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.

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