Sunday, July 31, 2016

The End. Really.

Of the many reasons for the significant presence of story in most cultures, there are two that tend to be set aside for later examination, where they become forgotten until, much like coins found in sofa cushions, they are encountered with some pleasure.

Story attracts us because of its tidal nature; it has a beginning and an ending. So many things in life seem to have no fixed starting point, nor do they work their way to some form of closure so much as they merely stop. If, perchance, they continue, they do so without our focus, with the result of our being surprised to notice them.

Memorable story tells itself through a combination of action and explanation. We're attracted to story by the promise of quest, which is action, and the explanation for the quest. 

Your own introduction to stories often began with a young person embarked on a journey "to seek his fortune,"or an equally young person recognizing some talent she must pursue.

Such stories also began with the equivalent filter of a storyteller, who declaimed, "Once upon a time--" or "In the city of X, there lived a man named Y, who--" Not surprisingly, you wanted out of such beginnings and into the action were to be taut with imagery and intrigue such as, "Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed."

There was nothing unusual in you wishing for a story to begin somewhere, then have sufficient momentum to carry you along with it, out of your life events which, while not insignificant, were not yet of enough significance to satisfy you.

When a story ended, you were of minimal patience with "And they all lived happily ever after," which did not at all seem satisfactory. Even at that early stage, you were able to discern that happiness had a use-by date, more to the point, the tide had a habit of ebb and flow.

So what constitutes an ending?  Try this: Endings occur when the energy of an earlier mission or quest run our or are for the moment addressed.  Endings take place when nothing more from the present quest or mission are necessary.  Nothing.

Endings occur when the reader is left to sort the implications, then decide why this story feels over.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Hypocrite lecteur, -mon semblable, - mon frere! Or Perhaps Not.

 Among the pleasures of passing certain aging benchmarks to your curriculum vitae is the not-so-pleasing assumption that you have the wherewithal to accomplish the outcomes of your dreams and expectations. 

As though puberty weren't enough of an existential chore o be experienced and have some sense made of it beyond what high school counsellors, gym teachers, and counsellors presented as options--one of them even suggested the balm of cold showers and some hobby involving extreme concentration--you were also forced to cope with the binary of what to take for granted and what to question.

This was not, nor is now, as easy as it may sound. You found some sense of safety in taking for granted things you'd observed, in trusting some adults, some instructors, and some of the available sources of information you found in some books and periodicals. But with your arrival at and passing of age benchmarks, there came the overwhelming sense that you'd been too generous in extending your trust.

Although not so much as a benchmark of a specific age as your discovery in a literature class of the unreliable narrator, this one discovery almost shut you down with the despair of no longer being able to trust a narrator to be telling the truth. You came to Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot at about the same time. 

When you digested the implications of "You, hypocrite lecteur, mon somblance, mon frere, the trouble began. You were in collusion with the source; you were no longer the eighteen-year-old standing in the glorious immensity of the Powell Library at UCLA, having traded two enormous, hand-rolled cigarettes to Fred Holden, at one time a worker in that library, for his applying the ADMIT TO STACKS to your registration card.

Standing in one of the subterranean levels, the ink still wet on the card, you had the sense of an entire universe becoming yours, your immediate target "Cheap Clothes and Nasty," . an essay from 1860 by Charles Kingsley. 

Find it, you did, in the process learning how to move up from a youth of the Dewey Decimal System into the sandbox of the serious reader, The Library of Congress System. Had you no such stamp on your register card, you might have had to wait upwards of an hour for one of the library pages to retrieve the work for you.

Your joy was all too short. With each of these books to which you had access, a responsibility was attached. Your days of innocence were over; your days of responsibility were at hand. You could no longer take these books for granted. You were free to read them, but with each one, you must make up your mind about their content, lest you remain hypocrite lecteur.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Objectively Speaking

 Until you have use for an object, the object remains in a state of neutrality. You may be aware of it, but unless it takes on some personal quality of being repugnant to you, the object remains a thing. 

If, over the course of time, you begin to sense useful potential in the thing, the remarkable process of internalization has begun; your mind is at work, imagining the ways the thing will make your life easier if not outright better.

When the process of internalization begins, a set of parallel lines begins to form, representing the binary nature of human perception. The object in question becomes an increased topic of awareness to its beholder, perhaps even to the stage where the beholder has begun to obsess about the need to have control of the thing, which is to say have it in his possession or somewhere close to hand.

You might at this point offer congratulations; the thing has transmogrified, changed from a thing to an object, whereupon the meme of the parallel lines appears, much as, to complete the metaphor, wings have begun to appear to the transmogrified caterpillar. 

The thing has become an object, which now has a value, which means it wants the care, attention, perhaps even vigilance attendant on having objects, as opposed to being in the presence of things. Were you out walking, you might well stoop to pick up an object, but were you to encounter a thing, you'd continue your walk,

One aspect of the parallel lines is the meme of buyer's remorse, that remarkable stage of wondering if the object can do all the tasks imagined of it when it was still a thing. Another aspect of the parallel lines meme is the dawning awareness that maybe, perhaps, the tasks associated with the thing-on-it-s-way-to-becoming-an-object could have been performed by talents and abilities already on hand.

Let us suppose you encountered abilities, perhaps even talents,instead of tangible objects. Over the course of time, one or more of these talents or abilities seemed to you to radiate qualities you associate with attractiveness, friendliness, desirability. You wished to have one or more of these things, which had already begun to take on certain tendencies to morph into objects.

You snatched one of them up, cared for it until it began to become an object. Trouble was, the object never settled down into the kinds of talents or abilities you witnessed in others. For a time, this caused you pain in such varied forms as doubt, fear, envy, and bewilderment.

From time to time, you take this object of yours, this intangible quality you've seen grow from a thing and into this quality you can no longer describe. In some form of picnic setting, you hunker down with it, watching the ocean or mountains or desert. You speak to it as though it had the powers of cognition and speech, which, indeed, you'd like to think it does.

"What," you ask it, "do you want from me?"

On occasion, it will tell you something which has the quality of a fortune cookie note or a Twitter text, coming in under the hundred-forty-word maximum.  "Don't describe," it will say. "Your job is to evoke."

On yet other occasions, it will respond, "Keep asking."

Once, in what you considered being on the verge of garrulousness, it reminded you of another picnic, one in which you and a great, favored writer of yours, Christopher Isherwood, sat in the midst of a shady glade, feasting on an improbable mixture of Eastern and Western tidbits, speaking of the translation from Sanskrit to English of the one line of the Bhagavad Gita you know from memory, "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof."

"Does that," you asked, "mean what I think it does?"

"Yes," he said, "I believe it does." 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

How Much Pathos before You Get to Bathos?

How much detail is enough to provoke sympathy for a dramatic portray of events in which a character experiences not mere stunning blows but repeated combinations of blows both to the body and the ego?

We call the proper amount tragedy or pathos, and having done so are reminded of the times when we've witnessed the necessary elements appear in reality and in our favorite stories. Two recent novels of considerable meaning to you, The Plague of Doves and The Roundhouse, both by Louise Erdrich, begin with a pathos so tangible, you can feel its presence and in both cases have a visual sense of it reminding you of strips of paint, peeling from a weatherbeaten building.

Since you are on the subject of Erdrich, you can recall other events of pathos, scattered among her novels and short stories, causing you to be aware of the persistent presence of one kind of suffering, say loss, or another, say the stoic acceptance of painful circumstances.

At one time in your tumultuous relationship of awareness with Sisyphus, you thought of him as a paradigm of pathos because he was doomed to an eternity of meaningless, repetitious task that bore no relationship you could see to work. 

At the earlier times of your consideration of him, whether he was indeed "still out there somewhere," pushing away at his rock, long after his actual tormentor, Zeus, had retreated from prominence, and the thought of him caused you the most internal of discomforts. This disturbed response was less out of sympathy for him than for your own sympathy for the awareness that you had no tolerance, perhaps a one on a scale of ten, for boring activity.

This discomfort was even more exacerbated by your sense of not yet having reached the point where you could see a chosen future. Your entire future seemed caught in the net of finding so much about you to be boring. Scant months later, or so it seemed, you understood what you hoped for as your future, then set off trying to achieve it, thus the transformation from boredom to the awareness of how important focus and discipline were.

Youthful confidence led you to believe in the absolute certainty of success. Thus the source of energy and determination that led you through repetitions every bit as onerous as those of Sisyphus, except that you had a certainty of growth and accomplishment where Sisyphus had none. 

The last stages of growth led you to understgand that success was outside the equation. You'd be happy, you suppose, for such successes that you don't have, but they don't matter as much as the work itself.

You are, with considerable thanks to Albert Camus and his essay on Sisyphus, a happy man with your rock. You have a long relationship with the rock and while there are times when you wish for some time away from it, your relation with it is such that when you are away from it, you wonder how it is getting on.

You have gone from that sense of self-imposed pathos to a comfortable enough detachment to allow you to wonder about the condition you begin to see about you, where too much pathos becomes its own worst enemy, bathos.

When the world seems too much with you, it is quite often enough to back away from your rock from time to time, admiring its surfaces and configuration, many of which have been formed because of the pushing and rolling of it you've done to date.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The One Place You Don't Want to Stay Too Long

 When you experience a condition of stasis, you are the you who is between worlds of the present and past. Within this limbo, change does not wait for a cue in the manner of an actor in the wings, waiting for the proper moment to enter or, in one of the most dramatic of all departures from the stage, that most dramatic departure by Antigonus in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

All too true, the stage directions read EXIT< PURSUED BY A BEAR, which when you first came upon it, with no warning from the instructor who assigned the play in the first place, seemed to you the kind of romp you should some day put to use of your own. 

As many unhappy campers have discovered, being pursued by a bear is not fun, and in fact becomes, so far as you know, the paradigm of anti-stasis. 

You could also call into play one of your favorite memes, developed well after your years as an English major and as the consequence of many pages wrenched from the platen of the various typewriters in your life, to be wadded into a ball, then sent sailing in the direction of the nearest wastebasket.

On the page, stasis presents itself as some long interior monologue, some even longer description, or some conversation about the nature of existence that are soon to become analogous to your wresting the sheet of manuscript paper from the platen of a typewriter, thence to its doom. Status presents itself amid the sweat of activity and the hard place of the need to make a decision NOW.

Even a character in hiding from a pursuer, fearful of his or her excited creating revealing his or her position to this would be attacker, cringing and willing his or herself into stasis, is behaving in the requisite, non-stasis manner of the binary activity in which the goal is not to reveal the tell-tale signs of hiding.

If stasis is business as usual, un- or anti-stasis become components of the necessary anarchy to fuel story.  Begin with an individual, Fitzgerald tells us in "The Rich Boy," and before you know it, you'll have created a type. 

Proven over the years to have been right enough, at least in literary matters, even if he wasn't the first to have noted that observation, he was the first to have expressed it with such eloquence and to have done so in the midst of a story. 

Now, however, it's your turn. Start with stasis and if you don't with some dispatch destabilize it, you'll have created a narrative or an account, but you won't have created a story.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Waiting for Godot or Story, the Stakes Never Vary

Two individuals are seated in a park-like setting, reminiscent of the terrain in which we first see the two principals known to us as the iconic duo who await Godot. The first wears a large duffle coat, one or two sizes larger than a person of his size would wear. We'll soon see the reason why, when he gets up to approach a third person, who is walking through the area.

Our duffle coated individual approaches, flings open the folds of his coat, on which are displayed on the left fold an array of wristwatches, on the right fold an assortment of cell phones. The passerby continues without a moment's pause, much less any hint of interest. Nevertheless, our duffle coated individual is doing something active; he is attempting to do what more upmarket sales personnel in more respectable venues do every working day, which is to say he is offering a choice of items to a potential audience.

Thus is story born, with an individual doing something to effect a result. Note the emphasis on the verb to do; this individual is doing something. We may or may not find out what this individuals working hours are or if, indeed, he has other items for sale, cached for the moment in his pockets. He is the necessary potential of intent and energy required by any narrative with hopes of turning itself into a story.

The other individual wears more nondescript clothing, trousers, shirt, an old-but-serviceable tweed jacket. Like the other individual, he waits, his display a chess board, each piece in its beginning-of-the-game position, the standard colors, white and black. This individual, like his cohort, waits. We are not sure what he awaits, not even when another passerby strolls past him, notices the chess board, nods, walks on.  No story here. For all we know, the individual with the chess board could be playing--make that replaying famous games of past tournaments, not an unlikely thing for a person in a park.

Suppose, however, after two or three other passersby appear, then move on without so much as a nod of recognition. our man moves one of the pawns, say the white queen's pawn, forward two squares. Neither an exciting nor unorthodox opening gambit. 

Ah, you say, a tiny flicker of action, which, however tiny, nevertheless embodies one of the necessities of story. However cerebral chess presents itself, either as a game in general or a more specific metaphor of warlike movement, tactic, and counter tactic, with a specific goal in mind, this particular chess board has been presented with in effect the first stone having been cast.

Our chess player now advances the black king's pawn the two squares he is entitled, then takes a seat nearby, perhaps contemplating what white should do next, but so far as we as observers can see, he is only gazing fixedly at the board.

At length, another person strolls through the park-like setting, whereupon the individual in the duffle coat approaches him, with a flourish exposes the watches and cell phones. The stroller pauses, looks at the watches. "Do you," he says, "have something a bit more upmarket?"

"Ah," the man in the duffle coat says, plunging a beefy hand into a commodious pocket, then withdrawing a small black box, which he opens, then presents to the stroller.

"A Rolex?" the stroller says.

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" the duffle coat notes. "But I cannot lie to you, sir. Impressions of Rolexes do not always bear out to be Rolexes. I have here in another pocket a fountain pen most persons would swear is a Mountblanc, but if you examine the small letters on the clip, you will find them to say Montalbano."

"How much for the both?" stroller says, "watch and pen?"

There is no longer a question about a story being in progress here, the only question, or perhaps there is more than one, has to do with what kind. So far as the chess player is concerned, let us say a youngish woman, perhaps late twenties, perhaps a tattoo or so on one of her pliant young forearms, stops to regard the chess board.  "You might try bringing the white queen's pawn into play here," she suggests.

"I see you believe in a vigorous opening gambit," the chess player says.

What he does not know, nor do we, and, of course, both of "us" will discover is that the chess player, only yesterday, hustled the young woman's grandfather out of fifty dollars in a mate-in-ten-moves dare, and is about to be humiliated in one of the ways a young person is best equipped to humiliate--should she choose to do so--an older person.

Story is everywhere, even where you least expect it, and most certain of all, when you search for it with the desperation of searching for lost keys, when you can't seem to find it anywhere.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Noises off

 When you spend times at coffee shops or other public places, your frequent mission is to surround yourself--in the luxurious company of decent coffee or your favorite lager/Pilsner type beer--with the ambient and often friendly voices of individuals engaged in quotidian conversation.

More often than not, you'll have gone to such places for the ambient voices rather than the coffee or beer, aware your level of concentration is not quite at the desired level wherein you hear other voices, the voices of men, women, and children in novels and short stories you''ve read and admired, and of course to the voices you hear of characters in your own narratives of hyperreality. The latter are also voices you need to concentrate on if you are to hear them to the extent that you can extract story from their exchanges.

This morning, you sat in a French bakery in. among other things, a tourist destination. Were you to be sitting in such a French bakery in the city where you've lived going on half your life, there'd be no doubt the bakery would call itself a patisserie, for, indeed, the bakery where you spend some time in Santa Barbara calls itself Renaud's Patisserie, and does not require you to do it for identity. You are now in Morro Bay, some two hours and a county away from home, with a demographic surprising in its difference from home.

You were sitting in the bakery for the coffee and fresh croissant more than for the ambient noise you would need to concentrate to overcome in order to her the ambient noise of some of today's scheduled work you'll be engaging. 

Directly behind you, a group of seven men have moved two tables together in order to take their coffee as a single group, much as you might do on a given Sunday morning when you join Jim, Ned, Toni, Steve, Stuart, and Melinda.

The seven men are more or less your contemporaries, all of them wearing baseball caps, which somehow reminds you, however you might be tempted, to wear a baseball cap. For a moment, the baseball cap tends to remove the features and individuality of the men and their voices, but then the subject of hearing aids stumbles on stage, followed by tales of prices spent, the awfulness of product, and some of the amusing self-deprecating experiences that follow.

The men become more invested in their stories to the point where one of them has apparently noticed you, pen and notebook in hand, then, thinking to be considerate, tries to quiet the discussion. The one in every crowd who responds as this individual does, turns to you, "Excuse me, sir. Are we disturbing you?"

You, who don't have to be the one in every crowd when you can be yourself alone cups his hand, seashell-like about his ear, "Sorry. Could you repeat that?"

By the third repetition ot the "Excuse me, sir," the other one of whom there is one in every crowd says, "Mort, can't you see he's pulling your chain?" Whereupon you are invited to slide over, make it an even eight, which you do, finishing your coffee and croissant with the voices of camaraderie. 

True enough, when they find out what you do, the conversation experiences a long, thoughtful silence before one of them, also of the sort who is in every crowd, asks, "You have no trouble making a living at that?" Which produces another round of silence, until the one who chided the one who asked if the group were disturbing you with their loudness, throws red meat out for the crowd.  

"Hey," he says, "How about that Trump? Ever see anything like that before?" Now, we are all talking at once, which is a convivial and pleasant thing in terms of socializing, taking the stranger who is you into the group, and being conversationalists.

Plenty of time to enjoy, finish your coffee, shake hands all around, then depart to your nearby room, where the new ambient noise is the constant conversation of seagulls, mingling with the internal voices you are hearing of the individuals of whom you have read.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Of an Age

Being the right age is a concept you've spent an entire lifetime anticipating, mindful of such rites of passage as being able to carry a pocket knife, a book of matches, having a permit allowing you to drive a car, having the potential, as witness the single condom in your wallet, if not the actual opportunity to engage in more emphatic sexual activity, being able to vote, even having some measure of available credit and thus able to purchase beyond your immediate cash on hand.

Arrival of these various and varied stations has without doubt prepared you for other stops along what that inveterate letter writer and politician, Dante Alighieri, called the road of life. Some of these stations, not in any particular order, include loss, disappointment, frustration, accomplishment, survival, surprise, appreciation, and discovery.

You're not certain when it was that you found some benefit in the ability to look back, not so much in any sense of nostalgia as for the sense of wondering where you'd left your sunglasses or wallet, then, through some triangulation of memory, being able to reunite with the lost object.  Arrival came to mean having a reserve of experience and skills upon which to draw when at the metaphoric place Jack London's nameless character found himself in one of his more memorable short stories, "To Build a Fire."

Now, you've reached another way station, the right age of being able to let your earlier self off the hook for not having done or said or thought or read or written or studied or loved things that have come to have value for you now.  This particular right age is the equivalent of reaching between some cushions out of curiosity, then finding a handful of change. To give the metaphor a stretch, this is the equivalent of not only finding coins of a specific monetary value but as well of having some numismatic value as well, which is to say much much better late and even by whim or accident than never.

In recent days, you've been looking back at a specific time, your days as a student at the university, where your focus was sharpening on the specific work, the poem, the essay, the play, the novel, rather than the time in which it was written and the surrounding circumstances, often financial ones. Ah, Mozart wrote a concerto, did he? And in it, he borrowed from himself something he'd used in a trio or quartet, which is always worth a nod toward your own copious memory for such arcana. Or is it?

You've caught yourself wondering how it was that you could have thought to cut some many of the history classes required of your major. Why, for instance, study Tudor history or care that Chaucer's employer was John of Gaunt, a sturdy limb of the Plantagenet tree? What possible effect could that have on your appreciation of Chaucer and his works?

Some reasons, again not in any specific order: a young woman named Kay, another, named Louise, who was said to have a crush on you, leading you mistake this Louise, who was the equivalent of Rowena in Scott's Ivanhoe, with she in Ivanhoe who was in fact Rebecca; a young woman named Janet, studies of Dryden, Pope, the Victorians, and the Romantics.  Thus you have the understandable binary of reading and raging hormones.  You are even able now to understand the you who sat in a darkened corner with a young woman named Adrienne on your lap, her hands directing one of yours to explore personal intimacies, asking you as you did so what you were thinking of, and your answer, "Shakespeare."

The past has brought us to where we are, the conductor has said, "End of line," meaning we either disembark or find ourselves borne back to the terminal. We alight to the moment, blink in the sun, then go forth to encounter whatever Reality has caused. You have in your pocket a folding knife, intended for splitting baguettes and slicing charcuterie. In your car is the sort of device any waiter in a restaurant that serves wine would have close at hand. In your experiences are the more appropriate tools. You like to think you know which wines would go well with a mild fish, say a sole. You also think you'd know by now not to begin a sentence with the words It or As.

You'd like to think such things because you are of an age. Soon enough, you will be at others, hopeful you will recognize the language in which the conductor speaks when he makes his announcement.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Stringing the Reader along

Quite often you are motivated to put down a book you're reading after the first few pages because you are given too much information and too little movement or action. 

Within those dismal circumstances, information equates to description, explanation, or, worst case of all, the writer trying to convince you of something through the least dramatic quality of all, logic.

You don't want to be told John is beating his fists on the table from impatient rage, which was occasioned by his immediate workplace superior having refused to consider a work strategy John developed to achieve greater productivity and group cohesion. 

You want to see John pounding on the table, perhaps even looking about for something else to pound on, this done in such a way as to make you curious about why John is behaving as he is.

This is several degrees beyond the show-don't-tell meme and into the notion of story being bursts and bundles of dramatic information rather than long passages of description.

The important disclosure here is your awareness of your relative sophistication as a reader, the often embarrassing awareness on first or second reading of having missed some important clue or, of equal awfulness, a complete misinterpretation of some behavior or relationship. 

True enough, you've written books, edited them, reviewed them for major metropolitan newspapers. In your role as a teacher/workshop leader, you're often able to catch anomalies, discrepancies, missed opportunities, and unnecessary explanations. But.  

The possibility remains: the author may have intended for you to miss some small detail, may in fact have worked to bury a clue within some throwaway detail which you, with due diligence, have thrown away.

You want to question the action you see, your feelings of engagement in the story drawn out by degree rather than thrust upon you in some big mass of material to be sorted on a chapter-by-chapter basis. You want, in fact, to have been driven to retreat a chapter or two to ratify your belief that a certain character had reliable or unreliable traits, based on your first impressions.

A metal such as copper has a quality called ductility, which describes the extent to which it can be drawn into a wire-like extrusion, something like the strands of cheese hanging on with such tenacity as a segment of pizza is drawn away from the entire pizza.  

You wish your own stories and those you read to have that quality of ductility, the ability to be drawn out into a long, thin strand of substance.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Hype, Hyper, Hooray: The Screenplay as Bare-Bones Reality

 Somehow the subject of screenplays and stage plays came up during a recent conversation with the notable result of one of those involved in the conversation remarking on the spareness of details relating to descriptions of setting and individual attitudes and responses.

You, being the you you are, were quick to respond.  "That is because plays are not meant to be read; they're meant to be performed so that they can be experienced."  You have enough experience with this form of writing to know how unlikely the chances of a screenplay being read all the way through if it is longer than a hundred or so pages in length, and how descriptions of characters and settings exceed one or two lines.  You might get away with:

Ext. Night. Battlements of a medieval castle.

A distant church bell chimes the midnight hour.

In a page or so, when the principal character enters, you might get away with the notation: ENTER Hamlet, a college-aged Danish prince.  Even were you to add such descriptions as moody or conspicuously grief-stricken, you'd be messing with the domain of he or she to be named director and, as a consequence, not a good bet to win you approval.

You know some of these things because you were taught by individuals who regularly produced and/or acted in such narratives, but also because you were still of an age where you failed to see some of the more glaring differences between a document intended to be performed and one meant to be read.

One significant event stands out in your mind, an assignment to adapt for the screen one of your favorite longer stories, "The Cut-Glass Bowl,: by one of your favored writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even at that early stage in your progress as a writer, you were aware of what you considered Fitzgerald's glaring weakness, the abundant presence in his text of -ly adverbs. Having an opinion about the glaring weakness of a favored author is a window into one's own weaknesses. 

Time spent considering the why and wherefore an author has become a favorite, then considering the most grating things about a number of favored authors helps develop the muscle memory to avoid pitfalls. By the same logic, authors do not become favorites without some consideration of their strengths.

When you turned in your first draft of your adaptation of " The Cut-Glass Bowl," the producer hefted it, then wondered out loud if your manuscript were longer than the original text. He also wondered why you found it necessary to include in the script Fitzgerald's opening lines to set the tone: "There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age. In the cut-glass age, when young ladies had persuaded young men with long, curly mustaches to marry them, they sat down several months afterward and wrote thank-you notes for all sorts of cut-glass presents--punch-bowls, finger-bowls, dinner-glasses,wine-glasses, ice-cream dishes, bonbon dishes, decanters, and vases--for, though cut glass was nothing new in the nineties."

"You could start with story. You could let the director and actors convey the tone and personality, but no, you have to start with stuff that can't be filmed and won't be read." Then, as if reading your mind, which was a likely prospect because he knew you, "And I don't want any English major rationale for why such material is necessary. If I'm going to produce the film, I'm going to get people on board who know how to tell stories."

While you were on your way out of his office, your English major tail between your legs," the producer called out to you, "Good as he was, Fitzgerald never caught the difference between the screenplay and the novel."

There was and still is a great deal to learn. There is a rough and not direct equivalency between the motion picture or play director and the editor of a novel. There is also some equivalency between characters in novels and short stories and the actors who portray them. When you work as a short story or novel writer, you are in effect enhancing these equivalencies, bringing them to interpretation.

The same screen or stage play can be given differing interpretations by different casts of actors and a different directorial vision. To breathe added life into these thoughts, a screenplay is the equivalent of Reality. A screenplay that has been cast and assigned to a director is transformed into a hyper reality, an interpreted one, moved with some deliberation away from a sense of randomness, allowed to convey feelings.

A novel is ever so much greater a hypertext, meant to interpret rather than convey reality.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Beat's Me

 With one or two notable exceptions, most stories are told in scenes, those memorable moments when (and where) characters come forth to convey basic units of dramatic movement by doing things. 

At first, the characters actions may not clear to the reader. The characters may be pacing nervously, looking about for something or someone, standing apart from a group of characters who are all making inviting gestures, which our character declines.

If in fact the characters are not doing anything, the reader begins to wonder why he or she persists in reading such an inert narrative. This is a different matter than readers wondering where a burst of activity will take them; this becomes a matter of the reader taking the action of closing the book, setting down the magazine, turning off the electronic reading device.

Story translates the motives of its characters into intentions which the characters must now act upon. Within a given story, X-number of actions reside. If a scene may be regarded as a slice of the story pie, one bit of action may be regarded as a crumb of that slice; in other words, a beat.

If you were to take a scene at random from a novel, then mark the beats composing it, you'd have a clearer picture of what the scene is about, but in many cases, your attempt to follow through with the assignment of marking all the beats might well raise a problem. If there is too much description, or if the character spends too much time engaging in that lovely inner process of thinking or introspecting, the reader will reach to point of thinking, Hey, it's a long time between beats.

Most readers don't think in those terms, but they do nevertheless have expectations of beats. If the interval between beats grows large, thanks to such things as description or author's intervention with opinions or commentary, the consequence can be fatal. 

If the author is not sure how to make thought or introspection appear to be conveyed through some form of action however small, the consequences begin to manifest themselves.The more thought the author gives this matter, the sooner the author will see how to use movement and action to suggest the concept of thought and introspection. Characters must be seen thinking.

If the reader had the patience to do so, the reader might diagram a scene into a step outline. While investigating a crime scene, Sherlock Holmes believes he has found a clue. He stoops to pick it up, examine it, describe it to Watson, all of these steps a series of beats which the reader will be able to track, including the desired one of Watson waxing amazed at Holmes's description and classification of the clue.

This is not something we can with any confidence expect the reader to do, although the author does something akin to this diagramming during the process of revision. The author in essence keeps track of the action within the story, herding it where necessary, turning inert moments into active ones.

Once the writer begins to see story as X-amount of individualized movements, then and only then will the writer have stepped into the twenty-first century evolution of story from whatever historical point he or she had been marooned.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


 When the discussions turn to literary, writerly topics among your writer friends, you find yourself hopeful the conversation will turn to those rare individuals of your early reading experiences and those even rarer contemporaries for whom there are few descriptions as appropriate as "a natural writer."

There is, of course, no such thing as a natural writer, even though language does appear to manifest itself in most of us within a certain time frame, and with the arrival of language and vocabulary the need to tell a story. Some narratives begin as excuses, variations on "The dog ate my homework" meme. 

Others emerge as self-promotion in disguise: "Here is the story of how I accomplished some remarkable feat, the details of which I want to make sure you all know and do not forget." Yet other narratives fall into grandmothers, telling us how they met their husband, or how they emigrated from Country X to Country Y.

Many of us, almost before we are aware of it, have seemed to make the transition from using language to communicate--"Two lumps, please," of "No milk or lemon, thank you."--to using language to present some form of narrative. You can recall times while you were undergoing that transition from language to communicate--"I will." "I won"t." "I want." "I don't want." "Do I have to?" etc--to the language of conveying narrative.

Given the narratives of others you heard, and those narratives you'd have read, you became aware as well of a significant lack of personal narratives with which to engage others in conversation. The best you could do was express opinions, aware as you went that such simplistic opinions as "I really liked that book." "That story excited me," and "I hope to find other stories as good as that one," were good for holding the interest of others for scant moments. 

If you wished to be an active part of a conversation instead of a mere listener, you needed the equivalent of a story, which is to say an intriguing setup, a resulting search or attempt, some form of reversal, and the introduction of a surprise interpretation for a payoff.

Throughout your early teens and well into seventeen and eighteen, the best narratives for social interaction were jokes. Given your reliable memory, you could wait your turn until there was a break in the conversation or another individual had recounted some event or told a joke, then grab a piece of the stage by saying, "That reminds me of--" by which point, you'd be launched either into a review of some film or play or book, and failing any of those, a joke.

At that age, you were already launched toward what you wished to be, aware still that you had few actual adventures of your own and of the enormous journey of reading you had facing you before you could think to invent plausible stories about plausible persons.

Even though you'd been taken from your home turf across a continent along what was then the iconic route 66, to worlds varied and alien from your own, the best you could manage was a sense that the men and women whose narratives you most admired had come by their abilities with the same ease you had when recognizing you were right=hand dominant.

You were "away" for four years, returned in time to join a junior high school in grade eight, where you recognized many friends and classmates. But you were different and so were they, which is one of the first things you leaned about narrative. He or she who is away and returned is no longer the same,

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

It Was, Was It?

Back in your middle school days, where the tides of rebellion washed over you from a different direction each day, you meshed with a place in the curriculum and found quite by accident a place to retreat. 

Some of your instructor were suggesting your interest in the English poet, Wordsworth, while admirable, was perhaps premature. But--pace Wordsworth--the world at that time was too much with you, and you did;t have to wait until you became an English major at UCLA to enjoy Wordsworth's poem that began, "Strange fits of passion have I known/"

Your place of retreat came in a grammar class, where the task at hand was learning how to diagram sentences. Your inner and outer cholers experienced remarkable shifts. 

You were enthusiastic rather than surly or frustrated or bored or any of the other things boys your age felt when they were sighting in on puberty, self-awareness, and anger.  One teacher went so far as to ask you if you were feeling all right and if there were things troubling you at home.

Of course you were feeling all right. You were at the age where feeling all right meant being frustrated, wanting with some desperation to attract the interest of a girl with the exotic name of Helayne, hopeful of extending your then five-foot-seven-inch frame to a height more like your father's, and wondering what all the fuss about social skills had to do with anything.

Diagramming sentences seemed to open a door, and when your interest vector and the curriculum vector began to diverge, you did what you knew best; you rebelled. But you did so by spending more time diagramming sentences and doing your image among teachers no good by devoting a semester project in composition to a take-down of a part of speech you'd come to dislike, the adverb.

This is not meant to suggest you were in any way a grammarian, rather one who became intrigued by the ways in which ideas could be, as you put it at the time, herded the way cowboys herded cattle. 

You did know a thing or two about such matters as subjects, predicates, direct objects, transitive and what you were amused to call intransigent verbs, but in a rather glorious way, so you thought, diagramming sentences allowed you enough confidence to proceed by trusting your ear.

Here you are, all these years later, no more prepared for what has been referred to as advanced years than you were for puberty, no more indeed prepared for grammar as such than you are for confronting the sentence, the paragraph, and the scene with the éclat of your imagination.

The one mitigating factor you have is the awareness of and need for revision.

Meanwhile, you are still a fan of diagramming sentences, you are somewhat a better speller than you once were, your position toward adverbs has not softened, you loathe sentences beginning with It; you detest even more sentences beginning with It was.

Monday, July 18, 2016

To Skin a--What?

Over the course of your friendship with the late John Sanford (1904-2003), you fell into the habit, when meeting him by accident, of quoting the opening phrase of the first sentence of a book, which was more than a book, written by a medical doctor who was more than a medical doctor.

The opening phrase was "Rather the ice than their way..." You both knew how the sentence ended: "to take what is mine by single strength, theirs by the crookedness of their law." More often than not, Sanford responded to you opening volley with the completion of the sentence, which he knew well enough given his history with it and the man who wrote it.

You were curious to know why, having read that opening line, Sanford was so vehement in his determination not to read beyond it, so far as you know, a position he held to the end of his days. You, on the other hand, had read through the book that remains more than a book, a direct result of having read as much by its author as you could get your hands on.

Another of his books, Patterson, dog-eared and marked, was in your bedside bookshelf.Patterson is a book length poem to and about the city in New Jersey where its author, William Carlos Williams, practiced medicine for much of his adult life.

Your mentor at UCLA, a man whose essays appeared from time to time in The New Yorker, had known Williams and made him seem necessary to you. John Sanford knew Williams, even thought of him as a mentor. Williams had offered to publish Sanford's first story in a magazine he edited.

Here you were, come around again on Williams, loving the book Sanford could not let himself read, In the American Grain. He could not allow himself to read any farther in this book for fear that it would evoke the powerful feelings so much of Williams writings already had on him, wrestle to the ground the narrative voice Sanford was beginning to hear that told him this is you speaking here; you are no longer being influenced. 

Sanford wished that inner voice to add a line or two to the effect that You will now be able to listen to other voices without losing your own in the din. You are free now to come and go as you will, moving beyond the shoreline, away from beacons and landmarks.

I time, Sanford did find that personal navigation system readers and writers associate with the astronomical equivalent of the North Star, the inner voice by which the writer learns to navigate, moving, degree by degree, farther from the shoreline, into the open sea of the individual writer's curiosity.

The book that became for you what In the American Grain became to John Sanford, was--still is--Thomas McGuane's collection of short stories, To Skin a Cat.  

When you told him this, he laughed nervously, intimating--but not saying in any direct way--that sooner or later, most writers come upon this awareness. "I don't know if I'm doing you a favor or not," he said, ,when he asked you if you'd yet come across the writings of Malie Melloy, then retreated into the protective covering of his deep, infectious chuckle.

One afternoon, while you were sitting at the now defunct Xanadu Coffee Shop, mulling over one universe or another while sipping at a latte, you saw John Sanford, working his way out of the Von's Market pharmacy.  Before you could say, "Rather the ice than their way," he said to you, "Kid, about this blog of yours. Have you ever considered writing it in the second person?"

Sunday, July 17, 2016

How Do You Define Define?

 There are times during classroom situations where you will find yourself telling a group of students that story is not the most important thing in a dramatic narrative. If appropriate, you will go on to say there are only two or three basic story matrices, perhaps as many as four or five. 

You're reminded of this because, as recently as this morning, you found yourself expressing these sentiments in conversation, hoping to seal your argument with the observation, "Most readers don't read for story in the first place."

This caused only a slight lifting in question of an eyebrow. You were quick to fill in the belief that most significant readers, by which you mean at least six books a year, have enough story sense to be able to know what's coming next in any particular dramatic narrative. 

"What then?" your audience asked. "Why do readers read?"

This stopped you in your tracks for a brief moment because you've long been aware of the major reason you took with such enthusiasm to reading.  

You were bored. You wanted if not outright thriller-tale adventure, then at least transportation to a setting or situation where you were transported to another place, another time, or a combination of both. Your pause this morning was to assess the extent this reason had undergone change over the years.

Although these days it is a rare moment in which you find yourself bored, nevertheless the idea of transportation to another time or place still holds up. Of course you add irony as a significant ingredient, coming as it does in waves as an individual, a group of individuals, and indeed an organization or institution will profess to one attitude or goal, then perform in an opposite manner.

You want men and women who are anti-heroic, afflicted with some flaw in exaggerated presence. Least of all do you want ordinary characters, individuals who are tangible in their normality. You don't object to a character wishing for normality or considering him/herself to be normal, that is, so long as their behavior does not come through as normal.

And yet, with all this willingness to set story aside for the quirks of an interesting character, you often find yourself asking, "Where's the story?"  In short, you want your characters to be moving about, doing things, however delusional or self-wounding rather than having long conversations reminiscent of Socratic dialogue. 

You want characters to define themselves through the things they do, the things they avoid, the things they fear or for which they harbor an intense desire.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Are You Certain ?

You're served as a juror enough times and seen sufficient courtroom dramas to be familiar with that idealized state of being free from doubt. To seal the bargain, you've been free of doubt enough times outside the courtroom or, indeed, the courtroom drama to appreciate the glorious extent of being in this state of doubtlessness.

At various times in your life, in particular when navigating the reefs and shoals of puberty and the subsequent years when you felt you'd earned if not experienced doubtlessness, you encountered peers and elders who seemed to have fewer doubt than you, sometimes to an appalling degree.

From your early teens, you had little doubt about your chosen career, only to become beset by doubts as to how you should achieve it, mindful of those about you who were in progress to realizing their careers through some form of study, apprenticeship. 

During those times, additional doubts were beginning to form, related to what you should do and how you should maintain and support yourself should your worst doubts be realized or, failing that, should there be significant delay affecting the point where you realized your career to a tangible degree.

Such doubts and observations related to them may be categorized by a condition no doubt in existence early in the evolution of species that produced homo sapiens, but given a formal entry into the world in 1927 by a German physicist named Werner Heisenberg. 

Although the approach referred to as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle related to the precision with which certain particles could be observed, with relation to their position and momentum, there is no great leap of logic to introduce the question "Observable by whom? " 

The answer, to maintain any meaningful logic, is people.  Heisenberg could have intended the meaning to be less personal, as charted or noted in some mathematical formation, but the aspect of observability has greater relevance for persons than anyone or anything else, even in the case where Heisenberg's Principal stands because it is observable in matter, whether observed by humans or not.

You muddy the scientific waters by bringing the concept of uncertainty into the observations and experiences of humans. In what may be your greatest leap of logic, you observe you and other individuals in various states of uncertainty, then write about them in situ, as it were, where, throughout a series of drafts, you experience varying degrees of uncertainty about the outcome.

Even with your limited perspective of both math and physics, you are able to see that uncertainty has graphable characteristics, in particular position and momentum. A narrative without uncertainty or, to put it another way, a narrative with certainty is arguably not a story. By default,uncertainty is a part of the human condition if not its genome. Story is an attempt to manipulate certainty for a time, giving uncertainty an opportunity to reflect outcome.

Intent is also a factor. You may intend to demonstrate conditions and their momentum or demonstrate an individual such as Sisyphus to demonstrate intent, position, and momentum, which has definite story potential. You may even evoke the surprise of Sisyphus' rock, mashing Sisyphus toe or, indeed, have other unintended consequences in the uncertainty of its certainty.

Ah, there you have it. Uncertainty comes and goes in human affairs in general as it does with a certain repetition in the form of coastal fog during the June and July months here in Santa Barbara.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Twist.

You were well into your tenure at the Professional Writing Program at USC and as the leader of the late night fiction workshop for the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, owned and run by your great pal, Barnaby Conrad. Your classrooms at USC changed from room to room and, in fact, building to building, depending on University whim and, to a degree, on the amount of money via enrollments your department brought in.

As long as the Writers' Conference remained at the fabled, blue-roofed Hotel Miramar, your classroom met in the huge, cavernous basement under the auditorium, beginning at 9 p.m., after the main speaker finished up,often lasting until three or four the following morning.

In addition to the regulars who were enrolled at the Conference, you never knew who would show up to visit, hangout, and in one way or another take part in those long, energetic workshops. Sometimes writer friends, other times students from USC, on occasion editor friends, and on one particular night, when you looked up to see a flinty, graying individual pushing his way through middle age like an eager Christmas shopper the day after Thanksgiving. He wore a rumpled tan suit, a conspicuously awful, heavily patterned tie, and a tan fedora.

Only cops wore fedoras by that time, indeed not Santa Barbara cops, LA cops.  He waved and you stood, thinking to greet him closer at hand.  He waved you to your seat. "Just checking catch you in action," he said.  "You could maybe come down next week, we could have a steak sandwich and a beer or so."

By "coming down," he meant not only L.A, but Taylor's Steak House, on Eighth Avenue between Vermont and Western, where you'd be the one civilian among a horde of LAPD's fines uniforms and suits, referred to variously as Th' (as opposed to the) Librul (as opposed to Liberal) and your respect for the then Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Rose Byrd, was well known.

"I could in fact," you said.

"Well then," he said. 

"Well then," you said. "Tuesday?"

"Tuesday.'  And he was gone.

Someone, curious, said, "Who was that masked man? Obviously a cop."

"Indeed," you said.

Indeed. The number on his LAPD detective's badge was #1. He was John St. John, your cop friend, just as you were his writer friend, the given for him being that a writer would be a liberal if not a pinko. "Every man ought to have a cop friend," he said once at the Code Six, a serious drinking establishment across the street from the Parker Center in downtown LA.  "Every man ought to have a writer friend," you said.

"Finish up," he said, "and I'll show you the latest dump site. Gruesome find. Got to catch that fucker. Leaves his victims in dumpsters."

One of your ongoing topics of discussion with St. John was motive. You, who were struggling with being plausible about writing of murders in the mysteries you hoped to complete, couldn't see why an individual would kill another.

"Mostly jealousy," St. John said. He spoke of men who killed other men because the other men had made moves on their women and the women had been encouraging.  "You kill the source that threatens to take away something of yours. Maybe, in some cases, a man will kill another man to prevent him from telling the world about his secret."

But even more important, one night, when you'd stopped at Taylor's after class, needing a steak sandwich and Molly (a quarter of a head of iceburg lettuce, drenched in blue cheese dressing). "You want to write mystery, you got to find your character's twist. Everyone has a twist."


"Yeah. A Thing. A Weakness he can't control."

"So if you can control it, it isn't a twist?"

"You could say that," St. John said. "Your twist, you're a Librul."

"What's yours?"

"Who said I had one?"  St. John said.  "Say. If you're not going to finish those French fries--"

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Santa Barbara Sleep

 Bedroom communities are to suburban landscapes what freckles are to skin, splotches of residential areas to which persons commute after working or otherwise spending their time in cities. Santa Barbara reminds you of its status in the bedroom community calculus each time you find yourself southbound during morning or afternoon commuting hours.

In the mornings, a trail of traffic heads north like a platoon of army ants, advancing on some neglected croissant or the remains of a spontaneous picnic, left for the army ants and as well one or more persons heading from their own southern bedroom communities to perform service for the recent revelers. 

From about three in the afternoon until at least six, the road south moves at the next step downward from a snail's pace, which is to say a timid snail's pace.

This is not to claim there is no industry in Santa Barbara. One of its major sources of employment is the renowned Sansum Clinic, where doctors, technicians, and laboratory professionals orbit about yet another type of bedroom community, the two-campus Cottage Hospital. 

Another local draw from regions to the north and south is a campus of the University of California, UCSB, metastasizing as though a stage-IV cancer, lodged in some body part.

People come to the bedroom community that is Santa Barbara as a respite from San Francisco and Los Angeles on the state level, from such eastern hubs as Boston, Washington D.C., and New York, more than likely disenchanted with these hubs and yet still tending to look down on the new Eden of their choice as a 24/7 city wannabe.

People come here to sleep the Santa Barbara sleep, dream the Santa Barbara dreams, think kind thoughts about palm trees, and develop the California tolerance for the ubiquitous jacaranda trees after they have shed their flowery purplish blossom. They will even get behind some of the Spanish pronunciation for such place names as Ray-foo-he-o for Refugio, Santa Enayze for Ynez, and hackarunda (wrong) for jacaranda.

With the exception of the month of June, which attracts a coastal phenomena of overcast known as June gloom, Santa Barbara is often sunny, cheerful, and polite, reflective of the many individuals in service industries who come here to work before going home elsewhere, say Carpinteria or Ventura or Camarillo, to sleep.

Where one sleeps here and with whom (if anyone) are matters you'd expect in a bedroom community, to say nothing of the quality of sleep achieved here, once it is realized.

Your fiction in progress is a rumination on such things, including the latter aspect. Quality seems always an issue of some sort in bedroom communities. Do the persons who come here to escape from urban tangle and the traffic of city irony sleep any better now? 

Your work on this fiction has been interrupted by something that has taken your talk of Santa Barbara Dreams hostage, demanding as ransom the new work.Thus are you in a real sense, a commuter, stuck somewhere past Carpinteria in traffic, attaching to Santa Barbara sleep a mystique of comfort and satisfaction every bit as long and uncertain as the line of traffic before you.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Dramatic Triad: Two's Company, Three's a Story

In the process of revising a suspected repetition in your current longform project, you stumble instead over the roots of a narrative truth you'd lost sight of in the abundant tool kit of narrative truths. 

You refer to the Dramatic Triad, where two individuals may engage in the occasional argument but more often than not have settled into conversation or the kinds of revelatory silences used with such eclat by the late lamented playwright, Harold Pinter.

You've been dealing in recent days with the Dramatic Triad of Mattie Ross, Rooster Cogburn, and the sullen Texas Ranger known as LaBoeuf in Charles Portis' True Grit, and the triad in Allison Lurie's The War between the Tates, Erica, her husband, Brian, and Brian's graduate student, Wendy. 

With a step backward to reflect on the impact of the triad, you reach an immediate recollection of how, even though things were dramatic enough between Huck Finn and the runaway slave, Jim, the appearance on the scene of Huck's old contemporary, Tom Sawyer, immediately cast an unhealthy chemistry over the surroundings. 

In some ways, the reappearance of Tom Sawyer pulls the rug out from what had been a remarkable journey into the midst not only of the human condition but of America at a crucial historical moment.

Additional examples of the Dramatic Triad came to visit you. Frank Chambers, Cora Papadakis, and Cora's husband, Nick, in James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice; and not to forget the narrator, Marlowe, in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, in concert with Kurtz and Kurtz's finance. You were also reminded of Kate, Merton, and Milly in Henry James' The Wings of the Dove.

There are others, to be not only sure but certain, say Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom in Fitzgerald's memorable The Great Gatsby, and what about Miles Archer, his wife, Iva, and Samuel Spade, edging about the precipitous moral boundaries of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon?

Sometimes you can't see the forest for all the trees, much less can you see the tree for all its subterranean roots.  Nevertheless, try asking during your reading and writing bouts: What does each character bring to the story that would otherwise not have been there? A bit of a stretch, but consider the implications if Claudius had not been the brother to the recently dead King Hamlet.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Horn of Impatience.

Given your present age and such degree of mental acuity as you at the moment have, there would be no surprise if you were to come upon a red signal light, then stop your forward progress, nor would your judgement or behavior be questioned were you to regard a red flag as some form of warning.

In contrary fashion, you can expect to be honked at and indeed have been honked at for failing to respond to a green light, which pretty much signified permission, encouragement, even a mandate to go forth. The culture of which you are a part speaks the language of red for stop or warning, green for go.

Your time spent on this planet and within the cultures you inhabit have also provided you with enough experience to question beyond colors of flags or traffic lights, turning your focus instead on the explanations you are given and, in the spirit of democratic belief, the explanations you give for the events, individuals, and other phenomena you see about you.

In fact, you experiences to date have taught you to question the explanations you give or at least to hold them to a higher degree of rigor even than those you are offered. Arrival at this state is not your way of speaking to your present stage on the pathway of life, which is to say you do not regard yourself as a conservative, cranky old curmudgeon or even a tortoise fan in the ongoing hare-and-tortoise race metaphor. For every individual or convention honking at you to for chrissake observe the freaking green light in front of you, you have yourself pounded the horn of impatience.

Standing between the alert cynicism of the early philosophers and the dispassionate grounding in the moment of many Buddhist sects, the writer need to embrace the present situation, whatever it may be, all the while embracing the reverence for what experience opts to venture forth in front of you.

In your earlier years, you were given to spending your time amassing information of the sort that would allow you to make informed wagers on the outcomes of such things as the turn of a card in a game of chance, the final score in some athletic contest, and even more to the point which of an entire cadre of horses was the fastest.

In the ensuing years, you've entertained a different approach to outcomes, meaning you are content to endure some outcomes while focusing more on those where you have some possible hand in effecting the result. 

At the moment, you're given to investigating on the outcome of factual and fictional narratives as originated and endured by you.  At the moment you question the outcomes of these narratives as though they have a life and agenda of their own, meaning they have a completion date in mind which they may not yet be willing to share with you.

During a time in your past you now regard as bleak, you come upon one novel you'd read in your teens and took to somewhere in your psyche approximating your heart. In later years, you were moved to read another novel by the same author, relieved as you read its pages to be overcome by a sense of foreboding and distaste to the point where, setting the novel aside, you could say in great sincerity that you not only didn;t finish the novel, you did;t have to finish the novel. Nothing, in fact, could emerge tou to reconsider.

To this date, these two books remain close to the top of what has become for you the pyramid of worst books, awful not so much because of their inherent story but because of the ways in which the author employed devices and techniques in the telling of these stories.  The two books were The Fountainhead and atlas Shrugged.  Whenever you find yourself thinking how your own storytelling or essay technique is improving or, to the absolute polarity of degree, not improving, then you find solace in the fact that whatever it was you were driven to write, you were not driven to write either of those two,

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Rich May Indeed Be Different from You and Me, But Not as Different as the Characters

Among the many ironies attaching themselves to the career of one of your more favored authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald, a most significant irony of all came from his inability to see the construction of the filmed story, even though many of his short stories and novels resonate with inner dramatic presence that make them so visual.

Fitzgerald understood story in all its forms, another significant strand of irony residing in one of his later publications, The Pat Hobby Stories, sometimes subtitled Fitzgerald in Hollywood, featuring the dried-up and cynical screenwriter, Pat Hobby.

Of all Fitzgerald's many short stories, including those dashed off to pay for his and Zelda's fabled lifestyle, your absolute favorite is "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," but a close second is "Babylon Revisited," followed at a close place with 'The Birthday Party," the former dealing with a painful look at his former self as someone with an alcohol problem, the latter showing his poignant awareness of the need a child has to trust her parents.

On the more academic or literary theory level, "The Rich Boy" opens more of an immediate door to technique, by all means in its opening paragraphs, where, as he was later to do with Gatsby, he needed a sympathetic narrator, thus:

"Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created–nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves. 

"When I hear a man proclaiming himself an “average, honest, open fellow,” I feel pretty sure that he has some definite and perhaps terrible abnormality which he has agreed to conceal–and his protestation of being average and honest and open is his way of reminding himself of his misprision.

"There are no types, no plurals. There is a rich boy, and this is his and not his brothers’ story. All my life I have lived among his brothers but this one has been my friend. Besides, if I wrote about his brothers I should have to begin by attacking all the lies that the poor have told about the rich and the rich have told about themselves–such a wild structure they have erected that when we pick up a book about the rich, some instinct prepares us for unreality. Even the intelligent and impassioned reporters of life have made the country of the rich as unreal as fairy-land.

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

In both cases, Fitzgerald's narrator is used by the narrator in ways he cannot see. The narrator by all means captures your attention and interest with his observation about the way the individual becomes. after some coping with the dramatic gymnastics through which the writer has sent him or her, larger than the life for which he or she has been created. 

The character thus has nothing left but to become a type whom we readers then see entering new situations not so much as an individual anymore but as the time the character has become.

You rather like Gatsby more than Hunter, the eponymous rich boy, but recognize each has set forth to act upon his goals and in a true sense actualize and justify himself.  But in your mind, now that you are the reader, you understand how each has become in essence an anti hero. 

You follow this person, which is to say you continue to read Gatsby and "The Rich Boy" knowing how each will experience a spectacular failure, and how your interest has shifted from following the goals and life visions of these anti-heroes, to how much awareness the narrator can achieve from
observing them.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Search for Adventure

On a scale of one to ten, you had a five or six childhood. Even though you were well accommodated and cared for by both parents and an older sister, and five or six on a scale of one to ten resides within the so-so or mediocre range, it is still good marks for any childhood. 

The five or six rating comes not because you were born close to the heart of the calamitous era known as The Great Depression, wherein your parents and maternal grandparents lost considerable resources and status, rather because it was, after all, childhood.

Of the many things to be borne in Life, childhood, for whatever its advantages in the overall picture of who one becomes later, needs to be endured every bit as much as explored, if only to allow you to get on with the activities you were so keen to attempt.

You were eager to try your hand at adventure, travel, experiencing love for persons beyond your family, and love for animals beyond that of Ming-Toi, the grouchy Pekingese foisted on your family by your mother's youngest brother.

You were of equal keenness to move beyond licorice cigarettes to the imagined enlightenment of Camels and Murals, both of which bore some proportion of a dark, mysterious  and foreign-sounding tobacco known as Latakia, to experience major league baseball in situ rather than the Spring training games you saw, to dine with regularity at a dive bar on upper Santa Monica Boulevard with the name of Barney's Beanery, and, because even at this date, you cannot resist the opportunity for an awful pun, to try your hand at masturbation.

These were the imagined ingredients that would get you out of childhood and into some semblance of the uproar you saw then as a life well lived and investigated. Under the circumstances of the restrictions on your activities, many of which you were able from time to time to circumvent, there is small wonder you took with such eclat to reading.

On one of your kitchen-area windowsills, overlooking the ambitious sprawl of a neighbor's garden, a few titles from your past settle into the pulpy decrepitude of ancient Big Little Books, reminders of your searches for vicarious adventure. These searches, such as Don Winslow of the Navy, Terry and the Pirates, and your cowboy hero, Red Ryder, and a trip with your mother's youngest brother to Pismo Beach, California, where, unlike the sidewalks in Los Angeles, were wood plank, sealed your destiny so far as ventures into the interior of imagination were concerned.

In later years, no longer in your chronological childhood, when you had your own automobile, you were able to search for--and find--places such as Pismo Beach, where the sidewalks were of sun-warped board.

Your early searches for adventure led you along the paths of irony and destiny to a time when you were head writer for a television series, I Search for Adventure.  Never mind that you were the only writer for the series. Never mind that one afternoon years after I Search for Adventure had become history, you met, when exiting Barney's Beanery, the former host of I Search for Adventure, or that he embraced by by both shoulders, thanking you for what he called the sign-off line to the show that he considered only a small step below Edward R. Murrow's "Good night, and good luck" sign-off. Never still mind that you'd evolved the sign-off line one night after a dinner with too many bottles of Pommard and too many cognac and coffee.  "And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, good night until our next adventure."  Just never mind, will you?

But you do mind how reading has informed, directed, and underscored your own searches, leading you ultimately down a not-quite ghost town with a warped wood sidewalk in some places, but no sidewalks at all in most others.  This was a town you'd found over a hundred years too late, a town where another hero of yours, this one quite real, had trod and had worked for a newspaper called The Territorial-Enterprise, and where a more modern editor said, "Say, how'd you like to send me a column? Maybe call it 'A Letter from Los Angeles."?"

"Sure," you said.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

If You Can't Hear the Characters, There Is No Cake

You were led to the Charles Portis novel True Grit, one afternoon of great convenience and significance at a time when narrative voice held your interest hostage. During a visit with the writer John Sanford (ne Julian Shapiro), in which you expressed admiration for his distinctive narrative voice, you wondered aloud and with impatience how best to articulate the sounds you sometimes heard during composition.

Sanford's wife, Marguerite, was serving us Sara Lee pound cake and coffee at the time of my outburst. "You should read True Grit," she said.

"You'd better listen to her," Sanford told me. "She knows. She wrote the screenplay."

There followed a recounting of her conversations with John Wayne, who'd been cast to portray the character of the irascible Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, and Wayne's concerns that Rooster's voice emerge in the script like a beacon to light Wayne's path away from sounding like himself and instead like the character.  

He was also aware of the considerable difference between his own politics and those of Marguerite Roberts, and his concerns that she might inadvertently slip in "some of that Pinko stuff." You were reminded of this conversation again when you'd learned that Wayne had won Best Actor Award for his role in the film.

"You should read True Grit,"  she said.  And you did.

First and foremost, you got the unwavering presence of the principal narrator, Mattie Ross, told from the firmness of her recollections now as a spinster, principled in its determination to bring to justice the man who had betrayed the confidences of her father, then killed him. 

Mattie Ross's word choice and the formality of her cadences, whether in narrative, description, or her recounting of the dialogue of others, gave this story, which in essence was a story of revenge sought, then achieved, its distinctive voice.

At the time of your visit to the Sanford/Roberts cottage in the more remote outliers of Montecito, John Sanford was working on a three-volume autobiography, all told in the second person. You'd read the first volume and, as usual with your readings of his work, were mesmerized by the intensity and integrity of his narration. 

In regard to that, Sanford often repeated to you two of your favorite observations from Mark Twain, himself no stranger to voice. "The right word--not it's second cousin." and "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

You took a great deal away with you from that visit. On your way home, you stopped at The Tecolote Book Shop to purchase a copy of True Grit, thenplunged into it as the gift from its author, and from Marguerite Roberts, who'd given you the clue, every bit as simple as the Sara Lee pound cake she served.

" Listen to the characters."

If you can't hear the characters, there is no cake.