Posts Tagged ‘novels’

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Monday, April 4th, 2016

sunstruck tw

Sunstruck painting by Nolan Winkler

“The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks together. Kim sat up and yawned, shook himself, and thrilled with delight. This was seeing the world in real truth; this was life as he would have it—bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within earshot went to work.” Rudyard Kipling

Reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling for the tenth time in the last twenty-five years, I’ve been thinking about why this novel and no other of the thousands I’ve read calls to me again and again, and why, again and again, I am enthralled from first word to last.

There are books I loved in my teens and twenties I revisited in middle age—Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Parnassus On Wheels—and a handful of other novels I’ve read a second or third time over the years; but Kim is the only novel I am eager to read again every few years.

This is not a recommendation, however. There was a time when I urged my friends to read Kim and quickly learned that women, for the most part, do not like this book, and some women loathe it. A few men I touted on the book enjoyed the tale, but I was repeatedly cautioned that Kim was out of date, racist, misogynist, and juvenile. Never mind that the writing is exquisite, those charges against the book—none of which I agree with—are prevalent today, so I do not recommend Kim.

One friend suggested I love the book because the character of Kim resonates with some vision of who I imagine I am in relation to the larger world. Perhaps. But I think the greater draw for me is the relationship between Kim and the lama with whom he travels, and through whom he discovers the spiritual side of life. Also, Kim is beloved and revered by not one but four fascinating older men, something I did not experience with my own father or any older man, and I longed for that in my life.

The words in Kim sing to me—glorious prose poetry—else I would not return so often to those pages.

Kim got me thinking about movies I have watched multiple times, as in more than three times, and one movie jumps out before any other: The Horse’s Mouth starring Alec Guinness. I saw the movie when I was eight, eighteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven, thirty-nine, forty-eight, fifty-three, and sixty. And I was enthralled from first frame to last, moved to tears, and greatly inspired each time.

Again, not a recommendation. Having touted this film to many people, I know The Horse’s Mouth is not to everyone’s taste and many women find the movie sexist. Be that as it may, The Horse’s Mouth is still the best film I’ve ever seen about what it is to be an artist of the kind Guinness portrays—a person for whom making art takes precedence over everything else in life. Everything. And the movie is screamingly funny in parts, as well as profoundly moving.

Another film I have seen four times and would gladly watch again tomorrow is Mostly Martha, the German film about a hyper-controlling German chef who is melted out of her emotional isolation by unexpectedly becoming mother to her sister’s young daughter, while having to share her high-end restaurant kitchen with her emotional opposite, a sensual funny guy chef from Italy.

The other food-related film I love and have watched multiple times is The Big Night.

Then there is Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. I have seen this movie at least ten times, from when I was a boy until a couple years ago when I couldn’t resist renting it again. I love everything about this movie. Never gets old for me.

In that same vein: Young Frankenstein.

I once knew a man named Jack who used a particular film as a preliminary test for establishing friendships and relationships. If the man or woman being tested did not like the French film Toto le Hero, Jack would have nothing more to do with the person. If the person being tested had not seen the film, which was usually the case, Jack would screen it for them and judge them according to their reaction.

As it happened, I loved Toto le Hero, but made the mistake of raving about it to many of my friends, and with few exceptions they hated the movie. I did not hold this against them, so some of them remained my friends, whereas Jack had almost no friends. But I understood why he felt as he did. When a movie or book or work of art is precious to us, there is undoubtedly something in the work representative of our feelings and spirit, and so another’s rejection of our favorite can feel like a rejection of us.

I’ve been struggling with this very thing regarding Bernie Sanders. I love Bernie Sanders. Yes, I know. He has this flaw and that flaw and he voted wrong on this and that, and he should be better than he is, but I love him. I have never in my life liked a candidate for President of the United States remotely as much as I like Bernie, and I have a hard time feeling friendly toward people who do not share my love for him. For me, Bernie is the reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his opponent the female embodiment of the plutocracy.

Yet some of my favorite people do not love Kim, do not love The Horse’s Mouth, would rather do anything than watch The Court Jester, and do not think Bernie has a chance in hell of unseating the reigning overlords.

But one of the important things I’ve learned from reading Kim ten times is that it is far better to rejoice with others who share our enthusiasms than to waste our precious time feeling bitterly toward those who do not.

Homelessness

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

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

I am currently in the throes of rewriting a novel I first completed in 2003, rewrote entirely in 2006, and then did not touch for six years. I have only undertaken this kind of extended creative venture a few times in my life because most of my long dormant creations do not stand the test of time for me; so I have no interest in spending another thousand hours remaking them. Nor would I have had the opportunity to rewrite any of these long slumbering works had I been a more successful writer with publishers and producers clambering for my works as I completed them the first time. In any case, these books and plays and screenplays I remake multiple times over the course of many years are my favorite creations, regardless of their commercial fates.

This novel I am rewriting is a quasi-autobiographical tale about a middle-aged man who invites a homeless woman and her four-year-old son to live with him. His relationship with the boy is loving and parental, his relationship with the woman in no way sexual, though sexuality is one of the larger subjects of the novel. And though I am still keenly interested in the book’s exploration of sexuality, I am most interested (at the moment) in the subject of homelessness, for I was reminded when I read this manuscript that homelessness has played a central role in many of my books and stories, both published and unpublished.

When I lived in Sacramento in the 1980’s, I became fascinated with several of the many homeless people who gathered downtown in Plaza Park before the park was gussied up and gentrified and made off limits to those outcastes I came to know quite well. The result of my fascination was a novel entitled Two Rivers, four years in the making, an epic stream-of-consciousness prose poem I was never able to publish, though two unusual literary agents and three brave New York editors fell in love with the book and strove mightily to convince the powers that be to publish it. In retrospect, I understand why the book was anathema to corporate publishers, for the interlocking stories composing the novel lay bare the truth of our society’s great shame—the abandonment of those most in need and the terrible legacy of that mass abandonment.

Because homelessness has recently returned to the fore of my consciousness, I am keenly aware that homelessness is almost never mentioned by any of the politicians currently running for local and national office. There is much talk of the great stress being put on the middle class and elderly by the current economic crisis, but homeless people and homeless families are rarely spoken about, though their ranks grow larger every day. Of course, homeless people do not vote, so why should politicians waste their precious cash appealing to the victims of our failing system of governance? Yet it is the unspoken specter of homelessness that is the very monster driving voters into the arms of countless crackpots who blame Big Government for the woes of our society, when our government is not acting in nearly big enough ways to do what must be done to resurrect a viable safety net for all our citizens.

If you are under forty you will not remember when there were virtually no homeless people in America, but that’s the way it was before Ronald Reagan became governor of California and then President of the United States. Certainly there were poor people and itinerant alcoholic bums before Reaganomics became the de facto law of the land, but there were not millions of homeless families in America or even thousands of them. I will not attempt to sum up the sickening history of how Reagan’s overseers shifted the political and social sands to create the economic forces that created the epidemic of homelessness we have today, but be assured that homelessness is the direct and recent result of the craven and amoral rigging of our systems of taxation to benefit the wealthy while sacking those social programs aimed at helping the economically disadvantaged.

What interests me more than the financial mechanics that caused so many millions of people to become economically disenfranchised is what homelessness means as a reflection of our collective response to such suffering. And I think our collective response, which is to do nothing to reverse the horrific policies of our so-called leaders over the last thirty years, is a reflection of a totally false and tactically implanted fear in all of us that there is not enough food and shelter and security for everyone, so that sharing our wealth with others is perceived to be the direct path to homelessness. That may seem simplistic, but that is what I observe in individuals and groups in response to individual homeless people and to homeless people as a growing sector of our population. The homeless are to be pitied or scorned, but not given the means to substantively improve their lives, for we have been programmed to believe that such giving will only impoverish us, when, in fact, the opposite is true.

For many years before I wrote Buddha In A Teacup, a collection of forty-two contemporary dharma tales, I was immersed in the writings of several excellent Buddhist teachers, and what I discovered time and again was that generosity, the sharing of one’s self with others, not only underpins all aspects of Buddhist philosophy, but is apparently the most difficult concept for Americans to fully understand and incorporate into their lives. And the reason for this difficulty, according to many Buddhist teachers, is that American are deeply entrained to believe that the purpose of giving is to get something in return, whereas the essence of true generosity is to give without any expectation of recompense.

Here is the tale Generosity from Buddha In A Teacup. I would be very curious to know how this little story makes you feel.

Generosity

Tess, a slender woman with brilliant blue eyes and long gray hair, lives in Golden Gate Park—her camping place known only to her.

“I don’t leave anything there when I come out. If you were standing right on it, you wouldn’t know anyone lived there because it’s just a place along the way. I leave no indentation. Even if you found me there you wouldn’t know I lived there because I might just be a tourist sitting in the park. I only have my knapsack.” She smiles. “The only way they could bust me is if they found me there at night, but no one comes there at night. Except me. It’s such an unlikely place for a person to live.”

Tess and a middle-aged man named Thomas are having lunch at a café a few blocks from the park. Thomas has known Tess for three years. They met at an arts faire in downtown San Francisco where Tess was selling handmade greeting cards. Each card contains one of Tess’s original poems. She is a highly skilled botanical illustrator. Most of her cards are scientifically accurate drawings of flowers rendered with fine-tipped pens.

The first card he bought from her—Crimson Columbine—contained the following poem.

this wildflower

short-lived, yes,

but no prisoner

 

A few months later, Thomas met Tess walking on Ocean Beach. They were both searching for unbroken sand dollars. He introduced himself and asked if he might hire her to make a drawing of the leaves and flowers of camellia sinensis—tea—for his business card and stationery. She was happy to make the drawing for him and he was thrilled with the result. Since then they have met every week for lunch.

“I made you something,” she says, handing him a greeting card. “That’s Arnica mollis. Cordilleran Arnica. I love how the yellow flower stands out against the dusky green leaves.”

He opens the card.

Dear friend,

Winter is nearly upon us.

May I sleep on your sofa at night until Spring?

I will be quieter than a mouse.

I will leave no indentation.

For the rest of my life,

I will make drawings and poems for you.

Blessings and Love,

Tess

 

 

What We Do

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

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

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

The first few times I finished writing a novel (each book representing two or three years work), I was gripped by the same terrible fear that I might die before I could make copies of the books and send them out into the world. Before the advent of personal computers and the ability to send massive documents in email attachments, making copies of fat manuscripts meant going to copy shops and leaving the precious documents overnight while copies were made.  Then, exhausted from lack of sleep and worry, I would pick up the copies and mail them to people scattered far and wide, so that in the event of multiple unforeseen disasters a few copies of my masterworks might survive to be discovered by future generations, etc.

In retrospect, yes, the machinations of my deluded ego can be seen as humorous or pathetic or pathetically humorous or plain silly, but I understand now that my fear of dying before my creations had a chance to live was proof of my total immersion in, and identification with, the things I made.

On one such pre-computer occasion in the early 1970’s, I took a play entitled The Last Temptation to one of the first photocopy shops in the Bay Area, a joint in Menlo Park, and handed over my one and only copy to the friendly shop owner. He said he would have my copies ready in two days. The play was loosely based on a brothel scene from Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ and on the Pontius Pilate character in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I was certain the play (as I had previously been certain about various novels and stories) would lift me from poverty and obscurity, etc.

On the day those ten precious copies of the play were supposed to be ready, I arrived at the copy joint and was greeted by the perturbed proprietor with the news that my play had disappeared. Please imagine a formerly sensible human being, me, with a formerly relatively low voice, turning into a screeching banshee. To make a very long story short, the employee assigned to make photocopies of my opus turned out to be a zealous fundamentalist Christian who thought the play might be blasphemous, and he had therefore taken the play to his minister to determine whether or not the thing should be burned at the stake.

I screeched at the copy shop owner to call the police. The poor man begged me to give him a little more time to retrieve the manuscript before we involved law enforcement. Then he giggled and said, “Please don’t sue me.” Later that day, he called to say my play had been returned unscathed and that he would have copies for me the next day, which he did.

In answer to your questions: Yes, he charged me full price, which I paid without protest because that’s the kind of fool I am, and No, the play was never produced.

“My work is a game, a very serious game.” M.C. Escher

I have been asked many times in my life by well-meaning people as well as by snide creeps why I continue to write books and plays and screenplays when it appears no one wants to publish them or produce them or film them? The short answer is: I don’t know. The longer answer is: I have my theories, but none hold water. The very long answer is that I love what I do and I have never ceased to believe that whatever I’m currently creating will lift me out of poverty and obscurity, etc. In other words, it’s what I do.

There is a curious and wonderful phenomenon that overtakes many a creative person as they work on their books or songs or paintings or essays or equations or you name it. And that is, at critical junctures along the way, these creative persons are convinced they have fashioned or discovered something fabulous and original and unprecedented that will change the course of (name of art form or academic discipline) for all time and lift them, the creator, out of poverty, obscurity, disfavor, etc.

But that’s just the beginning of the phenomenon. Upon completion of that first draft or sketch or version of the thing, there dawns upon the creator the realization that the thing is not quite the masterwork he or she thought it was whilst in the throes of convincement. Indeed, the thing once thought to be marvelous now seems to be quite possibly poop. This is the moment that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. This is the first opportunity for the easily disappointed to decide something is a failure and to give up.

But creative people take deep breaths and sally forth into the next iterations of their works to find themselves once again, we hope, utterly convinced they have made something magnificent that will change the course etc. And this “it’s-genius-oops-it’s not-oh-wait-it-is” pattern continues until the thing is done.

I am now convinced this self-tricking pattern is genetic and responsible for most of our cultural and artistic evolution. Unless creative individuals can be repeatedly self-tricked into thinking they are making things of exquisite value, they aren’t going to spend hundreds of hours, let alone years and decades, working on these creations when they could much more easily and profitably help destroy the earth or watch television.

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Thomas Jefferson

One of the things I love about that Thomas Jefferson quote is that it echoes Buckminster Fuller, a primary guru of mine. (Or Bucky echoes Tom if you believe time only goes in one direction.) Bucky’s book Critical Path was a gigantic game-changer for me. I love the idea that through our work we constantly create potential landing pads for cosmic largesse, intervention, collaboration; or what Jefferson called luck, except he was being mildly facetious on one level and absolutely serious on the next level down.

Which puts me in mind of the expression: “I’m waiting for my ship to come in.” which implies you have sent your ship (or ships) out (done your work); otherwise there wouldn’t be any ship out there to return laden with largesse (luck).

Bucky also said: “I assumed that nature would ‘evaluate’ my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained.”

Realizing that I had unconsciously lived my life that way before I read Bucky’s elucidation of the phenomenon, I decided to consciously adopt his assumption of a discerning and collaborative universe as the universal joint, so to speak, of the vehicle on which I would travel through life. And I discovered that Bucky was entirely correct. Nature does evaluate my work and provide or withhold support depending on her evaluations, but nature also evaluates all my life choices, including my choices of people to travel with; and whenever I choose people who think Bucky is a crackpot, nature withdraws her support prontisimo.

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.” Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite recordings is Joseph Campbell at 80. For his eightieth birthday Joe gave a one-hour talk in which he attempted to sum up the philosophical gist of his lifelong studies. I’ve listened to this talk at least ten times over the years, usually when I’m feeling at low ebb about having followed Bucky’s game plan and fearing I may have made a serious mistake. Joe always cheers me up and assures me I made the correct choice for the kind of person I am.

What I find most cheering about Joe’s eightieth birthday talk is hearing a wise and erudite old person talking about traveling the path he made for himself, and how he found help and happiness along the way despite myriad obstacles and countless people telling him he was a crackpot.

Our journeys, inward and outward, are the water; destinations are mirages.

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)