Monday, February 29, 2016

"Say, Didn't You Used to Be What's His Name?

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.

In past events, you were not so much mistaken but approached because you so reminded someone, in gesture, voice, and appearance, of her late father. The daughter-in-law of a noted actor, who was now deceased, gasped  at the similarity when she first saw you. A number of individuals have mistaken you for favored authors. In one amusing incident, a man verged on an argument with his wife because of his insistence that you were an old schoolmate of his. You were not.

But so it goes, coming as a surprise whenever it happens because you do not set out to look or behave like anyone other than yourself except for the times when you are doing so in a context designed to demonstrate your abilities at mimicry.  It also goes that you do not object to being mistaken for another for at least two salient reasons: (1)You take seriously the need to create individuals who differ markedly from you in all aspects, height, weight, age, gender, nationality, and certainly in political and philosophical visions. (2) You take seriously the construct that there is more than one aspect of you, running about inside of you, trying to make not only sense but art and commentary on this experience we call life.

One of your dearest friends, a splendid writer, actor, and polymath, was a roommate at one time in the early days of his career, with the actor, Anthony Newley. Between the two of them, there was one good suit, which they took great pains to keep clean, neat, pressed, to be worn for auditions. They were in substantial agreement about the priority to keep the suit in good health. The part you like best about the story is that both agreed that the suit should be used only for business,not for dates,

You appreciate the story because of the times when your finances were best expressed either with red ink or minus signs, where you were afraid to check your bank balance or, even worse, your prospects for being paid for anything. 

You can see the multiple aspects of yourself, having the equivalent of that suit, which was a manifestation of equipment, to be used only for the serious business of presenting yourself as a professional. No matter that there were times when you actually showed up in a suit, only to face a producer or publisher or editorial client clad in jeans with torn knees and tennis shoes with glum countenances.

No matter that there were (and are) times when the aspect of you most likely to sit in the director's chair is out in the kitchen, making some elaborate sandwich that requires eating over the sink, and some aspect of you decides to see what it is like to sit in the director's chair. There are moments when you feel like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, sure you know how to make the magic begin but, alas, not yet schooled in effective ways to shut it down for the night.

There are times when that aspect of you is in the process of reading something and is weakened by the effects and technique of the material to the point where he is not ready to make command decisions. Some other component of you, thinking to show bravery or perhaps show off some originality, takes control, orchestrating aspects of you you'd long ago decided need some additional schooling, but you'd never got around to providing that schooling.

The man seated at the adjoining table, wearing a natty black Fedora from under which tumbled long blond locks, wanted to know in how many episodes of the iconic Western TV drama, Gunsmoke,  you'd appeared. He was serious, and from his seriousness, you were able to tell which of the actors he mistook you for.

You were impressed with the fact that the man in the Fedora did not, with remarkable politeness and charm, interrupt your meeting conversations until you'd begun speaking. Actors and characters do express themselves through dialogue and action as well as through a conspicuous lack of dialogue and activity. These are things for an actor to learn but these are by no means inappropriate tools for a writer.

Given your teaching schedule and your out-in-the-world schedules, you value silent time as well as talking time. But even in your silent times, which on good days can last for eight or ten hours, you are aware of the aspects of you, conversing or not conversing, arguing or not, propagandizing one another to secure the kinds of coalitions you read about in countries with more than two political parties.

You are silent but you are argumentative, a used-car salesperson, reminding yourself of those wonderful photographs of Lyndon Johnson, when he was Senate Majority Leader, trying to sweet talk some implacable foe into however brief an accommodation. You see yourself as able to rule these components of yourself with conversation and persuasive logic and an open willingness to hear the other individual out, all this rather than controlling the components with stratagems of fear.

But how nice to be recognized for the you who sits in the director's chair much of the time.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Irritation vs Mischief

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

Work in Progress

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

Questions, Always with the Questions

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? 

Any given writers' conference is not truly over until one or both has been asked at least once. Sometimes, a conference is noted for its appeal to the true beginner when these questions are repeated numerous times.

You like to think you never asked those questions when you were a few degrees back on the learning curve. In all probability, you were right, because you had so many other questions related to choices and craft that a source for ideas and the representation of agents was the least of your worries.

The questions related to how you were going to wrap your mind around a way (or ways) to implement an idea you had buzzing about you like a mosquito in search of her evening meal. Who, then, is telling the story? That seemed easy enough at first; an I or a She or a He. If you were into something longer, you could even make it a they, as in multiple point-of-view.

What was harder come by was the answer to the next question, Why?  Why that character (or those characters)? Learning that answer came only after you'd yanked untold numbers of pages from the typewriter. Like all such technique- and craft-related answers, there were special cases, by which you include the additional time for you to slough through the times when all your approaches were special cases, meaning there was more to consider, more to understand. 

Things are a tad easier now because of the convenience of the delete key on your computer, but some sixth or seventh sense appears to talk to you from time to time, suggesting you write pages in longhand on a notepad until you're on firmer ground in your answer to the Who? and your greater certainty of the Why? 

You last read Moby-Dick about five years ago; you will surely read it again. But you think of it with great regularity as a reminder for the Who? and Why? Ishmael is the first-person narrator because he is the only survivor of the crew of the Pequod and, accordingly, of the entire novel.  The author wanted a survivor to tell the tale. To get you, previous, and subsequent readers literally and figuratively on board, he gave you a character who was vulnerable. When the world was too much with him, Ishmael took himself to sea. This one time, when he took himself to sea, he signed on a ship captained by a megalomaniac.

Reading for pleasure has come to mean reading novels past and current to see how others have accomplished the goal of transferring the idea to the form. Only a small part of you reads to see how well the protagonist made out. 

The major part of you is looking to see if there could have been better narrative filters for relaying the idea into the reader's imagination, and a significant part is also looking for possible hand-offs, such as Valerie Martin's retelling of the Jekyll-Hyde story through the point of view of an Irish immigrant maid, or of Cynthia Ozick's brilliant take off on the Henry James novel you tend to like above most others (except maybe What Maisie Knew).

Other questions abide, such as What will the characters do, after you've wound them up and set them loose?Have you stressed them enough, driven them up an unsteady-enough tree, then proceeded to throw the rocks of circumstance at them? How do you use the language to convey that most shadowy of all qualities, verisimilitude, the apparent sense of reality that causes the readers, once and for all, to stop thinking goose bumps, and then actually begin to notice them appearing on their skin? Is it through the spare narrative of Hemingway and Raymond Carver, or the mischievous wit of Dorothy Parker or Cynthia Ozick? And was there ever anyone better than describing a river than Mark Twain or the wavy rustle of prairie grass than Willa Cather?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

In the Land of the Flawed, the Unreliable Narrator Is King

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.

Not all repetition is bad, even though it becomes arguable that such a statement is also an exercise in diplomacy on the grounds that repetition is what it claims to be, restating an opinion with the potential danger that enough repetitions will make the opinion a fact. 

In mitigation, Musicians practice on their instrument, artists practice drawing or sketching, dancers practice steps or routines, all with the goal of developing the necessary muscle memory for improved technique. 

With your repetitions as a metric, the subject of the unreliable narrator makes a significant presence, your concerns ranging from basic definitions to the more nuanced assertion that all narrators are to some degree unreliable, and your subsequent attempts to define some guidelines for assessing where those boundaries begin and end.  When, for instance, is a narrator reliable? At what point does the reliability lose its moorings, then begin a drift toward unreliability?

You can't stay with that line of thinking for too long without turning the light of inquiry on yourself, particularly since other of your thematic concerns lean heavily toward self-reliance, ongoing exercising of your interior monologue voice and its external manifestation, your narrative voice. 

You believe you've spent as much time and effort with concerns to your inner and narrative voice as you have with reliability of narration, likely even more since your own preference for the topmost narrative quality is voice.

Recent lectures on reliable narrative voice to writing and literature classes have doubtless kept the subject close to your awareness. No wonder then your recent inventory: Do you speak the way you write? And, do you write the way you speak?  Your present goal is to be able to say yes to both with honest certainty.

This leaves the door open for the next round of related questions:  Are you a reliable narrator? On a scale of one to ten with one being the least reliable, how reliable are you? A voice asks you if you expect an honest answer to that question, another voice yet asks you if you're fucking kidding. 

Regardless of the implications, you're pretty much committed to this binary.  Nevertheless, yes; you do expect an honest answer, and no, you are not fucking kidding; this is a serious business.

Another repetitive element among your written notes and these blog speculations is the awareness that being serious about something is a language of its own, with potentials for uncertainty and/or bullying. In your experience, seriousness is often a warning symptom of either pomposity or defensiveness, neither of which--again, your experience--is as compelling as humor, preferably deadpan.

You are only in recent years able to maintain deadpan for a respectable length of time, in effect undercutting the effect you'd hope to leave in a conversation, argument, or composition. This ability comes with the reassignment of the victim of the humor to you. 

This ability is of value and concern to you; without it, you emerge as subordinate to the intended effect, which is thoughtful consideration after the listener/reader has entertained the release of laughter, then moved on to see the intent behind the humor. You do not wish to appear to be laughing at your own joke, rather to be bewildered by it. Did you say that? Mean that?

By this roundabout approach, you reckon how laughing at your own joke robs you of the effect you'd hoped to convey as the storyteller, the effect of storyteller as victim,  If you are laughed at or with, sooner or later the reader/listener will recognize his or her own vulnerability and accountability.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Ledges and Borders: Dramatic Jumping-off Places

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.

When you read fiction, you are looking for ways to validate one or more of your feelings as they relate to existential matters, justifications, as it were, of how you actually behaved in similar situations, how you would hope to behave were you to be involved in excruciating situations, what you would hope to carry away from intense existential situations.

In each case, nonfiction or pure invention, you are looking for useful information to guide you on some chosen path, where factual and emotional information will help forge you into a closer approximation of the person you are in constant hope of becoming.  

When you write nonfiction, you are attempting to connect disparate sources of information, with the result of enhancing your sense of the intense interconnectedness of animate and inanimate things.

When you write fiction, you are placing yourself on ledges and borders from which you would probably not dare leap in real time.  You are manipulating an incessant and shapeless progression of event that may have some form of inertia but at the cost of having no volition or agenda. 

You are the product of forebears who responded with suspicion to a rustling in the tall grass and who often would rather go hungry than take a chance on the fungi you've come to regard as mushrooms.You appreciate the surge of adrenaline behind the stimulus of a conspiracy theory, even as you recognize the intellectual properties resident in a suspicion of a person, place, or thing meaning to cause you some harm from which you may not recover.

You are used to being vulnerable, helpless, bored, frightened. At times even worse, you are aware of situations and circumstances for which you have less understanding than you have a wary suspicion. You are aware that writing nonfiction and, when appropriate, fiction, are mechanisms for investigating your hard-wired and hard-won survival instincts. With these tools, you are more inclined to take risks than to seek the less perilous paths of safety.

In a broader sense, you are constant in your questioning of the information you receive and the sources from which you receive it. When you read the fiction of others, you have the option of questioning the outcomes of the writers' scenarios. When you write fiction, you have the option of staying on safe paths, but the increasing awareness of dissatisfaction when you discover you have done so.

From time to time, you are struck by the irony of how questioning received information first presents itself to you as disorienting before it reveals the greater fact of your preference for the comfort of doubt. The similar irony from fiction leaves you doubtful of self and lonely.

Perhaps it is too soon in the process to acknowledge that you are driven to confront your own conspiracy theories, recognize their presence, and find comfort in them rather than the agitation and despair resident in the received conspiracy theories of your culture. Like the more fully characters you hope to realize in your own work, there is no comfort. The moment there is comfort, the story stops.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Coffee with the Gang

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.

These component parts have a pretty good life. Since you've become aware of them, you try to find a place at the table for them, letting them work out who sits where and who has to do the dishes. 

You know enough to send the Internal Editor out on some chore when you're able to find the time to do your own writing or edit the work of a client. He can say anything he wants after you've finished working.

Whenever The Interior Editor teams up with the Skeptic or the Cynic, you're reminded of movies with scenes set in pubs, where the carousers team up for a time before turning on one another over some trivial argument, or their schoolyard bully tactics of taking on The Romanticist  or The Idealist. You do try to get those two to stay out of dive bars, but they're well past the legal age and so they can do as they please.

The only time you have the right to tell any or all of them to shut up is if you sense there is some impending decision you need to make with all your wits about you, and yet, all your wits would include that aspect of you known as The Scammer or The Con Artist. When things get tough, you may need some input from them as well as from the more civil and social of your component parts.

A matter of concern at present is the effect the various presidential campaigns are having on your component parts. In almost all of the candidates, you recognize personalities similar to your component parts. You've managed to keep all the voices from shouting at one another or turning on The Moderator, whose job it is to keep all of us agreed on such major agendas as keeping a roof over our head, keeping us well fed, reading from significant and varfied sources, listening to music, and spending quality time with our goal of producing keepable pages with some substance.

But with so much choler and improvised information floating about, you have some reason to worry that the more volatile and blustery in your midst will want more than a few moments to explain his position, will in effect wish to lead us into some behavior that many of us will have cause to regret later on.

Earlier today, you noticed a few huddled figures lurking about within the shadows. You made coffee and some snacks, then gave them a few moments to speak their mind. The risk is always present in such circumstances that you will have one more aspect of yourself to reckon with, even if doing so opens the door for you seeing a new character or character type, suitable for a story of his or her own.

No real surprises; you learned The Impatient One had a considerable list to read. You learned that you have not always been as honest as you wish, although to your pleasant surprise, The Referee came in and said in no uncertain terms that you'd set off on a pretty good run of honesty. 

Smelling the coffee, The Internal Editor stopped by, wondering if you were aware your essay on Kafka's Metamorphosis was not by any means completed, although you said it was nearly completed. Internal Editors love the last word, so yours couldn't resist reminding you that there was a direct connection between Gregor Samsa from the Kafka and Philip Roth's notorious protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, whose complaint energized and disturbed so many readers.

The Editor has made an interesting point, but you can't let him see he has slipped one past you. For a moment, all of you sip coffee in thoughtful silence. You look at those who've joined in. Some are old friends, others, by their very nature, not what you'd call friend so much as how you've come to think of them: component parts. Without any one of them, you are not you. Best to keep them all close, have plenty of ground coffee in the freezer, ready for a gathering.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

All Forked up

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.

In a matter of days, you'll have completed your ninth year of occupancy at this blog site, itself a step forward from a history of keeping some sort of record since you were in your early twenties. This record, as you recall it, began in a datebook, with hourly indications for appointments, more or less squashing your entries into diary form rather than a true journal.  

In a real sense, you've learned to move from the ultra specific datebook entry--Lunch with Fred--to the rants and reaching of late twenties, into job- and relation-related reflections, the relations running the gamut from girlfriends and work mates to such existential matters as who you wish to be when you grow up, when and whether you will grow up, and what your stand on a philosophical or existential issue might be.

Not until you reached your mid-forties, more or less the time you'd left Los Angeles for a move some ninety-five miles north, did you become aware of reaching a fork in the road, which seemed more out of the opening of Dante than you'd imagined. At about this time--mid forties--and for no reason you can now identify with certainty, you've become aware that there is a considerable you of the past you could look back upon.

You continue with the belief that there are some books you wish to reread, some places you'd like to revisit--Virginia City, Nevada, for instance--some old friends you'd like to look up, and a few drive-by ventures in places where you were young, variously bored, angry, intimidated, and frustrated. There are, so far as you can see, no debts to be repaid, no accounts to settle, no forgiveness to seek or extend, merely actions which are variations on a theme of nostalgia.

To the extent that you have regrets about the past, you do not think any of them remarkable; they are regrets for having said too much or too little, even more so, for not having learned anything from experiences, much less learned a considerable amount.

To the extent that you have the equivalent of a scout, out in the future, checking the terrain, you have hopes for learning, for understanding things you wish were more clear to you, and for experiencing things in the now in ways that will not give you future regrets for things said or unsaid, for things learned or not learned. Thus your personal calculus becomes contingent upon the quality you learn from reading, rereading, and current activities, that precise quality being restraint.

In most things, you are not restrained; you are exuberant, perhaps timid, perhaps a touch too aggressive. You are all these things at once, except in your composition, wherein you attempt the restraint of too many adjectives and adverbs, yet still using enough verbs and events so that you are not withholding material either painful to you or difficult to process, neither too defensive nor too self-aggrandizing. 

Lest this seem like a desire to hide in the middle, your statement of intent here is to become adept at honing the edge of the storyteller whose message is emphatic satire to those who see it as such, but emphatic reporting for those who see it in those terms.

Somewhere in this mid-forties to early fifties time, you came upon the view of Self as a cadre of personalities which you took great joy in likening to an Italian parliament. You began to see your emerging self as an aggregate of the progressive, the conservative, the stubborn, the intransigent, the frightened, the overly critical and the what-difference-does-it-make-we're all-going-to-die-anyway cynic, presided over most of the time by the only you of which you were aware during those earlier times.

Even now, you attempt to govern yourself by an equivalent of Roberts' Rules of Order, hopeful the you who is the chairperson has developed enough patience, restraint, and vision to inspire respect even from the likes of the Inner Critic, as in You call that writing?

That multitude of political parties and agendas within you has extended, with your growing awareness of self, well beyond a two-party system, into a vast demographic. At present moment, you're comfortable with the notion that they will all at least listen to you, and that you have at least enough of the gravitas of leadership to maintain orderly discourse.

Nevertheless, there remains the you before you became aware of this multiplicity and the you who seems more sure and certain with his awareness of it. The book in progress, The Hundred Novels You Need to Read before You Write Your Own, brings you in frequent contact with that other, shall we say single-minded, you. He was frightfully naive, slow to learn. But in mitigation, he had a number of things settled within that you're entirely comfortable with now.

You've at least one hundred reasons--the novels in the title--to look back on him, even though it is your good fortune to recall how some of those hundred titles were read for the first time within this century, indicating among other things your curiosity and interest in growing, the you of now hopeful still of learning the things you were not aware of then.

In the sense of not knowing, there is the old saw of Ignorance being bliss. Happy for you, you cannot say you were blissful then or now. Perhaps more restrained, perhaps less operatic wave-your-arms-about dramatic. Perhaps someone will get the joke without you having to explain. Perhaps they will laugh, joining you in your own laughter, which is, after all, a reflexive response to a sad, existential truth.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Persons of Interest: First and Multiple

 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

How to Recognize the You Who Rereads an Older Novel

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. 

Yet an other device exploratory of the self is the one so elegantly depicted by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the separate parts reside within the same individual. Seeming to spring directly from these popular themes is the one of an individual impersonating with some measure of success a long missing husband or wife.

A current project of yours, The Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own, has brought you in close contact with versions of yourself at various times in your life, brought to your attention with persistence because of your ongoing relationship with the hundred novels that made the cut from those additional novels you reckon to have some effect on your life.

You begin your discussion of each of these hundred novels with the time line of when they were published, a fact you list only for reference. But then you move into your state of awareness at your first meeting, an awareness that has already reminded you more than once of the you on a first date.

The opening to your discussion of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis beings; "The first time I read this novel, I was still at an age where I took things for granted, did not kick the tires or look under surfaces." Your discussion leads you through insightful individual discoveries, contributions to the writer you are (or are not) and by extension, the person you now are ) or are not). 

Your working approach to your discussions of these hundred novels is to stay with the conversation until you are now faced with your attraction for the book in question, but also the specific things you've learned to do or not to do when you engage the process of composition and the aftermath of composition, which is revision.

Keeping the Kafka as an example, you've likely read that title ten times since age fourteen or fifteen, moving from the you who tended to take things at face value, rather than looking at a story the way you do now, over half a century later. You see a kind of progress, the literary and emotional equivalents of scrunching yourself up against a door frame while your mother indicates your height and the date.

At one point, barely in your teens, you asked your mother why she did not do this with you and your sister, considering the number of individuals you knew whose parents performed this ritual. "We've moved too many times for that to have any meaning," your mother replied. If you'd thought the matter through, you'd have recognized that answer as probable and practical. The fact that you had to ask is of itself a measure of who you were then.

Having embarked on this process to the point where it is well along and you are in the process of learning a number of things from it, you have before you something of greater value than a few scribbled pencil marks on a door frame. 

You see in effect a time table of your growth from the point of gobbling story the way some individuals with chronic pain gobble opiates. You were, in fact, enduring the pains of boredom and the frustration of adult supervision.  Ah, at last free to stay up all night reading or writing or listening to music, you were able to take suggestions from men and women who'd put in their time, studying their craft and emerging with weighted opinions.

Time for you to see how you'd grown--or not, and how much more you still need to engage in order to, literally and figuratively, live with yourself.

One of the novels you've only made notes on, and have only read twice since its recent (2006) publication, is Richard Powers The Echo Maker, which goes among other places to the essence of the self and the individuals wandering about within a person. You were far enough along your chosen path to be impressed with the novel after the first read and to know of it that its inclusion would displace one or two others stories that were perhaps less taxing. This is the exact point of your book. By the time you;ll have reached it in its place in your outline, you'll be alive and alert with the excitement of rereading. For certain, the time is not all that long past when you'd have had difficulty staying with this novel, much less learning so much from it.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Dare to Recognize Your Inner Memoirist

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.

You think of your approach as a stratagem rather than a trick or ruse although you have to be careful because one of your students is in both classes. From the beginning, you direct your memoir students to consider their narratives as story, with goals of beginning, middle, and end, much of the material written in scene, presented with constant admonitions not to describe but instead try to evoke feelings and atmospheres.

The memoirists are writing about actual events and actual people, who have said things or left them unsaid, done things or left them undone, as seen from the lens of the first-person narrator about whom the memoir is woven. 

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." 

Your approach with the fiction writer is to urge the student to see their characters as individuals in a memoir. Even though they are inventing the characters and must be prepared to be surprised by them, the fiction writers must be convinced their characters are real, well-articulated individuals, with quirks, flaws, dreams, and prejudices. If they are writing about an event that actually happened to them, they cannot say, "But it really happened that way" as an excuse, if the reader says the event sounds phony.

Memoirists are urgent because of a fear they will not live long enough to finish or because of a fear they will somehow disappoint some family member or close person. Fiction writers are urgent because they want to have the experience of telling stories to strangers, having strangers believe the stories, and as a result think highly of the author's understanding nature.

You and many of those in your memoir writing class are of an age where you can be simultaneous memoirists and storytellers. You see yourself in formative situations and present-day circumstances, aware of the parallel lines of then and now, aware of the places where the lines diverge,

When you leave your lodgings for any time now, you invariably wear some garment with pockets to hold an assortment of fountain pens, note pads, reading glasses which, thanks to your cataract surgery, you often forget to use, and something to read. In addition, you have a breast-fold wallet, and your iPhone 6S. This is a significant load, but when you were still in single-digit age, your toolkit was every bit as ambitious. 

You had at least one stub of a Number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencil, a pocket knife to keep those stubs sharp, a Duncan yo-yo, a small notebook of your own construction, a book of matches, a small plastic magnifying glass (a prize from a box of Cracker-Jacks),a red spinning top and related string, one or two licorice cigarettes, and, if times were ripe, a remnant chunk of a Tootsie Roll. 

You had at least one marble with some exotic inner design, and at least one printed card picture of an airplane, a regular feature of Wings Cigarettes.
There was always the possibility that you carried as well the rolled-up remains of the tube of glue that came with the home-repair resoling kit, applied in desperate hope that your current pair of shoes would last a bit longer. You had a dark chocolate brown cardigan sweater with lighter  brown suede side panels, which you adored.

You ventured into the world on weekdays at about eight in the morning, wending your way to elementary school perhaps two miles away, then home, by as protracted a route as possible, by no means because you dreaded what awaited you at home, rather for the sake of adventure and discovery that might happen to come your way, which you could then make note of in the notebook you carried for such purposes.

The memoir version of you setting forth is not all that different from you setting out this morning to have coffee with your pal, Dan Van Hirtum, and the actor, Billy Baldwin. You are doubtless better versed in conversation now than you were then, to the point where potentials exist for adventure and discovery. When you finish your book on constructing characters for stories by using actors' techniques for enhancing their stage/screen presence, it will still be fun, you think, to have Billy supply the Introduction.

Your thoughts about the parallels between the you of memoir and the you who is out and about, teaching courses, planning bi-monthly seminars, and writing books, led you to consider your arrival at the school grounds most mornings in time to challenge the fifth grader Georgia, on whom you may have had a crush, to a round of tether ball.  This was well before the appearance in the world of Wile E. Coyote, and somehow you were not thinking in terms of humiliation when you challenged Georgia and she, without comment, beat you mercilessly, then walked off to her group of girlfriends without another look in your direction.

Until now, you never questioned the fact that she always accepted your invitation/request for a game. She could have easily said no or some schoolyard equivalent. Georgia never refused you, nor did you ever even approach scoring so much as one point against her. She was in the fifth grade, you in the third. Soon after the third grade was over for you, you got your wish for adventure and were whisked across the country to times of adventure and discovery. You were gone for five years, launched into middle school.

You looked to see if Georgia was there. Indeed, some of your classmates from elementary school were there, but you were five years out of sync with them and you were different. You never saw Georgia again, but you wondered as boys in fiction who have become different wonder.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Travelers and Baggage Handlers

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.

Some form of baggage is associated with most forms of travel. Only the rare traveler is as Spartan as Jack Reacher. Your own preferred model is the sort of carry-on complete with wheels and a handle, making it easy to maneuver wherever circumstances take it.  

Professional baggage handlers are as ubiquitous as baggage itself in air terminals, train stations, and to a lesser extent, bus terminals. These individuals are a part of a great, largely unnoticed network devoted to getting travelers' baggage on conveyances, where they will arrive at the travelers' chosen destination. 

Your interest in such baggage is minimal, where it will remain until and if your travel baggage should go missing, at which point, in spite of your present resolve to accept such misdirection as a cost of being a part of an enormous and highly mobile public, you feel the need to vent your spleen and the energy to do so.

The baggage of greater interest to you at the moment is of the emotional type, sometimes carried about by the individual from early years, occasioned by the forces that nurtured or failed to nurture them as they were growing forth from infancy. 

At this stage in your life, you've had contact with hundreds of dozens of individuals, thanks to your time in the trenches of being a teacher at universities and writers' conferences, leaving you with a wide display of types, attitudes, and agendas. All these have carried the emotional sorts of baggage about with them, causing some of them to behave in ways you had difficulty in fathoming.

You cannot in fact think of a single individual who is to emotional baggage as the young man you saw this morning, standing at a bus stop, clad in jeans, a t-shirt, and Chuck Taylor gym shoes. is to Jack Reacher and his toothbrush. This young man probably had a cell phone--everyone has a cell phone--but you were unable to see it. Baggage of this sort is a product of the human condition,wired into the human genome.

Somewhere along your own journey of self-discovery. you read and heard from instructor of the necessity to inflicting some significant flaw on your character creations, keeping Michael Henchard in mind and the amazing first chapter of The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which Henchard, already afflicted with the flaw of little or no self-control when in the company of booze, adds a significant load of one of the more popular significant flaws, guilt, to his dossier. You look for flaws in others characters and how their authors have nudged them through the process of overcoming them.

In addition, you look for revelations of flaws in your own characters, trying to show them enough friendship and respect to cause them to reveal their greater secrets to you. You become grateful when you've been confided in; now you have a greater sense of why the character adopts a particular type of attack or defense mechanism, thus you are on the way to becomming one of the great fraternity of baggage handlers in air ports, railroad stations, and hotels throughout your own travels.

Time was when you, a mere iron filing, were drawn toward the magnet of writing by the notion that it was a safe haven for you, who felt different from others. But somehow the equation became twisted; you used being a writer as a justification for being different, almost to the point off taking on differences to supply yourself with promotions along the writing curve.  

Soldiers rose from private to corporal to enhanced degrees of being a sergeant. You gave yourelf promotions not from publications or things learned from writing but rather from quirks and differences from a world you were seeing as "them," the world of civilians.

More recent times have caused you to see the matter differently. You have brothers and sisters not only as baggage handlers but as actors, dancers, photographers, wait persons, and the apparently gender specific cadre of garbage workers, men who drive huge trucks along assigned routes, picking up the contents of containers not unlike suitcases, with handles, wheels, and a generous capacity for contents.

When you were stepping into the streams of friends and relationships for the first time, you saw, were attracted to or repelled by individuals with similar issues as yours or conflicting issues. That was then. Now, instead of mere issues, there are children and grandchildren, sons- and daughters-in-law, and don't forget the ghosts, yours and theirs, the habits not yet worked into muscle memory, and the habits you likely could not change were you to wish to.

Friends and potential relationships come to you with baggage, and, now that you think about it, you've spent years of your life as baggage for others.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Fiction, the True Travel Writing of the Twenty-first Century

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.

If a successful story is not such a guided tour, you might well question the degree of success it has achieved or the memorable issues it has evoked through the ongoing clash of characters who are pursuing a path of interest. You might also compare it to guided tours of places you are tired of being guided to, which is to say it is a place on several maps, accessible with relentless ease.

It is safe for you to say your nomination for the worst possible tourist destination dates back to your early childhood, where Sunset Boulevard was littered with suspicious looking people, sitting under umbrellas or sunshades, selling maps to the homes of movie stars. 

Beyond the fact of knowing where most movie stars of the time lived and being singularly unimpressed with the knowledge, you were also pushed to the then limits of your understanding of the human condition with wondering why any adult would pay money for such maps, then drive about Beverly Hills or the outer reaches of the Hollywood Hills, looking for homes they could never hope to enter much less own.

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.

A close second to these destinations are to be found in full-page ads on the back cover of the AAA Auto Club magazine and the cruise advertisements in The New York Times. Somewhere among the thirty-two hundred fifty-odd postings for this blog, you stumbled across your awareness of the similarity between fiction writing and travel writing, including the high ends (rat tails of the bell curve) and low ends (also rat tails of the same bell curve) and the low.

Travel writing presents a place in a way that makes the traveler think, Yes, I've got to go there, to experience that place and those people and their culture.Fiction causes the reader to take the trip, perhaps unwillingly at first, then with a greater sense of this not having been a bad idea by any means. 

Good travel writing probably would not make you want to tour movie stars homes, but it has already given you an itch to explore Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, 'Denmark, and Norway, places known for many cultural features but also for the unrelenting cold.

Story has made you go to cold places in spite of your aversion, so why not entertain the thought of going in reality to places of top-notch travel writing. Travel writing has caused you to wish to return to Los Angeles, which for the most part has become a place you were eager to leave. 

Story, in similar fashion, has caused you to return to places you once visited and thought you'd had enough of. But something in the writer's voice or attitude, something int he characters and circumstances cause you to let down your guard, risking a return to a place that was, in your opinion, a tourist trap.

Only this evening, at Tuesday drinks, you spoke at length with someone who'd only yesterday returned from Denver. You've been to Denver on one or two occasions, not all that excited--a decent meal, a fine room at a fine hotel, another fine meal, but unless a writer of the stature of James Lee Burke or, say. Joyce Carol Oates, casts characters in Denver, forget it.

To your great surprise and pleasure, there was (still is) a feature in the Heard Museum of Anthropology in Phoenix that made a few ventures to that scabby and peeling city worthwhile. The joy there was the Barry Goldwater collection of Hopi kachina dolls. You would go back again to spend an afternoon in that glorious collection. Afterward is another matter.

The crux of travel writing is to cause you to visit a different kind of geography, the landscape of emotions, the terrain of the human heart in action. You have to be a good travel writer to get 
knowledgeable readers to sign on for such tours as those.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Alternate Universes and Mysteries, the Paradigms for Story

 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

When Conspiracy Theory Is out to Get You

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.

With equal misfortune, you bought into those inferences and implications, using one particular of his works, The Trial, to reinforce the notion of the world as conspiracy as though it were your own. The teen years are like that; anything related to authority seems more than oppressive, and by that time, the teen who was you was beginning to tire of authority to the point of being rebellious.

Perhaps if you'd come to Kafka on your own, which you well might have, you'd have been less likely to lose time seeing him as a dark, brooding conspiracy theorist and more a satirist of considerable ability. How interesting to note the ways in which you saw so much in your teens and twenties as dark, lugubrious, conspiratorial, and thus supportive of your rebelliousness.  Now? Why of course, you see much as a nimble movement along the borders of satire.

At one point, you viewed Sinclair Lewis as dark and brooding. You asked Conrad, who worked as his secretary for a time, if he could see the humor and satire in Lewis.  Conrad did say Lewis was a dark, brooding man, much given to excesses of alcohol, which he hoped would give him relief, but instead seemed to hone his satiric instincts to the point where he actually resented rather than sympathized with his characters. Carol Milford may have been the exception; Lewis may have become so enraged at Gopher Prairie that he began, in his misanthropic way, to root for her.

You'd indeed come upon Lewis on your own, thus your readings of him remained intact though rereading of your favorites, Elmer Gantry, Babbit, Main Street, and Dodsworth. These rereadings led you to see the close relations between conspiracy theory and satire, between suspicion and the mischievous rebelliousness of the satirical desire to topple pompous authority.

Conspiracy theory, in your reading of it,says in effect, "They're out to get you." The they can be translated as any established authority or tradition, but it can also apply to despots, tyrants, and the self-absorbed. Satire, in your reading, says, "We're out to get you," which is to say the writer, who has an on-going relationship with opposition, has despaired of conventional dialogue with the satrap and despot as well as the intransigent authority, has decided to take down the opposition through ridicule.

To be effective, ridicule and exaggeration must be practiced until the hand that produces them does not tremble while executing them, rather it seems to do little more than swat away an occasional fly of annoyance. Of your favored satirists, Twain, Evelyn Waugh, Lewis, Dorothy Parker, Eudora Welty, Cynthia Ozick,Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, these last two seem more able to maintain control throughout. 

Waugh is in top form with The Loved One, but its technique shows, the schoolboy nodding in recognition of his being up on his lessons. On the other hand, Brideshead Revisited is so restrained that it is not recognized as the satire it is. Lewis, so well known for Babbit, is not thought to be a satirist with the splendid execution of Main Street, and your least favorite of the top-tier Lewis, Arrowsmith, bristles with the itch of ridicule.

Huxley cannot help himself, his wit is so extensive that he must stop on occasion to explain it to us. Somehow, he found restraint in Antic Hay and After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, which stand out from his other works not at all in substance but in the production of two works that are yet more insidious because they do not call so much attention to themselves as satire.

How much better it is to have read something, all the while thinking of it as a mystery or adventure or highly personal investigation of a time and place, only to return to it, enjoy it again, then discover, as you did discover with Kafka's Metamorphosis, that it is a thigh-slapping take down you'd mistaken for conspiracy theory, which in turn led you to reconsider The Trial.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Goal Tending

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.

Some adjunct potentials are possible, such as another character announcing to the lead character, "With your abilities, you should devote the rest of your life to [fill in the blank]" and the character in reply informing the character (and us), "I only do that for fun. What I really want is [fill in the blank}." The narrative slight of hand here is to allow the reader to see what the character cannot, in combination with the character in pursuit of the wrong goal.

How delicious it is for the reader to be caught up in such conspiracy, having the choice of rooting for the character to succeed or fail, then experience the consequences of either along with the character. 

Beginning writers and, indeed, some well advance in their ability, often neglect this aspect, placing their own desires to write over the stated goal of the reader, which is to enter, then become engaged by a story.

You have to confess to this trait early on in your learning curve, aware to a degree of the reader, but more aware of your decision to take up the pen than to consider the fullest implications of what having pen in hand meant. 

You knew the reader had expectations, but these were abstractions in comparison to your own expectations, which centered on getting a character into a puzzle-like equivalent of Brer Fox's infamous Tar Baby device for rendering Brer Rabbit helpless.This stratagem centered on complexity and, much as you dislike the memory, cleverness instead of the acute reaches of moral choice.

In your reading of various novels and short stories, the goals of lead characters were weighted heavily toward some self-serving specific rather than some abstraction such as happiness, understanding, wisdom, or even those memorable desires from The Wizard of Oz, heart, brain, and courage. 

Thus even more memorable characters than Dorothy Gale wanted revenge (Ahab), freedom from oppressive conventions (Huck Finn, Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men), restoration of his good name (Ivanhoe),bringing to justice her father's killer (Mattie in True Grit.) And let's not forget Gatsby, wanting Daisy. Memorable characters also wanted things somewhat beyond their means or, in some cases beyond the boundaries of ethics, turning before our eyes from moderate acts of betrayal to more monumental examples of self-aggrandizement. 

As readers, we are drawn to such types, seemingly against our better nature, in the process made aware of our own agendas, much like neighbors fighting over incursions of easements or mistaken readings of boundary lines. Taking up the pen for our own compositions, we push our characters to the edges of our own boundary lines, then cringe when an editorial voice tells us we have not pushed quite far enough.

In an ironic turn of event, the sooner the major character achieves his or her stated goal, the less evident the trespass and the greater the writer's chances of remaining in the comfort zone of examining personal boundary lines. In the thematic statement preceding Star Trek episodes,Captain Kirk speaks of the  need "To boldly go where no man has gone before."

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

Intentions and Destinations

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.

The key here is intent, which is not only a force in its own right, intent is also the energy that got you into the first draft of the project and the sustained energy that motivated you through the completion of the first draft and the focus on the necessary subsequent ones. 

As a result, your method of working depends on the energy that got you started, the subsequent energy that kept you going, and the relationship between intent and energy that produces dramatic momentum.

A writer friend who was also an editor would ask you to read his longer works "for soft spots only," meaning no line edit, only a scene-by-scene sense of what you'd begun to think of as "inertia lag," places in a narrative where you as reader are no longer in the story and, thus accepting of its plausible validity. 

Sometimes a single word is enough to create a speed bump, an unnecessary or vague word that will remind the reader he was immersed in a story, but now, something is wrong, necessitating a question or a reread. On other occasions, what may have begun as a perfectly valid description or explanation of some vital concept will have gone on like the speaker at a dinner, introducing the main speaker.

These soft spots, speed bumps, and information dumps cause the reader to lurch right out of the story. An argument can be made for them having the same effect on the writer as well because in plain-to-see reality, they are descriptive information rather than dramatic information. 

The recent motion picture, The Big Short, achieves much of its dramatic impact because of the way it essentially dramatizes descriptive information, breaking the narrative into short scenes, each of which emphasizes an economics point, simultaneously showing us the characters who manipulate or become aware of the manipulations. At all times, story is alive, developing.

When you ask of a first-rank character, either as a reader or a writer, What does she want?, you are effectively pin-pointing intent. What a character wants may remain the same, but her intent to achieve the goal will have changed, grown more intense or perhaps devious.

When you are working on something, you have a multitude of intents, some of them as contentious as a family argument. You intend to find the true meaning of the story, which means you're sifting through information to get a solution to some moral or existential problem. 

You're looking for the attitude in the story, which will lead you to its payoff. You're looking for the intentions of the characters, which may be hidden from them, leading to a payoff for the reader, thus you intend to leave the reader with some take-away from the story, some feeling that will lead to future speculation and discovery.

Be it review, essay, short story, or novel, when you begin, you intend to become involved in a narrative with which you have curiosity but little or no familiarity. 

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?