Sunday, August 31, 2014

Experiences

Dealing with experience is like trying to recover a dropped garden hose without getting yourself wet. Experience influences the effects of story on you as though your individual range of experiences were that same, dropped garden hose, drenching everything in sight without pattern or purpose.

If an event does not in that metaphoric sense drench you with the details you noticed while being its witness or participant then it cannot have been a memorable one.  

Somewhere in your third or fourth year, you remember living with your parents and sister in a large, Mediterranean-style home in Burbank.  You remember the door to the bathroom having a pane of frosted glass.  You remember next door neighbors, generically The Browns, but it no greater detail.  You remember them having a dog named Silver, who, when it bit you, you returned the favor.  Such memories have done you no tangible good.  You remember these details.  No one is alive to ratify or contest them.  Yet you have them.

You'd moved from Burbank to mid-Wilshire, mid-town Los Angeles, to Orange Street, of which you have vivid memories, including the one hiding in the closet during your sister's piano lessons with her teacher, Mrs, Lovejoy, from whom you first heard of Beethoven and Bach, then, later, of Debussy and Ravel.  You remember her saying it was probable that you--in this case not you but your sister--would be moved to tears when you heard Beethoven's violin concerto.  

Was it the notion of eavesdropping from the closet?  Was it the sincerity and conviction of Mrs. Lovejoy's voice?  You did press to hear the violin concerto, yet, moved as you were when you first heard it, you were not moved to tears, nor would you be for some time to come. 

Until you had more experience listening to music and investigating the feelings and their effects on you. Something had happened as a result of those closeted eavesdropping moments.  Only last week, listening to something, you were transported back into the world of your curious, hungry, secretive self.

Experience is an event in which you either participated or became soaked by the random spray of its broadcast.  In many cases, you were not the originating cause of the event, perhaps little more than a witness.  Yet, you've remember the incident over the years to the point where it is a defining element of who you are, neither an item of nostalgia nor trauma, merely there for the endless drama of unsettled meaning.

You embrace the presence of experience in your real time life and in story, taking comfort in the awareness that story begins when two or individuals have differing perceptions of the same experience.

True enough, there are some stories of single individuals or, in one of the more memorable ones, Jack London's "To Build a Fire," a man and a dog.  But such things are rare.  The real experiences are stories and events wherein clashes of opinion and passions flare up, reminding you of the boyhood and adult experiences of watching fireworks displays.

Experiences are your best chances for forging a self you can live with and write with.  Through the introduction of characters, who are assenting and dissenting voices of your own voice, you can edit the experiences that cost you the most concern and invent experiences that will open doors for you.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Writers' Hangovers

A former client has reappeared from out of the shadows, asking you for "back cover comments," which you interpret to mean a blurb.

"Congratulations on your publication," you reply, playing through the work, as you first saw it, then how it meandered through such editorial focus as you were able to convey and the author was able to put into effect.

The work bears an agreeable parallel to Heart of Darkness without being derivative.  A young man sets out on a journey to deliver a message to a needy group of people, but in the process receives an even greater message from them.  A nice project, stripped of its earlier tendency toward the over sentimental; 

"Who is the publisher?"  you wonder.

"Ah,"  the former client says.  "There are some obstacles."

You now understand at least one of the obstacles.

Much of the essential nature of story resides in the appearance of a character who is driven by a yearning for something.  Note the word choice at work there:  driven and yearning, as opposed to the mere wishing or wanting.

In one remarkable swoop, we have Ishmael, yearning to get away from a bout of melancholy and depression, meeting Ahab, a man on fire with the ache of revenge.

Huckleberry Finn wants to get away from being civilized

Mattie, the narrator of Charles Portis's novel, True Grit, wants the man who killed her father brought to justice.

Richard III wants to be king of England.

Macbeth wants to be king of Scotland,

Frankie, the protagonist of Nelson Algren's novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, wants to be a musician.

Becky Sharp wants money and social position, but when it is offered to her, she cannot accept it.

In the motion picture Dog Day Afternoon, story collides with real time yearning as one of the characters, John Wojtowicz, is so desperate for money to pay for his lover's gender reassignment surgery that he undertakes the robbing of a bank.

Memorable characters stand out in our , their quests often seeming exaggerated to us until those moments when we are faced with a thing we want with such intensity that we overstep our own boundary markers and in the process risk the consequences of the metaphorical barbed wire.

In story, we speak of desire and yearning as driving forces.  In real life, we speak of such driving forces as impatience.  Your former client is impatient to be published, to have the work out in the world.  Such impatience leads writers to self-publish, with little or no regard for how the publication process works.

To be sure, there are substantial numbers of poorly written books being published by the mainstream publishers, but the numbers of disastrous self-published books  as opposed to those done with expertise is telling.

This is not a screed against self-publishing so much as it is a reminder to self about impatience and the consequences of allowing self to unnecessarily boil over.  You have on at least two occasions, advised clients to self-publish because they had the means and energy for the necessary follow through.  

You have on more occasions than you can remember with convenience allowed your impatience to govern your behavior to the point where you did things you are still paying for in your own estimation.

Impatience is the condition where an individual's desire for outcome crosses over boundary lines, resulting in a trespass on the individual's good sense.  The message is clear to the storyteller parts of you, who on occasion become impatient when no projuect is forthcoming.  When impatient, put all your eggs in one character, then push that character over the boundary.  Story begins the next morning.  Painful as booze hangovers are, there is no comparison to an impatience hangover.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Angry Writers

A recent encounter with a new title from the adept and insightful novelist, Carl Hiaasen, once again reminds you what a splendid narrative tool anger can be.  You are also reminded that you are one of the few teachers of creative writing and fiction studies who spends any significant time trying to find out from his students the things that piss them the most.

It is one thing to look at Hiaasen's novel, The Bad Monkey, as a mischievous entertainment, yet another to tie elements of its plot to contemporary social issues that should have been dealt with sooner, and another thing altogether to give Hiaasen the close reading he deserves in terms of how to convert pissed-off writers into dedicated men and women with missions.

There is no lack of published authors of whom it can be said and demonstrated that they are truly pissed.  Nor can it be denied that certain among them have understood the potentials for power, imagination, and narrative tone inherent in anger.  This group is relative in its ability to demonstrate artistic control as opposed to indulging outbursts of bombast.

For every Carl Hiaasen or Franz Kafka, there are five or six unfortunate antipodes such as Ayn Rand, Brett Easton Ellis, and Donna Tartt, writers who are so driven by their anger that instead of inspiring them, their anger incites them.  Way back in the day, Laurence Sterne (1713-68) understood.  "When a man,"  he said, " gives himself up to the government of a ruling passion,—or, in other words, when his HOBBY-HORSE grows head- strong,—farewell cool reason and fair discretion.''

You have carried that, and much else of Sterne, with you from your first encounter in your mid teens, delighting in the thought that books such as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman could make their way in the world.  Angry as you were and eager to use it to lash out at what you considered injustices, hypocrisy, and sentimentality, the screed and rant never held appeal for you.

The literary magnets attracting the random iron filings of your youth were the likes of Mark Twain, James Thurber, and the satirists of whom it was scarcely possible to detect their ridicule.Then came the stunning work of the nearly forgotten twentieth century humorist, Peter DeVries.  

Looking about you now, you are beginning to see emerging patterns in readings you care about.  Your own personal reactions to things now differ from what would in earlier years have you overreacting.  

There are also your observations of published angry authors and unpublished angry students, guidelines as it were toward making anger, outrage, and that boredom-on-steroids feeling of being fed up more easy to convert into useful tools, say characters, in stories.

Anger was not always as much fun as it is now; there are still frequent potentials for anger getting you in trouble, but it is a more nuanced and satisfactory trouble, the consequences much more satisfying.  Things are less apt to get out of control in negative ways, where anger can cause things and relationships to break.

By now, you are so used to getting anger responses that you cannot  imagine what life would be like were you no longer susceptible.  Anger is an integral part of life in much the same way fear is.  When you feel anger, you're responding to a message, perhaps from the Cosmos, perhaps from some random outside source, perhaps even the kinds of notes from your own conscience that you used to leave under the windshield wipes of cars whose owners had done something you considered offensive.

Anger wishes to be blended with other feelings, other kinds of awareness, all in order to give you the most intriguing path home to work at writing.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Deadlines

At the mention the word "deadline" in a group of writers, a sudden charged electricity sense flashes forth like a shard of lightning on an early autumn day.  You can look about the room, noting the variety of response, some seeming to be based in fear, others like clarion calls of a second wind clicking into place.

Deadline causes many vital elements to surface, their common denominator degrees of fear related to the eventual quality of the work due.  First and foremost, deadline means a finite time frame, a point where the work must be done, then "sent in," or submitted.  

Your earlier deadlines were newspaper oriented, meaning you had until X time to get the material to the editor in time for the scheduled edition.  From such deadlines, you learned one of the lessons that would carry over to your days of writing multiple drafts.  Having a story due by X o'clock was only a problem if you felt your material was short, lacking in facts, intrigue, some throbbing sense of importance.

Next came the time the project was due in the publisher's hands, whether the publisher was in the same city as you or another city or, perhaps, even in another country, where distances, time zones, postage rates, and delivery times were factors.  Looking at such deadlines now, you realize how significant the change in matters of submission and means of delivery have changed.

Most deadlines now are tied to electronic submission.  All you need to do to "send something off" is press the Enter key or the Send key.  Most of your current documents are in so-called PDF or Portable Document Format files, which can be attached with some ease to an email, addressed to the recipient with a blind copy directed to one's self for record keeping.  Then click the cursor in Send.  

You did such a thing this week, when your literary agent asked you for a PDF of a recent project in order to send it to a publisher in Germany.  Within moments after the request, the document is not only sent, it is in Germany, its receipt acknowledged with another tap of a Send key.

In the mid past, such a request would mean at least a day of logistics, beginning with checking to see if you had a copy of the typed manuscript, one that was as correct as you could make it.  Then off to a Kinko's or some copy shop for a duplicate copy, then a page-by-page check, then fitting the manuscript in a box, wrapping it, and then a trip to the post office, where, just as you strode toward an open window, from the shadows, an elderly lady would dash ahead of you, plunk down two hundred fifty greeting cards for which she would wish a particular stamp for which the clerk would have to hunt.

Having a deadline forces you to wonder through what you call sociological thoughts.  These have their basis in your working class origins, which means in essence that your tastes in such matters as clothing, food, drinking matter, books, and entertainment cause you to far exceed your income derived directly from writing.  You have at the moment no plans to quit teaching or editing, both sources of income as well as activity.  

Thus your need to be observant to another kind of deadline, the every-day-amount of time spent composing.  In this need for time management, your working-class background forces you to consider the need for daily composition.  

Your sociological thoughts nudge you to wonder how much more writing, if indeed you'd get any writing done at all, would you accomplish if you did not have editing and/or teaching chores.  Such thoughts also cause you to wonder from time to time if you would ever finish anything if it were not for deadlines

Deadlines nudge you to consider the degrees to which you red-line assignments, finishing things on the exact date they are due as opposed to working to get them done as early as possible for the most revision time to spend with the final result.

Although it is well over twenty years in the past, you still recall a deadline you'd contractually agreed to on a novel Donald MacCampbell arranged with a publisher who, he assured you, was such a stickler that he considered being one day late a breech of contract.  

Almost without realizing you were doing so, you found yourself looking forward to the emotional highs of having deadlines.  What more tangible way is there to affirm your arrival at the plateau you strived for than to have a publisher expecting delivery of a specific project from you on or before a specific date?

You could--and did--live with that, until, with less warning than the awareness of deadline as emotional high coming your way, another kind of deadline made its way into your life as a game changer.

This particular deadline is the essence of simplicity, yet it contains all the fears, thoughts, imaginative procrastination devices, and self-examination of all the others, merged into one:  the deadlines you set with yourself.

These are the best deadlines of all.  You are in effect the kites you were so fond of flying as a boy and young man.  A part of you has been lifted by the winds of your expectations, rising as high and independent as the string of your imagination will allow.  Yet even as remote as the project gets from you, like the kite, it still responds to the merest tug on the string.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Breasking the Fourth Wall and Chewing Some Scenery

The fourth wall is the imaginary wall between the characters in a play and the audience.  If used to good effect, the fourth wall helps both the players and the audience in their collaborative effort to insure the drama being performed is in fact real.

Often in the early scenes of a live performance, when a major actor appears on stage for the first time, the audience will applaud.  However slight a move to acknowledge and thank the audience on the part of the actor is a breaking of the fourth wall.  The effect of the actor in the process of portraying a character, nevertheless acknowledging the appreciation of the audience is a contradiction in logic and process.

You've been in one theater or another when the applause effect ripples from the audience.  The skilled actor will wait until curtain call to acknowledge the audience.  Until then, the fiction maintains, the players are real people, performing with no awareness of, much less reference to the audience.

And yet.  The fourth wall has been broken almost from the get-go of performance drama.  Certain of the Greek dramatists wrote the activity into the script.  Shakespeare with some regularity had his characters breaking the fourth wall to address the audience, and the venerable melodramas of late nineteenth- and early twentieth century plays had as a beloved feature the villain, addressing the audience with the famed line, "Little does she know--" a splendid revelation of hidden agenda.

In more modern times yet, in fact in absolute contemporaneous use, the well-regarded television series, House of Cards, features the character of Frank Underwood, following the paths of treachery to his goal as Richard III did before him.  The Underwood character has frequent occasion to break the fourth wall.  And yet.  

We are neither dismayed nor surprised.  How does it happen?  Is it merely the ability of the actor, Kevin Spacey (which is considerable)?  Is it the writing skills of Beau Wilmont?  Is it the direction?  Is it a combination of all these?

The equivalent of the fourth wall in printed fiction is the omniscient point of view. Among the contemporary writers most associated with the successful use of omniscient is the Irish writer, William Trevor Cox, known to millions of readers as William Trevor.  In the same manner Kevin Spacey can get away with breaking the fourth wall, William Trevor can be seen in any of his many short stories or novels to use omniscient.  In fact, he makes the use of omniscient seem so simple, so easy to control, that an entire generation of emerging writers and students has come forth to try the effect, saying in so many words, "If Trevor can do it, why can't I"?

If birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh, why can't I?

Because, you tell those to whom you can tell things, you are not Trevor.

You certainly know the frustration, the eagerness, the impatience.  There were writers such as Trevor in orbit about you when you were younger, making all of storytelling seem so simple, so clear that you scarcely equated the seeming ease with technique.  Thus were you lured into the writing life the way many an addict was lured into drugs or booze or sex or gambling:  Because it seemed so easy, you believed you could do it, too.

When you began your parallel course of reading and writing, the author played a greater role in storytelling.  Your studies took you back into the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, where the writer frequently broke the fourth wall to reassure the reader or lecture the reader or in some way supply the reader with information.  You came upon masterful writers, the then equivalents of Kevin Spacey, who could break the written equivalent of the fourth wall with observations that were little more than stage directions.

When you finished your edits on his penultimate novel, The Last Boat to Cadiz, your great pal, Barnaby Conrad, said you'd worked the wonders of magic on it.  All you'd done was remove the kinds of stage direction writing he'd learned from the writers and teachers of his generation.

What storytelling comes down to is a special blend of voice and technique.  Today, August 27, 2014, the author doesn't tell the story.  The characters demonstrate it, act it out as though they were real persons, caught in real moments of real time.  She was impatient.  Un unh.  Try, She tapped her foot, increasing the tempo after a few moments.

You want to break the fourth wall?  Okay; no problem.  All you need is a character with as much agenda as Richard III, portrayed in modern dress as Frank Underwood, by an actor as intuitive and classy as Kevin Spacey.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Clients

"You must admit," your client said, "that there were some pretty effective moments in those opening chapters."  He was a large frame of a man, his curly gray hair running in distinctive cowlicks on his proportionately large head.  Like many a person successful in a business or profession before turning his goals toward storytelling, he was used to being at a level where underlings reported to him with some degree of deference if not outright respect.

You admitted that the effective moments were, in effect, too far apart to warrant the client's offhanded admiration of them.  "Readers for agents and editors will see through them,"  you said.  "They're used to looking for holes and soft spots the same way a chiropractor is used to watching the way a patient moves when entering the examination room, headed toward the examination table."

"But surely you read all the way through,"  the client said. forcing you to remind him you'd been paid to do so.  Readers for literary agents and editors are frequently instructed to stop as soon as they can.

Your client proceeded to demonstrate his leadership qualities.  He wanted an answer leading to a tangible solution.  "What's the next step?"  he asked.  "And don't give me any of that Samuel Becket  fail again, but fail better crap."

Your nod was not a bobble-head nod, rather one of recognition that a point had been reached where you were about to become the target of the client's argumentative powers, then, when that failed, you were about to be offered at the least an equivalent of a month's income to "tight line edit" or "provide notes for a substantial restructure," either of which could be interpreted to mean that you would in essence write the first fifty or sixty pages.

What a pity things had to end on that note.  The client had an intriguing enough approach to a story, fueled by a protagonist who could, with some close attention, carry another novel or two.  The client also had an attitude and a quality you well recognize because you had it growing up, saw it morph to a more adult version of itself, then evolve into its middle-age and beyond aspect.  The quality is, of course, impatience.  Truth to tell, you are every bit as impatient now as your client, on whom you have in the neighborhood of a twenty-five year age advantage.

Your impatience is different than his.  You know this because you owned the kind of impatience he has.  His was the kind of impatience you began to see at work as you moved through the editorial ranks at your first significant publishing experience, acquiring the status of being able to contract a certain number of books a year without the need of getting approval from the editorial board.

One impatient author Scotch-taped gold dust to a query letter, another offered you a year's worth of spinal adjustments, yet another offered you a year's worth of deep-tissue scaling of your teeth, another still was convinced that if he could get you to your favorite restaurant, which at the time was a Sunset Strip venue called Scandia, after two or three martinis, you'd give up the secrets you and "the whole damned coterie of editors everywhere" kept from emerging writers, sharing them only with those "already in the club."

You were accused of taking on one author only because he was a doctor and medical thrillers were hot at the time, while in fact the accuser was an attorney who liked nothing better than to sue doctors.

There are explanations for such things; they are in effect all symptoms of impatience at work, impatience to be published, impatience to learn craft, impatience to find fresh ways of telling stories that could be cliches of they were not given the infusion of freshness.

Your impatience has always had to do with age, there is no gainsaying that, nor is there gainsaying your impatience is motivated by a different undercoating of fear than the impatience of your earlier years.

How fortunate you were able to come on John Keats when you did, in your early twenties, where he said it for you again and again as you moved through subsequent decades and subsequent varieties of impatience:


WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be  
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,  
Before high pil`d books, in charact'ry,  
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;  
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,         5
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,  
And feel that I may never live to trace  
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;  
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!  
That I shall never look upon thee more,  10
Never have relish in the faery power  
Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore  
  Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,  
  Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.  

You were able to move beyond today's client, treat yourself to another coffee and almond croissant, then rush home to where your impatience waited for you, nagging.  You never write.  You never call.  What am I to do with you?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Keeping Afloat in a Sea of Stories

When you look back at the times in your life before there were such things as hard drives, flash drives, or floppy disks on which to store writing projects, you see an ambitious succession of shelves.  Some of these shelves were gifts from your father, relics of moribund businesses of which he was, for a time, a referee in bankruptcy.

Two such shelves have remained with you, living out their time with you as a storage for your short story collections and a home for the whimsical collection of bedside reading, mixed with the remnants of your Mark Twain collection and a shelf for some of the many titles you acquired and edited as an editor for the various publishers for whom you worked. 

At least one other three-shelf cabinet, once a stained oak was left behind on the occasion of the sudden move from Hot Springs Road to here.  This cabinet had undergone severe editing, the result of one strange and wonderful summer when you still lived in Hollywood.  

You were out of salaried work, preparing for another binge of free lance writing.  Your next door neighbor, Ray Piatti, an interior decorator, was similarly out of salaried work. Such is the nature of being out of salaried work that a project, any project, becomes a necessity to keep panic at a minimum and the focus of sanity in the foreground.

You had a project in mind, a mystery novel with, at that point, a vague plot.  Soon, over a number of games of cribbage, the decision was made.  You and Ray were going to redecorate your apartment to accommodate your about-to-begin venture into the freelance life.

On day two of the project, Ray knocked out a room divider, set up a small work area for you, and bade you get to work writing so that you wouldn't have to see the changes he had in mind before they were fully realized.  Before you knew it, the three-shelf cabinet had lost height and girth, its stained oak finish now a glossy orange, speckled with purple and white.   

Once you got over the transmogrification of much of your then furniture, the Piatti effect on your apartment was stunning.  Even now, you visualize the results of the Barbara Court apartment with cheery nostalgia.  You can see no traces of the place in the two shelves you have left, but you can recall with sentiment the orange, pot-and-crockery shelf abandoned when you left Hot Springs Road to come here.

You had a collection of books at Barbara Court, and the entire garage had been turned into a library at Hot Springs Road, although by no means one with the Piatti effect.

Most of the shelves were used to store screen treatments, television scripts, and television proposals, all embodiments of the standard 8 1/2 x 11 script format, three-hole punched, the pages secured by brass fasteners at the top and bottom holes.  No one, except perhaps a rank amateur, would think to use a brass fastener for the middle hole.

True enough, there were a number of cardboard boxes, large enough to accommodate the 8 1/2 x 11 typing paper.  These had novel manuscripts, and at least one box held short stories, while yet another held nonfiction short form work, such as the pieces dealing with Western history you cranked out for Charlie Sultan, a publisher of Western History magazines; book reviews, and your columns for the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial-Enterprise.

However precarious your income from the novels, short stories, and reviews, you were happier than you were when doing what you then called script and proposal work.  Novels and short stories and even the Western history pieces for Charlie Sultan were, after all, writing.  You'd not understood any number of vital things about the writing and editorial processes; those awaited you in short order.  You did understand the frustration equated with the motion picture and television work, which was collaborative to a high degree.

Writing, then, meant things you did by yourself, without long meetings, without producers wanting you to find places in scripts for their girlfriends' dogs.  Of course you wre happy then. You loved the burlap drapes Ray Piatti sewed for you.  You loved your new work area, where books were close to hand, and in fact, the script and proposal work were filed in a mischievous set of shelves Ray built into your bedroom clothes closet.

Solo writing is a myth.  Even such varied writers as Roth and Salinger and DeLilo, virtual hermits much of the time, were not completely alone, nor was Georges Simenon, although his method of work was to lock himself into his rooms, making sure he had a supply of pipe tobacco, and that his wife knew his needs for coffee and meals.

Even writers who, as the saying goes, do not take edits, are not alone.  Sales and promptional persons are scheduling release dates, factoring which list the work will appear on, sending forth review copies.  There is yet more:  writers have potential individuals in their psyche, looking over their shoulder.  Writers have influences of numerous sorts.  Scratch any writer and you will find other writers and their works.  

At one time, you blamed Mark Twain for getting you into this lifestyle.  Then you blamed yourself and wondered how you had the courage and audacity to think of yourself in the same thought as Mark Twain.  Then you began blaming others because as you read them, the gap between them and you was a Sargasso Sea, wide, deep, unfathomable.

When you last saw her in person, she had shiny, long, red hair.  She sat two rows in front of you, come to Los Angeles to accept the LA Times Book Award for Love Medicine.  Seated next to her editor, Patricia Strahan.  So yes, Louise Erdrich influences you, if only in this sense:  You have to keep busy writing so that you will not be set a flounder in the enormous gap between her stories and what you consider stories.

How many others are there like that?  Bernard Malamud.  Willa Cather.  Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.  John O'Hara.  Deborah Eisenberg.  Joan Didion.

Writers are not alone, but they are heartbroken wretches who must keep writing in order to keep any thought of dream alive.  Writers remind you of the time it fell to your happy-but-naive lot to interview the ballerina, Maria Tallchief, the morning after she'd done Swan Lake at the age of thirty-six.  

You were stunned by her devotion to her craft, being at the workout barre within hours of such a strenuous and demanding performance.  "Devotion has nothing to do with it,"  she said.  "If I werent here, doing this, I wouldn't be able to walk."

Every time you read the work of one of the writers of influence for you, you are aware of that relentless, wide sea in which you are afloat, and how, if you do not keep moving, you will sink.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Accidents, Nature's Way of Helping with Your Story

In the stories you like best, remember longest, and find hidden meanings dwelling under the surface, an ensemble of characters, each with an agenda, seems to collide with one another in a short time, within a confined area.

Never mind that the narrative focuses with intensity on an individual whose priorities seem to dominate.  Mind instead that the rest of the characters, while sympathetic or at least tolerant of the single, demanding individual, have needs and yearnings of their own.

You might as well be saying there are no accidents in story, only chance meetings and accidental events in Real Time, because accidents in story reek of the contrived, the deliberately arranged collision of event intended to provide solution.

Accidents in story are splendid devices by which to add complications.  If used to create a step toward solution, they take necessary work away from the characters, handing them off to such abstractions as The Fates, Karma, Poetic Justice, and Kismet, emphasizing the need for an extended belief in luck, faith, and similar abstractions.

For most of your life, when you made the effort to attempt to place yourself in the world in ways related to your relative ability to capitalize on your ability, you saw yourself returning to a persistent theme.  You, working against great odds in pursuit of a goal.  For some time, you made the mistake of thinking the worthwhile aspects of your goals would effect the probabilities against your success, thus you were equating such things as idealism, nobility of purpose, and a desire to lead what you considered the fulfilling, artistic life.

If anything, such notions add to the odds against rather than enhance the probabilities for.  Too much emphasis on art and nobility and the radiant aura of the common weal can turn your yearnings for competence into a delusional sense of entitlement.  

The best approach is to concentrate on the goal, doing so in trust that the goal was seen as a vision of creativity rather than the object of a wish to pursue a noble cause.  Learn to play the piano before wishing to perform The Emperor Concerto with a full symphony orchestra, directed by an individual of imaginative energy.  Nobility is an abstraction in the face of a well-exercised technique.

In your vision, the only way to lower the enormous odds against successful implementation is through a devoted focus on craft, technique, and execution.  Few stories, such as the ones you most admire, are produced by accident. In your view, accident is a partner to craft, causing things to happen that wanted to happen in the first place.  In a real sense, craft is the ability to invite accident and the resulting ability to cope with it when it appears.

 Men and women have labored at some length and pain to achieve the abilities inherent in their work.  Mary Cassatt had to work to achieve her abilities to transfer her visions to canvas.  Robert Louis Stevenson had to have covered many sheets of paper with his scrawl before allowing certain of those sheets to stand.  Mendelssohn, generally recognized as being responsible for the modern discovery of the greatness of J.S. Bach, had to be aware enough of his own abilities to recognize and appreciate craft when he saw it.

The world of reality is a hive of agenda and motive, made frightening in many ways because of its throb of intensity.  Do not allow yourself to become dismayed by the seeming rush of humanity to provide via its multifarious agendas a huge monster, gobbling down originality, individuality, and potentials for persons of differing visions to live in peace.  

Work instead at your chosen craft, giving yourself over to the efforts of those from the past and present to remove the overwhelming aspects of agenda, leaving story in its place.  Each time you watch a dancer, study the works of a photographer, inhale the breath of characters created by actors, and allow your self to go along in the manner of singing in the shower as you listen to the music of your choice, you are a step closer to setting forth your own story, then awaiting the arrival of the accident, so that you can cope with it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Catcher in the Why

Once you've seen enough impressive narrative material from a client or, for that matter, a beginning student, you are likely to make a suggestion to them that will have a profound effect on them, perhaps even profound enough to cause them to wish to be quits with you as an editor/teacher/mentor.

Fair is fair; you often make the same suggestion to your own writing self, offering you the opportunity at length to cause you to wish to be quit of the editor/teacher/mentor aspects of you to yourself.

For the sake of example, let's say the client or student has brought a narrative along with the use of the close third-person point of view.  Why don't you set this material aside for a time, then re-do it in the first person?

The frequent expression you see radiating from the client or student is quite enough to convince you of the intensity of your suggestion.  Once again this reminder:  you;ve done the same thing for yourself.  You know the comfort of the discovery that you've chosen a major aspect of the story that cause you to feel a sense of familiarity with the narrative.  

Narrative familiarity feels so good, you almost wish to think of it as comfort, even though you know you do not write to achieve comfort or anything resembling comfort.  What writers do you know and respect who write for comfort?  

The state of being familiar with your characters opens you to the possibility that they might share a secret or two with you, thus as reader or writer, your intent is devious.  Your intent is to probe deeper, to know more, to test for reliability and intelligence.  As reader and writer, you know how suspicious the more intelligent characters are.  They are capable of producing serious reversals and surprises.

After the suggestion is made, the client/student might be tempted to say, "I'll give it some thought."  You did not always have the luxury of choosing clients and students who did not see the suggestion about another point of view as a threat.  There were times when your suggestion brought a response questioning your overall assessment of the writer as a human being, then as a writer. "So you're saying my writing was not up to par and I ought to start over."  "Was there anything about my material that didn't offend you?"  "What job are you suggesting I take instead of writing?"

Your personal favorite narrative filter is the multiple point of view.  What better way to bring the reader into the equation, not knowing which of your narrators to rely on, then forcing them at some point to make a choice.  By all accounts, the novel at about the halfway point should have passed the point of no return, that bench mark where enough significant events have been set in motion to prevent the elements in this fictional microcosm ever to return to their position before the story began.  At this point of no return, the reader will have met the major characters, or in rare cases, will have at least heard of all the major players.

The reader will have experienced enough different narrative voices and visions to form some opinions about which they can trust and who among the ensemble are to be questioned.  Congratulations; you've introduced dramatic ambiguity, a sense of uncertainty so palpable, you can almost count off the beats of its pulse.

This is the point at which you may even send the reader back to early events, looking for the possibility of missed clues.  You like to link this sense of frustrated curiosity to those moments in detective stories where the lead detective has returned to the crime scene, looking for missed inferences, looking for a vision the perpetrator may have had.  You want to be frustrated as a reader.  You want to be challenged as a writer, hopeful your character will reveal something she or he has not confided before, in you or any of the other characters.

And now the major issue, in particular if your suggestion had been to switch from third person narrative to first.  Why?  Since you as author are not the narrator/stage manager, your surrogate is the lead character, the Dorothy Gale of The Wizard of Oz, the Ishmael of Moby Dick, the Pip of Great Expectations, the eponymous Huck Finn.

Fair enough.  Now tell us why this character is motivated to tell his or her story.  To provide the simulacrum of Reality, why has this first-person narrator decided to tell this story?  Think about it, and think hard, because it is not a question we're apt to ask of a single, third-person narrator, nor the ensemble of narrators in a multiple point of view venture.  These worthies have as a part of their job description the requisite that they add a note of narrative ambiguity or, if you will, sufficient uncertainty to cause an atmospheric sense of tension.

The first-person narrator is another matter.  What did Salinger gain when he presented Holden Caulfield to us as a first-person filter for the history and observations and behavior to come?

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Delicate Balance

There are times when you need to find a paper napkin, a folded index card, or perhaps even a wedge-shaped sliver of wood to restore a balanced life to a table.  You learned the name for this device, the shim, way back in the days when you took woodshop after reading a book suggesting the natural relationship between boys, pieces of wood, and wood-working tools.

Even then, naive and malleable as you were, there still remained pulsing within you a certain cynicism that began with the fact that Mr. Bailey, the woodshop teacher, was lacking at least two fingers on each hand.

You were ready to believe Mr. Bailey about the shim, which, however it was applied, did not seem to put your body parts at risk.  With the possible exception of your understanding of the two basic types of saw, the rip, to saw with the grain, or the cross-cut, to saw against, especially perpendicular to the grain, the shim and its uses seems to have lasted you all these years, to the point where you are comfortable about leveling unbalanced tables, chairs, or other working surfaces, such as a deli counter in a restaurant, which you leveled using the sides of a box that once held Creamo cigars.

Your expectations about the natural relationship between boys, pieces of wood, and wood-working tools never went as well for you as you'd been led to believe.  One young chum of yours was constantly making things out of wood which he gave to his mother with often astounding results, such as her asking him if he wanted to use her car to go out that evening to a movie or a simple drive to the beach at the tail end of Sunset Boulevard.

Suitably impressed, you attempted to make things such as lamps, boxes with inlaid tops into which playing cards could be stored between uses.  You also tried your hand at book ends, napkin rings, and an elaborate device, called a silent butler, with a handle turned on a lathe, and a spring-driven top.  

However good your intentions and your earnest desire to please your mother, your results either looked like Japanese lanterns that had survived the Tokyo earthquake or they looked like some device that was not supposed to remind the viewer of a Messerschmidt 109 fighter plane so favored by the Luftwaffe.

At those times within the purview of these activities, your relationship with your mother had stretched to a point where neither of you was comfortable with the other.  She had the decided advantage because she loved you.  Even you could see that, although you lacked many of the necessary skills to accept the fact of her love nor the ability to understand how to move on beyond some insubstantial obstacles you would both soon grow through.

 It is not so much that you became cynical about woodworking, much less developing an antipathy for things made of wood, as it was your finding other things to have natural relationships with.  Here you are then, either on the extreme edges of middle-age or already having tiptoed into the cranky landscape of the elderly, still dealing with shims, but unlike the occasional table or chair you fidget back to balance, these are editorial shims, ones you use to adjust the often irregular legs of curiosity, pursuit, and surprise.

When a person, place, or object seems out of balance to you in real life, you become curious about the cause, pursue some actual or metaphysical research, then find some surprise in the results of your quest. By your reckoning, much of the information in the world about you, discovered by the consequences of curiosity, then pursuit, has produced surprises that could have as well been unpleasant as pleasing.  

This is neither a bad thing or a good one.  Rather it is indicative of modest qualities of strength in an area that has nothing at all to do with wood or science or well-mediated experiments from which observable results may be presented as fact.  Nevertheless you do appear to persist in presenting hypothetical confrontations among hypothetical individuals, and doing so as though the individuals and their confrontations were real.

You create these hypotheses as though they were tangible arguments, conflicts, and desires experienced among hypothetical individuals whom you assert to be real.  But they are only as real as you can make them.  One of your best 
tools is the shim, which you shove under curiosity.  If that does not restore the balance, you try quest.  Table still wobbles?  Ah, try pursuit or surprise.

Skills in story come from places you'd never have expected.  You are ever testing the potential for wobble, alert to see what you can use for a him, more often than not surprised by what has come about when balance is restored.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Polishing the Shoes of Your Characters

For as far back as you can remember, you've been familiar with the mantra from the scroll of Conventional Wisdom, "Before you undertake to judge any man, you should walk a mile wearing his shoes."

At first, naive narrator that you were, you took this admonition with great literal éclat, to the point of noticing the shoes  various personages in your life wore, in secret polishing your father's shoes, and keeping a notebook in which you ranked strangers on the basis of your assessment of the shoes they wore.  Your then grades of shoes:  funny, scruffy, shiny, and needs improvement.

This last category was of special meaning to you because of the grading system used on Los Angeles City Schools report cards at the time.  In addition to the letter grades of A downward to F, there were three columns for deportment.  Cooperation.  Attitudes.  Deportment.  Those grades, also letters, were R for outstanding, S for satisfactory, and N for needs improvement.  Your course grades on occasion descended into a B, your deportment grades more often than not Ns with the occasional S thrown in.

How easy it was for you to see other person's shoes in need of improvement, given your own reminders of your deportment.  How easy also for you to see your own shoes in need of improvement; they were with some regularity at a state where the sole separated from the upper, and thus your mother's groan to your father, "We have to go to Thrifty soon.  Look at his shoes."  

By going to Thrifty, she meant the then drugstore chain, Thrifty's, and yet another venture into the do-it-yourself shoe repair kit, which consisted of a thick slab of outer sole, resembling the meat patties of the hamburgers sold at the Thrifty's lunch counter for twenty-nine cents, and a tube of the then equivalent of Gorilla Glue, although in fact, Gorilla Glue would not come onto the scene for at least another fifty years.

You'd likely put in a mile or so in your father's shoes during your polishing of them, but the best sense you got of him was from the pleasure of his company.  You aspired to his tallness and seemingly off-handed casualness.  When you observed him in groups of people, he appeared to be in the middle or in some other deployment where both men and women were close by.  Even then, you knew it was not because he was the talkative sort, rather there was a radiant magnetism.

Sometimes, on shopping trips with your mother and sister, you'd pause at shoe collections, trying to imagine the men and women who would at some future time have these shoes as their own.  Thus you were in your imagination, walking a mile in shoes yet to belong to anyone.

Years later, you'd worn down your naiveté by a plateau or two, aware from your own experiences that the mile-in-the-shoes trope was indeed a metaphor; everyone had an equivalent of a time or situation in which their soles needed Gorilla Glue of some sort to put a temporary hold on flapping outer soles of some other sort.  

You also knew from sad experience that characters did not appear in stories without some consideration given to the miles they'd walked in shoes of their own choice.  Who better than you to recognize this after following the advice of one or two of the professionals you'd come in contact with?  The best thing you can do with a finished story is to set it aside, forget it for at least a week, maybe two.

Later still, your grades of N for needs improvement, rose to the S for satisfactory, in the sense of you understanding the importance of a more detailed biography for any character who set foot on the narrative stage of one of your stories, even those stories you referred to as Fifty-dollar-specials you wrote for the likes of the locally published pulp magazines.

Much of this stream of memory has come to you courtesy of your inadvertently knocking an unseen tin of Kiwi neutral shoe wax to the floor of your closet in search of a particular shirt, the only shirt the character who was then you could wear under the now-forgotten venture the character who was you thought to make into the world.

Credit where credit was due.  You spent some hours polishing shoes these various you individuals would wear, each pair reminding you of earlier times and earlier, more literal, and perhaps most effective of all attempts to understand the natures of character.

Never presume to create or judge a character without having polished at least one pair of his or her shoes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ants, an Abandoned Breakfast Burrito, Story, and Ongoing Speculation

Small books, say those well under three hundred pages, often compress more valuable information than much larger ones.  Thus you were rereading for the third or fourth time Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting, taking your morning coffee and almond croissant in the patio of the new branch of The Daily Grind.  Difficult to say what called your attention away from the text to the movement, but there it was before you--movement.

Who are they?

What did they want?

What were they willing to do to accomplish their goals?

You first asked these questions with premeditation at least twenty years ago; not to quibble, but perhaps longer.  Those questions were proposed to your graduate students as a part of a lecture on Characters in Your Story.  

The questions were proposed long enough ago for you to feel the certainty that your students would be stunned by the implications, ask you to repeat the questions so they could write them down, whereupon they would scatter to the winds of their separate ways after class, thinking in so many words, "Did you fucking hear what Shelly asked in class today?  Did you fucking get the implications?"

As such things often go, the students, in all probability, knew this litany of questions as they related to characters, and in greater probability yet, knew it with more certainty than you.  They may well have been putting these questions about characters into effect, even as they were composing things you'd already seen from them or were about to see.  

Most of the blinding lights of Ah-ha Moments of revelation in classrooms for writers are more for the sake of the teacher than the student.  You believe the effect of such classroom moments on the students is the sense the students carry away of the instructor's passionate belief.  "Shelly fucking believed whatever it was he was saying, so I fucking well better take note of it and figure out a way to believe it, myself."

So it comes to this:  You've been asking those three questions ever since, of the characters you create, of the characters you see in the works of others, then comment on as a reviewer, a teacher, or an editor.

You ask these questions with at least the same intent of belief you once asked them, back in that other life on a campus you'd had continuous and strange relationships with, the University of Southern California.

Today's "they" of the first question, Who are they? can be answered with one word:  ants.

Your take on the second question, What do they want?, is, of course, subjective, limited to your line of vision, and the curiosity you bring to the equation, because whatever else may be true of these ants, they are motivated and energetic, which is in your view quite the requisite a character must have in order to be admitted to a story.  In your assessment, the ants want as much of an abandoned breakfast burrito as they can make off with, perhaps even as much as, say, an army of banking ants, hopeful of making off with as much as they can of an unguarded economy.

The answer to the third question, What are these ants willing to do? reminds you of presuppositions you make when you read about the characters in other stories, and of the biographical materials you now think necessary to assemble for characters in your own stories.  The simple answer to the third question is:  The ants wish to transport such portions of the abandoned breakfast burrito as they can from the concrete patio railing to a nearby nest, there to do such storing and/or feasting as ants do when a windfall comes their way.  

You herewith admit to anthropomorphizing ants with a vision of some ceremony, perhaps even a feast, for the scout ants who brought back news of this abandoned breakfast burrito.  Such is your nature, to see things this way.  Your awareness of this important aspect of yourself predates the awareness of the three questions about characters.  You have little doubt that this aspect appeared within the crevices and dents of your persona in much the same way a clump of weed or flower or even succulent appear from time to time in the various pavements you traverse.Burrito, 

Without story and your wish to spend your life with it, there would be fewer Ah-ha moments in your life relating to the necessary worlds of nests, scouting, and responses to the abandoned breakfast burritos of the world.  At some point in your conventional education, you read about how pyramids were built, how the Great Wall of China was built, even how the intercontinental railroad was built to span North America.  You were even brought to close hand with the discovery of Clovis points and the ways certain elements behaved so that they could be understood by men wishing projectile points or of women, wishing for cutting and scraping edges with which to deal with some large equivalent of an abandoned breakfast burrito, say a woolly mammoth or aurox.

Instead, here you are, taking breakfast at a building that used to house a Taco Bell, now pretending to be The Daily Grind.  Your intent was to read about acting, as seen by a remarkable actor, whom your own actor/mentor knew.  You had not intention of being distracted by a parade of ants, but such is your nature that you were, and as a consequence--another important aspect of story--you have written this.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Keep It under Your Hat, But Wear a Big Hat

Conventional wisdom cautions us against sharing or discussing unformed or barely formed ideas.At first blush, this is a place where conventional wisdom appears to not only be correct,but also supportive, encouraging us to at least finish a complete draft, the literary equivalent of the Beta version.


In this case, however, conventional wisdom wises to reinforce the fear that the original impetus, the primary spark of focus, will be lost in the talking. Ideas are cheap, conventional wisdom says, doing its best to sound conventional and wise.  

Execution is the key.  Grand ideas are like a field of dandelions on a windy day.  Grand ideas must be implemented, worked out. The operant emotion in this and much conventional wisdom is fear.  Conventional wisdom wishes to tell us of the virtue in work, persistence, a cheerful determination.  Nose, as it were, to the grindstone.

At about the late 1860s, a writer named Horatio Alger all but launched a version of conventional wisdom in book form, steeped in the mythology of hard work, determination, honesty, and some notable act of bravery were the cornerstones on which to erect the edifice of self.  

This was about the time when the so-called Robber Barons were hard at work scooping up vast reserves of cash and power at such breakneck speed that they had scarce time for the requisite honesty of the conventional wisdom.

The merging of conventional wisdom with the Horatio Alger mantra was not intentional, but in short order became a kind of secular equivalent of religion for the working classes.  In time, this attitude floated upward, into the languages radiating from various pulpits, flowing with the vigor and pressure of oil wells giving brief opening statements of riches all about us.

Getting the idea down in some early form is a good way to get it into an internal start-up mode, whereupon such materials are often submitted to the peer review process or shared with informed, energetic debate.  The self is a remarkable thing; many men and women have gone forth with their ideas, after vetting them with close friends, to provide works of memorable strength, personality, and insight.

How then to look at conventional wisdom and its unerring messages of fear and caution, leavened with occasional acts of bravery?  How to compute the necessary preparations, energy, and excitements required to get our ideas into the proper orbits that are themselves long distances beyond convention?

Convention is the horizon.  We must look above the horizon.  Sometimes, the only way we can do so is by jumping or piling a stack of books or building a tree house.  Sometimes we find ways to merge with the ideas, themselves, casting off ballast to the point where we feel the transportation, upward into the stratosphere of enthusiasm.

Not all ideas pay off; surely you know that from the scrap heap of your own ideas, too leaden to achieve escape velocity.  Not all conventions are to be sneered at, but it seems to you the ones most worthy of heeding are ones you recognize as not being fear based, or even those asking you, "Have we tangible need for this?"  Those seem reasonable conversations to be had with your ideas.

Ideas are like impatient, energetic, enthusiastic individuals, eager to see if there is a place for them in the conversation of Reality.  They are of particular worth when you see about you a fractured society, the family of Mankind becoming a dysfunctional family, filled with accusations, acquisitiveness, cynicism, and a frustrating sense of helplessness.

Such things add to the growing fear at the subtext of all reality, causing you, even with your sense of being at home with dark, nihilistic works, looking for ways to give a sense of loft and mobility to ideas.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Train Wrecks in Fiction and Reality

Approaching thirty-five years ago, you found yourself, as editor-in-chief of a scholarly publishing company,occupying the same track as an opposing force, rushing toward you.  The opposing force was the sales department which, to compound the magnitude of the approaching collision, had as its major personality an individual who'd in recent months been assigned the position of Director of Operations.

Train wrecks are more frequent outside the rail yards, in a real sense better suited to worlds of metaphor, speculation, and point-of-view differences as personal abstractions rather than locomotives hauling freight, passengers, or both.

You've been in any number of such train wrecks in the making, alert to last minute  switches of track, attempting to apply brakes, or slowing on the engine hauling your array of cars to a speed where you could jump free before the actual collision.

In this scholarly publishing incident, you'd seen the acceleration you'd long become familiar with, in which you'd moved past a point of no return.  You'd already committed yourself beyond your comfort zone of remaining as a senior editor rather than editor in chief, doing what you liked best about publishing, avoiding too many meetings, reverting to functions associated with the term "shirt-sleeves editor," then, within your own leisure hours, setting all that aside to compete in half-marathons and write short stories.  

This was a near dream-like state in which, for the better part of two years, you ran considerable distances every day, short stories were demanding your attention, and you could see about the whispy edges of your imagination a population of fictional individuals whose lives intersected one another with an agreeable grace.

Small wonder, this last; you'd fought off the temptation to move to New York to take over the stewardship of a medium-tier paperback publishing house, you had classes to teach in Los Angeles, but you were much the comfortable individual in a small town you'd wished to become.  

Of course, you'd have to grow if the short stories were to continue to arrive.  Of course, you'd have to grow if the fabric of characters began to present itself as a novel.  The growth would come from the stories and novels themselves, not from the world of publishing.  The growth would come from the ways in which you were dealt and coped with the train wrecks of the self, not the train wrecks of the world of book publishing.

Too late.  You'd already become editor in chief.  Too late, you'd allowed yourself to see you from the organization's point of view, where you allowed yourself to see you managing and coping with things such as meetings, three- and five-year plans, and the entire personality of the publications.  This had nothing to do with vanity and everything to do with a wish to avoid the culture of the train wreck.

That portion of your life was to a great extent about making plans, then implementing them, growing efficient in the execution, taking such pleasure from doing so as possible.  The plan ended one day after a long brunch at the then version of The El Encanto Hotel, a Tuesday, which meant leaving for Los Angeles at about two in order to arrive in time for your afternoon class.

Since the meal was brunch, you'd thought some scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee, but the Publisher and Director of Operations would not hear of that.  You needed, they argued, salmon because it was a teaching day.

The salmon took some time to prepare, perhaps because it was not on the premises.  Ah, procurement.

At about two thirty that afternoon, fighting off a drowse from too much salmon and folle Blanche, a delightful white wine whose name is literally crazy white, you stopped for coffee in Caprinteria, allowing the implications to slip past your bouncer.  You wouldn't need to worry about going to work the next day, nor any subsequent day because you needn't worry any longer about scholar publishing.

What you have become as well as what you have not become does relate, to your great satisfaction, on the short stories, on two longish works of fiction in the works, and to a vision of some longish works of nonfiction.  No doubt your output and self-assessment would have been different, had you not had so much salmon that morning at the Hotel El Encanto.  Less doubt still, had you said yes to the position in New York.  

You like to think you'd have been back in California by now, because there were indeed potentials for train wrecks there and, in fact, after three or so years, you read of the train wreck that took care of that publishing company.

Being "back in California" can have any number of train-wreck potentials since there are Bakersfields and Victorvilles and Fresnos in California as well as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego.  Being back can signify a defeat, a humiliation, a strategic withdrawal, or a complete victory.  Being back can also signify a session of existential chiropractic in which adjustments are made to one's Reality. 

Nevertheless, you are in major ways what you are because of all your experience with publishers.  You write more about your experiences with universities because universities seem to you as fraught with potential for train wreck as anything you've seen.  Thus you are what you are because of train wrecks and short stories and nonfiction in progress.  Dreams of long form fiction abound.  You are not so much back as having never left.  Rather, you walk with the even gait of a man whose existential spine has been given a satisfying adjustment.  Run that through your chiropractor.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chemistry



A story may have the right goals established for the main characters, the right setting, even the the time frame, but if chemistry goes missing, the outcome borders on the dismal.  

In this case, dramatic chemistry refers to the dynamic between and among characters, the shimmering presence of motives, agendas, and plans.

You use the term "chemistry" with some regularity, not because you are adept in the more classical relationships between and among the known elements, rather because you are looking for tangible responses as they relate to emotions.

You still cherish one or two memories from your brief exposure to chemistry in that more classical, academic sense, while in high school.  One of these memories came when the Periodic Table of Elements, tacked to a classroom wall, seemed to come to life for you, shining, sputtering, and clanging the way the pinball machine at Miller's Drug Store came to life when your father coaxed it into giving up its most intimate secrets, lights flashing, tiny buzzers humming, individual features doing the equivalent of youngsters in grammar school, waving their hands to alert the teacher to the fact that they knew something relevant to the day's lessons.

The other memory came from your reading of a book about a noted chemist and theoretician, Hans Bethe, in which he spoke of metals, under certain circumstances, changing into other s, with residues of atomic particles.

You spent long moments, trying to absorb how this could happen, trying in essence to understand a thing out of context without knowing with any precision why this mattered to you.

In many ways, you could say the same thing about your early years, say fourteen to twenty, by which time you spent longer moments yet, trying to absorb almost anything about you.  You were growing aware in the most painful of ways how much you were taking for granted, or at the words of others, without any tangible sense of your own how they worked or if, in fact, they existed.

Since those troublesome years, you've given considerable thought to chemistry, looking for and finding connections, particular relationships, evidences of attraction or repulsion.  A good deal of what you consider happiness related to the ability to see chemistry between things that at first seem disparate to you.

In that sense, happiness and story are, to you, matters of chemistry.  Experiencing chemistry through story or experience produces feelings of shimmering, radiant potential, thus happiness to you means an enhanced way of seeing all about you relationships you might have missed.  You are all the happier at this small awareness because of the way it anchors you into enthusiasm.  Thus the transmutation from happiness into enthusiasm, which is in its way self-contained chemistry.

The more you are aware of chemistry and able to note its valences and properties, the greater your chances of seeing who you are on your evening walks or within the paragraphs of your stories.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Love of Words Is No Excuse

By the mere chance of you deciding on another cup of coffee before leaving Cafe Luna, the venue of your Saturday workshop, you were ambushed .

Cafe Luna not only keeps a display of your books for sale, it provides a reserved space for your Saturday group.  Your ambushers were quick to note the comparison between the photo of you on the back of The Fiction Writers' Handbook and the you in quest of more coffee.

Words were exchanged.  "Aren't you--"  the ambushers asked.  You of course confessed.  There were four of the ambushers, in all probability two couples, each of whom, after more formal introductions, told you they'd heard about your Saturday group, which prompted them to wonder if you had any room for additional students because, this from each of them and again in concert, they loved words.

The Saturday workshop had been bracing in its discussions and reading,  The coffee you sought was provided in a fresh cup.  Thus you were of a jovial frame of mind, wondering if the ambush were another prank orchestrated by the serving staff or the kitchen staff, or perhaps even the group of regular customers with whom you on occasion hang out.

The profession of your ambushers' love of words was the key, which is an important thing to be aware of in consideration of pranks.  Pranks are integral ceremonies of humor, meant to poke fun, perhaps to the point of causing embarrassment.  

A significant joy of humor is its frequent venture into ambiguity.  This phenomenon is demonstrated by the stunning effect Stephen Colbert has on the public, and the lesser known yet effective results obtained by the actor Sacha Baron Cohen.  Both provide exquisite satire, clothed in the Armani Suit equivalent of well-tailored ambiguity.  

The waitstaff and the kitchen staff of Cafe Luna have heard frequent protestations of individuals who love words.  Some of the regular customers have also heard.  How quickly such things build.  To the right audience, someone claiming to love words is a target of opportunity.

On the other hand, some writers--not by any means limited to poets--love words.  The occasion for satire arises with the knowledge that individuals who profess their love for words think of writing as a means of description, where story or theme come second--in all fairness, sometimes a close second--to words.

Such love for words has the potential for long flights of description, which may or may not enhance the story and which, on the other hand, may send the reader off to the fridge for a beer or any chilled white that happens to be lurking in the vege crisper.

In many cases, you see a connecting link between individuals who love words and individuals who believe their research should all be used, whether or not it contributes to the dramatic intensity of the story.

In this case, you also recognize the link between you and the cynic,  You did in fact start with a love for words, at times in your life taking in dictionaries the way you now take in novels.

The way it works out is this:  Loving words is not enough.  You've seen cases of domestic abuse exhibited by individuals who claim to love words.  Adverb management camps are a help,  but in the long run, writing has to begin with respect.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fuck Intrepid

There are times when a word will attempt to capture your attention, much in the way of street people, living on their wits, despair, and, in some even more tragic instances, lack of noticeable ability to cope. They want your attention in order to extract at the least spare change from you, or well into the realm of folding money.

Because of their individual agendas, the street people want your attention only long enough to petition you for some kind of grant.   Once the grant is considered and perhaps awarded, the transaction is over.  One or both of you are on their ways.

Some words are cheery in their demeanor.  They cause you to forget any negative, embedded responses to them you picked up in a classroom, either a classroom where you attended as a student or one in which you presided as a teacher. Such words often appear, then reappear, in things you write, their effect on you much like being aware of your cell phone vibrating with the news of an incoming text, email, or telephone call

Some street people, in spite of their condition, strike you as equally cheerful as the words attempting to attract your intention.  Without wishing in any way to patronize these persons, you find yourself drawn by their apparent attitude toward their situation.  Right away, attitude becomes a cheery word for you.  Eye contact maters.  The degree of presence exchanged often determines the size of the grant award.

The street person who always seemed to have two or more books in his possession and was eager to talk about and recommend his choices moved quickly from spare change to folding.  Yes, you saw a connection between the two of you, and yes, you were in 
some significant way, awarding research grants on the basis of that connection.

Garrulous street persons tend to remind you of one of your favorite fictional characters, that companionable if mischievous Sir John Falstaff, chum to Prince Hal before he became Henry V.
Kinghood in Shakespeare asks for--and is given--gravitas.  Henry ultimately sends Sir John packing ("I know thee not, old man....Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know—so shall the world perceive—
That I have turned away my former self...").

Those words and subsequent banishment put you off Henry to this day, even while working on the implications of the comparison you've been pursuing here in these paragraphs.  With some frequency, you find yourself growing so fond of a word or phrase to the point where, no matter in which writing of yours you look, you find it, lurking as a habit word, which is to be banished.

Words by no means lack gravitas for you.  They help convey the tides of meaning and intent you experience when attempting to bring an idea to ground.  Some words you grew up on, liking because of their sound or their potential for conveying rather than describing a meaning, now remind you of earlier days of roistering, carousing, celebrating the joyful sense of inventing things that did not happen at all or happened in less colorful and dramatic ways than the ones you used to present them.  

Other words stuck to you like a limpet to the pilings of a pier, because you liked the bombast of its voice.  Morbid.  Propensity.  In fact, you were scarcely ten when you happened upon a sentence from Thomas Babbington Macaulay (1800-59), in which someone had "a morbid propensity to sloth and procrastination." Even now, you relive amusement at the times you dropped that bomb on unsuspecting recipients.  

You continue to identify with Sir John in that sense of knowing you inventing a truth which is different from the truth of the chaotic and meanspirited Reality surging about you.  Yet there is gravitas in your wish to portray that invented truth.

You have a list of words, including many aspects of the verb to be, which in some way adds notes of vagueness and uncertainty where no such qualities are intended.  The verb to be is in addition to being an indicator of life, acts as a shill for the passive voice, a way of undermining the foundation of a character and/or story.

You call some of the words on this list weasel words.  They introduce more vagary and uncertainty into a sentence than they help achieve clarity.  Somewhat.  Perhaps.  Suppose.  Very.  Some.  A little.  Suddenly.  Cautiously.  You wince at the memory of times you strived to get such words into a narrative.  Which reminds you of the time the actor, John Carroll, took you aside, thrusting a script you'd written at you.  "You tell me, lad, when you ever heard me use the word intrepid."

"It means--" you began.

"Fuck what it means, you understand?  It's one thing for you to put words in my mouth--"

"--fearless,"  you said.

"--then fucking write it that way.  Fearless, I can do.  Fuck intrepid.  Are we clear?"

"Fuck intrepid,"  you said, and you have been doing so ever since.