Monday, October 31, 2016

Walls

Back in the 21at century before the common era, there was a wall situated roughly between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, extending nearly a hundred miles, its purpose to keep nomadic tribesmen from incursions into ancient Sumeria. 

Unless archaeologists discover something prior, this "Amorite Wall" gets the nod for being the oldest wall erected to protect one people from incursion by others. But this wall was only a foreshadow of the walls to come.

There was an Athens wall, erected some several years before the Common Era, meant to provide protection to the city state of Athens, yet another wall of about one hundred twenty miles in length, attributed to himself, Alexander, the Great, known as The Great Wall of Gorgan, but not to forget Hadrian's Wall, and, indeed, The Great Wall of China, extending from the Gobi Desert to the border of North Korea. 

Yeah, and there were walls in Constantinople and Berlin, meant to keep certain individuals in and certain other individuals out. There are walls in Jerusalem, Peru, Poland, and Wales. Indeed the explorer/historian Bernal Diaz speaks of walls way back then in Mexico. In a universal sense, wherever there are/were people, there are/were walls. Which got you to thinking.

For instance #1, Are there walls around narrative? You know, narrative--those dense patches of paragraphs, many with hidden topic sentences.  Without being able to articulate the matter as such, you moved between the approximate ages of sixteen and twenty with a mounting aversion for that great Everglades of narrative, text books, many of which you found inaccessible, with high potential for treacherousness.

2. Is there a possibility for having nonfiction narrative such as essays, speculation, and the various forms of biography without their being sealed off within a narrative wall? Considering historical and present day favorites, say Herodotus, Montaigne, Hazlett, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, E. B. White, Joan Didion, Francine Prose, the answer is a resounding yes.

3. Even more of a personal nature, is there a chance someone or some ones has/have erected a wall about your own narrative, keeping in cultural agitprop and keeping out potential originality? Is there a chance your narrative sounds so proper that it becomes indistinguishable from all other proper narrative?

4. Is there a chance you've lost sight of your interest in providing a challenging narrative rather than one of accommodation?

5. Is there a chance you, through no overt intent of your own, are imposing an embargo on the very imports and exports you hope to move from within without and from alien sources toward your own interior?


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Diagramming Sentences, Stories, and Personal History

Whatever complex activities were involved with the onset of puberty, you knew it was there when it rode roughshod over you, its willing and sometimes unwilling recruit. When the subject of diagramming sentences was first introduced to you, you were more than likely an ordinary student, which meant you were more or less interested as opposed to never interested or always, excitingly interested. 

When the teacher announced that the class was about to investigate ways sentences could be mapped or diagrammed, the effect on you was as immediate and persistent as puberty. You were alert to opportunities, eager to experiment, filled with the impatience to get on with a concentrated probing of the mysteries inherent. 

It is too much a mannered trope to say you were acute enough to equate puberty with diagramming sentences, but it is not mere hyperbole to say you took both on with vigor and determination.

This is not meant to suggest you at any time wished to become a grammarian or what in later years you would equate with the process of copyediting, only to relate how the ability to understand the concept of how elements fit within a sentence, and in particular the ways of word order in English, Spanish, and German set your inner flame of interest at the same intensity as puberty did to that aspect of your coming of age.

When you moved beyond high school, there were occasional courses in what was then known as creative writing, the goal being to express yourself. Had there been a creative writing major when you were an undergraduate, there you'd have been rather than the English major you became.

At the time of your studies, being an English major meant a more or less chronological journey from Chaucer and his contemporaries to an omnibus focus called modern literature, by which was meant a line drawn in the sand after the passing of Thomas Hardy, whom you admired, and more or less running out of gas at the early years of the twentieth century.

Although you'd not expected to enjoy the courses and reading in Victorian literature, the dedicated uses of plot and personal entanglements by authors such as Trollope, Collins, and Dickens caused you to settle in a bit, reading into the poetry and political concerns of the men and women who lived and, indeed, struggled with the Victorian mindset.

All this is backstory to the growing awareness of how Victorian attitudes of morality, philosophy, and politics had an effect on the white, middle-class/working class bubble in which you lived and in which you wondered if you were doomed to remain imprisoned by.

Although you could not recognize it at the time, the years of the Victorian era were a gift to you because of the choices you were aware of when you set foot out of the university and into such worlds as television, motion pictures, and the multifarious worlds of the so-called slick magazines as opposed to the so-called pulps on which your tastes fell.

In brief, you became aware of Victorianism meaning an absurd amalgamation of white supremacy, imperialism, and class warfare, the tipping point being the way colonialism and imperialism denegrated all races but the while race and even then did a pretty convincing job of placing difficult obstacles against the notion of servant and working classes wishing to work their way up the social ladder.

In modern times, you've heard political leaders, heads of state, and scholars apologizing for past attitudes and behavior to entire groups they thought to be their intellectual and social inferiors. During your own lifetime, you'd heard close at hand stories of the first Americans, driven to dreadful fates, all in the name of our own American expansionism and so-called manifest destiny.

This brief ramble through your own history is the personification  of you as sentence diagramer and cartographer, illustrating the forces behind why you write, what you write about, and what your true thoughts are relative to the worlds through which you have had to make your way.

You stand in solidarity with groups for whom you undoubtedly bear some culturally infused animus, hopeful some of the skin of bigotry will shed as you pursue attempts to write, edit, and teach away the bogus cultural propaganda to which you and brothers and sisters have been subjected.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Aesop's Foibles

Scenes may properly be thought of as containers for the things people do, to, for, and against other people. You can also bring people together in a scene in which one or more characters has expectations that another character will do something--but doesn't. Thus scenes are arenas for action, anticipated action, judgment, surprise, and disappointment.

The more memorable scenes begin with some thematic set-up, which leads the reader to wonder which of the many possible emotional outcomes are being put into play. Thus beginning relates to setting expectation.

Two or more scenes in succession may add an unexpected note of curiosity or expectation for the reader, who does not, at the moment, see a clear, story-related path. Yet, the scenes are of themselves interesting because they tweak the reader's expectations that these evenhts are going to add up to something, an outcome or a payoff.

These theoretical two or more scenes in succession that may--indeed should--add curiosity or anticipation to the reader's position of witness should also be doing a job the reader often won't notice. This necessary task for all story helps separate the skilled writers from the wannabes. 

Scenes are the vehicles in which the writer presents the reader with relevant details, which means the details provide clues to the steps the characters will take and the conclusions they will draw in subsequent scenes. Thus has detail become something more than a mere noun or adjective, a hairbrush, say, or, better still, a hairbrush with traces of long, dark strands of hair.

In one kind of story, the discovery of such a hairbrush would cause an alarm of some sort to sound in a character who, herself, is red haired, discovering the long dark coils in her husband's hairbrush. In another kind of story, a detective, interviewing a suspect in the suspect's home, may ask the suspect to account for his time between say six p.m, and one a.m., last night. We readers already know a crime was committed during those hours, thanks to the use of the time frames set forth in previous details.

"I was home alone," the suspect says. But the detective notices the detail of two wine glasses on the kitchen work space, one of which has the telltale detail of a lipstick smear. Once again details support story by providing details of past events, present time events, and differing interpretations.  "What color was that car?" "Green." "Are you sure?" "Yes, I'm positive." A perfect set-up for, "No, it wasn't green at all, it was silver. I was as close to it as you were."

At one point during earlier times in your marriage, your wife sneaked into your closet, found your favorite pair of trousers, then took careful note of their dimensions, which she brought to your favorite clothing store for reference. The result was a gift you treasured for two reasons. The gift became your favorite pair of trousers and it caused a never settled difference of opinion between you and your late wife. Her: "Your gray trousers would go well with that shirt and jacket."

You: "At the moment, I don't have any gray trousers, but I did think to wear the dark green."

Her: "You do too have gray trousers; the pair I gave you for your birthday."

You: "Those are dark green."

Details are so much more than adjectives; they are the fulcrum for complex, nuanced relationships between individuals, and, of course, between individuals and animals or things.  

Scenes are important landscapes for characters, but try thinking of them more as arenas than landscapes. Try also thinking of them as places where the embedded details need to be as lively and related to outcome as the foibles of the characters.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Speaking in Tongues, Speaking in Codes, Speaking in Riddles


We all speak in code at some point during the day, whether to others or to that curious complexity that is the Self.  Code is a secret language, meant to include some we consider elect and exclude those we feel somehow ill at ease with. Coded messages give us the assurance we are special, perhaps even to the point of being less vulnerable than we fear.

Those of us who write speak in code all the time, certainly when we write dialogue involving two or more characters from differing social strata, and almost always when a literary agent or editor tells us our characters conversations are becoming too chatty.

Ah. Thank you for calling that to my attention.

I needed that exchange to get in vital information.

Fuck you.

You'll see; I pay off on it--later.


The expression "code talker" came into being during World War II, when twenty-nine Native Americans from the Navajo nation were recruited to use their own language as written and verbal ways of transmitting  vital, tactical military information the Japanese would have little or no opportunity to make use of. Because of the origins of the Navajo language, the Japanese had almost zero probability of interpreting data in written or spoken form.

There have been other forms of code talking over the years, your own awareness of the process brought to life when your parents used Yiddish, Hungarian, and Polish to exchange information in your presence such as determining your bed or nap times or one parent informing the other you were of a particularly stubborn or cranky frame of mind.

Thus you learned words in these languages you might not have learned, including slang and foreign language word for certain body parts. You and your sister quickly learned and exploited a useful language known as Pig Latin, meaning you could turn the tables on your parents and communicate readily without fear of being understood.

In later years, you had Spanish, some Italian, and a smattering of French down, but these didn't count because a legitimate language is accessible; code languages need an initiation. There was also the Aup Language, an elitist code if ever there was one, in which the speaker inserts the syllable "aup" before every vowel, thus on letters from N-Triangle, the secret club you'd joined, post cards and enveloped letters bore the admonition, Wraupite saupoon. "What language is that?" Your mother once asked.

Indeed, shortly after graduation from the university and your precipitous decision to follow the carnival, you became aware of that code language, its use and construction made the more easy thanks to your earlier ventures into Ig-pay, tin-lay, and the language of aup. Carney language had one inserting "Diaz" before each new syllable, thus carney language would be spoken as key-izarney liazanguizage.  Rolls right off the tongue all these years later. As well, ig-pay tin-lay reminds you with a chuckle of my pay and my aunt's pay.

With due respect and admiration to the Navajo code talkers and all those fluent in what you will lump together as kiddie languages, you also respect the notion of the euphemism, which in simplistic form is a way to take the sting off an actual unfortunate or fearsome circumstance. 

Death becomes The Grim Reaper personified, die becomes passed, passed away, passed over, and, let's hear it for the Navajos, walked on. You are supposedly enjoying your Golden Years, and as an agreeable take on the famed Peter Sellers "That's not my dog," you can and have allowed that you were just bitten by man's best friend.


These vagrant musings were begun with the notion that one of your dearest friends ever was a Brit, you've edited some thirty books from a native of Lyme Regis, West Dorset, and average fifty weekly coffee meetings a year with him over the last twenty-five years. Another dear friend, although herself born in South Africa, was the oldest daughter of two Brits; she made regular visits to Santa Barbara, and you visited her and her son while in London.

A quick scan of your memory reveals only one Brit character and another, an Aussie, pretending to be a Brit, and, now that you have that memory going, a Brit posing as an Aussie. You've read any number--at least three hundred--novels written by Brits, mostly populated with British characters, and you have seen at conservative estimate one hundred English feature films and two hundred English television dramas.

Questioning yourself, you're also aware from reading, watching, and observation (plus discussions with Auden and Isherwood), and your favorite university instructor, true enough, was born in Shanghai to missionary parents, but went to Merton College, Oxford, from which he received his advanced degree, giving him more than a little touch of the Brit.

You are aware, from an outsider point of view, of the vast social fabric of the Brits. You take special pleasure in watching the way two Brits, meeting for the first time, will go about confirming each the other's social ranking. This is true as well of America and you do not doubt the intricacies of American ranking.  Example: You asked another dear friend why, in checking out the school part of the discovery pedigree of a stranger, Yale graduates tend not to say Yale, rather New Haven.  "When were you at (as opposed to in) New Haven?"

Because, your friend explained, "The Harvards speak of their school days as having been at Harvard, and we have no wish to sound like them."

British actors come to this country and regularly knock off American accents. Notable examples Dominic West portraying a Baltimore cop in The Wire, and Hugh Lurie, first and foremost as the eponymous House, and in more recent days, Chance, both Yanks.

The effect of this is the challenge some aspect of you has given some other aspect: Write a plausible Brit character.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Neither Toothpaste nor Irony

Neither toothpaste nor irony can be contained when you squeeze the container a bit too hard. And so there you are, with too much toothpaste, too much irony, or too much of both. Get used to them. Live with them. Once you start following them, you see the opportunities for story you often miss when you follow more rational approaches to composition.

Discarding the excesses is neither story nor economical. Nothing is gained in the process. If anything, a bit of self-esteem might go looking for work. Story is, after all, excess, made to seem normal.

Here, we come to a major fork in the road, the place where normal distinguishes itself from ordinary. Story is, of course, the destabilization of the ordinary. Normal is how characters and their circumstances appear in consequence of their behavior.

Characters in stories are not normal in any ongoing sense of normality. In real time, we avoid individuals who seem too normal. In story, we are drawn to men, women, and young persons we come to suspect of having obstructionist or anarchist motives.

When you stop to consider the irresistible opening lines of stories and novels you've read and the importance of that irresistible effect you place on your own opening lines, you can't help visualizing toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube. There's one exception: The toothpaste isn't toothpaste; it's irony.

However much this may seem a self-admonishment to moderation, it is no such thing. You've grown beyond the need for moderation, both in age and temperament. Any gravitas you may have achieved has been attained because what seemed like moderation wasn't moderation at all; it was the squeezing forth of the last bolus of irony available.

The fulcrum in the balance between irony and story is a single word. Combined with that squeezed-out opening sentence is the state of awareness its presence has produced. Unthinkable.
Anything less than unthinkable, say rational, isn't story; rather it is cultural multiplication tables, those remarkable, secular imperatives we are all herded into memorizing. 

Two times two is indeed four, but the early bird does not always catch the worm. Tomorrow may well be another day, but unless we take it in hand, it is going to be remarkably like today, particularly if we have some problems with the outcomes or lack thereof we've experienced today.

Story has to be squeezed out of the tube. Story has to reek from irony or display too much toothpaste. "When you said X, I thought you meant Y." That's a proper beginning for a story. "When you said we were partners in this venture, I thought--ha ha, I thought you meant we were equal partners. But here I see you meant you were the senior partner and I was the junior."

"What are you doing with all that toothpaste?" To which the reader expects a subversive, secretive, evasive, or confrontational reply.  "What toothpaste?"

The matter of concern here is not if the unthinkable will come to pass but how soon, the opening line, for instance.



Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Suspicious Characters, Calling out from the Shadows

By the time you'd reached the point of recognizing how important the first sentence of a story or longer work was to you as a writer, the matter of plotting began to fade into the distance. This is not to say plotting was in any significant way present.  You worried about it in spite of all the writing you did failing in large measure to turn up many signs of it.

The immediate consequences of intriguing openings changed your reading preferences, the way your narrative voice sounded, and brought to you a sense that you would be read and listened to for at lease a paragraph.

One friend compared your stories sounding like a train, coming out of a long tunnel. Although you weren't quite sure what this meant, you were impressed, particularly since this same friend also said your opening sentences put her in mind of Lee K. Abbott. You didn't know what that meant, either, but with some promptness, you strove to find out.

Well beyond the notion of "the sooner the better," there are certain dangers in being compared favorably to a writer for whom you have vast admiration and respect. Danger number one is doing things consciously to below the radar to incorporate aspects of that individual into your work.

It is nothing, or at least a negligible thing to be compared to a writer you have no use for, however successful that writer is. You pass off the comparison as having no consequence, steadfast in your belief that if you were as popular as someone whose work you did not respect, say Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, you would not consider the comparison to have been based on an understanding of your work. Of course no one has compared you to Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, leaving the matter academic and moot.

For that matter, no one has compared you with Mark Twain, although that did not deter you from trying to sound like him. Nor, even when you thought you'd been able to pull down his voice and style in much the same way Kevin Spacey is so readily able to imitate other actors, no one either told you you captured Twain or that you ought to stop trying to sound like Twain and sound more like yourself.

Considering your narrative voice, your goal is to write the way you speak and speak the way you write, but from all appearances, you don't sound like anyone because no one has spoken of admiration for your narrative voice--no one, that is, except for the friend who said your opening sentences put her in mind of the short fiction of Lee K. Abbott.

"She was Betty Porter," Abbott wrote in "Ninety Nights on Mercury,"a being as much of magic as of muscle, and I who I ever am--Heath 'Pokey' Howell (Junior) banker, Luna County commissioner and, as events will prove, the dimmest of sinners, male type."

He also wrote: "Ten months after she left (he told the boys(, he got the letter, 'I'm calling myself Ida now.'"

You approach his collections of short stories the way you'd approach a fresh bottle of Wild Turkey and a pitcher of ice water, with a respectful caution, mindful of how quickly respect can turn to overconfidence. His characters call out to you from the shadows, from rooms where the lights are off, or sometimes from murky parking lots, asking if you happened to have one of those flashlight aps on your cellphone.

Your own characters are suspicious enough, thanks to the things they want or wish to avoid in the first sentences of your stories. Sometimes they even tell you to go fuck yourself, then draw you aside to apologize, telling you not to take the matter too personally, because they tell everyone on occasion to go fuck themselves.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

When Story Is Like a Navajo Rug

What a pleasure it was, hearing a book designer tell you she was going to use vignettes instead of asterisks to separate bodies of text in an ornate and mannered series of essays, written by an old friend, most of which had originally appeared in the Playboy that was, as opposed to the Playboy that is, of more recent years.

You were delighted to hear the term vignette having a more visual use than the seemingly dismissive literary meaning that had come from more than one of your early writing instructors. 

"This is not a story," one of them said, "this is a vignette." Yet another said, "This material is like those short Talk of the Town pieces in The New Yorker.  Good evocation of characters, but no plot. Maybe that's your calling. Go to New York, get on with The New Yorker, write vignettes."

The rub there was that some of your favorite writers, such as John O'Hara, were appearing regularly in The New Yorker, but not in Talk of the Town. They were short story writers, and although there seemed to be lively interaction between their characters, and a resident appearance of dramatic irony, they did not seem to know any more about plots than you did. Their stories had outcomes rather than resolutions.

When you spoke of such things to your instructors, they were back on the subject of vignettes again, whereupon you were reduced to thinking one of the easiest thoughts possible for someone of your years, a two-word thought, the last word of which was the neutral but all-inclusive "it." Fuck it; you'd be a vignettist.

Over the years, you've gone through many phases in your attempts to help you see what you were getting yourself into when you stumbled into the rabbit hole of storytelling. Like Alice, who represents for you a splendid metaphor of life within the rabbit hole, you are fascinated and bewildered by the characters you encounter, even at one point going so far as to base your characters on what you would call Dodgsonesque archetypes in tribute to Alice's creator.

The rabbit hole is the perfect portal to the world of story. Unlike others who walk with chins tilted skyward, you often walk with head cast downward or at some indeterminate point between ground- and waist-level, looking for clues, the nooks and crevices where entry may involve a darkened passageway for a time, but then opens into an alternate universe with its own denizens, its own rules of such physical behavior as gravity, its cultural rules of personal behavior such as gravitas or its absolute lack.

Vignettes, as you understand them, are focused examinations of an incident or a detail. They require no explanation or resolution, yet they are dramatic and illustrative, reminding you of the quilts you have owned, still own, and have seen on display.
As you understand Navajo rugs, these, even the obviously more patterned ones, such as the small one on your living room floor, are replications of sand paintings which, as you understand these, are ceremonial drawings, set forth to cure a particular lack of order and Grace.

These rugs have some imperfection or anomaly deliberately woven into them, in keeping with the notion that the sand painting and its accompanying ceremony are temporary, not meant to endure, recreated only when there is some cosmic disarray that wants repair.

Can it be that you have, after all this time, stumbled on the meaning of story, which is a form of ceremony in which vignettes are linked to illustrate some cosmic disorder and a possible way to approach the disorder?


Monday, October 24, 2016

Are You in Trouble If You Like Your Characters?

At one time in the not too distant past of the novel, one of the more significant influences on it was the magazine, which appeared on a monthly or quarterly basis. 

Let's objectify that statement by bringing Charles Dickens into it, allowing the observation that the novel began to draw epic readerships around 1840, by which time Dickens had published his fourth novel, Barnaby Rudge, and was beginning to get the hang of the longform narrative.

Thackeray was finding the form for his own novels with great thanks to magazines at about the same time as Dickens; at least two other major writers of the time, Trollope and Collins, came along shortly after. 

By 1850, the novel had adjusted its format to the publishing schedules of magazines, meaning readers of books could expect cliffhanger endings of installments because, indeed, readers of magazines stood in line for the newest installments of Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, and Collins the way music fans of today camp out in anticipation of concerts.

Not until you took courses in Victorian literature did you understand the dynamic of the format, but no matter, really; you'd read enough to absorb the need for continuous movement in the longform narrative, and thanks to the accident of your own birth into a resurgence of magazine fiction, you could discuss if not always demonstrate the successful shape of the short story and how such concepts as the sub-plot drove the longer narrative form.

All about you now is another resurgence, the online literary journal, where story behaves like a puppy, struggling to escape being fenced into the yard, ever alert for opportunities to be memorable. By no means the least of one of these escapes is the notion of likable characters, men, women, and youngsters who, as the late periodical, The Saturday Evening Post, told its writers, looked for individuals such as the Tugboat Annie character--someone who might be unusual but nevertheless someone you'd not think twice about inviting into your home.

Times surely have their effects on story. At the moment, there is nothing like The Saturday Evening Post available, and such journals as there are often feature characters who'd not likely be invited to anyone's home. Rather, they'd be found in centers for homeless or, as you've done with at least two of your own characters, living in their cars.

You've been at some pains in these warm-up-exercise notes and essays to argue for the need to find different ways of ending the short story and the novel, veering as far as possible from such tropes as "and then they all lived happily ever after."

Beginnings have been important learning occasions for you because you grew up in an atmosphere where the plot-driven story held sway and you recognized the significant weakness in your own work of being able to construct a plot.

You were driven by your own reading of the works from well before your time to those right in the middle of it as plot-driven, leaving you not only the outlier personality who wished to write but as well the outlier who wished to write other than plot-driven narrative. 

This meant the need for an opening sentence, paragraph, or concept to intrigue the potential reader away from the conventional plot.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Story as Beast of Burden

Let's begin with observations from Mark Twain, particularly "The right word--not its second cousin." but also "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."  

True enough, you have taken these from different observations of his, but these and other similar observations seemed to be a lifelong preoccupation of these. 

Given your own lapses into fustian and baroque details, small wonder these and other similar observations find their way into your awareness, wagging the cautionary finger at your excesses. Thus this observation of your own: One unnecessary word can ruin the effect of a sentence.

Without giving the matter much thought when you began, you paid more attention to setting up a framework in which words, details, and descriptions became the catch-all for convincing the reader (and you) that the settings were real, the activities taking place within them were of equal authenticity, and the motives driving the characters in service of their goals, however quirky and notional, nevertheless plausible.

In your years as an editor who specialized in numerous categories of fiction, as an instructor of students who wished to produce publishable literary and genre fiction, and as someone who put forth efforts to produce publishable fiction of his own, you've come to recognize the signs of the one or more words too many in a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, and a chapter.

It is not as though sentences and paragraphs are beasts of burden, meant to transport the trappings of story from that one moment of intrigue at the beginning, through jungles, deserts, and rain forests to the point of resolution. 

Yet you and others have seen them as such, thinking they can handle that one extra detail, that one lovely trope arriving at the end of a work day and, thus, earning a place in the draft simply because of its exquisite, stand-alone radiance.

The basic concept you learned as an editor, line editing, calls for a minute examination to see what the writer has piled on the story. There is a connection between line editing and travelers who overpack for a journey.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Beware of Imps Bearing Gifts

The Imp of Perversity has come for an unannounced visit, reminding you of a friend from the past who had the habit of arriving in some newly purchased luxury automobile that invariably broke down soon afterward. The resemblance between the friend and the Imp of the Perverse was centered in unanticipated arrival.

So far as you can best remember, the Imp of the Perverse first came for a visit during your first semester at UCLA. You were serious about so many things in those days, in particular serious about making a good academic showing. This gave some fuel to your sending the Imp away at the time of midterm examinations. 

The Imp of the Perverse assured you it understood, but warned you it would be back. Indeed, it was as good as its word, arriving at the beginning of finals week, and like your friend, bearing distracting gifts. 

In this case the gifts were stunning ideas for short stories, stunning to the point where you were certain they represented a serious breakthrough in the scope and size of stories you'd previously written. In all probability, the Imp, stung by your earlier refusal, was not meant to be put off this time.

Okay, so you almost completely ignored your planned reviews for the final exams, excited by the story ideas to the extent of telling yourself you'd been alert during lectures, were current with the assigned reading, and had a good grasp of the material.

Some years later, after you'd stepped down from the excitements and comforts of university life, you'd taken a job with a newspaper in a remote border town in the extreme south of California. Bags packed, goodbyes said to Los Angeles, you were about to depart when your friend appeared. listened to the path you were about to embark on, then said, "You don't want to do that. You want to come with me instead."

By this time, unanticipated arrivals from the Imp and your friend were of significant enough recurrence that your argumentative responses to them were shorter. Farewell, career in journalism, hello instead to summers of working at a traveling carnival, making enough to subsidize winters at your typewriter.

The appearance of the Imp of Perversity this morning came as you were making the most of your morning coffee, thinking ahead to another day on your nonfiction project. The friend who led you off to a destiny of sorts with the Foley and Burke Shows is long gone from this life, but the Imp seems if anything to be growing younger, healthier, and more intriguing. "Do you remember that story you started last September based on your brief experiences in the ROTC?'

You remembered it well, but you did not want to hear this.

"Suppose," the Imp said, "I were to tell you I have a thought for the next scene, right after the scene where you said you weren't sure where to go next."

You repeated your unwillingness to listen.

"And hey," the Imp said, "it was New Years day, and you were caught up in something about identity, reliability of narration, and nothing being what it seemed. For starters, you have an unnecessary independent clause attached to the first sentence."

"I don"t want to hear this."

"Removing that clause moves things right along to the payoff of the first scene, in which you establish a spectrum of unreliable narrators unlike anything you've ever written before. I could point out a couple of soft spots to tweak that would leave the reader gasping and you struggling to regain your balance."

You said you did not wish to hear this, but then the Imp of Perversity reminded you it was as much one of your component parts as, say, the nonfiction writer who was at well into a booklength project.

At one point in your carnival days, your friend had purchased a '41 Cadillac from a group of Gypsies in Medford, Oregon. By the time you came in contact with the Caddy's leathery seats, it was emitting a bluer exhaust than any exhaust emissions you'd ever seen before, and wanting the immediate attention of a mechanic. "This is not any Cadillac engine I've ever seen," the mechanic said. "The closest I can come is thinking it might be a Nash Rambler."

That mechanic's remark has remained with you over the years, filed with some of the things you've heard from the Imp of the Perverse. At the end of the day's work, you were reminded of it when, speaking to the Imp, you spoke of the day's work as the closest you can come to identifying it is thinking it might be a Nash Rambler.

Stories are begun by the arrival of the Imp or the Perverse, bearing gifts.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Deserts of Vast Uncertainty: Calling a Mulligan on Reality


Story suffers most when the reader and the writer are steered to expect certainty of outcome. 

To the degree that reader or writer engages the project with certainty, you can almost hear the story in question complaining how its true nature is being stolen from it, replaced with one or more cultural lies, repackaging propaganda as the story the reader thought to read and the writer started out to write.

In one of the many ironies attached to the writing, reading, and teaching of story, the quality of certainty is inevitably swept under the rug of motivation and, thus, character, buried, as it were in the haze of outcome. 

Readers turn to story as a respite from reality, not a conversion of it from bad news or provocative commentary to the inevitability of amor vincit omnia, the early bird catching the worm, and that most uncertain certainty of all wherein doing the same thing over and over in the same way is guaranteed to produce the outcome of success. 

More than any other cultural certainty, If at first you don't succeed...etc is the closest thing to calling a mulligan on Reality. Maybe the answer is to reexamine the process. As you recall, tungsten was not by any means the first filament Edison tried to produce the then miraculous incandescent light bulb.

To the degree that reader and writer each bring to the reading/writing process the totality of effect their culture has had on them, each must learn a grammar of Reality as well as the grammar of story.  This becomes prologue to how certainty of outcome must become objectified, brought to the attention of the reader and the writer, then sent out on a quest for vision that will give the outcome endings such as those given us by the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Louise Erdrich, Elmore Leonard, and Deborah Eisenberg to their short stories.

You could well add to the list; James Joyce, for example, John Steinbeck, John O'Hara, and JCO, for immediate instance. Any and all of these had the sorts of effects in the outcomes to the characters in their stories that had immediate, visceral effects on you. Most of those effects were unsettling.

By all means, you wish your stories to have that effect, and when you review half- and three-quarter-written narratives after having left them in the stock pot to simmer, and then, when they don't have that effect, you look for some clue to reshape them.

Of all those writers you mentioned, Leonard and O'Hara are the two you admire for their ability to link their disturbing outcomes with humor, and you often find yourself, in those moments between wakefulness and sleep, trying to imagine the outcome of some of Lawrence's stories were his outcomes more centered in humor. 

Which reminds you of two things, the short stories of Ring Lardner and the fact of you having set such a high bar for yourself.  The writers you most admire have led you to that strange, disassociated land between certainty of outcome and the greater certainty where Marvell's deserts of vast eternity await us with the certainty of their ambiguity.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Inner Ensemble Theater

True enough, you have on occasion found a particular individual of your acquaintance to be so outstanding in his or her behavior that you go out of your way to co-opt that individual for inclusion in some project at hand. 

Two publishers of wildly differing traits come to mind; they  have appeared in stories, one of them conflated with a department chair at one of the universities where you taught, a memorable twofer each time you brought the results on stage. Their appearances reminded you of your purpose to topple egotism and despotic systems, but also to cause you to beware of such traits in your own self.

No doubt, there will be other characters inspired by individuals you meet during your prowling and reconnaissance among the battlements of Reality, but, egotism or its approximations aside for the moment, you've had for some time the sense that your best characters are aspects of you because of the longterm relationships you've had with each, whether you're aware of the familiarity or not.

Early in the years of your teaching of writing techniques, you had the awareness of the multiple personality nature you and others had, one small, example being a time when you were engaging in a sincere apology and as part of your contrition allowed that you weren't yourself at the time of the tort you'd committed. 

This led you to a growing recognition of your component parts and, indeed, the aspect of you guilty for the acting out behavior leading to the apology. In time, you began compiling names for some of them, including The Panic Button, named for the aspect of you responding to an occasional surge of dread and fear that came thanks to a lifelong postnasal drip.  On rare occasion, when you're in that intermediary place between wakefulness and sleep, the drip activates, causes one or both sinuses to fill, blocking much or all nasal breathing. Bingo, Panic Button.

Another aspect of you is the interior copyeditor, well aware of your past history as an abysmal speller and your need, in your early thirties, to come to terms with spelling. There is the Cynic, the Vaudeville Performer, the PA (for passive/aggressive), the SD (for Self-deprecation) and the OC (for Over-compensator).

There are others, to be sure, including The Critic. By more or less of a working agreement, you're careful about which of these you give the equivalent of the keys to the family auto, nevertheless recognizing these and other components as necessary aspects rather than parts of your personality to be purged or excised. In short, they are all components of the complexity that is you.

Along comes a stint at a writers' conference owned and operated by one of your dearest friends and his wife, where you come in contact with a wannabe writer boastful of the fact that she has been certified as an individual with thirteen multiple personalities. 

You took this to mean, and confirmed your assumption with psychiatrists and psychologists, that an individual afflicted with multiple personality disorder is not always aware of which personality is dominant and, in many cases, when. Your dealings with this individual were not pleasant, but they were informative.

You proceed on the theory of the rest of us being multiple personality, yet aware who is in charge. Each of us is in effect an ensemble cast of selves. For a writer, this is a valuable tool that wants study, contemplation, and observation. One particular side benefit is a growing sense of this ensemble you being a happy family rather than a contentious one.

You owe great loyalty to all of these and other differentiated aspects of self because they contribute to the total effect of you, suggesting possibilities to you when the occasion for a new character presents itself.

When, for instance, you have a character in a situation of panic, no need to chew the scenery or pause for time-consuming research. Instead, calling Panic Button for a consultation; he'll suggest a menu of responses. When you need an Egotist or a control freak, call in the Egotist and the Inner Editor.

At one time, your relationship with these aspects of you had the effect of setting you at odds with yourself, with an uncomfortable tendency to compartmentalize. Not that you are completely comfortable and absolutely free of compartmentalization now, but the progress is tangible.

You get along pretty well with your ensemble now; they work cheap and arrive eager to help. An occasional family dinner at Via Maestra or Trattoria Victoria with a decent salad, a bowl of linguini and vongole, a glass or two of pinot noir, some zabaglione or panne cota, and a dash of espresso, and we're ready for work again. Happy families all like linguini and clams.



Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Table d' Hote

At one point during the time you were composing stories to fit in science fiction or fantasy magazines, you wrote a narrative about a man who was attempting to sell his soul to Satan. Most of your narrative fiction was written at night; daylight working hours were devoted to dramatic materials intended for television or motion pictures. The bulk of your reading at the time was Mark Twain and Franz Kafka.

You did not stop to consider that both men were contemporaries, with Kafka outliving Twain by a scant fourteen years. Nor did you consider Kafka a humorist until well after you'd parted company with writing for television, even though the qualities you most cherished in him and Twain were irony and narrative voice. 

There is surely some exaggeration in your claim that the only things you came away with after your years of television endeavor was a Sahara tan VW Beetle with a sun roof and FM radio, financed by the credit union of the Writers' Guild and an undiminished reverence for the character of Wile E. Coyote.

Back to the narrative about the man who wanted to sell his soul to the devil. Even in those days, you recognized how overworked the concept, which was not yet a story, had been before your arm wrestle with it. You added a few twists: The protagonist couldn't get an appointment with Satan, who was busy to the point of exhaustion dealing with men and women who had much more to offer than your protagonist.

In retrospect, you believe you'd have been well advised to quit there, while you were ahead, leaving a message that the protagonist needed some ante to get into the game in the first place, but you slogged on. Your protagonist--and you--managed to get even more distance from any chance of a satisfactory finish, thanks to a number of tangents.

You were to learn later that tangents, themes, and propaganda were precisely the sorts of distractions you must avoid if you are, indeed, to have anything to lay on the table as an ante that would in any way attract Satan to sit in the game with you.

A great pal, Barnaby Conrad, had a dud of a first novel, then responded with his great breakout, Matador, a narrative that reflected his close friendship with any number of actual matadors. Even when first published, the novel's subject matter was offensive to many American readers. Nevertheless, such a success in terms of sales, word-of-mouth, and notoriety were, to continue the metaphor, ante chips. 

Satan not only came to the table, he asked Conrad the key question, "What would you say if, when we made the film, we changed the principal character from a retired bullfighter to a retired heavyweight boxing champion?"


Conrad left us in 2013, Matador still not filmed, although a producer, whom he admired and who attended his memorial service, told you at the time he still hoped to do the project. No matter, Conrad was a living example of an individual who sat at the poker table with Satan and came away a winner, particularly in your eyes, for the way he was able to look at the thing he devoutly wished to come to pass, then was able to see the importance of maintaining the vision that got him the story in the first place.

The tangents, themes, and propaganda of which you speak are in a true sense Satan incarnate, to whom, under the guise of learning your craft, you make accommodations and negotiated settlements with little or no awareness of having done so.

When you sit to compose, you gather about you flashes of insight you've gleaned from individuals you've known only through reading their works and as well from individuals you've known as associates and friends. You've come a long, long way to reach this point, which is by no means as lonely as it may sound.

You are in good company, and Satan is still too busy to have anything to do with the likes of you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Keeping the Lobbyists out of Fiction

In your early experiences as an emerging writer and an emerging editor, you put a good deal of effort into the study of the term "page turner," which seemed a different sort of ideal than it does now.

Your writing and editorial focus was on the notion of the reader turning pages to find out what happened--or did not happen--to the characters, with a growing concern that readers would not turn pages to get past the descriptions, explanations, and exhortations that bring story to a halt in favor of a digressive parade of mere descriptions.

Unless a writer is born into a DNA of perpetual optimism and the ability to look for and find the good in everything, the writer faces two obstacles that must be dealt with in the same way a teenager must learn to deal with a face filled with zits.

The obstacles are impatience and anger, the former triggering notoriously bad choices in judgment while the latter, when understood for what it is, leads the writer to say things that should be swept under the actual rug or the more metaphoric one of anger management.

There are ready-made opportunities for the writer of perpetual optimism, at the very least in The Huffington Post, which pays its writers little or nothing except the cachet of having been published in the choir loft of individuals who become disillusioned when they discover they are not the liberals they thought themselves to be.

The writer who has coped with impatience to the extent of exchanging it for eagerness and who has made a suitable arrangement with anger management will have arrived at the toolkit of satire, which allows the full-throttle expression of things that should not be expressed.

This leads to a good example of what story--as distinguished from religious or cultural propaganda, and from mythology, which is ancient cultural bragging--is: a dramatization of some heretical information.

If the material is in any way satirical, which is to say it intends to bring the absurdity of an attitude or behavior up toward the surface, the writer will have provided a finely balanced exaggeration and made it seem plausible. 

Now, although your concern is still with the reader, you are looking for the effects of story on the characters as a metric for the effects on the readers' awareness of self. Thus self trumps character; we read to find out what will happen next to us.

Has the narrative had an effect on the way we look at the world about us? Does it cause us to doubt the lobbyist and special-interest takes on cultural issues or, in fact, on the notions of truth, authenticity, and a working plan for dealing with the complexities of Reality?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Intervention

One of the more drama-producing activities within the cultural bubble you inhabit goes by the name of intervention. The scenario for intervention involves an individual being targeted by some sort of community, say a family or a work force or group of well-meaning friends. 

The essential ingredient here is the instrument of well-meaning, which in its way can be likened to the difference between a real gun being employed in a bank robbery or the pocketed hand of the robber, held to resemble a gun. 

Being confronted with the indictment of one or more attitudes or deeds of misbehavior is a serious enough business to require some semblance or illusion of wellness of intent on the perpetrators. 

Actual interventions of which you are aware have been conducted over the torts of alcoholism, drug use, abusive behavior, smoking, control issues, and health issues which the perpetrators of the intervention, meaning well, can argue to be leading to a heart attack or some related form of physical break-down.

Full disclosure: you've not been the instrument or target of an intervention, thus your attitudes are more judgmental than they are defensive, which well suits your purpose of raising the matter of intervention in the first place.

The target is often given some ultimatum, some warning of subsequent action, or presented with a contract which he or she signs, in which he or she agrees to stop doing X or start doing Y. Some interventions of which you're aware did end with the target thanking the assembled jury, although in at least one case, the target leveraged the intervention to a better-paying job with even more responsibilities and satisfaction.

You are here to suggest the potential inherent in deciding which cadre of your characters would become so concerned about the behavior of another character that they would organize an intervention against him or her.

You can even see the improvised scene, although you're pretty much in the dark about the major players.  Thinking about one intervention you relished toward the final seasons of Breaking Bad, you particularly remember the pillow that was passed from person to person with the direction that he or she who had the pillow could speak, all the others present had to listen.

Your opening line for the improvisation scene would, of course, begin with someone telling your target, "We're doing this because we love you and have become concerned for your welfare."  How easy it is to put yourself into the role of the target for a moment, relying on your own memory of how, before you gave up your land line, your phone conversations would begin with a complete stranger asking if you were indeed you, then asking you how you were doing today.

After one or two such calls, cynicism took control,and your response, "Why do I have the feeling you're about to ask me for money or try to sell me something I don't want?"

Additional disclosure: after four or five such phone calls, you resolved that the next one would be the reason for giving up your land line.

Yet another disclosure: after a while, you began keeping score, ticking off the land line phone calls from legitimate, which is to say friends or potential clients. sources as opposed to individuals trying to sell you things, plea for funds to support some charity, or remind you that the truck from X or Y charity was going to be in your neighborhood, and did you have anything you'd like to donate?

With such disclosures in mind, you're aware of a rich lode of potential responses from your characters in interventions, all of them bearing some degree of emotion in response. Defensiveness is always a good home base from which to depart in storytelling. Irritation is no slouch, nor is the time-honored technique of the smoke screen. "You? You're having an intervention with me? Why only yesterday, I was discussing the potential for initiating one on you."

So much for your as-yet undifferentiated characters; there is also the you of recognizable mischief, and the likelihood of you, quoting the avid Unionist, Barbara Fritchie, when confronted by a group of cantankerous Confederate soldiers, "Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare my country's flag."

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Dark and Stormy Night

The effective ending to a story has often been thought to be a scene in which one or more characters are seen walking away from a resolution in which enough elements are tidied up to approximate closure. 

This is nonsense; we are led to see closure as a winning condition. Through countless repetitions, we see closure as anything less messy than before we began. Take what you can get, and be thankful. Enjoy the crumbs from the tables of the Fates or Powers That Be.

In such endings, the real winner has less to do with the characters and their goals than the culture in which the story was told. Stories with such endings are propaganda.

Such stories often score well with readers until they have a few moments to consider the implications, at which an important dynamic emerges. This dynamic has a binary, the one you favor most being the inevitability of the reader turning to the outlier, which is the noir, we've-been-outnumbered ending and its appropriate, there-has-to-be-a-better way approach.  

The dynamic you favor least is the resolve of the reader to stop reading altogether or set the story aside at the first hint of the denouement being in place like the prearranged dominoes, stacked to fall in a row after the first one has been toppled.

First and foremost, you want readers to continue reading, story after story, until they begin to get the idea: Nice guys don't always finish, much less do they finish last. There is often some positive closure from walking away from a toxic situation before thinking, as the habitual gambler, that salvation and redemption exist in that one last throw of the dice or turn of the wheel.

But as well, nice guys carry something away after the story is concluded, some form of recognition, awareness, or stature, all based on their understanding that the deck was stacked from the get-go. Those payoffs are truer wins; they allow us to see how we can gamble for achievement of ability, understanding, and a philosophy such as humor that will allow us a greater connection with Self.

Story, as we understand it and use it, is the dramatization of a stacked deck, a rigged system, a program in which the outcome is other than what we planned. Story requires a stacked deck because any Reality worth its status of Reality owns the house odds. 

Most of us know that and have already articulated some personal philosophy about our dealings with Reality. We understand that betting with the house may prolong the playing session beyond our expectations, but sooner or later, the house rules will leave us nothing but the takeaway of thinking playing safe gave us a better possibility.

Story, particularly noir story, is our chance to recognize the house odds on our own terms, allow us to understand what it is about the various games of chance that intrigue us, and how to laugh at the results.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Middle March

In the beginning is the problem, which has come to you like the metaphorical bug on the equally metaphoric windshield, an unavoidable splat before your consciousness, caused in part because a part of you was in motion, occupying the same space as the insect of connection.

Although you go sometimes days or weeks on end without such collisions, they are your strength in your desire to become and remain a storyteller. No matter about the near misses or deliberate pauses to wipe the windshield clean; the bug splats that do occur are often significant enough to tide you over the in-between days.

When you began your addiction to story, the motion picture experience was different. With the exception of the Saturday matinee, which began at one p.m., unfolding such features as a newsreel, coming attractions (or teasers), a cartoon, and a serial, sandwiched like steaming piles of pastrami between those two deli slices of rye, the A movie and the B movie, screenings were not separate. 

Going to the movies meant a double feature, a newsreel, and a cartoon. You took the matter into your own hands by entering at whim and remaining until, somewhere during either of the two feature-length films, you reached the place of continuity where you of a sudden were aware of the entire arc of the story.

At the time, this seemed more a challenge than an inconvenience. There you were, thrust into the midst of some activity, knowing only that you're be filled in on the beginning scene or scenes you'd missed. In some significant way, this helped you with the causal nature of story, allowing you to see two trains about to collide or one ship, intent on running aground, with no immediate suggestion of how these calamities had come to be. 

From about age eight to about fifteen, you knew to suspect the worst of characters, whether you rooted for them or against them. They were on collision courses; that was all you needed to know.

Your recent observations about all not being well that ends well carry you into a greater sophistication about resolutions of the problems set forth in the beginning scenes. An ending must represent the end of a cycle rather than the final ingredient in a recipe, wherein "bake at 350 for 35 minutes gives you corn bread every time. Endings are more whimsical than they seem; they must leave you with some feeling other than the impatience of time wasted on a fable or sermon. 

You chose to call that proper, ending feeling an aftertaste, which is all about your attention being directed to filling blanks, preferences, and consequential future action. What, for instance, happens after the last act of Hamlet, where the only two major survivors are Horatio and Fortinbras?

You want an end that may cause you to disagree or to say you told them so, or surprise because you hadn't seen a perfectly plausible outcome. You wanted a few bugs to meet their fate on a few windshields, for instance the payoff of the final scene of one of your favorite movies, The Third Man. 

The protagonist, Holly Martens, has just come from the second funeral of the scoundrel, Harry Lime, and is now hoping to talk to Lime's former girlfriend, Anna Schmidt,with whom he has fallen in love. But as Anna approaches him, it is clear she sees right through him, and continues walking past him without a trace of recognition.  Martens lights a cigarette as he watches her walk past. And the scene fades to black, but we know Anna will be deported from Vienna to Czechoslovakia, and Martens will return to America.

Middles are the places where your characters get their revenge on you because of your need to listen to them carefully, explore and understand them to get at the driving forces at work that cause them to behave as they do, to behave as you rightly understand real persons to do. Sometimes when you are poised on the edge of the middle and don't know which ledge to jump from, you set yourself in motion by reading George Orwell's masterly essay, "Charles Dickens."

From the first paragraph, you are in thrall, because it is everything a beginning has come to represent to you:  "Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Even the 
burial of his body in Westminster Abbey was a species of theft, if you come to think of it."

Orwell's exegesis represents to you everything a middle should be; it drives you along with information that seems vital not only to place Dickens in perspective as a writer but for the manner in which it represents the ways Dickens played out his social, ethical, and class-related senses. You come to see him for who he was, a primary character in his own story. But you also see him in comparison and contrast with some of his prominent contemporaries.

Straightaway, after rereading a few paragraphs of the Orwell essay on Dickens. you are transported to a worrisome concern for whether you have articulated your characters enough.

You have two pieces of what you assume will be short fiction, haunting you with their characters' quandaries, each of which shines in the dark like the face and hands of your wristwatch, each of which has led you toward what seems like a brick wall, but is only a middle. A few more paragraphs of the Orwell and you are lit up with speculations about what these inventions of yours wish, why they are perhaps fearful of speaking out for it, and what the consequences will be if they do not.





Friday, October 14, 2016

A Night out with the Buoys

You were scarcely into your early twenties as a wannabe writer when you already understood that the early bird did not get the worm, plenty of rolling stones gathered moss, and all was not well that ended well. Ducks were no worse off when they were not all in a row. P's and q's could be left unminded unless you happened to be a printer. A barking dog could well take time out of its complaint to bite

Even at this remove, whenever you hear the narrative, "And they all lived happily ever after." you feel yourself yanked back to eighteenth- and nineteenth century novels, along with some of their early twentieth-century descendants.

True enough, you learned to read from such novels, inhaling as you did so the thought that you could be a storyteller as well. To the credit of many of these earlier novels, they made the process of storytelling seem not only wonderful and transforming, but as well that you could do as they did: capture and hold an audience the way such writers as Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and his three adept contemporaries, Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope did.

This is to acknowledge you didn't include Mark Twain, who, in the space of two or three novels and a group of memoir, made the process seem even more accessible to the metaphorical point of the magician whose illusions seem accessible until the moment you attempted to replicate one of his tricks.

Setting aside all the sturm und drang of the apprenticeship period (but not without acknowledging you are still sorting out and experimenting with the tricks and devices of the authors already named and quite a few to have come along since, you remain constant in your feelings about Happily ever after endings, which is to say you are suspicious of them to the point of being distrustful of them. 

Even as you were experiencing these endings for the first time, you were already of the awareness that things did not work out to that kind of happy ending. In this manner, you experienced your first philosophical battle with Story, and the common notion of  your culture wherein persistence is more than a virtue, it has the potential for being a manipulative tool of Class Warfare.

If you wanted a happy ending, you had to orchestrate your own, which meant you had to look for acceptable conclusions (dramatic justice) rather than the cultural gifts for a cheerful persistence (poetic justice). Like it or not, know it or not, you were (and continue to be) the mirror of your own Nature and Reality, however much you may agree with the likes of Hieronymous Bosch or the A.A. Milne who wrote for children. 

If you put mere adjectives, you merely describe. They must be your choices of adjectives, details, and judgments. The worm of cynicism bored its way into the apple of your acceptance of story as cultural propaganda rather than the way writers such as those you listed in earlier paragraphs used story to define their own cultural and ethical paradigms.

Happy endings for, say, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, meant for the former that things were pretty happy when the likes of Elizabeth Bennett married Fitzwilliam Darcy because Austen liked the notion of worthies from various social strata getting together. 

Happy endings for Dickens meant a person from the middle classes, through hard, honest work, could find a partner of similar virtue with whom to live a debt-free and prudent lifestyle.

There have been times when you have walked away from a situation you considered to be dead or moribund, uttering that famous phrase from Scarlet O'Hara, "Tomorrow is another day." But the probable ending you had in mind was one of irony rather than the virtue of persistence or, indeed, the prospect of revenge.

Seeing irony suits you. You take persistence in some things as a virtue, but as stupidity in others. And for you, the best revenge is not the revenge served cold, rather the revenge scenario seen as a clear option, then rejected out of hand for the irony of the tra-la-la tomorrow is another day option.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

With Reference to Your Account

If the joke is dramatic in form (and you argue in favor of it being so) the unifying force for story becomes the connective tissue linking the references and details. 

These references and details influence us as we read and absorb the implications of dramatic action, perhaps not directly, but with at least as much impact on our awareness as when we are in a room that has now been entered by a mosquito.

References--the direct and indirect invocation of some person, place, thing, or event--and details--the inclusion of a particular tone or quality--fill our reading sense with sensory assurances that the dramatic information we're absorbing is real story rather than homily, propaganda, or, worse yet, appeals to the snap-judgments of bigotry.

Only yesterday, you were drawn to a reference you'd been aware much of your life, thanks to one aspect of your childhood reading and the accidental presence in your life of a child of one of your mother's cousins named Sanders. 

The reading in question was Winnie, the Pooh, that remarkable series of stories for young readers in which the main character was also referred to as Edward Bear.  At one point in your younger adult life, when you stopped by your parents' home, you discovered they had a guest, a second cousin with the surname Sanders.

More details and references: Often when you visited your parents' home, you were not surprised to see seated at the dining table the affable mailman, Clarence, who seemed to know he could ask for and be served a sandwich of considerable dimension and content. 

On one such visit, where your mother informed you she was making sandwiches for your second cousin and Clarence and what was one more sandwich, and would you care to join them, you overheard Clarence attempting to distinguish your cousin's true surname, was it S-A-N-D-O-Z, or S-A-N-D-E-R-S. 

Your cousin immediately confirmed the Sanders spelling by saying, "I have always lived under the name of Sanders," which led you to suspect at once that your cousin had also read Winnie the Pooh, a fact you confirmed by repeating the A.A. Milne title, and your cousin nodding, yes, and Clarence saying, "Whoa.. Slow down."

Living under the name of, a synonym for using an alias, had begun to slip from use. Indeed, you, at the time, were living under two pseudonyms to the extent of using both for stories you were beginning to publish. To complete the reference to the A.A. Milne material, although you did not know it at the time, you were on a collision path to be the owner and human companion of a notional Blue-Tick Hound whom you named Edward Bear.

Through the course of these web log or blog notes, you've spent some time articulating and giving dimension to at least three aspects of yourself, or individual components you were living under the name of, these being The Writer, The Editor, and The Teacher.

Yesterday's flash of awareness of the braided intricacy of the Self, the Story, and References to Details, as evidenced in those sentences beginning with "In a rather nice irony, McNeil lived under the name of Sanders for nearly two years before I pointed out to him, one evening when we went for drinks, that Sanders is often a Jewish surname," shows the working process these three individuals, whose names you live under, employ.

Back to reality, for a moment, with Clarence, who is African-American, saying to your cousin, "That's what I was trying to figure out. That Sandoz don't sound like you, you understand what I'm saying? Now Sanders, that's a name I can get behind, they's a ring of truth to that." 


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Will the Real Winnie the Pooh Please Stand up?

You found many things to admire in Viet Thanh Nguyen's recent novel, The Sympathizer, including the certainty you will reread the novel soon and in the process find even more things to smile at with the recognition one smiles at when discovering how transformative a complex, multilayered story can be.

Among the things noted and admired in Nguyen's novel was a technical matter you consider from time to time as a teacher, a reviewer, and a writer of your own narratives, the matter of narrative direction. 

The Sympathizer is a confession, thus written in the first person, an assistant to an important military figure, writing about his observations about and behavior toward his superior, set down as a report/confession to an individual whose identity we do not discover until well into the final chapters.

Nguyen's narrator is a spy, reporting to his superior, all in all a remarkable performance of the duplicity, mischief, and irony to be had from an unreliable narrator attempting to present an at least rational account of his personal unreliability.

Taking a few steps back from the narrative design of this novel, you ask for the same reason you ask similar rhetorical questions how vital such a design of storytelling contributes to a short story or novel being made memorable and enduring.

Some stories from past eras begin with the well-worn "Once upon a time--" while other tales of more or less that age have another familiar beginning, "In the city of X, there lived a man named Y (or a woman named Z)." If you come upon such stories, however well the other details or resolution, there is the distinct sense you are reading something dated and from another era. This extends to such beginnings as a narrator addressing you directly to tell you he or she is about to tell you a story.

You believe there is some mechanism inherent in most persons, call it the dramatic genome, that causes us to leap over the chasm between being told there is a story we are about to hear and into the reality, however fanciful, of where that story is taking place.

More often than not, when you ask of a story, who it is being told to, you are examining the most optimal portal between our shared reality and the invented reality of the story. You wish to know with all deliberate speed to whom and why the story is being told.

At such times, you are also confronting those thought barriers most apt to keep you from gaining access to the story you which to relate, with emphasis on the dramatic connotations the word "relate" has for you as contrasted to the descriptive connotations.

Such issues inform your choice of writers, narrative choices, and your attempts to deal with the technicalities of your own work. In your reality, a storyteller does not describe a story so much as he or she filters it through the experiences of one or more characters. Another recent novel,The Trespasser, by the American writer living in Ireland, Tana French, conveys this sense to you of you being an eavesdropper to the events of the story, going on about you.

While considering such matters earlier this morning, somewhere between awakening and your first meaningful contact with coffee, the following beginning presented itself to you, indeed as though the narrator were relating it to you, with, as you now realize, the intent of manipulating you for some purpose you will have to allow to play out:

"In a rather nice irony, McNeil lived under the name of Sanders for nearly two years, before I pointed out to him one evening when we'd met for drinks, that Sanders is often a Jewish surname.

"I, myself, used it at one time,but had the good sense to put a u in it--Saunders--removing any possibility of misunderstanding, including the original use of the expression.

"McNeil took his name from me. At least, he thought he did. I was for a time what you might call his step-father, except that I was not really married to his mother, who believed many things back in those years, one of them being that my name was McNeil."

As with so many things of this nature, these paragraphs are a gift, a mischievous distraction, and a curse. Possibly all three.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Loose Change under the Cushions of Story

Regardless of the format of the work in progress, whether handwritten with emendations on a legal pad, printed out from captured text on your computer, or read directly from the MS Word file on the screen of your computer or phone, you face a moment reflecting the potential for an abject failure, with all the acid reflex of disappointment. 

This moment is the literary equivalent of having flown with this particular project with less time aloft than the Wright Brothers, on that epic day when they achieved any flight at all. This is the time when stinging defeat lurks, waiting to shake its head in wonder that you could even consider such a thing as successful storytelling.

In consequence, you're always pleased to see some sign of lift, some potential of story- or narrative worthiness. The next step becomes critical. You may indeed have been hard on yourself as you check in on the reality you've created, but have you been hard enough on your characters. Have you placed them in circumstances where the most attractive way out is the one path guaranteed to bring story screeching to a halt?

The halting place, of course, is inaction, the place where the principal character is too beset to do anything.  Well and good to have the principal character miss a performance or choke up early on, but as we pass the territory marked by the point of no return, the suspense builds: Will the lead character have cracked, be unable to do the thing he or she needs to do to bring off some kind of closure?

If you were to turn the probabilities over to the Las Vegas odds-makers, the probabilities would favor the lead being able to step up, hit the actual or metaphorical home run to win the game. Yet we must consider how story has evolved. 

There are significant options beyond the last-minute save. Your elders and your juniors have found such ways; you have only to browse the bookstore or library to find them.

They are both bright with youthful brio and radiant of face-lined gravitas in their junior- and seniorness, men and women who have faced that moment of confrontation with an appearance of grace in the face of knowing something--anything--other than inaction was necessary.

Sometimes, as in Tobias Wolf's memorable short story, "In the Garden of American Martyrs," there is a way out that shakes its own figurative head at the oddsmakers and probabilities, then opts with a bold leap toward William Faulkner's "Mankind will prevail" speech, delivered as he accepted his Nobel Prize for literature. 

Having done "it," at least that one time, Wolf comes back to show us how to be hard on his characters, which is to say reach deeply into the cushions in search of the lost change of story, in "Bullet in the Brain."

Going for the formulaic, the odds-friendly resolution is not flight nor risk nor writing. You will know you are close to it when you feel desolate, alone, and wondering how you ever got to this point. One of your characters will say something you intend to ignore because it comes not from the  uncertainty and risk of story but rather from that place where you must go to get the answer.