Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Completion

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Kindling Pile

Kindling Pile photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2015)

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

Several years ago I wrote a piece for the AVA entitled When Is It Done? in which I recounted my meeting with the poet William Everson in Santa Cruz circa 1971. I was hitchhiking on the coast highway, Everson picked me up, and being an aspiring writer and a devotee of his poet compatriot Philip Whalen, I asked William, formerly known as Brother Antoninus, a question I immediately regretted: how do you know when a poem is done?

Fortunately for me, he did not stop the car and tell me to get out. Instead, he thought for a moment and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

Now I am older than William Everson was when he gave me that ride way back when, and his reply to my youthful question still seems a good answer. There’s no rule about it. Something shifts in your awareness. You come into harmony with your feelings, and you just know.”

Or you don’t know. I know writers and artists who say a book or painting or recording project is done when they can’t bear to work on it any longer. I suppose that could be called a shift in awareness and coming into harmony with your feelings.

“The writer of any work must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.”” Annie Dillard

One of my favorite paintings by Picasso is Paul In A Clown Suit, a portrait of Picasso’s young son wearing a harlequin costume and sitting on a chair. The upper two-thirds of the chair is black and makes a potent background for the boy, his costume composed of blue and yellow triangles, his reddish brown hair crowned by an odd black hat, his beautiful child’s face expressionless.

The bottom of the chair, however, is a bare charcoal sketch. This is also true of Paul’s feet, and there seems to be a remnant sketch of another leg and foot, unpainted and superimposed over the sketch of the bottom of the chair. Why did Picasso leave these parts unfinished? Or put another way: why did Picasso feel the painting was done?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that if Picasso had painted every part of this painting and removed the remnant sketch of another leg, the painting would be lovely, unremarkable, and would not incite me, as it does, to consider the countless fleeting moments our brains transpose into notions of reality.

“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking. But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality, giving out everything. Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” Shunryu Suzuki

For the last several months I have been writing the third volume of a fictional epic entitled Ida’s Place. Book One is subtitled Return, Book Two Revival, and Book Three Rehearsal. Set in a place reminiscent of where I live on the north coast of California and peopled with foreigners, artists, visionaries, brilliant children, and just folks, this is my first attempt at a multi-volume work—the process quite different for me than writing a single-volume novel.

Entering my fourth year of involvement with this large cast of characters, I no longer think about where the saga is heading or when it will end, and as a consequence I have been experiencing a wonderfully uninhibited writing flow.

“There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” Georges Braque

A couple weeks ago, Marcia went away for five days, and my usual three or four hours of writing each day became seven and eight, the momentum of the Ida saga lasting from morning until late at night. When I took breaks from writing to eat or work in the garden or go to town on errands, the story continued to speak itself, oblivious to my lack of pen and paper.

I thought the flow might slow when Marcia came home, but the pace never faltered. Then a few nights ago, I finished writing a scene, put down my pen, and felt something, a tangible something, sink from my head into my stomach, like an elevator going down and stopping abruptly—with something definitely in that elevator. And I wondered if the first draft of Ida’s Place Book Three was done.

So I posed the question to my muse: has everyone in the story arrived at a good pausing place? Yes. Okay.

I typed the last fifty pages of longhand into the IDA 3 document on my computer and printed out the entire opus to begin, as William Everson would say, working the lines. I have only a vague notion of what has gone on in these several hundred pages, and I am keen to find out. But first I will take a few days off from the adventures of Ida and her people to revel in the glorious spring.

Choosing Names

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Mementos NolanWInkler

Mementos by Nolan Winkler

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“I only like two kinds of men: domestic and foreign.” Mae West

Our dear friends Nick and Clare Bokulich, Nick the noted fermentologist, Clare the renowned musicologist and daughter of local viola legend Marion Crombie, recently sent us this pregnancy update. “Had one of those crazy 3D ultrasounds and they were able to see all of the organs and blood pumping through the veins and everything! It was completely overwhelming and exciting all at the same time. And we found out it’s a boy!”

After digesting this exciting news, we wrote Clare a brief email with names for boys we think go well with Bokulich. I suggested Felix and Noah, Marcia was partial to Benjamin (Ben).

Clare replied, “I like all of those, too. Nick and I are pretty hopeless on agreeing on names, though, so we’ve decided to give ourselves a break and not worry about it until after he’s born (though suggestions still welcome!) because there’s just so much else going on right now and we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.”

And that reminded me of a short story I wrote when I was twenty (now lost) that was my first story to garner handwritten rejection notes (as opposed to form rejection letters) from editors at two different prestigious magazines. Both editors said they loved the story but were sorry to say they only published well-known writers. The story was entitled The Name and was based on the true story of how my friend Grover got his name.

“Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment.” Shunryu Suzuki

Grover was born in eastern Kansas in 1931. He was the seventh son and ninth child of hardworking Methodist wheat farmers. Grover’s father was over fifty when Grover was born, and several of Grover’s siblings were already married and had children of their own. Tractors were just displacing teams of horses for plowing the fields, and Grover’s father and brothers and mother worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, to make a go of farming—Sunday reserved for church and socializing and resting up for the coming week of toil.

Naming their last-born child was of no pressing importance to Grover’s parents, so he had no official name until he was six. He answered to Baby and Sluggo for the first five years of his life, and it was only when he was about to start school that his parents decided to give him an official name—Ernest favored by Mother, Grover favored by Father.

Inspired by Grover’s vague recollections of why he chose one name over the other, my short story imagined a scene in which Mother plied the boy with pumpkin pie while lobbying for the name Ernest, and another scene in which Father took the boy for a ride in his truck to get an ice cream cone—a great adventure! On the way to and from the soda fountain Father made the case for the name Grover, pointing out that Grover Cleveland had been President of the United States, twice, and Grover Cleveland Alexander was a great baseball player, whereas Ernest was a name better suited to a sissy than to a big strong farm boy.

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.” Mark Twain

Recalling the story of how Grover got his name, I was reminded of another naming story told to me by a former prison psychiatrist whose first name was Edward. One of the men Edward ministered to, a mountain of a man who had spent many years in prison for manslaughter, came to see Edward shortly before his release.

“Doctor, you helped me so much,” he said reverently. “If I ever have a son, I’d like to name him after you.”

Edward replied, “I would be honored if you named your son after me,” and thought no more about it.

A few years later, Edward received a phone call from a frantic nurse calling from a hospital in San Francisco. The former inmate had begotten a son and the newborn’s birth certificate required a first name. However, the name chosen by the former inmate was deemed inappropriate by whoever was in charge of that sort of thing at the hospital, and now the very angry mountain of a man was threatening to destroy the maternity ward if the name he wanted for his child was disallowed.

“He says he wants to name the baby after you,” explained the nurse. “He said you told him you would be honored if he named the baby that.”

Edward collected his thoughts and replied, “Why would anyone object to naming a boy Edward? The name has served me and thousands of other Edwards, kings included, very well for hundreds of years.”

“He doesn’t want to name the boy Edward,” cried the exasperated nurse. “He wants to name him Doctor.”

“Well, if I were you,” said Edward, recalling the size and emotional disposition of the man in question, “I would grant him his wish and trouble him no further.”

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

I am currently in the throes of writing Book Three of a fictional saga called Ida’s Place. Set on the far north coast of California in the mythical town of Big River, the cast of artists and eccentrics grows larger with each new volume. Thus I have given names to a good many characters of late, with several more characters about to enter the fray. Fortunately, one of my great pleasures is choosing names for those who populate my fiction, though, in truth, they invariably choose their own names before I can consciously intervene.

Which is why I appreciated Clare writing, “…we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.” I have no doubt the boy’s name will come to them from him.

The Death of Literature

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

It has come to my attention on several occasions of late that the history of the decline and fall of American literature to its current moribund state is as little known as Mendelssohn’s revised version of his Italian Symphony. Thus I feel it incumbent upon me to explain why the once great literary tradition of our collapsing democracy done collapsed.

In the beginning, circa 1800-1950, American publishing was a largely unprofitable endeavor and therefore the purview of wealthy men who made their profits elsewhere and plowed some of those profits into the cultural life of the country. Most of these fellows—Knopf, Doubleday, Scribner, etc.—held court in New York City, with Little and Brown making their stand in Boston. The literary arms of their publishing houses were staffed with bright, well-educated men and women intent on finding and supporting promising writers who might one day fulfill their promise on the larger literary stage. The unspoken rule that stood in every great publishing house until the 1960’s was that an author’s first two novels might not show a profit, but her third should pay for itself, and her fourth would begin to pay back the investment of the publisher. Books were kept in print for years in those days, which allowed time for new authors to gain an audience.

Thus the development of literary talent was a primary mission of these great publishers, and that mission inspired some of the most eccentric and original thinking people to give their lives in service to the art of editing, a highly advance skill requiring years of practice to attain. The greatness of American literature was inseparable from the greatness of her editors, which point cannot be overstated.

Because publishing did not show much if any profit, the publishing houses were of no interest to larger corporations looking for profitable entities to consume. This is another essential point, for it was only when publishing became profitable that the terrible decline in our literary culture began.

So how did publishing, so long a break-even endeavor at best, suddenly begin to turn a profit? The surprising answer is one of the most fascinating parts of the decline and fall, for it illustrates both the fabulous potential of socialism and the terrible shortcomings of capitalism.

The fighting of World War II required the government of the United States to draft millions and millions of men into military service, and when these men came home from the war, the nation felt a great obligation to them. Because the socialist ethos of the Roosevelt era was still largely in play, the GI Bill was passed, and this bill made it possible for millions of men and women to go to college absolutely free. These millions were people who, without this socialist program, would never have been able to attend college.

It is crucial to note that the private universities could only accommodate a small fraction of the former soldiers who wanted to take advantage of the government’s educational largesse, and a good argument can be made that our state and community college systems came into full being as a direct result of the GI Bill, which systems educated not only the former warriors but millions of other people who had previously been precluded from higher education for lack of sufficient money.

Thus tens of millions of people became educated, literate, and hungry for good books. The response of publishers, both established houses and a host of new houses, was to reprint thousands of classic novels and short stories and poems and plays and histories and other non-fiction works, but not as hardbacks, which would have been prohibitively expensive to produce and transport. Instead, the publishers gifted the world with a vast treasure trove of paperbacks that were cheap to print, easy to ship, took up much less space in bookstores, were wonderfully affordable, and…drum roll, please, were profitable for the publishers.

And because the paperback revolution made publishers profitable, this amazing literary renaissance (which more than a few historians credit with igniting the cultural revolution known as “the Sixties”) would be tragically short-lived. For once the publishers became profitable, they first became the prey of each other, then the prey of large American corporations, and finally the prey of enormous multinational corporations.

Now if there is one rule that supersedes all others in the corporate manifesto, it is that any item manufactured by the corporation must be immediately profitable or quickly discontinued. By the mid-1970’s, this rule was the supreme law in every American publishing house, and nevermore would a publisher support a promising writer for two or three books without showing a profit. When I published my first novel with Doubleday in 1978, every poetry department in every major publishing house in America had been closed. And had my first novel not (miraculously) shown a profit, I might never have published another novel.

By the early 1980’s the last of the “old school” of creative and dedicated editors, many of them middle-aged and older, had been replaced by legions of young women (21-27) who, to this day, are the “acquisition editors” for all the major houses, and who themselves last only a few years in their drudge jobs of buying books that fit the extremely limited parameters of acceptable corporate media. Books that are not essentially supportive of the status quo and instantly successful are promptly taken out of print, i.e. remaindered.

What’s more, the many literary agents who acted as field scouts for those bygone literature-loving editors were swiftly eclipsed by the variety of agent prevalent today, marketeers who know nothing of and care nothing for literature.

There are, of course, several parallel plots to this tragedy, among them the advent of chain bookstores, the demise of independent bookstores, the conquest of the population by television, the collapse of our educational system, and the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, all of which contributed mightily to the demise of literature.

Today, two inconceivably huge multinational corporations control all mainstream publishing in America. Don’t be fooled by the names Knopf, Doubleday, Little Brown, Random House, etc. on the books you see in the bookstore, if you still have a bookstore to go to. These in-name-only entities reside in the same propaganda arms of two massive and politically conservative corporations, which should clarify why you can’t find much good to read these days.

In the absence of the cultivation of writing talent, the books published by these monsters are, with only the rare accidental exception, uniformly awful. As a consequence, the once large audience for literary fiction is gone. The bestseller lists—which, by the way, no longer reflect sales but are merely marketing devices used to hoodwink consumers—are filled with pulp murder mysteries, food-based pseudo-novels, junky espionage thrillers, and the occasional offering from one of the few surviving authors developed by an interesting editor way back when.

Ironically, were these publishing entities with the names of former actual publishers set free to stand on their own, not one would be profitable because so few people today read new books. And who can blame them given what there is to choose from?

Sadly, two new generations have grown up since the onset of literary rigor mortis, and the vast majority of these younger people wouldn’t know a proper sentence or paragraph or a decent turn of phrase if it hit them between the eyes. They have been programmed since birth to be visualists, addicted to a constant flow of rapidly shifting imagery. They skim rather than read, if they look at words at all.

But what about Harry Potter, you say? About that franchise I will reserve my deeper sentiment for close friends and say only that children who read/watch Harry Potter do not, in general, become readers of other books unless the books are Harry Potter-like and marketed as such, with requisite marketing and media hype to support the Potterness of the latest fantasy word widget.

Lastly, I must comment on the bizarre phenomenon, born with the personal computer, of millions of people attempting to write novels and their memoirs without first learning to write a coherent story. If someone told you they were writing a symphony, though they had only just learned a few things about notes, and had yet to write a song, you would think them mad. Yet the comparison is approximate to writing a novel without first developing at least a crude mastery of the component parts.

But perhaps the abominable quality of the corporate guck masquerading as books today makes everyone think, “Hey, I can totally do that. Who couldn’t?”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in September 2009)