Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Irving. Call me Irv, if you wish."

At about the time you were waiting for various signs from the Cosmos that would clarify some of the mysteries attendant on how your future in the world of writing and publishing would go, a crazed, brilliant, Irishman brought to production a play that would stand the twentieth century on end, influencing the world of theater as it had not been influenced for years, dragging you along in its slipstream.

The brilliant Irishman was Samuel Becket, his play, Waiting for God, familiar to untold thousands, even those who do not know the content of the play.  Whoever you were in the literary world and whatever dreams of success  you nourished within it, you knew that two rather disheveled appeared on stage, waiting for someone with whom they had an appointment.  You also knew that the eponymous Godot for whom they waited never showed up.  The two tramps met two other individuals, with whom they exchanged observations, but no Godot.

In the years to come, you, still embracing relative callowness, engaged in arguments about who, or rather what Godot was.  You were on the verge of being clever then.  Depending on the quality and amount of drinking material to accompany the arguments, you waxed clever or rebarbative, starting out agreeably enough, yet driven by a passion you were not able to articulate for some years, until, on one notable evening, you'd stumbled into a reading of Waiting for God, which you endured because there was someone in the audience you wished to form a relationship with.

You had no patience for the obvious-seeming explanation that Godot, because of his name, was no less than God, accepting and rejecting the proposal that Godot was the representation of the inner self, thus we all waited for the merging of forces we have come to think of as Enlightenment, note the capital E.  Your Buddhist friends would instead say Satori, and your Hindu friends opted for Samadhi or at the very least the Atman.

The reading left you disturbed and angry to the point where you sought your own copy of the script, carried it about with you, and read it several times until the disturbance and anger abated.  You were left with a jumbled vision which even at that time you understood had to do with your own impatience, which was the impatience bordering on desperation of youth.

For the previous four or five years, your impatience centered on discovering a book or play (you were even willing to include short story collection) that would serve as a codex or, even better, a prism, through which the proper amounts of light, wisdom, understanding, empathy, and visions of the human condition would merge into your narrative vision and voice.  For the next several years, you prowled through the aisles and shelves of libraries, used book stores, and those ubiquitous newsstands, filled with paperback reprints.  Your search was that one book that would transform you.

In a sense, you began waiting at about the time Vladimir and Estragon waited for Godot, with a greater sense of purpose than patience.  You might even go on to say your sense of purpose was driven by impatience.  You found a major vehicle for moving forward in your quest by externalizing your internal impatience.  You moved from wanting to write stories to wishing to understand them and what they mean.  

The question to be asked of all characters:  What does he or she want?  You, who wanted to write stories, could relate to this question.  Thus the books in your then library were marked at places where the desires of a specific character were either spelled out or dramatized.

Chapter Two came from discussions with actors and screenwriters.  Not only What does the character want, Why does the character want it right now?

Impatience assumes a presence bordering on haughtiness.  But there it is, the unwillingness to wait, set against the counterpoint of having to wait.  At what age had you come to realize that you had to hoard your desires in the same manner you hoarded nickles and dimes?  At what age did you learn the shifting in proportions, where, as you grew older, there was an increased number of things you wished to achieve, understand, experience?  And how old were you before you were able to articulate such vectors of desire.

However well major events in life appear to be working well for you, there is always something pending, something for which you wait with some anxiety of dread or urgent yearning.

At this point in your life, you've had enough experience with Vladimir and Estragon to understand what was meant by one critic who wrote that the fine actors, Zero Mostel and Bert Lahr, have become the iconic Becket characters who wait for Godot.  Also at this point, another Becket-like tramp comes clumping into your sight from time to time, even waving when he sees you.  Or perhaps, suggesting he may be rushing things a bit, offering a nod.  This of course is Death, who, in this anthropomorphic, Sam Becket sense, has begun waiting for you.

A further add to this point, you wish to have nothing to do with him.  At times, he reminds you of the wily street people you encounter from time to time.  Make eye contact with them and they begin waiting for your spare change.  Make eye contact with Death and he might nod and say, "Irving.  Call me Irv, if you wish."

You do not wish to indulge the outright rudeness of "Fuck you."  Death, whatever his first name, deserves some respect.  Also, you are realistic enough to recognize that some time in the distant future, you might wish to take him up on that first-name-basis offer.  So you nod.  After all, he knows many of your family, knows a number of your friends.  Even knows your remarkable dog companion.  

"Be nice,"  your mother would say.  "Always be nice."  So okay, you're nice.  Next time you see Irving, you'll nod and say "Irving."  But no eye contact.  Next thing you know, he'll be wanting spare change or wondering, "How's things going for you?  Just checking, you understand.  Just wondering, how's by you."

"Irving,"  you say.  But no eye contact.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Just Passing through--You Hope

In the morning, while you await the rush of boiling water that will jostle its way past the grounds of coffee and on its way to becoming espresso, you are in the hovering state known as limbo.You are aware of being awake, but not as complete in the process as you might wish.  

You are in an indeterminate now that wants coffee.  But the coffee is still in its evolutionary state. You in effect are stuck, waiting for the indeterminate now, and the still-evolving coffee to align. At such moments, you think of the apt-but-abstract paradox of Schrodinger's Cat.  With you as the cat.

When you have finished a project, formatted it, then sent it off, you are in that no-person's land of limbo, wondering if you will ever again visualize a thing so sumptuous as that last work, indeed wondering if you will ever work again. Each new work calls for what is essentially the relearning of such craft as you might have.  This limbo involves the wonder if you will even be able to accomplish the state of being derivative of your earlier self.

When you watch from your ringside seat at a battle between your needs and your conscience, no need to sit down so the spectators behind you can see; like you, those spectators are in limbo.

Limbo is neither here nor there, even though it resonates with qualities of each, conveying at once the senses of familiarity and home with the tug and magic of elsewhere, that remarkable and different country where you have sought residence all your life.  

The sidewalks of limbo are painted with shrewd, devilish trompes l'oeil, those mischievous tricks of perception and judgement that lead you to think you are stepping down on something other than what it appears to be, or sidestepping to avoid landing with all your weight on an illusion of a caterpillar or a lobster or a sleeping cat.

A person in limbo is a person who may be described as torn, or perhaps stretched, or even drawn.  The quality of ductility comes to you mind when thinking of limbo; a person who is being exerted to the limits of tensile and ductile strength.  Of the elements you know any small thing about, the most ductile is copper, able to be extended, extruded, if you will, into a long, thin strand.  

Characters are caught in various limbos such as waiting for a thing to happen, a person to make a decision, a thing to change.  There is certainly a limbo in the individual who is trying to decide when to cross the line from timidity or, worse yet, passivity, into a decisive, game-changing activity.

Of the individuals you know who seem to have this capacity for being stretched, you do not rank much beyond a five or six on a one-to-ten scale.  This means you suffer a sense of your circulation system being carbonated, your entrails tingling with a massive unrest. You wonder if you are at this midpoint five because you are a writer or because you are caught in the personality tug-of-war. 

There is a good-news/bad-news dialectic with regard to limbo.  If this quality becomes successfully embedded within characters in a story, the narrative seems to grow with the potential for being memorable and, by degrees, poignant and funny.  This is the good news.  Most writers you know are keen to look for tools that will allow them to produce more memorable story.

The bad news is that you as writer have to experience the tidal tug of limbo in order to transfer it to the character you mean to demonstrate it.  If more than one character has this presence of being in limbo, you must experience it for each.

With luck, you will, at day's end, be able to leave limbo on your note pad or computer screen, but on reflection about story limbos and reality-based limbos where you've tried out the bed and breakfast accommodations, you can see why so many writers have had notable appetites for booze or herbals

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Each New Story as Roadrunner to Your Wile. E. Coyote

  Concentration plays a vital role in the working plan of the writer and the actor.  The writer must bring to life whatever landscapes necessary to set the story and, or course, the individuals who nudge the story along. The same may be said of the actor, who must take in setting, agenda, and a sense of awareness to the other characters.

Speaking for your writing self, you rush to get some exploratory detail down on the note pad or the computer screen, anything to attack that vast Sahara of blankness that confronts you when the working day begins.  The blank page is daunting, not because you have nothing to say or nowhere to go but for the polar opposite.  

There is too much to say, too much to consider.  Sometimes you find yourself frozen before the note pad or screen, while a torrent of impressions and diverse activities rush by, reminding you of those moments of nap or a more prolonged sleep, where your images shift from the conscious mode into the dream state.

You are delighted to shift into the overdrive of sleep, where the action and stage directions pick up immediately, driving toward the stories your sleeping brain wishes to perform in order to make sense of the awake time sensations that bombard you.

You are equally pleased when, almost with the force of a voice-over narration, the narrative voice gives you a sentence, a situation, a circumstance already in play or a large rock about to totter down the side of a cliff or an entire side of a hillside becoming successful in detaching itself from its host, then tumbling.  Such moments, if they make the cuts, seldom comprise the beginning of the work, rather they speak to you of the energy of the story you are struggling to understand.

The actor has the road map of script and the advantage of consultation with a director.  The writer has the editor.  Did you really mean to say this?  Are you sure this is how the character would respond to this stimulus?  The actor has the toolkit of all the previous parts essayed, ferreted out, sorted, made into a concentrated whole.  

The actor has the power tool of the toolkit, focus.  The actor has learned to focus to the point of convincing the acting self of the truth of the representation of the character presently being portrayed.  A simple response of "No, thank you.  Not for me," becomes a container for such potential emotions as doubt, confidence, sarcasm, fear.

The writer has the toolkit of any number of stories, with ensembles of any number of characters, all different, all thinking they have the need and obligation to do whatever it is they do, right now. And you have the added tool in your toolkit of being an editor for others.  You can and do perform a creditable job with the revision of your own work, often using the improvisation riffs employed by actors.  There is for you a rush of excitement and a side effect of confidence when your revision produces some insight you'd missed before.  For moments on end, you feel yourself having filled the room with your narrative presence.

This excitement is fated, and you know it, understand the phenomenon for some time now.  Much as you get from your own revision, you already know you are not as close to the truth as you would like to be or that you are in fact able to achieve.  Good job, the editor says, but don't you want to give some attention to THIS missing detail?

The point:  you can with some regularity give constructive notes to the work of other writers, and you can with equal regularity add significant revision to your own work or find unnecessary details in your own work.  But you cannot see it all.  There are indeed some writers who can and do see it all.  These are the most likely to want and listen to notes from others.

This does not mean you believe the writer's growth over time will lead to this totality of vision.  There is always someone who can see farther, deeper, and with greater strategic eyes than you.  And of course this does not preclude you from seeing farther, deeper, and with greater strategic eyes than others.  There is you, pushing, revising, rewriting, to get the next story at the peak of its vision, the soaring hawk or eagle,consulting the lunch menu, spotting the prairie dog or gopher, at a great distance, poking its head above the earth to scan for its own lunch.

You keep in mind the certainty that each new project means you have to learn how to tell story all over again the moment the last one is finished and sent off.  At the same time, you have to keep in mind that you are besieged with brief observations, quick bites,fleeting insights, all of which you must reach for as though all of them have the potential to carry you to the peak of your ability, from which point you must jump and risk, as your friend, Wile E. Coyote risks, the abject failure of your efforts.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Beats Me

Neither the document for stage play nor the text of a filmed drama is meant to be read the same way the text for a novel or short story is intended to be read.  True enough, a wide variety of specialists read stage plays, for the most part with intentions of causing the text to be performed.

In relation to the number of short stories and novels you've read, the ratio of stage and screen plays is on the short side of a seventy-thirty split. which includes some plays you enjoy well enough to reread them and which further includes plays you've enjoyed reading but never seen performed.

Such documents, because they are meant to be performed rather than read, are expressed in the present tense.  John enters.  Mary exits.  Phil begins to read a newspaper.  And of course there are stage directions of another sort, defining how certain of the dialogue is to be spoken.  JOHN:  I'm afraid--(a pause)  MARY:  You're afraid what?  John:  I'm afraid this is not going to work.

In some cases, the writer will substitute for that stage direction in parentheses, the word "beat" for the word "pause."  JOHN:  I'm afraid--(a two-beat pause)--

This is dramatic biology; the beat is the basic unit of drama.  The cellular unit is the scene.  An infinite number of beats compose a scene.  One or more scenes comprise a larger unit, the act.  Not all that long ago, there was a measure of comparison between the three-act play and the novel, the one-act play and the short story.  Things change.  Some plays from Shakespeare's time were five acts.  

Now, as your faculty mate from USC, Lee Wochner, pointed out, the three-act play is the two-act play.  But the short story and one-act play remain close equivalents.  To complete the picture, you remember discussing Sophie's Choice with its creator, William Styron.  "Transforming my novel into a film,"  he observed, "meant they were essentially cutting a three-act play into a one-act play.  I liked the movie, but I loved the book."

Although things do change--evolve is a better word--the shape of story remains the same.  Try to think of story as a progression of beats.  Not a succession, because a succession means anyone can jump in line, skewing the dramatic orbit.  Story progresses, beat by beat.

Stories, whether plays or narrative, are written to present beats, the actions, movements, and thoughts of the characters.  Even a simple stage direction such as JOHN EXITS requires some form of interpretation.  How does John exit?  Is he slouching, skipping, dragging?  Is he in high spirits?  Is he projecting gloom or worry?

In a real sense, all dramatic information is best presented through one or more beats.  The downside extreme is a succession of characters as talking heads, droning rather than speaking their lines, giving no hint of the inner feelings going on behind them

True enough, narrative and drama often compress time.  Chapter two can be a year or so after Chapter one.  Act two can be "Two years later."  Without the beats.  You, the reader or viewer, provide the beats.

When we get into actual actions, we experience a moment-by-moment simulacrum of reality.  Reader and writer alike depend on every element in a story, gaining new insights with each reread or rewatching.  Beats are the vital life of story; they convey the things that stick in memory, trigger highly personal insights, and reveal the short cuts and secret passageways of the personality.

It becomes difficult not to think of the concept of "in the moment" when you consider beats.  This is how you draw the moment out of its wrapping and any sense of artifice or newness. It is a new garment you are wearing for the first time, and everyone who sees you in it will comment on it in ways reflective of their own personality.  "Great shirt."  "Is that a good color for you?"   You do not explain story; you break it down to the precise place where its elements reside in that shimmering limbo between individual seconds ticking away and the representation of a day, an hour, a tangible event.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Something Has Changed

Story relies on change  in the same way characters are predicated on desire.  You could quit right there, because you'd have said it all, observed the formation of the essential driving forces.  But such is the beauty of story that even if you were to stop right there, story would keep moving, set some event in motion, cause some discovery to be made that will have an effect on someone.

Whether you are a mere observer, say a reader or a watcher of a performed drama, a writer who is about to enter the stream of process, or a character, already linked into the unfolding of the story and its inevitable consequences, you are a part of the package.  You are involved.

Let's retrace our steps a bit.  Something happened.  Someone has gone missing.  A thing of consequence has been lost.  And now?  Now, someone comes after it, looking for it.  Someone of consequence appears, either to supervise the search or to charge a specific individual with finding the missing thing.  Person?  Thing?  I don't care how long it takes.  Find it.  Bring it back.  To me.  Stops, reaches into pocket, pulls out a wad of bills, peels off several.  Here.  Let me know if you need more.  Let me know if you need anything else.

By this point, we eavesdroppers have felt the tug of change pulling at our sleeve.  We have been yanked out of passivity or disinterest, down to the shoreline of a rushing stream where, with any luck at all, we will be swept along downstream to a point some distance away, where there is a point at which significant elements will be gathered in some kind of sedimentary closure.

By this point, we, the first observers to have come upon the intact design of the story, will have undergone yet another change.  We'll have begun disinterested, of course, then curious, then changed in the way short fiction, narrative poetry, and novels work change on those who read them.  If the story in question was written by Stephen King, we'll have gone from disinterested to curious to frightened, likely to have been turned loose again with a nagging hint of suspicion of more fear to come, right around the next bend.  

If the story was written by a mystery writer, we'll have become changed once again, this time from the stasis of disinterest to the intrigue supported by a puzzle.  In the process of investigating the aspects of the puzzle, we'll have changed at least one more time, evolving to the point where we either experience the satisfaction of solving the puzzle or the disappointment of having found the puzzle beneath our level of ability.

If the story is a fantasy, which by its own convention relies on some form of magic, will this fantasy help or hinder us in our attempts to live with the sturdiness of reality based on observable phenomena?  Will it open doors and windows and shutters that will allow the light of the unseen to show us the change of recognition that comes when we see things previously hidden within the shadows of our individual ignorance?

Change is all we have become that we were not before we encountered those tempting morsel set before us by the witch.  Change is the we now in possession of some answer or, if the work in question is a poem or a short story, change is the we afloat in that limbo just before the early arrival of an answer that will satisfy.

Change is the condition we suspect at first because we might not like the effects the change will have wrought on us; it is also the we of the past, before this story began.  Now we must judge whether or not we were happy before we began.  Are we eager to move in the direction change will take us or, to use an apt cliche, do we reflexively dig our heels in, dragging them to impede the forward progress into change.

Not all change is for the good, nor is change for the mere sake of difference a worthwhile state.  Not all new things are as good as or better than older things.  Will the changes time and story and discovery have on you make you a more evolved person or, to follow one scenario, a less accountable person?  In still another scenario, will change make you more adaptable or more stubborn, remembering the importance of that word, adaptable, as it was used by Charles Darwin.

Something happens and someone or something changes.

Story has changed.  Your university education sent you back into the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteen centuries to see the benchmarks left by the literary equivalents of Amundsen and Shackleton of those days.  Your explorations led you to a raucous celebration with the changes of the century into which you were born, leading you to see if you can trace the digressions and diversions from convention story is taking in this still relatively new century.

How will this new century of story change you?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Performance Review

In the course of your employment at nearly every publisher or, for that matter, university, with whom you were on a salary or salary-plus-commission basis, you've experienced either a shift in management or a reassignment of the publisher to a new parent company, or the placement in the new change of command of a new dean.  Therefore, you know the drill of the after-acquisitions or management-shift interview, in which you appear before a good-cop/bad-cop team.

In one such publisher meeting, you were discussing your past performance and anticipated future performance with accountants.  You did not endear yourself to either of them because of the frequency with which their manner of speech reminded you of Henry Kissinger.  In one such university interview, you were dealing with either the chair or vice chair of the philosophy department who, noting your own daytime job status at the time as editor in chief of a scholarly publishing house, was pressing you for ways to present a book project.

Your meeting today with the good-cop, bad-cop team was the first such interview you'd had in nearly four years, at about the time you'd been given an appointment as visiting professor in the College of Creative Studies within the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Your examiners today had existential rather than academic or publishing credentials, which means among other things that you had difficulty telling the good cop from the bad cop to the point where you were open in your wonderment if a good cop were at all on the scene.

"We understand," Cop # 1 said, "that you were at one time quite a prolific writer."

"Roughly ages eighteen through the next ten or so years,"  Cop # 2 offered in a way that made you almost think you could hear him flipping through pages of a more pad.

Taking your nod as an affirmation of yes, Cop # 1 continued.  "Can you help us understand how this prolific performance changed?"

The answer was straightforward enough, or so you thought.  You'd begun to consider the implications and practice of revisions and rewrite.  To spare them the back-and-forth of banter, you added the beginnings of your experiences with teaching and your investigation of what revision meant.

You could see you'd lost them straight off; a wall of scorn and disrespect began to emerge, brick by brick, the hods of bricks and pallets of mortar beginning to accrue.  "You mean to say you published material that was essentially--?"

"--first draft,"  you said.

"We see,"  Cop # 1 and Cop #2 said simultaneously.

"I'm afraid you don't,"  you said, proceeding to paint yourself as the naive narrator you were fast on your way to turning in for a new model, one who would have to retrain himself, away from old habits and toward the unreliability of untested new ones.  How were you to know what effects revision would have on you, particularly when your idea of revision to that point had been spell and punctuation checking, looking for repetitions and unintentional humor?

These examiners also wish to know why you are so often late with assignments or barely arriving at your classes on time, and why there are so many notebooks and notepads, filled with your screwy handwriting that is neither cursive nor not.

Here you are, these years later, trying to have a conversation with these two, Cop #1 and Cop #2, who weren't that far removed from earlier inquisitors.  Although you've put on some miles and now rely on the kindness of titanium hips, although you now see the world through man-made lenses, your respective personal bests for ten- and twenty-kilometer races and longer outings such as half- and full marathons have lapsed into the shadowy other of the past, you are in many ways the writer you once were,after you'd stepped off the edge of certainty.

You know from reading the Nick Adams stories and the Alice Munro stories, but not the actual terrain.  You've never in fact been to the U.P. the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but thanks to Jim Harrison, you believe you could find some of the stray bottles of peppermint schnapps cached away by his characters, just in case.  You do know the area around Sunset Boulevard and Sepulveda, before the 405 was cut through; you know where to get glorious bunches of poinsettias which grow there, and you know the cheerful man who offers what he calls the student's special, a half-gallon of pulpy red wine for $2.50.  You know which of the medical students to invite to parties, because they invariably bring something to liven up the punch bowl, making for more expansive drunkenness now and more virulent hangovers tomorrow.

You know what and of whom you write as a man in his eighties, just as you often knew what and of whom you wrote when a person in his teens, partially indentured to Sherwood Anderson and John O'Hara, and Ernest Miller Hemingway, that grouch of a father of one of your classmates.

You know why you take so long these days to write things, even though you write every day.  You understand the signs and the feelings within while you are understanding the signs.  You frequently cannot recall if Ken's Hula Hut was on upper Beverly, Melrose, or Santa Monica, because you were so often drunk on your way and infused with a different kind of drunkenness when the last set was played at one, which gave the staff enough time to get you and the musicians out by closing time of two a.m.  You were living part time in the woo woo world of having musicians the likes of Sonny Criss, Hamp Hawes, and Teddy Edwards urging you to do the same thing with your studies and craft that they were doing with music--taking it somewhere it had not been before.

You remember that Ada lived on upper Melrose, and you practically had to climb a rickety flight of stairs next to a billboard to get to her apartment where, if you were fortunate, she did not send you home to sleep it off and next time call before you came and call sober.

Only this morning, you were telling your interviewers, you were making notes for a character in a story, and you realized that, much in the manner of Delmore Schwartz, who is known for one story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," more than any other of his stories and poems, your character, after a life of writing, teaching, brawling, and settling down into a long, domestic funk, was known for one short story out of an output of many.  You not only knew the name of the story, it became so intriguing and vital that you had to write it to fully appreciate the irony of its creator and, of course, the irony of you.

You try to explain this to your examiners, Cop #1 and Cop #2.  "This,"  you want to tall them, "is why it takes so long."  But they just look at you and shake their heads.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Down on the floor. Now. Nobody moves. Nobody gets hurt."

You are standing in line at one of your favorite places for morning coffee, the line moving slowly because the barista is friendly to customers ahead of you the point of being garrulous.  

During the wait to place your order, you have time to reflect why you are here, stranded  in this line, when you could with a little more effort, be about ten to twelve blocks farther north, at Peet's, where the coffee is quite a bit better.  You could also be at the French Press, which is closer to where you live, and where the coffee is in your opinion even better than Peet's.

The place where you are now was a taqueria, and not a distinguished one at that, in its last incarnation.  Bright, airy, comfortable, this shop serves fluffy, fresh pastry or, should you wish, eclectic mixtures of fruit or vegetable drinks; the background music has frequent cycles of genera to your taste and liking,  You often bring your coffee habit here to be sated with the notion of spending an hour or so reading, or with your laptop computer.

Standing in line causes you to understand what a trial this line or any line is for you. a condition you recognize as one pushing you to the edges of whatever degree of patience you wear at any given moment.  Of all the circumstances and conditions likely to push you beyond well-established boundaries of behavior.  

After a quick survey of your inner grouch, you arrive at standing in bank line at the most vexing, theater and restaurant waiting a tie for second place, and being in your car, waiting for access to a gasoline pump at a station your next candidate for saying, "To hell with it," or worse, before moving off in a snit of pique.

A shift in the length of the line brings sight of the serving area, where another inducement for this particular coffee shop can be seen, if it is indeed available on a given day.  This feature is a generous container of fresh fruit, bite-sized chunks of pineapple, watermelon, berries, grapes, and, in season, that lovely New Zealand fruit, the kiwi.  No luck today, thus an incentive for your impatience alarm to kick in, have you mutter "Forget it," or worse, then drive north toward Peet's, with the righteous indignation conviction that this was were you ought to have gone straight off.

Never mind that there are often lines at Peet's, where the baristas appear to be hired because of their garrulousness.  Never mind that you are impatient, eager for coffee, which you could just as well have made at home with your stove-top espresso maker and your newly acquired milk frother.  Never mind that you are jonesing for coffee or that your eagerness could be anything less than the addiction you perceive it to be.  Never mind that there are in fact mornings where you don't exhibit the slightest interest in coffee until morning has lapsed and you are being summoned instead to afternoon coffee.

Instead, you pay attention to the fact of you being a notional individual with a so-so rating on the impatience scale, attempting to get his day progressing in some sense of productive order.  The fact of the matter is, you're better at defining the causes of your impatience than you are of delineating what a sense of productive order means to you.  On mornings where there are classes to attend to, either by your immediate presence or your need to have preparations ready by a specific time, productive order is a clearer picture than on those days of no classes or late afternoon or evening classes.

On this day, while you wrestle with the impatient desire to achieve coffee with as much deliberate speed as you can manage, you arrive at a product you more often get when you're alone, either out walking, at your desk at home, or in a coffee shop such at this, already seated at a table, a significant amount of coffee already making its way through your innards.  The arrival squeezes an involuntary response from you, somewhere between a squeak and a grunt of recognition.

Your line mates turn to regard you, but you are already well beyond acknowledging them.  In your mind now, you see one of your own characters, someone who has been with you long enough so that you have watched him evolve through a progression of activities and professions to the point where you know him well enough to envy him.

Like you, he is now in line.  Unlike you, he has already had his first coffee of the day and is not nearly so volatile with his impatience index as you.  He is in a bank, his goal to deposit a retainer fee of some significance.  All is right with his world, to the point where he has begun to admire the tailoring on the three-piece suit worn by the man in front of him, perhaps even playing in his mind with its possible sources of origin.  Paul Stewart?  Ermengildo Zenga?  Ah, of course; Ben Silver.

But why would a man wear a three-piece suit in Santa Barbara?
Of course the man in line in front of him is not as at piece with himself as your character.  In fact, this three-piece-suit-wearing fellow loses his patience at about the moment your character, who is a private detective, realizes the reason for the careful attention to tailoring on the three-piece suit.  The man in the three-piece suit is carrying a concealed weapon, a 92FS Beretta, with which he and another accomplice, similarly clothed and armed, mean to rob the bank.

"Thank you for waiting,"  the garrulous barista tells you.  "What can I get for you?"

"Let's start with all your tens and twenties,"  you think.  But you say, "The usual."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Trust Me

Two words, spoken by characters as long as we have had story to tempt and comfort us, fling open the doors of the human condition, throughout culture, historical era, and any consideration of what is at stake.

"Trust me."

If that trust is not forthcoming quickly enough to suit the one who pronounces it, the next step is to add two more words.  "Don't you trust me?"

At what point does honesty lose its best policy license and become a burdensome consequence?  To put that question in another light, when does truth change from the virtue of its presentation to us in our youth to its potential for moral conundrum in our adult stage?

Ah, you say; it is all relative, reminiscent of those early middle school and high school debate settings, where the truthful guys wore the white hats, the untruthful ones, the liars and dissemblers, wore the black hats, and ideals were worth standing up to a bully to protect.

You were given cause to think of such matters sometime toward the end of last week, when you were asked for your opinion of something.  You'd known the person who asked the question for some time, were less guarded about your answer, and indeed were pleased with the ability to be so.  This is one place where real time and story overlap;  close friends are more inclined to let the guard down in exchanges of conversation and the ongoing Q and A among friends.

But the door to speculation is left open when, in response to your reply, you hear, "Nothing like brutal honesty."  It is not spoken with any hint of rancor.  A friend, stating a fact.  But here we are, at coffee with a group of friends, and two hot-button words, brutal and rancor, have emerged, one from the friend who'd asked your opinion, and you from your response to the friend's conclusion.

Truth relates to the actual state of a circumstance.  Honesty becomes associated with a presentation of point of view.  An individual may believe he is telling the truth in reporting his version of an event or his opinion of any noun you care to dredge up, any person, place, or thing.

You look beautiful/handsome.

This was among the most imaginative and satisfying meals I have ever eaten.

Your poem caused me to see connections between disparate things in such a positive way that I will always remember the rush of insight.

That music filled me with the same sense of hope and exultation I get when I hear the last movement from the Beethoven Ninth Symphony.

All four of these observations--judgments, if you will--depending on the manner in which they are rendered, have the potential for being complements, but with the slightest turn of point of view, they become untrue, thus lies, their inherent power then to uplift and reward their recipient or to misrepresent the actual opinions of the observer with a devious intent.  

Whether the devious intent is to disguise the observer's true feelings, spare the observer the potential embarrassment of relating the actual response, or dissemble because the observer lacks the courage to tell the truth, honesty is the crux.  You might also call it the fulcrum on which relationships are based.

Truth and trust are significant conditions in play between characters in story.  One poignant example resonated for you in John Steinbeck's near perfect novella, Of Mice and Men, from the first time you read it to the most recent time about a year ago, when you assigned it as one of the texts for a writing course.  From the earliest introduction of the two principals, George and Lenny, where their relationship is spelled out, we know how important a force Lenny's trust of George is.  

In short order, we come to understand the poignant implications of it, watching the awful complexity of it grow before our eyes.  When the elderly worker, Candy, is bullied into allowing his again dog to be put down, the awfulness of the growing complexity becomes a seedling taking hold in our awareness, resulting in an honesty more profound and awful than the brutal honesty of your observation made last week.

Whether the relationship exists in real life or story, the illusions of feelings, personal tastes, and accuracy of vision pelt us like surprise hail storms.  "Trust me,"  one character says to another, and our inner alarm systems respond by wanting to warn the more naive of the characters.

A child of the pulp and plot-driven story, your greatest despair was the difficulty you had in devising the plots of writers you admired.  This led you to years of despair and the ultimate realization, gained after you learned, that this was not the sort of story you wished to write or could write with any enduring sense of accomplishment.  

Your story is two or more characters, each believing themselves to be right, thus seeing or knowing the actual state of circumstance.  Or one character telling another, "Trust me," with the awareness that each has a different goal or purpose in mind.

Monday, March 23, 2015


There are several goals inherent in the creation of fiction, but before they may be given serious attention, both reader and writer must wait until the illusion of life and reality are established. A narrative without the illusion of life and reality begs the issue of story, emerges instead in the manner of a fable, sermon, or other mnemonic for conveying cultural information.

Next up on the priority pyramid is information.  Story is a bundle of dramatic information, presented primarily as action, but also as exchanges of agendas, thoughts, and ideas among the characters.  To keep the narrative functioning as story, there must also be opposition, individual against individual, against social and moral hierarchy, and of course against forces of nature.

Story may grow impatient to begin its journey, but there is still at least one more matter wanting attention. Indeed, just as attention is required to the packing and adjusting of supplies on pack animals, the literary voyager needs to decide what form the narrative information will take, and what the length of the intended journey will be:  novel, short story, essay.

By the time the serious reader or writer is experienced enough to recognize the need for logistics, she or he has taken many paths, including fables such as those of Aesop, sermons of the sorts delivered in mosques, synagogues, or churches, and onward into the freer-swinging allegories of such ventures as Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.  

With more experience, the potential increases for awareness of the nuance of satire, when introduced into allegory, thus Orwell's magnificent Animal Farm, and Spiegelman's Maus, two ventures that could well prepare the emerging reader/writer to recognize the effects of overseasoning the narrative with propaganda as Rand has done in Atlas Shrugged.

Isn't it noteworthy how Rand struck a more resonant note with younger readers in The Fountainhead, then, almost as though she'd decided to expand her propaganda to the next age plateau, thrown illusions of life and reality to the winds?  Of course there are significant numbers of readers who are serious in their illusions that the people and their causes in Atlas Shrugged are real.

Among the goals needing attention in the reading and/or writing of fiction, character and characterization have considerable priority.  The individuals within a narrative serve reader and writer best if they have significant layers of complexity and ambiguity, qualities left in the waiting room in the Bunyan and Rand titles.  Like Bunyan and Rand, Orwell and Spiegelman are playing heavily on types, but these two do so in ways that play on  the uses of humor as an awareness of painful outcomes in human behavior.

Characterization is a necessary and worthwhile presence, causing reader and writer alike to focus on setting, landscape, appropriate and inappropriate social interactions, and the effects to be had from shrewd use of details.  

One facet of characterization, voice, is the use of language in the narrative tone, producing such emotional responses as irony, humor, frustration, and the significant ladder of social distinctions. If given proper attention, the voice of one or more of the principal players will sound in the reader's awareness.  The reader may not be pleased with the effect, but on close reading will understand this feeling of displeasure or unease was no accident.

Unlike fable, sermon, allegory, or even propaganda, story is a more complex artifice, the simulacrum of a real place and time, inhabited by individuals complex, vulnerable, and notional enough to appear real.  Story is an onion in reverse, layered about an armature which is left to the reader to discern, but only after the additional irony of the writer being driven to discover.

Anomaly of all sorts abounds.  Suppose the reader misreads the author's intent?  Suppose the author's intent has become lost in the passage of time between the date the work was written and the present day moment when the story was read?  Suppose the reader needs two or three readings to approach the author's intent?  Suppose the reader loves the story while still misreading the author's intent?  Suppose the reader is amused when the author's intent was to shock or dismay or alarm?  Suppose the reader is shocked or dismayed or alarmed when the author's intent was to amuse?

These and other similar questions await us as we progress beyond the books and magazines from which we have learned to read, packing our imaginations and attitudes for the journeys ahead.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Hang of It

Thinking aloud:  If action is a major component of story, driving it to some outcome, there is a strong argument to be made for fiction being a distillation of experience.  You can speak for some writers as a reviewer and interpreter, both of which you have been and are.  

The only writer you can speak of as a writer is, of course, yourself.  Speaking for yourself, you can talk about your job as a writer, which is to dig around in the vastness of possibilities you see, looking for the ventures that seem most fearsome.

Now, the thinking begins to kick in, supplying a logic of the sort story needs to convey if the incidents in the story are to appear real. Story, in your vision of it, wants to capture experience, but not merely to report on these actions, rather to evoke their presence to the point where the reader begins to experience the guilty tang of voyeurism.

Early in your reading career, your goals were to achieve the fun and transportation of being engaged, rather than faced with endless stretches of free time.  Thus you had to learn to be able to use as many of your senses as possible to produce a terrain where things of interest went about their own purposes.  

An ant farm worked better if you could place it in front of a terrarium or ecosphere, filled with tiny fish and plants.  A story set in Africa was more exciting if you could transfer it to the huge lots where you played.  You read and imagined in order to travel beyond physical and parental constraints.

Well into your high school years, your parents trusted you to remain safe and responsible at home while they plied the highway from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.  After one or two of these ventures, you began trying your hand at writing mysteries where your parents might be plausibly away for two or three days at a time.  For what they were, they were okay; the major accomplishment was being able to make it seem plausible a high school junior or senior could become engaged in solving the kinds of puzzle that went with mystery.

At this moment, it seems amazing you were not able to pick up on the next step in the logical progression.  All you had to do was think beyond yourself to the point where being a high school junior or senior did not mean you were limited to writing stories about protagonists as young as you.  

By this time, your reading had begun to pile up to the point where you had a long list of favorite characters, many of them older and, by now, some younger than you.  As well, you had teachers as role models, the adult friends of your parents, and that remarkable parade of individuals who came to your father's luggage sales and repair shop, 516 Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica, California, by no means to look at new luggage or discuss the repair of old.  Rather they came to invest their capital in contests of speed between and among thoroughbred race horses.

You needed another year.  Then, at about the time you were entering epic struggles with algebra and geometry, the logic came to you whereby you could imagine experiences you'd never had for characters you got to know as you began to write about them, put words in their mouth that you would never say, all they while saying things they would never say.  This was great for your writing, but not so good for algebra and geometry.

Hard lessons to be learned here:  Story is not descriptive.  Hand waving in the back.  "Professor Lowenkopf, can you explain what you mean by that?"  You furl one of your most prominent features, your brow.  Here we go:

If you write it, you're likely telling it, because that's pretty much the way it was when you began your reading.  On the other hand, if your character(s) tell(s) it, the narrative will appear to seep through the cracks between words, actions, feelings, and those lovely details that pin the story to a particular time and place.

More with the waving hand.  "But won't that create ambiguity?"

You smile that amazing smile of yours.  "You can see that, can you?  Beginning to look as though you're getting the hang of it."

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Something or Somebody Changes

Change plays a critical role in the orbit of a dramatic narrative. No matter how tempting the narrative at the outset, you don't have the sense of being inside an actual story until you pick up enough hints that something and/or someone will change.  Only then are you "in" for the full experience.

Once a short story or novel has nudged you beyond enjoyment or entertainment, into the territory where it has meaning, an entire new dimension appears. You get the tingling sense of a hidden meaning wanting to emerge.  That meaning can be understood and made to fit into some sense of order.

Now, you can feel your senses of excitement and participation expand to a point where you not only anticipate change, you grow eager to meet it, wherever it may be waiting in the wings.

That was the more complete version of your relationship to short story and novel.  A more reductionist version admits to a story needing hints of the potential for a change that may been seen or felt by the reader, one or more characters, or reader and character.

You like the way the short story often makes it possible for the reader to know things while the characters remain innocent or are only just beginning to get the suspicion something is about to happen, might well happen off the page.  Might even happen off the page and in the reader's imagination.

A short story is a house, cantilevered on the side of a Hollywood hill when an earthquake temblor begins its spasm.  A novel is a such a house or building when the earthquake's movements begin to register on the Richter Scale, dislodging chunks of dirt, gravel, and rocks.

Time to wake up Heraclitus for a few thoughts about the physics of change.  True enough, as he observed, one cannot bathe in the same river twice.  In similar fashion, one cannot read the same book twice; the reader has changed and along with that change, the book has changed.

A book can sit in a shelf somewhere, unread for years.  Even though the book has been fixed in print, it ages in an interpretive, cultural sense, in its aloneness growing ahead of itself and meaning, or being lost in the evolving tide of human behavior and attitudes.  

A book such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter still contains aspects of the thoughts, emotions, and humanity of its characters, but most modern readers would immediately recognize they were embarking on a trip to a distant past.  A play such as Antigone would require even more thought and cultural placement to cause its embedded emotional codes to have contemporary resonance.

You'd do well to add another notebook to your library of notebooks.  This one would have two categories, as well described by Yes and No as any others.  Yes, a list of short stories and novels as candidates for rereading yet again, and No, a list of short stories and novels once thought likely candidates for Yes, but not consigned to No, as in not for You.

At this point in your perspective, there is no way of predicting the intellectual and emotional effects of these sorts of changes, either upon you or the stories and subjects of your focus.  A work you once found daunting or tedious or irrelevant in the past could, simply because of the aggregation of experiences and senses delivered to you, afford you great pleasure and insight.  A work you once carried about with you rather than allow it out of your sight could well make you aware of your own evolution in ways that you could not anticipate.

Time here for a few moments with the half-full and half-empty glass metaphors.  Consider the succor, wisdom, amusement, flights of imagination, plateaus to reach for you've experienced in all your years of reading.  If any given rereading of a book of significance should let you down, your disappointment would still be tempered by the actual pleasures and their memories.

It comes to you now to wonder if  RLS's Treasure Island could have the capacity to disappoint you now.  You know of the times in the past where it transported you to the places you needed to be and, in the case of this title, beyond where you needed to be.

Never mind.  You have instead to consider at hand a library of change, which is the most complex and engaging quality of all.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Shamans, Writers, and the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Because of their lifestyles and abilities, shamans tend not to fare well in the general media, which, because of their own lifestyles and abilities tend to to regard the shaman with cynicism.  True enough, there are certain media who tend to glamorize or inflate the performance of the shaman, which in turn makes the cynical media yet more cynical.

Regardless of gender or age, the true shaman tends not to notice either extreme, engaging instead in shaman-like behavior centered around seeing things differently from civilians.  From your own awareness of shamans of various stripes, you feel comfortable and safe with the generalization that their primary occupation is seeing Reality through a lens or opening not available to most of us civilians, followed by either reporting on the nature of what they've seen or, through a variety of approaches, engaging in a ritual that attempts to influence the outcome of a ritual.

Some shamans alter their state of consciousness through meditation or trance-like focus, others still ingest or in some other way process some manner of pharmacopoeia as an entry into this altered state of Reality, from which various phenomena call attention to their presence.

Your first awareness of these remarkable beings bore the tint of your background in comics, adventure stories, and legends of legerdemain, all the magic a boy could want.  At the time there was little difference between a shaman, a magician, a conjurer, and a sorcerer.  

Later, you carried the energy and imagination of those years into and through the pseudonymous authorship of a book, Charms, Spells, and Curses.  In many ways, your visions of such potentials was leavened by T.H. White's monumental epic of Merlin and Arthur, The Once and Future King, wherein, among other things, King Arthur followed the standard chronology of birth to death while the great sorcerer, Merlin, reversed the process, thus growing younger.

Your picture of the shaman has evolved with your studies of fanciful materials and those attempting a greater sense of objectivity and plausibility.  Well enough, the worlds of which you write is your world, just as the world of the shaman is the unique world of these remarkable men and women, each according to his or her culture and arrived-at vision of Reality.

Even better, in the past paragraph, you've opened the portal to this world beyond Reality where admission has to be earned if there is to be anything of value to bring back for the use of this world of Reality.  And so, yes; you are making the connection that a writer may well be a shaman because he or she (and in this case you) has through study, discipline, stubbornness, and some measure of slipping past the guards at the gate, has found a way to get inside the big tent, often with the help of one or more mentors.  

Of course this brings to mind the metaphor of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, that variation on a theme of Pygmalion, in which the apprentice betrays eagerness to learn the true magic that will cause the transformation of mere mortal into another sort of mortal, with visions of another world bu as well with at least as many foibles as the civilians have.  Perhaps even more.

Let us write off in a few strokes the extremes among writers and shamans, with little more than lip service to their flamboyance and implications of self-service tempered by self-importance.  You have little use for this sort, whether they be a shaman or a writer.  Instead, you interest is on the writer and shaman who looks to healing ritual, which is to say rituals intended to restore lost beauty, balance, and a sense of personal integrity.  

True shamans learn the scenario for rituals, which gifts to offer, and the order in which they should be offered to please the forces on the other side who are used to the multifarious transactions back and forth between worlds or planes.

The better and more effective the shaman, the greater the likelihood he or she will be a shrewd diagnostician of the individual who is out of balance with the environment.  By the same metric, the better and more effective the writer, the more probability he or she will be able to diagnose a character out of Beauty (apologies to the Navajos, but they have it so well conceived) or out of sync, or, greater yet, a population or culture out of Beauty.

True writers learn by watching, reading, imitating, experimenting, jumping off garage and story roofs, taking chances, getting rejection slips, being edited.

The only trance-like state you can speak to is the focus or concentration you achieve when you've passed those tough bouncers and security guards, the Inner Editors, standing right outside your manuscript.  

You are in, often without knowing it, more often than not in before you realize you are.  In fact, realizing you're in might cause someone to come tapping you on the shoulder, asking to see your ID--no, not the one that has anything to do with age.  This ID is the intent that got you here in the first place.  It is the one you earned on one or more of those occasions when you were the sorcerer's apprentice, anxious to show your chops with a spell or two, before you tumbled so precipitously to the floor.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Identity Crisis: Not Kevin, Not This Time

When you hear of the misfortune visited on a former student of yours, the subsequent discomforts, and the embarrassed undertone to her request for assistance, you are once again reminded how fragile a thing an identity is.

Because of the language of the description of the misfortunes experienced by your former student, you become aware that she was not the author of this particular call for assistance; she is being impersonated by another, who must be from another culture or level of society than the one in which you and your former student dwell, where her problems with spelling and punctuation betray her being who she claims.

After a few brief moments of mulling over the sorts of notices that are automatically directed to your spam folder by the Gmail spam filter, you marvel at the ways in which identity is becoming fragmented.  In theory, a con artist and grifter operates at a level of intensity at which he or she is able to winnow out potential victims, then have at them, new, devious identity intact and accepted as real.  

This does not cause you anything approximating a sense of comfort.  It is one thing for you to recall the occasional times, such as the one where you received a check for the lottery you were supposed to have one, where your suspicions are aroused.  But it is yet another thing to reflect on the times when you were played to the point of accepting as real an identity that wasn't.

You are in so many ways idealistic, trusting, and eager to think real the offered idiosyncrasies of your fellow humans.  In a way, even with your amusement at the so-called "letters" from Nigeria, where defecting politicians and military figures are looking for someone as trustworthy as yourself to transfer huge sums of money from Nigeria into the US or some other safe haven, you are the ideal mark.  

Forget your experiences on the carnival midway, in which you had the equivalent of graduate courses in learning the "g" or gimmick of so many propositions.  You are in this way your father's son.  After all, he was an avid compiler of systems by which one could invest to steady profits based on as the relative speeds of horses as they essay lengths measured in furlongs.

Identity intrigues you in a literary and an existential sense, to the point where you pursue speculations about it as your father sat for hours at his desk with The Daily Racing Form, a calculator, and a notepad on which to essay trial balances.  Over the years, you've evolved a formula of your own:  The signature flaw in any given identity resides in direct proportion to the degree of confidence or certainty within the identity.  

These elements catch up with you from time to time when you are either a witness or a direct participant in identity manipulation.  The latest of these came earlier in the week, when, as you left a gathering of friends who'd met to while away a pleasant happy hour, you were greeted by a woman who thought you were someone other than whom you know yourself to be, with all the attendant foibles of which you are aware and with the likelihood of at least one signature flaw.  In her eyes, you were Kevin.  The hug with which she greeted you caused you to think there had been some degree of closeness between her and Kevin, but not between you and her.

She was an athletic ash blond of medium height.  Her clothing suggested tennis, which struck you as a bit odd because you were in a bar/restaurant adjacent a golf course.  She read your surprise as an unwillingness to behave as Kevin would behave on seeing her, and here's where identity conspires to produce the kinds of results that intrigue you as a writer.

You not only assured her you were not Kevin, you in effect demonstrated you were you, whom you know for a certainty not to be Kevin.  "You are very attractive and pleasant,"  you said, "but even if I agreed to be Kevin, you'd soon see through the subterfuge."

"That is so like you,"  she said.

"Alright, I have some mischief similarity to Kevin, but I truly am not Kevin."

"I understand this is difficult for you."

"Yes," you said, "it is."

She watched you for a long moment, her face a complex play of competing dramas.  "All right then,"  she said.  "All right."  Then she turned and left you to being you, in effect taking Kevin with her, and leading you to speculate without any hope of understanding. Except that you understood  for your part as many things as you reckon her to have understood for her part.

You use aspects of your identity in every story you write.  Much as you like to think you're learning great heaps of valuable information from your reading and observation, you have a built-in margin for error.  You found it easy to imagine how, whoever Kevin was, he had caused pain to the person who thought he was you.  In a way, this caused you to think of pain you'd managed to cause to others, all on your own, without being Kevin.  You had no wish to cause this vulnerable person pain, either as a residual from Kevin or from yourself.

When you got home, the dinner you'd planned didn't come into being.  Instead, you made your thinking drink, coffee, took it out to the patio, and sat to sip it while watching the evening turn into night.  There was no comfort from the thought that the lady might at some point in the near future realize she'd been mistaken about you, that you were not Kevin, or that at some added future time, she'd meet Kevin and after conversation, realize he was still Kevin, but not you.

We carry so many selves about with us that it is often difficult to sort out the one we think we are from the one we wish to be or the one we are at the moment.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hard Wired Opportunism

Throughout its long, adventurous history, the human species has been opportunistic, to the point where one of your long distant relatives, not at all likely to have been a homo sapien, might have been walking across a narrow stream, a walking stick in hand, when he saw at his feet a fish, which he promptly stabbed, then took it home to serve as his dinner.

So far as you have been able to tell, which is to say according to your observations since having learned to read, writers have been opportunistic, using members of their family, work mates, authority figures, and cultural heroes as the basis of characters they have otherwise created from scratch ingredients.

Writers have used actual locales, historical events, natural disasters, and man made disasters as background and thematic foregrounds in their invented realities.  Writers have in a real sense co-opted creation myths, cultural legends, fables, and other such exercises in morality and/or education as the basis for actual story.

Yet another way in which writers have demonstrated a knack for opportunism:  Contemporary writers see no reason not to use some of the longer lasting cultural landmarks as a basis for a modernized version, witness the number of thinly disguised versions of King Lear to appear in modern dress.  

Well before you thought of the opportunistic nature of your species (human or writer) you'd processed and kept stored as a valued memento conversations you'd had as a young man with a forged identity card, slurping vodka tonics at the now defunct Garden of Allah cocktail lounge on the Sunset Strip.  These conversations were with a then hero, Borden Chase, who'd started his career as a sand hog, building bridges and tunnels in New York before turning to write for the pulp magazines before finding his way to Hollywood.

"What I did,"  he said with some pride, "was to take a well-recognized classic, Mutiny on the Bounty,set it in the Old West, far away from the sea, then call it Red River."   Chase was the first writer to have planted a seed within you; it was not his fault that it took so long to grow.  "One way or another, kid--" Whether it was a generational thing or the simple fact that any number of individuals in those days, your elders tended to call you kid.  "One way or another, kid, anything you write can be traced back to a certain story or a type of story.  There aren't that many different stories, but there are different writers to retell the old stories in other ways."

Since then, you've come closer to seeing or think you see what Chase meant, narrowing the number of story types to two or three.  All the more reason then for writers to be opportunistic in that they are bringing themselves into the narrative is some particular, specific way, reflecting her or his attitudes.

In another sense, the near manic number of notebooks you keep and/or carry about with you have frequent scribbles of overheard conversation which find their way into story points, actual dialogue, or some kind of relevant detail.  You heard one regional utterance today that stands an excellent chance of finding its way into some project of yours.  "Well I'll be rolled in cracker crumbs and deep fried!"

Not to forget a recent experimental stage for improvisation--for that is how you see the essence of story development--came about after a recent invitation to join some friends for drinks, with the added postscript of a suggestion that you might like to bring a date.  Thinking about that recent notation has caused you the more immediate one of wondering if the afterthought suggestion of you bringing a date was a subtle way of finding out who or indeed if you are dating anyone.

Opportunism has many aspects.  Today, you were in the midst of a pissing contest between two bearded authors, each showing off for an attractive women, who appeared quite at ease and apparently interested in the one-upsmanship in play.

"I have has this beard," one of the writers said, stroking the bottom of his chin with sweeping gestures of the top of his hand," since 1975."

The other writer, his full beard less trimmed than the first, announced, "This beard has been with me since 1070."

The woman was attractive, you were made mischievous by the male posturing.  Stepping right in, you projected your voice over both men.  "And I,"  you announced, "have shaved rigorously since 1965."

Your opportunism resulted in considerable laughter from the woman, who is a lovely visitor from New Zealand.  "Perhaps," she said, "we could meet for coffee before I return."

Opportunism is a way of walking your individual landscape, alert for targets of opportunity and insight.  The key to the sort of opportunism of which you speak is a cheery pragmatism and an alertness to understand how there are times when response may well be trumped by no response at all.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Cutting a Fine Figure

You've whipped up quite a bit of fun  for yourself by seeing how far you could get in a conversation with Spanish-speaking individuals, where you were able only to use one of the great mischief words in that estimable language, segun.  There are myriad possibilities for meaning in that word, accordingly, or it depends or even it follows being among them.

Another such word is quizas, which can mean perhaps or maybe or in a pinch, whatever.  Because of their flexibility such words in any language make it possible for persons in real life to do what they often do in stories, which is talk about different subjects, intend different outcomes, and yet maintain the conviction that they have been perfectly understood because, after all, they have made things quite clear.

You have enjoyed this, nodding your head in apparent agreement to a point, and then, when the eyes of the other speakers are on you, perhaps a curl of the lip or a cupping of the chin, to demonstrate your thoughtfulness before you deliver your line, "Segun."

Here you are then at the point equidistant from literal and figurative, a point where we spend a good deal of time, alternately giving clues and looking for them, yearning to be understood, eager to understand.  And yet, two of our favored expressions, as loaded with mysterious powers and taboo-like atmospheres are, "You don't understand," and "I don't understand."

Each is delivered in calmness at first, but as the circumstances become more heated--and the circumstances will become heated--the exclamations begin to appear, followed by waving hands and other gestures of frustration.  A boundary is reached, then passed.  Now, we're at the point where one person says with some conviction, "I understand."  But the border has been trespassed.  The boundary has been breached.  The riposte to this protestation of understanding has become, "You don't understand."

"But I do."

"How could you?"

There is the language of literalness, of meaning what is said, saying what is meant, all with the understanding that the recipient of the language understands and visualizes the output of the speaker.  There is no hyperbole or rhetoric here.  There is no being so hungry I could eat a horse, or even the use of the expression, "back in the day," to mean "Way back then," or "At that time."

We cannot have the long arm of the law, which is not only figurative, it is a synecdoche, nor can we have our ducks in a row, or, as a substitute for having our affairs in order, which is not figurative, we can be squared away, which is figurative.

Our goal is to be understood, which seems straightforward enough until it may come to us that we don't know what we're talking about or are caught out by being forced to explain the workings of something we'd taken for granted, and thought we knew.  We throw in a bit of figurative to spice up what has not only become threatening, it borders on boring.

Enter a figure of speech.  At one point, your publishing affairs took you to the northeastern portion of Tennessee, where you heard  a local speaking of the growing humidity in a way that fascinated you.  "Feel like I wuz hit in the face with a wet squirrel."

You could not wait to get back to California, where you would use this as a combination of descriptive language and semiotics.  Trouble was, and still is, you've not been in a place humid enough to use the figurative gem because 1) there is not sufficient humidity here to justify such an image and 2) although there are indeed squirrels in abundance, they are seen off at a distance for the most part.  You have to, in effect, be "there" for figurative speech to work.

Figurative usages seem to spill forth, once you get up a head of steam on whatever you might be working on at the time.  Because you enjoy them and because they seem to steal into your work with little or no planning, you tend to be suspicious of them, questioning them as potential interloper before allowing them to stay.

Figurative language causes you suspicions.  You might even say they make you as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Literal You in a Nuanced World

You didn't begin to suspect you might be a naive narrator until you were moving along into your fourth decade, the final push from suspicion into reality coming when you gave a close reading to a book written by a friend.

Such is the way a writer's mind reaches into the metaphoric spaces behind the cushions on a sofa for the loose change of connection.  A long-time faculty mate of yours at USC, Richard W. Lid, had written a book of some merit about a novelist you believed to be of some merit, Ford Maddox Ford.  Dick Lid's book, Ford Maddox Ford:  The Essence of His Art, came your way well after you'd completed your undergraduate years, adding by its effect on your studies to date the determination that you should pursue your studies as an autodidact rather than a graduate student.

Your frequent greeting to Lid, on campus or at his home, was "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," in itself a tribute to Lid's book and to Ford Maddox Ford, of whose novel, The Good Soldier, this was the opening line.  

In what may be a mountain goat leap, you'd long been aware that the narrator of The Good Soldier was the speaker of that memorable opening line.  You knew he was a naive narrator because of the way the dramatic irony of the story turned on him.  No problem there, but Lid's book and your frequent repetition of the opening line to The Good Soldier caused you by increasing degree to question your own interpretations.

Those interpretations, truth be told, tended toward the literal.  Even though you admired and often recognized nuance, you'd only just begun to see irony and nuance as wedges, holding the door of narrative open for wisps of implication to seep through.  The more you reread, the more implication you saw, culminating in your direct confrontation with your self, meant with a deliberate irony.  "How long,"  you asked yourself, "have you been a naive narrator and reader?"

Of course the answer came back, "Too long."  At which point, you have struggled to make proper amends, not the minor one of blaming your early affectations of sophistication in order to be able to substitute reading for experience.

A snarky book review in a recent edition of one of your favorite review sources, the London Times Literary Supplement, caught your attention because it involved two persons you know (one of them recently dead), and reached the same conclusion you'd reached when you discovered what the book was about.

The review was about the two individuals before they met, how they behaved after they met, and how they behaved after the time they knew each other came to a series of endings, yanking you into a maelstrom of your own roiled emotions, thanks to the high probability that no one else reading the review could possibly have the same response.

Less than thirty minutes after reading the review, you had your notepad out and were well along into the opening paragraphs of what could at least be a short story.  While you were assessing this potential of length and depth, you could not help recalling words uttered in front of you by a writer you greatly admire, Eudora Welty.  "When I start something new,"  she said, "I'm always so relieved when it turns out to be a short story instead of a novel."  

Eudora Welty's assessment remind you of your own take on Mark Twain, when he apologized to a correspondent, "I'd have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time."  Yours was a nod to your tendency to pad your longer works by saying, "I'd have written a short story instead of a novel, but I didn't have the time."

Your narrative, regardless of length, will be roman a clef; the major character, Connor Golden, brought to life only today because of the snarky review.  He will be the armature about which you will wrap details of a long ago friendship.  Thus another character, Howard Chambers, will be you.  You've not yet gone to work on the woman, but the night is yet young.  Howard Chambers, of course, is the narrator, telling the story in first person.  Of course he is naive.  Of course the joke will be on him, a residue of your attitude to the Connor Golden of real time and the way you believe you bought his stories without pausing for a moment to consider their real implications.

Sitting in your storage shelf and on the hard drive of this computer are the first twenty or so chapters of a novel, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, taken from a stage direction out of A Winter's Tale, told by the disgruntled academic, Howard Chambers.

This is how you work; it goes a long way toward describing why you must live for a long time because it will take you that long to get the things most young men and women get in their twenties and thirties, if in fact you get them at all.  And it will in some small way make up for the things that you didn't have the time, back then, to make shorter.