Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Accidental Innovator (lil' ol' me).

As I sat down to write this issue of my ExcitingWriting Advisory, I turned off the "Planet Money" broadcast on Dallas' NPR radio station. The theme of today's show? The best inventions and innovations are accidents.

For a number of days I had been planning to write this Exciting Writing Advisory about how I discovered a narrative method for writing my novel Charging the Jaguar the same way, by accident.

Which narrative method? Third-person omniscient. There's nothing innovative about that. It was the preferred story-telling method of Charles Dickens, and most Nineteenth Century novelists.

An omniscient narrator can tell the reader what's going on inside the head of all principal protagonists in a scene for maximum impact and meaning (if the author so desires). Yet, as effective as this point of view can be, some readers think it's old-fashioned.

(Note: I'm using the terms "point of view" and "narrative method" interchangeably. I struggled with that concept for a number of years but now have accepted and understand that when discussing literature those two terms mean the same thing.)

Richard Russo, in his book of essays entitled The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writers, Writing and Life, in a chapter entitled "What frogs think: In Defense of Omniscience" argues that omniscience is the single most "inclusive and confident" point of view. (My review of Russo's book is below this essay.)

About a month ago during a dinner party at the home of Cynthia and Allen Mondell in Dallas I decided to use an omniscient narrator in my novel quite by accident. Because omniscience is so rarely used today, one could argue that I made an innovative artistic choice.

That night Cynthia and Allen seated me (quite by accident) next to Andy McCarthy, a friend of theirs. Andy asked me what I did for a living. I told him I write novels. He asked me, "What are you working on now?" I told him it's called Charging the Jaguar, and it takes place in Colombia, South America during the Vietnam War-era. "It's about a Peace Corps Volunteer by the name of Jake Lancer who becomes friendly with a violent, undercover FARC revolutionary soldier by the name of Jesus Ayuduarte. Jesus returns Jake's friendship both because he likes him and because his commander ordered him to. Indeed, Jesus's commander has ordered him to become friendly with the Peace Corps Volunteer to determine if the gringo is an undercover CIA agent, and to assassinate him if he concludes that he is. In the novel, Jesus is operating undercover, disguised as a local businessman."

"That sounds really exciting," said Andy, "because all the time Jake is becoming friends with Jesus, Jesus is deciding whether he's going to murder him. So the reader gets to see what's happening in Jesus' mind as he decides whether to assassinate him or not, while at the same time the reader gets to see what's happening in Jake's mind as he becomes friendly with this undercover FARC soldier who's pretending he's a regular businessman."

I was just a tad embarrassed. You see, it hadn't occurred to me to set up the story that way. It was clear to me that Andy saw more potential in my story in just a minute than I had seen after years of working on it. I had the impression that something very spiritual was was at work here.

"Well, thank you," I said, I went on to tell my tablemate, "I think your idea is way better than what I was thinking.  Setting up the story your way we understand the mission Jesus is on from the very start. The story is filled with tension from beginning to end. Until the very last page the novel has a single through-question: Will Jesus execute the Peace Corps Volunteer?"

Then another scene came to me: Very early on in the story we see Jesus being tasked by his FARC revolutionary commander to seek out Jake Lancer, the Peace Corps Volunteer. His commander orders him to become friendly with Jake, and then "to assassinate him" if he decides he's a CIA agent. That scene is presented in chapter two of Charging. The fact that Andy's insights are reflected in such an early chapter indicates how important they will be in the overall novel once it is complete.

That night I made copious notes about how that chapter could be written. From the get-go I knew I wanted to write it in third-person omniscient voice.

I was glad that by then I had already read Russo's book of essays.

A key point Russo makes in his chapter on omniscience is that every form of narration except for that one must, by definition, leave one or more points of view out of the mix. His thesis is that third-person omniscient narration is the most inclusive and requires an author to be both "generous and confident."

He quotes from a novel entitled Grand Opening written in omniscient third-person by Jon Hassler. It was published about the same time as F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby (which is written in first person). Russo says he doesn't wish to compare the quality of the two novels, but after quoting a passage from Grand Opening, he writes, "the first thing to note about Hassler's omniscience is it's immediate, effortless access to the story's information, as a result of which [a character] Dodger Hicks leaps to life." He adds, "Hassler's omniscience is truly a thing of beauty."

Russo notes that "Hassler," in his novel, "knows a lot about trains and train lore, and he's chosen a point of view that allows him to indulge an enthusiasm that predates his invention [of a character]."

"After all, 'omniscience' means 'all knowing' and it favors writers who know things, who are confident of their knowledge and generous enough to want to share it."

As I was reading this, I was thinking, I know a lot about Colombia. And what I don't know intellectually, I know in my heart. And what good is knowledge unless you share it?

Russo writes, "Where does such confidence and generosity comes from? Some writers like Dickens appear to be born with it. To others it comes over time, a side benefit for experience. One thing I'm pretty sure of is that the more confident and generous a writer becomes, the more he will be drawn to omniscience…"

And I'm thinking, Why not give away all your knowledge within the pages of your fiction? No one will be the wiser about what you're up to. And then everyone will be the wiser.

I was now feeling better about the artistic decisions that I had just made. But had I actually made any decisions, or had Andy simply presented an alternative vision, and had I, in a magnanimous gesture, accepted the gifts that he was offering me, gifts that obviously came from a very spiritual place.

So, this is my story: A brief remark made by a total stranger during a chance encounter improved my novel and changed my life (I believe time will tell) fundamentally. Thank you, Andy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" and me.

About two years after returning home from the coast of Colombia where I served in the Peace Corps in the late 1960s, I began hearing about a Colombian novel recently published in English that was being universally acclaimed for its literary brilliance.

One Hundred Years of Solitude written by Gabriel García Márquez was already a sizzling literary sensation, a worldwide bestseller in every language its translation was published.

As I read One Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time, I recognized among its pages certain characteristics of the village of Manaure where I had lived on the Atlantic coast of Colombia for nearly a year.

No, my village never boasted of having a citizen comparable to Remedios the Beauty who, being too beautiful and wise for this world, one afternoon ascended into the sky and was never heard from again.

But perhaps because the natural setting of my little village of Manaure (up in the mountains above Valledupar) made it so picturesque, peaceful and timeless a place, I was tempted to liken it to García Márquez's fictional village of Macando which is actually based on Aracataca, a village where the author lived with his grandparents when he was around fourteen years of age in the early 1940s. (I visited Aracataca one weekend while I lived in Manaure because one of my Peace Corps training buddies was stationed there. It's about a four-hour bus ride from Manaure.)

Sitting in my little apartment on Perry Street in the West Village where I lived after returning from the Peace Corps, it was not difficult to remember back to living in a place very much like Macando where all thoughts about the history of a place and the glory of history were largely illusionary. Where people would lay their best-laid plans but then would subsequently be compelled to live out self-destructive, negative patterns that repeated from generation to generation.

By contrast, we North Americans are such irrepressible optimists, believing, or willing to do anything to make believe we believe that our past remains just that, in the past, untethered to our futures, which we hope and pray are limitless.

And so in One Hundred Years of Solitude, we have six generations of the Buendía family, where the names of the family patriarchs down through the generations are simply variations on one another, and where over the course of the novel, their lives often seem like minor variations on existing themes that only grow worse and then become still worse and then grow worse still. Meanwhile, as one might expect, for the most part the women are the bedrock of each generation, most effective in their attempts to escape entropy, and the powerful downward pull of destiny.

Although as an American I was an outsider in my village of Manaure, I had one thing going for me that enabled me to instantly empathize with people living in a place where nothing happens, where things only get worse, and that often careens towards the edge of forgetfulness. What was that one thing I had going for me? All my life I've been mildly depressed. That's a big plus when you're living in Manaure or reading García Márquez and in your head living in Macando. Sometimes I've managed to overcome it, but as one gets mired down in the generations of Buendías in One Hundred Years of Solitude one experiences what it's like to be locked in the vice grip of history that won't let you go, that will never let you go.

Gabiel García Márquez taught me by his example that Colombia is not only worth writing about, it rewards one with a myriad of magical, paradoxical and ambiguous possibilities such that I'm still fascinated with events I experienced when I lived there, and probably will be until the day I die.

 

This, too: There is very little difference between mild depression and what Garcia-Marquez means when he uses the word "solitude." Both include being isolated from the larger world. Both include sadness and forgetfulness that can be a cover for selfishness and self-centeredness.

Thus, I find when traveling in Colombia, just as when I am immersed in the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, or a novel by another Colombian author, I've learned that writing and reading about Colombia is my passion, my life's work. It will always be so. Although I am now seventy-three years young, I am not that far removed from what I sensed and observed when I was a very young man living in my little village of Manaure.

 

By luck or by fate while serving in the Peace Corps I became acquainted with some Colombian leftist revolutionary soldiers from the same group with whom President Juan Emanuel Santos recently concluded a peace treaty (winning him the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort, by the way). That revolutionary group is called the FARC. Although the FARC has been around since 1964, in 1967-68 when I was in Colombia, some of the soldiers checked me out to see if I was a C.I.A. agent. No doubt they had every intention of assassinating me if, indeed, they decided I was one. I, in turn, took it upon myself to check them out and received one of the greatest gifts one can receive: To see one's enemy as one's friend and one's friend as one's enemy. To love one's neighbor as one would love oneself. Therein is the way out of solitude, self-centeredness, and selfishness, by the way. Love.

Charging the Jaguar, a title which sums up for me the brazen courage one displays when at the age of twenty-one one is convinced of one's immortality. Much of my novel takes place on the coast of Colombia, just south of Valledupar in a fictional village I'm calling Dúodango, which I describe as a "benighted, all-but-forgotten Colombian village."

I can't wait until you get to read it.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Memorial Day Lesson in What it Means to be Free.

Last August Gina and I boarded the HMS Crown Princess at Southampton, England, and after a week visiting Scandinavian ports, spent three weeks crossing the North Atlantic (with stops in Iceland, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia) before docking in Brooklyn, NY.

By any measure it was the cruise of a lifetime. The ports of call were memorable but what I'll remember until time dissolves my brain cells like an Alka-Seltzer in water were our fellow passengers, predominantly British citizens from England, Wales and Scotland. On the days at sea, and there were many, we shared lunch, high tea, and dinner tables with them. To me they were birds of a feather; and I loved listening to their accents and what they chose to talk about as if they were varieties of songbirds.

"Look what you've done with my language," at various points I wanted to tweet at them, knowing that if I were to, they, speaking closer to the way William Shakespeare spoke in 1500, might warble back, "look what you've done with our language, the language we gave you, by the way."

One of the accents easy for me to spot and (perhaps for you as well) was the upper crust British accent used by many Oxford and Cambridge University graduates. Each time I encountered it among our UK songbirds, hearing its lilt immediately took me back to the fall of 1970 and my first semester at the Iowa Writer's Workshop when I had the pleasure and honor of having the noted English novelist Angus Wilson as my writing instructor.

Those of you who have seen the movie The Imitation Game (2014) starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly are aware of the code-breaking work led by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park outside London during World War II. Turing's group broke the Enigma code, which allowed the Allies to "listen in" on German military communiqués. After that, the Allied victory was only a matter of time, but the shame is that Turing, instead of being canonized as one of the great heroes of World War II, was instead prosecuted (in 1952) "for homosexual acts," and was made to accept "chemical castration treatment" as an alternative to serving time in prison. (Wikipedia, "Alan Turing")

Alan Turing was a graduate of Oxford, as was my instructor Angus Wilson. Not only were they contemporaries (with Alan's birth year being 1912 and Angus's being 1913) but during World War II they both served in the code-breaking establishment at Bletchley Park, although Angus Wilson translated Italian Naval codes. If they weren't friends they had to have known each other. In 1970 there was certainly never any doubt among us workshop students that Angus Wilson was a homosexual, an extremely intelligent, dignified and well spoken one, at that.

I now realize how much of Angus Wilson's work can be traced back to the clandestine manner in which as an artist he had to cover his tracks in order to work and be accepted in the highly homophobic society he grew up in. Not for one moment did I believe the United States was any less forbidding a place for homosexuals who wished to express themselves freely, by the way.

And so today when I think about Angus Wilson's novels and the way he wrote them, I'm drawn to his heroic struggle to tell stories in a way that both casts a gossamer veil over his characters and their relationships and at the same time reveals them and uses them as an outlet to express the deeper longings, desires and tensions that he certainly felt but knew he could not express directly. He was under no illusions that there would be ugly consequences if he were to do so. He could land in jail or worse. In that respect Angus's achievement could truly be called "writing as though one's life depended on it," for it did. Not surprising to me was how many of his novels revolved around the theme of needing to treat each other more humanly and refrain from judging our fellow human beings.

I recall one workshop session when the class got into a heated discussion about one of our short stories in which a character who was in the midst of grieving for a loved one performed a horrible act. I don't recall what the character did, but I remember being shocked by it. And I remember Angus Wilson intervening and saying something to the effect that he for one would never judge someone who was in a grieving state for anything he or she might do. I remember him saying, "Who are we to judge?"

I also remember the effect his words had on me. They changed my mind.

If only Angus Wilson's advice could have been applied to judging homosexuals or any other group on a long list of abhorrents drawn up by, for example, the Nazis. Wasn't that why our forebears fought World War II in the first place, so that people like Gina and me could take luxury cruises across the Atlantic at our leisure and write the essays and read the books we wish to?

Thursday, April 26, 2018

How I did my "part" to ensure that Norman Mailer would never become mayor of New York City.

In 1969 Norman Mailer, a famous writer, ran for mayor of New York City. This is the true story of how I played a minor although not insignificant role in polishing off his already tarnished campaign.

It all took place during a campain rally for Mailer held at a famous jazz club in Manhattan's Greenwich Village called The Village Gate. I lived nearby on Perry Street in a quaint first-floor efficiency so small I washed my dishes in the bathroom. 

I had become friendly with a number of long-time residents in my Greenwich Village neighborhood.  One of them was what we'd call today a "political operative," a woman with many contacts in the reform wing of the Democratic Party, which dominated among the artists and professionals living in the West Village.

As thick as Republicans are in wealthy suburban towns in Texas today, that's how thick Democrats were in those days in Greenwich Village.

My friend the political operative asked me if I would volunteer to be the bouncer at a campaign rally for "Norman" at "The Gate." My job? To sit on a bar stool outside The Village Gate's front door and make sure only people with valid tickets entered the rally. She said that after the event began I could go backstage and hobnob with the important people. It took me a split second to decide this was the perfect gig for me.

Norman Mailer was well known as a top-notch, prolific writer with a string of best-selling books to his credit. (I'm sure he'll be rediscovered any day now.)

Mailer's career had its ups and downs. He made a big splash with a World War II novel called The Naked and the Dead in the late 1940s. He wrote a number of other novels in the 1950s and early 1960s that were not best sellers. During that time he was also co-founder of The Village Voice, an achievement no one remembers. In time he became famous again, this time for the reporting he did for Life Magazine on a NASA moon launch, the book now called Fire on the Moon; also for reportage he did when he covered an anti-Vietnam protest march on The Pentagon, the book now called Armies of the Night. His writing made those issues of Life Magazine instant bestsellers and collector pieces (not to mention the lucrative advances Mailer earned writing them and the books that came out afterwards that are still in print.)

Mailer may be best known for being one of the inventors and early proponents of what was at the time called New Journalism, a pastiche combining the writing tools of fiction with a reporter's eye for nonfiction reporting to get at the subjective truth of what actually happened, or might have happened.

At one point a news service labeled him "the Macho Man of American Letters," and that tag stuck. There really was a song called "Macho Man," by the way. It was made famous by The Village People, the same group that made "YMCA" famous. 

Mailer's "founder of theVillage Voice" credit is ironic because Norman Mailer was a denizen of Greenwich Village until he moved to Brooklyn Heights after he became rich and famous and stabbed his wife. Yes, in Norman Mailer's life there were plenty of ups and downs: plenty of best-seller lists, plenty of writing awards, and plenty of gossip-columnist notoriety for drunken rows and horrible events including one party where he threw a drink in the face of another famous writer claiming that he had been told in advance that that writer intended to throw a drink at Norman. Norman had no doubt who would be the one to do the throwing. (I'm quite serious, by the way, although it does sound crazy, doesn't it?)

Norman Mailer was a macho guy cut from the same cloth as Earnest Hemingway, although his themes and writing style were distinct and very much his own.

On the night of the Mailer political rally I arrived early at The Village Gate. I got my bar stool and positioned myself outside the front entrance on the corner of Thomson & Bleeker Streets.

The fact that I was the bouncer at an historic landmark in the history of jazz was not lost on me. Only six or so years before, while in high school, my mother had taken me to the Village Gate to listen to The Thelonious Monk Trio perform. That was her birthday present to me. (What a mother I had.)

Anybody who knows me knows that I am not especially a hulking, menacing presence; I don't come off particularly mean. My six-foot frame, on the lean side, does not a bouncer make. That was obviously lost on my political operative friend who asked me to volunteer.

Yet that evening everything went swimmingly. I stopped everyone as they were about to enter the establishment, asked to see their tickets, and verified everything was on the up-and-up.

The Village Gate was a large venue; I would estimate that more than a thousand people were in attendance that night.

The only hitch came towards the end of the "rush" when last-minute stragglers were entering. Two older women with short hair, no makeup and plain clothes presented themselves at the front door where I sat on my stool.

"Tickets, please?" I said.

They both talked at once. They had been promised tickets but the tickets got lost in the mail. They spoke rapidly in strong voices, dropping names of "dear friends" in the Democratic Party I should check with, names that meant nothing to me, of course.

My soul told me something was amiss. There was something menacing about these two. I sensed it deep down, but I refused to acknowledge it in my conscious brain because if I had I would have had to take a stand. And taking a stand, telling them, "No, I won't let you in," was very frightening to me.

My friend and I never discussed what I should do if something like this came up.

If I had had a backup I could have left that person at the door and gone and asked for help. But I didn't have a backup.

I didn't have a walky-talky. There were no smart phones in those days. Everyone was gathering inside The Village Gate. I was outside. And now more guests were arriving behind these two women. They were holding up progress.

I could have asserted my personal power and had them stand aside and wait until I could run inside and get someone to verify them. But then as soon as I left the door uncovered they would have probably run inside themselves.

I did a rapid risk-reward analysis and told myself, "But what the hell are we talking about here? What possible damage could come of letting two non-glamorous, Greenwich Village hippy-type Democrats enter without tickets?"

Whatever suspicions I might have had, it was not within the realm of possibility for me to foresee how these two hardened women could, and in fact would,  disrupt this Mailer-for-New-York-City-Mayor political rally and attempt to take it over. There seemed to be no solution, so I waved my hand and said, "Go on in." I could see the glint in their eyes as they passed. It was the look of arrogance. They had won. It was too late.

Then I made my way backstage.

Jimmy Breslin, Norman Mailer's running mate, the famous journalist and writer in his own right (later, author of The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight) was there; he was scheduled to speak after Norman went on. When I arrived backstage, Jimmy and Norman were quietly and agreeably chatting with one another.

The truly great writer stood not more than ten feet away. He was luminescent. His deep blue eyes were irresistible. I didn't want to interfere or call attention to myself, but I had to look at him. He was dressed in a dark blue pinstriped vest and cuffed pants with a white button-down shirt and a loosened tie. His hair, as usual, was wildly curly. Unruly. Like he had worked all day, and now he was drinking and getting loose, getting ready to work the crowd. Yes, he was holding a tumbler in his hand and it was filled with rocks and brown stuff.

Just as Norman was about to go on, there was a ruckus on the stage. At the edge of the curtain I looked out with one eye and saw the two women I had allowed to enter strutting back and forth across the stage, making pronouncements in very loud, angry voices, getting attention for some cause or another. I don't remember anything they said.

In short order two of New York City's Finest, in their sparking blue uniforms and silver buttons, came up on stage and escorted them away to the cheers of the crowd.

This brief sideshow had to give everyone present that night at The Village Gate the distinct impression that the Mailer for Mayor campaign was in a state of chaos, which, of course, it was.

Once the two women were led off stage, it was Norman's turn to go on. I looked at his sparkling blue eyes again and this time I couldn't resist saying something to him. I said, "Break a leg, Norman," and he nodded at me and went out on stage.

After he passed away in 2007, The New York Times ran a retrospective on his unsuccessful run for New York City mayor. Turns out that rally at The Village Gate was a turning point of his entire campaign. From then on it went into a tail spin.

I quote from that article: "Mr. Mailer's political nadir was a campaign rally at the Village Gate nightclub where he vilified his own supporters as 'spoiled pigs.' Mr. Breslin left the rally early. He later told a friend, 'I found out I was running with Ezra Pound.' Mr. Breslin was referring not to Pound's poetry, but to his insanity."

I never told a soul my bouncer story until now; I felt horrible that I played even a tiny role in helping Norman Mailer's mayoralty campaign fail miserably. Now, of course, I can see beyond and below and above so much crap that went on. And I'll bet you, Dear Reader, along with Norman himself any amount of money that the statute of limitations has run out on this one. In any case, I no longer feel guilty.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

My Lunch with John Cheever.

It was a splendid autumnal morning in Iowa City, Iowa. Although not yet nine o'clock cumulous clouds mushroomed in the western sky, appearing so tall and boundless Jake Lancer thought they might have been skyscrapers, office buildings in a large and important city like New York where he once lived and earned his keep. Those proud, towering clouds, he thought, deserved to have swank addresses like the office towers in which he worked when he resided in New York City.

And now as Jake Lancer enjoyed breakfasting outdoors in the garden with his wife, Lucticia, he read in that morning's Press-Citizen that John Cheever had arrived in Iowa City to teach fiction writing at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop.

"Look at this, Darling. Look who is teaching at the Workshop this fall—the author of The Wopshot Chronical, The Enormous Radio and The Swimmer."

"And who would that be?" Lucticia Lancer asked while her fingers enclosed the stem of her first glass of the day, orange juice infused with Old Russian Émigré vodka.

"Why it's John Cheever himself, the writer who made The New Yorker famous for fiction. I think I'll ring him up and arrange to have lunch together," said Jake Lacer.

"That's a capital idea, Jake. Maybe he'll introduce you to his literary agent or, even better, his editor, or is it the other way around, I can never remember."

Jake Lancer raised his glass of orange juice infused with Old Russia Émigré, proposing a toast: "Here's to having breakfast in the garden with my beloved Lucricia and lunching with John Cheever."

"Wait, wait," Lucticia Lancer said before Jake could even bring his glass to his meaty lips. "And here's to the luxury of being a Workshop graduate hanger-on in Iowa City who can afford to write fiction only because his wife works full time and has a decent salary," she said.

"I want to thank you very much for that insight into our lives, Lucticia," said Jake, who always preferred fiction over nonfiction. He then held up his glass again, and this time said, "In any case, here's to both our toasts." They both enjoyed downing their orange infused Old Russian Émigrés to the very last drop.

Straightaway Jake Lancer called Mr. Cheever's room at the The Iowa House, a hotel that even today is part of the student union complex on the University of Iowa campus.

Jake informed Mr. Cheever that he had recently graduated from The Writers' Workshop and had decided to remain in Iowa City and write fiction at the antique paneled oak desk he had transported from New York City two years earlier. Previously he had worked at that desk as a writer on Madison Avenue. Now, he said, he was trying his hand at fiction. He had long admired Mr. Cheever's work, he said (from which an innocent might infer he was an ardent fan of Cheever's when in fact Jake had only read some of his more widely collected stories). Jake asked the great writer and would-be teacher if he would be kind enough to read one of Jake's short stories and tell him his opinion of it.

Mr. Cheever, having just arrived in Iowa City days before the start of the semester and not yet weighed down by teaching duties, was agreeable. A date was set to meet for lunch one week hence, and that very afternoon Jake Lancer dropped off for Mr. Cheever one of his short stories (printed on bond paper, double spaced, neatly appointed with a single staple in the upper-left corner) in a plain vanilla envelope at the Workshop office which was then housed in the English-Philosophy building on campus. That was how things got done in those days.

Jake then appeared at the agreed-upon restaurant (to this day part of The Iowa House) on the appointed day at the exact hour, and there he was, John Cheever, looking exactly like the photos of him on his book dust jackets, sitting alone at one of the tables until Jake Lancer introduced himself and shook the famous writer's hand and sat at his table.

Dear Reader, pardon the intrusion, but at this point in my story allow me to dispense with the third-person fiction, and switch to first-person in order to tell you the simple truth of what happened on that day and thereafter.

John Cheever and I had a pleasant lunch talking about life and the semblance of life to fiction, and the urgency we both felt to write lively tales peopled by somewhat believable characters whose lives come off the rails and get lost in the weeds so to speak.

Our conversation—at least for me—yielded rich rewards. More than forty-five years later those rewards are still assisting me with my fiction. I believe we arrived at the heart of it when Mr. Cheever and I discovered we both had older brothers who both hampered us and oddly helped us. As children and young adults both of us carried on anguished relationships with our brothers who were so different from us that they appeared as THE OTHER, or as I now prefer to think of them, as brotherly aliens.

Mr. Cheever had, and, gratefully, I still have an older brother. During our lunch we both agreed how haunting and at times frustrating it could be that no matter what we would write, our brotherly aliens (loved ones with maddeningly different mindsets, personalities and concerns) always seemed to be popping up under various and sometimes strange, sometimes even funny guises in our fiction. One might assume that both of us resented these brotherly aliens when they "party-crashed" our fiction, but I told Mr. Cheever that at the heart of my relationship with my brother, co-existent with all the differences between us, I admired and loved him tremendously. Although, as a result, I have never been at a loss for tension in my fiction, which is, after all, key to any good story.

I told Mr. Cheever that at the most basic level of my psyche (probably in the brain stem) there exists a strong unbreakable bond with THE OTHER that, were it ever to be broken, as some day it might be, would unleash a tremendous outpouring of grief and stand as a forever turning point in my life, the time when henceforth my brotherly alien, THE OTHER, will be no more.

The conversation that I had with John Cheever some forty-five years ago proved to be both poignant and tremendously revealing of the relationship each of us had with life and with our grasp on sanity itself. It's taken me a lifetime to realize that during that single lunch John Cheever not only gave me a key to understanding how to read his work but also to unlocking a mother lode of creativity within my heart.

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."