Thursday, April 30, 2015

Places, Everybody.

During the times of your matriculation at the University of California, Los Angeles, state law and university policy required your class participation in the ROTC or Reserve Officer's Training Corps, a requirement you'd hoped to avoid by arriving at UCLA with enough credits to qualify for enrollment as a junior.

The registrar in effect, said Not so fast, enrolling you as a high sophomore, a designation you were soon to assume in an unanticipated, figurative way.  Being a high sophomore meant you were required to take one semester of the ROTC, meaning you were issued a uniform you could wear every day if you chose, and were to attend two hours per week of classroom study and two hours related to drill.

Early into that venture, you discovered a group of friends who were members of the ROTC band, resulting in your invitation to weekly pre-drill festivities, which meant reaching the proper degree of being stoned to make the drill experience more amusing than dreary.  Your band-member friends shared your passion for the burgeoning development in jazz known as bebop, in essence a dramatic revisiting of melodic structure and chord progressions.  

How reassuring, then, to hear the military cadences of Sousa marches, augmented by the occasional flatted fifth or some unaccustomed harmony as, say, a sharp ninth.  And how amusing to the borders of mischievous to wait for these tonal surprises, smiling at their discovery.  There is something about having to march in rigid cadence, knowing that nearby there are others like you, mindsets altered, senses attuned to the potential of nuance and surprise.

The ROTC classroom experiences signified hours of great boredom until the curriculum shifted in your favor in a most unanticipated way.  Map reading.  Learning to orient a map with the lensatic compass issued to each cadet.  Learning the most intriguing thing of all, triangulation, whereby, using a map and compass, one could learn to discern where one was, using readily available reference points.

Difficult to say who was the more surprised, you or the instructor, Lt. Col, Van de Graff, when the study shifted to maps and your grade level shifted abruptly from C to A.  Difficult as well to pin down the parallel lines of association beginning to form within your eager sensitivities, but they were with certainty beginning to form right there, within that ROTC class.

Talk about the unintended virtues of the liberal arts education.  You took to the concepts of orientation and triangulation, of using your compass to position a map so that it was not only a depiction of Reality, it was Reality pointed in the proper direction.

Somewhere along the way, it began to come to you that you not only could do something similar within the created worlds of the imagination, doing so in actuality gave you a better sense of the available reference points.  At one point during a marching session, adequately prepared in your pre-drill gathering, you understood what Hemingway meant about writing about a thing or place not as description but in terms of what it is.  Your epiphany showed you the importance of not trying to describe a thing or event or person into being but instead of writing about it how and as it existed.

You still recall that day, blasted warm with dry Santana winds, your heavy wool tunic the agent of beads of sweat running down your back and pooling under your cap.  No matter.  You understood one of the great mysteries of dramatic narrative, a now literal and figurative high sophomore, appreciative of the need for a writer to be as oriented within Reality as he was within the landscapes of his own creation.

In the intent and spirit of reliable narration, you were in fact less well oriented within Reality than within your own imagination.  High though you might be at the moment, listening for those bebop nuances to John Philip Sousa marches, you were for long moments that afternoon convinced of the effect of being oriented within your stories and what a freeing sense of discovery this was.

Later, when you discussed this discovery with some friends who were Theater Arts majors, expecting to cause great ripples of excitement among them for your discovery, they in effect showed you another aspect of triangulation and orientation in Reality.  "The process you describe is well known to us and would have been as well known to you if you'd been a Theater Arts major instead of an English Major,"  they said.

They also said the process of which you spoke was known to countless generations of actors, directors, stage managers, and playwrights.  "It is called blocking.  Not football type blocking, you understand, but blocking as in noting on images of the stage, superimposed over graph paper.  From the moment the actor enter the set, he knows where he will stand, what he will do, how and when he will move."

Another one of them asked you if you'd ever seen an actor become lost on a set.  When you said no, she explained how this was no accident.  "Actors may appear lost, but they know where they are supposed to be when they give that appearance."

You could accept that, because you had already decided she was smart as well as talented.  What you could not accept was her observation that Writers pretend to know where they are, but often have no idea of how they got there.  

That stung.  And so you remembered it, these years later.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Take the Reader Where?

The venue is the lower depths of San Pedro, in the Beacon Street/Gaffey Street area, known in unsentimental terms as a tenderloin, famous for two saloons for serious drinkers, merchant seamen, and sailors.  

The saloons are Shanghai Red's, which speaks to the sea, and long, hard drinking bouts, and to your own saloon of choice, Slim Harrison's Bank Cafe which, true to its name, is owned by a man named Siim Harrison, who wore frameless eyeglasses, parted his hair in the middle, and wore starched dress shirts, but no tie.  His bank cafe was in a former bank that he'd been able to purchase after it had failed as a business during the Great Depression.

At the moment you have in mind, you are well on your way to being drunk, thanks to several beers consumed earlier at the home of the man sitting at a table with you, where you are both working on boiler makers and a large bowl of pretzel sticks.  The man, Day Keene, is a writer you much admire, at the moment because he is prolific--a novel a month--and in the months and years to come because the source of his writing abilities, you discover, comes from his time as an actor in an acting troupe.

You are not close friends, but you see him at least once a month at the writer's poker game, which is held at his apartment in Palos Verdes, which is conveniently on the way to San Pedro, and he has introduced you to his agent, Donald MacCampbell, who will not only represent you and get your novels published, you will eventually publish his memoirs.  

Keene has also got his friend Bob Turner to start coming to the writer's poker games and Slim Harrison's.  You will, in the future, be the instrument of publishing Bob's memoir and causing him to be published by Maurice Girodias of the famed Olympia Press.

This is all backstory and future story to a conversation you and Keene are having, the focal exchange of which is you saying to him, "I don't see how getting drunk is any help to a writer," and his countering after a few thoughtful nibbles at some pretzels, "I don't see how getting drunk is any help to you in getting over a breakup with a girlfriend."

"A writer is like a cop who sees the worst side of the human condition more than he sees the bright side.  You have to do something to get all the dark stuff to pack up and go home when you finish a novel.  Getting drunk helps you clean the slate.  Here, you need another shot."

Because he was prolific and wrote for the burgeoning massmarket original novel market, there were those who called Keene a formula writer, but in the realest sense, he was more a dramatic writer than formula because his characters often wanted things they believed they knew better than to expect would be easy to come by.

If knowing character is being formula, you suppose you are, when all is said and done, every bit the formula writer you were at such pains to distance yourself from becoming.  More to the point, you believe, is the growing awareness that Keene was right.  Story that does not take us beyond the comfort zones, into those occasional temptations and actual trespasses into places we said we'd never go, things we said we'd rather die than do, and alliances we swore we'd never make become impossible to avoid.

Then the fun begins.

After we've gone where we said we wouldn't, note how eager we are to get back to that real estate we once considered the moral high ground.  But now, we're different.  We know we gave ground once.  What will that have done to us?

In order to take the reader where the reader does not want to go, the writer has to do some fancy footwork as well.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bookstores, New and Used, Libraries, Branch and Main, Books, Books, Books

For individuals with a marked preference for reading, there is something bordering on the magical to be found in even the most humble and simplistic bookstore or library.  

Of course large, well-stocked bookstores and enormous libraries carry the magical aspects well along the way to the transcendental.  They are not bound by shelf and space limitations; they can carry books reaching back into times well past the current publishing season and the reach you've become accustomed to in your association with publishers.

More than once, you've gone to a bookstore or library when your inner life was at a bit of a nervous churn, in which you wrestled with a simple basic of wanting to encounter the one book that would solve your inner unrest.  More than once, the bookstore or library provided the distraction of discovery in which there were two or three or even four books promising to solve existential and emotional problems along with those of general unrest and malaise.

Thus began your lifelong association with both, first as a mere, awed reader seeking answers, then as a mere awed writer/adult, seeking answers, later, still as a place where a pilgrim could go when the inner churn was making strange noises.

The first library of significance for you stands today, across the street from the school you did not go to, Los Angeles High School, on a one- or two block side street called Mullen Avenue.  Being able to take yourself there, on your own bicycle, was your first memorable sense of being out in the world, to some degree in control of your destiny.  

As such, the Mullen Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library was of a nature of your first love. The romantic name of the Not even the great, towering vaults of the UCLA Powell Library could make you forget it, nor the British Library where, if you stood quietly, you imagined you could hear the poets and essayists and novelists you grew up reading in the bookstores and libraries of your adventures.

Your association with bookstores is not complete without your tribute to the used bookstores you pursued, beginning at about age eighteen and extending well into present times.  Your quests have changed over the years, moving along from anthologies, collections of short stories and essays by multiple authors, into the adventure, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy magazines printed on the rough, untreated paper called pulp.

True enough, you spent considerable time in pool halls, trying to master the sweet geometric physics of the pool, billiards, and snooker tables, practicing to achieve a breakthrough in vision and ability that would allow you a sense of mastery.  But you accomplished no such mastery, and perhaps that was because you had the interest for it, but not the hunger.  You spent more time in used bookstores, trying to educate yourself, then trying to find ways to a measure of mastery, because you recognized the hunger for that kind of mastery.

Tonight, you are standing in one of your favorite bookstores, a place where you often come to browse with no particular goal in mind, although you have, in fact, spent considerable sums on books as well.  You are here for the signing of a book you edited, and when you make eye contact with the author, some smiles, mouths the words to you, "I owe you a pie."

The publisher of the book is also here.  He happens to have published two of your books and is pressing you for two more, which gets you to thinking in that magical kind of way of a number of books you are pressing yourself to write,  As well, you see books you wish to read, in fact, feel you need to read.

As you begin looking for one such title, a senior clerk bumps into you.  "I was just thinking of you, earlier this evening when I was shelving a new book about Christopher Isherwood, in which he speaks of the time you drove him back home to Santa Monica after a speaking engagement here." Another clerk happens on the two of you.  "I can't believe,"  she says, "you haven't had a book signing here."  At which point, your publisher appears, thrusting a plate of cookies and grapes at you.  "It's settled," he announces. "You're scheduled."

A few minutes later, your literary agent appears, looking with emphasis at her watch.  "You'd have at least two, maybe three more hours of writing time, if you left now,"  she says.

It all seems to friendly, so right, so comfortable.  "A few more minutes,"  you tell your agent. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Chicago Cubs Approach to Story Telling

"Down these means streets," the splendid mystery writer, Raymond Chandler, wrote, "a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid... He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world."

You believe this to be a pretty good definition.  Since you've read all of Chandler more than once over the years, this definition has to some significant degree influenced your own vision of the protagonist/hero to the point where you have given realistic effort to incorporating your vision of his hero into your own inner and outer behavior.  

In fairness and in mitigation, you have tried to build in some of your own, over-the-top qualities which you recognize even as they begin to make themselves known in a situation, and in a real sense take over from the more temperate, moderate you.

You are not temperate and moderate most of them time, nor are you mean.  Perhaps some traces of tarnish not yet buffed away, nor, as was your wont in earlier times, fearful to the point where you are frozen into action.

The mean streets down which you ply are often nothing more than Santa Barbara traffic jams, which, in comparison to Los Angeles traffic jams are teen age acne to a hard-drinking adult's acne rosacea. Nevertheless it pleases you to see these Santa Barbara streets as mean in the sense of potential adventure-needs-solving challenge, thus do you even when not concocting story pretend yourself to be of a Joseph Campbell heroic sort, on a journey, even if the journey is to a coffee shop whereupon to read or compose a page or two on a note pad.

This is in recognition of you being late middle aged knight errant, arm wrestling with the inner suspicion that you might instead be that other middle aged knight errant of La Mancha.  To bend the metaphor to your own pleasure as you pursue your mean streets, you do so not with a lance but a fountain pen.  

True enough, you're accompanied by Sancho Panza, but your Sancho is no mere factotum, he is your inner guide, whispering to you of your excesses whenever you stray too far from the thin line within your own mind of an individual on a genuine heroic journey and a pompous ideologue with an inflated ego, funny not by his own design but rather by his seriousness of intent and behavior.

Against the persons who are not mean nor tarnished nor afraid are the men, women, and young persons who are present because their own purpose and agenda runs counter to your own creations.  And by this stage of the game, for you to propose that you are anything less than your own creation is to deny a vein of responsibility you have come to recognize over the years as one of the celestial bodies by which you may track your inner and outer directions.

Protagonist:  He or she who, in the quest for information or goal, causes things to happen that effect others.  Antagonist:  He or she or they who oppose the goals of the protagonist and some if not all the ramifications of the consequences caused by the protagonist's desires or quests.

Whatever the protagonist shall be, even though he be you to some measurable degree, the antagonist must be brighter, with equal or greater abilities than the protagonist.  Neither of the two types are passive, for story will not allow passivity at this level.  As a stark-but-simple example of this observation, Melville's iconic scrivener, Bartleby, of whom the question, Is he a passive character? is a trick question.

The Antagonist or adversary presence in story is best served by making that character brighter, more spontaneous in humor, quicker on the uptake.  Making such an individual evil for the sake of evilness is to undermine the confrontational aspects of the story by making it seem artificial.  If in fact we are to win because of our wits or our strength of body or a combination of the two, there is no real contest of the Protagonist is favored by the gods from the beginning.

Your own moments of enjoyment come when, as you read, you have not only begun to wonder how the protagonist can possibly gain anything from the tumble of events protagonists often cause, you may have even begun to question which party you have found yourself sympathizing with.

To give the matter a sports metaphor, the protagonist could well be a Chicago Cubs player with a desire bordering on desperation to earn a World Series ring, entering an inter-league game against the New York Yankees.  This at once gives the reader a sense of what might be, were the Cubs to win the National League pennant, then on to play against one of the historical icons of World Series play.  We begin this story with the subtext knowledge of the Cubs ongoing, heartbreaking ways of losing.

There is more to the matter than saying the Protagonist is good because we empathize with and root for his or her goals, or that the Antagonist is evil personified, turning any particular story into a fable or sermon when it could well have remained a story.  We as readers are better served if we are not always filled with absolute certainty who the Protagonist is and which character is the Antagonist.  Might it not, in fact, be that we've got them reversed?

Now, we are getting somewhere.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Death Is Easy, Endings Are Difficult

Beginnings can be troublesome.  You have to get someone recognizable in a face-to-face confrontation with a decision or a notable lack of patience, driving that person over the edge of patience.  

Problematic as beginnings can be, they are still easy in comparison to middles, where, once again, a number of details must appear to be raining down on that protagonist someone, closing alleyways of potential escape, alienating possible allies, and without any notion of doing so, causing others to step forth in opposition.  

Somewhere, wired into the human condition, was an awareness of these beginnings and middles of story that observers from the more distant past, such as Aristotle, could see and classify these paths for story to take.  

Writing in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen could write all she wished about how "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," because she knew it was no such thing, therefore readers of her time were already intrigued to see the mischief that came from the resulting irony.

The real truth is that the sooner a beginning comes to terms with such mischief of logic and attitude, the more likely we are to settle in to watch the mischief we have been hard-wired to accept, well before the times when neurologists and structural engineers even had the vision much less the vocabulary for being hard wired.  

We don't want explanations for the beginning, not yet.  Not until we see it in action and we are able to see the additional effects the beginning has on the person who causes it or on whom it is afflicted.

The Book of Job has a shrewd enough beginning, in that two seeming peers are discussing an individual who has yet to make his appearance.  One of the peers may merely be confident of his own powers, or he may be leaning toward hubris.  Whatever we think, we are inclined to believe Job is about as in for it as any character we've read of before or after.  Even if you do not like the genre, you are aware that Job is on his way to some serious trial and tribulation.

The ideal spot for the middle is the place where the character from the beginning becomes aware that things would have a difficult time being worse.  By now, he'll have experienced considerable loss, not the least of which is his confidence.  The onion of his being is peeled.  We see the layers of ego, tossed aside like the used condoms we stumble upon from time to time in places  individuals before us have considered romantic enough to commemorate it.

The place or position has been given the name Rock Bottom, also a possible candidate for hard-wiring because it is almost as if we know with inner certainty that what seems at first like the Rock Bottom elevator has a basement level to it.  When that comes, we are at the middle or, as you enjoy calling it, The Muddle.

Shrewd writers understand that they must use their ingenuity to make the middle profound.  The slightest hint of holding back will cause an editor to put the manuscript down, the reader to toss the book aside.

There you are, at the middle ground, arrived at a state that took you beyond your own comfort zone, all in the service of providing a provocative and plausible answer from your own library of events that came after you thought you were at Rock Bottom.

From this, you hope to construct an ending that represents some kind of plausible way out of Rock Bottom and to some semblance of a higher floor.  Can't be too high, lest the reader feel the ending is manipulated in the service of some philosophical jargon or outright impossibility.

You like the concept of the negotiated settlement a character makes with The Cosmos, The Fates, or whatever way of looking at those two conniving forces in The Book of Job.  Certainly not Job, himself, although it would be a challenge to do a sequel in which he is the protagonist.  He'd have a good deal to answer for from at least two opposing points of view about his behavior in Book One.

Endings are challenges for individuals in all strata of life, bringing questions at every turn.  Is the character who achieves in exact measure the pursued goal assured of happiness or even moments of comfort or satisfaction?  Jack London came close to expressing the problem, as you see it, in his short story, "A Loss of Face," which has the ironic ending of the protagonist, by his own guile and shrewdness, being beheaded by a sharp axe, rather than being flayed and tortured.  And his executioner is, in the process, revealed as having been taken by the protagonist.

The difficulty with endings may well be the reason why you are so fond of the short story, where, by your vision, the ending is not the solution to a problem as much as it is the revelation of one.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Revenge of the Network People

 Some many years back, when you were actually an active member of The Writers' Guild and financing a VW Bug with a FM radio some of your friends considered a decadency, in attempts to improve your status in terms of jobs, you found yourself in the office of a producer you quickly began to dislike.  

The reason for the dislike was multifarious, but centered on his reaction to--and you still recall this--Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and Sir Walter Scott, each of whom he dismissed with a "Fuck him. And then he said something that made you realize all the more you were in the wrong office.  "Those,"  he said, "are the only writers I can think of."

"Shakespeare,"  you said.  And he said, "Right.  Fuck him, too."

Over the years, you've found yourself in the office of various department chairpersons at various universities, more often than not reminded of the producer of your earlier paragraphs, the producer you'd begun to dislike. Nevertheless you learned something that day, something you've carried with you, building on, something you now, in retrospect, hope you knew on some sub-surface level, reminding you over the years not to ignore the potential for learning things from persons you do not care for.

You were describing a project you wished to write.  You'd set the producer off by mentioning Robert Louis Stevenson's portrayal of the betrayal of Jim Hawkins, the young protagonist of Treasure Island.  Thus delivered of his invective against the only other writers he knew, and of Shakespeare, he turned his attention back on you to ask of one of your characters, "What does he want?"

For a long, painful moment, you had no answer.  Producers at that level and department chairpersons at that approximate level enjoy such silences, seeing them as opportunities to lecture further.  "You have to fucking know what he wants so the network people can see it.  You can't have characters lurking around, you understand me?  Network people don't like characters who fucking lurk."

In your brief fling with TV, you had little  direct contact with Network People, although persons close to you did, their stories making you ever more aware your destiny awaited you on the printed page.  

In the world of publishing, you've never heard anyone dis Robert Louis Stevenson, much less Shakespeare.  To be sure, there are similarities between sales persons and Network People, but in your dealings with sales people in publishing, you were associating with individuals who enjoyed reading and who knew their way around a list of writers.

Desire is a basic element of story and certainly influences such narrative as biography, memoir, and essay.  Even though this awareness reminds you of that producer--who had the unnerving habit of making notes on the back of his hand with a ballpoint pen--you have processed the information into a series of related questions about every character who comes your way, whether the character be from a book or short story, material of your own composition, a book you've been given to edit, or material to read as submitted by a student.

Who is the character?

What does the character want?

Why does the character want the object of desire right now?

What is the character willing to do to achieve the desired goal?

How will achieving the goal effect the character?

Have you given any thought to how the character might react if, after having achieved the goal, buyer's remorse has set in?

You knew what the producer wanted, which was to please the Network People.  Doing so would give the producer the means to sustain a position of some power and maintain a lifestyle agreeable to him.  At one time in your life, a dear friend lived next door to a producer several ranks above your producer, and in this producer's voluble discussions and arguments with his wife, you were reminded of your days with a massmarket publisher, where, however you chose to regard it, you were skirting the landscape of the Network People.  You understood how story works at that Network/massmarket level, and you knew it would not be worth the consequences your dear friend's neighbor had in his work day and his discussions with his wife.

Your object of desire became forged in the shadows of those experiences.  Last year, in a meeting of a faculty curriculum committee, you listened to discussion about the offering of a course on Chaucer.  There was a long silence during which you were waiting with apprehension of hearing the academic equivalent of "Fuck Chaucer."

To your immense relief, there was no such event, but in the silence, you heard yourself volunteer to teach such a course.  This was followed by another long silence, while a group of men and women turned to look at you.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Your Choice of Choices

Among the dramatic terms most often associated with story, conflict, misadventure or reversal are the most likely candidates to emerge first, followed by such delicacies as agenda, suspense, and betrayal.  To extend an unlikely metaphorical similarity between story and, of all things, professional athletics, we can observe that the concept of choice is not a first round draft choice.

And yet.

Beyond the classic choice extended to characters, "You're either with us or against us," there are two iconic choices, named after characters.  From a chronological perspective, a Hobson's choice reaches back to the late 1500s, said to have come from a livery stable run by, you guessed it, a man named Hobson.  To his customers, he is reported to have said, "You can take that horse by the door or no horse at all."  Hobson's choice seems open-ended until the alternative, which is of choice.  A Hobson's choice is this one particular thing or nothing.  We don't send out for Chinese or pizza.  We send out for Chinese or we don't get dinner.

The excellent writer, William Styron's 1979 novel, Sophie's Choice, gave us the other eponymous condition in which the protagonist of that wrenching novel is forced to chose between two unbearable options.  As the novel progresses, we are aware of yet another choice awaiting Sophie, cringing as we read on, aware, as surely she must be aware, of how that awful first Sophie's choice has marked her life.

Before Sophie, there was the dilemma, which meant being presented with a pair of choices of equal awfulness or disagreeable outcome.  From about the eighteenth century onward until the present, literature is filled with individuals, faced with the dilemma of choosing what seems to be the least worst of two opportunities, and from the earliest reaches of story, we are used to the plight of individuals who find themselves in positions they cannot seem to avoid, where their welfare is at balance on a fulcrum of choice.

Now, there is Sophie Zawistowska, who is Styron's choice, and the generic phalanxes of choice seen to advance on most women in various stations of their life.  Styron's Sophie will live through the other wrenching choices placed on other women.  Better still, in future works, choices which may not seem to be all that great a wrench will be set in motion with such deftness--say the narrator of the newest Toni Morrison novel, God Help the Child, and her response to the intense blackness of her newly born child--that the reader will experience the moral wrench of the circumstances of the choice the narrator has made and simultaneously rejected.

Another famed choice involving two characters named Vladimir and Estragon connects to a name that, on reflection, involves choice.  They do not have to wait for Godot.  Or do they?  Watching them is a tricky business in which each of us brings a potential choice.  

When you first saw Waiting for Godot, your significant emotion was impatience, until you realized the possibility that this remarkable writer may well have intended that precise response from most of those who watched the play.  Or perhaps his intention was something else.  But you had the choice of how you were going to respond.  And you took it..

To slip into another metaphor, Choice is the speed bump of story, arriving at the least convenient times, when one or more characters has contrived circumstances to suit her agenda, causing the characters and readers to literally and figuratively suffer the interruption while we wait to see how the characters will cope with this newest attack on smooth road.

Yet another metaphor here, in particular because of the ongoing conversation about the decay of the infrastructure.  A smooth surface for the street is fine for the city but not for story.  The infrastructure of drama needs cracks in the pavement, sink holes, and leaky fire hydrants.

When you want to squeeze the moral juice from a scene, give one or more of your characters a choice to make.  The choices may be quite earnest or stem, as so many things in Reality do, from purest of whim.  In some ways, the former will not emerge seeming as serious as the latter, leaving the reader or viewer to make the all-important choice.

The reader has the choice of putting the book down, never to return.  You have the choice of playing it safe, taking detours to spare the reader and yourself any bumps, but you know the kinds of trouble that will get you in, don't you?  That's called a catch-22.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Life on and off the Page

There are times when novels you've read or dramas you've watched make such an impression on you that you can't let the characters go.  You in effect imagine them in scenes and situations beyond the vehicle in which they appeared.  

The last two seasons of the TV series, Justified, often left you with the uneasy sensation of watching skilled actors performing rather than deep characters behaving.  That said, you appreciated the efforts in the final episode, with one exception.  You wanted the character Raylan Givens to find a lasting relationship with the character Ava Crowder.  Thus, in your mind, you can see him, one day soon, driving back to her remote ranch house dwelling near Gorman, and asking what's for dinner, perhaps even bringing a pizza along, just in case.

What you've done here, with a well-regarded TV series, bears a close equivalence with a genre called fan fiction, in which the fans of book or dramatic series write their own adventures and cast their own outcomes to materials over which they have no thought of ownership or creative participation, but do have a respect for and love of a concept you've begun calling "life off the page."

You were a "writer for hire" on three occasions where you were signed to write three novels for the Nick Carter series, knowing the series carried no by-line, knowing also you were grateful for the pay, and even more amused by the fact of turning the department chair of a program at which you taught into a super spy who gave messages to operatives at AWP Conventions and poetry readings.  What fun it was to turn this blue-collar James Bond character into a person who had life off his series pages and into a denizen of your own landscapes and agendas.

As a concept, life off the page has a profound importance to you, as a reader and also as a writer.  Difficult to tell when you first met the Dickens-era writer, Wilkie Collins, but say it was around the time you were studying Dickens with a significant Dickens scholar, Ada Nesbitt (1907-94), which would have you in your early twenties.  Thus Collins's great villain from The Woman in White, Count Fosco, has been with you, on and off the page, the greater part of your life, influencing your judgment of the villains of other writers as well as exerting standards and qualities you attribute to your own antagonists.

To start naming others from the protagonist and antagonist pools would lead to laundry list, but to nod in recognition to their general effect leads you to a previously unarticulated goal.  You've always striven to create memorable characters and memorable situations, those two abstractions of character and situation growing in some tangible pace with your own awareness of the world about you and such inner workings of the Self as you are able to identify.  At the same time, perhaps without even noticing, you are working toward individuals who will return to your imagination with plights, problems, and projections they need your help in solving.

As relatively little in the way of facts you know about the original Globe Theater, you know it was plain, spare, almost devoid of such thing as sets or scenery.  You know it was the content of the plays and the characters who performed them that led the audience to see props and settings as well as story.  You know that so far as your own imagination is concerned, you have the equivalent of a Globe Theater in your head.  The characters you create come to this theatre for their auditions, whereupon you collaborate with them in fitting out landscapes, speech and dress styles, mannerisms, and goals.

In the most practical sense, characters must be created then rehearsed in this interior Globe Theater first, in improvised rehearsals, before they can be transferred to more distinct settings in more distinct stories.

Small wonder then that these thoughts of the Globe Theater remind you of the opening of Hamlet, where the guards, about to change their watch, speak of the apparition:

Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,

He may approve our eyes and speak to it.

In this case, the apparition is the ghost of King Hamlet.  Walking about the battlements of your Globe Theater are the ghosts of characters from your reading and your own work, wishing recognition and placement, eager to be out of the shadows for a long cup of coffee or walk with you, where they can work their wiles on you to get some suggestions related to how they should best go about their purposes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Some Notes on Story, Bullfighting, and Comfort Zones

Let us begin with the extreme example of a bull raised in a heritage of fighting bulls, bred for a special day in the bull ring.  Such an animal has been raised in a pampered life.  Until his big day in the bull ring, he has never seen a human who was not mounted on a horse.  

As the fighting bull acclimates to the arena in which his life will play out to a conclusion, he sees a sight spared him for most of his life, men on foot, posturing, presenting themselves as a target.

Among his other traits, the bull has been bred to have sharp reflexes, to find it irresistible to charge at anything that moves.  Within the next half hour or so, the bull will encounter a good deal of frustration, lunging at men waving capes that seem to cause him to turn in arcs shorter than his body length.  On occasion, he is able to make contact with a horse, but even then, there is the distraction of him receiving sharp jabs of a lance in his shoulder muscles.  His immediate future is filled with urges orchestrated by hard wired reflexes and the desire to make contact with something tangible.

Small wonder than that this fighting animal, frustrated, wounded, undoubtedly running on adrenaline, will pick places within the arena area of the bull ring where he will feel safe.  Safer than when he is in other areas.  These comfort zones are called querencias.  

The shrewder bullfighters know the importance of trying to draw the bull out of his comfort zone, where he will be more manageable.  To add extra weight to this particular use of fighting bull as metaphor, some matadors will take the more risky measure of trespass in the bull's comfort area to maneuver with the bull therein.

Comfort zones exist as metaphor and literal entity for persons and for characters.  To extend the bullfighting metaphor, sometimes authors become the equivalent of a matador, maneuvering and frustrating characters within a story, luring them away from their comfort zones, forcing them to face the point where they must do something well beyond their stated boundary:  killing, betraying, maiming, in one way or another seducing or undermining.

To the lifelong reader, such behavior is an accepted aspect of storytelling to the point where many of us consider a character who has stepped out of her or his comfort zone to have been put into the crucible of existential anguish, with the flame turned to high.  If the character survives this trial, she or he emerges forever changed, forged, as it were, into something harder and at the same time more resilient, better able to withstand the same frustrations and ritual wounding that will lead the fighting bull to his death.

So much for the bull and characters and their dramatic relationships to the comfort zone; the most significant participant of all in this drama is the writer, who has psychological reasons for seeking the author's querencia, but overriding dramatic reasons for avoiding it.

A major risk for the writer who remains finds and remains in a comfort zone is the outcome of safety.  This outcome extends to the choice and depiction of characters, the needs they acknowledge, and the degree to which they are willing to take risk.  The outcome also increases the chances of the writer drawing on the same solutions for newer problems as those assigned to prior ones.  

A writer in a comfort zone becomes a guarantee of a writer with a higher center of gravity and a more predictable horizon. The main risk for such a writer is the risk of becoming derivative, not of another writer, which is serious enough, but of him or herself.

In the simplest of terms, the writer who is able to forgo comfort, able to find satisfaction if not pleasure in trespassing beyond the boundaries of comfort, is the writer who will return from the venture with some sense of having been somewhere worth the trip.

One of the two or three basic templates for story is the hero's journey, the man, woman, or child who sets off on a journey not merely to get away from the confines of a place but to reach the outskirts of a more welcoming and meaningful place, then to bring news of that place back to friends and family.

As one of your cherished mentors reminded you, writers are like Mars probes, sent out into the unfathomable beyond in order to report back with photos, samples, and reports.  In its way, the journey of exploration within is every bit as fraught with risk as the  journey beyond our own planet, through the wrinkles and warps of time, space, and causality.

The writer who writes beyond understanding, hopeful of discovery, is the Mars Explorer equivalent. With each venture, we gather in eager anticipation for the result.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Accidents Will Happen, Unless They Don't

Two friends meet without having made previous plans to do so.  Energized by the coincidence, they decide to celebrate over--fill in your choice--coffee, ale, or a cocktail.  Perhaps even lunch.  Later, each categorizes the meeting as pleasant happenstance.

Two automobiles meet in an intersection, also without previous plans.  Neither driver is pleased with the result, nor, in fact, are their respective insurance coverers.  No question this meeting will be classified as an accident.

In the same spirit of unplanned event, the convention-shattering watercolorist, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), in all probability, at least once, caused a brush overloaded with color to meet with a paper surface, whereupon the color would run beyond Turner's expectations, causing him to execute an unplanned maneuver or risk losing the work under construction.  He'd have had to act quickly, because the nature of watercolor requires quick, bold movements.  

In his response, Turner would have turned the potential of accident into a bright flash of creative daring-do and visual wonder, by all accounts a pleasing, creative happenstance. Spend some time considering how accidents have led to breakthrough in thought, understanding, and technique, in art, science, and dramatic narrative.

And what about this for unplanned:  two individuals, each enrolled in the same, large lecture class at a university, unknown to one another at the time, meet later in life.  During the course of their romantic exchanges of background and information, discover they'd actually spent an entire semester together, back then.  

A pleasant coincidence?  Yes.  An accident?  Yes.  Also, such an event introduces another element to accident, the notion of destiny, as in it was destined or fated to happen.  This element adds to the importance of accident in art and drama because of the way it implicates the point of view of the observer.  A character in a play, novel, or short story could be suspected of having caused an accident with an end result motive in mind.

Accident often implies a negative result, but by its very nature, accident also embodies surprise.  By no means are all surprises unpleasant.  Surprise also dances about the definition of unplanned results, a man, say, tasting a scoop of vanilla ice cream offered to him in the belief he prefers it to, say, chocolate or pistachio, discovering an unexpected texture and richness of flavor.

Another potential for accident to enter a manuscript comes when you find yourself "listening" to a character, who wishes to do something you'd not planned for that character, or who wishes to have a thing or get rid of a thing you'd not anticipated, causing the focus of the narrative to change, quite often to the point of adding more energy, frivolity, and believability to the proceedings.

Aristotle may well have argued back in his treatise on story, Poetics, that accidents can increase the burdens and complications of the circumstances in which a character finds himself, but they should not lead to the solution the lead character seeks, because that would be cheating. 

Remember, this was at the time when it was common to believe that the gods intervened to help out mortals they favored or to make matters worse for mortals whom they felt had dissed them.

Thus Sisyphus, your old rock-pushing standby,can have his eternal punishment enhanced by the fact of the rock rolling over his foot, causing the foot severe trauma.  But Sisyphus's plight cannot be assuaged by an accident such as Zeus discovering he'd given Sisyphus the wrong sentence.

There are accidents of birth in the sense of one having been born to a particular class or status, while more than one individual has had to live with the discovery that her birth was a result of an accidental pregnancy. It is possible to be accident-prone.  

You could argue that your philosophy, particularly with short stories, is to keep at the narrative until you accidentally do something that will produce an unplanned path.  Or as Lawrence "Yogi" Berra famously said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

It would be a mistake not to follow.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Fourth Wall: "Little Does She Know..."

When you are seated in a theater, waiting for that magical moment when the lights dim, the curtain opens, and the transformation begins where you see a setting, possibly with characters in place or doing things, you have taken on a part of the magic of drama.  You are at once an eavesdropper, outside the events, yet able to see them, and you are inside, checking out the props to see if they are real and offer any clues.

You are separated by an imaginary barrier called "the fourth wall," the boundary between you and character.  Even though you have imagined touching, you are not supposed to.  Nor, to extend the doctrine of fairness, can the characters show any awareness of you.  To do so, the tradition goes, is to spoil the entire illusion of story.  

A good part of the illusion, to give an extreme example of it, would be you in some high school auditorium, watching a performance of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.  You may have seen several other performances of each play, may, in fact, have seen them at The Globe Theater.  No matter.  For the moment, you are seeing the "real" characters, bringing the "real" story to life.

The Fourth wall applies as well to filmed versions of dramas.  You are watching the story, the characters are in a figurative sense trapped behind the fourth wall of film or the digital medium, its invisibility allowing you, as audience, to establish a chemistry with the characters as they ply the labyrinth of the story.

On occasion, you'll see a play or film in which one or more characters breaks the fourth wall, making direct contact you as audience.  The Stage Manager, a character in Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, breaks the fourth wall, in his way drawing himself even closer to us and at the same time strengthening the possible metaphor that life is a play.

Woody Allen has a character in a film break the fourth wall by stepping right out of the film to make contact with someone in the audience.  Kevin Spacey, in the current TV drama House of Cards, with some frequency breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to us,in some cases even to the point of telling us what he will do next.

These examples and others like them are done with some deliberation on the part of the author, where some effect or narrative style wins the battle of the convention of the inviolate nature of the fourth wall.

There is a similar convention in fiction.  Samuel Richardson and Daniel DeFoe, who may be argued to be among the first of the English novelists, soon realized they trod a narrow cusp in their narratives, which were first considered to be accounts of actual events--see Pamela, Moll Flanders, and Robinson Crusoe.  Their authors had other technical matters, more related to actual places and events, to concern themselves with than any aspect of fourth wall.  

Both were born in the later 1600s, staying at least through the first third of the 1700s,  A third writer of that time, Henry Fielding, came along in the early 1700s.  Unlike DeFoe and Richardson, he openly employed trespass of the fourth wall, which is to say he was one of the first of the print medium story tellers who had no qualms about addressing the reader, often to great comic effect.

Another writer who came along a few years after Fielding, Laurence Sterne, expanded on breaking the fourth wall in his most famous work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,in such mischievous and appealing ways that his influence may still be felt among twenty-first century writers.

Examples of fourth well trespass are easily found in the nineteenth century author, Henry James, even while he was in the process of pushing narrative to allow the reader access to the inner psychology and subconscious of his characters.  The twentieth century author, Aldous Huxley, bears some comparison with Henry Fielding in his frequent, often mordant addresses to the reader.

You believe the contemporary reader is not so much resistant to being spoken to as selective of the source.  The modern reader, you believe, is more likely to believe information coming from a character than an author.  Even unreliable narrators are given greater leeway than the author, however reliable she or he might sound.

The more accomplished among producing authors today are spoken of for such traits as their lyricism, their mordant wit, their pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and their ability to keep us well concentrated on story in spite of potential anomalies.  They are also spoken of in relation to their optimism or pessimism, but it is rare for an author to be thought of as reliable or unreliable, even though she or he may bring forth any number of characters whose reliability is open to question.

You are as reliable as the characters living within you.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Borders of Taboo: Your Dark Side and You

From time to time over your years of teaching at the university undergraduate or graduate levels, you've been asked by students for letters of recommendation they might submit along with their application, either to a graduate school or to yet a higher plateau of graduate school.

You've also been asked for recommendations to potential employers, for blurbs to books. recommendations to literary agents and publishers, and to such scholarship-granting entities as the Guggenheim Foundation.  In turn, you have yourself applied for recommendations, all of which causes you to understand how in such large measure, recommendations are a part of your life.

In the book reviews and critical essays you've written, which are, after all, little more than in-print letters of recommendation, you've voiced positive opinions of narrators and their authors, although there have been times when your opinions were less than recommendations, which, of course, led to consequences.

In one notable instance, you were motivated to write a brief essay about a character you've long admired, learned a great deal from, and wish you had invented.  Among the many hundreds of memorable characters you've encountered, this one now has appeared to you in dreams more than once..It a is no exaggeration to say that within the last ten years or so, the day is rare when you don't think of him.

A part of your tribute to this character includes your recommendation for his election to the Character Hall of Fame or, better yet, the sainthood of being the patron saint of characters.  Of all the many characters you know and admire, he is the only one who has never appeared in a book or short story.  He is, of course, Wile E. Coyote.

Another character you'd be thrilled to recommend for either role, Character Hall of Fame or sainthood, would be your favorite villain, Count Isidore Ottavio Baldassore Fosco, an individual you consider from time to time ever since having read Wilkie Collins's 1860 novel, The Woman in White, a novel that contains yet another character of particular stature, herself a worthy candidate for the Character Hall of Fame, Mariam Halcombe, half-sister to the female lead, Laura Fairlie.  

Count Fosco, as his name suggests, is Italian; he is also overweight, conniving, manipulative, and quite intrigued by the potentials of criminal activity.  Inordinately fond of small animals, through much of The Woman in White,  he affects a brocade vest, in a pocket of which he keeps a pet mouse, taking it out from time to time to stroke its head or feed it a tidbit or delicacy.  Count Fosco was surely a role model for Dashiell Hammett's arch villain, Caspar Gutman, in The Maltese Falcon.

With these favorites of yours out for admiration, you feel the expansive temptation to add novels by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens in order to bring two favored first-person narrators forth to join the candidate list for Character Hall of Fame, plus the fact that these two novels, Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations each has powerful supporting casts, but you will resist that temptation in favor of the observation that informs this essay.  

One great character in a novel is the equivalent of letting the genie out of the bottle.  Yes, that genie, and that bottle. Strong, motivated, inner-directed characters force the supporting cast to rise above their station or, if you will, they are the equivalent of the numerous eighteen-wheeler trucks that ply I-40, pulling along many a VW Bug in their slipstream.  They are dramatic forces to be reckoned with.

The reckoning begins with the writer's need to understand the imperative to consult his or her dark side, lest all the characters in a narrative sound alike, speak alike, and have similar agendas.  The ideal host or hostess plans a seating arrangement of guests with the notion of entertaining and engaging discourse in mind.  The writer needs to use the opposite approach, seating a perfervid vegan next to an individual who likes his roast rare, an arch conservative next to a left-leaning activist.

Your own ideas related to your own dark side involve codes of behavior, activities, and experiences you've gone out of your way not to breach, or times when you have trespassed on your own borders of taboo.  Stories are not about persons who get along, they are about individuals who try to find ways to accommodate their own dark sides and the contrary devises of others they are forced to deal with.  An individual who borrows from a loan shark must be desperate enough in story to do so rather than dumb enough.  By the same token, the loan shark in a story must have a weakness or need that a loan shark in reality is inoculated against.

An improbable-but-useful analogy is a traveling theatrical ensemble, say six men and six women, each of whom is aware of being inhabited by an inner Dr. Jekyll and an inner Mr. Hyde.  Their repertoire is chosen to trigger the maximum inner conflict on each member of the group, leading to uncontrollable responses when each begins to prepare for a new role.

Rumor has it that the fine actress, Vivien Leigh, herself no stranger to rehab facilities and sanitoria, was able to project such great waves of vulnerability in her role of Blanche Dubois (A Streetcar Named Desire) because the dark side vulnerability of the character pressed so many of her own buttons.

Good writing is not easy, nor is good reading.  Each involves catching tourist-class conveyances to places beyond our comfort zones, with crying babies in seats behind us, kicking and yowling and their harassed mothers, trying to shush them.  Individuals who claim reading and writing should be fun and easy are not good role models for basing characters, nor are they much work writing about.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Blog

What does the "tell" in I'll tell you a story, mean?

For most practical and most modern purposes, "tell" means what happens when one or more individuals step forth with the equivalent of "A funny thing happened to me on my way to work today."

For an individual to say the equivalent of that, such as, "You'll never guess who I saw today," the result is the same as a hypnotist telling us to close our eyes because our lids are growing heavy, or for a shaman to relate and then translate some vision she or he has seen.

In a seamless transition from the critical point of attracting our attention, the narrator character or characters yanks us back in time to the moment they first became aware of being in an out-of-the-ordinary situation.

Our curiosity to learn more about the "funny thing" or the who the narrator saw will make us complicit in one of the oldest conspiracies known to humankind, the shift from the immediate present to the imaginative place where story, already begun, now expands before the reader's sensitivity, beckoning the reader to come closer, closer to the heart of the story.

When we are thus complicit, we are on the high wire of belief, much like those fabled tight-rope walkers who stride their way from one point to another, over some gaping chasm.  Such things as a gust of wind, a darting bird, or some momentary loss of balance make the tight-rope walker vulnerable to a degree of aching discomfort to the viewer.  

In similar fashion, a single word, either added or neglected, can cause the story teller to tumble, just as the wind or bird or slip can doom the aerialist. The single wrong note reminds us we are being fed information we may already know or which we have no interest in knowing.

Like so much in dramatic narrative, "I will tell you a story" has evolved over the years of story being told, moving beyond such transformative introductions as "Once upon a time--" or "In a city far off on the other side of the world, there lived a man named John, who--".  Hearing such beginnings now still has the power to enchant us, but even as we shift into the opiate enchantment of story, we recognize we are being given a story from the past, told in the manner of the old ones, possibly from so far back in time that there was no written language to capture it.

The storyteller was a respected person, part actor, part shaman, or perhaps a group of storytellers, such as the chorus who presented the setup for the ancient Greek dramas..  Perhaps the chorus was reduced to one person, wearing a modern day duffel coat, to introduce to an audience the 1989 version of the Shakespeare play, Henry V.  That "chorus" was the distinguished actor, Sir Derek Jacobi, asking the audience to accept Kenneth Branagh as Henry and to imagine the minimalist stage of the Globe Theater, where the play was first presented, as the fields of France.

We are used to and grateful in our acceptance of a significant presence, "telling" us a story, particularly if the story is a play or film.  Thanks to the proliferation of film and TV drama, we are also aware of stories beginning with no setup, only characters at work, doing intriguing things, conveying the same, primal sense of activity we got as youngsters, picking up large rocks after rain storms had completed their course, then watching the scurry of bug activity.

Today, fifteen percent of the way into the twenty-first century, stories tend to begin with a character speaking directly to us, told in such a way that we feel we are experiencing the events of the story as the person relating it is sensing.  Or perhaps we hear from more than one individual, each giving us accounts of the same incident, leaving us to decide which character saw events the same way we as readers saw them.  

Still another possibility, that narrative approach sometimes called independent discourse or even free independent discourse, where a character is presented to us as a he or she, instead of the I, allowing us to eavesdrop on his or her experiences while going through the maze of events that comprise story.

Wonderful as story has been all along, these newer approaches make us sense something more immediate and close to the characters who are involved with them.  And in a real sense, we are.  Modern story grows less and less descriptive by degree and in consequence more evocative.  When we see settings and feelings having direct effects on characters, we are more likely to add our own judgement and interpretation.  We've always empathized with our favored characters.  

Even though most of us have come upon Samuel Richardson's still-in-print novel, Pamela, more than two hundred years after its publication, we are as amused by the thought of outraged readers when they learned it was fiction.  We may laugh at those innocent readers because we understand the difference between fiction and reality, but for those of us readers of Richardson who also wish to tell tales, there is that connection with Pamela of empathy.  We can't expect the outrage of readers feeling deceived by the discovery that there was no real Pamela, but we can strive for ways to cause the reader to believe, if for only a few moments, how real and lifelike our inventions are.

Friday, April 17, 2015

We Need to Talk

Over the past several years, police procedural TV dramas have made sport to the point of cliche about situations where officers on foot or car patrol are called to intervene in cases of domestic violence.  With a mounting inevitability, one or more of the police come away with bandages and possible scars to show for their efforts.  Something within the high-pitched fury of domestic violence seems to unite the domestics against the very team sent in to ease the situation.

Suspecting this trope might be the invention of non-violent writers, tossing ideas about in the writer's room, you've begun to look for well-founded refutations of the dynamic.  You've even tried that great leveling device known as, famous for its relentless debunking of urban myth.

An admitted sucker for the constructs taken for absolute fact that find their way to and other urban myth debunking sites, you've found no statement disagreeing with the potential risk to intervening police officers who'd been called to respond to a domestic violence situation.

Domestic violence, which is to say any domestic conflict that turns to the use of force, is an ongoing condition, triggered by a broad range of social, political, and gender conflicts.  As a phenomenon, it is awful.  It also represents some of the basic dynamics in story, including the progression from conversation to argument to physical engagement.  

Watching the set-ups for such events in televised drama, one cannot always predict where it will spring from or, if the writing staff is truly on its toes, how it will be presented in counterpoint.  By this, you mean a circumstance where the domestic violence in an upper class family might become over time physical enough to send a wife or child to seek the services of cosmetic plastic surgery while, in stark contrast, the domestic violence in a working class family might seem mild in its extreme of verbal taunting rather than physicality.

You're venturing the opinion that a significant dynamic is domestic violence is the frustration that comes from not having one's opinion or point of view respected and acknowledged.  Also a potential cause of the frustration and subsequent descent into acting-out rage is the ironic condition inherent in most story of communication gone wrong.

Thanks to the novels of Cormack McCarthy and in particular the motion picture version of his novel, No Country for Old Men, lesser works have featured to the point of cliche the drug deal gone wrong.  You read this as an extension of the domestic violence trope.  Because of misunderstandings, betrayals, and unforeseen interventions, things go wrong.

Story, itself, begins when something goes wrong, when stasis is interrupted.  Someone decides to step in, change the game plan, then make off with "the" money and/or "the" swag, which may be some illegal substance or stolen property.  "The" money represents the fives and tens and twenties from the working class poor, who are addicted to some substance they are willing to pay for, making them, in Marxist critical theory, victims of at least one level of exploitation.

Given your own upbringing and experiences, you are a good candidate for identifying with the women or children victims of domestic violence.  No surprise whatsoever that you identified so strongly with the five-year-old narrator of Emma Donogue's impressive novel, Room, in which domestic violence is exacerbated to the point of a young woman  and her five-year-old son are held captive, the woman as a sex slave, the narrator as the son of the captor..

Although violence of a physical nature is not a part of your active vocabulary, noir fiction and its close cousin, hardboiled fiction, are, mixed with measures of irony and the humor of missed connections.  Domestic violence is an aspect of much of Raymond Carver's short stories and although there are no blackened eyes or the need to wear sunglasses to cover bruises, John Cheever's short fiction seems to ripple with the subterranean current of domestic violence.

Thus, within a few paragraphs, you've gone from police, stepping in on an all-out husband-wife or lover-lover or parent-child squabble to an incident where the intervening cops, who wish to restore some form of protocol if not logic or sense, now become at risk from the very individuals they'd thought to save from tearing one another apart.

You see it bubbling just below the surface when individuals tell one another, "We need to talk." You watch closely to see where it will go.  We all of us have the potential for domestic violence; it is no comfort for many of us, you included, to congratulate ourself that we have not acted out, stepped over certain boundaries we consider reprehensible.  You have slammed enough doors in your time, thrown at least one typewriter and any number of safety razors out various windows, said, "Well if that's the way you feel, fuck you," enough times to be aware of the inner animal of rage as it turns over within you and stretches its legs.

You've created an array of language-oriented responses to insulate these feelings, suggesting the possibility of you becoming civilized.  But the out-of-work characters, milling about within you, are looking for starring roles.  Sometimes you watch them and wonder what would happen to you if they got cast to be the Mr. Hyde to your Dr. Jekyll.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Will Climate Change Effect Your Writing?

If there were any question in your mind about the fact of being immersed in a rich and fecund era of filmed drama, the question was shut down today.  

You luxuriated in the awareness that you could, if you were to wish to do so, stream episodes of five or six major television hallmarks, representing intelligent pursuit of story, eclectic subject matter, and intense, evocative acting.  The final nail to set the argument in place was the availability of segment two of Wolf Hall, the adaptation of Hilary Mantel's glorious historical novel.

In earlier years, while you were in the process of assembling an inner stairway to your present plateau of vision and enjoyment, your most favored TV feature, your weekly must-see, was the series Inside the Actor's Studio.  

In truth, you'd begun to watch Inside the Actor's Studio because you'd made the connection:  James Lipton, the host of the program and, himself a principal at The Actor's Studio in New York, was the son of one of your more valued authors, the critic, poet, and essayist, Lawrence Lipton.  Father had little to say of son, his occasional remarks suggesting a serious rift.

Lipton had been dead some years--since 1975--before Inside the Actor's Studio came to life as a visible entity.  Your first visions of the son were so removed from the demeanor and warmth of the father that you took an immediate dislike to the son.  

Watching subsequent episodes of the TV presentation became a convoluted way of reliving your admiration for the father and the effect of his literary journey on you, his editor, at once aware of enormous differences between the two of you and admiring the stamina, professionalism, and wit.  Mixed into the equation, Lawrence Lipton's own reminiscences of his earlier marriage to the mystery writer, Craig Rice.

Rice, an energetic writer from the hardboiled detective genre, led a troubled life, involving alcoholism, glaucoma, loss of hearing, and bi-polar moods, leading to her need to rely on Lipton in much the same way Lillian Hellman relied upon Dashiel Hammett.

With no awareness he was doing so, James Lipton, simply because he was his father's son, drew you into the TV show he produced, wrote, and largely directed for the Bravo network.  Soon, you were listening to the actor guests, speaking of their craft and careers, absorbing facts you would not begin consciously to put to work for years to come.  

Among such facts was the growing awareness on your part from watching and rewatching interviews, the fact of many actors preference for roles at some measure away from their own personality and their accompanying distaste for roles in which they considered the character to be portrayed quite close to their own individuality.

Easier to go to the remote for creativity, most of the interviewed actors said.  Always the nagging suspicion, when the character to be portrayed was closer to home, that the actor was merely being him-or-herself and, thus, less likely to be an original creation as it was a copying from the self.

Only today, you receive in your email, catching your email spam guard off duty, an invitation to subscribe to one or more of a series of actor's workshops, where one of the focuses  on:  "Two characters are then derived from your personal acting habit patterns, Character # 1, who conforms to those acting habit patterns, and Character # 2, whose patterns directly oppose your habitual and customary acting choices, revealing rarely experienced physical, vocal, and emotional possibilities."

You are left to investigate and wonder about possible parallels and similarities in which you substitute Character # 1 and Character #2 with such possibilities as Writer #1 and Writer #2, both of whom are, of course, you.

In addition, more than one of these notes to yourself, begun in 2007, contain references and investigations of the number of squatter selves there are, residing within the house that is you.

You acknowledge at least two writerly presences, one favoring long, Faulknerian sentences which in effect span differing time time or emotion zones, the other more conversational, short, chipper, not always complete sentences.

To be considered and continued:  If you are going to be writing as other characters, you need to write away from your personal writing habit patterns and toward the personal writing habit patterns of the individuals of whom you write.  The better able you are to do this, the better able you will be to remove yourself from the story, allowing them to come forth from under your shadow and into the sunlight or gloom of their own individual climate.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Makeover Writer

The makeover has become a popular phenomenon of long standing diversity.  Some makeover clients wish their wardrobe and personal appearance "made over," others wish to have their approach to the work market or business sense done to.

Yet others seek to have their living and/or office spaces renovated, and in an extreme but no less sincere way, some individuals wish to have their scholastic background made over, whereupon they set forth in pursuit of a graduate degree in some discipline or other.

You could--and now do--say some individuals engage your editorial services to undertake a makeover on a literary project, while yet others, curious about the literary life and the storytelling process attached to it, wish to learn a few of the basics in order to allow them to plunge into the curious, precarious, and earthshaking world of publication.

A good example of this latter group approached you eight or ten years ago, claiming to have accomplished a number of successful years as an attorney in which he'd billed amounts approaching three-quarters of a million dollars a year.  "The law has taught me to be conservative and patient,"  he said, "and so my question to you is how long will it take you to get me up to two-fifty thousand a year in writing?"

You, who have never made anything approaching two hundred fifty thousand a year from writing or anything else, did not know what to say.  But the matter remained with you, braided as it was into thoughts of make over and of some individuals, so eager and impatient to enter the world of publishing that they have no idea what the landscape of publishing is, much less the landscape of story, drama, memorable characters who may not be by any means moral paradigms or even, for that matter, very nice individuals.

If this sounds as though you are singling out individuals who are eager to be published as a singular example of impatient amateurs, you hasten to leaven this approach with your belief that all artistic arenas attract individuals who wish entry without proper learning or background, or understanding or, dare you add this to your list, skills.  

You write of your experiences as a writer, an editor, and a teacher, in the process turning your disdain toward self-publishing, where, on more occasions that you care to recall or detail, you've seen impatience tip the balance from good sense into disaster.  

You believe, and have begun to collect data on other approaches to artistry and professionalism such as sculpting, acting, photography, and the music professions.  And closer to home, you are aware of individuals who call themselves editors for the most flimsy of reasons, because they love words and because they read books. 

There is no hint of irony or exaggeration hidden within your belief that a contemporary automobile mechanic would need a thorough understanding of the internal combustion engine, with the possibility of a specialty in diesel engines and the fast-growing hybrid mechanics, which require understanding of electricity, the difference between an engine and a motor, and some grasp of how natural gas has become a fuel of substance.  Such a background is a given.  

The same standard does not, in your experience, apply to those you chose to think of as entry-level composers, some of whom bring energy and originality to their material, but who simultaneously see story in the same terms a theoretical applicant for a mechanic's job at a Porsche or Ferrari dealership might see the internal combustion engine as though it were powering a Model A or T Ford.

You understand this because it was you, for the longest time, powered by enthusiasm, energy, a vast reservoir of impatience, and the mistaken belief that the things by other authors you read and admired came forth almost directly as published, with no or little hint of revision or editorial concern.

You understand this only because of the enormous quantity of books and journals you've read, and the even greater quantity of crumpled wads of manuscript paper in the pre-computer typewriter days and now the considerable number of times you've hit the Select All key that outlines a paragraph, a page, perhaps even pages of a manuscript, and then hit the delete button, sending the material to the waste basket, where it may be saved, but where it should be allowed to reside.

You understand this because of the incredible number of manuscript submissions you read as an editor, the ones you argued to take on, and the work they required, even when they came from writers at the peak of their storytelling powers.

You understand this from all the bad printed books you've read, from your understanding of the other side of the bestseller metric, that limbo place in the massmarket publishing trade where returns on a given title are often at the fifty percent level, or higher.  

You understand this as a matter of taste, in which some of your least favorite books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and where some of the titles you acquired in your tenure as an editor barely squeaked by the necessary costs to produce and distribute them.

Every time you sit to compose, there are these understandings, orbiting about you that you must hold at bay until you've finished composing for the day, and now you can try afresh to approach revision with a practiced eye.