Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Sword in the Metaphorical Stone

After a day at a writers' conference in which you taught a three-hour class on How to Write the Modern Short Story, then. after a cup of awful hotel coffee and even worse hotel lemonade, you interviewed a screen writer who had adapted the works of James Michener, Ann Rice, Robert B. Parker, LarryMcMurtry, and John Jakes for television.  Taking a few brief moments for coffee before moderating a panel discussion of six literary agents, you would think to have had as much truck with talking about writing and publication as you could handle.

You would probably think such a day would turn off anything additional to consider, but such is the nature of the human brain and the writer's mind that you'd be wrong.  Somewhere during your feed of questions to the literary agents, you began to experience a vision of a well known mythic sword, embedded in a large stone.

The object of your thoughts  was the famous sword of Excalibur which, depending on the sources of mythology you follow, was the sword of the true king of England.  Only, the myths tell us, the true king could pull the sword from its rocky sheath.  Many who considered themselves somewhat of a candidate attempted to pull the sword from the stone, and thus claim sovereignty over the kingdom of England.

This is a myth well embedded in our European-based cultures.  No surprise to us that Arthur found the task no real task at all; he barely broke a sweat withdrawing the sword.  If anything, the sword appeared to work its way free the moment it felt Arthur's hand on the pommel.

Myths being myths, the details vary according to which storyteller told it and whether his ancestors leaned toward Welsh, Irish, or Scandinavian.  But the myths all agree on one thing, it was indeed Arthur Pendragon who withdrew the sword, in some myths given the name Excaliburm from the rock, which as nearly as you're able to find was not given a specific name, rather a regional name suggesting the source of the tale.

Much as you favor democratic republics rather than monarchies, you had no trouble taking in the Arthurian legend at the appropriate age, which is to say you opened mind and heart to the Arthurian legend in the same ways young boys take in stories with iconic magicians and at least three lesser knights on the Arthurian food chain, who merit dictionary definitions,, Lancelot, Galahad, and Gawain.  Each of these three seem to ooze particular human qualities, and while Gawain seems to you most human of these three and of the roll call of the Knights of the Round Table, Galahad and Lancelot embody identifiable qualities among readers of the Arthurian mythology and adventures.

Your fondness for this aspect of Arthurian legend is less for the seeping appearance of the myth and more for the side issues by which we may begin to visualize what life was like during those times.  This appreciation for Arthurian legend and the sword embedded in the stone applies to myth and legend involving such things as the true legacy of a lineage, to authenticity, and individuality.

If you equate narrative voice with the stone and the sword as being locked in place until the true storyteller removes it, you satisfy you sense that each writer approaches story with a sense of authority.  The authority bogs down when the teller cannot remove the sword from the stone, the story from the concept or the culture or the politics.

There aren't that many story types, more variations on themes and combination.  You like to argue for three or four max mum to the point where you believe you can listen to a plot, then categorise it as either a heroic journey/coming-of-age, or of the construct of a stranger appearing in an otherwise tightly knit community.

The writer who embarks on one of these iconic forms in effect pulls the sword from the stone, opens the magic or tragedy or humor or that unequivocal sense of menace so often associated with memorable short fiction.  We humans want story in all its recognisable forms and we wish to be made aware, as only an alert writer can make us, of the alarms, disasters, and flat-out joys.  We wish to be warned about impending dangers, whether the astronomical chances of being hit by a rogue comet, abandoning astronauts by accident, or pursuing flight in yet unexamined ways.  We wish to be alerted to flaws and strengths in out own ability.

He or she who pulls the sword from the stone has taken the first step in the maturation process inherent in becoming a writer, a teller of stories and/or a reminder to us of the potential for story everywhere.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Neither Life Nor Writing Are Fair

When you spoke yesterday of Life having plans for you or, for that matter anyone, you were aware how the trope not only presupposes some master plan or outline, doing so pushes the trope over the edge of metaphor and into at least one fallacy.  

That one fallacy is the notion of Life having any agenda beyond continuing its presence in a particular form. There are other fallacies, to be sure, one of them dealing with its essential fairness, another being its relative benignity.  Wherever "out there is," it is mostly jungle.

Once you address the question, What is the meaning of life?, whether to yourself or a group, you effectively are tithing to philosophers and or religionists.  That one question offers unlimited potential for explanations.  When you used the term, you were doing so in the context of past actions you undertook seeming to begin patterns of causality with which you would intersect at some future time.

You also also intended the meaning to include the fact of ongoing causality such as relationships, coming to an end, leaving you to somehow fill in the void by initiating new relationships or creating forms of causality to distract you from the loss.

Given your age, your status as an orphan is no surprise, least of all to you. You think of your parents with some regularity, dream of each with frequency, and dwell on ways you might have been a better son, the better to inform your ways of dealing with those you encounter on a regular basis in person and, to stretch the point, how you might better emerge in your written work.  

This has meaning for you because of the way you reckon you did ask to be born, based on the way you swam fastest to meet the egg.  You did not ask to be any kind of writer, but when you realized you wished to become one, you were responding to some internal force or forces.

The two individuals who were your closest friends are with you now only in memory, creating yet another kind of orphanhood.  Each of them appears, from time to time in your dreams, as does your beloved dog, Sally, gone these two-and-a-half years.  You realize how fragile things are when, after waking up at the appearance of a parent or a friend or sweet Sally in your dream you realize you could have prolonged the visit a  bit longer by not awakening with such a spirited sense of joy.

You look for ways you might have been a better friend in order to share the friendships you cherished for so many years.  Each was a significant writer, their work and off-the-page personality intersecting with you in ways you continue to hope are manifest. You will undoubtedly bring another dog into your life, wondering as you bond with her or him how you might have been a better friend to Sally.

Tricky though it may be to deal with such concepts as Life being a force that, once having launched you, has left you on your own to fend and forage as you will, you cannot help finding purpose, connection, and the solace of dreams within it.

You did, indeed, ask to be born.  However it may be fallacy to believe so, once you were born, writing was thrust upon you.  In writing, you see parallel lines as a thematic design for story.  Thus the parallel lines of you being caught between the rock of Life and the hard place of writing.  Neither is fair, not life, certainly not writing.

As you are in Life, you are also an orphan in writing.  Your two mentors are gone.  Writers who lived and died before you were born are gone.  Some still had Life during your time here.  Indeed, you have met some of them, concluding how neither Life nor writing ever pretended to be fair.

An idea starts blinking somewhere in your consciousness.  Before you are aware of it, it has become a comet, sweeping toward you in its orbit.  You grab onto it as it passes, being yanked by its velocity into the chill of space, where you hang on, vulnerable, determined not to let go.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Defining Energy of Any Character

 The defining energy of any character comes from the goal that character wishes to achieve.  The more tangible and specific the goal, the more tangible and identifiable the character.  

The defining energy of the story in which that character appears comes from the obstacle standing in the way of the character's success in achieving the goal.  The more tangible and specific the obstacle, another person, say, or a tradition, perhaps even a condition, the greater the tug of involvement on the reader.

When you were a much younger person, not yet certain you wished to spend the remaining years of your life in pursuit of an intimate understanding of and relationship with story, your immediate goals had to do with spending as much of your time as possible in a state of adventure.  

Since much of your time was spent in a state approximating boredom and its adjunct, the impatience of waiting for something approximating adventure to manifest itself, your concepts of adventure had you thrust in the midst of a historical clash wherein you were engaged in some conflict with a landscape, an idiosyncratic enemy, or a force of nature.

Reading, one double-feature movie a week, complete with a serial, a cartoon, and the then popular Movietone Newsreel provided you with a supply of settings, historical conflicts, and heroic men and women outside your daily experience.  In earlier times, Eleanore Roosevelt, Madame Curie, Fats Waller, Admiral Byrd, and Will Rogers were your real-time heroes, sharing a place in your imaginary adventures with such comic book characters as Prince Valiant, Mandrake the Magician, Jungle Jim, and the eponymous Terry of Terry and the Pirates.  The latter, often described as "a wide-awake American boy," seemed closest of all to you because, as you reminded yourself on frequent occasions, you were an American boy and you were nothing if not wide awake.

The thought of a near peer, however fictional, having such a regular smorgasbord of adventure was almost more than you could bear, that is until you discovered a classmate in junior high school having the best of all worlds thanks to having the adventure of portraying the Indian sidekick, Little Beaver, of the radio serial version of the comic book hero, the iconic cowboy, Red Ryder.  

You watched your classmate, Tommy Cook, with a judicious mixture of envy and scorn, the scorn part coming from the belief you had that you, fresh from daily adventures as Tonto in a grammar schoolyard improvisation of the Lone Ranger, could have brought greater presence to the role of Little Beaver.

After a time, Cook moved on to other acting challenges, being replaced by another actor you envied because he seemed to get even more sophisticated and memorable adventures with Red Ryder, who rode a magnificent horse named thunder.  Life was beginning to make plans for you, even then.  The actor who followed Tommy Cook as Little Beaver was John Wilder, whose recent novel, Nobody Dies in Hollywood, you edited.

While Life was making plans for your future, you were absorbing into muscle memory the fact that story has a stronger sense of movement and purpose than you at first imagined.  The goal of a character must not be limited to such youthful tendencies at abstraction as happiness, adventure, understanding, insight, or even the lofty goal of wishing to tell memorable stories.  

You required more years to learn this than you care to admit, firm in your belief that story as a concrete entity also meant individuals attempting to engage the random elements of life in ways that would amuse readers. 

"Amuse is okay," one old timer told you in one of several far-from-sober admonitions he gave you when you, staking all on the facts of being six feet three inches tall and, at age nineteen, having a bogus document attesting you to be twenty-two, which allowed you to spend time at a cocktail lounge on Sunset Boulevard known for its high demographic of writers.  "Nothing wrong with amuse, but first, you gotta disturb 'em. You unnerstan'?"

You thought you did, and so you nodded assent.  On subsequent visits to the lounge in the Garden of Allah, the old timer would call out to you, "You disturbing 'em, kid?"  Memorable about that time, your last exchange with the old timer came when you admitted flat out that no, you weren't disturbing people because you didn't know how."

He banged his open palm on the polished surface of the bar with enough force to turn the heads of the more serious drinkers, interrupting them from their inner palaver with their personal angst.  "Take 'em where they don' wanna go, kid.  You'll never go wrong taking 'em where they don' wanna go,  Then, when you amuse 'em, it's like you're throwing 'em a life line.  Unnerstan'?"

Maybe in a few more years,you'd "unnderstan'" during the course of which you went, either by accident, instinct, or necessity, to places you didn't want to go. Perhaps those visits to those places were part of the plans Life was beginning to make for you.

"Geezus," a friend said to you earlier this year, when you both discovered a tub of iced Sierra Nevada pale ale, "you got to drink there?  Fucking Garden of Allah?  What you must have heard.  They all went there, all those writers going there, like people going into places to meditate."

In so many words, yes.  You went there and places like it because you wanted something, and the things standing in your way of getting them were folded up in the plans Life was beginning to make.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hyperbole: Aren't We Having Fun Yet?

Of all the possible ways to be offensive, the one you've cultivated most of your life relates to the desire to be funny.  You came upon this discovery as a direct consequence of your desire to become educated.

Although you did not at any point wish to be offensive, you fell into that rabbit hole through your observation of vaudeville performers, comedians, and certain performers in the Yiddish theater.  

You did not always directly understand these individuals, but even more so than the Anglicized comics with whom you grew up, you were aware that these Yiddish actors seemed to bring deeper layers of laughter and pleasure to your maternal grandparents, your parents, and some of your parents' friends, all of whom you could ask for translations.

Asking for translations when you're as young as you were when the curiosity hit you became a learning experience of its own.  "You wouldn't appreciate that" was a euphemism for the translation you asked for having something to do with sex.  Asking your mother what a cat house was and being told it was a place where cats were boarded became the final straw in the realization that you were going to have to discover the world on your own terms.

You needed some time to make the connection that persons who were being as funny as you wished to be funny were in a literal sense making fun of specific targets, most of which centered around pomposity, taking ones self too seriously, and grown-up adjuncts of being a complacent and compliant person, which is to say being good, studious, and serious.

There was little wonder your offensiveness, however well intended, was not meant to be offensive, rather that offensiveness was the natural response to someone attempting to take down targets you were aiming at.  There is a level of practiced, civilized humor and funny stuff to be achieved before you are less likely to be considered offensive and more apt to be considered subversive.  

You may still be learning how to achieve this state of being, which is to genuine humor as the state of satori is to Buddhism and savakalpa samadhi is to Hinduism. The humorous state of being has defused the original flare of anger at the target and appears only to be pointing out a mild moral infraction.  This state allows the observer to make observations from a position of innocence or even naivete.  "Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society."

That was from Mr. Twain.  Your reaction to it allowed you your own tribute to it, based on your own observations.  "When someone in Los Angeles tells you, 'Let's have lunch.' they're saying 'fuck you.' but when someone in New York tells you 'Fuck you,' they're really saying 'Let's have lunch.'"

There are degrees to being funny, beginning with being racially or sexually offensive, which is to say demeaning an individual because of race or gender, then, when being called out, affecting the defense of your respondent not being able to take a joke.  The racial and or sexual slur is the land mine of humor, barely disguised hostility, racism and bigotry.  As attack and insult become more substantial, the response is based more on social and cultural awareness than on poorly masked hostility.

Many of the humorists you admire, most notably Mark Twain, but inclusive of more recent men and women, have mastered the art of turning the light of inquiry on themselves, doing so in apparent innocence or naivety or even modesty.  You yearn for that deadpan voice and response, the seemingly casual observation that completes a combination punch to the corpus of the target, rendering it stunned, helpless, often still unaware it has been a target at all.

You've had time to work on educating yourself about your high rate of impatience and your tendency to lapse into the frothy spittle of being argumentative instead of proceeding through conversation, thus your awareness that the offensiveness comes from impatience and from explosive responses.  Humor comes from observation; it is dramatic, visual, often self-inflicted, which makes it funniest of all.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Past as History and Present

The past holds a strange fascination for all of us, even persons who have no ambitions to behave in a strange fashion or who are apt to get their priorities tangled. Such persons are often individuals who in real life do not do remarkable things nor, in consequence, do they find their way into stories. 

Such persons may be said to have different relationships with the past than those of us who are drawn to it as though we are archaeologists, digging for some buried artifacts of our earlier self. In such ways, memories become potsherds and possibly even meaningful mementos such as letters, dried flowers, photographs, outgrown toys, and let's not forget clothes once worn at some event of personal importance.

 There is a good deal to be learned about an actual person or an invented one through events in which they were involved in earlier times.  This knowledge or awareness is almost as though the past were some kind of code we all carry, wanting only to be unraveled. The conventional wisdom says the true nature of a person can be read if the code can be broken.  Some cultures regard the self as a mask, hiding the truer, inner self.

You are interested in codes as well as the past, but from as far back as you can recall, coded messages were disappointments.  Even though your sister taught you ingenious ways of inventing progressively more elaborate codes, you were simply too young to have any secrets worth encryption.

One of the most exciting aspects of coding became such artificial languages as Pig Latin, where syllables were transposed.  There was also the coded language of inserting a nonsense syllable such as "aup" between syllables of words.  The "Aup Language" allowed you and your sister to gain a kind of evening of the playing field whereby you could say things in front of your parents that they could not understand in defense of saying things in other languages they believed you could not understand. 

At one point in your past,just before you moved from Los Angeles to a slew of other cities, you were a member of a club. Each week, you received mail from headquarters, addressed to you as Shaupelaupely Laupowaupenkaupf.  Only once did a letter arrive with a question mark next to your name. 

When you had enough of a past to draw upon, you began to admire radio serials, featuring the exploits of individuals you identified with because they seemed as curious as you were, you had opportunities to send for various coding devices that were presented as secure platforms for your confidential data.  As you recall, you had to invent fictions that would necessitate your use of coded communication, but even then, you could see no reason to send sensitive information because you hadn't any.  

Various of your then heroes, Captain Midnight, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and even Little Orphan Annie provided their fans various decoders.  They even broadcast messages which you could decode on your badge or decoder ring.  The messages angered you.  They spoke to such things as helping out around the house, drinking eight glasses of water every day, suggesting to your mother that she buy Langendorf bread,  These were not secret messages a young boy wished to hear.

Because of the amount of time you spend in the past, you often  find yourself in the company of those for whom the past has a strange fascination.  This is because you are writers, storytellers who are  active in the creation of pasts for individuals who are not real.

This ability to create a past for others excited you, left you with a sense of power as you began to see how much one's past, even if invented, had an effect on the way a character reacted in dramatic situations.  The next step was to see how successful you could be at inventing pasts for yourself that were in many ways as fanciful as the life you wished to lead.

The past and your manipulations of it became key factors in you turning a corner in the stories you created, all character based, and your growing sense of the importance characters had in the imaginary worlds you created.  You needed considerable time yet to make the connection between the way setting and circumstance took on greater presence as seen through the eyes of these imaginary creations of yours.  At first, you were merely describing, but now, you believe you're past that stage.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Story: A Squirrel on a Hot, Thin Phone Wire

From time to time the subject of Attention Deficit Disorder comes up in a conversation in which you are a participant or an eavesdropper.  During some of these occasions, the ADD acronym is taken one step farther either by the use of the acronym ADHD or its full iteration of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

The occasions are rare when conversations you overhear, either as a participant or eavesdropper, do not devolve into someone assigning a blame.  Some of the assigned blames strike you as sounding imaginative enough to be plausible.  

More often than not, when the conversations reach the point of assigning blame or, worse yet, accusations of a particular individual being afflicted with either variety of attention deficiency, you find yourself pointing a finger and directing a question mark at yourself.

You could look upon this response as a measure of how suggestible you are or where you would fit on some unknown psychologist's or neurologist's index of hypochondria.  The thought is not lost on you that you have within one sentence pointed the blaming finger of at least ADD if not ADHD and being a hypochondriac.

At this point, you're reminded of how, from time to time, in the right group of student writers, you point at them and you the additional fingers of being control freaks, obsessive behavior and compulsive behavior.  A writer who is not any or all of these culturally designated afflictions is, in your belief, walking the cusp of all of them, pretty much at the same time.

When you find yourself growing bored, you tend to tune out on a conversation.  In the process, you look for something of potential interest to focus on.  Only this morning, you were at a regularly scheduled Monday morning editorial meeting, where the agenda points and subsequent discussions have never approached boredom.  

And yet, there you are, at one of the outdoor tables of one of your favorite coffee houses, forcing yourself not to look tree ward and upward to a visible patch of either telephone or electric line.  Past experience tells you that at least one squirrel will traverse this power line within a given five minute interval.

No matter how attractive or interesting the diversion, a squirrel traversing a phone or power line is made even more intriguing by your memory of once having seen the raucous outcome when two squirrels, each traveling in opposite directions, met while you were watching.  Is the lure of casting your gaze upward to the power line a point of interest, a distraction, or attention deficit?  

Are you contributing to whatever the answer is when you remember one of your favored Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy routines wherein they are piano movers, tasked with moving a piano over a gaping chasm on a rope bridge.  Halfway across the gorge, they encounter a gorilla, coming in the opposite direction.  The bridge is not wide enough for either party to scrunch up to allow the other to pass.  Although the piano is no concert grand, it is nevertheless a presence to be reckoned with.

You have progressed from the potential encounter of two squirrels meeting on a narrow passageway at least twenty-five feet above the ground to one of your favored comedy routines, which is of itself a metaphor for the chaotic and fraught conditions attending the attempts to get a difficult task performed.  

For you, being embarked on a writing project is the equivalent of trying to move a piano over a highly flexible bridge, which is difficult enough in its own way without the added-but-necessary complication of a gorilla, heading in the opposite direction.  When you are composing, you are not supposed to be thinking much during the early drafts, scarcely questioning such rational issues as plausibility and interest.  Nevertheless, there you are, thinking about metaphors and complications.

When you are not thinking about moving pianos, gorillas, and flexible, rope bridges, you are aware of being a control freak, of being obsessive, especially if you notice a misspelled word, and of your compulsive nature, because you feel compelled to have your characters treading close to the unprotected edge of some steep escarpment, much higher than the twenty-five feet the squirrels negotiate.

The realization returns again and again, in a number of ways; when you are within the territory of a story, sharing not only the point of view of the major character but the multifarious sets of awareness belonging to all the other individuals within the scene, you realize this is the equivalent of being high on any or all of the psychedelics you have been high on.  You are also high on enthusiasms, distractions, implications, and squirrels.

On those days when composition does not come with ease, seems to resent being extracted from you, you realize how far indeed you've been distracted from reality on those good days, when the writing comes with as much purpose and determination as the squirrels.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Trickster in Fiction and Reality

Almost whiteout your awareness of it, you were being introduced to the archetypal idea, of the hero an individual, usually male, who represented the characteristics of an alloy of strength, idealism, and a regard for the social contract.  

Heroes, most of them males, however action-driven they were, held doors open for ladies, fought fairly (which you learned early on mean not hitting below the belt line), seemed always to favor the underdog, and when scolded by their mother or an older woman, knew enough to say, "Yes, ma'am."

Even as you were lapping them up, you knew something was wrong, and as you began reading histories of many of the events that were examined in books pretending to be accurate accounts, you realized two important things.  In addition to being heroic, heroes were often bullies or worse, and heroes tended to either be naive to a fault or not very bright.

Soon enough, you became more interested in the sort of narrative champion referred to as the anti-hero, meaning they did things less for idealism than as a protest against some entrenched order or some system that preyed on the working classes.  As your interest and awareness of politics came into your thinking, you began to see many anti-heroes as exemplars of Marxist thought, which did not always win you points with teachers.

Anti-heroes are men and women who become aware of how some advantage is being taken of them.  Rather than accept or flee, they organize some form of opposition, with the end result of being able to live in peace, on their own terms. 

Some of these anti-heroes, such as Huck Finn and, about a century later, John Yossarian, discover that they cannot be allowed to live in peace so they are forced to flee, Huck for the territory ahead, and Yossarian for Sweden, which was a neutral in World War II.

Reflecting on your growth as a reader, your contemporary preferences, and your own personal politics, your esteem for the anti-hero is steady, aspects of anti-heroic behavior spilling over into the men and women you present to the world as characters in your own stories.  

Even now, as you work to get a group of nonfiction projects down on paper to your liking, an anti-hero of your own concoction is tapping his fingers on your desk with the impatience of a man who wishes to lead his own charge against a system you see as one of entitlement.

Your character has been with you ever since his first appearance in a short story that appeared in the humor magazine of your university.  If he were to be Googled, this character of yours would  be shown to have published at least three novels because, like you, he was working at finding his voice.  Now, he has.  He is in many ways like you, but in many others not.  For one important thing, he has earned considerably more than you have, in ways that have left him with the attitude of another sort of character you admire and have spent time considering.

This character is a chip off the old block of the anti-hero, or maybe the anti-hero is a chip off the block of this sort, which is The Trickster, a male or female who makes fun of pomposity and self-importance in individuals and their institutions.  The greatest potential of all is that a character of your own creation can turn into a Trickster who has among other agendas the goal of making fun of you.

At the present moment, your focus is on the fictional Trickster created by a man who, himself, was a notorious Trickster in his life time, born as Julius Marx, but better known to the world he tricked incessantly as Groucho.

Marx's Trickster was often Captain Geoffrey Spaulding, who called himself an African explorer.  Spaulding's slouch of a gait was a deliberate take-off on the way Teddy Roosevelt walked, his wink one of sly sexual mischief.  When the mischief was not sexual, it had to do with impersonations, and supporting itself by its wits.

More of the Trickster to follow.  He and she make appearances in the most unlikely but wonderful places.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Literary Approach to Bank Robbing

Unlike a number of writers you know now and have known in the past, your approach to storytelling comes most often and best from seeing two or more characters engaged in a situation, rather than beginning with the formulation of a dramatic design.

You are not, in any sense, writing to set a character after a specific goal, then tracking the consequences of that quest as the character puts plans into operation.  You more often than not begin with something in motion, a meeting, the aftereffects of an event, an event gone wrong.  Then you set about using that vision as a spine for the overall discovery you are tracking.

One such circumstance has been dancing about in your mind, pure concept, yet an exaggerated commentary from you on the many editorial meetings you've experienced and the many, perhaps too many faculty meetings.  You got the idea while on your way to a meeting, held in the conference rooms facilities of a large resort hotel her in Santa Barbara.

The room in which your appointed meeting was held had all the amenities, starting with a long table, comfortable chairs, pads of paper for doodling, other, lined pads for taking notes, a large screen on which Power Point presentations could be made, and at least two electrical outlets at each seat, enough for a small tablet or portable computer, and one to use for recharging a cell phone.  

Also at each starting, a small bowl of the sort you'd expect to find filled with peanuts.  Instead, the bowl was filled with small flash drives which presumably were intended to allow the participants of the meeting to share information from their own computer.  At one corner of the room, a long refreshment stand offered coffee, various dairy items for use with the coffee or the tea that would come from an assortment of herbal and caffeinated tea.

In short, the room in which you found yourself was well equipped for the meeting in which you were to participate.  Impressed as you were with the efficiency and convenience of the surroundings, your experience with such meetings as the one you were to endure led you to note to yourself how, so far as you were concerned, the missing item was interest.  In spite of the plenitude of note paper, working ball point pens, and computer outlets (including wi-fi and cloud technology), you anticipated boredom.

Whenever you anticipate boredom or actually encounter it,your immediate impulse is to look for some form of escape hatch.  In the case of you finding yourself in a much less lavish circumstance relative to attending a traffic school to avoid your driving account being charged with a moving violation, you noticed and accordingly sat near a trail of ants, intent on cookie or cake crumbs. When your present venture began and you saw the immediate signs of boredom, you chose for your targets of observation a meeting in the next conference room over.

There were five men, one of whom stood at a podium.  Directly to his left was a large viewing screen.  The individual at the podium had a laser pointed.  Seated a few feet away, four men ranging in age from late forties to, you guessed, one of shorter, grayer hair.  You put him as a fit sixty.  A single woman in a plain cloth jacket over a white turtleneck sweater.  You began watching because in aggregate they did not seem to you to belong in a conference room, much less a conference room in a resort hotel.

The man at the podium wore a dark gray suit with what appeared to be a maroon knit tie.  None of the other men wore ties.  The more you watched them, the sense you got of them not belonging in that conference room began to appear, for want of a better word, sinister.  That descriptive word was no sooner squeezed out of your brain and into your consciousness than you knew you were on to the first conceptual step of the way stories come to you.

You were immediately kidnapped by jealousy, and as the boredom of your own meeting intensified, you put your conceptualizing to work.  The individuals in the next room were bank robbers, reviewing the essentials of the robbery they were planning.  The individual behind the small lectern was clearly the leader.  The sixty-year-old took on the wary, NASCAR driver authority of the driver of the getaway car.  

You picked the man with wire-frame glasses as the safe expert, and while you had no feel yet about the woman, you imagined her as the one who'd actually picked the branch of the bank to be robbed and was in the caper for an extra cut as a finder's fee.  Her short, choppy brunette hair might have been convenient to maintain but it would be difficult for witnesses to describe.

The idea of a bank robbery being planned out in the conference room of a resort hotel appealed to you.  So did the notion of the man in the black leather jacket complaining that the snacks provided were poor in comparison to the refreshments provided by the principals in the most recent job he'd been in on.

The sinister atmosphere of this group continued to embrace you to the point where you began assigning the characters names and specialties.  You were quite pleased to see that when it came time for coffee, Rose, for that was surely her name, was not the designated coffee server.  In fact, it was Dennis, he of the gray suit and maroon tie.  Rose was clearly the brains, and when she came up to preside over the power point, Dennis was all deference.

This still was not a story; it had a good way to go beyond its conceptual demeanor, but it had delicious possibilities, which you noticed when Rose began pointing with the laser pointer.  You were no longer bored, and with a little work, you might turn the concept into a story.  Worst case, when you see real perons in those conference rooms, you'll know what they're meeting about,

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Wright Brothers and Fiction Writing: A Comparison

Sometimes the intra-caucus wrangling and divisiveness has less to do with which of the multifarious aspects of the Self shall take up the gavel as Speaker of the Self, and more to do with a rancorous, often combative shouting match where the representatives are writing projects which have nothing to do with the diversity of constituents among the Self.

These writing projects include but are not limited to a series of what you thought would be two suspense novels, but which seem to have been joined by yet another.  Add to these at least three works of nonfiction, one of which seems the most audacious of all, which is to write what you would call Volume 2 to a one-off work written by D.H.Lawrence.  

You are well into a nonfiction work you'd not thought of at all as recently as April or May of this year, but the shouting got to you and when you began to make notes with the thought of returning to them in some kind of order, the material already had you and would not, except for the occasional frisson of doubt that comes with any project, let go.

There is a hidden drawer in the Queen Anne secretary you inherited from your mother.  The secretary is an accurate representation of the binary aspects of life.  You cannot look at it without thinking of your mother with an affection that is substantial and yet bifurcated.  

Suffice it for now to say you appreciate much of her role in your life, have occasional dreams in which she appears in supportive concern--"Are you still taking your cod liver oil?"--and think of her fondly.  The Queen Anne secretary reminds you of her and of the fact that it is totally unsuited to your taste.  Into the hidden drawer, you toss the occasional ten- or twenty-dollar bill when that aspect of your personality calls your attention to the need to save for "the years ahead."  

The last time you smoothed and gathered the bills, their aggregate total was fast approaching three thousand dollars, which you take as proof that you listen to that aspect of yourself, even though a visit to your bookshelves, clothes closer, and kitchen shelves will reveal your heed paid to yet other aspects of yourself.  

In some ways, you are almost glad to have the "years ahead" voice taking such an active interest in your welfare.  You could, and on occasion do wonder of your kitchen needs advocate what possible need you could have in the years ahead for so much anchovy paste, tins of Aunt Polly's hollandaise sauce, and no less than six means of making coffee.

The wrangling of which you speak here has to do with projects, notably those bristly opposites, fiction and nonfiction.  Your last published book was a collection of your short fiction, the contents of which you enjoyed above most of your recent work, no doubt because, when you have moments of reducing yourself to Twitter-length basics, will say of yourself that you "are a short-story writer and book editor," which even allows for some commentary about your teaching activities.

Twelve of the short stories culled from your available cache were written during times in your life when working at fiction seemed to be the most singular and significant source of pleasure, thus they also became a working defiance against the impression you were making on the rest of the world.  With news of their forthcoming publication in one collection, you threw yourself into revising all of them, the revision having the effect on you that you were hoping to make on the rest of the world.

This is to say that you consider yourself a storyteller rather than a nonfiction writer, even rather than a more acceptable term, essayist. Looking back without consulting notes, you've probably published equal amounts of each, yet you still like to consider yourself a storyteller rather than the likes of an essayist.  

You will risk the modesty of comparing the stories you write to the degree of flight achieved by the Wright Brothers. As such things go, you may be overstating the quality of your own work, but you do consider those brothers to have been focused and devoted to achieving their goals, and you may be hitching a ride on their determination, but you do believe in your focus and devotion.

The editorial shouting begins when ideas for stories, novels, and books of nonfiction begin to clamor for your attention, , enhanced by the equivalent of a neighbor yelling to keep the noise down because people are trying to sleep.  That neighborly equivalent is a voice reminding you that you are well beyond the halfway mark of your opportunity to see what degree of ability you can wrestle into your days, nights, and flights of imagination.

You do what you can to keep the editorial shouting manageable; you assign a fresh Field Notes notebook to each project.  You try not to indulge such obvious comparisons in your mind as to consider the differences between fiction and nonfiction as the equivalent of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  You try to keep up with the sincerity and devotion to your craft that the Wright Brothers showed their own visions.

When some interior neighbor shouts out to keep the noise down, you shut the window and get back to work.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Inner Editorial Committee

The inner committee, comprised of representatives who claim to be legitimate aspects of your personhood, often reminds you of a publisher's editorial committee, looking for excuses to reject, wanting to keep losses down, willing to gamble on established projects from established producers rather more than being willing to take chances.

Yes, they are that way; it is a necessary condition. You, who have honed yourself into a necessary condition, are thus frequently whipsawed by your committee, all for being of an anarchistic nature, your goal being to keep at your composing until you have learned at least one tangible thing.

In a manner quite similar to the way your interior processes seem to work, writing is often in some form of argument with itself. To compound the comparison, the arguments within your interior process seem to escalate into argument ad homenim, which is among other things, Latin for name calling.  The argumentative positions related to writing set forth on their own energetic vector.

To begin with, writing is supposed to be fun.  If it isn't, there's a clue that something has been overlooked or it has become the noisy complainer.  This necessary ingredient has a counterpart in the internal process, which recognizes how often life is less sane than it is made out to be, more trying than it need be, and more contentious than it ought to be.

If the writing process is ever to be fun as opposed to being a chore, the subjects and objects of writing should be oriented to the goals you place at the top of your own personality triangle.  As one of your favored writers, Elmore Leonard was wont to say, and in fact said to you in person more than once, don't write the parts that don't interest you.  Does that mean, you once asked, that things you believe ought to be there must be made to seem as though you had fun writing them?

He said that was putting a bit of a spin on it, but it was not wrong to invent a character or circumstance that would present necessary material in an unorthodox and unexpected way.  From this exchange, you have arrived at the belief that the same process applies to those moments of self-reflection, self-analysis, and decision making  associated with the interior life.  

You're better at finding ways to turn writing into fun than you are getting through the bureaucracy of governing the self, but if any one thing does call itself to your attention in this regard, it is the strategy you have stolen from a strategy directly associated with another governing body, the United States Senate.

The technique is the filibuster, which you use to prevent the kinds of internal compromises which would result in you agreeing to do something you have no wish to do.  Exaggerated ad libs become an effective strategy for coping with things you do not wish to do but reckon you must.  

By exaggerating your response to them, you're able to satisfy your primal desire to avoid the matter by making fun of it to yourself.  Another excellent filibuster technique involves improvising outrageous approaches to the matter that, were you to actually do them, would land you in considerable trouble from backlash.

You'll have done most of the hell-raising things associated with using humor to destroy a target, then you will be able to do as you must, having reduced by a factor of at least ten the degree to which you consider yourself a hypocrite in the transaction.  

You will have made it possible to congratulate yourself for having performed the odious task and achieving quits with the need to do it, and you will in the bargain be able to congratulate yourself for the restraint you showed in not using the more anarchistic solutions at your disposal.

Another important aspect in writing is to get some done every day, with no days off.  This last part is important because the more you practice the thing you wish to do and have in fact rearranged your life to be able to do, the greater the possibility you will feel guilty for taking a day off.  

As bad as a day of writing awful, throw-away-able pages is, it is better than using some excuse such as not feeling like writing or being too hung over to having anything to say, whatever the hell that means.  You will regret making the excuse and you will feel awful for not having tried, and you will see a day of writing awful things as infinitely better that having to wonder what you might have written.

This ties nicely with living the internal life of the external day which, by previous definition, is a day where you with deliberation arrange things,even mere words, to produce a quality of health and happiness, both of which you recognize to be of considerable value.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Who the Fuck Do You Think You Are? Just the Truth, Please.

 Although you do not set forth each day with specific instructions to speak the truth and respond with accurate reflections of how you feel, you have little or no issues so far as telling the truth is concerned.  By this trope, you mean the necessary acts of reporting what you see, think, and feel in direct proportion to the way you see, think, and feel them.

When the subject of telling the truth is present, you are aware that your score for truth telling is far from perfect, that you have with deliberation stretched the truth either to make you look good or in some relevant cases to avoid hurting the feelings of another..

Telling the truth becomes a more serious, even philosophical matter when dealing with characters you've created.  You want them to be true to who they are, which is why, on occasion, when one of them says something, you question it because it does not sound like the character, rather it sounds like you.

 If you are not careful, all the characters you create will sound like you, which puts a strain not only on dramatic intensity but on the larger concept of truth because if each of the characters is different and yet sounds like you, which is telling the truth and which is not?  Yet another question arises:  Are the characters sounding alike because their creator has tried to shout down their individual anarchy?

There are times when you get into this kind of contest within yourself, when you are not composing but in effect holding a meeting of the parliament that seats the varied aspects of you, some of whom are quite conservative, some middle-of-the-roaders, and others rather vocal liberals. 

These parliamentary proceedings begin being run more or less according to Roberts' Rules of Order, but on frequent occasion devolving into a shouting match where the main question has to do with truth.  For instance, "Who the fuck do you think you are?"

When you ask that question of yourself, which is to say of your combined, versatile, multifarious selves, you hope for a truthful answer.  But you know how things can get in the passions of argument.  You do replicate within the parliament of yourself the degrees of the culture into which you were born and with which you have struggles these many long years.  Is it truthful for you to say of yourself that you are a Jew and if the answer is either a yes or a no, what are the attributions?  

You often try to reconstruct from the fact of having been born into what you accept as a Jewish family, having at first greater associations with your birth culture than not.  In your search for identity, you've made serious attempts at pursuing the trail of a cultural identity, have never lied about your birth connection nor tried to pass as someone who is of no religious culture.

Some of these speculation arrive because you are rereading Chaim Potok's moving novel, My Name Is Asher Lev.  The novel of course resonates for you because Potok is a Jew, Asher Lev is a Jew, and in its profound and nuanced way, the Jewish culture radiates from the pages.  Yet none of these reasons is the real reason you are rereading the novel.  

The novel you've just finished rereading, Young Man with a Horn shares a relationship with you, with Asher Lev, and your reasons for rereading both.  Each book is about a serious performer, one a painter, the other a musician.  Each is about the process of a fictional individual becoming more real than many live humans because the fictional ones are in effect trying to become one with his chosen art.

In many ways, you're as curious about this process as you are about the culture you're trying to accommodate in some truthful way beyond mere name.  You know a good deal more about being a writer than you do about being a Jew.  But this is only one case where your background has produced an anomaly;you know X amount about writing on a scale of Y.  Whatever that X is, it leaves you wandering about, seeming smarter than you are.  Or perhaps seeming more desperate than you are?

Since the subject at hand is truth, then, truth to tell, perhaps you are the way you appear as a result of all those parliamentary meetings when the investigating committee calls you to testify.  Once you are sworn in, promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, etc etc, and you are asked the first question, "Who the fuck do you think you are?" you begin writing a story to find out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When Surprise Trumps Story Points

Two characters of equal ability are assigned a chore to perform.  At the moment, their age, gender, and background don't matter.  In the moments to come, perhaps all these qualities will matter.  Perhaps not.

We'll call the individuals Character A and Character B.  The individual assigning the task repeats the details of the task, acknowledged how ASAP the time frame is, then says "Go."

Character A, who has been smiling with confidence while the details of the chore were specified, smiles again, says something along the lines of "Piece of cake.  Stand back."

Since there are two characters in this exercise, a significant binary event has been created.  Without needing to hear or consider Character B, you can see two potential outcomes, based on years of reading, listening to critics talk about story, your experiences as a teacher, your experiences as a fiction editor, and by no means deserving the bottom of the triangle, your experiences as someone who had to undergo considerable struggle to be able to get a dramatic narrative to stand up to revisiting and the rigors of editorial work.

Productive writers tend to be like that, suspicious, cynical, curious.  The more productive they've been, the greater their index of potential cynicism and wariness.  The writer has the equivalent of the musician's memory for sound.  

In a class in music appreciation which was the prerequisite to a more nuanced approach to types of harmony and orchestration, you were subjected to an identify-that-work kind of test, which was making you impatient for having to engage in a simplistic strategy.  Using a turntable and a stack of 33 1/3 RPM vinyls, the instgructor would place a work on the turntable, then lower the stylus.

More often than not, you got the identity after the first two or three notes.  Sometime, you required several bars, but to the instructor's exasperation, you continued to be able to identify the tune.  Finally, she came to one, watched with some satisfaction as you remained silent, and no one else was able to recognize the work.  She smiled a patronizing smile in your direction.  "I seem,"  she said, "to have stumped you."

"Actually, you haven't.  I know the piece is one of the Brandenberg Concerti, I'm trying to decide which number."

Had her previous comment to you not have been so arch and accusatory, there would have been no humor, but when you said, "I'm going to go with Number Four, which would be the G Major.  I seem to recall the beginning with the two recorders in a kind of cheery lock step." Even those in the class who'd never heard of any of the Brandenberg Concerti, much less Number Four, did not merely laugh, they guffawed.

The teacher had set herself up for a cheap-shot win with her attitude, but she lost considerable face.  Audiences of any age are only too willing to laugh when an authority figure stumbles.  The authority figure may be an individual or an ingenious role reversal as executed by Charlie Chaplin in a routine where as a boxer, he comes out of his corner at the bell, then begins dancing behind the referee, adjusting his movements so that he is always behind the ref until he gets a chance for a quick pop to the jaw of his opponent.

Character B, listening to the assignment, says, "Gee, that seems pretty difficult.  I don't know that I can do that."

You know immediately who you're going to root for, and you can see possible scenarios in which the story can go.  If well orchestrated, these scenarios will have Character A's smile growing even broader, the possibility of Character B shaking his or her head in frustration.

Most authors who have read enough are also aware of the potentials for mischief that become apparent to you as the two opposing characters, A and B, take on traits related to their behavior.  Much depends of the apparent near-perfect performance of Character A, yet the shrewd reader will understand that A cannot be allowed to win because were A to perform successfully, the result would not be a story,  Call it what you will; it is not a story.

On the other hand, B must not be allowed to win too easily.  We need to have reasonable fear that A might win.  The trick is to get Character B to completing the chore, doing so with infinitely more grace and imagination than A.  The key to this performance, B's performance, rests entirely in the shadow of that great dramatic force called surprise.  The outcome must be plausible, must be logical, must come as the result of some surprise activity, information, or a combination of both.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Reliable Narrator and Roquefort Cheese

In story and actual history, so much depends on the reliability of the narrator.  If you as reader or composer are not convinced of the reliability, much of the transformative chemistry that makes story seem real and reality seem dramatic will dissipate, leaving you with rows of sentences on numerous pages, or a sense of remoteness from events taking place about you.

A character who claims to be you is napping in a comfortable chair in the corner of your room until he is awakened by one of the great dramatic tropes, a knock on the door.  You live in a circumstance where you are insulated from street traffic.  

The likelihood of a knock at your door at any time is rare. more often than not either from your landlady or her son, who fixes things when they don't work or replaces things he can no longer fix.  He is a ten in reliability on a scale of one to ten.

Your next door neighbor, who leaves you copies of National Geographic for reasons you do not quite understand, rarely knocks; she merely leaves the magazine on a table in your patio.  An occasional postal worker or FedEx driver will knock to deliver a package.  

In all the time you've lived here, there have been few other knocks.  Once a person with a clip board seemed to think you knew and were hiding the whereabouts of a former tenant.  Once a friend of your landlady wished to leave a message for her with you.  Once an earnest couple wearing dark suits wanted to know if you'd found Jesus.

Given the variety of things you've written while living here, anyone would think--and do so wrongly--that a great deal of dramatic and existential activity takes place here.  Online your imagination and dreams.  

Under such circumstances, you'd have no problem accepting the reality of the character who claims to be you, napping in a chair except for the fact that you know he is not completely reliable because you know he is not you.  You know this because you know someone else is already using your ID.  In fact, you know he is not you because you happen to be you.

On the other hand, you've created several hundred characters, some of whom you've given names you know to be owned by persons you know to be actual persons.  Using the names of persons you know to be real for characters you know to have been invented is a mischievous whim on your part.  You have also given yourself names of the sort people think of as pseudonyms, thus adding to the cosmic mishigas of identity. 

 Well before there was an Internet or a Google, you wrote a number of books as Adam Snavely, which sounded borderline fantastic to you and definitely funny.  The fact is, you have just checked Internet and Google to find the Adam Snavely

of your invention is not even on the first page of Adam Snavely listings.  There are too many real Adam Snavelys for your Adam Snavely to have a chance at all in the world.  What's worse, the real Adam Snavelys are not funny.

Suppose the character who claims to be you hears a knock at the door, opens it, then finds himself confronted with a character asking for you.  Situations such as this have happened to you in dreams,  Faced with a seemingly impossible problem, you woke up, your sleeping imagination not willing to cope with the equivalent of circumstances you enter with some frequency when you are writing stories.

In recent years, you've coped with the need to get as much of the real you or the storytelling you out of the manuscript, leaving the characters you've invented to cope with the problems you sought to investigate as yourself.

The reader expects knocks at the door in story.  The knocker is more often than not an irritation, a threat, or a menace.  In real life, the knocker may be any or all of these things, but the greater possibility is that the knocker will be a nuisance.

In story, the knocker asks the character who claims to be you for information about you.  The character who claims to be you lies.  You might even ask, Why stop now?  This character lied in the first place by claiming to be you.  How reliable can he be if he is trying to impersonate someone he cannot even recognize when he sees him in person?

And you sit there and tell me the writing life is as shot through with excitement and challenge as Roquefort cheese is shot through with blue mold.  You sit there, pretending to be reliable.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Best Characters Know a Thing or Two about Salami

There has to be a story, of course; something simple enough, a journey or a quest or even a decision to rob a bank.  The story has to have at least an atmosphere of plausibility to it, and characters, who add one of the more vital ingredients to the mixture.  

The better characters are those who bring some sort of explosive quality, like guests bringing improvised gifts to a social gathering or a dinner that irrevocably effects the event. These characters could be, probably have been, your cohorts in your fantasies; they are the men and women with whom you'd like to have more than one drink, perhaps even several.  

These are men and women who are up to no good, nor are they up to badness in particular.  To paraphrase the language of lawmakers, these characters are a clear and present danger to convention.  By charm and by the strength of their inner conviction, they subvert, co-opt, and upstage any pretense of the ordinary.

Ventures such as these, whether you are in the process of reading them or writing them, hold great joy and promise for you because they set the stage for a result you value of all others, the result of chemistry, often unanticipated, between characters or that special chemistry not even the author had planned.  

This unplanned chemistry is the author, liking the circumstances, and the author, in consequence, alert to the one or two moments in early draft where unexpected responses come forth.

The author is not, you believe, supposed to get in the way once the characters have been set loose on their wind-up orbits, but if your own experiences are any gauge, the author will sometimes see details the characters may have missed.  The author will in metaphor see a character a banana peel, which yanks him right out of refereeing the story, intent on the banana peel on which one or more characters will slip.

You did say metaphor.  The banana peel is the cue sent to the author's mischief center:  one or more of your characters are going to lose dignity soon.  They will do so by some unanticipated response to some unanticipated detail within the story, a word or two from another character, a zipper allowed to remain unzipped, a letter not sent, a microphone not turned off, a photo that should not be carried in a wallet being carried in the wallet it should not be carried in.

Some directors you know of like the idea of letting characters go off on an improvisational riff to see what kinds of possible chemistry there are between them.  Uta Hagen, an actor you much admire, writes of having been in a stage play with a famed actor who managed to leave a dead fish under a pillow on which she was supposed to be sleeping.  

You, an ardent fan of Marx Brothers vaudevillian antics, were inspired to have a long salami hidden in your prop overcoat, worn during a supposed tense scene in a play where your character was accused of being stingy and self-centered.  You can still recall the look on your accuser's face when you withdrew the salami, then handed it to him.

Much as you admire pranks and the discovered chemistry between two or more characters, this is not the end you had in mind when considering the overall outcome when a story is drawn away from the conventions of presentation and plunked instead into dramatic anarchy.  

The outcome of which you are fondest is the arrival of authorial voice, certainly in your own work but also in the stories and novels of writers long dead, still among the living, and in some cases considerably younger than you.

Much as you admire being swept along in the slipstream of a deceptively simple language, although one you recognize as having been crafted with a careful eye, you admire even more a conversational sense of being in the presence of a driven, purposeful character, close to the edge of being a lit fuse, sizzling toward some form of detonator.

Straightforward or orotund, as fraught with metaphor as a Christmas pudding or Italian Panetone, the narrative voice comes whistling through the canyons of your mind as hot and impatient as a summer Santa Ana wind, stirring up associations, impressions, and the urge to join in.

The men and women of whose works you are the fondest tend to use this quality of narrative voice as heat-seeking missiles.  On impact, they shatter the ordinary, link you to the world of their creator where you become aware of the mischievous associations spinning through your being since you were old enough to stop being so damned literal, then walk through the ghetto streets of your mind where you would not ordinarily go for fear of being solicited to ride shotgun in your own story.

Someone interesting has to want something, but someone more interesting has to come along with enough force to impact the direction of the story and the polite comfort of its vector.  The language of the narrative, dialogue, and interior monologue will become aware of this interesting force, then outdistance themselves as they weave the silken webs of intrigue.

There are already enough stories with polite comfort.  What you're waiting for is one of your characters to hand you a salami. 


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Portraif of the Artist as Pin-Ball Machine

When you are teaching at UCSB, you make a point of arriving early to spend some time, sitting in the darkness of The Old Little Theater, just across a hallway from your classroom.  In the solitude and darkness, you find a sense of companionship with elderly presences representing all the wonderfully good and terribly bad things you have seen in your theatergoing time.

Not until you experienced Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, the night after having seen Streetcar in a larger, more robust and modern building did you sense your pleasure for the intimacy of the smaller theater and thus your complete enjoyment of the smaller because smaller means you have to use more of your imagination as you watch the story.

Earlier this week, you experienced another revelation about how such elements as story, venue, imagination, and the disconnect from convention collide within your sensory awareness.  As if in a trance, you stood to indulge the entr'acte of the National Theater filmed presentation of Hamlet, coming to you in a movie theater in, of all places, Ventura, California.  

This was an embellished theater, much larger and grander than the one you'd sometimes attend when you were working the carnival circuit, staying at a cheap hotel just around the corner.

You were drawn to a large bank of pin ball machines and imaginative stalls where one could play elaborate video games.  You felt as though you were in one of the pin ball machines, with its flashy arrays of bumpers, flippers, culs de sac, and diversions.  The idea of going to Ventura to see Shakespeare in such an arcade of a theater was enough to shake you out of convention.

Most of the Shakespeare plays you've seen have been filmed although you are not a stranger to the tragedies, histories, and comedies being presented in a theater.  This version of Hamlet was set in the alternate universe of a time frame somewhere between the first Hamlet you'd seen and perhaps the nineteenth century, except that in the famous "The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King," Hamlet is wearing a Grateful Dead concert tee shirt, and a closer look reveals his footwear to be running shoes.

The experience was far from disconcerting or distracting, instead seeming to ratify your own vision of yourself and the world about you at considerable remove from the you that was and the world about you that was.  Now that you think about it, whenever you took the world as it was presented to you at school and most of the supplied text books, you were buying into closed roads, dead end streets, boring or patently sugar coated decorations.

If not the first disconnect between reality and the fugue state of the surreal came when, as an eleven-year-old, you were living in Miami Beach, Florida, which had been used by the Army as a training and service center during world War II.  You did quite well for yourself by selling out-of-town newspapers to service men, that is until one afternoon, when a troupe of recruits was dismissed from drill.  In their midst, you recognized an actor you recognized from his role in many films, often as a desperado of some sort, and in recent years, either as a German officer or enlisted man.

"Would you have," he asked you, "papers from Los Angeles?"

"Examiner,"  you said.  "Times."

"Ah,"  he said.  "Not the Daily News?"

"You?  The Daily News?"

He registered amusement in his eyes and the set of his jaw, lips slightly parted.  "I see you know your Los Angeles papers.  Why would I not want the Daily News?"

"Because the Daily News is--"


"The Daily News is friendly to labor.  The Times hates unions.  The Examiner is a Hearst paper.  You portray people who--"

His eyes locked on me.  "You recognize me. How old are you?"

You told him.

"I am not always the type of person I portray.  You must learn to understand.  Things are not always what they seem."

You are pleased to recall that incident.  You are formed by such encounters as that and the event, real and imagined, that cause you to question your own attitudes and beliefs as well as those of others you took in without examining them.

Each time you see or read Hamlet, you see a four-hundred-year-old reality, shaped by younger ensembles of actors and directors, cracking open any sense that reality has a use by date.  Each time you confront an ancient or elderly truth, you see it in the lobby of a theater that has undergone much change in your lifetime, as indeed you have, too.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Writer's Rabbit Hole

Back in the tumultuous days of your tumble into the rabbit hole of the writing life, you were on an extreme learning curve without even knowing such a thing as a learning curve existed.  

You would later find out about the term "learning curve" from an employer with whom probabilities suggested you would not get along, which is your attempt to avoid saying you were fated not to get along, you with him and him with you.

This is also an attempt to say that your experiences with this employer and your regard for the term "learning curve" to the contrary notwithstanding, you have no objection to the learning process.  Once inside the rabbit hole of the writing life, you understood how your appearance there was not by any means so accidental as the eponymous Alice, nor was it long before you progressed enough to learn that Alice had a real life counterpart, Alice Liddell.

You'd in effect spent some time looking for the rabbit hole, wanting some sense of how to recognize which of your habits and ambitions were worthwhile and which were insubstantial.

You also understood the need to learn your way about this wonderland of publishing and writing was through more reading, more attending of lectures, and more practice, which had two specific activities, the practice of reading and writing in the manner of writers you admired and did not like, and the practice of writing in the manner as close to being you as you were able to discern. 

Even at this remove, you see your more callow self as having understood the need for learning.  You attended lectures given by such notables as Malcolm Cowley, Irving Stone, Adela Rogers St. Johns, and Lionel Trilling as adjunct to your attending classes at the university, pleased to discover among your instructors men and women with considerable reputations, bodies of work, and opinions.  These latter elements you accepted as though they were gospel until their clamor of contesting opinions pushed you deeper yet into the rabbit hole,

There was nothing for it.  Your flashlights were losing their battery power.  Your candles were mere stubs, and although you smoked at the time, thus the regular presence of a lighter or matches, you began to suspect you were going to have to make your own choices, then live with the consequences of these choices if recognized authorities should disagree with you.  By the time you'd progressed to the point where you discovered there was such a thing as a learning curve, you'd already understood there was a bell curve.  

You have come at this stage of your life to understand that your distrust of and antipathy toward learning curves was based on the emotions surrounding your relationship with the individual from whom you discovered the term. This realization comforts you while assuring you that you have learned at least this much.

During your time in the rabbit hole of the writing life, you have seen an array of characters every bit as eccentric as those Alice saw in her rabbit hole.  You even saw in the chair of your department a prototype of the Mad Hatter, a man who also wore a vest much of the time and, in his lecture about Alice, clapped his hands together before asking a question that has remained with you ever since.  "How did the little girl get into the rabbit hole?"

At one point, early on, you believed it might be enough to say in effect, "Here I am."  Of course you needed a portfolio of work, a cornucopia of material demonstrating your range, whereupon you would be hired to produce a story or play or novel.  A journal might ask for a satire or parody.  You might even get one or two regular retainers, which everyone understood was the writer's way of earning a living.

A few individuals did say, "Oh, you're here, are you?" And you were a regular participant at a baseball game at which most of the players were members of the Writers' Guild.  No question about you being confused for one of the neighborhood kids who were chosen to fill in at empty positions.  One of the regulars said center field was yours whenever you wanted it.

What you had to learn was to be the rabbit hole character of your own true calling; you could not get far at all by being the Mad Hatter because he was already there, and if you weren't careful, he'd want to hit you up for ten dollars at a time when you knew how to stretch a ten-dollar bill into a crock pot of chili that would have you eating for a week.

You had to learn what you could from the men and women whose works you read, how they had effect on you, and what those effects caused you to think about during those unguarded moments when asleep, playing center field, shaving, or deciding what to add to the crock pot that would change the chili into something more intriguing and provocative.

You had to learn to walk those rabbit hole tunnels without hunching over or using body language suggestive that you did;t belong there.  Somewhere in that strange world where some did not trust their agents or publishers or producers, where the faults always belonged to the editors who said no, or to the so-called ideal reader (the one in Peoria), you had to walk tall, because you had a story you could tell.  Even if there was no one  to listen, you knew it was good, because the thought of telling it made you smile.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Writer's Best Friend: Pickles from His Youth

Among your favorite writers, the works of John Cheever (1912--82) continue to lead you through those special moments of humor found between the sighs, groans, and complaints of those whose lives are as conflicted as Cheever's was.  Another of your favorites, Deborah Eisenberg (1945-) has you laughing out loud in places where you find yourself startled to discover something funny in the midst of driven, notional behavior.  

He who remains most favored, Mark Twain (1835-1910), causes you to laugh at his persistent target of persons, places, and things not being at all what they seem to be.  So majestic is Twain's sweep of targets, he has taken on an entire part of speech, the noun.  At one point in your career, you realized that you, too, had taken on a part of speech, the adverb, but what is an adverb in comparison to a noun.

Adverbs modify, which is to say prop up, verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.  If it is of a mind, an adverb will also modify a noun phrase or a clause, perhaps even an entire sentence.  These last chores reflect enough subtlety to cause you to take back much of what you have said about the adverb and allow it a place at the dinner table, so long as it does not try to be the schoolyard bully of dialogue, where he said loudly or she demurred politely.  And you can manage to keep your control in cases where, if you come any closer, I will shoot, she said threateningly.

From Twain, more so than Cheever or Eisenberg, you have learned to be wary of nouns, of persons, places, and things, until they have proved themselves to be reliable,  at which point you scurry about, looking for other targets.  On balance, you have chosen well, looking to them as pole stars, teachers of places to insert moments of humor where they will provide the most effect.

When you speak of humor, you think of revelations of sad truth.  Thus it becomes a sad truth that fun and good times cannot last, perhaps even more humorous and funnier to think there could be fun times or good times.  

You don't  want people telling you to soak it up now because you might be dead tomorrow.  You had difficulty enough reaching today, and even though you are grateful to be here and alive today, you have a feeling, a gut-level feeling, as in the kinds of gut-level feelings expressed by a man who once fired you for favoring hunch decisions over rational ones.  

The sad truth there was your hunches having had a better payoff than your rational decisions.  The sad truth grew sadder and, thus, funnier, because of your belief that the inmates were running the institution.  From this spiral of deterministic behavior, irony grows in the same way mushrooms grown in unaccustomed places.

Unless you are at the moment caught up in a spiral of downward, painful information, your tendency is to look for things you consider fun, which, for the sake of definition here, is a state of being you often equate with impudence.  You can have fun without being impudent.  For example, you can enjoy a leisurely dinner and conversation with friends, which is not impudent so much as it is fun.  You can also do impudent things for the explicit purpose of taking down some noun,some person, place, or thing.

John Cheever has written a short story, "A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear."  He has also written Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel.  On frequent occasion, you turn to such sources, drawn to the notion of listing such things.  At one time, when you had no lists of your own, you took comfort from the potnetials your imagination gave you.  Some of these potentials remain, others still have half lives.

You remember well the times when the mere mention of Walla Walla (Washington) brought you gales of laughter.  The memory still provokes a smile.

You still believe it would be a grand idea to write a novel called The Furmious Bandersnatch, and having done so, you'd need as well to write a sequel, The Vorpal Blade, a tribute to Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky.

Whild standing in line at the now vanished Village Delicatessen or VD in Westwood Village, the small town that grew around UCLA, you heard the woman in front of you tell the counterman, "I see you have the pickles of my youth."  That was many years ago, but the phrase still has the resonance of nostalgia and the humor of irony.  How glorious to equate pickles with one's youth. You still have the long narrative poem you were driven to write, "The Pickles of My Youth."

Much of your early writing had characters caught upon treasure hunts, where the prize was some element of whim that appealed to your sense of expansive freedom.  One such story had a number of individuals in competition for a Kosher Zion salami, another for a picnic basket filled with French bread and deviled eggs, and "enough champagne to wash them all down." 

You can still hear some of your earlier, imperfectly formed characters, clamoring for your intention, offering you advice on everything from yo-yo strings and drum sticks to false mustaches and bakeries where the most improbable and delicious pies may be had.  For the longest time, you found it difficult to write about anything that did not have a direct payoff in fun; the anything could even be some poem of e.e. cummings, with the remarkable line, "Damn everything but the circus."

You can also hear voices about you, their questioning growing more intense, "When are you going to get serious?  When are you going to settle in to serious writing?"

At this point in your life, the pickles of your youth firmly in mind as you make your way into a booth at Art's Deli, tingling with anticipation when the waitress places a bowl of crisp, lime-green pickles before you, barely having given up the ghost of being a cucumber, you have reached one of the happy places you know to return.

Other such places are those where you write to produce things that will cause your grin to explode into outright laughter.