Saturday, February 28, 2015

Easy for You to Say

Whether the medium you're reading is fiction or some form of nonfiction (including personal and business letters), nothing throws you out of concentration on the text as too much information.  By "information," you mean details such as facts, descriptions, and, to add a nice caboose onto the train, opinion.

True enough, you're reading fiction and nonfiction to get at these very details you've just listed, but in the simplest, most direct terms, there are such fast-food hamburgers as The Whopper, The Big Mac, and the Super Carl; then there are the likes of hamburgers at two of your favorite restaurants, Sly's , the newly opened Brewery in Carpinteria, and Holdren's Steak House, where a hamburger is not a mere tick on a computerized cash register, it is an occasion as it comes from the kitchen, sits for a moment before you, then becomes a challenge to engage.  Knife and fork?  Cut in half and thus risk only half the amount of drippy management?  Take the entire thing up at once, signaling in advance for additional napkins?

Just these scant words on the nutritional and aesthetic qualities of the hamburger innards; more often than not, the cow supplying the meat was grass fed, which, so far as information is concerned, validates its condition at first bite.  Grass-fed, open-range cows impart a sense of participating in a meal with a sensual provenance.  You can taste the process as opposed to tasting the processing wherein a burger at the likes of MickyD contains a consensus of all cow-dom rather than the grassy tang of an open herd.

In fiction, information is often as open to diversity as a patty selected at random from one of the three fast-food establishments cited earlier, packed in to suggest notes of authority and the equivalent of peer review academic or scientific discourse. 

The taste is anything but sensual; more likely it advances undertones of cardboard or sawdust, or sandwiches served beach side, invaded by a splash of sand.  You don't want consensus or a sense of chewy sameness; you want the authority and integrity of a voice and the hint of being taken along somewhere you'd had no intention of visiting.

Never take the reader where the reader wants to go; this is a good recipe to follow in story because of the way it makes the reader curious to learn more information, reading with the hope more will emerge.  Good recipes, like good stories, sound simple, easy to prepare, worth the results.  But there are pitfalls in believing a thing that sounds easy, whether recipe or story, is all that easy.

Ah, easy.  Back in the late 50s and 60s, a talented ventriloquist from Spain, Senor Wences, began bringing his original and diversified routines to the United States, seeming to appear on the entire spectrum of TV from Ed Sullivan to Sesame Street.  A part of his routine was to convince some of his characters how easy things would be for them to perform if they would follow his instructions.  This gave us a view of the good senor's versatility.



"No, Johnny.  Easy."



And Johnny's ventriloquist dummy response, "Easy for you.  Difficult for me."

Your own first impression in the matter of information is to put in everything that comes to mind while you're in the first buzz of composition.  Then, you take it out, a process reminding you of watching a woman pluck individual hairs from a brow line that wants to pull an Israel and establish settlements everywhere.

Easy is the sense you wish to imply in story and nonfiction, your best approach the umbrella tactic of learning to merge your speaking voice with the thinking one.  Write as you think, think as you write.  For good or ill, your thinking voice uses semicolons.  Any number of editors have spoken to you about this.  Easy is when you can say you'd never use a semicolon in a screenplay or a stage play, knowing your likelihood of writing in the screenplay form is limited, thinking you'd think twice about a semicolon in a script meant for the stage.  Easy is when you can say a reader who has patience to read you under any circumstances would stay with you for the occasional semicolon.

Easy goes well beyond that.  Easy is the quality you're after in story and nonfiction when there is no sense of style or word choice or even sentence length.  Nothing like that.  Only the sound of a story or essay, telling itself.  There is no music or narrative quite so fulfilling as the sound of a story or essay where the entire thread of information, detail, response, and personality sing out in an endearing, drunken, barbershop quartet, sometimes a bit sharp, other times a bit flat, emphasizing the true humanity behind the characters at risk before you, singing their hearts out. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Getting off on the Wrong Foot with Capt. Ahab

The pages of literature you read as a younger, intermediate, and now full-fledged reader are filled with narratives of men, women, and young persons who have in one way or another been wronged. 

Everywhere you turned, whether it was Montressor, the narrator of Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado," Edmund Dantes, wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, in Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, or Jim, the runaway slave who by his presence lends spine and stature to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

Among the wrongs visited upon these individuals, the impugning of family name, being used as a foil for a crime, and having his identity taken from him and sold along with him.  Throughout the history of story, individuals were wrongly punished or punished in severe degree for crimes of a minor nature.  Characters have been exiled, tortured, manipulated.  In one case, Tony Last, a major player in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, is purposefully detained in a dense Brazilian jungle, doomed to read the works of Charles Dickens aloud to his captor.

Women have fared even worse in literature, forced into arranged or political marriages, such individuality as they may have had stripped from them in gradual chapters as their circumstances grew worse by the chapter.  Carol Milford, protagonist of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street,  a free-spirited, liberal-thinking woman, marries her childhood sweetheart, Will Kennicott, a doctor. No problem there; they are happy.  But then, Will is posted in a small, fictional prairie town, where both, but Carol in particular, are wronged by small-town small-mindedness and bigotry.

In a famous story out of trapper and mountain man legend, the noted trapper, Hugh Glass, experiences a severe mauling from a bear.  He is left to recover with a few of his trapper chums, but they, thinking Glass will soon die of his wounds, abandon him.  This becomes the reality-based act one of a classic story of revenge; Glass recovers.  Like Edmond Dantes, Glass seeks revenge.

Looking backward over your life, you do not see any instances where you might have claim to being wronged.  True enough, a number of things at a number of levels did not go as you'd hoped, and you find yourself from time to time wondering how things might have gone had you taken the offered job to run a massmarket publisher in New York.  But you cannot say you were wronged, nor do you nourish revenge scenarios to wrest back what was taken from you.

That said, the formula of the revenge story has a powerful, resonant appeal for you, helping you identify with characters from other times and cultures you've been made to like to the point where you want them to regain what was lost.  You want Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe,  to vanquish one of his arch enemies, Sir Reginald Front De Boeuf.  You want women who were abused by thoughtless husbands or fathers to not merely get away but find opportunities to exercise their inherent abilities, then come back  home to retake in symbol the dignity taken from them in actuality.

You want Ishmael to survive because his survival makes a moral statement with which you can identify.  He is a man who nearly had his life wrongfully taken from him by a megalomaniac. His revenge is to have understood the forces between which he'd almost been crushed.  Indeed, he was the only survivor.

Truth to tell, there have been two or three situations in which you'd comforted yourself by concocting revenge fantasies, imagining you'd worked your way into a situation where you could restore the justice of a situation you'd thought had got out of hand.  Further truth to tell, you had the actual opportunity to use your editorial position and skills for a close equivalent of revenge.  As you began the project, you felt a high tingle of satisfaction, until you realized that tingles of satisfaction at this level were not the reasons you'd put time, energy, and considerable concern into acquiring editorial skills.

Your own career path involved similar time, energy, and concern into becoming a teacher.  Both these paths had as goals the acquisition of skills to enhance and ratify your desire to be a writer.  There are some writing parts of you that have aspects of revenge in mind, the I'll-show-you kinds of revenge, but not the I'll-get-even type.

Revenge of that sort slows the growth of the process you wish to encourage.  Recent years and, of course, rereading and rethinking have brought you closer to thinking of Ishmael as a homie who got away from the revenge of Ahab with little more than the clothing on his back, wet, torn, and dripping, but able to get on with telling a tale of remarkable understanding.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Voice Over

 You didn't give much thought to the matter of hearing voices until Rachel told you she heard voices.  After all, she was your mentor.  Perhaps mentors heard voices.  Perhaps this was something you should look into.

Not that you had much time to do so.  Rachel asked you if you heard voices.  The effect was similar to the running gag on the Jack Benny radio program, where Jack Benny, out for an evening stroll, is accosted by the actor, Sheldon Leonard, portraying a burglar.  "Your money or your life?"

Long pause.  The sort of long pause only Benny or his pal, George Burns, could ride off into the sunset.  At length, "Well?"

And the punch line from Benny:  "I'm thinking.  I'm thinking."

"Perfectly alright if you don't hear voices,"  Rachel told you.  "Some writers see things.  They write down the things they see."

At the time, you were in your twenties, meaning there was not all that much of your life to flash past your eyes as you faced what seemed the death situation.  You were not at that moment aware of hearing voices or seeing apparitions.  This could have spoken to your fear that you were too literal to be any kind of a writer.  What kind of writer were you if you neither heard voices nor saw apparitions.

Saved by the bell, as it were, when you heard a loud voice saying, "Tell her you hear voices."

Voices, you said, and she said that's what she'd have guessed about you.  For a time, you had to be content with that one, "Tell her you hear voices."  That's all there was.  You'd catch yourself listening, trying to hear more, sometimes thinking you'd had a breakthrough only to discover you were hearing some of the things you'd had to commit to memory, things such as the Preamble to the Constitution.  Listening for a story and getting, "We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union--" was not comforting.  

While you were concentrating, listening, sometimes acting on whatever ambient lyrics rang through the karaoke of your mind, you began to notice things written about writers who impressed you.  Eudora Welty found her voice in--  Mark Twain found his voice in--Carson McCullers found her voice--  Writers all about you had found or were finding their voices, all of this leading you to the fearful conclusion you were never going to be anything like the writer you hoped to be because now you not only could not plot, you had no voice.

When you thought about your experiences in public speaking classes, you often had to make some effort to focus on a subject as remote as possible from public speaking because the results were so dismal.  

One public speaking teacher told you she was so in awe of your ability to say "Rubber baby buggy bumpers" over and over, your speed increasing with each round, and your developing skill set with "Are you copper-bottomimg 'em, my man? No, I'm aluminiuming 'um, mum," that she was giving you the grade of B, but you had to promise you would not sign up for the second part of the course.

Today, voices and all, is in many ways a mystery.  Having spent time looking for your voice, you went off the trail on many occasions.  Not until a student once asked you what to do if you came up with a voice you didn't like were you, in the act of preparing an answer, able to develop a strategy that worked.  You were not crazy about the voice you had then, probably because you were hearing so many at once that the aggregate tended to shout down the one you wanted most to hear.

The care and feeding of a voice is a precarious venture; there are so many splendid voices out there, seeming to be able to tell story with no obstacle.  There are times when you wish to incorporate them all, knowing in advance that would sound awful.  The best you can think to do is read the books and journals in which these voices appear, trying to sound them for effect and music and drama as you read, trying to capture the individuality the way you seem to be able to do with so many jazz musicians.

Much is written and said about the beauty of artful narrative, things such as how elevating some writers and their stories are, as well as things about how they seem to illuminate the dark, unexamined places of the human psyche.  You have no quarrel with such views, but for you there is a lingering, painful presence in the beauty, the pain of the individual writer, striving to achieve beauty unfettered by pain, striving, and always falling a tad short.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Don't Go There

High on your list of favored story types is the narrative in which an individual, with some trepidation,  enters a place she or he should not be, then discovers life-changing information with which the character is now bound to live.

Trepidation plays an important role because of the need it places on the character to be alert for the potential of menace, which can be seen or unseen.

The information can be in the form of some physical clue, to exaggerate the point, say a skeleton or some parts thereof.  The information can be a painting, photograph, or even a petroglyph, which is all the more disturbing because the discoverer, you see, will have had nightmares about the painting, photograph, or petroglyph. 

There are other ways for the information to be revealed:  a notebook or journal, a manuscript, an emendation on the margin of a printed book., a letter.  A packet of letters tied with a ribbon.

As for the information itself; it can be a revelation that someone is not who the character suspected.  Uncle Fred is not, in fact, a blood relative, rather the father of the character or the boyfriend of the aunt everyone thought was a maiden aunt.  The information is a challenge to the discoverer, casting doubt on the most precious thing most of us have, identity.

Perhaps the information takes on the metaphoric role of the ghost of King Hamlet, come back from the dead to swear his son to avenge his father's murder.

It is one thing to discover you've been given sincere but wrong information about some aspect of physical or existential behavior, yet another thing to see how some element with direct implications to who you are and your own place in the world have been kept from you all this time, all this time.  

Family secrets.  Specifics.  Your sister did not allow a rather lackluster marriage prevent her from a remarkable life.  Your own relationship with your brother-in-law, bordering on indifference from you, is mitigated by the fact of two nieces whom you adore.

A male cousin, some three of four years your senior, was someone you got along with well, based on mutual respect and admiration.  He, as well as your sister, had a less-than-spectacular marriage, producing two children and a cornucopia of unrealized dreams.  He and your sister had a long, enduring friendship to the point where you were aware each was the other's best friend.

Both are gone now, each in a dramatic way; he appeared to have fallen or was pushed from a mountain in Tahiti; she after a series of accelerated disasters after the mere tripping over her dog during an evening stroll.  A few years back, at a family gathering well lubricated with drink, you and one of your nieces voiced your hope to the daughter of your cousin that her father and your sister had managed to fortify the intensity of their relationship in physical as well as emotional ways.

This put your cousin's daughter in the same position of causing her to confront information, perhaps for the first time on a conscious level.  She was clearly surprised, then stunned, then repelled.  The word "gross" was heard a number of times.  Yet there were members of the family, indeed hoping.

You have not seen nor heard from your cousin's daughter since, nor has there been the trickle of information filtered through the family grape vine.  In your mind, this is precisely the sort of "discovered" information characters learn in this type of discovery story.

There is the strong possibility you've discovered something in investigating this outstanding dynamic from your own family within the framework of the kinds of discovery you applaud when they are made by made-up characters in concocted stories.  Resident elements of gossip and secrets made public are two enticing qualities.

You have for some time been of the belief much of your writing, even these vagrant lines, becomes wrappings about an armature of discovery.  When you plug the wrappings into the poles of a battery, you get something you learned from your cousin, the contented-sounding chuckle of an electric motor, turning its rotor, providing energy.

There are times when the discovery seems rather ordinary, but with greater frequency than you'd suspected when you began, you begin to understand more of who you are, and what lengths you've resorted to in attempts to tamp down those elephant-like bulges appearing in your living room carpet.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Page One: Too Much Toothpaste out of the Tube

In your experience as an editor and a teacher of creative writing, the single most difficult aspect of story to convey to writers and wannabes is where the story begins.  Although you are far from content with the place where some published stories begin, you do see an agreeable pattern governing the place where most published stories begin.

You'd think wannabe writers would allow themselves to be guided by this overwhelming backlog of precedent-setting examples, but for several reasons, you'd be wrong.  A few of these several reasons start with the desires of the wannabe writer to demonstrate from word one the fact of being a writer.  

This often means an introductory sentence or paragraph describing the existential effects of the ambient weather on the protagonist of the story, at which point, the angst and vulnerability of the main character established, we may move outward to the effects of the weather on enough of the physical aspects of the character to allow her or him to appear within our imagination.

With luck on the reader's side, this type of beginning will only last a page or two.  But there are the feelings of the emerging writer to consider. Will she or he be content to allow matters to rest here, or will uncertainty prompt yet another demonstration of skillful, descriptive writing?   

All too often, this state of mind will lead to several paragraphs of what you've come to think of as edgy travel writing, descriptions of the setting in which the protagonist finds herself, recalling similar places, perhaps even this very place, at a happier time.

Things had been different then, she thought with a sigh.  Oh, yes, they had, which somehow is meant to explain why the character on stage is at the current moment feeling so wretched or depressed or unable to take the physical steps necessary to get the story moving.  

You advocate what you have come to call the eighty-five/fifteen approach, by which you mean opening pages, whether of a novel or shorter work, are eighty-five percent action against a background of fifteen percent description or reaction to the action.  When the boulder has been pushed over the crest of the hill, when a significant part of the story, perhaps even its theme, has been set in motion, we can alter the eighty-five/fifteen, often to the extreme of sixty/forty.  But not for long.

As soon as we find out what the boulder was doing at the top of the hill, how it had arrived there, and why the protagonist had, after all that work, decided to give it a shove to send it on its careening downward path.

Much of the time, when discussing and describing the aspects and consequences of action to emerging writers and students, you are patient.  This is so not so much because you were for so long that same, argumentative student or wannabe as it is so because of the parallels you see between the actor and the character, each relying on action with full body, with pacing and poise in the delivery of dialogue.  

You wish to impart this in such a way that you will not leave the wannabe or student with the impression you believe all action to be aggressive in its physicality.  There are times when a mere "No," is action enough.  There are times when one or more of the other characters will not take the no as definitive.

Actors were called players before they were called actors.  A player was a person who played a role, acted in a way that would give dimension and nuance to what the character did, said, did not do, and did not say.  A character is an actor the writer has casted to play this part, to interpret rather than describe the words and activities of the person involved in the story.

Like characters, actors have differing approaches to pushing the rock to the top of the hill.  Tom Sawyer had a fine technique for getting his chums not only to whitewash the very fence they'd earlier teased him for having to work on, they were willing to pay him for the privilege of doing so.

The ideal place for necessary explanations and backstory is the final paragraphs of a short story, the penultimate chapter of a novel, the reader's curiosity forcing the reader to stay onboard in order to get and process the explanations.  Few stories or novels work that way, a vivid reminder that beginnings are easy, endings less so.

The purpose of the beginning is to cause the reader to experience the curiosity for detail the emerging writer so often tries to head off at the pass with too much explanation, too much rationale, too many answers.

Story begins with movement built around desire, need, urgency, enough of each to cause the reader to wonder why and how this is going to end.  The art associated with the ending has to do with the way the writer is able to withhold the dynamics of the details for as long as possible. 

Too much toothpaste squeezed out of the tube.  How are they going to get the surplus back in?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fuck-You Letters and Confessions

Letters written in the heat of a reflexive, Oh, yeah? but not sent, as a result of Better-sit-on-it-for-a-while constraints define your being.

There have been, as you well know, many such letters written, some of them a scant two words and an exclamation point, others approximating the length of a short story.  Over the years, many of these have been sent, documenting  the precarious ratio of your reflexive nature against the the possibility of your learning something from the actual contents of the letters.

The passion behind the urge to write letters runs in close parallel to your need to set story and essay in motion' both are stirrings of the voice you were first barely able to define, then learn to trust as a guiding force that defines how you would make your way through the deserts, forests, and clutter of life.

There is little to be learned from a fuck-you! letter other than the memory of your defensive belief of having believed you were right in a specific matter.  But there it is, your defensiveness a pigeon coming back, not to roost but to relieve itself on your defensive form.  There you are for yourself to see, smeared with pigeon poop, in your defensiveness.

One letter, which you wrote but did not mail, composed when you were still in your second decade, was addressed to the editor of a magazine to whom you had submitted many stories.  "I may be funny,"  you wrote in response to a note she'd sent you,along with a check for one of the stories she accepted, "but I am damned serious about wanting to produce stories for your magazine.  To your twenty-something-year-old credit, you responded instead, "Thank you for taking your time to save me a good deal of mine."

Given the number of fuck-you letters you've written and sent, this fuck-you letter, written and not sent, taken side-by-side with the thank-you letter you wrote and did send could well have been a high water mark in your learning process.

The editor had purchased one or two of your stories for what at the time were called true confession magazines, except that they were not your confessions of things you'd done so much as imaginary transgressions of young women, concocted by you.  You were serious about writing them because they were all first-person.  Once again, I found myself unable to tell Eric, "No; not until we're married," and once again, I knew, in spite of all his assurances that we would marry, as soon as he turned eighteen, marriage was the last thing on his mind.

You were serious about wanting to learn into muscle memory the ways of first-person accounts of women and men characters who were real enough but not you.  As such things go, you were aware how often your dialogue and narrative observations led to humorous results.  

So was the editor, who also did the math for you, telling you how the five cents per word she paid you would have been all right if she'd been purchasing all the stories you sent her as she indeed purchased most of the stories from most of her regular contributors.  But when you factored the number of rejections against the scant few acceptances, you were in fact writing for less than a penny a word.  She may have even used the term "Pyrrhic victory" in reference to the enclosed check.

So much to be learned.  For instance, a mere confession is not enough, for the same reasons a fuck-you letter is not enough; you have to stay with both when they arrive--and the intervening years between the then of your confessions and fuck-you letters and the now of them have not changed much.  You still have to stay with both of them to discover what they really mean, and what your next step will be in each case.

The goal is not revenge, which is to say getting your own face back.  The goal is understanding how to avoid telling the same story over and over again.  The goal is understanding where and how to find the newness of the next.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Crossed Purposes

 Being at crossed purposes is an existential condition where at least two valid presuppositions argue for possession of the microphone.  The most weighty presupposition has you with a significant purpose.  This is followed by your encounter with a person, place, or thing bearing a purpose counter to your own. 

Crossed purposes is all about establishing boundaries, property lines, definitions, rules.  As such, it is a cornucopia of dramatic opportunity, the contesting sides pursuing gravitas in debates where the winner is often the comedy of unintended disaster. 

Yet another precondition is your awareness of a dominant voice or attitude resident within you, which has caused you to have developed a radar for opposing purposes.  And there are sad cases wherein you are for the moment detached from your own purpose which has been filched from you by the pickpockets of obligations and identity.

At about the time you were becoming aware there was such a thing as a Southern literature, which is to say stories written by men and women living below the Mason-Dixon line, you were in fact living below the Mason-Dixon line and had experienced a few memorable unpleasantnesses.  The first of these was a direct demonstration of crossed purposes.  You were in Washington, D.C., thirsty.  Before you was a water fountain, which you addressed with the eagerness of a ten-year-old boy. 

Your hand scarcely touched the faucet knob when you were wrenched back by a hand, grabbing your shirt collar.  "Can't you read, boy?"  You could, and you said so.  "Then look at that sign. What does that sign say?"  It said COLORED.  Welcome to the world of the South.  The world of crossed purposes.  "You drinking water meant for them.  If one of them wanted water and saw you drinking his water, what would he think?"  Then, after a moment,  "Aint no matter if no one else is here.  You drink your own proper water."

Some months later, the driver of a local bus playing the streets of Miami Beach, Florida, lurched to a stop.  The driver yanked on the hand brake, stood, then marched down the aisle to where you sat, in your favored seat above the rear wheels.  "You know why I'm stopping ?"  You shook your head.  Even at that age, you had a smart-ass remark at the ready.  In California, you'd have said, "Fire drill."  In Florida, you shook your head until a black line painted about the interior walls, ceiling, and floor of the bus were indicated.  "You're sitting in a place meant for them.  One of them gets on, looks for a place, sees you sitting there, what's he going to think?"

A few months later still, when you were delivering a route for the Miami Herald, you encountered another, similar ugliness, related to signs in front of your customers' apartment buildings, listing a range of beings who were not supposed to enter under any circumstances.  These examples by way of illustrating the more grievous examples of crossed purpose.

In some ways, you've found a narrative voice from the stories of other writers.  Your narrative voice has over the years acquired a timbre and range through your observations of the human condition in general and such specifics as those listed above.  What is story but the continuing saga of persons attempting to communicate, to get closer, to understand, to explain an action or attitude one party thought to be perfectly clear to the point of being bewildered that another party could fail to grasp the intent.

Crossed purposes has become the equivalent of signing in at a large conference or exhibition, whereupon you are given a name tag bearing a name other than your own  because, even though you enrolled well in advance, the information was garbled.  Thus you enter the conference or exhibition knowing who you are, but bearing identity that says you are someone else. 

A narrative without crossed purposes is an outline, the opening acts at concerts or vaudeville displays; it is no more story than the sermons of the religious or the pie-in-the-sky solutions of politics, or, indeed, the intransigence of those who long for the merging of church and state.

Story starts as a discussion, escalates into argument, then explodes in a combustion of dazed characters, attempting to superglue their shattered dreams.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

When and How You Say "Trust Me."

The moment the caller of an incoming phone call asks your name by way of making sure it is you to whom he or she is speaking, you are prepared for the next question, which has to do in some way with your health or attitude.  "How are you today, sir?"  Or perhaps the even more informal, "How's it going for you today, sir?"

And by the time the second question is asked, your attitude has undergone a sea change, yanking you from your previous state to either a mounting force of mischief or an incoming tide of irritation.  Chances are high your previous state involved writing, which means the possibility you were just yanked out of the kinds of concentration you've worked a large part of your life to achieve.  

If not writing, you may well have been reading.  In either case, a cup of coffee somewhere nearby.  There is a high probability, say a sixty-six-and-two-thirds chance of you being pulled away from a state of mind you cherish for the overall pleasure it brings to your sense of being.

At the other end of the phone connection, an individual awaits who wishes to sell you something tangible or secure the pledge of a donation to some cause.  In some cases, the solicitation purports to be from some organization for which you have enough sympathy to allow the caller the luxury of a sentence or two which, by this time, you're certain is being read from a script, no doubt mounted at the caller's eye level for convenient reading.

By now the caller has been made aware of your irritation, shifts gear from concern for your existential state into answering your question about the purpose of the call.  All serious now, which convinces you the caller is calculating some kind of commission from the results of this call--provided things go the way of the script.  This type of caller is not going to rely on your promise to send a check or go on line to contribute.

You are intended to give this individual your bank account routing number and your account number, or you are expected to give this individual a credit card number, expiration date, and the three- or four-digit security number found on credit cards.

You know because you've heard the script, much of which turns on the fact you trust the caller to be a bona fide representative of the organization of the matter in question.  The last time matters reached this point, you recall having said you would give spare change, possibly larger amounts to street people, but you would not give a street person your banking or credit card information.  You also threw in what you thought was an added nice touch, telling the caller he qualified for a set of steak knives if he would consent to listen to a two-minute pitch for a time-share resort condo at Lake Tahoe.

You were a bit taken by surprise when this caller did the dramatic equivalent of breaking character.  "Fuck you,"  he said.

"Wait a minute," the yet more outraged you said.  "You're telling me to go fuck myself?"

"Fuck you,"  he said, then hung up.

In your lifetime as a writer, you've had a significant variety of rejection letters, some elegant in their generic anonymity, others with words of some degree or encouragement, and one memorable one from the publication run by the writer Joyce Carol Oates and her late husband, Raymond Smith, with a penciled "No."  Many of these were made offensive and memorable with the gratuitous wish of the rejector that I was able to find a more suitable place for my work.

You've at times applied for teaching and publishing jobs you'd heard about, jobs you'd at the time thought you'd be an ideal fit for.  Some yesses, some sorry, not interested, some the equivalent of a thank you for your interest in us.

Only today did all the pieces fit together to the point where any given story of yours, submitted to any publisher who might have rejected it, becomes the equivalent of these phone calls you get from sources wanting you to believe them enough to purchase or donate.

Your stories, essays, reviews, books, in particular the stuff you're working on now, are in effect asking persons to trust your work, your characters, the situations they get into, the ideas they express, the connections you say are there, evident, valid points of conversation and consideration.

You cannot hope to be believed by everyone, nor do you expect to be.  You cannot believe everyone, a thought that makes you hope you will believe the right ones.  At times when you find yourself reading noir, dark stories and thinking there are so many dark spots and conditions on our planet, you hope you will be able to recognize the brightness as well and speak of both the darkness and light in ways where some will believe you and listen to you when you come calling.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Bumper Car Life

Long before your departure from journalism-related jobs thrust you into the migrant, conniving world of the carnival, your favored amusement park activity was the bumper car.  

Just large enough to accommodate two passengers, these remarkable forerunners of electric vehicles, about a quarter the size of a VW Bug, allowed the driver to maneuver about an area the size of a commodious dining hall, filled with padded obstacles that added spice and drama to the ride.

The true goal of the bumper car was to allow the driver to act out aggression and hostility.  This was accomplished by banging into to cars or arranging artful caroms in which you bounced from the impact with one of the padded obstacles into a three- or four-way collision with other bumper car drivers of like minded covert road rage.  The more euphemistic approach to the bumper car lay in a sign in front of one bumper car ride of your fond memory:  "Fun for all."

The bumper cars, each protected with a wide swathe of rubber padding, were highly maneuverable, able to build enough speed to add to the sense of excitement.  Off and running in such a car, one made a few exploratory laps about the perimeter to get the hang of its steering, breaking, and maneuverability.  Once oriented, one  then picked out another bumper car target and went for it, often interrupted in the process by a run-in with an unexpected driver of yet another bumper car. You see.  Fun for all. In your recollection, the driving sessions were times ranging  anywhere from three to five minutes, depending on the number of waiting customers.

When you joined the ranks of amusement booth operators at the carnival, you were quick to break one of the major social taboos that worked both ways.  Amusement booth people were polite but distant to ride people.  Ride people did not socialize with booth operators.  Because of your not-so-hidden agenda,you made it a point to know the three or four major ride persons connected with bumper cars, meaning you sat with them at the food shack and, when the warm weather warranted, drank beer with them in convenient, hidden back alleys off the Main Midway.

This social eclecticism, well developed in your undergraduate years, earned you some lectures about fraternization you chose to ignore and some frank warnings.  "Don't you be coming around asking me for no job when you get bored with that Guess Your Age booth."  After your first year, you didn't have much trouble getting jobs, but more to the point, you got hours of free time riding around in bumper cars before the Midway opened, and there was some exquisite pleasure in the excitement of a two- or three-beer, after work, session with other ride people, after the Midway had closed for the night.

Even more of a benefit came when you were slammed hard by a bumper car driven by a lanky redhead who introduced herself as Joanne, from the dart throw.  "I see,"  she said, peering at you over the hood of her own bumper car, "that I finally got your attention."

In the same way the city you now live in is a small town (some say "Small town, trying to act large."), the Carnival is a small town.  A person at coffee this morning told you you were at the corner of Garden and Anapamu Streets yesterday afternoon, waiting at a signal.  Yet another person this morning asked you how you like the pastry at Daily Grind, which meant that person had seen you there as well as here.  At the carnival, someone who'd seen Joanne bumping you wished to inform you that Joanne's husband was the jealous type.  He was mostly all right until he'd had a few beers, then things seemed to escalate.  

Also at the carnival, Papa Louie, one of the Gypsy elders, asked if he could take his morning coffee with you, sat when you welcomed him, then began to complement you on your driving skills.  "Fellow like you'd look good behind the wheel of a Cadillac.  Fellow like you, he know how to handle a muscle car."  You were not surprised to discover Papa Louie was looking for the right person to take a test drive of a Cadillac that was temporarily in his care.  

Unless you were mistaken, you had already spent some time in a Tulare garage, watching a mechanic peering into the bowels of this very Cadillac of which Papa Louie spoke, shaking his head, and telling the owner that this Cadillac was one fucking unique Cadillac because it was in fact the only Cadillac he'd ever seen in his life that did not have a Cadillac motor.

In the carnival, you soon became aware of a basic irony that his informed your vision since.  The Carnival people, while providing entertainment and services, are also using wiles, agendas, schemes, and strategies, all of which are directed against the general public.  At one moment in the orbit, the general public can be seen as victims.  Indeed, Carnival persons call them marks.  Once the orbit continues, the Carnival persons become vulnerable to the marketplace as it is controlled by the marks, stepping up to ply their artistry.

"Fun for all" is a euphemism.  Bumper cars are a euphemism and a metaphor.  The general public is a euphemism.  So, too, are such concepts as justice, consideration, respect, and fair play, colliding as bumper cars in the lights and smells of carnival. 

The Cadillac in question was once owned by a friend of yours who  often confessed to you his fear that he was unable to make enough of a living from the Carnival and, thus, by definition, was not hard enough for the life.  He had to supplement his income by shipping out as an able bodied seaman in the off seasons, but was  still not able to accomplish his goal of being a home owner because sailors in foreign ports were well-known targets for the locals.

You were able to make enough at the Carnival to support a few months of writing, which you could feel growing along with you.  But you had to turn to the rat-tail of the bell curve of television, just as your friend had to ship out.  You were not wondering if you were hard enough for the television and writing life, but you were wondering how long it might take you to find your way out of the bumper cars and into the world of irony.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Use-by Dates, Enjoy-by Dates, and The Inner Geezer

Not too long ago during this late afternoon, you were either working at a high level of concentration and intensity or procrastinating at an equal level of procrastination.  Either way, your mind was filled with the clamor of a dinner table, where small, considerate portions of succulent and hearty foods await your pleasure, and the conversation ranges from one intrigue to another.

This is a perfect time for the rituals of making and sipping coffee.  In the kitchen, you bring forth and prepare the octagonal stove-top espresso maker, fill the basket with your favorite Espresso Forte blend from Peet's.  Now, all you need is the milk to heat and froth for your vision of a proper latte.

Then you see the printed notice on the milk carton.  "Enjoy by Feb 23 15."  You don't need to be urged to enjoy that milk before Feb 23 15. In fact, you are close to resenting the stamped sign in the same way you've come to resent advertising.  No way you'd have bought that milk in the first place if you hadn't planned to take enjoyment from its use.

Bad news for a carton of milk to throw you off your game and irritate you in a consumerism equivalent of road rage.  But.  You are also aware that "Enjoy by Whatever date" is a euphemism for "Use by Date."  Why can't we say what we mean?  The freaking milk will spoil if not used by the use-by date?  Probably not. Probably someone alert to the need not to irritate the inner geezer.  

Have you become the Inner Geezer, who lurks inside of you with a host of other personality types you are at some pains to manage because, after all, they are the primary source for the armature about which you wrap strands and coils of character trait?  Such thoughts causes you to spend a few moments thinking out the reasons for the euphemism in the first place.  In fact, causes you to consider the need for any euphemism.

Use-by carries a connotation with it of a thing losing its powers, its freshness, its relevance.  Use the thing by this date or you won't be getting the maximum benefit from it.  Use by imposes a life span of one sort or another, which makes you think of the discovery you made today of the splendid writer of neuropsychological themes, Oliver Sacks, and his announcement that the fuse has been lit; he has an irreversible cancer of the liver.  

Sacks has not used the term Use by, but he is aware of realistic limitations on what at one time seemed as limitless as a human use by date can be seen as limitless.  He is even, in his brief announcement of his condition, aware of the gifts he has received by existing until his eighty-first year.

This takes you back to the days of Christopher Hitchens, dead in 2011 at sixty-two, whom you'd met and were able to hang out with the one time, somewhere in late 09 or early 20.  You watched the grace with which this fiery polemicist comported himself during the imposition of his use-by time.  An ardent atheist, Hitchens was firm about not turning to religion, as he put it, "no matter how frightened I may become."

The second anniversary of the use-by date of your great pal, Barnaby Conrad, has recently passed (February 12), making it small wonder you would take a moment or two to wonder if there are any traces of your own use-by date in sight.  There are none you can see, but as you learned from your own Discovery Tour with cancer, there is more directive than euphemism in the admonition "Enjoy by--" You can only hope to address with dignity your own discovery or your use-by date.

Meanwhile, you cannot help thinking of some of the books you read that should have had "enjoy-by" tags.  In particular, you arrive at the works of Thomas Wolfe, thankful you got through him at age eighteen because, when you tried to have another go at him at twenty-five, you could not, in ironic tribute to one of his titles, go home again.  Ditto for The Fountainhead, which fit so well into your twenty-year-old visions of individuality and integrity that you might, had you become frozen into that emotional Ice Age, have become a Libertarian.

A splendid metaphor emerges from you consideration of books you came to later in life.  Let's get Twain out of the way here by saying that you found him at the exact right time to the point where, if you were ever tempted to say you were fated to do something, you could say you were fated to meet him when you did.  

The biggest surprise with him was the way you found so much to grow on in Life on the Mississippi.  You got your approach to narrative from Roughing It, and your approach to humor from The Innocents Abroad.  Huck Finn opened your ear to voice, the sound of it resonating across the years as a hand-hold to hearing your own.

The other titles, the ones that have remained and insisted on being reread and reread came later, much later, when you were able to see beyond "Best Used by" and "Use by," and into the prospects of "Enjoy by."  

You take heed from the admonition to enjoy anything by.  Keeps the Inner Geezer at bay, it does.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Observer

Observation has been a large part of your life for as long as you can recall.  Well before the notion of spending your life trying to acquire the skills that would make you a writer, you were advised to watch various individuals and their mastery of such things as how to hold a fork, how to tie your shoes, how to comb your hair with its riot of cowlicks.  

You had an ensemble cast of your parents' friends' children to observe and dislike because of their skills and techniques.  There was some solace in learning from some of your cousins that they were tasked with observing you, but for the longest time, you were made aware with some regularity of a notable and admirable trait of one or more contemporaries of yours.  From such background propaganda comes a useful profile of persons to avoid or associate with.

Last Saturday evening, while you were settling in to watch the performance of a play, some of your past came back to haunt you.  The man sitting directly in front of you settled a long, narrow, spiral-bound-at-the-top notebook on his knee.  From years of experience, you knew this was a reporter's notebook.  With scant logic, you understood this man would be taking notes for the review of the play he would right.

You couldn't help observing the man, wondering each time he wrote something if you and he had experienced the same or different observations.  The only thing you could do was wait until the review appeared.

Of course you also began entertaining notions of the man not being a reviewer at all, instead taking notes for another project altogether.  And yes, this thought caused you to consider tapping the man on the shoulder to ask if he'd caught a particular nuance you'd seen.  Additional of course; this was a warning to you that, once again, you were being distracted by your own imagination, all because you were observing yourself in the act of observing someone else.

At about the time you began making your own notebooks, you began carrying them about in case you had notes to make from something you'd witnessed or observed.  The operant word here is observed.  When you were at this starting-out time in your career of observation, you were probably invisible.  Who would notice a small boy unless he were doing something noteworthy? 

To put the matter in another perspective, What would a small boy have to do to in order to be noticed?  You were frequently unnoticed when standing at the serving counter of the delicatessen on Wilshire you were sent to for such items as "A loaf of rye, sliced, please."  Sometimes, in the frustration of being passed over for adults, you'd raise your voice.  "A roaf of lye, please."  This brought immediate embarrassment and the felt need to move to another area of the counter for a fresh start.

More likely than not, if anyone questioned what it was you were observing, it would be your mother.  In retrospect, you can read her curiosity at your behavior as wondering if you were displaying any learning or development issues.  

Given your reading habits and the additional factor of your mother liking you to read things to her when she was ironing or cooking, your retrospective take was secure knowledge she did not think you slow or not engaged with the contents of whatever printed page.  Different, but not slow.  You have recollections of her saying in a tone uncluttered with disapproval, "You are a very moody boy."  And your reply was bound to be "Not moody, observant."  Which led to one of your favorite conversations with your mother, beginning, "What are you observing?"

You were not yet at the place where you could tell her you were observing yourself in the act of observing.  Nor could you speak to the embarrassment of being caught with a notebook and pencil at the ready, yet with nothing to put in it.  Thus began a series of what you would later learn were improvisations, phenomena made up in haste.

With the passing of time, you'd begun to read about writers whose work was thought to be based on their ability to observe.  "X grew up on a farm, thus his ability to draw convincing portraits of animals."  "Y's mother raised show Collies, thus her ability to portray a plausible portrait of canine behavior."  At the time, your parents had a pleasant enough dog, a Pekingese, fobbed off on them by your mother's younger brother.  You spent time observing that dog, but could never seem to put your observations to any use, thus your decision not to write about animals unless it was necessary.

For what seemed like a required slice of your early life, you made a Herculean effort to observe and keep up with the statistical implications of sports events, your closets filled with pitch-by-pitch accounts of Pacific Coast League baseball games, of the outcomes of horse races at the major California race tracks, of USC and UCLA football games, and to the exploits of the Dodgers before they came to Los Angeles.

You observed the Dodgers when they first arrived, seeing in person the men who were only statistics in your mind, looking at the ugliness of the right field fence erected in the Coliseum before the Dodgers moved to their new permanent home.

This effort to observe sports did not erode, it seems to have stopped completely one day, when you sat in a friend's home, watching the televised football game played by a group of individuals who were well on their way to becoming multimillionaires.  Some inner voice--you aren't sure which because there are so many--told you in so many words that you would rather participate than be a passive observer.

"Where are you going?" your friend called out after you.  "There's the whole second half to watch."

You were tempted to quote the last line from Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man:  “Welcome, O life! I go forth to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”  It was a last line you knew well, having thought of its implications.  At the time, such an opportunity would have suited you.  Instead, you thanked your friend and said you were going home to create some Reality of your own.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Through a Glass Darkly

The Interview has remained one of your favorite sources of gaining information.  Whether the venue is in print media such as newspapers, journals, on-line sites, or the yet more visual televised or in-person, you find yourself applying many of the standards to the interview you'd apply to a work of art or, for that matter, a reputable reference guide.

Given you interest in creating characters and categorizing those you read in fiction or see in dramatic presentations, the Interview has also helped you with direct and indirect contributions to your own writing.  

Over the years, you've conducted interviews for newspapers and magazines,  in which your subjects have been ballerinas, the conductor of a symphony orchestra, a politician, a famed basketball coach,several mystery writers, the actor Lily Tomlin;  a cosmetic plastic surgeon, and the owner of a detective agency.

You also have experience as a moderator of panel discussion, which is in effect interviewing four or five individuals at the same time, or, to extend the metaphor, juggling a number of objects without dropping any of them.  The key in all these activities is to remember the importance of the individual being interviewed rather than using the opportunity to lecture from the equivalent of a script based on your views,

To complete the picture, you've been interviewed numerous times for newspapers, live and filmed television, wherein your opinions or activities were the reason for you being interviewed.  This seems more obvious than it really is; there have been times when you have seen the subject become so determined to control the conversation that the Interview turned into a shouting match.  

One Interviewer of your acquaintance had to give up a regular job because her reputation of a conversation hog caught up with her and worthwhile subjects for being interviewed began to refuse invitations to appear on her program.

With those details and standards established, you have undertaken what is arguably the most difficult interview you've ever had to conduct.  Your subject here is many things, proverbial being one attribution often given it.  The reference is to the glass of water, hereinafter referred to as GW, who is often introduced with the rhetorical question, "Is it half empty or half full?"

YOU:  Good evening.  Thank you for taking the time to join us.  Will you begin by telling us a little about yourself--things you think might be of interest.

GW: I am a twelve-ounce, crystal based drinking glass with fluted sides, a half-inch bottom for ballast and lower center of gravity.  

YOU:  Is there anything in your appearance that particularly pleases you?

GW:  Thank you for asking that.  Glasses do have vanity.  I am proud of my gradual taper and the elegance of my fluted sides, which by no means are all about vanity.  They allow someone to get a secure grip on me.

YOU:  Any secrets you'd like to share?

GW:  When I'm filled with iced tea, I sweat.  The fluted sides allow me to sweat with confidence.

YOU:  Okay, let's get right into it.  I see you have some water.

GW:  Yes.  San Pelegrino.  Just a tad of carbonation.

YOU:  Can you tell us if you're half full or--

GW:  I knew it.  

YOU:  Knew?

GW:I knew you'd ask that.  Probably the only reason you brought me here in the first place.  Let me turn the tables on you.  You read the subtext in that questions of yours, right?  You want to know if I'm a pessimist, an optimist, or a middle-of-the-roader.  

YOU:  People want to know.

GW:  People.  You can't wait to categorize me.  Then, depending on my answer, all glasses of water will be pessimists, optimists, or declines-to-state.  But what about you?  Does anyone ever ask you if you're half-full or half-empty?  And don't give me that crap about objectivity or science.  What difference does it make how much or how little water is in the glass?  Is that all you guys can think of?  You ever wonder how I got to be a glass in the first place?  And like, am I recycled or first time out?  Am I part of a set?  And what about, do I like being hand washed or machine washed, or how do I feel about being refilled?  How about, What was the most remarkable thing I was filled with, and did it in any way change my life?  You guys.  You think I'm like some wine glass, people dip their finger in the wine, then use the moisture to run around the rim and get a hum.  Big deal, humming wine glasses.  I would like it if, for once, you'd look at me as what I am, one of the more remarkable utensils in the world.  You got any idea what people were drinking out of before glass came along?  You ever hear anyone wonder of a pewter beer stein or a pottery mug was half-empty or half-full?  Some of my relatives, they go back to the freaking Stone Age.  You ever think about things like that?  

YOU:  I'll have to get back to you on this.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Measure for Measure. No, Wait; That's Been Taken

Because you did not appear to inherit your parents' traits of patience or wait-and-see attitudes, you not only became impatient regarding your height, you flat out did something about keeping a record.  "What," your mother asked you one morning in a tone suggesting confrontation rather than mere curiosity, "are these marks on the wall next to the closet?"

"My progress,"  you said.

"What kind of progress?"

"Growing progress."

"Well, you don't seem to have progressed much, have you?  But if you happen to be worried, the men in your father's side of the family are all over six feet, and I don't think you'd call either of my brothers short."

All true.  But at the point you were making pencil markings to track any potential growth you might have achieved without noticing it, the tendency among your schoolyard associates was to call you Shorty.  Your first driver's license listed your height at five feet, six inches.  In a move of sympathy, your sister tried to ease your concerns with the information that there were more men  under your height than those taller.

In this and so many other ways, your parents were right; while you were still in high school, your nickname underwent the change from shorty to the Yiddish expression meaning long noodle--lange lux. (Pronounced "lang-e lucksh."

At about the same time as you were undergoing your name change, you were busy in your attempts to achieve the status of being well read.  Such was your vanity on that point that your idealized vision of yourself was to have the judgment of being well read as apparent as, well, there is no gainsaying it, lange lux.

This time around, it was not so much your parents who got you past this incipient Narcism as it was your first semester after high school  You were better able to cope with this than you were about your height.  Since the day you stood deep in the bowels of the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA, looking about you, and deciding you would never be as well-read as you would like, things have gone a great deal easier for you. For one of those "things," admitting this kind of defeat was your way of waving good bye to Narcism; it no longer mattered if people were impressed with the quantity of your reading or lack thereof.

Another "thing" was the awareness that you did not have to read a thing you did not like, provided you took the time to articulate to yourself why you were bailing on a particular title. But most significant was the awareness that books gave you a more accurate metric by which to measure the most difficult to define of all growth plateaus, the one called "How Things Are Going."

When the late, lamented Irwin Blacker, founder of the graduate-level program at which you taught for thirty-four years at USC took you on, he said or asked, asked or said, "You will of course want to use E.M.Forester's Aspects of the Novel as your text"  Or perhaps ?  And you said, "Of course."  Difficult to get the exact total of novels you'd written at that point.  Not difficult to say you'd never heard of Aspects of the Novel.  By the end of the day, you had heard of it.  And as you began to read it, you wished you'd long since heard of it.

There is no telling how many times you've consulted Aspects of the Novel or, indeed, had to replace your present copy because you'd loaned it to a student without noting which student, a small matter overall because even wealthy students do not have enough money for books.  You can--and do--say how significant a voice Aspects continues to be as you forge your own novel-writing bill of particulars.  

You will doubtless read it again, discovering some "aspect" you'd missed all these years, because for you, the conversion from knowledge to wisdom comes from being the late bloomer, the one who sees much--but by no means all--of his prior naivete fall away in a blast of insight.

Your old pal and University chum, Larry Swindell, for whom you reviewed books when he was at the Inquirer in Philadelphia, and the Star-Telegram in Ft. Worth-Dallas, telephoned to ask if he might send you the new Maxwell collection.  You did not know at the time what the "new Maxwell collection" was, much less who Maxwell was. Now you know it to have been Billie Dyer; you also know Maxwell to have been the fiction editor for The New Yorker, and author of a stunning array of novels, short stories, essays, and autobiography.  You were shrewd enough to have told SwindellBeen , "Thank you for thinking of me with this," for it was well worth the thanks to gain sudden introduction to a man who had filtered the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Mavis Gallant, John Cheever, Frank O'Hara, John O'Hara, Shirley Hazard, and John Updike into the pages of his journal and into the subsequent pages of most lasting anthologies.

These two books stand out as the beginning of the revelation; the more you reread significant works over the years, the more you understand them and their place in the world and your years.  You can measure that.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Pawing the Ground in Search of Plots

For the longest time, you believed the way to write a story of any length, but particularly of novel length, was to begin with a detailed outline.  You believed this to be so because one of the early books designed to show how to write stories said, in unequivocal terms, that an outline was a part of the process.

Your mother, an excellent cook and superb baker, impressed on you through example the value of process, in her case the process of recipe.  You were left to draw the naive conclusion you did.

This belief on your part demonstrated a number of things about you in addition to the one at the top of the pyramid, your naivete. Here was abundant proof that you were an outlaw, because you persisted in writing stories that had not been outlined.  

The thing that had a simultaneous excitement and fear for you was the fact that the results were unlike anything you were reading.  This caused you to waver between feeling original and, in effect, like one of your mother's cakes with some primary ingredient gone missing.  

Interesting to note how that polarity exists today with the things you write.  Sometimes each feeling washes over you like a wave.  How enjoyable it was when the excitement came, drawing for a time the awareness that you didn't outline.

Your belief then--as well as now--convinces you that knowing the outcome of a story before you even began writing it was the equivalent of a one-way ticket to boredom.  Each time you wrote a story without first constructing an outline, you told yourself in a stage whisper, "We'll let this be our little secret."

Your approach couldn't have been much of a secret.  Anyone reading one of your early stories would know you were improvising, constructing as you went along.  However satisfied you were with the stories you were producing, it was no secret that you couldn't write a novel, not only because you hadn't yet done so, but because you couldn't bring yourself to outline one.

One more burden you carried about was the knowledge held deep within that you were lacking any ability to plot.  The more you sought advice in books, journals, and instructors, the more you encountered direct references to the need for a story to have a plot.  To make matters worse, a great many stories you read had tangible plots you could mark on their pages with colored pencils.

The you of now has had, when he thinks of it, covered a great deal of ground in search of discovering how to get by without outlines for stories, and what ingredients will, if added early enough, will produce not merely a plot but a freaking story arc.

Much of this ground relates to the trust of outcomes even before they have arrived.  Some of this covered ground means to not settle for quick fix recipes, and to learn to live the times when outcomes show no sign whatever of arriving.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Burn Ratio: Number of Drafts Burned before Story Comes Forth

When the technology for capturing visual images for story and documentary presentations changed from film to digital, a notable metric was lost in the transition.  Good riddance, in a way, but not so fast for relevance to writers, actors, or, for that matter, any performance artist.

Some film directors were notorious for running over budget, to the immense displeasure of the producers and backers.  The cost of film was as much a factor for film makers as the cost of paper for publishers.  

True, the director of a well-reviewed and well-attended film could get away with budgetary overrun.  Of equal truth, when a five- or six-hundred-page book earned back its start-up costs in the first twelve or eighteen months of its life, the acquisitions editor could expect a bonus.

When film was the medium for capturing the story or documentary, the basic dramatic unit was the scene.  Sound equipment recorded scenes on a frame-by-frame basis, the most common frame size at thirty-five millimeters. In the rare possibility of an entire film being completed in first takes, the cost of raw film and its ultimate processing would be significantly less that a film where some scenes required upward of twenty takes in order to merit the director's and actors' satisfaction.  

Producers began using the term "burn ratio" to categorize a director's performance on a financial basis.  A director who needed a number of shots for a scene was thought to have a high or unhealthy burn ratio.  Such a director had better produce a final product that earned out if said director expected to be assigned more work.  

A director with a high burn ration, good reviews, and a healthy audience balance sheet was seldom seen in the unemployment lines.  As a general rule, a director with a low burn rate was in a stronger position for new assignments and pay scales.

Back in the days where manuscripts were handwritten and often filled line-outs and flurries of corrections, little thought was given to presentation; the standard relied on legibility. The shift in technology to the typewritten manuscript (first typewritten manuscript was Huckleberry Finn) focused considerable attention on manuscript preparation. 

You, being an innovative rather than speedy typist and, in the bargain, a poor speller, developed the plan of at least one more-or-less spontaneous draft, which you would then correct by hand for content, consistency of use, and spelling.  Then onto a slow, deliberate draft, which was as close to accurate as you could manage.  

Under those circumstances, the floor near your desk was often a sea of balled-up pages, torn from the typewriter in some fit of dudgeon over one or more aspects leading to the way the story was working, responses to your inner editor (You call that a story?), or the arrival of some new insight, transforming the work at hand to a new, conceptual landscape.

There was something of immense satisfaction and fun to be had in ripping a sheet of paper from a typewriter, balling it into a wad, then dispatching it toward the waste basket, already filled to the brim with previous missiles.  This physical activity and the clutter added to the romance of writing.  

Never mind the waste of paper.  If you did mind the waste, you could try your hand at doing at least the first draft with a fountain pen, then typing out a later draft on yellow foolscap, then moving on to the manuscript paper you knew your stories deserved, Eaton's "Corrasible" bond, a rag-content paper that made erasures of typing error close to easy.

The switch in technology from typewriter to computer has removed some of the physicality of writing.  Entire pages and drafts may now be dispatched with the tap of a delete key.   Although many of the composition frustrations remain the same as those back in the days of paper, you feel distanced from your personal burn ratio, which is in fact the number of drafts necessary to get a story or essay or review to your liking.   

Watching a friend act tonight in a play, you were made aware of the efforts of preparation for any significant performance, and how easy it is to forget about the practice, hard work, mountain goat leaps of improvisation, and the energy of blind luck necessary to mount a specific work.  Even with all the preparation, the performance might not resonate with that tingle of excitement and emotional resonance we expect from art.

How easy it has become to think all successful art was an act of immediate spontaneity, lacking in plan, countless effort, countless wadded-up balls of paper adjacent the wastebasket.

How easy it is to think of all the works that turn you on, regardless of their genre, being spun off in a matter of moments or, worst case, a day or two.  And as a consequence of such thoughts, we see the gap between those with talent and those more like--ourself.

Somewhere, you read the statement, "Only work removes the traces of work."  Those words are a considerable relief to you.  They make it possible for you to press on in the spirit of enjoyment rather than the constraining squeeze of desperation.  A basic formula for story is, an interesting character struggles against great odds to achieve a goal she or he thinks worthwhile.  Those words remind you the project is nothing without two factors, the immediate potential of failure and the even more immediate potential for discovering the fun in what you're doing.

Your burn ratio is high, your chances for failure extreme.  Each time you see a volunteer flower, clinging to life with a bright smile in some interstice of sidewalk slab, you stop for a moment, to salute it and.or take its picture.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Achilles Heel, Meet Ahab's Heel

In your exquisite rush to grow up,you resorted to what many a young man and woman of your sensitivities did; you carted home armsful of books.  Your ambitious plan was far from original, but  the numerous venues of your youth did not seem at the time to be ripe with opportunities for experience. 

Persons your age in novels seemed to do a good deal better than you.  They were plunged into greater misfortunes, historical causes, and life-changing adventures. Some of your boyhood favorites were being asked to step up, to take command, to deliver messages, to put on disguises in order to sneak through enemy lines.

True enough, your father took you aside at one point to tell you that you were the man of the house before he went east on what seemed a remarkable project.  For some months, your dwelling was filled with mannequins and a wide variety of interchangeable heads for these mannequins.

While being delegated man of the house did mean you got to carry his Waltham pocket watch, you got no noticeable raise in status pay grade from your mother or sister, nobody asked you to deliver messages, nor creep through enemy lines.  

The notes and picture postcards your father sent you from remote parts of New England and New York, while cheery and optimistic, mentioned the mannequins and heads less and less, leaving you time to contemplate the mystery of their future, then to prepare you for other remarkable turns in your father's ventures, including a scientific plan to determine outcome in speed contests among thoroughbred race horses.

While you were being turned on the lathe of experience, you turned to reading the experiences of others, doing your best to work within the causes and times of characters.  At the time you were aware of how literal-minded you were.  At the same time, you were aware of how reading an ever widening selection of adventure stories was in a real sense Shanghai-ing you from your literal mindedness.

Somewhere in this process, you became immersed in the reading of myths and heroes' tales, the phrase "Achilles' heel," scurrying into your imagination to the point where, one afternoon, when your father noticed you limping, he became convinced you'd outgrown a pair of shoes.  

You assured him your shoes were fine.  Your explanation:  You'd heard the best way to judge a man was to walk a mile in his shoes.  Since Achilles was long gone, you were left wondering what it was like to be Achilles, and would he, with that heel of his, have to walk in a different manner.  That night at dinner, your father told your mother, "The acorn does not fall far from the oak."  At the time, you took that literally, but you knew it meant something else as well.

Achilles was one of your earliest introductions to flawed characters, to such an extent that you were sure to mention him in literature classes, where the subject of the flawed hero and the anti-hero came up for discussion.

You knew you were fast leaving literal-mindedness behind you when you began speaking up for the concept of the anti-hero, with whom, as a general rule, you had no trouble identifying with, following such men and women into the darker sides of experience.  You could do so with complete comfort, thanks to your belief that most anti-heroes were seeking meaningful--your term--redemption rather then storybook redemption.  By then, you'd moved from Achilles to Gatsby as an example.  In your vision, Gatsby was at once an anti-hero because of the way he'd amassed his wealth, and a flawed hero because of his naive belief that Daisy's love would lead to a meaningful redemption.

And now, to put this into yet another perspective, you have begun to wonder about the outcome and dynamics of giving a darker character, say Ahab, arguably not a hero, some Achilles heel of empathy or generosity to temper his egregious sense of Free Will run amok.  You are beginning to like the sound of it.  The Ahab's heel.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hearing Voices

Over the course of your life, wisdom, information, insights, and, sad to say, propaganda, have come rushing at you in a tsunami  of words.  Through these words and the voices in which they were spoken or written, you were able to patch together the semblance of an education.

Voice was important all the while, reaching the point about midway through your teaching activities at USC where you recognized voice to be your candidate for the single most important thing about communication in general and writing in particular.

For the longest time, the predominant voices you heard were from the middle middle and upper middle classes, reflecting family background and your father's career achievements.  Although you were born into the beginnings of what is still called The Great Depression and you arrived at about the time the family fortunes were in decline, you were for the most part hearing middle class voices when you were out in the world.

Words, information, real and invalid;  and lore beyond middle class came, as most such things come, from schoolyard and your then equivalent of independent studies.  Two words you knew enough not to say at home were Spanish.  Even though you did not grasp the full implications for some considerable time, you treasured them for their otherness and their foreignness, knowing you wished to learn other such words in Spanish and other languages.

There you are then, eight or nine, asking two gardeners who cared for properties on your block if they would give you more such words as pinche and carbon.  To their credit, Luis and Arturo did not laugh you away; they treated you with gravity, clearly concerned about your readiness to be initiated to such esoterica.

When Luis asked if you truly understood what pinche meant, you told the truth so far as you knew it.  "It has something to do with fuck."

"And you understand what that means?"

Only that it was not a word to be used at home or, thanks to the person you learned it from, girls.  "Of course."

"Much wisdom for a young fellow,"  Luis said.

You had about the same results with carbon.  "A fellow of-- of--"

"Are you sure you want to be the one who puts these things on him?"  Arturo asked.

"--a fellow with no family."

"You mean orphan?"


"Then what?"

More than likely, Luis and Arturo were more considerate of you than you realized at the time.  They left you with two new words of Spanish, cucaracha and tonto, allowing you to think they were naughty and, thus influencing forever after your reaction to the Lone Ranger.  Cockroach and crazy.  Pretty good for starters.   

Not long after, by pestering a mailman, you gained entrance to the slang words of drug use, thanks to a popular song of the time, "Kicking the Gong Around."  Melvin, the mailman, told you, "See here now.  The gong is something like a bell, true enough, but you see some folks, theys like to smoke a pipe.  Not like you daddy, you know, but filled with opium.  It make them feel something fine, all right."

"So kicking the gong--"

"You see, little man.  I think you see."

Not only did you see, you were able to connect.  When you heard Hoagy Carmichael singing a song about "a very unfortunate colored man, who got 'rested down in old Hong Kong/ He got twenty years privilege taken away from him, when he kicked old Buddha's gong," you knew what was up and why, thanks to a line in the song, "Each time I try, sweet opium won't let me fly away."

And of course you'd come to be aware of a song, "La Cucuracha,"  in which someone had smoked so much marijuana, he was unable to walk.

This was kinderspeil, German for child's play, because you not only had a better idea of what fuck meant, you also had learned how to say it in German.    But this was child's play for another reason, more related to actual child's play, but to a stunning awareness of voice and some of its implications.


"No answer.


"No answer.

"'What's gone with that boy, I wonder?'  YOU, Tom!'"

You were yanked right out of your middle class bubble with its few working class exceptions from maids, tradespersons in and about your neighborhood, Mr. Pope, the janitor at your grammar school, and Mr. Slater, the owner of a gas station on Third Street, who let you charge Bierley's orange soda drinks on your way home from school.  You were exposed to Twain's ear for voice and for what you'd come to think of as identity markers, ways by which you could tell who the author was without seeing the cover of the book or the running heads with the author's name.

Voice was so important to you, at this point subject to hand-me-down clothing from your maternal cousin, Eddie, that your early narratives caused teachers to ask you how many times you'd been to England.  You were often tempted to say, "One loses count," but to your credit, you never did.

You could not have said this until recent years; your wish for the voice you set down on the page is the inter-cultural, mingling voice of social and cultural classes coming together as such individuals do in story.  It pleases you not to describe the ethnicity or class of a character, rather to let her or him reveal such notes of individuality as you hear in your head as they strive to make their way, however wobbly, to their goals.

Today, in preparation for a forthcoming class, you are revisiting another voice so pellucid and haunting that once again, you experience what this valuable narrative filter does for you.

"My Uncle Daniel's just like your uncle, if you've got one--only he has one weakness.  He loves society and he gets carried away.  If he hears our voices, he'll come right down those stairs, supper ready or no.  When he sees you sitting in the lobby of the Beulah, he'll take the other end of the sofa and then move closer up to see what you've got to say for yourself; and then he's liable to give you a little hug and start trying to give you something.  Don't do you any good to be bashful.  He won't let you refuse.  All he might do is forget tomorrow what he gave you today, and give it to you all over again.  Sweetest disposition in the world.  That's his big gray Stetson hanging on the rack right over your head--see what a large head size he wears?"

That is unquestionable Eudora Welty, setting off on The Ponder Heart, as much in command of the voice she grew up into as a person could have without carrying a recorder around.  

All right, it is true; the Southern voices grab hold of you.  Welty.  Twain.  Burke.  Faulkner.  Woodrell.  But you must admit Elmore Leonard has caught that lightening in a bottle as well, and served it up in ways you can't get out of your head, like some old song you heard somewhere, back in the times when you were a little boy, setting out in quest of adventure, a notebook in your back pocket, and as complete a pack of licorice cigarettes as you could manage in your front pocket, where you could get right at it, in case you wanted to offer one to a friend, real or imagined.