Sunday, February 21, 2021

My Problems with Occam's Razor

Universes need not be unnecessarily expanded.

--William of Occam 

When you find yourself in the middle of the many things you've already begun, outcomes and resolutions appear to have lit out for parts unknown, their baggage assembled in haste, tails tucked low on their haunches. This leaves you abandoned in the wake of why you begin projects in the first place.

You've had a near lifetime to consider the mechanics of this condition. From time to time, answers appeared within your grasp. All projects and dreams have beginnings. Stories set off with some purpose, dreams begin for you with the awareness of a need. Over the years, many of your stories began with a character confronted with a choice or task. Your dreams often have you in a locale without shoes and thus your attempts to negotiate terrains not suited for bare feet. A variation of this theme has events of your dream dependent on your ability to find your car.

Sometimes days passed with no firm grasp on the moment of engagement, but when it came, some inner celebration within you spilled out into the atmosphere, where you could breathe it, see it, taste it. If the project showed signs of still greater intensity, you heard music in the same way you hear a soundtrack in a film. Wonder of wonder, the music you heard left you with the impression it, too, originated within your imagination, although in the past you've heard symphonies, ballet music, and chamber music compositions you were pleased to remember from your appreciation of music.

One of tools you rely upon in your roles as writer, teacher, and editor takes its name from its Latin origin, in the middle of things, thus In medias res.  The quickest way to apply the brakes to a story already set in motion may be found by providing physical and emotional descriptions before the dramatic action.  Look for the place where the lead character arrives at a similar condition you noted to begin this essay. Forget about chronology. Look for the place where the protagonist may be seen in action, her attempts to cope in direct proportion for the need to produce a significant, appropriate outcome.

In later years, you've warned students, editorial clients, and the aspect of you best seen as the writer: No stage directions. No description. No footnotes.

Your warning shifts to assurance with your observation that information and description are best served after the reader has enough information to read the situation ahead of the character, then begin to worry about it. So, okay, this Ishmael guy, he felt a bout of depression coming on, so he does the dramatic equivalent of slamming an Advil or two; he signs on a whaler, understands how a few months at sea will calm him. But wow, how's he gonna stay calm with a dude like that Ahab in charge?

How, indeed?

A possible plan:  consider story as a party. Arrive late, leave early, with the explicit takeaway that those who longer overlong at parties often get caught up in the cleanup activities.

Perhaps you'll learn the proper rhythm that will produce the outcome you seek. Perhaps not. Perhaps your clutter can best move you along in the state of delight with each new beginning. Perhaps remember to look for later places to begin your narrative at revision time.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

You, as the Most Pestiferous of All Your Creations

 Three books survive the various moves during your life to date, a barmitzva gift from a forgotten donor, a Christmas gift from your sister, and yet another gift from her in response to her asking your wish for a birthday present.

The earliest of these, a Rand-McNally Atlas of the world, bears an inscription from 1941. Although uninscribed, the second book, an enormous doorstopper collection of novels, sketches, and observations from Mark Twain, dates from your thirteenth year, and the last, a collections of poems and translations by Ezra Pound,  dates from the early 1950s.

Since you came into possession of these books, you moved from locations in Los Angeles, New Jersey, Masachussets, Rhode Island, and Florida. The circumstances of your last move, from 652 Hot Springs Road in that portion of Santa Barbara known as Montecito, to your present location, caused you to select one hundred titles from the five- to six-thousand accumulated by you and your late wife.

You've not made a true inventory, but your current book population exceeds fifteen hundred, a suggestion of how books come and go in your life but also the near miracle that you'd have the three survivors of your early years.

Let's get the Rand-McNally Atlas out of the way. Over the early years of your possession, you read it as you would a novel, using places, settings, and things you promised yourself to visit as focal points. The main value of the book now is sentimental. A gift from your beloved sister. Her handwritten inscription. If and when a time comes when you once again divest yourself of your books, you'll offer it to either of your nieces, convinced they'll accept it more to humor you than any wish to have this wannabe relic. Same kind of situation where your youngest niece and her husband took Rocky, your sister's dog, after your sister's death.

The other two books define your interests, your goals, large chunks of your eduction and attitudes; they made and continue to make contributions to your education, your perceptions of the worlds inside you and those in which you are a visitor. They represent what you wish to be, attempt to be, and use as a scale of equivalency against which you measure your progress as a person and a writer. 

Against your memories of times where your behavior seems now to have lacked such qualities as restraint, humility, consideration, and empathy, your awareness of the immense talents and visions of Twain and Pound humbld you, led you toward paths of self-improvement and understanding. At no time have you considered yourself their equals.

Into this acquisition of books, role models, and influences, you added the work and careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, and Willa Cather, from which point you went on to find and become influenced by two flesh-and-blood mentors, the writer Rachel Maddux, and the actor Virginia Gilmore.

You were then officially a work in progress.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Role Model

 When you take on a literary role model, whether you realize it or not, you are attempting to add tools to your toolkit. The tools belong to your role model. In all likelihood you had no real awareness of such tools until you saw your role model using them in some easy way that made you think you could use them.

Because of your reeading habits as a boy, you were all over the place with writers you sought out. The fact of Albert Payson Terhune's long list of publications lead you to follow him. You were not looking for tools to borrow. True, he wrote about collies, a breed somewhere toward the middle of your okay list. The best you could offer of your interest at the time had to do with his clear understanding of how to deploy event and intent. These many years later, you remember his dog characters but cannot bring to memory any human. 

James Fenimore Cooper wrote about scouts and adventures, often impacted by Indians. Thus you worked your way through him and his shadowy people, all of whom, in mitigation, had names you could recall.

Helpful librarians suggested other authors such as Joseph Altschuller and Howard Pease. You still have a visual memory of the librarian who told you, yes, He'd be good for you. He wrote boys adventure books.

And there it was, your plight. You were a boy who read because he craved adventure, found non in the world about him, relied instead on that situation you now recognize as passive in its intrusiveness, not passive in its aggressiveness. You wanted story to fill the void. You wanted--ah, you could not describe what you wanted then. Your attempt to define it now may still want vital details. You wanted to eavesdrop on adventures others engaged.

Before long, you found on your own a writer who turned all that around, caused you to become aware of his incredible set of tools, caused you at one time in your life to apply as a correspondent to a newspaper he worked for, instilled in you the practice of copying out his sentences, looking for the products of the tools. Once, when you were in the midst of a class called wood shop, you became aware of the fact of wood having grain, of the rip and cross-cut saw to negotiate the grains of any given piece of wood. You began to pay attention to the merest scrap of wood that came your way, the better to detect its grain. You learned how to identify the blades of the hand saw in order to detect whether it ripped, or cut with the grain, or crossed against the grain.

You believe you've read most of the enormous output of this writer, knowing your opinion of his least effective work. You arrived at grudging agreement with another writer who wrote of how must American fiction begins with another of this writer's work. You had some moments of wishing to borrow tools from this second author, but your admiration and fandom had distinct boundaries.

Last year, you took the unthinkable step. You borrowed a number of this author's characters, mixing them freely with your own characters, your own narrative voice, your own vision, after all these years, of where you believe the writer should be in relation to story and character. Each time you read through work already set down, your first thought relative to the correctness of narrative tone and, in fact, each word, has to do with how much the text sounds like you rather than the resonant, anchored, purposeful sound of The Role Model.

The early years of your discovery of Mark Twain were magical. He had no choice in the matter. You wished to see as he saw, feel as he felt, write as he wrote. You wished to write like him. These later years, since your work began to find minor places of publication, you understood why he has been such a beacon for you. Perhaps if he were able to see some of your prose, read one of your more recent short stories, have a look at the opening pages of this latest venture in which a character of your own creation is hired by a principal character of his, Tom Sawyer, to find another and yet more enduring of Twain's characters, Huckleberry Finn.  Mr. Twain might allow you were no slouch of a storyteller. With a twitch of his mustache, he could suggest with some sly innuendo that you might have put your time to better use, learned some trade where you had a chance at making a go of a career.

You can live with both possibilities. You would rather be no slouch than a wastrel of your apprentice time.  As you race through the decades of your life, you think sometimes of the things you have produced, the things you have not produced, and the fact that you have kept faith with teacher by taking care of the tools you have borrowed from him, admired them, used them to attempt projects well beyond your ability to produce.

Sunday, February 7, 2021


 Each time you present yourself to compose fiction or personal narrative, you place yourself in the uneasy terrain between opposing forces. You may indeed be taken down, either by an enemy or the more likely prospect of friendly fire.

You mean no harm, or so you say. You set forth to demonstrate or learn--or both. You have learned little at this point in you life, enough to keep you afloat and working. Your mot precious asset beyond life itself the curiosity that brings you to this unsettling, dangerous terrain. You are curious to see how products of your imagination will fare on stages designed in the trance-like states of your awareness.

Among the scant library of your knowledge, this slim volume, Nature Abhors a Vacuum, Drama Detests Neutrality, awaits your consultation, right next to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged.  Whomever your characters may represent, they should emerge as opponents in some contest of strategy: chess pieces, solid and striped billiard balls, Dorothy Gale and the Wicked Witch. There can be no outcome without conflict. You cannot hope to compose fiction from a safe remove. You must take the role of a trespasser, sooner or later.

When you compose fiction, your fulcrum is the truth each of your characters see. If you project characters whose moral compasses bear close relationship to yours, you will not have story. Perhaps you'll get some idiom of encouragement or acceptance, but your characters will not be able to withstand the inner and outer storms so necessary in memorable fiction. Your characters will see acceptance and rejection as conditions they dare not confront.

When you compose your own history, you are trimming and cutting Reality as you saw it; you are casting yourself as a protagonist or antagonist in a combat where you have the power to alter meaning and outcome. If your dramatic self requires deeper, more significant events, why of course, you produce them. If your dramatic self despairs of outcome, you shift your narrative and your tone to living for the moment rather than for achievement.

Fiction and life translate best through action verbs. The basic pulse of each is the stimulus and its response, often referred to as the beat.  The best days of writing come when you set forth enough stimulus to cause an avalanche, from which you run to protect yourself from being buried.

Then you dust yourself off, get such sleep and coffee as you can, then return to investigate the mess you have caused.

Saturday, February 6, 2021


 Your memory of personal events and of facts has served you as a basic tool kit. Without intending pun, you can't remember when you first became aware of this relationship, nor, until you were well along to senior citizen status did you identify the process you used to make the association. You remember events in your own life. You remember facts you gathered from reading or direct association with living sources. You remember times when you invented sources more often than not for the purpose of establishing your reliability and correctness. This includes inventing facts you hoped to be true in mitigation of the feelings caused by the inner burrow of uncertainty. So yes, you invented facts to help you maintain and contain certainty. When you were much younger than you were now, certainty mattered in different ways than it does now.

You quite liked the authority of having facts and confident assertions. You relished opportunities where you could demonstrate your facts and assertions. Some years--but not too many--later, you realized this preoccupation could make you appear a smartass. In near synchronicity to your awareness of yourself as a smartass, you began to question the accuracy of the facts and opinions of others. Part of the stimulus for this growth came from the childhood experiences related to being born into moderate affluence in Los Angeles, moving through financial necessity to the east, then New England, then southeast Florida. 

Your then awareness of an outer condition presented to you as The Civil War served as a trigger to your broader overview. Smarting from a scathing reminder from a teacher in Florida that Civil War didn't count as a correct answer and, rather, that The War of Northern Aggression did, you were quick to discover that the authors of the text book in which such distinctions appeared listed their associations with universities located in the South.

Not many years later, you understood how you'd graduated from Smartass to Pedant.

Later still, you were enrolled in a state university where male students had reserve officer training corps classes mandated as a requirement for graduation. Your active dislike for ROTC caused you to perform poorly enough that you had to repeat the agony. Nevertheless, the pain and humiliation--"You're kidding, right?  Nobody flunks ROTC."--brought you in contact with one class in which you excelled because you learned not only how to value and read maps but, through a process called triangulation, use locations known to you in order to locate unknown places. Triangulation gave you an opportunity to use what you knew to help approximate what you did not know.

Some years later, when you worked as an editor, you acquired the work of a Canadian author who'd spent time in England, looking, you later learned, for English quirks and traits he could use in characters as a way of conveying his own vision of the English. When you spoke of the matter, he'd hum several bars of a song, "Winchester Cathedral," before he lapsed into his set piece about how the song served to illustrate the inevitability of English quirky behavior.

With that paragraph, you supplied a portion of the triangulation process by which you found yourself in Winchester Cathedral, about to give a lecture on a novel, The Tower, that dealt with the construction of a cathedral such as the one in Winchester.  In addition, you were cautioned, "Mind, you're standing on Jane Austen."  You use techniques of triangulation to describe how you came to be in that place on that particular day, standing on the burial site of a favored author. Yet another aspect of those events would return to haunt you, much as the lyrics of the sone, "Winchester Cathedral," Perhaps a year later, you were in a Santa Barbara Starbucks. When the barista handed you your venti latte, she said, "I so enjoyed your lecture on The Tower."

Not finished yet. You've worked with the individual who cautioned you about stepping on Ms. Austen. He's a prolific author, a major archaeologist. From him and his observations, you were triangulated back to the historical if not prehistorical past, realizing how those worthies used their powers of observation, memory, and prodding questions to navigate the uncertain waters of survival and sustainability. From this same author, you learned via triangulation how the ancients function and, now that you're into it, to look back at a past where you can't asked Siri to do your research for you.

Friday, February 5, 2021

An Infinity of Pages

 You have spent much of your life as an intern, student, or apprentice to the condition of writer, content with the simple truth of the maxim wherein brevity is the soul of wit. At your present age, you have even less reason to doubt the truth of that equation, although you do recall times in your apprenticeship where your goal was length, a condition that has more to do with humor than wit.

During those tumultuous years, length signified seriousness of intent. The longer the work, the more serious it would become, thanks to your belief that length meant more themes. What great mischief lay behind the logic of that assumption.  

Much of your apprenticeship had to do with removing length. Those extra clauses and phrases disguised the thematic material you'd hoped to introduce but, found lacking, substituted the occasional adjective, adverb, or even more tortuous diversion.

All about you, voices clamored for you to get serious. In desperation, you moved to length, vocabulary, and literary allusion, thus began your true apprenticeship. You needed to organize search-and-destroy missions to detect and deal with length, vocabulary, and literary allusion.

Old habits die hard. Length, vocabulary, and literary allusion have ways of convincing you they belong in your lines and paragraphs. Years spent editing the work of others taught you how devious a thing seriousness can become.

Yesterday, you used the Adobe Sign application to put your signature on an agreement form that bore the logo of Penguin/Random House. You might call this an accomplishment, You might even regard it as a result of the seriousness of your intent to advance in your lifelong apprenticeship. This would not have happened had you not, over the years since you began, produced an infinity of pages which you then probed for length, vocabulary, and literary allusion.

The takeaway truth for today: Better to sign such agreements for work you have already completed rather than those you have barely begun.