Today, as you sat in the regularly scheduled meeting of the six principals of the literary journal of which you are senior editor, you were mistaken for someone else, adding not only to the number of times this has happened but to the variety of possibilities.
Monday, February 29, 2016
Sunday, February 28, 2016
If there were a tad more storage space, perhaps expanding the one closet by about twenty-five percent, your happiness with your studio would be complete. As things are, there is a generous area in the middle of things for the library table-as-desk on which your computer rests and is for all intents and purposes, your main work area.
There are times when you find yourself in the kitchen, seated at the dining table, jotting notes or editing, when time becomes more an abstraction, a metric of how long you've been engrossed in your favored method of composition, pen and paper. In either room, the main or kitchen, you are most of the time supremely happy.
Other times, after a few missteps resulting in a tap dance on the delete key, or the sound of a sheet being ripped from a note pad, and the kinetic sense of crumpling it before tossing it at some receptacle, you understand the need to act on one of your quirks, which is to scoop up your Macbook Pro and any necessary motes, whereupon you move to The Daily Grind on De La Vina St, or venture to either Peet's uptown or, a mile or so past that, Java Junction, any of which is likely to be filled, making it your good fortune to find a place to plunk down, order a coffee, and attempt to work.
The fact of either of the venues being noisy is the precise reason for your hegira from 409 E. Sola Street, and out into the world. At such times, you rely on the need to concentrate over the ambient noise in order to get into or approximate being into the anticipated work at hand.
You are in effect drowning out the ambient voices among the crowds at The Daily Grind, Peet's, or Java Junction. This stratagem often works to the point where, after finishing a large latte, you're able to return to 409, and work in the considerably less noisy place from which you set out.
You've gone from hearing no voices whatsoever to hearing a cacophony of them, which somehow results in your subsequent hearing of your own voices, speaking over the distracting voices. If you're fortunate, when you're on such a venture, you'll find one person, male or female, with a particular antiphonal sound to their voice, hitting the right pitch and cadence to having you scan the room to identify the offender, slip in a glower or two, then get on with the job at hand,which is damping the sounds of the room you're in so that you can hear the yowling of the voices strewn about your body and head.
Being irritated helps to the extent of you being lifted into a hyper concentration, where you are certain of hearing your own voices and better able to proceed. The irony rarely fails to amuse you, which is a good thing because of the early days you spent writing to burn off irritation. You are still subject to irritation, which is a good energy source of energy, and is not to be discounted, but the fact remains, being amused is also an able provider of energy.
Being amused carries with it the implication that you will improvise or carry your intentions from a sense of mischief, which imparts a different tone to the narrative voice, a tone much more tolerant than the irritated voice, and, thus, making some form of satire easier to introduce without betraying the fact of the satire being present.
Because of your long association with irritation, you're quite able to judge its effect, which tends to be a form of exaggeration that heats up everything on the page, characters, their motives, their dialogue, their goals, and their level of pomposity. You have to watch carefully because you are more prone to judgment when irritation is shouting over the more dramatic voices in your head.
To be fair, you've been aware of being amused and mischievous nearly as long as you've been aware of irritation. Amused and mischievous are easier to control, leaving an effect upon you and potential readers of a different outcome. Your exaggerations of character, their responses, and the results of their responses seem more plausible even as you realize they are in fact less plausible than the outcome of irritation-based stories.
To be even fairer to the mischievous voices you hear with some regularity, mischievous is easier to work with, less difficult to control than irritation. When your characters reflect too intense an attitude toward plot, you're well advised to stop for a time, then consider shifting the narrative focus from fiery responses to a more thoughtful approach to resolution, a mischievous one, in which the antagonist is seen to have gotten away with a plausible amount and the protagonist has become a tad more amused, perhaps twenty-five percent more, just the amount of more closet space you'd enjoy in a more perfect apartment if not world.
Saturday, February 27, 2016
There are times when you want more than anything to go off on the equivalent of a camping trip with you and your components parts. Mountains or country setting will do, seaside is even better, but at such times, you'll settle for your studio, possibly your bed, possibly the corner reading chair.
At such times, although music would not be unwelcome, it is not necessary, nor would a novel or story by one of your favorite writers be a requirement, although, once again, you would not mind, The key for dealing with such times is to experience the presence of as much of you as possible, to acknowledge the entire you, allowing it to seep through you.
There are also times when you want more than anything to be alone with the current project, the vision that has come to you, day or night, which you then attempt to attract toward you in order that you might experience it, merge with it, exchange ideas with it.
Such times are memorable for the joys and insights inherent in the connection. This is among the best moments of being. These moments are celebrations of yourself and the equivalent of the paper gliders and model airplanes you constructed as a boy to send forth into the world.
There are also times when you enjoy the classroom sense of becoming lost in the subject you are teaching, finding an energy of enthusiasm for and connection with the material at hand. At such moments, you are indeed the product of all your composite selves, made somehow more accessible because of your regard for the subject.
You are you, but you are also at the same time the subject. At such moments of the subject and the object becoming one, there is some possibility that you can pass along the techniques for storytelling you've worked so hard to achieve, page after page, deletion after deletion. Even more, you are aware of sharing the material, sending it forth as more than bundles of information, rather instead as clumps of dramatic data. This is sharing at its best.
Over the years, you've worked to bring speaking and writing together so that you speak as you write and write as you speak, Similarly, you try to capture that sense of sharing with a class, incorporating it into something you've written so that the reader catches more than mere information, in fact links the enthusiasm and devotion with the information. You are thus sharing more than yourself, you are offering and sharing yourself as transformed by your appreciation of the material.
And of course there are times when you wish to be out among your brother and sister humans, watching them, listening to them, taking in something you've often tended to take for granted, the sheer joy of celebrating the species of which you are apart, the river and ocean of which you are a drop.
There are times when you are the windshield, other times when you are the bug. The car is moving across a stretch of terrain or it is standing still. You are there, a part of it, impacting it or being squashed by it as you have impacted before and been squashed before. Being in any of these times, whether wanting the solace of yourself or the windshield of the witness, has no connection with passivity. All these things are difficult. You have spent years investigating the techniques by which you can become one with yourself during these moments.
When you can achieve any of these states, you experience a complex cocktail of feeling, layered with grief, nostalgia, elation, curiosity, thigh-slapping amazement. Times when you thought you were happy pale in comparison to your experience of these states.
You are often at work or thinking about work when these times come to you, beckoning to you as the Sirens did to Odysseus's sailors, making their way back home.
Friday, February 26, 2016
As you make your way along the path you hope will lead you to a greater fulfillment of your literary goals, you find yourself hearing the voice of the admirable Lawrence "Yogi" Berra, reminding you as only he can, "when you come to a fork in the road, take it."
For you, the fork has always been pulpy, action-driven material, and the more literary and choice-oriented character-driven material known as literary. The biggest obstacle to overcome was thinking you had to take one path, then hew to it. The take-away for you was the discovery that which ever of those you chose at the time was resoundingly uninteresting after you'd completed a draft.
Your solution became a mash-up of the two, thus literary and philosophical aspects finding their way into your pulp material and of your more thoughtful pieces being set in landscapes reminicent of films that have been variously called noir, B-movie, and thriller.
This seems to express what the inner you wants, incorporating the exaggeratedly dark voices of yourself who can be relied upon to say something of a critical, uncomplimentary nature about your work into the mischievous notion of being able to laugh the uncomplimentary down.
Along the way, you've found solace and inspiration in the diversified company of such as Sisyphus, Captain Ahab, Ishmael, Wile E. Coyote, and King Creon's niece, Antigone. To be sure, there are others of a similar ilk, not the least of whom is the lead character in Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts.
Each of these, and many other pestered, beleagured characters you've encountered who resemble them, has a well-established relationship with Reality to the point of inventing some working philosophy that will allow them to continue functioning in spite of a great and gnawing disappointment, waiting to jump out of the bushes and mug them for their spare change.
What do they--and you--mean by "functioning"? They and you mean working best at a level of near obsession, having some goal or dream that seems to defy the ability to realize its reach, driving them even more to try.
For such individuals, the fork in the road, whatever its actual manifestation, may be seen by the reader as a primer for behavior. The reader will surely have come to numerous forks in the road by the time of reading a specific text and may well have come to that text with the hope of learning some technique or posture from which to concoct a strategy.
You recognize a fork in the road when you see it. The major choices you've had to make relate to the double-down approach. Mark Twain said of it, "Put all your eggs in one basket, then watch that basket." Through the accident of having been at what turned out to be the right place at the right time, you accepted the need to put longer composition on hold while pursuing two occupations you thought of as distractions. In time, you learned differently, entering your mid thirties with just enough time and effort put into edition to see it as an ongoing force in your life.
No sooner had you begun to accept the force and promise of editing when it led you into what seemed yet another distraction,teaching. Perhaps ten years were needed for you to see how these two distractions could lead you back to your original goal with a more comprehensive toolkit than you'd ever had.When you saw how the distractions of editing and teaching had not been the distractions you feared and supposed, a great weight lifted from you.
The weight had to do with your concerns about success, which further investigation convinced you had a greater association with finances that you'd supposed. The greater importance was your awareness that the greater payoff was the awareness that editing and teaching were not distractions, not for you, not for the characters who seem to present themselves to you, asking you for help in self-articulation. What, after all, is editing and teaching but opinionated guidance in self-articulation?
Thursday, February 25, 2016
Among persons you know who have participated in writers' conferences over the years, there is the recognition that the two most prominent questions from the students are (1) Where do you [established writers] get your ideas? and (2) How do I secure the services of a literary agent?
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
In the process of going through your notes in search of thematic materials, you are bound to note how recurrent themes have possessed you, which is a diplomatic way of saying you note repetitions,itself a milder form of the more direct assessment of repetitious.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
You know this much is true: When you consult a work of nonfiction, you are reading for information that will allow you to be a better participant in conversations with friends, associates, students, and yes, even complete strangers.
Monday, February 22, 2016
You've given the various identifiable aspects of your personality general names, ones that define the essential quality such as The Grouch, The Internal Editor, The Romanticist, The Skeptic, and yes, there is a Polyanna in there, if only to offset The Grouch and the Skeptic. To give them more personalized names such as Ron or Bill or Fred would undercut their purpose, which is keep you involved in life and living as an individual.
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Living in the past has some notable disadvantages for real-time individuals and characters from stories and novels. You've been around long enough to be able to provide a considerable laundry list of the disadvantages. Thus experienced and with a working plan to stay as much in the present moment as possible, you admit to having some record of past history you can consult for the retrieval of useful information.
Saturday, February 20, 2016
DISCLOSURE: Your favorite approach for narrating a novel is the multiple point of view, where the dramatic information is variously presented or challenged by more than one narrator. This was not an approach you discovered from your own use of it, rather through reading the works of others, probably starting with your discovery of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.
Multiple point of view was later called to your attention in more recent times by the quintessential commercial writer, Day Keene, from whom you learned so much about writing, including the thing Keene could do so brilliantly and you could not do at all.
This was the matter of plotting. Keene and Leonard Tourney, another writer you've known and even co-hosted writing workshops with, seem to be able to wake up in the morning with, a fresh plot in mind, the energy and discipline to see the plot through to completion.Them but by no means you.
This reminds you of a story you heard about the lyric giant of the tenor saxophone, John Coltrane, when he was a part of the Miles Davis Quintet. Coltrane complained to Davis about not knowing how to end his solos, which tended to border on epic constructions. "Simple," Davis said. "Take the saxophone out of your mouth."
Whenever Day Keen spoke, he seemed gruff, but most of the time was not. In poker games, for instance, when the game was draw poker and most players said to the dealer, "One card," or "I'll take two," Keene would turn it into a question. "Are you going to give me two cards?" If he had a particularly good hand, he might even say, "How'd you like to give me two cards?"
"Multiple point of view will get you over the can't-fucking-plot problem, all right. When you have a group of characters, each of whom believes he [or she] is right, you've got a plot on the way. All you have to do is have them argue their way into it."
Another writer from the Florida Mafia, whom you read but never met, was John D. McDonald. Before he found his way into his legendary Travis McGee series, which was told entirely by one character, in first-person narrative, McDonald wrote many of his paperback original thrillers using the multiple narrator filter.
"Here," Day Keen said, before the poker game began one week, tossing you a copy of McDonald's latest, called The Damned."Everything you need to know is there. A bunch of people want the same thing, recognize there are others who want it, but don't trust them."
Keene was also the reason you began writing a novel a month,thinking there were perhaps other such secrets to be had from the simple notion of picking a set of characters who went after something, found the going tough, and in their frustration, began throwing rocks at one another.
At the time you were engaged in this sort of activity, you were discovering a number of estimable first-person narratives, not surprisingly developing a fondness for the novels of Raymond Chandler. The more of him you read, the more you became aware of that singularly resonant quality shared by most of the writers you admired. That quality is best seen as voice, the narrative tone or, better still, the personality of the story and the individuals within it. Thus settled in on voice, you were able to go back in time, so to speak, therein to read a writer you'd managed to avoid throughout your time at the university.
Henry James had, in addition to being admired by the sorts of individuals you longingly hoped for as readers, a tone you found irritating in the extreme, yet could not set aside as unworthy of your time. This was because his narrative observations and some of the discourse among his characters seemed so true of individuals you'd have no means of observing if not for the social life James led and for the social lives he presented on his pages.
You rationalized your way into a deeper connection with James and some of his work by thinking of his novels as multiple point of view, including the authorial presence of Henry James. Your approach to Aldous Huxley was similar, although you'd begun an independent study of Huxley as an antidote to the Age of courses, as in The Age of Pope and Dryden, The Age of Milton, The Age of Hawthorne and Melville. By the time you'd gone through a number of Huxley novels, many of which were given the multiple point of view narrative filter, you'd become impatient with his voice to the point of parodying it in a midterm examination, which won you the admiration of the instructor's reader and then, the instructor.
In your self-designed mufti of your present state of enlightenment, you like to challenge your students with the questions, "Who's telling your story? and Why?" There has to be a dramatic reason, which is to say a reason directly related to story,for all the important elements. No reason, no admittance to the auditorium. Go back to The Damned, reread, and see if you can figure out the answer.
Friday, February 19, 2016
The vast galaxies of commercial and literary fiction are each populated with tales of individuals at some critical time in their life, encountering their doppleganger, or physical double. Another favored literary device is the meeting of twins, separated at birth, reunited by accident.
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Wednesday is the scheduled day for the course you teach in memoir writing, which brings persons with a different kind of urgency than the urgent agendas of individuals in your fiction writing class. You've brought both groups of students up to a satisfying level through your use of one of the oldest stratagems known to writers who have some experience in the teaching trenches.
The memoirist narrator tells the truth as the narrator experiences it. The narrator in memoir gets to say the one thing the fiction writer cannot say, "But it really happened that way."
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Among serious travelers, the conventional wisdom speaks toward traveling light, exemplified in its extreme avatar in suspense novelist Lee Childs' protagonist, Jack Reacher. In addition to the modest and comfortable clothing on his back, Reacher's accouterments are a tooth brush and a credit card. Most other travelers settle by degrees on back packs, carry-on bags, and those ubiquitous one- and two-suiter envelopes that fold in the middle, allowing a more comfortable transportation.
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
A successful story could be seen as a guided tour to a place not on any map, certainly not on a tourist map. The tourist guides would not direct you to places where you might shop for local treasures, nor would they warn you about pickpockets or tourist scams. Rather, they'd brief you on the life going on about you in such a way that you might consider coming back, even wanting to stay in this landscape for a year or two or forever.
You recall not only asking your parents about this enigma, you also recall this being one of the times they did not tell you you would understand when you grew older. True enough, this was not an insight you gained with age.
Monday, February 15, 2016
One sure-fire way to tell if you've enjoyed a work by an author unknown to you is to find yourself eager to write something in the same genre. You went through your immersion into science fiction and its adjuncts from about the early 1950s (when, among other things, your Christmas vacation job was delivering mail to Ray Bradbury) until the early 1970s, a chunk of time when you read copiously in the genre. You also found yourself in a fast editor-writer friendship with the amazing science fiction writer, William F. Nolan.
Nolan had top-notch writers as friends. Conversation between writer and editor often produces results neither expected. In the case of Nolan, there was a series of science-fiction anthologies, finding their way between biographies and mysteries.
Until the time you left Sherbourne Press, you kept current with science-fiction themes and writers, drifting away less because you'd lost interest in science-fiction than because you were growing into other interests and directions in which your own writing was taking you.
To prove you still had a hankering for science-fiction, particularly the sub-genre of the alternate universe, you became aware of, then a reader of The Golden Compass Trilogy of Philip Pullman, in the most dramatic sense dropping everything to devour all three novels, then reread them, then outline an alternate universe novel of your own, based on a significant part of your life, which was teaching at the graduate-level Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.
Alternate universe, as a genre and a concept interested you and still informs your philosophy. In the simplest of terms, alternate universe posits a world much like our own, with certain recognizable differences. In Pullman's novels, all characters had familiars, animals that followed them about, doing their bidding or watching over them. These familiars were as unlike pets as dramatic convention would allow, engaging from time to time in spoken or telepathic communication with their humans.
The Pullman novels were set at a fictional college at Oxford University, which gave you your own setting. You moved the location of the Professional Writing Program from its actual setting in Mark Taper Hall to the older, more ornate Doheney Library, one of your favorite buildings at USC, one in which you were always making discoveries. The new departmental offices were up on the third floor, accessed by stairways which were difficult to find which, throughout all your years of using that library, always had you getting off at the wrong floor.
The library also had a bank of elevators which reminded you of some of the elevators of your youthful trips with your mother to older department stores in downtown Los Angeles.
To this day, the elevators in the Doheney Library creak and groan, as though someone in a nearby hidden compartment is suffering either from a bad dream or an overworked conscience. This building, named after one of the architects of the so-called Teapot Dome Scandal, seemed an ideal place for your alternate universe.
To the extent that you'd outlined your alternate universe novel, graduate students were disappearing from the Writing Program and the Anthropology Department. An individual based on a mash-up of a dean you knew, a department chairman you had issues with, and a fellow faculty member, became the antagonist, the chair of the English Department.
His hidden agenda was to drive the Writing Program out of the university, and to keep the missing graduate students in remote barracks, where they would lead lives similar to indentured workers in China, working for a system that was remarkably prescient in its portrayal of an Amazon-like venture providing text books and an Internet version of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
From time to time, you look at your notes and the opening chapter, reaffirming the project as one for your personal bucket list. In the ten or more years since that flirtation with alternate universes, you've added the Alternate Universe novel to your active vocabulary for your own use and in the classroom, where you confront and, it is to be hoped, encourage students who wish to expand their own sense of story.
True enough, you tell these students, all novels are mysteries. True enough, the mystery is the ideal form for a novel because it presents a complex puzzle which provides an extreme and exquisite existential problem for one or more protagonists, its focus tethered to the unraveling of the puzzle of who done it, and how do we bring him, her, perhaps them, to justice.
True enough as well, all novels are alternate universe novels, presenting imaginary settings populated with imaginary people, or settings which claim to be Seattle or New York or Portland or Los Angeles, but a different Seattle or New York or Portland or Los Angeles other than the cities of the same name in already published mystery novels. An individual whose family roots are, for example, in Korea, and who now lives in Los Angeles, would write a different mystery set in Los Angeles than Raymond Chandler did.
Hardcover novels now sell for upwards of $26; many of the novels on the new Penguin list are marked at $28. If someone is going to spend that much on a book, they should certainly get a complex existential puzzle and an alternate universe, both of these factors being in their essential natures an extension of the writer's voice. There are too many gifted writers out there with intriguing, articulate voices for you, your students, or any other writer to think they can get by with ordinary or derivative voices and alternate universes.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Your first introduction to the works of Franz Kafka was, unfortunately, not of your own doing, rather by readings about him and the inferences from teachers that he was a conspiracy theorist or, worse yet, probably paranoid.
Saturday, February 13, 2016
The moment a lead character achieves a stated goal, the story begins a downward spiral to the payoff. This leaves us with one or two dramatic choices, such as having the character discover the goal before our reader eyes or composing the story with the condition already established wherein the character knows.
In withholding on the delivery of a character reaching a stated goal, the writer increases the chances he or she will go far enough beyond where no writer has gone before to reach the graceful agony of such wrenching works as Of Mice and Men, or My Antonia, achieving in the journey an expansion of the vast sea of space that is the human condition, then reporting back on it for the rest of us to see.
Friday, February 12, 2016
When you settle on the beginning of a composition, fiction or nonfiction, your intent is to put characters and/or ideas into some tumble of intriguing outcome. In subsequent paragraphs, as the tumble accelerates, your intent is as likely to change as the increased momentum and direction of the characters and/or ideas.
You intend to make a wrong turn somewhere, find yourself lost, then consult your inner resources for the dramatic equivalent of a GPA, to guide you to some destination where you will have some question. Now, why didn't I see that? Or perhaps, Is there a destination I'm missing? And what about this: Is there a way I could have got closer?