Posts Tagged ‘writers’

Renaissance

Monday, December 18th, 2017

Balance

Balance photo by Marcia Sloane

“If you are depressed, you are too high up in your mind.” Carl Jung

We went to an excellent modern dance concert yesterday afternoon given by the Mendocino Dance Project, an ensemble of four women dancers, all of them residents of these hinterlands. I used to be a devotee of modern dance and attended countless concerts given by famous and not-so-famous troupes in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and at numerous universities. Three of the six pieces we saw danced yesterday, were, for my taste, as fine as anything I’ve ever seen. Right here in a seventy-five-seat theatre in Mendocino.

This inspiring dance concert got me thinking about the tens of thousands of artists and dancers and musicians and writers graduating annually from thousands of academic factories in America, and how most of those young artists will find little opportunity in the so-called real world to do much paid work in the arts they chose to pursue. Because we are an all-or-nothing culture, only a lucky few will even partially support themselves through their creative endeavors.

And that got me thinking about the annual defense budget of the United States, which is a trillion dollars a year, and the annual corporate tax breaks amounting to hundreds of billions, and the annual hundreds of billions we give to insurance companies to cover possible medical expenses—multiple trillions of dollars every year handed over to a relatively small number of people who already have most of everything, in exchange for almost nothing.

This enumeration of wasted trillions led me to imagine those trillions being spent on things human societies actually need, and after our energy system was infused with sufficient funds to feed the power grids exclusively with eco-friendly renewables, and our local, state, and national transit systems were made flawless and comprehensive and non-polluting, and our healthcare system was made a thousand times better and entirely free, and our educational system was made truly fantastic and also free, we would still have trillions of dollars to spend. Then, among other things, young people aspiring to be artists could be supported in practicing their art without having to be incredibly lucky.

But we probably won’t be redirecting those trillions any time soon, there will probably be no national renaissance, and we will carry on as we do, delighting in the very occasional excellent original dance or art or music or writing we stumble upon while making our way through the vast morass of contemporary culture.

Of course, one person’s morass is another person’s Valhalla, and every generation of artists in a society with no history and no artistic continuity, as ours is becoming, must reinvent their artistic wheels, so to speak. Which explains why so many contemporary books and plays and movies, and so much contemporary art and music seem so youthful to me, and by youthful I mean unrefined, unpracticed, imitative, shallow, and unknowing of what generations of preceding artists practiced and refined and deepened.

For several years I oversaw the work of gifted teenaged writers, and their promise was what was most exciting to me. I did not expect refined art from them, though sometimes a masterwork would pop out of the teenaged ferment. And that is what contemporary culture reminds me of—people with little knowledge or training trying to learn the basics of their chosen means of expression while on the job.

Imagine a person walking onto a stage in front of a large audience and saying, “Hi. Thanks for coming. I’m a mime and a dancer, or I want to be. I’ve hardly done any miming or dancing in my life, but I’ve worked up a little something, kind of, and now I’m gonna try some stuff out and see what happens. Okay, start the music. Hope you enjoy this. Let’s see, what should I do first?”

That’s what contemporary culture feels like to me much of the time; and this amateur approach does not make for strong and believable dialogue in plays and movies, nor produce much masterfully finished art or music or literature. Nor does the amateur approach fill the movie studios and publishing houses and theatre companies and recording companies with people who have knowledge or understanding of what happened artistically ten years ago, let alone what transpired fifty and a hundred years ago.

What does this have to do with our current government? Everything. I have no doubt that had a thousand more original and masterfully crafted books been published in the last fifty years, and two hundred more compelling beautifully written plays been produced in those same fifty years, and five thousand more fabulous unknown artists been more widely known, we would have an entirely different bunch of people running our government. They would be people infused with the genius of their society, which would, by definition, speak to the needs of the society. Our elected representatives would have senses of humor and irony. They would not be misogynists and racists. They would be learned and thoughtful, and they would all be incredibly compassionate and generous.

Furthermore, I think (here’s a conspiracy theory for you) that the overlords are keenly aware of the transformative power of excellent original art—they last saw that power on massive display for a brief window of time known as the Sixties (circa 1963-1975)—and have made sure since then to never allow such unpredictably transformative stuff to spread beyond an isolated watershed or two because that kind of Creative Power To Change Things messes with their control of society.

I’m referring to the ineffable power of original art to radically change people’s ways of thinking and feeling about the world.

The neato thing about humans is that we are inherently inventive and creative, and left to our own devices we will invent and create incredibly neato things, especially when we are surrounded by other people freely inventing and creating neato things that help show us the way and inspire us. Creativity is infectious.

That dance concert filled me with hope, fleeting perhaps, but fleeting is all we really have. So as I settle down to work on my novel today, I am filled with joy imagining people reading my book and having all sorts of unexpected feelings and ideas and excitement.

Taste

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Thurber Django

Thurber Django photo by David Jouris

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

“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly, too.” Rodney Dangerfield

Years before the dawn of tweeting and texting, I ran a summer writing program for high school kids who wanted to become professional writers. The teachers I hired were accomplished, open-minded, inspiring writers who could clearly communicate their ideas about the craft of writing. My one piece of advice for my teachers was that they avoid saying anything construable as dislike of a student’s writing, and I cautioned them about making even mild editing suggestions during the first week of the month-long intensive lest our neophytes experience such suggestions as disapproval.

I also asked my teachers to remind our writers that the opinions of others about their writing, even the opinions of professional writers, are highly subjective and should be taken as such. The response of a reader to a story or poem often says far more about the reader than it does about the writer, and one person’s negative response to a story doesn’t make the story bad, just as one person’s positive response doesn’t make the story good.

To illustrate this point, I told my young charges about how the advent of photocopy machines changed my understanding of taste and helped me overcome the scourge of self-doubt. Prior to the coming of copy shops in the early 1970’s, making multiple copies of a manuscript necessitated the time-consuming use of a five-layer sandwich of carbon paper and typing paper rolled into the typewriter on which the manuscript would be typed, with typos requiring fixes with white-out on the original copy and a razor blade on the carbon copies, with the end result being the barely adequate original and two smeary copies no publisher would accept. Thus most of my early stories existed as single copies, and if the first person to read a story of mine didn’t like it, my insecurity would be inflamed and I might never show the story to anyone else.

Then one day, wanting to create a special gift for my best friend’s wedding, I fell into a trance and wrote a novella and a collection of short stories entitled What Shall The Monster Sing? and other stories. (That title is a line from a poem by Lawrence Durrell.) Completing my opus coincident with the opening of the first photocopy shop in Santa Cruz, I splurged and had ten bound copies made, nine of which I distributed to friends and fellow artists, one I kept safe for the newlyweds.

A week later, a poet of local renown came to the boarding house where I lived, stood in the doorway of my room and declared What Shall The Monster Sing? a disaster and most of the accompanying stories dreadful, though he did allow that three of the stories were gems.

Before I succumbed to despair, a fellow boarder shouted, “Phone for you, Todd!” and I ran down the hall to the pay phone.

What Shall The Monster Sing? is genius!” shouted a playwright calling from Los Angeles. “What a great film it would make. And Carli’s and Ophelia…magnificent!”

Returning to my room buoyed by the playwright’s praise, I found the poet arguing with a locally beloved chanteuse who was madly in love with Monster, as she so familiarly called my novella, and whose favorites of my short stories were the least favorites of the poet, and vice-versa. As I listened to these artists passionately praising and damning my writing, I had a revelation. Yes, everyone knows, intellectually, that taste is subjective. But to experience such extremes of taste from three intelligent and creative people in the span of twenty minutes was to have the revelation burned into my consciousness, which burning serves me well to this day.

 “A taste for irony has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor, for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.” Jessamyn West

My essays about my past, my family, my personal life and my creative life occasionally elicit comments from readers, some thoughtful and illuminating, some praiseful, and some from people who insist I am a very bad writer and a self-pitying self-aggrandizing narcissist who would do the world a huge favor by ceasing to write.

My great grandfather, an orthodox Jewish cantor, believed gossiping to be a variation on the sin of speaking ill of others and he steadfastly refused to gossip. Nevertheless, his friends and family persisted in asking him his opinion about what So-And-So did to You-Know-Who, to which he would reply, “There are all kinds of different kinds of people.”

“The fact is we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much.” E.M. Forster

One of my favorite movies is composed of three movies—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, directed by Linklater and starring Hawke and Delpy, the movies were filmed nine years apart and set nine years apart, too. Each film is composed of mountains of dialogue between Delpy and Hawke as they wander around Vienna, Paris and Greece. I love their torrents of dialogue, though many people I know find such verbosity intolerable. For my taste, the individual films are excellent, their totality a masterwork.

In Before Midnight there is a scene near the beginning of the film in which the characters portrayed by Hawke and Delpy sit at a big table in Greece with three other European couples talking frankly about life and death and relationships. What I so enjoy about this scene is the real-seeming depiction of people from widely varying backgrounds, young, old and middle-aged, having a lively discussion full of insights and anecdotes and disagreement, with disagreement not only perfectly okay with everybody at the table, but appreciated as the spice of a conversation in which no one is attached to being right. How deliciously un-American! 

Shameless Self-Promotion

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

wildgardener2

Wild Gardener Black painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world—unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.” e.e. cummings

In those long ago days when I was invited to read from my novels in bookstores and libraries, and for college audiences and writers groups, I was frequently asked if I had any helpful advice for people who wanted to become writers and make their livings from writing. This was before the advent of personal computers and digital everything, before people began writing with their thumbs on phones, and before a new myth conquered the collective psyche. That new myth goes something like this: Writing novels is easy. Anyone can write a novel without any practice and without ever having written a short story or even a viable paragraph. Just do it! And then publish your novel online and…voila!

Myths take hold and become established because they reflect a strong collective belief or wish. The myth that writing a novel is easy reflects a strong collective desire for everything to be easy. The suggestion by e.e. cummings that even just beginning to master the art of writing a good poem may take many years of practice, is the quantum opposite of the new myth about how easy it is to write poetry and fiction. After all, poems are just stacks of lines of words, right? So say today’s college academics and snake oil merchants making millions running the thousands of Creative Writing MFA programs now extant in America, programs wherein the only requirement for getting an MFA is enough money to pay the exorbitant tuition.

How hard can stacking lines of words be, especially now that the latest vogue in academic poetics is for those stacks of lines of words to not make the least bit of sense—literal, symbolic, or otherwise. Indeed, making sense is now considered a bad thing by academic poetry professors. Logic and meaning and connectivity are clearly signs of enslavement to something or other and must be avoided at all costs. Strike out any combination of words that might be construed to possibly make some sort of sense. Embrace the random whatever. Okay! Let’s get stacking.

Contrast the new anybody-can-do-anything-with-ease myth with cummings suggesting, “If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.” Ten or fifteen years of hard work? Nobody gonna buy that app.

In any case, way back when I was presenting my published works to a public still abiding by the old myth that it takes years of practice and persistence to possibly succeed as a writer or an artist, I was forever being asked for advice about how to proceed on the artist’s path. After several bumbling attempts to give helpful answers, I settled on the following. “I have two words of advice for anyone who wants to be a writer or an artist in our society, and those two words are low overhead. The less time you must spend making money to pay for rent and food, the more time you will have, as cummings put it, to fight and work and feel your way to the beginnings of mastery.”

Ah but mastery of the art form is only part of the struggle if an artist hopes to make money from his or her creations. And it is on this trying-to-make-money-from-art leg of the artist’s journey when most artists give up their quests, for this is the part of the process largely controlled by others. This is the part of the journey when the artist learns the painful truth that making money from art in America has little or nothing to do with art and everything to do with selling one’s self.

How ironic! Having worked with hundreds of writers as a teacher and editor, and having known hundreds of artists, I feel confident in saying that the vast majority of writers and artists in our society are introverts, many of them extremely introverted and painfully shy. Yet nearly all the successful artists and writers in America, as measured by the amount of money made from their creations, are extroverts. Indeed, all the most commercially successful of my former students and clients are minimally talented, while none of the several brilliant writers I worked with has had any commercial success to speak of.

This was not always the case. American literature and music and art prior to the advent of television and mass media and the corporate takeover of culture, was peopled with many painfully shy introverts represented by savvy extroverted agents and publishers who recognized the value of those oddballs’ genius.

So what? What’s wrong with most of today’s popular authors being beautiful and handsome and sexy and coming off well on talk shows and infomercials? Sure their books aren’t very good, but some of the books are kind of okay. Aren’t they? And besides, who cares about making money from art now that anybody can publish his or her book online and no one will stop him or her. That’s great, isn’t it? Artistic freedom from the tyranny of corporate lap dogs. Power to the people. A global creative renaissance via YouTube and podcasts and cyber sharing! Right on!

Yes! Nowadays anyone can publish anything and record anything and draw anything and say anything and film anything and offer those anythings to the world. And I’ve studied many of the ways people do that kind of sharing and I think that’s…yeah, exactly. Okay. But because I am a painfully shy introverted techno doofus detached from all cyber social network sites, as well as being an old-fashioned diehard three-dimensionalite, and because shameless self-promotion is a necessity for the cottage-industry artist of our time to eke out a living amidst the new electronic digital smartphone e-everything reality, I offer the following for you to reject or embrace or ignore or respond to.

Shameless Self-Promotion Presents

Todd’s New Stuff For You and To Give As Gifts

Helloooo out there wherever you are. I’ve got two new creations for you to possibly buy along with lots of somewhat older goodies you may wish to consider buying. If you’ve never bought anything of mine, that’s okay. Please don’t let that stop you from doing something you’ve never done before. I hope you’ll buy multiple things from me and in so doing support the arts and stir the synergetic pot and be happily surprised at how good my books and music are. This my hope.

I just got my shipment of Incongroovity, my fourth piano-centric CD, and I’m selling this entrancing album for a mere ten bucks. I still call them albums and array the tracks to be listened to as an album, though the new norm of perception is random individual track downloads, and you can do the download thing with Incongroovity, too, from iTunes and CD Baby etc. But you might love the original art I made to package the disc. Talk about a neato stocking stuffer. This is it. Nine groovacious piano instrumentals, one song Real Good Joe (a stirring tune about coffee and love) and two evocative and sensual poems set to piano music.

And I just picked up my second batch of my novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror from Zo, Mendocino’s premiere copy shop. Illustrated by the author, each handsome comb-bound copy is individually and extravagantly signed and numbered by the author. Oasis Tales of the Conjuror is the story of Anza, a clairvoyant, and his family and friends who live in a walled oasis in a time of relative peace following an era of apocalyptic war and famine. The tiny paradise is home to artisan farmers and is remarkably self-sustaining. Allied to a great city, the oasis is on the brink of new disaster as its population begins to outstrip its food supply. Through a series of connected tales, Anza and the people of the oasis must overcome escalating challenges to their continuance, which they do in creative and harmonious ways. The stories are humorous, dramatic, and mysterious, driven by the imperatives of community, love, and survival. Only seventeen (17) bucks a copy, you may want to get several because…why not? To further whet your appetite, you can read the first three chapters of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror at Todd’s web site UnderTheTableBooks.com.

At this same web site you can listen gratis to big chunks of audio versions of Todd’s novels and short stories, sample music from Todd’s music CDs, peruse his art, and buy books and cards and music with a credit card or email Todd to arrange to pay with check or cash. And no matter how many of these wonderful creations you buy, shipping is only five bucks. Such a deal!

So there it is, my shameless self-promotion for 2013—my response to the new digital age. I may be out of step, out of time, out of gas, and out to lunch, but as I climbed the steep hill from the village yesterday, my knapsack full of the next twenty copies of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, I felt some invisible power lift my pack so the load did not weigh too heavily upon me. And as I began to flag on the home stretch and to doubt the wisdom of my seemingly retrograde strategy, there came a delicious tail wind that propelled me onward.

Young Pot Moms

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

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

“Youth is wasted on the young.” George Bernard Shaw

When I and my middle-aged and elderly Mendocino Elk Albion Fort Bragg peers convene, talk often turns to the paucity of younger people coming along to fill the local ranks of actors and musicians and writers and artists and activists. The excellent Symphony of the Redwoods plays to audiences of mostly white-haired elders and is itself fast becoming an ensemble of elders, ditto the local theater companies, ditto the legions of Mendocino artists and social activists. People under fifty in audiences and at art openings hereabouts stand out as rare youngsters; and the question is frequently asked with touching plaintiveness, “Will it all end with us?”

“The supply of good women far exceeds that of the men who deserve them.” Robert Graves

A few days ago I was waiting my turn at the one and only cash dispensing machine in the picturesque and economically distressed village of Mendocino, my home town, and I couldn’t help noticing that the woman using the machine was young (under forty), expensively dressed, and pushing the appropriate buttons with an ambitious energy that made me tired.

When it was my turn to stand before the cash dispensary, I noticed that the young woman had declined to take her receipt, which hung like a punch line from the slot of the robot. Being a hopeless snoop, I took possession of the little piece of paper, affixed my reading glasses, and imbibed the data. Did my eyes deceive me? No. This young woman had a cash balance in her Savings Bank of Mendocino checking account of…are you sitting down?…377,789 dollars.

In a panic—dollar amounts over four figures terrify me—I turned to see if her highness was still in sight, and there she was climbing into a brand new midnight blue six-wheel pickup truck the size of a small house, her seven-year-old companion, a movie-star pretty girl, strapped into the passenger seat.

“Did you want this?” I cried, wildly waving the receipt.

She of great wealth slowly shook her head and smiled slyly as if to say, “That’s nothing. You should see the diamonds in my safety deposit box.”

Staggered by my encounter with this local femme Croesus, I wandered toward Corners of the Mouth hoping to find my eensy teensy rusty old pickup parked there, and further hoping a little overpriced chocolate would calm me down. My truck was not there, but I didn’t panic. I only park in one of four places when I drive into the village, so I was confident I would eventually find my truck: somewhere near the Presbyterian church or adjacent to the vacant lot with the towering eucalypti where I gather kindling or in front of Zo, the greatest little copy shop in town (the only one, actually, and not open on weekends.)

In Corners, the cozy former church, I came upon three young (under forty) women, each in jeans and sweatshirt, each possessed of one to three exuberant latter day hippie children. These lovely gals were gathered near the shelves of fabulous fruit comparing notes on diet, marriage, motherhood, and who knows what. Beyond this trio of young moms, and partially blocking my access to the chocolate bars, were two of the aforementioned latter day hippie children, a very cute snot-nosed four-year-old redheaded girl wearing a bright blue dress, and an equally cute roly-poly snot-nosed five-year-old blond boy wearing black coveralls and red running shoes.

The boy, I couldn’t help but overhear, was trying to convince the girl to secure some candy for him because his mother wouldn’t buy candy for him, but the girl’s mother would buy the candy because, according to the boy, “Your mom let’s you have anything you want, and my mom won’t,” which, the boy indignantly pointed out, was not fair.

“But my mom will know it’s for you,” said the girl so loudly that everyone in the store could hear her, “because I don’t like that kind.”

I reached over their innocent little heads and secured a chunk of 85% pure chocolate bliss flown around the globe from England, and feeling only slightly immoral to be supporting the highly unecological international trafficking of a gateway drug (chocolate is definitely a gateway drug, don’t you think?) I headed for the checkout counter where two of the aforementioned young moms were purchasing great mounds of nutritious goodies.

Remember, I was still reeling from my encounter with she of the massive blue truck who had enough money in her checking account for my wife and I to live luxuriously (by our Spartan standards) for the rest of our lives, should we live so long, when Young Mom #1 took from the front pocket of her form-fitting fashionably faded blue jeans a wad of hundred-dollar bills that would have made a mafia chieftain proud, and peeled off three bills to pay for six bulging bags of vittles.

The clerk didn’t bat an eye, ceremoniously held each bill up to some sort of validating light, and made small change.

Meanwhile, Young Mom #2 had stepped up to the other checkout counter and proceeded to pay for her several sacks of groceries from a vast collection of fifty-dollar bills which she pulled from her pockets like a comedic magician pulling so many handkerchiefs from her coat that it seemed impossible she could have crammed so much stuff into such a small space.

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” Bo Derek

Further frazzled by the sight of so much filthy lucre, I stumbled to the post office to buy stamps and see if Sheila wanted to talk a little Giants baseball. Ahead of me at the counter stood a beautiful young (under forty) mom with one of her cute little kids sitting on the counter picking his nose, her other slightly larger cute little kid standing on the floor, embracing his mother’s leg while sucking his thumb. The beautiful young mom placed a pile of brand new hundred-dollar bills on the counter, a pile as thick as a five-hundred-page novel, and proceeded to buy a dozen money orders, each order (I couldn’t help but overhear) for many thousands of dollars, and each order duly noted in a leather-bound notebook.

The thumb-sucking lad clinging to his mother’s leg looked up at me and I made a funny face at him. He removed his thumb and half-imitated my funny face. So I made another funny face. He laughed and patted his mother’s leg. “Mama,” he gurgled. “He funny.”

“Not now Jacarandaji,” she said, keeping her focus on money matters. “We’ll go to Frankie’s in just a little while.”

Jacarandaji smiled at me, daring me to make another funny face, which I did. Jacarandaji laughed uproariously, which caused his nose-picking brother to stop picking and ask, “Why you laughing?”

“He funny,” said Jacarandaji, pointing at me.

At which moment, the beautiful young mom turned to me, smiled sweetly (ironically?) and said, “You want’em? You can have’em.” And then she gave each of her boys a hug, saying, “Just kidding. Mama’s only kidding.”

“Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic.” Norman Cousins

Who are these young (under forty) moms? They are pot moms, their wealth accrued from the quasi-legal and/or illegal growing of marijuana and the almost surely illegal sale of their crop to feed the insatiable appetite for dope that defines a robust sector of the collective American psyche. Many of these moms have husbands. Many of these moms have college degrees. And all of these moms have decided that it makes much more emotional and economic sense to grow and sell pot than to work at some meaningless low-paying job.

And let them grow pot, say I, so long as they don’t carry guns and shoot at people, and so long as they don’t have dangerous crop-guarding dogs that might escape and attack me or my friends as we’re riding by on our bicycles or walking by minding our own business. What I care about is this: will their children grow up to fill the ranks of the aging musicians and actors and artists and writers and activists who define the culture of our far-flung enclave? Or will those snot-nosed cuties grow up spoiled and arrogant and not much good for anything except growing dope, which will almost surely be legal by the time they’re old enough to join those aforementioned ranks, so then what will they do to make easy money?

Hear me, ye young pot moms. The lives you are leading and this place where you are leading those lives are rare and precious beyond measure. Thus it is your sacred duty to strictly limit the garbage your children watch on television and on computers. It is your sacred duty to give your children plenty of Mendelssohn and Stevie Wonder and Mozart and Joni Mitchell and Brahms and Cole Porter and Eva Cassidy and Richard Rogers and Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles and Nina Simone and Gershwin, to name a few. And beyond Harry Potter and the corporate guck that passes for children’s literature, at least give them Twain and Steinbeck and Kipling. Beyond today’s execrable animated movie propaganda, give them O’Keefe and Chagall and Picasso and Ver Meer and Monet and Van Gogh. Use your pot money to give your children not what the corporate monsters want to force them to want, but great art that will engender in them the feeling and the knowing that they were born into this life and into their bodies to do something wonderful and special and good.

Yay verily, I say unto you young pot moms, every last one of you beautiful and smart and good women, your children, and you, too, have come unto this bucolic place far from the madding crowd so they and you will have the chance to fully blossom. Feed your family well. Yes. Excellent organic food is good for their bodies, but do not neglect their precious minds and their generous hearts, for we oldsters desperately need them to fill our ranks when we are gone.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Poets and Artists

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

(This article appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 2011)

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

With all due respect to the organization known as Poets & Writers, I have always felt that if there’s no poetry in the writing, who needs it? Oh, I suppose a Chemistry textbook needn’t be rife with lovely language, but in the best of worlds all writing would be touched by the writer’s experience of having read and appreciated great poetry and beautifully crafted prose.

I sold my first short story for actual dollars when I was twenty-five. The year was 1974 and the buyer was Cosmopolitan magazine. This was at the very end of the era when that historic magazine along with a few dozen other large-circulation magazines in America still published fiction. Eventually I would sell stories to teen magazines and men’s magazines, along with several more to Cosmo, as my agent called that trashy mag, but I assure you I wrote all my stories with The New Yorker and Esquire in mind. Alas, those lofty literary realms were off limits to the unwashed likes of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I am wont to do.

That first story I sold was about a black female prizefighter who, through a series of bizarre events, gets a shot at fighting a top-ranked male welterweight boxer. Entitled Willow, the sale of this highly improbable tale allowed me to live for more than a year without having to resort to other means of employment. (They paid me a thousand dollars and my monthly nut for food and shelter was sixty bucks.) Freed from physical labor, I managed to complete two novels, a play, and a dozen short stories before my money ran out.

The rough pattern of my life since dropping out of college in 1969 had been to work for a time, save a few hundred dollars, take a few months off to write, go back to work, take a few months off to write, and so forth. I rented rooms in houses inhabited by several other people, or I would rent cheap garrets, and I ate hippie gruel and never dined out, so my overhead was extremely low. I did make my living as a gigging guitarist singer for a couple years, but that lifestyle left me with little energy or inspiration to write, so I went back to digging ditches. I persevered in this way until I was twenty-seven and came to a defining junction in my life: I decided to stop writing.

Why? My sale of a story to Cosmopolitan had failed to spawn further sales, and I knew if I worked full-time as a landscaper for a year I could make a down payment on a little house in Medford, Oregon, learn to operate a backhoe, get hitched, go fishing, and liberate my marvelous literary agent—the likes of whom will never be seen again on this planet—from trying to sell my unsaleable stuff. I had been writing my heart out since I was a young teen, and that writer’s heart was by then so badly bruised by continuous rejection that I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

For those first few weeks of not writing, I felt so deeply relieved I mistook my relief for happiness. When I came home from a hard day of planting trees and digging ditches, I would luxuriate in a hot bath and sigh with what I imagined was contentment that I was finally over my obsession. Why had I been so driven to share my stories with the world? What difference did it make? The world was full of books and stories. I didn’t need to add to the pile. The money was piling up in my savings account, I had time to socialize, date, goof around, live!

Then my boss got a state contract to landscape a freeway overpass, which meant my wage for the next two months would leap from five to ten dollars an hour! I would make what amounted to, in my world, a fortune! I contacted a realtor. Houses in Medford were dirt cheap in those days. Honey! Life was opening up. I was playing music again. I’d get a house, start a band, have fun on weekends, and keep making those steady dollars.

Then one Saturday morning, a few months after I’d hung up my writing spurs, I woke to a story telling just enough of itself to entice me to start writing the story down and… “No way,” I said to the unseen muse. “I’m over you, babe. I’m going fishing with Fred and then I’m going dancing with Lola and if I know Lola, and I do, then…”

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. The fish weren’t biting, so I came home, got out paper and pen and…the phone rang.

“Where are you, boyfriend?”

“Lola?”

“You did say dinner and dancing, didn’t you? Well, Lola’s stomach is growling, and Lola’s clock says seven-fifteen.”

I’d been writing for seven hours without having the slightest sense of time passing. The table was piled with pages covered with writing. My writing.

I showered and shaved and spent some sort of an evening with Lola, but the sad truth was that all I could think about was that story. For though I only had a vague idea of what I’d written down, I knew it was, if you will forgive the cliché, why I was alive.

I came home the next morning (thank you, Lola, wherever you are), gathered up the pages and settled down to read them. And as I read, I realized that I couldn’t give up writing, and that I wasn’t going to buy a house and learn to operate a backhoe. No. I was going to take my fortune and go to New York and finally meet my literary agent who had worked her butt off for me for six years with only one story sold to show for her Herculean effort; and I would meet writers and artists and editors and directors and…see what I could see.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

I subscribe to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that the universe is a mind-bogglingly intelligent and comprehensively and instantaneously reactive entity, and that she constantly and exquisitely responds with some sort of action to any and every action we take or don’t take.

So…on the Monday following my decision not to give up writing, my agent calls for the first time in six months to say she’s sold another of my stories, this one to Seventeen magazine (a whimsical tale entitled The Swami and the Surfer) and that the purchasing editor also wanted to commission me to write a Christmas story for them. I then described to my agent the story that had come to me on Saturday and she said with her delectable Georgia accent, “Dahlin’, I think Cosmo will snap that one right up.” And they did.

So I finished my two months of high-paying freeway landscaping and went off to the Big Apple to schmooze with my agent and, most importantly, to meet other writers as gone to their art as I. An old friend who was working as a Broadway rehearsal pianist put me up in his tiny apartment in an iffy part of Manhattan, and I spent a month there questing for others of my kind. And though I managed to meet dozens of writers, I didn’t meet a single one who was much interested in writing. They were all totally obsessed with money and trying to connect with people in power; everything else was irrelevant to them.

My friend the rehearsal pianist was also vocal coach to several working actors and so could get us into any play on or off Broadway absolutely free. Thus the main upshot of my stay in Manhattan was that I was badly bitten by the theater bug. Upon my return to Oregon, I felt I had to live in a city brimming with theater companies, so I moved to Seattle and spent the last of my fortune (eleven months) writing plays and trying to get someone, anyone, interested in them. Failing there, and down to my last few dollars, I contacted my former employer in Oregon and asked if he would take me back on his landscaping crew. He said he would be glad to.

And the very next day my agent called to say she had sold my first novel, Inside Moves, to Doubleday, for an advance of…drum roll, please…1500 dollars, minus her 10% commission. To make a very long story short, that novel eventually brought me a good deal of money from a big paperback sale and a movie sale that opened up a bloody Hollywood chapter of my life. But I digress.

So…in 1980 I moved to Sacramento and bought the only house I’ve ever owned and plowed through the Inside Moves money in a few short years of profligate waste and bad judgment. But here’s where I’m going with this. In Sacramento, I met the late great poet Quinton Duval, and through Q I met the visionary poet D.R.Wagner, and through D.R. I met the quietly awesome poet Ann Menebroker. Now aside from being unique and wonderfully eccentric artists, these three are what Kerouac called totally gone cats—gone to their poetry in the same way I get gone to my stories and plays—not for money, because there is no money in poetry, but because their poems come to them and won’t leave them alone until they write those poems down. Why do the poems come to them? Because the poems know that these people have surrendered entirely to why they were born.

A note to those who stuck up your noses and sniffed at my mention of Cosmopolitan magazine: Thirty years ago, at the height of the hullabaloo about my novel being made into a movie, I’m being interviewed on the radio and I mention I sold my first story to Cosmopolitan. The host snickers and says something like, “More and more cleavage every week. Yuck yuck.” Then he takes calls from listeners, and this gal with a fabulous Boston accent calls in and says, “I noted your contempt for Cosmopolitan, but let us never forget that Ernest Hemmingway published his first story therein as well.”

I’m guessing she was a poet.

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)

Writing the Sequel to Under the Table Books

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Excerpt From the Sequel to Under the Table Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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