Thursday, March 30, 2017


Stories do not come easily. Certainly not the ones you value. Those come as unexpected, even undreamed of gifts, from unexpected sources, for surprising, random reasons.

All stories are gifts from some source of another. The ones you suspect most are those that come from conventional sources, learned sources, where recepie and formula are the watchwords in the same way curriculum and study guides were watchwords for the teachers who taught you  and for the facts you were supposed to absorb and assimilate.

In a real and demonstrable sense, these suspect stories were ones you were at great pains to understand in order to fulfill some social goal that has no relationship to story or to writing. You wanted to know these recipies and formula not nearly so much for fame or fortune as for a sense of being able to engage with others, watch them, team with or oppose them, but at all costs to engage in the social contract with them.

To see yourself liked, chosen for teams, invited to parties, asked to repeat your own last story by someone who'd heard it to someone who did not.

Fifty or sixty years of learning and striving to be chosen. Such years are barriers that require breeching, conventional wisdom to be unlearned, recipies and formulae to be abandoned along the roadside.

Among the many metaphors you recognize for stories is the one in which the abandoned clumps of personal goods were scattered by those brave individuals who rode their Conestoga wagons west, seeking a place beyond the surveyed lots of civilization.

Some gifts, by whim or humorous tradition, are meant to be awful, given for their absolute lack of appropriateness, given as a teasing recognition of grotesque, gothic, useless and absurd functions.

The good stories are the ones you have to work hardest at, beyond the fifty or sixty years of learning.

The good stories come from reaching into an inconvenient corner of an inconvenient place. Finding them, they bring you an outcome and definition you'd not in the least expected. They bring you the awareness that you are composed of them and the abandoned goods you left roadside on your journey West.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Convenient Dog

To convey the sense of a character's inner self at work, dramatists have given us the soliloquy. Many novelists and short story writers have modified this means of conveying inner feelings into the device of interior monologue.

With two or more characters on stage or page, the author has recourse to a wide, creative spectrum of action-related options. With one character on stage or page alone, the options narrow. The author is forced into the head of the character, where the verbs turn from action based into those driven by thought.

Writers, forced by contractual observations to be more observant of deadlines than technique, or seduced by their own sense of cleverness, will on occasion resort to giving a solitary character some pet with whom to have the sort of conversation that does not strike the reader as entirely gratuitous.

You can--and do--say with the authority of emphasis that story is action. It often contains thought, but the story more often than not begins with some action to demonstrate plans to cope with disaster, ambition, and loyalty to a cause.

Characters who discuss their stake in the parameters of the story or, indeed, in comparisons of the animal and human conditions run the risk of being seen as cute.

Dogs and cats appear most often as convenience buddies, beings whose presence in the story has no other purpose than providing a lazy writer with a way out of a dilemma.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger in Town

All stories begin with an incident to shatter the calm of routine. For some time to come, perhaps forever, adios to the ordinary. Bienvenidos to the downward spiral of dramatic events to come. If we have any history of reading fiction, we know some form of disaster and some need for evasive action beckon. Our curiosity and anticipation draw us in.

Many stories begin with an individual--often the protagonist--sent or assigned to an unfamiliar locale, with a stated goal or assignment. Welcome to the stranger in town, one of the two or three basic designs of story.

The stranger in town represents the alien or outsider to the locals, who are wary if not outright suspicious and resentful. To see this dynamic in action, start with the opening paragraphs of Gustave Flaubert's Madam Bovary, where the character of Charles Bovary is first introduced to a classroom of schoolmates. Although not the protagonist, Charles Bovary comes to us as an outsider. In one way or another, he remains marginal and influential to his eventual wife, Emma.

Camille Preaker, protagonist of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, gives yet another version of stranger in town. A regular from a place has left, often for life in another city. Circumstances call her back home, where she's regarded as changed, no longer one of us, her trustworthiness and motives cause for increased suspicion.

The greater a character's deviation from ordinary, the better the character's potential for dramatic immortality. Captain Ahab, far from the protagonist of Moby Dick, nevertheless steals scenes from The Whale and from the intended protagonist, Ishmael. Readers who have yet to experience the pleasures of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, have absorbed through literary osmosis the picture of Becky Sharp as an opportunist. Those yet to read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, still know Scarlett O'Hara's mantra about tomorrow. Shakespeare's Iago resides in infamy as an advocate of treachery, and who among us believes his Sir John Falstaff was ever knighted in actuality.

The Stranger in Town represents the spectrum of marginality or alienness readers understand, often on the level of personal experience. Difficult to concieve of any serious writer who has not felt the separation of being from alien country. The Stranger is the one white in an all-black group, the one black in an all-white, the one white in an otherwise Asian group. To add double jeopardy, imagine a WASP baseball player, fresh off an athletic scholarship to Princeton, one of the most reputed WASP universities, being drafted by a major league baseball team in which most of the starting lineup is from Cuba and Central America.

SIT embodies race, gender, sexual orientation, political, and economic stratification. SIT can be a young girl asking her prehistoric father if she can have a boyfriend over to dinner, and the father hoping the boyfriend is not "on of then Neanderthal sorts." 

What are her true origins? What does she want? Why is she really  here? Nevermind what she tells us, what agenda does she hide?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Authorial Flagging

After a sufficient introduction to the joys of reading, most readers will dabble outside the range of contemporary authors, sampling works from past centuries. In the process, they become aware of writers who produce a steady ensemble of eccentric characters, whose foibles span the spectrum of outrageous behavior.

Authors from the past,such as Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Marianne Evans (writing as George Eliot) and Charlotte Bronte have been particularly adept at providing us with memorable characters. More contemporary authors, say Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Elmore Leonard,and Nadine Gordimer, win our hearts and minds because of the way they've participated in the evolution of character from mere description into evocations of behavior through the filter of their individual actions.

Even so, these authors project a sense of personality and style that filters through the open spaces within their narratives. But when an author oversteps the boundaries of twenty-first century storytelling conventions, we become aware of their desperate need to burst upon a particular scene, arms waving, to flag down out attention, whereupon they undertake to explain to us the things we readers should be working out for ourselves.

Hence authorial flagging, the attempt of a writer to explain the story to us rather than being content to let the story tell itself.

Don't tell the reader what the reader may already know.

Don't do the reader's work for him or her, which will only cause you in the long run to complain that readers are too lazy to get your intentions and implications.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Arrive At

Someone or something appears, right now, in a story. The principals don't have time, ability, nor inclination to cope. 

The electricity for the Winfield's home in The Glass Menagerie is turned off. Tom was supposed to pay the bill. He didn't, which builds toward a suggestion he was using the money for a get-away-from-home fund.

Huck Finn's drink-prone and abusive father returns to town, thinking to supervise Huck's dollar-a-day stipend from the treasure he and his friend, Tom Sawyer, liberated in a previous adventure. Pap Finn's arrival triggers the subsequent novel, which is an account of Huck's attempt to escape and his accidental paring with the runaway slave, Jim.

For the story, already underway, this arrival presents the complexity of an intrusion, a rock thrown, if you will, by Fate,a clamor for attention in the life of the characters and the minds of the reader. (See Stranger in Town).

This new arrival signals the presence of a distant or unknown relative, an old friend from a different lifestyle, a romantic ex, an individual your character's parent did not approve of, at the character's doorstep, bearing a cheap gift and an agenda.

The arrival may also be an object, a letter, say, or a legal summons, or a bunch of flowers.

Never mind that the arrival may be at the wrong door, the letter or summons or bunch of flowers delivered by mistake. The effects add momentum to the destabilization inflicted upon the cast of characters when the story begins.

Anton Chekhov's illustrative short story, "The Death of a Civil Servant," begins with the eponymous protagonist, a lowly civil servant,seated at an opera, caught up in his profound enjoyment of the performance. What could possibly arrive in such a place and at such a time to destabilize? 

Funny you should ask. If you know Chekhov--and you should--the answer sidesteps its way in, skirting plausibility. A sneeze. The protagonist sneezes. No biggie, right? People are known to sneeze in any number of circumstances.

The problem comes home to roost when the protagonist realizes some minute traces of his sneeze have traveled to the back of the head of the person sitting directly in front of him. He can see the traces, right there--gulp--on a general who works for the same bureaucracy, although not the same department. 

Our hero tries, for the rest of the story, to apologize. The general keeps interrupting him, telling him the incident does not matter. But the Civil Servant can't let the matter go.

The story ends with the Civil Servant so hopelessly caught up in the downward spiral of his own, imagined consequences, that he goes home, puts on his dress uniform, goes to bed, whereupon he dies.

This one story helps illustrate the influence of Chekhov on modern writers, the added effects of the Arrival, and some of the many ways the growl and gnaw of the inner voice can remind us of how vulnerable a character can become.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


There is a point you reach before sending a work off to its life in print where you're not quite satisfied with the result nor are you confident one more close read through will offer a clue to the missing element. At such times, you reach for the device most favored by the arsonist.

What you're looking for isn't mentioned by name in any book about composing fiction, least of all in any of your writings on the subject. If you know anything at all about the process of storytelling, you know how open the medium is to the migration of useful concepts from other disciplines. 

You like to tell yourself you were on that very track when you noted the common bond shared by the writer, the dancer, the musician, and the photographer. All of these worthies manipulate time to their advantage, whether it is the length of a note in a musical piece, the shutter speed in a photograph, the pose held by a dancer, the life event extended or compressed by the storyteller.

Your common ground with the arsonist is the accelerant, the medium the arsonist uses to speed up the intensity and range of the fire. Your narrative may lack some degree of inevitability crashing to the ground as though a juggler had dropped his display items. It may progress at a jog when it should be more of a gallop. The culprit in your narrative maybe something as innocent as a sense of awareness being regarded as an insight rather than a life-changing revelation.

Your favorite arrival point in your reading of the work of sister and brother writers, long dead or less than half your present day age, is the moment when you understand you are not where you wish to be, within a narrative you cannot possibly abandon. Such narratives hold you in their power of accelerated involvement and inevitability.

The accelerant in your own work may turn out to be as simple as the lead character wanting the outcome even sooner than you'd thought. Perhaps the character's wish is for a larger portion of whatever the goal, or the settling of a score so hopelessly unsettled as to cause the other characters in the narrative to think of it as quixotic.

Although you do not strive for the kinds of humor associated with the more physical, slip-on-a-banana-peel aspects of comedy, rather instead with the overall notion of the universe itself being a part of a large, anomalous joke, you tend to gravitate toward characters like Wile E. coyote, who appear fortunate if they can manage to avoid for a few moments the latest in a series of humiliations.

You look for an accelerant, some kerosene or petrol to throw on the fire that has just come to life through some miscalculation or some more spontaneous combustion. You want the fire to speed up. From this comes the voice and the humor you seek.

Humor is tragedy, speeded up.

The Fates have tossed a match into the wastebasket.

The Muses have caused a fire in the kitchen.

The sorcerer's apprentice has underestimated his ability.

There is the chaos about you of your own characters, running from the cover you thought to provide them.

Friday, March 24, 2017


For the thirty-four years you taught courses there, you expected to arrive at the University of Southern California when you set forth from your point of departure somewhere to the north, in Santa Barbara.

You expected--and were overwhelming in your success--to arrive at five other destinations where you taught, as well as the various writers conferences in which you participated as a workshop leader or speaker.

Since all these destinations are associated in some way with writing, they seem for your purpose here a splendid and emphatic example of destination as an anticipated point of arrival. In turn, these examples also set in motion the concepts of departure and anticipation as necessary conditions to arrival.

A process begins when an individual such as yourself departs from a particular location. The individual is purposefully leaving Point A. Thus you at ages nine, ten, eleven, increasingly leaving Point A, which can also be seen as either home, a classroom, or some public park, with the specific destination of a library in mind.

The motivations for your departure with that destination in mind were cocktails of curiosity and boredom. The destination much more often than not provided ample remedy for the boredom, sated the curiosity to some degree, or quite possibly triggered it to even greater intensity.

A significant side effect of your earlier departures and arrivals is the person you became and now are, by profession a writer, editor, and teacher. To this day, in service of boredom and curiosity, you continue to arrive at libraries; you also arrive at bookstores and send forth electronic departures to other bookstores, newspapers, and journals. 

Often when you sit in your present dwelling, you are literally and figuratively up to your ass in books, magazines, and journals. Were you to sit on the floor, as you on occasion do, you'd as well be in over your head with books.

In your capacities as writer, editor, and teacher, your activities often involve a departure from a known or measured condition, thus a start of a journey toward an outcome or arrival. Either you, yourself, a client, or a number of students board a particular conveyance. All aboard.

The destination is the tricky part. You came upon this discovery some years back when you began to notice how, in relative terms, it is easier [for you] to begin a story than it is to end or resolve it. Somewhere along the way, you began to equate endings with punchlines of jokes. No laughter, ineffective story or punchline. But then you began to see. You didn't want that kind of a punchline. And. You were not at all adverse to laughter, but such as there was should come within. You don't want punchlines for endings; you want a sense of arrival at a destination.

All along, the reader is on track to reach a destination, but not the most anticipated one. Were you to drive to Los Angeles these days, you'd be horrified to discover force of habit had taken you to the University of Southern California.  Were you to drive to Los Angeles these days, you'd be happier to discover you'd arrived at 12224 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City, which happens to be Art's Delicatessen and Restaurant.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Word with You

"The right word," your literary ideal was wont to say, "not its second cousin." He also spoke of the vast difference between the lightning bug and lightning. It was also he who said he wished to be in Kentucky when the end of the world came about because Kentucky was always twenty years behind the times.

You admire Mark Twain for his specificity in word choice, but even more admiration comes forth from his way of squeezing humor from the precise, most effective order of placement of those specific words. His goal of specificity led you to collecting and browsing dictionaries as though they were novels and short stories.

In later years, you took up with a writer of your generation, pleased with yourself and simultaneously envious of this slightly younger than you Philip Roth. You became fascinated with his character Lonoff, the writer, who spoke to another character, arguably Roth's alter ego, Zuckerman. Lonoff, likely modeled after Bernard Malamud, spoke of pushing words around, perhaps gaining an acceptable sentence for a day's work.

You had (and still have) little patience for John Updike (a year and a day older than Roth); who was indeed able to bleed on the page as indeed Twain's and Roth's characters did, but there was a difference. When Twain's and Roth's (and certainly Malamud's ) characters bled, the blood had the qualities of the pre-Cambrian Sea, as does the blood of most of us. When Updike's characters bleed, there is no pre-Cambrian Sea, rather a Coca-Cola.

For the longest time, you sought to drive your stories through the force of the words themselves, seeking moral, philosophical, and even intellectual depths. But, alas, these depths, even if achieved, are the depths of description. They lack the inclusion of evocation or, as some would call it, subtext.

Close, but no cigar, as they say.

You believe this: The right word does not call attention to itself. The right word has no ambition of becoming a lightning bug or in any sense a peer of the realm of literary royalty. The right word is more like Shakespeare's observation of the poor player who struts and frets his moment on the stage, then is heard no more.

The right word reminds you of many of the English actors you so admire, persons of differing ages and origins, products of rigorous acting discipline, whose names you have to look up even while admiring their superb skills (Nicola Walker comes to mind).

You're chagrined to recall how, well over ten years ago, you devoted significant class time to demonstrate how one wrong word can produce the distraction that throws the reader out of the story. This brings to you the metaphor of boarding the southbound train here in Santa Barbara, your destination that enormous urban sprawl of your origins, Los Angeles.

Indeed, some one is waiting for you in Los Angeles for a specific purpose.

Whether you recognize it or not, each time you commit to reading a story or novel, watching a play or film, you are boarding a vehicle with an embedded destination.

The effect you're talking about in relation to right and wrong words in story is of a piece with you boarding a train in Santa Barbara with a Los Angeles destination. But suppose a group of conductors approach you directly after the train has stopped at the Burbank Airport, then forcibly escorted you from the train.

You are inordinately fond of the reviews and novels of the Irish writer, John Banville, even though your interests in him are more for his judgment and vocabulary than his storytelling. You frequently find words in his novels that cause you to consult your American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language. You even feel the envy that Banville is able to use such words in his texts while you are not.

The point of these paragraphs: We don't read for words, we read for story. We don't read for the stops made by the local train, we read for the express. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


The news from your publisher that he wishes a revised edition of your Fiction Writers' Handbook sent you scurrying to an index card storage box in which you'd begun adding additional terms and concepts, should such a request come forth.

The first edition contains over three hundred seventy terms, a significant enough number, you suppose, to have distracted you from a necessary-but-uncomfortable realization. In a practical sense, your book is an annotated checklist of things you visit in one way or another each time you compose fiction. 

When you were in the midst of a weekly book review column that arced over five years, you arrived at the conclusion that your revisions of a given essay had no numerical parameters, only that you should read, reread, tweak, and revise until you were prompted to add some observation or fact that either surprised you with its energy, caused you the pleasure of discovery, or a combination of the two.

Handbook is an alphabetical arrangement of terms and concepts. You've begun your revision at the letter A, for which you've a number of additions and a term or two you're debating about removing. Arena is a term already in place. Your rereading of it suggests you've discovered yet another thing about the word which, under ordinary circumstances relates to a local where a battle or contest is engaged between rival sides.

But why stop there, your more advanced self asks of your earlier contribution. In its way, the locale for a scene is as important as the scene itself. Although you agree with your younger self that an arena is an appropriate way for you to consider setting, you want that extra touch whereby every setting is not only an arena, the setting has some quality amounting to a personality. 

The setting is never neutral; it is in some measure an atmosphere in which one or more of your characters will become so uncomfortable that his or her participation in the scene is changed.

The setting can impress its arena-like qualities upon the suffering character, who would be better able to enjoy or cope within the dramatic requirements of the scene. The character can become overwhelmed with nostalgia for an event at a similar arena, or angered, or distracted.

For the same reason details and descriptions must be inspected against frivolity, arenas must be chosen to have some impact on the protagonist and possibly even some sense of home court advantage for the antagonist.

No one gets out of the arena unaffected. If you remember this, you'll have in mind the dramatic need for an enhanced tightening of the chain of circumstances advancing upon the principal character the way a coven of marauding crows advances on a picnic.

If you push this with too much emphasis, your principal character will spend as much time disliking the setting as pursuing an agenda. The astute reader will notice and begin to lose empathy and identity for the principal character. But the character's awareness of the unfriendliness of the setting, however internalized, will have an effect on the outcome, which is precisely what the character does not wish, but remains what the writer wants--and the reader expects.

Net neutrality--yes. Dramatic neutrality, an emphatic no. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Authorial Flagging

You can see the inherent good sense and logic behind the rhetorical question most writers of fiction must face: "Whose story is it?" Good sense and logic in place, nevertheless you find the occasional glitch in your early drafts of a composition. Someone other than the main character, the Jane of Jane Eyre, the Huck of Huckleberry Finn, the Jim Burden of My Antonia, has overstepped the boundary of point of view, and you must repair.

The repair becomes a metaphor linking roadwork and paving to the narrative drive of storytelling. You've come to accept the view that all dramatic information must come from the character of choice, the protagonist, if you will, or the ironic reversal in which the antagonist is made the filter to comment upon and react to the agenda and behavior of the protagonist.

In no case must the information come from you as author, hence the reason for and title of these paragraphs--Authorial Flagging.

The repair work you do on your own work is the equivalent of you driving to a familiar destination and on occasion failing to respond to familiar landmarks or becoming abstracted to the point of forgetting entirely the destination. Each of these occasional areas causes a momentary sense of disorientation.

Under similar circumstances translated to the act of reading, the reader becomes disoriented, suddenly divorced from the familiarity of destination. Under proper circumstances, the reader is made aware early on of the potentials landscape for the destination, even if said destination is, shall we say, Chekhovian, thus left in some degree for the reader to resolve off stage.

Your equivalent of repair is resurfacing the surface of narrative so that the bumps you intend the characters to experience are seen by the characters, not by you. When the speed bumps are put in place by you--in any form--they become Authorial Flagging.

Some brief examples of authorial flagging:

It was hot.
She was frightened.
He was hungry.
She didn't know what to do next.
Just then...
At that moment...
Later that day...
He didn't see...
She couldn't hear...

You're alert to reading the expressions of students in your classes when you present this information, which often comes when you're discussing and/or examining the concept of point of view.  Presented in the abstract, you see nods of assent, young, middle aged, and elderly emerging writers, reaching for and grasping the essentials of narration.

Back in the day, you tell them, there was a form of narrative referred to variously as the omniscient point of view or authorial presence. Now, twenty-first century, the characters have staged an intervention. They've demanded and in large measure been given the entire burden of story to convey to the reader.

You like to equate narrative styles to determining the age of trees from the rings apparent in a cross section of the tree. True enough, in order to do so, you must cut down the tree. In doing so, you are then face-to-face with a record of that tree's growth and experiences.

Now you, as storyteller, put a character in place to read that record and interpret the life and times of the tree. If you were to step in with such examples of authorial flagging as those listed above, or yet others, you'd in effect be reverting to the you who was reading earlier records from previously hewn trees.

Tempting as it may be, Authorial Flagging is also a step or two backward in time, to those moments where you were when, whatever your reasons for wishing to turn to composing your own narratives, you were influenced by other tree ring segments to the point where you heard yourself saying, "I wish to do that. I wish to interpret the lives of individuals I invent."

Monday, March 20, 2017


When you begin constructing a character, you begin by visualizing a physical entity best known as an armature, the framework supporting a sculpting or the base for a coil which becomes part of the electric motor.

You gravitate toward the electric motor comparison because of the way it reminds you that armatures participate in the production of energy as well as the support of a larger, outer assembly. Next step is to remind yourself of the character's primary goal, which becomes the energy source for the character in process.

Only then do you skim through the individuals you've sorted away in your memory, classified by the type and degree of emotional impact they've had on you. Now, you're ready to begin wrapping the wire of coil about the armature, each round of wrapping representing feelings such as attraction, revulsion, curiosity, fear, intrigue, hunger, excitement.

The armature process has helped you visualize and bring to some form of integrity your ensemble of characters for a story. The process works well with the production of all levels of characters because, to use your oft repeated analogy, even the person who delivers the ordered-on-line or phone ordered pizza wants--or should want--something. More often than not, a tip, but in one venture on which you collaborated with your great pal, Digby Wolf, a pizza delivery person could be after an audition as an actor, thus makes his or her only appearance to an audience where a producer or director is present.

The individual who drives the story with his or her goal or quest, the protagonist, does things in service of that goal or quest, sending ripples and shock waves through the various cultures of the other persons nearby. This individual is properly thought of as the protagonist--he or she who sets the story in motion.

Protagonists must be agreeable--in one way or another--monomaniacs, which gets directly to the point of saying a protagonist needs to be more devoted to the goal or outcome than to being a social individual. Such characters have quirks. Ishmael's quirk in fact drove him to recognize the need to sign on the Pequod as a means of getting away from urban and conventional stresses. Without his quirk, which we now recognize as bipolarity, there would be no story. 

Ahab's choice of the Pequod was an enhancement, even though it was accidental. Without the Pequod, the story would have been entirely different if indeed evident at all. Man takes to the sea to escape a return of the familiar affliction of depression. In signing on, Ishmael has signed on to eternal fame as protagonist of one of America's most riveting and influential narratives. Ishmael, in seeking to evade his personal nemesis, has literally and figuratively signed on to an even greater nemesis, Captain Ahab, the unthinkable for Ishmael and the reader, coming to pass.

The Protagonist needs an opposite number, thus an entirely different armature about which to begin winding character traits. The opposite number of the character whose goal or quest propels the story is the aptly named Antagonist, anti- against. You join the clamor shouting toward the notion that the days are long past where Protagonist must of conventional necessity stand apart as all good in the way, say, of Sir Galahad. The equation--and your purpose--continue: The Antagonist must not be evil for its own sake nor, as a matter of fact, evil at all.

Rather, the Antagonist must be a person whose goals, because of ethical, personal, and cultural considerations, run contrary to the Protagonist's agenda. Thus, two forces fighting one another the same way law students take opposing sides of legal issues in moot court argumentative competitions. Readers will supply the judgments; no two readers will of necessity supply the same judgments.

The Protagonist needs one or more Antagonists to make a story from a mere narrative. Enter you, with your belief that the more memorable Protagonists have their on stage Antagonists, Ishmael, for instance, having Captain Ahab, Hamlet having his Uncle, King Claudius. These memorable inventions, these wrappings about an armature, also have their inner Antagonists. Not to be outdone--indeed, they should not be--the Antagonists have their inner Protagonists.

Simply put for example, Ishmael has his outer Ahab and his inner Ahab; Ahab has his outer Ishmael AND his inner.

This inner-outer equation helps form an outcome closer in appearance to real persons. In the bargain, this inner-outer binary for all characters provides us a study guide for those relatively small matters that step forth around two or three of a morning, seeming quite large to the point of not allowing much in the way of sleep to progress.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


At the risk of causing dramatic and structural peril to your story, don't underestimate the portmanteau significance of this three-letter word.

In its robust presence as a verb, act conveys the intent of a character to behave with enough conviction and authenticity to convince others of sincere intent. Thus a narrator, telling a story--"Call me Ishmael," may emerge as reliable.

Thanks to the potentials of your imagination, act may also convey a character who is sincere yet lacking the experience and emotional vocabulary associated with reliable adults. Such a character is seen as reliable but also naive.

Experienced readers are quick to question the motives of characters who appear to act too sincere or concerned, possibly carrying over such suspicions into Real Time.

Act also resonates in its noun form, where it becomes a segment of a drama, contributing to the movement or arc of story across the sky of narrative. Act also becomes the file folder for a range of activities leading to the discovery, "It was only an act," meaning a subterfuge or pretense.

At one time the actor, or one who acts or performs, was also called a player, as in one who played a role, or portrayed another individual. Back in times when fewer individuals were able to read written texts, some players took the part of gods and goddesses, wearing stylized masks. Such players were often loaded into baskets, then lowered by winch onto the stage, where they would step forth to bring about the resolution of the story at hand. From this concept of god in a basket came the term deus ex machina, literally god in a machine, dealing out resolutions that took the action away from the human characters.

Sometimes a few moments of meditation on the verb/noun aspects of this simple word remind us in unexpected ways of the energy present within each character in each successful story, how that energy is put to use, and how it is seen by the other characters and,most important of all, by the reader.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The $12 Name

In its way, the subject of fiction snakes its way into conversations you are having either with yourself , friends, or students on a daily basis. The wriggle into the conversation can be something minor, such as a reminder to the students in your memoir-writing class, that they are committed to write what actually happened as opposed to what they invented.

There is more than a little irony here, because of your frequent need to remind your students in fiction-writing classes that an event that "really happened that way," is of no value in fiction. The key in fiction is dramatic verisimilitude, a weasel way of saying invention. Of course the invention must fit the verisimilitude of the invented character.

By most standards, the applications of what really happened and your opinions and, indeed, renditions of them, are the pole star. Except for the fact of the actual date of these vagrant paragraphs being April 13, 2018, even though they will appear as though conceived and posted on March 18, 2017.

The attending reasons for this discrepancy in dates seem to you to remind you of and encourage your belief in an observation you've made to your fiction classes for some time, and to yourself even longer. Chronology in fiction is not necessary, nor even useful. Looked at in perspective, chronology can even be seen as a provocateur of that dread element in fiction, the quality of being episodic. They did this, then this, which caused that, and then they went home.

Fiction should have within it--your version of fiction, that is--a greater thread of theme and/or causality. You prefer things to happen in fiction because some character is desperate to get her or his agenda in play, or to get out of the way of some forthcoming avalanche, whether the avalanche physical, as in a mountain shedding its snowy skin, or emotional, by which account a person is driven by internal mechanisms to do something, to take a particular step or course.

Somewhere in early January of 2017, you grew some negative attitude about blogging, decided to take sometime off, then did so, which is to say you stopped returning to this site. After a month or so, you experienced the regret of having taken time off; you felt the absence of your habit of finding something to say about your vision of yourself, the universe, and the prospect of how much you missed the daily exercise of seeing the universal in the tiniest specific, whether an attitude, an inanimate object, an opinion, or the recollection of the multitude of nouns--persons, places, and things--that have passed before you or you have passed before.

You began to repair the gap, hoping to repair the blanks you'd left, sometimes with as many as three different entries in a given date. There you were, writing in 2018 as though it were a year earlier, messing, as it were, with chronology.

What is fiction without obstacles to be overcome?

In real life, an obstacle is the antagonistic aspect of an entity known as Go Daddy, which provides the hosting presence for this blog site. On what was probably March 15, 2018, Go Daddy pulled the plug on this hosting site, You had no clue except that you could no longer access your blog to continue your intention of restoring it to its condition where your essays and comments matched the actual date in time on which they were composed.

By the time you figured out--and recalled Go Daddy's part in this concatenation--Go Daddy had offered your url out to the public. Thus you had not only to enter a bidding auction for it, you had to wait for the date of the auction close to arrive in order to determine if your bid were the high one.

Fiction relies on outcome.

You won the auction for your own url, which also happens to be your last name.

Although Go Daddy suggested your url and blog site was worth at least $830, you became the winner of the auction for your own name for $12.

Your outcome from all this is a combination of humility that comes from buying your own name back for $12, your sense of someone else's valuation of your name as being worth at least $830, and the notion that you will have to scurry a bit to catch up with April 13,2018, which is today.

Friday, March 17, 2017


Although you have hopes  for the outcome of your writing that are quite positive and lofty in nature, you can never be certain what their outcome will be, once they've been published, or publishing's distant cousin, appeared on line.

1. Every year or so, a post written to your blog on February 10, 2011, "The Editor as Chiropractor," will come back to haunt you with a comment that attempts to convince you of the value of chiropractic. You need no such convincing. No one who has gone so many times to a chiropractor, beginning when you were fifteen, needs to be convinced.

2. You are morally and intellectually opposed to the practice of paying various services that bill themselves as editorial services for essays they will send you, presumably to turn in for some high school or college assignment. To the best of your memory, you've never expressed opinions about such practises in any form of writing. You've spoken about the matter in classrooms, always in the context of the constituents of plagiarism. Nevertheless, you see responses to your blog essays suggesting these would be good subjects for high school and college papers, and maybe you should consider using your blog essays to :pick up some spare change."

3. Someone will confront you in print or in some online form in disagreement with something they thought you said--but did not in fact say--about a book you reviewed.

4. Someone reading one of your blog essays will send you a note to remind you that you did not invite writing in the second person, which is true enough, although you have been aware of and fond of the second-person point of view since a social science teacher in middle school announced in class one day that essays and stories written in the second person were neither conventional nor approved of. Middle school was the beginning of a time of great rebellion for you. In consequence, you wrote your next assigned essay in second person. 

The teacher asked you to see her after class, asked for your permission to read the second person essay to the class, congratulated you for taking a chance, then ultimately gave you a grade of A in the class, which was not a thing to please boys who were in rebellion. Boys in rebellion were lucky to get grades of C, as one grouchy math teacher reminded you.

You in fact began writing your blog essays in second person because your friend, John Sanford, by all accounts an elegant writer, wrote a three-volume autobiography and several other nonfiction works in the second person. You admired--and still admire--John Sandford's work and you despair of ever achieving his graceful narrative voice. Even when he was angry, John Sanford was elegant.

5. On at least three different occasions, individuals wrote to you demanding apology for something you were alleged to have written, but when you asked them to be more specific about what they were expecting you to apologize for, they told you to go fuck yourself, whereupon you never heard from them again.

6. You have been accused of taking yourself too seriously when writing about books few persons understand and not taking yourself seriously enough when writing about books many persons appear to understand.

7. A man who ran a used-book store would give his customers a card good for a spaghetti dinner if they browsed his bookstore for three hours, then bought at least one used book. When you asked him what you would have to do for a spaghetti dinner with meat sauce, you thought he was going to tell you go go fuck yourself, but instead he said he'd be happy to buy you a spaghetti with meat sauce dinner when a book you wrote was published.

After your first book was published, you went back to claim your dinner, but the bookstore was now the purveyor of hair and skin products.

8. At one point some years back, you inscribed a copy of a book you'd written to the then chairman of the department where you taught classes in fiction writing and book editing. A year later, your then literary agent gave you a nicely wrapped package, meant to be a gift. It was the inscribed book you'd given the department chairman.

9. A reader who told you her life had been changed by a book you'd written gave you a book she wanted you to have. From its inscription, you realized she thought you were another writer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Worlds of If

The most popular meaning of the word "if" relates to a supposed premise, an "in the event that," or "let us assume the following premise exists." Thus, when Mr. Herman Melville presents us with his now legendary character, he is telling us that if we were to accept the reality of a character  he has named Ishmael, here is how that Ishmael would present himself to us.

We who read stories have no trouble taking the imaginary individual at the full value of his reality--until he begins telling us in some extended detail the reality of whale hunting, at which point many of us begin turning pages in search of a more fanciful universe. This condition has been given the name "irony," which itself seems to be the pole star of storytelling.

In one way or another, all stories begin with the concept of "if," which translates to a segment of a logical equation: If such a character were to exist, this is what she or he would sound like, long for, and attempt to accomplish. 

In the event the storyteller is successful, we--that is, those of us who read, less because we can than because we have to--have somehow managed to conflate the desires and agendas of the protagonist with our own desires and agendas.

This transference of agenda can cause us, whether consciously or not, to feel superior to the sports fan or gambler, where identity is transferred to a shorter term outcome, the turn of a card, the roll of dice, the final score of a game. We readers, smug in our superior emotional tuning are content to let the sports fan or gambler have their momentary outcome. We feel a kinship with lovers of music, of dance, of the visual and fluid art, where an outcome--say the famed Sydney Opera House of New South Wales, Australia--seems a glorious and significant outcome.

We understand the problems of trying to rate and categorize glorious and significant outcomes; often we do so at risk of the logical fallacy involved in comparing oranges to lemons. To invoke another device of logic, we who gravitate to story suspend our disbelief of the if-proposition each time reinvest our appreciation in some narrative. We do so for the range of emotional and aesthetic outcomes and, to a lesser extent, because we crave aesthetic outcomes that winning at cards or experiencing identity with a winner when our team wins fails to provide.

We comfort ourselves with the certainty that we, as readers, have the greater potential for appreciating the shape and placement and sound dynamics inherent in the Sydney Opera House than gamblers or fans of a sports team. But there is no certainty that our logic is correct or that, indeed, an imaginative architect or ballerina or composer of music are not, if we ask them, fans of a sports team or, for that matter, adverse to an occasional hand of twenty-one.

The greater certainty is the joy, starting down at the lower chakras, working its way toward the head when we invoke and identify with if. If allows us to leave whatever constraints hold our dreams, agendas, and imaginations hostage within the cage of our body, reminding us of the ransom exacted for all those moments we spend negotiating Reality.

This is not to say we want the easy way out when we take refuge in our if; far from it. When we enter the worlds of if, whether we know it or not, we're taking on a greater, more intense set of risks than we take by engaging Reality. Here in Reality, there are outcomes to face with the arrival of each new day, including the risk a few of your friends have failed at by having the great temerity to die in their sleep.

To read fiction is a test, to see if we can survive and flourish in an alternate universe where, if we have dreams and persistence, we could possibly design a rival to the Sydney Opera House in New South Wales. Failing that, we could fail in a fall that outdid Icarus, providing, of course, there really was an Icarus.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

This Is Serious

When someone asks you if you're kidding about something you've observed, you know you have their interest. You also know they suspect you might be exaggerating. This is because the thing you observed seems far enough out of the ordinary to require verification.

On any given day, a number of things require some sort of verification or other. Not the least of these is your apparent demeanor. This is often the reason you're asked if you're exaggerating to make some point. The asker is interested in the intensity of your observation.

Sometimes an individual who has read something of yours will find a range of meaning and implication well beyond and possibly even polar to what you thought to have said, indeed hoped to have said.

There are times when someone has flat out asked you, "Are you serious?" Although this question is a simple variation on the theme of an observation of yours being meant to be taken at face value, this version of the question has a greater potential to rankle you.

Not that many years ago, you were asked with some regularity when you were going to get--that was the verb they used--serious. "When are you going to get serious?" As though, at the moment, you were kidding. As though kidding was not a form of seriousness. As though seriousness were not a form of kidding.

You've spent many hours dealing with the problem, which is to say studying ways to keep from laughing yourself at the absurdity of the absurdity you were bringing to light. Many of those hours were spent rereading essays by a man whose seriousness you never misread. 

Although he was, as is often said of a deceased person, dead and buried twenty years before you appeared on the scene and within another ten years, discovered him, you understood from Samuel Clemens how important it is not to laugh when you're saying something funny.

You're older now than Samuel Clemens was, on his way to becoming dead and buried. Even if you had another fifty years to do so, there is no likelihood you'd be able to understand many of his most serious concerns, but to the degree you've been able, you have learned to laugh as much as you used to when persons asked you if you were kidding.

Part of the reason behind this faux self-control has to do with anger management. A person who laughs at the observations she or he makes will appear to be younger, brasher, and less sophisticated than she or he appears to be. This person, the one who laughs at a personal observation, appears to be laughing at someone--anyone--else.

The person who does not laugh at a personal observation appears to be laughing at her- or himself as the goat of the remark, thus becoming more of a threat, because she or he reminds us of our very own self. You've spent years in anger management, learning the nuances of the concept of inner turmoil known as anger and its first-cousin relationship to yet another inner feeling that often causes a smile. The other inner concept is humor, which causes the smile because of the way it reveals painful truths.

The painful inner truths are often at your own personal expense. This round is mine. Drinks on me.

Are you kidding?

You're paying, so, no, you're not kidding.

When you're serious, that's more on the order of you buying a round without being asked. Perhaps you're buying to show you have the means. Perhaps you're paying off some past debt you want kept sealed in the past.

Are you serious?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Story

1. Social conservatives cling to established order by slowing down the process of evolving equality. In this manner, those in power cause the natural energy of a culture to compress. Newton had cogent observations about compressed energy.

2. When grammarians express concern about corruption of the rules of usage, they are moving, whether knowingly or not, toward racism and cultural Darwinism. If they exercise too much power, they will be, whether knowingly or not, creating a wider gap between those who read and those who do not.

3. Many changes in a particular language have come about as a result of travel and multiculturalism.

4. Today's grammar is often invaded by yesterday's slang.

5. Yesterday's slang often had its origins in local and national politics.

6. A story was once church based, which is to say a sermon.

7. A story was once culture based, which is to say a fable.

8. A story was once a tale, which meant it had a specific purpose of slowing down individual initiative in favor of the larger theme of group identity.

9. A story once had the basic format of a joke. Set-up. Complication, which slyly introduces a parallel. Punchline, which springs a surprise (which also takes a shot at some social convention).

10. A twenty-first-century story may well contain items 1-10 supra, but it may also be a shaggy-dog story, which is to say a narrative line with one or more major distractions and an abrupt ending.

11. Stories from cultures other than our own sound different to ours. The dramatic format is the same, but each culture provides a different form of irony, which makes the story sound different.

12. Stories are like jokes in the same sense that jokes are what they are because they have a specific butt. The butt of a joke is often a character, but it may also be a social convention.

13. A significant difference between a joke and a story is the degree to which one or more individuals in either form is hurt. Stories are filled with persons who have already been hurt and are likely to be so again, unless they can find a strategy to swerve away from collision.

14. There are stories for readers who do not like to read about persons who have been or are about to be hurt. The readers of such stories often do not consciously identify with socially conservative causes. In time, these readers stand a high probability of being hurt.

15. The more memorable a story, the greater the probability that it in some way dramatizes the slow pace of cultural evolution and its close parallel, the deeper understanding of the human animating force.

16. The more a story strikes the reader as being a puzzle, the greater the probability the reader will remember the story for at least a year beyond the time of reading.

17. The more effective a story is now, the greater probability it will reveal more on a subsequent reading.

18. The greater the ambiguity within a story, the more likely it will seem to have actually happened.

19. The essential ingredient in a story is ambiguity.

20. There will always be a hidden meaning located somewhere between the title of the story and the actual text.

21. There is a hidden meaning behind the fact of this list being called Thirteen Ways of Looking at Story.

22. The answer is to be found in the nine inapplicable ways.

Monday, March 13, 2017

How Some Dude in a Basket Became Interior Monolog

Not long ago, after the last questions had been asked and answered, you stepped away from the lectern to gather your props. You'd been speaking to a combined group of writers from two different, often contentious organizations, addressing one of your favorite themes, the evolution of the narrative voice.

In much the same way your iPhone can tell it is you who open its applications, thanks to its ability to identify your fingerprint, you claim the ability to distinguish the century in which a particular text was written because you recognize the way various of the tropes and devices were brought into play in the first place, then used. 

This ability to track the date of a text's origin is something most avid readers rely upon; it is no sign of your advanced status in the literary game. Like some long forgotten receipt for some long forgotten service rendered, folded in some cranny of your wallet, this receipt testifies to only one thing--you paid your entrance fee into the reader's and writer's life.

The fact of your ability to recognize evolution in narrative history is no assurance you will be any more equipped to write meaningful narrative than anyone else. The only certainty is that the evolutionary process has not completely left you behind. Such narrative voice and tool kit that you have are in constant need of regular check-up.

When you'd gathered your props and notes in preparation for departure, a person detached herself from the departing crowd to confront you. "Evolution," she said, "is a slow, tedious process."

This was--and still is--a fair assessment. You nodded affably at the woman, but you already knew you'd touched a nerve. A dentist telling a patient, "You'll tell me if that hurts," not quite a question, nor a statement. She was telling you she was not so willing to evolve as your suggestions in your presentation might have urged. She wanted you to know this. You understand her position, even respect it.

Individuality is difficult to come by, even more painful to deny. Holding onto a sense of self and of its implicit strength can be an act of modest bravery against the implacable force of conformity. But suppose the lesson to be learned is the opposite of the thing to which one clings? Suppose the lesson is to let go of convention rather than cling to it?


Had you come onto the literary stage back before the time known as Common Era, a time when few could read, a time when exposure to story meant huddling in the outer reaches of audience at a theater, you'd be faced with a dilemma.

Most of the stories were about nobles, upper classes, persons who not only could read, they also owned books. Stories were about the serious issues such persons faced: loyalty to one's country, the obligations of nobility, the need to protect tradition.

When faced with a problem you had to solve but could not find the answer, much less the equation to articulate the problem, you might turn to prayer. As an actor or a writer, you'd pause, turn your head heavenward, then implore one of several possible gods or muses to help you.

You'd know if your prayer was heard and one of the gods or muses had agreed to lend a hand by the sound of creaking, a rope being tugged, ratchets and gears engaging. Soon, a basket would be seen, lowering its way down to you, carrying one or more individuals wearing the mask of god or muse. The god or muse would inform you that she or he had taken pity on you and would now solve your problem. But it would cost you. Not necessarily some big ticket price, perhaps a mere promise of loyalty, an occasional sacrifice of a lamb or chicken.

But you were indeed plunked onto the stage when such deus et machina has evolved into straightforward Interior Monolog. Now what? How would he fix it, this time? Hoo boy, looks like I'm in for it.

We're no longer kings or queens or, for that matter, noble. We're twenty-first-century persons, caught up in the tangle of twenty-first century life. Although some of us may pray, even be aware of such twentieth and twenty-first century constructs as prayer warriors whose prayers God is more likely to hear, we are also in a time and place where God, if there is such, is too busy managing reality to lend us a hand.

We know we have action, and we know we have dialogue. But we also know that Interior Monologue is only going to be heard by us, or by some audience who paid to get into the theater, or some reader who bought a book.

The audience and reader waits to see how we phrase the question, what we may or may not say about it to the other characters, and how we become our own gods and muses, lowered onto the stage in the basket, and how we cope with the problem.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Spray Can Art

You have two basic choices.  Most persons share this menu of potential with you.

You can know what's going to happen, or you can not know the outcome of a particular event. If you know what's going to happen, you're probably equipped with an outline of some sort or its equivalent, a recipe, or a shopping list. That way, you're moving according to a preset plan. No surprises. 

Whether you're hungry and in Phoenix, Arizona, or Branson, Missouri, you enter a McDonald's, ask for a Big Mac. When your order arrives, you are not surprised. When you're nudged awake during the night thanks to a pressure on your bladder, if you're in the right motel chain, you can make your way to the loo in the dark, without bumping into anything.

If you don't know what's going to happen, your life in general and your adrenals in specificity are about to become different than they are now. Instead of the recipe or shopping list or outline to follow, there is before you a broad, dark area, one not defined by Google Map or a GPS. You're there on your own. But where is there?

The expression "It's a jungle out there." comes on stage with a full complement of agendas and warnings. Many of the basic rules you've been taught, at home, in school, or in some form or other of a philosophical forum, still apply. Better, for example, to be polite to strangers rather than indifferent or grouchy. Better to respect the property of others and the attendant boundaries of others. Nevertheless, many of the rules or conventions are of no value to you; you've already seen through the frail foundation of their promised outcome.

You've come this far in the range of experiences, insights, and equations you've allowed to leave some positive impact on you, survived some, failed woefully at others, lucked through yet other encounters. Somewhere within you, you can still see the tiny glow of the light that represents Positiveness. True enough, the cynical light has begun to pulse, but the other warning lights are remarkable for their calmness.

Thus your factory sealed Self, the you that makes some choices, refuses others, takes sides when required, walks away when staying on to fight or otherwise engage no longer seems prudent. This Self influences your choices in nearly everything, often in matters where you aren't even looking for politics. Your Aggregate Self chooses the characters who will appear in your stories, edges you to buy, then read, one book over any of several others.

At this stage of your life, you drawn on a series of probable outcomes such as when you will go to bed, when you will awaken, what you will have, most days, for breakfast, even though your larder, at any given moment, contains several potentials for the breakfast meal.

Do you have to use all that oatmeal for breakfast? What happened to you all those days when your breakfast was a steak or chop? What about those times when, out of some perversity, you had your standard breakfast (latte, grapefruit juice, toast with almond butter, marscapone cheese, and marmalade) at lunch time or late supper? And did you move away from the soft-boiled eggs at breakfast from boredom or some other motive?

Although not important under most circumstances, these choices (to engage and to reject) have significant effect on the imaginary forces you set loose in your fictions, color the behavior you accord strangers and casual acquaintances.

You prefer not knowing, not so much in the sense of naivete, although your are in fact that, but rather in the dread of knowing anything, even the desireable things, instead of experiencing the surprise of a new path in or out, a new meaning, a new predator to fear, a new target of opportunity, a yet unexercised aspect of you, struggling to get free to work its way with a spray can on the side wall of history.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Listen up, Everybody

A writer needs to listen for and hear the politics in the voices of all he/she reads and do give voice to the politics within his/her own vision.

Two of your dearest friends were writers. Each, in his own way, made a good deal of money from writing. For quite some time, you were the editor of the one you'd known the longest. For another length of time, some of it overlapping your editing the first writer, you were collaborating with the other writer.

Each writer had a sharp, well defined narrative command, having the effect of a sophisticated older brother or perhaps a rogue uncle, telling a story as though he were only telling it to one person. One was prolific in books and magazine pieces. The other wrote dramatic material, much of it for television. He also wrote poetry that dribbled politics the way a thick sandwich sometimes dribbles its ingredients.

One of your early mentors wrote in a way that reminded you of certain knitters whose scarves and sweaters seemed to have been cast by machine rather than hand. If this mentor who reminded you of a knitter did not like a line or paragraph, she would rip out the offending line, much as you'd seen a number of knitters do, mutter softly to herself, "Well, that needs recasting," then do just that.

Another mentor, who specialized in mystery and suspense fiction, turned your reading and writing worlds upside down when she offered notes on an opening chapter of a mystery novel you'd undertaken. "Why, this has a perfectly sensible story," she said, "and one can see what's at stake, what's about to be lost, and where things will go wrong, making it a nice sort of puzzle. But if you're to continue writing mysteries, you must understand that a narrative without politics is not a story."

Wishing with all sincerity to continue writing, indeed to finish the novel of which she was speaking, and to write yet other mystery novels, you said, "If it isn't a story, what is it?"

Without hesitation, she said, "A puzzle."

"But," you struggled to understand, "not a story?"

"A puzzle," she said.

"A puzzle," you said. Unlike the fabled individual at death's door, seeing his (or her) life flash past, you saw instead all her novels, including much of the politics within them.

"I don't think," she said, "you are a puzzle fan."

"Only crossword puzzles. Only the Sunday LA Times and The New York Times Sunday." You said.

"Well, that can't hurt much," she said. "Can it?"

The writer whose work was mostly of a theatrical and humorous nature quite understood, and so did you of his work, often with envy of his ability to be political and funny at the same time.

Once you see such a thing as politics being a necessary aspect of story, layers of previously unseen implications appear to drop from between the lines of story, in the manner of the earlier mentioned thick sandwich, losing some of its ingredients once it is bitten into. You see and often need to restrain yourself from the cliche of the butt of your palm being brought (by you) in direct contact with the center of your forehead. "How is it," you ask yourself, "that a man of your years can still exhibit so much naivete?"

There are no satisfactory answers to such questions. They seem to offer reproof of your past reading and your past interpretations of events that took place before you in real time (as opposed to time within fiction).

One answer seems to offer some hope. Instead of looking for the politics within a story to appear much like the least likely suspects in the Agatha Christie mysteries and similar iterations, you begin your casting about in your imagination for some political uproar or outrage, some aspect of usurpation or oligarchic control, then begin constructing your cast, deploying each new character to enter as an individual who is a player within an unjust system of constraint and restraint.

You remind yourself that Charlotte Bronte, all of four feet, ten inches in height, took on the six-foot-two-inch William Makepeace Thackeray for having the temerity to refer to her as Miss Jane Eyre rather than Miss Charlotte Bronte.  At the time of original publication, Bronte, like a number of women writers, used the pseudonym Currier Bell. You remind yourself of the politics in that, and if that isn't enough to get your imagination awakened, there are sufficient other political circumstances, some as old as your time on this planet, others yet older, and others still, apparently new in the specifics but recognizable for its long-standing tenure in the politics of our culture.

"We'll have to see about that little detail, won't we?" You write as a female protagonist is lectured by a supercilious maitre d'hotel. Thus politics and story are underway.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Literary Selfies

Each time you printout a draft of a story or essay for a personal editorial review,you resume an on-going argument with yourself. This argument continues until you pass the material along to its destination and, perhaps, yet another editorial review from another source. If there is a subsequent argument, the cause brings yet another form of discussion.

Self-editing, at this presubmission point, relates to what stays in the text and what departs; it also relates to how and where the remains will be placed. Thus, line editing, which is not so much a problem as the specific questions of what stays and what goes.

The focus becomes a judgment on whether a specific word earns its keep in the piece. Does it justify being case? Os it a frivolous or decorative detail? Does it reflect your vaingloriousness as a person or have you reached the place where you believe you've sent all those tropes packing? Do the remains contribute to a smooth narrative flow, or do they hit the speed bump of distraction?

Your solution to the ever present question is a careful replay of the sentence in which the suspect word appears. In essence, you're scanning each word in each sentence. Then you scan each sentence in context with its previous and following cohort. In doing so, you often remind yourself of Philip Roth's character, the writer E. I. Lonoff, a man who once described his work as pushing words around until he found the correct order.

Any of Roth's characters is a plateau toward which you understand you must strive, with no chance of achievement. Lonoff joins an ensemble cast of fictional individuals whom you are delighted to study.

Sometimes, when you're reading to an audience, or other times when a reader comments on your use of language, you recognize the suspicion you feel when the writing style is mentioned first. Loved your use of language. Wrong thing to hear first. Okay if that complement comes after the likes of Fine story, or Moving essay.

You strive for the best possible effect, whether fiction or essay. Your way of judging response is how effective was the discovery, if the work were fiction; how clear the articulation of argument or analysis in the case of essay.

Bustling within your narrative toolkit, much like eager puppies bent on an investigative spree, are your fondness for puns, metaphor, and simile. At the time of composition, you can almost feel the squirt of adrenaline when one or more of these emerges or some previously unseen connection brings two objects of first-blush disparity into a connection. This is your reward for having begun the work in the first place and your hoped for outcome when beginning.

That said, you are not adverse to being understood and for at the same time having amused or taken the reader off the deterministic path of the logical succession of paragraphs, each with its topic sentence and subsequent auxiliaries.

Your first goal is to be read all the way through.

Your next goal is to have been understood, followed by your wish to provoke and evoke feelings appropriate to the text. If you can come away from your self-editing with the sense of success to any degree, you approximate the sense that the work and then the rework has been worthwhile.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

When Story Has a Bad Hair Day

Story can be and indeed has been charted to illustrate some of its recognized essentials. These chartings, spiky and sudden in nature, remind you of yourself, seen in the mirror of a morning when shaving is done and time has arrived for the drawing of a brush through such hair as you now have. Sparse though it may be on top, nevertheless it retains its idiosyncrasy via a number of competing cowlicks.

The picture of yourself you take away most mornings is of one who has made some attempt at order, even symmetry. The cowlicks, always a matter to be contended with and thus the ready excuse for military style shortness,at certain times during your younger years,add to your sense of imbalance and deviation from such normality as would be defined by a Bell Curve.

The Bell Curve you're thinking about here is the one representing distribution or events or outcomes, not the ones dealing with race and or intelligence. The Bell curves of which you speak love numbers, greater so-called n-samplings of events.

There is something harmonious and calming about a graphic representation of an n-sampling, whatever event the curve illustrates. A Bell Curve could be used to represent ten thousand coin flips. The greater the number of coin flips. the greater an even distribution of heads and tails. 

Because you are not a statistician, you won't even guess how much more likely a test of one hundred thousand coin flips would be to produce the graceful symmetry of The Bell Curve. Nevertheless, you reckon you've spent too much time as it is, being nudged by your culture to focus on symmetry and collegiality.

Your own preferences are for the edgy boundaries in everything you can think of. This continues to make sense when you see yourself in the morning, after shaving and using some stratagem to slow down the anarchy of your cowlicks. In a real sense, you're on your way to becoming a metaphor for yourself.

If story were to be applied to the Bell curve, uniformity of shape would be the first thing to go. Even though story in general has a similar, progressive form of development, you'd hope for the outlier, the story that took sharp diversions from predictable pattern. Properly charted, some of the better novels and short stories would look more like a mess or the attempts of a young person at drawing lawn or a hedge.

The certainty we want in story is the certainty of surprise, of sudden variation or deviation, a dramatic and visual sense of one or more characters getting swept up in a rebellion against some form of order. For us as readers, each page turned is an invitation for the character to bolt toward some form of independence or whim.

When you consider the characters in fiction written by others, whether in your role as a reviewer, a book editor, a teacher or--save the best for last--a writer, you want the outlier, she with the funny take on life, he with a sense that however too much the world is with him, a half-hour or so of listening to The Well-Tempered Clavichord can set things back into order.

Built into your psyche is the need to begin every day by making your bed--not just pulling the duvet cover into place, really fucking making it. Then, some semblance of coffee, perhaps a piece of toast slathered with almond butter and some marmalade. Then, onto kicking most things related to reading, writing, and editing into some idiosyncratic form that does not at all look regular.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


Long before money came into being as cash, specie, or currency, people had a word for it. The word, every bit as filled with intent as money, is obligation.

You were obligated for some specific, say six fresh fish or perhaps one large buffalo skin or beaver pelt. If you happen to have borrowed X's canoe for a fishing venture you were to lead, you were obligated to pay the owner of the boat X, which has accordingly become the total catch.

This commercial structure suggests stories of endless mirth, but your purpose here intends another kind of exploration than fiction; rather it is the purpose of essay.

Whether by anthropologists who came upon the scene, notebooks and recording devices at the ready, or from the cultures under examination, obligation as a unit of indebtedness became shortened to ob. The ob is the forbear of money. "I owe him one ob." He's already six obs into me, my son-in-law."

An individual identity was defined by family and clan ties, by one's position in the social hierarchy, by one's possessions, and by one's equivalent of credit card debt, the obs one owed or those owed to one.

You became aware of an ob of your own earlier this morning, when you could not locate a treasured pocket knife.

When occasion calls for you to identify yourself to a stranger as as introduction to a particular society, instead of citing your parentage or born-to religious background as bench marks, your first impulse is to give your name, then wait a few moments to see which questions may then arise. Perhaps it will be place of birth as in, "Where are you from?". If the question is "What do you do?" you have three answers, writer, editor, teacher; you also have the amusing (to you, at least) construction of how one led to the other.

On some rare occasions, you may have occasion to identify yourself according to polite and philosophy. As a matter of principal, you avoid being described by your possessions. "That silver/gray BMW out there? That's mine." Such tropes not only seem vainglorious, they cause you to think how quickly they'd play into a retort, "So, you're the one who's blocking my Bentley!"

Here's where a problem begins. Even though you neither think of yourself as a person with possessions nor represent yourself as one with possessions, being unable to find your prized pocket knife lifts the curtain a few inches on the stage of your identity. You're still smarting over the loss of a Buck pocket knife with wood side panels, gone at least twenty five years, not to mention a lost Stipula Castoni fountain pen and a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck 149.

You of course have substitute pocket knives, including a duplicate of the very Buck lost so long ago, and an Ancora fountain pen you value more than a Mont Blanc. The true definition of yourself is less who you are and why you have so many fountain pens and pocket knives. As such things go, the pocket knife to which you attach so much importance was all the while in a pair of jeans you'd tossed into the To Be Washed basket. In that sense of recovery, balance is restored.

The true ob is to pursue with some rigor the paths and techniques of your choice, to the point where you are able to experience some sense of satisfaction that cannot be found in a pair of jeans in the laundry basket, You are not obligated to be good, merely to strive for some sense of engaged responsibility toward an occupation you care about. The winds of chance brought you the potential for being competent in three things and the obligation to practice in hopes of achieving some ability.

To call the mystery writer William Campbell Gault a friend is a bit of a stretch. You met on occasion, had coffee, talked shop. You even effected his affiliation with the editor, Sarah Freed, who acquired his last three books and reprint rights of a few others. But one thing Gault told you, then allowed you to quote it all the way into print haunts you.  "I'd rather," he said, "be the world's worst writer than a good anything else."

You've had the good fortune these long years to be able to practice at three things you care about in hopes of doing them well enough to be at peace with them.

"What did you say it was you did?"

"Write. Edit books. Teach."

"So then, can't make up your mind yet?  Listen, it isn't that you're a kid any more, know what I mean? Isn't like you've got all the time in the world."