Thursday, March 31, 2016

Dialogue: The Conversation You Don't Say

Conversation is the sound two or more individuals make when they are getting along or trawling for a subject to engage. Sometimes when you are in a stream of conversation, you become aware of the easygoing, floating sense of the transactions, which you then try to liven up as much as possible with specifics as opposed to generalities.  

A variation on the theme of conversation occurs when one or more parties in an ordinary conversation shifts into some role playing status such as trying to impress the others with acquired knowledge or with opinion disguised as inside information.

Beyond the desire to convey information of moderate importance, the basic intent of conversation is to pass time, to provide a sense of good fellowship, or, out of boredom, to initiate an argument.

Argument is often the result of conversation between disparate individuals or groups, where a neutral observer might in fact be able to identify two or more separate streams of conversation. These streams are growing heated because the participants rise to the occasion by  becoming more vocal and quite possibly defensive in the presentation of their major thesis. 

Alcohol is often a lubricant for argument, oiling the irony of the respective forces, who persist in their own theme with little or no regard for the thesis of the others in the conversation, in fact often demonstrating their scorn.

A variation on the theme of argument is internal within one individual, who is also proceeding in the belief she or he is presenting a binary from which a decision is to be made. Such arguments often end when the individual is in actuality winning the debate and, angered at the weight of the argument, says "Fuck it," then proceeds to do what he or she wished to do before the argument began.

There are two or three reasons for argument, one more often than not forgotten is to pass time at a more interesting pitch than the time passing related to conversation. Argument is also a convenient form of establishing social rank and dominance, of getting one's own way, and foreshadowing future agenda.

Dialogue is the sound of story, expressing its various perspectives through a combination of pressure or tipping points. The basic source of energy in story is the outcome of conflicting agendas. What better way to propel story toward some necessary combustion point, say the end of a scene or chapter, than one of the forms of conversation or argument listed above?

Ending a chapter with two characters who believe they are in agreement but who convey to the reader a completely different circumstance will create the dramatic equivalent of producing an unresolved series of notes in music. The reader, requiring resolution, begins the next scene or chapter, which the alert author will have then resolved while in the simultaneous act of working on another unresolved chord.

Whenever you think or speak of dialogue, you are at some effort to broadcast how unlike conversation it is. Dialogue is confrontation of story points, made to seem as though two or more principal characters are having a conversation. Well and good; story is not Reality, story is internal and external jousting of theme, plot, and character idiosyncrasy, each making statements which the others override in defense of their own agenda.

In your early twenties, when you began reading Dashiell Hammett, John O'Hara, and James M. Cain, you found ample occasions to copy passages of admired dialogue into the notebooks you began carrying with you in hopes of being able to fill them with something significant. You were entranced with their dialogue and how much dramatic energy there was in nearly every exchange between characters. You were so impressed that you began trying to use dialogue in Real Time Life, only to be met with stares of incomprehension. O'Hara came the closest to producing dialogue you could use as conversation.

More often than not, dialogue does not work in Real Life situations any more than conversation works in story. Argument becomes the safe position by default.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Seeing Is Believing

There is a part of you that wants tangible proof, requests sources, citations, and other assurances of stability. This aspect of you is rather proud of the number of times it checks facts considered unreliable, prefers to admit innocence or ignorance rather than to take as established fact something long since disemboweled on or some other equivalent of sensible peer review.

True enough, you spend a good deal of time under various conditions and circumstances, inhabiting your own world, trying to maintain an equable and collegial relationship with the outer world, the world of Reality. To accommodate this dual citizenship, you try to keep your inner world as aligned with and aware of the outer world of Reality as you possibly can, being aware of your quirks and predilections as well as those of Reality.

In other words, you are constrained by the subjectivity you try to nourish within yourself and the need to at least be indulgent with if not respectful of the world of outer Reality. 

Remains to be seen, Show me, and Seeing is believing are often not as cynical and entrenched in stubborn tradition as they may sound. Your years working for the entertainment side of the carnival has added to your understanding of how easy it is to manufacture an illusion. Only yesterday, you were revealing your pleasure in convincing people that your presumed knowledge was accurate, that  your information was sound.

You try most days to navigate that narrow cusp between the actual and the invented or the potential. Your attitude toward truth is neither cavalier nor overly compulsive, but with that said, you enjoy manufacturing alternate universes, based on the worlds and circumstances you see about you. With the best of intentions, you invite others to visit these alternate universes, which are often quite close to their Real Time counterparts. 

Thus the notion of parallelism reappears in your thoughts, bringing with it the notion that for you a narrative assumes its own reality when there is more than one dimension. Truth often raises issues of abstractions or relativity. Parallel lines help define the territory, one line being the present moment the other representing either the past, theme, or some kind of metaphor.

In a lovely kind of irony, you are blown apart by your own canon. Visions of potential story or essay come to you, not by any means as actual words, rather by visualizations of scenes or situations. The chores ahead of  you are multifarious: You must try to cast the concepts with believable characters, or with plausible interactions of logic. Then you must develop the concepts into story or to an essay rather than a mere ramble of sentences.

The Seeing is believing meme that in general causes you impatience now becomes a necessity. You must see the concept in order to make it a story or you must have some vision of the outcome if the material is to be an essay.

Even since some business or other had you involved in some meeting at a large, spacious tourist destination hotel along the beach front in Santa Barbara, you've devoted spare and focused moments to trying to turn a concept into a workable story. As you passed one of the many conference and meeting rooms, you noticed a group of about eight individuals, slightly more men than women, ranging in age from about late thirties to mid or late sixties. 

The apparent leader wore a suit, was presenting a power point display to his audience, all of whom seemed by appearance in clothing, posture, and degrees of concentration not to be the sorts of adults you'd associate with the expense of renting a conference room at such a hotel in such a city as Santa Barbara.
Even in passing, you could see one man had considerable tattoos on his arms; so did one of the women.

The man presenting the power point program appeared as close to your definition of business professional as any of the others, leading you first to curiosity, as in who were they? By now, your curiosity had hold of you, even though you had a meeting of your own to consider.

Who were these people?  By the time you'd arrived at your own destination, well beyond the vantage point where you could continue inspecting this group, you had the answer you required to cause you to want to capture your impression of these individuals in some narrative. You even knew the name of the man in the suit was Dennis because that's what your imagination told you his name was and you've come to have the kind of relationship with your imagination where, from time to time, you'll ask it if it's kidding. But mostly you believe what it tells you.

Of course you're used to transmitting the certainty that others will believe your imagination, because--well, because you've had experience propping up the foundations of that belief by studying the craft of storytelling but also by studying the craft of relating information counter to Real Time.

You want to convey the sense of these individuals as your imagination told you they were, which is to say they were bank robbers. You now have inherited their problems, which is how to rob the particular bank that was a part of Dennis' power point presentation.

They have in a sense inherited your problem, which is how to develop this vision of them, this concept, into your awareness of a complete story, without once telling the readers that they are bank robbers.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Parallel Lines: The Geometry of Story

 You'd not given much thought to parallel lines until you were forced to define what the term meant, then prove the lines were truly parallel. This came about in the eleventh grade, when you were introduced to geometry and an aspect of yourself you'd had some experience with but had not defined to your satisfaction.

By the time you'd reached grade eleven, the habit was already in place: If a question were raised by a teacher or, for that matter, any adult in authority, you'd volunteer an answer to that question, whether you had a rehearsed answer in mind or not. This is a euphemistic way of saying you were alert to answering questions, whether you knew their answer or not.

There is one more confessional detail at work here: Your answer might have been invented on the spot. It might have had a significant degree of accuracy, a modicum of it, or none at all. Much as you enjoyed having the right answer at hand or being able to make an intelligent guess at the answer, you also enjoyed being able to have your answer, however much it varied from the actual answer, taken as though it were accurate.

Back then, as well as now, the word "lie" as in untruth, did not enter the equation, rather the word fabrication, sometimes used as a euphemism for telling one or more lies, was your pole star, if not the teacher/adult to whom you were venturing your answer.

You did not at the time have the strength of sense that such fabrications were versions of play or build-up to what has become your career path choices. You were more interested in seeing to what degree your impromptu answers were challenged.

By the time you were confronted with the matter of parallel lines, your answer. which was you speaking spontaneously, posited parallel lines as two lines that were always the same distance apart. The teacher nodded acceptance, but added her observation that your answer, while right, was only an average answer, leaving room for greater accuracy. 

To that effect, you added, these lines, by their nature, would never meet. The teacher said your answer bumped you up to a C+, meaning there were still other qualities or conditions to be observed. With a wink,the teacher allowed that for the sake of geometry and mathematics, parallel lines meet in infinity.

You think of that teacher to this day--Ms. Krantz, she was--when you observe in fiction-writing classes that in geometry,parallel lines meet in infinity, but in stories, they meet in the last act, or in the reader's mind.  Much as it troubles you to use such absolute words as always and never, you offer the observation that a narrative without parallel lines is never a story; some thematic or cultural base must always be present in order to transform the narrative, which, however engaging and sublime, into a story, which has as a major constituent the sense of dimension and at least a sense of parallel development.

Often--note, often, not always--a story will appear to be lacking the parallel line, a classic example being Edgar Allen Poe's famed short story, "A Cask of Amontillado," in which so many of the requisite dramatic elements are placed with such adroitness. The narrator tells us in so many words that he has reached the breaking point when being teased and ranked on by the snobbish Fortunato, who has gone too far when insulting the narrator's family.

From this point, pun intended, the construction is brick-and-mortar. The reader sees the narrator in the process of successful orchestration of his revenge, even to the point of paying off on an earlier iteration of his family motto in Latin with the valedictory In pace, requiescat. But where, the reader might ask, are the parallel lines? If the reader will like, the parallel line is in the reader's head: Surely this is not the first time the narrator has dined out on this story. Surely he has told it before, many times, making him the doppelganger of the snob on whom he sought revenge.

For all the difficulties geometry gave you--you had to take it three times before it made sense--you extracted from it the ability to design the typographical layout of books, and the understanding  that story not only required at least two parallel lines, it required your awareness of how, when, and where these parallel lines meet.

Monday, March 28, 2016

It Was All Greek to Me, Until it Became Greek

The idea has been buzzing about in your head like a hungry mosquito in search of her dinner, casual at first, the intriguing but closed-end notion in which most of the books you liked and knew you'd revisit seemed simpler than you knew they were. 

Being inspired by a particular novel or short story to the point where you'd decided to write your version of it or your answer to it proved your point and taught you the lesson that was a long time being learned.

The things that seem the easiest are in fact the most difficult of all. Here, in the perspective of your aged awareness, is the revelation of a truth long hidden to you: Complexity may well be a cover-up for lack of technique in bringing the inspiring concept to fruition.  For years, you couldn't get past the word-by-word density of James Joyce's Ulysses. To this day, you still have trouble unraveling Finnegan's Wake.

Nevertheless, the vision still holds; each of those two novels was not written to be complex; each of them is as simple and direct as it can be. Proof of this comes with rereading. 

When, as a boy, you first approached the Greek drama that eventually taught you more about characterization and motivation than many of its contemporaries, you had an understanding of the issues involved, but they seemed remote until you were along into your late twenties and a dear, longtime chum died of cancer. Entering the chapel for his funeral service, you saw another longtime friend, his eyes watery, standing outside the entryway. "Come," you said, "we'll go in together."

"Can't," he said. "Not allowed."

"What do you mean, 'Not allowed.'?"

The answer was one of the many historical and cultural cracks you'd come to discover in the religion into which you were born. It was one thing for your classmates to be friends in life, but a tribal matter, who knows how many generations back, prevented the survivor from entering the temple to pay final respects. 

You entered the temple for the service, your emotions awash with anger and amazement, missing the service, itself, and to your bewilderment thinking about the enormous range of motives, relationships, and cultural imperatives in, of all things, Antigone.  What twentieth-century, second-generation American boy of moderate Jewish background, attends a funeral for a classmate not yet thirty, then thinks of Antigone in the midst of a service being conducted in Hebrew?  

You were at the time, five or six years away from marriage, which among many other things, would once again call Antigone to mind, over the refusal of a rabbi who presided at your and your sister's coming-of-age rituals, and your sister's wedding, to officiate at your wedding. 

These events were not tangential by any means to the understanding you pulled out of the cosmos, then crafted into the fabric of defining narrative and vision. Being a part of your birth culture influenced your early behavior and your accommodation of the life you wished to lead.

Each of us composes a cultural narrative from which to enact, and in your case to fabricate imaginary and, you hoped, imaginative stories, accessible to a potential segment of readers, perhaps even agreeable and resonant for some of them. Big, thick, and ponderous as it is, Moby-Dick was not written to be complex.  

It was written to be the simplest, most direct statement of the author's comprehensive sense of what Transcendentalism was, is, and can be, told, as many effective dramas are, against a particular background (whaling) that might seem at first blush to have nothing to do with Nature, and yet embodied the clash of natural forces.

The underlying force behind your choice of career path was embedded in the early novels you read that seemed so simple and accessible that you assumed you could do likewise. Then came the years of discovery that the ease was the reflection of the writer's craft. You were well past your forties when you understood the nature of storytelling was causing the complex, recondite, and nuanced dealings of the human condition to seem easy to replicate.

Until that time, you were living in a state of ease. Since then, you have been living in a state of unease, of the overwhelming difficulties involved in telling a story, and making it seem easy.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Inflation: The Historical Consequences of Nostalgia

In a real sense, nostalgia is the emotional equivalent of the hair of the dog as a remedy for a hangover. Nostalgia likes to put in an appearance after some present day iteration of a past event--even a comparison of prices for a given object or service between then and now.  

The memory of what you could do for a dime back then causes what you tend to do with a dime that comes your way today to serve as a reminder of irony. One Then of such nostalgia is the DC comic book you could buy for a dime, the admission to the Ritz Theater on Wilshire Boulevard, for the Saturday matinee of a double feature, an episode of a serial, a cartoon, and a MovieTone Newsreel; a Duncan basic yo-yo, a mile-high ice cream cone at Curry's on Wilshire and Detroit.

Remembering unpleasantness from the past has the side effect of causing most persons who do so to resort, at some point, to nostalgia. This observation has its origins in your belief that the majority of humans will jump at the opportunity to move away from unhappiness, even if the nostalgia invoked to provide happiness is short lived.

You've had sufficient experiences with hangovers from drinking and hangovers from spending too much time getting comfortable with nostalgia in the face of some contemporary distraction. A favored opening to L.P. Hartley's memorable novel, The Go-Between, states, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."  Nostalgia reminds us of some warmth for some time in the past, but examination reminds us of a number of ways inflation has set in.

The dime with which you were able to do so much was also a respectable tip for something that cost a dollar-and-a-quarter. Some of your early jobs paid you fifty cents an hour; some of your earliest stories brought you the munificent pay rate of a penny a word. More to the point, this particular type of nostalgia is price-oriented, suggesting that much of past happiness was related to possessions rather than presence.

Another Then of nostalgia relates to your favorite job that had nothing directly to do with writing. You were the manager of a parking lot at the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Dunsmuir Avenue, your managerial duties involved keeping track of when a car entered, when it left, and how much to charge the driver. 

For all that the parking lot was in the fabled Miracle Mile, its in-and-out traffic never reached levels of intensity, meaning you had ample time to read, to write, to visit with friends, and, most important of all, to look forward to the arrival of your scheduled hours of work.

There was no thought or hope of upward mobility, no take-home worries, no reports to write or meetings to attend. When you were given a ten-cent-an-hour raise, you promptly splurged on a deluxe hamburger across the street at Wimpy's, where you frequently ate, looking at a wall drawing of its eponymous source, J. Wellington Wimpy, friend of Popeye. 

Thinking about nostalgia often reminds you how the present moments you experience are candidates for the nostalgia of the future, a factor you attempt to build into characters you create for fiction and for ideas you wish to follow for essays and booklength nonfiction. Your current project, which is nonfiction, is an unexpected result of nostalgia as it reflects on and filters reading experiences.

Of all the novels you have read over the years, you have selected one hundred from which you extracted the most profound experiences leading to your greater understanding of storytelling. The least you will have read any of these hundred titles is twice; in some cases the number of revisits has gone upwards of ten.

At the time of your first reading, you had no idea these individual stories would offer you so much, become such equivalents of friends, and, most important of all, occasions of nostalgia. In the same manner your early encounters with nostalgia had hangovers, rereading these hundred novels reminds you how much you missed with earlier encounters, how your own attitudes toward reading and retention of responses have changed.

At the tail end of this calculus of reading, rereading, and self-evaluation, you encounter the unexpected awareness that aging and experience also involve inflation levels. The very reading you indulged at first to learn and to escape has evolved to the most humbling awareness: Learning will only stop when you do;  there is no escaping from the inflation levels.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Reality: The Ultimate Prep School

When you look back on the early parts of your education, your primary image of yourself is as the sponge you were, soaking up information and skills thought to be appropriate by a progressive school board, a national culture tottering on the cusp of a recession known as The Great Depression, a birth culture teaching you its historical and tribal values, a family culture that was attempting to cope with having one been affluent, but now connected to The Great Depression.

To a limited sense, you were being educated by the questions you asked yourself about these sources of information to which you were being subjected, and by your growing awareness of frustrations you experienced with all of them. 

Although you were unable to articulate the matter as such, you understood even then how the source of some of your frustrations had to do with you being at the mercy of two significant sources, adults and, once again in ways you were not at the time able to articulate, plans made by adults.

You pretty much were reminded daily of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which imposed curricula, reminded of rules and suggestions transmitted by your parents, and ways you were likely to be treated by random adults. Sundays brought you in contact with a similar set of conditions through the filter of Sunday School, where you were presented with ritual, tradition, and information relating to the culture into which you were born. 

You were well aware that the going was not easy for those of your culture who happened to live in Europe. Since your maternal grandparents had migrated from Europe, you were aware of some of the reasons they chose to leave relative affluence in Russia before migrating to this country.

This brief background explains some but by no means all of the reasons why your responses to education caused you to be given high grades for learning and, charitably, less than satisfactory grades for personal behaviors such as responsibility, cooperation, and attentiveness. Your grades in such qualities were Ns, the N signifying Needs to Improve. In other words, you were a smart ass.

Against such a background, another form of frustration arose, your awareness of the ways in which events often followed a pattern of random effect. Things happened that you were neither aware of nor did they have effect on you. Things happened at random every bit as often as they did because plans were made for them to happen. Cakes failed in the oven, souffles fell.

Because you studied for a test or expended wide and considerable research on a project, preparation did not guarantee a positive or even good result. Of course, there was the basic: the fact of you wanting something was no guarantee you would get it or even be close to achieving it.

In some cultures and in many circumstances, such awareness was part of the process described as "growing up" or "that's the way things are," or "coming to terms with reality." To this day, you consider yourself an optimist, notwithstanding the numerous disappointments, failures, reversals, and occasions where you were beneficiary of unanticipated happy outcomes. 

In many, if not all, cases, you are grown up, recognize the enormous efforts needed to change some of the cultural things you'd wish to change, and are at the least in a state of detente with reality.

The most significant thing you've learned about yourself is the need to put your efforts into preparation rather than relying on faith-based options. You still understand that preparation is action-based faith; it is not a guarantee of the outcome you have in mind, but it is the best thing you can do, and the most probable source of happiness.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Horsing Around with Westerns

You don't remember either of their names, although you are certain both men wore suits on a regular basis. There is every probability each had only the one suit, which he wore at work, then changed at home. The one who ran the used bookstore in Hollywood wore a blue suit. The one who ran the used book store on Santa Monica Boulevard wore a gray suit.

Both men were critical of your reading habits. The owner of the used book store on Santa Monica would make a tooth-sucking, tsk sound when he went through the books you'd decided to buy. "How is it you're reading such drek?" he'd say.  Blue suit would say, "So this is how you spend your time."
Each in his way had a measurable effect on what you read, and of course what you read, in aggregate, began to have the most measurable effect of all. 

The bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard had bulging stacks of pulp Westerns, among them Ranch Romances, Real Western, and .44 Western Magazine, which you'd begun to read along with any Western magazine publishing stories by Elmer Kelton, Ernest Haycox, and Elmore Leonard.

At the time, while you were thinking you could advance your writing career by writing for mystery, science fiction, and Western pulps, you were editing a man who old regularly to hardcover Western and mystery publishers as well as being story editor for a popular TV anthology, Tales of Wells-Fargo. Based on an introduction he wrote to a selection of his short fiction, you got the man to write a more comprehensive memoir, The Pulp Jungle. In your dealings with this author, he seemed to understand you as well if not better than you understood yourself.

"You can read Shane all you want," Frank Gruber said, "but the novel you really want to read is no doubt the best Western ever written."  Both the blue suit and the gray suit agreed with this assessment and, from the fact of your awareness of it, seemed to regard you as less than the lost cause they'd both supposed. In time gray suit and blue suit each found and gave you a copy of Jack Schaefer's memorable novel, Monte Walsh."

"This is a bildungsroman," the gray suit said, when he gave you a used paperback version.  "This is what Saul Bellow would have written had he written Westerns," blue suit said, giving you the copy he'd managed to secure for you.

Monte Walsh is indeed what blue suit and gray suit said if it as well as the quintessential character-driven story arc you favor as the ideal template for a story arc. In the most basic simplification, all the character ever wanted was to work where horses were an integral part of the setting.  No horses, no Monte. He didn't mind Texas longhorn cows, didn't mind boiled coffee or leathery steaks although he hated automobiles and machine-rolled cigarettes.

The more you reread, the more you learn about storytelling, background, and that difficult-to-master narrative filter, point of view. In Aspects of the Novel,one of the more memorable )and readable) books on writing craft you've spent time with, its author, E.M. Forester, talks of causality and the way events in a novel trigger subsequent events. 

In his own stand-out novel, A Passage to India, Forester demonstrates his intimacy with events that trigger subsequent events and consequences, to the point where you quite agree and understand their importance. Monte Walsh seems a contrary lesson, except for the fact that the causality is the sense of progress to be found in many coming-of-age novels, We see Monte in various stages of growing up, from his early youth until the adventure that takes his life; this is all the causality we need to cause us to continue turning pages, if only to see what Monte will do next.

Monte is everything the actor Marion Morrison attempted to portray in his role as John Wayne.  Monte did not have to work at being authentic and of a time and place lost except in history. Jack Schaefer, a writer from Connecticut, came West, captured the time and work of the cattle drive, the life in the bunkhouse, and the lives of the men who in all probability spent more time sleeping outside, under the stars, than they did under the bunk house covers.

With each fresh reading of Monte Walsh, you see a clearer vision of a character who becomes the force of inevitability in his own life. Before Monte is well enough along in his twenties, we know how life will not break him or lessen our regard for him.  He is, as the epitaph on his grave says, "A good man with a horse." And to you, who have ridden perhaps fifteen rental horses in his lifetime, wagered sums of money on perhaps fifty others, and are content to think of the horse as a proud, dignified animal, experience the loss of Monte as a friend each time you revisit his superb history.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


Your earliest remembered associations with instructions began with your interest in building model airplanes. Without a doubt, you'd had previous experiences, but remain to this day unable to remember them. You do remember having worked your way through a number of ten-cent models to the next available plateau, a twenty-five cent model, powered by a rubber band.

You were used to following printed instructions, such as having the equivalent of a large flat surface on which you could work, the admonition to cover the plans with a sheet of wax paper, and the further admonition to make sure you took care to cover the tube of glue after each use.The twenty-five cent model had no such instructions.

At your father's suggestion, you turned to the shop where you'd bought the model, thinking perhaps the instructions had been somehow left out. You were well known at the shop, thus both the owner and his wife consulted a few boxes of the same model you'd purchased, only to deliver the message that this model has no instructions. A sympathetic Mrs. Fazzio, (owner) ventured that you'd had enough experience with model airplanes to be able to proceed on your own.

You had no idea at the time how shrewd and philosophical your father was. "Some things in life," he said, "don't come with instructions. You have to figure them as you go, and even then, there's no guaranteed that they'll work with something new." He offered to consult with you if you felt you were, as he put it, in over your head, with this model. You did not put this into words at the time, but you got the impression you could go to him for instructions about other things that did not come with instructions or if you should find the instructions somehow lacking.

The twenty-five-cent model came with a rubber band that looked puny in comparison to some of the rubber bands you found about the house. You substituted the supplied rubber band with one of a sturdier appearance, built in what you hoped would be a reinforcement device, wound the propeller until the rubber band seemed unwilling to take any more turns, then set the plane on the ground. When you took your hand off the propeller, the plane emitted a satisfying growl, then lifted into flight, gained altitude, and traveled over the backyard fence into the terrain of the neighbors.

On its next flight, your model distinguished itself by flying into the garage with such force that the front of the fuselage and a good chunk of the leading edge of the wing were mashed beyond repair. You thought for a moment about whether the lack of instructions had anything to do with you substituting the rubber band that came with the model for the more substantial one that was the ultimate cause of the model's demise. 

In a rare glimpse of prescience, you decided that you wouldn't have paid much heed to any instruction warning you not to use more substantial rubber bands than the one that came with the kit.

Your experiences with the instructions in the first book you'd ever bought relating to writing stories caused you to realize that you were pretty much in the same fix with writing stories as you were with that instruction-less model airplane. The jump from ten-cent models to twenty-five-cent models was nothing in comparison to your excitement and results with some of your earliest efforts.

Over the next several years, you haunted new and used bookstores and libraries, hopeful of finding the one book,story, or novel that would cause the kind of epiphany you'd come to recognize from your reading of other authors. With such a story or novel or book in hand, the mysteries of the craft of writing memorable stories would be as muscle memory. 

Once achieved, this vital muscle memory would allow you to pursue your next goal of writing in every genre before deciding on the one or two with which you would spend the remainder of your writing life.

Somewhere along about the time you'd reach the conclusion that such a story or novel or book did not exist. Not only that, if you were to come into possession of such a work, it would have to be something you'd written. Worse yet, you understood that the "something" you had written would be only good for one time; everything ought to be different, you realized, otherwise you'd be duplicating yourself, derivative of you rather than evocative of your growing awareness of the elements of storytelling. You could, in a lifetime, master some of these, but by no means all.

Helpful to your new found awareness was the fact of you being employed as an editor who was confident in hi ability to get the go-ahead with a project he'd discussed with an author. You were, in fact, signing authors who'd published some of the stories you'd grown up reading, men and women whose output was monumental.

One such writer, aware of your interest in writing Westerns, had not only written them himself, he was the story editor of a weekly television anthology set in that window of Post Civil War until about 1915 or 20, when the Industrial Revolution was shifting into second gear, the automobile was beginning to make its appearances, and the cattle being nudged and herded by the cowboy was more likely than not to be a Hereford rather than a Texas longhorn. This author suggested a book which, after you'd been into it for a few pages, you recognized immediately as the object of your earlier search.

The novel grabbed you on so many levels--its characters, its vision of the setting, its ability to convey the way horses and cows smelled, behaved, and thought, its seeming episodic nature that transcended the plot-driven story--that you knew you were holding something you'd need to come back to, again and again. Of all the many books you'd read and came away thinking the work was so simple, perhaps you could do it, you realized, reading this one, that you would well be able to consider yourself a writer, were you able to write such a book.

The book is a Western. You've been on occasion, thrown from a horse, on greater occasion by a book. So far, all you've learned is to get back on the horse and get back on another project.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Editorial Letters and Their Consequences

Of all the possible ways of becoming an editor, your approach was the most accidental you can visualize. This accident was compounded by your complete lack of interest in becoming anything other than what you were at the time, which was a freelance writer. 

Some writers you knew and know now were forced to take non-editorial and certainly non-writing jobs to pay living expenses. True enough, there were times when you had to take on what you called rent work, but the dance intensified to ironic proportions when you found yourself writing novels and short stories at night, while becoming an editor during daylight hours.

 After the initial surprise of becoming an editor for a publishing company wore off, the surprise of having to write letters relating to editorial matters produced a complex and unsettling state of circumstances, many of which persist to this very day. 

To fill in the needed background, you were supplying a mail order sales organization one book a month, predicated on a list the mail order sales organization had paid a rather dodgy public relations firm a considerable sum of money to compile, based, the dodgy public relations firm assured, on a survey of significant and diverse n-sampling to be accurate.

Two other pieces of relevant information: (1) the mail order sales organization was successful to the point where it had six money-counting machines, one at the desk of each of six individuals who opened the mail, extracted cash or check, then produced a daily tally of the items ordered. (2) You'd demonstrated a talent neither you nor the mail order sales organization knew you had when you began writing books for them. 

This talent was the ability to write stimulating enough copy to motivate individuals who might never have bought books under any circumstances to buy the remaindered or discontinued titles the mail order sales organization bought from recognized publishers. You were actually given a bonus for writing copy that sold a two-volume set of the short novels of Henry James. Thus your introduction to such terms and concepts as remainders, overstock, and, in the most blunt of metaphorical terms, dogs, which is to say books that had not sold in the book trade venues of bookstores, book clubs, and promotional tie-ins.

The mail order sales organization explained to you that there was a greater market at hand for them than the one book a month you were on hand to write, therefore you were to solicit, select, and secure works from your writer friends, your initial quota going up to four books a month. 

None or few of these would find their way into bookstores, rather they would be sold directly to readers, meaning among other things that the mail order sales organization did not have to give bookstores a minimum forty percent discount for one-to-five books taken, and as much as a fifty-five percent discount for quantities over a hundred.

Dear Jack, you would write. Or Chuck, Or Matt. You would explain the thrust of the sorts of titles you were interested in having them write, they would call you to see if you were serious, you would tell them you were, and then the dance would begin, with such things as contractual agreements, royalty schedules, cover designs, and two things you were aware of, but only in the most abstract terms, content editing, and copy editing.

You would on occasion have to write to Jack or Chuck or Matt the equivalent of letters you'd had a significant experience with, letters telling you that the material you'd submitted didn't work for the persons you'd sent it to. Jack wanted to know what the fuck kind of friend you were to say such a thing, because he'd had one novel published, two plays produced, and a short story accepted by a major magazine. Chuck took matters a step farther and said you were using your position as editor as payback for all your own rejections, and Matt wanted to know if there were something he could add to the material to make it closer to your liking.

One of the principals of the mail order sales company had the reputation of being a mail-order genius, which he might well have been and would have continued to be had he not decided he might also be a trade publishing genius. At about the time he began thinking to see his books in bookstores, you were far enough along your editorial learning process to suspect you might know more than you did. Thus the company launched itself as a trade publisher;  thus your letters of solicitation to writers and literary agents you knew and did not know, and the further accident of your having found something in the slush pile that caused you to write a letter to the agent who'd sent you the "something," in which you spoke of how well the material worked for you.

You were to learn that it was not a good idea to speak with such enthusiasm about a project, even one that had been rejected by seventeen other publishers. The reason behind this was the author, wanting a considerable advance.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Hills Are Alive with the Sounds of Redacting

If inanimate things such as hills become alive with the sound of music, we may suspect there is at the absolute least a solitary musician, hunkered down, practicing on an instrument, in all likelihood an exotic instrument, say a bag pipe or Sousaphone, our logic being only someone with an exotic instrument would want to practise in the hills.

Dramatic logic overcomes the possibility of a single musician, a string quartet, or a full symphony orchestra, overcomes because most of us who read have been indoctrinated. We accept the potential for hills coming alive in the first place because of previous things we've read. 

We admire the hills, taking on a musical quality, which is in fact a poetic quality as opposed to the more scientific presence of wind or rock slide. Thus the phenomenon or, if you will, literary device of the pathetic fallacy.

Writers, in particular poets, were using the pathetic fallacy before the pathetic fallacy had been discovered by the Victorian-era critic, Walter Pater. William Wordsworth, for example, "wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,”using a lovely image that attributes the human emotional quality of loneliness with the non-human form of a cloud.

At one point in your development, you were of the opinion that the term "pathetic fallacy" was typical of the buzzwords of the critic and academic. Why, you asked yourself, wasn't a pathetic fallacy anything more than personification? 

Why, indeed; you'd yet to consider how personification was an attempt to attribute a human trait to an animal or inanimate object in a comparison where the subject was seen as more purposeful in attempting to achieve a human trait. "The dog was telling us the time for its dinner had come." The ocean was behaving like a politician, alternately waxing and waning in its enthusiasms."

You''re not only willing to accept the pathetic fallacy for what it is, which is to say an author, trying to make some inanimate quality more memorable--"The wind howled like guaranteed banshees," you use the device. You're not deliberate, often surprised to find a pathetic fallacy in your work when you begin to consider self-editing. Nevertheless, with some frequency, you're tendency is to leave the pathetic fallacy in rather than delete it only because you slipped it in without thinking.

You want your prose to bear the heavy load of agenda-   and intent-laden emotions rather than have any sentence bear the stigma of outright declarative, with no hint of feeling. How wonderful it is to deal with charactrs who are so driven to accomplish their goals that they will scarcely give you time to think of backstory or traces of rationale. 

A character who comes forth to take stage, then declaim, "I did it in recognition of my having been humiliated and punished as a child," should be identifiable as a character not of your own creation.Pathetic fallacies work best when the reader scarcely notices them; they are buried within sentences and paragraphs, in some cases given foundation when they are made to seem as having originated in the speculations and interior monologue of a character.

No one you're aware of has given Shakespeare bad marks for his observation that life is a brief candle, nor indeed a poor player who struts and frets his moment on the stage. If anyone will be caught out, using the pathetic fallacy, it is more likely you than Shakespeare, even though his Big Three for storytelling platforms, dialogue, narrative action, and the soliloquy of interior monologue are there in plain sight, for all the playgoing world NOT to see.  As for you, you have a while left to get your act together, which is a pathetic fallacy to be overcome, right?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Agreement, the Insect Spray of Story

The effects of two habits from your early years remain in full adult sway even as you set this down. The habitual desire to have an ample supply of pocket-sized notebooks close at hand persists to this day. Your fondness for fountain pens causes a regular procession of catalogues featuring fountain pens to arrive by mail.

 These two passions meet in the form of notebooks, filled with notes and observations, expressed in brown ink which has flowed through a gallery of instruments you keep variously in a Mason jar on your desk and a cigar box, stashed behind you on a piece of furniture too small for you, but the ideal size for your mother.

This is no empty rhetoric. Only yesterday, you ordered a new batch of notebooks from a company in Chicago whose work you favor, and only today, you were unable to scroll past a black, lacquered fountain pen with birds, Chinese figures, and calligraphic flourishes rendered on its sleek, thin body.  

You probably don't have as many notebooks as you do shirts (ah, shirts are yet another matter), but you are not in anything approaching immediate need of new notebooks. Nor is there a danger of you running out of fountain pens. Notebooks and fountain pens and, for the matter of actual composition of early drafts, lined legal tablets seem to be the psychological (or notional) tools you associate with composition.

One of these pocket-sized notebooks is of historical interest to you; it contains one- and two-page descriptions of books you think you might like to write, books you believe you ought to write, and projects for which you feel degrees of interest and affection, aware they are still lacking in form. Flipping through the pages of this notebook often has the effect of one of your daily favorites, a double-shot, nonfat latte. 

There are more nonfiction projects than novels, although there are quite a few paragraphs representing your attempts to capture the intrigues and energy of short stories, a form that remains your favorite. Your current project is in there, well enough realized that you used portions of these notes in the proposal you created when you realized you were going to proceed with the project.

Your rationale for the notebooks and pens is simplicity personified; they get you writing, keep you writing, keep you reading, keep you making more notes. Thumbing through the brown-ink pages, you're sometimes reminded of athletes, particular baseball players, who have quirks that might be thought of as superstitions. 

This reminder is a way of keeping you from attaching any mystical qualities to your own methods and approaches. Thumbing through your notebooks, if done properly, can cause you to hear voices.More often than not, these voices become so purposeful that they begin challenging one another, not necessarily over the same matter.

You come from a culture where details, nuances, and passionate convictions are taken for granted to the point where, if they go missing, someone, somewhere, will ask, "Is something wrong?" Part of your working culture, beyond the need to amass quantities of notebooks and fountain pens, insists that you hear the voices of characters if the work at hand is fiction or the voice of narrative, should the work be anything else.

Agreement that comes from a dispassionate, logical framework seems almost counter-dramatic. When you envision Hamlet, hearing the voice of his father's ghost, you appreciate the depth and genius of the creator, but you want the dimension of the ghost, arguing with someone else while trying to secure promises of revenge from the kid. You want to see and hear the ghost turn to someone who has a passionate agenda, then say to that person, "Let me finish, will you?"Then the ghost turns back to Hamlet. "What was I saying? Ah, yes, your uncle. Your mother. You see where I'm going?"

You are not making fun of Shakespeare; you have a deep respect and admiration for his work, but you have arrived at the point where your awareness of your own voices has some stature as well. Your voices want recognition of how fragile and hard come by agreement is. When there is agreement, however flimsy, the story either stops dead in its tracks, it begins, having served notice that the agreement was too lacking in foundation to support the terms of the discussion.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

'Twas Brillig, and the Slithy Sentences Did Build up Steam

If you are about to take a road trip, say to visit your eldest niece and her family in Santa Fe, you're more than likely to take the care for a check-up. Almost--but not quite--without thinking about it when you begin a project, you check the equipment of dramatic narrative, the beat, the scene, not so much because you fear you'll forget them as to remind you of their presence and availability.

There are times when checking such basic tools as types of sentences add the extra security of preparedness. Although the declarative sentence is the most common of all the sentences and your work reflects their frequency and usefulness, you often need to go through a few drafts before these workhorses begin to appear in your text.With chilling regularity, declarative sentences begin to appear in your work when you begin chopping longer, more ornate sentences into two or three parts.

A declarative sentence is a statement of fact. That sentence was, in fact, a declarative sentence. Although you're at some pains to avoid beginning sentences with the word "it," you cheerfully recognize "'Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbal in the wabe:" is a declarative clause within a declarative sentence, also a magical one, coming from one of your favored poems, Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky. The next line is part of the declarative sentence: "All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe."  

The next sentence within the poem is a clear demonstration of the imperative sentence: "Beware the Jabberwock, my son!"  You couldn't ask for something more imperative. You could say "Go." or "Stay," or even "Get out." And you would be getting a message forth, but it would somehow lack the elegance of the Carroll poem, particularly when you consider the next sentences:

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"

There are indeed other kinds of sentences, such as the question or interrogatory sentence, not the least of which is "And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?" There is also the exclamatory sentence, " Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy."

To settle any doubts, you are quite fond of declarative sentences. Once in a while, one or more of your characters, if the work is fiction, will ask a question, "What were you thinking?" or propose an exclamatory, "You've got to be fucking kidding." You are at some pains to make sure the sentences you write that do not fall into these categories and instead find their way into such categories as complex, ornate, and Faulknerian are easy to unravel, at the same time contributing substance to the work at hand.

How nice to be able to blame your frequent lapses into orotundity on your growing interest and appreciation of the works of William Faulkner, but your use of long sentences slipped into place long before you'd established meaningful connection with Faulkner. 

When you worked for the Associated Press, the editors set great store by keeping sentences under twelve or so words, outright saying in their style guide that a sentence of seventeen words was at the outer lengths of where a sentence should go. One editor informed you how The Associated Press had paid a considerable sum of money to a man named Rudolf Fleish to study the effective sentence lengths for wire service journalism, which led you to suspect that much as considerable sums of money might be nice, no amount of it could induce you to go around recommending to writers how many words were enough for one sentence.

By the time a sentence got upwards of ten words, those AP editors were trying to impress on you, the writer ought to start thinking about handing the keys over to another sentence, one that had not been through the ordeal of conveying so much information. That was, to be sure, journalism, and while you could see how such narratives were predicated on getting as much information front-loaded as possible, you were mindful of one older AP editor who told you how long sentences reminded him of his boyhood times of pushing cars out of mud puddles.

Much as you like the occasional meandering sentence, coursing through an essay or story like a respectable river, gathering some serious current behind and below it, you like the notion of a reader caught up in the most important part of the narrative, the current of story, or the drift of an essay.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Hand it Over

The first time you appeared in a police line-up and were picked by a witness you could not see, you suspected the outcome was part of an elaborate prank, orchestrated by a friend who was a senior detective with the Homicide Robbery division of the LAPD. A voice over the loudspeaker directed Number 2 (you) to step forward and say, "Hand it over."

You did as directed, modifying your voice to imitate the actor Sheldon Leonard, who frequently portrayed mobster types and had a running presence on the Jack Benny Radio Show as the robber who accosts Benny with the line, "Your money or your life," giving way to an iconic retort from Benny, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."

"It was your voice that convinced the witness," your friend, the detective, said later as you were tucking into the police special at Taylor's Steak House, bourbon rocks, water back, a wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with blue cheese, and a steak sandwich. You'd been asked to appear in the line-up because you were of an age and type described by the victim of a hold-up. 

The fact of you being noticed was satisfaction, the greater fact of your appearance approximating that of a robber was a flattering affirmation of your self-image being so diverse. At the time, you were editor in chief of a moderately successful publishing company, but being mistaken for an armed robber spoke of your potential for menace as well as editorial gravitas.

You were in two subsequent line-ups, related to you being a regional officer in the Mystery Writers of America. In the first of those, you were again identified, picked from a group of six. Two robins do not make a Spring, but being "identified" twice did set in motion an association with times when, as a fledgling Screen Extras' Guild associate, you'd been chosen to play bit parts on live television dramas.

The association linking audition and police suspect line-up started you on your way to considering the nature of choosing characters to populate concepts you were striving to expand into full-blown stories. This was an apt approach for you because of your then belief that you had little or no ability in the matter of organizing plot-driven stories. 

Your ultimate solution was to turn to character-driven stories, which is to say selecting individuals who were forced to make a decision, take some action toward achieving a deeply felt goal, or avoiding consequences of past mistakes or indiscretions.

This approach appears to have worked for you. When you have need of a character, you in effect conflate the police line-up and the casting call, then wait around to see who shows up and how they will present themselves. 

Sometimes, you'll vary the routine slightly, scrolling through your friends and acquaintances for types and for quirks, aware that the more prone they are to idiosyncratic notions and personalized traits, the greater the chances they will suggest more to you in the ways of vital surprises and behavior traits.

As a general rule, one individual per story can approximate your sensitivities, but the rest must be immediately distinguishable from you, otherwise the entire cast will end up sounding like you, using your vocabulary, complete with habit words, and tendencies to speak in complete sentences.  Your goal is reached when a reader sees your characters as dimensional individuals rather than mere types.

You may have painted yourself into a corner with your belief that you need to write enough drafts to reach the point where story emerges, then moves along with a purposeful pace. Nevertheless.  

You enjoy the way story emerges with an inexorable force, as though you'd plotted the material in advance in the manner of the prolific, plot-driven writers you admire. The other possibility is the simple yet profound one of you having at last leaned the importance of listening to the characters tell you what they wish to do rather than trying to impose your agenda on them.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Titanic? Or the Iceberg?

Rereading a novel after eight or ten years is much like encountering an old friend with whom you were once close, but are no longer certain if you have anything in common. This has happened to you more than once, sometimes with impressive, Hail, Fellow, well met positiveness, other times with dreary results.

Do you try to recall as much of the novel as you can, resisting the temptation to reread it? Do you assume your old friend will not have evolved, and the best strategy is to recall the arc of the past closeness with affection, then break away?

And what about the vital factor in this conundrum, the you who was in place when you last read the book. Do you assume your frown lines have not deepened, the crinkle lines of amusement at the corners of your eyes unchanged? Do you have more to laugh about or more awareness of the halt in your gait, your slower times for a ten kilometer race, your ability to swim a mile now regardless of the time involved?

Is there a possibility for a book, any book, not necessarily one of the Russian novels which critics are eternally citing as the most exquisite example of transformational potential, having the ability to change a reader's outlook on life? 

Is there the emphatic certainty that the old friend will emerge as boring or trapped back at the time when you were close? Perhaps you might even decide that the reason why your friendship with the old friend has gone on divergent paths is because you were aware of something even then, a speed bump or black hole in the cosmos. Worst fear come true, perhaps the fact of disparate paths in the friendship was because your friend saw you as the uncomfortable variant.

Improvise two scenes, the first in which you and this old friend bore one another, the second in which you realize you've talked all the way through lunch, had several drinks, and now, the waiter wishes to know if you want to look at the dinner menu. Compare them to see which seems the most likely, the most authentic. 

Or have you reached the stage where the word "authentic" has become dulled from overuse, like some of those knives in your kitchen drawer, where the blades want the honing you are too lazy to supply?

Your favorite Russian novel is one you first read not all that long ago, at about the time your appointment began at UCSB. You'd heard of the majesty and psychological wonder of the Tolstoy novels, the need to have spent time with Dostoevsky, but were unable to discern this wonder. 

You began Pasternak because someone had given it to you for a Christmas present. Whatever the reasons for becoming disengaged, you did not finish it. The one Russian you trusted was Chekhov, for his short stories and plays, that is, until you came upon what you considered the prequel to Catch-22, that being Nikolai Gogol's deadpan romp--or the translator's deadpan translation--Dead Souls.

 You had occasion to reread it, which caused you to appreciate the deadpan tone and your sense of how that was the only appropriate tone. This awareness was coming to you at about the time you began wondering how many of the books you'd read and reread were, in addition to being their more apparent genre, also mischievous, deadpan tricksters, providing the format you most admire, the covert satire, which is to say a story that is either the Titanic or the iceberg.

The answer is more complex than it seems: You are the factor who must be revisited with great regularity. If you'd not revisited yourself, you'd have gone on, making conversation with aspects of yourself you've become used to, bored with. Rereading novels, particularly in the way and purpose with which you've been reading them for the current project you've been occupied with for the past several months--The One Hundred Novels You Need to Read before You write your Own--is your litmus for seeing how much you've learned over a lifetime of reading and attempting to draw substance and sustenance from doing so.

You know this much at least, you are the Titanic, but you are also the ice berg.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Generation Gap Within

Writing about Orange Street as you did yesterday must share responsibility for pulling the cork out of the bottle.You remember a time back there/then, when you asked your mother how old she was. She told you, 32. Doing the math, this wold have made you late 5, early six. 

Diplomatic you. Your reply, "That's way too old for me. I'm leaving when I'm 30."

"Thirty isn't so old," she said.

You, the diplomat. "Yes, it is."

A splendid example of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: attempts to measure things affects the outcome. By the time you were 30, that age didn't seem the slightest bit old, except when it became necessary during some of the writers' baseball  games, the necessity arose to allow some of the teenagers hanging around to fill out the positions and they would say things like "Nice catch, sir," and "Throw it over here, sir."  "The little fucker," one of the writers, an officer in the Writers' Guild muttered.  You made the day by saying, "Wait until he finds out what nice pitch really means."  "I'm gonna steal that," an agent said.

You were, in actuality, beyond 30 when you remembered your earlier intentions of not being around munch beyond that time, and as you think about such things now, you remember some of the times and places when the chronological you was beset by youngsters, hanging around to fill out the positions. These times and places were beyond the writers' baseball gatherings or, the Sunday touch football games many of your friends referred to as Hangover Football, because many of you were, indeed, playing hungover from the night before.

At these times, you were variously a frustrated writer of narrative fiction, a frustrated television writer, and, at one point,a screenwriter who was in the act of discovering his scripts were beards for helping your employer seduce young actresses. You were also a frustrated writer who, at times saw as many as four of his novels on the racks at magazine stands, a beginning editor, and, seemingly miraculous, a teacher.

The young persons you had to deal with were aspects of you who had not progressed as far as the chronological you thought he had. They were angry, which meant they were working on a base of fear' they were uncertain, resentful, defensive, and given to moments of vulnerability and vainglory, wanting something from you, largely assurances which you could not give them because, chronology and professional positions to the contrary notwithstanding, you did not know how.

In some encounters, they came to you in ways that now seem quite normal and understandable: they were fearful of not having the sort of career path so many of your classmates had, they were fearful of having squandered their talents and abilities, of having had no talents or abilities in the first place, and, from time to time, fearful of having reached various plateaus as a result of deceit, deception, or misadventure.  

You were, at those earlier times, striding through the chronology of the career path of a moderately late bloomer, much of your faith in your abilities invested in the equivalent of long-term bonds. This made coping with the priorities of your younger selves a chore, spiraling downward toward a crisis of confidence and no clear plan for avoiding disaster.

Unless you could, as you had on numerous occasions, produce a result that would buy you some time and leave your confidence in tact.  Your desperation scheme was to in effect gather these younger aspects of yourself into a cadre, then begin asking them to detail their fears, expectations, and gripes, all of which you promised to absorb.

Their lists of grievances and fears was even worse than you expected. In desperation, you asked them to consider your own priorities, many of which, as you feared, they considered as bad as or worse than your responses to theirs. 

Somehow this internal pow wow produced extended periods of accord; you could at least exchange ideas on a civil manner. When events pushed their fear buttons, they could explain their fears to you in an atmosphere of accord from which workable plans emerged.

Some of these younger persons have taken steps toward achieving a chronological catch-up, easing the generational gap, although you do catch them, on occasion, telling you, "Nice catch, sir."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Orange Street

More than once, while engaged with the early draft of a story, you allow a character to ask some question of existential curiosity. "What's this really about?" she said. In response, another character will respond, "Nothing is what it seems."

Much as you relish such moments, they are pretty much short-listed for excision on the simple grounds of your having used them in earlier stories, having ,different implications than they do in the current narrative.  Things, details, meanings, and implications are more than mere words to you; they are actual tools in your narrative toolkit, much more likely to be picked up and used than plot or suspense or even another favored approach of yours, reversal. 

All of these are significant elements within the dramatic genome to the point where you believe it impossible for a story to emerge from a narrative without them fitted into place. Plot, of course, is the tide, waxing or waning on a stretch of shore, tugging at anything in its way, a force to be reckoned with. Suspense is the hovering atmosphere of wonderment at what will happen next or, in direct opposition, wondering why a thing that was supposed to happen did not. 

Reversal is the actual occurrence of an event or condition as it negates the sensory and moral expectations of a character. Fred can be seen achieving or accomplishing a goal only to discover that it was not what he expected. Mary expected to be more powerful, now that she has the information she sought, but instead, Mary feels weakened, vulnerable.

At an early stage in your life, when you lived on Orange Street, scant blocks from the fabled Miracle Mile of midtown Los Angeles, individuals would see you at play, stop to offer you things, ask existential questions of you, offer to show you how to do or make things. Life was like that, then. In the space of a few years, a grizzled individual who swore to you he was a veteran of World War I introduced you to the word ductility, a vital word for a boy such as you to know.

Another person, who pushed a cart and in a Yiddish sing-song, announced to the neighborhood that he was buying old clothes. He assured you that the two words he was about to teach you would open more doors for you than the words, "Open, O Sesame," he heard you using in play. "Repeat after me,"he said, "I should see you have it in memory."  "Cat-" you began.  "Catalytic," he said.  "Catalytic agent." 

Yet another individual with a large carving knife executed from the slat of a fruit box a curved scimitar. "Enjoy your play," he encouraged. "Soon enough, you will go to college, where you will be made permanently unhappy because of the abstruse nature of learning. He applauded your honesty in admitting you did not know what abstruse meant. 

"The more you learn," he said, "the more you will be plagued by the implications of that word." Handing you your curved scimitar, he questioned you about your knowledge of implication. "A suggestion," you said, sure of yourself, for you had then and would continue to have for a considerable time a bright sister."This is not Damascus steel," the man said of your wooden sword, "but it will do for now. At some time in your life, you will want Damascus steel."

A woman, mistaking Orange Street for Orange Grove, insisted you learn about Heraclitus, which caused you gales of laughter at the mischief you would ultimately unloosen on your mother, who insisted you take a bath before going to bed at night. "I don't understand him," you mother said of you at dinner one night, "always laughing about not being able to take the same bath twice."

Your sister did not have the same relationship with and regard for your mother as you did. "He is teasing you with Heraclitus," your sister said. "I don't know where he gets those things," your mother said. "Everybody knows about Heraclitus," your sister said.  "Okay," your father said, "That's enough."

These things from your memory of Orange Street are early examples in your life of things being about themselves and, yet, about completely differing things, where you went from one kind of ignorance to a step beyond, an information plateau, then a step forward, as though you'd been initiated into the next level of awareness in a secret society.  

You'd been in any number of libraries before, but somehow, standing for the first time in the midst of the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA, you recalled the man who'd carved you a scimitar.

There were--and still are--more books in that library than you could possibly read, more things to learn than you could possibly digest or somehow or other process. The first thing you noticed was that they were not shelved according to the Dewey Decimal System. This was big time, the world of implication, the world of the abstruse, the abstract, the coded, the sensory and intellectual and practical,the catalysts,. waiting for you to decide which was which.

"Hurry," they said.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A One-Trick Pony, Loose in the Corral of Your Story

You forget how old you were when you first heard the expression "As nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs," but the memory of it still brings a smile to your face across a span of at least sixty years, Figures of speech that have found their way into the language to the point of popular use and the eventual status of cliche owe their momentum to the image or condition they illustrate.

At about the time you first heard about the figurative long-tailed cat, you were in fact successful in teaching a dog or relative age several new tricks, and had a curious relationship with yet another trope, thanks to a schoolmate who seemed to understand he was not popular and, thus, would promise the appearance of a pony at the otherwise dull parties given on his behalf. 

In extending the invitation, he'd mention Neapolitan, an ice cream that was a particular favorite of yours. His parties were also known to feature favors such as yo-yo's, wind-up toys, and substantial whistles. He was also the son of a friend of your mother,

Big as you were on Neapolitan ice cream and the home-baked cakes, you'd have been willing to forgo such treats, had you not felt your refusal would have somehow disappointed your mother. At one point, you'd even played the pony card, which is to say you complained that there was always this phantom pony, promised but never--using a favored word of the time--materialize.

Your father overheard your objection and, in perfect character for your father, introduced a figure of speech you've used on numerous occasions since. "Probably a one-trick pony," your father said. "The one trick he knows is not appearing." While this was not quite so funny as the Will Rogers observation about the long-tailed cat, it was funny enough. Now that you think about it, your father's ad lib had a formative effect on your framing of humor.

You liked the notion of the one-trick pony right off the bat, your significant experience with ponies limited to a dirt oval on the west side of Fairfax Avenue, somewhere between Third Street (near your grammar school) and Beverly Avenue. For five cents, you got four laps around what was probably a quarter-mile track. 

You were respectful enough of ponies to assume that it would be the rare pony that knew only one trick, thus one-trick pony meant a person who was only good at one thing. For a time at this point in your life, you believed you were only good at reading, but you were invariably chosen first for schoolyard games  such as cowboys and Indians, Civil War, and pirates and navy, thanks to your ability to die in battle. No matter what the milieu of the game, you were invariably the loyal lieutenant who dies, saving the wounded general.

Thus it was no stretch for you to assign the designation of one-trick pony to persons, in some cases your schoolmates, and certainly your schoolmate who swore there would be a pony at his next party, just you see if there isn't, and anyone brave enough to try will get a shot at riding him.

A articular one-trick pony schoolmate could swear in Yiddish, another could make chocolate milk come out of his nose at lunch time, and a girl was so good at math that she could add columns of numbers faster than any of us. So far as any of us could see, these individuals were not gifted at anything else.

One or two of your parents' friends seemed to you that they might be one-trick ponies, and you had a suspicion about one of the members of the family who ran the grocery store you were frequently sent to in order to pick up some element your mother had forgotten. 

Your father agreed with you that Sid, the unfortunate family member, likely was a one-trick pony, but he also cautioned you to be careful about sharing this belief because of its potential for hurting his feelings. "You have to assume that some one-trick ponies are aware of their limitations and are none too happy about it." 

With the passage of time and your opportunities to add substance, nuance, and implication to your judgments relative to one-trick ponies, you've had enough experience with recognizing them in stories, beginning with the narratives of others, but in a humbling way, discovering them in your own narratives. 

A one-trick-pony narrative may take in a multitude of sins. Limiting this observation to your sins of one-trick pony seems less likely to cause you to be accused of rodomontade, in fact plunking you in the midst of those humbled by enough self-discovery to bring you a constant state of vigil.

Does it have depth in character and their goals? Is there some plausible theme with which one or more characters appear to be wrestling? Are there sufficient dimensions? Are there clues to suggest these dimensions to the reader? Does the story turn on a convenience of plot or the need for a difficult choice? Is the narrative truly a story rather than a fable or some propaganda? Have you, in the writing of it, been forced to reach beyond your comfort zone for answers?

Monday, March 14, 2016

First Drafts among the Petroglyphs

In many ways, reading reminds you of your childhood attitude toward ocean swimming. Depending on your mood and the mood of the surf at the time, you'd inch your way into the water or you'd wait until a wave appeared to be about to break, then dive directly into it, The degree to which you become a follower of a particular writer becomes the degree to which the writer entices you into the world she or he has created.

At this stage of your reading life,you're not as likely to inch your way for more than a page or two, liking instead the equivalent of the mounting wave, about to overwhelm you unless you decide to dive under it and experience the force of it, breaking on top of and about you, then tugging at you with its tidal pull and slight tang of iodine, inviting you to experience its moods.

The writers you are drawn to have some way of making their world intriguing and beguiling, at the same time offering up the faint tang of menace and the tidal pull of agenda. You love the notion of characters driven by needs to explore, discover, invent alternate realities and appear indifferent to ordinary responses to ordinary circumstances. 

Thus, while you see the delusions of Don Quixote, you also see the ordinariness against which they are set. Even though that remarkable romp of a novel had the effect of pounding surf on you when you first read it, you recall carrying the book about with you, pausing in secret places where you thought you were safe, trying to make sense of the scenes.

You were a boy at the time, on the cusp of being pulled away from everything you'd taken for granted, wrenched from the familiar to places you'd heard your parents talking about, expecting such places to be at least comfortable, but discovering they were older, with peeling paint, snow, and the smells of cooking cabbage. 

No wonder Don Quixote saw a shadowy, romantic reality. The people where you were teased you for your California accent, which was unlike the accents you heard about you, or the individuals who spoke in them, and who called things such as avocados and grapefruit that you'd known all your life and considered ordinary to be things seen in books and films but not in person.

You were beyond being able to articulate much less express the early aspects of the reading phenomena. Until you were eight or nine, reading a book meant traveling to another world in another time, with remarkable characters, then returning to Los Angeles, to California, to places where place names were often Spanish, fruits and vegetables were diverse and tropical. 

Then,in those years, reading meant returning from the place and people of the stories to people who seemed suspicious of you, and where you were questioned, often challenged by individuals who wanted to know if you'd ever eaten such things as eggplant and sweet potatoes and kohlrabi and cauliflower.

Since those tumultuous times, you have understood how reading is not limited to returning you to such specific locales as Los Angeles or Santa Barbara or even California, but rather to an altered state of mind, the alteration coming from the decisions the characters were forced to make, the circumstances in which they were forced to make the decisions, and their attitudes coming out of the crucible of story. 

You have understood how different your reasons for reading are, how, although you may indeed read now to avoid boredom as you did when you were younger, the boredom is of a different origin, and the takeaway is more substantial.

Reading will do that for a person. You are now able to look, for an extreme example, at petroglyphs, those mysterious and mystical symbols of spirals, animals, and stick-figure humans, etched or carved onto rocks by shamans who were likely at the time stoned on some substance where they were in one way or several not in the level of reality we think of as everyday reality. 

These shamans were describing stories or accounts given them by imaginary individuals whom they may have thought to be spirits. These petroglyphs were every bit stories or records with some authorial intent, learned by men and women thought to be of elevated vision or perhaps of a kind of vision similar to Don Quixote.

Difficult to assess how long our species has been relying on some form or other of a story to preserve cultural information and to make sense of the various aspects of the worlds we call reality and the worlds we call vision. Through reading and years of wadding up sheets of paper, and, in more recent times, of pressing delete buttons, you've tried to identify the worlds about you and to make sense of them, to identify the characters living as squatters within the shell of your humanity, to listen to them with the hope of finding out from them some of the more hidden agendas they carry.