Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Ave Atque Tee Hee

You like to think of yourself among other things as a clearing house for ideas. In this clearing-house-atmosphere, the useful ideas ideas are shunted off to a processing center, the metaphysical equivalent of the 24/7 you who, even in his sleep, processes useful ideas while discarding those of a patently awful or even merely questionable nature.

There is a special place in this clearing house of ideas, a place in metaphor every bit as notional and undisciplined as your desk or, for that matter, sub-set desk Number One, which is the kitchen table, and sub-set desk Number Two, which is the entire back storage compartment of your Prius, for pending ideas, matters that have caused you great leaps of interest and even joy, but, as yet, no resolution.

This is attitudinal background to your recent awareness that most men and some women, eulogized in New York Times obituaries, are said to have had senses of humor, almost as though one who did not have a sense of humor, or who was represented instead as a person of, say, principal, or honor, might find difficulty being included within the obituary pages.

Even more to the point, you recently read the obituary of an individual you knew, one who had walked the rainbow bridge in the past week or so. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but you saw this individual more as stubborn, a control freak, bordering on the intransigent. Nevertheless, there he was, hailed in his eulogy as a person of great humor.

One corpse does not make a Friars' Roast anymore than one robin makes a spring. In fairness, you have in any number of occasions failed to see the inherent humor of an event and have been singled out for concerns that you indeed tend to find humor in places where there is none.

In a course of thought that brings you certain discomfort, you've noted how the more physical aspects of humor, which is to say comedy, achieve their effect by giving us a victim we can laugh at, relieved we are not the victim. 

Most deaths sadden you, John Donne and the bell tolling for thee and so on; you're sorry to see the departed depart, change form, recycle. Some deaths produce in you a sense of schadenfreude, which is in effect a satellite in orbit about a sun, a sense of justice of some sort having been done in some sort of way.

Now, you find yourself fretting over the conundrum of how some individuals, merely by virtue of death, are invested with a sense of humor when, in life, they may might have had no such asset.  No mistaking the fact for you, humor is an asset. While you're on the subject, death isn't.

The wheels are set in motion for you to ponder their rotation. 

Monday, January 2, 2017


At one point in your career, you ran the Los Angeles office of a major massmarket publisher that happened among other things to be the reprint publisher of the iconic storyteller, Elmore Leonard. Thus, when he saw your face among the blur of strangers at a yearly event once called The American Bookseller's Association Convention, there was more than mere recognition. You'd become a life preserver. "Do you think you could find me some coffee?" he said.

What followed was a conversation that apparently stuck with us both because within it, you'd expressed admiration for a character of his named Ernest "Stick" Sticky, Jr., to which Leonard made the observation, "Coincidental you mention that. He's been speaking a lot to me lately and I'm thinking he wants his own book."

Cut to the future, when you were no longer in favor with the major massmarket publisher and were pursuing, as it is often said, other options. Some of these options, writing short stories (which had been your default plan for being happy and making a living), for instance, had been influenced in no small measure by that conversation with Leonard. Indeed, you began forthwith to spend time listening to your characters, in consequence of which you'd begun to place the kinds of stories you'd always believed you had it within you to write. In particular, you'd had one editor, John Milton of the estimable South Dakota Review, telling you "I guess you're one of my regulars now."

Somewhere within that future, your cherished friend, Barnaby Conrad, had encountered Leonard as a friend, in further consequence of which, Leonard would on occasion come to Santa Barbara to appear as a speaker at Conrad's glorious toy, the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, where you were able to have a continuation of the conversation about Ernest Sticky, Jr., who, indeed, had "talked" his way into his own book, Stick.

Perhaps because Leonard knew you'd also followed his Western stories, he began telling you of another instance in which he sought an appropriate name for a jailer in one of his Western stories, found nothing that satisfied him, then had significant problems wringing convincing dialogue from the character. Leonard went on to tell of having gone through a contemporary newspaper account, originally published in a newspaper from the Arizona Territory (which would have dated the story back at least as far as 1912, whence Arizona achieved statehood.

The story gave a quote from a prison guard named Bob Isham, on which Leonard pounced. That became the name for his character. "And you know something," Leonard said, "I couldn't keep the garrulous old son of a bitch quiet after that."

In significant measure accurate in details, the previous paragraphs become an adjective your literary agent made you swear you would not use in any copy you submitted to her. The adjective was prologaminous, or, "somehow related to the prologues of fiction and dramatic nonfiction."

The previous paragraphs came rushing back to you as you recall your recent encounter with a typographical error you were correcting on a manuscript you'd begun as a procrastination from a project you've been working on, need to finish, and realize, from a review of the last page, that a bit of the lackluster had set in. Writing things that intrigue and delight you are sure ways to energize your writing persona to the point where, once again, you are not sure which (as opposed to what) mischiefs will come pouring forth.  Memo to self: Always write as though about to allow a mischief to slip through the cracks. Saner persons than you will rush to strike them out, but even then your prose will have that level of impudence you favor.

In repairing the typographical error on your procrastination project, you somehow caused your protagonist to become not only himself--Benjamin C. Bloom--but Benjamin C. Bloom, Jr, which meant he had a father whom you'd not previously considered and now must.  Since you knew, thanks to your quirky memory, of an actual individual with the name Benjamin and the middle initial C. (a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Benjamin Cardozo), it made sense for your fictional Benjamin C. Bloom to be an attorney and a professor of law.

On such trivialities is fiction shunted into life.  Suppose, you told yourself, that your fictional Benjamin Cardozo Bloom had actually been born Benjamin M. (for Maurice) Bloom, but had furtively changed the M. to a C. That one little typographical counterfeit could have an enormous effect on generations to come.

Indeed.  And what's so special about M-for-Maurice?  Couldn't  hurt to have a smattering of knowledge of U.S. theatrical history in which one of the great stalwarts of that institution had the same effect on history as Benjamin Cardozo had on American jurisprudence.  Of course you knew all about Maurice Barrymore, sire of the great Barrymore acting family.

As Elmore Leonard said of Bob Isham...

You are well into one hundred pages of the procrastination, haunted by the sounds of its characters, wailing and moaning at you as you attempt to tread the warp and weft of your daily Reality.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


For the same reason we understand that characters in novels, short stories, plays, and all filmed drama are not real persons, we accept the fact that what these characters say is dialogue rather than conversation. 

The price of entry in both cases--acceptance of a character and what the character says--is, as Samuel T. Coleridge put it, "The willing suspension of disbelief."  

In other words, our relationship with characters is either empathetic or suspicious. Whether we continue to turn pages or, if watching a TV drama, keep our hands off the channel tuner, depends on the degree of empathy between us and the characters.

Dialogue is supposed to sound like conversation, but one analogy comes to mind in the relationship between pulque, which is the raw, newly fermented sap of the agave cactus and its upward distillation, tequila. Dialogue is the distillate of conversation. Characters use dialogue as a part of their action toolkit.

An ironic sidelight emerges when the focus shifts from fiction to nonfiction. There are numerous cases where the letters, diaries, journals, and other modes of conversation have found their way into biography and autobiography, but in larger measure, the dialogue in memoir and biography is not by any means a courtroom transcript, rather it is a drama-infused replication of the individual's intent.

Dialogue is intent in action or, if you will, dialogue is action. To take this proposition to the next level, the mot telling and memorable dialogue is about something other than what it seems to be, which is to say dialogue is about subtext. The more likely the possibility of some elephant being hidden under the throw rug of a given living room, the greater the possibility of incisive and memorable dialogue.

The less dialogue sounds like what it's surface pretext is about, the greater the lift it will give to the narrative momentum of a story. The more unspoken inferences can be drawn between the exchanges of dialogue, the more tense, suspenseful, and engaging the story.  

After Nora Helmer, by all accounts the protagonist of A Doll's House, makes the bank loan which gets her husband off the hook, she begins hearing her inner voices, questioning her and her behavior. These are important views of her inner life, the things she cannot bear to share with any other character in the play, which is of paramount significance because it lets us infer there is no one she can approach to discuss her inner and outer conflicts.

When Nora sees how the ending moments of the play are the only possible steps and course she can take, we will have inferred from this inner dialogue of hers that she has NO OTHER CHOICE than to do what, as the curtain falls, she does.

In a real sense, we root for or empathize with characters because we have early on inferred some of the buried elephants within their living room.