do is wait it out, doing our best to educate these individuals who live as squatters within that cluttered and shadowy edifice we call The Psyche.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lies, Damned Lies, and Stories

What a great sea of mischief in which you have marooned yourself as you seek answers and directions for what you have set out to navigate.  Like all mariners, you have two lives, the life at sea, which is the life of writing, reading, and teaching; and the life on  land, where you are governed by commonplace traditions and cultures.

Navigating the life on land, you have committed yourself to doing your best to represent things as you see them, indexing such things against the voices and received wisdom of your culture.  To the extent it is possible for you to do so, you seek to be a reliable narrator, holding yourself to accounts in which you index your responses and behavior against those of men and women you have met in person or through things they have written and from distillations of things written about them.

You never, for example, met Rachel Carson, although after reading her work, Silent Sprint, you recognized her as someone you considered a reliable and conscientious narrator, one you could  (and do) hope to emulate in accuracy and methodology.  

You never met Anita Hill except to see her performing under the most extraordinary and emotion-laden attacks possible, which she endured as long as it was possible for her to do so in her hopes of serving the kind of elective mindset and agenda you felt some sympathy toward.  She, too, represented to you not only reliability of life-on-land reliability, she also spoke to you of dignity and forbearance.

You never met Joan Didion in person, but because you've read so much of her published work, you feel an indelible respect and esteem.  She appears to you to do things with sentences and paragraphs that transcend reliability; she breathes close personal observation with a yearning to understand phenomena both on land and at sea.

You've never met Mark Twain in person, but you have trod some of the streets where he walked, sat at some of the places where he sat, observing, drinking with the boys, and worked for the same paper for whom he was a contributor.  You've read much if not all his voluminous output, argued with yourself and him about much of it, and come to conclude that as you set forth to find your own narrative voice, you were going to keep his in mind because he had the kind of effect you wished, neither reliable nor unreliable, neither identifiably outraged nor suitably humble.  

Every minute of the day, the Mississippi River comes crashing down past New Orleans, transporting silt,sand, and unarticulated flotsam, changing the shoreline by measurable degree.  Over the years, you've thought long and hard about the similarity of the effects the Mississippi has on the shoreline to the effects of Twain's voice on the shorelines of our language, our culture, and our behavior.

When you navigate the life on this sea of mischief and storytelling, your approach differs from your land-lubber life.  You invent, distort, argue ad hominem, and do your best to assign plausible roles to the large ensemble cast of persona lurking about within your psyche.  

You espouse causes you do not believe in on shore, look askance at persons of your actual politics, cause individuals who espouse similar causes as you to do unreliable, irrational things in service of their goals and their psychological impairments.  You bend and distort facts, waterboard characters, and say hateful things to individuals you might on land address to their exact opposite numbers.

On land, you more often than not describe.  When you are on sea, you lie your way into a tangible, believable reality of your own invention.  When you are on land, you render judgments about some persons, places, and things.  When you are a sea, you cause individuals you've created to believe in the opposite vectors of your landlubber visions.

There are times when your emotional sensors warn you of depression moving in, much like the marine layers that sometimes land on the brightness and sharp, flattering light that defines much of the life in this amazing Central Coast city where you live.  At length, you realize the cause of this depression--you are spending too much time with characters who are not at all like you but who are, nevertheless, characters for whom you must supply dignity, empathy, and self-esteem.

When you are faced with the chore you have set yourself--bringing dimension and esteem to characters whose presence may at times offend you--the fog of depression becomes a temporary luxury you cannot afford.  There have been and undoubtedly still are aspects of you who are not by any means your favorites.  

But in a bigger sense, every writing day is the equivalent of Thanksgiving.  These persona are invited to the table.  They pass the cranberry sauce and the yams and the turkey.  You send along the gravy boat and the greens and whatever other dishes they may request.  Live with it.

Then write about it.