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 day 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.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Game faces

A scene is the dramatic unit equivalent to diplomatic negotiation. Representatives from the various points of interest need to be present in some setting or arena. All parties involved enter the setting with some attitude toward a specific topic. The topic may be historic, recent, or a combination of the two.

Sometimes the topic involves matters so sensitive that insignificant details such as seating arrangements, shapes of tables, and yes or no to flowers need attention before substantive matters can be entertained. The higher the passions of the negotiators, the greater the substance of minor details becomes. The more pissed you are going in, the greater your chances for losing it over a trifle. 

The dramatic and diplomatic scene often begins with an agreed upon agenda or the agenda's second cousin, an attempt to produce an agenda. Here we are. Without admitting neglect or fault, here's what we will be talking about.

In order to agree what we will be talking about, we need to agree on a definition of the matter we are here to discuss. You, for instance, were introduced to the topic of what most parties to the matter would agree was the American war fought between 1861 and 1865. 

When you first learned of it, you were living in Los Angeles, where it was presented to you as The Civil War. When you moved to the East, and, later, to New England, the event was known as the Civil War and The War between the States. When you lived in Florida, it was known as The War of Northern Aggression. 

Fiction presents delicious opportunities when the various parties believe they are gathering to discuss A, but each party believes its interpretation of A to be the correct meaning. The reader is left to understand that each party differs, a condition referred to as dramatic irony.

More delicious dramatic courses are served while the negotiators grow more suspicious of each other, which causes major distrust and stubbornness. The menu has not yet been decided. We don't know yet if the salad proceeds or follows the soup course much less do we have a hint about whether the salad shall be dressed with oil and vinegar.

Diplomats are often seen as calm, detached persons, immersed in the polite give-and-take of negotiation, compromise, and the chiropractic manipulation of results to reflect victory for all sides. Such visions are more palatable than manipulative or cynical ones, but experienced readers know game faces when they see them.

Experienced readers want scenes with gloves off, bruised knuckles visible. Diplomats clink champagne flutes after they conclude negotiations, toasting what we think of as civility and accord. 

Experienced writers see scenes as pending files. There is a motive behind each clink of the champagne flute. Experienced readers wait with none too much patience for the gloves and game faces to come off.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Garrote

One of your oldest and dearest friends was an English writer, who sent his tennis shorts to the cleaners, preferred a biscuit called a digestive, and used a memorable way for squeezing the most stubborn drops of tea from a teabag.

To this day, years after you first saw the activity in progress, you cannot yourself drink tea or watch someone else, in real time or TV drama, take tea without recalling the process. He'd fish the tea bag from his cup using his left hand to maneuver the spoon under the bag.

Next, he'd wind the teabag string around the bag and spoon, tightening each successive wrap as though it were a tourniquet.  This operation was conducted over the teacup. The result was a darker, stronger tea than a simple swishing of the bag or allowing it to steep for several minutes. Hot, strong tea. You called it garrote tea. Your friend called it a proper cup.

You mention the garrote process now because you are in the midst of composition and because you do--or try to do--the equivalent of your friend's approach to every sentence you write, often taking longer than you'd expected to write such simple things as emails, notes to students, and the sentences of your fiction, which have an early tendency to get away from you, like a dropped garden hose, turned on to full volume.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were some string you could wrap about each sentence to garrote out the strongest, most emphatic meaning?

There is such a string; it is called revision, which can mean a literal change in word length or order of entire sentences and paragraphs, or the figurative change of such elements of storytelling as a shift in point of view, a reordering of sentences and paragraphs, even the number of characters chosen to bring the story to the stage or the page.

In a specific and figurative sense, the garroted sentence is the thing that separates the men writers from the boy writers and the women writers from the girl writers; it is from time to time exquisite in its brevity and the memorable truth contained within that short cluster of words. Examples of such sentences start with "Come here." "Go away." "Fuck no." and "I love you."

The well-crafted garrote sentence can be Faulknerean in its simultaneous awareness of the present and the past. The well-crafted sentence can also become unforgettable in the same way James M. Cain's opening sentence to The Postman Always Rings Twice has captured resonance. "They threw me off the haytruck at about noon."

Sometimes, when you are in bed, awaiting sleep, you play with a sentence like that. "It was about noon when they threw me off the haytruck."  "They didn't throw me off the hayrack until noon."

You could say the author made the right choice. But you can't say for certain when he made that choice. Suppose the right choice came out right away. Good for James M. Cain.

Sometimes, when in bed, waiting for sleep, you come forth with a sentence that frightens you with its force and clarity. You push yourself out of bed to write it down because of all the past times when you were sure you'd remember such gems. And all the times when your certainty did you no good.

For all your attempts to think and write with clarity, for all the edits you've done on your own work and the work of others, you'd think you'd have the process installed at muscle memory. But you still need the garrote. With plenty of string.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Voice

You may well ask what communication there is between father and son in a game of catch, played out in a back yard? The father is a plainspoken person, not given to long sentences or philosophy. The son is of an age where anything, even baseball, seems possible, although he worries his size at the moment will be a barrier.

The father is often the one to suggest the games of catch although the son cannot recall a time when he broached the idea and was told the equivalent of "come back later."

The son demonstrates his adeptness at building a vocabulary. He is better at this than most persons he knows.

The father, who has spent much of his youth and early married life trying to settle into a way of keeping his family afloat and his ego intact, continues to impress upon his son the mantra the son accepts more on faith than the understanding that may be poised in the wings, waiting for its cue. "Whatever you are, be a good one."

This particular backyard game of catch of which you write took place early one Spring, where a primary goal for the son was being good enough at baseball to be chosen for sandlot teams, for pick-up games, for such ephemera as peer regard, team spirit, personal reputation, and meaningful direction.

Long moments passed in which the only communication was the exchange of possession of a baseball, from father to son, from son to father. The accompanying sounds were the smack of the ball into each glove, the son's first-baseman's mitt, the father's tattered fielder's glove. This exchange was sufficient for the son. With each catch, he was less self-conscious about the anomaly between his size and the height of most first-basemen, regardless of their team.

The afternoon reached its primary dramatic peak when the father removed his pocket watch, noted the time, then strode to a radio on the nearby porch. The father turned on the radio, waited for sound, adjusted it to his liking, then returned to the game of catch.  "Any moment now," he said.

Both father and son continued to throw the baseball, each to the other, the father perhaps more aware this game of catch was subtext for conversation.  At the proper moment, the father cautioned the son to listen. "What you are about to hear is the voice of baseball as it is known in our house. There are other voices of baseball, but none like this. Voices will come and go, but this voice will remain."

The voice you heard belonged to Walter Lanier Barber, who often referred to himself as "the old redhead." You were introduced to him as he called a baseball game for his employers, the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the voice of the Dodgers, thoughtful, elegant, eloquent, unpreturbable.

Over the years, you've heard Mel Allen and Phil Rizutto broadcast on behalf of the New York Yankees; you've heard Jay Hanna Dean, also known as Dizzy. You've evolved with each of these as they, and their voices, evolved from radio description to television commentary.

You could make the argument that each of these voices were prequels to Vin Scully, whom you do consider transcendental in his presentation of baseball or anything else he'd care to talk about.

But your father--he who played endless catch with you--was right. The voice of baseball is Red Barber.

You've grown apart from baseball, but not its voice. From that voice, you've learned that everything you can see and a great many things such as fear and dread that you cannot see all have voices.

Sometimes you wonder if the thunk, thunk of the baseball, hitting your glove and then your father's, is your aural equivalent of comfort food. The sound of communication. The growing awareness of your wish to be chosen for the pick-up team of writers and poets, the men and women who listen for the sounds of things, then put them into words.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Act. Your.Adjective.

For most of your life, including well into the present day, you've been told to act your age. When you first heard this request, you were young enough for the advice to cancel itself out; you were acting your age. Even then, you understood that friends and adults in some position or other over your education wished for you to act older than your age.

They meant for you to bring your behavior skills into a closer range to your intellectual and perceptual skills. They wanted you to act older than your age. What they truly wished was for you to become serious.

When you put on a few years, the suggestion for you to act your age began to change into the question, When are you going to get serious?  You never intended to emulate Peter Pan. You looked forward to growing up. You liked the concept of maturation. You wished to be the verb mature and its adjective. But you wished to do so on your own terms, which had nothing to do with seriousness.

You wished to engage mature as verb and adjective with a low ratio of seriousness, little more than twenty percent against an eighty percent of mischief, humor, and the ability to see the wry anomalies and ironies in full bloom everywhere you looked.  

Your hopes for this ratio of seriousness to mischief were dashed when you became distracted by the tools you'd thought to use to make your way in the world. Those tools were words. If you'd gone on about your business with the thought of words as tools, you'd doubtless saved yourself time. You used words to disguise your lack of seriousness, thinking that longer sentences, a taste for recondite vocabulary, and a dash of arcane factoids would convince everyone about you that you were serious.

But you were not serious at all, you were that one quality every writer dreads. You were boring.

Even now, when you still have issues about acting your age, the antennae of awareness you've developed over the years pick up hints that you have stepped over the threshold to the point where you project attitudes, words, and thoughts that bore.

By now, you've developed skills, not so remarkable as a hound who can nose out truffles, but still abilities that allow you to sniff out the words that cloud the issue of what you wish to say and how you say it. In the process, you're learning how seriousness can be a useful pose for slipping a subversive tract into an unsuspecting mailbox.

Saturday, January 7, 2017


Questions to ask self:

1. What does each of your sentences say?

2. How do you know what each sentence says?

3. How reliable is the voice that dictates these sentences to you?

4. Do your sentences listen to each other?

5.  What is your goal when you write sentences?

6.  Are you able to say all the things you intended to say?

7.  Do your sentences produce the bonus of things you did not know you could say?

This list compels you to address your sentences with the sense of adventure, anticipation, and confidence you use when you approach the gas range in the kitchen at dinner time.

The list says nothing about the matter of writing prompts, which you see as insincere motherfuckers, looking to insure you you're about to write something of consequence. In truth, when you write to prompt, the result is often insincere.

If you'd had something of consequence to say, you wouldn't have needed a prompt to start you writing.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Child's Game

The writer who lounges in the "I love words" state of writing remains as a child so far as any measure of technical proficiency is concerned. 

She professes a love for the sounds of words for their own sake, the gurgle and swish of some words, the poetic ambience of other words, and yet other sounds that remind of bodily functions, snoring and sneezing, hiccoughing, and gasping in their biological ways.

This professed love, you have come to believe, is an excuse, a Maginot Line of defense against the apparent enemy, which, we soon learn, is story. "Why, anyone could tell a story, but how many can tell a proper one, in the proper way?"

What professional writers, even lazy or downright bad ones, do not like words? The glare of reductionism is bright with this revelation. What ball player dislikes balls? What dancer loathes music? To push the matter to the edge of the table, what scientist dislikes hypotheses? To sweep the matter off the table and into free fall, what librarian hates books?

The writer who loves story is the star in your galaxy of wonders; she fucking knows where she is, where the parts go, the sentences sound, and the feelings resonate as though a wine glass rim, flicked to sound its magical spell.

And yet they come forth, those who love words, eyes aglow with the memory of some memorized poem, eager to ignore the story that waves its arms to be heard, eager for some susurru, some intimation of sequestration, some stentorian tone or opalescent glint of the wing of some phantasm.

"Oh, yes, story," they tell you with a faint curl of the lower lip, "that thrift-shop appurtenance, so in need of poetic enhancement and metaphoric allusion to make it acceptable.  

Of course it is a child's game to love words at that level. We suffer their patronizing arrogance, waiting for them to do the thing they must do if they are to write with vital effect, and particularly for young readers such as the ones we once were when we rushed to catch the departing train; we wait for them to grow. Up.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Getting Person-al

Some of your favorite stories are told in the first-person narrative form, thus Huck Finn and the destined-for-greater-things Mr. Pip, or, indeed, that rather long winded Ishmael,where a character comes forth to relate a series of trials, tribulations, and accelerated risk.

Most such stories remind the reader they are not the author, speaking directly to them, rather they are the impressions and sensitivities of a character the author has invented to filter the dramatic information forth.

Is there some of Huck's author within him, one traces of Dickens in Pip, some aspects of Melville embedded within Ishmael? To be sure, there are traces, but the author has with some deliberation contrived a filter with a finite vocabulary, vision of reality, and range of emotional experiences that provide governing factors for that character's narration.

Your observations of such stories lead you to believe the first-person point of view, more often than not, signifies a cautionary tale to follow. Even Frank Chambers' confessional first-person rendition of The Postman Always Rings Twice , although straightforward in its confessional intent, fits the designation of cautionary; here is Frank, warning us not to be so carried away and caught up as he was with Cora.

Beginning writers seem to you not to have spent much time pondering their choice of first person except to respond, when asked, that first-person narration seems somehow more natural and personal, two attributions that don't advance a clearer picture  of how or why that natural and personal state is achieved, if, indeed, they provide a picture of how the naturalness and personal-based provide the alleged closeness or authenticity.

Nor can beginning writers always tell you why one character from the ensemble cast of characters in a tale is chosen to step forward as the narrative filter.

You are fond in equal measure of stories rendered in the third-person point of view, the he.she approach. Even more so, you enjoy the multiple point of view, such as Wilkie Collins' famed The Moonstone, in which a group of individuals, often from different social strata, convey their impressions of a singular event.

If, as you believe, first-person POV cautions, then it must follow that third or multiple are chosen more with the intent of illustrating potential outcomes and their interpretations rather than flat-out warning against their pursuit.

The difference between a warning and an illustration, to borrow an observation from your highly regarded Mark Twain, is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug ("The right word--not it's second cousin."). 

Because of another recent expression of your believe relating to beginning writers, wherein writers who love words (more than they love story) are still playing in the kiddies' sandbox, writers who chose first person for their narratives (rather than allowing the narrative to dictate the individual(s) to do so) have yet to attend any significant graduation ceremony.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Storytelling requires strategy, gambit, and a propensity to bluff.

On a scale of one to ten, you doubtless rank somewhere around a minus three or four when the matter turns to chess, a game you admire, even respect, but are not proficient in it. At least your one or two on the scale of ten, as applied to baseball, was supplemented with your greater understanding of strategies and nuances. 

Right-handed player that you were, you knew, for instance, when undertaking to catch a fly ball to your favored center field position, to make every effort to make the catch with your weight favoring your right foot. This move facilitated an extra moment of advantage when, coming forward with your weight now transferred to your left foot, you were nearly synchronized with your catch and your subsequent throw to the appropriate baseman, a strategy to prevent a base runner from advancing after the catch. Not on your watch.

You have no such strategy for chess, even though you did, as a much younger person, devour tracts and pamphlets depicting famous chess openings and gambits from championship chess matches of the iconic past. Thus your awareness of the Ruy Lopez, Giuoco Piano, and Budapest Gambits and the sense of entering a game of chess with some secret potential of a midge strategy coming to you in ways similar to the way complications or solutions to dramatic gambits come to you when you are at composition.

The last time you played chess was with the closest thing to a best friend possible, your goal being able to say something that had been said to you on numerous occasions and which you have always had a wish to be able to say as a result of one of your splendid opening gambits and inspired launch into an effective middle game.

As you visualize the scenario, you'd have to be at least ten moves into a game, perhaps even exchanged a piece or two, sacrificed a piece for position, or lost a piece because you'd been finessed. At such a point, you could add a furrow or two to your already furrowed brow, advance a knight or bishop with a flourish, plunk it into its intended place, then say, "That's mate in four moves."

In this last game with your dear friend, you were, at his insistence, initiating a chess board and  non-representational--which is to say abstract--pieces, holding your own beyond the first several moves, but having no mid-game strategy in mind, much less any hope of an end game. 

Of a sudden, you saw an opening diagonal that would allow you a dramatic sweep for a bishop and an opportunity to put forth what you quickly decided to call a gambit named after you, The Bluff Gambit.

Of a piece with a dandy, shooting his shirt cuff beyond the sleeve of his jacket, you lifted the bishop, drew it across the board, then plunked it into place. "That should be mate in five," you said, hoping you'd managed to intimate the inevitability of your statement.

"Really?" Your friend said. "I-I'm afraid I don't see it. We'll have to play it out, because I was about to warn you--unless you're sure."

There was only one way out. "Of course," you said, tipping your king over in a time-honored gesture of resignation. "It would have been five for me, but I can see now that you'd have had me in four."

That said, you were bordering on a much more meaningful personal gambit--the Bluff Gambit for leaving the dramatic scene you entered with such a cunning flair.

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.