Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Do I Know You?

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

243moondoor

moon door diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Some months ago I began writing a new novel. I’ve written dozens of novels in my life, published a handful of them, and when I am not writing a story or a novel or a play, I tend to feel somewhat ungrounded. I am something of a social recluse, and socializing with the characters populating my fiction is the main kind of socializing I do. This has been true for more than fifty years now; and though I do not recommend writing fiction as a substitute for forging friendships, that is what I unwittingly chose to do and am now habituated to.

As it happens, I do not “think up” my characters, nor do I devise a plot before beginning to write a story, nor do I have any idea what I might write from one sentence to the next. Thus the characters who materialize in my unfolding works are strangers to me when they first arrive, and a large part of what holds my interest in the process of writing a long work of fiction—a process that may require thousands of hours of work—is getting to know these strangers and discovering why they have chosen to come live with me.

The central character of the novel I’m currently writing—and I didn’t know she was the central character until a few days ago and a couple hundred pages into the book—is a fifty-two-year-old French woman who is writing a book about another of the characters in the book—a man I thought was the main character after I’d written a hundred pages or so. He is obviously an important character, but the French woman has emerged as the person on whom everything in this book depends.

When I hear this woman speaking to other characters in the book, it is as if she is in the room with me—her accent and way of constructing sentences definitely French. Until the last few chapters I wasn’t sure I liked her and I was somewhat suspicious of her motives vis-à-vis the other characters, but I like her now despite her many flaws. No, I like her because of her flaws, which are not really flaws but aspects of her personality that troubled me at first and now seem to be clues to who she is.

I rarely write or speak about my writing because I am uncomfortable with writers and artists holding forth about their creative processes. So why am I writing about the novel I’m writing? Because I thought you’d find what’s going on interesting.

If that is so, why am I uncomfortable with other writers and artists talking about their creative processes? Because many of the artists and writers I’ve heard talking about their art and their writing make generalizations about creativity based solely on their personal experiences. This is not only wrong thinking, as the Buddhists would say, but makes those writers and artists sound, to me, like pompous academic dimwits.

Indeed, I have several times gone from liking the work of a particular writer to despising the very thought of them and their books after hearing them make pronouncements beginning with, “All writers…” or “Every writer…” or “Most artists…” If you are a writer or an artist, please don’t do that.

So this morning I woke to a continuation of the scene I was writing last night involving my French woman. She has just returned to her hotel room with two dresses she bought in the previous chapter. She tries on both dresses, studies herself in the mirror, and to my surprise decides not to wear either dress to the party she is going to, but instead wears a long-sleeved shirt and trousers.

When she was in the dress shop having a fascinating time buying the dresses and thinking about how she wanted to present herself at the party, I was certain she was going to wear one of these dresses to the party, and that her wearing a dress was going to have a significant impact on some of the other characters attending the party. But that is apparently not going to happen now. Or maybe it is. Or maybe she won’t even get to the party. Or maybe she will get to the party and change her mind and go back to the hotel and change into one of the dresses. But maybe when she arrives back at the hotel with the intention of putting on one of the dresses, she will find the hotel on fire.

These scenarios, I remind myself, spring from trying to imagine what might happen; and that kind of guessing/inventing never works well for me when I’m writing fiction. Not knowing is the state that works best for me—allowing a less conscious part of me to run the show while the pen is moving on the paper.

Here is a passage from the first draft of The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

Andrea undresses in a large well-lit dressing room appointed with a small sofa and two mirrors. She puts on the yellow dress, looks at her reflection, and feels terribly feminine—a feeling that fills her with anxiety.

Teresa is waiting for her outside the dressing room and leads her to a large room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two of the four walls—Serafina and Margarita seated in the center of the room on a black leather sofa, the fat little dog sprawled between them—one wall of the room dominated by a large window looking out at a burbling fountain on a brick terrace overhung by a Japanese maple with green leaves turning yellow.

“I like this dress on you,” says Serafina, sounding surprised. “It hangs very well on you and this shade of yellow does not fight with the red in your hair. You have good shoulders. We can make this fit you perfectly, but perhaps you will humor me and try on a dark green dress we just finish making. A little more…daring. You know?”

Actual Abstract

Monday, August 29th, 2016

shallwedance

Shall We Dance? painting by Todd

“The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” Iris Murdoch

An announcement came in the mail, and by mail I mean those actual paper things we find in our mailboxes. The announcement was from an old friend, Dan Nadaner, who is having a show of his paintings at an art gallery in Los Angeles, the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. Happily, I am still on Dan’s mailing list.

I’ve known Dan since we were in junior high school together at La Entrada in Menlo Park fifty-five years ago and at Woodside High thereafter. And though we have had little contact for many years, I consider him a present-tense friend. I was thrilled to get this actual announcement from him in the actual mail so I could hold it in my hands and carry it outside and sit in the garden and look at the little picture of his painting, turning it this way and that while thinking of Dan and remembering some of our shared experiences.

Thinking about Dan reminded me of my friend Mark Russell who lives in Nova Scotia. He and I became friends at La Entrada at the same time I got to know Dan, and because I am still in touch with Mark, I thought he might like to see the announcement of Dan’s show in Los Angeles. He would remember Dan and enjoy knowing our old friend grew up to be a successful artist.

For a moment I thought about asking Marcia to take a photograph of the announcement to send via email to Mark, but then I considered the richness of my experience of thinking about Dan with the actual announcement in my hand, so I decided to send the actual announcement in an envelope to Mark in Canada.

“We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment. Maybe that’s what writing is all about…not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” Paul Auster

Then I decided to write a letter to accompany Dan’s announcement and bring Mark up to date on the little I know about Dan’s life. So I found a card I like—a fanciful bird flirting with a flower—and handwrote a letter to Mark.

Writing longhand activates our brains in much different ways than does writing on a keyboard and watching letters and words appear on a screen. As I wrote to Mark about Dan, I was reminded of how very important Dan was to me at several crucial points in my life. I had forgotten many of our shared experiences, but writing to Mark awoke dozens of vivid memories of Dan.

When I finished writing the letter to Mark, I placed it in an envelope, got out my address book, and hunted for Mark’s address. And while writing his address on the envelope, an address that includes the descriptor “Head of St. Margaret’s Bay”, I had a vision of Mark driving a tractor on his farm overlooking that gorgeous bay; and the vision dissolved into memories of shooting hoops and throwing a football and going on bicycling adventures with Mark when we were boys.

“The stories that you tell about your past shape your future.” Eric Ransdell

Now we are all sixty-seven, Mark and Dan and I. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years and I haven’t seen Dan in twenty. But this experience of spending time with Dan’s announcement and then writing a letter to Mark about Dan made me feel connected to both of them again. What wonderful creations are the brain and the mind and our relationships, and how mysteriously and fantastically they collaborate to create our reality.

When I was twenty-seven, I took a break from being a landscaper in Oregon and flew to New Jersey where I stayed for a night with Dan and his wife Janka in their little apartment before moving my base of operations into Manhattan. Dan was doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum and making short films, while Janka was launching her career as a psychologist.

The purpose of my trip was to meet my literary agent Dorothy Pittman for the first time, she who had miraculously sold a handful of my short stories, and to lunch with those magazine editors who had bought and published my stories and thereby made me a professional writer. During my two weeks of exploring Manhattan, I visited Dan at the Met a couple times, and one day we went to the Museum of Modern Art to take in the vast Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

I was not a big Wyeth fan, nor was Dan, but the show was fascinating because alongside the finished Wyeth oil paintings were the artist’s preliminary charcoal sketches and watercolor studies for each of the famous paintings. After we had looked at several of these paintings and the accompanying sketches and watercolors, I said to Dan, “I prefer his watercolors to the finished pieces. They feel so much more fluid and alive and exciting.”

“Much more exciting,” said Dan, nodding in agreement. “And surprisingly abstract.”

We then made a quick tour of MOMA’s permanent collection, a tour that made Dan angry. When I asked what was so upsetting to him, he said that this most influential collection in the world had been assembled by a small clique of elitist academics and art curators and wealthy collectors to impose on the culture their extremely limited and already outdated notions of what should be considered important modern art—an art mafia severely constricting the free-flowing evolution of contemporary art.

Dan went on to become a professor of Art at Cal State Fresno and a prolific studio artist. One of the things I enjoyed about Dan’s painting on his announcement was seeing how gorgeously abstract his work has become. Long ago, in the days when I had more regular contact with him, he painted exquisite impressionist landscapes and unpeopled exteriors of beach houses—exciting and simply beautiful.

Stripes

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

this song's for you site

This Song’s For You by Nolan Winkler

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

“The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.” Pema Chödrön

A friend recently sent me a link to a short movie about a high school art teacher in St. Paul Minnesota whose students are recent arrivals from other countries, refugees from military conflicts. Many of the students barely speak English, so this teacher has devised fun and creative ways to explore color theory without needing much language for the learning.

Watching the film reminded me of another short art-related movie made by a friend of mine in 1976 called Stripes, about stripe patterns in paintings and life. Dan Nadaner, now a professor of art and a successful artist, made the three-minute long film in those pre-digital days while doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. For the soundtrack, he wrote a ditty about the stripes that appear in paintings by famous artists, and he asked me to play guitar and sing his lyrics in the way he imagined, a kind of slow-going country song.

I was twenty-six and living in Medford Oregon at the time, working as a landscaper. I had stopped writing and making music entirely for a reason that may sound ridiculous, but which made perfect sense given the accumulation of neuroses characterizing me in those days.

I took up the guitar at the age of twenty when I needed a more mobile instrument than a piano. Three years later I was making a large part of my minimal living playing guitar and singing in pubs and cafés in Santa Cruz, and it was during this time I entered into a relationship with a woman who was studying piano.

My relationship pattern at that time and for much of my life was to choose partners and friends who were openly hostile toward my music and writing. Why would an artist repeatedly get involved with people who despise his art? The short answer is that my parents were contemptuous of my music and writing and violently opposed to my pursuing those art forms as my life’s calling. Thus as a child and teenager I became habituated to abuse and disdain for what I was passionate about, and as I progressed into adulthood I repeatedly and unconsciously chose people reminiscent of my parents to be my mates and friends. This continued into middle age when I finally broke free of that debilitating pattern.

But before breaking free, I spent much of my life enmeshed with people who thrived on disparaging the likes of me, and one of those people was my girlfriend when I was twenty-four and twenty-five and making part of my living as a musician and selling the occasional short story. My girlfriend hated the relative ease with which I made music, and by the end of our relationship she had convinced me that my desire to entertain people with my music and stories was an emotional crutch. She preached at me incessantly that if I ever wanted to become a whole and genuine person, I needed to quit making music and stop writing.

So I gave up writing and music, she and I broke up, I went to work as a landscaper, and I didn’t play a note or write a word for one long year until Dan called me from New York and asked me to play guitar and sing the soundtrack for his movie Stripes.

I clearly remember telling Dan that I no longer played guitar or sang or wrote stories, and I remember Dan calmly suggesting this was a passing phase, that I was a good musician and he was sure I would do a fine job singing his ditty about stripes.

So I borrowed a guitar and played and sang the Stripes song into a cassette recorder and sent the tape to Dan, thinking it would be something he could use to clarify his vision of the soundtrack, but then he called and said, “That’s perfect.”

The next day I woke up with a new song forming and I barely got the words written down and the chords figured out before another song began to emerge. Then the floodgates opened, I purchased the borrowed guitar, wrote dozens of songs, started playing the piano again, and haven’t stopped playing since.

Shortly after I began making music again, I wrote the first short story I’d written in two years and immediately sold it for five hundred dollars. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but it is entirely true. Dan asking me to play and sing for his movie, and his approval of what I created for him, lifted the curse and turned Toad into a functional writer and musician again.

“How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss

More than thirty years later, Dan sent me a DVD of Stripes, and when I watched the movie again after all these years, my gratitude to him was as big as the moon. The film is somewhat rosy now, having lain in a canister for three decades before being transferred to digital format, but I still find it a most beautiful creation. Our web meister Garth has posted Stripes on my web site so you can take a look. Just go to Underthetablebooks.com and click on Films.

Alas, my resumption of writing and making music way back when did not go hand in hand with an end to relationships with abusive people who hated my music and writing. That blessed day would not come until I was in my mid-fifties and I finally ended the last of those debilitating connections. What took me so long? I guess these kinds of transformations take time.

Trish

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

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

Friends of ours recently told us that their twenty-five-year-old son, a bright personable college graduate, but no techie, found the job market so grim he signed up for a seven-year officer training program in the Navy. The benefits are socialist utopian—excellent pay, free healthcare for him and his wife and children (should he ever marry and have children), subsidized housing, free travel, his children’s college educations entirely paid for, fabulous retirement pension and benefits—and he can go to graduate school online while serving in the Navy and becoming a helicopter pilot or a meteorologist or a navigator or just about anything else he can imagine becoming.

The big problem is that he will be a cog in the imperialist war machine and his superiors may ask him to kill people or support the killing of people, which won’t be easy for him because he’s such a nice guy and doesn’t want to kill people or help other people kill people. And, of course, he might get killed or maimed in the line of duty, though if he doesn’t join the Navy he is just as likely to get killed or maimed by some idiot drinking or talking on the phone or taking drugs (or all three simultaneously) while driving.

In any case, the idea of a promising young person joining the military because he or she can’t see any other way out of the putrid economic situation engendered by our insanely selfish stupid shortsighted overlords reminded me of Trish, and I thought you might enjoy hearing my story about her.

Twenty-five years ago, at a low ebb in my writing career, I was invited to take the reins of the Creative Writing Department of the California State Summer School for the Arts, a brand new program for ambitious teenagers who wanted to see about becoming writers, artists, dancers, actors, animators, and musicians—a one-month summer residency program at CalArts in Valencia on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The first person they hired for my position stuck around long enough to hire two writing teachers, but then quit when he realized the job actually required a couple months of hard work. I took the job because I was out of money and my wife said she would leave me if I didn’t take the job.

The school’s charter explicitly called for the department heads to be experienced professionals in their fields and not academics, yet I was the only non-academic among the department heads, a situation profoundly disheartening to me because academics, even the nice and well-meaning ones, tend to be maddeningly unimaginative and profoundly crippled by dogmas every bit as stifling as the dogmas of organized religion.

Trish only got into CSSSA because the school was so new there were very few applicants. The second year we turned away many promising writers, but that first year all thirty-two of the Creative Writing applicants were invited to attend, and twenty-seven accepted those invitations.

Growing up in a trailer park in a rough-and-tumble part of San Bernardino, Trish was eighteen going on thirty-five, and one tough cookie. Tall and slender with carrot-red hair, she wore tight blue jeans, T-shirts with NAVY writ large across the chest, and her boyfriend’s big black leather jacket, her boyfriend being a badass biker in jail for aggravated assault but hoping to transfer out of the county jail in San Berdoo and into the Marines. Trish was going into the Navy a few weeks after she finished her month at CalArts and “the only reason I did this summer school thing is because Miss Engle said I should.” Miss Engle was Trish’s English teacher and Trish adored her because “Miss Engle is the only teacher I ever had who thought my poetry was good.”

Trish wrote poems that rhymed, and her rhymes precipitated my first big crisis at the summer school. One of the two teachers working with me, a died-in-the-wool academic, told Trish that rhyming was infantile and creatively restrictive and Trish should write poems that didn’t rhyme. This was before rap lyrics and competitive poetry slams rife with rhyming became all the rage in the hipper college English departments and before I managed to convert my faculty to my teaching philosophy best summed up by Johnny Mercer: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

So three days into the program, Trish came to my office, stood in the doorway, looked at the floor and said, “I’m quitting because Donna said my poems were restricted kindergarten shit. Fuck her. I’m outta here.”

To which I replied, “I’m sorry she said that to you. What a thoughtless thing to do. She’s obviously wrong and doesn’t get the gist of song. Some of the greatest poetry ever written, rhymes. She’s hopelessly out of step with the times. I love rhymes. Bob Dylan, Ogden Nash, Robert Graves, and all those Led Zeppelin songs. I think Donna just stayed in college too long.”

Trish frowned and said, “You want to read my poems?”

“I’d love to. I can read them tonight and…”

“No,” she said, stepping into the room and placing a big black binder on my desk. “Read them now. Okay? I’ll wait outside.”

Her poems were written in curly cursive on lined paper, brief chronicles of her hard scrabble life in a trailer park in San Berdoo with her alcoholic mother and promiscuous sister. Her father was in prison and one of her poems about him rhymed mail and jail and bail and tail, his latest crime statutory rape. Her boyfriend was a heavy equipment operator and a biker who was sweet when sober, crazy violent when drunk. Yes, her rhymes sometimes muted the power of her narrative, but the discipline of rhyming seemed to help her make sense out of the chaos from whence she came.

“Trish?” I called, having lost myself in her poems. “You there?”

She reappeared in the doorway and gave me a furtive glance before returning her gaze to the floor. “You took a long time.”

“They’re fantastic,” I said, tapping her binder. “Why don’t we switch you into my section and see what happens?”

“You like them?” She squinted suspiciously. “You’re not just saying that so I won’t quit?”

“I love them, and I’d love to see you try your hand at writing a story or two.”

“I just write poems,” she said, picking up her binder. “Poems that rhyme.”

So Trish became a permanent member of my morning section, and over the next three weeks she changed considerably, something that happened to many of the students who attended CSSSA where for the first time in their young lives they found themselves in the company of fellow artists and social misfits and original thinkers, free from the constraints of parents and old haunts and habits and educational dogma—breathing the air of creativity and freedom, however fleeting the experience.

Trish eventually wrote several good poems that did not rhyme, at least not overtly, and she wrote a brilliant and painfully realistic story about a young man who robs a liquor store, flees on his motorcycle to the trailer park where his girlfriend lives, and convinces his sweetheart to ride with him into the desert where they are ambushed by the police and the young man dies in his girlfriend’s arms—drenching her in his blood.

For the Creative Writing denouement that first year, we commandeered a large conference room and invited students and faculty from the other disciplines, as well as parents and friends, to attend a performance by our writers of their best new work. Participation was voluntary and those writers too shy to read were encouraged to enlist fellow writers or Drama students to read their stories and poems for them.

I very much wanted Trish to perform her story because I thought it by the far the best short story produced by anyone during that long hard month of work. But Trish said she couldn’t possibly get up in front of an audience and the only way she would consent to having her story read was if I read it.

The great day dawned, and in our audience of a hundred or so students and faculty and parents were Trish’s big handsome boyfriend en route from jail to Camp Pendleton, and Miss Engle, Trish’s high school English teacher.

The show was a resounding success, the audience applauding loudly after every poem and story, and for the grand finale I performed Trish’s tragic tale. And when I finished reading the last sentence and looked out at the audience, there was not a dry eye in the place. And then came thunderous applause and everyone shouting “Author! Author!” until Trish stood up to receive her due.

When she came to say goodbye to me the next day, Trish declared, “They only liked it because you’re such a good reader.”

“Not true. They loved it because it’s a great story. And you wrote it.”

“I’m not a writer,” she said, looking me in the eye. “I don’t have enough to say.”

“That’s what life is for. To give us material.”

“I’ll send you a postcard,” she said, gifting me with a rare smile. “From wherever I go after basic training. Promise.”

But she never did write. So it goes. That’s just the way the wild wind blows.

How Stupid?

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Simon

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

“Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.” William Stafford

A recent phone conversation with a friend caused me to comment, “How could they have been so stupid not to know that?”

Our conversation was about a film my friend is working on, a documentary extolling the virtues of a pilot program in California called Pre-Kindergarten. I know what you’re thinking, and I thought the same thing. Isn’t pre-kindergarten just another name for pre-school or nursery school? No. Because kindergarten in America is no longer what kindergarten used to be. Why? Because Bill Clinton and George Bush and now Barack Obama have overseen a demolition of education in America that has damned an entire generation of students to ignorance and semi-literacy, and that demolition includes a tragic transformation of kindergarten.

To make a long horror story short, beginning some twenty years ago the morons (evil ones?) in charge of dispensing federal education dollars to the public schools of our fifty states, declared that America was falling behind the rest of the world because of low test scores in our public schools. The thinking of these evil ones (morons?) who had somehow gotten into positions of power in our government went something like this: “Well, heck, if low test scores is the problem let’s just bring those test scores up by making the kids memorize a bunch of useless crap so they score higher on the dang tests. Yeah. Sure. That should do the trick.”

Well, making kids memorize a bunch of useless crap without also teaching them to read and write and think and understand didn’t do the trick. In fact, it did the opposite of the trick because memorizing is not learning. Hence most Americans graduating from high school today can barely read, cannot write worth a damn, and they don’t know how to reason or think critically and creatively, nor can they speak in complete sentences, nor do they know anything about anything except what’s on television. Thus no one wants to hire them for anything except the most menial of jobs.

There are currently, right this minute, many thousands of internet technology and bio-technology job openings in the Bay Area and other techno-hubs across America that are simply off limits to most Americans because most Americans looking for work today are not even minimally qualified for such jobs or even qualified to be trained for such jobs; and so American companies continue to bring in jet loads of men and women from China and India and Russia and Pakistan to fill these positions because for some reason China and India and Russia and Pakistan have no trouble producing jet loads of literate and well-educated people.

So…back to the evil ones (morons) continuing to pursue the disastrous No Child Left Educated programs that currently hold sway in America. Confronted by the failure of trying to make uneducated children memorize useless data in order to attain higher test scores, these cretins (devils) decided: “Hey. You know what? Maybe the problem is we’re not forcing these slaves, er, children to memorize useless crap when they’re really young. How about we start the usual idiotic First Grade training in Kindergarten? You know, get those teeny kids learning their ABC’s and adding and subtracting while being forced to sit at desks and act like drones right after they learn to walk and talk so they can start memorizing useless crap pronto. Yeah. That should do the trick.”

Well…guess what? Aborting children’s natural creativity and curiosity while they try to learn to read and write and add and subtract and sit quietly at desks before their brains and bodies are organically ready to learn those kinds of things, is the surest way to produce an epidemic of dyslexia and learning disorders and behavioral problems that qualify nearly all children subjected to such insanity for, you guessed it…Special Ed!

Faced with this disastrous tidal wave of seriously fucked up children, and confronting the formidable power of the evil morons, a few brave educators and educational bureaucrats in California said, “May we make a suggestion? How about we try a little something before kindergarten, not nursery school or pre-school, but pre-kindergarten to see if that little something we want to try improves the kids’ learning abilities and better prepares them for actual kindergarten and First Grade and beyond.”

“You mean start them memorizing useless crap even earlier than we were already making them do that?” asked the evil morons, liking that idea, of course.

“Well, no,” said the brave educators. “That doesn’t seem to be producing very good results. We thought we’d try something else. Just to see. Okay?”

Though the vagueness of the educators’ plan perplexed the evil morons, they gave the California educators the go ahead to operate a number of pre-kindergarten pilot programs wherein the kids sang and danced and finger-painted and went on nature walks and listened to teachers read stories and, you know, kind of exactly like good old kindergarten used to be, and by golly those kids did do much better in the new moronic kindergarten and idiotic First Grade classes than the kids who didn’t go to pre-kindergarten.

And that is what prompted me to say, “How could we have been so stupid not to know that?”

One of the answers to my question is that over the last twenty years (and before that, too) tens of millions of people, those that could afford to, removed their precious children from the ass backward public schools, and so those millions of people were too busy earning money to pay for private schools to join in any sort of meaningful fight against the evil morons destroying our public educational system with the blessings of our evil moron presidents. Another answer is that most people, smart or stupid, don’t question how their children are being educated but get mighty upset when their children graduate from high school and can’t read or write or get a job.

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” Somerset Maugham

I became interested in dyslexia some forty years ago when I was working in a day care center and three of my little friends insisted on signing their drawings and finger paintings, though none of the other three and four-year-olds attending our center knew how to write their names. Each of the three precocious scribes had well-meaning parents who thought if they could make their children learn to read and write when they were only three and four-years-old that their kiddies would have a competitive advantage over their classmates.

One of the three children who had been pushed prematurely to learn to write his name would labor for several minutes to sign SIMON upside down and backwards. Another of the children always misspelled her name with oddly incomplete letters, and the third child made a line of various-sized rectangles she insisted spelled SUSIE. What especially concerned me about these three children was that they all exhibited extreme anxiety about making mistakes, no matter what the activity, even when they were just finger painting or drawing with crayons or building towers with blocks.

Concerned for my kids, I began reading articles about learning disorders, including dyslexia, and was heartened to find that a number of comprehensive studies had proven conclusively that most cases of dyslexia and many other learning disorders, too, could be traced directly to children being forced to try to learn to read and write and do mathematics before their brains were ready to learn these things.

But what about my cousin Ward? He learned to read when he was two! He used to dazzle us by reading the dictionary aloud, no word too big for him to pronounce. I know this may come as a shock to the evil morons, but exhaustive research has proven that every human brain is unique, and each unique person attains his or her optimal brain state for learning to read and write at a unique moment in his or her life. Shocking but true: some people’s brains click into readiness, so to speak, to learn to read at two, three, four, five, six, on up to twelve-years-old. And if someone’s brain is not ready to learn to read and write, and that someone is forced to try to learn, there is a strong probability they will develop some form of dyslexia or learning disability.

What’s more, this cause of learning disorders and dyslexia has been common knowledge among educators for forty years. Yet our public education system has done virtually nothing to accommodate this incredibly important truth about how we learn. Waldorf education, you may know, makes individual brain readiness a centerpiece of their learning system, but our public schools and charter schools and even most private schools…well, how could they have been so stupid not to know what precipitates learning disorders?

“One cannot wage war under present conditions without the support of public opinion, which is tremendously molded by the press and other forms of propaganda.” Douglas MacArthur

The recent news that our overlords are trundling out the same old Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction ruse to pave the way for the United States to start bombing and/or invading Syria, made me snicker at first, until I realized that a population of semi-literate tweeters will believe anything if that anything is presented to them as the truth because they were never taught to think critically or logically or even just minimally for themselves. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it certainly appears that the overlords have engineered a perfect system for creating mass stupidity to serve their needs in the short run, and short runs are all they care about.

Zorba & Kurt & Hermann

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The painting Mr. Magician by Todd

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

“As you walk, you cut open and create that riverbed into which the stream of your descendants shall enter and flow.” Nikos Kazantzakis

In 1965, when I was sixteen and deeply unhappy, I went to the Guild Theater in Menlo Park, California to see the movie Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Lila Kedrova, and the not-yet-widely-known Alan Bates. I knew little about the film and nothing about the novel the film was based on. I went because I loved Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia and because I preferred foreign films to American movies. And the moment that fabulous Greek music began to play and those gorgeous black and white images took hold of the big screen, I was shocked out of my psychic lethargy into a whole new state of awareness.

The next day I went to Kepler’s Books, just around the corner from the Guild Theater, and bought a copy of Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I devoured that novel three times in the next four days and then went to see the movie again. Thereafter, in quick order, I bought and read every Nikos Kazantzakis book published in English, save for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, an eight-hundred-page epic poem that took me two years to read. I consumed a page every day, reading each line twice so I would not skim, and when I finished that monumental tome in the summer following my second year of college, I gazed up at the depthless sky and recited the last line aloud—today I have seen my loved one vanish like a dwindling thought—and decided to quit school and wander, as Van Morrison sang, into the mystic.

Not having seen Zorba the Greek in twenty years, Marcia and I watched the film a few nights ago, and I was surprised to find I no longer resonated with the male characters, but identified entirely with the woman portrayed by Irene Papas, a defiant widow forced to subsume her strength and intelligence in deference to a society controlled by violent and emotionally vapid men.

At sixteen, I strongly identified with the Bates character, a bookish fellow longing to experience a more sensual and romantic life; and I wanted to be Zorba, a charming minstrel wandering roads less traveled in pursuit of love and inspiration. At sixty-two, I thought the Bates character cowardly and grossly unimaginative; and Quinn’s Zorba reminded me of every narcissistic sociopath I’ve had the misfortune to know. Only Irene Papas lifted the movie into greatness, proclaiming with her every glance and gesture, “Better to die than allow them to crush your spirit.”

“There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and forty-eight.” Ezra Pound

By the time I was twenty-two, I had written several dozen short stories and hundreds of poems, none much good, but all excellent practice. I thought that before I wrote a novel I should be able to write a decent short story, which would mean I could write serviceable sentences and paragraphs, as well as plausible dialogue. Most writers of mine and earlier generations felt similarly about a writer needing an apprenticeship of rigorous practice, which is why I stand in awe and bewilderment at the legions of people in America today who think they can write novels without ever having written a short story. But I digress.

Learning to write, for me, involved developing stamina as well as refining my technique. Writing a good sentence was a sprint, constructing a viable paragraph was running a mile, and finishing a short story was the completion of a marathon—and those were just the rough drafts. That I might write a novel on the scale of Kazantzakis, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, was incomprehensible to me for the first several years of my writing practice.

Then someone gave me Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which only took me an hour or so to read. I wanted to like Slaughterhouse-Five because Vonnegut’s prose was fluid and friendly, but I found the story flimsy, the characters cartoons, and the alien interventions annoyingly adolescent. But I liked the book well enough to get Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; and that book literally changed my life.

I am a moderately fast reader, so Cat’s Cradle took me less than an hour to read. When I put the book down, I did not think, “What a great little book.” No, I thought, “I can write a book like this. No sweat. One and two-page chapters. A hundred or so pages. Cartoon characters. Comic dialogue. Riches and fame here I come.”

Of course it was folly to think I could easily write a novel as clever and unique as Cat’s Cradle, but the form and the scale of the book were not daunting to me. Thus I was emboldened to write my first novel, a modest tome entitled The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, a youthful tale of love and sex and hilarious (to me) emotional turmoil. In those pre-computer, pre-photocopy days, I hunkered down in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon for the winter and wrote and rewrote three drafts longhand, then typed three more drafts, the last made with painstaking slowness to avoid typographical errors while creating multiple copies using layers of carbon paper and manuscript paper.

From start to finish, my first novel took four months to write; and then I packed the blessed thing up and sent it to Kurt Vonnegut’s publisher in New York. Where else? In my cover letter I informed the editors of Harcourt, Brace, & Whomever that I would be heading east soon, Manhattan my goal, and I would be checking in periodically to see how things were progressing with my book. Yes, I was so naïve about the publishing world I thought someone at Harcourt, Brace & Whomever would actually read The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, offer me a grandiloquent advance, and make me, you know, the next big thing.

When I finally got to New York some months later, having had no word from my publisher, I called their offices and spoke to a receptionist who asked, “Which editor did you submit your work to?”

“Um…I just…not to anyone in particular, but…”

She put me on hold. A few minutes later, a woman named Jill came on the line. She sounded very young, no older than thirteen. She took my name and phone number and said she would look into things and get back to me. “As a rule,” she added politely, “we don’t consider unsolicited manuscripts.”

“How does one get solicited?” I asked, perplexed by such a seemingly silly rule. “By Harcourt, Brace & Whomever?”

“Oh…um…” she said, clearing her throat. “That would be arranged by your literary agent. If you had a literary agent. But since you came all the way across the country we’ll have someone examine your manuscript.”

“You mean read it?” I asked, troubled by the word examine.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “Someone will give it a read.”

Two weeks later, Jill called (I was crashing on a broken sofa in a roach-infested apartment in Harlem) and invited me to come down to their offices where she would meet me at the receptionist’s desk. Riding the subway from the squalor of Harlem to the opulence of midtown Manhattan, I imagined being greeted by a gorgeous gal and led into an inner sanctum where a host of editors and famous writers had gathered to meet the author of “this truly remarkable first novel.”

The elevator opened onto the ultra-plush reception lounge of Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, and the receptionist, a statuesque blonde dressed like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a hot date, informed Jill that I had arrived. A long moment passed, and then Jill appeared, a rosy-cheeked girl who didn’t look a day over thirteen, wearing a Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt, my manuscript in her arms, for it was Jill who had examined my novel.

She handed me my precious creation, wished me safe travels, and disappeared. I fled the ultra-plush lounge for the hard planks of a bus bench where I sat and wept as I read the note Jill had placed atop my manuscript, her girlish handwriting plagued by o’s much larger than the other letters so her sentences seemed punctuated by balloons.

Dear Todd,

I thoroughly enjoyed The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg (a real page turner) and thought it a wonderful picaresque romp. However, we do not as a rule accept unsolicited manuscripts. Good luck with your writing. Jill Somebody, associate editor.

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.” Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1977, five years after being rejected by Harcourt, Brace & Whomever, I was living in Seattle and down to my last few dollars. Since that shattering moment in Manhattan, I had roamed around North America for a couple years before alighting in various towns in California and Oregon—never ceasing to write. Through a series of astonishing events (some might call them miracles, others might call them karmic results) I had secured the services of the late, great, and incomparable literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, and she had managed to sell a few of my short stories to national magazines while trying to sell the three novels I had written since breaking my cherry, so to speak, with The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg.

One drizzly day, lost as I often was in downtown Seattle, I came upon a hole-in-the-wall newspaper and magazine stall wherein a balding guy with a red beard stood behind a counter piled high with cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. On the wall behind him was a two-shelf rack, three-feet-wide. On the top shelf were new paperback editions of all Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, and on the bottom shelf were new paperback editions of all Hermann Hesse’s novels.

“Hesse and Vonnegut,” I said to the guy. “Are those the only books you carry?”

“Yep,” he said, nodding. “All I got room for. Newspapers and magazines out front, racy stuff and cigarettes in here.”

“Are Vonnegut and Hesse your favorite authors, or…”

“No. I only read murder mysteries.”

“So then why Kurt and Hermann?”

“Because I sell hundreds and hundreds of copies of their books every month.” He turned to look at the rack. “People come in to buy a magazine or cigarettes, and they see those books and their eyes light up and…bingo. I tried some other authors, but these guys are the only ones that sell and sell and sell. I have no idea why.”

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.