Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Imagine telling a baby the best moments of his life

could be sitting in a room by himself all alone typing,
staring out the window into space, making up stories
& people & stringing words, cajoling order from tangled
childhood & modern chaos & the future charging like a
locomotive down the track of the imagination.

Imagine telling a baby that.

Imagine telling a baby the moments when she would use
to the utmost excellence everything she had been given
& found may be tapping a vision into lines of coded symbols
that would if she were lucky set off the deepest longings
of real people whose shadows crossed that window, & even
people not born yet, if she were luckier.

Imagine telling a baby that.

The baby would say, "What's a chaos? What's a word?
What's a longing? What's a future? What's a locomotive?
What's a moment? What's a shadow? What's a imagination?"

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, April 27, 2009

"There is one small movement of the story that eludes your control,

one alien thing with no purpose
other than to teach you
that in the darkest corner of the story
dwells a wild force
that is too much
a part of you to see, a blind spot--
just as you do not see your own eyes
as they sweep the woods you walk through for danger."
--Wilbur Daniel Steele.

The Simple Mystery is my theme.
Pointing at the night, smiling, a gentle fool,
as if at the heart of darkness a porch light burned.
The story & voice so down to earth, clear, forthright,
but step back & a mystery intelligence passes through,
a current enters my eyes & goes out my toes.

Shadow of a longing from the basement of the story brushes
me: "What was that!"
I go over and over the story to find it, fix it, pound it
out, until it's time to let it go.
It's nothing but that one bent nail in the ridge beam
that may bring the whole house down around my ears.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Cloud of Unknowing & Ollie Ollie Oxen Free

One of my favorite books is The Cloud of Unknowing,
by an unknown mystic from the 14th century.
It's a gentle & charming work meant to
"guide the reader in the path of contemplation."
It's sort of a manual addressed to a student
from a teacher on the ways of spiritual awakening.
Though it's aimed at a Christian audience, and deals
specifically with meditation on God, it always relaxes
& inspires me in my writing. It somehow frees up
my novelist soul to see life, myself & art in strangely
liberating & refreshing ways.

What the author suggests to the student about seeking
God through contemplation fits right in with seeking
truth through fiction:

"For the love of God, then, be careful & do not imprudently
strain yourself in this work. Rely more on joyful enthusiasm
than on sheer brute force. For the more joyfully you work,
the more humble & spiritual your contemplation becomes,
whereas when you morbidly drive yourself, the fruits will
be gross & unnatural....

"I speak half playfully now, but try to temper the loud, crude
sighing of your spirit & pretend to hide your heart's
longing from the Lord. Perhaps you will scorn this as childish
& frivolous, but believe me, anyone who has the light to understand
what I mean & the grace to follow it will experience, indeed, the
delight of the Lord's playfulness....

"Do not be put off if I seem to speak childishly & foolishly
& as if I lacked sound judgment. I do so purposely, for I
believe that the Lord has inspired me over the last few days
to think & feel as I do & to tell some of my other good friends
what I tell you now.

"One reason I have for advising you to hide your heart's desire
from God is because when you hide it I think he actually sees it
more clearly....

"For now you realize that to hide something purposely
is to cast it deep into your spirit."

This is why the unconscious, dreams, the forgotten crossroads
of childhood, coincidence, shreds of overheard conversations
are treasure troves of inspiration for writing for me.
What is most important & fruitful is what's hidden and quiet,
not what's on the surface jumping up & down & howling for attention.

For example, for me, choosing a subject for a novel is really
being chosen by the subject. This seems to be an obstacle for a lot
of writers--finding something important & deep & big enough to write
a novel about that is going to keep them invigorated over the long haul
of the book.

Rather than hunting down the subject like Elmer Fudd
chasing a scared rabbit with his shotgun, crashing
through the bushes & squawking like a foghorn, hide
from the subject, quietly, playfully, and let it
come to you in its time, calling "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free."

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wild Blue Acquaintance

I'd lived where I live now for a while & one day
there was a bluejay on the fence looking at me.
I got some peanuts & went out on the balcony & gave
one to this bird. He flew away to bury it somewhere
& returned for another. Each peanut he got closer on the
banister, until on the third one he hopped over & actually
grabbed the peanut right out of my fingers.

I waited & he didnt come back so I went in
& started working at the puter again.
Our place has big open windows in the
bedrooms & I was sitting there in the living room
& here comes the bluejay flying right
straight in through one open bedroom window and
right into the living room and lands on my

I looked at him & he looked at me.

The peanuts were right there by me.
I carefully reached over & held one out to him
& he grabbed it & flew out the other bedroom
window. A minute later he was back for another.

I knew the people who had lived there before
& asked them if they had
trained a bluejay to do what he did, but no,
they were as astonished as me. There was another
jay, the mate, that hung around but wouldnt
come near me, much less in the house....

In the morning when I'd first go out there I'd look
around & he'd spot me from a mile away & come
flying over from a tree or a line in those big
rolling dips jays fly in. I used to get chills cuz
theyre like wild, and as trusting as he got of me for
the sake of the peanuts, his eyes just blazed
black with craziness all the time ready to go off. He
used to take peanuts out of my mouth but I always
kept my glasses on cuz i feared he would
peck my eyeballs.

Later I found it was likely a girl, cuz girls are
the forward ones among jays.

In no time, she was landing on
my head, taking peanuts out of my ears and
shirtpockets, and landing on my hand.
I'd have a peanut in my hand and she'd land there & I'd
palm it & she'd peck my thumbnail to get
me to give it up. I named her Bingo for some reason.
When we got a cat, Bingo visited cautiously a few times,
but never came inside again, & eventually moved on.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"You tell me you have had many dreams lately but have been too busy with your writing to pay attention to them.

You have got it the wrong way round.
Your writing can wait but your dreams cannot
because they come unsolicited from within
and point urgently to the way you must go."

I had been working on a difficult scene of the new novel.
It's a scene of much conflict & potential violence
among a number of male characters. I believed there
had to be some kind of violent act to make it true & satisfying.

There was a gun in the scene. I struggled with it and
worked on it, trusting that my method of gradually peeling &
developing & observing details would pay off, but I was stumped.

I didnt see how any of the obvious physical violent
acts, on purpose or by accident, would be true, advance the story,
or reveal more of the soul of the main guy.

I thought somehow that blood should be spilled,
and even considered somehow the ghost could
leave her blood somehow somewhere, but nothing made
sense or clicked.

The main character is in the center of this knot of conflicts.
He has been obsessed with something called The Tears Project.
He feels responsible for starting the conflict at hand
& for resolving it.

I definitely wanted the ghost to play a part in the scene & in
shaping the violence that the scene seemed to demand,
but I didnt want the main character
to be passive if the ghost did intervene.

Then I had a dream where I decided to kill myself.
I had decided that I was going to die anyway
& that I should kill myself and die now
so that I wouldnt have to worry about dying & death anymore.

The method of suicide was to cut myself across the arteries at the tops
of my legs. (Let me tell you, I have NO suicidal impulses these days &
if I ever did, CUTTING would be THE LAST way I would ever do it, just
to assure you.)

So in the dream I cut myself on both legs.
Immediately afterwards I changed my mind.
I thought, Oh oh I better do something about these cuts quick.
Then I noticed I wasnt bleeding AT ALL.

I calmly studied the cuts, kind of opening them, one in particular,
which was like six inches long and a quarter inch deep
but not a drop of blood. Moist, but no blood.

I peeled the cut open and was looking into it when I woke up.

My first thought was Wow I'm glad that was a dream.
Then I thought What the hell was it about,
especially because I was not feeling bad at all about my life.
I considered a couple blatant Freudian possibilities,
though Jung is more my man. There was the castration angle,
six inch cuts, moist flaps.


I let it stew.
I wondered mostly about how there was no blood.
Then I thought about the nature of the skin when I peeled it open.
I tried to remember exactly what I had SEEN in the dream.
It reminded me of how the eye itself appears right where
you pull the skin under the eye away from the eyeball--
that's how the wound looked in the dream.

I was writing later & recalled the dream and saw
that it had given me the solution to the scene.

The main guy would spontaneously burst into tears, unashamedly,
in the midst of all this harsh male threat of violence,
and that's what would stop the building violent tension,
shock the others out of their robotic march to destruction,
and it would change everything instantly.

His weeping would be more violent than a gun going off.

And that is how the ghost intervened, by somehow getting in him,
tapping into his unexpressed grief for her,
and leading to his passionate weeping
in the midst of this all-male scene of much macho energy
ready to boil over, even though he has little idea
why he is crying, and believes
it is not merely fear or cowardice.
Of course this act of weeping brings mockery from the others,
related to not acting like a man,
so perhaps both Freud & Jung were both right on this one.

More Jung on dreams:

"The dream is a little hidden door
in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul,
opening into that cosmic night which was psyche
long before there was any ego consciousness,
and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego consciousness
extends.... All consciousness separates; but in dreams
we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man
dwelling in the darkness of primordial night.
There he is still the whole, and the whole is in him,
indistinguishable from nature and bare of all egohood.
It is from these all-uniting depths that the dream arises,
be it never so childish, grotesque, and immoral."

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Don't tell readers stuff you already told them or that they can figure out on their own...

Here's the kind of critique a writer would pay for,
but it came free from my friend Kerri Sandberg,
with respect to a novel I'm working on:

Hey Richard.... One thing I did notice in the first half was that I found myself feeling a little impatient with Jonah's introspection. I understand that he's a cerebral fellow and most of the time his internal stuff is interesting and feels necessary (like the opening sequence when he thinks of the abortion, his past sins, whether he wept for them enough). But sometimes when he is thinking to himself, I feel as if you the writer are spelling things out for me rather than letting me make the connections for myself.

For example, we know that Jonah has been having a rash of strange dreams -- we've been reading them -- and I would rather be allowed to remember his past dreams on my own, rather than be overtly reminded of them when Jonah sits there thinking about Jung. It's good that you're not providing any interpretations of the dreams, I just wondered if the Jung paragraph was there as a reminder to the reader rather than a necessary and organic part of the story itself.

It's weird, though, because sometimes I really can't decide whether you're spelling things out too much or not.... For example, this part:

"For a minute I sat there listening to the silence. It was one of those sobering moments where everything settles into place, simple and clear, where reality shines just as it is, not one watt more nor less. Where your life stops and turns and looks back at you, eye to eye. I saw that all I had going for me were (1) a hodgepodge of notes and quotes on crying with no rational chance of publication, and (2) a ghost tapping in my attic and coming to me in my dreams. I thought that Coral must have seen me and my life in same glum light and would choose to stay up there in Berkeley with her ex and her kid and never come home to me again."

I mean, that's such great writing, but part of me feels I understand all that already. It's something I can discern without having to be told directly. I know Jonah well enough by now to know what's troubling him, his insecurities, his fears, his relationship to the tears project, to Coral, the ghost, etc. Of course there are always new layers (the loss of this father, the abortion) and I like when those revelations appear in Jonah's introspective moments. But as far as his thought process goes, how he reacts to things, what he thinks and feels about them, a lot of that I can assume on my own at this point. He's been so well developed as a character that some of his thoughts feel like a rehash. I'm sure other readers may not feel that way, though, so obviously take this with a big grain of salt.

I love the entire street scene. The exchange with Donald is great and it gets even better when Roberto and his friends walk over. Any time your humor and sense of the absurd have a chance to shine is so wonderful.

It was hard to believe that Jonah's thoughts would be so controlled while he's sobbing, but then that seems to be the whole point. Even in the midst of an emotional meltdown, Jonah doesn't lose himself completely in his tears. He's self-conscious, aware of how he looks, how he sounds, who's watching him, even what the neighbors will think of this episode in years to come. It's like his mind is completely disconnected from his heart. He can't just surrender completely to what he's feeling. That was interesting and irked me at the same time, which may be what you were going for.

Anyway, just thinking aloud. I'm not sure if any of this will be if use to you. The writing is great as usual, a lot happens here, and it makes me anxious for the next installment. Rosa moved the curtain! That was so cool.
Thanks for all that, Kerri. Yeah, it's a struggle, that too much inner stuff versus the pleasure of the/writing. I'll see more clearly when I'm done and can go through it from the start and see what's too much, repetitious, obvious, irritating, etc.

I'm pretty sure you're right about a lot of it, but I can't see it clearly enough right now as a whole. I admit I get too much of a kick out of having this guy meander through the wringer of his own making.

I think in this particular case I wanted him to be at about at the end of his mental string. But I'm explaining, and you're right, it likely is too much. And you got what I'm trying for in the weeping scene, yes, with him observing all the time even then in the mush of total emotion. I think her telling him to drop the tears project is tied into that, and her whole purpose in returning, or remaining, and yes he has a ways to go. But I know that feeling when I'm reading something good & I'm going, OK we get it already. I'll see, it'll come clear later, but what you're saying only confirms my main concern--that it not bog or irritate the intelligent reader, the ally. So thanks very much, it's just what I need to keep me on track.

Stumble Upon Toolbar