Among the many things we may say of Reality without edging over into areas of being too judgmental, the quality of relentless seems almost an understatement.
If not relentless, what then? Sorcerer's apprentice comes to mind. To employ yet another kind of rhetorical fallacy, we could even say of Reality that it is steroidal, should be investigated for abusive use of performance enhancement.
You take as a base point for measuring Reality a metric used for determining various aspects of electricity. On a simplistic level. electricity is the flow of electrons past a given point, directed toward another point. In the spirit of retaining simplicity of levels, Reality is the flow of the totality of events, as seen from one vantage point.
Therein crouches at least one fallacy in logic. The single vantage point. But it does begin to suggest the enormity and randomness of what Reality is in operation.
No help that you are a part of it, adding to it with each movement you make or do not. No help either that you are part of a we, a species, thus the sense of you as a drop of water in parallel with an ocean.
Then, to add additional notes of texture and mischief, all the other species, contributing to Reality each in its own way.
Small wonder our species--your species, you--flies to the medium of story much as iron filings rush toward the magnet or, to keep some pretense of living metaphor alive, as pigeons flock to breadcrumbs.
Story hates endlessness and beginnings buried in detail. Story hates randomness and loss of structure. About the only thing story and Reality have in common is the momentary potential for a person, place, or thing to appear to be winning or having some kind of run of good fortune before being battered by a Hurricane Katrina or the explosion of a Mt. Etna, or The Titanic, having an encounter with an iceberg.
Over the years of your own growth span, you have evolved from a person well aware of his impatience with things and his excruciating wish to have them happen now, only to discover that things have their own agenda and time frame, Reality has its own time frame, but no discernible agenda. Understanding this and your own relative lack of control over the two reference points, yours and Reality's, you've managed to drop a few degrees of impatience along the way. You might even see yourself as moderately patient at times, although perhaps the best way to look at the matter is to consider yourself accepting things you cannot hope to change.
This last is yet another reason for your interest in story. Within its paragraphs, you can evoke your own Reality, therein to nudge characters of your own creation to some larger measure of control and structure.
Reality is as shapeless and formless as that accident you caused by including a treasured woolen sweater in the wash, only to be greeted by its own end-of-cycle transformation to a sodden lump. All right then, Reality is a sodden lump. But it does not care. Even if our species--your species--were to be obliterated, there would be enough things happening as a result of Reality to keep the survivors occupied.
Reality does not need you, even though you contribute to it. To show you how insignificant you are, Reality has been around for millions, possibly billions of years. You haven't. In spite of the fact that people now hold doors open for you, you are still a relatively new kid on the block.
Reality can do without any number of things; the best you can do in the face of loss or impending designations of endangered species is accept. A favorite story of yours involves the Transcendentalist writer-philosopher, Margaret Fuller (1810-50), who at one point announced, "I accept Reality." To which the noted Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), said, "By God, she'd better." You don't see that you have much choice, not until you begin thinking about story.
For a few moments, if you ply your craft with sufficient care and concern, you can create your own simulacrum, your own sense of Reality. Then, to the extent of which you are able and the conventions of story permit, you can change that Reality or at least send it off on the wrong direction for a page or two.
Writers are far from being alone as control freaks. Musicians, artists, photographers, actors, gardeners, all of them try to get the real Reality to sit up and take notice. And readers, persons who visit museums and art galleries, patrons of the ballet, or bebop lovers who attend sessions at The Village Gate are all control freaks as well.
We are driven to story and the constructs of story by impatience with the soggy formlessness of Reality and the belief that we can create a better pattern or series of dramatic events than Reality.
Those of us who are writers and readers of course have favorites, which is another aspect of being a control freak. There are wide legions of writers you admire as well as a growing number you cannot abide. You have a few words to say about all of them, including such epithets as tin-ear for dialog, lousy stylist, creator of unreliable or unbelievable characters and/or settings. They are awful writers, but even at that, they have to be loved because, awful as they are, they are our writers; they are our control freaks, and we are all in this together against the common, formless hulk of an opponent, Reality.
Friday, January 31, 2014
Among the many things we may say of Reality without edging over into areas of being too judgmental, the quality of relentless seems almost an understatement.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
You've given considerable thought to how past events in your life and, to some parallel extent, individuals in your life have influenced the way you respond in present-day situations. You've even carried these thoughts and reflections to include your tastes and preferences in all manner of things such as music, food, and, yes, even books.
There is little surprise for you in the greater tendency to like persons who've read and had the same reaction to books or particular foods or music. Nor is there a surprise that thoughts of certain musical composers cause you to think of the individuals who suggested them to you.
At one time in your life when you were not all that happy with your circumstances, your surroundings, or your behavior, a friend sent you in the mail a massmarket paperback edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, with a note suggesting that if you were to read this book, you would not behave like such an asshole.
He was so correct in his assessment, to the point where you think of him often for recommending a book with such transformative powers, and you think of the book whenever you feel the gnawing need to be, once again, transformed. You may not find yourself behaving like an asshole, but you are aware of a need for some guiding, transformative force.
Whenever you hear the music of Antonin Dvorak, say his B-minor Cello Concerto, or the Symphony in E Minor, the Ninth or New World Symphony, you think of Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008), a clarinetist and saxophonist who'd made his reputation with Woody Herman before you met him on context with Shorty Rogers and his Giants. Giuffre set you to listening to the music of Dvorak and of Frederic Delius to the point where you thought you could hear their tonal and thematic influences in Giuffre's playing.
When you find yourself confronted with a croissant and a glob of strawberry jam, you think of the novelist and short story writer, Judith Freeman. Only this week, when you had occasion to consider the differences between fluffy and hard matzo balls, which cause you to think of your father, who had marked preferences for the hard.
With all this as back story, you cannot help wonder if the individuals you've met in your reading have influenced some of your tastes. Now that you think of it, Aldous Huxley, whom you met only once and too briefly to discuss music with him, informed your taste in the string quartets of Borodin and Scriabin. Surely there are other examples in such things as food, wine, and personality types.
With even greater potential for certainty, your reading could well have affected your regard to various types of individuals; look for instance, at the array of types presented you in your reading of Dickens and his contemporary pal, Wilkie Collins.
Look as well at types of endings. Your return to Jane Austen by way of investigating her narrative techniques has already led you to see her novel, Northanger Abby, for more than the entertaining story it is, and why would her work not be entertaining to you, given your sense of her poking satiric fun at the class stratification about her?
In your preparations for your forthcoming class in noir fiction, you sense a comparison between Northanger Abby and one of the Gothic horror novels of the past, Horace Walpole's 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto. Austen's novel can be seen as a satire in the best sense of the word; the same sense, in fact, of all Austen's novels, which take on class structure.
Your admiration for Austen is for her interior narrative skills and her use of subtext. You part company with her endings, even though they speak to a kind of essential English middle-class accord in which individuals of differing social levels often place love above level. This is still the comedic ending, the "and they all lived happily ever after" kind of ending, which is less to you liking than the noir and the more practical endings from George Eliot in the likes of Middlemarch.
Such endings as Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, and, on this side of the pond, Willa Cather and William Faulkner, influenced your inexorable gravitation to the noir, the dark-sided mystery and edgy confrontations with reality of such varied authors as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Daniel Woodrell.
The results are not so much a result of you disliking happy endings as distrusting their probable reality as representations of real persons confronting tangible and believable social, ethical, and spiritual conflicts.
With the great certainty of memory, you can recall individuals who told you things of a hurtful, educational, encouraging, or practical nature, then trace the embedded effect. This reminds you of the times you had to perform minor surgery on yourself, either with a sewing needle or the blade of a pocket knife, subjected to antiseptic via an applied wooden match. This to remove a splinter of wood, somehow embedded in a hand or foot. The emotional splinter was placed there by an individual and removed by you.
Books also go a long way toward building direct and indirect images in your mind, causing you to question, challenge, avoid, or seek out. Such judgments are of high speculative index, nevertheless it is your judgment that at least as many of your tastes, prejudices, and preferences come from your reading as from actual persons.
All the more reason to continue with your reading.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
A narrative with only one line of inquiry going forth has not yet attained the status of story or that lovely nonfiction equivalent of story, the personal essay.
Such a narrative is at best a linear reporting of some quest for a consensus, for a greater understanding, or a recitation of events. The closest approximation you can think of for such a line of narrative is a newspaper account of some event or some writer's interpretation of the event.
To make the grade as story, at least one more line of intent must be introduced, perhaps as an adjunct or satellite of the main line, perhaps as something with no sense of being an apparent relative.
The energy behind this logic is your memory of having learned about the qualities of parallel lines in geometry, wherein such parallel lines meet only in infinity. For the immediate now, parallel lines, by their intrinsic nature, cannot meet; this in concert with the awareness of the metrics of narrative and its conventions, wherein parallel likeness are not only bound to meet, depending on the length of the medium, they meet in the last paragraph or the last chapter.
You--and for that matter we--learn of this quality of parallel dramatic lines as a result of our reading and as well from having the fact called to our attention, not always in the most pleasing of ways, by a teacher or an editor.
We--you included--have to assume the teachers and editors who call this fact to our intention are persons of good will, at least in the sense of them wishing to steer us into finding as eager and supportive a readership for our work as possible. In the bargain, there resides the hope we will have noticed from our own reading how often multiple narrative lines add dimension, nuance, subtext, and the potential for clues to our individual compositions.
Now comes the introduction of subsequent parallel lines to the main narrative. A good way to approach this concept is to say, "Against a background of X, Y takes place, producing an ambiguous-but-satisfying resolution of Z.
Against the background of, say, the American Civil War, a man and women from each of the two major sides become lovers, then realize they can not settle down to pursue their life goals in either the North or the South.
Thus two parallel lines set in motion.
Suppose we wish to introduce another, say the man's suggestion that they settle in southern Mexico, citing excellent advantages there for a satisfying life for both of them and as well any children they might bring forth into the world.
Now, we have three parallel lines advancing, the latest motivated in its entirety by the first two.
Well and good, except for the fact of this third line being a form of deus ex machina or, if you will, a rabbit-out-of-a-hat solution. The man has suggested it, but has really not had to earn it or have it appear that his choice was anything but the product of thought. There was no risk, no sense of reversal. The answer seems too pat, so we need a fourth line to keep the story moving along on those narrative tracks of tension and risk.
Let's try this as a fourth parallel line. The She in the romantic pair has distant relatives in Canada, or has once visited there, finding it agreeable and more of a potential for a satisfying life than their settlement in Mexico would offer them.
This fourth line is what was lacking. Now, He can object, finding fault with Canada, which prompts her to find fault with Mexico. A few rounds of this argument has each digging in her and his heels to the point where they exchange acrimonious threats and even worse behavior, recapitulating among the two principals the same form of national schism that has rent asunder the United States before those shots were fired at Fort Sumpter, plunging this country into a bloodbath the likes of which has yet to be surpassed.
The strength of this version of the parallel lines is that it can end with the two individuals replication of the same politics and attitudes that forced them to consider the solution of moving to the northern or southern extremes of their native continent.
The apparent weakness is the close to heavy-handed symbolism, but this is a weakness with a potential for being resolved by the writing itself, the details relevant to the characters, and the narrative tone.
Many stories with four lines will not offer so easy a shot at an ending so laced with irony and nuance, nevertheless such closures are available to the point where many of the readers will be able to anticipate the one evident thing when they become aware of the four lines in motion. That one evident thing, of course, is the point where the parallel lines jump track, then meet in an imaginative and satisfying mash up, where the outcome can be left as vague as wished or tied up with as many ribbons as possible.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
There are times when you find yourself baffled by things you have composed, suffering from a sense of disconnect with the person you are under normal composition conditions.
This is by no means to suggest that "normal compositions" are all that normal, merely that they seem normal to you; their results often do not surprise you.
The times in which you are baffled are occasions when the copilot is at the controls or some aspect of your personality wishes to step beyond the more or less democratic process you have forged with yourselves over the years of the simple approach of making your writing seem to conflate with the way you speak and, of course, the reverse, where you speak with the same sense of presence as when you write.
This concept of the person you are under most normal conditions is a matter of some interest to you. The interest becomes more acute when persons you know speak of you in terms you'd like to think you achieved, terms such as balanced, measured, non-judgmental, even open-minded. You have great wishes to be all those things, but catch sight of yourself at times being driven by one of the less experienced of your chauffeurs, say impatience or irritation, or that state of recognition where the thing you are observing in action causes you to express your disbelief at it.
By taking pains to develop characters of many opposing views, you are in effect causing some of your own component parts to step out of the shadows to ask for a turn at the wheel, so to speak.
"Couldn't we try being a bit more wait-and-see?" Or perhaps, "How about we just watch this unfold, see if there's a story in it or something to somehow be learned?"
Tomorrow will be the nine-months anniversary of you having the cat, Goldfarb, as a roommate, a fact that has caused you on a number of occasions to reflect on the sort of person you are.
You are no stranger to having animals as roommates. Your first actual pet chose you rather than you selecting him. He was a short-haired domestic with some tabby markings and a large expanse of white chest and belly. He roomed with your next-door neighbor in the Hollywood Hills, although you did not know this until a reverse kind of inertia was underway.
He came to you when you were writing a novel a month, trying to live on the earnings, moonlighting sometimes of necessity by writing short stories. Those days, you instrument was a fire engine red Olivetti manual portable, which, among other things you liked about it, had the Italian type face, Bodoni. The cat, whose name you did not know at the time, surely heard you at work, knew you were there, had some occasion to have caught wind of your preference for grilling lamb or pork chops or Sea Bass on a hibachi.
One day, the cat clambered in your open window to pay you a visit. Charmed by the gesture, you offered him the remains of a pork chop, which he dragged into the bedroom to eat.
On his next visit, you began the habit of calling him Sam. Some days later, you heard his owner calling him, a shortened version of Beethoven--actually Beetho. "Shhh," he seemed to be telling you, at the sound of his owner's call.
"You really should go," you said. "He's obviously wanting your company." You went to the kitchen door, opened it, and motioned.
After a month or so of Ray, your neighbor, calling his cat, and you wondering aloud to Sam, who was becoming a regular, "Do people call cats? And if they do, do cats listen and respond?" All this by way of demonstrating that unlike many individuals you know who have cats for companions, you do not know what cats think.
Events developed where Ray in effect told Beetho he was absolved of that name, was now to answer to Sam, and was to become your roommate, where he spent the remainder of his life.
Before Sam came into your life, you'd given serious thought to a Beagle, an Australian Shepherd, and an amalgam of breeds, which is to say an agreeable mutt. After Sam was laid to rest at the Woodman Avenue home of a writer friend, your next animal was a dog, a breed you'd long heard of, but had never seen. The dog, a Bluetick Hound, was secured to fill the enormous hole left by Sam's departure. Thus you have told a succession of dogs of their debt to Sam.
You in large measure knew what your dogs were thinking. A number of cats entered your life along the way, and now you are down to one roommate, Goldfarb, with whom you get on in an agreeable, considerate way roommates have.
The only serious issue you've had with Goldfarb is his recent tendency to want to groom you at the precise area of your head where male pattern baldness has left you wishing he would chose some other way to show his affection. When Sam groomed you, your hair was rather thick.
You know enough about cats to know affection when you see it; indeed you have had enough cats to know lack of affection when you see it.
You are a dog person, a dog person who has had cats, who has had two or three--Goldfarb included--whom he cherishes.
You are a short story person. Even though you have written and published more novels than you have short stories, you are still a short story person. Even though your hope for the next book immediately after you finish the nonfiction book about characters and acting techniques will be to complete a novel you've been brooding and carrying on about, you are still a short story person.
Novels talk to you; you even know what they think in many cases. But you know about yourself that you are a short story person.
Pasta with red clam sauce is quite to your liking, but you are a pasta-with-white-clam-sauce person. Soft, fluffy matzo balls are okay, but your father got you to thinking what would happen if a matzo ball were so compacted and hard that it would break the plate, should it fall off the spoon.
You can make similar observations about various types of music, because you are this combination of component parts. In the unlikely event that you will be able to chose the last music you hear before you depart your present form, you will have had a serious argument about whether it is to be Wanda Landowska, playing the first segment of J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavicord, any of several pianists playing Maurice Ravel's The Waltz or Sonatine, or perhaps Bill Evans, playing I Loves You, Porgy, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray in their epic tenor sax battle, The Chase, or Miles Davis with So What? Depending on your mood at the time, you might throw in Lynn Harrell, playing Dvorak's Cello Concerto, and hey, what about Mozart's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D Minor, #20?
There are many such examples of you arguing for primacy, causing you to realize that the important description is of a man who has become a disconnect from predictability; your preferences are all leaps of some kind or other. If you were the sort who fancied a tombstone, if only to leave an enigmatic epitaph or description, it would be one word, and a punctuation mark.
Monday, January 27, 2014
With all the attention you've paid to learning to describe to yourself the intricacies of story in order to write them yourself, you appear to have avoided an important confrontation.
Story is, in any end-game analysis, a matter of confrontation. Character goes up against a system, a culture, another individual representing systems or cultures, meets apparent opposition, tries again, is slammed to the ground in an even more fierce reversal, leading us to the sense of despair and gloom attendant on the feeling that all is lost.
Depending on the story, the "all" that is lost can extend all the way down to self-identity. "Things," "conditions," and "circumstances" are so dire now that there is no more self left to contrive an escape route. The self is on the verge of giving up its identity.
But wait. What's this?
"This" is the self seeing the opportunity for a plan. If the plan is successful, the self will not have to call Good Will to come pick up all the things it has acquired over the years as a running scorecard of who and what it is.
These are building blocks, small details already well known to you to the point where you sometimes dream about them or find yourself editing them in your dreams. What you sometimes lose track of is the ongoing need to take these small building parts apart to examine their inner workings.
Of course story contains conflict, characters confronting one another over their differences of opinion or, in even greater varieties of irony, characters who argue about the same thing, each in dead serious contest about the intensity of his understanding of the thing.
If story were not story, there would be a different sense of pace. Needs arising from story would shift. You believe you've defined boredom here, with this observation. Boredom is the human response to things going well, in harmony. One way to change all that: have a character come along with an agenda for making things more harmonious than they already are. But Fred, we're happy as we are. Leave us alone.
Ah, don't you see, Fred says. Things could be better if you worked at it with more élan vital.
What's elan vital?
Elan vital is a deep, abiding joy in doing things. If you'd allow yourself to feel happier, you'd see what I mean.
Perhaps you could show us, Fred. How can we be any happier?
For one thing, you could spend more time--and here, we come to the end of a page or chapter, meaning the gears of story are meshed. Individuals are heating up to what appears to us readers as an epic battle in the making. We can see things the characters cannot, because they are (take your choice here) cursed or blessed (notice the use of pairs of opposites here) or afflicted or cured (yet another approach to the same problem, right?).
On a clear day, so the saying went when you were an undergraduate at UCLA, you could, from the top of the Janss Steps, see Catalina. Then came story and song, whereby, on a clear day, you could see forever. Although you can scarcely claim to see forever, you can see some future things with a comfortable degree of accuracy. To some extent, you have this ability because of your experience with other humans and your interactions with some of them.
But even back when you could not see so much future--you even once wrote an editorial, "After graduation, what?--and you could see some of the inaccuracies of your peers, you could not see all of your own by any means. This is not to say you didn't see any of your own needs for self-editing. There were in fact so many, you could scarcely keep up with them.
Some would call this process extreme self-editing, deleting and rewriting aspects of yourself neither you nor those about you liked. Others might call this process the nonliterary one of maturation, or even growing up.
Now that you hunk about it, you've probably been told to grow up as many times as you've been told you need editing.
The point you are after is this: However much there is to be learned from reading, writing, and understanding story, there is as much to be learned about you in the process.
By looking at stories you've read or written in the past, you are able to see what if any progress you've made. You're able to see if you're happier, sadder, more resigned, more curious, more combative against the forces of boredom, and in what directions you might best extend your efforts.
Much of these observations have been fluttering about you like a swarm of hungry mosquitoes on a summer's evening. Because you've not less than an hour ago finished the edits to the last of twelve stories that will appear in a forthcoming collection, you have had the opportunity to see what you thought was splendid at a time in the past and what was needed to raise the quality of that past splendid to a more contemporary one.
In so many ways, your topic is the existential one of your growth and progress from the Labor Day holiday you were brought forth into the world, given a pat of encouragement (of some sort), and had a drop or two of silver nitrate dribbled into your eyes, then to lunch, for it had been a long, hard, bumpy journey, all nine pounds, seven ounces of you. In other ways, your topic is literary because it is about story and your reaction to it.
Are you alone in shaking your head at the often repeated trope about how lonely writing is? You are in constant contact with strange, edgy, suspicious-looking characters when you compose. You think to impart motives to them, but why should they trust you to give them motives they wished for in the first place.
Your characters and impulses are like the dogs for whom those electronic fences are installed at such expense, meant keep them contained.
The characters who allow themselves to be thus confined by the artificial limits of your imagination are of no use to you. In the twelve stories you've been dealing with, you found yourself focused most on those who were willing to risk the jolt of electricity when hitting the boundary of the electronic fence.
Look. Look. Look. See. See. See. See Dick. See Jane. See Spot.
You are not joking. those are quotes from your early readers. No wonder you are who you are. You were already laughing when you saw those words. You'd read yourself beyond those limitations already. You could not see that far into the future yet, but through story, you learned to create characters saying the literary equivalent of Fuck this, whenever they came to the electronic fences of culture.
Sunday, January 26, 2014
You did not know until sometime in your forties that your mother followed you to school every day for two weeks to see if she could get any clues about how you managed to attract so much clutter and dirt.
You did not realize until today that Matthew Bender believed he was not the sort of man women would throw peanuts at him from their portions of kung pao chicken.
The former information came out in casual conversation with your mother, well after days when you apparently did come home in a more rustic and disheveled state than when you departed most mornings. This was some time after your appearance on returning home caused her neither concern nor curiosity. "This was well before you got your growth," she told the you in your forties. "I often wondered how a boy your size managed to attract so much dirt."
The latter information is by some degrees of a more subjective matter because Matthew Bender, although quite real to you, is not an actual person. He is a character. You know this about him: somewhere in the nooks and recesses of your mind, he bears a relationship to Odysseus, the commanding figure in The Odyssey and as well no mere bit player in The Iliad.
You first drew this conclusion about him when you saw two points of similarity between your character and the more kingly and respected performer of the Homeric epics. One man was returning home to Ithaca from the Trojan Wars, the other returning home to Santa Barbara from a good long run in an off off Broadway production of Troilus and Cressida, which had him involved in some professional and territorial squabbles with a notional director.
When you encountered by accident the translated meaning of Odysseus' name--"a man of many turns"--Bender's name seemed to glow in the light of implication.
You were revising a short story in which Bender is seated across the table from Heather, whom he is beginning to see as the love of his life. They are eating kung pao chicken in an atmosphere Bender considers to be fraught with romantic implications. Of a sudden, on a whim, or perhaps with a significant goal in mind, Heather selects a peanut from her plate, hefts it, then throws it at Bender.
You could say that you realized Bender had never been in such a situation before, which would have required you to somehow have that information occur to Bender as well as to you. Call it interior monologue. Call it what you will; the information spoke to you from Bender, who at that moment was at an emotional crossroads with the realization he was not the sort of man at whom women threw unshelled peanuts. He was also aware how much he cared for Heather. A response was called for. You in fact admired his response to the thrown peanut and, later, to the consequences of the thrown peanut.
At this point in the stories you have placed him in, you find it doubtful Bender has any awareness of the similarity between his name and the translated meaning of Odysseus. This awareness might have some significant impact on his reactions to a young girl named Cindy, who has a crush on him and wishes to become his girlfriend. Once again, you have to spend more time listening to Matthew Bender, inducing him to reveal more secrets to you.
You find it curious, amusing, and significant that this young girl bears an arguable comparison to a young princess from The Odyssey, Nausica'a, who manages to prank Odysseus, inspiring for you Cindy's memorable prank on Bender.
Your mother could have asked you for some sort of judgment about your headlong approach into things that leave stains on the clothing and skin of a young boy. But what could you have said that would satisfy any part of her curiosity? At that time of your life, you had all you could do to remove such treasures as you acquired during the course of a day, then store them in a succession of cigar boxes that came your way from your father.
You like to think you'd have said something existential, "I go forth seeking adventures and treasures, making do with bottle caps, marbles, broken clocks, and such targets of opportunity Nature chooses to share with me: a cricket, a ladybug, a mouse." The greater likelihood is the more basic, "I dunno." The greater likelihood is that it did not seem like so much dirt to you as it did seem like opportunities for discovery. You are, in fact, a result of all your dirt and treasures and the reaching for them.
You have to be careful with Bender as well; he is an actor--sometimes a quite good one, other times holding on. In that sense, he reminds you of you, more often than not, unable to see when he is quite good or merely holding on. The important thing with both of you is that he takes jobs, you write. You might both be more prolific if neither of you lived so much an interior life, although you've tried that other, not thinking way as well as the one you're on now.
Bender has been Troilus. He has also worn a chicken suit while parading in front of a chicken restaurant on upper Milpas Street. You could give a good account of him; he could do a pretty good impression of you, except that you know a thing or two about peanut throwing he does not know. It counts some that you had to watch him in action to discover this secret of his.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
Your first ventures into the job world happened before you matured into double-digit ages, all of them having to do with the direct sale of newspapers or the delivery of them to regular subscribers. Although you are well aware of having these jobs, you would not think to use them in any way to influence a potential employer to hire you.
Today, another such job came rushing into your mind, a dear enough discovery to cause you to think this job was something you'd be pleased to have known about you.
You have not thought of yourself as this person for some considerable time, and yet this job in its way, given you as an intended punishment or, giving the benefit of the doubt at this late remove, a wake-up call, has had a tangible influence on your life.
Looking back on the job and circumstances of it given you, you reckon there was little possibility it was meant as an intended humiliation. In the most direct terms possible, the job was the Ink Monitor of the fourth grade at Public School Number Ten, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the small town on the eastern shore of Middlesex County, bordering on the Raritan River, over which a brief ferry would take you to Staten Island, New York, from which point, you could ride the Staten Island Rapid Transit, colloquially called the Rat Trap, from the western shore of Staten Island to its eastern shore, thereupon to board the Staten Island Ferry for lower Manhattan.
At the time of your assignment to ink monitor, the New Jersey modus operandi for teaching handwriting was called The Palmer Method, a legible, semi-ornate conflation of loops, sworls, and strokes often described as Spencerian.
In no uncertain terms, your handwriting was a matter of concern for Mrs. DeAngelo, your teacher, who wrote concerned notes to your parents, in a Spencerian hand, by the way, with green ink, by the way, informing them of her failure to see how a boy with your vocabulary and abilities at improvisation could, as she put it, write so slovenly a hand. She went on to explain that every other member of the class had earned, via the Good Writers' Club,the right to use a special, red dip fountain pen, which the student would be allowed to keep at the close of the semester as a reminder of how penmanship was a vital part of individual character.
You, on the other hand, were still limited to using the mocha brown classroom issue dip pen, which you would have to return at the end of the semester since it was the property of the Perth Amboy Board of Education.
Each desk in your classroom had a metal recess for a glass inkwell, which fit snugly in place. Your job was to secure the large bottle of black ink from the cloak room, then make sure each inkwell in each desk was filled with ink into which the student could then dip the bright red pen holder of The Good Writers' Club, blot off any excess with a scrap of cloth each of us was required to bring from home, then set forth to writing in the Palmer Method, with graceful, legible loops and sworls, indicative of our purpose as students.
Was it your mischievous nature, the fact of your California upbringing, pre-puberty rebelliousness, or some innate flaw in your personality that caused you to discover and demonstrate to the delight of all the male students in the class another use for the cloth intended for wiping excesses of ink?
From your point of view, the proximity of a piece of cloth more or less the size of a penny post card was just the thing to distract attention from your poor penmanship.
Girls in those distant days at Public School Number Ten wore dresses. Each time a girl stood to recite from a lesson or to use the pencil sharpener or in any way depart from sitting at her desk, she would hear the sound of ripping cloth. What was she to think? Perhaps a seam had given way. Perhaps there was a more unfortunate rip.
One day, Sal Fado, a pretty good chum, saw you at work, shredding a length of your cloth. Good old Sal; he caught on immediately. In a matter of days, Mrs. De Angelo noted a distinct lack of interest in reciting lessons or venturing opinions from the girls.
This aspect of pens, ink monitoring, and penmanship in general influenced a lifelong fondness for fountain pens. Someone may say of you that your fondness for and subsequent collection of pens was in response to you being the only one who did not get the red pen as a tangible demonstration of his loops and swirls, his lush ovals and straightforward push-pull strokes. You will accept that judgment even though in the crucible of your own mind, the score was settled with the sound of tearing cloth which, you hasten to add, you also used when boys arose.
Over the course of your working life, you've been asked to provide a prospective employer with a resume or, if the prospective employer were a school of some sort, a curriculum vitae. These two names are enough to convey the difference between schools and most other sorts of employment venues.
To their credit, some schools abbreviate curriculum vitae to a more agreeable-sounding "CV." You've been asked to submit your CV in places where you were pretty sure you wouldn't mind working. The one or two places asking for the more formal result were in effect confirming your suspicion that formality and serious lurked in the hallways.
Places where you were in consideration or hopeful of serious consideration and resumes were referred to as timelines also became places where you might not have minded working. There were a few jobs in publishing you were emphatic about wanting, places where resumes were in one case called a resume and in yet another a curriculum vitae. You got neither job. Subsequent events led you to be pleased you didn't. These events were directly related to the fate of individuals who did get the job and to the publishing house itself moreso than any rationalizations on your part minimizing your loss.
You mention these two aspects of being on the prowl for a particular job as backstory to what you were and were not comfortable with including in your own resume, your own curriculum vitae, and how you approach the character resume of fictional individuals you bring on stage. You imagine them having quirks, but until this day, when you were for a time back in the homelands of your parents and some of your cousins, you had not thought of this job, this mischief, and these forgotten traits of a nine-year-old boy.
Friday, January 24, 2014
For over a week, you have seen a man whose name may or may not be Sid, standing at the Las Positas Road entry/exit to the Loreto Shopping mall, a mall of modest size in what is a tad north of the central part of Santa Barbara.
Sid, who may or may not be homeless, appears to be about the size and proportion equivalent to a man's off-the-rack suit size forty, a size which in its way is about the average size for man's clothing. He has gray, curly hair of a tint and intensity that adds to your suspicion about whether Syd is homeless or that his name is Syd.
Disclosure. Such hair as you have is gray, in about the shade of Sid's more luxurious growth. Your hair is the color it is because your cutter, Maryelle, some years ago confessed to you that she used a shampoo on you with blue in it. Indeed, her Christmas gifts to you have invariably been shampoo, known by her to contain a blue agent. Her reason is the essence of simplicity. "Gray hair can get to look yellowish and grotty. Blue rinse removes the tendency for gray hair to yellow."
When she first discussed this with you, she gave a gesture you have seen many French persons make, on many occasions. Her gesture reminded you of pantomiming the release of a pigeon, the hands beginning in near enough proximity for you to visualize them holding the pigeon, followed by the upward flick whereby the bird is sent off to fend for itself. Since you've known Maryelle, she has thus released many pigeons. For at least fifteen years, she has been slipping blue into your hair.
Thus in four paragraphs, a background for your belief that Sid neither has his hair cut in a barber college or is a stranger to shampoo with blue in it.
Your assessment of Sid not being his real name came as a result of you asking him what his name was, which came as a result of you having read the hand-lettered sign he extended to every car entering Loreto Plaza, either as you did, by turning left at the intersection of State Street and Las Positas Road, then making an immediate right into the parking lot.
Unlike many of the hand-lettered signs you've seen here and numerous other places in Santa Barbara and such satellite destinations as the warp and weft of your life take you, the headline on Sid's sign did not advertise hunger, homelessness, joblessness, or all-inclusive despair, nor one memorable headline, "Wounded for Country." Sid's sign said, "Be Sure to Read Small Print."
When you first saw that sign, you knew you were going to be out at least a dollar. After you parked your car, alit, then approached him, his posture and demeanor impressing you with its anomalous-yet-apt Ralph Lauren stylishness, you forced yourself to set a limit. No more than five dollars.
In range to read the small print, you were impressed. "I am," it said, "a sincere person." No more than five dollars.
There has never been a question in your mind that a person holding a sign, such as Sid, standing at a freeway off ramp or entry to a shopping center, is in effect putting the bite on humanity. He or she--for you have seen women sign holders--are asking for money. They know it. You know it. Transactions are made or not made with this basic understanding as a subtext.
"Hey," you said to Syd, which is not so innocent or friendly as it sounds. If the response is anything approximating "God bless" or "Spare change," you will have been impressed in a most negative way.
Sid made immediate eye contact. "Hey," he said, establishing the kind of peer relationship you admire. He wore a threadbare buffalo plaid shirt, stringy-but-clean khakis, and a faux Sherpa vest against the cold. The Ralph Lauren image was entirely one of projection.
"Tell me your name," you said.
There was enough of a pause, while he appeared to you to be considering possibilities, to cause you a moment of suspicion you might be getting a street name or an improvised name. "Sid," he said. "Call me Sid."
You did, resisting the impression heavy within to reply, "And you can call me Ishmael." Instead, you reminded yourself about the five-dollar limit.
Sid's story was short because, after all, he was at work and you were only a potential income stream, quantity as yet uncertain. He had, he told you, not been doing well in this location even though word on the street was that Loreto Plaza was "reliable turf." He'd tried a number of hand lettered signs, including "Stranded," "Out of Work," "Hungry," and "Need a Job."
Then he met Fonzo, not by any means to be confused with Henry Winkler, rather the diminutive of a man named Alphonso. Or so he said he was called.
Sid claimed to have purchased the sign and working rights to this entrance/exit for Loreto Plaza, home of Gelson's Market, Chaucer's Books, Renaud's Patisserie, Harry's Plaza Cafe, Norvell Bass Dry Clearner, and The Federal Pharmacy. Sid further claimed he turned over six dollars in wrinkled dollar bills and a near perfect set of eight of the fifty twenty-five-cent pieces representing various states, which he was hopeful of converting into a full fifty, as he put it, thinking it would be irresistible to some collector.
Of all the things Sid told you, this last struck you as the most sincere and convincing. You also gave weight to his assertion that a motherly type donor gave him a coffee from the bakery in Gelson's and a cinnamon bun rather than hard cash. "That's two, two fifty worth of goods," Sid allowed, "But think about it, man. Where am I going to get anything close to drugs for two fifty?"
How much of Sid was true? How much of him was on the spot improvisation, reading you for clues as he went along, estimating how long he could in fact keep you there, listening to him?
These entries and observations under your name and logo often attest to you vulnerability for story, your sense that a reality without it is a matter of untrustworthy clutter.
Sid, who might not have been Sid at all, had the power over you that story has, including the moments of cynicism, doubt, skepticism, and wondering if you were being played.
Before parting from him, you were reminded of your own days as another kind of storyteller, a carnival barker, an individual selling outcomes such as teddy bears, stuffed dogs, canned hams, and kewpie dolls, then, in reversed circumstances, at the mercy of auto mechanics, landlords, and street-corner sales persons with deals too good to be true.
Of course you gave him the five dollars. And of course, in the future, when you ask one of the individuals who appear to you, looking for work in a novel or short story, you will listen with great care when you ask them to tell you their name, looking for clues of how much you can trust of them.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
The subjects were front-rank characters and the shift from the incisive third-person narrative of Jane Austen to a more mischievous and purposeful multiple point-of-view in Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Script Writer. The students were taking notes, which was fine, up to the point where you wanted them to be talking about their own experiences and interpretations.
After a few probing questions, you observed that you were encountering a rare, challenging point of view, the UCSB multiple silent point-of view.
Scattered, nervous laughter. One of your brightest fidgeted with an earring. Another, shrewd, you realized, beyond her years, observed how much she really wanted to have read the assigned chapters in the Jane Smiley Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, I mean, really wanted to, because Smiley was discussing something she was trying to reach in her own novel in the works. Boyfriend was apparently sent home, disappointed. Midnight oil was burned. Things happen or they don't.
Who to blame for the lack of time to read things of reputable value? Is MTV a culprit in its insidious attacks on the attention span of a nation? Was, in fact, your great old pal, Digby Wolfe, a culprit because of his invention of Laugh-In? You are pleased to recall the times you were able to chide him on this account?
Yes, you were already chasing a faintly glimpsed metaphor, catching a more acute vision of it as you bore in. "When was the last time any of you in this room was able to read a novel straight through, without the need to interrupt your reading for any other reading, including assignments for this class?"
More silence, but a different, more thoughtful kind. You joined in, factoring in a regular book review that means having read the entire book in about a week. Perhaps a retired person has the luxury of time to read a novel from start to finish without interruption for the need to consult periodicals, journals, or other books. You know of no such person, although there is the probability that you know a large number of dedicated readers.
But the students had stepped into a trap you had not realized at first you were setting. "What would it take," you asked, "to get you to blow off this week's reading assignments for a novel you wished to read? What would you think to include in the narrative you are now writing to induce readers to blow off other obligations, stay up reading, or send significant others off to a distance?"
This got their attention, and the conversation began.
Pacing. An accelerating sense of a major character becoming caught up in an untenable or intolerable situation. Possibly both. Something beyond stage directions, something beyond Mary was afraid her last effort had not been sincere or clever or intelligent enough.
Something that shows Mary discovering a document including things she could and should have said but did not, or someone with knowledge of the circumstances taking Mary on for not engaging sufficiently in the gathering of evidentiary materials.
Action. Mary doing something to demonstrate her awareness of having partied instead of researched.
We all of us filed out of the class room, appropriately located in a building called The Old Theater, aware of the need to grapple with attention. Too much is intolerable; we feel trapped, resentful. Too little attention to detail produces the scorn of indifference. The balance is somewhere between understated, imaginative, and clear.
We struggle to find out.
Openings are like electric eels. You have to pick one up to understand that you cannot let go, even though you are aware of the current pulsing through your hands and arms.
You need an opening that will induce your classmates to blow off Lowenkopf's reading assignment in favor of this literary electric eel.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
You had liked the story the moment you began to see where it would go. The protagonist and you have few things in common; neither of you would seek the other for friendship. For one thing, he plays chess with a certain écBloom's Closetlat while your chess borders on hopeless. He would not be comfortable for long with you as an opponent.
Turning the tables, you'd have the same reactions toward him if the game were Scrabble, or the variation on a Scrabble theme, favored by you and your undergraduate friends.
In the nevertheless areas, which is to say, nevertheless, you'd accept a meeting for coffee, a conversation. Each of you might have cause to consult the other for professional matters, he being a tax accountant.
Were you to pursue a conversation, you might discover a shared tendency to be caught up in a surprise infatuation with a thing, such as a painting or sculpting, a place, or, even more dramatic, a person. Infatuation is fine enough, but given your and the protagonist's levels of enthusiasm, infatuation is not enough; you each wish the evolving discovery that the infatuation is only a primary wrapping. The real prize is inside, possibly even nested in layers, much like the nested sets of Russian dolls,
In the story you are thinking of, which you named out of fondness for the English writer, Graham Greene, you knew that your protagonist, quite smitten with a particular woman as he had rarely been smitten before, should find himself, as the story wound to the closure of discovery, hiding in the woman's closet. She knows he is there. She has in fact told him to "Get in there," while an overly solicitous son is checking up on her, urging her to get more involved in social activities.
You could, if you pursued the matter, attach influence to Flannery O'Connor's short story, "Good Country People," in which, among other things, there is a character named Joy, who has a wooden leg, and a traveling salesman who, upon learning of the wooden leg, is overcome by a desire to steal it.
If this influence is true--and it could well be--what does it say for the range of things that influence you and in effect impinge upon your imagination? Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor; what a pair.
Your story, as you had originally seen it through, or to put the matter with greater attention to the detail of process, as the story presented itself to you, is about individuals who wish to break out of cultural traps and into the potentially greater abyss of an attraction powerful enough to cause both parties to abandon safety nets.
With that in mind, you sent it off to an editor you admired, an individual who had taken other of your work and who had said of you that you were now a regular. He had only one small suggestion, which you saw having a helping hand toward the effect you were seeking with the story. The story was published where you were pleased to have it published.
After some time, you happened on the story in printed form. In the intervening time, you'd grown a bit here and there. A few things spoke to you, telling you they could have been better expressed.
This is a philosophy you endorse. The story still gave you pleasure, but here it was, in a sense chiding you for allowing it out in the cold without sufficient covering. Then the aha moment of an edition of some of your stories to be done in book form. The aha was the awareness that this story could go into the collection, with the needed tweaks.
Even while enjoying the opening moments and the development of the story, you were bracing yourself for the closure, still a tad beyond your reach. You did all the things a writer would do under such circumstances. You walked large and short distances, ate remarkable and expensive meals, ate inexpensive meals that were remarkable in yet another way.
You read, ignored the story, worked on other stories and other things, coped with teaching chores, gave a convincing depiction of a happy, productive writer who has a forthcoming collection of some of his short fiction.
Then the ending presented itself to you. Once again, your protagonist was in charge of his quest to see if Naomi Bloom were indeed the love of his life, which is a good half the battle, the other half being whether he has a corresponding role in her life. You took that to a point you thought conveyed everything it ought, then sent it along.
Here you are again, looking at a note from the Publisher: The editor loved the story, right up to the end, but there's something troubling her. Right around the end. Here's the manuscript with her note. Could you please take another look after you've finished the other edits we asked you to consider?
And so, here you are once again, inside Naomi Bloom's closet, inhaling the scents of her sachets and colognes, her small, serviceable, in some cases even flamboyant wardrobe hung in neat array about you. You are looking, sniffing, speculating for clues. You are waiting. Listening.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Things are never what they seem. A little investigating, a few questions, a shift in perspective, and the apparent has become something other, through no fault of its own.
You are the force and the cause. A rose, as Ms. Stein says, is a rose, but given the times you've nicked fingers on thorns of roses, therein is the potential for you recalling the surprise nicks, the tiny drops of blood appearing on thumb or forefinger. The rose could quickly become the full-blown Belle of Portugal Rose of which Aldous Huxley wrote in his famed study of altered states of consciousness, The Doors of Perception.
A force once referred to as the entelechy is another case in point. How does the acorn know to become an oak? Because of this inner awareness called entelechy that causes the acorn to grow into an oak. We now think of it as a program, a genome. Persons, places, and things--most nouns--have this inner programming, this sense of its manifest destiny, its constant state of reaching toward what it will become.
You set stories into motion, then need to step aside as the story takes on a whim and vector of its own, wresting any control or predictability from your hands. For years, untold years, you have struggled and watched other struggled with the attempts to control such whims of motion. At some point, you realized you were the same kind of control freak with your stories that persons within your stories in fact were.
The pot calling the kettle black.
Some writer friends all too eager to claim the mantle of control freak. "Of course we control. What is a writer if not a controller of destiny, outcome, and closure?"
And what do you say to that?
You say that as well we are obsessive and compulsive, but at least so far as last night was concerned, you cannot tell if you were obsessing or compelling, or if the dream were not a dream but a persistent image of a reality you wished to prolong and absorb into your sensitivity because it was so pleasant.
Giving up things to the process rather than hanging on to dreams and visions has become a vital confrontation for you. By hanging on, by persisting, by obsessive persisting, you can find resolution of some sort. By giving things up to process, you can find surprising potentials for closure. So far as you can tell at this stage of your experiences, closure comes closest to bringing about the way your characters wish to do it in contrast with your perception of the cultural imperatives of this day, this time, this moment.
Things may seem settled or agreed upon, but are those your settlements or the broader, more generalized cultural accommodations?
Looking about you, you see a growing fear that the human condition is headed for darkness and unspeakable tastes. You also see that these hints of darkness and morbid tastes have been a part of the human condition as it evolved, with cohorts of miscreants to be found in all strata of society.
Story has made us more aware of these darker elements, taking us on guided tours of the darker sides, whereby tourists may become more acute to ways out of hell and into some attempts at the comfort of good companionship and fellowship.
Utopia lulls us to adopt safe perspectives and agreeable points of view. No wonder it is so boring. Dystopia is prearranged melancholy. We require equal measures, side by side, so we may see Reality as it is, much of a piece with the woman who sat patiently through the first hour of your class, wondering when you would be discussing the preparation of tofu.
"In all probability," you said, "there will be no such discussions. We have enough on our platter without tofu."
To your delight, she was back after the break, opting for literature, for Booth Tarkington and The Magnificent Ambersons over tofu.
For all that we over inhabit the planet, we are a lonely race, held together by story, the creation myths that explain us to ourselves, and by the literature that shows us where our imagination can take us, if only we will give it the chance.
Monday, January 20, 2014
Many readers approach novels with specific demands such as puzzles to be solved, moral choices to be made, adventures to be embarked upon, quests, and discoveries. There are as many of these demands as there are sections in bookstores, categories in libraries, and secret yearnings within the hearts of readers.
In like manner to so many readers, you enjoy the sense of eavesdropping on the more memorable characters as they are confronted with moral choices, presented with temptations, played upon by the more knowledgeable writers who have learned the secrets of withholding enough information to cause the fuse of curiosity to be lit.
Under these circumstances, a writer as dreadful as Dan Brown becomes transformed into a living example of story trumping style; you read him in a state of constant awareness of his many narrative defects, but as well in equal if not greater awe of his ability to keep you turning his pages in spite of your growing cynicism.
In your time, indeed, in your own family, you have had dealings with those who turn to reading as an anodyne for the disappointments, ruptures, frustrations, and boredom of their daily routine, wishing to be embarked with one or more characters whose wishes are for comfort, rich pleasures, and some sense of control over the more dreary aspects reality leaves us as gifts when it comes to visit.
In the recent years you've had classes of undergraduate students, you've begun to suspect the reasons why so many of them are interested in reading and writing in the genre best known as fantasy.
The major ingredient in fantasy is magic of some sort or other. Small wonder fantasy is popular among the age range from about thirteen onward toward twenty.
Even smaller wonder, you have this quarter a student who is fast approaching twenty; she has already written three novels, is at work on the fourth. And yes, they all have somewhere within them an aspect that moves us away from the reality we see, inching toward a reality in which there are quests and discoveries of a higher order.
More than once, you've heard the complaint about certain types of fiction that it is too violent, too mannered, too structured, too much like the fact of our not being quite able to identify the onion and garlic eater in our midst but nonetheless aware of the presence of onion and garlic in the atmosphere about us.
To your tastes and sensitivities, such stories force stories that are more plausible, more fraught with the potential of practical solutions to the problems all about us. These problems are often spoken of as having no practical solution, rather needing some leader-as-dictator to hold the work and philosophy in place.
The fancier the uniform, the more absurd its premise.
A story can be the equivalent of a softball lob, a concerned mother telling a crying child "There, there." You have no quarrel with such individuals although, much in the manner of vegans, they will tell you at great length how they see story as a reflection of happiness.
Reflect on. Depths of the darker side of awareness provide natural burrowing places for the animals of despair, pain, humiliation, and embarrassment. Without such aspects, what we think of as humor emerges as mere joke, at once impersonal and seemingly manufactured.
Your interests are drawn to the individuals who were once embarrassed to cry in public but who are now aware that on any given occasion, they are as apt to laugh aloud as cry.
There is a form of dignity dwelling within individuals who'd come to believe they had no more dignity left to offer up when the debt collectors come about, looking for payment.
Some readers, who claim they have had all the despair and gloom they can handle, unwittingly put themselves forth as sources of humor to the rest of us, we who have taken a more Marxist view of the human condition. In this view, we see CEO's of large corporations butting heads for year end bonuses at about the time wealthy college graduates are banging their brain pans against one another for the weekly presentation of contact sports.
We continue reading until we become aware our demands are largely ignored. Then we begin writing.