Sunday, January 31, 2016

Things Described, Things Evoked

 Some writers you've read have what seems to you the uncanny ability to describe inanimate things in ways that cause them to come to vivid life in your imagination.  You can in effect see the cogs of the gears, meshing, transferring movement and direction to some gadget or device you previously took at fact value.  A can opener, of course, opens cans. An internal combustion machine roars into action when you turn a key.

Such a writer is John McPhee, whom you first encountered when one of his many books was published in extract form in the New Yorker.  McPhee will take something as ordinary as a canoe or the state of Alaska, or tectonic plates, then find ways to demonstrate them in some form of action to the point where you and thousands of other readers are able to experience the thing as though it were alive.

In some ways, this reminds you of a pet turtle you once had, which you carried about with you in a match box, taking him--in your innocence of turtles and the innocence of your age, you assumed it was a he--out to feed lettuce or cabbage leaves and the occasional dead fly you'd find in window sills.  McPhee's presentations took description to a level you were aware of, envied, of course attempted to duplicate, all in hopes your descriptions did not emerge as mere descriptions.

Another writer, this time a fiction writer, also had this ability.  Theodore Sturgeon seemed to be able to make automobiles and trucks come to the same kind of life horses and beasts of burden came to life. Once, when he was in your office and he more or less had to converse with you because you were about to contract a novel from him, you asked him about how he was so able to bring forth the "thinginess" of things.  He seemed to like that.  In his subsequent muttering and wish to get back to a discussion of the novel he wanted to write, he left you with a remark you treasure to this day.  "You have to care about the way things work, whether the things are people or not."

Sturgeon has been gone as a person since 1985, but such were his abilities that he is still quite around as a force or dimension, which McPhee also has, as well as a number of writers you've been following lately, Francine Prose, Deborah Eisenberg, Cynthia Ozick, and Lorrie Moore.

Each of these stands out in your opinion because of their ability to begin describing something, then move past mere description to the point where situations and feelings are evoked. You value this ability of evocation because of a discovery you'd made some time ago wherein mere description seems one- or two-dimensional and, in consequence, lackluster in comparison to dramatic presence.

Joan Didion seems to have this quality as well, writing about herself seeing something, perhaps even seeing herself in a situation, causing unexpected dimensions to appear much like the rabbits and birds of magical acts appear.

A described thing is tangible, bordering on visual, but as yet with no anima or motivating presence behind it.  Somehow, in talking about a canoe, McPhee brings you to seeing it in context with a lake or river, the sun bouncing off its sides, of which you'd become aware earlier when he took you through the process of the sides being fitted in place.

Niche publishing brings the advantage of hobbyists or devoted amateurs following subjects of interest to them with a passion beyond mere description. When you are out in the world or at a newsstand, you are bombarded by a reality in which hobbyists and devoted amateurs speak of their passions, already having passed the point of caring about their subject.

Yesterday, as you sipped breakfast coffee at the Lucky Llama in Carpinteria, a woman caught you watching, then feeding a common house finch.  "That's a linnet," she said.  "Yes," you said.  "House finch."  "Ah, I see you know your birds."  "No, I don't.  only a few."  "But you must.  There are so many birds to know.  Could you limit yourself to only a few words of vocabulary?"

Of a sudden, she evoked the notion of the avid birder.  You were entranced with your linnet and the croissant you were sharing with it.  For a moment or two, you were in an evoked world rather than the described one.  And you found yourself hoping you'd know what to do with it.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Familiarity Breeds Attempt

  Among the worst things you've ever done composition-wise is to have sent contracted material in without at least one full revision. In an ordinary working day, you'd have no difficulty with three pages an hour, meaning twenty-one pages in a seven-hour day, or a tad over five thousand words.

This included beginning the new day with a close reading of the last four or five pages written, opening a possibility for some addition, removal, transposition, or outright re-framing, so saying you'd turned pages in with no revision does not fit either the true definition nor the false, except that you were at the time curious to see if you could get past the editors with that strategy.  Often you did, but there were times when the notes carried a greater weight of specificity. When those times arose, the probability of your work day extending to ten or even twelve increased.

Time is an important factor. What seems good, by which you often mean mischievous, today will not of necessity survive a second look.  Fair also to say that material written today with a general sense of you merely getting words down on the page could turn out, after a rereading in subsequent days, packed with keepable material, possibly even including some insights that impress you.

Unless there are some dramatic changes, your workday runs toward seven or eight hours.  These days, you're only likely to stick it out to eleven or twelve at night are payback for previous procrastination or those wonderful times when you write yourself beyond most consideration of time. 

Your stated process is to write as much without thinking as possible, until a completed draft seems to appear.  Then you begin the revision, one step, which is to say one draft at a time.

Whether short story or novel, the first step is to find the optimal place to begin.  This step may mean a simple deletion of material that has come before, or decisions about where to place chunks of the too-early material without interrupting the forward movement of the story.

Next step is to discover the place where the story ends, which is not as easy as you'd like to think.  Endings have certain requirements, not the least of which is avoiding over-explanation,but also including an action-related set of movements that will leave the reader not wanting to look at the desert menu.  

When this quality of tension or suspense is achieved, you need to check the final paragraphs of each scene, if the work is a short story, to make sure there is some emotional cause for the reader to turn the page embedded.  If the work is a novel, the term "cliffhanger" is more appropriate for chapter endings. What materials the reader has been manipulated to feel concern about will the reader still wish to discover?

The next step is truly subjective because of its generality:  Check to see why the reader will need to continue reading.  What catastrophe will inflict itself upon the protagonist?  How will the protagonist react, now that complication B or perhaps C or D or F has been delivered to the protagonist?

At this point, you want to check to see if the story could have been more effective if told from one or more different points of view than the one or ones chosen.  After making your choice (or choices) you need to go through the entire manuscript looking for the possibility of point-of-view violations, also known as head hopping, at the same time looking for possibilities that you allowed yourself to get into the picture by telling the reader something "Fred was angry" the reader should well have intuited from the way Fred, himself, talked and behaved.

Checking on point of view, we can move along to a pass where each character is vetted for his or her reasons for being in the story.  Does she or he earn admission?  Do they sound like themselves?  Can any of them be combined into a single, more complex character?

Now you're ready for a pass wherein all you do is focus on dialogue.  Is it too conversational?  Not confrontational enough? Somehow out of the range of the character's personality?  Do the characters sound like themselves or like you?

After dialogue, we go into the second of three filters for bringing story on stage, the first being dialogue.  What about how the lead characters think. which is to say, does the interior monologue sound faithful to the character or more like you, wanting to make sure the reader understands what's going on?

The third filter is narrative, the movements the characters make, sometimes simultaneous with what they say and what they think. Fred took cautious steps to the shelf, where he picked up a small, framed head shot of a young woman, her chin extended as a proud statement.  Could this be the missing person he was being retained to track down, then bring back home?  

Naturally you'll want to have a run through the entire manuscript to see if the pace maintains, in other words, looking for soft spots in the narrative fabric, which you'll want to enhance by trimming detail, adding action, or relevant dialogue.

With the same critical eye you'd use to see if there are characters who duplicate themselves, you'll want a separate run through the entire manuscript to see if there are any scenes that duplicate one another.  Could either be deleted?  Could they be combined to produce a sense of tension.

Allowing a manuscript to go without a close look at all these is a risky business, one that will not cause any good to accrue to the stories you've yet to compose.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Is There a Doctor in the Audience?

 Used to be you read for transportation, anything to get you out of and away from the relatively short, young, owlish-looking (thanks to thick horn-rimmed glasses) person you were, aware that your parents, once affluent, comfortable, and generous, were no longer affluent; they were in as much of a struggle to remain comfortable and generous as you were to get into worlds where you had some greater sense of control over your life.

Fast forward a few years and some life altering moves from west central Los Angeles to New York, New England, and Florida before returning to your old haunts. You were too young still to appreciate the nuances and side effects of being away, then returning to a different place as a different you.  You were a stranger in your own home town, however glad you were to be back in it. 

For one thing, you'd gained a year.  You'd gone from being on a par with your peers to being ahead of them, the youngest in your class and, accordingly even more suspicious than you were before. You saw former friends and classmates appraising you, wondering if you still remembered the old shortcuts and events. 

Transportation to other worlds and circumstances was still welcomed in your reading, but you were more likely to be proactive, which is to say eager to give suggestions to the protagonists whose adventures you read.  In some ways, this stage was the beginning of your considerations that writing was something you could visualize yourself doing. 

Now, you wanted nuance. You read fiction and nonfiction with the immediate goal of infusing yourself with sophistication.  Of course you read ahead of your age range, looking for the vocabulary of tangible experience.  You wanted to be able to read the configuration of mountain or lake or ocean the way a geologist would read them.  You wished to emulate the First Americans ability to track a person or animal to the extent of being able to see through their behavior and into their motives.  Of course you wished to be able to read yourself in the same, near mystical, manner.

Well into the times you gave direct thought to writing for an audience of readers, your motive nonetheless was to gain understanding of yourself, cast in the situations and dilemmas of the writers on whose backs you hoped to leapfrog into sophistication.  Small wonder F. Scott Fitzgerald so intrigued you. Small wonder you were so taken by Franz Kafka, wherein on any given day you could be ambushed by the mechanisms of the world about you.  

No wonder you were at such pains to examine the tangled circumstances into which Guy De Maupassant's characters were thrust. No surprise at all that you found the fictional world of Nathaniel Hawthorne so disturbing.  Were the actual individuals of his time as constrained as his characters?  Was there some possible thematic connection between his concerns and yours?

Sophistication and nuance carried you well into your twenties, and your first sense of having run into a brick wall of considerable substance.  "Does learning have to be painful?" you asked your mentor, Rachel.  "It seems that way at first," she said, "but later, when you absorb it, the learning process is willing to accommodate."  You needed time to assimilate and understand that, so, at the moment, you nodded your head as though you understood, still wishing to emit that aura of sophistication you craved.

Who would not wish to appear sophisticated before his mentor?  But this meant you needed more time in the trenches, writing stories to prove your sophistication to yourself rather than writing stories in which you fearlessly took on the unwrapping of the package.  Now, waiting in the wings, eager to come on stage the awareness that you were borrowing the sophistication of Fitzgerald and Lardner and, to an extent, Salinger.  For some time, you'd allowed your characters to believe they could solve problems by using the sophistication and nuance of other writers.

Now, you were on your own. After years of reading to please yourself and writing to effect a risky and unlikely camaraderie with the men and women whose stories turned your emotions to the awe and shiver of understanding, you had to set about offering that most important thing a writer needs to address:  substance.

Voice alone would not accomplish your goal.  Sophistication is like the maraschino cherry the preparer of the sundae applies last, pure ornament. Nuance is the effect some writer achieved before you were born. Your characters must extend beyond individuals you pass on a crowded Manhattan street.  Don't make eye contact; they'll think you're a tourist and swerve to avoid you.

Step forth.  Bump where you have to.  Gawk, even. Be alert to the enormous party you are rushing to celebrate or the heart-wrenching tragedy you are winding your way through. Remember the last time you ached for a lost friend or lover, then offer that gift of connection to someone you meet now, along the way.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Do You Feel a Draft in Here?

If you write a draft of a scene in a hurry, without thinking, you will learn a great deal about habits you were need to unlearn. If you write a scene with thoughtful care and deliberation, you will be made aware of all the things you were urged to consider in English Language and grammar classes.  Don't, for instance, begin sentences with And or but.  Try not to split an infinitive.  Don't end a sentence with a preposition.  Instead of writing Go home, consider You go home, to make sure the reader has awareness of the subject.

The dedicated, habitual writer will sooner or later arrive at the awareness of how, regardless of whether the scene is written with dispatch or in a more thoughtful mode, even the habitual writer is screwed, placed between the Scylla of wired-in tropes and the Charybdis of grammatical constraints.  Said dedicated, habitual writer has come to realize, as you had to ascertain, how integral revision, rewriting, and some sense of being removed from a project for a time are vital to the process of composing story.

A major issue is the sense of plausibility necessary to bring the story and its denizens to life. Accomplished writers--to quantify that, let's say writers who've written at least a million words--are alert to the way one word, carelessly chosen, can sink what, up to the moment, has been a plausible narrative.  

Sometimes the word is one the narrator would never use, a whatsoever or recollect (instead of remember).  The reader hits it as though encountering a speed bump while driving at a speed of fifty.  Other times, the word is more ordinary, a that or even an and, in extreme such a word as just (for only), or a lazy word such as somewhat, when a more effective trope such as more or less would not jar the reader out of the narrative.

Plausibility may be purring along, carrying the reader from paragraph to paragraph, causing an intake of air at the end of a scene or chapter, where the principal of the withhold or cliffhanger leaves the reader dangling in suspense, suffering from the curiosity of finding out what happens next.  How can things get any worse?  A lovely place to contemplate, both for the writer and the reader.  The writer knows the reader will continue reading.  The reader is already beginning to make excuses for the next responsibility due, breaking off an obligation in order to continue reading.

Funny then how plausibility and engagement can be broken by what amounts to insecurity on the part of the writer or, even worse, a sense of entitlement.  Stories require research, beginning with at least this minimal round of research related to every character who sets foot on stage.  Who are they?  What do they want?  What are they willing to do to accomplish their goal?  Why do they have an impatient yearning for the goal, as in, why do they want it right now?  Suppose they do get what they want; what are the possibilities of buyer's remorse?

We're talking research here.  The writer needs to know X amount of information about Y story. If the story is about something, say an argument engaged on a golf course, the writer needs to have some sense of what a golf course is like, how the game is played, and with what implements. But the author must be careful to put in only as much of this information as required to maintain the sense of plausibility:  these are actual golf players, who know the rules and customs of the game, and understand the use of the implements.

Beware the tendency to explain what the reader already knows.  The fact of having researched golf and golf courses is not a carte blanche for putting in all the research.  Doing so can become a deal breaker of a speed bump.

The things characters say--or do not say--to one another becomes relevant here.  With piles of unused research on hand, radiating its mischief, the tendency arises to invent so-called "As-you-know" dialogue.  "As you know, Bill, golf is a club and ball sport, where the goal is to hit a ball into a small hole, often more than three hundred yards from a starting point."

Another thing to watch for is the potential for characters to make speeches, expressing their political, romantic, gender-based, and career-based agendas.  Arbitrary as it may sound, exchanges of dialogue running over two sentences per exchange tend to sound like speeches.  Let the record show:  Speeches are not dialogue.  They are tendentious, apt to be boring.

Second, third, and subsequent drafts of narratives are attempts to remove all the boring elements from them, including the speed-bump words, the overly long explanations, and the speeches.

The more you engage redrafting and revision, the more you are freeing yourself from your grammar and English classes, the older books you read as a youngster, and the great effects you thought you were employing, all the while erecting speed bumps.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Social Contract: Real Persons, Student, and Characters

Until you spent some time thinking the matter through, your position regarding actual persons and characters you create would allow you to allow your biases, prejudices, and aversions toward actual individuals to reflect in the way you treat and regard your characters.  

This works in principal, all the way through the first draft, where your prejudices become so apparent that you know more thought and an intensified philosophy are required.Nor does it hurt to remind yourself that your students are actual individuals, each with an agenda as volatile as microwaved popcorn.

Your study of despicable characters, say some of Faulkners characters such as Mink and Flem Snopes, or even the somewhat more admirable Jason Compson, convinces you of the need for the writer to at least respect if not admire his or her characters.  To respect them is to see them in dire conditions where the door to hope somehow remains open, however scant the crack.  With hope as a possibility, change is a potential.  

Some characters, such as Inspector Jaivert in Les Miserables, are hide bound against change, would (and did) rather die than change, but these are in the minority of those who condemn themselves to an actual death, or the continuous suffering of a state of remaining among the living as though dead.

This was brought home to you in a practical way when you developed a character who was based on a living person for whom you have no respect, even to the point of that being an understatement.  

From the moment he appeared on stage, he began behaving in a despicable manner, even more despicable than his real life role model.  He seemingly took every opportunity to in some way humiliate, pressure, or dominate nearly everyone with whom he came in contact.In comparison with Jason Compson, this character would appear bordering on altruistic.

When you first saw this tendency, you were pleased, of course for all the wrong reasons. Now, you had to devise a way out of this dilemma or a character who, by your leave, indulged in the near equivalent of evil for evil's sake. There surely are real individuals and characters who behave in this manner, but when they enter your turf, the line has to be drawn.

Not even the death of the real life individual let you off the hook of the dilemma into which you'd written yourself.  You had to give this character some redeeming potential or you would be stuck with the cliche of evil for evil's sake. Somewhere along the way, you found the trigger:  He has fallen in unselfish love with one of the women he most exploited.  

The chances of her ever trusting the quality of his love is remote.  He understands this and understands why. He has come to an understanding about reparations, about abuse of power, about selfishness.He has changed.  Now what?  Now this, you are off the hook.

There are now and have been students you did not like, often for reasons you could not/cannot articulate. At least not until they are no longer your students must they be unaware of your dislike; that is another social contract matter you feel bound to observe. It is their right and privilege not to like you, even to the point of giving negative evaluations on you, calling you out on your views and method.  

There are cases where you must remind yourself, but remind yourself, you do:  They are entitled to your respect and that significant step beyond your best effort to convey to them the things you wish all your students to get, which is that glorious conspiracy of self-discovery.

Student or character, if they don't have your respect, you need to find a way right now to make sure they get it and are aware of it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Down These Impatient Streets, Pastrami Awaits.

When Raymond Chandler wrote his insightful and exploratory essay on the mystery novel, "The Simple Art of Murder," he spoke of the journey a private detective must take.  "Down these mean streets," he wrote, a man must go who is neither mean nor afraid."

Although most of his novels were set in or around Los Angeles, Chandler did not mean the streets of Los Angeles are any meaner than the streets of any other metastasizing metropolis.  Since so much of your life has been spent in Los Angeles, you can think of some streets that are in fact mean, but since so many of the streets in Los Angeles have tangible places in your memory, and since the rate of vehicular traffic on all of them has increased over the years, you're more tempted to think of the streets of Los Angeles as impatient.

For some months, you've been developing a hunger for the streets of Los Angeles, the kind of hunger best described as nostalgia.  Some of that hunger was sated yesterday as you sat in the street-facing patio of a coffee shop below the confluence of Sunset Boulevard and Horn Street, about a block below Larrabee Street.  

While waiting for your coffee, which was prepared from an intriguing series of glass tubes and containers reminiscent of the laboratory one would expect to see in a mad scientist movie, you were taking in these impatient Los Angeles streets and feeling back home.  Cars challenged cars whose speeds in the traffic flow seemed too slow.  Windows were rolled down or opened electronically so that arms could be extended, exposing the extended middle finger of the universal fuck-you gesture.  Voices were raised in impatient protest, answered by voices every bit as volatile in discourse once attributed to New Yorkers.

Since many New Yorkers have come to Los Angeles, seeking the results so many persons come to Los Angeles in the first place, there is in you the temptation to attribute the confrontational nature to the migrant New Yorker, but in all fairness, you have memories from your childhood in which Angelenos vented their impatience on other Angelenos.  

Los Angeles is a place where people come to search for their dreams, true enough, but in doing so, they come to be impatient, to take any chance to vent frustration at the need for so much time to get from point A, say mid-Wilshire, around the sixty-two-hundred block, where you used to have an office, to Little Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

Your coffee arrives, delivered by an earnest young man who appears to be bi-racial, and who appears to be waiting for something before he backs away.  In a brief moment, you discover his purpose, which was for you to take a sip of coffee, then comment on its worth.  "We take our coffee seriously here," he informs you.  The coffee sends to your palate the sense of a roasting oven, broadcasting notes of the outer skin of a slow-cooked roast, followed by the pungency you've come to associate with the darker French and Italian coffee infusions.

The young man is satisfied with this, but has one more gambit.  "I can offer you a gluten-free and sugarless biscuit or a tangy, crust-less key lime pie."

At this point, you are tempted to order the crust without the key-lime filling, but this is Los Angeles, which you have come to with a mixture of purpose and nostalgia.  This makes you realize you are not likely ever to come to Los Angeles without some purpose in mind, the previous times to participate in book signings and reading rituals, or to attend a baseball game.  Only on the rarest occasion, as you did a few years back, do you find yourself "passing through Los Angeles," eager to be somewhere else, but even then thinking of a worthwhile purpose (which in this case happened to be a Los Angeles pastrami sandwich.

You can get a pastrami sandwich at one or two places in Santa Barbara.  If the need for pastrami overcomes you, there is Norton's, which may well secure their pastrami from Los Angeles, but, like the placebo pill effect, even if the pastrami from Norton's comes from Los Angeles, it has lost its panache.  

There are a few other restaurants with pastrami on their menu, but you would no more think to order pastrami there than you would think, say, to order tacos at a Chinese restaurant.You know of a few places to secure pastrami in New York and on occasion have ordered considerable rumps of their pastrami along with loaves of corn rye bread and Gulden's delicatessen mustard.  

And for the pure joy of Los Angeles pastrami, there is Langer's on Alvarado or Art's on Ventura.  The message is clear:  If you are impatient for Los Angeles pastrami, go to Los Angeles.  If you are impatient for Los Angeles pastrami while in Santa Barbara, think instead about the osso buck at Via Maestra 42 or the rigatoni a Bolognese at Gianfranco in Carpinteria.  Possibly a steak sandwich at Sly's will help, but the message for sublimation is clear.

Another quality speaking to the impatience in Los Angeles is the awareness that individuals here are almost always inhabited by an inner agenda which has something to do with the entertainment industry or the theater. On your way to the lavatory, you saw two individuals at different tables working on screenplays, a format you well recognize because of the times when you lived in Los Angeles when you were writing if not screenplays, then dramas for television.

The afternoon and evening of the impatient streets in Los Angeles was fulfilling and even though the trip took a nine-hour chunk out of your day, you were glad you went.  But on the way northward, to Santa Barbara, you began thinking of the effect the moon would have, shining on the water at Loon Point, slightly beyond the Rincon.  

There was sure to be a gibbous moon out, and the more you thought of it, lighting up that patch of beach and inlet, you found yourself growing impatient to reach it.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Book Signings and Tales of Heroes

For an independent bookstore to remain in business for any length of time, it has to be iconic or close to projecting that sense.  For it to survive on Sunset Boulevard in the corridor between Beverly Hills and Hollywood, the bookstore needs to be evenmore than iconic; it needs to be wildly profitable because the rent is so high.

Such a bookstore is Booksoup, featuring an eclectic stock of contemporary fiction and a wide choice of specialty books in the various nonfiction genera.  Bookshop is one of the better-known independent bookstores in Los Angeles.  The moment you step inside, you are aware of books in every available aisle and corner, seeming to cry out to you not so much with the pathos of dogs in an animal shelter, regarding any visitor as a potential adopting person as with the enthusiasm of fourth- and fifth-graders, eager to answer questions posed by the teacher.

You could spend serious money and time in such a bookstore.  You in fact have.  You are here tonight to interview a first novelist who, you remind some of the audience, they probably know through the motion pictures and television series he has written, sometimes directed, other times was the executive producer or show runner. You are scheduled to begin at seven o'clock.

But it is already three minutes after seven and there is not one single customer in the store, reminding you of a story told you by a writer friend who was sent out on a road trip to publicize his latest novel.  He'd arrived at the designated bookstore in Phoenix, only to find one individual seated near the speaker's dias.  Your friend was used to such events, but the thing that made the event memorable was his feeling of embarrassment for the one person who'd arrived to hear him speak.

After some conversation, your writer friend felt an even greater sense of embarrassment when he discovered that the one person had come thinking he was someone entirely other. After considering his options, he even went so far as to buy a copy of the book he was promoting as a gift for his one-person audience who was not a real audience.

By seven fifteen, as if by some form of magic, there was a respectable number of customers sitting in the seats provided by the bookstore.  You and the author faced them, each of you sitting in a sturdy director's chair.  After the manager introduced you and the author, there was no possible confusion; no one had come thinking of you were other than who the program represented you to be.

You began with what you considered a provocative and interesting question:  Why give your lead character the same name as a poet of some repute who was a contemporary in London of Shakespeare.

The author you were interviewing took the bait, throwing forth a line that you still remember, having to do with heroes and anti-heroes.  His purpose in writing this novel had to do with wishing to evoke the times when "people gathered around a campfire and listened to tales of heroes."

"So you consider your Michael Drayton a hero?"


And you were off on a run of narrative laced with nostalgia, with lead characters doing things not because they were disillusioned or cynical but because they saw the need and opportunity to do something that would in some way balance the skewed scales of justice..

By now, there were more individuals, standing in the aisles, listening to your "interview" with the result of the manager having to find and deploy more chairs.  No one was going to object to the writer's wish for heroics and for an ending where there was some sense of the protagonist having accomplished his avowed mission.

A conventional wisdom articulated by Aristotle in his treatise on dramatic writing, Poetics, suggests that front-rank characters have some sort of flaw which proves either their undoing or their change to an individual who has overcome both an external obstacle, usually found in the plot, and an internal obstacle, related to the flaw.

Here, in the midst of a city that attracts persons from all over the world to try their hand at the very activities the author has built a career on, the creator and the dreamers settle on heroism rather than some of the inherent cynicism and pragmatism associated with the film industry and the world of publishing.

"How were you able to get such a book published?" one of the audience asked.

"It wasn't easy,"  the author said, "but I was patient."

For a long moment, in the midst of what you consider a well thought selection of book titles for sale, in one of the most gaudy parts of the Sunset Strip, iconic for non-heroic things, there was a sense of being seated about a comforting fire on a chill evening, listening for tales of heroes.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Frankenstein's Monster in Your Prose

 During a typical week, at least three publications come your way in print format, bringing news and commentary related to books, at least three others appear in your email folder, and one magazine, The New Yorker, has at least one page devoted to books,  the "Books Briefly Noted" feature, if not a longer review essay on a work of fiction, biography, or investigative reporting.  

Then there are the monthly magazines, The Atlantic, and Harpers, often containing five or six pages of book review.  On a quarterly basis, you have visits from The Threepenny Review, Tin House, The Sewanee Review, The Paris Review, all of which present story, essay, poetry, and extracts from works in progress but reviews of all manner of titles, commercial, recondite, and somewhere in between.

This surfeit of reading material and commentary about recent publications satisfies your interest in the life you've chosen to lead, the work you find yourself doing or engaging in some procrastination against doing, and that ongoing segment of personal enrichment you think of as the education you are providing yourself now that you are no longer in the role of a student.

Dealing with all this reading, processing of what you read, then trying to come to terms with it has caused you a number of subjective responses, many of which are determined by your progress or lack thereof on a project, your periodic bouts of self-assessment, and your satisfaction or lack thereof with your life in its current momentum.

The number of things you think to read can be staggering, particularly if a given week, month, or season is filled with provocative, daunting flashes of vision and idea from young writers, contemporaries, or those long dead whom you are discovering for the first time or revisiting with some purpose in mind.  One of the results of reading and processing leads you to think of a book you first read as an undergraduate, although you'd seen screen versions of it for as far back as you can remember.

The screen versions frightened you, which they were supposed to do.  Even though you didn't have the emotional or intellectual vocabulary to see the process as you now see it, you understood on some basic level that being fearful of Dr. Frankenstein's monster meant the story was a success.  Later, when you read the book for the first time, there was envy because the author was more or less your age when she wrote it, that it had something to say beyond its basic story line.

You did not until recent years identify with Dr. Victor Frankenstein as you do now, seeing a grim-if-amusing comparison between what Frankenstein was seeking to create--life--and what you were and are trying to create, the illusion of life.  You've had ample opportunity to see some of your attempts, lumbering about as Frankenstein's monster, ably portrayed by the actor, Boris Karloff, lumbered about in search of experiences, understanding, and the means to contain the forces of life set loose within him.

One of the messages pounded at in the film admonished Frankenstein for trying to create something only God had the power to create.  Although you took that in as a theme, you never took it seriously.  Even then, you understood the need to find, if you could, your own themes.

On the other hand, you did, and still at times do, consider attempts to bring characters to life an act of hubris in the wake of so many gifted writers being able to do what you seek to do.  This is, of course, an aspect of the interior editor, whom you in large measure try to ignore until you reckon the time has come to let him out.

In sending the interior editor off to the side until you are ready for him, how easy it is to forget that, like you, he, too, has read, made notes, formed judgments, actually whispers commentary to you as you read the likes of Louise Erdrich, Deborah Eisenberg, Cynthia Ozick, Daniel Woodrell, Richard Price, Elmore Leonard.He, too, has learned on his own, away from the common wisdom you were both at pains to absorb.

Sometimes, when you reread something you'd composed, especially if it were something you'd become enthused about as you wrote, you are reminded of Boris Karloff, lurching about as the Frankenstein's monster.  Only after the effect of the comparison settles do you realize there was a dignified, intelligent man in that costume, his gestures and manner informed by years of study.

This is the individual you attempt to find in the characters you create, the lines of emotional needs and attempts at overcoming vulnerability. And you must be sure you see beyond the hubris in Dr. Frankenstein, into the great thirst of curiosity that caused him to pursue such a goal.  Without this awareness, your day's work can become little more than the monsters that frightened you when you were younger.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

If Only

 How pleasing it is to imagine among writers you admire, both those still producing and those passed on, that their material has ultimately gone directly to print as they've written it.  After all, they are favorites of yours' they've probably revised more times than you care to guess, sometimes even to the point of holding up submission over a word or sentence.

In your own way, you feel a note of sympathy for them, thanks to you holding up the submission of one of your stories because on alternate drafts you'd either included or deleted the title of a novel a minor character was reading.  

This dithering caused you to go through at least six more drafts of the story because you could not decide whether to say the character was reading The Heart of Darkness or merely reading a paperback novel.  At the sixth revision, you were finally able to see that the title belonged in the story.  The fact of the young man reading The Heart of Darkness gave you the payoff of the story.

This behavior from you represents considerable evolution.  Not all that long ago in relative terms, you were sending in the equivalent of first drafts, reread to capture misspellings, improper punctuation, possibly some gross overwriting.  On one such submission, you thought the editor might have been overstepping his boundaries when he sent you a note saying, "Can you fix the last chapter?  It goes on too long." 

At the time, you didn't think the last chapter did go on too long, thus preparing yourself for some self-education.  When you reread the offending chapter, you were able to take out a bit over two pages, say six hundred words.  "Better,"  the editor said, when he sent you the check you were living on Kraft Dinners in anticipation of more funds.  Perhaps this was an ah-ha moment.

Several years and projects later, you are not so ready to take offense at editorial notes; you in fact welcome them, even if--and this is important--you do not respect the editor.  The fact of an experienced editor calling you out on whether a thing is necessary or if a thing not included should be included does not give the editor an automatic agreement.  

Rather it alerts you to the possibility of something unnecessary or something missing.  You start by deleting, then regarding the result.  If that doesn't satisfy you, the next step is to ponder over what is lacking  and how it ought to be presented.

In the most simple terms, no one gets it all. One way or another, the editor plays a part.  Yes, some writers you know of, Donna Tartt, Michael Connelley, for instance, don't "take" edits because their sales and critical responses provide a form of Teflon, and each, regardless of sales and, in Tartt's case, the Pulitzer Prize, walk the narrow cusp of overtelling a competent story, laughing all the way to the bank.  But a significant number of contemporary writers still make the effort to be as articulate and economical as possible in the presentation of their visions.

For writers who will allow the editorial process to work, the possibility of a remarkable work persists.  Fifty years from now, Tartt and Connelley will no doubt be read, but you can't help believing many of their readers will temper their opinions with those two, shudder-inducing words, "If only."

Friday, January 22, 2016

What Kind of Writer Would Write a Story Like That?

The topic of discussion this morning settled down after about fifteen minutes to the either/or of single-focus attention or multitasking.  This is the approximate format of most Friday morning coffee klatches, not visibly changed by the change in the demographic of who is present on any given Friday morning.

Someone asked you how you approach chores, causing you to wonder if that were the politeness of asking the oldest person present first for his or her take on the subject at hand or if perhaps your answer was already assumed and in consequence already a subject of mirth.  You've known most of the Friday regulars at least ten years, in one or two cases, even longer.  The chances of you having seen at least half of those present at lease once during the previous week is high.

Even as you answered, confessing to a spectrum of work habits bordering on attention deficit disorder, you understood that everyone else was a one-job-until-it's-done person, your emerging laughter growing in recognition of the awareness of being other, watching friendly and random groups for clues related to how others go about the warp and weft of life.  You've long since given up the sense of trying to assimilate because, having tried to do so at various stages, you were unsuccessful.

Nor are you different with the agenda of maintaining distance or originality.  You've tried that as well; it did not work.  You come by your difference naturally, neither alarmed when you find yourself joining in on some communal habit, nor even shifting slightly from the norm in support of your difference.  The repeated argument you give yourself relates to your fondness for fiction, the generality of its creation, and the specificity of ways in which you create it and the kinds of fiction you ultimately produce.

Back in the days when you were being represented by two high-powered literary agents who saw your future in the lucrative slick magazine market, so named because the magazines were printed on paper with a slick finish, you were more or less trying to assimilate because the slick style did not come to you as the kind of reflex you've long since associated with being "in" your own voice, whatever your voice said right off.  

Several hundred thousand words land untold crumpled sheets of manuscript paper later, you understood a basic truth about Marxist theory:  You were a consumer.  You consumed Eaton's Corrasible bond paper.  Twenty-pound basis weight.  You consumed typewriter ribbons.  You consumed carbon paper, then liquid paper.  You consumed lighter fluid to clean the keys of your various typewriters.  You consumed on a 2X basis postage stamps, 1X to send and the second X for the return trip, should the material be rejected.

You consumed the conventional wisdom that the slicks were the publications to be writing for, not making the connection that those two literary agents, whose advertisements were always bragging about their most recent sales to the slicks had brought in thousands.  After you were a few hundred thousand words into that conventional wisdom, you began to accept the muscle memory of appreciating the slick magazine fiction but not being of it.

At one point in your career, you found yourself describing, then ultimately publishing book projects from a writer who not only wrote for the slicks, he edited one of the bigger, better ones.  "How come you never tried to write for us?" he asked you one day.  On the same day, you told him that you had tried to for some time before you realized you were not of that group.  He mentioned a number of writers who were, many of whom you knew, and at least three you'd on occasion had had too much to drink with.

You found yourself this morning expressing admiration for those who could pursue a single project all the way to the end, even the willingness at this stage of your life to accept that as a working model.  With the willingness comes the awareness that you do not work for any sense of efficiency.  

Sure; you enjoy finishing a project, then becoming caught up in a new one.  Sure, you like the moments of waiting to see if your agent or editor have discovered anything you might have missed.  You absolutely like the challenge that can come when, as a teacher, you put forth some vision or theory, and one or more students are on it, filling the air with the contentious voices of otherness.

Some years ago, when you first came to Santa Barbara to work for yet another publisher, your job had to do with the editing, scheduling, design, and overall production of books.  You were introduced for the first time to the weekly production schedule and to being asked to answer in a tangible unit of measurement how long you would need to edit a particularly boring book.  Rather than engage in a subjective dialogue, you picked a number of hours that seemed about right to you, added ten percent, then said with some authority, "Ninety-six hours."

You could not have wanted a better immediate response.  The fact that you'd chosen hours rather than the days or weeks of your predecessor added to the desired response and your authority in its specificity.  "Very well then, ninety-six hours it shall be."

But as so many things go under such circumstances, you heard a fuse being lit.  It was a long fuse, but you came away understanding that five years hence, you'd be looking for another job.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Story: The Way of All Contentious Flesh

The moment a character in a story says "I'm certain of the outcome," or even a more moderate, "There, that should fix it," readers in their turn can be certain of forthcoming disaster.  Readers may not be able to pinpoint the precise nature of the disaster, but they know from experience with story the dramatic consequences of odds-on favorites, of over confidence, even of diluted consequences.

If things proceed in neat orderliness for too long, the story becomes attenuated, gives up the ghost, transforms into a generic narrative, which is not in a good position to hold our attention.  Even if we have had little or no orderliness in our life, we turn to story for the relief of watching others cope with chaos. There is possibility for schadenfreude if we note that the characters in story can't cope with chaos as well as we.

We readers are also aware on some level of an observation of near Newtonian scientific reliability, wherein things are not always what they appear to be.  In fact, things in story are never what they appear to be or they wouldn't make their way into story, they'd be warming the benches of early draft.

In a conversation this morning with a friend about the inevitability of uncertainty and unreliability in story, you were thinking about Werner Heisenberg rather than Walter White Heisenberg, and his vision of complementary variables, by Erwin Schrodinger's metric, the measurement of sub-atomic particles is chancy enough for a physicist that the thesis could be well applied to story.  Not too long ago, you intact made that observation in a book you wrote about story.

There is also the matter of Erwin Schrodenger's cat, the particular sort of ambiguous outcome so favored within story, involving a good deal of suspense about whether a cat placed in a particular surrounding will survive a journey.

These are the sorts of ambiguity and uncertainty we all live in, regardless of the historical time in which we have lived.  These are also the conditions and circumstances men and women who make their way through the corridors of story must venture on some sort of regular basis.

Each time we enter a short story or novel, we are entering the terrain of surprise and uncertainty.  A few centuries back, many stories were resolved, which is to say put to rest, when the most unlikely of the dramatis personae was revealed to be the long lost heir to some estate or legacy of considerable wealth. This character's hopes for a less paycheck-to-paycheck life were fulfilled, making marriage with that special, upper-class, someone a possibility.

Story evolves in some tangible relationship to enlightened social values, thus what was once thought of as miscegenation is now considered enlightenment, same sex couples may adopt children, husbands stay at home to balance the checkbooks while the wife runs for political office.  And wins the election.

As a consequence, our expectations of stories published this century have greater expectation of surprise, radical departure, and some stretching of the social fabric. You read many of the things you read now in expectation of this stretch.  If you do not see hints of its explosive presence, literary equivalents of IEDs as it were, you stop reading.

You relish the notion of things not being what they seem, pushing at the boundary markers to the extent where you like the notion of things not being what they seem becoming even less of what they seem.  Thinking about such things in the abstract in this manner makes you examine the things about you that are not what they seem.  

This, in turn, causes you to think this is a delightful way to go about constructing a character.  The question comes to mind, Are you happy with such a large cohort of things about you being what they seem?  Are you, in fact, predictable?  If you are, how long have you been playing the game of pretending you are not, knowing all the while, or at least a portion of the time, that you are quite a lot what you seem?

The significant way out of this conundrum is the awareness that you are a range of possibilities, a representative of the Parliament of You, comforted by the notion of the possibility that at any given negotiating session during which the aggregates of you decide on singular action, your present self might surprise you by becoming the desk-pounding, name-calling cohort who has to be escorted to the door by the sergeant-at-arms aspect of you.  Thus you are charged with removing yourself from the proceedings whence, outside, still smarting from the vitriolic force and language with which the sergeant-of-arms you ejected the dissenting you, a thought comes to you and you say with all sincerity, "Those sons of bitches.  I'll show them a thing or two."

And you wonder, which things or two you are going to show them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Celery and the Art of Story Composition

Of all the available senses, you are least likely to use smell in your own work, closely followed by taste. most apt to have a character hear something, then see it.  You are quick to acknowledge having nothing against smell, one of your favorites being the iodine tang of the ocean.

A recent event with a dozen oysters, arranged on an iced platter in a counterclockwise path, beginning with sweet at six o'clock, then progressing into saltiness,two of these at six twenty-five, made you aware that you do have excellent uses for smell and taste.  You need, in fact, to spend more time with oysters, considerable time with smell and taste.

Thoughts of smell immediately remind you of your mother's cooking abilities, taste being a close second in this context of ingesting from the array of foodstuffs that hold some parts of your sensory apparatus hostage. Any reflection on your senses of smell and taste remind you of the degree to which sound trumps these, even to the point where you are frequently led from a deep, dream-filled sleep in which there is some recognizable music or musical format in the background. 

The awareness of this music  seems to pull you, degree by degree, from the sleep and dreams, into an awareness of a specific composition--last week, it was the first, allegro vivace movement of Mendelssohn's Symphony Number four in A Major.  Prior to that, it was quite another matter and format, the Horace Silver Quintet's hard bop vision of a track of Silver compositions called Cape Verdean Blues.

As a matter of importance to this conversation, you do not play or read music; you can recognize basic configurations, whole note, half-note, quarter-note, etc, and you can recognize a few other minor signals, but not in any meaningful way.  Nevertheless, you often find yourself in situations where your dreams appear to have an accompanying sound track.

Difficult to reckon the degrees to which you attach importance to the various senses except to say you are in essence a hearing person rather than a sight or taste or smell person, and to add your belief that properly presented, each of these senses triggers a feeling response.  Does the Mendelssohn mean more to you than a plate of oysters?  

The last time you heard the Mendelssohn was not in concert; it was in your head.  You did not know the conductor or the orchestra.  You do know you awoke with considerable positive feeling, thrilled to be hearing music, thrilled to recognize it, deeply curious why, of all the things you could dream, you chose the Mendelssohn.  

Again the disclaimer--at least, you think it is a disclaimer--of liking as much of Mendelssohn as you know.  In all probability, your favorite composition of his is the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E Minor, which to your uneducated taste provides the third and thus Holy Trinity of violin concertos along with the Beethoven and the Tchaikovsky.  To be sure, there are other notable violin concerti, but you were raised on these.  Better yet to say you informed your education to its present state by listening to these three many times, then comparing them to others.

This is pretty much your pattern with the other senses.  Music remained something more significant and special for you to the point where you use it to put you in the proper mood for composing your own material or editing the work of others.  Given the broad, sweeping catholicity of your musical interests, you've used a wide variety of compositions and genera to help you focus your story-telling and/or editorial ventures.  

The one composer you know not to work for you under such circumstances is J.S. Bach, whom you enjoy listening to, but cannot do so when attempting to work. The best answer you can come forth with is because he is always so interesting that you can't get off on a daydream vector and compose at the same time; he's too interesting.

You'd think you'd have similar problems with Stravinsky and even more so with the twelve-tone compositions of Schoenberg, but no, they both work, in particular Stravinsky's The Firebird.  You can--and do--eat while composing, although the rule here dictates basics, such as peanut butter and jam, fruit, or chocolate milk rather than anything more complex.  Complexity tends to prove distracting. Coffee does not count.  Quite often, coffee is present, perhaps as a collaborative force.

The best solution seems to be waiting for the proper moments of the revision process to begin, then divide the senses up among the front-rank characters, where the contented munching of crisp celery by one character drives another to the edge of tidiness and civility.  Story is, if anything at all, not a civil undertaking.  Sometimes the appearance of a character who crunches celery or carrots is all that's required for a memorable sendoff.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Is Any Narrator Truly Reliable?

You've been asking this question with some regularity in literature classes, have paid it a good deal more than lip service in writing workshops, but have only in recent times been thinking about it in terms of you and your own composition.  The question is two-pronged, having to do with reliability.  Are your narrators reliable?  Are you, as composer/orchestrator a reliable source?

Best to take some time and thought before answering because you not only find yourself being drawn to the unreliable or at least the ambiguous narrator and because the more you think about reliability, the less you trust it.  

Thanks to the accident of your birth time, you grew up with a raft of writers whose narrative voices resonated plausibility and a variety of ways of arriving at the inescapable conclusion that life was a pretty unreliable prospect.

With that in mind, the varsity team of your time and the generation before approached their stories with the notion of sustained happiness being boring, to be sure, but even more to the point, nearly impossible to sustain.  

For every Jay Gatz of South Dakota, looking to reconnect and rewrite past history with his own personal Daisy Buchanan, there were certain obstacles, the primary one being that Daisy, through no fault of her own, was raised to be high-maintenance.  Yet another obstacle is the fact that Buchanan is Daisy's married name.  If this sounds familiar, compare the Gatsby-Daisy connection with Prince Paris and Helen.

True, Paris and Helen were not lovers before the fact, but Paris had been promised the bribe of the most beautiful woman in the world by an immortal, a goddess.  Forget that Helen was already married.  Forget the relative inequality of the sexes back in those glorious days of The Iliad; you don't mess with the whims and promises of goddesses any more than you mess with the conventions of the upper classes in the days of Gatsby.

Although the specifics of behavior in The Iliad and The Great Gatsby differ, the mechanics of the story can be seen as an overlap.  A seven-year war waged to get Helen back to her rightful husband.  A different sort of war waged to transform Jay Gatz into Gatsby, but there they are one fateful afternoon, in Gatsby's room, with Gatsby throwing one custom-made Turnbull and Asser shirts into the air and Daisy, moved to tears by their beauty.

Gatsby had the resonance of plausibility because Fitzgerald did and because, in a last-minute genius discovery, he introduced Daisy's cousin, Nick Caraway, to narrate the story.  It Gatsby and Daisy were bigger than life and scarcely reliable, there was Nick to help give them some anchor.  

Fitzgerald was not the only reliable voice of his time, yet the pattern persists:  Reliable narrative voices, say Dos Pasos, Steinbeck, Lewis, and slightly before them, Woolf, Cather, Dreiser, Stephen Crane, all told stories of men and women who were beyond the pale of reliability, some by several degrees.

Since you have read all these authors, including the so-called Homer authors (because of the extreme possibility Homer was more than one person), you have had experience with reliability and with what Mark Twain refereed to as stretchers, writers who have stretched the truth.  

You would like then to think that if you were to be subjected to a polygraph test, hooked to all the sensors, then asked if you were reliable and if you told the truth, you would not set off a cascade of wiggling styluses, all indicative of your variation from that other legendary drinking vessel, the Grail of Truth.

Are you in fact a reliable source.  There is not a writer named in these paragraphs for whom you do not bear considerable regard, bordering on affection.  Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Cather.  Be still, your heart.  But have you in fact learned enough from them? 

You do not seek reliability for political or academic reasons, rather as a springboard from which to launch characters who are not in the slightest bit reliable, but who seem so caught in the laser beam of their own design that they cannot help themselves.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Trickster Redux

However inaccurate,patronizing, and misguided your early elementary school introductions to First American culture and attitudes may have been, it left you with a lifelong appreciation of an archetypal presence that has remained with you over the years to the point of being a significant characteristic.  Placed in context with your father's authoritative narrative and your own, hard-wired Imp of Perversity, the presence of The Trickster goes at some lengths to define you.

Your first introductions to The Trickster were of animals such as The Coyote, as distinguished from a mere coyote, appearing in the world the way some of your comic book heroes appeared in story, to wreak mischief and in a real sense keep the world honest and, of much importance to you, not boring.

You can remember numerous times as a youngster when frustrated by t..  he clashes of power between your desires and the self-proclaimed adult authority, you took yourself to your nightly sleep with dreams of the revenge The Coyote would wreak on your enemies.

Happenstance, in the form of two Los Angeles neighborhood movie houses presenting frequent reruns of classic comics such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and one Julius "Groucho" Marx, helped you articulate in your own landscape the situations and circumstances where a Trickster would be necessary.  You were in effect raised as an ordinary boy and in a secret world, by The Trickster.

By the time you found yourself pursuing the pathway of the English major, you were delighted to discover such cultural Trickster potentials as Feste, the jester, in Twelfth Night along with the growing knowledge that kings actually hired jesters to make fun of them and everyone around them.  This was followed by your discovery of Master Owlglass, Tyl Eulenspiegel, and Reynard, the Fox.

A required course in anthropology brought you to a point of wanting to change majors because so many cultures had Trickster equivalents, beings who were Coyotes rather than coyotes, individuals who were able to impersonate Tricksters at communal rituals, making fun of everything, including the ritual itself.  

This was heady stuff for a nineteen- and twenty-year-old, taking sustenance from the writings of satirists of such acute restraint that, had you not been told some of their work was a satire, you would have taken it only at face value.

Remember, the Tricksters seemed to be telling you, there are coyotes and there are Coyotes.

Then came the times where the work of Julius Marx began to make more sense to the point where you had memorized entire scenes from such films as A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup, A Day at the Races.  You were taken with Groucho's persona of Captain Geoffrey Spaulding, a film-flam, but there was more to his film-flammery, his unrelenting attack on the affected and affluent, his usual goal a modest score, a decent meal, and an opportunity to ridicule nonsense that had become established rule.

You particularly liked the way Groucho appeared, his eyebrows and mustache a thick, simple blob of greasepaint.  None of the other characters were allowed to reflect any awareness of this makeup being in any way abnormal.  The surreal became real, opening the doors for you to see other absurdist drama and fiction in your own terms, which means your ultimate need to take your inspiration from Geoffrey Spaulding, then create your own targets, your own landscape, your own appearances.

One of the first things you do involves conflating Capt. Spaulding with, in your opinion, one of the great Trickster pretenders, Wile E. Coyote, who would in effect like to be Capt. Spaulding but cannot.  Captain Spaulding, through his attitudes and behavior to his targets, manages to topple them in our eyes.  Wile E. Coyote is doomed to humiliating himself.  He has such a fierce intensity of purpose that you cannot help rooting for him, however aware you are of his hopeless prospects.

You admire this coyote's single mindedness of purpose.  You admire Spaulding's purpose.  You admire all those beings and individuals out there in their respective cultural landscapes, focused on their purpose of exposing the institutions and types who prey on us.  

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Trickster, vol. 1

Some words are like the cancer cells known as floaters, circulating through the body in search of place to establish themselves, then grow, or in context, metastasize.  We often aren't aware of them--words or cells--until they begin broadcasting their virulence in unmistakable rhetoric.

Other words have the immediate effect of a schoolyard bully on a group of helpless victims.  Most of these words are hard-wired with ethnic disdain and degradation, but they may also include variations on a theme of gender bias.

Then there are words we use because we believe we understand their meaning, whether we do or not.  In the process, such words are given attitudes or power beyond their actual intent.   the One such word is satire, a word you've given considerable thought to, ever since you began to realize you were not giving it the benefit of its full meaning.

Because of your essential outlook, making fun of institutions, authority, attitudes, and indeed all these things as they relate to you, seemed a splendid occupation.  You set about with glee, taking on conditions and attitudes, looking for the rugs of logic and self-important to yank from underneath authority, pomposity, and hypocrisy.  

Even that far back, you began to see some of these things in yourself, meaning you considered yourself a fair target as well.  In your studies of writers you considered to be satirists, Mark Twain, for instance, or Balzac, certainly Sinclair Lewis, you came to conclude that the self is always Target One for the satirist, and you were all out to set yourself up as a satirist.

The slowest part coming was the awareness that satire did not necessarily stop with picking a target, persuading that target to set foot on a rickety rug, then yanking the rug, resulting in an epic enough pratfall to rob the target of dignity.  If you look closely enough, there is one more step to separate satire from such kin as parody, comedy, and burlesque.  

Most of these second-cousins are more physical in nature, their closure often arriving in the form of a cream pie to the face, a pratfall, a slip on a banana peel, or some imaginative, utter humiliation such as the case with Wile E. Coyote's attempts to bring The Roadrunner to ground.

The satire is perfectly willing to humiliate, but to gain its status, it must also demonstrate some plausible solution to the problem addressed at the outset. Through her depictions of class attitudes and standards, Jane Austen introduces to a series of worlds where certain social traditions and attitudes seem insurmountable,  By introducing one or more of her strong and willful characters into play against purposeful, exaggerated  accommodations of motive, Austen brings us to understand how possible it is for unlike minds to adapt to a mutual respect that transcends class.

Throughout the history of storytelling, the satirist has been willing to take those extra steps beyond mere ridicule, into the terrains of morality and the Social Contract, where accommodations may be made to a greater awareness and appreciation of human relationships.  

The observation of the satirist as moralist is scarcely a recent  thesis.  Examples of brilliant satires crowd the literary canon and the history of the spoken tale at times when the written language was not in so wide a use as it is now.

Through its history, satire has walked a precipitous path, being taken as absolute in its seriousness by as many as half its audience and meant as a form of gospel while at the same time being seen as an exaggerated vision, meant to cause mischief.

One of the many joys of satire comes in its written, printed form, where readers are left to deal with as their instincts tell them it is gospel and, thus, sacred, or exaggerated mischief.

Satire also comes in the form of a being sometimes regarded as animal, sometimes as a unique form of personage known among other things as The Trickster or possibly as Captain Geoffrey Spaulding.  We look at possibilities tomorrow.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Effects of Writing on Age and of Age on Writing

Age does not bring cynicism so much as it tempers the gaping idealism of youth.  You still experience idealism, but it is edged with the wariness of understanding how much of your early exposure to story was filtered through lenses of cultural and tribal propaganda.

You do not object to the happy ending, if, that is, the happy ending is plausible, earned, understood as a result rather than the promised reward of propaganda. You do not insist on the hard, grind-'em-up-and-spit-'em-out outcome of the system--any system--prevailing over some worthwhile effort at the artistry of change.

Along with many of the afflictions you've managed to dodge, age brings with it increased awareness of absurdity and the mine-field mentality.  What seemed perfectly prudent yesterday can transmogrify into absurdity of Beckettian and Ionescoian absurdity by next week.  

What seemed a splendid idea last night can turn into scenarios of poignant embarrassment the next morning.  The world of limitless possibility so easily translates into a minefield, gravid with devices from conflicts long since initiated.

How old were you at your first explosion?  Of the many characters you have created, how old were they when an event turned them from the almost pure awe and amazement of the everyday wonders about them to the suspicion that all was not as it seemed.  You reckon you were three or four when your father lifted you and spoke of illusions, then said, "Look, I will show you one."  

He held you  up to the concave display window of a jewelry store.  "How can a jewelry store leave such things unguarded in a window?" he asked.  You, who had no idea of windows other than flat-planed windows, were completely taken in by the illusion.  You reached for the display, shocked by the presence of glass.  Your father lifted you a bit higher.  "Can you see the curve now?  Can you see how the illusion works? "

You nodded to his question after making a few more tries to test the extent of openness suggested by the extreme curvature of the glass, but there were many times in subsequent years when you were reminded of that evening.  The reminders came when you reached for something you thought available, something where your own percepts were part of the illusion that your then goal was available.

In time, you were able to conflate your own reaching, achieving, and frustrations with imaginary men and women in stories you created, reaching, not seeing the boundary because of some illusion.  You continued to reach and to walk through minefields, on occasion thinking you understood how to walk minefields because, so far, there'd been no explosions.

By most accounts, you've live a fortunate life, neither overly privileged or overly burdened with misfortune.  Through curiosity, observation, and adventure, you became aware of those who were less fortunate than you, extremely less fortunate, and, in similar degree, more fortunate and extremely so.  In many cases, the haunted look in the eyes of children in years of browsing National Geographic warned you of potential explosions to come, taught you to search about you wherever you were for the haunted look in the eyes of children and of men and women of all ages.

When you program yourself to see out such evidences of haunting, you also understand that individuals of scientific and artistic yearnings have that look. Over the years, you have identified in yourself a vulnerability to this haunted look, caught up in the wonder of their and your inner landscapes and how to regard the physical and spiritual landscape you see about you.

1992.  The last year of your father's life.  You are visiting him in a rehabilitation hospital.  He sees you approaching, smiles, invites you closer for an exchange of kisses.  He points to the oxygen tube dangling from the nearby tank, informs you he has been judged quite capable, thank you, of getting enough oxygen on his own now.  Then he opens the drawer of the nightstand next to him, reaches to the rear of the drawer, extracts a long maduro cigar.  

In pictures you have seen of him before you were born, he had a cigar.  You were always aware of him with a cigar.  Although you have given up smoking, you are aware of the magnificence of this cigar and what its presence means to him.  Some months later, when he lay in his coffin, you placed two such cigars in his lapel pocket, discretely hidden by the folded pocket square your mother had placed.

The look in his eyes as he asks you in all earnestness if you, whom he knows has given up smoking--"How could you?  It is such a comfort."--if you have a match or a lighter.  You point to the sign above the oxygen tank and remind him, a lit cigar could cause an explosion.  He regards you for a moment.  "Ninety-three years so far and no explosion."

He regards the cigar in his hand for a moment.  "Tell me,"  he says.  "Which is worse, a man with a cigar and no match, or a man with a match and no cigar?"

Friday, January 15, 2016

Start the Story by Sauteeing the Onions

 When you were in your mid teens and early twenties, already indebted to the style and language of Mark Twain, you were indeed ready for the man who is famous for the observation that all modern literature began with Huckleberry Finn. Your interest was less in actual theme than choice of words, narrative pace, and the ability to convey a sense of movement through a narrative without becoming bogged down in detail the way so many of his contemporaries were.

Among the more meaningful things you heard--through his writing--Ernest Hemingway say was "Write drunk, edit sober."  At first, this gave you an excuse to do what you'd been doing quite a bit of, which was drinking enough to believe you were communicating with the world about you rather than what you were in fact doing which was taking enough of  the restraints off your behavior to allow you to express late teen and early twenties impatience, insolence, and arrogance.

Writing after more than one or two drinks grew old fast.  Either that or one of the things you learned worth remembering was that the material you wrote under such circumstances had little worth keeping.  The metaphor of writing drunk and editing sober was something you could open yourself to without the need for drinking.  The metaphor meant to you the need to get as much of the sensory material down as possible for early drafts, then remove as much of it as you could in the hope of a final result that would evoke the sensory presence.

At about the time you were arriving at this conclusion, your life with the carnival was beginning, meaning that much of your writing has the presence of onions being sautéed--if that is not too refined a word for it--on a large grill.  

When the various units of the carnival arrived at a new city, found the plot allotted them, and began the task of setting up shop, another activity began within the cookhouse.  Bags of diced onions would be spread on the grill, sprinkled with cooking oil.  The propane tanks were attached, lit up to a medium flame.  Soon the morning and mid afternoon air was alive with the waft of onion.  Your own hunger would have been more than aroused by then.

After your own booth was set up, you made your way to the cook house, where you wolfed your way through at least two, sometimes three hamburgers, washed down by coffee you would not have tolerated anywhere else.  This sensual memory of grilled onions and the brewing of coffee tied directly into another smell recalled from your home life.  Your father's parents were both born in Hungary, the part where dishes made with cabbage flourished.  Aware that your mother was, at the time, no cook, your paternal grandmother reminded her of your father's comfort food, stuffed cabbage, a sour cabbage soup, filled with short ribs, and your father's absolute favorite desert, cabbage strudel.

Onions, cabbage, and the often piquant aroma of roasting chicken or brisket found their way into your early drafts.  When a few editors, thinking to take on your earlier stories, began x-ing out these appetizing odors, you began to catch on, being as specific and descriptive as possible in order to provide atmosphere for you, before they were set aside.  When one editor noted on a manuscript of yours, "Interesting how your stories come to life in and around kitchens," you were on your way to a discovery you needed years to be able to articulate.

Write for yourself in the early drafts.  Write until you are there, smelling the smells, seeing the anomalies in your characters physical presence and the pathos in their secret desires.  At one point, you even had a strip of paper with a list of your characters, on which you noted not only their immediate goals but their secret, hidden goals.

Whatever you can say about Hemingway, his short stories left you aware of smells, fears, areas in which they chose to have no discussions with anyone until they'd had a drink or two or perhaps even more.  Then you began to understand why the things you'd written after a julep or two were not the sophisticated things you thought them to be at the time, rather instead demonstrations of your impatience, anger, frustration, all of which were leading you to be mean spirited.  Hemingway was able to deal with these things in  ways you'd still require ages to learn.

Reading other writers of the time was a help in getting you to understand that in addition to the scent of the onions, which let people know the carnival had come to town, you also had to have the equivalent awareness for every character who came on board.  No matter what they may have done, awake, dreaming, or in dreamless sleep, you had to respect them.

True enough, the cook house only used fresh onions on the first day, to let people know we were there.  Of equal truth, food in such places seems better than it is.  Most places, things, and people are not what they seem, but it is up to us to invest them with the sense that they have meaning for us.