Saturday, April 30, 2016


If we compare persons and objects in motion with persons and objects at rest, we may show some curiosity about how the person or object at rest came to be at a particular place and even some mild concern for how they got there, but the persons and objects in motion trigger our senses of drama, apprehension, and often evoke outright envy.

Motion and stasis are ways by which we may consider ourselves, story, and Reality. With the possible exception of the beckoning fascination of a campfire, there is little than can impress us as much as movement.  

"There is a man or woman going places," we say of an individual who seems in motion on a path toward a distinguished destination. "There goes the neighborhood," we've said, at times in recognition of decay, urbanization or, I'm more recent terms, gentrification.

These are some of the many terms we use in relationship to individuals who appear to be living enactments of the kind of force in motion we call a vector. Many of these terms produce the kinds of emotions in real life that we see dramatized in story. And when we hear the warning to "Look out for that rock," we know we've been alerted to a force of nature we may not be able to control.We also understand how Nature, if such we call it, has the capacity to amaze and enrich our lives as well as the ability to take it.

To some degree, you are a contemplative individual, often considering the terrain about you from behind a mug of coffee or a tall glass of chilled ale or Pilsner, but as well, you've put in your time in motion in both literal and figurative senses, moving toward elected goals, moving away from behavior or tendencies you may no longer find agreeable.

To the extent that you studied basic astronomy at the university and have inspiration, causes for awe, and causes for wonder by observing the day and night skies from numerous perspectives, you are aware of being resident on a large, circular sphere of remarkable composition, being drawn by unseen tugs of gravity and momentum in an orbit, through a universe that seems, even with your limited perspective of such matters, to be in a near constant state of expansion.

As much as factors such as direction and momentum have effects on story and on life, here you are to venture that orbit, which is the curved or elliptical path of a body through some medium, relates even more in metaphor and actuality. From the moment of conception, we are on an orbit to birth, at which point we are launched into yet another, sometimes of our making, other times not, being propelled by the gravitational forces coming from Life which, if not a celestial entity, is certainly an energy field. 

In your speculations about the nature of things, you have grown over your years to equate life with story, since each has beginning, middle, and end, as well as orbiting qualities that include our tendencies and quirks. 

For reasons you do not completely understand or perhaps do not understand at all, being in an orbit seems more of a comfort to you than being on a more linear path. Revolving about Life, about other individuals and falling rocks, seems more of a condition where you have a small amount of control, rather than the more linear and direct straight line.

One of your favored examples of a story became favored when you recognized it was a perfect example of an orbit rather than a straight line. At one time, the story of Sisyphus and his rock was merely a cautionary tale left over from the older days of human endeavor and the interactions of humans with gods. Seeing it as orbital allows you to see the unexpected magic of how a true story is not linear but orbital, can begin in several different places, each potential beginning a potentially different point of view.

This vision allows you the luxury of differing visions for differing needs; it is an unexpected reward for following story in its orbit about Reality while you are following your personal orbit about Life.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Celebration of the Celebrated Jumping Frog

For many years, you've been able to list a number of disagreeable things about your favorite author's work, by no means the least of which is the limited use to which he puts female characters. Since you began keeping track of such things, your revisiting of his work allows you to add to the list. 

Nevertheless, Mark Twain remains to this day, April 29, 2016, your most cherished writer to read, your most steady equivalent of true North on the literary compass, the pole star you seek when you are lost, the person with whom you would gladly share such celebratory dinners when you had occasion to celebrate any small triumph.

Small wonder then, that you chose Twain's memorable sketch, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," for your reading at a program devoted to a young audience, most of whom were accompanied by one or both parents.

You took stage with your script in hand, marked to indicate places to pause for breath or effect, or to cue you to a particular gesture. Venues with numerous young persons tend to be a hive or excited noises of enthusiasm and impatience, of sudden bursts of self interest or jealousy, and waves of curiosity expressed in loud questions or exclamations of the complex amalgam of impatience, frustration, and awe associated with young persons. 

You've heard such ambient sounds at birthday parties, grammar school graduations, even at concerts for children, featuring Leonard Bernstein, who knew a thing or two about taking on the temperament of young audiences.

Your own venue was no less than you described, including one young person, probably a boy, who was fascinated with the sounds of a motor boat, and which extended even after your introduction had been completed.

By the time you'd completed your preface to the story you were about to read, lapsed into the two characters, one of the narrator and the other of his central character, a garrulous old sort, even the motorboat was silent. You could feel the intense, group interest, hunched forward in the growing chill of the evening, the only sound the occasional snap from the fire in the fire ring between you and the audience.

"The Frog" was one of Twain's earliest pieces, but even at that point in his career, his talent was assembling itself in all the right places. You did not need many of the marks and cues you'd noted on your script; they were present in the phrasing, the punctuation, and in the rolling, liquid dialogue, which even you could capture, not so well as you imagine Twain to have delivered it when he hit the lecture circuits years later, but well enough to sense the bond between the listeners and the text you read.

After a few more pages of script, you were on a kind of autopilot, where you read the words without thinking about them, aware your voice was raising or lowering, projecting to the back row or causing the audience to lean forward for a whispered phrase before jolting them into a laugh or lurch over some line of dialogue.

For the final pages, you noticed your voice filling once again with the pride and joy of loving a man and his work, even those passages of later works you had issue with, even some entire works you are not connected to.  

After you'd finished the story, you heard that remarkable sound of an audience that sounded as though someone had given it a collective heave about the waist. It was the group sound of a gasp of acknowledgment at hearing a story, the likes of which they wanted more of.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Right Word--Not Its Second Cousin

 In one of the great ironies you have yet witnessed, you set forth years ago, determined to build a significant vocabulary with the ardent belief that the larger your vocabulary, the greater your toolkit for setting forth meaningful story and narrative. 

This quest was a deliberate part of your wish to become a writer. To you, this decision meant an acknowledged contract to deliver goods of feeling and clarity. Indeed, many of the men and women whose works you admired seemed to have at their command an array of words that would send you to the dictionary, only to discover how important these new words were in helping to plumb the myriad ways of the human condition.

Even before you had given yourself over to what you hoped was your profession to be, you were considered by teachers to have an above average vocabulary and an asshole by some of your contemporaries for seeming to use vocabulary as a way of buying in to some special status, or lowering someone from one run on a ladder to a lower rung.

The goal was to have as many words as possible in tow, the better to make intricate, braided concepts clear and to be able to layer your stories with untold nuance. The irony struts forth to steal the scene by the simple result: many of these newly acquired words, Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon in origin are simply exact translations of words already in play or brought on stage under such circumstances as, say, the Norman invasion, to produce language both Norman and Anglo-Saxon could agree upon.

As if that were not irony enough, consider how many of the words you troubled to learn, classify, and put to use in writing and speech do not at all provide the clarification you see in a kind of Platonic ideal, they actually muddy the effect of the sentence or intent in which you have them placed.

You have a list of about forty words such as very, somewhat, beautiful, forceful, exciting, and lugubrious, which at first sound appear as confrontational and exacting as charged dialogue in a well-written drama.

On closer inspection, words such as possibly, intermittently, seemingly, and disingenuous emerge like compromises obtained in an evenly divided congress, trying to pass some legislature. These are words you used with purpose and the sincerity of belief found in a person in despair taking a patent medicine to abate a painful symptom.

Each time you encounter a word such as these fateful light-weights, your Self in charge of Communication groans at the loss. This is the groan of learning. Enough groans, enough revision and editing add to that learning process called Muscle Memory.

Whether he wanted the job or not, Mark Twain became a mentor to you. "Can't you see I'm dead?" he might ask, but your reply is up to the task. "Yes, but your words live." Mark Twain was fond of saying, "The right word--not it's second cousin." With him in mind, you are working your way toward the level of first cousin, if not the right word.                                 

Some of your early submissions used words you thought would insure acceptance but which instead only hastened the time first readers at magazines and book publishing houses stopped reading a manuscript of yours, slid it into the SASE, self addressed stamped envelope, envelope of manuscript box, then got it posthaste to the closest post office for its return to you, sometimes with a handwritten acknowledgment of your industry rather than your story.

Until recently, when you were accused of discriminating against weasels by referring to words you disliked as "weasel words,", you've attempted to drop that meme from your active use, convinced as well that clarity and certainty are in themselves, with regard to fiction and dramatic writing, desirable but uncertain presences.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Our Teddy Bear Is Short and Fat

The past persists in catching up with you as, indeed, it has for much of your life. Why, then, suspect it will not continue to do so for the remainder of your stay here on this remarkable, orbiting planet? 

When you were a junior in high school, as full of yourself as high school juniors of your wonkish sort were wont to be filled, you were aware of the offered course in public speaking as a prerequisite to the class you wished to take, dramatics. Being in the dramatics class meant at least a walk-on in the main event before graduation, the senior play.

You already had in mind a play for which you rehearsed in your imagination, your role to be that of The Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which may well have the record for being the quintessential senior class play of all senior class plays. Of course you were jumping the gun; you'd yet to enroll in public speaking, much less were you to have earned the grade of A in it, all but a guarantee of acceptance into the dramatics course.

The junior year semester began, with you finding yourself in the public speaking class as taught by an agreeable woman of her mid forties, whom you set about convincing by words and deeds of your meriting a grade of A, your sure passport to the world of drama.  

While Miss Cline, the teacher, began to lay out the structures and concepts of public speaking, your determination and energy began to manifest itself in your searches for materials by which you would convince Miss Cline and future audiences of your sincerity.

Your first presentation was from Winnie, the Pooh.  "Here is Edward Bear, coming down the stairs now, Bump. bump. bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." You'd practiced for a week, trying to get what you believed to be at the time a realistic rather than exaggerated English accent.

"B+," Miss Cline said.

Daunted, but not discouraged. you decided to stay with Edward Bear and his creator, A.A. Milne, for your next, in no small measure because Miss Cline praised your choice of material. You began:
"A bear, however hard he tries,
Grows tubby without exercise.
Our Teddy Bear is short and fat,
Which is not to be wondered at;
He gets what exercise he can
By falling off the ottoman,
But generally seems to lack
The energy to clamber back..."

"B+" Miss Cline said.

Okay, time for the big guns.  For your midterm exam, you chose a work you knew at some level to have been the launching pad for a writer you'd come to admire more than most, suspecting this author might last you into your thirties, perhaps beyond.  You built a slight presentation around "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which you'd read once or twice and saw as a vehicle to put your latent dramatic abilities to reveal themselves, whereupon you would later prove to be a credit to your high school.

"A minus," Miss Cline said.

There were a few other A minuses, but no, you did not earn the grade A, which meant no dramatics class, which, unbalance turned out well because it seemed to you, almost without exception, you did not like the persons who did, nor did two other individuals whom you quite liked, each of whom went on to a semblance of success in the world of entertainment.

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog" did, over the next few years, win you over to the point where you set its creator to be your literary pole star. Being dead for some years before your birth, he had no say in the matter.

These past few days, you have "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" in front of you, printed in a large enough type face to eliminate any need for glasses. You are soon to not only read the story to a group of youngsters, you've even built a bit of a story about it, necessitating your best estimation of Mark Twain's voice and, thanks to a marker pen, your cueing the manuscript to replicate Twain's sense of timing as the narrator.

In so doing, the past and present have caught up with you once again with your awareness that "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" had a certain familiarity about it, which you dissected as follows: "The Jumping Frog" is the story of a man who is pranked by an acquaintance to call upon and present himself to a person the pranking friend knows to be unable to either stop talking or to stay on any course of logic.

Two of your favorite Twain short pieces, well beyond "The Jumping Frog," are "The Grandfather's Ram," and "The Mexican Plug Horse," both of which involve the same device, of Twain himself being trapped by a garrulous older man, who appears able to go on forever, spinning out a shaggy dog story of excruciating length. 

The more experiences you have with Twain, the more you find common resonance with his slow, dead-pan delivery. And the more events you recall of your father, himself a natural at the dead-pan pace, the more you see the pattern of your own approach to any narrative.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How Did the Little Girl Get into the Rabbit Hole?

 There you are, half way through a book you hadn't read for about ten years, going through it to make notes for a lecture you'd want to give to a group of students reading it in your Explorations in Literature Class.  

Your first encounter with the novel in question was back in your days as an undergraduate at UCLA, where it seemed you had time not only for reading but for classes and those two requisites of any decent university education, beer and girls.

Your reading of the novel, Sinclain Lewis' Main Street, came at about the same time you read another memorable narrative which you should have connected at the time, but did not. In a way a small loss since, these many years later, during which youve reread both novels several times, you still had not made the connection--until now. 

Thus the point: You can no more run away from your past than you can run away from your future. The former will come back to haunt you and the latter will linger around to surprise you. They will meet on frequent levels at frequent times in your life, whether or not you've read about the circularity theories of Giambattista Vico (1668--1744) or his distinctly non-Cartesian posit that truth isn't observed, it is constructed from action.

So there you are, well before the most recent time of being midway through Main Street. In fact you are in a classroom, presided over by the chair of the English Department, dapper in his textured waistcoat, clapping his hands together to punctuate his question, "How did the little girl get into the rabbit hole?" 

You have relived and reused that moment several times over, that moment of being launched into an orbit created by a professor relative to something you'd read earlier as a child.  When you were at the age of having read Alice for the first time, you took it at face value, which was the probable stretch capacity of your ability to infer, deduce, interpret. 

You understood that the characters and circumstances were imaginary, but you did not yet understand how even imaginary beings could be seen as substitutes for other things.

You were at a literal age. A thing was itself; it was not anything else.  Comic book characters were not real; they were elements of a story, which was not real, but seemed real. Think then of the potential for culture shock. You first read Main Street within months of being led into the rabbit hole for perhaps the tenth time, but in this instance under the guidance of the chair of the English Department.

You are not so much surprised that you missed the connection between the two works as annoyed because now, at this remove from Alice, and into Main Street for at least the fourth time of close reading, you see a perfect parallel. Never mind that the author of Main Street may not have seen the connection even though he may well have read Alice.

In your estimation, there is safety in you telling your fiction writing classes that details must serve a greater purpose than mere decoration. Details are points of beginnings, of facts and sensations being set in some orbital path about the galaxies of your mind and its imaginative capabilities.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Collage Fiction

 The French verb coller, which refers to gluing or pasting something on a surface, became the entryway into the French language and, thanks to that particularly English way of colonizing things likely to provide a profit, the word collage. 

One way to look at collage is to think of it as a surface on which various shapes of different textures and media are pasted, intending on providing a sense of order or structure.
In the process of reading a review of the work of a collage artist in a journal, you feel the tingle of suspicion that a connection is about to come plummeting your way. 

You look up the definition in your trusty American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language, unabridged, then become aware that those tingles have a reason for being. Collage also has a literary meaning, which allows for the use of borrowed material. This is of mild intrigue to you because you sometimes like to borrow a quote from another author or notable to use as an epigram for a chapter or an entire book.

The intrigue becomes less mild, in fact downright exciting when you come to the additional implication that a collage in the literary sense can be a group of seemingly disparate or disjointed shapes and textures, leading the reader to an implicit (rather than explicit) conclusion. 

You'd written how, a few days back, you'd been kidnapped, driven off by your captors, who revealed to you how they wanted you to spend some time with fiction, dictated an equivalent of a ransom note for you to send off to the nonfiction book project you've been working on with enthusiasm and purpose, even to the point of having successfully worked your way through and past that stage of thinking, What the hell are you doing here? This meant you'd played the interior tennis game of running the numbers, thinking in worst scenario terms how many persons would read this book even if it were well written.

Through the years, you've come to the stage of adding one to your worst-case scenario answer, so your answers were, N + 1 and This book happens to be well written, thus your faith in it remains constant and enthusiastic. Nevertheless, you wrote the ransom note to it. You worked out a compromise situation wherein you agreed the nonfiction book was Priority One, and got most of your time, but you agreed to put in no less than six hours a week on the fiction project which, at the time of writing, you were hoping would turn out to be a short story.

The fiction project does not appear to want to be a shorter work, and you have no idea where, if anywhere, it is going. Indeed, it appears to be hopping around in time and place, beginning back in the days when male students enrolled in the University of California needed to complete X units of Reserve Officer's Training Corps, also known as ROTC, then jumping to more or less Burbank, California, and the writers' room of a popular television program. You have a hint that the narrative will make its way northward to Santa Barbara, because you see at least one potential scene taking place in a structure called The Old Little Theater on the campus of UCSB, where you in fact taught more than one class.

And yes, you were, also in fact, required to take X units worth of ROTC classes, one of which, to your ongoing amusement, you failed and had to repeat. And thus, yes, there are some autobiographical elements, but so far as you can see, the events of this work are fiction, coming to you from the same source(s) of your previous novels and shorter fiction. 

The exciting part, which also speaks directly to that What the hell are you doing here" stage, is the inescapable awareness that his material is in the form of a collage, thus it is what you call collage fiction, which is not a term you ought to take credit for having invented, even though you have not heard it used before nor have you used it yourself.  What you do know are these two things: Your narrative so far has one principal character and is likely to run its course that way, with your protagonist speaking through a close third-person filter, and at the present moment is about the theme of identity.  The work us a characteristic demonstration of your working method, adding new characters and situations, being character- rather than plot-driven, and at present having dramatic and scenic thrust rather than the more conventional and constant nudge of causality.

To date, there are precipitating events, but no one, least of all you, knows what the force behind them is.  Ah well. The first thirty novel are the most difficult, and you had no idea whatsoever about collage fiction when you were writing those.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Destinations and Outcomes

At various times in your life, either in trains, buses, or in your own car, you've gone past your intended destination or gotten off too soon. At various times in your writing life, you've gone past your destination point or disembarked too soon. The former instances had to do with various forms of distraction or confusion. 

The latter instances were indulged for the same reasons. Destinations and outcomes are not always that apparent, even though you may have been anticipating them for some time or, worse yet, even though you've been visiting them a number of times in the past.

 Much of what you compose, and perhaps why you compose, has the effect on you of the cookie crumbs left by the witch to lure Hansel and Gretel. You by no means wish to arrive at the same fate of those two,whom, by the way, you'd got to thinking of as brats. You wished to arrive at an outcome, which has for you a similar sense of having an itch scratched, a thirst slaked, a curiosity abated for the moment.

Perhaps, if you're fortunate, the curiosity leads you on, past a momentary satisfaction, into a deeper, increasingly expanding curiosity. You're all for it, eager for any information or clues an outcome may provide. 

Scanning through your notes, you find frequent mention of the negotiated settlement as one of the most tangible sorts of outcome you can expect, either from life and, thus, Reality, or from fiction, which, within the avenues and dead-ends of your mind, is an enhanced, exaggerated, sometimes steroidal, other times lugubrious simulacrum of Reality.

One way to end a story is to simply stop writing. You've done that, but the approach does not in the long run give you the satisfaction or sense of finality you'd hoped. The best thing to do is something you first discovered while still a student at UCLA, working the night shift for Associated Press from 3:30 p.m. until 12:10 a.m. 

You'd learned long before that to cut journalism from the bottom upward, which necessitated always the worst case scenario of the entire story except the lead paragraph being deleted, not so much because of the quality of the story as the space left on a given page.

When you began writing your essay-type essays that way, your grades began a dramatic rise to the point where you were experiencing a happiness difficult to define. This inchoate happiness was also a part of your gradual coming to terms--your outcome, as it were--with the form of story you'd been seeking.

Thus now, the way to end a story is to write everything you can about the narrative until you realize you're explaining, repeating, and losing the sense of immediate connection with the characters and theme. This produces an effect where it is almost as though the characters in the story and the narrative itself are sending you notes of increasing urgency, Stop. Please stop. Stop right now.

At this point, you begin cutting from the bottom upward, seeing with increasing clarity how you'd begun explaining the kinds of things that do not need to be explained within a story. The sight of your words, turning leaden as you read through and delete upward help you build a muscle memory that sinks in. 

As the cutting continues, you begin to experience an enhanced sense of awareness, not of the world about you but of the Reality within the story. All the while, you're thinking, They don't need this, they don't need to see this, I hope they don't see this.  The "they," are, of course, the readers. You are deliberately overwriting for you, the equivalent of piling too much food on your plate from a cafeteria line. But you are removing text for the reader, to, in fact, spare the reader from unnecessary details and explanations, superfluous philosophy, and exaggerated justification.

There arrives a point where you have trust, an equals sign, and readers; in effect you are saying the more you trust the story, the more you trust the reader. The more you like and believe the story, the more you trust the reader. The more you listen to the characters, the more you begin that necessary sense of losing awareness of the reader, but this time in a blissful sweep of trust wherein you believe you've created a powerful evocation of the original idea, traced it through to the point where it tells you it has arrived at a destination.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Funny You Should Ask for a Tuna Fish Sandwich

 Challenge is better at being a verb than a noun, but not by much, and in either case, noun or verb, it is a vital tool for the writer.

First and foremost, challenge in noun form is the spark of vision, perhaps no more than an overheard sentence at a social gathering or workplace. You can recall one such set of circumstances where you sat with a group of individuals who were, like you, laboring under the challenge of being funny.

This is a regular gatghering, a regular meeting of individuals who, at length, are in effect called to order by someone they all recognize as a lesader or, you could say, a chairperson, running a meeting with a loosely agreed upon Roberts' Rules of Order kind of govering procedure.  The difference is that the leader says, barely a question, "Anyone got anything?"

He means by this, and the group understands it, "Does anyone have anything funny to start with?" You look at the others in the group; they, in turn, are looking at you. In effect, everyone at that meeting is accepting the challenge, which is to say something that is either funny on its face or can be worked into a situation that produces laughter.

The noun turns to a verb in the silent moment where you and the others are struggling to do something that seems on its face to be impossible, which is to be funny without having a specific target. In that long moment before you and the group will be working to develop something funny out of nothing, you recognize you are at the moment the youngest in a group of dyspeptic men and one woman, all of whom have credits for funny, which is to say each of them has been a writer for a comedy show or a specific comedian.

Emboldened by the fact of this group of individuals in a room, setting off to fulfill one of the more difficult challenges, you say something in a manner you have taught yourelf to dislike; you blurt. You are not the kind of writer who works in this manner. You work alone or in noisy coffee shops. You blurt not because of your eagerness to say something funny or bond with the writers in this writers' room, rather to take a lead in something you know quite well is precarious.

"Tuna fish sandwich," you say. 

There is a silence, where all about the table react as though they have heard the antithesis of funny.

"What did he say?" one of them, with curly gray hair and a noticable wire from a hearing aid draped over one ear.

"He said 'tuna fish sandwich.'"

"Funny," a man with a muted Hawaiian shirt says, reminding you of a man who regularly beat you at rotation pool in a pool hall on Santa Monica Boulevard.

"I was thinking that the other day at Nate and Als," the woman said. "I was wondering how it would sound if someone came into a deli with a sincere desire for a tuna sandwich."

"He said 'tuna fish,'" a man wearing bright red suspenders said.

"He's right. Tuna fish is funnier than tuna."

"Where is this getting us? Are we going to have a waiter at a deli?"

Satisfied you've been an engaging rather than disruptive factor, you speak up, this time sure enough of yourself not to blurt. "Got to be a waitress. Waiters in delis are not funny."

"Who the hell is this kid?"

"Friend of the producer," you say.

"Now that is funny. Too bad we can't use it."

There was a time in the early 1950s, epic in nature, when the ruling weekly spot for television funny was Sid Caesar's Show of Shows. Some of the individuals in the writing room included Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Lucille Kallen, Danny Simon, and Sylvester "Pat" Weaver. 

It is still possible to see some of the results of the writers room for that show by consulting variously Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray, and Howie Morris, captured on YouTube segments, therein to see how funny began, how, week after week, it was developed, dramatic in nature.

Perhaps your favorite single skit from this era, which surely had its origins in that fabled writer's room, was an intense pantomime involving Caesar as a beleagered husband coming home late to a suspicious wife, the skit and its movements synchronized with the opening movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. 

Not a word of dialogue. And Caesar and Fabray were superb performers who could well have been the origin of the skit. Of all the fabled instances and moments of that past you'd like to have been a fly on the wall attendee at, the writers' room at Show of Shows.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Quiet on Stage, Please. And Roll 'em

 Plots intrigue you because you cannot design them out of the box. You need instead to develop a character, see the character as a type, then with enough wrappings and filigree to produce the semblance of a person. As a consequence of this binary, you lap up plot-driven novels as though they were handsfull of M and M's, awaiting you in a nearby dish.

While you are reading, you are wrestling with some concept or other that nags at you, insisting it be made into a story. Your solution to the problem is to throw more needy individuals into the stew. In a real sense, your story, the one variation on a theme you seek to relate in significant individual strands, is The Canterbury Tales.

When the going gets tough, the persistent old refrain reminds us, the tough get going. Your approach to the matter becomes a series of quirky sorts, off on some sort of purpose which you have, over the years, come to realize as a quest, a goal, a pilgrimage. One such venture you recall over a span of a half century had individuals standing in line to purchase tickets to an event such as a play, a rock concert, a ballet, even, when you thought you were wildly in love with a singer, an opera. You remember the final line, as the protagonist approaches the box office, "Two tickets, as close to front row as possible, center section, for the opening performance."

At the time you wrote that narrative, with that ending, you were working as an usher for such venues as the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theater, the Wilshire Ebell,and the Shrine Auditorium, where, in most cases, the important aspect of your pay was the experience of a musical comedy, the pulse of stage, of drama, and of opera, concert, or play. 

The anticipation of experiencing them fed your hunger for the performed experience, any one of which, you believed, held the key to the drama you wished to create but were, as yet, unable to articulate in functional ways.

Thus, for the longest time, you saw story as the anticipation of drama. In contrast, you now see it as actors in a live performance or waiting for cues to enter the set for a filmed performance, where they will pretend to be someone else, with the expectations of this other person,this character. Many actors will hold this pretense of being another for the one-time filming or the week or so of a live performance, then off to another impersonation.

You like and romanticize certain actors, envious of the ease with which they slide into the skin of a pretend person, in some cases "doubling" or taking two roles int he same play, or racing across town from one studio to another with the goal of impersonating more than one character. This puts you in mind of the number of schools you attended while in your formative years, then the number of venues where you taught in your more recent years.

In one such circumstance, you began a lecture thinking to remind the students where we were in the previous encounter, more or less the equivalent of telling an audience, "I am Hamlet, until recently a carefree university student, called home to a life-changing series of events beginning when my father died under mysterious circumstances, and my mother with 'O, most dexterous speed,' married my uncle, whom my late father appeared to me as a ghost, demanding I avenge his death."

The students appeared baffled as you spoke, shifting their bodies nervously, until one of them spoke up in a polite but firm interruption.  "Excuse me, but that's not at all what we were discussing last week."

In this dramatic moment, both you and your students are at existential loggerheads, with you, reaching into your teacher's tool kit for the solution. Within this toolkit, the same implements of the actor and writer, which is to say deceit, persuasive abilities, a quickness of ability to accommodate, and a splendid ability to lie without seeming to be doing so. In the moment of the student's interruption, you realized it was indeed not this class but another class in another institution where, only last week, you were discussing the equivalent of Hamlet.

With this awareness came the presence the writer /teacher/
actor/performer needs to recover from being the unreliable narrator. You could easily have admitted the error and gone forth as though nothing had happened, perhaps even evoking sympathetic understanding, but this moment and your devotion to being that aggregate of writer/actor/teacher/performer had pushed you over the edge.  

"Yes," you acknowledged, "but we should have been discussing Prince Hamlet because his travails are the same ones we're experiencing in this class. We need to see beyond the single, straight line of fact or of theory, into the parallel lines of metaphor, of implication, of elephants in the living room."

"Could you walk us through what we should have been thinking last week?" the student who'd called you out with such polite interruption asked.

You examined his face for a moment to see if you could detect any traces of sarcasm. There were none, and so you proceeded with this week's lecture and devices intended to evoke lively conversation, sensing you'd restored the audience's confidence and participation. 

Even more important, you'd brought on stage the process in which performance produces an emotional accompaniment to the facts in play at the moment. The process insures the memory. You, the teacher, and you, the writer, are playing to the house, wishing to convey the living dimensions of the process. The house is every bit a part of the process as you and the material are.

Without the house, the printed page, the scene, the lecture, you are merely talking to yourself, and likely reviewing the wrong lecture.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Reality as a Five-Dollar Knock-off of a Rolex Watch

For a time, between your early teens and twenties, you struggled to read the works of philosophers, convinced they might lead you somewhere necessary to growth you considered necessary supplements toward your emergence as a writer. 

During those years, although you thought you had destinations of significance in mind and purpose, you were largely arriving at pool halls, jazz joints, and used book stores, often at the expense of classes at the university.

Some of the philosophers you read left impressions on you, one notable one being you could not take the same shower twice, which you were at pains to prove, and another, relating the ability to think having a direct result of being. You had several leaps of faith, although you doubted then (as you do now) that these attempts at faith were of a religious nature.

Of the many Germanic philosophers you visited, Neitszche said something that got you to thinking and a degree of awareness where you found a vision, if not a philosophy, that has informed much of your activity, inactivity, dithering, impulsiveness, impatience, and such awareness of humor as you now possess.  Neitszche spoke of a cold, impersonal universe. 

You begged--and still beg--to differ. In your view of the universe, particularly after the extended times of your visit within it, is of an entity too busy with the details happening on its watch to give a fuck.

If a vision or philosophy is to come as a result of being in a setting,the burden for framing the vision falls upon you. Thus you begin by seeing the Universe as a vast bureaucracy, beset by conservatives who wish to reduce governing principles to a few self-serving homilies and/or bromides, all in the service of maintaining their vision as the only acceptable one. 

On the other hand, you view the universe of reality as a vast, overprogrammed runaway, a sorcerer's apprentice, if you will, that has pulled too many levers for the sorcerer to be able to contain with a one-spell-fits-all remedy.

All other universes of Reality are created by writers, dramatists, musicians, artists, photographers, actors, each presenting a simulacrum, in effect the five-dollar knock-off of a Rolex watch, offered you variously on the streets around Times Square in New York, downtown Los Angeles, and while waiting in the lines to reenter the United States from Mexico.

Try as you may to accommodate your responses and behavior to this resounding clusterfuck, you still overstep the boundaries of patience, prudence, and intervention, mindful of Reality's concerns, your major fears that you will do something to harm another and in the process harm yourself.

 The door to humor is thrust open wide before you when you see individuals, including your own self, thinking to take charge, devise a plan, then set forth to show Reality how it should be running itself.

Your visions include the wisdom inherent in the statement, Things aren't what they seem, followed quickly with the observation, Nothing is what it appears to be. Humor begins with the expectation that an individual, you, for instance, can control outcome in a scientific manner, which is to say that, using a tested approach to performance, outcome can be predicted and, indeed duplicated.

Humor continues along its merry path of development with the presumption that Reality can be tamed, bent to conformity, controlled. You've needed well over half a century to get any sort of bridle around the mouth of your temper; how could you possibly then expect to rein it in with any consistency?

A major theme in certain middle-class soap opera drama demonstrates the inevitable tug of career on romantic and family relationships. One mate, possibly even both, find the need to focus on career more urgent and draining than coping with the vicissitudes of romantic relationships and, thus, the broader avenues of humor.

It becomes of particular humor when we are too caught in the large nets of intrigue thrown by the fraught nature of career as well as the apparent need of many to see career as the psychic glue holding the ego together.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Boil Some Water--Lots of It

Your favorite characters for following in the works of other writers and for use in works of your own devising are men and women who are not among the most reliable of narrators. They are by no means meanspirited nor devious, nor are they duplicitous. More than anything, they are marginal, as in outliers, persons more notable at the rat-tail ends of the bell curve rather than prominent in some field of their choice.

These favorites of yours may have an ability or, if you will, a talent not of their own choosing and certainly not in a discipline where they devote daily practise. In fact, such extraordinary ability seems to them more in the nature of an albatross than an ability of which they can display owner's pride.

These views coincide with your frequent expressions of admiration for the cartoon character of Wile E. Coyote, who is, as his name suggests, a coyote, but who is also anything but wily, the spelling of his name a deliberate intended irony in the same manner Groucho Marx's greasepaint eyebrows and mustache are deliberate exaggerations, meant in their overdone state to remind us of his rascally intent.

In a real sense, Groucho is well up on Wile E. Coyote; Groucho always has the last word, and that last word is some stinging rebuke or observation to remind us how the world may be unfair, fingers on the scale, robber barons eventually winning mode, but such things may be held at bay by the laughter of scorn and the stripping away of the mantle of respectability. 

Groucho is living reminder of the nakedness of the emperor. Wile E. Coyote, however much he is the patron saint of characters, thanks to his single-mindedness, is a living reminder of the humiliation most characters are caused to suffer by the vicissitudes of Life.

Enter now another remarkable character from a remarkable writer, one of your favorite writers, in fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom you admire more in his short stories than his novels, This admiration takes in Fitzgerald's understanding of the needs of so many early teens and twenties, including their avowed preference for those who are quite genuine in their desire to change the world, to take down many of the obstacles that cause teen-aged romanticism and optimism to morph into cynicism, 

Among the dozens of memorable characters Fitzgerald has pumped into the reality of twentieth century literature, one of your favorites seems to have with deliberate purpose, allowed himself to be moved to the rat-tailed end lines of the bell curve, Pat Hobby, the screenwriter holdover from the days when movies were either entirely silent or transitional in the sense of scene changes being presented the audience in the framework of contentious and/;or provocative dialogue.

Pat Hobby was once allowed to sit at The Writers' Table in the Studio cafeteria, but who is now forced to take lunch with stage hands, grips, extras, and animal trainers as opposed to the studio heads, producers, and thousand-dollar-a-week screenwriters. Fitzgerald, who was once invited to lunch at The Writers' Table, has changed the lyric grace of his short stories to a kind of screenplay mash-up in which declarative sentences vie with readily obvious appearances. Fitzgerald wrote and published seventeen Pat Hobby Stories, in a real sense turning not only the laser beam of inquiry on himself but the Wile E. coyote-ness of the studio system at the time of his participation in it.

You admire all the Pat Hobby stories, but the unquestioned favorite is one entitled "Boil Some Water--Lots of It," centered about Hobby being given a three-week job on a medical thriller, his major contribution being a medical emergency in which a doctor character is portrayed as ordering a nurse at an emergency scene to "Boil some water--lots of it," and now, Hobby is unable to devise an appropriate dramatic response to the order.

In a stratagem every bit as suitable for Wile E. Coyote in one of his attempts to bag the Roadrunner for lunch or an early dinner, Pat Hobby finds a nurse from a nearby medical office, invites her to lunch, in a real sense hoping not only to find out what the boiling water is used for but to glean possibilities for subsequent action in the screenplay. Hobby brings the nurse to the studio, where they sit within range of the Writers' Table. The nurse recognizes and is mesmerized by a number of actors and directors.

Unknown to Hobby, a top-tier screenwriter has orchestrated a remarkable prank in which he, costumed as an extra from an adventure movie, sits at the Writers' Table, refuses to leave when he is told mere extras are not permitted, becomes belligerent, begins waving his Cossack sword. 

Hobby sees the prank unfold, but unaware of it being a prank, thinking instead to earn his way back to the Writers' Table, crowns the "extra" with his cafeteria tray, laden with dishes, drawing blood, then learning he has bashed the top-tier screenwriter. Of course the episode is brought around to its farcical origins with the nurse, rushing to attend the prostrate screenwriter, calls forth, "Boil some water--lots of it."

Like a Wile E. Coyote misadventure, Pat Hobby has once again found the humiliation only someone who could want so much to be a part of the Writers' Table status could want, making it ever so much more than a prank gone bad, in the process drawing in a victim of an artificial system. Of course you follow and respect the Wile E. Coyote cartoons and the Pat Hobby stories, not only for their iconic themes but as well for the way Fitzgerald's artistry took him on yet another aspect of his short story vision with this spare, wry style.

The coyote and Hobby are so caught up in the immediacy of their simple, direct quests, the coyote to bring down the Roadrunner, and Hobby, intent on keeping himself on the payroll, that we root for them because we see, beyond their ability to do so, the hopelessness of their goals. We are left thus, our own goals for company. If we are silent for a few moments, we can hear them, dictating notes of desperation to us, asking us, please, a little help for a friend.Please.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What You're Really between When You're between a Rock and a Hard Place

Because of your boyhood interest in Greek mythology, prompted and abetted by your sister, you were never in a tight squeeze or between a rock and a hard place; when you were in a jam, you were between Scylla and Charybdis. 

Because of your boyhood tendency toward being a smartass, you can remember at least two teachers thinking to trip you up by questioning if you knew what Scylla and Charybdis were.

This was not an unusual or unreasonable thing for those teachers to have done. Each of them knew well your tendency to invention and to hyperbole. What they may have not known, and indeed you may not have recognized at the time, was your urgent fondness for being between a rock and a hard place, being in a jam, being between a longish, snaky monster with numerous heads and rows of sharp teeth, and her counterpart, also female, thought to be a personification of a whirlpool.

Tangible evidence of your smartass nature came with your use of those wonderful words "thought to be" when you got around to describing Charybdis. "Thought to be" added to the sense that you were not a mere reader of mid grade and young persons' books, but rather an --here comes another favorite word of yours from the time--omnivorous reader.

It does not take much reading among the Greek classics to see the ongoing political uproar among the gods and goddesses, nor indeed the dramatic results of such offspring as Achilles, the product of a mixed marriage between god or goddess and mortal. Nor is a mountain goat leap of connection required to see the results of similar mischief in Ira Levin's breakout novel, Rosemary's Baby.

Being the youngest in a family of four did not in any way consign you to a sense of falling between the cracks. You had access to and enjoyed the company of parents and sister, but there seemed a particular sense of the ever present potential for boredom at that young, smartass age that brought being between Scylla and Charybdis to your thoughts with great frequency. 

Faced with the opportunity to riff on a subject about which you knew nothing, you were solving for moments at a time, the boredom problem.  

Who, after all, can be bored when volunteering to explain something for which you had no explanation at all?  Who can fail to be amused when knowing an actual fact or, better yet, a concatenation of actual facts, you cause an interrogator to assume you're being inventive in place of being authentic?

The key, as you see it, is to establish yourself quickly as either a reliable narrator or one who, on second thought, is not so much unreliable as questionable. Then, to use a term from the card game of twenty-one, you double down by unsettling the reader with an actual fact or an invention, leaving in either case the reader to wonder which was which,

This between-a-rock situation is a common one to any writer of story, a probable one to most writers of nonfiction, giving the writer an opportunity to express at least a binary if not six or seven diverse points of view in a longer work, hence one of the greater joys of the writing process. 

Your goal is to cause one or more of your characters to navigate the dramatic equivalent of the route of Odysseus' sailors when they attempted the passage between Scylla and Charybdis, knowing for a great certainty that the composers of that remarkable poetic narrative, The Odyssey, were faced with the same dramatic needs.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Keep on Truckin'

Your first new car was a Sahara tan 1956 Volkswagen sunroof, financed through The Writers' Guild Credit Union. The down payment was a payment for a screen treatment dealing with a man whose major goal in life was to practise with some regularity on a flugel horn. 

Your first new car, after many both wonderful and disastrous used cars was something you thought of as a writer's car when you drove around Los Angeles in it, reflecting how unlikely you would have concerns about its upkeep and general health for some time to come.

Then, one fateful weekend, your drove your new car out onto a highway system leading toward the high desert, first stop Mojave, whereupon you had the experience of your VW being caught up in the slipstream of a passing eighteen-wheeler truck. While not an unpleasant experience, the sense of capture was a sobering one. 

By the time you were once again caught up in the slipstream of a careening eighteen-wheeler, you'd done something that appears to come with ease to you; you'd turned the experience into a metaphor.This is not to suggest that your early metaphors seemed spontaneous or that, indeed, your narrative had a spontaneous feel to it rather than a mannered one. Such things have to be learned at the rate you are able to learn them. Meanwhile, they're present for you to notice, lights reflected from distant stars.

You wanted your stories to have the effect on its readers of the same series of feelings you had when at the wheel of your Sahara tan 1956 Volkswagen sunroof sedan, caught in the dynamic pull of a large truck as it sped along the road toward its destination. The thematic vision has remained with you these many, many years.

Such a feeling is necessary in your belief for a reader to experience, the feeling having its origins in your early attempts to understand the dynamics of story, then accomplish the ability to put such dynamics down on paper with the kind of regularity some of the writers from the days of the old pulp magazines had. It is not lost on you that your attempts in this direction were of the best intentions, nor is it lost that intentions are not enough to produce desired results. 

Good intentions certainly help. Another not lost thing yet, your awareness of how, with growing impatience with your inability to get the slipstream effect of dramatic inevitability in your narratives, you resorted to what so many writers come to rely upon instead. You became a stylist, an ironist, a literary type.

One of your early favorite storyteller role models was a man who'd worked as a sand hog before turning to writing pulp stories, which writings allowed him to move from the workingmans' hotels of New York and San Francisco to the Hollywood studios and a bungalow at The Garden of Allah. 

With him and a few others like him in mind, you became the equivalent of a sand hog who wore a necktie to work. You did in fact often wear a necktie to work in your scriptwriting days, but that did not provide the help you'd hoped for.

We're talking about an enormous amount of writing, which, in truth, you knew was the equivalent of the monthly installment payments you made on the 1956 Volkswagen. Some of these payments were made possible by producing articles for pulp Western history magazines. 

Your ongoing hope was the naive one of thinking the day was close at hand when things would, as you put it, "make sense," and story would be on the same kind of speaking terms with you that literary style was.Story is in effect a continuum of exact details, chosen with great care to suggest great spontaneity while in the process conveying a surging complexity. Story does not work any better in Reality than Reality works in story; each is a rehearsal for a desired effect.

For every articulate author, there is a plausible simulacrum of Reality. Authors have intent, which they exhibit in their presentations of characters, settings, and narrative voice.

Since about the time our forebears and present day species began contriving ways to convey Reality, we understand this much about the process: We don't yet understand what Reality wants. At least, you don't. Perhaps this is why you still have greater leanings toward style than you do toward actual story.

The good news is, you still have time left.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Kidnapped, But Not the One by Robert Louis Stevenson

Sometimes allegory and history collide to produce surprising results.

 A writer, slightly beyond middle aged, has spent a long day at his desk, working on a book length project for which he has an agreement to publish. The last paragraph or so of this day's writing has begun to seem plodding, unimaginative. He decides on a walk about the neighborhood to clear his head,return to his desk, then decide once and for all whether to delete the offending paragraphs or add something to them that will bring them to life.

Pleased with the notion that his problem is what he likes to think of as a high-class one, he ventures out into the neighborhood with the kind of springy step that comes from a day where the work was more keepable than not, more exhilarating than boring. A car pulls abreast of him and the passenger motions for him to approach, as if requesting directions.

Said slightly beyond middle-aged writer steps toward the curb to oblige, whereupon the man in the passenger seat and another, bulky man in the back seat leave the car, step around the writer so that he is now between them. "Get in the car," one of the men says.

The other shoves the writer into the rear seat. "You're fucking kidding me," the writer says when the driver accelerates down the residential street, where the only other cars are parked before row houses and craftsman cottages so common to southern and central coast California.

"No," one of the men says, "we're kidnapping you." At this point, the writer is blindfolded. "My cat," he says. 

"Your cat will be fed and given water." the writer is told, after which he believes he hears one of his captors attempting to control laughter. "His litter box will be kept fresh."

"What the fuck kind of kidnapper is it," the writer says, "who talks about the litterbox of his victim's cat?"

"Everything will soon be revealed to you," one of his captors explains, "when we reach our destination. You will write a note to all your friends, explaining how you are off, working on a project. You will assure them you are safe."

"I'm not a wealthy man," the writer explains. "Are you sure you have the right writer?"

"We have the correct writer," he is told.

Now it is the writer's time for laughter. "The joke's on you guys if you think you're going to get any ransom for me."

"The joke's back on you," the voice this time comes from the direction of the driver's seat. The voice calls the writer by his name, knows the name of the book project he's working on, even knows the writer's cat is named after a famous jazz musician. "Not all ransom is for money," he says.

You'd had about all you could take of life as a journalism major, put in for a transfer to UCLA, and were accepted as an English major, with a minor in political science. Some of your accumulated class units were lost in the transition. Instead of admittance as a junior, you were classified as a high sophomore, which meant you were required by then existing laws, to take one unit of Reserve Officer's Training Corps, which meant you were issued shoes, socks, trousers, shirt, tunic, necktie, cap, and rifle. Not only was the course a requirement, you had to earn at least a C-level grade or be required to repeat the course until your grade reached C or better.

This meant you had one lecture class, time on a firing range, and a ninety-minute weekly drill at which you were expected to appear in uniform, with your rifle, thereupon to demonstrate your ability to carry, present, and otherwise demonstrate postures for presenting said rifle, and your ability to march in cadence, to turn, and, yes, even to demonstrate the relax position of "parade rest," for which you were twice given demerits.

The ROTC had strict policies regarding such things as absences and accrued demerits, both of which had adverse effects on one's earning potential for a grade. There were regular quizzes, a midterm and final examination. Through a clandestine trail of acquaintances, related to your appreciation of jazz and of marijuana, you were invited to join a group of players in the ROTC marching band who undertook shortly before drill to alter their consciousness to a degree that would make the ninety-minutes ahead bearable, perhaps even on occasion interesting.

Under those circumstances, "interesting" meant any situation that would test your ability to restrain the tendency to giggle at outcomes such as John Philip Sousa marches being played with occasional bebop riffs and flatted fifths.

The details of the writer being kidnapped were pure allegoric invention; the details of your time as a ROTC cadet were not. Something else of relevant, but non-allegoric incident appeared in the form of you reading the words "ROTC cadets" in the early pages of a novel, while you waited at a coffee shop for a friend to appear. You were yanked lo these many years into the past, and, in a true sense, you were kidnapped by the visions and sounds that come to you when you are visited by a story.

You have several pages already, more as difficult to hold in as a curious puppy is difficult to rein in. You have a protagonist, you have a theme, and yes, you have a book you have been kidnapped away from, and yes, it is the kind of feeling you achieve from time to time, over the years, that makes the entire process an allegorical puppy, wanting to get out and investigate the world of scents, associations, and outcomes.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Funnier Than You Think, or Not So Funny as You Think

When someone tells you in so many words, "That's not funny," you're willing to let the matter drop right there,but not because you agree with the assessment. In all probability, you still think the pre-judged not funny matter is funny, but such is the nature of humor, you can't arrive at funny by logic.

A thing is either funny or not, will cause the most miserable person a smile and a chuckle before the need arises to return to the misery. Having great stockpiles of money or commodities is not a passport to a sense of awareness of humor. Quite often, the poor are able to see irony in places we'd suspect them of being too busy with their miserable life to recognize.

When someone tells you in so many words, about some coincidence, "That's funny," you let the matter drop because, once again, you don't agree with the assessment. This time you believe the description is about the potential for irony to be confused with something laughable.

Humor has a compelling hold on you and, you suspect, has a grip on most everyone with whom you come in contact, hear about in the various media, and encounter in random, often artificial contacts. Some of your earliest memories of this compelling hold take you to times and places where you were under the guidance or supervision of an older person who set great value on seriousness. 

You either had a prescient gift for spotting and identifying such serious individuals, or you must face the fact of young persons being constitutionally able to spot such gravitas-bearing individuals. In a humorous enough sense, young persons often have fine-tuned radar for identifying which older persons they can respect and which they know instinctively how to tease to great effect.

By serious adults, you mean those who by word, deed, and gesture, are unable to be anything but serious. To such individuals, seriousness is their profession. If it were possible to achieve an advanced degree in seriousness, they would have enrolled. They may be aware on some level of mirth and laughter, but only as persons who were practicing vegans are aware of meat eaters. 

Your approach to this vision of serious and funny adults leaves you with the unspoken confession that you never outgrew your sense that life, its events, and denizens are funny, and that serious individuals, persons seeking to acquire gravitas, are themselves causes of great humor.

In your universe, the choice cuts of humor often have an edge of sorrow nearby, in metaphor a choice cut of steak being larded with fat, thus a functional and symbiotic effect. The things you most enjoy laughing at or about remind you of some essential flaw in your presentation of Self to the outer world.

Ever since you began to realize you are a prime target for occasions of humor, your life has begun to pick up and the life about you has begun to seem funnier. This one step has allowed you to hold your anger at the things you can neither contain nor control at some sense of distance, allowing you to see how things you are unable to control can still be laughed at to great levels of relief and enjoyment.

If there were not so many serious intentions turning into humorous outcomes, we'd be overwhelmed by the bumps and cuts inflicted on us by the grief, loss, and bewilderment. If a thing is adjudicated as being not funny by an individual of street-cred gravitas, your reflexive response is to ask if there is a statute of limitations.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Absent Friends

You once had a friend, Michael Hurley, who, from a story he let slip one night after you and he closed a night of roistering at a San Francisco neighborhood bar named Spivey's, had a good reason to be more than a little taken to nights of closing bars.

Seems Michael was piloting a jet plane over what he thought was a portion of the Korean Peninsula, only to have his radio come alive on an unexpected frequency, with a voice speaking English, but with a decided Chinese tang to it. 

With understated irony, the voice, calling him by his name, rank, and serial number, welcomed him to the People's Republic of China, where he was at the moment an unauthorized visitor. The voice suggested he redirect his flight path to a set of coordinates which it supplied to him, a path that would lead him beyond what the voice described as his area of trespass. 

The voice sent regards to a number of Hurley's living relatives, wished him a safe flight, and a safe return home.Such details, in a sense quite ordinary under the circumstances, cause you to regard how effective Stephen King has been in his use of seemingly ordinary details and events to produce atmospheres of spell-binding terror.

At the time you'd heard the story from Hurley, he'd left the service, more or less given up on flying, had for a time become a technical writer in the aerospace industry in Southern California, then moved under mysterious circumstances from Los Angeles, where you first met him, to San Francisco, where your friendship grew and you visited, alone and with your wife, on numerous occasions.

Hurley lived out the remainder of his life in San Francisco, working at a variety of odd jobs, including apartment and cat sitting, working in the men's clothing department of The City of Paris department store, and, on occasion, writing books under various pseudonyms for a series of which you were the primary editor. 

He was a walking rattle of pills, an eager fan of aged bourbon. It was he who introduced you to a drink that became for a time your favorite, its Italian name translating to white nun, served at a lounge where the juke box played only operatic arias--Italian opera, of course.

Al Landi, the owner and frequent bartender, told you the contents of the white nun, a double shot of espresso, a generous shot of Corbel California brandy, a generous dollop of creme de cacao, and, as Al Landi put it, "as much of whatever else I could fit into the glass after adding some steamed milk."

Two of these and you'd need to prowl the streets of Columbus and Broadway for a time in order to clear your head.  Hurley seemed able to sip these concoctions from after dinner until closing time, complaining the next day of "the values," or perhaps worse, "the horrors." 

Yours was not so much a close friendship as a comfortable one, Hurley confiding to you his regrets about giving up the piano, and urging you to talk about the reasons why you did not take risks with your early novels.  You think about him because of his habit, after several rounds of drink, of making his signature toast, "To absent friends."

You've a few absent friends in your life, beginning with your wife, extending to a few midlevel friends, including two you had in common with Hurley, one you been classmates with at UCLA, another, also a San Franciscan, you'd met one boozy New Years eve in Virginia City, and found connection beyond boozy evenings.

Beginning with a notional cat named Sam, who belonged to a neighbor, and who liked to hang out with you while you were writing a stream of pulp novels, you've acquired a significant number of animal friends, who came into your life and departed with remarkably similar effects on you as the human friends. 

They all help to forge you into an amalgam of stoic, cynic, sentimentalist, and existentialist, sometimes making observations to a particular absent friend, either animal or human, as though he or she were within earshot. Of course they cannot hear you, but there is a moment of comfort in the thought that they can, and another moment of comfort in the thought that the connection to them remains.

At any given moment, you are every bit as apt to walk with the swagger of an individual who has had such remarkable friends, now absent but nevertheless sturdy props and reminders to walk tall into the tsunami force of Reality. Of equal truth, you are apt to walk with the careful tread of someone who has lost some great heirloom, retracing anxious steps to see if you can locate it.

Sometimes, when you are out having afterwork drinks with whom you can keep your stories and impressions open and free-wheeling, one of them, perhaps a late arrival to the group, when served his or her drink, will extend the glass to clink in the age old ritual, saying something, "Cheers," maybe, or "Skoal," or "Prosit." And you will hear Hurley, reaching through the vagues and the horrors to say, "Absent friends."

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Words of a Feather

 The words "always" and "never" have taken enough flack from social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists to provide ample warning to writers:  Leave these words alone for the sake of clarity. Always means at every time; never means at no time. When used as a way of initiating conversation, they serve the equivalent of dousing a fire with petrol in the service of extinguishing the fire.

Doesn't work. Nor does the situation get any better when an individual is accused, "You always--" or "You never--" For your part in the matter, you could see using those two words to initiate dialogue, but--dare you say it?--never with the intention of initiating conversation. Besides, you try to remain a writer. Why would you have any truck with conversation in the first place?

Another word to give the writerly cold shoulder is "ever," particularly in the context of, "All I ever wanted--"  Who cares about a character who has only wanted one thing? True enough, you want characters to be focused on something, but ever is not up to the standards of a lively and evocative writer's vocabulary.

Take a moment to think about slightly, which, in addition to being an -ly adverb, indicates a small but indeterminate amount. He was slightly annoyed. She was slightly impatient. We don't have a clear picture yet of either of them, which is barely (sic) acceptable (also sic), because in story we want enough to go on to allow us to form what we believe is a picture reflecting the author's intent.

Good luck with story reflecting the author's intent when we're tied to words that fail to suggest a tangible condition. Of course, barely earns its way onto the FBI List of suspect words. 

Forget all about it being an -ly adverb; barely attends the same vague meetings as its cousins, slightly and scarcely. All three words do, on close examination, suggest a measure or difference of extent, but not enough to be useful. A writer who uses such words in effect requires the reader to carry some sort of measuring device with which to assess degree. 

Was he barely over five seven or scarcely there? And even if the reader can point to a tangible difference of degree between the two, does the writer actually (aha, another one) think the reader is going to stop in the middle of the offending sentence to compare and contrast both words?

While we're on the subject of the slightly and scarcely tropes, yet another adverb, almost, raises its hand to be recognized, more than a little confident in its assurance that by degree it means "almost." Almost there. Closer to destination than the point of departure. We look at the word as though it were being presented to us by a salesperson who has an aggressive sales goal. After a few minutes, we nudge it.  "Go ahead," we tell it. "We'll use you.  But be careful. Don't let us catch you equivocating.

And what, pray tell, does actually mean? One way to look at it is as "really" or "in reality,"  But.  Saying of a character that she actually meant what she was saying opens the door for suggestions, doesn't it, that unless the tag "actually" is used every time she means what she says, all her other dialogue is tainted?

You can with some ease visualize situations in which the adverb rather makes no bones about the intention of its meaning relating to a preference. He would rather have pistachio ice cream than rocky road. The use of the would is a help in distinguishing the usage. But if something is rather too much, the something modified by rather is not as definitive as it might be,is it? In fact, you'd have a difficult time, were you to try to visualize it, which becomes the antithesis of what drama should do.

You heard that, right? Drama is supposed to allow you the luxury of seeing characters, settings, and relevant animals in a degree consonant with the theme of the story, the tone in which it is told, and some tangible sense of the obstacles the main character needs to overcome.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Buried Treasures and Treasure Maps.

Adventure stories, in particular those set in some historical era, were the magnet that drew you to reading. You couldn't get enough of them, thrilled by the notion that you weren't only finding entertainment but were gaining a growing familiarity with the politics of here and there as well as the politics of then.

Much as such stories of past intrigues and political skirmishes honed your appetites and fueled your imagination, stories of buried treasure and documents purporting to be authentic maps indicating places where buried treasure lay touched your dramatic appetites like no other. 

The occasional discovery in Real Time of a sunken galleon, an emperor's tomb, or some decidedly significant cache of valuable added the possibility that you one day could stumble on a buried treasure, and added a greater sense of plausibility to the fictional accounts you pursued.

The parallel dramatic lines of adventure and hidden treasure met in the closing chapters of one of the quintessential boys books for boys of your youth, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which came fast on the heels of your having read Robert Louis Stevenson's majestic Treasure Island.  

Such books at last gave you opportunities to fill the pocket-sized notebooks you collected, made yourself, and carried about with you. And fill them you did, with maps copied from National Geographic, National Scholastic, and one of your favorite nonfiction books, a Rand-McNally Atlas given you by your sister when you were ten.

You enjoyed inventing your own islands, often in the Pacific Ocean but as new targets of opportunity came to you through your reading, you understood the greater likelihood of a real treasure being on a real island. Indeed, by that time, you'd really stepped up your production by burying real treasures of your own in the Los Angeles of those days, when there were numerous empty lots and there was a large, undeveloped field just beyond your grammar school. Your immediate treasures were buried near the bungalow where you were a student.

At that time, your maternal grandmother fancied a tea that came in a tin container shaped like a treasure chest. You could get a Big Little Book and a small box of candy in the tin, which you buried with the notion of being sent out of the room for some infraction, whereupon you could dig up one of the treasures, read and munch.  

A disaster with a chocolate bar led you instead to such candies as jelly beans, jaw breakers, and another favored hard candy, Jujubes.  This form of buried treasure went on for some months until you were caught in the act of reading Terry and the Pirates, and working on a lollipop by the teacher in a neighboring bungalow.

Over the years, your fondness for buried treasure has kept pace with you, informing your appreciation for archaeological digs, where the treasure may be of some precious metal or some rock/mineral such as obsidian, which has among its talents the ability to produce a superb cutting edge. There are, indeed, other treasures and riches than coins and jewels.

Among such treasures, indicated by quasi-maps are the notes and, on occasion, a paragraph or two of outline or a list and description of pairs of characters who are separated by a set of wildly disparate traits and personal preferences. At the very least, coming across such notes or maps is a reminder of the childlike joy and resonance you experienced with your early readings, treasure indeed to your wrinkled countenance.

These treasures remind you that a significant segment of your imagination has remained at the level where maps in the form of notes await your digging, whereupon they will help you spell out insights, adventures, and understandings of the relationships between things often seen as disparate during waking, daylight, adult hours. In the twilight hazes of imagination and sleep, armies of characters ply ancient rituals of exploration and discovery.

With a particular tilt of your head at the right angle, your entire being becomes an antenna by which you receive signals of characters much like you, quirky, driven, impatient to find the short cut to the next adventure.