Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

The Tuner

Monday, May 20th, 2019

the tuner

My daughter Alexandra, who is fourteen, recently announced she is launching a movie company, Windsor Montoya Productions, and would like me to work for her. She has already hired her mother Elisha, her brother Conor, and Sylvia Espinosa, her best friend. Pay will be deferred until our movies become popular on YouTube and someone gives us the money to make a big-budget movie. I do not question her visions of the future, but before I make my decision about joining the movie company, I have asked her to clarify what she imagines my role in her movie-making process will be, and she is currently composing my job description.

In the meantime, I continue to arrive at Mona’s—the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek—every day circa 10 AM, greet my wife Elisha (she who works at the counter) with a suggestive wink, claim my customary window table, go to the counter and flirt with Elisha, return to my table with muffin and tea, write, socialize, and depart Mona’s for home and walking the dogs circa 1 PM.

Today in Mona’s, while awaiting Alexandra’s elucidation of her vision of my niche in her movie company, I am joined by my good friend Zorro Blackbird, who also happens to be our piano tuner and the accordion player in the jazzy folk trio Romantic Twaddle. I am the guitarist in that trio, Elisha our ukulele player, and we all sing. We play every Friday evening at Mona’s from eight to ten when Zorro is in town. Alexandra says she intends to use Romantic Twaddle’s music in some of her movies and may even make a few movies about Romantic Twaddle.

Zorro, fifty-three, is a burly five-foot-eight with olive skin and long black hair. He has been out of town for the last two months touring with Bailey Jones, and because I’m on a kick these days of interviewing my favorite people, I take this opportunity to interview Zorro and record our conversation in my Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue.

Paul: Were you born with the name Zorro Blackbird?

Zorro: I was. My mother is Wailaki, my father Pomo. My father loved the Zorro television show from the 1950s, so they named me Zorro. My three sisters are named after the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Venus.

Paul: What inspired you to become an accordion player?

Zorro: I started playing ukulele when I was five and took up the guitar when I was seven. When I was ten, I heard a man playing the accordion at the county fair and thought it was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. On the way home from the fair, my mother told me she played the accordion before she had kids and she still had her accordion. When we got home, she got the beautiful old thing out of her closet and said if I promised to practice every day, she would give me lessons.

Paul: Do you play accordion with Bailey when you tour with her?

Zorro: No. She’s a solo act all the way. She doesn’t even have other people play on her albums. My job is to keep her two guitars perfectly tuned throughout her performances.

Paul: Are you onstage with her?

Zorro: I’m on and off. After her first song, I come on and she gives me her guitar and I give her the second one. Then while she’s playing her second tune, I’m offstage tuning the first guitar, and so on. I wear black clothes and come and go like a shadow.

Paul: Why doesn’t she tune her own guitars?

Zorro: She’s not good at tuning when she’s performing and she gets extremely frustrated when she can’t get the tuning exactly right. So rather than drive herself and her audiences crazy, she has me tune for her.

Paul: How did she find you?

Zorro: Her previous tuner is an old friend of mine, Rufus Strunk, the fiddle player, and he recommended me. I went down to Berkeley and met with her, she tried me out at a gig in San Francisco, and I’ve been tuning for her ever since. Five years now. She tours twice a year and each tour lasts two months. I’ve been to England and Europe with her three times and all over America and Canada many times.

Paul: Any end in sight?

Zorro: Well… the guy she’s currently involved with thinks he can do the tuning, so she might give him a try. We’ll see.

Paul: You sound doubtful.

Zorro: I don’t think he can do it. But love is blind and time will tell.

Paul: What will she do if he hands her a guitar that’s not perfectly tuned?

Zorro: She’ll fire him and then call me and beg me to come finish the tour. (laughs) Probably offer me a big raise.

Paul: Will you go?

Zorro: Oh yeah, if she asks me. Her next tour starts in four months, and unless I find a gig I like better, you bet I’ll go. She pays me two thousand dollars per show, and we do about forty-five shows each tour.

Paul: Will it ruin her relationship with this guy if he can’t tune her guitars properly?

Zorro: I’ll be very surprised if she hasn’t dumped him before the next tour. But if not, she’ll dump him the first show he screws up, which will very likely be the first show. I know it seems like tuning guitars should be easy, but to tune those guitars exactly as she wants them, twenty times each concert, you have to have an impeccable ear and a delicate touch and not be intimidated by the magnitude of the situation. 2800 people in Carnegie Hall? That kinda thing. Every night.

Paul: Is she difficult to work with?

Zorro: Not for me. But she’s a perfectionist, and when people don’t give her what she needs, she can be… difficult.

Paul: Does Ellen [Zorro’s wife] go on tour with you?

Zorro: No. She’s happy to stay home making her art and taking care of the grandkids, and… it’s good for us to be apart now and then. We’ve been married for thirty years and we have a tendency to get very ingrown. And we’re always happy to see each other when I get home, so…

Paul: What do you do during all the hours between shows on a tour?

Zorro: We’re travelling, we’re checking into hotels, we’re setting up, we’re doing sound checks, eating, sleeping, and I accompany Bailey when she does television and radio interviews, which she does a lot. There’s not much down time. It’s a very intense two months. She’s not just famous. She’s a cultural icon.

Paul: I hope you won’t be offended, but I’ve never really understood her appeal. What do you think it is about her that makes so many people love her?

Zorro: I’m not offended. Taste is subjective. I’ve actually thought quite a lot about why so many people love her.

Paul: What have you come up with?

Zorro: Well… her voice is not powerful, but it’s warm and appealing and nobody else sounds like her. She’s very down to earth, and I think lots of people prefer singers they can identify with, you know, singers with voices that aren’t spectacular. She doesn’t intimidate anyone, yet she sings beautifully. And when she performs she seems vulnerable and very honest and very funny, too. People laugh their heads off at her shows. She’s a wisp of a woman singing songs full of longing. A sweet voice and a well-played guitar. One reviewer called her the queen of quiet angst, but I don’t think angst is the right word. I think the word is melancholy, the good kind. She makes people cry, and people like to cry.

Paul: So what are you gonna do between now and the next tour?

Zorro: Tune pianos. Play music with you and Elisha. Work in the garden, babysit the grandkids, go on some adventures with Ellen, come here for coffee, talk to you, go to the beach. See what comes my way.

Paul: Have you written any new songs of late?

Zorro: Not for a long time, and that’s an interesting thing about touring with Bailey. My songwriting stops, though I take along notebooks and a guitar and I think I’ll write poems and new songs, but nothing ever comes when I’m on tour with her. And then I get home and after a couple months the melodies start to come again and then I’m on tour again and the flow stops.

Paul: Why do you think that happens?

Zorro: I know why it happens.

Paul: Why?

Zorro: Because being her tuner uses the same creative energy that would otherwise go into my own work. I know that sounds crazy. After all, I’m just tuning her guitars during her concerts. But when I’m on tour with her, my entire focus is on facilitating her creative expression. And to do my job well, I have to give her everything I’ve got or the guitars won’t sound right. They just won’t. I can’t tell you why, but it’s true.

Paul: And you’re okay with all your creative energy going to help her? At the expense of your own creativity?

Zorro: You know, Paul, helping her is creative, and I love helping her. I love hearing her play those guitars for thousands of enraptured people. I love coming and going on the stage like a shadow. I love bringing those strings into perfect tune with each other. I love hearing how well they sound with her voice, and I love knowing she is empowered by what I do for her.

 fin

Practice(ing)

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

Marcia and I were walking on Big River Beach yesterday, the wet sand firm underfoot—Big River swollen and muddy from the recent deluge, a light rain falling.

As we reveled in the windy wet, free from our various indoor practices, our conversation ran from gossip to silence to politics to silence to memoir to silence to what we might have for supper. And at some point Marcia asked me about a speaking engagement I’ve accepted, a keynote address at a writers’ conference, the dreaded topic—The Creative Process—chosen for me by the conference planners. I say dreaded because I think most of what I’ve ever read about the so-called creative process is hogwash, and I fear that anything I might add to the dreaded subject would be hogwash, too.

Long ago I worked in a day care center overseeing a mob of little kids. The day care center was located ten minutes from Stanford University and we were forever being visited by earnest graduate students writing theses about educational techniques, educational philosophies, educational processes, and God knows what else pertaining to mobs of little kids. Having no degree of any kind, let alone a degree in Small Child Management, I found it highly amusing to be the frequent recipient of attention from these humorless academics, some of whom, I’ll wager, went on to author textbooks for aspiring nursery school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and other Small Child Management educators. Could it be that information gathered from interviews with me conducted by these earnest humorless people helped shape curricula for early childhood education in America? I hope so, but I doubt it.

One day as I was supervising my mob of kiddies in our outdoor playground, a woman named Stella, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, stood beside me, clipboard in hand, asking questions about my supervisory process, a process I had theretofore never tried to elucidate to anyone.

Stella: I note at this time that all the children seem to be safely and happily occupied. I have recorded a current population distribution of one group of five children, two groups of three, four dyads, and three solitary individuals. Would you say this is a typical distribution of the total?

Todd: Um…well, certainly not atypical.

Stella: Would you characterize these as established groups or new and/or developing configurations?

Todd: The configurations are ever changing, though girls tend to hang out with girls, and boys with boys, especially among four and five-year olds. Two and three-year olds tend to be more gender polyrhythmic, if you know what I mean.

Stella: (makes a note) We’ll come back to gender aggregates, but for now I’m curious to know what specific actions you took to precipitate this particular distribution of individuals and groups, and if you employed any specific techniques for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Are you serious?

Stella: Yes. I have noted zero incidents of crying, fighting, or moping in the entire population for over fifteen minutes now, which defines these play actions and this particular population distribution as successful.

Todd: Could you repeat the question?

Stella: (reading) What techniques did you employ for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Let me think about that for a minute. (shouting across the playground at a five-year-old boy about to destroy a sand castle just completed by a four-year-old girl) Don’t do it, Lance.

Stella: Wow. (flips to a new page) Would you characterize that as a tone-based warning or a content-based warning?

Todd: Both. And now if you’ll excuse me, Megan is about to slug Bianca and I would like to intervene before their play action becomes highly unsuccessful.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Yogi Berra

I want to be helpful to people who aspire to write, so I will try to come up with an inspiring keynote address—because inspiration can sometimes get the ball rolling—though in truth there is no “the creative process.” Each of us has to roll our own ball our own way, and that’s all there is to it: rolling your own creative ball. I use rolling to mean doing, acting, working—everything else is just talking about rolling, which is not the same as rolling, believe you me.

“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” W.H. Auden

Thirteen years ago I published The Writer’s Path, a book of my original writing exercises, and before the silly publisher took the book out-of-print, The Writer’s Path sold ten thousand copies with never a penny spent to promote that most helpful tome. Excellent used copies of The Writer’s Path can be found on the interweb for mere pennies plus the dreaded shipping charge.

I designed each exercise in the book to be a non-analytical way to practice a particular aspect of the writing process (not to be confused with the creative process.) For instance, many writers (as in most writers) have big trouble rewriting their initial drafts. Among the many underlying causes of this big trouble are: 1) rewriting skills are developed through thousands of hours of practice, and very few people are willing to work so hard for so little in return 2) rewriting is all about change, and most people are deathly afraid of change 3) rewriting reveals the inadequacies of the original drafts, and such revelations, especially for beginning writers, can be huge bummers.

So I came up with a series of exercises involving the swift creation and destruction and re-creation and re-destruction and re-creation of lines of words, intuitive processes that obviate fear and short-circuit analytical thinking—the great enemy of spontaneous word flow—to give writers invigorating rewriting workouts.

Writing, drawing, and playing music are muscular activities as well as mental processes, and I have no doubt that all original stories, pictures, and songs result from synergetic collaborations of our physical muscles with our cerebral muscles, along with valuable input from unseen agents of the unknowable, if you believe, as I do, in such fantastic nonsense.

“The world is a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” Sean O’Casey

When at nineteen I embarked on a vagabond’s life and could not take a piano with me, I bought a guitar in the sprawling mercado of Guadalajara and taught myself how to play. A year later, having spent a good thousand hours developing a thumb-dominant style of picking and strumming, I stood on a sidewalk in Toronto, strumming and singing. And lo a miracle befell me. Yea verily, dozens of smiling Canadians threw coins and paper money into my dilapidated cardboard guitar case and thenceforth I was a professional musician. Not long after that initial sprinkle of heavenly largesse, I bought a much better guitar and for a time made a minimalist living as a troubadour.

Eventually my piano regained supremacy in my musical life and my guitar became (and remains) a sometimes friend. Two years ago, Marcia and I produced two groovacious CDs of instrumentals and songs featuring guitar and cello (When Light Is Your Garden and So Not Jazz), though of late my focus is on piano improvisations and Marcia is happily immersed in various classical music pursuits. But I digress.  

What I set out to say was that I became a highly functional guitarist through thousands of hours of practice, and I always—this is key—used a thumb pick (on my right thumb) when I played the guitar. And then a few years ago I made a startling discovery, which was that unless my right thumb was actively involved in the playing of a tune, I (this body brain spirit consortium) had no idea where to put the fingers of my left hand to make the chords for any of the songs I knew. That is to say, my right thumb, for all intents and purposes, is the only part of me that really knows how to play my songs.

People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.” Sandy Koufax

Marcia’s mother Opal is ninety-three and still drives her car all over Santa Rosa where she lives in her own apartment in a commodious retirement community. Two years ago, Opal took up pocket billiards, otherwise known as pool, playing twice a week with friends in the billiards room across the hall from the ping-pong room. When Marcia and I go to visit Opal, we play three or four games of pool with her every night, Marcia and Opal teamed up against Todd, their dyad getting two turns for every one of mine, which makes for a fairly even contest.

What I find most inspiring about Opal learning to play pool so late in life is that every time we play with her, she not only plays better than when we last played, she plays much better.

Whoopsie Doopsie

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Drawing by Todd

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

“The one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough is love.” Henry Miller

A couple years ago I created a catchy blues tune entitled Whoopsie Doopsie, and after I performed the song to the apparent delight of my wife Marcia, I thought I might make a recording of the tune and see how the world liked it. I wrote a note to myself—Whoopsie Doopsie Project—and put the note in the center of my just-cleaned desk, thereby establishing a new bottom layer for the accumulation of papers and books and drawings and letters and bills that would inevitably grow into a high plateau of dysfunction until, in a fit of frustration, I abstained from eating and drinking for several hours until the mess was properly expelled.

Thus time and again over these many months, I worked my way down to a little yellow square of paper on which was writ Whoopsie Doopsie Project, a trio of words that sent me to the piano to bang out the latest rendition, after which I would say to myself, “Yes, I really should record that and see what the world thinks of it.” Then the tides of time and paper would rush in again and submerge the note, and the project would largely vanish from my consciousness, except on rainy mornings when I was practicing the piano, at which times I might essay a version or two of the pleasing apparition.

Feeling especially sad one such rainy morning, I played a very slow Whoopsie Doopsie, and the sweet little love song became dark and plaintive; and I appreciated the song in my bones rather than with my sense of humor. And that very night we went to a dinner party at which the hostess asked me to play, and Marcia suggested I premiere Whoopsie Doopsie for the public, as it were. So I performed a rather timid version of the tune, the piano unfamiliar to me, and everyone in the audience said I must bring out a recording of the song—everyone being four people.

Here are the lyrics, in their entirety, of Whoopsie Doopsie.

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Whoopsie daisy, I’m in love with you

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Tell me how you like it,

Tell me what to do

Wanna make you happy

When we’re making whoopsie do

The last line is a not-so-subtle tribute to Ray Charles. As you can see, we’re not talking about great art here. However, we are talking about the artistic process, which I find fascinating and difficult to write about. The difficulty in writing about creative processes, for me, lies in the non-verbal nature of those processes through which original art and original concepts emerge and evolve and are ultimately captured so others may experience those creations. Since there are no words for that which is wordless, the best one can hope for in describing such wordless processes are faint approximations. And the other large challenge for me in writing about making art is to ignore the nagging feeling that I am describing a process that almost always results in mediocrity or crap, otherwise known as failure.

“There are only two dangers for a writer: success and failure, and you have to be able to survive both.” Edward Albee

On the other hand, many great teachers, Buckminster Fuller among them, espouse the idea that there are no failures in the inventive process, that everything we do is a valuable part of the continuum of experience. Failure, these wise ones suggest, might more usefully be understood as a necessary step along the way to discovery and fruition. Two of my favorite quotes about this idea, referring specifically to musical improvisation and composition, are from Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Miles said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note, it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” And Bill said, “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions. I think of all harmony as an expansion and return to the tonic.”

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein

My favorite composer of classical music is Felix Mendelssohn. Why? Hard to say, for love is as ineffable as creativity. Maybe his use of complex harmonies resonates especially well with my chakras. Maybe the brilliant confluences of his polyrhythms synch perfectly with my inner groove. I don’t know. In any case, I dig the cat. So a few years ago our very own Symphony of the Redwoods performed Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and after hearing Marcia practice the cello parts for several weeks, and then being enthralled by the marvelous local rendition, I got out my Mendelssohn books to read about the Italian Symphony.

In Conrad Wilson’s Notes on Mendelssohn, to my great interest, I found that though the Italian Symphony was an instant and enormous success (the composer conducted the world premiere in London in 1833 at the ripe old age of twenty-three), Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the composition and immediately after its premiere set about “changing the coloring of the andante, adding fresh touches of poetry to the third movement, and considerably extending the finale.” Yet despite Mendelssohn’s great fame, “his revision remained unperformed for a century and a half, and has only recently been issued in a performing version upon which most conductors are turning deaf ears.” I rushed to get one of the few extant recordings of the revised symphony (not readily available in the United States, but gettable from England) and to my ears the revised version is vastly superior to the original.

“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Oscar Wilde

With the help of Peter Temple, I have made two solo piano CDs in these last year two years: Ceremonies and 43 short Piano Improvisations. While working on those albums I was forever being seduced by a particularly alluring chord pattern I would improvise on for hours at a time; yet only one diminutive piece born of that pattern was strong enough to include on 43 short Piano Improvisations. However, I continued to be enamored of that pattern and felt that one day I might succeed in recording a few longer takes of what I call Mystery Inventions.

Meanwhile, the Whoopsie Doopsie Project was bubbling away on a back burner; and verily it came to pass (driving to town one day, singing nonsense songs to the clickety-clack of our old truck on a country road) that a new and very different version of Whoopsie Doopsie escaped my lips and catalyzed an epiphany: why not make an album composed of several different interpretations of Whoopsie Doopsie, and throw in a Mystery Invention or two, too?

“One must bear in mind one thing. It isn’t necessary to know what that thing is.” John Ashberry

As of this writing (early October 2011) the Whoopsie Doopsie recording project has been seriously (or at least continuously) underway for a month, and save for a slightly menacing a cappella version of Whoopsie Doopsie that came to me in the absence of a piano, nothing is turning out as I imagined anything would. Indeed, I would say the Whoopsie Doopsie Project is currently in creative free fall, and I am not surprised. The song that inspired this undertaking becomes less and less significant with every new Mystery Invention we capture, and new tunes audition daily as I chop wood and plant garlic and pick apples and make spaghetti sauce. Old tunes, too, long neglected, saunter out of the woods, tap me on the shoulder, and sing, “Hey, what about a revised version of me?”

The floodgates have opened. Mazel tov! So long as I don’t panic and attempt to control the flow too soon or too restrictively, there’s no telling what might come pouring out of that mystery reservoir I am convinced was once a river free of dams.

Another Year

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

(photo of Mike Leigh)

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

According to the on-screen credits that introduce Mike Leigh’s latest movie Another Year (available on DVD), the backers included agencies of the British government, including the national lottery. So…not only do the Brits have excellent and free healthcare, but their government provides money for cutting edge artists (be still my heart) to make major motion pictures about people so real that Marcia and I have been talking about Another Year for days on end, as if the characters in the movie actually came here and spent several days with us, getting drunk and driving us batty with all their imperfections and beauties and sorrows and strengths and frailties attendant to being human, as opposed to being cartoon characters.

The Sunday following our viewing of Another Year, I leafed through the Pink section (movies, music, theater, dance) and Insight section (books) of the San Francisco Chronicle and felt painfully embarrassed, as I often do, by our so-called culture. Books so badly written (my teeth ache thinking about them) fill the bestseller lists and garner slobbering reviews of such transparent falsity there can be no question this nonsense was planted by the publishers, those New York-based mouths of multinational corporations that would never knowingly publish a controversial sentence, let alone a truly original work of fiction. And this is the mediocre gunk that fills our bookstores; these are the made-for-dumbed-down-adolescents inanities that fill our movie theaters; these are the live sit-coms passing for plays that clutter our stages.

Which only makes Mike Leigh’s Another Year even more astonishing, not only because his movie is a great original work of art, but because it was made at all (without interference from the backers), and, miracle of miracles, made available in America to anyone emotionally capable of sitting through a movie that isn’t predictable, has an extremely subtle plot, features brilliant actors who are not particularly handsome or beautiful, has no overt violence, and causes us to examine our own lives in light of how this movie makes us feel. Escapist fun, no. Great art, yes.

Here is a Mike Leigh quote that gives a bit of insight into his way of making movies, an insight that applies to any art employing improvisation as a means of creating the first draft, as it were.

“The whole thing about making films in an organic film on location is that it’s not all about characters, relationships and themes, it’s also about place and the poetry of place. It’s about the spirit of what you find, the accidents of what you stumble across.”

In my experience as a writer and artist, and as a teacher of writers and artists, “the accidents of what you stumble across” turn out to be the primary catalysts of the creative process. And what I learned was that a terrible fear of stumbling and accidents and saying/writing “the wrong thing” was endemic among Americans longing to exercise their creative muscles; and if I wanted to make any headway with my students, I had to devise processes for overcoming this enormous blockade to free flowing creativity.

Ultimately, I invented hundreds of non-analytical writing exercises that circumvent our inner judges, critics, goblins, parents, and teachers who continue to shout so loudly in our brains that we can’t hear the muses trying to speak and sing and create through us. Many of these exercises are collected in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path (published in 2000 by 10-Speed Press and now out-of-print) which you can find copies of for pennies on the interweb, and from which I do not make a dime. I recommend the book to you and anyone wishing to establish a writing practice that takes full advantage of “the accidents of what you stumble across.”

Working first with teenagers and then with adults, I found that nearly everyone, even professional writers, suffers from what I diagnosed as plotitis, the primary symptom of which is the bizarre and ridiculous notion that a writer must have all the story elements (plot, characters, locations, etc.) figured out before he or she begins to write. In my quest for an antidote to the obvious cause of plotitis, an operating system error lodged in the left (analytical) brain, I stumbled on a process that not only cures the disease, it empowers everyone to write wonderful stories, a process I dubbed Arbitrary Story Structures. Here is a brief excerpt from The Writer’s Path introducing the process and two of the story structures.

*Arbitrary Story Structures

To help writers overcome one of the fundamental obstacles to successful story writing, we devised a simple and effective story-generating technique that frees the writer from having to invent the structure of a story before she begins to write it. When a writer is relieved of the need to invent a plot, her intuitive talents are free to emerge.

Arbitrary Story Structures are not detailed plots, but rather bare skeletons on which to hang an original tale. Following the brief instructions, we present eight structures of varying complexity. Each of them is written in a particular person and tense, but feel free to use any tense or person you prefer. Some of the structures provide slightly more specific suggestions than others. Use the ones you find most appealing.

Basic Exercise.

1. Read Part 1 of the Arbitrary Story Structure and write the first paragraph of your story.

2. Read Part 2 and write the second paragraph of your story.

3. Continue this process until you’ve written a paragraph for each part of the structure.

4. Read your story aloud.

5. If you like your story, refine or expand it.

Arbitrary Story Structure 1: The Journey

Part 1. You are on your way somewhere.

Part 2. You see something that strikes you as extraordinary.

Part 3. You think about what you’ve seen.

Part 4. You encounter another person.

Part 5. You have a brief conversation with this person.

Part 6. You fall asleep and dream. Tell the dream.

Arbitrary Story Structure 2: The Turning Point

Part 1. Someone is somewhere.

Part 2. He thinks about something and decides to go somewhere.

Part 3. He reaches the destination.

Part 4. He experiences a strong emotion.

Part 5. He has a vivid memory.

Part 6. He does something uncharacteristic.*

Now you might think that if eight people were to write stories based on the same story structure that eight similar stories would result. Yet that never happens. Indeed, the abstract nature of the suggestions ignites something unique in everyone, and no two stories will be alike.

“‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last,

‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’

‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’

‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.” A.A. Milne

Mike Leigh’s Another Year is divided into four sections of roughly the same length, the sections corresponding to the progression of the four seasons. In The Writer’s Path we call this a Natural Story Structure. To quote from the book again:

*The human life cycle—birth, life, death—is a grand story structure to which many of the world’s most famous novels adhere. Within this most familiar structure, countless story lines wait to support your unique visions. And beyond the human life cycle, in the patterns of all things, myriad story structures await you.

What, for instance, is the abstract story structure of a day? Here is a seven-part abstract structure based on one of many possible interpretations.

Part 1. Darkness

Part 2. Dawn

Part 3. Morning

Part 4. Noon

Part 5. Afternoon

Part 6. Evening

Part 7. Night*

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S. Lewis

I think it is truthfulness suffused with empathy expressed through Mike Leigh’s mastery of the cinematic art that makes Another Year so memorable and challenging and original.

Ergo Ego

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

One of my favorite stories about my ego takes place on my fortieth birthday, October 17, 1989. I am riding my bicycle down L Street in Sacramento on my way to a meeting, consumed by thoughts of how absurdly fast the years seem to be passing and how I’d better sell a book or a screenplay pronto or my wife will leave me and I’ll end up living in the bushes by the American River. Suddenly, just ahead of me, dozens of people pour out of a big office building onto the sidewalk, and the first thing that pops into my head is, “How did they know it’s my birthday?”

As I ride by the crowd of people, I wave to them and many wave back to me. I smile, and they smile back at me, and I feel marvelous. And so it continues, block after block, the people pouring out of buildings to greet me as I ride by. How wonderful! I can almost hear them singing Happy Birthday, when, in truth, a great earthquake is shaking northern California and collapsing bridges and roadways in San Francisco and Oakland, while my ego is deftly converting the catastrophe into a celebration of me.

A common misconception about Buddha is that he declared the ego a great enemy of enlightenment and a primary cause of suffering. I heard this proclaimed adamantly by several neophyte Buddhists before I began my own studies of cogent Buddhist dharma; and since I had been acculturated to believe that having a big ego was bad, that egotism per se was a scourge, and that the worst thing a person could possibly be was an egomaniac, I accepted this erroneous representation of Buddha’s take on the ego. Sadly, a number of well-known Buddhist and New Age teachers still promote the wholly unworkable notion that the ego should be battled and defeated, and, if possible, eradicated entirely. But if so, how would we order lunch?

The teachers I prefer, those who speak calmly from decades of study and serving others and practicing meditation, do not advocate trying to kill the ego, but suggest we will attain to greater happiness if we develop a clear understanding of what the ego is and what the ego isn’t; and so armed with this understanding we might live more consciously and harmoniously with our egoistic tendencies.

One gift of meditation practice is to slowly and surely become more familiar with, and less worried about, our mind chatter, that incessant broadcast of thoughts that sets the tone and cadence for our personal realities. We eventually experience a quieting of this mind chatter, though not by attempting to willfully shut the chatter off, but by bringing our attention to the chatter and discerning it to be meaningless mental noise and nothing substantive. Through meditation, otherwise known as sitting quietly with no other agenda but to sit quietly, we may allow the chatter to weaken and even cease so we may experience other kinds of perception and feeling.

The first many times I meditated, whether for five minutes or forty minutes or two hours, my mind chatter never let up and I despaired of ever experiencing a moment’s peace, let alone a noticeable step toward enlightenment. And then I learned from my readings of Pema Chödrön and Joseph Goldstein about Labeling. By naming this mental blabber, it would, indeed, dissipate for a time before being replaced by some other species of chatter.

For instance, during meditation I might find I am endlessly amending a grocery list mixed with thoughts of oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico. Tiring of this redundancy, I say to myself “Thinking”, and by merely labeling these particular thoughts, I experience their dissolution into thoughts of a friend who is seriously ill. After hanging for a time with this new array of troubling thoughts, I label them “Worrying” and those thoughts fade away. And so on.

This mind chatter is not merely the sound of the ego, it is the ego. In Mark Epstein’s extremely helpful book Thoughts Without A Thinker, the title is both the fundamental Buddhist idea Epstein explores as well as the ultimate answer to myriad questions about who and what we are. Buddha, if I’m interpreting Epstein correctly, would have responded to the famous pronouncement by Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” by suggesting gently and with no attachment to being right or wrong, “Thoughts compose an illusion of self you only think is thinking.”

Abstract stuff, to be sure, but useful if this reorientation helps us take ourselves less seriously, i.e. less egocentrically. There is a less abstract Buddhist insight which most thoughtful people eventually experience in their lives, whether Buddhist or Christian or Jane, and that insight goes something like this: each of us is totally unique and not a bit different than anyone else. Both true. Not just two sides of the same coin, but true simultaneously.

Another favorite story about my ego has recurred dozens of times in my life. This story has to do with the phases of creating a novel or a musical composition or any product of the imagination that may consume months or years of my life.

Phase One: Inspiration

I wake with, or am struck by, a vision of something I am absolutely certain is the greatest story/melody I (or anyone) has ever conceived of. This certainty is so strong, the voices of doubt in my subconscious are entirely drowned out by what I take to be the roar of an adoring universe, and I work in a state of ecstatic determination for hours or days or weeks until the tide recedes, and I am left with a rough draft or a rough song that, as I come to my so-called senses, I realize may not be any good at all. But there she is, born of my ego overwhelming what some might call a cooler head.

Phase Two: The Work

Once my initial sense of having discovered the holy grail of literature and/or music has departed, I understand that this imperfect thing must be greatly improved upon if I hope to capture even a fraction of the greatness of my original vision. More often than not, after a day or a week or a month of work, I admit to myself that I’ve been self-duped and it is a far far better thing to deep six the thing than keep beating a dead horse. Unless, for reasons never fathomable to my conscious mind, my ego has a big investment in my continuing the work, in which case flashbacks to the ecstatic conception recur again and again whenever my interest and certainty flag to the point of giving up the ship. These narcotic fumes from the original phantasmagoric overwhelm are parsed out by my ego to trick me into thinking another few thousand minutes of focused work will bring the shapely goddess in her full grandeur out of that lump of clay.

Nearing Completion: As my work on the book or music draws to a close, I am seized by the sense, often alarmingly visceral, that I might die before I finish, that all my work will have been for naught and my fabulous creation will never be born and never seen by others. This sense of extreme mortality has nothing to do with my age. I experienced the feeling of the nearness of my death when I was a teenaged playwright and I experience it today in late middle age whenever I am about to complete the writing of a book or the recording of an album of songs. Happily, I am not experiencing such pangs as I write this essay, though having just written that I now feel reluctant to get in a car until I’ve sent this off. But I digress.

What could possibly be the ego’s purpose in scaring me so profoundly as I near the end of a lengthy creative race, so to speak? Is it to obviate the ever-rising doubt that what I’ve created might be a pile of doo doo? Perhaps. But I think it is more to supply the momentum of urgency to surmount those final multitudinous obstacles to completion.

Delusions of Grandeur: Here at last is the completed work. My God, I did it! I captured that original vision in all her glory. Hallelujah. Now I must share her with the world. I will make copies and send them forth. So I do, fuelled by a revival of certainty that this thing is important and good and will be a boon to mankind and womankind for generations to come. Which certainty lasts just long enough for me to release the creation far enough away from me and in sufficient quantity so that when I wake with, or am struck by, a new and powerful certainty that my creation is deeply flawed, that I missed the mark, that I could have made her so much better and more beautiful if only I had…

The truth, thankfully, is that there is no mark to miss, only the ongoing process of endeavoring to make sense of these thoughts composing the ever-changing idea of moi. Or to put it in pidgin Latin: Cogito Ergo Ego.

Todd just completed his new CD 43 short Piano Improvisations and sent it off to be manufactured before his doubts could get the better of him.

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

Solar School

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

Mendocino has a spanking new elementary/junior high school on Little Lake Road about a mile inland from the village, and I am happy to report that her shiny blue metal rooftops are being covered with photovoltaic cells to produce electricity. I was recently at the school shooting hoops on one of the three new outdoor basketball courts, fresh nets affixed to glossy orange rims, and as I huffed and puffed in humbling pursuit of my largely uncooperative basketball, valiant technicians were hard at work affixing the solar cells.

It was a sunny day, and in the absence of students or anyone else making use of the new school, I thrilled to imagine the school’s electric meters whirling in reverse as great currents of electricity flowed from the rooftops into the greater power grid. Such imagining made me happy in the face of the murderous gusher continuing to gush in the Gulf of Mexico. I am aware that solar power is not the ultimate answer to the woes of the world. I have read myriad articles by smart people explaining how electric cars are every bit as bad for the earth as gasoline powered cars. I have read even more articles by these same and other smart people explaining how renewable energy will never replace oil and that we are destined, rather soon, for a new Dark Age of lawlessness and mass starvation. But whenever I stopped to catch my breath from chasing my runaway basketball and saw those fellows affixing solar panels to the shiny blue roof, I felt twinges of hope.

When I was a young man I decided to try to make my living as a musician and a writer. I worked as a landscaper, a gardener, a janitor, a ditch digger, a farmhand, a day care worker, and at several other low-paying jobs. With whatever energy I had left at the end of each day, I practiced music and writing. And for ten years, every person I knew, including my best friends and many smart people, told me with absolute certainty, “You will never succeed as a writer or as a musician. Give it up.” And when I did succeed, these same absolutely certain people said, “I always knew you’d make it.”

Indeed, I have subsequently observed again and again that smart people are often very good at talking themselves and other people out of doing things by stating with absolute certainty that the thing in question cannot be achieved, and they know the thing cannot be achieved because they have the data to prove it. “Oh, so you put in a gray water system to water your garden and conserve water. Big deal. That won’t help. Corporations waste millions of gallons of water every minute. Your little gray water system won’t make a bit of difference. Ditto growing your own vegetables, driving less, having only one child instead of two, vacationing closer to home, carpooling, turning off lights, lowering the thermostat, or cooking your meals with a solar cooker. Won’t help. Don’t bother.”

Alternative energy? Why it takes so much energy to mine the materials for solar cells, to manufacture the cells, package them, ship them, you might as well drive an old Chevy Impala from here to New York and back and stay in air-conditioned motels along the way. Replace oil and coal consumption with wind power and solar power? You gotta be kidding. Can’t happen. Look right here. These are the numbers. Can’t happen. Get ready to subsist on turnips if you’re lucky and huddle in caves and fight off hordes of starving cannibals until you die a premature death.

But I look up at those guys on the blue roof and I can practically hear the electricity being made out of sunlight. Gushers of electricity. I see herb gardens surrounding this new solar school, and fields of tomatoes and squash and potatoes growing where they’re currently gouging out a soccer field. I see these commodious classrooms being used by people who walk here or ride here in electric shuttle buses or come on horses or on bicycles, and I see these people learning from each other, sharing ideas and books and tools, playing music, quilting, weaving, carving, building, making food, feeding each other, and caring for each other.

I don’t think even the smartest prognosticator can predict what humans might do if we allow ourselves to be guided by our creative instincts rather than the analysis of dubious data about things having little or nothing to do with the countless things each of us might do separately and together.

That said, I do think the idea of bio-fuels is horrific on any scale larger than a backyard still, and when I hear about hundreds of thousands of people planning to gather on beaches around the world to protest offshore drilling, my first thought is, “Yes, but how will they GET to the beaches? Because if they’re driving cars, I’m not buying it.” And I agree there is a powerful denial-of-reality mantra etched into our media-warped minds that intones: They (whoever they are) will surely figure something out to solve the crises of energy and food and pollution and over-population and crime and environmental degradation and global warming and the extinction of whales and salmon and krill and phytoplankton so we can go on our merry way living high on the hog, so to speak.

But our collective denial of reality scares me far less than the growing insistence by so many smart people that there is nothing we can do, collectively or individually, that will make any positive difference to the degradation of the planet and society and the future. And I sincerely wish all these smart future prognosticators would spend more time trying to imagine and test new ways to groove efficaciously with the earth, and spend much less time explicating and arguing ad nauseum that nothing we do will make any difference, because I’m enthralled with those solar panels on the blue roof and visions of electric meters whirling backwards; and if I hear one more smart person look up at those solar panels, figuratively speaking, and say, “Won’t help, don’t bother,” I’ll throw my basketball at him. Odds are I won’t hit him, but that will be my intention.

No doubt my years of living in communes informs my impatience with those who pronounce with such certainty that the actions of individuals can’t possibly ameliorate the horrific disasters perpetrated by the likes of BP and the Pentagon and all the other rapacious forces of evil in the world. Had I not proven to myself that I could live happily with few things, and subsequently experienced a quantum improvement in my quality of life as I spent less and less money and used less and less energy as a result of my immersion in small-scale socialism, I, too, might believe that peak oil sounds the death knell for a comfy way of life. Had I not grown, with relatively little difficulty, much of the delicious food I and fifteen other people needed to survive, I, too, might believe that only misery and drudgery and premature death lie ahead. But I don’t think the transition from a greed-based society to socialism will be bad. I think the change will be difficult but ultimately marvelous.

Yes, it may turn out that Things In General will continue to go from bad to worse, and lawlessness and deprivation will soon engulf us all. But Things In General are, for the most part, so stupid and wrong and broken they ought to crash and burn and leave ashes to fertilize the new and very different system we put in place of the old general things. When I read descriptions of how the Mendocino County Supervisors are presiding over the steep decline and inevitable fall of our local basic services, I find their collective myopia and inaction highly instructive. They reveal themselves to be inmates of the larger state and national institutions that would rather take things away from the weak and defenseless than raise taxes on the wealthy. Their stupidity would be comical if the effects were not so terrible for those least able to protect themselves. The obvious solution is standing right in front of our duly elected officials, a perfect hero of a solution named Equality, except our benighted leaders cannot see her, for she wears the cloak of socialism, and socialism is taboo. But I digress.

What I’m suggesting is that there are many ways already known to us that will help spin the meters backwards, and many more ways we have yet to imagine and design and try out. Just because all these smart people have decided things are going to turn out a certain way doesn’t mean things will turn out that certain way or that we should cease our efforts to figure out ways to live less destructively on the earth. Smart people only know what they think they know. And not one of them knows some of the things you know.

We are only doomed to a disastrous future if we buy into those guesses of disaster (and that’s all they are, guesses) and forget that we, individually and collectively, are limitlessly creative. And I predict that if enough of us make it our daily practice to give some of our time for the greater good, however we imagine doing so, all heaven will break loose.

For some reason, Todd is in an optimistic mood this week. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.

Writing the Sequel to Under the Table Books

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

I’ve been madly writing the sequel to my just-published novel Under the Table Books. Given that only a handful of people have read Under the Table Books, and confronted by barely discernible sales of the mighty tome, my rational mind warns me that my current literary labor is folly, that years spent on a sequel to an unknown novel will amount to yet another wasted effort, and we’ve already got piles of those gathering dust.

What my rational mind fails to comprehend (no matter how many times I explain this to her and because logic only takes us so far) is that I do not think these things up, these stories and plays and novels, and then decide to write them down. I do not plan what I create. Nor do I consider anything I’ve ever done wasted effort. What happens for me, and has been happening since I was a little boy, is that I hear a story being told to me and I see a movie unfurling as I hear the words, and my mission, if I choose to accept it, is to transcribe what I’m experiencing as vividly and musically as I can. I say musically because my taste runs to prose that swings to consistent and compelling rhythms.

I have written other sequels to other books I’ve published, though I have yet to publish a sequel, so I certainly understand the concern of the pragmatic sector of my brain as it worries about the aging corpus laboring over a saga that may never be published and may never bring us money or something we can trade for food and shelter. And if that’s the case, why bother? In all honesty, I bother because despite the latest data from my personal commerce department, I find the thickening plot and the seductive characters irresistible and I can’t wait to read what I write down next. I’m hooked.

When I lived in Berkeley some years ago I was in range of three or four radio stations that presented bestselling and/or academically anointed fiction writers talking about their latest books and their lives and how they went about writing. Some of these writers spoke at length about what their books meant, which always made me uneasy. Even more disturbing to me was that the vast majority of these writers claimed to know what they were going to write before they started writing. They actually thought things out ahead of time and got their ducks in a row in a barrel before they started shooting. They said things like, “I thought I’d like to write a book about…” Or “I knew I could sell this if I set it in Venice and opened with a scene in which…” Or “Gardening and cooking and infidelity are all the rage right now, so I decided…” All of which were ways of thinking I considered antithetical to originality and intuitive creativity.

But as depressing as all that intellectual hoo ha was to me, the thing almost all of them did that made me want to smack them with a bamboo pole, was to claim they were speaking for other writers. They would employ phrases such as “every serious writer eventually discovers…” or “of course any good writer will tell you…” or “the best writers always…” or “one should never…” and many other repulsive and stupid things; thus I surmised their books would be poo poo.

So what does that have to do with me writing a sequel to my virtually unknown novel? Everything! And should I ever be asked to speak about my writing process, I will say essentially what I’ve just written here, though I will do my best to let my characters speak for themselves.

A Brief Excerpt From the Sequel to Under the Table Books

Natasha—tall, brown, graceful, and vastly pregnant—stands behind the bookstore counter reciting the lyrics of the Under the Table Books anthem to Hansel and Gretel Hosenhoffer of Stuttgart, a middle-aged couple in heavy gray tweeds blowing through California on a whirlwind tour of esoteric bookstores of the western hemisphere—Hansel sporting an ebony monocle, Gretel wearing a necklace of tortoise shell reading glasses.

“All books are free,” intones Natasha, her voice deep and sonorous. “If you want to leave something you value as much as the book you’re taking, cool. Have a book you don’t want? Drop it on by. And don’t get us wrong. We enjoy receiving stacks of quarters and piles of dollar bills. We delight in all forms of currency, including tasty comestibles. Yes, and keep those potted plants coming. May all beings be well read.”

Hansel Hosenhoffer frowns quizzically. “From zis you make a living?”

“Amazing but true,” says Natasha, resting her hands on the drum of her belly, her soon-to-be-born baby kicking gently in 4/4 time. “The kindness of book lovers knows no bounds.”

Gretel Hosenhoffer smiles in mild horror at the foundational implications of the anarchist bookstore. “But how does anyone determine the worth of anything?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” says Natasha, moving out from behind the counter to join Bobo in the Reading Circle where he has been waiting patiently for her to read to him from his current favorite book The Adventures of a Naughty Boy Named Knocker and His Trusty Sidekick Poo Poo Head.

The bell above the door jangles and Iris Spinelli dashes in out of the rain. A spry ninety-four, her curly white hair sprinkled with gold glitter, her leotard blue, her slender frame draped with seven purple scarves, Iris is wending her way home from the weekly gathering of the Society of Impersonators of Famous People (formerly the East Side Philatelists Association.) Iris is currently impersonating the interpretive dancer Isadora Duncan (1878-1927). Last week she was the movie star Claudette Colbert (1905-1996).

“Z around?” asks Iris, going up on her toes to kiss Natasha’s cheek. “How’s baby today?”

“She’s a busy girl,” says Natasha, smiling down at her swollen belly. “Z gets home tomorrow from the Frankfurt book fair. Having way too much fun, if you ask me.”

“All morning,” says Iris, gazing into Natasha’s eyes, “I’ve been hearing a fabulous three-part harmony for The Look of Love. You and me and Z.”

“Let’s do our parts now,” says Natasha, lowering herself into a big armchair. “So when Z gets home, we’ll have it down.”

Iris smiles sublimely and hums a warbling note to set the key. Natasha breathes deeply of the trembling tone and eases into harmony with Iris—every molecule of the old building vibrating in sympathy with Iris’s quavering alto and Natasha’s superlative soprano, the blend of their voices unspeakably sweet.

Hansel and Gretel look up from their respective books—he leafing through Goethe, she inhaling Rilke—each moved to tears by the unfettered magnificence of the choir of two.