Wednesday, December 31, 2014

George Burns, the Jewish Mark Twain; Mark Twain, the Gentile George Burns

Events that do not lead to some form of closure beget suspicion.  In this way, you join multitudes, wanting an effect for every cause, a solution to every puzzle, an explanation for what appears to be an undocumented phenomenon.

Where did it begin?  Perhaps as far back as the awareness that if you cried one way, you got fed, if you cried another way, your diapers were changed.  Perhaps there were rumblings of potentials for yet other ways of crying.  Chose the right pitch and intensity to signal your wish to be held, or your frustration at some physical task beyond your then motor abilities.

After years of study and cultural reinforcement, you now associate the term "closure" with story. A story is a series of events, set in motion by an individual who wants something, feels the motivation to wander or explore, to change some status.  Story is ambition, put to dramatic visibility.  Ambition is, among other things, getting fed or having one's diapers changed.

You know of many individuals who lived their entire life span in a state of accelerating accommodation to the awareness of failure to capture the illusive goal resonant within them.  At this moment, thinking about these implications, you have flashes of the memory of your father, being in the same room with his brother-in-law, your uncle George.

Both men were at comfortable ease with each other, yet there was a social and professional difference between the two.  Your father did not, you believe, envy the family status and background from which Uncle George came.  But on the other hand, Uncle George was in professional terms what your father had once longed to be and was reminded of, each time the families gathered.  Uncle George was a dentist.

You recall your father telling you, "That is something I wanted to be."  You recall your mother, on occasion, asking you if you had any interest in dentistry.  You, who had to be reminded to brush his teeth, had mastered the art of turning "Why?" into the sarcastic barb of riposte, shared the inner voices of amazement and horror.  "The acorn,"  your mother said, "might have fallen close to the tree.  Your father had dreams.  But--"  She did not have to conclude the sentence.  You already knew the closure there, the results of two events.  The influenza epidemic of 1917 claimed your paternal grandfather.  A freak accident claimed the left arm, below the elbow, of your father's older brother.  Closure:  such resources as there were went toward law school for your father's older brother.

Event.  Closure.  Consequence.  The holy trinity of story, but also these were the cornerstones of human thinking, expectations, psychology.  Even as you, unversed in words or their meanings, much less the ability to spell and record them, grappled with ways to communicate needs and such desires as you may have had, you were being subject to the radiation of expectations.

The expectations came in large measure from your mother, your father, your older sister who had seven years on you, and a series of maids.  None of these worthies had, you believe, had any agenda of bombarding you.  Each was too caught up in their own process of greeting and coping with Reality.  And you?  You were advancing to the point where your tool kit of cries was producing yet another response, opposition.  You could run through your entire range of cries, sending forth signals to the universe about your needs, yet from somewhere, the developmental equivalent of rejection slips, the decision to let you cry until you stopped.

Yes, mixed message; you know.  But only one of a necessary series of mixed messages before you could feed yourself, in metaphor change your own diapers, and initiate social contacts.  You had to come to some kind of terms with your communications being too much, too self-centered, too lacking in empathy.  Ah, try telling you about empathy with any expectation of success until you were marching on toward your teens.

You might well conclude how the frustrations of unresolved events in Reality drove you to a life in story, where closure was always a required element.  Just as well, you could stop to consider how, over the years, your preferences grew for story in which closure was less emphatic, more open-ended and opaque.  Why did the stories of Anton Chekhov begin to matter?  Or Kathleen Mansfield?  Or. D.H. Lawrence?

You knew where you stood with the likes of Poe and his contemporary, Hawthorne.  You knew what closure was with O. Henry, because he either made it clear or told you where you were.

In your early teens, your mother introduced you to the writings of one from her own generation, Mark Hellinger, whose short fiction appeared with regularity in Liberty, a magazine you sold on the street corners of the Miracle Mile.  Hellinger's work had the bite and conscision of a stand-up comic, with notes of O.Henry and Damon Runyon.  At last, you had things to write about in your notebooks beyond listings of which cars parked on Cochran Street, where you lived for a time.

Soon, you were drawn to the radio programs of comedians, making notes of the punch lines of their jokes, unknowingly reinforcing the cultural if not human need for emphatic closure.  For every man who wandered into a bar in the company of some out-of-the-ordinary companion, there had to be a payoff that produced laughter.

Then came your awareness of George Burns, who opened wide the door you needed most to remove from its hinges.  George Burns was all about timing.  Quick then, connect the dots between Burns, the Jewish Mark Twain, and Mark Twain, the gentile George Burns.

As Wilkie Collins, a favored novelist of your taste, once said, "Make 'em laugh.  Make 'em cry.  Make 'em wait."  We will do anything we can to avoid uncertainty, except recognize it for the driving force of existence.  We are never so certain of what we will do until we are immersed in uncertainty.  When a thing is taken from us, we are saturated with the regret of not appreciating it enough when it was here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sour Mash Mentor

Somewhere along the way, an individual who is committing to a lifetime as a story teller needs a mentor.  The individual may not be well enough along in the commitment stage, not yet.  But the individual's subconscious has a surprise or two, including one of favoring specific writers above other specific writers.

There is the about-to-become writer, paused before a shelf in a bookstore or library, wanting something to read, in fact burning for something to read, but not yet having a clue about the battles going on within.  

The subconscious already knows what the about-to-be has not yet been able to articulate.  The subconscious is nudging its host to a particular section, already keen on a new adventure or mystery or historical or imaginative use of science to dramatize moral quandaries.  

What chance does the host have?  You tried your best to assert your curiosity as a benchmark, even though you'd began to assemble bits and pieces of data having the equivalency of that statement you'd come to distrust, "making up your mind."

When persons in real time told you to make up your mind, adding "already" to the formula, you knew they expected choice, action, purpose from you.  So far as you were concerned, that was a delicious place to be, that place where choice shimmered like an eager humming bird. That was the most intense feeling you'd yet experienced.  You did not wish to be nudged and jostled beyond it.

From the principal at your favored elementary school, you learned of two yearly prizes for books of persons in your age group, The Caldecott and The Newberry.  From direct experience, you discovered that the Caldecott and Newberry winners each year that sounded least like something you'd enjoy would turn out to be the ones you favored and kept in your immediate memory for some time.  

Today, whenever your hand feels a bit stiff, you are reminded of the eponymous Johnny Tremaine, the apprentice to the silversmith, Paul Revere.  An accident with molten silver fused Johnny's thumb to his palm.  Pub date for Johnny Tremaine was 1943.

There were others:Although first published in 1903,The Land of Little Rain, a  lyrical narrative of the Hopi came to you in the third grade.  It still remains, to do what books should do, which is haunt the reader with memories of the actual story and daydreams in which the characters live on, beyond their pages of origin. Leo Politi's The Egg Tree, autographed by him, came your way when you were at the university, its drawings and text enough to bedazzle your English major seriousness.

By this time, the unconscious had done its work.  You were well on your way toward acquiring, via used book stores, a complete set of the mentor in spirit, Mark Twain, who was dead by April 21, 1910.

You got your actual mentor in your early twenties and from her an entire set of tools with which you could begin the work of forging your own literary skeleton, about which to wrap the skin of your visions and senses.  You were close even after she and her husband felt the need or had the notion to move to Tennessee, a place where neither had roots or experience, and become apple orchardists.  Her most successful writing came from that time.

You read the books and ran up incredible phone bills, talking across a continent, sometimes reading aloud passages you'd written that day.  "You must work at writing from your heart,"  she would say, smoker's voice a gentle rasp.  "You must learn to leave the thinking until everything that wants to come out is given the opportunity," her voice now tinged with sour mash whiskey.  Sometimes, when you asked her about the label, she merely laughed.  "Tennessee people don't take much to putting labels on things."

Too late to see her, you were in Tennessee to shepherd books through what was Kingsport Press, and to learn about the lack of labels while drinking a pellucid liquid from a Mason jar.  After your first sips, you began to understand some of the late night telephone conversations.

There is sour mash about now, if you wish it, or another sipping favorite, Korbell's brandy, any number of bottles of red and white wines, and the remains of a six pack of Sierra Nevada pale ale.  But your default beverage at these reflective times of night seems to be coffee, made in your Bialetti stove top espresso maker.  You look out into the garden or, during the warmer months, sit out in it, sipping coffee and listening for the voices of the night as they tell you how to work at writing from your heart.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Geometry of Discovery

You've been spending time thinking about that remarkable dramatic portmanteau, the novel, for a few weeks now, trying to get enough perspective on your relationship with it to make a number of decisions.

Your first decision has the tin cans of time tied to its tail, these cans clattering as you go about the warp and weft of your time off between semesters.  Soon enough, you will be embarked on a course with some direct relevance to the novel, its shorter form, known as the short novel, if the viewer is a writer or critic who finds the term "novella" offensive.

Among the clutter Lupe has once again set to neatness, during her Monday morning raids against your tendency to scatter, is a list of potential required reading for your course, "The Novella:  Reading It, Understanding It, and Writing It."  This list makes the basic assumption its compiler makes"  There are few novellas as sublime in construction and powerful observations as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Your list contains F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Rich Boy, Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, Marianne Evans, writing as George Sand with The Lifted Veil, Graham Greene's The Third Man, Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts,and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop.  You are also toying with Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and, for your own sense of mischief and fun, Jim Harrison's Brown Dog.

In addressing the content and structure of the course, you have made the connection that for all he wrote long, rambling narratives, Tolstoy also wrote at least one memorable novella and, somewhere in the clutch of books invading the kitchen, there is a volume with the title Three Novellas , which are of course by him.  Thus the recognition, long narrative and short narrative, all satellites of the longer-than-short-story narrative.

There are at least eight, arguably ten novellas in your list of one hundred novels that had memorable and visceral impact on you as a young reader, middle-aged reader, and, now, dinosaur reader, for whom only last year one of the Nancy Drew novels grabbed you.  

This list also contained a significant number of titles to be shelved under mystery/suspense in the library or bookstore.  No surprise, this statistic; you've long nourished the notion of the mystery being the quintessential shape of the novel, indeed shaping the character, setting, and circumstances of the two novels you itch to write.

Somewhere in the recent past, certainly not ten years ago, you came to the conclusion that those particular sub-genre novels shelved under science fiction, where the focus is on alternate universes, are also paradigm for the narrative we think of as fiction.  

Even if it were a mystery or suspense novel, the narrative to emerge would still be alternate universe in the sense of each narrative being a representation of the vision of the writer.  Example:  You are arguably daft.  Not daft in the way Van Gough was, which was probably the daftness of genius.  You are not bat-shit crazy, but daft enough to recognize his own inner daftness.  However well you could paint sunflowers or clouds, there could be no reaching the divine joys of Van Gogh's sunflowers or clouds.

And today, coming upon an American Scholar essay on historical fiction and what choices the historical fiction writer must make, you see how it is possible to see all novels as historical fiction because, even though written in an immediate present, they are about the immediacy of a particular time.

And there is your own universe, in which you had to take plane geometry over and over and over again, through summer schools and junior colleges, just to get the hang of it.  In your universe, this repetition of geometry made the word "thus" one of your habit words, because "thus" represents the denouement of the proof of a theorem.  You did not know at the time that geometry would have yet another effect on you, each time you designed the layout, pagination, and typography of a book.  Such discoveries come from revisiting, fretting.

You are still crazy eager to write those two novels, set now at high bubble on the back burner of your brain.  These novels would be mysteries. Indeed, the protagonist is a private detective.  They would be alternate universe because you have made a few shop fronts on Victoria Street, between Garden and State, different than they are in real life, but the transient hotel in which one character lived, while working at a nonexistent used bookstore, is quite real.  The novels would be histories because they gather traction on made-up events that happened in the past, while at the same time relying on actual historical events.

In many ways, you knew all of this, but compiling your list of a hundred novels, watching it overflow to the point where there are ten novels in the overflow list, and beginning to suspect you might have to kick one of your mentor's novels off the list, all this has caused you to think you are going to have to do something with your list.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Walking the Mine Fields of Dialogue While Wearing Snow Shoes

Small wonder so much of our daily conversation is non-committal, one-dimensional, earnest searches for safe ground on which to tread.  Smaller wonder yet why, even as we engage in small talk, we find it irritating in ways we have to pause from time to time to evaluate.

Conversation at times feels like trying to make our way through a mine field while wearing snow shoes. 

An essential difference between conversation and argument arrives when the passionate opinions of the speakers erupts from the polite, "I hear you" plateau to actual combustion.  Here,
the subject of the conversation gets shoved aside.  Now, the personalities of the conversants take over..

When the gloves of metaphor and politeness are removed, conversation becomes dialogue.  Whether the speakers realize it or not, what began as an exchange of information at leisure has become a game.  

Depending on the number of individuals present in the conversation, the most dynamic of all plateaus is reached where each is playing a different game, where, in fact, even the players involved may not see the ground rules of the games being played.  

This has nothing to do with fairness or, for that matter, politeness.  Let's assume all the players in this hypothetical conversation gone wild are fair, polite individuals. Reminiscent of the Marquis of Queensbury rules in boxing, these players follow an even more equable code, the code of The 
Social Contract  

What is fairness?  And why does fairness matter?  What is politeness?  Why does it matter?  Why Does the Social matter?  Is it an overreach to apply Rousseauvian philosophy to a conversation that has been amped up to the argument of dialogue?

The stakes are getting dramatic, you could even say Existential.
Whether we are watching this escalation of conversation in a stage play, a motion picture, or a filmed drama for television, we are drawn in by the sheer emotion of these individuals, often without ourselves understanding why our siding with one of the contestants or taking a sudden, emotional antipathy for another contestant.

We side with characters who engage in these games, these dialogue games, these contests, often Roman Circuses of passions and class- racial-, or gender-based encounters.  Those of us who seek to write story in any of its forms are admonished in various pedagogic ways to use dialogue to escalate story points, to engage in some form of exaggerated interplay where seemingly innocuous interchanges are in fact forms of pressure and calculated obtuseness.

Watching such exchanges allows us to relive moments when we were in similar circumstances or to recall moments from our own past when we thought we were engaging in safe, non-combative exchanges.  Thought.  But the thing we are now watching or reading has begun to reverberate, doing for us what effective story must do for us.  The story before us is the now, but a part of us is back in its own now.

We recall William Faulkner saying “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” This helps describe the sense of discomfort that has settled upon us, a reminder that we must be alert to the nuanced role we play as a conversant, a reader, and a writer.

The goal before us, of which you take special note, is to speak as much in the moment as we can and write as we speak.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Out of Many, One, or Visa Versa

The more you favor something small, say a drop of water or a grain of sand, the more you begin to appreciate the largeness of potential for that small something.  Thus the drop of water becomes an ocean. A grain of sand extends from being an irritation within your moccasin to an entire swath of beach or dune of desert.

Meditation on such extractions of detail from larger part leads you to explore that most delicious metaphor, the synecdoche, where you have joined legions of writers whose views of evocation you embrace.  

In such metaphor, a body feature such as a mustache or eyes of a particular configuration or color become the entire host or hostess, a soupçon of concision will allow you to put the dinner tab on plastic, and one word, standing for an entire concept, will serve as warning to a loose-moralled friend to watch out for the law.

The opening of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novella, The Rich Boy, lays the potent matter of the synecdoche before us with typical Fitzgerald éclat: 

"Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created--nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves. When I hear a man proclaiming himself an "average, honest, open fellow," I feel pretty sure that he has some definite and perhaps terrible abnormality which he has agreed to conceal--and his protestation of being average and honest and open is his way of reminding himself of his misprision."

Say what critics and scholars will about Fitzgerald, you have found none who accuse him of flimsy or one-dimensional characters.  All seem to come from a recognizable social class, alive with the politics and cultures of their time and place.  Whether it is Bernice of the story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," Dick Diver of Tender Is the Night, or Charlie Wales of "Babylon Revisited," Fitzgerald's characters all seemed caught up in their attempts to quell some raging inner feud with a regime of discipline that was losing its rigor.

Through synecdoche, the writer can and does convey individuals, the human condition, types within the human condition.  We are caused to see fictional characters not only in the context of a particular story but emerging as well from the cadre of individuals we see in our days out in the streets, shops, offices, and vistas of Reality.  

Even more appropriate, through synecdoche, we see individuals in Reality and characters in our reading in context with those remarkable appearances we conjure in our own narrative creativity.

Your own reasons for haunting coffee shops include the need to have an ambient noise to focus over in order to compose, and also the opportunity to experience what you call random synecdoche, the absorption of the human experience through the speech, gestures, and behavior of one or more individuals having their own coffee and, indeed, their own outing.

Only this morning, at one of your favored haunts,you witnessed an elderly couple who drew your attention because they so reminded you of your own parents.  He was once tall, now a bit hunched in the shoulders, his gray hair a riot of cowlick anarchy.  Her gray hair had the neat, etched look of serious time in a beauty salon.  Their affection was a continuous banter, with no long silences, even as their conversation turned toward Alzheimer's.

"When it is my turn,"  he said, "I will forget I kissed you good night and have to come back for seconds."

"Will forget,"  she said.  "Will forget.  You do forget."

"And all these years,"  he said, shaking his head through an emerging smile.  "All these years, I thought I remembered."

They were making fun of the thing each no doubt feared would come to pass, and for you they become that couple who stay married through the years because they are the segment of society who in real ways renew their choice each day they are together.

Synecdoche is a filter to squint through to see the details of life about you, and through those details, the universe begins to describe itself in ways you never could.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Mystery to Me

Embedded within the titles of the hundred novels of your as yet untitled project wrapped about the armature of one hundred novels that delivered a sharp blow to your solar plexus, there is a secret.  The secret is not so well embedded as to have been a surprise to you.  

Twenty of the hundred novels listed are mysteries; two others are about the kinds of search or unraveling, and one additional title, written by a master of suspense, is espionage related.

There is already an overflow list of seven novels, meaning they have some chance of displacing one or more of the original hundred.  Six of these seven are mystery or suspense related.  These statistics confirm an opinion you have held for at least--to introduce another number into the hash--twenty-five years:  The mystery is the quintessence snap of the novel.  

Think about it.  Outcome is everything.  The mystery has solution as its primary outcome, meaning first and foremost that a puzzle or intrigue has been solved.  Dipping into subtexts, justice has been in someway acknowledged, the cigarette burn on the sofa or the ketchup stain on the white table cloth have been dealt with, in effect mended, where all will be well until the next destabilizing event will occur, sending us off into another outing for the protagonist to decipher, unknot, reweave as best he or she can, and as best such things can in reality be mended.

The mystery is often a series of interviews, conducted by one or more individuals who are in search of information.  Where is the loot?  Or, who killed Cock Robin? In some novels of suspense, say The Maltese Falcon, a number of individuals are seeking information, some of them for the most selfish and private reasons.  All the while, the protagonist, Sam Spade, is seeking information, but as we discover, some of this information may be more self-serving that we at first thought.

With its focus on interviewing witnesses in order to arrive at a menu of potential suspects, we hear versions of events that may serve to exculpate the individual, but there is the equal possibility of causing us to suspect the witness or person of interest is holding back on the truth.  Joy of joys,this reticence with the truth may be completely unrelated to the actual crime, but may be an attempt to conceal some other infraction.

The protagonist may not be associated with the forces of The Social Contract, may in fact be on the opposing side of it, yet we are drawn to root for him or her and if we cannot allow that luxury, we can at least admire, even respect that individual.

In a novel of mystery or suspense, pace is everything.  Kate Atkinson's noteworthy mysteries, featuring the detective, Jackson Brodie, may not move with the cadence of Hammett or Chandler, but there is a constant reminder that Atkinson, via Brodie, is on story, following with details that may at first seem irrelevant, but which have about them the sting of inevitability and purpose.

You favor the mystery leaning into the noir or hardboiled, a fact you believe responsible in a significant way for the narrative voice that ultimately shoves aside the gimmicky, wise-guy, or mannered approaches that might appear in your early drafts.  This does not mean you ignore the potential for humor, which has always been your default position.  

That one-man mystery industry, the late, lamented Donald E. Westlake, has shown an approach to humor in mystery that fascinates you.  His novel, Bank Shot, is a prime example.  A group of robbers decide to hit the opening of a bank branch so new it is still housed in a large house trailer.  Trouble is, they can't crack the safe.  Their Plan B is to steal the entire house trailer until they can secure a safe cracker who can get them to the loot.

This same Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark and Tucker Coe, is able to produce tough, nourish narrative from the POV of a gangster known only as Parker, and as a retired cop who carries an incredible load of guilt for having not been there for back-up when his partner was killed.

In his one mystery novel to date, Michael Chabon, in The Yiddish  Policeman's Union, demonstrates the versatility of the mystery format with the same elan as a card sharp, executing the difficult waterfall shuffle, bringing heart-wrenching humor and pathos into his narrative.

Thus we are into some of your favorite areas, the politics of gender, race, and class, as exemplified by a long-time friend, Dennis Lynds, writing as Michael Collins to bring us the one-armed private eye, Dan Fortune.

Ah, these stirrings of memory.  Number 60 on your list, Laura, by that lovely friend, Vera Caspary, of your mystery mentor, Dorothy B. Hughes, is now in danger of being bumped for one of Dennis.  And someone else is in danger, because you have just recalled another mystery writer who had a personal and editorial effect on you, the late Ken Millar, who wrote as Ross Macdonald.

Back to your point of thesis:  The mystery novel embodies the mainstream novel, sifts for a semblance of truth through differing versions or agendas, reveals hidden secrets, causes motives to be examined, points out weaknesses, and delves the human condition by offering a spectacular menu of potential crimes, potential perpetrators, and the societal fallout of these events and personalities.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Books, Families, and Seating Plans

 Whenever you encounter the necessity to make a list, the phenomenon of overload comes stepping  into place, wanting  not only the last word but several last words thereafter.  This overload atmosphere makes you think of invitation lists for gatherings, ceremonies, and celebrations, where the presence of the attendees trumps the reason for the gathering, the ceremonies, and the celebrations.

Indeed, the thing to be celebrates is often forgotten in the clamor of attendees, avid of a seat at the central table.  This cynical awareness reminds you of a political science course you once finessed your way into by changing your academic minor from anthropology to political science.  

The midterm examination consisted of one question.  You were given a list of individuals who would attend a dinner where you were the host.  Part one of the test was a seating chart, where you were to assign the seating.  Part two of the examination was your rationale for assigning a specific seat to each of the guests.

For all the year that have passed since you were an English major, political science minor, you still remember that examination and the sense of urgency that went into engaging the implications of the problem it illustrated.  Rank, protocol, tradition influence the way individuals within a culture behave toward one another.  

The influences spill over into the exchanges between cultures.  Since this awareness was simultaneous with you reading A Passage to India in another class, you began your slow, awkward march toward those aspects of Marxist philosophy where you became aware of the need to observe these dynamics if you were ever to create memorable characters.

No stretch of metaphor or hyperbole to say you often think of that midterm political science examination when listening to friends talk about wedding banquets, memorials, and the like, or when you find yourself making a list with finite numbers:  "The Ten Most Underrated Novels," "The Seven Deadly Sins of Story Telling," "One Hundred Novels That Most Influenced You."

There, you have it.  No sooner than you completed your list of a hundred novels that floored you emotionally, knocked you on your ass, but as well left you with a misty sense of some technique or effect you'd not thought about before, clamoring for inclusion in your tool kit.  

Every craftsperson you knew of had a tool kit.  A bass player you knew had several packets of strings, a huge block of resin, a spare bow, and a large, chamois polishing cloth.  Artists had cigar boxes filled with charcoal or pastel sticks.  A calligrapher had a stone for grinding and mixing ink, to say little of brushes, pens, and nibs.  Why shouldn't a writer have a tool kit?

Wait; there's more.  Why, for instance, didn't you include A Passage to India in your list?  There are noteworthy reasons for doing so, not the least of which is the clash of cultures and the gut-wrenching payoff in which an Indian tells a Brit--well, what he tells the Brit is worth writing about.

And what about the note you left for yourself on the kitchen dining table, where you would be sure to notice it, sooner than later?  A simple title of another novel, one that had thumped you with great éclat, Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  Thus, within two titles coming to mind, the phenomenon of overload is transformed into a super ego.

After completing your list of a hundred novels that floored you, preparatory to deciding if such a list could drive a book length tool for other writers than yourself, who would be asked to pick their own hundred novels, you notice how in many ways everything boils down to the difference between an a and a the.  A hundred novels--  The hundred novels--

There is some freedom in "a," that is not present in "the."    You are in the early part of the game, which reminds you of your stern decision to keep the ceremony of your wedding to Anne down to a tidy number, and your mother's stern decision that her cousins, Jean, Phil, and Max, be present.  "They're family,"  she insisted.  "I'll cook a little more."

"That Max,"  your father observed.  "Big appetite."

"So I'll cook a lot more."

And so the deal was settled.

For now, your plan is to write down the extras, as they come, asking to be invited to a project you don't even know will fly yet.  Such is the nature of family.  Such is the nature of a book.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

One Hundred Novels and One Mosquito

The idea started buzzing around in your mind like a curious mosquito in a room filled with people, not sure if she was hungry, but interested in all those targets of opportunity.

In your case, there was the reverberating memory of all the times you'd told students and wannabe writers they needed to read at least one hundred novels before they considered writing one of their own.  If they wished to write in a specific genre, say mystery or romance or historical or science fiction, they should read at least a hundred in that specific genre, including among those hundred the grandparent narratives, those novels that set a particular genre off and running.

Like the mosquito in the room of targets of opportunity, you were abuzz over the notion of the hundred novels.  For a certainty, you've read well over a hundred novels, the possibility of having read over a thousand a feasible one.  You've edited well over a hundred novels, written close enough to fifty for you to say "close enough to fifty."

Next step:  Write the sort of one line focus sentence used by The New York Times in its copious Bestseller list each week in the Sunday Book Review magazine.  "A moody Danish prince is urged by the ghost of his father to seek revenge."  (Hamlet)

Straightforward enough.  Another of your favored examples:  "A young bipolar man who ships out on a whaling vessel whenever he feels a bout of depression coming on, realizes he's signed on a ship captained by a madman with a grudge."  (Moby-Dick)

So, what would you do for a work of nonfiction, built around the importance of reading one hundred novels?  "In order to write the long,fictional narrative known as a novel, the writer should read at least one hundred published works to get the sense of how storytelling techniques have evolved since the earliest days of printed fiction."  

A bit long, don't you think?  Yet, not so long as to ramble off course,  This sentence goes into a pocket-sized notebook for easy carrying.  Your goal is to shorten the sentence while at the same time injecting the buzzing awareness of the targets of opportunity to the mosquito cited above and to you, who are buzzing enough to have taken matters--note the plural there--to the next plateau.

You have already set out a notebook dedicated to the purpose of essaying this hundred-novel project, you have named a hundred novels, and you can explain on one sentence why those are the hundred novels you chose.  The mosquito continues to buzz.

Short version:  "Each of these hundred novels knocked me on my ass when I read them."

Slightly longer version:  "I have read each of these novels at least twice, stunned and intrigued by their means of freighting emotional impact."

Now, on to the long-winded version:  "These hundred novels influenced my yearning to write fiction, showed me how to do things I did not dream possible, and opened a floodgate of things I understood I would have to be able to do if I were to have any chance of telling a memorable story."

Were you to list the hundred novels according to their publication dates, you'd be a step or two beyond a laundry list, but not much.  If you gave a 500-word description of each, you'd be at the 50,000-word mark, leaving you about 10,000 words to do in effect a history of the way narrative and point of view work.

Part of this narrative would be a frank admission that these hundred novels are your choices, for the reasons cited.  For it to be of maximum effect, the reader would have to read and deconstruct his/her hundred novels.  Which leaves you with a mischievous plan.

Either as text or backmatter, you pick ten other novels, deconstructing the reasons why you didn't have them in your own list, why they lacked qualities that might well have knocked you on your ass.  You would in effect be choosing ten novels--nine if you include The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt--for which you'd do the equivalent of what Mark Twain did with the so-called Pathfinder Tales of James Fenimore Cooper in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," which is to say you would have to make sure your take-down was a satire rather than a mere hatchet job.

The intent of your book and your process would be to hope for better fiction to read, which you would hope to accomplish by demonstrating what to do, when to do it, how to do it, but as well, what not to do, and when not to do it the most.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Character as Bleu or Roquefort Cheese. Possibly Stilton.

In the course of learning the intricacies of story, you heard any number of basic terms, tried to memorize their meanings and significance, then set out to identify them in actual, published stories.  

Some of these terms, you later discovered, came right out of the quintessential cataloger of Western thought, Aristotle.  Significant among these terms was rising action, which meant in essence that opposing forces had to accelerate; they could not stay where they were.  Your father, who had a way with such things, put it in context for you.  "Things start out bad, then gradually get worse."

You had a good deal more trouble figuring out denouement, in the process marking up a few paperback short story collections purchased at a used book store.  When you'd thought you had denouement down cold, you felt you'd earned your way into the club.  You not only knew a salient factor of story telling, you knew it in French.  

But when, in what you hoped would be taken as a brotherly exchange between writers, you asked one hard-drinking pulp writer you much admired, "When do you start laying the groundwork for your denouement?" he asked you in no uncertain terms what the fuck you were talking about.

Never mind that in about ten years, you'd have this writer sitting across the desk from you in a publishing venue, talking about a novel he was going to write for you.  Nor should you mind the fact that when he said, "And this is where it's all going to come together as a build up for the payoff," you were able to say, "the denouement," and he was able to say, "Yeah." you for a certainty understood what denouement was and more or less how it worked.

You are not equivocating with that attribution of "more or less" to your understanding.  Some aspects of story did not sink in on first hearing, nor, if they did, were you able to make anything practical of them.  When an editor once told you he'd buy a story of yours if you upped the pace in the last fifteen hundred or so words, you said "sure thing," but you had no idea how to accomplish that until you asked another writer, who asked you one of those questions with the word fuck in it, then said, "Use shorter sentences.  Have one- and two-word dialogue exchanges. Make your paragraphs shorter."

By this time, you may well have heard the expression "worthy opponent," but any attention you gave to that notion was to pick a character who was causing your protagonist the most trouble, then have him or her wrinkle brows in thought.  You recall one case where "she squeezed her hands into tight fists," by which you meant this person to be both frustrated and thoughtful.

At the time, the L.A. Times had as book review editor one of the better critics going in the popular press, Robert Kirsch, whom you knew from your own time at the Associated Press night office in the L.A. Times building, and from his teaching at the graduate journalism school at UCLA.  He began coming to the Friday poker games in your office in the student union, from which you edited the campus humor magazine.

Was it a question you'd asked him?  Or was it his raising the matter in a discussion.  Could have been either, or none of those, rather the kinds of discussions the Friday poker games brought to sometimes vociferous exchanges of opinion.  This sounds more a likely prospect, because you will, for what's left of your forever, associate the term with Bob Kirsch and reckon your protagonist must go up against someone shrewder if not outright smarter, an individual with layers of warmth and humor among those of cunning, self-interest, obstinacy, and all-around intransigence.  

Those words and admonitions stuck to the point where there are times when your loyalty toward the protagonist begins to shift.  You want the antagonist to win.  You are close to the point where you are rooting for him or her.  At such times, you think of Kirsch and recognize him for what he was--an influence.

In recent years, the lines between protagonist and antagonist in the stories you like most have blurred. Neither is a paradigm, either of good or of self-interest, evil, or wrong-headedness.  Each is more like Roquefort or Bleu cheeses, with those veins of blue-green mold that provide such a sharp-but-pleasant tang.

Protagonists come with flaws of one sort or another, ranging from being in a twelve-step recovery program to anger management or even some bi-polar conversations that interfere with their day-to-day routine.  Ishmael is a perfect example, a man who knows the warning signs of gloom that depress him.  When the signs appear, he signs on a ship to lead the life of a sailor.  His luck is to sign on The Pequod, a ship captained by a madman.

The antagonist ought to be as good as or a tad better than the protagonist, weighted down with goals and quirks to produce a troubled individual of whom we might wonder, which burden pulled this individual into this behavior, and for what purpose.

Certain among your speculations about the characters you create, and the characters of others whom you admire for their layers of tenacity, are your own speculations about yourself and your own tenacity or lack thereof.

All of this goes back to those questions you ask of a story when evaluating it, in particular the one, Why you?  Why are you the one to tell this story, in this way?

Monday, December 22, 2014

No Man Is an Ordinary Island

In the earlier stages of your preoccupation with story, characters seemed to appear like uninvited guests at a wild party.  

This is no hyperbole; your early wannabe novels were wild parties, unstructured gatherings, where host and hostess may well have decided the event had got out of hand, then took matters into their own hands by disappearing.

For every character you had a need for, two or three others appeared, often with some characteristic tag--a grumpy man wearing a stained sweat shirt--or an immediate solution to a pressing problem--"I'm an off-duty plumber, but I think I can help."--or someone who had no wish to be where he or she happened to be at the moment.  You'd been reading the short essays in the opening pages of The New Yorker, fascinated by the way these interviewees came to life with a well-honed phrase of introduction.  

You'd already become convinced that the best way to deal with ordinary people was to cover them up with some hidden source of energy or desire.  Whether invited to your stories or mere party crashers, you wanted them to demonstrate your pet theory:  No one chooses to be ordinary. 

 If a man or woman is behaving in an ordinary manner or, worse yet, in a cliched manner, that person is hiding a trait that will, whenever exposed, create a stir, perhaps an outright accusation of outrage.

One of your favorite words at the time was outrage, which you cast as both noun and verb.  This and your tendency to overpopulate were your answers to believing you were lacking in the one quality of absolute necessity for the types of stories you hoped to publish.  The missing quality was plot.  With all this background swirling about you, no wonder your work took on a tinge of the anarchist.

Even though these early approaches had no practical applications, except perhaps those of teaching you to experiment and to expect nothing less than a full measure of enjoyment when you wrote a draft, you approached your work station, where ever it was, with an unflagging zeal, an expectation of a story beginning with a conventional enough quest or probe or deadline, whence it would gather the momentum of a spinning windstorm, prompting characters to begin stripping themselves of any pretense at the ordinary.  

"Oh, is that so?"  a character would respond to a statement of relative mildness.  "Why would you think it wasn't so?" came the riposte, another word you adored because it meant more than an unweighted response.  A riposte was something loaded with attitude, had a chip on its shoulder.  

This word was an early intimation that dialogue is far removed from conversation.  If an exchange requires a riposte, why then, it is dialogue.  If it seems only to want a "Yup" of agreement or acknowledgment that the respondent is still awake, then the exchange is conversational.  Sometimes, when you are composing dialogue or considering the explosive possibilities any group of characters can exchange, you imagine Cyrano de Bergerac, mid-fencing match, watching for an opening.  A riposte is a sally, a barb, at the very least a rejoinder, a fucking retort.

Without any intention of irony, you can drop a list of some of your current favorites among words of attitude and intent.  Some of these words are menace, threat, peril, warning, and intimation, all of which recognize your earlier beliefs about ordinariness and the secrecy of hiding traits the character has reason to believe will cause him or her discomfort.

In vital addition, you have come to understand that the guests and party crashers have had attitudes and experiences which, however you see your story at the outset, has created the atmosphere for the story to have begun where you begin it.  And you understand that where ever you begin, it is more likely to have been too late.

You can see now how you were being held back a bit by your own personal history of eagerness for adventures with enough pull to wrench you away from the ordinary and routine aspects of your own life.

Last week, after a rather routine meeting with a client, you made the choice to stop at a fast food restaurant of the sort you almost never visit, ordering there that fast food paradigm, a hamburger, which you could have got at a much higher quality less than two miles away.  But you were in a hurry to get home, where the sort of energy that drove you in your earlier days seemed to be pleading with you to get the hamburger to go, then get yourself home.

While waiting for your hamburger, you were accosted by an individual who used the kinds of set-up descriptions of you that you used in the past.  "You're that writer fellow, aren't you?"  To which, okay, you merely responded, "What writer fellow?"

"Take no prisoners.  Don't suffer fools, which I would have become if I didn't remember your name."

When life gives you the kinds of dialogue you'd write, you go all mushy.  This individual, a middle-aged man with a mop of curly hair that reminded you of a swirl of Foster Freeze ice cream, and a team jacket for some baseball team in Ventura County, knew you by name.  "I'm not going to tell you how I recognized you,"  he said.  Then he was out the door, into the parking lot, leaving you, intrigued, all mushy, and eager to go.

Driving home, you reckoned you could have written that scene.  But you didn't; you wrote this.

Sunday, December 21, 2014


There are many arguments from writers and editors favoring the one project at a time approach.  You've read of these approaches in books and magazine articles, heard them described in lectures and classes.  Even when advanced by an author you cannot stand such as John Irving, these approaches make a practical, sensible working plan, much the same way fishermen and mariners used landmarks and star orientation before the more sophisticated navigational tools were developed.

The more you learned about the other aspects of story telling and nonfiction, the more practical the approach to writing sounded.  After all, with one project in mind, you pretty much live it all day, during the working hours.  

You day dream about it and, at night,more or less dream about it to the point where you became aware some twenty or so years ago where you were more or less line editing projects in the work while you tossed your way through your eight hours of nightly sleep, in some ways more tired than when you'd retired for the night.  But the day's work seemed to move effortlessly, the words and sentences and paragraphs moving as though in imitation of the synchronised swim routines in the old Metro Goldwyn Mayer movies featuring Esther Williams.

In particular because you had a strong tendency toward being scattered, you made serious efforts to focus on one project at a time, reminding yourself how you more or less did this for two of your six years in college, taking for your lead choice the one subject of most interest to you rather than trying to keep current with all your courses.  The question of attention span did not enter the picture, even though it might have, because you have been well able to focus, then stay focused for hours.

After a time, you began to suspect an equivalent of price fixing so far as the one-project-art-a-time theory was concerned.  You counted the number of articles and mentions of the technique, in magazine essays and interviews.  This is about the time you were spending time in bars and cocktail lounges where, not uncoincidentally, many writers hung out,and where you heard your first jokes about the perfidy of agents, editors, publishers, producers, and directors. Most of these writers were writing novels at night, while laboring on screen plays and TV dramas during the day.  

These worthies, too, had writing plans.  They also had jokes about writers who focused on one project at a time, and cynicism about writers who were not writing novels or short stories in spare moments.  One screen writer even told you of a friend who arrived at the studio every morning at eight, wrote furiously on his studio project until ten, which produced enough pages for the daily or weekly meeting with the producer, then spent the rest of the day working on a novel.

By this time, you already knew Ray Bradbury and had begun the effort to keep up with reading his entire output.  His composition method inspired you.  A long library table in the garage, at first with two used, upright manual typewriters, then, as some money began to come in with regularity, three, then four typewriters.  His approach was to have a different story going in each one.  His added approach was to allow thinking spells of half an hour, if he found himself stuck somewhere in a specific story.  If after half an hour, there was nothing new to go on, he moved his chair to the next typewriter, then went to work on it.

This process seemed you, particularly since you had a virtually unlimited access to used typewriters, thanks to your auctioneer uncle and your auctioneer's display and maintenance man, your father.  You stipulated Bradbury's vigor, productivity, and energy.  There was no least doubting of his ability, thus, when you say you were inspired by him, his enormous talent and originality a given, you were given over to his methodology.  You had two typewriters and a stack of lined notepads.  You had a different venture working in each of the two typewriters, a novel going in longhand on one notepad, and either a mystery or science fiction short story on the other.

You need to remind yourself how different your concept of story was then in comparison with what it is now.  In effect, you needed to be prolific because it took you--and is still taking you--a good deal of time to get the feel of what a story is.

At about this time, the second wave of friends descended upon you, urging you to investigate the need to be serious, and your then literary agent all but chimed in the same way when he told you there were always places where humorous stories could find a home, that is, most humorous stories could, but not yours because stories with your kind of humor were difficult to place.

Under the circumstances, you did what you've been more or less doing for much of your writing life.  You took a fierce pride in having a number of projects in progression, giving the option to become distracted by any already in the works .  The results were immediate; your completion rate went down.  You were spread across the continent in story venue, in time, by your setting some of these ventures far enough in the past so that you were in simultaneous composition with one of your favorite characters and his grandfather.

Now, you are, if anything, more scattered.  Your interests are reflected in books, notebooks, and magazines, spread about your current home like sandbags, stacked to protect against sudden bouts of flooding from the periodic drenching rains.

You are not alone in your scatteredness, nor do you feel it.  Many individuals are visual in their primary sensitivity, just as many individuals are what is known as right-handed.  Other individuals are aural.  Such as you, they make better use of things heard.  You do not neglect nor undervalue visual things, but when they seem to be spoken somewhere in your interior, then you know you stand a chance at memory and for creative, idiosyncratic, joyous communion.

One project at a time is wonderful.  If you could, on occasion, focus only on one project at a time, you would be only too happy to take the project on.  But you are scattered, you love the scattered life, even if it means you will trump such worthies as Franz Schubert, who was not able to finished a symphony in the works.  You are likely to leave quite a few.  But maybe, if you live long enough, not.  For that is the requirement--live long enough.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Throughout the years of your keeping track of your self and your growth, the two aspects of you have often differed.  So, too, has your take on the concept of fun.

At one point in your life, fun was the Saturday movie double feature, often at the Ritz Theater on Wilshire near La Brea in midtown Los Angeles.  There were two opportunities to engage with and identify with  two different films, one a first-run sort with some attempt at special effects and props, the other a so-called B-movie or second feature, often more imaginative in its use of evocative effects than its story.  Then, too, there was a new episode of a serial, some adventure of a hero such as The Green Hornet, or G-Men.  Then a cartoon, perhaps with your favorites, Donald Duck or Wile E. Coyote.  And for good measure, the then equivalent of news, called, in fact, a newsreel, where you got visions of elderly survivors of the Civil War, or photos of Admiral Byrd, preparing for another run to The South Pole.

Fun at the time was also comic books, your introduction to pulp stories in the format of Big Little Books, and such adventures and intrigues as you could find in the public library on Mullen Street, across Pico Boulevard from Los Angeles High School.

Fun was adventure and intrigue, which could also involve pouring over large-sized World Atlases, in which you could transport yourself to a different map for the purpose of arranging a journey or expedition to a country whose name you liked.  You already knew what you would say to Dr. Livingston.  Not, by any means what Stanley said to him. 

When your tastes in reading began to extend to historical adventures such as those written by Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, and, of course, Mark Twain, the concept of fun seemed to take on another layer of potential.  You were in effect taking sides, favoring at whim one particular side, say the Scots against the English, or the heathen hordes against the English, or the Saxons against the Normans.  

You were, without realizing it, becoming politicized, having fun in the sense of being able to take off on diatribes against, say the Bengal Lancers, in Social Studies classes, not sure which was the most fun among the choices of your own tastes, your classmates' bewilderment, and the consternation of a number of your teachers.

At last out of high school, you came to what in effect was a major crisis.  College was supposed to be serious business.  Either that or fraternity pranks.  There was no in-between.  you tried both, finding no fun in either.  Seriousness did not sit well with you.  Pranks began to wear thin.  The landscape was grim.  College was supposed to prepare you for the future, for a career, for maturity, for encountering problems and concerns relevant to forthcoming maturity.  Yet here you were, writing, reading, and thinking fun related things, hearing a litany of the most well-intended advice from friends and instructors.

One friend sent you his copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, with a note advising you to read it from cover to cover before leaving the house.  Another friend advised you to switch your area of inquiry to philosophy, another said you'd be better off in the Theater Arts Department, and an instructor arranged for you to get a job at the night office of the Associated Press, located in the Los Angeles Times building, wherein you would learn discipline, focus, and useful writing skills.

To add to the crisis, you began writing your essay-type answers to examinations, in particular the mid-terms and finals, as though they were stories for the Associated Press.  

Your grades began to spiral upward and because you were required to wear a neck tie to work at the Associated Press, one of your political science instructors mistook the gesture for thinking you were showing seriousness of intent.  You wrote your examinations for his class as though they were news stories, citing at least two sources.  Before you knew it, you were first in the list of class standings.

You were more serious than you'd ever been before, but something was wrong.  There was something missing from the serious you, to the point where, when friends began to congratulate you for your new found seriousness, you began to experience waves of anger.

Seriousness and anger are but two colors in the writer's paint box.  You were able to add fear, because for a time you were fearful that this current wave of activity was how things were going to be, from here on.

From here on was a condition to be coped with,endured, until you were ready to make the necessary steps to allow you to return to fun.  By now, fun meant looking at yourself as you attempted to take on a seriousness you did not feel with any real conviction.  But now, thanks to rereading things you thought were serious, and rewriting things you intended as serious, you were able to embark on the long, multifarious trip necessary to get you through the dregs of seriousness, back to where you'd hoped to be.

There are times when you identify with a long-haired dog, coming out of a bath, shaking off the moisture in paroxysms of pure joy.  Or perhaps fun.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Volunteer Dandelion in the Sidewalk

Exaggeration often sneaks up on you when you are most serious and guarded of the need to present a clear, objective landscape, without irony or special effects.

Never mind that such clear, objective, irony-free landscapes are the ones most likely to bore you and remind you of the bane of your early school years, the text book.

Indeed, never mind that the writers and poets who lured you, the way the Sirens lured Odysseus' sailors, were men and women who got your loyalty with their gifts of exaggeration.  These worthies were teaching you a series of lessons worthy of a lifetime of study.  They taught you how a landscape became alive, populated, vibrant, suggestive when it was captured, distilled, and sent forth with as much vigor and resonance as daydreams and fantasies come to pass.

In order for any noun to come to life, however small and insignificant, it must be set into a dramatic motion that embodies life and yet is bigger than life.  The volunteer daisy or dandelion is an abstraction until it appears as a volunteer in the interstices of a cement sidewalk.  The person who strives toward a goal, however noble, remains an abstraction until presented in the concrete of a near-to-impossible landscape.

There are many unwise temptations to be coped with in the act of composition.  Notable among these temptations are the urges to describe, explain, and, perhaps worst of all, the temptation to prove you are a writer by orotund examples of logic and/or vocabulary.

Many of these fall by the wayside when you consider another great temptation, which is to demonstrate in the manner of a bull or bronco rider at a rodeo, your ability to stay on the literary horse through your use of simile and metaphor.  

If you can distinguish the rodeo writer from his lumbering gait, over-large belt buckles, and ornate boots which no working cowboy would give a second thought to, you can distinguish the showy writer by his or her need to describe every sunrise and sunset as though it were a back drop for a Wagnerian opera, then, in the manner of a calf roper, wrestle sentence after sentence to the ground, tie it with a swirl of gerunds and adverbs, before raising an italic or two and at least one exclamation mark in an arm wave of victory.

In your eagerness to establish your own peer relationship with the likes of Louise Erdrich, Willa Cather, Elmore Leonard, and Philip Roth, you have gone out of your way to learn such mischief, thinking writing to be a rodeo rather than a story or an essay, pumping up your language the way a body builder pumps iron, casting about for the literary equivalents of steroids with which you could flex your sentences, bulge your paragraphs, and, of course, lose track of the story or subject on which you'd embarked.

You might even reach for the pathetic fallacy, where planets, oceans, mountains, and trees take on human characteristics, perhaps in demonstration of your pantheistic vision but more likely to demonstrate your overeagerness to demonstrate how all the elements, known and unknown, are there in support of your story or argument.

With time, your excesses came back to haunt you.  In order to pay the rent, you became an editor, at first to avoid other jobs which seemed to share the common denominator of tediousness, but then because editing began to make sense in much the same way writing made sense, which is to say because editing a good writer was as much fun as reading a good book or writing a story.

You could by then argue with yourself that such excesses are necessary to get the essence of your intent down.  Writing in terms of them would influence your characters, their scenes, and the settings of these scenes.  Of course, you'd edit them all out in subsequent drafts.

This approach is in some ways the equivalent of telling a group of noisy youngsters to keep it down, to stop showing off, to behave more like an adult.  You might even go so far as to tell them to stop trying to do the thing they do best, which is noisily interact, trusting dreams and fantasies, ruled by as unexaggerated world as possible.

Most productive writers exaggerate.  They even go so far as to exaggerate ordinariness.  Consider, for example, what Melville did with Bartleby.

Comedy is exaggerated tragedy.  Humor is exaggerated awareness of the human condition.  How, oh, how can we be aware without seeing the universe about us as anything but an enormous cosmic exaggeration?

The Trickster, Captain Spaulding, The Coyote, certain poets, and certain writers, circulate among us with their stories, their versions, their stage make-up eyebrows.  You have a good start with the eyebrows.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

One Horse on You

This is the time of year for lists.  Publications and web sites are offering the "Ten Most" lists, which means the ten most wonderful or, in some cases, the ten most awful.  Motion pictures.  Stage plays.  Books.  Performances.  Political speeches.  Politicians.  Places to go on a honeymoon. Places to go to become divorced.

Some years back, you watched a good friend make a list of ten points he would focus on when he, a teacher, gave a lecture, or was called upon to introduce a featured speaker at a lunch where the guests chose their meals from a list of three options, meat, fish, or vegetarian.  

Your friend, who was also--surprise--a writer, knew something you already understood.  He probably would not get to use all ten of his points because he would become connected with one or more of the earlier points to the extent of gaining access to an entire level of enthusiasm and connectivity that would take him well beyond the allotted time.

Subsequent to this discovery, it fell to your lot to introduce a speaker to a group of individuals who'd been served a banquet dinner, a fact that wraps around itself with irony and the possibility for humor.  "I have ten things here to convey to you about tonight's speaker,"  you began, "but I am going to stop with the first two.  She is a writer of enormous narrative gifts, and her books are more substantial and satisfying than the dinner you have been served."

This introduction did not go well with the caterer, but the speaker thanked you after she'd finished, and a number of persons in the audience, who'd eaten the banquet dinner, commended you on your accuracy of description.  The overall reaction convinced your mounting suspicion that audiences begin to go bored with lists as the lists go on beyond the first two or three points.

If you have to rely on lists, make sure the first two or three points include information that will convince your audience that something provocative is soon to follow.  Often the best way to do so is to take aim at some elephant in some nearby living room, thus your own barb at the banquet supper, along with a potential reminder of how a banquet supper or lunch is a potential candidate for "The Ten Most Prevalent Elephants in Every Living Room."

In your opinion, speeches or lectures presented in connection with a banquet lunch or dinner are questionable in the first place, their text having been concocted in much the same way the caterer has presented the banquet host with a potential menu from which to chose.  You mean by this that the speaker is going out of his or her way to wrest your attention away from the tomato aspic in front of you with an anecdote or bon mot or another offering common to banquet speeches, a riposte.

You already know that a riposte is an answer, often barbed and/or humorous, to a question, so yes, you also know raising such a question in order to give it that arresting and tantalizing edge is a process described by the word "prolepsis."  

In a larger sense, you know all you need to know about lists for the same reason, having new, titanium hips installed to replace the older, worn ones, you know about using crutches and canes.  Lists are a device to help you edge your way to a podium or a table at a coffee shop where there is a note pad, or your work table at home, where there is a computer.

You lean on lists in order to be able to push off for engagement with ideas and connections, which are, in metaphor, the bucking broncos and calf-roping equivalents of composition.  The metaphor is apt because the acknowledged professionals in rodeo and roping are those who stay astride their mount for the longest time.  The calf-roper works as a metaphor because the roper does leave the horse, but with deliberation,  just as the writer leaves the theme in search of an unseen connection.

Many seasonal lists or simple ad hoc lists stop at best or worst performances.  Your purpose here is to give recognition to lists of failures, things you attempted for one reason or another, and botched or came within that range of closeness known as close but no cigar.  Although at one time a great fan of the cigar, you do not attempt things for the cigar, nor for any award.  You could make a list of awards that seem on the surface to be worthwhile.  It is your good fortune that you would be stretching probability to think serious thoughts of yourself in connection with any of them.

No matter.  You are not out of the market for awards, in particular those for lifetime achievement.  Ah, the glorious failures.  That is one horse you can still sit.

Back in the days when you lived in Mexico City and one of your neighbors was a midlist bullfighter named Enrique Torres, you played cards most nights, drinking dry Mexican pilsner.  Each time Enrique won, he'd say, "I have one horse on you."

A willingness to fail is a horse you can still sit.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


As each new day begins intruding its way past the gate keeper brain waves of sleep and into some semblance of your full consciousness, you begin to ask yourself questions relative to this new opportunity of a day to come forth, roaring and alive with potential.

Some of these questions you have for yourself take the form of lists of things to be done.  These things to be essayed are such as work- or pleasure-related meetings, classes to teach, specific chores to be attended before they end up costing you emotional or financial coin.  

In short, they are daily things, sometimes in such plentiful supply that lists are necessary to keep track of them.  Other times, the one or two "things" stand out for their urgency or timeliness--or their presence in unfettered potential for leisure and the curiosity to pursue that intriguing quality.

You recognize lists as a practical source of keeping track of future ventures, compiled as an insurance in using only-too-willing brain waves to forget the least pleasant chores, leaving you instead with the sense of a sailor in a new port, pockets filled with cash, hungry for experience and adventure, eager to get out on the town.

In part because of yesterday's meditation on picaresque novels, your preference for them, and an overall need to find the proper shape of things, you set forth once again with a litany of questions about the nature of the Self that is you and your perception of the parts of the universe with which you have some contact.

Without a scattered trove of notes and, indeed, these blog essays, you are in a large sense chaotic, even though all your limbs are in their proper place, such hair as you have is behaving in accord with its own, cow-lick ways, and the arrangement of your books is in enough of an order to allow you to interpret this order in times when you feel the need to retrieve one particular volume, from which to provide at least one significant paragraph or exchange of dialogue.

Reality needs no help from you in the daily assertion of chaos riding over the universe and its denizens. Of the few predictable things that may be advanced about reality, one significant state may be chaos.  Reality is an enormous outpouring, a virtual cornucopia, of events, for which there is scant time to make anything so organized as a list.  You see of reality what you can and wish to see.  Others join you, each in their separate visions.

Rather than use logic to make the point, you'll stipulate.  You're often a walking chaos, running parallel tracks with Reality which, regardless of how busy you are, is busier and exponentially busier than you.

Given your fondness for the picaresque narrative, which seems to wander over the terrain, seeking clues and direction from its landmarks and denizens, you are not surprised to notice how picaresque your life is, off at an apparent whim to track down some result or outcome you'd not suspected when you began.  

The outcome of your narratives often come as a surprise, in most of these cases, a happy surprise, where matters get sorted as much as matters in the kinds of life you prefer can achieve any sense of resolution.  You are cautious in your fortunate outcomes because of an experience-based sentiment that most things are not what they seem to be.  You can go on from there in that mash-up of Mrs. Malaprop and those two baseball greats, Casey Stengel, and Yogi Berra, with the observation that even when a thing is what it seems, it isn't.

For the most part, you collect lists rather than follow them.  They tell you what is often in your best interest to accomplish, even if you don't feel like engaging the specific activity.  Some of your best work--so far as you are concerned--comes from the avoidance of items on your list.

One way or another, you love story as much as you love certain living things.  Story has shape and outcome.  Your life has had an extraordinary, surprised-based shape.  Sometimes, your lists, life, and stories reflect too much pedantry and pedagogic vector.  Coming on them unprepared is often a shock.  This was a part of your life you'd thought to have under control.

There is your personal agon, the teeter-totter between shape and the picaresque.

"Do you realize how difficult you make things for yourself?"  you ask in self-reflective attempts at a negotiation.

Often the answer come forth, all too soon, "And do you have any idea how difficult it would be if you were anyone else?"

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Agon My Face

The Greeks, who seem to have an exciting word for as many things as American English does, have a simple, four-letter word for a contest or squabble, which may be internal or external, or both.  the word is agon, which you first learned as an English major, at about the time you were having many inner and outer squabbles with yourself.

Many of the books presented to you, often from the eighteenth century, but some from times before what is now called CE, Common Era, when September had thirty days; so did April, June, and November, were of a rambling nature, called picaresque.  

To remind you of some of these, let's look at the mischievous and bawdy ramble, The Golden Ass,  composed by one Lucius Appuleus, who lived more or less from 123 until 170.  But let us not forget Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Tobias Smollet's Humphrey Clinker, and Peregrine Pickle.  Nor should you fail to mention Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, among the unforgettable genera.

All of these were episodic romps, some, such as Humphrey Clinker, built around a journey ( who could forget that most epic journey from the Tabard Inn, located in beautiful downtown London,to the Canterbury Cathedral?), others elopements or a series of episodes, many of which, on consideration, could have been cut from the narrative without material damage to it.  

Although you'd been raised on more plot-driven stories, these picaresque novels captured your undying admiration, causing you at the same time to wish to emulate them with your own more modernized versions of adventures, some built on nothing more dramatic than a group of individuals standing in a long line to purchase tickets to some performance.  

From about age sixteen until your mid-twenties, your typical manuscript was a thirty-to-forty-page outing, introducing characters who sometimes were more distinguished by their desire to get off their pages and back to some activity that defined them.

The agon began when you also began another life-long fondness for the type of plot-driven story you found in what were called pulp magazines.  The key to such stories was determinism, a philosophical or logic-based position in which every event is the inevitable outcome of previous conditions which could cause no other result.  Variations caused different outcomes and, in consequence, different stories.

Your agon was the inner contest whereby you could produce a story that seemed picaresque, yet was stitched together in a way reminiscent of some of the Maine shoe and boot makers of today, still producing hand-sewn shoes.  The result you had in mind was obviously hand crafted and would seem so to anyone who read it.  

You rejoiced at the number of critics you read who assured anyone who would accept their view that any perfection to be found in a given novel would have to be found in one or more of its basic elements, such as characters, or the way characters speak to one another, which is dialogue.  Perhaps there was perfection to be found in pacing or setting. 

Two Saul Bellow novels, The Adventures of Augie March,  in particular because of its voice, and Humboldt's Gift, because of the way it played the characters of Charlie Citrine and Humboldt as a kind of Martin and Lewis comedic ballet with more tragic undercurrents, dazzled you with hope that you'd be able to bring your vision to a focus.

For the longest time, you'd come to believe that John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men, was the closest thing you'd found to bring these elements of character, goal, dialogue, pacing, and suspense together.  At length you found others, interestingly enough coming from writers who produce shorter works, say Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, and any of a number of shorter ventures by Louise Erdrich and Jim Harrison.

 From time to time, when you found such novels and longish short stories ("The Rich Boy" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Guided Tours of Hell by Francine Prose)  you read them again and again, in search of clues for insights that might guide you to producing some of your own works to your own satisfaction.

Now, more than ever before, you understand the challenge before you, the one that caused so many crumpled pages, torn from a succession of typewriters, so many delete buttons pushed on so many computers, so many notebooks, scanned for clues of insights and visions,