Friday, July 31, 2015

The Surprise in the Bowl of Jell-o

Your early adventures with reading bore a great resemblance to your experiences with Jell-o.  The stories you gravitated toward tended to be told by an I narrator or in a format you would later learn was called omniscient.  

So far as Jell-o was concerned, there was the Jell-o of the cafeteria, near pellucid, certainly clear enough to allow sight of some stray canned pear or grape lurking about.  There was the Jell-o of your maternal grandmother, a murky Jell-o, mixed with a generous proportion of vanilla ice cream before being allowed to jell.  In those cloudy depths, you often encountered the occasional small marshmallow, a chunk of pineapple, fresh or canned cherries, even from time to time a slice of banana.

Your preferences were for the first-person narration, although you could not say why at the time. Later, as your interest in reading became more surgical, you began to see how a story, told by its main participant, could seem more authentic than those told by some authorial presence.

Somewhere along the way, which is to say your sophomore year at college, a writing instructor took note of the large Collected Stories of Ernest Hemingway you carried about.  "Before you get too caught up with him,"  he told you, "you ought to read some southern writers."  

You'd already run through Thomas Wolfe, who did not impress you as much as stories of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, impressed you, which you shared with the instructor.  "Well, then, "  he said.  "Write this down."  He gave you a title which you liked the sound of, straight off.  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.  That had a grab to it.  You remember looking at the teacher, the title half written in your notebook, thinking you would like to write a novel with a title like that.

You were big on titles, then, often filling pages of your notebooks with titles you'd like to write a novel about, when and if the lectures you were attending eluded your interest.  You were already alerted to the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, because he'd written the poem from which Steinbeck got his title, Of Mice and Men.  You were also, at the moment, taken with another Burns poem, in which he is speculating how nice it would be for us to see ourselves as others see us.  

In addition to Burns, you were going through Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, The Hunting of the Snark, and The Jabberwocky, thinking of the possibilities of novels with such titles as For the Snark Was a Boojum, and Oh, My Beamish Nephew.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was another matter, altogether; it implied the delicious sense of a person surrounded by kind and supportive family, yet alone because of different interests, goals, and curiosity.  You found the book in the library, took it across the street to a campus restaurant called Dick and Phil's, where you ordered coffee and banana cream pie, then began to read.

You were immediately engrossed to the point where a waiter asked you if there were problems related to your coffee and pie because you had touched neither.  In addition, you'd read well beyond the time when you could be at your four o'clock class.

By this time in your life, you were aware of the narrative persons, first, second, third, multiple, and omniscient, if not to the muscle memory of multiplication tables or the valence of the then known elements, at least to the point where you could frame examples of books you'd read, written in each.

You had in fact read novels told in the multiple point of view, but it took Carson McCullers' novel to make the concept take on a wicked, splendid, unlimited potential.  She was not only advancing a story via multiple voices, each one was markedly different from the other, yet seeming to contest one another for use of language, implication of mood, and the conveyance of feelings you could feel without having them explained to you.  The events explained the feelings to you.

To add to the already simmering stew, there was a nudge toward Robert Burns in the character of  John Singer, the second of two mutes.  Singer had frequent cause to wonder why the other characters were coming to him to express their most intimate concerns, as though he had some ability to understand them better than anyone else could..

The instructor nodded when you reported your reaction to Carson McCullers' work, nor did you fail to mention that she'd been only three or four years older than you were when she wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.  

You set Hemingway aside, tried your hand at Faulkner, hit a road block there, but vowed to return.  The twists and turns of language were beckoning, calling, daring you, taunting you.  So was the growing notion that multiple point of view had some hidden treasures, and you had better start digging.

John comes forth with a goal and a plan to implement it.  Bill not only doesn't have much faith in it, the plan somehow threatens him.  Charlie thinks John and Bill are both crazy.  Mary has her own path to the goal, but no one will listen to her, because sharp visions are even more threatening.  Sally thinks Mary is being ignored because, well, because she's a woman.  There, you have a spectrum.  Now, go tell your story.

You would not have expected this to happen, but a friend turned you on to the Floridian mystery writer, John D. McDonald, whose multiple point of view novel, The Damned, convinced you to have another shot at The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.  Things were beginning to make sense,  Multiple points of view were entryways to making a simple story open its soul to you.  Now you could--and did--give Faulkner another try.

The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.  Back to back.  Oh, my.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

You Haven't Changed a Bit

During the time you lived in Mexico City, you grew to respect its sprawling vastness, but you'd come there from Los Angeles, which has a few ideas of its own about sprawl and vastness.  One particular day, when you were attempting to track down the office of a person to whom you'd just been sent a letter of introduction--Mexico City residents were big on letters of introduction and indeed, letters of introduction had got you at least two jobs--you discovered you were lost.

Surprised, yes.  Nevertheless, lost.  You walked about the perimeter of a large square, hopeful of coming on some recognizable point of entry.  As you bore on in your attempts at orientation, you heard your name being called.  Not what your acquaintances in Mexico City called you, certainly not in the Mexico City Spanish, which in its way is the equivalent of BBC English.  Definitely in California English of the sort you were used to in Los Angeles.

For reasons still not clear to you, most of your acquaintances in Los Angeles called you by both names.  One or two closer friends called you by your last name, one or two by your first, but most of the time it was the full version.  Thus, as the hailing voice grew closer and you strained to see through the crowd within the square who your hailer was, you heard your full name and the question you were also used to hearing without quite knowing why.  "Shelly Lowenkopf, what are you doing here?"  Accent on the you.

"Trying," you said, "to orient myself and get back to--"  You paused here.  You'd been about to say El Centro, which is the part of the Mexico City sprawl where you lived.  There are as well Colonias or Colonies, or Neighborhoods.  Colonia Condessa, etc.  But by now you'd identified your friends and paused before saying El Centro lest they think you meant El Centro, California,   Such was your nature at the time that you may well have been trying to get to El Centro, California.  "--downtown,"  you said,  "Avenida Reforma."

"You haven't changed a bit,"  they said.

Thus, someone you know, miles away from home, finding you, also miles from home,

During the time you were associated, if that is an appropriate word, with a traveling carnival, working at a baseball-throw booth, where the goal was to knock over a pyramid of milk bottles , using three baseballs to accomplish the task, you were approached by a girl you'd dated occasionally at UCLA.  The carnival was either Bakersfield or Ventura.  Same scenario.  "Shelly Lowenkopf, what are you doing here?"

"Trying,"  you said, "to make enough money to support three or four months of writing."

"You get paid to do this?"


Then, "You haven't changed a bit."

 During the times when you were involved with book publishing at another level than you are now, you were returning from what you judged to be a five-mile run in and about Central Park in New York, the endorphin smile broadening your face and the perspiration running riot as you ventured to cross what was once Sixth Avenue and now known as Avenue of the Americas.

The question.  "What are you doing here?'

"About to shower, then dress for a dinner meeting."

Again, you were told you hadn't changed.

Yet another time, you are in New York, moving along with the crowd on Madison Avenue toward your destination at 45th Street, when you pass a man alighting from a cab.  He recognizes you, calls you by both names. His name is Victor/ He doesn't ask you what you are doing here; he probably guessed your destination, the Paul Stewart men's store.  Instead, he has another question for you.  "Why didn't you take the job I offered?"

Victor is a New Yorker,  Trim, elegant, businesslike.  He does not wait for your answer.  For one thing, the answer doesn't matter.  For another, there is little or no hesitation in the worlds of New York you are familiar with.  No equivocations or subjunctives or conditionals.  Everything is declarative sentences.  Pastrami on rye.  Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray tonic.  "Seventy-sixth Street.  The Carlyle."  "You from LA or something, I don't know where the Carlyle is?"  That New York.

Victor does not wait for your answer, neither does he tell you you haven't changed.  In fact, you have changed.  Once on the ferry to San Juan Island, you were asked what you were doing and you were able to reply that you were about to have some of what you considered the best overall clam chowder of you experience.  It may have seemed to the individual who told you you hadn't changed a bit that his observation was accurate.  At the time, it may have seemed accurate to you.  But what matters now is that you in all those times and places, you were moving with great eagerness toward where you are now.

At the moment, you've come off a disappointing royalty statement, are in a situation where at least four publishers have expressed guarded interest in your project underway, including the one publisher you always believed you wanted more than any other publisher.  When, in fact, early in your career, you met one of the principals of this publisher, you told him quite matter-of-factly that he someday would publish you.

More than likely not.  But of more matter, your eagerness to finish the project more than any speculation about who, when and if.  So you see, you have changed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Uses of Power in Story

The major factor of power governs most dramatic narrative, beginning in story where the narrator is young, living with parents or in some state run organization, extending into adulthood, when the focal character is an employee or in some manner or other reports to another adult.

In some cultures, professional associations, or orders of a spiritually based hierarchy, the recognition of power is an integral part of the maturation process.  This leads to an exaggerated extreme here of an individual, regardless of gender, rising through the ranks, as it were to become recognized as a tribal elder.  

Instances of individuals growing through childhood and into maturity without having to recognize some external power are rare:  the occasional emperor, tribal chieftain, but in the Western cultures, and certainly in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, "The Rich Boy," even the young scion of a wealthy family experiences some time under some thumb of power.

The good news here begins with the awareness of power as a universal social force, which carries over into the world of story in plays, narrative epics such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and historical fiction such as Ivanhoe.  Tales of power are ubiquitous and inspiring, resonant with the tingle of giving voice to things under cultural lock and key. 

Many of the more modern dramas deal with clashes of power in ways that have become cultural archetypes.  Notable among these, the plays, A Doll's House, Hedda Gabbler, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and what many critics have come to regard as America's finest play to date, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Of the many variations on the theme of generational power is the version in which a parent exercises parental power by deciding to place a child in a private school, a parochial school, or home teaching rather than send the child to a public school.  Either choice sends the child for some time--perhaps for life--into a predetermined arrangement of facts, information, and propaganda.

Through the merest of chance, your parents caused you to begin your education in California, supplement or augment it in the East, expand upon it in New England, then subject it to the standards of the State of Florida, which at once delivered a favor to you although at the time the package seemed more a surprise or confusion.  It was, however, enough,  Text books and the guidance of teachers in Florida contributed directly to you beginning to understand how urgent it was for you to question authority if you were to have any sense of comfort.

By the time you'd returned to California, floundered through junior high school and high school, then embarked on the tsunami wave of a university where different cultures, political points of view, and academic departmental rivalries clashed with the collision of students bent on discovering if it was true what was said about the mead halls in Beowulf, you were ready to interact with a diverse population of peers who had in one way or another been caught between the rocks and hard places of culture.

The aftereffects of revolution are as chaotic as the revolutions, themselves.  You needed space to assimilate the remains of the cultures awaiting you as you inched toward adulthood, one can of beer at a time and to discover the presence and effects of power in the literature you took in as though literature were the cups of GatorAde so freely available at half and whole marathons.

To date, your fondest uses of power in story have to do with an individual by some discovery of ripening awareness, discovering she or he no longer in in the thrall of an individual, a system, a culture, an institution, indeed, a family.  You dote on those brief moments of awareness when the individual who once held power comes to realize his or her acolyte no longer recognizes the need, the obligation, or even the tradition of the hierarchy of power.

You no longer own me, the newly anointed seem to say, often in coming of age novels, or mainstream adventures.  The voice filling the page is the voice of coming of age to discover the uncreated conscience of being.

Good luck and all to that.  Power stories do not always end well.  They end up with the awareness that we--you among them--have to keep close monitor of the self, lest it become as cavalier as the targets it attempts to satirize or bring down using the anarchist's battering ram.

If someone is going to have power over you, you want that power to be as close to you as possible.  The last thing you want is the absolute need to walk into a Twelve Step Recovery meeting, introduce yourself to the assembled host by admitting your addiction, and saying you have no control over you life because of----fill in the blank here.

The writing life is a constant struggle to get in the first place, then be able to call up at will the power to listen to the universe, then put down on a screen, somewhere close to a save button.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Bar as Metaphor

Let's take a moment or two to consider the bar, by which you mean the fabled bar that is being raised or lowered.  That particular bar reminds you of a specific bar you had to deal with every semester of your high school career.  That bar was located in a small, sawdust-covered patch in the northwest corner of the Boys athletic field of Fairfax High School, 7850 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.

The bar was eight feet long, mounted between two upright posts.  A series of holes drilled into these uprights allowed the bar to be positioned at about the level of the waist of the individual using it.  The goal was to begin by vaulting over the bar, using only your hands,  No fair to use your feet for any part of the exercise.  By whatever standard being used, you got a C for vaulting over the bat set at your waist level. 

 To get a B, you had to raise your body to shoulder height, using only your hands and arms, then bring your legs over the bar without touching it.  Then you could let go and land or tumble into a pit of sawdust.  

To get an A on this particular test, you had to raise yourself to the bar, which was now set at your approximate height, bring up your legs, then swing them over the bar without either foot touching the bar.

Any number of boys got As on this test.  You approached the test with the sure knowledge that you would make up for this C with some remarkable performance in the broad jump or the running hop, skip, and jump, or the mile run, for which you'd get a grade of A for running in under six and a half minutes.

To show your scorn for the bar vault, you took to approaching it, when set at the height of your waist, then diving over it without using your hands as leverage, tucking yourself into a ball, then landing in the sawdust with a roll, from which you sprang up with a look of disdain.  

At one point, in your senior year, you actually were able to get over the bar when it was set at shoulder level, but that was an outlier, a freak of a performance.  You were not, you told yourself, the kind of boy who went around getting As in physical education.

Only in later years, after you were out of your schoolroom studies, did the concept of raising or lowering the bar mean anything to you other than that high school physical education confrontation and what one of your gym teachers referred to as your "statement" approach to vaulting the bar.

Somewhere in your twenties then, the concept of raising and lowering a bar took on the meaning for you of raising or lowering standards.  To demonstrate your relative degree of callowness at the time, your attitudes toward standards had not changed all that much since high school.  Couldn't do beyond a C in physical ed, never mind.  Wasn't as though you were a jock.  Wasn't as though you couldn't keep the GPA up with a remarkable performance in another class.  When, and if, you wished.

Somewhere within this time frame, the concept of the bar began an independent life in which you were seeing the height of the bar set beyond reach by the authors you'd begun to admire and with whom, in the dimly lit gymnasium of your ego, you'd begun to see a form of competition beginning to form.

To carry this sense of the inner bar to an exaggerated-yet-accurate sense of your own progress in the world, you recall the morning of your thirty-eighth birthday, when you began to assess your progress.  You reminded yourself that you were already one year older than Mozart was when he died, and nearly the same age as George Gershwin, who also left the party way too early.

Picking those two as bars of stature, versatility, and an incredible body of work made it easy for you to indulge the trope, "And you call yourself a writer."  This worked well so far as the sheer number of written words mattered, but it said little or nothing of quality.

To this day, some of the high school braggadocio of the dive over the waist-high bar is concerned, but most of the competitiveness is gone, replaced by serious respect and admiration for those who are actual students of yours or the likes of a Karen Russell, who is old enough to have been one of your students.

The bar remains and from time to time, when you see something that has the effect of stunning you into a thoughtful silence, you've reached the basic place for characters, moments before story begins.  Most persons and all characters have in common the wish for happiness.  Even if they are happy now, they cannot help thinking about raising the bar to see how, with a bit more effort, greater happiness or a more continuous happiness can be achieved.


What keeps you going now is habit, which may turn out to be what happiness is for you.  You have the habit, however slapdash and still emerging, keeps you working at ways to get over the bar.  With a certain note of irreverence, you are drawn back to your Victorian Literature class and some long, interminable associations with that quintessential Victorian poet, Alfred Tennyson, who took the laureate mantle after Wordsworth.

A bar can also be a sandpit, an oceangoing barrier to negotiate.  Thus:

Crossing the Bar
Sunset and evening star,
  And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
    Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
    Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
    When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
    The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
    When I have crost the bar.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Humore Me

All humor has a target.  If there were no target, there would be the total anarchy of launching missiles of ridicule or witticism or IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) of scorn with no thought to where they might land.  

Such resulting anarchy might occur from time to time, but as behavior, it cannot be thought of as humor, perhaps instead the complaints of the privileged and the bored.

The more you look at the mechanics of humor, the more one observation moves to the head of the line.  There is no such thing as victimless humor.

Humor can be as deadly a device as the IED, its goal to topple someone or something from power or ascendancy, to in effect level the playing field by humiliating its target.  Returning for a moment to our mythic past, we recall somewhere within the sock drawer of our culture the story of the emperor with no clothes and of the one brave individual who gave voice to the observation.

"The emperor has no clothes" is an early trademark of humor, calling our attention to the niceties of protocol and politeness, where nudity may be expected among the peasants but is in no way to be spoken of in relationship to the royalty.

Historically, targets of humor have ranged from class distinctions to gender distinctions, regional and ethnic differences, institutional differences, and the highly charged implications of marriages.  

Going as far back as Aristophanes play, Frogs, there is a social dynamic in the plot that reaches us across the millennia,  A noble needs to be coached by his slave in order that he might pass for being a slave.

The slave gets to call his master out.  "No, no.  You're getting it all wrong."  The humor comes from the need of the master in the first place and from the audience's growing awareness that the slave may be at least the intellectual equal of his master,

Moliere takes on an impostor in his play, Tartuffe, wherein an individual known to be a role model is revealed to be nothing of the sort.  One of the first plays performed to allow a woman character to be portrayed by a woman, we see a wife being smart enough to see the hypocrisy in the eponymous Tartuffe.  She gets her husband to agree to hide under a table, while she engages Tartuffe in conversation and he begins to hit on her, demonstrating at least one of the wife's allegations about the man.

The real humor for the audience must have been electric.  Here is a front rank character, a male, down on hi knees before a woman as he hides under the table and the woman drapes a tablecloth over it.

Wherever there is convention, there is fun to be made of it, and most ethnic/racial humor has to do with one culture's sense of superiority to another.  At one point when you had a student you knew to be from Poland, you reminded him of the nature of ethnic humor with Poles as targets.  You started with the Polish actress who was so dumb, she slept with a writer to advance her career, thus two zingers, a racial slur and a gender slur in one observation.

"Whom do the Poles jump on for their ethnic humor?"  you asked.

Without hesitation, he had an answer.  "Finns.  We take it out on the Finns."

Not surprisingly, humorists are often moralists; Jonathan Swift author of the epic essay, "A Modest Proposal," was a clergyman, satirizing by masking his humor seem an actual sermon that might have got a bit out of hand.

Stephen Colbert has this same quality of seeming to speak toward a conventional tenet while at the same time mocking it.  Who else had the humorist's vision of going at a sitting U.S. President by heaping such lavish praise on him that even the sitting U.S. President began to realize sport was being made of him.

The better humorists of modern times are those men and women who turn the light of inquiry on themselves, allowing us to laugh at their foible while conveniently forgetting our own of a similar nature.

The joke is always on us.  The more we attempt to make this any less than the truth resident within it, the more we emphasize the  truth of the observation.

You may not be an emperor, but humor is at least in this sense democratic, neither are you clothed.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Start Here--Where the Story Starts

In order to begin at a proper starting point, we require one or more individuals in action or on the direct point of action.  The character John, appearing before us, saying, "I am thinking about going," is not a beginning.

This is so because John, on whom the focus is made, is action waiting to happen.  He needs something to happen involving action.  Fred, for instance, approaching, saying "Lovely thought, John," then shoving him--right out the door of the hovering helicopter in which they are both standing.  That is a beginning because one character does something to another character who is only thinking.

To the same extent that minority actors are cast in powerful roles and that front rank characters are more often middle-aged white males than middle-aged white women, a divide exists in the work of emerging writers where thought is on  a par with action and in many cases the action of putative beginnings is past action, offered as an explanation for why some character such as John in the paragraph above is thinking about going instead of actual going."

You have years of experience, earning your editor's stripes on the slush pile.  You heard emerging writers wishing to set the background for the reader in order to make the reader aware of the true, emotional depth of the story that has yet to begin.  The story will not begin for another two or three paragraphs of description.  

This is so because the writer wishes to make sure the reader understands the importance of the surrounding flora and fauna, the potential menace of the waves crashing on the sandy beach, and the contents of the medicine cabinet on the second floor of the house in which the opening velocity of the story will emerge, provided the author can let go of it.

You have additional  years of experience with students who consider themselves sufficiently well read to wish to lead the reader through the maize of thematic implications and the parallels soon to be followed between this story, if it ever gets off the ground, and the behavior of the characters soon to emerge in this story and mythical archetypes.

In addition to the years of experience coping with such rationale and rationalist behavior in others, you have significant experience in coping with such tendencies resident within yourself.  You know your way around the vocabulary block, eager to comment on some character's rebarbative behavior to another or the potential for their morbid propensity to sloth and procrastination.

Not any more.  You like your beginnings emerging through action verbs, verbs without compound tenses or auxiliary props.  No had hads, no might have been.  Ran.  Jumped.  Fainted.  Leaped.  No had leaped until well into page three.

A frequent example you use--some say too often--is the opening of The Iliad. The wrath of Achilles.  Story begins with a major player pissed to the point where he's not going to fight [in the Trojan War] anymore.  So pissed, he's going to take his men and go home, fuck the others laying siege to Troy for the return of Helen.

We have to read several pages before we find out why Achilles grew so angry, and we have to resort to some research to find out why there was a siege of Troy in the first place.  For a fact, you've have put off reading The Iliad for at least another ten years if you'd known how it started.  

Ten years made all the difference in the world, helped you read seemingly irrelevant things, then begin linking them together to the point where, after you'd read Tim O'Brien's plangent novel, The Things They Carried, you were able to go back to The Iliad to see a connection that allowed you to feel something you'd not experienced before when reading it, the real, awful, mindless presence of Death.

Let's look at the beginning of Hamlet.  A guard, making his midnight rounds on the battlements of Elsinore Castle, thinking he saw or heard something.  "Who's there?"  Bernardo asks.  "Who's fucking there?"  The story is there, because we soon found out who the who is; he's a ghost.  And what does he want with the young prince?  A word or two.  "I am thy father's ghost."  Sound familiar?

Beginnings require the planning and determination of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Writers--you included--set out to discover some place, say the Northwest Passage, that turns out to have been pure myth and speculation.  But you return with a gift no one expected, least of all you.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

In the Beginning There Had Better Be a Beginning

Many stories begin with one or more short quotations from a longer work. These may be set in the front matter of the book, after the display of half-title and title page, copyright  information, and dedication.  They're called epigrams.  They supply a hint of the emotion--often irony--the writer is shooting for in the story to come.

Other stories have one-line epigrams at the start of each chapter, also in the spirit of providing a thematic under or overtone.  Yet other stories begin with a Preface or some brief introductory material often taken directly from later in the text.  

Your friend, Leonard Tourney, writing of the Elizabethan equivalent of Nick and Nora Charles in his historical mysteries for Tom Dunne at St. Martins, called his openings slices of the crime.

Greek drama frequently began with the appearance on stage of a group of individuals who presented themselves as The Chorus, directly addressing the audience, asking them questions, making suggestions, at the same time filling in background.  Your favorite of these is the opening chorus to Aristophanes play, The Frogs, while Shakespeare's chorus-like opening to Henry V is a delightful reminder to you what the writer needs to present to an audience at the outset in order to make the audience forget the fact of being in a cramped theater instead of in si
had Btu of the story.

You've resorted to these epigrams on occasion, your favorite being a four-word quote from Chaucer, "A world full Tickle," which did in fact open up the quirky pathway the story took.  The epigram was more in the spirit of getting you and Chaucer in the same breath, nevertheless there were some tickles in your story and many in Chaucer's memorable "The Miller's Tale."

Epigrams are fun.  You enjoy them, but the more you think about the matter, you conclude that they are a decorative flourish on the work at hand, a braid or swirl of border on the icing of a cake that would have done well without the icing.

The desire to inform the audience of vital background material is often the product of a writer less-than-secure of the outcome or the realization of the effect  on the reader/audience.  We'll just thrown in a little Kierkegaard or Hegel or perhaps some Alfred Hitchcock, and damn it, who would fail to get the implication about shadows and archetypes if there were an epithet from C.G. Jung?

Many of the novels swirling about in your awareness now have no prefatory material.  Not the case with your man, Mr. Twain, who, much to your liking, takes on the convention of the beginning epigram.  "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative," he says at the outset of Huckleberry Finn, "will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

Twain was going on fifty at the time, well on his way to fame and some distance away from an old pal from the mining days in Virginia City, Nevada, William Wright, a writer/humorist who wrote more often as Dan DeQuille.  Wright's magnum opus, The Big Bonanza, had a preface that .must have given Twain a nudge that he had to to acknowledge.  "I have said everything I had to say about this matter in the text of the book, but having been told a Preface is necessary, I have written this."

The beginnings that matter most to you are those where you are blindsided by a combination of curiosity, concern, interest, and the possibility for rushing toward an empathy that might pull you farther in and along than you'd wish.

The hundred novels occupying most of your attention at the moment all have in common some manner of opening that speaks to these conditions and circumstances.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of approaching a novel for the first time, thinking to read a few chapters before sleep or work, then become aware of the disruptive effect the novel has had, where sleep, work, and any pretense of schedule get short notice because the beginning of the work you're reading has such a powerful opening velocity.

You put considerable time into the crafting of your own openings because you've learned over the years from your own reading of the work of others how vital the opening is.  The more you become aware of the number of drafts necessary to complete a work to your satisfaction, the greater your appreciation of the opening pages.

You're going to be wrestling with the project for months.  At some point, the beginning is all you'll have to keep you going.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Back in the days when you were a frequent consulter of The Daily Racing Form, there were two or three variable that always caught your attention.  Had the horse you were researching run any contests against any of the other entries in today's race?  Was the horse able to run well on a middy track, or, in racing lingo, was the horse a good mudder?  You were also interested to discover if the horse had been given a handicap in its previous outings.  

Again in reference to racing lingo, handicap of this sort meant the horse had one or more weights of a specific amount placed in his saddle.  In addition to carrying the jockey, who often weighed less than one hundred pounds, the weight of the jockey;s uniform, and such items of tack as saddle, reins, stirrups, halter, and the like went into the occasion.  Horses previously assigned a weight handicap, who finished well in their last performance were animals to watch.

Some individuals appear to do well, which is to say they consistently perform at better than average level.  However admirable this may be for individuals in the Real World, such persons must be assigned some form of handicap if they are to engage our concerns, attention, and empathy for the long haul of a novel. 

What must be said of them or apparent by observing them is that they have some quirk or perversity, some element of discord or fallibility that overcomes them at specific times.  The specific times will, of course be brought to bear in the story otherwise why have it.  If a man must be over six feet tall, he must at least have the good sense to bang his head against something once or his legs must protrude over the edge of his bed.

Story is as dense and interrelated as our human condition has become.  You, for example, are a walking library of tics and quirks, most of them so well known to you that you take them for complete granted and feel no reason to warn others of them or apologize in advance for them.  If you have not achieved complete comfort with your quirks, you tag the minimum accept them for what they are, perhaps to the point of being able to discuss the climate of their onset.  This extensive familiarity with and acceptance of your quirks makes you a rather tepid potential for being a front rank character in a story.

Self-knowledge and self-reliance in characters speaks of a kind of Sherlock Holmesian aloofness which at the least requires that his activities be screened through the equivalent of a John Watson, M.D,  Either that or, should you find yourself patterning a character on yourself, some other form of handicap is required.  Jonathan Lethem handled that admirably by inflicting a significant degree of Tourette's syndrome on a principal character, Lionel Esseog, in the novel Motherless Brooklyn.

You could try yet another approach to make the ordinary seem more able to introduce surprise to the story.  Your noticeable flaw to the reader would be your belief that you were ordinary or, even more intriguing, your belief that you were a considerable echelon above normal (when in fact the reader would discern your good fortune at being at the level of normal or, to quantify with numbers, at the IQ level of 100.

In the same paragraphs in which you speak of a confident, reliant level of self-awareness, there must come an ever increasing belief of yours covering the gap between self and self-awareness inherent in most individuals.  You enjoy watching (and, alas, sometimes find your own self indulging) two or more individuals in a circumstance where they are convinced an authentic conversation is in place, yet no such thing is evident to the outside viewer, the reader, the reviewer, the witness.

At darkness most evenings, the sky is filled with stars, planets, comets, constellations, orbiting satellites, and the vast swarm of of passenger and cargo jets, plying their routes, transporting great gobs of us and our goods from one continent to another.  The immensity of the transactions is humbling and stunning, sending tingles running through you at the thoughts of all these orbits, agendas, and communications in place.

In a universe where the human species can put satellites in orbit about distant bodies, then cause them to return to a predetermined landing site less than a square mile is mind boggling.  A species that can on one hand do such things with relative ease and miss connections on conversations, intentions, and interpretations requires story to keep it sane.

For your part in the matter, you relate better to story than to orbiting satellites.  Both have much to do with communication.  You are content to the awe of wonder at the work of those whose work is with the satellites while you attempt to send stories and essays out into a different kind of orbit.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Home Studies in Romanticism

Although he was by no means the voracious reader your mother was, a number of your father's reading habits had collateral effects on your literary tastes and the person you have in more recent years worked toward becoming.

Having you read to your mother while she was at work in the kitchen, preparing an increasing array of memorable dishes, put you in contact with authors you might otherwise never have discovered. These writers provided the smorgasbord of romantic, historical, and mysteries by authors you got to know by the curious rote of reading them aloud and noticing your mother's responses to the characters, the scenes, and what she liked to call unbearable choices.

Well into your middle school years, this reading continued, adding a note of bafflement to the increasing bafflement you inspired in your teachers.  At one point, you were sent home with a note, written to your mother by one of your teachers, wondering if your mother was aware that her son was reading short stories by Guy de Maupassant.  Your mother took to the response with great éclat.  "Yes," she wrote in her answer, "I am well aware."

On another occasion, a social studies teacher whom you quite liked asked you to stay after class one afternoon to ask you questions about what she called "your literary reach."  After a few moments of conversation, she said, "I guess I'll have to get used to the fact that you have read Louis Bromfield, Edna Ferber, and Ellery Queen."  To which you replied, "My mother reads them.  I read them to her."

Added to the enigma of your more or less standard boy's reading preferences was the effect of your father's readings, an issue that came up in a public speaking class you were at some pains to want to excel in because public speaking was the prerequisite to dramatics, and you'd already had notions of you acting out roles of your boyhood heroes.  What better way to stand out in public speaking than to demonstrate a reading skill you'd learned from your father, which was, in effect, how to read, interpret, and use the cornucopia of information resident in The Daily Racing Form.

"So the end point of all this,"  your public speaking teacher asked you, "is to guide you in choosing which horse to bet on in a given race?"

It was much more than that, and you said so, reaching an early experience of being immersed or "in" a subject of interest to you.  "This," you said, "is a summary of the relevant data a true sportsman needs to know in that same way a businessman needs to know factors related to the healthy performance of his business.  These forms are close approximations of scientific assessments of risk.  If you put money on a horse because you like his or her color or jockey or name, you are making a mockery of risk by taking a fling at being lucky."

"Well," the teacher said, "'we'll have to see about that."

Both your parents were romantics.  Even while progressing through the childhood of you being bored stiff for adventure and intent on finding it, you understood this about them.  They'd come from significant affluence, lost it through no real mismanagement of their own, and sought to reclaim a return to the old ways.  You did not in any conscious way associate your father with the deadpan, dry wit of Mark Twain until it became necessary for you to cope with the grief of his passing and the growing awareness of the effect he was having in death as well as the effect he had in life.

Even though it was a Saturday, which meant he might be at home much of the day, he was dressing in suit, vest, and tie, counting the loose change in his pocket, setting coins on the breakfast table before you.  "Enough here for the movie, for a modest lunch, for a candy bar at the movie, maybe a few pennies left over to keep the jingle of coins in your trousers."

You attempted to thank him, but he held up a cautionary hand.  "For family to work, everyone does certain chores.  I never believed in an allowance as such, for your sister or you.  This is your pay for the things you do to help and because I heard you asking the other day if there was something else you could do to help because you had some time.  That was with no expectation of pay."

As you remember the exchange, you said it was because you were bored silly and were on the lookout for a meaningful task.  "For a bored boy," he said, "your heart was in the right place.  Now I must go.  But how is it I do not see your raincoat here at the ready?"

"Raincoat?"  You said.  "But there is no rain."

"You are going to see a movie made from a book by one of your mother's favorite authors, Louis Bromfield.  I saw you reading from it to her."

"The Rains Came,"  You said.  "Set in India."

"Monsoons,"  your father said.  "India during the monsoon season can be treacherous."

"Have you been to India?"

"I have been to the sorts of places a man would visit who served on a Coast Guard Cutter.  India?  No, but enough time on a small boat to know the perils of the sea.  Now, this is a matinee you will be attending, right?"


"At the Carthay Circle Theater?"


"Promise me you will sit under the protective cover of the balcony."

"I like to sit closer,"

"Monsoons can be vicious.  Unrelenting.  Even under the balcony, you are bound to take on some water.  Promise me."

"All right,"  you said."

"Enjoy the movie,"  he said.  "Tyrone Power.  You like Tyrone Power."


"Stay dry."

Some hours later, when your computations agreed you'd better start walking if you wanted to see the movie from the beginning, you paused in the doorway to the living room, where your mother was reading.  "I came to say goodbye."

She looked up from her book, surprised.  "Why are you wearing your rain coat?"

"The movie is The Rains Came.  Myrna Loy.  Tyrone Power.  George Brent."

"I know who's in the movie.  I want to know why you're wearing a rain coat."

You started to say something, but she shook her hear.  "Your father,"  she said.'

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Beyond Belief

At least twenty years have elapsed since you first presented a graduate class with the exercise of naming as many constituents of story as possible.  You went along with the exercise as a cheerleader, throwing less popular terms into the stew.  Surprise.  foreshadowing.  Plausibility.

In your recollection of the event, the students grew into the exercise, contributing suggestions of their own, at no time contradicting any of your suggestions.  After about a half hour of conversation and ad lib responses, you dropped the second part of the assignment on them. 

 "Okay.  By next week, I want you to arrange these elements and any others you can think of in a hierarchy. Your vote for the most important aspect of story at the top, as Number One.  There is no wrong answer except one you give without conviction."  You waited out a dramatic pause.  "My own personal choice is Character.  The choice of characters has a down-stream effect on all the other elements."

That choice not only sounded good and convincing to you, it remained so for almost ten years, until you settled into what has become your default position ever since.  There have been times when you wavered for a moment or two, but without exception came back to the quality of story that brings it to life and keeps it lively for you.  The choice you make each time is Voice.  Many of the other aspects, say suspense, reversal, betrayal, hidden agenda, the scene, et alia change positions, but Voice remains the pole star of story for you.

No surprise at all then for your favorite writers to relate in analogy to story as a strong, ripe cheese, say Limburger, relates to cheese.  Someone can and has read a line at random from one of your favorites, and you're right there with the identifying name:  Annie Proulx.  Saul Bellow.  Tell me that is not Scott Fitzgerald, or Joan Didion, or--

Voice helps you see the work in dimension.  With that in mind, the events of today have sent you home from classes in a sense of having a rug or two pulled from under you, of hardwood flooring being revealed, and of that hardwood flooring taking on in metaphor a yet more rewarding perspective on story.  

An individual who once attended your fiction workshop has begun attending your memoir class, saying she wished to get exposure to reading memoir events to a group of like minded adults.  She read one or two short pieces which seemed effective, honest, and moving, thus, when she read to day, after announcing this would be her first longer piece, you sat back to expect some informed experimentation.

What you got instead was the kind of surprise you like to get in story.  The material had structure, drama, sincerity, and an effective move beyond mere descriptive narrative, well into evocative and poignant scenes and events.  You  were impressed with her focus and many of the class were outspoken with admiration. 

The opening pages of the story reminded you of a well-crafted story, "Flotsam," by one of your favorite living writers, Deborah Eisenberg. The student took this all in, then confessed.  She'd invented the entire narrative, having taken the details from stories she'd heard from friends and associates in her various AA groups.

Later this evening, a student in your fiction class announced her intention of reading something from a memoir, which was quite well crafted, required a few editorial notes, but found an appreciative audience.  This prompted you to remind her how these events, in order to be memoir, had to remain based on actual events.  Then you heard your second "confession" of the day.  The material may have been altered.

Both of these rug yanking events had at least one important thing in common.  You should also say, these narratives had in common one event beyond convincing characters, plausible dialogue, convincing use of reactions from the characters filtering the events, and a most emphatic and plausible sense of presence.

The quality you're calling out here is the focus of each writer, the ability of each to make her narrative seem absolutely truthful.  Each writer is intelligent, curious, inventive, seeming to come hard wired with a quality you note in many of the writers you care most about.  They are utterly convincing because each seems to believe her narrative with such focus that neither of them had at any time to resort of extraneous descriptive detail.

From time to time, you come across statements and commentary from Ernest Hemingway relating to the importance of writing one true sentence.  You found one related quote saying it was a respectable day's work for a writer to write one true sentence.  Another quote, or perhaps it was the same one, went on to say that one true sentence begets another, which in turn leads to a possible slew of them and thus a good story.

You have certain issues with Hemingway you will not go into here, but you will say that you spent a good deal of time studying and copying him and that he had seen some of your work as a consequence of you and one of his sons being classmates.  

You acknowledge a long while when it was your goal to be a good writer, good being one of those empty words that sound better than the meaning or lack thereof they convey.  You also acknowledge that a true sentence, even though you hate the sound of that term, has more substance than the term a good writer has substance.

You don't think of a true sentence in an abstract or Platonic way, rather as a sentence that resonates a sincere and devoted writer's efforts to express the truths her/his characters may be experiencing.

When all is said and done, the vague words swept away, and only the most clear of meanings and outcomes, however macabre, poignant, or hilarious those might be, remain, the best chance you see for yourself reaching that sweet spot, is to have as absolute a belief in the characters and their affairs you can get from observing them and living amongst them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sliding Down the Bannister of Life

You've spent time in any number of strange, haunted, sepulchral movie theaters in your time, ranging in decor from art deco to rococo splendor and near church-like acoustics as well as one , enigmatic in its awfulness, and given a name you didn't realize at the time was a racial slur.

Because you grew up in Los Angeles, you had occasion more than once to attend some of the iconic theatres such as the Grumman's Chinese, The Egyptian, the Pantages, and in its way the most hallowed of all, the now defunct Carthay Circle, where you first saw Fantasia, The Wizard of Oz, an d even more memorably, Around the World in Eighty Days, made special because you bought your ticket with money from the sale of a story to a science fiction magazine you'd always wished to crack.

Another theater, the Pan Pacific, south side of Beverly Boulevard, about equidistant from Fairfax and La Brea, stands out in this list as well because it, more than any other theater you've ever attended on a regular basis, became the scene for most of your boyhood pranks.  

You rarely attended a screening there without having sneaked in at least one cat, which you set free once the lights were dimmed,  The Pan Pacific had a lovely, sloping concrete floor and the proper acoustics, you thought, to accommodate bags of marbles of BBs being released, mid film, the clatter and reverberate their way downhill.

You were not alone in your boyhood pranks at the Pan-Pacific.  Other boys of your age and older had felt the same inspiration, thus, whether it be an afternoon matinee or a weekend double feature special, you went to this otherwise undistinctive theater for the effects of your own pranks and the surprise and potential inspiration of your mischievous peers.

All these reminiscences are grand nostalgia you enjoy bringing forth.  You could never tell when, on some whim, your mother would arrive at your grammar school to pick you up for a doctor's appointment, which meant the Grumman's Chinese and a bag lunch from Canter's Delicatessen.  

Even so, much as these mattered, much as at times you recall small, far flung movie houses in Los Angeles, New York, Fall River, Providence, and Miami Beach, the movie theater of greatest moment of all was the Fox Ritz on Wilshire Boulevard, a scant block below the southern border of the fabled Miracle Mile.

The Ritz was often your choice for the Saturday matinee, the double feature plus cartoon plus serial, plus an occasional feature and always, at those times, the newsreel, a three- or four-minute encapsulation of local, national, and international news.  

All these aspects colored your high regard for the Ritz, but the one thing that caused--and still to this day causes--the Ritz to stand so prominent in your memory is the long, wide, steep, polished banister, extending from the balcony mezzanine to the ground floor.

The restrooms were located on the balcony mezzanine, making it an even more prominent feature in your young, excitable life.  As you remember the manager of the Ritz Theater, he always wore a formal, dark suit with a black bow tie.  His neatly trimmed hair parted in the middle, ending on distinguished--so you thought--patches of gray.  He was soft-spoken and polite, except when he spoke to you, at which point you were always aware of an undertone of menace.  You wished for the longest time to be as much like this man as you could possibly grow up to be.  

Many of your comic book and adventure heroes had nemeses of much lesser stature than this fine, remarkable manager, who, for a time, referred to you as Mundy, because that was one of the names you signed on the Return-of-Admission forms when push came to shove and you were returned your eleven cents admission and sent out into the Los Angeles afternoon.  You'd got the name Mundy from the English adventure writer, Talbott Mundy.

For tome time, when he confronted you, the manager called you Mundy.  "See here, Mundy.  How many times do we have to go into this banister sliding?'

Once, when you'd been caught against a stern warning, you'd forgotten the Mundy part, and signed your true name on the refund slip.  You'd have thought Mundy would have been easier to remember than Lowenkopf.  But perhaps there'd been other banister sliders than you, who'd been warned, caught, and banished.

When you came to work for the scholarly publisher in Santa Barbara, the office was, coincidentally, over the Riviera Theater.  There'd been at one time a steeper bannister than the one at the Ritz, and sure enough, you had to give it a try.  Even though it irritated the publisher to see you doing so--"How do you rationalize sliding down a bannister as an editor in chief?"--and you were reaching the point in your relationship with him where that was of little matter, you recalled instead the bannister at the Ritz Theater.

You come out of the men's room, peer about the mezzanine, dash to the edge, peer over to see if the manager is at all in sight.  Then you edge your way over to the bannister, hoist yourself up onto it, getting the proper leg dangle.  Then--ah, then you push off.

There is something comforting and exciting about sliding on a bannister.  Most people, theater managers and scholarly book publishers the possible exceptions, smile at the idea of a person of any age sliding on a bannister.  Bannisters are made for sliding.  At least, so they seem to you.  For long moments, you are in a sweeping descent, into the bowels of adventure.

The first time you watched Walter White, in that pivotal Breaking Bad episode, challenge his would-be nemesis, "Go ahead, say it.  Say my name."  And the reply is "Heisenberg," you are there with Walter White.  But you are also back in the Ritz Theater, with the manager confronting you.  "Dammit, Mundy.  I told you."

To have grown into manhood without sliding a bannister is to have grown into a simulated manhood with a missing component.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Sisyphys the Writer: My Life with the Rock

You would not be inviting a significant counterattack if you were to argue that a story is about one or more individuals seeking an outcome of happiness.  The attacks would more likely begin when you tried to pin down what happiness meant.

The same would be true were you to substitute outcome of satisfaction for outcome of happiness, in effect equating satisfaction.  You were one hired to develop a screenplay about a man who wanted nothing more in life than to play his flugle horn five or six hours a day.  

The man had not thought that playing daily would make him a better flugelist even though you, at the time, nourished the belief that writing five or six hours a day would make you a better writer.

Again with the definitions; now "better" is added to those other words, happiness and satisfaction.  Your recent discussions of one of your favorite characters, Sisyphus, brings to mind a question you don't think Albert Camus initiated in his essay in which he argued for the point that Sisyphus,  knowing the nature of his task, was actually a happy man.  

Your interest here is the potential--or lack thereof--for Sisyphus to get better at his task, even to the point where one or two persons might come to watch work, then ten or twelve, and finally, crowds.

"Will you look at the way he leans into that rock."

"Makes you want to get out a rock yourself, doesn't it?  Have a go at a small hill, maybe work your way up."

"Freaking inspirational, the way he leans into it.  And that look on his face, while the rock is rolling down the hill.  Never seen a look like that before."

"They say he can do that with any rock."

"It's a gift.  There'll never be another like him."

"You can't tell.  Some kid, even now, playing in his back yard with a melon-sized ball, he could be the one to take this all away from Sisyphus."

Things don't happen that way, but on the other hand, thinking about Sisyphus in this particular context, after having thought of him in so many others, reminds you of something special.  There is a reason why you're attracted to him as a character and as an archetype.  You came to writing for entirely different reasons than Sisyphus came to his rock, but you understand the connection, nevertheless.  

You do essentially the same thing with a story or a novel or a booklength essay or a review,pushing it up the hill of resistance.  This resistance is and will always be the gap between your vision of the project and your attempts to get it down on paper in an acceptable way.

More definitions.  What is acceptable?  Thus another word goes into the pile started with happiness, added to by satisfaction, with better piled on.  Now, you've brought in acceptable.  You are pushing an idea up a pile of concepts that open cans of worms within every philosophical vision.

You are not well versed in philosophy, your probable strengths being Heraclitus and Hegel, each of whom would be suspicious of such value-judgement words as happiness, satisfaction, and better.  For that matter, each might well ask what was meant by the term ability.  Heraclitus, for certain, would say that a person does not have the same ability twice.  Whatever that quality is--or is not--it changes each time you roll the rock up the hill.

Story deals with people trying to secure definitions and authentications of things they have been programmed to seek without properly understanding what they mean.  These narratives are directed by persons such as yourself and persons at some great remove from yourself, trying to push these ideas-as-stones up the hill of effort, ceaselessly trying to capture a truthful outcome.

What, you ask, is the outcome of a rock, rolling down the slope of a hill on which it was perched?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Historical Novel as Seen by an Actor

Even as you were beginning your list of the one hundred novels having the most lasting effect on you, the one hundred part began to seem terribly limiting.  

Well before the hundred list was completed, and the idea seemed more like a real project than a mere list, you were often lost in an inner argument every time you came to a novel that could have some claim to inclusion and also had the tin can of being historical tied to its tail.

In the first rush of reading, even before you found Mark Twain, much of your reading was historical because of the inherent promise which you could understand even then.  In a historical novel, there would be adventure, which is to say some form of armed conflict, and further down the line because there were always at least two well articulated sides.

One of your favorite historical, Ivanhoe, had the Norman conquerors and the Saxons.  Robin Hood?  No need to ask.  Robin and his men against the corrupt, enthroned royalty.  You can even remember someone who played an important part in your younger years telling you how your liking for Robin Hood showed you would soon be ready to read Karl Marx.  At first, you would have no truck with Karl Marx; he was an economist, not a story teller.

Your trail of discovery led you through Kipling, whom you mostly admired, Talbot Mundy and The King of the Khyber Rifles, and H. Rider Haggard, with a title flat-out guaranteed to win you, She, A History of Adventure.  

These in addition to Walter Scott and someone you'd come to dislike thanks to an essay by Mark Twain called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."  You disliked Cooper becaue he'd led you astray and Twain showed you in so many ways how he had done so.  Meanwhile, you'd discovered another historical writer who wrote adventure stories for boys, Joseph Altsheler, whom you gobbled like your then favorite candy bar, the Peter Paul Mounds.

For the longest time, you wanted nothing to do with contemporary fiction, moving quite along to such historians as Owen Wister, Ernest Haycox, Harry Sinclair Drago, Frank Gruber, whom you'd one day edit; Elmer Kelton, and Louis L'Amour.  You later became a fan of Elmore Leonard because of his Westerns, and from your dealings with him over the years, had a clear picture of what a story meant to you.  

At one point, in conversation with Leonard, he spoke of a time when he was trying to get a jailer in the Arizona territory to come out of the shadows and talk so that he could grab onto some of his dialogue to make the character real.  As luck would have it, Leonard found a contemporary newspaper story about an Arizona Territory jailer, gave his character that person's name.  "And you know, I could;t get him to shut up."

And so you were burdened down with the possibilities from historical alone.  You could well have compiled a list of one hundred historical novels for your project, which would be possible if an overarching distraction.  (You could also do the same thing with mysteries.  One Hundred Mysteries You Need to Read before You Write Your Own.  You had certainly read one hundred Westerns before you wrote your own and well over one hundred mysteries before--)

The point is, you are in fact covered with at least one historical novel that is also filled with political chaos and authentic-sounding background on, of all things, ancient Greek theater..  Of all the many historical You've read, seeking one sort of adventure or another, none has had the effect on you that Mary Renault's The Mask of Apollo had and continues to hold.

Scant paragraphs into the narrative, the first-person narrator speaks of the sudden, surprising death of his father, a well-known actor, his own experiences as an actor, his experiences on stage with his father, and the acting techniques he inherited or learned from his father.

We are in the matter of a few pages, caught up in what our narrator will do next, with which acting company he will sign on with, before the narrator confides something to us that you found riveting and all too human.  The narrator loved and admired his father, but he realizes he is even at this stage of his career, the better actor.

How are you not going to follow him from this point.  He is fictional, an invention, but the recently ended Pelopponesian War is no invention.  Neither are two characters, Dion, and Plato.

This work struck you before your interest in theater, then after your interest matured.  It struck you first somewhere near the sternum, where the heart beats and the rhythms of you originate.

This time through, you are a tingle with the way the author used details rather than merely explaining or describing them.

Yes, you have made a good choice for historical.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


There's no telling with any certainty when you started thinking of the changes in your career path as distractions.  Nor is there any telling when you'd begun compiling arguments pro and con relative to the effects of distraction in story telling.  Perhaps these were two conversations you were having with yourself when no one was looking.

The first "distraction" came from the fact of you not being able to write enough of the titles the individual who was soon to become your publisher/employer wanted.  

True enough, you were writing a novel a month for a long stretch, and you were producing material for your publisher, but he had visions for the project on which you were employed.  "You must,"  he said one day in his office, "have some friends who are writers."  And thus the editorial distraction was in place.  You were an editor.  Of a number of your friends.

Of the many problems this opened, a significant one was the growing awareness that your friends who were writers were not all that good.  You discovered this from having to edit their work.  Then came the second awareness.  Your employer/publisher had been--what word to use here--sold, taken, bamboozled--perhaps all of the above.  

His list of titles guaranteed to be mail order best sellers was the product of a survey performed by a man who, like your publisher, had his finger in many ventures, magazines, paperback original books, hardcover books.  Your publisher paid this man twenty-five thousand dollars for this "scientific," "extensive" survey of contemporary readers' tastes.  

You were particularly impressed how the author of the survey used the term "n-sampling" a number of times, seeming to imply he'd turned this survey into a far-reaching probe.  You thought otherwise, but for your pains were told you didn't have the background and insight this man had.

Your good fortune had it that some of your writer friends had projects you believed had potential in the bookstore market, what was then called trade publishing, as in book trade.  You were right and after a time, based on financials relating to the sales from the books from better writers and the more dismal financials related to the great study, with all its extensive n-samplings, you were seen as more than someone who could write quickly.  You had, it would seem, a "head" for the trade market.

Here you are then, some years invested in honing editing skills, already aware of a number of editors who managed to turn out the occasional book of their own.  Why not you?  This was during a time when you had yet to make the connection:  'At some point in the process, a writer must revise and edit a work before sending it out into the marketplace.  

You were growing more aware of the way the revision and editing were by far the most exciting parts of writing; you were actually supervising a staff of content and copy editors, in the process acquiring even more awareness of what went into a sentence or a paragraph, of which words you ought never use because, well, because they gave you nothing for the space they took up.

Another distraction you neglected to mention was the acrimonious divorce between your publisher and his wife, who got in the divorce settlement the publishing company and, thus, you> Now, you are suddenly all over the place, Chicago for an American Library Association exposition, New York for sales meetings, Boston for a regional American Bookseller's Association exposition, and of course every year for the Big Show, the American Bookseller's Association main exhibit, held at the Shoreham h=Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Suddenly, editing is no longer a distraction; it is a tool the writer must understand to get the best result from a project.  Suddenly, as well, being able to edit means you have some value to a graduate level writing program.  

After your first paycheck comes in from teaching, you have a brief sinking feeling because, the same way you did with editing, you liked teaching.  Jumping back in time to the point where you thought it prudent to put in for graduation and move beyond the university, you had only the sense of being prepared to write.  You were little good for anything else.

You were in effect teaching students who wished to become writers to overcome the causes you had for rejecting things as an editor.  You did not so much teach them how to write as how not to write.

The most simple of truths has come to you these past few days when, because of some unknown malady, neither cold nor flu, perhaps an over indulgence in Creole hot link sausage, perhaps from some random bug that happened to take a liking to you, you had ample time to scroll through thoughts.  Try this on for size:  The writer must be an editor and a teacher as well as the person who sets the words onto the page.  The teacher part of the writer is the part that always reminds the writer of what must come next and why.

You have not, apparently, been deflected or diverted or distracted; you have been engaged at your own speed, working toward what you'd wished to become some considerable time in the past.

Friday, July 17, 2015


Your favorite vision of story develops around the notion of a circular path or orbit.  With this circular or elliptical orbit in mind, you can pick any point as a viable beginning.  Story starts here, under these circumstances, which you pay out slowly to the reader or audience.  

This approach serves as an emphatic reminder to the teller of the tale:  Too much explanation at any time, and the orbiting will stop; the story will drop in a leaden mass. With the right payout of detail and action, the story will have progressed to the point where the reader or audience is intrigued and eager for explanations.

You came upon this generalized vision of story as orbit while you were using the mythic character of King Sisyphus as the lead.  This delighted you because much of your early reading of story had to do with myth.  You soon saw the possibility of basing stories set in more modern times while using mortals from the current era.  

You could, for instance, without much of a hint, build a contemporary character around Sisyphus.  If the reader made the connection, well and good, but the success of the story was not dependent on the reader seeing the connection.

In pursuit of this belief, you even set off on a short story in which the protagonist has come to New York to fire a relative from the family business.  Does not matter if the reader will come to the conclusion later on that this story is framed on a chapter from the Bhagvad Gita or that the cab driver is, in fact Lord Krishna.

Mythic figures give you a sense of a palette with yet more colors, which leads you to a demonstration of how your story in which Sisyphus has had it up to here with that goddamned rock.  Here is Sisyphus, in Zeus outer lobby, more than a little humbled by the years of dealing with the rock, but not entirely free of his status as a king.  

Sisyphus is waiting for an audience with Zeus, all the while building up his argument about no longer being willing to push the rock up the hill, watch it fall down the other side, then push it back up the hill again.  As he waits and frets, two burly guards being in a stretcher.  On it, a distinguished looking man of middle age and courtly manner.  He is clearly in pain.

Zeus approaches the guards, bids them stop.  He looks down at the man on the stretcher.  "Hey, how you doing there, buddy?  Everything okay?"

The man on the stretcher raises himself to his elbows.  "Fuck you, Zeus."

"I totally get you,"  Zeus tells the man.  "You might say I feel your pain, right?"  He nods to the guards.  "Take him inside.  see that he gets a nice place to rest, maybe some soup or soft diet for supper."  Now he turns to Sisyphus.  "So, Pally, what gives?  How come you're not out there with your rock?"

"Who was that man?"  Sisyphus asks.

"Thought you guys would know each other.  That was Prometheus.Now, about your rock, which you're supposed to be tending."

"No more,"  Sisyphus says.  I'm finished with that rock.  Finished."


"Finished.  Enough already.  I've learned my lesson, okay.  I know better.  Next time, no more messing around, hitting on your girlfriends."

"Trouble is, Pally, I let you walk and it doesn't look good, you understand?  People see you getting a commuted sentence, how's that going to convince them I fucking mean what I say?  You see my problem?'

"Being a king at one time, I've had experience with this noblesse oblige stuff.  I'm finished with the rock."

"Finished,"  Zeus says.

The two burly guards come out of the inner chambers, heading toward the canteen and a pitcher of beer.  Zeus sees them, snaps his fingers.  "Okay,"  he says.  "Take Sisyphus here and set him up for the Prometheus treatment, see if he gets along any better with that?"

"The Prometheus Treatment?"

"Every day.  He's tied to the side of a mountain.  Mid-morning, an eagle comes by, rips out his liver, and eats it for his elevenses.  I worked out a deal where the liver grows back fresh over night."

Sisyphus takes this in, pats some dust from his toga, then starts toward the door.

"Hey,"  Zeus calls, "where you going?"

"Sorry,"  Sisyphus says.  "Gotta get back to my rock."