Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's a Mystery to Me

Writing a book or story more often than not forces you into a series of conversations.  Some of these conversants with whom you interact are you at various stages of your life.  These conversations may be broken down into the you who is at the captain's wheel now, strutting and fretting your moments with other aspects of yourself who've more or less given up in despair or gone off on vacation or, in the spirit of total self-acceptance, taken up some activity such as lawn bowling or--shudder--bingo.

The book you are giving the most focus at the moment gives you some daily reason to see how this conglomeration of conversations with the you of yore is as apt as if you were delving into a novel or short story, playing various aspects of yourself against one another, or, to extend the metaphor, plunking them into a cocktail shaker thereupon to give them a brisk shaking.

This book is the previously mentioned The One Hundred Novels You Need to Read Before Writing Your Own, a book that may well be reminding you about the novel you've been toying with for at ;east the past two years.  This book may well have come into being in order to get you to feel the strength of pull you recognize necessary for the novel and which, indeed, you've experienced with most of your recent fiction.

You can make a convincing argument that two of the more significant and memorable novels in your current work of nonfiction have a structure that plays a dangerous game with such a well-plotted book as Treasure Island or Ivanhoe.  Your "convincing" argument concludes with Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn fitting the description of the type of novel called picaresque.  Most persons who use this term mean an engaging character, say Tom Jones, setting off on a series of events of rather loose connectivity.

Early on in your reading life, you were aware of classmates and those younger than you rendering summaries of picaresque stories in a sing-song narrative of their own.  "There are these two, or three, or four guys, see, and they all end up in the Foreign Legion, see, and then they--and then they--and then they--"  You cringed when you heard such recitations for two reasons, one not of immediate meaning for you.  The narrative could make something as rousing and colorful as, say, Gunga Din, sound flat, boring.  The more sophisticated aspect was your growing realization that, much as you wanted to become a storyteller, you could not devise a plot with anything resembling ease.

"Suppose,"  you wondered out loud to your sister, "Beethoven realized he had a lousy sense of rhythm."

"You are aware,"  your sister replied, "that Beethoven had gone deaf before composing those last, wonderful string quartets?  Much use he had for hearing when he wrote those?"

Little brothers are more known for smarty-pants hypotheses than for snappy comeback.  You were aware; but at the time, you were open to anything resembling nuance.  And you can say now with some retrospective authority that nuance and its lack were major factors in your choices of things to read at early ages, meaning that rereading them in later years was the equivalent of seeing what you'd missed before.

Once, when you were about nineteen or twenty, already smoking English cigarettes and ordering sherry on fake ID, you told your sister that you could see yourself growing more urbane--you used that word--with each rereading of a book you thought you'd gotten the marrow from first time through.

"We'll see,:  your sister. who loved you, said.

While you were broadcasting your urbanity to your sister, you were not all that far from reading and loving Henry Fielding's novel, Tom Jones, which you grabbed onto because it was picaresque and because you were already demonstrating to yourself and a number of magazine editors that you and plotting were not going steady.  

At that stage of your development, urbanity meant your acceptance of the fact that any novel you wrote would be more picaresque than structured.  Of course, this was also your stage of development in which you declaimed to a leading Herman Melville specialist that Moby-Dick was at heart a picaresque novel.  You got the impression he was waiting for you to finish the sentence.  This was a difficult time for both of you.

During your senior year, a picaresque novel appeared that changed the way you looked at picaresque.  Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March not only changed the way you looked at picaresque, it became yet another experience where a book changed your life.  

You knew from reading Augie that you had at least another ten years of work ahead of you.  Even though you were publishing picaresque things within five or six years, you were standing on the verge of a time of depression; there was yet more to learn and absorb.  You now had three first-person novels of more or less picareqsue structure into which you could repair.  Huck, Expectations, and Augie.

An author of two novels in your hundred made another suggestion that took years off the mound of work ahead.  "Why,"  Dorothy B. Hughes asked you, "don't you try your hand at a mystery novel?  That will get you focused on story in ways no other genre can."

Monday, June 29, 2015

How to Make First-Person More Personal

The first time you read Huckleberry Finn, you were not ready to consider anything except the inevitable way the author pushed the character deeper into adventure.  You were convinced of the authenticity and motives of the character.  Nothing else mattered.  Huck and Jim may have been traveling on a raft, the run-away slave Jim may have been progressing deeper into slave territory rather than away from it.  

None of that mattered, nor did some of the nomenclature of storytelling you'd discover soon enough:  Huck Finn was narrated in the first person point of view. Huck may have had some choice comments about Mr. Mark Twain, who wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but you knew this time it was Huck talking, not Mr. Twain.

You also knew how much closer you felt to Huck than Tom, in part because the narrative came directly from Huck, but as we get to know both boys from their actions and behavior, the choice becomes quite clear, and so do the meanings and nuances that separate them.

You knew your way around a few big-ticket terms by the time you got to Willa Cather's novel, My Antonia.  You began with negative feelings because it was set in a place of no interest to you.  By then you'd had enough experiences being, as the writer-publisher-editor Sol Stein described it, taken somewhere you had no intention of going.  

By then, you'd had experience with another first-person narrative, Great Expectations.  This novel had some ending problems as well, you'd heard, causing there to be another ending, more solicitous of the protagonist, Pip.  You admired the use of narration.  You could not see Mr. Dickens' presence here in asides and summary, as you could in some of the other Dickens titles you read.

By the time My Antonia came along, you still liked Huck more, but were beginning to consider how first person narration kept the author out of the story while presenting a closer, more intimate experience with a story.

When you began to see the delicious designs and intent behind My Antonia, you could scarcely keep your seventeen-year-old self under control.  Because of Cather's remarkable sleight-of-hand with the narrative, you realized how empowering her novel was.  You did not use that word, much less consider it, instead, you began to understand the kinds of thought and execution necessary before a novel would come to life in your hands.

Cather's device captured you.  There she was, for a while a narrator, for all practical and dramatic purposes, herself.  This made her an easy narrator to trust.  She now lived in New York, but had roots in Black Hawk, Nebraska.  So did her fictional contemporary, Jim Burden, who grew up there with his grandparents, Josiah and Emmaline.

Jim is a successful lawyer in New York, married to an influential family but not in a loving relationship with his wealthy wife.  This is a subtle but important point.  Cather is herself, a respected and talented editor, on the verge of writing her own distinctive work, much of which pays tribute to Black Hawk in particular, but the Prairie in a loving tribute of generality.

They are riding back to New York after each had come to Black Hawk for a visit. Passengers on a long train ride, they begin to reminisce about their childhood in Black Hawk, and one remarkable family of Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas.  Their attention is drawn back to "Tony," Antonia Shimerda, her great appetite for life and her qualities that define her as an exceptional person.

By this point, you are ready to fall in love with Antonia, but the learning process still awaits you.  Cather and Jim Burden agree to write notes of their Antonia memories, then share then at a later time in New York.  A few weeks later, Burden shows up at Cather's apartment, a thick sheaf of notes.  Cather confesses she has none.  Burden extends his sheaf of manuscript.  "Here," he says, "is my Antonia," and now we know not only why the novel is called My Antonia, we are switched to Burden as a narrator, a seamless shift from Cather to her invented character, Jim Burden.

But there is yet more to absorb here.  The subtext of Jim Burden's accounting of Antonia Shimerdas extends well beyond mere admiration, to the point where you began rooting for him to see the shallowness of his own life and the potential for a deeper happiness with Antonia.

Even at your relatively young and much more romantic visions, you could see how such a union would turn a remarkable story into a forced, comedic kind of ending, and you'd already begun to dread the endings of some of the novels you were reading.  (You'll spend a few paragraphs on this same theme when you come to Walter Scott's novel, Ivanhoe.)  Cather knew how to manage that difficult quality within a narrator of reliability and honesty.

The last time you read My Antonia, perhaps two years ago, you were running through focal points to present to the class for which you'd assigned it.  At one point, you felt the tug of sadness that Burden and Antonia did not recognize the spark of romance you saw for them.  Then you realized with a certainty that Cather had not only forborne to have these two likable characters connect, she intended for some of Antonia's readers to feel the same way.

Because of its use of Burden, a man who could well have thought to step in, and declare himself to Antonia, the novel helps us see Antonia Shimerdas as more than a single person.  Along with her exquisite prose that makes the Prairie come to life, Cather asks us to see Antonia as an incarnation of the Prairie, with the great, vigorous immigrant vitality and capacity to endure the hardships of which the Prairie can inflict.

Twain caught you with narrative voice and a sense of using first person narration to tell the best possible version of the story.  Cather does the same in Antonia, adding to Twain's love of the river her own special feel for a part of the country you'd written off as a dull blur.  Sometimes, when you want to convey a sense of place, you pick up Antonia, read at random, close your eyes for a few moments, then listen to the surroundings in your story.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Huckleberry Finn

You were driven to Huckleberry Finn because you'd just come from reading  "a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that was made by Mr. Mark Twain."  

There you were, a scant ten years old, short, owl-eyed, a burgeoning reader, your biggest adventure to that time being driven in a raspy old Buick from your place of birth in Los Angeles to the hometown of your parents on the other side of the continent by a cranky man named Earl and his wife, Hazel, who sang off-key love songs.

To date, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had been your conveyance out of the mundane your age dictated,  into vast, rolling rivers, hidden islands, secret caches, and the unfettered adventures of boys your age, compliant on the surface, like you, but accomplices to romanticism on the inside.

Huckleberry Finn grabbed you from the first line, so much so that you could go no farther in your reading that day.  Instead, you mulled that first sentence and its magnificent voice, again and again.  You were given over to reading, but you'd never, not even in Robert Louis Stevenson, come across a narrative voice like that.  

Never mind that you did not at the time know what narrative voice was, mind instead that the next day, you approached your teacher at Public School Number Ten to ask her, showing your copy of Huck, if writers such as Mr. Mark Twain were able to make a living from writing such things.

Your good luck was her response.  "Few writers have Mr. Twain's ability.  A writer would have to know many of the things he knows about telling stories."

Often, even at that age, your curiosity pushed you over the boundaries of polite deference to adults.  "Such as?"  you said.

And here, Mrs. DeAngelo burned her words and presence into your memory.  "Mr. Twain,"  she said, "Makes telling stories seem easier than it really is."  She spoke in the nasal, don't-give-a-damn about the final consonants on words so common to Middlesex County, New Jersey.

Over the years, you've learned much from Huck and Mrs. DeAngelo's advice, beginning with the realities of regional dialects.  You, California born and raised, spoke in an inflectionless range, emphasizing first words of sentences, then pausing at the end, translating the period as a half or full stop.

Huck Finn got you right into a colloquial, conversational tone, as though Huck were confiding directly to you, not merely relating a series of events.  The more times you read him, the more you realized how much you knew about how he felt.  With each successive reading, you became aware how far ahead of the narrative stream Mr Twain had been, back there in the 1880s, how close you felt to all concerned, how you'd become an eavesdropper at all the goings-on in the narrative.

You had no way of realizing it during those early readings, but you were teaching yourself to read beyond the story, wanting, and getting more out of the narrative from the way characters behaved to one another.

And that narrative voice Huck has.  The closest thing you'd come to it was Charles Dickens' venture into first-person narrative, Great Expectations. 

Somewhere into your college career, you made connection connection with Ernest Hemingway's observation, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."   Ever since you heard that assessment, you returned with some regularity to Huck, looking for such elements as theme, narrative, dialogue, and the motivation of characters.

Huck also intrigued you because of its format, which is driven by Huck's joining with the runaway slave, Jim, his growing friendship with him, and the cultural guilt Huck felt at helping Jim remain at large.

At one point, your reading of Huck prompted you to read Twain's magisterial Life on the Mississippi, which led you to see how Huck's efforts to get away from his abusive father had a thematic parallel to a Twain's own time on the River.  You also came to regard the famed feud between the Grangefords and Shephersons as one more vital theme, yet another significant influence on Huck, who was by no means the same person, at the end, taking off for the Territory ahead.  Could this feud, you wondered early on, have any inferential reference to what was called in your part of the country, the Civil War, and in other parts where you lived the War of Northern Aggression?

The more you read Huck over the years, the more you saw significant and important differences between him and Tom Sawyer.  For some time after reading Tom's adventures, he was your default role model; you wanted to be like him, were in your fantasy world, quite like him, the only thing missing in your fantasy an outlier friend such as Huck.

With each successive reading, you were more drawn to Huck than Tom.  You wished to be him, rather than Tom.  Then, a curious and wonderful thing happened.  Kipling Hagopian, a film producer and director friend of your dear chum, Barnaby Conrad, asked you to read a film script he was developing, in which Tom and Huck met in later years, when each was in his late thirties.

This pushed you over the edge to onward favoring and admiring Huck.  The fact of Mr. Twain bringing Tom into the later chapters of Huckleberry Finn was, in your belief, a tragic mistake, taking the edge off this grand picaresque romp, turning it into a needless teasing and bating of the runaway slave, Jim.

To learn so much from one novel has been the kind of education you needed when you began your own journey, down the river of narrative.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

In a Minute, or In the Minute?

For as long as you've been able to say without hesitation that your favorite kind of story was a mystery , your approaches to reading have undergone change.  You found mystery in stories you'd never have thought to consider as mystery.  

To cite such extremes of example, short fiction by the likes of Ann Beattie, John Cheever, and one of your most favored of all short story writers, D. H. Lawrence, tell and told stories in which no detective or investigator appeared, and yet, mystery did. These worthies wrote stories resonant with the mystery of what the characters might do, once they discovered-- Discovered what, you ask.

The mystery and its solution orbited about characters who'd encountered moral and existential problems they were attempting to solve.  Even in the seemingly urban abyss stories of Cheever and Beattie, plausible individuals were looking for clues to lead them to the puzzle they live on a day-to-day basis.  

The same standards apply to these hapless individuals as the suspects and victims in mysteries.  Means, motive, and opportunity.  Thus, an intriguing puzzle that someone had to solve.  To the extent they were able to initiate a discovery process, you rooted for these individuals.

What have you in common with, say, Ned Merrill, the protagonist of John Cheever's story, "The Swimmer"?  You are of a different social class, with different life styles, different career and family goals.  And yet, Ned Merrill seems to be searching for something that goes beyond the mere conceit of a man on a summer day, deciding to make a game of swimming his way home, from pool to pool in suburban Connecticut.

You like the story because, as it progresses, you are able to draw more inferences from Ned's experiences than Ned does.  What seemed like an amusing idea from him has at its roots a tragic conclusion, so clear in its implications that you've often wondered if the author were writing from his own, deeply felt and deeply disastrous personal experiences.

Of the many things you admire about Cheever's work is the ease with which you are able to enter his worlds and their respective quandaries.  This ease of entry transcends your close association with the milieu in which the story is set.  You believe in a kind of transcendental bonding.  The story speaks, Cheever and, yes, Ann Beattie, and certainly D. H. Lawrence stop what they're doing and listen.  At some point, how many drafts in?, the story and the teller merge.

This is a quality you bring to the things you do, write, edit, and teach.  When the circumstances are right, you merge with the task, an energizing, somewhat unsettling, but exciting state of being in which the task is talking to you.  All the while of this conversation, you understand that matters of correctness or error, rightness or wrong, go out the window.  You understand you can be wrong, but your own wrong, and thus your truthful wrong.  You are willing to live by your visions and versions, content in the awareness that someone else may have a more cogent conversation with the same set of ideas.

You do not write, edit, or teach to be right.  You do so to be in conversation with the project.  At the moment, whatever else you may be doing socially or professionally, you are in conversation with The Hundred Novels You Need to Read before You Write Your own.  It comes and goes in your dreams, often in humorous "takes" where you wake up laughing at the outrageous pun your dreams have created from the content.

In the process of aging, you've become more detail oriented and methodical, two concepts that, even in these waking moments cause you a snort of amusement.  Such things were not the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old you.  Not until your late forties did you begin to notice the desire to go back over a word, a phrase, a sentence.  When you were in collaborative tandem with your late great pal, Digby Wolfe, you noticed he'd appear to be stuck on something.  When you said "What?" he'd direct you back, perhaps two or three pages, to something that didn't seem right.

How the fuck were you ever going to get a project finished working that way, a word at a time?       But the way things have turned out,how the fuck were you ever going to get closure on a project if you did not get every beat in place.  

When you had a full head of hair, you were afflicted with any number of cowlicks, each eager to demonstrate its own approach to grain and wave configuration.  You had the choices of wearing your hair short, as you do now, wearing it at length where it could be curled, or slathering handsful of pomade or cream to suppress the cowlick rebellion.  At some point you made the connection:  story is like your cowlicks head, springing out at its own whim and volition.

When you compose, you strive for what you like to think of as a conversational order, not necessarily the calculated paragraph logic of the newspaper story, which can be cut from bottom to top until, in frequent circumstances, the only thing left is the lede, the first paragraph.  Nevertheless, that paragraph tells the story.  DOVER, England.  Nobody attempted to win the English Channel today.  Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Digging in

With great thanks to your longtime association as friend and editor with the archaeologist, Brian Fagan, you have begun to see new projects coming your way as a smattering of potsherds, some singular artifact, or, best of all, as an intact skeleton.  Your job becomes getting as much or all of the relic out of the dirt in which it is buried.

Then comes the moments of spreading such materials as you can find on a table top or some at the moment part of the floor not being used for other such melodrama.  At this point, you stand back, cup of coffee in hand, surveying your discovery.  

Of course the dirt in which it had been buried is a metaphor for the ever deepening internal bed of the subconscious, which is below the level of immediate consciousness for at least this very reason, in addition to the others it evolved to perform for us.  And of course sifting through layers of subconscious will stir associations not expected.

For the longest time during these past few months, you'd been obsessed with putting to work one of the bits of conventional wisdom relating to writing you'd taken as a core belief.  Before writing in a genre new to you, you should do some research, find out what the top three or four basics of that genre are, read those, then read about a hundred others.

Part of what you unearthed from this speculative digging is your wish to embark on a novel you'd been playing with for about a year.  But somehow the idea of compiling a list of the one hundred novels that, at first reading, had the effect of knocking you on your ass persisted.  

So you spent some time noting those novels, winnowing your list to a hundred that seemed appropriate,.  But the matter didn't let you sign off on a task for which there'd be no effective use.

After more digging and sifting, you were at the point just below despair, where you saw nothing further to do with your list except the possibility of rereading those hundred novels, but to what effect>  Rereading them could have a splendid cumulative effect on your vision, could even inform buried aspects of the novel you wish to work on.

The way such things work with you, you were preparing for something away from the point of focus, notes, in fact, for a class.  This was pulling the cork from the bottle, allowing the genie trapped inside to escape.  Of a sudden, there was The Hundred Novels You Should Read Before You Write One, which was, of course, your hundred novels.  You'd have to prepare a five- or six-hundred-word essay on each one, describing what tools and approaches you got from each novel.  

But that was still not enough.  You dug, sifted, brushed aside distractions to the point where the skeleton had become whole.  This was a book.  In this book, you would name and describe your hundred novels, then challenge the reader to do her/his own version of your list.  No guarantees that this will make the reader a writer, anymore than it made you one, although, as you think of it, these hundred novels convinced you of your ultimate goal, got you to think about how being a writer would feel.

You weren't comfortable with the idea of simply listing your hundred key novels, then having to explain why they were not in order of preference or part of any chronology.  This led you to breaking your hundred novels into four sections, Coming of Age, The Search, The Puzzle, and The Institution, each to be prefaced with a few hundred words explaining what these four sections meant to you.

Your pleasure at the moment has to do with the way the idea first came to you, almost in chunks and a partial sense of what needed to be done, increasing as more of the shape spoke to you while you were dusting off the skeleton.

Story  has shape, whether it is dramatic, involving characters which represent emotions, goals, and ways of dealing with inner urges, or whether the story has facts, ideas, and theories instead of characters.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


In the past few days, you've noted bits of conventional wisdom thrown at you after you'd made your intentions clear about becoming a writer.  Such intentions came to mean earning enough from your writing to be able to live at some standard approximating comfort.  

True enough, when you began to see how much the cost was for living at standards you considered comfortable, you expended considerable time pursuing the ways of radio and television script writing and, in one whoop-de-doo period, writing for the screen.

Let's drawn a line in the autobiographical sands, separating the need to indulge such jobs as auctioneer's assistant, mail order copywriter, night watch person, greeter for a hot dog stand, and television non-speaking extra to the point where your earnings came as a direct result of something you'd written or from your editorial activities relative to things other persons had written, or to you teaching university-level courses relative to things that had been written.  This would place you in at late twenties to early thirties.

You were well aware of being on the other side of the line when at one point of remarkable financial nadir, the only job you could get was writing novels for various series in which no by-lines were given.  These jobs were arranged through a literary agent you'd met earlier--and quite fallen in love with--when she was an editor to whom you sold massmarket rights to hardcover books your company published.  This very former editor, now agent, warned you off of writing under such conditions, completing the established cycle of irony.

Other conventions of which you were apprised had to do with not setting anything you wrote in a Latin American country, not wasting your time writing modern Gothic, not writing multiple point of view novels, not writing mystery novels in which there was only one corpse.

You've been scolded on numerous occasions in the matter of showing versus telling, a conventional wisdom in constant replay down the corridors of writing programs, writers' conferences, and writers' workshops the way Al Jolson's voice sings for the ages from a PA system mounted within his sarcophagus in the La Brea Avenue Cemetery where his mortal remains reside.  You've also been given that most ubiquitous of all assertions of conventional wisdom, the exhortation to kill my darlings.

By that expression, kill your darlings, two approaches are meant.  The most severe intends that you go through the entire manuscript, therein to delete any description you labored over to the point of making it sound literary, in similar spirit removing metaphor, simile, amphibole, and, if possible, synecdoche.  The less hawkish approach intends that you regard your last description or metaphorical device with the cold eye of Dick Cheney assessing a potential hunting partner.

Were you to have nothing to say about these exhortations, your silence itself would be voice enough even in the breech to say something significant about you.  But this is not about you in connection with them, this is about you in connection with the one convention you appreciate most, even to the point where, for some time now, you've been bringing together the pieces of a book on the subject.

The conventional wisdom here is of simultaneous great importance and irony in your estimation. The convention urges, exhorts, evangelizes reading.  Indeed, there have been novels appearing within recent times of which you've not only said, "This novel is itself a course in fiction writing," you've made the novel in question the armature about which a writing course was wrapped.  Try, for instance, Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves.

If a writer were to spend significant times each day writing and reading, that writer would be increasing his or her chances of  (a) publication, (b) making a living from writing, (c) having his or her works withstand the fifty-years-in-print test, and (d) extend the probability of landing a good teaching job to support additional writing.

Reading gives the writer a chance to see what works and how it is brought into use, as well showing what does not work because of the distractions, speed bumps, and inelegance it brings onto the page.

Thus the return of irony:  Many beginning and intermediate writers resent reading as a distraction from spending time with their own work, adding the compound thus whereby the work they produce directs us back in time to the moment these unfortunates stopped reading.  No question about it, they are unfortunate because they are missing the fresh tides, the new impressions, and the old themes in the newest costumes and attitudes.

Here's a simple equation:  When you discover a writer you consider better in reach and voice than you, without exception, that writer is better read than you, and yes, the work you're engaged with at the moment is The One Hundred Novels You Should Read Before You Write Your Own.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When Conventional Wisdom Becomes Unconvincing

You once had a student at graduate level who, in addition to being of African American descent, was third generation on the job as a police officer.  She'd achieved much of her rank and position through her assignment to that one aspect of police work most career cops have come to detest, Internal Affairs, the guardians of standards within the department.  

The student thus had three things working against her, her race, her gender, and her department affiliation.  These things working against her were not enough to obviate a shrewdness and depth of intellect nor an ability to manage to inspire an obvious respect for her professional abilities, regardless of any covert resentment because of race, gender, or assignment to Internal Affairs.

Nevertheless, the upper echelons were pushing her toward entering a Ph. D. program, which would then allow the department to make her a poster child.  By the time you 'd come into contact with her, you'd had a significant share of experience with the inner workings of the upper levels of academia, the absolute least of which was you, because of your background in publishing, voted the rank of adjunct professor by the Academic Senate.

In the simplest of terms, your police officer student was earning about three times the salary you earned from teaching.  You were told the fact of being voted professor by the academic senate put you on track to "someday enjoy" such benefits as insurance and retirement, by which was meant the university would match five percent of your contributions to your retirement fund, when and if you were, in fact, approved to "enjoy these benefits."  

There was never a question of tenure nor senate-related activities.  On the other hand, there was a faculty discount at the book store; your salary would be paid in the event of you being called to jury duty. and you were entitled to first call for season tickets to USC athletic events.

Here's how you converged as student and teacher.  Even though, by the time you and the student crossed paths, you'd served three terms as various officers of the Southern California branch of Mystery Writers of America, had been editor of a short-lived mystery magazine, and written two or three mystery novels, in addition to favoring mystery fiction, you were in perfect sympathy with the cop/student who had no interest in writing either a police procedural from the inside novel, a mystery, or a thriller.  To add to the equation, most of the rest of the faculty wanted her to write a police procedural.

You were more interested in what the student wanted to write because you saw her as someone who had a daytime job, wishing, as another cop, this time an LAPD sergeant named Wambaugh, wished to be a writer rather than a cop.  Even though Wambaugh had been told by the then editor of The Atlantic Monthly, "You can be a good cop and a good writer, but you cannot be excellent at both, and will have to decide soon which way you will proceed."

This is the long way around to grappling with the meme of write only about what you know, one of the bits of conventional wisdom presented to fledgling writers, most of the time in great sincerity and with no slight hint of cynicism or political agenda.

Perhaps this is because you have taught first sessions of two writing classes today, one a memoir-writing class, the other fiction, with you assumption, later validated, that all present in the fiction class had it in mind to write novels.  No short stories or novellas for them.  Writing means novel.

Not long ago, you had a client who confessed her priorities to be writing eloquently and with passion holding trump ranking over telling story or pursuing essay content.  Even though she told you how you were her last resort, you found that a bit rhetorical and inflated when she began giving curses to the meme of killing your darlings.  By this, she meant she'd been told that nothing in fiction trumps story, nothing outranks idea in nonfiction.  "You will find a way,"  you said, "but you will have to put up with 'Kill your darlings' every time you embark on a rhetorical flight of fancy."

You did not intend cynicism or sarcasm although both are well-used implements in your own tool kit.  True enough, your years as various sorts of adjuncts or instructors or, in one remarkable place, given a supply of business cards with the University seal embossed in gold, describing you as a "Part-time, non-senate, Temporary Instructor, gave you things to write about.  Even truer, you were more forthcoming with these things to write about than you were with the business cards.

Experience gives you attitude.  Attitude allows you to see various characters, scattered in degrees of temperament about the equivalent of a compass rose, wherein they become agenda.  Antipathy means recognizing things you dislike.  Those three A's, attitude, agenda, and antipathy allow you a form of dialectic whereupon you can construct story.  What you do not know from direct experience can be intuited and/or looked up On Line or in reference books.

You write for readers who gravitate toward emotion-based responses and payoffs.  These latter items, payoffs, often include your visions of irony.  How well known it is that irony, it given an extra nudge or two, lapses into sarcasm before it can catch its breath.

Although you have some experiences with caution and being careful, you grow increasingly fearful that you do not have enough experience with caution and care to write about them with any measure of control.  As a consequence, your payoffs, your parting emotions left in evocation on the faces, psyches, and postures of your characters, suggest bittersweetness and the comedic results that are not of alls well that ends well but rather that even attempts to define and standardize such concepts as beauty and happiness will leave the characters as contestants, battling away in the manner of the epic fight scenes in John Ford-directed motion pictures.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


By the time a writer has come to some measure of terms with the narrative craft, he or she has been subject to the equivalent of the shorts of advice, rules, and common sense dictates dished out in advice to the lovelorn columns.

Indeed, writing is much like being involved in a romantic relationship; there is a partner to consider, your entire vision of the cosmos undergoes change, you are no longer the same person you were when you were mooning about, wanting a romantic relationship or wanting to become a writer.

True enough, a number of individuals move on from the desire to become a writer after experiencing at first hand how difficult becoming a writer is and how difficult maintaining that status is.  And how many persons do you know who have no exes in their life, which is to say a former romantic connection of any sort?  

There is also a stage you like to think of as The Middle Game, where you catch your romantic partner looking at you, then, before you think to say "What?" you understand the meaning behind the look.  

This person is giving you the appraisal and subsequent judgment that however idiosyncratic and notional you both are, this connection is going to continue for some time.  Realizing this, you are humbled, but there are other emotions involved as well, perhaps causing you to remember how it was with you before this romantic partnership began.

The Middle Game applies to writing as well.  When you were casting about for a romantic partner, you had a certain set of ideals in mind, the perfect partner, or perhaps an acute vision of what your type of partner is.  Then you met someone who is at some remove from your ideal. 

There is nothing you can do about it because you have experienced the chemistry, and so, one by one, you back away from the generalities of the ideal and gravitate toward specifics, perhaps a mole on the back of the neck or a scar from a childhood skating accident or blond hair when brunette had been the ideal.  She will perhaps even have different tastes in music to the point of being bored silly by your tastes, which you have come to realize she has made accommodations as well.  You are reminded of the time you had no interest whatsoever in opera, but saw opera as a way of spending time with D., who was a music major.  In retrospect, you see her as one of the strong candidates for the go-the-distance, except that you did not see that at the time because you were still too occupied with discovering the idiosyncrasies and notions resident in yourself.

There is a Middle Game in writing as well, wherein you see that you are in too far and too deeply to consider anything else, no matter what might come.  There might, for instance, not be at this moment two publishers eager for your next book, which is a book you hadn't thought much about until the earliest days of this year and even then only in speculative terms because it had not started talking to you yet.  

There were times when you had ideas for projects, but they did not speak to you or, perhaps of greater accuracy, you had not learned to listen to them.  Now, there are voices all over the place, like friends at a party or when you are out on the town, say shopping for groceries and you are surprised by the litany of voices of persons you know, calling to you.

The Middle Game of writing presupposes you are at more or less your present age and have yet to have anything taken on, no story or novel or essay or book review or poem.  And yet, you write, embarking on each new project with that sense of enthusiasm so resident in beginnings.  

Whereupon, you become sodden with the doubt of the middle chapters, wondering what mistakes you have committed to this point that will cause this project as well to be rejected.  And yet, you write, attempting to write through the doubts until you recapture the enthusiasm that got you started in the first place, and screw whether it will be published or not.

Thus the end games, in both cases the most productivity, energy, enthusiasm, and self-awareness you've had, either as a lover or a writer.  There is not much in the way of difference; you are evolved into a different presence in either role.

The advice you hear from those knowledgeable in each aspect becomes things you have to take in, consider, then deal with on your own, lest you become too reliant on conventional wisdom and common sense and not on your own instincts as an individual in love with his craft and the potential of another person.

Monday, June 22, 2015

You Expect Me to Believe That?

Among the first things you had to come to terms with in your efforts to perform the alchemy of turning the you who was a mere, if devoted, reader into a storyteller was expectations.  

Now, in retrospect, you recognize how you have come to some comfortable terms with expectations, other terms with a weary acceptance, and other terms yet with the kinds of sad wisdom you have come to associate with humor.

This is not to say you'd have pursued your goals any differently had you the hindsight you lacked then, nor that the results would have been that much different than what they have become.  Expectations being what they are, you can recall a time at about age seventeen, when you were a student in a creative writing class.  You'd had an assignment returned to you by the professor's reading assistant, containing a brief note.  "If,"  the note said, "you clean up the spelling problems, this piece is ready for publication."

You were immediately offended, not because of the comments about spelling, which were all too true, and which you have invested considerable efforts trying to set right, rather because you knew you had more work ahead of you before you could entertain the expectation of a thing you'd written being ready for publication.  And no, student publications did not count, nor did some of the occasional pieces you wrote for what were then called neighborhood newspapers.

In about two years, not quite twenty, your expectations--and your closer attention to spelling--led you to believe you were ready for publication, an expectation that triggered enormous avalanches of rejection slips, which had the effect of speaking to you, each time a new one came in. you seemed to be saying that you were so ready to being published, but "they," by which you meant the world of publishers, were not ready to have you.

Your strategy was to wear "them" down with submissions, meaning you had to have in effect what you believed yourself to be the least good at, plots.  At one point, you became so determined and, yes, desperate, that you dug out the story from you at seventeen, the one ready for publication with its spelling seen to.  You expected it would be returned, but it was not, meaning your original outburst of temper at the teaching assistant was either misguided or misplaced, possibly both.

You expect a storyteller to be a person crackling with expectations.  This is not an unrealistic expectation for you to have because of the number of story and essay-related things you have in mind to complete, then submit, on one hand having a reasonable expectation that these projects will find homes, but on the other hand, the writer's hand, all too aware of the potential for any and indeed all of them to be rejected more than once.

As an undergraduate, majoring in literature, you expected your approach to lead you directly to publication, which is to say you expected the mere reading of works to reveal how you could and then should write the things you had expectations for.  You'd already had achieved a fair number of rejection slips when you cane upon works by a Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, The Everlasting Nay, and No, In Thunder!"  He was addressing things you did not think you needed to know, which was a big mistake on your part, even though you took comfort in the titles of his works.  The Cosmos seemed to be talking to you, and you were laughing with it, not at it.  

Among your mistakes were those in which you did not take adequate time to see in perspective the things you read.  To create a world, however personalized, you need to set that world in a broader context, where characters are not merely happy, they are happy because of the way things have turned out for them, or, conversely, where they are not happy because of tangible obstacles.

To make the move from reader to storyteller, you need more than expectations that your stories will find publishers or producers.  You need expectations that they will illustrate--not describe-conditions that resonate with a segment of society, indeed that they resonate within you so that whether you are alone, writing new material, or out with friends, listening to music and eating at some level of enhanced enjoyment, you are filled with expectations to the point where you are defined.  

Poor Lowenkopf, someone might say regarding you, his [your] expectations are all he has right now except perhaps that enormous vocabulary and that absurd memory.  They may also say of you, He hasn't really hit it with his last two.  He's all about reaching.  They could even venture, He never seemed to have reached the level he thought he deserved.

One character with significant expectations is enough in the abstract to give you a story, but there seems more substance and mischief in the notion that several characters, all with complex expectations, are thrust together, as a family, classmates, inmates of a rehab or asylum, perhaps even workmates.

The matter gets better at that point because you realize added possibilities when each of these characters has expectations that she or he will be understood, agreed with, and applauded by the others, which is so often not the case.

Because you believe each new project much differ from the previous lest you become repetitive and derivative of yourself, you have the bar of expectations raised high that the next project will be better than the previous, that the new will always outshine the next, that ability always increases, builds upon itself and, thus, comes bearing the gifts of greater insights and the abilities necessary to dramatize them.

Beware of Trojans bearing gifts.  Beware of taking your expectations home from a day's writing.  Do the work.  Reach.  Try to have a mattress handy.  Just in case.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stowaways of the Imagination

Audiences come to a performance with expectations.  If adult students signed into a class called Explorations in Literature can be seen as an audience with expectations, and the particular class to which you refer a performance, you are on the most sound of grounds.  Even if the linkage here fails some test of logic, nevertheless the them will still prevail.

In your memory of this two-hour class or performance, your plan was to provide a fifteen-minute introduction to the author whose work was under examination.  This would include how she came to write the book the class would spend the next hour and a half discussing, followed by your own three or four-minute summary.

You had not gone too far beyond launching into your biographical background of the author when one of the students raised her hand to ask a question, something you encourage.  You nodded recognition of her raised hand.  "Yes?" you said.

The student, well into her sixties, said,rather than asked, "Kill your darlings."

You nodded.  In many circumstances relative to discussions of writing fiction, revising fiction, or the general discussion of story, there is significant sense to what the woman said, even if it had no relevance whatsoever to anything you'd said yet.  "Anything more?"  you said.  She shook her head.

Your presentation followed the menu you'd established, causing you to be met with considerable eye contact from the adults in the room.  No one seemed bored; all seemed engaged.  "Okay,"  you said.  "Questions?"

A few requests for the names of similar and opposite sorts of authors relative to the one under discussion, then again the hand of the first questioner, who again said, "Kill your darlings."

This time, you spoke a few sentences about the wisdom of such behavior, after asking the rest of the class if they all understood the context of the question..  At this point, the woman was right back with her hand raised, the near universal signal for recognition, one you remember yourself employing as a youngster, eager to demonstrate your own awareness of the material at hand but as well to suggest your mastery of it.

"Kill your darlings,"  the woman said.  By now, any doubts you had about the clarity and focus of her intellectual process was confirmed.  She had little other than that to say during the entire two hour length of the class, whereupon she was gone, not to return for the remaining five classes of the series.

Kill your darlings is one of the two or three most frequent admonitions writers of narrative fiction hear.  The others, arranged in your estimated order of frequency are:  "Show, don't tell," and "Write only about things you know from direct experience."  By your estimation, one not involved in the practice of writing fiction could crash a writers' conversation, utter only these three admonitions, then come away leaving no doubt of one being a writer.

You have told rather than shown, you have not only let your darlings live, you have concocted more of them, and you have with some frequency writing about things beyond your immediate experience, perhaps in the spirit of sincere experimentation, perhaps also because you are a smartass, but also to see if you could get away with doing so to the point where neither editor nor reader would call you out.

These three memes emerge as the Holy Trinity of storytelling.  Taken one by one to the dissection table, flayed and filleted, they offer enormous sense.  Story is action incarnate.  When you tell "He ran," or "She sped," you risk thrusting the narrative back from its kinetic state to its descriptive one.  There are enough risks even when you execute well that you've come to understand the need for some form of live preserver to throw at the drowning sentence.  Thus, "He ran as though his life depended on it, and the more he ran, the more he saw his life did depend on it."  Thus also, "She sped until the muscles in her legs began to threaten cramping and the thin coating of sweat on her forehead began to crest over her brows."

You may have spent so much time concocting an explosive metaphor or simile which you then detonate in the midst of some unsuspecting sentence or action, completely upstaging the main action going on at the time.  When you go back to revise, you may see the total effect your darling had on the remainder of the text, but then you'll have had the opportunity to hear a statement not uncommon to parents with two or more children, "You love her/him more than you love me."
As a side note, the one and only time either of your parents laid so much as a hand on you in response to one of your torts was the time your mother slapped you for accusing her of loving your sister more than you, a fact, by the way, even you knew was untrue.

As to writing only about things you've had direct experience with, you well know not to go there.  When was the last time Jules Verne managed to get twenty thousand leagues under the sea much less span the world in eighty days?  When had Edgar Rice Burroughs or Ray Bradbury flown first class to Mars?  They had to do it tourist class, which is to say writers' class.

In one way or another, we are all of us stowaways who travel not only from port to port, historical era to futures of our own devising; we are able to inhabit the four-wheel drive housing of individuals with much greater intelligence than our own or perhaps more of a nihilist streak or even a murderous intent.  We often have to improvise, leaving us scant time to pack our bags or make proper reservations, put up with outrageous conditions at the other end.  But do not for a moment think we take all this lying down.  We extract our revenge for the slights, bedbugs, and being ignored by writing about our travels and the way we were received.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

You've Been Ignoring That Empty Cardboard Carton for Way Too Long

From time to time, a story will appear in which an animal of one sort or another will speak in a human voice, with human diction, and quite possibly as well with human personality traits in addition to the animal's animal voice.

The more successful among these tales and storied are, in your opinion the Uncle Remus Brer Rabbit and Fox stories, E.B. White's by now iconic Charlotte's Web, where your favorite is a rat named Templeton, George Orwell's satiric romp, Animal Farm, Alice's misadventures in Wonderland, and the remarkable tapestry that is the sum the life in mythical Coconino County, the comic strip Krazy Kat.

The authors of these dramatic ventures did not waste much time explaining why or how animals talked.  Instead, they began with animals saying things, conversations much like those of humans.  In one of the more memorable comic strips where animals talked, the gimmick was that only young master Calvin could hear his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, talk.  The rest of us knew, as realistic adults know such things, that animals do not talk, thus Hobbes was only a figment of a boy's imagination.

The trouble--if indeed it is trouble--starts right here.  Or perhaps there, way back to the times of a writer named Lucius Appuleus (125 AD--180 AD), who wrote a novel in which a human happened to have been overheard by a god in the act of blaspheming the goddess Isis.  Result:  the human is transformed into an ass, who now must work his way back to being a human again, much in the same way Dorothy Gayle found her way back to Kansas after experiencing the quaint charms of Oz.

Neither you nor the multitude of readers who fancy animals of one sort or another in their novels are too eager to put up rationalist restraining walls at the borders.  An animal wishes to talk, well and good, you say.  An animal wishes to make complaints or appear in a satiric statement directed against the human condition, well and good.

In similar fashion then, you've carried on conversations with animals, real, among the living, among the no longer living, and among the imaginary interstices of your imagination.  As well, you've engaged in discussions with things less animate, such as a bain marie stock pot of considerable capacity, in a severe and grimy state because considerable innards of chickens clung to its sides and had to be removed.

Your form of address is often with a measure of respect as a recent one directed at a large corrugated box in which an article of clothing arrived:  "Well, what am I ever to do with you?"  Your theory here takes in the possibility that a person overhearing you in your conversation with the box would not say, "Oh, there goes Lowenkopf again, consulting a cardboard box," rather that said eavesdropper would share your quandary, even to the point of pondering the how, where, and why of your conversation with the same curiosity as you.

How easy it is to deny intelligence to inanimate things while delegating intelligence to things that have no interest in an intelligent response or, for that matter, any interest at all.  Yet, you do both, deny the potential of intelligence to things that do not appear to interact with you and gloss over information from sources that may well be reliable but hold no inspiration for you.

Such connections with inanimate objects and animals keeps us open to the potential within them and you for some form of communication.  This state at once reduces the potential you might have for feeling the emotional angst of loneliness, strengthening in fact your belief that it is possible to feel a form of connection with the Cosmos.

Yes, emphatic beliefs on the extent and power of your response to a thing, however inanimate or thriving with life it bears when you first become aware of it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Beginnings Are Easy, Endings Are Hard

When your exercise lifestyle was built around distance running, there was something as exciting and exhilarating about the first step of a ten-mile run as the first sip of a cold, bitter pale ale on a sweetly Summer afternoon.

When the addition of titanium to your hips made running such extravagant distances a memory, and your exercise lifestyle switched to swimming, there was a special, commemorative moment when you pushed off from the wall, then felt your body find its natural level in the glide before your first stroke of arm or kick of feet.

When the implications of a new idea grips you in a bear hug, then lifts all hundred eighty-five pounds of you off the pavement, or when the chemistry between two characters becomes so crackling with static electricity that you have no choice but to shove your own concerns aside, then plunge into discovering what they're up to, you are in a similar position of that first step in running or that early glide in swimming.  

You are at that remarkable, buoyant, charged place called beginning or starting point.  The world, for all its misanthropy and artificial barriers, becomes transformed into the teen-age equivalent of romanticism, the twenties and thirties equivalent of the kind of challenge you knew you were meant for, the middle-aged sense of just enough confidence to get you launched into the dark, hooded unknown, the later-in-life thrill of still finding your way to the starting line--any starting line, with all the implications that come with an enthusiastic new beginning.

The great, often hulking comic actor, Samuel Joel "Zero" Mostel, is credited with having said close to the time of his death, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," a credit that may have been apocryphal, even though it is the sort of things Mostel would say.  In the same spirit, you venture "Beginnings are easy.  Well, easier.  Endings are hard."

You have written your share of endings, but you have written far more beginnings, meaning there are notes for projects scattered among your work area and somehow into the kitchen, where they are mixed with piles of unfinished books, New Yorkers, literary journals, and reviews.  When you were eighteen or so, borne aloft by a subscription to The New Yorker, you somehow managed to read each issue, cover to cover.  As the years progressed, you met more and more persons with unread copies at their night stand, so much so that you wonder if there are persons today who manage to read each issue as it arrives.

Finishing things is difficult.  Some of the things you have not finished still rankle, behave in mindful metaphor as a pebble having worked its way into your shoe.  There is one story you sometimes put yourself to sleep at night trying to finish, refusing to believe it has not been finished because it was not really a story.

Beginnings seem to come to you like a sandwich of irony and enigma, where you feel driven to fit a pattern of scenes in motion, drawing the characters and you into what are at the outset unspeakable calamities.  At this point, you're faced with trespassing beyond the boundaries you've set for yourself, forcing yourself to become, just this last time, an overachiever.

There was often a point, when you were running, when you heard a voice telling you that today didn't look so good for ten miles; you'd have to settle for two or three, at best a mild sweat.  But somehow the second wind kicked in or you'd forget your promise of only two or three.  Before you knew it, you were up to five or six, which still wasn't ten, but a hell of a lot better than two or three.

In similar fashion, some manuscripts contain more than a thousand or two words, some beginning to thicken, send forth the news that you might in the next day or two get a first draft, which would be as awful as first drafts are supposed to be because in them you are finding out things about yourself that are the equivalent of a jab to your ego as the occasional second or third grade fear that you would not get to the boy's room in time and would have to suffer the consequences and urine scald.

Beginnings set things in motion.  Middles stir them up into circumstances beyond your threshold for fear or pain of humiliation or embarrassment or simply fear of the dark or being left alone.  "They will now and then,"  your older sister said of your parents, "forget you or appear to have forgotten you,"  She will tell of the time they forgot her, left her waiting at school, her fear and anger playing games with each other within her mind.  "But they will forget you because they are human and humans do forget once in a while, and once in a while, things happen to grown-ups over which they have no control.  And so you will wait and grow angry at them and not understand why, days later, you are still doing things that will cause them to be very much aware of you.

Having a sister like that for as long as you had her has made a big difference in your ability to handle things, in particular endings.  When endings come to your beginnings, there is a real sense of parents having remembered you waiting.  One by one, fellow students and playground leaders depart, asking you if you're okay.  Of course you're not okay.  You are in that helpless childhood place called abeyance, and when your parents do come to pick you up, even though you will have once again been comforted by your sister's advice, you are somehow going to show the world that of all the places you could be, the only place worse than New Jersey and Florida, where you were also in a sense waiting for the closure of getting back to California, is abeyance.

You have some record of endings, of finishing things, and you also have a record of some things left hanging, even if the manuscripts are long gone.  The endings nevertheless await, because the beginnings were so easy.  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

An Operatic Pizza Delivery Boy and a Receptionist with a Sexy Voice

When you stop to consider the number of characters you've brought out of the shadows and onto pages of the various novels and stories you've written, you're confronted with a connection you hadn't realized:  Characters in this sense are like the persons you encounter in Real Time; the more you know them, the more likely you are to remember them.

The lesson to be learned here has to do with the need, both in Real Time and in story, to get to know these individuals in ways that resonate within you, to make efforts to secure awareness of persons from Real Time and from story.  On occasion, one individual from either world will step out to greet you, causing you the need to ask for a clue.

"I was the disgruntled cop in that story you wrote about an actor who was forced to live for a while in an AMC Pacer."

"I was the person who tried to get you to publish a novel I wrote while I was an inmate at the hospital that has now become Cal State, Channel Islands."

With those relevant details in mind, you can recall both the character from the story, and the writer, whom, at the time, you feared might not be able to engage with the editorial process to the degree you'd have liked.  Such thoughts also serve to remind you of two of your favorite characters, both as individuals and as generalities for use in introducing students to the concept of characters within story.

Like many of the characters you've offered roles in your stories, both of these were the result of incidents you experienced.  The first came when you were in a class at the University of Southern California Master's Program, The Professional Writing Program, leading a discussion on, of all things, character.  Your classes ran in the evening, usually the 4 to 6:40 time frame, meaning that it was not unusual for one or more students to bring dinner to class.

While you spoke, there was a brisk knock at the door, followed by the appearance of a rangy young man with an abundance of curly dark hair.  He held a pizza box in his hand, raised it, then asked, "Anyone here order a pepperoni pizza, extra cheese?"

In many ways, the pizza is a form of currency in universities and colleges.  You've grown used to seeing pizza boxes and their contents in the main library, class rooms, hallways, the coffee shops, and in- and outdoor study areas.  The young man, his pizza, and his question seemed in perfect harmony with the ambience of the university, except that his voice had what impressed you as a trained resonance.

"Are you by any chance--" you began to ask.

The pizza delivery man brightened.  "--his Majesty, the King of France?"

To which you replied: "'I am that,'
Bowed stiffly, and removed his hat;
Then said, "'Excuse me,' with an air,
"'But is it Mr Edward Bear?' "

To the stunned amazement of your students and the delight of the pizza delivery person, you learned that he was only "sort of" the actor you'd assumed, rather a singer with operatic career in mind.  The incident stayed with you to the point where, when you speak of characters now, you are at pains to remind students how they must know what everyone wants before he or she can enter the story, even the young man delivering pizza.

"Does he intend delivering pizza all his working life," you ask, "or is this a temporary job to support some incredible dream?  And if he intends to deliver pizza all his life. what special skills or attitudes does he bring to the task.  You had no idea this pizza delivery person from long ago was familiar with the Winnie, the Poo materials, no more than he had any reason to believe you would be.  

The other favorite character type you think of from time to time is a young woman, of about the same age as pizza delivery youth, with an attractive full moon of a face, perhaps a bit overly made up.  She was a receptionist at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club when your great friend, Digby Wolfe, was a member.  You frequently met there for lunches or for afternoon iced teas to go over writing projects while Wolfe relaxed between sets of tennis.

A number of Wolf's show business friends, such as Walter Matthau, Jack Lemon, and Shirley McLaine haunted the club, including the actor Gilbert Roland, who had been a great favorite of your mother.  From time to time, as you indulged the club's excellent Ceasar Salad or iced tea, the PA system would come alive with a tonal flourish, followed by the voice of the receptionist, announcing--announcing--drawing out the announcement so that to a significant extent, the chatter and bustle of the tennis club came to a halt as all and sundry waited to hear for whom the incoming telephone call was for.  

After a while, you got to know the receptionist, who knew--or said she accepted the facts--that her looks were not meant for the screen, but her voice was.  "Some people I know,"  she said, stopping for a long, dramatic pause,"make a respectable living doing voice over narration and recording Books on Tape."

Even these minor characters are not to be treated as throw-away.  In their appearances, they want things as much as the protagonists and antagonists,  For their brief moment on stage or page, they should have the opportunity to upstage the protagonist or antagonist, drawing attention away from them, directing it to their own urgent, questing humanity to the point where the reader/audience is nourishing some unspoken hope that they will return.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Latecomer's Guide to Fiction

For the sake of this argument, you will need characters, at least four, perhaps five or even six.  These characters are to be diverse for the argument to have any value you can take away for future use and for the sense of having learned something in this instance.

In consequence, you arrange a cattle call, a diverse group of individuals from thirties through sixties or perhaps into a wiry, edgy seventy.  No cliches, please.  All ethnicities welcomed.  LGBTG welcomed, as well, biracial ok.

The fun begins as you articulate these individuals, wrapping coils of individuality about their essential armature.  You begin to recognize, if you haven't been too careful, how these made-up individuals share similar core values, have strong preferences for, say, mac and cheese, or for Cesar salads without anchovy.

No good.  Not yet.  you want polar opposites, their potentials for chemistry leading you to suspect the chemistry will be charged with negativity or suspicion, perhaps even overt bias.

After a time, if you've done your casting well, you recognize how this negative chemistry among your ensemble, even though they were all direct products of your imagination, leads you to "hear" a particular tone for the narrative, the words you will use to describe their behavior, and the words you will under no circumstances use.

With that in mind, you might even have two or more recognize a grudging--repeat, grudging--respect for one or two others in the ensemble.  You put some time and thought into this form of ambiguity where someone who is, for instance, a homophobe, comes to the grudging state of respect, bordering on acceptance, of another character who is open with his or her gayness.

As a part of the argument on which this exercise of casting an ensemble of characters is based, you now add one final character, male or female, your choice of race and sexual preference, your added choice of whether this latecomer is an agreeable or disagreeable sort, helps little old ladies across the street or kicks at stray dogs. 

This latecomer is a key element in much fiction, the complete stranger or a person who used to be from here, but has gone elsewhere, seeking and finding a modicum of success, but now forced back here, to the place of birth, where she or he fit well with one aspect of the local society and continues to be regarded that way by the other locals among the cast.Guide to 

Beyond the potential for a spirited story, this cast needs a plausible reason for spending time together, otherwise their very differences will seem managed.  Work-related is a good place to start.  Or perhaps patients and staff in a rehab hospital.  Possibly students and faculty, passengers, not to forget a going-on seven-hundred year old framework, pilgrims on their way to a cathedral in southeast England, intent on paying their respects to the remains of an early Christian martyr.

Next step:  Set them in motion.  Give them an assignment, a goal, a task.  Now begin to apply the pressure of deadline, micromanagement, excessive critical response to their behavior, overt suspicion that they may be unfit to accomplish the task assigned to them.  Then continue to apply pressure, culminating on the metaphoric equivalent of changing the dimensions of the field on which they are playing.

Now cause one of the ensemble of characters to take a stand that will cause additional rancor among the members of this imaginary cast.  You have stacked the dramatic deck for maximum rancor, suspicion, and alienation.

The argument starting this cattle call for characters is a battle you've faced since your late teens.  You have to this day severe difficulties thinking story from the plot outward.  This is the argument you indulge each time those five of words, "Wouldn't it be interesting if--?" come tumbling out of the pockets of your curiosity, just before laundry time.

How, your argument begins, could such an exercise not produce a significant enough eruption or discovery to result in a story?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Just Friends

Early in the game, your best understanding of a friend was someone a teacher had to seat you apart from.  Distance was only a temporary solution.  If there were real chemistry, the anticipation of it expanding was a powerful draw.  

The way you saw it, you were well aware of the mischief your curiosity and enthusiasm brought you on your own.  In a sense, you knew or were driven to levels of excitement and investigation from which you launched an adventure that might have you arriving at home or school later than expected, thus consequences, lectures about promptness and responsibility.  

You even had a growing awareness of the price you'd have to pay for such things as forgetting to honor time commitments, or coming home with some injury serious enough to cause concern.  

To take matters from merely being young to the dawning of greater sophistication, you understood that your presence was likely due to the fact of an older brother who was dead before you appeared.  You understood how, well beyond your control, your promptness and safety meant more to your parents than to you.  

In effect, your absence or forgetfulness was a reminder of someone you never knew and never would know.  In further effect, you were at pains to investigate potentials for adventure, discovery, and risk wherever you could find them.  As an example of this sort of adventurousness, the walk home from grammar school, using the detour of two specific blocks of a single-dwelling neighborhood where each house had a detached garage.

You knew of eight or ten such homes with detached garages, homes not usually occupied at that time of afternoon.  This gave you free rein to find your way to the garage, use a nearby wall, tree, or shrub to assist you in reaching the roof of the garage,  The ideal single-dwelling home with a detached garage had a nearby area covered with grass onto which you could direct yourself after leaping from the roof of the garage.

On good days, two or three jumps per garage before moving on to the next house on your route.  By the time you got home to greet your mother, you'd had as many as twenty-five leaps from the rooftop of various garages, more often than not with no serious smudges of grass or mud on your knees.  The occasional skinned or bruised knee was easy enough to conceal, obviating the need to lie about how you came to get it.

A friend, or a group of friends were individuals you could count on for the chemistry that would take you beyond your singular pleasure of jumping from the tops of garage roofs.  The chemistry often involved role-playing games based on current reading or evening radio serials such as The Lone Ranger, Captain Midnight, and Red Ryder.  

You had two standards to rely on for the ways you'd expand your lone boundaries.  You had to outdo some feat by a character you'd read about or heard on one of the radio serials.  Imagination counted.  A risk had to be more than dumb, it had to be imaginative and something that might result in you being elevated to the lead actor status in the next day's or week's round of play.

Friend meant someone who had imagination, a clear disregard for personal safety, and an admirable sense of nonchalance after an act of daring-do.  One particular friend, Max, who lived some distance from you, excelled in acrobatic feats inspired by Tarzan and Robin Hood movies.  Max was worth the long walk home, which also gave you the opportunity to walk off some of your more notable failures and, thus, skinned elbows, hands, or knees.

Friend involved someone who extended your own tastes in reading or, as in the case of Gabe, had musical tastes that paralleled yours to the point where you were each, again with studied nonchalance, listening to the then classical AM radio station, KFAC, until one or two in the morning, trying to find a composer or composition or both the other had not heard.  

Gabe thought he'd remain unchallenged for some time with his discovery of the Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly, and his memorable folk epic, Hary Janos.  But then you heard Erik Satie's Gymnopadie, and the competition was on again.

To be sure, boys would be boys; friendship extended to include not only the ability to tolerate various alcohol concoctions but to find places out beyond the mainstream where alcoholic beverages were sold under what you considered romantic circumstances.  At that time, romantic circumstances meant places such as cowboy bars, biker bars, and working class taverns and saloons where young persons such as yourself might find the adventure of being challenged.

Friends now have come to include characters, man, women, children you set in motion like a wind-up toy in some existential maze you've created in order to observe their behavior.  You push at them the way you pushed at your own self back in your pre-teen years, first in the Los Angeles of your birth, then the shabby back alleys of your parents' home towns in New Jersey, onward to Fall River and Providence, then the humid crush of Miami Beach.

You dare them to jump off garage roofs, construct river rafts, invade drinking establishments, and compete with their brother and sister characters in ways that will replicate the chemistry you experienced when you engaged with your early cadres of friends.

For what it's worth, you ran a Google search on Max, who has retired from a career as a gym teacher.  Gabe is a ranking player with a major symphony orchestra now and once spent two years with one of the major jazz bands of the fifties and sixties.

And you?  You are pushing characters and ideas to the edges of boundaries, then calling out, "Jump!"

Monday, June 15, 2015

Who's on, First? The Unreliable Narrator

Three bag ladies are standing in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s market, a common enough sight in most cities.  Now, two men, Mac and Ben, push their shopping carts out of the store, into the lot, where the bag ladies are standing.  Mac and Ben have the satisfied look of guys who have earned big points because, for once, they’ve spared their wives the effort of shopping.  This would be time for a celebratory beer at the nearby tavern, except—

Except that one of the three bag ladies stops Mac.  “Before this day is over,” she tells him, “you will be named regional vice president of your company, and, ultimately, president.”

Not to be outdone, another of the bag ladies tells Ben, “You will never make vice president, but you will become regional sales manager.”

The third bag lady seems distracted, begins looking for her cat.  Soon, the women make their way off, through the maze of cars, leaving Mac and Ben to shake their heads in wonderment.

“Wow,” Ben says.  “Regional sales manager.  And you—President Mac.”

“The thing is,” Mac says, before they head off to the comfort of their intended beers, “ how they seemed to know about our work status.”

Sound familiar?  Think: Mac equals Macbeth, while Ben represents Banquo.  Think: Macbeth comes to Trader Joe’s, because next scene has Mac arriving home to find his boss waiting for him with news of his promotion to regional vice president.

Maybe those three bag ladies knew what they were talking about.  They did in Macbeth, because they were identified as witches and because, as the play develops, their vision proves out.  They were telling it as they saw it, but so far as Macbeth and Banquo were concerned at first, they were unreliable narrators.

By the time we’ve moved into the modern era, we’ve had encounters with scores of unreliable narrators, of all ages, social rank, education and profession.  Some of them, such as the teller of Agatha Christie’s famed Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,  the principals of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and the first character of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train were deliberately holding back on information.  Had we known this information from the get-go, the story would have had a different outcome.

Other narrators were at times blinded by their naiveté to the point where we as readers could see things they missed.  We saw enough to make us wonder about the characters’ overall ability to report with accuracy.  Poor Mr. Stevens, the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s engaging novel, The Remains of the Day.  For most of the narrative, he didn’t have a clue.  Even when he got a clue, it wasn’t enough.

Let’s go for an even greater extreme in narrator reliability.  Even though he’s never less that a sweet, bright kid, how reliable are we going to think Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, after we begin compiling his activities these past few days?  This brings us to a question writers must consider in their portrayal of any character:  Does the character’s seriousness of intent mean we should trust the character’s take on Reality?

No questioning the narrator’s sincerity in Edgar Allen Poe’s memorable short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  Yet, from the first sentence, he seems all too aware of his status as a narrator:  “TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad?”

Two subsequent examples of first-person narration after Poe’s story, arguably Charles Dickens’ finest work of all, Great Expectations, and Mark Twain’s magisterial Huckleberry Finn, present us with two young men who have no reason for using what Twain called “stretchers.”  But can we, after careful, deliberate reading, sign on to the notion of these narrators’ reliability?

In a sobering test, can any of us recall with certainty the last time we read a book in which the narrator was absolutely reliable?  For those of us who tell stories, who among us is so certain of the last time one of our narrators was reliable?

Let’s look at some of the standards for reliable narrator:

1. Always tells the fact-based truth
2. Always tries to see the accurate representation of the historical background in which the story takes place
3. Leaves value judgments to the individual characters as markers of the characters’ personality

Considering these and other similar traits of the reliable narrator, we arrive at the confrontation facing all accomplished writers:  Reliable narrators are more often dull than not.

Neither readers nor writers want dull characters.  Even if a story calls for a character to be dull, both reader and writer want a memorable dullness, a quirky reliability.  So now, the truth is out.  Whether we are reader or writer, if we are forced by a story to deal with normality, we seek an abnormal normality.  More’s the point; we will not be satisfied with normal normality.
What a wonderful palette of opportunities this offers the writer for constructing characters to filter their stories through varying shades of reliability.  The effect on the reader will be stunning.  Here’s how to get started with the matter.

1. After you’ve finished your first draft of a short story or novel, determine where the story actually begins—not necessarily the first scene you wrote—and where it ends—not necessarily the last scene you wrote—then make a list of all your characters.

2. Rank these characters in order of their reliability.

3. Go back through the entire manuscript, looking for places where each of these characters could have been made to seem more or less reliable.  Consider from mythology Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy.  The god, Apollo, wishing to seduce Cassandra, gave her the gift of prophecy, but when she refused his advances, Apollo “edited” the gift to the point where no one would believe her prophesies, even though they were accurate.

4. Check to see if your story would have a better effect coming from a more reliable narrator or one less so, remembering the admonition “Well, less is more, Lucrezia,” from the Robert Browning poem, “Andrea del Sarto.”

5. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

6. Every time you read a story new to you, ask yourself how much you trust the narrator’s vision.

7. Look at the world of reality about you to see how much of it you trust and how much you find unreliable.

8. The next time you tell a story, remember:  the dynamic in which each character is seeing things as though he or she believes it.

9. Remember, you are only as unreliable as your last draft.