Sunday, November 30, 2014

Squirm, Baby, Squirm

At about the time you were in the midst of composing your short story, "The Man Within," in which a man of middle age has become fascinated with an exciting woman, you knew you were well along the way of understanding what the short story format meant to you and in tangible effect, what you were bringing to the form.  

The title of the story was meant to be a tribute to Graham Greene,  a short story writer you much admire.  After you allowed yourself to understand you'd call the story "The Man Within," another story by another writer thrust itself upon you.  This story was Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," which had in it a character with a wooden leg and another character, a bible salesman, who became possessed with the idea that he would steal that wooden leg.

These wildly disparate reminders set your own determination.  You knew, with the same certainty Romeo knew when he decided to crash the Capulet party, that your protagonist was going to be hiding in the closet of the exciting woman.  You also thought you knew what the last line of the story would be and, in the first printed version of the story, was--until later, when you had a last line you liked even more.

Among your most favored types of stories, the ones you return to most in memory are the adventures in which one or more characters steal their way into a place where they most ought not to be.  While they are in this forbidden place, they are in constant peril of discovery, with harmful, perhaps even fatal consequences.

You begin to relax for a time, after they've sneaked past the first outpost of sentries or guards, because they have reached the key plateau.  They are beyond the point of no return.  They may be discovered at any point, their purposes discernible to those they are in fact invading.  

Your interest in Romeo was minimal until he decided to crash the Capulet's party.  When he was spotted and recognized by one of the Capulets, your heart raced ahead of you; this was a good omen.  

All you needed to do now was continue to read for the things that excited you, write what you considered effective short stories, make the mistakes you were making until you learned your way out of them, then make newer, fresher mistakes.  Do this for as long as it took for things to catch up with you, but not, in the process, learn to be impatient.

So, years later, here you were.  After Romeo's presence was known, the Capulet reported him to an elder, who said in effect, "Leave him alone.  He's a good kid."  At this point, you knew you were in business.  Nothing good could come of this.  And yes, you knew the play was a love story, but you also knew it was a love story set against a feud, and you'd already had an introduction to things that could happen to persons caught between the vises of such antagonism.  Hadn't you seen Huck Finn caught up between the Grangefords and Shepherdsons?  Didn't that turn bloody in a hurry?  Now, here Romeo was, inside the Capulet's and recognized.  How could he not be in trouble?

Cowboys and Indians.  Cops and Robbers.  American soldiers and German or Japanese.  Didn't matter.  You'd even settle for one character having invaded someone's office, now being surprised in the act and forced to lie low.  The thing that mattered was one or more persons you were rooting for, however grudging your loyalty, being caught in a place where no explanation or excuse would suffice.

When your characters invaded foreign or hostile territory, you were right there with them, beyond the comfort zone, at risk of being discovered.  What a splendid fate to contrive for your characters.  

Long as you're at it, why not include yourself?  Only yesterday, watching an episode of an Australian series that is a step or two above a soap opera, you found yourself wanting to make an excuse for not watching a discovery scene you knew was coming up.

Glad you watched it then instead of working up to it.  You need to face these things, even if you see them coming.  No fair turning away because you know either the good person is going to get caught or the bad person is going to get away with an invasion.  How else will you see through the soap opera types?  How else will you see the ways to get your individuals stuck in closets and other compromising places to the degree that will cause you to squirm?

You can't let yourself get away without at least stepping on a cat, bumping into something you didn't realize was there, misjudging someone who had pretty clean motives, or making the wrong turn.  The world is already littered with too many self-published books as it is.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Comforts of Story and the Icy Randomness of Reality

For at least the better part of this year, you've been reminding yourself in a variety of ways why story is more attractive and comfortable for you than Reality.  Your preferences are more related to time management and boredom than they are to fantasy.

Even stories you would tend to skip over have a greater care for the passage of time and of event within that time frame than Reality does.  The equivalent of a janitorial service comes in to sweep up and remove the waste materials of Reality, those long, sometimes languid moments where nothing happens but reverie or an endless, meaningless repetition.  The names for this service, depending on who performs them, are revision and editing.

Stories with too much give-and-take between characters, chatting one another up, tend toward chattiness, which is in its way another metaphor, an appetizer wine or a desert wine or cordial, sipped in some relation to a meal.  Such sipping is more often than not spent in the company of friends or under the umbrella of some spirited, convivial setting.  

Even so, chatting tends to be laden with opinion or reflections of personal taste. These exchanges are among the hallmarks of friendship, wherein too rigorous a sense of agreement begs the issue of friendship.

Here we are then, arrived at an analogy.  Chatting is to leisurely exchange as dialogue is to story.  Dialogue, not chat, elevates much narrative from mere passage of time, up to the level of story.

Depending on an individual's dramatic preferences, the individual is attracted to stage plays, the growing plenitude of well-wrought television drama, and motion pictures, or to the printed formats such as short stories, longer stories, and novels.  All these media can be said to have a common denominator of pace.  There may be a moment or two of opening leisure against which to slam the destabilizing event, but such moments are short, often laden with some thematic element that will play out over the arc of the story.

True enough, individuals from Reality often save up time and money for vacations from the incessant nature of Reality, their goals an attenuated leisure pace in which to pretend to be things with less structure than their working hours.  The fact of these leisure activities becoming fraught and intense nevertheless make them seem leisurely because they are a different fraughtness and pace than the working hours.

Story wants to convince you of the plausibility of the characters, settings, internal goals, external goals, and potentials for the success or failure of the dramatic arc within the narrative.  In fact, story so much wants to convince you of this that it has evolved away from a chorus of individuals setting the stage or of opening paragraphs that bring the reader to a more vivid appreciation and experience of the setting. 

 Story has evolved away from the author as chorus or narrator.  Even such complex quasi-narrators such as Joseph Conrad's Charles Marlow, who becomes Conrad's story-telling surrogate in The Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and the short story "Youth," is first introduced by an omniscient, authorial presence, creating the effect of the play-within-a-play.  Today, Conrad might start interior with Lord Jim, himself, or Kurtz, from The Heart of Darkness.  

Today, story grabs your attention by forcing you to watch a character grapple with an external problem while coping with an interior one, or by confronting the opposite, making a moral choice while fending with a meter maid and her book of parking tickets.

A comparison between Reality and Story will tend to show a greater presence of the random in Reality, making it possible to introduce story to students and to wannabe writers by showing how Story is the laser beam--light amplified sound emission radiation--of Reality.  You could take a segment of time or a simple incident or, for that matter, a noun at random, extracted from an undifferentiated era.  This segment could well have a framework for a story.  Even simple incidents may be probed for traces of a dialogue of some sort.

Your ongoing comparison between the two conditions, Reality and Story--emphasize your wish to see the Human Condition presented in dramatic terms, which are multifarious, nuanced, braided, rather than the relative flatness and literalness of the description that is journalism.  

In Story, the honus on you is to evoke these things we think of as human nature, personality, ego, and complexity.  Not to forget complexity.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Its as Real as the Words on Your Pages

The simplest, most direct definition for Reality you've been able to come up with is a progression of events.  There is something direct and satisfying for you in this vision.  Even as you add to it your next significant attribute, you feel no nag of doubt or of omission.  Sometimes individuals are able to alter this progression of events.  At yet other times, individuals alter the progression of Reality in unintended ways.

You can--and do--go on to include yourself in this procession of Reality-changing events.  You are sometimes able to add to the procession of Reality.  While you're at it, you are able to state that Reality more often than not does not progress in an orderly fashion, in fact putting itself forth with halting or whimsical steps.

Most of your thoughts and concerns about Reality have not produced what you consider demonstrable effects on you.  There have been times when your thoughts about past segments of Reality before you were here to experience it.  History has more often than not fascinated you, aroused your curiosity, when you were in search of some event or trend, wishing to use the information achieved from that curiosity as a growing sense of how you came to be, and what that has meant for you.

In the past several years, when your thoughts turned to the nature of Reality as you saw it, you also speculated on how it would be when you were no longer here to be curious about its presence or impact.  You concluded that Reality would then return to being its original self, a procession of events.  People would continue to play a part in it.  So would animals, and such other species that survive, thrive, or initiate.

You were also aware of those times when you were creating Realities of your own, which is to say persons, places, things, and not to forget animals, your microscopic effect on Reality would be undergoing a change.  You'd in essence be entering a parallel line relationship with Reality, creating one of your own, which you'd without much doubt hope to make as plausible as you could, to the point of convincing readers to leave their vision of Reality in order to join yours.

The Reality you create exists in a figurative way, in part analogy.  Your constructed version of Reality contains persons, places, and things you see in reality,  filtered through your sensitivities (such as they are), then put forth through your filter of what constitutes drama and story.  

This reminds you of emerging technology in which a designer produces a dimensional model of an object, which is then transmitted to a three-dimensional printer, which prints out the component parts, which then fit together as a tangible, pick-up-able three-dimensional object.

Although you are physically well within Reality as you enter the act of creating your own avatar of that Reality, you've played fast and loose with your own awareness of Reality in order to infuse your creations with the sense of plausibility and, dare you say the word? verisimilitude?  You question that word because of the way it lingers with you from your early days of deciding you would like to create your own Realities.  Verisimilitude was a word you heard from instructors, then went on to find in books.  

Denouement was another word brought with some emphasis to your attention.  This was the place where you began to untie the knots you'd tied earlier in your attempts to make the Reality for your characters a different one from the one you were in, all the while with the emphasis of it being a tricky, even treacherous Reality, where things went wrong if that Reality had any chance at all of arrival at that special world known as story.

Then, a two-word concept entered your reality, right out of the observations of Aristotle.  Rising action.  This meant you could not allow Reality to enjoy its own progress.  You had to apply pressure on it.  Hurry up!  Something has to happen that it more intense than the something from before, however intense and well paced that something was.

In recent years, you understand a nuance you could not have seen at the time (although it would have been nice, had you been able to do so).  You are getting a hall pass, as it were, leaving the actual process of events, clearing as much of yourself as possible from yourself in order to become the cast of characters you wish to populate the Reality you've created from them.

So much depends on how well you execute your Reality and the denizens with which you populate it.  Even though you have a tenuous effect on the real Reality, it can sometimes deliver you consequences you have to mortgage within you emotions to cope with.  

Intriguing and challenging as this real Reality may be, if you are not careful, have only done a slapdash job on your created Reality, the effects from it, once you review it, may send you scampering back into the real Reality, in serious need of something more considerable than coffee.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Ergo Fuck Yourself

The first time you became introduced to the study of geometry, you knew there was going to be trouble because proofs, which are the spine of geometry, had ergo in them.  Ergo.  Latin for therefore.  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  After which, therefore because of which.  A recipe for causality and determinism.  Except for this being a mine field of potential fallacy.  

Not all X things happening after Y time have happened because of or as a result of Y.  Young as you were when you thought of such Latin and philosophical matters, you also thought of the short stories of Anton Chekhov, of "not necessarily," and of ambiguity.  These last three things are strong common denominators of the modern story.

You were already aware of consequences.  Events did not seem random.  Even the act of being bored was a consequence of doing something you got no pleasure or information from, or not bringing along anything to read.  You spent some time testing how long you could go without taking a breath, arousing your mother's suspicions with your sudden interest in baths rather than showers.  

You spent some time testing how long you could go without being bored.  You returned to the bathtub for boredom tests.  If you washed in a business-like manner, say five or six minutes, you would not experience boredom.  The longest you could go in a bathtub without being bored was six minutes.

Most of the time, you want things to make sense.  This means there is, however vague, an underlying sense of logical progression, of one thing suggesting if not outright leading to another. If we are heading into the rising sun, we are, therefore, traveling east.  The water whirling down a drain in a clockwise motion, ergo we are in a specific hemisphere; our location can be that certain.

After a point, certainty becomes boring for you, which serves to explain your interest in story.  Things happen in stories for reasons with close ties to the motives and agendas of characters.  If you put enough obstacles in a character's way, he will not grow bored, nor will you, that is, not unless you make the obstacles too easy to surmount.

Somewhere in your freshman year of college, you heard a writing instructor say that you could enhance complications by accident but must never unravel them by accident.  John is conducting a so-far successful robbery of a bank, to all appearances about to make good his getaway without being apprehended.  But at the last moment.  Remember that phrase, which you like more than "Just then."  In fact, you go out of your way to avoid using sentences with the word "just" in them.

But before John could make good his getaway, a huge counter fell over, landing on his foot, making it impossible for him to extricate himself.  Where do you get huge counters, falling over on a bank robber's foot?  If you were bored enough while writing a bank robbery story, such an event might well happen in your story because, although you're beginning to like John even as you write this, you don't want him to go around thinking there won't be any consequences.

This is a nod to Ray Bradbury's story about a time traveler messing up the present through the simple act of stepping on a blade of grass.  You like his work quite well, even if you did not get along on a personal basis to the point where he once called you a son of a bitch for reading his mail, and questioned you across a crowded elevator in the LA Times for writing things about his bullying his fans.  You like the notion in this Bradbury story of the intricate inter-relationship of things.

You more or less see things as interrelated or the position you favor most other than the randomness of things.  This is the absurd position, the place where things happen in illogical, notional ways that often have no backstory or source of evolved origin.

This leads you to the theater of the absurd, in which events, language, and intentions veer off from the probable and anticipated.  The best laid schemes of mice and men may well veer off from the anticipated, and in their divergence bring us grief and pain for promised joy; they also produce monuments to that aspect of existence often ignored or unrecognized, wherein our best tactic is to recognize the one underlying theme we have striven at such pains to ignore, the sheer wonder and brilliance of the comic, wherein the entire universe and its inhabitants are iterations of the sorcerer's apprentice.

This theme explains much of your own history and philosophy.  In retrospect, you see this force drawing your attention to the naive narrators of whom you have read with such a strong duality of purpose, a simultaneous brotherhood and amazement at their own innocence.

At times, you're led to think you're a cynic, made crabby with each iteration of your own naivete and gullibility.  But there is neither fun nor humor in that.  In fact, there is the constant you've been at such pains to escape, boredom.

If you were to be defined by one card from the cosmic tarot, you would claim The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

You Do Not Say "We Had a Good Time." You Simply Don't

In ways you'd not expected, you've come to enjoy the medium of memoir, the individuals who write it on some level of professional strength, and those individuals in your memoir classes, driven by real and imagined pressures to leave a record of themselves by their family.

You've had good experiences with the students, first of all because of the immediate sympathy for them, some of them starting in their sixties and seventies to learn the things you began wrestling with back in your teens.  Even more to the point of sympathy, you sense the hidden pressure many are experiencing as they confront their own constraints each time they set down their account of an incident or their encounter with a significant individual in their life.

Back in the late 1980s, you had a student who became momentarily bored or frustrated or a combination of the two from his life working as a writer and director in the film industry.  He had a good grasp on story, thus the ability to create a range of characters, many of whom were well out of his own social class and personal experiences.  As he began working on his first novel, you saw increased potential for it, then as an actuality. 

After he finished the novel, there was no doubt in your mind that it would be taken.  You guessed at what you thought would be a generous-but-realistic advance for those times.  He phoned you from JFK, just before boarding his flight home, with the news that his publisher, a quite respectable one, had given him an advance ten times the estimate you'd made.

You mention him because you quickly became friends, remained so for thirty-some-odd years.  You mention him because he once said in one of those half-serious half-humorous statements in which the humor was meant to cover or at least minimize the serious, that he'd always avoided any form of psychotherapy or related types of counseling for fear that it would level out his ability to write.

You mention him because he understood ways in which to engage story, to create men, women, and young persons who wanted things enough to cause them to stand out as distinct from ordinary persons.  You mention him because you can see some of the individuals in your memoir class, struggling to get to places where trained writers, actors, musicians, and artists can reach, risking vulnerability, frustration, humiliation, and failure.

You have written your way through a number of closed doors.  There are so many more to open, move into with the caution of police on crime shows, holding guns in front of them, shouting "clear!" as each room is cleared of hidden menace.  In a real sense, each time you compose, you become aware of doors, sometimes doors of constraint, doors of thought, doors of self-doubt.  As the pages pile up, you sometimes think to shout "Clear!"

Today, as in many previous days, you present an opening lecture to the memoir class, aware to some extent where the lecture is going, what your intentions are, and the things you hope to impart.  But there is more, something you also hope to achieve each time you lecture and each time you compose.  

You cannot hope to pass anything of substance along to students or pages of manuscripts without opening a door you did not realize was there in the first place or at the absolute least, a door you'd recognized before as a closed door.

Were you telling them, the memoir students, or yourself this morning that characters in memoirs, including the authors, have to be the dramatic equivalent of a laser?  Ordinary and multifarious is not enough.  Focus, intent, awareness of consequence, and fear are all essential presences.

An actor cannot be a mere reading of a script any more than an artist can substitute a pencil sketch for a finished oil painting or than a writer can substitute an outline for a story or a brief physical description for a character.

A memoir is a passionate interpretation of an event, seen from the perspective of a character who performed in the drama.  You don't come away from the scene without knowing if there were ants at the picnic, rats in the woodwork, or fleas on the dog.  You don't come away from a scene without joy for having been there, regret for having gone, recrimination for not saying what you wished to say at a moment when you knew you had to make the statement.

A memoir is a life.  You do not say, "We had a good time," or "We were disappointed."  You show us the life, so we can see for ourselves.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Your Inner Pie Chart

The large clump of books along your southwest wall grows larger every day.  Your attempts to systematize it, give it some kind of order or coherence, so that it will not become as chaotic as the stacks along the stairway to the kitchen.  

Given the size of your studio, the days of past glory are long past.  These were years wherein you arranged your books in accord with the Dewey Decimal System, or, more recently, when you had the two-car garage at Hot Springs Road converted to bookshelves, the Library of congress system.

This background is prologue to your recent discovery that the books along the southwest wall, arranged at first with a few writing projects in mind, has become difficult if not impossible to systematize, a discovery that causes you to confront face to face--book to book, in reality--a negligence you've been perpetrating.

Ask you at any given moment what your ruling state of being is, and expect you to say enthusiasm more than any others.  True enough, you are not always revved up with enthusiasm, but your moments suggestive of the opposite, say depression or even frustration, are rare.  If you are not enthusiastic, chances are you're not working at something or reading something, or planning to work on something.  

If you're not enthusiastic, you might well be cynical, which is the possible mood when discussing or considering politics.  You could add other potential frames of mind in some kind of pie chart, much the way your bank depicts such finances as you have to show you the proportions of spending.

Like your favorite writer, Mr. Mark Twain, you are not above playing mischief games with figures or statistics.  For instance, your inner pie chart, were it depicted before today, would be missing an important frame of mind.  That sounds like a fallacy in logic, but the observation is accurate.  The missing element in your pie chart, indeed, the driving force behind that clutter of books along the southwest wall, is curiosity.

The more you think about it, the more you see curiosity, working behind the scenes, as it were, even to the point where at times you find yourself saying things you might not have uttered, only written in a notebook or index card.  But curiosity won; you said the thing you said because you were curious to see the effect it would have.  

This discovery is made even more emphatic because of your familiarity with things you've said out of curiosity having no effect at all, rather that long moment of silence wherein those who've heard your statement don't have a ready response.  They seem, at such times, to be a Greek Chorus, saying "Huh?"  or the more sophisticated, "How's that?" or "What?"

Your approach to composition uses curiosity as its fulcrum.  A connection of seemingly unrelated elements of events comes popping into mind to the point of intriguing you.  You set forth then on a journey to see where the connection or concept will take itself and, of course, you, with it.

There is noting essentially wrong or even mysterious about the growing clutter of books.  Many of them are nonfiction, true, but many of these have some relation to fiction or some aspect of story in their editorial intention, a splendid example being Michael Schmidt's 1100-plus page The Novel:  A Biography.  This remarkable book is exactly what the title says it is, a history of the novel from about 1350 until the present day, intriguingly arranged so that specific authors appear to be talking about their works and the effects their works have had on subsequent writers, and the effects other writers have had on them.

You first heard of this book, which was published by a university press, in a review, which means you were so curious to see for yourself what you would find in it that you dealt with your curiosity on the spot; you ordered the book with your iPhone, while sitting in a coffee shop, reading a review publication.  It has made you realize your own Fiction Writer's Handbook was no accident, rather a format you'd been admiring ever since you came across an American version of a book called Fowler's Modern English Usage.

Of course, writers are fond of saying or asking "What if," or "What if?" because these are the sorts of things writers say or ask to get what some critics and academics call speculative fiction.  Interesting to note these critics and academics did not used to call it speculative fiction.  Instead, they called it things that could be said within the parameters of a sneer.  

The most positive things these critics and academics said about speculative stories was to call them science fiction or fantasy, but even those were said with a sneer until such stories simply radiated too much energy, artistry, and truth to be ignored.  You've been saying "What if" and asking "What if?" for some time, as in, What if you did with a book about storytelling terms and concepts what Fowler did with his encyclopedic work.

You have no idea what will become of the books along the southwest wall.  There is a possibility of them leading you down that "What if" path to a book project, but even then, that collection of books and any projects from you will have to take their chances, the same way your curiosity does.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Looking Back, for Hints, Encouragement, and Modernity

A writer friend,with whom you shared many bottles of champagne, delighted in playing the what-if game,  His version, "What age other than the present would you prefer to live in?"  You both speculated about the variety of times in which it might have been possible to live and be a writer.

Such are the subsidiary joys of champagne.  Your friend chose the Victorian Era, enumerating the  ensemble of writers, artists, and musicians who flourished.  You wanted about twenty years later, which your friend said was cheating because those times were encroaching upon the generation into which you were assembled and delivered.

Queen Victoria died in 1901, thus you could accept her era because Mark Twain, the writer you've felt the longest and deepest connection with was alive and flourishing at that time.  He managed to squeeze in nine or ten years into the new century.

Sometimes, when there was too much champagne, or there was not sufficient time to drink all the champagne available, you'd hold out for the fourteenth century, because that was the time for another hero, Geoffrey Chaucer, and his contemporary, Giovanni Bocaccio.  

By this time, you'd got around to reading Barbara Tuchman's masterful compendium, A Distant Mirror, in which she not only isolated the fourteenth century, she showed its frequent parallels to the twentieth century.

You put in a good deal of reading among the nineteenth century group, looking for, and finding a number of literary companions you might not have come to until these more recent times, where you feel compelled to discern patterns in narrative styles, scope of imagination, and the literary equivalent of apostolic succession, which is to say the manners in which such vital elements as voice, technique, subject matter, and point of view were articulated.  

Who influenced whom?  Why would a writer who seemed to you to have such an ability to delegate to his characters as Honore Balzac did, be impressed by the likes of James Fenimore Cooper?  Why, indeed, the Europeans love Cooper when they had their own Sir Walter Scott.  Much as you admire some European writers, you find yourself unable to grasp European taste.  Why do the French, for example, find Jerry Lewis so engaging?

Twain made it into the twentieth century, your century.  True enough, he passed the great bulk of his years in the nineteenth century.  Of equal truth, you passed most of your life in the twentieth. There is close to a hundred-year gap in your dates of birth, but there is comfort in knowing he passed his later years in your century.  In similar fashion, there is comfort in seeing the way his language holds up.  

The volumes of Twain's autobiography, released a hundred years after his death, in accordance with his wishes, are not your favorites, a problem--or series of problems--that could be his contemporary editor's doing or a combination of her doing and his.

The matter at hand here has a direct relationship to the continuing sustenance and guidance you get from reading his works; it relates to his use of language, in general, in relationship to its style and clarity, and in relationship to seeming freshness.  Read a paragraph or two of any of Twain's contemporaries, in particular one who came upon the scene when Twain was well established at age fifty, D. H. Lawrence.  Now, read a paragraph or two from Twain.

You are no longer fifty.  You are certainly not well established.  But you are aware of being a contestant in a critical race, the race to keep up with the inevitable evolution of narrative tone, of technique, of theme and subject matter, of characters, themselves, of whom Mr. Twain has said the reader shall always be able to distinguish the corpses from the live characters.

Sure enough, you turn to your friend Irony for assistance in this desire to keep abreast of the evolving language and the shape of story.  "Funny you should come to me,"  Irony says when you are caught looking back, over your shoulder to the past for hints and insights relative to tracking the present.  What could you possibly learn from a trusted eighteenth-century Scottish author, Tobias Smollett?  Why has his Humphrey Clinker stayed with you these many years, calling to you from time to time for rereading?

You are more than content being from the twentieth century and a guest in this new century; you are alert to remove those adverbs and albatrosses of past centuries, eager to look past the limitations you could not see before.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Parallel Lines, in Story and Reality

Some of the more obvious parallels for you, between the essay and the story, involve the thrust to arrive at some kind of outcome, a condition you speak of as negotiated settlement, when you write about and think about story.  The essay arrives at an outcome you've begun to regard as a position, which is your way of saying an opinion or stand.

Story and essay require an emphasis, the former based on an emotional journey through a landscape of fantasy purporting to be real, the latter, by no means lacking in emotions, is more a journey through the imagination.  Each medium is filled with potential distraction and, thus, anticlimax, your recognition that each in its way, the story and the essay, is dramatic.

You take to the essay for an opportunity to argue with and for yourself.  You call upon your sensory apparatus to evaluate, decide, then arrive at some form of marching orders that will guide your behavior in the world about you. You've in a sense prepared yourself while writing an essay to enter a conversation with other individuals in a setting of Reality--some specific place, some specific event.  

You often enter these conversations as a way of essaying--testing--these marching orders, hopeful they will stand up, but not feel threatened should they collapse in the chaos of a failed train of ideas.   

When you enter story, you are meting out your impressions and questions to an ensemble cast of characters you've created in order to supply yourself the kinds of emotional experiences that fuel your awareness and add spice to your inner dreams and the Reality about you.  

There are times when you forget the arguments and discussions you've forged out in essays, but more often than not, you remember the characters you've created.  Their exploits and risk taking fuel your senses to the point where you might be tempted to think the events you dramatize in a story have had real time presence in Reality.

Your purpose here is to expand on essay, the subtle way it effects your writing story and writing about story, the way it defines you by describing you for yourself.

Writing story is putting fantasy and imagination together, writing scripts you'd be pleased to serve as director thereof.  Writing essay is the essence of writing memoir of you.  With the possible exception of some notes, business letters, and mere logistics--Yes, see you at Cafe Luna at two on Thursday.  Yes, understood, coffee at The Daily Grind on Monday--no starch on the shirts--everything else is a part of your memoir.  

Forget that you have not in any formal sense set out to write a memoir.  Indeed, forget you've been teaching a memoir class for four years, are signed to give a day-long memoir workshop in February.  Forget that you have managed to inject story into your memoir classes, emphasizing the difference between the evoked presence of individuals at specific incidents, instead of providing a mere description, as though the individuals and events were journalism.

Additional things to forget:  Forget that the journals, notebooks, and intermediate jottings you've written since about age eighteen are for the most part focused on prising out the secrets of story telling from the walnut shell in which it has been encased for all these years.  You, trying to figure out how to understand a story, make the format work for you, then dig a bit deeper, trying to get the walnut out in one piece, are writing your memoir, whether by deliberate action or compulsive action.

If this is true, and you're beginning to believe it is, and you've been at your memoir students to tell their memoirs as story, you have some serious essaying to do.  You like story because of its structure, its outright inhospitable attitude to what I call information dumps, information included so it will not go to waste.

If lists of things liked and not liked, scraps and portions of narratives, outlines for books that may or may not be written, scrawled descriptions and overheard bits of conversation, may be said to be memoir, you have a good deal of thinking to do.

A favored saying of yours within the classroom is, "In geometry, parallel lines meet only in infinity.  In story, they meet in the last chapter."

If memoir and story are parallel lines, you bloody well have to find a way to get to infinity, or arrange some kind of meeting.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

It Takes a Busy Writer to Write a Story

You can learn to write story by at first being too busy to write story.  But you have to learn to listen to the business, then build it into the story.

The reason story is so difficult to capture to your satisfaction in early drafts has to do with the tempo and intensity of the artificial reality a story needs in order to appear plausible.  The great irony here begins with the time available for writing, measured against the activities related to working at jobs and coping with the routine necessities of living.

For about three years, your first job in publishing was something you could handle in the confines of the forty-hour work week, but as you began to rise in the company responsibility hierarchy, you began to feel about your time the way you felt about the large sack of cat chow you'd purchased for your then cat, Sam, after it became clear that rats or mice were getting at it.

In typical fashion, more responsibility at work brings you to the notice of more persons, one of whom you wished to be your mentor.  She was all too willing.  Her quid pro quo was bringing you into one of her pet causes, The Mystery Writers of America, where she was an officer.  

You were her "new blood" target.  Up to that point, you'd been more than fond of the mystery as a medium, but soon, you were hanging out with authors you'd read, all of whom had favorite writers they were only too willing to pass along to you.

Any semblance of spare time went to reading, soaking up things you'd never learned at the university or in any class room, excepting one English prof, your first mentor, and your mystery mentor.  To her, you turned in frustration, wondering aloud and with some vigor how you could produce pages when there was no time.  

Her answer was the same one you give to your students with the same question.  "One word,"  she said.  "Priority.  Tell yourself writing is your top priority, then listen to yourself."  You did.  The results made the point.

So there you were, now a senior editor at work, which meant you had a certain leeway in bypassing the committee, which included the publisher, another editor whose taste you openly criticized, and an editor in chief, who had a habit of running off to buy furniture for his new apartment.  You were also editing two magazines, reading suspense fiction with a growing hunger, writing a newsletter for your new organization, and trying to avoid saying yes to a moonlighting job editing a mystery magazine.

Somehow, you had prioritized your way into at least an hour of working on your own interests a day, marveling at your ability to produce anything, even relishing the fact that what you were producing was not bringing you to the sense of command over the material you were visualizing.  By day, you were editing some of the most prolific mystery and science fiction writers of the day.  By night, you were close reading others and writing your own hour's worth a day.  This did not stack up well.  You could see that.  So did your mentor.  "You are,"  she said, "building up your awareness and your focus.  If you keep it up, you will learn how to build simultaneous pressure."

You took some time getting the hang of "simultaneous pressure," and you must admit you got help from editing and from adding one more metaphorical rat to your metaphorical bag of cat kibble, which is to say you'd jumped right into it by agreeing to teach in a graduate-level writing program.

A conventional trope you find as ubiquitous as Salvation Army Santas at Christmas season informs us, "If you want something done properly and fast, assign the task to a busy person."  You may not get it done fast, but you do believe you get it done, at least to the point where you understand the ramifications of being a busy person.  

So what if twenty or so percent of your business is self-inflicted, which is to say, yes, you understand you could be more productive by the simple step of focusing more on your scheduling.  Fewer and shorter naps, say.  Shorter coffee breaks.  Less time with the crossword puzzle.  Say farewell to your book reviewing activities.

But listen to you, telling yourself, "No matter."  You have a full sense of what it is to have your moments filled.  Even your times of boredom have contracted to mere moments, and it is reasonable to say of these that they are more likely to happen when you are waiting for traffic signals to change.  Or you could say that you have developed a rigid intolerance for boredom, doing something to dismiss it the moment it comes upon you like street people in quest of your spare change.

You know filled moments, and now you are active in your pursuit of learning how to discern those in your ficton and the stories you edit.  Stories are busy environments.  They don't have time.  Something has to go.  Stories need to prioritize.  Which things come first?  The other things can catch the later train. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Nervous as a Long-Tailed Cat in a Roomful of Rocking Chairs

You did not spend much time thinking about figures of speech in your writing until you began reading, then rereading the mystery novels of Raymond Chandler. There was some inherent worldweariness in his language that painted every scene with grace under the weight of melancholy. 

In addition, Chandler's stories were gravid with the awareness of the things people under stress would do to one another and to themselves. His characters cheated, betrayed, gambled, entered untenable relationships, became dried-out, withered husks of their earlier idealism. They dreamed California dreams with Nebraska sensitivities, watched California sunsets, and hid their accents of birth.  In their attics--for there were no cellars--they kept shoe boxes filled with their high school trophies.

 Even now, when you return to him, you think about the effects his stories had on you, and how, for the longest time, in envy of his figures of speech, you belabored figures of your own to the point of weighting down your prose with a leaden self-consciousness and near pedantry.  You looked for and found rooms with the dust of forgotten dreams, unearthed characters whose words were as badly pronounced as their unrealized dreams.  Thus, yes; you wrote metaphor and simile from the head, not from the memories of missed connections and choruses of refusals.

There is no telling how long you trod this self-conscious and self-absorbed path of metaphor and simile, pausing to find the comparisons and relevance at the expense of the story.  You wrote this lack of story off under the convenient heading of being more a literary type, character-driven rather than plot-driven, two additional terms that made you fearful you lacked qualifications to tell stories.

Diligent practice must not be construed as a guarantee of desired result.  Even while practicing a good deal, reading writers such as Chandler caused you exquisite despair.  But practice also led you to the negotiated settlement of not forcing metaphor and simile.  If they came, well and good. If your prose came forth crisp and lucid, there were worse consequences to suffer

Somewhere in the murky depths of junior high school, you lurched into the mine fields of figures of speech.  A metaphor is.  A simile is.  This was either the seventh grade or the eighth, probably the latter, because you'd come back to California mid-way through the seventh, so relieved to be back that you took a holiday from being contrary.

Definitely the eighth.  "Why is it you are here?"  asked Mr, Engberg, the Boy's Vice Principal.

"Figurative speech."

"Isn't that a bit vague?  Why are you really here?"


"Are you one of these fellows who needs everything drawn out?  If you can raise the issue of insubordination, you can tell me why you are here."

You decided to come clean.  You liked Mr. Engberg, sensing about him a sternness wound about an armature of agreeability.  "We're being introduced to figures of speech and the teacher refuses to recognize synecdoche as a topic of discussion."

This is why you liked Mr. Engberg.  "Are you sure the issue is her refusal to recognize synecdoche?  Could it also be her refusal to recognize your vocabulary?"

In your recollection of the moment, you nodded, but said nothing, a dangerous step but those junior high school years and the high school years to come were sullen years in which it seemed best to settle in as best you could to the role of a B student, better than average but not willing to share much of the curiosities and frustrations arguing within.

Your use of figurative speech was kept at a respectful tight rein until, now and then, one would seem to appear from the same source all your narrative shared.  Hooray.  Cause for a sigh of relief for the awareness that you were not writing to demonstrate an ability with figurative speech.  In addition, you'd long worked your way past the notion of description, into the choppier seas of inference and evocation.

Once in a while, a useful figure comes tumbling out of a sudden, complex thought, where a character is caught up in one of those moments sometimes captured by a stranger's camera, where expectations are up, guard is down, and the worst consequences present themselves, smiling, unhesitating.

You look at it with suspicion, wondering whether to leave it or not, because now, as you were bombarded with adverbs in the third grade, you are bombarded with the tough love advice to kill your darlings, remove all those tones and quirky turns of phrase that shout out to the world, "Oh, like me.  Like me."

Sometimes figurative language cries out to you the way puppies in animal shelters try their pitch lines on you, wanting you to take them home.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Time, Wizards, and Story

Of this you are sure:  No matter how remarkable a thing is, there is always a price to be paid for it.  You may well be able to see things other persons cannot, but for each one of those things you are able to see, there is an opposite number which other persons readily see but you do not.

You take these visions for granted.  You also take their consequences for granted.  This goes some distance along the way of reckoning why you are often distracted with the beauty of some connection you've only moments ago seen, as if for the first time, and so apt to bump into fixed objects or miss entirely some vision, some meteor shower everyone else about you can see with no difficulty at all.

Your favorite example of this phenomena in vivid action is Cassandra, the most beautiful daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy.  Cassandra was well able to see things others could not.  She could, in fact, see future events.  In greater fact, she spoke of these visions, all of which proved accurate.  Her price to pay; no one believed her.  

She did not seek this all-powerful gift of vision.  Call it a gift from one of the gods, Apollo, whom, you might now guess, had a thing for her,  Cassandra, so the story goes, would have him not.  Wouldn't look good for a god to take back a gift--any gift, and so Apollo tempered his revenge by adding that bit of boilerplate to the gift.

Such mechanisms fascinate you to the point where you look for traces of the wires, ropes, and pulleys behind the scenes, the devices by which magic, Reality, and everything in between are manipulated with the consummate skill of a wizard.  These special effects, even in the most exaggerated fantasy, are often quite simple, often a mere flick of the that-s-the-way=things-are head.

Fond as you are of wizardry, of the Arthurian Merlin and the unabashed T. H. White wizardry of The Once and Future King, the wizardry you have been at work tracking down as though you were off on some hero's journey, is the wizardry of bringing a story to life to the point where no amount of argument will convince you these characters are not real flesh and blood, engaged in purpose and motive.

There are times when it seems to you how, in the midst of so many other dramatic pairs of opposites, there is this one, in which the two types of persons in the universe are those who are given brief visions of uncommon things and those persons who recognize these individuals as incredible naive narrators.

A favored play of yours is John Frayn's Noises Off, an absolute romp which reveals the strings, wires, and behind-the-scenes operations of the performance of a live play.  Watching it in performance, you are reminded of automatic wrist watches with a glass lens permitting the user to watch the wheels, cogs, springs, and levers in full play, powering and moving the watch along without the need for winding or, heaven forefend, a battery.

When story works, to preserve the analogy of the automatic watch, you know what time it is.  You know the issues, the hidden agendas and springs, the jewels of the mechanism, and the way the elements are meshed together to produce a result you find even more dramatic than a battery-driven watch.  

In the automatic watch, which depends on the movement of the wearer to power it, time becomes more personal, more immediate, more an integral part of a larger organism, and, thus, more authentic. Of course this is flawed logic.  

Automated time is no different than battery-powered or spring-driven time.  But there is that effect.  You at present have all three, including a pocket watch that needs to be wound by inserting a key into a special slot.  You have an automatic and several battery-powered watches.  More often than not, when selecting a watch, when tiring of a face you once thought was the more exciting, you reach without thinking for the automatic.  

A few shakes of the wrist, if it is not already ticking away, and it sets forth with an alert and eager pace, reminding you less that time is passing, perhaps even getting away from you, but rather that time and story are both eternal.  They were here before you and will outlast you.  They mesh events, one against another, causing yet other levers and jewels and dials to wake up.

Story and watches are devices, taking the pulse of the universe and those who live within it, both real and invented.  Depending which page you are at in a novel or short story, characters stir into life, acting out the destiny of planets in orbit, levers of gravity and balance in play, seconds meshing with minutes and hours, all the while a character or a real person draws out the response to a question, Do you love me?  Do I matter to you?  Isn't it wonderful?

And you wait, spellbound, for the answer.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cat's Got Your Tongue?

For the longest time in your early years, you regarded the worlds about you in the most literal way.  Perhaps this early lack of awareness of such a thing as nuance was the instigator of your present day love for word play and puns, the more groan-producing, the better.  

Perhaps your fall from taking things as they were was the equivalent of the trail of cookies the witch set out for Hansel and Gretel, although that trail led them to the oven, and the trail you followed led you to the life of words.

An early loss of literal innocence came when your father, in some attempt to make the move from California to the small New Jersey town of his birth, advised you that if you were to stroll through the farmer's market held each week at the train station, you'd hear many tongues.

Enter another perhaps here.  Perhaps your experiences with your father's dead-pan delivery led you to question the most innocent-sounding statements for hidden meanings.  You were drawn to hidden meanings from those early days on, toward and into the present.  The notion of hearing tongues intrigued you then and has, in the full feather of nostalgia, remains to this day.

You did indeed hear tongues, some of which you recognized; theirs had to be identified for you.  You already knew some Spanish, some Latin, some French.  Your father led you to a sense of what Hungarian sounded like and, based on sounds you'd written down phonetically, he was able to help you identify Polish.

Tongue, as both a play on words and a trampoline, led you in memorable directions, including such outliers as speaking in tongues or glossolalia, tongues as languages, tongues of fire, tongue-and-groove construction, tongue lashing, tongue-twister or -twisting, and forked tongue as in the lies spoken to Indians by whites.  

Only last week, as you watched a television drama in the dual process of procrastinating necessary work at hand and gaining insights for a writing project, you met with surprise and delight a character in the process of examining his lunch sandwich.  The sandwich was tongue, presumably cow, pickle, and a single smear of mustard.  From your own experiences with such fare, you transmogrified the bread from nondescript to rich,earthy pumpernickel.

Tone appeared in occasional rotation in your parental home, to your great delight, because its appearance often meant at least one reprise in your school lunch bag.  You were already aware of your father's joke related to tongue, itching for the opportunity to use it on your own.  

"How," your father asked your mother, over a large tongue, still exuding steam on a serving platter, "can you bring yourself to eat anything from a cow's mouth?"  You recall his splendid timing, the long, thoughtful pause before he added, "If you don't mind, I'll have some eggs."

The first time you heard the joke, you could neither control your laughter nor your awareness that this was a weapon of sorts, something to be cherished, studied.  Another perhaps in a list of perhapses you consider when seeking moments and things that defined what you are and what you have become.  You recall that moment whenever some of the uses of tongue, such as those mentioned earlier, arise in conversation or your eagerness to, as your father once put it, hear tongues.

No coincidence that the Spanish word for tongue, lengua,  jumps out at you in taquerias and restaurants with a Mexican restaurant.  Tacos de lengua.  Huevos revueltos con lengua.  And of course tortas de lengua.

Sometimes, when you come to compose, and the screen stares back at you with a daunting blank glare, or your note pad remains a reproof, you take to playing with language, thinking you have somehow become tongue-tied, and the natural consequence, now that you have a cat, of a cat having got your tongue, of your father's joke, which you have indeed put to use.

And with a sudden certainty, you are no longer tongue-tied.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Screenplay Action vs Novel Action

Screenplays and scripts are, in their intended way, roadmaps or diagrams of stories rather than representations of the intended action.  Although some writers of novels and short stories are able to make the jump from one medium to another, not all can.  

One poignant example of a skilled novelist who had difficulty comes to mind in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was, if anything, baffled by the transition.  Even though there are now four film versions of Gatsby, you could make the argument that his own works did not lend themselves to film.  

A writer who could do both well is William Goldman, who seems able to make the switch with ease.  A more extreme example than Goldman is Denis Lehane, who in recent months has reversed the usual pattern of novelizing his original screenplay, The Drop.

The language of the screenplay and script is present moment or present time, better still, present tense.  There is a "we" presence, indication us as the audience.  We see.  Most of the time, what we see is some form of action.  We see a man walking down a street, taking rapid yet deliberate steps, demonstrating his eagerness, perhaps even his sense of urgency.  The man is now presented to us.

Here is a character being described and presented to us in the Eric Warren Singer and David Russell screenplay, American Hustle.  IRVING ROSENFELD, not a small man, gets dressed and meticulously constructs his combover. Camera WRAPS AROUND, see his hands with rings adjust his dark velvet suit, up to his face, serious, concentrated, intense, he is composing himself before a performance. Irving is now dressed, ready, and walks down the hall to another room. 

The only thing we're told is that Irving is not a small man.  We even learn of his sparse crop of hair through action.  An actor can--and did--follow that road map.  The description is specific enough so that within those few opening sentences, we can almost sense the way Irving thinks.  In a novelized version of that activity, the qualifier "almost" is removed.  

There is no longer the we of the audience or of the camera.  There is the you of the reader, eavesdropping on Irving Rosenfeld, taking clues from surroundings and circumstances in the same way Irving is taking them.

The difference between the two media, the screenplay and the novel, is the difference between the road map and the eavesdrop. Both media can be and ofter are increasingly intimate.  Your concern here is the techniques writers use when writing about events and the way characters convey the writers' intentions to the audience but even more so to the reader.

The elephant in the living room is the writer, a fact dripping with irony.  We are suspicious of the author appearing to tell us things, so much so that we have developed a mantra familiar to many storytellers:  Show, don't tell.

There is no luxury for telling in film or play.  One character may say to another, "Relax."  Or perhaps, "Hey, chill."  But neither film nor play can display a sign, Mary is agitated.  Nor should a novel or short story, but look at the times when we come across authorial interventions such as, "Mary fidgeted nervously," or the more reductionist "Mary was nervous."

You like to think you've been at this aspect of narrative writing long enough so that even your earliest drafts show some sense of grasping the need to make every step of the way, every beat, deploy action rather than suggest or describe it.  But there are times when you come to the material while wearing your editorial hat, which means you see some trace of yourself, holding up the equivalent of a card with the proper attitude or emotion lettered on it.

This does not mean that everything in a novel or short story needs to be dramatized because doing so would add measurable chunks of time and event to the story for the sole purpose of bringing on dramatic information, information about the characters, or overall shifts in the concerns and issues of the story.  But this does mean that the closer you can come to suggesting, implying, intimating many of these things,the more immediate and convincing the story will be.

Your basic, general thoughts about such matters have their origin in your belief that the essential dramatic unit, the scene, must be as fraught with undercurrent, double entendre, mixed levels of communication, and the loud sizzle of lit fuses.  There must be some basic tension, radiating outward, even before the scene begins, because, to quote the aforementioned William Goldman, "Start late, leave early."  By which he means, start your scenes several beats after you'd thought to start them.  Leave at the most noticeable, unpolitical moment.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Beginning- and intermediate level writers often overlook the one thing advanced writers and sophisticated readers take for granted, those three capital letters POV, which stand for the basic filter through which story is experienced, point of view.

Come to think of it, literary agents and editors give serious thought to POV, secure in the knowledge that it is even more important to the outcome of a story than the turn of a plot point, and on the same level as such staples as well-articulated characters with compelling choices to make, and take-no-prisoners dialogue.

Here's why the professionals are so focused on POV:  Advanced writers and serious readers know the implications inherent in the two critical questions, Who's telling the story? and Why?

In the seven or eight hundred years since the narrative we recognize as the novel has been around, the narrative filters have evolved.  Novels that once began with Prologues or scene-setting descriptions now begin right in the middle of some action showing principal characters in action.  A perfect example awaits us in the opening paragraphs of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, a historical novel set at the time of Henry VIII of England.

"'So now get up.'

"Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard.  His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out.  One blow, properly placed, could kill him now."

The subtitle on the cover tells us this is book one of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, but unless we are up on our Tudor history, we have no real sense yet of who Thomas Cromwell ( 1485-1540) was nor of his significant political presence during the English Reformation.  From reading the first words of Wolf Hall, we encounter a vivid introduction to Cromwell as he is being brutally beaten by his drunken father.  We'd look in vain for any authorial presence; Ms. Mantel knows to leave the story to the participants.

 The point is this: The writer of a novel in the twenty-first century is the least possible choice for the job of narrative filter.  Contemporary conventions call for the story to come from the characters.  Authorial intervention is right up there on the list of deal breakers along with chatty, conversational dialogue, lackluster characters, and too many distractions away from story.

Many books with sloppy editing or, worse, self-published books with edits provided by so-called editorial specialists, make it all too easy to point out the exceptions.  But literary agents and the shirt-sleeves editors of the major publishers are the equivalent of bouncers; they are the gatekeepers of narrative convention.
No one gets past the slush pile with a story told by the author.  From here on, the story comes from the first person I, the third person she or he, or the multiple point of view, exemplified by Wilkie Collins' archetypal 1868 mystery, The Moonstone,  or Jim Harrison's 2007 venture, Returning to Earth.

There is also the omniscient point of view, where, unlike the multiple point of view, with its focus on one point of view per scene or chapter, the narrative moves from character to character, often within the same scene, in an effect Literary Agent Toni Lopopolo calls "head hopping."  The Irish writer, William Trevor, uses this approach in all his short stories and novels.  He is so effective in its use that unwary writers believe it is an easy technique to master.  But the gatekeepers are on the job.  Writers with less than sterling sales records on previous work are apt to have their manuscripts returned the moment the first incident of head hopping is noticed.

In addition to the "person" points of view, there are also the reliable (trustworthy) narrator, say Ishmael, who tells the story of Moby Dick, and the naive narrator, exemplified by the clueless butler, Mr. Stevens,  in Kashuro Ishiguro's 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day.

Nothing is as daunting to the beginning and intermediate writer as point of view, which seems so simple at first blush--until specific violations are pointed out.  At this point, the writer decides, "I know.  I'll tell the story in first person."  This tortured logic leads us back to the question right after "Who's telling the story?"  That question is "Why?"  The answer to that question is also loaded with implication.

Why did F. Scott Fitzgerald chose Nick Caraway to tell the story of Gatsby?  Why did Herman Melville chose Ishmael to tell Moby Dick?  Why did Willa Cather chose Jim Burden to tell the story of his Antonia in My Antonia?  Why did Mark Twain chose a thirteen-year-old boy to narrate Huckleberry Finn?  Why did Bobbie Ann Mason chose a fifteen-year-old girl to narrate her novel, In Country?  Why did Zadie Smith use multiple point of view in White Teeth and NW?

These are not trick questions.  There is a significant, saving-grace reason for each choice.  (Hint:  Ishmael was the only survivor of Moby Dick.   He had to survive in order to help convey the fiction that the story did take place.)  

Accomplished writers may not have read all these titles, but they will see the reason for the choice of the narrative filter in each of the titles they have read.  They will likely have read at least half these titles already--more than once.  But that is another matter.

To the beginning writer, POV may seem like a variation on a theme of Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.  To the committed writer, it is a serious business, as serious as Mozart learning the sonata form, of Bach investigating key signatures, of Mary Cassat mastering flesh tones, and Alexander Calder understanding the implications of placement and balance.  POV is a technique that must be understood, them mastered, if there is to be any chance of getting beyond the gatekeepers

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How to Be Seriously Funny

Your comments yesterday about irony remind you of a favorite story concept, where two or more individuals think themselves to be in agreement.  But in fact, each is being agreeable about something the other is unaware of.  They believe they are agreeing to or about A, but as the story progresses, the individuals are entertaining different expectations, leading to outcome B.

This set-up, descriptive of so many relationships, in its way reflects the polar nature within a single character, and illustrates the nature of irony and subtext.  Characters often believe they are seeing agreement in others when they are in fact misreading the signs.  This is the essence of humor.

Example:  Some character taking the position that an event is not funny because of its serious or sacred or survival-related nature.  Such things are not to be laughed at or made light of, you see, because to do so is an offense.  The character taking that position believes he or she has the right to fill in the blank regarding what or whom the offense is directed.

This, too, is the essence of humor, which seeks out authority the way a heat-seeking missile seeks a military target.  Thus this meme:  If you wish to be humorous, exaggerate seriousness.  Do so until you hear the first sniggers, see the first hands covering the smiles erupting on exposed faces.

Example:  It is not proper to make fun of tragedy or misfortune.  Yet, what is humor but exaggerated and speeded-up tragedy and misfortune?

The tension reaches a peak when the reader or audience begins to interpret the clues:  these individuals are equivalents of the blind persons set the task of arriving at a consensus view of an elephant, each individual having expressed with moral certainty his or her assigned section of elephant.

A possible solution to the dilemma is to chose a smaller animal for investigation, showing respect for the famed observation of one William of Occam, "Universes should not be unnecessarily expanded," known for centuries as Occam's Razor, to wit, The simplest solution is the best solution.

But this metaphorical simplicity of Human Nature is fraught with complexities, idiosyncrasies, and that great mischief maker, stubbornness.  Even after many years of study, meditation, research, discipline, and various types of therapy to the psyche, the spine, and the reasoning centers, a given person is still a potential minefield.

You've felt yourself grow from a wound-tight person of volatile spontaneity to what you feel comfortable describing as laid-back.  Nevertheless, you are aware of inner conversations getting out of hand, of shifts in the leadership, where what seemed to be relegated to the minority party has gained control, then forged into some agreement, purchase, or abrogation of a previous treaty.  

At the moment, you are offering the incumbent President of the United States a deeply felt moral support and admonition not to be that concept you so wish to disavow in yourself, a lame duck.  Like it or not, at this point in your life, you do not hold the concept of lame-duckness in high esteem, from painful memories of your own previous lame-duck positions.

Through reading, observation, and behavior, you attempt to write explorations, analyses, and hypotheses in which you track your growth and the growth you note about you.  You do not consider yourself a pessimist, yet if your hypotheses and explorations come forth with the tang of cynicism, so be it; you'll have outlined guidelines for yourself to follow.

In the same spirit as the one in which you have become aware of your attempts not to categorize or generalize yourself, you seek a realistic assessment of the load of ideas, attitudes, and behavior you can process.

In a sense, you are a Tower of Babel, seeking to arrive at a functional language where clarity and tolerance prevail.  But there, you've done it again, produced a polarity of clarity to the North Pole and Tolerance at the South, thus your world, with yet another marker at the Equator.  

That marker is the product of an individual setting off to experience, explain, and reconcile.  The product is called humor, which is a revelation of the sad truths and side effects of the civil wars going on about us in the outside world and the worlds inside.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Funny You Should Say That

For as far back as you can remember, Irony has been a great friend.  You commemorate it by capitalizing its name where ever you can.  Not only that, you make note of events or instances when irony seemed to go out of its way to call your attention to its presence.  How many times do you find yourself during the course of a day, beginning a sentence with the phrase, "It's ironic you mention that because--"  Or, "Isn't it ironic that--"

You are calling out irony in each case.  In the first, you are acknowledging the irony of another person mentioning a subject or event she would not ordinarily mention.  In the second, you are referring to the odds-against coincidence of events unlikely to take place at all.

These notes of ironic instances often form the basis of a classroom lecture, a sentence or two in a review, a subject for an essay, or an entire short story.

In more recent years, Irony seems to have been your companion in any venture outside your dwelling, often sharing the rear deck of your car with another constant companion, Sally,your late Australian Shepherd/Cattle Dog mix.

There are numerous ways of describing and employing irony, beginning with one of your favorites, a distilled attitude, in analogy the cognac to a fine white wine as wit is to sarcasm.  At this level, Irony is expressed with the right degree of exaggerated agreement to a previous statement or sentiment.  Example:  "You must take considerable satisfaction from doing that."  To which the reply, "How acute you are to have noticed."  This last must be expressed with the approximate tang of a voice recently having gargled with vinegar.

Another vital approach to Irony involves an even more pronounced intention of opposites or contrariness in which, for example, a character's statement is misinterpreted by one or more characters to mean the polar opposite of the intended meaning.  The gifted satirist, Stephen Colbert, is quite expert at this nuanced level of Irony.

This approach also narrows focus on another plateau of Irony you find valuable, where the reader or audience is able to see the disconnect between what is said and what a character appears to understand.  The author and reader/audience are entering a conspiracy against a character.  

For a great romp of a variation on this theme, the author is entering a conspiracy against the audience or readership, doing so with a dead-pan delivery and mischievous intent such as the overall content, tone, and textual thrust put to work by Jonathan Swift in his satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal."  Proof of the effect of this work can be seen in the way the title has stayed in the language, along with another, more modern one, "Catch-22."

You've heard the term "Modest Proposal" used in speech and seen it appear in writing, its irony compounded with the implication that the user does not know the original source.  Nevertheless, "Modest Proposal" comes with the cachet of built-in irony, just as hearing someone speak of being caught in a "catch-22" conveys the picture of an individual caught in a bureaucratic spiderweb where, as an example, one cannot be issued an identity card until one produces a card verifying one's identity.

An early experience with irony--no, Irony--relates to life- and career-related intentions you had to more or less work your way through or, if you will, understand them by writing about them after having experienced them in Reality.  You were, at the time of this experience, a client of a high-powered and influential literary agent who felt for some time that you had the potential to reach a publication level best expressed here by two terms, each a compound word, each beginning with the word "front."

You had, the agent said, the potential to become a "front-of-the-book" writer, which meant you had, in his judgment (or hope, because, of course, literary agents earn their living by commissions from their clients) the ability to write things--short stories and essays--appearing in the front or early pages of a magazine.  

He also said he thought you had the potential to be a "front-list" author, meaning, as you came to understand from your own editorial assignments, the front pages of a book publisher's catalogue.

At the time, there was, and still is, a sort of stigma in being regarded as a "mid-list" writer, which means your books sell enough to earn black ink on the P/L statements, but not a great deal more.  You can make this unfortunate circumstance retreat if you are considered a "back-list" writer, meaning your books stay in print, sell over a long arc of time, and provide you, come royalty time, a stream of checks which, in their aggregate, provide you enough income to live on with some modest respectability.

The agent guessed that your major hurdle to front-of-the-book and front-list status had to do with, and you quote him, "your choice of recondite subjects and vocabulary."

The Irony is that you had to look up recondite.

After you found out what it meant, you agreed and, in fact, still do.  The Irony is compounded with another literary agent asked you if you could possibly "dumb-down" a particular project, reaching, you realize, exponential proportions when you found yourself telling her you found the work in question, and yourself in the bargain, at a level you could not descend below with any sense of being taken as literate.

Over the years, you've given thought to the matter of these labels, happy to shed the skins of front list, mid list, and back list, wishing instead to get on with the work as you see it, the work of noting Irony. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Off Course on Purpose

You've been giving wide and various considerations to the historical aspects of the chimera that is story, paying attention to some of the early times before readers understood that story was an invention, contrived to seem real.  Some readers, on the discovery that what they'd believed to be an actual history was in fact an invention, expressed the anger of those betrayed or deceived.

In the approximate interim of six hundred years, ironies of all sorts have crept into story.  Today, the reader is rare who enters story with the belief that it is real.  In fact, the reader enters with the chip of cynicism on his or her shoulder, daring the writer to knock it off by causing us to believe the story and its ensemble cast are real.  

We pride ourselves on being able to understand these distinctions, motivating at least one writer, Truman Capote, to produce a volume, Music for Chameleons, in which the reader is not at all certain the events portrayed and the characters involved in them are unreal.

Matters progress from the 1980 publication of  Music for Chameleons to the point where certain mainstream fiction is thought to be closer to the actual events and individuals therein portrayed than a work of nonfiction dealing with the same times, events, and people.  

Point-of-view--the person or persons relating the story--has evolved into a chimera of its own, a remarkable composition of parts which, taken together, somehow seem larger than the whole.  Today's diligent reader has to scramble to determine if the filter or narrator of a story is naive, reliable, or biased.

In another display of irony, today's reader will often question to the point of dismissal depictions of behavior and information that are quite accurate while at the same time accepting behavior and information at some distance from actuality.

Wide, historical sweeps are of great interest to you, in particular when you are able to see in them traces of patterns which are bench marks of evolving process.  Taking these sweeps of awareness into account, then trying to search for patterns helps you to overcome the ever-present sense of being overwhelmed by the inevitable consequences of event.  

In this case, the overwhelming force is the yearly parade of story, either in its exquisite short story form, its intermediate form of the novella, or the longform, which is the novel, itself one of the more remarkable of all potential chimeras.

You'd already written several novel-length manuscripts before taking the time to note your definition of the novel, then consider ways in which your own productions differed from that vision.  By using the process of triangulation, you'd try to be able to present a consolidated front to students and yourself, using your own vision of the novel as the outlier in this metric.

Trouble began at once because you did not like the thing you'd described the novel to be.  You saw some admirable things in your vision, but more undesirable things.  When you began trying to work out what you'd like the novel to be, you had a feeling of what it must have been like for seafarers who moved beyond the shore line and, thus,beyond a place where they had landmarks.

You still enjoy this position.  What you are doing is in effect a combination of gathering and sorting.  Sounds neat, orderly, purposeful, but for it to work, you need to have some sense of how the process of story works, and some kind of reliable system wherein you can file the things you discover and the things you produce.

In those ah-ha moments where you begin to think you have a sense of how story works and what it wants, you often feel confident enough now, whether because of your age, your experience, or your determined stubbornness.  With this confidence, you emulate the early mariners; you venture beyond landmarks.

Story is taking a number of persons beyond sight of shore, then trying to find your way.  You've reached this position enough times to know what it means.  Things are not apt to change for you.  Each time you catch the whiff of an idea to the point where it draws you into the search for a route, you understand the overarching nature of the process, which is adrift, asea without navigational tools, with no coastline for landmarks, no night skies, brilliant with stars which you cannot in any case read.  You've tried walking away from the process, but that doesn't work, either.  You'll just have to stay out here, looking, until you can find your way back in.