Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Not Going to Warn You Again," She Warned


Like many of your generation, you became aware of repetition on a meaningful level when the time arose for you to commit to memory the so-called multiplication tables. 

Not going You can recall teachers who, in the act of presenting repetition to you in the context of an aid to memorization, referred to the meme of how the you-of-the-future will appreciate and understand the importance of what the you-in-the-now were about to undertake.

Experience may well be the best teacher, a truth to be expanded upon by pressing the repeat button; thus more experience becomes an even more superlative teacher. But such is the nature of repetition that doing over something successful the first time through is given short shrift.

To set the matter to rest, you're not sorry you committed the multiplication tables to memory, nor are you all that glad. If anything, you wish you'd not stopped with twelve, burning into memory the thirteen and fourteen because it now seems to you how you have more occasion to plumb the depths of a thirteen- or fourteen-times X than any of the lesser predecessors.

This could also imply another truth: had you taken your memorization beyond twelve, you might this very December day in 2016 have no irritation for the times in recent years when you had to rely on mathematics rather than memory.

You are in fact saddest about the things you repeat without deliberation, rather by accident, which means you have to go back to rewrite, rephrase, even rethink your way out of what you consider the clunky sound of an unwanted repetition. Nothing sounds more as though you'd fallen asleep during a composition session than unintentional repetition.

On the other hand, a well-orchestrated repetition of a word or phrase adds to the emphatic cadence of a sentence. You've no qualms about admitting as a personal,  primary goal in composition, the wish to convey a meaningful and accessible outcome when you offer fact, opinion, or argument.

Repetition becomes important to you in direct proportion to your growing awareness of the significance of every word in a story. Unnecessary words become metaphoric albatrosses, weighting down the dramatic effect, increasing the unwanted sense that the material before you in effect stops the story in order to describe.

The writer Junot Diaz has done some intriguing things with the use of footnotes in fiction. Lesser writers than he stay away from such variations in convention, but Diaz, in his most recent novel, has made them seem an integral part of the narrative, their typographical distance from the actual text to the contrary notwithstanding. His use was daring, but from his success, you could see how he knew when to take the risk.

Most other writers, yourself included, need to consider with care the temptations to deviate from conventional format, reminding themselves how the goal of fiction has evolved from a telling, descriptive mode to one where the reader is situated inside the story, where the story appears to be taking place around not only the narrator of the text but the reader of the text.

The right repetition enhances this interior emphasis; the wrong repetition--one that seems to be an oversight or moment of editorial laziness--reminds the reader of the fragile apparatus story is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Status Symbols

In recent classes, you found yourself making a statement with the metaphoric equivalent of creating static electricity when sliding over the seat covers of an automobile, then creating a visible shard of static electricity when you reach for and touch something metallic.

The statement has to do with the absolute need of a scene to show tangible recognition to the need for the presence of power and/or status. In earlier times, you made a similar statement about the need for any given scene in any given story to cause the evocation of at least one emotion. During those earlier times, you were at least far enough along the trail of your own learning process to count suspense as an emotion.

You're well beyond such homilies and take-for-granted recognition in which a scene must, among other things, advance the story or in some way define the growth of one or more characters. You're well beyond to the point of noting the tremendous load the scene must carry in order to be successful, immersed in the awareness of all the basic elements or dramatic DNA traces necessary for a scene to qualify as a scene.

The difference between a scene and event is every bit as extraordinary as the difference between a protozoan and a human. While both are living organisms, the latter is exponentially more complex and intraconnected. An event may have one or two dimensions, a scene can reach the state of being an extended moibius strip, the Klein bottle, itself the embodiment of properties and conditions a simple, two-sided object such as a sheet of manuscript paper cannot express in physical form, but can serve as host for a physical description of the complexity.

Scenes in which more than one person appear have a built-in status, a notion you first heard in a valued political science course and a part of your undergraduate minor. "Whenever two or more persons gather," the instructor said, "a political condition arises." You snapped alert, notions of status and power whirling about in the interstices of your thought process. 

You recall spending your spare time over the next few days compiling a list of such bi-polar circumstances. Indeed, these are bi-polar circumstances, even among identical twins. In such cases, the status or class awareness may shift (all the better for story dynamics) as differing aspects of personality and ability assume prominence.

We read story to experience these shifts in status and power, following the shift with the same kind of excitement inherent in a close contest, election, or sporting event. Unbalanced status or power is always a splendid entry into a story; we form allegiances with the characters (example: Ivanhoe) rooting for one to gather the power or status to bring down the other, to restore in effect what may have been usurped.

Upset status has long been recognized as one of the major starting points for kind of story in which the goal is to show at least one character restoring enough self- and ethnic or national esteem to satisfy our inner scale of acceptable stasis.

Class, power, and status are manifest in every culture, thus such tropes as the wisdom or respect for one's elders, the notion that youth must be served, and a concept you first investigated in depth in a course in anthropology wherein the clash between generations. The young generation wants its inheritance in order to work its own epic successes and discoveries while at the same time the older generation understands how much status and power it loses after passing over the inheritance.

You are acute these days to individuals opening doors for you or seating you at the head of a table or serving you first. These activities are tributes and conventions of politeness. Although you have held doors open for countless others, referred to yet others as Sir or Ma'am, offered your seat or position to elders or those for whom you had a strong sense of respect, you neither sought such recognition for yourself not felt entirely comfortable when they were extended to you.

This sense of what you think of as status pluses and minuses had its beginning, so far as you can recall, before your move from Los Angeles to what appears to be your new permanent home, Santa Barbara, and your participation in the writers' baseball game, in season played weekly. On those times when there were not enough of your tribe present, you relied on "drafting" neighborhood kids, all too willing to join in.  Your memory takes you back then, to your late 30's, edging into fourth decade, and a youngster named Ronnie Gunderson.

On the day you have in mind, Gunderson was acquired for your side, with the thought to move George Bishop, generally as capable a second baseman as could be wanted, to shortstop, with young Gunderson at second.  There you are, in your customary center field, positioning yourself under a tall, lazy fly ball, waiting for it to drop into your glove, already aware of your next move, which would be to throw it to George Bishop, covering second, against the potential of the runner on first base thinking to advance himself to second after your catch.

"He's tagging up," Gunderson called, warning you in acceptable baseball dialogue of teamwork. But he didn't leave it at that. Gunderson had to add, "Sir," to his warning and the additional admonition, "Throw to second, sir."

You did indeed throw the ball you'd just caught on the fly, sending it over to George Bishop in time to send the base runner scurrying back to first base. After the final out of the inning, when you were trotting in toward the sidelines with Bishop, you couldn't help saying, "Little fucker's got to go."

"He calls everybody sir," Bishop said.

"No excuse," you said. "You come out here to play or get called sir?"

Bishop, whose editor you were, had an answer for that. "I come out here to play ball, grow a bit older, and resent those in our midst with no traces of arthritis."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

First Door on Your Left--er, Right

Not long after delivering a brief commentary to a group of writers on the need to look out for and subsequently edit out habit words--words one tends to repeat without purpose or intention--you found yourself using one of your favorite habit metaphors.

Your own major habit word is "and," which you use to season early drafts of written material the way your late pal, Barnaby Conrad, seemed to season everything he ate with Tabasco. Your   go-to habit metaphor is "down the rabbit hole," the very portal Alice used to gain entry into Wonderland and, subsequently, "Through the Looking Glass."

You could evoke a shaky image of Gertrude Stein by saying "A door is a door is a door," nevertheless a tribute to her observation about roses and then, all things. Instead, you're content to leave the relevant matter at this: A door is an entryway to a place; a portal is an entryway to story.

Within any given place, however humble or luxurious, there is bound to be some potential for a story, gathering its stormy forces together, waiting to achieve escape velocity before inflicting itself upon one or more invented characters. So far as you are concerned, the choice of portal instead of door makes a direct accusation: Story awaits beyond this point. In fact, story awaited Alice the moment she fell through the rabbit hole. 

Story awaits the reader who follows a character to the point of confrontation with a portal, is overcome by need, curiosity, or a combination of the two, then takes that one irreversible step beyond.

One of the more significant subgenera of science fiction deals with intriguing landscape of time travel, wherein a character has encountered a means for returning to the past or moving forward in time to experience the universe as it will become.

During the past year or so, you've spent a good deal of time reading, rereading, and teaching such novels of William Faulkner as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom; and Sanctuary, most of which devote some time to the past, all of which have emphatic references to the past.

The convergence of your awareness of "down the rabbit hole" as a habit metaphor, your reading/teaching of Faulkner, and the free-floating notion in regular orbit about you of the mystery novel being the paradigm for the effectively told story bring you to a new way of seeing the portal.  As a consequence of this convergence, you now believe (not necessarily in order of importance):

1. A story needs an entry portal.

2. All story is alternate universe.

3. All mystery is alternate universe

4. Opening lines and paragraphs are portals.

5. Your own process for composing fiction has a portal.

6. To put yourself in a position where you can engage your process, even if it is to add only a line or two to the work in progress, you must find the portal, then enter it.

7. There will be times when you will not find the entry portal at home.

8. There will be times when the entry portal to process is in a coffee shop or other place with distracting ambient noise.

9. You will need to concentrate above the distractions and ambient noise in order to achieve the necessary relaxation to enter the process zone.

10. Tenseness and grim determination do not unlock portals.

11. Your own process requires a sense of mischief or amusement, without which the odds of producing keepable pages lessen to a significant degree.

12. Mischief and amusement are not alternate universes for you; they are necessary conditions and sufficient conditions; they ratify the worth of writing in the context of writing being a difficult task.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Alternate Reality: Substituting Certainty with Doubt

Approximately twenty years before you began teaching at the University of Southern California, you were a participant in a promotional prank in which you, dressed in a yellow toga, and wearing a curly blond wig that made you look something like Harpo Marx, were tied to the beloved and iconic statue known to all loyal USC students and alumni as Tommy Trojan.

Your yellow toga was embroidered with the word Scop, which in its original usage, meant an Anglo-Saxon bard.  "The din of revelry and the scop's sweet song..." Beowulf

You were somewhere on the editorial ladder of Scop, the campus humor magazine, at the other end of Los Angeles, UCLA.  Scop was also an acronym for Southern Campus [of the University of California] Official Publication.

Scop and the USC humor magazine, Campus, indulged a profitable rivalry.  After you were tied to the statue of Tommy Trojan and doused with soda water spray from siphon bottles, you were offered towels from the USC gym and escorted to a station wagon that was property of the Associated Students of UCLA, where, with other members of the Scop staff, you drove toward the western quadrant of Los Angeles, where UCLA is still located. You never thought to return to the USC campus, much less with any notion you would teach classes there for so many years, meeting extraordinary students, remarkable-to-the-point-of absurdity faculty mates and, among these, many individuals who would become dear friends.

You also encountered administrators, including a major archaeologist, who sat through a number of your classes and became a close friend, a lieutenant dean who wrote a series of mystery novels in which you appeared as a detective from the Bronx Police Department, and another administrator who was upset with you for having engaged the dean of your school in a conversation about the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, having discovered he was a linguist.

Nothing works so well as a reminder of the literary genre called alternate universe than a conversation about an experience you had, a place you visited, a book you read, a gathering you attended.  You listen with the interest of politeness to the individual with whom you're having the conversation.

Your degree of politeness is in direct proportion to your estimation of the individual with whom you converse; she or he could drop some detail or observation that will add to your own interpretation of the same experience, making it better or, possibly, quite worse if the other person appears to have got more out of the experience, seen more in its significance, taken away more from it that you.

The You of whom you speak is a veritable sponge and simultaneous Wikipedia of information, a veritable compendium of Jungian archetype, Freudian symbol, and the simultaneous exegesis of critics and observers from as far back as Aristotle to the more recent likes of Empson, Focault, Zinn, Suntag, and Didion. This is the You at top form, the You you are more often than not used to being.

More often than not is the key here; it is not a fix condition.

The downside of this acceptance of self is the vision manifesting itself in this theoretical conversation you're having with the strong possibility of envy, struggling to get beyond mere envy, then coalesce into Envy that the person with whom you engage this theoretical conversation is on so many levels a more accomplished viewer/reader/audience than you. "I was at the event of which you speak," the theoretical conversationalist has told you, "but I don't recognize any of the details you provide, nor do I interpret the various outcomes the way you do."

In summary, the conversation other appears to be saying, "I saw so much more than you did, much of it contrary to your vision, that I wonder if you were actually there.  Perhaps you got it second hand, say a newspaper report. Perhaps you heard a different account of it. Perhaps there are two books with the same title. 

Perhaps there was some strong coincidence such as Ed McBain using Jaberwocky in one of his titles, which would then cause it to appear that he had the idea of using that title in one of his titles long before you did, when the opposite is true (because he told you so)."

Each individual has the capacity to evoke a personal universe, a world filled with types of individuals, event, and outcomes reflecting how the world is to him or her. As an example exaggerated to demonstrate the range of its potential, the home furnishings, clothing sizes, and choices of personal possessions would be notably different were such items be in a universe orchestrated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar than were they detailed by the actor Danny DiVito.

Each individual projects a discreet Reality, an alternate reality to all other realities, an alternate reality to yours. Sometimes, as when you read work as remarkable and textured as Philip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy, you are deeply engaged, not only in the trials and tribulations of its protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, you are sent off on the speculative journey of a parallel universe set in a landscape close to the one where you taught for thirty-four years, the University of Southern California, where Philip Pullman has caused you to see, through his creation of Lyra Belacqua, the idiosyncrasies and otherness of a world you recognized as idiosyncratic and other, but in a patchwork quilt rather than any thematic throughline.

You continue to speak of the mystery novel as the one a beginning writer needs to study for the need to focus on the most serious matter at hand, the dramatic resolution of the crime triggering the onset of the story. But you must add something--a parallel or alternate universe something--to the equation by which you measure the effects of the universe upon you and the relative unlikely scenario by which you can have any effect on the universe unless, like the watched pot you sometimes watch as it comes to boil, the effect of you watching the universe will produce some result.

The alternate or parallel universe narrative helps us see the universe as the drop of water sees the ocean, simultaneously drawn to it while frightened by its enormity and, taking you back to those thirty-four years at USC, hard put to control your laughter at the memories of all that seriousness, braided with all that self-importance and otherness.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

One for My Maybe and One More for the Woad

Depending on such realities as the times your classes are scheduled or the pure whim of being able to begin the day's writing activities, your two basic matters to confront are:

1) What is the project you'll be working on 
2) Will you work at home or "go out," 

this last option having a direct correlation to you and the idiosyncrasies inherent in your writing self.

To be clear and illustrative, your "home," a compact, two-room and tiny bath space, is ideal for your purposes, relatively free of detached connections to ambient noise, buffered on three sides with garden, the fourth side separated from direct contact by a tall hedge and, beyond that, a wide-enough-to-serve-as-easement driveway. The fact of an Animal Control facility at one end of the long drive and a fire station at the other does not imply distractions to work or concentration that need to be overcome.

The question of working "in," or "out," is more a reflection on your own inner ambience. Much of the time, you are well able to work in the calm and comfortable quite of "in."  Those other times, when you are not able to settle immediately to work, have in common your ability to focus enough on the writer within, the conglomeration of senses, memories, impressions, ideas, and enthusiasm you like to bring with your combination toolkit and lunchbox.

Your choice of outside workplaces becomes a matter of which coffee shop has the best level of ambient noise and distraction. Thus, for the sake of work, you rank the coffee shop not by the quality of its coffee, rather by the type and intensity of ambient noise.

An out-of-home writing session might begin with the assessment, How much focus will you need to begin working? This to be followed with, will you be able to type on your laptop, or will you be writing on a legal pad? Do you require the flat-out noise of The Daily Grind, or perhaps the less persistent ambience of Peet's? Perhaps you'd be more comfortable with The French Press on State Street. 

On the other hand, perhaps what you need is the more dedicated sense of concentration you experience at French Press across the street from Antioch. And, just in case your inner disarray communicates a need for the anarchy of experiment, perhaps a place where you haven't been for some time, say Red's in the Funk Zone, or The Handlebar, or, more notional yet, the six or seven miles south to Carpinteria, where The Lucky Llama awaits. 

Starbucks is simply not on the table, even though there are a number of them nearby and, in particular when you are traveling beyond Santa Barbara, you've been known to enjoy a flat white at Starbucks. The issue here is the need for a particular kind of focus to help overcome some of the static and interference with writing as close to spot-on as possible.

In a literal and figurative sense, this business of where and how to work is a set-up, it is so in the same way "A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar" is a set-up for a joke, which, by its own nature, is a form of story, waiting for the punchline of closure.

You've read much, talked much, and thought a great deal about the processes of composition and of revising earlier drafts. This process is all the more meaningful to you given your earlier experiences with an approach wherein draft one was for the material and draft two was to correct spelling, at which you were awful. The way things stand today, there are places in the living and dining areas of your studio where one can find discreet stacks of handwritten pages or print-outs of pages that bear the scribbles and dithering of your revision attempts. Part of your process for work, as you noted a few paragraphs ago, is which thing to work on at a given moment. 

That is also the set-up. "This writer sees a stack of manuscript, picks it up, and begins reading to see what it is."  You could call that Act One.  Act Two, "The writer becomes intrigued by the material and wonders how the fuck it got into his apartment.  Ah, he thinks, probably a student's manuscript, or an editing job he took on, then conveniently forgot.

Of course the payoff is the realization that the writer is, in fact, the writer of the material, which awareness helps him recapture the enthusiasm and mechanics of having written this much and in this much detail. The added payoff came when the teacher aspects of you and the book reviewer aspects and the editorial background are already suggesting changes in the order of scenes, conflating lines of dialogue, removing unnecessary details, things that imply without needing further description.

The setting is, for example, early Middle Ages England, and a tribal elder is observing to a lost young man, "When you come to the turn in the woad--"

"You mean road."

"Damnit, boy, I know what I mean. I'm talking about a dye, made from the leaves of the oxalis. Turns the body a proper blue for the ritual dances, don't you know?"

There are times as well when the set-up, the discovery of the handwritten or printed-out draft, indicates flat, disingenuous narrative, and opportunity to learn from whoever left this material among your material, that writer person who should have known better than to stay and home and endure the separation when a few hours at The Good Cup or French Press would have worked wonders.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Truth, the Knockoff Wristwatch of the Marketplace

For quite some time now, at least as far back as the switch from the twentieth century to the twenty-first, you've thought, written, and taught about the evolutionary progress of Story as a dramatic medium. One of your classes, "How to Write the Twenty-first Century Short Story," focused on point of view. Another seminar, "Fiction in the Twenty-First Century," began with a list of illustrative examples which at the same time confirmed and informed your vision.

Preparation for such courses and for reviews of newly published fiction reminded me how much you enjoyed focusing on this topic and, at the same time reminded you how important it is to you as the driving force to your own interest in composing your own fiction. In  truth, you were--and indeed are--still in the process of learning your craft to the point where you are aware of it much of your waking day and a portion of your sleeping hours.

At the same time drama has been evolving, so, too, has truth, which in your observation of it has been experiencing a tidal rather than steadily advancing movement. The outcome of your observations is the more obvious one in which you recognize how close a picture you provide of yourself when you attempt to provide a picture of truth.  

In effect, truth is an abstraction to the degree you are an abstract being; truth is tangible to the extent of your awareness of being defined by your honesty rather than your quest for truth.

You can still remember the degrees of impatience you felt at those early ages, where you encountered stories of individuals setting out on a quest for honesty and truth. Difficult to recall those times and those moments of impatience without recognizing your own near chronic impatience--the impatience to find ways out of what seemed to you the restrictions and powerlessness of your age.

You can also relate the diminution of your impatience to your discovery of and immersion in reading and, relying on your interest as well in truthfulness, your arrival at age seventeen or eighteen as one who considered himself well-read. A year or so at the then main library at UCLA cured you forever of the notion of being well-read, making one of your first deliberate negotiations with Reality by adjusting your self image to that of one who was sufficiently read, but only by the barest degree of sufficiency.

This negotiation with reality has placed your awareness on your obligation to continue reading, in effect to keep up with what you need to know in order to better recognize it, should you encounter it during the warp and weft of your days.

Truth, as an abstraction and a tangible quality, is under constant attack, by no means least of all from yourself, eager to see yourself as the protagonist of your personal narrative, the active rather than passive one, the seeker of qualities, abilities, and information that will allow you to provide direct assistance and quality of life to others beyond yourself.

This vision of yourself is under frequent critical scrutiny from within, asking you in the bluntest of terms when you are going to admit weaving fictions or untruths in which to clothe your own self-serving motives. Nor can you evade the bright light of inquiry by allowing how most humans are torn by the same binary, thus allowing yourself additional wiggle room from that id-like aspect of your inner life.

Story, when you get into your own, is difficult enough going when you consider the need to keep current with technique, which is to say the obligation to aspire at all times to achieve sufficient awareness; story becomes even more difficult when you need to keep current with the ebbs and flow of honesty within.

Truth may well be, as Keats observed, Beauty; Beauty may well be Truth, and that equation may well be all you need to know. But unless you are careful, Truth may also be a knockoff wristwatch, made in some garage by some counterfeiter who doesn't even know how to spell Genuine Swiss Movement.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Smug Certainty of a Well-Buried Guilty Knowledge

In a most general way, knowledge is a combination of facts and relationships that add to our ability to survive and flourish at increased levels of comfort and civility. Among your favorite types of knowledge, so far as story is concerned, two have become paramount as valid sources for motivation. One of these is guilty knowledge, awareness individuals have about their complicity in attitudes and behavior they find, to say the least, distasteful. 

 The other knowledge is secret knowledge, awareness about the self that may be more linked to the potential for humiliation or degraded self-esteem than guilty participation.

Filed away in your own locked drawer of guilty knowledge are a few files of the equivalent of cold cases, those unsolved crimes which become solved thanks to the efforts of compulsive, persistent detectives. Most of your guilty knowledge relates to things you did with full awareness of their impropriety, their flat-out wrongness, or of the times when you might have done something to prevent some offense being carried out against another individual. 

To a degree you cannot quantify, your own guilty knowledge informs activities you perform as a payback, with no expectation of having the record expunged but with the awareness of a sense of the privilege inherent in having been born to the parents you were born to, of having a life on this planet, and in some ways regarding many of those about you the way you'd respect the waitstaff at an agreeable restaurant.

This equivalent of being a generous tipper to an outstanding waitstaff or to any but the most rude and self-involved in service professions is only one way of recognizing on an individual level those persons who bring awareness and enjoyment to your life on a daily basis. Another way of extending appreciation is by giving sincere smiles and good cheer. 

Yet another way is giving appropriate individuals your in-the-moment time, which is to say a direct, eye-contact presence, and another way still is by writing letters or emails commending employees with whom some exchange or interaction made you aware how significant friendly human contact can be.

One more way of being in the game is acting on the privilege of being able to write letters commending students to potential employers or to graduate schools. 

Secrets are another matter. Being trusted with one or more from another individual becomes the great gift of that person trusting you with sensitive information. Conversely, although there are individuals with whom you've shared secrets,  you recognize how you've more or less given away a trace of power when you confide in another. In addition, your mind races ahead to fictional, thus imagined, situations where you recognize how volatile the power can be.

By sifting through your list of secrets, you're amused to discover how much these bits of information must be to you, as related in direct proportion to your concerns about outcome, were these secrets made public. Such thought often lead you to the inevitable confrontation with the matter of how many secrets are you keeping from yourself, you who find it easy and comfortable to see yourself as calm, well centered (but not in any political sense), not concerned you will one day soon be discovered and recognized as that consummate, Bernie Madoff film-flam your Interior Critic knows you to be.

When you are auditioning characters for appearances in short stories and novels, you often ask of them, "What do you feel the most guilty about?" or "Tell me one thing about you that you've not told more then one or two other persons during the course of your life to date?"

These two aspects of the self, as they relate to fictional inventions, often lead you to uncomfortable destinations you might not otherwise have thought to visit. These are places where the pillows are hard and cranky, the showers never have enough hot water, and the persons upstairs are off-the-charts inconsiderate about making noises. Yet you do understand how, if you are to create characters of any dimension and stature, you must visit such places, aware of the irony inherent in the knowledge that comfort zones are for the civilian travelers and whatever your secrets and backstories of guilty knowledge, you gave up being a civilian traveler many years ago.




Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Stag Party

There are times when composing fiction is like going to some social gathering in which you know only one other person, more often the host. You begin the story with a tug at that social part of yourself, where you enjoy gatherings while at the same time feel a tug of reserve as you approach the threshold of the gathering venue.

You take a few breaths, remind yourself you'll no doubt enjoy yourself, then step inside, your senses already sending you messages of the dynamic before you. You'll notice groups separated in some preferential pattern you can't quite read. You do scan the atmosphere for clues to the amount of drinking of alcohol that's gone before your arrival, even locating the locus of the bottles of whiskey, gin, vodka, and the likelihood you'll find a wine or ale to your taste.

Before long, the host sees you, welcomes you, and through coded exchanges of small talk and gestures, causes you to be aware of why you accepted this invitation in the first place. You allow yourself to be fitted with a drink, then led on some path of introduction, whether it is a complete circuit of the venue and the tsunami of new names and faces to memorize, or being led to a particular group, artfully introduced, then left to adapt on your own time line.

A dramatic nudge into some set of dramatic circumstances that you reckon to have potential for becoming a story can feel quite a bit like being the outlier at a social gathering. You know there is purpose, curiosity, some effect or result to be had. You may even have a primary sense of whose story the story belongs to, and what provocative, combustive moment may emerge, at which point you'll understand you are hopelessly attached to the material, doomed to revisit it over the days, even months to come, in order to see what the combustive moment produces.

Because you have habits related to carrying about such uncompleted narratives, revisiting and revising in hopes of producing an outcome, you have reached the point of accepting this limbo-like aspect of your process. But because you read a good deal and find satisfactions in the process, you tend to skip over your awareness of how many drafts a successful work must have required.

If you happen to read something you find to have a deep personal resonance, and do so at a time when you have two or three projects hanging resolution, you can't help noticing a squirt of envy at the writer's outcome--marveling from your own distant feelings toward  your unresolved works at the writer's output.

This comes from earlier times, when you were considered prolific. You've been some years in an arm wrestle with the notion or being prolific, which, for one thing, means to you having an enormous output as opposed to spending time most days in an act you think of as puttering. You were puttering this morning at coffee, revising two or three sentences and adding several more, which had the aggregate feeling of being a snail, producing some slime along which to travel toward a goal. Although this puttering was helpful, it was by no means work, much less a day's work.

You have no idea what a day's work of composition will be until you have completed it. You do have a better sense of what, in retrospect, being prolific meant in actual terms; it meant a certain amount of puttering every day.

Similar to you taking some kind of initiative when you are at a social gathering where you know few persons, you need to spend more time with your characters, watch for useful clues or quirks, decide which among them you trust or suspect. You need to consider their secret wishes, their affinities, their doubts; you need to know which boundaries they believe they will not trespass.

How else can you become the instrument of pushing them over their boundaries in order to see how they will now respond? And of course doing so gives you a greater grip on what the story is truly about and why it has taken you so long to get inside.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Let's Have Lunch

Dialogue picks up traction, then begins to burn dramatic rubber when characters may be exchanging commentary but each is in effect talking about something well below elephant-in-the-livingroom level, below the surface of boundary.

Your old joke about New York and Los Angeles exemplifies the reach of dialogue. In New York, the joke begins, when someone says 'Fuck you,' he means 'Let's have lunch.' In Los Angeles, when someone says 'Let's have lunch," he means 'Fuck you.'"

Characters in stories are armatures of secret agendas about which are wrapped varying layers of reticence, timidity, political correctness, and other insulations applied to make them seem less avid for the outcome of their heart (or perhaps not the heart so much as the id). Individuals in Real Time are even more concealed, except for those who seem to wear their ambitions like some tattoo bar code.

If we borrow from characters in Real Time to serve as an armature for a character, a process you find yourself adopting with some frequency, we first go through the exercise of identifying the one tangible outcome that drives the character in process, then sort through our police line-up of suspects whose outer traits fit out need.

Somewhere early in your move to Santa Barbara, you met the daughter of one of the most prolific and diverse writers imaginable, a man nearly forgotten for all his varied productivity, so far as you know, rivaled for sheer versatility by only one other, more recent writer.  The daughter, unsurprisingly, was an elegant writer, a fact you understood immediately when she showed you some of her memoir and essays.

Her name was Jane Faust Easton, her father Frederick Schiller Faust, whom you knew by reputation as one of his many pseudonyms, Max Brand. You think of him from time to time because his daughter divulged his formula, which you recognized at once as an important aspect of one of the driving principals of story, which is change. FSF's formula was so simple and basic that it could have well remained in plain sight and unnoticed, just as Poe's "Purloined Letter" remained hidden in the best of all hiding places, plain sight.

"Dad spoke of the need for the good to become bad at about the same time the bad were switching to good," Jane Faust said. A lovely idea, one certain to keep change in place within the writer's awareness, thus it is filtered downstream as the story progresses from scene to scene, building in size, shape, and momentum.

That dreaded condition of being too literal seems to surface in dialogue when characters are speaking to the core of their desire system, showing their power over one or more of the other characters in the narrative, or resorting to stratagems of stark obviousness in their attempts to induce other characters to do their bidding. (Yes, verbal temper tantrums to secure a manipulated result do count as being too obvious.)

When the reader begins to suspect the maneuvering and strategy behind simple exchanges of dialogue, the result can soon become the irresistible condition known as suspense. The reader will skim back to see if any potential clue or nuance was missed on the first pass through. Often our regard and respect for certain of the books we reread reminds us how aware we've become of the empty words in conversation that resemble the empty calories in junk food.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

There's Good News and Bad News

A writer, an editor, and a publisher enter a neighborhood saloon.

"I'll have a Manhattan," the writer says.

"We don't do cocktails here," the bartender replies. "I could maybe get you a shot of rye inna jelly glass, dig up an ice cube, and get you some tap water, you okay with that."

"Could have been worse," the editor says.

"That's part of the news," the publisher says. "You know, the good news and the bad news."

"Was that the good news or the bad news?" the writer asks.

"Depends on your point of view," this from the editor. "We are going to publish you."

"Is that good news or bad news?"

"Hey," the bartender says, "this is a serious neighborhood bar. We try to keep the conversation civil here. This is your only warning."

"Could have been worse," the editor says.

"So why do you guys publish if you don't know if the news is good or bad?" the writer asks.

The bartender comes out from behind the bar, a baseball bat in his hands. "Okay, that tears it. You guys outta here, right now, screwing up the ambience of the only place our regulars got to get away from the zeitgeist. Out! Now!"

Moments later, out on the street, the publisher remembers another saloon two blocks hence. Wordlessly, the three head off in that direction. After about a block of walking, the editor stops the writer. "When we get there," he says, "don't fucking order a Manhattan."

Writers, even those such as the one in this fanciful conceit, draw from personal experiences. There is no surprise in the fact of some part of you being resident in all these individuals; they, and many of the individuals you bring forth, either in direct fiction or memoir, come from the equivalent of an ensemble which you carry about and which frequently take to the roles they are portraying to a point where you might need to make calls or send notes of apology.

At one time, back in the naive past, all you wanted to do by way of making your living income, was write, either via the essay, critical review, or short story, thinking how nice it would be if, along the way, you managed to learn how to write novels in spite of the fact that you did not have the merest idea of how to concoct a plot for a novel.

To your credit, you were often able to subside at such a level, thanks to a multifarious income stream, checks ranging from about fifty dollars to a hundred-fifty, and once having as your agent the famed, eccentric Forrest J. Ackerman, who was in the habit of sending you checks via special delivery.

The good news always related to the fact of some new assignment or some thing, written for what seemed the sport of it. The bad news was often what the assignment was, in other words a directive to produce a particular length on a particular subject, or a story with a particular theme.

When you wrote and sold your first two pulp novels, some of your friends were producing eight or ten a year; one in particular was doing one a month. He suggested you might improve your income stream and teach yourself plotting if you were to do the same.

At one point, a year or so later, you experienced what you thought was burnout so far as fiction was concerned, but in retrospect you see how what you experienced was less burnout and more a failure to see how story began, at levels even deeper than you were able to recognize.

There were long hours of sitting behind one of a string of typewriters, most of them coming to you via your father, who encountered them in his capacity as an auctioneer for various referees in bankruptcy. You approached story with a lock-jawed determination, and in return, story rewarded you with stories that had a grim, locked-jaw determination about them.

Then, one day, with what you like to think of as the same kind of sensory awareness the female mosquito shows when entering a room or target area in search of a meal, a story entered your field of awareness. You welcomed it in, listened to it, and experienced the same kind of thrill you used to get when you found yourself in a room or office or store or anywhere else there happened to be a person who spoke to you without speaking to you, who sent signals you were able to interpret across the room or office or store or anywhere else.

The good news in that case was the same kind of feelings you felt when you interpreted those signals.  The good news was that you were a writer. The bad news was that you were a writer.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Buried Hope or Dream, Emerging, Blinking

In looking for places where story--any story--begins, you often forget to look at the individuals involved, their buried dreams, their secret hopes they may never have shared or, indeed, have only shared with complete strangers.

In Real Time, such buried dreams remain static, neither deliberately hidden nor often called to mind until a particular degree of nostalgia, coupled with the right number of drinks, spills over the edges of reserve. At such moments, the buried dream bursts into a life reminiscent of the first day or two after the yearly Santa Barbara ritual of self-congratulation, Old Fiesta Days.
The entire downtown area seems to be covered with an unruly skin of confetti, mixed with spilled beer, dropped shaved ice cones, and even the contents of too many tourists tummies, gorged with too many street tacos and easily come by Margaritas.

This is not to suggest that persons living in Real Time do not have dreams in which they achieve longed-for goals or that they can have no hand in restoring a lost status or balance, rather that they may have yet to achieve the awareness of their desire to do so, then formulate a plan to act on it, causing a story equivalent to begin.

This is to suggest how story often begins when a buried dream is surfaced, producing consequences. At one point, years back when serial killers was still fresh in TV drama, you were in a conversation with a producer you'd met to pitch an idea you thought he liked, that is, until he said, "What I'd really like to do is a mini-series that put the detection of serial killers to bed."

"Why not," you said, "a serial killer who had buyer's remorse about confiding his or her goals to a number of complete strangers, all of whom he or she met under apparently random circumstances, removing one of the first things a competent homicide detective would wish to investigate." 

You said this with the knowledge of having spent time with the homicide detective who'd brought the notorious Hillside Strangler to bay and who considered most one-off murders child's play. "Kinderspeil, Lowenkopf," he'd say when talking about one-off killings.

The TV Producer wasn't sure if you were pulling his leg or not, allowed he'd need a day to think your suggestion through, and left, promising to call you "tomorrow, for sure. Don't be making plans, 'cause we'll be meeting."  Of course you never saw or heard from him again; this wouldn't be an account of you, pitching a story to a Hollywood producer at your particular level in the food chain and--you say this without rancor--at the producer's level in the food chain as well.

Story begins when a throughline is established as a result of something the protagonist has done, not something an ancillary character has not done. For a long while, because you liked the three witches in Macbeth, especially the one who couldn't find her cat familiar, you thought the story began with them. But that was all artful setup; the story began when Macbeth brought his most hidden secret to the surface, which caused him to consider killing King Duncan.

Your take on the TV producer encounter takes into consideration the possibility the producer grew to realize you were having him on, not that you actively were, but by no means because you weren't having him on. You were like that at the time, payment for things never coming from where you expected nor when you expected, even during those days when you were a dues-paying member of Writers' Guild, west, and in fact financing a Sahara tan VW Bug through the Credit Union. 

What you truly wanted at that time was to write a novel that would trigger the story of you being able to stay away from TV, which even then you realized was a conflicted position because you knew so many novelists who were keen on getting TV assignments.

After a few shifts of gears, you were heading the Los Angeles office of a book publisher, one of your primary assignments having you in contact with men and some women who were writing for TV and who thought to restore some internal balance by being able instead to write novels which you would arrange to have published, making your look good and getting them back to the work for which they were intended, in the process being able to balance out the difference between a TV writer's income and a novelist's from the screen rights to their novel.

You remember sitting in the living room with a man, then offering him a twenty-five thousand-dollar advance on his novel, thinking his outburst of tears was, at first, gratitude. "Do you have any idea," he said, "how quickly I can go through twenty-five-thousand dollars? For starters, there's the rent. And then the therapy sessions, and--"

"Do you have any idea how many copies you novel has to sell to earn back that advance?" you asked him, always with the sobering questions. 

"If you're going to put it that way--"

That way; the buried hope or dream emerging, blinking in the harsh glare of Real Time, looking for a beginning traction from which story emerges.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

What Makes a Character Memorable?

What makes most characters more fascinating than most real time people?

If we've had any experience at all with reading, even the kinds we had when we were scant steps away from the "Look! Look! Look! See Dick. See Jane. See Spot." stage, we have an awareness on some level that characters arrive in story as a result of at least one world being tilted awry, which is to say well out of order.

We understand from mere repetition, say from having read Robert Louis Stevenson's masterful Treasure Island, that worlds are set in disarray, that adults are not always to be trusted, and that treasures of one sort or another are if not buried, hidden.

At about the time we have moved beyond watching Spot run and jump--big fucking deal--we understand that adults with strong goals may have things in one way or another buried, that trusting an adult carries certain risks--see Graham Greene's haunting short story, "The Basement Room,"--and individuals without plans are likely to bore us no end.

By the time we've recovered from the often devastating side effects of puberty, then moved on to a place you like to think of as The Plateau of Awareness, we've downloaded certain conventions, an ethos, and an outlook, all of which hold sway over our tastes and preferences in Real Time persons, in their behavior, and in our expectations, both of them and of ourselves.

Whereupon we presume to create our own Real Time and their denizens, which is to say we not only approach reading the work of others with a different set of criteria, we approach the notion of creating our own individuals, our own Meg and Jo, our own Miss Rebbecca Sharp, our own version of Rose of Sharon Joad as well as our own Captain Ahab and Queeg, all of whom have some primary goal, some setting right of some imagined flaw in the universe.

You have character notes in more than one of your many notebooks, relating to the subject at hand, which is the inner drive and its outer counterpart relative to a character who is so much in your favor for much, but not by any means all, of his appearance in two significant works.

Your notes speak to the matter of you needing to live long enough to return Huck Finn to his stature and wisdom in the work in which he begins as principal narrator. Perhaps he will encounter his old pal, Tom Sawyer, one more time, when each has at last become in later years what each was on the path to become.

Tom's belated appearance in Huckleberry Finn was an epic disaster that wants some poetic justice as well as the dramatic justice their creator left them with, a justice that was more a matter for their creator to deal with than his characters. There is no sense for you in Huck, after crossing the boundary into true awareness and potential, regressing to the individual who baits and teases the runaway slave, Jim, toward the novel's end--after, you're quick to note, Tom Sawyer appears, the albatross to bring the narrative crashing downward.

There is truth and evidence enough in many stories to suggest some characters merely want to find some significant and permanent outcome, often of a financial or social status matter. There is equal truth in your observation that a financially profitable career or an advantageous marriage, such as the marriage achieved by Jimmy Burden, who gave us his Antonia. Such outcomes rarely produce a result as profound as Antonia.

The thing that draws you to characters is their deeper dream, the wish to create a functional and thriving self from an ordinary beginning, a self as thriving as Huck, Augie March, and any number of young women who have stepped out of Louise Erdrich's stories and into the places in your heart where you keep your secret wishes and dreams.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

OTN

Slang and idiomatic expression find their way into the language the way crafty patrons, waiting to bypass the bouncers at night clubs and restaurants, discover devious ways inside. 

One such expression, "on the nose," is not to be confused with a bet on a particular horse to win a particular race, although, after years of observing a father who was the recipient of such bets, and substituting at times for said father in taking such bets and phoning them in to the central bookkeeping source in downtown Santa Monica, you came to know the term in that context. 

When "on the nose" came your way again, the conditions had to do with writing radio and television drama and, briefly, television comedy, in the sense that a description or explanation was "too much on the nose," making it a term of derision if not outright scorn, a substitute expression for "too literal" or, worse yet, "telling me more about the subject than I want to know."

Later still, when you had the opportunity to collaborate with one of the more accomplished humorists, "on the nose" became truncated to OTN which, when you heard it from him, was often accompanied with a sad shake of the head as a sign to move on to the next moment of dramatic movement.

"Too much on the nose" not only means a response is too literal, too lacking in any sort of nuance or, better still, innuendo; "too much on the nose" means a condition needlessly explained to the point where persons in the vicinity begin looking for the nearest exit.

Drama and story tolerate detail only when said detail reemerges later in the form of a surprise, obstacle, or ironic reversal that produces in the viewer or reader either a laugh or the idiosyncratic sound of an involuntary expulsion of breath, a sound similar to an individual being punched in the solar plexus. 

Anything else is reminiscent of a bit of arcana you learned when substituting for your father as the transcriber of bets on various thoroughbred race horses. Such horses, depending on previous performances, were given handicaps, five-pound weights attached to their saddle.

Some prose is handicapped with weighty descriptions of things few readers would care about, with unnecessary explanations which turn out to be the verbal equivalents of the nudge and/or wink, as in "Get it?"

Things in Real Time approximate being too much on the nose only because, in your belief, many of us have reservations about seeming too taciturn, too devoid of opinion, too eager to make sure we are being understood. All too true; being understood is no small triumph. Rather, being understood is a condition that provokes comedy, drama, humor, and, ultimately, dissent, all conditions we enter with the same caution as a surfer entering an ocean afflicted at the moment with rip tides.

The great irony with being too much on the nose is the tendency to overexplain, hopeful of being understood.



Friday, December 16, 2016

Response, the Traces of DNA Found in Story

The appearance and continued, sophisticated development of DNA technology has been a major development in law enforcement forensics, both in actual crime-scene circumstances and crime fiction. 

Deoxyriboneucleic acid, which appears in humans and almost all other organisms,carries genetic information which may be used as a source for identifying an individual.

A splat of blood, a drop of saliva, a bead of sweat have figured in actual cases where identity was an issue, and in more than one narrative or filmed drama, such traces have been accepted as evidence that has determined the guilt or innocence of an individual. 

DNA technology is so persuasive now, that scenes in TV dramas are common to the point of cliche when a suspect, previously firm on his innocence, admits guilt if confronted with a DNA match. 

In Philip Roth's disturbing novel, The Human Stain, the critical DNA is semen, which leads to a conclusion where DNA not only provides dramatic closure, it provides poetic justice as well. In The Human Stain. other fictions, and in many a real-life situation, DNA becomes in metaphor more than evidence, it is an unimpeachable response.

Throughout its long history, story contains significant response as a component of its own deoxyribonucleic acid; the manner and degree to which characters respond to events and to one another become the forces that drive story along the path toward some form of outcome.

At one time you were aware of standing before a group of students enrolled at the graduate level, wanting guidance and direction as they related to being able to produce sustainable story with some measure of regularity. 

"There is the plot-driven story," you said, then went on to explain how the character, on some form of quest, took steps which led to a series of accelerating consequences which must be dealt with before the character can walk out of the landscape with hide intact.

"Then," you said, "there is the character-driven story, in which events drive the character and you. However similar the starting goal or condition, you as writer and your characters take their clues from the responses elicited as the exchanges of dialogue, the internal, and external conditions become more intense and unforeseeable."

You don't regret either definition. What you regret is your own lack of follow-through where response is concerned. No telling now how young you were when you first read Owen Wister's ground-breaking novel, The Virginian, with its eponymous protagonist, seated at a poker game with Trampas, the novel's antagonist. 

It is now time for the Virginian to bet or leave the hand. Trampas tells him, "Your turn to bet, you son-of-a--" 

Whereupon the Virginian reaches for his gun and, without aiming it, places it on the table before uttering one of the most famous responses in all of Western literature, "When you call me that, smile."

Response is the follow-up to a word, an offer, a suggestion, a dare; it sets the tempo for the next beat, the next action or thought or line of dialogue' it is the response to the first four notes of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5;it is story, caught in action, considering whether to bet or leave the hand.

You wish you'd taken the matter of response to the next level. "If there is too much space between responses, story pauses, looks about nervously for some form of exit and, with all too much frequency, reverts to description and explanation when none are necessary."

When you talk to students about unnecessary adverbial support in dialogue--"If you come any closer, I'll shoot," she said menacingly.--you always get a nervous laugh in response because the example is so preposterous in its obviousness.

You wish for the certainty of laughter when you talk about the pacing of responses. But when class is over, you rush home to look at the spacing of your own responses in whatever happens to be in progress.
 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Just a Moment Longer

When talk turns to the dominant constituents of story, characters and their fondest dreams or their most significant vulnerability seem to take over the conversation, sometimes with a visible gesture to suggest the superiority of the character-driven story over the plot-driven narrative. 

Any other position in the matter seems to bring in the baseball metaphor of "from left field," or the more civics minded trope of "from way out in the boondocks."

In the baseball analogy, left field means some distance from either reality or context; boondocks connote s one distance from civilized, city persons and, by implication, a remoteness from the sophistication of urban living.

Nevertheless, a narrative with any pretense of being a story needs to show the presence of a significant constituent of the operating principal of the law of inertia.  Why bring a well-defined set of dynamic principles regarding movement into any discussion of story without being called out for distraction?  Look at it this way, the Law of Inertia is clear about objects at rest and their tendency to remain at rest until a greater force propels the objects into movement.

Story either begins with or has well embedded in its backstory the equivalent of an object being nudged into motion, thus the destabilizing event or the point where a character's goal sets the character in motion toward achieving the goal. 

Objects in motion tend to stay in motion until opposing forces apply friction or collateral mischief by which the progress is either reversed or sent off course. The famed rock of Sisyphus demonstrates among other things the law of inertia in action. 

The doomed king must supply the inertia to get the rock up the hill, whereupon it gains the momentum to carry it to a point where it achieves a resting state. Same applies to Sisyphus, who must now get the rock back in position once again. If there were no hill, there would be no myth of Sisyphus; there would be another goal or task, another dramatic orbit.

The key to observing the myth of Sisyphus become the inertial condition of the rock.  A rock come to rest is a pivotal point on the story only in that it signals the need to push the rock out of its resting stage and into another cycle of movement. The key to essaying and absorbing the details of a story resides in the observation of the Law of Inertia. Opening velocity sets the story into being. 

Dramatic rules or laws require some form of opposition. Friction will do because friction is opposition to motion. Acceleration will more than suffice because story requires increased motion and, for a time, increased opposition.

Story requires a hill of enough angle to be seen as a difficult task for the protagonist. A major constituent of acceleration in a successful story involves change, either in the principal character or that individual's chief antagonist. Change can mean the rock, slowing down, coming to a standstill, or being pushed back to the top of the hill, yet again.

In story, characters either achieve their goal or fail in the attempt. In Inertia, objects that lose acceleration come to rest. When there is too much time between Sisyphus' rock losing its momentum, then reaching a resting state, the story is over; the reader seeks a new individual with a new wish for momentum.

On many occasions over the years, you have asked or been asked why the story stops here, the questions related to your own work the work of your students, or your editorial clients as an editor for a publisher or in your current circumstances as a consulting editor. Over these years, your answers have been multifarious, often more insightful to your students and clients than to your own work.

In one way or another, the answer was the same: the rock remained at rest too long, the momentum passed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Bragg's Cider Vinegar as Elixir

You first heard of--as opposed to learned about--The Dark Web (capitalized to make it sound more ominous) from two friends who have graduate-level degrees in computer programming. Then you saw mention of it in one of the left-leaning print publications, adding to the rumors of things one can find on The Dark Web with stories of right-wing conspiracy theories, white supremacist organizations, and ready access to conventional and designer drugs.


From rumor found in several sources and a few hours worth of your own attempts at research, you've built a profile that includes murder for hire, illegal weaponry, drugs, racism, prostitution, money laundering, and that one-size-fits-all marketplace in which one can hire what used to be called mercenaries or soldiers of fortune.

In your understanding of The Dark Web, it is nothing like the Internet, where one would log in, then surf through the vast offerings of the illegal, the despicable, the politically outrageous, and the mind boggling. 

Such sites and services do exist; they are accessible through the same kind of  Internet access the site of, say, Starbucks, is accessible, but in order to get the url of a given site, one needs to "know" someone who knows someone.

There are in fact some sites available through a Google or Yahoo search, using the key words Dark Web, but as such things go, the ones you've peered into don't seem all that dark or different from the sites you might find with greater ease on The Internet.

This is the background and subtext to your observation that the true Dark Web is easily found in the responses to most opinion sites, whether these are overtly political in nature or not. 

In one site, built around the use of a fruit called garcina cambogia and, of all things, Bragg's cider vinegar, to effect dramatic weight loss and a drop in the bad cholesterol level, you fund a digression in which all liberals were suddenly the cause of the terrible fix in which America now finds itself and in addition, Donald Trump's meme of "Lock her up," for Hillary was mild in comparison to some of the things said about HRC, and of the things that should be done to her.

An innocent critique of the recent Academy Awards televised spectacle brought forth Dark-Web-like attitudes and meanness of spirit, veering off in every direction, including political affiliations, gender bias, and flat-out racial bigotry, to say nothing at all of the rampant presence of homophobia.

The gifted American cartoonist Walt Kelly only made it for sixty years, leaving our midst in 1973, but by that time, his daily-and-Sunday strip, "Pogo," had a strong, devoted following. Kelly was more overt in his politics than Charles Schulz, whom you knew and admired for his eclectic reading tastes and love of conversation. 

Kelly's characters were denizens of the Okefenokee Swamp in Florida. One of his characters, you think it was the owl, made the observation in ironic counterpoint to Oliver H. Perry's observation, "We have met the enemy and they are ours," the painfully honest play on those words, "We have met the enemy, and they is us."




Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Conversation without Comfort Zones Becomes Dialogue

During the course of a given day, when you are away from your writing area, and in particular when you are in a classroom, your conversation leans toward the comfortable and considerate, even at those times when you are expressing a difference of opinion. 

You have in place a filter that you've tweaked over the years, by no means in the sense of being politically correct, rather instead of being considerate.

Such thoughts of considerate conversation and a recent invitation to dinner combined forces when you were preparing for a two- or three-part presentation on dialogue, in no small measure because of your reason for refusing the dinner invitation, your awareness of the host's cooking abilities notwithstanding.

Whenever the topic shifts from conversation to dialogue, an elephant wends its way into the living room, whereupon it sinks to its knees, then attempts to cover itself with the closest rug , in most cases leaving more uncovered than not.  "Ah, I see you allow elephants in the living room. How nice that you allow them to take the chill off with a rug."

Given your recent preoccupation with triangulation, when conversation shifts to dialogue, the point of reference to be avoided is the elephant, which in this case becomes the metaphor for comfort zone.

Your living quarters, smaller these past going-on-seven years, are well insulated from adjoining walls, meaning few neighborly sounds. Perhaps a bit chilly during the winter months, but a heater tends to that, while, in the summer, a cross-ventilation makes for the right ambient temperature. Nearby washer/dryer. Sufficient light and privacy, interesting views outside each window. A veritable comfort zone. Difficult not to feel comfortable when you are "in," either for working, reading, eating, or listening to music.

Your own sense of a comfort zone includes being away from disturbances and yet able to connect via Internet, telephone, or any variation with new experiences, even experiences contrary to your own and certainly opinions and beliefs contrary to your own. You appreciate a lively exchange of opinion, however at variance with your own, and in a growing recognition, you enjoy the discomfort of well-expressed critical commentary on your beliefs, your work, your demeanor.

Dialogue pushes the comfort zone, sometimes sweeping it entirely aside with its rancorous, undermining persistence. When characters appear too mindful of the comfort zone, unless this is done with deliberation by the writer in the service of a notable effect, story stops short, the way you are sometimes forced to do while driving in city traffic. 

At such moments, most of the books, magazines, water bottles, items of food in the process of being ingested, and more often than not your cell phone take on a life of their own, not realizing they should have stopped. 

The laws of inretia take precedence over the rules and conventions of dramatic narrative. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Story, a product of movement, stays in motion until a sudden break causes it to stop, whereupon chaos beyond disorder.

Well-planned inertia can take you out of your comfort zone, show you something you'd not previously considered, then help you understand how comfort zones are mere way stations from which to experiment, improvise, and imagine.

Well-executed dialogue begins with the recognition that there are no hand rails or supports; you're out there without your iPhone and its potential for calling help, consulting Google maps, or latching on to some GPS guidance.

With well-executed dialogue, you are in the midst of strangers, all of whom seem to know your name, or you find yourself, as if in a dream, among persons whom you believe you know--but they respond to you as though you were a stranger. Neither approach is comfortable.

But think about it this way: When you come to sudden turns in your reading that no longer seem plausible, your response at setting the material aside is anything but polite conversation.






Monday, December 12, 2016

Story as Bucking Bronc or Brahma Bull

You are of an age wherein you can recall the times you read stories that began with "It was an ordinary day in," or "It was an ordinary day until" as a prelude for what has become known as the destabilizing event. 

Here in the twenty-first century, such openings are neither necessary nor tolerated; when we come across such an opening, depending on who the author is, we are either seized with a sense of nostalgia--in which case we continue reading--or antipathy--in which case we set the work aside.

Here in the teens of the twenty-first century, the reader has the option of signing onto the cruise on which the story will embark, or looking for some other dramatic access to the world of fiction.

 In consequence, you and your late pal, Digby Wolfe, embarked on a project to be called The Dramatic Genome, which predicates among other wry observations that readers or viewers of drama have innate wiring that leads them to escape the rag-tag world of chaos found in Reality, seeking greater senses of order and purpose.

Although the specific idea for The Dramatic Genome came to you in the twenty-first century, indeed across large portions of vongole e linguine, at The Via Maestra, each of you in his own way had improvised and riffed on the notion of the appeal of some form of storytelling to some form of humanity at some distant or more recent moment in time.  One of Wolfe's favorite times for imagining audiences for story was around 400 BCE, with the early performances of Aristophanes play, The Frogs.

For your part, you still delight in imagining a Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon hunting clan coming home after a difficult trek in search of an aurrox or woolly mammoth to bring, first down, then home to feed the group and provide hides for clothing or the equivalent of footwear. While their trove was being butchered and cooked, the group would gather about the fire to hear accounts of how this kill was spotted, tracked, and brought down.

Life was fraught and difficult then, no less so in 400 BCE, and for certain, modern implements to the contrary notwithstanding, modern life is a hive of chaos in which its denizens are aware of complex inner and external demands for their attention, compliance, and performance. We turn to the book, the magazine, the e-reader, the TV screen, the surround sound motion picture theater, and, in all its incarnations, the stage, whence we essay the soothing enticements of a world where orderly results are possible.

We are not completely naive in our assessments; orderly results may be possible for others, but not necessarily for us. The best we can do is empathize, identify, root for the characters, thinking how nice it would be if we could cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape of Reality.

Whatever the venue, when we see the lead character in the process of experiencing the destabilizing event, often because said lead character wanted something or someone with enough passion to create opening velocity, we are the equivalent of a bull rider at a rodeo, seated atop a mightily irate bull, in a narrow stall, one hand gripping the reins, nodding to the individual working the gate to open the latch that will allow the bull to plunge forth into the arena.

Story is not about description; it is about the charging, bucking bull or bronco, striving to recapture somehow the sense of calm or near serenity of routine before the significant destabilizing event played out. Feelings, agendas, and strategic deployment burst forth in an unceasing pulse of action, where change is evoked rather than deployed in each scene.

You recall the look of your students when you announce that each scene must earn its way into its narrative by evoking at least one emotion and demonstrating some shift or advancement of power, a look that asks, "How are we supposed to do that?"  As though they might find another instructor who is not so set in his vision.

But all the while you were morphing from your teens and your ardent desire to tell stories of your own, until you have reached the age of which you are now, you've been digging your knees into the sides of that bull or bronc, trying to stay on for the longest eight seconds of your life.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Put a Little Elephant in the Dialogue

When you first heard the term "triangulation," you were were in a drafty room of the Men's Gym at UCLA, drowsing your way through mandated classes in Reserve Officer's Training Corps, fixed in your notion that ROTC produced one of the more disagreeable products of a military life, the second lieutenant.

For a matter of the four or five classes in which triangulation was presented, and the topographical maps used to demonstrate and embed the techniques were distributed, your interest awakened, became charged with the notable enthusiasm of a student who wants to learn more, and who is excited by what he has learned to date.  

At the most basic level, triangulation provides an observer who knows two fixed locations with the means to calculate the distance of a third location of doubtful position.  On the basis of what you learned in that drafty room, you were also able to learn from your astronomy professor how triangulation is put to practical use in the gaping vastness of the space in which our universe and yet other universes orbit.

There was one temporary downside of triangulation, one in which you came to see how you might not have had the difficulties you had in dealing with geometry, when it was first presented to you. 

Over all, you came away from your classroom experiences with triangulation feeling the chipper optimism of a young person who saw possibilities for dealing with the vast randomness inflicted by Reality. You were haunted by lines from Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," where in "Full many a rose is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air."

The concept of triangulation emerged later in your life, during the tenure as POTUS of Bill Clinton, who used the approach for political negotiations, for building consensus necessary to effect legislation or accords.

More recently, triangulation found its way into your thinking as a useful tool for an integral part of dramatic narrative and your own relationship to that integral part as a user of it, which is to say as a writer of it, but also as one who has edited that aspect of dramatic narrative as an editor, and as one who has attempted to convey the use of the integral part as a teacher.  The dramatic aspect of which you speak is dialogue.

Early in your dealings with your own writings, you tended to regard dialogue as carefully managed conversation, troubled in the way your dialogue emerged as lacking something you were always able to find in the dialogue of John O'Hara, but not able to, as Mark Twain, another splendid renderer of dialogue, would say, "get the hang of it."

Triangulation caught up with you and your attempts to reach that third place, that unseen presence of such vibrant effect in the hands of the writers you most admire.  Here, in Reality, we talk with the Teflon coating on, over our true feelings, tempered by our wish to be such things as civil, polite, observant of one or more social conventions.

John O'Hara, more so than Ernest Hemingway, spoke to the elephant in the living room everyone in his stories and novels appeared to tiptoe around, doing so in such a way that the reader could see the elephant of intent and the dance to avoid revealing the bareness of the intent of the hidden nature of the agenda.

Then along came Philip Roth, who seemed to you to be dramatizing the numerous ways in which individuals were struggling to articulate what they felt, to grasp the true meaning of what others were saying, and, in consequence, being pulled along in the slipstream of story in much the same way you felt pulled when the VW Beetles you drove from the mid 50s through the early 70s were pulled when passed on the highway by an eighteen wheeler.

In your longtime admiration for the novels and short stories of Elmore Leonard and your opportunities, both when you worked for his paperback publisher and when he was a frequent visitor to the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference during the years of your tenure there, the metaphoric pigeons of dialogue came home to roost.

"Write a conversation between any two persons of your choice," you tell your students, "in which they speak with direct, open, literal honesty. Try to remember times when you ever heard real persons talking that way. Try to recall writers you admire presenting such dialogue."  Then you wait for the implications to sink in and the often revealing comments about the assignment.

"Now write a scene," you continue, "in which two individuals, who might be male/female, female/female, or male/male have met on some online dating site and are conversing about their romantic goals and ideals. Assume that one of the reasons this pair had some flicker of attraction each to the other, was because of a mutual love of and ownership of horses. The fondness for horses is the triangulation point.  Individual A compares self to a thoroughbred, being used to the kind of care and training associated with thoroughbred horses, but seeking in a mate the equivalent of a quarter horse or working horse, or even a wild horse.  These two individuals are in effect each trying to seduce the other with their comparisons of self to a particular kind of horse.  Write the scene and see if the couple decides to have a second date."

All that's missing from conversational, lackluster dialogue is the subtext, the unspoken influences on what is said and what is not said.