Friday, February 23, 2018

Describing Raymond Carver.

Ray Carver arrived at The University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop as I was beginning my last semester there. By then I had not only enjoyed reading a number of his short stories in Esquire, I had also heard at length about his complicated relationship with his editor, Gordon Lish, who by then was Esquire fiction editor.


The buzz feed was that Gordon cut Ray's stories to shit, and the shorter Lish made Carver's stories, the better they became. We Iowa Workshop students, every one of us, wished we could be discovered like Gordon had discovered Ray. They met when they both worked at a college textbook publishing house in Palo Alto, and one thing led to another.


Ray Carver is called a minimalist writer. I didn't know what that was when I was twenty-six years of age. All I knew was that Ray Carver had a very special way of writing that allowed me to feel free to enter into his stories and identify with the hurt people he wrote about, with the ache they felt inside them that they could not quell and that drove them to do things and say things that made me feel something very real and raw and memorable had just happened on the page. I never felt comfortable writing description. The beauty of reading Ray Carver and of writing like him was that he seemed to make description itself passé. That's why I wasn't comfortable with description, I would tell myself. Because intuitively, I knew, and as Carver's work so rightly seemed to suggest to me at the time, description was a totally unnecessary artifice.

I requested that for my last semester I be placed in Ray Carver's workshop. I wasn't the only student with that idea. I was informed that his workshop was full. So as the semester got under way, I sent him one of the stories I felt pretty good about and asked him if he would be so kind as to read it and tell me what he thought of it.

A few days later I received a phone call from him telling me he had read my story and asking me if I could drop by his office.


All the faculty offices in the English-Philosophy Building were identical. Small. Cramped. Blond wood furniture with rounded edges. It was called contemporary.


Jack Leggett. Fred Exley. Marvin Bell. Donald Justice. Angus Wilson. John Irving. Gail Godwin. I had visited them all in their office and when I visited them they were all seated behind their blond wood desks.


I knocked on his office door. Raymond Carver opened it. He was a regular looking man—older than me but not by much. His eyebrows peaked in the middle. After we said hello and shook hands he sat down behind his desk. I sat in one of the chairs in front of his desk. Right away he started looking for something to do with his hands. I again thanked him for reading my story, and he seemed very agreeable. We both knew he didn't have to do this—this that he was doing right now for me. It was out of the goodness of his heart. He was a generous, gracious man and he smoked like a fiend. I think it gave him something to do with his hands.

He'd often cover up his face with the hand that was holding the cigarette. I assumed he was shy. I was shy then, too. I liked him from the moment we met.


We got right to it. He found beauty in my story I didn't know was there. One example: Something about a woman wearing clogs, which were wooden shoes popular back then. "She walked towards him in her clogs making wooden sounds." Something like that. I had created an automaton without knowing it. He liked that. I got what he said, that description creates character, and I tried to store that gleaning away for the lean years I knew would come.

I learned from Ray: Be gracious. Be generous. Be kind. It's extremely important. It's your obligation, your duty to find beauty amongst the ugliness in every story you read. Much beauty. Surprise the author. That's a wondrous moment when a diver comes back to the surface from the deep and shows you what she found on the ocean floor you never knew was there.

We went through my story that way. Gleaning after gleaning with me storing each of them away as best I could. Understanding that at the heart of it, it's poetry. Unadorned poetry. That was the most important gleaning. It's why even today I hang with poets. I thanked him again. We shook hands. I left his office and never saw him again.


I was glad when I heard he had finally rejected Gordon Lish's advice. There comes a point when you know what you're about and you have to go your own way, a point where you cut your own stories to shit enough, you don't need a voracious editor to cross out stuff for you. This, too: There comes a point when you can cross out too much and do damage, destroy what you've created.

I was very sad when I heard he died. His work stands as a monument, a testament to what someone can accomplish with the simplest words strung together in the simplest ways. With courage to face the truth. With unadorned poetry.

I gradually learned the world got this minimalist-writing-thing totally wrong. It wasn't that description was passé. Quite the opposite. It's that writing is all about description, using simple words to describe what people do and say. Yes, say. Dialogue is description, too. It's all description. In one of Ray's stories I was reading this morning a radio is playing music in the background. There's no need to describe what kind of music was playing. Anyway, the reader already knows. Because the reader knows the character and knows the music such a person would be playing on the radio.

So this is what I know about Ray Carver: He was a maximalist. A stripped-down maximalist. And he was a great writer. And a great teacher.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

On Memorizing Great Poetry.

I once memorized a poem, T.S. Elliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." No one told me to memorize it or said I would flunk if I didn't memorize every word. I was raised after education had rejected such cruel and inhumane practices along with teachers paddling students and washing out students' mouths with soap.

I didn't memorize "Prufrock" in its entirety, just the opening as well as some of the other stanzas. Why? Because this poem spoke to me at a deep level in ways I had never been spoken to before. Each time I read it, it flooded my mind with images and visions, delightful, grotesque, half-remembered nightmares of unspeakable beauty. It seemed to be written for me. You see, it was written about the meek who dream of being bold. About the depressed who dream of being happy and being loved. About old people who dream of being young. About those who like to stay close to culture and harbor hopes of waking up one day to find themselves cultured.

In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michaelangelo"

And so, as I recently began reading a book called Light the Dark: Writer's on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler, it sparked my imagination when I came upon (in the opening essay by Aimee Bender, called, "Light the Dark") a personal account of all the good that can come when one chooses to memorize great poetry.

In Bender's case it was a poem by Wallace Stevens that she memorized, "Final Soliloquy to the Interior Paramour."

I recently was reading a biography of W.H. Auden (by Humphrey Carpenter) wherein Carpenter describes Auden's first forays as a writing and literature teacher after he immigrated to the States and taught at a number of notable colleges. Auden was educated in English public schools and then attended Oxford at a time when memorizing poetry was required. (I hope it still is.) So naturally when Auden taught in America he required that his students memorize poems. While they grumbled at first they came to like the memorization learning process. They found it was a great way to enter a poem and to live with a poem, as a way of sounding out a poem until it became familiar and its deeper meanings began to un-hide themselves. Reading Auden's biography caused me to think about the benefits of memorizing poetry. I've found so many times in my life I narrated those times by repeating Proofrock's opening lines to myself: "Let us go then, you and I/ when the evening is spread out against the sky/ like a patient etherized upon the table."

And so when I finished reading Aimee Bender's essay, I immediately put myself to memorizing Wallace Stevens' Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour, the same poem she writes about in her essay. It's not easy to memorize. I still haven't finished. But because I've been trying to, I understand so much more about the poem and about writing.

Bender describes the benefits of memorizing poetry in very practical terms:"Part of the reason the memorization appealed to me is I felt like I want those lines available to me at certain times in my life—if something is difficult, or something is joyous."

That's exactly what I meant when I said by repeating "Prufrock" I could "narrate" scenes from my life as they happened.

Bender also writes about how what seems important about a poem at first blush changes as one becomes more intimate with it. So for Bender, at first the line she liked the most was: "We say God and the imagination are one." Bender, being a great proponent of the power of human imagination, took that line in a secular sense, as though God is on the same level with the imagination. I always took it in a more spiritual sense, as though our imaginations are on the same level with God.

Later, as she lived with the poem, that line about God and imagination being one became less important to her while the line that comes directly after it became more important: "How high that highest candle lights the dark."

Whenever I read that second line, it speaks to me of how imagination has always been the driver or locomotive of human progress since the beginning of recorded time. It still is. That was always the more important line to me, but then again, I read Bender's "Light the Dark" before I read Stevens' poem the first time. We are all potentially enlarged by what we read about poetry as much as the poetry itself.

Many of us slip through stories and poems like sleek cruise ships cut through seawater. Memorizing poetry insists that we live with the work, that we linger, that we remain at sea with the work, that we give ourselves time to daydream about the work. Bender expresses this beautifully: "We can be so vague in our memory of books. Paragraphs that we loved become slippery, then gone. Memorization was a way to force a more permanent relationship to the words. It allowed a certain kind of magical construction to get in my mind and simmer there."

Then she goes on to illuminate the profound impact memorizing a great poem can have not only on our minds but on who we are as people: "I think we're biologically impacted by language. It can be deeply, deeply nourishing. And I don't mean that as a metaphor. It can feel like something cellular gets fed. To feel energized by Stevens was a singular experience that reminded me how words register in our physical bodies, too. It felt like concrete proof that literature is important."

Finally, Bender speaks of the mystery of the unknown in literature, both stories and poetry. The mystery, the ineffable, is what she loves about writing: "That's why I love Steven's poem, too. It sits between these great mysteries that he's articulated without dispelling them completely. I think a great poem will always stay a little mysterious. The best writing does. The words that click into place, wrap around something mysterious. They create a shape around which something lives and they give hints about what that thing is, but do not reveal it fully.

"Language is limited, it's a faulty tool. But how high it lights the dark."

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Remembering Barthelme.

Just about the time I came along as a writer, another writer rose to prominence, fame and popularity who sent me into conniptions of frustrated rage (accompanied by gnashed teeth and gnarled knuckles) whenever I tried to read him and also every time I would crank pieces of canary-yellow (real cheap) paper into my Selectric typewriter, type furiously and then rip the pages out of my machine rapaciously filled with hope that my work might soon be published in The New Yorker. Alas, in short order, my hopes were dashed, as I would begin crossing out entire paragraphs because I thought what I had just written didn't measure up.

The Famous Writer's name was Donald Barthelme, and I had no business trying to read him, no less trying to write like him.

This was in the 1970s when I lived in Iowa City and subscribed to The New Yorker. Hardly an issue of that magazine did not include a Barthelme short story.

Here's why I could neither read nor write like The Famous Writer: In the early 1970s I was an undiagnosed ADHD. (That mental disability was first mentioned in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1968, and was unknown to the general public until the late 1980s.) I arrived at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop in 1970, with a boatload of untold stories and an impaired capacity to concentrate.

Barthelme's writing method was to heap unrelated details on other unrelated details (and those on still more) to create, as they say in Wikipedia, "a hopelessly fragmented verbal college" of found facts, objects and details. Every time I attempted to read Barthelme, my brain shattered the story into millions of glass slivers. I was unable to gestalt Barthelme's writing into a seamless comprehensive whole, and enjoy it as someone with a normal functioning brain might.

There where plenty of older writers on the scene at the time who were at the top of their game and whose writing I could enjoy and use for inspiration, novelists like Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip Roth who wrote stories about recognizable characters in situations of dramatic conflict with more-or-less conventional story structures and endings. Donald Barthelme at the time was a much younger writer attracting widespread attention who seemed to write out of a totally new set of concerns. The humor of his stories appealed to me at least at first.

Barthelme was the young, brash, daring post-Modernist writer on the flying trapeze whose leaps of language defied gravity. And Barthelme never used a net. He carried on in the tradition of T.S. Elliot's Wasteland and James Joyce Ulysses and sometimes employed Beckett's gruesome humor. Not surprisingly I found all three of those writers difficult to read.

I thought about Donald Barthelme as I read Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction by Charles Baxter, which is a beautifully, poignantly written collection, one I'd recommend to writers as an excellent source of inspiration. One of Baxter's essays is entitled "The Donald Barthelme Blues." It opens with an expert pastiche of Barthelme's writing style:

"The same day that a friend called with the news that Donald Barthelme had died, a freight train derailed outside Freeland, Michigan. Among the cars that went off the tracks were several chemical tankers, some of which spilled and caught fire. Dow chemical was (and still is) reluctant to name these chemicals, but one of them was identified as chlorosilene. When chlorosilene catches fire, as it did in this case, it turns into hydrochloric acid. Upon being asked about the physical hazards to neighbors and onlookers near the fire, a company representative interviewed on Michigan Public Radio, said, 'Well, there's been some physical reactions, yes, certainly. Especially in the area of nausea, vomiting-type thing.'

"'The area of nausea, vomiting-type thing:' This area familiar to us all where bad taste, hilarity, fake authority, and cliché seem to collide, was Donald Barthelme's special kingdom," writes Baxter. "'I have a few new marvels here I'd like to discuss with you just briefly,' says the chief engineer in 'Report.' Consider for instance the area of real-time online computer-controlled wish evaporation." [This reminds me of a device Vonnegut might have come up with.] Baxter goes on to write, "Like his creation Hokie Mokie, the King of Jazz, no one could top Barthelme at deadpan riffs like these—these collages built from castoff verbal junk—and imitation was beside the point because the work was not a compendium of stylistic tics but grew out of a spiritual enterprise owned up to in the work, a last stay against wish evaporation." Baxter's description could not be more accurate.

When I finish reading a Barthelme story today (with ADHD medication coursing in my bloodstream) I ask myself, What's the point? What sweet oddities his stories seem today? Like chocolate truffles. And how strange it is that they would have for a time taken the literary world by storm? I can't find the slightest bit of humanity anywhere among them. Humor? Yes. In abundance. But humanity? Only ice runs in those veins.

Baxter's appreciation of Barthelme is far more generous: "The work [writes Baxter] was a comfort, in the way the blues are a comfort, in its refusal to buy stock in the official Happiness Project, in its loyalty to 'inappropriate longings' a phrase he particularly valued."

For me Barthelme was never comparable to the Blues, which I've always taken to be sincere and full of heart; rather, Barthelme turned literary endeavors into a rarified, cool jazz that ultimately left me feeling numb. There was in his stuff an element of turning literature into a parlor game, a trend I observed running through graphic design at the time (in the 1970s) perhaps finding inspiration in TV programs like Monte Python, which also loved to do riffs on "found" art work from the Victorian era. In fact, Barthelme used to place Victorian-era illustrations among his stories and write humorous, cool captions under them.

That's literary fashion for you. In the 1970s Barthelme was fresh. Brand new. His writing fell into fashion. And then it fell out. In the 80s and 90s I was so happy to see younger writers coming up who wrote with passion and joy about recognizable characters encountering conflict rather than being influenced by Barthelme's grim humor. It was as though these younger writers had somehow skipped over being influenced by The Great Writer, maybe now not so great in hindsight looking back fifty years.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Describe Me a River.

We artistic writers have only eleven tools we can use to pull readers into our stories and ultimately seduce them into willingly, even joyously, reading them, and then granting them multiple "stars" and calling them "entertaining page-turners" or something similar on

Here are the tools:

1.We can write what we imagine characters in our stories are saying.

2.We can write what they're thinking.

3. We can write what their faces and their bodies look like.

4. We can engender a world around them that our characters inhabit (what it looks like and what the "weather" looks like) and the social rules characters follow (or choose to ignore) that govern this world.

5. We can write about the land that exists in this world, and in the process of writing about it, we can create a place. Place cannot easily be divorced from weather because weather has so much to do with creating why any given place looks the way it does.

6. We can write how characters get around (assuming they do get around); we can write about their conveyances, everything from riding horseback to riding inter-galactic starships. We can write how the world changes as the characters in this world go from one place to another.

7. We can write how our characters get sustenance in this world, what they eat and drink.

8. We can write about what characters smell or what they smell like.

9. We can write about sensory feelings, what our characters feel as they touch the world around them. How does it feel to touch silk? How does it feel to touch someone else's skin or hair?

10. We can write how these characters feel, both physically and emotionally, both about themselves and about the characters around them. In other words, we can write about their emotions and what drives them. Are they lonely? Are they in love? Are they in a state of hate or frustration? Are they hungry? Sad? Happy? Livid? Jealous? Bloated? Filled with shame? Filled with pride? And if that's how they feel, how do they want to feel? For example, maybe they're alone and want to be alone. We can cover every shade of emotion and physical feeling in facial expressions and affect, plainly stating how the characters in our stories feel and wish to feel. We can write about their dreams and how the difference between their aspirations and their current reality causes them to feel.

11. We can write about beings with powers greater than our characters'.  They can live in worlds beyond the one(s) our characters inhabit. Thus, we have mythological gods and super-heroes as we do in stories like Wonder Woman, or we have God Himself in Biblical stories such as The Story of Job.

Now let's "pull back" from those eleven "writer tools" and place them into general buckets:

#1 is dialog.

#2 is interior monologue.


#3 is description of characters and their behaviors. 

#4 is description of the physical world our characters inhabit, including weather descriptions.

#5 is description of places, for example, story setting.

#6 is description of travel and how the story setting changes as the character or characters in the story change their location.

#7 is description of food preperation and dining experiences.

#8 is description of smells.

#9 is description of sensory feelings, i.e., physical touch.

#10 is description of physical and emotional feelings.

#11 is description of beings with super-human powers.

I've taken the time and space with this admittedly lumbering introduction to my review of the book, Description by Monica Wood to make the point that for artistic writers this stuff called description isn't just important, it's essential. Description represents nine-elevenths, or 81.82 percent of all the tools we writers have at our disposal. You can't be a writer of any note without mastering description.

If you want to improve your ability to write descriptions, you could not find a better-informed and more complete instruction book than Description by Monica Wood.

Here's a subject breakdown based loosely on the table of contents:

-Detail, and how you can use telling details to make your descriptions come alive.

-Describing touches, tastes, sounds, smells and sights.

-Showing and telling; how your descriptions can drive both, and also, when to show and when to tell.

-Editing descriptions to pull readers through a work; what to avoid so they'll never be chore to read.

-Using your descriptions to create a writing style that matches your story's content and theme.

-How your selection of either first person, third person omniscient, or limited third-person point-of-view can place limitations on the strategies you use when writing descriptions.

-Creating original word depictions of characters, animals, places, weather and character movement.

Monica Woods' approach is clear, thorough and tremendously well informed. At every turn she demonstrates how a description would be affected by any given writing choice—either style, point-of-view or descriptive technique. She quotes plenty of noted writers including John Barth, Anne Beattie, and Raymond Carver.  (But darn, not James Patterson. Hmm. I wondered why that oversight. Really I did!) You'll find plenty of tips, reminder lists and descriptive alternatives to common verbs and nouns, and tips for editing your work. More than anything else, though, I found Woods' book Description to be inspiring. It's extremely inspiring. It convinced me that even I can go from slug-to-swan when it comes to description. For example, her explanation of the differences between simile and metaphor:

"Simile and metaphor make fiction breathe. Similes can help readers "see" what you are describing. Beware of their overuse. Metaphor is subtler; it does not compare so much as transform. A little girl becomes a kitten when described in terms of a feline mewing and skittish motion. Metaphors can be contained in one sentence or expanded to thread through through an entire story or even be made into a central metaphor. A snowstorm, a railroad, or a pair of red shoes are images that could be expanded into metaphors that express confusion, progress and heedlessness.

"The telling detail is where description begins. It is the device through which you introduce your readers—and sometimes yourself—to the true nature of your characters."


That's Monica Wood's strength. Her instruction got me. I found her book to be an instructional rhapsody thoroughly covering the topic while at the same time delivering inspiring and practical you-can-and-should-do-this-at-home advice.

Monday, August 21, 2017

How to Write a Novel in Ten Easy Sounding (But not so Easy) Steps.

With the millions of writers writing novels, it took a PhD in astrophysics to write an easy-to-read, comprehensive, thorough and effective 10-step guide to writing a novel.

Think of Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method book (How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson,, 2014) "as a humorous parable-style business book that presents an effective method for getting the first draft of your novel finished."

The parable begins when Goldilocks a wanna-be novelist determined to write her first novel attends a novel outlining seminar taught by Papa Bear, a creative writing teacher. Goldilocks tries to create an outline of her novel but it goes nowhere. She then attends an organic novel writing seminar taught by Mama Bear but again she finds the advice in this class, "No need to plot in advance, just let it well up in you," leads her nowhere. She next attends a class entitled "How to Write a Novel When You Hate Outlining and Hate Organic Writing" taught by Baby Bear, "a tiny, energetic bear."

Baby Bear promises Goldilocks "I'll teach you a method that tens of thousands of writers around the world are using right now to write their novels. It might work for you and then it might not. Different writers [need different methods], and your first mission as a novelist is to find the method that works best for you."

A few of the subjects covered in Baby Bear's class:

How to get inside the skin of every one of your characters, especially your villain.

How to develop a deep, emotionally powerful theme for your story.

How to know when to backtrack and why backtracking is essential to writing great novels.

How to test every scene before you write it so you're sure it will be excellent.

The difference between a character's values, ambitions and goals. (Values drive ambitions. Ambitions drive goals. Goals must be simple, concrete, important, achievable and difficult. They are what really drive a character.)

How to define your target audience so you can anticipate how your ideal readers will think and feel about your story.

The difference between a proactive and a reactive scene as well as the parts of each.

The fact that nothing is more important to a character than compassion.

The way characters make decisions (Reaction, Dilemma, Decision).

How characters advance (Goal, Conflict, Setback).

One key take-away I got from this book: The strength of your story is largely determined by the strength and complexity of your villain, not your hero/heroine.

I loved the way this little book with its cast of funny characters got at the benefits of thinking about stories and characters and developing them in this way. One of my key takeaways: Every character has a moral premise, an inner secret. The story shows how Goldilocks goes about discovering her character's inner secret which has to do with living courageously: "She realizes that living in fear leads to disaster, so she decided to try living in courage."

I won't keep you in suspense any further. Here are the ten steps:

1. Write a one-sentence summary of your novel.

2. Expand that sentence to a paragraph by describing the story narrative (the major events) and the ending.

3. Write a one-page summary for each of the main character:

A one-sentence summary of the character's storyline

The character's motivation (an abstract view of what the character wants)

The character's goal (what does he want in a very concrete sense)

The character's conflict (what prevents him from reaching his/her goal?)

The character's epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?

4. Return to the story paragraph you wrote in step 2 and expand each sentence into a paragraph. Ingermanson's thoughts here are telling:"Take several hours and expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends."

(Note: Most students of story structure talk about Act One, Two & Three; Ingermanson refers to "Disaster." He wants each of the Acts to end in a disaster. And what he means is at the end of each act your main character must reach a turning point, meaning your character can't go back to his old ways. In The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, the end of the first act is known from as making the transition from "The Ordinary World" to the "World of Adventure" in which most of the story takes place. One example: From the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy says, "Something tells me we're not in Kansas any more."

5. Write a one-page description of each major character which tells the story from that character's point of view.

6. Expand your one-page plot synopsis into a four-page plot synopsis

7. Expand your character descriptions from three into full-character "charts"

8. Using your expanded synopsis, make a list of every scene you will need to write the complete novel.

9. Using your list of scenes, write a multi-paragraph narrative description of each scene.

10. Write the first draft.

I already began applying The Snowflake Method to the novel I'm writing which is called Charging the Jaguar. Here's step one, my novel summary in a single sentence:

Charging the Jaguar is a literary suspense novel about a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1967 Colombia who falls in love with an undercover revolutionary soldier on a mission to determine if he's a CIA agent and to assassinate him if he is.

In my opinion this version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears can lead you to big, important themes and believable, complicated characters who make turning-point decisions that win over your target audience and turn them into fans or your stories.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Great Sentences are Rare Birds with Exotic Plumage.

This month I review How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (HarperCollins)by Stanley Fish. While I have qualms about Mr. Fish's overarching argument, this book can be for lovers of good-to-great writing what a bird-watching guide can be for bird lovers, a compendium and an appreciation of great sentences in the wild, in all their varied splendor.

Unfortunately, the book's flaws show up in its opening pages when the professor of humanities and law at Florida International University makes the case that, when it comes to writing great sentences, content is irrelevant. The most important issue is form.

Professor Fish might as well be arguing that the sentence is the essential building block of life on our planet, also on Mars and the moons of Saturn. While I believe sentences are important, and while I admire some sentences every bit as much as Fish, I disagree with him over the issue of content. Content is not only relevant, it's the determining factor.

As Fish finally admits on page 35 of his book, "Content, the communication in a thrilling and effective way of ideas and passions, is finally what sentences are for." A page later, he hones in on what's painfully obvious to many: "Sentences are meaningless without context."

Fish states that the worth of a sentence is the degree to which it achieves its desired effect. That is why the prescriptive advice found in books like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is useful only in relation to some purpose. The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is "What am I trying to communicate? What is my purpose in writing?"

Yes, I agree; only I would go further: Writing is about creating a meaningful, seamless, well-formed argument or involving story that, in a way, "chooses" its own rhetorical and writing rules so as to deliver most effectively the content one wishes to express.

Once a writer knows her purpose and the larger context of a piece, she can figure out the best way to express it in a seamless, convincing, and appealing way. It's all about content.

In my opinion, when Stanley Fish writes about the beauty of certain sentences in his opening chapter, "What is a good sentence?" and when he writes movingly about great opening sentences (in chapter eight) and great closing sentences (in chapter nine) he supplies the context because he knows those works.

That's my only criticism. In fact,I love this book for its willingness to quote authors and their sentences voraciously, everyone from Romans like Cato and Cicero to Milton, Jonathan Swift, D.H. Lawrence, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, Elmore Leonard, and so many more.

Just a few examples Fish mentions in his "First Sentences" chapter:

"In the afternoons, it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper." (Agatha Christie)

"One day Karen DeCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca." (Elmore Leonard)

"The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses." (Philip Roth)

And from his "Last Sentences" chapter:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do then I have ever done before; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, then I have ever known." (Dickens)

"In my case, an accident of birth, but you, sir, you're a self-made man." (What Ralph Bellamy's character calls Lee Marvin's character a bastard in the movie, "The Professionals" (1966).

"He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance." (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.)

And arguably the most famous last line of all:

"So we beat on, oars against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

More than just a collection of great sentences, I found the author's discussion of them to be uniformly smart and well informed. It is by far the most valuable feature of the book.

I recommend it as a guide to great sentences.

While it may not teach you how to write a sentence as the title claims, it will help you to spot and appreciate the great and colorful ones when they fly by.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

How I became a Happy Dog.

When it comes to writing my novel,Charging the Jaguar, of late I've changed my bark. At first, I was not a happy dog. Then I had a series of insights when my dog, Coco, licked me on the face as I awoke from a meditation. I saw my purpose as a writer and the way I wished to spend the rest of my writing life in a new light.

It hasn't been exactly pork chops and gravy since, but thanks to Coco's  intervention, I'm now a happier, more fulfilled writer.


I was not always a happy dog.

My novel was not going the way I had hoped. I had reached what appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle in the middle of it.

The first third of the novel is a chase. The last third of the novel is a thriller. The second third had elements of fantasy and farce. It's no wonder the novel seemed to come off the rails in the second third.

Two years ago I nearly stopped writing my novel at this point. Now I was at that exact point in my novel again, and, guess what? It seemed to be an all-out contest between my writing grit and my desire to quit. I was a very unhappy dog, indeed.

But this time, my wife and best friend, Gina, suggested that I take ten days and decide whether I want to continue writing this novel or give it up altogether.

The story behind my novel.

My novel, Charging the Jaguar, tells the story of Jake Lancer, a young Peace Corps Volunteer in 1967 Colombia who is riding on a bus when it is attacked by the FARC*, a Maoist-leaning revolutionary group. Jake is wounded twice in the attack; nevertheless, he administers first aid to some of his fellow bus passengers who are also wounded. In the process, he undergoes a near-death experience.

Although Jake has always been strictly heterosexual, on this day, directly after the attack, he falls in love with a young man named Jesus who bandages his wounds. Indeed, Jesus and Jake are very compatible, and they share a great deal in common.

It soon becomes apparent to Jake, however, that Jesus, the humanitarian with gauze and tape, is an undercover FARC soldier. (Later in the story Jesus reveals that he was sent by his FARC commander to investigate the Peace Corps Volunteer and determine if he is an undercover C.I.A. agent, and to murder him if he decides he is.)

It turns out Jesus isn't exactly the greatest FARC soldier. (That's why they could "spare" him to intercept Jake.) Neither is Jake the greatest Peace Corps Volunteer. In fact, the novel opens with Jake's Peace Corps supervisor placing Jake on probation because he's such a screw-up.

Jake's purpose is prove he can be an effective Peace Corps Volunteer, knowing that if he's ultimately sent home before his time he'll be drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam where misanthropic-Jake is certain he'll die in combat and be sent home in a body bag.


At a deeper level, Jake's challenge throughout the novel is find a new way to live, to relate to the people around him in a new way so he can become a successful Peace Corps Volunteer, avoid Vietnam, and, ultimately, survive.

Coco intervenes and I become a happy dog.

It was a Saturday morning. The immediate issue before me that day was deciding whether Gina and I would see a movie; also deciding on the fate of my novel. My ten days were up.

I lay on my bed in a meditative state, something I do daily. Just as I awoke, Coco, our Toy Poodle, began licking me on the face—vociferously, lustily, enthusiastically. Coco knew I had been hurting. As many of you already know, dogs are extremely intuitive, healing souls. They heal by licking.

As she licked me, Coco looked into my eyes. I looked into her eyes from only inches away. And I experienced a conversion of sorts. I came to believe Coco was telling me that all I had to do to be a happy writer was to be happy. And to be happy, all I had to do was follow my story-telling instincts wherever they led and ignore the gloomy voices in my head insisting that the story made no sense and would never work out.

Coco was saying: Just follow your story. Tell your story. Your story material is rich, raw, vital, creative, entertaining and funny.  It's inspired. Coco was telling me that when I follow the story, my story will not only make sense; in the end it will make perfect sense.


(In fact, since this happened, the first and third parts of the story have begun to sound increasingly like the second third, so the entire novel is beginning to come together very nicely.)

I awoke from my meditation convinced:

I would complete my novel;

I would never again lose sight of what a lucky dog I am just to be able to write my novel;

I would never again get so torn up about writing my story that I would live my life in the throws of indecision.

I would become a happy dog, and a happily decisive dog;

And I would see that movie with Gina.

*The FARC is the same revolutionary group that the current President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, has been negotiating a peace deal with. As it goes into effect, I pray that the FARC violence Colombia has had to live with for more than sixty years will cease. Amen.