Thursday, December 26, 2019

Story as the Writer's Unmapped Territory

Your first real-life--as opposed to reading-related--mentor died in 1983. Your second real-life mentor took her own life in 1986. The former brought you to enhanced awareness of the short form, the novel, and the stage play. The latter shared her experiences on the stage and in film, a gift that continues to pay off in each scene you draft of each short story and novel.

Your thoughts of the former often lead you to consideration of the latter; the reverse is equally so. The former had a voice that sounded like sandpaper being drawn over unfinished wood. When she and her husband left the Los Angeles area for what seemed to you the unfathomable leap to a new life in north central Tennessee, your contact with her was limited to long conversations about writing by telephone.

The voice of the latter had was crisp, precise even when tired or exasperated. When you once told her she had a voice well-suited for reading aloud, she was crisp and precise when she told you a trained actor should be able to convince a listener she was whoever she set out to be at the moment. At one point, she played for you a film clip of a role in which she portrayed a flirty Southern belle, a performance you'd seen years earlier, on the cusp of puberty and hyperalert to overt and subtextual sexuality.

Your thoughts of each of them today, thirty-odd years after their death, brought you aware of something so obvious to you now that you needed moments to wonder, aloud and to your inner self, how you could have needed so long to recognize.

The early years of your writing life, before you had any notion of the difficulty needed to get the ability you wished to hone, passed in the blur of you constantly writing, typing away on any of the many typewriters your father rescued for you from the bankrupt ventures he auctioned off for the referees in bankruptcy.  During those years, your goal was to get as many words down as possible, setting as your competitor rather than mentor the English poet, John Keats (1795--1821), whose work you admired to the point of envy. Most of all, he spoke to you through his poem:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books in charactery...

Long enough ago for you to have sired children, which you have not, and watched them sire children of their own. Of course imagined children exist in fantasy or fiction; they produce offspring only in speculations such as short stories and novels.  Long enough as well for you to have forged those unmapped routes from which your mentors bade you detour to find routes of your own ways. Long enough to come to terms with much of yourself as an outlier. Thus John Keats is no longer a rival; he remains one of your favored of the male poets.

Long enough for you to have read only yesterday a poignant essay by another favored writer, a novelist whose works took you deeper beyond admiration of her technique and into questions of your own visions of this hulking, lurching vehicle of Reality.  Long enough for you to have sprawled in a picnic field with Christopher Isherwood to demolish a splendid lunch made for you by the nuns at the Vedanta Convent in Santa Barbara, to be shared as you drove him to his home in the Santa Monica Canyon.  The basis of your discussion that day, Isherwood's long and heartfelt wrestling of a line from the Bhagavad Gita, "To the work you are entitled/But not the fruits thereof."  You took this to mean you'd better enjoy the work.  A neat, tidy man, Isherwood brushed hamburger crumbs from his linen jacket, then agreed. "One of the worst things is being paid for work you did not truly appreciate. We learn so many things by contemplating their absence."

The thing you learned today, all this time into the process, relates to your notion of how your work comes from being the story, from being inside it, which is true enough for you, as far as that road goes. But consider this as well: A story is an unmapped territory you have to discover on your own. The writer part of you knows the route, but the mind and consciousness are conspiracies of distraction, offering you alternate and often anomaly routes. You want and strive for focus. In a way, you know this when you take your laptop or notebook to a coffee shop, therein to force yourself to focus beyond the ambient noises and distractions.

The sharper the focus, the clearer and more distinct your narrative voice. No need to worry about story; you are the story. The missing element is the voice of your focus.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Twenty-Cent Meatballs

While you lingered in the age where your future had more to do with wonder and amazement than doubt and acceptance, two of your favored places out of the classroom were the pool hall and the used bookstore.

You sought life affirming skills in each. Your role model in the first a chunky man in his early sixties who sported a boyish haircut, rumpled-but-expensive clothes, and an eye for the trajectories of the billiard table, that pocketless arena where the carom, bank shot, and applications of spin caused you endless speculations and fantasies wherein you owned a home in which there was such a table. Indeed, your ability to own a home with such a table in its recreation room was predicated on your ability to engage the pursuit of three-cushion billiards. Such skills at such a table would surely provide you with the skills and strategies of the storyteller you sought to become. 

The key to this fantasy was the appearance in it of some visitor to this make-believe home with its make-believe billiards table. A visitor who would shake his head at you, offer up a patronizing "Tch tch, boy. They done sold you a table with no pockets." Whereupon you would set up the three balls, present your cue to the object ball in such a way that it would cascade off three sides, then kiss the other two in a seamless display, to which you'd reply, "Don't need no pockets to play this game."

There were a few role models for the used bookstore venue. If you had to pick one, it would be the owner-manager of the one at the extreme northern end of La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. The magic of this place included the fact of an award to anyone who browsed its interiors for more than four hours. A card--no plastic or credit cards at the time--whose printed message proclaimed its value of one spaghetti dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. This owner-manager always wore a suit. Probably his only suit. Blue. Gabardine rather than serve. A red necktie. The owner-manager's face made owlish by large, horn rimmed glasses. His manner serious to the point of emphatic. He'd see you enter and he invariably pointed to a series of aisles toward the rear. "Fiction. Over there."  Knew his customers, he did.  Name of Sid.

The fiction was divided into types. Mystery. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Romance. Western. Historical. Mainstream. The largest of all these, and the cause for you remembering Sid after all these years and, indeed, the reason why you had so many spaghetti dinners at the nearby Italian restaurant--the largest division of all: Literary.  Time after time, Sid followed you, guided you to this section. In the greatest probability, Sid knew of your hopes of becoming a writer whose books would be shelved under the category Literary from information you'd let slip during earlier conversations.

In retrospect, you like the idea that Sid knew of your ambitions because of his prescience; he could sense it in you without the need to be told. Not that your books would ever end up in used bookshops. Your books would, once bough and read, become treasures to be kept. Forget that only a year or so ago, a friend found a book of yours at a used-book sale, a book inscribed to the then chairman of a department at a university wherein you taught.

Sid became a surrogate teacher, urging upon you books by authors he said you needed to read, were you ever to realize your dreams, the literary equivalent of being able to navigate the no-nonsense expanse of the billiard table. In a real sense, this was your first experience with genera. Before then, all fiction was a part of a glorious entirety.

When you were a student, you learned to distinguish the genera, almost as you learned to see how various racial and social groups had traits you would later learn were the stereotypes you needed to avoid if you were to see individuals for what they were rather than what they represented collectively.

In your earliest associations with editors and literary agents based in New York, you learned the better word for genera--category. "You write category fiction, do you?  What category do you write?"
You wanted to say "All." Indeed, through a series of pseudonyms, you did.

Personal finances--or their lack--and accident--one of the governing principals of your life--caused you to take up teaching in your early forties. You were pleased with yourself for your then observation that "all fiction is mystery fiction."

Some years later, your pleasure increased when you observed how "All fiction is speculative fiction because it is based on a what-if as related to a mystery."

Earlier this year, you observed to an editorial client, "All fiction is speculative, mystery-based, and that functional aspect of science fiction, the alternate universe." How pleased with yourself to recognize how each fiction is the author's own vision of this enormous elephant in whatever room we chose to inhabit.

When you tendered the free-spaghetti-dinner card from Sid to the waiter at the Italian restaurant the first time, you were told "You want meatballs, you gotta pay extra. Meatballs cost twenny cents each."

The first time you heard this, you knew only too well you barely had enough to cover a tip for the waiter and the twenty-five cents for a pack of Camels, having already spent two fifty on books at Sid's.  There is a price for everything.