Posts Tagged ‘AVA’

Off The Map

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Green Chair oil Nolan Winkler

Green Chair oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.” Chris Hedges 

Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan from Netflix, and many of the movies we watch are foreign films and documentaries. For my taste, most of the American films made available to the public in the last thirty years are so badly written and badly acted and poorly directed, I want no part of them, though once in a while a miracle occurs and I am reminded of how vibrant and creative American cinema used to be before the televisionization of everything.

A couple months ago, Marcia suggested, “What about the one where the IRS guy goes to audit the family living in the middle of nowhere?”

Never having heard of such a film, I entered movie about IRS guy auditing family in middle of nowhere into my favorite search engine and up came Off The Map (2003), directed by Campbell Scott, the co-director with Stanley Tucci of one of my favorite American movies of the last few decades Big Night (1996). To our delight, Off the Map was available from Netflix (which is not true of many films we wish to see), and a few nights ago we watched Off the Map, which I found genuinely funny and touching and thought provoking and full of beautiful imagery.

One of the main thoughts this tenderly made movie provoked in me was how terribly impatient people have become as the result of the massive and ongoing reprogramming of our expectations of how life should be, as opposed to how Nature actually is. This reprogramming, carried out by the mass media and by the mass incarceration of children in mind-numbing schools and by fear-driven previously reprogrammed parents, is at the heart of our collective dissatisfaction and depression and abnegation of our true natures in service to an economic and social system entirely disconnected from Nature.

Off The Map is an insightful portrayal of the healing power of kindness and generosity and cooperation and patience, not with the usual Hollywood flourishes and swelling music, but through the graceful capture of hundreds of reflexive acts of kindness and sharing by a few good people living far enough off the map, literally and figuratively, that they have reconnected with the founding truth of human society, which is that we cannot survive in any meaningful or satisfying way without being of service to each other, and even if we could survive without helping each other, what fun would that be?

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

In distinct contrast to the movie Off The Map is the play Other Desert Cities, which Marcia and I just saw performed by the Mendocino Theatre Company (performances continuing through April 6.) The big reason to see this play, as far as I’m concerned, is to watch Sandra Hawthorne, who is so extraordinary and impressively real in the central role that the difficulties I had with the play’s story and writing pale next to her remarkable performance. If you go, try to sit close to the stage because the acoustics in the venerable Helen Schoeni Theater severely suck. If I ever strike it rich, I will endow MTC with sufficient funds to have local sound wizard Peter Temple install a few excellent microphones and speakers in the appropriate nooks so actors’ voices may carry with ease to the far reaches of that sound absorbent little box.

Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which is vivid proof of the current silliness of that prize, and though the dialogue in Other Desert Cities is far superior to the awful speechifying in the last play we saw at MTC, Time Stands Still, the dialogue in Other Desert Cities suffers from far too much on-the-nose expository telling and not nearly enough nuanced character-revealing showing, which is true of all new American plays that find their way into production these days. Subtlety and complexity and shades of gray, not to mention dialogue reminiscent of how people actually speak to each other, are apparently suspect now in contemporary American theatre, and companies large and small seem to operate on the assumption that their seats will be filled, if they’re lucky, with not very bright children trapped in the bodies of adults—and maybe those theatre companies are right.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about the movie Off The Map: the author, Joan Ackermann, and director Campbell Scott, completely ignored the dominant trend in American books and plays and movies today, which is to speak down to the audience—down down down into idiocy. On the contrary, the makers of Off The Map (a film I’ll bet lost money) trusted that people watching their movie would possess sufficient intelligence and imagination to come to their own conclusions about much of what happens in the film, just as we come to our own conclusions about the myriad mysteries in life. What a concept.

“A man of great common sense and good taste—meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw

In the play Other Desert Cities, one of the characters, a television producer, is incredulous when his sister claims she has never heard of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, a highly unlikely claim given that she is a New York sophisticate, a literary writer, and is about to publish an excerpt from her lurid memoir in The New Yorker. Her brother opines that her saying she has never heard of Tolkien is either a lie or snobbery or both. This was a most telling moment in the play for me, and I was eager to see how their conflict would progress, but the subject was summarily dropped and never broached again.

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

Yesterday I was having a cookie at the Goodlife Café & Bakery when I was approached by a man I’ve known for several years who prefaces all our conversations with, “I see you’re still writing for the AVA,” though he has never divulged if he reads me. Curious. Anyway, this fellow seems to think that because I am a writer, I must also read piles of popular contemporary books, which I do not. Every time I bump into this guy, he enumerates the many bestselling books he has consumed since our last meeting, each title followed by the name of the author and a one-word review such as “important” or “heavy” or “painful” or “sobering.”

This man is repeatedly dismayed to learn that I have not read any of the books he enumerates, and my explanation—that I read very few books these days because I spend so much time slaving over my own hot lines—does not console him. He is adamant that it is my duty to read the current darlings of corporate publishing in order to…what? Learn from them? Imitate them? I dunno.

“Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.” Charles Bukowski

A reader recently wrote to suggest I add book recommendations to my weekly articles. I explained to her that I no longer recommend books or movies or much of anything to anyone because so many of my past recommendations proved grave disappointments to those I sought to please. For instance, I used to zealously recommend Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim to anyone who would listen to me, prefacing my recommendations by saying I’ve read Kim several times and continue to imbibe the blessed tome every couple years because for me Kim is more than a novel but a holy text, a gorgeous epic poem, and a timeless masterwork.

Alas, nearly all the women who, on my recommendation, attempted to read Kim loathed the book and said the story was sexist, racist, outdated, confusing, adolescent, boring, a guy thing, and unreadable. Guy thing or not, most of the men who tried to read Kim on my recommendation said they found the book confusing, imperialist, irrelevant, childish, implausible, clunky, outdated, and unreadable.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Those words by Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, perfectly elucidate the guiding theme of the movie Off The Map, as well as the guiding theme of all my favorite novels and stories and plays and movies.

Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place is available exclusively from UnderTheTableBooks.com

Protesting 101

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2011)

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

You will recall the famous line from the movie The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” and how, until the little dog opens the curtain and reveals the fraud, Dorothy and her friends do, indeed, ignore the man behind the curtain and remain riveted on a false idol projected on a large screen obscured by smoke and fire. I remind you of this cinematic moment because it brilliantly captures the current cognitive conundrum confronting contemporary crusading consortiums, most notably the much-heralded occupiers of Wall Street.

I have carefully skimmed numerous articles by people criticizing the protestors for not having a clear and unifying agenda, and skimmed other articles praising the protestors for not having a clear and potentially divisive agenda. These articles reminded me of my involvement in the protests against the invasion of Iraq in 1990, and my involvement in protests against the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-2003 following the event known as 9/11, and how almost everyone involved in those protests paid no attention to the men behind the curtains, and insisted on railing against idols obscured by smoke and fire—the George Bushes, Senior and Junior, and their more public allies.

Wall Street, and by that I assume the protestors mean the for-profit financial system of the United States symbolized by the financial district of Manhattan, is not the cause of our current economic crisis, nor will Wall Street provide the cure, just as the Bushes did not cause the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The cause of our current economic, social, environmental, and political crisis is, in my opinion, our collective infatuation with false notions of reality. One such false notion is that most of the money in America is concentrated on Wall Street and that if only those greedy billionaire bankers and amoral stock traders would give a chunk of their money to our government, then all our problems would be solved. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, since only a few short months ago our government gave those bankers trillions of dollars.

“Let’s form proactive synergy restructuring teams.” Scott Adams

I admit to active cynicism about systems that focus on attacking symptoms rather than dealing with underlying causes. My father, a medical doctor, had heart surgery late in his life and I was his nurse for some weeks after what turned out to be a nearly fatal and wholly ineffective bypass procedure. One of my jobs as his nurse was to make sure he took a mind-boggling array of drugs several times a day, twenty-three different medications, each purveyed by a pill of a different color, shape, and size than the other twenty-two pills.

One morning, five days after his surgery, as my father was surveying the great mass of pills he was about to ingest, a quizzical frown claimed his face. “Hey, wait a minute,” he said, holding up a pale pink pill, “I was only supposed to take (name of drug) for two days following surgery.”

“Good,” I said, eager to eliminate one of the four pink pills in the mix. “Let’s discontinue that one.”

“Only…” My father’s frown deepened as he held up a dark green pill, “I was taking (name of second drug) to counteract the side effects of (name of first drug), along with (name of third drug) because (name of second drug) is extremely dehydrating, so…”

To make a long story short, I called the surgery center, put my father on with a post-operative consultant, and a half hour later my father’s ingestion regimen was reduced from twenty-three to fourteen drugs, and three days later from fourteen to seven, but only because my father was a medical doctor and had some understanding of why he was taking which drugs for what reasons, not because the medical system was designed to take good care of him.

Now…along with thousands of people camping and marching on Wall Street, imagine millions of people all over the country protesting in front of hospitals and medical clinics to demand that American doctors stop behaving as American doctors are trained to behave and start behaving in more humane and comprehensive ways, free of the control of insurance companies and amoral pharmaceutical companies that extort trillions of dollars from people who feel powerless to resist them. Oh, wait. That would mean insurance companies would have to be kicked out of the medical process, and the pharmaceutical companies would no longer be allowed to charge criminally high rates for their drugs. Oh, wait. That would result in a Single Payer healthcare system covering everyone in America, a not-for-profit system paid for by an equitable tax system. Oh, wait. That would mean changing the current system of county, state, and federal taxation. And to do that, we would almost surely have to change from a two-party system to a parliamentary democracy wherein if the Green or Pink or Blue Party gets five percent of the vote, they get five percent of the government. Oh, wait. That would be, like, democracy.

“In some cases non-violence requires more militancy than violence.” Cesar Chavez

I pose the question: what would Martin Luther King Jr. say to the Wall Street protestors if he could speak to them today? I think he would congratulate them for their zeal and courage, and then he would ask, “What are the boycott components of your protest?”

And when he learned that the protestors did not have a boycott strategy, he would say, “So why do you think that these people in positions of power over you will change their behavior if you do not pose a threat to their profits and comfort? Out of the goodness of their hearts? You are naïve.”

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Aung San Suu Kyi

On a more personal but entirely related note, I just turned sixty-two, so in lieu of a big paycheck from the corporate-backed cultural mafia, (yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but another year has gone by without my winning a MacArthur Genius Award) I applied for Social Security. And soon, barring total economic collapse, some six hundred dollars will be deposited every month directly into my checking account by the government of these United States. However, in order to receive that vast sum, I promise not to earn more than eleven hundred and eighty dollars a month, else I will be deemed too rich and therefore undeserving of such lavish government support. Let’s see, eleven hundred and eighty times twelve is…fourteen thousand dollars a year. And the official poverty line in America is…

To clarify: I have agreed with the government adjudicators that if I earn barely enough money in a year to pay for grossly inadequate health insurance, I will forego the six hundred a month; which brings me to yesterday.

“Irony is jesting behind hidden gravity.” John Weiss

So I’m standing in line at the Mendocino post office, one of my favorite places in the world, a place threatened by evaporation through governmental retardation and corruption, when the woman ahead of me in line turns to me and says, “I read you in the AVA.”

“Oh,” I say, ever cautious about what that might mean. “Well…good. I hope.”

She nods minimally, which I take as a kind of approval if not a compliment. Then she says, “So are you gonna go join the protestors?”

“Where?” I ask, looking out the window. “Have they made it all the way to Mendocino? Far out.”

“No,” she says, glowering at me. “Wall Street. Los Angeles. San Francisco. They’re having protests everywhere. You could write about it.”

“Oh,” I say, certain now that my interlocutor has no sense of humor, “you know, I would be there already but I suffer from a fear of traveling. Even going to Fort Bragg is extremely stressful for me.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, grimacing sympathetically. “I have a friend who has the same thing. That must be awful for you.”

“Well, fortunately, I don’t really want to go anywhere, but I’ll tell you this, when the protests come to Mendocino, I’ll be there with bags of homemade gluten free cookies for my comrades. And we will occupy Main Street until those people give us what we want.”

“Main Street?” she says, horrified. “Why Main Street? And…which people? And…what do you want?”

“Everything,” I whisper conspiratorially. “For everyone.”

Thus Spake Angelina

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.”  Montaigne

I used to hate it when I predicted something long in advance of when it happened, and then no one remembered I predicted it or believed me when I insisted I predicted the thing. And I used to really hate it when I invented something but didn’t bother to patent it because I didn’t have the money or the time or the personality, and then someone else found out about the thing I invented and they patented it and became filthy rich from my invention. But now I don’t mind when people don’t believe I predicted important things before they happened. Nor do I mind when people get rich and famous from my inventions. And here’s why.

The writings of my hero Buckminster Fuller convinced me it was a colossal waste of time to worry about people stealing our ideas or not believing us because ultimately the universe (transcendent of human pettiness and ignorance) responds appropriately and exquisitely to our thoughts and actions regardless of whether we own the patents on the lucrative inventions or whether people believe us.

For instance, I invented snail tongs. Yep. That (those) was (were) mine. I knew I would be ripped off (just as I know you don’t believe me) and that’s why I wrote up the invention several years ago, made precise drawings of the device, and sent the write-up and drawings to dozens of gardening supply catalogs, garden tool inventors, and a few hundred people selected randomly by using pages torn from phone books, darts, a blindfold, and the appropriate incantations. The rest, as they say, is history. Snail tongs, with or without teak handles, and with or without the accompanying snail bucket (with Velcro pad or dainty hook for connecting to your gardening belt) are now de rigueur for serious gardeners who don’t like to get slimed whilst plucking mollusks from precious garden plants.

I have no idea how the universe has reacted to the invention of snail tongs. Just because people have made millions from selling snail tongs and now live in abject wealth because of those sales doesn’t mean snail tongs are a good idea. Indeed, the universe may be withholding from me great gobs of money and success and access to daring and creative publishers and brilliant green-lit movie producers because I loosed snail tongs on the world. After all, expensive snail tongs (not the ones made entirely from recycled materials) use valuable natural resources that would be better left in the ground. To be quite honest, I now regret letting anyone know about snail tongs. But I was so curious to see what would happen, I couldn’t keep from letting the tongs out of the bag, so to speak. Fortunately, no one believes me, so I am at least safe from persecution by humans for that crime.

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.” Faith Whittlesey

Note the date. June 29, 2011. I predict that Angelina Jolie, the famous movie star, will become the first female President of the United States. When? I’m guessing 2020, but possibly 2016. Why do I make this prediction? Because everything she has done and is doing, and everything that has happened and is happening in terms of the evolution of mass media, the state of the world, and the exigencies of fate (I love that expression) lead me to believe Angelina’s ascendancy is virtually a done deal.

If you think I’m crazy, please view recent video clips (easy to find on the internet) of Angelina visiting Syrian refugees in Turkey or flood victims in Pakistan (and wearing the traditional garb of the women in those locales) or more recently paying tribute to the inhabitants of the Italian island of Lampedusa for giving aid and comfort to boat people refugees from the strife-torn Middle East. Wherever she goes in her role as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, Angelina, without a script, speaks eloquently, knowledgably, compassionately, and with charismatic strength on behalf of the refugees, and refugee women in particular. She has also adopted three children and raised them along with three children she’s had with her movie star and politically sort of left and totally supportive (so far) husband. Angelina is picky about the roles she takes, refuses to play bimbos, is on the verge of portraying Cleopatra in a movie that will probably cost more to make than the Gross National Product of Belgium, and recently directed a serious romantic drama set during the siege of Sarajevo. In other words, she is a beautiful, articulate, feminine feminist; she knows what’s going on and she’s nobody’s fool.

By 2016, the world will be firmly in the grip of widespread social and environmental chaos, at which point Angelina will be forty-one and ready to answer the call of billions of women and poor people and smart people chomping at the bit to make the great global transition to universal socialism, free healthcare, disarmament, material minimalism, and gluten-free dining. I will serve in Angelina’s cabinet if she will have me, but only if I can do so from my home via weekly essays.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Alan Kay

I also invented the bandarang. Yep. That was mine, too. Forgive me if you’ve been bopped by one of the larger ones whilst minding your own business at the beach. Yes, I should have foreseen they’d turn the wonderful thing into yet another tool of competition and consumerism, though you must admit that some of the things people do with bandarangs are absolutely mind-boggling. Sadly, I was recently informed that the military is developing explosive bandarangs as well as new stealth aircraft employing bandarang aerodynamics.

Okay. I know what you’re thinking. You invented the bandarang, Todd? Then why aren’t you rich as Croesus and producing your own movies? Well, because I gave the idea away, just as I gave away the idea for snail tongs and several other inventions you won’t believe I invented. And I gave them away because along with being a devoted follower of Buckminster Fuller (see above theory of adjudication by Universe), I am also extremely lazy regarding anything requiring contracts, lawyers, or government bureaucracies; and though I knew bandarangs would be popular, I never imagined they would be voted Thing of the Century by the Union of Unconcerned Hedonists.

You may be interested to know that I didn’t so much invent the bandarang as discover it. Wikipedia erroneously reports that the inventors of the original bandarang were competing teams of nerdy dweebs at Harvard, MIT, and Oxford circa 2007-2011 using computer modeling and origami brainstorming to perfect the design, but that is hokum. It was I alone standing in the shallows of the American River (up to my knees in the icy flow) in Sacramento on a blistering hot day, August 17, 1989, who first discovered/invented the bandarang.

I had just lost another Frisbee to the swift current. Feeling bereft (as I always do when I lose a Frisbee to a river or the ocean) and wanting to continue playing with the wind, I rummaged in my knapsack and found a large rubber band—three inches in diameter if spread open to approximate a circle. I carried the rubber band with me into the aforementioned shallows, and using the thumb of my left hand as fulcrum, I shot the rubber band almost-but-not-quite straight up in the air. When gravity halted the flight of the projectile some thirty feet above the blessed waters, the elongated band contracted and relaxed into the form of a circle, which, in the dainty breeze, rotated counter-clockwise as it drifted back to earth and settled gently around my upraised index finger. Thus was born the banderang.

On September 9, 1999, after a decade of intermittent experimentation, I settled on an optimal size and weight (and color: neon orange) of rubber band, angle of launch depending on breeze coefficients, etc., wrote a clear description of the bandarang, made precise drawings, and sent forth packets of the salient information to Harvard, MIT, Oxford, and myriad toy manufacturers.

On April 13, 2012, a twelve-foot-long bandarang (flaccid) will be stretched by a pneumatic traction crane to a length of two hundred and thirty-seven feet using a top corner of a thirty-story office building in Oakland, California as fulcrum, and shot up and out over San Francisco Bay. The neon orange, seventy-seven-pound rubber bandarang, with finely tapered edges coated with micro-thin Teflon, will attain an altitude of 1778 feet and a rotational speed of 174 revolutions per minute, catch a friendly westerly breeze, travel 3.7 miles, and gently (erotically) settle upon a phallic obelisk on Treasure Island to the roaring approbation of eighty thousand giddy bandarangists (also known as rubberoos) gathered on the island to greet the mythic rubber ring.

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” Sigmund Freud

June 29, 2011. I predict that the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima marks the beginning of the end of nuclear power (and eventually nuclear weapons) on earth. Safety and decency, however, will not be the reasons the powers-that-be finally grok the insanity of nuclear power. No. What will ultimately tip the balance in favor of livingry (a term coined by Buckminster Fuller to mean the opposite of weaponry) will be the stunning decline in male fertility brought about by the enormous and continuous release of radiation and radioactive particles from Fukushima and other soon-to-be-announced failing nuclear reactors around the world.

As the human population begins a precipitous (and ultimately fortuitous) decline, trillions of dollars will be diverted from weaponry and needless pharmaceuticals and worthless hedge funds and earth-killing genetically modified grain growing into the male-dominated fear-driven medical industrial complex to find a cure for sterility, resulting in the ultimate realization that the best way to keep human love goo viable is to entirely clean up our act, environmentally and emotionally speaking, and never again, one earth under Angelina with liberty and justice for all, ever foul our nest again!

Todd’s books and music and a blog archive of 117 AVA essays are available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Writing Good

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

(This article originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 2010)

I daresay creativity cannot be taught. Creativity can be engendered, encouraged, cultivated, and supported, but being creative is as natural as breathing, and so to purport to teach creativity is to lie. And the multi-billion dollar creativity-teaching industry in this perpetually adolescent culture of ours is just that: a big fat putrescent lie. And the crown jewels in this cartel of deceit are the several hundred MFA programs in Creative Writing sponsored by academic institutions large and small that yearly hoodwink tens of thousands of misguided people, young and old, who very much want to become more accomplished writers and have succumbed to slick fairy tale propaganda promising mastery and success with their writing in just two or three years of apprenticeship to writers who, almost without exception, cannot write their ways out of paper bags let alone teach anyone to write any better than they.

I am particularly sensitive to and alarmed by this Creative Writing MFA fraud because several extremely promising writers I’ve been privileged to work with have been severely damaged if not entirely ruined by either undergraduate creative writing classes or these insidious MFA programs. I did my best to warn these folks of the pitfalls of embarking on such misadventures, but the temptations were apparently too many, the propaganda too convincing, and the alternative of decades of solitary labor too daunting, so they surrendered to the academic combine, walked into the maws of institutionalized idiocy, and sacrificed their inherent originality and uniqueness to systems run by sycophants and frauds.

Or to quote Allen Ginsberg, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” and I have witnessed a dozen marvelous writers deformed and defused by the madness of MFA programs in Creative Writing.

Twenty-some years ago I was hired to design and run the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. The founding mandate of this summer school for artistically inclined teenagers was that the heads of each department should be accomplished artists in their fields apart from any academic credentials they may have accrued. I was the only department head without a college degree, and though I parted ways with CSSSA after five fascinating years, in the history of that still extant school I remain, as far as I know, the only non-degreed department head they ever had.

I had never taught creative writing when I took my one and only state job, nor had I ever taken a creative writing course. However, I had published novels with big New York publishers, written screenplays for big Hollywood movie companies, published dozens of short stories, and practiced writing for twenty years, so I was confident that practicing was the best way for people to learn to write. I hired teachers who had similar notions about training young writers, set up a schedule of twice-daily practice sessions for the month we’d be working with our mob of ambitious teenagers, and we got to work.

The first thing I discovered was that most people, even those who want to be writers, are reluctant to just sit down and write whatever comes to them. They need prompting. So I invented a bunch of exercises to trick people into writing without thinking too much about what they were writing. Thinking too much about what we are writing is a huge obstacle to maximal writing flow; thus all my exercises were designed to expeditiously circumvent the inner editors/critics/intellects and postpone their arrivals until it was time to rewrite. Analysis and criticism are premiere killers of creative flow, and analysis and criticism, alas, are fundamental to all MFA Creative Writing programs. My several dozens of exercises were compiled and published a decade ago in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path. Viable used copies of that out-of-print tome may be had for a fraction of a dollar each via the Interweb, and though I don’t make a dime from those sales, I highly recommend the book.

The second thing I discovered working with teens, and later with adults, is that nearly everyone in America is terrified of being punished or humiliated or rejected for writing anything substantive, but especially for writing deeply personal things. A week into my first stint at the summer school for the arts, a promising poet handed me her very first attempt at fictive prose and said, “I think maybe I trust you enough to show this to you.” I began to read her story, but a few sentences along she snatched the page away from me and cried, “You hate it!” and fled the room. The next day, finding her in a calmer mood, I asked what made her think I hated her writing, and she said, “Your nose twitched a little and you might have been about to grimace, so…”

Granted, hers was an extreme sensitivity, but I soon discovered that all my teenaged charges, and later all my adult workshop attendees, were nearly as sensitive and vulnerable as she about their maiden voyages in writing imaginatively. With this awareness, and recalling my own experiences of being pummeled by teachers for my flights of literary fancy, I cautioned my faculty that it was essential we ease very slowly into our roles of constructive critics, and that for the first several encounters with our students we should strive to be as uncritical as possible without resorting to phoniness. Eventually, once a modicum of trust and mutual respect is established, writers worth a damn will voluntarily ask for critical help with their work, though that criticism should never be about content, and only about the clarity and efficacy of the writing.

In the adult workshops I offered, in which we simply practiced my exercises designed to trick us into not thinking too much about what we were writing, I found it helpful to begin the course by letting anyone who wanted (which always turned out to be everyone) to testify about the abuse they and their writing had received throughout their lives, and how they had subsequently struggled to overcome the trauma of that abuse. Sometimes it was one particularly horrible teacher who had demolished them for something they’d written, but more often it was a pattern of punishment beginning in elementary school and continuing through college and into the work force and MFA programs that had alienated them from their own language. And yet they all still desperately wanted to express themselves through the written word.

Then I would share my experiences of being smashed by teachers and rejected by moronic editors and agents and publishers, and the commonality of our experiences created comradeship and sped the growth of trust among us.

The other sort of abuse experienced by many of these writers came from bestselling how-to-write books prescribing writing regimens of at least an hour a day, every day. But since for most beginning writers, scribbling for an hour at a stretch is the equivalent of running five miles the first time you try running, such dogmatic nonsense guarantees failure. Furthermore, any self-doubts a writer may have about his or her ability will be instantly ignited with the first inevitable missing of a day or running out of inspiration after twenty minutes, which happens all the time to the most experienced writers.

After the venting was over, I would proclaim, “In our time together, you do not have to share anything you write unless you want to; and criticism and analysis are verboten. If you want to criticize and analyze each other’s work, do it on your own time.”

I recently met a thirty-year-old man in his fifth year of an MFA program in Creative Writing at a prestigious California university. I would name the college, but I don’t wish to be sued. I said I had not heard of a five-year program for writing credentials short of a PhD. “Oh, it’s a two-year program, but I keep getting extensions,” he said blithely. “So I can keep getting student loans until I finish my novel.”

“So do you keep taking the same classes over and over again?” I asked, barely able to conceal my disdain.

“Oh, no more classes,” he said, shrugging. “Just, you know, occasional meetings with my mentor and…” He paused ominously. “…the classes I teach.”

“Excuse me? You’re teaching classes in the MFA program you’re enrolled in? But what are your qualifications?”

“Well, I’ve already taken the classes,” he said, nodding complacently. “And, like, they didn’t get so and so (published author) like they thought they were going to, so I filled in, and it worked out, so…”

Following my interview with this fellow, I did a bit of investigating and found that the practice of “upper level” MFA candidates teaching “lower level” candidates is ubiquitous throughout the accredited creative writing industry. Keep that in mind as tuitions soar.

“And just what do you do?” I asked this buffoon. “As a teacher?”

“I oversee, you know, the seminars. Lead the critiques. People bring in their stories or chapters, we all read them, and then we, like, critique and analyze them, and then they rework them. Oh, and I also teach the how-to-get-published seminars, too.”

“And how is one ultimately judged worthy of the MFA and the title Master?”

“We each have an advisory committee that evaluates our work, usually a collection of stories or a novel, and they see, you know, a couple drafts and then the final manuscript.”

“And these advisors are…”

“Oh, we had (names a well-known writer) on board two years ago, and almost everybody else has, you know, published something, and we might get (names another well-known writer) next year to teach an advanced workshop and be on a couple committees. Man, would I love to get his name on my résumé.”

“Tell me more about the how-to-get published sessions?”

“Oh, you know, we go over the nine steps to writing a successful query letter, the seven do’s and six don’ts of pitching ideas, the five sure-fire plot devices, the four ideal manuscript lengths, stuff like that.”

“And you learned all this from…”

“A guy one year ahead of me.”

“Have you had any luck selling anything?”

“Not so far. But I’m working on a teen vampire novel with the most amazing twist. I’m trying to sell the synopsis before someone else comes up with the same idea. Promise not to tell? The teen vampire turns out to be a consulting detective name Hercules Watson. Get the references?”

I got them, and then I murdered the guy and drove a wooden stake through his heart, but I’m not telling where he’s buried.

So if you or anyone you know is tempted to enroll in an MFA program in Creative Writing, or if you have a kid in college who wants to take a creative writing class, do anything you can to stop them. Tell them if they want to become good writers to read hundreds of short stories and novels by writers who have stood the test of time (at least fifty years) and to practice writing as often as they feel motivated to do so. Tell them to stop watching television or they can forget about having an original inspiration, and tell them to ask everyone they meet along their ways to tell them stories, and to prompt the tellers with questions, and to listen intently, and to take notes if they are so inclined. And tell them if they keep at their reading and listening and practicing, they will get better and better at writing down and rewriting what comes to them from a source transcendent of the intellect.

As for the five sure-fire plot devices, they are all contained in the following sentence. “God,” said the princess, “I’ve been raped, and I don’t know who did it. But I suspect a vampire.”

Audio versions of Todd’s novels are available from ITunes. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

The Presence of Absence

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the AVA June 2010)

Thursday in the village of Mendocino is the day the AVA (Anderson Valley Advertiser) arrives in our post office boxes and at the liquor store (should we need extra copies.) Now and then the AVA is delayed for a day and arrives on Friday. But this week, the AVA did not come at all. I inquired of my heroes at the post office, but they had not seen hide nor hair of the goodly rag. And though I knew the liquor store is supplied via the mails, too, I nevertheless went thither in the vain hope that a batch had been brought by pony express or valiant pickup from the inland empire to our coastal enclave.

The liquor store in our hamlet is a living foreign movie. No matter how many times I go in there, I have the feeling something important is missing. There is an empty feeling about the place, as if the proprietors are just moving in or just moving out. The lighting is strange and forlorn and bathes everything in a pale yellow light. My friendly greetings invariably fall into a bottomless chasm of ennui, and in thirty tries I have never once elicited a smile from the fellow at the cash register. Perhaps he is hardened by years of dealing with drunks. I don’t know. I don’t buy anything there except the AVA, and maybe this bugs him. In any case, they didn’t have any AVAs and I was apparently not the first person to inquire.

Certainly one of the great appeals of the AVA to me is that I often have something published therein. Discovering that I am once again in the goodly rag never fails to impart a momentary thrill, a sense of well-being, a revivifying and inspiring validation that I did not waste however many hours I spent writing whatever I wrote. I never know in advance if my pieces will run. The editors are not in the habit of telling me, possibly because they don’t know themselves until the very last minute before they put the paper to bed, and perhaps not even then.

No, the only way to find out if I’m in the AVA is to look through her pages. Now and then I will land an essay on the front page (mazel tov!) but more often than not my pieces are tucked away in the cozy confines of the middle. In truth, I don’t care where they land, just so they do. Land.

Those weeks when I do not appear (assuming I’ve submitted something before the deadline) I invariably experience a brief emotional downturn. I want to make it clear (to myself if no one else) that this downturn has much less to do with my absence from the pages of the AVA than it does with the absence of my books from the bookstores of America, the lack of reviews of my books in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and the towering indifference of the great big world to the creations of little old me. So when I am not in the AVA, it merely ignites a feeling, for just a moment or two, that I am truly nowhere, that there is no place for my words, that I am, metaphorically speaking, clinging to a leaking dinghy in a storm tossed sea, etc.

Germaine to this sense of not being anywhere, I’ve been enjoying of late a marvelous book of poems entitled I Hear My Gate Slam, Chinese Poets Meeting and Parting, translated by Taylor Stoehr. These poems, written by a handful of poets thirteen centuries ago, have survived because they are very good poems and because they speak compellingly of human emotions immune to the so-called advance of culture and technology: love, loss, longing, death. And there are two wonderful little essays at the end of the volume written by the author, one on the art of translation, the other about how the friendship among these poets inspired many of their poems. Stoehr writes, “They often wrote poems borrowing, imitating, or otherwise reflecting each other’s work.”

So as I was sitting at the kitchen table sipping black tea and stewing about the absence of the AVA, and therefore not knowing if I was absent or present therein, I came across this passage from Stoehr’s Afterword: Translating Classical Chinese Poetry that seemed to be reflecting my very thoughts. “The bereft poet is constantly in the presence of absence—an empty place at the family table, an empty bed—so that the ache of loss seems never to go away. I want to call this ‘the presence of the absence’—absent friends and loved ones hovering in the imagination.”

Now there is a grandiloquent expression. The presence of absence. And that is how it feels when there is no AVA in our post office box, no AVA at the liquor store, no AVA on the kitchen table, no fresh gossip to chew on, no fellow writers to jiggle our cognitive synapses in ways the electronic digits will never jiggle them. There is an unexpected vacancy of that certain sensibility that is the sum of Bruce and Mark and their collective writing and winnowing of the incoming verbiage of latter day exiled poets. For all poets are exiles inhabiting a terrain defined by a perpetual presence of all manner and variety of absences. That is why poets write their poems, and why we prose writers toil to put our thoughts and feelings into words. To bring light and sound and feeling to the void or the chaos or the darkness or the presence of the absence.

Then, too, the presence of absence begs to be modified to the presents of absence, presents suggesting gifts. The gifts of absence. And what might those gifts be? Well…

I am currently reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain, his brief and famous preface concluding, “It has seemed to me that I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was writing could be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware and indifferent.” Despite Twain’s disclaimer, there are many moments in the course of his narrative when he is clearly constraining himself because he is, in fact, not yet dead as he dictates this last great work.

The most shocking to me of Twain’s constrained moments comes when he declares his direct responsibility for the death of his firstborn child, his only son. Though verbose about every other matter, large and small, Twain speaks of his most terrible crime for but one terse paragraph.

“Our first child, Langdon Clemens, was born the 7th of November, 1870, and lived twenty-two months. I was the cause of the child’s illness. His mother trusted him to my care and I took him for a long drive in an open barouche for an airing. It was a raw, cold morning but he was well wrapped about with furs and, in the hands of a careful person, no harm would have come to him. But I soon dropped into a reverie and forgot all about my charge. The furs fell away and exposed his bare legs. By and by the coachman noticed this and I arranged the wraps again, but it was too late. The child was almost frozen. I hurried home with him. I was aghast at what I had done and I feared the consequences. I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning’s work and have not allowed myself to think of it when I could help it. I doubt if I had the courage to make confession at that time. I think it most likely that I have never confessed until now.”

Twain never makes another mention of this event or of this child, though he later goes on for dozens of pages attacking and excoriating Brett Harte for what Twain describes as hideous amoral narcissism and monstrous neglect of wife and children. Yet for my entire reading of this powerful memoir, I could not get Twain’s confession of murdering his son out of my mind. Indeed, it strikes me as the truest paragraph in the entire book, constrained as it may be, for it is free of the artifice of cleverness. And I can’t help thinking that the death of his son informed everything he ever wrote thereafter; indeed, that Twain’s greatness, his profound sympathy for the poor and downtrodden that illuminates his finest works, that powerful presence of absence, sprang from his terrible trial that would never end until his own death.

Which brings me back to the presence of the absence of the AVA, which I think of as a very Twainian sort of paper, the kind of paper Twain first wrote for, the kind of paper that is not constrained by anything but the whims of her editors, both of whom strike me as having little fear of death, which the Buddha said is the fear that underlies all fears. And in the absence of the presence of fear, these editors are free to improvise, which is the mother of originality. And the present of her absence in my life this week is this essay, which may or may not make it into her pages. I’ll have to wait until next week to find out.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.