Monday, May 30, 2016

Reminders of Magic

Strewn about the perimeters of your small-but-comfortable studio, is a scattering of small pebbles here, a succession of tall, thin, and squat bottles standing on the kitchen window sill, a cadre of postcard-sized picture frames with photos of persons, places, and things, mounted as sentries atop your book shelves, and to complete the thereness begun with the previous here, likenesses of Hopi, Navajo, and Hindu ur-beings peer at you from wall spaces selected at whim.

To add spice, a window sill overlooking a commodious and well-trimmed garden contains a group of Big Little Books, relics from your childhood reading tastes, along with a brass menorah of uncertain provenance, a pencil sharpener in the form of a miniature Remington upright typewriter, given you as a birthday present by a group of students some thirty years ago, and a ceramic medallion made by Percingula R. Tosa, an artist of the Jemez Pueblo.

These are your equivalents of the Roman householod goods, the Lares and Penates, displayed in Roman homes to keep the inhabitants safe and, according to some legends, well fed. If you look with sharp focus at actual Lares and Penates or, indeed, any fetish, such as a Zuni fetish in one of your drawers, or the Hindu rosary in one of the drawers of the Queen Ann secretary behind you, or if you wish instead to consider the quite secular Queen Ann secretary itself, you will discern traces of magic, invested by the cultures whence they came or, better still, invested by that most secular you.

Almost forgot the carved raven totem hanging from one of the supporting beams dividing your living room in half. No magic you can see, only a stately raven, one with gravitas, exuding a contributing presence to your living area and thus being a prototype raven as well as the embodiment of a living spirit.

No wonder you find no trouble sleeping in such surroundings, you are protected by magic you aren't even aware of. The absolute smugness in your attitude as you note these presences comes from your recognition of the books in the bookcases and additional titles without shelving, piled in an equivalent of the Dewey Decimal System only you can interpret. 

In these stacks of books, your defenses are piled in ways that represent even greater magical significance because each one contains the forceful narrative presence of at least one other voice.

Well before your current interest in things and the nature of things, and such distinctions as things, objects, and stuff, you were responding to some inner drive to collect things, most of which you liked to store in your father's empty cigar boxes, two of which you still have, both of them filled with fountain pens.

You recall a conversation now, at least forty years old, in which your late wife approached you with great tact to suggest that your collection of cereal boxes was taking over the kitchen cabinetry, two shelves in the garage, and the entire rear of a closet in the bedroom that had become a study. 

You recall another time when a sharp financial downturn caused you to transport one of your most valuable collections, a near complete run of the iconic mystery magazine Black Mask, to a rare book dealer whom you knew would see their value.

In fact, none of the things you collected or wished to surround yourself with were collected for any possible financial return; they were acquired because they possessed (and in many cases still contain) qualities you associate with beauty, sometimes their function conveying to you their inner beauty.

All right then, say it, things talk to you. They tell you how much more comfortable or educated or protected or confident you will be with them in your life, how they are at work 24/7 to guard, protect, and otherwise endow your surroundings with a sense of protection against such dread invaders as boredom and lack of awareness about the world about you.

The equation is perfect in its balance: You are your things; your things are you.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

To Die for

From your earlier readings of the mystery novel, through your regonition of how, in factg, every novel was a mystery, and into your experiences trying to write such novels yourself and serving as editor for mystery writers you long admired, you wrestled with the issue of motivation.

A mystery required at least one corpse, a fact that weighed heavy on you because of your own visions of motivation. When you heard someone in the publishing industry saying one corpse per mystery was no longer sufficient--editors wanted at leastr two--your concerns grew even more toward hopelessness about your ability to write in the genre you so favored and to read and reread the works of writers you admired to see how it was they were able to do with seeming ease what you could not.

You were caught at the critical state of overthinking and a simultaneous repugnance for inventing a character only to have him or her killed off. This state cost you some time in being able to complete some of the many mysteries you'd begun. This was not for lack of trying. Some of your early notebooks attest laundry lists of motives for one character killing another. 

Sooner or later, you were going to have to get beyond that barrier. A combination of events and activities provided the necessary push. It starting with you taking classes with a much admired mystery writer, Dorothy B. Hughes, meeting her dear friend of Laura fame, Vera Caspary,extended to their pressuring you to join MWA, Mystery Writers of America, where you rose through the ranks of elected offices, meanwhile bringing in mystery writers to the publisher for which you were an editor.

Continued reading, editing, and meeting of crime-related writers and professionals, such as the LAPD homicide detective who bore badge Number One, acquiring projects from favored writers, and a surprise question from a dear friend with whom you were collaborating on a television venture got you over the edge of wondering about motive. You'd already begun teaching, avoiding the use of the word motive until some student raised it.  

The disturbing question was asked of a character.  "What does he want?"

"Um," you said. "Um, um, why do you ask?"

"Because you must know what every character who comes on stage wants."

At that moment, you were the equivalent of Archimedes, lowering himself into a bathtub, watching the water level rise, then making a comment, probably with some vulgarity-for-emphasis such as, "For fuck's sake," which has been toned down to "Eureka," probably with an exclamation point.  Translated in all your early sources to "I have it," but in your opinion better expressed as "Fuck yeah."

What you had was an understanding of your friend's question.  Had he asked, "What is his motive?" you'd been apt to answer that you didn't know because, well, because you'd never been good at motives. From that point on, beginning with such disucssions in your classes, you saw the problems of motivation, character, plot, and subsequent action as combinations of the answers to three questions:

Who is he/she?

What does he/she want?'

What is he/she willing to do in order to achieve his understood goal?

In subsequent years, you've added other, defining questions, which supply more relevant information about the character, which adds to potentials for more complex, diverse mysteries, depending to even greater measures on moral, social, and psychological issues.

What a character wants is that person's passion, his or her fetish or ambition. With that in mind, you don't need to ask about motives because you are on your way to an understanding of what actions that individual will take, where that individual's boundaries are, and the necessary thing in fiction to cause that individual to step over the boundary line of those boundaries..

What the character wants becomes the rudder for a ship that had no previous rudder or, at best, an ineffective one. Some of your previous stories, whether or not they were mysteries, did not gel as authentic because the only characters who stepped over boundaries in some form or other of illegal trespass were hired killers, a tangible force in real time and in fiction, but also somewhat of a cliche. 

The hired killer who is nice to small animals has long since been put to bed as an overused meme. The more profitable approach is to turn an ordinary person into a hired killer such as the television writer, director, and producer, Vince Gilligan, did with his memorable character, Walter White, in Breaking Bad.

Even when Walter White's acxtions and behavior prevent us from rooting for his success in his chosen profession as a methampetaphine chemist, we still watch him with considerable interest, although we've seen him lie, maneuver, and exploit. This works because any character, if burdened with the existential load placed on White, still attracts our interest, if not sympathy, when he is under a constant barrage of things going wrong against him.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Truth or Consequences: New Mexico or Story

Of the many possible and, in ironic counterpoint, definitions of the condition or quality known as truth, this simplistic, even reductionist one is appropriate: A conformity to actual fact. 

You could also say truth was a frequent conformity to fact, opening the door for truth, as, indeed, all qualities, to be relative. For you, truth would be at least a six on a scale of one to ten for conformity. 

If you said water boiled at one hundred Celsius degrees or two hundred twelve Fahrenheit degrees, you'd be up around nine point five of conformity to fact, provided you stipulated the heating site was at sea level.  

The wiggle room resides in water boiling at temperatures other than the hundred or two hundred twelve degree scale.  Water would not boil at the hundred- or two hundred twelve-degree levels in Denver, Colorado. This much is true.

Speaking of truth, one of your major mentors was an actor, who spoke to you with frequency and length about how an actor has to work to find the truth of a character she is chosen to play. By this, she referred to the way a particular character sees internal and external things and phenomena as authentic. 

No stretch of truth to say Dorothy Gale believed herself to be no longer in Kansas, to the degree of realizing she needed some help in moving from Oz, back home to Kansas.

Hearing this constant reference to the truth, as a specific character saw it, became a major point leading to the understanding of the nature of character, dialogue, and narrative in fiction; as well, an introduction to the understanding of individuals in straight time. 

One result was another simplistic-but-instructive vision of what story is: two or more individuals, believing his/her vision was true,while others were not. Thus: "How long are you going to continue with the lies?"

In consequence of such speculative definitions, you find it possible, even truthful, to declare: Sooty is the outcome of two or more characters, forging through words and deeds the result of an argument in which one character defeats or neutralizes the arguments of other characters. You could also say story is the mutual agreement of a vocabulary of feelings and concepts to be used from now on, the now beginning as the story is brought to closure.

The takeaway for you from this day's writing workshop resides in the observation: Truth is not always readily visible.  While the student was talking about her work in process, you wrote down her observation, first because of your interpretation (or truth) that her protagonist was looking to identify his truth, secondly because of your belief that writers are in a struggle to discern their own interior truth and the truth of their multifarious characters.

At the least, story for you is trying to write through the fog of unknowing and indistinct vision to the place where you can be sure water boils and at what temperature.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fiction: Subversive Literature on Steroids

It is a truth recognized with some regularity that the novel is subversive, this recognition shared by readers, writers, and critics. An additional truth reveals how some writers of novels, their readers, and their critics wish to have nothing to do with subversive activity in the novel.

These individuals want instead some variation on the theme of a happy ending in which none of the major characters are pushed beyond their established boundaries, and culture, regardless of its place on the spectrum of human behavior, congratulates established conventions rather than extending them.

However subversive Jane Austen may have been with her encouragement of the democratic marriage, in which classes are free to marry above or below their status, she pays dearly for the advocacy by implying that marriage is without future conflict. 

For all his inspired moments of satire, Dickens was also promoting a form of smug certainty in the notion that marriage, hard work, and thrifty habits were virtuous ends in themselves. 

To no one's surprise, Dickens' significant popularity led an American counterpart in theme if not dramatic talent to an enormous, non-subversive success. That writer was Horatio Alger,(1832-99), whose name became synonymous with his theme, rags to riches.

You've been involved in the publication of a number of novels that were non-subversive in their narrative intend, their goals to feed a need for a narrative from which the reader comes away feeling that improbable outcomes such as living happily ever after and of virtue  being rewarded, and of nice persons finishing first were easier come by than they were in actuality.

Without wishing to enter the arena of judging or defending such novels, you recognize your dealings with them and others where your only participation was as a reader, was a part of a learning process, both editorial on the professional side of the ledger and instructive on the personal side. You in fact wrote and published a few such novels as well, all part of a process you intended to be lifelong.

Such associations led you to admire and spend more time with so-called noir fiction. Here, the characters were of greater depth and vulnerability, without you, at first, realizing this fact. Then, as you did see and sympathize, your sympathies for such individuals began to lead you down paths blazed by the quintessential Marxist, Karl Marx, himself. 

From his lead, you found a number of men and women writers of fiction whose narratives led you to believe they were aware of Marxist themes relating to commodities, the labor necessary to produce and earn money to buy such commodities, and the the things individuals would be willing to do in order to, as your father put it, "be able to smoke five-dollar cigars with no concern for bank balance or conscience."

You'd turned thirty when you found a novel that had a profound effect on your life then and has continued to help shape your vision of how a novel could be used as a subversive element. You first read a review of Joseph Heller's magisterial Catch-22 in one of the then splendid left-leaning magazines, The Nation, to which you'd subscribed for many years, until, one day as you were reading in it, you discerned that with one exception, all its writers sounded the same, wrote with the same, punchy, pseudo-hectoring tone of nag and complaint. The one exception, Alexander Cockburn, had a voice that you'd recognize some years later in another subversive writer, Christopher Hitchens.

Much as you admired the visions of Cockburn and Hitchens and their incessant subversive writing, you're in this for fiction, where the subversion of Catch-22 shook you by your thirty-year-old shoulders, and told you, "Fuck yeah."

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Figuring Things, in and out

The poet John Keats, begins his poem, "Endymion," with the arresting observation:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness--

Given the hours of gaping, gawking, and staring you've put in at various museums and galleries, featuring displays of such things as oil and watercolor paintings, drawings, ceramics, statuary, etching, and photography from a diverse menu of times and cultures, you've spent as many years since reading the entire poem in agreement with the sentiments expressed.

You're aware of persons who are not familiar with that poem, knowing the first line without knowing its author or the larger context to which it is attached. Some years back, you became aware that the poem, itself, is a thing and, yes, it extends the truth of the poem by demonstrating that the line and the entire poem are things of beauty. It is your nature to chew over Keats' assessments and your response to them. 

Beauty is an assigned quality. For that matter, lack of beauty is also an assigned judgment. A thing you consider beautiful or its opposite are judgments you make about the thing, coloring your regard or disregard for it, thus effecting your outer and inner postures.

Brief digression here for a disclosure: Keats is one of your favorite poets. Even more than the likelihood of you quoting "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," you are even more likely to quote another line of his from his poem, "The Ever of St. Agnes, in fact, the third line, "  The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass..."  Added truth to tell, you're also fond of his poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," where there is at least one line you are bound to bring forth after a modest quantity of a pinot noir or medoc.

Thus you have here for starters three things in the form of poems and three additional things , individual lines from the poems, making at least six things, all of which, by your definition, and with a nod of respect to John Keats, are things of beauty. 

Until your recent preoccupation with focusing on such things as meaning, the meaning of the process of meaning, things, and the nuanced and complex relationships between people and things, you were more likely to have written at greater length and depth about beauty than about things.

At this point in your investigations and musings, things, even though they have tangible qualities beyond the basic ones of length, width, depth, and shape, get something tangible from their association with humans. They are often put to one or more specific uses, displayed, maintained, or merely kept in some circumstance indicative of their status. Humans assign values to many things, these values ranging from monetary to artistic to usefulness.

If judgments will allow themselves to be classified as things--what, in fact, is a judgment if not a thing?--they, too invite not only classifications but attitudes. You, for example, may judge a particular individual, through his or her behavior, foolish or prideful or funny or empathetic. 

In similar fashion, you may judge a human not by his or her judged qualities (things, remember?) but rather by the things with which they surround themselves, ranging from clothing and jewelry to paintings, music collections, statuary, automobiles, animals.

Tell me a word is not a thing or that certain words are better at defining a meaning or intention than others, while yet other words are inoffensive or inspirational. Much of what you do for outer and inner living is related to words and their effects on you and others. Thus is your reason for being and living bound in a curious equation you are trying to understand as, indeed, you have spent so much of your life, in one way or another, trying to figure things out.




Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Object in Question

The relationship between humans and animals has a long, splendid history. You have distinct animal benchmarks in your life, companions and role models of high order. Recitation of their names evokes a sinuous pattern of warmth and ongoing connection. 

The Intimate Bond, a most recent book from an author you've guided through many a publication has to do with such relationships, its pages becoming a meaningful vision of humans in their dealings with animals and the reverse perspective of how animals were domesticated. In the bargain, we see the history of how the association has had benefits and disadvantages for the human species and the animal.

Another relationship intrigues you in the broad, general sense and in the more personal, even idiosyncratic sense--the relationship between humans and objects. This same relationship occupied the thoughts of a contemporary thinker, Martin Heidegger (1119-1976), whom you've consulted in your quest for understanding of the nature of self, of being, understanding and learning, by no means in a scholarly sense, rather to help you in your attempts to construct fictions that seem real.

Setting explodes with importance in such attempts because of the need to place your characters somewhere tangible if your fiction is to convey the sense of reality you hope to achieve. When you think of settings, your mind's eye conjures landscapes, interiors, vehicles, decorations. If the setting is historical, you know from experience that readers of historical fiction like the details of clothing and of furniture, drapery, rugs, works of art; in other words, objects.

The choice of objects in a setting helps define the characters who put them there and use them. You are not alone in judging characters by the objects with which they surround themselves, and in certain of the critical theory classes for writers you present, you're fond of using an example of a man with a fishing rod and reel as a significant example of how a prop, an object, defines and articulates a character. 

"Consider a man," you tell your students, "whom we see showing more concern for and taking better care of his rod and reel than the concern and care he shows for his wife. The rod and reel may be a primary source of quality protein for the man's family, which is one explanation for the care he lavishes on them, but that focused concern for objects also speaks to the role of the wife in that marriage and, indeed,among those of a similar social caste.

Using the same fishing rod and reel and a different social class, you are able to demonstrate another example of how things help define people. Let's say this owner of rod and reel is affluent, takes poor care of his objects, allowing them to rust. If we see this family setting in contact with the previous one, we may be led to assume this owner and abuser of rod and reel might in one way or others, show a neglect for his wife and children.

Heidegger is at some pains to distinguish an object from a thing, even to the point of showing how a thing was once an object to some human. For reasons of pure sentiment, you've kept two of the delicate, beautiful china tea cups your mother prized as well as an elaborate tea pot which you have never used. Your fondness for coffee does not preclude your interest in tea or, for that matter, tea brewed in a tea pot rather than a single serving using a cup and tea bag.

You also have and use with some regularity a small dish your late wife purchased at some yard sale for a dime. The person who sold her the dish for a dime considered the dish a thing. Each time you use it, you think of it as an object. 

Unless you give the tea cups and pot to one of your nieces, where they will continue to remain objects, they will find their way to some yard sale or other, through no fault of their own demoted from object to thing. In all probability, the fine bone china tea cups will sell for ten or fifteen cents each.

The Richard III of Shakespeare's play is better known to most of us than the actual, historical Richard, in no small measure because of his urgent, from-the-heart plea to the heavens, "My kingdom for a horse." 

As yet untold stories reside in the desires you have had for various objects, for the ones with you now surround yourself at this juncture of your life, and your range of experience as yet other objects in your life have been demoted to things. At this writing, and for reasons you cannot explain with any sense of comprehensive coverage, your kingdom, such as it is, would go for a stuffed dog, faded blue, one button eye missing, a true relic of the Great Depression into which you and he were born. His name was, and shall always be for you, Prosperity.


Monday, May 23, 2016

When a Thing Becomes a Metaphor for Something Other Than Itself

Most of the things we see about us on a given day do not have descriptive tags attached to them. Even though all of us come into the world having to learn the names and functions of things through instruction and experience, most of our species, past a certain basic age, know and can distinguish the objects they encounter on.

 Furthermore, most of us are able to visualize with some accuracy an object once we are presented with its name. If we are presented with the name of an object we do not know, curiosity often drives us to make the connection. The reverse is also true. "Hey," we ask individuals we suspect will know, "what is this gadget?"

Questions persists: How does a person know what a thing is? How does a person know what a thing means? At what point does a thing become a metaphor for something other than itself? And one final question, although may others are possible, What happens when a specific object, say a fountain pen, has differing meanings for different individuals?

At one time in your life, stories meant different things to you than they do now. Stories meant a series of linked, related events in which one or more characters attempt to discover something, meet obstacles from their attempts, then encounter the object of their search in such circumstances that they are changed from the individuals they were at the beginning of the quest.

You knew early on if a particular iteration of this formula would please you because, even then, you understood how the story is supposed to give you an idea of what the quest for discovery is, and because, particularly back then, you enjoyed the early attempts to discover what the obstacles were, because obstacles were action.

You did not realize, early on, how some of the obstacles, both in movies and novels, reflected certain cultural or political biases or how the bad guys always had humiliating payoffs and how women such as Anna Karenina and Nora Helmer had to pay for their courage to break conventional boundaries of behavior.

A visit to some of your notebooks and earlier stories as well as fictional works in progress reveal to you how many different times you have a character observing that he or she has not been him/herself lately, that things aren't always what they appear to be, and that definitions and identities are difficult to come by.

Such things are not mere repetitions; they are preoccupations with states of awareness growing fuzzy, where boundaries have become vague, and where identity is unstable. Many of your formative years were spent in Los Angeles, where buildings are torn down, replaced, given extreme makeovers. 

Things there may be what they seem to be, but many other things are not what they appear to be because of some impatience to put a new fingerprint over an older one. You follow the progress of Los Angeles as though keeping track of an old lover, looking for cracks in a facade, alternately enjoying the breakup and wondering what might have been.

The best philosophy for now is the sense of things being what you wish them to be after you have done enough research to make sure you've not taken the thing for granted and in the process missed something important. You have to let a thing, whether it is a book, a small pebble, or the tube of anchovy paste you discovered in your kitchen storage area, speak to you, objectify it to the point where you can ask of it what it wants you to know.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Choices: The Good Bad Character, or the Bad Good One.

By the time you've worked your way through the taser stings of adolescence and into your twenties, you've had enough experience making decisions to set your mind in overdrive when making most new ones, comfortable you won't freeze up when some downshifting into lower gears becomes necessary.

Unless you've suffered some physical or emotional traumas in the past, new experiences are pretty much events to take for granted or to prepare for in advance. If you are able to look back over some of your more notable failures, you'll run into the reminder that you've always recovered from these to the point where you can go forth, accepting, to use a fielding analogy from baseball, chances. 

And wonder of wonder, looking back on successes, however much you have to sort through the memory file to find some, adds a sense of confidence and panache to your willingness to encounter new experiences.

The same is true in your writing life which, in simplistic terms means snatching up some passing idea or notion as though it were a butterfly that lingered a moment too long on a flowering plant. You have a significant record of successes and failures in this aspect of your inner life, for writing is every bit as much about your inner life as your ability to see the curve ball or change-up coming your way as you stand in the batter's box.

All right, enough with the baseball metaphors, even though games can and do serve as useful metaphors for events off the playing field and into the home, the classroom, the workplace, the writers' room at the TV studio. 

Let's say that in your writing life, you're as used to making writer decisions as you are making person decisions in real life. In the writer decisions, you have to keep in mind the need to produce a simulacrum, a plausible portrait of an atmosphere that could pass for Reality.

A major strand of choices you need to make have to do with the characters you bring forth. Thus, is creating a character who is of good morals and ethics bad for your story? And, is creating a character who is of poor or no morals and ethics good for your story? The question follows the noted play of parallel lines within a given story, when the reader is faced with two thematic progressions, often mirror images or in some way or others, at loggerheads with one another.

The reader knows and expects the parallel lines to converge somewhere, the penultimate chapter if the narrative is long enough to be a novel, the final paragraphs if the narrative has willed itself to be a shorter form.

Good characters, those of superb moral credit rating numbers, tend to be taken over by virtue which, when it is not being comical, is edging toward boredom. Bad characters, not necessarily those who are morally depraved so much as those who invite ways to bend rules and compose elaborate justifications of behavior extending beyond the norm.

As a species of readers into which you place yourself, you note how much easier it is to get behind and root for the evil of two lesser; there soiled man or woman gets your vote and loyalty because you wish to see what will happen to them, should they persist in their ways. This makes perfect sense to you, because you would rather record the deeds and antics of the persistent son-of-a-bitch who resides within you than the patient pilgrim, always seeking travels to lands far and impossible.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Dramatic Wisdom and Conventions, Double-Breasted Suits

The same creative writing teacher who lost sixty pounds and began wearing double-breasted suits, and who also told you to either literally or figuratively shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph, was fierce in reminding you how accidents could make things worse but they could not make things better.

In one of your final meetings with him, he also spoke of the Russian formalists, whom he assumed you would study when you got to the university. Some of them posited that a story with a carpenter driving a nail in an opening scene required you to hang something from that nail before the story could be considered done.

You did in fact spend some time trying to figure out what the Russian formalists were all about and after much confusion and indecision settled on a theory that was in fact influenced by them: details had to be relevant. 

Your reading of the so-called American realists meant you could go around, listing details all over the place by way of providing information about the characters. A favorite approach of yours was to get a character to open a kitchen cupboard or a bathroom cabinet, therein to list such medications or foodstuffs as pleased your picture of the individual. 

The sad reality you encountered somewhere well down the line was that you'd given yourself over to various devices and approaches to storytelling that appealed more to critical theory and the intellect than they did to the senses and to the emotions. 

At about the time you became aware of this, you were taken on as a client by a literary agent who had his own list of particulars, with the result that your output was in its way like a dog of unknown and multiple parentage,

Only today, while you were composing, you were aware of  significant character, a close friend of your narrator, using one of your all-time favorite lines of dialogue, "I can't do this any more." This stopped you cold in your writing tracks to the point where you capped your fountain pen, then took a long, thoughtful slug of coffee, thinking once again about the former creative writing teacher who was also formerly overweight.  

He warned you about the expressions, "But it really happened that way," relating to an incident you were writing about in a story, and "But this character is based on my Uncle Fred, who really said that." You were reminded of the "I can't do this anymore" spoken by you, when you'd reached a critical point in your attempts to write stories including all the dramatic wisdom and conventions you'd picked up over the years.

The years to which you refer span the time between high school and now and thus have come to merit the adjective considerable because you have been collecting dramatic wisdom and convention for a long fucking time. 

To your credit, you've been working at distinguishing between the wisdom and convention you no longer wish to listen to and the wisdom and conventions that speak to you on a level that seems to begin somewhere in your viscera, then proceed to a place somewhere within muscle memory, where intent, word order, and a code book of user instructions reside in the equivalent of companionable unity.

If there is, as some exotic cultures believe, a particular residing place for the intuition, this place is the home for the code book of user instructions you follow when setting down early drafts and when you edit these to remove some of the reflexes and habits you have not been able to purge from the operating system.

Now that you think about it, you have been a creative writing teacher for a long fucking time, although your preference for self-description is not so much a creative writing teacher as an editor and a writing instructor. Long fucking time can stand on its own. You sometimes what mosquito-like buzzing you put into your students' head, causing them to awaken at night with a sound of something they will need time to remove from their psyche. 

You tell your students Don't think, not for the first draft. The more you spend time thinking, the more time you will have to spend removing. Time enough for considerations about removing things when the revision begins.

In your lifetime, you have had five double-breasted suits, one given you by your mother's youngest brother, the other four, all of a distinct Italian nature, were given you by an actor you used to work for. The suit from your uncle never seemed to drape well, and you were pleased to outgrow it. The suits from the actor were taken immediately to a tailor named Sol, who transformed them into single-breasted garments,

Friday, May 20, 2016

Territory, Monopoly, and Story

You didn't equate Territory, your favorite game of early years, with Monopoly, until you were moving on through your late teens. Territory was played with many participants, in your estimation the more players the better.  A large territory, a rectangle or circle was drawn in schoolyard dirt, the more moist the better.  


Each player began with a piece of his own turf, the rules of the game dictating that a player's turf must be at least large enough to accommodate his entire footprint. Each player used a jackknife, with which he would attempt to expand his own landhold at the expense of the other players. 

The player would aim and throw his knife, hopeful the blade would stick in the ground. If the blade did stick, the player was entitled to draw a line connecting to his landhold, in effect annexing a portion of the victim's territory. If the knife did not stick, the player lost is turn to the next player. If a given throw of a knife did not allow the thrower to connect his opponent's land with his, he lost his turn.

Territory depended on a player's ability to throw a knife into the ground so that it stuck, the added skill being to throw with enough accuracy that a direct line between the thrower's territory and an opponent's territory could be drawn. You were good enough at the game to win more than you lost. 

By your reckoning now, you were not yet advanced in metaphoric and conceptual thinking to realize you were, among other things, reinforcing the notion of drawing lines in the dirt, or establishing boundaries, playing an impromptu version of Monopoly (c), and imprinting certain Marxist themes within such psyche as you had at the time.

The activity of drawing a line in the dirt to establish your own turf did lead you to thoughts and daydreams whereby you owned actual property as, indeed, your parents had at one time before the disastrous effects of what has been called the Great Depression. Driving by the places they owned in Santa Monica, you saw how they'd in effect been Territotied out of their turf, and watched with them as they sought to regain in later years a sense of comfort and security.

Although you were brought from the hospital where you were born to a comfortable upper middle class home owned by your parents, you left that house to a succession of rentals and have spent all the years since as a tenant rather than owner.  

Your father, who at one time wished to be a dentist and then a lawyer, had a conversation with you when you were in your early twenties, after he'd not only accepted your choice of occupations but encouraged it. "You will probably own properties and concepts of other natures than real estate," he told you. "There is nothing wrong with owning real estate, but you must not let it disturb you that you do not."

Appreciative of his support but also wishing to strut and show off for him, you asked if he were implying that you might not be successful at your chosen occupation.  He replied, To have chosen an occupation and remained with it is success, no matter what the outcome.

In later years, during a remarkable picnic of hamburgers, vegetable curry, and a tangy iced tea prepared for you by nuns of the Vedanta Society, you thought of this conversation with your father while discussing with Christopher Isherwood a poetic line he'd helped translate from the significant Hindu morality epic, The Bhagavad Gita.  "To the work you are entitled," the line ran, "but not the fruits thereof."

Since that day, you've interpreted the line to mean you'd bloody well better find work you enjoy if you are to have any pleasure from such things because there are enough boring activities and responsibilities to keep you in a steady fog of routine.  "If," Isherwood said, "one loves what one does, one is a lover." To which you were able to reply, "And that makes you a success."  "That's one way of looking at it," he said. Then, hamburgers and silence while we ate.

Drawing lines, defining tastes and territory, and knowing when and where to step over the boundaries are abilities you've picked up since your knife-throwing days playing Territory. On occasion, your blade has not stuck in the ground, or you were not able to annex new experiences and understanding to your own turf.

You recognize how, within Story, you must show the reader how a character is at risk of losing his territory, how his concerns and actions often cause him to reach what appears to be a boundary, where he must overstep to encounter the vital next step.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

If It Looks Like Writing, Sounds Like Writing, Then It Must Be a Duck

You needed to spend a great deal of time learning to write like yourself, drowning out all those voices  you heard while reading the individuals whose words got you into thinking you'd like to give it a try yourself. 

Even when you got to the point where you began to think you didn't write the way anyone else did, you were suspicious enough of influences to read some of your stories aloud to see if anything you hadn't noticed was there.

Some years back, you came across on television, a motion picture version of Three Comrades, a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a writer you'd much admired to the point of ferreting out and close reading all his titles. At one point, one of the characters spoke a line of dialogue that caused you to say out loud, "That had to have been written by Scott Fitzgerald." 

Were push to arrive at shove, you'd have to say you read Fitzgerald with even greater closeness than you'd read Remarque, recalling many of the small details about Fitzgerald--in particular, his short stories which seemed worthy of using in your own material. 

Then, when you became convinced you had to discover your own writing voice, you had to make a point of editing out places where you were wanting to sound like Fitzgerald.

The television platform for the movie made a point of running the credits after the story had completed, thus you were able to see the screenwriting credits, which included F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

This recognition of Fitzgerald's voice was something you'd had in one way or another with many of the writers you studied and admired, a recognition that evolved from the pure admiration and wonder of the writer's use of language to an envy of it and, at some primal level, an awareness of the competition you begun to feel with the individual writer.

As your list of writers with whom you were in some competition began to grow, the ironic humor of your laundry list began to impress itself on you. Many of these writers had lived their entire life before you'd even arrived. One or two are almost exact contemporaries of yours. 

More than one or two have come along well after your arrival here. Having the full advantage of reading their works made the matter even more laughable. You need to proceed at your pace, exploring and finding a place to settle on where you can be the tour guide.

You weren't in this to be better than them, you'd be lucky to be as good as any of them. They were the men and women who made storytelling seem so easy that anyone could do it--even you.

Each of the men and women on your laundry list were (and still are) able to take you to places you'd never been, giving you the opportunity to experience sensations and aspirations you'd never had before. Your goal is to take yourself and such readers as might wish to come along to yet another unvisited place, in short, your place.

If this doesn't sound like you, blaming F.Scott Fitzgerald won't help. You're on your own.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Did You Get the Idea for That Trespass from a Dream or through Reading?

The moment a reader proceeds far enough down the pathway of a narrative to become involved, the reader has entered the state of story, which, in its way, becomes as significant to the reader as the difference between the dreaming state and the awake state.

Because of the format and selective nature of story, the moment the reader becomes aware of the arrangement and procession of events we've come to think of as plot, the reader has opted into a hyperreality with a psychology and justice system of its own. Plot opens the door to a vision of dramatic justice, where shapes and forms coalesce for a dramatic moment, only to be separated the moment the reader awakens.

The more invested the reader becomes in the plot, the more the reader recognizes on some level those times when he or she was caught up in a discomforting dream, trying to maneuver through it to wakefulness.

Because so many barriers are down for the reader in the reading state and the dreamer in the dreaming stage, time, space, and causality are often swept off the table in a gesture of complicity that begins with suspension of disbelief while reading and the dream state when sleeping.  In both circumstances, the reader and dreamer are free to trespass on conventions, personal and cultural taboos.

We are more likely to remember our reading than our dreams because of the way reading serves as a coded or metaphorical way in which to identify with fictional characters, all the while in the guise of empathizing with them. In dreams, we are more often than not the central point of view.  

We may not be the same individual in our dreams that we are in the waking state. We may be older, younger, afflicted with some symbolic wound or encumbrance, and good luck with trying to establish an accurate counterpart, should we be able to recall the dream in the first place.

Thanks to reading and dreaming, we become able to recognize and cope with the problems and fears we face during the waking hours in which we engage life to deal with matters of survival, comfort, and discovery, just as many of our childhood games and fantasies were artful ways of leading us toward the muscle memory of survival.

In reading stories and experiencing dreams, we are engaging the realities of behavior and response built into the culture from which we emerge, learning skills by example, vicarious participation, and that remarkable leap of imagination in which we are able to break laws and taboos. In reading story and dreaming dreams, we are, without giving the matter much thought, giving ourselves the various senses of repugnance, shame, guilt, and pleasure associated with our actual behavior toward others and to our self.

Poetic justice is the sum of our experience in the world of wakefulness, of reading, and of dreaming; it is the putting our ear to the ground of the society in which we were born, the fear and temptations relative to trespass, and our innate sense of such navigational issues as Right, Wrong, Empathy, and Responsibility.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Why Failures Are the Most Fruitful Characters

Some individuals are so invested in being right, whatever the matter at hand, that rightness dominates their entire reason for being. They are often thought of as being right at any cost.

On the other hand, you, although you enjoy authorship of the right answer, in particular if the right answer is recondite, are no stranger to being wrong, even when you were the stage manager and scene designer of the production. 

You are often thought of as being recondite at any cost. Although this is not your true purpose, you would rather be thought of as recondite than right; your true purpose being the ongoing attempt to report what you see with the flair of accuracy and resonance.

In a world where major league baseball players net salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for their ability to hit a baseball once every three or four times at bat, averages become a metric of success or failure. You are more successful at being wrong than right. If there were a more positive metric than being thought of as a fuck-up, you would have more occasion to celebrate the irony of being successful for the things you did in a wrong fashion.

When, in your own eyes, you are at your best, rightness and wrongness, or its cousin, wrongheadedness, are not your pole stars; curiosity is. There are accommodations in judgment whereby, were you to be judged, the greater probability is that critics would say of you that you are curious rather than wrong. By the idiosyncrasy of your accounting system, you are slightly ahead of the game of judgment, notwithstanding the game is skewed in favor of the house.

To have been wrong about anything  indicates willingness to take risk. A long list of wrong decisions, calculations, and choices speaks to the sort of person who engages life, a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a what-the-hell bounce in his gait.

If you were to have a tombstone (which you are sincere in hoping you don't), an inscription on it might read: "Even in this venture, he was willing to be wrong." This is an epitaph you like well enough to make you work on a plan to be cremated, as planned, but to have, somewhere, a plaque or stone with those words. You name, dates, and the epigraph; these are not quite with the staying power of Yeats' "Horseman, pass by," but delightful in its wrongness.

Anything beyond occasional rightness becomes boring at first, then progresses to irritating. Individuals and characters who are always right have a particular observation in question form that infuriates you. "Why," they ask, "do people always--?" A variation on that theme is, "Can people not see how--?"

Characters who are always right make excellent comic foils in the same way individuals who are always right in real life often find themselves being made the butt of some comedic trope. On the other hand, characters who seem to engage in the research and development of being wrong make wonderful protagonists for stories, and in real life make remarkable friends.

In the same ways language and usage evolve over time, concepts of rightness seem more hidebound and conservative, allowing us to see how little the human condition has changed since Geoffrey Chaucer brought forth his remarkable spectrum of persons way back in the middle ages.  

Wrongness, on the other hand, has shown its ability to grow, affording you and others like you the opportunity to be failable in original ways.  Here lies SL, who brought new energy and dimension to being wrong.


Monday, May 16, 2016

The Dramatic Genome

Many of your early years were spent recognizing the shapes and forms of things, which, in retrospect, seems to have been a valuable thing to have done. Almost without realizing it, you were able to distinguish numerous things from their look-alike and, in similar fashion, to classify things of similar appearance into groups. An important moment arrived one day when, almost withiout realizing it, you were able to distinguish a zebra from a horse.

You would later learn, to considerable interest, if not wild enthusiasm, that both the horse and zebra could be classified under the same genus, Equus, the horse going on to stand with the E. ferus species, while the zebra, had a choice of standing with its brothers and sisters in a number of species, such as the quagga, which, for a zebra would be the equivalent of having the family name of Smith because the quagga zebra is as common among zebras as Smith is among--well, you get it.

The early years thrills of recognition may have been blunted by an increased ability to distinguish similar things from one another. Then came the adjunct, but additional ability to classify things you might have at one time pitched a tizzy fit to denounce as having nothing in common. 

This is not to say you get no sense of satisfaction from the recognition of how some things are different and some things that seem different are not so different, nor to suggest you go about the warp and weft of your days in the blasé haze of thinking everything is same, so why bother to distinguish them.

All of this leads you to suspect with some vigor how hard-wired you are to the narratives of fiction, in particular those narratives designed to deliver greater emotional and intellectual responses than those coming from your ability to distinguish various forms, shapes, and types from other, multifarious forms, shapes, and types. 

This is to say you get more satisfaction from certain types of story such as mysteries, speculative fictions, alternate universe novels, thrillers in which individuals survive against enormous odds, and spy/espionage novels, in which individual loyalties appear even more divided that the divisions found in more general narratives.

You are more than a little suspicious of stories in which you deduce an overriding attempt to demonstrate some common law of ethics, or to suggest that life is beautiful, thus we should with some immediacy get up and enjoy it. Thus your taste translates into fact; even idiosyncrasy can, under the proper circumstances, be fact.

The further fact emerges in the form of two parallel lines developing within the individual. At about the same time the human youngster is learning to distinguish shapes and forms, the better to identify the explosions of new sensations the child will encounter in the growing process, the same young individual is being taught to identify the arrangement of events into the kinds of strands we think of as story.

There is in fact a dramatic genome we humans have as a part of our individual make-up. We are wired to identify events linked together in some causal pattern. Depending on our individual preferences, we respond to certain stories with greater enthusiasm and interest than we show for others.

The more highly evolved our preference for those strands of events, the greater a distinction we are able to make between poetic justice, which is cultural in its origin, and dramatic justice, responses that nurture and develop within us.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Terms of Endearment

Within your career in writing and publishing, many disappointments came to visit you, linger about, and settle in like the overcast and coastal layer at this time of year, not to burn off until you were visited by some shimmering, pulsating new idea. 

Although many of these new ideas had the potential to find yet newer ways to disappoint you, many of them gave you the excitement the Wright Brothers must have experienced when their heavier-than-air craft managed to stay aloft for what must have seemed like young eternities.

Among the squadrons of enthusiasms, taking off most days for reconnaissance, only to slink back home, hunkering in disappointment was your first experience with the word and concept of denouement. 

It is a French word, tossed about by your early college creative writing instructors and fellow students, who, after hearing you read, were wont to say such things as, "You are a brave person to so conspicuously avoid denouement," and "Surely in your revision, you will let us see the denouement."

Thanks to a used-bookstore owner who took it upon himself to be your mentor, you were already trying to understand what the Russian formalists were trying to get at with syuzhet, and so a French concept was not something you were going to waste time on. At one point, you told a group of classmates you had no use for the French, particularly their denouement, feeling rather more a rebel than the ignoramus you in fact were.

To your credit and ultimatge benefit, curiosity prevailed. One soggy, rain-soaked afternoon, you bit down on the bullet of pride and asked your used-bookstore mentor if he had any opinions about denouement he'd be willing to share. "Jesus Christ, boy," he said, coming from behind the counter where he customarily lurked to grad you by one arm and a shirt collar, leading you to Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, third edition, wherein he began a furious leafing through pages, muttering, "Next thing, you'll be telling me you don't know apophasis when you see it.  Jesus Christ.  And you say you're majoring in English literature."

Denouement is a comfortable way of bringing a series of causal events to a conclusive outcome, a form of closure, as it were, or in terms you'd later invent for yourself and your own use, a negotiated settlement between the worlds of Reality and Story, a definition you'd arrived at with the help of Russian syuzhet.

Painful experiences are quite useful in self-education, the pain invariably coming at one's own expense for having been somewhere on a revolving path of stubbornness, ignorance, intransigence, and, worse yet, assuming you did not need to know something because you did not understand it in the first place.

You threw around the adjective Chekhovian as an explanation for the way your narratives reached their final paragraphs, but your future reading and reflections on the stories and techniques of Chekhov left you pained at the cavalier way you set aside narrative form and the notion that an effective story could have a lingering aftertaste.

At length, you began to find your way through the morass to the place where the words that sound best to you are the ones comming not from theory or imitation, although they were of dome help, but from being out in the nights, soggy and dry, pausing to watch such seasonal celebrations as the spread of the violet bloom of the jacaranda tree, depositing a momentary throw rug on the sidewalk, listening to the chatter of jays, the clinking chirp of the towee, the excelent mimicry of the mocking bird, and the chuckle of tree squirrels. Then, listening to the voices that come percolating from within.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Things to Do in the First Paragraph

The same creative writing teacher who explained how you were essentially an ironist because you wrote so-called "biter, bit" stories in which individuals often ran afoul of their own devices, also told you to shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph.

At the time, this seemed to make a great deal of sense, because you took the instruction literally, and got to the point where you could write first and second paragraphs which the instructor pronounced as dandy. 

Trouble was, most of your attempts at developing the narrative stopped right there. You either had a dead sheriff, which meant the shooter could expect to be visited by a posse of deputies, or a wounded sheriff who was left asking his assailant, "Why did you have to go and shoot me?"

The teacher made a point of bringing in some aspect of story he thought we ought to know every Monday, giving us the rest of the week to consider the implications. One Monday, when you were feeling as though you might never get the hang of writing stories and would have to become a poet instead, the instructor announced that major characters had to have a motive. 

Once again, you let took him at his word and thought you'd begun to see your way into the third and possibly even fourth paragraph of a story,  "I shot you," Murdoch said with a scowl, "because you kept on arresting me for things I never done."

At the time, the name Murdoch seemed menacing and evil, almost something Dickens might have named a menacing and evil character. In another class, you were beginning to read Dickens. But your creative writing teacher said Dickens' baddest characters of which he was aware was named Sykes, which you had to admit had the sound of a man who would shoot a sheriff or anyone else who got in his way.

The instructor also had words with you about your decision to have Murdoch scowl, which he didn't think necessary under the circumstances of Murdoch having shot the sheriff. No matter that you saw Murdoch as a person who scowled and smirked, the instructor said. You may have forgotten to mention that he liked puns. "Scowl and smirk are," he said, smiling, "what you could call overkill."

You became distracted by the sound of characters' names, starting tentative lists, which you eventually began keeping in some of the many blank notebooks you'd collected over the years for the expressed purpose of keeping track of things that made good stories. From those distant times, you now recall a character you named Gordon Smirke. 

There were a few friends with whom you'd share what you thought were imaginative and provocative names for characters. They all seemed to think your talent lay in funny names rather than menacing or intimidating names.

"What you want most of all," the instructor said, looking at your list of character names, "are persons who seem to live up to their names and find themselves in constant trouble because other characters won't let them forget what they are called."

Your instructor's name was Mr. Quick.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Is Poetic Justice Another Term for Irony?

You first heard the expression "Biter, bit," from a dapper-looking high school creative writing teacher who wore double-breasted suits ever since he'd manage to lose and keep off sixty pounds he had absolutely no use for. 

He said you seemed to write "biter,bit" stories one afternoon when he treated you and another wannabe writer to chocolate milks at the drugstore directly across the street from Fairfax High School.

Every now and then, when you are in Los Angeles, you mean to drive past the intersection of Fairfax and Melrose to see if the drugstore is there, perhaps even find a place to park and see if the drugstore still has a lunch counter, thereupon to complete yet another of many cycles in your life, of orbits having been completed, of what once went around coming one more time around. 

In that sense, Los Angeles is filled with such places for you to drive past, a sentimental journey, a return to a place where a memory or vision first appeared. But such is the nature of Los Angeles that it grows ruthlessly, bulldozing, rebuilding, paving, tunneling into its and, in consequence, your past. unearthing glittering heaps of irony. There is story to be had whether you return in the present moment, of driving the writer's vehicle of curious reverie.

Biter, bit, which now sounds like a novel involving mad dentists, is a concept which in your case does manufacture more thoughtfully developed incidents and events sometimes referred to as story. One of the great shortstory writers of the twentieth century, John Cheever, often used it, now that you think of it, Someone who has taken large bites out of the world about him or her is suddenly confronted with an unthinkable prize or targets or temptation.

The expression biter, bit is a neat, two-word trope for karma, being hoist by one's own petard, which, until you found out what it was, you wanted to own one of, for the simple reason that you liked the sound of the word. Petard. All it means is a fucking device, a bomb. Blown up by one's own bomb.

Although you still use the expression, you've come to favor the longer, more ironic trope, "Taking great aim at his target, he shot himself in the foot," of the more reductionist "Shooting one's self in the foot," both of which pay off on the creative writing teacher's use of biter, bit, the perpetrator perpetrated upon, the shooter, shot. 

Hello and welcome to the world of PJ, which even Cliff's Notes recognizes as poetic justice, and since you are on the subject of the biter, bit, and the often ironic ways of poetic justice, there is in fact a time when you were paid by Cliff's Notes  to substantially revise and add study questions to a title of theirs delivering to the reader the substance, implications, and relevance of a novel you'd not yet read. Thinking back on the experience, you can say with some emphasis that writing the Cliff's Notes study of the novel gave you a leg up on the novel when you actually read it.

In all the ways in which biter, bit exemplifies karmic justice or poetic justice tinged with irony, you see in yourself a cadre of characters, of men and women in effect auditioning for roles in the concepts that light up the interior regions of your brain pan, urging you to go ahead, develop full stories in which these individuals may participate. 

He or she who does is done to. This is good information for a writer to have about the work he wishes to engage and, to the self or selves he cannot avoid engaging if he wishes to have any shot at succeeding.

You could ask what succeeding means, but you are fearful this will turn out to be of a piece with the revelation that petard is often an exploding device, one that blows up in close proximity of its creator.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fiction: The Mischievous Brats of Prank and Invention

Plot may, without too many doors left open for argument, be seen as an arrangement of dramatic furniture through which characters must navigate with some measurable success. 

To extend the metaphor from the usual domain of furniture in the  inside rooms to outside events, plot may be seen as an elaborate garden maize through which characters must navigate, with no garden shears, of course.

Such metaphors are important to you because you do not readily see plot as the living, agenda-ridden thing it must be, not until you bring a cadre of characters on stage, then percipitate an argument--my argument. 

"You're not going to wear that red dress again."  This spoken less as a question and more like a statement of disbelief. "And what's wrong with the red dress?"  "Perhaps you hadn't noticed, but every time you wear that dress--" "Aha! I get it. You're envious of the attention I get when I wear it."  "Not so much envious of, as concerned about."

Now, things are growing heated, and we haven't even seen the red dress, much less have we any hint of its past history. But we do have the makings of a story because the dramatic furniture has been arranged in a way to provoke a heated conversation in which attitudes and conflicting impressions of past times are brought on stage and allowed to butt heads.

Sometimes a few glasses of wine or a not-so-restrained hand on the rye whiskey in a Manhattan cocktail will lubricate the mechanism for a revelation of plot points. Such a strategy has on occasion been the primary tool in your toolkit, both here on earth and within the terrain of a story in which, through constant shifting as the number of drafts increase, the dramatic furniture has been keyed to least comfortable and provocative arrangement from its former position of most inviting and comfortable.

Once you've managed to fan simmering sparks of resentment or envy or jealousy or suspicion into a recognizable flame, things begin looking up. New details present themselves, which remind you of past events you were a part of, or wish you'd been a part of; the eye for mannered or rational behavior wanes, the thought of reporting actual fact vanishes, and the mischievous brats of invention and prank step forth to undermine what may have been a photo of an actual time and place. 

Instead of the ordinary, the full complement of rascalls are out, looking for ways to trip the actors, smudge their lines to the point where they are unreadable. Small wonder you are to this day so enamored of the famed stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers motion picture romp, A Night at the Opera.

You know writers who are more direct in causing their stories to begin and to continue some discernible movement, and you often find yourself envious of the ways in which they seem to know with prescient accuracy when the next story point must be sounded or played or referenced--where anything is preferable to the extreme of nothing, of the cast, sitting about, discussing the existential nature of reality and illusion.

Much as you admire and have tried to learn from these writers, it falls to your lot to creat a semblance of unholy chaos from which to begin sifting through the layers for the artifacts and periphenalia of story, however small.

Your stories are about normal status having extended its boundaries, of men and women forced beyond themselves in search of something they want with intensity, knowing the something may not be at all good for them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Choices We Think We Have When We Think We Have Choices

Most writers you know feel as though they had not so much chosen storytelling for their principal means of identity as storytelling had in fact chosen them. This turn of phrase qualifies as a pathetic fallacy because it acknowledges story as an animate thing; it also deals with logic in ways storytelling has throughout the years dealt with it, which is to say by exposing the universes of storytelling and drama at their most resonant quality as arts rather than sciences.

In similar manner, most writers you know are content with the apparent anomaly of living with at least one limb in the world or art, the other in the world of science. You, to dip into the barrel of anecdote, are often content to allow your judgment to trust or rely on the outcome of scientific discussion. 

No sooner having done so, you are also content to risk the consequences of outcome on so-called gut reaction or, if you will, intuition. You recognize this position as a fence straddle, your temporary solution to the inevitable consequence of being a product of particular times. And you recognize the need to get off the fence because, like it or not, you were born into a world where the humanity of which you are a part has begun to conjure more triggering consequences. This is so for the reductionist fact of humanity being extensive enough to nearly strangle this rotating orb we live on.

Story and drama give us ways to see and feel better able to deploy about the extraordinary interplay of activity and consequence.

With your acceptance of writing having chosen you comes the image of yourself at grade three or four level, simultaneously eager for the physical participation of play at sports and the awareness you were not much good at many of them, When sides were being chosen, you were keen to be chosen, at the same time uncertain of your abilities, aware in ways you could not do descriptive justice to the feeling of being breathless and sweaty after play.

When you reached the level of being able to make such judgments, you were pleased to be chosen by the writer team, somewhat respectful of those who could draw and paint well, increasingly respectful of those who were chosen to play musical instruments, given to degrees of coolness and outright disdain to those chosen by such things as mathematician, historian, teacher, and the so-called soft trades of selling.

With a similar resolve to your determination to work at bettering your athletic skills, you later set forth to better yourself in your reading and writing skills, mindful the two were a package. Reason and intuition told you there was no way to advance your writing abilities without reading, and spoke as well to the outcome of your reading skills revealing more coded information to you as a bi-product of your writing.

A child of your times,of the Great Depression, the effects of World War II, and the rung of the social ladder onto which you found yourself, you inherited tastes, tendencies, and proclivities in your reading. These in turn influenced  the writing that came directly from your instincts, and the ways you found for coping with the binary of commercial fiction and literary.

Lacking the insights to engage your abilities in the kinds of conversations you'd ultimately begin to have, you turned to the plot-driven, one- and, if you were fortunate, two-level skeins of action and their consequences, hopeful the time spent analyzing and dissecting plot-driven materials would in the richness of time provide you with an entry into the literary world.

You enjoyed well-plotted stories for their punch-line resolution in much the same way you enjoyed a well-related joke. But an hilarious punchline to a joke, and a "therefore it follows", geometry theorem-type closure  left you wanting more, the added dimensions you sometimes saw, sometimes missed in literary fiction, in particular humorous literary fiction, by which you meant a narrative of some painful or distasteful consequence, into which had been injected at least one hilarious scene if not two or three of mischievous device.

The punch line from a joke was never quite enough, nor was the often ironic note of a well-plotted short story.  Ha ha and so what. You wanted the meat course, the story course rather than the plot-driven result.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Experience Is the Best Toucher

Imagine a stage occupied by two or three characters, in the process of arguing with one another, or plotting some future event, or pausing in the midst of a heated no-I-won't/yes-you-will moment, say Macbeth, having earlier agreed to kill their house guest, the King, not telling Lady Macbeth he cannot go through with the killing.

The atmosphere of activity and purpose give off the tang of action, of movement awaiting another  breath of energy.  Since we are imagining, let us extend our vision to see additional characters, waiting in the wings, stage right and stage left, waiting for their cues to go on. Thus the metaphor is expanded to include yet more movement and energy--more action.

 If drama is not the hulking, breathing presence of action, you can question the state of drama, almost to the point of extending the metaphor of drama to the condition of a fully charged cellphone in an area where there is no Internet reception, even further thus of energy with no outlet.

Dramatic energy, if free to extend itself, produces movement, reaction, additional exchanges of dialogue. To keep the energy of the metaphor going, imagine the exchange of dialogue among characters as an equivalent of Cyrano de Bergerac, in Rostand's eponymous drama, engaging in swordplay with his opponents.  The dialogue becomes fencing, dueling, action urging itself toward outcome.

Now, we come to what this is all about: action with intent. Then the recognition of intent accomplished or not; success or failure, advancement or retreat. Here is the convenient moment to sweep all this metaphor and these two wildly disparate plays, Macbeth and Cyrano, under yet another metaphor, the rug of action. Action inspires and informs experience.

Some of the players on stage and others in the wings, waiting to go on, are filled with the necessary and relevant experiences of the characters they have been assigned to portray. In addition, these players have rehearsed to the point of muscle memory relevant experiences they have had in the distant past or more recent past. By "relevant experiences" you mean elements with some causal relationship to the story at hand.

Among the many goals of story is this: an arrangement of experience in ways that will initiate emotions within the reader. It becomes necessary to say here that among the potential emotions to be evoked in the reader, boredom is neither permitted nor encouraged.  The reader may be shown one or more characters who, themselves, are bored, but this boredom, which is presented with action, must not incite boredom itself within the reader, rather it must evoke sympathy or impatience, or some other visible form of discomfort.

This arrangement of experience is best remembered when it causes the reader to relate it to some similar experiences the reader has experienced,  We may with justification call this arrangement of experience by the term plot, saying of it then that it is the best arrangement of experiences within the narrative for evoking direct, accessible feelings from the reader.

Storytellers in effect contrive characters with specific experiences and their resulting consequences. An individual who grew up in drought-plagued farmland will have a different set of responses to water as someone who was born on or near one of the Great Lakes or a wide, meandering river.

A good and proper place to begin thinking about plot is to recall how you related information to a group of friends, and to a group of students. You are giving them a peek at a larger story, as told by someone else, and as such are adding a sense of experience to the information that takes on the quality or qualities you wish to evoke. 

If you are relating a more or less linear presentation of fact, you want a less troubled or preoccupied narrator, but the more interior you wish your narrative to take the reader into the emotional terrains of the characters, the more the reader will need reasons to question the lack or presence of the same elements we find so reassuring when they come from reliable individuals.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Funnels, Filters, and Prisms

In the worlds of physical reality, a funnel is a pipe with an enlarged, conical mouth, which makes transferring liquids, particles, and numerous powder, seed- or grain-like substances from one container to another without spilling.

In those same worlds of physical reality, a prism is s solid, pyramid-shaped form with two interior polygons, transparent in nature, used to transform invisible rays of light into a visible spectrum of colors.

A filter is also a mechanism for dealing with the passing through it of one or more media to remove some elements in suspension within the medium. Filters are indeed porous; they may be layers of sand and gravel or charcoal. 

Filters may be paper or cloth. The thing or things being filtered may be the items of focus within a given filtration process or, quite the opposite; they may intend to prevent certain elements such as sulphur or mercaptans from brewed coffee.

Useful as these devices are in physics and chemistry labs, kitchens and coffee shops, they also have functions in narrative and in that special, structurally arranged narrative we call story. As a filter can effect the end result or governing personality of a filtrate, it can also have measurable impact on the way a narrative emerges from the author, on its way to the printed page or computer/electronic reader screen.

The accomplished writer gives readers, through choice or choices of narrators a sense of personality and atmosphere. Writers,editors, critics, even teachers are aware how, through the years of their reading, storytelling has evolved to the point of matching more closely with the facets of dramatic narrative. 

The more recent stories do not rely as much on the shadowy presence of the writer, in effect slipping in stage directions as the story progresses. "He was a short, furtive-looking man who shifted his gaze constantly as he walked, as though he were being stalked by a predator."  Pure authorial description. Or intervention. Such a sentence could be "fixed," with the author being filtered out, the filtrate being made to seem as though the description were not author's description but rather a principal character's inner thoughts.

We funnel dramatic information into a story, some authors yanking on the handbrakes to provide a full description the protagonist has either wandered into or, worse yet, is about to wander into. Much as you admired the novels of Aldous Huxley, he funneled background and descriptive information into his novels, causing you almost as much energy from the exasperation as energy required to consider and ruminate on his ideas.

The prism becomes your favored media for breaking the powerful beam of dramatic energy into its component colors, adding through implication colors not readily available to the human eye. We know such colors exist. We've seen them in museums or galleries or in some special edition of The Scientic American, or The Smithsonian, wherein we're tantalized with ultra-violet and black-light vision, shown things we would not see under more normal circumstances.

Small wonder we need these filtration, funneling, and refraction devices, mechanisms that break down the humdrum of the quotidian for the sake of the arranged and enhanced reality we've come to think of as story.

Like the vast particulate information passing through funnels, filters, and prisms, story will find its way through,