Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fire Your Inner English Teacher--Salute Your Inner Critic

When you first stuck an experimental toe into the waxing tide of storytelling, you were too excited about the prospect of getting words down on paper to care much about such matters as critics, reviewers, and least of all the great roaring tide known as critical theory.

All you had to do--indeed, all you did do--was put individuals down on paper, men and women who paraded through your teen-aged dreams after your component parts transposed them from the actual persons you saw in the warp and weft of your waking life.

Without giving it much thought, you set these individuals in motion with some idiosyncratic trait rather than any real agenda. You'd in effect taken a technique from Homer, whom, at the time, you believed to be one person rather than an undifferentiated group of poet-storytellers. Thus, the man with big ears. The woman with loud, clanking jewelry. The boy with egg yolk stains on his shirt.

Not until you were well past high school and into the deeper waters of storytelling did you even consider the implications of the critical essayist. With your own idiosyncratic belief that there was practical sense in becoming an English major in order to study writing, you shifted schools and the study of journalism and graphic arts to a university where there was an actual opportunity to major in English Literature, with profitable side trips into French, Russian, Spanish, and, yes, medieval literature as well.

You had only one book to guide you, Writing Magazine Fiction, commended to you by a high school teacher, published by a university press. Bare-bones advice for those who would, as you would, write for and be published in magazines.

An early glimpse into the world of the reviewer came your way as an English major, Byron's 1809 verse poem, labeled as a satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.  This was about the time when, in a Nineteenth Century American Lit class, you were being introduced to the joys of Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, and elsewhere, you were required to read and digest Reverend Swift's A Modest Proposal. Small wonder then that you equated satire with criticism. Over the years, the equation grew to encompass your definition of satire as a medium used to undercut some aspect of The Establishment, then suggest a viable, potential cure.

In the ensuing years, you gave more time to reviews, criticism, and critical theory, indeed teaching an undergraduate class by the very name Critical Theory. Today, your views of critical theory and exploratory essays is tidal, waxing at such writers as George Orwell, Edward Said, Joan Didion, and Simone de Beauvoir, waning at such critical pronouncements as those who declare the text to variously be dead or unimportant.

To this day, when the likes of Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mark Twain, and George Orwell take the stage, you listen. At the moment, you're also quite willing to take Verlyn Klinkenborg and John McPhee into serious account. Indeed, you have two copies of Klinkenborg's Several Short Sentences about Writing on hand, one in the studio, one in the car, for immediate reference. Stashed within the bowels of your iPhone, McPhee's Draft No.4: On the Writing Process.

You have, yourself, been a critic/reviewer for any number of publications, some as diverse as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, The National Catholic Reporter, Borderline Magazine, the Montecito (CA)Journal, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner,the Los Angeles Free Press, and yet others.

You enjoy writing about writing, about things that have been written, about ideas awaiting interpretation and implementation. You've gone through a stage where you enjoyed writing take-downs and satire. You believe the stage has evolved to the point where you most enjoy writing about things that excite, enthuse, or bewilder you.

All of which is by way of speaking to your belief that each writer must delve into that area of personal taste and conviction in order to discover the things he/she stands for and against. Writing is political. If it is not; it should be.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Characters and the Current Market Price for Fish

The sooner a writer understands what her/his protagonist wants--really wants, to the point of being willing to sacrifice for it--the closer the writer is to a viable path to completion. For your part, you consider it a good day's work if you can reckon the true basic goal of the front-rank characters. 

Thus you begin, knowing what someone wants and who among the dramatis personae are in one or more ways opposed to the protagonist's goal. In the bargain, these antagonists will take active steps to prevent the protagonist from realizing the goal.

The next step along the way of composing a story is for the writer to overcome personal boundaries. You believe this aspect to be the unspoken elephant in the living room. In your own reading and writing, you try to visualize the degree of conscience inherent in each character. You match this degree of conscience with your own.

Sometimes, when you are in favored restaurants and there is a dish on the menu that appeals to you--usually fish--there is, instead of a price, some series of initials indicating current market price. In this case, the designation applies to the amount the restaurant has today for the item on the menu.

This is relevant because your own conscience, whatever its condition, is not a fixed-price entree on your psyche; it has floating values. You like to think you are a person of conscience, aware of the consequences of your behavior and your own sense of responsibility. You are also aware of the times you bent or set conscience aside and the consequences you may still be paying off.

Story begins when front-rank characters consider the possibility of setting conscience aside. Macbeth, sitting by himself, watching one of his servants carry a dinner tray to the room where King Duncan--whom Macbeth has decided to kill--awaits. Macbeth conflates the notion of this being the king's last supper with the most famous last supper in Western culture. 

Although the king is no match in virtue or reach with Christ, Shakespeare's Duncan is nevertheless a person of tangible goodness. Macbeth's conscience kicks in. He goes to his partner-in-crime, his wife, to tell her he can't go through with the plan. This is a key moment in the story; once again, we see Macbeth's conscience behaving in ways we hope will mirror our own. Once again, we admire and root for Macbeth.

As readers and writers, we need to see the protagonist in the act of being pushed to the outer boundary of conscience, then pushed over it. This moment may not be the precise moment where a particular story begins, but it is the moment where we as readers and writers wait to see what comes next. If that isn't story, you've yet to discover what story is.

The writer who is able to identify the conscience landscape of her/his characters has reached the point of ability to create characters of consequence.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Step One: Creating Good Guys and Bad Guys

Front-rank characters go about their business of story in response to their inner forces of monomania. Those of us who read and study dramatic literature learn early on to ask of the characters we encounter what they want.

You, for your part in the equation, have asked such individuals as Tom Jones, Mrs. Dalloway, Ishmael, Mr. Biswas, Charlotte Temple, Jane Eyre, and Scout Finch what they wanted as conditions to their presence in the stories wherein you associate them.

Those of us who read in the service of undertaking our own ventures into composition extend the boundaries. We wonder what characters will do to accomplish their goal. 

Yet others of us who read and seek to compose wonder even more. We wonder what happens to characters who achieve their stated goals as well as those who do not. We "get" why signing aboard The Pequod is a primary goal for Ishmael, who has found the world too much with him for the moment and wishes to get away to sea in order to calm down and ease away from his bipolarity.

We also recognize that he has done so with remarkable ease within the first several pages of a door-stopper-thick volume, whose very size alerts us to the consequences Ishmael will experience now that he has joined the crew of The Pequod. Ishmael is now swept up in a greater tsunami than his own depression; he is caught in the grip of a yet more intense monomaniac, hard at work. 

We note how Ishmael's primary goal has shifted from the mere getting away from the self of himself while in the city, and has ratcheted to survival. How lucky Ishmael is to have been chosen by his creator, Mr. Herman Melville, to survive, if only to tell the story. He is chosen to survive for other reasons as well, thus has Mr. Melville set the engines of our speculation in motion.

We are not finished with approaches to composition. Consider those writers who have--or will--wonder about protagonists and their opposite numbers whose goals are still buried under layers of guilt, obligation, and significant negligence toward self-examination.

In any case, there is no fun in being a monomaniac, although Moses Herzog, that monomaniacal protagonist of Saul Bellow's eponymous novel, gives us readers page after page of escalating mirth.

Memorable stories begin with monomaniacs, individuals whose wish for some particular outcome applies a match to a fuse attached to a bomb. One need only consider the individual ultimately known as Inspector Jaivert to see the need for monomania in story. Born in prison to a fortune-teller mother and a prison guard, he becomes at first a prison guard, then a policeman, then, by dint of his single-minded focus, a detective. Although he has read some books, he is disdainful of them. His significant vice is an occasional dip of snuff; his pleasures almost nonexistent.

If, as you have written elsewhere, Wile E. Coyote--also a monomaniac--is the patron saint of protagonists, Jaivert is the paradigm of being driven to the outer circles of hell through his exaggerated focus on the rule of law. 

In further demonstration of how self-destructive Jaivert's monomania is, his life, even for the times in which he was created, is relatively short, a scant fifty years. He could have lived longer had he not, out of frustration and rage, taken his own life. To add additional weight to his self-destruction, his creator designated him as an observant Roman Catholic. Thus even in death he has cheated himself from the possibilities of Redemption.

The lesson to be learned here is how monomania is expected in significant degree for those characters we consider protagonists. To advance a front-rank character toward the status of adversary or antagonist, we must turn up the heat of exaggeration. Notice how Lear pushes at the envelope of our tolerance, seeming in his behavior to be struggling with the necessary exaggeration to become an antagonist.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

To Thine Own Selves, Be True

To whom does the narrator speak in a novel?

This question may be overlooked by the author when composing early drafts, but it must ultimately be answered. Beginning with the general assumption that narration represents a character who is usually the primary protagonist, the answer to the question needs to consider if there are to be any other supportive voices, providing a method known as multiple point of view.

Romeo is the driving force of Romeo and Juliet. Without Romeo's precipitating action of crashing the Capulet party, there'd be no story.

The multiple point of view is your favorite approach. You find exemplary uses of it in the novels of the mystery/suspense author, Robert Crais, who has a series protagonist, Elvis Cole, you quiet admire, often because he has so many qualities you dislike. Crais is as good in using surprising details to elaborate Cole as Dickens is in Dickens' use of small details to bring his minor characters to life. 

In the Crais novels, there are other well-defined individuals, but the stories are clearly built around Cole. As a result, even when Cole is off stage, you find yourself wondering not only what he's doing but what he's thinking.

One important matter informs your regard of the use of point of view as the vehicle for relating the story. Dashiell Hammett, a writer whose work you much admire and continue to learn from, began his career as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency, private security and investigative operatives. One of Hammett's recurrent narrators, who works for the fictional Continental Detective Agency and is known only as The Continental Op, has a built-in reason for being a narrator: each of his stories is intended to be a report to a client.

You often amuse and confound yourself to the point of frustration by questioning in your own work and the works of other writers the reason for the story being told in the first place. Yes, the storyteller wishes an audience. Yes, you aspire to a readership. But there is always some point in your own composition or reading when you ask yourself why this particular protagonist is telling his or her particular story.

The narrator of Poe's short story, "The Cask of Amontillado," tells the story to impress his audience with the brilliance of his plan and the effectiveness of the revenge he sought. He is, in your view of the story, every bit as imprisoned by it as Fortunate, his victim. Thus Poe is demonstrating a dramatic version of irony, which is instructive and entertaining.

Frank Chambers, the narrator of James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is telling his story because it is at once an apologia for his having gone beyond the boundary of morality with Cora, and a cautionary tale about allowing one's self to become fixated on the outcome to the point of breaking laws.

More often than not, the writer is directing the characters to address one another rather than the audience. For your part in the bargain, you tend to enjoy and get more out of reading and composing where your takeaway is of feeling like an eavesdropper, bringing as much or more insight to what you've witnessed than the characters, themselves.

The narrator is, accordingly, talking to the two essential parts of his or her being, observing with each as it argues with, learns from, and accommodates with the other.

Your definition of an ending for a narrative is some form of negotiated settlement with reality. In that same spirit, you look at a narrative point of view as an articulated and acted-upon conversation between the desires of the character and the perception of how the character accommodates those wishes.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sa va sans dire

What is the writer's intent when composing? In concert with that generalized question, what is your intent when you compose? And in the spirit of your wish to keep matters clear and direct, is their a difference in your intent when you compose fiction and when you compose nonfiction such as a review, essay, or some aspect of memoir?

To add ingredients to this goulash, there is this question: Which is more meaningful to you, the dramatic principles of invention so far as you have learned them to date, or the observations of factual accuracy as you observe that quality to be.

You could also add this question: What were you looking for when you began to realize how reading could be a path you could follow, leading you from the constraints of your early age?  Didn't reading hold out the promise, then provide the fulfillment of escape from boredom and the conventional constraints of your early years?

Indeed you read at first to escape the boredom inherent in your surroundings. Your getaway car, its engine revving, was story. You brought back enough from reading story to turn huge expanses of empty lots into jungles, oceans, mountain ranges and, at one point, the Anatolian Plain wherein you undertook replications of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  

Most, but not all, nonfiction offered you information, but little opportunity to use it without yourself becoming boring. When you have no tangible opportunity to use information except to spout it or, worse, pontificate with it, you become the very boredom you dread.

Now that you revisit the matter, you wished through reading to observe others in their attempts to escape boredom and constraint. When you were not reading, you tended to admire and gravitate toward adults and peers who did not appear to be boring. 

At some point, perhaps in observation of the peers you were drawn to, you began to realize that you were more often drawn to liars and those who exaggerated the circumstances in which they found themselves.

There was an entire part of you who orchestrated exaggerations and lies as an escape route from boredom. You were attracted to the reading life because it offered the continuous promise of escape. The side benefit came from fact-based narrative, which is to say nonfiction. If you had enough demonstrable data at your hands, you were simultaneously building acceptance for your exaggerations and outright lies.

Two major works of nonfiction, Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, and The Journals of Lewis and Clark, because of their frequent lapses into conversational presentation of information, became standards against which you judged work that made no bones about being invented. And Twain, thanks to his magnificent introduction of his main character, the Mississippi River, led you to suspect that factual data--or the pretense of factual data--could be used to manipulate readers and, indeed, other characters within the same narrative.

There was little question, early on, which path you should follow. Thanks to some fourth grade misdeeds involving simple mathematics and, later, eleventh grade fisticuffs with algebra, you had no difficulty setting aside thoughts of becoming an aeronautical engineer. So far as becoming a restaurateur was concerned, you could indulge your appetites for cuisine either at your mother's table or by dining out.

"You are one devious, manipulative son of a bitch," an older person named Lou, who also had literary interests, told you, "but are you devious and manipulative enough to be a writer?"

"Nous verons, n'est-ce pas," you responded.

"I didn't know you spoke French," Lou said.

You didn't then, you don't now, but sa va sans dire, you were manipulative and devious then, as you are now.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Do People Even Drink Amontillado These Days?

When you pick up a book, you are engaging in a transaction with at least one other person, who might no longer be alive. You pick up the book with the expectation of being a part of that transaction. 

If the book is nonfiction, you'll come away with information and opinions for use in your own conversations and intellectual survival. If the book is a work of fiction, you expect to be shanghaied to geographical and emotional planes you'd not expected to visit, caused to root for some kind of tangible achievement for one or more individuals you know up front to be imaginary. You'll have every chance of seeing your way into, around, or through some existential and emotional maze.

When you undertake to write a book, you're offering the kinds of outcomes you expect when your own intent is to read.

In each case, as reader or writer, you're vulnerable to such variables as boredom, insufficient information, too much information, disturbing conclusions and, worse, disturbing illustrations.
Even though you often read for comfort and write to achieve yet another kind of comfort, you run the risk of being transported to a place and degree well beyond comfort.

As a younger person, the more you read, the more your appreciation grew for the men and women who seemed to have an inexhaustible appetite for exploration, extrapolation, and the adventure of examination. You also became aware of the multitudes of failed attempts at the barest forms of connection and communication.

One afternoon, when you had a favored author in your editorial office at 1640 So. La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles, you heard him deliver a story about an event that befell him at an open house given by a literary agent who, at one time, had been your own literary agent. A bellicose and belligerent individual had, so your about-to-be author revealed to you, confronted him. "See here, Sturgeon," the confronter told the author, whose name was indeed Sturgeon. "Ninety percent of this science fiction you people write is pure crap."

Sturgeon confessed to you that he was possibly a bit drunk at the time, but less so than the boor who'd accosted him. "My dear sir," Sturgeon reported himself as having said, "ninety percent of everything is pure crap."

You're pleased to note that the incident has found its way into the configurations of Google as both Sturgeon's Law and Sturgeon's Revelation. This discovery forces you to conclude that Theodore Sturgeon made the observation numerous times, the moment in your office being only one recitation. You are led to conclude that Sturgeon dined out on that trope, perhaps already aware this was yet another reason why his observations about the human condition why he would be remembered.

Sturgeon's Law or, if you will, Revelation, also led you to the direct understanding that the concept of an individual dining out on some observation or other was the subtextual root of Edgar Allen Poe's famed short story, "A Cask of Amontillado." 

In your view, this story ends well beyond the eerie, plangent conclusion of Montressor, the narrator/protagonist, telling us his tormentor's bones have remained undisturbed for years, and wishing for Fortunato to rest in peace. This ending suggests to you the notion of the narrator dining out and gaining some sort of fame by reminding newer audiences of his own cunning.

Roiling about in your mind is the potential for a remake of Poe's story with the new opening scene of a hostess arranging the guest list for a sit-down dinner party. Her husband looks at the guest list, hopeful Montressor is not invited. The wife says she has no other choice than to invite him. Family obligation. The husband replies with the fervent hope someone will have the good sense of stopping him before he can relate that awful, self-serving narrative.

Reading and writing are among the more significant things we of homo sapiens do four ourselves and for the genus and species. These activities become in actual and metaphorical forms the prisms through which reality passes to become, at the peak, art, at the nadir, boredom.

You've had occasion to teach a course for graduate, undergraduate, and curious adult audiences in which the goal is to show "How to Read Like a Writer." Since you've been preoccupied these past days with books that hold for you even greater promise than collections of stories or novels or essay. Time now to nod toward Francine Prose's excellent and compelling How to Read Like a Writer,  in which she provides her syllabus for doing that most worthwhile thing.

This excellent book makes you want to eavesdrop and spy on Prose's considerable analytical and storytelling ways, then to read more books and write more. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Volume Control

In one of the earliest stages of your writing life, you were in competition with yourself to see if the reader within could accomplish more reading than your interior writer.

You were at the time digesting a great deal of material while simultaneously producing a great deal of derivative text, its most significant quality that of sounding something like the person you'd read and been affected by. Your work sounded as much like those you admired as aftermarket watches resemble their actual role models.

You were striving for two stations, being well read and being at the state where everything you wrote found a home for publication. In retrospect, you're able to congratulate yourself for understanding the need for a writer to read and assimilate. In the years to come, you understood the impossibility of being well read, the energy necessary to assimilate and process what you did read, and the excruciating difficulty in writing in a manner that made your output seem conversational.

At this writing, you've been of a mind to revisit authors you admire and continue to learn from, steadfast in your determination to sound like you rather than them. If something you wrote or said reminded someone else of a writer you hold in particular esteem, you'd be pleased but nervous you might be taking on stylistic and thematic traits other than your own.

For the same reasons you can never consider yourself well read (even though you may feel exasperation toward a student who wishes to become a published author), you do not wish to give the impression you are the literary equivalent of a VW Bug, pulled along the highway in the stream of an eighteen-wheel rig. 

William Campbell Gault, a writer you knew as a fan and then as a friend said, "I'd rather be the world's worst writer than a good anything else."  You can never be well enough read to suit yourself, nor can you allow yourself to think of yourself as an emerging writer, struggling to keep from becoming the world's worst.

On that basis, you admire D.H. Lawrence beyond wishing to sound like him or reflect the plangent clarity of his dramatic vision. Instead, you openly aspire to write a document which you will call Studies in Classic American Literature, to which you will append the subtitle, Volume Two (because D. H. Lawrence wrote Volume One).

In your own words and supporting opinions, you will write an opening chapter called "The Spirit of Place," which Lawrence used to begin his study. He went on to write eleven more chapters, devoted to the works of ten other American writers. Lawrence gave Melville two chapters, one for Typee and Omoo, another for Moby Dick.  You will pick six American writers who are women, among them Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, Francine Prose, Tillie Olsen, and Deborah Eisenberg. You will also pick six American men, among whom you have Mark Twain, Saul Bellow, John O'Hara, Philip Roth as candidates and a rousing internal debate about the likes of Leslie Fiedler, Stephen Crane, James Baldwin, and Walter Mosely.

From the moment you first picked up that book to the time you first stood in the train station at Lamy, NM, at which he debarked, you'd had this notion of writing this book. The way your process works, you've been in a clear sense to you working on it over these years. 

If  D.H. Lawrence is the inspiration for the project, William John "Bill" Evans (1929--80) a significant presence in American jazz, is a persistent assurance your finished result will sound nothing like D.H.Lawrence. As though you could.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Twice More unto the Breech

Congratulations.

You've reached the stage--or state--in life where you can no longer compile lists of which you are able to limit the number of entries. This stage--or state--applies to lists of things you favor and, thus, admire as well as to things of which you disapprove and, thus, hold in a negative state of regard.

Most of your lists include ten items because of the length of your classes when you began teaching in 1974. Only in rare occasions were you able to touch all ten of the points you'd outlined for coverage in a particular class, but ten seemed like a convenient number of things to have on a list of positive things.

You're relying now on memories over forty years old, but it is your present belief that you were hard pressed to find ten or more things within a frame of reference that you disliked or had negative regard for.

Only yesterday, even as you wrote of your literary equivalents of comfort food, Mark Twain's essay/review, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," and George Orwell's exquisite, "Dickens," you were thinking of others of consequence to you.

One of these is something that came to you by the same kind of happy accident with which so many pleasing and rewarding things snuggle into your life. Somewhere back in the early 1990s, you were sent a book to review,The Last Fine Time, by Verlyn Klinkenborg.  By the nature and quality of this book or, indeed, anything Klinkenborg writes, attempting to describe it in apercu is impossible and in the bargain a foolish venture.

You did not know this at the time, wondering instead how it was that the book review editor could think to send you, of all possible reviewers, a saga of a neighborhood bar in Buffalo, New York. You began to realize you were a fan of the author after you'd read only a page or two.

Later, when you discovered Klinkenborg wrote a weekly column for The New York Times, you made a ritual of retrieving the times from wherever the deliverer had tossed it, brought it into the house, turned to the editorial page, then, while sipping morning coffee, reading the latest Klinkenborg column aloud to your wife, who, not given to the kinds of explicative you employ, would say such things as, "I've got to take that to my class. When I read that to them, they'll swear off their own awful writing and take up something nonverbal."

You happened on what you believe to be the latest Klinkenborg effort by the merest--and happiest--chance. Again you were caught off guard, again caught in a transformational swarm of connection with the written word.

By way of a brief-but-relevant distraction, you've been a fan and practitioner of the long sentence. This is in part due to your gradual appreciation of Faulkner. This is also because you took pride in being able to capture a paragraph in a sentence, without losing the reader. You were showing off, for yourself and the reader.

The earth-shaking work by Klinkenborg this time is 


which provides its reader with a thoughtful set of guidelines to composition that moves you as all too few novels move you, causes you to approach your own composition with a different set of conditions and, most important of all, a different expectation for the outcome.

Since your discovery of this book, you keep it close at hand, one copy near your reading chair, the other in your car against times when you may be between chores with reading time available.

The other entry to your list is a collection of essays that has, in its way, dealt with your narrative voice and attitude.

Each time you consult this particular book, you find yourself thinking of Alice as she discovers, then becomes engaged by the rabbit hole. This book is Joan Didion's The White Album, which is so sure of its own voice that you, in the act of rereading it, are reminded to listen with care and focus each time you set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Dread, fragmentation, and uncertainty, all powerful emotions, jostle and bump at Didion as she writes,causing her the kinds of focus you reckon a writer needs in order to survive in the perilous landscape of the twentieth century.

You like to pair The White Album with another book about an American landscape you'd like to pay tribute to and continue to steep yourself in.

But more about that book, perhaps tomorrow.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sitting on the Offense

Since you were in effect turned out into the streets after your graduation from high school and told in specificity and generality that you'd passed the first milestone of intellectual accomplishment, you've been at various, contradictory efforts to simplify and complicate yourself.

Now, at this stage of your game, when the world is, as Wordsworth put it in his plangent sonnet, "too much with us," or when you find yourself, as Ishmael--Melville's, not the biblical Ishmael--did in Moby-Dick, with a cold, gray November in your soul, you reckon it time to consult your two favorite sources for revitalizing experience.

Both are essays of considerable length and specificity, demonstrating to you for the hundreds of times you've reread and otherwise dealt with them the nuance inherent in simplicity and the degree of control necessary should you chose to venture into complexity.

The first of these essays came to you in your late teens, say sixteen. Mr. Mark Twain was already your default hero in residence, had been so for the better part of ten years. In service of that hero worship, you were embarked on a goal of reading every one of his published words.

One of your parents' friends, a person you'd not thought to have been any sort of reader, accosted you one evening at one of your parents' many buffet-style entertainments. The person you have in mind knew of your literary aspirations.  "How many," he pressed, "of Fenimore Cooper's literary offenses have you committed?"

Smart ass though you were, egocentric and rebellious though you may have been, you were still your parents' son, subject at the very least to basic rules of politeness.  Accordingly, you recall yourself responding, "Excuse me?"  You may well have been thinking you had no fucking idea what this person was talking about, nevertheless you said, "Excuse me?"

At that moment, you learned of a major presence in your life, that excellent combination of critical probity, understated ironic humor, and muscle memory, to all of which you aspired with the aching sincerity only a sixteen-year-old boy can achieve.  Thus you met Twain's essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," many parts of which you have committed to memory.  On many occasions, you distributed photocopies of this essay to your students. You've referenced in in a writing technique book, and you ask questions related to it whenever you read with some sense of critical purpose the draft of a composition in the works.

Each time you write a review for publication or a reader's report for a client,"Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" haunts the battlements of your critical spirit much the way the spirit of the recently murdered King Hamlet stalked Elsinore Castle.  

When you begin to reread the results of a day's work on some piece of fiction, you hear Twain's voice from this essay, asking you if the reader will be able to distinguish between the live personages and the dead ones. Somewhere within the notebook you've begun relative to the revised edition of your Fiction Writer's Handbook, your handwritten question to yourself: "Will this revised edition be your extended tribute to Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses ?"

The second essay also has relevance for you as an aspiring writer, as a teacher, and as an editor. Its title suggests--and then goes on to argue in favor of--less is more.  "Charles Dickens."  What wonderful economy, promising, then delivering, such a bountiful cornucopia. The subject of the essay, Charles Dickens, the English author, is not one of your favored writers; perhaps he'd come in within the first twenty or so. But of his time and place, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, and William M. Thackeray hold higher places in your esteem.

You read this essay in the first place because of its author, Eric Blair, writing as George Orwell. You read it with the confidence Orwell brings you each time you read something of his that by doing so, you will learn not only something about the subject at hand, say the provocative "Shooting an Elephant," but about the process of composition and the means by which you may convey images that will resonate within as many readers as possible.

"Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing," Orwell writes in his opening sentence. Who knows how long he labored over his array of information and opinions related to Dickens in order to see this potent intrigue, to be followed by the only other sentence in the paragraph, itself intriguing and, in combination, a knockout punch.  Who could resist the entire essay after reading these two? Not you.  "Even the burial of his body in Westminster Abby was a species of theft, if you come to think of it?"

If ever you were motivated by the use of a rhetorical device to read all the way through, this was a sterling example.

In the bargain, you get Orwell's discussion on Dickens' plots, his characters, his politics, and how he puts his personal experiences and attitudes to use in his stories, ranging from the more or less free-form Pickwick Papers the exquisitely narrated and plotted Great Expectations.

In recent years, you've noticed how sentimental journeys to the past often end in disappointment, in large measure because they remind you of how small you were then and how complete and magical persons, places, and things seemed then.  Returning to these essays does indeed diminish your stature, but only for the better sense of helping you to see how you've got a good start, but still have a way to go.

Tomorrow, or soon, the essays of two contemporary writers, quite alive and quite able to help you cover some ground in your wish to learn. 


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Once More unto the Breech...

Among the many requirements with you were forced to comply in order to graduate from the University of California, mandatory presence in the Reserve Officer's Training Corps, or ROTC, and either diving or jumping from a ten-meter board into a pool of water remain fixed in your memory as two of what you've come to think of as defining details.

Such details of definition have, over the years of your interest in reading, writing, editing, and teaching story, taken on a provocative and idiosyncratic presence, burrowing below conscious thought to the equivalent of muscle memory as you in fact read, write, edit the work of others, and attempt to teach yet others how to tell story.

So far as ROTC is concerned, you'd never thought to have anything to do with it until forced to accept it as a price to be paid for attending the University of California. The courses went through and past you in a blur until you were issued a rifle you were expected to maintain and carry with you during the weekly drill session. The rifle was also your occasion to have been offered a bit of advice from a ROTC faculty that in its way helped inform your sense of humor.

You knew the faculty member from his civilian reputation of having been an outstanding player for the lackluster UCLA football team. He now walked with a limp, carried a bamboo cane, extending the romantic notion of his having been wounded in the service of his country.

He recognized your relative ineptness for things military. One day, he took you aside to caution you about the inevitability of your own looming service to your country, most likely in Korea. "Soon," he said, "you will be taken to a firing range, where you will be issued ammunition, then directed to fire your weapon at a series of targets." He paused to let this sink in, then said, "I'm only going to tell you this once. When the time comes for you to discharge your weapon at one of these targets, you must set aside any pride of accomplishment. You must not aim at the targets assigned to you. If you aim at the targets assigned to you and are successful, you will have won an infantry marksman designation. Never aim at a target that is not yours."

You followed his advice, often with results that disturbed and confounded others. But you were not designated infantry.

At this far remove from your undergraduate days, you continue to cherish the notion of aiming at your own targets rather than those of someone else. You have been in any number of unwanted places, some of them quite disagreeable. You have been given any number of designations that were not congruent with your own designation of Self. But you have never been to Korea, and in one remarkable instance were even refused service in a Korean restaurant, where you went by yourself.

On a scale of one to ten, you'd rank your fear of heights at about five or six. There was no question in your mind that you would indeed step off the high-dive platform on which you stood, looking down at the pool below, where not long before, while playing water polo, you'd blocked an attempted goal spike.

While you mounted the steps to the platform, you even gave serious consideration to a dive rather than a jump, even considering the frill of an added somersault to the dive. Some of your classmates were more hesitant; they had to be coaxed and wheedled before taking the step. Their behavior made you at once scornful and sympathetic, bordering on empathetic.

But now, your name was called. The instructor, clipboard in hand, made eye contact with you, nodded, then tapped his clipboard with his pencil. Somehow, thoughts of a somersault vanished with the tapping of the pencil. In both heart and mind, you knew you would step off the platform. But not just yet.

The instructor nodded again.  "Okay," he said. "Welcome to the world of university graduates."

You looked down at the water. That was over thirty fucking feet. You thought of one of your favorite comedians, Jack Benny, when being confronted by a robber with "Your money, or your life."  To which, after a pause, Benny said, "I'm thinking. I'm thinking."

The instructor spread his palms.

You were thinking.

You were thinking about the devious route you took home from Hancock Park Elementary School, detouring on Lindenhurst and on Maryland streets, where there there were single-dwelling homes you'd scouted out, with owners who were away at work. You knew which houses suited your purpose--to seek the garage at the rear, whereupon you would clamber to the roof of said garage, then jump to the patch of grass below. For that precious moment of your fall, you were the person the third-grade you wished to be, aloft, alert, beyond any restraint except gravity. But you didn't even have to worry about gravity because you wouldn't have to study that until the fourth grade. Or so you thought.

By the time you studied gravity, you were on the other side of the continent, thousands of miles from Hancock Park Elementary School and in a world of racism and culture clash, where everyone--including your teacher--talked differently and thought you were the one who sounded funny because you didn't talk the way they did.

You stepped off the ten-meter board and once again entered free fall.

This is what you do every time you begin a new project, and what you need to keep in mind every time you bring a new character on stage. You set him or her in motion by requesting them to climb the platform, then either jump or dive into the story below.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Lessons about Story Learned from The Faerie Queen and "True" Freshmen

You sometimes need three or four paragraphs of warm-up description before you find yourself at the true beginning. You were reminded of this apparent need while, of all things, watching a televised football game in which the commentators spoke of a particular player being "a true freshman."

The very designation "true freshman" is enough to send you reeling wickedly down the path of distraction because of your immediate curiosity about what would constitute a false freshman. Such is your nature. You like the conceit, buried within an appellation or designation.  Years after your first exposure as an English major to Spenser's epic poem, The Faerie Queen, you still find yourself chuckling at the true Florimel and the false, chuckling deeper into mirth at Una, whose name suggests oneness, and Duessa, which derives from duality.

In any case, a true freshman is an athlete who has just entered high school or college, playing on a varsity sports team. In college athletics, an athlete has a specific number of years of eligibility, most likely four. An athlete may elect to "red shirt" or engage in practice sports without giving up a year of eligibility. This election is on occasion made for the purpose of working out with members of the varsity team, getting experience and coaching, without losing a year of actual playing time. An athlete may also opt to "red shirt" while an established athlete competes at the same position, in effect waiting out the competition without losing eligibility.

Look at the potential for nuance in the term "true freshman." What a splendid way of indicating status and, perhaps even agenda, particularly if you look at the possible scenario in which an athlete is told, "We'll give you a scholarship, but in order to get it, you'll need to red shirt for a year."  You, already admitted to undergraduate status, were once told you'd be offered a full scholarship after a commitment to be on the track team. But you'd need to red shirt for a year in which you a) worked out with the track team and b) gave up smoking.

Opening scenes, whether of a short story, a novel, or even a fresh chapter from a narrative in progress are problematic in direct proportion to your reliance on description. You in effect begin by describing physicality and potential conflicts of agenda and morality, red shirting in effect rather than starting right out with true freshmen.

This is as true of the opening chapter of a project you have before you as it is of the short story you're working on as a procrastination gesture to avoid facing the facts of the novel you have in mind.  Physical descriptions may help you see the characters and the situations, but they do little to entice the reader of the twenty-first century to metaphorically hop the train of story. You have sufficient experience from working your way up to your present level of ability and from your years as an editor with various publishing venues and with close to forty years of teaching a range of undergraduate, graduate, and adult students. On several levels, you understand that no reader will wish to hop a stationary train.

The train--any dramatic conveyance--must be in motion. How about "They threw me off the hay truck at about noon."? Most readers, even non James M. Cain devotees, would at the very least tarry for the next sentence.

All of which supports the argument that the best way to let the reader meet and get used to any character is to show that individual in some kind of motion. The descriptions of that character become impressions held by the other characters.

Rereading your opening scene caused you the motion of smiting your forehead with the butt of your palm. Alas, you'd red-shirted your characters.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Dark and Stormy Knight

After a long history of inner debates, reflections, and arguments within yourself, with other writers, and with many of your students, you continue to place the concept of characters closest to the top of the story pyramid.

The one or two possible competitors are narrative voice or tone, and the risky-but-compelling notion of narrative filter or point of view.

Inner parts of you argue that point-of-view, important as it is, leads back to characters--the person or persons who relate the story for the reader. At the moment, you believe those inner parts of you are the literary equivalents of Tories. This leads you back at your original argument: In order to move away from the narrative sandbox and into the dramatic, story must be political. 

In many cases, first-person point of view becomes attractive for the emerging writer; it was certainly compelling for you, until you made a turning-point discovery: First-person narrative requires an entire character to justify it. First-person narrative cannot be an easy excuse for using it as a vehicle only to escape writing in authorial omniscience.

This understanding helped you to see how you cannot be the one to tell the story. You must select one or more characters to do so. You cannot in effect say "Once upon a time" any longer, any more than you can resort to Bulwer-Lytton's, "It was a dark and stormy night," from his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.

Within your own history of reading to see how other writers accomplished the sorts of results you coveted, there was the years of your fascination with the novels of one Charles Dickens. He had no problems you could see with characters. 

At one point in your investigations of his works, you became aware of the significant number of his characters who found their way into dictionaries, sometimes only as "a character in the Charles Dickens novel X." Nevertheless, they were names that evoked presences and traits, two qualities a character, as you see the concept, needs to have.

But many of Dickens' characters were actually more caricature rather than character, persons sketched in on the basis of a well-tailored name--Murdstone, Heap, Gargery, Micawber--and one obvious trait. His characters were parodies and satires of the types Dickens, with his keen eye for detail, was able to identify from the passing parade about him. Not that many of his characters have the roundness, dimension, complexity and inner turmoil you've come to cherish in writers such as Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, Deborah Eisenberg, Dennis Lehane, E.M. Forester, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

Even such recognized satirists as Evelyn Waugh, Sinclair Lewis, and Ring Lardner were able to produce a character with more nooks, crannies, and hiding places in order to keep their work from having the more obvious surface gloss of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century satirists.

Story begins for you when two or more characters meet, then begin communicating, each confident of being heard and understood. The audience knows the truth: each character has set forth in the belief--and accompanying moral authority--of being right and understood.

The reader is at the apex of this triangle, at the peak, hearing and assimilating the nuances of difference among the characters.

Characters must be fleshed out beyond mere caricature, fitted with dramatic equivalents as hearing aids, contact lenses, perhaps an artificial joint or so. They must also brim over with purpose. You know many individual in real time who are soaked through with purpose and agenda, but even these are no match for the memorable characters who not only ante up to participate in the pot, they are aware of defects, shames, humiliations, and deficiencies that needed to be overcome.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thank you, Gordon

For the longest time, you looked for ways to include your friends as heroic or at least as friends of the protagonists in your fictions. This left you the Dickens-envy of trying to establish those who, in real life, you sought some form of revenge as eccentrics, grouches, and miscreants.

You were not alone in this practice. Indeed, you eventually discovered how a rival for an editorial promotion had cast you as a potential Iago in at least two massmarket paperback novels. You also learned that Ed McBain,one of your favorite mystery writers tended to name junior high schools after his card-playing friends, and to your great amusement, you appeared in a collaboration by two of your own card-playing friends, Day Keene and Len Pruyn.

Nor were you above portraying the buttoned-down inner humor of Charles E, Fritch ("Horse's Asteroid") as Chick Fitch and an author you greatly admired--and edited--William F. Nolan, as Bill Nolag.

As such things go, a young lady you thought well enough of for quite some time to consider marriage with had sneaked a copy of the Keene-Pruyn venture into a study hall, laughed so explosively at seeing your presence in the work that she earned herself a week's detention.

Your most recent collected short stories contain the presence of the late, lamented Steve Cook, the perennially worried and pestered Duane Unkefer, Digby Wolfe, and, in what you considered elegant japery, Barnaby Conrad, transmuted to Conrad Burnaby.

These represent the visible part of the iceberg. They add a note of amusement to what you have come to realize is a longstanding, difficult process. Speaking of longest times as you were in the opening paragraph, you were for considerable time in denial of the difficulty of the process of concocting a convincing story about plausible, lifelike individuals. You did not take kindly to the notion that writing should be anything but fun. You thought this because you paid little attention to your first or perhaps second drafts because, why bother? If there were in fact something wrong, you could catch it with the next story.

During another long burst of time, when you wrote novels for the ongoing Nick Carter mysteries, you named Carter's villains after department chairpersons who had in some way or other run afoul of your cheerful nature, describing their physicality in unnecessary--to all but you--detail and exaggerating your grievances against them to a point you later realized undercut their dramatic plausibility.

Not all that long ago--at least in your terms--you began to recognize the need to humanize your Iago sorts, while adding some grounding to the quirkiness of those characters you tend to like more than the Iago sorts. In retrospect, you wish it had been longer for your recognition,rather than not all that long ago.

The novel you're at now begins with a dislikeable character who heads a committee to hire your protagonist. You have discovered some excellent and valid ways to keep this character unlikeable. But only last week, while you drank coffee at your favorite coffee shop and waited for the arrival of a friend who you will surely be able to put to use as a character, your attention was drawn to a customer whom you disliked on sight.

He represented the embodiment of entitlement, class-consciousness, and little or no patience for the working classes. (Time to get honest with yourself here. In your head, you champion the working classes. You've worked picket lines, contributed to strike funds, joined various boycotts from the comforts of your middle-class, white male platform. But you are alert to see the potential for Archie Bunker to reside in the skin of the factory worker, the union person, the laborer.)

You knew in a moment that this individual who caused you such distaste was your character, Gordon Slope. Watching him, you even realized that Slope must wear plastic Crocs, have one or two varicose veins on his legs, muscled from treadmill exercise.

Whatever it was that got you thinking next, What can be done to make this person likable, he did it for you by treating the baristas with respect, interest, and some measure of empathy.
The next time you were at the coffee shop at the same time he was, you took him in with a glance, greeted him with a cordial How's it going, Gordon?  He had no way of knowing anything about you, but for a moment, his eyes met yours. He nodded, then smiled.

Thank you, Gordon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nature Abhors a Metaphor

You were well beyond courses in literature and literary criticism when you learned not to attribute human emotional responses to inanimate objects or phenomena. Such attributions, often made in some of the literature you read, were called out by critics with a designation you considered harsh, but necessary.

Violations of this sort were given the name Pathetic Fallacy by John Ruskin, a Victorian Era critic and watercolor painter whose pronouncements intrigued and delighted you because of the way he seemed to be suspicious of unnecessary detail. When you first learned of Ruskin and were assigned portions of his signature three-volume work, The Stones of Venice, you were attracted by the notion that although his subject was architecture and his principal focus was the difference between Gothic and Renaissance styles, here he was, presenting an approach to literature as well.

His approaches could be applied to philosophy, artistic standards and, to the extent you were able to appreciate such things, morality. You were a bit put off by his use of God as the high standard to which artists dedicated the results of their work. To an extent, you still are. 

But thanks to that great triumvirate of Christopher Isherwood, Swami Prabhavananda, and The Bhagavad-Gita, each of which you were to become more closely aware, you were able to see Ruskin as an advocate of work as an offering to a higher standard, work as a form of worship, if you will, karma yoga, if you will.

To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof.

Nice as it is to be paid for your work, especially since you have in recent days deposited a royalty check for a tad less than eighty dollars, you did not do the work for the expressed purpose of making eighty dollars or any amount. You did the work because you felt like it, wanted to do it, could not, in fact, not do the work.

"Nature abhors a vacuum."  Ruskin had words about that. So did you.  Did Nature, you wondered, know she abhorred a vacuum. Perhaps She had something to say about the matter, and thus you were off on your hobby horse, a concept you got from Lawrence Sterne, author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

"When new born Dawn came on with her rose-fingered daylight". Homer, right? The Odyssey, right?   Pathetic fallacy, right? Much as you admire and to this day reread Homer, you never had a wish to write the way he--or more probably, they--did.

This is not to say you wished to leave inanimate detail out of your writings. Rather, you look for ways to impart some greater sense of presence from them than mere thing-ness. For this, you rely on figures of speech, of simile, metaphor, on that great quality of speech known as irony.

Nature will never abhor a vacuum in one of your stories, nor will It be assigned a gender because of your own belief--with help from Ruskin--that doing so is patronizing. Nature will, indeed, be a present force in your stories. Not, perhaps in the Arctic frost of Jack London's story, "To Build a Fire," but nevertheless as a force where a tsunami of human events, more often than not at great competition with one another, will befall one or more of the characters you select to endure and--somehow--profit from them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Expetiences with Ants and Sentences

This morning, as you took your coffee on your back deck while regarding the plants and animal/insect life about you, a procession of ants caught your eye.

Relieved that they appeared to have no interest in gaining entry to your studio, you were content to watch and admire their progress, either convinced by your reading of their activity or conscious of your own longterm plans that this was mo mere procession of ants. This was a trail of ants with a purposeful agenda.

This led you to single one ant from the procession, then compare it to you as its analog, one individual, singled out from the procession about you.

The sentence looks at the paragraph the way a single ant looks at a picnic. Each longs to participate in something  larger and nourishing.

To avoid the accusation of pathetic fallacy with respect to the nature of the inanimate sentence having any agenda at all, you'd have to demonstrate how sentences were not, in fact, inanimate objects. You'd have to demonstrate how sentences are alive with intent and agenda, just as in fact any ant has intention and agenda.

You have spent much of your life, from about age sixteen onward in the service of imparting life and agenda to your sentences. During those years, you spent little energy amassing experience and information about ants. When your attention was called to the matter of ants, it was more often than not in relationship to getting them to apply their considerable, hive-mind intelligence to moving their presence from your living quarters.

There is no comfort in the recent understanding that you have for so long neglected to consider how important it is for sentences in narratives to have life and agenda, only a resolve to make up for lost time. There is even less comfort to be had with the understanding that you've probably killed more ants than you have spent killing or rearranging pesky sentences.

Over the course of time elapsed since you first began trying to bring life and meaning to your sentences, your experience with ants and sentences has caused you to evolve. You've moved from a young person eager to get as many sentences and stories down in retrievable form as possible to an older person, wrestling with the dynamics of story. And let the ants fend for themselves.

There is an overwhelming possibility that there will be ants, cockroaches, and most likely coyotes long after your allotted time has passed and you have become--to indulge another trope--yet another of Nature's afterthoughts.

Your preoccupation with sentences and stories are no less important to you than the procession of ants in industrious procession from the fence post to a concrete berm separative the property where you life from the fire station next door. Some of the ants are carrying what appear to be large crumbs.

For your part, you carry crumbs from your imagination and your experiences.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Comfort Food

The designation of comfort food is apt.

However sophisticated and diverse your culinary tastes may have evolved, you find an unchanging wave of assurance and satisfaction after a meal of creamed tuna on toast or cottage cheese pancakes. However welcomed the personalized instructions on pasta making from Julia Child are, there is still the comfort food aspect of Franco-American canned spaghetti and, even more louche, Chef Boyardee ravioli.

To supplement these gustatory comforts, each of which you are able to provide for yourself--one can Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, one can (yes!) Del Monte peas, one can Chicken of the Sea tuna, and one can or bottle of mushrooms--there are the literary equivalents, designated as comfort literature.

High on your list of comfort literature:

1. Any essay from Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, or Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain.
2. Nearly any essay by Mr. Eric Blair, who wrote as George Orwell, with special emphasis on his essays on Charles Dickens and, of all things, coal mining.
3. Any page from Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey
4. Any page from The White Album by Joan Didion

You resort to comfort literature when, as William Wordsworth put it:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. – Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, 
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Comfort literature settles you back into the assurance that you can not only produce a sentence or two, you can find yourself alert and tingling to the possibilities of those sentences, no matter where they might lead you.

On a recent spell of having the worlds of thought and clutter too much with you, the time was ripe for George Orwell's essay on coal mining, which reminded you of those few years in which you were excited by the excitements and perils of writing as your sole source of income.

In keeping with your fondness for the place and times of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, and your curiosity about the Gold Country in and about California's State Highway 49, you spent time panning for gold, using the large, deep-sided pan employed by the early miners.

You spent hours rereading Mark Twain and Dan DeQuille's The Big Bonanza.  From your efforts at panning for gold, you learned of scraped knuckles, the pervasive presence of iron pyrites, also known as fool's gold, wet boots, and, even more to the point, a stiff, notional back.

You never thought of the wild, ebullient lode finds nor, in mixed metaphor, the look on James Dean's face when, as he portrayed Jett Rink in the filmed version of Edna Ferber's novel, Giant, he "struck it rich" as an oil prospector.

Like the miners in Orwell's essay, you have mined and explored for the literary lode, moving vast cubic feet of words from their striated depths within your stony imagination.

There are similarities between you and the sun-addled and crazed miners of cliche, each of you in search of the big bonanza, that cornucopia of matter that was neither fool's gold nor any other form of dross.

Today, at this remove, each word or image you bring forth, each time some inner voice prompts you to believe what you see before you is a memorable detail, perhaps even a story, you engage those early and later mining days and your digging through the terrain for traces of the illusive pay dirt.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Loose Change

Two of the basic constituents of the condition known as life are breath and the pulse of heartbeat. Life as we know it is impossible without them.

Two of the basic constituents of condition known as story are the beat and the sentence.

The beat is the breath of story, the action of a character and someone or something responding.

The sentence is the means of conveying the beats, first to other characters within the story and then to the reader or, should the story be a play or filmed narrative, the viewer.

Riffing on an observation made by Mark Twain in his memorable essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," story that does not have beats or spiraling schemes of sentences is dead on arrival. Story must be something sensate and with dimension. It must reveal a constant state of urgent agenda. If it does not, then it is no longer story, it is description.

Story must have an affecting effect. Otherwise, it experiences cardiac arrest, then dies on the spot. If there had been sufficient affect, the reader/viewer might skip ahead in hopes of finding more. No hint of empathy for the reader or viewer? Bring forth the funeral meats of sacred tradition. And yes, tofu meats will suffice for vegan audiences. Whatever the substance of story, it must include the ingredients of empathy and urgency.

Anyone of third or fourth grade education can write a sentence. Those who write must pay heed to the best possible order of sentences in which empathy, urgency, and agenda appear. But these appearances arrive in the spaces between sentences. They are evoked rather than described. We must see them in the same spirit as the discovery of probing the spaces between cushions in a sofa, then finding loose change.

Story is the loose change strewn among the cushions.

Story is discovery.


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Small Matters

1. When a word ends with an -ing, chances are overwhelming that the word will, under close examination, be a gerund.

2. You like gerunds on the same approximate level where you fancy vanilla ice cream, which is to say you enjoy vanilla ice cream for its flavor if a serious, intense vanilla governs its personality. For the most part, you like vanilla because it provides conveyance for berries, cherries, and, ever so much more, persimmons.

3. You like gerunds because they provide  conveyance for adverbs, a part of speech you do your best to shun, much in the manner you shun white potatoes rather than sweet potatoes or yams.

4. You don't spend much time thinking about gerunds, but when you do, you tend to visualize a gerund as a verb that has been caught stretching the way a runner stretches before a race. A gerund is a verb in motion, stretching, perhaps even yawning; it is a verb in preparation for action. A gerund may become a noun, which fascinates you because of the potential for ambiguity. A verb form that is also a noun. Wow.

5. Your literary agent is more apt to lose her composure when reading something of yours that has numerous gerunds as opposed to the times she reads work of yours that appears to be wanting in gerunds.

6. What follows has nothing to do with gerunds. If a gerund were to appear in it, you'd rewrite the sentence.

One afternoon, you were scheduled to deliver a lecture, which is not an unusual thing; you've been in a position to lecture the sort of lecture you were scheduled to deliver that afternoon for well over thirty years.

One more thing, you are often distracted by details.

Not any old detail, rather one of some quirky individuality or substance.

On the afternoon of the lecture you have in mind, you were driven to the site where the lecture was to be presented. You'd never been to this site--9 The Close, Winchester SO23 9LS England--before. The official designation of the site is The Winchester Cathedral.

Two memorable things about the occasion:

A. Nearly a year after the lecture was given, a barista in the Montecito, CA Starbucks, when she handed you your latte, asked you if you'd ever given a lecture in Winchester Cathedral. This caused you to conclude that she had been present at the time.

B. While you were absorbed in the magnificent archetectural details of Winchester Cathedral, a dear friend said, "Mind you don't step on Jane."

Most of your observations at that point were either eye level of head craned back, tourist style. With all the eye- and ceiling-level details to command your attention, you'd not looked down. Only when you did were you able to see what your friend meant.

You were about to step on Jane Austen.

Under no circumstances would you wish to do so.

Admire, yes. Step on? No.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Una Voce Poco Fa

Every time you leave the quiet of your home work area to write in one of your favorite local coffee shop, you're reinventing a wheel you already designed thirty or forty years ago, when you already had a quiet place to work.

You already know the purpose driving you out of your quiet home turf and into the ambient chatter of coffee houses. In order to put yourself into your sentences, you need focus to overcome the ambient chatter within your head. Among the voices and conversations therein, you hear voices of your own mentors, more often women than men. 

All of these women had the necessary focus to capture sentences with themes and intent, leaving the more mundane sentences of received wisdom and convention to flitter themselves away unnoticed.

Also in residence within your head, the voices of various cultures and traditions into which you'd been born, strayed into by error, or took on with the enthusiasm of a convert. The received standards of your times, the prequel school days to the current common core. In addition, your own inherent prejudices and bigotry took hold, lumps of mold on the growing block of cheese you were becoming.

You wished to quiet all such voices in order to hear some cruising idea that had caught your fancy and were now trying to articulate. This is how your own process and the intent behind it began. You were trying to make sense of things.

A baby in a high chair drops a spoon, is overwhelmed with joy to watch it fall with a clatter to the floor. Soon as Mummy retrieves it--and she is sure to--baby connects a sequence of events. Next challenge, find out how many times Mummy will retrieve the spoon before moving baby's ass into another room or shoving a toy or pacifier at him/her. Okay, possibility the baby is an incipient genius, is already wondering if a dropped spoon falls slower, faster, or same speed as a cereal bowl.

You're in many ways the baby with the spoon, except that you have words, even know how to diagram sentences, even know the difference between the subject of a sentence, its acting-out surrogate, the verb or predicate, and the object acted upon. The ball was hit by him. He hit the ball. The ball was hit by him for a home run. He hit a home run.

You are often the subject of your sentences,sometimes the object, trying to wrap yourself around the right verb to convey the meaning you intend. If it is cold in here, does that mean you are cold, or are you inured to such things?

You listen to sentences for clues that will help you understand what you see, say what you mean, order pizza over the telephone. You listen to voices of your choice, hopeful they will turn out to be landmarks by which you can measure your progress on a particular journey.

Sometimes you hear inner and outer voices at the same time, trying to hustle you with their agenda, questioning your motives, not understanding your stories. These are the voices you sometimes leave home to avoid. Even as you leave, you understand how some of these voices will hitch on to you, ride with you. And there will be additional voices where ever you decide to go for coffee.

For the longest time, you heard voices explaining to you that you needed to have a voice of your own in order to be able to tell a story. You even find yourself at times speaking of a writer who has found her voice, mindful of how easy it is to have your own voice drowned out by voices from all about you, including from within, wondering where the fuck you think you're going.

You go to coffee houses for the coffee and to have to assemble your purpose to filter out the voices inside and about you. Then you have a chance at hearing, recognizing, and, thus, finding the voices of the sentences you need to get the explanations you seek.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

One-sentence Days

Under the most extreme circumstances, you're able to churn out ten or twelve pages a day, hopeful two or three are keepable. Under circumstances of equal extremity, there have been days where your output was one keepable page.

You'd been at many book award ceremonies by the time you sat in the large penthouse reception suite at the LA Times for their annual book awards. On this particular evening, you were seated directly behind the author you hoped would win the fiction award. Next to her was the editor you hoped would soon be yours as well.

In your memory, the room buzzed with the enthusiasm of people who cared about books, reviewed them, wrote them, and published them. You wore a name tag identifying you as a reviewer for the LA Times. You were a poker-playing friend of the book review editor, on a first-name basis with the regular mystery fiction reviewer.

You felt at the time the way you feel after finishing the work on an essay, a review, a short story, a novel--tired, depleted, a race run and, with luck, won. You felt yourself ready for whatever came your way as a writer.

When the editor was called on to introduce her author, you knew Louise Erdrich had won the fiction award for Love Medicine. You listened fascinated by her story of reading the days work to her husband in the kitchen, after the children were put to bed, and how, over a pot of coffee,they discussed the work. 

Your fascination turned to awe when she spoke of the night when, overcome with doubt, she interrupted her reading. Manuscript in hand, she marched to the kitchen door, stepped into the yard, and tossed the entire manuscript.

She'd lived at the time in one of the New England states. The time of year was winter. The yard was coated with snow.

She spoke of her then husband, out in the yard with a flashlight, retrieving all the pages.

You'd filled your share of wastebaskets with the crumpled wretches of pages yanked from the typewriter. The thought of so evocative and penetrating a writer throwing things away was a wrench you've never forgotten.

In the years since, the technology has changed from typewriter to computer, which means you accomplish discards with less drama and wasted paper, but the need to discard remains. There are days when output means finding the name for a particular character. There are one-sentence days, when you understand you've achieved something tangible when you produce a single sentence that means what it and you say.

There are days when you feel some person has set out to prank you by inserting sentences and tropes lacking in continuity or meaning.

There are days when your literary agent has told you what a loser your protagonist is and demonstrates to you how you've let the story run out of gas.

Your excitement at sitting behind Louise Erdrich and rooting for her to win the LA Times Book Award remains. Your hidden dream of someday having Patricia Strahan as your editor persists. Because of the many books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux you admired, you quite naturally nourish dreams of seeing your name on their list.

You are fortunate in another historical sense. You did not come to understand how difficult writing was until you were hopelessly committed to it.

One-sentence days await like parking lot panhandlers, wondering if you have any spare change.