Posts Tagged ‘The Writer’s Path’

Be Good To Yourself

Monday, April 16th, 2018

tea is sucha comfort tw

Tea Is Sucha Comfort painting by Nolan Winkler

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

Twenty years ago, living in Berkeley and finding no willing publishers for my fiction, I was down to my last few shekels when I was presented with the opportunity to work for an ambitious outgoing woman as her twenty-hour-a-week secretary, editor, and ghostwriter. With my rent due and needing groceries, I took the job. The work was tedious, but the pay was good and my employer was a delightful person. I eventually wrote two books for her, each a commercial flop, though both books were beautifully published.

By the time that five-year gig ended, I had managed to publish two non-fiction works of my own, Open Body: Creating Your Own Yoga and The Writer’s Path. Alas, sales of those lovely books were minimal and I was once again running low on funds, so I put up my shingle, so to speak, as an editor-for-hire.

The phone rang frequently thereafter and over the next couple of years I edited a handful of academic theses as well as a few dreadful novels and memoirs written by people who had succumbed to the now-ubiquitous delusion that anyone can write a book without first learning to write a reasonable sentence. And then I was hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of an elderly man who had been a closeted homosexual in Georgia and Kentucky for all but the last few years of his life.

This project involved several in-person meetings with my client and hundreds of phone interviews. This dear man told me at our first meeting that he was certain his story would be a bestseller. He gave me a two-hour synopsis of his extraordinary life, and I told him what I knew to be true: “If you were famous and your story involved you being intimately involved with other famous people, a book about your life would almost surely find a publisher and be successful. Given that you are not even a tiny bit famous and you don’t know anyone famous means that it is highly unlikely any publisher will be interested in your book, even if we write a masterpiece.”

He was undaunted by that prognosis, took me to lunch at a snazzy restaurant, and we agreed to work together. He was neither a writer nor a gifted storyteller, which meant I had to painstakingly interview him in order to piece together the details of his life and ferret out the most fascinating parts. Over the course of a year I wrote three drafts of his very long autobiography, which he eventually self-published and only a handful of people ever read.

Nearing the end of my labors for him, I was having dreams I knew to be heavily influenced by my client’s life; and when, several months after completing that work, the creative sector of my brain finally individuated from his, I vowed never to ghostwrite anything ever again. Ghostwriting books about tea and handkerchiefs was no great mental challenge for me, but mind melding with another person in order to write the story of their tortured life was a psychic nightmare.

And that is the preface to what I’m about to tell you.

The delightful woman for whom I worked for five years became my dear friend, and it was her habit to call me every day at precisely nine in the morning to discuss the day ahead. She called every day at nine, unfailingly, even if her day did not include working with me. When I would answer my phone, she would invariably say, “Hello. It’s only me.”

For the first few months of these daily calls, I tried to think of thoughtful and/or humorous responses to her unchanging greeting, such as, “You’re hardly an only,” or “Oh you underrate yourself,” or “What a surprise to hear from you,” or “Me who?” Eventually I settled on the simple reply: “Hello, you.” And for some reason, my saying those two words was a never-ending delight to her. Sometimes she would respond to my “Hello, you,” with a hearty laugh, sometimes with a sigh of pleasure, and sometimes she would reply, “Now everything is right with the world.”

I came to greatly appreciate this ritual of mutual acknowledgment; and all these years later, my dear friend gone now for fifteen years, I miss that daily confirmation of our appreciation for each other.

The man for whom I ghostwrote the story of his life had an answering machine message he never changed, the tag line being, “And remember, be good to yourself.”

His kindly suggestion barely registered with me the first several times I called to leave a message, and when his advice did begin to register, I felt annoyed and then resentful—the implication of his suggestion being that I wasn’t being good to myself. How dare he? So I took to holding the phone at arm’s length and pointing the speaker away from me until I heard the All Clear beep, and then I would leave my message.

But one day, whilst in the throes of an emotional crisis, I called him, got his answering machine, and rather than hold the phone away from me, I listened to his message, and when his deep Georgia-accented voice said, “And remember, be good to yourself,” I burst into tears and had a good long cry during which I realized I had once again fallen into my lifelong habit of not being good to myself, and so resolved to break that habit immediately.

And my first act of self-love was to treat myself to a cookie and coffee at Toot Sweets, the little bakery around the corner from my Berkeley digs, where, whilst grazing in that den of pastries and caffeine, I bumped into the stellar singer/songwriter Alexis Harte who I had recently met through a mutual acquaintance.

We chatted about his music and mine, and I heard myself saying I wanted to record some of my songs, something I hadn’t said to anyone in many years. Alexis informed me that he had a little recording studio behind his house where I could do some recording for a reasonable fee—at which moment I recalled my client’s tender “Be good to yourself,” and decided to take Alexis up on his offer, which was the beginning of many wonderful musical adventures.

Person

Monday, March 12th, 2018

sharp

sharp photo by Max Greenstreet

When I taught writing, long ago, one of the most illuminating exercises I gave my charges was to have them write a little something in First Person, and then rewrite that little something in Third Person.

When Todd was in his forties, nearly thirty years ago, he gave writing workshops for adults and oversaw a Creative Writing program for teenagers. One of the more helpful exercises he gave his writers was to have them write a paragraph in First Person, and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.

Then I would ask my writers to change the tense of the paragraph.

Todd is in his forties, a novelist making his living by leading writing workshops and overseeing a Creative Writing Program for teenagers. He especially enjoys asking his writers to write a paragraph in First Person and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.

Then I might ask my writers to turn their paragraph into a fairy tale.

Once upon a time in a kingdom by the sea, there lived a scribbler name of Todd. A goodly fellow in his forties, his hair going every which way, Todd was not having much luck gaining patrons for his verse, so to keep food in the larder he set up shop as a teacher of writing. His teaching method was to deploy clever writing exercises that tricked his students into waxing poetic rather than staying stuck in the mundane. And by golly, his method worked.

Another related exercise was to have my writers write a brief story about someone going somewhere to get something.

Michael wakes up craving coffee and something sweet and doughy. Finding he is out of coffee beans and anything resembling a pastry, he dresses warmly and sets forth on this cold winter day for Muffins Galore, his home away from home, conveniently located just around the corner from his studio apartment.

Entering the deliciously warm little bakery, the display cases brimming with muffins and cookies and scones, the air redolent with the divine admixture of coffee fumes and just-baked bread, Michael forgets he is eighty-three, and for a long delightful moment thinks he is twenty-five again, the pretty young woman behind the counter his age peer, his life just beginning.

“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman—the sound of his raspy voice bringing him abruptly back to the present.

“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.

Story written, I would ask my writers to rewrite the piece using short sentences.

Michael wakes in his lumpy bed. His studio apartment is freezing cold. January he thinks. I hate January. His back aches as usual. With a groan, he arises. “I crave coffee,” he says aloud. Michael lives alone and often talks to himself. “And something sweet and doughy.”

“Damn,” he says, finding no coffee beans in his little refrigerator.

He decides to go to the bakery around the corner from his place. Muffins Galore. He dresses slowly. Getting his socks and shoes on is his greatest challenge. Warmly attired at last, he sets forth into the wintry day.

The blessedly warm little bakery is Michael’s home away from home. He comes here two or three times every day. He sighs contentedly when he sees the display cases brimming with pastries. He breathes deeply of the coffee-scented air. For a short infinity, Michael forgets he is eighty-three. He thinks he is twenty-five again. He imagines the pretty young woman behind the counter is exactly his age. He is suffused with warmth and happiness.

“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman.

Hearing himself speaking, he is brought back to his present reality.

“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.

I was put in mind of these exercises when I recently had a telling experience with the novel I’m writing, tentative title Flagon With the Dragon. I wrote the first hundred and fifty pages in First Person, Past Tense, and while reading those pages for the first time, I felt the narrator loomed so emotionally large that the other characters were insignificant by comparison, which was not what I’m ever after when I write a story or a book.

So I rewrote those pages in Third Person, Present Tense, and the several main characters were transmogrified into emotional equals (though entirely different from each other) and the story took several surprising turns that never would have happened had I stayed with First Person. What fun!

Having slowly made his way through the thick sheaf of pages of his new novel, Todd realizes his First Person narrator looms so psychically gigantic that the other characters in the novel pale by comparison. This inequality of emotional weight, so to speak, is the quantum opposite of what Todd wants for the characters in this novel, which is, or so it seems to Todd, a study in synchronized rebirth.

Whilst taking his morning constitutional, Todd has another realization about his writing. All the novels he ever sold to big mainstream publishers were First Person novels, yet he much prefers the last ten novels he’s written and failed to find publishers for, all of them Third Person novels. He concludes this is a largely irrelevant line of inquiry except for confirming his preference for writing books in Third Person.

Returning to his studio after his invigorating stroll, Todd decides to rewrite what he’s written so far of his new novel in Third Person, Present Tense—tentative title Flagon With the Dragon.

CUT TO: FIVE DAYS LATER

Todd sets down his pen and applauds the unseen forces of the universe for inspiring him to change the person and tense of his new novel so the several main characters are now on equal emotional footing, though wildly different from each other. What fun!

Used copies of Todd’s book of writing exercises, The Writer’s Path, abound online, and Todd has a small trove of new copies for sale. Email inquiries welcome.

Cover Stories

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

idas2-cover-sm

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

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

I recently got a letter from my editor at Counterpoint Press, the daring publishing company bringing out a paperback edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup in early 2016, saying he would soon be sending me samples of their cover ideas. So I held my breath for a few days and recalled my book cover adventures with publishers of my previous books. This helped temper fantasies of a superb cover for Buddha In A Teacup. Indeed, after reviewing my history of book covers, I decided to hope for legible.

Inside Moves. Published in 1978 by Doubleday, my first novel had a basketball subplot and the cover sample featured a small airborne man holding what might have been a basketball, but also might have been a bowling ball. This ambiguous athlete, wearing slacks and a sweater, was floating through the air surrounded by gothic-like letters with enormous serifs. At a glance, the letters seemed to spell INSIDE MOVIES. I expressed my concerns and the ball problem was addressed, but the confusing lettering remained and the book was often shelved in the Hobby section of bookstores.

Forgotten Impulses. Published in 1980 by Simon & Schuster, my second novel was originally entitled Mackie, which remained the title until a month before the book was to be printed. The cover for Mackie featured a spectacular oil painting of a woman wearing a sunhat and kneeling in her vegetable garden, the roots of the plants growing down through layers of soil to entangle the name Mackie. Alas, my editor called at the proverbial last minute to say Sales felt Mackie lacked punch. Could I come up with a meaty sub-title? My brother Steve, who came up with Inside Moves, helped me come up with Forgotten Impulses, and Sales dropped Mackie entirely and went with Forgotten Impulses. The hastily assembled new cover was composed of garish yellow gothic-like letters on a red and blue background.

Not that it mattered much. Simon & Schuster took the book out of print a few days after it was published.

Louie & Women. My third novel was published by Dutton in 1983 and featured a poorly rendered painting of a short buxom naked woman standing at a window. Filling most of the window frame was a painting of a wave—a painting within the painting. On the bed in the foreground of the room lies a pair of large white men’s jockey-style underwear. I strenuously objected and my editor said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to kill the book before it comes out anyway, so…”

“But why?”

“They don’t think it will sell. Sorry.”

Ruby & Spear. My fifth novel was published by Bantam in 1996 and the cover shows a black man going up to dunk a basketball into a hoop with a half-ripped net. This cover was so antithetical to the spirit of the story, I called my editor to express my disappointment and she said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to take the book out of print.”

“But the book hasn’t been published yet?”

“I know,” she said sadly. “Sorry.”

The Writer’s Path, published by 10-Speed in 2000, is a large collection of my original writing exercises. The proposed cover design was hideous and featured misleading subtitles that made the book sound like a touchy feely book for people trying to access their inner artist. The cover was changed from hideous to blah shortly before publication, but the misleading subtitles remained. Sadly, the hideous proposed cover was put up on all the online bookselling sites and remains there to this day. Nevertheless, the book sold ten thousand copies entirely by word-of-mouth. 10-Speed did absolutely nothing to promote the book, and then, in their great wisdom, Sales decided not to do a third printing because, after all, the book was selling itself.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Shortly before the cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived from Counterpoint, my editor wrote to say he had presented the book at a sales meeting and the response was positive. However, the consensus was that my original subtitle—tales of enlightenment—was inadequate because it did not say the short stories are contemporary. So I came up with Contemporary Dharma Tales, which he liked.

Ere long, five cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived via email, and just as I was about to unzip the big file to peruse them, another email came from my editor saying they had selected two finalists from the five and I should ignore those five and look at the two. But I looked at the five, loved one of them and disliked the other four, and then with trembling mouse opened the file containing the finalists. And lo, the one cover I loved was one of the two finalists. My wife and several friends agreed with my choice, I sent in our votes, and…

Will the final cover be the one we want? Will the book have a long and eventful life in print? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I am about to finish writing Ida’s Place Book Four: Renegade, the fourth volume of a fictional epic set in a mythical Here and Now, the covers for the Ida books exactly how I want them because I create them myself with the help of Garth the graphics wizard and Ian the master of the color copier at Zo, the finest (and only) copy shop in Mendocino. Coil bound copies of the Ida books, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available from my web site until that glorious (mythical) day when some prescient publisher presents them to that great big world on the other side of the tracks.

The Ida’s Place books and the original self-published hardback of Buddha In A Teacup are available at Underthetablebooks.com

Why Bother?

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.” Vaclav Havel

Dave Smith’s invaluable Ukiah Blog Live pointed me to a sobering presentation by Guy MacPherson on YouTube entitled Twin Sides of the Fossil Fuel Coin. MacPherson is a prominent conservation biologist who argues clearly and concisely that the only hope for the survival of humans beyond another couple of decades is the complete collapse of our global industrial society right now, today, and even that probably won’t be soon enough to stave off fast-approaching human extinction and the extinction of virtually all living things due to increasingly rapid global warming.

I watched the nearly hour-long presentation alone and then I watched it again a few hours later with Marcia, and then I spent a sleepless night wrestling with the overwhelming evidence that, barring a confluence of major miracles, we are about to experience massive economic and environmental collapse, and when I say “we are about to” I mean any day now, with some very reputable scientists suggesting the earth will be uninhabitable by humans in less than twenty years.

That’s right. Twenty years. Why? Well, in a nutshell, all recent data suggests that the warming oceans and the concurrent melting of arctic ice and the thawing of previously frozen bogs of Siberia, Canada, and Alaska are combining to release so much methane into the atmosphere that earthly temperatures will soon rise to deathly levels and everything that needs oxygen to survive will perish. And long before the oxygen runs out, crop failures and water shortages and catastrophic storms and economic collapse will instigate mass starvation and unimaginable social chaos. There will be no safe havens when there is no oxygen to breathe. We cannot move to a nicer place. This is it.

Meanwhile, I’ve got bills to pay and the men have arrived to install a deer fence. The house needs a new roof, we’re out of carrots, and we better get that package in the mail today or the presents won’t get to my sister before Christmas. Marcia is rehearsing some lovely cello-piano duets with Carolyn in the living room and the greedy bastards have just upped our health insurance twenty-five per cent and Obama is caving into the Republicans on tax reform because he is a Republican, and by the way, Obama doesn’t give a rat’s ass about global warming and the fast-approaching death of everybody’s children including his own.

So how do we proceed when we know the end of everything is so near? We can carry on as usual until something stops us from carrying on, or we can call our friends and say, “Let’s put our heads together and think of what we can do to try to help save the world?” And then we can start doing whatever we figure out to try to do. In either case, according to MacPherson, we’re doomed to a horrific future because we’ve waited too long to make the substantive changes we needed to make to avert global disaster. So why bother to try to improve things if we’ve already missed our chance? Why not just enjoy life as much as possible for however many years we have left and then when things get really icky, commit suicide?

That is probably what some of us will do. And some of us will hoard food and water in hopes of staying alive for a few months longer than we might otherwise live. And most of us will starve to death or be killed by other starving people or…you see why I had trouble sleeping.

In the meantime, I sure am enjoying the music Marcia and Carolyn are making in the living room—such masterful players, and so attuned to each other. What a miracle that humans evolved to where we could compose such gorgeous music and invent such fabulous instruments on which to bring forth such heavenly sounds. As it happens, I’ve been composing some new piano pieces I hope to record in the new year, and I’m looking forward to my novel Inside Moves being reissued in paperback in June with a flattering introduction by the famed Sherman Alexie; and I’m in talks with a publisher about bringing out a new edition of my book of writing exercises The Writer’s Path, and the deer fence guys are making great progress, which bodes well for the big vegetable garden I’m hoping to plant in the spring, and…

Gardens? Books? Music? Writing? What am I talking about? The human experiment is about to end. Forever. No more Shakespeare, no more Mendelssohn, no more Edith Wharton and Tony Bennett and Bill Evans and Eva Cassidy and Vincent Van Gogh. No more duets in the living room, no more walks on the beach, no more talks by the fire, no more snuggling in bed, no more laughter, no more Anderson Valley Advertiser, no more Giants baseball, no more going to the post office to get the mail. And no more garlic and basil and olive oil and almonds, i.e. no more pesto. Damn!

“The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s no good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.” J.R.R Tolkien

In 1971, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, I started an eight-person commune in Santa Cruz with the intention of becoming adept at organizing and operating group living situations that would, among other thing, minimize our use of automobiles and fossil fuels while maximizing regenerative ways of warming our dwellings in winter and growing lots of nourishing organic food. I was stoked (as we used to say) about the prospects of creating social systems that fulfilled the creative, emotional, culinary, and spiritual needs of individuals while enhancing life for the larger group and impacting society beyond the group in highly positive ways. What I discovered was that it was relatively easy to create such systems, but it was almost impossible to get American people, even fairly enlightened American people, to embrace such collective living arrangements for more than a little while.

Following the failure of the various communal systems I was involved with, I was initially at a loss to explain why so many people were so fiercely resistant to communal living (or even just neighborhood sharing systems) that were so much more economical and fun than going it alone. After years of thought, I came to the conclusion that social systems based on sharing rarely succeed in America because Americans (certainly those born after 1950) are entrained from birth to think of themselves first as individuals, secondly as members of a family (a distant second), and then maybe, and only maybe, as members of a larger group. Thus our various experiments failed because successful communal systems require individuals to put the group first, at least some of the time, which is the antithesis of the American way. In short, I was trying to fit round pegs into square holes, and I, too, was one of those round pegs, especially when it came to how quickly I lost patience with my fellow humans.

I mention these communal living experiments because in thinking about the fast-approaching end of life on earth, I think I understand why we have not been willing to change our ways to slow the destruction of the biosphere. We do not inherently feel we are part of anything beyond our separate selves. But even so, had we not invented such horribly destructive industrial systems and cars and trucks and trains that run on gasoline, and had we not so grossly overpopulated the world with our kind, we might be here for another two million years. Yet those destructive systems and inventions were born of our urge for individual power and control over others, and overpopulation is a function of our unwillingness to sacrifice individual desires for the good of the larger group.

So…do you believe Guy MacPherson, that the end of life is really very near? If you do believe him, what are you going to do about it? And if you don’t believe him, why don’t you?

Meanwhile, the deer fence guys are going great guns and Marcia and Carolyn are sounding fabulous and I want so much to believe that the scientists haven’t figured everything out that mother earth might do to cool herself down, and maybe we’ve got more time than they think and maybe my friends’ children and grandchildren won’t perish too soon. I’m sixty-three, so if I die ere long I will at least have had a fairly long life, but…

This just in! A planet with conditions capable of sustaining life is orbiting a star neighboring our sun! The star, called Tau Ceti, is only twelve light years away. Quick! Ready the giant spaceship (and dub her The Ark) and load the sacred vessel with two each of…

But seriously, folks, as the rain drums on our roof, and life goes on a while longer, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem The Buddha’s Last Instruction that begins

“Make of yourself a light,”

said the Buddha,

before he died.

I think of this every morning

as the east begins

to tear off its many clouds

of darkness, to send up the first

signal—a white fan

streaked with pink and violet,

even green.

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.

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.

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