How like fiction it is to remind you if important connections by sending trivial details your way. Much as you enjoy the often clear voice of nonfiction, presenting things to you for connection, the arguments of characters in fiction seem to provoke the most reflection and absorption, once they get to arguing.
Isn't it, after all, the arguments over the details that lead you to turn the pages, hopeful of finding answers? Isn't it, after all, the arguments and their increasing insistence, that lead you to see you will have to interpret those same details, in fact take sides in those arguments that lead you on with such persistence?
Fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are all necessary food to feed the imagination. You could no more ignore poetry and nonfiction if you goal was to explore and calculate the distances and orbits of the night sky, but you would want some experience with seeing the universe as a poet and essayist saw it before attempting to adjust the field of vision on your telescope.
You accept how relative in messiness and lack of system your approach to fiction is, piles of various works in progress, awaiting added illumination by your reading and thinking of poetry or nonfiction before you are able to say, for example, these two piles are now related; they belong in the same pile.
Don't even think of your internal critic telling you how often it is you are able to stroll out into a clear night, where you indeed may see light reaching you from a star that has long since gone dead. How are you to tell, you internal critic will ask of you, from which of these piles of notes and speculations gone dead?
You make it a point not to listen to such questions, nor, to mix the metaphor-in-progress, through which end of the telescope you may be looking. The process has worked some for you, leaving you the comfort of acknowledging you are not by any means possible an astronomer, yet you are one who finds the night skies of such a quality that it speaks to him.
You scarcely opened the mailbox, which you share with E., your landlady, when--if we're going to stay for a moment with the starry sky metaphor--cosmic forces aligned to present a catalogue from Ben Silver, the Charleston S.C. haberdasher from whom you on occasion buy some items of clothing.
A feature on regimental-striped neckties and more whimsical and less formal ones struck you at last as more than a mere fact, rather as a fact related to two characters. a sworn-police officer/ homicide detective, and a private detective, both of whom appear in the two works in progress you've brought to various states of form over the past two or three years.
Disclosure: the current project of your serious focus is nonfiction, one that called you away from these two novels-in-the-making.
You'd wanted the homicide cop and the PI to have something more than casual mutual awareness, perhaps even a friendship in potential, although in many cases, neither man is like the other. Except that upon opening the Ben Silver catalogue this morning, you understood detail # 1, which is that both men purchase neckties from the Ben Silver catalogue, an aspect of choice or, if you will, taste demonstrated by each.
The SBPO will have noticed the PI's choice, even asked to confirm the coincidence, a plausible string of details that have no meaning to anyone, much less a reader, until the cop acts on it by hiring the PI to perform a long, comprehensive survey of his personal finances because of his growing awareness that Internal Affairs of the SBPD are interested in how he, on the basis of his pay grade, has so much net worth.
The details begin to coalesce. A police officer of net worth beyond the status of his pay grade, taking steps to document his honesty, integrity, and to create the added similarity between the cop and the PI of each having enough assets to leave curiosity about his background and ethics.
You can even see, and are fearful of indulging an improvisation of the conversation, the scene where the cop approaches the PI, who is at lunch in a restaurant where most cops are not likely to go, and how the conversation will begin, and what each will say to the other.
You will of course replay the scene until it sounds the way you wish, with each man having come away from it with some awareness of vulnerability and self-consciousness resident in the other. The PI, once a teacher at Santa Barbara High School, owns residential and real property in SB, does not by any means have to take cases of no interest to him.
If you like the scene well enough, you will find a way to keep it in the novel, which has to do with the husband of one of the PIs employees being found dead in her hotel room, and the PI's strongly held conviction that the employee, already known to us to travel in cognito, will never be seen again--which, now that you think about it, gives us the end of the story.
All this from a mail order catalogue.
Friday, September 30, 2016
How like fiction it is to remind you if important connections by sending trivial details your way. Much as you enjoy the often clear voice of nonfiction, presenting things to you for connection, the arguments of characters in fiction seem to provoke the most reflection and absorption, once they get to arguing.
Thursday, September 29, 2016
Over the course of your composing activity, you have been any number of writing types, ranging in output from one who was so taken with the fun and pleasure of composition that he reckoned doing so was easy.
Soon, but not soon enough, the awareness began to fall on you as a rain or snow storm descends on a traveler who is unprepared for variations in the norm. You learned in fact that the norm is an abstraction; snow and rain are the stages on which story is set.
Even when writing was seeming to become easier to deal with, you felt the warning detectors going off with a sound much like the braying of a jackass.
Even at that desolate moment, you understood how far you were in any sense from rescue or help; you were unable, of course, to see yourself now. Even if you were able to see yourself now as a form of consolation prize, there's little you could have thought to do as you sped you way to this.
You are the sort of writer who enjoys the first draft with a ruled legal pad and a fountain pen. Computer first drafts work, but you often find yourself writing a scene in a pad, then placing it in the computer file.
You are the sort of writer who frequently discovered he started too soon or too late, based on your experience of seeing how final drafts often begin in places and points of view you never anticipated.
You are the sort of writer who discovers in some stack of materials he has come to regard as convenience files a five- or six page entry into a scene that seems so foreign and yet intriguing that you begin to wonder from whom you were copying and what salient aspect of dramatic opening velocity you were trying to teach yourself.
You are the sort of writer who believes his understanding of a story situation will make his future writing easier even though, across the bridge of time, this has not been demonstrated to him.
Against all contrary evidence, you are the sort of writer who believes he has learned from all his previous exercises and as a consequence does not have to learn how to tell a story with each new venture.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Quite a laundry list you're compiling in which you show the difference between story and Real Life Event, the most recent discovery being how story is more likely to allow for failure than Real Life Event, or, if you will, the Cultural Lie. Or the Cultural Myth.
You grew up in the culture of "If at first you don't succeed, try and try again," which you pretty much got at public school, such Sunday School as you attended, and even into tiers of university life.
You were so wrapped and bathed in this mantra that you were still plagued by the dialectic after you'd left the university and were on your way home one night from the Writers' Poker Game in Palos Verdes, which meant you'd quit playing cards at eleven, gone over to the most louche bar you knew of in San Pedro, and caused significant adjustment to your blood alcohol count.
Somewhere along the murky reaches of Western Avenue, perhaps toward west central Los Angeles, you were at an intersection well lit up (as indeed you were) for that time of morning. A scattering of cars thrummed and chuffed in the intersection, their drivers and passengers eyeing one another with the guileless innocence of night owls.
Quit Your Day JobIn the midst of the street, one of the most drunken individuals you'd seen--and still remember over an arc of fifty years--was telling another less drunk individual to go be fruitful and multiply himself, only to be knocked to the pavement by his more sober opponent.
You had no idea what the cause of the altercation was, but the more sober of the two kept knocking the drunk down, seeming almost to trigger a reflexive rising of the drunk, followed by a string of epithets. You were not the only person in the crowd of onlookers who wanted the drunk to stop getting up. His attacker kept telling him, "Just fucking stay down for a minute. Just fucking say Uncle or No more."
But the drunk would not, or perhaps could not, understand how to cause the bloodbath to stop. He continued to wobble to his feet, tell his opponent to go fuck himself, then be decked with a jab or uppercut to the jaw.
On one such cycle, you saw the drunk part company with a tooth. Still he rose to challenge. One of the bystanders suggested the attacker go for a combination left to the gut, right to the jaw, perhaps causing enough upheaval to distract the drunk from his folly.
Under the circumstances, you'd have opted for the game-ending recognition of defeat, perhaps even wrapped in some poetry as "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din." The event impressed you to this day and helped you articulate your belief that the drunk might have stumbled on something in a story, but not at four in the morning at Western near Overland.
Because writers and artists are eerily observant, they allow their subjects to lose more often than win; it is only the fabulist and mythmaker who wants the blind faith of determination to triumph over the potential for improvising a new approach to a new problem. Over the years, and not nearly so memorable as your early morning trek home, you've won with efforts less than your best and lost with efforts that so moved you, you were almost inchoate with tears.
You remember one morning, not far off that four o'clock time, when you'd finished reading a teleplay to a major literary agent, a director with more than one stunning success to his credit, an actress with whom you were entirely in love, and a man who'd produced plays on Broadway. "Kid," the Broadway producer said, "you hit that right out of the park. Things are going to belong to you now."
You, who were running a quick survey of your cash on hand to assess inviting the actress to breakfast, had the stunning-but-necessary awareness that "things" belonging to you or anyone was a myth; the most you could come away with was that brief time when, as you read, the room was quiet with the early morning crispness of expectation and connection.
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
From time to time on you strolls through your midtown residential neighborhood, you come upon a series of hieroglyphics, spray painted on the street or surrounding curbing, a combination of blue and red letters and numbers, at once mysterious and reminiscent of your younger days, when almost any excuse for a treasure map would do.
These graffiti remain for about a week, whereupon the surrounding area is barricaded, strange vehicles with insect-like protuberances scurry about the street, and a cadre of men, many of whom carry clip boards, stand about in small clots, swearing, pointing, and adjusting their hard hats against the overhead sun.
Thee crews arrive, by your reckoning, at seven, often carrying steaming cups of coffee. Were you to return around noon or one, you'd find odd-shaped trenches, exposing the various layers of soil, sand, gravel, and even traces of the previous paving surfaces that make up the city's thoroughfares.
Such visions remind you of a high school class in physiology, where an earnest teacher with a French accent tried to impress upon you the need for memorizing the names of the layers of skin, ancillary to recognizing their varied appearances. This made sense to a dear friend and classmate, who already knew he wished to be a doctor.
You, who wished to become a writer, could see no value in memorizing layers of skin, devoting your efforts instead to memorizing Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 18. This did not do well for you in physiology tests, but what girl could resist being compared to a summer's day? Or, once again, so you thought at the time.
Were you to return to the area at 3:30, the hour when all city- and state-funded construction operations ceased, you'd find the hieroglyphics and trenches gone, replaced by some matte-finish black conglomerate, reminding you this time of visits to dentists, who seemed determined to do to previous excavations what had been done in the streets, replacing them with a smoother, more durable protective finish.
Not long ago, you came upon a man who was applying such hieroglyphics to the street, a spray can of red in his right hand, with which he applied a series of numbers, and a spray can of blue paint, with which he'd earlier drawn two arrows. Overcoming your impulse to ask the man if he'd nourished dreams of becoming another Banksy, you reflected a sincere curiosity about his part in the decision tree whereby a zit or other flaw was reported, brought to official notice, then plans were scheduled for what the man called "a resurface."
As to the numbers and symbols, the mention of them required your non-Banksy to remove his hard hat, wipe his brow, and reflect on surveyor's transits, and such arcana as plate levels, meets and bounds, add tapes, and fucking zero points, which you supposed held some special pain for your informant. You were introduced to any number of terms, and then told that Santa Barbara was about as fucked up as a city could be as a consequence of some nineteenth-century surveyors having an overly familiar relationship with sour mash bourbon.
Such urban mythology and, credit where credit is due, legends stir your heart, and for as long as he was willing, you listened to your man. Not saying, he said, that other cities aren't a surveyor's nightmare, but you take yourself to Utah, where them LSD folks--"You mean LDS," you said. Whatever. They know how to lay out a city. They got their aliquots separate from their bark scribes, and you sure don't see them blazing.
The better part of five minutes passed, while you were buried under a flurry of surveying terms and concepts, interrupted by another man, with a clip board and a chewed-upon cigar, who wondered, You gonna finish up over there so we can get to Dunkin' Donuts?
You did get the story from him, since he sensed you were not anything you shouldn't be, that more than once, a wrong hole had been excavated, re-packed, and resurfaced. This gave you the rest of your walk to consider the existential meaning of not being what you shouldn't be.
The best you could do was recall times when, as an editor, you'd made editorial hieroglyphics on a manuscript. With no recourse to sour mash bourbon, these were misinterpreted by a writer, who, in effect, resurfaced after laying bare the thoroughfares that make up a manuscript.
Monday, September 26, 2016
Difficult to tell when you came by your fondness for the names of characters and places. Kipling's The Jungle Book was sure to have been an early nudge in that direction, with its Mowgli, Shere Kahn, and Bagheera.
You do recall the Shell Station a scant block away from you, and their willingness to give you the occasional map of the Western States, which you poured over, in search of agreeable place names, which at the time meant places you thought you might like to visit.
Until you were well into your matriculation at the university, the mere mention of Walla Walla, Washington could send you into gales of laughter. Indeed, at one point during your stay, and suspicious that your examination papers were not being read by the professor but rather by a particular teaching assistant you did not like, you wrote in one essay question comparing and contrasting Dickens with Thackeray your opinion that Dickens' major strength as a storyteller came from his ability to invent memorable names for his characters.
To bolster your assertion, you mentioned the number of Dickens' characters who'd found their way into the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate Dictionary, which was the dictionary to use if you were going to cite to a dictionary.
"Not so! See me!" was written in the margin of the booklet in which the provocative statement was written, indeed in the hand of the professor. You prepared for the meeting with a counterargument about Dickens' strength (his ability to write stage-like, dramatic scenes). Continuing the preoccupation of names with your university days, you were granted a dispensation by one or more editors of the daily newspaper, on which you served a variety of roles, including night editor, desk editor, proofreader, and sports night editor.
Each issue had a box listing the names of the writers and editors contributing to that day's text. Your dispensation was to be able to add one funny name per day, after promising you would never add a bogus name to a news story. Some of your favorite inventions were O. Leo Leahy, T. Hee, Justin Case, Lotte Nichols, and D. Freishutz, all indications of how young and impressionable you were, even amidst moments of maturity.
Toward the end of those years, you dated with some persistence a young woman with the surname of Offczyrczyk. Her elegant presence had much less effect on you than her name, which you enjoyed repeating, in particular when the occasion arose where you introduced her to someone.
True enough, many thought you were sneezing, In addition to her name, she exuded a trait you were discovering in texts and conversations all about you--gravitas. This is not to say she was lacking in humor; her observations were often keen in their comparisons of two things that appeared unlikely at first blush, then came rushing together to cause you a gush of laughter. You were at the time a firm believer in the attraction of opposites.
Somewhere in a folder you keep of early rejection slips and acceptance letters, there is still a pencilled note on the first page of one of your stories, "I'd buy more stories like this if your characters didn't have such impossible names." Indeed, there was a character in that story with the surname Offczyrczyk.
By this time, you'd also blundered into two years of Italian, thinking to impress the teacher. Instead, you came to understand that perhaps your first crush, while enrolled in Public School Number Ten, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, had a name even more magical that you thought at the time.
What did Passacantando mean to a ten-year-old California Kid, who knew how to swear in Spanish? To a twenty-one-year-old, it meant "Walks by, singing" and, of course, another long, foreign-sounding name to your short stories, most of which took place in Los Angeles, others in Limbo, New York, Walla Walla, and Wytopitlock, ME.
Let us add some years and experience to your tool kit, going straightaway to characters in your last published work of fiction, and dipping into your notes and early drafts on newer ones. Not a Passacantando or Offczyrczyk in the batch, not even a
Baccigaloupe, which you were delighted to learn meant "kiss a wolf." Not even a trace from the years when you had two students from Iceland, Baldvinsson and Ragnarson, who, because of his then girlfriend, was instrumental in you having a character--also from Iceland, named Ragnfridursdottir, who allowed herself to be called Frid, but only by close friends.
Everything is still reeling from the effects of trying to collaborate with Digby Wolfe, whose idea of a surname was Coe or, grudgingly, Evans. "Try to remember what it's like to call people or animals with two- and three-syllable names."
En attendant Godot.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
With the possible exception of telling you to act your age, which people tend not to do any longer, lest you do act your age, the most baffling suggestion you've heard on a repeated basis is the injunction to be serious.
Often, the challenge comes addressed in adverbial form, "Seriously." But the intent is always there--you are not being quite serious enough to suit an occasion, a mood. From some years of teaching in what was once thought of as Adult Education and which has now been revised to the more collegial-sounding Center for Lifelong Learning, you have enough experience to imagine what is meant by behaving at the age you've attained, which in its way relates to seriousness if only because the effects of your age in a numerical sense is some serious business.
Disclosure: For the most part, you do not act your age, not only because you don't have to, rather because you doubt you could maintain composure, much less gravitas, were you to do so.
Being serious is a matter of degree. For most of your recent memory, serious meant something unthinkable and apocalyptic enough to drive away any potential for laughter. That said, one of your biggest problems, through teens and well into middle age, was keeping a straight face, whether you thought the matter at hand was serious or serious enough to be funny. You had to become a writer rather than a performer, if only to keep from losing your appearance of composure.
Truth to tell, there were times when you believed yourself to be in circumstances so dire that you found yourself reasoning that these must be funny times. No; you did not have the experiences of some members of your culture, in which there was oppression by mindless troglodytes of bullying nature. No, you did not exist in circumstances so uncertain that you shook with dread.
Whatever happened to you and around you often happened because of things you'd initiated or, through purposeful inaction, failed to initiate. There you were, through it all, unable to keep a straight face, unable to convey your sense that the circumstances at hand were dire.
At your present age, nothing seems funnier than being anything beyond the merest degree of serious. By this point, story has become unserious, anything carrying more than a mere hint of seriousness seems either propaganda of some cultural or political sort or an over reliance on religion-based fable.
A thing containing the need for seriousness is intrinsically serious enough; no further exaggeration is necessary. A thing that borders through its exaggeration on silliness loses its ability to disturb as a story or an aspect of reality ought to.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
By the time you've settled into the composition you hope to undertake on any given day, you are driven, if not spurred onward, by the effect of the thing to be written about, your attitude toward it, and its place in your estimation.
You are in fact so caught up in such vital signs as technique, voicing, and placement along the pathway of humor that you forget one of the vital presences in your life.
Most composers can recount an early time in their life when they felt bullied and overwhelmed by loss. Individuals whose composition is considered more scientific or engineering driven or even entrepreneurially driven have also experienced the seemingly unrelenting presence of loss; this is, after all, a reason why loss plays such a role in our productivity and behavior.
True enough, you've experienced stinging losses of friends, dreams, even ideals. On a lesser level, you've lost hair, teeth, mobility, youth, but these in their own way actually provide you with perspective, tolerance, acceptance, not only of your own condition but of the entire humanity, extending to plants, animals, and nonorganic compositions.
The loss of which you speak and for which you hold warmth and respect is the loss of excess in the pursuit of a vision, the loss of over-description as you attempt to separate it from such component pasts as may well be unnecessary.
The goal for a composer is to produce work as close to the individuality of you as possible, reflecting not only an idea but your idea, told in your way, with your vocabulary, with your level of feeling and subtext.
You must lose all detail not directly involved in presenting your subject matter, however insignificant or narrow in scope. In effect, even your grocery list must be specific to the person preparing it. Still prominent in your memory, the discussion you had with your mother in the matter of preparing such lists. "How," you asked, "can you rely on an entry as vague as 'staples.' What are staples?"
"I know perfectly well what I mean by staples. They are my staples. I don't have to put down brands or even types of lettuce or cabbage. I buy iceberg lettuce, not bok chop. I know to within an inch or circumference the size and density of a head of cabbage. You'll note when I send you bicycling down to the market to get things, I send you with a specific list and I tell you in advance, 'No substitutes.'"
Loss is the number of times you hit the delete key on your computer. It used to be crumpled pages, yanked from the typewriter, or lined legal pads, covered with your handwriting, torn out to be cast aside because some errant notion got in the way, because you were attempting to describe things instead of trying to evoke a sense of who you were or some characters of your invention were when caught up in the midst of story.
Loss becomes the times you describe yourself out of the story you are attempting to define; it becomes the time away from your vision, time you've spent not sounding like you or one of your creations.
Early in the game, when you were aware of the materials not sounding like you, you were aware of them sounding like those writers you cherished or, in more negative cases, like the text books passed out to you in a spate of schools, where there were lesson plans and agreed-upon cultural standards students such as you were supposed to sound like.
Friday, September 23, 2016
You once knew a psychotherapist who, if she is to be believed, told of greeting a proposed new patient with the single question, "What's your complaint? " if the individual took the rest of the first hour, going on about his or her complaint, the psychotherapist was only too willing to take on the complainer as a patient. One thing you know from a long friendship with the psychotherapist, her interview standards were successful; most of her patients were with her for quite a while.
You know a few writers for whom you will take the liberty of naming them as complainers, their source material seeming to compact as much conflict and complaint as possible into a narrative. As well, you understand how you are essentially a complainer, too distracted at first with learning the bits and pieces of narrative technique to see your way clear to the straightforward, unvarnished complaint as one of the pillars if not the very foundation of story.
At this stage of your time in the game, you are well up on your own complaints and your awareness of the complaints you find in editing clients, students, and friends who are writers. After one or two times too many of having to ask of a student why she or he was afraid to let the inner complaints come rushing forth, you saw the terrain of your own narrative.
This was a terrain where one or more individuals had a perpetual chip on his/her shoulder because "People don't say what they mean. They only say what they think other persons want to hear."
About midway into your career in organized publishing, you reported to a publisher who more than once told you of his opinion that you were such a person, too willing to be agreeable and too easy to come by some ameliorating response to any serious conversation.
Each time he told you this, your reply was immediate. "You must have me confused with someone else,. I only rarely agree with you, and for someone who is so opposed to speculative thinking rather than Kantian pure reason, you rely overmuch on your instincts."
You went into detail the first time this conversation took place, hopeful of either being fired or putting an end to his belief. The publisher's response was invariable, "You prove my point by appearing to disagree with me."
There was no possible way for you to have a meaningful conversation with this man, even though you had at least one meeting a week with him in the presence of other department managers and one meeting a week with only the two of you to suggest that some sort of rapprochement was waiting, if only you were to see how to word it.
These years helped form what you have come to think of as your vision of complaint, which is essentially a funny vision, which is another way of saying that funny visions are often the direct result of painful circumstances.
What's your complaint? Why, of course, it is a complaint about how individuals often become the most passionate, confidential, honest, and empathetic when they are in a misdirected transaction, where each party believes he understands what the other is saying, but in the process is at least off on a tangent, if not completely off.
At one earlier time in your journey to see where writing stories would take you, there was a musk of irritation and impatience about you. By then, you had some notion of how irritation and impatience turn sour and unproductive, whereupon things began to seem funny, then, progressively, funnier.
Funny covers over a good deal of irritation and impatience. Some individuals of your acquaintance have grown used to seeing you, from time to time, sitting at a coffee shop, reading a journal, possibly writing on a series of note pads, pausing for a sip of coffee and what appears to be an involuntary outburst of laughter.
You are far from irrascible or misanthropic, which probably explains some of the laughter. Far better to be seen as a smiling man with a weathered face than a grumpy ideologue.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Your collaborations with other writers often produced results well beyond mere blandness, ebbing and waxing like a surf with nothing to do but ebb and wax, with precious little in between except moving sand.
Collasborations are risky propositions under most circumstances, even when there is an apparent need for the project to be written by more than one person. You have not been involved in any serious sort of collaboration for approximately five years, when Digby Wolfe fell ill with the complications that would be the death of him, and your last words to him, the phone held to his ear by his wife, you in Santa Barbara, he is Albuquerque, had to do with your promise to finish the work for the two of you.
Your collaborations with Wolfe were problematic from the outset because of your differing approaches to writing anything, including Wolfe's having on at least three occasions when catching flights to other cities were at issue, returning home to rewrite a note of instruction to his house cleaner.
There was also the ongoing problem that you perhaps liked each other too much, each of you seeing what he felt to be the gap in the other's vision. Not to forget the tangible note of neither of you wishing to disappoint the other.
Your approach was scatter gun, get the first draft down in as much detail as possible, then go back to cope with the results. Wolfe, who sometimes used a rhyming dictionary the way you in jest likened to a tong leader, keeping track of the day's take on an abacus, would often lapse into a stare.
You knew he was somewhere, but not in the present moment. "It's that sentence two paragraphs back," he'd say. "It's trying to do too much." Quite often, he was quite right, but you were in another moment, coping with another aspect of the story.
Your collaborations with him were on a par with having to explain things to exes you'd not seen or communicated with in years, an observation you made to him at one point where purposes were crossed. His reply, "But that's the very nature of story, isn't it?"
While your collaborations may not have produced many tangible outcomes, they curiously informed the way each of you wrote on his own, extending the feeling you both had that you were better for one another than either of you was able to articulate.
With that inchoate counterpoint in mind, you proceeded until, one day, while you were both tucking into large bowlsful of linguini alla vongole, you allowed that story had a genome of its own, a dramatic genome writers strived to encounter.
"That's it," he said. "That's our next. The Dramatic Genome. We'll write it your way, then edit it mine. We'll make good on all our threats and promises. We'll--"
Half an hour later, the owner of Via Maestra approached our table. "Something is wrong with the vongole? Those clams are fresh. I made the sauce myself. Everything is, if I may say so, perfect. Why, then, are you not eating?"
"Because," Wolfe said, "we are planning Chapter Three."
Your speculations about the composition of Self lead you to think that you are always in a state of collaboration, even while working by yourself. And yet, since that evening at 3343 State Street, sometime in 2010, every time you think of linguini all' vongole, you are back collaborating with Wolfe.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
This begins with the disclaimer that you do not set forth to read flash fiction as having the reading thrust upon you, primarily as a judge but to some degree as a teacher. Judging is a tricky business, a statement made in light of you having been selected more than once to judge the outcomes of cooking and baking competitions.
In most cases, you'd have not been asked to judge anything if you had not held the position of editor with a number of ventures, most of which, as the saying goes, looked good on paper, the saying implying the publishing ventures often showed a profit to the point where you often got a performance bonus of some sort.
Being an editor, you were confronted with poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, in all their various forms, including cookbooks, which account for you being chosen to judge the outcomes of cooking and baking competitions.
While you're on the subject of disclosures, here's one about flash fiction, which, if the genre could be wrangled into a metaphor, say the emperor, has, in your opinion, no clothes. This opinion is ventured in awareness of the enormous popularity of the genre, the apparent creative challenges it presents to writers, and your growing sense that readers in general and persons in specific are not so able to focus their attention on any one behavior for as long as persons were once able to do.
Numbers are nice points of reference to use in arguments such as this, which you admit to being the literary equivalent of an argument ad hominem. You estimate the number of flash fiction pieces you've read to approximate twenty-five hundred, which is arguably enough to get you in the game. You first decided not to like flash fiction when you were asked to serve on a panel of judges reviewing short fiction that had to be fifty-five words, not fifty-four, certainly not fifty-six.
You were asked to grade submissions on a scale of one-to-ten, one being the low point, ten being close, in your opinion, to publishable quality. Even though you graded a number of submissions as low as minus four, you were invited back to judge for two successive years, and lived to see at least two books of fifty-five-word stories published. In the introduction to each, the publisher admitted his choice of the fifty-five word dictum was based on pure whim.
Your main objection to flash fiction is the limitation brevity places on characterization and, thus, subtlety of motivation. This objection leads you to the next, which is that much flash fiction has the same format as a joke, which means a set-up, a complication, and a punch-line-payoff.
All well and good for individuals who like jokes or situations where the payoff is some splendid irony as the flash fiction involving a hard-of-hearing genie who grants someone a wish, thus the payoff, which is a much dwarfed piano player, and the punch line, "You said you wanted a nine-inch pianist."
True enough, humor is dramatic. Of equal truth, many jokes and a great many pieces of flash fiction follow the three-act play format, some flash fiction even allowing for delightful and often provocative surprises. But the result is always the same as a joke. You've heard it said that a good joke cannot be spoiled by a bad telling. You can accept that standard on an intellectual level, but you grew up in a world where a man born as Nathan Birnbaum told not only good jokes but told them well.
Under his stage name of George Burns, he caused you to see the importance of timing, of deadpan delivery, of a Mark Twain-like patience with the material, knowing there was an end response to be had, willing to go for the long, expressionless gaze, punctuated by a tap on his cigar to get the desired result.
Once, when you learned that you favored the same delicatessen restaurant Burns did, you heard him say something that irrevocably changed your attitude to storytelling. "You think I go there [Linny's Delicatessen] for the food? I go there for the way the food is served, always with questions. 'You think that soup was good, Mr. Burns, you'd have been amazed by the split pea.' 'Then why didn't you serve me the split pea?' 'Because, Mr. Burns, even the bus boy could see from the expression on your face, you were in no mood for the split pea.'"
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Behind every great outburst of humor-induced laughter, a cloud of anger lurks. If you care to look further into the matter, you can find the source of the anger, an I-told-you-so smirk on its face, a smirk that is confirmation of the equation and the way the equation ties into the dramatic genome.
Humor is, indeed, human. Funny you should mention it, but when we see human aspects of humor in other species, that, too, is humor because--no surprise here--when we see such similarities, we are not laughing at the animals under observation, we are laughing at ourselves.
Of the various colors of humor on the palette, your own favorite is satire, which is the voice and dramatization of behavior bumped up a bit by exaggeration, but not so much as to suggest a commentary is being made.
That particular degree of exaggerated satire is burlesque, which is often quite funny, but operates on a system where the performer and the audience are in collusion against another individual or type.
We who observe burlesque are laughing at our own prejudices our own, if you will, bigotry. No matter how you slice the loaf, we are laughing at someone who does not quite have our own finely tuned sense of sophistication and balance. We are, although it pains me to say it, Donald Trump, in his burlesque of a news reporter afflicted with palsy.
Satire comes roaring from the anger of the satirist, who sees a behavior he or she finds intolerable, then manipulates as if to rationalize its toleration. See, for instance, Rev. Swift, rationalizing his solution to the Irish potato blight in his "A Modest Proposal."
Irish families are notably well-populated, an observation that might well have come from Rev. Swift's Protestant view of the Catholic approach toward procreation and dealing with one's sexual nature. Large families, in particular those most affected by the potato blight, would not miss one of the younger ones in one's brood, and doesn't Rev. Swift tell us right there that he has it on recommendation of an American friend that a young child, prepared parboiled, is most delicious?
Thus the solution to starvation, something taken with another kind of vision by the Donner Party, some years later in the freezing embrace of the snowy Sierras between Nevada and California.
Humor, as an entity, is the schoolyard bully, wanting to take down an individual, an --ism, a paradigm that has been held up as an embodiment of all that is meaningful, spiritual, and of cultural importance to us.
Humor is a fighter, but it does not fight the way the schoolyard bully does; humor fights by exaggeration rather than intimidation; it fights by the flattery of making the target seem not only rational but based in some elevated moral precision. Humor fights not only by suggesting the emperor is indeed clothed, he is wearing a bespoke suit from Brioni.
Once you are aware of the anger management mechanism being firmly fixed in place, you can and do seek out targets for humor as though you were a heat-seeking missile out on reconnaissance. You have only to look about you.
Monday, September 19, 2016
When you first heard the expressions "heartbreak" and "heartbroken," you were still at the age where literalness prevailed. You might from time to time have challenged a particular outcome, and were already at the state where your prime targets for such challenge were your parents.
But for most practical purposes, the present moment was either early or late; you were either hungry or not, which pretty well determined how many helpings you'd take of one of your mother's remarkable concoctions.
Indeed, memory serves up the dish of your mother being the one who served up the concepts of heartbreak and heartbroken in her presentation to you of the Madame Butterfly story, where Butterfly was left waiting for a Pinkerton who would never return. "Heartbroken," your mother, who loved such stories of heartbreak, said. She would later tell you the same thing of beautiful young Ray Schmidt from Cincinnati and Fannie Hurst's novel, Back Street.
Your mother presented so many of these heartbreak scenarios to you while you were still in that stage of taking things for all their literal worth and not one metaphoric inch beyond that you reckoned you'd have to do some research into the matter. To be specific, you wanted to know if a heart, like a leg or arm, could actually break.
You'd had enough experience to have known of individuals you'd seen in a cast or sling, even to the point of knowing an individual who attempted to use his own broken wrist in a similar manner to Tom Sawyer making profit from his chore of whitewashing the fence.
Although hearts may experience various sorts of trauma, often associated with blocked arteries, they do not break as such, although they do suffer. Your researches and observations led you to a more hyperbolic platform, where your surroundings did in fact expand, blossom, explode in fact toward one of your favorite concepts and visions, synecdoche.
Heartbreak completes an equation in which loss is a major factor. One pines for something lost, perhaps something lost at the last moment, perhaps even with some victorious outcome in sight. Heartbreak keeps company with A.E. Houseman's heart being laden with rue.
One of the attendant benefits of heartbreak resides in the way it can be experienced without undergoing in real time a wrenching loss. Heartbreak can be experienced through listening to music, watching dance, reading or hearing poetry read, reading various types of essay, and through reading of short stories and novels.
Another aspect of heartbreak, one sometimes forgotten in the rush to get things said and sorted out for yourself: Why write a story if it does not break your heart?
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Against the grain of your wish to remain compassionate to all your characters, however flawed their yearnings and visions, you're faced with the challenging binary of your own more-or-less Marxist vision of Reality and some alternate prejudice brought on by one or more of your characters.
You cannot be content to allow story to be a mere setting and your characters little more than wind-up toys, set loose to work toward their goals without further consideration. This may well have been your vision of story when you began, but in the interim, you've read too many works of others with qualities of dimension and humanity, and written too many works of your own with these explicit qualities lacking to some degree or altogether.
No wonder the ambient noise of your early writing days was the sound of a sheet of manuscript paper being wrenched from the platen of a manual or electric typewriter, then fisted into a compact wad to be tossed at the resident wastebasket, itself papered over with the rejection slips from proposed landing sites.
No wonder, as well the long periods of investigating, of reading each successive short story or novel that came your way as though they were study guides for some important examination. These stories and novels you read, reread, and have encountered only this year are in fact study guides, even crib sheets, ample demonstrations of how, well before yo9ur arrival on this planet, men and women were accomplishing goals you've been setting for yourself since, to pick a starting point, you were at age seventeen.
More likely than not, your political and philosophical views were well along their way to being forged in those remote years of your teens. You require the emotional and intellectual vocabulary to be able to describe these vital subsets of story, these implications, innuendos, and outliers that make story real for you and cause you to fit yourself into story with the same insouciance of your days fitting yourself into a suit from J.Press or a jacket from Ben Silver.
The vocabulary is a long time coming, perhaps not so long as the awareness that you have to write the stories and novels in which the vocabulary is spelled out for you, nevertheless a long time arriving. The process drove you on a pilgrimage wilder and more fraught than the beset rabbit of Alice in Wonderland.
You visited libraries, used book stores, and Good Will outlets as though each were the end outcome of a treasure map, containing the one book or magazine that would cause you to see process as you'd never seen it before and as you'd always be able to see it thereafter.
One afternoon, while you were in a used book venue--for store is simply not a sufficient description--in Long Beach, California, you understood the same kind of transcendent experience that exploded over you when you were first allowed to enter the subterranean stacks of the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA. You were in each case transported to a place where you were surrounded by aspects of the power you sought to channel.
At least you understood that much; one does not hold or in any other way possess the power. If one is fortunate, the power passes through one. You were, at the time, already employed as an editor, in the company of a writer you'd already published more than once. At this point, you'd seen in person many of the men and women who, so far as you were concerned, had the power running through them. You'd also seen some of them, lunging after the power the way a small child lunges at a helium balloon that has got away from them.
Standing between the enormity of book-filled shelves at Acres of Books, you caught the eye of your author. "There is so damned much to be learned in here," you said.
"It hurts, just thinking about it," the author said.
Saturday, September 17, 2016
In your career as instructor in graduate-level writing programs, you've had a number of faculty mates whose work and/or personality you admired to the degree that your take on the words "collegial," and "collegiality" took on a broader, more enthusiastic, and certainly less acerbic dimension.
This sometime association was one of the many profitable outcomes you recognized from teaching, which was a good thing because you felt no such kinship and respect for a number of other faculty members. This lack of respect often came directly from your opinion of an individual's published work, although you were willing to give the work a pass if you admired their teaching techniques.
The dynamic was different when you were the regional leader of The Mystery Writers of America, in large part because you did not have in any way to accommodate with the politics and teaching philosophies of that group. As a dear friend and a writer you much admired put it, "All you have to do with this group is get drunk with them.
One particular faculty member at USC was enormously successful in his writing and his off-campus instruction methods. Your animosity toward this individual could be ascribed to his popularity out in the world, his attitudes toward his popularity, and the number of students who'd come your way either after studying with him or taking classes simultaneously with yours.
In addition to his attitude, which struck you as a degree beyond false humility, edging into having accepted himself in toto as a fait accompli. One of his primary tools for those who wish to compose drama is the stopwatch, this based on his operating theory that various aspects of story are in orbit and must pass before the reader/viewer in predictable intervals.
You can yet hear him, telling his students, "You must believe me; the audience wants this event to take place now and will applaud you when it does."
You may want things to happen in a story, but you do not want them to happen as though they were some libidinous teenagers, struggling against the uproarious suggestions of their individual states of puberty, right up to the moment of a curfew. You want surprise, which means one or more conspiracies against convention and expectation, as expressed by your characters.
The last thing you want is a killer confessing because we are at the place in the manuscript where the detective lays out the case against him or her, or because we have come to a scene wherein someone has confessed to THE murder, and we poor readers, fingering a sheaf of additional pages yet to come, know something else--a twist, a turn, an accident, a revelation--is to come, otherwise why not end the story here?
You want to be told to wait here, then discover you have been left in some sort of a maze from which there is no apparent exit. We want to be told, as a memorable Elmore Leonard character was told, to have a seat, only to learn that the act of sitting has triggered an ignition system on a bomb that will detonate the moment the person offered the seat thinks to rise. We want an ingenious, irresistible turn of event to remind us of all the many moments when we were held in thrall or captivity by an improvised device.
Although you favor things ending when their time to end has come, you also want the tingle of curiosity in which you wonder if that truly is the end in sight or merely another illusion. You accept those who are predestined to live happily eve rafter, but you happen to be one of those who are examining the smallest, seemingly most insignificant things, alert for the cosmic mischief of the cream pie in the face.
Friday, September 16, 2016
When you were living in the corner apartment of 3153 Barbara Court, in the buffer zone between the Hollywood Hills and what became The Valley, you had neither cat nor dog nor even a goldfish, although all three had crossed your mind.
You had a lipstick red Olivetti portable typewriter, given you by a person you assumed would become your mother-in-law. You had an eclectic collection of furniture including a sofa one aunt had admitted to paying too much for and getting too little in return.
Given your father's then pursuit as an auctioneer of the assets of failed restaurants, you had an eclectic assortment of cooking utensils, all of which you used at least once.
At the time, you most fancied having a Beagle as a pet, but the neighbor's cat, a mashup of a gray-and-white tiger stripe and a tuxedo, had other ideas and, as matters evolved, other plans. "I guess I don't have a cat any more," your neighbor, Ray, said one afternoon at about the time for your usual cribbage game. "He seems to spend all his time here, and I have to think he actually loves you."
Thinking the matter over, you understood how, at heart, you were a dog person, but this was no ordinary cat, even taking your evening walk about the neighborhood with you and, in one bold stroke, stowed away in your Hudson Hornet, all the way to Virginia City, Nevada, where he appeared able to cope with snow, altitude, and the inner life of The Brass Rail Saloon, wherein you did much of your serious drinking.
You also thought you were a short story person rather than a novelist even though any number of literary agents explained to you how you needed at least to be proficient in the novel format if you were to get anywhere with your intended career as a writer.
One literary agent in particular, a man whose memoir you would eventually publish, flat out told you he wanted nothing more to do with you if you continued to pursue your inexplicable fondness for the short form. He was also known in The New York Times and Publishers' Weekly as "King of the Paperbacks."
The agent was a Harvard man who, as you liked to joke, spoke two languages, English and Harvard. For his part, he observed that you wrote pretty well for a Westerner, by which he meant you were not as prolific as he would have liked because agents did not get commissions from drafts, only final manuscripts.
Thus, in those days, you were a dog person with a cat named Sam; you were a short story writer, writing novels for a man named MacCampbell. You were perfectly content with Sam, thinking you might transmogrify into a cat person. But after Sam's death, you found in a succession of cats including one named after Edna St. Vincent Millay, a vigorous awareness you were indeed a dog person.
By their nature, most novels require either a significant change, a symbolic event that encodes explanation for the outcome of the novel, or some plausible explanation for the obligatory payoff. Your vision of the short story contains a special dispensation not to close out with any authority. You call a short story's conclusion a negotiated settlement with Reality. You have on occasion spoken of the short story ending with a poised irresolution.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
The neighbors were at it again, arguing with a persistence you could not ignore. When you set out to plead with them for a return to civility, you were reminded of the dramatic cliche in which police, responding to domestic squabbles, are in more danger of violence than when dealing with criminals.
Sure enough, you came away battered, mugged to the point where one of the hundred titles you'd selected with such care for your current project became the victim. Since this had happened before, you were not surprised: Writing is in a real sense a form of domestic violence--at least, the kinds of writing you do radiates such dangers.
The matter at hand this time was over a novel that needed to be included in your examination, Injury Time , by the late British writer/actor Beryl Bainbridge, a title suggested to you in the early 1980s by Digby Wolfe, with whom you were on your way to forming a deep, epic friendship. "Subversive," was the way Wolfe described the book to you.
Indeed, Injury Time, with its mordant practicality, did subvert you concept of such matters as personal comfort, boundaries, and social contact. In brief, the protagonist, Edward, although married to Helen and commuting to work in London from the outer reaches of suburbia, has entered into an affair with Binny, a coworker. Binny lives in London, where much of the affair is engaged, and has reached the point where Binny is pressing for them to host as a couple a dinner party at her London flat.
Succumbing to Binny's pressures, Edward approaches colleagues he knows to also be married and having an extramarital affair, which, so far, seems a delicious concept for story and a shrewd approach to dramatizing the contemporary ideas of extramarital activity, of relationships in general, and morality in specific.
Beryl Bainbridge, so far as you know, took up writing when her own entry into middle age, itself a vital social commentary, seemed to cause difficulty in being cast in the ingenue and young love roles to which she'd been accustomed.
You admired her set-up in Injury Time, but were captivated by the next step in her manner of turning up the force of circumstances. Enter a group of Irish terrorists being pursued by the police. They enter Binny's apartment building at the time of Edward and Binny's dinner party, gain entrance to Bonny's apartment, then hold the assembly hostage while trying to out wait the pursuing police.
The most memorable part of the early story has Edward explaining to the leader of the terrorists that he must leave to catch the last train home, lest his wife discover his illicit activities, and the stark disbelief of the terrorist leader.
Injury Time was one of the first novels to bring you to the vision you began to develop over ensuing years of characters and actors being interchangeable, of the stage-like dramatic presence you see in story, of an actor as a writer. How, as your "neighbors" argued, could you not have such a title as an integral subject in your current book at hand?
The writing you've done on this project to date has reminded you how the hundred novels referenced in the subtitle are in many ways your writing mentors. Injury Time, and its exquisite irony of circumstance and the attitudes of its characters, led you directly to the second of the two individuals you consider your actual mentors. When you got around to asking Virginia Gilmore if she'd read Injury Time, she smiled when she told you, "She [Beryl Bainbridge] is one of us, you know."
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Not long ago, you hosted a dinner of the sort inspired by your late, dear friend, Digby Wolf, who wrote, produced, and directed a memorable prototype of such dinners. His version, called Dinner for One, featured a regal, elderly lady and a butler of equal age but none of the substantive bearing.
This dinner for one had the grand dame presiding over a full-course meal, with settings for all of her most cherished former lovers. Your hosted meal was in a large, filled-to-near-capacity restaurant, where your setting was the only one visible. The decorations were a small pot of flowers, asters from the look of them, a bottle of Heinz ketchup, and a bottle of Heinz mustard.
Instead of a butler, your server was a comely, smiling Native American, probably still in her twenties, name of Lianna.
Unlike the Wolfian prototype, your guests were aspects of you, in particular, aspects you may at times have not been willing to be seen with in public, due to your regard for them and their possible regard from you.
You began with a welcoming toast to all of them, ahead of the civility curve at least to the point where you recognized how, whatever negative traits you may have attributed to them, they had a hand in shaping you in your role as the literal and figurative host of this meal and, even more to the point, the entity of which we are all component parts.
"Could have picked a place with a better view," The Critic said.
"Not an imaginative menu," The Editor said.
"Could have been closer to a door or emergency exit," The Panic Button said.
"No need to tip twenty percent in a dive like this, El Cheapo said.
"Good choice," The Image said, "no danger of you being spotted here."
"Nevertheless," you said, then went on to tell them how glad they were all here, making a special call out to The Cynic, who was prompt in his assessment that this attempt at solidarity had less of a chance at success than a man or woman of Muslim faith being selected for a cabinet role in the Trump administration.
Each of these selves, along with a number of others who, in individual ways, caused you to think twice, indeed overthink, possibly not think at all, possibly not act at all or overact, or doubt, or lash out in uncritical response to some event or trend in your growing self, all of them contributed at length to the person you are now and the person you hope to become for at least a day before the time comes when you are no longer able to be a person, but must return to the component parts and design from which you sprang forth, bawling and fussing, these many years ago.
Like many things in the Reality of life, the meal was a negotiated success rather than a boffo hit. Someone--you don't call names in a situation like this--tried to make off with a souvenir fork, and someone got ketchup on your shirt, causing a brief argument about the best way to remove the stain and fear that tomato-based stains don't wash out.
There was also the last-minute reminder, "This is what you get for taking us to a place that serves ketchup."
All things being equal, the dinner was a success and you are now resolved to try another such meeting, this time at Trattoria Victoria, where the sea bass is excellent, or Gianfranco, where the osso bucco is superb.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Your characters must endure the pitfalls and pratfalls you contrive for them without any apparent awareness of your presence. In effect, they must be caught up in their own dreams, slowly coming awake to the Reality you've created for them, struggling to accommodate the cognitive dissonance of awakening in the Reality you've created for them rather than emerging from their own sleep.
In yet another aspect of the effect that is fiction, you, when you compose fiction, are the Wizard of Oz as portrayed by the actor, Frank Morgan, in particular when he tells Dorothy Gale, as portrayed by Judy Garland, "I am not a bad man, I'm just not a very good wizard."
You are observing your characters, listening closely to them for the clues they offer as they attempt their ways through the mazes you've constructed for them. In simultaneous gestures, you are observing their individuality and attempting to stay ahead of them, each of them and you looking for ways out of the puzzle. Both you and them experience surges of frustration and exhilaration as the process of story accelerates.
Story is the framework, the crucible, the maze. Some of your characters may come to suspect they are caught in a pissing contest between God and Satan, as brought to dramatic dimension in The Book of Job. Some of them may in effect pray for guidance or, if not of any particular religious bent, appeal to the fates for some kind of guidance.
So be it; you are not here to engage in those levels of existential speculation. You are here to manage aspects of human behavior through the tunnels and high altitudes of choice and exacerbated circumstance.
You are not by any means attempting to lecture the reader. You are here to learn from your characters and their circumstances in much the same way you learn from your students.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Yet another demonstration of the ability of words to inflict damages may be found in the adjective "little," itself an improvised explosive of an adjective, meant to demean and/or damn with the syrup of faint praise.
Little, of itself, is an innocuous way of reminding us how small the consequences of a matter may be. Thus there is no reason for alarm if when, say, we are pouring milk for someone's tea or coffee, and the recipient says "A little more."
We're still with nary a raised hackle during an attempt at a discussion conducted with civility, when we ask if our argument or vision is approaching that of the person we're engaging, and that individual replies, "A little closer."
Your attention, while reading a sprawling critical review taking in three books on a particular subject, was wrenched away from the topic at hand when the reviewer spoke of "the extraordinary little book written on the matter by X (because names are not important here.)."
Trouble aboundeth with immediacy when you saw how easy it was to infer that the "little" book in question was extraordinary in its smallness, perhaps little more than a pamphlet, rather than a book of modest size, say one hundred sixty pages, nevertheless filled with eloquent insightfulness.
Some poetry chapbooks are sixty-four pages or an even more scant thirty-two. In reviewing such a book, you'd do well to remark on how much soul-stirring or morally upsetting matters were raised in so few pages, but you would not say of it that it was an interesting little book.
Since you've published well over five hundred book reviews, you can also add the notion here that you would not likely want to write, much less publish, a review of a book you did not enjoy, having long since realized you would not be happy writing about a book you did not enjoy.
Many of your friends and acquaintances have in one way or another something to do with books. You cannot imagine a circumstance where you would say, "I read and enjoyed your little book," which would, to your mind, be the equivalent of diminishing the intent and importance of the book.
The same applies to friends who are actors, musicians, or some related type of performer such as lecturer, dancer, photographer. "I saw your little performance..." Er, no.
"Little" deserves its own chapter in any book or data base relating to the coding practise of a particular culture. "Little" reflects the user's wish to identify with an acceptable norm, where variations to the norm are graded in such additional terms as quaint, or that most heavily coded adjectives of all, interesting.
Be on guard. English is a vast sea of words, drawn from global cultures and its own innate joy of originating words, phrases, and idioms, many of which have been uprooted from their own sources of origin to perform a "greater" service to all of humanity.
If you are not careful, in a little while, you could be drenched in a tsunami of words with vague or no meanings at all.
Sunday, September 11, 2016
Working on any writing project, whether a simple book review or a longer, booklength venture, can be like listening to the neighbors arguing, only to realize that the parties at each other's throats is not the neighbors but instead, you.
The current book length project has brought forth some accusations, questions of parentage, and the old schoolyard, back-and-forth litany of "Is not." Is, too!" This is as a result of you having chosen a list of the one hundred novels from which you have learned the most vital aspects of the storyteller's art in the long form. Somewhere in the back of your mind and, indeed, even in the prospectus you've written for this work in progress, was the promise to write a similar work about the hundred short stories from which you believe you've learned the most.
This last aspect of the madness, because any long form writing venture is a form of madness, guarantees yet more arguments, more name calling and recrimination, more accusations, more departures from the controlled skepticism you find yourself swimming in these days to the sudden surges of adrenaline consistent with the awareness of sharks in these waters.
A package in the familiar shape of a book entombed in corrugated cardboard arrived this morning. Nothing out of the ordinary here; you order books online the way chocolate lovers slip bags of M and M's and Godiva bars into their shopping cart. You pull at the convenience tab, which works to perfection, delivering into your hands Moonglow, the new novel by one of your favorite living writers, Michael Chabon.
The net result being the morning is gone and you have to rush to move your car, moments ahead of the marauding traffic cop on wheels who acts as though her success on the job depends on her catching you being lax in moving your car for street sweeping.
The cover of Moonglow promises it is a novel, but after the first few pages, the text appears to be a memoir, then a biography of a first-person narrator's grandfather. Sometimes--nay, often--you are slow on the uptake; the work is fiction if it is invented. Knowing Chabon from his earlier work, which is the point here, you recognize you are holding in hand a made-up memoir as opposed to an actual one. Anything and everything are not only possible qualities of a novel, they are necessary ones.
The more you read of Moonglow, the more certain you are to finish it, and in fact, the keener you are to get on with the process, which realization has the neighbors at it again, bickering at a high, fractious pitch, the accusations rumbling like low-hanging thunder clouds.
Impeccable in its sanity is the voice that asks you, "How is it that you have not included Chabon's epic romp, The Jewish Policeman's Union?" Never mind that you enjoyed the book, noting its traces and hints the way you would experience the brisk persistence of a fine pinot noir. Mind instead how seamlessly Chabon blended alternate history with alternate reality, mystery, satire, and social commentary. Mind how, reminiscent of the famed Jewish folk hero-legendary creature The Golem, Chabon created a character who was, among other things, a significant stretch of imagination in the form of a detective who was half-Jewish, half-Tlingit.
"How is it," that sane voice asks, "that you have not..?"
"Okay," you say aloud. "I get it." And your mind flashes on the novel you will remove from the A-list, in order to replace it with the Chabon.
"Wait, wait," the soon to be bumped novel calls out. "You knew the author. You read that novel when it was a serial in a pulp magazine. You said of it that you would give anything to write with such implicit complexity about the human condition, about themes, and individuality."
You promised it an appearance on your B-List. You argued that the unstated theme of the entire project was change, how reading brought change to your psyche, your life, and to the way you saw Reality.
"You fucker," the fated novel said, "You dumped me."
The argument still rages. You will not be surprised if the police arrive in response to an alert of domestic violence.
Saturday, September 10, 2016
When you were getting on to the point where you felt like taking on the teens, you learned one day in a classroom of the fog coming in on little cat feet. Fog was never the same from that time, nor were cats. Each time you saw fog or a cat thereafter, both held you as your father once did,up on his shoulders, above the crowd, where you were able to see the parade.
By its intrinsic nature, parades move along a route, their pace sometimes changing as an antic moment breaks free, taking charge with the energy and determination of its mischief.
A parade becomes an excellent analogy for Reality; although its participants have some notion of what they ought to do and how to do it, parades are governed by the ruling forces of surprise and change, one often coming at the expense of the other, but also in the kind of tandem you see when watching a group of youngsters skipping along in the pure glee of some surprise or change in routine.
Everything about you is some tangible something until it changes into something else. In story, joy often takes a turn away from the parade of revelers to the place where it becomes changed into a sadness so profound that you cannot help feeling the entire universe has gone into some ritual of mourning.
Sometimes while in the process of shaving, which is to say when you are performing the act or causing individuals of your invention to shave, you look for and find traces of what you brought to the mirror when you were first beginning to shave, so eager to be chosen to play on a team in the game of adulthood and growing up that you considered it romantic and appropriate to shave. You saw traces of both your male grandparents, you saw yourself eager for the whiskers that would in time come to annoy you rather than give you the definition of your hopes.
Change paces as nervously through your stories as you paced through your teens, daring puberty to take you down,change you from the closet romantic you were into a character of your own design, a character whose voice not only changed but as well his way of engaging Reality.
There you would be, the romantic egoist, for you were romantic in hopes its energy would move you away from shyness with a slight hint of restraint you thought only the French could have because more and more, the characters you most admired were said to have sang froid. Although it means the same thing in English and French, cold blood meant something quite changed from the mere cold blood of English; it meant detached-but-observant.
Everything about you has changed, including the way you approach story, which is not at all to tell it and explain its meanings but to work yourself into it, at enough depth for the forces of change to take hold of you and it, and while it is playing out before you, there are moments when you understand what you have become.
Friday, September 9, 2016
You were eighteen, the ideal age for the venture, when you first read Thomas Wolff's novel, You Can't Go Home Again, your youthful level of appreciation enhanced by the fact of having familiarity with the philosopher Heraclitus, and his observation that one could not bathe in the same river twice, as well as your awareness of Ezra Pound's poem, "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," in which Pound observed "All things are flowing, sage Heraclitus says..." which meant that change was indeed inevitable because not only rivers flowed, so too does Reality.
By then, you'd actually had the experience of leaving home and testing the Wolfian and Heraclitan dicta, both to your satisfaction but also to your dismay. You'd learned some of what a writer must learn about the concepts of home, of turf, territory, and attitude; you'd also learned a bit about time travel, irony, and displacement. You returned home not only different from the person you were when you left, but unsettled in the same way travelers crossing the International Date Line are unsettled in the sense of having returned not only different but ahead of yourself.
The individuals and city you were so eager to return to were not the individuals or city you left. You might not have realized this at the time had you not been from and of Los Angeles, which changed--and still changes itself--on a whim, and thanks to things that happened to you while you were away, you were two years ahead of the classmates you'd left behind.
These observations become prologue for the observation of how, like it or not, prepared for it or not, the home you cannot return to is more than houses or apartments, neighborhoods and schoolyard confrontations with bullies, encounters with bright, airy teachers and those weighted down with the inner gloom of dreams gone stale, you cannot even go home again to flux.
Some few years ago, when you undertook cataract surgery, the performing surgeon told you you might be one of those who experienced a post-op condition called floaters, whereby you would appear to see spots or other visual mirages that were idiosyncratic with you and had no basis in Reality. These floaters might come at surprising times, then vanish without further incident. You were given a list of floaters which were potential harbingers of some need for repair. Should any of these appear, call this number, day or night. Otherwise, chill.
One day, perhaps a year after both eyes had received new and improved lenses, while you were shaving in preparation for the day, you saw what appeared to be a persistent line of fleas--for they were too small to be ants--marching across the sink board, seeking some form of refuge in the stand housing your electric toothbrush. These "fleas" turned out to be your only experience with floaters, but once having been alerted to the potential of floaters, you can't go home again to yet another place, and from time to time, when you see what appears to be anomaly or in some way or other out of the ordinary, you are mindful of the potential for the mischief of illusion.
About thirteen years ago, at your first out-of-hospital visit to the oncologist who in effect rerouted portions of your viscera, you were alerted to the possibility of yet another kind of floater, the rogue cancer cell that might be touring your blood stream in the manner of a blase tourist seeking a comfortable landing spot. You needed nearly five years of various scans and magnetic imagery to determine whether there were indeed cancer cell floaters or not. There were indeed not any, nevertheless the impossibility of returning to the home of what you were before you were diagnosed with a malignant tumor the approximate shape and color of a carnation bud. This is not to say you have become an hypochondriac; you've in fact been in remarkable health for the hundred fifty-six months since the malignant tumor was excised. Nevertheless, on those rare moments of feeling punk, there is the anomalous thought that the flea floaters were real, that there is some internal rough beast, its hour yet to come, slouching toward oblivion.
The upside of this is the wonder and joy of the mornings after such feelings of punk, the awareness that there are blank screens to be filled, notebook pages in which to scrawl observations, invented homes to be departed from in order to record the mischief of trying to find your way back.
Thursday, September 8, 2016
Theme, the underlying motif or metaphorical elephant in the narrative living room, often requires two or more drafts to extract. You know enough not to start with it, lest the work begin to assume a propagandistic or moralizing tone, relying, instead on its discovery, its exhumation, as it were, from an archaeological dig site.
As a consequence of this awareness, you've come to recognize one of your more incessant themes to be how unlikely the circumstances for anything, upon early, cursory examination, being what it appears at first blush to be. Nothing, you have written with some frequency, is what it seems.
Another of your themes, as throbbing as a toothache, outs the Devil for residing in the details. Placed together, these two observations provide a double bind formula, not only for narrative but world view, attitude, and response.
With the given assumption of drama being any notion in which two or more characters appear within a predetermined landscape, say that of young Antigone appearing in the landscape and political sphere of her uncle, King Creon, then proceed at dynamic cross purposes, each in search of a different outcome until a singular, revelatory outcome is reached.
Thus, Nothing is what it seems, yet everything stands for Something. By way of a footnote or parenthetical addition, you could add relevance to the equation of story; not so much a matter of Everything has a meaning, rather everything relevant in a particular story relates to some degree with the theme or throughline.
In this last case, the Devil or dramatic vector drives the story, amplifying it, causing readers and characters to see how story filters out randomness, how there is in fact a parallel universe governed by a causality with such a low center of gravity that it often trips itself over, creating the impression that certain characters (and thus, some goals) are fated, doomed, predestined.
This matters to us because of our out-of-drama experiences in which Reality appears as more random than the parts of Dr. Frankenstein's monster. We can appreciate and explain determinism, Fate, kismet, or whatever better than we can appreciate the quotidian simplicity of randomness. Thus some explanation for the so-called absurdist vision which, when taken to its extremes, becomes the comedy of the absurd.
On a scale of one to ten with ten being the high-water mark, you prefer your absurdity at about an eight, higher if possible, and your own work that continues to remain memorable to you can be rated between eight or nine. Beginnings for you involve a person who wants some eight- or nine-level outcome even more than he or she wants one or more of the cultural goals associated with high achievement.