Slang and idiomatic expression find their way into the language the way crafty patrons, waiting to bypass the bouncers at night clubs and restaurants, discover devious ways inside.
One such expression, "on the nose," is not to be confused with a bet on a particular horse to win a particular race, although, after years of observing a father who was the recipient of such bets, and substituting at times for said father in taking such bets and phoning them in to the central bookkeeping source in downtown Santa Monica, you came to know the term in that context.
When "on the nose" came your way again, the conditions had to do with writing radio and television drama and, briefly, television comedy, in the sense that a description or explanation was "too much on the nose," making it a term of derision if not outright scorn, a substitute expression for "too literal" or, worse yet, "telling me more about the subject than I want to know."
Later still, when you had the opportunity to collaborate with one of the more accomplished humorists, "on the nose" became truncated to OTN which, when you heard it from him, was often accompanied with a sad shake of the head as a sign to move on to the next moment of dramatic movement.
"Too much on the nose" not only means a response is too literal, too lacking in any sort of nuance or, better still, innuendo; "too much on the nose" means a condition needlessly explained to the point where persons in the vicinity begin looking for the nearest exit.
Drama and story tolerate detail only when said detail reemerges later in the form of a surprise, obstacle, or ironic reversal that produces in the viewer or reader either a laugh or the idiosyncratic sound of an involuntary expulsion of breath, a sound similar to an individual being punched in the solar plexus.
Anything else is reminiscent of a bit of arcana you learned when substituting for your father as the transcriber of bets on various thoroughbred race horses. Such horses, depending on previous performances, were given handicaps, five-pound weights attached to their saddle.
Some prose is handicapped with weighty descriptions of things few readers would care about, with unnecessary explanations which turn out to be the verbal equivalents of the nudge and/or wink, as in "Get it?"
Things in Real Time approximate being too much on the nose only because, in your belief, many of us have reservations about seeming too taciturn, too devoid of opinion, too eager to make sure we are being understood. All too true; being understood is no small triumph. Rather, being understood is a condition that provokes comedy, drama, humor, and, ultimately, dissent, all conditions we enter with the same caution as a surfer entering an ocean afflicted at the moment with rip tides.
The great irony with being too much on the nose is the tendency to overexplain, hopeful of being understood.
Saturday, December 17, 2016
Slang and idiomatic expression find their way into the language the way crafty patrons, waiting to bypass the bouncers at night clubs and restaurants, discover devious ways inside.
Friday, December 16, 2016
The appearance and continued, sophisticated development of DNA technology has been a major development in law enforcement forensics, both in actual crime-scene circumstances and crime fiction.
Deoxyriboneucleic acid, which appears in humans and almost all other organisms,carries genetic information which may be used as a source for identifying an individual.
A splat of blood, a drop of saliva, a bead of sweat have figured in actual cases where identity was an issue, and in more than one narrative or filmed drama, such traces have been accepted as evidence that has determined the guilt or innocence of an individual.
DNA technology is so persuasive now, that scenes in TV dramas are common to the point of cliche when a suspect, previously firm on his innocence, admits guilt if confronted with a DNA match.
In Philip Roth's disturbing novel, The Human Stain, the critical DNA is semen, which leads to a conclusion where DNA not only provides dramatic closure, it provides poetic justice as well. In The Human Stain. other fictions, and in many a real-life situation, DNA becomes in metaphor more than evidence, it is an unimpeachable response.
Throughout its long history, story contains significant response as a component of its own deoxyribonucleic acid; the manner and degree to which characters respond to events and to one another become the forces that drive story along the path toward some form of outcome.
At one time you were aware of standing before a group of students enrolled at the graduate level, wanting guidance and direction as they related to being able to produce sustainable story with some measure of regularity.
"There is the plot-driven story," you said, then went on to explain how the character, on some form of quest, took steps which led to a series of accelerating consequences which must be dealt with before the character can walk out of the landscape with hide intact.
"Then," you said, "there is the character-driven story, in which events drive the character and you. However similar the starting goal or condition, you as writer and your characters take their clues from the responses elicited as the exchanges of dialogue, the internal, and external conditions become more intense and unforeseeable."
You don't regret either definition. What you regret is your own lack of follow-through where response is concerned. No telling now how young you were when you first read Owen Wister's ground-breaking novel, The Virginian, with its eponymous protagonist, seated at a poker game with Trampas, the novel's antagonist.
It is now time for the Virginian to bet or leave the hand. Trampas tells him, "Your turn to bet, you son-of-a--"
Whereupon the Virginian reaches for his gun and, without aiming it, places it on the table before uttering one of the most famous responses in all of Western literature, "When you call me that, smile."
Response is the follow-up to a word, an offer, a suggestion, a dare; it sets the tempo for the next beat, the next action or thought or line of dialogue' it is the response to the first four notes of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5;it is story, caught in action, considering whether to bet or leave the hand.
You wish you'd taken the matter of response to the next level. "If there is too much space between responses, story pauses, looks about nervously for some form of exit and, with all too much frequency, reverts to description and explanation when none are necessary."
When you talk to students about unnecessary adverbial support in dialogue--"If you come any closer, I'll shoot," she said menacingly.--you always get a nervous laugh in response because the example is so preposterous in its obviousness.
You wish for the certainty of laughter when you talk about the pacing of responses. But when class is over, you rush home to look at the spacing of your own responses in whatever happens to be in progress.
Thursday, December 15, 2016
When talk turns to the dominant constituents of story, characters and their fondest dreams or their most significant vulnerability seem to take over the conversation, sometimes with a visible gesture to suggest the superiority of the character-driven story over the plot-driven narrative.
Any other position in the matter seems to bring in the baseball metaphor of "from left field," or the more civics minded trope of "from way out in the boondocks."
In the baseball analogy, left field means some distance from either reality or context; boondocks connote s one distance from civilized, city persons and, by implication, a remoteness from the sophistication of urban living.
Nevertheless, a narrative with any pretense of being a story needs to show the presence of a significant constituent of the operating principal of the law of inertia. Why bring a well-defined set of dynamic principles regarding movement into any discussion of story without being called out for distraction? Look at it this way, the Law of Inertia is clear about objects at rest and their tendency to remain at rest until a greater force propels the objects into movement.
Story either begins with or has well embedded in its backstory the equivalent of an object being nudged into motion, thus the destabilizing event or the point where a character's goal sets the character in motion toward achieving the goal.
Objects in motion tend to stay in motion until opposing forces apply friction or collateral mischief by which the progress is either reversed or sent off course. The famed rock of Sisyphus demonstrates among other things the law of inertia in action.
The doomed king must supply the inertia to get the rock up the hill, whereupon it gains the momentum to carry it to a point where it achieves a resting state. Same applies to Sisyphus, who must now get the rock back in position once again. If there were no hill, there would be no myth of Sisyphus; there would be another goal or task, another dramatic orbit.
The key to observing the myth of Sisyphus become the inertial condition of the rock. A rock come to rest is a pivotal point on the story only in that it signals the need to push the rock out of its resting stage and into another cycle of movement. The key to essaying and absorbing the details of a story resides in the observation of the Law of Inertia. Opening velocity sets the story into being.
Dramatic rules or laws require some form of opposition. Friction will do because friction is opposition to motion. Acceleration will more than suffice because story requires increased motion and, for a time, increased opposition.
Story requires a hill of enough angle to be seen as a difficult task for the protagonist. A major constituent of acceleration in a successful story involves change, either in the principal character or that individual's chief antagonist. Change can mean the rock, slowing down, coming to a standstill, or being pushed back to the top of the hill, yet again.
In story, characters either achieve their goal or fail in the attempt. In Inertia, objects that lose acceleration come to rest. When there is too much time between Sisyphus' rock losing its momentum, then reaching a resting state, the story is over; the reader seeks a new individual with a new wish for momentum.
On many occasions over the years, you have asked or been asked why the story stops here, the questions related to your own work the work of your students, or your editorial clients as an editor for a publisher or in your current circumstances as a consulting editor. Over these years, your answers have been multifarious, often more insightful to your students and clients than to your own work.
In one way or another, the answer was the same: the rock remained at rest too long, the momentum passed.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
You first heard of--as opposed to learned about--The Dark Web (capitalized to make it sound more ominous) from two friends who have graduate-level degrees in computer programming. Then you saw mention of it in one of the left-leaning print publications, adding to the rumors of things one can find on The Dark Web with stories of right-wing conspiracy theories, white supremacist organizations, and ready access to conventional and designer drugs.
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
During the course of a given day, when you are away from your writing area, and in particular when you are in a classroom, your conversation leans toward the comfortable and considerate, even at those times when you are expressing a difference of opinion.
You have in place a filter that you've tweaked over the years, by no means in the sense of being politically correct, rather instead of being considerate.
Such thoughts of considerate conversation and a recent invitation to dinner combined forces when you were preparing for a two- or three-part presentation on dialogue, in no small measure because of your reason for refusing the dinner invitation, your awareness of the host's cooking abilities notwithstanding.
Whenever the topic shifts from conversation to dialogue, an elephant wends its way into the living room, whereupon it sinks to its knees, then attempts to cover itself with the closest rug , in most cases leaving more uncovered than not. "Ah, I see you allow elephants in the living room. How nice that you allow them to take the chill off with a rug."
Given your recent preoccupation with triangulation, when conversation shifts to dialogue, the point of reference to be avoided is the elephant, which in this case becomes the metaphor for comfort zone.
Your living quarters, smaller these past going-on-seven years, are well insulated from adjoining walls, meaning few neighborly sounds. Perhaps a bit chilly during the winter months, but a heater tends to that, while, in the summer, a cross-ventilation makes for the right ambient temperature. Nearby washer/dryer. Sufficient light and privacy, interesting views outside each window. A veritable comfort zone. Difficult not to feel comfortable when you are "in," either for working, reading, eating, or listening to music.
Your own sense of a comfort zone includes being away from disturbances and yet able to connect via Internet, telephone, or any variation with new experiences, even experiences contrary to your own and certainly opinions and beliefs contrary to your own. You appreciate a lively exchange of opinion, however at variance with your own, and in a growing recognition, you enjoy the discomfort of well-expressed critical commentary on your beliefs, your work, your demeanor.
Dialogue pushes the comfort zone, sometimes sweeping it entirely aside with its rancorous, undermining persistence. When characters appear too mindful of the comfort zone, unless this is done with deliberation by the writer in the service of a notable effect, story stops short, the way you are sometimes forced to do while driving in city traffic.
At such moments, most of the books, magazines, water bottles, items of food in the process of being ingested, and more often than not your cell phone take on a life of their own, not realizing they should have stopped.
The laws of inretia take precedence over the rules and conventions of dramatic narrative. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Story, a product of movement, stays in motion until a sudden break causes it to stop, whereupon chaos beyond disorder.
Well-planned inertia can take you out of your comfort zone, show you something you'd not previously considered, then help you understand how comfort zones are mere way stations from which to experiment, improvise, and imagine.
Well-executed dialogue begins with the recognition that there are no hand rails or supports; you're out there without your iPhone and its potential for calling help, consulting Google maps, or latching on to some GPS guidance.
With well-executed dialogue, you are in the midst of strangers, all of whom seem to know your name, or you find yourself, as if in a dream, among persons whom you believe you know--but they respond to you as though you were a stranger. Neither approach is comfortable.
But think about it this way: When you come to sudden turns in your reading that no longer seem plausible, your response at setting the material aside is anything but polite conversation.
Monday, December 12, 2016
You are of an age wherein you can recall the times you read stories that began with "It was an ordinary day in," or "It was an ordinary day until" as a prelude for what has become known as the destabilizing event.
Here in the twenty-first century, such openings are neither necessary nor tolerated; when we come across such an opening, depending on who the author is, we are either seized with a sense of nostalgia--in which case we continue reading--or antipathy--in which case we set the work aside.
Here in the teens of the twenty-first century, the reader has the option of signing onto the cruise on which the story will embark, or looking for some other dramatic access to the world of fiction.
In consequence, you and your late pal, Digby Wolfe, embarked on a project to be called The Dramatic Genome, which predicates among other wry observations that readers or viewers of drama have innate wiring that leads them to escape the rag-tag world of chaos found in Reality, seeking greater senses of order and purpose.
Although the specific idea for The Dramatic Genome came to you in the twenty-first century, indeed across large portions of vongole e linguine, at The Via Maestra, each of you in his own way had improvised and riffed on the notion of the appeal of some form of storytelling to some form of humanity at some distant or more recent moment in time. One of Wolfe's favorite times for imagining audiences for story was around 400 BCE, with the early performances of Aristophanes play, The Frogs.
For your part, you still delight in imagining a Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon hunting clan coming home after a difficult trek in search of an aurrox or woolly mammoth to bring, first down, then home to feed the group and provide hides for clothing or the equivalent of footwear. While their trove was being butchered and cooked, the group would gather about the fire to hear accounts of how this kill was spotted, tracked, and brought down.
Life was fraught and difficult then, no less so in 400 BCE, and for certain, modern implements to the contrary notwithstanding, modern life is a hive of chaos in which its denizens are aware of complex inner and external demands for their attention, compliance, and performance. We turn to the book, the magazine, the e-reader, the TV screen, the surround sound motion picture theater, and, in all its incarnations, the stage, whence we essay the soothing enticements of a world where orderly results are possible.
We are not completely naive in our assessments; orderly results may be possible for others, but not necessarily for us. The best we can do is empathize, identify, root for the characters, thinking how nice it would be if we could cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape of Reality.
Whatever the venue, when we see the lead character in the process of experiencing the destabilizing event, often because said lead character wanted something or someone with enough passion to create opening velocity, we are the equivalent of a bull rider at a rodeo, seated atop a mightily irate bull, in a narrow stall, one hand gripping the reins, nodding to the individual working the gate to open the latch that will allow the bull to plunge forth into the arena.
Story is not about description; it is about the charging, bucking bull or bronco, striving to recapture somehow the sense of calm or near serenity of routine before the significant destabilizing event played out. Feelings, agendas, and strategic deployment burst forth in an unceasing pulse of action, where change is evoked rather than deployed in each scene.
You recall the look of your students when you announce that each scene must earn its way into its narrative by evoking at least one emotion and demonstrating some shift or advancement of power, a look that asks, "How are we supposed to do that?" As though they might find another instructor who is not so set in his vision.
But all the while you were morphing from your teens and your ardent desire to tell stories of your own, until you have reached the age of which you are now, you've been digging your knees into the sides of that bull or bronc, trying to stay on for the longest eight seconds of your life.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
When you first heard the term "triangulation," you were were in a drafty room of the Men's Gym at UCLA, drowsing your way through mandated classes in Reserve Officer's Training Corps, fixed in your notion that ROTC produced one of the more disagreeable products of a military life, the second lieutenant.
For a matter of the four or five classes in which triangulation was presented, and the topographical maps used to demonstrate and embed the techniques were distributed, your interest awakened, became charged with the notable enthusiasm of a student who wants to learn more, and who is excited by what he has learned to date.
At the most basic level, triangulation provides an observer who knows two fixed locations with the means to calculate the distance of a third location of doubtful position. On the basis of what you learned in that drafty room, you were also able to learn from your astronomy professor how triangulation is put to practical use in the gaping vastness of the space in which our universe and yet other universes orbit.
There was one temporary downside of triangulation, one in which you came to see how you might not have had the difficulties you had in dealing with geometry, when it was first presented to you.
Over all, you came away from your classroom experiences with triangulation feeling the chipper optimism of a young person who saw possibilities for dealing with the vast randomness inflicted by Reality. You were haunted by lines from Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," where in "Full many a rose is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air."
The concept of triangulation emerged later in your life, during the tenure as POTUS of Bill Clinton, who used the approach for political negotiations, for building consensus necessary to effect legislation or accords.
More recently, triangulation found its way into your thinking as a useful tool for an integral part of dramatic narrative and your own relationship to that integral part as a user of it, which is to say as a writer of it, but also as one who has edited that aspect of dramatic narrative as an editor, and as one who has attempted to convey the use of the integral part as a teacher. The dramatic aspect of which you speak is dialogue.
Early in your dealings with your own writings, you tended to regard dialogue as carefully managed conversation, troubled in the way your dialogue emerged as lacking something you were always able to find in the dialogue of John O'Hara, but not able to, as Mark Twain, another splendid renderer of dialogue, would say, "get the hang of it."
Triangulation caught up with you and your attempts to reach that third place, that unseen presence of such vibrant effect in the hands of the writers you most admire. Here, in Reality, we talk with the Teflon coating on, over our true feelings, tempered by our wish to be such things as civil, polite, observant of one or more social conventions.
John O'Hara, more so than Ernest Hemingway, spoke to the elephant in the living room everyone in his stories and novels appeared to tiptoe around, doing so in such a way that the reader could see the elephant of intent and the dance to avoid revealing the bareness of the intent of the hidden nature of the agenda.
Then along came Philip Roth, who seemed to you to be dramatizing the numerous ways in which individuals were struggling to articulate what they felt, to grasp the true meaning of what others were saying, and, in consequence, being pulled along in the slipstream of story in much the same way you felt pulled when the VW Beetles you drove from the mid 50s through the early 70s were pulled when passed on the highway by an eighteen wheeler.
In your longtime admiration for the novels and short stories of Elmore Leonard and your opportunities, both when you worked for his paperback publisher and when he was a frequent visitor to the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference during the years of your tenure there, the metaphoric pigeons of dialogue came home to roost.
"Write a conversation between any two persons of your choice," you tell your students, "in which they speak with direct, open, literal honesty. Try to remember times when you ever heard real persons talking that way. Try to recall writers you admire presenting such dialogue." Then you wait for the implications to sink in and the often revealing comments about the assignment.
"Now write a scene," you continue, "in which two individuals, who might be male/female, female/female, or male/male have met on some online dating site and are conversing about their romantic goals and ideals. Assume that one of the reasons this pair had some flicker of attraction each to the other, was because of a mutual love of and ownership of horses. The fondness for horses is the triangulation point. Individual A compares self to a thoroughbred, being used to the kind of care and training associated with thoroughbred horses, but seeking in a mate the equivalent of a quarter horse or working horse, or even a wild horse. These two individuals are in effect each trying to seduce the other with their comparisons of self to a particular kind of horse. Write the scene and see if the couple decides to have a second date."
All that's missing from conversational, lackluster dialogue is the subtext, the unspoken influences on what is said and what is not said.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
One of your favorite approaches to keeping track of the various aspects of your personality it the literal and figurative emptying out of your pockets. On the most basic of levels, you enjoy recalling the contents of your pockets as a pre-puberty boy, where you were sure to have a pocket knife, a key chain, the stub of a number two pencil, a pocket-sized notebook, a penny-candy-sized box of licorice cigarettes, a small boy meant to hold wooden matches, and either a glass or plastic magnifying glass.
The wooden match box either held five or six matches or a lady bug or small turtle of the sort sold in those remarkable ads on the backs of comic books, with ample supplies of what you believed to be sufficient nourishment for the ladybug or turtle.
Not much has changed over the years; the match box is gone, so too the licorice cigarettes and magnifying glass, although the function you had in mind for the magnifying glass--using the sun to start a fire-has changed, you reckon you could indeed start a fire using the lens of the reading glasses you sometimes carry about.
Another way of measuring you in relationship to the state and condition of story, both within yourself and in the world about you as reflected by novels and short stories, is a laundry list of dramatic elements which you note in a pocket-sized booklet, then assign an hierarchical order.
The top, voice, and bottom, plot,of these lists has remained constant for at least twenty years, the most significant shift being from the former number one, character.
The interior has changed; so has the increased number of ingredients or elements; you're pleased to note how many more aspects of story you recognize as you continue to write, edit, and teach. When you looked at your laundry list today, you noticed an addition you'd not considered in earlier years. In consequence, you'll spend some time wondering why not.
Your first encounter with the eponymous dramatic romance/adventure, Cyrano de Bergerac, sent legions of delight marching through your imagination, not because Cyrano was such an accomplished swordsman but because of his poetic expertise, in short, his vocabulary. You were of an age where you were hopeful your vocabulary and its use would stand you in the good regard of the young ladies whose regard you sought.
The idea of words as weapons, when necessary, and tools, when appropriate, seemed the most valuable possessions a person could have, allowing you to judge others by their own vocabulary, to effect friendships and to pursue your growing dream, which was to be able to wrest some measurable standard of living from the worlds where story and opinion held sway.
At one point in your twenties, you came into possession of a Swiss Army knife which had as one of its blades a magnifying lens. Soon after, you were able to make the connection for yourself that vocabulary is the Swiss Army Knife of language and of story. Then came the additional awareness: your vocabulary was your survival tool.
Except that you lost the Swiss Army knife and, somehow, your vocabulary had taken on a number of what you call distancing words, pretentious synonyms, words sounding Latinate and formal, entire phrases you once held dear seeming to turn on you to produce if anything the opposite of the effect you'd intended.
At one point, in admiration of Thomas Babington McCauley, you accused a person of having "a morbid propensity to sloth and procrastination." His response was immediate. "You calling me a lazy fucker?" (You of course were.) Whereupon he caught you with a right hook that led to what was then called a mouse, a blackening about the right ocular orbit, er, eye.
Vocabulary defines each character; it tells use what and who the person is, what she wants, and, by implication, how likely she is to succeed. You have to forget your own vocabulary and in its place construct one for each character, mindful of how important it is for no two characters to sound alike, regardless of where or how they were born, went to school, what jobs or positions they held.
Vocabulary turns conversation into dialogue, event into story, stasis into the impending story of combustion and confrontation
Friday, December 9, 2016
Subtext is the loose flooring in story; we know it is there because we have seen one or more characters step around it, have seen at least one character step down on it, causing a squeak.
You'd think someone would put a halt to the squeak, but if they did, there would be no story, at least not in this particular case. The writer and the characters would have to conspire to find a new something to step around, whether that something is Uncle Frank's drinking problem, young Millie's increasing ventures into kleptomania, or some other elephant in some other room. Or some individual caught in the cycle of an enhanced tangle.
Subtext is, thus, story set against a particular background, the creaky floorboard, the scarcely concealed dead elephant, the one thing no one wants to talk about until Cousin Fred comes for a visit, notices it, and becomes the filter through which readers learn of its presence and its off-limits status.
The best loose flooring comes in dramatic sequences, clear indications of who among the characters know of its presence. Now, when someone brings home a guest, we understand how the author has set us up to experience the consequences. Once we become aware of the loose flooring, our sense of anticipation is triggered into action. Who will make the mistake of asking? And how will "the others" respond?
One of the loose boards in the flooring of Arthur Miller's probe into the nature of the Great American dream in Death of a Salesman is the protagonist, Willy Loman's, inability to see things as they are. Before our eyes, we see the gap between his memory of what happened in the past and how the recalled events differed.
Through subtext, we see Willy learning the shattering truth about the worth of his self-image, which leads to one of the most painful realizations of all, "A man's life is worth more when he is dead," and the terrible impact of the title.
Without subtext, the potential for complexity and richness of detail fall away like shed skins, leaving a semblance of story unencumbered by implication. In such stories, plot becomes little more than the arrival of unwanted packages arriving on the front porch or, as substitutes for a more layered surprise, rocks thrown or shots fired through the living room windows of the lead characters.
The atmosphere of thinness does not stop with event; it envelops the confrontations between characters in they way they talk and respond one to another. In vivid metaphor, we see the two approaches to story confronting one another, the subtext-less version relying on threats of violence, raised voices, and outcomes that provoke no real insights except that as readers we have put in time and effort for little or no return.
With subtext in place and established, the squeaks from the loose boards radiate outward to everything, in particular the way the characters evade, lie, or put imaginative interpretations into play.
As a young boy, reading his way up through the available literature, you were absorbing subtext without seeing it as such or being able to articulate its consequences. But you certainly knew when Jim Hawkins was betrayed by Long John Silver in Treasure Island, and when Philip Lane, the even younger than Jim Hawkins protagonist of Graham Greene's short story, "The Basement Room," fell victim to the rampant subtexts of the adult world.
In both these cases, you understood without having a name to call it then that subtext could have a lifelong effect on a character's life. To a notable extent, you've been looking for subtext in your own, ever since.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
You are hard pressed to recall a time--outside of your focused moments of composition--when you were entirely free of what you've come to regard as The Inner Bureaucracy.
During those moments when your focus takes you into that desired terrain beyond time, space, and causation, you can still on occasion hear some distant rumble, as in some neighbors, drifting from conversation to argument, or those moments in hotels when, on the certain brink of sleep, you are rousted back into wakefulness by the sounds of mutters and thumps in the outer hallway.
Thus do the quite real voices you hear about you in the ambient sound of a landscape conflate with at least one voice within your head, perhaps as many as five or six at any given time. Even such a direct decision to "have breakfast," or "eat lunch," meets with some commentary from the cheap seats, up toward the remote sections of the consciousness.
"You don't want to overdo it," a voice may well tell you in response to the straightforward decision, "Breakfast," accompanied with a scent of a cafe latte. "Big breakfast means nap time around eleven, right?" You are quick to respond. "Not necessarily," and so a running dialogue triggers into action.
In consideration of you accepting your working persona as an optimist, albeit an optimist by a slim margin, you often consider your inner voices as The Town hall Within which, by its relative bureaucratic ambience, as one wishing to get things done rather than passing legislation in which your default mode is intransigent resistance to forward movement.
Nevertheless, the times are rare when you're not aware of some sotto voce query, "You sure this is the way to go at it?" as though there were several other more effective approaches than your choice.
Small wonder you enjoy writing and reading, basking in the full concentration of being "in" a story you are either writing or reading, your Inner Town hall contributing images, senses, and quick, easy to absorb footnotes that combine to enhance your close connection to the text at hand.
However this implies you seek writing and reading to get away from the multifarious aspects of yourself, you're firm in your belief that these two states are pleasurable to you because of the way you make optimal use of the totality of yourself at the time.
These observations were slow and hard come by, an occasional insight at a time coming your way after a day of writing, by which you mean a given eight-hour work "day" consisting of exercises in which you learn to focus well enough to produce two or three hours of actual composition.
A five- or six-hour stint of reading produces three or four actual hours of reading and absorbing the material, the surrounding time spent reflecting on and absorbing potential meanings.
Thus the metaphor of writing as poker game, in which the dealer--who, remember, works for the house--frequently makes eye contact with you to confirm, "You. In or out?"
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Of course you read for enjoyment, but that quality-defining word is one of the forty or so words on your own Do Not Use List because of its fatal vagueness, as in what does "enjoyment" mean? If you were to say enjoyment means pleasure, you'd be digging yourself deeper into the hole of vagueness rather than taking a step or two up toward clarity.
If you were to say you read for insight, your chances of attaining the clarity you seek as a writer, editor, teacher are measurably enhanced. Insight does provide us with a metaphorical flashlight to probe the attics and cellars of our personal intellect.
Insight also provides a way of seeing meaning in those difficult-to-evoke feelings many persons shrug off with a dismissive, "You know what I mean," a trope that reminds you of having among the things you normally have in your possession--cell phone, house and car keys, fountain pen, note pad--a tacit way of saying you have to be vague because you don't yourself know what you mean to any degree of clarity.
If the need arises to say "You know what I mean," either as a declarative sentence or a question (Know what I'm sayin') you are returning to one of the basic conundrums you face in your roles of writer, editor, teacher/instructor. Insights help us unravel the tangle of meanings and details resident in any emotion, and they often provide a clearer picture of the directions and consequences of an emotion.
But consider this: Emotions often travel in pairs, trios, or outright gangs. Can you, with all your experience as a writer, editor, and in many ways yet a student, give a useful recipe for enjoyment or pleasure? You can speak to the ongoing problem you face as a writer, editor, and teacher, How do demonstrate (dramatize) emotions so that those who read or witness those demonstrations understand which emotions are at reference?
Put yet another way, How do you demonstrate an emotion you can't describe to your own satisfaction?
You read for insights into the structure and propelling properties of emotions. You read to understand the symptoms and consequences of feelings. To a considerable-but-tangential extent, you read to understand such properties as sight, hearing, taste, pressure. There is little satisfaction to read of or write about "John ate a twelve-ounce rib eye steak."
You can bring forth some of your own experiences eating twelve-ounce cuts of rib eye steak, but unless John notices some presence of taste or consistency, unless John prefers top sirloin to rib eye, unless John is seen to recoil at the cardboard consistency, you as reader, feel cheated of experience. You as writer feel the obligation to convey beyond such shadow words as juicy or delicious.
Your obligation as a writer is to cause whatever dramatic Now you bring forth to resonate with sensual presence. There is enjoyment in reading of such presence in the things you read, and a tangible awareness of having gone beyond "You know what I mean?" in bringing a moment to life from its nascent, outline state.
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
The modern short story has over the years since Anton Chekhov and his dramatic ironies, begun to move cautiously away from the need Poe felt to show Fortunato begging Montressor for his life, leaving us instead with the sound of the trowel, slathering mortar on the growing wall of bricks and the growing awareness that Fortunato's pleas resonate echo-like in the growing sepulcher.
All of which is to say the story the writer produces ends a step or two from the way the story concludes in the reader's mind, which is further to say that a story is beginning to rely less on the equivalent ending to the punchline of a joke, drawing instead on a rich display of parallel themes, more honest implications, and a greater sense that the characters are more caught up in the gap between their own goals and the social, moral, or political conventions in which they have become embedded.
So long as you are piling on the interpretations, there is this to consider as well: The twenty-first-century writer appears to find satisfaction beyond telling a story that involves an emotional impact.
The twenty-first-century writer wishes to build a dramatic edifice that more completely surrounds the reader, involving the reader in outcome, choices and memory-linked responses of his own.
In consequence of these shifting sands of dramatic closure, the more memorable stories are those in which there are at least two thematic parallel lines, wherein one character, driven by inner conflicts, faces off against another character who is driven by outer pressures.
The goal of the modern story is no longer to merely amuse with a finely honed punchline nor instruct with some outcome that could have been the subtext of a parable or sermon. Instead, the desired outcome is to allow the reader some identity with the manner in which the concluding resolution is achieved.
Not all that long ago, endings were presented in which the outcome was the false equivalence of Reality with some virtue such as persistence, pureness of heart, altruism, and that most sanctimonious outcome of all, that the poor must be cheerful and not resentful of their lot.
Thanks to the persistence of men and women who write to demonstrate the ways Reality cannot be manipulated, short stories now demonstrate through inference and irony the ways in which we can cause some effect on the face of Reality, even if it is as small as demonstrating the mouth wrinkles and crow's feet that begin to appear on Reality after we've immersed in it over a significant time span.
Monday, December 5, 2016
When you think of Robert Burns's memorable poem "To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Ladie's Bonnet," and you do think of it quite often, you are aware of having filed away to memory the significant lines:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion...
The jump from being able to see one's self as others see you leads to the oft-repeated phrase, fly on the wall, a shapeshifting bit of transformation that would allow us to be present during a particular conversation between (or among) two or more persons of interest.
"Oh, to be a fly on the wall," is the writer's mantra, every bit as much so as Wile E. Coyote is your nomination for at least beatification if not sainthood as the patron of all characters.
"Oh, to be a fly on the wall!" is a tangible possibility for writers in their writing hours, a reward for all those moments of potential frustration and disappointment that serve as a foundation for the joys and discoveries of the life going on about us.
To the degree you are aware of this possibility, the subsequent dialogue you concoct between characters surges forth with the secrets and agendas of those individuals, often revealing things about them you had not openly supposed, while indicating to yourself that you have more attics and basements hidden away within your psyche that you had imagined.
Because you are a relic from the pre-computer days, you remember composing in pen and ink on lined notebook paper and typewriting on the back of the stationery of bankrupted companies, given you by your father, who worked as an auctioneer for one or more referees in bankruptcy.
How easy it was to dispatch a page to the editorial graveyard by clawing at it, balling in a tight wad, then sending it in parabolic arc to a wastebasket, experiencing similar humiliations as the scruffy Wile E.Coyote, after he'd overrun some boundary in search of his one true goal, Roadrunner.
Years into the era of the computer, you wonder if your persistence in handwriting on lined legal pads remains because of the opportunity it affords to ball up a misbehaved page of text. At some point, you've fretted, balled up and tossed pages, and nudged the text into a shape you recognize as suitable for setting it into keystrokes for your computer, one of your constant enemies the humiliation of seeing the computer version and the awareness, like the coyote, that you've still managed to overrun the terrain on which the story is set.
Dialogue, the spoken discourse between two or more individuals, allows you some momentary relief. "You, there. Why are you standing around? Why haven't you taken my luggage to my suite?"
And the response. "Ah, you think I'm a bellman, do you? Fancy that."
To be effective, dialogue must have an elephant concealed between its lines, the elephant of subtext. Dialogue is not characters talking, it is the rug underneath which the elephant is buried, the gap between what is said and the inner truth of the speaker.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
With one or two exceptions, you were never harassed by schoolyard bullies, nor were you a contribution to bullying. The one or two exceptions came when, as a recent graduation from Central Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach, FL, you were now low on the totem pole across the street at the Ida M. Fisher Junior High School, particularly at noon hours, when the eighth- and ninth-grade boys were looking for such new fish as you.
Also in Miami Beach, FL, where, on occasion, you did indeed see some Confederate flags, there was a playground acquaintance named Robert Lemon, whom census labeled a schmuck. When Lemon took you aside to question your position in the matter, you allowed that he had an uncanny ability in our afternoon baseball games to throw the ball to the most unlikely places, places where there was little or no possibility for causing a baserunner to be ruled out. He persisted in wanting to know if you thought that made him a schmuck and you allowed that it did.
This was at a time when you were indeed gathering things for later use, but you hadn't the slightest notion what that use would be, much less that you would wish to turn your most significant efforts toward writing.
Pierra Vacca wanted you to go in business with him, reparing radios, which seemed sensible, even, as your father suggested, lucrative, except that your father also suggested that while you knew enough to listen to almost any radio you came in contact with, you had scant awareness of how radios worked.
"I'll show you," Pierre Vacca said. Some weeks later, when the circuitry at 1455 Michigan Avenue, Miami Beach, FL, suffered a gaping, sparking stroke, your father wondered aloud if the event had anything to do with you learning how radios worked
Here you are, years later, no longer certain you are not under attack, your bullies masquerading as editors, more specifically as interior editors. Back to the one or two exceptions meme, you are at the least tolerant of most editors, respectful to a greater degree, and in admiration of yet others. That said, when an internal editor asks of you, "You call that writing?" or the more invasive "You call that story?" then yes, you call that harassment by schoolyard bullies.
Effective editors would never ask that question, however dismayed they were made by something you had written or, at the other extreme, not written. Effective editors would suggest a change of word or verb tense or metaphor. Effective editors would question a specific use rather than make a global condemnation.
This is not to say that your interactions with editors leave you in your mildest mannered aspect or that you have not experienced some direct, immediate visceral response to the editor's suggestion or question, such as a reply you once made of "How could a reader not know that?"But over the time you have spent learning the editor's craft and way of thinking, you have learned at least not to be so visceral, in particular when an author you were once privileged to edit asked you, in high dudgeon, "How could a reader not know that?"
True enough, the author had placed the emphasis on the that, whereas you'd chosen not as your emotional fulcrum. But the result was the same; you relied on a trick taught you by an actor friend; you envisioned a personified form ot patience to appear before you, then you embraced it as though greeting some person dear to you.
The trick--the actor's trick--is to recognize the overall value of these inner bullies, these editors who are also doubters, scary-cats, and, yes, even schmucks like Robert Lemon, whose worst crime you can recall is his inability to get the baseball to the right player, guarding the right base at the right time. These are a part of your cadre; they have contributed to who you are today and, it must be admitted, who you are not.
Many, if not all your interior editorial notes are delivered in a voice lacking that accusatory tone you are so aware of when you use it in dialogue, a tone you are much more likely to heed and even, when you tell someone else of your decision to do something, saying at the time that you have the decision on good authority, you are able to smile.
Saturday, December 3, 2016
There are a number of givens or speaks-for-it-self aspects to creating characters that alternately challenge, baffle, and amuse you. When all is said and done, your basic relation ship to characters, those you create for your own attempts at fiction and those you readily accept into the green room of your sensitivities as they emerge from the works of your favored writers, is one where characters begin as a large blob of motive or desire.
What is it exactly that these not-yet individuals want?
Your own first level of awareness is to see the character as an armature of desire about which you wrap layers of traits, blemishes, and special qualities that add humanity to the overall desire. You accomplish this in your own composition by thumbing through the mug book of persons you've known, individuals you admire on a role model basis or as individuals you see in varying degrees of belief that the world would be better without them.
If you did not have the need to create characters of your own, chances are your interest in how others create characters would be academic to the degree you are an academic, of mild interest since you've been a reviewer of books for over forty years.
But you do have the need and so you begin with a created character having some wish to be somewhere other than where she is, doing something other than what she is or is not doing right now, wishing to understand why she continues to prefer vanilla ice cream when there are so many other flavors (or, for that matter, pistachio sorbet) available, or having recently made a discovery (such as the protagonist of Katherine Mansfield's short story "Bliss,") that will precipitate a life-changing shift of perspective.
Back in the past role of an editor learning his craft, you came in daily contact with characters who seemed as unreal and otherwise convincing as the occasional menu item at the nearby Brownie's Deli appearing with a French or Italian designation and, indeed, a small French or Italian flag.
How, you asked Brownie (whose true name was Sam) could one expect trustworthiness of gnocchi or salade nicoise on a menu whose staples were matzoh and eggs, corned beef on rye, skirt steak, gefilte fish, or the Selkirks (think whitefish)platter?
"Vera," Sam would say, referring to his wife. "She thinks a note of class will draw customers (Sam was clear about customers as opposed to Vera's more lofty clientele) from north of Wilshire." True enough, you were considerably south of Wilshire; even south of Pico south of Wilshire, and yet customers came for the Selkirks and the skirt steak and the corned beef.
One day, you did hear someone order a salade nicoise, and you did hear Vera's stage whispered "See!" But moments later, you also heard an exchange you could not wait to return to your office to record for whatever posterity you might contact. "You call this a salade nicoise? How is this--this thing--in any way a salade nicoise? Is there some joke here? Is this a prank? 'Smile, you're on Candid Camera.'"
"How is it such a fine fellow as yourself comes to Brownie's Deli for salade nicoise in the first place. People don't come here for salade nicoise, they come for pastrami and for blintzes and for chopped liver."
After a few more exchanges, Sam, who is passionate enough in his proprietorship of Brownie's Deli, has the last word. "I put salade nicoise on the menu because someone such as yourself might come in here one day and think to reach out for something he doesn't always get for lunch. If you can't see salade nicoise in this dish, I don't know if I can trust you with my lox and eggs."
Back in your office, a scant half block away, you do your best to capture the drama you've heard. You are in your late thirties, feeling the sense of being in transit. You've had several types of jobs by this time, not the least of which was being a shill for a Wheel O' Fortune booth at a county fair, where you were to win pounds of coffee, a large canned him, sides of bacon, and a ten-pound sack of flower known to have weevils, your "winning" performances becoming inducements to others to plunk their quarters down on the betting board before the next spin of the wheel.
You were "losing" stuffed dogs and teddybears purchased from a wholesaler in downtown Los Angeles to individuals who'd successfully knocked over milk bottles with weighted bottoms, after having spend at the very least fifteen dollars.
You were writing short stories and pulp American history episodes in the Doheney Library at USC before your evening teaching schedule began. But mostly, and mostly without realizing it at the time, you were taking in glimpses of individuals such as yourself and most unlike yourself, all experiencing extraordinary things which come out, seemingly from nowhere, every time you need a character for your own work or seek a face to put on a character you meet in the pages of a novel or short story.
Friday, December 2, 2016
Something often lost under such A-list players for story as plot, setting, conflict, theme, and dialogue, is the place where story happens, which is now. If a story has any ability at all to hold our attention, the ability comes from the sense of the story happening right now, this moment, before, as they say, our immediate eyes.
Even some boozy old geezer or addled yenta, reminiscing about some event that might have happened in the past is telling us of it right now, and whatever poignancy or other special effect it will have on us depends on the closeness and state of mind we can pick up from the narrator.
A great friend of your likes to begin his novels with what he calls "a slice of the crime," in which, with little or no explanation, he will allow us to eavesdrop on a conversation of incipient conspiracy, allow us to see a crime being committed, or let one or more of his subsidiary characters discover the crime, which they of course report to his husband and wife detective team, operating way back when, during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603).
The slice is chosen to secure our interest, from which point the author can manipulate time to give us back story leading up to the opening moment. The material is presenting as though it were taking place right now.
In one of your favorite novels--The Plague of Doves--written by one of your favorite contemporary authors, Louise Erdrich, There is one brief opening paragraph, the contents of which have indeed caused thousands of readers to stay through to page three hundred eleven.
"The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling." There we are, in the present moment, one that pulses with menace and terror within the next sixteen lines. A few years after reading this novel, you were using it as assigned reading in a fiction writing class, urging students to see how this was not only an effective way to begin the narrative that was to follow, it led us to believe we would see answers to the dramatic points raised within these few lines.
The next chapter begins with the first-person narrative of a character named Evelina, who steps forth to identify herself to us as having aboriginal blood, and introducing us to the title of the novel, all of this coming right now, even though Evelina speaks of the distant past and adds yet another layer of suspense by addressing an historical event that gives the novel its name.
"In the year 1896, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to his parishioners that they should gather at Saint Joseph's wearing scapulars and holding missals. From that place they would proceed to walk the fields in a long, sweeping row, and with each step loudly pray away the doves."
Although Erdrich's text is in the narrative form, we can see the events of both segments, happening now, the first one involving the unnamed narrator with the jammed gun looking for and finding a hammer with which to repair the gun, meanwhile playing a sound recording of violin music, needing three replays of the record to fix the gun, leaving us in the room with a man we have growing reason to suspect has killed others and has designs as well on the bawling baby.
The Evelina section is equally visual because of its now phrasing; we can hear her in voice over as we watch this group of parishioners moving out into the fields, but because voice-over is a dated technique, in its way distancing us from the action, we could visualize the great-uncle, in situ, asking if the gathered group of parishioners wore scapulars and carried missals before directing them at the doves.
What doves? We encounter those, soon enough and already the process of in the moment, present-time action has further led us to associate the presence of the doves as a result of what we saw in the opening.
In story, relationships grow in direct proportion to the events taking place on the page, and we know that even such events as interior monologue--the things characters think to themselves--are forms of action.
Even when you find yourself caught flat-footed between conflicting impulses or moral visions, you are being in the moment. Bulwer-Lytton knew a thing or two back in the day; he knew enough not to write "It had been a dark and stormy night," he got us right there, in the moment.
Lay compound tenses to rest; they mean well, but they are not going to help your way with words--or story.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
There was a satisfying sense of drama sandwiched between the layers of frustration when you realized a scene, a conversation, a dark narrative or a bright one was slipping through your fingers and you yanked the manuscript page from the typewriter, wadded it into a ball, then sent it flying to the wastebasket which, to complete the picture, was papered over with rejection slips from magazines, many of which are no longer in existence.
Part of the satisfaction came from the slight whirring of gears as the about-to-be aborted page tugged against the platen. A small sense of triumph lingered when the wadded page landed directly into the wastebasket. Hitting the select-all key and then punching at the delete key do not seem nearly so satisfying or dramatic.
The entire gesture of tossing material needs to be dramatic to remind you how you strayed from the needs of drama to in fact be dramatic, which means such things as movement, intent, pressure.
Start over. New sheet of paper. Page number typed in the corner margin. Another opening line, another vision of dramatized contention in place, followed, from time to time, with the awareness that the tossed page had some viable kernels of truth, the voice you heard, telling you this was not working, must have come from that aspect of yourself you call IE, Inner Editor, he whom you did not invite along on this venture.
All of this gets you thinking again about the dynamic of the inner voices, how you call them into play at times when you wish to portray individuals and entire families, on their way to trespassing the boundaries of civility with one another over the basic battlegrounds of self-interest.
You were fortunate to have in the dynamics of your own family one maternal-linked aunt whose mere name was enough to cause eyeballs to roll upward, heads to shake, even to the extent of her own mother, your maternal grandmother, from time to time referring to her as Der Schlong, a term that allows speakers of Yiddish and German to immediately associate it with its English meaning, the snake.
You regard yourself as fortunate because she demonstrated to you the notion that happy families may be all alike in Tolstoyan terms, but you would have to go to outrageous extremes to find a family that was entirely happy, that did not have at least one Aunt Augusta in it.
From about the age of sixteen onward, you wondered in private and in public how two sisters could be so unlike. Thinking in later years to put all that rancorous energy behind you, once again you sought her out, thinking you'd arrived at somewhere approximating success, particularly when she confided a great weakness of her to you, drew you into her kitchen, which had among other things, two huge refrigerators, one filled with such staples as milk, cheese, organic vegetables, and bottled preserves, the other laden with her weakness, the ice cream concoction known as Eskimo Pie.
Moments later, you were seated across the kitchen table from her, each of you caught up with an Eskimo Pie.
"How long has Aunt Augusta been hooked on Eskimo Pie?" you asked your mother not long after your visit to Aunt Augusta, "and how is it I am well into my fifties and hearing of it for the first time?"
"I try," you mother said, "not to be judgmental where she is concerned." But the fact was, her emphasis of the pronoun she was all you needed to fill in your own sense of family drama and dynamic. Some families have secret addictions to heroin or opium or pills, some have members unable to control their drinking or gambling urges. You had an aunt with a longtime passion for a frozen ice cream bar.
Truth also to tell, both sisters, your Aunt Augusta and your mother, worked their ways into the outer reaches of dementia toward the end of their lives. From your perspective, Aunt A. was about a five or six on the one-to-ten metric, your mother a four, working her way toward five.
This is backstory to your closure with Aunt Augusta.
A week or so after your visit, you had a phone call from your sister, which began with the sort of sigh, then long pause you had come to associate with older sister exasperation with younger brother. "You went to visit Aunt Augusta." It was not a question, more of an accusation.
"Yes," you said, "and you will not believe--"
She cut you off. "What I believe is not the issue here; it is what she believes."
"And she believes--?"
"--that you have taken seventy-five of her Eskimo Pies, a number she reached by counting the remaining Eskimo Pies in the refrigerator, adding the two you both ate, and deducting that number from the number of Eskimo Pies the filled refrigerator holds."
After another pause, "And she expects a check to cover the cost of the missing seventy-five Eskimo Pies."
In all probability, your recent reflections about pairs of opposites and your remembered admiration for Burns and Allen, Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, and Fibber McGee and Molly got you off on this venture.
One character on stage alone is nothing. One character on stage with a similar type is less than nothing; it is boring. Pairs of opposites produce outcome, have done so throughout history. Xanthias, the slave, and his master, Dionysus, in Aristophanes' play The Frogs, is your earliest example, which could keep you making a list of other comedic duets such as Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Rowan and Martin, Martin and Lewis, to name a few.
But there is Holmes and Watson and the more modern and Americanized paring of that duo, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. There is an actual police detective, Richard Queen and his private eye son, Ellery, and you feel somehow you'd get another big-sisterly sigh from your big sister if you failed to mention Tom and Huck.