Sunday, May 31, 2015

No Man Is an Island, but Every Writer Is

In recent weeks, you've had extensive cause to think, lecture, and write about memorable scenes, in printed, stage, and film narratives.  Two of your favorites come from films.  Each of these is remarkable because it makes little contribution to the film, yet has a near perfect arc of the way a scene should begin, which is at a place of relative mildness, before becoming a force that becomes almost impossible to contain.

Both scenes do in fact end with a kind of combustion that produces, each in its own way, a catharsis in the resulting explosion.  No longer possible to keep count of the number of times you've watched the ocean liner state room scene from the Marx Brothers romp, A Night at the Opera, or the truck stop restaurant scene from the more recent motion picture, Five Easy Pieces. There are times when you commend them in their YouTube availability, that you wonder if your reference to them is more for students/clients or you.  

In theory, the stateroom scene is a comedic, exaggerated reminder of the number of elements the writer must shove into every scene of a story.  The truck stop restaurant scene demonstrates the kinds of frustrations and reversals characters need to be subjected to from the moment they first appear on scene to the point where the lead character has caused enough change in the status quo for the narrative to be brought to some point of resolution.

Each of these scenes has an antic quality to it that reminds you of moments in Reality when persons appear to be in the same cross-hairs as characters find themselves in story.  Writing a scene in which this antic collision of drama and reality appear causes you to feel a lasting and deeply felt sense of accomplishment.  

This feeling is the one you find yourself seeking when you meet head on the sense you are becoming too serious or too literal.  At last Thursday's reading from your short story collection, you chose such a scene.  The moment you began reading it, you felt yourself lit up from within,  You understood how, much as you like taut, evocative narrative, your overall goal is not at all what you'd thought--not a mediated settlement or wisdom of Solomon ending arrangement, rather the kind of combustion where the narrative kettle boils over.

You were first drawn to Simone De Beauvoir's elegant novel, The Mandarins, when it first appeared in this country during the mid 1950s.  Thinking to assign it as reading for a class, you launched into a skimmed reading to see if a more protracted one would suit you.  Reading on, you remembered a scene that had remained with you for all these long years, barely with enough structure to qualify as an independent scene, yet longer than a mere incident.  Call it a scene within a scene, but give acknowledgment to the fact you remembered it.  And finally, you found it.

In the midst of a serious discussion between the two principal characters--remember, discussion, although heated, rather than argument or lover's quarrel--a knock at the door of their apartment,  One of the principals opens the door to allow on stage a man clutching a nervous cat in his arms.  The male principal asks of the man with the cat what he can do for him.  "I was told," the man with the cat says, "there was to be a spay and neuter clinic here this afternoon."

This is news to the occupants of the apartment, but the interruption has had its effect on the weight of their discussion and the passions with which each was engaging.  The man with the cat is given a polite dismissal.  But you remained at that threshold for the better part of fifty years, the memory of the interruption reaching over the memory of the discussion.

A good deal of your reading, writing, and teaching speaks to the aspects of plot-driven story where an effective metaphor for story in motion is a line of dominoes, placed on end, close enough to one another to cause the entire line to tumble down after the first domino is toppled.  Story has that internal momentum, event, triggering event.  Of course story is all about event.  Except when it isn't.

Your own favorite type story is the bursting-at-the-seams bildungsroman, the coming-of-age story such as Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, or those titles that for you have become romps, Tom Jones, Humphrey Clinker, Peregrine Pickle, Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, True Grit, and Lonesome Dove.  All these abound with event, but, as in the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera, they teem with character.

There is comfort to be had in consulting works that remain in your memory, and from remembering your roots.  Much as you admire many plot-driven stories such as The Maltese Falcon, you carried on a frustrated affair with the plot-driven story, convinced that you could not write in that manner.  

The best you could do was look for ways to accommodate the character-driven story with the kinds of noir and edgy narratives originating when two or more characters, all of them convinced of the utter rightness of their vision, enter the scene, believing he or she is right.  Then, all you have to do is sit back and take notes.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The One Book You Dare Not Let Yourself Continue Reading

You learned about the One Book, meaning the One Book You Couldn't Let Yourself Continue Reading, from the man who is ultimately responsible for you using the second person point of view for these blog entries.

The man, whose birthday happens to be tomorrow, was born Julian Lawrence Shapiro in 1904, and who stayed with us until March of 2003, writing his books on a Royal upright manual typewriter, pausing from time to time to thumb through what many still consider the quintessential unabridged dictionary, the second edition Merriam-Webster.

He'd already changed his name to John Sanford when you met him in the 1990s, way too late for your taste.  At one point when you were having coffee at the now defunct Xanadu Bakery in the lower village of Montecito, California, Sanford, on his way to the adjacent Von's Market, spotted you, waved, then imitated a vaudeville dancer's time step as he made his way over to you, an uncharacteristic grin on his face.  

By no means a dour or grumpy man, Sanford was impatient in advance for fools he might have to suffer and for causes that were not advancing with the speed he'd hoped.  "What ninety-year old do you know who's just signed a two-book contract?"

Sanford began his writing career as a novelist, his early work encouraged and praised by his personal hero, William Carlos Williams, and also by Carl Sandberg.  Williams' book, In the American Grain, once Sanford picked it up, became the book he could not allow himself to finish, lest it have too strong a hold and influence on him.  But the first few pages were enough for him to know that some light had been shown on a way he was to spend the rest of his life pursuing, in the process completing a lyric history of American, written in haunting, ironic vignettes, and a multi-volume autobiography, written in the second person.

In a sense, Sandford had produced enough work to have found a way into the narrative voice for fiction that would, given his own work ethic and love for his craft, seen him extend his dramatic range and heft.  But the poetry, politics, and inherent humanity of the Williams work acted as a catapult, thrusting him into a format and ironic voice of an entirely new order.

With the exception of this greeting exchange at the Xanadu Bakery that day, your standard greeting to Sanford was, "Rather the ice than their way,"the opening line of the first chapter, written from the point of view of Red Eric, the explorer.  Sanford's response, a crisp nod, and, "That's all I needed, kid.  I read that page and I was on my own way."

You'd already read In the American Grain before meeting Sanford.  The discovery that Sanford knew and had been published by Williams in some of his literary journals sent you back to the book with the recognition of how you'd no doubt be rereading it with some regularity.  Your copy went next to another of the Williams books in your shelves, a poetic evocation of his home town of Patterson, N.J.

Your own One Book You Mustn't Allow Yourself to read from any farther than you have was a collection of short stories by Thomas McGuane, one of which took place in the parking lot of a large motel in Arizona where, one night, you'd had to sleep in your car because there were no vacant rooms.  Almost immediately on starting the story, the most remarkable stage direction in all of Shakespeare's plays careened into your mind, right out of A Winter's Tale.  "Exit, Pursued by a Bear."  The material, triggered by the half of McGuane's story you read had an electric effect on you.  

During the next several days, you managed six or seven chapters.  Even when school work and other obligations threatened, you got more pages, and when it became apparent you were going to have to take some time off, you scribbled notes for the ending, which are still clear in your mind.

When you finally met McGuane in person, you already knew what to expect, given his longtime friendship with your own pal, Barnaby Conrad.  An affable, thoughtful man, McGuane radiates good humor and that quality you've come to prize in persons who have it, the ability to laugh at himself.  When you told him about the effect his story had on you, he smiled.  "I think,"  he said, "it's safe for you to go back now and finish reading the story.  You might want to start from the beginning, but I do think it's safe now."

Friday, May 29, 2015


Among the many reasons for your admiration of the Irish critic and novelist, John Banville, there is the fact of you having at one or more points of your reading a novel of his, either under his own name or his mystery-writing pseudonym, Walter Black, the fact of you having to set the book down, then rush to your American Heritage  (Unabridged) Dictionary of the American Language. You have the fourth edition and also the more recent, fifth edition.

You have in fact had at one time or another all the previous editions of AHD.  By the time you were in a position to do so, you caused the third edition to become the usage standard for the publishing company of which you were editor in chief.  This was no mere stylistic whim on your part.  

Many publishing houses used the redoubtable MW2, the Merriam-Webster's (unabridged) second edition or the MW New Collegiate, you believe at edition thirteen.  Your choice of AHD3 had to do with the fact of the number of admirable writers who were on the usage committee.  

If you were in a position to do so now, you'd specify AHD 5 because it now incorporates some of the features you find most appealing about the regal and comprehensive OED, the true grandparent of the unabridged dictionary, based on historical principal, which not only provides a menu of definitions but the dates in which those definitions and uses were first recorded.

Although digressive, these paragraphs away from John Banville's vocabulary and his willingness to use it in his work illustrates your intended point here:  The language continues to grow, evolving, co-opting words and phrases from other languages, reflecting the needs and conventions of the times for words that either bury, articulate, or further describe the things writers believe need explanation.  

When Banville sends you scrambling to find a word, you do not retire in resentment to the dictionary; you feel challenged in yet another way.  Thus you can truly say you read Banville not only for his content and thematic thrust; you read him to be challenged by a major intellect and in the same bargain, a man able to see depths of emotional conflicts and moral choices.

You first read Joseph Heller's mesmerizing Catch-22 as you approached age thirty.  You've re-read it several times, twice in connection with using it as a classroom text for close reading.  One word sent you to the dictionary, infundabuliform, which, to this day, you've attempted to use yourself in written material.  Every time you've tried, some content or copy editor has queried you:  Wouldn't it be better to say funnel-shaped? Your answer is always yes.  Perhaps, if you keep trying when it seems appropriate, you'll hit the right circumstances and the word will seem as appropriate in your use as it was for Heller in his.  Worst case, you'll have a word to try out.  Since Heller used it in context of a character's jaw, you've spent the last fifty or so years looking at the jawline of various of your characters.

Another thrust of this essay is to note how you've come to observe how some writers' work can be approached in terms of details they include while the work of still other writers can be characterized by the things they leave out.  

You have a love-hate relationship with Hemingway, particularly his short stories, which you value more than the novels.  "Write drunk," he said, "and edit sober."  There were earlier times when you did, indeed, write drunk, which, given the drunk writing was done on manual typewriters before it was done on electric typewriter, leaves a picture of you during those days.  You did not always write drunk, just often enough to know how helpful the process was in so many ways.

You always did edit sober, but fairness and honesty require of you that you mention how much more significant your editing process has become in recent years, in stark comparison to earlier times.  Now, you attempt to write as though you were drunk, but instead of cognac, the engine is enthusiasm or a sense of mischief, or a cocktail of mischief, enthusiasm, and righteous anger.

So far, you know this about yourself:  At one time, you were eager to get in as much as you could, an agenda that caused your revisions to be scouting expeditions for places where you could put in more detail.  Not any detail, certainly not detail for the sake of detail, rather details that held significance and interest to you.  

In a definitive way, details define your memory process and your writing process.  You remember the details that impress and amuse you.  Some random fact such as the cheetah being able to run at the speed of ninety miles an hour for upwards of three minutes has impressed you since well before you read Heller's use of infundabuliform.  You have thus waited even longer to use this detail and, yes, have had to answer an editorial query, Does the reader need to know this? with a regretful no.

Your interest in details is unabated, but your goal now has evolved, perhaps not with as much significance and uniformity as AHD5, to the point where you wish your composition to emphasize details left out that the reader will either know, wonder about, or have to look for

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Be Nice, Kind, and Considerate, but Not During Writing Hours

By the time two of your greatest friends came into your life, you'd already begun to take for granted the proposition that writers may appear conventional on occasions, but these are only camouflage for eccentric, notional behavior.  You believed this while well aware of your own camouflage, your own eccentricities, and your own notional behavior.

By the time one of these particular two came into your life, you'd read all the books he'd written to date, and gone off to Mexico to pursue an interest in bullfighting sparked by him and, by way of adding a more literary cast to the agenda, to familiarize yourself with the places visited by Graham Greene, a writer you much admired and are nearly convinced of your gladness you never met him in his lifetime.

This was the writer, painter, raconteur, bullfighter (El Nino de California), and bistro owner, Barnaby Conrad.  Thus it was no surprise to see him, when you entered the darkened, unused  area of the restaurant of the Miramar Hotel, to see Conrad, moving at a slight stoop, grasping the uppermost part of a dining room chair, its legs extended, pretending to be a fighting bull.

You'd seen hundreds of young bullfighting students engaged in similar role playing.  Nor did it surprise you to see another noteworthy American torrero, Patrick Cunningham, assuming the role of the matador, using a table cloth that had been borrowed from one of the unused dining room tables.

Business as usual, in a way.  When Conrad and Cunningham gathered, there were frequent toasts to their friendship, Conrad with his favorite toasting medium of rum, Cunningham with his preference of a robust red wine.  When you encountered them, thus occupied, it was clear to you that they'd passed the stage of commemorating their friendship with toasts and were now exploring areas of competitiveness and shared interests resident in many friendships.

Cunningham began to accuse Conrad in raunchy Spanish of being a bull of inferior lineage, then requesting, as many a bullfighter will do after having not acquitted himself well, of purchasing a substitute bull, which you quickly assumed to be you.  But Conrad was still on his game.  He charged Cunningham, delivered a glancing blow with the leg of his chair to Cunningham's left leg, sending Cunningham to the floor in a tangle of tablecloth and curses.  "That,"  Conrad said, "will teach you to take your eyes from the bull before he has been firmly fixed in place.

By the time the other great friend came into your life, you'd had enough experience with writers as an editor and with wannabe writers as a teacher to assume that the individual who came to your Tuesday night class in steam pressed tennis whites and freshly washed tennis shoes had considerable, as jazz musicians liked to say of talent and technique, chops.  In time, you reached the precarious state of collaboration.  Considering the polar differences in your working methods, there is little surprise that your output, although good to the point of intriguing, was not prolific.  A third individual who watched the two of you remarked, "You two must really have love for one another to be able to put up with working like that."

Although two robins do not make a Spring, these two writers do.  You were aware of that earlier this evening, when the audience for a reading by you from your short story, "Coming to Terms," and a brief discussion about an earlier book, The Fiction Writers' Handbook.  By your estimate, the audience was at least fifty percent writers, forty percent students of literature or writing, and a scant ten percent civilians, who stood out by their conventional appearances and questions.  

The writers and students seemed well worked into their eccentricities and notions, displaying a bare minimum of camouflage.  You knew them, of course, but even if you hadn't, you'd have had some sort of radar connection, even as, while you were walking out of a restaurant, on your way to the reading, a writer you did not know, but recognized as a writer, recognized you, not as someone he knew but as a writer.  He even called out to you as you passed his table, "How do I know you are a writer?"

Your response, the nadir of wit, yet a significant truth, "Because I look like one."

In a roundabout way, this is lead up to you, finding yourself talking writers into buying the recent collection of stories by Phil Klay, Redeployment, which the publisher artfully does not package as stories or collected stories, or even short stories.  A browser might well think he or she was buying a novel.  The problem with this book is its subject matter, which is polar to the interests of someone such as yourself who is anti-war and anti-military.  

But as you explained to at least four persons, the book is so well written, so evocative, so submerged in truth that you found yourself rooting for the characters, even though their behavior is not something you admire, and, worse yet, because their behavior seems to you a clear path to PTSD, at which point the soldiers we create to wreak havoc on our alleged enemies have the havoc of neglect and lack of follow-through care inflicted upon them by us.

The prevailing attitude among the writers you chatted with relates to being beastly to our characters.  Readers do not want civilians; they want men, women, and young persons in thrall to some addictive behavior, to some some significant variation from conventional response and certainly some unconventional agenda to which they strive.

The irony you are left with is the sense of writers telling you they are not ready for Klay's book because of the way story has been going in recent years, darker and with even less favorable outcomes than ever before.  "Almost," as one writer said, "as if we're in some competition to see who gets to be the one who gets the biggest prize for saying the worst things."

Another writer shook her head.  "They tell us to kill our darlings, get rid of the things we like and labor over to provide some sense of beauty and craft,  Now, they're telling us to beat up on our characters."  She smiled a wry smile at you.  "I even heard you urge your students to stop being so nice and to stop giving your characters a free ride."

You waited for the smile to fade before reminding her that you told her the same things and when she did, her stories began to be taken by publishers.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Literalmindedness and the Terrible 40

Some years ago, a chance meeting with a friend in the Summerland Post Office produced the information from your friend that he was no longer using the word "very" in his written communication and programming himself to avoid its use in conversation.  His reason made sense.  How much is very?  How does one quantify it?  What good does it serve?  If, for instance, one is very tired, what does that mean?  In comparison, if one feels exhausted, some sensual information radiates from that use.

Since that afternoon, you've begun compiling a list, which soon grew to twenty items.  Doing such things help the individual to focus.  Soon, you were up to thirty, and now, a friend who has been making notes of these additions has sent you a list, at once humbling, because it makes you put more effort into thinking about your intention before you speak, and daunting, because it makes you realize how prone conversation is to tilt toward ambiguity and uncertainty.

As the list now stands, it has these forty elements.  Not all these words should be avoided entirely.  How, for instance, would you introduce a list of items or characteristics without using the word "and" as a connector.  Knowing your habit word is likely to be "and" in the matter of linking independent clauses helps you build in techniques that produce a more vigorous paragraph, where a good deal of churning and activity appear to be taking place.

The Terrible 40

✔︎ any form of the verb: to be*
✔︎ into and onto when in and on are better
✔︎ Sentences that begin or end with It 
✔︎ a bit         ✔︎may
✔︎ almost ✔︎ might
✔︎ am* ✔︎ must
✔︎ and ✔︎ now
✔︎ are* ✔︎ occasionally ✔︎ be* ✔︎ shall
✔︎ been* ✔︎ should
✔︎ being* ✔︎ so
✔︎ can ✔︎ some
✔︎ could ✔︎ somewhat
✔︎ do ✔︎ still
✔︎ even ✔︎ suddenly. all of a sudden
✔︎ had ✔︎ that
✔︎ has ✔︎ then
✔︎ have ✔︎ was*  
✔︎ is* ✔︎ were
✔︎ just ✔︎ very
✔︎ with
✔︎ would

* These words add little to your writing and they force  you to use the passive voice.
** Although there is nothing wrong with the passive voice in the grammatical sense, and in many otherwise wonderful conversations, comes pouring out in a way that seems to defeat or at least slow down crisp, dramatic writing, you watch for its appearance in your own work, pounce upon it, then do things to turn it to a more active vector.  

To get a sense of the play and feel of the passive voice, which in effect causes the object in a sentence to trump the subject, you enjoy considering and playing with the permutations " Now is the time," and "The time is now."  Both sentences are led astray by that to be verb, and to your ears, the latter sounds more immediate and effective because time is the subject, of course is becomes the predicate, and now is the predicate nominative.

Still on the subject of words and phrases that slow sentences down, derail them from dramatic effect, and introduce the worm of opaqueness into the apple of story, you have yet another culprit, which to your experience is more often found in the composition of individuals who have become professionals in such disciplines as the law, medicine, and in general the so-called hard sciences such as geology, biology, astronomy, and physics.  The name you attach to this culprit is literalmindedness.

A literal description of a person, place, thing, event, or feeling can often be impressive with its specificity and elegance of detail.  If the description is presented so as to seem to come from the character in stead of the author, the problem of literalness is solved.  To wax metaphoric, in such a case, a major speed bump is removed from the narrative.  The reader moves seamlessly from the filtering character's narrative perceptions to interior monologue and, when necessary, to dialogue.

Fiction is many things; you even go so far as to call it a simulacrum.  But your chances of describing fiction into being on a  denominator of logic are slim chances, indeed, referred to by many professional writers and editors as "tells" or "stage direction," and you have seen more times than you might wish the kind of literalmindedness wherein the writer attempts to disguise a stage direction by having one character speak it.  

For an example of this disguised stage directions, "So, you really have no overall objection but are just taking out your frustration for what happened earlier at the office, on the theory that you'll at least have got some revenge directed at some place where you have some sense of control."  And you could not have invented this response, "Yes, you got it exactly.  So good to have a friend who understands me so well.  No wonder we get on."

Professional papers and many works of nonfiction such as history are written and given subsequent editorial support to remove ambiguity, to produce an almost complete consensus among readers.  Fiction is designed to evoke certain emotional conclusions.  Both authors and publishers are not uninterested in reader responses, but they have become more accepting of the possibility for a wider spectrum of response among readers, including the surprise when readers appear to favor a subsidiary character neither author nor publisher had much hope for.

When you tell most entry-level writers to stop thinking until they've completed an entire draft, you see the levels of literalmindedness drop in direct proportion to the mount of hours per day the writer writes.

When you tell high-achievement professionals who are seeking expertise in fiction and drama to hold off on thinking until a complete draft has been completed, you are aware of them looking at you, then watching you, insulted, disturbed, determined to show you what a little logic will do for a scene and what a great deal of it will do for an entire book.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


From time to time you are asked for your opinion on a matter by friends or clients in the publishing trade. Such a request came your way this week, relative to the work of an author you know and respect.  This was not the sort of consulting or assigned chore where money changes hands.  You see no point in naming names.  

Although the matter relates to individuals and personalities, you believe it to be unsettling in its widespread application to all of us who have any relationship to publishing.  By "any" relationship, you mean writers not yet established as well as a particular group of non-writers known as readers.

Most of us who write, edit, design, promote, sell, review, and teach courses related to books fall on frequent occasion into the non-writer's category known as readers.  Many of us have long since given up the standard joys known as "reading for pleasure, although, your argument maintains, we continue to achieve a significant pleasure pursuing what many of us call "close reading," which is to say reviewing minute details of text to see how a particular author was able to achieve such a remarkable effect.  

A few words here about "remarkable effect."  You believe--and you believe that most of us who indulge close reading believe--the essence of dramatic writing is the emotional presence inherent in story, an emotional presence required in every scene.  Often, these emotional presences are complex braids of complex emotions, sometimes achieving their memorable effects because they are presented as polar opposites, warring emotions, fighting with one another for prominence. 

We read with close attention to see how others have achieved the effects we seek in our own work.  In your years as a reader, writer, editor, and teacher (for that was the order in which you encountered such familiarity as you have with these aspects of story), you have consulted a wide variety of writers from various historical eras and from genres in which they have written that may not be among your favorites.  

With one or two exceptions, you can say with open sincerity that you've tried your hand at the major genera.  Even though you may prefer some to others, there is no specific genre you find trivial or beneath your dignity.  You either have now or have had friends or close acquaintances who write in the range of genera so that, were you ever called to serve again as an acquisitions editor for a general trade publisher, you would have no trouble identifying and supplying specific lists for your company's catalogue.  And you would soon know whom among your assistants to trust for consultation on genera where you felt less than current.

This is all build up to the awareness that when you sit to compose or to edit or to review or teach, you are not a nice person.  In fact, niceness is one of the first things you leave at the office threshold; it is also one of the most difficult things of all for the beginning and emerging writer to give up.  The author you reference in the opening paragraph has a respectable record of publications, although in recent years this writer has become more difficult to place with a publisher because of declining sales.

Another writer well known to you was not kept on by a publisher in spite of a unique concept for a series, forced to scan the markets for a new publisher with a fresh concept for his fiction, his ultimate landing place being with a publisher in the same building as the publisher who let him go.  Both these writers have considerable skill at their craft.  Both these writers have in common the quality you believe leads to trouble, as reflected--you suppose radiated is yet a better verb--in their respective texts.  They are both uncommonly nice.  

Niceness is a splendid quality for a person to have as an individual, but when brought to the writers' work areas, niceness is the equivalent of an agenda a publicist or propagandist brings to the work desk.  Niceness filters through the lines of text to the point where the characters, however caught up in intrigue or agenda, become nice.  They use a different set of vocabulary in their dialogue, their interior monologue, and their narrative.  They are so nice that the reader soon breaks the code to the point of knowing these characters are never going to do anything truly awful, never be torn by extreme moral questions nor forced to make Sophie's Choice-type decisions.  They are never going to lose their composure to the point of telling the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury of the Chief Rabbi of Lodz or the Dali Lama to go fuck themselves, thus borrowing a lifetime of regret.

Somewhere around the time you were getting into the bar of The Garden of Allah on a forged ID and being served drinks, a writer told you he was going to tell you a secret that would save you a good deal of painful learning.  "Do you think,"  he asked, "that the Lone Ranger and Tonto actually liked one another?"

Your response was a surprised admission that you'd never thought otherwise, but that night is still vivid in your memory because the conversation was joined with some lively responses from other writers in the room, during the course of which at least one drink and one punch were thrown.

"The fucking Lone Ranger was all Tonto had.  He was out of the tribal loop.  If he didn't have the Lone Ranger, he'd be the Lone Tonto, which of course means Dummy in Spanish.  And the Lone Ranger?  Guy running around wearing a mask all the time, you think he's going to have a lot of friends."

This was also one of your first chances to see writers not liking one another for one or more reasons having to do with niceness.  Not all that long ago, a writer from your past thought to call you after at least twenty-five years of no contact whatsoever.  The conversation did not go well because it had two writers working on a beginning.  He finally ended the conversation by hanging up, but not before calling you an arrogant prick and your reply, "What do you mean, arrogant?"

Niceness in the story sense has nothing to do with civility or the Human Contract or even Love Thy Neighbor, but being too nice in story is another matter, more close in its relationship to not wishing to offend potential readers than demonstrating the grit and give-and-take resident in the human condition.

Writers who are too nice tend to want to explain too many things, not say things that may be taken out of context or taken as racist, sexist, manipulative, or controlling.  You want a civil conversation, invite some friends over to dinner.  You want story, invite some serious meat eaters to dinner and serve them tofu.

Monday, May 25, 2015


Truth and plausibility have an intriguing and sometimes contentious conversation when they are applied to story.  They remind you of neighbors in an apartment complex, arguing with increased passion about the need for truth.

You are aware to the point of amusement how often beginning writers like to insist, "But it really happened that way," because of your own conviction that whether a thing happened or not in reality, its validity needs plausibility for it to be accepted. Truth in story cannot stand on its own; it needs to be made to radiate an inner and outer sense of possibility.

 Your own conviction recognizes how a plausible thing might not be true at all, even though it carries the portfolio of potential.  A thing can be made to appear true through the simple expedient of one or more characters believing it.  But appearances are open to question.

Is it plausible for Macbeth to give serious import to the prophesies of the three witches he meets early on?  Would a grown man of his stature pay heed to such conjecture?  And yet, some of this conjecture is borne out and is given subsequent nourishment by Macbeth's own inner monster of ambition, stretching its limbs and beginning to nod its head, Yes, yes, I can do this.

Through the behavior of characters and the manipulation of detail, a plausible thing can take on a stature of possibility, suggesting a truth in Reality that it does not have.  By comparing it with demonstrable truths, i.e. The sun will rise tomorrow at X a.m., the tide will wax or wane at these times, the sun will set at X p.m., a vessel of water at sea level, heated to the temperature of 100 Celsius degrees or 212 Fahrenheit degrees will boil, the plausible is buried in demonstrable facts and will have a better chance of being judged truthful.  

At least three generations of science fiction writers have used such techniques as these to make a plausible proposition, such as life on Mars, or space colonization, or sophisticated life forms on a level with humans seem real to the point where the reader accepts the leap in truth.  The reader's tendency to disbelieve is suspended, the plausible is accepted as actual.

In other categories of fiction, which itself implies the use of plausibility to suggest a framework that may be considered a truthful rendition, magic is presented as plausible in fantasy, historical eras are drawn from a combination of fact and imagination, then presented as fact, and an entire concept of invented reality, the Alternate Universe, blossoms forth as a truthful simulacrum.

In recent weeks a number of citizens of the sovereign State of Texas, including some of their own elected officials and elected officials from other sovereign states have embraced a series of related details as a plausible scenario in which a  highly unlikely conspiracy will be played out.  In that scenario, a state of martial law will be declared, Federal forces will occupy the State of Texas, and as if that were not enough, when the incumbent President of the United States' term of office expires in February of 2016, martial law will be extended and the incumbent will somehow seize continued power to remain in office.

A significant number of adults believe this to the point where the State of Texas National Guard was put on alert in the face of assurances from various Federal agencies that this scenario was not true, nor was it plausible.  And yet, in the minds of a number of adult Texans, this scenario still extends beyond conjecture, beyond plausibility, and into the realm of truth.

You use plausibility as a tool, attempting to create characters who are accepted as viable, functional person.  These individuals engage moral and emotional problems made to seem real by pushing these characters to the limits and boundaries of the artificial circumstances you have created for them.  At this point, you devise even more extreme circumstances before pushing these inventions over the invented edge so that you may observe their responses.

People have been accepting the manufactured worlds of story since long before printed language, in effect ingesting legend and history as forms of plausible narrative.  The Iliad or Homeric account of the Trojan war was a plausible narrative.  So were the historical narratives of Hesiod and Herodotus, both plausible representations of actual behavior, or "things that really happened."

Only today, you received a letter from a reader of one of your recent books, finding it wonderful except in a place where it was not plausible, and asking you to explain, which meant for the writer of the letter that what you wrote believing it to be true was not plausible without explanation to him.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


Smart, inquisitive characters are more prone to do intelligent, innovative things, which, given their smart, inquisitive nature, is far from surprising. The same set of behavior standards applies, also without surprise, for the more intellectually challenged or less inquisitive sorts.  In both cases, there is yet no hint of story.  The potential drama is held at stasis because, as yet, nothing has happened--no precipitating action.

Stasis means business as usual, which in show business and story business means the equivalent of set-up or backstory, the Petri dish for drama to start.  Many readers, seeing a sentence or two describing stasis will be primed to expect some element of story to sprout within the next paragraph or so, otherwise they'll begin skimming, skipping ahead for traces of where the exception begins.

In fairness to smart, inquisitive characters and to their opposite numbers, each type has the potential to break ranks.  The smart character will do something incredibly dumb or wrong-headed; the less bright sort will arrive at an idea or vision of uncharacteristic brilliance.  

Trickle-down philosophy demonstrably did not work, either for the presidency of Ronald W. Reagan or those so-called compassionate conservatives to follow him.  Nevertheless, trickle-down story points may well come from the variations in behavior of the sublimely bright and the preternaturally thick characters..

The dumb act or decision from the smart guy becomes an albatross to be worn much in the manner Hester Prynne wore her Puritan High School letter, the scarlet A, causing individuals in the smart guy's immediate circle of family, friends, and professional associates to wonder, perhaps even to take some kind of action such as an intervention.  The act or decision of dumbness, a logical event for most persons, will serve as a destabilizing event for the immediate circle.  Already, we can see concepts for story here.

The incendiary bright idea or act from Mr. or Ms. Two Beers After Work, then a home delivered pizza and some bad network TV becomes an equal in the race for destabilizing activity; it causes the downstream group of Mr. or Ms. Two Beers After Work to critical review of past activities and to assume some sort of new leaf has been turned by which Mr. or Ms, is going to be consistent with subsequent bright ideas.  The same basic theme for story applies here.

If you were to put these two individuals together in a multiple point of view story, set along the railroad tracks of parallel lines, you might be loading the thematic deck by illustrating the ways the two outlier characters, each at the tip of their dramatic triangle, were influencing their followers and advancing the argument that the followers thrive on stasis and are disturbed by any variation.

You fit yourself into this conversation with suggestions.  Front-rank characters must come from the two stated paradigms here.  To avoid story lines running into overused thematic territory, these two types ought to be fit into the two or three basic thematic paradigms where story will be forced to explore evolving problems and, with these explorations, evolving solutions.

The two basic types of story are (1) a variation of Joseph Campbell's theme of The Heroic Journey.  Even something so simple in its essence as the coming of age story is a hero's journey, in particular for the young person growing up.  If that young person appears preternaturally bright or different, the narrative at once takes on at least one more level of texture.  Growing up is not enough; growing up bright is likely to exasperate those about the character, and growing up with the appearance of being stunted or deprived is yet another type of cause for concern, and,(2) the stranger arriving in town or within the group, wherein the stranger upsets the balance of stasis, generates suspicions about her or his agenda, and disturbs old alliances and allegiances.

A third possibility is a combination of (1) and (2).  Imagine, for instance, an individual thought of as lacking skills and ambition coming back to the home town in a position of significant authority or with some finely honed ability thought impossible when the character was a younger person.

The next step is to establish boundaries for either or both of these front-rank characters.  What are their ideals, their standards, the places where they have previously drawn a line in the sand or their present-day place where they see themselves digging in and fighting.

Now, the clincher.  Put that person in a dramatic situation where they are forced to the edge, to the verge of the unthinkable.  Now push them over the edge, watch them fall, then begin writing.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


There is another truth, universally acknowledged, that a character with a goal of remaining within a precise set of boundaries cannot be allowed to remain within those boundaries with any hope of taking a front-rank role in a story.

By its definition, the story cannot allow this condition to take place, lest it lose its dramatic shape and in the process become a narrative or tale, but not a story.  Adding to the conventions and zoning laws of story, a front-rank character must at some stage feel driven to the outermost reaches of her or his boundaries, then given a shove of sufficient intensity to allow the reader to see that character in a stagger, stumble, or other defensive maneuver to prevent straying over the boundary.

Story wants its A teams, the Protagonists and the Antagonists, to feel the persistent presence of forces that will not stop until the shove has been delivered to the character, and crisis time has arrived.  This is a basic standard for the contemporary story.  In its way, it has been a basic standard  throughout the history of the story, which extends at least to the many tales presented to us at the end of the fourteenth century in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Such is the nature of story that it may be taken out of context, which is to say out of its time of composition, where many of the characters, events, or conventions were of political and cultural moment as well as being a part of a confection assembled to entertain or as well to educate.  Many of the actual politics of, say, the Shakespearean histories, are long past, yet their conflicts, crises of moral choice, and commentary on human nature, seen as pure story, still draw our sympathy and empathy.

We can see enormous changes in social, political, artistic, and scientific boundaries, but we see in many of Chaucer's characters the behavior, attitudes, and agendas of the parade of suspects appearing before us in nighttime television and the popular press.  In a real sense, idiocy and self-interest have been democratized.

Critical theory, applied to story, provides different lenses through which we can see the messages buried within the characters, their strengths and foibles, and their institutions.  Suffer two more examples from Shakespeare:  Hamlet was given the task of avenging his father's murder, a mission that brought what may well have been hidden or sublimated psychological urges out into the open.  

By acting on these dark messages, Hamlet's life was irrevocably shoved over boundaries and into free fall. Macbeth was encouraged to follow the clarion calls of his own ambition, well beyond the boundaries of the man who is presented to us first as a skilled military leader, loyal to his king.  Now, we see him struggle with the conscience at first preventing him from killing his king to being able to step into the persona of an entirely different person.

We leap the six-hundred-year span from Chaucer's time and the four-hundred-year span from Shakespeare to the present, our tastes in the presentation and modes of story enhanced, often to the point where we can no longer with confidence distinguish between the fanciful nature of satire and the human nature of Reality.

Story and human nature have advanced upon our time lines in parallel lines, demanding now that the Protagonist and Antagonist be pushed to the verges of their landscape then forced over.  The unthinkable has come to pass. Now that these worthies have tasted the unthinkable, we assemble to feast on the new possibilities available.

From time to time, either in conversation or written commentary, you hear a yearning for stories that do not appear to celebrate the darker sides of the Human condition.  Well and good; a story need not be dark for the mere sake of darkness any more than it should be light for some misbegotten parental sense that lightness is encouragement and darkness the product of despair.

We had several years of lightness and lightheartedness, thanks to Hollywood as metaphor for the bulk of the motion picture industry.  That vision was manipulated and controlled in ways best described as Orwellian, where even the players were manipulated and kept in a state of thralldom to which generations of young aspired.  Imagine a pre-Civil War teenager yearning to become a slave.  

Story has often taken the role of trespassing on the boundaries of convention, a comet, to use a metaphor, of aspiration, talent, and determination, unwilling to remain locked in the prison of the dual nature of humanity.  The comet hurtles through the space of time, lighting up the sky for those who read and think.

Friday, May 22, 2015


It is a truth universally acknowledged among avid readers that they are more likely to remember characters than the circumstances, or plots, in which the characters find themselves caught. 

This truth applies even to characters in novels the reader has been loathe to finish, which moves us toward the notion of the character's goals and foibles are of more value to the reader and the writer than the concatenation of events we've come to think of as plot.

To be sure, we remember some aspects of plot line, but most of these don't remain in memory as long as the character's goals and possible defects or fears.  Only after considering a tense situation in which the character seems to break or behave in an unexpected way do we remember a bit more of the precipitating plot events.  

We remember Henry, often referred to as The Youth in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of  Courage, fearful that he will turn coward and run in battle.  We remember Scarlet O'Hara's famed closing line from Gone with the Wind, but we may not recall all the details of how she got to that place of optimism or if, indeed, it truly is optimism.  We remember her disastrous encounters with Ashley and Rhett, but unless we've been drawn back to the narrative several times, we are stronger on her presence as a character.

Two robins scarcely make a Spring, but these two characters, both from the same historical era, serve to exemplify the point and at the same time serve to remind us of the reason why characters become memorable in the first place and what the mechanism is to make readers care what happens to them and to enjoy the speculation of what they will or will not do next.

The quality we're looking at here is empathy, which must begin with the writer taking the necessary steps to be able to think the way the character thinks, feel what the character feels, speak the way the character speaks, and this last bit of subtlety, be able to adopt the character's mechanism for subtext.  The character may say one thing but in the regard of that spoken tag, do something altogether different.  The reader needs to know if the character is lying, to whom, and why.

For Empathy to apply and have results, the writer must put him or herself aside.  To give an exaggerated example, the writer must be able to identify with the character to the extent of "being" a person with the height of five feet, six inches, in a room filled with professional basketball players.

The writer must give the reader enough of a sense of the character to cause the reader to feel concern for the outcome of that character's fate.  At least one thing about that character must register with the reader to the extent that the reader begins to experience a sense of unease and concern for what the reader believes the character is about to do next.

One of the most sustained and compelling examples of empathy you've come across in recent years appears with exquisite regularity in a recent collection of short stories, Redeployment, a debut collection from Phil Klay.  Given Stephen Crane's amazing ability to write a convincing narrative about a war that took place before he was born, you could suspect Klay of having come by his information about various levels of service in Iraq from second- and third-hand sources.  But the work brims so full of authenticity, you have to conclude Klay was there, not only from his sensual evocation of Iraq but as well from his portrayal of men and women at many levels of combat and non-combat participation.

The stories are seen through officers, non-coms, and enlisted personnel, including a chaplain.  Ages of characters range from eighteen or nineteen into the forties.  Nearly every individual who appears is now or was in the recent past military, with reference to service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

You had and continue to experience severe opposition to both ventures.  A good deal of residual distaste for the military seeps into your reading of these stories, but this residue is in every case overcome by the author's ability to make his characters available in all their youth, romanticism, and combat readiness that borders on aberrant behavior seem human, frail, believable, and somehow, even while they are presented in their eagerness to rack up battle kills, as commendable individuals.

To cite the last story in the collection, its narrator, a lance corporal in an artillery unit, part of a team that can send shells five and six miles away to work their incredible damage, is seeking proof of his units first kills.  He is at once one of the things you hate most about war and in his vulnerability one of the reasons you care for such an individual and the nightmare aspects of the rest of his life.


A story works best when its protagonists and antagonists change places during the arc of the narrative, which allows us to see how there are always at least two sides to a conflict, and sometimes so many more that the characters never leave us.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Experience goes to work on the individual like a particle in quantum physics, filled with unanticipated shapes and behaviors. No sooner than it becomes the glue holding memory together when it becomes the ice axe shattering the cold chunk of Reality.

Without experience, you believe you would be a blob of a boy raised on romantic adventures, seeing each bus and street car as a means of transportation to some remote adventure beyond your imagination.  

You believe this is so because of the years of yearning for adventures spawned in books, films, and comics, where you were prompted to believe adventures were to be found with the same frequency you found Indian head pennies and buffalo nickels, rarities in your boyhood but nevertheless possibilities.

You remember one ache of romanticism in which you forebore to exchange the one nickel in your pocket for a Milk-Nickel ice cream bar sold by the Good Humor truck that plied the evening streets of your Los Angeles youth.  

The nickel in question was a worn, graceful buffalo.  How could a coin with such a noble animal not have special magic?  The Jefferson nickel made its debut in 1938, just shy of the time you began to appreciate the appearance and power of the Buffalo nickel.

The experience of change was in the cultural air.  You have noting against Lincoln; in many ways he is your favorite president.  You have against Jefferson only that he was chosen some years before your birth to replace the Indian and the buffalo on the nickel.  Your experience with coins and paper money is in transit to the point where days elapse before you touch either coin or bill.

In a significant sense, experience began to work as a viable force for you then. given the occasional presence of the Indian-head penny, the magical aura of six cents, and the fact that every time your maternal grandfather saw you, he gave you a nickel, and what were the odds then it would be buffalo?

Your good fortune was the turn of experimental events in your life combining with imaginary ones to leave you alert to possibilities in both worlds.  As a result, experience has the metaphor of wave and particle for you, in this case of verb and noun.  

To experience.  What an invitation to alter one's shape and gallery of responses.  What taking of chances, what emphasis on aiming toward outcomes.  Even placing one's self in the absolute middle of that glass-half-full-or-half-empty argument, the potential for the most modest of successes is high.

Experience as a noun, a souvenir of an event.  Perhaps the experience was painful or frightening or in some other way, disagreeable.  Even so, it is an opportunity to form a callous of protection or a scab, signifying an open wound has begun to knit itself closer.  Scabbed or scarred, you are left a different person as a result of that noun, changed as few such experiences have abraded you.

A significant element in story is some degree of change.  The change may be noticed by a character as the change relates to an external relationship or convention.  The change may be some inner resource the character notices in herself.  The change may well be noticed only by the reader, which is, of course, the intent of the writer.  The reader sees what the characters do not.  The reader sees the irony of what can neither be seen nor spoken of.

If change is the engine of story, experience is the turbo of change.  The line is direct and inferential, wave and particle.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Everybody Knows There's No Sanity Clause

For the past few weeks, you've been searching for a definition to a concept that seems to have relevance for you in terms of a book project you're working on, a specific lecture some of your students are pressing you to give, and a personal need for understanding.

The concept appears in your awareness on a daily basis, often more than once a day and from such diverse sources as literature, the world of publishing, the world of university and teaching, the world of local politics, the world of science, the world of national and international politics.  Awareness of the concept is, thus, like following the trajectories of a volleyball during a heated, tightly contested game.

In ways of significant meaning and consequence for you, the conquest in question, or at least its definition, relates to ways in which you see and interpret the world and to the ways in which those minute parts of the world that are aware of you see you and interpret you.

From time to time, the volleyball game is in your head, wherein you are alternately quite crazy or relatively stable in your sanity.  Ah, yes; sanity.  Glad you got around to that, because sanity is the concept for which you've been seeking a definition that will allow the concept to explain itself to you, settle in upon you so that you might proceed with the work you hope to engage, within the time your appointment for living on this planet lasts.

Sanity reminds you of how you were appointed to a position at the university for a non-specified time at first, made aware, as universities seem to enjoy doing, that however glad the university is to have you exposing your interests and abilities to a select segment of the student body, the university wishes to make it clear how your status in the relative spectrum of university status is  of a piece with the status of a mosquito in a rum filled with blood donors.

There are three status levels at this university you can forget about, even were you to aspire to them.  By the nature of your appointment, you are noted on all university records as non-senate, which means you might be tolerated at one or two meetings of the academic senate, should you wish to endure those meetings, but only from the stands.  Nor are you to consider yourself ladder faculty, wherein you are working your way up the ladder of permanence.

In most cases, the university is cordial and you might go so far as to say collegial toward you to the point where some communications address you as esteemed colleague and one or two have addressed you, Hey, Shelly.  However, when interests and opinions engage in faculty meetings or curriculum committee meetings, there have been times when you have been assigned the rank of "you people."

A definition for sanity that has held your interest for the past while takes into consideration the capacity to accurately assess the consequences of actions.  You lean to that definition; it has a nice sense of purpose and awareness.  In fact, you like it a good deal more than the notion of knowing right from wrong or being able to assess moral choice and be able to weigh various of these against one another, choosing the best out of a batch.

You have a good deal of respect for the notion of sanity, no matter if the notion deliberately or accidentally omits some of your favorite choices.  Thus, when you say you approach the polar opposite, you do so with a generous measure of curiosity and pragmatism, finding neither fear nor opprobrium in being considered not sane, which is to say crazy.

Sanity often seems to you joined at the hip with serious and protracted altruism, which is not at all bad, except that for your tastes, it precludes the kind of desperation or sense of being cut adrift that often accompanies some act of genuine creativity while doing your work in the research laboratories of bat shit craziness.

For the longest time, you've considered grief as one of the brightest pole stars of creativity.  It is not so much that one cannot be creative until one has experienced grief as it is fact for you that the forces causing grief are inevitable, while the forces causing creativity are optional.  One either accepts them or does not.  Further proof is that there is grief in creativity.

For now, sanity is creative craziness, a plateau from which you can see above and below the horizons of convention.  This is a place where a number of misbegotten forms gather to compare notes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Samuel, Nathan, and Jack

By the time you'd reached the age where you encountered the Which came first, the egg or the chicken question, you'd already and without being aware of it chosen the chicken counterpart in another riddle of existential proportion.  Which came first, the reader or the writer?

The answer seemed pretty clear to you all along.  You could;t have taken with seriousness the desire to become someone who wrote stories without yourself having read more of them than you could keep straight.  This decision on your part was pushed over the edge because your own life, at the time, was teetering on the edges of boredom.  At no time has it been lost on you that part of your passion for reading story as well as nonfiction was to substitute the adventure of story for the mere interest in the world and curiosity about how it worked.

In effect, story was for you the motivating force for you turning information into adventurous narratives that were more of a piece with one of the early and now all-but-forgotten forebears of the modern story, Washington Irving.

There is a logic in this chronology that has of late had you up past your bedtime, pondering the implications, some of which began when you were directed by a kindly librarian to investigating the tales of Washington Irving, continuing with your discovery of Twain, first the novelist, then as the memoirist.  By this time, you'd been directed to, or your curiosity took you toward, the ancients whom, at one point, you had no use for.

Why would you want to read anything before Twain?  This had a particular relevance to you because when Twain died, on April 21, 1910, your father was almost the same age you were when you discovered that Twain not only wrote nonfiction, he'd begun having the kind of adventurous life you craved.  No doubt your father was bewildered by your constant reference to the fact that he was alive at the same time as your hero, wondering, no doubt, what he could have done to make that more meaningful.

He'd done quite enough by making Twain seem closer than his books, and by having his own version of the dead pan responses you found so effective in Twain.  Thanks to your father, Twain and his delivery seemed more within your own grasp.  Enter now Nathan Birnbaum, born 1896, meaning he'd achieved fourteen years of living while Twain still set his Conklin fountain pen to paper.  Your father, Mark Twain, and Nathan Birnbaum had in further common the fact that all had a glorious, dead pan sense of timing and a notable fondness for a cigar, each appreciating it for its flavor but as well as a kind of elocutionary tool, a wand, if you will, to use in punctuating their statements.

Samuel Langhorn Clemens changed his name and persona to Mark Twain.  Nathan Birnbaum changed his name to George Burns. You can see sufficient reason to call Burns the Jewish Mark Twain. Your father didn't have any reason to change his name.  Because he was so close, you took every opportunity to watch his moves, study his timing, watch his gestures.  Somewhere in your digital photo album, there is a picture of you taken in June of 2014 on the occasion of a reading and signing of a book of short stories.  

Thanks to cataract surgery in both eyes sometime early in 2013, you no longer need the contact lenses you wore for years, nor the nonprescription-type reading glasses.  At that reading, you wore them, in the interests of a smooth reading performance.  When you saw the picture for the first time, you felt a momentary shift of balance and displacement.  The individual in the picture wore your jacket.  You recognized the shirt.  And with the reading glasses, the picture was complete.  You'd never looked more like your father than at that photo.  In a real sense, what you'd been pointing toward all these many years had converged.  How could someone so physically unlike the author Truman Capote as Philip Seymour Hoffman so convincingly be Truman Capote?  How could anyone so unlike your father finally appear as him?

Well before that time, you allowed nature to take its course and you with it, back to some of the writers you disdainfully considered ancients, finding the comforting presence of Mark Twain, George Burns, and your Father in the person of Geoffrey Chaucer and, for an even more remote example, of an author from the past named Lucius Appuleus.  Another "ancient" was a Scottish writer, Tobias Smollett  (1721--71), in whom you found all but the cigar.

With these worthies in mind. along with the choice discoveries of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Kathleen Mansfield, Virignia Woolf, and George Eliot, you began to see, thanks to their combined and highly personal approaches to narrative, a sense of the long story being the equivalent of a history of human consciousness.  The novel is humanity's equivalent of petroglyphs and the drawings on the interiors of remote caves.

You've come to owe all these worthies you've mentioned and a number of yet more contemporary ones who give you great cause to celebrate each time you spend time deciphering the complex, coded traces of our species.  Of course, when the celebrating is done, and you take some time to assess what aspects of craft and technique and psychology and sensory awareness you've gleaned, you realize how much technique is required, and how much work you got yourself in for when you asked your fourth grade teacher, who'd just read the opening chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to a class deprived of recess because of a rain downpour if persons actually got paid for writing such things.

Even though Mrs. DiAngelo had a strong, nasal New York accent and was wont to pronounce arithmetic as arit-ma-tick, Twain coming from her lips was as Mozart coming from Alicia Dela Rocha.  You had no real idea what it was like to be screwed, not then.  You needed at least another ten years of trying to tell stories and not getting it right to appreciate what being screwed meant.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Looking for the Way Home after Being out among the Stars

NASA has sent the Cassini Mission to Saturn.  You send short stories out as submissions to journals.  Home Again Pet Rescuers sends out a Missing Cat poster with a picture of your cat, Goldfarb, poised and stoic on the bed he has been away from for over a month.  

Last time you looked, there were eleven spam messages in your spam file, offering you inducements ranging from eager Russian brides to medical enhancements that would accrue to the benefits of these Russian ladies, were you to enter the precarious equations suggested.

Writers who have invested time and dreams in the preparation of a manuscript of a novel or story or essay often send them to you before sending them to literary agents or editors or publishers, hiring you to remove any traces or hints of unnecessary presences that will distract from the purpose of the novel or story or essay.

You subscribe to reviews and journals which arrive, bearing the news of books, plays, exhibitions, and forums, some of them related to subjects you did not know existed.  Pen in hand, you go through these publications, marking the books and catalogues you wish to order.  These, too, will arrive in the mail.

In a thought provoking and delightful way, not much has changed since the days of the ancient ones, moving about on foot or raft or some other water borne conveyance, trading, foraging, in constant search of things beyond immediate reach.  

At times in your early boyhood, you'd invent the conceit of going to a library in order to consult with some elder, meaning anything from a Greek philosopher to one of the wandering storytellers lumped together under the name of Homer,  From these consultations, you'd retain some lore or memory of story or poem, perhaps even some fact which might well be useful in current time.

You were then and are now a tiny point of light in a vast space of explorations and radiations, wondering when and if times would come when you would do more than seek consultation, in fact provide something to share with others who sought information or understanding or even experience.

At times, you feel dizzy from such awareness as you have from all these other points of light, reaching out, sending, converting information to other forms, being a part of a vastness that so beggars the imagination that you find yourself having to stop from time to time to make notes of the things you wish to remember, other things these new facts relate to and, by no means least, directions for finding your way back home.

Today, you were looking at paragraphs written by another writer, a well-traveled scholar, who'd managed to get an array of facts down on the page, so buoyed up by attempts to present clarity that she'd lost her way back home.  

Working away with pen in hand, looking to be sure you grasped this writer' purpose, you were caused to think of your late pal Sally, a thirty-pound herd dog, who knew the way home and would settle for nothing less.

Much later in the day, while working on your own materials, you thought about Goldfarb, still being a lost cat poster, you thought about Sally, and thanked her memory for the awareness of the need to find your way home after any venture outward, looking at the skies.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Existentialism of a Tuna Sandwich at Duke's

Earlier this afternoon, at about 1:30, you were standing at the order counter of a longtime favorite restaurant in Ventura, Duke's, hungry for what had become in your mind the iconic tuna salad sandwich, which for you is the Duke's tuna sandwich,always served with a pickle slice of the proper degree of being brined, neither too much pickle nor too little cucumber.

A bright, cheerful waitperson took  your order, her brow furling.  "You mean,"  she said, "the tuna melt special?"

You assured her of your intent, which was not a tuna melt.

For a moment, she seemed relieved.  "The tuna melt does not come with a pickle."

Once more unto the breech, dear friends.  You started fresh.  You did not want a tuna melt,  You wanted a tuna salad sandwich with a pickle.  

"Our tuna sandwich comes with cheese, and no pickle."

"Could you hold the cheese and include an order of pickle, which I would willingly pay for."

"I'm so sorry.  I can't do that.  Our new kitchen supports a modularized menu."

"But the man in front of me ordered a tuna salad, which I imagine is a scoop of tuna on some lettuce, but no cheese, an probably a pickle." 

"I'm sorry.  My hands are tied."

For at least the past five years, when you are dealing with a new group of wannabe fiction writers who are early in their progress, you spend considerable time walking them through architecture of the basic unit of drama, the scene.

When it comes time to provide a link to a stand-alone example illustrative of the shape and rising dramatic intensity of a scene, so much the better if one or more of the students have a laptop or iPad.  You send them to YouTube, where you direct them to look up the first of two instances you want them to remember well into the future.  The first of these comes from a film early in the career of the actor Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces, in which Nicholson plays a troubled and edgy character, Bobby DuPre, who had reached the status of concert-level ability as a pianist. 

The scene you have in mind opens with DuPre in a truck stop coffee shop, trying to order a relatively commonplace breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, and coffee.  What could go wrong?  Check the scene on YouTube to find out. (Type in Jack Nicholson  Five Easy Pieces, diner scene).  Not quite a spoiler, Bobby DuPre can't get an order of toast with his breakfast, raises the ante by offering to buy a chicken sandwich on toast, for which he offers to pay.  When the waitress repeats the order, DuPre delivers his apparent solution to the entire problem, at which point the scene explodes with interior dramatic intensity.  

On later reflection, after watching and rewatching the scene, you're of the opinion that, extraordinary as it is and as surprising as it is in the overall concept of the story, it was not an absolute requirement in the story.  And yet, on further reflection, the scene could well outlast the entire story because of its shape, its mounting tension, and the manner in which it is resolved.  The Diner Scene is a role model of what a scene should accomplish, and of how every scene in a story should leave the viewer/reader with an emotional impact.

You've never ordered anything other than the tuna sandwich at Duke's, sparing yourself some of the more existential, Five Easy Pieces-type dialogue of today's exchange.  Yet such times appear in Reality, causing a moment where you feel somehow stranded between worlds of your own invention and dialogue and moments of actuality.  Such moments give a sense that the two arenas have colluded against you, leaving you somewhere outside, peering in a window in search of someone who will come to the door, open it for you.

Little surprise then that it's one or more of your characters who open the door, then whistle you in, Over here, bro. In that sense, you see some small possibility of balance, the quirkiness of the inner world you create being an equivalent of graduate school, a few more adventures before you move out into the world of Reality to profess your researches and theories on an unsuspecting public.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Having to Listen to or Read Bad Stories

There is a moment this morning when you look up at the four persons in your writing group, then realize you're all crazy.  This is the good, two- or three-drink kind of crazy rather than the six or seven drink, drinking to numb over, borderline combativeness and the facade of being rebarbative.  

Even that combativeness is not so much meanness of spirit or misanthropy as from having to listen to bad stories or, worse, read bad stories.  A drunk does not have to be a mean drunk not a self-pitying drunk, both of which introduce the trait of boredom to drunkenness.  There is only one thing worse than a mean drunk or a self-pitying drunk--a boring drunk.

Of course you are not drinking booze, most of you instead slamming doubles of espresso, although one of them is confessing to decaf and another is saying Irish Breakfast tea, which is a few clicks above Sleepy Time.  You're reading and listening and working out effective sets of notes to be taken home to look at again when you are no longer group crazy but alone with the work crazy.

You're the oldest of the group, but the four others are far from being at that beginning stage where they believe a thing will be published if it is any good and that any good means it has some kind of ending where characters find some common ground after beating the crap out of one another, if not physically, then emotionally, or possibly a combination of both.  

A story going viral on the Internet features a group of friends who have built small houses together on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, thinking to grow old together because they are such great friends now.  While you think this is a great idea and can imagine living in such circumstances when you are older, you have numerous reasons to think of this trope as coming from a younger, more idealistic vision.

Besides, you are at the stage of being old you might have thought about when idealizing the idea of living in a row of small, neat houses, out on the edge of a place, with only your friends for neighbors.  A significant factor impacting the Neighbors Plan for you is the fact of two of your longest term friends and the person you married are no longer available to live in such sylvan splendor on account of being dead.  

Such things happen to people, changing the vision and attitudes of the living.  This has nothing to do with cynicism.  For one thing, being old is relative and you're pleased to note you are still advised on occasion to act your age, which you already believe you do, which in turn speaks to the matter of you not being ready for lawn bowling or bingo at the Camarillo Seniors' Center.

Thus you are neither cynical nor overly idealistic, nor, indeed grateful to have students who are undergraduates, which is a special and wonderful time.  You've had some young students, undergrads, who were pretty good writers, aching to learn, willing to take steps into the darkness.  Through them, you remember your own times when you had thoughts about living in small, tidy houses with friends you did not yet even know.  And you thought about writing stories that would explain the hidden mechanisms of miracles.

Not lost on you, the facts of younger writers gravitating toward genera in which magic or alternate universes hold sway.  What better way to insulate one's younger self against the frustrations and bumper pool aspects of Life in the crucible of Reality.  And what about that genre known as steam punk, which is, among other things, a flat out protest against the unlit craziness of contemporary times.

Your goal through all this craziness is to shed some light on the dark crazy spots, do your best to avoid boredom, and see if you can help emerging writers of any age learn how tho write things that will have within them no traces of boredom.