Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Here to Stay

The enormous excitement from the arrival of an idea you know you will work on until it is completed pushes you along in a strange transaction where, without your awareness of it at first, you have begun a negotiating session with internal and external forces you call The Cosmos.  You call those forces The Cosmos because you cannot think of anything more appropriate.

In your initial struggle to get down  as many notes and observations on the project as possible, you are in conscious awareness of trying to fend off or not think about the consequences awaiting you on the other side of the equals sign.

Those consequences are satellites orbiting about the planet of abject disappointment.  In direct proportion to the onset of that splendid amalgam of curiosity, desire to shake the universe up a bit, and the inevitable changes overcoming you, there waits for you the questioning of the project in the first place, and the notion of the changes the project will make in your life.

In direct proportion to the positive implications of the project is the sense of yourself as the proverbial used car salesman or his predecessor, the livery stable denizen who appears in Mark Twain's story, "The Mexican Plug Horse," to observe in casual indifference to Twain, "I see you are a fine judge of horseflesh."

In your all-too-brief interview with Helen Meyer, Chairperson and publisher of the Dial, Dell, Delacorte empire on the occasion of your being measured to run the Los Angeles office, you said in effect that your qualifications for the job included your ability to judge books.  She stood abruptly, nodded at you in dismissal, then left the room.  

Her voice, a corvine sort of caw, spoke to the member of her cadre who would become your immediate supervisor.  "Tell the young man that his good taste must be supported with good sales.  Tell him no snakes on book covers, because I hate snakes.  Tell him aesthetics only matter when they are not seen as aesthetics.  Tell him writers will lie to him in order to be published.  Tell him writers will blame him when their books do not sell.  Tell him the persons who congratulate him for beginning New York publishing to California will turn him for having brought in a monster.  On second thought, don't tell him any of this.  He will either learn or he will not."

You did learn that taste is more to be acted upon than talked about,  Even that time, in an office on Wilshire Boulevard, just far enough south of the Beverly Hills border not to seem as though pretending to be in Beverly Hills, you learned that you had negotiated your way into a job and your capacity for recognizing illusions was about to expand.

The arrival of a new idea reminds you of the ups and downs of various careers and as well various writing projects where the early stages seemed to demand some kind of payback, starting with thoughts translated into such questions as, "What made you think you were up to this?"

Over the years, you've taken a new approach to The Cosmos, welcoming anything related to the project, even crises of confidence as a part of the sum total of the project.  Being a quarter or third of the way through a major draft of a project while experiencing the fading of confidence is good for the project because you are able to see within the material sentences and paragraphs which whisper to you, "Say, this isn't as bad as you thought.  In fact--"  Your voice trails off as you become caught up in a sentence that wants some chiropractic.  But you know what the rest of the sentence is.  "--this isn't so bad."

"Isn't so bad," moves on to an idea for a sentence or an illustration, or a quick restructure of a series of paragraphs.  You go into it with a flush of energetic expansiveness, which can only last for so long before things begin to slow, then wane.  For a day, perhaps two, you are looking for things to delete or to move elsewhere, at a great distance from where you found it.

Perhaps events take you out on errands and you see one of the places you have horrors of achieving, the lawn bowling greens.  The sight of this activity sends you back home, looking at the pages, some with your pencilled notes.  "Say, this isn't bad.  There is much to be saved here."

You are at the precise point where you are able to answer that question of "What made you think you were up to this?" with the simple riposte, "What made you think I wasn't."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Was Ivan Really So Terrible, or Only Not So Hot?

You are and for much of your life have been an outgoing, expansive sort of person to the point where, when you are not expansive, not outgoing, someone will ask you if you're okay or if there's anything wrong.  Most of these times, the persons who ask these questions tend to be correct in their assessment.

The consequence of being outgoing and expansive much of the time is being asked about your health or state of mind or even some combination of both if you are any other way.

On the other hand, if you'd been withdrawn or notional in the excesses of being concerned about inner workings, no one would question your health or attitude in those rare entr'actes where you projected happiness and outward concern for the world about you.

In this manner, you've begun to describe aspects of yourself and your general behavior.  These aspect of you are things you take for granted, as do those who know you.  Thus all this is set-up to the fact that the occasion is indeed rare when someone asks of you, "You're kidding, right?"

An individual known to be less open and outward than you would be more likely to be asked at random if she or he were kidding.  Hence Platform One, being seen according to the degree and recurrence of your personality traits, Platform Two being the state where an individual is questioned with some measure of concern for a measurement of current emotional state.

The existential question you're most often asked by persons who know you has to do with whether you are reporting a fact or incident as you know it, see it, or believe it to be or if you are exaggerating.

It would be fair for you to ask if your interrogator were questioning which way your exaggeration leaned, because it is possible to over exaggerate strengths or weaknesses, to exaggerate degrees of random and general behavior, and to exaggerate dire consequences or Edenic outcomes.

The more you think of these possibilities, the more ease you find in the belief that exaggeration of one sort or the other is the norm on which assessment of person and personality are based, similarly the norm on which characters are based for their conformity or iconoclastic behavior, their bottle is half full or half empty attitude.

Now that you think about it, you can say for a certainty that you've been advising students for over thirty years to stay away from the centrist norm on the theory that such individuals in real life are boring enough without bringing them on stage to demonstrate an even more pronounced normality.  

If, by chance, you find one of your characters exuding normality, you must contrive immediate opportunities for that character to experience change or to have other characters treat that character in such a way that the centrist finds it impossible to continue.

The dramatic interrogation of choice is the eternal "Are you with us or against us?" This is served on the same platter as, "'Cause there ain't no room for fence straddlin'." The closer you look at such moments and ones of similar conflict, you begin to understand something Heraclitus  (500 BCE) saw when he made his observation about not being able to bathe in the same river twice.  Or perhaps he didn't see it in quite those terms.  One cannot be in the same middle twice.  One cannot maintain the same level of objectivity twice.  One cannot report the same event twice.  Because.  The consequence is the inevitability that one will exaggerate the event whenever one speaks of it.

You love to read the works of writers who have an expansive narrative voice, but at the moment you are much taken with a writer who was influenced by Hemingway, which means she writes in a spare style wherein she favors evocation rather than description. This leaves you at the proverbial fork in the binary road, a place where a writer must transport him or herself, if only to experience the galvanic urge to exaggerate.

At one time in your life, elevators in buildings were manned, as in operated by a man or woman, who would, when you entered, remind you that this elevator was now on an upward rather than downward vector, giving you the chance to stay or step off.  Now, the elevator is automatic, and your recourse is to feign patience while the elevator essays its course, or punch a series of buttons which change its course.

Up, or down?  There were hundreds of them, or only a few.  Things are going quite well or awful.  

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Writers' Eccentricity Spectrum: From Notional to Bat-Shit Crazy

 Most of the accomplished writers you know personally or know about from reliable anecdote have a public persona, which ranges from genial to suspicious. and a working persona, which ranges from mild eccentricity to bat-shit crazy. Unless you're quite certain of your audience, you tend to be circumspect about raising the subject of hearing voices or being subject to visions.

For some emerging writers, the shift from public to working persona is painful and reminiscent of removing adhesive tape bandages from a hairy chest.  One of the ways you've found helpful in getting emerging writers over the hump of normality and into the tunnels and labyrinths of true, plausible dramatic presence is to discuss with them the possibility of their having visions or hearing voices. 

This approach seems to you to be the necessary step from the world of ordinary observation and sensation, into the binary potential of the creative presence.True enough, some individuals do tend to have both, which is to say they not only see their dramas, they hear a form of voice-over narration while in the act of composition.  

Of equal truth, not all emerging writers are ready to hear this.  They want from you instead an assurance that you were kidding.  When this happens, you are reminded of the opening narrative to Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where the narrator and a pal, already well medicated and driving across the desert toward Las Vegas, tells us to wait until his passenger sees some of the monsters who've come to take up residence on the front hood of their convertible.

You're not kidding.  You're so dead serious that you begin co-opting one of the techniques of a favored muse of yours who, in his productive lifetime, produced a book called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which he considered his best work, and which you consider ample reason to think he was well enough along the eccentricity spectrum to qualify for bat-shit crazy.  The writer was Samuel Langhorn Clemens, also known as Mark Twain.

Your belief that a writer must somehow encounter his or her vision quest or hear the sound of his or her voice reverberating through every cavity and orifice, may well be a potential indication of your own position on the eccentricity spectrum.  You certainly have a well-thumbed catalogue of quirks.

These quirks were picked up over the years from the various stages of your progression from insatiable reader to someone who was naive enough to believe he, too, could do things with such apparent ease as the likes of Jack London, Mark Twain, Talbot Mundy, and H. Rider Haggard.  In point of fact, you can say your naivete has grown in direct proportion to the projects you now attempt.  

This is based on the fact that you managed to get quite close to writers you read with avidity.  In some cases, you even managed to become the editors of some of these writers. How easy it was (and is) to judge your progress as a writer by considering the quality of your quirks rather than the incisive clarity of your composition.

In your distorted vision, the fact of Ray Bradbury's epic enthusiasm and enormous reach led you to thinking more about your own enthusiasm and less about the enormity of gap between your ability.  In addition to the fact of reading much of his gigantic oeuvre, he actually suggested you read on specific novel by the splendid Canadian novelist, Robertson Davies, that has found its way into you hundred most influential novels.

On some level of intuition, you knew you had to seek, then find your own voice, which you now define as the one steady voice you hear above any possible others as you compose.  It is yours,  You own it.  Even though it occasionally cannot be trusted, the burden for this is yours, not its.  

Nor can the fact of you having found it, recognized it, claimed it, be any assurance of the quality of your output.  You have heard mad men and madwomen, speaking and reading in their own, unique voices, and known straight off that, original as they were, they represented the outer reaches of dullness and self-absorption in your opinion.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

When Conversation Becomes Dialogue

The Friday morning Meet-for-Coffee Group is for the major part composed of individuals cut from the same political patterns and preference from which you emerge.  Such outliers as there are tend to be closer to the center than your leftward position, but still on the left side of it.  

Political discussions at the Friday group and similar occasions are pretty much limited to more global events, arguments as such might be over which candidate in a primary election is the best choice to go against the opposition in the general election.

This climate evokes a rare irony.  You are not alone in your belief that political arguments are not any more likely to change another person's political choices than, by rhetoric and indications of technical and logical flaws, you are able to change another individual's reading tastes.  

There are times when a loaned book will cause a new taste to form or, conversely, warn you off subsequent titles from a recommended author whose work has failed to please you.

You remember between the act scenes in which you and your late wife were driving to some social event, perhaps even Friday morning coffee, in  which Anne would remind you, "S and R are okay, but not P," the initials being marital code for sex and religion are alright to discuss, but not politics.  Because it was usually she who did the warning, there was your constraint joy at the opportunity to remind her of one Libertarian friend with whom she was well advised to avoid discussions of politics.

The reason was always the same; discussion would turn into heated argument argument.  It is one thing to have a heated argument with a mate or a close friend, those are transactions paid for with a different kind of currency than the arguments with someone you know in advance is not going to change you, nor will any logic or fact from you cause any significant change in the person with the opposing view.

Another personal truth here; such moments of warning in the car and such moments when tempers are lost are in fact the underlying principals of story, characters with agenda, believing his or her judgment and information is correct.  Absent that significant confidence in being right, the participants believe as well that they could, with little effort, secure the information that would give them the confidence of being right.

The irony is that you are more likely to get into discussions leading to arguments with persons you are less close to, an irony that extends to the likelihood you will not enter this kind of discussion with a close friend.  Under most circumstances, that would be irony enough, something you could bring up in conversation with, say, the Friday morning coffee group, with every expectation of the laughter of what critical theorists would call catharsis.

This is true, in your view, because irony is a tricky business.  You may think you have exhausted a particular example of it, got your cathartic laughter from it, then moved on to the next round of  discussion.  In the Friday group, this means a momentary shift to the Marxist aspects of professional athletics, the irony of young men and women being exploited by league owners and the danger inherent of debilitating injury in many kinds of athleticism.

Then you get back to the irony you presumed was left for dead at the morgue, only to find out that the price of coffins or cremation has increased.  This irony has to do with the widespread belief that all actions--living, reading, and certainly writing, among them--have a meaning, that this meaning can be understood, translated, and conveyed.  The tail of this argument is that the conveyed meaning can be understood in meaningful terms.   

If you are not careful, this will cause you to trip on yet another irony, one in which, by expressing these talking points, you will be seen to be pessimistic or cynical, which will cause you to respond with an assertion that you are not, a maneuver you frequently use in story to demonstrate irony.  "What, cynical?  What, pessimism?  What you see before you is a positive man."

You will be sure to counted this line of dialogue with another, from the opposition.  "What I see is a defensive man."  At which point, the conversation is on its way to argument.  "What, defensive?  Just tell me one defensive thing."

"Well, for instance, you're raising your voice."

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Little Hearse on the Prairie

Difficult as it is for you to pin down the point where puns became so pleasurable for you, the probable genesis was with the appearance in your life of the constant metaphor of parallel lines.

You'd come across poetry in a way of meaningful recognition in the seventh grade, when, thanks to your sister, you fell in with the unlikely likes of Kahlin Gibran's The Prophet, Walter Benton's This Is My Beloved, and in general, Ogden Nash.

On your own, you came across Robert Browning and, having done so, how could the impetuous romantic you were growing to become not also take up his wife, Elizabeth Barret.  The puns in Ogden Nash were exquisite.  Many of them rhymed. "The golden tracery/Of Ogden Nashery."  "A wonderful bird is the pelican/ Its mouth can hold more than its belly can." 

In all probability, your interest in puns came at the time you were exploring your delight with certain rhyming combinations, particularly those playing off a cliched trope.  Thus did a horse of another color become a hearse of another killer, while the popular song of a generation or so before yours, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." became "Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart.

The parallel lines started with the curriculum presented to you in middle school and many of the things you wanted to study and did.  While pretending to absorb Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," you were committing to memory one of Tennyson's poems that found its way into the lyrics of a musical hall song and, thus, vaudeville.  "Maude."  Although you pretty well know the Arthurian legend, you cannot quote from it, but to this very day, with the right amount of beer as a prompt,  you know at least the first stanza:

Come into the garden, Maud,
    For the black bat, Night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
    I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
    And the musk of the roses blown.

Some of your classmates could and did memorize lines from Idylls, and indeed one of them went on to memorize enough of it to be accorded a performance segment at a student assembly.  This performance holds a place in your memory because you recall your reaction to it and your turning to the chum seated next to you, using a statement you would make many times afterward in numerous similar situations.  "Can you fucking believe this?"  Your chum's deadpan reply also remains.  "You're not supposed to say fuck in assemblies."

In later years, you titled your book review of Philip Roth's novel, Portnoy's Complaint "The Gripes of Roth," and a mock-review essay discussing a famed two-dollar-a-bottle red wine from Trader Joe's, which you called "The Wrath of Grapes."  Of course the source of both was a trope from Julia Ward Howe's song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, to which you have minimal objections that have nothing whatsoever to the notorious war between the States, rather to the intense, biblical nature.

In more recent years, you gave the title to one of your favorite of your own short stories, "Coming to Terms," which is a less obvious pun that the in-your-face ones you favor.  The reader of the story will quickly discover the academic setting in which the characters first engage, thus the synonym of term for semester or quarter of instruction, which is the supposed engine driving the university.

Term can also be a collective noun for the name of a concept.  Character, for instance, can mean an individual's personality or one of the conventional layers of players within a story, beginning with a principal character or protagonist, working all the way down to a stock character or a walk-on.

Terms can also signify a series of conditions in an agreement, say the terms of a lease, or contractual terms.  In a sense, "Coming to Terms" is one of your better titles for a story because the protagonist in the story has to accept certain terms and concepts if he is to progress in his profession as a professor, he has to accept the reality of his department chairman's personality, he has to accept the reality of the individual with whom he is now in a romantic relationship, and most important of all, he has to come to terms with the potential for growth within him as a result of this relationship.

There are writers you admire who seem to have a certain lapidary quality about their work, wherein you are given cause to see a particular story or novel as a mosaic, each tile set in with loving care.  You admire this quality, but strive for something else, in your case it is a sense of inevitability or the event and word, yet the inevitability is not the main object.  Story is the main object.  The payoff or emotional effect or, if you will, take-away is the object.

Puns and mischievous language and ironic points of view all add to this mosaic.  Anything included for the purpose of design or ornamentation must come out.  You do not strive for simplicity or directness or even starkness.  You want totality of effect,  The characters come forth, consult the terms of their emotional fate, then begin the negotiations.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Parallel Lines

Until you have begun working on a project, your notes are scattered about your living area, apt to surface where you least expect to find them.  The real organizing principals seem to come as the shape of the project introduces itself to you, reminding you how composition and life are lines, random at first, waiting to be drawn as parallels.

Both composition and life are filled with scatter, clutter, and surprise.  You are often distracted by both.  This means you are not the most time efficient person of your acquaintance.  This also means you tend to look at organizing principals with suspicion and the tendency to underestimate the amount of time the project will take.

Sometimes you wish for a more single-minded focus, even though you understand this will mean fewer notes, fewer notebooks, and fewer searches for a particular notebook with a remembered entry you made when you were being distracted by something else.

This is not an easy way to live.  It is an interesting way and a surprising one.  In it,  you end certain thematic speculations with the realization that you will have to live longer than you'd planned, if you are to have any chance at all of bringing these thematic speculations out of the notebooks and legal pads or paper napkins and onto a computer screen.

At one time, you thought you'd be finished composing and ready to transition by age thirty.  But when you saw how, as your use-by date approached, you were growing more interested in discovery than ever before. You wished to stick around to see the results.  You set your next timer at age fifty, which, at the time, seemed a safer distance.

Age fifty was not a safer distance; you knew that even in your early forties.  The world and your curiosity began moving along parallel lines and by about age forty-five, parallel lines became your way of pairing up seemingly unrelated forces. At the present time, you've given up setting a particular date the way you did before you were thirty,  You've stopped measuring longevity in terms of ambition, rather by curiosity.

Sometimes, when you are feeling caught up in the scatter, clutter, and surprise of composition, you become aware of LAX and other hub airports such as O'Hare, where you've heard of bloated traffic patterns, aircraft eager to come in or go forth.  

You feel a kinship with a traffic pattern; you recall conversations with pilots or traffic controllers, speaking of the equivalent of aloft aircraft flying laps about an imaginary track and the lines of outgoing aircraft on the ground, waiting to be cleared for take off.

These two parallel lines, composition and life, exchange nervous glances from time to time, as though checking to see if you're getting the hang of things, nudging you to hurry along.

Most of the book publishers you worked for were focused on two other parallel lines, one being a stream of product, which is to say books, the other line being accounting or profitability, by which is meant a rigorous focus on whether a given project, particularly one you'd acquired, earned out.  Did it recover the investment needed to bring it into the world, or was it in effect the kind of kid at the orphanage who is not adopted?

In such atmospheres, you did well enough, although there were times when you were asked to give accurate estimates for a project being ready to be launched when the best you could do was thumb through your notes on the project, consider your relationship with the author, give further consideration to the author's ability to accommodate, then make an educated guess.

Much as you love and enjoy the world of publishing and understand the need to earn out, you like your personal parallel lines better.  There is a pile of a hundred books on the floor near your clothes closet.  Next to it is a stack of note pads.  You'd like to think you can be finished with this project by the end of October, but there is also the probability that if you do finish it by the end of October, you will want to give it a read through, from page one to about page four hundred.  When you do, you might see something you hadn't noticed before.  October could well have to extend into January.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Bakersfield of the Mind

 Among your many notebooks is one devoted to places rather thing things or ideas; it is an annotated list of places you would go to great lengths to avoid.  These places are mostly physical, such as Bakersfield and Tulare, off in the enormous California Central Valley, Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska; and Farmington, New Mexico.

Driving through Bakersfield one hot, soggy afternoon with sometime collaborator Leonard Tourney, the idea of the notebook first came to you.  As you were driving past the campus of California State College, Bakersfield, on your way to auditioning for a job in which you and Leonard would produce, direct, and write a mystery play, you indulged a whim. 

"Wouldn't it be awful," you said, pointing at the campus, "if we were offered teaching positions here of such variety and pay that we could not refuse?  This, of course, would mean moving here, to Bakersfield."

Year later, perhaps as many as twenty, you were reminded of that moment with you and Leonard in his dented and nasal old Volvo, when you were watching the first installment of the TV series True Detective.  Marty, and Rust, portrayed by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, are driving across the stark bayou country of southern Louisiana, reflecting on a potential serial killer, when Marty tells Rust the equivalent of "You've got to stop talking that kind of shit when we are alone in the car like this."

Rust's dialogue is certainly existential, cynical, devoid of any hope for the species, suspicious of the potential for happiness.  Leonard Tourney doesn't talk with that life view, but his response has remained with you longer than his words, reminding you how similar to Bakersfield was the Tulsa he left, along with a full professorship and tenure.  You felt his discomfort at the thought of your worst-case scenario developing into a real prospect.

For the rest of the trip, you began thinking of other places you disliked for having been there or from some association you had with the place that caused you to think of it in the first place, then form some negative association.  Say Farmington, NM.  You mostly like all of New Mexico, but your experience finding a doctor of veterinary medicine there who would remove porcupine quills from the snout of a blue tick hound  Your first two attempts met with the observation, "That isn't a local dog," as though that were relevant.  

The notebook was born, first as a list of places on a single sheet of legal pad, but then, as the number of places increased, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, for instance, or Saugus, California, or Pahrump, Nevada (Nye county), so too did your vitriol when you thought about such venues and your growing antipathy to them.

This reminded you of an amusing incident between you and a long-time writer/publisher friend, Sol Stein.  During one of his visits to the Santa Barbara Writers' conference, he was visiting your late night fiction workshop.  As a part of your opening lecture, you quoted him and what you considered to be his splendid advice.  "Never take the reader where the reader wants to go."  By that time in your life, you interpreted the mantra to mean as well, take the reader somewhere else, somewhere he does not wish to go.  This could of course be an emotional destination as well as Bakersfield or Perth Amboy, or Victorville. Take the reader somewhere away from the safety of confidence and the comfort of believing you are right.

Stein stood to address the crowd.  "Although I agree with the sentiments, Shelly, it was not I who told you that, it was you who told me."

Curious, surprised by the unexpected turn, and almost completely unaware of the hundred or so persons in the audience, you wondered aloud what it was that you learned from him.  "Ahh,"  he said, still standing, for Sol Stein does not relinquish an audience until it suits his sense of timing.  "Perhaps it was the need to withhold information."

This, you realized, could have turned into a tug of war because of your belief that you had, in fact, stressed the need to not give the reader the information he wanted at the moment the reader wanted.  But once again, you were taken with the wisdom of not taking the reader where the reader wished to go, and once again, in that perverse way of yours where you turn things to point them at you for possible effect, you were off and running.

By thinking of places and circumstances you would not ordinarily visit, you are forcing yourself to look at feelings of discomfort, possible bigotry, and contrariness, certainly three significant conditions to evoke during the arc of a story.  If you had to live in Bakersfield, you find yourself thinking, what great steps would you take, what potential crimes would you commit, what differences would appear in the way you present yourself to yourself and to the world?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Unexpected Solution

How much information in a story is too much?  Even if the story is cobbled from the bits and pieces of material you've fitted together from real life, there is a point where the dimensions of the living room in which the corpse is discovered becomes secondary to the fact of the corpse in the living room in the first place.

Did Melville, as some critics have suggested, put too much information about whaling in Moby-Dick?  Many of these critics are from well into the twentieth century where it is possible to question if not argue the diminution of attention span.  

And if someone were brave--or foolish--enough to think about a remake of the filmed version, would there be a tacked-on beginning showing how Ahab lost his leg to the whale as a way of making sure the audience knew what was at stake for both Ahab and the whale, to say nothing of the other members of the crew of the Pequod.

Are the rich, sensual descriptions you remember from such adventure novels of your youth as Gunga Din and The King of the Khyber Rifles the vehicles that transported you to other continents, other times, and unfamiliar menaces, or was it you who supplied the details, taking your clues from language much more spare than you recall?  

This is often the result you encounter when you return for a reread of some favored work, a result that has made you wonder on many occasions if this is a primary example of the less-is-more theory.  Eager for the suspense, encounter, and life-endangering test the protagonist must go through, you wonder if the reader doesn't in some way agree to enhance the menace to a point well beyond the reader's limits.

Now the reader is truly caught up in the intrigue.  The story has taken the reader beyond the comfort zone, then piled on the menace even farther.  The reader is beside himself and must admit to consequences even more dire than those originally feared,

Many, if not all the writers you favor have also mastered a sense of pace you envy.  These storytellers are able to drag out the revelation, the protagonist's awareness of this immediate situation being much worse than expected, to the point where the character feels there is no hope.  

To the point the character feels hopeless, the reader begins to see there might not be an easy way out or even a difficult way, rather one that will bring dire consequences beyond the reader's ability to conceive dire consequences.

You want enough information pointing to the utter disaster the situation has become, the overwhelming probability it has no solution,  and time for it this despair to sink in.  These are standards to which you put your favored writers, which raises the intriguing question, Are you able to turn the circumstances to the point in your own work where neither the characters nor you see a way out?

The answer resides within exaggeration of the depth of the tunnel in which the protagonist is trapped, the number of huge boulders in the rockslide that cuts the protagonist off from the rescuers, the exquisiteness of the moral problem in which the protagonist finds himself, realizing how he has morally painted himself into a corner.

Now you show him an unexpected solution, but it is one that comes at a price so high that he knows he will be forever a different person.  He does not readily see how being this different person can work for him, because, by its nature, it is so radical.  But the reader sees it.  The reader sees the effect in the same way the character cannot yet allow himself to understand.

We in fact like best those stories that send us deeper into the hole, spend more time cut off from civilization by the rock slide, and agonize the most about what attitudes must be compromised rather than how much ransom must be paid the kidnappers or to what extent the character can countenance an abrupt shift in social order.

We want others, not real persons, to be forced to make accommodations and negotiations we are afraid to make for ourselves.  Our margin of escape is our awareness of the degree of exaggerated lengths the problem is pushed.  Our salvation is in the bosom of a story where characters are forced to walk the plank, make decisions we do not trust ourselves to make.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Author's Bios

Of the many jobs you've had in the course of your working years, you tend to skip over the more mundane ones, lest you betray the slightest hint that what you write will be ordinary.  

Thus you join brother and sister storytellers, wishing to suggest you are more an outlier than an insider.  In your resumes, you live in the adventure zones of delivering chickens for a butcher in Beverly Hills, you were apprenticed to a drunken house painter in Santa Monica, you were a shill for a carnival booth, where your job was to win canned hams and five-pound tins of Maxwell House Coffee, and you managed an illegal parking lot on the famed Miracle Mile of Los Angeles.

All right, the "illegal" while nice in the telling, was only controversial, because the parking lot was the bone of contention in an acrimonious divorce, where one of its owners was damned if she was going to let strangers park on her property, while her soon-to-be-ex didn't like to see anything going to waste.

Another confession:  You've had some ordinary, respectable jobs, such as a page in the Beverly Hills Public Library, and a solderer at the Pacific Telephone facility, also in Beverly Hills.  The best you could make of those is the fact that you did not live in Beverly Hills at any time in your life, thus the hint that you were attracted to deviousness, impersonations, intrigues.  

Indeed, whenever you had an ordinary job, you tended to make each day you showed up for work some conspiratorial agenda in which you were installing spy ware or arranging the books to be reshelved in patterns that would provide provocative messages for your cohorts in some secret organization.

Going to work as an editor or a teacher may seem exciting and filled with political intrigue, but on days where meetings were scheduled, you had to put your imagination to work for the sake of what you at the time considered your sanity.  The days when you were left to deal with your imagination and the need to produce intriguing commentary were the shining days.

In retrospect, you see that by nature you in fact are an outlier rather than an insider or team player.  You are indeed willing to work with others, butin mitigation, you prefer to think of these others more as accomplices than colleagues. 

Some of your mini-biographies contain enough mention of the  more bizarre occupations. even in this way acknowledging your own perception that a writer with ordinary experiences is more likely to go unpublished, or somehow pick up a reputation for writing conventional stories.

From time to time, you hear a person, in the process of describing some absurd event that has befallen her, using a trope that matches Reality with Story.  "You can't make this stuff up,"  the speaker will say, as a means of emphasising its realness and its real absurdity.

You like to think of yourself as a reservoir of absurd facts, theories, and observations, rather than the Google and Wikipedia reservoirs of facts, many of which you recognize as valid and based on supportive information.  Nevertheless, they are boring.

Your boredom led you to where you are today, which is to say as the exception to the "You can't make this stuff up" rule.  If a thing in Reality seems bigger than life, which is to say exaggerated or overstated, it will likely have caught your eye.

At times, this approach has given you pause to wonder about your own authenticity, in particular when you recall those times of serious intent, only to discover how exaggeratedly funny your own seriousness is.  Life is in many ways the struggle to maintain seriousness of nature without falling into the trap of the exaggerated humor that is unintended.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Opening Sentences, Deconstructionists, and Rolling Stones

The search for the right opening line for a story reminds you of a joke once told you by a nun about a drunk, looking for the keys to his car in a parking lot at night.   Someone sees the drunk lurching about the halo of light cast from a bright, overhead lamp.  "Shouldn't you be looking in the area closer to where your car is parked?"  he asks the drunk.

"Can't see too well over there,"  the drunk replied.  "At least I can see over here."

You remember the joke well because that is you kind of humor.  Given the nature of your past conversations with the nun, you believe she understood your fondness for the type of humor.  There is also the matter of her having at one significant time in her life been an editor, where other literary and textual equivalents of the drunk's lost car keys were the objects of a search.

There is a sense of cosmic absurdity about the joke, an invitation to laugh at the enormity of any kind of search for any kind of key, whether it is a key for the ignition of a car or a key to some understanding of some problem related either directly to life or in analogy to life with references to a narrative about life.

Although it may seem an other matter altogether, you once got into a wine-fueled discussion about Homer, The Odyssey, and, as a consequence Odysseus, with a Deconstructionist, whom you recall at one point saying in a loud enough voice to stop several conversations about you, "There is no goddamned text, don't you see?"  

This outburst came as no surprise to you; Deconstructionists, even more sober ones, are convinced there is no text.  A brilliant riposte would have been, "Then you also deny the existence of Godot."  Because he was a Deconstructionist, he did not think this was so brilliant.

This also puts you in mind of the story about the Dali Lama's visit to New York and his being shown a sidewalk hot dog cart, which he approached.  "Make me one with everything,"  The Dali Lama told the server.  Recognizing the Dali Lama, the server shook his head, then bowed.  "You already are,"  he replied.

There is a parallel between opening lines and absurdity, a shifting from the world fraught with massive, random event to a story, where the sentences are lined up like a row of dominoes, placed close enough so that one falling domino knocks over its neighbor, which in turn repays the complement by tipping the domino in front of it.

"Once upon a time--" won't do it any longer, although it still carries strong associations by implication that a story is to follow.  Were you to corral some innocent, then regale her or him with "once upon a time," you might well see the result, which is this audience saying, "Yes?" or perhaps even "And what happened back in that time?"  

An opening line is a lever of sorts, tipping or arranging events in a way that even a Deconstructionist can see ahead to a row of fallen domino tiles.  The more inherent irony or other forms of mismatched intentions can be fit into the opening sentence, the more equivalence of dramatic mass is brought into being.  Thus the comparison between an opening line of a story or the beginning line of a subsequent chapter in a novel--no matter who the point of view belongs to.

An intriguing opening line assumes its own, boulder-like mass and an eager willingness to begin to roll, whereupon it will gather no moss, which allows us to equate moss with the bane of all story, which is boredom.  "Call me Ishmael" allows no room for boredom.  Big and ponderous as Moby-Dick is, "Call me Ishmael," its opening line, has already begun to roll, has barely given you the opportunity to move to the aide, lest it run over your toes.  Ah, too late; you've followed the momentum, and there is scant moss for several pages to come.

You'd have done well to begin yesterday's notes with an opening line that did not come until the paragraph immediately preceding the penultimate.  "I don't imagine,"  Stan said, "There's anyone who can make better salami and eggs than me."

In one quick swipe of the narrative pen, you have surprise, hubris, curiosity, and a fair chance of the reader opting for the second sentence.

The opening line rushes you down the hill from detached observation to the full plunge of involved curiosity.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Human Condition

 During an intense time in your life when you seemed to regard each new story you wrote as a kind of battering ram the police use on crime TV dramas, you were living off your savings from the only kinds of jobs you were able to get.  These were essentially boring jobs, where you were tasked with making a dreary assortment of machine tools and restaurant supplies appear newer and more useful than they were.

Your particular solace, beyond writing new stories and, thus, mounting more emphatic assaults on the doors of publishers, were two neighborhood establishments, somewhere between neighborhood lounges and taverns.  Both were within walking range of where you lived, on Crescent Heights between Olympic and Pico Boulevards.  

Your regard for the need to walk rather than drive was a cumulative one, born of your awareness at your good fortune for not having been the subject of police inquiry into your ability to operate a motor vehicle within the framework of a prudent blood alcohol ratio.

Each venue was close by a movie theater you'd spent considerable hours in as a younger person.  Burke's Lounge was in the same building as the Fox Wilshire, barely in Beverly Hills, run by the no nonsense Mae Burke, who sat in a back booth, drinking black coffee, trying to read novels by Pearl S. Buck in the dim light, and somehow keeping track of when it was time to buy a round for a regular customer.

Your drink there was the unimaginative vodka grapefruit mix called a greyhound. You did not go to Burke's; with the notion of drinking more than you should, rather to absorb what you liked to think of as life without affect.  This mean you were often drawn into discussions and theories in medias res, wherein Art, who sold insurance during the day and had visions of acting, would greet you with an advanced theorem such as, "What kind of person would I be if I allowed a sales manager to intimidate me?" or Neil, an engineer, would frequently remind you, with no preamble, how important it was to keep the formula for the coefficient of linear expansion in mind.

There was also Bill, who was an actor, warning you about losing your focus by working in anything connected with the film or television industries, and there was Sean, also an actor, who was concerned that you did not know the correct way to drink porter or stout.  You were getting on well enough with Estelle to consider asking her about contact outside Burke's, if only to listen to her monologues about her customers in a Beverly Hills hair salon.  Sometimes, she and Ida, a checker at a market in Beverly Hills where you used to be a box boy, would go mano-a-mano about who had the worst customers.

Small wonder your stories had the edge of persons feeling the need to become regulars at a place such as Burke's.  You were there not to let off steam, or so you thought, but to observe what you considered the human condition.  On one memorable evening, Mae Burke made all the men customers put their hands on the bar.  She examined the outstretched hands with an awl eye.  "One of you gents,"  she observed, "has lost it and taken his angst out on the men's room mirror.  The rest of you are in better control."

This was the first time you'd heard the word angst used outside of UCLA.  You were impressed.  You were also glad your knuckles bore no traces of self-loathing or angst.  "I'm going to find out which one of you did this,"  Mae persisted.

Although you suspected the culprit was Sean, a clear matter of another term you learned at UCLA, racial profiling, you felt like confessing, just to see what would happen next, but then
Neil and Bill confessed in unison.  "Hands,"  she said.  "Let me see those hands."  She peered at close range.  "All right,"  she said, "you're sticking up for one another and I appreciate that, but yous are going to be parting your hair behind a cracked mirror for a long time."

The other venue was located in the same block as the Del Mar Theater on Pico, where the main fare was draft or bottled beer, pickled eggs, and packaged pretzels.  The juke box tended toward country Western, which, when you began to think in critical terms about country Western, was another way of demonstrating angst.

Conversations were different, more often oriented to the outcome of sporting events.  It was known that you'd put in some time at the university, but your ability at the shuffleboard deck, particularly your ability to slide the carom in a breaking curve, meant you were accepted for team play.

The demographic here was more working class:  auto mechanics, a delivery man for a dry cleaner, and, of course, Stan, a frustrated writer.  "Real writers write, don"t they?"  He'd ask.  "You're not a real writer until you write, so that makes me a frustrated writer because I don't write.  You wanna know why?  No, I can see you don't wanna know.  You don't wanna know because you prolly write all the time.  You have no idea what it is to be frustrated."

"You wanna like avoid him when he gets like this,"  Vince suggested.  "He could end up taking a swing at you."  Vince was the evening bartender.  Vince always knew when the house owed you one.  If you brought a date, Vince would always assure her not to worry, he was serving you in a freshly washed pitcher.

Was it your own angst or perhaps tipsiness?  Was it one of those Summer Sant'Ana wind evenings in Los Angeles?  Was it your need to learn more about the human condition?  Whatever it was, possibly the reason you used to go to neighborhood bars in the first place, you got into a discussion with Stan one night near closing time.  The topic was, of all things, salami and eggs.  "I don't imagine,"  Stan said, "there's anyone can make better salami and eggs than me."

You ventured an opinion about your mother and both your grandmothers.  You see now, after all these years, your error.  You were challenging him.  The upshot was you and Eric, puttering around Stan's kitchen at 2:30 in the morning, with Stan, trying to slice salami and Eric, following Stan's directions to look in that cabinet over there for the best goddamned cast iron skillet.  The upshot was also the sudden appearance of a woman in a quilted robe, asking, quite calmly, you thought, "What are you doing in my kitchen?"

In many ways, the moment was one of the most painful in your life to that point.  All you had going was a sense of what salami and eqqs should be and a curiosity about the human condition.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Tribal Elders

The magnets of coincidence bring the concept of First Americans tribal elders to the front stage of your brain, beginning with their appearance in the manuscript of a student, followed by their appearance in a television drama.  In both cases, these tribal elders were the sorts you would bring into your own writing.

You've, in fact, been thinking about an other level of tribal elders as the equivalent of a cup of coffee or a pause to read a magazine, vacation from a booklength project that is about fiction but not actual fiction of yours.

The tribal elders of your invention go back in time to the transitional cusp between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, therefore they cannot, as the tribal elders do in your student's novel, talk about such things as the Golden Gate Bridge or major league baseball nor can they, as in the television drama, have a hankering for gummi bears or be hooked on diet soda.

In a deliberate move to distinguish your tribal elders from any others, yours do have an edge, however, which is to say a strong enough agenda so that they are human as well as the kinds of bi-culturalism you have come to associate with another kind of transitional cusp, more profound yet than the gap between the Neanderthal and Cro-magnon.  This gap is the one between the concrete, close-to-boring world of the ordinary, the day-to-day routine.  

If you were going as far back in time as the cusp between those two remarkable species, the Neanderthal and the Cro-magnon, an exciting event might be the sudden appearance of a stalk of scallion in the evening stew.  The exciting event could in fact be anything at all, much less a stem of scallion.

The concept of there being tribal elders, men and women who are wise from experience of the rational, but every bit as wise from their experience with the terrain of the shaman,is most agreeable to you.  This becomes the ethereal world of woo woo, where an event may be triggered by some catalyst having little or no relationship with any of Newton's Laws or the Periodic Table of Elements or even the laws of gravity, although that's getting back toward Newton, isn't it?

You have gone through a stage of writing what you called magical realism, meaning a terrain where the boundaries are not at all clear, least of all to you. The best you can do is have characters who take such fuzzy boundaries for granted to a greater degree than you do.  It is not that you have foresworn these gray areas as much as it is the case that your experiences over all these years has led you to expect a universe where behavior is relatively more rational than not.

You had a splendid double curve ball that would have revolutionized the game of baseball.  If that seems as young and naive as it was, there were others involving invisibility, the ability to read animals' minds, and a time right after you learned about shape shifting when your imagination prompted you to imagine such abilities as the one of sight possessed by an eagle.  At one point, you were even willing to settle for a crow.

Your fictional tribal elders are able to do things ordinary persons cannot do for one reason or another, and because you have on frequent occasions wished the abilities most if not all persons did not seem to have, you also took the next step of imagining how you would behave if you were a tribal elder.

To become such an individual, you'd have to, as you see the matter, become humble, although the humility would be directed to things of the inner life and spirit rather than to the worlds of business or political acumen. You could be confident because, some how, you'd have some ability to cause reality to change in some way.

For certain, you have one of the requisite characteristics of the tribal elder, which is the chronology.  You may look younger than you are, you may even behave younger than you are.  While admirable, these are no guarantee.

The best you can do at the moment is write an occasional paragraph that renders the known world in a different light, where the powers are distributed differently than they are in this part of the universe.  That will in a sense be you, as tribal elder, writing about reality and thinking, Hey, that's not too bad.  But you have to keep that sort of stuff for the most part hidden, or people will begin thinking your paragraphs have gone to your head.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Tropical Fish and Dialogue

The setting, the address, and the small, invitation-sized envelopes in which he presents his bills to you jump out at you like cliches being called to your attention in your own work by a New York editor, or either of your two favorite waitresses at the two cliche Beverly Hills delicatessens, Nate and Al's  or Linny's.

Bedford Avenue, Beverly Hills, had, at the time, enough psychiatrists to ease the woes of all of Southern California, where there were, now that you think of it, woes similar to your own.  

A block or two away, the psychiatrists had given way to psychologists, or, as the patients would often discuss in any of the amazing small bars or lounges, the respective difference between an M.D. and a Ph.D.

Yours was on Bedford, thus doctor meant M.D., which, for a brief time, put you in good standing with a girl named Mitzi, who said of you, "You must have some serious shit to need an M.D."  This meant for a time she thought you exuded a danger you did not exude and a mystery you seemed to convey to those about you but by no means to yourself.

Mitzi could be counted on to have a half-pint of Hennessey's or Courvoissier in her purse, which you would share at a shady area off Roxbury Park after you'd been to your M.D. and she to her Ph.D., discussing in sweeping rhetoric your reasons for your respective visits to these professionals and pursuing the extent of your chemistry.  "I sit around and brood, can't stand the sons of my parents' friends, read anything but assigned reading for classes, and stay up late, listening to music."  For this, her sessions with the Ph.D. were ninety dollars an hour.

Your symptoms seemed close enough to have you wondering what you were getting for your hundred twenty dollars an hour from the M.D., an issue raised on your next visit to the M.D. on Bedford Avenue.  For his part, he wanted to know if this was something you'd discussed with Mitzi or arrived at by yourself.  At this point, you noticed the M.D. had a considerable tropical fish tank set-up.  

You paused for a moment or two to regard a spectacular display of small fish of various widths and accouterments, parading about in splashes of bright color.  You decided to ask Mitzi if her Ph.D.--you were always polite about that, even though she called your M.D. a shrink--had tropical fish.

"I am looking at,"  you told the M.D, " at list two thousand dollars worth of fish here.  It's not so much that I begrudge you a hobby as it is that I'm wondering if I'm not here because my hobby on display is my difficulty in moving through my teens, into my twenties without a clear sense of where this is taking me."

The M.D. smiled, stood, shook your hand, and gave you another invitation-sized envelope with an invoice in it.  "Good dialogue,"  he said.  "I think we're beginning to get somewhere."

"He told you that?,"  Mitzi said, about forty-five minutes later, under a shady tree in the parking lot of Roxbury Park.

"Listen,"  you said.  "Does your Ph.D. have anything like a fish tank in his office?"

"How could you know that?"  she said. "How could you possibly know that? "

You told her it was part of your danger and mystery, whereupon she began to cry.  You watched her for a moment, wishing she'd get to the part where the Hennessey's or Courvoisier came out, thinking also that there was something vulnerable and attractive about her crying, thinking there was the possibility of something beyond your established plateaus.

"I want you to know I am seeing someone,"  she said, "and while we haven't discussed it yet, I don't think he--his name is Josh--would be comfortable with what you and I--"

"Not Josh from 'The Nineteenth Century American Novel'?  Is he--Is he dangerous and mysterious?"

"He is sensitive.  I like that in a man."

"More than danger and mystery?"

You were reminded of those times, including your growing suspicions that your visits to Bedford Avenue and the tropical fish were drawing to a close by a note you received from your literary agent a few days ago, giving you a URL to click on and a password to type in when prompted.  She was eager for you to see the brief scene between a series character, portrayed by the actor Tom Selleck, whom you find mildly effective, and his character's shrink, portrayed by William Devane, an actor you do admire to a considerable degree.

The agent was right; the dialogue was superb, each character revealing arresting layers of depth and resources.  This reminded you of your time on Bedford, your time with Mitzi, and your sense of how dialogue has changed the way you look at life and narrative.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


How grand and freeing it is to have at your fingertips a preoccupation so inviting and comforting that you can live for it, whether or not you are anything more than moderate in your success at doing it.  You can--and do--become lost in it.  You can--and do--attempt to teach others how to succeed in it, warning them as you do teach them, that they must learn to become lost in it, themselves, if they are to have any lasting satisfaction from it.

You have spent some time today thinking and writing about one of the novels that gave you unexpected courage and awareness, a novel that focuses on something you have only mild interest and almost no ability in.

There is no stretch in your assessment that you have probably played a hundred or so games of chess in your life and cannot recall ever having won one.  You do recall a few times of being close, a few other times where you managed to secure a draw.

Nevertheless, there you were, with Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit, caught from the get go by the way his lead character, Beth Harmon, eight years old, is told her parents have been killed in an automobile accident, is given to a child care agency, and rushed along her way to being an orphan who is, with the best of intentions, given tranquilizers to ease her sudden change of status.  

The tranquilizers become a lifelong  problem; so does her relationships with others, her coming-of-age sexuality, and her ability to make a life for herself where she can achieve some degree of comfort and ease.

In a major sense, the character that is Beth is emblematic of a lead character.  She is reserved, not readily trustful, all too aware of her dependence on pills, a dependence that will early on develop into a reliance of alcohol.  Give the lead character a flaw.  Or two.. Or three.  

Walter Tevis does this well enough.  He also allows us to see the gradual evolution of Beth's near genius at the game of chess, taking her from her youthful spying on a scruffy janitor at the orphanage where she now lives, watching him as he performs perhaps the one pleasurable thing in his own life.  He plays chess with himself, rotating the board with each move.

Your take away from this dramatic set-up, and Beth's thrilling awareness of the intricacies of the game of chess is a series of parallel lines, seemingly unrelated at first when you connect the focus of Beth and the janitor on chess with your own interests in writing and the related craft of acting.

You recall an event at least twenty-five years back when you interviewed the mystery writer, William Campbell Gault, so prolific that he needed at least two pseudonyms of which you are aware.  The quote Gault gave you has stayed with you.  "I'd rather," he said, "be the world's worst writer than a good anything else."

Gault was far from the world's worst writer.  He excelled at knowing what he cared about and finding ways to do it.  He was, you believe, able to say such a thing because he was so comfortable in doing what he cared about.  He later gave you another quote having to do with the fact that he made enough money from writing to allow him to do something else he cared about, which was playing golf.  Once again, he had no illusions about his ability, confessing that he likely was the world's worst golfer.

What you're putting together from your free independent associations has to do with having a thing you care about and which, however good or awful you are at that thing, you are able to become one with it.  You are able to focus on it for significant periods of time to the point where you no longer consider how good or awful you are at it.  

Much of the time, when you are involved with that thing, you are aware on some unspoken level of being the person you'd thought about, the sort of person you were in fact growing toward, the person you have in some measure become.

Beth Harmon has that with chess.  When you read about her and her growth as a result of chess, you are scarcely able to understand the practical elements of the game of chess, but you are able to see how much it means to her because you have the standard of your interest in writing to draw upon as a comparison.

You are also aware, because of your interest in writing fiction, how you've come to watch the men and women who portray characters, discerning how important to each of these actors the ability to concentrate is.  Simplistic as your vision here may sound, acting requires enough focus and concentration to allow the actor to become lost in the character she or he wishes to portray.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Longer Than You Think, Not So Long as You Think

You are sitting in a small theater such as the Old Little Theater, next to your class room at the College of Creative Studies.  Or perhaps it is the Plaza Playhouse Theater in downtown Carpinteria.  Or even the small theater atmosphere evoked by the Java Junction Coffee House.  This much is true"  You are part of a small audience in a small theater.  You are waiting for a performance.

The only difference between this time and the times you were at the theater venues you just mentioned is that you had some specific reason for being at these theaters, some play or performance you knew about in advance.  Tonight, there is a difference.

Although you know you are an audience in a theater where the seating capacity is not grand, you have no idea what the performance or occasion is, only that it is scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes.  You settle into a comfortable posture, double check to make sure your cell phone is muted.  You close your eyes for a moment to experience the inner pleasure of anticipation.

At the precise moment you were told the performance would begin, a man appears, carrying a tall, cylindrical drum.  He moves to a seat center stage, sits, places the drum between his knees, nods in recognition to the audience, appears to make eye contact with each person.  Your appetite is whetted.  Will he provide rhythm for one or more dancers?  Will additional musicians appear?

You still have no idea what to expect.  You focus on the man with the drum, waiting for some clue. He is seated in an ordinary folding chair, appearing comfortable, yet alert.  He is, you decide, waiting for your brother and sister audience members to quiet down, settle into a comfortable sitting audience position.

The theater is quiet.  The creaks and noises are the noises of the theater, not from you or the rest of the audience, paying rapt attention to the man with the drum.  After several long moments--at least, they seem long to you--there is a palpable sense of anticipation emanating from the audience.  You are also a contributor to that sense of anticipation.  

By now, the man has been silent and still for at least two minutes.  A concert pianist, in appearance with a symphony orchestra, might take this long before embarking on a piano concerto, say Mozart's, Number 20, or perhaps the Beethoven so-called Emperor Concerto.

The man with the drum has yet to make a move or offer a sign, much less utter so much as a word.  He sits, attentive, alert.  If ever you saw someone more apt to provide a line of music in the next moment or two, that person would be this individual.  But something is clearly wrong.  He does nothing to tune his drum or strike a note on it.  For all you know, this is an elaborate psychological test, wherein you will learn something about your responses or your specific lack of response.

Four minutes.  You peeked at your cell phone.  You have been sitting in the presence of this individual, this drummer, if that's his game, for four minutes.  Well, okay; you're ready to go for whatever comes.  You're primed.

Still no movement from the drummer.  Some of the audience have laughed with a nervous edge.  You begin thinking it would serve this guy right if you zoned out to the point where you fell asleep.  Surely he'd see you from where he sits, the dim lights not occluding the audience.  Surely.

Okay, five goddamn minutes already.  The nervous snickers are coming with greater regularity, as though, after another minute or so, someone is going to come out and tell you that you've just heard the overture, which is given the name, Overture in Silence.

You're relieved to notice the distinct presence of impatience, bouncing in waves from the audience.  Good thing you know how to zone out, to meditate, to focus on the flickering flame of a candle, in your mind's eye causing the flickering to stop.  

You'll be goddamned if you're going to let any career coaching, focusing on your inner professional kind of stuff get its hooks into you.  In fact, you'll give this asshole another minute and then, no music, no drum beats, no you; you'll stand the fuck up and walk down the aisle to the outer lobby.  You have enough on your plate without playing mind games.

Okay, so now, the drummer hits the drum one resounding whack with the butt of his palm, like to have snapped you out of your reverie, had a definite, attention-grabbing effect on the rest of the audience.  So this was it, now, we'll find out where this is going, what it's all about.

But we do not find out.  We are back to waiting again, as enveloped in suspicion and tension as we would be with sweat if this were a hot, muggy day.  It is anything but a hot, muggy day outside.  But outside is no matter, what matters is right here, a demonstration of some of the potential dynamics for the beginning of a story.

Often, we are drawn into story because of the tug of some situation, but there are times when anticipation becomes exquisite and we are caught up by circumstances, waiting for the situation to begin, not aware that it has, from the moment the man with the drum appeared on the stage, then moved to a seat where we could watch him and he could watch us.

The man with the drum knew what he was doing all along, but we did not.  We could only speculate, imagine, grow uncomfortable with waiting, grow impatient.  There is a potential for the tug of curiosity.  Some in the audience would doubtless wait ten or fifteen minutes, taking their cues from the behavior of the audience because they were getting no cues from the man with the drum--except for that one thwack on the drum head with the butt of his palm.

Story is manipulations of expectation, extended, drawn out, until that moment when curiosity becomes boredom, and the delicate frame of webs is broken with indifference.

How long can a man with a drum keep you interested without playing a note?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Free Lunch

For as long as you can recall, you've been intrigued by the voice of the slightly over-the-top sales or pitch person.  This began in the pre-television days and the remarkable-for-its time allure of the Jack Benny Radio Show, which featured an actor with the consummate come-on voice, Sheldon Leonard.

Jack Benny would be walking somewhere in one of his skits, when he would be accosted by Leonard, in character.  "Psst.  Hey, bud."  Oh, what a world of mischief and conspiracy in those words.  The Leonard character was always intent on selling Benny something that was not quite sleazy, also not quite legitimate.

Much as you enjoyed some of the other skits on the Benny show, you waited patiently for those skits, where the Benny character's established cheapness played out against the Leonard character's used-car-salesman ethos.

That same voice was put to serious work years earlier by Mark Twain, first in his break-out book, The Innocents Abroad, followed shortly after by his time in the Nevada gild and silver mine country around Virginia City.  The voice invited conspiracy theories and shady deals into the parlor, where we were given reason to suspect they existed as well.

The after effects of that voice reminds us of the sage conventional wisdom in which two parallel lines are drawn, one being the concept of the free lunch, the other line being those implications and subtexts which remind us of the hidden cost or price of said free lunch.  

You well recall a conversation you instituted in all seriousness with your father about the meaning of the warning about the price tag for the free lunch.

His father and mother, at one time saloon keepers, were particularly free with pickled hardboiled eggs and pickled pig's feet, both of which were salty, inducing the thirst for yet another draw of beer or ale.  

Okay, free lunch does have a price tag, and the used car salesperson--in one of Twain's more memorable stories, "The Mexican Plug Horse," the salesperson was a used horse seller--can, if seen in one light, be an agent of The Trickster.

This attitude toward that Tricksterish voice, also embodied by at least two of the Marx Brothers--Groucho and Chico--is important to you in the highly personal way of its relevance to how you were recruited into the band of scallywag writers, story tellers, and jugglers of dramatic implements ranging from burning torches to ten-pins, and plates.

A real juggler can handle seven or eight items, sometimes adding to his or her panache with a varied list of items.  You have all you can do to juggle two physical items, much less the minimum acceptable number of three.  But somewhere along the way, you heard the equivalent of the Sirens call to the sailors of Odysseus, and you believed them, at least to the extent that here you are, by no means the person you had in mind to become when you set forth, nor indeed the person you'd hoped to have become after having plied the trade for some time, say twenty years.

Today, in some publication, you say an illustrated article depicting the physical uproar that cam come from a life devoted to dancing, featuring an emphasis on those whose dancing required of them to spend time on their toes, to say almost--but not quite--nothing of being required to carry, balance, catch, and otherwise engage what can best be described as flying lady ballerinas.

The juggler and the dancer have a greater likelihood than you of physical injuries.  You seem to have reached your current state, whatever that may be, with any physical problems or anomalies having come from other sources.  You have no idea how long it could take a person who wished to develop skills as a juggler, much less have you any idea what would motivate a person to wish to become a juggler.  

Or a dancer.  Presumably, there were earlier urges to juggle or dance, of equal presumption acted upon in some way or other, just as you can recall the sense of amazement and wonder that you wished to do the same thing the likes of Mark Twain and Guy de Maupassant, and Willa Cather did.

Much of what you can recall about your journey from about age thirteen or so to this point can be summed up by a conversation you had early in your twenties with your mentor, who urged you to get used to dealing with the way you felt about things as a youngster before they get away from you, your furious effort to do so, and the seeming rush of time past your study and office windows as you sat composing or attempting to compose.

You're aware of streaking along on some orbital path, trailing smoke and fire and gas in the chilly reaches of space, all you can see about you thanks to the wisps of fire in your tail.  You are waiting to see where your momentum will take you, into which corners of the universe, and more to the point, if there are any reasons to believe there are any traces of life on you.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Following the Trail of Cookie Crumbs

You are about a quarter of the way through a project you never thought you'd write.  For one thing, you look at anything book length with a mixture of suspicion if it is nonfiction, wonderment if the project settles down to the point where you begin exaggerating in that way you've come to understand as moving over to fiction.

For another, you've begun to understand that both nonfiction and fiction require research, which means you would rather do the research needed for fiction.  

Both types of research involve individuals, incidents, and some specific moments of time, but the individuals of fiction, once they begin to gather complexity and some kind of dramatic orbit, interest you more because you have to think about them as deliberate eccentric rather than actual persons, who interest you more in terms of the eccentricities they could not shake off.

Fictional events are developed to give the impression of being real, real events, particularly if they are being constructed for written commentary, need to have strong suggestions of story.  Your observations confirm your belief that a roman a clef novel is often regarded as being closer to the actual truth than a biography.

The project you never thought you'd write and are now about a quarter of the way through is in fact nonfiction, but it has the saving grace of being about fiction.  Your research involves a combination of the kinds of research you'd do for a nonfiction book as well as the kinds you'd do for a novel or collection of short form.  

From all the novels you've read, you've culled one hundred which you regard as the hundred from which you've gleaned the most tools and techniques.  These techniques are significant to you as tools you've used in in life and in your own attempts at writing and teaching fiction and as editorial tools when you assume that remarkable position of talking interpretation of a text with its author.

Your plan is to write befitted essays of approximately six hundred fifty words or less on each of the hundred novels, discussing what you got in terms of technique, with no room for generalities or glib, attenuated inferences, such as "The dialogue of this novel took me to the time and place of its historical setting."  

The plan is to longer over each of these mini-essays or, as you've come to think of them, entries until they speak to you as you believe they did at first reading, before you became aware of the gift you received from them.

As you move from one mini-essay to the next, writing about your discoveries, you are well into your belief that this project is in effect asking you to reeducate yourself, looking at these old friend novels as you consider your experiences with some of them over as much as a half century.  You note the progressions of your interests and the way a particular title has prepared you for the enjoyment of others that had yet to be written.

At the quarter mark, you note your special feelings for the narrative tone, the voice of your favored novels, and the emotional information you've gleaned from the reading.  Following the cookie crumbs of your curiosity, you've ended by no means in the clutch of the witch, as did Hansel and Gretel, rather in the clutch of a Catch-22 kind of deadpan with satiric overtones and implications.

Checking through some of your old friends, you notice passages and situations that caused you guffaws and the need to stop reading in order to laugh.  One vital thing you've learned thus far is how to take in the humor without breaking into the uncontrollable laughter.

You hope this deadpan has followed you from your reading into your composition.  You have three-quarters of the text left to find out.