Most cliches were, at the time of their original coining, accurate observations, somehow made more visible and appropriate in the weight of their observation because of a fresh use of words and inference. Even today, in 2016, there is no guarantee that a horse being led to water will drink.
As it happens, a leopard has not evolved with an ability to change its spots, nor aree all clams happy. Indeed, not all coots are bald, nor do all butcher's dogs radiate fitness. However much you may question the sanity of a given March hare, not all hares in March will test out as mad, and while on the subject, the fact of a bug being in a rug does not guarantee its snugness.
Some barking dogs do, indeed, bite; the occasional deer, surprised by oncoming headlights, may freeze in its tracks, but there is a good chance a savvy, streetwise deer will bolt at the sudden glare of headlight.
Only this morning, while taking in breakfast coffee before rushing off to an early class, you observed two crows offering a spirited rendition of the meme of the way a crow flies. A great favorite of your observations about the behavior relates to the disposition of a long-tailed cat in a room of rocking chairs.
All respect to cats, in particular those referenced in a noted uncertainty principal, you have had close hand relationships with cats so laid-back as to give lie to the belief that a long-tailed cat would be nervous in a room filled with rocking chairs.
With due respect to cliches and what passes for down-home wisdom to be gleaned from animals, the veracity of the watched pot not boiling has been put to rigorous question, not the least by a reputable physicist who is known for other observations. With your own eyes, you've seen laid-back or at least non busy popcorn on a skillet, you have frequently had the experience of bringing home good lemons, and in numerous cases have paid more than peanuts for a butter made of the Valencia peanut.
The times you've had an actual or metaphoric finger in a pie did not strike you as being anything but involved in a mess, and you cannot begin to count the times when you did in fact partake of a free lunch. Because these and other tropes of an illustrative intent work well in language, you, as a writer,tend to use those you appear to be able to snatch out of orbit as--dare you say it?--easy as pie, although your own personal experiences with making pies were never easy and your experience with eating them has been.
With all this as either prologue or backstory, here you are, in effect arm-wrestling with a cliche involving a banana peel. Here you are, in effect, following the cliche of having slipped on one, a basic comedic trope. Watching others slip on banana peels causes us, inspite of our resolve to be good natured, to laugh. In doing so, we are not so much laughing in schadenfreude--leave it to the Germans to mash-up in one word the concept of rejoicing at the misfortune of others--but rather in relief that it has not happened to us.
In a matter of days, you've been in or around conversations where (1) someone spoke of traveling to visit an elderly parent or close family member whom you discover to be significantly younger than you while still being elderly (you were giving close consideration to inviting on a date someone who went on to mention a partent of your approximate age, (3) an individual at least ten years your junior referred to you as being a part of "you younger people, (4) an individual by some years your junior accused you of not showing proper respect for your elders.
Here you are, of, at, and in an age yet not seeing yourself as any specific part of it which, as things go for you, seems among the best of the possible outcomes you can foresee.
One day, while out for your walk, in that self-absorbed you often slide into as you walk, you missed the banana peel in your path, came down on it with emphasis, and were aware of being propelled aloft, an astronaut launced on the banana peel of age.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Most cliches were, at the time of their original coining, accurate observations, somehow made more visible and appropriate in the weight of their observation because of a fresh use of words and inference. Even today, in 2016, there is no guarantee that a horse being led to water will drink.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
If you do not persist in the desire to capture, define, then present your vision,the path of it being brought from your creative orbit to accessible earth, where it may be experienced by others is in effect nipped off at the bud state.Loaded question. The key focus is persistence.
Most creativity comes from some form of disciplined attack, rarely if ever from the single bolt of lightning. This has become one of the basic truths by which you live. This truth i is one flickering votive among precious few others as, indeed, the scope of your quest for such truths has evolved from a sincere but limited desire to produce undifferentiated works.
Your goal is to develop astring of works in which more votive candles may be discovered, then lit, then placed where they may offer up their flickering prayer to whichever forces those are to whom persons with ideas and visions llight candles.
A meme is beginning to circulate among some laboring in disciplines approximate to yours, in which the aspirant is asked to commit to the activity that will insure the receipt of at least one hundred rejection slips a year.
This behavior is intended for poetry, short fiction, essays and novels. You are no stranger to rejection, whether the formal, printed ones, the handwritten ones, the letters expressing regret, even the lines scribbled on a returned manuscript. What other reason is there to write a thing if not to wish it the next step in its journey, which is either publication or performance?
However, as phrased, the current hundred rejections a year does not address the subsequent editorial or directorial process standing between the work and its introduction to the audience, implying, you believe, that the mere persistence of sending a thing forth is both necessary and sufficient cause for its publication or performance.
A thing, be it poem, short story, essay, or novel does not improve until it is edited, rehearsed, directed. The mere persistence of sending a thing forth will not make it any better or worse than it is at the moment of sending.
To be sure, there are individuals of great talent among us, men and women who have engeged their talents in serious conversation to the point where extraordinary talent at some young age is cause for great delight and a resulting hope for a long, diverse life of productivity. But there are types of persistence to be taken into consideration.
Once, earlier in your career, you were assigned an interview with a noted ballerina who. the night before, at the age of thirty-six, had danced the lead role in Swan Lake. You encountered her early the next morning, her performance still plangent in your memory, at the exercise barre, doing limbering squats and stretches. You congratulated her on her performance and what appeared to you an unspoken demonstration of her devotion to her craft.
"Young man," she said, for you were indeed young then, "If I did not do my workout, especially after a performance of last night's scope, I wouldn't be able to talk/"
Persistence and devotion do allow us the sense of being able to walk and they may, over time, help us learn ways to make out work good, then better, then even more so, but they do not guarantee that we will capture the vision, then remove it from that wonderful and fanciful orbit where it shimmers in our senses to the excruciating point where we tremble in the fear of not being able to translate the meaning of the image.
Monday, June 27, 2016
When you take moments to consider what progress--if any--you've made toward your goal of being an effective and interesting storyteller, you often come away with the sense of having regarded story as a living, functional entity and for your part in the equation, you regarding yourself as an acupuncturist, looking for vital, unseen junction points and confluences of force fields.
To your satisfaction, you've identified what you call PONR, the point reached in the unfolding of a story where some line has been overstepped, some border trespassed, whence it is too late to call everything off. Enough narrative has been set in motion so that there are bound to be consequences down the line.
However one or more of the characters may try to restore circumstances to their earlier, prestory state, all parties concerned, the characters, the reader, and the writer have reached the Point of No Return.
You have also picked out the place (or places) within a story that precedes and leads up to the point of no return. This is the Defining Moment, a situation, memory, choice, even an ultimatum where the boulder of dramatic consequence is sent tumbling down the escarpment of Reality. The Defining moment often arrives early, may even be the opening momentum, as in the memorable opening line of Poe's short story "The Cask of Amontillado," which ends with the first-person narrator telling us, "...I vowed revenge."
A story may, of course, have more than one defining moment, the first leading us toward the Point of No Return, others arriving after that point has been reached to bolster the seeming inevitability of direction the story must take. For all there is mischief and action aplenty in Romeo and Juliet, the Defining Moment has to wait until the first meeting of the two lovers to be.
Proof to you that Shakespeare would have agreed with your four-hundred-and some-odd-years-later acknowledgment is the fact that the first exchange of dialogue between these two fated individuals is rendered in a perfect Shakespearean sonnet. All text before is either free or blank verse.
You probably had the awareness of your newest awareness whirling about your brain pan much like the single bee bee inserted in every can of spray paint, but it only became apparent to you at this cognitive level after you'd stopped at the ATM of your bank to withdraw some cash.
After your transaction was completed and you were in the parking lot, headed toward your car, you saw approaching you with loose-limbed purposefulness a young woman best described for this event as having heart-wrenching grace and attractiveness. Carrying a paper cup with a probable content of coffee to a probable nearby work destination, her effect on you was so complete that you made eye contact, then greeted her. "Good morning."
You both continued your separate directions for ten or twelve paces, you still pleased with the sight of her. Then you heard her. "Wait a minute," she said.
Later, when you were in your car, thinking about the encounter, you recognized this event in a story as what you called A Critical Point. Here's why. If the young woman had not replied, the matter would have vanished as, indeed, so many events and incidents die aborning in Real Time. Her response was a necessary condition to the creation of A Critical point, which is, as you'll intuit by now, the potential situation for a story to begin. Her active response was requisite to the development of A Critical Point.
Ah, you say, and in fact did say when you considered the implications, her lack of response was no less a response, but not so far as story is concerned. The moment she said "Wait a minute," the pieces for the Critical Point were beginning to assemble. You turned to face her across the twenty or so feet between you. "Do I know you?"
That question could be construed as a pick-up line, were you several years your junior and had you asked it. "You do now," you said, introducing yourself. The critical point is reached. Contact and response. The beginning of a quasi-conversation.
"There was something in your voice that touched me," she said, without reciprocating your introduction. "I was in a terrible mood until you said 'Good morning.'" Then she said, "Thank you." Then she turned to resume her original direction.
By no means a story, nevertheless A Critical Point that, in a story, could have taken on direction and narrative vector. Thinking about the moment and the direction of the dialogue, you saw potentials for several fiction genera progressions, variations on a theme of an exchanged greeting.
And a pleasant Critical Point to you.
Sunday, June 26, 2016
For at least the past fifteen years, your vote for the most important element within story has been voice, well to the point where you have been an advocate of that sonorous narrative quality, to students, to editorial clients, and with great certainty to yourself.
Your argument was simple and direct: If you heard the voice of the story, you knew which characters to bring in, what their goals would be, what their strengths and weaknesses would be, and how far beyond their normal set of boundaries they would trespass in order to achieve their goal(s).
A curious insect of metaphor has been buzzing about you this past year or so, suggesting a new tip of the story pyramid without in so many words saying this was going to replace voice. You've grown used to the buzzing of this insect to the point where you take its presence as a given, b ut you do so without thinking it has any place in your personal list of vital story elements.
And yet you write, think, teach, and advocate for this aspect as a part of your vision for what the composite elements of story are. Tonight may have been the recognition point, realized even as you and your literary agent were discussing a forthcoming seminar you are hosting where the primary topic is voice.
You were obvious in your enthusiasm for voice, ticking off qualities it brings to the page, but then you heard yourelf saying something that arrested you. "Story is action. There may be three narrative filters to get it forth, onto the page. There is narrative, interior monologue, and dialogue. How ele is story transmitted?
Okay, a small percentage of published stories are told in the epistolary form, which means through snail mail or even Twitter tweets or messages left on an answering service, but even then, one or more of The Big Three is used to transport the dramatic information to the reader.
Few writers have no desire to see their work adapted for some form of dramatic presentation such as stage, film, or televised drama, thus the immediacy of the equation of actors being separated from characters by the smallest measure. But the equation becomes even more blurred when you consider how narrative in print media is action in staged or filmed drama. He rose from behind his desk, strode to the window, then peered out at the parking lot below. All those moves are action.
The next method of filtration is interior monologue, wherein the reader gets to see what thoughts are occupying the character. In print form, Hamlet might be considering if life were worth living under such circumstances as he now found himself. What about it, go on living, or end it all right here and now? That's worth thinking about. Go on fighting all this stuff coming down on me, or say farewell. His stage answer has become one of the most celebrated interior monologues in the English language: To be, or not to be, that is the question--
Fact remains that interior monologue is action because a character is shown considering suicide with great and poetic focus. Spoken communication between characters--dialogue--is action. In fact, it is the action of characters expressing story points.
Story is a great many things, all of which have direct relationship to action. Some of the action may have taken place in the past; this is nevertheless action and is called backstory or a recounting of relevant dramatic events that took place in the past and have consequence now in the immediate parts of the story.
Stage, movies, and TV drama have sets or settings, which allow the audience to "see" some of the descriptions and details. The better narrativer writers are able to present much, if not all, description through action.
You can say with emphatic certainty the a narrative without action is the opposite of story; it is the stasis of things and persons. By triangulation and direct statement, you've argued how story is dramatic information, which becomes sets of action in which rights, privileges, behavior, and goals are set into movement.
Story is, thus, action. It is action told in a particular tone or voice, which is often that other mislaid concept, inevitability. Story is inevitability, marching, running, swimming, conniving its way to outcome. Story is the buzzing insect of intent.
Saturday, June 25, 2016
One of your earliest awarenesses of voice as a primary tool in storytelling came from a source you've long since considered your third university. This source was an icon of your growing-up years, reminding the octogenarian you of the teen-aged you with a haunting persistence.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
There was a recent time when you were awakened from a sound sleep, not sure if the waking noise were a gun shot or a car in back-fire mode. The fact of your accelerated heart beat told you that whatever the sound, you heard it as a gun shot. Thus the nature of a perception in its willingness to jump to a conclusion.
When you lived on Calle Mesones in Mexico City, you were often awakened by the sound of explosions, but because you knew in advance you lived over a fire cracker factory, your sudden transition from sleep to wakefulness was accompanied only by noise, no accompanyment of peril.
Narrative voice has similar effects on you, runing the gamut of emotional responses including the response of you being delivered into gales of laughter or waves of sadness. One writer whose work you admire, Daniel Woodreell, is said by reviewers and critics to have invented his own genre, Ozark noir. With the exception of a few earlier works set in that diverse and mischievous area between Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, his novels are set in and about the Ozark Mountain area of Missouria, featuring the men, women, animals, and misplaced, battered codes of ethical behavior.
Woodrell's narrative voice has the effect of an unsilenced pistol being discharged in the hours between midnight and four or five in the morning, times when the odds favor the targets to be humans as opposed to such intruders as, say, snakes or rodents.
Through his choice of words, his narrative cadence, and the way his sentences indicate some hard reality sitting outside in the carf with the motor running, Woodrell filters hope through his characters in ways that suggest hope is something best not entertained, even during the Christmas season.
You are drawn to Woodrell and other writers whose work could be described as noir for reasons associated with your political beliefs rather than your own balance sheet with achievements and social stratification. your own personal history shows a past in which you were not notably abused, ignored, or discriminated against to any extreme degree. You in fact got pretty much what you earned. To put it another way, you're hard put to recall significantg events where you were denied the fruits of your efforts.
Nevertheless, you are drawn to the narrative where an interesting character finds him- or herself in the dramatic equivalent of a rigged game, even if that walled-in feeling comes as a direct consequence of his or her own maneuvering within the social framework. You began to notice what you now think of as noir aspects and settings in the novels of Dickens and Thackeray, becoming even more weighted against lead characters as the nineteenth century ran down. and writers such as Thomas Hardy and H.G. Wells began to publish.
If ever the rhetorical invitation to writers to throw rocks at their characters, both Wells and Hardy would stand out as forerunners of the trend, reaching a high point, but by no means the apex, in Shirley Jackson's iconic story, "The Lottery," in 1948. Authors still throw rocks at characters, and set them in circumstances where passing events are armed with a few choice missiles of their own.
The very sound of such dramatic interventions appeals to you, not from any possible sense of schadenfreude but rather from your growing observation that reality and dramatic incident overlap at those places where some arm, whether the synecdoche arm of the Law or of Fate are poised with a stone or two to cast or the arm of another person, an antagonist, can be seen, hefting a rock for a sense of how much damage it might inflict.
Monday, June 20, 2016
You did not foresee some of the side effects and digressions about to spring forth when you began work on The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own. Nor could you expect the work is taking so long, in large measure because the digressions and side effects are having such a disrupting effect on you.
By its title, the work suggests a readership of writers, perhaps dedicated readers, perhaps teachers of creative writing, perhaps as a supplementary reading for some literary critical thinking classrooms.
Closer to the truth, the reason you wanted to write this book is for these side trips and digressions of which you speak; in other words, the real audience is you. The excitement and impatience bordering on irritation are because the work could not have come to you, and presented itself so strongly as it did, at a worse time.
Forget the fact that, although two publishers have been less than polite in their response to the work, there are two places at the moment where interest is high, or that your literary agent is also eager for you to finish to your satisfaction, then move on.
The reason this is the worst time is also, in keeping with your belief that nothing bad ever happens to a writer, the best time because you are at once eager and frightened about the prospect of the fiction project you have in mind. Once again, The One Hundred Novels You Must Read caused you to link two writers you greatly admire, writers who, on first blush, seem almost antithetical to one another.
The two writers, and more to the point, their books, are William Faulkner, whose Absalom, Absalom is a whirlwind of narrative energy and complexity, reminiscent of James Joyce's Ulysses, playing with narrative as though it were information received from afar in the same way light from some distant stars is reaching us even after the star, itself, has died; and the Latin American writer, Manuel Puig, whose two novels, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, and Heartbreak Tango use narrative as though it were a shuttlecock in a game of badminton.
Reexamining Puig's work for inclusion in The Hundred Novels got you to thinking of how Faulkner, in his preoccupation with the effects of the past on present lives, stretched narrative to the point where, in Absalom, Absalom, in the early pages, a character recounts events which she says she'd seen. Then Faulkner replays the events from others who were there, trying to make sense of the past and the potential it has for tinting our vision of it.
Seen from the perspective of use of narrative, which is, in your terms, an attempt to interpret past events before linking them to present day motives, you are able to state without equivocation that both Faulkner and Puig are writing detective novels in which the reader finds him/herself cast in the role of a private detective (as opposed to a sworn officer of the law), looking for some sense of truth as compensation, representing most of us, who do not consider themselves such great fans of sworn officers of the law.
In at least one way, this could all be oversimplification of the sort of oversimplification inherent in the statement: A successful university education educates you to understand you can never achieve sufficient education, only sufficient curiosity. By those terms, worst case scenario from those hundred novels of the eponymous title is the relationships you continue to experience between what you read, what you take from your reading, what you write, and which questions your writing answer that cause you to have yet newer questions.
Friday, June 17, 2016
In most cases after a play has been cast, the actors meet with the director in a session referred to as a table reading, where the director informs his cast of his vision, and where blocking,one of the many important aspects of the production, is developed. At its most simplistic reach, blocking is a design for where each character will be at every moment he or she is on the stage.
Depending on the time available for rehearsal, subsequent "run-through" readings may continue for a few sessions before the actors begin moving about, interacting with one another as the script and direction demands.
At this point, the director and writer are watching to see if there are any instances of unanticipated chemistry between characters, instances where two or more characters seem to "get along" or the antithetical "not get along" in a tangible way. This chemistry may well cause shifts in the blocking and send the writer back to the laptop for exchanges of dialogue that add dimension to the story by enhancing the attraction or distaste among the actors.
The story, at this time, is beginning to come off the page and into a sense of dimensional reality. One example of such dynamic stuck in your mind over the years since the original mounting and rehearsal of the dramatic musical Westside Story. You'd read in at least two accounts of how members of the two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, were getting into scuffles during breaks from the rehearsals, each group in a vivid sense embodying the fictional dislike for the other.
In subsequent years, you'd become aware of some directors asking prospective actors to improvise scenes, which would give the actors and the director an opportunity to see if that magic of chemistry was present.
This had an immediate effect on the way you watched stage plays and filmed drama, causing you to look for such instances of chemistry, then see if you could define it on sight or by study. Yes, this meant recorded versions of dramas were preferable, although you did learn from repeated watching of a live play, even if, in the long run, you did not like the play itself.
Looking at the way a drama is mounted as opposed to the way a story is written and then revised, you began to see the former as a way of reaching inside the narrative to get at its voice. From that, you began to see the latter as a way of using revision to remove from the narrative all but the ambient noises, and for a great certainty, any hint of the authorial presence.
The chemistry in both cases is the way a live, mobile narrative has a range of voices in which it wishes to speak; the director or the author has an option of choosing which of the potential voices to whom the actors or characters should listen.
At the moment, you are at the midway point of a book you are eager to finish for the same reason you've been eager these last several years, to see where the project takes you in the voyage of learning. The current project, One Hundred Novels You Should Read before You Write Your Own, involves the principal of you listening to the voice you heard in one hundred formative novels you've read throughout your lifetime, all of them well more than once.
The project you have in mind next holds considerable fear for you; you've known the lead character since your teens, have even used him as a pseudonym on occasion, and have been aware of ways in which he resembles you and ways in which he has departed from you in order to become his own person.
The subtext of fear, underscoring your eagerness to get on with the novel, is the question of whether you will be able to hear his voice and distinguish it from your own.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
Your first encounter with D.H.Lawrence's memorable novel, Sons and Lovers came as the result of an intervention by one of the two individuals who were the secular versions of your most memorable university-days instructors, and a splendid cadre of other civilians who have to this day left valuable impressions on you.
Each of these two secular mentors was an owner of a used book store, one at the confluence of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in that splash of Los Angeles known as Hollywood, the other, smaller, a bit below Hollywood on Santa Monice Boulevard, between La Brea and Fairfax Avenues, on occasion redolent of a smell that may have been cat urine or, as you discovered in another context, years later, Southern Comfort whiskey.
It is of the Santa Monica store and Sons and Lovers you write. You have no memory of the name of the bookstore or even if it had a name other than the sign rendered on the front window glass, Used Books Bought and Sold. You recall one time when, standing at the check-out counter and the telephone rang, he answered it with the gruff-but-emphatic, "Used books."
The owner bore a resemblance to a man you would come to know and hang out with some twenty years later, after you'd left Los Angeles for Santa Barbara. His head seemed chisled rather than formed, his mouse-gray hair erupted in ambitious cowlicks, which he accommodated by allowing to grow without regard for a neat effect.
The first few times you met the poet, Kenneth Rexroth, in Santa Barbara, he described your way of looking at him as of a man recognizing someone from his past who owes him money. It took a few more meetings with Rexroth to make the connection between his craggy face and that of the bookstore owner on Santa Monice Boulevard.
"For someone who wants to be a writer not to have read this at your age--" he shoved a serviceable if not fresh hardcover of Sons and Lovers across the counter, into your stack of John O'Hara and Dashiell Hammett, shaking his head to complete the drifting clause of disdain and disbelief. "Here. You can pay me after you've read it."
You were eighteen; the price, penciled on the upper right corner of the title page, was seventy-five cents.
"You'll want to reread this over the years."
He was correct; each time you reread the novel, you became Archimedes in the bathtub over some new awareness. The first of these was Lawrence, himself, twenty-eight when this was published, giving you about ten years to catch up in technique and that glimmering awareness you had of story being about something more than an arrangement of events.
The second thing was how far he was ahead of me; ten years seemed light years away. Third, he switched point-of-view characters from Gertrude Morel to her son, Paul. Then, in no particular order, the Gertrude segment had become backstory, but the first two times through, you had no idea what backstory was, much less how to deal with it.
By your third reading, the weight and direction of the story made a beautiful sense, in particular since learning Lawrence had at first thought to call the novel Paul Morel before an editor showed him how effective Sons and Lovers was, not only as a title but as a theme.
Monday, June 13, 2016
Words have voices. They are often tentative until they begin to resonate among the harmony of other words in sentences. By the time they reach paragraph length, words attract the attention of even the most dedicated cynic.
You listen for voices when you have taken yourself to a coffee shop to write at those times when you need extra concentration to blot out the ambient chatter of your own brain, in its replay mode. At such times, your brain broadcasts fragments of past conversations, snippets of thought, and descents into memories of past experiences.
If you hear the right voices, you will either eavesdrop on those, buoyed on the sound of their words, drawn into whatever meaning they might have, alert to implications and fresh connections.
But you go out precisely to hear the wrong voices, those of a scratchy or strident tone, forcing you to mount a firewall which will prevent you from hearing the inelegant janble of those spoken words. Then, you'll be able to heed the words trying to form in your own head, words pushing out the ambient clutter.
For years, ever since you realized voice was the most important element in your own composition and in the work of other writers you admire, you've understood how any story, however intricate and compelling, is undercut when it is told in a clangorous voice, a voice that is a tad too hesitant, a voice leaning on cuteness of effect, or a voice that sounds as though it thinks more highly of itself than it should.
Such observations lead you to rank voice at the top of all the relevant elements of the story triangle, for a certainty placing voice over plot, which is the strategic arrangement of incidents and events. In this fashion, you recognize how voice transforms the most simplistic of narratives into near poetic delivery and, conversely, weighs down the most elegant plot with the albatrosses of discord.
When used with finesse, voice becomes the attitude and emotional weight of the story you are reading or, it is to be hoped, the story you are writing. This observation reminds you countless times during the day, whether you at your desk in the act of composing or your chair in the act of reading: Listen to the words, pay attention to the sound of the narrative.
Voice can be the sound of the heartbeats of your characters, necessary presences to give your story or essay some sense of the stage presence of your characters and the time in which their drama is set. Voice can--and should--reflect the attitude of the world in which your characters live; it can also distinguish the difference between poetic justice (the voice of a given culture) and dramatic justice (the sound and presence of the penetrating light of story, peeling away artifice and propaganda.
On this matter, you will accept no propaganda: The truth of story is its tone, the fatalism, optimism, naivete, or cynicism of the outcome the writer has set in motion when the beginning landslide has begun its tumble down the hill. Voice is the difference between, "Look out!" and "Everything will be okay, it's only an invented catastrophe."
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Of the many tools humanity has developed over the years to assist us during our residency on this planet, the least mentioned and most used is not the can opener, the car jack, or even the Swiss Army knife. Rather, it is irony, that stunning resource for helping us stay somewhere within the boundaries of sanity.
Thus this observation: craziness does not require irony to function. Craziness is its own world, where irony would be every bit as suspect as any other feature of reality. This results in the unlikely paring of irony and craziness as the bookends on either side of the voluminous records of our attempts to make our day-to-day way through Reality.
Writers chow down on irony, using it to help themselves and their readers see events as more than a mere, unthinking randomness, or part of a patterned mischief that speaks to the individual the way the Sirens spoke to Odysseus' sailors.
Irony has to begin somewhere; it does so with coincidence, the kind often expressed with someone saying, "It was ironic that I chose to attend the theater that night."
Had he lived through going to the theater that night, Abraham Lincoln might well have thought it an irony to have attended the theater the same night John Wilkes Booth thought to attend. Booth, for his part in the matter, would have expressed disappointment to have missed Lincoln.
Coincidence colludes with irony, the product arriving when one makes a choice, which turns out to coincide with an opposing outcome. We say the choice was ironic in retrospect. Some choices bring about desired and bountiful results, others allow the luxury of thinking we'd been selected by some malevolent universal force for making the wrong choice.
The irony is that there are neither good choices not bad choices, only choices. Some choices have outcomes that produce irony; other choices produce lackluster results such as disappointment, boredom or, in some circumstances, pleasure. But how many of those do we remember?
This is no idle observation. After six years of teaching a course in memoir writing, you note how the most memorable aspects of published accounts are those in which there appears always to be the uninvited guest of Irony, or at least a chair and table setting for It, like the place reserved at every Passover Seder for the prophet, Elijah.
Irony also invites the accompaniment of opposites. The same, admirable Abraham Lincoln might well have said of his decision to attend the theater that night, "I wouldn't have gone, had I known he'd be there."
In that same vein, irony pairs up with sarcasm when one individual says the opposite of what he or she intends, all the while believing some of us will see the inherent irony. "I couldn't be happier to go," as a substitute for, "The mere thought of going sickens me."
If there were no irony in our narratives, you argue, the result of these narratives would be sagas, folktales, morals, sermons, even fables. But not story. Irony is as vital to story as plot is vital to drama. Irony is dramatic expectation, then its fulfillment or frustration:
A man lay within the rumpled sheets of his deathbed, his hallucinations and reflections interrupted by a familiar and favored smell, coming from the kitchen. He motions the hospice nurse close, whispers in her ear. "That smells like my favorite lemon poppyseed coffee cake. Please tell my wife that I could die happy if I had one last thin slice."
The nurse nods, then leaves the room. Moments later, the man's wife enters the room, and the man repeats his request. The wife shakes her head. "The lemon poppyseed coffee cake, that's for after."
Saturday, June 11, 2016
Long before you began wrestling with the notion of what specific profession or career choice you would follow, you understood with great clarity that you did not wish to be born. Although there were some adults you knew who appeared to be bored, most of them were not, their only restrictions, as you understood such things then, the restrictions of the law and of responsibilities to others.
Adults could chose not to be bored; they could have adventures. Some of the radio serials you followed for a time involved younger persons, having adventures. First and foremost on your list of favorites was Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, which you came upon about half way through its course of popularity.
You did not so much admire the character enough to identify with him as you were able to experience envy for his adventures. Even then, you were of the opinion you could effect better outcomes. Your sister helped you put your relations with Jack to a close when you asked of the probability that Jack's adventures were written by adults and she confirmed.
The better way to sate your desire for the vicarious types of adventure afforded someone your age was to search for writers the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, who gave you influential time away from boredom and made being your age seem not so limiting. Nevertheless, you wished for adventures of your own, which led you once again to a consult with your sister. "A true adventure," she explained, "has some element of risk." She was quick to add an observation that became transformational. "A risk doesn't have to be actual; it can be in the mind of the person taking it."
These elements: your boredom, your awareness of which adventures best resonated for you, and your conflating risk taken with adventure experienced, led you to the first time in your life where you had the reputation for being a bad ass.
Schoolyard games of imagination helped you on your way. In Cowboys and Indians or The U.S. Military and Indians, you were always first choice by the Indian Chief because of your convincing death scenes, including falling from the packing crates that stood for pueblos. In Lone Ranger games, you were Tonto because, once again, of your ability to fall or to endure hardships in a stoic manner, and in Horatio Hornblower games, your role was to either fall from the rigging or be swept overboard by a giant wave.
There was nothing extraordinary about this ranking of social stratification you'd achieved. You were also known as good at kickball, and you were teased for being good at reading. None of these were negative as, for instance, one boy, Paul, who was good at math and had more than once been given a bloody nose because of it, or Deborah, who was so notably good at science that you became aware of at least three ventures in which a dead mouse was introduced into her lunchbox.
The quest for adventure led you, one remarkable day, to deviate your way home from school, accompanying a classmate home. He lived on Maryland Street, running east-west, about halfway between your school on Third Street and your home on Orange Street. On that remarkable day, you saw with great clarity how the single-dwelling residences had garages bordering on patches of grass. You made an immediate connection. All one had to do was gain access to the garage roof, from which one could jump, then land in a grassy bed.
You jumped from garages for a week or so, in some cases three or four times from a particularly accessible garage, only challenged once and, to your then sensitivities, in a manner that made you respect adults. "Boys are not encouraged to jump from our garage." You later learned the family was British.
From time to time, you varied your route, taking instead Lindenhurst Avenue for your venture s. The jumps were moments of unalloyed joy. You stepped to the edge of the roof, then propelled yourself out.
For the long moments of your fall, your spine tingled, your heart raced, and your mind brought pictures of epic situations in which you had eluded pursuers, had the last word with skeptics, understood what it was like to be free of restraint. There was never a turned ankle or bruised knee, although your mother did begin to wonder why, of a sudden, there were so many grass stains on your whipcord trousers.
At length, you began to invite friends to join you on these romps, but most of them begged off after one or two jumps. But the momentum had already begun. Elementary school boys are not known for their ability to keep such information to themselves. Now, you were known as The Jumper from Roofs.
Years later, as a whimsical but necessary requirement to graduate from the University of California, you had to either jump or dive from the high board into the swimming pool below. You stood for a moment at the edge, the water seeming a good way below you. But then you thought of your days as The Jumper and you stepped forth, into the crisp invitation of the morning.
However much an adult you are now, those jumping days from the past still excite you when you have written your way into a deliberate place where only risk and boredom seem to be arm wrestling. You nod to your earlier self and step forward, into the frightening prospect of a paragraph.
Thursday, June 9, 2016
One of your earliest heroes was a man named Richard Evelyn Byrd, about whom you first learned in The Weekly Reader, a publication of news-based event and curriculum-studded themes, which you devoured each time it was distributed in your elementary school classes.
In a way neither you nor the publishers of The Weekly Reader could have anticipated, their publication and its constant references to the exploits of Richard Evelyn Byrd led you to magazines printed on the sort of paper that gave those publications a generic name, pulps.
In those rough pages, heroes such as Richard Evelyn Byrd led your imagination on charges every bit as races and spirited as the opening of the box office of the Ritz Theater on Wilshire Boulevard for the sale of tickets to the Saturday afternoon matinee.
Richard E. Byrd was a rear admiral in the United States Navy. However odd and humorous the title of rear admiral seemed, you were for some time willing to undergo whatever necessary rigors to achieve the same rank yourself, the better to accompany Admiral Byrd on his extravagant and copious adventures of discovery, sometimes in places where men had trod before, only to be frozen for their pains, other times in places where he and his minions had in all probability set the first steps of the human species.
When you learned the specifics of the rigors necessary to become any officer in the U. S. Navy, much less a rear admiral, you thought instead to become the primary rescuer of Admiral Byrd, wanting only a recent copy of The Weekly Reader to advise you where he'd managed to have ventured this time in order for you to track him down, then lead him back to safety.
Your primary tools for this excruciating work were a small, pocket-sized atlas of the world, also published by the parent organization of The Weekly Reader, a compass that had at one time been a premium in a box of Cracker-Jacks, a pen knife, and a half-full cardboard container of licorice cigarettes.
If Admiral Byrd seemed to have strayed too far off the known outreaches, perhaps a peanut butter and jam sandwich would have found its way into your equipment bag, but in any case, your rescue of him became a part of an activity you would later understand to be mixing metaphors.
Having located his supposed whereabouts on a map, you'd mount an expedition to find him, which would be somewhere within the yawning reaches of a huge open lot in back of your residence in the 400 block of South Cochran Avenue, not far from the famed Miracle Mile of midtown Los Angeles.
Sometimes, your searches for Admiral Byrd would take you to one of the outer edges of the lot, which would be the east-west-running Third Street, which always amused you because it was supposed to be the third block north of Wilshire Boulevard, but was, in fact, not.
Your imagined scenarios had Admiral Byrd and his men hunkered before a fire, trying their best to keep their hands warm. You would approach, and even though you were not at sea, ask permission to board, thanks to a mash-up of Tom Sawyer, and a neighborhood older person, perhaps six years your senior and, thus, to be respected above all adults. Admiral Byrd would offer a crisp, "Permission granted," at which point you would advance, extending your hand. "Admiral Byrd, I presume."
Over the years, your heroes have evolved from explorers of geography to the men and women who explore a terrain more formidable yet, the outer reaches of the human condition. Great as your imagination and confidence were back in the years of rescuing Admiral Byrd, your new heroes have become those writers who can find you, at whatever remote escarpment you find yourself dangling from, lost or bewildered.
These worthies have come aboard via the mere fact of you having read them; they provide excellent charts by which you can reckon your way back to the mainland.
Tuesday, June 7, 2016
The last time you exclaimed was well after you'd asserted and later still than the awful moment you were discovered exhorting. Like many other living things, and some inert ones such as iPhones and operating systems, language evolves; English, for example, not only evolved through the Norman Conquest, it also withstood the Great Vowel Shift, never thinking it would at some future time become The Language of Science, not with France and Germany in the game. But look at the way circumstances evolved.
Users of language also evolve, often within a single generation which is about the length of time required by ,the expression "They had a gay time of it" to evolve into a meaning with a stark shift from its earlier intent.
What once were called jargon or buzzwords are in actual practise code words by which members of particular social, artistic, and scholarly groups could speak with greater senses of authenticity and presence in front of those uninitiated, the citizens, the hot polloi.
Among a group of which you have some familiarity, albeit the familiarity of a youngster who'd managed to observe a ballgame by watching through a hole in the fence or see the circus more by means of lifting the canvas tent flap than through a ticket of admission, the literary world has its conventions, buzzwords, and codes.
At one course you gave at a Center for Lifelong Learning, affectionately called Adult Ed, you were interrupted by a person, obviously a caretaker from the way she guided and helped find a seat, an elderly charge. During your opening remarks, the elderly charge raised her hand as if to ask a question or challenge some statement you'd made.
When you called on her, you did so with no awareness of her mental or emotional state. "Kill your darlings," she said. At least five more times during the class, the signaled her desire to be recognized, was given to do so, then repeated her earlier admonition. "Kill your darlings."
This is an expression of some editorial intent, meaning to remove from your written text anything that sounds as though it had been made to order for a specific situation within a narrative. Hearing it repeated at such apparent purpose, although a purpose invisible to you, a wave of nostalgia ran through you for the exhortation or admonition or, if you will, asseveration to "Show, don't tell."
Within your clan or society or moiety, "Show, don't tell" has the important meaning of demonstrating the story or report rather than explaining it. This is a sentiment you in large measure agree, even though you've encountered some examples of great hilarity and amusement as neophytes attempt to do so when a well-wrought "tell" would have sufficed. You may have been the engine for setting an edited version of this admonition forth through your frequent importuning to "Evoke rather than describe."
These summary observations are urged because of, or rather amicus curiae brief for the evolution related to the attribution for someone having spoken a line of dialogue in a dramatic narrative. One way to spot a beginning writer is to note how he or she copes with this matter. The beginner believes it necessary for characters to do as many things other than said for having spoken.
The sum of all these paragraphs is quite simple: "Said" is invisible. There has never been a better verb for having spoken than said. If the dialogue intends to show someone exhorting, the line of dialogue would do well to include the word "urge" within the dialogue rather than as a verb. Same thing for warn. "Don't fucking touch that," he warned. "I beg you to reconsider," he exhorted.
And not to forget that if you end a line of dialogue with a question mark--"Are you coming?"--you don't have to say, he asked. "Do it," he insisted. "Go on. Do it. Do it."
Saturday, June 4, 2016
The truth is not always visible. This statement means truth is not always apparent or discernible even when present; it also raises issues of what truth, whether visible or not, is, and if it is a single, verifiable thing, or somewhat of a mixed bag, depending on who references it.
What, indeed, is the outcome of two individuals having the belief that each has seen or expressed the truth, only to discover a wide variation in their report? One outcome, in fact your favorite, is story, which, by your definition, begins with a number of individuals--at least two--entering a scene, each with the firm conviction of being right.
You recall from a distant childhood being directed to tell the truth, by your parents, at Sunday school, and, for a time, in the secular grammar school you attended. From this perspective, you have no associations of pain, duress, or even boredom connected to the dictum. So far as your memory goes, your biggest take away from the education was that you not invent facts or events, reporting only what you knew or believed to be true.
This leads back to a positive expression of what truth is to counter the incomplete negative expression, a lie, in which truth is not an invention of fact, detail, or outcome. Truth is actual fact or outcome, which in turn are actuality and the manner in which events played out.
In your experiences with facts, inventions, and deliberate distortions of fact, you noticed early on how a quality of tact was called for in the dissemination of verifiable event or opinion, and how some individuals, ranging from your peers to adults, tended to distort outcomes to make them seem noteworthy or even outstanding, thus your early awareness of what you would later understand to be irony.
You also discovered your enjoyment of inventing outcomes and the occasional manufacturing of facts, both things you understood were necessary for you to do with a modicum of success if you were to achieve your goals associated with becoming a writer.
In a way you came to understand as vital, you learned how an invented narrative where the final outcome caused you embarrassment was preferable to the invented narrative in which your skills were broadcast.
Truth, whether quite apparent or most occult, has taken on a meaninfg for you in which it represents events and outcomes in which you have no stake in their outcome, events, conditions; outcomes where you have no direct experience but take on the word--honesty, if you will--of others persons; and events, outcomes, and implications where your version has value.
The importance of truth to you has undergone a curious, ironic trip, thanks to your persistent attempt to create devices,simulacrums or stories, as it were, that give the appearance of visible and factual presence although manufactured from an amalgam of imagination, distortion/exaggeration, personal experience and conviction, and from observed accounts.
A substantial reason why you were attracted to inventing realities in which you presented imaginary individuals and events as actual came from your early boredom with Reality as you found it, and from the relative lack of structure you saw in Reality that you did not see in fiction, or invented Reality.
Even though some of your characters might be as disorganized as you, there is a sense in fiction of an order you admire, if only to allow you the added satisfaction of leaving some disorder in your kitchen or closet.
You both enjoy and fear puzzles, wondering at times if Reality is a gigantic puzzle to be solved rather than a joke to endure. You enjoy looking for hidden truths that may be playing teasing games with you in the events and information you encounter. If there are jokes to be found, you wonder if they are on you, from you, or for you.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
A curious and interesting metaphor has thrust itself upon you like a political canvasser trying to direct your vote. Like most metaphors, this one is visual and vivid, featuring you, head leaning against a wall, hand cupped over the ear closest to the wall, suggesting you are listening either to or for voices within the other room. Like most political canvassers, the metaphor is persistent to the point of nagging.
The metaphor hints at you listening to or for a conversation in another room, an activity close to one of your habitual passtimes when you are out and about such chores as taking coffee in a coffee shop, waiting to check your groceries through a market check stand, or standing in a variety of other lines for such activities as purchasing a ticket for a movie or concert, paying your copay at your health provider, or waiting at an Apple store for the availability of someone who knows more than you about how and why computers do what they do and do not do what they don't do.
In such moments of distraction, you eavesdrop on conversations until they prove themselves to have no interest or drama so far as you are concerned, or until you are caught up in the immediacy and drama of the lives of others, wanting that touch of intimate realism.
In the process of such eavesdropping, you often review the knowledge that such conversations and personal revelations have brought you light years away from your quests for radiant them on which to base your preferred medium, the short story, and your next-in-line preference, the novel.
"Don't you think," an early college writing instructor asked you of a recent effort of yours, "that this is a bit too thematic? How many middle-aged men do you know who have conversations such as these?" He was correct, of course, and you were reaching the stage of development where your inner reaction to those questions was still smarts and wisecrack, but you'd learned to nod your head in agreement, which was beginning to be a signal for a teacher to drop some valuable advice. "Well then, why don't we look for the big theme within the small detail instead of trying to find a story in epic details?"
"This," a much admired writer and editor said of a story you'd sent him, "is carrying the objective correlative too far." What had seemed a good idea at the time, in your enthusiasm for the theme to an individual rushing to catch a train that had already pulled out of the station, was, on sober reflection, not so hot.
Cutting back on metaphor is not an easy thing. For at least ten years, you've heard teachers and even your own literary agent say, "Kill your darlings," by which they mean to delete most metaphor and, in your case, certain words such as rebarbative, chthonic, circumlocutious, pinguid, and eelemosniary. You're more in tune with the saying of a writer you knew and favor, "If it soulds like writing, I revise it,"
At this time in your life, things seem metaphoric that had not seemed at all like a metaphor through your twenties and thirties. Also at this time in your life you are aware of either a growing confidence or the resurgence of the stubbornness you thought you'd begun to wrestle to the ground in your late teens.
In your revision of your own work, when you come upon a metaphor, you treat it as though it were an illegal alien, subjecting it to a rigorous review before you deport it.
So far as the persistent metaphor of you, ear cupped to the wall, listening, it could be interpeted as you listening to the culture about you, spouting cliches, truisms, adages, and propaganda of one cultural bastion or another. This would be a shame, were it to be so.
Far better if it were to be a metaphor for you listening not to the voices of the culture about you, but rather to the stubborn, rebarbative aspects of you, attempting to have conversations with you that you would do well to heed.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
In your evolved belief of what story is and, as a result, how to approach constructing it or making critical comment about it, three basic forces must be recognized for bringing narrative information onto the page, Narrative, Interior Monologue, and Dialogue.
Narrative is exemplified actions filtered through the perspective of one or more characters. For example, "John goes," which brings John on stage and shows him in motion. Interior Monolog is exemplified by John, thinking, "I should go," or "I want to go." Dialogue represents some character telling John, "Go, damnit," or by John, himself, saying, "I'm going as soon as I find my shoes."
So far as you're able to see, there is no other way to bring dramatic information into play. To begin a dramatic narrative, you need at least one character with a need or a goal. The forward motion of story is the decision of a character to strive toward some goal or to strive to prevent an action or series of actions from taking place.
Recalling your high school creative writing teacher, who bade you to in actuality or metaphor shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph, a beginning of a story could be from the perspective of a deputy, who has vowed to discover who shot the sheriff, then to bring that individual or individuals to justice.
This is a conventional approach to energizing the narrative, but the next step to set the inertia in place is for an individual to reveal some motive for preventing the deputy from accomplishing his goal.
Your evolved awareness of story elements offers you strong suggestions that these three elements were separate, but only because you recognized the importance of each, spent some time studying the implications and techniques of each, and only in more recent years discovered the need for them being taken in concert rather than separately, as in guessing some narrative would go well here, because for this particular scene, here is a place most readers will not be able to visualize with ease. Therefore, the place must be described.
That gives us, "John looked at the building," which is direct action and, thus, pure narrative. Now, things become more complicated. "John looked at the building, realizing he'd never seen a construction of this sort before, and wondering what purpose it could have been intended to serve."
This is a mashup of narrative and interior monologue. If John had a companion with him, he could approach his curiosity in a way calculated to reveal his innocence, his past experiences, his statge of sophistication. "The only other time I saw a building like this was during my visit to the linear accelerator outside the Stanford campus in Palo Alto."
You need a vivid, immediate awareness of narrative, or action, interior monologue which, while a form of action, is the internal musing and thought process of an individual character, in order to make an effective introduction of dialogue into the story. Neither persons nor characters spend considerable spans of time doing only one thing; the greater likelihood is of their doing two or more things at once, narration and interior monologue, or narrative and dialogue, of snippets of simultaneous dialogue and interior monologue.
Two significant challenges accompany dialogue, the need to keep it from sounding like conversation, and the need to maintain its edgy, semi-confrontational thrust, thus the temptation to tack on attributions as frivolous as some of the riders attached last minuite to bills pending before congress. "If you come any closer, I will shoot," she said, menacingly. "You know me well enough to know I mean business when I tell you this is my last offer," he said, meaningfully.
Reminding students, clients, and, always, yourself, how effective dialogue needs no adverbial enhancement or, indeed, a verb other than "said," you make yourself aware that a line of dialogue is in fact action. While you're at it, you should be reminding yourself that the common denominator of narrative, interior monologue, and dialogue is action.
Oh, you wanted description as an outlier? How about this. John took in the features of the small room with care. "Is there by any chance," he said, noticing he'd begun to sniffle, "a cat in this room? I'm quite allergic to them, you might not have known, but my nose certainly does.. The clumps of furniture and bookcases seem arranged to accommodate cats and," he brushed the back of his hand against his nose, "something tells me there've been cats here, recently."