When you were first confronted with things in your range of experience, they often did not make sense to you. In consequence, you began to pester your parents for answers to a range of questions that most young persons of your age pester their parents with.
Lacking the ability to read was a disadvantage for you and them. Thus your father's ultimate conclusion. "How long before they start teaching him in school?" He did not take kindly to my mother's belief that "they" already had--that is, had begun to instruct you in steps that would have you able to consult books for information.
There was considerable help at hand from the fact of you having an older sister who, unlike some siblings you were aware of then and have experienced since, more than tolerated you. In fact, on this day, an anniversary of her birth, you recalled the time she led you up the stairs of the main library in Providence, Rhode Island, where she oversaw the process of you, obtaining your first ever library card.
Reading quickly became another source of issue, as in the credentials of the authors, but for most practical purposes, you were on your own there; your parents were at last off the hook, and your reading-related activities with your sister turned into the splendid game of each of you trying to top the other in the presentation of birthday or holiday gift books.
Once you were past the initial stage of Dick and Jane and that awful dog, Spot, who seemed to do nothing beyond an occasional run and jump, never resorting to dissembling or equivocating or anything else so recondite, you were off on the adventure of which you write here, which is to say you had sources to consult in order to help you make sense of your surroundings and then, later, as the thoughts occurred to you, to make sense of yourself.
In this last quest, you read a great many philosophers, many of whom seemed to you to be every bit as puzzled about the way things make or do not make sense. On some level, you've probably known for some time the simple answer to the question you'd never thought to ask until you read George Orwell's "Why I Write."
You were smug in your belief that you wrote because you felt the need to, because the process added another arrow to your quiver of self-knowledge. Like so many kinds of smugness, yours bordered on the supercilious. This fact was borne home when you read of murderers and other criminals rationalizing their behavior with the same explanation, because I had to.
You wrote and continue to write to make sense of yourself and things, either one or the other, preferably both. You needed some time to recognize the simple truth: No matter how accomplished or its polar opposite, say clunky or incoherent your writing, you were relatively happy. The more you were involved with a project, the happier yet you became.
Your most unhappy times were those associated with your not being able to make sufficient progress with the project at hand and, thus, with some aspect or aspects of yourself in need of better definition that the information you had at hand. Another degree of unhappiness would be the state where there was no project in the works, no cosmic or personal misunderstanding you felt required to understand.
Such a state of events and their consequences are your lot in life which, now that you mention it, has not been so bad. Since it is your sister's birthday, you are aware how much better it would have been to have been able to call her, to wish her a happy birthday, or to descend on her with as large an angel food cake as you were able to secure accompanied by copious amounts of a no-nonsense chocolate ice cream. And some mischievous new book. There is a great likelihood that the book for today, to go along with the cake and ice cream, would have been the new collection from Lorrie Moore.
That introduces the theme of loss into the essay. You've lost any number of things you held dear. Writing about them enhances the fact that you had these things for significant periods of time and in fact can relish their memory. You would be less than you, less sensible, less funny, less alert to mischief than you are if you'd not had all these things. The consequences would make you less than you are, which, given your present state of happiness, would diminish you to an even greater extent.
True enough, there are times when loss makes you wary about gaining things. But if you gain things with a sense of partnership, where you become a part of it and make it a part of you, the risk of loss balances itself out. Of course you will lose it. But even in the grief of loss, can you imagine how bare your life would have been without.
Flowers have been important to you for some years because of their individual personality and their way of reminding you of the nature of things. Every week, you toss last week's flowers. Ah. Farewell, old friends. Can you imagine a life without flowers?
There were times when you did not make as much sense to yourself as you do now. These were not your best times. These were times where you felt isolated, no mischief in sight. Through writing, even writing of marginal quality, you were able to determine what it was you felt isolated from.
The answer to that should be clear, but how could anything be clear when the writing was marginal and you were not pleased? The answer, of course, is you; when you are isolated from yourself, the writing hasn't a chance. Neither do you.
Happy birthday, Sis.
Friday, February 28, 2014
When you were first confronted with things in your range of experience, they often did not make sense to you. In consequence, you began to pester your parents for answers to a range of questions that most young persons of your age pester their parents with.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
On a recent Sunday afternoon, you sat at an outdoor coffee shop in Carpinteria with your literary agent and a former student (fated to become a current one in less than a month).
The agenda was to discuss the student's future on the basis of a number of recent events, including her having published a novel, completed another, having a desire for a career in the biological sciences, and in spite of soaring SAT scores, excellent grades, and a CV/resume indicating a dimensional individual, begun to receive polite thank-you-but-no-thank-you notes from a number of graduate schools.
"Have you by any chance some spare change?" the man directed his question to you.
Such questions do not always produce from you the results the asker anticipates.There is some chemistry afoot, but it is a difficult chemistry to chart. In this case, you emptied your pocket , then extended it, resisting the impulse to tell the man something he probably had little interest in hearing. The change was not spare. Nevertheless. Perhaps against a day when you will be in the bearded man's position. Perhaps for other reasons.
The bearded man hefted his loot, smiled, thanked you, then remounted his bicycle. He rode off into the afternoon, leaving you to consider scenarios in which your own street persons ask you if you have any spare ego supplement or inventiveness or perhaps understanding.
Of late you've noticed an interrelationship with a number of your component parts. The results are at worst case prone to making you thoughtful, wondering about such things as meanings, relationships of seemingly disparate things as well as unseen relationships between things quite familiar with one another. You are not so much looking for solutions as you are for conundrums to dwell on, much in the way you dwell on the Sunday crossword puzzle in the Magazine Section of The New York Times.
To your satisfaction, the probing and thinking are more in the nature of assimilation, seeing yourself in as many kinds and type of persons as you can manage, the better to understand why, when you push your characters the right way, they do things you've not anticipated and can barely get down on the page.
Perhaps the writing of it will help you understand. Perhaps the replaying the scene will help you see the consequences from a number of differing points of view, perhaps to the extent where you will wish to change the primary character, promoting--from within, of course--a character you'd originally thought of as a spear carrier.
Over the years and now with increased regularity, students and clients of yours have launched tales where a principle narrator is obsessed with the need to find a lost relative, a parent or grandparent with whom the character had in reality a significant relationship.
A variation is of the central character feeling cheated by the absence of a significant character gone missing. One splendid example from Bobbie Ann Mason's first novel,In Country has haunted you since its publication in 1985. You've been back for seconds, looking for ways Mason has dealt with this theme with such freshness.
Your inner street people seem to request of you not money so much as recognition of their real life counterparts, the men and women you might ignore if you weren't so concerned with finding their analogs within you.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
On many occasions, you've set the writer in context with the actor, the musician, and the photographer. Your linking, common denominator is time; each work uses time in some significant degree. Time must be understood, manipulated, bent into an artistic submission.
Now you consider the connection between the writer and the travel agent, the individual who books the client on a journey to a specific destination. Time is a factor in a number of ways. How many days will be spent in travel? How long will the reader or the traveler remain in the destination? A fanciful-but-not-improbable follow-up for the writer: In what historical or present-day time frame will the reader and characters experience the story?
Such questions and comparisons brim with appropriateness. The reader is in fact embarking on a journey to a place, in a particular time frame. The reader is saying with some measure of determination, "Even if I believe I have been to this place before, I am booking with you because you know things about the place and its denizens I have not experienced in quite the same way."
You may have been to the India of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, but you may be assured it is not the India of Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet, even though there might well emerge some duplication of themes. One was written in the 1920s, the other some years later. The characters and politics differ. You differ. Indeed, were you to read each, you would become even more different.
The notion of the writer and the travel agent having much in common encompasses your belief that when you read a story, you wish to be sent somewhere, to a locale of the inner self and the outer world, places where attitudes, conventions, and expectations mingle, but not always on the most friendly terms.
A slight digression here to bring forth the backstory of you having, over the years, read a good deal of early draft material, much of it from students but also from clients. By its intrinsic nature, early draft material is the literary equivalent of bath towels made of sandpaper instead of deep-pile Turkish cotton. Early draft material is abrasive, reminding you of the work necessary to perfect it, remind you of your own earlier drafts and, indeed, your current early drafts. More work to be done.
You'd in many cases prefer to read in order to be transported instead of reading to diagnose where the work needs to be done and how to insert it or emend it or amend it.
You are always pleased to learn when writers you have less than cordial feelings for find it necessary to respond to copious editorial notes. This helps you form a fantasy-type revenge fantasy in which the authors sense of self has been deflated, at least in your esteem if not actual fact. You are aware of the degree to which this attitude brings your own sense of skill and competence down.
It is a mistake to think too highly or lowly of yourself in such matters. Best to get the early drafts sending you surrender messages, appearing to you to behave as evocative writing should, neither attempting to dazzle the reader with stylistic effects nor attach the handicap weights of too much explanation to the prose.
Enough is, after all, enough.
Effective stories are tours to places you've always intended to visit, consciously or through the half-opened gate of curiosity. Many essays dealing with the question of whether writing should first entertain then instruct tend to forget how a novel, when composed with skill--Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot and Annie Proulx's The Shipping News come to mind as examples--can do both. Simultaneously.
On occasion when you retreat to a novel as though it were comfort food, you are all for being pulled in by a promise of entertainment. Even then, you are being seduced by the skills of the writer, who already has you packing your bags, wondering what to take along for the journey. You have no idea where you are going. The route may change at any moment. But you'll be there, won't you?
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
For more years than you care to admit, you took your family life for granted, seeing in those worthies a wholesome-if-bland normality, bordering on the ordinary. You relied on reading, motion pictures, and radio dramas for the eccentricities, potentials for menace and perfidy necessary to satisfy your cravings for story, or to become performers in your own fantasies.
True enough, Aunt Augusta, your mother's older sister, was within immediate reach, famous in her way for not being liked by almost anyone. Even her own mother referred to her as Der Schlong, the snake. Often, when she came to visit your grandparents, you'd find your grandfather in his car, listening to news broadcasts. When he saw you, he'd ask, "Has she gone yet?"
Yet even she did not seem remarkable enough to cause you in any way to consider your family or their friends sufficiently hardened and honed enough to take the place of the panoply of heroes, heroines, villains, and villainesses you came by with such ease in the library.
Your favored among villains was the baron, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. The name alone struck terror within your ten-year-old self. Ox Face indeed, Sir Reginald came close to being evil incarnate, his deathbed scene ever more poignant than that of a character you rather enjoyed, Sir John Falstaff.
Charles Dickens gave you a number of persons to distrust, among them Bill Sykes, so bad he was even betrayed by his own dog, and the crafty Fagin. At the same time, you were glorying in the villains of the comic books, you were also taken with Long John Silver, from the Robert Louis Stevenson epic, and you still have fond memories of being afraid of Wilkie Collins's malevolent creation, Count Fosco.
To a great extent, you believed Leo Tolstoy when he observed how much alike happy families were. Your own family, Aunt Augusta to the contrary notwithstanding, was relatively happy.
In time, you began to suspect things. Your suspicions were born from circumstantial evidence, fanciful extrapolations, overheard gossip, and the beginnings of your own life experiences. Your mother had what bordered on a suspicion that there was always some hidden secret or scandalous backstory. "There's a lot going on that we're not seeing," she was fond of saying of celebrity behavior.
Were happy families in fact all alike? Only if you see them as such. The consequences of that, of course, is that you will see yourself out of a great many stories about a great many unique individuals.
Could this have influenced your own growing beliefs that all about you was not as literal and self revelatory as you might have preferred? You don't have to answer that question, nor do you have to say much about a favored pastime of yours, which was to watch people in action, playing what you called "The Best and Worst Game." You would closely observe complete strangers, thinking the worst imaginable things about them before trying to reverse tack, then think the most uplifting, positive things about them possible.
Could this have influenced your sense of the inner argument each person wages on a more or less daily basis? Quite possible.
A moment of significant learning had the effect on you of an Improvised Explosive device when--don't laugh--you discovered to your outrage that a historical hero of yours, Richard I of England, beloved of you as The Lionhearted, had been captured and became the cause of the expression, a king's ransom, when his freedom was restored after a payment to his captors.
In due time, you learned that many had suffered similar fates, many generals were not the military tacticians they were reputed to be, nor were characters in fiction and reality the paradigms their publicity imputed to them.
All the while individuals were being pious, thrifty, ingenious, and spiritual, they had considerable experience in the back alleyways and red light districts of the inner life. Gregor Mendel, a monk in addition to being an acute biologist, faked his lab notes to substantiate some of his experiments.
There was, you discovered, something going on inside most individuals, causing you to join up with the folks who wished through their stories to democratize tragedy. Why not? Working class individuals did not have to deal with the tragedies of the upper classes because the upper classes were writing all the stories, pushing the notion that the lower classes could barely speak their own language, much less could they read or write it.
With such things in mind, your parents took on a quantum shift in status, so far as you were concerned. For one thing, they were heroic for having put up with you as long as they did, which, should you be wondering, was right up to those moments directly before their death, when they had other logistics than you to deal with.
In great effect, you've chosen friends, individuals you love with little or no condition, for the enhanced awareness of the unspoken fears they face, battles they fight, urges that possess them, and dreams that send them howling into the kitchen at three in the morning for a shot of milk to get them back to sleep after some dream has hit them with the Dolby Surround Sound of fear, magnified in the devious filter of sleep.
More than once, your friends have found themselves co-opted from their own dramas into yours, where their quirks and admirable traits are injected with the literary equivalents of steroids. They are volunteer flowers and weeds, found in the cracks of sidewalks, in places where flowers would know better to grow if they were not indeed fictional flowers.
More than once, while sitting at coffee in some coffee shop of whim, you've looked at strangers, seeing them as potential protagonists and antagonists in stories, in your mind asking them, Which do you prefer, the heroic or the darker, more devious. Then, you shut up and listen.
Monday, February 24, 2014
When and if you set out to write something that will teach the readers, you are in fact rowing a clunky dinghy into an incoming set of breaking waves. These waves represent potential readers, while, at the same time, you represent your determination to present something you consider to be important.
Talk about Fitzgerald's ending to The Great Gatsby, " So we beat on, boats against the current--" You'd be rowing against a waxing tide, even more determined than you; it is the tide of eternal and unrelenting boredom.
When and if you set out to write something with the intent of learning your own involvement and the potential for unintended self-parody or related forms of mischief, you are no longer the propagandist. From the moment your literal and figurative crafts are launched, you are in effect committing yourself to rowing beyond the point where you can see the shoreline. You are embarked on discovery, with all its potential for causing you such degrees of fear as panic, despair, and disillusionment. You are at a point where you could easier fail than succeed. And yet.
You still launch forth.
The goal is discovery. Writers write to discover meanings and connections heretofore hidden from them, thus their work is a journey with an unknown or at least uncertain destination. Many times, you've joined brother and sister writers in the literary equivalent of travel writing, setting out for a journey to some specific place. A thousand well-chosen words on, say, The Greek Isles. Indeed, on many occasions, you in fact ended at those enchanting islands, but what you found were a few paths, already well worn, leaving you and the reader to a tavern or hotel, where one could sip thick, bitter coffee while reflecting on the nature of existence while watching a particular segment of the world move by you.
Yet other times, you set forth, only to be distracted, led on a dodgy route of intrigue, where you emerged a tad wiser in respect to some behavior you'd resolved to take up or give up. These were the better times, accidental times, true enough, but times where you reinforced your own determination to move away from landmarks.
Staying away from the shoreline in life and in writing at the exploratory state brings the exhilarating sense of adventure, sends messages to the inner muscles that this feels so good, you wish to be at it as long as you are capable of being at things.
In the bargain, you are impressed with the importance of implication; you've seen too many words come forth from yourself and others, sodden with self-pity or bloated with self-congratulation, and a sense of writing in which the process becomes little more than a succession of verbal selfies. The goal you have in mind presents yet another challenge, placing yourself on a cusp between the participant and the observer. This is true in most forms, but in fiction, the need increases to the point where the self is subsumed by story.
There are times when, in application for one position or another, you were asked to devote a paragraph or so to the shortcomings you saw in yourself. Whether by coincidence or perhaps because of your openness of disclosure, you were not offered the sought after position. Works well with others. Can be cooperative when called to do so. Brings exotic donuts to the employee's lounge. There has to be greater revelation of depth and complexity than those, but this is not the time to seek out things for revision so much as it is a time to see the potential outline of some elephant in some living room. Of course you are the elephant. Of course the living room is just beyond the entryway to your psyche.
The entire concept of didacticism centers about the armature of teaching, going so far, then, as to suggest the potential for recruitment to a cause or vision. At the mention of these words and their consequences, your memory begins presenting you with specific, instance-related works by writers of such works, say Charles Dickens on the subjects of child labor and debtor's prison, or Louisa May Alcott on slavery, not to forget Upton Sinclair on the subject of the meat packing industry, or Ayn Rand on the concept of individual responsibility.
Each of these has done a remarkable job of dramatizing a cause. Perhaps the works remain with you because of the passions and intensities of the dramatizations, meaning you are left to the subjective judgments of your own visions about how far a writer need go as a part of a ratio against which must be balanced how far a writer ought to go.
George Orwell comes to mind as one whose balance was exquisite; you could see his arguments but did not feel your ribs being bruised by his nudges. You were nearly there with much of D. H. Lawrence, particularly with his Studies in Classic American Literature, but you have an agenda there, which is to write your own version, Volume Two, using different American authors, describing a different American literary psyche. Over all, you believe Lawrence came closer in his short stories and poetry than his poems and essays.
Willa Cather seems to you to get the balance you are after. Joan Didion. Louise Erdrich. Toni Morrison. Daniel Woodrell. To a large extent, Denis Johnson, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos. William Trevor. They appear at first blush to have few common traits, yet each has a pronounced voice, an empathy for all the characters they create, and a practiced hand at keeping out of the way of these individuals.
There: Perhaps you've said it. Create characters who take on the embodiment of their roles. Turn them loose. Stay out of their way. Resist the urge to propagandize or become the nagging, desperate level the comic Jerry Lewis brought to those embarrassing telethons of his, where the purpose was high-minded enough, and the gradual descent into hectoring the absolute nadir.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
For as far back as you could remember, the clues were there. For a similar span of time, you could see them, but you failed to interpret them in any way that could have been helpful.
Authors, whether appearing in a public presentation, a radio or televised interview, all seemed to know their work so well, with such a sense of exactitude. Listening to them speak, watchful for clues and hints that could be helpful in getting you to that position of published author, being interviewed, you were impressed with their specific, intimate knowledge, to the point where many of them could quite entire passages.
Such immediate and forceful awareness of specifics on the part of these authors caused you severe bouts of anguish. You could not talk in such detail or with such conviction about the things you wrote. To make matters worse, because you already were aware of a glaring weakness in your tool kit, the lack of ability to plot, you were well on your way to the despair of having to settle for writing nonfiction.
The trouble followed you. Nonfiction writers were also political, sensitive, well-read, emphatic. To make the matter even more grim than you could think to imagine, writers much younger than you were somehow finding their way through the gatekeepers and into not only print but esteem.
You were at a crucial stage; two writers of your generation were so far out in front with their stories, their attitudes, and their techniques that you could not see how you could hope to make up any of the distance between you. These two were, respectively, Philip Roth and John Updike. For the longest time, the best you could do was wallow in envy, reaching the point where you began marking up Roth's work with marginal comments relating to his technique and how you might have better expressed some salient notion.
In a stroke of good fortune, Updike began to strike you as smug, bordering on supercilious, to the point where you could not bear to read his novels. That still left short stories, a medium that has always been closest to your heart. Updike's production of short stories were salt in your wounds. The best you can say for yourself under the circumstances is that you learned considerable skills from him, including the ability to draw characters, the ability to manipulate time so that the manipulation seemed plausible, and, although you hated to admit it, the ability to render believable dialogue.
How fortunate for you that some of your reading, studying, and writing were beginning to take hold, forcing you to the humbling conclusions that you had a long way to go, and that the act of any kind of composition was not as easy as you once thought.
Or perhaps that should be, not as easy as you once had not thought. Your mode of composition was to fret and fume until you heard a few intriguing lines, whereupon you threw yourself into a project much in the manner of a slightly lit-up drunk, trying to enter a serious discussion on any topic, becoming by degrees confused, combative, and impatient.
In a way similar to The Great Vowel Shift spreading over England from about 1350 to 1700, where pronunciation underwent a significant change, you began to see connections. Everything took longer, required more deliberation. Actors stressed rehearsal time. You were becoming more concerned with the behavior of characters in the books you were acquiring and editing.
You were beginning to write shorter letters, often no more than a single paragraph, which caused Peggy, your favorite secretary, to break some of your paragraphs into two so that the recipients would be less apt to feel slighted.
Stories often required of you a greater attention span; you needed to write many more drafts, often to the point where a decent day's work would be something as simple as finding a name for a character, getting the word order right in a sentence, producing a page that would withstand the onslaught of the next day's editorial examination.
Writers are well acquainted with their work, often for years after the fact, because they'd more or less had to commit stories to memory, not in the way an actor learns lines, but close enough--in the way a writer produces a string of dramatic moments, each of them containing more elements than would seem capable of fitting within them.
The work was no longer easy.
What about this for a formula: The more difficult the work, the greater the potential for it to become fun. If you could live with that simple ratio, you could live with the extraordinary performances of Roth and Updike. Now, all you have to live with is the fact of both of them, finding out so much earlier, what you had to learn at your own pace.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
Your notebooks and scraps, outlines of larger forms meant to be transferred to the Sistine domes of your expectations, have become as well something quite unintended. Scanning through these scraps in search of forgotten passwords to little used web sites, you realized you were more than making notes, you were in effect compiling a memoir.
Much of the content are outlines for lectures, an occasional squib from a book you were reading, even a paragraph or two of a project in progress, much like the notes in these blog essays, aspects of you trying to capture telling details of your ongoing battle to educate yourself.
These scrap chronicles are ironic from the get-go. They depict the quest for some momentary specificity as it becomes a chronicle of the entire. Your notes have become the synecdoche for you.
These notes are told in the retrospect of the now you, reliving the past with today's wisdom, or they are related in-the-then-moment you, as you encountered life in first draft format.
The aging process has brought you a greater taste for details, for small things, items the poet/critic T.S. Eliot was talking about when he coined the term "objective correlative," which says an object transcends itself to become a link to another thing or feeling.
At the current time,this connecting link suits you. Small things remind you of other, related small things, expanding the possibility that a small thing will lead you to a larger association and, if all the connections are clear enough, a large insight.
Your growing sense of Reality as an enormous loom, spinning a fabric of no particular pattern or boundary lines, enhances your senses of curiosity and need to find connecting links. Story is not an absolute cure but it is nevertheless some kind of cure, some kind of assurance that you can profit from experience up to a point, before you have to work at trying to make connections between some things and some events. Otherwise, there is a sense of cold, foreboding loneliness, where even story seems to emphasize disconnections.
Even in your moments where the things you strive for seem out of reach for whatever reason, you seem to shift into an overdrive where loneliness and cold are only temporary obstacles. With patience, Reality will spin out enough event to overcome these. Reality, after all, includes you. If you do nothing, Reality will sweep over you. If you do something, Reality may cause that action to be overwhelmed or mistaken. On the other hand, Reality may be too busy contemplating its own works to notice you. Then you will have another opportunity to set forth again.
Reality can and well might marginalize you, strand you, frustrate you. In the long run, it will outlast you, bury you, forget you. Some individuals, well known and completely anonymous, have left us with their artifacts.
Story is an artifact.
Notebooks and choice scraps of the backs of things, on which you have inscribed sentences or lists, are artifacts.
They are also memoirs.
Among the best things you can do are to make notes, to love, to listen, and to try to see the connections between things and individuals between whom there is no apparent connection.
Friday, February 21, 2014
For some considerable time, your proximity to neighbors has been minimal, at most the rare shared single wall. Even now, with your landlady directly above you, there is only the faintest sense of your awareness of her or hers of you.
When you do hear neighbors arguing, the great certainty is of the inner neighbors, your own roomers, at brisk squabble. You perk up immediately, your interest drawn to see which of your multifarious selves is at issue with which other. Or others. These sorts of neighbor arguments often turn into the kinds of schisms you're more used to seeing in novels and plays than within yourself.
You listen with close attention; the signs often herald the arrival of a new project, one sure to override any potential you might have for such longed-for activities as reading a longish book you've been wishing to read, re-exploring some notional cycle such as the late Beethoven strong quartets or, for that matter, the early ones of Mozart, the ones he dedicated to Hayden.
Inner calm, the sort promised by such things as meditation, gardening, Tai-chi, jig saw puzzles, and fishing tend to produce prolonged bouts of lassitude within you. Books and articles by authors you normally consider exciting and provocative inflict a morbid sense of dreariness within you, reminding you of times you've waited for an individual you had no real interest in seeing, each successive elapsed minute reminding you that when the individual does appear, you're more or less committed to at least an hour of visiting.
You have nothing against the concept of inner calm, so long as it comes when you're asleep. Sometimes on your evening walks, you will pause if you hear anything remotely resembling an argument, hopeful the opposing sides are in the combat of a significant, well-orchestrated, passionate exchange of ideas as opposed to something as ordinary as, "I refuse to be seen with you if you insist on wearing that tie with that shirt," or "Why did you have to wait until I had my hair cut to tell me you prefer it long?"
But even these tend to bore you because these are only the low-key dynamics of individuals who have not yet accepted the reality of their own preferences for serious, knock-down-and-drag-out debate.
The yowling and caterwauling of your inner neighbors becomes for you the implied outcome of the ads you see for pheromones in a variety of publications for whom you'd think such ads would be a misfire. Inner arguments ignite the fire under your conversation mechanisms to the point where, from time to time, you find yourself in arguments with strangers, targets of opportunity, really, because the circumstances have whetted your appetite to listen, expound, analyze, and respond.
Many times you've had the experience of wanting to shake the hand of this stranger/opponent at the conclusion of the discussion. How grand it is to go forth about your planned activity, energized by a civilized exchange with a complete stranger. Of course the individual and you are no longer strangers.
This predilection goes well beyond the argumentative nature of the culture into which you were born, raised to a degree, then nudged by parents and a sibling to the library, where you began to realize you could in effect pick a fight with some historical character.
You've heard numerous names for this inner bickering. What has vanilla ever done to you that you slight it with such consistency in favor of chocolate? Why should you of all people think to order gelato instead of ice cream, and spare me the crap about gelato being richer in protein, will you please? Some refer to it as interior arm wrestling. Others have called it the contest between pairs of opposites. Still others describe it as dialectics.
"See, I told you," one of your inner selves will announce after you've dropped an hour or two into the vague process called research, which means verifying, establishing trial hypotheses, bringing in known supporters of your own position, even going to the extreme of consulting individuals for whom you have little or no respect, just in case they might strike some plangent note that changes your mind, turns you around as though you were a whirling dervish.
You've heard and read of others arriving at this state, where you have at best a mild tolerance for mere fact, say that a cheetah can run at the rate of seventy miles for an hour. What matters is the limitations on the amount of time the cheetah can run at this speed until his body temperature rises to a point where the animal is well advised to slow fucking down lest he experience a stroke. The state you've arrived at is one of pragmatic cynicism; you are not so quick to trust any more because you in the past trusted things that were not good for you, they were not meant for you.
You've gone through a number of internal arguments where one side of the debate team propounds the thesis that any number of your connections of things that seem unrelated are bat-shit crazy as opposed to the aura of interesting universe you'd prefer to invest them with. There is some sobering back-and-forth with an opponent who considers you bat-shit crazy; you are forced to be on your toes, work hard at resisting the argument ad hominem, the post hoc ergo proper hoc, or the appeal to an irrelevant authority. Win or lose the argument, there is humbling reality to face in the knowledge that you might, at times, be a lunatic.
You do not so much wish to win as to be able to cope with reality the way a plumber on a house call or one of those appliance installers from Sears does, Well, what have we here? Leaky faucet, you say?
Sometimes you fear you've brought this on yourself; if you were not determined to learn how to tell stories or write about them and what they represent to the human condition, you might have settled into a satisfying degree of competence building model airplanes or fussing over model train layouts. But these activities would be the equivalent of developing expertise with such beverages as beer, ale, Manhattans, pinas coladas, and the occasional rum punch or tequila sunrise, engaged to deaden the deadly calm of whatever it might take to pay your rent so that you could continue to hear your landlady overhead on occasion.
This argument sometimes finds its way into your inner squabble: You do not pay close enough attention to your usage, which is bad enough, you are often spotty in the logic of your composition. Look at Francine Prose. Look at Colm Toibin.
You would think to have clever ripostes at hand for such thrusts, but you have used them up. Francine Prose has a new book forthcoming in May. Amy Bloom has a new collection of stories. Fucking Banville has a new novel forthcoming in the manner of Raymond Chandler. Bad enough you have to put up with him as himself, now you have to put up with him as Chandler.
Quick, say something on your behalf.
Was hoping for something better from you. But that will do. For the time being.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Someone asks you a question, which you answer in as straightforward and guileless a manner within your ability to do so. The questioner puts a hand on your arm. "No, really?" he says.
In one splendid gesture, your interrogator has evaluated your answer, decided he did not like it, then pressed you for another answer, one closer to his framework of acceptability.
Two simple words, "no, really," have attempted a conversion in the desert, a usurpation of your own opinion. Never mind what the question was; you couldn't recall it now on pain of water boarding or some other excess of interrogation technique.
You have been a participant in a great dialectic, where your opinion is solicited, in this case from an individual unknown to you except for one of those remarkable social conditions where a common bond is shared.
In this case, the common bond was the fact of you both being in line for a chance at the unisex lavatory at Cafe Luna. Two men, bonding over full bladders and the individual experiences of having been in similar situations over the course of your individual lives.
You hold your ground by repeating your original answer to the question. "I can't believe this," your interrogator says, turning away, most of the previously established bond all but vanished.
For a few moments, you are both silent, you beginning to wonder which of you will first do the next ritual of the current culture, pull forth his cell phone to inspect it for incoming messages. Perhaps seeing none, a quick check of the news.
But this is not necessary. Your interrogator again. "You, you're retired, right?"
"No," you say, somehow intent now on demonstrating if not outright friendliness than at least no outright hostility. You express your sincere belief that you would never be able to afford the luxury and burden of retirement.
Once again, your interrogator is on the offensive. "You're kidding, right?"
You assure him of your seriousness, but it is an unbalanced seriousness which you try once again to cut with affability. Both you and he are trying not only to cope with this apparent social disaster on its way to happening but as well with the complaints of two bladders, wishing to express themselves.
"What kind of work would a person like you do?"
You tell him.
"They let you do that? "
They let you.
"I mean, at your age. I hadda give up stuff when I was your age."
You are growing more sincere in your hopes that the present occupant of the one lavatory has now reached the hand washing stage because of a growing suspicion of what is going to come forth in the next round of questions. Your suspicions are based on experience. Such experiences are primary contenders for primacy among any arguments you might have about such things as Fate, Inevitability, and The Natural Order of Things. You are not given over to such beliefs, but there is in such "conversations" as you are now having, a sense of cosmic irony.
Your interrogator nods toward the closed door of the lavatory. "Bet you whoever it is that's in there, that person is as old as we are."
Now, you are convinced of the outcome. You try to nod in a noncommittal way, your moral high ground being you will never see this person again and you are not under any need to attempt to have any effect on his manner of thinking.
To your relief, the door opens. Indeed the occupant was what you would describe as an elderly gentleman. "See," your interrogator reminds you.
Without responding to him, you take your turn in the lavatory. You have escaped what will surely come about, your interrogator's discovery that you are older than he is, perhaps by as many as five years.
The interrogator intercept you on your way out. His observation is the relatively short time you were inside. "Pretty good plumbing for a guy your age," he observes.
A noncommittal nod from you as you seek the comfort of the meeting you absented yourself from.
"Say--" his voice calls after you, the question mark in the forthcoming question already beginning to have the nasal, otherworldly sound of a muezzin at prayer.
You know what the question is and what his response will be. You increase your stride to move away from it and him. "Hey, aren't you gonna tell me--"
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
You are now into your fourth year of teaching a Wednesday night fiction class, one of three you promised your late wife you'd carry on for her. Now that you think about the matter, this current quarter will be the first time in those years when the entire enrollment will not have had the class as taught by Anne.
Setting aside the differences in your respective approaches to teaching fiction, the class has produced one or two writers who appear to have the necessary resolve and vision required to take their work forward to a level of sufficient depth to merit publication.
Of course there was the man who, a year or so ago, informed you a play of his, based on an original short story of his, was in rehearsal and was about to be performed. When you wondered aloud how such a thing was possible when you saw a serious disconnect between the quality of dialogue in his short fiction and your perception of the dialogue necessary for a play, his response said it all. He'd "commissioned" an out-of-work playwright to adapt his short story into play form.
This individual, an embodiment of the impatience for publication and the resulting ability to speak of one's self as a publisher, pales in comparison to an individual who has been in every one of these Wednesday night fiction courses since you began it, in January of 2011. Aware from the title of the course and the fiction-writing aspects of your opening remarks, the individual nevertheless persists in presenting material that is, in his own words, "more or less memoir."
"Does that mean there are places," you've asked more than once, "where the material is significantly enough less memoir than it is in actuality memoir?"
The individual smiles at you with an expression you on most Wednesday nights would describe as enigmatic. "I have," he persists in telling you, "a vision I follow."
You, of course, respond, "But you persist in keeping your vision secret, so that your vision is an enigma-in-the-making."
You often remind yourself when he reads his material that this is, after all, the Wednesday evening class. If the man's vision is clear only to himself, it might as well be a source of amusement for you, an entertainment.
As a consequence, you have frequent conversations of an existential nature, conversations in which each of you becomes more impressed with the length and breadth of what the other knows. You have caught this individual from time to time making statements you believe to be false.
For a time, there were questions relating to whether this individual could withstand your attempts to draw certain lines of engagement and whether you in your turn could retain your sang froid, your sangre frio, without taking some precipitous action.
So far as you are concerned, the appearance of this individual is an essential of story. Two or more individuals arrive at a setting, each convinced he is right about more things that not. So long as this individual continues to enroll, then read things you are often forced to admit elude your powers of comprehension, you are engaged in some form of story dynamic with him.
Chances are excellent in favor of you not being so patient with this man during earlier days of your teaching or writing ventures. You'd likely have seen these exchanges as encounters rather than the legitimate crossed purposes so often resident in story.
"What happens," you might have asked him, "when you take the f-u-c-k out of s-t-o-r-y?"
And he'd have replied, "There is no fuck in story," to which you would have agreed. "Quod erat demonstratum."
These are not the best available teaching methods. Over the years, you have had to do much shifting and adjusting to capture the attention of story. More than once, you have watched in despair as it seemed in metaphor to have room on its dance card for everyone but you.
More than once, your relationship with story reminded you of your relationship with Georgia, a blond sixth-grade wraith seen always from your point-of-view as a fourth grader at Hancock Park Elementary School, in west central Los Angeles.
These were times well before you were able to accommodate metaphor to any practical extent. You had no experience with witches, less yet with their bosoms, yet you were aware of the expression "Cold as a witch's tit." On such nuances and hidden awareness your sophistication resided.
Each day you challenged Georgia to a game of tether ball. For reasons well beyond your ability to understand, she nodded to each challenge, stepped to a tether ball court, then proceeded to humiliate you. Day after day, you persisted. One day, one magical day, you actually scored a point. One magical point. Thinking it over, you asked her the next day if she'd let you score. Years later, when puberty and its arcane rituals came to you, there was another metaphor you learned that could have applied to Georgia, allowing you that one sympathy point.
Her answer to your question was to demonstrate once again the inevitable superiority of her tether-ball skills.
How nice it would be to be able to say that you later saw Georgia, the one or two years difference in your ages evaporated thanks to those arcane and mystical rituals of puberty. You might have--who knows?
But you were off on an adventure that would take you away from Los Angeles, not returning you for what now seems forever, but was less than three, and Georgia's adventure, whatever it was and perhaps still is, is unknown to you, your only recourse an attempt to recount it in fiction.
You have done better with story than you did with Georgia. At least, Georgia did not break your heart.
As for story, it did not show you sympathy, either. You had to work to get its attention, resorting some times to outrageous tricks and stratagems. "Look at me," you seemed to be saying. Story was not impressed. "Don't even think of playing," it seems to say, "not until you can give it a better shot than you ever realized you had."
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
More often than not, when a run of narrative seems to have exceeded its use-by date, the culprit is either some aspect of doubt or a close relative of doubt.
In the early stages of narrative, the reader expects characters to be strong, confident. the new kid on the block, who is set to go up against these strong, confident sorts, isn't so sure. We know all along not to worry, because some of the conventions of story go back to the times before written language, where story was an oral tradition.
However long ago those times were, the human condition has not moved far enough away from its early associations with doubt, with the built-in desire of the young to take on their parents and authorities. Nor has the assumed power of the ruling classes been portrayed as anything less than a benevolent arrogance.
Yet somehow, when we see such clashes of power and testing, we understand and in large measure root for the young, the untried, perhaps even untrained.
Up to this time, you'd been comfortable with the concept of two basic types of story, the coming-of-age or hero's journey story, and the stranger in town. You'd not given sufficient weight to the generational battle, the young wishing to show they can do with some grace and originality what their elders do as a matter of fact.
In the same way the sense of entitlement and power send signals of arrogance and despicable behavior through us, causing us to root for the young upstarts. You use the term with intent, recalling the original upstart you rooted for even before you realized you were rooting for him.
Over four hundred years ago, a young Englishman from the countryside went to London with the same intent as many a writer or actor going to New York or Los Angeles. His goal was to establish himself as a literary poet to the extent where some wealthy noble might endow his career, whereupon he could continue to write the verse that had begun to earn him a name.
You refer, of course, to William Shakespeare, who, in 1592, before his theatrical output began, had caught the attention and scorn of a critic, Robert Greene, who published a pamphlet, "A Groat's Worth of Wit," in which he took on Shakespeare for daring to think he could step out of his class and use tools of poetry and drama beyond his ability to understand them.
"Yes, trust them not," Greene wrote of Shakespeare and his actor/playwright friends, because they were not of the in circle who, Greene argued, could write literary verse. "for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie."
Well, we all know how that battle and many others of its kind ended. And we know of the dramas, novels, and short stories in which young persons ached to prove their worth. Even today, we consider ourselves able to discern the talented youths in our midst, applauding them as they make their mark and, if the writer is as good as, say, Zadie Smith, leave their mark on us.
We reflect upon our own performance when we were the age of the current crop of upstarts, wishing we were some fraction in our own youth of these remarkable upstarts are now.
This, too, is a memorable human trope. Whatever age now claims us, we doubt we were as accomplished at their age as they are now, and so the generation gap enfolds us, causes us to see ourselves as individuals rather than types.
Doubt does some profound things to us, makes us question at all times our confidence, dares us to focus, to perform, to come forth with the best articulation of our vision possible.
You know individuals who seemed to have no thought to be anything but confident about their abilities. You also know individuals who overcame severe plagues of doubt in order to forge the necessary confidence that allows them to step forth to tell stories. These men and women seem to you to be the more grounded, more willing and able to withstand the consequences of risk their talents and discipline impose upon them.
Doubt has been the crucible for the writer, for the character, and, to keep the matter on a personal basis, the reader. You have often doubted you were "ready" for a wide variety of authors, taking them on well before you felt comfortable doing so, suffering the consequences of a sort of literary bigotry in which, because you did not understand yourself, you did not have a chance of understanding these remarkable upstarts, these William Shakespeares, these George Eliots, Virginia Woolfs, Thomas Hardys, William Faulkners.
Even when you were able to work your way through some of these, thinking you had at least a handle on their importance, you doubted your ability to get full measure from them. Well and good; you return again, and sometimes again and again. There is no saying you had to get them all right now, first time through. That is, there is no such saying in you; your teachers who had to heed curriculum requirements had it as another matter.
Tee hee. You cannot help wondering how many of them had to go back for seconds or thirds or fourths and fifths.
Monday, February 17, 2014
Of all the many processes involved in bringing an idea into some form of finished, published product, the one still most daunting to you is proofing.
The process itself is mechanical. You check each character in a man- uscript to see if it is the correct character in the proper place, mindful that the word "character" includes punctuation marks, sometimes even spaces.
Proofing implies a significant enough familiarity with words in this remarkable language we call English to be able to sense when one or more of them is misspelled. You have acquitted yourself well enough in that regard even though you are among the first to admit your acquittal is relative. At one point in your life, were there awards given for adventurous or outright wrong spellings for ordinary words, you'd have come away with a sheaf of them.
As such things go, you have at least elevated yourself to the status of a speller, sans adjectival attribution, reminding you of yet another skill persons in your craft are assumed to have mastered. That skill, in your youth, was called typing. Now, keyboarding seems the better term. You are reminded of a time in middle school when an exasperated teacher asked of you how you could hope to become a writer when you with some consistency scored lower in typing skill tests than anyone she'd ever known.
While it was true that you could rattle off the positions of keys in the standard qwerty keyboard, that was more a fluke of memory than a product of muscle memory as experienced by superb typists. They were not only fast, they were accurate. They not only use all ten fingers, they are able to do so without looking at the keyboard, seeming in their zoned-out way to enter some Zen-like state.
Somehow, you have managed to work around or in spite of these shortcomings, but memory is an idiosyncratic thing, perhaps in your case an ironic thing. The irony is that more often than not, you are better able to give accurate spelling to words you would be the first to remove from a manuscript, the moment revision and editing come into play. You have, for instance, no difficulty at all with the word "chthonic," including its pronunciation and etymology. The problem would begin when an editor would ask you for a better word or clump of words.
Other words, those you'd be apt to use in spoken or written language, are more problematic. You'd have to look up juxtapose if you were to translate it into some of its transitive verb forms, wondering, for instance, if translating it from noun to verb it should be rendered juxtapositioned or if juxtaposed were the correct form.
In addition to being wary of -ly adverbs, after all these years, you still have the tendency to give they more than the required l's, so that there is often a need to check out the adverbial form of usual, just to be sure.
You are now in the act of proofing your forthcoming collection of short stories, aware that proofing of this sort is for spelling and punctuation, but becoming distracted by the occasional curiosity if a comma would do well here, then recalling times when even such a simple matter as a comma appeared beyond your grasp as teachers, then editors began to wonder if certain of your nouns would ever recover to the point of coming out of their coma, thanks to your misuse of proofreader's and editor's markings, "insert coma here."
You do believe someone with your aspirations should have these skills to the point of their being internalized, muscle memory you can rely on. But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth ed., unabridged, is once more at your side, waiting to walk you through the murk and gloom of your own sentences. Until you confirm your suspicions by seeing them within the AH5's pages, you are not certain if you have pulled in an innocent suspect for questioning.
So short the life, so long the craft to learn. Make no mistake, spelling and keyboarding are part of the craft. The less time you have to fret about their deficiencies, the more time you have to chose the correct word, one which might then allow you to dispense with one or two others.
At one time, you were in such a hurry to get things down that you had no patience for such things as spelling, word order, and that great-but-abused-through-misunderstanding word, syntax. You wrote as though you could not wait to get on to the next thing.
Times change. You change in the sense that there is less time to get down all the things you wish but more time to see the need for the care in the process of making sure.
A completed manuscript, revised, edited, then proofed is no small thing to you now. It may well be a small thing to others. But not it you can help it.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
When Francine Prose writes a book or a critical review or essay, you are more often than not prompt to read the result. Among the many reasons this is so are these: She is an insightful viewer of dramatic events, a shrewd judge of written expositions, and a passionate practitioner of thoughtful expression. Even when you are not completely taken by her presentation of ideas, you are nevertheless impressed by them.
Her brief piece in today's New York Times Book Review, dealing with the arguments for and against negative reviews of books is impressive.In your experience as a book reviewer, you've experienced many of the situations she describes, including, when you were assigned a book to review that you found yourself not liking, the return of the book to the editor with a note explaining why you did not wish to review it.
By your account, you've reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times, the Examiner, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Fort Worth Post-Telegram, The National Catholic Reporter, the Santa Barbara News-Press, the Santa Barbara Independent, and since 2005, The Montecito Journal, in addition to six or seven literary journals. Your total is in the neighborhood of a thousand books reviewed.
Most of these reviews have been positive, your goal being to present as intriguing a portrait of the book under review as possible in hopes of motivating the reader of the review to seek out the book.
To the best of your memory, a scant fifty or sixty of these reviews have been neutral or negative, the most recent example of which is a case of why you believe the task of the reviewer is to provide an honest, straightforward discussion of the book under review.
Your last negative review was not negative until the past paragraph, in which you expressed concerns that the book in effect attempted--with some success--to bully the reader into thinking as much of it as the author did. There was no way the author was going to agree with you or in any way take to creative heart the last paragraph of the review. You were aware of this attitude from the author, which in most cases would have been sufficient for you to return the work, unreviewed by you.
In this case, you went ahead with the review, aware of the possible consequences awaiting you in the matter of a freelance job you'd had since 1980, which you no longer have.
The principle in effect here relates more to your own sense of selfhood and subjective sense of critical vision than any effects that might rub off on the author of the book in question or the readers of the review. In effect, you made a public statement that received ratification from a number of sources, even though these sources held their views before your review.
In the long run, such differences of opinion have little effect in what projects find their way to publication or how they are seen by a readership, either at the time of publication or well after the fact. But without these differences of opinion, publishing and critical responses can be tweaked to suggest the big tent of literature and critical thinking, which does not in any way mirror reality.
Your major reasons for negative reviews have to do with your belief that the work in question could have profited from editorial attention in any of a number of ways related to the motivation of characters (if the work were fiction) or the logic used in preventing ideas, were the work nonfiction. Sometimes, the negativity of your review related to the author's use or misuse of language, including the tendency to over use attributions or withhold necessary information.
From reviews you've received from time to time on work of your own, in which you were taken to task in effect for having written the book you chose to write rather than the book the reviewer wished you to write, you've been careful not to take on the critic's role with that misstep prominent in your heart or mind.
The majority of your book reviews are positive because you so often manage to find something of quality to overwhelm the thing or things of deficit quality. You in fact become impatient, then angry in the company of narratives with poor or faulty development. Your reviews of these are attempts to warn potential readers to perhaps skip these parts for the opportunity to focus on the places where the information is of such value that the means of portraying it supplants the style or lack thereof that conveys it.
Sometimes the information, factual or dramatic, is of such importance that you can stomach a turgid narrative for a while. But don't expect a glowing review.