Friday, October 31, 2014

Right Back Where We Started from Only Different

You are fond of a logic or story or event that turns back on itself, in the process revealing something not apparent the first time through.  Your awareness of this almost makes you want to argue it through to the state of near axiom and the tingle of pleasure you first experienced when you heard the subject uttered by a favored philosopher, Heraclitus.

"No person ever steps in the same river twice," he said, "for it's not the same river nor is the person the same."  In another context, he said, "there is nothing permanent except change."

He is one of the many individuals to whom you return, are in fact drawn to revisit, because of your previous experiences, in which you saw or learned something you'd not seen or considered before.  Another is the Italian, Giambatista Vico, who speaks of  creation and invention rather than mere observation.  Put them all together and for you they spell out the fact that being is a matter of creating and action rather than the more passive observation.

All this leads you to check back to see how things of interest to you have evolved, how you have evolved with them or perhaps been distracted from the rate of evolution you seek.  Thus this:  The things leading you to storytelling included interesting characters and what at first seemed like a conversational narrative voice.

True enough, the voice sounded conversational because the author was in effect telling the reader the story.  Of equal truth, a number of the things you read at first were written in the nineteenth century and the early parts of the twentieth century.  Some of these writers attracted you for reasons you could not explain for some years, until you started reading even farther back in time, back to the days when hardly anyone could read.  The then equivalent of the ebook or Kindle reader is the storyteller, who doubtless memorized the text, improvising such flourishes as he or she thought might urge an extra piaster or two from the audience.

Since those days, while the shape of story has remained in relative constancy, there are changes in the way things begin and how they are resolved--or not--at the end.  More visible are the changes in the approach to narrative, for at least two reasons.  More persons are able to read, among them individuals who are even more attuned to the nuance of detail and subtext than other readers, who persist in remaining more literal.  

Visual media such as motion pictures and television have added their personalities of story, causing dramatic writers to shift their way of presenting dramatic information through action rather than description, by subtext and irony rather than characters engaging in the kinds of dialogue you've come to call reader feeder.

With the passing of the years, readers have had much less need for the kinds of openings to be found by authors such as Thomas Hardy and Henry James, who, for all they had much to say about behavior and custom, felt the need to describe these intricacies in their narrative style, to make sure we got it.  They were in effect giving us stage directions, but these directions ran over the edges and into reasons for personality and behavior.

Each time you return to old friends, you notice how, among them, there were those who not only saw the human condition in ways that moved you, they were more adept than some others in conveying the information through their stories.  

For a certainty, D.G. Lawrence had strong, sometimes overpowering opinions, but for the most part, he was willing to give them to his characters, to allow them to convey through action and spoken intent rather than have them stop while he emerged to explain.

Jane Austen, for all she was pushing for a few philosophical ends in which her beliefs about marriage as a partnership should emerge, was another pioneer in stepping aside to allow her characters to do the presentation.

As you write this, you are now rereading a man known for his command of language, his storytelling skills, and the powerful focus of his moral judgments.  He is still well within the canon, where, when he is spoken of, it is always said with respect that English was not his native language.  He is Joseph Conrad, and the work you are focused on is something you may well be looking at for the last time.  The Confidential Agent.  Were it not for the depictions of irony and naivety getting out of hand, you might not have returned this time.  But the impressions from the past were there and you find it on one of your course syllabi, and so you better come back to see what you can rise away from its narrative voice from the past.

Only in recent years have you made the connection between your tastes in story and music.  A few moments with a work from either art and you are swept back into the time of its composition, or nodding with the familiarity of the contemporary.

The book or story or song or concerto or improvisation is not the same as it was the last time you read it or heard it, but then, neither are you.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Benchmarks along the Failure Highway

Among your favorite narrative poems, three call themselves to your attention by setting a youngish male protagonist off on a quest, which allows you to see them as parallels to the search brought to prototype status with Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey.  These three favorites remind you of so-called adventure stories you favored as a boy, when, for the longest time, your most focused thoughts were on adventure.

In addition to the stories you first encountered, such as Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, Huckleberry Finn, The Call of the Wild, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, you made do with the cultural and parental restrictions placed on a young boy by inventing adventures of your own, often based on such other adventures as Gunga Din, Beau Geste, and The King of the Khyber Rifles.  Some abandoned crates and boxes in the spacious empty lot behind your residence served as Fort Zeidernuf from Beau Geste, the then equivalent of the McMurdo Station at the South Pole, and for one solid summer, the mead hall from Beowulf.

The quests that did not begin in books often began instead in various arrangements of those abandoned crates.  In some cases, these crates became the library from which you happened to nave books at hand from which to chose and orchestrate additional quests.  

As such things often go, you were wrenched away from your California base of operations, to pursue, as your father put it, other options, and as your sister and mother noted, to pursue the interiors of libraries in such foreign places as New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Florida.  

Your sister, who had dreams of becoming an archaeologist, but who settled for becoming a Family Therapist, urged you to consider these new libraries in places foreign to you as the equivalent of the famed tombs of Egypt which were discovered and/or vandalized by the likes of the great tomb robber, Belloni, and some of the more reputable archaeologists such as Wheeler and Lord Carnavan.

These treasures led you away from the more linear of the quests, into the more braided and nuanced memoirs and a genre still known today as the coming-of-age novel or bildungsroman, which was your first German word.  The coming-of-age novel represented to you the more modern equivalent of the hero's journey.  

Perhaps because you were so eager yourself to come of age, to, as it were, seek your fortune, whatever that fortune should be, you were drawn to this iteration of the hero's journey, coming in time to see the quest for the treasures you imagined to be at the end of the search--wisdom and perseverance--as a greater goal than mere Spanish doubloons and the spoils of wars and piracy.

Perhaps it was your wording, perhaps your composition style, perhaps even your vocabulary in its tendency toward evangelism of a sort, but any number of teachers in junior and senior high school disagreed with your thesis, which, of course, caused you to be all the more convinced of its truth.  For a few years, you found yourself trying to find identity with Mr. Hemingway's significant character, Nick Adams. 

Then you moved on toward Jerome David Salinger's Holden Caulfield, lingered at some length with what you considered the mischievous distractions provided by Philip Roth characters, arriving at last to the amazing outreach of Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie Marsh.  Here was coming of age in the rewarding sense of being a goal you could hope to achieve for yourself, but on your own terms, not the eponymous narrator.

Augie more or less grew up at the same time you did.  When you came into the world, your parents, pretty well established in middle-class comforts, were beginning to see the slow diminution of their accomplishments, finally having to move from the home they owned in Santa Monica to a rented one in Burbank, then out of a single-dweller home altogether into a long line of apartments, some quite small, others in remote parts of remote towns or cities.

"I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way," the narrator tells us at the outset.  ["I am} first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles

You are none of that, in particular the Chicago part, a city it would take you another fifteen years to reach after first having read this book.  Yet you are in your way all those things.  Augie Marsh brought the coming-of-age novel into the twentieth century, yours and Bellows.  He had a sixteen-year head start on you, unmeasured IQ points and ability.  You have always known that, even when reading works of his you found yourself not being able to resonate with.  But he did things with the picaresque novel and its protagonists, the likes of Tom Jones and Humphrey Clinker, of whom you will write later on, that marked his narrative style and his sense of story shape as high water marks.

Rich and diffuse as it is in its apparent ramble, The Adventures of Augie March has a handcrafted, benchmade quality to it unlike most large novels, reminding you of yet another work you will write of, Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

You are in effect writing about this novel because of the way it caused you to sit up at the age of twenty-six, having read this for the first time, having scrounged the ten dollars for the hardcover edition, wishing to renew your vows to become not merely a writer, but an author.  This novel has allowed you to live in some comfortable honesty with your desires, your attempts at realizing them, and the trail of bloody failures in the wake of your desires.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

One Man's Fancy

For most of your junior high school and high school careers, you were busy trying on attitudes as though they were suits in a two-for-the price-of-one sale.  Many of these attitudes went out of style before your eyes, while others fit you with the same whimsicality as the suits in two-for-one sales.  Still others of these attitudes became clear examples of wrong fit.

True enough, you came out of high school a different person than when you entered, but that didn't in any way mean you'd found a proper fit.  From this position of retrospect, you see the possibility--to continue the analogy--of having to consult a tailor however you emerged from high school.  

However you attitudes were at that time, those aspects of you have evolved to your present state, where you note similar difficulties finding a proper fit with contemporary attitudes.You may have changed, but the change was in type.  You may be more complex now than you were, but there is no running away from the you who was, any more than you will be able to run from the present state of you at a time in the future.

One certainty prevails:  you are a happier person now than you were then, in considerable measure because you have, by some design, some chance, and outward guidance, worked repairs and innovations in appropriate attitudes.

The repair of this particular observation was your association and subsequent friendship with a book first presented to you in high school, a book you were at considerable pains to avoid.  After these years away from high school, you have different approaches to avoiding things.  Your excuses and what passed for logic required a more complicated bill of accusation than your avoidance mechanisms of today.

The book in question is My Antonia by Willa Cather; it will be placed in the list of one hundred novels you believe you had to have read in order to have any hope of success at the career of your choice.  Your major excuse for not having read it is an embarrassment made all the more profound by your rereading of it, recognizing techniques and qualities you missed during your first batch of enthusiastic reading, then discovering narrative tools you are still at pains to master.

At the time My Antonia first came your way, you were dismissive because it was a girl's book.  When you went into publishing, you learned how important this aspect was.  Girls' books sold more than those written for boys.  And there was this matter:  often boys' books were bought by mothers, sisters, aunts, and grannies for their male relatives.  

Best find ways to get used to it, one way of which is to read and edit girls' books.  There were two or three times in your career as a writer where you had to be a girl writer, or so you thought, for the same reason you were led to believe a writer of fiction with the name of Lowenkopf would not be taken with seriousness because, in fact, many novels of the Western category are so lacking in humor.

Published a bit short of a hundred years ago, My Antonia has a narrative voice that amazed you with its sense of freshness from other books written in that era, meaning in the most positive and distinct terms how the authorial presence was maneuvered in such a way that it struck you as nonexistent.  Cather is playing the part of herself, a Nebraska-raised youngster whose abilities and education took her east to New York

The Cather of My Antonia was a product of the Prairie, loving it and proud of her roots there, but aware how integral New York was to her career and life style.  With a bold move, she created another Prairie-based individual to be her spokesperson, someone who also had made a life for himself in the East, who had in fact married for position and wealth.  This last stroke speaks to some of Cather's storytelling genius.  Jimmy, her narrator, in one stroke will be seen as the one longing for the eponymous Antonia instead of his wife.

The "my" of the title carries the double entendre of romantic connection, although its actual intent was that each of the two former Nebraskans, Cather and her made up Jimmy, were to write a document about Antonia.  Cather confesses she'd scarcely addressed the note-taking stages of the project.  Jimmy, on the other hand, has rushed to complete his reminiscence, of Antonia.  When he delivers his version to Cather, he says, "Here is my Antonia."

First time through, you were aware of something Jimmy was perhaps not aware of--his respect, admiration, and perhaps unspoken love for Antonia, an ethnic transplant to the small farm community from which she, Jimmy, and Cather emerged.  Antonia is in effect the embodiment of The Prairie and, if you wish, of the resilient, working class American woman.

Second time through, even though you knew the ending was set in stone, you were rooting for your own ending, even while recognizing its phony sentimentality.  You wanted Jimmy to be with Antonia because you wished to be.

Small wonder then that you want this novel on your list, happy to have overcome the things within you that caused you to keep the work at arm's length for another twenty years.  You listen to yourself while presenting the book in class, pointing out passages,asking the students what they think a particular event or response means.

Antonia is a remarkable character, all the more so because she hasn't the faintest ideas she's being eavesdropped on.  You would never have supposed yourself to become so involved with her to the point where, Jimmy's Antonia she may be, but she is yours as well.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Visit with an Old Friend

 A visit with an old friend can be a precarious thing, reminding you how much one or both of you has grown. This prospect is daunting enough without the added possibility of it reminding you of the distance you've grown from one another.

In certain cases, trial runs, as the matter were, you are both at the age and temperament you'd reached when you last met.  This has negative and positive aspects, the negative ones being some vivid memories of your then behavior, the positive aspects residing in the possibility that you have moved farther along the road of becoming some approximation of what you'd hoped,

There are speculative visits, where you wonder how a meeting would go with an old pal from high school or university days, fraught with potential cringe moments when you recall the essential ingredients of the then chemistry between you, certain you have outgrown, bypassed that aspect of your essential nature while at the same time recalling other individuals from your past, relatives, teachers, employers, work mates, who have left you with variations on the theme of a leopard not being able to change its spots.

You find yourself thinking in terms of fifty-fifty propositions.  You may have changed some spots, but the others are still there, waiting for the whistle or command that will bring them forth again, and you will be you, filled with the fifteen- or sixteen-year-old you.

Most poignant among these visits are the ones with those closest ones with whom you are separated by the boundary of life, which you continue to enjoy, and death, which they insist on keeping.  Many of these memories remind you of the fragile nature of humor, how an event or incident or some coded language can bring you gales of fond memory.  Yet, when your laughter or posture of amusement is questioned and you supply explanations, you're met with the dull-eyed looks of incomprehension, followed by an uneasy attempt at retrieving a lost pace.

There is nothing overtly funny, for instance, about ordering liver and onions for lunch at a posh mid-Manhattan restaurant, even in context with one of the diners being a committed vegan as well as being obnoxious.  There is nothing of essential humor in the fact of you being banished from a cemetery, your offense the consumption of a super deluxe torpedo sandwich from the Italian Deli on De la Guerra Street, much less is there any humor in the fact of complaining to a busboy in Spanish and with gestures, that someone has stolen your watermelon.  Yet, all these incidents have ties to associations related to gales of appreciative laughter.

And what if the old friend is a book, long left to wait, as many friendships do, for a considerable span of time?  Is there a commonality of language and interest?  Even more interesting, is there chemistry, and if so, what kind?

Often heard at impromptu or more formal reunions, "Do you remember me? or, "You may not remember me--"Sometimes, in the first eight or ten pages of reunion with an old friend book, such statements come to mind.  When they do, you set the book aside with nervous deliberation, aware you've grown apart, but not quite sure why or how.  Really?  We were friends?

There are a number of old friends with whom there is a chemistry still to be cherished.  You've had the opportunity in recent years to teach the book, watch a diverse group of readers set forth thinking, as you once did, one thing in particular, then coming to a place you're pleased to be able to appreciate.

"This is," you once thought of your friend, "a wonderful book for a boy.  It could not be better in terms of suspense, bewilderment, adventure, and grand surprises."  The book of which you speak is Huckleberry Finn.  Although it is some of those things you once thought of it, Huckleberry Finn, wonderful though it may be, could in fact be better.  Adults do in fact ignore it at their peril, more often than not because it is presented as a boy's book, an "adventure," or a first look at a significant American voice.

Huckleberry Finn does embody some of those tags, yet under the surface of them, it rips into an America every bit as conflicted and tortured as William Styron's Sophie's Choice, forging a new narrative vision, a quintessential American voice in the process of addressing an agonizing racial conflict.

From its opening lines until the introduction of Tom Sawyer toward the final quarter of the novel, and then returning to those elegiac final lines you believe F.Scott Fitzgerald was trying, in his way to emulate, Huck Finn carries its own weight as a story, pushes narrative voice to an undreamed of plateau, evokes a magnificent river in full parade, and takes on significant moral issues.

What possible must-read list could you compile without mentioning Huck Finn?  What other book promised you and delivered on the promise a lifetime of discovery?  

Monday, October 27, 2014

Flipping the Bird

For the longest time, you were content with your conviction that the mystery novel is the role model for all longform fiction.  Even though romance fiction outsells the mystery novel, your logic has it that the mystery is first and foremost a dramatic way of  identifying an individual who has in effect settled a difference of opinion in defiance of much civil law and certainly of one of the Ten Commandments.  

Thus it is a short jump from identifying a perpetrator from a group of plausible suspects in a mystery to identifying a prime partner from a group of likely potentials in a romance.

This logic brooked no nonsense for you, which is a fine thing for a logic to do, standing up to challenge that way.  But you've also come to believe that all logic is, eventually, subject to assault.  

Your own assault came when you first read Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, which is another novel you think to add to your list of one hundred novels a writer who wishes to write a novel must read.  At some date in the near future, you will add The Golden Compass to your list of the hundred novels, even though you must admit you had written several novels before reading The Golden Compass but none since.

You can also say you've discussed this project with a few individuals so far who have written a good deal of fiction.  While all of them agree about the need to read quantities of novels, some find your number a bit too stingy, one even going so far as to suggest you picked a hundred because it "sounds so convenient and is not the slightest bit daunting."  This individual has written and published several novels.  This individual favors the notion of a novelist feeling daunted before taking on a novel.  "There is something about being daunted that brings out the best in a writer."

The Golden Compass is a part of a trilogy, which you rushed to complete because, among other things, you'd been led by it to change your mind about the mystery, standing alone at the top of a triangle, which may turn out to be for your purposes the wrong geometric form to use as a metric.   The Golden Compass falls into the genre of AU, or alternating universe, one that exists at the same time as our contemporary Reality, but which has specific differences from this one as well as having somewhere a portal through which the unwary and the initiated can move back and forth, under certain conditions.

In the same spirit that all novels are essential mysteries, they may be argued, as you do here, to be alternate universes because their setting is the author's version of the locale, not the actual Baltimore or Los Angeles or London or San Francisco of mysteries.  Even Ed McBain's glorious Eighty-seventh Precinct police procedurals are set in a fictional borough most readers will think of as being Manhattan in disguise. Was his choice to do so deliberate or accidental?

When you asked Ken Millar, AKA Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton why they called their locale Santa Rita when it was palpably Santa Barbara, both squirmed with the excuse that calling their Santa Rita by its true name would shut down certain sources of information which were presented to them.

You have visited many of the San Francisco haunts of Dashiell Hammett, the Los Angeles venues of Raymond Chandler and Harry Bosch,only to discover the truth as it works for you.  In that truth, Los Angeles and Santa Monica will never turn up Philip Marlowe or Bosch, any more than San Francisco will produce Sam Spade or the Continental Op.  You have to read the books, which supply the portal, the same portal Alice discovered when she fell into Wonderland.

Any approach to art, even something as direct and obvious as a photograph or a rendering of exquisite detail, is an alternate universe vision of the subject because the artist has controlled light, perspective, and focus.  Yes, art can be spoken of as managed reality.  But it is not a mountain goat leap of logic to say art is afflicted or arranged or idealized or demonized reality, each quality representing the artist's vision as the work was being executed.

The consequence of such previous logic is the illogical decision to hold off for a time on listing The Golden Compass as a book a writer must read before embarking on the novel-writing journey until you reach that passionate state of certainty where you will be able to say so with conviction.

You have no such qualms about adding to your list Hammett's The Maltese Falcon which you'd wish the neo-novelist to read for, among other things, its ending, which speaks to illusion and delusion.  Not to forget the quality resident in many humans wherein they love a good, old fashioned legend.  Never mind that the legend is an adroit manipulation of actual history and invented facts or relationships.

The Falcon brings a tangy mixture of cynicism, hidden agenda, betrayal, and self-interest to the page, leavened by Hammett's mischievous attempts to prank censorious sorts who were attempting to preserve a sense of decorum languages could never contain.  We have Chaucer to thank for a good deal of that, but we have Hammett in the game as well.  Who got the word "gunsel" past the censors?  What did that word actually mean as opposed to what the censors thought it might have meant.  And what about Same Spade asking Wilmer Cook, "How long you been off the gooseberry lay, son?"  And why did the censors take it out, thinking God only knows what it may have meant?

Yep, The Falcon stays.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Means, Motive, and Opportunity

If you were to give consideration to a book based on the hundred novels you believe a writer should read, two conditions must be met.  The first one seems obvious enough.  You shall have read each of the hundred novels you use as a basis for your examples and commentary.  And the work in most cases shall have been in print for at least fifty years, giving it the time to earn out in terms not so much of finances as from stature.

You're leaving some weasel room for a few writers still much alive and producing.  Writers such as Louise Erdrich, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, Denis Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates, and even though he says he's finished, nevertheless, Philip Roth.

One hundred novels a wannabe writer should have read, reread, learned from in terms of overall awareness, but also for the specifics you got from each of them.  Might be worthwhile to start a notebook in which you listed them, if only to see how well they stand up to your scrutiny.

Not sure of how to organize yet; perhaps having the provisional one hundred, then engaging the cross-talk and vetting process will provide an answer.

The first choice to come to mind is a solid one, Wilkie Collins's 1868 mystery, The Moonstone.  Significant among your reasons for choosing it, the narrative format, which is multiple point of view, not only providing a rich array of characters and introducing one of the earliest of detective investigators, Sgt. Cuff, but as well introducing another mystery staple, the gifted amateur, Franklin Blake.

Class was a matter of particular concern during the nineteenth century in England.  Sgt. Cuff had to approach the ingenue  victim, Rachel Verinder, with deference and tact, he being from the working classes and she his social superior. Indeed, Sgt. Cuff seems to have got precious little information from Rachel.  Even those interviews give the reader more social information than clue-related, crime-solving fact.

In significant contrast, Sgt. Cuff gets vital information from the butler, Gabriel Betteridge, and Franklin Blake justifies his narrative presence by his observations of the Verinder family and its background, as well as a stunning, surprise dramatic revelation of the sort that could well have provided inspiration for the contemporary crime novelist, Gillian Flynn, in her 2012 Gone Girl.

Every bit as prolific as his friend and publisher, Charles Dickens, Collins often comes out ahead in the assessment of which writer, he, or Dickens, had the better sense of humor.  Collins's portrait of Miss Clack, a poor relative of Rachel and her mother, Lady Verinder, gives us a dual vision of the nineteenth century version of a poor relative and a religious extremist, who cannot restrain herself from slipping biblical tracts under the doors of the various guests at the Verinder estate.

This is certainly a novel you'd want a beginning or intermediate mystery writer to consult for structure, characters, pacing, and its obvious influence on the mystery genre as it came bouncing along the bumpy country roads of the nineteenth century and into the urban sprawls of the big city in the twentieth century.

In your research for presenting this novel first to an adult class then to a group of undergrads, you became aware that a university scholar became interested in The Moonstone to the point of stopping her excellent translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy, in order to create her own version of the gifted amateur, Franklin Blake.  Thus did Dorothy Sayers introduce another amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Whimsey.

The Moonstone brings background and information about opium use and addiction, about India, about hypnotism, and about police procedure before the wave of interest in detective fiction began.  It in fact was one of the reasons why there was a wave of interest, one that intrigued Charles Dickens enough to try his own hand at the medium. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Literary Equivalent of an Uber Driver

Perhaps your thoughts about actors today come from trying to get an unruly chapter in your work in progress to mind.  Perhaps it was because of a discussion with a friend who has sometimes acted but is now more of a dramaturge and writer.  

Another perhaps came during a phone conversation with a friend who lives in Hollywood and who claims her apartment building has a heavy population of actors.  These potentials remind you of the sentiment voiced by the friend from Hollywood in so many words, "Actors are well beyond normal."

In a recent conversation with your literary agent, who at one time ran the editorial department of a publisher in New York and another in Boston, you paid close attention to the sentiment that beginning writers are only starting on the learning curve of craziness.  You recall your father, who was not a writer, asking you at one point in your early twenties if you were crazy enough to be a writer.  O tempore, o mores.  (Not to be confused with O tempura, O morays.)

At the time of being asked, you were convinced you were crazy enough.  In retrospect you see you were not so much crazy as naive and/or rebellious.  Those are in fact wonderful qualities for a writer to have at any stage, thus this revelation of you being at the rat tail of the learning curve.  You had a long way to go to get to the point at which you now reside.  You are willing to face the fact that you are not crazy enough to be of any account, which leaves you hovering near being no account.

Since you've hung out with a number of musicians, you have some ability to recognize craziness in that demographic, one slight example being a local musician who for the longest time showed up at informal jam sessions with a didgeridoo, a true enough instrument, requiring physical and musical acumen, but nevertheless one not readily associated with improv groups in this part of the world.

You've had enough association with fine artists to have recognized a quirk when you saw it, including a woman who had several sketchbooks devoted to her studies of insects.  This of itself is not a quirkiness, but, you argue, wishing to add at least one insect to any oil or watercolor before she could consider it complete does qualify.  There was a trompe l'oeilist you met briefly who assured you he concealed a dead mouse in each of his trompes l'oeille.  He showed you one.

You at one time knew a house painter who may have been pulling your leg when he spoke of regarding each of his works as though it were a Navajo rug, which meant that it had to have some imperfection built into it because a Navajo rug is a copy of a sand painting, which must be perfect, and must be destroyed after being drawn.This house painter was nowhere near being a Native American, thus the rug construct qualifies as a creditable quirk.  If, that is, he were not pulling your leg.

Taking a leg pull seriously forms an important part of this essay. You're only aware of the times you suspected or caught on.  Beyond your skepticism is a naivete as thick as the marine layer in residence off the Central Coast during June and July, meaning you've no way of knowing when you believed something to be true that was or is not.

However grand the temptation to include copyeditors in your list, because they do have some remarkable traits, these are not official quirks, only extremes of tidiness,  The facts speak to you, penetrating the bubble of your own quirkiness.  These individuals all have an ability you strive for and are willing to spend hours in daily practice attempting to achieve.  

The ability is the ability to transport the reader/viewer away from the present moment and position, into another time frame and location.  You may call the locale Los Angeles or Santa Barbara or Cincinnati, but it is not that place, only a simulacrum you have created as a part of a leg pull in which things actual and suggested happen in this faux locale but did not happen in the real one, except that the leg pull might have happened among real persons, who are crazy in their own way for living in such places as Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, or Cincinnati, but not crazy enough to be characters in stories.

You are the literary equivalent of an Uber driver, picking up and delivering total strangers to destinations, with money exchanging hands through electronic media that, a few years back, would have been considered a leg pull.  In the sense that a reader wants to go to a puzzle or romance or history, you deliver the passenger to the destination, but the route you've chosen is pure invention and exaggeration.  

At one point when you worked for a massmarket publisher, you had statistics for a certain title you wished to contract that argued for a sale in the hundreds of thousands.  You were promptly reminded, "You are in massmarket now, Lowenkopf.  You were brought here because you had books that sold millions. Hundreds of thousands is not massmarket."

Well, it certainly is, but you still smart at the recollection.  Massmarket has come to mean ordinary to you.  You are not massmarket.  You are nuts.  You are a writer nuts and crazy.  You do not appeal to massmarket.  In some ways, you can still hear Jake asking if you are crazy enough.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Power Plays

Among the many ways power may be seen and experienced, consider latent energy brought into play to effect some kind of work.  In order top do so, the energy has to be transformed from latent to active and direct.  Thus power becomes a force being exerted to accomplish a desired result.  Or effect.

In the dramatic sense, power is a considerable mass of influence used by one individual to direct another.  Power is also the potential for influence over a group by another group, an organization over un- or dis-organized individuals.

Some power is measured in terms of theoretical horses, the effect of one horse doing X amount of work within a specific span of time.  When you were first introduced to the subject of physics, you recall taking pleasure in being able to understand how power related to specific acts, the amount of energy required to lift or move or push an object of X weight over a distance of Y in Z amount of time.

When you were exposed to the subjects of drama, psychology, motivation, conscience, and ethics, you were thrilled to realize how something as insignificant on its face as a nod or lift of an eyebrow could induce character X to do Y.  

This became more fascinating yet when you realized you'd been nudged, urged, threatened, wheedled, coaxed, and driven by conscience to do certain things, not do certain others, and to lie about things you did or did not do.  You were on to something.  You knew it had to do with power.

Somewhere along the way, you began to observe how implied and expressed power drove story, in effect caused story to do X amount of work on characters Y and Z within the framework of an act or a chapter or an entire short story or an even longer narrative such as a novella or a novel.

A scene may well begin with Character A having some degree of power over Character B, which proves useful in Character A ordering Character B to do something with the reasonable expectation that Character B will comply.  Watching such activity as a reader or audience, you find yourself growing uncomfortable on behalf of Character B for the plight in which Character B appears trapped.  You also dislike Character A for bullying, for undue use of power or influence.  If this circumstance is orchestrated well by the author, you begin in time to resent Character B for not taking a stand.

By happenstance, plan, or pure guile, Character B discovers a way to bring Character A's influence to an abrupt end.  We delight in seeing the realization come over Character A; what was once power is now trivial.  What once produced results and the atmosphere of subservience is gone.  This change of power is a major factor in certain types of humor, where the dramatic effect is reached when Character A can no longer gain the bully's advantage and now topples before our eyes.

Parity does not keep story going for long, unless, before our eyes, we see collusion and conspiracy to impose levels of power.  How quickly the shift of parity and a comfortable system of power shifts in the opening moments of Macbeth.  How quickly Shakespeare dramatizes a shift in power between he who was once Prince Hal and Prince Hal's mate of the carouse and roister, Sir John Falstaff.  What a complete, utter shift of power:


    My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!


    I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
    How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
    I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,
    So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
    But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
    Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
    Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
    For thee thrice wider than for other men.
    Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
    Presume not that I am the thing I was;
    For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
    That I have turn'd away my former self;
    So will I those that kept me company.
    When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
    Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
    The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
    Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
    As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
    Not to come near our person by ten mile.
    For competence of life I will allow you,
    That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
    And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
    We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
    Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
    To see perform'd the tenor of our word. Set on.

Even after so stern a reprimand, Falstaff tries to maintain the fiction of the past, but the damage is done.

The physics of drama and story were there all along, requesting your indulgence.  Power is action, not mere discussion of it.  Power is the ghost of the king, directing his son, Hamlet, to avenge his death.  Power is Hamlet agreeing to do so.

All these years, there before you, waiting to be heeded.  You tried to listen.  You wished to listen.  But you were as distracted as Odysseus' sailors when they heard the singing of the Sirens.  You heard attitude, tone, description; you allowed yourself to intervene as the writers of past centuries did in the good faith of following the conventions of their times, where the author could, with the wave of a hand, bring the story crashing to a halt for a paragraph or two of brilliant writing.  Hello Aldous Huxley.  Hello, Thomas Hardy.  Hello, George Eliot.

You were in with the best of company, but you were dazzled by their brightness and the conventions of their day.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


You shouldn't be doing this, but here it is.  The "this" you shouldn't be doing is in effect showing favoritism, allowing someone in a line that is by its real nature, growing long and impatient.  You reach "this" point with some regularity, when you are in the helpless deliciousness position of being about a third of the way into a new project.

The position is helpless because you cannot go any faster.  Sometimes, you cannot go at all, and so, instead of going forward, writing ahead, you write about the project, what you hope to learn from it, what you hope to put into it, perhaps even how this will help you move a plateau or two above where you are at the moment.

The position is delicious because, seeming sadist that you might well be, you are pappy to be a third into the present idea, so rooted in it that you find yourself having dreams about it in which you are solving problems you were not aware of in waking time.  

There is additional deliciousness in knowing the project will be useful to at least this audience of one which is you.  Yes, it is delicious because you are writing it for yourself, hopeful of being able to vault up a plateau or two toward having better control over the conversational sense of ease you hope to have with future projects.

By a mixture of accident and purpose, you've become yet another thing you'd never thought to become, a historian.  In similar ways to the other important accidents in your life, you had no idea that your eclectic tastes in fiction would take you anywhere close to being an historian.

Even when you were an English major, reading assignments off the course syllabi, you were keeping up with contemporary as well as becoming distracted by some of the non-assigned works from the assigned authors

Thus you real all of Tobias Smollet you could get your hands on, curious to see if you could learn something of the more conventional ways of narrative that you'd learned from reading an epistolary novel of his that, in effect, opened you to the exciting possibilities of multiple point of view (which well prepared you for Wilkie Collins's stunning The Moonstone to the point where you recognized him as a forerunner of a favored twentieth century mystery writer, Salvadore Lambino, aka Ed McBain).

All this one-step-forward, two or three to the sides approach caught up with you and you were not only able to understand point of view and the men and women who pioneered its evolution, you were able to see steps along the way, shifts, as it were, from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon to Homo Habilus, and so it goes.  Or went.

Here comes a digression in the form of Fowler's Modern English Usage, a comprehensive and witty guide to the use of words, tropes, memes, punctuation, and convention, a guide you were well aware of even before you became aware of the famed, iconic CMOS or Chicago Manual of Style, the preferential usage guide for most of the general trade books published in the U.S.

Somewhere along the way, you'd come across an Americanized version of the Fowler, edited by Margaret Nicholson.  Wonder of wonders, you still have it.  You not only used it to get you in and out of issues of clarity and meaning with your writing, you admired its dictionary-like format.  "Someday," you told yourself, when thinking how you'd like to write what was essentially a series of alphabetized essays, some quite long, some made even more witty by their brevity and edginess.  "Someday."  

In time, someday became today; you began writing such a book, which became The Fiction Writers' Handbook, a nonfiction format you admire because the segments are as long as you were able to make them, no longer nor shorter.  To be sure, your editor suggested deleting the occasional paragraph here, or adding one or two there.  The publisher went so far as to suggest at least two additional essays.

Now, there is this, wishing to gain admittance into the line of things already waiting to be done.  "This" is a list of one hundred novels which you believe most writers ought to have read.  Using them, you will demonstrate scenes, tools, techniques by which their remarkable authors achieved remarkable effects, causing them to be one hundred novels to be read, reread, and studied for hints of how they grew from notions and ideas such as "this" one, into the trustworthy treasure they have made themselves over the years since their appearance.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Encyclopedia Britannica Approach to Learning

Some of the recent things you've been saying and thinking about conventional wisdom have captured a brief time in your life involving The Encyclopedia Britannica, your experiences with it, and what may have been yet another shove you were given toward being an iconoclast.

From about the time of your years in junior high school and well into high school, thus the years after the ending of World War II, The Encyclopedia Britannica  was as much the subject of middle class family discussions as pianos.  Middle class families, wishing their children to have all possible advantages, were subject to significant advertising and peer pressures.  Your parents were no exceptions.  There were numerous occasions on which they led up to questioning you.  Each time they began, you were reminded of friends in similar situations, being asked if there were things they wanted to know about sex. 

You'd already had enough experience with using the Encyclopedia Britannica to know that citing it in some of your papers would get comments such as "Good" or even "Good info," and on a few indications even, "Nice source" but if you stopped at that one source, two consequences were immediate.  You'd rarely get a grade on the paper higher than a B and, more important, your own sense of curiosity about the subject would not have been fulfilled.

Even though you'd been skipped ahead a full year, you were entering a time when you didn't think much of what you thought of as your intelligence.  Nor were you satisfied with, as you complained to a counselor, "the way things were going."  Of course the counselor would ask you to expand on what you meant by "things," and some of your answers had to do with not being satisfied with the way your education was fitting together in a way where various subjects seemed to relate the way, for example, elements had affinities for certain other elements, or where there did not seem to be specific things you could study that would help you understand how to be a writer.  

You already had friends who understood they wished to become lawyers or doctors, and one even wished to move on toward the goal of becoming a psychiatrist.  Still another confided to you that he was going to give college a wide berth and go, instead, to live and study with Frank Lloyd Wright in order to become an architect.  One pal even said as soon as he graduated, he was off to join a band, hopeful of becoming a musician.  (You looked him up recently, discovering he'd been with at least two bands you admired, had experienced a change of heart about instruments, and was now, 2014, a cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.)  

You had no such focus.  You had, and still have, a contemporary book showing you how to write adventure stories and how to plot mysteries.  You had, and still have a book called The Favorite Works of Mark Twain, which was a gift for your coming-of-age celebration at age thirteen, and another book, which you bought used for twenty-five cents at a used book store, Volume II of Mark Twain's first memoir, Roughing It.  Beyond those three books, you were pretty much on your own.  

In retrospect, you argue that although you went on to the university, your most cherished university was the used book store near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, and one other you discovered by accident on Santa Monica Boulevard, but only because it was near Spider's Pool Hall.

The Encyclopedia Britannica was at that time a respected source of information, its advisory panels packed with notable scholars.  Yet another expensive set of books offered a multi-volume, matched set of the so-called Great Books of Western Civilization.  You were asked if you wished this as a parental contribution toward your education.  You were stretching the matter somewhat, but you were able to say you'd read many of those books, going so far as to call parental attention to some of the shelves in your room.  "See.  Aristotle.  And look, over here.  Karl Marx."  And so it went.  You are still thankful to your father for asking, "Read, yes.  But what about understood, eh, wise guy?"

Conventional wisdom was close to hand for most of your life, sometimes too close, too tempting, too likely to be the reason for you going no farther in your quest to identify something you could not articulate, something the then equivalent of The Holy Grail.

Until you began, years after the fact to recognize the problem, Conventional Wisdom had become your stopping point rather than your starting point.  Conventional wisdom did not make you as curious as, say, your ineptness in Spider's Pool Hall or even later, when you were in gainful employ as a published writer and a salaried editor, still baffled by the intricacies of that most challenging table of all at Spider's.  No, not the pool table nor the snooker table.  Rather the table with no pockets.  The billiards table.

Gene was a short, overweight man who covered a growing gut by not tucking in his sports shirt.  He seemed to dance about the billiards table with a weightless grace, a man set on solving problems.  You watched him for hours.  After a time, he confided in you.  "If you'd paid more attention to this,"  he said, chalking his cue, sighting, then executing a three-cushion shot, "you'd not have fucked up geometry."

It was not three-cushion billiards that brought you to geometry, rather it was designing books, fitting blocks of text, arranging for margins and gutters and heads and feet.  Not that you had anything against three-cushion billiards, only that you loved making books look like books and found the way to do so, time after time after time.

Such wisdom of convention as there is needs to be observed, tested, questioned.  As you right this, resources you, as an avid follower of the Dick Tracy comic strip, could not imagine, lurk.  There are some in your pocket, some on your desk, some on your dining room table.  The information to which these devices provide access is often flawed, sometimes downright wrong.  Persons are quoted as having said things, but in fact have not said those things.  Even then, the things they have been quoted as saying are questionable if not downright wrong.  

Other individuals say things not in the sense or spirit of peer review, things of such questionable validity as to expand the meanings of fanciful.

Conventional wisdom is the latest victim of the loss of intrinsic value of information, of logic, of the ability of humanity to connect things of apparent dissimilar nature.

You have your copy of Writing Magazine Fiction, The Favorite Works of Mark Twain, Volume I of Roughing It.  You have a vast world of cynicism, an eye for mischief, an appetite for adventure, and a curiosity to discover how far you can see beyond the horizon of conventional wisdom.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Conventional Wisdom

There are conventions, and there is wisdom, but so far as you've been able to see, there is no conventional wisdom that can be agreed upon.   Conventions are agreed-upon or legislated behavior, such as the drivers' seats in American cars being on the left side, you having Friday morning coffee with a particular group at a particular place, and Sunday breakfast somewhere altogether else. 

Convention is using the serial comma in books or not using it in magazines and newspapers.  In American text, the punctuation marks go inside the quotes, but UK conventions call for the commas and other stuff to go outside the quotes.  "Right?"  "Right you are".

Convention suggests a form of accord among a defined group that is often willing to take their accord to extremes, even to the point of investing their accord with some divine inspiration, for example Martin Luther nailing his edict to the door of a church.

In considering this, you are reminded of your concept of story, which now becomes transmogrified to two conventions, each believing there is only one source of divine inspiration, each believing it is the one.

Wisdom is another matter, every bit as idiosyncratic as the previous examples and permutations of conventions.  In your experience, wisdom is often attributed to the elderly, an acquired trait, a product of considerable trial and error, thus by implication the result of looking at and then attacking problems.  Good luck with that.

From early years, we are subject to inspirational propaganda about the virtues of wisdom, where it is to be found, and how to acquire it.  In retrospect, you can see where your parents had ample measures of wisdom.  

You were not always wise enough to see that.  This means wisdom, like conventions, is in constant flux.  What appears to be wisdom at one point may turn out to be something altogether different at other times, different enough to appear unwise, dumb, perhaps even dangerous.

There have been times when you made decisions based on your immediate perception that you were being wise.  In yet other instances, you dithered to the point of considering yourself untrustworthy.  Such considerations do not add to an overall sense of confidence.  This leads to the great existential question:  Is it wise to be confident?  

Back in time, when the Greeks were running all over philosophy the way Bill Gates and Steve Jobs ran over computers and their operating systems. you could have your choice of an operating system based on your inherent trust of things and persons or such other approaches as being standoffish with what the French would call sang froid running through your veins.  Leave it to the French to come forth with a term for cold blood that sounds like a variety of wine.

You have chosen as your default positions being unconventional and lacking in wisdom, thus not wise, which seems to you to relate to making sane, conventional decisions.  Your preference is to make unconventional decisions that in fact warm up the blood, get you to a point where you can barely control your enthusiasm long enough to write it down.

One of those Greek philosophers was, in your opinion, nailing the matter when he, Heraclitus, wrote about the eternal flux of Things, by which you believe him to have meant Reality.  You cannot, he wrote, bathe in the same river twice, much less take the same bath twice, nor can you make the observation about it more than once without becoming repetitive and, even worse, derivative.

At your current stage of relative wisdom, you believe it is not a good plan to copy yourself.  If you once did something well, nice to think about it in retrospect, then try to do something else at a different degree of wellness.

You also believe it a good practice to question anything of apparent conventionality before embracing it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Dad?" Yeah, Dad. That Dad.

By the time you chose your career path, you already had many favorite writers among whom to chose.  Some of these were still alive, turning out, as writers do, the occasional short story or essay in addition to a new novel.  

Some of these writers were individuals you wanted to keep up with, in order to read their new work.  The thought never occurred to you to engage in outright competition, much less think you were then or were going to become better than they.

Even when Philip Roth published his stunning breakout work, the novella Goodbye Columbus, which was published with three of his shorter stories, the effect on you was a serious bout of envy.  You were of about an age, which was bad enough; he had ever so much more of a grip on narrative voice and ways of converting concepts into characters.  

Your funk lasted about a month, during which you did a good deal of what you thought F. Scott Fitzgerald would have approved of, which is drinking great quantities of gin and vodka.  When that got you nowhere other than financially depleted and grouchy from hangovers, you got back to the only things you could think of in your attempts to catch up with Roth.

It was your good fortune rather than your good sense that arrived to get you out of that problematic stage.  By increasing your attack on reading and writing, you were so distracted from your supposed competition that he'd managed to produce two or three more books you hadn't the time to read because you were too busy trying to keep up with yourself.  

Your good fortune was the ultimate reading of his latest books and recognizing he was no longer someone you should compete with, rather someone you should read with scrupulous care to see how he arrived at such a compelling narrative voice that he could win you over to believing the things his characters said and felt.

Many emerging writers of your time were aware of the influences of Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot.  Again, fortune served you well. You didn't "get" Eliot for some time to come. You'd already set out to read the entire Hemingway works, looking for themes, trying to develop a vision similar to his elliptical approach where he led you right up to the edge of where he wanted you to feel, then pushed you right in after his characters.  "Oh, you mean subtext," am instructor you greatly admired said of your discussions of Hemingway.  

Since this instructor was being published by Knopf and his short pieces were appearing in The New Yorker,  you allowed yourself to be led away from Hemingway after one last fling at his most recent work, The Old Man and the Sea.  Given your attendance at a campus of the University of California with a large, visible C marker on one of the nearby hills, you undertook your prank with a piece called The Old Man and the C.

It did not occur to you that a classmate of yours was who he was until he told you one afternoon, "Dad liked your piece."


"Yeah.  Dad.  We got back on speaking terms, which means I send him letters and he answers them, so I sent him your piece and he said it was pretty good stuff."  Once again you were made aware of how, for all your reading and attempts to acquire sophistication, naivete stalked you with a particular vengeance.  Your classmate's name was Hemingway.  You knew that well enough, but there was no further connection until.  Until.

During those times, you were still propelled by the enthusiasm of  being youngest.  Once again, accident and good fortune spared you from being completely insufferable.  You also have occasion to use the word "callow" when you communicate with some old friends from those days, of course using the term in reference to yourself.

The good fortune got you into the accident whereby you became pretty good at being an editor without having to go to New York or Boston, the major places one went to to take on this craft.  By the time you'd got to New York, you'd earned the necessary craft to have dropped a few pounds of callow and picked up a few of such things as empathy, respect, and a significant sense that the things you thought were things one could do alone.

And there's the message, isn't it?  Any craft has to be learned, practiced, investigated, accommodated.  You're aware of particular editing skills and skills in your composition.  Because you're aware of them, you don't get to walk away without thinking about them.  Everything has to be honed.  Everything has a specific time before you can rely on it, use it as a tool instead of admiring it in someone else.

The list of writers you're crazy about has grown in exponential units over the years, dedicated men and women who have earned their way to the point where they can use their craft as muscle memory.

The more of these you read, the more you're aware of this:  Every time you're assigned a project to edit, every time you start a new book or story or essay, it's as though you're having to start fresh, because this one, whether your own writing or your editing of someone else's writing is fresh and new, isn't it, and to keep up, you have to be fresh and new as well.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Where did you go?" "Out." "What did you do?" "Nothing."

 From your middle teens until you moved from your parents' home, you were an unwitting but energetic participant in a drama centering on when or if you'd come home.  Beyond a certain point and age, probably around age eighteen, your interests in adventures tended to override the responsibility ingrained in you by your parents to let them know.

This is no doubt one metric to apply in the matter of when a chick should leave the nest.  You can appreciate your parents' concerns all the more in the retrospect of knowing individuals whose parents cared less than your parents or perhaps did not care at all.  Adding to the index of retrospective wisdom is the array of conditions you were in when you did come home at whatever hour you indeed came home.

Only on rare occasion did you leave with the intention of drinking more than was prudent or smoking more than wise, or combining such teen-aged chemistry as Dexedrine, pitchers of beer, coffee, and brandy.

Lest you paint yourself too deep into the corner of debauchery, there were times when the only beverage consumed was coffee or such bad wine that a glass of it was enough for the rest of the evening.  These were times of excited, flamboyant conversation, the conversation of the young, the idealistic, the  ambitious, discussing themes and content of works we hoped to write at some time in the immediate future but which had not yet been committed to paper.  These were also times when you were just smart enough to shut up and listen when in the company of older men and women who were in fact putting words on paper that found their way into publication or performance.

And there were the hours in which you listened to conversations of another sort, of jazz mostly, but sometimes of the classical.  These "conversations" more often than not took place early in the morning, say one or two or three.  It is not so much a fact that jazz relates best to the later, darker hours as it is a fact that jazz conversations seem to play out later in the day because the bright, sharp hours are the times for practice.

With no children of your own, you did not experience the "It's midnight, do you know where your kids are?" syndrome, therefore it might seem disingenuous to say you had cats and dogs who waited for you to come home and seemed to you then, and in fond memory now, to regard you with a reproof suggesting they had a greater interest in you than dinner. Nor will it help much to say you had three bluetick hounds who, on any occasion you took them for a walk of consequence, might catch a scent, then be gone for upwards of two days.

A pet that has gone missing seems to wrench you in ways you'd thought behind you, reminding you again how a boundary is trespassed when you give more than dinner to an animal friend, you give them a part of your confidential self and feelings you reserve for the special few.  

You told your  special  blue tick hound friend, Edward, on two particular occasions when you thought you'd never see him again, that he'd all but broken your heart.  He, noble and irascible fellow that he was, looked at you as if to chide you for your sentimentality, then to assure you that you'd not seen anything yet.  Indeed, when he did not live out a normal life span, you understood beyond grief for the normal, the grief for the missed potential.

There are times when you are up nights, waiting for a story or concept or idea to come home.  For all you know, it is off on a carouse with some great friends or merely wishes to remain alone, or perhaps has taken the tack that it wishes to hide from you because you are making too much of it, attaching too much to it.

You've had the "Where did you go?"  "Out."  "What did you do?"  "Nothing."  dialogue with your parents, and with a chorus of animals.  You try your best to be matter-of-fact with your current cat, Goldfarb, and you think you're successful.

You think you know how your parents felt because even then you were in the formative stages of wanting substance to those stories that did not come, or, when they did, seemed more like excuses than story.  At some point, you were able to articulate this process to the point where you saw it first as a process, then, with deeper consideration, as The Process.  Just as you did when you went out at night or Edward did when he caught a scent,

The daytime hours are for practice.  The Process sends you out at night, during the intimate, dark hours where dreams and intensities and visions coalesce in the early morning mist.  There is often no telling how long you will be gone or what condition you will be in or if your heart will be broken.

You will get home when you get home.  But you need coffee and early to work.  No matter what, the daytime hours are still for practice.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dealing with Your Interior Edwin Booth

The second best thing is to come to the table feeling pretty much the way you did this morning, leaving the studio with neither hard cash nor your wallet and its supporting cast of credit cards.  True enough, you were well enough known at your venue of choice, and truer still, you could--and did--sign the tab for your breakfast.  But the feeling is a scary one, causing you to reflect on things before your coffee was prepared and your oatmeal put on the boil.

Suppose you sit to compose with nothing in the tank, no vision, no irritation at some human foible, only instead the sense you are not known here, the sense of wonder that you could have ever thought to have written a short story or essay much less a novel or a book length essay.

Being caught out that way makes you think of the close relative of sitting at your desk or chosen workplace to begin composition or, better still, to continue something you'd started yesterday or, best case scenario yet, something you'd been grappling with for some time, on occasion it getting the better of you, on other occasions, you managing a page or two of stature, pages that hold up under scrutiny and remind you of the inherent promise of the project in the works.

The process is not rational.  In one of your pocket-sized notebooks, you have a list of the next five books you'd hope to write.  This notebook is no surprise to you.  On frequent occasion, you consult it, looking for the same kinds of energy you get when listening to and absorbing music.  

The ideas all seem sound, placed with firmness against your vision of yourself as a writer.  But there are days when these five projects seem well beyond your reach or, worse still, beyond your interest.

You tell yourself at the outset that with these five books, undertaken, then completed, you will surely have found at least one more to add to the list.  Even if the answer is no, these five are it, there is some satisfaction in knowing you're not the loafer the sceptic of your worst dreams insists you are.

So you begin, cumbersome sentence on the screen or notepad, followed by a sentence of a bit less cumbersomeness, until there is a page in which one or two sentences, all but simple declarative sentences, have a jaunty resonance.  This is all it takes to urge you to risk another of the turgid, sclerotic sentences.  

If your luck holds and you don't put too much thought into the process, the cumbersomeness seems to be in retreat.  You can now risk reading an entire page, hopeful of finding the flutter of life within the paragraphs.

These are the daily equivalents of driving to work in a city with dense traffic.  You live there, the traffic is, yes, dense, and so you have to put up with it.  Worst case is that some days, you'll be a bit late arriving to work.  If you had to look back to recall a time where the go-to-work traffic of writing was so dense that you missed an entire day of work, you'd have to rely on guesswork.

Days when you are well launched into a continuing task are your first choices unless, as you noted earlier, some extreme aspect of you--with good reason, you call him your inner Edwin Booth--jumps up before you, shouting "Sic semper tyrannus," as Booth was said to have done before shooting President Lincoln.

The process devolves to a statement you gleaned from a textbook in Psychology 1.  "The organism thinks well of itself."  In your case, even if there is a momentary hiatus from the esteem and energy needed to undertake composition, reading a few pages will often cause you to wave Booth away with a dismissive, "Oh, come off it, man."

Even if the pages don't work, a more reliable person than booth will appear.  "You might want to rethink these pages in the following ways," he will suggest.

And you will see what he means.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Story? Or History?

If a story is repeated often enough, it will become history, with the possibility always there of it growing into legend.  Events, regardless of what they are called, depend for their stature on those who participated in them and those who interpret or, in any number of ways, respond to them.  

Whenever you get to this part of your attempts to deal with history and story in some kind of context that reflects you, chances are you'll be drawn to one of the prime examples stored away in your memory. 

Back into a history of which you never participated, made epic by a storyteller who also did not participated, but rendered into glowing legend.  Henry V, Act Iv, Scene III.  The famed St. Crispin's Day speech, in which Henry, about to engage the French in the Battle of Agincourt, October 25, 1415, says:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Matters increase in complexity when fiction writers take on events and personalities. Depending on where you went to school and how you were presented the information, the War between the American States had produced enough written and filmed material to keep a historian, a writer of fiction, or a combination of the two, at a Sisyphean task of trying to keep up with all the impressions.  This particular war was over by most accounts in the year 1865.  And Stephen Crane, born in the year 1871, was able to write The Red Badge of Courage, a fictional account of it that was published on October 5, 1895.

A safe approach to writing history or story would seem to be writing only about events that took place in the writer's own lifespan or close to it.  But this begins to teeter in the wind or conflicting logic and past performances.  

True enough, one of the individuals often associated with the origins of history, Herodotus (484-425 BCE) gave us significant descriptions of things he'd seen at first hand, reported things he'd learned from individuals he knew and respected.  But he also indulged in speculation and inference.  One of the reasons why we trust him is his insistence on telling us what his sources were, even copping to the "It is said of the Persians" trope, because he'd not interviewed or observed a Persian.

For reasons you believe you understand now, you were for some time content to ignore history, this in your eagerness to get your hands on and read as many of the things from the past that you could get your hands on, wanting to absorb them the same way you absorb story.  The context in which such things were written only began to emerge as important when you saw beyond the mere presence of a thing to the reason for the presence of the thing.  

Thinking about it now, the likelihood is strong that a particular work of history, Barbara Tuchman's magisterial A Distant Mirror, helped you turn the corner.  And about time.  Published in 1987, this book compared the fourteenth century to the twentieth, made more points of comparison than you were comfortable with, sending you back to play the game of catch-up, in the process understanding things you previously considered facts meant to be memorized rather than used.

If there is no objectivity possible in story, the best you can do is respect the characters you encounter and those you create, understanding that they are a part of a history that was, after all, initiated by humans, who wished to keep some sort of record.  You do not so much write about miscreants and self-absorbed sorts as you do about girls who have stumbled down the wrong rabbit hole and boys who have run away to join the wrong circus.  They are your girls who have stumbled down the wrong rabbit hole, but in fairness to them, they were looking for what they considered the right rabbit hole.  They are your boys who took any circus that came along, just as you did when Foley and Burke Shows came along.

You derive considerable pleasure in seeing different versions of the same play, differing editions of the same story or novel.  These are the differences that make history of story.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Plot, Locale, Landscape, and Zoning Laws as They Relate to Story

Story has to take place somewhere.  At the outset, the venue is within the imagination, a place that has come on occasion to remind you of some of the more extreme real estate sales persons you've known, men and women who, like your imagination, are trying to sell you things.  The sales persons and your imagination have in common the ardent desire to get you to see possibilities.

One sales person wanted you to see the possibilities in a back yard.  "Gardens,"  she said.  "Exotic gardens, as wild as your imagination."  She also passed along visions, couched in clever questions, of you watching fires in a fire pit, barbecuing, and writing under the umbrella of a large oak, much in the manner one of your favorite writers, D.H. Lawrence, employed.  "Can't thou see yourself being productive here, doing things you'd never done before?"

She had, you recall, above average verbal skills.  In a way, that was her undoing; she had you seeing how much work some of these possibilities would entail, work that would require sums of money your imagination had not as yet showed you how to acquire.  This meant you'd be doing the work, scrounging time away from writing time.  Even then, you could see the possibilities of how much time and work the writing was going to require, with no guarantee of a specific delivery date.

Another real estate sales person asked you to see other possibilities, which, in this case, related to possibilities the neighborhood would evolve into the real estate equivalent of a cash cow.  "You could rent this house to some nice, upwardly mobile couple, which would allow you to travel or support yourself while finishing enough of a novel to get a sizable enough advance to live on."

The more you thought of these real estate brokers, the more you saw the aptness of the analogy between setting, imagination, and story.  You have come closer than you find comfort in admitting to using the same techniques on story projects as these real estate persons were using on you.  

You were in effect waving your hand over the visible scope of an idea, asking--no, pleading with your imagination--to see the possibilities.  This story could serve as a cornerstone for two or three subsequent works, building momentum as it built credibility and plausibility.  This story could open the door on a narrative technique that has the effect of bringing the reader yet closer to the characters than even some of your favorite storytellers.

At the time (and even now)plausibility is a word you use with some frequency relative to story.  The story, its denizens, and its locales must be plausible; they must seem to be as obvious and yet anomalous as the clean-hands dispensers at supermarkets.  Possibilities must be plausible, even though you've moved away from earlier preoccupations with fantasy and magical realism.  You wish your stories to so radiate plausibility that readers will be drawn into them because they transmit a troublesome sense of possibility.

You hope to cause the reader to say, I know this story is plausible because I have been in a situation similar to this and have felt as uncomfortable as Lowenopf's characters are feeling. There is little or nothing arranged about this story.  This story makes me realize how uneasiness sneaks up on people these days to a greater extent than ever before, but I am not knocking that some really serious stuff happened before.

Your stories have taken place in places so ordinary, say the back seat of an AMC Pacer, that you need to add a note of quirkiness or mystery otherwise they would seem too plausible and thus too labored to be taken seriously.

All of this goes on in one way or another in that early stage of the imagination as civic booster, ala Sinclair Lewis's eponymous Babbit.  Your imagination is going over the real estate with you, asking you to consider things, and you haven't yet set foot inside the house.

Real slate or marble on the counter tops.  Serious, oak flooring.  Hey, check out the teak used in the balcony.  You ever see a laundry facility like this in a single-dwelling house?

Story not only has to take place somewhere, that place, however plausible and fraught with possibility, has to have a distinctive personality because nothing can be left to the imagination to deliver.  You have to decide upon and deliver such things as menace, vital decisions to be made, hints at who can be trusted, will the deck flooring withstand another party, who to root for, and that often ignored sense of how the characters will come to terms with this building, this room, this place, this car.

Nobody gets a free ride, not even you.  Even though your presence ought not to be felt in this terrain or landscape or lot or condo, you still have to do all the work, no matter what they tell you.