Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Real World of Fiction in the Apparent World of Reality

Without thinking of the matter in quite these terms, you decide around age fifteen to devote your major energy to learning about story, which is to say devoting yourself to understanding the fine inventions of fiction.  As time progresses, you shear off into the equivalent of graduate fiction studies, learning how to be an effective editor of other persons' fiction.

Almost as though you'd planned it--you hadn't--you now find yourself in a graduate-level classroom, where you present classes in how to write fiction, and how in effect to read and understand fiction.  In effect, you've been focused on making the imaginary seem real, which you have to admit has certain benefits.  But this study and focus, which includes the fiction you have brought into creation, has left you with the equivalent of a limp in which the real world often seems more imaginary than it ought.

The world revolves on its axis; your world, in large measure devoted to the imaginative and the simulacrum, revolves on your imagination.  There are brief-but-significant moments in baseball games where the batter has made contact with the ball pitched to him, either at a blazing speed or tantalizing  change-up.  Somewhere between the batter's box and first base, he pauses for a fraction of a second, to see if the ball, on its flight, will go all the way, up, up and over, hit the wall, or, in fact, be caught.  So much of the real world seems like those flashes of moments, where you look to see if the consequence of an action of yours is a home run, a hit, or a playable fly ball.

"It's clear," your agent tells you, "I can place your nonfiction.  How much longer do I have to wait for Lessing?"

Lessing is the protagonist of two novels in progress.  Lessing has been with you a long time.  He first appeared in a short story published in your college humor magazine.  Over the hears, his grandfather appeared in a men's magazine in the capacity of a member of the then U.S. Camel Corps.  Although you never thought of him as a writer, he has written books to pay the [your] rent.  "I thought fiction was not bringing in enough sales,"  you told your agent.

"You're going to set sales records with this new project I've got out?  Where's Lessing?"

Of course Lessing is you.  If you hadn't known that some years back, you'd still be struggling with how to bring characters forth, embedded Russian dolls. They are all you or, more to the point, you are all of them, waiting around at casting calls, looking for work, focused on some significant quirk or trait, more that quirk or trait than a person.  Would you have cast an earlier, traitless, quirkless you?

Back in the days of live television, you and dozens of other extras lined the wall of an empty rehearsal studio at the CBS TV Studio, Fairfax near Beverly, midtown, Los Angeles.  The gig:  A Playhouse 90 western.  This would be a good one to get.  John Frankenheimer directing.  Up at the fromt of the hall, murmurs, and movements.  The selection had begun.  One voice, saying no, no, yes, no, yes, yes, oh, yes, no.  Frankenheimer, making his choices.  Soon enough, he was before you.  "I'll have this boy."  Then a flurry of no, no, oh yes, let's have her. No.  You'd already been given things to fill out.  An AFTRA Rep was there, reminding you about dues, a production assistant told you not to shave, and two no choices arguing over how you, with horn-rimmed glasses, should be picked.  "You don't even look Western."  "Actually, one of them said, "He looks Jewish."

"Get your own show to direct,"  you said, "and you can pick Jewish extras who wear glasses."

At the time, you knew nothing about acting.  In the intervening years, you know even less, but you're more in awe of the inner needs and ironies of the human condition.  You didn't have to be an actor because you were a writer., except for the fact that you hadn't made enough as a writer to pay your bills and so had to become an extra so you could go on being an impecunious writer.  Persons could look at you and know you didn't have to do what you were doing instead of writing, because you were a writer who needed to be doing what you were doing in order to support being a writer who could not support himself from his writing.

Now, you have an agent who is in effect telling you it is okay not to write the kinds of books that earn out and to write instead the kind where the vast majority don't earn out.  A few words on that theme:  For any given book to earn out, it needs to recover the costs of its production, distribution, promotion, advertising, and overhead.  When a given book earns out or pays for itself, including the advance against royalties extended to the author, the book begins to show a profit.

There is another, more internal kind of earning out, which relates to the kind of book a writer writes in the first place. If you're beyond working on your first book, you've likely reached the plateau of working next on what your publisher has encouraged you to write (because the last one did so well) or because of what your inner selves have urged you to write.  You are not planning on getting financially comfortable on the book you have in progress now, rather you are writing it because you didn't have much of a choice.

Even when you'd been working on it to the point you reach on every project, which is where you wonder why you would ever work on such a book, you still felt driven to stay at it because there was still the vestige of promise that you would learn something about yourself from it.  Thus you are writing about a world of fiction from which you've been energized all along and through which you see some hope of learning about how to get along better in the Real World.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Surely You Exaggerate

The literary elephant in the living room turns out to be a question readers are fearful of asking themselves.  Are we being led down the garden path?  Is our response, rather than the story at hand, the target?  There has not been a time in the historical past or the immediate present where such questions are not relevant.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe you are entirely in the hands of the author, from the moment you pick up a novel or short story to the moment when you set it down, thereupon to consider its effects on you.  Once again, conventional wisdom has it wrong.

Another great force is with you as you read.  True enough, that force may well have been manipulated or in some way exploited by the author.  And it is a devious, tricky one, indexed against your own, closely guarded, fears about your own ability to recognize when your leg is being pulled.That force is the not unjustified fear that you may be the target of a conspiracy between the writer and a select cohort of readers.

You refer to the satire, a convenient-but-misunderstood term some writers use when they want to take something on, which is to say take something down through the use of ridicule.  While there are sufficient avenues for taking on something tendentious, then reducing it to its sublime unimportance, satire has yet another goal than ridicule.  You could say that satire points a finger at some attitude or condition that is the true culprit, then suggests some plausible outcome.

Satire uses exaggeration, often an exaggerated seriousness, but so too do burlesque, parody, and pastiche, all of which stop short of suggesting a practical solution.  For examples, let's look at a master satarist from the nineteenth century, whose guidelines are still much with us.  

In at least two, if not all, his stand-alone narratives, Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, has left us with "The Grandfather's Ram," and "The Mexican Plug Horse," which may be considered a yarn or tall tale, strictly for amusement and laughter, without seeing a few steps beyond, to yet another of the rascally author's intent.

"The Grandfather's Ram," an epic shaggy-dog story, of event piled atop event, seems to be at the expense of the subject, a Virginia City, Nevada, denizen of the fabled Comstock Lode silver mining days.  A closer inspection will reveal the true victim--and remember, there is no such thing as victimless humor--not to be the character, Old Billy, rather the author, himself, Mark Twain, whose constant searching for a story makes him a prime candidate.  

Taking this logic one step along, we readers may "get" the notion of the story being an elaborate prank on Twain himself, because the reader will soon learn that the outcome is always the same.  There is no outcome, only anticlimax and uncertainty.  Some of us readers may extrapolate on this tale or yarn even further, wondering in how many ways we have been distracted by the promise of an effective outcome, which will never arrive.

"The Mexican Plug Hourse" gives us the option of thinking the horse in question is the target.  Once again, it is the writer, presenting himself as an unreliable narrator, reminding us of the nineteenth-century consequences of wishing to own a horse without any slight background in horseflesh, or the twentieth- and twenty-first century wish to own an automobile, being guided in our decision making by an individual whose job it is to sell cars.

When we read an essay, short story, or novel, then decide of our own critical nature that the work is at the delicious cusp of exaggeration and plausibility known as a satire, we are comforted with our own sagacity and independence of thought, even though individuals trusting of their own sagacity and independence of thought are often prime targets for the literary humiliation inherent in satire.

When we read a work, accept it without question, then discover it is a satire, something is lost in the transaction.  We are uncertain where and how satire could have passed over or through us.  How, in other words, could we have not understood The Loved One to have been a satire?  By the same token, how could we have been so sure the later work, by the same author, Brideshead, Revisited, was indeed not a satire, when all our instincts insisted it was.

The splendid satirist walks the cusp of his or her vision, creating in us that series of unrest, suspicion, and cynicism inherent in restraint.

You once had a supervisor whose philosophy it was never to expect truly good works, even though it was his belief that there were truly good works.  "Better to appologize for what you missed than have to retreat from what you over diagnosed."  In a sense, you began to learn from him to suspect everything, even such standards as The Book of Job, as satire, apologize for those that weren't.

Tarzan of the Apes?  Satire.  Around the World in Eighty Days?  Satire.  Of course Possessions.  Of course, Middlemarch.  Of course, 1984.  Of course, The Pardoner's Tale.  You firmly believe these. You believe all of Sinclair Lewis, much of Steinbeck.  Even if you have to make the occasional apology or retraction, your view that nearly all of everything was meant to be satire keeps you in the kind of balancing act along the cusp, exactly where you feel you ought to be.

Not too long ago, a student of yours listened to some of the admiring things you were saying about her characters and the situations they'd got themselves into.  "I'm making fun of them,"  she said. "As soon as it becomes difficult to tell if and when you are, you'll have landed deep into the voice for this project,"  you said.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Give Us a Kiss

Over the years, you've had considerable experience crafting what you thought were well-wrought stories, novels, and essays, only to send them forth with a result contrary to your hope.  At one point, a full-sized wastebasket was pepered with rejection slips.  Although you kept it close to your work area, it seemed to go well with one particular wall in your bedroom, where the rejection slips began at the moulding level, working their way ceiling word.

Somewhere in your teaching notes and files from USC is a thick folder filled with them, some as impersonal as a traffic ticket, others filled with notes, comments, even drawings. You're trying to think of a number that is not an exaggeration.  Five hundred seems about right.

One of your favorite literary journals took three stories, as each was written and polished.  The editor even wrote you a note saying you were one of his regulars, but as such things happen, the editor died.  The next three stories were rejected with brief reasons for the decisions.  You didn't place another story in that journal until a memorial edition for the deceased editor was published.

At present, you're in a situation where you have had a slather of acceptances.  You've even had individuals solicit you for material. Until about a week ago, no rejection slips.  Then your agent thought to try out the proposal for a project you're about a third of the way through, no doubt looking to see if she could scare up the equivalent of a bidding war, because two publishers are already wanting the project.  

The agent's submission of the proposal produced a complementary acknowledgment that you knew your way around a proposal, followed by an almost sneering rejection of the project, followed by an offer to "clean it up," and make it viable for $2500.

In many ways, this is the most emphatic rejection you've had, even though you did not have the sense of anticipation that comes with submitting a project because you weren't aware of the submission.  Most rejections are straightforward, in publishing as in life:  No. Other rejections hold out a bit more hope.  Try us again.  Or as a girl named Myrna once told her when you raised pointed questions about becoming her boyfriend, "Come back when you can kiss better.  Then we'll decide."

You spent the better part of a year, learning how to kiss better, and were encouraged when two girls actually praised you for your abilities, but when you approached Myrna again, she said, "Not bad.  Not bad at all, but still no spark.  Still nothing happening here--"  she thumped parts of her body you longed to touch.

In a way, Myrna's rejection was also a valid reason for an editor rejecting a story or a novel.  Some rejections meant "Not bad, but no spark."You've put in your time trying to find ways to cause things you write to have some quality that sets off tiny reverberations, leading to a bigger one.  

You stare at and reread stories that have caused you to feel sparks, wondering where the electricity began.  You look at manuscripts that seemed like pretty good kissing, while you were writing them, then wonder where the something was that was supposed to resonate somewhere in an intimate manner.

 If you are not exaggerating about the at least five hundred rejections slips or letters or no responses, you are also below the level of hyperbole when you acknowledge having yourself been the cause of rejecting at least that many.  Early in your editorial career, you had to write reports, could;t simply say NO.  You had to note where you stopped reading, why, and what if anything could be done to make the project viable for the company you then worked for.

You do not think of this as any form of karmic balance; karma can do its own balancing and, in your observation, has done so without need of your help.  You do think, however, that the Human Condition is filled with rejection, sometimes as subtle as a blink of eyes, a nod, a shrug.  

When you find yourself rejecting a suggestion or, as you did today, reject a sandwich because it had the cheese you specifically asked to be withheld, you feel somehow connected with the trade and commerce of Reality, a part of it, sometimes in a position of power, sometimes with less stature than the homeless or panhandlers who wait outside Trader Joe's, holding signs that announce how Every Little Bit Helps, God Will Bless, or the one you say today, Thanks in Advance for Your Kindness.

You in effect rejected all these signs, chosing a woman who sat patiently, her eyes and face radiating the kind of patience you often wish you had when you are aware of the need to be patient.  "Thank you,"  she said, which was fine because it was enough.  

Monday, December 28, 2015

Noir Grows Darker Every Day

The arrival of the anti-hero such as Frank Chambers, in James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, into literature in its way legitimized noir fiction, changed the essential nature of the men who were protagonists from the nice guy, clean-living sort into worried, alienated individuals who believed they had a score to settle.

These anti-heroes may at one time have been interested in a more docile, family-oriented type of romantic relationship, but seemed to become involved with women who enhanced the risky lifestyle they were venturing.  

When the time arrived for women characters to carry the load as dramatic lead, they had the ame sense of mistrust, of looking over their shoulder to see if they were being followed.  For all that they were part of the growing evolution in story and the characters who inhabited them, women were far and away the more trapped group, justifiably suspicious, wanting a life where they had more control over their circumstances.

Control often meant for man and woman characters if not an expatriot life in some foreign remove, a life on the run, where there was constant danger of the past catching up with them to exact in a strange irony the same kind of justice they were rebelling against.  

A significant aspect of noir fiction is the spontaneous act or whim, perhaps caused by a breaking point, where they defied, rebelled, possibly even in one way or another took what they believed was owed them.

For the longest time, you pondered this tough guy/tough gal kind of story in such fabled magazines as Black Mask and Dime Detective, taking in the gritty morality plays of Dashiell Hammett, watching his admirers and imitators coping with the man/woman theme, the attempts at getting by in a life they considered a rigged game.

When you look at the results of evolution and the historical replication of the rigged-game life, you see, particularly in short stories, the growing tendency for the lead character to be vulnerable, often in more ways than one, uncertain, notional, apt to act on an improvised plan.

The story often begins at the moment where the impulse is about to acted upon; the he or she of the story has found a way to scratch that immediate, persistent itch at a place difficult or impossible to reach.  The dramatic logic makes sense; we see characters doing things.  There is no description, little if no interior monologue, only action, performed with a fated sense of desperation, which is the thing that intrigues us, pulls us in.

Maybe we will learn some of the backstory later on in the narrative, but even if we do, the backstory has to be filtered through the consequences of the action.  Thus the formulaic arc from the plotted, event-driven story has changed.  You remember a writers' magazine from your youth, the entire back cover devoted to a single observation:  A sympathetic character struggles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal.  Inside the magazine ore five- and six-hundred word exhortations from writers such as William Saroyan, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Day Keene, a writer you truly admired and eventually ended up playing poker with every month.

In the same magazine, there was also an exhortation from Robert Turner, whom you would eventually publish, assuring you the formula worked because it had brought him out from Florida to work in television.  And yes, certainly a note from Frank Gruber, whom you would also publish several times, assuring all who read his paragraphs that the formula was a true paradigm for successful storytelling.

Not anymore.  Neither in commercial fiction or those idiosyncratic veerings and wanderings off the cliff of convention known as literary fiction, which is to say a close examination through the thought and actions of individuals who are living, moving simulacrums of ourselves, writers who spend part of the working day or night in scary, threatening places.  We are in the process made aware of some flaw or notion of our own.

Your fascination these last several years with action and the theories behind acting practices comes from more than one source, but it was a dear and longtime actor friend who, in sharing some of the exercises with you and confessing to her own idiosyncratic nature, made one thing perfectly clear.  The actor does what the person won't do; the actor goes where the madness, fear, suspicion, and uncertainty go.  The actor brings it back, convincingly and honest.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


The chances are, you will find out through the process of intuition, but to verify the hunch, stop somewhere early on, in the reading of a story or the creation of your own.  This will not be such an imposition.  Aren't you already used to using reading as a means of discovery?  At this particular moment to stop and think, you will become aware of at least one character, wanting something.

This is the dramatic equivalent of the Big Bang theory.  Someone wants something.  You can feel the particles speeding outward, describing a vivid trail over the background.  Take a character who did not realize he wanted something until on of those high-flying particals of story collide.  Say Macbeth.  Somebody who didn't know he wanted something--until he realized, Hey, I want this.

Take two or more characters who want something, even if the result arrives in a drama such as Twelve Angry Men,  His wanting something can be the monument of simplicity.  One of the characters wants to go home.  How ever does that become dramatic?  How does a character who wants to go home have any effect on a story.

Because this aspect of wanting is simple in nature--he wants respect, she wants revenge, he wants a promotion at work, she wants to break the glass ceiling--you could go for something that sounds noble and altruistic, but leads to a dead end.  She could want happiness.  He could want world peace.  She could want a satisfying career.  He could want recognition.  Sorry.  To vague.  Too non-specific.

We need specificity, which means relevant detail.  A recent client had one of his characters reclaim an unmatched set of Samsonite luggage at an airport luggage recovery, no doubt intending to showthe owner of such luggage is leading a heater-skelter life, is not at all stylish or concerned with appearances.  And.  Do people still use Samsonite luggage for air travel?  We want the absolute specificity of "Fast Eddie" Felson in Walter Tevis's The Hustler..  We want Dorothy Gale's specificity in The Wizard of Oz, of getting back to Kansas, thereupon to overcome the hated neighbor's determination to have the dog, Toto, put down.

Another element we encounter, as close as possible to the beginning:  Clues by which we determine whose story this is.  Which of the characters will we be rooting for?  When we read or compose a story, we are in effect packing for a trip, destination perhaps known, perhaps not.  One thing we understand here is that the destination will be reached via some detour, depending on that splendid element we've become used to in stories:  surprise.

These are the basic elements, needed to launch the narrative into some kind of orbit, where it may be seen as taking place rather than being described to us by some anonymous source.  This matter alone speaks to the wonders of stories told by Ring Lardner, where we not only see the characters in play, we see the narrator, doing his damndest to keep up with them but quite often causing us to see that he has missed some detail we've noticed but he hasn't.

In this sense you've been building toward, the elements of beginning story are quite a bit like the particles introduced into a linear accelerator, then sent scurrying down the long hallways until one or more of the elements collides with one or more of the others.

Stories lacking these results seem somehow one-dimensional, simplistic, or, to use that term you tried to pound into yourself, plot-driven.  Most of the early, grammar school and middle school classes you attended had the unifying theme of the seth-Thomas, Roman Numeral clock.  The games you played with yourself, urging the time to pass, were legion.  You finally had to reach the decision to ignore the clock.  Don't look at it.  Don't be guided by it.  Then came the time and place where you were in a class room in which the venerable Seth-Thomas had an audible tick.  Thus in retrospect did plot-driven enter your life.

The message today is clear:  Story is not tick or description; story is pure collision.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


There are times when one line is enough to bring you inside a story or a new chapter of a novel.  Something about the wording and deployment releases that charged sene of reality.  In a real sense, you've thought about and toyed with this quality of being in for most of your life.

Even when the opening line comes from a book written in the nineteenth century, on top of which you've attempted to read your way through the twentieth century and into the present one, you still feel the charge of being in.  

Add to that the fact of certain nineteenth century novels having been written by an author your own favorite writer of all time has made fun of, in is in.  You recognize it, strive to achieve it, spend time trying to describe to yourself so there can be no mistaking the in-ness or out-ness of something you're reading or writing.

Being in causes a different sense of and regard for Reality.  Perhaps you oversimplify when you say being in, whether you mean in a work of another writer, in work you are in the act of capturing, or neither of those, yet in the experience of a particular musical composition or random moment, means you and the experience have become one.

The goal is to reach in under all these circumstances and as many others with relevance to the way you look at the world, its phenomena, its living beings.. Sometimes, you are several paragraphs or pages in before you encounter a single work with the power to knock you out with some kind of question or thought.

Then you see how fragile the in-type reality is, how you must watch with great care.  A bit too much description.  One unnecessary word in an exchange of dialogue.  A metaphor of enough complexity to cause you to stop, spread it all out, then try to determine its purpose.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Dream Cities

A good argument may be made for the actual, often unrecognized intent of most bloggers being memoir.  You've thought as much of yourself, most often when whim and nostalgia take you back to the Santa Monica and Los Angeles of your infancy, youth, and formative years.  This notion gains weight when considering the fact of you teaching a class on memoir writing, watching the enrollment numbers grow as you began to conflate memoir-writing techniques with dramatic writing.

You were, in fact, writing a memoir somewhere in the final year of middle school, based on a throughline of you being taken from a remarkable and beloved elementary school in Los Angeles to a dreary succession of schools in the east, a more encouraging school in New England, and awful schools, although with fine teachers, in the South.  Of course the you of then had already formed the notion of a memoir as something written by the kind of older person it was never your intention to become.

Through your experience with other writers, individuals in earnest pursuit of becoming writers themselves, and your own idiosyncratic pursuit of what you'd come to think of as "The Writing Life," you've arrived at a belief wherein a writer does not write to recall events, a writer writes to create them.  In that process, the writer has nearly limitless access to experience, demographics, fantasy, and dreams.

One of your recurring dreams has been of you in a city, which you're able to see from a number of perspectives, including the hover-board experience of being off the ground, at times even well above, looking down.  For a time, you were certain the city in your dreams was Mexico City, but when you went there, it was not.  Later, you suspected it might be Guadalajara, but Guadalajara was nothing like your dream city.  

Although your dream city may well have been Los Angeles, you soon were able to reckon this dream was not your version of "The Purloined Letter," with the city before you being the city of your dreams.  This left only one other possibility.  The city you saw in your dreams must have been London, beckoning to you all this time.

You were scarcely ten minutes on the train from Heathrow Airport to the Paddington Station when you realized you had not, all these years, been dreaming of London.  At one point, when you were visiting New York with a semblance of regularity, you happened to look up during a cab ride from JFK to downtown Manhattan, thinking, Could the dream city have all along been New York?  But your inner No was convincing.  Dreams of this city were a code you would either decipher or not.  The last time you had the dream, you began to wonder if, in some delicious irony of which the Human Condition is a symbol, you would learn the answer on your death bed, thus unable to blog about it, write about it, or in any way except for that single moment of understanding, process it.

A good many writers write to explain things to themselves.  You are no exception.  Someone who has read an occasional blog essay of yours, once asked you if you didn't think you were a bit harsh on yourself at times.  Explanations and definitions , when you consider their essential natures, are not easy.  They seem straightforward because the judgment, defenses, equivocations have been leached from them.

Your definitions are intended tools, which means they must have a useful purpose in causing the chore of understanding to progress unhindered.  Tools fascinate you, the fascination growing when you are able to see an immediate cause and effect from using the tool.  There is great mystery and curiosity inherent in some tools.  What is/was its purpose?  What can the tool help you do that you would have been hours, perhaps years working on without?

There is a certain wistful magical thinking in this approach.  For years, you hunted down the one book or story you hoped would open the gates of understanding for you, wherein you could see yourself clearly, could understand for all time what a story.  Sometimes, when learning seems to arrive late, writing helps.  From such writing, you learn; there is never a book or story that will open the doors to you except the book or story you are working on at the moment.

There is never so plausible a character or a you as the character or you placed into an event, preferably of your own contrivance.  When those are done and down, your options are clear:  Start again.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


Even though you choose editorial clients with cautious care, a danger persists that you will discover in that client's approach to composition and narrative things that plagued you when you were beginning your own narrative ventures.

To provide yet more significant data to the squeeze you find yourself in, when you are reading an esteemed or as yet unknown to you writer, hopeful of the jolts of discovery, discomfort, and transportation you expect in the activity of reading for pleasure, the danger persists that you will discover this writer has found a way, perhaps even ways, around problems you labored over for years.  Perhaps you are in fact still laboring over them.

You've long given up on the notion that such metrics as your age, years already spent in the writing trenches, indeed, years spent editing the work of others provide you with automatic technique and the understanding of how to use technique as a tool.

There has only been one time in your life when you threw a book across the room, having directed the book at the wall facing you.  The book in question was Goodbye, Columbus and Other Stories, the author Philip Roth, so near a contemporary, in fact, two years younger than you, that this, his first book, revealed such depth of character, theme, pacing, and a degree of irony bordering on painful humor to a degree that made you grudgingly set aside any notion of being a youthful wonder.

Your throwing of his book was an act motivated by envy and one of the first real wounds of despair.  You have reread the book many times since then, most recently in connection with a project of your own, The Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own, acknowledging it as the turning point in your regard for your own youthful energies and insights, now willing to see yourself having potential to be a late bloomer.

Three of the things you do with some regularity, compose, edit, and teach, are intertwined and engage you in clumps of activity rather appearing in single streams.  Thus time ticks away, leaving you with a combination of drafts of your own material, edited manuscripts and notes for clients, and, in some ways, the most mountain goat leaps of connection, notes prepared for classes.

Reading the published works of others is a constant reminder of how high the bar of craft has been set, reminding you of a contraption that figured in the required physical education classes you took in high school.  Between two sturdy posts set about eight feet apart, a bar of about eighteen inches width was mounted.  The bar paralleled the ground.  The two sturdy posts had holes set a foot apart, ascending vertically up the posts.  This allowed the instructor to adjust the bar at the individual student's waist.  

If you were able to place both hands on the horizontal bar, then vault over it without any other part of the bar, you'd earned a grade of C minus.  The next hole up earned you a C.  To get an A in this event, the horizontal bar had to be at the level of your head.

Once, in the eleventh grade, you managed a B in this event.  Most of the time you earned a C.  Your overall grade in physical education was frequently a B, earner by your performances in trance and field events such as the mile run, the broad jump, the high jump, and the running hop, skip, and jump.  You were barely able to earn the basic C for the rope climb; you had no interest in the shot put or the discus.

Your interest was in running, taking in huge gulps of air that were even more exciting to you than the mentholated cigarettes you'd begun to experiment with.  You loved the sense of glide and cadence while aware how, at times, even in hundred-yard dashes, both feet were off the ground.  You were airborne, skimming over the terrain, yet in a relationship with it.

You're reminded of such physical things, particularly the bar vault and the glide associated with running, at times when you read or compose, the bar vault representing potential technique, because, whether a high school student or a current reader, you see others doing it.  You're reminded of the expression, "Setting the bar high."  You're reminded of the rhythm and flight of running, and after you had to put your running activities away because of your now titanium hips, you are aware of swimming endless laps, your mind tuned to the motion of your body and the intoxicating limbo between water rushing past you or you, rushing past water.

Only when you are in some form of movement, whether from composing, editing, or teaching, are you able to feel the intrigue of potential discovery, of some remarkable connection that had not been made while all those past years were rushing past you, or you, rushing past them.  Without movement, there is no risk.  Without risk, there is no discovery.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ghosts in the Shelves

While you were searching for a particular book today, you found a ghost in one of the shelves.  Intrigued by the discovery, you soon found several more.

The ghosts were tangible enough formats, some of them the standard 6 x 9 formats of many American hardcover books, others a tad smaller at 5 1/2 x 8 1/4, one a whopping and nostalgia-laden 7 x 10.  Others were in a format you've come to miss with its unnoticed exit in the explosion of the e-reader and e-book, the massmarket paperback.  All are ghosts because in one way or another, their publishers have disappeared.

In the process of your browse, you realized you'd begun a collection of some of the many books you acquired, then edited while at your first major publishing job, Sherbourne Press.  Between your departure from Sherborne, through your move to Dell, many of your signed copies are gone.  You particularly miss Larry Lipton's scrawl across the copy of The Erotic Revolution.  "After all we've been through..." it said.

Some of these ghosts in yourself are about to become involved in a mixed metaphor; they are archaeology, the relics of the past, abandoned, sold, subsumed.  Indeed, at one time, when you ran the Los Angeles office for the Dell massmarket line, and your primary rival was Bantam Books, you were directed to have the receptionist at your Wilshire Boulevard office announce, "Dial, Delacorte, Dell," putting the hardcover force of more substantial hardcover books ahead of Dell.
At one point, you instructed the receptionist to add Laurel Books to the litany because you especially liked the Laurel YA list and its editor.  But.  In one of your weekly phone meetings, you were told, "Mrs. Meyer [the Publisher] does not appreciate your addition.  She wishes to remind you that your primary target is the massmarket original novel and the motion picture tie-in."

Today, what was once Dial, Dell, Delacorte, is merged with, among other things such as Doubleday Books, the old arch rival, Bantam Books, which is all owned by the German conglomerate, Bertelsmann.  

About a year ago, as you sat at coffee with former Bantam editor-in-chief, Marc Jaffee, and Sales Manager, Fred Klein, Jaffee tossed out the notion that the three of you should start your own venture, with the logo OFB, which you would not decode for anyone, but which meant Old Fart Books.

A respected colleague, who once ran--and well--the now defunct Avon Books, has started his own logo, Overlook Press.  Another old pal, Sol Stein, was publisher of Stein and Day.  Jerry Gross was editor for Paperback Library, now gone.  You also have a few titles from a lower-tier massmarket publisher, Lion Books, who published your pal, Day Keene.

At the mention of Lion, you also have a hardcover and trade paper edition of a Lionshead [English for Lowenkopf] biography of Dashiell Hammett, written by the legendary, unceasingly prolific William Francis Nolan.

There are ghosts representing authors you grew up on--Bill S. Ballinger, Frank Gruber, Steve Fisher, Chad Oliver--as well as a ghost of the trend-setting massmarket original mystery novels from Gold Medal.  There are Ace Books, two novels printed so that when you finish one, then turn the book over, the back cover has become the front cover for the second novel.  There are Kozy Books, at least one Pocket Book, which was the company run by Ian Ballentine, and a favored series, the Dell Mystery paperbacks, with the map of the crime scene on the back cover.

You should not forget NAL, New American Library, once presided over by Edward "Ned" Chase, a man you considered a role model.  You can forget and have forgotten the second- or third-tier paperback reprint house presided over by the estimable Agnes Birnbaum, to whom you used to lease the paperback rights to your acquisitions that barely broke even.  In your shelves are also Pyramid Books and at least one Graphic.

How, how indeed, could you forget Athena Books, which published a pseudonymous novel of yours, written to finance a riotous week in San Francisco with a girl you were sure you loved and, as it turned out, did.  On that riotous week, you took her to a bistro called El Matador, where the owner said something ought to be done about you bringing an under-aged person into its amazing depths.  He never said what, but that was also the beginning of your friendship with him to the point where you edited over ten of his books.

There is great comfort to be had in ghosts.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The A List and the B List

In the six final years of your formal education, so many things were happening, all at once, leaving you as off-balance as you were excited.  Small wonder you paid so little awareness of there being persons you liked on sight, while there were others to whom you took an immediate, often grudging dislike.

You were too busy, too off balance, too excited to unravel the whys and consequences of either extreme, much less the possibility of a greater common ground with persons you disliked than with those you admired or liked.  

Within the intervening years, you have worked for individuals you did not like, edited books and stories by authors you did not like, taught students you did not like, at no time allowing your dislike to impact the integrity of the work at hand.  

From time to time, you addressed the aspect of hypocrisy, refusing to vacate the matter until you could assure yourself that the individuals you did not like would suffer no adverse effects because of you, if possible even realizing benefits they might not have realized had there been a better chemistry.

During this time, you were well able to work with individuals with whom you did not have to retreat beyond any layer of professional objectivity.  Interestingly enough, an author you liked as well as you liked his work in his way broke a bond of trust by attempting to use to his advantage a reader's report and recommendation you showed him in secret.  When your immediate supervisor discovered the breach, he reminded you, "Best not to get too friendly with authors."  But you never paid much heed to that advice.

In the process of going out and about the warp and weft of your life, your personal preference is to spend as much time with persons you like, minimal amount of time with those for whom your feelings are neutral, and precious little time with individuals for whom you experience negative chemistry.

On a similar note, when you are in the process of creating characters or writing about the characters you find in the works of others,you try to find things to like, even if this means somewhat of a reach.  You try to find and articulate reasons why the character behaves in such ways as she or he does, looking for the humanity of the character to explain the traits you would in ordinary life fine unattractive.  Sometimes, characters and individuals have reasons for dressing in disagreeable traits.  Your goal is to discover the reasons.

This entire subject line is the result of introspection during yur illness, when at one point, you attempted to compile a list of individuals you truly do not like, your areas of contact with these individuals, and the potential implications from even thinking of such a list that you betray a meanness of spirit.  At the moment, there are only two or at the most three on the A List.  This is not to say there would not be more were you to expand your range of contacts.  

Your ultimate rational for having an A List is the freedom it offers you in your B List, individuals you could socialize with and yet neither feel the desire to provoke conflicts or think of yourself as a hypocrite for exchanging basic, civil conversation.

All right, you've now added a fourth to the A List, in its way reassuring because you've been focued on the subject for a while and that individual only arrived in your memory within the last minute.

Bearing grudges was tempting at first, until you faced the recognition that the act of bearing a grudge is also the act of robbing time from a potential enthusiasm or interest, an invented character, or a real person.  An individual whom, at first meeting, you did not like, then came to admire, once said, "Salute the tiger, but do it from a distance."

If you are to be free to go where and as you wish, the inevitability of encountering tigers seems assured.  You must lot allow a few tigers to frighten you off, nor should you fail to take a moment to salute those tigers when you see them.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Starry Things

When you have been away from a place you frequent with some regularity or from a long-range composition, your return brings tentative, hesitant notes to your perception.  These notes have complex roots, odd, whimsical cocktails of nostalgia, misplaced judgments, and occasional bouts of wondering how you'd managed to go so long without noticing a particular detail.

The most extreme example of absence and return is the city of your birth, Santa Monica, which is an outlier of Los Angeles with a direct effect on how you view Los Angeles and your sense of rootedness in a place, your sense of inner voice, reminding you you are of this place, but the place has changed and you have changed.

Your Santa Monica-Los Angeles roots are undershot with irony, a condition you've lived with in comfort for most of your adult life and which you have come to expect in your transactions, whereever you are, in much the same way, without giving the matter too much thought, you've come to expect to see flakes of mica embedded in the sidewalk concrete in places such as Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and your forty-plus years of living in Santa Barbara.

Within those forty-plus years of living in Santa Barbara, and before moving here, you've had frequent-if-not-incessant reasons to drive northward, to San Francisco or the East Bay, with names of Ross, Sausalito, Mill Valley, Palo Alto, and Berkeley as drawing points.  

Each time you pass Pismo Beach, whether to stop there for gasoline, breakfast, dinner, or an actual stay, you recall the Pismo Beach sidewalks as you first encountered them as a self you can visualize but scarcely accept.  You were seven, possibly eight.  Two of your prized possessions were a pair of Gene Autry cap pistols.

Such sidewalks as there were were wooden planks, as the sidewalks in many of the Western movies were plank.  Whether you had the word in your vocabulary or not, your feeling, on seeing those plank sidewalks, was of authenticity.  You recall patting your cap pistols, acknowledging them as housekeys to imagination.

You were born into comfort rather then wealth, have on a number of occasions in your thirties and early forties, sat outside the house to which you were brought as an infant from the Santa Monica Hospital, whence your mother went to bear you, trying to achieve, even in extreme imagination, a sense of the interior of the house and its yard.  You still have photos of the infant you in that yard, but you can recall nothing of it, only those individuals--parents, maternal grandparents, sister, and shadowy maids--with whom you associated.

The best you can do, well after the circumstances of your parents' and grandparents' fortunes melted in the heat of The Great Depression, is recall a time when you stood on the sidewalk in front of 6145 1/2 Orange Street , in what was to become Postal Zone 36, then 90036.  You were trying to capture the sun in the magnifying glass toy from a box of Cracker Jacks.  You'd heard that such an allignment could burn a hole in a piece of paper, which you had in position on the sidewalk.

You were delayed in your verification of a magnifying glass's ability to start a fire; the flecks of mica in the sidewalk concrete caught your attention.  You might have noticed before, but on this day, you recall the excitement of awareness.  You ran to your mother, proclaiming that the sidewalk had "starry things," caught up inside of it.

As your family moved from Santa Monica for cheaper rent and new opportunities, you and your wife moved from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara, for cheaper rent and an opportunity to investigate the universes of scholarly publishing.  You were no sooner established in a ramble of a house in Summerland that had been lazily divided into a duplex, when the irony of your teaching career began, meaning in effect that you would return to Los Angeles at least once a week for the next thirty-four years.

During those years, you were able to see Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and you undergo growth, and to discover things in Santa Barbara that would impress themselves on you as the planked sidewalks in Pismo Beach did and the flecks of mica in the Los Angeles sidewalks did.

During those years, and the years after your teaching appointment ended at USC, you were aware of shifts in gravity, wherein your roots are more in the reality of here than the past of Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

During these past weeks of being flu-ridden, you've not been able to enter that state you've come to associate with being at work, being a part of a long-term project.  Soon, it will be time to look at such projects, aware of the positive effect of giving a completed draft time to settle in, perhaps reveal some of its strengths and weaknesses.

Santa Monica and Los Angeles have been magical places for you all through your life.  At one point, when you lived in Miami Beach, Florida, you had nightmares in which you feared you would never return.  Soon, early next year, you should visit Los Angeles, to see how together you remain and how apart you've grown.

Tomorrow, you will revisit two projects you were unable to work on because of the illness.  You're eager to see if the projects have any wooden plank sidewalks and if there might be a page or two of "starry things," caught up inside of it.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


A vacation defines the thing or activity vacated, the effect of the activity vacated, and the need to fill the vacated space with one or more activities meaningful to the vacationer.  In a sense similar to the nature of the universe, which has a finite quantity of elements, many of which are in a constant state of flux, the vacationer brings to the table the totality of things done prior to the vacation, some plan or hope for alternate activity, and a sense of stepping off an airplane boarder in error, now arriving at an unexpected destination.

Your recent vacation from writing had a number of effects, not only on you but on others, who were led to assume because of your vacation from writing that you were well advanced along a path of illness.  You in fact were well along this path to the point where it reminded you of yourself at this same time of year, twelve years ago, wobbling along a path called recovery from cancer.

You recognize your tendency to always regard the most recent illness, however mild or intense, as the most profound illness you have experienced to this point in your life.  Indeed, there have been times previous to about the 24 of this most recent November, when you gave no thought whatsoever to your bout with cancer, and the accommodations your recovery from the experience has left you with.  

Earlier this year, you heard a student, describing his experiences with cancer.  You listened with curiosity because many of the things he said sounded familiar.  After some time, you realized the reason for the familiarity; you understood that he had been afflicted with the same kind cancer you had.  With one exception--he chose chemotherapy after the surgery and you could see no reason for subjecting yourself that course of action--your experiences were the same, including the idiosyncratic humor connected with your treatments, the time almost to the day before you were each ablate return to your teaching duties, and some of the down, discomforting days and their causes.

The image that comes to your mind now, relative to your vacation from writing, is the image of phantom limb itch or pain, experienced by some who have list an arm, leg, foot, or hand.  During your time away, something in some part of you was either itching, cramping, or throbbing--or so it felt through the mental haze that prompted your vacation in the first place.

On at least one occasion, you've described your recent bout with influenza with some of the more painful post operative days and weeks after your surgery.  You recall the surgeon telling you during one of your better, early post-op days, that he'd also removed your appendix as, he said with a wink, "a precaution."  Given your age this year, you did not even have to ask for the Senior's Special flu shot; you were given it SOP, causing you to wonder more than once how severe your bout would have been had you chosen not to have a flu shot.

The phantom limb experience intrigues you.  Miserable as you were, seemingly in a constant state of foggy drowse, only on rare occasions wanting anything more than water or, idiosyncratically, sips of strawberry kefir, you were aware of being on vacation from a well-articulated system of muscle memory which you scarcely noticed for the nearly ten years of writing every day, through lesser traumas than cancer and influence but in some cases greater emotional ones, not the least of which involved the death of your wife, being served with an eviction notice a scant week after her death, the loss to death of a cherished and beloved dog, the subsequent death of two of your oldest and dearest friends, and the publication of a book you'd worked on for over five years, arriving, because of its size and format, at such a production cost that the publisher could not afford to offer the standard trade discount to bookstores.

You wrote through all these things, produced publishable material, and, through the process of writing, managed to walk that narrow bike path of cusp between the fathomable and the surreal, emerging with a face and posture that did not cry out that you were a wounded man.  This bout of influence brought an indoor haze, a bug bomb gone off in your head, filling the nooks and interstices of your cranium with a soggy mist, wherein you found yourself incapable of reading, of connecting consecutive sentences or ideas.  You nevertheless felt the clawing insistence of the need to set sentences on the computer screen or on those lined stanzas of legal pads.

Even though you had no appetite for conventional meals or, in most ways, conventional doses of intake, you felt the nervousness of muscles, not unlike tapping fingertips on a table, reminding you how ready you were to compose.

Through a combination of dreams, drowsiness, and the incessant boredom of idleness, you became aware of the downstream effects on your body, your being, your outlook, of this vacation, which you had not wished to take in the first place because, whether you produced keepable material or not, you were producing within yourself the same kinds of endorphin and mental reach you recall from your running days.

You'd long thought of what you do with composition as a process, one with strong enough and long enough tentacles that it reached through the interstices of the warp and weft of your life to remind you, This is what you do.  Whether you do it well is an entire matter of discussion.  Whether you do it in hopes of arriving at some 5 or 10 or 20K finish line is another matter.

There is at least one book and several memes suggesting how repetition will make a thing better, cause improvement regardless of intent.  You cannot speak to that except to say, once you've experienced the presence of muscle memory, that improvement is no longer the goal.  At one time,you certainly wrote with the intent of becoming better, which you have come to associate with forming a closer bond between yourself and the outcome.  That will be fine, if it is to happen.  But that is no longer why you do it.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Turning Tricks on the Page

The words trompe l'oeil warn in advance of an intent to trickery, where the apparent and the real are under no obligation to portray fact.  The greater reality is artifice, manipulation, or illusion.  Troupe l'oeil constructs a false platform to support a simulacrum, a copy or representation of Reality, offered as though it were actual instead of representational truth. 

A defining element in trompes l'oeil, or tricks of the eye, is detail, which, by its representation, becomes the defining force of the illusion, thus an exaggerated or manipulated detail is made to suggest an entire outcome.  There is a word for this phenomena as well, the synecdoche, a figurative notion in which the part becomes the entire, or the entire becomes the part.  To a photographer, the word glass is a synecdoche for lens.  Give us this day our daily bread uses bread as a substitute for all of dietary input.

All story and much non-fictional narrative use the relationship between detail and reality as a platform onto which appear characters who, in their individual ways, are details meant to suggest a segment of Humanity.  

When we read story and, in a different sense, history, we are knowingly accepting the sophistry of one or more details becoming portals for a landscape to reality.  In this way, a reader who forms emotional and thematic bonding with a narrative accepts the worlds of troupe l'ceil and synecdoche.

In one form or several others, the storyteller, the actor, the musician, the photographer, the painter or renderer, the dancer, the sculptor, and the architect use art, craft, and empathy to transport the beholder(s) of their work into a heartfelt, earnest simulacrum from which the beholder experiences a more profound relationship to Reality and the potential for extended understanding of Reality.

In similar fashion, a term of relatively new coinage, "walking back," allows the sophistry-based opportunity for a temperamental conservative to explain, decode, or otherwise edit a statement made earlier as though it had the support of a reliable platform of fact.

Some examples of walking back:

1) I believed the intended humor was obvious and immediate.
2) At the time, opposing opinions did not seem persuasive.
3) My views were taken out of the context I intended and placed with deliberation in a context harmful to my stature.
4) We are all entitled to our opinions.

Walking back a statement, interpretation, or judgment takes on the meaning or making something offensive more palatable if not acceptable, more inclusive, so as to allow for an interpretation of greater truth.

All these terms emerge as tools to you in the same way paint brushes and tubes of pigment were to your late friend, Barnaby Conrad, whose work area and home were parking lots for trompes l'ceil, and yet another late pal, Digby Wolfe,  for whom a comprehensive rhyming dictionary became a tool.

Language is the key to the simulacrum of Reality; the aware practitioner sees the key as a means of gaining entry.  Once inside, he or she is on his or her own, must make thoughtful and deliberate choices for which details are allowed to remain as a foundation for the simulacrula to support the illusion meant to evoke rather than deceive.